Kenya & Tanzania: In Search of the Big Five

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July 27th 2007
Published: August 5th 2007
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In Search of the Big Five: June, 2007

This unbelievable trip began long before we touched down in Kilimanjaro Airport, Tanzania, on June 15, 2007. Getting ready for Africa was unlike anything else we have ever done in our travels because of the options available, the decisions that had to be made, and the preparations involved. First, since we wanted to see as many wild animals as possible, we chose Tanzania and Kenya as our destinations. Then there were the innumerable options of when to go, length, price, itinerary, quality of accommodations, amenities, etc. A 10-12 day safari can range from $1,000 to $10,000, so research was needed to see which style best suited our needs—budget, first class, deluxe, or luxury. Tauck, one of the world's most respected tour operators, offered what we wanted in a deluxe package, and our online travel agent capably handled the details.

Careful research and planning over the next few months were needed to organize the necessary visas, inoculations, prescriptions, repellents, clothing, and gear, including cameras and binoculars appropriate for wildlife viewing. We cashed in frequent-flyer miles for business-class seats, a brilliant decision given the 20-plus hours of flying. Finally, there was the packing--what to take (rather, what not to take) to comply with the strict luggage restrictions of the small prop planes we would be taking between game reserves.

After six months of almost-daily planning, departure day arrived. We flew from Houston to Atlanta to Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro and were met by our Tauck representative, a friendly Tanzanian of the Meru tribe, Pallangyo. We piled into an extended Land Cruiser, leaving the lights of the tiny airport behind. We were immediately engulfed in total darkness, as there were no street lights or buildings of any kind. As we drove, our headlights frequently illuminated people walking on both sides of the road. In a country with a per capita annual income of $300, few people own vehicles, and there is always pedestrian traffic beside the roads.

After about 30 minutes, we left the pavement for a dirt road with deep potholes, and we lurched forward and backward and side to side as our tires sank into and emerged from the holes. "We call this African massage," our jovial host remarked. We laughed at his joke, but as we bounced along we secretly wondered what kind of hotel could be at the end of such a dark and desolate road in the Tanzanian boonies.

We breathed sighs of relief as we stepped into the Serena Mountain Village, the first of many pleasant surprises we would have in Tanzania and Kenya. Uniformed employees took our luggage and offered us cool, moist hand towels, fresh juice or champagne, and a friendly "Jambo" (Hello). At 10 pm, just a week before the start of the Tanzanian winter, it was a perfect 70 degrees. Banana trees and acacias dotted the grounds, illuminated with soft uplights. Rooms were clumped in groups of five or six, with circular walls and thatched roofs, in the style of the Maasai tribe. (Every Tanzanian belongs to a tribe; there are 120 tribes in total, and the Maasai are perhaps the best known; incidentally, the correct spelling is Maasai not Masai, as it derives from the word Maa. Translated, Maa-sai means my people--more on the Maasai later.)

Our room was spacious and comfortable, with a writing desk, phone, full bath, individual veranda, and curved French windows overlooking Lake Duluti. Later that night, as we lay in bed surrounded by mosquito nets, beneath the spinning blades of a large ceiling fan, I knew that everything in Tanzania and Kenya was going to be different and that we were about to embark on a great adventure.

We had two full days at the Serena Mountain Village before we would meet with our tour group. Pallangyo, our driver from the airport, had offered to take us on a private guided tour of the area, so most of the first day was spent with him, soaking up local culture in and around the nearby city of Arusha. We'd seen nothing at all on the nighttime drive from the airport, but by daylight this ribbon of pavement was a beehive of activity. Tiny houses and shops with cinderblock walls and rusted tin roofs were separated from the highway by only a few feet of hard-packed dirt, and beside the road there was a great deal of foot and bike traffic. Women balanced bags, pots, and bundles on their heads (men do not carry in this way); men pedaled bikes with stacks of grain strapped to the back or pushed carts filled with produce. The cars and trucks that passed were old and nearly always packed to capacity with passengers, and even cattle cars towed by trucks were used to transport people in standing-room-only fashion.

Arusha is a city of about half a million people and is the site of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, an international court under the auspices of the U.N. for the prosecution of offenses committed in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. No photographs were allowed in that part of the city, but the rest of the drive among the streets of the city was a fascinating glimpse into the Tanzanian culture, as if we were stepping into a National Geographic magazine, with Pallangyo's cultural connections providing the learning opportunity of a lifetime.

We continued through Arusha to the neighboring village of Moshi, where our cultural learning curve continued to spike sharply as we toured the Arusha Snake Farm and the Maasai Cultural Center. At the Snake Farm we learned about and saw first-hand Africa's reptiles, including the black mamba, the deadliest snake in the world. There were several pens of crocodiles, which have to be separated according to size; otherwise, they would eat one another. We were allowed to handle the baby crocs and the smaller pythons, which I did, and we were told that feeding time for the larger pythons was every other Sunday, when five live rabbits or chickens were released into each python enclosure.

