The Great (Baboon) Train Robbery – Arusha National Park

Y’ALL I AM MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH THIS BABOON. There is nothing separating us. We are breathing the same air.

The baboon is in the car. “Whoa, whoa Bails, don’t you mean a different preposition? On, around, before, beneath-” NOPE, I do not, folks. THE BABOON IS *IN* THE CAR.

After the 3am arrival dinner (pre-breakfast?) I slept hard in my Itikoni Camp tent, halfway up the slopes of Mt. Meru, in the heart of Arusha National Park. I wake up around 8:30 and tug my earplugs out to the rumbling ‘whirrr’ of colobus monkeys and birdsong. Sleepily washing my face using the still very hot thermos of water from last night and fumbling, figured out the chemical toilet situation. I stepped outside to a whole new world.

After my first (two) mugs of strong Tanzanian coffee and a truly massive breakfast, Ben met us in the ‘lounge’ tent for a trip briefing, which included some of the deep history of Tanzania, Kilimanjaro, and cultural norms to be aware of.

  • Did ya know (bc I did not): Tanzania is the compound name of two countries – Tanganyika + Zanzibar = Tanzania – which merged in 1964
  • There are over 55 million people who live in the country and over 125 tribes
  • Most people are trilingual – speaking their tribal language, Kiswahili and an additional language like English, French, etc. and many speak additional languages – quadlingual? When does ‘multilingual’ kick in? Pentalingual? I feel like there is a ORU joke there but I’m just gonna leave it alone!
  • Swahili or Kiswahili Swahili is a ‘lingua franca’ aka a language that bridges the 125+ tribes in Tanzania (and the many outside of TZ) and spoken by over 100 million people in Tanzania, Kenya and surrounding nations. When speaking Swahili, the language is called Kiswahili – but when talked about in English it’s usually called Swahili.
  • The Kilimanjaro routes (there are several) are named for the village(s) located at the bottom of each trail – I took the Lemosho route but other popular ones are Machame, Marangu and Rongai (which starts in Kenya)
  • Ben’s been guiding on Kilimanjaro for 25 years this year – he’s seen it all – and always with Mountain Madness
  • The Chaga (sometimes written Chagga) tribe are the ones around Kilimanjaro; Ben is from the Chaga tribe and his extended family still lives in the Kilimanjaro area.
  • Arusha is both the name of the city and the region (and the national park we’re in) – think of it like a city and county/state name – and when people say “I’m from Arusha” it could mean either!

We plan to go on a short afternoon hike after a light(er) lunch (seriously – this whole trip – there is SO MUCH FOOD and it IS ALL DELICIOUS). Our park ranger, Tony, leads the way; casually wearing a bolt-action rifle on his shoulder.

It feels so good to stretch my legs a bit – my body has been training training training for so long that 2 days in transit has felt almost oppressively still – and the guides are subtly watching how we walk and breathe to gauge the level of support we’ll need on Kili. We stop often to note animals, plants and tracks; Ben, Geoffrey and Tony have eyes like hawks and can spot critters on a dime.

We return to camp, spotting our first giraffe through some trees, eat dinner and do a gear check – I have everything I need and it’s now got Ben’s official stamp of approval – I continue to make some cuts, asking myself “Is this need to have or nice to have?” and make a plan for tomorrow’s game drive. Since J and I both came a day early (remember how KLM was like ‘come on time and pay $2000 more or come a day early and…save $2000′ and so…I have chosen the better path? Yup. We’re going to continue exploring Arusha National Park and Momella Lakes (there’s 7!) with our bonus day.

Monday morning blooms bright and after a hearty breakfast – Robert makes omelettes an art – we tuck into the Land Cruiser and head out for a walking safari with Tony, Ben and Geoffrey. We stop in a massive open savannah and my eyes hungrily drink in this view.

