Coral at Watamu Beach

When Africa Stole My Heart

Africa has taken a piece of my heart for her own.

I was almost 40 years old when I first visited this beautiful continent. A milestone birthday deserved a milestone holiday. One off the bucket list, as they say. Except I didn’t have one.  a bucket list, that is. The conversation went something like “if you could go anywhere on holiday, where would you choose?” Safari in Africa came the reply. See, in 18 years of marriage, how had we never known that?

Africa is a Big Place

..but back then, if I thought about a safari in Africa, it was all about Kenya. A well trodden (or rather driven) country synonymous with safaris. It was all new to us and we are naturally cautious. We researched, vanished under a heap of brochures, and emerged with a plan. The decision made, we would stay on a beach resort and dip our toe into the water. The safari water. We booked a “fly in” safari to the Maasai Mara and a second to Tsavo East knowing we would retreat to the safety of the beach and resort in between. Hey, we were total novices at this. We didn’t know if we would even like it.

African safari

I remember the first trip. We were woken at 2:30am for our drive to take our flight in. With an overnight bag and our cameras we were delivered to an airstrip in the pitch black and abandoned. Seriously! Nobody there but us. To be fair there might well have been – but frankly we could barely see each other let alone anyone else. Just us and the sound of the baboons. I don’t mind admitting, I was sweating. And then the night began to gently lift its curtain. With it came the outline of a small plane. And with that people started to emerge too. Men fettling and fuelling the plane. Passengers. Okay, we are all fine, heart back to resting beat and breathe. This has been done many times before.

Maasai Mara

It took two hours to get to our base camp, taking in the peak of Kilamanjaro on the way. Just a look, from the plane, not a climb. And then we were over a sandy airstrip watching the antelopes scatter as we bumped our way down to ground. I was literally like a child in a toy shop, not knowing where to look first.

The next two days saw us find our first lioness and cub within minutes of leaving camp. It saw the car overheat and we have to keep cooling it and filling with all our water bottles. We watched as 20 or so vehicles jostled for position around a massive pride. That might well have been the memory which would change the way we did safaris forever. I sat on a Maasai warrior’s bed while a young man chatted about his family, their culture and his aspirations – and how the jackal is like our fox and the biggest threat to their cattle. With a small group, we walked to within feet of a family of rhino with guides whose job was to keep watch and protect them from poachers.

Meeting a Maasai warrior

I saw the results of an antsy hippo who chose our neighbouring chalet to vent – in spectacular fashion. Just picture dung in epic proportions all over the front of your house and you will, more or less, have the picture. And I was proud as punch when I captured my very first photo of a lioness with hubby’s SLR camera. I made new friends in just two days of sharing a vehicle and I cried buckets when we stepped back on the plane two and half days later. Lush and green with wall to wall wildlife, “Mara” had not failed in her seduction. I was already smitten.

Africa Kenya Lioness

Tsavo East – a land by comparison

Our second trip was shorter. Tsavo, or rather Tsavo East, is a very different land. Hot, brick red sand and parched. The animals are less and the lack of vegetation makes for thinner game and so leaner predators. If I think about deep red elephants and wart hogs then I am back there in an instant. No matter how hard I try, I can’t delete the scorpion in the shower and the warning it could have caused “much much pain but probably not death” had I not seen it in time. The return from here was a super long road trip. And another vehicle breakdown on the road between Nairobi and Mombasa and with a rescue as we were squeezed into the second vehicle. But even that didn’t come close to pouring cold water on the fires, which were already burning strong within me, for this beautiful continent.

Elephant in Tsavo East

Back At Base

We finished the two weeks with a few more days on the beautiful white sands of Watamu, watching fishermen land their catch by carrying the fish in sheets on their heads and wading through the water. The adventures didn’t end there either. Ask Mr Smith about the time we stepped outside the resort hotel and went to do some retail therapy. If souvenirs is your “thing” then you wouldn’t go short. Shop after shop after shop of carved wood nick knacks. And everyone wants you to choose theirs. Then a young gentleman invited us to choose their cooperative. Ooh, we had heard about these. A better way to support the locals. So we followed him. And then I could feeling the blood pressure rising as civilisation, seemingly, disappeared.

Relax, we were simply in the real Watamu. In the end we ordered our souvenirs from a young man by the side of the road, whittling away, wondering if we would even see them three days later. It’s good to be cautious, but such caution would be just as relevant in many a city and town right here in the UK. Suffice it to say, my hand carved, commissioned salad servers and my elephant book ends still take pride of place in my home today.

That was 13 years ago now, yet the memories are as clear as yesterday. It would be eight years before we returned to Africa. But she didn’t mind. Because I think she already knew, she was well and truly, under my skin. Besides, I said “I’ll be back” and I am a woman of my word.

She Wordsmiths..

Boats at Watamu Beach