Stranded in the Serengeti


This blog entry about the events of Friday, May 07, 2004 was originally posted on May 11, 2004.

DAY 202:  The Serengeti, the vast grassland measuring over 9,100 square miles (over 14,700 sq. km.) in the northwest of Tanzania, is home to a multitude of mammals, reptiles, birds and insects all living in a grand circle of life.  The name “Serengeti” is derived from the Maasai term siringet, which means “land of endless space.”  Nothing accentuates the feeling of endlessness of the Serengeti than being stranded in it for an unforeseen amount of time.

THE DAY STARTED OUT like any other budget camping safari.  Francesco, Paola and I had a basic breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit and coffee before hopping in the 4x4 for a game drive.  Since we were to stay at the same campsite later that night, we just left our tents — and our cook Simon — there to wait all day. 

The game drive continued like a a good game drive should.  We saw jackals, black-eared foxes, francolins, guinea fowl, crown cranes and herons, all feeding near a water source.

“This is a springs.  The predators come to hunt the animals coming for water,” Elia said as simply as he could.

The predators were nowhere to be seen, but were probably somewhere hiding in the long grass.

Some Nubian vultures, zebras and wildebeests later, we found ourselves deep in the African bush, in the middle of nowhere, looking for more game to shoot with our camera.  For most of the time we went truly off-roading, driving far away from anything resembling a road, dirt or asphalt.  The grounds were still wet from the storm of the night before, which formed the muddy ditch that trapped us about nine in the morning.  Elia gave the 4x4 some gas, but it wasn’t budging.

“We have to collect grass,” he instructed to us clients.  He’d put it under the tires to provide traction.  We all went out to collect some — at least in the grasslands there was no shortage of it.

“Not shitty grass, biggie grass,” Elia scolded me in his African accent when I went straight for the short wimpy grass.

WITH PILES OF BIGGIE GRASS in the front and back of all four wheels, we attempted to push the car out of the ditch.  This was harder than a normal situation with the poor service of a company that we soon discovered was perhaps a bit too frugal and unprofessional to be in business:  our so-called 4x4 was only a 2x4 and only the back tires worked — and with really bad tire treads too. 

“You have to be strong guys or we will be sleeping here,” Elia said at the wheel.

We pushed.  The truck tires spun.  The 2x4 went nowhere.

After a few more attempts with even more biggie grass, the Land Cruiser just got deeper into the mud.  What was worse was that the engine died right after.  This was no surprise because even before we left Arusha we already started seeing the problems with our transportation.  We had to push-start the car from the liquor store, and at one stop at the market, the car starting moving backwards into traffic when Elia left us there, and the handbrake didn’t do anything.  (I had to leap from my chair to push down the foot brake with my hand in one action move into a really awkward position.)

“We have to wait for another car,” Elia said.  “I think I saw one over there.”  He pointed to the endless horizon where we saw nothing but grass and some acacia trees.  Elia went on foot towards another seemingly random point in the vast grassland, leaving us stranded in the middle of the nowhere (picture above).  The morning clouds had cleared by that time, making room for the hot African sun to beat down on us.

“Look.  Vultures,” I pointed out to the Tuscans.  “I think they know we’re going to be here a while.”

ELIA VENTURED FAR OFF INTO THE BUSH until we couldn’t see him anymore, leaving me and the Italians to sit on the roof and wait.  Every second seemed a lot longer than it was because we had no idea if there would be any resolution to all this.  Francesco lit a cigarette.  I poured gin and tonic into my water bottle.

“Which animal do you think will eat our guide?” Paola asked me, flies buzzing around her head.  True, Elia did mention the predators were lurking about.

“I hope,” Francesco added.

We passed the bottle around and waited some more as the temperatures began to rise.  Francesco told me that a similar situation happened to them in Guatemala, only they had been stranded in a motor boat at sea without any gas.

“How long did you wait?” I asked the Tuscan.

“Only about an hour.”

“I think this will be longer than an hour.”


ACCORDING TO MY WATCH, an hour had passed, although every minute seemed like an hour because did didn’t know what would happen to us.  On the bright side we wouldn’t go hungry (at least for the day) because we had the box lunches Simon prepared for us, plus Francesco had a wheel of Laughing Cow cheese.  On the other hand, a lookout to the distance with binoculars showed no sign of hope.

The circling vultures got closer.

MORE HOURS PASSED.  Hours seem like days when you don’t know if you’re going to ever be rescued.  The sun got warmer with each passing moment.

“I think I see a car,” I said, looking out with the binoculars.  Paola took the lenses from me to confirm.  She saw nothing.

“It’s a joke,” she said.

I looked again and upon closer scrutinization, it was only a big bush.  The mind plays tricks in those type of situations I supposed.  I thought I started hearing the sound of a car horn, but it turned out to just be the buzzing of a big bug flying in the air.

“Do you have any more gin and tonic?” Francesco asked me.  We made another cocktail in my water bottle, this time with a hint of orange.

