There it was, the gate to Mikumi National Park – a real African safari! We weren’t sure if we wanted to go on a safari for two reasons; firstly because we’d already seen so many wild animals from the road, and secondly, because at $70 per person, it was by far the most expensive thing we’d done in Africa so far.
But here we were, and with the painted big cats and swinging timber gate in front of us, we couldn’t resist to see what lay inside. We bought entry tickets, and nodded vacantly as they gave us directions to the camping grounds. “Yeah yeah, all good, we’ll find it”, we replied, stars in our eyes and our thoughts on nothing but wildlife. Alarm bells should have gone off!
We had about an hour before dark and the decision was setting up tents, or seeing African wildlife. Seduced by the idea of seeing African wildlife by sunset, we made the animals our priority and promptly forgot our directions. We followed the signposts leading to the hippo pool, a single lane gravel road flanked by gorgeous grassy savannah.
We reached the hippo pool and drove around it in a circle. What must have been a cool, refreshing waterhole in the rainy season was now nothing more than a basin of cracked earth. No hippos. However, a large herd of buffalo were crossing the savannah nearby. Each one made a frustrated grunt as one-by-one they climbed a dried earthen riverbank. We kept our distance, curious excited to see how close we could approach them. The sun set, bathing the herd in bright red and orange light, turning each beast into a ink-black silhouette. But now derealised we had no idea where the campsite was.
Darkness settled on the park. We followed arrows painted on rocks back to the visitor’s centre at the front gate, to find a map. A young mother and her son who lived in the village on the national park grounds hailed us and got in our car; we offered them a lift home in exchange for directions. We found their village easily. She got out of the car, went inside, and we never saw her again.”Wait – what the hell? where did she go? where are our directions?”, we bristled. A few minutes later, a man came out of the house, giving us awful, vague directions. “You go straight down dee road, then past dee big tree”, he offered unhelpfully. Fuming, we retraced our way back to the visitor’s centre.
A staff member arrived with the helpful advice that guest lodges were full, and that the campsite is very difficult to find at night. Wessel became furious, yelling at the man for not providing us with a map, and because we seemed to be just giving locals rides home.
Good news, finally. After a long time of arguing, the park owner became involved, and she offered us two cabins to sleep in. This time, we had an escort, a friendly guard with a camouflage jacket and a loaded AK-47. He slid into the passengers seat. He directed us to the cabin, where we dropped Jeff off with the bags, whilst Wessel and I took the guard back to his home. We retraced our steps back to the cabin, and, after hours of driving around in the park, cooked our meals and fell asleep.
We woke up the next morning to a thin rain, grey clouds and a muddy trail turned to slush. Invigorated by the prospect of nature versus car, we barrelled through the narrow jungle path, conquering thick mud, gullies, streams and steep hills, green branches smashing off the windscreen. We spotted giraffes, warthogs, elephants, zebras, wildebeest, buffalo and impala all within a few minutes.
Suddenly, there was an insect crisis in the car. A tiny, angry fly. “That’s a Tsetse fly!”, Wessel warned. “They carry a lot of diseases!”, he continued, whilst Jeff and I started teasing him about African sleeping sickness. We took our brick-sized Lonely Planet and pulverised the fly against the glove box, turning it into a black paste with antennae. Another one appeared. We killed it too. And the next one. And the one after that. “They’re coming out the air conditioning vents!”, Wessel observed. We saw them squeezing through, one by one, and we killed them as they appeared.
We cleaned the black smear of insect guts off our Lonely Planet guidebook with a tissue. The flies had finally stopped assaulting our car. We were leaving the park after a frustrating night, but the animals we saw made it all worth it. We posed with a giraffe road sign on the way out, excited for our next stop of Dar Es Salaam.