Day 233: Pre-approved Pseudo Safari Sucks [videos]
What could have been an extraordinary experience gets eroded by reasonable expectations. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
EVEN now, sitting down on a metal chest on the outside ring of a brightly burning camp fire beneath a wide-brimmed Umbrella Acacia tree rising up in front of Mount Kilimanjaro, it's hard to forget that the majority of the day was still shit. It's hard to believe it, because Mustafa, the Egyptian photographer on the trip, and myself are buzzing from the last several hours of capturing the wild beauty on the outskirts of Amboseli National Park.
Waking from a dead-man's sleep in the morning, on the hard ground at Kimana Camp, I can hear the rowdy group of Dutch lads already up and at it. How they're awake at this hour after drinking bottle after bottle of whiskey last night is beyond me. Nonetheless, they are up and ready to mount their Chinese Boxer motorcycle. Some will be attempting to ride a motorcycle for the first time today.
Mustafa and I are an after thought, when we're a thought at all. Ibrahim has rented a battered 150cc Chinese boda boda motorcycle wrapped in blue and red pleather accompanied by hundreds of tiny, dirty tassels. Only with a great amount of force am I able to kick the bike through its gears.
Picking through the remnants of breakfast, I put the last two sausages, a banana and the last two crepes on a plate. Some of the Dutch guys are now bolting together their own packed lunch.
“Not sure if you were told yet, but you need to pack your own lunch,” Ibrahim says. Given that he's the guy in charge and hadn't told us about the lunch situation. It should be pretty obvious that we were not informed about the need pack a lunch.
The Dutch guys put on yellow-green vests and black helmets. Two professional dirt bike racers are walking the group through the basics of riding a motorcycle. Even to me, it seems reckless to be putting these kids on motorcycle and hitting dirt roads without them having any real training or experience.
I roll a couple pieces of fried chicken in a strip of foil, adding it to a banana, hot dog and two boiled eggs in my paper bag for lunch.
“So where can I put my lunch and water? All this is the drone,” I ask Ibrahim.
Ibrahim is a younger guy, perhaps a few years younger than myself, with ragged black facial hair hinting of some sort of Arabic decent. However, he's Dutch by nationality.
“I've got an extra bag you can use, if you can find a way to carry it,” he says, not remotely interested in helping to ensure I get the best drone footage possible for future promotion of the trip.
Ibrahim straps his own small bag to the back of his orange 200cc enduro-style bike.
Why he can't be slightly more helpful or welcoming is beyond me, but it seems that every issues Mustafa and I have is our issue to sort out: he point blank refused to help Mustafa get an open-face helmet, which is nearly essential for a photographer when shooting from a bike. If he simply would run over to the clients and ask if one of them would switch is all he had to do. Instead, he told us to deal with it ourselves.
So, it's Mustafa, me, the drone and all our camera gear on one shitty rental bike.
“I'm impressed with how quickly they are all picking it up,” I say to Ibrahim after watching the group start tearing off on the dirt road.
“They are Dutch, so they grew up riding bicycles. They just need to figure out the gears and they'll be fine.”
One of the young bucks, the one wearing mustache patterned black and white pants with a matching shirt – African style – catches a lift back on the back of one of his friend's bikes after a minor crash. He's got a couple abrasions on his hip, but that's it.
“Yeah, I was thinking I know everything,” he's telling someone, putting his finger on the problem: overconfidence. “It's better it happened here, and the helmet saved everything. Is the bike okay?”
The mechanics on the team have no problem getting the bike running after the little tumble.
Our group of more than twenty riders, including guides, mechanics and media, kick up a cloud of dust as we head out, away from the Ambroseli National Park entrance and toward Kilimanjaro.
Now I understand.
Last night, it seemed impossible that the mountain could inspire so many writers, climbers, locals and tourists. But it was the ragged tip of Neumann Tower, the lesser of the two mountain peaks, that we were introduced to as the sun set behind it. Above the arid landscape of Acacia trees and brambles, the long-white capped mountain ridge, like Moby-Dick served up on an igneous rock platter for the gods, does the mountain justice.
The riders tear off on a rugged, soft dirt path, blooms of dirt appear in the air behind them. The guys are driving fast and aggressive, and doing a good job of it. It's hard to believe that for most of them it's their first time on a motorcycle. Of course, a stalled motorcycle here and there slow things down, but in general there going fast.
With a bit of effort, Mustafa and I manage to pull alongside each rider, screaming “Oy” at them, both to get them to look for a photo opportunity and as a bit of revenge for the drunken, obnoxious rocking of the bus last night.
