While growing up in an English council estate, I often found myself daydreaming about travelling to wild and exotic places. This wish list included the chance to visit Tanzania, to experience an African safari while camping in the Serengeti.
I also had a fixation to climb to the top of Kilimanjaro, famed for its arduous trek that passes through five climate zones, from the humidity and greenery of tropical forest to the intense cold and magical beauty of the blue-white glacier.
I finally took the plunge at the age of 24, after my mum had passed away. I wanted to raise money for the nurses that had supported her during her long battle with cancer and decided that a climb to the top of the highest freestanding mountain in the world would be a fitting way of raising funds. The snows of Kilimanjaro glimmer high above the arid plains of the Serengeti and for those that stand on Uruhu Peak (19,340 feet/5,895 metres) there can be few sweeter moments. Uruhu is Swahili for “freedom” and it was with a sense of elation that I stepped off the plane at Nairobi, ready for my first overland trip across Africa. At the time I was with a friend, Owen. Very soon we met up with travellers from the USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, all booked on board our overland truck. After meeting our guide at the airport, we set off for the Tanzanian border. This is how I remember that first day, with Peter our driver and Michael, our guide.
While the sun moved slowly across the sky, the truck continued its journey. Some passengers played cards, others dozed and a few scribbled lines into travel diaries, despite the rattles and bumps resonating through the suspension. My leg muscles yearned to be stretched but were hampered by an assortment of discarded bags and water bottles. One passenger was stretched out in the aisle, causing a few murmurs of disapproval from those close by. Suddenly, giraffes were spotted between the trees, causing a flurry of excitement.
As we approached the Serengeti, wildlife sightings increased further, including skittish zebra and nervous warthogs, their tails erect as they scurried away. Someone pointed to fresh dollops of elephant dung, scattered across a dried riverbed, which caused one or two passengers to get their cameras ready. Now, as we neared the game park, the passengers came to life, each of us peering outside for further signs of wildlife. The official entrance to the Serengeti consisted of a rough stone wall, set back from the road. It was crowned with the weathered skull of an antelope, its spiral horns prominent against the cobalt sky. Peter parked nearby and cut the engine.
While he ambled towards a small brick complex to complete some paperwork, we stepped down from the truck, into bright sunshine. Most passengers immediately hunted for shade or went in search of fresh water. I decided to stretch my legs and explore the compound. There wasn’t much to see, apart from a pile of discarded bricks by a wire fence. I stepped over the wire and moved away from the compound, drawn to the sight of a dust devil, far in the distance. By now, I’d been joined by numerous flies, but their constant buzzing paled into insignificance at the sight of the endless plains spread out before me. Far in the distance, where the land and sky touched, a heat haze shimmered. Nothing in the itinerary had prepared me for the way I felt at that very moment. Here I was, on an African adventure. Not a six-month major expedition, but an adventure all the same.
More importantly, I was half a world away from my normal life, back home. Out there, beyond the horizon, was a world I knew very little about, except for snippets that I’d learned by watching wildlife documentaries from the comfort of my sofa. But there was no remote control to switch channels, if I decided to change my mind. Suddenly, it all felt very real. I thought back to my mum and wondered how she would have felt in such a location. She’d mostly holidayed in the place of her birth, in the northwest of Ireland, with friends and family. As a child I’d gone there every year during school holidays and had also fallen in love with the area. County Donegal with its misty hills, wild coastline, lively music and charismatic people had made an impact on all her children.
I finally felt ready to experience new places and what better location could there be, than the Serengeti? I heard Owen call my name and made my way towards the building. He’d discovered a small, speckled lizard, basking on a wall. While we tried taking photos, a man appeared from the building, dressed smartly in a khaki top, brown trousers and leather boots. He studied the sea of faces, found the one he was after, and walked towards Michael.
‘Good afternoon, bwana. How was the drive today?’
‘The road was a little bumpy in places, but it’s good to be back in the Serengeti.’
‘Yes, I’m sure. Have you heard about the lions?’
‘I’m not sure what you mean?’ said Michael.
‘Oh, there is nothing to worry about, but there have been reports that a pride has been visiting the camping spot you are booked into. As you know, we have strict rules regarding food scraps and our impact on the environment.’
Michael held his hands up, as if in defence, but the ranger smiled. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not directed at you. I’m just letting you know that due to the increased sightings, I’m insisting you take an armed guard during your stay.’
The mention of lions hushed the group, and while he spoke with Michael, we hung on to his every word. He pointed towards a nearby tree, where a man wearing a red beret squatted patiently. ‘You need to hire this man for the next few days. He will be your armed guard.’
‘But I’ve been taking groups into the Serengeti for years and have never needed an armed guard before.’
‘These are the new rules. No doubt they will change, but for now you must have a guard.’
As if on cue, Peter appeared from the building and signalled that it was time to go. The armed guard in question looked to be in his early twenties, with wiry limbs and a long frame, hidden under a set of worn battle fatigues. After a hasty introduction by Michael, he stepped on board without a word, and then stood by the open doorway. He turned to face us, momentarily catching me staring at his rifle. He forced a smile, revealing ultra-white teeth, which contrasted with his sheeny black skin.
As the wheels bounced across the pitted track, the diesel engine whined in complaint, forcing me to raise my voice as I called out, ‘Are there many lions in the area at the moment?’
His smile widened as he eyed me up and down. He was holding the rifle with one hand, its stock resting on the floor, with the barrel angled towards the open doorway. I looked away, not sure if he’d heard me, but certain that every other passenger in the truck had. Then he spoke, his words barely a whisper. ‘Don’t worry, bwana. You look too skinny for the lions of the Serengeti. They need plenty of meat and will leave you alone, I’m sure.’
I hope you enjoyed this snippet. Once the Covid lockdowns have eased and travel restrictions are lifted, there will be an influx of people keen to explore Africa. Overland trucks are a fantastic way to traverse the continent (from 2 weeks to 22 weeks) and there are many companies to choose from. Over the years I have been on Guerba and Oasis trucks and was very happy with both. If you’re interested in learning more about life on board an overland truck or are interested in climbing Kilimanjaro, this book is certainly for you!
I took this photo while in Namibia, during an Oasis Overland trip. Happy days!