Day 113, Fri, Aug. 25, 2000 – We had really been
looking forward to this part of the trip as we cross into Africa proper and
delve into probably the most troubled region in the world.
In this century, the unbelievable breadth of corruption, tyranny, civil
war, drought, famine, and genocide is enough to send the heartiest of optimists
(and naïve “do-gooders” like us) screaming toward the nearest plane out.
We’ve all seen the TV coverage of horrible walking skeletons dying of
starvation, hacked up bodies lying in the street, and tyrants running off with
government funds; but how in the world could anything get so screwed up? The answer is much more complex than any one source can
explain. We have read only a tiny
fraction of the history and information available, but if we read it all we
would still not understand completely. The
18th century religious missionaries (primarily Christian) were the
first brave and dedicated visitors, making Africa their target and paving the
way for European traders/settlers/conquerors/colonialists/imperialists (take
your pick). The missionaries
ingeniously tied education and health care to religion to ensure they had the
ears of their converts (even today the missionary schools and hospitals are the
only source of real education and healthcare in some communities).
It took only a portion of the 19th century for most of the
continent to become “protectorates” of European states who wanted to
“civilize the dark continent” with Christianity and trade.
They naturally sent the mineral, diamond, gold, ivory, fur and slave
trade profits back home and were not too focused on “native” rights.
This was the time of the famous explorers like Burton, Speke, Grant and
Stanley who found the missionary Livingston (remember “Dr. Livingston, I
presume”?) – and settlers like Karen Blixen of “Out of Africa” fame.
In the name of civilization, most of the best property, machinery,
infrastructures, and industries were owned and managed by colonialists as black
Africans were killed, relocated, suppressed and marginalized. Of course, imperialist minority rule could not last forever,
particularly when Africans became more educated by faster and more accurate
media as well as participation (as draftees) in the two World Wars.
African nationalism gripped the continent after the wars and by the
1960’s most countries had won independence from their respective European
colonialists. Unfortunately, since
they were forced to the sidelines of manual labor throughout the industrial
revolution, the Africans who were farmers, hunters and herders just a generation
or two before were under-educated and ill-prepared to efficiently handle the
drastic transition to management of modern industrial economies (for example, at
the time of independence Tanzania had only 120 college graduates in the whole
country!). Droughts, famine and
disease have not helped matters much. However,
some of the problems in Africa cannot be entirely blamed on Europeans. Perhaps most significant are the uncanny abilities of
home-grown dictators and tyrants (e.g. Idi Amin) to grab and maintain control in
most countries. True multi-party
democracy with freedom of choice (not to mention speech, press and assembly) is
a Western concept that has not yet taken hold in Africa, even today.
Nowhere else in the world makes such a ready proof of the unfortunate
truism that “the primary objective of those in power is to stay in power”.
One African, Chinua Achebe, famously summed up in his book “The Trouble
with Nigeria”: “The trouble with Africa is simply and squarely a failure of
leadership. There is basically
nothing wrong with the African character. There
is nothing wrong with Africa’s land or climate or water or air or anything
else. The problem is the
unwillingness or inability of leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the
challenge of personal example, which are the hallmarks of true leadership”.
In addition to leadership failures, some the highest
birthrates in the world continually overtax infrastructure and resources.
Also self-perpetuating is the willingness of many Africans to cling to
ethnicity (referred to as “tribalism” in the local papers) when considering
social and political policies (e.g. the “ethnic cleansing” pitting Hutu
against Tutsi in Rwanda). Some of this strife was inevitable when boundaries were drawn
along colonial lines, forcing different groups together (as in the
now-disintegrated Soviet Union and Yugoslavia), but old-world thinking cannot
help them to join the new world. Since
independence, there have been dozens of civil wars affecting the majority of
African nations, not only ruining their own infrastructures and societies, but
also scaring away any foreign investment. One
thing we try to keep in mind as we consider the wars and strife in Africa is the
one viewpoint that the continent is only in their second century after a virtual
stone age whereas Europe is a few millennia past their last stone age, having
gone through numerous social, cultural, scientific and governmental revolutions
before coming up with capitalism, representative democracy, hate-crime laws and
reasonably civil society – and they still produced Hitler just 60 years ago
and continue to produce neo-Hitlers today. We are all in this together, so we can’t wag our
Western finger too wildly at Africa.
Add to all of the above the 21st century version
of the plague, AIDS, which affects Africa more than anywhere else.
The continent had the worst health care and education in the world to
begin with, but this epidemic has completely devastated them.
Africa can afford virtually none of the drugs available in the West and
their culture puts such a taboo on even discussing (although not on engaging in)
sex, the population remains woefully uneducated on the causes and prevention of
infection. At a recent AIDS conference, the President of South Africa, Mbeke,
even disputed the linkage between HIV and AIDS, confounding many of the
participants and the great majority of the world’s AIDS researchers.
We can only hope cooler and clearer heads prevail in the future.
With regard to Kenya, Britain was the winner of the European sweepstakes – attracted by the fertile highlands where coffee and tea plantations started and building one of the first railroads in Africa from Mombassa to Kampala, Uganda. Nairobi was born as the midway point on the railroad and thousands of laborers were brought in from India to build it – their descendents now form the core of business-owning, entrepreneurial middle-classes throughout East Africa. Kenyan nationalism got it’s biggest boost with the “Mau Mau” rebellion in 1953, independence from Britain was finally gained in 1963, and the country has basically been ruled by the same party (KANU) ever since - with varying degrees of dictator-like behavior. Kenya handicapped itself with the highest birth rate in the world (and the highest rate in history!) for many years, overtaxing most social infrastructures and natural resources. The population has tripled since independence and now stands at some 30 million. We had been advised to arrange an airport transfer on arrival (for security reasons), so our driver was waiting for us. He was very professional, from one of the biggest tour companies, UTC. He told us the usual tourist crap, but on prodding, he told us about the terrible three-year drought and its related problems (like cows even looking for grass in Nairobi, of all places), government corruption and inefficiency at all levels, and the stagnant economy. A shortage of electricity now has most residents down to a few hours per day. Indicating their ability to laugh in the face of adversity, locals have renamed the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) as Kenya Paraffin, Lamps and Candles.
does not take long to recognize when you’ve crossed into the developing world
(the term “third world” has fallen out of favor in recent years, although
the gaping universe of difference from the West has only increased).
The corrugated tin shacks along the road, the garbage heaps picked over
by goats and shoeless children, the beggars and handicapped seeking handouts,
and thousands of unemployed, hopeless, vacant stares - some angry and resentful
– remind you as you drive by. The sheer number of people living in poverty and
squalor dwarfs those of even the poorest of Europe, such as the Roma
(“gypsy”) kids we met in Romania. Many
writers (all more talented than I) have written much more elegantly about
poverty, so I will leave further ranting to them.
It suffices to say the vast majority of the world’s population lives in
conditions that no human being should be made to endure.
The gap between rich and poor countries is mirrored in the gap between
rich and poor Kenyans. As millions
literally starve to death and (officially) over half live in poverty, a handful
of politicians and businessmen reap the benefits of power and privilege
(independence fighter J.M. Kariuki’s famous quote: “we have become a nation
of 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars).
According to some opponents and critics, President Moi has become one of
the richest men in the world during his 22+ years in power.
As with the King in Jordan, Moi’s portrait and name is everywhere
– including the currency bills and the main thoroughfare in town -
so Kenyan’s can never forget who's in charge. Throughout his
party’s tenure, government critics and opposition challengers have developed
an incredible habit of disappearing or dying in mysterious circumstances (e.g.
Kariuki was assassinated in 1975). The
latest was Father Kaiser, an expat American Catholic priest who had been
criticizing the government for years but had not yet provided specific testimony
to investigators of tribal conflicts in the 90’s.
He supposedly shot himself in the back of the head after driving his car
into a ditch. The politician he
implicated the most in wrongdoing (who also happens to be recently accused of
raping and impregnating a teenage girl) felt it necessary to make a public
declaration of his innocence in Kaiser’s death.
Another favorite tool to limit opposition is the hiring of ruthlessly
violent gangs of mercenary youths armed with whips, clubs, chains and knives and
pangas (machetes) to disrupt political rallies. Needless to say, they are more interested in the payment they
receive than any political ideology. Last
month a gang of “youths” surrounded the parliament building trying to keep
an opposition leader from leaving the building to attend a political rally
(imagine the US congress held captive in the Capitol building in Washington).
They beat bystanders with various weapons as police stood by watching.
When these tactics have failed in the past and an opponent actually gets on the
ballott and gets his message to voters, Moi has not been shy about buying votes
and otherwise manipulating elections. In
1992 he simply had the treasury print US$250 million in cash when he needed it. He won with other tricks in 1997 and is currently trying to
get the constitution amended to allow him to run again in 2002.
All of these machinations, among other things, have earned Kenya a spot
near the top of Transparency International’s infamous “List of Shame” of
the most corrupt countries in the world and caused international lenders, the
World Bank, and the IMF to suspend loans and aid several times.
The latest reinstatement of aid required such drastic economic and
infrastructure changes that it has been called an embarrassing forfeiture of
sovereignty and “economic imperialism” in the press.
In accordance with lender requirements, thousands of civil service
“retrenchment” layoffs were just announced at the same time as legislators
voted themselves a pay increase of some 250%.
The British High Commissioner has recently commented (rather
diplomatically) “If you are able to use resources well for the benefit of the
people you will realize that you don’t have to ask for donor assistance. Kenya
is not a poor country as it has abundant resources which have not been fully
Our driver also pointed out the crater left by the
terrorist car bomb that destroyed the US embassy and neighboring buildings in
1998. Apparently, lax security
allowed a truck loaded with TNT to drive close enough to blast away 251 Kenyans
and 12 Americans. A few minutes
later, a similar device destroyed the US embassy in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es
Salaam. The US quickly determined that millionaire Saudi terrorist Osama Bin
Laden was to blame and bombed his alleged bases in Sudan and Afghanistan,
winning the US plenty of friends in those countries.