We hit rocky patches in the path as we get closer and closer to the iconic mountain, the details of the creases along the ridge become more and more visible as we go.
In a sour mood, I'm re-thinking the idea of working with Charles on a future project that would see us team up for the remainder of Dice Travels. I do like Charles, but I think he's giving me a shitty deal. A Boxer motorcycle, brand new, is about 1,000 dollars. If he wants me to be delivering a finished media project through multiple social media platforms for him during the next four to five months for loaning me a bike, it's simply a bad deal. Not to mention that the Boxer isn't the best bike for the trip.
“So what do you think of the bike?” Mustafa asks, as if reading my mind.
“Well, this isn't even the bike I'd be taking, but I'm thinking it's not a great idea. It depends on what Charles wants and how much he's willing to give.”
Perhaps for a 150 dollars a week plus the use of the bike for the duration of the trip, I'd consider it.
The group stops without explanation, then it's going again. Neither of Mustafa nor I have any idea why we stopped, why we started back up or where we're going.
The farther we go the farther from the wild we led to believe we would be exploring – what else does a safari imply – and the closer to civilization we find ourselves.
“This hardly counts as a safari,” I moan. “I figured it was worth coming because we'd be covered for the park fees and all of that. As it is, I don't think we're costing them anything at all and they're getting great content from us.”
We are of a similar mind.
Ibrahim speeds by us, zipping up to the front of the group, clearly enjoying himself, but also clearly not serving any purpose whatsoever.
If I was alone on the bike, I could at least enjoy the riding, but with a photographer on the back, even the driving is a working duty. However, I'm glad to have Mustafa along, because at least we're in the same shitty boat and can bitch to each other about it.
We stop, but before I have time to get the drone set up and in the air, the group is off again.
For fuck sake, Ibrahim could at least try to be fucking helpful.
It's stop and go, stop and go, as chaos takes over and parts of the group become lost as we find ourselves in a maze of dirt roads cutting through villages. We're constantly chasing. Or waiting for those lost behind us.
Sitting in the shade of a tree by a school yard, I peel a boiled egg. A dozen unsmiling kids press against the gate to the yard, watching our small group as we wait for more riders to show up. Then, it's time to go, before I can even eat the egg.
Nobody says anything. They just drive away.
The road widens and is banked on either side by expansive fields of potato plants, their green stems and leaves poking out of dirt mounds, their purple flowers running all the way up to the base of Kilimanjaro, which looms above us, ever present on the western horizon.
At the time I didn't know how lucky we were to have the clouds clear from Kilimanjaro. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Uri, one of the dirt bike guides, gets a front tyre flat. We drive up ahead to inform Ibrahim about the situation.
“Wait, here,” he says at a junction. “So are you having a good time?”
“It's okay,” I say, not about to sugar coat my disappointment with the trip.
It is a couple days of not spending any money at all, which is good.
Eventually, we're sent forward to meet up with the rest of the group.
“I told them to go straight until they found some shade. They're pretty fair ahead, but take it slow on the rocks since there's too of you,” Ibrahim says.
We bounce off. The rocky section isn't nearly as bad as many other parts of the trail that we've tackled so far, and the group isn't so far away. Five minutes down the path, we find them taking cover in a forest of pine trees, Kilimanjaro looms large in the blue sky above a potato farm.
From this side, it's easy to understand why the tallest mountain on the continent captured the imaginations, and lives, of so many explorers. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Parking the bike on a slight ledge, I step off it. Moments later, it tumbles into another bike. They crash to the ground with a thud.
My side view mirror snaps off, but that's the only damage to the bikes.
I have reception out here. AirTel, my provider, has had me roaming in Tanzania on-and-off for ages, but at this specific location, I'm able to access my data plan and get my fix of Facebook and WhatsApp.
Moving again, we cut through a proper town, the road lined on one side with fruit stalls. Momentarily, we find ourselves on asphalt. The Dutch guys zip back and forth down the road, as none of us know where we're supposed to go next.
An hour or so later, we find ourselves on the washing board gravel road back to camp. Mustafa and I have been left behind, which seems like it's for the best – at least with regard to our happiness.
“Wow, did you see the elephant?” I excitedly ask. We take the bike down a steep embankment on the side of the gravel road, and park it.
Dorsey II, my drone, is acting up. The elephant, wherever it is has disappeared.
I was lucky to spot him through the shrubs and trees, as he was hundreds and hundreds of meters away.
