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My Africa Diaries: The Good Safaritans

After a full week at the iHub, we awakened early to meet our safari guides for our 5 hour drive to the Maasai Mara. The van we were to take was out front along with numerous other safari vehicles – the Norfolk is a very common starting point for safaris going back to the 1900s. Of course, they were typically weeks instead of days, but they didn’t have radios or cell phones to share information, either.

Posing near our own workhorse of a safari van.
Posing near our own workhorse of a safari van.

We chose to drive in to the camp – which meant subjecting ourselves to what locals affectionately call “the Maasai massage”. Once you leave Nairobi, there’s about an hour or two of paved highways that gradually grow smaller and less developed. It’s not long before you start seeing many herds of cattle, cinderblock buildings, donkeys, large open air markets – and occasionally the odd wildlife, like the baboon we saw moseying along the side of the highway. And then, you reach the end of the road. Literally.

The end of the road. No, not the Boys II Men kind.
The end of the road. No, not the Boys II Men kind.

After that point, you’re offroading on packed dirt trails. The ride becomes VERY bumpy. In places, the main “road” is so grooved that many vehicles prefer to drive on the grass and flatland next to the road. The villages become far less frequent, but the wildlife becomes more interesting. It’s not long before the wildlife begins to resemble the makeup of the Animal Kingdom safaris. Antelope, dik diks, and quite a few zebras, just wandering about.

As we drove along the dirt road, the vehicles surrounding us became few and far between, a huge contrast to the situation near Nairobi. Those vehicles we did see were most often tour minibuses like ours. At one point, about 30 minutes after the start of our offroad “massage”, another VW minibus passed us at what we all felt was a strangely high rate of speed. 3… 2… 1… …and then right in front of us, the vehicle hit a ridge in the road, went airborne, and flipped onto its side in a ditch next to the road.

My coworker and I were not looking in the direction of the accident, but our fellow traveler from Canada in the van saw the whole thing and cried out just in time for us to see the cloud of dust kicked up and the vehicle at rest sideways. The sobering truth was that we were in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE.

There is an unofficial code on the dirt roads to the Maasai Mara. Help and be helped. Our guides and driver didn’t even hesitate to assist – so we pulled over as first responders to this alarming turn of events. As passengers, we were all very worried – we had seen other tour vehicles on our travels, and many were packed to the gills with families of all ages, and not all vehicles were guaranteed to have seat belts. (While regulations require it, Kenya’s fighting the compliance fight against public transportation providers…the subject of another post.)

As we exited our vehicle, we saw the driver exiting his side of the van (which was now the top). Shortly thereafter, the passenger window opened and… a single inquisitive Dutch man popped out like a curious meerkat. He seemed remarkably calm given the circumstances. (Brave traveler or not, I’ve been in a car accident while traveling before and it completely ruined that trip, as well as my neck. And that was in New York City, where multiple ambulances showed up within a few minutes.) He passed his backpack out to his driver and climbed out himself.

The Good Safaritans: Our vehicle witnessed this speeding van careen into a ditch. The gentleman at far left was the sole (lucky and remarkably easygoing) passenger.
The Good Safaritans: Our vehicle witnessed this speeding van careen into a ditch. The gentleman at far left was the sole (lucky and remarkably easygoing) passenger.

Though the physical and emotional condition of the occupants was miraculous, the condition of the van itself was not. It had jammed quite deeply into the soft dirt in the ditch, the front left end slightly crumpled. The back rear tire was deflating and there was liquid that did not smell like gasoline dripping from the exposed undercarriage.

The able-bodied gentlemen from our vehicle joined the two from the disabled van and tried to right it, but it was immediately clear more manpower would be required. Luckily for them, the code of the road was in full effect, and shortly a Jeep with a German tourist family pulled over to help as well, followed by one or two other tour vans with tourists.

Men from many different vehicles (and cultures) working to right the damaged van
Men from many different vehicles (and cultures) working to right the damaged van

As the assistance gathered, it became a veritable United Nations of gentlemen working to right the troubled vehicle (as empowered as I am, I am also formerly handicapped and in no position to be turning over a full size van). Languages flying about, those of us deemed not qualified to participate simply watched, took selfies (what? You wouldn’t?) and videos of the extrication operation. My colleague turned to me and said, “I promised you adventure, right?” I answered, “I would have expected nothing less.” Which is true. I can’t even go to a concert in Seattle without something bizarre happening. (a story not yet covered here). As I marveled at my first closeup of spiky acacia trees, I texted my husband halfway across the world about the ADVENTURE! in progress. Of course, he was sleeping, but it was still a story worth telling.

Those not chosen for assisting duty are doomed to document in photos and video.
Those not chosen for assisting duty are doomed to document in photos and video.

An attempt was made to rope the van to the Jeep, but the rope didn’t hold and they had to borrow straps from a large industrial truck that eventually stopped as well. At long last, 10 men managed to work together with the Jeep driver and the stronger tow cable to get the van righted. The whole process took about 20 or 30 minutes, judging by the timestamps on my photos. None of us got the successful moment on video because we had either exhausted our batteries or decided it wasn’t going to work. Of course, getting the van righted was only part of the battle – between the collapsed front left wheel well, the ruined back right tire, and the undercarriage damage it was going to be a bit of work to get her moving again, but at that point our guides deemed them well under control, and we headed back upon our way down the unpaved road to the Mara.

Once my husband awakened, he sent a reply text: “That makes you all good SAFARITANS, doesn’t it? Get it?” And indeed, we did get it. Well played, dear. Thanks for the post title.

Microsoft ladies during the rescue operation (I am at left)
The helpful truck and the long road ahead
The helpful truck and the long road ahead

The next morning, around 9AM, we were a few hours into our first game drive and had already seen 3 of the “Big Five” (Elephants, lions, cape buffalo; with yet to see leopards and rhinos.) A report came over the radio (in Maasai) that a recently fed leopard was lounging in his favorite tree. We pulled up alongside some other tour vans and began taking photos of the well-camoflauged leopard – when who should appear but our friends the ruined van and the good-natured Dutch man? We could tell not only by recognizing the passenger, standing up in the popup roof, but by the large and telltale crack in the left front wheel well. I am still baffled as to how they got that thing roadworthy again – and also amazed that said tourist willingly continued his relationship with Speedy McSpeederson the Safari Driver.

Find the hidden leopard
Find the hidden leopard

But our paths were entwined, and we met again a few more times before our game drives were done. The same can be said for the German family in the jeep, who came up to the same herd of elephants we found early on.

As for ourselves, the code of the road soon paid dividends. While on our second day of game drives, our van got stuck – once with no other vans around, but the second time in some unexpectedly deep muck in the middle of a field. In this case, there were one or two other vans around who promptly stopped and helped our drivers hook up a tow line and drag us to freedom. Of course, during this process we were stuck in the vehicle surrounded by mucky water (not something you necessarily want to play in on safari), so our view ended up being the tourists in other vans taking photos of our own predicament. IRONY! Clearly, they hadn’t also come upon a flipped van on their way in – had they encountered such a sight, our own muddy battle would have been quite rudimentary indeed.

Spiky acacia trees!
Spiky acacia trees!
The muck we were stuck in!
The muck we were stuck in!
Now we're the ones who got stuck. Other vans were helpful, but it was a bit weird to be on the other side of the tourist cameras...
Now we’re the ones who got stuck. Other vans were helpful, but it was a bit weird to be on the other side of the tourist cameras…

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