We spent about an hour with the reptiles and our guide, Kenneth, before moving across the street to the Maasai Cultural Center, which offered a series of about twenty life-sized dioramas depicting this fascinating culture. Our guide, Longutay, explained the culture and rituals, such as the herding camps where fathers teach sons to be men, obtaining blood to drink from the cattle, lion kills, and male and female circumcision.

Both of our guides, Kenneth and Longutay, were excellent English-speakers and well-educated, yet deeply devoted to their tribal way of life. They were amiable young Maasai who patiently answered questions about Maasai culture and traditions, and both agreed that the most painful experience of their lives had been their circumcision at age 15, done without any anesthesia. To prove their manhood, the young Maasai were not allowed to flinch, cry, or make any expression of pain. If they did, they were banished in shame. Female circumcision, a euphemism for clitoridectomy, sometimes called genital mutilation, is also done around age 15, although illegal and must be done in secret. The Maasai justify this tradition by claiming that these females do not bleed as much during childbirth and that they are less likely to contract HIV-AIDS if they do not enjoy sex. Warriors will not marry a non-circumcised woman. Kenneth, who is about 25 years old, told us that his fiancée is 12 years old. She was selected for him by an agreement between the parents before she was even born.

Pallangyo's wife had given him a grocery shopping list, so after a brief visit to a gift shop, we accompanied him to a huge outdoor market, where we were quite the object of attention with our white faces, as he bargained for fresh fruit and vegetables. After returning to our Mountain Village lodge around 4 p.m., we enjoyed dinner and an evening walk around the grounds.

We had another day to relax and remove all traces of jet lag before beginning our safari adventure, so we read, napped, e-mailed, shopped, and strolled around the beautiful grounds of the lodge.

Monday, June 18, 2007:
Dreams became reality this morning as we embarked on our 11-day safari. After breakfast, we met our American tour director Joe, our 22 fellow travelers, plus our four driver/guides. After a group photo, we divided into four groups of six, piled into four extended Toyota Land Cruisers, and set out for our first experience of wildlife viewing.

Passing through Arusha, we drove through the Tanzanian countryside for about an hour before moving into a region where small herds of cattle grazed under the watchful eye of young men from the Maasai tribe. The bright red or purple head-to-shins wraps (shukas) of the Maasai were a sharp contrast to the green pastures. Soon we arrived at Lake Manyara National Park for our first thrilling game drive. Our driver/guide, Salim, removed the top of the vehicle, and we all stood and rode with our heads outside the truck, an exhilarating way to travel. Of course, dogs have known this all along.

Our first sighting came within seconds of entering the park and triggered a near-hysterical succession of pointing and exclamations: "Giraffes, monkeys, baboons, uh, something else!" I had to pinch myself to make sure I was really there. At every sighting, no matter how distant the animals, we made Salim stop the truck so we could take an insane number of pictures. Many memory cards later, we would learn the difference between a good opportunity for pictures and a good opportunity for viewing through binoculars.
The roads were dirt and gravel, and the landscape was rugged and hilly. We explored for over two hours without seeing a human being or man-made structure of any kind. We encountered vervet monkeys, olive baboons, warthogs, impala, a lilac-breasted roller bird, a troop of about 100 baboons, gray-headed kingfishers, a bloat of hippos, a crash of a dozen or so elephants, and a corps of about 12-15 giraffes. There seemed to be about six male giraffes competing for a female with a showy display of strutting and head-butting. When a giraffe cow (or female) is ready to mate, she attracts all the mature bulls in the area, and the dominant bull wins her by driving off all the other males.

The elephants were the first of the “Big 5” we encountered. The other four are cape buffaloes, leopards, lions, and rhinos. They were originally selected because they were considered big scores among hunters. When hunting was banned in 1977, the Big 5 continued to top the list for photo safaris. Photographers soon added four more for the Big 9, to include cheetahs, giraffes, hippos, and Nile crocodiles.
After a delicious buffet lunch at the Serena Manyara Lodge, we continued to our next destination, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The drive was breathtaking, with panoramic views of volcanic peaks in the distance and fields with Maasai herding their cattle. During a brief stop at the entrance to the park, we witnessed a swift, thieving baboon in action. A large baboon was wandering around the parking lot, and we observed in awe, as it leaped through an open window of a vehicle from a different group, grabbed some type of purse or bag, and took off, all within a second or two! Fortunately, someone yelled and threw a rock at the baboon, so it dropped the bag. Otherwise, it would have been long gone with the bag and all its contents!
We entered the park and stopped at an overlook on the rim for a scenic view of the caldera. Six million years ago, the Ngorongoro Crater was born as the upper half of a huge volcano collapsed into the base, forming the world's largest unbroken caldera (collapsed volcano) at an altitude of 7,500 feet. From our vantage point we could trace the entire rim with our eyes, 15 miles across at the widest spot and 12 miles at the most narrow. The floor of the crater, 2,000 feet below, is a contained ecosystem of desert, grasslands, forests, lakes, and streams and is home to about 30,000 animals.

