Two exhilarating hours away in a six-seat plane, and a million miles away scenically, is the Ruaha Game Reserve. There is nothing on the airstrip apart from a lone giraffe. No sleepy official, no hut, no customs check, no tarmac, no lights, no billboards, telegraph poles, signs or advertising. Driving along small dirt tracks to the reserve, there are stately, ancient baobabs everywhere, with their bark stripped back around the trunks.
“It’s the elephants,” explains Mollel, the guide. “They eat the bark for moisture in the dry season.” This is a bleak, harsh, unforgiving landscape with occasional dashes of colour from ‘toothbrush trees’. Their bright red pods taste like pistachio nuts. It is hard to imagine this exploding rudely into colour after the rains. The baobabs are the oldest tree, many thousand years old, testimony to slow growing and prehistoric life. The first mention of the baobab is by Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan trader and historian, who wrote in 1353, “The trees are of a great age and size, a caravan can shelter under a single one of them, some have no branches or leaves, but the trunk gives enough shade to shelter many men; some have rotted inside, and rainwater has collected, as if it were a well.” I expect to see a dinosaur gently wandering amongst the branches.
In reality, Ruaha is teeming with impala, duiker, and giant kudu with their huge ears. Giraffes and zebras work in coalition (zebras have an excellent sense of smell, giraffes excellent eyesight) as do baboons and impala: baboons shake the leaves of the high trees, impala stay below (again, good eyesight and smell). It’s all about survival and working together. I almost feel sorry for these animals: life is a neurotically tense experience.
No wildlife documentary can prepare you for the thud of your own heart as a matriarch elephant purposefully eyes you across open savannah. She is 20 metres away, her one-year-old baby snuggling up under chest and trunk, peeping out. The jeep wheels make unhelpful groaning sounds, as the tyres embed deeper and deeper into the sand of a completely dry river bed. “It’s fine, watch her ears” says Mollel. “She’s not angry, just curious.” Still, seven tonnes of mammal defending her offspring is something to be taken seriously.