In the summer of 2017 I spent 9 weeks in Dar es Salaam, working for a development initiative. I met some amazing people, it was an amazing charity, and it was an amazing cause. But my god was it tough - physically, mentally, emotionally. After the programme ended, we had a week to ourselves. A huge part of me was screaming to take the next flight home, and the thought of carrying through on our earlier plans to go on a safari seemed ludicrous. But somehow I found myself on the eleven-hour bus ride to Arusha anyway.
The safari was, as one would expect, spectacular - the eyes of elephants and monkeys are more expressive than I could ever imagine, the antelope more quietly graceful, the zebra more statuesque, and the stalking, brooding power of lions more awe-inspiring. Of course, there were the equally expected downsides - I was not the only one wincing as safari trucks startled hunting lionesses, or squirm at the industries based off hiding very real local poverty from rich westerners in favour of the ‘Lion King’ image they would hate to lose of Africa.
Nonetheless, the Ngorongoro crater was a magnificent distraction to the self-doubt and negative introspection that had come about over the previous few months. Armed with a huge 100-400mm lens (cue lots of jokes about ‘overcompensation’), I could play the role of ‘resident keen photographer’ with ease, snapping something to the tune of 6,000 photos in 6 days.
With my SD card running low on storage, and with my photography bug well and truly saitated, the safari came to a close. Myself and two others, broke away from the rest of the group, to climb an active volcano. After a journey which involved digging our driver’s pickup truck out of a sand-bank, and spending a pit-stop with a teenaged Maasai girl, young baby in hand (who, after selling us some handmade jewellery, proceeded to ring her friend in Arusha via Whatsapp), we found ourselves at a little village-turned-tourist-campsite, at the foot of Ol Doinyo Lengai - ‘The Mountain of God’. The sun was setting, and we were due to set off mountaineering at 11pm. We grabbed some food, then headed to bed.
Despite that plan, I soon found myself in a tiny hut, on my own. It was dark, and I was writing my diary. Up until then, I wrote in snatched minutes before dinner or hurriedly before an evening meeting. But with the volunteering work now over, this diary entry written in the shadow of a volcano, was the first moment of sustained reflection I’d had for months.
And I remember feeling scared. For a number of reasons. Scared that my delipidated trainers and appalling sense of balance were sure to lead to me falling off a volcano in the morning. Scared that my summer was coming to a close, scared of my final year at university, and scared of the emotional toll the previous few months had taken. And strangely, utterly unexpectedly, I was scared of the dark.
I had never been scared of the dark as a child. But on that night, I sat in a hut on the plains of the Serengeti, lit by a single, generator-powered light-bulb, and I stared out into a blackness more terrifying than I’d ever seen. The wind howled deeply, gutturally, penetrated only by an occasional animal, crying out at an unknown distance. I thought back to the abundance of lions and hyena and hippos I’d seen mere days before. I thought back to the distinct lack of fences between me and said lions and hyena and hippos. Even though I knew it was silly, I was scared when I stared out into the dark.
With my existential terror now well and truly stoked, I decided to go to bed. I finished off the page I was writing, and I remember writing into my diary: ‘I wonder if there are stars out tonight?’. I couldn’t see them from under the roof of the hut.
I could barely breathe. I distinctly remember feeling as though I had been kicked in the chest. After the primordial dread of the previous moments, I was practically bowled over by a wave of what I can only describe as religiosity. I spent my childhood as a devout, practically evangelical catholic, and although I had been an atheist for many years, I can safely say I have never felt closer to ‘god’ than in that moment. I could see her more clearly than I ever have, could understand with total clarity why she and all her brothers and sisters were created. But at that moment, they weren’t living in Olympia, Naraka, Paradise - they were banging their heads on this atheist’s better judgement. For a brief moment, I had no more emotional stress, no more exhaustion, no more fear of the dark - just me and mere oblivion. Fear gave way to a compression of perspective so pronounced that everything around me felt infinitesimally small and yet impossibly large…
But they were just that. Moments. We have dozens of them every day. We remember a handful, we forget a million.
I still wonder, had I not been exhausted or emotionally fragile or writing my diary that night, and had I simply absent-mindedly listened to a podcast in the hut, kept my head down and not noticed the stars on my way to sleep - whether I would have missed the moments that I am writing about now.
The big question: was that night sky my road to Damascus? Am I about to invite you to church or quote a bible verse?
No, not at all. I gasped at the sky, felt all the feelings, then went to go to the toilet before crawling unceremoniously into my tent. I slept, I woke up, I climbed the volcano. It was stunning and terrifying and I only came close to falling off a dozen or so times. I made it back to Dar es Salaam, ate some airplane food and was called ‘Harry Potter’ once on our stopover in Cairo. I got home, life went on, as quickly as it ever did, and as always I was left chasing after it.
I almost wished I had been converted, so I’d have a better reason to remember the moment - a better, more divinely determined explanation than exhaustion and emotional vulnerability. I almost wished I had been converted, so I’d have a better ending to the story.
But I wasn’t, so I don’t.