By Diana Ellis
Serengeti Desert, Tanzania
As a child, I dreamed of Africa. I grew up watching shows like “Daktari,” “Wild Animal Kingdom,” and “Born Free.” I desperately wanted to go on a safari. Then one day I found myself with time and an unexpected financial windfall. I bought a plane ticket.
I imagined driving across the Serengeti plains in a Land Rover with a guy who looked like Robert Redford in “Out of Africa,” only he would be younger and have an English accent. I’d wear a khaki safari shirt and my hair would be blowing in the breeze as I took photos suitable for National Geographic.
My safari began in Tanzania. Our driver didn’t look like Robert Redford nor did he have an English accent. On the first day, our Land Rover got stuck during a flash flood. Being an off-road veteran, I got out to help push. We got unstuck but I was covered in mud from the tips of my hiking boots to the top of my head.
It was a camping safari but we set up camp next to an Abercrombie & Kent tour group. They had deluxe tents, with camp beds and linens; we had mats and sleeping bags. They had a chemical toilet; we had a hole in the ground. They had a portable outdoor shower; we had a wash basin. They had new, deluxe, air-conditioned Land Rovers; we had a used, not very well maintained one – no air-conditioning unless you counted the holes in the canvas roof.
After the first week, everything I owned was khaki. My clothes hadn’t started out that color but that’s how they ended up. My hair spent the entire trip in a ponytail. I gave up brushing it. When the elastic broke, I didn’t realize it for three days. My hair stayed up in the ponytail all on its own.
At the Ngorongoro Crater, the Land Rover broke down on a road leading out of the crater. I desperately needed to pee, so I walked up around a switchback to use the outdoor facilities. Just as I was emptying my bladder, one of the Abercrombie & Kent Land Rovers rounded the corner. There I was, mooning a bunch of American tourists while peeing on my boots. Add that to your list of 1,000 things to do before you die.
Our driver had no clue about fixing automobiles. Having owned a series of beaters myself, I was no stranger to being stranded on the side of the road, so I stuck out my thumb at a passing vehicle, which turned out to be the other Abercrombie & Kent Land Rover. Amazingly they stopped and took our poor, stranded group back to camp while our driver attempted to sort out repairs for our decrepit vehicle.
From then on the A&K group knew me as the hitchhiker girl who had mooned them in the crater.
The Abercrombie & Kent tour was on the same tourist trail as us. They followed us from camp to camp, always setting up their deluxe safari camp next to our budget version. Our cook, who I secretly referred to as “Old Gloom and Doom,” would tell us stories about how they wasted water by showering every day. There was a drought at the time. Water in our camp was rationed. The A&K group ate gourmet meals and insisted on at least four courses with every meal. We ate whatever Old Gloom and Doom fed us, although I have to admit he made a wicked deep-fried plantain and I never went hungry.
One morning we went on a hot air balloon flight over the Serengeti. Afterward, we were to have a champagne breakfast served on real china out on the African plains. My safari dreams were starting to come true, except we didn’t see a single animal that morning, not even a wildebeest, which were usually more numerous than cars on the freeway during rush hour back home. We floated over the vast, empty Serengeti and there was not an animal in sight.
When we attempted to land, our balloon basket went down hard and then tipped sideways. We were bumped and dragged across the ground for several hundred feet before crashing to an abrupt stop. We had hit a picnic table set with Wedgwood china and fine crystal. As I crawled out of the basket, into a mess of broken plates that would rival a Greek restaurant floor after the “opa” dancers had finished, there was the A&K group at their tables, videotaping the landing. That’s when I really started to dislike those people.
Diana Ellis is a Canadian traveler who has visited nearly 50 countries on seven continents and has written extensively about her adventures. Her travel humor and photographs have appeared on various travel websites. She currently resides in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. To read more of her travels, visit her website at diellistravelholic.com.
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