– I will go to Africa one day to see the lions. And when I’ll see them, I will cry.
This is what I used to say to my friends about one of my biggest dreams: the African safari. The big truth that I now know it is that nothing can prepare anyone for Africa, the red continent where all expectations are exceeded.
The morning before
– Excuse me…Hello….Good morning….Excuse me….Pleaseee
Loud knocks at the entrance door. I opened one eye in the dark room with the curtains pulled and my first thought was: where am I now?
Ahhh, yes, Nairobi! My brain figured out: that one week safari starts today! That was the fuel I needed to jump out of the bed like a rocket and reach the door in 2 steps. I opened it and the light blinded me. A very worried man was standing there, and all I could see first were his eyes contrasting its cocoa skin.
– Sister, excuse me, they came for you, for the safari. Are waiting, I tried to call… he said in a hurry.
I loved how he called me sister. I must have been quite a chaos in person myself, in pyjamas, my hair was a mess and my eyes barely opened on a sleepy face.
– OMG, I overstepped! The safari, yes! I went crazy going in circles inside the dark room, trying to figure out what to grab first. What time it is?
-It’s 7! They came and….
– What??? 7? Only? They’re supposed to come for me at 8:30! I started to laugh, covering my eyes with one hand and leaning against the wall in relief.
The guy asked then three times if I permit him to enter in my room to check the phone. He stepped in very shy and saw it was actually unplugged.
In one hour I was ready to go. I met Josea again, my too early bird friend I met the day before, at my arrival. He and another guy drove me first to the centre of Nairobi, at the tour agency office. I recognised the narrow passages between the buildings, close to the place where the evening before I managed to change, with his help, 200 euro into Kenyan shillings. The whole operation seemed like a drug traffic scene in a thriller. The census that was taking place those days has been shutting down the whole city, closing all shops, banks and exchange offices very early. That evening, after asking around a few people with no success, Josea made me a discreet sign to wait where I was. He then approached two security officers, talked to them for a few seconds making sighs towards me. He followed one of them on a back street and made me a discreet sigh to follow them. I couldn’t see much because of the dark but enough to figure out that the place looked very grim and quite spooky, with dumpsters all around and trash spread on a dirty broken pavement between two old buildings with walls covered in old graffiti. It smelled like garbage. I was assessing how low was the level of my safety in those circumstances and it seemed what we were doing was illegal. The idea of being scammed came only second. Happily it all worked well, the “operation” was a success, I even got a good exchange rate and finally had Kenyan money in my pocket.
During the day it was different, except that garbage smell. We entered a building, got inside a small elevator, then passed through a corridor with a beauty salon where a few Kenyan ladies were doing their curly hair straight, and then a door opened to a small office:
– I’m Simon, welcome to Kenya!
Simon was the type of guy looking like those black male models that we see on fashion catwalks or Vogue magazines: tall, well build, killer sensual lips and a sexy smile on a very handsome face. That and his leather jacket brought that kind of smile on my face, the kind that attractive people can only bring, instinctively.
I payed all the expenses for the safari trip and stored my big luggage in their office till I was coming back. It felt so good that for the next days all was taken care of. All my safari outfits were in my polka dot backpack: the sunscreen, the hat and the 7 types of mosquito repellent. In my country Malarone, the prevention pills for malaria, was impossible to find, so my plan B strategy was to keep mosquitos away.
And off we were…
One American couple from Carolina, one Spanish couple from Catalunya, two Chinese girls and myself. That was our group in the white old safari van with 8 seats, drove by Richard, our driver and guide, who’s grey hair and pronounced lines around his eyes were a guarantee for how much he saw and knew. Ohh, and how he exceeded all our expectations by the end of those 7 days and 6 nights! We were already set to become friends the moment we stepped in that van, as great experiences always create strong bonds between people that live them. I started off on the right foot and got the single seat in the front of the van. Well, again, the perks of traveling alone! Well, the downsides came later…
The van started to move, following the other 3 in the font, heading to Masai Mara. I kept staring outside, at the streets, the people, the buildings. I didn’t felt like talking, socialising, getting to know the other people in the van, blabla. At all! But when there’s a pure blood Spanish – Catalan around, this doesn’t last long. As soon the wheels started rolling, he started talking and by the time we left Nairobi we all got to know each other, our names (except the Chinese girls…), where do we came from, what we do for work, what languages do we speak and how our Kenyan holiday plan looked like. Hearing that the American couple was starting a 7 months long journey in Africa and Asia caused a loud awwww in the van. Then the Spanish couple was going to Serengeti, in Tanzania and after to Zanzibar. The Chinese girls and I only Kenya. Richard joined the conversation soon and the atmosphere became quite cheerful, and we talked until all of us got tired and some fell asleep. I continued watching Kenya revealing itself from my window seat.
