Fresh out of university, and not quite ready to hit the ‘real world’ and work, one of my best friends Sarah and I booked a 6-week overland road trip through Africa with Acacia Africa. We travelled from Kenya through Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and ended our trip in South Africa. We wild camped throughout most of the trip, camping in tents in the bush, except for staying in a couple of hostels along the way. This was the most magnificent trip of my life so far and I’m not sure much could beat it! We had so many amazing experiences; safaris, beach days, history, volunteering, conservation and parties. We met tribal peoples where we learnt about and took part in their daily routines, learnt their languages and enjoyed free time together. We took part in some of the world’s most exhilarating activities such as bungee jumping and white water rafting and we made friends and memories for life. In order to do the trip justice, I have written the blog in 6 chapters, 1 for each country and will release them separately each week. I hope you enjoy!
Sarah and I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya after a long 10 hour flight, having stopped off in Dubai on the way. It was mid July and beautifully hot and sunny on arrival. June-October is the best weather window to travel to Kenya with the least chance of rain with March-May typically being their rainy season. Our tour with Acacia Africa started the next day so we settled into our hotel room and prepared for the adventure of a life time, not knowing quite what to expect but ready for anything.
The following day we met our group, leader and driver. Michelle was our tour guide and became our mother figure, counsellor and best friend during the trip. Our driver Leteloy was a local Maasai man who became our protector and man in the know. He was extremely patient answering our endless questions and full of amazing stories. The rest of the group were all adults with a lovely mix of ages from us aged 21 to a man in his 70s. We all had one thing in common; free spirited people, ready for adventure. Our overland truck was a massive vehicle which stored everyone’s luggage plus tents, food, cooking materials and all supplies. It seated 24 in total though our truck wasn’t totally full, so some lucky buggers got a space to put their feet up or lie down to sleep on. We all reverted to childhood each time we got on the truck and fought (in the nicest way possible) for “the cool spot”, in this case the table seats in the middle of the truck. We were explained how the tour would work; the foundation for a successful trip would be team work. We would all be working together to set up camp each night, with a rota and groups taking it in turns with shopping, cooking and keeping the truck clean. This, we found in time, was a great way to bond with our tour guides and others in the group and we ended up forming great friendships and felt like a large family by the end of the trip. Once we’d all been introduced and checked in, off we set towards the Maasai Mara national park across the Great Rift Valley where we got our first views of this incredible continent!
We were eased into our wild camping experience by staying 2 nights at the Chronicle Tented Camp where Sarah and I shared a large tent in the Maasai Mara forest. Curry goat was our first meal and we were intrigued to find out that local people mainly eat goat and not so much beef or chicken. It was delicious! We had our own private, open outdoor shower which would’ve been relaxing, had it not been for the number of large spiders around the top. I cannot relax when there are spiders about, I am a complete arachnophobe. Little did i know that this was only the start of learning to live alongside spiders and that I would manage to survive much scarier experiences over the coming 6 weeks.
Our first safari experience in the Maasai Mara started the next day. We split off into smaller groups, boarded our safari vans and set off for the national park. The earthy aromas of the land, distant rose sunrise and calls of the wild were all new to the senses that day but soon became part of our daily experience in Africa. Most days were early starts before dawn, so we witnessed some incredible sunrises. Over the next 6 weeks I felt a deep connection and love grow for this mesmerizing land.
The Mara is crossed every year between July and October by great herds of wildebeest, zebra and other grazing animals in what is called The Great Migration; the greatest mass movement of land mammals in the entire globe! Something Sarah and I knew nothing about before arriving. People visit the Mara just to see this phenomenon each year. The animals migrate to the Mara from the Serengeti plains in Tanzania to the south. How long they stay is dependent on rainfall and subsequent grass growth in the rainy season. Predators such as lions, cheetahs and leopards and scavengers such as hyenas and vultures follow the grazing animals. “Zebra crossing!” became a regular call of excitement whenever a zebra crossed in front of our truck, something we all found hilarious (you had to be there).
Africa is famous for the ‘Big 5’, a term coined in the 1800s by colonial trophy hunters for the most challenging and dangerous animals to hunt on foot. These are lions, leopards, elephants, African buffalo and rhinos. Despite still being hunted, the term now refers to them as the most awe-inspiring animals to see on safari. Our first lesson taught to us by our extremely knowledgeable driver was what to do if you ever encounter each of these creatures in the wild.
