AFRICA, PT. 3 – Just Call Me Serengeti Jones
My first morning in Africa sounded like monkeys and prayer. The former thumped above my head in a seemingly never-ending rooftop play session, the latter was a haunting murmur of joined voices carried from who-knows-where direct to my curious eardrums.
It was 5:45am and I was shockingly refreshed. I tumbled out of my soft nest and eventually made my way to the open-air restaurant where Anthony waited with a cup of coffee. It was now 6:30am and my flight left in exactly one hour. Where he’d been lackadaisical the night before (“Oh, it will only take fifteen, twenty minutes to get to the airport in the morning. Get some sleep and we will leave at 6:30!”), he now seemed in an awful hurry (“There is no time – we must go!”).
Before we departed, I checked my extra luggage with the hotel and in exchange was handed a very, very, very heavy box: breakfast. Inside were two pre-cracked boiled eggs, a bag of sliced carrots and zucchini, a yogurt, an orange, two tiny bananas, mango juice, and a bottle of water. My stomach felt fine from the previous night’s veggie assault, so I inhaled the box’s contents, suddenly starved.
As we left the hotel property, I took in the surroundings that were invisible the night before and it was immediately clear that if there are two things Westerners have sold to Tanzanians, its Jesus Christ and Coca-Cola. The soda giant must pour loads of money into the area, because the familiar swoopy red logo is festooned on nearly every stationary surface, including mileage signs. Christianity is also very present, primarily on the brightly colored minibuses (dalla-dallas) adorned with phrases like “Magic of God!,” “Hand Of God!,” “Power Of God!,” and “May God Be With You!,” accompanied by renderings of very godly men like Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg.
Turns out you might need to have the word of God painted on your vehicle as some sort of spiritual auto insurance, judging from the general absence of road rules and overall atmosphere of four-wheeled mania. In the light of day, Anthony blossomed into a certifiable lunatic behind the wheel. On a road with two lanes, he casually carved a third, eliciting a chorus of honks and hollers. He wove back and forth with abandon, slipping in between semis painted with Coca-Cola logos, dalla-dallas overflowing with people and chickens, and pickups boasting unsteady hay bale towers and ferrying enough men that they conceivably could, if they chose, lift up and carry the truck itself.
“I’m sorry for the crazy driving, but you drive crazy in Los Angeles, right?”
“Um, not quite like this.”
Then, after careening onto the dirt shoulder, past a line of rumbling trucks: “Oh, this is illegal, I hope the police don’t see me!”
By the time we arrived at the airport, I had a slight case of lockjaw from forty-five minutes of clenching and I was about ready to throw up the twenty pounds of food I’d eaten. I made my flight with two minutes to spare.
Joining me onboard the tiny Cessna was an extremely pleasant Irish couple, David and Louise. We made small talk and marveled at the scenery below – first, volcanoes, then Maasai farmland, then the Serengeti, where we watched masses of wildebeest hoof across plains dotted with zebra and giraffe. The duo deplaned at the Lamai Airstrip to start their adventure, while I sat with our surly South African pilot waiting for another couple to board. After twenty long minutes passed, I wandered over and introduced myself. In return, I received a nod and a slow exhale of cigarette smoke. I took a more direct line of questioning:
“Soooo, how long have you been flying?”
Puff. “Six months.” Puff.
As twenty minutes stretched into thirty stretched into forty, I watched a troop of baboons scamper around the airfield, wrote several pages in my journal, flipped through the in-flight magazine, and downed two bottles of water. Suddenly, I had to pee with a ferocity usually reserved for bladder infections. I scanned the area: there was the surly South African leaning against the plane, the baboons frolicking in the grass, and David and Louise enjoying an afternoon snack on a portable picnic table complete with checkered tablecloth, surrounded by at least six very attentive safari employees.
“Are there any bathrooms at the airstrip?” I asked Señor Chattypants.
Puff. “No.” Puff.
I tried not to think about peeing, but as you know, once you have to pee, it dominates your thoughts. I started to think about the people we were waiting for, who were now nearing fifty minutes late for their – my – plane. I considered joining the baboons for a wee, but thought better of it. I considered going behind the Cessna, but thought better of it. I considered hijacking the plane, but thought better of it.
My increasingly agitated thoughts were interrupted when the latecomers finally arrived, nearly sixty minutes tardy to the proceedings. They were middle-aged and spoke with a thick New Jersey accent.
“Oh my gawwwd, look at how small this plane is!” said the woman, who smelled of Aquanet and was clothed in a thick layer of cheetah-print fabrics.
“I’m sorry we were late, but we just haaaad to see one more crossing at the Mara River. I’m suuuuure you understand,” said the man, who was wearing one of those vests with all of the pockets that looked to contain nothing save for a few pieces of lint.
I shrugged my shoulders and pretended not to speak English.
When we landed at the Kogatende Airstrip a mere five minutes later, I bolted off the plane in search of a toilet, but was intercepted by a pack of gentlemen who quickly located my bags and directed me to a safari jeep containing four middle-aged Malaysian-Canadians (including the group’s ringleader Annie, who started most stories with, “When I was a young girl in the jungles of Borneo…”), one Maasai spotter, and one extremely happy guide named Good Luck who cheerfully exclaimed, “We are going to see some animals!”
