has the power to hold its human observers in thrall, but, says Rory Bremner, who has
been visiting conservation projects in Tanzania and
Kenya, ill-conceived and disconnected foreign aid
projects threaten animals and human beings alike by causing avoidable ecological breakdown
As I left home again for Africa last month, my thoughts were of England. The country shifting beneath my feet, old certainties (the monarchy, the Union) everywhere called into question, me starting to get my head round my next set of programmes for Channel 4, and my racehorse (or the leg of him I own) apparently now so lazy that he was having Sky TV plumbed into his stable so he could watch the Ryder Cup, with a direct line to the bookies should he fancy a few bob on Rocca to beat Tiger Woods in the singles.
Such thoughts are left far behind as our Piper Aztec touches down on a dusty terracotta landing-strip in Southern Tanzania and Africa wraps us once again in its sweet, dry heat - and a cloud of dust.
It's a break from home: but it's also a mission, in a way. For the second time this year, I'm visiting projects supported by the wildlife conservation charity Tusk Trust, whose involvement ranges from funding equipment and assisting African community projects to aiding the relocation of rhino and other endangered species to conservancies across Kenya.
I first encountered wildlife during the 1995 England Cricket Tour to South Africa - not amongst the players, but many miles away in the game reserves of Londolozi and Phinda Nyala. There, at dusk one evening, time stood still as we waited silently, aware that we were not alone. In a thicket in front of us, the crackling of twigs betrayed the presence of an animal. After what seemed like an eternity, the branches parted and a lone elephant emerged and swayed sadly and silently on its way, utterly impervious to our presence. As we moved off tears were streaming down my cheeks.
Guides will tell you that these immense creatures have a deep and compassionate gentleness. They will return many months later to the spot where a relative has died, flicking tenderly at the bones as if trying to nudge it back to life. A slightly longer tale tells of a drunk man falling into an alcoholic slumber and awaking to find himself covered in twigs, having been gently "buried" by an elephant.
Since that first experience, my curiosity about the animals and the people has become passionate, and I've come to love the place. Days spent driving bumpily across plains and dusty paths in a Land Rover, each bend promising an encounter with giraffe, impala, elephant or zebra; the seemingly inevitable hour lying awake in the middle of every night, dry-mouthed, heart pounding, listening to lion or hyena in the distance, both hoping and fearing they might come closer; the sheer weight of that night sky, heavy with a thousand stars and deafeningly silent except for a slap of fish or a flutter of birdwing breaking the still river's surface, or a single distant birdcry; the sound of fish-eagles and cicadas in the shimmering heat of an African afternoon.
Flying between Tanzania and Kenya - from the Serengeti to the Mara, say - is a hassle. You have to fly to a border point and clear customs crossing into Kenya to clear customs again and head back into the bush. Such travel may broaden the mind; it certainly lengthens the queues.
As we arrive at Kilimanjaro airport there are two other planes on the tarmac. Amongst the five people boarding the Air Tanzania jet is one white man. Tall, with a blond mane and a shambling gait. Bet it's someone I know, I joke to myself. As he half-turns to climb the steps I see his face. Bloody hell, it's Martin Clunes. For some reason I keep bumping into him in Dean Street, in Soho, but Kilimanjaro airport on a quiet Sunday morning is stretching coincidence a little further.As it happens he's been filming the story of Nina the elephant, relocated through the auspices of the Born Free Foundation from a lonely zoo life to Mkomazi reserve.
Each time I return I learn more about the secret life of animals and plants: how the whistling thorn is inhabited by ants who emerge if the tree is being eaten to bite the predator; how other acacias first grew thorns to deter giraffe from eating them, and now produce an unpalatable tannin if a thick-tongued animal begins to munch away; not only that - this reaction is communicated to all other trees in the surrounding area, forcing the predator to move off to another part of the bush.
One piece of bush lore suggests that to keep baboons out of your camp, you should place a plastic snake in a bag near where they play: their curiosity will thus be rewarded with a nasty shock.
A friend tried this at his camp in the Tsavo park in Kenya and found the bag attracted the attentions of a vervet monkey, who opened it, looked inside and promptly fainted. Clambering back onto its feet, it had another look - and promptly fainted again.
The story reminded me of the tale of Falklands penguins, who were so fascinated by aircraft during the war that they would longingly watch the planes as they flew directly over their heads, causing the unfortunate creatures to topple straight over backwards with a slushy thud. Unable to right themselves ("aw, bloody, hell, I've gone again ..."), they would have to wait for an army patrol whose job it was to return penguins to the upright position.
