Day 232: Dice denied chance to shoot down Safari
Though we arrived after dark the first night. The view from our camp wasn't so bad. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
THE blur of the early morning doesn’t fade as quickly as it needs to as I find myself half asleep on the floor of Distant Relatives Eco-Lodge next to a young Kenyan woman I know from the festival and the Egyptian photographer whose coming to Amboseli National Park with me today.
We’re all sprawled out on a big cushion, the woman and I sharing a blanket that the Egyptian, Mustafa, gave her to use. Every other cushion in the common room is occupied by others who hadn’t given up on the Kilifi New Year’s Eve Music Festival.
Mustafa and I were recruited by a Dutchman named Charlie to provide media content for a motorcycle Safari at Amboseli National Park. We’re not getting paid for the gig, but Charlie is able to cover all of our expenses, which are food, lodging, transportation and park fees. It’s too good of an opportunity to allow the dice the opportunity of passing on – sometimes they get in the flow of saying no to cool ideas, which can be frustrating if you don’t have any adequate alternatives.
Charles, with long amber locks of hair, clear sharp eyes and the sort of charm that has without a doubt paved the road for him in life, spotted my drone as soon as he arrived at Kilifi, as he also showed up with a Phantom 4 drone to do some of his own filming to promote his travel business.
“Send me some of your work, maybe we can do something together,” he said, before fluttering off to grab a dawa, a Kenyan cocktail, his girlfriend was holding out for him.
Later, it was agreed that this would be a test run. If things went well, and I was able to supply high quality content for him from the Amboseli safari, we’d look at teaming up for the rest of my trip. He recently bought 14 or 15 150cc Boxer motorcycles, one of which he could loan me in exchange for drone footage. With the Kibo deal falling flat, teaming up, both of us with fledging projects and businesses, was ideal.
So, the dice were not consulted.
It’s too early for any staff to have arrived. I knew I should have settled my bill last night, but I didn’t. I manage to find a security guard, but nobody he calls is picking up the phone.
“Can I just give you my phone number and email to give to them when they arrive? I can then Mpesa money or something, if that’s okay,” I ask.
He agrees that it’s the best plan.
With that settled, I rush out to the front gate with all my belongings – which always seems to be too much. There’s a large school bus, full of energetic, college-aged Dutch lads. One of them is still in the Eco-lodge, as he can’t find his wallet. I’m relieved to find out that I’m not the one delaying our departure.
I go to board the bus, but am blocked by a tall, good-looking Dutch guy who stretches his arm out across the entrance.
“Sorry bro, private bus,” he says with a fratboy douchebag tone that’s are hard to miss.
“Sorry bro, I’m your drone pilot,” I shoot back.
He moves his arm so I can climb in with all my gear.
I probably shouldn’t be so snarky to a client straight off the bat, but seriously, he’s not in charge of the bus – there’s a guide and a driver, let them do their jobs.
The guy missing his wallet finds it, but not his phone. Or finds his phone and not his wallet -- I can’t really tell what the deal is and after bouncing around trying to pay my own bill, I’m perfectly happy for them to sort it out themselves.
Our guide, Joseph, is an imposing, muscular Kenyan. He takes the front seat next to me and the driver once one of the lads, the leader of the group, does a headcount.
It’s supposed to be a six-hour drive to the national park. However, one of the kids is moaning on and on about being sick. So, we have to make a detour to a hospital in Mombasa.
It’s Kenya. It’s a developing nation. You’re going to get sick. You don’t have to go to the hospital. Of course, I keep that opinion to myself.
The bus pulls into the parking lot, clipping a car while we’re parking, which leads to some sort of fiasco that I mostly ignore as Mustafa and I wander over to a dilapidated, tin-roofed shack to buy a cup of milk tea, a few bananas and peanuts. The lady behind the chicken wire front of the two-meter by two-meter building sells me some phone credit before bringing my cup of tea out to me. We sit on a pair of overturned buckets around a makeshift table, while we wait for the bus to get moving again.
“This is the sort of thing I like about traveling,” I say, taking in our shabby, unique setting outside the hospital gate.
