It had been an absolute dream of mine to travel through Africa extensively since I left high school about 5 years ago. Many people question me about the allure of Africa, and very cliche-ly it all started with Lion King and grew with my love of exotic animals and untouched nature. When most of my friends were starting to backpack South East Asia and/or Europe, I was dreaming of being on safari, walking through village markets and understanding a culture that is probably the most removed from my way of life.
After doing my research and deciding that an overland tour would be the best way to see the most of Africa I possibly could, I came across Absolute Africa which offered almost the exact route that I had in my mind and was almost half the price of any other overland company I had found in my search. The Absolute Tour - 73 Days from Nairobi to Cape Town!
Being skeptical about the price I thoroughly researched the company and their reviews, which were actually better than most of the other companies also, it didn’t seem quite right. The reasons Absolute Africa can afford to be so much cheaper than other overland tours is it is a camping trip, your staff is made up of a tour guide and a driver, that’s it! No cook, cleaner, porter, tent setter-upperer or anything of the sort, which means that you are the cook, the cleaner and everything in between. We have a duty roster between the group and cook communal meals, clean the truck out, wash the dishes and it is actually quite enjoyable to be self-sufficient when you’re on a tour for such a long time. The other element of the tour price is that majority of other tour companies include every possible safari, adrenaline activity etc. making the overall price skyrocket, whereas Absolute Africa include highlights, and then have optional excursions so that the customer can pick and choose what they might like to see or do.
And so on the 4th of October 2016, after a night at the lovely Wildebeest Eco Camp in Nairobi, we were picked up at 9am (Africa time ~9:30) by our smiling guide, Kanyo, and our driver, Robert, hit the road!
Day 1: Nairobi
On the first day we were introduced to our new home, the big yellow truck ‘Pluto’ that we would be living out of as well as our fellow tour members, 9 of us all up. Of the 9, the 3 Aussies were the most dominant nationality, Matt, Alanna and myself, there is a couple: Lena is Israeli and Jason is a New Yorker living in Israel, Emilie is Norwegian, Amie the Brit, and the 2 Chilean girls: Ali and Dani. There was certainly some chit chat on the road to our first destination, but for the most part it was awkward. We visited the Giraffe Centre, where we given a 15 minute lesson about giraffes and were then encouraged to feed them with pellets, and for those who were game enough, feed them from our lips for a big blue-tongued kiss. Next up was Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage, where the most adorable orphaned baby elephants were on show, playing up to the crowds with their ridiculous cuteness while we were given a loud speaker talk about the work that they do and how/why each elephant ended up there, most being products of ivory poaching of their families. Both were incredible animal interactions to have on the first day and gave the awkward new group something to gawk over all day together. We wrapped up the morning by stopping off at a mall with the opportunity to stock up on snacks, exchange money and make sure we had lunch supplies for the next couple of days (the tour only includes breakfast and dinner, not lunch).
I bought my first coffee since getting to Africa and ham, cheese and bread for sandwiches for lunch. We arrived at the campsite, Karen Camp, quite early in the afternoon to be shown how to pitch our tents, and where everything was stored on the truck, how to do dishes etc. My tent-mate ended up being the other Aussie and we sped through tent-pitching so that we could sit around and drink the rest of the afternoon away. We were told we could order food from the bar so as to get to know each other better, rather than cooking on the first night. It started raining halfway through dinner, and straight away the whole table piss-bolted towards the tents while I sat there confused. It wasn’t until Alanna had already reached our tent that I realised that we all had our tent flaps up and were going to be sleeping on damp mattresses that night. I had a terrible first night’s sleep and was kept up due to a bloody annoying blocked nose, which was soon to become a full-blown cold for my first whole week on the tour.
Day 2: Maasai Mara
We woke at 6:30, being introduced to the first of many early wake-ups and enjoyed our first camp-cooked breakfast also. Nothing quite wakes you up after a long night and sleeping in a tent like an early morning drive on African roads. We passed the beautiful Great Rift Valley and wove through windy roads until suddenly we weren’t on asphalt anymore. 2 more hours on the most horrible bumpy dirt road saw us arrive at the Maasai Mara.