It’s wild and magical and unbelievable how we just…walk…through this area. There’s so. many. animals that it’s like going to a zoo but there’s no walls. In just this one open area we see baboons, buffalos, giraffes, warthogs, bushbacks, ducks, and more just harmoniously living. It feels like we’re getting away with something secret and wonderful; we’re mostly hushed except for a soft word from a guide (or Tony) to keep (or stop) walking in certain spots. The water draws all the animals to this spot and they find an unspoken rhythm taking turns at the stream.

We drop off Tony at the ranger station (don’t worry, he’ll be back!) and head with Ben & Geoffrey to explore the Momella Lakes and eat some lunch. We drive up on these pals – aren’t they cute? THERES A BAYBEEEEEEE!

BUT y’all, that baby is Matt Damon and the adults are Brad Pitt & George Clooney because this isn’t ‘cute game drive’ this is now Oceans 11: Tanzania. After stopping in the Land Cruiser to photograph this troop (yes, a group of baboons is a troop) through the open roof (it pushes/pops up so we can stand and photograph from inside the car), we start to pull away and I have my head out the side of the car window snagging final shots. I look over my shoulder and spot a baboon running up beside the car, thinking ‘oh cute, it’s like a Dalmatian chasing a moving car or whatever.’

Me:”Geoffrey, there’s a baboon running next to us on our side.”

Geoffrey: “Oh, where?”

Me: *looks back over my shoulder* “Oh I don’t see – oh I think it just jumped on the back tire”

For context – this is our Land Cruiser – 2 spare tires on the back. The driver’s side is the RIGHT – as is the side of the road driven on. My de facto ‘spot’ this whole trip is the right (driver’s) side and J and I unspoken stick with those sides for the next 15 days.

Me: *looks up* “Oh my gosh, it’s on the [open] roof”

Like Y’ALL I AM MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH THIS BABOON. There is nothing separating us. We are breathing the same air.

And then the baboon is IN the car. He’s jumped inside.

SERIOUSLY in less than 10 seconds it’s:

  1. Baboon running beside us
  2. Baboon on tire
  3. Baboon on roof
  4. Baboon in CAR IN THE CAR IN THE CAR IN THE CARRRRRR

And I just need to say – have you ever seen someone’s face when they’re panicking a bit but trying not to look panicked so you don’t panic? When I say Geoffrey and Ben’s faces looking back at that baboon…that is the face they both made. The ‘don’t scare the clients’ face, throwing the car into park, both shouting in Swahili and Ben threw a water bottle at this baboon and all I can think is THERE IS NO WAY FOR THIS DUDE TO GET OUT EXCEPT GOING BACK OUT THE WAY HE CAME IN HE’S GOING TO NEED/WANT AN EXIT OH MY GOSH I AM GOING TO GET BIT AND GET RABIES BEFORE I EVEN CLIMB KILI

and pretty much treated this baboon like a weird person hollering on the train in Chicago – I turned my face/body into the corner of the door, hunching over my valuables (read: camera) and waited for the rant to be over. Rule 1: don’t make eye contact. I’m serious fam, I’m a Krav Maga certified instructor but like…the most important lesson is to know when you shouldn’t engage in a fight. And I was not here to get bit on DAY TWO! This was a jacked male baboon who had been doing Gym, Tan, Laundry and STEROIDS and I avoided this juiced up guido, who not only came in our car but ran up and CHECKED THE SEAT POCKETS. Seriously, he was right next to me and checked the pocked of the seat in front of me.

Between the baboon screeching and Ben/Geoffrey hollering in Swahili and me just hiding out in the door’s buttcrack, the baboon grabbed our lunchbox (think those big pink cardboard cake boxes) and jumped out of the car the same way he came in – through the open roof. Jokes on him though, that box is hinged, so our wax paper-wrapped lunch items fell out and dude left with an EMPTY cardboard box. Ben and Geoffrey jumped out, throwing stones and yelling as a ranger car spins up in a cloud of dust and two rangers jump out, berating the guides for getting out of their car in this area (a big, well-signed faux pas).

I turn to J, wide eyed, and say ‘did that really just happen?’

