Wednesday 28 August, 2013 by Uncle Spike
The beautiful Serengeti in north Tanzania, is for me, one of the most mind-blowing places on earth. The diversity and abundance of wildlife is spell-binding, and not something one forgets easily. An extension to the Maasai Mara in Kenya (or vice versa), the Serengeti is one of the ten natural travel wonders of the world, and one of the prime spots on earth to observe large prides of lion in their natural habitat.
I took one extremely memorable trip there in early 2007. It was actually our slightly belated honeymoon too, just to add to the specialness of the trip. In the spirit of this not being ‘just an ordinary vacation’, we had embarked on a small group overland safari. Piled into the back of a large converted Mercedes truck, twenty of us set off on an adventure travel expedition through Kenya and Tanzania. Starting out in Nairobi in Kenya, we headed north, up towards Mt Kenya, then west across to the Great Rift Valley, before heading down to Nakuru, and the Maasai Mara.
We then crossed the border into Tanzania at Isibania and stayed on the shores of Lake Victoria at Musoma, before heading east across to the Serengeti. By the time we passed through the gates to this vast reserve of over 30,000 km2 (12,000 sq mi), we had already travelled 1,200km (750 miles) over some pretty rough terrain in what was essentially an open truck with bench seats and roll down plastic windows, affording us some limited protection from the cold mornings.
We had opted for this style of travel as a way of seriously getting a taste of Africa, to be able to really take in all the sights, sounds and smells of this most fascinating place. Our truck had everything you could imagine mind you, having been purpose built for such an expedition. It was a big fat hairy tough Mercedes truck, with large off-road tyres, jacked-up and beefed-up suspension, a large fresh water tank, spare tyres, wheels and even replacement suspension parts. We also carried full camp cooking facilities, and enough tents and camping equipment for 20 people. It was a go-anywhere beast that took us off road, through rivers, up mountains and across borders – not exactly the sort of thing you’d drive around the quiet roads of western suburbia, but out there, it was our pride and joy, our bastion against all the elements that East Africa had to throw at us.
By day, we travelled overland on whatever roads we found, some almost civilised, metalled, but many were little more than unmade tracks with massive potholes and large ruts left over from the rainy season. As much as we all have pride in our own driving skills, I believe we all were quite in awe of our driver, as he kept that truck going in places the rest of us would not have dared. By night we camped. Now this was not the sort of camping where there are shower blocks, large caravans with kitchens and a telly, or even those fancy big tents with separate bedrooms… no way, this was camping as it meant to be. Couples shared 2 man tents (or should that be 2 person) which were fairly roomy, certainly enough to sleep in relative comfort wrapped up in our sleeping bags on camping mats. But that was where the creature comforts finished.
Often, we camped literally in the middle of a game reserve, where there were no lavatories , no showers, no electricity, no lights, no TV’s and more significantly, no fences. The truck would be parked up, a large campfire lit and our tents pitched before dusk, arranged in such a way around the fire to complete a circle. But of course, there was no risk in terms of security for us or our limited possessions, it had more to do with keeping the local wildlife at arm’s length, and we are not talking about the less desirables of a human persuasion, no, our concern was the 70+ large mammal species that roamed freely, in particular those with a passion for their meat-eating diet, and the teeth to match. After all, we were the intruders here; we were the uninvited guests playing and sleeping in their back yard.
We generally set up camp before dusk, as pitching tents in the bush by torchlight was perhaps foolhardy at best. No, by nightfall, the camp was set, a serious fire roaring and a hearty meal being cooked. Thankfully, we had a camp chef with us, a smashing guy called Barnard, a laid back but incredibly talented man, preparing 3 course meals for 20 people on just a couple of gas rings that slid out from the side of the truck and of course, our camp fire. We all had to help out too; preparing, chopping, clearing and washing up under Bernard’s instruction. It was quite a smooth operation in fact after a couple of days in, with the only difficulty being trying to see what the hell you were eating by the light of our wind-up torches.
