This is the true story of how I almost died a month before starting university. Okay, we didn’t almost die…but we could’ve.
The month was July, the year was 2009, and the occasion was a cross-country road trip – the first vacation my family was taking since my mother passed. She had been with cancer for almost a decade, and in the latter half of her illness there had been no time for teenaged me to partake in sleepovers, let alone for my father to truly breathe. And so here we were, two years after her funeral, in our family’s double-cabin 1995 Toyota Hilux, driving from Dar-es-Salaam to our ancestral village in the north-western corner of Tanzania.
It was a leisurely trip, with an initial overnight stopover in Arusha to visit a maternal uncle. The next stop was to be a night in the Serengeti, then a night in Mwanza town on the shores of Lake Victoria. We’d cross the lake by overnight ferry, then continue on to our final destination in Kagera region. The trip was a reprise of a 1997 tri-country road trip which had taken a longer route via Kenya and Uganda, partly for the reason that Tanzania’s interior cross-country roads were still untarmacked and the rural stretches tended to be prowled by armed robbers at night. Even commercial buses took the Kenya-Uganda route, as I knew from ending up on one such trip at the age of twelve. One of my brothers was being sent to the village to visit our grandmother and ostensibly reflect on his teenage misdeeds, and I made the mistake of laughing at him at the dinner table. Next thing I knew, I was seated next to him on the bus. It’s funny how with harrowing trips you remember the going but not really the return. All I recall was moments like the miraa-chewing Somali in the seat behind us eyeing me dubiously when the bus stopped in Nairobi at midnight and my brother got off to buy us food. When travelling in pairs, one person should remain on the bus to keep an eye on the bags and also alert the driver should they attempt to drive off before all the passengers have returned. That is actually what happened at one of the borders, I think it was Kenya-Uganda, when my brother disembarked to go get our passports stamped. I hadn’t wanted to remain on the bus alone, but he insisted – and just as well he did, because the bus had started rolling by the time he jumped on. There are instances in which you realise how much you love a person, and that was one such.
But I digress.
In 2009 the interior main roads of Tanzania were finally tarmacked, and so this was a chance to see regions of the country that we might otherwise not have had reason to visit. And so we set off from Dar es Salaam very early in the morning, armed with a paper map – the very same one we’d used twelve years prior – and this time a technological upgrade in the form of my dad’s Samsung cellphone with a stubby antenna and a screen that lit up blue. What could possibly go wrong?
A mere three days later I found myself standing shin-deep in Serengeti mud, alongside my brother, pushing the Hilux while our dad revved the engine in a frantic bid to unstick the vehicle. There was a large herd of wildebeest less than a kilometre from where we were, intermittently eyeing us as they grazed, one sudden move away from a stampede. And this was only the next day after we’d already almost died the first time.
Oh yes, that. That’s what I’d come to tell you about.
There we were, driving around a national park with a paper map, no ranger, and no cellphone signal, as one does when one is local – after all, armed guides are for foreign tourists, aren’t they? Our self-guided tour was going well, we’d seen a good number of animals, and it was Great Migration season so there were plenty more to look forward to.
Just before sunset, we stopped at the gate to inquire how to get to our planned lodging. The gatekeeper was friendly enough, probably counting down the minutes to the end of his shift as the park was about to be closed for the day.
“Ah, Serengeti Lodge?” He had been leaning with his ear cocked towards the driver’s window, and now straightened his back and raised his head towards the distance ahead. “You driiiveee until you come to a fork in the road. On the right you will see a small bridge over a hippo pond; cross that bridge, and the hotel will be straight ahead.”
Or so it seemed.
We droooveee and then it got dark and began to rain, bestowing a very Jurassic Park feel upon the environs. There wasn’t a soul in the vicinity, not even a Maasai herdsman to at least wave at in biped kinship. In that kind of darkness and stillness, shapes come to life. Trees resemble giraffes. Any rock resembles a large cat.
