I am sorry for the long post. It’s a long story. Also, sorry for not posting in ages — I’ve been waiting for something worth telling. I hope you think this story was worth the wait.
This past weekend, Ryan and I went with our friends Lesley and Andy to Tsavo West, a game reserve four hours from Nairobi, going toward the coast at Mombasa. Tsavo West’s claim to fame is that it is the site of the “maneaters”, two lions that wreaked havoc with the building of a bridge for the train the British were building in the late 1800s. These lions ate an estimated 100 men, causing the building to grind to a halt.
Anyway, we were all set to have a relaxed time going on game drives, checking out the scenery and seeing amazing animals in their natural habitat, which really does beat the hell out of seeing them in the zoo.
Now, it’s the rainy season here in Kenya and it actually has been raining quite prolifically. So the terrain we saw was lush and verdant rather than dry and brittle like it usually is.
The upside is that the mountainous landscape of Tsavo West is really breathtakingly beautiful. One downside, however, is that scarcity of water is what drives animals to waterholes that are few and far between, so when there’s abundant water, you work a bit harder (drive a bit farther) to see them.
On Friday afternoon, after checking in to our lodge (we stayed in a tented camp — nice tents replete with big beds, mosquito nets, and plumbing), we hit the park to go to the Rhino Sanctuary. The dirt track in the park has taken quite a beating from all the rains, so it was a challenge to negotiate the myriad crevasses we came across.
We got to the Rhino Sanctuary at roughly 4:00 — the park closes at 6:00, so we had limited time to scope out the rhinos and then get back to the gate of the park. We drove around at a leisurely pace suitable to game viewing and saw impala and kudu (types of antelope), elephant, buffalo, birds and squirrels, but nary a rhino. Disappointed, we set about to leave the gated sanctuary so we could head back to the park gate and exit on time.
Well, the map of the rhino sanctuary was a bit of a work of fiction and we got lost. We finally hit the fenced perimeter of the sanctuary and drove alongside it at a fast clip unsuitable for game viewing until we found the gate. By this time it was 6:30, but thankfully, the warden was still at the sanctuary gate and let us out. We zoomed to the park gate to find it deserted. Andy knocked on the warden’s door and the warden came out, wrapped in a towel, to scold us and let us out.
We got back to our lodge and hit the bar to toast to our great and good luck at having survived the harrowing adventure of almost being stuck in the park overnight. At some point, I decided to throw caution to the wind and quip that as glad as I might be that we didn’t wind up spending the night in the park, I was a wee bit disappointed as it would have made for an excellent story. We had a hearty laugh at that, ate dinner and turned in for the night.
The next morning we set out early to hit the dirt track and meander our way to Mzima Spring, where we would have lunch sitting outside amidst the monkeys. It was a beautiful drive and we saw some really terrific animals and just generally had a relaxed good time.
We refueled at the Serena Lodge in the park after lunch and decided to meander south of the Tsavo River, which was swollen and rushing with abundant rain waters, to view the Serengeti Plains. We got to a bridge that was partially submerged, so Lesley (brave Lesley) got out of the car and walked across it gingerly to determine if the car could cross. It could, so we did. As predicted, we saw different terrain and animals, including an elephant who was none too impressed with our presence and flared his ears at us, which is a preliminary warning to go far away.
At around 2:30 in the afternoon we decided that we had looped around the plains enough and we should make our way back to the gate since we really couldn’t stand to be late this time. We consulted the map and agreed on the best path and set out.
The track we took was really eroded and the drive was difficult and lengthy, but eventually we made it to the river crossing. The gate was within reach!
Except for the fact that the bridge had mostly fallen down and the river at that point was rapids, so there was no way for us to cross.
Time was running out — it was about 5:00 — so we had to make a quick decision. We decided to trespass on a water pipeline road that the park staff ostensibly maintain. According to the map it would take us to another crossing, we would cross the river and beat a hasty retreat to the gate just before nightfall. And we’d just have to become the park laughingstock as we arrived late at the exit gate yet again.
The track was as treacherous here as it was everywhere else in the park, making it seem as though the staff don’t exactly maintain it the way you’d hope. We drove for about an hour and finally came across a trail marker indicating a few disappointing things. Firstly, the map was rubbish. Secondly, we had not crossed the river at all, despite having crossed several bodies of water that looked so promisingly river-ish. We had instead crossed tributaries. So we were still south of the river. So south that at this point we were closer to Tanzania than to the gate we needed to exit out of. It was now 6:00, so the vision of making it to the gate on time vanished, and was instead replaced by the hope that we’d make it to a different gate (one on the map) and explain our way out of the park, get to a main road and go back to our lodge.
Time and weather were not on our side. We had approximately 30 minutes of sunlight remaining and a vicious-looking storm was quickly approaching. We turned down another pipeline maintenance road and booked it.
Well, we booked it as best as we could given the fact that this track had all but disappeared. It was bookended by deep gullies that could swallow the car and its occupants and in some spots, had the car’s wheelbase been an inch wider, we would have tipped the car and rolled down a steep ravine.
