Leaving London prepared
In February 1980 I took a plane from London – Gatwick to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. I was about to spend one week at a tented camp in the Masai Mara – safari memories never to be forgotten.
Then I was scheduled to fly to Mombassa on the east coast for a relaxing two weeks by the sea. Little did I know beforehand that Mombassa, although unbearably hot and humid at times, would be a welcome, physical relief from seven, dry, hot and dusty, days I had just spent in the bush. I had a borrowed video camera and a stills camera to record everything but had little idea how to use them. I have no recollection of what happened to the videos but I managed to scratch around and unearth some of the old photographic prints in the hope that I might be able to recall more vivid memories of the trip. Most of the photos were so bad I was too embarrassed to show them to anyone. But I was determined to restore and rework what photos I could to try and graphically illustrate the experience which had been dormant for 34 years. (The pictures displayed in this post are the result).
Helping the flight crew
In an effort to relieve my boredom and my numb bum, during the flight, I sent a request to the First Officer asking if I may spend a little time on the flight deck so that I could make sure we were headed in the right direction! He kindly granted my request – maybe he was bored too. The nearest I had got to understanding anything about flying was reading ‘Biggles’ stories when I was a schoolboy. Stories like ‘Biggles flies again’ and ‘Biggles flies undone’ amused rather than educated me. So I was relieved that the crew humoured me when I asked naïve questions like “How many gears does this thing have?” I was about to follow that up with ‘Which is reverse?’ but thought better of it.
I was quite taken aback by the Captain’s response when I asked him if he ever felt stressed about his responsibility for the safety of the 250 passengers sitting behind him. He said he never gave them a second thought and that all he was concerned about was himself; his logic being that if he walks off the plane then the passengers will too. I couldn’t argue that.
Into the heart of Africa
At 1800 metres above sea level Nairobi can make you feel a bit dizzy until you acclimatise. And one drink can easily make you a bit tipsy. We only spent two nights in the Capital before setting off in a single-propeller engine light aircraft which took us across the Great Rift Valley to the Masai Mara game reserve.
Landing at Kichwa Tembo tented camp, our safari base, required the pilot to fly low over the grass landing strip, twice, in order to move the zebra and antelope that were grazing there peacefully before our arrival. The alternative would have been a pile of mincemeat in the bush. Kichwa Tembo is, today, dramatically different to the primitive tented camp I stayed at all those years ago. Although I didn’t think so at the time, I realise now how lucky I was to experience the closeness of the wild without any of the modern comforts that have been installed over the intervening years.
Into the bush
Here on the equator days and nights are precisely 12 hours each. Just before 6 am it is pitch dark and just after, within minutes, it is broad daylight. So at 6 am on the dot each day we set out from camp in the Land Cruiser, driving through the bush, until returning for breakfast at 9 am. After breakfast around 9.30 we set off again, returning for lunch at 12 noon. After sleeping until 2 pm we were off again returning at 6 pm, for dinner, as the sun was setting.
I had never seen sunsets like this before, even though in the Gambia they were awe inspiring. One minute there is a huge red ball of fire on the horizon and within seconds it’s gone. It seemed then that time moved much quicker than anywhere else I had ever been. Illusions are powerful. This routine was only broken on a couple of days when we walked in the bush with armed Rangers in the mid sessions, 9 to 12.
Danger in the wilderness
9 hours in the back of an open top Land Cruiser over rough, dusty terrain in searing heat can leave you with little desire other than to shower and go to bed before 9 pm. But the exhilarating feeling that you are, not just so close to, but actually a part of the wild is quite impossible to explain and alleviates the tiredness somewhat. You have to experience it for yourself. To follow a pride of lions, hunting for 2 hours, in the vehicle or to walk along a river bank teeming with crocodiles and hippos in the knowledge that your safety is determined by the attitude of wild animals certainly gets the adrenalin pumping.
The African buffalo is considered to be the most dangerous of the big five closely followed by the elephant (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhinoceros). Even in the Land Cruiser you can never feel 100% sure, so bush walking, where you are totally exposed needs to be undertaken with extreme caution and adequate Ranger protection.
Disobeying orders and living to tell the tale
You are told never to get out of the vehicle because you only have your driver for protection. In the event of a lion attack he would be about as much use as a one armed gypsy violinist, I fear. But I remember one day we disobeyed orders and got out of the Land Cruiser in order to get close to some hippos wallowing in the river. Peter, our driver, didn’t oppose the disembarkation and we returned safely to the vehicle. After we had driven no more than 30 yards through the long grass we encountered a pride of about 6 lions lying under a tree. They were impossible to see until we were right on top of them. Luckily for us we were downwind so they didn’t pick up our scent (I think it was Old Spice then) or we could well have become a tasty snack with very little hunting skill required. If you think that wasn’t too clever, I have to admit you are right.
Learning the lingo
The charming Masai waiters at Kichwa Temba tried to teach me Swahili and I still remember a few words to this day. They were far more successful at teaching me Swahili than I was at teaching them English as we found out at dinner one evening. When I asked what was for dessert that evening ‘Lamb scramble’ turned out to be ‘Apple Crumble’. I knew I had failed.
A humbling experience
I learnt so much in that short week. I learned to respect the wilderness and not just to enjoy its beauty. I learned a little about the Masai people and how proud they are of their traditions and culture and how they are happy to share it and welcome us into their world as long as we respect it.
I began to understand that it is not our place to determine their future or try and change their world to the way we see it. Visiting their small villages, a collection of mud huts (enkang) encircled by a hedge of acacia thorns to keep lions from attacking their cattle, is a humbling experience. It is now generally accepted that Africa and the Great Rift Valley is the cradle of humanity and the Masai are at the heart of Africa. This is where we all originated from. The Masai have much to teach us but I fear with each passing year they will become more susceptible to the fast encroaching technological age led by tourism. Let’s hope they manage to preserve their traditions and culture whilst still living in harmony with the modern world.
Other photo restoration experiences you may like. The Gambia 1979