Our accommodations were at the eco-friendly Ngorongoro Serena Lodge, where a grand effort has been made to make the building blend into the contour of the crater rim, with lighting minimized at night to maintain the nighttime blackness of the caldera. The exterior is stone and wood, and the interior looks like an alpine lodge at a ski resort. We were greeted by colorfully-dressed employees with cool glasses of champagne and passion juice, scented wet towels, and a performance by local Maasai dancers. We were then shown to our room, which had huge glass windows opening onto a panoramic view of the crater's lush, wildlife-rich floor far below. We rested on our private wood deck, watching the Maasai herd their cattle up the slopes of the crater at dusk. After a welcome reception and excellent dinner, we returned to our large, comfortable room to find cozy hot-water bottles tucked into our beds to ward off the chill as we slept. Ahhh, roughing it,Tauck style.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007:
After a hearty breakfast, which included champagne and mimosas as usual, we descended via twisting dirt road into the lost world of the incredible Ngorongoro Crater. We were quickly struck by the sheer density of animals. Much of the crater floor is flat with unobstructed views, and one sighting flowed into the next. We saw spotted hyenas, hardebeests, guinea, ostriches, kuri bustards, lions that were watching a herd of Maasai cattle go by, hippos, elephants, grey crowned cranes, and herds of wildebeest, zebras, Grant and Thomson gazelles, and Cape buffaloes. Shucart, whom Terri nicknamed Sugar, was our driver/guide today, and we enjoyed his understated sense of humor. He teased Bill about thinking that some grass-covered rocks were a green jeep. Sugar would remind us of that for the rest of the trip. All this excitement was before lunch!
Speaking of lunch, we were treated to a surprise picnic lunch in the caldera that was no ordinary picnic lunch! It was a surprise in that we expected boxed lunches in the shade of our trucks, as we had observed the other groups doing. Instead, a delightful shady spot under a grove of yellow-bark acacia trees provided the backdrop for an elegant barbecue prepared on-site by the staff from the lodge. After cooling off with moist towels, we proceeded to the white-clothed tables, selected wine or other beverage, and sat down to enjoy the wonderful meal with sounds of the nearby hippos, monkeys, and elephants to serenade us.

After this delightful respite, we continued our daylong journey inside the crater and were fortunate enough to find two cheetahs prowling the grasslands. A bit later, we encountered a curious baby hyena that came right up to the truck. Soon, a spellbinding performance of nature's food chain unfolded in front of us, as a blacksmith plover bird began jumping up and down and making a screeching racket that sounded like two pieces of metal clanking. Our guide immediately told us that there must be a predator nearby. Moments later, we spotted a golden jackal with his nose to the ground, animatedly sniffing around. Despite the plover's frantic gestures to scare the jackal, he found the nest of eggs, and we watched him consume the almost-hatched baby birds. We continued to explore and came upon a large, shallow lake that is home to hundreds of pink flamingoes.
Something about Ngorongoro attracts elephants in their final days, and our guide believed that it was because the vegetation was easier to chew. Elephants go through six full sets of teeth in their lifetimes, each lasting about ten years. When the last set of teeth wears out, the elephant starves to death. We saw several old bulls in the crater--crusty, lumbering, always alone.

As the sun began to set, we returned to the lodge for dinner and then stood on the back deck looking out over the black crater. With no light pollution, the stars were brighter than I can remember seeing them, and the Milky Way looked like a cloud. We could only imagine what was happening in the darkness on the caldera below us: as we prepared to sleep, the predators prepared to hunt.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007:
Today was a full day with dramatic changes of scenery, climate, and elevation as we left the caldera and headed into the Serengeti Plains for another full day of game viewing. First, however, we explored the history of mankind with a visit to the most famous archaeological site in Africa, the legendary Oldupai Gorge, where Mary Leakey in 1959 discovered the fossilized remains of the earliest known man, a 1.7-million-year-old hominid skull. The view of the gorge is breathtaking, and you can clearly see the different layers of earth piled on top of each other that scientists use to estimate the age of the many fossils found here. The museum is small, but informative, and contains skeletons of many extinct animals such as three-toed horses and giant antelopes.

