On the hunt with Hemingway

Following in the footsteps of Hemingway’s acclaimed works finds that today’s safaris are less rough-and-tumble – but still promise the unpredictable bush encounters the writer loved.

The leopard saw us coming. As we edged toward the Yellow Fever tree where he had draped himself across the branches, keeping a close eye on the antelope feeding nearby, he started to twitch. After eyeing our open-topped jeep, he made a nervous split-second decision to pounce, scattering the prey below, and vanished into the thick camouflage-scrub of the riverbank.

I had come to northern Tanzania in homage to one of America’s greatest travel writers, Ernest Hemingway. Back in 1933 and 1934 – nearly 100 years ago – the Nobel Prize winner and his wife Pauline set up camp amid fig trees and giant mahogany forests on the banks of Lake Manyara, 30km south of the Ngorongoro Crater, and tracked kudu, a local antelope, in present-day Tarangire National Park.

His experiences on this three-month safari were turned into two of his most acclaimed works: The Green Hills of Africa, a nonfiction book published in 1935, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a short story that came out in Esquire in 1936. As he later wrote in True at First Light, a fictionalised account of his experiences: “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.”

Gone are the days of Hemingway, big-game hunting and the minimum comfort safari. Yet for all the Cessna prop planes that circle the plains (Hemingway crash-landed in heavy brush near Uganda’s Murchison Falls on his second trip to the continent in 1954), the pleasures remain the same: sky safaris promise game watching, unpredictable bush encounters and sun-downers on rocky crags. The heavy-drinking Hemingway would have especially loved that part – the only twist being that, on the increasingly luxurious safaris, a whisky soda now comes served with a cold-pressed, lavender-scented towel.

Few follow in Hemingway’s Tanzanian footsteps as well as local-run safari operator Elewana. Their retro-fitted private planes loop from the city of Arusha to the smudged bush airstrips found in the northern circuit of great game-watching national parks. The fleet connects the spectacular flamingo-fringed soda lakes of Manyara, where Hemingway hunted, to the Great Rift Valley escarpments and the remote northern Serengeti, 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 dysentery in January 1934.

On the morning of our leopard encounter, our jeep had left the remote Serengeti Migration Camp around sunrise. The white sun was still cool and the animals were cautiously on the move: wildebeest were calving and zebras grazed, their brush-like tails swishing at clouds of pestering tsetse flies. It felt like one of Hemingway’s accounts of East Africa – I could almost see the wildebeest stampeding off his pages and into the baked-earth of the grasslands. In the next few hours, we saw African buffalo, elephant, warthog, giraffe, lion and hyena, snapping countless close-up photos. Unlike the adventurers of Hemingway’s time, these were the only trophies we needed to take home with us. None of this game would end up mounted on our walls.

Back at the tented camp, the chorus of Serengeti wildlife ensured it would be a sleepless night. A pod of around 80 hippos grunted and barked as they wallowed in the Grumeti River, which curved past the tented platforms.

“You never know how animals in the bush will react, especially this one,” said our guide Alex, cradling a loaded buckshot rifle on a bush walk to the water the following morning. 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, a primal thrill that would have given any big game hunter – even Hemingway – the shivers. Moments later, we stumbled upon a herd of feasting elephants; the hunters were becoming the hunted. We slowly retraced our steps, leaving only our footprints behind.

Vast brilliant blue skies, endless savannah grasses and bountiful wildlife: the Serengeti remains the Africa that inspired and captivated Hemingway. Just as Hemmingway wrote in The Green Hills of Africa, I also wanted 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.