When we arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel, it was still
early enough to take a nap and we were very happy to have a comfortable bed
after the fitful bus and plane naps.
We had to take care of the administrative side of the upcoming safaris by
picking up traveler's checks at the American Express office and taking them
to the Gametrackers office. Luckily
this was all walkable from the hotel, although the walk is a bit unnerving at
times with begging kids and touts at every corner.
Back at the hotel, we organized luggage and went through
the package we had to send to LA. By
evening we were hungry again and I attempted to walk to get some fast food.
The hotel staff looked at me like I was crazy.
Of course I was since I chose to leave the hotel after dark despite the
warnings from other travelers and guide books.
We thought they must be exaggerating – the good people of Nairobi
can’t just stand by on a busy downtown street and let you get mugged.
Besides, we had been to other very poor countries (and I had even been
mugged in Rio de Janeiro) so we know the drill of looking not-too-rich, leaving
my watch and wallet in the hotel and carrying only $10 to hand over.
I also knew two places I could go within three blocks, so I put my head
down and pushed down the sidewalk. Well,
I won’t be doing that again. Looking
like a hippy backpacker (without the backpack) didn’t help me very much.
Just one block from the hotel I got propositioned by a number of
prostitutes and drug dealers. I
politely pushed them off, but unfortunately both the fish-and-chips place and
Wimpy Burger were closed so I had to keep looking.
I finally found Simmers Restaurant open and got a burger and some fish
and chips. Word must have gotten
out while I was inside because there were even more thugs outside when I tried
to go home, some of which started to call out and chant something together as
they followed me. I had to turn
around when I saw there were no streetlights for blocks on end. Pushing away a couple kids, I made it to the SixEighty Hotel.
The doorman was kind enough to chase the kids away and I hailed a taxi.
He charged the same as going across town for just going two blocks, but
it was a hell of a lot safer than walking.
The whole experience was more depressing than scary. It’s beyond
unfortunate to have to be wary of impending danger at a time when the town
should be relaxing and having dinner and drinks with friends.
It really brings home the desperation brought on by poverty.
The natural state of affairs is not for children to beg and kids to rob
strangers. If it is, then God will
have some explaining to do when we finally get together.
Day 114, Sat, Aug 26, 2000 – In an example of the
difference between the conveniences of home and the hassles of travel, it took
us all day to mail a package, check email, do some shopping and get a burger.
The traffic is incredible for a Saturday, and the crowds even more so.
A sea of people - all in a hurry, except for the beggars and women
breastfeeding babies on cardboard blankets on the sidewalk.
We had to make it back to the hotel by sunset or risk being caught in the
guerilla warfare of nighttime Nairobi again. We picked up some snacks for dinner so we
didn’t have to go out again. We
had a hot bath since we won’t be having one for the next two weeks while
camping and caught up on BBC news. The
good news: Fiji is apparently more calm now that George Speight and his
revolutionaries have been arrested. The
bad news: the revolving door of Philippine hostages held by Muslim
rebels continues. It’s hard to
keep track of who they are holding anymore.
Day 115, Sun, Aug 27, 2000 – Day One of our 14-day
camping safari (a Swahili word meaning “journey”). This was expected to be one of the highlights of our journey
since we started planning the trip years ago, so we were very excited.
I have been in the African bush before in South Africa and Zimbabwe, but
Naomi has never seen the real thing. She
admits to more than a little trepidation about the various dangerous little
critters she may encounter in the wild. Camping
in Africa is a bit different than a little fishing trip in a motor home, since
there are any number of carnivores which may happen upon your campsite. I finally convinced her to
go camping rather than the antiseptic “old English” luxury lodge route since
it really puts you right in the middle of the ecosystem (or part of the food
chain, as the case may be). Camping
also happens to be about 75% cheaper, which is always good for our budget.
We had picked Gametrackers after doing extensive internet research and
exchanging emails with them and some of their past clients.
They were also recommended by Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, among
others. Incidentally, Lonely Planet has become the bible of our
After our last hot shower in a while and a hearty buffet breakfast, we were picked up by our driver, Paul, and went to the Gametrackers offices for a briefing. We finally headed out at about 10:00 and drove North from Nairobi toward Mt. Kenya. The traffic was much lighter since it was early Sunday morning, and we got through town and in the suburbs in no time. Sunday must be market day because there were crowds gathering around all kinds of fruits, vegetables and household goods spread out on cardboard boxes on the ground. The resourcefulness brought on by poverty is amazing. Dwellings and shops were made of spare wood pieces, rusted corrugated metal, cloth, tarps, plastic, and mud. It’s odd seeing signs like “hardware”, “beauty shop”, “bar” and “hotel” on some of these structures. Of course, there is no escaping the ubiquitous Coke - especially when it's 20 feet tall. The flat grasslands gave way to red dirt and green hills, then brown hills as we got higher. The road was incredible – the tarmac giving way to huge potholes (pot-cliffs?), then giving out altogether. Fortunately, we have an excellent vehicle – a combination SUV and army personnel carrier, with sliding glass windows and cutouts in the roof. It attracts quite a lot of attention with five white faces poking out. Kids waved enthusiastically as we drove by. It takes the bumps very well and Paul seems to know what he’s doing. It’s perfect for the 5 people on this safari. We have a pretty good group – two French guys (Frederic and Thomas) and a German woman, Petra. Frederic has spent a lot of time on safari already so he is kind of our second guide so far. Petra has also been around here a little, but Thomas just arrived in Africa for the first time yesterday. I think we’ll work well together. A safari (particularly camping) is kind of like a miniature commune, with sharing, flexibility and mutual respect necessary to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all. Petra told us a story about an English guy who wandered off on his own a few weeks ago (against the rules, of course) and got trampled to death by an elephant.
Anyway, the ride was pretty long. We passed Mt. Kenya (which has the distinction of being the only snow-capped mountain straddling the equator), but it was unfortunately covered in clouds. We stopped for lunch at an enormous roadside crafts stand where we would have loved to buy dozens of things in the shop – masks, carvings, statues, etc. but we couldn’t possibly fit anything else in our luggage – even the 8-foot giraffe that would look awesome in our living room. Our cook, Bahati, whipped up a great salad and cheese lunch that we wolfed down and then we were on our way again. We stopped at another town for gas and chatted with some local boys selling jewelry, trinkets, etc. Most spoke English since it is one of the good things the British left the country (along with tea and coffee). I had thought that “Hakuna Matata” was another dorky Disney cliché, but many of the kids said it. Of course they could have seen “Lion King” too, since there seems to be enough Western culture around here – Coke, Nike, Adidas, etc. We gave a little cash, but it was really sad to turn most of the kids away seeing the look of desperation in their faces. The road turned to dirt for good after Nanyuki and we finally pulled into the Samburu park at 6:00. It was nearing sunset and it didn’t take long to see zebra, gazelle, elephant and giraffe along the road. They just glanced over at us like uninvited guests in their living rooms (which we were) and carried on with their business, which for the most part is eating and trying not to be eaten (or shot by poachers). We did not see any carnivores.
The camp was a permanent circle of a dozen two-man tents around the fire and kitchen tent. It even has gravity showers of plastic barrels (cold of course), and what my dad would call an “outhouse”. “Toilet” is not the appropriate word, since it’s basically just a hole in the ground with an incredible tell-tale stench. Believe me, doing one’s duty here is an experience not to be forgotten. After moving in to our tents, we had an incredible dinner of leek and onion soup, pork chops, mashed potatoes and spinach, and followed by sweet fresh pineapple and tea. It was better than most restaurants, although eating by firelight has its disadvantages – since you can’t always see what you’re shoveling in. Chances are if it’s moving, it’s probably not food. We made a game of spotting the spiders and scorpions around the fire and kicking them in. Scorpion stings hurt like hell, but they are apparently not fatal - there’s plenty of other ways around here to kill yourself. During dinner, we all froze at the distinctive coughing growl of a leopard just outside camp. Paul said it was probably within 50 meters, but last week there were two leopards in the tree on the way to the toilet. That was more than enough to convince us to hold our bladders until morning once we turn in. We thought the leopard was interesting enough, but then we heard a loud, prolonged growl even closer. Apparently, a male lion is looking for a mate and for some reason he thinks she is in the camp. Goodnight – sleep tight.
Day 116, Mon, Aug 28, 2000 –
1:13 AM – wind kicks up and mysterious creaking sound starts, joining the deafening silence of crickets, cicada and grasshoppers
2:04 AM – shuffling sound outside tent – could be anything from squirrel to Lion
3:32 AM – Naomi: “Ja! Did you her that” Jamie: “hell, yes”
4:20 AM – growl starts again
5:35 AM – loud cracking sound of branches crunching and trees falling around the tent
5:45 AM – alarm goes off – OK because we weren’t sleeping anyway. Went to the bushes and saw the sunrise, which is surreal enough anyway, but more so for us since we never see it in LA.
6:00 AM –strong gritty coffee and we notice the elephant right outside camp making himself at home (hence the crunching branches)
6:15 AM – notice fresh unidentified shit outside our tent. No telling what animal it was last night.
