We reached the turning for Ngutuni around lunch time. We came off the main road and started along the bumpy track towards the lodge. It was a bit of a relief because we’d been driving along the motorway with all the windows down, the car sadly did not have air conditioning, and I was feeling quite buffeted. I didn’t realise that eyelashes could billow in the wind but, believe me, they can.
Even when you’re wearing sunglasses.
As we drove we churned up clouds of the red dust that is so typical of Tsavo National Park and it swirled in through our open windows. The vegetation was shrubby and coarse but surprisingly green as I stared out at it, hoping to spot something between the scrabbling leaves. Ngutuni Lodge was quite far in off the road so we had some time to look around. After about fifteen minutes Cameron called out nonchalantly from the front seat,
“Giraffes up ahead,”
“What? Where?” I asked, desperately craning my head through the gap between the front seats to try and spot it.
“Over there,” Cam said and pointed into the distance. I could just bout make out the shape of a head reaching up towards the lower hanging branches of a tall tree.
“How did you see that?” I asked, impressed. Cam shrugged,
“You get an eye for it,” he said. Des took a little diversion off onto a smaller road so that we could get a closer look. He was gorgeously tall, with copper coloured markings all up and down his impossibly long neck. A bird had perched it right on his face, presumably picking off ticks and bugs from his fine coat. My first game spot.
We drove back round to the lodge and parked the car. A mongoose dashed across the road in front of us and I watched it bound off into the shelter of a bush.
“Love a mongoose,” Cam said, unbuckling his seatbelt like it was no big deal. I stared at the space the mongoose disappeared into for a moment before I followed suit and slung my backpack across my shoulders. ‘Just a mongoose’, I told myself, pushing my bubble of excitement down a little bit. We walked into the lodge and there, right in front of the main dining area, was a watering hole. It was crowded with Maribou storks and I could see some small shapes snuffling around in the muddy shallows. I walked straight past the reception desk and out to the deck, totally transfixed by the scene set out before me. This was my first real experience of the bush. As I got closer I saw that the little animals were in fact warthogs, nuzzling the ground looking for things to eat. A couple of them lay splayed out in the shade, not willing to deal with the heat of the day in exchange for a snack.
I suddenly realised I had wandered off on my own so I walked back to the others who were more respectfully waiting at the reception desk. A man kindly offered me a little towel and a glass of watermelon juice which was delightfully refreshing after the belching hot air of the journey.
We checked in and decided to have lunch and then go off for a game drive in the afternoon, as there wouldn’t really be any point in going whilst it was so hot. After we took our bags to our rooms we sat at the nearest table to the watering hole and watched.
It didn’t take long for the elephants to arrive.
Des noticed them first and called out. We dashed onto the deck to watch them as they strode to the watering hole. There were four of them and they slowly and carefully made their way towards the water. They drank readily, clearly thirsty in such intense heat. They sucked up mud into their trunks and sprayed it over their backs and you could almost see the relief on their faces as the coolness of it spread across their vast forms.
It was amazing how quietly they moved despite being so huge and the dexterity of their trunks was astonishing. Humans like to pretend that we are apart from other animals but when you see an elephant rubbing the mud out of its eye with its trunk it feels so startlingly human that you realise we’re not that separate after all. You could even see relationships between these males as they sprayed each other with water and played around in the mud.
The sun was beating down on us hard, as it was the middle of the day, but we stayed and watched them anyways. It was impossible not to. However we did eventually decide that we could at least watch them from the shade and shelter of the roof of the dining area so we retreated back to our table. It felt so bizarre sitting and eating lunch and glancing up to see elephants. Elephants!
So I was surprised when Cameron and Des declared that they would be going and having a siesta after lunch. We only had one night here, how could they waste the little time that we had with sleeping? And whilst there were elephants to look at? I thought they were crazy. But I guessed at least they could come here a whole lot more often than I could and it had been a pretty early start. Yael and I went up to our room which also had a balcony that overlooked the water hole, albeit a little further away. It was quite nice to get away from all of the other people that crowded around the verandah, including one old man who would slightly inappropriately take off his shirt to take pictures with his foot long camera lens.
We watched those elephants until they walked on to a more shaded area about an hour later. When Yael declared that she was also succumbing to the calls of a siesta I went back down to the deck and sat there, nursing a cup of coffee instead. I had decided to embark on writing down every marine species I had seen since joining the expedition and so had plenty to keep me occupied while the others slept. Zebra came to drink at the watering hole and so did a whole chain of warthogs.
The Maribou storks also spent some time drying themselves out so they looked almost in formation.
Every few species I would pause and look around me, taking it all in. It was quite something.
At around four Des and Cameron returned for our afternoon game drive. We woke up Yael, packed some drinks in a cool box and set off. I was so excited. My first game drive!
We saw so many fantastic things. Zebra, giraffe, herds of elephant and some of them only a stones throw away. At one point we were driving along and suddenly right next to us there was a large male elephant. He had come astoundingly close to us so we were able to notice that a portion of his trunk was missing.
He used his stumpy trunk to grapple with the bushes and foliage around him but it was clear that it was making things a bit more tricky. However he was still coping remarkably well and must have been living this way for some time given how the trunk was now completely healed over.
After driving sufficiently far from the elephants around us we stopped for a (not quite) sundowner. It was nice to be able to stretch out our legs and take in the views without the constrains of windows. The golden light was striking against the red soil.
There was one point though where we suddenly saw an elephant right by us that had been spooked by something in the trees it had been concealed by. It trumpeted in alarm.
“In the car!” Des called out and we all quickly dashed back in. Cameron dove in after Yael, squashing her against the back seat and we laughed breathlessly as the elephant scampered off.
“Oh no – the Pringles,” Yael said, scooping the dented container out from underneath her. “What a shame.”
“Better they get squished than us,” I said laughing and we got back out the car.
We stayed a little longer, salvaging the crumbled remains of the Pringles, before driving back to the lodge. It wasn’t quite sunset yet but we wanted enough time to get back before it got dark. Yael swapped with Cameron so she could sit in the front and she rolled the window down so she could sit out of the window as we drove. I tried to do the same but in the back the window wouldn’t go all the way down so it was a tad less comfortable but I managed to make it work. We drove along, no longer stuck inside the confines of the car so we could see all around us. It was awesome.
We drove back to the lodge and went to go shower off the fine layer of red dust that had settled all over us. Once I was clean again I knocked on Des and Cameron’s door to ask if they were ready but before I could speak I was hushed by Cameron.
“Listen,” he said, “There’s a lion.” He led me through the room out to their balcony where Des sat on a deck chair and Yael sat on the floor. All the lights were off so I had to try my best not to knock anything over on the way but I safely made it and sat myself down next to Yael.
Then there came a noise. It sounded kind of like an old man who was really struggling to stand up. A low grunting sort of a rumble. A lion.
“Isn’t that the most wonderful sound you’ve ever heard?” Yael whispered softly.
“It kind of sounds like he’s really constipated,” I said and Yael shot me a look.
“Thanks for that,” she said sarcastically and Des quietly chuckled.
“It does,” I said. The noise sounded really close but there was no sign of our lovely lion friend. Des explained that whilst it may sound like the lion was right on our doorstep it was very difficult to tell. He might be close or he might be quite a way away.
“They can be pretty loud,” he added. We were perfectly happy to just sit there though, waiting and hoping for his grunting calls. It felt totally surreal to just be listening to a lion. A lion that could be right outside your room.
This really was Africa.