We were 48 kilometers from this new gate target and we made it all of 9 before we had to give up because it was not only pitch dark, but also pissing down with rain so hard that we could barely see out of the windshield, and what we did see was depressing: an image of the dirt track morphing into a fast-flowing river.
We decided to park the car and sit tight. We couldn’t go back over the horrible terrain we had already crossed and we couldn’t go forward under those conditions, especially not knowing how much worse the track was in front of us.
The downside was no one had mobile phone service.
Until, suddenly, I did. A text came in from a friend in London, and never have I been more relieved to hear my phone beep to life. We hastily dug up some emergency numbers and I got to dialling. The first number was disconnected. The second one just didn’t work at all. So I phoned directory assistance and was given two more phone numbers that didn’t work. Stymied, I phoned the Serena Lodge and the guy at the reception desk was enormously helpful. He both gave us new phone numbers and called on our behalf. We phoned the sister lodge to where we were staying (as that was the only phone number we had) and they phoned our lodge and the manager there, a miracle maker named Joseph, took charge of the situation and phoned emergency services as well.
No one was interested in helping us.
At this point, we were making peace with spending the night in the car. I will admit to a very brief moment of panic and unhappiness when my eyes welled with tears. But Lesley checked that in a heartbeat. She fixed me with a very strong, unwavering gaze and reminded me in a very maternal tone of voice that we were fine, we were safe in the car, we had food, water and each other and we would just sit tight until first light, when we would continue our journey out of the park. At that moment, I decided to cowboy up and make the best of things.
We actually had a very fun time being stuck in the car. Ryan, who had taken one antihistamine too many, dozed while Andy and Lesley and I played a quiz game (name ten Julia Roberts films, name ten Westerns, etc.). Andy devised a brilliant method of passing the time. We had four “treats” that we could have every quarter hour. So on the hour, we would roll up the windows and shut the sunroof and have five minutes of air conditioning. At a quarter past, Andy would get out and walk around the car — Lesley and I were not interested in this particular treat, so instead, we shone the flashlight around the car to look for eyes glinting back at us (no one wanted to become an animal’s “treat”). At half past, we would each have a piece of hard candy to suck on. At quarter to, we would each have a swig of water. It’s amazing how with a good attitude, good friends and some creativity, you can pass the time very quickly.
Working furiously in the background, Joseph was very resourceful. After finding a lackluster response to his request within Tsavo West itself, he phoned the head office of the Kenya Wildlife Service in Nairobi. That was enough motivation to get a few guys in Tsavo West to hop in a proper bush-bashing vehicle and try to find us.
Every person to whom we spoke about arranging a rescue heard the same thing. We were 9 kilometers southeast of reference point 66 on the (useless) map. We were on the water pipeline road. And we were just past the water monitor tank with the serial number RV AV 1-33 inscribed on it. I think till the end of my days I will always be able to hear Andy’s patient voice explaining that we were just past “Romeo Victor. Alpha Victor. 1 hyphen 33.”
I’m not sure that marker did any good as it presumed that someone had a map of the pipeline. But it made us feel that we gave the would-be rescuers as much information as possible.
That didn’t mean that words didn’t get lost in transmission. At one point, we got a phone call saying the rescuers were looking for us in a portion of the park we were nowhere near. That was frustrating, but truly heartening as it meant people really were looking for us.
Finally, at around 11:00, we saw headlights in the distance. A truck pulled up and out bounded three men armed with fully automatic weapons. That’s a little unnerving, but hey ho, you take your rescuer as you find him.
After a brief confab, they decided to lead us out, so we scooched over and they sneaked in front of us and away we went. There were many very precarious balancing act moments when Ryan directed Andy over very thin holey pieces of track, and there was the moment when the rescuers got lost and eventually found the correct turn off to the road that led directly to the gate at the pumping station, where we would leave the park. (I feel compelled to note that this road was not on the map at all.)
We finally made it to the gate at the pumping station. Freedom was near and it felt great. One of the rescuers hopped over the fence to go wake the guard to let us out and 20 minutes later we were through the fence and on the highway back to the camp.
We got back to the camp at 2:00 a.m. and were greeted by the friendly Maasai tribesman who works there and escorts you to your tent at night so that you don’t get eaten by a lion (we were staying at a camp called Maneaters, after all). Joseph was there as well, offering us dinner (we declined out of exhaustion). The camp had turned on the generator for us (it usually is off at 10:30 at night until 6:00 in the morning) and thus we could shower and get ready for bed in the luxury of light. Everyone was amazingly nice and even congratulated us on our collective bravery.
I hugged our rescuers and we gave them generous tips, but nothing can really express the gratitude we felt toward them. It was a delicious and at that point unexpected treat to sleep horizontally on a real bed.
The best part is, I’d do it all again. It had its tense moments (peeing outside in the bush when there are predators potentially lurking is a bit unsettling), but all in all, it was a blast. Maybe next time we won’t go to a game reserve in the rainy season, though.
At this point, all I have left to say is a big huge thank you to everyone who helped us!