Memoirs of an unforgettable journey
Have you ever slept in a tent in the savanna, surrounded by earth’s most incredible animals?
I had never even dreamt of doing such a thing, until one day at home in London, on one of the greyest days ever, I started to imagine the blue skies of Africa and I went ahead and booked.
I wasn’t lucky enough to be born with a tablet in my hands, with Google to give me information and Instagram’s photos to feed my dreams. When I was a little girl, I had a book with all the animals and my favourites were the penguin, or as I called it “the one with the tails”, and the lion, or “the one with the nice hair”. When I pointed to the lion they told me it was the “King of the Savanna”. But what was the savanna? They told me it was a place where all the animals were free, in other words a sort of animal paradise on earth with its own “kings and subjects”.
Then you grow up and your dreams start to clash with your fears, and my fears are plentiful and stubborn, but not powerful enough to stop me.
I leave London for Rome as I need to meet my boyfriend there before taking a charter flight to Mombasa. We have booked a resort near Malindi, along the coast, in Watamu.
When we land at the airport we find a man waiting for us and holding up our names. In the email they sent us before we left they told us that the journey from the airport to the resort would take about an hour and a half.
We travel on board an open-top Jeep, which is noisy and uncomfortable. We go deep into the forest, the sky above threatens rain and the dust from the road travels up into our nostrils.
I look at my watch and see that an hour and a half has gone by and there is still no sign of our final destination. I try and ask the driver but I get no reply. Has he not understood me? Has he not heard me? I don’t know!
What comes next is one of the most terrifying moments of the trip.
The driver veers towards a dirt track, all you can see is the green of the forest and a few animals. He says nothing and slows down, we can only see a shack, and nothing else.
We looked at each other and said: “let’s run in different directions, they’re going to kidnap us”. The Jeep slows down and stops near the shack.
The driver gets out and goes off in total and terrifying silence. I feel a long, cold shiver along my spine, despite the 30-degree heat, words are stuck in my throat and my mind is overwhelmed by my thoughts. I think about the fact that I didn’t say goodbye to my mother, that I don’t want to die in Kenya in the middle of nothing, tortured by the natives.
We decide to wait and see what happens. The only other option is to run away as far as possible, but where?
We have absolutely no idea where we are, if there’s a village somewhere, someone willing to help us or ready to kill us for the money we have on us. The minutes tick by ever so slowly.
The driver returns and I feel so small, and also quite stupid. He turns up with two bottles of Coca-Cola for us. He thought that after an hour and a half in that suffocating heat we would want a drink. He tells us that he needs to get fuel and asks us if we need to go to the bathroom.
Danger averted! I’d had a lucky escape…in my mind that is!
After more than three hours on the road we reach the resort, which is owned by an Italian.
We give the driver a ten-euro tip, we feel that after all those hours and the Coca Cola he had offered us, he deserved it!
The owner immediately says: what were you thinking giving him that much? They could kill for that amount of money! Basically, we hadn’t been far wrong during the journey in thinking that he might have killed us for nothing!
We find out that there are only five of us: myself and my boyfriend, another couple and a French girl, who speaks Italian with a strong Sicilian accent and who tells us that her dream is to see “de lion”.
The owner is a young woman, who had previously been a guide in Africa and had fallen in love with the continent. She manages the resort, with the help of the locals, who do everything for her.
When, in such a poor place, you go to a resort and are surrounded by all the mod cons you feel a bit like a coloniser from the last century. We have now become the ones who always tip, so they serve and revere us.
The resort consists of a wooden structure, the room is large and has a four-poster bed covered by a see-through net to protect us from insects and mosquitoes.
We are immediately told not to waste water: we are in Africa and water is scarce here.
Every day we have to buy shampoo and bubble bath again; it miraculously disappears and we religiously go out and buy more. Seeing as it costs 2.5 euros, a daily wage for them, I can understand their need to take it! I let it go!
The pool is where the five of us become friends, this is where we are served tea and biscuits, while we are in the water. However, we notice that there are some black bits in the biscuits. We open them and see there are ants. Is this perhaps their version of high-protein biscuits, which are so popular in the West?
In the local language watamu means “sweet people”.
It is known to Italians because of Briatore’s famous house, which eventually became a very luxurious resort.
It is part of the Malindi and Watamu Marine Reserve, and the sea is to die for. The frequent low tides allow its many atolls to emerge.
A local boy takes us to one of the atolls on his small boat. It must be hard work for such a slender boy to transport five adults! Along the way we see giant red starfish and fish swimming about freely in the clear sea.
We are alone on the atoll, on an expanse of bright white sand surrounded by turquoise water, the same colour as the sky. It is so surreal that we mess around taking calendar-like photos, a different pose for every month.
A typical local boat arrives; it is blue with a canopy. They have just caught some lobsters. On these boats you can eat directly on the atoll.
