Day 234: Optimism Fails to Salvage Safari
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 thin layer of soft sand outside Amboseli National Park is cold against the soles of my feet in the blue dawn light.
Mustafa's tired to the bone, so he's staying behind. The cooks under the acacia tree have already kindled up a fire and put a big kettle of water on to boil. There is a soft morning silence, where the few sounds that do wobble through the air are muted, afraid of waking the world before the sun.
The the blue Bajbaj Boxer Ibrahim gave me a key to last night so I could do my morning solo tour coughs to life. She and I pull out of the fenced camp ground, cutting back toward where Mustafa and I caught the sunset last night.
The Boxer has more power than the Skygto I was riding yesterday. The back tire kicks up sand as I pull through the aired landscape, a cool breeze brushing my burnt forearms.
The landscape is sparsely decorated with thorny trees and brushes, motorcycle paths zigzag through the flat, sandy land, linking Maasai villages encircled by acacia tree fences. The barrier looks less like a wall and more like what it is: hundreds of thorny tumble weeds tangled together and wrapped around a collection of tiny round engaji, one of the types of homes in which the Maasai people live. Though only measYuring about three meters by five meters and standing only 1.5 meters high, a Maasai family will cook, eat, sleep, socialize, store food and other possessions inside the single room home. At night, the Maasai men round up their flocks of cows, sheep and goats and bring them inside the wall of thorns, protecting them from leopards, lions and other wild animals searching for an easy meal. This early in the morning, the animals have yet to be led out of the compound.
On the outskirts of a larger village, some compounds comprise only two or three enkaji, a lone baboon picks through a rubbish bin, while two gangly Marabou storks look on. I've seen ostriches before, but I was prepared – I know how big and scary an ostrich is, I've ridden one. However, facing these storks, even at a distance, it's hard to come to terms with their size. Their wing span must match mine – nearly two meters – and their heads no doubt would rise above my waist. They're big birds.
The dice demanded I make a drone video of the birds. So here it is. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Sitting in an Umbrella Acacia tree, its trunk shooting straight up before its branches spread out like, well, an umbrella, is a whole flock of the storks, each bird standing erect in the tree, their tall bodies silhouetted by the rising the sun.
Behind me, the morning sun catches the eastern snowy edge of Mount Kilimanjaro, transforming it into a tangerine sorbet.
Having only been on the bike a couple of minutes, it feels too early to stop and set up the drone, but the storks standing atop the giant umbrella have captured my imagination.
I roll: evens I get the drone out; odds, I don't.
It's a four.
I set up the drone only to realize that I've forgotten an essential cord back at camp. Better to find out now than when I'm twenty minutes away. Sometimes the dice get it right for reason I can't at first imagine.
Back in camp, more people are starting to rustle around the collection of tents set up by the Dutch tour group. Yuri, one of the dirt bike racers leading the trip today, points out that I have a flat front tyre. Apparently, a mechanic had tried to wave me down and warn me before I left camp, but I hadn't even noticed – him or the flat tire.
Got to love the mental fog of early morning starts.
I track down Ibrahim to get a key to a different bike. Back on the dirt path, I stop for the storks, again.
The die said get some drone footage, so drone footage is what I'm here to get.
Further afield, running abreast of the Amboseli National Park, a small herd of Zebra trot across the dirt track, their wide haunches a dusty red, bouncing as they go. In the distance, the single long neck of a Giraffe appears.
Alone with the animals in the morning, a hushed contentment fills me. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I saw so many Giraffes yesterday that I pass on the option of chasing this poor beast with the drone. I'm eager to find something new, maybe Elephants, Lions or Wildebeests.
With time running out before I need to be back to camp for breakfast – lord knows nobody will save me a bite to eat if I'm late, I settle in on the far side of a dry mud field where a dozen or so Thomson Gazelle are grazing with their young.
The skittish animals abruptly leap into a full gallop, careening through the Savanna before coming to a dead stop.
