Thursday, May 09, 2013

Tanzania trip: Closest I've ever been to death

I went on a one-week trip to Tanzania that I simply must document somewhere; I thought this blog is as good a place as any to document it in. 

This trip happened very quickly. At least it did to me. There were a bunch of friends who wanted to experience Africa and have been planning an itinerary for a trip there for months. I wasn't part of the itinerary planning process, I simply tagged along just before the trip started. It looked like an excellent trip so I couldn't resist saying no when my friend asked me to join.

We decided to rough it up this trip. We went on a budget in order to experience Africa the way it was suppose to be experienced. Not the best idea in retrospect. But we did it and made it back in one piece... barely.

Day 1:

First day we landed, I remember thinking, this trip better be good after all the immunization injections I took. They told us we needed to bring a yellow fever immunization certificate to the airport, which my friend and I did bring from Qatar, but no one asked us for the certificate. As a matter of fact, I still have that certificate with me. 

One of the people in the group of friends I went with, actually lived in Tanzania. My friend (who came from Doha with me) and I reached her home in Dar Es Salam and met the rest of the group who came from London, exchanged pleasantries, then planned some last minute things for the rest of the trip. We were going to go to the nearest place that airs the England v. Sweden football match that night as we had some English and Swedes as part of the group. That was a fun night. England beat Sweden 3:2, if I recall correctly. We had to go back early so we can wake up early the next day and begin our trip.

Day 2 & 3:

We woke up at 5 am to take a 7-hour drive in a small Toyota Prado car from Dar Es Salam to Hondo Hondo Lodge. We were seven people all together, crammed into the  old Prado for seven exceptionally long hours. The cushion in the seats was worn off from what I can only imagine was the excessive use the car has endured. This made the seats feel like wooden plaques. The roads were bumpy and the wooden plaque-like seats made me remember each bump very well. It was anything but comfortable. But I did catch some beautiful views a long the way, some of which I caught with my phone's camera.

One way bridge that is barely stable for bikes let alone the 4x4  car we were on.

We drove to Hondo Hondo lodge first so that we can store some of our bags and grab some lunch. The reason we had to store our bags was because we were going to go hiking up Udzungwa mountains and camp at the top of the mountain for the night.

We dropped off our luggage and I was told to pack the bare essentials for the night we are spending at the top of the mountain. Packing is not my foray, though. In fact, I am awful at packing. I am the type who packs two big suitcases for a 2 day trip. Anyway, I was travelling to Tanzania with two backpacks for the 7 nights I was spending there, dropped one off and decided the other one is good enough for one night so no need to (un)pack a thing. Boy was I wrong. The bag I was carrying was about 5 times the weight of the heaviest backpack any of others were carrying with them. The hike was that much more tiring for me because of that.

Hondo Hondo Lodge entrance

We loaded up the backpacks into the Prado and got into it with the Tanzanian guide who managed to squeeze in. The guide was there to show us the correct route to the top of the mountain. Henry, our driver, dropped us off and drove off. I stood there in front of the mountain and was instantly blown away by how beautiful the mountain looked. It was incredible.

I was pumped after seeing that sight. I walked up the mountain and wondered why I never did this type of thing before. It was refreshing. It was invigorating. It was breathtaking. Ten minutes later, I was literally out of breath. Now, I am not the fittest person I know, but I am certainly not "unfit". This confused me because my group were perfectly fine and were trekking along happily up the mountain. Since the group I went with consisted of two girls, who didn't seem tired in the least bit, my masculinity (& perhaps slight ego) prevented me from ever admitting to the group that I am already tired. It's true. It took only ten minutes for me to be out of breath for god's sake! So I did what any self-respecting man would do in that situation ... I pretended to spot "interesting" things to stop everyone and catch my breath without showing it. For example, I kept finding plants and going "wow! look at this amazing plant!" (personal note: never been interested in plants in the least bit.) and everyone would huddle up to take a look. And alas, we would all stop and I would have a chance to catch my breath with my "manliness" still intact. The problem is, there was just so many times one can find the same plants or insects fascinating. I did this twice successfully, and then they just started ignoring my 'look at that!' enthusiastic shouts. Even when I did in fact see something interesting, like a freaking puppy in a hut built in the middle of the freaking mountain (See below)! No one believed me.

