Travel Story Take five in East African splendour

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

There are the Big Five — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo — the most sought-after wildlife sightings in Africa. But everything plays its part in the huge story of the sub-Saharan ecosystems. Here are Stephen Scourfield's Other Five of East Africa, with their stories...

IMPALA

The girls don’t get a vote. I watch a herd of pretty female impala, ears twitching, tails flicking, eyes sharp and, between them, always a set in every direction. 

They are being herded by one male with glossy black horns, who will control the herd and mate until another male, from the always adjacent bachelor herd, decides to chance his arm and try for dominancy.

Custodianship of the female herd may change regularly.

The females are treated like breeding stock, and don’t get a vote here on the Serengeti in Tanzania.

By comparison, their human counterparts are doing much better. Tanzania leads East African countries with the number of women representatives in various leadership positions.

Early this year, Lilian Liundi, executive director of the Tanzania gender network program Mtandao, reported at the Women Leadership Summit 2018 that 37 per cent of the Tanzanian parliamentarians are women. 

Rwanda leads the world with more than 61 per cent.

WEAVERS

The white-headed buffalo weaver has a splash of red that catches the eye.

The red-billed buffalo weaver has a comic call — an extended series of chattering and squealed phrases ... “Cheekcha cheekla. Cheekla chu”. Red-billed buffalo weavers, first described in 1836, are the only birds to possess a penis. 

This unique “phalloid organ” has excited scientific interest for more than 150 years.

Speke’s weavers have a strong, East African song, and harsh chatter when they clash around a nest, often woven in an acacia, which is spherical with a thin entrance tube opening downwards or sideways. Masked weavers are bright yellow blurs with their fast flight, shooting in and out to a tree, their nests hanging safely over water. 

They weave green grass into a nest that will dry and brown. It looks rough but it will be soft inside. I can spend hours watching weavers.

TSETSE

There’s a shirt that I never take to Africa. I did once and when I wore it, Andrew King’Ori, my friend in Kenya, looked aghast. “We call that tsetse blue.” 

Tsetse flies like dark colours and blue. The best thing to wear is a very light beige (it seems the Tanzanian national bush uniform).

Tsetse are big biting flies that inhabit much of tropical Africa.

 If you want to see the Great Migration of the Serengeti, at some stage you will encounter tsetse flies, just as you do wildebeest and zebra.

That many animals create a food source for an insect that likes blood meals.

My trick is to wear two light shirts — the tsetse doesn’t easily penetrate two pieces of moving fabric. Even in open safari vehicles, ankles are out of the wind and, with blood vessels close to the surface, a good source of meals.

I always wear two pairs of thin socks. My trick is to take with me a roll of wide, expandable joint plaster. I wrap a “cuff of this” around the first sock and cover it with the second. Try getting through that, you rotters.

Tsetse fly bites can leave red welts, and can become infected. It’s important to keep any cut or bite clean. Carry your preferred antiseptic cream.

They can pass African Sleeping Sickness to humans — the World Health Organisation says the disease is found in 36 sub-Saharan Africa countries. A parasitic disease, it is generally treated with pentamidine.

Duration: 05m 54s

THORNBUSH

Synonymous with East African sunsets, some thornbushes have long, straight thorns while others have hook-shaped ones — a defence against browsing animals. 

Animals such as giraffes feed on acacias but scientists believe the thorns limit overgrazing. Some acacia trees are also home to biting ants. At the base of the whistling thorn there’s a hollow bulb which makes a perfect ant nest, complete with food in the form of nectar and sap. 

East Africa has more than 60 species of acacia, including the umbrella tree, whistling thorn, wait-a-bit acacia and yellow fever tree. Don’t be put off by the name. It was called this as it likes damp areas and so early European explorers of Africa mistakenly associated it with yellow fever, which is spread by mosquitoes.

 The thornbush zone has an annual rainfall between 300-510mm and grasses.

I sit and watch two big female lions and two cubs on a branch of a big acacia. Another day, a leopard, lying high,  almost hidden under the canopy.

HUMANS

Yes, we are an animal species, and East Africans are warm, welcoming and, well, connect at a human level. One of the first things they’ll do is want to teach you some Swahili. “Jambo mambo.” The lyrical hello. “Asante sana.” Thank you very much.

And the language is a good place to start in explaining the people, for it is poetic, lyrical and rhythmical. It is driven by onomatopoeia — words that reflect the sound of the subject. It has cadence from repetition.

 “Pole pole.” Slow down. “Lala salama.” Sleep peacefully.

Some everyday words are easy — “safari” actually means a journey, or to travel. Others take literal exaggeration to extremes. An airport is called “kiwanja cha ndege”, which translates to “playground for birds”.

It’s hard to think of warmer, kinder, more professional people to be with than the East Africans I know.

East Africa is the cradle of mankind — the ethnic homeland of us all.

Travel Editor Stephen Scourfield captured footage of a lioness playing with her cute cubs on a safari while on safari in Tanzania. Duration: 05m 06s West Travel Club

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