Is East Africa too commercialized?

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Aug 6th, 2003, 05:58 AM
  #1
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Is East Africa too commercialized?

I'm almost afraid to post this, not wanting to spark a huge debate, but it's our first trip to Africa and I want to come away with a wonderful experience...

After spending several hours last night pouring over my "Africa file" (articles, trip reports and web sites collected over the past few years) I came across a piece in Conde Nast Traveler from last year commenting on the crowds at Ngorongoro Crater. The writer compared it to a theme park, at one point counting a dozen vehicles in a row following a black rhino (stressing him), and when stopping for lunch noted at least a hundred people were there.

While I realize the odds of being in the wild "alone" isn't realistic, do the crowds make it seem more like DisneyWorld than a different world? Isn't that unsettling for the animals? And if so, are there recommendations for camps / parks that aren't swarming with humans (if it's even possible)?

Thanks for your sage advice (which is ALWAYS appreciated!). For background, we'd like to visit in November which is why Tanzania and possibly Kenya are in particular being considered.
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Aug 6th, 2003, 06:40 AM
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hlphillips2, Even with the crowds you will still come away with a wonderful experience. Advice given to me was to keep a few things in perspective. The Crater being a rather small area when one considers it is something like a 15 or so mile diameter did seem to be a bit crowded even when we were there in mid-June. We entered the Crater from the east side (from the Sopa Lodge) and had quick access compared to what travelers have entering from lodges on the west side. Also, we began our day rather early. Thus, we didn't see many vehicles for a couple of hours. As morning matured we began to see more and more vehicles but never more than a couple pulled off at any one time. When we pulled into the rest room area at the edge of the small forested stretch there were a handful of vehicles there but the site was somewhat hidden until we got right to it. (as an aside I understand from a couple of the gals in the group the facility was not useable as a colony of bees took up residence there.) The lunch spot at the small lake also with rest rooms was definitely crowded with maybe 30 vehicles. While that was unlike anything we saw elsewhere on the trip I could accept that as opposed to having those same vehicles scattered all over the place. But, even at that spot we had hippos in the far end of the lake and a small herd of zebra ventured within a hundred yards of us while we ate. Elsewhere on our trip (Serengeti)we often could see vastage acreage of land with no other vehicle in sight except maybe the mini-van carrying the other members of our group. The two kills we came upon at most had one other vehicle there as we pulled in and that one left. Our first sighting of leopard (s) in a tree had a couple of vehicles already there. Had it not been for someone seeing those great beasts earlier we could just as easily have driven by. For sure some areas at times will be crowded--such is to be expected--no different than going to a theme park in the US. On the otherhand except for those unusual sites in peak season, one should still come away with a great experience.

I recall being on the Serengeti and looking from horizon to horizon and not seeing another vehicle. Or, sitting on the balcony of the Sopa Lodge and seeing dik dik and other antelope practically under the balcony and in the not too distant seeing thousands of gnu and zebra, smelling the smoke from the grassfire, hearing various bird and mammalian vocalizations, but not hearing boom boxes, the telephone, jets, etc.
Again, I qualify my comments having been to only a part of the country once and in June at than. We had a great experience and are looking forward to returning. Dick


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Aug 6th, 2003, 08:32 AM
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From our trip to Kenya last Oct we did a game drive every morning & every afternoon of 1.5-2 hours each.

Virtually all of the vehicles on the game drives were the minivan type that could hold 10 people including the driver/guide, but they rarely had more than 5 (we were 3, including our driver/guide). We did see the occasional 'jeep' type that could hold 4-5 people & 1 'lorry truck' thye the could hold ~20.

About half the time we stopped for viewing we were the only vehile & most of the other stops were 3 vehicles or less. I only recall 1 stop where there were 8-10 vehicles (an evening drive at Maasi Mara where a lioness & her 3 cubs were feeding). So there may have been 60-70 people at that 1 stop, hardly a Disneyworld crowd. And, ss we were driving, looking for 'photo ops' probably 1/3rd of the time you couldn't see another vehicle anywhere.

What actually surprised me more was the number of people we saw on the drives between the parks - while there were very few vehicles & most were other tourists (which is what I expected), it was rare when we even went a minute without seeing someone walking/riding a bike along the road, working in a field, etc (rarely more than 1 or 2 people, but for some reason I'd thought there would be virtually no one).
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Aug 6th, 2003, 09:43 AM
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I can't speak from experience on East Africa as I haven't been there (yet), but last week I met a woman from Nairobi at my hairdresser's. She was in town for her son's wedding. As I have been to Southern Africa, and I am always talking about it to my hairdresser (who is also a long-time friend of mine)and trying to get my friend/hairdresser to go anywhere in Africa with me, she introduced us. The woman from Nairobi said please, please come now, as since the tourism has gone way down, the poaching is beginning to go back up since the people are losing a major source of their income.