This puppy was just laying there during our trek up the mountain

In spite of my constant chants to stop and take a look at [un-]interesting trivial things, we managed to reach the most breath-taking views. They really were worth it. I remember standing there and looking out at that view and I swear ... all my worries and anxieties just vanished. I never felt that way before. I was truly in awe of the view. Pictures cannot capture that feeling and the beauty of that view. Behind us was a waterfall and in front of us was a view of complete unobstructed un-tampered nature, in all its glory.

Sitting at the edge and basking on the beautiful view in front of me

I looked at the guide who seemed less in awe with the view than we were. It was likely due to the fact that he sees this every day, I thought, but still... look at that view! I remember striking a conversation with him while we were up there. He told me that a lot of people in Tanzania are poor and the government there is corrupt. I remember replying to him by saying something like, "you see this view in front of you? You can't buy this." No money in the world can get you this view, I added. I can sympathize with what he said though. Tanzania is ripe with precious stones and resources and you can barely see the returns of that spent on basics like infrastructure. I just felt I needed to show him that although the grass is perhaps greener on the other side, the grass is still green on his side too. Anyway, to his credit, and the credit of all the Tanzanian people we came across actually; no one ever asked us for money or even insinuated it even though clearly they needed it. That made us tip them well. Really well. They deserved it.

The tour guide in front of the waterfalls, He is wearing the traditional Masai cape.
We got to the top of the mountain and camped there for the night. There were a number of American high school students there. They came as part of a charity group to build homes in Africa and they took a break by hiking this mountain and camping there for the night. We had a great conversation with the students. You know those Hollywood movies about high school? The girls (and they were mostly girls camped up there) reminded me of the stereotypical high school students in those movies. It was definitely interesting having a conversation with them. I think they will remember our conversation fondly. The group I was in was a group of attorneys mostly and we did love to argue. We thrive in arguing. And I believe they enjoyed it judging by how much they laughed at our conversations.

We got back down the next morning (which was much easier than the hike up) and stayed overnight at Hondo Hondo Lodge. Over dinner we mentally got ready for the next day. We were going to Mikumi Safari National Park. It's a national park known for being the home of African lions and exotic wild animals in their natural habitat.

Day 4:

We woke up the next morning, met up with Henry, our young Tanzanian driver, and drove to Mikumi Game reserve. A game reserve, as most of you know, is a fenced off area of wild life that is preserved for animals to roam their natural habitat. The wild animals there roam their natural habitat and subsist as they do in the wild life. It took a while to get there. I remember we were driving in one-lane roads with huge trucks in front of us. The crazy thing was, the trucks were trying to overtake each other by driving on the wrong lane and accelerating. That's not the crazy thing (I come from Qatar after all). What was crazy was the fact that the roads were on hills and so the drive up and down made it  impossible to assess whether someone was driving on the other lane from the other side of the hill. A truck could have easily collided head on with an incoming truck trying to overtake from the other side of the hill. It was madness.

On our way there, Henry told us the beat up Prado was running out of gas whilst smiling. I don't know why he didn't inform us of this before. I also don't know why he was smiling when he told us that. Anyway, We went to the first gas station in a town on our way there. It was empty. The people there told us there is no gas in the whole town and that the closest town from here that might have gas is 40 minutes away. Henry told us while still smiling that the gas in the car won't get us to the next town there in his ever cheerful demeanor. I won't lie, I started disliking Henry after that. We just parked in the empty station and started brain storming on things we could do. Henry came back to us and told us, some guys over there in the corner said they got gas and are willing to sell it to us for a profit. We were stuck and so, we had to accept the guys offer and pay for the gas they had.

