This Is Africa

TIA. This is Africa. If anything sums up the highs and lows of this great continent, it's those three words.

Leopard climbing down tree in dappled sunlight

Leopard climbing down tree in dappled sunlight

People generally use TIA as a shorthand to explain the everyday frustrations of power cuts, traffic jams and endless delays, but it should also be a cry of wonder. Where else can you see the Big Five in 24 hours? Where else can you see thousands of wildebeest crossing the Mara? Where else can you stand six inches away from a 400lb silverback?

I've just come back from a two-week Exodus trip called Gorillas and the Masai Mara. There were 17 of us in total, and we were driven from Nairobi to Kigali in an old Mercedes bus-cum-truck. We stayed in hotels where possible, tents where necessary, and saw as much of the wildlife as we could along the way. We had a guide called Jacob plus a driver, cook and helper. The visit to the Masai Mara and the trek to see the 'gorillas in the mist' were billed as the highlights, but we also enjoyed a hot air balloon ride, whitewater rafting and a great boat trip to see the bird life around Lake Naivasha among other things.

I spent two weeks in Kenya last year, but nothing prepared me for the amount of wildlife in the Masai Mara. We drove there after a quick trip to Elsamere and a night on the shore of Lake Naivasha, and it only took us 24 hours to see the 'Big Five' (elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo). August is the time when the wildebeest make their annual migration, so we saw thousands of those, plus baboon, cheetah, Grant's and Thomson's gazelle, impala, topi, warthog, waterbuck and zebra. Sadly, the local rangers from the Kenyan Wildlife Service didn't let us go down to the river to watch the wildebeest crossing the Mara, but there was so much else to see that it didn't really matter. Amongst other things, we saw countless young, including four cheetah cubs asleep under a bush with their mother, but the highlight was the balloon ride. We had to get up early, but it was well worth it for the view of the other balloons taking off at dawn, the 'grazing line' of thousands of wildebeest and a hippo on the muddy bank of the Mara river with the shadow of our balloon on the cliffs above him. (The champagne breakfast didn't hurt either!)

After a visit to a traditional Masai village, where we were bludgeoned into buying souvenirs by a herd of tribesmen desperate for hard currency, our next stop was Lake Naivasha again.

Two boats moored by jetty at dawn

Two boats moored by jetty at dawn

There was an an optional boat ride in the morning, and we ended up seeing dozens of hippos and a huge variety of bird life, including goliath herons, jacandas, a malachite kingfisher, a maribou stork, pelicans, a sacred ibis and a pair of fish eagles. Our guides even got the eagles to do a fishing demonstration by throwing a dead fish into the water for them to 'catch' and take back to their nest in the trees.

African fish eagle flying with wings raised

African fish eagle flying with wings raised

The birds were beautiful, and I particularly liked seeing the bright cream plumage of the pelicans in the early morning sunshine, set against the looming blue-grey clouds on the horizon.

After Lake Naivasha, we went on a walking safari at Crater Lake and a game drive at Lake Nakuru. Our next night was spent 'in the wild', which just meant that the campsite wasn't fenced off. That sounds dangerous, but it was actually a very lucky break when our truck broke down and those of us who stayed at the campsite were treated to a herd of zebra galloping past us only ten yards away! You get so used to seeing game from the comfort of a Jeep that any opportunity to meet face-to-face with the local wildlife is very exciting. When the truck was fixed, we drove to the Naiberi River Campsite and Resort near Eldoret - where Bill Gates apparently once stayed - and then crossed the border to get to Jinja in Uganda. The Adrift River Base there is a centre for extreme sports, and two of the Kiwis in our group decided to jump in the deep end (almost literally!) by doing the bungee jump.

You can take the Kiwi out of New Zealand...

I foolishly forgot to give them my GoPro camera to take a video on the way down, but the photographs I took from the bar beside the cliff were impressive enough. I could have done it myself, I suppose, but the camera must come first! 

The main event that day was a whitewater rafting trip on the Nile. I'd bought my GoPro especially for it, but I was a bit disappointed with the results - the official videos and photographs were much better at showing the moment when our raft flipped upside down!

(This is not one of mine, so you can ignore it...)

After posing for pictures at the equator and going on another safari walk at Lake Mburo, when the ranger had to slap the magazine of her AK47 to scare off a herd of buffalo, we had a long drive to the Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort - the birthplace of reggae! Here, it rained for the first time, and the thunder sounded like God unzipping his trousers. My tent had a better view than any hotel room, looking out over the lake with hills on all sides and a palm tree in the foreground. It was just a shame about the miserable weather...and the lack of electricity. The next day, I went on the optional bird walk and saw a huge variety of birds, including the pied wagtail, black-headed weaver bird, pied crow, common bulbul, grey-backed fiscal, bronze sunbird, black kite, red-chested sunbird, beautiful sunbird, white-eyed slaty flycatcher, golden flycatcher, speckled mousebird, white-browed robin chat, European bee-eater, tropical bulbul, Speke's weaver bird, yellow-whiskered greenbill, common fiscal, fly finch, African thrush and Cape wagtail. However, it was now time to see the gorillas, so off we went to the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda.

We had to get up at 0615 to drive to the gorillas. We were then treated to some tribal dancing before a guide came up to us and gave us a briefing. We then had to drive another 40 minutes up the mountain before we could eventually start our trek. I took two trips to see the gorillas. The first time, I saw the Kuryama family, and the second time it was the Titus group. A team of trackers follow the gorillas at all times, and it took us no more than an hour and a half to find them each time. Our guide gave us a briefing each time and warned us not to approach closer than seven metres, but that rule was quickly forgotten as we finally got close to the animals. One silverback pushed past us only a few inches away! It was amazing to be so close to the animals, but you quickly got used to it - especially if you were taking hundreds of pictures every minute! The second trip was even better than the first, and it was great to be able to focus totally on taking pictures.

Baby gorilla looks over shoulder of mother

Baby gorilla looks over shoulder of mother

Close-up of silverback gorilla looking at camera

Close-up of silverback gorilla looking at camera

Close-up of silverback looking down in forest

Close-up of silverback looking down in forest

So what's my verdict on the trip? The simple answer is that all the niggling problems with accommodation and facilities pale into insignificance when compared with the chance of getting up close and personal with such wonderful animals. That's why I'll always keep coming back to Africa. I'll always want to watch these iconic animals in the wild, even if it means no electricity, no showers, no hot running water and having to eat school dinners for a fortnight. This Is Africa. What more can I say?

 

For more pictures of the wildlife, please go to Gorillas & Masai Mara on Facebook. For more pictures of the other people on the trip, please go to Gorillas & Masai Mara - group on Facebook.