Not for the faint hearted
Take it from me, you gotta really really want to see wild animals before taking the decision to get on a bush plane and spend hours rattling around in van.
Make no mistake folks, this is serious travel for the disabled. Please think seriously before engaging in this activity.
Ok that’s enough thinking.
Here’s the how to guide:
You will need:
1 safari van and driver
1 strong able bodied person to lift you in/out vans; in/out planes.
A cast iron bladder and/or adult diapers
1 camera (and not one that comes with your phone)
Adhoc plane captains
1. First take a small plane from Nairobi’s Wilson airport to the Mara Triangle.
You’ll have a choice of airstrip depending on your hotel but you’ll only have two airlines to get you there: AirKenya and Safarilink. Seats on both can be booked online but be quick. Flights and seats are limited.
Don’t be alarmed at the potholes you’ll see on the taxiway at Wilson. The airstrips are in much better condition.
2. Get on the plane.
Be prepared to lose any dignity. You will be manhandled.
The plane pictured above is a Cessna Caravan and they’re used to bump all manner of stuff and people across airstrips around the world. These planes are no A380s. They’re small and practical.
I knew I’d have to be carried into the plane. There’s no air bridge, just a roll across the tarmac. And I thought I’d be going up the steps you can see in the picture. One volunteer grabbing me under the arms, another under the knees.
It’s an exercise I’ve perfected after countless bruises, sprains and near encounters with the floor on god knows how many flights over the last few years.
But oh, silly me. The stairs were too obvious.
I was taking the back entrance.
Being man-hauled about two metres off the ground however, while sitting in your chair, would not be my preferred method of entry into a plane, but when there’s a distinct lack of ‘airport’ on safari you ain’t got much choice.
See that single seat closest to the doorway? They even took that out to make it easier for me to get in the plane. Jeez, you’re too kind.
And this was only the plane down to Amboseli, in Kenya’s South East, not even the Maasai Mara.
I didn’t exit the plane quite the same way. My personal ‘muscle’ Moses, the tour organiser, realised the chances of a high-altitude face plant on the way down if we did the same in reverse were pretty high.
This time my chair came off first and then me, bum-shuffling to the doorway before launching myself into the arms of… the captain.
See, how many other women can say: “The captain swept me off the plane and into his arms…” ? There have to be some advantages to being in a wheelchair right?
Ok, enough Babs Cartland.
I’m here in Kenya for the wildebeest migration. It’s one of the world’s great natural wonders. Up to 1.5 million animals spending three months wandering from Tanzania’s Serengeti through Kenya’s Maasai Mara.
For my actual flight to Keekorok in the Maasai I entered via the stairs, though the plane was so full a passenger occupied the co-pilot’s seat.
I was sat right next to the exit door and I joked about just pushing me out of it if there was an emergency…until my wheelchair blocked it. No other space. Better not crash then, I guess.
David, the captain on our chartered East African plane, was somewhat astonished I was on safari at all as he helped me off the aircraft.
“How can you do it?” he asked. “Why can’t I,” I respond. “Just ‘cos I can’t walk doesn’t mean I can’t do something.”
To be fair, I couldn’t do it without the help of Moses, my uncomplaining ‘muscle’. He reckoned he’d lose 5kg on this trip. (He didn’t)
3. Bring a very fat wallet.
Prices for everything double during the migration. It ain’t cheap. There are strict weight limits on luggage for the plane. (You might want to leave stuff behind in Nairobi) And don’t forget the park fee $80 per day per person. You pay at the air strip. Keekorok can’t do credit cards, so bring cash. Dollars are king and there’s an unofficial exchange rate of 100 Kenyan shillings to the greenback. Makes conversions nice and easy when the Maasai want some local money. (They win)
4. Keep your legs crossed until arrival at the hotel. (The toilet at the airstrip is probably best avoided)
Once you arrive in the Mara you’re realise safari does not mean luxury travel, even if it comes with a luxury price tag attached.
After I’m lifted into the safari van we’re off bumping down the road to the hotel 15km away. My bladder is reminded of the roads – or more accurately the lack of them.
Not a piece of tarmac in sight and a mandatory No pitstop on the road rule. Danger: Lions.
Though we did spot later in the week from a distance a woman emerging from behind some bushes. Why hide, I wondered, when you are literally in the middle of nowhere? She was fortunate. The wildlife is also good at hiding itself.
Anyway, bumpy roads, no loos. We’re just going to the hotel, but on the average game drive your next toilet is 3-4 hours away.
Disabled on Safari means managing your need to pee.
5. We’re staying at the Sarova Mara Game Camp and the staff are ready to help you in the restaurant, pushing you to the buffet. There are no end of choices for food and drink. But remember: you are about to spend several hours on bumpy roads.
It’s important to just say NO
To cappuccino (caffeine)
To English Breakfast (caffeine)
To coke (caffeine)
To OJ or juice (too acidic)
And last of all (though you probably don’t want to do this during the day)
No to alcohol.
Basically no to anything that encourages your bladder to work hard. That doesn’t mean don’t drink at all – water is fine. And as you’re at altitude, (between 1500m-2100m) it’s a must!
I went for peppermint or chamomile tea in the mornings. Ok, it’s a bit odd with your Kenyan mandazis and streaky bacon, but it’s hot.