We stopped for lunch by the side of the road and paid $10US to visit a traditional Maasai village, it was the most regretful money most of us had every paid. Corrupt by tourism, knowing that the Mzungus would pay no matter what the experience was like, the village tour was a complete shambles. The guide asked us to follow him but did not explain where we were going, or what was going on. The Maasai men awkwardly gathered in-front of us to begin their dance.
The dance traditionally involves making primal calls and group-humming while they follow the leader dancing around in a circle. They all laughed embarrassedly as though they had never done this dance in their lives, the others look uninterested while one straight out just walked around the circle at the back. They then summoned us around in a huddle, still not speaking a word, to show us how they make fire and then we broke off into two separate groups to see their inside of one of their huts, which was probably the most interesting part of the ‘tour’. The Maasai people have 4 sections in the house, the first room you walk past is where they herd their calves into at night, so that they cannot be attacked or stolen in the night. You then come through to the small communal area where they cook, and then to the left the child’s and room and to the right, the parent’s room. The entire hut is composed of dried cow dung and sticks, including the mattress-less beds. Even at 169cm tall, I had to duck inside as the hut is supported by one central beam, which is only as tall as the biggest tree-limb that the Maasai can find. While showing us his home, he told us about his wife and two children, and about the polygamous society he lived in. When asked if he had considered multiple wives he disclaimed that he wanted 3 - any more than that would be too much trouble he considered. He wore a large beaded necklace and when I asked him if his wife made it for him, he answered ‘yes, so that I can offer it to my girlfriend as part of the dowry when I also ask her to be my wife’. Gobsmacked, he continued, the dowry that you offer to your intended’s family in Maasai culture is 10 cows, 5 goats, 5 sheep, 20L of local brew beer and 10 Maasai blankets. We all giggled nervously, shocked by his blasé attitude towards the whole thing, realising how differently we all live. The Maasai also only eat from the cow - meat, blood and milk - they do not grow crops or eat much else at all. The women sang us a song at the end, and then ushered us into a hut which was their souvenir shop. The men followed us around, breathing down our necks (literally) to buy something, while the women watched from the outside. The hut was round and had mesh wire around the outside, and we felt encaged in a zoo while the women grabbed onto the cage and talked in their local tongue. Uncomfortable and disheartened by majority of the experience, we escaped back to the truck to begin our first game drive.
When we stopped at the entrance of Maasai Mara National Park to show our entry tickets and use the facilities, the people and the truck was mobbed by local Maasai women selling trinkets and crafts. We politely waved, while putting our heads down and power-walking back to the truck. Mistakenly engaging one woman, her hands were full of bracelets, masks and wooden statues, telling me that I could have everything in her grasp for $10US. Not believing her, I made it crystal clear that’s what she was indeed offering? I went back to the truck and only had the equivalent of $8.60 in local currency, which I offered her and she gave me everything in her hands, bar one string of bracelets. I was actually stoked with my purchase of souvenirs for at least 8 family members or friends!
We began our afternoon game drive, immediately stopping for zebra, wildebeest and impala after passing the gates. Quickly losing their novelty, we drove on, past many more zebra, wildebeest and impala through the park. We saw 2 giraffe and also quite a few warthogs. On the lookout for the Big 5 on our first safari, an hour went on and not much else was rearing its sneaky head. Just as we came up to 3 hyenas watching a herd of zebra from afar, it began to bucket down rain. Not being able to see much, and Robert beginning to worry that we would get bogged in the sudden down-pour headed straight for the campsite. The campsite, was over a river, the only natural barrier between us and the wild animals of the Maasai Mara. Disappointed by our first game drive, we agreed with Kanyo to have another earlier morning so that we could get a good game drive in before leaving the park the next day. We pitched our tents, and basically being experts already, Alanna & I were the first to finish and so headed over to help Kanyo cook spaghetti for the crew. We had a campfire while Kanyo shared some stories of his previous visits to the Mara, and warned us about leaving our tents in the middle of the night at a National Park. We roared with laughter while he shared his top tips for cutting open an empty 5L bottle of water, flipping the nozzle upside down and using it as a funnel for ladies to do their business inside of the tent. He told us to stay in our tents in the circumstance that lions, or any other animals walked through the campsite as they see the tent as a solid barrier and won’t attempt anything on it if you don’t provoke them. Slightly nervous, most of the group turned in early for the night, while I tucked away at a bottle of Vodka with Matt and Kanyo before calling it a night.
