© Copyright 2021 by Dawn Llewellyn-Price
Photo by Joe McDaniel on Unsplash
‘There’s a good road, a not so good road, and a bad road’ Bernard our safari bus driver had warned us as we left Nairobi Hilton, its foyer awash with a great white wave of cricket bags.
I think they belonged to an Indian cricket team; they were embossed with letters ending in ‘CC’ presumably County Cricket, but it may have been Pakistan. It’s so long ago now, it’s difficult to recall such details, but the memory of that tsunami of sports bags, pooling out from under the reception desk, into the waiting area, like the white foamy dissipation of breaking waves, I will never forget.
All I knew at the time, was excitement building. We had stayed two nights, or was it one?
We’d met our fellow minibus passengers, or was that when we checked out?
Time quickly erases the small stuff.
We had just found our driver waiting outside, a friendly Kenyan with a white smile and a baseball hat, who would steer us through a week on safari taking in the highspots of the country’s bush. One thousand miles lay ahead of us, and we were soon to discover much of that would be a hugely uncomfortable ride, with just four of us as passengers.
We had set off out into the city traffic, Bernard’s words ringing in our ears, meandering out into the suburbs before heading onto the road where our adventure journey would begin. We stopped briefly to observe a man wandering at the roadside, swinging the headless corpse of a cobra in one hand, a huge knife in the other. He smiled at us, and waved it outside our window cheerfully as if it were the finest ‘catch of the day.’ We took photographs and waved back as Bernard pulled away from the kerb.
The good road drifted off in our wake, and soon after Bernard was steering madly through rutted roads; the bus weaving and dipping dangerously.
‘So is this the bad road?’ I called down to the front, gripping tightly to the thin metal bar of the seatback in front of me from our chosen positions near the back.
‘No, this is the GOOD road!’ Bernard laughed back.
I hate to say it, but he was right.
There began a week of never to be forgotten moments, of near misses with rally drivers in clouds of dust, of bouncing bodies and clenched knuckles, and hasty scribblings of sightings in the bus ‘diary’. But those first few breathless miles, where I truly thought my life was about to reach its conclusion, in an upturned safari bus with the word Somak emblazoned along the side, had to reach a finale. The end came with a huge sigh, and the letting go of all fear and preconceptions, as there is truly a limit to the amount of gripping and gasps of fear a person can emit in any length of time.
A voice in my terrified brain started shouting at me, rescuing me;
‘He does this all the time. He knows these roads, he drives them every week. He has done for years.’
And with that came laughter, and a releasing of all the muscles, and the allowing of my body to bounce and slide sideways off seats, ultimately accompanied by a few rousing ‘whoop whoop’s!’.
We all succumbed at that point. Seeing the windscreen at impossible angles to the horizon, soon became second nature. No wonder they never repaired the shock absorbers. Nothing could absorb those rutted bumps.
The infamous ‘I survived the potholes of Kenya’ T-shirt was bought by Jim, husband of Diane, who had undergone kidney surgery twelve weeks earlier and would never have attempted the journey had he known the four-wheeled bucking bronco ride ahead of us. Nobody had warned us our teeth would spend the next week clenched or drawing cheek blood, depending on the road ahead, and our bodies would need tending to on a Mombasa beach the following week.
But what a seven days they were.
Our first night was spent at Samburu lodge, and it was there we discovered our travelling companions missing luggage wasn’t likely to turn up for a few days. Much hasty scrabbling in our large suitcase produced a pair of bright red Budweiser T-shirts which they borrowed until it finally put in an appearance days later. Monkeys ran off with my future husband’s shorts, which he casually left draped over a terrace chair as we settled into our bungalow along the riverbank. That night we watched crocodiles in the river and a leopard on a log attempting to reach the bait hanging above it.
We travelled most days, staying at comfortable lodges, some with pools, and ‘Treetops’ where Elizabeth became Queen and studied her signature in the visitors’ book. We slept, then heard the rumblings of excited whispers and feet as guests were awoken to see the elephants arrive at 3 am, trying to avoid walking into the padded branches of the terraces in the dark.
