safari

Where the safari started

Our flight into Zanzibar settled on the runway after midnight. I looked out the window. It was dark and soft like the inside of a smudge pot and there was little to see except the flashes of the ground crew. A tug swung around. Its lamps illuminated palm fronds just beyond the pavement. Dense vegetation completed the backdrop.

Tanzania and Kenya are part of a constellation of East African countries. Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Tanzania and Kenya are part of a constellation of East African countries. Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Vicki was awake.

“It’s so hot,” she mumbled.

“I know.” My shirt was damp too. The cabin was suffocating. I fanned her with the safety card from the seat pocket. We had come so far. We were so tired.

O take me back to Zanzibar
Where I may sleep and dream some more
And wake to dawn of cinnabar.
O take me back to Zanzibar,
The land of beasts and men of tar
Where zebras roam and lions roar.
O take me back to Zanzibar
Where I may sleep and dream some more!*

We had been dreaming of zebras and lions for nearly a year. Going on a safari is, after all, a sacred obligation, a foray into to world of the untethered. Such experiences are rarer than tanzanite.

The Swahili Coast includes the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

The Swahili Coast includes the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Two thousand years ago much of the area south of the Mediterranean—including this one—was beyond the experience of the Roman world.** Terms like barbaros or barbarus or “barbarian” were used to describe human societies in these remote places (think of the Berbers of the Sahara or the city of Berbera in the modern Republic of Somalia). Ptolemy even referred to the littoral south of Africa’s horn (sometimes called the “Swahili Coast”) as Sinus Barbaricus.***

Richard Burton, the swarthy explorer and linguist, claims the Persians knew better. The term “Zanzibar” is theirs he writes. It means “Blackland” or “land of the Black” (-skinned people) and has a pejorative feel in the Arabic tongue. Here, zang or zanj is used of rural Blacks and bar connotes “land.”**** The combo package was picked up and broadly delivered by medieval geographers. Zanzibar could be a coastline, an island, or even a single city. These last two uses continue to be plied today (see the map above).

Zanzibar City from the Sea. Illustration from Burton’s  The Lake Regions of Central Africa. A Picture of Exploration  (1860). You can find the ebook    here    (accessed 9/15/2019).

Zanzibar City from the Sea. Illustration from Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa. A Picture of Exploration (1860). You can find the ebook here (accessed 9/15/2019).

Our Turkish crew instructed the few of us continuing on to Kilimanjaro to stay in our seats. The rest of the passengers queued for the exit. Many were Europeans in holiday or honeymoon mode, an inference not drawn from their tired eyes or slumping shoulders, but from their colorful outfits; shorts, hats, and beach bags were à la mode. They were prepared for a tropical release.

Resigned to another hour of sitting, I drew a deep breath. Humid or not, it would be splendid to follow them outside—if only for a day—to wander this medieval entrepôt of the Indian Ocean. Memories here are many and worth hunting.

Zanzibar City is the tip of the spear pointing toward the heart of Africa.

Zanzibar City is the tip of the spear pointing toward the heart of Africa.

Slumbering just a couple of miles from our wheels was Stone Town. It is the tip of a spear, a coral peninsula pointing at the continental heart. Twenty-two miles of salt water, corals, and sand bars separate that tip from the mainland.

The point was a port in the medieval period and home to sultans and merchantmen, sailors and fishermen. Its market hustled many commodities, but primarily slaves and spices. Today, remnants of that past lurk in a maze of narrow streets framed by rose-tinted buildings and walls. The aroma of cooking seafood wafts about carved teak doors and overhanging balconies and through hidden gardens. It sounds like the perfect place to get yourself lost before suddenly finding an outdoor cafe with flowers and a table. There you sit in the shade and drink sweet tea from a glass and look at a paper map while trying to figure out where you are. The sea breeze cools your damp hair.

That would be nice. I closed my eyes in the sweltering plane and tried to imagine it. The map is in my hand

I find two sites.

The first is the Old Fort. After centuries of occupation, the Portuguese were expelled from Zanzibar. Omani Arabs did the job in 1699 and built this stout structure to prevent their return. Old Fort is centerpiece of Stone Town. Over the course of time, its thick walls have served as a bastion, a prison, a tennis club, a bar and restaurant, an amphitheater, and an art museum.

I find a second site of interest on the map. It is the Livingstone House. This unassuming block building was erected around 1860 near the harbor. Its most famous resident (I presume) was the Victorian explorer, medical doctor, and missionary, David Livingstone. He lived here for a short time while planning his last African expedition. He would not return alive. Zanzibar was a launching site for many East African expeditions in the heyday of the European colonial movement.

Livingstone House near the Zanzibar Harbor. Image from    here    (accessed 9/17/2019)

Livingstone House near the Zanzibar Harbor. Image from here (accessed 9/17/2019)

Like Livingstone, other legends spent time here. Speke, Cameron, Stanley and Burton also slept in this historic structure. Today it houses the Zanzibar Tourist Cooperation.

It was Burton who carried the term “safari” from the Swahili Coast back to England. There it found a home in the English vernacular and a place the Western imagination. To this day, a journey into an untethered region for the sake of hunting or observing wildlife is called a safari. At its core, it is an East African experience. While it is a bit of a stretch—but not so much—one may envision Zanzibar as the place where the safari started.

It would be for us.

O take me back to Zanzibar
Where I may sleep and dream some more
And wake to dawn of cinnabar.

Burton on safari? Image from Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa (18xx: 101). Image from    here    (accessed 9/16/2019).

Burton on safari? Image from Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa (18xx: 101). Image from here (accessed 9/16/2019).


*This poem by Discoveria may be found here (accessed Sept 15, 2019).

**Roman-era expeditions to this area are not unknown however. An anonymous work remembered as The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (1st century) is one of most famous. Its itinerary identifies one island as Menuthias (Μενουθιάς) thought to be either Zanzibar or Pemba. See Wikisource here (accessed Sept 16, 2019).

***The label, al-Khalij al-Barbari, was picked up and applied by early Arab geographers to stretches of the Indian Ocean. See the article “The Indian Ocean in Arab Geography: Transmission of Knowledge between Formal and Informal Geographical Traditions” by Marina Tolmacheva here (accessed Sept 16, 2019).

****Compare Burton’s history of the term Zanzibar in his The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860: 38) with the contemporary Wikipedia article on Zanj found here (accessed Sept 16, 2019).


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A good park for beginners

A good park for beginners

The sign at the entrance read “Home of Tree Climbing Lions.”

I thought it best to keep one eye skyward at all times. Having 400 pounds of tooth and claw fall on your head would be terrible surprise. It also would make an end to a lovely safari that Vicki and I and Mr Nixon had planned in the East African country of Tanzania.

Serengeti chicken

Serengeti chicken

Safari operators often speak of the "Big Five." This is a linger-longer from the blood-sport days. The phrase does not identify Africa's largest species, but rather the five most difficult/dangerous animals to hunt on foot.

Noah's ark (sortof)

Noah's ark (sortof)

In the story of Noah's Ark, a portion of the living world finds sanctuary in a pinch. I thought about that as our rig bounced down the steep track into Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Tarangire

Tarangire

Zebras and wildebeests drank the muddy water, flicked their tails, rolled in the dust, and fussed with each other. It may have just been in my head, but somewhere I could hear the soundtrack of "The Lion King" playing.