People of the Valley
A Day on Safari in the Kilombero Valley
Wandamba means “people of the valley,” indicative of this tribe’s long relationship with its homeland, the Kilombero Valley. Fishing is the primary occupation, and it is the calls of the fishermen returning from a night on the river which rouse me from my slumber. “The catch is in,” explains Steve our safari cook, looking quite excited, “Let us go and choose lunch!”
It’s still quite early, the air is cool and fresh outside my tent. I stroll over to join the cook, avoiding the mounds of fresh elephant dung that scatter the path. Down at the river bank there is a hive of activity as fishermen clean and sort their catch, filling baskets woven out of banana leaves. The women take over, carrying the baskets on their heads up into the village, where the fish will be smoked in the special huts. The children are keen to get involved too, helping out where they can. A large fish, Nile Perch I am informed, is at the centre of a debate. Eventually Steve negotiates a price and returns to camp, fish in hand, grinning broadly!
I remain down by the river, a vast expanse of water. The Kilombero River is the main regulator of the Rufiji Delta. One of the kids throws a stick he has been playing with as far as he can and watches as it gets carried quickly downstream. In the distance the Udzungwa Mountains loom up out of the floodplain. Only the day before we were up in those mountains, with an incredible 180 degree view of the Kilombero Valley stretched out before us, the sun rising with the smoke from numerous cooking fires in the village below.
Our camp is situated next to the fishing village, which is slowly coming to life as I return for fresh coffee and breakfast. Whilst waiting for the sausages to cook, Stella, a beautiful little girl accompanies me to the village bar, which doubles as the local cafe in the morning. Neat rows of un-cooked ‘mandazi’ (like donuts) await their turn in the pan, whilst the freshly cooked ones cool off on the opposite bench. We buy half a dozen.
After a delicious and very filling breakfast we head out on a canoe safari down the river, before it gets too hot. I feel a little apprehensive as I climb into the large dug-out, but I soon realize how stable our vessel is and I sit back on my cushion and relax. Saidi Kabonga, the boatman, gently punts us upstream.
My camera is at the ready but the kingfishers prove to quick for me. However, the numerous bee-eaters flirting with each other in the reeds are much more accommodating models and I get some good shots. Suddenly we pick up pace. “Tembo!” exclaims Kabonga, pointing off into the distance. Carefully standing up with my binoculars stuck to my face I spot the elephants some way off. Sweat is now trickling down our poor boatman’s face, he is determined to get closer. We get a few more glimpses of the elephants but they are moving away from us and disappear in the long grass.
Kabonga perches himself at the back of the dugout and lets the current carry us back down towards the village. Without the noise of an engine to scare anything off we get close to the various water-birds on the low sandbanks. This has to be the most serene way to experience a safari.
Back at the village we are taken on a tour. The fish that was caught that night is now spread out on racks in the smoking huts, whilst the fisherman stoke the fires underneath. I can only think that they must be really hot! In the shade outside others sit, delicately untangling the nets strung between the low straw roofs of the huts. Stella wants us to see her house, where her mother is preparing lunch of fish stew and ugali, her youngest is strapped to her back.
Steve has once again outdone himself in his primitive mobile bush kitchen. Back at our camp we feast on tasty fish kebabs served with pasta salad. Some of the kids are sitting under a nearby tree, examining the field guides we brought with us, pointing out to each other the species they recognise. It’s siesta time after lunch and I make myself comfortable up on the tree-platform, enjoying the faint breeze that stirs the branches around me.
Late in the afternoon, the heat of the day has subsided and we get back in the canoe for another safari on the river. This time Kibonga takes us in the opposite direction. No elephants this time, but we are rewarded with one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen. The burning red orb sinks below the horizon, the sky is flushed pink and the mountains in the distance range from powder blue through to a deep lilac.