Game drives found us up at five in the morning, or early evening, to follow the animals when they were at their liveliest, for during the heat of the day they slept. Lions, cheetahs and their cubs were found on open ground. Cameras clicked frantically through the elevated rooftop of the buses designed for passengers’ craning necks to get the best views. Other drivers pulled up alongside, to give the latest positions of animals, and the charge of the light vehicles would begin. For there were no walkie talkies or method of contacting others. The safari bus drivers had their own way of communicating.
We idolised elegant giraffe, zebras, and antelope as they meandered across the dusty roads in front of us. Baby elephants shook their trunks angrily in our direction. Crocodiles crept at us by night, slithering up river bank slopes to be fed in congregations by the lodge staff, while we sat on a low wall a mere push away from those fateful jaws, ours and their watchful eyes swivelling as others gathered too close by.
I seem to remember a cat. Did it creep up on these beasts to steal morsels of torn off meat? Or am I fantasising, mixing up memories from Youtube creations or television documentaries?
That’s the problem with the passing of years. Unless you write it all down immediately, all but the vaguest, strongest memories become lost. The minutiae, which make up the depth of the experience, vanish into the fog of the past. You do want to remember it all, like the once in a lifetime experience it was, yet rely mostly on photographs.
I clearly remember the waiter at ‘Carnivore’ restaurant in Nairobi, the night before our journey began, in his apron and hat, carrying a skewer of zebra to our table, the height of his shoulders, to begin filling our plates. Like cows to the rest of the world, these are popular meat in Kenya. Next came Oryx, again, another non-endangered species. Our little table flag went up, down, up, down, as we requested further food. We ate much of what we saw in the wild before we’d set eyes on it.
But out in the bush, we found the Big Five.
Those most popular of wild creatures we hunted down with the aid of Bernard and his cohorts, binoculars and swivelling-eyes, endless watching the wilderness.
I found a leopard.
We’d already sat below a tree in our semi-circle of minibuses, fanning out around a stage where the main act commanded the performance, cooing quietly as we watched one spotted sleeping beast, amazed we’d managed to see it in the wild. After an aeon of observing, we headed off into the nearby bush, commencing the slow drive back towards our safari lodge.
I’d noticed something falling from a tree, just out of the corner of my eye, and called out to Bernard to stop. He did and we searched the higher dappled branches.
High up, a leopard was devouring a warthog, bits of flesh falling periodically to the ground below. Just that one flash of movement, that slight draw of my attention, and without, we could just as easily passed on by.
The excitement of seeing not one, but two of these rare creatures, in such close proximity, was the high spot of that week. Forget the rhino, or the old, dying lion, it’s scars a roadmap to the bush, who didn’t move at all as we sat watching just feet away.
Forget the cheetah family lazing beneath the trees, their cubs playing wilfully around their feet.
Forget the hippos in the river, stretching their jaws, or the blazing glory of a lake full of pink flamingoes wading idly through the water.
It was all of life and death in that one moment.
One leopard in one tree. With one warthog.
We could finally head to Mombasa and the beach, where we would swap a pair of deck shoes for an ebony crocodile souvenir keyring, carved by a young boy named Jacob, his sample piece bearing his name.
‘Please sir, will you buy a keyring? I will carve your name into it, and deliver it to your room in the morning!’
‘But we leave for the airport in a little while.’ one of us answered sadly.
‘Then can you please let me have your shoes?’
He had pointed at Jeff’s dusty, past their best beach shoes.
I’d nodded to my future husband to do the right thing, noticing Jacob’s bare feet.
Jeff could find a pair of shoes in our suitcase before boarding the airport bus.
Jacob took the shoes gratefully and handed over his sample keyring, carved with his own name.
‘Please have this, sir!’ his eyes lit up with happiness.
Mine filled with stinging tears.
Jeff took the crocodile, while other beach sellers surrounded the boy to look at the shoes, standing barefoot on the hot sand, fifteen minutes before we left forever.
live in Swansea, South Wales, UK.