In 2012 my husband and I spent 7 days in the Southern Serengeti area of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area at Alex Walker's Serian Southern Serengeti camp. Sometimes it's good to look back on adventures past and relive the experience, and to help with that I usually write about the trip both at the time and afterwards when home. The following is an excerpt from that trip when I decided to head out one afternoon to spend time at the den of a couple of honey badgers that I'd waymarked some days earlier. During the morning I'd gone walking with a friend of Alex Walker, professional guide, John Moller, to look for trees to photograph. Baraka was my camp guide and Michael the driver.
Totally distracted by the trees, the pretty stream, the polished boulders and the sheer atmosphere of the place, I totally missed seeing the Forest Spitting Cobra (large) which John, Baraka and Michael saw sunning itself on one of the rocks. Gaily I remarked how sad I was to miss it, whereupon all three set off looking to see if they could find it for me.
“How kind, but please don’t disturb it on my account” I tried to say convincingly.
Needless to say, it had hidden itself safely out of reach and I didn’t need to prove my courage any longer.
We watched a tiny Malachite Kingfisher fishing and then I made my customary way point on my gps before we headed back to camp.
John remarked that it was an excellent idea to have a gps as one day I would need it when my guide became hopelessly lost. We both laughed! I said that it would never happen ........
John retired that afternoon with malaria. My husband had arranged to spend the afternoon taking staff and camp photos. Everyone else was busy, busy, but I had a plan. Oh yes, I was going to stake out a particular honey badger den. It was a couple of days since seeing them, but that didn’t matter because I had my gps co-ords and it wasn’t far away. I could get the photos of the trip, alone with Baraka and Michael and the vastness of the savannah … and 2 feisty honey badgers. Happy as pigs in mud, we waved goodbye after lunch and headed off.
We drove for about an hour, not stopping for anything at all. Each time Michael slowed down as Baraka pointed out some unusual animal or bird, I urged them forward. Time wasn’t on our side and I was focussed, really focussed. We struck out across the Kimuma Plains and then struck out completely.
“Look at your gps and see if we are close now” Michael suggested.
Ok, I thought. I had absolutely no idea how to work out how to follow my gps to a previously marked waypoint and didn’t want to tell them. Unbelievable. So I fiddled and pressed buttons and swore softly until at last I had a meaningful map on my screen. I had a compass pointing North, I had the waypoint on the map, surely it was just a matter of driving in that direction. So that’s what we did, around and left in an arc and then right in another arc, as I waved my gps about trying to make sense of it all. I can see my gps tracks on Google Earth now, as I’m writing this … and we weren’t within a stone’s throw of the den. It seems funny now, in retrospect, but at the time we were frustrated and distracted and it was all my fault because I hadn’t given any thought to whether I knew how to use the device apart from loading tracks and waypoints onto GE.
In the end, I could feel Michael’s frustration that he couldn’t give me what I wanted. I could sense Baraka’s disappointment that the den couldn’t be found, but it wasn’t their doing so I suggested that we photograph the waves of wildebeest as they headed off into the distance. It was then that we noticed the storm moving in but not enough to cause us much concern at that stage.
The wildebeest streamed past us and it was gloomy as they cantered steadily across the plains. The occasional gazelle looked bewilderingly small under the swelling clouds.
Michael tried to maneuver the Landcruiser in front of the lead group so that I could get the column head on, but it was like trying to extract egg shells from a broken egg, every time we moved closer, they moved further away more quickly. Tails again.
This comedy of errors continued a little longer until we really started to pay attention to the weather which was circling us. You could see the rain clouds heading down in waves, but a long way away and we could see that we had a clear run back to camp which is where we decided we should head. Funny how the honey badger den turned out to be so far from camp. It is no good relying on memory for these matters.
The Land Cruiser increased speed on the relatively smooth ground of the Kimuma Plains as we headed in the general direction of Kakesio. It wasn’t long before the rain started to fall and we were collectively very glad that we had closed the roof some time earlier. In no time at all heavy sheets of water blanketed our view and the earth beneath our tyres started to soften and we began to lose traction. Now I began to understand why Alex’s decision to run lighter vehicles down here made so much sense. In one of the heavy, extended safari vehicles we would have stopped on the edge of the plains and remained there until help arrived.
