Animal Encounter Gold Winner: From Tsetses to Chimps

By David Myles Robinson

One of my favorite movie lines of all time was spoken by Walter Brennan’s character Eddie in To Have and Have Not: “Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?”

I can’t say exactly why that line resonated with me, especially since I’m not one of those guys who make a practice of remembering movie lines. Perhaps it was the wonderful characterizations of Brennan, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall. Or perhaps it was the various meanings one could read into the line. One of those meanings might be this: just when you think everything is fine and you see no danger ahead, you might step on an innocuous-looking dead bee and still get stung.

That’s what happened during our August 2000 private safari to Tanzania. There were just the four of us—myself and Marcia, along with Ricky and Rich, both of whom we had met in Botswana many years earlier. We had designed a fairly high-end safari, staying in lodges and permanent camps and, whenever possible, flying from camp to camp. It was a far cry from the Botswana safari, when we stayed in two-person Eureka tents and carried our own sleeping bags.

One of our first lodges was the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, a luxury hotel built on the rim of the huge crater, home to a vast array of wildlife. In fact, it is the world’s largest inactive and unfilled caldera. It’s two thousand feet deep and covers an area of about one hundred square miles.

Marcia and I had been lucky enough on a prior safari to be among the last tourists allowed to camp out on the crater floor. Now even the native Maasai people, who are allowed to graze their cattle in the crater, must exit the reserve at the end of each day. Because of the popularity of the site, due mainly to the incredible concentration of animals, there are a number of hotels and tented camps on the rim of the crater.

The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is routinely listed among the top hotels in the world. The large, lavishly appointed rooms overlook the crater. Even our toilet had a view. We had a personal butler who made sure our fireplace was roaring when we returned from the chilly drive up from the floor of the crater each evening, and, of course, that our bar was stocked with our preferred beverage. Dinner was served to the four of us in an elaborately decorated dining room. The lodge is absurdly expensive, but if you have the money to splurge, it is well worth it.

So everything was going well on our private safari. From the crater we went to a luxurious permanent tented camp on the bank of the Grumeti River. Our large tent had a king-sized bed, writing desk, carpet, and an en suite bathroom. The camp featured a small pool in which the four of us relaxed, cocktails in hand, at the end of a hot and dusty morning game drive. The bar and dining area was quite literally on the bank of the river.

Unfortunately, the Serengeti was experiencing a terrible drought that year, and the Grumeti River was more of a mudhole than a river. Lethargic hippos wallowed in the mud. Cautious Thomson gazelles and impalas searched the river for water to drink, more at risk than usual from lions and cheetahs due to the reduced water access.

There were so many animals in close proximity to the camp that it was not uncommon to lie in bed and hear lions and elephants and the danger calls of monkeys.

But on our second night at Grumeti, the sounds were closer and different. We couldn’t figure out what it was—until the next morning when we walked out of our tent. The pool, which was the distance of two tents from us, had turned from the inviting blue we’d enjoyed the day before to brown. The camp crew was abuzz. A hippo, apparently fed up with the slushy mud of the river, had somehow managed to climb up to the pool and immerse itself therein. It must have sat there in total contentment for hours during the night. Unfortunately for us, the pool had to be closed for the remainder of our stay—not just for the crew to clean out the mud and hippo shit, but because it was too dangerous to have such an inviting attraction for the hippos so close to our living quarters.

I don’t know if the drought that year had anything to do with the strong resurgence of the tsetse flies, but for the first time in all of our visits to the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, we became targets of these huge, biting flies with long proboscises. This is when things began to go bung—when we got bit by the proverbial dead bee.

All of us suffered bites from the tsetses, which are capable of biting right through clothing. Though all our bites hurt, only Marcia and Ricky suffered serious reactions. Marcia’s reactions were by far the worst. A bite on the top of her hand caused the hand to swell up to the size of a baseball. She had huge lumps on her neck, arms, and back. Ricky’s were about half the size of Marcia’s. And they hurt . . . bad.

Despite the bites, we still went on the morning and evening game drives, and the viewing was nothing short of amazing. The prides of lions with small cubs were huge, and we spent hours just watching and photographing their antics. But we were all in varying and increasing degrees of pain. It broke my heart to see Marcia in such agony, but other than give her the pain pills I always carry on safari, there was nothing we could do.

On top of everything else, I developed a head cold.