Raymond, a Maasai warrior, was our driver/guide today. His Maasai name is Mangek, which means big boy. His large size prompted Bill to ask him if he wasn't a bit too fat to be a Maasai. He good-naturedly laughed and said that despite his size, he could jump fairly high. Jumping is an important measure of manliness in the Maasai culture (more about this later). Raymond is about two months away from earning his Ph.D. in zoology and, and he plans to return to his village and help his people in a veterinary capacity. He was a fascinating individual, and he urged us to ask him any questions we desired. So, Bill, who really needed no encouraging, kept the questions flowing, as we continued to the Serengeti over some of the bumpiest, dustiest roads I have ever seen. After about an hour of bouncing, Raymond turned to us and casually remarked, "We don't have any brakes, but don't worry. I can handle it." Well, on that dirt road, we certainly didn't have to worry about careening out of control. Hitting a wild animal that was crossing the road was a distinct possibility, on the other hand, so Joe made lots of noise by banging on the door to keep the wildebeests, impalas, and gazelles from getting too close.

We limped into the Serengeti Park's Naabi gate, and while we tourists enjoyed our boxed lunches, the four drivers examined the vehicle. They discovered that during the bouncing on the rough road, a shock absorber had sheared off and cut the brake line. They decided to pull off the shock (and thus, left us to drive with only three shocks) and to try to hold the line together with some red string! Then off we went for an exciting afternoon in the legendary Serengeti!

Before long, Raymond turned onto an even more primitive dirt road and said that it was time to take the top off the vehicle for better viewing. However, for Raymond to reach it, Bill had to step out of the vehicle, which is a BIG no-no for tourists. Raymond told Bill to stay close to the vehicle and watch for lions because this was lion country. Bill did what he was told, for once, and hugged the vehicle as he continually scanned the savannah for anything moving. Tracey, who was riding with us, at one point asked, "Are you watching for lions, Bill?" Bill's answer was quick and sharp, "You damned right I am!" It was a good thing, too, because as we continued on, a hundred yards up the road was a huge lioness sunning on some rocks! After that, we teased Bill about being a Maasai warrior because he had bravely confronted the lions.

We saw another lion in the shade of a kopje (outcropping of rock) before stumbling onto one of the most incredible sights in the natural world, the Great Migration! What a thrill to actually see part of this annual extravaganza of millions of wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles moving across the Serengeti in search of grass and water. As the wildebeests galloped single-file across the road to a grazing area which was literally black with a 360-degree mass of animals from horizon to horizon, Raymond explained the phenomenon. About half a million zebras travel first because they have better vision and can watch for predators and because they like to eat the upper, tough part of the grass. Between one and two million wildebeests follow, eating the middle part of the grass, with the half million or so gazelles behind them. Gazelles prefer the tender grass near the roots that has been exposed by the zebras and wildebeests ahead of them.

We were lucky to encounter this natural wonder because the entire migration is dependent upon the coming of the rains, and it is almost impossible to predict where they will be at a particular time. In Africa’s hot and dry climate, such huge numbers of animal life cannot be sustained by one place. They have a dramatic effect on the grazing pastures, taking no time at all to completely exhaust the available food supply. As the rains come at different times in the Serengeti and the Masai Mara, so the animals are driven to search for the rain-ripened grasses and water to drink. This 1,000-mile clockwise search for favorable conditions pushes the herds onward in order to feed themselves.

After observing this phenomenon for quite a while, we finally traveled on and saw a hammerkopf (large African bird) and its nest near a stream, an eland (the largest member of the antelope family), several topi, and our first leopard (fourth of the Big Five), resting on a tree branch about a hundred yards away. Several rock hyraxes entertained us with their antics and loud squeals as we stopped for a break. The rock hyrax, a furry mammal that is slightly larger than a guinea pig, is strangely considered the closest land relative of the elephant. Because they are so friendly, we were warned not to get close enough to be bitten, or our trip would be over as we would immediately have to depart for a hospital and rabies shots.

As we arrived at the Serena Serengeti Lodge, we realized that the accommodations on this safari were getting better and better! Our unique rooms were in Maasai-styled traditional huts, uniquely crafted of local materials to blend with the local habitat. Infinitely more comfortable than the real thing, however, the rooms had king-sized beds, huge bathrooms, mosquito netting, a writing desk, and a lovely private patio with a stunning view of the sunset over the Serengeti. The lodge is in the middle of Serengeti, nestled on a hilltop, and has no fences, so wild animals come onto the grounds every night. We had to be escorted by armed guards if we went outside our rooms. One night, a cape buffalo came to drink from the swimming pool as we were leaving dinner!

Our favorite experience came every evening, however, when we sat on our balcony, waiting for a pair of dik-diks to visit. Bill and I have decided that this adorable, tiny member of the antelope family, Kirk's dik-dik, is our favorite animal! Weighing only about 8 - 10 pounds, a pair (they mate for life) visited us every evening outside our lodge. There was also a rabbit that hung around and a pair of owls that settled into the tree outside our hut and whooooo-ed all evening. The food was fantastic; there was traditional Maasai entertainment every night; and the pool was warm and wonderful. Some members of our group even bypassed some of the game drives so they could stay at the resort and enjoy the amenities.

