After a teary goodbye to my family, I set off on my flight from London Heathrow to Kenya (via Dubai) to begin the first leg of my trip.
I arrived into Nairobi and took my transfer to the hotel, where I’d be meeting the rest of the group and our two leaders. The roads were busy to say the least, and out the window I could see a manic cityscape at rush hour; one which appeared to be very built up.
I was excited to meet my group and my two CEOs, or Chief Experience Officers, Joseph (nicknamed Karaoke for his love of singing) and Justus. Joseph was our main driver and Justus our primary guide and chef. This was interchangeable though and they emphasised that we could ask them both any questions. There were 22 of us, and our nationalities ranged from British, Australian, Kiwi, Canadian, German, Swiss and Argentinian.
We had a group dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, and then, happy and exhausted from both the excitement and the jetlag, it was time for the last sleep-in-a-bed for a while!
The next day began with an unwelcome 6am wake up (which I later learned was a decent lie in) and a plentiful buffet breakfast (which I later learned was a treat!). We were then shown the features of the giant purple beast which would become our second home for the next 40 days. Though it was evidently a bus or coach, we were instructed that we would be donating 1 USD every time we didn’t call it its “correct” term, Lando (short for overland vehicle).
Speaking of donations, our CEOs made us aware of Planeterra, G Adventures’ non-profit organisation, who, through the means of sustainable tourism, provide funding, training and assistance to small businesses supporting women, youth, environmental causes and Indigenous communities. We were told how coming on this trip benefitted these groups and were informed about how we could provide further help. I was really pleased that I had chosen to travel with a company that was passionate about giving back to the local communities, conserving natural environments, celebrating culture and ultimately creating work that was actually lifting people out of poverty.
As we drove through Nairobi I noticed that we were stared at a lot, as I suppose a large, purple vehicle full of predominantly white people is anything but inconspicuous!
We stopped for lunch in more rural Kenya, before the chaos of the first border crossing ensued and we experienced our first glimpse into communal travelling, as we volunteered respectively to chop vegetables, wash dishes and unfold camping chairs.
We arrived at the border before long and I realised that I should’ve spent a few extra days in Kenya before the trip began, in order to experience the country properly, as it was mostly just a case of driving through on this trip. I made a mental note to put Kenya on my list of places I would love to visit in the future, should I be so lucky.
After crossing the border and finding ourselves in a new country, we continued driving until we arrived into our first campsite; Meserani Snake Park in Arusha.
I enjoyed hearing about the origins of the campsite, as a South African couple and their friend had driven up to Tanzania in 1993 with supplies, and had built a campsite, a hospital, where they treated people suffering with snake bites using anti-venom, and a snake park where they kept snakes (many deadly, including black and green mambas, boa constrictors and black-necked spitting cobras), as well as some birds, tortoises and freshwater crocodiles. They also kept injured animals in order to heal them before releasing them back into the wild.
Joseph showed us how to put up our tents and my tent buddy and I vowed to speed up with every tent application, convincing ourselves that it was okay to start slowly, as it meant we’d be able to vastly improve each day.
We were then given a tour of the animals and I held two grass snakes and a tortoise.
After dinner, some of us went to the campsite’s bar and one of our campmates taught us how to play the card game, ‘President’ and I was yet to realise how prevalent this game would become to our overall camping experience. Though not a beer drinker usually, I tried the East African beer, Kilimanjaro and didn’t find it as unpalatable as other lagers, so I prematurely got excited that I could now tolerate beer (everywhere you go, they always seem to want you to try their local brew and it would be much easier if I actually liked the drink!).
The first night in a tent provided its own challenges on the senses; a soundscape of squawking guinea fowl and campers snoring like the lions we were yet to see; the smells of damp from the tent’s previous inhabitants; the heat of the night prickling the exposed skin outside of our sleeping bags and the light of the moon illuminating the mosquito-netted door.
I was sure I would get used to this, but tonight I didn’t drift into slumber until 2:30am.
The next day’s excitement meant getting up was not as difficult as it might have been, as we were driving to the Serengeti National Park.
Our group was split into four and we jumped onboard our 4×4 safari vehicles, cameras and binoculars clutched enthusiastically. And it didn’t take long for us to use them, as we were soon met by an elephant crossing the road in front of us; our first sighting of one of the Big Five!
Though African elephants can be extremely deadly to humans, who they see as little playthings, our driver told us that this elephant was displaying a rather cowardly temperament and was scared of our vehicle, which the animals view as one large entity and therefore do not feel threatened (or tempted!) by the people inside.
