It is a long way from Brisbane to Arusha, Tanzania, but Donna Duggan, an inspirational Queenslander, is making a real difference to not only locals in need, but also in the way visitors see and explore the parks and reserves of this country.
Donna Duggan sits outside the main tent at the Serengeti camp, a Maasai-patterned fleece blanket draped over her legs to ward off the chill of the approaching darkness. She looks out over the landscape to the future and the past, and whispers, “Nas would be so proud of this place. It was one of his Serengeti dreams.”
Nas is her late husband, Naseeb Mfinanga, who died in a plane crash in November, 2017. Theirs was a love story for the ages. In 2004, Donna was working as a volunteer nurse in the city of Moshi at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro. She met a man named Nas, who lived next door to her, and in the ensuing months, Cupid’s arrow struck as true as a Maasai spear.
The besotted couple moved to Arusha and wanted to create something to give back to the land that crept, no – galloped, under Donna’s skin. What is it about this place that won her over so completely? She answers with a smile: “Apart from the incredible beauty of the landscape, the thing I love about Tanzania is definitely the warmth of the people. They don’t have a lot, but they are so genuine, will warmly welcome you and will give or share anything that they do have with you.”
With Nas being a qualified guide and Donna already focused on giving back to her adopted home and now speaking Swahili, they came up with Maasai Wanderings, a tour company that would be staffed by Tanzanians, promote Tanzania, preserve the local culture and protect wildlife. The happy couple also were determined that profits would be utilised to fund the community projects they would establish and assist.
The tour company has been really successful, conducting safari and trekking itineraries from luxury to budget in Tanzania, as well as in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Tanzania remained the focus, from guiding treks on Mt Kilimanjaro to safaris around the Serengeti and the Tarangire National Parks.
While Donna and Nas added to their family with two children, Rami and Eisha, their tours grew as well, presenting them with a problem, albeit a good one to have. Sometimes the accommodation options they used did not have availability, so what did Donna and Nas do? Built their own.
With the same speed that they fell in love and established Maasai Wanderings, Donna and Nas developed Nasikia Tented Camps. There are mobile camps that can move locations following the great migration, as well as semi-permanent and permanent camps. Donna tells me that Nasikia is a Swahili word that means “I feel” and can also mean “I hear”.
“We wanted the camps to offer a truly authentic experience of a lifetime. Guests would sleep under canvas in camps that are away from others and would face east for the sunrise. They would be in locations that allow guests to be part of the landscape and not just see the wildlife, but to hear it. Going on safari is an emotional experience and we wanted our camps to provide a wonderful base that was genuine, comfortable, warm and embracing,” Donna said.
They succeeded. I experience two of their Serengeti camps, Kaskaz Mara, which is located in the north near the border with Kenya, and Ehlane Plains, which is in the Seronera region.
Never a fan of camping, I was quite incredulous at what was revealed behind the screen of my huge tent at Kaskaz. It felt more like a sort of Cirque du Soleil chapiteau than the two-man sandwich-board tents of my youth. One of ten tented suites in the camp, it has a huge bed, a sitting area with comfy chairs, a desk facing out to the open space, a walk-through robe walled off behind the bed, a charging station and a gorgeous bathroom with a solar-powered shower and double vanities.
Ehlane Plains Camp, a five-hour or so safari drive away or a short flight from Kogatende air strip near Kaskaz, opened its flaps in February 2018, a few short months after the tragedy that took Nas, his brother and the company’s IT manager. It has eight tented suites, two of which have the added bonus of a star dome bed on a separate wooden platform. Ehlane is beautiful with a lighter, slightly more contemporary feel than Kaskaz and I am completely in love with it. I am lucky to have a star dome and the opportunity to sleep in a beautiful mosquito-net-draped bed under the African stars, is something that will live long in my memory.
At both camps, guests are asked if they would like a coffee, tea or hot chocolate as a wake-up call in the morning. Guests are also shown how to work the two-way radio should they have ‘an emergency’ during the night.
I remember his words when I wake to a snuffling sound and the odd honk at Kaskaz. I squint out through the screens but can’t see anything but the dappled moonlight on the grass. Whatever it is it doesn’t sound as if it thinks I am dinner, so I decide it is not an emergency and go back to sleep.
It is one of the most enjoyable things about sleeping in these wonderfully elegant tent suites, the ability to go to sleep with the tent flaps open and fly screens closed, so you can see out in the moonlight and wake to that spectacular first light of the new day.
The Serengeti National Park was established in 1952 and its 14,763 square kilometres is home to the alphabet of animals and birds, in astonishing numbers. It is also where nature’s grandest show, the Great Migration, occurs in living, breathing colour. In the quest for abundant grasslands, about 1.5 million wildebeest (also known as gnus) and 200,000 zebra circle north-northwest from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area following the rains. When they deplete the grasses in the area where they are, they progress to the northwest, continuing the process until they reach the buffet of feeding areas – the northern part of the Serengeti that covers both Tanzania and Kenya’s Maasai Mara, all fed by the mighty Mara River. When food dries up here, in November, it is time to head south again, via the Seronera, to the calving grounds of Ndutu and Ngorongoro, where in January and February, up to 8,000 wildebeest calves are born every day.