6. Don’t forget your equipment: Hat, camera, sunscreen. Tena Ladies.
Yes ladies, before you go [out], step into those deeply unfashionable but very necessary Tena Ladies, then there are no accidents. Don’t think I need to spell out why.
Chaps, you just have to point and shoot, or use a bottle, but I guess you’d have figured that out on your own.
Oh, sorry is this making you feel a bit… uncomfortable?
Then imagine sitting in a van with less than perfect suspension for 4 hours where every 10-15 seconds you’re bumped around in your seat and your bladder feels like a can of beer that’s been shaken so vigorously it’s about to explode.
And you feel like that after 30 seconds. And there are another 14,370 to go before you can pee again.
7. Liberally mix game drives with excellent food three times a day and you will be in safari heaven. Game in the Maasai features the Big Five – lion, rhino, leopard, buffalo, elephant – with cheetah, giraffe, wildebeest, varied antelope, amazing bird life and more. But sightings cannot be guaranteed.
The animals will help you to forget the discomfort of the roads. It is why you’re here. And who said safari had to mean complete air-conditioned perfection?
Actually depending on your type of safari van there is no air conditioning. Some vans are just open-sided jeeps. Mine had windows but a roof that could be raised, so those able to stand you can get a better view of what’s going on around you.
8. Take lots of photos, and make a back up in case of theft. (I lost my computer on the way home)
9. At the end of the day, sit back with a cold Tuskers and read a disabled traveller’s account of one of the greatest shows on earth.
They come like an invading swarm of locusts. Hundreds of thousands of them. They’re here for fresh grazing and they’re hungry.
In single file they trek – long trains of animals stretching across the plain pausing only to bow their heads to take another clump of fresh grass.
As you emerge from behind the enclosing electric fence and the safety of your game lodge, you could at first be forgiven for thinking the animals have disappeared. Then, around a turn in the track – you’ll find a small group.
You pass a rotting carcass before another group scatters before you. They’re skittish animals, see.
If they don’t run as your safari van approaches, they’ll turn their heads directly towards you with a seemingly imperious stare. It’s impossible to discern an impression through the dark fur of their faces and shag of their beards.
For the wildebeest this is a time of plenty. The long grass needs to be devoured before the rains start again in the Serengeti.
It’s a time of plenty too for the Mara’s predators. Lions, leopards and cheetah all feast on the plentiful game. The plain is littered with the remains of dead animals. Dazzles of zebra also travel with the wildebeest and fall victim too. Along with eland and Thomson gazelle.
Vultures lay siege to the dead but are too fat or too full to fight over the pickings on offer.
They can’t even be bothered to scare off one of the plains’ other scavengers – the jackal – which soon has its teeth tugging at the decaying flesh.
At night we can hear the hyenas calling.
The plains’ vegetarians – the elephants, rhino and buffalo have all but disappeared. My guide Edward tells me they don’t like the rustle the long grass makes as the wildebeest move through, nor their constant porcine-like grunt that pierces the air.
One morning we head towards one of the migration’s chokepoints: the river crossings that are the deadliest part of the wildebeests’ journey.
We bump along the dirt track for hours, circling vultures indicating the location of the latest kill.
A clump of safari vans reveals a resting lion still panting from the morning’s hunt. Edward tells me most male lions die of heart attacks – a poor diet and too little exercise.
The King of the Jungle is said to sleep for 22 hours a day.
The wildebeest move slowly towards us with seemingly no destination in mind. We spot a young animal with a broken front leg. The hyenas will have it soon enough, maybe before its mother abandons it.
Still we carry on. Then Edward excitedly pronounces: “They’re coming from the Talek river.”
A slight in increase in speed.
As we get closer it’s clear there’s been heavy traffic here. The grassland has been bitten and trampled flat to the earth. Any animal crossing now will have to walk some distance before finding fresh grazing.
We can see a line of bushes and trees. The vegetation following the path of the river.
And finally we are here. It’s quiet. Edward explains that the Wildebeest don’t use the same crossing point every year.
We drive along the riverbank a few kilometres. There’s a small herd of Wildebeest eyeing the river.
“There’s not a constant stream of animals crossing. It depends on the day and the time,” says Edward.
We watch as the group edges closer to the water. Then inexplicably they turn back.
“They fear the crocodiles in the river and the lions and leopards on the other side. And they get scared. Sometimes they’ll go the whole day going back and forth, or even the next day.
“It’s like a game of dare. But once one has no fear and starts to cross, they all do.”
Edward says to witness the crossing you must be either incredibly lucky or stake out the river for a month, not a day like a visiting tourist.
He recalls the time a few years back when the Mara river flooded after heavy rain.
“Many wildebeest drowned, others trampled on each other. You could smell death from two kilometres away.
“Crocodiles were lying on top of the carcasses. They didn’t have to hunt, it was like a party.”
Further down the river two bloated crocs lie basking in the midday sun digesting their latest meal.
A pair of hippos is submerged in the water – only occasional spurts of water revealing their presence.
There’ll be no crossing here today.
I travelled on a private safari with Moses Mungai @ Musir Tours
firstname.lastname@example.org Tel +254 (0)723 774903