June 21, 2007:
Bill and I, however, did not miss a single game drive, and the two today were awesome. We have no idea what day it is; all we know is that we are lost in time and could do this forever: see animals, eat, sleep, see animals, eat, sleep, etc. Our first viewing on our morning game drive was a pride of lions, and we watched as a large male mated with a lioness. Our friend Pallangyo was our driver/guide today, and he explained that lions mate for only 4 to 5 seconds, but they do it every ten minutes, for a total of about 80 times a day. We continued on to find some baboons, impala, marabou storks, topi, kori bustard, and another segment of the Great Migration. Again, we watched as the wildebeests galloped in single file until they met with the rest of their herd. They seem to know only two speeds, full-speed and stop. Pallangyo said that the wildebeests looked as if they had been made from spare parts and translated the sound they were making as, "Ugly? Nooooooo."

Even going to the bathroom can be an adventure in the Serengeti. We stopped for gasoline at the only gas station in the Serengeti, and I got out to use the facilities, which were located in a building about 30 yards away. Unfortunately, I had to pass within a dozen or so yards of a Cape buffalo and giraffe. They totally ignored me, however, as I quickly completed my task and returned to the vehicle.

Lunch and a short nap readied us for our evening game drive which lasted from about 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. This time we saw a lilac-breasted roller bird, a carcass of a dead zebra that had probably been killed by a lion because of the way it had been eaten, a lappet-faced vulture and nest (largest of the vulture family), and lots of pesky, biting tsetse flies. Apparently, tsetse flies are attracted to the color blue, so park officials stretch huge blue blankets in trees and coat these blankets with a chemical that renders the flies sterile. Although they carry African sleeping sickness, the problem has diminished and the number of tsetse flies greatly reduced.
The highlight of this drive was the hippo pool. We were allowed to get out of the truck and walk a short distance to a rocky outcropping that overlooked a river filled with what looked like large rocks (or so Bill thought). Actually, it was a huge bloat of about 75 hippos keeping themselves cool. Hippos have no sweat glands, so they must stay in the water during the day to keep cool. They graze at night and sleep in the water in the daytime. They are very sociable creatures among themselves, so they were literally lying on top of one another in loving, cuddly positions. Although they are herbivores and seemed endearing, affable, and placid, hippos cause more human deaths than any other animal and are considered to be the most dangerous animal in Africa (not counting the mosquito). The hippo is extremely aggressive, unpredictable, and unafraid of humans, upsetting boats sometimes without provocation and chomping the occupants with its huge canine teeth and sharp incisors. Most human deaths occur when the victim gets between the hippo and deep water or between a mother and her calf.

We returned to the resort just before sunset, in time to see our dik-diks, then have another delicious dinner and enjoy some entertainment. We fell asleep to the sounds of the Serengeti.

June 22, 2007:
This was our longest day, both in time and distance, as we woke at 5:15 a.m. for a 45-minute ride to the airstrip, where we would catch an AirKenya flight for Kilimanjaro Airport near Arusha. As we would find was the norm, we had to wait an hour for our plane. When it arrived, the pilot had to buzz the airstrip twice to scare off the wildebeests. They were part of the Great Migration and did not understand why they shouldn't cross airstrips. We said tearful good-byes to our fabulous driver/guides, Salim, Sugar, Pallangyo, and Raymond and boarded a 10-seater for the 45-minute flight to Arusha. The rest of the group waited for another plane, which held a larger number of passengers. Upon arrival in Arusha, we enjoyed lunch in the Arusha Cultural Center and perused the arts, crafts, and cultural exhibits interpreting the rich heritage of the Maasai and Tanzania’s nearly 120 other ethnic communities. Three ladies in the group purchased pendants or rings with the extraordinarily striking gemstone Tanzanite, which is precious and rare and found nowhere in the world except Tanzania.

We departed by Land Cruiser for the Kenyan border, arriving around 3:00 p.m. It took about 45 minutes for Joe to complete the necessary Customs formalities; meanwhile, there was a crafts mall just inside the border which kept us busy. Here we also transferred to a different type of vehicle, VW Combies (like the old hippie-vans), which weren't quite as comfortable as the Land Cruisers. That, plus the fact that we were seated in the rear-most seat, made the next three hours pure misery. We bounced over the badly corrugated, potholed roads with no A/C and unable to open any windows because of the dust. Around 6:30 p.m. we finally arrived at the entrance to Kenya's Amboseli National Park, noted for its big game and scenic beauty at the foot of the highest free-standing mountain in the world, Mt. Kilimanjaro. We traveled across Lake Amboseli, a seasonal, shallow soda lake, which covers one third the area of the present Park. When dry (as now), the lake bed becomes a dusty, shimmering expanse. In the Maa language, amboseli means "salt dust". Dozens of sand twisters were visible over this vast, dry lake bed.

