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Footsteps in the African wilderness

  • Tanzania


I am travelling from Lake Eyasi, the motherland of the fearsome Hadza hunters, to the eerie shores of Lake Natron, in northern Tanzania. I expect to cover the 150km on foot in six days. I will cross the Ngorongoro highlands where herds of animals ― and their predators ― abound. During my journey, I will share the road with the Hadza and the Maasai. I am eager to get out and my feet are restless. But first, we must rest by the fire.

The slow-burning fire swells with the words of Mtoto Shakwa, my guide amongst the hunter-gatherer Hadza tribe. I look at him across the flames and the shadows grow livelier: we are getting to the climax of his story. Of how he faced a troop of baboons in the steep ridge of the Great Rift Valley. The other Hadza sitting around the fire are listening attentively. Baboons are fast, strong and they attack in deadly groups. Of course, I don’t understand any of this. Mtoto Shakwa speaks in his ancient click language, he speaks of a battle that has played out many times throughout history.

I am deep in the East African Bush and there’s a baboon roasting on the fire.

Footsteps in the African wilderness

Morning has dispelled the fears and strong impressions of the night. The men are about to go on hunting. Mtoto invites me to join them He leads me through a landscape of acacias and thornbushes. He moves deftly, with the ease and grace of the hunter. I struggle to keep up and my clothes get caught up in the thorns, it seems to me, with every single step I take. Mtoto knows you have to wait for foreigners, this is not the first time he guides travellers.

The Hadza are true hunter-gatherers. They have no interest in crops, nor cattle, nor permanent settlements. They have also realised that their way of life has economic value. They are one of the oldest people on Earth and that is profoundly alluring for travellers such as myself.


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Many other groups in Tanzania don’t share my opinion. The Hadza have lost most of their land to cattle and onions. In their plight, internal divisions have sprung among them: some want change, some don’t. Thanks to well-managed tourism programs, they have found the means to keep hunting and gathering. An economic incentive to care for their traditions has given them the freedom to remain authentic to themselves: truly free. Some live their lives in the bush, others move to the city.

Footsteps in the African wilderness

Our journey stretches from Lake Eyasi to Lake Natron: 150km across the Tanzanian wilderness. In this early stages, I am torn between contradictory emotions. On one hand, the Hadza’s way of life is precious and I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed, learning that some of them choose the city. There are obvious advantages to a modern lifestyle: medicine, education, security… comforts. On the other hand, there’s always the goodness of life closer to nature. This tension between the old ways and modernity is at the heart of their identity.

Knowing all too well that I would not trade my life in Hong Kong to join this tribe, I am wondering if, at least, there is something I can learn from them, and turn my experience from voyeuristic to enriching. The Hadza create strong bonds that last a lifetime. Their children are braver and more independent than many of our modern adults. They live sustainable lives, their diets are wholesome, they treat their elders with reverence… they have a closer relationship with danger.

Footsteps in the African wilderness

We march on, away from Hadza territory, heading Southeast, following trails opened by the stomping of zebras and buffaloes. Our path leads to the Ngorongoro Crater. It is a landscape of unimaginable geological turmoil. Volcanoes, craters, depressions, millions of years of ashes and lava have all combined to orchestrate this drama. Hidden within the sediment, rest the secrets of our own evolution.

We reach Laeatoli. This is a special place: all of humankind’s motherland. Here, famous anthropologist Mary Leakey and her team discovered the fossilised footprints that are the oldest evidence of a walking hominid. It is likely that we stood up straight for the very first time in these volcanic valleys. Walking was the turning point in our evolution because our hands became free to explore and to make, and grope all their way to consciousness.

We come to highlands where the echoes of age-old customs are still understood by the Maasai. They live according to nature and tradition. We come across a party of travellers in the Northeast ridge of the Ngorongoro. They are going in the opposite direction. A few men and a bride, Entito. This is her story:

The silence of the quiet hours before dawn was only broken by the sobs of the newlywed-bride. Entito cried with her mother and her friends. If they’ll ever see her again, it is uncertain. She is 17 and Mbeeya’s second wife. Entito will reach her new home this evening. Everyone is a stranger to her there, even though her new village is only 25km away. She is richly dressed in her new wedding attire but her distress is evident. She is young and beautiful. Mbeeya’s first wife will not like her.

Footsteps in the African wilderness

I take some pictures of them and offer to mail them when I return to Hong Kong. One of the men, Mbeeya’s friend laughs.

“Just add me on Facebook and share the photographs there.”

He studies forestry at Arusha University. Educated Maasai are esteemed by their communities. They enjoy many more freedoms than their uneducated counterparts.

Ole Dora up, a village elder told me later in the trip:

“There was a time when we thought education would destroy our culture. Today, we encourage children to go to school.”

As the village elder, he is charged with the preservation of their memory and their tradition.

“It is a balancing act,” he explains. “We must focus on the important things, like our dress code. Other traditions, we will have to let go of them. See the holes in my ears? My son’s generation doesn’t want them anymore.”

Footsteps in the African wilderness

We go deeper in the bush, marching through herds of wildebeest and zebra. Left and right, giraffes stretch their necks to munch on the tall acacia canopy. There are no roads but the fresh tracks left by elephants. When it gets dark, the song of lions and hyenas fills the night. How different is this to a typical Safari, from the safety and comfort of a Land Cruiser! Traversing the wilderness on foot levels the playing field. Every sighting comes as a surprise and is more meaningful, even menacing.

Some innovators, such as my friend Ake Lindstrom, have earned the trust of the government and the local communities to develop off-the-beaten-track wildlife experiences. His philosophy is to first and foremost protect the environment and benefit the communities. I ask him how can travellers make the most of their time in the wild.

“This might seem obvious,” he said, “but don’t do what everyone else’s doing. Focus on the guide that you are getting, he is your key to the best experiences, yet most of the time it is assigned to customers, they do not choose. And lastly, ditch the Cruiser and walk or cycle. It is much more rewarding that way.”

After six days, I am standing on a cliff in the Eastern Rift Valley. The mysterious landscape of Lake Natron extends before my eyes. The threatening alkaline waters of the lake make a deep impression on me. I feel as if I had traversed the aeons and I suddenly found myself beholding a Pleistocene motif.

You can drive to Lake Natron. But it doesn’t make the same impression. I would go so far as to say that it isn’t the same place that I saw. Walking through the Ngorongoro Highlands, I gained a sense of purpose and connection unattainable in a standard safari. Going to a place is not enough for me anymore. Exploring deeply what you love, letting it change you in unexpected ways, that what travel really is.

Footsteps in the African wilderness