a safari guide gets in the picture

Ever heard of the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania? It’s a 3,000 square mile sunken bowl of an extinct volcano making a kind of enclosed zoo for many species of African fauna. I regularly drive down into this self-contained Eden with tourists from around the world conducting what are called ‘game drives.’ Basically, six or eight people sit in my open-sided Land Rover to follow the rutted and twisting trails that trace the bottom of this huge geographical basin. My job is to spot and describe the various animals to be found: elephants, flamingoes, jackals and lions, dik-diks and gazelles. It took a lot to get my license. Had to learn the names of all the mammal and fowl not to mention flora of my country. Now I get to criss-cross the valley on the alert for interesting subjects for my camera-clicking passengers. Background discrimination is key. Sometimes I can only scare up something as small as a dung beetle pushing a huge ball of manure. Other times I try to spot a leopard stalking a waterbuck in the tall grass. Elephants, as you might imagine, are easier to spot. Also giraffes. Herds of gazelle and thousands of wildebeest make my job easier. My fellow guides help. We all use radios, drawing each other to sightings.

I suppose I have something in common with tour guides in the cities and historical sites I visited while pursuing my degree in the U.S. One big difference is that buildings usually remain where you last saw them. I’m dealing with mobile, camouflaged targets. It’s a good thing I like being out of doors and moving. But even so, it can get kind of boring. How would you like to stroll through Central Park every day and point out, “Whoa, look, a squirrel!” or “There goes a pigeon.” Still, Tanzania is my country and I love it and I really do enjoy showing it off to foreigners.

And sometimes I hit the jackpot even if it makes me feel like a voyeur enabling peeping toms. Like the times my short-wave squawks: ‘Pair of mating lions water hole 3.’ I pull off our meandering search for any game that moves and pull into the circle of safari vans waiting for the next leonine performance which, by the way, happens every twenty minutes over two days and always occasions jokes among my clients about speed and lack of foreplay from the male and squalling and swatting after the act by the female. My six passengers then lean out one side, cameras clicking. If we had been in a boat, it would have capsized. Same with the ten other vehicles. But isn’t that what our work is all about…taking tourists for a wandering ride in our open-air zoo to watch our native species living their lives. Sometimes my tours even include a visit to a native village to observe and participate in our own specie’s native life.

Actually, I’m part Masai…a small part as you might tell by my height. I’m not like the National Geographic specimens of my tribe—tall and high jumping. But I do speak Swahili with local villagers and they’re happy to see me and my load of tourists. My local friends go all-out with welcoming songs and dances in traditional robes and a tour of one of their huts. I make sure to give them a generous tip and they get to sell some of their handmade jewelry.

Funny thing. One time, there was a guy who had caught one of the lion-matings on his iPad. He had the look of one of those detectives who photograph folks in flagrante delicto for divorce filings. Well, we were in my village and had just finished one of the song-dances where the young men had shown their leaping ability (not unlike an NBA All-Star dunking contest) and my women passengers were buying handmade bead-jewelry. This guy, Dirk was his name, Dirk Claussen, pulled out his screen and had the village boys, crowding and gawking like teenagers looking at a Playboy magazine. I was pretty sure he was showing more than the lions to my guys. That bothered me. I mean, here I was making a living showing-off a simpler way of life but this guy was going the other way, bringing the modern world to the laidback locals. As if they needed cell phones and screens for a fulfilling life.

Dirk irked me. There’s always one in every bunch: whether a joke telling wiseacre, a loud mouth cynic, a fussy complainer that can’t stand the air flow (more or less), the small-bladder frequent flyer, or the foody who needs his eggs over easy and not sunny-side up to go with unsalted butter. All right, that’s part of the job, like the concierge at a posh hotel. The customer is always right. But this guy stood out. For one thing he wandered. When we got to the river at dawn to watch hippopotami return from a night of foraging, he disappeared along the river bank to get a closer look. I was anxious as a parent watching my toddler playing next to a highway. And when we got to our camps for the night, he wandered all the more. I realize that the tents on the fringe of large open spaces gave the appearance of a peaceful college campus, but not so. We were squatting in the middle of wild-life territory—in a zoo without cages—and the animals didn’t recognize our imagined boundaries. One night an elephant bulldozed a food pantry tent and gobbled squash and melons for two week’s meals. And if my passengers take out their hearing aids they just might miss the rumbling grunts of nocturnal lions ghosting between the tents. We needed to be alert at all times. Not Dirk, however. More than once, camp workers and I chased him down as he headed to the lip of a crocodile-infested river on the far side of camp. If there was any vantage point close to the edge of—you name it—that’s where you could find him leaning over. And when we took potty-breaks in the middle of the bush, he was always the one who took himself deepest into the cover. Keeping him safe was nerve-wracking.