We had just enough time to take some photos of the 6,000-meter snow-capped mountain, take some dazzling sunset photos, and visit with a few elephants playing in the marshes before settling in at our luxury accommodations. The Amboseli Serena Lodge is influenced by Maasai architecture and is in perfect harmony with its environment. The grounds were beautifully landscaped, and the interior of our room was appointed with authentic Africana and murals painted by a local artist. Vervet monkeys roamed the grounds freely and stole anything they could carry (especially sugar packets), so a Maasai strolled around with a slingshot and pebbles to keep them away.

Dinner in the open-air dining room was sumptuous. Along with choices from a huge buffet of international food and authentic African dishes, I had grilled red snapper off the menu and a wonderful orange steamed pudding for dessert.

June 23, 2007:
Coffee, tea, and biscuits (and the ever-present vervet monkeys) awaited us as we assembled at 6:30 a.m. for our morning game drive and a chance to explore a little of the park. Amboseli is famous for its 900+ resident elephants, which have been studied extensively and written about by researcher and author Cynthia Moss. In addition to many elephants and yellow baboons, we spotted a black heron, black-bellied bustard, crowned crested crane, star winged goose, grey heron, and a striped jackal. We returned to the lodge for a buffet breakfast (with champagne and mimosas again) and some time to relax. Some of our fellow travelers planted a tree in the Reforestation Program designed to replace the acacia trees that the elephants destroy. After a buffet lunch, we loaded onto our vehicles, drove the 10 minutes to the airstrip, and waited for AirKenya (late as usual) and the 1 ¼ hour flight to northeast Kenya and the Samburu Game Reserve, home to many new species of animals endemic to climes north of the Equator.

The Samburu Lodge is rustic but luxurious and is located on the banks of the Uaso Nyiro River, which means muddy river. This river is home to some rather large crocodiles, and every evening the lodge staff attempts to entice these large reptiles onto the near banks for our entertainment. Most of the rooms were separated from the river bank only by a 3-foot high stone fence, which seemed to be adequate to keep the crocs out. Nonetheless, it was rather unnerving to sit on our verandah with a 12-16 foot crocodile on the sandy banks a few yards away.

There was little time to rest before embarking on our game drive at 4 p.m., during which we encountered striped guineas, olive baboons, gerenuks, Grevy's zebras, reticulated giraffes, and the oryx, all of which were new to us since we were now north of the Equator (just barely, at zero degrees, 37 minutes North). The giraffes, oryx, and long-necked gerenuk antelopes are considered rare, so we were very lucky. We also saw hundreds of impala, plus lions, dik-diks, elephants, Cape buffaloes, and the big find just before sunset: a leopard relaxing on a downed tree just a few yards from our vehicle. As we oohed and aahed and the cameras clicked away, the leopard seemed to pose for us, stretching and changing positions every 20-30 seconds, and finally jumping from the tree and ambling between two of the vehicles off into the jungle. Quite a moment!

We returned to the lodge in time for the crocodile-feeding, so we all gathered at the crocodile bar alongside the river for drinks and appetizers, awaiting the monstrous croc to visit and devour the chicken parts left by the staff. He didn't disappoint us and put on quite a show. Everything he did seemed to be in slow motion; he even seemed to take a nap between bites--until another croc arrived. Suddenly, the big guy jerked around and went into fast-forward speed to chase the smaller one away.

Dinner was great again, with many American, international, and African dishes to sample. Some of the tasty African dishes were sukuma wiki, ugali, irio, and kaimati. (I Googled for the recipes.)

June 24, 2007:
We had a full day exploring the scenic beauty of the Samburu and Buffalo Springs Game Reserves, including a visit to a Samburu village. We met at 6 a.m. for coffee, tea, and biscuits before embarking on our 2 ½-hour game drive. We found elephants, impala, reticulated giraffes, a francolin bird, Cape buffaloes, hornbills, vervet monkeys, gerenuks, oryx, and waterbucks. Upon returning to the lodge, we enjoyed another fine breakfast and prepared for our much-anticipated visit to the local Samburu village. This is an authentic village and not designed as a tourist attraction. Cattle, sheep, and goats roam freely, so we were advised to wear closed shoes and watch where we stepped.

The Samburu are related to the Maasai, and their lives revolve around their cattle. Milk is their mainstay, sometimes mixed with blood, along with meat from their animals. Very few, if any, fruit and vegetables are eaten, and most villagers have never tasted them because they cannot be grown in the area soil. They dress in traditional clothing of bright red material and multi-beaded necklaces, bracelets, and earrings, which the women make. Generally between five and ten families set up encampments for 5-6 weeks and then move on to new pastures. This particular village, however, had been on this spot for much longer. Adult men care for the grazing cattle, and women are in charge of maintaining the portable huts, milking cows, obtaining water, and gathering firewood. Their houses are of plastered mud or cow dung over a frame of poles. A fence of thorns surrounds each family's cattle yard and huts. They have no desire for the purported benefits of a more modern lifestyle. Even those educated few who have had the opportunity to see our way of life through television or movies strongly prefer their more stress-free values, attitudes, and manner of living.