At this point I need to remind everyone that there are NO roads out here. We weren’t following a track or road or anything remotely helpful, just relying on Michael’s extensive knowledge of the area which was serving us well.
The sweeping windscreen wipers worked furiously but without much effect. Our head lights struggled to pierce the gloom and we slithered and slid from side to side. Occasionally we would find a rough track from where a safari vehicle had driven earlier (possibly ours), but it soon became impossible to pick out anything outside the vehicle.
I had an extraordinary feeling of exhilaration. We were out in the wild weather, it was amazingly beautiful in a dark and forbidding way and all around me I felt the wilderness as it once was. Uncontrolled, forbidding, dangerous but magnetic in its magnificence. I laughed and laughed with the joy of it all and Baraka turned in amazement. Then he laughed as well, probably with relief as I certainly didn’t look like I was about to have hysterics.
Then reality started to hit as we came across a fast running river where only hours earlier there had been some sort of drivable culvert. And we couldn’t cross to the other side, the other side where the camp was. We had to keep moving, we couldn’t stop because if we did we would sink deep into the black cotton soils. So back and forth we went, looking for some way across the raging water. Eventually, Michael drove back the way we had come for a short distance and we drove across some rougher, stonier ground until we could make our way back towards Kakesio. Then we found a road, but a road which was lit by our headlights and all the ground around it was cloaked in darkness. Michael and Baraka had no way of knowing which road and which direction was towards Kakesio.
“Perhaps you could look at your gps and see whether it can tell us which way to go”, Michael suggested. Had we learned nothing at the honey badger den? This time it was getting a little serious, a little late, a little cold and oh so very dark.
Performing under great pressure I found my Serian camp waypoint (fortunately the Serengeti one, not the old one for the Mara camp which was still on my gps) and I selected the map option and there we were. We must turn left here, I said. That way is Kakesio. But then we saw a small light in the far distance. Baraka and Michael said that it had to be Kakesio as there would be no other camp or settlement here. We turned right and my gps started to spin in anxiety. No, no it said loudly. You are going the wrong way!! It was hard to hear each other over the rain and we could see nothing at all.
“Michael, Michael”, the radio suddenly blurted out. Camp had been calling us for some time but only now were we able to hear them.
“Michael, Michael, where are you”
(buggered if we know, I muttered to myself) but of course Baraka answered in a much more civilised manner but with similar effect. And of course, we didn't realise that camp couldn't hear us until we heard the radio's plaintive voice ring out again “Michael, Michael”.
Then we stopped, and almost for good as the 4x4 struggled in the mud. Michael asked me again to check the gps (what faith he had) and I again reiterated that we were going in the wrong direction. I showed him the little screen. The light gleaming in the distance had disappeared and I wondered what had made it.
Rocking back and forth Michael managed to extricate us from the sucking mud and we slowly turned around and headed in the opposite direction. Silence descended on us as we desperately hoped that the lights of Kakesio would soon appear. My gps was clutched in my hands and I peered at it hopefully. It was taking us in the right direction and the distance was closing between us and what felt like the civilisation left to us.
Out of the black we saw the beginnings of lights appearing and we all started to smile. Michael’s hands relaxed their grip and the mood lightened. The rangers in Kakesio flagged us down, concerned about a vehicle out in this weather, but when they saw that it was a rather muddy Serian vehicle they grinned and waved us on. All about us in the village, people were trying to keep mud and water out of their houses, but many had time to wave as we passed.
Now we had found the road home, the tension could dissipate, but I found myself unable to let go of my gps which finally had proved itself useful after causing us so much trouble in the beginning.
Bedraggled, damp and dishevelled we finally rolled into camp, many hours late. But we had returned and hadn’t needed to sleep out on the Kimuma Plains.
I wanted to find John and let him know that he had jinxed us with the “you’ll be glad of the gps one day when your guide gets lost” comment of that morning. But he had retired with the fever.
I wouldn’t have missed that adventure for anything. I may not have found the honey badgers but I learnt how to find my way home with my gps, realising that its value was far more significant than just decorating Google Earth.
This is one extraordinarily wild and isolated wilderness.