As soon as we left the busy Nairobi and its concrete city vibe, the savannah started showing its patterns, one by one. First tree by tree, image by image, as if a video was loading, and then like an explosion of frames that turned all my previous imagination into reality: umbrella acacia trees, tall dry grass, vast horizons crossed by apparently endless roads passing through villages with the most colourful cottages I ever saw, built straight on that unbelievably red soil. The red continent was revealing its beauty rapidly, strong and tangible. Elegant women in beautiful and colourful dresses, wearing high heels and makeup on the dustiest roads I ever saw. These images were so contrasting. Later only I understood it was not a feminine statement as it is in the so called West. It was about being strong and fearless and elegant and feminine no matter what and where. Such power can only be profoundly admired and applauded.
For 8 long hours Kenya was showing itself to me as the rest of the group went quiet and asleep. I kept watching that movie playing on the screen of my window, with every town, village and markets we passed by, with every kid waving his hand, with every corner looking like a Pulitzer awarded photography.
Hell’s Gates, the door to Maasai Mara
After lunch in a restaurant where many other vans and safari jeeps were stopping in front, we made a short stop at Hell’s Gates, the point offering perfect views over Rift Valley, the vast savanna below, reaching far away as if it owned this world. Once here was a prehistoric lake that fed our human ancestors. We got sooo excited observing in the bushes some rodents looking like huge rats. Some Asian tourists started taking photos of them frenetically. We were all at the beginning of our journey and that seems to me now so funny, comparing to the photo opportunities that followed.
Maasai Mara starts here
The roads got dustier and bumpier and the landscape wilder. Richard announced that we were entering Maasai Mara. His voice came as a poke to reality to me: I was in Maasai Mara! Then the dust, the heat of the late afternoon and the constant same views of the savannah, still and quiet, made me sleepy. I was struggling not to close my eyes fearing that I will miss something great. What a premonition. And then I saw them, like two silhouettes from another world – tall, very slim, with unusual long legs and hands, with skin like black velvet and their bodies half covered with blood red rags, with high sharp swards in their hands and a fearless yet calm sight, with colourful large necklaces around their neck and long earrings hanging down their ears. I almost hurt my neck trying to gain one more second of this: two Maasai warriors watching us passing by in a cloud of dust, leaving them behind, vanishing into the immensity of Mara.
– Did you see that…??? I said seconds later, when I could again articulate.
No one did saw them but me and it was impossible to describe it in just words. Such a powerless instrument for such striking scenes. The image of those Maasai warriors was like a tattoo on the memory, two uncrowned gods of the wild who’s image is one of the strongest I have about Kenya.
This was how Maasai Mara, the land of Maasai tribes – in translation meaning the people that speak the language Maa, opened its doors to us. And I could feel that my moment – “I will go to Africa to see the lions. And when I’ll see them, I’ll cry.” was close….
I was watching ahead, with a far-off look, in silent, resting my chin against the front seat back next to Richard. For quite some time the sandy track we were following was just a pale yellow line crossing the dry fields. The afternoon heat was making the landscape blurry. Then I think I saw something… First I thought my eyes are wrong, then that it was because of the heat or maybe a piece of dry bush left there, in the middle of the road, by the wind. It was still there, right in the middle of the road, as the distance between us was reducing fast. I lift up my head and focused to that. It still wasn’t moving and a shape was slowly contouring now. The shape of a young impala was becoming a certainty. We were getting dangerously close and Richard didn’t seem to thing of slowing down. Before I could spell “Richard, watch out”, only when we got a few meters away, as if it was challenging its courage, the impala decided to jump away and instantly vanish. So Richard wasn’t risking to hit it, he just knew it will jump aside in the last moment. This time we all saw and got super excited. I saw a smile on Richard face in the mirror. How many people he must have drove like this, through their first safari experience, whitening their first reactions.
Now the wilderness around us was as cut off from the National Geo documentaries about Africa, those I used to watch sitting down, on the carpet, in our living-room, when I was a kid, so I could see better.
