In Arusha I met the four other guys in my group, all in their early 20s. “My name is Mikko,” said a stolid, expressionless Finn I initially mistook for a Russian.
“I am also Mikko,” said his shorter and equally expressionless friend.
The other two guys, Niv and Shahaf, were friendly and talkative. They’d recently finished their military service in Israel and were traveling through Africa before starting university. The five of us joined China, our guide, and Hussein, our cook, in a safari-ized Toyota Land Cruiser and began the drive to Lake Manyara National Park.
We stopped first at our campsite, located high on a ridge overlooking the lake, and ate lunch before heading into the park. “Are there leopards here?” I asked, determined to see the only member of the Big Five I’d missed in Kenya.
“Yes, but we will probably not find them,” said China. He was right. We also didn’t see the park’s tree-climbing lions or any other big cats. It’s always fun to drive around an African nature reserve, but Lake Manyara underwhelmed us.
“Are you sure that’s not a hartebeest?” I asked.
“No, it is a topi,” China confirmed.
“Don’t topi usually travel in herds?”
“No. They are always alone.”
Whenever I meet someone new I always start out assuming they know what they’re talking about. So I believed China. I could have sworn that the animal was a hartebeest, and in Kenya we only saw topi in herds, but I deferred to the expertise of a Tanzanian wilderness guide who had 10 years of experience.
Back at our campsite that night I asked China about his name. “It is just a nickname,” he told us. “Because of Tae Kwon Do.” China said he’d won a silver medal in Tae Kwon Do at the East African Games.
Ngorongoro was worth the wait. We stopped on the rim of the park’s volcanic cone to take in the incredible view of the crater floor below us. Even from that height we could see big herds of wildebeest and zebra, black dots in a sea of green and brown. Densely populated with a diverse range of animals, the Ngorongoro fishbowl was a microcosm of Tanzanian wildlife.
“No, nothing eats rhinos,” China told us. “Predators never eat bigger animals, only smaller animals.”
Huh? I had to jump in. “A guide in Kenya told me that lions sometimes attack giraffe, and giraffe are much bigger than lions.”
“No,” China said confidently. “Your guide lied to you.”
OK, that was enough. Half the statements coming out of China’s mouth were totally inaccurate. I picked up China’s own wilderness guidebook and read him a passage saying that lions sometimes prey on giraffe. China didn’t respond.
A bigger person wouldn’t have needed to challenge every one of China’s subsequent errors, but I couldn’t help myself. He kept saying that hartebeest were topi and vice-versa. He told us a Thompson’s gazelle was a waterbuck (maybe because the gazelle was drinking water at the time?). He didn’t know there are different kinds of giraffes. And whenever he saw a bird with blue feathers he identified it as a bee-eater, leading me to utter a sentence I’d never thought I’d hear myself say: “How can you tell us that’s a bee-eater when it’s clearly a lilac-breasted roller?” By the end of the trip China wanted to feed me to the lions (although I wasn’t sure he could identify those, either).
“Yeah? Is that the way you do things?” asked the guide. “You think that’s safe?”
“Are you saying this is too close, right here?”
“What do you think?”
I thought I was just fine, obviously, or I wouldn’t have been there. The elephant looked relaxed. I stood right next to a concrete outhouse, and if the elephant approached me I could have easily darted inside. Later I saw other tourists just as close. When did I become such a trouble-maker? I didn’t seem to be doing a very good job of making friends on this safari.