She said that, in Kenya at least, the tourist numbers are very low.

So, commercial or not, I will try to go as soon as possible, not only for the wonderful experience which you can't help but have no matter how many people are there, but to help boost an economy which sorely needs it for the wildlife's sake.
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Aug 6th, 2003, 11:20 AM
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>While I realize the odds of being in the wild "alone" isn't realistic

Actually, being alone in the wild is completely realistic if you go to the right areas. I had an entire camp and river island to myself for a couple nights a couple months ago at Kafunta Island Bush Camp. There were about six or seven staff for just my wife and I and we did not once encounter another vehicle or tourist during that time.

Also, during our time at Kafunta's main camp, other than the five or six guests that were at Kafunta besides us, we probably encountered an average of one other vehicle per game drive, and only in passing (mostly vehicles from Robin Pope's camps, guests whom were paying double the price for the same experience).

Not knowing what to expect in South Luangwa, Zambia at Kafunta, I also stayed at Djuma Vuyatela in the Sabi Sand, and while much more commercialized than South Luangwa, we never had a spotting where there were more than three vehicles present and on the average, we probably only encountered an average of two other vehicles per game drive.

My comments have nothing to do with game viewing, as I have not yet visited East Africa. My comments are only to state that you can, in fact, be alone in the wild if you choose the right locations. While I don't know if I would return to the Sabi Sand Reserve anytime soon (I've already been there twice), I would return to South Luangwa in a heartbeat.
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Aug 6th, 2003, 01:01 PM
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Roccco:

I can do you one better. On my first trip to Kenya I stayed two nights at Shimba Hills Lodge (near Mombasa) and I was the only guest the first night!! Quite an experience.

On my trip to Tsavo East in February we drove from Voi to Lugards Falls (a two hour drive) and never once saw another vehicle. There really is wilderness out there if you pick the right places.

On the other hand, in January at Amboseli we were watching a herd of elephants with a mating going on on the right hand side of the vehicle, a lioness on the left side of the vehicle, another lioness running out from the elephants on the right to chase zebras on the left side of the road when a young mother elephant with a youngster about 6 years old and a new baby tried to cross to meet up with the other elephants and get away from the lions. By now, approximately 30 vehicles had showed up to watch the lions, and the ele. with her babies couldn't cross. It was then I suggested to my driver that we get out of there quickly - it was really harrassing the animals at that point. That was an unusual event to have so many tourists watching at the same time, but don't hesitate to ask your driver to move if you feel uncomfortable or if you feel the animals are being threatened in any way. Supposedly KWS recommends not more than five vehicles watching an event at a time, but drivers feel they will be losing out on tips if they don't get to an exciting scene so very few drivers follow the KWS advice.

My own personal feeling is, if I feel we are seriously disturbing the animals, I will ask the driver to move on. The parks belong to the animals and we shouldn't be selfish about it.

There is one driver I would love to get my hands on and "wring his neck". Imenti, an 8 year old orphaned bull elephant, was leading the rest of his herd of orphaned elephants to the waterhole last year. A careless driver approached quickly, jammed on the brakes and then stayed there revving his engines. Imenti took this as a threat to his "family" (all babies younger than he) and tusked the windshield of the vehicle and then and there developed a hatred for white minivans. Was the driver punished? No. Instead Imenti was banished to northern Tsavo away from his family so he couldn't threaten any more white vans. Very unfair. The driver should have been banned from the park.

So please don't hesitate to suggest to a driver that he change directions or anything else that you are not comfortable with. The reminder may save the animals from a sad outcome.

You will absolutely love your trip. Please post a trip report when you get back and share your trip with all of us.

