Our African Safari Adventure by Irene Butler
Our African Safari Photo Gallery
Nairobi is a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds swirling in an indefatigable rhythm. Colonial architecture is at a premium having been replaced after “uhuru”, (Swahili for freedom/independence from British rule) by rectangular modern edifices, with both the old and the new manifesting a tired look from years without attention to revitalization. The streets trod on by the 2.5 million inhabitants are outstandingly litter-free, especially considering public disposals are at a premium. Dress is conservative compared to North America; men wear long pants and we did not see bare navels even on teen-age girls. That the whole of Kenya’s 34 million people are almost entirely African, with very small minorities of Asians, Europeans and Arabs is conspicuously apparent in Nairobi’s bustling crowds. High-speed hulks of battered metal on wheels are soon recognized as “matatus”; Kenyan mini-buses driven by madmen. Every “jambo” (hello) is met with a broad smile and a friendly response. Though advised not to go past Moi Avenue to the north and east, Haile Selassie Avenue to the south, and Uhuru Highway to the west, we safely tallied many miles of sight-seeing, scouring for neat restaurants and cafes, and shopping excursions on foot.
After orienting ourselves to the layout of the city from the Terminal Hotel on Moktar Daddah Street, we began investigating various Safari Companies. Anastasia Muthoni from Amicabre Travel won out. She had our customized itinerary set in motion with such ease and expertise we happily parted with our American dollars (the preferred currency of safari companies) for a trip to Lake Nakuru, a 4-day overland safari in Masai Mara National Reserve, and a balloon safari.
Skillful driving over the Kenyan rutt-ways (it would be too generous to call them highways), a wealth of flora and fauna facts, plus a great sense of humour were all attributes of our guide, Joseph Kairu. Joseph was a pro at maneuvering the pot-holes in slalom fashion and staying clear of the collapsed asphalt edges reducing the road into a single lane. When passing oncoming traffic, one vehicle had to straddle the drop off onto a poorly graveled shoulder, which as often as not fueled a game of “chicken” to see who would be intimidated first and pull off the flat surface. Our new friends and safari partners, Paul and Heidi from Calgary (small world) agreed this had to be the worst highway they had ever encountered. But as is the balance of yin and yang; road kill is almost non-existent with vehicles not being able to speed, allowing even the more torpid animals to cross unscathed.
By mid-afternoon, after a hardy lunch, we were off to Lake Nakuru, one of the many soda lakes in the Rift Valley. (The Rift Valley, dominant in Kenya’s terrain, is in totality a 6,500km-long crack in the earth’s crust extending across the African continent from the Dead Sea in the north to Beira, Mozambique in the south.) Poor drainage in the valley, high evaporation and a high alkaline content from volcanic deposits produce shallow lakes with mega-concentrations of sodium bicarbonate. Green algae, tiny crustaceans, insect larvae and soda resistant fish flourish in this environment creating a Shangri-La for the millions of water fowl flocking to its shores. From a distance a thick band of vivid pink separates the powder blue lake from the cerulean sky; as we moved closer the solid pink divides into a multitude of flamingoes standing on one leg scooping up mouthfuls of the rich soupy mix, occasionally taking to wing to establish themselves in a new area to resume feasting. The low rumbling coos of each contented bird magnified by thousands filled the air with a lulling hum. Though at first dazzled by the showy plumage of the flamingoes, we soon noted other feathered friends – an abundance of pelican with their ample yellow beaks, and huge Maribou stork standing like sentinels with their plumage of tuxedo-black wings fronted by a puffed-out white chest below their ever-so-homely noggins. In the surrounding abundant grasslands a large herd of hefty (some weighing as much as 800 kg) African buffalo grazed, occasionally taking time to stare us down. A smattering of zebra, wildebeest and warthogs shared the lush bounty. Baboons sat preening; a fat mama lumbered by with a baby clinging to her belly fur. Spotting both a white rhino and a rare black rhino was a sizzling finish to our day.