We were greeted by the tribal warriors who entertained us with the traditional warrior jumping dance. One of the most outstanding features in a Maasai or Samburu warrior dance is the competitive jumping that the young men engage in. During the dance, usually two men will jump at a time, as young ladies admire and sing for them. The tricky part of the jump is that, as the men spring higher and higher into the air, the heels should never touch the ground. The singers encourage the jumpers by raising the pitch of their voices to correspond with the height of the jump. Of course, several of us tourists were invited to participate and prove that, indeed, white men can't jump.

The tribal ladies then had their turn to sing and dance, with audience participation, of course. We were given a tour of the village, a demonstration of making fire with donkey dung and two sticks, and finally, the long-awaited trip to the "shopping mall". The ladies had formed two parallel lines of displays for their beautiful beaded jewelry and crafts, so we began at one end of the thirty or forty-yard "mall" and shopped and bargained. They spoke no English, so John, our Samburu guide, served as the middle man. Bill bargained him down from $70 to $20 for a carved and beaded ceremonial club that Samburu men give to their sons upon a special achievement.

Finally, the time came for the most anticipated moment for the village children (and us), the distribution of the candy and toys we had brought along. John had them line up, smallest first, and proceed single file to accept the gum, candy, toys, pencils, etc. that we had brought for them. The line never seemed to end, probably because they kept getting back in line! They held their item behind their backs with one hand, and with the other, reached up for more. The disciplined line soon broke down, and I found myself mobbed until John restored order.

There were no tears of sadness or pity as we left because the Samburu seemed truly happy. In fact, there may have been a few tears of wistful longing for a life so simple.

On our afternoon game drive we spotted more waterbucks, several gerenuks, oryx, secretary birds, many elephants and reticulated giraffes, and two cheetahs. After drinks and appetizers at the crocodile bar on the river bank, we enjoyed another excellent dinner. The baked tilapia, lemon mousse, and sherry trifle were particularly tasty.

June 25, 2007:
As they say in sports, this was get-away day. We departed for the airstrip and our usual wait for AirKenya to take us on our one-hour flight to the southwestern border of Kenya and the Masai Mara Reserve. The Mara is the northern extension of the Serengeti and is reputed to have the largest concentration of animals in Africa.

Upon our arrival at the Mara Safari Club, we were greeted by Maasai warriors and a champagne reception. We experienced our first rain of the trip, but it was a light drizzle that actually contributed to the exotic ambience of Africa. We had about 4 hours before our afternoon game drive, so Bill had a head and face massage, and I enjoyed a foot massage as the rain gently tapped on the canvas of the tent, and the birds, baboons, and hippos vocalized for a surreal experience.

The skies cleared, and Simon, a Maasai, was our driver/guide for the afternoon game drive. He is an 18-year veteran guide and was the leader of the four Land Cruisers. The Masai Mara Preserve is privately owned by the Maasai people and therefore does not have even the minimally-maintained roads that the other parks had. The upside, however, is that vehicles are not required to stay on the roads as in all the other parks, therefore allowing us to drive anywhere and get up close and personal with the animals. The down side is the environmental damage that this tourism is causing by creating hundreds and hundreds of rutted, muddy dirt roads. It also results in the vehicles getting stuck, as we did. One of the other Cruisers pulled us out using a large chain. Apparently, this happens often and they are prepared.

Being able to drive anywhere across the 10,000 square miles of rolling grasslands created some awesome wildlife-viewing opportunities. We were able to get within 10 yards of a pride of over 20 lions, which ignored us completely, barely opening an eye as we arrived. Had we gotten out of our vehicles, however, they might have considered us to be dinner! Also spotted on this drive were hundreds of giraffes, warthogs, impalas, zebras, topi, hyenas, a dozen or so of the 450+ species of birds in the park, plus a herd of about 50 or 60 Cape buffaloes.

Tauck likes to save the best for last, and these accomodations certainly were the best so far. Our rooms were tents with canvas walls, but inside each zip-up, 30-foot by 15-foot tent was a luxury hotel room with netted king-sized bed, a huge bathroom that took up about half the tent, indoor and outdoor showers, granite countertops, a sitting area, and a refrigerator/bar/coffee area.

A private wooden deck overlooked the Mara River and its activity, including the comical hippos that came into the river around 5 a.m. and stayed all day. Listening to the sounds as they "talked" to each other and watching them climb the banks were incredible. On our last day as we had our morning coffee on the deck, we were treated to two "honeymooning hippos" which, unlike the 5-second lions, floated around in bliss for about 5 hours, with other family members in tow.

The nights were symphonies of nature with the sounds of the animals and birds. Our wake-up call--a tray of coffee, tea, and biscuits--was personally delivered by our butler William each morning before the game drive. The food was incredible, as it has been on the entire trip. Breakfast was an omelet bar, and lunch was an assortment of fruit, meats, salads, vegetables, and desserts. Dinner was either from a set menu or a generous buffet of American, international, and African cuisine. After dinner we were treated to Maasai dancers and talks by a naturalist.

