This is Africa.

To say that Africa is different from anywhere else I have been would be a understatment. We arrived in the dead of night and I was genuinely surprised by the kindness and willingness to help we immediately met in immigration. Where other arrivals in a new country have been greeted by hoards of touts, the Kenyan people were a pleasure.

This adventure differs from my past trips because Colin and I are finally traveling together. I enjoy flying solo but there’s no denying it gets lonely. Traveling independently also forces you out of your shell – you reach out for companionship and so meet people more quickly. That’s not a problem for us this trip, as we are traveling with 24 other people. Of that number, only the two of us are from the States.

Our companions are Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Irish and our trip leader is a lanky Scottish woman. Needless to say, getting to know everyone consumes a lot of transit time. We have some fabulous characters:

Cassandra, or Cass, a petite Aussie who, if she were American, would be a coastie. A pretty girl with long brown hair she often ties up in a messy bun at the very top of her head, Cass’ voice rises above the rest and can be heard from a great distance. She owns leg Warner’s and wears them often. She loves animals but loves bolognaise sauce too much to be a vegetarian.

Julian, or Jules, is our typically sassy, if not a bit metrosexual, Brit. He makes jokes aimed at Cass but the two if them are more or less sidekicks. Jules teaches English as a second language in London and lived in Prague for three years. He’s in his late 30s but looks ten years younger.

Steve, also a Brit, served two years out of a five year sentence for kiting, or opening multiple checking accounts and writing checks from one empty account to the next. He has tattoos with ex-girlfriends names. He loves 90s music and subjects us all to it on the truck for hours at a time while he sings along.

For all the advancement and growth of some parts of Africa, other parts are absolutely devastated by poverty. Littered with plastic bags, the stench of body fluids on the breeze, small children staring at the truck full of mzungas – the literal translation means “lost tourist” – this is Africa. Most people wave as we roll by but we occassionally get the finger or a hurled rock. One small task, like mailing a package home, can take hours. When unexpectedly delayed, or when general madness occurs, we shrug our shoulders and say “T.I.A.” This Is Africa.

Our first major adventure with this crew was a safari in the Serengetti. We split into three groups of 7 and piled into our respective trucks. Though it rains at least part of the day, the sun shines long and hot enough to make the world a dustball an hour later.

It was cinematic. We drove through jungle down into Ngorongoro crater. Suddenly the terrain changed into vast, sweeping savannas. Massive herds of water buffalo graze, impala and zebra scattered among them. A pride of lions lounge in the morning sun, one rising lazily and strolling over to the jeeps, lying down in the shadow it cast. A rhino sleeps in the distance. Hyenas are on the prowl. A cheetah lounges behind a rock some ways off. We stop at a small lake and stretch our legs. Hippos surface and yawn. First their eyes and then their huge bodies become visable. They lift their giant bodies in pursuit of one another and emit what can only be described as a throaty howl, a loud low groan. I’m not Steve Irwin and I would not want to be caught between a hippo and the water.

Later that day, we stop for lunch over looking the crater. A giant scavenger bird dives at Jules and steals his bread. Jules screams and claims that all birds are out to get him. He mutters threats against their talons from under a tree while the drivers laugh.

When we reach the Serengetti it’s early evening and a crazy rainstorm rolls in. From the jeep, ar watch the thunderclouds consume half the park. Just before we reach camp, we pull up to a a cluster of large rocks where several other jeeps are parked. We bust out the binocs and scan the very top of the rock until our eyes rest on two leopards sleeping there.

While we wait and watch, the male leopard rises. He stretches and scans the horizon. Then, to our amazement, he slowly makes his way down and slips between the jeeps, taking little notice of us, and disappears into the field nearby. We nearly watch him make a kill but another jeep startles the gazelle he’s been stalking.

And therein lies the complication of 6 jeeps huddling around a leopard trying to feed his family. There’s that balance between tourism and keeping the wild, wild. Our big tourist dollars help preserve the Serengetti but all the same we shouldn’t be scaring away dinner.

I didn’t hear the lions in the night, but others did. We woke the next day to a beautiful morning in the park. The vast tracts of wilderness stretched before us. Hakuna matata.


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