Jan
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Aug 6th, 2003, 01:37 PM
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The Crater will seem more crowded because it is a confined area. We were somewhat taken aback when we counted 10 vehicles surrounding two hunting lionesses. We were dismayed, and simply asked our driver to move on. That one incident, however, pales in comparison to the other fantastic wildlife we saw on the crater floor. Another thing about going to the Crater is that you will be hard-pressed to experience a better African sky than in the Ngorongoro highlands. At night we enjoyed sitting out on our deck or patio and just staring up at the sky. It is absolutely stunning - you swear that someone is controlling the stars with a dimmer! If you haven't been to the Crater, go. I seem to recall that you are not planning to spend all your time there - which is a wise choice. But don't miss out on such a place as the Crater. The first time we were there and we stopped our vehicle on the rim and looked down, my eyes filled up with tears. I could not believe I was actually there! Our guide thought my tears were from a fear of heights! You should go to the Crater, you will get your solitude elsewhere, but many magical moments will be had in the Crater.
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Aug 6th, 2003, 02:13 PM
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I knew you all would provide excellent feedback! Thanks for putting it all into perspective. Your memories reminded me of snorkeling in Belieze, which was so full of people that the coral had lost a lot of its color and the fish were pretty scarce. We finally asked our guide to take us elsewhere. Rocco & Jan, I will definitely look into the camps you recommended. If it doesn't work out this trip, I can make an attempt next time!
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Aug 6th, 2003, 03:33 PM
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Jan - I would respectfully disagree with your generalization that "very few" drivers/guides adhere to KWS advice. The drivers we had during our recent trip to Kenya had nothing but the utmost respect for the wildlife. On a couple of occassions we asked if it would be possible to get closer to an animal, but our drivers declined - with courteous explanations on how such action could be upsetting to the animals or other aspects of the ecosystem. This happened several times in the Mara and Amboseli. We were also immediately reminded by each of the guides that we were "prohibited" from doing anything to try and get animals to look our way for photographs. Our first guide told us he had clients that did this (actually threw a rolled up piece of paper at a cheetah!), and he immediately drove them back to camp to make them understand the seriousness of their actions. I am happy to report that it was a similar situation with our guides in Tanzania. While there was one situation when some driver/guides jockeyed for position - I'm thinking of our leopard siting in the Mara - I did not see one vehicle cross the line into intrusiveness. I agree with you that some drivers/guides may not always look out for the best interests of the animals, but our first-hand experience was that we did not see any evidence of such reckless and careless behavior. Perhaps we were lucky and got the creme-de-la-creme of guides, which is why people should carefully research what tour operators they use and what kind of training/education the company guides receive.
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Aug 6th, 2003, 03:59 PM
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We too visited in November (end) and at Amboseli Tortillis there were only two other tents occupied and the same in just about every other place in Kenya the year we were there.

Likewise when we visited Tanzania, there weren't that many guest at the lodges we stayed.

However, out on game drives, you come across guests from other camps/lodges, but rarely were there more than 3 or 4 vehicles at a particular animal siting.

The Ngorongoro Crater is a different situation being self-contained and yes there were many vehicles entering the crater, but until we stopped for lunch we were mostly at the opposite end of the crater from other vehicles and saw as much or as little there was to see. And if I recall, only once or twice during the day did we stop along with 3 or 4 vehicles.

In the Serengeti - well, we never came across another vehicle our entire time out there - oops, sorry, at one animal siting near Kirawira Camp in the Western Serengeti near the Grumeti River, there was one other camp vehicle. Otherwise, just us throughout our entire time. The Serengeti is vast. And simply driving along the roads you find Tommies, Topi, Zebra, Lions along the roads, even sitting in the middle of them. And then the Baboons playing amongst themselves in small contained fields.

East Africa is a different experience than South Africa - but that's it "different", unless you happen to be in East Africa during Migration when you'll find more visitors and, therefore, more vehicles.

You'll enjoy your experience,
 
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Aug 6th, 2003, 07:10 PM
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SusanLynne:

Thanks so much for your thoughtful input on the matter of drivers. I too had a lot of wonderful drivers. However, I also saw a lot of "camel jockeys" who speed in from Mombasa, show their tourists a little of the park, have lunch and speed back home the same day. There is a big difference between what you and I might consider "professional" driver/guides and this other type, of which I was speaking.

Even with the professionals, if you are uncomfortable please say so. We were once charged by a bull elephant and the driver said "just a bluff charge" even though by this time the elephant was within 15 feet of the vehicle. At that point I requested we leave so that the bull could go back to his eating and not be disturbed any further by this tourist.

Sounds as though the Crater is stupendous. One of these trips I'll have to plan on going there. My only fear is that I would miss the hundreds of elephants I regularly see. Did you see many there or in the Mara?