Our camp visitor
After breakfast of crepes and honey, we start a morning drive and got incredibly lucky. In addition to elephants, giraffes, zebras, gazelles, impalas, we saw animals I’d never seen before, like the gerenuk, a small impala with a giraffe neck, and a dik-dik, a miniature antelope that looks too cute to hurt a fly. We were then shocked to find a group of five adult lionesses on the hunt. They were stalking a group of impala. The grace and stealth of their movements is incredible, especially when they are focused on the prey completely unperturbed by humans watching from vehicles. We followed them for an hour, but unfortunately, so did ten other vehicles. At one point a lioness was surrounded by trucks in the road – it was ridiculous. We were happy to see that we had the coolest vehicle - taller and sturdier than the wimpy white vans with little pop-up tops. Our top is completely open so we can zip down the road with wind in our hair like the Adamsons in “Born Free”. And Paul can go just about anywhere – over boulders and through the shallow rivers – in 4-wheel drive. Finally, the impala got wind of the lions and bolted. We stopped by the river to see some Hippos (unfortunately only their noses and eyes above the waterline), and then headed back to camp. That was an incredibly full game drive, especially for our first one. The rolling hills of Samburu provided the perfect stereotyped backdrop for the wildlife, with its mixture of green and brown, various trees and scrubs – including the ubiquitous flat-topped acacia tree and incredible tall palms with ten or more branches joining into one trunk – and blue sky speckled with white clouds. Back at camp we had visitors. A group of black-faced vervet monkeys had invaded the area and had their eyes on the lunch spread Bahati was preparing. Whenever our backs were turned, they made daring raids down from the trees. When they were busted, they would just look at you with big brown eyes - “what did I do?”. They were so playful and cute it was difficult to get mad at them – especially since they were just doing what comes naturally. What is wonderful about Africa is that every five minutes something extraordinary happens that you couldn’t experience at home. I hope it still amazes us after 14 days in a row of this. Lunch was another great combo of tomato, cucumber, pepper and avocado salad, shell pasta with cream sauce and ham sandwiches. The monkeys were particularly interested in the orange slices for desert, which they made off with once and the sugar bowl, which one got his face in twice before being chased off. We watched him licking his lips up in the tree.
After lunch we took the optional excursion to a local Samburu village. This is one of over 70 traditional tribes of the Kenya region, but one of the handful which maintains all of it’s pre-20th century ways of life. We were met by the village teacher/tour guide, Jezoa ,who speaks English, and the chief. He showed us the goat and cow pens made of thorn bushes – very important as cattle is the primary determinant of wealth and status; the houses made of sticks, mud, bark, hides, and cow dung; and the circular elders council hut where all matters of the community are decided. Jezoa told us how the community is structured in age-groups of junior warriors, senior warriors, elders, and senior elders and how marriages are arranged, usually between a teenage girl and 30-something senior warrior, polygamy is allowed and circumcision ceremonies are held for both men and women. The female version is a topic of great debate all over the world as it is considered cruel and unnecessary torture by some, but we did not go into the argument. Continuing the walk, we were a little surprised to see padlocks on some of the huts, but Jezoa said that stealing does occur here and thieves are dealt with by the elder council. The villagers’ clothing and jewelry were astonishing – necklaces, bracelets, anklets, hair ornaments in braids, huge earrings set in severely stretched-out earlobes. All in the brightest of colors, offsetting their skin and the earth around them. Beautiful. It was fascinating to get a look inside this village, but it was a little contrived. Of course, we would rather meet people naturally and get invited in without money exchanging hands, but this is virtually impossible within the traditional tribes. Whenever you pay for something like this you get the feeling they are doing it out of economic necessity rather than a real desire for strangers to poke their heads inside their homes and talk about modern ways - especially since they would probably be better off if they had never seen a white person. The visit reminds us of the age-old philosophical question: Is modernization and development really a good thing? Are humans really more happy and fulfilled with cars, planes, television, and instant access to a million sources of information and thousands of forms of entertainment? Westerners may live longer, but studies have shown that ancient cultures have less stress, anxiety, hypertension and heart disease. If Americans generally worship development but Buddhists believe all the world is illusion and true happiness lies within, then what does an American Buddhist feel (apart from schizophrenic)?
Anyway, the whole village turned out to line the way out with their wares spread out on blankets– so much stuff we couldn’t possibly look at everything and had to politely decline most everyone. I finally decided to buy a knife and bracelet from the chief, although I turned down the skirt he offered me – I’m sure he made a hell of a profit. Petra was particularly interested in the village school since she is a teacher back in Germany. Unfortunately, they hit us up for donations for the completion of the stone and mud school building. It was one of those situations that we could hardly say “no” to.
Afterwards, we went to a “swimming pool” advertised as spring water, but looks more like a stone circle with stagnant water inside. Fredrick and Thomas dove in, but Naomi and I passed, especially after reading Lonely Planet’s warning against swimming in Africa. At the nearby actual spring we saw our first water buffalo – it was huge, and every bit as menacing as its reputation heralds. They apparently are very dangerous to humans due to their propensity to charge vehicles. From a distance their huge curving horns look like a black wig parted in the middle (like the white one used by judges in England). Maybe that’s why they are pissed off all the time. We continued our game drive and got even luckier than we did this morning. We came upon not one, but two of the most elusive big cats – the leopard! The first was lounging in a tree, looking as if it was passed out drunk, with limbs dangling in midair and mouth half open. We thought this was beautiful enough, but then his mate came waltzing right up the road toward our truck! It was really amazing since 90% of the time you see a leopard, it is in trees where they rest, stalk, sleep and drag their kills. They are also usually alone when spotted as they are solitary hunters who have the most varied diet of any big cat. We all got some great photos and I just kept the video rolling as one came down the tree, crossed in front of us and perched up another broken dead branch in bright sunlight. He was the consummate actor hitting his stage cue perfectly as the sun cast a spotlight, illuminating his golden brown spots and beautiful face. It was incredible – even Paul was impressed. We watched the sun go down yellow-red-orange behind the black silhouettes of the acacia trees.
Back at camp we had just enough sunlight to take an “invigorating” (not the word I screamed at the time) cold shower and settle in to another delicious dinner of vegetable soup, fried fish and homemade French fries. Dessert was a sweet fruit cocktail of bananas, pineapple, mango, papaya, passion fruit and orange. Now that we are out of Nairobi, we can really see the star show at night – it is wonderful, although not quite as bright as the desert in Wadi Rum. We crashed pretty quickly as we were exhausted after such a busy (and lucky) day.
Day 117, Tues, Aug 29, 2000 - Last night was a little less exciting than the first night – or maybe we were too tired to notice – we slept maybe 4 or 5 hours. Still woke to the sound of trampling elephants breaking branches and snorting. We are apparently a large female’s favorite morning snack sight. After a quick breakfast of fried eggs, toast and sausage, we had to pack up and say goodbye to our permanent sight. It gets a little bit rougher now with us pitching our own (much smaller) tents. Watching Paul, Bahati and the two camp watchmen take down the site and pack the truck is amazing. It’s like a small military campaign, with equipment taken down, organized, stacked, packed, and crammed into and on top of the truck. They seemed to have it down to a perfect African science without a European or American piece of equipment in sight. I can’t imagine what it was like for Burton or Stanley or Livingston on one of their treks into the wilderness with hundreds of porters and tons of equipment. In the middle of the bush, we feel a bit like they must have, once the truck engine and radio are shut off. What is amazing about Africa, which I’ve tried with little success to express to friends in words is the overwhelming depth of the natural world. There is life everywhere – on the ground, in the trees, in the water and in the sky – and humans are a very small part of it. We may be the smartest species on Earth (sometimes), and certainly the most dangerous to the planet, but here you are one speck of life surviving each day only because hundreds of animals have decided not to kill you today. Each elephant could simply trample you, but this is generally not in their nature (unless you walk right up to them like the unfortunate British guy did). Likewise, carnivores are not inclined to add humans to their diet unless one gets careless or stupid. But the strength and power and speed is there at all times, all around you, not safely tucked away behind bars. This is the hometown of the ancestors of most of the animals we have ever seen in zoos – not to mention the habitat where the earliest remains of a human being (1.5 million years old) were found. If this isn’t enough to stimulate your primordial animal instincts and wonder of Mother Nature, than you must be dead already.
Anyway, we started a very long and somewhat torturous drive out of Samburu, across country to the Great Rift Valley. I have to ask Paul if this is some sort of short cut, because I can’t imagine this is the main road connecting the cities in this part of the country. We went though dry creek beds, sandy ruts, rocks the size of bowling balls and intermittently tarmac pot-holes. If there is a 2-year drought on in Kenya, someone forgot to tell this area. The valley is a sea of green, looking like a dense jungle from afar. The combination of greenery and red dirt is beautiful. After four hours we stopped to stretch our legs in one of the tiny plywood and cardboard villages. Unlike yesterday, the kids had nothing to sell and they were actually shy. We had to walk up to them. It was wonderful when they cracked smiles as I joked and practiced some lame juggling with three rocks. I wished I had learned some more tricks or magic to get them going. The smiles were genuine and honest. Back on the road, we continued to be met with friendly waves by everyone – from little kids tending goats to old men with canes to women with fruit baskets, laundry, or firewood balanced perfectly on their heads. The people seem a world apart from the bustle of Nairobi - around here a wave and hearty “jambo!” goes a long way. To us, Ki-Swahili, the language developed over the centuries to bridge the communication gap between Arab, Asian, European and African traders on the coast, is one of the world’s most beautiful. It has a lilting, melodic quality with few guttural or harsh sounds. As we listen to Paul and Bahati talk animatedly in the front seats, we can make out some familiar words adopted from other languages. Naomi even swears there’s some Japanese sounds mixed in as well. We also got some vocabulary tips from our friend Susan, who had been here a few years ago.
We arrived at Lake Baringo around 2:00 and pitched tents at Roberts Camp. Our individual tents were the old-fashioned military tarp kind from the World War II. If set up properly, they can withstand most weather Africa can throw at them, unlike the wimpy backpacker tent we have back home. The camp is a lot more crowded than Samburu, they even had a large group in a motor home. It was perfectly located about 100 meters from the lakeshore, beyond the soggy marsh, but well within the hippo’s grazing area. After a cold shower and lunch of salad and rice, we visited the camp mascot, a 65-year old land tortoise about three feet long and two feet high. Naomi was dwarfed as she stood next to her. She was very friendly although we hadn’t anything to feed her (the tortoise was nice too).
