A pair of Verraux’s Eagle-Owls were witness to my humiliation. They called from an Acacia tree as we crouched in the grass, spying on a tusker. Wildlife Guide, Lewis Mangaba, pulled out a little bag and began puffing it releasing powder into the air. “Is that to mask our scent?” I asked. “No,” he said, grinning at me, “I’m checking wind direction.”
His fellow guide Ethan Kinsey stifled a laugh, and they thought it a good time to explain the rules of elephant stalking: Stay downwind, maintain a safe distance and, if it charges, it’ll likely be a mock charge so don’t move or you’ll draw attention to yourself. Then it’s likely to trample you.
My real humiliation was to come. We stalked the tusker for a few minutes more – a big male, coloured red by the mud of Tarangire National Park, our location in Tanzania. It was the rainy season, a chance for the land to breath before the mad rush of the migration. Now, the prep work took place such as setting up camps, repairing equipment and training guides. I had joined a training course for Safari company, Asilia Africa’s newly appointed guides – a month long exercise in which I would partake for just a week, but within that short time my understanding and appreciation of the wild blossomed thanks to Lewis Muzuva Mangaba, who’s name means “born in the sun.”
Our camp was set amid baobabs on a gentle rise looking over Lake Burungi towards the wall of Ngorongoro Crater. The heavy rains meant the grass was tall and green, and when I arrived Kinsey – the leader of the course, was chewing on a long, sweet stem. “Perfect timing,” he said, leading me to the mess tent.
About 18 trainees were standing about tucking into their lunch and Kinsey exchanged the sweet grass for a plate piled high with ugali (maize meal) and beans, after offering me the same. This would be the staple for the duration of the course and it reminded me of my days as a kid in Zimbabwe. It had been a long time since I had tasted home.
The guides were professionals from different parts of Southern and East Africa. Some I had met before, such as Zimbabwean Blessed Mpofu and Tanzanian Habibu Kissio, who had taught me so much about butterflies on Rubondo Island in Lake Victoria. I was excited by the prospect of getting into the bush, but first it was back to school; after lunch we listened to a lecture on climate in the region. I had fallen for this season: the dramatic, watery skies, tall green grass and rain pounding on canvas at night. It was everything the cliche’d African Safari wasn’t – and I relished it.
That night, we watched a documentary on insects, the TV balancing on an the encyclopedic Robert’s Birds of Southern Africa, and the rain bouncing off the tent punctuating David Attenborough’s familiar voice.
This became our routine: game drive and practicals in the morning, lectures in the afternoon, a drive before sundown and a documentary in the evening – except on clear nights when we studied the stars.
Mangaba, along with Kinsey, trained the new guides and we travelled in two Land Rovers in the morning when the recruits took turns to drive and guide. The emphasis of this phase of the course was to stimulate guests’ imaginations by interpreting the sounds, smells and sights of the wild.
Because the guides were relatively experienced, it was their presentation and interpretive skills that Kinsey and Mangaba honed in on. I soon realised this was one of Mangaba’s arts. He was a lexicon of the African wild. He carried a bag full of books but hardly referenced them – the information just came pouring out of him. And he described things so well, like a Zimbabwean Attenborough.
At a breakfast stop along the Burungi river, we ate sweet potatoes and drank sweet tea and I watched Mangaba describe the life cycle of an antlion, delicately holding one by its wings and passing it around for others to study with a loupe.
Kinsey took his signature grass stem from his mouth and said, “He’s incredible. I like hanging around him, just to pick up tips,” and he went on to describe how Mangaba had been awarded Namibia’s best Guide in 2005 and Zimbabwe’s best Guide in 2011. He is an insect specialist and the highest qualified Walking Safari Guide under the Interpretive Guides Society. Outside of the work he did training guides, Mangaba was chief guide at the splendid Oliver’s Camp in Tarangire.
He hails from the Tonga tribe in the North West of Zimbabwe and credits his upbringing in that hot, rugged region for his love of the wild.
