As a keen proponent of independent travel, you might be surprised to find I’m also an advocate of hiring a good guide. While it’s great to wander aimlessly round a city stumbling over its hidden and not so hidden attractions, there are some destinations where a guide will significantly enhance your experience. Sometimes, as in Cappadocia, hiking for the first time after injuring my back, I was grateful not only for my guide’s navigational ability but for a helping hand over what were at the time quite challenging boulders and slippery gravel paths. My favourite guide, by a considerable margin, was the inimitable Mapunda, with whom I spent an exhilarating, and at times hysterical, few days amidst some of Tanzania’s most beautiful scenery. Here’s why we had such a fun time:
“Let me tell you why I am named Mapunda. A long time ago, my ancestors lived in South Africa. They embarked on a long journey, crossing Mozambique before settling in the south of Tanzania. Along the way, they killed zebra to eat. It was the way they survived. Because of the zebra, I am here today. And in my language, the word for zebra is mapunda.”
Mapunda went by the nickname Zebraman. He had worked as a driver for a safari company based in Arusha, in the north of Tanzania, for the past eight years. Before that, until the threat from poaching got too dangerous, he was a ranger at Tarangire National Park. But Mapunda had a secret. He dreamt of owning his own safari company and working for himself. This was a huge endeavour. To buy a brand new safari vehicle outright would cost over $60,000, so he planned to rent. On the side, he dreamed, it would have a zebra logo, black and white not only being the colours of the animal after which he was named, but also, he added, for the black and white people that would all be welcome to travel in it. Proudly, he gave me his business card, bearing the logo of two zebras facing in opposite directions watching for lions. As he shared his plans, his eyes lost their customary sad, wistful appearance and shone brightly. It was clear this meant the world to him.
Tarangire, our first stop, is known for its elephants, a childhood favourite of mine. The first thing Mapunda pointed out, however, was not a living creature. Instead, he showed me the house he lived in during his ranger days. He spoke with fondness, apologising unnecessarily for delaying the start of our safari. Later, his ranger experience paid dividends as he always knew the best places to find the animals, even during their midday nap. Without malice, he was dismissive of many of the other drivers, tutting after they asked him where the best spots were, or, worse still, follow him to tailgate on the wildlife he had found. He always helped them, though.
Coming in dry season, the grass was dry and river levels low. We forded the Tarangire River several times during the course of the day, watching zebras and wildebeest linger bravely for a drink whilst keeping a watchful eye out for any hungry lions that might pick off their weakest. Impalas grazed under five hundred year old baobab trees, skittish as Mapunda cut the engine and pulled alongside. Nonchalant giraffes munched on the highest leaves, their long thick tongues gently caressing each stem as they made their choice.
As we ate our sandwiches, Mapunda taught me some Swahili. ‘Tembo’ meant elephant, ‘simba,’ lion; ‘nina taka’ translated as ‘I want’. After lunch, it was time to try it out.
“Nina taka tembo.”
The elephant, grazing a few short metres away from the vehicle, flapped his ears wide and lifted his trunk, warning us off. I was transfixed.
Eventually, Mapunda asked if I was ready to go.
“Sawa sawa,” I answered. “OK.”
We headed down to the river, rewarded by the sight of more of these magnificent creatures blowing water and quenching their thirst. Others, further up the river, wallowed in the mud in the shallows, rolling onto their backs with the bliss that comes from cooling off from the relentless sun. Each encounter left me wanting more.
Mapunda was patient, indulging me. Click, click, click. Mapunda was keen to make sure I was getting good shots, and enthused when I showed him what I’d taken.
“Nina taka simba? Or more elephants, Julia? Or a zebra. Why don’t you like my zebras?” he teased.
It became a regular joke that if I saw elephants, I was happy. Equally, he would laugh when I would fake that the zebras were the highlight of that particular drive. We got each other. Sometimes a look was all it took to have us both hooting with laughter.
Mapunda and I joked that I said “Nina taka” and what I wished for immediately came true. Perhaps I should have said “Nina taka lottery win” or for Mapunda, “Nina taka lots of clients for the new business.”
Each day, Mapunda was punctual, eyes bright, grin wide. His enthusiasm was infectious: I felt lucky to be spending time with someone with such a zest for life. I’d been on safari before, but this time, the memories have endured, more than just the animals I spotted, and I reckon that’s mostly down to Mapunda. Every now and then I get an email from him. The business is slowly getting up and running and his gratitude to each client is a reminder that we should all count our blessings.