One Night in Amboseli
(Another Story from A Fortunate Life – by Ali Van Zee)
The ‘boys’ (their term) running the camp must have just turned off the generator, as the single light bulb hanging in the middle of my tent started to fade and went out completely. There is possibly no darker place than equatorial Africa in the middle of the night. Maybe the deep center of the old copper mine in Bisbee, Arizona – when you’re on tour there, they turn out the lights, too and you can’t even see the tip of your nose, let alone another soul. But standing in my tent that night, with the sounds of the jungle rising to meet me, I had never been anywhere as dark. And I was a little scared, I might add. All alone…in the last tent in the row, the one furthest from the center, furthest from help. But, as usual, I’ve gotten ahead of myself and need to take you back to the beginning.
It was the late ‘70’s and I had been living in Germany for several years. I wasn’t in the military, I had come on my own. Actually, I had fallen in love with a young German man I had met here in the States and wound up getting the most fantastic job an adventurous girl like me could ever hope for: Assistant to the Managing Director of one of the world’s largest incentive travel companies. Max, my boss, was very good to me; he gave me all the best assignments, sending me off with one group after another to a number of exotic places. It was my job not only to lead the group, but to
liase with the local agencies we worked with to ensure our guests were treated to the time of their lives. Our guests had all won/earned these trips through various incentive programs offered by their companies and designed by us. We had great clients, too, Opel/General Motors (by far, our largest), various banks and other manufacturing companies including this particular group from International Harvester. Most of my groups were huge in number, like 500 people taking over a cruise ship (that was considered a big cruise ship in those days!) and sailing from France to Morocco and out to the Canary Islands and Madeira. This group was small – intimate – only 16 people, mostly couples and one father/son combo. THIS was going to be my first safari and I was excited beyond belief!
Ever since I was a little girl and had gone to the San Francisco Zoo for the first time, I knew I wanted to go to Africa. I longed to throw myself into a heap of sleeping (sated, of course) lions or play with elephant babies under the shade of their mamas’ bellies. I was “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” long before Tonya Roberts got the part! Tawny hair flying, I ran with zebras and frolicked with cheetahs…in my dreams. Never did I think that I would actually get the chance to go there.
We almost didn’t make it, either. Our little group got to Frankfurt/Main airport at 7:30pm for our group check-in prior to our Lufthansa commuter flight to Geneva. From there, we would be on a Swiss Air jumbo to Nairobi, a 14-hour flight. It was February and central Europe was in the middle of a real cold snap, complete with feet of snow instead of the usual inches. We were worried we might not be able to take off, but the weather gave us a break and off we flew, over the Alps to Geneva. Somewhere over those Alps, a new storm developed and the snow was coming down in buckets at Geneva Airport. They were going to have to close down but decided to let us land first. Thank God! I mean we were just on a little commuter plane and I don’t think we could have circled around for too long, let alone been diverted anywhere else. By now it was past 11pm and a half-hour past the time were supposed to depart for Kenya. We waited at our departure gate for the snow to abate, but by 2am, Swiss Air was kind enough to put us up in the airport hotel with promises we would be in the air in the morning.
Maybe this doesn’t sound too bad. But remember, that flight from Geneva to Nairobi is 14 hours so we are talking about losing a full day now, which would mean possibly having to cut our time in the ‘bush’. I could have cried, but I had to remain professional. We reassembled at the airport at 10am and watched the snow swirl around the planes parked at the gates. There wasn’t a whole lot of movement on the ground – no baggage cars running around, no food trucks delivering what used to be rather tasty meals to the aircraft. No “follow me” trucks leading planes in or out. Just snow, lots and lots of snow. I’m a 4th generation San Franciscan, we don’t get much snow in The City, so partly, this was kind of fun. By 2pm however, it wasn’t fun at all anymore. But then, the clouds started to lift, the flakes were fewer and farther between and before you know it, it had stopped! No blue sky, but no snow either. The gate crew announced our flight would be taking off at 4pm and sure enough, the baggage cars started moving, food was making its way onboard and our mood was significantly improving. We were getting ready to line up to board when I noticed something I’d never seen before – men standing all over the wings of our 747! They had something they were pushing around – wait a minute, they’re sweeping snow off the wings? Not snow – ice? They’re sweeping ice off the wings and using jets of hot water to keep them warm? Could this possibly be an OK thing to do here? I’d been flying a lot the last couple of years, especially as I was also a part-time stew for Lufthansa during the summer; ‘summer’ being the operative word. Watching these men sweeping away, I wasn’t all that sure I wanted this plane to take off, no matter how much I wanted to get to Africa. The Swiss Air staff at the gate was all smiles, though and so were all the passengers. No one seemed in the least concerned about the view out the window. OK, maybe they DO do this all the time so what am I worried about? Where’s that adventurous spirit? I took my sumptuous seat in First Class (thank you, International Harvester) and settled in to focus on my ‘pre-flightmantra’ – something I started many years earlier and continue to do to this day. I surround the plane with light, golden-white, protective light, from the tip of the nose, down the body, out over both wings, all doors, gear, everything. I imagine us all under heavenly protection and thank the gods (no offense, there could be several) in advance for a safe lift-off, safe flight and safe landing. Of course, I also ask protection for all who are flying this day…be generous of spirit, I always say! While deep in this meditation, I become vaguely aware of the engines revving and our plane moving down the runway. With a last quick prayer, I willed our jet into the sky and yes, yes, yes, we were up and on our way! That was pretty scary stuff – I was
glad to get it out of the way early. I mean, this would definitely ensure the rest of the trip would hold no hazards whatsoever, right? This had to have been enough…what else could possibly go wrong?