I pushed aside the stabbing pain in my bladder as I struggled to process the parade of animals we encountered in our sixty minute drive to camp: gnarly wildebeest, elegant giraffe, lazy hippos, elegant antelope, adorable oribis, playful klipspringers, dirty warthogs, stunning zebras, beautiful impala, and one very secretive leopard.
I am in Africa. I am in Africa. I am in Africa.
The surreality continued at our remote installation, a collection of large canvas tents arranged in a semi-circle on acacia-studded plains populated with zebras and wildebeest. As soon as we jumped out of the jeep, we were showered with hospitality – hellos and hot towels and drinks and snacks – and then I ran for the toilet. Peace at last.
After dinner, we ventured out into the golden light in search of the big cat we saw earlier; when we arrived at our destination, a large pile of boulders, we had the extreme fortune of seeing real, live leopard sex. Do you know what it’s like to watch two leopards doin’ it in the wild, within spitting distance of your fairly unprotected person? I’ll tell you what it’s like – it’s insanely awesome. The dominant man-leopard flexed, grunted, and circled the submissive lady-leopard with a sort of hip-hop swagger, then positioned himself and went to town with a powerful staccato rhythm, staring out at his audience as if to say, “Who’s your daddy?”
We saw a lion that evening, too, but it was just lounging around, so it wasn’t nearly as exciting.
After a stunning sunset, we returned to camp and were escorted to our respective tents as insurance against any predators dragging us off dingo-ate-my-baby-style into the night. Outside my tent, which was the last structure before the neverending wilderness, stood two men with spears. Spears. They nodded soberly as I thanked them. Not too long after, I snuggled against the chill and fell asleep to a chorus of howling hyenas.
Good night, Tanzania.
It’s hard to think that anything in the world could possibly top leopard sex (it really was that fantastic), but I woke with an open mind. Wrapped in warm layers, I slowly drained a cup of powerful coffee and watched the bleating wildebeest eat their way around the grass outside my tent as the sun rose. I felt like both observer and participant, no barriers between myself and the wild African morning unfolding in my midst. It was one of the most magical feelings I’ve experienced in my entire life.
It wasn’t the only magic the day had in store. I joined Toronto newlyweds Debbie and Dan, and led by our fantastic guide Victor, we began the day’s safari drive with a bit of exciting bloodshed as we came across two lion cubs feasting on a fresh wildebeest carcass. Here I realized just why I was so enthralled with the previous day’s leopard sex – it was a display of sheer power, unlike anything I’d seen in any zoo or on any hike. It was fierce, feral, and undeniably beautiful. I reveled at the concentration in the cubs’ eyes, the blood on their chins. One moment they were buried deep inside the beestie’s abdomen, the next, gnashing at its hide.
Afterwards, we rolled past a veritable encyclopedia of the African animal kingdom en route to scouting a wildebeest crossing of the Mara River, part of their famous annual migration. Along the way, I had to pee – and as you may have guessed, there are no Porta-Potties in the Serengeti.
Victor was reassuring: “If you are separate from the jeep, a lion or buffalo will see you as prey and will kill you, so just keep your back to the jeep.” I looked out at the vast ocean of hoofed animals and didn’t see any lions or buffalo. “Um…okay.”
I nervously slid along the vehicle, made my way to the back, and positioned myself underneath the spare tire. I’ve never felt as exposed as I did with my bare buns hovering mere yards away from an assortment of large creatures with horns. In retrospect, I feel you haven’t really lived until you’ve squatted behind a Land Rover in the Serengeti.
Back in the relative safety of our metal cocoon, we arranged the departure of Debbie and Dan, who were heading off to have a romantic lunch at some fancy locale, and Victor and I settled in to wait for the wildebeest crossing. When it finally began, we raced to the river’s edge and I watched with fascination as hordes of beesties transformed into a lemming stampede, rushing down the embankment and splashing through the crocodile-infested waters of the Mara River in an unparalleled frenzy.
As the excitement wound down, Victor suggested we venture closer to the Kenyan border, so we drove Indiana Jones-style across a flooded bridge and through rolling hillsides filled with beasts of all sizes. There were ostriches and zebras and lions and waterbucks, and miles and miles of open landscape stretching out to a vast horizon. I stood at the border and felt insignificant, understanding my miniscule place in this enormous world.
That evening’s communal dinner was filled with excited chatter – What did you see? You won’t believe what I saw! – which slipped into serious discussions of what led to each one of us occupying our chairs that evening. A Vancouverite named Cliff offered up a Steve Jobs quote (from his speech at Stanford University’s 2005 spring commencement ceremony):
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path; and that will make all the difference.
I went back to my tent and mulled over the day, the week, my life. I followed my heart and my gut when I planned this trip, not knowing what I would experience or feel, and so far I’d spent my time in Africa appreciating every moment, not concerned about the next. I felt content and full of gratitude as I once more fell asleep to the symphony of the Serengeti.
Then I woke up the next morning with the worst diarrhea of my life.
(…to be continued…)
all pictures are by Shawnté Salabert