Confessions of a Safari operator
It’s true, not all safaris work perfectly, gasp! We depend on machines (that is, vehicles) and they are as fallible as humans – another gasp! In August we had a trip that could have been a bit more sedate. And, as I take a deep breath to calm my nerves about sharing a less than perfect safari with the big world, I hope it helps you with your own expectations of traveling in Africa.
Africa is unpredictable. We tell our guests this about 37 times in our pre-trip documentation as they prepare for their tour. Roads are in bad shape, police are disruptive, weather patterns are changing, and of course it’s called a “play trip” for good reason – you either win the game or the animals do, depending on who watches! who first! But as a safari operator, we really don’t want to believe that we can’t predict (and prevent) what will happen. Of course, there are contingencies to minimize the impact of any unpredictability on the guest. But it still hurts us to have to use those contingencies.
In August, we hosted a large family group of nine: two parents, four children, and three wives. They all wanted to travel together in one vehicle, so we decided that the best vehicle for them was a small land truck. The itinerary was five days: three in Maasai Mara and two in Amboseli. It had been planned for several months and everyone was excited.
Arriving in Kenya
The first problem occurred upon arrival. People arrived but not luggage. Not a single piece of luggage from the entire group was in Nairobi when they landed. I’m still not sure how that could have happened, but it did. The luggage was supposed to arrive on the same flight the next day, so they requested a later departure to Maasai Mara. We were going to leave at 8 in the morning, but when they got back to the airport and collected our luggage, it was 4 in the afternoon! And in a truck it’s a long, slow ride anywhere, let alone the bumpy road to Mara.
The late departure meant we were driving at night, which is something we never want to do, especially through the bush. We finally arrived at midnight and the camp staff was wonderful! We stayed in communication with them throughout the night and they reserved dinner for us and served it very kindly at that time. However, lesson learned: next time we will not leave for Maasai Mara so late and instead we will leave very early the next day.
The next day our morning safari didn’t start very early as everyone was tired from the night before. But Francis took them off around 8am and they saw lions almost immediately. A truck gives you more height and they got a great pride sighting in the grass. However, shortly after that, the truck stopped. And nothing Francis did would move him. Once again the camp staff were amazing and provided a vehicle for our guests to continue their safari. They then provided another emergency vehicle to tow the truck out of the park.
Francis disassembled the engine at camp and found that the piston, as he described it, “had become githeri“(a traditional Kenyan dish of stewed beans and corn, that is, small round pieces in a bowl). The problem with motors is that, even if you serve them regularly, there are things inside that you cannot see that they fall apart with enough stumbling on these fabulous Kenyan roads. (I recently discovered in Australia that bushes are something that gets replaced every twenty years or so. In Kenya we replace them after almost every trip to Maasai Mara!)
So that was the end of the truck for this trip. We arranged a replacement vehicle for the group to return to Nairobi the next day. The itinerary continued for the guests as planned, thankfully. The only problem was, there was now no room for Francis and me in this backup vehicle. We tried hitchhiking on the road closest to the camp, but it is a quiet road so we were not very lucky. So we got a motorcycle taxi (wedding wedding) through the savannah (outside the park!) to the main gate of Maasai Mara, where we would find more traffic. I have to admit that the motorcycle ride has been the highlight of my time in Kenya! We have ridden that route before, but on a motorcycle it was something else! Beautiful scenery, through Maasai villages, across rivers, wow, it was breathtaking!
Somehow we got to Nairobi before the guests, even though we were waiting for an elevator and then we took public transport in Nairobi to their accommodation. But they had a much more relaxed ride, stopping at the Rift Valley lookout, visiting a Maasai village, and having lunch along the way. However, they were just as surprised to see us waiting for them as we were. We made arrangements for Amboseli the next day and finished the night.
Thank goodness the second half of the trip went smoothly! We had to divide them into two smaller vehicles and they changed the seating arrangements for the two days to spend time with everyone. They saw hyenas, elephants, a large herd of buffalo in the swamp, saddle-billed stork, zebras, a large flock of ostriches, and of course Mount Kilimanjaro. They also climbed the observation hill for panoramic views of the park.
Okay what ends well and there really was minimal disruption to the safari for the guests. It was only my own mortification that got in the way of my amusement. But Francis always tells me seriously that “anything can happen” and he’s right. Maybe we will add that to “Africa is unpredictable” in the travel preparation documents.
Share your travel experiences that didn’t go exactly as planned; Help me realize that not only can anything happen, but anything can happen to you. somebody!