The day we almost died in Africa…

Rachel PearsonWritten by | Africa, Misadventures, Road Trip, Tanzania

Gate to the Serengeti, Tanzania

We had 3 options:

  1. Stay where we were and hope we didn’t die.
  2. Die in a car crash
  3. Get eaten by Hyenas

This is a story that almost didn’t get written…. Because the writers almost died in a car crash and got eaten by hyenas.

It had been an amazing day.

It began with a night drive through Kenya’s Masai Mara, followed by a sunrise balloon ride and then an insane journey over the Tanzanian border to probably the most beautiful hotel in the world where we finished the day having a gourmet dinner in a candlelit swimming pool surrounded by beautiful things in truffle oil, fine wines, and a herd of elephants.

It’s fair to say that when the sun rose the next morning, we were a little tired.

Ahead of us was a 300km pilgrimage through the plains of the Serengeti, past Ngorongoro Crater and into the picture perfect town of Karatu. After 3 days of game drives seeing every game animal imaginable we were happy to just sit back and let our driver take us from A to B without too many distractions and diversions.

However, there was a problem. Specifically, there was a problem with the car. Our driver met us, seeming sweaty and nervous and tried to explain to us in broken English that there was a problem with the car. He said it didn’t have much power and we would have to go slow. That was fine by us; we were due a slow and relaxing day anyway.

The car itself wasn’t a stunner. It was an old 4×4 jeep with an extendable sunroof that had seen better days. Only two of the chairs had seat belts and the inside smelt like a cross between sweaty feet and instant regret.

The journey itself started well. Not far into our journey we stopped at an acacia tree and spotted a sleeping leopard. However he was too well camouflaged to get a good photo. This snoozy beast was number four of the big five and we were pretty confident we would see some rhinos in Ngorongoro Crater tomorrow. Whilst he wasn’t in the mood for a photo shoot, it was easy to admire this amazing beast in its natural habitat.

We drove on. For me this was the best part of the trip. The Serengeti was flat so we burned through the plains with ease and were making good time. It was nice to sit back and relax and have some quiet time to reflect after our whirlwind few days. The hot sun gently baked us in the open topped jeep and the wind gently flowed through the car keeping us cool and making us feel like we were flying through Tanzania.

Gate to Ngorongoro, Serengeti, Tanzania,

Gate to Ngorongoro and the wall that stopped our momentum

We reached the gate of the Serengeti National Park where we stopped to fill in the paperwork to enter the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This is where a grand total of 3 weird things happened:

Firstly our driver seemed to lose the ability to drive and instead of parking the car went through the parking space and gently ploughed into a small wall marking the edge of the car park. About a second after the impact there was a loud metallic clang come from underneath the car.

Then he told us that another car was on its way and we would transfer to that car.

About five minutes and a heated Swahili phone call later, he told us we were driving on and the car would meet us on the way.

We drove on and I couldn’t help wonder about that metallic clang. What was it? More to the point, what was underneath the car that could cause it to “not have much power?”

My gaze drifted to the car’s dashboard to see if it would give me any hints. I started to worry when I how much of the car was broken:

  • The speedometer
  • The revometer
  • The fuel gage
  • The engine temperature gage

I wondered whether this was why our driver was doing some weird gear changes. As we approached obstacles, bridges and turns he would make weird premature gear changes. The car would suddenly decelerate.

And then I realised the truth and broke out into a terrified sweat…

The car had no brakes.

We had just driven 200km in a car without brakes! I’m just going to let that sink in.

Thankfully the journey had been easy as the Serengeti was flat. However, now we were approaching Ngorongoro Crater, we began to climb upwards towards the summit. The rim of the crater is 2000 feet high. Karatu is then 2000 feet down the other side.

You might be thinking why didn’t we order the driver to stop. Well, because of nightfall. The sun was setting and the light was fading, fast. And if we’d learned anything in the last few days is that the predators come out at night to hunt and feed. We could have stopped but at least against the road we had a fighting chance.

The road started to climb and fall, often in quick succession. It began to feel like a rollercoaster except that this rollercoaster had no safety features and if you fell off you were in the middle of a park crawling with lions, leopards and hyenas.

We finally reached the rim of the crater. It was pitch black now and the full beam lights of the car now shone downhill as we started the descent towards Karatu.

Our driver tried to drive slowly but the car kept gaining speed. Thankfully the road levelled out just before we started to lose control.

The sides of the crater meant that there was constantly a wall to our left and a giant drop to our right. Any obstacle in the road would have meant we crashed or plummeted down the side of the crater.

Up ahead we saw a family of buffalo. They moved up against the left sidewall to avoid our car hurtling down the hill. There were three buffalo: two adults sandwiching a young buffalo between them in order to protect the young from the night predators.

And then we saw them. At first we saw one hyena. Then another. Then the pack. They were walking up the hill, stalking the buffalo. Hyenas have the most powerful jaw in nature, capable of tearing through metal or bone with a single bite. They are not predators like lions as they do not hunt live prey. They are scavengers who prey on dead or injured animals that are unable to defend themselves or run. If we did survive a crash, anyone who was injured wouldn’t survive the night.

Just past the hyenas we saw two lights. Our connection jeep was finally here. We blew straight past it but thankfully the road levelled out and we came to a stop. The other jeep came back and found us. We hurriedly transferred all the bags to the new car, jumped in and locked the doors. Our driver was exhausted so got into the passenger seat of the new jeep. A new driver got into our old death trap and gingerly started to follow us.

The night wasn’t over though. We drove down the twisting and undulating road for another few minutes before our driver’s phone rang. We stopped. They talked. We understood nothing. Then made a 7 point turn and headed back up the mountain. We were told that the other car had broken down…soon we found it that was another lie.

We rounded a sharp bend and saw our car lying in the middle of the road… on its side. The new driver had lost control, hit the wall and the car had flipped over but luckily stayed on the road. Fortunately we had got to him before the predators had.

It could have so easily have been us in that car, and that’s a sobering thought.

We drove the rest of the way into Karatu in silence. Our original driver tried to apologise but just said sorry. It wasn’t clear what he was apologising for. I was too angry to engage with him so ignored him. I know that’s not the right thing to do but as long as I didn’t punch him I felt I would probably still have the moral high ground.

Tomorrow we would visit the Ngorongoro Crater. We hoped to see lions, leopards and the famous black rhinos and, for the first time on the trip, we hoped to have a little less adventure.

Last modified: 13th November 2016

3 Responses to :
The day we almost died in Africa…

  1. Jenna Worsnop says:

    That is so scary! I can’t believe that they didn’t cancel the trip until they had a suitable car! So glad you survived though!

  2. Sara White says:

    Wow, this is truly terrifying! I’m practically shaking after reading this… There have been so many times when I’ve been in a car heading down a winding mountain road and I think, “what if this car lost its brakes now?”… Having that actually happen would be traumatizing. I’m so glad you got through that experience safely!

  3. Hi Guys,

    That is the craziest travel story I’ve heard! Bananas! So incredibly dangerous, you showed great restraint in not verbally undressing them. A reckless drive is 1 thing. Been there done that many times around the world. But putting your guy’s life on the line when you could have waited to change cars is absurd. Crazy. Factor in the wildlife, either crashing into the guys or being predated upon after the crash and you had a potential recipe for disaster. Thanks so much for the wild share 😉

    Ryan

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