Afterward, we went for a ride in a small motorboat to tour the shallow fresh-water lake home of crocodiles, birds, and a hippo family. We got within 10 meters of the crocs, posing with their mouths open, waiting for birds to come by and clean their teeth. They are truly fearsome looking reptiles, with jagged teeth and scales looking like extras from “Jurrasic Park” – we wondered how that famous Aussie crocodile hunter would narrate the scene. We motored to within 15 meters of the hippos, probably the most harmless looking fat beast in Africa. Looks were proven deceptive when the huge male in the family didn’t appreciate our company much. After a few minutes, his stare turned into a slow march toward us, which quickly evolved into a full-scale charge! As it turns out, the water was shallow enough for him to run on the bottom instead of swim – and he can move! Our captain gunned the engine and barely made it away before becoming the latest stupid humans. I can’t imagine what would have happened if our engine stalled. The guide told us about boats being bitten in two by hippos, which are apparently responsible for more human injuries than any other African animal (I thought that it was the buffalo?). We carried on to an island in the middle of the lake where the fish eagle lives and hunts. We bought two small catfish from a fisherman floating by on a small balsawood boat, and put small pieces of balsa in the fishes’ mouths so they would float. Our guide whistled a few times toward the island and threw the fish about 10 meters from the boat. In a few seconds, the eagle came swooping down from the trees and snatched the fish up in its claws, just like a National Geographic film. It was a very impressive sight, even if it was a bit orchestrated. We watched it pick apart the fish with its sharp curved beak after it returned to the trees on the island. Baringo is also known as a bird paradise, but we’re not into ornithology, so we couldn’t name many of the wonderfully colored birds surrounding the lake apart from the pelican, kingfisher, egret, hornbill and weaver birds. According to Lonely Planet, there are more different bird species here than anywhere else in the world. Our favorites are the electric blue and orange starling (which is everywhere) and the hornbill, not only because of their “Toucan Sam” snouts, but also because they have replaced monkeys as our camp thieves. They do have a little easier time of it since they can swoop down and fly away faster and more surprising than a monkey can scurry. Anyway, when we got back ashore, some young guys talked us into visiting their “snake farm” in the village (for some reason Naomi and Petra opted out of this excursion). We walked a kilometer up the rocky hill, past the stone and mud huts and corrugated tin shacks and came to a few wood pens covered with tarp. A young guy reached in and pulled out a few small boas that we played with for a while, but then an older guy went for the gusto and pulled out a 6-foot python! It was incredible – you could feel the power in its muscles gripping your arms. Unfortunately, they had no scorpions at that time to play with. A crowd gathered around as we played and they followed us back into town. Although young, the kids were anxious to talk politics and the future. They supported the opposition party, but they don’t have a lot of hope that they will succeed in bringing about real reform. The general feeling is that Moi will pull any political maneuver he can (legal or otherwise) to prevent any real challenge (as he did in 1992 and 1997). One of the kids who studies medicine, leads a scout troop and works at the community school was taking donations for the school, so we contributed. After talking to the youngsters, we had fun trying to find our campsite with a dying flashlight, but when we did, another amazing dinner was waiting (leek soup, cabbage and English shepherd’s pie). Bahati continues to astound us with his culinary feats. Out of a few old metal pots, a charcoal fire and some mysterious cardboard boxes full of goodies he’s been able to whip up a different delicious meal every time so far. We’re sure there will be repeats, but we are waiting.
Day 118, Wed, Aug 30, 2000 – Sitting at the bar at the Kembu Campsite in Nakuru listening to (of all things) Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. The owner of the camp, Andrew, is a fan of my kind of music – Dylan, Hothouse Flowers, Bob Marley, Tom Petty, etc. I’m greeting these tunes like long lost friends – especially since my CD player, walkman, and tapes had to be sacrificed to the “God of Light Packing” back in Turkey (even the great compilation from our friend Bill). The bar is very cozy, with darts, games and a friendly staff – it is the most organized camp we’ve been to. We are sitting here because we had a slight change in plan: we were meant to be on a game drive right now in Nakuru Park, but Paul had to go into town to get the exhaust on the truck fixed. We changed plans to chill here for the afternoon and drive through Nakuru tomorrow.
Last night (as expected) we were lulled to sleep by the grunt of the hippos coming ashore in our camp to graze. They sounded very close all night, but after the close call in the lake, we didn’t want to get out of our tent to look for them. Besides, there are numerous signs around camp warning you to keep your distance. Suffice to say, they were close enough we could hear them chewing. Sometime during the night the background sounds of insects were replaced by birds. We got up at 7:45 to an incredible symphony in the camp. Unfortunately, the hornbills were working on Bach, the finches were tweeting out Britney Spears and the weavers were torturing a Beatles tune.
After breakfast of Spanish omelets, we took down the tents (much quicker than going up) and headed for Lake Borogia, one of the soda lakes too heavy in minerals to support much life except the small critters prized by the flamingos. This is the star attraction, as some one million birds are said to inhabit these lakes. As we approached, we could see huge swaths of pink covering the shores of the lake as if paint had been spilled from a tanker. As we got closer, the paint spill began to vibrate and honk and pieces started to flake off in all directions. Finally, we could make out individual necks sticking up in graceful curves. We parked the truck and went to the shore, but unfortunately the flamingos are pretty shy and started to take off from their odd one-legged stances as we approached. As they flew, we noticed the black streaks on their wings for the first time. It is a beautiful sight to see a huge group head out, just like the opening of “Out of Africa”. The other main attractions of Borogia are the thermal hot springs. The geysers are very near the beach, creating spewing hot jets of 10-30 feet and large clouds of foul–smelling steam similar to the Sulfitada in Naples. We probably got closer than we should have, but the bubbling mud and steaming springs were quite a sight for us. After that, we took the short drive here. We are using the unexpected break here to recharge our batteries (figuratively and literally) since they are letting me plug my video and computer chargers in. So we’re reading, sunning, and writing. My laptop created a little stir as people were anxious to see wildlife videos and I got to show off the website and talk about the plans for One World Foundation. The response is excellent when people get over the idea that it must be crazy to quit a perfectly good job to start a charity (of course it is, but that’s why we did it).
After the break I walked past the small village of the families that work on Andrew’s family farm and to the soccer field where Thomas and Frederick were playing in a local pick-up game with the men of the village. It was fun to watch them struggle on a lumpy, uneven field with branches for goalposts. I tried to film them, but as soon as I took out my camera, I was swarmed by the village kids. They went crazy as I showed them what they look like on the LCD screen. It was probably the first one they had seen. Seeing their faces light up was wonderful. Some weren’t too shy to speak to me in English, so we decided to play some games. It was real test of my memory since it has been some time since I had opportunities like this when I worked at the Boy’s Club in college. I decided on a modified “blind man’s bluff”. There were about thirty kids and who mustered into a circle and I got out my trusty Egyptian eye mask and put it on an unlucky volunteer. I picked him up, spun him around three times and let him go in the middle. The kids squealed as he stumbled toward them and finally caught someone, who then became the blind man. This was good fun, but the circle kept breaking down because everyone wanted to get caught and wear the mask. We switched to “red rover” so I could try to learn some names. That didn’t work out so well since most did not have Western names, therefore it was impossible for me to learn 30 Swahili names. Besides, they couldn’t quite get “red rover, red rover, send Peter right over”, so we cut it down to “Peter come over” and everyone was happy (for a while anyway). They tried like hell to break through the circle holding hands – it was pretty funny. The kids then suggested hide and seek, but when I counted to 20 and uncovered their eyes, they were all standing there laughing – I guess the joke was on me. The boys wanted to have wrestling matches, so I refereed for a while. They must watch some pretty old kung-fu movies (or play some wild video games) because they all thought they were Bruce Lee. They switched to tumbling in a sand pit for a while, then I devised a tug of war game with an old cow rope and twigs. We tried “Simon Says”, but it was a little too hard to explain that Simon is supposed to trick the players. Then we got to one of my favorites – “Catch the Lion”. I was the first lion in the center of the circle and I called out the name of someone to be chased around until I caught him and he became a lion too and got to pick the next kid to chase. Some of them were pretty fast, especially for an old fart like me. After a couple hours of all these games, I was completely exhausted. It was very hard to say goodbye to the kids since they wanted to keep playing. They also laughed at my hairy arms. I guess they’re not used to seeing body hair on people – just animals (I apparently rate somewhere between a lion and a baboon, so I was flattered). Mother nature rescued my weary body by sinking the sun so it got too dark to play. I guess it was good to get some exercise since all we’ve done for five days is sit in a truck, eat and (sort of) sleep – looks like Ida was wrong when she said I should gorge in Italy since I will surely lose weight in Africa! The soccer game broke up and we all headed back to the village. There was an eerie gray haze over the road from the wood fires the families cook by in their small homes. Bahati had a delicious beef stew over rice waiting for us. Afterwards I spoke to Andrew who gave me some pointers on the video aspects of the website since he has worked a bit in the film industry. He also shared some of our philosophy and promised to send some of his favorite quotes via email. His take on the most important thing in life:
"Give children the opportunity to see themselves outside the consumer-based image of themselves imposed by most first world environments. Give them the opportunity to realize almost all they think they absolutely must have has been commercially planted there, absorbed from their consumer environment. Traveling outside your consumer world gives you a chance to examine your true self without the next media form smoothing your reality with their commercial dream. Go basic, take time and witness the pupation of your true soul emerge from who you have been told you are."
We also interviewed the bartender, Patrick:
The most important think in life is to discover your purpose in life - having an intention in life that will help yourself and other people.
It was a beautiful day all around – one which we couldn’t possibly have had anywhere else in the world. (The hot showers at the camp helped too!)