Day 3: Maasai Mara to Lake Naivasha
We woke to an eland (the largest of all impala) grazing in the middle of our campsite, when Amie and Emilie described the terror as it had been loudly chewing right next to their tent the entire night and they were too scared to find out what it was until daylight. Kanyo laughed saying ‘trust me, if it was a lion you would have known about it’. We attempted a few selfies with the placid eland and went about our business, putting down the tents and eating breakfast while a family of baboons walked by. We set off for our early morning game drive as promised, not seeing much at all in the first half hour. After spotting a congregation of four 4x4’s in the distance we sped off to see what all the fuss was about. Once we arrived, 2 had already driven off as the vision was not clear at all and you aren’t allowed to drive off road, but in the distance in the shrubbery sat a full grown male lion. Through the zoom of my camera I could just make out his eyes and immaculate mane, but he lay there lazily, eventually flopping down for a snooze where he was not visible at all. It was astounding to realise that if we had’ve driven past there alone at that moment, we wouldn’t have even known that he was in the bushes, they have insane camouflage! Towards the way out, we were lucky enough to get our first spotting of a herd of beautiful elephants, so close to the road, and after we stopped the truck to observe, they decided to cross the road directly infant of us to the other side. Elephants being my favourite animal, I was absolute captivated, never wanting to drive on.
The rest of the day was a dreadful drive back up the entire dirt road, to then continue onto Lake Naivasha. We pitched our tents behind the safety of the fence as Lake Naivasha is famous for its multitude of wallowing hippos. The lake was a truly incredible scene, with an abundance of water birds: ibis, pelicans, storks etc. it was also quite eery with grey clouds rolling in, and the swampy shore of the lake brimmed with dead trees, it looked like the beginning of an incredible horror story.
I got an early night, only to wake up the next morning and learn that the crew that had stayed up just 15 minutes past me, were summoned up to the fence by a local guard who shone his torch and pointed out a family of hippos grazing, just 15-20 metres away.
Day 4: Hell’s Gate
Everybody in the group opted for the day excursion to Hell’s Gate National Park. The only game park that you can take a cycling tour throw, as there are no large predators. We were picked up by a matatu and dropped off to our transport of choice for the day, bicycle. We got to know our new mountain bikes and headed up the hill to the entrance. After the workout of the hill, I was worried, seriously doubting my physical abilities to make it through the day, however the guide assured us that the park itself was on completely flat ground. We pedalled for a bout a kilometre, stopping to see some Rock Hyrax, which live in rocky habitats appropriately enough. Some of the crew rock-climbed to catch the view while the rest of us waited at the bottom. We cycled for about 7kms until we reached a gorge. We left the bikes up the top and the guide took us on a walk down through the gorge into the canyon and talked about the history of Maasai people that used to live in the gorge until some young boys drowned during a flood, when they decided to move to higher ground. Apparently, Hell’s Gate was the inspiration for a lot of the scenery of the Lion King, which was evident in the gorge where the stampede occurs for sure, but as for ‘Pride Rock’ I couldn’t see the similarity at all.