As sure as the gatekeeper’s directions, we eventually came upon said fork in the road. And there was indeed a pond of hippos on the right. The only problem was that the bridge he had said would be there did not seem to exist. Dad edged the car closer to get a better look in the beam of the headlights; nope, no bridge. A sigh of bafflement. Did the gatekeeper perhaps mean the left fork? You know some people can get their left and right confused, the same way others get their “l” and “r” mixed up. Let’s try and see. We put the car in reverse and so began a macabre game of Which Door Should I Pick, only this time the prize was survival.
Back at the fork, we took the left this time. No sooner had we driven down it than I heard a gasp from my dad, the car swerved, and a nervous laugh emerged from my brother in the front passenger seat.
“What happened?” I asked, craning my neck to look out of the rear window.
“Don’t look back,” Dad replied, “we nearly hit a large animal.”
The “large animal” was a hippo, whose cute rotund depiction in cartoons belies a deadly temper when provoked or threatened – and we had shaved by it with barely an inch to spare.
A male lion that had been lounging in the middle of the road leapt up, startled by the car, and glared at us from within his mane. A small elephant grazed by the side of the road. While we seemed to be hitting all the sights that would be the envy of any game drive, this was not ideal. Even less ideal was the swamp in front of us: the left fork had in fact been a dead end.
Time to reverse again.
Did I mention that the fuel gauge was broken, so we actually had no idea how much fuel was left in the car? And with all that driving around in circles, we could very well have been close to running out. What had started as one wrong turn had evolved into a safari drive crossed with Russian Roulette.
Back at the fork, Dad proposed: how about we switch off the car, leave the parking lights on, and sleep here until morning?
Say what now?
My first thought was how I needed to relieve myself, and the logistics of that would probably be more in favour of the gents than I. Not to mention the other very real issue of the car potentially getting attacked by wild animals overnight but, you know, that concern takes second place in the face of a full bladder. Priorities.
My brother and I vetoed the idea and suggested we follow the sign that we had seen earlier, one that read “KILIMANJARO LODGE: 20 KM” and pointed towards a third road opposite the fork.
Dad agreed, put the car in gear, and we held our collective breaths as we followed this winding road through grass that engulfed the entire car. Nothing was stirring in the nighttime stillness, nothing at all; not a sound aside from the roar of the Hilux engine as we chased an uncertain destination. At some point we noticed lights twinkling on the brow of a hill in the distance – yet every time we rounded a bend the lights would disappear. Was it a mirage? Would we even make it on this gamble of a gas tank?
Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, we came upon a campsite – the type that probably charges a pretty penny for the “authentic” experience of sleeping amidst African wildlife. At the sound of our arrival, some of the occupants came out in curiosity; I say, I have never been so relieved to see another Homo sapiens. The guides welcomed us warmly, gave us dinner, and a tent to ourselves. The tents were equipped with raised beds, Western-style toilets, and even a hot shower. This was not roughing it, this was glamping. With stern warnings not to venture outside during the night, we went to sleep with the sounds of hyenas breathing noisily, separated from us by only a thin canvas.
We awoke the following morning to the glorious roar of lions at sunrise, and it was then that I understood why people left their home countries, boarded twenty-four-hour long flights and endured bumpy bus rides to get to this experience. Whenever possible and as money allows, we should all tour in our homelands. Truly. Kwetu pazuri.
Our hosts offered us breakfast and we in return left them with a monetary token of gratitude for all their hospitality. The tour guide taking a group of tourists into the park invited us to follow in our car so he could point out where we should’ve turned the night before to get to the hotel, and then direct us to where there was a petrol station within the national park.