We didn’t even had the time to process what we just saw and finish all excitement exclamations when suddenly a large group of giraffes appeared out of nowhere. It happened so suddenly that it took us all by surprise and without phones or cameras at hand. In spite of all the promises and guarantees made on the tens of tours operators sites I checked while organising the trip, I never thought it could be quite like that: an abundance of wildlife in one place: about 20 giraffes, tens of zebras and even more wildebeests appeared out of no where. Richard stopped the car and the engine and let us wonder as the animals were just a few meters away from the road, doing what they do all day long: eating. They didn’t even blink seeing us. And there it happen. In front of a sight that no zoo could ever offer and no documentary can even get close to, in the middle of the savannah, my tears didn’t wait for that first lion. My eyes got wet. For feelings like that make days in our lives worth remembering there is no effort too big, no distance too long and no boundaries impossible to cross.
At the end of a 9 hours ride we arrived in the camp. Our neighbours for the next days were the inhabitants of a Maasai village. We passed by their settlement, followed by a cloud of dust, as a few young men were directing the cattle inside their village walls build of clay and soil. A large group of barefoot kids dressed very colourful stop their game in front of the village to salute us and didn’t seem to be bothered at all by the dust that came after us, leaving them invisible.
A few Maasai men in front of the camp helped us with the luggages in change of a tip. I only had my blue-marine polka dot backpack. This is how tourists coming to see the lions bring a benefit to the local community, besides buying hand made souvenirs or sometimes making small donations.
A few rows of large tents built on the ground, closed with a zipper, housing two beds covered with mosquito nests and in the back, a bricked up, well, almost up, bathroom with a shower in the wall, a toilet and a sink. One tent was mine alone. It was basic but having all it needs and the bed was clean. Cleaner then in other places where running water is not as precious as it is in the middle of the savannah. The water pressure at the sink was very low, it took a lot of patience for a hand wash, but the shower was good, with warm water. Outside, a kitchen, a small bar and a large room with white plastic tables and chairs where guests could serve the food from the buffet. Electricity was available only during the night. That was our camp, simple but filled with excited people.
We had one hour to leave our luggages and get ready for the first safari. I sit on my porch a bit. In the tent on the right the Spanish couple was laughing loud of something only they knew, on the left Elaine, the American woman saw doing some stretching.
The afternoon: the first safari
We jumped back in our white old van and headed straight into the wild. Richard opened the roof and like this it looked more as a safari car. Well, still quite far from the jeeps we’ve seen around. The cool air of the afternoon smelled like vast fields and dry grass. A few minutes only after we left the camp, we started meeting the animals. Wildebeests were everywhere, zebras came after, impala in small or bigger herds with many calves among them, a few warthogs with their funny walk and constantly on the move, an ostrich female. With every distance covered, advancing into the dry depths of Mara, we were more and more mind-blown. Like a dream you have for so long and when it becomes reality you realise it has exceeded any scenarios your imagination could have crafted.
I got my camera out of the bag in a general “woww” from my safari companions. My new lens, a telezoom, bought especially for the trip, was one of the best acquisitions I ever made. Even though is the cheapest available from Sony, it totally made the difference when it comes to taking photos during a safari. The phones, even the newest models, were quite useless so I promised the others to share my photos when back home.
We were talking about that when I instinctively turned my head away and looked far, to an area where the dry grass was even taller growing by some bushes. I just couldn’t take my eyes off that spot, without seeing something there, as if I felt it. And there it was, perfectly blending in, part of that far away field, a lonely gorgeous lioness.
– A lion!
Only after long minutes and using Richard binoculars all the others manage to see her. Laying in the grass, with her mouth opened, breathing relaxed and calm.
– Girl, you got eyes for lions! I couldn’t see her not even after pointing the exact spot!
The first of the big 5 was that lioness. The 2nd came fast after, was a Cape buffalo in a swamp we passed by, looking angry at us with his dark massive horns covering its upper head and curving around its head like a true threat. Called the Black Death, it is known to have killed more game hunters than any other animal in Africa. It’s a karma weapon after all.
A cloud of dust raising up in the sky was the target Richard was aiming. The old white van was running wild on the bumpy track and five other jeeps were following us. We arrived to what it seemed to be at first a jeeps an vans gathering in a cloud of dust. But that was not it. We saw the reason of this madness: two male cheetah laying in the grass a few meters away, totally ignoring us silly humans making excited noises and using phones, cameras and even half meter long lens to get an image of them. The sun was setting and it was the most perfect golden hour that our home, planet Earth, can offer as another gift to us.
Next: 12h safari and the Great Migration