Day 119, Thursday Aug 31, 2000 – We can’t believe it’s the last day of August already. Back home, people are getting ready for the long Labor Day weekend and the end of summer. Here, we are on a permanent weekend. We woke early today (5:45) to head to Nakuru Park since we missed out yesterday. We viewed another brilliant sunrise and had breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast. While we waited at the park gate, we played with the baboons and posed for photos with them. We also watched one of the oddest creatures in the bush, the warthog. With its short legs, pot belly, superfluous mane of back hair, bumpy warts and huge tusked head out of all proportion with its body it is so weird it goes beyond the realm of ugly and is actually cute – especially when it runs with its tail stuck straight up in the air or kneels on the ground to root around for food with its snout. Once inside Nakuru, we saw even more flamingos and exotic birds. We also spotted a hippo out of the water walking around (which is rare during the day). There was also a beautiful giraffe very close to the truck, plenty of antelope, and a leopard (unfortunately passed out in a tree). We drove up to the baboon cliffs to see some of my cousins and view the sweeping panorama of the lake. Back at lake level, we spotted several large rhinos grazing. We were surprised to see so many considering their endangered status. They are really amazing, another holdover from prehistoric times, with their much sought-after horn sticking menacingly up at us. The horn is the very reason these animals are near extinction (from 20,000 in Kenya in 1970 to just 500 now) as they are prized for Chinese Viagra and Yemani dagger handles. Poaching exploded in a vicious cycle as the rarity of rhinos kept driving the price up from $35/kg to $30,000/kg. The government has finally cracked down with the appropriate level of force and created sanctuaries, but it may be too late. Under these sad circumstances, we feel very fortunate to see a majestic creature our children may only see in books.
After leaving the lake, we started the long trek to Masai Mara. On route we passed more wood/mud/tin shacks grouped together to form villages. In spite of the terrible standard of living, people still waved as we drove by or chatted as we stopped for petrol and/or snacks. In the midst of what can only be called slums by Western standards are the colors of an artist’s palette. Reds dominate, but also blues, yellows and greens combine with every shade of earth tone brown, tan, gray, khaki, and black. It is a fascinating sight, but at the same time depressing for what these sights represent. When we stopped for lunch, we had to say goodbye to Petra, who was heading back to Germany to teach kids from broken homes. We added Amy, an American in graduate school, but working in Africa on micro-loans to new and struggling businesswomen. We joked that she was bad luck because an hour later the truck broke down. It took about an hour to fix, but that hour was one of the most interesting of the trip. In addition to hosting a herd of cows driven past as the guys relieved themselves in the trees, our truck (with the hood raised) became the center of attention of every passerby and most of the villagers in the area. They all stood around, some offering opinions, and others staring at the silly, lost white folks. Most genuinely wanted to help us get back on our way. We talked to a few guys, and then Fred and Thomas started a rock-throwing contest with the Masai men. It was an incredible sight seeing the Masai with red cape, skirt, colorful necklaces, and walking stick tossing rocks with two European kids. Of course, they were the first ones to hit the target. I told them they should use rocks instead of spears next time they go hunting and they all laughed. Paul sorted out the truck in no time and we were back to climbing up the steep grades of the Great Rift Valley. At times we barely crawled to the crest of hills in first gear. We finally made it to the Mara at sunset, as a herd of wildebeest and giraffe posed for photos on the horizon for the perfect “Kodak moment”. Our camp had more comfortable, stand-up tents (like Samburu), but no bar/music/hot shower like Nakuru. We were pretty tired after the long drive and passed out after spaghetti and salad dinner.
Day 120, Fri. Sept.1, 2000 – After breakfast of eggs and sausage, we headed out to the heart of Mara and what we had really come to see: the incredible vistas of great herds of animals gathered in Mara after the annual migration from the dryer Serengeti plains in Tanzania to the South. We were not disappointed. There were thousands of wildebeest, hundreds of antelopes (impalas with their incredible leaping and hopping abilities, gazelles with their beautiful faces and wagging tails, and stately orange topi with black socks), and dozens of zebra, giraffe and elephants. The wildebeest (gnu) is the most prodigious animal, moving in great herds and providing the quintessential sights of splashing across rivers by the hundreds during the migration. Their numbers also mean they provide most of the meat for the carnivores in the Mara. They may be brilliant at reproduction, but they are not the brightest animals, letting trucks and other animals get very close before recognizing the danger and bolting like crazy. They are also more than a little ugly with their misproportioned, incongruous features: a long horse face, little curving horns, miniature beard and mane, stout oxen forelegs, slim antelope backsides and horse tail as if they were put together by an arguing committee. Unlike the warthog, they have no redeeming features.
Driving in the plains we almost missed a group of adorable jackal pups peeking out from behind a huge anthill. After a while the mother trotted up and started to regurgitate food into the pups mouths as they knelt in front of her nipping at her chin. We all wanted to take them home with us.
Afterward, an astounding elephant encounter awaited us on the banks of a small river. As we drove by, we noticed a family of 15 getting ready to have a drink and cross the river. They are truly majestic animals. They are the largest land animal but have the softest footsteps, as well as the most unique body part in the animal kingdom – the incredible trunk. The amazingly flexible, continually moving appendage is used for smelling, drinking, picking up things, holding, trumpeting, communicating, touching, splashing dirt and water, and other things we don’t even understand. Elephants also display the prize of hunters and poachers for centuries: the long, curving ivory tusks. Once down to a few thousand, the great herds are slowly climbing back in numbers due to increased awareness of their endangerment, crackdowns on poachers, and an international ban on ivory trading. Unfortunately, the issue of elephant proliferation and proper herd size is very controversial due to the enormous amounts of food they need (250 kg. per day each!) and the damage they cause while browsing. Some African countries even want to lift the ivory ban in order to “cull” unruly, damaging herds (and not coincidently earn some hard currency). Watching elephants, with their intricate family and social behaviors is almost like watching primates. Their life spans, social patterns (and some say emotions) are very human – playful youngsters, rambunctious teenagers, nurturing moms, and protective fathers. The latter was demonstrated when we watched them slide gently down the far bank of the river and make their way up the near side right in front of the truck. The big bull male didn’t much like our proximity to them and gave the head-down wagging gesture of warning. Paul put the truck in reverse as he stared through the windshield from ten feet away, but he luckily let us stay. We breathed a huge sigh of relief as they silently moved away. As we said before, the feeling of being spared by an animal’s generosity (or whim as the case may be) is indescribable.
Further down the river we saw a family of hippos and a crocodile waiting patiently for the carcass of a drowned wildebeest to decompose enough for it to eat. Some felt sympathy, but Naomi started singing “The Circle of Life” song from “Lion King”. As we headed back to camp, circling vultures overhead led us to a wildebeest carcass being torn apart by jackals (not quite as cute now) as a pride of lionesses that probably killed it relaxed in the shade of nearby bushes. They apparently had their fill and were about to sleep (as lions do for most of the day). Once the vultures dug in it really got ugly. These nasty little buggers were everyone’s least favorite spotting of the day, with their bald red heads, blood-stained feathers and nasty screeches as they ripped the flesh from the bone (and I thought our family Thanksgiving dinners were voracious). They even have a menacing waddle when they land and scoot over to the carcass.
Back at camp, we had somewhat warm (yeah!) solar-heated showers from the huge drum. The tops of the makeshift stalls were open to the sun pouring in (as well as monkeys and other critters), so we dried quickly. There’s something about game drives that makes us very hungry, especially after the good morning today - we devoured Bahati’s fish and chips which rivaled any in London. After our standard afternoon siesta (when all the other animals are hiding from the midday sun as well), we headed out for another game drive. We went to the long, broad plains in search of cheetah but had no luck as they are not too populous and hard to spot in the brown grass due to their excellent camouflage. We did see plenty of skittish antelope, big-assed zebra and wonderful groups of giraffe strolling gracefully across the plain. Their height and neck make them look extremely graceful as the glide by, like fashion models walking slow motion down a runway. Their grace hides a powerful kick that all animals fear except lions, but only when they are very hungry and no other prey is around. Giraffes run beautifully, but their walk seems awkward as they move both legs on the same side at once, which is very unusual for 4-legged animals. We watched as they stretched their necks (which incidentally have the same number of vertebrae as humans – 7) for the higher branches of acacia, using their long tongues to pick leaves from the many thorns. The smudgy dark-star patterns of Masai giraffes are very different from the distinct fine-lined, tortoise-shell “reticulated” giraffes in Samburu. The zebras were also beautiful, looking like a sturdier, more meaty version of a horse with their bright white coats lined with distinct black markings which are actually unique to each animal. The wide-striped Burchell’s Zebra found here does however look quite different from the thin-striped, white-bellied Grevy’s Zebra in Samburu. They make you wonder how they evolved so successfully since there are no white things in the bush and very few black ones. Unlike other animals’ camouflage, their black and white stripes can be seen for miles in the brown and green surroundings. It is beautiful, though, to see a herd standing together when you can’t tell when one animal ends and the other begins (maybe they try to look like one huge multi-headed animal to avoid attack?).
The long day put us right out after a great dinner of stew over rice. We are getting used to the sounds of the bush (and unruly human campers) as we fall asleep and actually beginning to think we prefer this over a comfy lodge full of rich folks. We have also been pleasantly surprised (so far) with the lack of bug and mosquito bites. Our Doom spray and Deet lotion must be working. Naomi has been bit a couple times, but Uncle Hodge’s meat tenderizer treatment has worked wonders.
Day 121, Sat, Sept. 2, 2000 – We tried a different tactic today and went out very early after 6:30 coffee to try to see the first kills of the day. It worked wonderfully. Apart from scanning the skies for vultures, the easiest way to hunt for game is to spot a group of tourists all stopped in the same place taking photos and using binoculars. One such group led us to our first male lion! He was perched over a wildebeest carcass gnawing at a rib bone getting the last bit of meat off of it. His teeth were incredible – it was quite chilling when he stopped gnawing to stare at us with his fierce gaze and huge mane. Our truck was only 20 feet away – I just kept the video rolling as others whipped out huge cameras that looked more like cannons to get the professional close-ups (our poor little Olympus auto-focus zoom got a little inferiority complex). We were so close we could smell the stench of the carcass whenever the wind kicked up. After feeding, the male moved off to let the cubs in on the carcass. Lion prides are very male-oriented, with the dominant one entertaining 5-15 females. Although the females usually kill, the male eats first. When he moved off, we realized there were two other carcasses from this hunt. They must have really surprised a herd of wildebeest as lions are not the most efficient hunters, relying on surrounding, setting traps and teamwork rather than speed. The second carcass was being played with by some deceptively cute and cuddly cubs with their watchful mom nearby and the third was being guarded by a lioness who kept chasing hyenas, jackals and vultures away. The dirty-looking hyenas slink away with their distinctive slope-backed gait when she approaches – they are excellent scavengers and powerful eaters with muscular necks and strong jaws that can crunch through bones better than lions’. We have heard their bone-chilling howl more than once in the camp at night, but haven’t heard the famous “laugh” yet.