Not only that, he would attach himself to one or another passenger on the rides and monopolize conversation such that I had to invite him to shut up so I could announce some interesting sightings. My job is intense enough between driving over rutted trails and looking for interesting subjects and talking to my fellow guides that I didn’t need any competition. And of course, every time we stopped for lunch something wasn’t to his satisfaction.

At one point, it became clear that Dirk was paying particular attention to one woman in particular. The body language of the husband, if not the wife, made it clear that Dirk was annoying him too. One time when we stopped to observe a lion gnawing on a wildebeest haunch about a car length away, (yes, we get that close, they seem to see us as fellow animals moving among them) I warned our riders to not move fast. I happened to look into the rearview mirror and saw Dirk and the woman sitting in the row behind her husband as Dirk absently placed his hand on the wife’s thigh to lean forward for a shot. The husband ‘accidently’ flicked his wife’s bagged rain coat onto the ground. Dirk, in a reflex gesture of gallantry, hopped out and suddenly engaged in a Mexican stand-off with the beast who had dropped his lunch. They stared at each other, tensed waiting to see who would move first.  I honked the horn and revved the engine. Dirk dove back in between the seats and we moved off. He was subdued the rest of the evening and even ate supper without comment or fuss.

Don’t mind my complaining. I guess I don’t have it so bad. I don’t have a boss. Well, my clients are my boss if you want to see it that way. And sometimes, to be honest, I enjoy them and even learn things from them, like jokes. I get jokes from around the world. Some are keepers. And stories. I get stories about the foreigners to tell my friends back in Arusha. And I hear about politics and religion and education over meals. I don’t need television. I don’t need to scan the networks for news and analysis. I can just listen and have it come to me. And sometimes, I learn new things from my customers…even Dirk as it turns out. At one point he was talking about installing surveillance cameras at a warehouse. Well, it turns out some folks were messing with my safari wagon when I was away. Dirk showed me what I needed to buy, how to set it up and review the tapes. As one of my American guests mentioned once, “When you get lemons, make lemonade.”

So, about the time we wrapped up the tour with a lunch at my house prepared by my sweet wife and all my customers were pressing tips into my hand and wishing me well, I decided to get a little back from Dirk. Turns out, all the time Dirk was being Dirk I was taking pictures of him. When he came by to shake hands with me (no tip offered by the way), I pulled him off to the side, got out my cell phone and scrolled through my picture file: him schmoozing the wives in our group, huddling with the Masai, haranguing the cooks at our tent camps and hanging over the rail at hippo river. I told him I was planning to publish a book for African safari guides and wanted to use pictures of him in a chapter about the ‘problem customer.’ I asked him to sign a photo release. Dirk squeezed his eyes then looked off at the banana tree in my yard, twisted his lips in thought, then got out his digital camera and showed shots of me and the lovely directress of the camp outside Ngorongoro with sun setting and me holding her hand. I tried to explain that I was just shaking her hand and wishing her well on leaving the bush and taking a city job. Dirk smirked and took a meaningful look at my wife who was chatting amiably with the last of the customers. He popped a couple TicTacs in his mouth, sucked for a moment and said, “Okay, here’s the deal. You publish your book with pictures of me and I get 25% of the royalties.” When I opened my mouth to protest, he added, “Or I show your wife my picture.” When I blanked, he continued, “Or we both take turns deleting our shots and I disappear. Oh, and you pay for the cab ride to the airport.”

Have you ever seen jackals in the wild? Well, you should never bring one home with you.


3 thoughts on “Voyeurs and Game Drives

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