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.
“He’s such a naughty boy!” And they shook their heads with all the love felt for a naughty son, a boy who’s growing up. Christmas was born on Christmas Day and now he was twenty. If you met him with the girls he would look around to check that there weren’t any other males who’d put him in his place, and at that point the show would begin. He wasn’t dangerous, he was just a teenager who wanted to show off. Christmas was the mascot of Mahale, perhaps because of his name which tugged at the heart strings, perhaps because whenever you met him there was always action on the cards, but with a finale that’d already been written. At a certain point, he’d thump his fists on the ground, shout out in alarm, throw around the odd branch that had stupidly ended up in his way. He’d give one of our companions, the weakest one, a friendly slap, and he’d go off in search of some energy fruit, his favourite forest snack. Word of Christmas had reached every corner of Tanzania, because there was always a guide, a manager or a guest who had spent time in Mahale and missed Greystoke and Christmas the bully. Christmas was given the front page in the family album of Greystoke Mahale.
I took this little matt plastic-coated book just about everywhere with me. Its title was: There’s nowhere in the world like Mahale.
I’d just entered my banda – number three out of seven, counting from the end of the beach towards the main camp marquee – after abandoning my walking boots and socks outside the wooden platform and rinsing my feet, yellow with sand, in an oval chiselled silver basin filled with clear water. I was now walking in my majestic dhow driftwood hut, with sloping straw roof and bamboo canes. The leaflet was set out neatly on the desk, next to the heavy padlock of the baboon-proof wooden chest safe, the matchbox, the tropical insect repellent and the guestbook.
The plastic cover meant it hadn’t curled up owing to the humidity of the rainforest, while in just a few days the pages of my paperback bought just before my departure would acquire that yellow hue and thickness typical of shabby classics that no one in the family dared to throw out. As soon as I had a few minutes to laze around, I opened it and slowly started reading it from scratch again. The information was precise, accurate, exact. I was learning it by heart, like notions from the best school encyclopaedia.
The Mahale Mountains National Park is situated in the far west of Tanzania, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It’s named after the mountain chain that crosses through it and is one of the most remote places on the planet, where you can still observe chimpanzees in their natural habitat and spend time with a small group of sixty-four individuals known as “M Group” who are used to the presence of humans. No roads go through the 1,613 square kilometres of the Mahale Mountains, only paths and forest trails, hewn out by the rangers with their machetes, numbered with letters of the alphabet, used not just by the park guides but by the animals too. The only practical way to reach Greystoke Mahale is by water and this adds to the sense of total distance from the world as we know it.
Here’s where the numbers started: heights, distances, the proportions of the mountains, of the peaks and of that magnetic lake, all confirming just how extraordinary the place was that would become ours for four days and nights. I knew the facts of that place by heart and I could recite them like the most magical Christmastide poem and repeat them as many times as was needed to build an exact idea of Mahale in my listener’s mind. But actually being there was another story.
In Mahale you immediately learnt a new way of going on safari in Tanzania. The park is one of the very few in Africa that can only be reached and visited on foot. So, take a classic African safari and get rid of all the marvellous old open-top four-wheel drives with your great guide at the wheel, the binoculars, all the predators and the adrenaline of the bush, the endless horizons, the dawn rises. Take off the sturdy walking boots too and look down at your bare feet, at your long breakfast table at eight o’clock in the morning, the hot pancakes, the red watermelon, the boiling hot coffee, the book of primates, native fish and birds, the calm green lake. No Internet connection, inbox stuck at the moment you landed at the Mahale airstrip, there’s no signal in any corner of Kangwena Beach or the forest around it.
At some point during breakfast the group of rangers will arrive, with filled water bottles and folded green ponchos, and you’ll have a few minutes to slip on your boots and listen to their instructions and the new way to get to the chimpanzees, a way that almost always starts out on the water. You’ll sail northwards over the lake and almost always disembark at the Japanese research centre where Kyoto University has been studying the behaviour of these individuals on site and christening the new arrivals since the 1960s. Then you’ll plunge into the forest single file, at times there’ll be a gentle uphill slope, at times a climb, a plain, until you hear the alarm calls. You’ll be asked to wear your surgeon’s mask and your breath will seem warmer and rhythmic. The other half of the day you’ll be in the boat for your amateur fishing lesson or diving offshore into transparent waters where no crocodiles or hippos swim. “Would you like to fish or swim first?” they’ll ask you and you’ll quickly all come to an agreement.
A cheerful democracy reigned at Greystoke, all down to that powerful, amazing hour granted to us humans with them, the chimpanzees, as well as everything either side: the private holiday in a wild Garden of Eden that feels like a small island. Out of this world, without a shadow of a doubt.