From Grumeti we went to Klein’s Camp, also in the Serengeti. Thankfully, Klein’s was built on an elevated piece of land, and a hundred or so feet of elevation made all the difference in the presence of the tsetses. Klein’s Camp became our temporary respite from the onslaught of the flying beasts. Unhappily, as soon as we descended from our oasis, the biting began anew.

It was a small stroke of luck that the wife of the camp manager was also susceptible to the tsetse bite, and she, too, had the severe reactions suffered by Marcia. So she had a much stronger antihistamine than we had. It helped, but I gave serious thought to canceling the rest of the trip. That would have meant giving up our dream of seeing the chimps at Gombe Stream National Park, where Jane Goodall lived while doing her research. Marcia said it would take much more than some bites to give that up. Little did she know how close we would come to doing just that.

One of the wonders of the African bush, and why we keep going back despite having experienced our fair share of hardship, is the element of daily surprise. Each day brings something new and amazing, so that even our experienced guides are often shocked into wonderment.

During one of our many game drives in the Serengeti from Klein’s Camp, we came across a leopard in a leafless tree, ridiculously close to the dirt track we were following. The leopard was staring intently toward the ground. At first we couldn’t see anything on the ground. The end-of-summer brown grass was knee-high. Then the leopard leapt from the tree, and within seconds it came up with a bushbuck, a small, brown-colored antelope which, when fully grown, stands about three feet tall at its shoulder. The leopard held the bushbuck, which looked very young, in its mouth for a few seconds and then, instead of making the kill and carrying it up the tree, it set the bushbuck down. The bushbuck was still very much alive, but was clearly in shock, as it didn’t try to run away.

We sat in amazement, snapping photos like crazy, as the leopard proceeded to play with the bushbuck, just as a housecat would play with a captured mouse. This went on for several minutes, and even our guide had retrieved his trusty old Canon and was snapping away between exclamations.

Eventually we all convinced ourselves that the leopard must not have been hungry and had decided to let the bushbuck live. The leopard even climbed back up to its perch in the tree, leaving the healthy bushbuck alone on the ground.

But this is Africa, and leopards are leopards. As soon as the bushbuck decided it might be safe to sneak away, and began to run, the leopard was out of the tree and onto the bushbuck in the blink of an eye. This time he made the kill and climbed up to his perch, bushbuck in mouth.

On that same day, we came across a small family of cheetahs chowing down on a fresh kill. The odd thing was that it was almost midday, and we’d been on our way back to camp. There’s a reason why game drives take place in the very early morning and late afternoon: the animals are generally only active during those times. They sleep and rest in whatever shade they can find during the intense heat of the day.

Yet these cheetahs were out in the open, sharing the inadequate shade of one lone, scrawny acacia tree while they enjoyed the delights of a freshly killed gazelle. Our guide explained that he’d only recently begun to notice this phenomenon. The prevailing theory was that the Serengeti tourist trade had grown to the point where the increased numbers of safari vehicles in certain areas were interfering with the hunting habits of some species. It was only during the harsh midday heat, when the tourists were back at their camps enjoying their own shade and lunch, that the cats could hunt and feast in relative solitude. At least, that was our guide’s theory.

With the bites, and the resulting pain, getting worse and worse, we jumped at the chance to take our first African balloon ride. For years we’d rejected the notion of missing out on a game drive in favor of a balloon ride. But this seemed like the perfect occasion, so we arranged for an early morning flight.

The predawn hours of the African bush are often extremely cold. It’s hard to fathom that within a short time, the heat will drive humans and animals alike to seek shelter. It was a particularly clear and cold morning when we arrived at the balloon staging area. The large wicker basket, which could hold sixteen people, lay on its side while the huge, partially inflated red, blue, and yellow balloon hung limply nearby. At that moment it looked quite inadequate for the task ahead.

To take off, we were instructed to climb into the basket while it lay on its side. It was awkward as we climbed into our little two-person wicker squares, where we lay as if in a cupboard. Soon enough our pilot began to inflate the balloon, and the basket was slowly righted. Then we were flying.

