Our six-week honeymoon to the east coast of Africa was over three years ago now. But, like any epic journey, this one is imprinted in my soul and I’ve never quite managed to shake the desire to get back to those wild plains. I was leafing through my journal from the trip yesterday and found a time-logged safari diary (I think I’d been reading a little too much Green Hills of Africa at the time) which took me right back to that magical time. Hopefully it does the same for you.
5.30am: I rise in the liquid darkness and pull on the necessary but rather horrifying polar fleece I swore I’d never wear. It’s freezing. Watch the sky turn purple while munching toast and tea. Ngorongoro Crater appears through the mist; I choke a bit. Wow.
6.30am: Pete [my husband] and I haul ourselves into the open Jeep with our guide for the week, Wilson. As we descend into the crater, the sun pops over the horizon. Seconds later we spot a serval cat a few metres from the truck; we watch the little spotted feline leap after an insect. “Lucky sighting,” says Wilson, nodding his head. It’s going to be a good day.
7.30am: A young male lion rests in the golden dry grass. He rises and pads silently in the golden dirt, stealthy as only cats can be, swivelling his huge head and sniffing the air for his breakfast. He slips closer and closer. The Jeep suddenly feels very exposed. Is it possible for the beast to spring into the Jeep and drag me into the bush??
7.45am: I’m distracted by a buffalo skull sitting in the scrub beside a fat baobab tree. How good it’d look on my wall at home, I think… almost missing the bull elephant pulling great wads of grass from the earth just metres from our truck.
8.00am: Surrounded by hundreds of zebra gathered by the river, drinking and grazing and slopping through the water. A truly overwhelming sight, seeing them en masse like this, their stripes bright and clear against the brown landscape. Two vultures hunch on top of an umbrella acacia as the mist rolls across the crater.
8.20am: RHINOS! Two of them, a mother and baby. Wilson shuts off the engine and congratulates us on seeing the most elusive of the “Big Five,”, and two of only 34 rhinos left in the crater. Fucking poachers. Wilson tells us that five years ago in Botswana the rangers tried cutting off the rhino’s horns before they were fully grown so the poachers would lose interest in them. It didn’t work: the rhinos no longer had horns to defend themselves with so the lions ate almost all of them. They’re pretty far away, but we watch through the binoculars in amazement as the mama rhino charges a hyena.
9.20am: We drive through an ocean of wildebeest and gazelle to the right, a pack of Hyena lying by a lake on the left. I’m fascinated by these scavengers. They’re not as fast as most other animals, says Wilson, but they have a heart twice as big as a lions so they can run all day without stopping, eventually running their prey down. Tenacious little buggers. We spot a baby: black and with all its teeth already. Sometimes four are born at once, usually only two, but if two are born of the same gender one must kill the other in order to survive.
10.00am: Stop to watch a fat hippo dunking itself in and out of the water, coming up to snort a huge lungful of air every couple of minutes.
10.20am: A set of dusty teeth stick up through the dirt. An omen perhaps, as a few minutes later Pete yells to stop the car. He’s seen a black mamba. Wilson says it’s not possible, there are none in the crater, and keeps driving. Pete insists so Wilson reverses. There, slithering along the hot ground, is a metre-long black mamba. A very rare find, says Wilson, looking a little spooked. Pete’s been dreaming about this snake incessantly for the past few nights. Did he manifest it?? We stay in the car even though we’re desperate to pee: if this guy bit you, within six steps you’d be unconscious; half an hour later you’d be dead.
10.40am: Two Masai boys pass with a large herd of goats. They couldn’t be more than eight years old but they’re wielding spears and will be out all day on their own. We approach the blinding white salt plains, which shimmer like an oasis. A flock of pick flamingoes cavorts across it and the scent of sulphur hangs in the air.
10.55am: A day-old baby gazelle tumbles across the savanna on our left. Just 100 metres ahead sits a group of about 30 vultures and some hyena. A symbol of how life and death sit side by side here. The vultures start to stir. They’re flying away, their huge wings beating louder than a bongo drum.
11.15am: We enter the Leroy forest, leroy being the Swahili word for the gnarled, droopy yellow-barked acacia filling the forest. We pass a giant eland antelope, the biggest of the antelopes and the only one the Masai will eat because they believe it descended from a cow, as they did. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of a cloud of white butterflies.
12.00pm: An elephant cemetery, bones and skulls everywhere. This is right near a swamp; the old elephants who’ve lost their teeth go there to eat the soft reeds when they can no longer eat their normal food, then eventually come here to die.
12.30pm: Stop for lunch by a river and watch hippos bathing lazily in front of us.
2.35pm: A pride of 11 muscled, yellow-eyed lions by the side of the road. There are no other animals about; they’re all acutely aware of the danger these beautiful creatures pose and have scurried. As they lay there so peacefully, moving only to yawn or to lift their long, majestic noses into the air to get new information about their surroundings, it’s hard to imagine they pose any threat at all. I’m mesmerised.
3.00pm: Four ostrich cross the road, their chunky bodies slowly waddling up the hill. Fat grey clouds roll above us and rain starts to drive down, making the atmosphere even more dramatic and wild. A sign from the crater gods: it’s time to go home.