Treading Lightly in the Simanjiro Plains of Tanzania
By JESSICA BRUDER
Published: May 20, 2011
WE’D been hiking for a half-hour when Mark Thornton raised his hand and drew us to a halt. Tracing a circle in the air with his index finger, he whispered, “They’re all around us.”
About 50 yards off, in every possible direction, were zebras. Dozens of them. The night before, sitting by our campfire, we’d heard distant hoof beats rumbling across the savanna. Now we had found the source. They milled around stubby acacia trees, black tails swishing against striped hindquarters, noses down in the grass.
Our group grew silent. Mr. Thornton waved us together, nine khaki-clad travelers and a local Masai guide in a traditional red-checkered shuka cloak. The closer we stood to one another, he explained, the less threatening we’d appear. We fell into a tight line behind him and paced ahead slowly toward the herd.
The zebras stopped grazing to stare at us. Farther off, a few wildebeests lifted their horned, bearded heads to glance in our direction.
“They want to keep an eye on you and see what you are,” Mr. Thornton explained in a voice that was low but that betrayed his excitement. “This is brilliant. In a lot of places, their comfort zone is 10 times this size.”
We were visiting the Simanjiro Plains in Tanzania — a wide-open stretch of grasslands spanning roughly 100,000 acres, 80 miles southwest of Mount Kilimanjaro. Animals don’t encounter many travelers here. That’s exactly why we had come.
For two days, we’d been exploring the plains on foot, spending our nights at undeveloped campsites in temporarily pitched canvas tents. We were excited to be outside the country’s protected parks and game reserves, where well-beaten tracks lure throngs of safarigoers who crisscross the landscape in crowded Land Rovers, dangling out the windows with binoculars, bent on seeing everything at once.
The Simanjiro, by comparison, is governed by local villages, and our access had been granted through a partnership with the resident Masai, who helped guide our walks and received a portion of the trip’s proceeds.
The best part? This area has no safari lodges, no souvenir shops selling postcards or pith helmets, no tourist infrastructure of any kind. The raw thrill of discovery hasn’t been tempered with kitsch, and there’s no rush to consume nature as if in a zoo.
When our trip began last year in March, we gathered at a coffee plantation lodge on the outskirts of Arusha, a city near the northern border with Kenya, for a briefing from Mr. Thornton, a 38-year-old New York native who lives in Cape Town and has been guiding Tanzania excursions for more than a decade. His company, Mark Thornton Safaris (thorntonsafaris.com), was twice named National Geographic Adventure’s top African outfitter.
“The trip isn’t just about seeing the animals,” he told us at the outset. “It’s about seeing how things fit together.” And the Simanjiro Plains offer a fascinating example of coexistence between humans and wildlife. The area is home to several villages of Masai tribesmen, who have been grazing their cattle on these lush grasses for centuries. Apart from occasional encounters with lions — several Masai we met during our five days in the bush showed us the deep scars they’ve earned protecting their cows — they coexist peacefully with wildlife migrating in and out of the region.
The region also supports herds of migratory zebra and wildebeest. In July, during the dry season, these animals depart for Tarangire National Park to the west, where they congregate along the Tarangire River. When the rains return in November, they come back to bear their young and graze on the nutrient-rich grasses that grow in the volcanic soil of the Simanjiro.
For conservationists, this annual migration creates a challenge. For the wildlife, the plains are essential, but they aren’t protected like the national parks, which are off-limits to human settlement. The Masai need a place to live, too, and the plains are home to several villages. But the limited protections here also mean the Simanjiro are under constant threat from big-city trespassers, who set up unregulated farms on the grasslands, clogging migration routes and choking off Masai pastures. Meanwhile, poachers prowl the plains for bushmeat, skins and horns.
Since 2004, Mr. Thornton and nine other safari outfitters have worked with Masai villages to formalize their boundaries and enact bylaws forbidding abuse of the land by outsiders. The result is the Simanjiro Conservation Easement, a 58,000-acre tract of grasslands set aside by local village councils, for grazing cattle and migrating wildlife.
Together, the tour operators make an annual payment of 5 million Tanzanian shillings — the equivalent of about $3,378 — to each of two Masai villages, Terrat and Sukuro, used to enforce village boundaries. In recent years, the Masai were able to use that money to sue farmers who had usurped part of their lands. The Masai won. Mr. Thornton does additional fund-raising for the easement on his own, and recently raised more than $5,000 — “a little stimulus package,” he called it — from his clients. (Our trip cost roughly $650 per person per day including food, accommodations, local transportation, guides and land access fees; trips are usually 10 days.)
The nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society also works with this coalition of tour operators and villages, spending roughly $26,500 annually to finance grassroots initiatives around the easement including Masai anti-poaching scouts. It’s not uncommon now to see them patrolling the plains, riding bicycles in their long checkered robes, toting high-powered binoculars and cellphones.
Protecting the plains, however, remains a struggle. Even as short-term visitors, we saw damage. On our second day in the bush, we came across the site of a recent kill. Buzzards scattered as we approached the spiral-horned head of an eland, the largest species of African antelope. The body, which probably once weighed close to a ton, was gone. A putrid smell hung in the air. Reaching down, Mr. Thornton remarked that the creature’s nose was still soft, meaning it had been dead for less than a day. The dirt was stained with blood. One of our Masai guides pointed out a set of tire tracks: poachers had been here. We quickly moved on.
Later, we passed a plot of furrowed farmland that seemed to be abandoned. The plains had been churned up, though nothing appeared to be growing. The only other sign of agriculture was a ragged scarecrow on a pole. It was unclear what had led to the abandonment of this particular farm, though the possibilities included droughts or local villages enforcing prohibitions on agriculture. “In a few years, that will turn back into savanna,” Mr. Thornton said.
Sights like these aren’t the stuff of glossy tourism brochures. But they’re a very real part of what’s happening on the Simanjiro Plains where, thankfully, there is still plenty of unspoiled nature to enjoy. During our long hours on foot, we walked past placid giraffes, craning their long necks to nibble acacia leaves. Olive baboons stopped foraging to ogle us as we trekked up a hill.
There were quieter moments, too — the kind you’d never experience speeding past in a Land Rover. One evening, we were out hiking when Mr. Thornton heard something. “Close your eyes. Put your hands like this and listen,” he said, cupping his fingers around his ears.
The dusk filled with a noises that sounded like marbles clinking together in a glass. There was also a lower, discordant twang, something that sounded like a squeaky shoe. Frogs, he explained.
One of my fellow travelers, Heidi Nelson, 41, from Huntley, Ill., told me that experiences like these are part of the allure of a walking safari.
“I liked that it’s camping with a small group, going to places where you’re not with 30 people,” she said. “I like the fact that, if we see baboons, we can sit and watch the baboons. We don’t need to hurry to the next environment. I like the intimacy of it.”
AFTER five days in the remote bush, including an epic struggle to free a pair of Land Rovers from thick, slurping mud on our way out, we made the drive into Tarangire National Park. What struck me immediately wasn’t the park’s huge concentrations of easily spotted elephants, giraffes and impala. It was the fact that there were so many other tourists around. The parking lot was packed with other four-by-fours, both single and double-decker. Some of the vehicles were idling, engines grumbling, emitting exhaust.
On the way to our campsite, we encountered a herd of about 30 elephants lumbering across the road. We stopped to watch them pass. One of the babies was alarmed; it raised a tiny, wrinkled trunk and fanned its ears out wide. An older female urged it back into the herd. “Whoa, there. Thank you, lady,” Mr. Thornton murmured. We waited.
Then a double-decker Land Rover roared up. When the elephants didn’t shuffle off quickly enough for the driver’s taste, he grew irritated and revved his engine at them. They hustled out of the way and he sped off. When we reached our camp, there was plenty of grumbling about the impatient guide, about “rude tourists.”
We didn’t feel that we fit with the swarms of visitors in this park. It’s not just that we were grungier — flecked with mud and covered in a fine coat of road dust. Maybe, as Mr. Thornton joked, we’d turned into “bush snobs.”
We had been spoiled by savoring wide-open spaces at a slow pace. Most of us had plenty of hurrying to do back home. In Africa, we wanted time to absorb, time to walk, time to see and think.
For Mr. Thornton, leading these trips is the antithesis of making a rushed charge through the wilderness.
“The focus is keeping it small, in the spirit of the old safaris,” he said. “You can drive around the Serengeti for two weeks and probably see 120 different lions. But it’s that one experience where you see a lion at 200 meters looking at you through the bush and it runs away.” He paused. “That’s the one you remember. You’re going a little deeper.”