We watched this pride for an hour or so, then headed for the river where another van was watching something. There was another pride taking water and sunning themselves on the rocks. Young males were play-fighting and females were watching out for their curious kids. They crossed the far side of the river, so we 4-wheeled with them and noticed that they had camped out near a herd of zebra. They must have eaten already because they were content to lounge in the shade – it is incredible how their golden brown color blends into the dead yellow grass and bushes. Sometimes, only movement gives them away unless you have sharp eyes. We hung for a while to see it they would hunt, but they weren’t budging. We followed some circling vultures to another pride crossing the plain near some bushes. At first they looked like they were hunting a group of antelope, but they were too lazy and moving in single-file rather than trying to surround. Paul figured they were just checking out their territory. We were starved after all the lion action and had cheese, salad and pasta for lunch. Afterward we chatted with the Masai watchmen and read.
On our last game drive in Mara, we got lucky again. There were two male lions, with huge beautiful manes lounging under a tree. Several trucks were around with awe-struck tourists, but they just yawned and panted in the heat. They appeared to be a little annoyed, but were too hot to make a fuss. A kilometer away, we came across another one that just closed his eyes and put his head down. I was waiting for a yawn to get a good teeth-shot, but he didn’t cooperate. All together we saw four males in two days, which is really incredible since some people don’t see any. We headed to the hippo pool near the Tanzanian (and Serengeti) border and were allowed out of the truck for the first time to walk to the shore. The hippos were huge, snorting through their nose as they surfaced and grunting to communicate. On the way back to the heart of Mara we saw another group of lionesses who had just finished eating. We were parked next to the group when one female suddenly looked out across the plain and assumed a stalking stance. She crouched in concentration and slowly crept past the truck, never taking her eyes from a Thompson’s gazelle 50 meters away. For some reason, the Tommy was alone, which probably attracted the lion. She tried to sneak up on it, but once the Tommy noticed her and the game was over since a single lion could not catch a gazelle from that far away (unfortunately her friends were content just to watch). Just as we finished, it started to rain – not just a little sprinkle, but the short burst of life-giving torrent Africa is famous for, especially in the wet season. We continued to drive, but started to slide – even with 4-wheel drive. We started to smell smoke, so Paul stopped and we realized the rain came into the cab of the truck and shorted out the radio. Just as we were having visions of sleeping in a ditch in the middle of carnivore country with no radio, the rain let up – almost as quickly as it started. It was needed very badly, replacing the flying dust with a fresh after-shower smell. As we reached the middle of the vast plain, we found our prey – a lazing group of four cheetahs. We almost missed them since their coats blend in perfectly with the grass and dirt when they lay down. It looked like they may have eaten because they weren’t actively hunting, just lifting their heads long enough to show us the unmistakable feline face with the black teardrop from eye to mouth. They lay down out of sight again, so we followed a group of vans toward the river and got the surprise bonus of the day – the incredibly elusive black rhino! It was foraging in the bushes, trying to keep out if sight since it is notoriously shy, but we caught a glimpse as it passed between some bushes. Every other group knew this as well, but by the time 10 more vehicles had gathered, the shy rhino had disappeared in the bushes.
A kilometer away, a lioness was sprawled right in the middle of the road, not bothered in the least that an elephant seemed to think it was his road. The elephant would take a couple steps toward her and wag its huge head, but she wouldn’t budge until it was within a few meters – it was pretty funny. The lion really is fearless – the proverbial “King of the Jungle”. As we headed back and the sun set, there were more giraffe, antelope, zebra and a pair of nervous water buffalo turning in for the night (although I’m not sure where they all go to sleep). One unfortunate elephant didn’t make it today as his massive carcass was being devoured by vultures. We had dinner of lentils over rice, in honor of Amy (the vegetarian), a cold shower and zonked out.
Day 122, Sun, Sept. 3, 2000 – Got to sleep in a bit before French toast with honey and peanut butter (Bahati admitted adding the American staple just for us). We packed up the truck and said goodbye to the camp staff. One of them, Kwell, is from Sudan and has not seen his family in 15 years due to the civil war there. He is just one real-life example of the millions displaced by strife in Africa.
We finally headed out at 8:30. We went through the reserve for an hour before hitting the road to Nairobi. Not much wildlife except for antelope. Many Masai villages and herds of cow and goats led by teenagers. We got a little turned around on the many off-road short-cuts and Paul asked some Masai for directions. We passed an unbelievable commuter bus stuffed to overflowing with people hanging out the windows and chicken cages blowing around the roof, then stopped for a rice and bean lunch at the same place we stopped Thursday. We finally broke down and bought a group of souvenirs and arranged for them to be sent to LA. It was really difficult to pick out some things as we really love the wood and stone carvings. We give the package a 50/50 chance of getting there in decent shape, so we used a Visa card just in case. We talked to the local unemployed men who gather at the shop. They wanted to trade for my vest (and even asked if it was from Banana Republic, although I would never spend that much for one), but it has served me well and I still need to keep it.
Back on the road, we passed many more examples of dire poverty in the rambling dusty villages, some no more than intersections with markets. We returned to Nairobi on market day just as we left. The level of commerce is incredible with everyone trying to make ends meet and the related colorful activity all around us. Amy was dropped off in the Westlands and Paul took us to the Silver Springs Hotel. This was a very pleasant surprise for us as we were not sure on booking where the night in Nairobi would be spent – the Gametrackers literature said it may be camping again. We luxuriated in the first real shower in a while scrubbing everything, plugged in our battery chargers, then had a final dinner with Frederick and Thomas before they caught the bus to Mombassa.
To experience life and learn about people. To help create a fairer world.
To learn for yourself what is important and be a good person to all.
We ate at the hotel of course since it is impossible to leave at night. Afterward we settled in for a comfy night in front of the TV watching silly American stuff and a great BBC documentary on the religious beliefs of indentured servants in India. The interviewer asked one man who works 18 hours a day for just his food and shelter if the reward promised in the afterlife justifies the life he has had to lead on Earth and he just smiled ruefully and said “One would have to die to find out”.
Day 123, Mon, Sept 4, 2000 – Checked out and took a taxi to the Gametrackers office for part two (the remaining 6 days) of our 14-day safari. Since the radio had not yet been fixed from the rain damage, we had time to restock on candles, batteries, water, and of course chocolate at Uchumi, our favorite crazy, hectic, crowded and loud supermarket. We met new folks for the second phase: Joanna and Richard from England traveling with Joanna’s brother Rory and two friends who work together as nurses in England although one is French (Chantal) and one is from New Zealand (Marina). The total now is seven, which makes our truck a lot more crowded, especially in the back seats with limited legroom. Anyway, we settled in for a long ride to Amboseli Park with a new radio and a well-rested Paul and Bahati. We stopped for lunch at yet another curio shop but this time we kept our wits (and wallets) about us. When we stopped at the Amboseli gate, the teenagers selling goods couldn’t say enough about Tupac Shakur when they heard we were from LA. For some reason he’s their hero here (as he is in parts of the states) notwithstanding his promotion of the stupid, wasteful and violent “thug life” that eventually got him killed by another thug.
Amboseli is a completely different type of park – it is mostly very dry scrubland and plain with patches of grassy wetlands seemingly out of nowhere. Plains herds roam the dry bits while hippos and buffalo splash around in the swamps. You wouldn’t believe the two areas could be the same park unless you see it yourself. All of this is backed by the towering snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, which provides the post-card backdrop for many a wildlife photograph. We only had time for a drive through to our public campsite on the far side. We pitched our tents in extreme dust and washed with the hand pump before having dinner of soup and shepherd’s pie (in honor of the English folks we just picked up). The camp is managed by the Masai tribe and we met some of the young guys before dinner. They are very tall and athletic, reminding us of their historic reputation as fierce warriors. They all wore the bright red shawls and carried the symbolic spears of their tribe, and some wore the "African Nikes" - sandals made from cut up tire rubber. The men had learned English in mission schools and loved to chat with us. We asked them about the significance of each of their rings, bracelets, hairdos, earrings, necklaces, etc. The shaved head indicates the graduation from junior warrior to senior warrior once a lion is killed. We heard some great stories from the seniors about killing a lion with a spear. At first they claimed it was done alone, but then they cracked and said the initiate throws the first spear and the other warriors attack when the lion gets pissed off and tries to retaliate. They asked if we were visiting their village later, but we had to check with the group.
At night, we had to store all food in the truck again due to roaming, sniffing elephants and I used earplugs for the first time due to the music in the camp bar (disco?). The tunes didn’t sound like traditional Masai to us.
Day 124, Tues, Sept 5, 2000 – Woke for an amazing sunrise behind an acacia tree. The plugs worked wonders last night and I slept right through for the first time, even through Naomi getting up to visit the outhouse. She has been rather brave (and lucky) in this regard, given the fresh lion tracks I found between the tents and the outhouse this morning. Paul confirmed that they were lion, but asked that I not tell “the ladies” so as not to disturb their sleep tonight. We saw plenty of game (elephant, buffalo, antelope, wildebeest, zebra, hyena) before walking up to an observation point on a smooth volcanic hill. From there we could really see the stark contrast between the green swamps and brown plains as if invisible lines had been drawn.