We entered the National Park and were fortunate enough to explore the plains for two days, with our driver guide, Rogert. Whilst driving through the Serengeti, we stopped to view animals, observed with binoculars, took photos and enjoyed every minute of this incredible opportunity to behold such fascinating animals in their natural habitat. Safari means journey in Swahili, and this was certainly some journey.
Over this period we saw many animals and these included:
- African elephants (including some in our campsite).
- Zebras (also roaming our campsite).
- Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles.
- Masai giraffes.
- Cows and goats.
- Monitor lizards.
- Lions and a lioness with four cubs.
- Rock agama lizards.
- A leopard.
- Tree hyrax.
- Many types of bird, including: kites, marabou storks, buzzards, superb starlings and greater blue-eared starlings, secretary birds, Egyptian geese, ducks and ducklings, plovers and weavers.
- A small-spotted genet – seen in our campsite. A group of us had braved the bathroom cubicle at night, with its squat toilets and icy, dark showers and had been instructed to check for eyes with our head-torches before exiting swiftly and scurrying alertly back to our tents. Therefore, when we came across a pair of intent, yellow eyes staring fixedly back at us, we were convinced it was a lion and knew we should stay put until it had disappeared. Luckily, after describing it to our driver the following day, it transpired to be one of these (potentially cute?) little guys:
A selection of the beautiful animals we encountered in the Serengeti National Park:
Our nights spent in campsites within the Serengeti were almost as incredible as our days exploring the safari, as we were back to basics in a very real sense. We would gaze at the abundance of stars in the near darkness, eat and drink around the campfire, and hear zebras, hyenas and even a lion roaring chillingly in the distance.
On our final day in the Serengeti, we awoke at half four and explored the vast landscape one last time. Known for being less busy than Kenya’s national parks, a couple more detailed spottings I noted down included; two young, male lions (around 4-5 years of age) who had just been ejected from their pride as they had grown too strong and who were starting a new pride together, in order to strengthen their security; and some mating dik-diks.
The following day we drove to the Ngorongoro Crater, where the temperature dropped drastically due to the higher elevation. This is where my packing-for-all-seasons came into good use for the first time, as thermal clothing was a must at night. The campsite proved eventful too as we saw a fire blazing the crater in the distance (which we later found out was to purposefully burn sections of the plains to allow new life to grow and to control a type of fly which was poisonous to much of the wildlife); we also witnessed many animals wandering about in our unfenced campground, including sleeping elephants metres from our tents.
In and around the crater our sightings included:
- Four lions stalking for prey.
- Many close up sightings of elephants.
- Spotted and striped hyenas.
- Hooded, white-backed African and clapped face vultures (the latter tear skin off the carcass of their food for the rest of them).
- White-bearded wildebeest.
- Hippos – lots of females bathing and two males fighting for territory and thus dominance over the females.
- A pelican in the water with the hippos.
- Warthogs – known affectionately as Pumbas (meaning foolish in Swahili) to the driver guides.
- Three female lions walking and drinking – one crossed in front of our 4×4, and this was terrifying but exciting.
- Many gazelles, including two fighting.
- Two sleeping jackals – these happened to be Rogert’s favourite animals. They mate for life and will even go as far as to kill themselves if their companion dies first.
- Many herds (or dazzles) of zebras heading to the watering hole, including some funny and sweet sightings of zebras scratching themselves on the rocks.
- Two lions on their “honeymoon” sitting together and mating – in the first few days of the mating period they mate every eight minutes! They don’t hunt in this time, but simply have intercourse for eight days, without eating.
- Crown cranes – who were always in pairs as they too mate for life (also known as Ugandan cranes as they feature on their flag).
- Water bucks.
- Eland antelopes – the biggest antelopes in Africa.
- An elephant graveyard, which was very ominous and seemed to reek of death.
- Beautiful shrubbery and trees, including giant Baobab trees, acacia trees and a holy fig tree.
We stopped at a beautiful watering hole, where hippos slept and the views were absolutely stunning. Here we had a small break before ascending the bumpy roads at the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater.
So far we had seen four of the Big Five: lions, buffalos, elephants and a leopard (but no rhinos yet). Traditionally these had proved the hardest to hunt and were therefore crowned THE BIG FIVE with many parodies following afterwards, including the most unfortunate, Ugly Five; this title befalls upon wildebeests, warthogs, vultures, hyenas and marabou storks (all of which I have seen too!).
Our excursion to the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater was really quite exceptional and I then wondered how anything could top this experience – though if you read my upcoming blogs, you’ll see that I was fortunate enough to find myself on many unbeatable, once-in-a-lifetime adventures!