Once Dorsey II agrees to fly, we're unable to find him again From the sky; Dorsey II took too long to get it up – a familiar feeling I fear.
“There's a herd of elephants up ahead. The rangers aren't too happy to have you here,” says Uri, who came speeding up the road and spotted our parked bike.
An elephant in the area has been killing people. Most recently, an Italian man was killed. Elephants, like Hippos, are not to be fucked with.
Uri isn't going anywhere until we're ready to go with him.
“If we see them, keep driving. You can drive slow to take pictures, but don't stop. If you see it flap its ears wide, just go,” he says.
Bumming down the gravel road, we scan the scrub land for any sign of the elephants. It's incredible that it's possible for an entire herd of the largest animal on land to seemingly disappear into thin air, but there you have it – the elephants are nowhere to be seen.
Uri left us once we started moving, presumably he has responsibilities back at camp.
Mustafa and I are bouncing along, trying to find a smooth section of road, when we spot the slender, elegant neck of a Masai Giraffe as she nibbles at the small leaves of an Umbrellas Acacia tree only meters from the road.
We slow down as we approach the beautiful, strange looking beast. She's not alone, there is an entire herd of them, including a youngster.
We have an entire herd of Giraffes to ourselves.
A pleasant, nearly giddy, sensation fills me as we watch the Giraffes eat, their lump of a body held aloft by spindly, but powerful legs.
Nervous about our presence, the herd moves a little deeper into the bush, but not so far away that we can't spot their heads swiveling above the trees like periscopes.
The motorcycle comes to a stop. It's a bit naughty, but I want drone footage, who knows when we'll get to see Giraffes again. On the other side of the road, we find a young Masai boy carrying a thin stick as he herds a flock of sheep away from a patch of bright green grass clinging to the edge of a small watering hole.
He holds out his hand to us. What he wants is unclear.
If this 11-year-old boy is chilling here with his sheep, surely Mustafa and I are safe. I unpack Dorsey II, and put her in the air.
It turns out Giraffes don't like drones, which is understandable Dorsey II doesn't so much drone as buzz like an angry hive of bees once she's airborne. The animals cautiously watch her as she gets closer and closer, circling them from above.
It was only after we ditched the Dutch that we could fully appreciate the magic of our surroundings as we watched wildlife in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
It's the utter uniqueness of Giraffes that is so captivating. There are plenty of iconic long-necked Sauropod Dinosaurs, such as the Brachiosaurus, as well as the water dwelling Diploducus, but they're all extinct. With the climate changing at the time these tall guys were around, most of the forests with extraordinary tall trees disappeared, and what was left couldn't support large populations of upper foliage nibblers. What other living creature has a neck so disproportion? There are Emu, I guess, as well as the Eastern Long-necked Turtle, but neither of them really stack up against a Giraffe. The only long-necked animal still bumbling about that I find myself loving almost as much as a Giraffe is the Giraffe Weevil, but even this wobbly-headed, red-bodied bug is only spec in comparison. (And to be fair, I've never seen a Giraffe Weevil in real life, but right now, a few dozen meters away is a herd of wild Giraffes.)
Dorsey II brings us closer to the herd than I ever imagined we would be, providing a perspective that was up until recently reserved for National Geographic film crews working from helicopters.
The drone comes a little too close to the Giraffes for their comfort. The young one and his mother begin to awkwardly lumber forward, as if they were running on stilts: their long legs barely bend as their necks lean forward into the wind and their body rocks back and forth.
They gallop for a moment, then stop to return to picking at tiny leave in thorny trees.
“This really is the best part of the whole day,” I muse. “Just not having to deal with them makes everything better.”
Mustafa full-heartily agrees.
Back at camp, Mustafa and I are on a safari high. We drop our extra bag and start sussing out what's next. I'd like to take the bike outside the camp to explore a bit more, get some stock footage for the video.
There had been more crashes today than I was aware of. Nothing serious, but at least a third of the Dutch guys had dumped their bikes at one point or another. Maybe, they aren't such good riders after all, or maybe they are arrogant douche bags – who is to say?
“We're going to rest up, but in a couple hours we'll go to a big dirt field so the guys can practice some more,” Uri says, fully aware that tomorrows ride is going to be more challenging.
I track down Ibrahim.
“Dude, can we please try to organize the guys when we go back out? It'll be a good chance to get some footage for Charlie,” I say.
“Yeah, we can do that.”
