Kusini Is Ten

Long intrigued by the big spaces on the map, passages in dusty charity shop books and with a Tanzania itch to scratch, I answered an advert to work for an elephant project called Wildlife Connection. Somewhere called Ruaha. My girlfriend was silly enough to come along, in fact she was the reason we got the job (she was later silly enough to marry me). My job was to take local people into the park. Our first visit, we got a flat tyre and burnt out the brakes, spending the evening on the bridge and before getting back to camp at 2 in the morning. I realised my Swahili wasn’t good enough.

Ruaha changed everything for me. Seeing the river and the baobabs for the first time. Popcorn and snooker on the terrace at Hilltop. Fever trees in Pawaga. Chipsi mayai and warm Kilis on Tungamalenga evenings. Piki pikis in the sand. I learnt so much. About people’s lives, about the landscape, about how it worked and who was who. I met some fascinating people working in conservation and safaris. 

One day some of them were silly enough to let me take out their Swedish guests on a visit to our beehive fences and I realised that more people should come and learn about what life is really like for local people. What safaris, wildlife and conservation mean to them. Ruaha is still the perfect place to do that and it continues to teach us so much. It’s also still almost unheard of, which is criminal and fantastic all at the same time.

In a wave of foolhardy decisions I bought a Landcruiser, just to get around town I told Hannah. Then Eric needed a lift from Iringa to the park gate. We had a great time and a mini game drive featuring kudus and tortoises along the never-ending road. He said ‘you’ve got something here.’ Then it was waterfalls in Udzungwa, cast iron beds at the park bandas, getting completely lost trying to find Mdonya and mama elephant scratching her chin on my bonnet.

Sometime later Ruaha Carnivore Project (now Lion Landscapes) asked me to take some folks to visit their work around Kitisi. I worked with local friends and companies to guide them on a safari to Selous and Ruaha, show them what happens when a lion gets into your boma and what RCP are doing about it. I had spent the preceding few weeks helping to build a new safari camp called Ikuka, we were the first guests and we started talking about privately guided safaris. Partnerships that build a business. 

There’s no way I would have believed then, that now, those people would be good friends and we would go on many safaris together, to Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Botswana. I would go to their weddings and they would show me how to catch an armadillo. Today we are doing safaris all over Africa, flying around in helicopters and staying at the most eye popping camps you can imagine (give me the canvas every time). Almost all our business comes from repeat guests and recommendations. Ruaha and making safaris work for people and landscapes will always be at the heart of what we do. 

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Days at TRA, CRDB and Home Affairs. When your life and your business are the same thing. When that thing that shall not be named nearly took it all away. But I’ve been lucky and I owe it to a lot of people who I met along the way. Really Kusini is just a kid with a camera on safari. It’s all worth it when Chris, the first student at Mkuyu Guide School that we paid school fees for in 2014, messages me a picture of him guiding our guests at one of the leading safari camps in the country, big smiles all round.

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