BACK in my youth, each passing year was marked by the purchase of the latest season’s football sticker album, making the words Figurini Panini part of the vocabulary for a generation of schoolboys.
Each trip to the village shop for weeks was incomplete without a packet or two of stickers as we raced to fill our collection and swapped our doubles – making Irving Nattrass a name that will never be forgotten, even if nobody can remember anything about his playing career.
While others completed every album – celebrating at the point where they could send off for the remaining stickers, the ones which everybody hoped would lurk in their latest packet, only for another Nattrass to appear from under the silver paper – my attention span meant only one of my albums reached completion (the one for the 1980 European Championship, when Wilfred van Moer was the most sought-after prize).
And, for great chunks of this trip, it appeared as if the pursuit of spotting all of Africa’s Big Five would also come up short.
We spotted heaps of elephants and a smattering of rhinos in Etosha, while a fair few lions and buffalo had also roamed across our path. We got up close to cheetahs in Namibia (too close for one of my flip-flops, which has finally been consigned to history after a terminal blow out for its partner that required an improvised strap from my little-used bandana to hold together for two days) and saw plenty of hippos, zebra and giraffe to mop up the new marketing ploy, the Big Nine.
But there was no sign of a leopard, traditionally the most difficult of the five to spot.
Right up until deep into our afternoon in the Serengeti when, with the light fading and the rain falling, Gabriel our guide pulled up behind a couple of vehicles whose occupants were staring at a distant tree.
It took some spotting, but lounging on a branch was the silhouette of a leopard, which promptly stood up and began to climb, seemingly out of reach of prying eyes.
Right up to the point when a second, smaller silhouette emerged from behind some leaves and the two of them started, with a brief squeal, to do what comes naturally – making the silhouette with two backs. Very briefly, but just in case we were in any doubt about what was going on, they started doing it again. And then again.
On the heels of a wild cheetah sat 30 yards from the road with a cub, it was not a bad way to complete our Big Five in one day – even the Big Nine – after the wide open spaces of the Serengeti, the spectacular concentration of wildlife and natural beauty in the Ngorongoro Crater and, the day before, the lesser known, but elephant-filled Lake Manyara.
Our threeday excursion into the adjoining national parks – complete with the luxuries of people cooking and putting our tents up for us, to say nothing of lions providing the evening soundtrack around camp – provided a pretty good way to mark my birthday.
Five years ago, my 40th birthday was spent crossing three US states down the west coast from Washington to California. Moving nearer to 50 from 40 was marked by getting up pretty close to some spectacular wildlife (although it also saw the demise of my third camera of the trip).
Our journey north through Tanzania took us up the coast via Bagamoyo (notable mainly for us spending most of the evening waiting for pasta to boil as we got the rare chance to cook on a gas stove) and Marangu, base for expeditions up Mount Kilimanjaro – which refused to emerge from behind the clouds – or, in my case, base to catch up on some sleep.
And then we rolled into Snake Park, home for those not heading out on the Serengeti expedition and something of an institution among the overland community.
Started in 1993 by a South African couple – known to legions of travellers and crew as BJ and Ma – on what used to be a patch of scrub at Meserani, not far from the city of Arusha, it has been turned into an oasis over the years.
And drinking in its legendary bar, decorated with years of signed tour T-shirts (our contribution managing to misspell Africa), trip pictures and memorabilia (including a welcome amount of rugby shirts) is all in the name of charity, with bar takings going towards the on-site clinic which tends to the locals and snake bite victims.
Struck by a sudden rush of philanthropy, we did our bit for charity and my sporting experiment proved over exposure to the shots which came as the early celebrations of my birthday kicked into gear have a detrimental impact on my ability to play darts. Especially when playing the only person not drinking.
My birthday itself arrived with a remarkably clear head, given the shots and drinks which followed, and our seven-strong group’s departure on our safari expedition.
Who is doing the Serengeti, by far the most expensive excursion bookable on the trip, has been a topic of conversation since the off, partly because the price comes down as more people sign up.
It was always on my list of must-do activities – along with the pre-booked trek to see the gorillas in Rwanda, which is looming large on the horizon amid mounting horror at the potential physical test of tramping uphill through a rain forest – and, even with a fairly substantial cost, it was well worth it.
While the Serengeti steals the headlines, the vast plains which constitute the national park were actually outshone by the other two sections of the expedition, one of which fulfilled a long-standing ambition.
We kicked off at the less-heralded Lake Manyara National Park in the Great Rift Valley, which has carved out such remarkable wildlife watching territory down the east of Africa.
We instantly found ourselves face to face with a sizeable family of elephants on the roadside who also crossed our path – literally at times – as we rolled out of the park hours later. Sandwiched in between was a catalogue of animal spotting, from the giant hippos lurking in and around a lake, giraffe, zebras, vervet monkeys (complete with their blue balls) and a distant lion to a turtle and its baby basking on the edge of a pond, plus any number of other animals in between.
Early to bed – certainly far earlier than a normal birthday – and early to rise for our next destination, the remarkable Ngorongoro Crater.
The crater has been high on my must-visit list for many years and it did not disappoint, even if the early-morning mist obscured the views from the rim as we entered.
There was no problem with vision when we hit the crater floor, two large prides of lions lounging around garnering much of the attention with rhinos, giraffe and the normal coterie of antelopes, zebras et al – and the odd cheeky monkey attempting to get his hands on our packed lunches – studded across the most amazing landscape.
Rolling the relatively short distance from the crater to the Serengeti – past endless zebra and wildebeest yet to set off on their great migration after the arrival of late young – we headed out on the plains as the gathering storm and big cats took our attention.
While the crater has legions of animals squeezed into a relatively small area, the vastness of the Serengeti – Endless Plain in Swahili – means there are large expanses with nothing to spot.
But every so often in our afternoon and morning game drives, up would pop one of the big cats – the amorous leopards, cheetah and various lions, most lounging around on rocks just waiting for cameras to arrive, but one lioness walked alongside our vehicle for a considerable distance as she headed out for an early-evening hunt.
And by the time we headed back past the crater – via a brief stop to replace a blown tyre with giraffe wandering around us – the view had cleared for one final, memorable photo stop.
Not a bad birthday weekend and certainly enough to spark another bout of charitable donations throughout the evening.