Our safari was not like that. To start with, we did not carry rifles, nor did we wear khaki (I wore jeans—which are, it turns out, not an ideal clothing choice for safari). But it was an adventure nonetheless.
With my friends Kevin and Jean, I left Dar es Salaam Saturday morning in a spunky Rav4 (the expat car of choice—tougher than a sedan, but not as neocolonial as a Landrover), drove through the outskirts of town and up the Morogoro Road towards Mikumi National Park, a lesser sister to the grand game parks of the north.
Mikumi offered instant gratification: from the highway we saw an assortment of wildlife: elephants and giraffes, baboons and gazelles. We took some photos, went to the lodge, had a hearty dinner of macaroni and cheese, and went to bed, full of food and anticipation of the safari to come.
Early the next morning, freshly showered and optimistic, we set out into the park. With a map that identified points of interest, which helpfully corresponded to numbered markers on the road, we made our way 10 kilometers or so to the “hippo pool,” and saw, as you might have guessed, hippos sleeping in a crater-like pool of water. When we discovered that sleeping hippos don’t do all that much (and also that they smell), we returned to the car and set off down a road that lead 30 kilometers out and before looping back around to the main gate.
The sky was patchy blue and gray, the air was warm. The valley, dotted with acacia trees, swept out for miles, and far out on the horizon, mountains shown like shadows in the haze. With the windows rolled down, we watched with wonder as elephants led their young across the veld, giraffes stretched their necks to the tree tops, gazelles pranced and zebras grazed. Birds as colorful as a kaleidoscope flitted through the air and buffalo covered themselves in mud to fend off the midday heat.
Further along the road began to change. It became jagged and littered with tall, sharp grass, and the plains were swallowed up by high bush that surrounded us on both sides. We stopped seeing animals, and other cars, and the air outside was suddenly thick with horse flies. We stared out the windows, saying little, until Jean finally broke the silence:
—Dudes, this is BORING.
Kevin and I heartily agreed, but before we could find a place to turn around, we lumbered around a bend and were confronted with a steep embankment that led down to a muddy river. (Okay, river might be a bit of an exaggeration; let’s call it a healthy creek.)
Discussion ensued—to cross or not to cross. We decided to cross.
Now, looking back, one might say that there were various Signs that, had we paid attention, might have helped us to avert the fate that I am about to describe. There was the carcass on the side of the road near the hippo pool, the vulture, grim as a hangman, perched on a dead tree that watched us as we drove by, and the ash gray thorn tree that had fallen into the road, blocking our path (which we decied to drive around). Yes, perhaps the less adventurous traveller would have been deterred by these Coincidences—but not us!
We buckled our seatbelts, held our breath and descended into the water and up the steep rocky climb on the other side. Relieved and emboldened by our good decision (we made it!), it took us a second to notice that the “road” on the other side of the river/healthy creek was nothing more than grass and bush. So we turned around and crossed back, but this time, hit the water at too steep an angle, lodging our front tires in the mud.
Kevin stepped into the muddy water and tried to push the car to no avail. I got out, threw a branch across the water, crossed over and offered to push. (Kevin was hugely relieved to benefit from my added strength and resourcefulness.) We got down on our knees, braced against the oven-hot hood, and listened as the engine clicked, whimpered, and died. The battery was dead.
So there we were, three safari adventurers, up to our knees in mud, with a car nose down in a river/healthy creek with nothing but our wits to save us.
Our wits AND cell phones. Now you would think that the park paperwork (receipt, map, permit for the car) would have in-case-of-emergency telephone numbers on them, but you would be wrong. There were no telephone numbers. Our Tanzania guidebook had a generic Mikumi number, which we tried, but there were two challenges: first, reception was spotty and two, when, for a fleeting moment we connected, no one answered.
So we called a hotel instead, and got through to a receptionist who said she would send help. As a backup we also texted a friend in Dar, letting him know where we were and asking him to “do something” if he didn’t hear back in an hour and a half, since by then we wagered we would either be rescued or our phones would be dead. (*Handy survival tip: before heading out into the African wilderness make sure your phone is fully charged, and that you have credit.)
Assured that help was on the way, we had only to sit and wait. So we did the things that everyone does when they're stranded in the middle of a Tanzanian game park. We applied sunscreen and mosquito repellent vigorously. We found spots to go to the bathroom that weren’t too embarrassing. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We told ourselves it could be much worse. We played games, drank water, and reflected on the meaning of life (ok, that last one not so much). We sunk into various stages of delirium.
After two hours, I asked the question that we had been trying to avoid: So guys, what if no one comes?
Just as we began contemplating our options (walk back through the park and take our chances with all those cuddly animals we'd passed hours earlier, or stay in the car overnight), a white Landrover turned the corner, and out came two park rangers who valiantly resisted the urge to smack us upside the head for getting ourselves stuck in a river/healthy creek on a road that was clearly impassable.
They jump started the engine, dragged the car out of the water and escorted us to the main gate. It was unclear if the escort was for our own good or for theirs.
Based on our safari adventure, I would like to offer my fellow travellers three handy survival tips:
- When you encounter a steep embankment with a muddy river at the bottom and a high grassy impassable road on the other side, DO NOT attempt to cross, not even for adventure’s sake.
- Try not to take too many photos of your safari breakdown adventure when the park rangers come to rescue you. They find this a tad annoying.
- And finally, don’t test Africa. Africa always wins.