Trip Report: Kenya & Tanzania, Sept/Oct 2007


Nov 11th, 2007, 09:05 PM
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Trip Report: Kenya & Tanzania, Sept/Oct 2007

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


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.

MyDogKyle is offline  
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Nov 11th, 2007, 09:28 PM
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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.
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Nov 12th, 2007, 01:52 AM
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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.
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Nov 12th, 2007, 06:37 AM
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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
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Nov 12th, 2007, 11:08 AM
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Thanks for starting your report! Looking forward to more.
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Nov 12th, 2007, 11:18 AM
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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!
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Nov 12th, 2007, 12:13 PM
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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!

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Nov 12th, 2007, 12:39 PM
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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?

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Nov 12th, 2007, 12:52 PM
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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!).
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Nov 12th, 2007, 03:21 PM
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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.
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Nov 14th, 2007, 09:36 PM
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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!”
MyDogKyle is offline  
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Nov 16th, 2007, 06:38 PM
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More, please...
luv2globetrot is offline  
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Nov 16th, 2007, 07:31 PM
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Love your report, MDK. I am so happy you had an amazing trip. Don't stint on the details!
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Nov 19th, 2007, 07:08 PM
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Looking forward to the rest.

Don't stop now.
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Nov 21st, 2007, 07:41 PM
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Thanks for the Kenya Comfort hint.
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Nov 21st, 2007, 07:47 PM
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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.
MyDogKyle is offline  
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Nov 24th, 2007, 09:02 AM
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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.
atravelynn is offline  
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Nov 25th, 2007, 07:06 PM
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Am loving every minute of it. Even us multi-trippers are learning from you! Please keep it coming!
JanGoss is offline  
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Nov 25th, 2007, 07:46 PM
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The monkeys were on their own safari, peering at you in your habitat through the window.

More, more!
Leely is offline  
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Dec 1st, 2007, 09:23 AM
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MDK, I’ve finally caught up with your report, and I want more. I’m very much enjoying all the details.
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