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Survival on the Serengeti
Tom Baddeley Survival on the Serengeti

Rob Barbour is the boy from Boyup Brook who went to high school and university in Perth, became a doctor, joined the army, married a Dutch girl then left Australia for the wilds of Africa.

There, in Tanzania, he and his wife Jackie have built four wilderness camps - Serengeti Mara, Kisampa, Kigelia and, on Mafia Island, Chole Mjini Lodge. All are designed to wow the paying tourist while at the same time improving the health, education and employment opportunities of the local community.

It's an inspiring model aimed at helping Tanzanians help themselves.

"If someone went to the community at Kisampa and started saying bad things about Rob, they would chase that person out," says Olice, one of the Tanzanian guides at Serengeti Mara camp.

Another, Michael, touches his heart when he talks of his boss. "I was working in a store in Dar es Salaam when I met Rob. He encouraged and supported me. I am now doing what I love."

But it's much more than providing employment.

At Kisampa, 100km north of the old capital of Dar es Salaam, Rob and Jackie direct a portion of revenue from their Afrika Afrika business (and have also set up a charity) to improve the health, education and infrastructure at the nearby community of Matipwili.

"We have been able to facilitate solar power for the village, provide computers for the kids and build a teacher's residence," Rob says.

"We're also sponsoring 160 kids through school; orphans, children of the poor and those with single parents."

In his quest to empower the locals, he's also been able to tap into some Australian contacts. Just a few days earlier, school groups from PLC and Scotch College had camped at Kisampa and spent the week helping build the school's resource centre. "It's a model we're developing at Serengeti Mara," Rob says. "It's not just about secure employment (Afrika Afrika is one of the few safari groups to offer its guides various entitlements including annual leave). That's important, of course. But we want to give Tanzanians a little of the opportunity we take for granted at home. And make the whole thing sustainable."

Elephant for lunch? It isn't on the Kigelia camp menu but that's Africa for you; always throwing up surprises.

"Grab your plate and head into the tent if he comes any closer," Rob says with a firm eye on the wild elephant standing 4m away from the outdoor dining table where we've just sat down to eat. Kigelia is in Ruaha National Park, a reserve of baobab and acacia trees, dry river beds and shrub savannah littered with wildlife.

The bush camp has six large double tents perched on the bank of a dry Great Ruaha River tributary, a natural thoroughfare for the larger animals such as our visitor. "This one often invites himself into camp, which is why we call him Samahani," Rob says. "It means 'excuse me' in Swahili."

The young bull of around 5000kg doesn't stay for long but it is enough to have us talking about what might come for tea. Lion? Surely not the pair I'd heard overnight. They'd be too exhausted. I woke to the first roar just before dawn and it sounded like the big cat was just outside my tent (as was the toilet - my full bladder would have to wait). In fact, there were two big cats, and the roar was one of pleasure, not pique or authority. It would start with gusto and wind down to a whimper. Someone at camp had said that lions mate every 15 minutes for seven days; that's 674 times a week. I'm not sure I breathe that often.

On safari later that day, in one of Rob's open-air jeeps, we spot what seems to be an exhausted lioness and her mate resting in the shade of an acacia.

They look shattered. But no sooner have we pulled up for a closer look than the male gets to his paws and begins rubbing himself against the lioness. Is he whispering in her ear? I am channelling American soul singer, Barry White. Uh-huh, right there, you like it like that? Closer, come here, closer, close, oh, baby, oh, baby . . . When finally he mounts his belle and does what they do on Discovery Channel, it is - at the risk of being branded a voyeur - mesmerising. The power and raw energy. Think James Brown. Whoa-oa-oa! I feel good . . . To be honest, I feel slightly uncomfortable watching this mighty beast, the king of the jungle, in such a private act. But neither lion seems to care. They are in the zone, although the whole thing doesn't last long.

The roar promptly winds down to a final moan and before you can think of England, both lions are on their backs, legs in the air, grunting sighs of completion. My mind's eye has them reaching for cigarettes. And to think, in a quarter of an hour, they'll be at it again! I'm gonna love you, love you, love you just a little more, baby . . .

For all my discomfort at watching two fellow mammals on the job, the spectacle has been a privilege. I had the same sensation a few days earlier at Rob's camp in the Serengeti, the only Tanzanian bush camp north of the Mara River. We'd been scouring the grassy plain for cheetah when one of the ever-present hyena started running towards a destination out of sight. Others began to follow, so we too joined the rush. Something was obviously up.

We arrived in time to witness the savage stripping of flesh from a topi, a type of antelope, which we surmised had died naturally only minutes before. The hyenas poured in, squealing sinisterly, snatching at the warm meat, ripping it from the bones, fighting each other for some of the rapidly disappearing carcass. Vultures stood patiently nearby, waiting their turn. Within minutes, the topi had been converted to little more than blood and manure-stained savannah grass. It was a breathtaking display of life and death on the African plain, and a stunning contrast to the vista of the Serengeti we'd enjoyed only moments before, where herds of different animals comingled in apparent harmony within metres of each other. Topi, Thomson's gazelle, Grant's gazelle, zebra, wildebeest, warthog and ostrich, even hyena and jackal, were amongst the throng.

Archaeologists fancy Mt Ararat in Turkey as the final resting place of Noah's Ark but my money's on the Serengeti. Yet, the friendly serenity quickly comes to an end at the sniff of death. Stunning; but that's life.

It was a breathtaking display

of life

and death

on the African

plain.