I came from a family rooted in the wilderness,” he said. “I developed a passion for the intuitive way of learning and seeing things and absorbed knowledge in the traditional way of the Tonga people, through praise songs of the animals, birds, plants and insects.”
It wasn’t only praise songs he absorbed. When he wasn’t training, Mangaba would sit outside his tent reading books by Entomologist, E. O. Wilson (one of his heroes), or collections of campfire stories. Sometimes he scribbled in a notebook. When I asked him what he was writing, he said, with a beatific smile: “Poetry.” This was the ultimate clue to his nature for he was calm and imaginative in communicating with people.
As an example: by the second morning it had been established who the ‘know-it-all’ in the group was – a boisterous young guide desperate for attention. As we drove along we had hardly left camp when he snapped his fingers and called, “Lion! Lion!” pointing out over the tall grass. It was hard to see anything, but Mangaba humoured him, clambering onto the roof of the Land Rover to get a better view. “There!” called the young guide, “See the ears. They are Lions!”
I couldn’t see a thing and joined Mangaba up top. He grinned at me and handed me his binoculars. Sure enough, there were ears above the grass. “I think you’re right,” Mangaba said to the young guide below. “They’re moving off a kill. Let’s go and see.”
Even I knew this was an unusual move but, after a safety briefing, we were walking in the direction of the sighting. The tall grass made it impossible to see any danger until you were almost on top of it.
As we neared the spot, we slowed, treading lightly, then Mangaba started edging back. “Back! Back!” he said, and we tripped over our feet as we retreated. All at once, we saw a pair of ears. Then a skinny tail shot up between them and the Warthog grunted and ran off, leaving us laughing – all except the young guide, that is.
“Panthera Warthogus! A new species altogether!” was one of the quips, and when we spotted Warthog from then on, that was its name. The young guide was much quieter from then on.
I saw Mangaba ruffled just once. The importance of reading nature’s signs had been well established by the fifth morning. The rains had made fresh puddles and our driver rolled through them without spotting anything for a while. Then he stopped for a Brown Snake-Eagle in a tree. We had seen many Snake-Eagles and our subject that day was tracking – but the guide was desperate to spot something and he went through the motions of describing the bird for his ‘guests’.
All the while, Vervet monkeys barked from a Sausage Tree not a hundred meters away; Mangaba fidgeted in his seat, bending out of the Land Rover to glance at the red earth.
Eventually, the guide drove on then stopped again to get a look at another common bird. Mangaba could contain himself no longer. “Do you not hear that sound? Do you not realise what you have just driven over?”
He climbed out revealing fresh tracks in the mud near a puddle – not just one set, but three: a Leopard and two cubs. He went on to describe how the cats had emerged from the grass as the sun began warming the air and drank at this fresh puddle. Then hearing our vehicle, the mother ushered her cubs back into the wet grass – something cats were loathe to do because they hated moisture – but she was anxious to conceal them and they were now walking directly beneath that Sausage Tree, not 100 meters away, where the monkeys were shouting, “Leopard! Leopard!” for everyone to hear.
He had got his point across. We had missed an incredible moment. the signs were all around us and, by interpreting them, Mangaba had recreated the scene in our minds.
Your guests might not see anything,” he said. “But if you interpret the signs, if you paint a picture in their minds, they will see it. The imagination can be more vivid than the real thing.”
That afternoon, the elephant in front of me was very real, for he had spotted us. The Owl’s called in alarm and the tusker shook his head, trumpeted his distress, then launched at us. I took off like a little girl, running for fear of my life, and I slipped in the mud and went down hard.
“This is it,” I thought, and looked up to see Mangaba standing over me, clapping his hands. “Why the hell is he applauding?” I wondered. But he was scaring it off, making a noise to save my silly arse.
I breathed with relief as the tusker retreated, but Mangaba was unruffled. “They always run the first time,” he said with that bright smile of his. “Born in the sun,” I thought.
The show over, the Eagle-Owls dropped from the tree, expanded their enormous wings and flew off over the green savannah.