She sat with a straight back and the stillness of a body without breath, her eyes in the grip of something beyond my perception. Had I not just watched her wake from her day’s slumber, I might have thought she were an oddly placed statue.
As I watched on, my vision faltered – the light was fading and I had the salty sting of tears in my eyes. I never expected to find myself identifying so deeply with a wild animal, but Faulu, one of the Masai Mara’s resident leopards, had moved me: her mother had died when she was young. And so did mine.
That – the death of my stoic, strong and courageous mother when I was 31 years old and she just 58 – is how I ended up here. Last year, after an excruciating eight months of hospital appointments, scans, surgeries, A&E visits, feeding tubes and daily medication regimes, she died at the callous hands of cancer. She was too young, and so was I.
I should have been shattered by it, and in many ways I was. My best friend of 31 years was gone. The woman who dedicated her life to making mine the comfortable, easy ride it has been, was taken from me well before her time. I cried, of course I cried. But then I didn’t. It didn’t take long after her death for life to get in the way. That visceral grief that consumes you in the early days got bottled up and left aside, and I just carried on – just as she always did, no matter what.
I couldn’t help worrying, though, that I was letting it fester for too long. Allowing it to ferment into something much stronger that would eventually burst from the bottle, showering me and everyone around me in some kind of potent chaos. I was frustrated that I couldn’t cry more; my resolve – like hers – was steadfast. Or at least, I thought it was until I found myself ugly-sobbing in a layby in the Brecon Beacons.
We’d been there together just over a year before she died. It had rained relentlessly and we holed up in my borrowed motorhome for three days with Chinese food and two extremely soggy dogs. It was generally quite a miserable weekend, but she always managed to make it seem bright.
When I passed through again, just a few months after her death, seeing those same billowing hills in a world in which she no longer existed created an enormous wave of devastation so powerful it knocked me off the road. I began to cry so hard I couldn’t see, and so I stopped at a viewpoint and I let the tears run as thick and fast as the Welsh rain we’d experienced in 2021.
Travel – or more specifically, travel without my mum – seemed to be my gateway to grief. I felt it again on the shores of Ullswater two years after we’d been to the Lakes together, and again in Bournemouth. That had been our last trip, just six weeks before she died. She was unable to eat or drink, as she was fed by a tube at this point, but she still managed to wander down onto the beach for an evening dog walk in the sinking sun.
The resilience she harboured had been passed down to me, but it felt like both a blessing and a curse. I wanted to fall apart every now and then, so returning to the places where we made our best memories felt like the only thing that could help. And so, to East Africa I went. While most people travel to escape from their grief, I went hurtling towards mine in an A380.
They talk about how people “battle” cancer, but really, my mum wasn’t the one doing the fighting. It was the doctors who came with their weapons; her body was just the battleground for their clinical conflict. They had won the first time around, but the second advancement was too powerful. Their troops – the radiotherapy, the chemo drugs, the harsh steroids that made her body swell – failed her, and the battleground became yet another given over to a disease that claims 460 lives every day.
The Masai Mara is its own kind of battleground. We had learnt this, mum and I, on our trip to Kenya in 2012, a decade before she died. We travelled from Nairobi down to the Mara, and then into Tanzania, watching some of the rarest and most enchanting wild animals fighting for their lives. We were awed by the power of the cheetah’s sprint and the slow-motion pace of the elephant.
With Mum reeling in the wake of a divorce and redundancy, and me in my final year of university, it was a somewhat budget experience. We drove for hours between each park in a minibus with a doting guide called Edward, camping out with bedbugs in some places and sharing tiny double rooms in soulless business hotels in others.
This time, though, I levelled up the experience and took a slightly more luxurious route – something mum would most definitely have approved of in her later years when she was able to enjoy the ever-so-slightly finer things in life.
My first stop was Ishara, a relatively new tented camp that hugs the shores of Talek River in the Masai Mara National Reserve. “Tented” felt like something of an undersell: my riverside suite had a wooden frame and a magnificent terrace, where one day I lounged on the daybed and watched elephants work their way across the opposite side of the water, munching through the undergrowth as they ambled.
Ishara is the sort of place that attracts the rich and famous, but the real celebrities there are a little more wild than your average royal family. Faulu, that lonely leopard, was one of them.
My guide, Benard, and the camp’s professional photographer, Eric, had told me her story in great detail as we watched her surveying her battleground one evening. She was clearly hungry, but without an adult to show her the ways of catching big game, she’d been relying on a diet of young warthogs left alone in their burrows while their parents foraged for food.
Later, I asked another of the camp’s photographers, Imara, if she thought the animals grieve: “They have to,” she said. “Sometimes a cheetah will carry its dead young in its mouth for days. Elephants will stay with a body after death, too.”
Faulu, at two years old, should have been hunting with a little more ambition – a gazelle or baboon, perhaps – but maybe her grief had stunted her progress. She was stuck in a cycle of taking the easy way out. After several days at Ishara, I realised that I had been stuck in the same loop, but it had begun long before now.
My grief, I found, extended back well beyond mum’s second cancer diagnosis. For almost four years, I’d been grieving the breakdown of my last relationship, the death of my uncle and my beloved dog, Milo, as well as the career I had built up that was destroyed by the pandemic. I had been grief-stacking since 2020, and only now could I see that I’d made my world smaller in order to cope, travelling less and to more familiar places, closing myself off from new relationships.
At Ishara, and later at Asanja Ruaha in Tanzania, I was relieved to rediscover my sense of adventure. When Mum died, I vowed to make all decisions in her honour: “What would Helen do?” became the mantra I lived by. Thanks to her, I rediscovered my curiosity and bravery. I said yes to ridiculous things, like sleeping out in the open in the middle of the jungle on Ishara’s Star Bed, which sat 12 feet above the ground surrounded by trees and grunting hippos.
In Ruaha National Park, Asanja’s resident naturalist, Prosper, took me on a walking safari right from our camp, which I agreed to in full knowledge that a leopard had wandered past our lodge the night before and a pride of lions had claimed this area as their territory. “Don’t worry, we’ll take a Masai with us,” he said, as though the presence of Rafael and his modest knife was going to scare away any powerful predators.
I had come to these East African wildernesses to rub salt in the wounds of my grief, and there was an ever-present sting of sadness when I looked out at the changing landscapes. But I also spent 10 days finding and slowly beginning to fix parts of me I hadn’t realised were broken.
It was the kind of trip most would describe as “once in a lifetime” – I got to watch politics play out between prides of lions, and we found wild dogs in Ruaha almost as soon as we drove away from the landing strip. When I came in 2012, it really was once in a lifetime for my mum. She never got to return. But in the spirit of her, and in the spirit of “what would Helen do?”, I’ll keep returning to all the places she cannot.
Lottie was a guest of Ishara, Asanja Ruaha and Hemingways.
Ishara (00 254 011 535 2071) offers all-inclusive accommodation in the Masai Mara from £965pp per night; this includes private use of guides and game drive vehicles, access to the photography studio and equipment, tuition from professional photographers onsite, all meals and most drinks, bush breakfast and sundowner excursions, as well as transfers to/from the Ol Kiombo airstrip.
Asanja Ruaha (0141 628 7121; asanjaafrica.com) offers accommodation in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania, from £600 per night based on two sharing; includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. Excludes game drives and other excursions.
Kenya Airways offers flights from London to Nairobi from £672 return and flights between Nairobi and Dar es Salaam from £248.