Ben and Geoffrey get back in, laughing with the rangers, who return the empty box that Danny Ocean had angrily discarded, explaining we were the third car hit that day. This was getting to be a common spot for this troop to prey on safari vehicles; and they’re so smart that they knew to jump in the open roof, check the pockets and where lunch is usually kept. In 25 years, Ben had never seen anything like it.

So…I learned the word for baboon is ‘nyani’ and we used it. A lot. I didn’t trust an open roof near a troop of baboons the rest of my time in Tanzania. Not afraid, just…wary. Y’all know they got a whisper network going on to talk about gullible tourists and I was not here to get got twice in one trip!

Something was in the baboon water today, I swear – Robert, our chef – had another baboon encounter with one coming in the open door to the camp kitchen. He had to shake a machete at it! Mercury rising or whatever; nyanis were making bold moves! We came back to camp to an absolute feast; Robert outdid himself with our ‘night before starting to climb Kili’ meal. Pork chops, purple yams, chicken, lamb kabobs, grilled veggies and a breathtaking lemon passion fruit cheesecake that I wanted to roll around in. Critical vocab was quickly learned and deployed – ‘tamu sana’ – very delicious.

They had to roll me outta that meal tent; Tony walked J and I to our tents, which he’d done each night. Honestly, I’d thought it was a bit overdone, something they probably do for tipsy clients or those too old/young that might get lost, etc. A bit of theater to keep clients feeling ‘safe.’

Well, serve me up a plate of crow, people.

,Following Tony we waddled quietly in a ‘I’m very full and sleepy’ pace to our tents, under a wide, almost full moon. I breathed deep that fresh, mountain air, thought ‘whew, smells like manure,’ and suddenly he just. stopped. and put a hand up.

We stopped too. After our safari walk earlier today, we knew – when Tony stops – you stop. But I didn’t see anything. Not taking a step, I raised up on tiptoe and craned my neck to look around the corner, where all of Tony’s focus was. He slowly shifted the rifle off his shoulder and held it, ready, in his arms.

You know it’s serious when the rifle comes off the park ranger’s shoulder. Their job is to protect you and the animals, in that order. They’ll always try a warning shot to scare an animal, but if needed, they’ll put it down to protect you. My eyes snagged on the swooping curve of a massive, male cape buffalo’s horns in shadow, just outside the floodlight’s reach. I knew now why I’d smelled manure. We’d been told about big, solitary ‘bachelor’ buffalos earlier today; they’re big and mean. And we were less than 20 feet away from one, with a bolt action rifle and some paltry bushes between us.

We waited, silent for probably 2 full minutes, in a standoff. Turning his head but not looking away from the buffalo, Tony spoke so quietly that we had to half-lip read: “Walk backwards. Very slow.” We took two steps and the buffalo bolted, thankfully away from us. We laughed, breathing shakily to expel the adrenaline. Unlike previous nights, Tony walked us all the way to the door of the tents and waited until the double zip was completely sealed.

“Usi Kumwema” he called.

“Lala salaama” I hollered back.

⛰️✨ We start up Kilimanjaro in the morning ⛰️✨


Bailey’s Kiswahili Vocab for the Day(s): A Series Written Phonetically

(AKA how I thought it should be spelled, likely v wrong)

  • Jambo: Hello/Hi
  • Asante: Thank You
  • +Sana: Very/a lot
  • Mambo: What’s up
  • Habari: How are you
  • + Asabuhi: This morning
  • + Mchana: This afternoon
  • + Ageoni: This evening
  • Nzuri: Good
  • Sawa: OK
  • Poa: Cool
  • Lala Salaama: Sleep Well
  • Usi Kumwema: Good Night

One thought on “The Great (Baboon) Train Robbery – Arusha National Park

  1. Oh my. You hade on the edge of my seat and laughing at the same time. ‘Ocean’s11: Tanzania’ 😄🤣 Such a completely different world! I’m so glad you got to experience it. And great photos.❤

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