Our group was a mixed affair, but overall everyone worked well together. I guess you simply wouldn’t go on such a trip such as that if you had high expectations of comfort – thankfully, all our fellow travellers were either experienced adventurers or novices with a very much ‘can-do’ attitude and an open mind. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be stuck with some of the idiots I’ve shared other vacations with on an overland safari! Ages ranged from mid-20’s through to the retired. But with adventure travel, one’s age is largely irrelevant, the more important factors are attitude, resourcefulness, broadmindedness and a keen sense of humour – these are far more valuable to the dynamics of the group. As ever, we heralded from all over; ourselves from Turkey, whilst the others came from England, Canada, Ireland, Poland, Scotland, and America. Equally diverse were our professional backgrounds; from a chef to an academic, a professional photographer, pharmacist, bartender, from a military officer to a tax officer, teachers, a truck driver, a couple of media specialists, a farmer and a corporate accountant. It certainly made for some interesting campfire discussions, but the common thread was always the shared appreciation for travel, and in particular, an ever-deepening love for Africa.
Nights were generally exciting, scary, and adventurous – rarely were they non-eventful or boring. With us being so close to the equator (exactly on it one day as it happened), the lengths of day and night were pretty well identical, so camp was made by 5-6pm, dinner finished by 7pm, and on most occasions, we were back in our tents and snoring by 8.30pm. I remember one night, a bunch of us were sat by the camp fire keeping warm, as it got pretty chilly at night I can tell you. The more adventurous ones had cracked open a couple of cans of beer they had grabbed from a roadside store the day before. They had planned to ‘make a night of it’, whilst the more mature ones, us included, decided to be a little less reckless and stay awake until 9pm. I think we just about made it, whilst the ‘youngsters’ partied quietly until 10.30pm. We were often up and away before dawn to catch the best sights as the animals hunted at sunrise, so early nights were the norm. Also, we were not exactly travelling in sheer luxury, so our nerve-shattered bodies were well in need of some R&R by the time nightfall arrived.
Some of the sounds at night were awesome, truly scary as the knowledge that a bit of thin canvas isn’t perhaps an ideal form of protection from the hungry jaws of some of the predatory animals that we knew full well were roaming around at night. We were all under strict instruction not to venture off into the bush for a midnight pee, and quite rightly so. But that did mean however, is that you could hear the odd brave soul tinkling right behind your tent at 3am where they simply hadn’t been able to ‘hold it in any longer’ – the nightmare scenario for those of a nervous disposition, or simply scared of the dark, or perhaps terrified of the beasties out there, or of course, any combination of these! As was quite normal for such a trip, most of us at some point or other succumbed to a dodgy tum, and so spent a few minutes every hour crouched outside the tent in suspended terror as nature took its course through your intestines.
One of our travel group, Neville, was a ‘very nice chap’. He was a very English gentlemen, a corporate accountant in his mid-50’s I suppose. He was ever so polite and also ever so learned with a number of degrees to his name, seven I think, and most just ‘for fun’ he said. He was very game, and never complained, even though that was his first time camping in 40 years – a real brave trouper. Anyway, one night we were wilderness camped in the interior of the Serengeti National Park, surrounded as ever by wildlife rather than fences and by that point in the trip, a number of us were up and down at night for various personal/medical reasons, shall we say. We all slept lightly at night, partly due to the continual noises outside our tents, both from the local wildlife and visitors alike, and also basically from fear. To this day I still swear that I held my wife close to me every night for warmth and to ‘protect her’; honest, it was never due to my own paranoia induced by the anti-malarial pills – as if?
One night we heard a hushed, but nervous “Good God! Err, hello!” from somewhere close behind our tents. It was Neville, his Home Counties upper-middle class voice easily recognisable in the still of the night. We then heard him scamper off in one direction, and a dull, slow, retreating ‘thump, thump, thump’ in the other.
The next morning was cold as we ate our breakfast around the dying embers of the campfire, waiting for the sun to start beating down on the plains of Africa to warm our not very rested cold bones after another night under canvass. At this point, Neville explained all about his nocturnal adventure, and more importantly, provided us all with an explanation of the noises we had heard. Neville, the dear chap, had been quietly having a wee behind his tent, when he came face to face with a young member of the genus Loxodonta, or African bush elephant as you and I would know it. For a second they had stared long and hard at each other, and that was followed by the “Good God! Err, hello!” we had all heard. Apparently the scampering sounds and the slowly retreating ‘thump, thump, thump’ were Neville and Nelly parting company in opposite directions, both equally having been scared stupid at the sight of the other! If only we had a night video set up, it would have been priceless footage.