The pull to follow the migration is irresistible for these ungulates, which I witnessed for myself around the Mara River. Henry Akeyo, who is our driver and guide while at Kaskaz, manages to get us front row seats to this craziness. He follows trains of velvet-sided wildebeests running urgently with the tide, and then takes a shortcut to the river. It is not an easy place to get across, with the animals having to ford one arm of the river, clamber over a bank of boulders in the middle and then cross another side of water. Then there is the rather large crocodile waiting in the wings, knife and fork in hand, for the dinner he or she can sense is coming. They cross in a mad rush, backmarkers desperately pushing for their turn to run the gauntlet to Nirvana on the other side. The croc gets so close, jaws open, but cannot get a hold. All of a sudden, one beest decides he doesn’t want to join the throng, turning away from the river. And just like that, the crossing stops.
Henry is the animal whisperer, taking us to so many different areas in the northern section. Rocky outcrops (kopjes) where a leopard was napping atop a boulder, plains of green with dazzles of zebra, herds of elephants and thousands of wildebeest, woodlands where we saw two cheetahs under a tree, giraffe delicately picking treats from the treetops, and lions, lions and more lions. Nothing gets the heart rate up more than having an adult male lion walking straight for the open-sided car. So close I could see the flecks in his beautiful golden eyes. Breathtaking.
Our other guide was Mohammed Magessa, who drove us in true safari style between lodges and at Ehlane Plains. He conjured up cheetahs with kills, beautiful ostriches preening themselves, bloats of hippos wallowing in ponds, a tiny baby vervet monkey and more lions than we could have imagined including one channelling Simba on a rock. The biggest buzz of all was coming across a pride of 15 lions and following them for a few hours before watching them hunt and kill a warthog. If I thought having one lion walk right past the vehicle so close I could touch it, having 15 of them stroll past was out of this world.
But it wasn’t just the big animals that took our attention. It was the weaver birds and the striking blue of the superb starling and the ugly but effective vultures. It was the little red-headed agama lizard who does push ups, baby impalas on toothpick legs and hearing about the clever acacia tree with its multiple defences. Best of all, it is the actual experience of BEING on safari. Scanning the landscape constantly to see what you can spot. Recognising animals. Learning about how wonderful nature is and the symbiosis between species.
Donna was right. Being on safari is an emotional experience and is something that everyone should experience if possible.
The power of two
Sitting out the front of the main dining tent that afternoon at Ehlane Plains, Donna is the queen of understatement when she says to me: “we are not just another outfit”. No, they are not. In fact, Donna is so humble that it is difficult to work out exactly how many people she and Nas have helped.
“We have built and extended schools in Maasai communities like Ilkurot, Ol Tukai, Le Manyatta and Esilalei. We have built more classrooms, added porridge programs, paid teachers’ salaries, covered the cost of school uniforms and more.
“We have contributed towards several orphanage programs with consistent food and clothing donations. We also work in partnership with Pack for a Purpose and make sure any donations reach the intended communities. And we pay school fees for a variety of students in the Arusha area,” says Donna.
But that is not all. All the used glass bottles from the camps go back to Arusha where a group of disabled people make jewellery out of them. She found a local lady who was in need, taught her how to sew then pays her to make blankets and other items for the camps. She is also chairman of Asante Africa, a US Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), and runs fundraisers to raise money for them, which is then used to help people get into the workforce.
But Donna has no plans to stop there. She is fiercely determined to carry on with the plans she and her love, Nas, made. As we sit under one of the blankets made by the local lady she taught to sew, in the place her late husband handpicked, helped create but didn’t get to see through, I ask Donna how she feels to visit this place. “I feel emotional, I have a sense of pride and I feel like I need to protect it to make sure all our dreams and goals are fulfilled,” she whispers.
“But I am getting there. Mandhari Lodge, the first lodge we planned, opened in 2019 on the Manyara Escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley. We upgraded Tarangire Ndovu Camp from a semi-permanent camp into a permanent structure, and it opened in December 2018.
And we have another permanent, year-round camp in the Serengeti, the Kusini Kopjes Kambi Camp which opened in 2020,” she states. “I know he would be proud.”
As we droop into the truck for the sad bump to the Seronera airport, all the Ehlane Plains staff gather to sing us a farewell song, their smiling faces and true voices a panacea for the soul. I think back to something Donna said, on that first evening under the Serengeti sky, when I asked her what she wanted for her guests. She thought it over, then said: “I want them to go home with Tanzania in their hearts.”
And so I do.
*This story first appeared in MiNDFOOD