After fried eggs back at camp, we went ahead with the Masai village tour. We did see most of the guys we had met in camp fully decked out in their traditional finest. The Masai are somewhat related to the Samburu, sharing a language and the same devotion to cows as the primary source of wealth. Not that they eat them (only for ceremonies), but they do drink a mixture of blood fat and milk and believe that all cows in the world were created by God for them. Masai have no compunction about forcibly retrieving them once in a while, much to the consternation of local law enforcement. It is truly amazing to see a living village functioning as it would have a thousand years ago. The men and women did separate songs and dances to welcome us and the men had the traditional jumping contest, which they talked me into trying. I did my best to demonstrate the age-old basketball truism that white men can’t jump. I asked for a demonstration of hunting weapons and we set up a target about 15 meters away. I missed by about 10 meters, but one senior warrior hit through the heart twice in a row, although I think he had the unfair advantage of using his own spear. We toured the mud and dung houses and went into our guide's mother’s house. We talked about typical living conditions and daily activities. The nurses asked plenty of health-care and family questions (circumcision, birthing and polygamy) and I asked social and political questions. Some of the young men conceded that this contact with tourists from the West may have a negative cultural effect in the long run, but they said their culture and traditions are very strong in them and would never die. Afterwards was the standard curio market spread including nearly the whole 152-person village. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a wooden leopard I liked so we passed.
After Bahati’s famous fish and chips we voted for a stop at the nearby Amboseli lodge for a swim and shower. We stayed about an hour and got a taste of how the “other half” of the safari world lives. Unfortunately, we realized that the cleanest we have been in days would last for only five minutes of the afternoon game drive. As we dusted up we saw two lions after a kill, a huge old elephant with only one tusk left stomping in the road, a wildebeest pecked at by vultures after getting stuck on a fence outside the camp, and a water buffalo close enough we could hear his labored breathing and see the snot dripping from his nose as he snorted at us. At sunset, we spotted an ostrich in full awkward trot with its endless legs and huge feet (they sure don’t seem like the fastest two-legged animal), then stopped to gather firewood for the camp. This made for an excellent roaring fire to supplement beef stew and polenta.
We’ve been trying to keep up on news and local politics with the Nation and Standard newspapers, both of which have a refreshing (and surprising) anti-corruption (i.e. anti-government) slant. In addition to politics, they also cover local tyrants and crime, like the forced public circumcision of a group of elderly men by radical fundamentalists. The head cleric of the group said if any man pressed charges, he would put a curse on him so his privates would not heal from the attack. The paper also reported on the continuing woes of Russia’s Putin: first terrorist bombs in Pushkin square (where we spent plenty of time in May), then his mishandling of the tragic Kursk submarine disaster (e.g. going on vacation and refusing western help until it was too late to save the 118 sailors on board), now a TV antenna fire that wiped out TV in Moscow for a while. He faces a hell of a challenge, but if Russia is not stabilized, then the whole world could be in danger of nuclear/biological/chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands. Food for thought: the captain of the Kursk made less than US$200 per month – providing plenty of room for bribery and corruption offers.
Day 125, Wed, Sept 6, 2000 – We woke to
find more lion tracks and packed our dusty tents for the long ride to Tsavo West
Park. We had to stop at the lodge
to pick up an “escort” with a military rifle as a precaution against road
bandits. Apparently, this stretch
of road has been a favorite for robberies since it is full of potholes causing
slow driving and is overgrown with flora which provides many hiding places.
At our break we saw some guys from Abercombie and Kent, so I asked around
for Susan’s friend Farid,
but they didn’t know him.
We also took some great photos of Kilimanjaro which I promised to send to
Paul. The mountain has inspired us
to finally start Hemingway’s collection of short stories “The Snows of
Kilimanjaro” – we read it out loud to each other in the tent at night. After the break we stopped at the black volcanic rock left
for kilometers by the Shetani lava flows. At
camp, we were the only ones there, which left us feeling a bit exposed,
especially with the baboon clan in the trees.
The ground was also very rocky, so it was tough to get the tent spikes
in. After such a long drive, we had
a siesta after pasta lunch and went for the first Tsavo game drive at 3:00.
We had a hassle at the gate because the park had eliminated the student
discount policy without telling Gametrackers.
Unfortunately, we all had to pitch in because the office does not give
drivers much contingency money. This
park is famous for the “Tsavo Man-eaters” a group of lions that developed a
taste for the humans working on the railroad early in the century. We felt a bit jinxed after the park entrance fee fiasco and
once inside the game was very sparse and we only saw a few individual animals
here and there (elephant, giraffe, impala, hippo, zebra, dik-dik, baboon,
monkey). The best encounter was a
family of ostriches with 14 babies crowding under the shadow
of the mother’s
tall body right in the middle of the road.
She demonstrated her ability to peck and scratch every part of her body
– a very handy trick. The father
always stayed between us and the kids as we crept closer with the truck.
They could not move away as fast as they usually would have since the
kids could not walk that fast. The
overall lack of game was compensated by the most dramatic and varied landscape
we have seen to date – huge hills, boulders, rocky outcroppings, steep grades,
and the reddest soil yet on all the roads (similar to Zimbabwe).
The red dust left a film on all the plants along the road making them
appear pink and orange themselves. We
did not escape the layer either, especially our hair, which took on Lucille Ball
shade that fingers could not even get through, much less a comb or brush.
Some of the scenery reminded us of Sedona, Arizona and made us miss our
friends from back home. We stopped by Kilaguni lodge so
Paul could use the phone to
call his boss about the park fees so we watched the sunset over the phony
watering hole they built right outside the lodge.
We did not stick around for the floodlit show later.
After another one of those “refreshing” cold showers (at least we
could wash our hair), we had chicken and rice around the fire and Chantal talked
Paul and Bahati into singing a couple traditional African songs.
They sounded great, but they could have been singing advertising jingles
for all we knew since they were in their native languages which were more
complex than Swahili. Afterward we
played the leopard video from Samburu for the new group.
They were impressed and Naomi and I started to feel bad for them because
the game had not been nearly as exciting for this part of the trip. We also had the advantage of driving anywhere we wanted to in
Samburu and Mara, but we must stick to the roads in Amboseli and Tsavo.
Bahati and I had another interesting political discussion about the
colonial past and uncertain future of Kenya.
There is so much wrong and so little political will and management skill
to get it fixed, it’s very depressing sometimes.
Day 126, Thur, Sept 7, 2000 – Had a (literally) wild night with the sounds of movements in the woods all around us and low guttural growls – seemingly from under our tent. And we were the only humans at this camp. Naomi came rushing back from the outhouse after realizing that it wasn’t me outside the commode trying to scare her – as if I would do such an insensitive thing (OK, maybe it could have been me). Anyway, she woke me and said it was a lion. Fortunately, the tell-tale breaking of branches gave the elephant(s?) away. We lay awake listening for a while before falling back to sleep. It did not help matters that Paul had told us a story of an elephant accidentally tossing a tent (and its occupant) up a tree while looking for food. After that, Naomi would have preferred a lion as bush legend has it that they are confused by canvas tents. In the morning Chantal said all she heard was Paul chopping down and gathering wood outside her tent – as a matter of fact, she almost got up to complain to him about the noise. I have a feeling we would have really heard some noise if she had seen what it really was. We had some huge marabou visitors in the morning, nearly 6 feet tall standing! We had fun chasing them.
After crepes we had another delay at the gate, so we
occupied ourselves with a modified version of baci ball.
The game viewing really went downhill as we went nearly two hours without
seeing one animal. Game spotting is very difficult sometimes.
Everyone knows what a lion looks like in a zoo, but it’s much harder to
see in the wild surrounded by its natural habitat.
Spotting is an art and a science: an art because of the beautiful result
of your work and a science because of the technical “rules” to follow based
on animal behavior. It’s not
always as easy as following the vultures or other safari vehicles – you have
to know how animals act in different situations at different times of the day. First you scan for movement, then color or pattern changes,
then if you spot an animal you must decide if it is something special or
something you have seen plenty of – all of this in a couple seconds before the
scenery changes again. We did our
best, scanning the bush as Paul zipped down the roads, but our lack of success
made us realize just how spoiled we were by the Samburu and Mara experiences.
We finally saw some hippos and crocs at Mzima Springs, a large freshwater
source for most of the drinking water as far away as Mombassa.
The pools were surrounded by lush vegetation, more like a tropical jungle
than an African bush. We went down
into a little viewing chamber to see the hippos moving underwater. We went back for a lunch of bean salad, rice and ham
sandwiches, a short siesta (which was really used for reading) and headed out
again. This time we went to the
rhino sanctuary, a fenced off area that is only open for a few hours each day
and is supposedly the home of hundreds of rhinos.
We came across a good watering hole with some giraffes spreading their
legs and bending awkwardly to reach the water and two herds of elephants bathing
and splashing each other. The
babies were adorable, gingerly approaching the water to imitate what the adults
were doing but not quite having full control of their trunks.
We left to try to concentrate on rhino.
We saw none, but they could have been just meters from us since the bush
was the thickest and tallest we had come across. We even nearly missed a group of elephants because the ground
cover was up to their shoulders. We drove around seeing nothing for hours before
it finally dawned on us that this is really a human sanctuary, with rhinos
having a cocktail and watching with binoculars from the surrounding hills like
some “Far Side” cartoon. They
were studying the odd roaming behavior of the 8-headed 16-armed four-wheel
creatures running in circles kicking dust in each other’s faces. I’m sure we
made for interesting viewing. The
drive almost redeemed itself when we spotted a leopard moving through the bush
near the watering hole. Unfortunately,
15 other vehicles noticed us noticing him.
This quickly degenerated into a circus of trucks passing, cutting off and
circling each other for the best view. This
must have been great fun for the leopard as he toyed with us for a while,
continuing to walk along the road so we would keep jumping ahead of each other.
When he finally got bored with the game, he headed into the bush where no
one could follow.
