The Great macro safari

Usumbara Peacock Tree Frog (Leptopelis vermiculatus). Photo taken in the Usambara mountains. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

There’s an aura of mystery, superstition, fear and awe that still enshrouds Africa to the uninitiated. In many ways it is still Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness…but wouldn’t it be nice to move past these cliched introductions? Past the current iteration of panic which has seen the spread of ebola from a few West African countries to a blanketing of an entire continent larger than the combined size of India and the USA? It’s a continent of superlatives: The birthplace of modern man. The Serengeti or “endless plains”, The Congo – The largest tract of unbroken rainforest outside the Amazon, The Sahara – The largest desert in the world…and a place where even in capital cities it can be difficult to find a good wifi connection.

It’s odd to think of a white man going home to Africa, but as I step off the plane in the middle of the night, feel the sweat bead, hear the city cry and navigate the mad howls of the touts and taxi drivers there is a kind of siren song heard in the breath of silence between wailing sirens.

My preparations had extended to emailing a few guesthouses and hostels during a layover in Amsterdam. Of course between the frequent power outages, common to Dar es Salaam, and the typical Equatorial mindset of going at one’s own pace, none of my emails got any responses. With boarding imminent, I had taken a quick look at some online hostel reviews and decided on a place on Msasani peninsula, away from the busy town centre and which despite an adjacent bar looked good. So once again I find myself in a strange land at ungodly hours, trusting to a taxi driver. “Where do you want to go?” the driver asks in a pitched accent that I could just barely decipher. “Hold on a minute” I say, wrestling with an airport porter who has grabbed my bag. “No!!! I. Don’t. Need. Help!!!” He responds with monosyllabic grunts, which I take to mean: “Very heavy, very heavy!”, as he pulls the bag away from me in sharp, jerking motions. I stare him adversarially in the eye, but he rises to the challenge and yanks the bag free of my hands. I sigh and relinquish the battle, simply so as to ensure that no damage comes to the equipment within. Of course I know what’s coming, and after about 25 meters we arrive at the taxi stand and he demands payment, 10,000 shillings or about $7.50 USD. I give him the lowest bill I can find and turn to the taxi driver, “Star hotel please”. “Ahhhhh…” he exhaled like the bubbling up of some fond, youthful remembrance. “Yes, Star hotel… It has everything a young man needs”. “Awww fuck, not again” I say to myself. But with the porter is still tapping on the window asking for more money I tell the driver to go. “But, but maybe I’m jumping to conclusions?” Half an hour later as we pull up to the hotel with disco style lights, music blaring and more prostitutes than you can shake a handful of 1 dollar bills at, the other shoe dropped…

There’s always a certain amount of preparatory work that goes into a trip. Some people book their vacation long in advance and are catered to the moment they arrive (they ensure that they are picked up by reputable hotel-associated taxi drivers), they lounge on cordoned off beach properties, join safaris whose guests are other white Westerners and which ensure that their refined tastes are met, and who leave by the same means. Others arrive with flexibility, the sketch of a plan, the desire to interact with the locals, perhaps volunteer and the un-assailable notion that they are experiencing the “real Africa”. I envy these people, probably because they don’t find themselves in a brothel in the middle of the night on their first night in Africa. 

Consciously refraining from using my blacklight on the bed and walls, the accommodation itself wasn’t terrible and I will say that the rates were within my price range (after I told reception that I wasn’t planning on staying by the hour), however, with daylight came the unmistakable ticking clock to nighttime revelry and so the (frantic) search for other accommodation began. And when finally I did find a place, have moved and settled in, I look at the green spaces on the map. They have exotic names like Udzungwa, Usambara and Mahale mountains. They are centres of endemism within Tanzania and unlike the savannahs harbour much more of its flora and fauna. In the case of Udzungwa, over 50% of the countries’ species occur here. These places are magnetic and I find myself irresistibly drawn to them. Udzungwa will be my first port of call I have decided and ready my bag, noticing with no small amount of peevishness the stretch marks on the shoulder straps from the wrestling match with the porter.

Despite what one might think, mine isn’t a novel story, I join an army of photographers come to Africa. The only difference is that I have substituted the 600mm telephoto for the macro lens (Nonetheless, I am met with quizzical looks and no small amount of skepticism when I tell people I am a photographer and yet wander past yawning lions, sprinting cheetahs and giraffes at full stretch to photograph some bug in the bush). They are everywhere with their long white lenses, camera backpacks, tripods and in the coffee shops on their laptops editing photos. They clutch their bags with a possessiveness which betrays the valuables which lie within. They are on the traditional Safari, it seems like everyone here is. In the Western lexicon it has come to mean “an expedition for hunting or viewing of wildlife, especially in East Africa”. However, ‘Safari’ is originally a Swahili word meaning journey, and mine has just begun…



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