Back at the bus, I pass around the bag of peanuts to a few of the guys waiting under a tree.
Thirty minutes or so later, the sick guy returns with a brown paper bag of antibiotics. According to the doctor he saw, it was a good idea for him to come to hospital before ending up in a national park, away from medical help, for the next few days.
Though Joseph is a bit of a monolith in his presence, he doesn’t carry any authority. I pepper him with questions about the area, but he doesn’t seem to really know anything, which is a bad sign. Even if we’re not in Amboseli yet, a tour guide should know what’s going on.
Somewhere along the straight stretch of highway we’re traveling on, we pull over at a curio shop for lunch. The building is set out in the open, dusty Kenyan countryside with nothing around to keep it company. Inside, there are thousands of beaded trinkets and wooden statues. The dark polished wood of any individual statue draws a person’s hand to it; there’s something tantalizing about the crude details and the smooth surface of a hippo or lion or Maasai man standing with his spear. But the magic is lost in numbers. No statue from those as small as my thumb to those as tall as my leg stands alone. They were all produced in multitude. Dozens of each statue is stacked up in row after row, removing the charming feeling of having possibly found something unique.
At the back, tables are set up for us to eat. It’s a self-serve lunch with rice and other Kenyan staples in large metal serving containers. Mustafa and I hang back so the clients can grab their food first, we then pick at what’s left. There’s barely enough of the meat dishes for us, but at least there’s something. We settle down at our own table to eat.
It’s not until we’re already in the bus, with me up front next to Joseph and the driver that I realize we didn’t pay for the meal. To be fair, Mustafa and I aren’t supposed to be paying for anything, but it looks like someone was supposed to pay.
A couple of the Dutch lads are arguing with the proprietors of the shop about the price.
“That’s all we’ll give you. There wasn’t even enough food,” one of them is saying.
Joseph is uninterested. He doesn’t want to get involved.
“Hey Joseph, maybe we should help them out,” I say, I’d already pulled a 1,000 Shilling note from my wallet, but was hesitating about pushing it forward. The deal was that my meals would be covered.
“It’s not my problem,” Joseph says, taking his stance with the demeanor of a whiny, stubborn child.
“I understand, but maybe you can help them. The better experience the client has the better for all of us,” I point out.
With a bit more cajoling, I’m able to get Joseph out of the bus to go help sort out the matter. Why on earth he wasn’t on top of it from the get go is beyond me. He’s supposedly the man in charge here; he should be ensuring everything runs smoothly.
Once it’s taken care of, I slip my money back into my pocket, and we’re off.
Joseph has been muttering something about a short cut for the last hour, which doesn’t sound like a bad idea given our late start and the fact that we had to swing by the hospital this morning.
The day drags on.
We’re off the highway now, bumping along on some wide sort of road construction I can’t place: it’s not gravel, it’s not dirt. Or maybe it is dirt, either way the wide, deep trenches left behind by puddles during the rainy season forces the bus to crawl along, gently pitching as one wheel rolls down into such an empty puddle and then comes back up.
“How much longer?” I ask Joseph.
He says we’re close.
He continues to say we’re close for the rest of the trip, which is nowhere near being finished.
The bus has been mostly quiet for the majority of the day, but as the sun starts its downward descent there comes one voice.
“Nants ingonyama bagithi baba,” the voice sings, or at least its closest rendition to the beginning lyrics of The Lion King’s “Circle of Life”.
Other voices join in, until the whole bus is singing the Lion King song. It goes on and on and on, before someone starts another song, then another song. They must have spent a lot of time on buses together – perhaps they’re footballers.
The Dutch guys are getting more and more rowdy as the sky starts to darken, somewhere out ahead of us is a mountain ridge. Nothing too impressive, but something other than the flat, barren Maasai landscape through which we’ve been crawling.
Dozens of tomatoes appear on the road in front of us, their plump, juicy bodies flung into the dust like powdered jelly donuts.
Joseph wants them.
I empty a plastic bag for Joseph, so he can hop out and collect them. Everyone on the bus sits there and watches.
A couple minutes later, we are moving again, two sacks of tomatoes richer.