Lion- Lions are the only cats that live in groups. Male Lions defend their territory by marking the area with urine, chasing off encroachers and roaring loudly to show who they think is boss. In fact it is the Lionesses that hold the territories and are the primary hunters and leaders of the pride. Lions are currently vulnerable to extinction with only around 25,000 remaining in Africa. They have been subject to trophy hunting, poaching and targeted by humans who are afraid of them attacking their livestock. If you ever come across one out in the wild you should never run! Stand your ground, look them in the eye, make yourself look big by flapping your arms about and shouting, then back away slowly whilst facing them and hope they get bored and move onto something more interesting or meatier.
Leopard- Leopards are solitary big cats, who enjoy sitting in quiet contemplation in trees. If I was a cat I would probably be a leopard, this pandemic has certainly made me much more introverted! They are light coloured with distinctive dark spots called rosettes. Black Leopards are commonly called Black Panthers. They are strong cats who can pull a whole zebra into a tree so they don’t have to move later on when they get the munchies. Leopards are nocturnal and prefer to hunt at night. Leopards are currently vulnerable to extinction. If you ever come across one in the wild, back away slowly, avoid eye contact and be submissive. They are most definitely the boss!
Elephant- The African savanna elephant is the biggest of the big 5. It can weigh up to 7 tons and be up to 13 feet tall. It is an important part of the local eco-system by dispersing seeds and can change entire landscapes by pulling up trees or tearing down bushes. Elephants are highly social creatures and are known to mourn the death or separation of a loved one. Elephants are currently vulnerable to extinction due to trophy hunting; they are mainly hunted for their Ivory tusks. If you ever come across an elephant in the wild, similar to a lion, make yourself look big- shout and flap your arms, but don’t run or they are likely to charge.
African buffalo- The African buffalo can be up to 5 feet tall, weighing in at about 1840 pounds. They are large cow like animals with distinctive horns on their heads and can run up to 37 miles per hour! African buffalo are the most popular of the Big 5 to hunt with hunters referring to them as “black death” for their dangerous and unpredictable personality. They are not endangered however their numbers are reducing as they suffer from habitat loss due to human activity. If you ever come across a buffalo in the wild- run! If they start to catch you up, which they most likely will, lie down and hope for the best!
Rhinoceros- There are 2 species of rhinos- black and white, with 5 sub-species. They are huge creatures that can weigh up to 5000 pounds. White rhinos are near threatened and black rhinos critically endangered, mainly due to poaching for their horns which can be up to 5 feet long. The western black rhino (one of the sub-species) was declared extinct in 2011, and the northern white rhino functionally extinct following the death of the last male in 2018. If you ever come across a rhino in the wild, hide behind a tree or something; they have quite bad eyesight.
African safari is not just about seeing the Big 5, there are so many incredible creatures to see. Several other groups of ‘5s’ have come about in recent years including the ‘Little 5’- Elephant Shrew, Ant Lion, Rhinoceros Beetle, Buffalo Weaver and Leopard Tortoise, the ‘Shy 5’- meerkat, aardvark, porcupine, aardwolf and bat-eared fox and the ‘Ugly 5’- hyena, wildebeest, vulture, warthog and marabou stork. We saw what felt like ALL the animals!! In addition to most of the above, we also saw giraffes, hippos, gazelle, dik diks, oryxes, impalas and by the end of the trip had learnt to identify most of them (I got quite confused with the impala/gazelle type creatures). My favourites to see were the giraffes especially the babies- they are SOOO cute. I also enjoyed watching them drink at the river, they are funny, clumsy creatures!
During our safari in the Maasai Mara we had the most extraordinary experience of the whole trip. We spotted some gazelle at a distance to the north acting strangely, then suddenly to the south we saw a mama cheetah with her baby. We couldn’t understand why the gazelle weren’t running away; they kept moving away then coming back repeatedly. All of a sudden we realised there was a baby gazelle in the middle of them and the cheetahs, not far from our van. The adult gazelles were clearly worried about it. When the cheetah’s noticed it, the chase began. The baby gazelle ran for its life! We had to drive to keep up with the chase and were so lucky to see the cheetah pounce and kill the baby gazelle. We all cheered! In any normal situation I would have cried. I am very sensitive to any creatures suffering E.g. when I once inadvertently ran over a pheasant who jumped out in front of my car, I literally cried for most of the day. But being in Africa and feeling so close to nature and the ways of the natural world, felt completely different. It was sad the baby gazelle died, but without that kill the baby cheetah wouldn’t have had a meal or the valuable life lesson from its mama. The circle of life from The Lion King suddenly made perfect sense. We all found a new perspective of life and death, the very fine balance between all living things. We reflected on the impact of human activity on our beautiful world, and how easily the delicate balance and order of nature has been changed by us. We had some very deep conversations around the fire pit that night!
