We prepare to head out bush to stay at Seppo’s Amarula camp. With the car packed we hit the road, fueled by the concepts which have been brewing for the last two weeks as well as a lot of diesel. Tarmac stretches before us with a shot stop for coffee and a longer one to settle bribes. Finally we make it to Babate to the satisfaction of our belly’s which we fill with beans, rice and local fish. Sarah works her magic on the local immigration folk who wish to interrogate us before we stop for some vegetables and a chance to see more hippos.
The Babate lake is beautiful, framed by hills and lily-thick edges. We drive to the edge of the lake and spy some traditional hand-crafted canoes, hacked away over many weeks from a single tree trunk. A young man offers us a ride on the lake and we happily agree. Slowly skimming across the surface watching fisherman trawling with small nets and pounding the water with strangely fashioned cudgels to scare the fish into their traps. The hippos claim four fisherman a year on average so we keep our distance, watching them happily chewing the lily pads in the sun.
Soon the tarmac turns to dirt and rocky roads turn to cavernous death traps washed away by the yearly waters which rush down towards the Masai Steppe below. We bump around almost leaping off our seats and silently praying that we will not get stuck as Seppo navigates his Beast of a car as it squeaks and groans. Soon the mountainous roads give way to dust as we rush through small villages that pepper the road with ramshackle brick houses with walled up windows and roofs held down with rocks. Many of them lay abandoned and unfinished. Small children waving and groups of men sitting in the shade stare at us as the chickens and goats flee before our roaring bumper bar. The dust is thick and billows far behind us as well as washing over us in a choking sea as we are trapped behind the occasional small truck or bus filled to bursting with passengers and goods. After the hours begin to wear us down we approach the town of Mnenya and stock up on beer and Konyagi before turning gratefully at a small sign welcoming us to Amarula camp. Positioned on a hill looking down upon the dry river and huge flats of the valley ahead, the camp is quiet and peaceful after the ever present domestic sounds of Arusha. Set among the acacia and amarula trees of the camps namesake are a few huts of timber, rocks and banana leaves with a dining area and kitchen containing a curved mud oven with a dragon chimney promising delicious pizza.
Waiting for us in camp was Mr magic banana, also known as Maciek. A Polish archaeology student on holiday who was recently staying with the Sandawe bushmen. After we unpack and settle into our new temporary home, a gorgeous little hobbit mud house made from local materials with local hands, the five of us tuck into soup and revel in the luxury of smoked cheese. Under the most clear and bright sky, with the milkyway a sparkling brush stroke across the heavens we drink beer, choya and Konyagi. The local slang for Konyagi is ‘kichaa’ meaning ‘trouble maker’ Although we kept our trouble to ourselves.
In order to visit the rock art sites which sit within the world heritage listed Kondoa region we must register with the antiquities office and pay a fee. Dotahn, Seppo and Maciek get ready to head into Kondoa town to get the money needed for the registration fee but have the small delay of a flat tire. Once on the road another much bigger delay occurs as the three are stranded on a dusty stretch of road for three long sunburnt hours after another puncture waiting for help.
During the boys misadventure Sara and Emmily go for a pleasant walk down to the sandy river. Dry for most of the seasons, the river floods twice a year. During the dry seasons the animals and locals dig the sand to find the river running underground. Filled with huge tumbling boulders and drift wood the river offers a beautiful landscape and already Emm can envisage filming among the river rocks for the arts project. Emmily also notices the change in the colours of the earth in the short walk down to the river and begins to gather samples to take back camp.
Our first foray into the bush to witness the ancient art for ourselves started with a beautiful hike through dry bush to reach the Kolo sites, accompanied by Maciek and Seppo. The rock art was truly amazing to see, paintings created many thousands of years ago depicting lost rituals, stories and ideas. We were thankful that we had the help of our Mary Leakey study as we could make out more of the faded pieces and really see the nuance of the work on the rock rather than the sketches on paper. The figures and scenes all have no plane of reference, no sky, no ground and most surprisingly no flora. No trees and no plants. We discuss the possibility of the plant life being painted in a color which is lost to time, or that the cultures may have simply not seen a need to depict the ever present trees and shrubs.
