I flew from Vienna to London in preparation for my African adventure. I spent two full days in London getting my gear together. By some miracle, my backpack still closed even after the addition of a three-season sleeping bag and several warm layers. Mountain Equipment Co-op bags are awesome.
I flew directly to Nairobi from London, and arrived late at night. The international terminal had burned down a few weeks before, and I was curious to see how they were running the airport. Everything from customs, to arrivals to departures was set up in these giant tents. They even had mini-tents for currency exchange, duty-free and all that good stuff. Ingenious!
I stayed at the Wildebeest Eco Camp for my first three nights in Nairobi. It was the perfect oasis outside the city centre. I slept in a bunk bed in a giant tent, my first “glamping” experience.
I made friends with two British girls, and together we visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where rescued elephants orphans are cared for before they are reintroduced into the wild. The elephants were ridiculously adorable, and their stories were heartbreaking. We also went to the Giraffe Centre, where I got to feed a giraffe named Helen! I ended up covered in giraffe saliva (“It’s antiseptic,” said the centre employee.)
For my safari adventure, I had decided to take an Intrepid tour. The company had been recommended to me by backpackers all along my route, and I was not disappointed. I signed up for a “Basix” tour, which meant that we all took turns helping with things like cooking, cleaning and set-up. The food was incredibly good, healthy and plentiful. I never had to worry about food poisoning, which I truly appreciated! Our 19-member group ranged in age from 20-something to 60-something, and I enjoyed getting to know everybody. I shared a tent with a fellow solo traveller.
Our first stop after Nairobi was a lookout point over the amazing Great Rift Valley.
We drove through the Kenyan Highlands to Kisii, where we spent the night before crossing the border into Tanzania. In Tanzania, we stayed in a town called Musoma right on the shore of Lake Victoria. I took a bike tour around the city, and visited markets and a local orphanage daycare centre. It was incredible to see how the children are cared for by selfless people who do everything they possibly can for them. Some children are AIDS orphans, and some themselves have HIV. All are learning to read and write because the man who runs the centre believes education is the best way out of the cycle of poverty.
After Musoma, we headed to the Serengeti. I will never forget entering the park for the first time. We were greeted almost immediately by the sight of zebras, giraffes and wildebeest stretched across the plains. Although by early September, many animals had already migrated north, there were still more than enough to meet my expectations. We did four game drives over three days. Sometimes we’d drive seemingly forever without seeing anything but dusty plains, and then other times we’d look out the window and see Africa as it would appear on a postcard. I was so focused on spotting animals that I started to hallucinate. I would be sure that I’d seen a lion chasing an impala, but then I’d realize that it was a rock chasing a tree.
I noticed that as the truck pulled up, most animals would run away. As such, I have tons of glorious pictures of animal arses 🙂
The highlight of the game drives for me by far was when our truck happened upon two cheetahs chilling under a tree. By some stroke of unbelievable luck, the cheetahs chose that moment to notice a gazelle nearby and decide to give chase. Watching a cheetah run after its prey is truly spectacular. It was the Discovery Channel right before our very eyes! The gazelle changed direction to try to avoid the cheetah, but the cheetah took it down quite fast. We were all cheering like we were watching a hockey game!
Video taken by my tourmate Brett:
We spent two nights at a bush camp in the Serengeti, and here is where the story gets dramatic. A bush camp means that we were right in the wild. There was no perimeter, and no guard with a shotgun. Nothing between us and nature. The first night, we were all sitting around the campfire, talking and laughing and eating dinner without a care in the world. No one was paying attention to what was going on around us. Suddenly, a park ranger pulled up in a truck, gathered us together and shined his high beam flashlight into the trees around our site. We were completely surrounded by lions. Someone counted up to 27! A few of them had settled right beside the toilets. Apparently, they were attracted by the water tank. Our completely unflappable guide said something like, “If you like your life, then you probably shouldn’t use the toilets, but if you don’t like your life, then by all means go ahead and use them!”