It wasn’t all philosophical debate, we had a lot of fun during our safari game drives too. We saw Timon and Pumbaa and found ourselves bursting into songs from the Lion King quite often. A lot of the characters names from the film are actually derived from the east African language, Swahili. Hakuna Matata obviously means ‘no worries’. Pumbaa means ‘foolish’, Rafiki means ‘friend’, Simba means ‘lion’, Sarabi means ‘mirage’, Nala means ‘gift’ and Shenzi (the hyena) means ‘savage’. We were very lucky to find several simbas at different times resting and hiding from the sun in bushes. At one point a young lion got bored of his resting spot and walked right up to our van to check us out on his way elsewhere. He looked me in the eye. Despite my fear and initial anxiety (you’ll know if you read my blogs that feral goats make me anxious, let alone a wild lion!), I felt completely in awe of this graceful creature and wondered how any human being could want to hurt such a thing.
The safari experience on the whole was absolutely mind blowing and I highly recommend it to everyone! Adults of all ages and children would love it, and I hope to be able to return one day with my son. There is nothing like seeing so many incredible creatures in the wild, where they should be. The only time it felt a bit like a theme park was when we went to see a leopard resting in a tree. The drivers and guides communicate with each other over walkie talkies and would tell each other if they saw anything particularly exciting to be able to show their passengers. On getting to the tree where the leopard was dozing, there was a queue of about 20 vans lined up taking it in turns to get close for a photo before leaving. And whilst we definitely appreciated the opportunity to see the 1 and only leopard we saw whilst in Africa, it didn’t feel as personal and natural an experience as the rest.
After our safari we were incredibly privileged to be able to visit and meet a local Maasai tribe. We were greeted by the tribe with their traditional jumping dance called ‘adamu’. The tribe started the ceremony with music created by stamping their feet and clapping their hands. Their voices joined in and it became a hypnotising rhythm which everybody just had to move to. The warriors take it in turns to jump as high as they can, one taking the others place once tired. They got the men in our group involved too which was hilarious. They tried their hardest to jump as high as the Maasai, however it was obviously easier said than done. The ‘adamu’ is part of the ‘Eunoto’ ceremony where boys transition to men and the dance is used as a means of attracting a wife. The Maasai women started dancing too and got us ladies of the group involved. It was great fun. Once we’d finished dancing we had a tour of their village and were shown some of their homes and community buildings. We learnt a lot about their way of life; The Maasai lead simple and minimalist lives due to their semi-nomadic heritage. Maasai society is patriarchal in nature with the elder men determining most matters for the tribe. Their God is called Engai or Enkai. When a Maasai dies, their bodies are left out in the fields for scavengers to eat as burial has in the past been reserved only for chiefs, as they believe it is harmful to the soil. Their lifestyle concentrates on cattle herding and a man’s wealth is measured by the number of children and cattle he has. The more the better. We were shown to their stalls where they sold the most exquisitely made woodwork such as figures of African people and animals, Maasai blankets, jewellery boxes and jewellery. We all bought a lot of items and Sarah and I started a tradition of buying a bracelet in each of the countries we travelled. The wonderful thing about this visit was how intimate and insightful it was. We got to spend time talking to and learning from the local people. They showed us how they made their crafts and told us stories about their lives. It felt very respectful towards them and the money that we spent went directly to them.
Our adventures sadly came to an end in Kenya. We packed up and prepared for the next phase; journeying to Tanzania where we wild camped on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater and then onto the pristine island of Zanzibar, where we learn about its dark history relating to slave trade and come across some VERY large spiders! As with any adventure, you must be ready to expect the unexpected, and most times those experiences are the memories that really stick. On route out of Kenya we broke down and had the unique experience of coming across a drunk Maasai man wielding a machete, who we affectionately named ‘Machete Man’ and he kind of became our mascot figure. We made up stories around the camp fire about who he might be and what he was doing, I guess this is how legends are born! Leteloy, managed to settle him down and ensure he was ok before fixing our truck and heading off again.
Check out the rest of the blogs in the series:
Chapter 2– Safaris in the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and reflecting on Zanzibar’s dark history.
Chapter 3– Going wild at Lake Malawi.
Chapter 4– Zambia, the African capital of extreme outdoor activities.
Chapter 5– Exploring the Okavango Delta and the importance of sustainable travel
Chapter 6- Coming soon!
If you’re interested in booking this or a similar trip with Acacia Africa, check out their web page here.