3 June 2019

First land safari

It was 5.30am. Just like in the previous days, I didn’t have to wait for the alarm to go off. Waking up multiple times throughout the night had become a fixture of the past two weeks. I had after all travelled 40,000 kilometres over the course of the previous 10 days, crossing 15 time zones a couple of times. I have to admit it was also sometimes difficult to resist reading my book, The Victorian Internet, which was giving a very interesting account of how the telegraph was invented and how it transformed society, with many parallels to our current era and to how the Internet was received and adopted.

I got up to be ready for the 6am pick-up. I was reeling from the previous day’s 10-hour hospital stay. The bandage was still covering my hand, where the intravenous line had been inserted, but I was excited to head to my first safari. Nairobi turns out to be the only capital city with a national park on its outskirts. Wild animals don’t seem perturbed by the planes landing and taking off nearby – to see them graze on a skyline backdrop makes for peculiar photos.

National park with Nairobi’s skyline in the background
National park with Nairobi’s skyline in the background

When I travel for leisure, my interests lie in visiting “a bit of everything”: from museums to volcanoes, from traditional festivals to coastlines, from temples to waterfalls. I am not obsessed with any specific one type of tourism hotspot, which partly explains why I hadn’t completed a safari yet, despite having had the chance to visit more than fifty countries already. The additional reason for having been reluctant to do a safari was that I wasn’t sure I was ready to pay several hundred dollars a day for seeing elusive and faraway wildlife. I had already been pretty happy to see elephants up close at Sri Lanka’s Pinnawala orphanage and orangutans at Malaysian Borneo’s Sepilok rehabilitation centre, and I thus never felt the urge to go out of my way to “absolutely” see more wildlife, in Sub-Saharan Africa in particular. I had done a water safari before, but never did I experience the “traditional” jeep ride to spot the Big Five.

Crowned cranes wondering what’s going on
Antelopes in Nairobi National Park
Zebras in Nairobi National Park

Yet this time was a perfect opportunity: close to the city, it would optimise for time (“optimisation” seems to be my cherished word); affordable ($43 for foreigners, $3 for locals), it wouldn’t ruin me; and with a crew consisting of colleagues and team members, it would save cost on the $80 mandatory safari truck rental (including a driver) and make things more fun. More fun? Alright, I am an introvert (funny how people don’t believe me, especially when I deliver enthusiastic speeches), it’s true that I naturally prefer to do things on my own. If I try to analyse myself, I would say that’s because (1) I selfishly worry I won’t get to see everything I want to see because I’m distracted into talking to others, (2) I wonder if I won’t be perceived as too awkward – I mean more strange than I naturally am.

I think you swallowed something blue...
Weird animal as ever!

Unfortunately for the six of us, that Sunday morning proved to be very crowded – at least thirty vehicles would rush to any spot where some animal had been detected. But before all this, we didn’t actually have a truck. The single “public” truck made available by the National Park was already long gone – all other vehicles which were queuing up at the entrance had been privately chartered (usually for a minimum of $50 to $100 per person, thanks to included “lunch” and water). A few calls with the help of the rangers ultimately got us Evans and his truck.

A crowded Sunday morning in Nairobi National Park

Evans, aah Evans... ! Evans would turn out to be quite a talker: it’s as if he knew every single driver of every other truck that we crossed along our four-hour journey. Every single time Evans would slow down and enthusiastically greet the oncoming driver in Swahili. It became a running joke for us passengers – among the inevitable jokes we cracked along the way, such as offering to send one of us closer to the lazy lions to get them to wake up and even maybe chase some nearby antelopes and zebras.

A lazy lion
No, no, no, I never said you were lazy…
Perhaps getting a little bit too active at this point!
Getting closer
Looking around for prey (us)

Two hours – out of the four – were enough to spot most animals. In fact, we bumped almost instantly into the rare black rhinoceros as we had just passed the pond where a couple of hippos were bathing and spurting water out of their nostrils. The radio crackled constantly; it was a little bit too loud to our taste but it was the price to pay for Evans to know where interesting animals could be seen.

