“Hey , is that Kili?”
Comatose in my snug sleeping bag just moments before, I was suddenly roused by voices outside my tent. Poking my head into the cool, crisp African dawn, I was rewarded by the sight of Kilimanjaro – in all her sun-dappled morning glory. We were bush camping in Amboseli National Park on the first leg of an eight-day Guerba overland trek through eastern Kenya and after two days the elusive Kili had finally broken the cloud for a fleeting, but very satisfying 10 minutes. Now that’s what I call a wake-up call.
Sometimes, only canvas will do. Australia is one destination whose clear, pin-cushion-like night skies yearn to be slept under and Africa, with its blackest of nights and bird-infused dawn choruses, is another. After a hearty meal around the campfire the previous night, I’d drifted off to the distant and haunting chant of the Masai, and the somewhat closer whine of a hyena from around the back of my tent. Still, it beat the noise pollution of SW17.
I’d thought twice about bush camping. It was 15 years since I’d handled a guy rope and low-maintenance grooming is not on my radar. But that’s the great thing about being on the road in Africa – using the long-drop loo and looking like you’ve rolled in Kenyan road dust is all part of the inhibition-free fun. Besides, this wasn’t Girl Guide camping. Our cooks and all-round miracle Kenyan road crew put up our tents, whipped up three-course meals, washed up and generally paved the way for some great bush camping.
And, if like me, you imagine this type of holiday is only for the under 25s, you’re mistaken. Once on board everybody seems to have the same mindset regardless of status or age. There are plenty of oldies (including one faithful Japanese client in his 50s who takes a new overland trek every year), grown-up backpackers and even families who, having being bitten by the overland bug, wouldn’t do Africa any other way. Guerba pays a flat 20% commission, making this a point worth noting.
Our (mostly) reliable open-sided truck was modified to carry 22 passengers and all the camping equipment and provisions. We covered a lot of ground, including three national parks, and with them all of the big five bar the elusive leopard.
We derived a certain amount of pleasure from peering down on fellow tourists in the game parks, their heads poking through the pop-ups of their enclosed minibuses, while we could ping-pong from one huge picture window to the other depending where game had been spotted. There was even a ladder to some roof-top seating for the ultimate view.
Our body clocks soon adjusted to bush time: up just after dawn for an early-morning game drive and to bed soon after dinner. But not before our driver, George, a 20-year veteran of the African overland route and practised raconteur, had sent us scuttling back to our tents reeling from tales of scorpions, snakes, ranger-eating lions, poisoned arrows and heinously corrupt border officials. Not that we encountered any of these.
Our Kenya wildlife safari was based in and around the Great Rift Valley – a vast geological formation visible from space. The basins formed by the crater have created a string of lakes including Naivasha and Nakuru. The soda lake of Nakuru is famed for its vast flamingo population – up to 1.5 million at any one time washing the shore like a tide of strawberry milkshake as they scoop up beak-fulls of algae.
Naivasha, a shallow freshwater lake fringed by papyrus, is populated by families of hippo and supports a thriving bird population. Elephant and leopard may also be spotted.
Guerba offers different levels of trip from overlanding (truck transportation and tents with basic foam mattresses); comfortable camping (minibus transportation, no chores, larger domed tents with camp beds, meals at a table under a gazebo as opposed to chairs around the campfire, and hot showers) and lodge safaris (minibus transportation, lodge/hotel accommodation).
We experienced all three, but our real home was the truck. African overland travel has changed hugely since the trusty Bedford hit the road 25 years ago. But truck etiquette has not: press the buzzer once to go, twice for a photo stop, three times for a toilet stop. But the most important rule of all is never to call it a bus. I made this mistake only once – upsetting George far more than the scorpion that had bitten his foot the night before.
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