Gas/Petrol in water bottles

We got enough gas to get us to Mikumi. The gas was probably watered down but it was our only choice. Got to the gate stop, paid our fees to get in and asked for maps to see where the camp we are staying in was. They said they ran out of maps so I took out my handy HTC phone camera and took a picture of the big map stuck on the wall there. They said it would take us about 2 hours to drive from the gate to the camp in the game reserve. They also warned us to never leave our car until we reach the camp as there are wild lions in the reserve and as soon as we leave the car, they will see us as prey and they will attack us.

Mikumi National Park Tourist Map

I switched on my Qatari cellphone before driving through the gates to see if I got any phone calls or messages (I was expecting a call about a new job offer). There was one message from the CEO of the company that wanted me to join them asking me to call him back. I decided I will call back as soon as we get to the camp inside the reserve. I wanted to send an SMS back to him to tell him that I will call back in 2 hours but the reception went out as soon as we got through the game reserve gates. In hindsight, I am not sure why I checked my mobile then or why I was so adamant on sending an SMS message then either. It's as if I felt what was coming our way not soon after.

I tucked my phone back into my pockets and prepared myself mentally to absorb the beauty of what I was about to see. There was a single mud road that split in half not soon after the gates. The areas surrounding the mud road were filled with clusters of beautiful animals living in their natural habitat. I saw giraffes, elephants, zebras, buffalos, wildebeests and impalas among many predator birds like vultures and falcons. Driving there through the park was just breath-taking. I kept thinking to myself, 'why did I not come here earlier?'. Surely, as if on queue, I found out why.

Giraffes in their natural habitat.

The friend who lived in Tanzania, told the driver to go fast so we reach the camp before sun down and have enough time to look around and rest. Surely, as Henry (the driver) has been told, he drove really fast in the off-road mud road he never drove on before. As the animal viewings got sparser and sparser, we started to wonder why. Slowly it became clear to us. The dry grass was on fire. Yes... fire. Apparently, this was artificially lit fire by the game reserve administration to make the dry grass die faster and new grass grow in its place for the wild animals there to survive and live on. The artificial burning of the dry glass is supposed to be controlled and never reach anywhere close to the mud roads that people drive on. But then again, this is Africa. Safety, is not a given at all situations...

I remember, the bush fires started about an hour or so after driving through the gates of the game reserve. We got to another intersection soon after and we decided to take a right turn. The road we went on had fire coming from the bushes on the left side that we couldn't see until it was too late. Apparently, the wind made the fire spread, as the wind does -- pretty much, always.... Henry, our faithful driver, saw the fire whaling from the left side and decided to swerve our car to the right to avoid the dry grass. He decided to driver over long sprouting grass on the right without slowing down as per his instructions to avoid the bush fire. Little did he know, the long sprouting grass were hiding a 30-meter ditch.

The car fell sideways first. The car windows & roof were open. Non of us were wearing any seat-belts. I felt the car drop first, thought it was just a hump we drove over. But then slowly, but surely, I felt the car rotating clockwise, and I heard Henry say "Oh no...". He probably said it while smiling too, I couldn't tell as I was sitting behind him. The car flipped completely into the ditch. The car did a complete flip, my head smacked right onto the rooftop of the car (thankfully the Prado's sun roof is tiny and was not near where I was sitting or else I would have lost my head). My head bent 90 degrees and my neck slammed on the roof and it all went black.

Bush fire.

I woke up to hearing someone calling my name. "Yes!" I replied before realizing where I was. The car made a complete flip into the ditch and landed, by sheer luck, on mud, right side up. We all sat there in the car checking to see if all our limbs are still intact and nursing our wounds and bumps. Thankfully, no one lost a limb. Which is a miracle considering the rooftop and windows were open and no seat belts were used. Unfortunately, just as our heartbeats began to beat a little slower as we calmed down, the Swedish friend, who was sitting in front, said "the engine of the car is on fire... it might explode..." This alarmed all of us, obviously. The friend sitting behind me reminded us not to leave the car unless we want to be mauled by African lions. I didn't feel like being mauled by an African lion that day. I am not racist, I just don't like being mauled by any lion regardless of ethnicity.