The Massai are also up really. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Back at camp, the Dutch lads have already broken down their tents and packed them up. The cooks are still preparing breakfast, so it looks like I've not missed anything yet.
I pack up the tent for Mustafa and myself while charging a drone battery among the cluster of wires charging phones.
“So were you heavily involved in the revolution?” I ask Mustafa.
We've settled into a pair of canvas camping chairs behind the fire pit the cooks were working with, which is an appropriate distance from the ring of chairs surrounding the morning camp fire that the Dutch kids are eating around. It's a good breakfast: crepes, sausages in a coarsely chopped tomatoes and onion sauce, bananas and coffee.
“Yeah, I was in the streets for the entire 18 days. But I regret it. It was a waste of time. I should have focused only on me, rather than trying to make the country great,” Mustafa says.
There's a soft resignation in Mustafa's light blue, revolutionary eyes. Though he, as a 27-year-old educated Egyptian, fits right into the demographics of those idealist who lit up the world with a revolution organized and promoted through Twitter and other social media platforms, I didn't expect his answer.
“How so?” I ask.
“I was in the middle of immigrating to Canada, but thought we could change. So, I put all that aside. We thought we could make it a better place. At the end of it though, they didn't even give us a chance. There are only two options: the army or the Brotherhood.”
In the democratic election that took place after the first revolution in the Arab Spring, the conservative Brotherhood swept.
“They used religion to sway the uneducated masses. If you were against them, you were against the religion,” Mustafa says.
“I guess that was the start of us seeing how flawed the democratic system is. Since then, we've had Brexit and Trump. Democracy only works if it stands on the shoulders of a well-educated population,” I say. “When I was talking to people about Brexit, I always explained that even if I was British, I shouldn't have been allowed to vote. I don't know enough about economics, let alone global economics, for my opinion to count. I have no idea what the ramifications of going one way or the other would be.”
A basic subject competency test should be given to everyone who votes on any topic. Everyone gets to vote, of course, but the votes of only those who pass the test should be counted. Though something along those lines wouldn't have saved America from the Trump Train, it could have at least prevented something as silly as Brexit.
“There was a recent study that showed that everyone involved in the revolution is in one of three categories: immigrated to western country, taking serious steps toward immigrating or are in jail,” Mustafa explains.
“It's a brain drain on the country. To think about all of those young, smart, passionate people fleeing the country. What's going to be left?” I ask.
“We tried. Now, we have to think about just ourselves.”
I pour myself another mug of coffee from a big tin kettle over the ashes of the cook's fire, while Mustafa packs his lunch.
Though the majority of yesterday was pretty shitty, we're both hopeful that today will be better. Yuri explained to us that we were much more likely to see animals on the three hour backcountry ride toward Sultan Hamud, where the bikes will be loaded up into a truck and we'll take a bus back to Nairobi.
It's funny how optimists can so consistently be wrong.
Of course, that's a three or four hour time from with the assumption that there won't be any “occurrences”, as Yurin put it.
With this group of Dutch idiots, “occurrences” are not only guaranteed, they're are doubtlessly immanent.
Deciding to a take a firm, positive stance to get the necessary filming done for Charles, despite him misleading us about this trip, I explained to Ibrahim early this morning that I would need to get the drone up in the air as the group was taking off in order to get establishing shots with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. The shots is especially important because the SD card with the first round of shooting I did yesterday was corrupted, leaving me with only the shots in the afternoon, which didn't have the iconic mountain in the background.
One by one, the Dutch hooligans have been walking over to the bikes, strapping on their black helmets and climbing into the saddle. Impatiently, they zip around or digging deep trenches in the camp grounds as they send rooster tail into the air behind them. DYuring this time, the support crew is finishing washing dishes and packing everything into the a van, which will meet us in Sultan Hamud.
“Isaac, you ready?” one of the Dutch guys asks. They seem to only talk to Mustafa and me when they feel like we're holding them back. That said, a couple of them have legitimately been nice a couple of times, but we're mostly perceived as unwanted baggage.