We got into Nairobi about 7 or 8 the next morning and were all pretty exhausted from the whole ordeal. Today, we would rest in the hotel, do a little shopping, swimming, etc. before getting into our special safari vans early the next day. I was so eager to get going, but could barely stand from lack of sleep and the hotel bed looked like the best place for me for a while, so I happily took a lovely nap. That night, we ate as a group in the hotel and started to get to know one another. My group comprised couples from all over Germany which was always fun for me, trying to decipher what they were saying in their individual dialects. I had taken an intensive Berlitz course when I first got to Germany, and now, after several years, I was pretty fluent. But I spoke High German (with a little bit of a Frankfurt accent) and trust me, there are some German dialects which are near impossible for other Germans to understand! After a few beers, though, as you know, language becomes pretty universal and we all were having a great time. Off to bed early, however, as we would be leaving the hotel at 7am sharp to start our safari. First leg: Amboseli Game Reserve for some animal tracking, lunch at the Serena Lodge followed by more time out in the bush before heading to our tent camp nestled in the lowlands in view of snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro….Hemingway, here I come!
WOW. Seems kind of dumb, but what else can one say? It was magical – from the moment we left Nairobi (which in those days was a small, clean, lovely city with very few slums) we were in the most beautiful savannah/scrub landscape. Actually, not unlike parts of the California foothills and with many of the same trees and plants, but with many others I’d never seen before such as the ubiquitous acacia. And animals! Everywhere zebras, gazelles, smaller tommys and tiny dik-diks. Frisky baboons sitting in the middle of the road made truly lewd gestures if we didn’t stop to give them treats! We’d turn a corner and suddenly have two giraffes munching happily away at the tops of the acacias that had at first hid them from view. Oh, this was glorious! So far, so WONDERFUL!
Our lunch at the Serena Lodge was delightful and light. They had a pool which looked way too inviting, but I had decided to walk outside the gates a little bit as I was curious about a collection of thatched huts just a few hundred yards away from the Lodge. I saw a few native women walking back that way and decided to follow. They were about 100 yards ahead of me, but I didn’t get very far. There was this awful kind of crunching sound coming from behind a very large thicket of brambles and bushes to my left that stopped me in my tracks. There, again. Chomp. Crunch. What was it? You know, I had to look. You know I did! I found a little ‘peep-hole’ in the maze of twigs and there she was – a beautiful lioness…eating a baby giraffe for lunch. I was transfixed and horrified all at the same time. I was also down-wind! Whew – she hadn’t heard me, and she couldn’t smell me – I might have a chance here. I had more than a chance, I actually had the time of my life as I avoided being her desert and bounded back to the Lodge yelling for everyone to get in the vans and follow me! All the other guests came too and soon there were at least 8 jeeps and vans lined up in front of our lone diner. I feel guilty now, as I think back on how we disturbed her, but adrenaline was running too high for guilt then. We all snapped away as she turned and ran into the thicket (just feet from where I had been peering in) leaving her prey laid out for the ‘papparazzi’. Everyone was awed by the sight and the nearness of such a wild creature and you could have heard a pin drop. Finally, the lioness reappeared and stood guard over her kill, ready to defend at the drop of a hat. She eased herself down, belly on the ground, but you could tell she could spring up any second if she had to. Suddenly one of the other guests (NOT one of mine) jumped down from his jeep. I guess he thought he could get in a little closer to catch all the blood and spilling guts to share with his buddies back home. In a flash, the lioness was up, tail straight as an arrow, every muscle taut and tense. We yelled, screamed really, at that guy and he made it back to the jeep just ahead of her charge! Who did he think he was, Dave Salmoni? But then, who did I think I was just a half-hour earlier walking on my own in the bush?