Standing by the Hilux while waiting for the tourists to get ready, we laughed for the first time – Dad with his hands on his waist and head hanging in utter relief. He laughed so hard he was almost doubled over, then stood up and let out a deep breath with one hand over his mouth in disbelief. On the drive out of the camp, he told us how he’d really felt during the ordeal. He said the whole time he was wondering what sort of parent he was, to have taken two of his children into a national park full of wild animals with no ranger. On my part, whatever fear I had felt was offset by his presence; I was nineteen years old, but the ordeal had triggered in me the childish perception of parents as invincible superheroes. That innocent no matter how complicated it is, my parent will sort it out trust – or perhaps it was more of a jaded teenage you got us into this mess and you’re the parent here so it’s on you to get us out of it placing of responsibility? I have since learnt that adults are also just figuring it out as they go. I have my own child now and were we to find ourselves in such a situation, best believe I would still be looking around for a grownup.
Trailing the tourists, we retraced the route we’d taken the night before. We got to the fork, eager to see where we went wrong; lo and behold, though we could’ve sworn it hadn’t been there the night before, there was the bridge. There could be a number of explanations – such as that this bridge was so low as to be nearly flush with the water, so perhaps we just hadn’t seen it in the darkness, or that the water levels had been slightly higher the night before and obscured it entirely. Personally, I maintain that the Serengeti clearly holds many secrets which it perhaps just hadn’t wanted to share at that particular time. We were nevertheless privileged to have seen the park in its most private hours.
We found the petrol station, refuelled, and the day began promisingly – the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and a giraffe even stopped to pose for our camera right in the middle of the road. The drive was uneventful until it wasn’t, rudely interrupted by a patch of mud thick enough to ensnare even our four-wheel drive. There we were, cruising along with renewed hope for a smooth journey, admiring a large herd of wildebeest to our right, only to hear the dreaded sound of spinning wheels. Yes, those were the wildebeest I mentioned earlier. The slightest startle and we risked finding ourselves in a modern-day enactment of that scene from The Lion King. The goal had now become to unstick the car with as minimal fuss as possible but also be ready to run to…somewhere. Anywhere. Every (wo)man for themself. Several expert-level manual gear manoeuvres by Dad were insufficient. There were only the three of us, of whom the only one licensed to drive was also the only with the most muscle strength of our lot. The calculus boiled down to my brother and I getting out to push while Dad steered. Many grunts later it was looking like a lost cause, until we were saved by a lorry coming from the opposite direction—carrying, as fate would have it, young men who had the necessary rope and vigor to free us. As we drove off, I looked down at my ruined jeans and resigned myself to whatever the rest of the trip would bring. I wondered what would next befall us; whether we’d make it to the village in one piece and whether I’d even get to see America with my adult eyes—because, remember, we still had to drive back…
We made it to the village in one piece. And made it back to Dar as well, taking a less scenic route this time in the name of efficiency. As I recall the near-misses today, I suspect my memory of the fear is shielded or perhaps tempered by the aforementioned padding of youth in the presence of a parent. Or perhaps I was just so exhausted by the time we rolled back into our home driveway, and the aftershocks never quite got to me since I had to start packing for college almost immediately thereafter. They say travelling with companions reveals a lot about one another; it tests relationships. If a long layover in a cramped airport is test enough, imagine getting lost in the Serengeti. Our family was already riddled with tensions of various origins, many of which were exacerbated to traumatic degrees by the nature of long-distance road travel. So while the experience did bring us closer, the way rollercoaster rides and shared spicy food do, it also left scars. Knowing what I know now as an adult, about grieving and about parenting (and, heck, about how tiring driving can be), I occasionally revisit the unpleasant moments to see if perhaps I would have responded differently to the stressors. However, some things are best left in the rear view mirror—until you turn a corner and they show up again. A decade later I found myself experiencing nightmarish déjà-vu as my then-boyfriend and I skidded along the muddy main road of Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, in a rickety Rav4, him driving and me silently panicking, having been let in after dark by a gatekeeper who made us swear not to mention his name if anything happened. But that is itself a tale for another day.
About the Author:
Sylvia K. Ilahuka is a Tanzanian writer based in Kampala. She has essays and poetry published in literary journals Lolwe, Doek!, and Iskanchi, and has written about music for Bandcamp Daily.