My Very Own Dark Star Safari

After months and months of planning and researching a dizzying array of overland companies, it’s finally here. My two month sojourn from Nairobi to Cape Town with Africa in Focus, a small, middle-end overlanding company focusing on photographic safaris.

After 10 days on my own in magical Egypt, I join my sister in Nairobi and spend the day seeing the sights of this modern African capital and the starting point of our overland trip. We meet up at the Country Lodge, a quaint, immaculate hotel just minutes from the city. There are safety precautions everywhere from the many locked gates and key-access only doors, to guards positioned along the lane to the main road. There is a taxi rank conveniently located at the hotel and we wrangle a taxi for the day for about USD 70 to visit a list of our must-see sights of Nairobi.

We start out at the Sheldrick Elephant Foundation (USD 5), where baby elephants orphaned by poachers or accidents are cared for and then released.

Orphaned baby elephants

An audible “awwww” erupts from the viewing gallery as the baby elephants come round the bend, single file, some tiny, only 2 months old. Guides explain the history behind each orphan and feed them with huge baby bottles. The babies parade around, rolling in the dirt, splashing water, and generally doing what babies do.

Our animal encounters continue at the nearby Giraffe Center (USD 8) where you can feed the Rothschild Giraffes. (Fun fact: Identified by the fact that they look like they’re wearing white socks). If you put a pellet on your lips, the giraffes will give you a very wet, slimy “kiss”. (Fun fact gleaned from personal experience: Giraffes have very LONG slimy tongues…)

Then it’s on to the city of Nairobi which is a collection of unimaginative old buildings, all with a 1970’s utilitarian look. Definitely not a scenic place, as viewed from the 27th floor of the Nairobi Convention Centre (USD 5). A quick stop to the Maasai Market finishes off the day (FYI, if you’re on my gift list, you’re getting a leather bookmark with some form of animal painted on it…)

Shopping tip: The Maasai Market apparently moves around to different locations depending on the day. Check with the concierge. Despite its name, the vendors actually come from all different parts of the country, and much more is on display than Maasai crafts (the specialty being beaded work – necklaces, bracelets, etc.). You’ll probably get better prices here than almost anywhere else in the country, especially if you bargain hard (buy more than one item and more than one of each item). For instance, the leather bookmarks here were $0.75, and up to $4.00 in gift shops later on route. However, if you’re specifically in the market for Maasai art, then Kenya and Tanzania are your best bets…

No tongue on the first date, please!

In the evening, we meet up for our briefing with Africa in Focus, the photographic safari company we’re touring with, and meet the other members of our group at the lush setting of the Fairview Hotel, just a three minute stroll from the Country Lodge.

We meet our tour leader and fellow passengers and get formalities out of the way (local payment, insurance checks, etc.) Prior to the trip, it was a bit of a concern, sharing a 2 month holiday in an enclosed space with complete strangers, but the group seems really nice (and varied) and Africa in Focus, a very professional outfit.

Home for the next two months...

After a sumptuous, beautifully presented cooked breakfast replete with fresh fruits and berries, we meet up again before boarding our Africa in Focus overland vehicle, Benji, a very comfortable converted Mercedez-Benz truck which seats 16. On our tour, there are 11 including 2 Americans, 1 German and the rest, British.

Our group is varied ranging in age from 18 to 70, including an older couple (dentist and Mrs. He has an endearing habit of falling fastly asleep 15 minutes into every game drive), four single career girls in their 30’s (which prompted one of the local tour guides to ask, ‘At what age do women get married in your country?’), two gap year students (who seriously skew the average age of the group), and a newly married Irish / Scottish couple.

The truck is decked out with a library, fridge, huge pantry, roomy lockers both inside and outside, individual safes and lots of leg room (Think of a first class airplane seat and add two feet of legroom). It’ll be my home for the next 8 weeks on my journey down to Cape Town. There’s a driver, Wil (‘It’s a truck – Not a bus! NEVER EVER call it a bus!’), a congenial white South African who specializes in videography; a cook, Ebron (from Zimbabwe by way of South Africa, previously a pastry sous-chef in a four star hotel); and George, our unflappable tour leader who also gives photography workshops during some of our long driving days.

Africa in Focus is a small company with only one truck (and another coming on the road in early 2010). Having only one truck was definitely a concern. What happens if it breaks down? (Answer: They have an agreement with other companies to secure a replacement truck immediately and regular maintenance is done at every multiple-day stop). But with capable Wil at the helm (as is demonstrated at the Himba village in Namibia), I have nothing to fear…

I did a 2 week South Africa only safari last year, so basically knew how things would play out, but for my sister, it’s her first camping / participation trip. And Africa in Focus was the perfect place for her to start… At night, we camp at sites with hot showers, electricity and sometimes even a swimming pool. Lunch is often taken off the side of the road in some picturesque spot, which quickly turns into an event as curious local children sporting shy smiles stand their distance to view the commotion of the mzungus (white people) eating.

Everyone helps out with small tasks and we’ve been rostered into teams to clean out the truck (takes about 20 minutes, including sweeping, mopping and windows), help with food preparation (everyone’s favorite!), wash dishes (sad if it’s rainy or after some of Ebron’s fancy meals – great to eat, lots of pots to wash!) or have an off day with priority to use the two onboard laptops (heaven!).

Our first stop is Nakuru National Park. We’re all giddy with excitement at finally seeing animals. The cruise through the park in Benji, roof hatches open, providing 360 degree views of the awesome landscape without having to bounce from window to window. We pass other trucks and Benji is significantly higher which helps with game viewing.

It’s not uncommon for trucks to jostle into the best position, so a height advantage is most welcome. Nakuru Park is famed for its alkaline lake and accompanying flocks of flamingoes. The salt pans are terrific, reminding us of a spongy moonscape… In the park, we spot hundreds of cape buffaloes – so many that in places their carcasses and skeletons lie untouched.

There are also scads of zebras, a solitary lioness and so many rhinos that towards the end of the day, unless they were immediately by the side of the road and practically doing a can-can, we quickly lose interest. It’s truly a photographer’s paradise and we appreciate that we’re being spoiled by the sheer amount of game in the park…

Travel tip: I felt really queasy about choosing an overland company. For most people, a trip to Africa doesn’t come along every year. Picking the right overland company is really important – chances are you’re going to be spending a lot of time with them and the other passengers. There are literally dozens of overland companies and the price difference can be substantial. Pay up front and get more included items or get a low base price and piecemeal the rest? Websites were great and some companies responded quickly to emailed questions, but they usually don’t tell the whole story. I found travel blogs and travel forums a much better way to research – authentic, lots of user-taken photos (which are often more telling than any kind of text) and people were often very clear about what they liked or didn’t like. Sometimes people even uploaded videos of their trip on Youtube. One of the companies I was considering had a photo of people on the overland truck – and lots of bare feet. A deal breaker for me. So, if you’re not fortunate enough to get a recommendation from someone you know, it pays to do your homework!

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