June 26, 2007:
This was to be the morning of our hot air balloon flight, so we were awakened by William with coffee and biscuits around 4:45 a.m. It was not to be, however, because the winds were too high. However, en route back to the lodge, the early hour was a factor in our witnessing another link in nature’s food chain, as we encountered a pack of a dozen or more hyenas still eating their night’s kill, a baby hippopotamus. It was not a pretty sight, but it was a pretty amazing one. Ever-positive Jeanette remarked that it was lucky that we didn’t go on the balloon ride, or we would have missed this once-in-a-lifetime sight!

After breakfast, we went back out on a game drive and soon forgot our disappointment over missing the balloon ride because we found the 5th and final member of the Big 5: the rhinoceros! There are only three remaining in the park, and after a breathless, 15-minute walk at 6,000 feet, we discovered two of them, patiently grazing. They are guarded around the clock by armed rangers, who accompanied us and watched the rhinos for signs of agitation so they could warn us to run away. These were white rhinos, which are no more white than black rhinos are black. The name is a corruption of the Dutch word weit, meaning "wide"--referring to the shape of the mouth, which has broad, squared-off lips for grazing. The rhinos totally ignored us as we approached to within 3 or 4 yards of them--on foot, I remind you! It was another treasured highlight in this unbelievable safari odyssey.

Lunch, some rest, and our final game drive of the safari completed our amazing day. Although we had already seen about a quarter of a million animals, including the Big 5 and more zebras, giraffes, monkeys, elephants, etc. than we could count, we still cherished our final chance to stand in the Cruisers with our heads out and our hats blowing in the wind, in excited anticipation of what animal or bird we might see around the next turn.

June 27, 2007:
We chose to sleep in rather than go on a bush walk this morning. Our attendant, William, arrived with our coffee and biscuits, and we sat on the deck and enjoyed breakfast with the honeymooning hippos while listening to the sounds of Africa one last time. William came by again later, and we enjoyed a 30-minute conversation with him about Maasai life in Kenya before packing for our flight to Nairobi. The flight was supposed to leave around 9:30 a.m., but since they are usually late, Joe called AirKenya for an estimated arrival time, which they gave as noon. We arrived at the airstrip on time but still had to wait. No worries---the locals had put up temporary duty free huts for our shopping pleasure and those last-minute belts, necklaces, or spears.

An hour flight brought us to Nairobi for our journey home. Nairobi is a city of 3.6 million people but only 5 traffic lights. It has the second biggest discrepancy of income distribution in the world (# 1 is Rio), as over 2.5 million of its residents live on less than one dollar a day. At the other end of the spectrum, small cadres of wealthy drive fancy 4WDs, live in posh residential areas, and send their children to university in London.

We had a delicious lunch in the elegant and beautiful Nairobi Serena Hotel and then rested in the day room that had been provided there with a beautiful view of the gardens. Around 5, we departed for our farewell dinner at Lord Erroll’s Restaurant, considered to be one of the finest gourmet restaurants in all of East Africa. Named after a member of the aristocracy (famed for his womanizing) who met a bullet one dark night in 1941, this elegant establishment had lush gardens, tinkling waterfalls, wandering gray crested cranes, and fabulous gourmet French cuisine! It was a fitting ending to this incredible experience.

We bid a sad good-bye to our 23 new friends and were driven to the airport for our 10 p.m. flight to Amsterdam, with connections to Atlanta and Houston. The flights totaled about 20 hours, but in business class it was relatively painless. We arrived back home at 6 p.m. the next day.

Enjoying wildlife in its pristine state is a privilege that has become available to anyone, and I cannot imagine anyone coming away unmoved from the experience. In a sense, the East African wildlife-watching experience is also a direct and profound link with the origins of every human being on the planet. Habitat of the early humans remains today much as it did a million years ago, and watching wildlife is more than being shuttled from one herd or pride to the next. Understanding the inextricable linkage of the elements of an ecosystem expands the experience into an emotional journey to complement the thrill of the chase. For example, the abundance of tiny insects at the bottom of a food chain can affect the behavior of predators at the top, and entire habitats can appear or disappear according to the behavior of animals—and people.

This exciting, exotic, emotional experience tops anything we have done in our travels to 75 countries and all 50 states. Everyone who has been here gets Africa fever and wants to return. People who write of their safari experience say it is the odyssey of a lifetime and feel as if they have become somehow part of eternity. I want to go back, but I somehow don't feel as if I have really left. It has become part of me.


27th July 2007

As a Kenyan i just wanted to say thanks for the wonderful advert that is your blog. WE owe you.
24th August 2012

What a wonderful trip!
Thank you for sharing. I can't wait to have my own memories from Africa.

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