Going blind made me fear that I would never be able to enjoy a vacation again. What would be the point of sightseeing? And yet, I have just had one of the most incredible trips of my life.
Wearing my cute new walking boots, I suddenly realize I’ve stumbled upon a “dump” – an acrid pile of rhino poo. With each gust of wind, I feel a breath of fresh air.
I’m at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy – a 90,000 acre wildlife sanctuary on the equator in Kenya. The guards let me reach out and touch the skin of a rhino named Baraka. Like me, Baraka is blind
His skin isn’t as smooth and lizard-like as I expected – it’s rough, like cardboard.
He lost his right eye in a fight with another rhino – and a cataract prevents him from seeing out of his left eye. He needs to be kept alone as other rhinos would attack him – and his keepers tell me he can be nervous about moving around. The trees in his large enclosure have damaged trunks and broken branches, from where he entered.
I sympathize with him. I was also nervous when asked to travel halfway around the world on a trip that for most people would be the opportunity of a lifetime.
Not only would this be very different from my usual life of advocacy work for the blind and partially sighted community in the UK – both in person and on YouTube – but it would also mean leaving my beloved guide dog, Molly, behind. .
I lost my sight almost 10 years ago – when I was 17 – due to a genetic disease. It took me a while to get used to going on holiday as a blind person, which I considered a very expensive way to essentially be in my backyard.
I now know that I can still enjoy traveling abroad, even if I can’t see – but going on safari? Surely this is a “must see” experience?
I felt much better after meeting my safari guide, William. He had already taken a blind person on a similar trip – but, as each blind person has different levels of visual acuity, we still needed to get to know each other.
My visual memories of most things – including wild animals in Africa – are almost completely gone. The ones that remain are like a series of photos locked away in a drawer in my brain for a decade. If I try to remember an elephant, for example, a visual memory comes out of the drawer of an animal tapestry that my sister hung on her bedroom wall when we were children.
So I was going to have to start from scratch and make sure I had a great experience using my other senses. I know it might sound weird, but I really don’t miss my sight, and even in Kenya I haven’t spent time wishing I had it again.
William first took me to a museum in Nairobi where I was allowed to touch stuffed animals. I rely on my other senses so much now, so being able to reach out and feel the skins of elephants and giraffes has really helped me start to “see”.
My senses then really started to come alive as we drove out of town in our 4WD vehicle. The ground was getting so bumpy as we drove, and the car smelled like sand blowing in my face in the wind. I wore sunglasses and stuck my head out the window – I really wanted to drink in the atmosphere.
At the Ol Pejeta Sanctuary, William and the keepers brilliantly described the rhinos and elephants in front of us – how they moved, ate, reacted to us and each other. All of this helped paint pictures in my head. James Mwenda, the sanctuary’s global ambassador, crouched down with me and we felt the footprints of a rhino in the dusty ground.
We then put our hands in a pile of manure. Much of it is just semi-digested grass, he told me. I gave it a good sniff – it just smelled like weed had “gone”.
How does a bind girl do a safari?
Visually impaired social media star Lucy Edwards travels to Kenya to experience one of the world’s largest animal migrations.
Watch now on BBC iPlayer (UK only)
We rode in search of lions – tracking down a special collar worn by one of the lionesses who, like me, is named Lucy. We slowly pulled up next to her – she was sleeping soundly. We were so close I could hear him breathing through the window.
I asked William if she looked like the lions from The Lion King? It was the last animal image I had stored in my memory vault. Yes – he told me. And her cubs, nearby, looked like the young hero of the film, Simba.
The sensory overload continued on our midnight game drive. It seemed like I could feel so much more than during the day and hear every little sound. I was so lucky to experience a bush kill.
We suddenly heard a loud shrill noise. We drove fast, on really bumpy ground, in a ditch. I then listened to two lions chase a herd of buffalo – before hearing the sound of cracking bones and chewing flesh. It was such a privilege.
We then headed south to the Masai Mara Game Reserve – storybook wild Africa. We stopped at a Maasai tribe village, and before I even had a chance to get out of the car, we were surrounded by local women trying to sell us carved wooden animals. It was crazy. I bartered with them and bought two giraffes.
Flies buzzed around my face as we walked and I could hear bells tinkling – I was told they were tied around the necks of goats. In a hut, with the smell of wood all around me, I tried on traditional Maasai clothes. Tartan patterns and lots of red, I was told. I loved the feel and sound of the pearl jewelry I also wore.
Outside I was then treated to an amazing audio experience – traditional Maasai songs and songs. A wall of sound was all around me.
I had really wanted to experience the sounds and smells of the “great migration” – when millions of wildebeest and other herbivores, such as zebras, make the dangerous journey from the Serengeti in Tanzania to Kenya in search of fresh grass. Predators – big cats and crocodiles – wait to take down weaker travelers.
Deep in the Masai Mara, early in the morning, we found tens of thousands of animals. They were all around us. The herd leaders cried out with groans. Noise was everywhere – like it was 3D.
I held a small wooden model of a wildebeest, as William described the sight in front of us. The wildebeest have very weak legs compared to their body size, he told me, and some break their bones when they jump into rivers to cross. The top is like a horse, with horns like a cow and a beard like a goat.
The giant herd set out for another day’s journey. I could hear the sound of hooves on the ground, then, as they rolled down a bank, the sound of water lapping.
Being on safari had been amazing, but there was one experience that really worried me – because I wasn’t going to be able to see it. It was the so-called “sunset” time, when people sit and have a drink at the end of the day, watching the sky turn orange and red as the sun disappears over the horizon.
But when the time came, there was no sunset – it rained instead. I cried tears of joy. It was as if the world was letting me know that I didn’t need to see the sun.
It hadn’t rained for weeks and weeks, but the sky had opened up just for me. The giant raindrops and the sound they made as they splashed felt like the perfect sensory ending to what had been the best trip of my life.