Safari Surprise

Published in Africa Geographic, May 2005

Meeting and greeting passengers at the beginning of a trip is always a nerve-wracking experience for the leader. Will the group jell? Are they properly prepared? Usually the answer is yes. But I’ll never forget one airport meeting, and I’ll never forget Tom.

It was 1988 at Nairobi’s international airport and I was leading a safari for the first time. I had met most of the group but Tom, from upstate New York, was missing. Then I recognised the luggage label on a bag carried by an elderly man who seemed intent on avoiding my eye. I stepped into his path and smiled. “Are you Tom?” He stopped abruptly. “Yeah?”
“I’m Hilary Bradt, your leader.”
Tom’s jaw dropped. “But I thought you were a man!” Then: “Well I hope you know how to fire a gun!” I realised I had a bit of explaining to do.

Tom admitted he hadn’t got round to reading about the trip. He just thought it would be interesting to see Africa and he enjoyed hunting in the USA. Our first day was spent shopping for essentials. Tom was not protected against malaria nor the chill of high-altitude Nairobi. “Well, I didn’t expect to be cold in Africa!” This was his first experience of the developing world, and as we toured the city looking for a woollen sweater he made his opinions clear. “Jeez, we could teach these guys a thing or two” he grumbled. He didn’t trust Africans and wasn’t afraid to say so.

Once we started out on the game drives, Tom was at a disadvantage. For one thing he didn’t have a camera and, we soon discovered, his eyesight was so poor that even observing animals was not an option. So I put him in the front with Jim, the driver and guide. Jim was a wonderful Kikuyu in his forties, and mature enough to accept Tom for the old renegade that he was. He called him “Mzee”, an expression of respect for an older person, and gradually they began to chat. Initially Tom answered only in monosyllables, but the long days had to be filled somehow so he started to converse. For the first time in his life he forgot about race and colour and talked to the man. They exchanged stories about their homes, their wives and their kids. And their hopes for the future.

I remember one time in the Masai Mara when the two men were so engrossed in their comparisons of the state school system in New York with that of Kenya that the rest of us had to ask Jim to start his engine and prepare to move on. The two cheetahs we’d been watching were long gone. None of us minded, though.

When we came to say goodbye to Jim at the end of the trip, Tom shook his hand and said: “If you were your daughter I would kiss you!”

© Hilary Bradt

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