With the propellers of the drone attached, I'm preparing to calibrate the compass and get the shots we need.
“Hey Isaac, can we do this later? We need to go now. They guys have been waiting for fifteen minutes,” Ibrahim says as he walks over to me.
“Dude, I don't care at all what we do. If you don't want drone footage, that's fine with me. None of this matters to me at all. I'm here giving you free top-quality promotional material, but if you don't want it, that's fine with me. I'm not doing this because I want to, but because I agreed to. Offering to do it for free was a huge mistake, as you're clearly undervaluing all of it,” I spit.
“No, no, no man. The drone footage is great. I really like it,” Ibrahim says, back peddling as fast as possible.
“Whatever man, you just explain to Charles why we couldn't get the shots we need. I don't care.”
“Hey, it's okay. I'll talk to him and the guys about this. I think there'll be another spot on the way that we can stop so you can do some drone stuff.”
“Up to you. I really don't care.”
I pack up Dorsey II, hopeful that once we're on the trail my driver and I can stop and get some shots. I'd suggested that he and I hang back while and then catch up, but he doesn't know the route, so it the idea was scratched.
And that's the other thing, the bike that Mustafa and I were using yesterday had to be returned, so he and are are getting dumped on the back of the mechanics' bikes.
Sitting pillion with the drone bag on my back and another bag containing my lenses awkwardly strung across my back, the mechanic I'm riding with and I putt out of camp. A few meters beyond the gate, we come to a stop to wait for everyone else.
“We ready?” one of the clients asks me, as if I am again the problem with the situation.
“I'm really not the person to ask, hey?”
Fuck these guys.
If I was getting paid to do this, that would be a completely different story. However, since it was the experience of the trip that was bartered for the drone footage – and it's a shit experience – well, I'm not really feeling like dealing with silly nonsense.
Mustafa ridding pillion, on the other mechanics bike, pulls up next to us. He throughly appreciated overhearing me tear Ibrahim apart early this morning – we're both pretty fed up with the situation.
The team of riders spreads out in a single file line, nearly in good order. Yuri and Jesse lead the pack, while the mechanics do their best to keep up in the back. Ibrahim continues to zip around with no real purpose, but to please himself.
We turn off a gravel road onto a sandy, dirt track just past a half dozen Zebras, which are a blur of black and white stripes as we zip past them.
I turn to snap photos of Ibrahim as he rides next to us.
“Mustafa, I mean Isaac, can you get pictures with Kilimanjaro in the background?”
I can, but he has to ride on the other side of us, which he doesn't seem to understand.
We come to a stop.
One of the riders is standing next to his bike holding the top half of a piece of shrub. He's been in the second accident of the day – and we're less than 10 minutes into the ride.
“I couldn't see in all the dust, hit the bump and chopped the tree down,” he tells us, his face caked with dirt. “I dropped the bike when I landed.”
It's going to be a miracle if all of these guys make it back to Nairobi alive.
“What's wrong with it?” Jess asks, showing no concern for the level of reckless driving.
“The steering is a little off now.”
One mechanic holds the handle bars in place, as the other kicks the tire hard. He kicks it over and over again until it snaps back into alignment.
Not five minutes down the road there's another cluster of riders: someone else has crashed. Most of the riders have tears in their t-shirts and so much dirt caking their face that it's hard to know who's the most recent crash victim. Not that it really matters.
Then, there all gone and we're playing catch up again.
We hit a pump too hard. I'm momentarily airborne.
“Oh, dude, please take it easy. I've got tons of valuable equipment with me,” I whine.
My driver is struggling a bit with my weight, especially when we hit sand. My feet come off the pegs as the back tire starts to slip out from under us.
“Don't put your feet down,” the driver says once he's recovered the bike.
“Yeah, of course. Sorry.”
He's right. When you're the passenger, the best thing you can do in a near crash situation is stay calm and hold your position. You should never pick up your feet or put them down on the ground; I'm not the best passenger.