The gush of the flame into the balloon is loud, but usually happened in short bursts. It was the intensity of the silence after the bursts of flame that first struck me. To fly in absolute silence is in itself amazing, but to fly in silence over the vast Serengeti plains was in a class of experience all its own. We watched the ubiquitous acacia trees sweep by. We watched herds of zebras, gazelles, and wildebeests take off running, often in confused and opposite directions, as they sensed our low-flying pass above them. We watched the graceful lope of a running herd of giraffes. It was beautiful, thrilling, and chin-quivering.

Then we experienced yet another one of the brilliant African bush surprises. In the silence of the coasting balloon, we watched as a lone hyena took down a fleeing Thomson gazelle, the scene acted out in silence below us. It was part of the beautiful, deadly, brutal ballet of Africa.

The balloon pilot landed us far from where we had taken off, but precisely where a bountiful brunch, complete with champagne, had been set up for us under an expansive acacia tree.

From the Serengeti we were scheduled to fly in a small chartered plane to Arusha, where we would stay overnight at the Mountain Lodge. We would fly out the next morning on Air Tanzania to Mwanza, and then on to Kigoma, where we would take a boat down the coast of Lake Tanganyika to Gombe Stream National Park.

I thought my head cold was gone, but apparently there was some remaining congestion. Moments after taking off from the dirt airstrip at Klein’s Camp, my ears closed off. It felt as if my head was going to explode. The pain was excruciating. It was frightening, but all I could do for the duration of the flight was hold my head in my hands and moan and pray that my head really wasn’t going to explode. Although landing was a relief, my ears did not unclog. I could hear almost nothing.

We had our driver stop at the Air Tanzania office on the way to the hotel so we could pick up our tickets for the next day’s flights. Unfortunately, we learned that Air Tanzania had stopped flying from Mwanza to Kigoma. Kigoma was where we needed to be in order to get to Gombe. I left Marcia, Rich, and Ricky in the office and wandered back out to the van. I couldn’t hear, and my head hurt too much to participate.

After well over an hour of finagling, the plan was to spend an extra night in Arusha and then fly Air Tanzania to Mwanza, where we would pick up a charter flight to Kigoma. I was not displeased to learn I wouldn’t have to get on another airplane for two days. I was sure my head would be clear by then.

The Mountain Lodge in Arusha was a pleasant enough place, although on our most recent trip to Arusha, in 2014, our guide told us her company had stopped using the lodge because it had become too dangerous—as a result of people, not animals. It was basically a small village of round, one-room boma-like huts with thatched roofs and ivy-covered walls. The gardens were pleasant and luxuriant. By the time we went to bed that night, my ears still hadn’t cleared.

We didn’t do much of anything the next day except wander around town on our own. Again, that’s something we would be discouraged from doing today. Bill Clinton was scheduled to visit Arusha the next week, so welcoming banners were being hoisted onto light poles, and city workers scurried around sweeping the dirt on the dirt streets.

By the time we went to bed that next night, my ears had still not cleared. We each had our own bed. I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to hear Marcia moaning. When I asked what was wrong, she said she was freezing cold and had a headache. Her stomach hurt a little bit. I gave her my blanket and a dose of Cipro, an antibiotic I always carry to developing countries. When she said she was still freezing cold (though it was not cold out), I summoned Ricky from his room. Ricky is an MD. Unfortunately, he’s an ophthalmologist and almost as old as we are, which means the non-eye-related medical stuff he learned in med school has mostly receded into the nooks and crannies of his mind.

Our rooms were far away from the hotel reception area, so Ricky went to track down a security guard to ask him to bring more blankets. We feared Marcia had contracted malaria despite taking antimalarial pills. We gave her some aspirin and stacked the blankets on top of her until she finally stopped shaking. Eventually she dozed off. Ricky went back to his room. I lay on my bed, my ears still plugged, worried sick about Marcia and about what would happen to me when I took off on another flight. I wondered if there was any chance at all that Marcia would wake up in the morning and feel well enough to travel to Gombe.

She did. She wasn’t 100 percent, mostly because she was tired and drained, but she felt good enough to travel. She wasn’t going to miss seeing the chimps for anything. The best guess as to what happened to her was a kind of post-anaphylactic reaction to all of the tsetse bites. We’ll never really know.

My ears were still plugged, and I was fairly terrified about flying, but we went to the airport and boarded our Air Tanzania flight to Mwanza. As soon as we lifted off, my ears miraculously unplugged. That which I had feared the most turned out to be the cure.

