My first safari
My first ever safari was to Meru Park, in Kenya. I was working in East Africa and wanted to explore the bush away from the crowded wildlife encounters of the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti.
An extensive internet search for a locally-based and owned safari company turned out Westminster Safaris, a company ran by Guy, a second generation Brit passionate about Kenya. We exchanged several emails and he suggested Elsa’s Kopje Lodge in Meru as the right place to stay.
The booking was simple for him. We only needed flights out of Nairobi and accommodation. But for us, with no online portal to book our domestic flights in Africa and lack of any information online, it seemed a daunting deserving of a travel agent’s expertise.
Information on the existing lodges was sketchy and, to understand availability and the experience each of the lodges would provide we would have had to scroll through literally hundreds of websites. We trusted Guy, and he proved to be great at reading our wishes with only our rather vague explanations. We met him at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport coffeeshop just before our tiny Cessna flight out to Meru, and he handed us the paper tickets and the voucher for the lodge.
Elsa’s Kopje was beautiful. Set atop a hill in the vast and practically empty Kenyan savannah with an infinity pool carved out of the hill rocks and luxury huts hidden in the lush surroundings. The huts had no walls and only mesh mosquito nets for protection from the bugs; it was an explorer’s paradise. From the four-poster bed, we could see a leopard’s eyes shine in the darkness of the bush’s night. I was mesmerised, completely absorbed into the untold magic of the place.
That was the first of many African adventures. In the following three years I spent in Sub-saharan Africa I went on wildlife and bush expeditions to Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Tanzania, Madagascar and South Africa as well to as many other parts of Kenya, always favouring smaller parks with less visitors. The famous Kruger Park in South Africa, Kenya’s Maasai Mara and the Serengeti in Tanzania were always consciously avoided. It was not that I thought they would pale in comparison to that very first night at Elsa’s Kopje, much the opposite. I knew they were popular and that would be for good reason, but I was after more remote and less visited places.
I savoured many wildlife encounters with no other car witnessing nature’s majestic beauty. I silently watched many sunrises with rays piercing through the clouds and taking on surreal tones. I heard the sounds of the jungle from the comfort of my bush bed and I sipped on many a G&T as the sun came down with the picture perfect acacia trees in the background. Africa stole my heart and it has never given it back to me.
In love with Africa
My love for Africa was and continues to be a tough love, one that has survived through (mild) food poisoning, riots, dust, violence, horrendous traffic jams and potholed roads, flight delays and airport dramas, corruption and despair. My passion for the continent stretches across countries, over 20 to be precise, and across the last decade, from my mid 20s to my early 30s.
Through the four years after that very first night staring at the leopard’s eyes I also worked and traveled across less glamorous places like Nigeria, Ghana, Congo Brazzaville, Sudan, Egypt and Mozambique but, with every trip, I fell more in love with the landscapes and with the people, and with the stories that had never been told before. Those were the most formative years of my life and I grew as a person with every week spent in the continent.
I found myself learning to be more patient, to not sweat the small things and to appreciate what made every day special. From the meticulous, planning-obsessed 26 year old that I was I evolved into a relaxed, see-life-for-what-it-is person and I gradually stopped planning and favoured serendipity and randomness instead.
I saw poverty and misery with my own eyes and I also learned to differentiate between having nothing and being poor. Those with the least were the most ready to offer a smile and life just seemed to put emphasis on different elements. Time was not of the essence, rushing was pointless and whatever could not be done today would be done the next day, or the one after.
In Africa, days and weeks were unpredictable; We never knew if we would have a flight booking at embargoed non-IATA Sudan or if we would make it back on time from Blantyre to Lilongwe, in Malawi, by car as I refused to fly Air Malawi back to Joburg every week. Immigration was always an ordeal, one that I learned to endure and laugh at, especially in inefficient Tanzania, where the process could take up to three hours every week, in the humidity and heat of Dar es Salam.
One week the airport was invaded by a pest of flying yellow grasshoppers harassing passengers for hours while our eyes were trying to follow our passports through the world’s most inefficient stamping process. In Nigeria, the weekly bet was around how much the various corrupt officials would ask for through the departure process or whether someone would actually break into our car and try to kidnap us on the weekly ordeal drive back to the airport.