The very first morning in Tanzania presents a rare sighting. Drawn by a sudden cloud of dust in the distance, we find a herd of buffalo holding two lionesses at bay. As we watch a buffalo is brought down. To all intents and purposes it's dead meat. But no. Mounting a final show of defiance, the buffalo charge the lions again, causing them to retreat. Amazingly, after half a minute of this stand-off, the stricken buffalo clambers to its feet and rejoins the herd. Lions 0 Buffalo 1, and as John Motson might say, no, as he undoubtedly would say, you don't see that very often, Desmond. The lionesses wander off, and from a little further away we see three small creatures bound towards them: cubs, stumbly-pawed, tumbling and frolicking before nestling against their mothers in the shade.
There is no doubt that camping out in the bush attracts a particular type of person. Overflying Ruaha in the Tusk plane, looking for poachers, we spotted a Landrover and tent; on landing at dusk, we found a young white couple with two very small kids sitting quite happily by their tent in the darkness, listening for the leopard prowling around a hundred yards away. No minibar, no room service, no executive trouser-press, nothing. Tsk!
Amongst these bush people are wildlife film-maker Simon Trevor and sculptor Robert Glen, whose magnificent installation of mustangs dominates the a plaza in Dallas. Glen lives in a tent a few hundred yards from the tent of his pupil and partner, artist Susan Stolberger, and 30 minutes drive into the bush from the nearest camp. There is a small ranger post which they fund a mile or so away, but apart from that, nothing beside remains.
As the stars come out on the first night in camp, to be joined by a glorious rising full moon, we listen to stories of those who live here. Dismissive of the "two-year wonders" who come to Dar es Salaam, work for a western company and return home having learnt little and understood less, Geoffrey Fox is a 38-year wonder with a lodge camp in Ruaha National Park. He will tell you about tea-growing and bush lore, the old days and the new challenges. And still, as he did on our first morning, walk slap into an elephant while walking sleepily to breakfast, blinded by the low early sun.
This year his story is both a tragedy and a scandal.
The Ruaha river, the life-blood of Southern Tanzania, is drying up in the middle of the dry season-for the fourth year running (or indeed not running). And, what's more, it's happening a month earlier every year .
Poor rains are partly to blame, but the most threatening cause lies upriver, where foreign-aid money is following up the creation of two huge rice- field developments in the Ruaha's catchment area with a third paddyfield development at Madibira, based on a feasibility project done years ago.
The river below - and the wildlife living in the Ruaha National Park - depend an a swamp in the river's catchment area. The swamp acts as a natural dam. In the rainy season it absorbs water like a sponge and helps prevent flooding; in the dry season it gradually releases it to prevent the river drying up.
As water is diverted for the rice field project, the swamp has dried out and become compacted by up to 1.5 million grazing cattle. The result is a natural catastrophe that has to be seen to be believed. Flash floods in rainy season and, last month, long before the next rains are due; the pitiful sight of hippo and crocodiles crowded in stagnant pools, while a few yards upstream hundreds of dead fish lie rotting on the surface. Countless others fight vainly for air, flapping around, open-mouthed and upside-down.
These - imagine it - were the pools where the Fox children would fish 20 years ago, catching tiger-fish weighing up to 15 pounds, retrieved by whichever brother's turn it was (usually the youngest) to brave the crocs.
The site is no stranger to tragedy: in the mid-50s a timber merchant called Carl Hussman built a bridge at the spot and was so pleased with the result that he immediately drove off the side of it and drowned. His death is remembered sadly by the locals, rather less so by the crocodiles to whose diet he made a welcome addition. (Unlike Hussman, they often live beyond 50.)
Now the stinking pool is a sight that should shame those responsible for the Madibira rice field project.
But there is a further twist, an economic irony that may yet save the river and its ecosystem; For downstream are the Mtera and Kidatu hydroelectric dams, which provide 80 per cent of Dar es Salaam's electricity. Already the power cuts have started in that city and huge generators have had to be bought.
Thus foreign aid money finances the rice paddy project upstream while crippling the (foreign aid financed) hydro project downstream. It is a crisis conservationists in Ruaha are desperate to prevent, quite literally, come hell or high water.
But the swamp tragedy is a metaphor for African politics: for everyone you meet who tells you one story, you will meet someone the next day who contradicts or ridicules it. In a continent whose main currency is rumour, your brain soon becomes saturated. What may be a flash flood of information and gossip at lower level soon dries to a trickle higher up as armies of bureaucrats grind out their patch, leaving dust and confusion in their wake.
But this is Africa. Returning through the fumes and the bustle of Nairobi, I reflect on the contrasts and ironies that frustrate and bewitch me: breathtaking beauty and pitiful squalor, Man and Nature, life and death. I know I'll be back. And as I observe Messrs Blair and Hague in their natural habitat, I'll think of snakes and baboons, lion and buffalo ... and Martin Clunes.