Imagine you are in the middle of the sea, you and nothing else, eating a whole freshly caught lobster along with other fish..
Imagine you can hear the sound of the sea and the crackling of the fire, which the locals have lit on the beach so they can cook the fish.
Tell me if this isn’t heaven!
Watamu beach is closely monitored by the local police, who are responsible for its safety. We saw our young guide being taken away by force and were left speechless. We then explained he was with us and they let him go.
Around Watamu and Malindi there are some extremely poor areas, where the locals run their businesses out of crumbling shacks. I can remember a central street with an open-air market, with women sitting on the ground, busy cleaning vegetables, and barefoot children running among the fruit and vegetable stalls.
Africa is not only wonderful beaches and uncontaminated wildlife; it is more than anything shocking poverty. I will always remember their schools filled with hundreds of children wearing blue overalls and playing barefoot in the courtyard.
As the Jeep drives by, the children run as fast as they can shouting “Jambo! Jambo”, which in Swahili means “hello”, and reach out for something with their hands. Any little thing makes them happy, even things that to us are silly and insignificant are like a gift from the gods to them! Before leaving for Sub-Saharan Africa people usually take t-shirts, pens or note books with them. Everything is useful.
The population is proud of its traditions, of the characteristic smile with which they greet you.
SAFARI IN THE TSAVO EAST NATIONAL PARK
Going on a safari is one of those experiences that brings us back to when we were children, when we used to look at the world in wonder, as though it was still undiscovered, as if untouched by modernity, as if everything had another meaning.
Tsavo is the largest natural park in Kenya, measuring around 22,000 square kilometres, and is divided into West and East by the railway and the road that from Nairobi leads to Mombasa.
You can’t go to Tsavo alone, it’s not Yellowstone where you can plan your own trip hoping to meet Yogi and Boo-Boo bears.
Tsavo is home to the so-called Big Five, that is lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhinos.
You need a local guide, someone who will take you to places you are allowed to be in, for your own safety.
It’s the animals’ kingdom, not ours!
The owner of the resort asks a local tour agency to set up a two-day tour in Tsavo East national park for us and asks us if we want to spend the night in a lodge or in a tent. We all shout: “in a tent!”. Why are we so reckless when travelling? Not one of the five of us has the faintest idea what we are letting ourselves in for!
They come to get us in the middle of the night, around 2 am. It takes endless hours in a van to reach our destination. As usual it is the five of us!
We get to the Park in the morning. There’s an incredible expanse of red soil, broken up by trees and pools of water. The sky above is incredibly blue.
The driver stops and points to a cheetah on a sort of small hill, lying there quietly. I find it difficult to believe that this animal can run at a speed of 100 km an hour to catch an antelope.
It’s really far away, obviously, and you need binoculars and a highly specialised camera.
Not long after he sees a leopard, one of the Big Five! Well, it’s impressive, it doesn’t go as fast as the cheetah but it climbs with ease and also goes in the water. I wouldn’t like to be the one to make it angry!
A herd of elephants crosses the road, one of the little ones is left behind and his mother immediately moves him along. You see them bathing in those muddy pools, they are gorgeous.
We stop along the Galana river, which flows through the park, and here we see the crocodiles. The guide says to me: “take a picture next to the crocodile”. Not a chance! I take a photo of the crocodile.
The van we are travelling on has an open top so we can see the savanna, look out for animals and take photos. Things are moving above us, there are all sorts of flying animals, and this is where my fear of insects kicks in. At one point a huge cricket hits my nose like a missile. I wrench it off my face and it falls onto the other guy’s back and I realise that everything here is huge. I have never seen such a large cricket in my whole life! I screamed so loudly they must have heard me in Tsavo West!
Then the French-Sicilian girl shouts “de lion! De lion!” and we all turn around to see the king of the savanna, the lion! It’s amazing! It’s as majestic and powerful as a king!
There are ostriches, the largest birds in the world, who have no teeth and break everything up in their stomachs. I mean, they don’t look dangerous!
And then you have the elegance of the giraffes, the zebras, the fawns, which I can already imagine must have a difficult life. But this is nature in all its essence and the animals live in their own habitat!
Around four in the afternoon we reach the camp, where we find our tents for the night.
We are assigned a tent, which has two beds, a toilet, a shower and a sink. We are told that we really need to make sure the tent is closed properly. No lights must be left on in the evening as these attract the animals from the savanna. We actually only have candles for short-term use.
Never, ever leave the tent when it’s dark! Absolutely forbidden.
If in need of help shout “Masai”!
Hearing this it makes you smile, and I smiled too.
We each go into our tents. After hours of travelling under the relentless sun and over dry land, I’m sweaty, I feel sticky and am all red from the savanna soil. What I really want is a shower.
