Awash, music, and BONGA

Awash National Park

I just returned from a 3 day stay at Awash National Park. So far, my experience in Africa has been very atypical from what most picture when they think of Africa. This weekend was the exception. Awash screams Africa, from the dry grassland and intense heat, to the lions and warthogs.  My experience was similarly African. In the matter of two days I managed to:

  1. Swim in a river with crocodiles
  2. Watch a lion eat a goat
  3. See a leopard moments before spending a night on the *toilet
  4. Get (innocently) charged at by the alpha male in a pack of baboons.

From the beginning:

The drive down to awash was beautiful, leading to the following alternating conversation/stream of consciousness between my friend Spencer and I:

“This is ridiculous”

“So this is what Africa looks like”

“How can anyone not be looking out the window?”

“Its like people who don’t look out the window on a plane. Screw them.”

“People pay money for beautiful views but shut the window on a plane?–Pisses me off”

“I know right?!?! You are in a FREAKING PLANE. For thousands of years this wasn’t possible. You are literally flying through the air.“

“Seriously people (indicating the masses) Stop complaining. Sorry it takes you four hours to fly across a continent. A hundred years ago that would have taken 3 months. Seriously, shut up.”

We arrived at our site to find tents set up along a beautiful river at sunset. There were giant trees all around teeming with monkeys who were as interested in us as we in them. Just before bed, we were walking towards our tents when a couple of us spotted two bright eyes in the dark. In the low light we could tell that it was a cat. It had a long tail and was three or four feet long. It was a wild cat, most likely a leopard—both beautiful and frightening to watch. Its curiosity settled, it vanished into the forest.

With images of being eaten alive in my mind, I drifted off to sleep. At 3 am I woke up with a start, an intense stomach pain begging for relief. Although we were told not to use the bathroom at night, I had no choice. I spent a solid (liquid) hour that night in a safari forest, my mind racing.

The next day, although feeling sick, I went on a safari tour. We saw tons of large birds, small deer, giant antelopes, warthogs and other animals. A recently captured lion, in a rudimentary cage, was being fed a goat which was absolutely fascinating to watch.

After lunch, we arrived at the famous awash falls and our guide suggested that we should swim. After repeatedly being told it was safe, and in consideration of the extreme heat, we all obliged him. My friend John asked me to take his underwater camera to the opposite side of the river. However, once across the river, I noticed that two of our directors came running down to the beach. They were gesturing to me to get back quickly– a few crocodiles were about 50 yards away. I swam to the bank in a well-hidden terror, making the river slightly warmer in the process.

…About 6 years ago, my family was vacationing in Italy. In Venice, my brother and I met a great British guy who offered to show us around the city. After dinner we met up at a bar. Five hours later and one brief stint of testing the waters of the grand canal, Luke and I realized it was 2 o’clock in the morning. Before we got to the hotel, my dad and mom were upon us, heavily considering whether to hug us or punch us. In one of the most memorable moments of my life, the first thing out of my Dad’s mouth, anger and pure emotion in his eyes,

“do you know what fear is?”

I think I can answer that question now. Fear is sitting, quite vulnerably, in an African forest knowing hyenas and leopards might be considering what I taste like. Fear is swimming across a river knowing there are crocodiles nearby. Fear is also loving someone more than yourself, and the perception that you might lose them. Fear is the thought of failure or letting someone, or a village, down. Fear sucks.

*by toilet I mean hole in the ground


I have a strange relationship with music. I have appreciated it more as time goes on, and have come to love several songs. Of the thousands of songs I have on my computer, I probably only listen to 100 regularly. What I have noticed recently, and especially here in Africa, is that music can really add to an experience. It can turn an everyday walk into an enlightened event. A few of my favorites:

Mary by Soulive: Soulive is one of my favorite bands, introduced to me by musical guru Ben Hawkins. (Hi Ben! come to Ethiopia ASAP to visit/volunteer) This song is a prayer to Mother Mary to not give up on the ghetto. It is a prayer for understanding given the extreme poverty and sadness that exist in the poorest communities. It is my favorite song to hear and witness on a walk across town.

Let it be and In my life by the Beatles: I love the Beatles, especially when they were on drugs.

Waving flag by K’Naan: the unofficial anthem of Africa, and a song that when I play on a bus ride makes me feel African. I am no longer a visitor but a part of the way of life.

Golden Days by the Damnwells, Hallelujah by Rufus Wainwright, and Hands of Time by Groove Armada. No explanation here, these just sound good. And yes, I’m embarrassed.

You don’t know how it feels by Tom Petty and Comptine d un Autre été by Yann Tiersen: These songs are awesome because they remind me of Carly.


I’ve been sitting here for about 10 minutes and I can no longer think of a clever or romanticized way to tell you about Bonga. I will have to supplement my words with pictures and trust that you will understand when you visit!

I live in a jungle, a tropical rainforest. There are hot springs, an insanely beautiful waterfall, beautiful people, great food, and the views are absolutely epic. The mist every morning gets burned off around 9 am, the clouds evaporating against the giant trees. Monkeys and Toucans wake me up every morning. This place is one of the worlds hidden gems.


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