Rising the next morning at 6:30 a.m. (the crack of dawn for us) we made our way from our cozy bed to the breakfast room of the Stem Hotel in the town of Nakuru, and soon were bouncing and jostling down the highway en route to Masai Mara National Reserve. We were silly to think the roads could not possibly get any worse. Vehicles were close to loosing their centre of gravity with the tilt of one tire on the narrow strip of asphalt while the other fell into a gaping hollow. On a stretch where the whole road was missing a destitute mother and her three small children threw pails of dirt into the abyss before each vehicle passed in the hopes of being thrown a few shilling for their effort; our hearts pained for their plight, their ghostly forms so frail and covered in dust, only their red weeping eyes showed through. A blast and a wobble heralded a flat tire on the front driver’s side as sharp rocks took their toll. Out of nowhere a couple of men appeared (employment opportunities are never missed in a country where 42% of the population live on 60 Kenyan shillings a day ($1 Can)) and changed the tire for a small fee while our Joseph, who is considered well-off in comparison, leaned on the van and had a smoke. Once through the park gates the dusty dirt roads had even more horrendous dips and dives, but we were soon too engrossed in our surroundings to pay heed. Tawny Thompson’s gazelle flashed their black side stripe and snow white underbelly as they dashed away, Impalas sprang into the air covering 10m in a single bound, dik-diks (antelope the size of large rabbits) peered out from protective foliage, massively built spotted hyenas lazed under bushes waiting to be transformed into efficient predators by night, regale giraffe nibbled the leaves from the top of acacia trees; it was difficult to wait for tomorrow’s sightings as we pulled into camp for supper and bed.
Our tent, set up under a peaked wood and thatch-covered roof, had a large number 5 on the front right flap to differentiate it from its clones. A look inside sent me running to find Joseph, “Why are there no mosquito nets?
“There are no mosquitoes now, it is the dry season”, Joseph responded.
“What’s this then?” I say, displaying the remains of one of the little bloodsuckers I had just flattened as it was ready to burrow into my forearm.
“not much mosquitoes,” Joseph jovially emends. Choosing not to take prophylactics, malaria is a concern. Oh, well, we have lots of Deet.
As a point of clarification, there are luxury lodges and deluxe campsites around the park; ours was neither, it was the “no-frills” variety. After stowing our gear we were given a tour of the facilities; two squat toilets, plus a “water-heated-in-a-drum-over-a-fire” shower. With no electricity in the camp and our flashlight left back with our stored packs in Nairobi, plus not spotting any biffy-paper in the toilets, we sent the cook on an emergency run over to the nearby village to pick up these two crucial items. A rudimentary wood-stoked stove in the 4′ x 4′ kitchen turned out scrumptious meals of rice with a meat stew, noodles with a meat stew, potatoes with a meat stew, (we thought it best not to know the source of this protein) all served with thick slabs of bread and a grande finale of fresh fruit.
A surprise was in store for us as we mopped up the last morsels on our plates that first evening. Benches and chairs were set around a blazing bonfire in readiness to be entertained by ten tall, lanky Maasi warriors dancing and singing. Taking turns in a display of physical prowess, for which the Maasi men are known, they sprang into the air three times with feet together and arms down by their sides, piercing the night sky like an arrow. In defiance of gravity, not only is an astounding height of three or more feet reached with the final leap, but seemingly their bodies remain suspended for an inordinate amount of time before coming down in a flat foot thud to signal the completion of their aerodynamic performance. Most Maasi today maintain their cultural identity and traditional dress. Dazzlingly adorned with beadwork, a shuka (red-checked blanket) tied over one shoulder falling to knee length, spear and club, with one fellow even sporting time-honoured hair braids with ochre mud applied to the top front of his head. Ears with large gaping loops proudly signify the first born in a family, whether male or female; younger siblings may also have this prestigious ear-piercing if the family should so decide.
When first encountering Europeans the Maasi gave them the sobriquet, “iloridaa enjeket” (those who confine their farts), but I noticed these young men now restricted their flatulence with a pair of walking shorts under their red garment. Being in their mid-twenties, these young men had already undergone a public ceremonial circumcision at 18 followed by a five year initiation in which groups of tyros are sent out into the wilderness for months at a time to live off the land. Women are also circumcised in the privacy of their huts. A pastoral semi-nomad tribe, the men travel long distances to find grazing lands for their large herds of cattle and goats, making herd dogs and donkeys valuable resources. There is much wisdom in the old Swahili adage, “A man without a donkey, is a donkey” when we saw the loads of wood and containers of water that must be hauled. Boys are responsible for livestock as early as ten, but we often saw pint-sized tykes hopping and skipping barefoot over the rocky paths prodding a cow along with a willowy stick. The wives (a man may take as many as he can afford, each being worth a 10-cow dowry) take care of chores and children in cow-dung houses within enclosures made of prickly acacia branches (nature’s barbed-wire) that contain the herd when they are not being pastured. The Maasi people pride themselves with living in harmony with nature. Lions are the only wild animal they will kill, if threatening their herds, or ritualistically during a group of men’s initiation. They also do not slaughter their cattle for meat, but shoot an innocuous stumpy arrow at close range into the jugular vein of their cattle to drain a portion of blood which is mixed with milk for their traditional fare. As well today, “ugali” (maize) has been added to their diet (along with western derived “civilized” foods such as coke and chips seen in their village stores). Being cattle rich and cash poor is no longer feasible in today’s society, necessitating the occasional sale of a small portion of their cattle to outsiders. The Maasi are fighting to keep their traditional lifestyle in spite of modern encroachment. Coming to terms with the completely foreign concept of land ownership has been most challenging; the tribe is continually being pushed north to find grazing land that is not subject to proprietary rights. Education, new laws and projects gives the youth a choice of going to Nairobi to find employment or like our dancers, to work at one of the many safari lodges and camps.
As night fell and we curled up on the cots in our tent, the yelps, whoops and raucous cackle of hyenas sent shivers down my spine, though we had been warned to expect the night sounds of nocturnal stalkers and foragers. There was even a chance a lion would roar outside our camp enclosure, but if the king of beasts was lurking I was unaware as I drifted off.
Up early the next morning, we were breakfast’d and eager to get in a full day in the park. Down the rough roads we went shooting wild animals with our cameras.
A leopard lying in the long golden-brown grasses was so thoroughly camouflaged only when sunlight danced off his eyes did we know he was there. Wildebeests were everywhere. An estimated 1.6 million were now consuming the short green under-grasses, while other species such as the zebras ate the longer, dry grass, for a harmonious existence. I mused as I watched the strangely proportioned wildebeest which are large antelopes, but very un-antelope in appearance. Possibly a first attempt by the Creator, who then decided the features would be better divided into other animals in a more balanced manner, or perhaps He was being capricious. They have the ears of a donkey, mane and tail of a horse, heavy front flanks and under-chin mass of shaggy fur of our North American buffalo, the gangly long legs of a moose, and horns of an ox. These gregarious beasts migrate into Masai Mara in July and August and being September they were contentedly grazing until their time to return south into Tanzania in October and November.
A pride of lions languidly sprawled two meters from our raised-top mini-van. Our cameras clicked rapidly as the King, of daunting size, and three fully grown females gave us an occasional glare. An adolescent swatted a paw teasingly at a couple of roly-poly cubs wrestling non-stop in the grass nearby. Birds suddenly began a strident squawking. One of the lionesses slinked slowly forward, the other two fell in stealthily behind her. Like a shot we saw a small furry animal, not even appetizer size, run for his life dashing under our van with the three large cats so intent on pursuit they almost collided with the side of our vehicle. The thick mane of the male bristled as he rose and walked right up to our van, his chilling, luminous eyes focused on the gaping 24-inch-viewing-slit and 5 human heads. Joseph hollered, “Down! Watch out! Get down! He can jump.” Luckily this massive beast with paws the size of shovels and four-inch claws did not consider us worth his while, as not one of us ducked afraid to miss this unbelievable photo-op.
The hippo pods were the next day’s quest. Joseph drove the van to the Mara River, where since we were walking in wild animal territory, James, an armed guard in military fatigue, met us to take us along a path at the water’s edge. He said he had never had to use his riffle in the five years he had this job, it was just a precaution. Bubbles, eyes and the odd snout raised to snort spurts of water and take in some new air was the only movement in the river..just about when it was time to leave, a humongous waterlogged hippo decided he was not going to wait until dusk to satisfy his hunger and lumbered out of the water for some tasty leaves on an adjacent bank. Then things began to happen all around, an old crocodile crawled slowly onto a log to sun himself, and an incredible high point for me – a family of three elephants crossed downstream from us. I am particularly fond of these matriarchal diet-scoffing pachyderms that ingest about 250 kg of vegetation a day.
More lions – this time a lady courting a fine gentleman with a fiery golden-orange mane ruffling in the breeze. Joseph said they don’t feed during the 7 to 10 days of mating, and the King of the Beasts is at the whim of his lady friend who decides when to accept or reject his attentions. Three and a half months after a successful rendezvous, 2 to 4 cubs are born. The father lays around pretending to keep an eye on the kids while mama, after nursing the young, goes out to bring home the bacon, which literally might mean a warthog as lions will devour anything, though zebras, buffaloes and wildebeest are their mainstay. After a kill and the lions have gorged, circling vultures and all manner of four legged scavengers move in to pick the bones clean.
Joseph’s eyes take on special effulgence as he speaks of the cheetah, “They are more particular about what they eat preferring smaller game like antelope and gazelle. And they drag their kill up into the tree branches and eat it slowly instead of gorging themselves..and this streamline predator can reach speeds of up to 105 km an hour in spurts of a few hundred metres”. We were watching a mother cheetah and her six fur-ball week old cubs leaving a roadside puddle where they had been quenching their thirst and were now proceeding to find a more sheltered area. Guides contact each other by walky-talkies when a spotting of some animal occurs and soon the area looked like a parking lot. The mother was understandably jittery and confused as to how to get her babies to safety. We were very much against the lack of rules in Masai Mara about roaring the mini-vans off the roadways, crushing vegetation and adding extreme stress to the animals. Other people who have gone on safari in neighboring Tanzania or in South Africa said that there are strict regulations about staying on designated routes in these country’s parks and though you do not get as near to the animals, it is nothing binoculars and a zoom lens can’t take care of.
In the crepuscular dusk on our way home, on the last evening of our overland safari, a tree began to shake and shimmy a few feet from our van. A massive male elephant was wrapping his truck around a branch and with a swipe cleaned the branch of leaves which he gingerly transferred to his mouth. Joseph estimated his weight to be 6,000 kg and his shoulder height was at least 4m. Eureka! On the opposite side of the road, two females and a rambunctious baby were dining on bushes; our cameras focus on this delightful scene. Without warning, Joseph takes off wheels spinning, sending us flying in all directions.
“Is he coming? Is he still coming?” a panicky Joseph shouts but he does not take his eyes off the road as sinking to the axles in a pot-hole would not be a good idea right now. In terror we watched as the humongous male came charging towards our van and seemed to be gaining – six feet..four feet..but now Joseph was getting up speed on a flat stretch. The hefty trunk rose upward and a ferocious trumpeting filled the air.
“Okay, okay, Joseph, he’s stopped,” we hollered. His pursuit probably ended with him feeling his family was out of harm’s way or possibly because he lost sight of us in the volume of dust spinning up from our wheels. Though we had no intention of infringing on their territory, we would have been like a tin can filled with sardines had he caught up to us. Kudos to Joseph, our man at the wheel.
Our balloon safari was scheduled for the next day. Heidi and Paul would go out again with Joseph in the morning and we would meet again around noon and all head back to Nairobi together. We were by this time pretty grubby, since after the first day we decided to forego showering as we kept getting back to camp after dusk and did not want to chance baring our all to mosquitoes sinking their malarial probes into our hides. Rising in the pitch-black of 4 a.m. we just had time to pat our hair down before being transported by Jackson, in an army jeep (for an hour and a half) to a five-star lodge to join others signed-up for the same excursion. When we met the soap-scented, neatly coiffed bunch, we knew we would have to stay down-wind. We watched the giant balloon fill with hot air and gently rise into the early dawn. Sixteen people clambered into each of two balloons. A totally different perspective unfolded below us – floating silently over the broad expanse of savannah and seeing the animals roaming, grazing, leaping and hunting from our lofty vantage point was exhilarating. The necessary intermittent blasts of fire to keep us above the trees had the effect of scattering the wildebeest in a mini-stampede. Andrew, our English bloke balloon operator, kept us amused throughout with his dry humour and landed us with hardly a hitch. Jeeps transported us to a portable kitchen set-up on the grassy plains sizzling with pots and pans of tantalizing fare; the air wafted with strong, freshly brewed coffee, and champagne was being served in pewter goblets. In the shady canopy of a giant acacia tree, served by formally attired white-gloved attendants, we partook of a feast on tables replete with mustard yellow table clothes, bowls of flowers, fine china and an array of silverware. Our appreciation of this lavish splurge could not help but run deeper than those around us after our three days in the bush.
Good old Joseph took a detour on the way back to show us brilliant emerald tea fields and expansive coffee plantations. He stopped to bargain for fruit at local stalls close to where his home was; needless to say we got a lot for a few shillings; Heidi and Paul gave him triple the amount of shillings that we did. It was a hilarious sight seeing Joseph hand them a sack so stuffed with bananas, grapes, oranges, and mangos they would be eating it for a month. Parting to go our separate ways was a genuinely heart-felt moment, our new friends were all a part of our safari being more awesome than we could ever have imagined.
BACK TO THE REAL KENYAN WORLD
Out of the fantasy world of the Safari, we are once more reminded of how the peoples of this amazing country are sadly yoked with adversity – poverty, poor or total lack of infrastructure particularly in rural areas, disease and corruption.
Together with malaria, AIDS is the leading cause of death in Kenya (as in all of sub-Saharan Africa). In Kenya with a population 33,829,590 there are 1.2 million people infected with HIV; an estimated 160,000 people die annually from the disease; and currently there are 650,000 HIV/AIDS related orphans.
In the competition on the African continent for which country can hold trophies for the most corruption, Kenya is a definite contender. One thing for sure – the highways have not seen a tax dollar for decades. Though Kenyan’s are fighting back, the struggle is tantamount to a toddler scaling Mt. Kenya’s 5,199m peak.
“Sixty-five MP’s (including some cabinet ministers) to face court charges over concealed wealth. Also targeted for prosecution are three high court judges, 2,543 senior civil servants and 389 councilors.” (Front Page of the Daily National Sept.16/05)
“The city of Nairobi collects taxes from 100,000 not the 500,000 properties that should be counted. Where does the money from the other 400,000 go? Not in the city coffers. The difference in currency equates to eight billion Kenyan shillings. The city counselor who did the survey was said to have obtained the information unlawfully and was thereby suspended from duty.” (East African News; Sept. 16/05)
The corruption not only filters down to affect every life in general, but also in direct transactions with government personnel. Pointing to a skyscraper a few blocks from Amicabre Travel Agency, Anastasia told us the story of a man who recently climbed the outer orange metal railings to the top. Crowds gathered. The police were called. He dropped a shoe down with a suicide note inside. The government had commissioned him to build 50,000 Ksh ($833 Can) worth of office equipment and after a year of pleading he still was not paid causing him to go bankrupt and to lose his family; he had nothing left to live for. The police convinced him to come down and the publicity worked; he got paid. There are others beside the government in power positions taking advantage of the less fortunate. Plantation owners and big business need not pay a fair wage; employees are expendable with the high rate of unemployment. The list goes on.
Once settled back at the Terminal Hotel in Nairobi, our first order of business was to obtain Tanzanian visas. Off we went to the Tanzania High Commission the next morning, filled out papers, paid our money, and made a second trip back at 1:30 for the completed documents. The furthest thing from our minds was to change hotels with just a few days left, but loud jack-hammering outside our window plus the strong smell of gas fumes throughout the night was unbearable. The hotel staff asked that the construction be stopped after midnight, but the company refused, the only option left to the hotel management was to get a court order, which would take days. They graciously got us an inner court room at the Downtown Hotel next door; after climbing 82 steps with our backpacks to get to room #307 I did not care if a few cockroaches scurried away to make room for us; it was quiet.
We frequently talked to James and Willis, security guards for the Terminal and Downtown hotels respectively. Ten thousand Kenyan shillings ($167 Can) a month is what it takes to pay rent in a descent accommodation and be able to feed a small family; they worked twelve hours shifts, six days a week for 3,000Ksh a month and feel they are lucky to have any job at all. James walked us to the bus depot (one of the areas that degraded the city’s moniker to “Nairobbery”) to purchase our tickets to Dar es Salaam a few days ahead.
On our departure day, when our taxi arrived in the wee hours of the morning to take us to the depot, Willis was there to bid us farewell, but there was no sign of James who should have just been getting off shift. After our backpacks were stowed in the trunk, we found James sitting quietly with a beaming smile in the front passenger seat of the cab; he would ride with us and make sure we got on the bus safe and sound. Just more instances of beautiful, hospitable, friendly, caring Kenyans touching our lives.
Meet you in Dar es Salaam,
Irene & Rick