ANOTHER HOUR AND A HALF WENT BY.  Each of us passed the time in a different way.  Francesco sorted out his bag, Paola read and wrote and I attended to The Blog.  With our heads all down occupied with other matters, we didn’t noticed that Elia was walking back to us until he arrived.

“I tried to find the car, but it went far away,” he told us.

We had to do this on our own.  Leave it to a budget safari company to not have a radio when you need it.  Cell phones got no reception, and I think Elia was trying to hint to us that we couldn’t flag down a ranger because he had snuck us into the park the night before without registering.

Francesco said that we’d need harder pieces of wood to put under the tires for a better grip with the ground.  The nearest tree wasn’t too far away, but through unpredictable grasslands.  We had no choice — but no problems getting there.  There wasn’t much loose deadwood around, so we had to break off some branches.  It wasn’t so easy with all the thorns, but we managed to get some with the help a knife and a little elbow grease.

BACK AND FORTH WE WENT from the 2x4 to the trees to get wood.  Using a machete, we hacked the big branches into smaller, more manageable sticks.  We also pulled more biggie grass under Elia’s suggestion.  The whole experience could have been edited into a “If we work together as a team, we can do it!” montage in an 80s comedy film.

After an hour of our efforts, we gave it another big heave ho.  Our 80s montage succeeded only to get the 2x4 out of the hole and swerve into a deeper ditch.

More wood.  More grass.  Tensions started to rise as the temperature did.

“Grassa issa all water,” Francesco argued in his Italian accent.  “Itsa just lika da mud.”

“The wood is too hard.  The tire can not pass,” Elia retorted in his African accent.

I remained neutral and just shifted grass and wood around with Paola.

ENOUGH TIME HAD PASSED that the mud was actually a lot drier than it was when we got stuck.  With the compromise of both wood and grass under the tires and another big push, we got the 2x4 rocking back and forth.  Push!  The teetering started moving more and more in the forward direction.  Push!  Getting there!  The back tires spun, flinging mud into my legs.  Almost there!  Push!  Francesco moved his wood under the fronts of the wheels as it progressed.  Push, PUSH, PUSH…. WOOO!

We made it back onto solid ground.  Paola smiled a relief.  I high-fived Elia in true 80s film montage style. 

“Alright, let’s go drink some gin,” I told Francesco when we hopped back in the 2x4. 

“Salud!” I said.


AFTER FEELING THE STING of the alcohol in the hand sanitizer entering the cuts in our hands from all the acacia thorns, we continued on our game drive like nothing ever happened.  We even saw a rainbow to provide us with some optimism.  We had lunch over by a lagoon until the tsetse flies got so aggressive we took cover in the jeep.  They had followed us in and it took a long while to swat them all out the window. 

The game drive continued.  Around late afternoon the sky went overcast, just when we found a tree with eighteen vultures perched above.  We stopped to shoot them with film and digital pixels, which was a bad idea because the 2x4 died again.

“We have to push,” Elia said.  Hmmm, when have I heard that before?

Francesco wasn’t happy.  He had reached his threshold and was all pissed off, doing Italian arm and hand gestures in disgust.  “This is not a car for safari, this is a shit car!”

We had no choice but to push-start the 2x4, again, through the mud.  We managed to push it to the edge of a hill where gravity did the rest of the work.  The jeep started again after Elia popped the clutch.

None of this seemed to bother Paola — that is, until an acacia branch bent back with the forward force of the car and flung back through the roof opening, striking the bridge of her nose.  It started bleeding and she, in lack of an appropriate Italian hand gesture, just kicked the seat in frustration.

ON THE WAY BACK TO CAMP AT SUNSET, we encountered some lions, which although exciting, didn’t lift the tired emotional state of the day as a whole.

“How was the game drive?” Simon asked when we returned to camp.  He was answered with groans. 

Elia broke the silence.  “Uh, I gave them stories to write about.”

Yes Elia, you sure did.

Next entry: Migration

Previous entry: Crater Of Life

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Comments for “Stranded in the Serengeti”

  • That’s all for now… I still have more to write, but go ahead and nominate me for something now! wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  04:03 PM

  • Oh my gosh Erik - this sounds like the tour company from hell!  That sunset pick is great - hope you weren’t all stressed and grumpy at the time and could appreciate it.

    Posted by Liz  on  05/11  at  07:05 PM

  • Sunset pic is hot….vultures look scary…..

    die to death by vultures, or burn in a fire??? both are pretty freakin bad…hmmmmmmmmmmm?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:39 AM

  • All I have to say about that is: UGH! That stinks!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:47 AM

  • Welcome back to the wonderful world of technology Erik! I got your second postcard - thanks! Time to catch up…

    Posted by dunlavey  on  05/12  at  05:22 AM

  • “Not Shitty grass…” hahahahahahahah hahahahaha…

    glad to read you’re still alive!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  05:15 PM

  • I snagged that sunset pic… So, remind me again that this tour company was *recommended* to you?! I’m guessing you won’t be forwarding the recommendation.

    This will be lost on you, but shitty grass made me think of the guy working the counter in the South Park Chinese restaurant. It’s called Shitty Wok I think. hehe!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/13  at  01:36 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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