“That’s Mount Kilimanjaro,” Joseph tells me, pointing to a mountain peak ahead of us.
That’s it? That’s the most famous mountain in Africa?
We’re approaching the mountain from the North East; all we can see is the rim of a somewhat spikey caldera near the top. If it was anywhere else in the world, I can’t imagine looking twice at the lump of earth in front of me.
I was not impressed by first glance at Mount Kilimanjaro. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The lads start yelling, “Oi!”
There seems to be no particular reason, they’re just shouting, moving from charmingly singing Disney songs to being more than adequately irritating. All the while, Joseph, keeps promising that we’re close.
It’s dark. The Dutch have run out of whiskey. I hadn’t realized they’d been drinking, but that would explain the sudden downpour of music after the long silence of the day, like rain falling to parched soil.
“We need to stop for beer!” they keep calling out.
Though it’s not my place, I start organizing things with Joseph. We can pick up more drinks in about 15 minutes, when we reach the next town. I relay the message back to the guys, which does nothing to settle them.
“When are we getting there? Are we there yet?” they call out again.
Mustafa and I had originally put our faith in Joseph, but that faith has been washed away faster than a sandcastle in a flash flood. He’s put on a strong face, but seems to have no idea what’s going on – we should have arrived two hours ago.
Mustafa is now following our progress on Google Maps. Our short cut might have been shorter via distance, but it’s taking ages longer due to road conditions.
We stop the bus to buy booze and take a leak on the side of the road.
It’s completely dark out by the time we turn off the well-paved C102, which had been a welcome break from the short cut, on to C103, a wash-boarded gravel road. The natural wash boarding of the road, hard ridge after hard ridge rattles loose what little patience we have left.
Joseph peers into the darkness surrounding our lone bus, hoping to spot a sign for Kimana Camp.
The driver slows when Joseph tells him to. Our eyes strain to make out the small wooden signs for lodges and camps as they fall into the dim yellow headlights of the bus.
“It’s farther ahead,” I keep saying; Mustafa pulled the exact location up on Google Maps and handed me his phone. “I’ve got it right here. We’re still about 15 minutes away.”
Joseph has no faith in the phone.
Nobody has faith in Joseph.
The eyes of elephants not far from the road momentarily glow in the darkness before we pass them.
Time after time we slow down to check a sign, adding to the feeling of being completely lost in the black abyss of the savanna.
“Here! Here!” one of the Dutch guys starts shouting as we pass some tall wooden gates to a different lodge.
“It’s okay. I’ve got it. We need to go a little farther down the road,” I say, having taken charge in the void left by Joseph’s complete lack of knowledge.
By the time we pull through the gate of the camp, the tents for the Dutch group have already been set up.
Mustafa and I stand on the fine dust of the campground waiting to see what happens next as the drunk kids are given a Dutch rundown of what’s what.
“Who are you?” shoots Ibrahim, a younger Dutch guy who was here ahead of us setting up the tents and organizing everything. He’s Charlie’s man on the ground for the rest of the trip. It turns out Joseph's job was only to get us down here in time, which was more of a struggle than anticipated, but at least explains why he didn't take charge or seem to know what was going on.
“I’m here to do the drone stuff and he’s here to take photos,” I say.
“There’s only supposed to be one of you,” Ibrahim sharply says.
“Um… Charlie sent us both down. I’m not really sure.”
“Okay, I don’t really have anything for you guys though,” he says. Our presence is unwanted, but what can we do. “Just wait a minute and let me see what I can find.”
Eventually, Ibrahim rustles up an extra tent for Mustafa and I to share, as well as two thick blankets and one small sleeping pad.
Once we have the tent set up beneath a large Acacia tree away from the glow of a nearby campfire and the rest of the group, there’s not much left of dinner for us to pick through.
We do our best to scrape together a meal, before brushing our teeth and crawling into bed.
“This kind of sucks,” I mutter to Mustafa.
On the bright side, we’ll be exploring Amboseli National Park tomorrow. It’ll be my first safari – who knows what animals that romped through my mind as a child we’ll get to see in real life once the sun begins to rise.