We hiked back up for our packed lunch where Jason was duped by a monkey for his packet of chips, and then cycled back to the entrance. The fitter of the lot sped ahead, until eventually they were out of sight. I really struggled with the return trip, convincing myself that when I get back home, I will take up casual cycling to improve my fitness. Distracted by my own thoughts, I screeched on the brakes, having to stop for a zebra crossing. One zebra turned and looked at me with mild interest at the screeching sound, while the others galloped on their way. I took advantage of the break to catch my breath, and continued on to catch up to the others, at yet another zebra crossing. Back at the camp, I lounged around all afternoon from exhaustion, and then helped Kanyo with dinner again as the duty roster hadn’t been written up. Disappointed at missing the hippos the night before, I stayed up chatting, secretly hoping that events would relay themselves that night. To my luck, they did and bang on 9pm again the guide called over and we sprinted to the fence to see 2 hippos, a bit further away this time, eating in the night. We stood there for a good 10 minutes just quietly watching.
Day 5: Naivasha to Nakuru
I’m glad I wrote these names down, or I would forever be confused by which place Naivasha, and which one Nakuru was, the names just seem so similar. We drove straight from our campsite to the next one, stopping at another mall to stock up on the next few days worth of lunches. It was a completely uneventful day, but a pretty great campsite that we stayed at, complete with outdoor Bali-style showers and a pretty great bar area.
Day 6: Lake Nakuru National Park
We were treated to an excursion to get out of the truck, and into some 4x4’s on a game drive in Lake Nakuru National Park. It was a beautiful, lush park, and immediately produced more goods than Maasai Mara did on our visit. We saw some buffalo and the usual zebra, impala, wildebeest etc. which probably won’t get another mention as I get further into the tour. We drove up a hill through some windy roads to arrive at the most incredible viewpoint of the lake. Another grey day in Kenya, saw some fog and haze present itself over the lake and the clouds, touching the water’s edge so that you could barely see the division. We stayed for quite a while, watching lizards scuttle beneath our feet and bask on the rocks at higher ground, and stood entranced by the beautiful scene that lay beneath us. We took the opportunity to use the restrooms, which comprised of the most disgusting drop-toilet I had experienced yet! Highlights of the day included watching a herd of Thompson’s gazelle, like a bunch of perverts while the stud tried to get frisky with his harem of about 50 gazelle ladies who weren’t having a bar of the action. His efforts were futile, as we watched each and every female gazelle dodge him and run across the road for a pee or to eat some more grass. As we drove off, another male approached… we quickly asked the driver to stop, as we expected to see the male defend his territory and see a good antler fight. Funnily enough, the male, who had obviously had enough of the dry spell, moved aside and let the other male waltz right into his herd while he wandered off for a feed himself. But most definitely the total highlight was sitting in the 4x4 next to 3 white rhinos grazing by the side of the road. You know you're onto something truly incredible when even the driver whips out his phone and starts taking photos! Disappointingly, we didn’t see any flamingo, which is what the lake used to be famous for before global warming started taking its toll. A sad ending to the day, as we were excited to come across a male lion, walking directly in-front of our 4x4 and holding up traffic, only to realise that his lioness had somehow gotten trapped on the outskirts of the park’s fence. She had a tracking collar on, and they constantly paced up and down the fence in unison, yet divided. We followed them for at least half an hour, while they paced, occasionally taking breaks to take shade under a tree on their respective sides of the fence, only to resume their pacing a after a minute or two break. Our driver made sure to report the strange occurrence to the local ranger, and the romantic in me hopes that they were reunited afterwards.
Day 7: Nakuru to Eldoret
We drove most of the day through the Nandi Hills to Eldoret, the most high-altitude place we would stay in our entire trip, and our last campsite in Kenya. And what a campsite it was! The restaurant and bar were situated in a man-made cave, complete with stream flowing through the middle and a small bridge to reach the other side of the bar. The path winded down through immaculately maintained gardens down to the pool area, which had a waterfall and another pool bar. Being our first chance at getting in the water, we all jumped in and played some water polo and sunbaked until dinner. We spent the night in the cave-bar having drinks by the fire and roasting marshmallows. Though we called it a night quite timidly early, it was definitely a night to remember.
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