We all pushed our tents together to form a sort of “village”. I was secretly relieved that my tent was somewhere in the middle. We went to the bathroom right outside our tents, then crawled into bed for the night. I slept surprisingly well, probably because I was so exhausted. I remember waking up to the sound of growling. At first I thought it was someone’s weird snore, but then I realized that no human could possibly make that sound. (Mind you, I’ve said the same thing about some of the people whom I’ve shared dorms with this year!) The growling seemed far enough away, however, that I paid almost no notice to it.
The second night was another matter entirely. We used the toilet early, after checking for lions of course. I had a mental image of opening the washroom door only to see a lion perched on the squat toilet. This stuck me as hysterically funny, which should give you some idea of my mental status at the time. I fell into bed at about 9:30 p.m. At 10:00 p.m., I was startled awake by shouts of “Simba! Simba! Simba!” Our feline friends had returned and scared the poor men filling the water tank. I overheard our driver, Alex, shout “There are so many of them!” and “Look at the cubs!” I opened my tent to see what the fuss was about, and I saw that everyone who had still been outside was now in the truck shining their flashlights out the window. Alex yelled “Stay in your tents! Stay in your tents!” I quickly zipped up the tent, feeling slightly cheated that I didn’t see the cubs and starting to need to go to the bathroom. No chance of that now! I found out the next day that as I opened my tent, a lion had been just a few metres away.
I somehow managed to fall back asleep, but at 3:30 a.m., I awoke to the most ungodly yowling and moaning. It seemed our lion friends were making a kill. (The next day, we found a fresh set of antlers by the toilet and a dead buffalo down the road, so I guess they filled their tummies nicely. At least we weren’t dinner!) I could hear a lion growling and prowling right outside my tent this time. All sense of bravado and adventure flew out the window. I curled up in the fetal position in the middle of the tent, quivering in terror and now DESPERATELY needing to go to the bathroom. The fear didn’t help! It was pitch black in the tent, and my train of thought started getting increasingly irrational.
“What are the statistics on lion attacks in the Serengeti? Can and will they claw through canvas? Did we inadvertently mark our territory? Can they smell my fear? OMG THEY CAN SMELL MY FEAR!!!! AHHHHHHHH!!!”
Between the lions growling, the hyenas whooping and the baboons screeching, the “Serengeti Symphony” was playing right outside, and I was starting to wish that I hadn’t bought tickets. It went on until about 6:00 a.m., when I heard the last growl. I tentatively opened my tent at 7:00 a.m.
“Are the lions gone?” I shakily asked the guide.
“Yes. Don’t worry, they were just playing around,” he answered.
It was the scariest night of my life thus far, and I will never forget it. I also have an all-new low standard for toilets. I don’t care if it’s a poorly maintained hole in the ground or a Japanese plumbing masterpiece, if I can get there without being mauled to death by a lion, then I’m happy!
After the Serengeti, we headed to the Ngorongoro Crater, one of the most beautiful places in the world. We stopped at the edge of the crater to take pictures, and as we were doing so some Maasai kids were herding their cattle up over the rim.
We stayed at a campsite on the rim of the crater, and this time we were joined by a herd of zebras. They left when we arrived, then returned when we were all asleep. I heard them munching grass and snorting, and in the morning, there was a fresh pile of dung outside our tent. I was a little worried about opening the tent and accidentally startling a zebra, but in general, I was much happier to be sharing sleeping space with beasts who are considerably lower on the food chain than lions!
We drove into the crater and saw some spectacular wildlife.
The wildebeest follow the zebras from one side of the crater to the other, and packs of hyenas plot to take the wildebeest down.
My favourite part of the day was seeing a mama lion and her cubs take shelter in the shade right under a safari jeep! The entire pride came to see what the fuss was about. We were again surrounded by lions, but from within the blissful safety of our jeep.
That night, we stayed at a “Snake Park” near Arusha. I was a bit wary until I learned that we were simply staying at a campground with a “zoo” of sorts where snakes were kept in glass enclosures. The snakes would not be slithering around our tents! We had a great dinner at the campground pub on the last night of the tour, and the next day six of us from our group said goodbye and headed off to Mount Kilimanjaro!