Our Big Cat Wildlife Research & Conservation Project in Kenya has been our first project to reopen. British volunteer, Tom Roper, shares his experience of travelling to Africa and volunteering with us last month during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Travelling to Kenya right now might seem daunting, and trust me for someone who travels to not only Africa but internationally regularly even I was suddenly overwhelmed with anxiety.

Arriving at the airport flying seemed like business as usual. In fact, it was probably more efficient than before. Ok, yes it isn’t as busy but the terminal had a buzz of energy I didn’t expect to find. Excitement, optimism, adventure and a bit of “look at that person’s mask”. I believe most airlines have removed the ‘Check In online feature’ because they want everyone to go through some form of COVID check’s and Visa inspections, should you need one. As a result, they have more staff on desks to keep queues down in line with government rules of group gatherings.

Once on board the plane we were handed sanitizer sachets with wipes and hand sanitizer. Being on a flight again was like flying for the very first time. The excitement of seeing all the countries below my window as we passed them from the sky. I was like a child in a toy store, forehead up against a window, grin from ear to ear. I probably filled up half my phones storage taking videos and photos. One thing that hasn’t changed was the quality of airplane food. Still leave questions to be asked.

As night fell, and we hit North Africa, I followed the road lines lit up throughout the desert. They led my eyes to the few cities scattered, lonely, isolated in the desert. Cities and towns mirrored the night sky sparkling and shining bright in what was otherwise a black abyss.

I was traveling again and damn it felt good. 

Arriving in Kenya

Arriving in Kenya I was immediately filled with confidence as not only did we disembark the plane row by row but one stepping foot on tarmac I was greeted by an army of people in full protective suits with every cleaning detergent under the sun. They were ready to clean the plane after us ensuring the next group of passenger’s safety. As we had left the plane row by row when we boarded the bus to take us to the terminal they had limited the number of people transported per vehicle. This was brilliantly done as not only were there floor markings ensuring you were two meters apart but also it was creating more jobs for local people. Relief.

The bush was beckoning, excitement building, in a few hours, I’d be at home in Mara.

One of my favorite experiences is the journey to camp. Yes, you can get an Airlink flight from Jomo Kenyata, but you will miss driving through the busy vibrant towns on your way from Nairobi to Naboisho. Goats crossing the road, 5 people somehow huddled together on the back of a motorbike. Taxi services in Africa. About 2 hours into the trip we headed down a mountain path with a viewpoint over the Rift Valley.

Getting out to stretch the legs and take in the view, we were exposed to our first wildlife. Baboons like buskers sitting on the corner of the street, Hyrax bouncing around the rocks and eagles soaring high in the sky. This felt like a long way from the pigeons I’m used to seeing in the UK. The biggest change I’ve noticed over the last few years of coming on this trip is the completion of the tarmac road leading you all the way to Naboisho. Smooth driving, for now…

Images and video: Tom Roper.

Monday is the usual volunteer change over day only this year, there’s no one to change over with. Arriving just outside the conservancy in Nkoilale the market day is in full flow. Goats being bought and sold, fresh produce being sold and some ‘designer’ clothes. I can see the open plains, endless hills, almost hear the animals calling. First, priority number one is address my hungry tummy and get some food.

Crossing the river to get into Naboisho Conservancy is so heartwarming and familiar it feels like coming home. I know waiting at camp are some of the most welcoming, smiling faces around and more than that I know my friends are there. The camp is a gem of excitement as we pass a herd of Elephants grazing in the field our tents are in. Baboons playing happily in the tree. Don’t be fooled though, the big male is a regular guest in camp and will steal anything he can get his hands on. A couple of little domed tents and then in a straight line the 4 larger tents nestled into the bushes.