Such a Sweet Story

Text by Paola Corini
Photographs by Luca De Santis

The lines of Jared Gilman, aged twelve, in his first lead role as Sam in the fairytale film Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson, went: “It’s got action. It’s got comedy. It’s got drama. It’s got romance. It really packs a punch!” Set on an island way off the New England coast in summer 1965, Moonrise Kingdom tells the story of two twelve year olds who fall in love, seal a secret pact and escape together into the wilderness. Sam abandons his scout camp, stealing tools and supplies, to meet up with Suzy, who runs away from home, taking her cat, her favourite books and a battery-operated record player.
Sam and Suzy spend several days exploring and camping in open spaces in the middle of nowhere, their aim to get to an isolated bay on the island, which the two christen “Moonrise Kingdom”. There they set up their tents, dance on the beach in their underpants, and kiss. In the press conference, producer Jeremy Dawson would say that as a location Prudence Island was as spot-on as they could get: “Prudence really does look untouched”.
Unexpectedly we found ourselves thinking that our trip to Tanzania was following in the footsteps of Sam and Suzy’s lovers’ escape into the wild, from a marvellously organized camp in the far north-east of the Serengeti National Park to the sandy beach of Mahale, our untouched island, our Moonrise Kingdom, at the other end of the country. In a long-distance journey, hopping from point to point by light aircraft, we experienced it all – just like the perfect film – action, comedy, drama and romance. Packing a real punch!

"My name is K.T. and I’m your pilot on this flight to Kogatende. The flight will take around an hour and forty minutes and I can assure you that there’ll be lots of bouncing around”.

With the kind arrogance and manner of a young man who’s just got a first-class degree from the most expensive university in America, K.T. would guide us through a storm in the northernmost part of the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, East Africa.

“Most of us come from South Africa and we fall in love with this type of flight, so we stay on for a few years. A couple more for me and then that’s it, I’ve got my own plans”. After landing on the airstrip, we’d give K.T. a lift back to the camp where he spent the night. His next flight was the day after. “You can be my guest whenever you want, but now I’m the one needing a lift,” he’d say to our guide. On the ground, he’s the one who’s pilot. It’s ground that we cover in a four-wheel drive, on the edge of that patch called the Mara Triangle. Belonging to Kenya, it traces a border for humans and a wide open savannah for the wild animals. K.T. talks a lot, like a gushing Hollywood actor. He’s full of quips, he’s already got his stories of the wild, but they all take place in the skies. “That time we were going through a real storm. And I don’t like turning round and seeing my passengers throwing up, girls scared to death, screaming, women crying. But that day it was raining cats and dogs.” And those were his very words, cats and dogs. “Then where are you going, guys? Mahale? I can’t stand Mahale! We stop over in Tabora to fill up and then pick up more passengers in Katavi. It’s four hours one way, so you see Mahale is the start of paradise for you, but for me it’s eight hours of flying. I can’t stand Mahale! Don’t ask me to take you to Mahale!” His harmless tirade came at an unstoppable rate and we were already too grown up to not just smile at his outburst. After all, just two weeks later, that same young pilot would take us home, loading us onto his twelve-seater aircraft from Mahale to Kilimanjaro, with a fixed smile, the usual welcome brief and no hint of being fed up after that day-long flight. “My name’s K.T. and I’ll be your pilot on this direct flight to Kilimanjaro”.

Those flights would become just another way of getting from one place to another, with people getting on and off at different stops every time. Curious to know where the other passengers are headed if they’re not going to the same camp as you.

The first friendships were formed there, on the seats of those little Cessna 208B Grand Caravans, like at those narrow school desks, sharing intimacy and adrenaline with a person who apparently has nothing in common with you except having to go in the same direction.

“The air is scented with jasmine, the forest rich, the water of the lake gin-clear and lightly chilled. And if I dare to put an imprint on this paradise I had better get it right.” Roland Purcell, Scottish adventurer and auctioneer, discovered Mahale in the 1980s during a long journey through East Africa. A year after that perfect day in June 1988, Zoe joined him and took that same decision.

Over time, together they built the extraordinary life of a family deliberately shipwrecked on Kangwena Beach, and Greystoke Mahale, a camp like something out of a fantasy story.

And so Greystoke became our El Dorado, until we arrived there one day in November, in the “short rains” season that makes the forest even richer.
“My name’s Thomas and I’ll be your pilot on this direct flight to Mahale. We’re going right to the opposite side of Tanzania. We’ll refuel in Tabora, pick up some passengers in Katavi, then fly over the Mahale mountains.
It’ll be a steep and fast descent, so take little sips of water and swallow often because your ears will go mental and it’s not the pleasantest of things.”

A safari in Africa, whether it was our first or our umpteenth, had the power to immediately tune us into another lifestyle. Night fell on the camp as if someone had flicked a switch. We discovered a different side to ourselves, capable of new challenges. The latecomers were top of the class, always ready, perfectly equipped for the morning game drive, even before dawn. With daily prize of hot chocolate and shortbread served right at the entrance to the tent, we’d hurry to collect it without stopping to put on shoes or glasses, like in the 25 December morning dash to find what gifts Father Christmas has brought. The Internet addicts left their telephones in their tents, after all they weren’t any use to them. Everyone forgot what day of the week it was, we simply regulated ourselves by the sun, with the alternating light and dark. The safari rituals took us adults back in time, as if we were living in an exotic school camp inhabited by small groups of budding explorers, dominated by a spontaneous spirit of brotherhood, sharing and adventure. We became wiser, more intuitive, more curious, in a word, better.

Read the full story in Issue N.1 of Cartography

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