When was the last time you didn’t shower for four days? Or stepped out of your comfort zone, away from the luxury of your clean sheets and warm bed?
I did this in 2009. Just four days before Christmas, I landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Kenya, fully prepared to sleep next to a river full of crocodiles and wake up to the sound of hyenas in search of breakfast.
My friends thought I was crazy. After all, it was an 18-hour flight from Jakarta to Nairobi. Why would somebody would go on a three-week trip to a place like Kenya, which is dry, poor, undeveloped, unorganized and bereft of shopping malls, they asked. Wouldn’t it be better to just take a trip to New York, Paris or Milan, where there are shopping centers everywhere?
But coming from Yogyakarta, I was ready to ditch the malls, cellphones and hot showers available in the modern world for a chance to see cheetahs, giraffes and lions.
After spending two days shaking off jet lag at the leafy Nairobi suburb of Muthaiga, I began to pack for my first ever safari with my boyfriend and his parents.
It was decided that we would camp under the stars for four days and three nights. But roughing it in Kenya is different from the ordinary camping trips you take in Indonesia.
In Kenya, one is surrounded by wild animals like lions, hyenas, hippos and crocodiles. In contrast, camping in Indonesia means you’re up in the mountains eating Indomie and listening to your iPod.
“The other thing about the African bush that I think is most important of all is that one comes to the understanding of the huge variety that there is in nature,” said Jeffrey Rees, my boyfriend’s father.
“And in Africa, one can experience this both in the flora and the fauna and therefore I think the traveller to Africa has to be ready for that.”
The word safari is Swahili for journey. Maasai Mara, a sprawling 1,500-square-kilometer national reserve, perfectly situated right along the equator in southwestern Kenya, is everything a first-timer could ask for.
The flat, low-lying savanna is home to 57 species of birds of prey and 450 species of wildlife, including the “big five”: lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and rhinoceroses. These are what everyone who goes on a safari dreams of seeing.
As we finished packing the Land Rover ahead of our six-hour trek, Jeffrey and his wife Jenny explained why Maasai Mara, home to the famous wild beast migration from the Serengeti, was the perfect spot for a safari.
“The thing about camping is that you’re in the environment for 24 hours, day and night, and that’s a much more real experience,” Jeffrey said.
Jenny reiterated the importance of the real camping experience.
“When we get to the campsite, we always book a special campsite that is only used by us, so you have no other tourists, no other people. You just have the peace and quiet and wildlife all around you,” Jenny said. “And after you’ve been there for 24 hours, they come to you. You don’t have to go looking for them.”
As we passed through the outskirts of the city on our way to the campsite, the sky began to darken and the warm sun was replaced with cool rain drops. Luckily, the rain was light and we had no problem setting up camp.
Inside the reserve, we set up 15 meters from the river. As we unpacked the Land Rover and set up our tents, we could hear the loud grunts of the four hippopotamuses talking to each other near us.
The lush, green savanna lay out in front of our campsite. We relaxed with a cup of tea before setting the kerosene lamp on the table so the animals would let us sleep peacefully through the night.
“I think that becoming conditioned, immured or bored,” Jeffrey said, “I think it happens to us in an urban environment.
“Young people walk through the shopping malls looking for something to do, something to buy, some form of entertainment. I think that from the point of view of a sophisticated human being, it’s good to change your environment in order to stimulate yourself.”
While this wasn’t exactly roughing it, it was by no means a four-star hotel.
For two days, we trekked around the park in the Land Rover. Normally park visitors would use walkie-talkies to communicate the location of animals to other tourists. But we decided to turn these off, go without a guide, and search for the animals on our own.
“Usually, if you go with a group, the guide will communicate to other groups the location of big animals, such as leopards, cheetahs or lions,” Jenny explained. “But it’s different when you organize it by yourself, just like we did.”
Doing it alone paid off when we spotted a lone leopard in the midday sun.
“We found it by ourselves,” Jenny said. “To see a leopard, like we just did earlier this morning, was just incredible and a rare experience. It’s [only] the second time we have see a leopard since we’ve been living in Kenya.”
For me, going on safari instead of a big city with malls and museums was the right choice. Seeing the hyenas, black-backed jackals, baboons, mongooses, vultures and even secretary birds made it all worthwhile. I didn’t have a schedule or routine. It was all just relaxing.
We spent two full days in Maasai Mara, driving around the reserve and watching the animals. There were hundreds of gazelles, elephants, antelopes, zebras, buffaloes, giraffes and wildebeests. I saw lions, leopard hyenas, cheetah, rhinos, hippopotamuses and crocodiles all living together in one dynamic ecosystem.
It was so relaxing to be away from it all — no Internet, no cellphones, nothing but nature.
As we ended our last night in the reserve by enjoying a cup of tea around the fire, Jeffrey and Jenny recalled the six years that they have spent going on safaris in Kenya and some part of Tanzania.
“No matter how comfortable you are a city environment, for example, I think that going out and doing something which is completely different, like camping, trekking, climbing a mountain or going sailing provides an extraordinary contrast to what you normally do. In so doing, it’s very, very stimulating, refreshing and engaging,” Jeffrey said.