After looking into the past of our ancestors we go on a location scout to find our ideal baobab tree to project onto. After driving around with no luck we head into Mnenya for a few beers that turn into many and before long it is dark. As we fumble around in the darkness at camp we try to do a test run with the projector on the amarula tree. Unfortunately we are poorly prepared and the generator doesn’t work. Back to the drawing board.
For our next shoot after we had the genny repaired we decided to skip a camp test and head out to location. Dotahn said he found a good spot down in the sandy river that would provide easy access for the generator. This was not the case when we got there however and the set up became a struggle to navigate through the thick bush and giant sloping boulders. Luckily we had the help of Amisi. A local boy that helps around the camp sometimes. The projections looked amazing on the rocks as hunters slid past on the prowl and tribal gods danced. Unfortunately the video camera was unable to capture what we wanted in the darkness. So the five of us gathered ourselves up the treacherous path back to the car and decided to rethink how we were going to achieve results.
We once again gather our materials as we find them in the bush around us. Interesting seedpods, grasses, barks and leaves. Unsure of what form they will take when put together. The fruit of the Baobab tree is a large wooden pod which although tough to saw, opens to reveal the socket of an eye. This eye forms the basis for another eyeman, an eyeman with a baby. Teeth for eyes and lichen hair, swaddled in red bark. The baby is hungry and without a voice, like an idea eating input in the body before being born, hungry and silent to the dismay of Dotahn. He finds his resting place beneath a white tree, blooming dry empty seed flowers into the sun.
When surveying the flora around Amarula camp Emmily noticed that much of it was hard and prickly or covered in large thorns. The bush seemed intent on protecting itself from its surroundings and it came apparent that Amarula too needed protecting. So with the intent of a watchman in mind Emm began to pull a figure from the muddy clay found by the riverbank. Beginning with inserting a red quarts stone into its stomach to put fire in his belly he began to take shape as more gathered botany immerse themselves into the watchman’s form. There was a feeling around some of the campers that he was evil, but it was explained that although not evil a watchman had to be fierce in order to ward off baddies. However, Vartija holds wisdom in his beard and the teeth held around his neck.
Our third attempt at filming was kept close to home to try out a few techniques for illuminating the darkness just enough to capture the background and to allow us to project into the space at the same time. While experimenting with the flash of our camera and some lights from the car we stumbled upon a combination which seemed to work, both surreal and representative of the themes we were trying to explore. The darkness allowing only artificial illumination to expose the ghosts of the past. It also allows us to capture the ghosts of birds apparently.
Each night as the ghost birds emerged unseen we were joined at Amarula camp by the night watchmen Muhammad. A mysterious figure from a local village who patrolled the grounds and protected us from Anacondas. There are no wild animals remaining in the area, but the night guard swears he has chased off a few including the infamous giant anaconda.
Eager to see more of the rock art we ventured again into the bush to the Pahi sites to explore more tribal dreamings. There were more paintings here in white, simpler figures and symbols left by the Bantu people. We sat for some time in the shade of the outcrops and discussed the symbols, figures and practices we could imagine taking place to inspire the markings.
Our next location was still a mystery and we were in need of both rocks and a baobab. Exploring the area we found one piece of the puzzle, with the added bonus of a crumbling ruin of an abandoned building which we could definitely put to use. So for our fourth shoot we are more prepared with both technique and position in hand.
Day greets us with an Amarula family outing for choya supplies and location scouting. More dusty roads as we head to a small lakeside town nearby. Emmily quickly developed a fanclub who stared stunned for quite some time as Sara met with another mama choya for hibiscus flowers and millet seeds.
The way home was even crazier with Maciek having to get out of the car to ensure we wouldn’t plunge to our doom. It was worth the risk, however with us coming across amazing stunning views and a rare and beautiful red baobab tree.
Nearer to home as we crossed the dry riverbed once more we stumbled onto more inspiring rocks. Huge tumbling piles of boulders, sandy flats and gnarled dry trees. This was the place, the place for us to bring to life our own interpretations of ancient dance and symbolism. Small flickers of the past, rendered ephemeral by mans footprint on the world and the passage of time.
With one shoot to go we enjoy a peaceful last night in Amarula camp, stories, cards and photography of once proud species now just cutout images rendered from the drawings of the past.
With our bush adventure coming to an end we say our goodbyes to Muhammad and Amisi. Squishing Sara, Seppo, Mr Banana and ourselves into the Beast for the long dusty ride back to Arusha experiencing out third and finally puncture along