It’s Four in the Morning and a Lion Just Woke Me Up

How a four-day African safari adventure became a crash course in me.

Jeremy Helligar
Nov 22, 2020 · 6 min read
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All photos from the author’s personal collection

It’s amazing how much you can learn about yourself while hanging out with lions, elephants, and zebras in the wilds of Africa. During the year I spent based in Cape Town, I booked a 10-day, nine-night overland trek from Tanzania to Kenya, with a four-day Serengeti safari in the middle of it. While preparing for my departure, I knew I’d get to see a lot of incredible wildlife, but I didn’t expect to make so many discoveries about myself driving along those gorgeous dusty trails and sleeping with lions roaring right outside my tent.

In this excerpt from my forthcoming book, Storms in Africa: A Year in the Motherland, I reveal eight of my favorite personal revelations and confirmations.

1. I’m definitely not a happy camper.

But my personal motto has always been “I’ll try anything twice,” and until the Serengeti, I’d never tried sleeping in a tent or inside a sleeping bag even once. By the time I returned to Cape Town, I was able to say I’d done both three times.

Will there ever be a fourth? As I lack the financial resources to splurge on “glamping,” my only way to experience/explore any relatively unspoiled expanse of nature and wildlife as remote as the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area over the course of several days is with no-star camping accommodations — especially if Winnebago vehicles are prohibited due to rough 4x4– ready terrain.

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In other words, I’ll likely one day find myself once again sleeping on the flat earth enveloped in nylon in some other national park and/or nature reserve somewhere else in the world.

For all of the lack of creature comforts (and comfort), or even a fence to provide a middle-of-the-night buffer between campers and wild animals, at the Serengeti and Ngorongoro campsites where I spent three consecutive nights, sleeping inside a tent did have its upside: You haven’t lived until you’ve woken up in the wee small hours to the sound of snorting/ growling/roaring, felt something brush against the side of your “bedroom,” and wondered if that zebra, or elephant, or lion might be looking for you.

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2. I’m a lot less fearful than I thought.

“Try not to leave your tent after everybody has gone to bed,” one of the Serengeti guides warned us the night before our departure.

I’m not sure if the more experienced campers in my tour group were just teasing me, or if I initially had just cause to be afraid of lions roaming through the camp in the still of the night. The morning after the second one, Haloise, a young woman in my group, told me she’d seen a pride of them wandering through around two a.m., but judging from the next morning’s head count, they claimed none of us as a late-night snack.

I kept an empty one-and-a-half-liter water bottle in my sleeping bag to use as a makeshift urinal just in case. But I didn’t have to — at least not until the third night, when I was too lazy, not afraid, to walk fifty meters or so to the toilet. Otherwise, at four a.m. when I woke up needing to go, I picked up my flashlight, unzipped my tent, stepped out, and walked unafraid to the ablution/toilet facilities, which were actually scarier than any wild beast.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly hoping to encounter the king of the jungle on my way back. But then, I’ve always been braver (and more stupid) when I’m really groggy.

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3. Wildebeests might do it, but I don’t travel well in packs.

Given a choice, I’m more inclined to go solo than do duets, but I hadn’t traveled in a large group since eighth grade, when I went on a National Honor Society trip to Washington, D.C. I had a great time then, but until Tanzania, the jury was still out on whether I could get into group travel decades later.

I’m glad to know I can do it if I absolutely have to (and frankly, the idea of trekking through the Serengeti solo doesn’t exactly ignite my wanderlust), but my idea of a perfect holiday is being able to choose whom you see most of the time and when and whether you want to speak. I’m all for a little (a little) idle chatter to make eight or more hours a day on the road go by faster, but making small talk during breakfast, lunch, and dinner is so not relaxing.

4. I must really have baby fever.

I quickly discovered that Tanzanian children are among God’s cutest creatures, but a baby baboon or a baby warthog? Give me the baby version of the ugliest animal, and I am immediately “awww”-ing over it as if it is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. The cub lions, by the way, very well might be.

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5. I like to watch … just watch.

While observing the safari crowds jostling for the best shots from their vehicles, it became clear to me that in trying to capture perfect moments, so many travelers were missing them entirely. An elephant’s slow approach is much less impressive when viewed through a lens or in video replay. Of course, that’s easy for me to think, considering my poor photography/ videography skills — and I have the blurry Serengeti photos to prove it.

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6. I’m so not a bird watcher.

But storks and eagles and vultures are pretty cool, and after a while, I started to notice the smaller birds, even the ones that weren’t blue, red, or green, without someone pointing them out to me. I also saw a living owl for the first time at the Maasai Mara Museum and Snake Park in Arusha, and it was just as creepy as I imagined it would be. Do they really go “Whooooo”?

7. A Wi-Fi–free zone? I will survive.

In fact, after one day, I didn’t even really miss the Internet anymore. Of course, that wasn’t such a miraculous feat when I was too busy doing without electricity, hot water, and a washroom that wasn’t stinky and muddy and didn’t make me want to gag on sight/site. Under such roughing-it conditions, updating one’s Facebook status becomes less a priority than ever.

8. I can sleep through the night — or most of it.

I had such vivid dreams in Tanzania that I actually must have been sleeping for more than a few hours at a time for the first time in months. In East Africa, I averaged one or two wakeups a night, which still might not have been the most restful sleep, but it was a welcome change from my two a.m., three a.m., three-thirty a.m., four a.m., four-thirty a.m., and five a.m. wake-up times in Cape Town.

Was it missing my afternoon naps, or limiting my liquid intake after six a.m., or the mosquito net casting a certain calm over my sleeping environment, or just something in the East African air?

I don’t know, but I’m certain of this: Some of the best of times in Tanzania were in the middle of the night in my dreams, which made the mornings after even lovelier. I was already a morning person, but sunrise in Tanzania following a relatively decent night’s sleep made me even happier to be alive — and awake!

Storms in Africa: A Year in the Motherland, currently available for pre-order on Amazon, will be released December 4 in eBook and paperback versions.

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Jeremy Helligar

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

Jeremy Helligar

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

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