Jan

Sounds

S
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Aug 7th, 2003, 04:22 AM
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Jan, I whole-heartedly agree with you that if a client is uncomfortable, then one must say something to their driver/guide. Communication is critical to not only tourists understanding the fragile ecosystem, but for the driver/guides to learn just how important the animals and environment are to their country. No tourists - no jobs. While in the Mara we did not see a lot of elephants, certainly not the numbers that we saw in Amboseli. However, my heart did stop each time we saw some - on one occasion we had the great fortune to come across a mother nursing her young calf. As for the Crater, again, you will not see the number or size of herds that you see in Amboseli. Only the bulls venture onto the Crater floor, while the females stay on the rim or elsewhere. It was explained to us that there are simply too many predators on the Crater floor for females with their calves or juveniles to be safe. Jan, I fully understand how you feel about elephants. They, and lions, are my favorite. In Amboseli I felt honored to have made eye contact (or at least that is how it felt to me!) with a beautiful matriarch (couldn't help but wonder which member of the T family she was), who had a juvenile at her side. She watched us, as we watched her. I saw the thought process in motion behind her soulful eyes - which is more than I can say for many humans I have come across! I had always felt an affinity for elephants, and my experiences in Amboseli only confirmed why they have held such a fascination for me. Anyway, I ramble on. If it is elephants you are seeking, you will see some magnificent bulls in the Crater and some small herds in the Mara - we never saw more than 5 to 8 elephants together. For some wonderful elephant sitings, I would recommend Tarangire in Tanzania. I believe that Cynthia Moss has studied some elephants there. We had some fantastic encounters - the most heartwarming being two calves resting on the ground while the rest of the herd stood over them, fanning their massive ears. They were under a giant baobab tree and it is a sight I will remember until my dying day. We stayed with them for over an hour, until the babies woke up and the herd moved on. Absolutely lovely.
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Aug 7th, 2003, 09:42 AM
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I guess it depends on how you travel. Granted, it's been years since I've been to Tanzania and it definitely sounds more crowded now, but there were times that we drove for a day or two without seeing another tourist. The exception of course was Ngorongoro but that's a pretty small part of the country.
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Aug 7th, 2003, 01:47 PM
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SusanLynne:

Thanks so much for the info on elephants in the crater. I didn't think one would see as many as at Amboseli and Tsavo, but I may still get there some day.

A special thank you for your elephant story. I enjoyed it. You are correct about Cynthis Moss in Tanzania. She initially learned elephant research at Lake Manyara with Iain Douglas-Hamilton and then started her own elephant research group at Amboseli.

This past February while at Amboseli we were sitting quietly watch the herds leave the swamp and heading for Kili. when all of a sudden my driver said "look". When I turned around from my filming behind the vehicle the whole herd of about 150 elephants were stampeding. Apparently the lead elephant spotted something threatening and used an infrasonic "low frequency"
vocalization that humans cannot hear and warned the whole herd. They wheeled around and stampeded back to the swamp! There were no lions in the area at the time but my driver felt possibly a large python. Luckily I got the stampede on video - had never seen it before.

When I came back from one game drive I sat on my veranda and who was standing on the other side of the fence but Echo and her family. That was also a thrill. By the way,Cynthia Moss and Martyn Colbeck are now making Echo III, which will be out on TV some time in 2004. I watched him filming in February. He has quite a setup in his vehicle for filming.

Another interesting thing was Echo's son Ely, the young bull born "crippled" from being so large and squashed in the womb prior to birth. Ely had been a Momma's boy, and when Echo had a miscarriage it was Ely who stayed to take care of her. Well, being a young bull, Ely disappeared. The researchers were quite surprised. They didn't see him for 1 1/2 years. While I was there in January and February Ely returned to Amboseli but with another family. At least they know he is alive and well!!

We also were watching a large herd crossing the road in front of us when we noticed three youngsters stop abruptly and the youngest one started trumpeting. We watched for quite awhile and then saw the Mother approach from a different direction. The youngsters had followed the herd and not paid any attention to where Mom was and when they noticed her not with them got panicky. As she approached them the youngest, about 2 years old, fussed and fussed until she stopped walking and nursed him - then they were able to catch up with their group.

These are such incredible animals with such deep caring and intelligence and human-like emotions that it is hard to understand why the ivory trade wasn't stamped out long ago. Then one stops to think and realizes that many Africans who live in cities have never seen an elephant and those who live in the country hate them for eating their gardens. If only everyone could see what magnigicent animals they are, perhaps the future would be safer for them. Daphne Sheldrick brings class- rooms of Nairobi children to see the ele. orphans and it is a joy to see such awe in their eyes on seeing one of these babies. Let us hope there is hope for them in the future.

Jan
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Aug 8th, 2003, 05:37 AM
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Hi Jan. I shed many a tear over Ely, Echo's son. Watching the documentary on his birth, and seeing his crippling appearance, I could not help but cry. But then Echo's spirit and determination helped dry my tears. Nature is fascinating, it truly is. Was just thinking back and one of the most wonderful sitings we had in Amboseli was a bull elephant who stripped a large palm tree branch and was using it kind of like a "fly swatter" or perhaps he was just playing with it. It was glorious! They are magnificent animals and their devotion to family is something all humans should try to emulate.
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Aug 10th, 2003, 12:17 PM
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I found the Massai Mara to be a wonderful experience, NOT at all like Disneyland. August is tourist season in Eastern Africa but tourism is way down right now for many reasons. I found the Kenya Safari Club a bit commericialized but the tented camps are the true African experience. Enjoy.
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