The first time that you camp out in the wild in Africa will probably freak you out.
You wake in the middle of the night and you’re lying in your tent. It’s dark. Somewhere outside you can hear a sound. A rustling maybe, or the breaking of tree branches. Something is nearby. You just don’t know where, or what. But you know, it’s out there.
And you need a wee.
It was my second night on my Absolute Africa overland trip. A journey of two and a half months that would take me to Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. We’d been picked up the previous morning by our guide Moses and driver Moogs at the Heron Hotel in Nairobi. I’d been in Africa for over two months now, doing some volunteering in Zambia and Tanzania and I’d just finished climbing Kilimanjaro.
I’d met Nathan, Denise (you know the one who later told me to put a bag on my head) and Charlotte (of the gorilla and the spoon fame) in the bar the night before and we agreed to meet up for an early breakfast, spending most of it trying to work out who else in the room was on our truck. As it turns out, most of them were. I counted 21 of us waiting in the lobby.
After a quick briefing from Moses, he introduced us to our truck ‘Pumba’ (which you probably know from The Lion King – means warthog in Swahili). We loaded our stuff into the under compartments and climbed in and Denise, Nathan, Charlotte and I sat together. As we drove through the city, the truck was quiet as most people were staring out of the windows, trying to take in all of the sights and sounds, having only flown in the night before. For the majority of people it was their first time visiting Africa.
Nairobi is a buzzing city – colourful, sweaty, grimy, vibrant and loud! Horns honk as music blasts out from market stalls with unseen speakers. There are people everywhere and they glare, stare or wave as you drive past. Not surprising, as bunch a of tourists on a big yellow truck are quite the spectacle. We stopped at a petrol station and immediately caught the attention of a few local women who came over to the truck, wanting to sell us something and a couple of men who asked for money. No-one was in any way threatening, but they were quite vocal and Charlotte, the youngest of the group at 20, was a little freaked out at first, but I told her she had nothing to worry about.
Back on the road, it was Bec, an Aussie who finally broke the ice by suggesting that we go round the truck and say who we were and were we were from.
- The Couples: Caz & Andy (Australia), Sarah & Damian (Australia), Csilla & Kaarel (Hungary/Ukraine), Birte & Thys (Germany/Natherlands) and Chris & Farnaz (Belgium/Netherlands)
- The Girls: Me, Kate, Charlotte & Siobhan (UK), Lucia, Sarah, Ali & Bec (Australia) and Denise & Carrie (New Zealand)
GuysGuy: Nathan (Australia)
- The Guides: Moses & Moogs (Kenya)
All of the ladies had come alone, except for Bec, Ali and Sarah. Bec had met both of them separately and when she’d said she was going to Africa, they decided to go too! I was quite surprised by the female to male ratio to be honest! We stopped to stock up on supplies at the supermarket… something everyone was excited about. Moses had divided us into teams and we would rotate truck chores: cooking, washing up, security, cleaning the truck and my favourite – our day off. Our team was Fisi (Swahili for hyena) and we were on cooking duty the following night. We set off in a mad dash to try and figure out what and how we were going to cook for 23 people.
We continued on to our first destination, Mountain Rock Camp (Bantu Lodge) in-between Nyeri and Nanyuki, next to Thomson’s Falls. After pairing up with a tent buddy (mine was Charlotte) Moses and Moogs showed us how to put them up. Some people were better at this than others – Charlotte and I fell into the ‘others’ category. But, after putting up and taking down a tent every day, you soon get the hang of it.
The following day it was on to the Samburu National Reserve, a few hours to the north east, where we camped at Umoja Camp alongside the Ewaso Ng’iro River. Our first afternoon was spent visiting the Umoja Women’s Village. A female only village and women’s co-operative and social enterprise.
Back at camp, we did the thing we always did first – put up our tents. The area we were sleeping was a little bit away from where we had parked the truck, past the very basic shower block and toilet, down a bush-lined trail, and in a clearing. The floor beneath us was hard and dusty. The area was only small, so our tents were much closer together than they had been the night before.
At dinner (cooked by Fisi’s fair hands), Moses gave us our nightly briefing. He told us the history of the area and gave us instructions on sleeping in a national park – things – like, there may be animals around so don’t wander off, stay away from the river, shine your torch outside your tent before you get out to check for eyes reflecting back at you etc. Smiles and nerves glances flashed around the circle. This was exciting.
Afterwards we sat around chatting, getting to know each other and drinking the boxes of wine (yes, I’m ashamed to admit I bought a box of wine) from the supermarket. I was one of the last to go to bed. I’d bonded with Lucia, one of the Aussies and we’d stayed up chatting late into the night.
Only when I crawled into my tent did I realise I’d made my first mistake of the trip. My bag was there. But my sleeping bag and roll mat were where I’d left them. On the truck. The locked truck. I’d like to say I never made this mistake again after that. But I did. A few times. Always having too much fun to think about silly little things… like my sleeping equipment.!?!
I piled on as many layers as I could manage and settled down for a cold, uncomfortable evening. I drifted off to the sound of the wild and some snoring from a tent nearby.
I woke up. It was still dark. I thought I could hear something. Was I imagining it?
I lay there for a moment hoping to go back to sleep. But then I realised I needed a wee, real bad. Damn! I didn’t want to go on my own. We were in the middle of a load of bushes, in a national park on a campsite that had nothing separating us from the wildlife. A situation I’d never been in before.
I lay there a little longer trying to build up the courage. Right ok, I really needed to go now. I took a chance.
“Charlotte? Are you awake?”
“Yeah. Are you?”
“Yeah. I need a wee.”
“Me too, but I’m scared. I’ve been lying here for ages.”
All of a sudden, Charlotte bolted upright. “Helen I swear to God something… just… touched… my… head… and I think it’s a hippo.”
“No, don’t be silly it couldn’t be a hippo. But let’s go, quickly.”
We grabbed our head torches and shone them outside of the tent, looking for eyes reflecting back at us. The moonlight cast eerie shadows on the sand, and it felt like the bushes were alive. Charlotte and I clung on to each other for safety, frantically shining our torches left and right. The distance between the tents and the toilet seemed so much longer now than it did before.
After peeing at the speed of light, we walked quickly back to our tent giggling quietly and dived in. That had been fun, and we’d survived. Our friendship was sealed.