monday memories / RTW trip: the perfect safari

my aunt nancy (not to be confused with my birthmother nancy) left for south africa a few days ago, saying she she sure hoped her safari would NOT be anything like mine …

... my safari was twenty years ago, while travelling around the world for a year with my boyfriend. we stopped in kenya to visit with curt’s childhood friend ngugi who had since married, had two beautiful children, and was living in ngong outside nairobi. his wife and kids had never seen wild animals, so we decided to take them all on a two-day safari.

safari. just the word sent exotic images wafting through my head: karen blixen, born free, and architectural digest safari décor

the reality was, our pockets held 30-year-old’s-budget-travelers-wallets. still, i was going on safari …

we rented a jeep, two tents, and set out … along with ngugi’s baseball-bat-sized stick (tourists had recently been attacked, not by animals but by people) … intending to camp out. how naïve were we???

driving toward the masai mara, we encountered giraffes and ostrich. exciting! getting closer to a real safari! the first night we stayed in a masai campsite just outside the oloololo gate to the park. it was relatively similar to campsites at home … assigned spots, a bathroom/shower building, etc, but for the tall, lean men wearing red plaid sarongs milling about. (we heard the masai men typically did not wear underwear under their sarongs … so i, in my curious -- if juvenile -- way, wanted to see if it was true. it was.)

the next day we bumped down the dirt road south through the park. saw herd after herd of animals: antelope, wildebeest, kudu, leopard, even a lion feasting on a zebra, hyena and vultures lurking. the majesty of the land and the animals converged on one point: we humans -- not just in this game reserve but all over the world -- are on their land, the animals' land. we are trespassing on their land! so clearly and naturally, the earth belongs to the animals.

toward the end of the day, it was high time to find a campsite; we drove to the largest one we saw marked on the map in our area, only to find nothing resembling our experience the previous night.

this “campsite” consisted of an outhouse in the middle of a savannah, with trees in the distance on three sides and a dried riverbed behind us. spectacular african scenery, but still … nary a soul in sight! we decided to try one of the other two campsites nearby. each one was less impressive than the last, so we returned to the first place.

soon two masai men -- with spears -- showed up, said it was their campsite, and we needed to pay them the equivalent of $6 to stay. and for $2 more, they would sleep with us. not sleep WITH us! just sleep nearby. we promptly dug in our pockets for the additional cash. they turned and said they’d be back later, ambling away gracefully like giraffes.

after putting up the tents, curt and ngugi went scavenging for firewood, leaving me with ngugi’s wife mama-ciko (kenyan women take on the name of their first born, preceded by “mama”) and small children. traditional division of labor was seriously bugging me at this point in our travels. i was 30 and still needing to prove my i-am-woman independence. but i had to swallow my enormous pride and go with it; we had bigger things to worry about at that point. we began assembling camp, the sienna sun setting over our little piece of savannah. we were in the middle of wild africa, tiny in the grand scheme of nature. it was exhilarating! we had had the jeep between us all day. now i was feeling the nakedness of being one with nature.

unloading bags and pots and food, mama-ciko and i startled at the sight of a troupe of baboons, cackling and galloping across the far side of the field and disappearing into the trees. they seemed far enough away (about 100 yards), and i was thrilled with this brush with real safari life! mama-ciko, however, was fearful and kept the children nearby. we went about our business.

a few minutes later, however, these 12 or so waist-high baboons scampered up the riverbed and surrounded us in a circle around our little camp. mama-ciko scurried into one of the tents with the children and i deftly found our big stick. what else was there to do? one at a time, a baboon lumbered toward me, grunting. i held the stick up and, when it got closer, stabbed the air between me and it, sending the monkey to retreat to its former place in the circle. then another came at me. then another. i fended off four baboons before they all, suddenly, ran off across the field again and into the trees. the masai men had appeared on the hillcrest, thank god! i guess the baboons had “history” with the masai. regardless, we were saved (pride out the window)!

the guys returned with firewood, we ate with the masai men, and went to bed. but not to sleep. the dark night filled with ominous animal noises. ngugi got up to make another fire closer to the entrance to our two tents. he was afraid, mama ciko terrified. fortunately curt was pretty calm. my stomach was in knots. i was having my period, and was sure a lion would come bounding through our tent and devour me. the masai men did hear a lion's roar, and wanted to leave to check on their herd of cattle. no way, josé! ngugi talked them into staying … (i hope we paid them a bonus in the morning, and i hope their cattle were ok.)

morning. yes. then came morning. we had survived! spent the next day completely sobered and quiet, still driving and watching the animals. midday we came across one of those fancy tented camps (safari dream coming true??), but it was closed (sigh). desperate at that point -- and wanting nothing of a reenactment of the night before -- we found the caretaker who i pleaded with to allow us to stay in one of the enormous and luxurious walk-in canvas cabins, complete with two double beds and a private bathroom, for $50. a large sum for us, but i was primed to break the bank for some semblance of safety, and romantic safari experience! and we were able to finally relax.

sipping warm beer (better than no beer) on the stone veranda overlooking a bend in the river, all of us perched in comfy director’s chairs in the late afternoon glow. we marveled at the scenery: hippo in the river right before us. gazelle, waterbuck, oryx, fox, and even those pesky baboons at a distance on the opposite bank. we were safe. and having my ultimate safari experience, budget be damned! a spalding gray perfect moment. yes it was.

the monsoon rains poured down that night, but did we care? we were cuddled up in our grand tent. next morning the caretaker told us the hippo did some serious damage in the camp that night, while we were safe and soundly sleeping.

we made our way home to ngugi’s the following day. with stories to tell for a lifetime. and with dreams made real.

and i can’t wait for my aunt’s return to hear more safari stories. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

lesson learned: hold onto your dreams. they just may come true!


twenty years later and i still have romantic safari dreams. doesn’t everyone? the march 2008 issue of the late domino magazine featured kenya-based photographer liz gilbert (for some reason i’m enamoured by all liz gilberts) and her stylin' african nomad tent she uses travelling around the bush.

liz is now helping local kenyan women sell their stunning jewelry, and runs a straight-out-of-my-dreams lodge in kenya. dream on!