There's another crash up ahead. The whole group has come to a stop, bikes and people cluster in the shade of a tall acacia tree. Several members of a nearby Maasai community have wandered over to have a look.
Three woman, heads shaved, long silver earrings danging from their lobes, stand back, away from the crowd, in a potato field. An elderly Maasai man laughs as I pull out the camera to take pictures of the Dutchman's injYuries. Large holes in the lobes of the Maasai man's ears have been looped up around his ears as if his ears are attempting to eat themselves. The Dutchman sits on the ground at the center of the crowd. He has a deep cut and an abrasion on his forearm and a similar abrasion on his leg. Another one of the guys, already bandaged up, is limping away from the crowd.
“We've got to talk to them about this,” Yuri says, walking away from the crowd. “They need another orientation or we'll never make it there.”
The guides knew that there would be more accidents on this route, due to sections of deep sand, which is challenging riding. However, I don't think anyone anticipated the Dutchmen having left their common sense along with their luggage back with the vans.
“They're going too fast. Just too fast,” my driver mutters to me. “With no experience, it's too fast in the sand. Maybe 30-40km/hr at the most.”
After another orientation, the Dutchmen mount their bikes and tear off. There's no noticeable difference in how they're riding.
We're left in the dust.
Bumping on the back of the bike like a sack of unhappy potatoes, it's hard to know why the fuck I'm even on this trip. (I should have rolled the dice about coming down here in the first place, but it seemed like too good of an offer to pass up on.) We've sped past flocks of sprinting ostriches, their thick legs hurling them forward with raptor like speed; we've passed Zebras, even Giraffes. The tour group is always somewhere over the horizon as my driver does his best to keep up, not slowing for anything but sand.
“Oh man! Did you see that Giraffe run right in front of me? It was like a movie,” Ibrahim says, glowing as he pulls up next to me. At least he's having a good time.
My sour mood deepens with each silent moment on the back of the bike. The driver has hooked up speakers to his bike, which are blaring some local music, which isn't too bad, but that's about it. There's nothing to do, but brace my body against the constant bouncing on the trail.
I consider telling the drvier to stop and let me off: to think that this was going to be the better of the two days. I can't for the life of me figure out what the point of today is.
There are more minor wrecks, a flat tire that needs to be fixed.
My driver hits some deep sand a little too fast on a big open stretch. The bike tire slides hard as he fights for control. I can feel the bike going down, but I keep my feet up, hoping he'll recover.
The bike pitches and dumps us into the sand.
Camera cradled in my right hand, drone strapped to my back, I take the landing on my elbow. Thankfully, we're aren't moving too fast. I immediately come to a stop, the drone backpack only lightly bounces against the ground, my camera remains safely tucked in my arm.
The driver, pinned beneath the light bike, sullenly lays there, as if him crashing the bike was my fault.
Yuri, who was right behind us, walks up.
“Everyone okay? Nobody dead?”
Together we lift the bike off the driver, who then sorts himself out.
Seven months and who knows how many kilometers of driving a motorcycle and the first crash I'm in is as a passenger on this stupid Chinese piece of shit.
I didn't think today could be worse than yesterday, but it is. I sever no purpose. I am not comfortable. I am not happy. The comforting fact that I'm not spending any money is of little comfort at all at this point.
We hit another patch of sand and my feet come off the pegs.
“Don't put your feet down,” the driver snaps at me.
“Sorry, but last time you crashed. My confidence isn't so high right now. I know the sand is tough, but still.”
“It's very hard driving.”
“I know. I appreciate that, and I'm a fat passenger, so that makes it harder.”
He's pissed, but doesn't have an outlet for it. Admittedly, he's being paid to be a mechanic not a Boda Boda driver as well as a mechanic. The whole trip is this sort of makeshift shit show.
We stop briefly for lunch, only about an hour or so from the end of the motorcycle journey. In the shade of a large tree we sit on what little grass there is, avoiding any thorns that have fallen from the branches.