I remember mulling the dilemma we were facing for a few seconds... "die in a car explosion or be mauled by lions and die?" Then, typical of a group of lawyers, we started arguing over whether we should stay in the car that might explode or leave and face potential African lions. I decided to get out of the car because, I figured, there are seven of us so if lions show up, they will probably maul one of us and the rest can escape whilst a car exploding is probably going to kill us all. So, ignoring the argument that is going on next to me, I tried to to open the car door but it was stuck since the car was deep in mud. I decided to climb out of the rooftop. Walked on top of the bent rooftop of the car and jumped off of it and into the mud.

Our bags were all over the place. The trunk of the car must have opened while the car flipped then closed again since all our bags were scattered across on the mud. I quickly located my backpack. Ran to it and instinctively took out my passport and placed it in my back pocket. I guess I figured, if anything happens to me, people would be able to identify me with the passport in my pocket. My friends followed suit. They each grabbed their backpacks and we climbed up to the road we were driving on before flipping. I remember us pulling on the roots of the plants protruding from the ditch. I didn't notice until after I climbed up and felt a tingling feeling in my hands. My hands were bleeding. The roots of the plants had thorns. Lots and lots of thorns. The adrenaline didn't make me dwell on my hands though. I was in survival mode. I was also in shock. Did this happen!? I kept thinking. That didn't last long because we quickly realised, we were 7 people on foot in an African Safari known to be home for a lot of wild animals and there is no one any where in sight that may be able to help us.

We were standing in the middle of the mud road. Our car down a ditch with smoke coming out of it. Bush fire glaring from the opposite side. It looked like a scene from a horror movie. We quickly decided to stay close to the bush fire since we figured, animals will not come close to the fire. The fire, which ironically was one of the main reasons we crashed in the first place, saved us. It was pretty smart of us to stick by the fire when I think back on it. However that didn't last long, the bush fire was dying out and the sun was setting. We were looking around us trying to find any sign of cars passing by to hitch a ride but nothing was on site. There was just clear un-obstructed nature for as far as the eye can see.

We tried to call the camp to send someone to us but non of us could get any signal. It is a game reserve after all, so the telephone antennas and lines are not built there. Also, Africa and infrastructure are not always good friends. Thankfully, our friend who lived in Tanzania had a phone with the biggest telecom company there which had one slot on the signal sign. She managed to call the camp with it. One of the other friends handled the actual call though and told them where we were according to the map. They said they will send us drivers and they will reach us in about 45 minutes.

An hour passed and we heard nothing. There were no cars anywhere on site. I then asked the friend who told them where we were to show me where in the map he said we were and realised he was wrong. Very wrong. We were nowhere near the area he pointed  out to them. We had to call them again and tell them our exact location. The camp said they will call the drivers but its hard to get signal and they won't hear the phone. We asked them to please try. I remember looking at the fire after that. It was dwindling. It was going to go dark soon as the sun sets.

 I thought that was it. We were in the middle of nowhere. We were bleeding from our legs and hands. The animals will surely smell the blood and come as soon as the bush fire goes out. When it gets dark there will be no chance for us to get rescued. So, I took out my work Blackberry device. It only has a Blackberry service but no line so you can't call from it. My law firm gives these out to the attorneys so we can get our work emails anywhere in the world. I unlocked the Blackberry by entering the code, and noticed it has a bar of signal. Went to my Family group in the BBM chat app and wrote to my family the following: "Please take care of my little sister, Najool." Then added, "I will see you when I get back home" in order not to alarm them as there was nothing they would be able to do for us at this point. I honestly thought this was going to be it for me.

The dwindling bush fire

About an hour and 45 minutes later, I spotted a white Minivan driving on a mud road quite a distance away. I took off my safari hat (had full Indiana Jones-like gear) and started jumping and waving it while shouting "HELP! HEEELLP!". Some of my friends joined me, others shouted at us because we were getting the attention of the wild animals and alerting them of our location. The Minivan stopped and didn't move for 10 minutes. We didn't understand why they weren't driving back to come and get us. After ten minutes, they just drove off. My heart dropped. I got angry. I got nauseous. I cursed at them. Then a 15 minutes later, they showed up from the other side of the road with the Camp Rangers in the safari car behind them. I couldn't believe my eyes. I could see everyone smiling as the cars approached.