Once in Mwanza, we met up with our small-plane charter captain, and off we went to Kigoma. It was kind of a boring flight, although we flew low enough to see. The terrain was parched and mostly empty except for the occasional hardscrabble village, where children would inevitably run out of their huts upon hearing a plane and wave and jump around. Although we couldn’t hear them, of course, we knew they would be hollering, probably “Hallo!”

As if that day wasn’t surreal and sleepy enough following our difficult night, in Kigoma we were met and taken to a hotel on the banks of the Tanganyika. It was an old and dying hotel, although it may have once been fairly decent. From the cracked cement walls and faded, peeling paint to the dark reception area—possibly a result of no power—it was almost like being in a ghost town. Undoubtedly the lack of any more commercial flights into Kigoma was not helping the tourist business.

After learning that we’d have to wait there until the boat to Gombe was ready for us, we were directed to the hotel’s restaurant. We were frankly surprised there would even be a functioning restaurant, but off we went. It was lighter than the rest of the hotel, as it had large, though dirty, windows looking out on a courtyard and one-story hotel rooms, which were the lakefront “luxury” suites. A young, squalid-looking boy handed us menus, which were ridiculously long. They had everything from hamburgers to chicken Kiev to an array of Indian food.

By then we were punch-drunk and had begun to find everything stupidly hilarious. We ordered beers and chicken tikka masala and rice and laughed at almost everything. The food was predictably awful, but the beer was good, and after a couple hours of sitting around, we were finally on our way to Gombe Stream, home of Jane Goodall’s research station. We were taken there in a wooden longboat with hard wooden benches, a canvas roof for shelter, and crates of food and supplies for our three-night stay.

The cabin in which we stayed at Gombe was only yards away from Jane Goodall’s former house. Our place consisted of several sleeping rooms—cells, really—and a small dining area attached to the kitchen. All the windows and doors were covered with wire mesh designed to keep the baboons out. We soon learned why, as the large troop of baboons that lived on or near the beach seemed to know when the cabin was inhabited, which meant food and mischief. We often found one or more at a window or door, trying to get inside.

The camp was right on the lake. The beach between the lake and the camp was made up of large, smooth rocks, so that we immediately christened the beach “Nice,” after the rocky beaches of Nice in Southern France. The lake water was cool and clean, and when we weren’t marching through the jungle looking for chimps, we spent our days on the beach at Nice getting a tan, watching the baboons, and taking frequent dips in the cool of the lake.

It was not always easy to find the chimps at Gombe. The park is long and narrow, and runs from the shores of Lake Tanganyika up a steep incline. Searching for the chimps at Gombe was very different from trekking to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, which we did years later. There, the guides would communicate with park rangers, who went out every morning to find where each gorilla family was on that particular day. So even though some hikes to the gorillas could take several hours, it was a virtual guarantee to find them.

In Gombe, there were no personnel except the rangers who acted as our guides. Although the individual chimp families were territorial, their territories were large and the terrain was often brutally steep in dense jungle. So there was no guarantee of finding, let alone observing, chimps on any given day.

On our first day of searching, we took off straight uphill, following narrow, meandering trails made by the chimps. It was hard climbing in uncomfortable heat. I had to “short-leash” Marcia on a number of occasions to help get her up some of the steepest inclines. I was somewhat worried about her putting such stress on her body only a day after that terrible night in Arusha, but as it turned out, it was young Rich who had the hardest time. At one point, after a particularly arduous climb, I looked at him and saw he was deathly white and sweating profusely. He survived, but he declined to go on the next day’s hike.

We did find chimps that afternoon, but they were high up on the slopes and in thick foliage. Our periods of observation were counted in seconds rather than minutes. All in all, it was a pretty disappointing five-hour death march. Lake Tanganyika, however, felt wonderful.

Rich’s decision to pass on the hike the next morning was ironic, as we found a large family of chimps close to the lake and only about thirty minutes from the camp. They were, of course, amazing and wonderful, and we could see how Jane Goodall was willing to spend so much of her life studying and falling in love with these creatures.

It was a hard trip, but one of our best.


David Myles Robinson is a retired attorney, having spent thirty-eight years working in Honolulu, Hawai‘i as a trial attorney. He now lives with his wife, a retired Honolulu Circuit Court judge, in Taos, NM, where, in addition to writing, he can indulge his passions of skiing, golfing, hiking, and, of course, traveling. They have traveled to all seven continents.

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