It was by now about 2 or 2:30 in the afternoon and we still had a way to go before getting to our tent camp, so our group took off leaving Serena Lodge a little less serene than when we came. It didn’t take long to be overwhelmed again by the power and majesty of the African plain. Again, rounding a curve, we came right into a huge herd of elephants and they were on the move. There must have been 30 of them from the tiniest babies (I wanna play, I wanna play) to the largest animal I had ever seen. She was
the matriarch and she was in the middle – a giant among giants. She towered over the others and they clearly deferred to her. I was lucky to capture them on film, moving swiftly along the ground with mighty Kilimanjaro ahead in the distance. Award-winning photos…real “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” stuff. I call it my ‘Lowell Thomas’ series. One look at the pictures today and I’m right back alongside these beauties.
Finally, around 4:30, we pulled into camp. A sweet little camp with about 12 tents, each with a tented outhouse in the back (outhouse, in Africa…in the bush?). There was also the main part of the camp where we would have dinner and breakfast as well as a huge, well-groomed area where some of the ‘boys’ were setting up an enormous bon-fire. Each tent had two cots, that lightbulb I mentioned and a zipped-off area in the back with a bucket on top. Prior to our arrival, the boys filled the buckets with warm water, et voila!, a shower to wash off the dust and grime of the day’s activities. Great. I tore off my dusty shorts and top, picked out something a little warmer to wear for dinner, threw my bags on the other cot, jumped in for a quick shower and was ready to head down for a well-deserved meal. It was good, too. Grilled meat, lots of fruits and interesting greens and yams. Tasty Kenyan beer…mmmmmm. My group was having a wonderful time, especially teasing me about how I almost became lunch that afternoon and how I drew the last tent, etc, etc. Very funny!
After dinner, we headed over to the bon-fire and sat on comfy camp chairs while we were serenaded and entertained by the guys running the camp. Our group, feeling no pain by way of too many Kenyan beers (you know how Germans love their beer) thought it would be fun to entertain them, too. So there’d be a round of Kukuyu songs and a dance, then a German song, a slap-dance or two and everyone was having fun. It’s amazing how laughter and camaraderie can bridge any language barrier and we were all one that night under the stars. Oh, the stars! We were just a little beyond the equator where the earth bulges a bit and the heavens are as close as they can be. The sky was littered with stars – inky black velvet with twinkling diamonds everywhere – so close you could reach your hand up and touch them. I’d never seen anything like it and I was dumbstruck, in awe. I could have stayed there staring out into space all night – but was told it was not a good idea by more than just the guys in camp...mysterious sounds from the
surrounding jungle were enough to convince me. It was late, maybe actually only 9 or 10, but on the equator it gets dark right at 7pm and light at 7am. So by now, it was very dark as we were each escorted back to our tents and zipped in for the night.
I stood under the light, removing my clothes as it began to fade and finally went out completely. Naked (my preferred sleeping gear at the time), I actually felt a little shiver as I got everything off and prepared to jump into the sack, ready to warm up and sleep the night away. I was only about an inch from landing on the cot when something very large and VERY prickly sank itself into my right, you know, um-cheek… AAAAAAAAAAAAEEEEEEEEEEE! I could hear myself scream out, involuntarily. I leapt up as fast as I could and stood there for what seemed an eternity until I could hear footsteps running toward my tent – lovely, masculine footsteps! I was the ‘damsel in distress’ and the cavalry was on its way. I almost forgot I was naked but had enough time to grab the towel I had used for my shower as my tent flap unzipped and in rushed 8 burly men bearing flashlights and sticks. With one hand deftly holding my towel and the other over my eyes, I pointed at the cot behind me. I couldn’t look at the cot. I don’t think I wanted to know. Just get it! Suddenly, all the commotion stopped and there was a dead silence. “This can’t be good”, I thought to myself. I secured my towel with the hand that had formerly covered my eyes and turned to look at what had so captured my rescuers they couldn’t even make a sound. And there it was, in the dark of this Amboseli night: eight flashlights trained in one beam……on …… my hairbrush?! It was equatorial Africa and I had just been attacked by a savage hairbrush….
There were other things that happened that night, and several of the other nights we had in Kenya – Tsavo held a surprise or two, as well. But nothing, nothing, will top what happened to me that night in Amboseli.