A woman came out of the Minivan first. She was a white brunette, slightly over-weight and looked like she was in her 50s. She asked how we were with a big grin on her face. I remember I just walked up to her and hugged her. I mumbled my thanks for saving our lives while hugging her. I noticed her family were in the car. Her husband and children were still in the minivan. She told us that Jesus Christ sent them there to save us... Turns out they were Christian Missionaries who were there to spread the word in Africa. The woman was also a retired nurse from the USA before becoming a Christian missionary and helped nurse our wounds and bumps.

Some of the already burnt out areas in the game reserve on our drive back from the accident site.

They drove us back to the gate then to a small doctors office in a village inside the game reserve. The doctor wasn't in her office though so they sent a car to get her. We just sat and waited outside the doctor's empty office. That's when I realized I don't really know the group of people I am with that well. At least not as much as they know each other. I am friends with one of them but the rest, I've only met a few days ago. They were all comforting each other and I got this strange feeling ... I felt totally alone. This will probably sound sad but, I needed a hug from someone who cares, you know? But there was no one around me at the time who fit the bill. So I tried to distract myself. I looked around and found a few monkeys playing on a tree behind the doctor's office building. Fascinating creatures those monkeys.

Anyway, the doctor eventually came and we went in to her office one at a time for her to check up on us. I remember he office clearly. There was a table with a desktop PC and one piece of medical equipment. It was one of those things you wrap on your arm and pump so you can measure your blood pressure. I told her I have bumps in my head and I am afraid I may have internal bleeding. She said "mmhm", then took the only medical apparatus on her table and wrapped it on my arm then said, your blood pressure is good. I don't know what my blood pressure had to do with internal bleeding in my head but, there you go.

We decided since we were 8 hours away from the capital city and our car is non-functional, we will just continue our trip. We let the camp drivers drive us back to the camp on their safari camp. We got to the camp at sun down, unpacked our bags and agreed to meet for dinner at the camp lounge. At dinner, we were all quiet. I had a huge headache and so did most others there. My phone rang and it was the CEO of the company that wants me to join them. He asked where I was since my phone had an international dial tone to it. I told him I was in Tanzania. He paused for a bit, then asked if it was for business or vacation. I told him I was here for vacation and he said "be careful, it is very dangerous there". It took all my power to not sound sarcastic when I replied by saying "really?" Anyway, we agreed to meet the week I am back. I got back to my dinner table and they were more talkative then. Two of the guys I were with decided to propose to their long term girlfriends. I came up with a resolution as well, I decided I would quite my job and get one where I have more of a social life. It's been almost 9 months since that day, and non of us did any of that. I am still in the same job and neither of the guys proposed to their respective girlfriends either.

The bush fires at night surrounding the camp.

The next morning we went on a proper safari ride with an actual zoologist who explained the nature of the animals and their behavior. We already pre-paid this safari ride so we thought might as well go. During the safari ride, we asked the driver to go to the place of the accident to check up on our car. We got there and literally, about a hundred metres from the place of the accident, we saw an african lion. The zoologist told us that you could see the lion's ribs which means he hasn't had anything to eat for a few days and must've came here because he smelled something. He did smell something. He smelled our blood only a few hours before when we were stranded there.

When I saw this lion, I had to announce to the people I am with that I am allergic to cats...


  • This post is already too long. I stayed in Tanzania for 7 eventful days and there is much to document. Perhaps I will document the subsequent events in the next posts, if people enjoyed this one. 


P.S. All of the above are true events to the best of my memory (it happened last summer so they are still fresh). I have intentionally left out any pictures that contained any of my friends or myself because I cherish my privacy and respect theirs. Believe me or not though, I have learnt a lot from this trip and I at least hope, you enjoyed reading this post.

P.P.S. I will now leave you with a few pictures from the rest of my trip.