Mike MacEacheran | The Green Hills of Tanzania, BBC Travel
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The Green Hills of Tanzania, BBC Travel

The leopard could see us coming. It was morning – and had been morning for some time – as we edged towards the base of the Yellow Fever tree on whose branches it laid. It started to twitch. The sun was arching over the kopje hills to the east and shadows were starting to disappear from the plain.

The big cat had been keeping a close eye on the antelope in the grasses as they fed close to the river – klipspringer, impala and Thomson’s gazelle, all switching tails and bobbing heads. Our first cue was the rosetted tail hanging down from the branch, but after eyeing our open-topped jeep, it made a nervous split-second decision to pounce, scattering the prey below, before vanishing into the thick camouflage-scrub of the riverbank. It was my first taste of the Serengeti – and, boy, did I love it.

I had come looking for a connection to the greatest American travel writer of them all: Ernest Hemingway. Back in 1933 and 1934 – almost exactly 100 years ago – the Noble-Prize winner had hunted in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater with his wife Pauline, set up tented camp on the banks of Lake Manyara amid giant mahogany forests and fig trees, and tracked kudu in present-day Tarangire National Park. Famously, his experiences on his three-month safari were turned into two of his most acclaimed works: The Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a story first published in Esquire in 1936. About his journey, he wrote: “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.”

Gone are the days of Hemingway, the big-game hunter, and the minimum comfort safari. Yet for all the increased numbers of Cessna prop planes that circle the plains – Hemingway crashed landed in heavy brush near Murchison Falls in Uganda on his second trip to the continent in 1954 – the pleasures remain the same. Sky safaris promise game-watching in seemingly virgin country, unpredictable bush encounters, and sun-downers on rocky crags. The sottish Hemingway would have especially loved that part – the only twist being that a whisky soda now comes served with a cold-pressed, lavender-scented towel.

Few join the Hemingway dots in Tanzania as well as local-run safari operator Elewana. Their retro-fitted private planes loop from Arusha to the smudged bush airstrips in the northern circuit of great game-watching national parks. The fleet connects the spectacular flamingo-fringed soda lakes of Manyara – where Hemingway competed with a friend to bag a rhino – to the Great Rift Valley escarpments and northern Serengeti, its most inaccessible part, into which few venture. Like most plane safaris, it soars back into civilisation at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, from where Hemingway was air-lifted to Nairobi after contracting fever.

On the morning of our leopard encounter, our jeep had left the remote Serengeti Migration Camp around sunrise. The white sun was still cool enough to prowl slowly through the grasses and the animals were cautiously on the move: wildebeest were calving to the south, zebras grazed, their brush-like tails swishing at clouds of pestering tsetse fly. It felt like one of Hemingway accounts of East Africa – I could almost see the wildebeest stampeding off his pages and into the baked-earth of the grasslands. Within the following hours, we had seen African buffalo, elephant, warthog, giraffe, lion and hyena, taking countless close-up photos – the only trophies we needed to take home with us. None of this game would end up mounted on a wall in a lodge in Montana.

Back at the tented camp, the Serengeti chorus ensured it would be a sleepless night. A pod of hippos grunted and barked in surround sound, wallowing in the Grumeti River, which curved past the tented platforms. On a bush walk to the water the following morning, our guide Alex showed us exactly why: there were around 80 of them. “You never know how animals in the bush will react, especially this one,” he said, cradling a loaded buck-shot rifle. For our protection, a second armed government ranger stood alongside. “The hippo’s a killer, especially if you get between it and the water. In Swahili we say maisha marefu – better to lead a long life.”

For the first time in the bush, I felt vulnerable, but the primal thrill would surely have given any big game hunter the shivers, especially when the tables quickly turned in the Serengeti’s favour. Moments later, we stumbled upon a herd of feasting elephants – a case of the hunter becoming the hunted. We slowly retraced our steps, leaving the wilderness behind with only our footprints.

Vast brilliant blue skies, endless savannah grasses, and bountiful game: it’s the Africa that inspired and captivated Hemingway. It left me hungry, too, as he wrote in The Green Hills of Africa, to “know the names of the trees, of the small animals, and all the birds, to know the language and have time to be in it and to move slowly”. This was what it felt like to share emotions with a legend.