On arrival, in the evening darkness and chaos that reigned firm outside Lagos’ Airport, we would follow our minder through the crowds to our blacked out minivan escorted by a heavily armed pick-up truck fitted with army-trained kalashnikov wielding security guards who would stop at nothing. We would land in countries with all visa paperwork in order only to be faced with the nepotism of the particular border control officer. But there was always a way around official requests, as rules were there to be broken. A stark contrast with Singapore, the country I eventually moved to when I left Africa.
What Africa taught me about life
Above all, Africa taught me a lot about life. I learned that people are genuinely good, despite the radicalism of their governments. Like many others before and after me, I was met with the kindness of strangers on several occasions and I learned to be resourceful when there were no conventional options available. Initiative, resourcefulness and thinking out of the box were at the order of the day.
In Khartoum, we would hail regular cars, with no Arabic, for a ride back to the Hotel as taxis were not readily available where our client’s office was and, on some nights, our driver had simply gone home. In the darkness and emptiness of the Sudanese’s capital streets, we would raise our hand, offer a willing Sudanese a 20 dinar note and spell out the Rotana Hotel’s name. No further words were needed, what else could three suited up Westerners want outside the country’s biggest company headquarters?
In Uganda I experienced the power of the media industry in exaggerating stories to buy eyeballs. As riots broke out in Kampala and cars were being burned, I compared the international news headlines and newspaper covers to the reality on the ground only to realise the gross overstatement. I had to spend time reassuring friends and family of the real security situation.
There were also bad days, days in which I craved cleanliness, clear water, kind people and things that just worked. And there were many of those days. Showering in brown water in Malawi, hiding from drunken men in Mozambique or sleeping fully clothed in Uganda for fear of a very large spider, I learned to appreciate the things we take for granted.
I had many a day when I just had had enough. Spraying mosquito repellent non stop all around me and on my clothes for days or having unicorn-themed nightmares because of the malaria medication, I often wondered what I was doing there while I could be seating in an air conditioned, sterile building. But the sighting of the Milky Way on a dark night or the sighting of snow capped Kilimanjaro on the flight to Dar es Salam always brought back the best memories. And the African people told me to be resilient, that life would go on no matter what, children were born, marriages continued to take place and new life would begin even in the darkest of moments.
Returning to Africa 10 years on
Missing Africa and craving those nostalgic years I wanted to finally see the Great Migration with my own eyes, a million wildebeest and zebra crossing the Mara river in the Maasai Mara from the Serengeti in search of water. Carefully planning the trip to have the best experience, I booked a tented camp private tour with Howard Saunders, founder and fellow of the Shackleton & Selous Society and one of the partners of The Original Ker & Downey, the longest running safari company in Africa and the originator of the safari idea in the 1950s. We would start with three nights in Amboseli, in a private conservancy area where his company leases land directly from the Maasai, then move up to the Mara, for another three nights in a tented camp chasing the Migration. The trip would then end with three more nights by the beach, in remote and isolated Pemba Island, off the coast of Zanzibar, in Tanzania.
But above all, regardless of the incredible once in a lifetime experience I was planning for, it was all just an excuse to return to East Africa, reliving those fantastic years of my life. And I did.
As I checked in at the Norfolk Hotel, the check-in staff remembered me “You were here last in 2009”, she said. I had booked one night in Nairobi simply to sit at the colonial Norfolk Hotel bar, one of the very first safari hotels in the 60s, and the hotel I last stayed at for an extended period in 2009. I wanted to sink in the red leather sofa in the patio and sip on a drink just like I did back then.
The hotel had not changed one bit, except for the vaulted security that had been installed at the entrance. At the bar, relaxing with some snacks and an Old Fashioned, I was reminded why I fell in love with Africa. It was the magic of going where nobody had been before, the pioneering feeling those first explorers must have had. The journey into the unknown, the constant feeling of hearing stories that had never been told before, the usual curiosity that has driven me to so many unheard of and unusual places like Djibouti, Pakistan or North Korea.