Our little convoy is surrounded by dozens and dozens of small Kenyan faces. The kids, dressed in dirty blue coats with bright orange undershirts, silently stare at as we pick the meat off the bones of cold pieces of fried chicken. The kids remain unmoving at a certain distance. They are neither shy about staring nor confident enough to engage us. A Maasai woman spinning a switch comes by, herding the kids away from us like goats from a garden, but they return a couple minutes later.
“It's like they're watching aliens,” Mustafa says.
I presume this is the place Ibrahim thought I could fly the drone. However, it's not that nice of a location. There is a wide, empty riverbed that we'll be crossing, but we're on the edge of some sort of town and once the Dutchmen start riding, they won't be stopping to allow me time to pack the drone back up. Ibrahim doesn't say anything about getting the shots, so I don't do anything. He's Charles' point man on the ground, so what he wants trumps any brief I was given about me role here.
“This is a land of plenty,” the mechanic driving Mustafa says to nobody particular. “Look at all this sand. They're just waiting for a mzungu [white person] to come and make all the money.”
It's true that the river bed is full of high-quality sand, vastly different than the fine dust that's covering the surrounding Savanna.
Back on the trail again, the kids flying ahead, me bouncing in the back as unhappy as ever, my mind keeps coming back to the analogy of me being a sad bag of potatoes that this poor mechanic inexplicably has to carry from one point to another.
The path widens to a road as we approach a string of mountains that once seemed too far away to reach today, despite Yuri's assurance that they marked our final destination. Dust twisters that spotted the barren landscape we were driving through after the village are now behind us, as we fly through well-grazed grassland full of sheep, goats and cattle.
Just as I write off seeing any more wild animals, a herd of Zebra gallop across the path, joining the domestic animals grazing alongside the road.
Our group has come to a stop on a gravel road that they're forced to share with dump trucks and lorries.
“Another near death experience,” one of the guys says as we approach. As usual, it's hard to know who wrecked, but someone did. Apparently he superman-ed over the handlebars and someone how manged to walk away from it.
If these Dutch lads give me nothing else on from trip, I'll at least have a better grasp of the resilience of stupidity.
Farther down the road, everyone has pulled over and have taken to the shade of a tree while a straggler gets his flat repaired.
Back against the tree, I listen to them chatting with Jesse.
“You don't seem too worried about all the crashes. Is this normal?” someone asks.
“No, usually nobody crashes this often. Maybe in a race, but not on a ride like this. It's amazing how you guys crash and walk away from it. I've never seen someone crash like that last time and brush it off,” Jess says.
The group laughs, their spirits bolstered by their apparent invincibility. However, barely below the surface of the laugh I can hear tremors of worry – nobody is invincible forever.
“So it's okay then?”
“The goal is for you to be happy and get where you're going. You're not going to be happy with a broken arm, but nobody broke an arm, so we're okay.”
Miraculously, there are no more crashes in the last 15 minutes of driving.
It's a three hour bus ride back to Nairobi. I spend most of it on my phone in the front seat.
“Oh, let me off here please,” I say, checking a map. This is as close to Karen Camp as the bus will get.
Mustafa calls me moments after I climb onto a Boda Boda whose driver agreed to take me to the camp for 300 Bob. I forgot to leave Charles' extra drone batteries with Mustafa. It's not until, I've already turned around to meet up with the bus again that I realize that I left all my lenses and my wallet in Mustafa's bag.
Mustafa and I exchange goods.
The staff at Karen Camp remember me. The stuff that I was supposed to leave in storage for only a week is all still there. The three-bed dorm room, Dorm B, is empty. I have the place to myself.
Tomorrow, I'll catch a cab to my old high school friend's place. Michael offered to put me up for a couple days as I attempt to sort out logistics of getting my own motorcycle in Kenya in order to get back on the road with the dice rolling as fast as my wheels.
Despite everything, this is a hard view not to fall in love with. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli