Africa & the Middle East Forums

Start a new topic Change Forum
Advanced search

Trip Report Trip Report: Kenya & Tanzania, Sept/Oct 2007

Jump to last reply

MyDogKyle's Trip to Kenya & Tanzania, September-October 2007


PART 1

I've put off starting this trip report (as I'm sure many others have done before me) because it is just so hard to get my mind around all the things we saw and experienced in East Africa, and the thought of trying to summarize it all in some logical (not to mention original) way is really a daunting one! But that's a good thing, really... no, more than that, it's a wonderful thing -- to have experienced something in life that is so overwhelmingly good that it takes you days and months and maybe even years to fully understand it and know how to think about it, to sort through your memories and your
feelings and make some sense of it all. I felt that way two years ago when we got back from India; a friend who had been there told me, "it will be six months before you can make any sense of your memories of India, or really understand the impact this country has had on you!" and she was absolutely right. So, I start this attempt at a trip report with caution -- Africa has had such an impact on me that I'm sure I will never be able to describe it all or fully explain what it means to me, but you Fodorite friends helped me so much in planning my trip that I owe it to you to try. So, here goes... please forgive any spelling or other errors (if I fact-check like I would at work, I will never get this posted!). Apologies to those of you who don't like long trip reports -- you can feel free to skip this one, I won't take it personally.

The Planning: My husband and I started talking about a trip to Africa years ago, but we couldn't think realistically about it until recently because of the cost and vacation time involved. We decided that 2007 was the year because it would be an incredible way to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary (and because 2005-2006 happened to be really good years for our companies and we had some bonus money to work with). We chose East Africa primarily because we'd watched a lot of nature shows growing up in the 1970s, and Kenya was a place I'd been dreaming about since childhood. But an equally important consideration was finding a place we could afford to go for 3 weeks, and East Africa fit that bill, too.
I spent a LOT of time doing research for this trip -- I'm a researcher by profession, so figuring out an itinerary and learning about new places is one of my favorite parts of travel. I started off looking at small group tours with companies like Intrepid Travel (we loved traveling around India with them), but the more research I did, the more I started to realize the differences in types of lodgings, what a difference your lodging's location can make in some parks, and some of the potential pitfalls of sharing a vehicle with a group (especially if you love photography or are interested in animals that aren't a part of the Big 5). Now, let me just say right up front that I don't think there's anything wrong with group tours (especially for people who love the social element of that kind of travel) and it's certainly more environmentally sensitive to share a vehicle -- so I would not rule out traveling that way in the future, especially if it meant I could return to Africa! But for us, and for this special trip, it really seemed like a private vehicle and guide would be the best solution. Also, most of the group tours don't let you choose your lodgings -- and in some cases, particularly the less expensive tours, they won't even tell you where you'll be staying until you get there. Once I discovered this board and started reading about the experiences of people here, I was really convinced on the idea of planning a private safari for just the two of us. I also loved the idea of booking our trip directly with companies in Kenya and Tanzania. We'd done that for a short tiger safari in India (before we joined the Intrepid group) and really enjoyed working with a company in Delhi. We decided on primarily a driving safari (with a few flights to save time), because we really wanted to see as much of the countryside as possible and have a look at life in these countries outside of the national parks and reserves. I had a lot of reasons to be glad about that decision, but also have to say that I appreciated the flights when we had them because they helped us fit more into our three week limit.

So, which safari operators? I came up with a rough idea for a three-week itinerary (10 days in each country) and shopped it around to different companies -- Eastern & Southern, Let's Go, Southern Cross, Roy's, Green Footprint Adventures, Good Earth, Africa Serendipity, Go2Africa, Tropical Trails, and Sunny Safaris. Some of these would plan trips to both Kenya and Tanzania (in cooperation with an operator in the other country), and some would only book in the country where they were located. I read many, many online reviews of various operators and checked out what the guidebooks had to say about them and where their home offices were located. Perhaps more importantly, I looked at the types of replies I got from each company and evaluated not only the price, but also how much they seemed to be listening to what we wanted, what kinds of questions they asked, and what kinds of suggestions they made to improve on our ideas (since they really know Africa better than we do!). It was a tough choice, but ultimately we decided on Eastern & Southern for the Kenya portion of our trip and Green Footprint for the Tanzania/Zanzibar part. We are so grateful to Serah at E&S and Mirjam at GF (she's no longer there, sadly, since she moved to Kenya), whose skill, good humor and patience were wonderful during our year of planning and planning and planning this trip! (A very close second choice was Africa Serendipity -- Sandi was really helpful and had some great ideas for tweaking our itinerary, both in e-mails and via her participation on this forum. So thank you too, Sandi!)

Here is the itinerary we decided on, for the last week of September and first two weeks of October:

Day 0 -- fly SFO to NBO (via Chicago and London)
Day 1 -- arrive Nairobi and meet up with Eastern & Southern (Kenya Comfort Hotel)
Day 2 -- Nairobi -- Giraffe Center and Sheldrick's elephant orphanage, then drive to Mt. Kenya (Serena Mountain Lodge)
Day 3 -- drive Mt. Kenya to Samburu -- afternoon game drive (Samburu Intrepids)
Day 4 -- Samburu -- gave drives and visit Samburu village
Day 5 -- drive Samburu to Sweetwaters -- afternoon and night game drives (Sweetwaters Tented Camp)
Day 6 -- Sweetwaters -- lion tracking, game drive
Day 7 -- drive Sweetwaters to Lake Nakuru -- afternoon game drive (Sarova Lion Hill Lodge)
Day 8 -- drive Lake Nakuru to Masai Mara (Mara Serena)
Day 9 -- Masai Mara -- balloon safari, day and night game drives
Day 10 -- Masai Mara -- hippo breakfast, game drives, Maasai village visit
Day 11 -- fly Mara to Nairobi to Arusha/switch to Green Footprint (Karama Lodge)
Day 12 -- Arusha National Park -- game drive and canoeing (Karama Lodge)
Day 13 -- fly to Tarangire -- game drives (Oliver's Camp)
Day 14 -- Tarangire -- walking safari and game drive
Day 15 -- fly to Lake Manyara -- afternoon and night game drives, bush dinner (Kirurumu Lodge)
Day 16 -- Mto Wa Mbu walking tour and the Rift Valley Children's Village near Karatu (Ngorongoro Serena)
Day 17 -- Ngorongoro Crater -- morning hike on the rim and afternoon game drive (Plantation Lodge)
Day 18 -- drive to Arusha, fly to Zanzibar (236 Hurumzi, Stone Town)
Day 19 -- island tour, including Spice Tour, lunch and Jozani Forest (Pongwe Beach)
Day 20 -- Pongwe Beach
Day 21 -- fly Zanzibar to Nairobi to London (then we spent 2 nights in London, meeting up with a friend from Paris)

Pretty typical for a first-timer's visit to East Africa, I think. As is also pretty typical, a few things changed even after we'd come up with a "final itinerary" -- first Serena bumped us from their Ngorongoro Crater lodge, so we switched to two nights at Plantation Lodge. Then, shortly before our departure, we found out that Samburu Intrepids was also bumping us because they were overbooked and in the midst of renovating their tents, so we ended up being upgraded to Elephant Bedroom Camp. Both of these changes were ultimately for the better, and I will talk about that more as I get to that part of my report. (And I should also note that neither of these changes resulted in any extra cost to us.)

A few other thoughts on our lodging choices: We decided to "splurge" on Oliver's Camp rather than the alternative of Tarangire Safari Lodge, because it was my husband's birthday and we really wanted to have the experience of a small tented camp. It was one of the best decisions we made, even though the cost was a little tough to swallow. We actually ended up having that special camp experience in Kenya as well (at Elephant Bedroom), and I have to say that those were the two most memorable lodgings of our trip. We helped to rationalize Oliver's by choosing less expensive options in Nairobi and Arusha, and thought that worked out really well. Both Kenya Comfort Hotel and Karama Lodge were described to us as "very basic," but we thought they were just perfect for our needs and were glad we chose them. (If they think these places are "basic," they obviously have not traveled with us before, because we usually go much more budget than this!) We stayed at some smaller and more personal lodges in Tanzania than in Kenya, and overall enjoyed that experience more... but the "big tourist lodges" in Kenya were fine too. I think it was probably good that we stayed in some of the bigger lodges earlier in our trip, because we really appreciated some of the perks of staying in a smaller place by the time that came around.

Deciding when to fly and when to drive: We had originally planned to drive to Tarangire and then on to Lake Manyara, but in the end Green Footprint offered us the flight option for the same price, to give us more time in Tarangire. And since Oliver's has such great guides, it made a lot of sense to take advantage of that and meet up with our Green Footprint guide again in Lake Manyara. Finally, the last major tweak we made to our itinerary was that we'd originally planned to drive from the Masai Mara back to Nairobi and catch a later flight to Arusha, but decided to spend a bit more and fly the whole way so we'd have some time to relax at the lodge in Arusha. After having done the rough-and-tumble drives up to Samburu and then down to the Mara, we were so, so happy to get on a plane and see a little of Kenya from the air! So, we're very happy that we did a combination of drives and flights. I could see a lot of benefit to both ways of getting around, and thought we ended up with a good balance.

On packing: I won't bore you with the details of our packing list because it's not all that different from what other people have posted on this board, but I do have a few tips based on what we found useful along the way.

1. Photography beanbags: we love our cameras, but we're certainly not pro-level and did not really want to invest in a real "safari beanbag," so I came up with a cheap solution that worked great for us and saved us some weight in our luggage. I took two sizes of heavy-weight ziploc bags and taped some rubber "grippy" shelf liner material to the outside of each bag, trimmed to fit. While we were in Africa, we stuffed the bags with our fleece hats and gloves, which we didn't need to use most days anyway. This provided a reasonable cushion for the big camera, especially with our longest lens and the storage-size ziploc. The grippy material kept the camera from sliding around on plastic. I ended up never using the small "beanbag," which I'd made for our video camera. At the end of the trip, we took out the "stuffing" and tossed the bags in the trash.

2. Dust protection: the zip-off legs from our pants made great dust covers for the cameras while we were on game drives. I also had a small nylon bag for this purpose, and it helped a lot (especially in the Ngorongoro Crater, which was a complete dust bowl!). We also had buffs to pull over our faces on some of the dustiest drives -- a godsend on that drive from Isiolo to Samburu. Bandanas would be just as helpful.

3. Other things we were really glad to have with us: duct tape (for repairing rips in our self-destructing daypack); little travel packets of Tide to wash some clothes out in the sink (sure they do laundry at the lodges but it's not that hard to do some of the small stuff yourself, and some of the laundry services were pricey); ginger candies for some of the long car rides, to combat motion sickness or the smell of rotting wildebeest in the river; photos of our families to share with the little boy we sponsor at the Rift Valley Children's Village (and our drivers loved to look them, too, and ended up sharing some of their own family photos with us!); lots and lots of memory cards; thank you notes to write letters to our guides and use for tips.

4. Keeping track of photos: Before we left I wrote up little index cards with the date and place for each day, and we would take a photo of them each morning to help us remember where we saw each elephant and tommie and zebra along the way. After we'd taken 2500 pictures, we were very glad to have done this. Also, it was fun -- after the first few days, we starting trying to find the most creative place to put the index card each morning, with a backdrop that showed something unique about that place. So now we've got some funny pictures and might actually put a few of those "day marker" photos in our scrapbook!

Finally, I just want to remind everyone with your photos and videos -- don't forget to take pictures and footage of your lodgings, the campfire stories, and all the people you meet along the way. I felt kind of silly doing a "video tour" of each of our rooms and lodges and sometimes felt shy about asking people to pose with us for a photo, but now that we're going through all our pictures those are often the ones I treasure most or get the biggest kick out of. The animals are a given... they will make a great photographer out of anyone. Just don't forget all the other things that make a safari special. You can always edit later!

Okay, enough blabbering about that stuff. Those of you who have gone on your own safaris already know about the unique torture of booking your trip and then waiting... and waiting... until finally the big day arrives and you're getting on that plane, hoping that Africa will be able to live up to your insane expectations, honed by months of reading and watching movies and documentaries and reading this chat board.

  • Report Abuse

    Great start to your report, even though you haven't even got us on the plane with you yet. I think that all of us who have been fortunate enough to go to Africa understand what you're talking about regarding how hard it is to really describe your feelings when you return. Looking forward to lots more of your wonderful writing.

  • Report Abuse

    This is a wonderful start! I like your ideas about the faux beanbag and the day/date card photo to start each day.
    I'm looking forward to more.
    And as far as I'm concerned the more details the better.

  • Report Abuse

    I'm so excited to read your report!!

    And what a wonderful start! Your summary of your overall experience gave me goosebumps:)

    Great tips...I especially like the one about the index cards.

    And I am currently going thru the planning stage myself for our trip to Kenya, Tanzania & Rwanda for the exact same time next year.
    And you hit all the parks we have on our itinerary (Tarangire, Ngorongoro, Samburu, Mara).

    I am at the excruciating point of having to make that final decision on a tour operator.
    I've had a lot of correspondence with Roy's but my instinct (and bank account) are now pulling me towards Eastern & Southern.
    E&S are giving me a much better price for the same exact itinerary and so far have been much better at “hearing” what we want and how to help us get it.
    I find this part very hard, because I know the tour operators work very hard answering all my questions and have spent a lot of time on me. I feel guilty, then, having to say, “Thanks for all your work, but we’re going with someone else”.

    Anyway, I can’t wait to hear about your experience with E&S, as I’ll need to be making my decision in a matter of days!
    Just curious, it seems that E&S uses Leopard Tours in Tanzania. Any reason you didn’t let E&S do your entire safari (partnering with Leopard).
    I see you used Green Footprint for Tanzania. Just trying to glean information from you since we have similar itineraries.

    Also, we’re tentatively staying at some of the same lodgings, so I can’t wait to hear about your experience!!
    I see that you did a night drive at Mara Serena. I didn’t know this was possible…thought you could only do those outside the park. ???

    Anyway, love your report so far! Very enjoyable read…keep it coming!

    And Happy Anniversary!!

    :)>- Lisa

  • Report Abuse

    SOunds amazing. I leave for my first safari in 48 days and am so excited! Can you explain to me the purpose of the bean bags? I love my canon as well, but don't know what the bags are for...Thanks!

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks so much for the nice replies! After I posted this I looked at the length and thought, oh no! Who's going to read all this?? Also, try as I might I still could not fix some of the formatting problems, hence some very long paragraphs. Sorry if that makes it harder to read.

    Just to answer Lisa's questions up front...

    Why we chose to use Eastern & Southern and Green Footprint:

    We asked E&S to price out our Tanzania itinerary as well, but on further investigation I read some mixed reviews of Leopard Tours and was not sure if we wanted to go with them. Serah at E&S had trouble answering some of my Tanzania questions, although she was always very, very helpful and knowledgable when it came to the Kenya portion of our itinerary. Meanwhile, we were corresponding with Green Footprint (who only operate in Tanzania), and I loved their philosophy of travel: small company, small lodges, getting out of the vehicle and being as active as possible. Many of the activities we wanted to do -- like hiking, walking, canoeing -- would have been booked with GF (through the Serena lodges) even if we'd gone with Leopard Tours, so we decided it made more sense for us to go directly to GF instead of booking the Tanzania portion through a Kenyan company. Mostly it came down to wanting to do more "active" things in Tanzania and stay in smaller lodges, and for those reasons Green Footprint seemed a better fit for us.


    Would I travel with these companies again?

    I would definitely recommend Eastern & Southern for travel in Kenya -- they were fantastic, we had a great guide, and Serah was so patient and helpful (and gave me a big hug when we met in Nairobi!). Since I don't have experience with having them book a trip in Tanzania I can't really say one way or another -- but I was impressed by how they handled everything for our trip, so I imagine it would be fine.

    I would also use Green Footprint again, because for the most part our experience with them was equally wonderful and we absolutely loved our guide. In the planning stages, Mirjam had some very good recommendations based on the time of year we were traveling and I never felt like GF was pushing any kind of "standard" tour. They asked a lot of questions about us up front and designed an itinerary that really suited our interests well. The only problem we had with them on the trip was a less-than-ideal vehicle for the last several days. When I gave them feedback about this being the only thing we were not happy with, Mary at GF told me that they have decided to sell that vehicle because it's had too many problems. I think we were switched to a different vehicle because we had that flight segment in the middle of our itinerary (to Oliver's). We used two different cars from Green Footprint and the other one was really nice. I think GF is a small company who works really hard to deliver a personal, exciting experience, and I really have so much good to say about them.

    There were no problems at all in using two different companies, by the way. The "handoff" from Kenya to Tanzania was seamless.

    And finally, to answer your question about night game drives from the Mara Serena -- yes, they do have them (or did as of September, anyway), and it was really terrific. We went on three night game drives -- Lake Manyara, Mara Serena and Sweetwaters, and they were all really worthwhile, with very different types of animal sightings in each. The guide for the night drive at the Mara Serena was outstanding, and it really added to our experience there.

    Thanks again for the feedback... it helps to know I'm not boring everyone! :)

  • Report Abuse

    MDK -

    Great report, looking forward to more.

    Re the night game drives, I had heard that Serena had discontinued their night game drives, so interested to know:

    1) where do they take you?
    - with the lodge being smack in the middle of the reserve, it's got to be a long drive to get outside where it's legal to be out in the dark
    - did you exit a park gate? which one, if you recall?
    - with a tracker?

    2) how long was the drive?
    - when did you leave? return?

    3) were there many others who went with you? and, how much did they charge?

    Thanks.

  • Report Abuse

    Hi Sandi,

    I looked in my notes again and saw we did our night drive at the Mara Serena on October 2nd. So, they were still doing them as of early October.

    It was about $75 per person, I think, and the drive lasted just over an hour. In addition to the two of us, there were two other couples -- so six passengers, the driver, the spotter, and the guide. The guide was standing up in the middle of the vehicle and looking out the roof hatch, so all the passengers had window seats.

    We didn't drive outside the park gates -- from what we could tell, we were driving around in the area right below the lodge (the view you get looking down from the room balconies and pool area). We went close to the river several times and saw lots of hippos walking around grazing. And tons of other critters, too. I don't get the sense that we drove very far, really, but we did see a lot of animal activity (and some really intense lightning in the distance!).

  • Report Abuse

    Your thought process and background in planning is very helpful to others, especially since you are a researcher by profession.

    You hit a couple of accommodations that are not frequently mentioned here, so learning more about those will be good.

    I hope your problem vehicle did not cause you to miss time in the bush.

    I had enjoyed corresponding with Miriam about general Tanzania travel topics and Green Footprints. Sorry to learn she is not with them anymore.

    Don't worry about the length of the report. You'll want the details for you. None of us have to read the report if we find it gets too long and you never know just what details prospective travelers are looking for. I see reports more as references so more is better.

    Looking forward to the rest.

  • Report Abuse

    PART 2 – “Into Africa (via Chicago and London)”


    We left San Francisco early on Saturday morning, after the usual sad and guilt-inducing goodbye to our dog, Kyle. (Little did he know that a few weeks from now, his photo would be a big hit with some little boys at an orphanage in Tanzania, and that a certain safari guide in Kenya would see his picture and dub him, “A very good and handsome dog.”) Fortunately, we’re blessed with friends and family who are excellent dog-sitters, so although we really miss him when we’re on the road, we know he’s in good hands.

    Getting from home to Africa was quite a marathon – a flight to Chicago, then to London, and finally to Nairobi, with three slogs through security lines (SFO was a breeze, Chicago a disorganized mess that almost made us miss our connection despite more than two hours’ connecting time, and Heathrow was a long wait but very organized and efficient – three hours’ connection here was more than enough, we probably spent a total of an hour getting through security). Along the way we also had to deal with a boarding-pass-eating American Airlines ticket machine, accompanied by a grumpy ticket agent who took out her frustrations first on the machine and then on us (“You can stand here all day but I’m not giving you a boarding pass! You’re just going to have to ask for them to reprint it in Chicago!”) . Ah, what happened to the days when air travel was fun? It was nearly impossible to get any sleep on those 20 hours’ worth of plane rides, so when we reached Nairobi around 9pm Sunday night, we were groggy and wiped out.

    From the start, Kenya made quite a different impression on us than the last country we visited, India. The airport was small, quiet, not chaotic at all. The only small point of confusion came when everyone off our plane headed to the line to buy visas, and a young woman in an official-looking suit announced, “There’s another desk over here, come with me.” Everyone just stared at her as though she was speaking Swahili. She looked aggravated, gesturing to the long line, “There’s another desk!” But still no one moved, so we left the line and followed her down a hallway, with a few “brave” souls trailing after us. “Please give me your passports and $50 each,” she said as we were walking down the hall, and we did briefly wonder if this was really the way we were supposed to do this. But sure enough, there was another visa desk with no one in line, she handed our passports and money to the man at the desk and we breezed right through. I’m so glad we didn’t bother with getting our visas in the U.S., as it was so easy to do at the airport. But I did feel a bit sorry for that woman – the way everyone had stared at her like she was some sort of con artist!

    Our luggage took a few minutes to arrive, but both bags were there, no problems. When our driver from Eastern & Southern Safaris met us outside the baggage claim area in a big group of drivers and porters, we kept expecting to be bombarded by guys wanting to carry our bags and get us taxis, as we had been on arrival in Delhi. But, nope. Instead we went out to a quiet, nearly empty parking lot and then drove through a completely deserted industrial area with big, flashy billboards for Coke and car dealerships and no real signs of life (or anything uniquely African, really) at that hour of the night. Where was this crazy, chaotic Nairobi that we’d been warned so much about?

    We stayed that night at the Kenya Comfort Hotel, which perfectly suited us as a crash pad for one night’s sleep. At that point, all we really needed was a shower and a bed. We took a few minutes to reorganize our duffle bags so we wouldn’t have to mess with it in the morning (we’d split our clothing between the two bags, just in case one of them didn’t make it all the way to Nairobi), and then inserted earplugs against the thumping music of the disco across the street and fell sound asleep.

    (I want to put a plug in here for the Kenya Comfort Hotel as a good alternative if you’re looking to save a bit of money toward lodging elsewhere in your trip. The hotel staff was nice, the place was perfectly comfortable – if you come prepared with earplugs – showers were hot and the breakfast the next morning was very good. I’m glad we didn’t bother spending a lot of money to stay in a posh hotel in Nairobi, since we arrived late and left early the next morning.)

    Before we knew it, the alarm was going off and it was time to head downstairs to the breakfast room. On our way we took a look out the windows and saw some things that made me start to feel more of a sense of place. From our fifth floor window, we could look out across the street and see a group of men cooking on their rooftop, smoke rising up from little charcoal stoves. As we walked down the stairwell the narrow windows framed a view of a bus stop, shaded by the brilliant purple blossoms of an enormous jacaranda tree. I think seeing that tree and all the drivers hanging out beneath it was the first thing that really made me catch my breath and think, “I’m in Africa!”

  • Report Abuse

    PART 3 – “Elephants and an Ice Cream Bus” (Sept. 24th, 2007)

    Our guide James picked us up at the hotel at 8am and we headed downtown to meet with Serah at Eastern & Southern’s office for our safari briefing. James was an older man, very polite and quiet but not overly friendly – it was hard to get a read on him at first. Fortunately, we’d have 10 days together and over time he’d really warm up. He made us laugh so often, and was obviously working very hard to make our safari dreams come true. He is definitely one of those old school guides who asks, “What do you want to see next? Lion?” and then would, as if by magic, find a lion. One of the first things we noticed about his minibus was that somebody had stenciled “ice cream” on the gas tank hatch. So, his sense of humor was evident from the start.

    Serah, who had helped us plan this trip for a very long time, was so friendly and welcoming when we arrived at their offices – she gave us both a big hug, and then produced a thick folder of e-mails that we’d sent back and forth. “April 6, 2006!” she said with a grin, pulling out my very first e-mail. She went through our itinerary, gave us some tips about life on safari and travel in Kenya (most of which I’d already read on this chat board), and then offered this advice about James: “Ask him lots of questions. He will be very quiet at first, but if you draw him out he will never stop talking!”

    From there we hopped back in the bus with James and took a quick tour around downtown Nairobi. After all the stories you hear about “Nairobbery,” I was glad to see that it was just a busy urban center with people walking everywhere, flower delivery boys and men and women in business suits and women selling fruit by the roadside. Granted, our perspective was skewed by the limited parts of the city we saw, but it definitely was not the most rough-and-tumble city we’ve visited. From downtown, we headed out to the suburbs to visit the giraffe center and Sheldrick’s elephant orphanage. On our way we passed dozens of new or still-being-built McMansions, as well as the high-vine-covered walls of fancy estates – clearly a very wealthy neighborhood. Like any place you visit for the first time, it’s hard to imagine what life must be like for the people who live there unless you have a chance to talk to them, but I found myself wondering who lives in these gigantic homes? Such a contrast with most of the homes we would see in rural areas of Kenya and Tanzania (and, in fact, with our own little house in California). This was one of many, many experiences on this trip that would make us reflect on ideas of wealth and poverty, and on the strange circumstance of being on the “wealthy” side of the equation for a few weeks. At home in the Bay Area, we are definitely not considered wealthy! But of course, anyone who can take a trip to Africa is vastly wealthy by world standards. It’s a humbling thought.

    The giraffe center was a real treat, both for us and for the giraffes (the warthogs just watched from the sidelines). We went up onto a feeding platform and handed them grain pellets: as soon as I picked up a handful of pellets, a half-dozen long necks would pop up, begging like dogs, with their long, slippery tongues reaching out to snag the treats. I was the only one willing to put a pellet in my mouth and let a giraffe give me a “kiss” (it’s really not as bad as it sounds). A large group of school kids showed up right as we were leaving, and it was fun to see how excited they all were (kids and giraffes, that is).

    Our next stop was the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant and Rhino Orphanage. This was a place we’d been looking forward to for years, since we’d first seen it featured on “Globe Trekker.” And we weren’t disappointed. Even though there was a crowd at the 11:00 mud bath, we had a good view the whole time and got really close to the baby elephants. It was fun to see all the khaki-clad tourists squeezed in beside the school children in their smart uniforms (why does everyone wear sweater vests here, despite the heat?), all of us practically swooning over the adorable babies. The littlest ones came out first, trotting in a bouncy parade with their handlers, who told us each baby’s story as they wallowed and scooted and splashed each other until they were dark red mud balls. After the little ones finished, out came the big kids, two- and three-year-olds, who were even more animated and fun to watch. One named Makena even kicked a (muddy) soccer ball around while the others took turns pushing and shoving and climbing on top of each other. I think our video camera was worth every penny just for the footage that we shot at Sheldrick’s. It was so inspiring to see how happy and healthy these orphaned elephants are. And yes, we sponsored a little ellie named Dida.

    After our hour was up, we headed back into Nairobi for lunch at the very posh Serena Hotel. Beautiful place with lovely African artwork in the halls, but I’m glad we didn’t spend the extra money to stay overnight here. As we drove out of Nairobi and onward toward Mount Kenya, I started making notes of some of the most interesting signs we saw along the way. Here are a few: “Montezuma and Monalisa Funeral Co. and Coffin Sellers,” “Glory Institute of Advanced Driving” (we saw a few people who could benefit from going here!), “Thriller Luxurious Pub and Butchery,” and a billboard for a radio station that advertised itself as “Pure Niceness.” On the road out of the city we saw some more beautiful jacaranda trees in bloom. And so much evidence of car culture – car washes, dealerships, fancy gas stations, a drive-in movie theater… and yet it really did seem like most everyone was just walking everywhere. It made me wonder how many Kenyan families can actually afford to buy a car. There didn’t seem to be very many on the road, considering the size of the population here. The only real traffic jam we hit was when our minibus was briefly held up by the President’s convoy driving past in the other direction. Kind of a nice surprise, to see the President on your first day in a new country!

    We drove for several hours into Kikuyu country. The landscape was beautiful – lush green farms, coffee and tea plantations, some with terraces and wide stretches of dark red earth. We passed a tiny blue shack with “Church of Faith in God” painted on the side, and right next door a concrete block building called the “Jackass Bar.” Mid-afternoon we saw troops of school kids in bright pink shirts heading home along the country roads. And, painted on the side of a building in a tiny village: “Happy Mints: the new Smile for Kenya.” We stopped along the way to use restrooms and bought a delicious ginger soda called “Stony Tangawizi,” passed through a huge outdoor market in the town of Karatina, and somewhere near Nyeri I saw the first little kid wave to us and call out, “Jambo!”

    Not long after we’d entered Mt. Kenya national park, we were greeted by the sight of a massive pile of elephant dung in the road. An auspicious sign, because a few minutes later we rounded a bend and saw our first official wild African animal – an enormous bull elephant! His tusks were so long they swooped down in graceful arcs and crossed in the front, and he was grazing alone in a green meadow, surrounded by wildflowers. It was a ridiculously beautiful sight, and even though I knew better I could not help crying out, “Elephant!” in sheer elation. Then we were all silent, watching him until he’d finally had enough of us and headed off into the brush, disappearing without a sound.

    The Serena Mountain Lodge looks like a giant green treehouse, with picture windows and balconies and a rooftop deck overlooking a waterhole. We reached the lodge by walking up a winding path through the forest, and along the way we were greeted by blue Sykes monkeys. Well, maybe “greeted” is not the word – my husband was rushed by a mother monkey with a baby clinging to her belly, clearly not to happy to have her picture taken!

    I know some of the “tree lodges” get a bum rap, but we had a great experience at the Mountain Lodge. Our room was like a snug little cabin, with a floor-to-ceiling window that looked out onto the very active water hole. At first we were disappointed not to have a room with a balcony, until we saw people trying to go out on their balconies and getting chased back into their rooms by rampaging monkeys! In the first daylight hours we watched a big group of buffalo and some glossy little bushbucks. We explored the lodge a bit and spent some time in the hide that’s connected to the lodge by a tunnel; from here we had a close-up view of the buffalo herd and a big male waterbuck. After nightfall, we saw lots of little animals: genets on the feeding platforms right outside our room (still not sure I like the whole feeding platform idea… but it was nice to see them so close), white-tailed and black mongooses, more monkeys looking in our windows.

    After dinner we went up to the rooftop for a slide show, which was interrupted by a hyena sighting at the waterhole. Everyone rushed out to see, but he wasn’t doing much except sitting in the dark. It wasn’t long before the action picked up, however – as soon as the slideshow finished, a large group of elephants (with impeccable timing) arrived at the waterhole. We grabbed some seats at the bar’s outdoor balcony and watched them for a long time. I’ve told everyone I know that elephants were the real revelation of this trip—it’s so fascinating to see the complexity of their behavior compared with the way they are in captivity, how they are constantly communicating with one another. They kept busy eating, drinking, massaging their bellies on the rough rocks by the waterhole, seeming to get into conversations and arguments with one another and breaking off into smaller groups. At one point an older female had a group of adolescents gathered around her in a semi-circle, watching her dig a hole with her tusks, as though she was teaching them how. The best part was that the herd was sheltering a tiny baby, who was nursing and still clearly learning to walk. They were gathered so close around him that we could only glimpse him when they spread out to move. At one point several of the larger elephants had a tense standoff with the hyena and eventually charged him and ran him off, probably for the baby’s sake. Even after we finally forced ourselves to try to get some sleep, sounds at the waterhole woke us and had us running to the window to watch the action. The hyena was back and whooping up a storm, and one of the elephants let loose with a shrill trumpet, this time rushing full speed at him and driving him off for good. We were starting to get the idea that we wouldn’t get much sleep on safari.

  • Report Abuse

    I was wondering where you encountered an ice cream bus. You WERE the ice cream bus. Very clever of James.

    I got a kick out of the signs you saw.

    Your first animal sighting was quite spectacular from the foreshadowing of the dung to a beautiful wildflower setting for the ele.

    Good point on the downside of the balconies. I wouldn't want to be charged extra for something I am chased off of.

    Exciting times at the waterhole. Hope you weren't too tired the next day.

  • Report Abuse

    Hi guys! Thanks for your interest and sorry I dropped the ball for a bit... things have been very busy at home. I'm working on it, and will post another installment later today. :)

  • Report Abuse

    PART 4 – “A Camel Traffic Jam and Several Kinds of Tuskers” (Sept. 25th, 2007)

    This morning we got out of bed early with someone outside our door saying, “wake up for the mountain!” Last night we’d completed a checklist to let the staff know which animals we wanted to be woken up for during the night (which didn’t really make a difference since we were up most of the night anyway!), and one of the additional boxes we’d checked was “view of Mt. Kenya.” We bundled up in hats and jackets and went up to the roof to admire the morning light over the forest and a clear view of the peaks and glaciers at the top of Mt. Kenya. Since the most dramatic part of the mountain had been shrouded in clouds yesterday afternoon, it was wonderful to have a good look at it. We would see the mountain several more times during our travels through Kenya, but never with a view this close and clear.

    The waterhole was already hopping, with a raucous troop of baboons running around, babies clinging to their backs like tiny jockeys. We were almost late checking out by 8am, because we were so caught up in watching them. We really enjoyed our short stay at this lodge, and had not expected such nonstop action here. I think it’s a perfect start to a safari, sort of an appetizer to the main course. The setting is beautiful with the rich green forest landscape and the views of the mountain, quite a contrast to the other parks we visited. Even as we drove out of the park, sleep-deprived but happy, we were treated to the sight of four black and white colobus monkeys, sitting high up in a bare tree with their gorgeous long tails hanging down against a bright blue sky. James got very excited when he spotted them, and told us that he usually didn’t see them in this area. They kept a wary eye on us but were courteous enough to pose for pictures, as if they knew how beautiful they were. Our bull elephant from yesterday was gone by now, of course, but in his place the flower-strewn meadow was filled with mother and baby elephants, so we paused to watch them, too.

    Then the long drive began – through the greens and reds of Kikuyu country, with a pause on the Equator to take the obligatory photo under the “You’re Crossing the Equator!” sign (another, more distant, view of Mt. Kenya here… and lots of smiling vendors with little wooden animals), and onward north into the dusty heart of Samburu land. We did buy a few gifts for our families in one of the Equator shops, after the owner obligingly snapped our photo and then invited us to “just come look around.” As usual, it was the awkward business of bargaining with someone who kept (nicely) reminding us how much more money we had than he did, and knowing that was true but not wanting to get totally ripped off. In the end, we felt we got a fair enough price for things we would have bought anyway, I’m sure he made a good buck off us, and everyone left happy. Before we left, the guys in the shop asked me if we had any magazines that we “were finished with,” and I felt bad because I’d had some on the plane and tossed them out when I finished reading them. So I thought I would mention it here – several times during the trip local people were interested to know if we had any reading materials to pass along. So, something to think about if you finish reading something midway through your trip and are willing to leave it behind.

    Just beyond Nanyuki we started to get to those really bad roads that we’d heard so much about – huge ruts and potholes, the minibus lurching up and down. More signs along the way: the “Gender Equity Bar,” “By-Faith Agrichemicals,” and something called “Sacred Heart Road Murmuring” (what the heck is road murmuring??). We stopped to fill up at a snazzy gas station in Isiolo and James announced, “Now he is OK – he got some ice cream.” Across from the gas station we saw a sign for a “Jazz Studio,” which really warmed the hearts of two trombone players like ourselves.

    Isiolo really felt like a wild west town, crowded with people and animals and trash drifting by along the roads. There was an edge here that we didn’t feel quite the same way in other Kenyan towns we passed through. And this is also were the REAL Bumpy Road Madness began. We had to pull our buffs over our faces and shut all the windows despite the intense heat, and still there was dust everywhere, sifting into the van through every crack and crevice. We bounced and rattled over a loose gravel and dust-cloud road, our teeth and spines jolting. When we stopped at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Isiolo, our minibus was immediately surrounded by women hawking fruit, guys holding up arms with ten wristwatches on each and lighters in both hands, and enterprising kids trying to chat us up through the windows, putting their faces right up to the glass and asking us where we were from and whether we wanted to be their friends. One boy in a dapper fedora introduced himself as Daniel and kept asking my husband questions, all of which led to his main point: “What can you give me, sir, now that we are friends? Americans have always been very good to me.” And on and on. It’s tough to know what to do in those circumstances, but we’re in the camp that says it’s fine to buy bananas or local crafts (or, hey, a wristwatch if you really want one) but not to go randomly handing out things to kids just for asking. So, I guess we were not very good friends to little Daniel, at least not the way he wanted us to be. We were relieved when James finally climbed back into the ice cream bus and we could be on our way. This kind of difficult balancing act is just one of those things about travel in the developing world – finding ways to be friendly and talk with local people along the way, without too insensitively dashing their hopes that you’ll start handing out money (or, worse, actually handing out money and leading people to believe that everyone from your country is made of the stuff, and it’s the only reason they should bother to talk to you).

    The road from Isiolo to Archer’s Post was one long, bumpy, jarring, dusty, pitted gravel nightmare, but at last we neared Samburu national park and began to recognize the mud-stick-newspaper humps of Samburu homes. We saw a very dramatic sight as we drove across a bridge over the Ewaso Ng’iro River: some men were trying to herd a huge, writhing and very upset group of camels across the river (the crocodile-infested river, as James pointed out!), and the camels were having none of it. Meanwhile, several women walking across the bridge beside us were yelling to the hapless camel drivers (“cursing them out,” James explained), while some other men sitting under a nearby tree laughed at the whole frantic spectacle. “I don’t know why they won’t just use the bridge,” James sighed. I got the sense from their expressions and gestures that the women were saying basically the same thing, in less kind terms. When we passed by this same spot several days later all signs of camels and their frustrated owners were gone, so they must have reached some sort of agreement about crossing that river (or not).

    Our camp in Samburu was an incredible surprise. As I mentioned at the start of my report, we were supposed to stay at Samburu Intrepids, but had been bumped because they were behind schedule in upgrading their tents and did not have room for all their bookings. So instead they switched us to a much smaller (and, I learned from Serah, much more expensive – thank goodness we didn’t have to pay the difference!) tented camp called Elephant Bedroom. The camp has a beautiful setting, right on the banks of the Ewaso N’giro River, with the six tents set back beneath towering doum palms and no fences in sight. We were still a bit shell-shocked from the drive, and so it took us a moment to understand why James asked us not to get out of the minibus for a moment. Then we saw them, our welcoming committee: three huge elephants who’d wandered into the camp and were busy grazing beside the dining tent! We all waited until they’d finished and decided to move on, and then the camp staff came out to greet us with warm towels to wash the dust from our faces and cool fruit juice to wash the rest of the dust down our throats.

    Looking around, we could not believe our good fortune. The camp was absolutely beautiful, and I loved all the outdoor spaces – the dining tent and sitting area opened out to a small clearing where we had lunch and breakfast and a campfire at night. The “gift shop” was an assortment of beaded collars and bracelets hanging on a fallen log. And facing the river under a thick fringe of palms (whose shape reminded me of the inverted triangle of an elephant’s head) were two wonderfully slouchy outdoor sofas where we kicked back and watched an elephant crossing the river upstream from our camp. Our tent was a marvel, and also a bit of an embarrassment (we really didn’t need two beds, or anything this big!). But I loved how open it was to the surroundings, and after a few long days on safari I’ll admit I really did love the comfortable bed and the glorious rainfall shower. Plus, I would have reason, later, to be very glad there was a bathroom attached to our tent (and not for the reason you’re thinking…) We especially loved our little front patio with chairs facing the river and a small grassy patch where we noticed some dried elephant dung (or, as one guide called it, “wheatabix”). As we settled our duffle bags into the tent, the staff explained the rules: no walking around camp at night, even though the paths were well-lit by lanterns. When we were ready to come to dinner, we were supposed to stand by our tent flap and wave a flashlight for someone to come escort us. And always, always make sure the tent flap was securely zipped with the mat pulled up over the zipper when we left (monkey security). We also learned that only three of the tents were occupied, so we had the place practically to ourselves.

    I’m going to interrupt my own narrative here to just say how much we loved Elephant Bedroom – how friendly and kind the staff was, going out of their way to make us feel welcome; how delicious the food was at every meal; how beautifully the camp blends in with its surroundings and how close we felt to nature there. I have nothing but the highest praise for this place, and was so sorry we could not stay more than two nights! One of the few things I’ve read about the camp on this forum had to do with the negatives of putting more lodges and camps into the Samburu area, and while I certainly understand people’s unhappiness about the potential for over-development, I was glad to see that the camp was very small and was doing some things to minimize its footprint. No fancy swimming pool or huge dining room or 24-hour electricity and hot water here, and we did not miss them one bit.

    Now, the real game drives would begin! We left for our first one at 4pm, after lunch and a chance to take a nap and let the day cool off a bit. Now, I know if I describe every moment of every game drive in a 20-day trip, it will take me years to finish this report! The basic routine goes like this: we head out from camp to, as James puts it, “see what we can see.” The roof is popped up on the minivan, so we’re either sitting and looking out the open windows, or else standing watching out the open roof, with the wind in our faces. The sky is so wide here, the landscape rugged and dry but also more colorful than I’d ever imagined – red and copper earth, dirt tracks heading off through scrub and flat-topped acacia trees toward purple-blue mountains in curious shapes, triangles and buttes. “Like an African Monument Valley,” is how my husband described it. And then there’s the river too, a thick winding band like chocolate milk surrounded by rows of towering palms and pink dirt banks. It all feels very wild, elemental, and so beautiful. Sometimes I’d get so caught up in the beauty of the landscape, I almost forgot to look for the animals!

    Elephants continued to be our good luck charm here. The first animals we saw were a family of elephants, mothers and babies of varying ages. I never got tired of watching elephants, no matter how many times we encountered them on this trip. These moms were busy digging a pit for the babies to slosh around in the mud, and several of the smaller babies tumbled down into the mud hole and had to scramble a bit not to land on their heads. It was interesting to see how occasionally the older females would step back and let a younger one assist the babies and take on the “mother” role – helping them climb up the steep side of the mud hole, for example. Sitting beside them on a branch (and posing nicely for us against a red earth backdrop) was one of my favorite African birds, the spectacularly colorful lilac-breasted roller. (Yeah, I know it’s not very original to pick that guy as a favorite! How could anyone resist?)

    As we continued exploring in the gorgeous golden light of late afternoon, more and more animals appeared, mostly individuals or small groups rather than large herds. We saw warthogs, impalas, the startlingly long-necked gerenuks who were the first of our “Samburu 5.” Then cape buffalo with their entourage of birds trailing along after them and riding on their backs, reticulated giraffes (our second of the Samburu 5), guinea fowl both helmeted and vulturine, and a spunky little family of dik-diks (male, female and teeny tiny baby).

    And one false alarm. James turned his radio on at one point, clearly concerned that we weren’t seeing cats. Well, it wasn’t long before someone was announcing a lion sighting, so we zoomed off to try to find it for us. There was a group of three or four cars, and everyone was straining to peer into the scrubby bushes, trying to make it out. Was that a tail? An ear? No, wait – maybe that thing over there? After a few minutes, James said dryly, “I think that is a bush.” And so we left and went back to wandering around, seeing what animals we could find. (Even though we mentioned this to him, it took James a few days to realize that we did not have any specific “goals” of seeing lions or anything else, and that we did not expect or want him to run around trying to find the Big 5 for us – he must have so many clients that think this way, I think he didn’t really believe us the first few times we told him that we were happy just seeing whatever we found along the way!)

    Then, another breaking Swahili newsflash over the radio. James asked us to sit down and took off driving like a shot, the ice cream bus rattling wildly over the rutted dirt roads, past the river and into a more densely forested area. And there we saw it – a lone tree surrounded by 23 cars, vans, buses, Land Rovers, and huge overland trucks, everyone’s heads popping up through the roofs and gigantic camera lenses pointed up into the branches. “Leopard!” James announced triumphantly. Well, with that kind of audience, what else could it be?

    It took a moment, but then we saw her, draped nonchalantly over a branch with tail and paws dangling, the picture of relaxation. A leopard! Our first cat, the third of our Big 5 – all those things we thought we didn’t care about, checklists and biases toward the big predators and all that. I mean, she was so beautiful it made me giddy. We hung out with her mob of adoring fans for a while, watching her adjust herself several times into increasingly more floppy positions on the branches. Then, to our delight, she was on the move. She sat up and let loose with a tremendous yawn, and then made her way carefully down the tree trunk so that we got a great look at her, finally leaping down into the tall grass and disappearing like a ghost. Did I enjoy having to “share” her with so many other vehicles? No. And do I think it was a good thing for her, to have such a circus attend her every move? No, of course not. But I’m happy to report that this was the only mob-scene sighting we had in our entire trip, despite the stories I’ve heard about East Africa being terrible for that sort of thing. And would I trade the experience of having seen a leopard in the wild, when I went to Africa dead certain that we would not see a leopard at all? No, I wouldn’t. It was an unforgettable moment for me, even if the circumstances were a bit odd.

    Elated, we headed back to camp, having to hurry now that the light was quickly fading. James drove us to a spot on the high banks of the river, where we joined the rest of the guests from our camp for sundowners – our first taste of this wonderful safari tradition. Our host was one of the young Samburu guides from camp, who joked with us that we were waiting for “the appearance of the white elephant.” Tusker beers, a campfire, a nearly-full moon rising over the river. We toasted our leopard, and that she’d escaped her mob of paparazzi. What a blissful way to end our first game drive!\

    Back at camp, we sat by the roaring campfire (which got a little too roaring at one point, when the fire bowl almost tipped over from the weight of a log!), followed by a delicious dinner with banana fritters and chocolate sauce for dessert. One of the guys at camp wandered around playing soft, hypnotic music on a traditional flute, to warn away any elephants that might wander by. As we fell exhausted into bed, we could not imagine anything more wonderful than this place, and we felt like the luckiest people in the world.

  • Report Abuse

    I think we met little Daniel too. I remember the "Americans have always been very good to me part" unless that's what every kid in Isiolo says ;)

    More, more, more, please!

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, guys! Sorry the holidays have me swamped, and I've fallen way behind on this. Here's another installment...

    PART 5 – “Elephants in Our Bedroom” (Sept. 26th, 2007)

    1:30am. Elephant Bedroom, Samburu. We awoke to a soft snuffling sound outside our tent, and the nearly silent shift of huge, stealthy bodies moving through foliage. Then, the most wonderful sound—the low rumbling that elephants make when they talk to one another. We crept out of bed and, as quietly as possible, unzipped a tiny notch in the tent flap so we could peek outside. There they were—in front of our tent and surrounding us on three sides, less than ten feet away. It was a group of moms and larger youngsters, busily stripping leaves off shrubs and selecting the best parts of the grassy patch at the front of our tent. We watched them for more than an hour, illuminated by the full moon and so close we could hear their every breath and chomp and grunt. Finally, exhausted, we had to silently wish them good night and try to get some sleep. It was an absolutely amazing experience to be so close to them, and to fall back asleep to their soft conversation. The next morning the paths from the tents to the dining room were dotted with fresh elephant dung. As we talked excitedly about our late-night visitors, James told us that he was trapped in his tent desperately needing to go to the restroom and had to wait hours for the elephants to leave! So, I greatly appreciated our attached bathroom and was sorry to hear that the guides’ tents did not have that luxury. That is definitely where I am a safari wimp!

    This morning we left for our first game drive at 6:30, heading off before breakfast “to see what we can see,” as James always said. The light was absolutely stunning at this time of day, bringing out the deep russet tones of a reticulated giraffe’s coat and the red in the earth and the rocks, making everything glow. In addition to more of those beautiful giraffes, we saw another gerenuk, dik-diks, warthogs, waterbucks, grant’s gazelles, impalas, buffalos, and some stunning birds: superb starlings (who were also always hovering around camp, waiting to pounce on the tables at meals), ring-necked doves, a honeybill with her baby, plovers, and a flashy, preening secretary bird. We also spotted an impressive crocodile sunning himself beside the river. Our grand finale to the game drive was another sighting to add to our “Samburu 5” – a large herd of grevy’s zebra and beisa oryx (one of my favorite African animals.) One of the zebras put on quite a show of rolling in the dirt not far from our bus, stirring up a huge cloud of dust and kicking his hooves into the air.

    After returning to the lodge for breakfast, we set off around 10am to visit a nearby Samburu village. (On the drive out of the reserve, we saw an unusual sight: a guinea fowl couple with one helmeted and the other vulturine. James told us it was extremely odd for them to pair up this way, but they looked quite happy together.) To be perfectly honest, I’d been a bit uncertain about the village visits and whether or not I wanted to include them, having read about other people’s experiences with it and knowing we were willingly going into a contrived “tourist” experience. Unlike some of the other places we’ve traveled (India immediately springs to mind!), there seems to be a much greater divide in East Africa between tourists on safari and regular folks living in these countries. By this I mean, if you’re on the safari circuit you don’t necessarily have much opportunity to meet anyone other than the people working directly in the tourist industry. (Of course, this would be different depending on the type of travel, how much time you spend in the cities, etc.) But we really wanted to have some experience of African cultures in addition to the wonderful experience we’d been having with the wildlife, and visiting a village is one of the ways to do that. I think it helped a lot to go into it expecting a performance and a photo op—realizing that this would be just a little peek into someone else’s world rather than a chance to really get to know the people who live there. There’s really no way to avoid feeling like a dorky tourist in this kind of situation.

    The minute we arrived, a young man names Moses approached our bus and took us over to watch a dance demonstration that had just started for another group of tourists. He collected $25 for the visit, assured us we could take all the photos and video we wanted, and then told me that I was “lucky” to be a woman because I would get to dance with them in just a moment while my husband could take pictures. I cringed inwardly -- dancing is definitely not up my alley -- but I would play along to be polite. They started off with a welcome song and dance, the women singing and the men showing off their incredible high-jumping skills (straight up in the air, pogo-style, to impress the girls). Then the women sang a love song, and all of us women in the audience were decked out in beautiful beaded collars and invited to join in. I felt pretty darn stupid and definitely couldn’t get that Samburu head-and-neck move down, but it was more fun than I’d expected to get in there with everyone and be a part of things. I really appreciated that the folks from the village seemed to be having fun, good-naturedly teasing us and holding our hands and seeming genuinely warm and friendly, not annoyed by having to do this sort of thing for us. (Or, if they did feel annoyed they were good actors!) The singing was terrific, and we were thrilled with the video and photos when we were able to look back on them later.

    When they’d finished dancing, the women took our hands and led our small group past the acacia thorn fence and into the village, where the other tourists went off with their own guide and we went with Moses. He spent a long time with us, telling us about Samburu traditions that govern the lives of the young men, or morani, who are “warriors” with responsibility for the security of the village and its animals. We met several of these guys and had a chance to talk with them and admire their elaborate beaded jewelry and ochre-smeared hair. The guys showed us how they build a fire out in the bush, and talked at length about the various practical uses of animal dung – donkey and zebra dung is dry and makes for good fire; elephant is too wet to be very useful; goat is burned inside the house as a mosquito repellent.

    We had a chance to meet some women and children too, and to go inside one of the huts. They are made from cow dung plaster on a frame of branches, with cow skin floor mats and newspaper added to the plaster roof to reinforce it. The women build these houses themselves (and in fact, it seems, do almost all of the work in the manyatta), and each has three tiny rooms—a small sitting room at the entrance, a little kitchen, and a larger sleeping area for the whole family at the back. We sat in the bedroom while Moses told us about home life for the people in his village, and as we looked around the home we were pleased to see that it really looked lived-in: clothing and a tote bag hanging from the wall supports in a sort of makeshift “closet,” dirty dishes in the kitchen and a little goat wandering in and out. It definitely did not look like a pristine little hut built for tourists (something we’d think about again when we visited a Maasai village later in our safari…). We chatted just a little (via Moses’ translation) with the home’s “mama,” a young woman with a charming little baby girl. The woman seemed really pleased that we stopped and admired her daughter, asking how old the little girl was and telling her that we have a niece the same age. (I got the sense that she was used to being ignored by the tourists, and Moses had not even acknowledged her when we first went into the house.) The little girl hurried to the door as we were leaving and waved after us, calling out, “Lesele!” with a big smile.

    It was also really interesting to see some of the huts that were still being built, recycling the roofs from previous homes and building new walls. The children in the village had assembled several “play houses” nearby, using stones on the ground set out in the shape of a floor plan—sitting room, kitchen, bedroom. We saw some of these kids heading back toward the village with their herds of goats, and they stopped to wave at us. At this point we also asked Moses a bit more about himself, and found out that he had just taken his exams at school and was waiting for the results, and that he hoped to go to university and become a doctor. He became very talkative the more we asked him about himself, and we ended up staying much longer than the other group of tourists… which meant that we had to face the final bit of the tour, the “shopping gauntlet,” by ourselves. This was the part I’d really been dreading. Moses took us to “meet the blacksmith and see his shop,” which really meant we were expected to buy a bunch of souvenirs. They had an impressive display of carvings and amber necklaces and beaded jewelry, and my husband did an admirable job of bargaining down from the astronomical prices they set at first (for example, they started off asking $100 for a beaded collar and we bargained down to $35, but we later saw a similar one in a lodge gift shop for $25). We bought some gifts for our families and the beaded collar I’d worn for the dancing, and still probably overpaid but felt like we got a reasonable deal overall. I’m just not much of a shopper and definitely not a good bargainer, so I was relieved when we finally agreed on a price for everything and said our goodbyes. I know a part of what you pay for is the experience of buying your souvenirs in this setting, rather than in a gift shop with a cash register, but it’s still a little awkward to be bargaining with people who have so little. And it felt more than a little awkward when we walked out of the “blacksmith shop” area and into a long line of women with beaded jewelry and wood carvings stretched out along the length of our walk back to James’ bus. I wasn’t prepared for that, and if I’d known they were setting that up while we were in the “shop,” I would have saved some of my gift-buying for them. As it was, we didn’t have the money or time to buy more and had to ask Moses to explain to them that we were sorry but we couldn’t buy anything else today.

    Other than being uncomfortable with the role of “cash cow” (and my bad dancing), I really did enjoy our visit to this village and I felt like we got much more out of the experience than we’d anticipated. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in having a closer look at some aspects of the Samburu way of life, but I think you have to be prepared for some awkwardness and know that what you’re seeing is by necessity a demonstration. I don’t at all blame the Samburu people for not wanting tourists traipsing through their villages when they are actually going about their private lives. This way they can have control over the experience and make some much-needed income from the tourists’ interest in their culture. But you do have to realize that you’re only getting part of the story—there’s no mention, for instance, of some of the harsh treatment that Samburu women are subjected to. Not that I expected to hear about that. And if photography is important to you, it is a wonderful opportunity to take portraits of people and photos of their homes with relatively little awkwardness about whether and how much you should offer to pay them. I’m sure you can tell I have mixed feelings about the whole enterprise, but overall I think it was a valuable experience for us, and I’m glad we did not entirely ignore the people in favor of the animals.

    Speaking of the animals… Our late afternoon game drive was another productive one, and as usual James somehow managed to save the best for last (we’re not sure how he always managed to “plan” things so perfectly!). We saw more grevy’s zebras, warthogs running with their tails high in the air, elephant moms making a mud hole for their little babies to play in, a male impala in a full-speed chase after a female, and some huge buffalo boys. Down by the river we saw another big croc and some marabou storks. We heard an eagle terrorizing a flock of guinea fowl, and understood a little of their terror when we could not identify where the menacing sound was coming from (although we saw the panicked guinea fowl, we never did see the eagle). As we were getting close to closing time (sunset) and the light was becoming more and more intense, James suddenly said, “You want to see a show?” He pointed out two huge male giraffes not far ahead of us. As we approached, we saw that they were fighting furiously, in that oddly graceful way that giraffes fight—it’s not a head-to-head combat but rather a delicate side-by-side dance. The giraffes stared each other down for long, tense minutes, and then began swinging their heads and necks around to bash each other so hard we could hear the mighty thud of impact. It was an incredible sight, and seemed as though it might go on for hours… until a female giraffe showed up and both boys went eagerly over to her to investigate.

    Driving back to camp we were still so excited about the giraffe fight and convinced that would be our day’s closer. But no—nothing on safari is ever exactly how you expect it to be. On our hurry back to camp in the waning light, we came across four female lions, just waking up for their evening hunting action. Our first lions! They were simply gorgeous, sleek and strong, with glowing spotted coats. It was fascinating to see how they changed from one moment to the next: kitten-like when they were lying down and rolling around in the grass, then slightly menacing as they got up and stalked purposefully past our minibus and off into the pink-tinged twilight. At one point a lioness passed so close beneath my window, I could see every hair on her back.

    As if the lions weren’t enough, a group of mother and baby elephants crossed the road in front of us at the turn-off to our camp, milling around on both sides of the road so that we had to drive very cautiously between them. They made a striking picture with a nearly-full moon rising in the dusky sky behind them. One of the big females made a mock charge at us, and as we passed the last of their group, a tiny baby gave a shrill little trumpet, flapped his ears, and mock-charged us too! Now that is the perfect ending to a day on safari.

  • Report Abuse

    It just keeps getting better and better!!

    I LOVED your tale about the elephants outside your tent! I had to call my husband over and read it to him, giddy with excitement, and telling him, "Can you just imagine!!??" We get so excited to see deer in our backyard or a cool bird we've never seen before...I cannot even imagine the thrill of having elephants RIGHT THERE outside your tent!
    Fabulous!

    I also really enjoyed your account of the village visit. I feel the same as you do, very ambivalent, wanting to engage with the people, but not feeling like a dorky tourist, not to mention the "cash cow" part.
    Thank you for your enlightening account.
    We will definitely do the village visit, probably in Samburu as you did. That it why I love this forum so much. Hearing about your experience and your vivid picture you paint really helps us with our decision.

    And, boy,what a finish to an amazing day! The lions and the baby elephant!!! You're making our countdown so much fun...281 days to go!!!!!!!!!

    By the way, if you don't mind me asking...I love your writing style and your vivid account.
    Did you write this account down while you were in Africa or are you just now writing this from memory?
    Or maybe a combination of both, took notes while there and are adding the emotional, colorful detail now?
    I ask because I am just amazed at how wonderful your report is...KUDOS!

    :)>- Lisa

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, Lisa! Glad you're enjoying it. I keep worrying about how long this report is getting to be... especially considering our trip was three weeks long! So, it's encouraging that some of you are still reading, and I will keep plugging away.

    About the writing -- We carried a notebook with us on every game drive and jotted down notes, impressions about places we visited, etc. This is usually my husband's job, and then I write the actual journals of our trips and he illustrates them. That way we have ideas and thoughts from both of us in there. I take the notes and write the jounrnal from that. Although I was working on the journal off and on while in Africa, I really had very little time to do it (and was pretty sleep-deprived during our safari!), so I actually have about a weeks' worth still to finish up.

    For this trip report, I'm copying some things out of my journal but leaving out a lot (believe it or not!), and then adding some thoughts that I hope might be useful for someone planning a trip. I found this forum so, so helpful when we were in the planning stage (and really fun during the anticipation stage!), so I hope I can contribute to that for other people. But I know I am pretty long-winded as a writer. My master's thesis was nearly 300 pages, and my novel is more than 800! :) Anyway, I'm so glad you guys are reading, and it's fun to relive it all as I'm writing.

  • Report Abuse

    Your ele encounter was surreal. Nice detailed account of the Samburu visit. It appears you may be comparing and contrasting this visit with an upcoming one. Yes? You've done an outstanding job of retelling your trip.

    Camel Traffic Jam is next.

  • Report Abuse

    Sorry if my titles were misleading... the camel "traffic jam" was the one in the river. ;)

    Yes, I was setting up a contrast between our Samburu village visit and one we did later in the Masai Mara. Since it will probably take quite some time for me to get to that part of the trip, I'll briefly say here that we thought the experience was much, much better in the Samburu village, because Moses actually took a lot of time to talk with us and people there seemed much happier about the whole enterprise. Our guide James recommended that we visit both to see that differences between the two, and there were some interesting differences. But overall, the Maasai visit was much more of a hard sell, we were rushed through the village in about 20 minutes and nobody seemed very happy to have tourists there. I'll write more about that later, but just thought it might be worthwhile to mention now.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks for the explanation of your method of compiling your thoughts and turning them into your report.

    ...Your novel????? I'm intrigued! Please share:)
    You certainly have a wonderful writing style!

    Holidays are such a busy time.
    Take your time and continue when you can.
    I'll definitely be ready to read more whenever you post!
    :)>-

  • Report Abuse

    Actually I was reading out of order. I should have read the camel part first, but missed it. I'll look forward to going back to that.

    If you ever have an unattached bathroom, you might be given a bedpan. I have a few times, but did not need it.

    The helumted and vulterine guinea fowl relationship may be typical of the odd pairings in the northern parks of Kenya. Elsewhere in that general region was the lion and the oryx calf combo.

  • Report Abuse


    Wonderful report. I have to return to Samburu, I have to google Elephant Bedroom and I also have to get some more information about that 800-page novel of yours. What’s the best way of asking?

  • Report Abuse

    I share your ambivalence about the village visit. I took one in Fiji where they actually didn't ask for money (tipping is considered impolite there), but I still wasn't comfortable with someone's home & way of life being taken as a tourist attraction. "Look how the poor & down-trodden live!" So I skipped the Namibian village walk we could have taken in Botswana, even though it was already paid for in our package. I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

    Regardless of that, I'm loving every detail of your trip! Please keep writing!!

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks for all the nice posts, everyone -- you guys are keeping me motivated (even if you can't tell by the slow pace of my postings...) I do kind of wish I hadn't mentioned my novel, though... I was just trying to make a point about my extreme wordiness! But for those who asked, it's (sadly) unpublished. I've had several agents read it and give me positive feedback, but they just didn't think it was commercial enough. So, I wouldn't really say I'm a writer--I just write for fun, and pay my bills by working as a researcher. Maybe I ought to write something about people on safari, since there seems to a built-in audience out there... At least among our little circle here! ;)

    Nyamera, I've read your trip reports and know you would absolutely love Elephant Bedroom. The unfortunate thing is the price. If we're ever able to go back to Kenya I would love to stay there again, but I'm not sure we could afford it! We're still thanking our lucky stars that Intrepids overbooked and we got that upgrade. I just wish there were more camps that were like Elephant Bedroom, but without the luxury furnishings and huge tents and giant price tags. Scaled down a bit to be more affordable, but not quite as scaled-down as, say, a pup tent.

    Merry Christmas, everybody! Here comes the next installment...

  • Report Abuse

    PART 6 – “A Mechanic in Isiolo and a Little Bit of Joy” (Sept. 27th, 2007)

    Last night the wind howled so fiercely it shook our tent and made the canvas flaps billow inward, showing eerie glimpses of the black night outside. I kept listening for elephants but they didn’t return. And I had a hard time sleeping, just feeling very uneasy for some reason. In the morning on the path outside out tent, we found some large cat tracks crisscrossed with smaller tracks that might have been a genet. Those bigger tracks were lion, James said when we showed him a picture later. So maybe that’s why I couldn’t sleep! Perhaps there’s some sense that wakes up in the dark recesses of your brain when a big predator is around.

    After another delicious breakfast attended by six or seven superb starlings, it was time to say goodbye to Elephant Bedroom and its wonderful staff. We were especially fond of Alex, a soft-spoken guy who introduced each meal by saying, “I would like to tell you, please, about the special treats for today…” Everyone here was so kind and the camp was like a paradise – enough so that we worried all our other lodgings might be a letdown! While we were loading up the ice cream bus I asked the camp manager if anyone else would be arriving that day, since the four of us who’d stayed the previous night were all on our way out. “Oh yes,” she said. “If not, we would not let you go!” I hope that this camp is very successful, and that many more people are able to enjoy their hospitality and beautiful setting.

    So, from paradise back into purgatory. We headed out of the park and braced ourselves for the rough road south to the Equator. At the park gate we picked up a local guy named Peter who needed a ride to Isiolo. James asked us if we minded, and we were happy to give him a lift. He was very friendly and spoke better English than we did Swahili, so we were able to have a conversation of sorts despite that noise and bounce of the road. As it turned out, he was coming all the way from Baragoi in the north, which is much, much farther than we’ve traveled so far! We shared our water with him and gave him a few bottles for his trip, marveling that he was bundled up in a sweater while we were sweating it out in t-shirts and shorts. Not far from Archer’s Post, we passed a little boy with a herd of goats who held up a tiny black kitten and waved to us as we drove past. We saw him, and the Samburu houses set back from the road, and the wide open stretch of scrubland, through a haze of grey dust that filtered into the interior of the minibus and surrounded us outside like fog.

    Somewhere between Archer’s Post and Isiolo, we heard a loud CLUNK! and the ice cream bus began to make a horrible rattling noise. Oh no. We’d heard many stories of flat tires and mechanical problems on these wretched Kenyan roads, but of course we’d been secretly hoping that we would be among the lucky ones who managed to avoid that kind of trouble. James kept assuring us that it was nothing, “no big deal,” but Peter looked grim. James began driving much slower and the sound kept grinding away, and all I could think was, “Well, he’s trying not to alarm the tourists, but I sure hope he stops soon!”

    We rattled on into Isiolo, dropped Peter off and said goodbye, and then pulled into a service station where James could talk to a mechanic. The mechanic jumped into the passenger seat and we drove around town for a bit, waiting for the minibus to start making that awful racket again. But nothing happened. “Of course,” James said, “It never does the same when the mechanic is here!” The mechanic just shrugged and hopped out of the car. James headed down a dusty side street to another auto shop, this one little more than a dirt lot with some guys standing around, looking bored. Everyone gathered around the ice cream bus and conferred with James, who was starting to lose his customary cool by now and looking just the slightest bit stressed out. While the guys were working on the bus, we just hung out with the side door open, trying to catch a breeze. A boy came by with a wheelbarrow full of long sugarcane stalks, and James asked if we’d like some. We watched the boy hack away at the green of the stalks with a machete, expertly stripping whittling them down to their pulpy white centers so we could chew on them and suck out the sweet juice. So delicious! I can tell you, if you’re stranded with car problems in Isiolo on a hot day, there is nothing better than the refreshing taste of sugarcane. Incredibly, the bus was repaired in less than half an hour. (We still have no idea what was wrong with it, but I’m happy to say it didn’t give us a lick of trouble the rest of the trip.) The mechanics waved to us as we drove off toward the main road, happy to be on our way again.

    We crossed over the Equator again on our way to Sweetwaters Private Reserve, a cattle-ranch-turned-game-park in central Kenya. Sweetwaters had a very different character from Samburu, and we could feel that difference the moment we arrived. The main lodge which houses the bar and dining room was a colonial farmhouse style building, and beyond was a long line of green canvas tents surrounded by colorful landscaping, neat paths, and trim lawn. The front row of tents (including ours) faced a very active waterhole, separated from the lodge by an electric fence that was well obscured in a ditch. We could sit out in front of our tent and have the illusion that there was nothing between us and the waterhole, watching the animal activity and letting them watch us back. All the usual suspects came by while we were here: waterbucks, warthogs, impalas, giraffes, zebras, and all the accompanying friendly birds. We saw dozens of superb starlings flitting over the lawn near the tents. A pair of marabou storks even walked right up to the dining room’s sliding glass doors during lunch, looking for handouts (which, fortunately, they did not get).

    Overall, we really enjoyed Sweetwaters, even though it felt like a much tamer experience than we’d had in Samburu. (Hey, come on, we even checked our e-mail here and went online to read the San Francisco Chronicle’s website and see what was going on at home. And it’s certainly a much bigger lodge than Elephant Bedroom.) But the waterhole was particularly cool at night, with giraffes and zebras moving about in the ghostly moonlight, and the morning view of Mt. Kenya from out tent was lovely.

    We went on an afternoon game drive that first day, and James showed us some of the diverse landscape of the reserve, which was much larger than I’d imagined it would be. We drove through woodland and marsh areas, and long stretches of wide-open grassland. One of the highlights for today was visiting the chimp sanctuary, where a group of rescued chimpanzees have been relocated from their original home in Burundi. If you visit here, be sure to take some time to read about the individual chimps’ stories; most were rescued from abusive captive environments, and it’s heartbreaking to imagine what they’ve been through. We were able to watch a number of them hanging out on their island—some up in the trees, others taunting a river otter who swam past, and still others just quietly grooming each other or napping. The most entertaining chimp was a hyperactive little baby named Joy, who had been born in the sanctuary despite the keepers’ best efforts to provide birth control. She was named for the joy that she brought to all the adult chimps when she was born, and we could see how indulgent they were with her. We had a ball watching her scamper around the island, building a branch-and-grass lean-to up on a lookout rock, and then swiping fruit from the adults to take up into her “treehouse.”

    We saw so many other animals and birds as we continued through the park: saddlebill stork chicks, a huge impala bachelor herd, Burchell’s zebras, buffalos, and more and more elephants (including another mock-charge from a mother escorting her small baby across the road in front of us). Then James turned the bus down a small track that had a sign beside it: “Private—No Admittance.” We wondered what on earth he was doing… until he screeched to a stop behind another minibus and whispered, “What do you see?” There, half-hidden in the greenery, was a large group of lionesses and cubs! There were at least 14 or 15 lions, the mothers stretched out and half-asleep, and the young ones wrestling and playing in little piles. It was impossible in some cases to make out where one lion ended and the next began, just piles of tawny fur, sleepy heads, tails and paws.

    Onward to the grassy plains, and we had another surprise—in the distance, a black rhino! (This was the 5th of our Big 5.) We were thrilled to watch him just standing there looking majestic, swinging his massive head back and forth and scattering the panicked zebras walking by (a mixed group of Grevy’s and Burchell’s, which was neat to see). I had to use my longest camera lens to get a shot of him, but no matter—with our binoculars, we could see the pointed lip that marked him as a black rhino, and we were so excited to see him at all. On the way back to the lodge, as the afternoon light was quickly fading, we stopped in to visit Sweetwaters’ tame rhino, Morani (and his warthog companion, Caroline). It was fun to see a rhino up close and pet his rough skin, especially after just seeing his wild cousin. But Morani was not interested in us at all. He kept wandering away, and his keeper would go into a flurry of panic, crying, “Morani! Morani, no! Morani! Get back here!” We finally bribed him with a bit of sugarcane, and he agreed to pose for a few pictures. We also got a pretty funny video, thanks to the rhino keeper—he took our video camera in one hand and our still camera in the other, and blasted off dozens of photos while simultaneously filming and giving us a rapid-fire version of Morani’s life story. Every now and then the camera would lurch off to one side or go out of focus, or Caroline would scamper by in the background, and all the while the keeper kept firing off facts about Morani with the speed of an auctioneer. We noticed that not many people tipped Morani’s keepers, but we were prepared to do that after reading that suggestion on this chart board, and I’m glad we did. This guy was obviously trying really hard to do his best for us, and fit it all in before dark. On our way back to camp in the near-darkness, we spotted one more new animal—a massive and elegant eland.

    Dinner tonight was our first chance to try some actual African food, a delicious roasted nut casserole and a bean mixture called (I think) ghiteri. Both were delicious. Even though Sweetwaters does not have the most atmospheric and intimate dining room (it’s mostly large tour groups at long tables, and could get really loud), I have to give them kudos for actually including some local dishes. At 9pm we bundled up for our first night game drive. A few thoughts about this: First, the spotter and guide from the lodge made us really appreciate James’ skill and subtlety, as they seemed to just rush from one sighting to the next. Worse, the driver tried several times to get a reaction out of the animals by driving the Land Rover right toward them (or their babies)! He did this more than once, with both elephants and a mixed group of giraffes and zebras. Secondly, although the people sharing our vehicle were generally nice guys, they could not stop talking about their disappointment at not seeing lions on the hunt, and it got very annoying after a while. For example, when we encountered a mother elephant with a newborn baby who was just learning to walk, these guys whined, “This is boring! Show us the LIONS!” and later, as we watched some giraffes only a few feet away from the road, one guy kept grumbling, “Aw, it’s just lion food! Move on!” So, these things made us really appreciate having our own vehicle and driver during the day. Anyway, there was certainly no reason to complain about the wildlife we saw tonight: more elephants in addition to the mom and newborn, a hyena loping up the road, dozens of hares hopping this way and that, both varieties of zebras, Thomson’s gazelles by the dozens, a group of giraffes sleeping, another running across the road right in front of us, and a pair of giraffes courting. We returned to our tent and found hot water bottles in our toasty warm bed. We fell asleep so happy to have experienced the thrill of being out in the African night with the starts overhead and the wind in our faces and the night sounds all around in the darkness. Predators? Well, it would have been nice, but they’re not the only show in town!

  • Report Abuse

    For some reason, I edited that last post but the changes didn't take. Obviously, that was meant to be "African stars" (not "starts")!

    And to be fair to James... he didn't actually "screech" to a stop near those lions, but we came around a corner and there was another bus parked near them, so we had to stop quite suddenly!

  • Report Abuse

    I would have been very upset with the people who weren't interested in the baby elephant. And the driver trying to get a reaction from animals by driving right up to them. I wouldn't have said anything, so my head would have probably exploded. Luckily, MDK, you are a calm person. :)

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, Leely, but I don't think the people who know me would necessarily describe me as "calm!" ;) You should have heard my husband and me complaining about these folks to each other once we got back to our tent... and we still occasionally complain about them, even three months later!

    Happy New Year, everybody. Keep the people of Kenya in your thoughts and prayers.

  • Report Abuse

    I'm hoping to post another installment this weekend.

    I was also thinking about posting some pictures, because I love looking at other people's shots... what is the easiest way to do this so that a link is viewable from this forum? Right now I have my albums online on a private site, and I would only want to set up a smaller "highlights" album to post for the forum (because even if you think you want to read my never-ending trip report, you definitely don't want to look at my 2000+ pictures!)

    Any suggestions? Is Kodak the simplest way to go?

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks for all the input. I'll check out the photo sites and see what's easiest for me. Right now our photos are all on Snapfish, so maybe I can post from there and see if the link works for you guys.

    I'm sure I'm not the only one here feeling this, but it's been tough for me to think about our wonderful trip without also dwelling on the awful situation in Kenya recently. I feel a little selfish and decadent talking about our safari when so many people are suffering. So, I will try to get back into telling our story, but I wanted to mention this because it partly explains why I'm taking so long to write this trip report. Thanks for bearing with me, and I hope that in some small way this inspires someone to travel to Kenya some day (or at least reminds those of you who've been there why we all love this country so much).

  • Report Abuse

    PART 7 – “Bushwhacking for Lions” (Sept. 28th, 2007)

    This morning we had a 6:30am appointment with Sweetwaters’ lions—more specifically, we would be going lion tracking with a ranger and using a transponder to try to locate the four collared female lions in the reserve. We had a clear view of Mt. Kenya beyond the waterhole as we left our tent (it’s definitely worth asking for a front-row tent here!) and walked over to the main lodge, where we met Alex, our ranger, and hopped in his Land Rover. We were the only ones signed up for lion tracking this morning, so it was a treat to have the vehicle (and Alex) all to ourselves. We saw some animals on our drive over to pick up the transponder guy from the Ol Pejeta research station—elephants, zebras, a huge herd of buffalo, waterbucks. Finding the lions themselves would prove to be much, much harder.

    They picked up the signal from one of the radio collars fairly quickly, but the lions were camping out in very dense brush, and we drove around for a while trying to see them, with no luck. “They are here, very close,” Alex kept saying, sounding frustrated. “I promise you, they are here.” But the only animal we spotted was a cute little steinbok.

    Then, a group of elephants with babies came by, making their way silently through the bush in that amazing way that elephants have. We stopped the car and watched them pass by, disappearing behind the short, leafy trees. Suddenly, we heard a shrill, startled trumpeting, and Alex said, “They have found the lions!” Some scuffling sounds, more trumpets, and then silence. Eventually we saw the elephants making their way across another clearing in the trees, farther away. At that point Alex began to seriously bushwhack with the vehicle, trying to find those lions—squeezing past trees into space so tight that leafy branches pushed through the windows and fell through the open roof, running the car right over little saplings (which sprang back up behind us). But still, no lions. Finally he had to say, with great disappointment, “I am so sorry, but we simply cannot get to where they are and we are out of time. We need to head back to the lodge now.” We said we understood, there are no guarantees with cats, and it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. But we could tell both the guys really felt they had let us down.

    We drove through the dense foliage back to the road… and within minutes, we saw four mama lions and a huge troop of cubs coming out of the bushes and onto the road right in front of us! Evidently between the elephants and all our crashing around in the Land Rover, they’d decided to give up their hiding place and move on. I think all four of us were equally excited to see them, and we all started laughing. The moms were trying to get the cubs to cross a little bridge in front of our car, and it was so funny to watch how the babies reacted to that “very scary” bridge. One mama crossed and stood on the other side waiting for them but the babies kept hesitating, goofing around and dawdling, then one by one summoning the courage to sprint across! After they had all made it over, with the other lionesses bringing up the rear, we followed at a distance. We were able to watch them walking up the road for a while, until they decided to head back into the brush and vanish. So, two hours of bushwhacking for 15 minutes of lions – and worth every second. (Not to mention, it was fun to do something our minibus could never do.) So now, between Kenya and India, we’ve had elephant assistance twice in finding the big cats! (An ellie flushed out a tiger right in front of our jeep in Corbett National Park, too.)
    Just one of many, many reason to love those elephants.

    (For those of you planning a visit to Sweetwaters, I highly recommend signing up for lion tracking. It was a fun adventure, and also a chance to get out and have the place pretty much to yourself while everyone else is still sleeping. It’s also one of the things offered at Sweetwaters that you can’t necessarily do in other parks, and it was fun to talk to the guys about these particular lions and how they use the data from the radio collars. If you do go, please consider tipping the rangers. They seemed more surprised when we did than just about anyone else we encountered on our trip, which made us wonder if people tend not to tip them.)

    After breakfast back at the lodge, we headed out on another game drive with James. Right off the bat we saw some big herds: impalas, waterbucks, zebras, and some giraffes. James was in a very talkative mood, telling us about his large family. He has been married nearly 40 years and has 15 grandchildren, 4 of whom live with him. He asked about our family too, and at one point when we were stopped we showed him the photos we’d brought for Josephat (the little boy we sponsor in Tanzania). James commented on how Kyle was “a very good and handsome dog… and so big!” He was surprised to see a photo of us camping in a tent with our pup, and said, “In Africa, you are not allowed to camp with a dog like this.” I can understand why! He also admired a photo of our niece and said, “This is a very good baby.” Then he got out a photo of himself with his grandkids and told us he would like us to keep it, to help us remember him. It was as nice to sit and talk with James about our families as it was to drive around looking at animals.

    When we reached the open grasslands, things accelerated quickly (and I don’t mean the minibus, which was stopped every five minutes for us to snap photos). James pointed out a lovely little morning dove, which we admired and then instantly forgot a few minutes later when he squinted into the distance, picked up his binoculars, and said, “Black rhino!” There he was, standing quietly near a stand of small trees and looking enormous, grazing quietly beside a lone cape buffalo. It was fun to see them side by side, just for comparing their size. We also spotted another huge animal, a gorgeous eland, looking like a hybrid of a cow and an antelope. Beyond him, zebras, a hartebeest standing lookout on a termite mound, and a large group of warthogs, prancing around with their tails high in the air for their babies to follow. “Kenyan antennas,” James called them. At one point I saw an odd sight—in the distance, a short figure was standing bolt upright and stock-still in silhouette, and at first I really thought I was looking at a small child standing out there in the grass (which freaked me out). But then it dropped back down onto all fours and ambled away, and I realized it was a large baboon who’d been standing up, arms hanging at his sides.

    James also spent a lot of time on our game drives pointing out details of the landscape and plants, describing how all the various parts of the ecosystem worked together. It’s clearly his passion as a naturalist—the various systems and harmonies of nature. Today, for instance, he talked about the cooperative existence of the whistling thorn acacia and the tiny black ants that live in the galls on its branches and keep the giraffes from stripping the tree completely bare. We’ve found that James has become more and more talkative as he’s gotten to know us and realized that we’re not just interested in racing around looking for trophy photos of the big animals (even though we did tell him this up front—maybe he didn’t believe us). He really is a goldmine of information, and such a good storyteller. As always, when it’s time to move on he asks, “Sawa sawa?” and we reply, “Sawa sawa.”

    We passed lots and lots of adorable, twitchy little Thomson’s gazelles with their perpetual-motion tails, and a big mixed herd of Burchell’s and Grevy’s zebras that broke into a gallop alongside our bus. And then, to my delight, another large herd of my favorite antelope, oryxes. A mother oryx was very gently teaching her tiny baby how to head-butt, while a slightly bigger baby looked on. The mom would hold her head down and let the baby butt into her with all his little might, then they would press their foreheads together and nuzzle. Another one of my favorite safari moments.

    On the way back to the lodge we stopped near a big group of buffaloes and watched an industrious little oxpecker bird working his way around one buffalo’s face: diving deep inside the ears, then walking down to clean out the giant nostrils. We were delayed alone the way by an impala traffic jam—a buck anxiously gathering his harem in a bunch while they milled about in alarm, showing signs of something dangerous lurking nearby. We waited a bit to see what was worrying them, but nothing materialized and they eventually settled down and moved along. So then, back to the lodge for lunch (including a delicious dish called matoke, bananas in a spicy/sour sauce).

    This afternoon we decided to take a little break and spend some time hanging out and relaxing. James recommended this as a good place to have an afternoon off, since we had a leisurely 2-night stay at Sweetwaters and would not have much time for leisure in our next few stops (Lake Nakuru and the Mara). It was too chilly for swimming, so we pulled the table and chairs in front of our tent closer to the waterhole and settled in to write postcards and work on the journal. (There is very little time to relax on safari, we’re finding, because there’s always something more interesting to see or do!) When I was writing a postcard to my 1-year-old niece, who loves zebras, I looked up and there at the waterhole was a tiny baby zebra, frolicking back and forth amongst the adults! I paused in my writing to shoot some video for her. And I had the idea to make a photo book for her when we get home, with all our best zebra pictures. (By the way, it was a HUGE hit this Christmas, and now I’m planning an African animal alphabet book using our photos, for another little family member who will be born in about a month.) We also hung out in the lounge for a while by a big picture window that offered another great view of the waterhole. My husband asked if he could play the piano there, and the staff at the desk was very enthusiastic. Unfortunately, the piano was horribly out of tune… but he didn’t want to stop after they had been so excited to hear him. We also took this time to “adopt” one of the sanctuary’s chimps, Tess (mother of little Joy), as an early birthday gift for him.

    Dinner tonight was by candlelight… with the ambiance marred just a bit by being surrounded by large, boisterous tour groups (another loudmouth complaining about not seeing any lions—what is with these guys??). After dinner we sipped out first amarulas in the bar by the fireplace, beneath a massive old tusk that weighs 70kg. The bartender was really friendly and chatty, and the drinks were a sweet little sip of heaven.

    So far, Sweetwaters has definitely felt like the most “touristy” stop of our trip (certainly the one where we’ve seen the biggest tour groups), but I would still recommend the place, especially for first-time visitors to Kenya or people who can’t tolerate too many long game drives (because of a bad back, etc.). The waterhole was extremely active whenever we were in camp, and there are lots of nice places to hang out and watch it. There are also some unique and fun things to do here—getting out of the vehicle to visit the chimps and Morani, night drives, lion tracking—and it is in a good location to break up the trip south from Samburu to central and southern Kenya. There is quite a lot of diversity in terms of landscape and animals here, and once we got out into the field we did not see very many other vehicles. The staff was so friendly and fun to talk with, including the rangers we met, and I was impressed that our waiter remembered our names and paused to chat with us (something that didn’t happen at any of the larger lodges). I think despite the size of the place, they are trying hard to give it the feeling of a smaller camp.

  • Report Abuse

    MyDogKyle, thanks for another wonderfully descriptive instalment! Though I find the “hartebeest standing lookout on a termite mound” a bit disturbing. It’s not standing lookout, it’s shameless topi imitation! I’ve seen impalas doing the same, and it’s even worse.

  • Report Abuse

    I know, I probably should have said, "A hartebeest pretending to be a topi." Because he definitely was. ;)

    Fortunately, we would see some REAL topis in the Mara, not pretending to be anything but themselves. (And, much later, a reedbuck pretending to be a lion... but I'll get to that eventually.)

  • Report Abuse

    You cleverly included Kyle in your report. How nice you could do some picture swapping with your guide.

    Great luck with the lions, even cubs. Just send in the elephants, I guess. I didn't know about the lion tracking option.

    I could almost see the oryx head butting lesson take place.

    Glad to read the waterhole was active. I think that would be a big draw to Sweetwater.

    Maybe your husband can get a job as a safari lodge lounge act on the piano. You can sing Jambo Bwana and some other selections. You could be the Captain and Tennille of the safari circuit! A much younger version of course.

    How nice you adopted a chimp.

    Looking forward to the rest.

  • Report Abuse

    Thank you so much for your report so far! I was lucky enough to spend 2 months at Sweetwaters Research Centre last summer and it's lovely to read your description of the place. I'm glad you got to see lions, we didn't see any until about three weeks into our stay and we were constantly driving around the reserve.

  • Report Abuse

    PART 8 – “Rhinos, Rhinos Everywhere!” (Sept. 29th, 2007)

    Today we had a long drive, from Sweetwaters to Lake Nakuru—a long drive made even longer by endless road construction and a distance- (but not time-) saving shortcut. Still, as tough as the roads are in Kenya, as much as they slam us up and down and sideways and scrape the bottom of the minibus and give us that fabled “African massage,” the road trips here are never boring. The rougher aspects of this one were alleviated greatly by the sight of so many little kids smiling and waving as we drove by, giving us the thumbs-up sign. (Not the “please give me a pen” sign or the open hand sign, which we’d see a lot more as we drove farther south.)

    Our drive took us through Kikuyu country again, past lush green farms, crisscrossing the Equator several more times (funny how many of those “You Are Crossing the Equator” signs you see, sometimes right down the road from each other). This drive today was particularly beautiful. Beyond the wonderfully named “Aberdare Fountain of Knowledge Academy,” we saw gorgeous views of the forested slopes of the Aberdare mountains. We stopped briefly at Thomson’s Falls, which had a carnival atmosphere with all the tourists and hawkers and food vendors and folks dressed in traditional Kikuyu costume waiting to pose for pictures and a guy who would let you hold his pet chameleons for 200 shillings. The falls themselves are very pretty, but the people-watching was just as interesting. We found if we just walked a bit farther down the path above the falls, we could escape some of the most aggressive souvenir-sellers and have a bit of peace and quiet. But I guess that’s not really the point here.

    Onward toward Lake Nakuru. In Nyahururu, the town closest to the falls, we saw a huge procession of people—probably hundreds—walking along the road toward the center of town. Many seemed to be dressed in their Sunday best (but it was Saturday). I asked James where he thought they were all headed, and he said it was for a political meeting. Sure enough, farther up the road we saw a mass gathering of people in an outdoor open space, with a stage set up and food sellers gathered around, firing up their grills. It made me wonder how many Americans would walk several miles for such a meeting.

    One of the high points of this drive (literally and figuratively) was reaching the Rift Valley overlook after a steep and occasionally white-knuckled climb. The view was spectacular despite the haze (and I can imagine how brilliant it must be on a clear day). The drive down into the Rift Valley from that point was so lovely, winding past deep greens and bright flowers, terraced farms with leafy banana and coffee, maize and wheat, dotted with bright orange-blossomed flame trees and purple jacarandas. The best sight of all, though, was a big group of kids waiting for their school bus, who went wild when they saw us—smiling and waving, the girls putting their arms around each other and some boys breaking into a dance, striking silly poses for our camera. These are some of my favorite pictures from the trip, and I think about these children so often. We’re so lucky to have been stopped in traffic near them.

    At last we reached Nakuru town, which bumps right up against the national park. Everyone seemed to be riding bikes here. We drove through a market with huge stalls selling sandals made from old tires (Maasai “hundred milers,” James called them), used t-shirts and bright new nylon backpacks, furniture, fruit, spices… and of course, bikes. As we were driving up to the entrance gate of the park we saw a wedding party taking photos on the lawn, all the women in matching lavender skirts and jackets. As we waited for James to sort out our paperwork at the gate, we wandered around the parking area watching vervet monkey mischief (roll up your windows here, everybody!) and peeking through the trees at the distance view—a splash of lake, with a thin rim of pink. The park is fenced, but there was a sizeable chunk of that fence knocked down right near where we were standing. I didn’t know whether to find this amusing or depressing. (After seeing the animal residents of Lake Nakuru, I made up my mind that the hole in the fence and what it might imply—animals wandering into the dangers of town and possibly getting hurt or killed, people sneaking in and possibly doing them harm or being harmed themselves—was indeed depressing.)

    We drove a short ways through the park and up a steep hill to the Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, our home for tonight. This lodge is a series of little stone cottages scattered over the hillside and surrounded by lovely gardens filled with birdsong. The rooms themselves were fine, if a bit like a standard motel, but they had one of the most comfortable beds we encountered on our trip. (This was also the place where we had the most power outages, so it was nice to have a flashlight handy after dark.) The public areas were appealing, in an “I’m on safari!” sort of way—a bar and terrace with views of the lake through the trees, and a big timbered dining room open on one side, with jungly landscaping and frog ponds and African art on the walls.

    It started to rain shortly after we arrived at the lodge, and was still raining pretty convincingly when we awoke from our afternoon nap in time for a game drive. We weren’t sure what to expect—whether this might create serious issues for the ice cream bus—but we hoped for the best. As it turned out, the rain ended up enhancing our experience here, and it certainly gave Lake Nakuru a different character for us from the other places we visited. All the greens (and pinks and greys! but more about that in a minute) were so much more vivid than they would have been under a bright, cloudless sky, and the air smelled clean and delicious.

    We started off down a track called “Simba Road,” and before long encountered another stopped car looking at… a lion, sleeping in a tree! She was sound asleep, stretched out on a long branch, probably seeking relief from the bugs farther below in the long grass. We’d heard about those famous “tree-climbing” lions elsewhere in East Africa, but certainly weren’t expecting to see one here. So now, we’d been fortunate enough to find lions in every park so far except Mt. Kenya. This one, evidently, was pretending to be a leopard.

    Farther along in the forest, we came across some very noisy baboons squabbling their way up and down a tree and carrying their little babies along for the ride. Then two female and one male waterbuck, which James dubbed “a waterbuck honeymoon.” Not long after that, we found a black rhino in the forest, so close we could look him right in the eye without binoculars! It instantly put our previous rhino sightings to shame—this guy was so close we could see the movements of his distinctive pointed lip as he grazed, and hear the crunch of his teeth. We knew Lake Nakuru was famous as a rhino sanctuary, but had no idea we’d see them this close (and now wondered what James must have been thinking when we’d gotten so excited about those far-away rhinos at Sweetwaters… “Just you wait, you rookies!”).

    Heading onward, we had a chance to watch some zebras fighting in a broad, open plain threaded through with little tributaries from the lake. We ended up having a long, long time to watch those zebras, in fact, because ahead of us was a narrow earth bridge over the swampy ground, and off to one side of it was a tilted minibus, stuck. Behind that, a line of rovers and vans, waiting patiently while a big group of helpers tried to rock the vehicle back up onto the road. The car waiting behind us was blasting some Afro-hip-hop, so our video of the zebras got a complimentary soundtrack. Fortunately, we only had to wait about 20 minutes before the minibus was set free, everyone clapped and cheered, and traffic started moving again. Just beyond this point, we had a very close sighting of two gigantic elands goofing around together, bucking and romping by the side of the road.

    The other highlight of today was, naturally, those superstars of Lake Nakuru – the flamingos. After James stopped and checked with a ranger to be sure it wasn’t too wet to drive near the shore, we headed to a spot away from the other vehicles, where we could see (and smell the pungent odor of and hear the cacophonous noise of) a wide band of greater and lesser flamingos in the shallows of the lake. Keeping an eye on a distant herd of buffalo, we climbed out of the minibus and walked across the squishy ground toward the birds, absorbed in the symphony of noise and color before us. It was an incredible sight—hundreds, if not thousands of them, preening, eating, squabbling and prancing in a pink-grey mob, with dark water behind them and everywhere else around us a brilliant green with rain misting down. Who says rain is a bad thing? Here, it just made everything that much more beautiful. As my husband walked a few steps closer to the birds, a small group of them took off into the air, a flurry of flapping pink and black, with their necks outstretched. It was amazing to see, and what an indescribable feeling to have out boots in the soil (or in this case, mud) and nothing between us and the wildlife. These moments with the flamingos were a perfect example of how Africa constantly surprises you—you think you know what to expect (flamingos at Lake Nakuru), but you never know exactly how its going to unfold, and you certainly don’t know how it will make you feel.

    So, back into the ice cream bus and how do we top that? How about finding a family of four white rhinos just up the road, grazing right beside our vehicle with a backdrop of blue-grey lake and pink flamingos? They were so close we could almost have reached out and touched them (not that we would ever do such a thing, of course). And this was of their own volition, because after James turned off the engine they wandered over and started grazing right beside us. The young ones were so cute, smaller and softer-looking than their mothers. After they’d left us and we headed farther along the lake we encountered another group of white rhinos, bringing our rhino total for today up to nine. We also saw a group of waterbucks standing out in the water, completely surrounded by flamingos. They took off at a trot, stirring up the bird soup around them into a flurry of pink.

    It was time to go, as the light was beginning to grow dusky and James wanted us to have time for the view from Baboon Cliff. We drove quickly through the forest, standing up with our heads out the roof to inhale the dense, musky smell of foliage after rain, the rain stopped now but the sky still heavy above us, the color of lead. I’m in Africa! I kept thinking, I’m in Africa! We sat down as the road grew rougher and bumpier. And good thing we did, because WHAM! The poptop roof came crashing down when the minibus went over a particularly big bump, and I shudder to think of what that would have felt like on our heads. From now on, no more standing up when the bus is moving, kids! A word to the wise – it sure is tempting to have your face out the top of the bus, but these things can happen. You might happily leave your heart in Africa, but you sure don’t want to leave your head there.

    We made one more stop along the shore to watch white pelicans fishing, using a clever cooperative method in which they all dive under at once and corral the fish within their circle. Then on up the hill to Baboon Cliff, a very aptly-named place where we had a fantastic view of the whole silvery lake and the thick fringe of pink spreading out from its edge. Again, how many ways can you say something is beautiful, awe-inspiring, breathtaking… especially when you hear a heavy thump behind you and think you’ve been joined by another person admiring view, but actually it’s a huge baboon stopping by to remind you that this view is actually his, thanks very much? We also saw our first pair of rock hyraxes here. Even though everyone always mentions their distant relation to elephants, it’s still hard to believe when you see these little creatures scampering about. We also had a humorous moment when a group of teachers and school kids went over to the railing to pose for a group photo with the view. Just as they were all saying “Jambo!” for the camera (literally), a baboon saw his chance. He raced to their bus, snagged a huge bunch of bananas, and took off running. The kids scattered with howls of protest and chased after him, but to no avail—he was off down the face of the cliff, clutching his prize, with the other baboons and their babies in hot pursuit.

    On our way back to the lodge we had a few more lucky sightings. A spotted hyena loped across the road in front of us, whooping as he headed along the shoreline, sizing up the flamingo buffet. And finally, one more black rhino in the forest, this one a big male so close to the road that James did not think it was wise to stop. A ten-rhino game drive!!

    Tonight at the lodge we had some fun entertainment—a group of dancers and musicians who performed a Kikuyu welcome dance (to a version of the ever-popular “Jambo Bwana”), followed by Kikuyu, Luo and Ugandan dances and music. Since we’re both musicians, we were happy to have the chance to hear some live music (not something we expected to get much of on safari, and indeed in most places any music on offer was more along the lines of a singing guitar player). At dinner we celebrated the day with two house cocktails: a “black rhino” (chilled stout mixed with brandy) and a “flamingo tail” (rum, fresh cream and grenadine). On our way back to our cottage from dinner, we stopped to watch the tiny frogs serenading us from their lily pads in the pond, and I got my first African mosquito bite, right on the forehead.

  • Report Abuse

    MDK, thanks for another instalment full of eyes-wide-open observations. It made me want to return to Nakuru. For obvious reasons, I was already thinking of that town.

    Here’s a Zanzibari version of Jambo Bwana: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRSCiIxZtEQ

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks! I love that video!! Too bad we didn't meet him on Zanzibar (just a bush baby out in the daytime, pretending to be this guy... As you can see already, the theme of my trip report is animals pretending to be other types of animals).

    After all I'd read about the various places we'd be visiting on our trip, I honestly expected Lake Nakuru to be sort of a "pit stop" on our way to the Mara -- especially since so many itineraries only give half a day to this park. While it is a small park, it's an incredibly beautiful place, and we saw so much wildlife it made my head spin. I really loved it there.

    It's so painful to hear about what's going on in Kenya lately, and it's constantly on my mind as I'm writing this report. Fortunately I heard from Serah and she let me know that James and his family are okay (as are Serah and the rest of the staff), but of course I am still worried and upset for everyone. It is even more painful to hear about terrible things happening in a place you've visited (and love), because then it's not in any way abstract -- instead of worrying in general for all the people of a far-away place called Nakuru (as I would for a place I'd never been that I just read about in the news), I am also thinking specifically of those school kids at the bus stop, and the dancers and musicians, and the wedding party we saw, and everyone else who touched our lives in some small way as we traveled around Kenya.

    At the risk of sounding like I'm on a soapbox, I think this is the single most valuable thing we get from travel, though -- the connection to places and people far from our own everyday lives, so that when something good happens there you rejoice for them too... and when something bad happens, you care in a very real, personal way, and not just in the abstract. It makes the world a much smaller place, for both good and bad. I love Kenya even after only having been there once, and I feel like I owe so much to the people (and animals) there. I'm just writing off the top of my head now, so I hope my ideas are coming across in a way that makes sense.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, you guys. I wanted to be sure it didn't come across as "all about me."

    So, I'm trying to figure out the least time-consuming way to share some photos before I get too much farther into the trip. Here's a link to a little test album on Snapfish (since I already have all my photos on that site). Let me know if it works without you having to sign up for an account with Snapfish.

    http://tinyurl.com/2qeule

    If this doesn't work, I'll look into some other options.

  • Report Abuse

    "All about you!" Of course not. There's Kyle too!

    I think we all expect your thread to be all about your trip and you, so it's not like you are droning on in person and no one can get in a word about anything.

    That reminds me of the comment, "Most conversations are monologues with spectators."

    The more detail, the better reference your report will be for the future.

    I used to read comments from someone
    who posted who would go on and on about themselves, their trip, the luxury of it all, in the midst of someone else's report. I didn't care for that.

    Oh no, I hope I am not turning into someone who goes on and on in the midst of someone else's report!

  • Report Abuse

    No worries, you're not one of those people! :)

    I mainly meant to emphasize this strange tension right now between me writing about my wonderful experiences of several months ago, and then seeing in the news every day that the same area is in such distress. I want to be sure that it doesn't seem like I'm saying, "Oh, the poor people of Nakuru... now back to MY amazing trip!!" And from your comments, I know you guys understand where I'm coming from.

    Any chance the photo link works? Were you able to try it?

  • Report Abuse

    I get you.

    Kyle (I assume) appears in the photo link. It also appears you must register. I don't know if you can control that part. In Kodakshare you can have people register or not.

  • Report Abuse

    Worked for me. Kyle is a beautiful dog.

    What you describe, an acute awareness of suffering and injustice colliding with joy and amazement, informs, I think, many African trip reports.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, Leely! (Kyle says thanks, too.) He's one of those wonderful mutts that got the best of whatever breeds are in him. And what you said about travel in Africa is absolutely true (in other parts of the world as well, of course).

    Never mind that link, then. Yes, the test album was just a few pictures of Ky and a bunny. I can't seem to figure out how to make my pictures accessible where they currently are without requiring a login, so I'll have to move a few over to another site...

  • Report Abuse

    I can't remember if I've registered to see past Snap Fish albums or not. I know I've viewed Snap Fish albums and even used the site at one time.

    I think people can put in a fake email, so anyone who doesn't want to register for real can do that.

  • Report Abuse

    Unfortunately Snapfish does require you to sign in to view photos (I double-checked)... and also unfortunately I don't have time to set up new albums on another site (considering how long this report is taking me just to write!).
    But one thing I do really like about Snapfish (other than that it's free and they make good quality prints) is that you can view the slideshow on a black background. As Lynn suggested, you can always create a fake account if you want to view them. And if that is too much hassle, feel free to skip my photos (I am certainly not one of those expert photographers you see on this board!).

    Having said that, here are some pictures to go with the report so far. I've included all the photos we took of the camps and lodges, in case that will help anyone plan their own trips. I've also included some of the less-than-expert shots we took out the windows as we passed through towns. Sometimes blurry, but these are some of my favorites. And, of course, a few animals... ;)

    Nairobi, Mt. Kenya and Samburu:
    http://tinyurl.com/2ox9cs

    Sweetwaters and Lake Nakuru:
    http://tinyurl.com/38j6kj

    Hope to get another installment posted this weekend.

  • Report Abuse

    I tried to create a Snapfish account, but discovered I already had one!

    Thanks for the photos. It looks so sunny and warm everywhere, even in Nairobi. Elephant Bedroom really does look like a nice camp. You’ve captured the essence of Samburu in a perfect way. I particularly liked the dustrolling zebra. It was also nice to see the fronts of some business establishments.

    In Sweetwaters I like the bushes full of lion cubs. I know young lions can be a bit spotted, but yours were the most spotted I’ve ever seen. The baby oryx and baby zebra were adorable. As were the baby humans. Lake Nakuru looked more like the cloudy Kenya I know. Waterbucks and flamingos in the rain is a nice combination.

  • Report Abuse

    PART 9 – “Death and the Mara” (Sept. 30th, 2007)

    Today was almost entirely taken up with driving: a very long, bumpy, dusty drive (yes I know I’ve described length and bumpiness and dustiness on previous drives, but this was like nothing that had come before it) from Lake Nakuru to the Masai Mara, a brutal trip that lasted about 7 hours and really helped us understand the concept of flying safaris. But as with our other drives in Kenya, we were glad to have the chance to see the country from the ground, to pass through small villages and wave back at waving children and feel like our small picture of Kenya is a bit more complete than it would have been if we’d only seen the national parks.

    We drove via Naivasha, a place that struck me as particularly odd because of the huge hillside mansions I could see from the rutted, torn-up road. Most of them appeared to be still under construction, or perhaps abandoned. I wondered what the deal was with that. Just about every inch of the road seemed to be under construction—lots of trenches dug and piles of gravel and heavy machinery about, but nothing actually going on. Every now and then we would see a guy with a shovel. The ice cream bus bounced and jolted along in a permanent cloud of grit, little rocks pinging off the windows, and we passed the time by listening to a mix of East African music my husband had brought along for just such a day—feet up, buffs over our mouths and noses, really feeling like travelers. Every now and then we’d hit a smooth(ish) stretch of road, and each time it was a welcome relief. But I enjoyed the rough parts, too, just being here.

    We stopped a few times, as usual, to get a cold drink and use the toilet at curio shops. At one of them, my husband decided to ask about some beaded bracelets, just to see how the prices would compare with the lodge shops. The guy wanted $40 for three little bracelets, which sold for about $3.50 each at the lodge! Even using the “offer half” method of bargaining, this was absurd. But someone must pay it, because he wouldn’t budge below $30. Oh well, not a big deal and we didn’t want them that badly anyway. We thanked him and walked off, and he just honed in on the next group walking through the door. Our next potty stop was a relief in more ways than one—I was so happy to just hop out of the bus at a gas station and use a plain old squat toilet, rather than having to dodge a sales pitch. As I left the toilet, the gas station attendant apologized, saying “you are brave to use our terrible toilets,” but it wasn’t bad at all. I’ve seen much, much worse. Plus, James bought a bunch of sweet little bananas from a passing vendor, and we all shared them on the next leg of the drive.

    Heading south, the landscape became increasingly dry and flat, the trees few and far between. We were starting to see Maasai men and boys walking along the road in bright red, herding cattle and goats. Several times I saw these guys standing alone in the middle of nowhere with their animals, staring off at the horizon, and I wondered what they think about all day, how they pass the time.

    Then, something happened that would alter not only this day, but how I will forever remember our trip to East Africa. We saw a group of people over by the side of the road, with a handful of vehicles pulled over and some brightly-dressed Maasai women gathered in a group. All the cars on the bumpy road were slowing to look as they drove past. We both initially thought that these safari vehicles were stopped to buy crafts from the women, but there just seemed to be a lot of standing around—all these people in safari clothes, standing very still. No one was crying, no one looked especially upset… which is why it took us a moment to realize what was actually going on. I can only imagine they were in shock. Because there on the side of the road was white minibus just like ours with its blunt nose crushed in, so pulverized that huge torn strips of metal were peeled away from it like the skin of a banana. There was no other vehicle nearby to explain what had happened, but it looked as though it had hit something very large (a truck?) head-on. The front door was hanging open. And inside, I could see the driver crushed in his seat—his slack arm, the side of his leg in tan safari pants, pulled up to expose his bright white sock, his dark shoe. So still. My husband told me later that he also saw another person’s body on the ground outside the minibus, this one with a blanket draped over it. But I only saw the driver, and I will never forget how he was—trapped in the minibus that he’d climbed into that morning at some lodge, maybe even the same one we’d left that morning, and now he was dead and no one had even covered him with a blanket. What was his story? Did he have a family somewhere who didn’t know yet what had happened? Had he driven this same road hundreds of times, from Nakuru to the Mara, just like everyone else? Everywhere on this road—in front of us, behind us, as far ahead as we could see—were vehicles just like this, and how easily could this have been any of us?

    James did not stop, just gruffly said, “We go now,” and I wanted to argue with him that we should stop and see if we could help, but I couldn’t say a word. I suppose I sort of understand his not wanting to get us involved, and I can only imagine what thoughts went through his head at such a sight. But I still felt such a horrible, hollow feeling; I could see that driver’s image burned on my brain, and I started to cry. I was as silent as I could be, not wanting to make things worse, but my husband reached across the aisle between our seats and grabbed my hand and did not let go. This is something that will always be a part of my memories of Africa, a blunt reminder that no matter how dreamlike these weeks might seem to us, what a fantasy it is for us to visit Africa, this is a real place just like any other. So many times we’ve been floating on that traveling high, forgetting how everything is so fragile. I thought of all the minibuses and Land Rovers we’d seen racing past each other and narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic, and I was grateful for James’ good driving. But mostly I felt miserable for those poor people who had lost their lives, everyone involved in that horrific scenario, and I thought with some irony of the kinds of things people had “warned” me about when I’d said we were going to East Africa—aren’t you afraid of wild animals attacking you? Aren’t you afraid of robbers and bandits and Nairobi’s reputation? Didn’t you see “The Ghost and the Darkness?” When really, the greatest danger we faced on this trip was the same one I face every day in my commute to work.

    Farther along, we passed two more minibuses pulled over to the side, all their passengers standing or sitting outside on the shoulder of the road, many of them crying this time. We couldn’t tell what had happened here, because the vehicles did not look like they’d crashed and no one looked injured—maybe mechanical problems. Since no one else had stopped, this time James slowed and called out the window to the other driver to see if they needed help, but they waved us on. By this point we’d had quite enough of this cursed road, and I no longer felt like an intrepid, happily dust-covered traveler. I just felt sick at heart and wanted it to end soon, and I wondered when I would be able to enjoy this adventure again, and how often I would feel guilty when I did so.

    We were now fully into Maasai country, passing the occasional boma with mud-walled huts (and once a group of concrete block houses with a satellite dish) surrounded by acacia-thorn fences. At one small park by the roadside I saw several thatched umbrellas over benches, with a sign that said, “Karibuni Shade Site.” Which gives you some idea how hot and vast and treeless this area is. We were somewhere past the busy town of Narok when we began to see animals of the wild variety rather than just cattle and goats – tommies and a giraffe nibbling at a lone acacia and a pair of black ground hornbills with their brilliant red bellies. And finally we’d made it, to the gates of the Masai Mara. As soon as James parked the bus to settle our paperwork, several Maasai women hurried up to our windows, knocking and asking where we were from and waving handfuls of beaded jewelry and plastic-wrapped blankets in our faces. Since our windows were still closed against the hot wind and dust, it was awkward and we felt very rude. “Hapana, hapana, thank you, we’re not interested,” we kept saying, but since no other cars were around they concentrated all their energy on us until we pulled away into the park. I completely understand why they do this, and it must work sometimes… but at the same time, it was hard to always be saying no to people through the window. It would certainly be pointless to keep telling everyone that we’ve already bought souvenirs elsewhere, let alone that after paying for this safari we really can’t afford to spend very much more! Because, of course, to them we are wealthy enough to buy something from everyone.

    Our first animal sighting in the park is a common one, but still one of our favorites: Burchell’s zebras in a large herd, with a few wildebeest mixed in. Our first look at some of those clever migrating critters. Can we say we’ve “seen the Great Migration,” we wondered, if they aren’t actually leaping into a river or running en masse around our vehicle?

    We stopped for lunch at the Mara Sarova, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful to get out of a car… or felt more disoriented and guilty and miserable looking at an overflowing buffet. I was still shell-shocked and sad from the day’s events, and I felt like I was walking in a strange dream. I ordered a Tusker beer and ate some fruit and tried to appreciate that this was a really beautiful place.

    We had our first real Mara game drive on the way from the Sarova to the Mara Serena lodge, located farther into the park. At first it seemed as though the Mara might be closed for business—just wide, empty plains with the close-cropped grass that proved the migrating herds had already come and gone. But gradually we began to see some animals: a group of elephants, vultures, a hartebeest with two small babies, warthogs. And before long our eyes could pick out hundreds, then thousands of dark specks in the distance which as we drew closer became the clear outlines of wildebeest and zebras on the vast plains. They had settled in to graze in a new area with long grass. Still one of the most striking memories I have of all the animals we saw in Africa were these massive herds spreading as far as the eye could see—particularly when it was one or two bright zebras mixed in among the dark bodies of wildebeest with their long beards and funny, charming faces.

    One of our new animals on this game drive was the topi—a sleek, muscular antelope with a russet coat and dark bluish-grey patches, that can’t be mistaken for anything else. They like to stand up on termite mounds to survey the territory, and we began to see their familiar shapes all around us, as well as reedbucks, impalas, and Thomson’s gazelles with their frantically swishing little tails. We drove over to the border between Kenya and Tanzania, marked by concrete pylons. The one nearest to us was marked with a faint “K” and “T,” so we took a photo with me in Kenya and my husband in Tanzania (I know, about as original as that picture we took on the Equator!). We could see some wildebeest across the border, and felt a faint pang that we wouldn’t be visiting the Serengeti. But you’re not allowed to cross freely back and forth between the two countries here—only the animals can do that. “It is not right,” James told us. “There should not be such foolish rules. It is only people who see a border here.” And then, with a twinkle in his eye, he told us that the Serengeti is really “just the southern Masai Mara!”

    As we neared the Mara River bridge, a smell began to seep through the open windows and quickly overwhelmed us—the sweet, meaty stench of decaying flesh. But this was no ordinary kill. We paused on the bridge and looked down into the river to see the gruesome but fascinating sight of hundreds and dead wildebeest: a carpet of dark bodies washed up on the river’s banks and lodged against stones and branches in the water. Marabou storks were busy walking through and over the bodies, doing their cleanup work, while white-backed vultures sat patiently above, waiting for their turn. This was the grim result of a river crossing a few days earlier, all the poor wildies who hadn’t made it. Their bodies had floated downstream to this point and almost dammed the river with their mass. I wondered how the rangers stationed here could stand it, to be enveloped in this smell all day long (perhaps after a while you don’t smell it anymore?). So, we wondered, NOW can we say we’ve seen the Great Migration?

    Shortly after moving on from this grim scene, James delivered on the joking promise he’d made to show us a male lion in the Mara (so far we’d seen lionesses and cubs, but none of the Big Guys). “Now your safari is complete,” he announced with satisfaction as we discovered a group of lions that included several females and one shaggy-maned male, all just waking up from their afternoon snooze. The male cracked his eyes open and looked at us just briefly, a moment of his golden gaze on mine, and then he went promptly back to sleep. But the females were getting ready for business. They spotted a warthog noodling around some distance away, and after a brief exchange of glances with the other lionesses, one of them got up and started heading its way—first strolling casually and then moving into a stalk with her body close to the ground. Every few feet she would pause on her belly to watch the oblivious warthog some more, tense and alert. This went on for a long time, and we started to have hopes that we might witness a kill. But eventually the warthog ambled cheerfully away, none the wiser, and the lioness just flopped back down into the grass for another nap. It was getting late, and time to head onward to the lodge. Along the way we passed some large herds of antelopes and gazelles: more tommies, grants, impalas, topis. It’s amazing how even these huge groups of animals are dwarfed by the vast space around them.

    The Mara Serena was quite a place, a big lodge with a spectacular setting high on a hill and a view out over the river and the wide plains beyond. From the entrance it was an unassuming building, but around back the rooms were an arc of little huts, with terraced patios and gardens, a swimming pool and a fire pit on the side of the cliff, and a small balcony with sliding doors in every room—so many ways to soak up that view. The architecture was delightfully funky, what my husband described as “Maasai meets Gaudi.” Our room was the very last hut in the row, with a reading nook near the balcony and a huge, curvy mirror surrounded by colorful Maasai beadwork. Right outside was a path that climbed up rocky steps to yet another inspiring view. Fat little hyraxes darted along the footpaths, taking refuge in the drainage holes and occasionally stopping to pose for a picture.

    After dinner, we were pleasantly surprised (considering the size of the lodge and the number of guests here) to see and hear so much animal activity from our room. Geckos crawled along the walls of our balcony and several bats hung in a nearby tree, occasionally darting out to catch insects and then circling back to the same upside-down perch. We also heard a wonderful chorus of sounds in the pitch-darkness below—hippos grunting, a lion’s roar, and the whoop and cackle of hyenas. I fell asleep to their voices, thinking about what an awesome, horrific, overwhelming day this had been. Such extremes of highs and lows, such amazing and awful sights, that by the end I simply felt numb.

  • Report Abuse

    I am new to these blogs. I have enjoyed your thread. We, my DH, myself and 2 friends, all who have traveled and worked around the world, Italy, Turkey, Thailand, Mexico, and others, are going to Tanzania and Kenya 6/6/08-06/23-08 on an OAT "Safari Serengeti" extension to Masai Mara.

    I have really appreciated the time that those of you who have taken to post your thoughts, feelings about your trips. Also the packing, clothing, etc., that have worked for you. I will be taking my cinnamon jaw breakers from Craker Barrel, because I quit smoking June 2007 and every once in a while I would "kill" for a cancer stick, and sucking on one of these takes care of this problem for me. What can I say, "I'm a cheap date on a Saturday night". LOL

    One thing that I have noticed that has not been addressed is that several of the travel sites mention taking "snacks" that you want to have with you. However, with the meals mentioned, I can not imagine that we would "want" for food. Not to mention that I could lose some pounds. BIG LOL

    I think that personally that I could do without extra "goodies".

  • Report Abuse

    llorear,
    You will probably get more answers if you start a separate thread "Snacks on Safari" or something equally enticing. But regardless, please keep posting and asking and answering questions. It helps make this board a richer place (and, whoa, I didn't think it could get any richer on this board ;) ).

    MdK--great photos. More, more, more!


  • Report Abuse

    MyDogKyle,

    What a jarring and upsetting experience and you conveyed it so powerfully. It was not what I had in mind when I read the title of this section.

    You are so right about the real vs. perceived dangers.

    Then to have the masses of decaying wildebeest, though a normal part of nature, must have added to the macabre nature of your day.

    If you are able to give me a quick email, MyDogKyle, I wanted to ask you something. Thanks.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks again to those of you still reading (even the depressing parts). I'll post some Mara pictures at the end of our stay there.

    llorear, I'm glad you're enjoying my report. You'll probaby get more responses to your question if you start a new thread, as Leely mentioned. But funny you should ask about snacks right after I posted the bit about the dead wildebeest... because this was one time I was really happy we'd brought some ginger candies with us! (nice smell, and good for upset stomach) Generally, though, we never needed to have snacks on safari. The lodges give you so much food it's absurd, and while a safari is non-stop mental activity, there's really very little physical activity most days.

  • Report Abuse

    MDK, thanks for another quality instalment ranging from reality in its worst form to the topi.

    The two minibuses you saw after the crash site probably were in the same tour group and had got a message about what had happened to the people travelling behind them. I hope I don’t come across as too morbid having this kind of theory …

    Llorear, you could lose some pounds and you think you could do without the extra goodies. Don’t take any snacks with you! Sometimes it’s easy to tell people what they should do. I’ll start doing it more often.

  • Report Abuse

    MdK, just caught up on your recent post. How terrible for everyone, especially the guide and the other person you saw underneath the blanket. No shortage of suffering in this world, huh? It takes all shapes, visit all spots, some, it seems, sadly, so much more often than others.

  • Report Abuse

    Nyamera, I think your theory on the vehicles and their occupants is correct.


    If the people you have decided to start giving directions to don't immediately heed them, a little nudge from the topi horns may be all they need.

  • Report Abuse

    MyDogKyle, I can't begin to tell you how much I have enjoyed reading your Kenya travel report. Your writing is so evocative, and all of the wonderful memories you share are expressed so beautifully. Thank you for sharing your amazing adventure with us.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, everybody. That last entry was a tough one to write. (Nyamera, I bet you're right about those vehicles.)

    I'm hoping to get another "chapter" posted some time this week. Thanks again for sticking with me through many, many words and sentences!

  • Report Abuse

    PART 10 – “Up, Up and Away…” (Oct. 1st, 2007)

    The alarm went off early this morning, waking us before sunrise for one of the great adventures of our safari—a flight in a hot air balloon. We met our pilot, J.P., and a big group of Australians in the lobby and hopped into a cranky old vehicle he called “The Beast” (is it a truck? a bus? no one knows), setting off into the darkness of the Mara. Along the way to the launch site, a hippo ran across the road directly in front of us, his chubby bulk caught momentarily in the headlights. And not long after that, the Beast decided to die for a bit, leaving us sitting in the darkness for about 20 minutes while J.P. and the driver fussed with it. In the movies, this would be the point where we’d be surrounded by lions… but all was quiet, save the occasional squawking of the radio, the other vehicle asking where the heck we were. Soon we were on our way again, and any animals out there kept their distance.

    The launch site was beside the river, so while they were inflating the balloon, we watched hippos lolling about in the purple-tinged water, grunting and gurgling and wiggling the water out of their ears. We also got another good whiff of water-logged dead wildebeest from somewhere down in the river. And beyond that, a glorious sunrise of orange and deep lavender that filled up the great bowl of sky. It was fun to watch them inflate the gigantic balloon, blasting hot air into it with the burners and lighting up the colors from inside. Or I suppose I should say, it was fun to watch them try to inflate it—the wind had whipped up and kept knocking a dent in the side of the balloon and tipping it sideways. J.P. reassured us that it wasn’t too windy to fly today, that it was going to be fine, but when we climbed into the huge basket I could see the doubtful looks on the crew’s faces. Sure enough, they had to declare the inflation a failure. Everyone climbed back out of the basket and it tipped over on its side as they deflated the balloon. More standing around by the river, more hippo antics below, and by now the sun was well up in the sky. It still looked a bit touch-and-go for a while, the burners blasting with all their might and the balloon wobbling about, and I had just about convinced myself I was going to have to live without a hot air balloon ride when suddenly the great contraption lifted up and J.P. called out, “Okay, everyone into the basket, quick!” We all climbed up the side foot holes and leaped in (some more gracefully than others, but everyone lent a hand). The basket was enormous, holding 16 people. Before I quite realized what was happening, we were lifting gently up into the air, with the hot blast of burners directly above our heads. The ground dropped quickly away below us and the ground crew became tiny waving figures in the distance. I saw them all run for their vehicles to chase after the balloon, and then I turned my eyes forward and felt the rush of flight hit me all at once.

    This must be how the Mara looks to the birds – a vast sweep of grassland broken by the humps of hills, the crooked path of the river like a winding silver band, trees as little tufts of green. I think this was the greatest privilege of the flight, having this birds’ eye view of the landscape. The ride was amazingly smooth, and our pilot kept the balloon relatively low because the wind was pushing us along at a good clip. If he’d gone much higher, we would have reached the Tanzanian border in no time, and he had to land before we got there. (Although they tell you the balloon ride is about an hour, it’s really only as long as it takes to get to Tanzania… in our case, about 40 minutes.) But I was glad we were not too high, because I still felt like I had an intimate view of the land we were passing over. We flew past the Serena lodge, which looked like a toy village from this height, and saw several other balloons in the dusky blue distance.

    We saw a lot of animals from the balloon, although it is definitely not the best way to see them or the real reason to do a balloon flight, in my opinion (I really think it’s more about the landscape, having this view that you wouldn’t get any other way, and the amazing sensation of flight, and the wind in your face). Most of the wildlife was running frantically away from the balloon’s shadow or the sound of the burners, which did give me some pause about whether this is good for them. Among those we saw bounding or running or leaping or flying away from our shadow (and in a few cases, standing boldly and just looking up at us): bat-eared foxes, a hammerkop, warthogs, a pair of jackals, tommies and reedbucks, a secretary bird, and an elephant family in the distance who didn’t seem to notice us at all. The highlight was flying directly over an enormous buffalo herd which took off running and kept pace with the balloon for bit, little brown calves bucking and leaping alongside the adults. There were topis below us, and zebras, and the lens cap from one of the Australian passengers, accidentally dropped over the side. Around me, people were gasping and laughing and pointing out all the animals, but a part of me was alone, just flying, seeing the twists and turns of the river and all the colors in the grass and earth below: brown, gold, purple, green, red, spread out so far that I imagined I could almost see the curve of the earth at its edges.

    All too soon, J.P. told us that he would have to prepare to land soon or we’d end up in Tanzania. So, regretfully, everyone tucked their cameras away and got into landing position: sitting down on a little bench inside the basket, holding onto the rope loops in front of us and bracing for the impact and the slide. And what a roller coaster of a landing it was! The basket thumped hard against the ground and tipped over on its side (as it’s supposed to do), and we skidded fast along the ground with us on our backs looking up at the other row of passengers above us, little rocks and dust and grass flying everywhere. It was exciting (and a little bit scary) to feel the speed of that landing, especially since the flight itself had seemed so serene. Finally we skidded to a stop and everyone was laughing, breathless, rolling and climbing and stumbling out of the sideways basket. “Congratulations,” J.P. said, “You all survived!”

    We were standing in the middle of a long green plain dotted with acacia trees and a few inquisitive zebras stood not far away, staring at us. During the flight we’d seen the ground crew racing furiously after us, and now they were somewhere nearby setting up our breakfast. To give them time, we toodled around in the Beast for a bit, admiring zebras and topis… but first J.P. told us more about the mechanics of the balloon and the burners, and showed us the wooden skis built into the bottom of the basket for those sliding landings (“that was a really fast one!” he told us. “Not everyone gets to experience it quite that way.”).

    Breakfast was great—but what a strange thing, to be sitting at a long table set with a red tablecloth and camp chairs and china while a chef in a tall white hat whipped up omelets, out here in the middle of the Masai Mara with an audience of zebras. Our pilot opened a bottle of champagne and led us in a toast to our successful flight. Then we all dug in, and I swear that food tastes about 75% better when you eat it in the great outdoors. The fun thing for us was that everyone else on our balloon was part of the same tour group, so while the group all talked with each other, my husband and I had the chance to sit at one end of the table with J.P. and his wife, who are about our age and have been living in Kenya for only a few years. It was so interesting to talk with them about the life of a balloon pilot, what it was like to relocate from Canada to Kenya, and all the travel dreams we each had. J.P. talked about how much he loved the wildlife and learning about his new home, but admitted he had broken down and got a satellite dish and lamented the fact that he rarely had time to travel around and see other parts of Kenya.

    After breakfast we headed back to the lodge to meet James for a late-morning game drive. He was raring to go, asking us first about our balloon ride and what we’d seen. But when we started to mention the animals, he quickly dismissed it, saying, “Okay, fine,” in his usual manner. “But no lions?” he asked. “No lions,” we said. “No cheetah?” “No cheetah.” His eyes sparkled, and he seemed happy to hear it.

    This morning we saw elephants, Egyptian geese, and topis. We passed through more areas that showed evidence of the migration—great swaths of grassland mowed to a scrubby green carpet, with bleached white skulls and scattered bones and the occasional wildebeest carcass to show where the massive herds had once been. But these areas were empty now, and nearly silent. It was an eerie, beautiful sight.

    But of course we did hope to see some animals, not just know they’d been there. So we carried on until we spotted two Land Rovers parked near a rocky hill. James squinted at the hillside, and then said with a huge smile, “Here is your cheetah, who you wanted to see!” But not just a cheetah – FOUR cheetahs! They were all young males, probably brothers, scouting the rocky terrain for small prey and pacing along together in that lanky way of theirs, half-cat and half-dog in their mannerisms. They continued up the hillside to a shady spot and settled in for a nap, blending effortlessly into the landscape. What a thrill to see them, my favorite big cats!

    A bit farther on, James stopped the minibus off road and said, “Where is the lodge? I am lost.” Now that we’d spent a week together, he was really getting more and more silly and showing us his goofy side. This was another great (and unexpected) treat of our safari—getting to know James, and having the feeling change from a more formal guide-client relationship to having these moments of him teasing us, trading stories about our lives and families with each other, and sharing the excitement of discovery with each new animal sighting. It was fun to see how much he loved those moments with the animals too, even after four decades of guiding safaris.

    On our late afternoon game drive to day we had our closest thing to a Great Migration Moment—I guess we could call it our “almost river crossing.” This is the time of year when the migrating herds of wildebeest and zebra are in the Mara and thinking about heading back south into the Serengeti, so things like river crossings and thundering herds on the plains may or may not happen at any given time. James told us about a group of avid photographers he’d guided who insisted on seeing a river crossing, and how they sat parked in the minibus for five days waiting for it to happen! Eventually they saw the animals leaping into the river, but for us that was not the way we wanted to spend our precious time in the Masai Mara. So I think we had reasonable expectations about seeing a river crossing—that is, we expected that we wouldn’t see one. Whether or not one of those Big Moments happen while you’re around to witness it, one of the really amazing things to see is the way the animals communicate with one another, and the ways their behavior changes as they gear up for the big move. This is what we were lucky enough to witness today.

    But first… buffalo, little bee-eater, and lots of hippo action! We drove over to the Mara River and saw dozens of hippo tracks leading out of the water to their nighttime grazing areas. At the river, we could see both hippos and crocodiles basking on the river banks in the sun. At least a dozen more hippos were in the water, bobbing under the surface and then popping back up in a whoosh of exhalation and wiggling ears, chuckling and grumbling, mock-fighting with wide open mouths. Several babies floated amongst the giant adults, like shiny little bath toys. At one point a bloated wildebeest carcass drifted past a group of hippos, and they startled noisily off in different directions, barking a warning to another pod of hippos farther downstream. A crocodile swam eagerly over to the bobbing corpse and nudged at it, then swiftly pushed it away as if in disgust. The wildebeest body continued it lazy float down the river.

    We drove farther down the river and spied an enormous herd of wildebeest and zebras milling about of the opposite bank. All along the river we could see crossing areas, where the steep bank had been worn away into a sloping dirt freeway by trampling hooves. James pointed out the way the animals were gradually beginning to stop grazing and lift their heads, how there was much head-tossing among the wildies and a gradual sense of communal movement all in one direction. He told us they were thinking of crossing some time soon, and looking for a good place to do it. We had some time to give them, so we waited and watched to see what they would do. They began moving en masse along the river bank, the wildebeest with their purposeful head-bobbing and occasional bouts of crazy bucking and frolicking, the zebras more stoic. They moved along for a bit then stopped, milled about anxiously, moved along some more, closer and closer to a well-worn crossing point just upstream from the hippos. Maybe… maybe…? But ultimately, no. Evidently someone decided the time or place wasn’t quite right, and very gradually we noticed the urgency drain out of the group as their movement slowed, heads went back down to graze, and they dispersed again along the far shore. Some part of me was a bit disappointed by this, of course (who wouldn’t want to see wildies and zebras rushing down and across the river?), but I still felt really lucky to see the herd behaving that way, and to witness those subtle and fascinating shifts in their behavior. One of the things we learned on safari is that you are never really disappointed by what you see or don’t see, because everything is such a gift and Africa is constantly surprising you in ways you never expected (as you’ll see in just a moment, that’s exactly what happened on this game drive).

    We decided to move on while we still had light. I really noticed today how wonderful it smells out here (dead wildies aside)—fresh and earthy, with a bright tang in the air that’s unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before. So much open space and so much variety of life, each with its own scent, mixing into an intoxicating cocktail. We drove to a particularly beautiful spot, a brilliantly green swamp with a backdrop of thick trees, and there we saw dozens of water birds and a shaggy waterbuck who lived up to her name by leaping gracefully down into the water and causing the birds to scatter. Behind her, giraffes began to emerge from the cover of the forest to nibble on the trees, and zebras stood around below them looking like a million bucks against the bright green backdrop. It was a ridiculously cinematic moment (cue the giraffes! cue the zebras! waterbuck leap – action!).

    As if all of this wasn’t enough for one day, we came across two huge male lions just waking up for the evening. One walked over to the other and flopped down beside him, and they began wrestling like two gigantic kittens—rolling back and forth in the grass, exposing their pale fuzzy bellies and softly patting and slapping each other with their enormous paws. One guy got up and strolled away for a little more snooze time, but his brother followed and plopped down on top of him again to snuggle. It was so amazing to watch them together, how gentle they were, even when one was attempting to catch the other’s flicking tail. When they both finally curled up together in a big tan ball and went back to sleep, we realized it was getting late and we had to head back to the lodge. But nature had one more surprise for us – a serval waiting right beside the road on our way back up the Serena hill. He moved too fast for us to get a good photo (none of that lionly lounging around for him), but we did get a good look at his face and his beautiful markings. “I think,” James said, “game drive is better than balloon.” We were so spoiled for cats today, we could hardly think straight—but we had to agree.

    By the time we reached the lodge we were really in a rush. It was fully dark, and we had about 20 minutes to say good night to James, jump out of the car, race back to our room (which seemed about six miles away from the lobby now), change into warm clothes for our night game drive, get back to the lobby to pick up our balloon certificate and photos from J.P., and meet our Serena guides for our night game drive. We ran as fast as we could, startling a hyrax as we raced down the path to our room, and made it back just in time. Into the Serena’s Land Rover, everyone bundled up in Maasai blankets beside the open windows, looking eagerly out into the darkness as we headed off down the hill with our guide and ranger and spotter… and less than half a mile down the road it was raining so hard they decided to turn back and postpone the game drive until the following night, since everyone who had signed up would still be here tomorrow. As we walked back into the lobby J.P. said, “Guys, what happened?” and when we told him, he said we were lucky that they’d rescheduled and not just taken us out on an abbreviated drive in the rain. True. It worked out well, because we now had time to sit with the rest of our ballooning group and watch the video the pilot’s wife had put together for us.

    Eventually the rain tapered off and we used the unexpected time to relax out on the terrace with some amarula beside the campfire, listening to one of the staff members play the guitar and sing songs in Swahili. Only a small group of people were at the fire pit, so it didn’t feel like we were at such a large lodge. The guitar player asked where we were from, and when we answered California, he began playing “This Land is Your Land,” emphasizing the mention of our home state and then adding a chorus about East Africa (“This land is your land, this land is my land, from the Masai Mara to Kilimanjaro…”). Definitely not a song I expected to hear in Kenya! But he was funny and charming, with a great singing voice. The next morning we saw him walking up the path, and he gave us a big smile, calling out, “Jambo, California!”

  • Report Abuse

    I am really enjoying your report - it is keeping my own recent trip alive, and helping me sort through my own memories.
    I see you had a short tiger safari in India - something I've thought about. Am thinking I might want to spend some time on my own in Delhi, and then have the xeperts help me find the tigers....Can you tell me whom you dealt with there?
    Thanks
    Jess

  • Report Abuse

    Hi Jess,

    We organized our 4-day tiger safari with a company in Delhi called Wild World India (www.wildworldindia.com). They have suggested itineraries on their website, or they will set up a custom itinerary for you. We did a shortened version of their "Corbett Experience" trip, since we only had 4 days before we had to meet up with some friends in Delhi.

    Just FYI: What we did was not at all like our African safari, in terms of accommodation. We stayed in forest rest houses, which were unheated concrete buildings and very basic (we needed to use our sleeping bags when we were there in December). Meals are very basic as well. When we were there, all of the other guests at the camp were Indian families, and it was a fun way to visit with local folks. This was exactly what we wanted and it was a good bargain, but if you are interested in the more upscale properties that provide tiger safaris, you would definitely want to discuss that with Wild World India. I think they can probably arrange those as well. We made all our arrangements with them via e-mail, including an overnight in Delhi and all transfers, and it worked out great. A tiger safari is amazing and very rewarding, but you definitely have to work harder for your sightings than you do in Kenya or Tanzania!

  • Report Abuse

    With a 20 minute delay you are lucky you made your balloon liftoff. The detailed account you gave of the balloon is wonderful and included the good and the not so good aspects.

    That's great you became more and more friendly with James as your trip went on. That makes it so much harder to depart.

    Your description of the wildebeest and zebra gearing up to cross the river and then having "the urgency drain out of the group" is exactly how I recall it.

    From the balloon to the four cheetah to the male lions to the sing-along, it was quite a day. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Report Abuse

    PART 11 – “James’ Favorite Animal” (Oct. 2nd, 2007)

    This morning we saw a glorious sunrise from our balcony when we woke up for our early morning game drive on the way to our breakfast with the hippos. So far, Africa has not been very generous with the beautiful sunsets we’ve heard so much about, but these Kenyan sunrises have been to die for. Our first sighting this morning was a herd of 24 topis, the largest group of them we’ve seen. In the distance we could see hot air balloons descending to land, and while we admired the lovely picture they made against the sky, James told us he thought there were far too many of them flying over the Mara these days, and he did not think it was good for the animals. I absolutely see his point, but I’m conflicted about it because we had an amazing experience flying (and are balloons better or worse than the helicopters that fly constantly over places like the Grand Canyon or Kauai?). I suppose, like vehicles on game drives, it’s also largely a question of responsible behavior (and perhaps setting limits on the numbers) than something that should be banned altogether. I don’t necessarily think a hot air balloon flying by overhead and startling an animal is necessarily any worse than 24 vehicles surrounding a leopard or a group of lions. But I do agree with James that it would be good to put a limit on the number of balloons going up every morning. Does anyone know if there is a limit? James was not sure.

    We saw so many hippos today, even before our breakfast date with them, as well as white-browed coucal, giraffe, a large group of bachelor boy impalas, secretary birds strutting through the grass, and some adorable baby hyenas (I’m one of those that find them adorable, no matter what other people say!). We sat and watched a troop of baboons for a while, especially entranced by the babies playing. But baboons are so difficult to photograph! For one thing, they are constantly in motion. But more significantly, they seem to realize you’re pointing a camera at them (maybe it’s that big, staring eye of the lens), and they’ll deliberately turn their backs on you. By this point, we’ve experienced that so many times that we’ve decided this is an animal it’s far better to just sit and watch and enjoy their behavior, instead of trying to “capture” it in pictures. As we were watching them, James told us a story about when he was a little boy, how he and his friends played a trick on a particularly naughty baboon in their village. They gave it a drink made from the fruit of a sausage tree, and the big fellow got very drunk and passed out. While he was sleeping it off, the boys put a bell around his neck. When he woke, the baboon clanked around making such a racket that all the other baboons ran away from him. Eventually the boys took pity on him and removed the bell. James laughed as he told the story, but then got very serious and added, “Of course, you know I would never do such a thing now – the rangers would not like it!”

    We arrived at the breakfast site a bit early and occupied ourselves with watching hippos. Every now and then, one of them would yawn spectacularly, showing off those big, blunt teeth, but we always seemed to have our camera pointed elsewhere when he did. “This is your game today,” James announced, “to capture a yawning hippo.” We played the game for a while, but the hippos won and we never got that perfect open-mouthed shot.

    The “Breakfast with the Hippos” is one of the Serena Lodge’s activities, and we really enjoyed it. (I am so much more a fan of eating meals out in the bush rather than standing in the dining room buffet line.) We got out of our vehicle (not far from a sign that read, “Do Not Alight from Vehicle,” actually) and walked a short way along the river with a Maasai guide to a clearing where we found small tables overlooking a pod of hippos. Nearby was a buffet table loaded with fresh fruit and bread, and an omelet station manned by chefs Moses and Lawrence. The food was delicious, complete with champagne, and we had a lot of company. I don’t just mean the enthusiastic group of birders at the next table (so occupied with their gigantic lenses that they could hardly put them down and eat a bite of the food) – in addition to our hippo hosts, we were joined by crocodiles in the river below and scores of small birds begging around (and sometimes on) the tables. The most expert beggars of all were the dozens of banded mongooses who swarmed around the table next to ours. I quickly lost respect for that group of birders when I saw them handing food to the animals and luring them over for photos. They were certainly adorable and I understand the impulse, but I wish someone from the Serena staff would have asked them to stop. After breakfast, a Maasai guide took us on a short walk along the river and talked about hippo and croc behavior. Several times he had to call to the birders and tell them not to wander off from the group. It’s amazing to see how so many people don’t “get it,” this thing about walking around in the animals’ home, and how you should never take your safety for granted.

    After breakfast we set off with James again, and it wasn’t long before we encountered our best sighting of the day. Two male impalas were engaged in a furious fight, locking horns and shoving back and forth, so intent on each other that neither of them noticed the two hyenas stalking toward them from either side. (Later, we would tell our Tanzanian guide about this event, and he said he liked to call these “hyena referees.”) There was also a family of warthogs off to one side, watching intently like spectators at a match. We watched the battle rage back and forth, horns clattering and bodies thudding together while the hyenas circled closer and closer… until finally one of the impalas glanced off to the side and noticed the closest hyena, only a few yards away. Instantly, the impala boys forgot their difference and went leaping off together at high speed. The hyenas only bothered to follow for a short ways, and then turned and ambled across the road, sending the warthogs scrambling too, their tails held high in the air.

    The rest of our game drive was more about birds than mammals—a tawny eagle hunting, a flock of dozens of superb starlings picking through the remains of someone’s picnic site, and our first ostriches, who looked remarkably like bushes in the distance, until they began to move. James has a great enthusiasm for birds, because they can be so challenging to identify. As he was telling us this, I finally decided to ask him if he has a favorite animal. I thought he might say lions, based on his obvious delight whenever we’d seen them. First he gave us a diplomatic answer: “My favorite animal is whatever YOU most want to see, because you are my guests here.” “Oh, come on,” we protested, “which one would you be most excited to see, if you were driving by yourself and did not have guests with you?” James thought about it for a moment, and then said, “It is not a single type of animal. What I love best is all of nature—the wildlife, and the plants, and the birds, and the weather and the insects—how everything fits together. That is my favorite, to see how these things work together.” And then, with an impish smile he added, “But as a boy, I liked elephants best.”

    After lunch back at the lodge, we got an earlier afternoon start than usual so we would have time to visit a Maasai village outside the park, near the Oloololo gate. We’d felt like the Samburu village visit had been a worthwhile thing to do, despite some mixed feelings, but we weren’t entirely sure if it was something we wanted to do again. But James was really enthusiastic about it, saying, “Your visit to the Mara will not be complete if you only visit the animals and not the Maasai people!” And although he may have been encouraging this because he got a kickback from the village for bringing us there, he did have a point, too—this place is not just about the animals. (By the way, I don’t judge the guides for this sort of thing, and James did not try to pressure us into it. He was always very good about listening to us and doing what we wanted to do. I’m sure if we had said no, it would not have been a problem.) I had a lot of misgivings, but my husband wanted to go and it was something different to do here, and so I kept my mouth shut. We drove out of the park and headed up a treacherous, rutted dirt road that seemed to go straight up the escarpment, with rain coming hard on our heels. Several times I gripped my husband’s hand as the minibus lurched and ground its way up the increasingly muddy road.

    At last we reached a small village called Enkerere, which means something like “the beautiful view.” They certainly had that from this high perch, looking back over the vast plains of the Mara. Our guide here was a young man named Johnson, who had a very tenuous grasp of English (but still far better than our grasp of Maa or Swahili). He promised we could take all the photos and video we wanted, collected our admission fee, and showed us through the thorny gate into the boma. Here he handed us off to a slightly more verbose guy named Julius, who grouped us with a Japanese couple who had arrived earlier (and who seemed very uncomfortable to be there). We all stood around in the mud as the rain fell harder, and the guides brought us big umbrellas. The flies were really intense here, crawling all over us and buzzing around our faces, drawn by so much mud and goat manure. The goats were all starting to wander into the boma’s central corral, drawn back home by the rain and brining even more flies with them. I’ve been around livestock all my life and raised horses and sheep, so usually this doesn’t bother me (manure definitely doesn’t phase me), but this was pretty tough; it was a struggle to keep brushing flies off my mouth and eyes and arms. I’ve never seen such aggressive flies.

    The men did a fire-building demo (quite a challenge with the rain), then a small group of women came out and performed an embarrassingly half-hearted song and dance, looking for all the world like they would rather be anywhere but here in front of some tourists. After that we took shelter in one of the oblong mud huts. This one definitely did not have the lived-in feel of the Samburu home we visited (it was spotlessly clean and there was nothing inside except a bed to sit on, no real cooking area or signs of life). We wondered if it had been tidied up for the tourists, or if perhaps it was set aside just for this purpose and no one had ever lived here, but I thought it would be rude to ask about that. Throughout all of this—the fire-building, the song, the goats, inside the house—the two guides kept handing items to my husband and the Japanese guy (beaded talking sticks, shields, spears), so much that they could hardly take any photos because their hands were always full. No one told us anything about these items or their cultural significance, so it seemed pretty clear that their actual significance was to get us to part with some more money. My husband said several times, “No thank you, I don’t want to buy,” and tried to hand them back, but no doing. Everyone just smiled and refused to take them back. (He ended up quietly leaving them behind in the house.) After some prompting, Julius did tell us a few things about the house construction, but generally they did not tell us anything about the village and just kept asking us, “Do you have any questions?”

    We exited and walked a short way farther through the village, where we saw some very annoyed-looking little kids ducking back into the doorways of their homes to hide from us. Again, this was very different from the Samburu village, where people were much friendlier and came up to say hello to us, with the children waving and smiling. The most unfortunate moment came when a little boy tried to dart back into his house and Julius grabbed him by the arm and forced him to stand in front of the doorway, imploring us to “Take pictures, take pictures,” while the kid squirmed and looked miserable. Of course we said, “No thank you, we have plenty of pictures,” and I was relieved when he let the boy go. What on earth was that little guy thinking about all of this? My overall impression of this place was that it was a real village where people lived, not something just set up for the tourists, and that some of the adults (the men, probably) had decided that it was worthwhile to give tours and get some tourist dollars for the village. But it was excruciatingly clear that not everyone was thrilled by this idea, and some women and children we saw there were clearly outright unhappy about the whole thing.

    All of this took maybe 20 minutes or so, and then we were whisked, naturally, to a women’s marketplace set up beside the village. The Japanese couple escaped quickly, but we felt obligated to wander around and look at things as a courtesy. I thanked the women there for letting us visit their village, but I don’t know if anyone understood me. There was nothing I wanted to buy, and I felt so disturbed by the whole experience, so we left as soon as we had made one circuit around the group. Johnson walked us back to our car, looking miserable that we didn’t buy anything, and I wanted to say, “Hey, why so down? We just gave you $40 for 20 minutes of your time!” But of course we didn’t say anything like that—just thanked him for the tour and said goodbye. James seemed a bit alarmed that we were done so fast and we had to assure him that it was fine, we’d seen enough. The whole way back down the hill I felt sick at heart, wondering if I had done anything at all to benefit the people in that village, or if I was simply contributing to a problem for them and for the other tourists who would come after us, and for the relationship (such as it was) between us.

    So, did we think this village visit was worth the time and money? It’s probably clear from my comments that no, it was not. There were parts of the experience that were downright awful and uncomfortable for everyone involved, and if we’d known what we were in for we would have skipped it. The only upside is that it was interesting to see the differences in design, layout, houses, and clothing between the two types of villages, Samburu and Maasai. I imagine some Maasai villages would be different and offer a better experience than this one. Despite myself, I almost think it would be less uncomfortable at a more polished, “commercialized” village where people make you feel more welcome. It’s a strange dilemma. You want to have some opportunity to interact with and learn about local people when you visit a place, but I’m not sure there’s a way to do that here unless you are working in a village for a while and really get to know people, or else are lucky enough to have a local guide who invites you to meet his own family and friends. I want to make it clear that I don’t blame the Maasai people for wanting to profit from the tourists and take advantage of all the foreign dollars coming onto their land, considering how much they have been taken advantage of. And if it encourages the preservation of their culture in any small way, then I guess there is something positive in this strange arrangement. But overall, visiting this village was one of the few low points in our trip, for both of us, and neither of us was comfortable with the way things went in Enkerere.

    The game drive on the way back to the lodge was a more happy matter. It was raining quite a bit now, so the roads were a mess and all the animals were streaked dark and soggy, most of them looking like they were reveling in the cool shower. Big groups of buffalo, zebra, and wildebeest. A large family of elephants with small babies. And the best surprise of this drive, a tiny jackal pup standing on a mound of earth right near the side of the road. We saw his parents watching us warily from nearby, and James said their den was probably very close. This little guy was wandering around only a few feet away from us, scrambling over the wet earth and peering up through the windows at us in curiosity. There’s no good way to describe the infinite cuteness of that pup’s face, but trust me—he might win the Adorable Baby Animal award for our whole safari.

    We had to stick to the main roads because of the mud, so we revisited the beautiful swamp from yesterday. There we saw a group of waterbucks in alarm mode. We investigated and waited, but we weren’t able to find a predator nearby (which, of course, doesn’t mean there wasn’t one). Instead, we saw a gigantic buffalo bull, all alone; 4 giraffes hiding in the cover of the trees and another one crossing the road; and a number of gorgeous birds including a kingfisher, yellow-billed storks, grey heron and guinea fowl. We also accidentally flushed out a shocked waterbuck who’d been neck-deep in the marsh very close to our car.

    Once more, we had a quick turnaround at the lodge and another attempt to go out on a night game drive. This time, despite some spectacular lightning in the distance, the weather cooperated and allowed us to see a little bit of the Masai Mara at night. We were in a shared Serena Land Rover, as before, with a really skilled, interesting guide. But, as with Sweetwaters, there were still a few grumblers who complained about not seeing any big cats. That’s crazy, because we saw so much! And just driving around this amazing place, the plains and riverbank below the lodge that we’d seen from our balcony, was such a different experience in the dark. Night sounds around us like a symphony of animals, large and small, a deep bowl of stars overhead, and jagged streaks of lightning far across the plains. Here’s what we did see, including a lot of special little critters we would never have seen in the daytime: a juvenile black mamba right beside our car (what a great way to see a snake, and completely unexpected!); dozens of Cape hares jumping every which way; impalas and topis and tommies and waterbucks and dik-diks in their watchful nighttime mode; a fish eagle on the hunt, screeching his war cry; Lappert’s vultures and marabou storks high in the bare branches of a tree; hippos hippos hippos everywhere, out of the water and grazing; silverback jackals; bat-eared foxes; white-tailed mongoose; genets; and one very stressed-out wildebeest who had somehow managed to get separated from her herd and was in a terrible panic in the darkness. It was a fascinating game drive, and I only wish we could have stayed out more than an hour. I love seeing the night creatures, especially, and there is something really wonderful about getting a peek into their world—a reminder that even after you’ve gone back to the lodge or back across the ocean to your own home, these animals’ lives continue to unfold in all their drama and complexity. We returned to the lodge for a late dinner and fell into bed exhausted, feeling sad that our time in the magnificent Mara—and in Kenya—was drawing to a close.

  • Report Abuse


    24 topis are good, but 25 are better. I’ve seen herds of hundreds.

    I’ve never had a bad village visit like yours at Enkerere, but I’m always hoping the guide won’t suggest one. I don’t really know what to think.

    Now I’ll have a look at the photos.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, Nyamera. There are a couple of photos in there especially for you.

    Take a look at the aerial shot (from the balloon) of the big herd -- are those topis? I thought I could make out the horns, but I wanted to ask the expert.

  • Report Abuse

    They are definitely topis. Thanks for the other topi pictures! The jackal pup really should get an award of some sort. I don’t know if this will make me sound stupid, but one thing I can’t understand is who took the picture of you flying over the buffaloes. A vulture?

    Btw, the animals heading out the village gate are sheep. Today I’m an expert at everything horned and those sheep don’t even have horns.

  • Report Abuse

    Oh, how shameful for me, since I used to raise sheep! You're right, I wasn't looking carefully while captioning. They had a mixed herd and the goats were lagging behind.

    I wish a vulture had taken that photo, because that would be a great story. But the truth is that the balloon pilot's wife had a camera mounted on a pole and she took photos of us right before takeoff and during the flight.

  • Report Abuse

    Kyle is so cute! Love all of the road scenes. You had a great view of Mt Kenya. It was obscured by clouds all 3 days on our last trip. Nice ones of the Grevy's and the reticulated giraffe necking. Off to view your other albums and catch up on your report!

  • Report Abuse

    Just finished your Sweetwaters/Nakuru album. I've never seen lions that spotted before either. Nice waterbuck and flamingo together. I think warthogs are absolutely adorable too!

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks for the nice comments, everybody.

    Simbakubwa, that's a really tough question to answer. I really don't think I can say I liked one country or the other better, because we had such a great time in both. I'm one of those people who never tires of game drives, but I will say that we were happy to have arranged the trip the way we did -- the larger (less pricey) lodges were in Kenya during the first half of the trip with game drives being our primary activity, and in Tanzania we stayed in smaller, more intimate places and did more physical things like canoeing and walking, ending up on the beach in Zanzibar. Those contrasts made our whole three weeks really interesting and varied.

    Here's where Kenya has the edge for me: more contrasts of scenery and habitat; different species in the north and south of the country; lovely views of Mt. Kenya; traveling by road enabled us to see more of the country and people outside the game reserves; and although I know there are some good arguments against it, being able to drive off-road got us much closer to the animals in many cases

    And what I liked best about Tanzania: we had much better cultural experiences here; roads were much better and we did some flying so the travel was less exhausting; getting out of the vehicle for a walking safari & canoeing; a night game drive in an open vehicle; the whole experience at Oliver's Camp in Tarangire was exactly what I'd always dreamed a safari would be (more on that later); Zanzibar was the perfect place to end up and Swahili food there was fantastic.

    So, there's a LOT to love in both countries. And you can also find ways to incorporate great experiences (sleeping in tents, walking safaris, ballooning, meals out in the bush) in either Kenya or Tanzania. Of course, you can also do either driving or fly-in safaris in either place, too. So much ultimately depends on how skilled your guide is, and we were fortunate to have excellent guides in both Kenya and Tanzania.

    Sorry, I just can't choose. I want to go back to both! :)

  • Report Abuse

    Your continued commentary on the balloon via Guide James' remarks deserves the award for fair and balanced coverage. Then you've got the photos of the balloon and more from the balloon for a real photo journalism extravaganza on the balloon ride. Your first shot in the album of the balloons is a post card!

    I think the fair and balanced coverage extends to your unpleasant village visit.

    I wonder how James got the bell off of the baboon. More sausage tree moonshine maybe?

    The impala match reffed by the hyenas was quite a find and you got some good shots of the tussle.

    The baby jackal is adorable. I bet you occasionally wonder about him/her.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, Lynn, I tried my best to capture my mixed feelings about these things. I posted a disproportionate number of balloon photos (compared with shots of all the wildlife we saw) because I wanted to show (and tell) as much as I could about that whole experience. I know a lot of people post on this board asking whether the balloon ride is "worth it." Same with the Maasai village visit. So hopefully this gives a picture of what our experience was like, and some things for people to think about.

    You're right, I do wonder about that baby jackal, and many of the individual animals we saw! He was definitely one of my favorites, and we've got about 10 pictures of him to remember him by. :)

    And oh, I forgot to add the rest of that story about James and the baboon. Yep, they did have to get him drunk again to get the bell off!


  • Report Abuse

    PART 12 – “Goodbye Kenya, Hello Tanzania” (Oct. 3rd, 2007)

    We jumped at the chance for one more early morning game drive in the Masai Mara before we left Kenya today. So many times in the past few days, I’d been glad that we opted to fly back to Nairobi and then onward to Arusha rather than making another long drive across southern Kenya. The best result of flying was that we had extra time in the Mara—a chance for a longer goodbye than if we’d had to head off to Nairobi at the crack of dawn. I shouldn’t have been surprised at all by the way I was feeling so blue, since I had dreamed about Kenya since childhood and had spent more than a year planning this particular trip. But in some ways, I was a little surprised by the depth of my feelings, my sadness at knowing this was our last day here. I knew there was still so much to look forward to in Tanzania, but this morning felt in many ways like the end of our trip and I felt such a heaviness in my heart as we climbed into the ice cream bus this morning. Looking back on it now, I know that a big part of it was knowing that we were going to have to say good bye to James today, too. I tried to put those thoughts aside and focus out the open window, wondering what beautiful Kenya had saved up for our last morning.

    At first, though, it appeared that the Mara was closed for business again, as it had been when we’d first arrived. Empty, rolling plains of short-mown grass stretched nearly as far as the horizon, and the few vehicles that were out and about this morning occasionally radioed each other or pulled up alongside to compare non-information: nope, we haven’t seen anything, either. So instead, we concentrated on the landscape: an area dotted with thousands of small termite mounds, grass tinted green from the rain, bleached white skulls and bones scattered over the savannah and under a wide, blue bowl of sky. As we looked out across the Mara toward the Serengeti border, James told us his opinion of Tanzania—that we had seen such beautiful landscapes in Kenya that even Tanzania, with all its own beauty, could not compare. He said that he thought we would find that, “In Kenya, everyone is kind, everyone is friendly… in Tanzania, they do not care so much about their visitors, and they are very slow.” He told us that if we ended up liking Tanzania better than Kenya, we should write to him right away and tell him… but if we liked Kenya better, “you do not need to tell me, because I already know you will feel this way.” His pride in Kenya and his characterization of Tanzania made us smile, and we assured him that no matter how much we enjoyed the Tanzania portion of our trip, nothing would ever make us forget how much we loved Kenya, and what a wonderful safari he’d given us.

    As always seems to happen, if you don’t worry too much about finding an exciting animal sighting, something will find you. We did not leave the Mara with more cats or another spectacular fight, but instead were treated to something less splashy and yet not at all less profound. First it was a huge herd of tommies, grazing peacefully on the new green shoots. As we watched, a few individuals suddenly began taking turns running in crazy zig-zag patterns back and forth through the herd—five or six of them seemed to be competing with one another for who could pronk the most impressively, who could leap the highest, or just flat-out run the fastest. It was breathtaking to watch these guys in action—I have never seen anything run so fast! There was no predator in sight, though, and we asked James why they would be doing this, running and leaping and bucking, then suddenly just stopping, breathing hard, perfectly calm. It didn’t necessarily seem to be mating behavior. “They are practicing,” he replied. “They are keeping up their skills so that they will be able to avoid a predator when they need to.” I loved this answer, and the richness this showed us about each animal’s life—their concerns, the special ways they have adapted to their circumstances, maybe even the types of things they think about from day to day.

    Not far from these tommies, and still within close sight of the Tanzania border, we saw some of the advance guard of zebras already on their way back to the Serengeti. This wasn’t a mixed group of animals like the others we’d seen—these were just zebras, as far as we could see, stretching out in a long column of mares and foals (and at least one stallion that I could identify). They were ambling, trotting, strolling, occasionally stopping to graze and nurse their babies and bicker with one another and roll in the dust. One boss mare, who clearly was the leader of this posse, paced up and down the line, turning to trot back against the flow of traffic and bray furiously at anyone who dawdled too much. At one point she stopped to sass another mare who had paused to nurse her foal, and the two got into a kicking spat. As a group their speed was not great, but the sense of purpose was palpable. I wondered how far they would get in a day. Seeing this caravan made us think of their long journey ahead, and also reflect back on all the little glimpses we’d had of the Great Migration here. More than anything else I’ve ever witnessed, these groups of zebras and wildies had really helped me understand the great wheel of nature, and what a small cog each of us is in it. I felt really lucky to have seen this zebra family at the start of their journey, and to know that they, like us, were leaving the Mara and heading onward to Tanzania. I only hoped that we, like most of them, would be returning here someday.

    With that, sadly, it was time for us to head back to the Serena lodge to collect our duffel bags and head out to the nearby airstrip. This would be our first bush flight, from a little dirt airstrip near the lodge. But first we had to say goodbye and thank you to James, who had done such a wonderful job of guiding us through his country. We’d written him a card last night to give with his tip, and also tried to express that in words—how much we valued his experience and knowledge, how much we enjoyed his stories and his humor and his company, how much we appreciated his good, safe driving, and how we know that his job is a very difficult one and we appreciated all aspects of what he had done for us, how we would never forget him. He made us feel good when he said we were his favorite type of clients: always on time, interested in all the things nature wanted to show us, not obsessed with ticking off lists or just trying to get the animals to pose for photos. (Maybe he says that to everyone, but it did make us happy to hear it!) I gave him a ball cap from the movie studio where I work, and he put it on so we could take a picture together. “Is this from Hollywood?” he asked, “My grandchildren will be so pleased!” I decided not to split hairs about Northern California’s Bay Area versus Southern California’s Hollywood, so I just said yes, not far from Hollywood. While we waited and waited for our plane to show up, we hung out with James and he finally admitted that perhaps he did have a favorite animal after all – he loves birds, because even after all his years in the bush they still presented a challenge to him, and there was always more to learn. “I have the best job in Kenya,” he said proudly, “because I never grow bored!” He reached back into the ice cream bus and pulled out a photo to show us—a portrait of himself and his wife the year they were married, taken in 1969. “Now, I go home to her,” he said, beaming as he showed us. “I am always carrying this picture with me on the road, reminding me of what I have waiting at home, my beautiful family.” I asked if he was anxious to get home and he smiled widely, saying, “You do not know how much!”

    The airstrip was beginning to get busy with other waiting passengers, and as the sun rose higher we eventually took shelter in the shade of the little “waiting room,” tracking every speck in the sky and wondering if it was our Air Kenya plane. We waited, and waited, and waited, but still no plane and we were more than an hour late. A curious family of warthogs came by and trotted past the luggage lined up on the red dirt beside the runway. But still no plane. I started to get anxious, knowing we made to make a tight connection at Wilson to our Tanzania flight. But Serah had warned us at the start of our safari that these flights were usually “on African time,” and not to be concerned—Air Kenya would hold the connecting flight for us. And indeed that’s how it worked, despite the nail biting suspense: we climbed up the stairs into the plane (a much larger plane than I’d expected out here, actually), waving back to a smiling James on the runway below, then strapped into our seats and zoomed off to Nairobi. Once we reached Wilson airport, the flight attendants hustled those of us making the Tanzania connection off the plane first, and an airline employee met us on the tarmac to escort us quickly through immigration and right past security without stopping, then straight onto our next plane which ended up taking off only a few minutes late despite our late arrival. I was impressed by how well and how quickly it all happened. So quickly, in fact, that we barely had time to really say goodbye to wonderful, beautiful, generous Kenya—one of our favorite countries we’ve ever visited. I couldn’t think of anything I’d experienced that could compare with our ten days in Kenya, both as the realization of a lifelong dream and now, the reality of the place itself and the experiences we were privileged to have there.

    Tanzania, on the other hand, did not make a very stellar first impression. The very first experience we had was walking into Kilimanjaro International Airport and getting ripped off by the immigration official… or so we thought. We had printed out our single-entry visa applications ahead of time and safeguarded two crisp, new $50 bills through the first half of our trip. I had even double-checked the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassy websites the day before we left California, to be sure I had the right amount for both visas. But when we approached the window, the official looked at our applications and passports and said brusquely, “For Americans, $100 each.” We were completely surprised, but not prepared or willing to argue with her. “100 each?” I asked, and she snapped, “Yes!” Feeling a bit shell-shocked from all the day’s plane-hopping, I just dug out another $100 from our tip stash and handed it over. I did have a brief moment of wondering whether the visa fees had gone up, but there were no signs anywhere and nobody explained this to us. Later as we waited for our luggage, my husband looked at the visa stamp and got angry, “She charged us for multiple-entry visas!” he said. Sure enough, there was the stamp and her handwritten “Multiple Entry” below it. We thought about going back to argue that we had definitely asked for single-entry visas, but the line at the window was quite long and I didn’t want to get into a scene with a government official in another country. Still, $100 is a considerable amount of money and now we had that much less for tipping. We collected our bags and headed out, both really irritated and feeling like we’d been scammed like dumb tourists. I wondered if there was really supposed to be a multiple-entry stamp that differed from the single-entry one, and that her hand writing the note was a way of her keeping the extra $100. I hated having these thoughts about someone. Despite myself (and knowing better), I thought about what James had said about Tanzanians, and I wondered if we’d left our hearts back in Kenya and would ever find as much to love in this country.

    Thinking back on this now, how we were feeling at that moment, I want to laugh at myself for ever thinking I might not fall absolutely in love with Tanzania, too. But more importantly for this report, I want to clarify what actually happened with those visas. As it turned out, the Tanzanian government actually DID raise the visa fee while we were on the road in Kenya. Unless we had kept checking their website during our safari, there’s no way we could have known this (there was no indication that fees would be going up when I looked at the site in the months leading up to our trip). When we mentioned it during our safari briefing at Green Footprint Adventures’ office, no one there knew anything about it, either (in fact, they told us that they thought we probably had been swindled, and apologized profusely). It was only after we returned home and I started reading this chat board again that I found out about the change in visa fees – Americans are now required to pay $100 each and always get a multiple-entry visa. I wonder how many other travelers were caught off guard like this (it would have been especially hard on backpackers and people traveling on a very strict budget! At least for us, we were able to make up for the cash shortage by using our Visa card a few times.). I now feel awful about suspecting that woman at the counter of ripping us off, but I do still think it would have made a lot more sense if there had been some sort of official notice on the visa window about the fee increasing. I really regret that this soured our first impressions of this country, where we quickly found so many things to love that the sting of this one thing eventually faded.

    The first really terrific thing about Tanzania was Jackson, who met us outside the baggage claim with a sign with my name on it, and a huge smile. “Welcome to Tanzania!” he said. I had been wondering what our guide here would be like, and if we would be as lucky in our guide assignment as we had been in Kenya. Well, we could not have been luckier. Not only was Jackson an amazing guide and an excellent driver, but he was so different from James that we enjoyed getting to know him in a completely different way. Jackson is in his mid-30s, the same age as us, and from the start we had an easy rapport with him. We had less time with Jackson as our guide (5 days together, compared with 10 days with James), but in that time we had such great conversations about life and careers and politics and music and culture and our childhoods (and wildlife too, of course) that he had become a dear friend by the time we left Tanzania. All this was yet to come, though. At our first meeting, we were struck by how friendly and talkative and quick to laugh he was, and we liked him right away. Jackson showed us to a very nice, spiffy new Land Cruiser and handed us out itinerary in a pretty woven banana-leaf folder, with a nice map of Tanzania and t-shirts and baseball caps with “Green Footprint – Touch the Earth” on them. So far Green Footprint was making a great impression.

    We drove into Arusha from the airport and the landscape changed drastically along the way—from hot, arid and dusty brown to a riot of greens, thick tropical foliage and bright purple jacaranda trees, coffee farms and banana groves clustered along the sides of the road as we drove into the foothills of Mt. Meru. We saw gardens and nurseries with dozens of varieties of plants and flowers, and the bright orange flickers of red hot poker tree blossoms above. The jacarandas are my favorites, though—the way they line the streets here, making a purple canopy overhead and leaving a scattered purple carpet on the ground below. I thought about how these same trees had welcomed us to East Africa in Nairobi too. (Unfortunately we have very few pictures of this beautiful area, because Jackson told us that generally Tanzanians are not happy about having their picture taken without permission, and like everywhere we’ve been in Africa there are always so many people walking along the road that it’s almost impossible to snap a photo out the window without a person in it. Usually when we shot pictures out the window in Kenya people would just wave at us, but here, already, we were noticing more people pointing and calling, “Mzungu!” as we drove by.) The place still vivid in my memory, though, and I think the area around Arusha was one of the most beautiful landscapes we saw in East Africa. It reminded both of us very much of Hawaii, where our families live. Such a contrast from that morning in the wide open plains of the Masai Mara! Here we had the cloudy grey bulk of the mountain looming over us, and in the sky and the evidence of all the green around us was the certain promise of rain.

    On our drive to Green Footprint’s office, Jackson told us how he grew up in the Arusha area, but that his wife and 3-year-old son were still living in Dar Es Salaam because of her job. Jackson used to guide safaris in the southern Tanzania game parks, but had recently started this job with Green Footprint and was hoping to make his family roots back in the Arusha area again. He told us that he was building a house nearby and that we would pass by it tomorrow on our visit to the national park. He asked questions about our jobs and interests and where we lived. He was curious to know what we’d seen on our safari in Kenya. “Have you seen lions? Elephants? Giraffes? A leopard? All of the Big 5 – even rhino??” When we replied us to all these, he looked a little disappointed, “Well, hmm, what will I be able to show you? You have seen it all!” I told him we had never seen a Tanzanian lion, or a Tanzanian giraffe, or a Tanzanian elephant, and he cracked up. “Well, yes, of course, they are all very, very different here!” We assured him that the best thing about having seen so much already was that we could spend the safari time still ahead of us just enjoying whatever came our way. And that we never tired of seeing any animals, even the most common ones. “Okay,” he said, “But I bet I will find something for you that you haven’t yet seen.”

    At Green Footprint’s office, a dog immediately offered to be our friend when we hopped down from the Land Cruiser. It wasn’t clear whether this dog belonged to Green Footprint or just to the parking lot, but he was a charmer and reminded us of our little buddy Kyle at home. We sat out in the garden with Cristina, the young woman who had replaced our safari planner Mirjam when she moved to Kenya. (I was a bit disappointed when Mirjam e-mailed me that she was moving, because we’d been such pen pals for the past year of safari planning that I would have really liked to meet her.) We went over our itinerary with Cristina and Jackson, and she gave us some tips about travel and safety here, reminding us to take our malaria meds and keep drinking that bottled water. And then our conversation turned to travel in general and we chatted a lot about India, one of our favorite places and a place that was very high on her wish list. “But,” she said, “Tanzania will spoil you, you won’t ever want to go anywhere else!” After that, Jackson took us to downtown Arusha to change some dollars into shillings. The Tanzanian shillings were worth much less than the Kenyan ones, and he advised that most people would prefer to receive tips and payment in US dollars, so we did not exchange much. But I think everyone who visits should change at least a little money, so you can see how beautiful the bills are with their illustrations of Tanzanian wildlife!

    Arusha, like other towns and cities we’re passed through, was fairly nondescript—plain concrete-block buildings, everything a bit rundown but functional. There was more traffic here than any place we’d been since Nairobi, with chaotic roundabouts every few blocks that made us glad we weren’t driving ourselves. Our hotel, Karama Lodge, was on the outskirts of the city, but it felt a world away. To get there, we had to go straight up a steep dirt road, climbing higher and higher past views of Mt. Kilimanjaro (socked-in with clouds) and Mt. Meru (mostly hiding behind clouds, too), plus homes and small farms tucked into the valley below. We would be able to hear radios and roosters from some of these houses later on.

    Karama Lodge was delightful and had such great, offbeat style that my husband wanted to take pictures of everything so we could build a house like this someday. The lodge is situated on a jungly hillside site, and each room is a freestanding a-frame “log cabin” on stilts with its own balcony and view out into the treetops. We loved our room, and spent some time on the deck looking at the peek of the mountain and listening to the chorus of birds. This was one of the first chances I’d had in a while to just sit and relax and write in my journal (while my husband did his own kind of writing—music), so we really enjoyed the downtime… another benefit of choosing to fly back from the Mara and catch the earlier flight to Tanzania. Around twilight the bugs drove us indoors to lower the mosquito net around the bed. This place is considered “rustic,” but we thought it was fantastic – very much what we’d imagined when we dreamed about Africa. Not to mention, we made another dog friend here, a little black pup who started licking my hand and followed us down the path from our car to our room, then came running back to our door to walk us to dinner.

    Tonight we had a delicious meal in the mostly empty dining room, downstairs from the super-cool, partially open-air bar where we spent some more time relaxing after dinner. The food was African-inspired, if not exactly traditional: mchicha crepes (hope I spelled that right), maboga (pumpkin) soup, a tomato and basil tart that my husband dubbed “a Swahili personal pan pizza,” and “mad monkey tails” (chocolate-and-nut-covered bananas) for dessert. Yum! We are definitely not going to be losing any weight on this trip.

    While trying to fall asleep to the distant babble of someone’s radio, we heard bush babies crying in the trees outside our cabin, and then a tremendous THUMP of some animal (probably a bush baby, from the size of that thump) leaping down onto our deck. Welcome to Tanzania!

  • Report Abuse

    As you were describing your blue feelings about leaving Kenya, I was knew what the problem was--leaving your wonderful guide. Sure enough, you soon came to that conclusion too. Showing the photo of his wife and then admitting his real fav animal were wonderful parting memories.

    I know what you mean about boarding the plane and then being whisked off with no real mental time for bidding farewell to a place that has offered so much.

    Cool you saw pronking!

    The lack of announcements on the new Visa fees comes from the same place as Africa time. Different priorities. That's too bad you thought you were ripped off for the whole trip. But all is well that ends well.

    Great answer to Jackson about looking forward to Tanzanian lions, etc. I know some people who even structure their trips with the biggest game viewing up front, so they can settle down and appreciate the other vieiwng after that.

    I'm sure you'll have an outstanding time in Tanzania.

  • Report Abuse

    I *hate* switching guides, and it's one of a few (ahemFodor'spostscough) reasons I don't think I would particularly enjoy southern Africa. ;)

    Glad we're in Tanzania, now, though. I'm putting Karama Lodge on my list.

  • Report Abuse

    Loving your report.

    Tommies were "born to run!"

    Believe second fastest on the plains after the cheetah.

    They've gotta practice.

    On video or DVD, a NatGeo or Nature film "Born to Run" following a Tommie from birth thru 1/yr. Believe by Hugo vanLouwig, wildlife photog, one of his last films.

  • Report Abuse

    Sandi, thanks for the heads-up on the video about tommies! I'm a huge fan of those little guys. Believe it or not, I'm not actually writing about everything we saw each day (just imagine how long THAT trip report would be!), but tommies were a big part of what made me happy every day we were in the Mara (and elsewhere too).

    Leely, you'd love Karama Lodge. We really liked staying someplace that felt like we were near where people lived, rather than totally isolated in a tourist compound, so the radios and roosters didn't bother us at all. But some people might find it a bit noisy, I guess -- thought I should add that, since there isn't much on this board about that lodge. Almost all the other guests when we were there were climbing Kilimanjaro. I'd love to go back someday and do that!

    Neat little footnote here: the day after I posted that last installment, we got a letter in the mail from James! :)

  • Report Abuse

    A letter from James--how wonderful.

    I don't know if I posted before about how impressed I am with your photos, but I just looked at them all (some again, I think), and they are beautiful. You have some of the best shots of Nakuru I have seen. And how lucky to see cheetahs among rocks, right where they'll pop for your camera. ;)

    Great job. Let's see some more.

  • Report Abuse

    There are so many great comments and observations in your trip report that I won't even attempt to comment on them individually. I'll just let you know I started reading this the day before yesterday and couldn't wait to get back to it each time I had to stop. And if this is the condensed version I can't imagine how wonderful the whole version is. Thanks for taking us on your trip and sharing your thoughts and feelings. (I've had a few of them myself!) Since you are already home I don't need to tell you that if you thought leaving Kenya was hard, just wait because it gets worse. Getting on the plane to go home has to be the hardest part of a trip to Africa. I look forward to hearing more.

    ((#))Cindy

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, Leely. :) I'll post another round of photos to go along with Arusha National Park and Tarangire.

    Cindy, thank you so much! Glad you're enjoying it. Yeah, it was heartbreaking to get on that plane and come home... and partly for a reason that I'll describe when I get to that point, just an odd encounter we had in the airport with someone who really didn't "get" Africa at all. We, on the other hand, have been so obsessed with Africa that we've been desperately trying to figure out ways to go back ever since we returned home in October! Alas, there are precious few vacation days and even fewer vacation dollars at this point, so it's going to be a while. Reading this board is going to have to be my "fix" for a few years...

    Here's the next day -- Arusha NP.

  • Report Abuse

    PART 13 – “Does the Government Feed These Animals?” (Oct. 4th, 2007)

    We really felt like we woke up in the jungle this morning, our little tree house surrounded by a riot of birdsong and an accompanying chorus of roosters crowing in the village down the hill. Jackson picked us up after breakfast and we drove through the city and around the mountain to the entrance of Arusha National Park.

    Compared with Kenya, most of the roads in this part of Tanzania are a dream: paved, relatively smooth, and drivers (generally) stayed in their own lane. Just as I was thinking this, though, Jackson pointed out a steep ravine beneath a bridge where a truck had crashed over the side not long ago; the guardrail was still twisted and torn apart as a grim reminder. We were thankful for our sturdy vehicle, and for our guide’s careful driving. This drive, like yesterday’s, was really beautiful—the deep greens of coffee and rice fields dotted with the bright colors of women’s clothing. After we turned past the national park sign, the pavement ended and Jackson warned, “Here is the dancing road – also known as African massage. Let me know if it gets too bumpy for you.” We assured him that we’d had many African massages in the last week and a half, so we’d be fine. This road took us deeper into the green, past small, misty villages and into the forested foothills of Mt. Meru. One of the villages we passed was Jackson’s, a WaMeru village called Ngongongare, where he’d grown up. Along the way he waved at and chatted with people he knew, and pointed out his primary school to us. He also showed us the plot of land he owned next to his brother’s place. He had started building a house there, but was still saving up to put a roof on it. Once he had the house finished, he was hoping his wife and son would be able to move here.

    When we stopped at a little visitor’s center for Jackson to handle the paperwork, we read the sign listing the national park fees and noticed that locals pay considerably less than tourists to visit the park. Good, that’s as it should be… but we still wondered how many local people could actually afford to come here. Also, you have to pay a $35 “rescue fee” if you get lost in the park. That seemed funny at first, but since this area is a big magnet for mountain climbers, I bet they have to collect that fee more often than one might think! At least there are no predators in Arusha NP, so if you have to get lost somewhere in Africa, this is as good a place as any.

    The first animal we saw here was a huge, gorgeous African crowned eagle—an auspicious beginning for our luck with Tanzanian wildlife. Not far up the road we entered the part of the park called the “Little Serengeti,” and it was a real stunner. If someone asked me to draw a picture of the Garden of Eden, I would come up with something very much like this place: a verdant, misty plain surrounded by deep green croton trees and a purplish-blue mountain rising up beyond, filled to the brim with animals—zebras, buffalos, scampering baboons and warthogs, with no predators to threaten them and an abundance of food, so that all of them looked well-fed and healthy.

    But most of all, GIRAFFES! They were everywhere around us, strolling and grazing and lying down to nap in groups, their long necks arching gracefully into the trees and rising up out of the shrubbery, curious, as we drove slowly past. We stood up watching out the open roof of our vehicle, and had the unique thrill of making eye contact with them—seeing a giraffe, and knowing he was looking right back at us. It doesn’t matter how many times you experience that, each brief moment of contact with a wild animal is always a unique one, and it touches your soul in a way that nothing else can. This park, along with Samburu, was our most amazing opportunity to see giraffes in all their moods and attitudes and beautiful variety. Which is fitting, since they are Jackson’s favorite animal and the national animal of Tanzania, as well. Here’s something incredible we learned about giraffes today: their horns actually grow from the tops down to the skull, gradually replacing cartilage with keratin as they get older. And here’s something else incredible we overheard today, from some safari-goers in a nearby vehicle:

    Woman, perfectly serious: “Does the government feed these animals?”
    Man, totally irritated: “Oh, give me a BREAK!”

    (Makes you wonder what the soundtrack for their safari sounds like… not to mention their marriage!)

    We reluctantly moved on from the Little Serengeti, past a green, marshy area where we saw a big herd of buffalo with lots of calves, and hundreds of birds—saddlebill storks, sacred ibis, egrets, and so many others. Then through wooded areas of quinine trees and the crotons favored by giraffes. Here we saw Sykes blue monkeys up in the treetops and troops of baboons down below on the ground, pairs of dik-diks, sandpipers, little grebes, and little green bee eaters (I’m starting to see why they say Africa can make a birder out of anyone!). We stopped at the ranger station near the start of the trail that takes hikers up Mt. Meru, and Jackson told us about climbing it for fun, as well as his brief stint as a porter on the mountain. He said Meru is becoming more and more popular with climbers, because it’s not as famous—and therefore not as crowded—as its neighbor, Kilimanjaro. It’s certainly a beautiful mountain, and much less stingy about showing itself than Kili proved to be (for us, at least).

    We headed on into the dense, darker forest where the black and white colobus monkeys live, and saw a quick blur of red that Jackson said was a red forest duiker. At the end of the road was a lovely little clearing on the side of the hill, with a broad view that took in Kilimanjaro (still shrouded in clouds), the Momela lakes (where we’d be canoeing later), and Arusha town, far below. This is where we had our (enormous! who can eat all this?) picnic lunch, with the car parked behind us in front of a view of Mt. Meru, looking like it was the star of a Land Cruiser commercial. A little bushbuck strolled by, high up on the hillside. It was so nice to have a picnic outdoors and not have to head back to the lodge, and it made me wish we’d asked to do this more in Kenya. We ended up pooling the leftovers from our three lunch boxes (Jackson couldn’t finish his either) and saved them to give to our canoe guides later on.

  • Report Abuse

    (continued)
    After lunch we headed back down the mountain, past a pair of fighting giraffes, to Small Momela Lake to meet our canoe guides, Michael and Michael. The lake was in a very different environment from what we¡¦d seen so far today¡Xthis part of the park was surrounded by rolling hills covered with dry grass, much more open and brown. Amazing what variety there is in this little park. We buckled on our life jackets and each got into a canoe with a Michael. My Michael was extremely talkative, venting about George Bush and wanting to know what we thought of him (he seemed very happy with my reply, and at the risk of getting too political that¡¦s all I¡¦m going to say about that! ƒº). Then he asked me if I knew why ¡§all those rich Africans in America don¡¦t care enough to come visit Tanzania.¡¨ After talking with him a bit, I realized he was talking about African-American celebrities and sports stars he¡¦d seen in the media¡Xbased on what he¡¦d seen on TV and in movies, he seemed to have the idea that all African-Americans were extremely rich, and he didn¡¦t understand why most of the Americans he met on safari were white. I tried to explain that there were many wealthy people in America, but also many poor people, and everything in between¡Xand that many Americans, of any color, could not afford to come on safari even if they wanted to. ¡§But everyone is rich in America!¡¨ he insisted. I suppose compared with the average Tanzanian, most Americans are very rich indeed, so I felt silly trying to explain. I didn¡¦t feel like I had a very good answer for him, and several times he rebutted me with, ¡§I think they just do not care about Africa.¡¨ ¡§I don¡¦t think that¡¦s necessarily true,¡¨ I replied, but he just said, ¡§Bono is the one who gives most of his money to Africa, and he is a white man.¡¨ Then he became more cheerful and started telling me about ideas he had for promoting Tanzania as a travel destination, and how he thought the government could do more to make the country competitive with Kenya. ¡§Everyone thinks of a safari and they think of Kenya,¡¨ he said. ¡§But they should think of Tanzania first! Did you also go to Kenya?¡¨ When I said we had, he laughed and said, ¡§You see? But at least you made the right choice and came here too!¡¨

    Michael was a really interesting guy and I enjoyed talking with him, but he was sometimes so talkative (and always wanted to hear my opinion) that I had trouble concentrating on everything we were seeing as we paddled around the lake¡Xand there was quite a lot to see. The birdlife was especially diverse: little grebes, blacksmith plovers, cormorants taking off and skidding to a landing on the water, sacred ibis and Egyptian geese, to name just a few. Our most exciting sightings were a bit bigger, however. We paddled past a large water-bound rock and my husband¡¦s guide spotted a gigantic python stretched out on top of it, sleeping in the sun. We watched him for a moment, and then suddenly he slithered down the side and launched himself into the water with a tremendous splash! We saw a waterbuck on shore coming down to drink, and then a family of hippos peeking up out of the water a fair distance away (and believe me, we kept an eye on them and made darn sure we maintained that distance! Seeing those hippos in the same water with us was exciting, but it was also one of the few animal encounters we had on safari that really made me nervous.). The big finale of our hour-long canoe trip was paddling near three immense cape buffalos who stood on shore, staring at us with frank curiosity. It was a unique moment, to be so close to these great creatures with no metal or glass between us, and to not feel any worry about it.

    The Michaels were happy to get our sandwiches and cookies when we said goodbye back on shore. As they dragged the canoes out of the water and stacked them on shore, I asked whether they ever worried they might come out here some afternoon and find a family of baboons paddling around on the lake. One of the Michaels laughed and said maybe he should leave a few life jackets behind, just in case.

    Back on our drive, we headed off into the forest again in search of those elusive colobus. On the way through the woods we passed a shy bushbuck mother and baby, who both startled when a nearby baboon let loose shrill warning call (actually, I was a bit startled, too). We drove past the clearing where the two male giraffes were still locked in their slow-motion dance of a fight, and stopped to watch them. They had an audience of waterbucks as well, so Jackson told us the legend about how they got the white markings on their rear ends: they were last animals to arrive on Noah¡¦s ark, and the only place left to sit was the freshly-painted toilet seat! The next pair of waterbucks came along and sat down on the closed toilet lid¡K and that¡¦s why one variety has a white ring on its rear, and the other has a solid white patch.

    As we drove uphill into the dense forest, we were so busy craning our necks upward in search of primates we almost missed seeing a little suni antelope down on the ground. And then, what luck! There were those gorgeous colobus monkeys with their long white plumes of tails hanging down from the branches. They were so animated, such fun to watch as they raced along and followed one another down paths in the tree branches. One of the monkeys was a tiny baby, hiding behind his mother and peeking down at us.

    Our last big sight in Arusha NP was the overlook at the top of the Ngurdoto Crater, a deep bowl of green that is closed to vehicles and about as pristine-looking as anything we¡¦d seen in Africa. A large herd of buffalo were grazing below us, black dots on a patchwork of green. We were allowed to get out of the car and hike up a short way to the viewpoint. While we stood here admiring the view of the crater, a crowned hornbill hopped along a high branch in a tree nearby, giving us a different sort of view. On our way back down the road from the lookout, we saw an interesting drama unfolding¡Xan eagle perched in a tree and hunting a very nervous blue monkey, who was gathering leaves in the brush below and didn¡¦t seem to know exactly what he was so nervous about. The monkey kept glancing around and pausing in his work to duck into the bushes, then popping back out and making little peeps of alarm. Meanwhile, the eagle tracked his every move with its head, ruffling its feathers and creeping forward on the branch, getting ready to strike. At the last second, the monkey finally looked up and must have seen the eagle, because he let out a blood-curdling shriek and darted away into the brush. The eagle settled patiently back on the branch, and we were a bit relieved that we¡¦d been spared the sight of monkey death.

    Our last animal sighting on our way out of the park was a group of elephants neck-deep in the bushes, busily grumbling and talking amongst themselves. As we drove slowly by, one of them raised her trunk like a periscope and sniffed us out, and another one trumpeted at us. What an incredible little park this was! It¡¦s sad that it seems to be left out of so many northern circuit itineraries, because it really packs a diverse wallop into a relatively small area. You can see the whole park in a day, and it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful spots we visited. If you¡¦re a fan of giraffes, you should definitely come here!

    We had a very brief peek at Kili as we drove up the bumpy road to Karama Lodge (finally! that stubborn, camera-shy mountain!), so we celebrated the day by hanging out in the lounge and sampling the local Kilimanjaro lager. We liked the lounge so much, we asked if we could have our dinner there instead of downstairs in the main restaurant, and our waiter said no problem. Another delicious dinner, with a spicy veggie dish called ¡§the crazy imam.¡¨ But things got a bit bizarre when another couple decided to do the same as us and have their dinner in the lounge. They sat so close to us we couldn¡¦t help but overhear everything they were saying. He was an older white guy with an American accent, and she was a very young African woman in a fancy dress. He started talking (loudly) about how, since he was going off to jail, he thought they should break up. She began sobbing and he just sat there drinking his beer and explaining that she should always do what he said, since he was the older and wiser one. It was all very creepy. Fortunately, a big group of mountain climbers came into the bar to celebrate their successful Kili climb, and they were so boisterous that Creepy Jail Guy and his girlfriend moved to the other side of the lounge to get away from them. We spent the rest of the evening trying to imagine the story behind that odd couple¡K but really, we were glad we didn¡¦t know it.

  • Report Abuse

    Apologies for the screwy characters in that last post. First, it would not let me post at all. Then I tried posting this installment in two parts, and it looks like the first part is fine but the second part somehow messed up all the quotation marks and apostrophes. I give up! Hopefully it isn't too horribly hard to read -- I don't think there is any way I can fix it at this point, is there? :(

    Fodor's editor, what's going on? I've never had this problem before.

  • Report Abuse

    Raelond, you'll love it. The other great thing about Arusha NP (at least when we were there) is that other than the "do they feed these animals" folks, we never saw another vehicle, except at the ranger stations when we stopped for bathroom breaks. It really felt like we had the park to ourselves. Are you planning on canoeing?

  • Report Abuse

    Arusha did look like what you'd picture for Eden. Eden with giraffes. Your description of Arusha would make your Tanzanian guide happy if he was looking to promote the country.

    Python sunning on a rock--lucky.

    The exchange between the guy going to jail and his companion interrupted by the mountain climbers is something out of a movie.

  • Report Abuse

    We do canoe trips in British Columbia, so we are looking forward to canoeing in Arusha Park. I was happy to see in your picture that a guide will be with us in the canoe, as I wouldn't want an encounter with a hippo.

  • Report Abuse

    Enjoyed your trip report. Loved the pictures. Thanks for the advice about the homemade bean bags-you saved me money. Was it cold enough for you to need the fleece gloves and hat? We are going this August which I understand to be winter in Africa. I'm confused about what to pack for the cold. We have fleece jackets , long sleeve shirts, and the convertible pants. Now we'll pack gloves and warm hats inside our beanbags!! Can you think of anything else we should pack for the cooler mornings and nights? Also after reading your report I went out and bought myself a journal. I know my wriring won't be anywhere near as entertaing as yours was but I'm going to give it a try. You should think about writing an article similar to your trip report and submit it to some travel magazines-it's that good or maybe even better than others I've read. Again thanks for such a fantastic insightinto you and your husband'd African experience.

  • Report Abuse

    coldenchris,

    Thanks for your nice feedback! I'm so glad you're enjoying my report. This trip meant so much to me and the group of people on this board helped me so much in planning and getting ready for it, so I am thrilled to get to share some stories with you guys.

    To answer your question about warm clothing, yes we did use the hats and fleece several times for early morning cold (especially at Mt. Kenya, Sweetwaters, and the Ngorongoro Crater). We never needed the gloves. (The fleece hats also came in handy for helping our driver wipe condensation off the misty car windows while driving to the Crater!) As a general rule, I always take a fleece pullover and a set of thermals (top and bottoms) no matter where I'm going, because they are small and light and you just don't know what the weather will do. The ones I have are made of that "Coolmax" fabric, so they really don't add much to the weight of the luggage and they fit easily underneath other clothes. In a pinch, I could wear the thermals, a t-shirt, a long-sleeve and then my fleece over that and be really warm. Just bring things that you can layer, because even if it's cold in the morning you'll probably be peeling those layers off as the day goes on.

    I'm so glad you decided to keep a journal! You'll be glad you did. We were really happy to have a little notebook for jotting down things during the day (animal sightings, quotes from our guide, signs we saw along the way, people's names), because we had very little downtime on this trip and it was easy to fall behind in my journaling. That way I didn't have to worry about trying to remember absolutely everything! Hopefully your journal will inspire a trip report for us when you get home... :)

  • Report Abuse

    PART 14 – “Chef’s Surprise!” (Oct. 5th, 2007)

    This morning, my husband’s 36th birthday, we had to catch an 8am flight on Air Excel, from Arusha to the Kuro airstrip in Tarangire. Jackson would be picking us up at 7:00, so we’d set the alarm for 5:30am, to have plenty of time for showers, breakfast and last minute packing. I woke to birdsong and a faint filter of light, a little surprised that it was so light already and not yet 5:30, since I hadn’t heard the alarm yet… and when I looked at my watch, it was 6:15! I still have no idea why the alarm didn’t go off (and where were those neighborhood roosters when we needed them?), but there was no time to think about that because we had only 45 minutes to get our act together. (Important lesson learned: always pack your bags up the night before!) I jumped in the shower while my husband ran over to the dining room with a Ziploc bag, to see if we could just get our breakfast fruit to go. After this panicky start to the day, we managed get out of the lodge on time, eating breakfast in the car on the way to the airport. We arrived, checked in, said goodbye to Jackson (we’d be seeing him again in a few days), and then sat around for more than an hour waiting for our plane to arrive. No surprise, it was late. After reading all the cautions on this board about the strict weight limits on luggage for the little bush planes, we’d gone to a lot of trouble to reorganize our duffels and daypacks—putting small, heavy items like our zoom lens and flashlight and electronic things in our pockets and wearing our heaviest clothes. As it turned out, they only weighed our duffel bags, not our daypacks, so we were well under the 33lb limit and didn’t need to worry after all. While we waited for our little plane to arrive, we emptied our pockets and reorganized again, feeling a little silly for all the fuss. (Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t try to pack light… when we weighed everything at home, duffels and daypacks with all our camera gear and donations for the kids at the RVCV, we still came in around 35lb per person, and that wasn’t too hard to do. But we’d picked up some wood carvings and a soapstone rhino along the way in Kenya, so we’d been worried that we would be a few more pounds over.)

    We ended up being the only people on the little plane, sitting right behind the pilot, where we had an excellent view of the control panel. No big production like we’re used to on flights, just a few quick words about wearing our seatbelts and we were off. Too bad flying isn’t always like this! Arusha looked so beautiful from the air, with its long rows of purple jacarandas alongside orderly coffee fields, all those shades of green like a patchwork quilt below us. It would be a while before we saw so much green again—the landscape changed rapidly beneath us, giving way to more arid farmlands and then to scrub dotted with the little circles of Maasai bomas, and finally nothing beneath us but clouds. As we began to descend into Tarangire we saw the crooked, meandering outline of a river, the massive “upside down” figures of baobab trees, and then black-and-white dots of zebras and the distinctive outlines of elephants at a waterhole. It was a treat to see these things from the air, and really whetted our appetite for what we might find here.

    Our guide from Oliver’s Camp, Arthur, was waiting for us by the airstrip with a huge, funky old Land Rover: all open on the sides with three rows of seats that got higher in the back like stadium seating, a real monster of a vehicle. The Kuro landing strip was even smaller and more remote than the one we’d been to in the Mara, just a long stretch of dark red earth with a little ranger’s shack nearby and no lodges or other vehicles as far as the eye could see. I already could tell I was going to love this place! And my concerns about changing guides yet again was quickly alleviated. The camp has a great team of guides who really know this neck of the woods, and since we were flying in and staying there on an all-inclusive basis it wouldn’t have made any sense to bring our own guide. But after having two terrific guides so far, I wondered if our luck would hold.
    Well, Arthur was great, and we liked him right away: a big, jovial guy with a great sense of humor, quick to laugh (and pull your leg), and a fountain of knowledge about all things Tarangire. We weren’t sure at first exactly how things worked at the camp, but as it turned out we would have Arthur and the monster Land Rover all to ourselves for the next two days, which was wonderful. (Maybe when the camp is full people have to share guides and vehicles, but during our stay each tent got their own.)

    Our drive to camp was also a game drive; we were immediately greeted by zebras, wildebeest, a group of waterbucks and a pretty speckled hornbill. And by tse tse flies, those nasty little devils with the sharp bite. They turned out not to be as big a problem as I’d anticipated, especially considering we had an open vehicle, but they’re still pretty unpleasant. And all those warnings you hear about not wearing blue? Believe it! We saw some big blue fabric panels hanging in the trees near a ranger outpost and asked Arthur what they were. “Those mark the places where someone has been killed by an elephant,” he said somberly, and then busted out laughing. “No, no, they’re actually tse tse fly traps.” (The next morning on our walking safari our guide was wearing a dark blue fleece shirt, and his back was just crawling with tse tses. So, don’t pack your dark colors for Tarangire.)

    We were really amazed by the size of the termite mounds here—impressive even by African standards. Some were shaped like sandcastles, others like tall cones growing straight up or leaning over at wacky angles, taller than a person (or, in my case, two people). Arthur told us about the incredible elaborate “cities” that termites have going on in there, all the various chambers for workers and nymphs and the queen, and even areas where the termites cultivate mushrooms in the dark!

    Another thing that really struck us about Tarangire on this first drive was the abundance and variety of birds. We’d seen a lot of beautiful birds on this trip, but this place really took the cake for diversity—every time we turned around, there was another bird, many of which we’d never seen before. (One of the things I did on this trip—and was really happy about later—was keep a comprehensive animal and bird list for each park we visited. It was a fun little appendix to my journal. Tarangire ended up being one of the longest lists.) In about five minutes we saw in quick succession: red-necked spur fowl, two giant hammerkop nests (but no birds, darn it), a von den decken’s hornbill, Egyptian geese, a white-browed coucal, ring-necked doves, blacksmith plovers, superb starlings, a buffalo weaver (the first we’d seen of the Small 5), and dozens of birds Arthur called LBJs—“little brown jobs.” The area we were in doesn’t have the huge baobabs, but we saw plenty of other beautiful trees, including many varieties of palms, euphorbia (“candelabra”) trees, acacias, and sausage trees festooned with their heavy fruit.

    After passing a herd of impalas, Arthur found us our second of the Small 5, or at least evidence of them—the perfectly round little pits in the red earth that mark the dens of ant lions. I really had not expected to see any of the Small 5, and here we’d found two already! We joked with Arthur that since we’d seen all of the Big 5 early on in our trip, it was his job to find us all of the Small 5 here. Arthur groaned dramatically and pretended he was going to faint, crying, “But that is a MUCH harder job! Your Kenyan guide had it easy!”

    As we approached the neon green swath of the Silale Swamp, we could hardly believe our eyes: in the midst of all that dry, orange earth and scrubby vegetation was a broad stroke of green as vibrant as a rice paddy. I asked Arthur what it was, and he told us, “That’s the part where they irrigate.” I almost believed him for a second, because it looked as unreal as a farmer’s field in a desert. But of course he quickly laughed and told us the truth. The Silale Swamp was one of the most scenic landscapes we saw on our entire trip, that beautiful field of green like a mirage, with a single purple mountain rising behind it and—when we looked more closely—dark humps of elephants with bright white specks of birds riding on their backs, so deep in the swamp you could only see the very tops of them, like the bumps of the Loch Ness monster. So many other animals nearby too, drawn to the water and the rich grazing: impala, steenbok, waterbuck, and hundred and hundreds of birds, including black-shouldered kites, egrets, hadada ibis and open-billed storks. One of our absolute favorite bird sightings occurred here. We saw two secretary birds strutting across the road, their sharp black and white markings bright against the orange earth. Arthur started pointing out all the ways they resembled “secretaries”—the pens tucked behind their ears, their short black miniskirts, and their habit of rapidly “typing” on the ground with their feet to stir up tasty insects. Right as he was saying this, one of them was kind enough to demonstrate her fast and furious typing skills! We also saw three huge, black southern ground hornbills racing alongside the road and then spreading their impressive wings to skim a few feet off the ground in flight.

    But, who am I kidding here? The main event at the swamp was really the elephants, as we would discover over the next two days. At this first visit, there were two groups of them present, including a very large herd that was closer to shore and not totally submerged in the swamp. Starlings and egrets perched on their backs while the ellies used their trunks to rip up long, wet strands of grass and then whipped and thrashed them around to shake the soil off the roots before tucking it carefully into their mouths. They managed to be both comically animated and entirely graceful at the same time. Tarangire is really one of the best places to watch elephants in East Africa, but the elephants here are more wary and less tolerant of people than their cousins up in the Masai Mara. Arthur was always careful to keep a respectful distance between us and them, and to try to maintain an escape route. He told us he didn’t like to turn off the engine too close to a group of elephants, because Tarangire mama elephants didn’t hesitate to charge Land Rovers if they weren’t happy (and this time he didn’t seem to be joking). There were a LOT of mama elephants here, that’s for sure—we saw more baby elephants here than in all the other parks combined. And they were keeping a sharp eye on us as they went about their business.

  • Report Abuse

    Other lovely sights on this drive: an elegant fish eagle, stocky little warthogs with tails high in the air, a gigantic bateleur eagle, African jacanas and a flitty little lilac-breasted roller, a reedbuck doe and buck at the edge of the swamp (him short and stocky with impish little horns, her tall and willowy and blond).

    And then, the Land Rover died. At first I thought maybe Arthur had pulled another joke on us, but no. He’d stopped the car to watch the reedbucks, and it simply wouldn’t start again. After a few tries he looked back at me and asked, “Do you know how to drive with a stick shift?” Wow, that was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve had to do in a long time. I felt so tiny behind the wheel of that monster vehicle, and the clutch was so stiff it took all the strength in my wimpy leg to just push it in! Arthur and my husband were in back, pushing the beast forward while I popped the clutch, and after a few tries we got it going. Fortunately there were no mama elephants or hungry lions nearby… As I happily relinquished the driver’s seat, Arthur hopped back in and said, “Now you can be a safari guide. You know how to spot animals, and you can start a dead Land Rover!” For the rest of the drive to Oliver’s Camp, he didn’t shut the engine off again. But even in that short drive there was so much to see—yellow-collared lovebirds, wildies, zebras & hartebeests in a huge herd, and then a pair of bateleur eagles in flight, doing flips in the sky high above our heads.

    By the time we arrived at camp it was only lunch time, but we felt like it could have been enough excitement to fill an entire day. We had high hopes for this particular camp (it was the big splurge of our trip, after all), and Oliver’s did not disappoint us. As much as we liked the other lodges we’d stayed at since, both of us had been pining a bit for Elephant Bedroom in Samburu. Oliver’s was another wonderful tented camp that captured that same feeling of being well and truly out in the bush. It doesn’t hit you over the head with wow-factor architecture or a waterhole or a gorgeous location. Instead, it’s more subtle than that—a place that really feels remote and wild, that gives you the sensation you might be at the only camp in Africa. There is a main dining tent and campfire circle, and the individual sleeping tents are set fairly far away from each other, down winding dirt paths surrounded by “adrenaline” grass (so tall we could hardly see over it, so it was like walking through a tunnel). My favorite part of the whole camp was the library tent, where we could relax on worn, comfy leather chairs or stretch out on a sofa and read from the small library of books (or in my case, desperately try to catch up on my journal). Everything was decorated with animal skulls, tortoise shells, old sepia-tone photos. The camp was elegant in it simplicity, and in the way everything looked well-used and broken in and authentic. Nothing new and shiny, nothing to distract you from what you saw when you looked out the open sides of the common area tents—just the landscape and the sky. I immediately felt at home here.

    Our tent was beautiful, too. It had a writing desk, a very comfy bed, and a fabric screen to conceal a little changing area and the door to the attached open-air bathroom. It’s silly to gush about a bathroom, I know, but this was really the perfect safari bathroom! It had round walls and no roof, so it was open to the blue sky and the stars, with a bucket sink and shower and a composting toilet. I’m sure some people might think this was too rustic, but it was so beautifully designed and so much less intrusive than trying to put plumbing in a place like this. There is no running water at Oliver’s, and only solar electricity to power tiny lamps for the tents at night—candlelight and oil lamps are everywhere else in camp. But we didn’t miss the modern conveniences at all, because Oliver’s finds a way to immerse you in the bush and spoil you all at once, and it was everything I’d dreamed a safari camp would be. We were surprised to discover that only five people were staying in the camp, so that added to the atmosphere as well.

    After a delicious lunch with Arthur, we set off again on another game drive. A mechanic had repaired the Land Rover for us while we ate, and now it was running just fine. We had equally good luck with sightings this afternoon, including lots of birds, eagles, so many zebras (they looked gorgeous standing in sharp relief against the red earth), and mixed herds of hartebeest and wildebeest, part of Tarangire’s own little migration. But, like this morning, the elephants at the swamp stole the show. We discovered a group of more than 50 elephants hanging out, grazing and wading into the swamp, and tending their babies. As we watched more and more elephants began to appear, families in long lines coming out of the woods, crossing the road and coming down to join the others at the edge of the swamp. It was an incredible sight. Each new group that arrived would be greeted by the others with a flurry of trumpeting, spinning in circles, urinating, squealing, and constantly touching and stroking one another with their trunks. Some of the elephants even grasped and shook trunks like people shake hands, and others gently stroked each other’s faces. It was like watching a joyous reunion of long-lost friends.

    There was big excitement at one point when two young bulls got into a fight. It started out playful enough, but then things quickly got out of hand with all the pushing and shoving and charging. We could see a very small baby nearby starting to cringe and look frightened. “That’s the kind of behavior that gets them kicked out of the herd,” Arthur said. And as though she had heard him, the mother of the scared little baby suddenly had had enough—she charged in between the young boys, swinging her head from side to side, and broke up the fight.

    We finally had to say goodbye to these wonderful animals and head back for dinner, but we took a long loop through the woods on the way and were lucky enough to spot a mongoose picking over the carcass of a zebra that had been left behind by lions a few days ago. One of the great things about having a guide who lived at camp is that he knew so much about the local animals and what they’d been up to. Apparently this same lion pride had also killed a zebra right outside camp the night before we arrived. More animals on the way home as the light was fading: a lone Masai giraffe, a black-bellied bustard, a tawny eagle, and an owl keeping watch over the road back to camp.

    Evenings at Oliver’s followed a very relaxing routine, as we discovered tonight. Our arrival back at camp was at dusk, so several of the guys walked with us through the dim, rustling grass back to our tent. A few minutes later, someone arrived with buckets of water heated over a fire, and called out, “Are you ready for your shower?” What a wonderful treat to take a shower under that canopy of stars and wash off the dust of the day! In clean clothes and feeling completely refreshed, we walked with the guys back to the dining tent, where we all gathered around the campfire for sundowners and what Arthur called “bush TV” – drinks and snacks, chatting with the other guests, and stories from the guides while watching the dancing flames. Tonight we tried a different local beer, the aptly named Safari, which remains our favorite East African beer (sorry, Tusker).

    Dinner tonight was a scrumptious barbeque with so many types of meat and veggies to choose from, all delicious. For dessert, camp manager Richard announced that we’d be having the “chef’s surprise.” One of the things we loved best of all about Oliver’s is that the guides had meals with us, everyone at one big table, and there didn’t seem to be such a separation between the staff and the guests. I imagine that must be tough for them sometimes, to never have a break from the guests! But we really loved it, and how it made us feel like we were visiting someone’s home, not a hotel. This was our first chance to really talk with the other guests—a woman from Kent who was traveling solo in celebration of her 70th birthday (and a veteran of many trips to Africa), and a honeymooning couple from Manchester (who were, like us, on their first safari). There were lots of stories, quite a bit of laughter, and a lengthy discussion about pet dogs (so Kyle continued to play a crucial role in our safari).

    In the midst of all the merriment (and copious amounts of wine), suddenly we heard singing. And here came the chef’s surprise—a birthday cake baked from scratch in the bush, blazing with candles, and the entire staff dancing in a conga line singing “Happy Birthday!” (The cake itself actually said HAPPY BITHIDAY.) They went immediately into a chorus of “How Old Are You Now?” and my husband, laughing, answered in his best Swahili, saying what he thought was “36.” (The next day, one of the guys remarked to me, sounding impressed, “Your husband looks so young for 46!”) He also said a few other things in Swahili that elicited whoops of appreciation from the staff: “Thanks, my birthday is very nice. The food is delicious!” They were all impressed by that, and someone asked me if I could speak Swahili as well as he could. I told them I knew one very important sentence: “Choo kiko wapi?” (Where is the bathroom?), which caused the whole tent to erupt in gales of laughter. (Well, I do know a few more Swahili words than that, but I certainly couldn’t remember them in the moment!) Everyone toasted his birthday and wished him many more safaris… and I’m sure that’s what he was wishing too, as he blew out his candles and passed around pieces of cake. I think it’s safe to say this qualifies as his best birthday ever.

    We walked tipsily back to our tents in the darkness with our guides by our side. There were rustling sounds everywhere around us, and little dark shapes of mice skittering across the path away from our flashlight beams. I kept looking up at all the stars; it seemed every speck in the universe was visible, the thick streak of the milky way coursing across one corner of the sky. All around us was that incredible mix of silence and sound that I’ve never heard anywhere else. As we drifted in and out of sleep tonight, we heard the pitter patter of little feet across the roof of our tent, the cries of bush babies and, at one point, a sudden rush of large bodies moving through the grass as a group of animals hurried past our tent. In the morning, we found neat little mouse tooth marks nibbled all the way around our soap.

  • Report Abuse

    We just returned from a 19 day safari in Kenya and Tanzania. We had a great time and didn't see any signs of the violence. We spent nine days with James from Eastern and Southern Safaries. What a wonderful guy and driver/guide. He was thrilled to receive the booklet you had made and sent to him. He was so proud to show it to us. We told him that we had been reading about your adventures on the internet and he was very curious to find the website to see for himself. His email address is jnmacharia@yahoo.com if you are interested.

    We have enjoyed reading about your experiences and now have experienced much of the same. Thank you for sharing them with us.

  • Report Abuse

    Oh, that's terrific! Lucky you to have a safari with James! And what a small world, huh? I'm so glad you had a great time, and I am amazed to think about James showing our photo book to another Fodorite. Hearing that just made my day. :)

    Yeah, we owe him a letter and I will definitely send him the link to this report if he wants to read it. I'm really pleased to hear that James and E&S had you as a client, because I know this has been a tough time for them. If I could go back to Kenya with them, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

    Glad you've enjoyed reading about our trip. It makes all the typing worthwhile. ;)

  • Report Abuse

    Arthur sounds like a hoot! Were they spiny mice that ate the soap? Did you ever get a look at them? We had those at Samatian Island and they had covers to go over the soap dish. They were also trapping them (humanely) and moving them back to the mainland.

    bfcurson,
    Welcome back! Did you end up going to Nakuru/Naivasha or changing your itinerary? Glad your trip went well.

  • Report Abuse

    You really had an incredible safari. Now I want to stay at Oliver's and have another 36th birthday. Sounds like a great camp--terrific wildlife, rustic but comfortable and nice people.


  • Report Abuse

    Patty, I'm not sure what kind of mice they were, but we saw lots of them -- including one little guy who liked to hang around in the dressing area of our tent (warning to those who don't like that sort of thing!). They were about half the size of my fist, dark brown with lighter bellies, round and chubby rather than long and lean. Really cute. I wish I'd been able to get a picture of one, because I love rodents. But we only saw them in the dark, so never had the camera handy.

    Most of the mice we saw were scurrying around on the trails at night, so for those of you who find this yucky, don't worry. We never saw them in the dining area or other common tents, and just the one little guy in our tent (who was probably also the soap-chewer). I'm pretty sure some of the feet we heard going across our roof at night were mouse feet.

    A soap cover is a good idea. I can't imagine it was very good for them to eat that.

  • Report Abuse

    Did they look like these? http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=jy877nh.9tdfgd3h&x=0&y=lc1yhb

    The bucket in the second photo is about the size of a 5 gal pail for reference. We thought they were really adorable but I imagine many other guests don't feel the same way ;) We never saw them expect in the bucket traps.

  • Report Abuse

    Oh wow, those guys are cute! (not that I'd want them over-running a camp or getting into bed with me, but still...)

    The ones we saw didn't seem to have that distinctive fur, so I don't think they were the same. But thanks for the picture!

    I guess I'm just going to have to go back to Oliver's and see if he's still there so I can take his portrait. ;)

  • Report Abuse

    Patty,
    We did not get to see Nakuru or Naivasha. Our itinerary was changed and they flew us from Samburu to Masai Mara. James, our driver/guide, returned to Nairobi.

    We met up with another great driver/guide, Wesley Kipkoros, from Bateleur Camp. We spent three days in Masai Mara where we observed a pair of cheetahs stalk, kill, and eat a Thomson's gazelle, two crocodiles attack a zebra that was trying to cross the Mara River, and the most beautiful male lion with a large black mane.

    We then flew from Masai Mara to Nairobi where we met up with James and drove to Amboseli. We saw lots of animals there, but the highlight of the area was seeing Mt. Kilimanjaro. What a sight to see.

    From Amboseli we drove through a lava flow to Tsavo. There we had the priviledge of seeing kudos. James said that they are very rare to see and that it was a dream come true.

    From Tsavo we drove back to Nairobi and caught our flight home.

    It was dishearting to see the tourism being so low. Most of the places we stayed in Kenya were no more that 10% full. The meals that were normally served buffet style were served at our table. We were told that many of the staff were working for half pay and that several of the help had been sent home. We also noticed that the Maasai people were quite visable at park entrances, begging visitors to come to their villages. They, too, seemed to be affected by the drop in tourism. We couldn't have asked for a more gracious and warm welcome from everyone at the parks, lodges, and preserves. I perceive that this is their normal persona, not due to the political situation.

    I feel compelled to mention our driver/guide in Tanzania also, Godwin Makundi from Leopard tours. I don't know if all these guys are good or if we were just blessed with some exceptional guides. They all were very warm and personable people. Each one of them showed a natural love and respect for the animals and environment in which they lived. All were very sensitive to the customs of the locals and tribal people we encountered. We never once felt like any of our game drives were cut short. They all worked very hard at exposing us to as much of Africa as we could see. To them we are eternally grateful. With their able assistance/identification skills, our final checklists included 52 plus species of mammals, 112 plus species of birds and 12 reptiles. The challenge now is sorting/selecting the best photos from 4500 plus shots! They have given us memories that we shall cherish the rest of our lives.

  • Report Abuse

    No worries. I'm happy to hear about another safari with James!

    But it would probably be good for you to post this info about your trip on a separate thread too, bfcurson -- just in case someone is looking for posts about more recent trips to Kenya (since my header says Sept/Oct '07).

  • Report Abuse

    PART 15 – “A Walk in the Park” (Oct. 6th, 2007)

    This morning our 6am wake-up call for our 6:30 walking safari came at exactly 6:30, so we missed out on the hot water and tea brought to our tent. Fortunately we’d set our own alarm (which worked this time!) and were already awake, so we made it over to the dining tent just in time to meet with our guide Alex, a young ranger named Dawa who looked even younger because of the rifle in his arms, and Ann, the only other guest staying at camp with us today. We drove a short distance then headed on foot down into a dry riverbed, following a scattered trail of dry elephant dung.

    It’s been said dozens of times on this board, but it’s worth saying again -- walking here was a completely different thing than seeing the landscape from a vehicle, and I whole-heartedly recommend that everyone try to do this at least once on their safari. It’s a bit more intense (and sometimes nerve-wracking), for one thing; even though you know that the majority of animals are so wary of humans that they’d much rather run away than attack you, there is still that little rush of fear about what could happen. I was thrilled to get my feet on the ground and stretch my legs after weeks in a vehicle. But I was also hoping, honestly, that we wouldn’t run into any big predators at too close a range, or walk around a bend in the river and surprise a bunch of elephants with little babies. Partly because I’m a bit of a chicken, but mostly because I really wanted to be as invisible as possible to the animals and not disrupt their world too much. I wanted to be able to watch them and see what they did on their own terms – not what they did in response to me.

    The thing about walking safaris is, if you are lucky enough to see some animals, they generally run away as fast as they can! A human on foot is a terrifying sight (or smell or sound). So what we really focused on were the amazing layers of life here, and the tiny details of nature that you can only experience at ground level. We learned a lot about trees—how the huge, heavy fruit of the sausage tree can break a small animal’s back when it falls… that there is such a thing as a “sandpaper” tree… that certain trees are better places to hide from elephants than others, thanks to their dense, protective mesh of low-slung branches. We also saw all the little signs that animals leave behind: tracks (Alex showed us how to tell, by the dent of the toe, which direction an elephant was walking), dung, bleached white bones, a puff adder’s skin. We found a place where dik-diks had been, leaving tiny black beads from their preorbital glands on low-growing twigs, and little middens of manure (definitely not big enough to bury a baby elephant, if you’ve heard that story!).

    As we walked farther along the riverbed Alex spotted a hyena drinking out of a well dug by elephants, but it darted quickly away. We approached the well to check it out—an impressive, deep pit dug into the dark orange earth, with tracks scattered all around its edges. After we headed away from the riverbed, Alex climbed up on a tall termite mound to have a look around, and then we headed off across a desolate, open plain that was still charred black from a recent fire. We neared some trees and saw more animal activity: hastily-retreating zebras, a giraffe, and impalas. Then I saw a flash of a grey body and tall, tall horns. I pointed and whispered, “I think that’s an oryx!” And it was—two of them, actually, so beautiful and so much more massive when seen from the ground. They noticed us and bolted off in the other direction, but I was thrilled to see them this way, and to see them in a full gallop. (This was my personal best for being the first one to spot an animal. My husband’s best sighting-before-the-guide would come a few days later.) Alex also found the third of our Little 5, a leopard tortoise. He was happy to see that pretty little fellow, since we were still in the burn area and tortoises often don’t escape when fire sweeps through their territory.

    The final surprise of our walk was encountering a lone bull elephant. He was a short distance away, but since we were in such an open area we had a terrific view of him and were able to watch him for a long time. Alex kept trying to move us a little closer, but we’d see the elephant’s trunk go up like a periscope, swiveling around until he could sniff us out, and then he’d casually stroll off in the opposite direction, maintaining his distance. He didn’t seem bothered by us, but he definitely knew we were there.

    Walking back toward the Land Rover, we all laughed about how absolutely filthy our pants were from the combination of red earth and charred, ashy branches brushing against our legs. We had to take pictures to document the “after” of a walking safari. Back at camp we were going to try to clean them up ourselves, but the camp manager insisted that we had them over. We really felt certain those pants would never come clean, but later that evening when we returned to the tent the pants were spotless and neatly folded on our bed. These guys really can work miracles out here in the middle of nowhere!

    After breakfast we set out with Arthur on another game drive. The bateleurs were at it again, flying in looping, tumbling swoops overhead. Just a few minutes outside of camp, Arthur spotted some fresh lion tracks in the soft dirt. They followed the road for a bit and then turned off into the tall grass, where we couldn’t follow. So for all we know, the lions who’d strolled past our camp earlier that morning (maybe while we were out walking in the other direction) were still just a few yards away, snoozing deep inside the adrenaline grass. But we never saw them. We did see a lot of other critters, though—zebras and hartebeest and wildies and Grant’s gazelles, warthogs, a majestic crested eagle, a family of dik-diks, and the ubiquitous Tarangire elephants. If it sounds like more of the same, I assure you it wasn’t, because every time you see these creatures they are doing something different. I never tired of it. We passed a completely segregated group of wildebeest and zebras, each on a different side of the road—Arthur called this configuration “football teams.” He said, “Zebras kick better, and wildebeests like to head-butt the ball. The zebras almost always win.”

    One of the most picturesque sights we saw this morning was a male ostrich standing beside an acacia tree on a wide, flat plain, with the purple peak of a mountain rising behind him the distance. It’s almost absurd how often we’ve seen such postcard-worthy sights just driving around like this. Another fun sighting was watching the scurrying antics of a tiny dwarf mongoose, who had one of the cutest little faces in Africa. He was hilarious to watch as he dug up insects at a frantic pace, his fur almost as orange-red as the dirt around him. We stayed with him for a quite a while. I count mongooses as one of the nice surprises of this trip, an animal that I hadn’t thought much about before we came here, but enjoyed watching so much.

    There were lots of nice little surprises like that for us in Tarangire, and of course those glorious elephants, but the cats were not so cooperative. Despite seeing lots of tracks and the remains of multiple kills, we never saw any lions or leopards here. Arthur apologized several times for this (as though it was his fault?), but we assured him we didn’t mind. We were enjoying such incredible diversity here, from tiny animals to enormous ones, and so many beautiful birds, to boot. “Oh, look!” Arthur said at one point, indicating a huge herd in the distance surrounded by a cloud of dust. “Very rare,” he chuckled. “The Tarangire Red Elephant!”

    We returned to camp for lunch and a few lazy hours of downtime in the library tent, where I looked through some bird books (oh no! I’m becoming a twitcher!) and worked on my journal while my husband snoozed on the couch. One of the guys came by with a pot of coffee and hot water for chai, and then the camp manager Richard stopped by for a chat. It was fun and enlightening to talk with him about what it’s like for these guys to live and work in the bush. If there’s anything at all disappointing about being on safari, it’s that you never have enough time for everything you’d like to do—game drives and hanging out at camp, reading, writing, napping (necessary after staying awake all night to listen to the chorus of animal sounds), campfire stories and meals, talking with new friends. We could already understand why people become safari addicts, because it’s not like any other travel adventure we’ve ever had. Hanging out at camp this afternoon with the library tent’s sides open to the view of the bush and a collection of animal skulls watching over us, I felt as much “on safari” as I did while bouncing around in the Land Rover.

    On our afternoon game drive, Arthur asked if we had any requests, and we said, “A great African sunset!” That was one of the few things that had eluded us on our trip so far. He laughed and said, “I’ll see what I can do.” The first fellow we saw out of camp was a tawny eagle, followed by a lone zebra. The fact that she was separated from her herd gave us pause, so we stayed a bit to see if any predators might be lurked. Nope. A short ways onward we saw what must have been the rest of her herd, with several mares nursing very small foals. Down at the Silale swamp, we had another incredible elephant show. When we arrived, a herd of more than 60 elephants was crossing the road and making their way down to into the swamp, their huge feet making sucking sounds in the deep mud. Some of the smallest babies got stuck in the mud, and their older ones had to help them pull free. More and more elephants arrived, materializing out of the trees in long lines and small bunches, crossing the road in front of us. By the time we had to tear ourselves away and head off to Arthur’s sunset spot, we’d counted well over 100 elephants, with more still coming in a steady stream.

    We saw two more impressive herds on the way toward the other side of the swamp. The first was a large group of wildebeest, who startled and bolted at the sight of a tawny creature who came slowly out of the tall grass, hunched down and stalking them from behind… and then turned out to be a little male reedbuck! “He’s pretending to be a lion for you,” Arthur laughed, and we had to agree – the wildies certainly seemed fooled!

    The second herd was farther in the distance, so we had to use our binoculars to identify them, but what a sight. It was a group of 30 or 40 banded mongooses, ambling along in a line across the wide-open plain. When they heard our vehicle, they stood up—all these little heads popping up at once—and then they took off running full speed, an undulating mass of furry bodies. It was one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen. “The Great Migration,” Arthur narrated, trying to keep a straight face.

    He drove us to a hillside with a wide view of the plain and the swamp to await the sunset. And here, not purposely looking for animals at all, we had one of our most magical sightings. Three silver-backed jackal pups popped up out of the grass and approached our Land Rover, completely guileless and fascinated with us, their curiosity stronger than their sense of caution. They came right up to us and looked up into the open car, and we had a good long time to enjoy that most amazing of feelings—looking right into the eyes of a wild creature, and knowing they are looking back. What on earth were they thinking when they saw us? Since we know and love a dog so well at home, it was especially gratifying to have a moment like this with one of his distant relatives. After losing interest in us, one of the pups headed around to the other side of our vehicle, where he tried to watch some crowned plovers and got a severe scolding from the birds. The three pups eventually joined us again to sit in front of us and watch the sunset—a fiery orange glow, the orb of the sun sinking behind the dark wall of the Great Rift Valley in the distance. “Just what you ordered,” Arthur said. With a side order of baby jackals.

    Our resident owl was our last animal of the night, waiting in his tree to usher us back into camp. And then it was time for another bucket shower and more “bush TV”—Safari beer and munchies and campfire stories about elephant charges and hyenas coming into camp and a Tanzanian game show called “Hot Chair,” followed by another delicious dinner. There were two new guests in camp tonight, a woman from South Africa who’d brought her own guide all the way from home. She told us that one of his duties was to teach her how to use her new camera! (Word to the wise: it’s really worth learning that sort of thing before you leave home.) It was hard to sleep tonight with all the little critters running around on the roof of our tent. But maybe it wasn’t just the critters… maybe it was also knowing that this was our last night at Oliver’s, and tomorrow we’d have to say another goodbye.

  • Report Abuse

    MyDogKyle,
    Up until now I've missed this thread, and I am so glad I saw it. I’ve only read the Kenya portion, and haven’t yet looked at your photos, but what a magnificent trip report. Your writing style is superb!

    What a great way to celebrate your 10th anniversary and your husband’s birthday all in one. I love your description of how difficult it is to put into words your feelings about the overall experience and the impact such a trip has. I know many of us echo your sentiments in this regard.

    Your description of the planning process (doing research, planning your itinerary, choosing a TA) and items you found useful on safari will be very helpful to others. Great way to start the report.

    I love all the details you’ve included at the start of the report, down to feeling sorry for the woman in the Visa line with people eyeing her suspiciously as if she were a con-artist, the men cooking on the rooftop, and the moment you realized you were “in Africa.” Your descriptions of people and places throughout the report are very insightful.

    Your description of your tour of Nairobi, drive through Kikuyu country, and of the Rift Valley are a nice addition to a trip report, most of which focus solely on the wildlife. You describe the beauty of the African landscape, the colors of the country, and the expansiveness of it all so well throughout your report. As I am reading, I feel transported back to this magical place. Thank you.

    You had such great luck with the eles at Mountain Lodge. A baby still learning to walk must have been a real treat. Your safari obviously got started off on the right track! Your stay at Elephant Bedroom Camps sounds fantastic. A leopard, elephants right outside your tent illuminated by a full moon, a giraffe fight, and on you way back to camp when you thought your day was over, four lionesses beginning to hunt, all very exciting. You were also very lucky with lions at Sweetwaters. A pride of 14-15 including cubs followed by rhino to round out your big 5 makes for another very productive game drive for you and your husband. I’d say so far you’ve been quite lucky on this trip. You saw a lot of babies, and I particularly enjoyed reading about the Oryx mother teaching her baby to head-butt with the other on the sidelines watching. You also had great luck at Lake Nakuru. I’m glad the rain added to your trip rather than detracting from it. How luck you were with the rhinos. I really enjoyed your description of how even though you think you know what to expect when seeing the flamingos, that until you are there you have no idea how it will affect you. I realize I’m sounding redundant here, but the details in this report are just fabulous.

    It’s sad about the minibus wreck and the dead driver, and that both will forever be a part of your memory for this trip. How appropriate, though, that you put it all in perspective and say that the greatest danger on your entire trip is one which you face everyday at home during a commute to work.

    I like your description of the hot air balloon. Even if you do see a fair amount of wildlife, it is an odd vantage point from which to see them. I am again transported back in time at your comment about feeling out of place having breakfast in the Mara with wildlife as your spectators. James sounds like a great guide. His humor really started coming through by the time you got to the Mara, didn’t it? You were very fortunate to witness the migration, see four cheetahs, a baby jackal, and a herd of topis. I’ve only seen lone topi on termite mounds, never a herd. It seems you were very lucky everywhere you went.

    Thank you for this wonderful report. It truly captures the essence of Africa.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, Dana! I'm glad you're enjoying it. It is very hard to convey exactly what this trip meant to me, and include everything I want to include. I'm just sorry it's so darn long, and taking me such a long time to get it posted (hopefully I won't still be working on it when we hit the 1-year anniversary of our trip!). I'm closing in on the last few days of our mainland safari, and then need to get to Zanzibar... hopefully I'll get another post or two added this week.

    I do hope my story brings back nice memories for people who've been, and maybe helps some others in planning their own trips. This chat board was a godsend for me while we were planning, and it's helping me get my Africa fix now that I'm back home and can't plan another safari right away!

  • Report Abuse

    How exciting that your personal best sightinging was on foot.

    Your comment about seeing the same animals but seeing them do different things so accurate. It's why every time out is a new adventure.

    I'll be checking out the pics next.

  • Report Abuse

    PART 16 – “You Are So, So Lucky!” (Oct. 7th, 2007)

    This morning’s wake-up call came on time—a soft “Jambo!” accompanied by tea on a tray and fresh hot water in our bucket sink. We finished packing our bags and enjoyed one last meal at Oliver’s. As I gazed out from the dining tent at the golden grass and the wide sky above it, I felt sadness creeping over me. Some of it was, of course, saying goodbye to this wonderful camp and the even more wonderful Arthur. But it was also that I was just now beginning to feel that slide downhill, realizing that we’d turned the corner and were heading into the final leg of our safari.

    The staff gathered to see us off and they all waved as Arthur pulled the Land Rover away, heading back toward the Kuro airstrip. I waved back and watched the tents retreating into the distance until—quite soon—they vanished into the grass and were gone. We had a terrific game drive on our way to the airstrip, and all the animals of Tarangire seemed in cahoots to keep us from leaving. First we were stopped by the Tanzanian traffic police (as Arthur called them): two zebras who stood sideways in a perfect barricade across the road. Considering that we were there with the engine running, they stayed much longer than I would expect an average zebra to stand still. After they moved along, we passed some reedbucks and a stately eland standing under a tree. Next, we encountered a complete surprise—a mother serval and her kitten slinking through the tall grass! We were so flabbergasted by this sight, we barely managed to snap a picture before they completely disappeared. But I was glad to have a moment of looking right at the kitten’s little face before he bopped away, and I doubt I could ever have captured that even if my camera was ready. They were well camouflaged in the grass, but as they hurried away we could track their progress by the bright flashes of the white spots on the backs of their ears. So, Tarangire did not keep all of its cats from us, after all—and I would take these little guys over a dozen lions any day!

    Of course, we saw a great variety of birds this morning, as on all our Tarangire game drives, including a fish eagle, an adorable little African hoopoe (who quickly became a new favorite with his unique looks and his comical manner), kingfishers and starlings and more rollers. Then our way was blocked again, this time by a mama elephant and her kids. As they moved silently into the dry, skeletal brush by the side of the road, they showed us once again how effortlessly an elephant can become invisible. By now we’d eaten up quite a lot of our travel time, so Arthur started to hurry onward. But we’d only gone a short distance before yet another roadblock stopped us in our tracks. This time it was a big herd of buffalo, cows and calves. They sauntered across the road, taking their time and surrounding us on both sides. Hey, girls, we have a plane to catch! But they were in no hurry, and the babies lifted their noses at us in that charmingly snooty-looking cape buffalo salute.

    At last the buffalo moved on and we could drive forward, and that’s when it really started to get silly. A herd of bachelor impalas rushed onto the road and blocked our way. And then the real problem, only a short distance farther—a large herd of elephants crossing slowly in front of us, in what seemed like an endless column. It was the grand finale to our stay in Tarangire, and it made us feel, just a little bit, like maybe the animals wanted us to stay as much as we did.

    We did end up making it to the airstrip with a few minutes to spare before our little plane arrived, so fortunately we had time for a proper goodbye with Arthur. Another tourist was standing in the center of the runway as the plane came in, and his guide and a ranger had to run out after him, yelling at him to forget taking a picture and just MOVE OUT OF THE WAY! This time we didn’t have the whole plane to ourselves—it was a full flight, everyone heading on to the Serengeti except us. I watched Tarangire disappear out the window and felt crushingly sad, missing this place (and Kenya too) all at once and so badly that it was like a physical ache. So, even the most wonderful safari is not perfect—there is this part, too. I tried to tell myself that this wasn’t the last time I would see this place. And even if it is, it is now forever a part of my memories and who I am now, so it will never really be that far away.

    Jackson met us at the airport at Lake Manyara, this time in a larger and much older, scuffed-up Land Rover. He asked about our adventures in Tarangire as we headed toward the lake, driving down a steep road past baobab trees growing on the side of the dramatic cliff. We stopped at an overlook with a wonderful view of Lake Manyara. The blue-grey water vanished into haze at its far edges, an immense puddle of reflected light at the base of the escarpment’s steep drop-off. In the forest far below, we spied the spindly necks of some giraffes and the little grey bump of an elephant.

    It was late morning and roasting hot by the time we entered the park. So, not the best time for a game drive, but we still saw quite a lot. Right away we came across a bull elephant only a few feet from the road. He was in musth, with what Jackson referred to as “GPS” (having to do with a syndrome and something being green… you can figure it out), so we kept very quiet and did our best not to disturb him. This guy offered us another up-close-and-personal moment, where I could tell he was looking right at us and thinking about us, just as we were thinking about him. He didn’t seem bothered to have us there, just kept happily ripping leaves off tree branches. After a few minutes we left him in peace.

    This park was really beautiful, with dense forest and natural springs bubbling up from the ground—all that green a nice contrast to the oranges and browns of Tarangire. Another bull elephant was waiting for us farther up the road in a cool shady spot; he willfully ignored us for a while, shuffling his feet and dragging his trunk across the dirt before deciding to head off the road into the forest, where he broke a few trees down while we watched. We saw some bachelor impalas, one with a dramatically broken horn, and as they all turned their rumps toward us Jackson pointed out the perfect black “M” on their rear: “This is why they are called the McDonald’s of the bush,” he said with a laugh. Nearby we saw more giraffes and some very young elephants with no adults in sight. I’m sure they were there hiding in the cover of the trees, keeping a close eye on us.
    As we drove out of the forest into a more open area the sun blazed down on us; most of the animals had wisely cleared out to take refuge in the shade. It made me wish we’d had the chance to come here in the early morning or later in the day. We drove through a forest of quinine trees and brush, and here we started to see a bit more activity, including lots of vervet monkeys. One mother had a baby less than a month old clinging to her belly. The monkeys would make their way up inside even the thorniest of trees and poke their little heads out the top to survey the area, outlined against the bright blue sky. We saw more primates near a stream: a busy group of baboons of all sizes and ages, searching the grass and underneath fallen logs for insects. A long, serene Nile monitor was hanging out in the sun. “Just a juvenile,” Jackson said, but you’d never guess from the size of him.

    Our last stop was the hippo pool and the wide plain beyond it, and there was plenty of action here. Hundreds (if not thousands) of white pelicans surrounded a pod of hippos who were lolling in the water and mock-fighting with their mouths open wide, showing off those big, blunt teeth. Gathered nearby was a large herd of zebras and wildies, a pair of giraffes bending their necks gracefully down to drink from a stream, warthogs and marabou storks. The noise and smell of the pelican-and-hippo party was intense, but it just added to the scene. How remarkable it is to see all these animals just hanging out together! Too soon it was time to head off to our camp for a late lunch and a chance to rest before our Big Night Out. On our way out of the park we saw blue monkeys in the forest, a harbinger of more good things to come.

    We drove back up to the top of the cliff and then out a rough, dusty road to Kirurumu. This was another tented camp, nowhere near as remote and wild as Oliver’s camp, but still nice. It reminded me of Sweetwaters, with large tents on raised platforms with fully-plumbed bathrooms, surrounded by a network of pathways and attractive common areas—a high-roofed, open dining room and a bar with an outdoor patio and a great view. Each tent had an animal’s name: ours was “Lammergeier,” after the eagle. A lot of Maasai work at the camp, and everywhere we looked we saw guys hanging out in their red and blue shukas. Since the guides ate in the dining room here, we invited Jackson to have lunch with us, and we had a lively, interesting conversation about education in Tanzania, the situation for women, and the ways that he felt his generation’s attitudes were very different from their parents’. (Looking back on it, we wished we’d had the chance to share at least a few meals with James, as well. Things seemed a lot more formal at the lodges in Kenya… or maybe we just didn’t know the drill yet and were too shy to ask.)

    After lunch we headed back to our tent to take a much-needed nap, charge batteries and do some laundry in the sink. Before we knew it, it was time to make the bumpy ride back to the park, where our bush dinner awaited. I wasn’t sure what to expect from that, but I was surprised when we only drove a short way into the park and stopped at an area near some buildings with electric lighting and a restroom just down some stairs. Okay, not exactly the setting I’d pictured when I heard “bush dinner,” but… We could hardly believe the set-up: a huge buffet, a chef in a tall white hat, a waitress hovering nearby, and one solitary, candle-lit table. All this just for us? We seriously kept waiting for other people to arrive, but the whole buffet spread really was just for the two of us. There was no way we could eat all this food, but I wanted to try at least one bite of everything. And boy, was it delicious—tilapia, mchicha (a local spinach dish), visheti (little finger-shaped “donuts”), and the best, most tender and flavorful beef I’ve ever had. I told the chef that, and he just beamed. He was eager for us to try everything and basked in our compliments, and we felt obligated to stuff ourselves silly. Then a table laden with all types of fruits and desserts appeared, to top things off. We were so full we were ready to burst, and we kept encouraging Jackson, the chef and the waitress to please share the food with us. Does anyone ever eat all of this?? Once again, I have to mention that it was wonderful to have this fabulous meal, but also disturbing to have so very much food thrown at just the two of us, when we knew that nearby there were families who would never be able to give their kids even a fraction of this. We were glad to see the others take some food when we assured them we were all finished and couldn’t eat another bite. Hopefully none of it went to waste.

    For our night game drive, we switched to a big, open-sided Land Rover with a spotter’s seat on the front. In addition to Jackson, we were joined by a spotter and a park ranger (with his obligatory rifle). We bundled up in blankets against the chill and set off into the dark forest, watching swarms of bugs zipping around in the spotlight’s beam. It didn’t take long before we began encountering night creatures—small spotted genets, several porcupines trundling along, a freaked-out little pair of dik-diks in the road (one of whom wandered along right in front of us for a long stretch). Whenever the spotter found one of these critters, he put a red filter over his light and was careful not to let the beam linger on any animal too long. Consequently, we got a really great look at all of these animals, instead of just watching them panic and run away. Even if we hadn’t seen anything else that night, this would have been our best night game drive by far. The guiding and spotting was so much more sensitive and skillful than what we’d experienced on our other night game drives, and I just can’t say enough about the feeling of being in an open vehicle at night, with the darkness and all the sounds and smells of the forest that much closer around us.

    Our next surprise was a pair of greater bush babies high up in the trees. This was our first chance to really get a look at them (even though we’d been hearing them many nights). Also high in the treetops, we saw a pair of silvery-cheeked hornbills, looking very regal in the moonlight. A white-tailed mongoose was busy scurrying around on the ground below, an animal we hadn’t seen since Mt. Kenya. The night forest was alive with sounds—birds and monkeys and bush babies and rustlings that might have been animals or just the wind… and the sound of our ranger softly bickering with our spotter. “He doesn’t think he’s finding enough animals for you,” Jackson said quietly, with a smile. “He thinks he can do better.”

    Suddenly we heard a flurry of noise and screeching in the distance. “Baboons warning about a leopard!” Jackson said. The ranger got visibly excited and began telling us (via Jackson) that they had been seeing a large male leopard on recent nights, not far from this area. So we pushed onward, the spotter swinging his light around. And as the light passed across a patch of darkness, it illuminated a pride of lions! There were three females and a male, all lounging around not far from the road. The leopard was a maybe, the lions were a definitely… so we opted to stay with the lions for a while. The male lion was really amorous and kept sniffing around one of the lionesses, trying to encourage her to get in the mood, but she was having none of it. It was eerie to see how completely they all vanished when the light moved away, leaving us looking into pitch blackness and knowing there were some very large cats out there, somewhere very close. What else was out there behind or beside or in front of us, unseen but able to see us? How easily could one of those cats just stroll around behind us and right up to our open vehicle? It was a spine-tingling thought… but still, I loved this more than just about anything I’ve ever experienced, being out here in the night with them. As the light passed over them, the lions looked back at us with infinite patience, and then most of them went back to sleep.

    We finally moved along and left them alone, feeling pretty certain we’d already seen the highlight of our night game drive. But we were wrong. All of a sudden, a low-slung, cartoonish little fellow came wandering out onto the road in front of us. “Oh, look!” I breathed, barely daring to make a sound, “Is that—?” And everyone in our vehicle—Jackson, the ranger, the spotter—just about exploded with excitement and joy. (I am so glad I had our video camera running, because catching their reactions on tape was just priceless.) “Aardvark, aardvark!!” Jackson whispered, nearly leaping out of his seat. “Oh! Oh! You are so, so lucky! It is so rare to see them! Oh, my goodness, you are SO lucky!!” The ranger was grinning from ear to ear, whispering rapidly in Swahili. “He says it has been a very long time since they have seen one in this park. This is wonderful –it proves they are still here!” Meanwhile, the aardvark just snuffled along the dirt road and wandered off into the darkness, totally unaware of how much delight he’d just brought to five people, all of us now as giddy as little kids. “This is only the second time in my life I have seen one,” Jackson exclaimed, and then told us it is an old saying that if a person sees three aardvarks in his lifetime, it means he will live a very long life. “And it’s true,” he insisted, “because you MUST live a very long time in order to see three aardvarks!”

    We encountered some more animals on the rest of our drive—hippos grazing, including one chunky yet agile youngster who ran right across our path at a pretty good clip, and some night-time birds—but nothing that could compare with the aardvark surprise. We made it out of the park with one minute to spare before the 11pm deadline. When we dropped off the ranger at his station, he enthusiastically shook hands all around, still grinning, and then practically ran into his station house. “He cannot wait to tell them about the aardvark,” Jackson laughed.

    Outside the park gate, we were greeted by the other Green Footprint driver with some troubling news. We were supposed to switch back to our regular Land Rover for the drive back to camp, but there was something wrong with the clutch. So instead we drove all the way back up the hill and along the bumpy road to Kirurumu in our open game drive truck, the wind in our faces and stars overhead. Even at this late hour, there were still people out walking along the dirt roads. A Maasai guide met us to walk with us back to our tent in the darkness. By now it was well past midnight, so we just fell into bed and sound asleep. I dreamt of—what else?—aardvarks.

  • Report Abuse

    I'm sad we're heading into the final leg of this report report!

    I think your "please help identify me" is a Hartlaub's bustard. I wonder if your "what am I" is a steenbok?

    Congrats on the aardvark! That's great that you captured the reactions on video.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, Patty. I only wish we'd captured the aardvark himself a bit better... it's another one where I'll show you guys an image from our (terrific) video, since the still photos did not come out as well.

    Say, how many aardvarks have YOU seen at this point? You must be looking at a pretty long life ahead of you. ;)

    Thanks for your help with ID-ing the mystery bird. I thought that other guy was probably a steenbok, but I wasn't sure.

  • Report Abuse

    Hmmm... that depends on what we're counting :?

    I've only had one legitimate sighting on Sweetwaters. I've seen one in a rehab center. Mark saw one on our last game drive in Namibia but I missed it.

    I'm claiming 2.5 ;)

  • Report Abuse

    Thank you for all of your wonderful and detailed information in this forum! I was wondering if you could let me know what your experience was with Southern Cross Safaris which I believe you used on a previous safari. Thanks!

  • Report Abuse

    For the Tarangire pictures--
    What am I? Duiker is my guess.

    You caught a ground hornbill in flight and my favorite bird the hoopoe. My only hoopoe photo was also in Tarangire, I believe. The nursing zebra was a closeup. Those baby jackals were adorable. You saw some nice elephant action.

  • Report Abuse

    Hmm, so now we have a vote for a steenbok and a duiker. Anyone else?

    Lynn, looking back on our photos I realized I have one really big regret from Tarangire -- that we were never in a good position to take a picture that would show the sheer size of those groups of elephants at the swamp! If you look at our photos, you'd think we saw a bunch of small family groups, not the mass elephant parties. Oh well. I guess a journal is good for filling in details on everything you missed with the camera, right?

    reslonina, we've never used Southern Cross Safaris. This was our first (and so far, only) safari. Southern Cross was one of the companies we contacted early on for a quote, but we didn't choose them. We went with Eastern & Southern Safaris in Kenya and Greenfootprint Adventures in Tanzania. We thought both companies did an excellent job for us, and we loved our guides.

  • Report Abuse

    What an absolutely outstanding trip report,so much detail, awesome!
    Now I can cancel my trip, no just joking, but you have convinced us to fly out of the Mara to the Serengeti.

  • Report Abuse

    That is so wonderful that your time with Jackson was as special as your time with James. A good guide is such an important part of a safari, but becoming good friends with your guide makes it that much more special.

    I am enjoying this part of your report as much as the Kenya portion. Your descriptions are so vivid I can picture myself along for the trip. Karama Lodge sounds really nice, with excellent photos to match. I don’t recall reading anything about it on this board, and this will be good information for others.

    You had some excellent game viewing at Arusha National Park. When I read your comment that if you were to describe the Garden of Eden, this is what it would look like, I made a mental note to try to fit it in on my next trip to Tanzania. Then I looked at your photos, and decided it’s a must for my next trip. Thanks. I didn’t realize the park was so lovely, or had so much wildlife.

    You also had excellent game viewing, both large and small, at Tarangire, as well as fantastic birding. The camp, the staff, the food, and your husband’s birthday celebration at Oliver’s Camp were obviously a hit, as was your Swahili.

    What a wonderful trip, amazing trip report, and excellent photos. I can’t wait to read the next installment.

  • Report Abuse

    PART 17 – “The Cutest Little Boy in Tanzania” (Oct. 8th, 2007)

    Today was a unique day in our African journey, because it was not about the animals at all. Instead, we were going to spend the day with people, hopefully getting a brief glimpse into their lives here in Tanzania. And, best of all, we’d have the chance to meet Josephat, the little by we sponsor at the Rift Valley Children’s Village.

    We awoke to warm sunlight streaming into our tent; some time in the early morning, the Maasai guys who work at Kirurumu must have come by and quietly opened the external canvas flaps (they’d been closed when we arrived at the tent late last night). We had a later start today, and it was nice to sleep in a little. But we still needed to have everything packed up and ready to move on. I was moving a little slow this morning, still a bit “hung over” from all of last night’s excitement (can you get drunk on wildlife?). And I also felt a bit nervous—meeting people is always fraught with so much more tension for me than being around animals. (Not to mention our last cultural foray—in the Masai Mara—had been less than successful.) But mostly, I was curious about what it would be like to meet Josephat and the other kids at the RVCV. Would he like us? Would he be indifferent? Would we have anything to talk about with a 7-year-old boy?

    But first, we would be touring the village of Mto Wa Mbu with Jackson. When he picked us up in front of the lodge he still had the big, open Land Rover from last night’s game drive. He told us that our regular vehicle would be at the mechanic while we were in town, but it should be ready in time for our afternoon drive to Karatu and the orphanage. We drove over to the Serena lodge to leave our luggage at Green Footprint’s activity office there, since we wouldn’t want to leave things in an open vehicle while in town. A bit of a drag, since this meant we’d have to make another trip back to the Serena to get our bags this afternoon before we headed onward. But I just kept thinking how lucky we were that the car problems coincided with our walking-around-town-day, and that it hadn’t happened when we were out in the bush somewhere or on a long drive between towns.

    Our first stop in Mto Wa Mbu was at a medical clinic, a place we’d specifically asked to visit. We were shown around the clinic by the head doctor, and it was fascinating (and sometimes depressing) to hear about his daily practice. The clinic is small but neat and efficient, and they do a lot with limited resources (primarily American donations) to provide preventive and curative treatments for HIV, TB, and, especially, prenatal care. They have a staff of about 25 doctors, nurses and assistants to serve the whole community, and patients pay about $3 a visit, on average (although, of course, some cannot afford to pay at all). We visited their tiny lab, an exam room, the pharmacy, and medical records room. Today was their eye clinic, with an outdoor exam area set up, so we saw lots of patients lined up and waiting in chairs all around the outside of the building, many of them women with small children and babies. The doctor told us that the biggest challenge they faced was teaching people how to prevent health problems, rather than waiting until they were very sick to come to the clinic. He said this particularly the problem with HIV, since no one wants to talk about it. Before we left we thanked him for spending so much time with us (when they were obviously very busy!) and found out how we could send a donation to the clinic after we got home, since we didn’t have enough cash left to spare much on the spot. (One thing to note: although there wasn’t a lot of pressure to donate money, he did politely say, “If you feel inclined to help us…” It’s pretty safe to say that if you visit a medical clinic, a school, or any kind of aid organization, you’ll be inspired to want to help in some way, so consider coming prepared for that.)

    After we left the clinic, we took a walk through the banana groves that surround the town. Mto Wa Mbu is a rich farming area, and it was impressive to see the way the banana trees grew so dense and gigantic, towering over our heads as we walked along a narrow dirt path between two farms. Jackson pointed out all the different varieties of bananas and told us how they are used in local cooking—“Jamaica” bananas served in a beef dish, “elephant tusk” bananas for grilling, “mash” bananas for mashing into a porridge. He said that the sweet red bananas were a local favorite, and he’d get some in town so we could try them. We also saw some other local crops, notably coco yam (taro—for, basically, the Tanzanian version of poi), as well as a weed that the Maasai use for mosquito repellent. At one point we saw a couple working out in their field, and the scene was so picturesque that my husband asked if they minded if we took a photo. Jackson called out to them in Swahili and they replied that they wanted payment. One of those uncomfortable moments… my husband just smiled and said, “Well, that’s okay, never mind” (remember, we were $100 short on our tip supply because of the changing cost of visas, so we were really low on cash at this point!). When Jackson relayed this message to them, the farmer shrugged and smiled and Jackson laughed at his reply. “He says just go ahead and take the photo, no need to pay.”

    Near the end of our walk through the farms, we stopped to visit a tiny Makonde carvers’ shop and blacksmith, where we talked a bit with the carvers and watched them work. A very old man was sitting on the ground working homemade hand bellows to keep the coals hot. We bought a couple of tiny carved heads (the size of chess pieces), but unfortunately we lost them somewhere along the way and they never made it home with us.

    At this point, Jackson gave us a choice for the time we had left before lunch. We could either visit a school, or else go to the local pub and the town market. We chose the latter, because we’d be visiting the kids at the RVCV later on and wanted to have as many different experiences as possible today. So, off to the pub—a tiny outdoor area with shady benches under a roof, and a collection of sheds for storage and fermenting of mbege, banana beer. After a short tour of these and learning how mbege is made, we sat down to try some. A group of little kids gathered around to watch us, giggling and taking peeks at my camera, and we all ate red bananas together. The beer itself was strong and yeasty and not very tasty, but the bananas were the most delicious we’ve ever had. Mostly, it was fun to goof around a bit with the kids, taking their photo and showing it to them on the screen (which elicited even more giggles). With Jackson acting as translator, we chatted with the young woman who owned the pub. She brewed the beer herself, and seemed to get a kick out of the fact that we mzungus would even try it. She asked where we were from, and whether we had any children (everyone here always asks us that). When I said no, she asked how old I was, and said encouragingly and with great enthusiasm, “It’s not too late!” I asked if these kids were hers, and she waved her hand absently and said, “Some of them.”

    From there we walked across the main drag to the central market and wandered up and down the rows past the covered stalls, admiring the luscious-looking fruits (every size and shape and color of banana you can imagine), multi-colored beans in hues of purple and red, baskets full of grains and seeds, hanging strings of baobab fruit (which Jackson pointedly told us is good for fertility… seems like everyone in Tanzania is trying to tell us something), roasted catfish on a grill and live fish swimming in murky tanks of water, with music blasting from the stalls where food was cooking. My husband had a special request—he wanted to find some Maasai “Hundred-Miler” sandals for his twin brother. We visited the little shop of a sandal maker, where he got to try on several different styles and see the old tires they were made from. The true “Maasai” style were made with thick, curvy motorcycle tire tread for the soles—they were more pricey, and really hard to walk around in! After some hard bargaining, he ended up buying a more comfortable pair for about $6. A really cool souvenir, and Jackson said that wasn’t a bad price for a tourist. The sandal maker really wanted my husband’s watch at first, but no deal—he told them it was a gift from his wife, and they all laughed and said, “Well, then, she will never let you trade it!”

    From the market, it was a short walk back to get our car from the medical clinic (dodging some baboons lurking in the bushes, since Jackson was still carrying the rest of our bananas), and then a short drive through dense banana groves and past small farms to a little local restaurant for lunch. We visited the kitchen—a small outdoor space behind someone’s house with pots bubbling over an open fire and Mama busy plucking a freshly-killed chicken for us. We ate outdoors under the trees, and the food was absolutely delicious—a generous spread of chicken, goat curry, fruit and veggie dishes, lentils, and even some tilapia caught from the little fishpond nearby. For company we had two attentive cats and a couple of baby goats. Plus Stoney Tangawizi to drink (the fizzy ginger soda we hadn’t had since our Kenyan road trips). The only thing we didn’t care for was a very sour, pulpy fruit with big seeds (I can’t remember the name, so I can’t warn you any more specifically than that!). Mama came over to ask how we liked the food and my husband was able to use his Swahili again—“Ninepende chakula cha hapa sana sana!”—much to her delight. She asked about where we were traveling to and where we’d been so far. She guessed correctly that I was an American, but said she wasn’t sure about my husband—was he Japanese? Chinese? Korean? With Jackson’s help and his smidgen of Swahili, he explained about being “Chinese-American,” and how his grandparents came to the U.S. from China. It was fun to talk with her for a bit, and especially cool for my husband to get to use some Swahili. Everyone seems to love it when we’ve made the effort, and it makes me wish I’d learned more. People are so good-natured about our efforts, and no one gives us a hard time if we pronounce things wrong. So, give it a try!

    After lunch we drove over to pick up our Land Rover, which was supposed to be ready by now (we were already running about an hour late, just enjoying being on “African time”). But the mechanic was still working on it and seemed pretty grim. It needed a whole new clutch. For the first time, I started to worry about whether we’d actually make it to the RVCV today, and Jackson looked worried too. He told us if they couldn’t fix it we would be able to switch to a minibus that Green Footprint had in town, but that he’d really prefer to have the Land Rover for the Crater tomorrow. We parked the big open vehicle outside a restaurant in a little patch of shade and waited. And waited. By this point it was getting really hot, it was getting late, and we were getting really concerned. Hakuna matata, I kept thinking, but then I would think of Josephat and the possibility that we might not get to meet him, and I got pretty bummed out. The bright spot in all this was that the restaurant was playing some amazing music over a loudspeaker—church choir music with such an infectiously happy, uptempo sound that we couldn’t help being cheered by it. We talked with Jackson about it, and it turned out that he used to sing in a choir just like that when he wasn’t out guiding safaris. He was thrilled that we liked it so much, and happily translated the Swahili lyrics for us as the music played (my husband caught it all on his minidisk recorder). This lead to a conversation about our band, and the music my husband writes, and all the types of music Jackson likes to listen to. (After we got home, we sent Jackson a cassette player, since he’d told us that his was broken and he never got to listen to his tapes anymore… and we also sent him a tape of our band. The guys in our band really loved reading his comments about our music, and suggested we go on a tour of Tanzania someday.)

    FINALLY, the car was ready! The mechanic test drove it around the block and everything seemed to be working again, so we swapped vehicles and headed out of Mto Wa Mbu, back up the winding road to the Serena lodge to retrieve our bags, and then speeding off toward Karatu. Along the way, we passed a mud hut with a giant CelTel ad pasted across the roof. By this point I had a fierce little knot in my stomach about the car and it wouldn’t go away. I didn’t trust this cruddy old Land Rover—it wasn’t just the clutch, it was also the back window that wouldn’t stay shut, the broken door on the rear passenger side that never would open and the one on the other side that frequently got stuck, the scratched-up windows the we could barely see out of (and certainly couldn’t snap pictures through). But mostly, it was the feeling of not trusting it to get us where we needed to go… and knowing that it had cheated us out of several hours’ worth of fun with the kids this afternoon. None of this was Jackson’s fault, but we could tell he was feeling really bad about it. And, hey, TIA (this is Africa), stuff happens! But it was still a bummer. Much later, after all was said and done (and we’d made it safely into and out of the Ngorongoro Crater), my husband said that at least that old clunker gave us “safari street cred,” because it was a well-used machine that had clearly seen a lot of action. [It’s worth noting (for any of you considering using Green Footprint) that this was the only real complaint we had with GF, and even then we knew it was relatively minor compared with what could happen. Mary at GF told me that they’d decided to sell that Land Rover because it was getting to the end of its useful life, so hopefully it’s no longer in their fleet. But I do want to emphasize that Green Footprint did a great job for us in every other way, and Jackson handled this one hitch with grace and professionalism. I would certainly book another safari with them, especially with Jackson as our guide. Because, ultimately, a great guide is worth far more than a few hours wasted on car repairs.]

    The road out to the Rift Valley Children’s Village was absolutely insane—steep, riddled with huge potholes and ditches in the red earth, so narrow and treacherous at some points that I had to shut my eyes. I kept waiting for the car to kick the bucket, but it plowed along like a trooper (and we sure were glad not to have that minibus!). At last we reached a pleasant little village with a long road lined with jacaranda trees, nestled in the green hills of the Ngorongoro highlands. And there was the sign welcoming us to the RVCV.

    We were greeted by Sara, the volunteer coordinator, who showed us around the children’s village and introduced us to Josephat. What an adorable kid! He was so shy when he first met us and shook our hands. His eyes were huge, his little face very solemn as he showed us around his kindergarten classroom. (None of the volunteers could believe how quiet and shy he was, and they kept telling us what a cut-up and goofball he usually was.) I asked him questions about his school, and he showed us their artwork and the weather chart on the wall. “What was the weather like today?” Sara asked him, and he replied in a tiny voice, “It was sunny.” We noticed that Josephat had 15 gold stars for good behavior on another wall chart, more than any other kid in his class.

    When we walked up to Tarangire House, where Josephat lives, its littlest resident came out to greet us with his house mama. He was only two years old, but he gave us a big smile and a hearty, “Hello!” (I wish I could remember his name – we met so many kids today, I can’t recall them all.) Sara warned us that we’d arrived at bath time, so we would probably be surprising some naked little boys. As soon as we went inside, a bunch of half-dressed little bodies went running away, shrieking and laughing. Josephat, not to be outdone (since we were HIS visitors, after all) rushed into his bedroom and hid behind the door so he could jump out and scare us as we walked in! We dutifully pretended to be very scared, and the boys in the room cracked up. As Josephat showed us around his room, more and more curious faces peeked in to see what was going on, and the room filled up quickly with kids (and a few volunteers too). The boys seemed especially intrigued by my husband, constantly asking, “Who IS this guy?? Is he from America? Does he play football?” Looking around a bit, we realized that all the volunteers we met were young women—between them and the Tanzanian house mamas, the kids probably didn’t have too many men in their lives.

    Josephat got out his sticker book to show us, and Sara said it was his favorite book. We’d sent it to him last Christmas, so I was thrilled to see how beat-up and well-used it was. He wanted to give us each a sticker, so he spent some time flipping through the pages with a look of intense concentration, carefully choosing ones he thought we’d like. He picked a white horse for me and construction equipment for Jackson and my husband, and stuck them on the back of our hands. Then he sat on the bed with his friend Christopher and me and showed us his Spider-man coloring book. He’s a huge fan and has sent us pictures of Spider-man in the past, so I kept teasing him—pointing to pictures of the bad guys and saying, “Is this Spider-man?” The boys would shriek and laugh, “No! Not that one! THIS is him!”

    Things started to get a bit rowdy when Christopher and Simone began “showing us their muscles,” and then demonstrating their “Power Ranger” moves for us and wanting us to film them. Josephat, suddenly feeling shy again (and probably overwhelmed by these bigger, louder boys), ducked into the alcove of his closet and started doing his own quick karate chops and kicks in there. But before long it was time for him to go off and take his bath. When Sara told him this, he looked surprised and glanced down at his dusty play clothes and grimy bare feet. “But I’m not dirty!” he insisted.

    While Josephat was in the bath, Sara showed us around the rest of the village and talked about the kids’ daily lives. Right now, for instance, they were supposed to be off in their houses having post-bath movie time to wind down before bed, but most of them were too curious about the strangers and kept running up to us to say hello and ask where we were from. Freshly spiffed up in a clean outfit, Josephat came racing back out to the playground to catch up with us, holding the little photo book we’d given him. We also brought toys and games for the kids to share, but they would be getting those later—Sara explained that they don’t like to hand out toys when people come to visit, because they don’t want the kids associating having visitors with getting stuff. Instead, they would keep it for birthdays and other special occasions. But they did tell us that a nice gift we could give Josephat would be some pictures of ourselves that would show him something of our life back in California. We’d put together a little book with pictures of our dog – Kyle at home in his favorite chair, the three of us camping in a tent and hiking in the mountains, things like that. We figured he wouldn’t be interested in pictures of our jobs, but since the kids at the RVCV have several dogs we thought he might like that. He really did seem to dig it—as he flipped through the photos, he said, “What a pretty dog!” and when Sara said, “Do you want to tell them about the dogs here?” he just said, “No, this one is better.” (Darn! I would have liked to meet the kids’ dog!) He also seemed really impressed by the pictures of snow in the mountains.

    When it was time for us to go—so we’d make it back out that treacherous road before nightfall—Josephat and Sara walked us back to our car. He thanked us in a very small, sad voice, and I knelt down to say goodbye… and then he threw his arms around me and hugged me so hard! I told him what a good boy he was, and how much we loved finally meeting him, and how we think about him so often and really hoped we could come visit again. He said, “Me too! Very much!” Then hugs all around, and Sara cheered him up with an upside-down tickle session. Josephat stood waving goodbye to us until our car turned a corner and we could no longer see him.

    I’m not sure I can adequately convey what any part of our Africa journey meant to us, and just how much it meant… but meeting Josephat was truly one of the great highlights of our time here. What a sweet, funny, kind little boy. We were so lucky to get to meet him; I’m sure he has no idea how much that touched us. (When we returned home to California, we found a postcard waiting for us from Sara, who told us that he liked to look at our picture book every night before bed and several times fell asleep holding the pictures. So we made another little photo book of our visit with him and sent it back to Tanzania.)

    We arrived at Plantation Lodge just before dark. This place was a pleasant surprise, after the initial disappointment of not being able to stay at the Crater. Actually, compared with the peek we had at the Ngorongoro Serena, this place was much nicer—it felt a world away from the huge safari lodge and buffet line atmosphere. The gardens were lovely and green, with geese wandering by and flowering trees throwing colorful petals down onto the lawn. It was so quiet and peaceful, and our little cottage named “Jacaranda” (appropriate, I thought, considering that the sight of that tree out the window in Nairobi was one of my first “I’m in Africa!” moments) was gorgeous, definitely one of the most comfortable places we’ve stayed.

    The only downside… Tonight at dinner we were seated with a British couple, but we couldn’t have a conversation (not even across the table with each other) because the small dining room was completely dominated by the noise coming from the boisterous and increasingly drunk group at the next table. (I won’t say where they were from, only that they were not from either of the countries represented at our table. Jackson told us the next night he’d heard from the Plantation Lodge staff that one person from this party-hearty group actually got so sick with alcohol poisoning that she had to cut her trip short and fly home early!) The food was delicious, but the noise was so annoying that it was hard to enjoy it. We ate as quickly as we politely could and then happily scooted back to our peaceful little cottage to rest up for our last day on safari. Tomorrow, the Ngorongoro Crater!

  • Report Abuse

    Photo slideshow from Lake Manyara, Mto Wa Mbu and the Rift Valley Children's Village (including some really bad photos from the night game drive):
    http://tinyurl.com/356rk2

    I really am closing in on the end here, folks! Just the Crater and Zanzibar to go. Thanks for sticking with me through all the months it's taken me to write this! I am in awe of those of you who can whip a trip report out in a matter of weeks. :)

  • Report Abuse

    What a truely amazing day you had filled with wonderful experiences with wonderful people.

    I was almost in tears reading your story about meeting Josephat then having to say goodbye. I don't know that I could leave like that, he seemed to be such a sweet little boy I would have had to bundle him up and and take him home!

    Your report has been great and I look forward to the next installment.

    Thankyou

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, oneday. Yeah, I was in tears saying goodbye to Josephat, and trying not to show it because I could tell he was sad, too. I am so glad that we started sponsoring him the year before we went to Tanzania, because we had the chance to write letters beforehand... and I am especially glad that we'll have a continuing relationship with him in the future. He's a really great kid, such a sweetheart. I just wish we could have spent an entire day at the RVCV playing with the kids and helping out in some small way. If I'm ever able to plan another trip to Tanzania, I would budget more time for that.

    I guess one of the lessons of our Mto Wa Mbu/RVCV day is that it can be risky to plan so much for one day considering the little glitches that can happen along the way, and that most things will take longer than you anticipate. At least our car cooperated well enough to get us to both places!

  • Report Abuse

    I agree, very moving. Even your namesake Kyle gets into the act, so to speak. What a great stop to include and more importantly how wonderful that you sponsor a child in Tanzania.

    On a less lofty note, I am glad the vehicle worked out and your comment that it has been completely retired is reassuring to future guests.

    Leely, I asked you a question on DanaM's trip planning thread.

  • Report Abuse

    The Lake Manyara photos--
    That same elephant welcomed me to Lake Manyara, resulting in an identical photo. I found it a little to close for comfort. The photos of Josephat are precious. What wonderful memories. Hippos and pelicans were out in full force for some great shots.

  • Report Abuse


    What an amazing day. You certainly packed it full of a lot of real-life activities. Good for you to include these things in your trip. Most people (me included) never factor in enough time to do justice to the amazing people that live in these lands that we love so much.

    Josephat sounds like such a sweet boy. More gold starts than all the kids in his class. I bet that touched your heart right then and their. That and of course the fact that his sticker book was all beat up from so much use. How wonderful that you could see how much he enjoyed your present. What a lovely gift, photos of you and your husband, and of course of Kyle. I almost cried when I read about your good byes. I, too, hope you get to see Josephat again.

  • Report Abuse

    My vote for ”What am I?” is steenbok.

    I’ve finally caught up with your report and read about the hunting reedbuck. Baby jackals, serval kitten and aardvark can make anyone jealous. Now I suppose you have to go back to Tanzania many times to visit Josephat.

  • Report Abuse

    Nyamera, I hope you're right! I'm sure you guys could tell from my report -- meeting Josephat was the single best part of our time in Africa.

    Now on to the Ngorongoro Crater... where there were no cute kids, but lots of other things to distract us!

  • Report Abuse

    PART 18 – “Animals in the Dust… and Our Own Private Lion” (Oct. 9th, 2007)

    As we headed out this morning with Jackson, I tried not to dwell on the sad significance of today—our last day on safari. We’ve both been so well and truly bitten by the safari bug that it’s tragic to think this might be the last game drive of our once-in-a-lifetime trip to East Africa. But I’m sure some of you are reading this and laughing – doesn’t nearly everyone start out thinking it will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip? And don’t most of us then spend all our time and energy scheming and saving and desperately planning for how we’ll come back someday? Long before this last safari day, I was already planning itineraries in my head for a return trip (or two or three). But who knows if we will really ever be able to return? We’re just so grateful that we’ve had this chance to be here, and that we saved one of the most spectacular places for our grand finale—the Ngorongoro Crater.

    The road up to the lip of the crater through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area was extremely foggy. Jackson’s front window kept fogging up, and my husband pulled his fleece hat out of our “camera beanbag” to wipe the mist off. Everything looked spooky and mysterious in the fog—the dripping leafy branches of trees, the misty shapes of men walking alongside the road. On our way to the Serena Lodge to meet up with a ranger for our morning hike, we saw lots of baboons and monkeys hanging out near the road, really fearless with the cars, as well as “red-and-black” zebras and Maasai herding goats and cattle. Since this is a conservation area and not a national park, the Maasai are allowed to graze their livestock here and in the crater itself, which lends a different character to the place.

    We had a little peek at the crater through the fog when we got out of the car at the Serena Lodge. This was an interesting lodge, perched right on the crater’s edge… but between the socked-in foggy view, the large hotel-like feel of the place, and the extra money it would have cost us if they hadn’t messed up our reservation, we were actually glad we’d stayed at Plantation Lodge instead. While we waited in the lobby, Jackson made some phone calls to figure out where our ranger was, because there was no one in the lobby to meet us. He came back with bad news—since some other Serena guests had signed up to go hiking in the afternoon, they’d switched the schedule on us and assigned a ranger only for after lunchtime, not for this morning. That meant if we wanted to go hiking, we’d have to drive down into the crater, do an abbreviated game drive (only about 2-3 hours, to allow time for the ascent road) and then rush back up here to meet the hiking group by 2:00. Needless to say, we were really bummed out about this because we’re avid hikers and had been looking forward to the chance to hike in Africa. We’d been planning to hike for about an hour or so, and then spend the rest of the day in the Crater.

    Jackson suggested we head down into the crater right away so we could find out if they were enforcing the half-day time limits or not (he said they usually don’t), and then decide if we wanted to cancel the hike altogether in favor of more time on the crater floor. I’m sure he could tell how disappointed we were, and he seemed worried that we might think it was Green Footprint’s fault—he made sure to tell us several times how sorry he was for the mix-up, but that GF didn’t have any control over when the NCA would release its rangers for tourist activities. We assured him that he understood that and didn’t blame him for it. But I’m posting this here just to let people know that these kinds of activities are subject to last-minute changes like this, and your safari company doesn’t always have the ability to prevent that.

    At the gate on the carter’s descent road, our car was once again surrounded by Maasai women selling jewelry, blankets, and spears. (If you want to buy this kind of stuff, you’ll have no problem whatsoever finding it!) We did the “no thank you, no thank you” thing again, because we already had enough for souvenirs and family gifts. After the women gave up on us and went to the next car in line, a young boy came up to us and asked if we wanted to pay $5 for a photo; when we said no thank you, he replied, “Okay, then give me a bottle of water.” I was a bit taken aback by his demand, but we had so much extra water in the car and he was out there in what would eventually be a very hot day, so we gave him some. I would have felt better about it if he’d asked politely (and I’m sure our giving it to him just encouraged him to demand water from other tourists—sorry about that!), but at least he did say thank you. This is one part of being on safari that I won’t miss.

    Jackson came back to the car with good news—we could go down into the crater right now and stay the rest of the day, if we wanted. We immediately said yes, and so he called to cancel our reservations on the afternoon hike. As we drove down into the crater, he told us that he thought we’d made the right choice—“once you are down there you won’t want to leave, and the view from the top is all the same anyway.” We did appreciate, though, that he waited and let us decide what we wanted to do, rather than trying to influence us. Throughout our entire safari, we always felt that our guides were really interested in letting this be OUR trip, never telling us what to do—another benefit of having a private safari, I suppose.

    The descent road into the crater was steep and bumpy, but not nearly as bad as I’d expected, and wide enough that we didn’t feel like we were perched on the edge (the way we sometimes feel on California coastal and mountain roads). We passed a Maasai village on the slope, and saw lots of men herding their cattle down into the crater, heading for the waterholes. The wild animals we saw on the way down included a bunch of wildies at the gate (who didn’t try to sell us anything), and a group of giraffes grazing on the side of the cliff not far past the village. I was surprised to see them here, since I’d read that giraffes never go down into the crater itself. From the road down, we could also see the tiny dark silhouette of a hyena stalking some wildebeest on the crater floor far below. Is it just me, or does your eyesight actually get better the longer you’re on safari?

    At one point we were driving behind a red-robed Maasai and his herd of cattle. He made such a striking picture with the view of the crater beyond him that I thought it would make a wonderful photo. But it was like he was psychic—several times I stealthily lifted my camera, and each time he looked back over his shoulder and stared at us. I knew if he saw me taking a picture he would run back to the car and demand money, which would ruin this moment for me. So I learned my lesson and put the camera away. If you don’t want to pay for pictures of people, don’t take them—that’s just the way it is in Maasai country.

    On the floor of the crater, past the busy area where the Maasai were grazing their cows, our game drive began in earnest. We saw so many animals that had by now become familiar friends—warthogs, hartebeest, wildies and zebras in large herds, more Grant’s gazelles than we’d seen anywhere else, and a lone buffalo (it’s interesting to know that the Ngorongoro Crater is one of the only places—perhaps the only place in Tanzania?—where you can see all of the Big 5 in one place, and today we would see 4 of them). The crater at this time of year is a huge, dry dust bowl, partly because of the high ash content of the soil, and partly because of the high number of vehicles racing from one sighting to the next. That was the only thing I didn’t like about it—the incredible amounts of dust, the wind that whipped up little “devil winds” (whirlwinds) and made us rush to roll up all the windows and cover our cameras. The day was dogged by a constant need to do dust management with our cameras and contact lenses. But the setting itself was so spectacular and the wildlife here was so brilliant, it more than made up for the dust and the crowds. I would really love to return someday in a greener season.

    We stopped near the lake to watch the flamingos, who were busy eating and all kept their heads down. Not nearly as many—or as pink—as the ones we’d seen at Lake Nakuru, but still a pretty sight with the crater wall rising behind them. We also saw a jackal digging a hole (for a den? or hunting some small animal, perhaps?), and two gorgeous crowned cranes. Then a big herd of tommies, followed by one of our favorite sightings of the whole trip—a massive zebra brawl! And I do mean massive. Hundreds of zebras surrounding us, and dozens of them racing around—back and forth on both sides of the road, kicking and squealing, bucking and rearing, braying and vocalizing to beat the band. It was incredible to be in the middle of all those fast-moving stripes! We saw one particularly tough guy chasing another zebra along the shore of the lake at a full gallop, teeth bared and ready to bite. Every now and then they would all settle down, and then somebody would snort and someone else would kick, and it would all start up again.

    As we moved onward, I marveled at the setting here—how small I felt in this great big bowl, with high walls rising on every side, containing within them vast grassy plains, lakes, swampland and forest. Despite the dust, it really was one of the most remarkable landscapes we’d seen in Africa (or anywhere, for that matter).

    Jackson pointed across the open expanse of grassland to where another Land Rover was parked. Standing beside it was a gigantic male lion, easily half as tall as the vehicle! Even from this distance we could see his full, shaggy mane and the sleek muscles in his massive, tawny body. We headed over to check out the scene. The lion and his family were all resting, panting hard in the hot sun with huge, distended bellies, and the collapsed and sunken remains of a zebra lay nearby. We saw four lionesses, two cubs, and that big daddy, who had now moved over to stand guard over the kill. He was having a hard time of it—his eyes kept drooping closed and his big head would nod, sleepy from the meal… but nearby, two little jackals were circling around and sneaking up on him, hoping to dart in and steal some of that zebra. Whenever the jackals would get too close, the lion would jerk his eyes open and whip his head around, giving them a sharp look and sending them trotting off to bide their time before trying again.

    By this point, a bunch of other vehicles had arrived and we were trapped in a very long line with people crowding their cars so close you couldn’t leave even if you wanted to. This was an unfortunate side of visiting the crater that I’d read about while planning our trip, so I wasn’t surprised by it. But it made me appreciate all our other less-populated game drives even more, especially those long drives in Tarangire where we wouldn’t see a single other vehicle until we returned to camp. One nice side effect of being stuck in this traffic, though, was that we were parked on a little concrete “bridge” of sorts, and when my husband looked out his window, he noticed that there was a lioness sleeping under the bridge, directly beneath us! We could just see her gigantic paws sticking out from her shady resting spot.

    At last one of the other vehicles moved a few inches so Jackson could squeeze us out of the jam. It was just getting too darn noisy and crowded near those poor lions, so we were ready to move on and see what else we could find. Another guide told Jackson that someone had spotted a rhino farther ahead, but that he himself had not been able to find it. We decided to give it a shot and see if we could see our first Tanzanian rhino. On the way, we had an excellent sighting of a male and female ostrich—our best view yet of these magnificent birds, walking right beside us and across the road. We stopped near another car that was looking for the rumored rhino. They all had their binoculars out and were scanning the wall of the crater, where the slope was dotted with suspiciously rhino-like boulders and the dark silhouettes of trees. In the foreground was a pretty watery scene, with hippos lolling in the red Nile Carpet (floating vegetation), and hyenas lazing around on the muddy shore. All three of us took turns spotting the “rhino”—which inevitable turned out to be a shadow or a rock or a tree. The other car had already abandoned the search and we were also just about to give up and admit there was no rhino there after all, when Jackson cried, “There he is! Yes, that’s really him!” We all saw the distinctive horned silhouette as the black rhino stepped out from the shade of some trees into an open area, where we could see him perfectly against the grassy slope.

    It was nearly lunch time by now, so we headed for the picnic area. Along the way, we had another big bird sighting—two kori bustards. I had really been hoping to see them and this was our last chance, so it was a happy surprise to spot them walking in the grass just a few feet away. We also had an up-close encounter with a Grant’s gazelle who had one dramatically broken horn—he walked right over to inspect our vehicle. (We’d had a few predators doing this, but it was surprising coming from a gazelle.) We were waylaid briefly by a zebra crossing. And then another of those surprising only-in-Africa views—a huge, bleached-white elephant skull lying on the grass with the verdant wall of the crater rising up behind it in the distance, and the dark shadow of a hyena passing by. As we approached the picnic site, we saw several (live) elephants in the swamp, browsing and cooling off in picturesque style against the backdrop of the forest. The picnic area was large and crowded, but Jackson managed to find us a spot alone where we could sit in the grass and watch hippos and elephants while hunching over to protect our box lunches from dive-bombing birds. A pair of little rufous weavers sat directly across from us, balancing at the very tips of slender reed stalks that swayed in the breeze. Despite the fact that this was a well-populated area, it was still—as always—a thrill to be out of the Land Rover and on the ground.

    Our game drive was quieter after lunch, but we were still so grateful that we hadn’t rushed out of the crater before late afternoon. Fewer animals, perhaps, but there were also fewer people and the light was becoming more golden and warm. We came upon a huge herd of wildebeest that reminded us of the Mara (and how wonderful it is that now things can remind us of the Masai Mara!). There were some very amiable and charming wildies who stood right by the road and posed for portraits. We also saw some more kori bustards, and of course more zebras scattered far and wide, and a few young hyenas zonked out in the mud like sleepy puppies.

    Too soon, it was time to start making our way through the forest toward the ascent road. We stopped for a bathroom break in the forest and saw lots of vervet monkeys running around near the outhouses (waiting for unattended cars with windows open?), and it dawned on me that soon we would be spotting the last animal of our last game drive. Our welcome animal had been an elephant (at Mt. Kenya), but what would our farewell animal be? I’m sure Jackson was hoping for leopard, by the way he was driving through the forest very slowly and scanning every tree branch—hoping to give us a 5-for-Big-5 sendoff from Tanzania. But that was not to be. Instead, as Jackson and I were both looking out the right-hand side of the car, my husband suddenly said, “Hey, a lion.”

    There she was, stretched out and lounging in a brambly patch of sunlight right next to us, so close we could see every hair on her chin and each spot on her golden coat. She was all alone, trying to nap but being tormented by flies. And we were all alone with her, no other cars in sight. We watched her for a long time, enjoying our solitude with this gorgeous cat. When we finally had to move on (they do make you get out of the crater before nightfall!), Jackson congratulated my husband on his great catch, saying, “If you hadn’t seen her, I would have driven right past.” I said something about wondering how many animals we’d already driven right past in our weeks in East Africa—for all the animals we saw, how many hadn’t we seen, right under our noses? Jackson laughed and said, “Probably hundreds. Many more animals see us, compared with how many we see.” That lioness will always be special to us, but she wasn’t our farewell critter. After we left her, we saw another hoopoe, baboons, and just as we reached the exit road, some final zebras.

    Remember how I said the descent road into the Crater wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected? Well, the ascent road was even scarier than my imagination, and made worse by a traffic jam as we chugged our way slowly upward (and I tried not to look over the edge). Despite my fears, the old Land Rover got us safely up and out of the Ngorongoro Crater… but we saw another vehicle that had broken down on the way up, so I thanked our lucky stars that our clutch had decided to kick the bucket at Lake Manyara and not here!

    At the top of the ascent road we saw a waterbuck, and then a large group of playful baboons held up traffic for a bit just outside the park gate. But they weren’t our last animals, either—we saw a mouse darting across the road as we drove to the stunning lookout at Heroes Point, and then an auger buzzard sailing by overhead. We also stopped for a few of the Rift Valley Children’s Village, perched on one of the green hills a few valleys away.

    So, technically, a mouse was our last safari animal, and a buzzard our last bird. But I like to think that the elephants, who had been our constant companions throughout our journey (we’d seen them everywhere except Lake Nakuru), had the last word. Our final stop before heading back to the lodge was to examine some trunk holes that elephants had dug into the rich soil of the cliff wall beside the road, searching for minerals. With that, our game drive ended and I immediately began to feel pangs of withdrawal. I am well and truly a game drive junkie.

    Back at the lodge, we posed for a photo with Jackson and the cranky (but now trusty) Land Rover (he insisted on grabbing a towel and wiping off some of the dust first, to make it look more spiffy). We said good night and went in to wash the dust of the crater off ourselves, too. After we both took showers, the bottom of our tub had about half a bucket-full of red dirt in it! We enjoyed a delicious, quiet and leisurely dinner tonight, rehashing all the marvels of our safari over Tusker (for Kenya) and Safari (for Tanzania) beers—we had to toast both countries! We still couldn’t believe our good fortune, how much we’d seen, all the wonderful people we’d met, and how often we’d encountered something completely new. We started planning, right there, our next 4 or 5 safaris… as well as safaris for our parents and all our friends. But even if this is the only one we ever get to take, we really couldn’t ask for better.

  • Report Abuse

    A lion is a great way to end. And Jackson's right; who knows what was seeing you?

    This won't be the last time you visit. See raelond's first chapter--you've already made someone in East Africa famous. You'll have to go back to discuss this with Michael (2?).

    You've written an amazing report, and I'm sure it only touches on what your experience meant to you and your husband. Thanks for sharing all this!

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, Leely. I hope to get some crater pictures posted later today.

    I still have to write about the "vacation from the vacation" -- Zanzibar. But finishing the safari really felt, in a lot of ways, like the end of the epic part of our trip.

    To be honest, I'm not sure whether "my" canoe Michael was Michael 1 or Michael 2!

  • Report Abuse

    You asked if your eyesight improves on safari. I believe your spotting skills do and with even occasional use of those skills, I think they are maintained or improved.

    The hiking mixup worked out. It seems things always do work out for the best in Africa. I think that's because the alternatives are always attractive.

    When you quoted Jackson, I could actually hear him with that wonderful African accent. I could just see him shining up the vehicle for the picture. There is a real love between guide and vehicle that I've noticed and they always want the vehicle in the photo.

    So going back up the crater was worse than going down.

    Your awareness of the last animal seen will give us something more to think about and make the end of any safari even more bittersweet.

    You caught the zebra melee in your photos! I bet that German Shepard (I think that's what it was) you were petting made you homesick for Kyle.

    Your report has really captured the magic of a first trip, or any trip to Africa! You certainly had a wide spectrum of experiences. If your farewell toasts included planning out 4-5 itineraries for future Africa trips, I'd say you are hooked.

  • Report Abuse

    Yep, we are indeed hooked! How could you tell?? ;)

    My husband is the one who came up with the idea of the farewell animal, since everybody always remembers their first wild animal sighting. We like to think of it as the animal who says farewell to you on this particular trip... but not necessarly the last animal.

    On to Zanzibar...

  • Report Abuse

    PART 19 – “Smile, UR in Zanzibar” (Oct. 10th, 2007)

    This morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the little table outside our cottage, serenaded by a white-browed robin chat and his friends. We also spent some time playing with the lodge’s resident dog, a big German Shepherd who rolled over and begged for tummy rubs, then left affectionate muddy paw prints on my husband’s pants before running off to beg for chakula at the kitchen’s back door.

    Once again we had a little fight with the Land Rover, trying to get the door open to load our luggage, and then trying to latch the back window shut. The passenger door was stuck again, too. But at this point all it had to do was get us to the airport, so hopefully it would be up to that task. We drove back to Arusha, passing Maasai bomas, men herding their goats and cattle, and donkeys standing by the side of the road. We stopped at a souvenir shop to peruse the colorful tinga tinga paintings, and had a funny experience buying two small paintings. Everything here had a price tag, unlike most of the shops we’d seen, and we weren’t sure if we were supposed to bargain or not. Either way, we thought the price marked on the paintings—$10 each—wasn’t bad. So we took them up to the counter, and without any prompting from us the guy at the shop said he could give us a better deal if we bought both. “$12 for both,” he said, so we agreed, feeling lucky. Then he proceeded to talk himself down to an even lower price, without us saying a word! When we asked if we could pay in Tanzanian shillings instead of dollars, we whipped out his calculator and gave us a really good exchange rate on top of that… so in the end, we paid about $8 for two paintings. We were happy, he was happy, and we left with a great feeling—after all the uncomfortable moments we’d had with shops and bargaining and vendors on this trip, this was a nice way to end up. When we walked out to car, we were surprised to find Jackson changing a flat tire! He’d managed to cruise into the shop’s parking lot without us even noticing (and almost got the tire changed without us noticing, too!).

    By now we were cutting it a bit close, but we made it to the airport just in time to check in for our flight to Zanzibar. Or so we thought. As usual, the plane wasn’t even on the runway by the time we were supposed to be departing. We had plenty of time to nibble at our box lunches (which we couldn’t take with us on the plane), and to start saying our farewells to Jackson. We gave him his tip and a gift we’d brought from home. The harder part was saying goodbye, and trying to be sure he knew how much we’d enjoyed his company and hoped we’d see him again someday. I really wish we’d had more time to explore Tanzania with him (but we’ve had fun e-mailing with him since we got home, and sending him music!). In some ways, this saying goodbye and lingering around in the airport was tougher than it would have been if we’d had to run straight out to the plane with just a brief chance to wave goodbye. Just as it had been with James, I found it much harder to say goodbye than I’d expected. When you imagine a safari, you think of all the incredible wildlife and fantastic scenery you might see… and then, in real life, it’s the people you meet who really make the biggest impact. We were so fortunate with all our wonderful guides on this trip; how could we ever sufficiently express our gratitude to them, or thank them enough for their role in fulfilling our dreams?

    The flight to Zanzibar on a little prop plane was crammed full, stuffy and hot, and it was clear from the looks of the other passengers that we were on our way toward a beach destination. We arrived in Zanzibar a little after lunch time, getting a fantastic view of the coast and the rooftops of Stone Town as we swooped in for our landing. As we walked into the tiny airport, we passed a fountain with the words “SMILE UR IN ZANZIBAR” spelled out in topiaries behind it. No one was checking passports, so we just grabbed out bags and went to find our driver from Island Express (arranged by Green Footprint), who was waiting for us right outside. He moved in quickly to hoist our duffel bags, and we weren’t bothered at all by the other porters waiting around outside. It was so hot and muggy here, we were thankful for the air-conditioning in his minivan as he whisked us off to Stone Town via partially-flooded streets. Every now and then we’d get glimpses of bright blue water past nondescript, run-down buildings.

    We parked near the waterfront and the driver showed us the way through the maze of narrow streets to our hotel, 236 Hurumzi (formerly called Emerson & Green). I’d heard so much about the crazy winding streets of Stone Town and how easy it was to get lost here, but we actually had no problem finding our way around after this initial walk—the key is to mentally tag landmarks for yourself, such as signs or shop windows. It’s actually a very compact town, if you’re exploring mainly around the old fort, the House of Wonders and the waterfront. But, back to our initial impressions of 236 Hurumzi… what a fantastic place this is! Definitely one of the most unique and fascinating old hotels we’ve ever stayed in. It’s like a big, rambling old sultan’s palace filled with antiques and colored glass lamps and ornate Zanzibar chests, its interior balconies dripping with colorful flowers. The moment you step foot inside, you really feel a sense of place—that you’re in Zanzibar. I’ve read some comments on this board that knock the hotel for various reasons, and I guess if you need an elevator or are looking for something really luxurious, this wouldn’t be the place for you. But we absolutely loved it, and would stay there again in a heartbeat.

    Every room at 236 Hurumzi is unique and has its own special character, and ours (called “South”) was a real knockout. It was located just below the open rooftop restaurant, and as we approached it we saw a carved wooden door that almost seemed to be free-standing in an open courtyard, with no walls around and blue sky beyond. This was our front door. When we opened it, we saw that it led to a little bridge between two buildings, with an unobstructed view over the rooftops of Stone Town. Our room was on the rooftop of this second building. At the end of the bridge was our private courtyard garden with a little table next to lattice screens, tropical plants all around, and an enormous outdoor bathtub/shower (although, sadly, they asked us not to fill it up for a bath, because of the scarcity of water). On one end of the courtyard was a bathroom, and at the other end was our cozy room with dark wooden furniture and a mosquito-net-shrouded four poster bed. On our pillows were tiny bundles of sweet-smelling cloves tied up with ribbons.

    We spent a little time exploring the rest of this amazing hotel, and then struck out into the streets to explore Stone Town itself. The buildings here are quite dilapidated, thanks to decades of ocean air and neglect, and the city won’t win any awards for beauty, but we enjoyed the beauty in the details—colorful shop windows, cats in the narrow alleys, shoes lined up outside a nearby mosque, and a boy sitting on a doorstep who gave us an impromptu concert, singing and drumming on a plastic tub. The heat was oppressive but we found a bit of relief near the harbor, where we watched kids leaping into the water while small boats and dhows bobbed farther out in the wake of larger vessels. Across the park was the tall, white House of Wonders, once the largest building on the island and still one of its most impressive.

    While my husband wandered around with his camera, I sat by a dock and watched the dhows sailing past. The heat was really getting to me, and I was feeling light-headed and a bit sick to my stomach. Two young boys came up to me to say hello, and asked me if I had any chewing gum. I turned to look up at them, and was struck and saddened by the looks of one of them—his head was huge and strangely shaped, his forehead too high and his facial features all pushed off to one side, and it seemed as if he could barely speak. But he was still smiling at me, and at that moment I really did wish I’d had something to share with them. I told them I was sorry, I didn’t have any gum, and the other boy said, “No problem. Have a good visit!” The two of them turned and ran off toward the other kids and jumped in the water. I thought about Josephat then, and all the advantages the children at the RVCV have compared with so many other kids in Tanzania. I wondered what this little boy’s life was like, and what his future would be.

    As we walked around Stone Town, we discovered that the dreaded touts we’d read so much about were certainly present (and occasionally annoying), but nowhere near as bad as we’d expected. I think you need to come to Stone Town prepared for a little culture shock (especially if you haven’t traveled in a developing country before), but don’t let the warnings scare you off. This is a very interesting place to spend an afternoon walking around, and I think it would be even better if you have time for a guided tour and can learn more about the history of the city. With our limited time, we had fun just wandering and looking at the architecture, particularly the famous Zanzibar doors. Each one is unique, and I’ve read that the tradition was for a family to pass the door down from one generation to the next, building the house around the family door. It was fun to see the signs hanging over these doors, too—“Zanzibar Medical Center” and “Public Library” and “Hatari! High Voltage!”

    The heat was really starting to wear us down, so we ducked into the Gallery book shop to cool off. Here we found a treasure trove of gifts and treats, so we gathered up some things to take back to our co-workers: cotton bags of spices, Zanzibar seaweed bubble bath, cards with tinga tinga style paintings on them. They had lots of beautiful books here (which is like catnip for a librarian!) but I resisted the urge to buy anything too heavy, knowing that we were going to be schlepping our own bags around London in a few days. On our way back to the hotel we walked back through the Forodhani Gardens again. By now the preparations for the night market were really picking up—vendors lining up their fish and fruit and kebabs on long, tarp-covered tables (with kitty cats prowling around underneath), and smoke starting to rise from their grills. Lots of talking, lots of laughter… but no eating yet, because it was Ramadan and everyone was fasting until sundown. My husband asked one of the vendors if it was okay to take pictures and offered to buy a kebab. The guy told him to take all the photos he wanted and not worry about buying anything, since he couldn’t sell food yet anyway. (Which is probably a good thing, because there was a little fly smashed into the side of one of the kebabs.)

    Back at the hotel, reinvigorated by the ceiling fan and the cool evening breeze coming off the water, we headed upstairs for our dinner at the Towertop restaurant. Despite the relative dud of a sunset, the view over the rooftops was incredible, and the setting pure magic. We sat on embroidered cushions and gorgeous carpets, barefoot with low wooden tables in front of us and billowing silk draperies in a canopy overhead. We really felt like we were dining on a flying carpet! Dinner was a lengthy affair with multiple courses that lasted about three hours. We tried some special drinks: the fruity house “Zanzibar Special” and a terrific concoction called “Dawa,” made with vodka, cloves, coconut milk, lime, and brown sugar. (We’ve tried to recreate this at home, but it’s just not the same.) Another amazing surprise was the violinist who stood in the middle of the room and played between courses of food, his white robes swaying with the music and the breeze. He was really good, and my husband went over to talk with him afterwards. We got a CD of his taarab orchestra, which is really outstanding and our favorite souvenir of Zanzibar. The food was good but not especially memorable—I think what you mainly pay for here is the experience and the ambiance. For that, we really felt like we got our money’s worth.

    After dinner we spent some time just hanging out in our beautiful little courtyard under the stars, writing by candlelight (the journal for me, and music for my husband). Nearby, we could hear the faint laughter and conversation of the rooftop staff cleaning up from dinner, and the taarab music they were listening to. Smile, you are in Zanzibar!

  • Report Abuse

    Totally agree with you about Zanzibar. Culture shock after coming off safari and not for everyone in any case. Still, what a fascinating history. I'd go back for the seafood alone.

  • Report Abuse

    MDK, looking for a farewell animal is the worst kind of torture, only late planes and long goodbyes can be compared to it.

    What a nice kori bustard you had posing for you! They usually turn their tail and run off if I ask them to pose for me.

  • Report Abuse

    That's what we're hoping, Lynn. :)

    Yeah, I know, not good of me to dwell on the goodbyes. But I was acutely aware of it these last few days of our trip. And while I was not expecting it to be so hard to say goodbye to our guides, this really is a good thing -- because it means that these guys really meant a lot to us, and we enjoyed spending time with them so much. If saying goodbye to your guide (and to the animals, and to Africa itself) WASN'T hard, then that would mean you didn't have a good trip. Later on I'll write about some people who clearly weren't sad at all about leaving Africa, which is something I couldn't relate to at all!

    I'm going out of town tomorrow, but when I come back next week I will push through to the end and finish writing about Zanzibar (and those kooky monkeys).

  • Report Abuse

    Great luck with your time in the Crater. You mentioned that you’d saved the best for last, and for you that was to be the Crater. Whether it ended up being the best part of your trip is irrelevant. However, if you didn’t have time to experience it, of course you’d never know and always think you missed the best part of your trip. I know that pang in your heart when your last game drive comes to an end and your safari is over. I have sweet memories of the first game I saw on each trip, but even fonder memories of that last game drive and those animals that bid me farewell.

  • Report Abuse

    PART 20 – “Monkey Rules” (Oct. 11th, 2007)

    This morning we ate breakfast on the rooftop, now transformed into a more sedate restaurant with tables and chairs instead of colorful carpets. But the view was still striking—soft grey light over the rooftops and out to the sea. From here we could see the tower of a Hindu temple, several church spires, and the minaret of a mosque, as well as rooftops of homes strewn with mattresses and clotheslines. It rained a bit in our courtyard, just a fine, drizzly mist as I wrote in my journal. My husband went out for a stroll, but unfortunately I had to opt out because I was still feeling a little ill. (I am happy to report though, that this was the only time in 3 weeks that I felt this way… I think it was primarily due to the heat and humidity, because I did not have any problems with food or stomach ailments while in Africa.)

    Our Island Express driver picked us up around 9am and we said farewell to our lovely Swahili palace at 236 Hurumzi. We were excited to see more of Zanzibar—its fabled spice plantations, beaches, and wildlife. This time we had a guide as well as a driver—George, who was just about the tallest person I’ve ever met. We also had some much-appreciated air conditioning (a new Swahili word, and I hope I spell this right—kiyoyoza) in the van, and it made me feel a whole lot better. We drove past Dr. Livingstone’s house on our way out of Stone Town, and then stopped to tour the ruins of Maruhubi Palace, which was built in 1882 to house the Sultan Barghash and his large harem. Even in ruins, we could get a good sense of the scale of the palace and its private baths with high, domed ceilings. Now, the walls left standing are stained with fire and weather and age, and cows wander freely through what was once the sultan’s pleasure gardens. But it is still beautiful, and with a little imagination we could see it as a living place, rich with the history of the island.

    Nearby the palace ruins was a dhow “factory”—a shady spot with a number of boats in various stages of construction, and beyond that a small cove with some other vessels in a sort of dry dock for repairs. George told us that it can take several years to build a dhow, partly because of the painstaking work involved and partly because nobody has the money to build one all at once—and often parts that rot out during this long process have to be replaced before the dhow is even finished.

    From here we headed off on our spice tour, visiting a government-run plantation where different groups of people were responsible for planting and harvesting different sections of the land. We walked along the rows through orchards and fields and George pointed out the various spices growing there, showing us how they looked in their raw form and describing all their different uses. He especially liked to give us little bits to taste or smell and asked us to guess what they were (we usually got them wrong)—cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, peppercorn, and fruits like cassava and jackfruit. Our favorite was seeing nutmeg in its bright red lacing of mace. Many of the trees were beautiful too, and grew almost as though they were wild in a natural forest—palm oil trees, “cotton” trees, dhurrian, ylang-ylang, cocoa trees. We were surprised and delighted to see a bush baby walking around high in the branches of one of those trees, bright-eyed and alert even in broad daylight. After all the bush babies we’d heard throughout our trip, this was the best look at one we’d had.

    A young boy joined up with us during the spice tour and kept making little cups and bracelets out of leaves to give me. When we stopped at the “lipstick” tree, he even smeared the red color on his lips to demonstrate how it got that name, and several times he scrambled up trees and into bushes to fetch samples for George to show us. At one point another group of boys showed up and seemed to be infringing on his territory, so he left us for a few minutes to chase them off. George told us the boys do this in the hope that the tourists will visit their family’s spice shop at the end of the tour. We weren’t obligated but we thought it would be nice to reward his efforts, and so we bought some cloves to give as gifts (they made our stinky duffle bag smell great, too!). Meanwhile, during the course of the spice tour George had been chatting with us about his interest in (and desire to sell) natural diet supplements to improve local people’s health. He was so enthusiastic about this subject, for a while he seemed to forget all about the spice tour! We had a really interesting conversation about local eating habits and health care, though.

    Overall, I thought the spice tour was very interesting and worthwhile, although in hindsight I would have preferred to spend a little less time on this activity and have more time at Jozani forest. (Our tour up to this point had taken about 3 hours.) But I am really glad we fit both things in and made a full day of it. If you go on a spice tour, be prepared to tip at the dhow yard and buy a little something from the boys at the spice plantations.

    It was interesting driving through small towns on our way from place to place today and seeing what life was like on Zanzibar. We had fun sign-spotting again in the town of Bububu—an Arabic medicine clinic and something called the “Heavy Library” (of course a doctor and a librarian would notice such things!). Also the “Las Vegas Photo Studio,” and the “Drop” water factory (if you come to Zanzibar you’ll become well-acquainted with Drop). As on the mainland, we’ve seen lots of hair salons with those funny paintings on their exterior walls and doors, to show patrons which haircuts they can get. They were all remarkably similar from salon to salon, so I wondered if they’d been copied from catalogs… or if there’s some guy who specializes in painting hair salon advertisements. We stopped at a fancy beach hotel in Mtoni for lunch, where we relaxed under a cool thatched roof with ceiling fans and a view of white sand and blue sea. Our lunch was a delicious fish (they’re not kidding about how great the seafood is here… and I don’t even like seafood in my real life!), followed by lime sorbet with five-spice syrup.

    Then it was off to Jozani Forest for our last wildlife adventure in East Africa—a search for the red colobus monkeys. One of the first things we saw when we arrived at Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park was a sign explaining the “Monkeys Viewing Rules,” using pictures to show us what to do (and not do) around the monkeys—stay 3 to 5 meters away from them, don’t feed them, don’t pet them, don’t look them in the eye… and especially DON’T say “Oi! Boo!” to get their attention for a photo. (Of course, as we’d find out, no one bothers to explain these rules to the monkeys.)

    We walked into the forest with a park ranger and George, marveling at the tall, thin trees and the glowing green light filtering down between them. Most of the island used to be liked this, before it was all cleared away to make room for the spice plantations. Now, only this tiny part has been set aside and protected, but thank goodness it has been. We saw lots of life in the shady shelter of forest—a beautiful little skink, a tiny tree frog, a humongous snail. We got a quick glimpse of a skittish red colobus mom and her infant, as well as a Sykes blue monkey hiding in the undergrowth. We wanted to stay with them for a while but our guides urged us onwards, assuring us that we’d get a better view of the monkeys when we got closer to the road.

    We sure did! The second group of monkeys we encountered was much larger, much closer, and not afraid of us humans at all. These red colobus (and a few accompanying blue monkeys) were all around us, sitting up in the trees right above our heads… and in one case, nearly peeing on the head of another tourist. The monkeys were so animated, peering down at us while munching leaves, and swinging back and forth on branches only a few feet away. They seemed to be really curious about us, and in some cases even showing off. The other group of tourists kept shrieking and making a lot of noise, so we were relieved when they left. Not long after that (as I was reminding myself of the rules), one of the monkeys leaped down from a tree behind me and ran right past me, reaching out to brush my leg with his hand as he went! I’m sure I was just in his way, but it was a thrill for me. Red colobus are such crazy, funny little characters, and each of them has such a unique face—more than any of the other primates we’d seen. We tried to get portraits of most of them, in the few seconds they stayed still, but I’m not certain which one ran past me because I only saw the back of his little red head.

    It was a long drive from Jozani to our hotel at Pongwe Beach, because there were no direct roads. But all this driving around today was worth it for giving us the chance to see so many faces of the island. Pongwe Beach was a fantastic place to conclude our safari adventure. We almost couldn’t believe it when we first saw the place—it was really that beautiful, like a little vision of paradise. A perfect stretch of white sand beach and palm trees, a view of turquoise water. And our thatched-roof cottage was amazing, perched on a rocky outcropping at the very end of the beach with its own private sundeck and wooden stairs down to the beach (or straight into the ocean depending on the tide). After sundown we walked barefoot back to the dining room and sipped Safari beers on the beach, watching the dark surge of waves. After a delicious dinner and some star-watching, we walked back up the beach and called it an early night, wanting to rest up for tomorrow—our last full day in Africa, and the only day of the trip for which we’d planned nothing at all.

  • Report Abuse

    PART 21 – “A Lazy Day and A Swahili Night” (Oct. 12th, 2007)

    We were lulled to sleep by the sound of the surf last night (interrupted occasionally by the cackle of bush babies), and then woke to the same rhythmic crash of the waves this morning—now much fainter and farther away. We walked out onto our front patio and saw to our surprise that the tide was way, way out now, and the stairs from our cottage that had disappeared into the surf last night were now leading down to the sand. Looking out at the water, we could see that the tide had pulled back far enough to expose perhaps a quarter mile of shore.

    The weather was perfect—sunny and clear, nowhere near as humid as Stone Town had been. We had nowhere to go and nothing to do but relax and explore Pongwe Beach. At breakfast in the open-air dining room, my husband found some bees swimming in the honey, so he rescued them. We enjoyed all the fresh fruit and Wheatabix (which one of the employees at the Mountain Lodge had referred to as “elephant poop” … and if you’ve seen this cereal then you know what she means), trying not to make too much eye contact with the resident kitty, who was really working her begging angle under our table.

    It was great to have a day where we never needed to look at our watches. We spent the rest of the morning taking a long walk out onto the sandbar, as far as the ocean would let us go. We passed stranded boats that last night had been bobbing in deep water, and the neat rows of seaweed farms where local women were harvesting their crop, and fishermen even farther out, standing waist-deep beside their small boats. We had a safari of sorts out here, too, and were surprised by the amount and variety of sea life we discovered just by walking in the shallow water: sea urchins (both alive and as intact skeletons), hermit crabs, spider-like anemones that quickly retreated into their tiny dens when we stepped too close, and small silvery fishes darting around our toes.

    By 11am or so it was getting really hot out there with the glare on the water, so we walked back to Pongwe and jumped into the pretty little infinity pool. I quickly decided this was my dream pool, with its view of the ocean and a gentle, sloping entry that mimicked the feeling of walking down the shore into the sea. After cooling off in the pool we just lounged around for a while—me journaling again, now hopelessly far behind, and my husband snoozing under an umbrella. What a luxury! We never do this sort of thing at home, so it was kind of stunning to have nothing to do but relax. When we first arrived in Zanzibar, I’ll admit, I was already regretting not having just added these extra days to our safari. I mean, how can the beach compare with a safari?? But this “vacation from the vacation” was really delightful, and it sure beat having to head straight home and straight back to work from the bush. Plus, Pongwe Beach is a real bargain compared to safari lodges and camps. We had the perfect balance here for us: half a day and an evening in Stone Town, one day to explore the island, and one day to just flake out at the beach. (Your own beach needs may vary…)

    After lunch we walked out to the main gate of the hotel, where we had a fun time talking with Mateo, a young Maasai guy who was on duty there. We asked him how he liked Zanzibar and what it was like to work at Pongwe. He told us that this was a really good job, but that he often missed his family back on the mainland, and thought that the way people lived on Zanzibar was a little strange sometimes. “They don’t even know which plants to use to prevent mosquito bites!” he said, incredulously. Then he asked about us and where we were from, and we talked about American and Tanzanian politics. He said he didn’t like America’s government at all, but that he loved American people and it was his dream to move to America someday (we’ve heard this often in the last three weeks). He started asking us some really specific questions about how to immigrate to the U.S., what the process was like and how long it took and how much money it required… and midway through the conversation, I realized he was asking us these questions in a way that made it clear he thought my husband (who’s Chinese-American) must have gone through all that at some point. We had to tell him we really didn’t know, because we were both born in the U.S. He was such a nice guy and we enjoyed talking with him, and wished him luck with his goals. One of the notable things about Pongwe Beach was that all the employees we met here were extremely friendly and personable, and it very much had the feeling of the small camps we stayed at earlier in our trip (Elephant Bedroom in Samburu and Oliver’s Camp in Tarangire), where the staff was a big part of our experience.

    The rest of the afternoon, we just explored different ways of being lazy—most notably hanging out on the beach loungers and testing out the drink flag. When we first arrived, they’d given us a beach tote with two towels and a little green flag. All we had to do was stick the flag in the sand and someone would magically appear to bring us drinks. We did a test run of dawa, and the system worked flawlessly. So did the hammocks. It started to get windy late in the day and the tide was rapidly coming back in, tossing the once-stranded boats around in choppy turquoise waves. After some further lazy time for reading on the private deck beside our cottage (really, there are so many places to be lazy here, you just can’t do it all in one day!), we ran down our steps and jumped into the ocean for a swim.

    Another dud of a sunset, but we were on the wrong side of the island for that, anyway. We rinsed off the salt water and walked down the beach to dinner, where everyone had gathered under the big palapa roof. We heard music, faint at first and then getting closer, and a few minutes later a small band with some singers and a clarinet walked in, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” followed by that other great African standard, “My Darling Clementine.” They strolled through the lounge and right up to everyone, really hamming it up and being silly. By the time they launched into “Jambo Bwana,” I felt a surge in my heart and tears pushing at my eyelids—not for this all-too-familiar-by-now song, really, but for what it represented to me now. All the gratitude I felt, I mean: gratitude for our time in Africa, and the great privilege it was to be here, and for all the good will and hospitality and warmth we’d felt from the people here. How on earth could we leave tomorrow? How had this all gone by so quickly?

    We had requested this morning to have our last African dinner served on the beach, but it was so windy by now they had to set us up at a table with a thatched roof over it, to keep our food from blowing away (we saw another couple farther down on the sand whose table was literally shaking in the wind, so we were glad to have a bit of shelter!). My husband had some scrumptious prawns and I had what was, without a doubt, the very best meal of the whole trip. Tonight was “Swahili Night,” so I was given a feast of local dishes, each one more mouth-watering than the next: potato patee (sic), bean and coconut soup, rice and green peas rich with spices, chapatti, beef and green bananas, kachambari salad, and a tropical fruit salad served in a coconut. The main dish was the most delicious of all—kuku wakupaka, a tender spiced chicken that was by far the best chicken I’ve ever tasted. We capped things off with a double amarula. It was the perfect way to end our East African travels—good food, live music, and the beautiful view of moonlight on the ocean. As we fell asleep tonight, we heard one last bush baby lullabye.

  • Report Abuse

    What a wonderful trip, wonderful trip report, wonderful descriptions of sights, sounds, and feelings -- and you will forever have wonderful memories. Thanks for sharing.

  • Report Abuse

    I must echo hguy's comment--wonderful, wonderful. And my eyes welled up reading about yours welling up.

    I've always wanted to stay at Pongwe. Your description only reinforces that.

    Are we going to get a chapter about the brutal flight(s) home?


  • Report Abuse

    Thanks, guys! I'm just about to post the final installment... Not so much about the brutality of the flights home, Leely, but about the brutality of waiting in the airports. Here's what I mean...

  • Report Abuse

    PART 22 – “Tutaonana, East Africa!” (Oct. 13th, 2007)

    We woke up bright and early, wanting to wring every last moment out of the time we had left in this little African paradise before we had to leave for the airport. We took another swim in the dreamy pool, and another long walk out on the tidal flats. We spotted lots more hermit crabs, and sea urchins gathered in clusters under seaweedy patches (wear sandals, and watch where you step). Our best “sighting” of today was a vivid orange starfish that was actually running through the shallow water! I’m not kidding—we have never seen a starfish move so fast! Our last animal was a fat, purple-black sea slug, who was not running at all. So maybe these were our farewell critters, after all.

    Before we left Pongwe, we walked down our steps to the beach and drew a message in the sand: TUTAONANA, EAST AFRICA! See you later… not goodbye.

    The rest of the day was a series of steps taking us away from Africa and back toward home. First was a long drive across the island to the Zanzibar airport, which is exactly what you think of when you hear the words “small African airport.” There was a confusing, chaotic and excruciatingly hot jumble at check-in, with lots of waiting around in the blazing sun while someone tried to fix the broken computer. (We were grateful to have the guy from Island Express there to help us sort through the chaos.) Once inside the airport, we had a long, long wait for our flight to Nairobi. Nobody ever fully explained why our flight left two hours late. But from what we overheard it seemed as though our plane was scrapped after there was a problem with changing a tire, and we had to wait for another plane to fly over from Nairobi to replace it. Fortunately, we had a very long layover (now a bit shorter) in Nairobi before our flight to London. On the way to Nairobi, we flew past Kilimanjaro in the dark and so once more missed out on seeing the famous mountain (the pilot rubbed it in a bit by announcing, “Now we are flying past Kilimanjaro, but you cannot see it because it is too dark”).

    Some of my sadness at leaving Africa was tempered in a strange way during our long hours in the Nairobi airport. While waiting for our BA flight, I had several other Americans come up to me and try to commiserate with me about how wretched Africa was, and how glad they were to be going home to the good old U.S.A. One guy was mouthing off at the security staff, complaining about how “stupid” everything and everyone was in Africa (what was so “stupid” in this case was that he couldn’t bring a full bottle of water through security). I was mightily impressed by how patient and calm the staff remained in the face of this nonsense (and I imagined this guy in a Land Rover, whining about how he wasn’t seeing LIONS). Worse, while we were sitting in the waiting area and I was trying to write in my journal, another American came and sat down next to us and kept trying to tell us how horrible her safari had been and how she couldn’t wait to “get the hell out of here and go back to a REAL country.” She talked about how “disgusting” Africa was, and how she hated everything—the “weird” people, the “boring” animals, the “snotty little kids” (my God! Could she hear herself??), the tents, the food, the roads, her tour group… It went on and on. Listening to her (or rather, trying not to), I felt that profound sense of gratitude again—for having been able to visit these wonderful countries, and for all the amazing experiences we’d had here (and for not being in her tour group!). I couldn’t understand how anyone could be so dense. And I felt a bit sad for her too, because here she’d had this incredible opportunity—one most people will never get, and those of us who have are so, so lucky!—and she just did not get it at all.

    As for me, I have to say that East Africa is one of the most fascinating, beautiful, hospitable, exciting, and amazing places we’ve ever been. I have been bitten hard by the Africa bug! Since returning home six months ago not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of the people we met and the places we visited, and I have wondered so often how I’m going to get myself back there again. But even if I never have the chance to return, I have been given this enormous gift: what was once a dream of an imagined Africa is now specific memories of the real thing… fond memories and continuing correspondence with real people like James and Jackson and (especially) Josephat… and knowing what it is like to look right into the eyes of a baby jackal, and to know he is looking back at me.

    Asante sana sana to all of you, for your help in planning this amazing journey over the past few years, and for your part more recently in helping me relive it. Thanks for your patience, and I apologize for taking so long to write what may be the longest trip report in history.

    I’m finished!! And I look forward to reading all of your trip reports for years to come…

  • Report Abuse

    I've enjoyed your report from beginning to end. Tutaonana, MDK. You'll get back to East Africa. I'm the first one to admit life intervenes--I thought for sure I'd be back in 2008 but late 2009 looks more realistic. However, it'll happen and the joys (and sorrows) of your return will make the wait worthwhile.

  • Report Abuse

    Your encounters with other tourists at the airport are startling to me. Well, I hope those types don't return so I don't ever encounter them. Unless they chose a completely crooked travel agent that ripped them off and took them nowhere, I cannot imagine complaining about everything. And it appears they were unhappy with Africa, itself.

    Your trip report was beautifully written and contains heatfelt emotion. It may cause some fence setters to book and go!

  • Report Abuse

    Dear My,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! for taking all the time that you did to write a profoundly engaging trip report - nay, story! - of your time in Kenya and Tanzania. I had read only Parts I & II I think before I went on my own trip to Tanzania in March.

    Your sense of place, understanding of culture, willingness for adventure and openheartedness are supremely evident throughout your report. It is clear that Africa soaked into you and your husband to the bone.

    Your time in Africa has become my bedtime story. I printed your trip report out so that I can read a Part or two at a time before I go to sleep each night. I already don't want the story to end! You are a very, very talented writer.

    Btw, I've just gotten to Tanzania with you but I haven't looked at any of your photos yet. I'll have to look at your highly touted pix when I re-read your story - which I'm sure I'll do over and over :)


    Thanks again,
    -doo

  • Report Abuse

    Hi Leely, Lynn, Nyamera & Doo,

    I just got back to this board after a few weeks away from my computer and saw all your comments. Thank you so much for your kind words! I was so happy to have the chance to share our experiences with people who understand what it's like. :)

    Lynn, I was shocked by those people at the airport too, but I guess folks like that can be found everywhere. I don't know if they had a specifically bad trip, or if they just had such a bad attitude toward anything different from their everyday lives that they couldn't appreciate what they were experiencing. I can certainly understand feeling overwhelmed by something like visiting a Maasai village where you're bombarded with beaded jewelry! And I also think anyone who travels to Africa with their eyes open will, obviously, see some things that are upsetting and hard to take. But with those people, I really think it was more a matter of heading off to Africa without packing an open mind.

    I think all of us here know that if you go to Africa with an open mind and an open heart, Africa will fill them both up to overflowing.

    Now, you guys all need to go on your own trips soon so I can read about them (except Doo, who just wrote us a lovely trip report recently)! :)

  • Report Abuse

    What an absolutely brilliant read! It took me right back there - I especially loved the part about Ngorongoro crater. Now I know that I am not the only one frightened witless by the ascent road!

    Just wanted to make sure it got to the top again for others to discover.

189 Replies |Back to top

| Add a Reply

Sign in to comment.

Recent Activity

  • Announcement: Writers Needed for Morocco Guidebook
    by Emily_D Fodor's Editor | Posted on Apr 11, 14 at 05:51 PM
View all Africa & the Middle East activity »
  1. 1 East Africa summer 2014
  2. 2 Kenya and Tanzania Trip Planning Help
  3. 3 Yet another Kruger private reserve budget lodge post + Blyde Canyon
  4. 4 Seeking Itinerary Routing for 3 week SA Trip
  5. 5 Cape Town Safety?
  6. 6 first time family safari in August 2014
  7. 7 BOTSWANA - Maun (Okavango) to Chobe - 4x4 self drive...
  8. 8 Memory cards for camera
  9. 9 Self Drive SA, Botswana, Zimbabwe - help, 4x4 hire/border restrictions
  10. 10 First Time in Israel Tour Suggestions
  11. 11 Sabi Sands camps
  12. 12 Questions on 10 day Morocco winter vacation
  13. 13 London to Tel aviv What to expect at BG /Trans to Tel aviv / booking.com
  14. 14 place to sleep near airport for a 6 hour layover .. switching airports
  15. 15 Help with Rwanda trip
  16. 16 Have you been to East Africa ?Ethiopia?
  17. 17 Tel Aviv beaches
  18. 18 trip report, morocco
  19. 19 Marrakech to Fes by bus
  20. 20 Safari and Beach Honeymoon in September
  21. 21 Generic malarone now availbale in Canada
  22. 22 Morocco for 2 nights
  23. 23 Maldives, Seychelles or Mauritius??
  24. 24 Hotels in Nairobi
  25. 25 Who Plans and Packs for Your Bucket List Travel (Safari)
View next 25 » Back to the top