I can actually say that I survived roughing it in Africa. Yes I know, anyone who knows me does not believe that statement, but believe it fools! I did it! This girl, right here, Tara Sonnemaker, chose to sign up for a three-day safari in Eastern Senegal at Nikolo-Koba National Park.
Around 7 am, we all stumble onto these rundown, small, dirty, stinky buses, not prepared for the adventure we were about to have. An hour later, we arrive at the Bandia Saly Reserve, a different park. Going to this safari was not originally part of our schedule, but I wasn’t going to complain if it meant seeing more animals. We hopped in these legit safari trucks that fit about 25 people and drove past the gates into “the wild”. After driving around for a bit, the driver suddenly stops and points: a giraffe!! This cute little giraffe stops and stares back at us; perfectly posed for the camera. After getting over that awesome moment, we drove on and saw zebras, monkeys, buffalo, ostriches, and elands. I have the most amazing footage that I will post when I’m back to civilization. I can’t believe that I was so close to zebras and giraffes!! Childhood dream accomplished.
When I say I endured Africa, a lot of you might think I’m referring to the wilderness and climate, but let me tell you, that was the easiest part of my journey. The hard parts were whenever we had an issue with Africa trying to westernize. The buses were so far behind our standards that I think I would’ve rather traveled on a horse and buggy. At least on that we wouldn’t have had flat tires or run out of gas. Okay I’m joking I know that the bus is the better option, but the ride definitely pushed some people over their limits. 11 hours later, after riding in a hot and bumpy bus, we pull up to the entrance of the park in the dark. The headlights of the bus shine on the gate and I laugh that this so-called gate is the only thing keeping lions and rhinos and elephants from terrorizing the villages. Ha! Imagine if the states were like that. Fallou (our amazing tour guide) gets out and talks to the park officers. Usually, the close the gates at 7 pm, but we called ahead of time to keep it open. 30 minutes later, we were told we were just waiting for our hotel manager to drive out of the park and lead us back in. Though it took forever, I was happy to have a guide – wouldn’t want to get lost in the jungle!! Our hotel manager shows up and we start our drive into the park. All of us were thinking it would be a short little drive, maybe 20 minutes, but no. An hour and a half later, we roll up to our camp.
We sit down for dinner at 11 pm. All around us are noises we don’t recognize; the only thing separating us is a 3-foot wall and pure darkness. After we are led to our huts, which are complete separated from the main buildings of the camp. We walk in to find, ah, more darkness. No lights, no air, and no clue what to do; we walk back out and tell the manager the power is out. He kindly apologizes and goes to fix it. A lot of girls (oh did I mention there are no guys on this trip, only 41 girls) were past their limits and freaking out that the power was out. I for one could only think about sleeping in a safe hut away from all my lion friends. The power flicked back on a few minutes later and everyone cranked their AC. Unfortunately, the camp wasn’t ready for 41 sweaty and irritated girls and the generator pooped out for the rest of the night. Lucky for our hut, we were passed out at that point and didn’t realize we were drenching ourselves in sweat as we slept.
The next morning, we crawled to breakfast at 7 am and had the most amazing coffee with jam and bread (no Julie Andrews, not tea). Then, the reason we signed up for this: the safari trucks pull up. Everyone casually SPRINTS to the trucks to claim their spot for the next 3 hours. Again, this place was not meant for any number of people over 30. They brought 4 trucks for 41 people. Next thing I know I’m getting yelled at in some language I couldn’t even attempt to decipher to get inside the truck. The normal people, aka the ones who didn’t run to the trucks, got shoved into the cabs of pick-up trucks, because there was no more room on top. I was pretty bummed, but that feeling only lasted for about 2 minutes. We start bumping along this dirt road with red dust flying into our faces from the truck in front of us. Tree limbs drape down and smack girls in the face as we go flying by. Tall weeds jump along side our trucks make our legs itch constantly. I roll up my window and enjoy the cushioned seat of the cab. Problem solved.
We drive along the jungle and fields with no animals in sight. The only animals we saw were planned trips to two different villages: one where they had a caged leopard, and one where they had domesticated warthogs. So that was fun. We drive back to camp and sit down for lunch. They had warned us at breakfast that monkeys like to visit during mealtime, but after a disappointing safari we weren’t expecting anything. As if cued exactly by the bread set down at the table, little monkeys jump down from the trees surrounding us. Here we go; Planet of the Apes part 4. They jump up to the rock wall behind our table. One starts the rally by climbing up on some girl’s chair and onto the table. He reaches for the plate of bread; some brave soul across the table reaches for the same plate. This monkey and this girl literally get into a tug of war with this plate. The monkey finally gets spooked by his far-removed cousins staring at him and grabs a piece of break off the top of the plate and takes off into the bushes. One by one, these monkeys take their turns attacking the table. One runs down the entirety of the table, knocking every glass over on his way. We learned rather quickly that it was a much better option to just give them the bread. When the real food came, the manager took a slingshot and aimed it at them; I was hoping that he wasn’t going to actually hit them. Turns out so were they. Is if trained to, all the monkeys took off towards the trees and did not come back.
After lunch we got back in the trucks for our afternoon safari, this time I was sitting up top. We bumped through the same trails for quite a while then paused to witness two antelope… uh… making love. So that was interesting. This trip was way more fun than the last safari basically due to our awesome driver that made us feel like we were in the Indiana Jones adventure ride at Disneyland. Even though we weren’t seeing animals, we were driving like a rhino was chasing the truck. The sun was setting and so were our hearts on finding animals. We had gone all day and had only seen antelopes getting it on. Finally, this huge group of baboons starts running through the jungle about 20 feet out from us. First we slowed to get a good look, then we kept the same pace (which was fast) as them for a good 5 minutes! They were flying through the shrubs and were letting the world know they were there. I have never heard a hundred baboons screaming at the same time – until this moment. We turn a corner and our driver slams the brakes. They had started crossing our trail to the other side. Casually, we sat inches away from them as they walked across our path. Now that was freaky. I felt like at any moment some angry alpha was going to jump from the jungle and just beat the crap out of us. But our driver didn’t seem too concerned. This street crossing took forever as baboons just kept coming out of the bushes. After a while, they thinned out and we were able to drive past. We raced the sun back to our camp and said goodbye to our invisible elephant friends that we just knew were out there. Our faces were covered in red dirt and our hair was tangled with grass, but we were happy.
After dinner we fought over the showers and couldn’t have been happier to climb into bed. Our wake up call the next morning was at 6 am. The only good thing about getting up that early was that it meant air conditioning on the bus instead of to our hot huts. To save you the long story, just go back and read the first part of this story. Imagine all of the problems we had getting to the park, then put them here: ______. We had a flat tire, our air conditioning broke, we were stuck in traffic, and everyone had to pee every 5 minutes. But, we got back to the ship only an hour and a half past “on-ship time” (aka the entire ship was waiting on 71 people) and we made it in one piece. I have never been more excited to take a shower in my life.
My experience is Africa was authentic. I am so glad I chose to challenge my comfort zones. I had an amazing adventure and came back respecting Senegalese culture and their way of life. But, I also came back with a new wave of gratitude for my life and my culture. The world has so many different perspectives, and not a single one is wrong. I have been bitten by the travel bug and don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with where I’ve been: just where I’m going next. For those who struggle with other cultures and ideas, I challenge you to see the world differently than you do now. Though you might disagree with some aspects, it is not your place to judge. “One sign of maturity is the ability to be comfortable with people who are not like us.” – Virgil A. Kraft