As soon as we hit the dry mud flats past a few Masai compounds and across the roads, the lads are off in nearly every direction at full speed. So much for letting me do my fucking job. The kids tear through the flats leaving plumes of dust behind them, even Ibrahim is ripping off in the direction of the area that Uri specifically told everyone they weren't supposed to go.
They really are all a bunch of hooligans.
It feels like I'm herding mosquitos as I try to get Ibrahim to hep me get everyone together for at least a few drone shots. The guys are buzzing with impatience, but eventually we get them lined up and Mustafa is able to get some close up portraits of their dusty faces, all of which are broken into big smiles showing off sets of perfect, white teeth.
There's not disputing the fact that they are a good looking group of lads.
Once we're wrap up the shooting, Mustafa and I cut ourselves free. We're on our own time now and don't have to waste our energy documenting the unappreciative.
“Hey, when's dinner? We're going to explore,” I tell Ibrahim.
He doesn't really care.
The ground is a light brown, almost a dusty white in front of us, the trails weave through the spares foliage, like poorly braided strands of hair.
Our dusty path splits around a sage-leaved Whistling Thorn Acacia shrub. We slow down as we pass a scattered herd of Thompson Gazelles. They're grazing in a patch of tall, yellow grass, but don't stick around long enough for us to get the drone up.
Further down the path, not far from the Gazelles, is a heard of Zebras slowly trotting away from us. There is something pleasantly seductive about the wide hips of a Zebra. I'd never imagined them to be a sensual animal in the slightest, especially when you see one face on, but from the back, those African haunches are something else.
We watch a couple small colts, their bristly manes standing on end like mohawks, trot among their mothers as they moved away from us.
The Zebras are great, as are the Gazelle – that's two new large mammals in my book, as I've never seen either in the wild before. However, I want to find more elephants, there are supposedly elephants out here in the bush.
Farther out, there is another Masai compound. The thorny brambles from Acacia trees have been rolled up into a tall fence encircling the Masai families and their flocks from wild animals.
The sun is starting to sink below the horizon, bringing with it a soft, blue light. The herdsmen have already brought their flocks in for the night.
“Should we be getting back now?” Mustafa asks.
He's probably right, we don't want to be out in the bush after dark – there are no fences between us and thousands of hectares of wild animals.
On the way back, we spot more Giraffes. There are four of them out in the open. They start to run once Dorsey II takes to the air. Their yellow and deep-brick brown bodies gallop in front of Kilimanjaro, a narrow strip of clouds hangs below the famous snow cap.
It's nearly dark by the time we pull into camp. Under the same Umbrella Acacia we had breakfast, three cooks are boiling big pots of food and preparing salad and fruit for everyone.
Having nearly missed every meal so far, Mustafa and I are less willing to hang back and server ourselves up last.
After dinner, the Dutch lads buy every bottle of beer in the small refrigerator at the camp and return to their binge drinking.
Following a rustic wooden fence to the dinning room area – where other campers have organized their dinners – I plug in the laptop and begin transferring files and writing. A power strip plugged in at a small table next to the refrigerator is mostly full, but I find a spot to start recharging drone batteries and my phone. Though I'm not remotely impressed with Charlie's trip, I'm fundamentally a professional and will continue to act like a professional.
After all the files have been transferred from one SD card, I pop the other one into my computer: there's nothing there. After 30 minutes of attempting to recover the files, I give up. For whatever reason, I can't even find the back ups on my phone. It makes no sense, but it's getting late and we have an early start tomorrow.
Mustafa gives up the socket he's using to charge his camera batteries to Ibrahim on the condition that Ibrahim plugs the charger back in when's done.
It's not until we're headed to bed that Mustafa realizes Ibrahim failed to plug his charger back in. Hopefully, he'll have enough power to shoot tomorrow.
“He's such a dick,” Mustafa says.
I couldn't agree more.
Outside, there isn't an ounce of light pollution. The night sky is a deep blue, the shadows of the Acacia trees black against it.
And there are stars. The Milky Way is a glowing, sparkling smudge across the landscape, a toddler's glitter jar spilled on midnight blue construction paper. I stop in my tracks to drink it all up.
It really is getting late.
I crawl into the tent after Mustafa. He's got his sleeping pad and the one sleeping pad Ibrahim managed to find for us. I suggested Mustafa take both of them, because I don't really need them. I only need the thick blanket that Ibrahim managed to round up for me, handing it over as if he was doing me a huge favor.
“Are you going to give Charles the giraffe content?” Mustafa asks.
“Good question. I feel like we were really mislead about this trip. I don't think he did it on purpose, but it sure isn't what he pitched to us, hey?”