The Maasai clan of Mkuru lead a very isolated life. Pelo, the 68-year-old chief, and his family have never travelled far from their home in the foothills of Mount Meru. To them, northern Tanzania is the world. Their only contact with others is a weekly visit to the big market and meeting the occasional traveller who journeys to Mkuru for a camel safari.
Since camels were introduced to Tanzania in the early nineties, the Maasai have come to appreciate these animals in the dry semi arid plains between Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Natron.
'We love our camels,' says Pelo, addressing me in Swahili through an interpreter. 'They are a big help to us because there is not much water here and our donkeys could only carry 40 litres of water. Now, the camels can carry 200 litres from far away .. but also, their milk tastes very good,' he says breaking into a smile.
For Pelo and the hundred members of his clan, it may be an isolated existence. But it's a life that they love. 'Every morning, I wake up, have some 'chai', then go and see if the camels are okay,' he says wrapping up against the evening wind in his blue and red checked blanket. 'Then I come back, eat some 'ugali' and go to look after the goats and cattle.'
The Maasai are pastoral nomads whose lifestyle and culture revolve around their cattle. Over the centuries, they had free use of the grazing lands around the Serengeti and the Crater Highlands. But in recent decades, the Maasai have been pushed out of their land for the sake of wildlife conservation.
For many, quality of life has suffered. Cattle died from starvation, forcing some warriors to become poachers simply to get food to survive. The Maasai learnt to loath conservation and tourism.
But at Mkuru, their attitude to tourism is changing. The camel safaris and Maasai experience are one of the new cultural tours recently launched in Tanzania that give visitors an insight into the daily life and culture of the local people. The cultural tourism programme was established in 1997, with supervision and training provided by the Tanzania Tourist Board and the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV).
'The aim of the project is two-fold,' says Miet van Spittael, the Dutch coordinator based in Arusha. 'It is a five year plan that is already benefitting the local people by helping them earn extra income and assisting them to improve their lives.
They have been trained how to conduct guided tours showing visitors what their life and culture are about. After the five year period, the project will have become a self-supporting scheme.' But it's not only the locals who profit from the programme. This unique taste of Tanzanian culture offers tourists a fresh glimpse into this beautiful land.
'It's of major benefit to the locals, but at the same time,' continues Miet enthusiastically, 'the tourists get unforgettable memories of the African people and a much richer experience of the local culture.'
The average itinenary of a Tanzanian tourist involves jetting in for a whistle-stop safari. Then zipping off to Zanzibar for a few days of Stonetown and the sea. Mount Kilimanjaro, the game reserves and coral reefs may be the major tourist attractions of east Africa. But there's a lot more to Tanzania than that.
The fourteen cultural tours are spread out at small villages, mainly around northen and north eastern Tanzania. The guided excursions also include panoramic hikes in some of the most spectacular mountain scenery you could hope to find.
Under the watchful eye of Miet and her guides, the income from tourism goes directly back to the local community to help with social upliftment and education programmes. The funds are used for very specific purposes, such as improving schools, buying energy-saving stoves, building cattle dips and mending irrigation canals.
I've had my yellow fever injection and my Hepatitis-A shot. Stocked up on Larium and got my cholera vaccination certificate. All set for my east African culture class. Thoughts of the rugby world cup fade into the distance as my Air Tanzania flight banks low towards the sunset over Kilimanjaro International Airport.
As we drive towards Arusha, visions of Africa sooth away my tiredness. Baobob and acacia trees stand silhouetted against the purple sky. Smiling Maasai men wrapped in their distinctive red blankets watch us from the roadside. The dusty landscape glows gold in the African night.