Black rhinoceros, critically endangered and not to be confused with the white rhino (which is actually just lighter in grey shade than the black one)
Hippo: about 1.5 ton per specimen

Everything was going fine... until my bladder reminded me of its presence. More than that, it was teasing me with a “September 11” memory. No, not that tragic memory in everyone’s minds. For me, the date Tuesday the 11th September 2001 is much more personal: stuck in a traffic jam as I was driving on Rome’s ring road, I couldn’t resist an urge to go to the bathroom. Clever as I am, I switched seats with my partner Hélène and resorted to using an empty water bottle. Yes, super clever, I know. All this while the news on the radio was all talk about something that had happened in the US but that we just couldn’t quite understand yet. So yes, that was “my” September 11, not too far from resembling Pierre Desproges’s own skit on humanity:

The specific section of the skit that I have in mind is towards the end: “Les gens qu'on ne connaît pas, les doigts nous manquent pour les compter. D'ailleurs, ils ne comptent pas. Il peut bien s'en massacrer, s'en engloutir, s'en génocider des mille et des cents chaque jour, il peut bien s'en tronçonner des wagons entiers, les gens qu'on connaît pas, on s'en fout. Le jour de récent tremblement de terre de Mexico, le gamin de mon charcutier s'est coupé un auriculaire en jouant avec la machine à jambon. Quand cet estimable commerçant évoque aujourd'hui cette date, que croyez-vous qu'il lui en reste ? Était-ce le jour de la mort de milliers de gens inconnus ? Ou bien était-ce le jour du petit doigt ?”

And in English, that would give: “As for people we don’t know, we don’t have enough fingers to count them. In fact, they don’t count. They might as well be massacred, drowned, genocided by the hundreds every day, wagon-heaps of them might as well be cut up: the people we don’t know, we don’t care about them. On the day of the recent earthquake in Mexico, the son of my butcher cut his little finger while playing with the ham machine. When this commendable shopkeeper today evokes that day, what do you think comes up to his mind? Was it the day of the death of thousands of unknown people? Or was it the day of the little finger?”

That kind of dry humour would probably be unacceptable in today’s oversensitive political correctness. Oh well, it still makes me laugh – and Desproges has this uncanny ability to play with words and make a lot of references to historical and cultural aspects that only the most well-read would understand (while I’m implying some arrogance here, “even” I don't always get his references).

Back to my urge – so fascinating, isn’t it. Thankfully this time I didn’t have to use my water bottle. Evans the driver managed to be convinced to stop the vehicle, something he was not allowed to do as per the park’s regulations. I jumped out, after having – of course – given a cursory look at my surroundings. Who wants to be eaten by a lion because they had to pee? After what seemed like very long minutes an arm’s length away from the back of the jeep, I plunged back inside the jeep. Yes, I still had all my limbs attached to my body, thank you very much.

Maybe I owe this to not having seen all of the Big Five. For starters, there are no elephants in the park. As for leopards, they are incredibly rare. But I was happy to see lions, black and white rhinoceroses, and buffalos. I dare say that’s pretty good for my first land safari. By the way, do you know why they are called the Big Five? They are said to be the five most difficult (read: dangerous) animals in Africa to hunt on foot. Ha, I would love to see those hunters give a try at chasing those mammals with a simple spear and not the all-too-easy rifle!

Buffalos, the only animals within the Big Five that are not endangered or threatened… and also considered by many to be the most dangerous among those five, with wounded animals reported to ambush and attack pursuers
Yum, yum (that’s the sound of the buffalo munching, not my stomach grumbling for a buffalo steak, pft)
Giraffe posing for a portrait
One more giraffe
And back to lunch
More zebras
Crocodiles, in case you hadn’t spotted them
Zebras galore
I want that pony (it’s not a pony, it’s a zebra)
That bird didn’t come with a name tag
Looking the other way
Not a stuffed antelope (yet)
Keep going...
On the lookout, just in case
Antelope, still alive
On a long, lonely, winding road