I’m in the tent at last, but it’s unbearably hot inside.
I move my bedsheets to one side and see a lizard. I cover it over! Oh well! Everything will be great after a nice shower. That’s what I think!
I go to the toilet and see two small frogs looking up at me from the water in the toilet bowl! Can I muster the courage to use it?
Ok! Now for my shower! As I place my foot on the shower pan it lifts up and out comes a small snake!
From the beginning: a lizard in my bed, frogs in the toilet and, to top it all, a snake under the shower! I can’t handle this!
I leave the tent like a madwoman, followed by my boyfriend, who asks me what is going on and I reply: “I’m leaving!”.
I walk between the other tents, the Italians in my group see my petrified face and ask me what is wrong. The foreigners stare at me in astonishment and also ask me: “What’s wrong?” They start following me, a crowd of people forms behind me.
I reach the Masai! I mean, they did say I needed to shout Masai if I needed anything!
The Masai is very tall and slim, with a shuka, that is a red tunic, and a spear in his hand.
I take a deep breath and try to reach the zen in me. Unfortunately, it’s burrowed deep inside me! I ask the Masai if I can go to the brick Lodge, I tell him what I found in the tent and tell him that nobody had explained to me what the accommodation would be like. Watching my words, I tell him that I’m scared of snakes and that having seen one “in the flesh”, underneath my foot, has terrified me.
The Masai haughtily tells me that the Savanna closes at 4.30 pm, it’s practically already closed. There’s no way I can go to the lodge, or anywhere else. There are no other tents, obviously. And he tells me: “If you need help, shout Masai!”. I say: “what if we feel ill?”. He answers: “Quiet, woman! The closest hospital is 120km away. We’ll spread the word through the savanna”.
Help! Did I get this right? Quiet, woman! Hospital 120km away and grapevine instead of a phone. I don’t know if I “blew a fuse”, saw red, lost it or what!
I told him: “You’re uncivilised!” He still asked me for 250 euros for a two-day tour, though! So, what are we doing, in the era of the internet and mobile phones, using smoke signals and the word ‘Masai’ for help? If I were to feel sick, would I have to pray for a miracle?
The Masai lowered his head and moved his shoulders back.
I calm down, apologise and leave, among the applause of those present, unbelievably!
I’ve got to get through the night! said the great actor Eduardo De Filippo in Napoli Milionaria! I’ll get through it, too.
Dinner is served: fried chicken and vegetables! It is soon dark and we can see the starry sky above our heads.
We group around the fire, sitting in a circle on some tree trunks, so we can hear some Masai stories. I can’t wait! I am fascinated by true stories.
The Masai have a pastoral lifestyle and also tend the land. They speak Maa and they are divided into clans.
As they are breeders, the more cows they have the more powerful they are. Livestock is used for bartering and also as a wife’s dowry.
Their homes are small and low, 1.5 metres high, which seems incredible in itself, if you think how tall they actually are! The land is fenced in. when you enter a compound, the first house you see belongs to the man, the head of the family, then comes the house of the first wife, on the left that of the second wife, and so on.
Masai men can have more than one woman, while Masai women can have only one husband. Infidelity in a woman is a very serious offence!
The Masai tells me that, unlike us Western women, Masai women aren’t jealous. They are all friends, like sisters peacefully sharing their husband with each other. They do everything together, cooking, cleaning, getting water and milking the cows. They meet up and together harmoniously decide who the husband needs to sleep with each night. He knows who to go to because of a stick left outside the house.
Obviously, a pregnant woman doesn’t get touched for the duration of her pregnancy.
The children belong to the husband, who also has the right to give them their name. Boys are circumcised without anaesthetic, after having spent the night naked and in the cold. After being circumcised they become Morans, that is warriors. They dress in black and paint white marks on their faces. Between the ages of 14 and 16 they are sent into the savanna to hunt lions and become real warriors. They need to return victoriously with the lion’s head, as lions eat cattle and are seen as a threat.
While the Masai is telling his stories I look down and see that I am surrounded by scorpions.
I ask the Masai to accompany me to my tent, which is also filled with scorpions.
I spend the night awake; I can’t sleep at all. In the middle of the night I see a shadow pushing against the tent. I don’t know how but I find the courage to go close to the window net to see what it is. It’s an elephant roaming around the camp.
In the morning, at breakfast time, there are monkeys about, they are so sweet. We carry on and visit the rest of the park and finish our tour. We need to get back to the hotel and the journey takes hours.
This was my first real experience in the wilderness. I had to fight my fears and it was hard. However, I learnt to manage them. I continue to go on similar adventures and no longer complain.
I said goodbye to uncontaminated nature and blue skies and returned to London and its greyness. After all, as Franco Battiato sings in one of his songs: “the world is grey, the world is blue”.