After a spaghetti dinner we had a little movie night with
the video and laptop. I felt like
the projectionist from “Cinema Paradiso”, setting up the screen outdoors
under the stars. Of course we had
no popcorn and the crowd was only eight, not counting the camp baboons and two
enterprising striped genet cats going through our trash.
We watched the hilarious singing from last night and the elephants and
leopard chase from today – it was pretty good fun all around.
Day 127, Fri, Sept 8, 2000 – Last
night was fairly uneventful for a change and we packed up tents after omelets
for a long drive to Tsavo East Park. There
were virtually no animals about as we went through Tsavo West.
Outside the park we hit the first tarmac we had seen in days.
It was smooth sailing all the way to Voi, a medium-sized provincial town. We waited there three hours outside a hotel for Paul to get
money wired to him at the post office. To
kill time, we walked around town, bought some snacks and
talked a little with
the begging kids. We gave them some
candy, but we had to do it far from the truck so the kids would not flock around
and get noticed by the hotel guard, whose job function is apparently to beat
kids with a stick if they bother tourists. There was an incredibly colorful market near the hotel with
everything from fruits and vegetables to hardware and used clothes. The enormous
loads carried on heads were unbelievable. The people seemed somewhat more friendly than in Nairobi, but
that’s the difference between capital and provincial towns all over the world.
We finally made it to our green campsite on the banks of the Aruba Dam
waterhole. The camp has a huge trench dug all around it to dissuade
elephants from coming in. We sat on
the lip of the trench and watched huge flocks of storks and herds of buffalo and
zebra gather around the water. This camp is also home to the largest lizards
we’ve seen – some a foot long with green bodies and red head as if someone
had dipped them head first in red paint. After
cabbage salad and peanut butter and banana sandwiches, we all watched as the
nurses performed a little emergency bush surgery on Paul’s leg.
He had received some kind of insect bite a few days ago and now it was
infected. Of course the nurses came prepared for any eventuality and
had gloves, syringe, gauze, antiseptic, dressing and other goodies.
It may have looked professional, but the result was a little gross (good
thing we already had lunch). Paul
took a little recuperation time before we headed out again at 4:00.
The drive was uneventful except for the famous red elephants (due to the
dust baths they take to insulate them from the harsh sun).
We also saw a beautiful family of Masai giraffe just as the sun was
setting behind them. We gathered
some firewood for the night and went back to camp for our last meal of the
safari. Naomi and I were getting a little sad since we had been with Paul and
Bahati for 13 days in a row. We ate
beef stew with mashed potatoes and Bahati had a surprise for us: a real cake
made from scratch and baked in a bush oven he dug in the dirt!
Afterward, our safari-mates
agreed to contribute interviews to One World Foundation:
Health is very important in life, but capital is also important. You must have money to live because whenever you are sick or hurt, you can treat yourself or get help at the hospital. And to get money, you must have a good job - like mine, I am able to meet a lot of clients and make friends. Also to have a nice wife who is able to take care of you and your family. If you have a nice person to love you, then you can live many years because you don't have to worry or think too much. To have a nice community - to live without disturbance around you. Peace is very important - if you have money but the country is not at peace, then you will not be happy. And finally, when you look up in the sky, to hope there is someone up there taking care of things.
To be healthy and happy - to enjoy life. To have good friends and family. To know what love is. Love is very important. To live a long life and have as many experiences as you can - and enjoying them is very important.
I would say knowledge and understanding, but I don't think it is - I think faith is more important. It doesn't have to be faith in God or anything, just, for example, that your government is going to get you through and safe and it's not going to collapse on you. If you haven't got that, you don't have good health - you have nothing. If you have knowledge, for example that after death there was nothing, you would probably despair of life, so faith is very important. In fact blind faith actual does get you out of things. Sometimes it's not the most important thing, it's the only thing.
Without health, you can't really do too much. I think family is very important. I don't have a very big family, in fact I've only got my mother now. She is very important since I don't see much of her as I'm quite far away. Having the good support of friends is important - having a safe little community around you for support. My friends are a sort of family for me. I like to able to do the things I enjoy as well, like this trip. Being able to have fun and enjoy life, instead of just working And eating well of course.
The most important thing is to do what makes you happy, not to do what you feel you have to do or what everyone tells you to do - as long as that doesn't make someone else unhappy. To experience as many people, as many cultures as you can - to try to understand how other people think and live and in that way probably make yourself a better person and more interesting as well.
To have good health, because if I wasn't healthy, I would not be here. And there are many other things I couldn't do - I couldn't work, I couldn't go out or enjoy myself -so to have good health is very important. To have a good family and be able to communicate with everybody. To be happy with yourself, because if you are happy with yourself, you can be happy with others - it will be easier. To be in a peaceful, free and fair society. We see when we travel and on the TV that to live in fear is horrible. To have enough to eat and a nice, comfortable place to live.
To have good health, a good job and good family. To have peace with yourself.
The interviews led to a discussion about religion which
(fortunately?) was interrupted by elephants grunting and splashing loudly on our
side of the watering hole. They
must have been just on the other side of the trench. We wanted to go see, but Paul wisely said “this is the time
of the animals – we should leave them for the night”. Naomi came back from brushing her teeth with another great
adventure story – this time a dreaded mongoose going through the trash had
scared her and the other girls. I
went to take a look and saw something that vaguely looked like a cat from far
away (Naomi: “it was huge and scary before, I swear!”)
Day 128, Sat, Sept 9, 2000 – We packed the tents for the last time (after a minor disturbance that trip lore will henceforth refer to as “The Spider Incident") then perched folding chairs on the ditch edge and watched the animals around the watering hole as we sipped coffee. It was one of those quiet special African moments when only animal and wind sounds make you part of the ecosystem. Our last game drive exiting Tsavo East was unfortunately barren and we wound up back in Voi again with a case of déjà vu: the same parking spot with the same kids in the same clothes and the same guard with the sharp stick as yesterday. We took some photos of the market and one kid in particular who was pushing around a car made entirely out of wire, complete with steering wheel and front wheel drive. He was a regular Henry Ford in the making – unfortunately, he probably will never get the education and support he needs to become an engineer some day.
We were in the midst of the long drive to Mombassa when our dozing was interrupted by a huge clanking sound followed by the sound of metal on tarmac – not usually a good sign. Paul pulled over and looked under the truck and found that part of the front wheel drive assembly had fallen off! Bahati retrieved it a hundred meters back, but it was beyond repair. Fortunately, we still had the rear wheel (primary) drive, so he just had to tighten things up to continue the trip. We just spread the camping tarp out and read a bit. This time, we were on the shoulder of the main highway in the country, so there weren’t any villagers or cows around to share our delay. We were back in business in about an hour.
As we got closer to Mombassa, the landscape started changing to a lush, tropical green, with a lot more palm trees along the road. We could also feel the air change from dry to humid as it came through the open windows. The people also started to change, with much less traditional tribal clothing and more Muslim robes, caps and veils. We were entering a completely different part of Kenya (and Africa). The coast is tropical, like many an island paradise, with vast coral reefs and white sand beaches. The pleasant climate and opportunities for new types of goods and materials drew Arab traders from the Persian Gulf (Sherazis) beginning in the 12th century. This mixed Swahili culture was well established by the time the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in Malindi in 1498, but the Portuguese soon subdued them and stuck around for 200 years. Although their reign was certainly unwelcome and vicious (including burning Mombassa to the ground a couple times), they did much to further the trading atmosphere and attractiveness of the area, importing many types of fruits, vegetables and spices from Goa, their base in India. The locals obtained the help of Oman to finally oust the Portuguese in 1698. The Omani empires lasted until independence in the 20th century. By 1840 the area had become so important the Sultan transferred his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar. Unfortunately, the Arabs also increased the slave trade in East Africa, both for local use like the newly important clove plantations in Zanzibar and for export to the Eastern Arab world. The increase in economic activity inevitably brought adventurers, diplomats, and missionaries from Europe and Britain won the race for Kenya, although a 10-mile strip of coast was reserved for the Sultan. The British protectorate was set up in Mombassa in 1895 (later moved to Nairobi) and the Sultan’s strip was administered with it. When independence came, the Sultan’s land was attached to the new republic. Today, in addition to being the center of Muslim Kenya, the Arab influence is also strong in the look, dress, attitudes, food and culture of the residents.
Paul dropped the English trio downtown to book their next arrangements and the nurses at their hotel in town before taking us to Nyali Beach Resort north of Mombassa. We usually hate this type of “compound” hotel, but we had booked this type of place in anticipation of being completely run down after a 14-day safari. We were right after all. After taking pictures and saying sad farewells to Paul and Bahati, we had very hot showers and just vegetated in our rooms for hours. When we fully recovered, we had a look around the grounds and discovered that it was indeed a full-service, 2-pool, 8-restaurant, many-doorman type of place. The beach is beautiful. Travelers have always told stories about “sugary white sand” beaches – but this one really has to be seen. The sand is so fine it does not stick to you in granules like sugar, but coats you with a flour-like powder, as if you had just cleaned a chalk board with your hands. It must have been low season because there appeared to be few guests around, which means all the famous “beach boys” gravitated towards us and wouldn’t give us a moment’s peace. We had a beer at happy hour and reminisced about the incredible safari before turning in for a room service dinner.
The one amenity missing is a TV in our room (they wanted $15/day extra) so we could not update on any home news. What we have been able to surmise is that Gore is now leading Bush in the polls after the democratic convention where he planted a big wet one on Tipper as if that would make him look all passionate. Meanwhile, little George continues comical misusages of phrases on the campaign trail (e.g. “holding America hostile” instead of “hostage”, “reading is the basics for all learning”, and “subliminate advertising”,). When someone wrote that he might be dyslexic, he said “I never interviewed her”. He was later caught on tape calling one reporter an “asshole”. The whole thing would be really hilarious if we were talking about the mayor of some backwater town, but unfortunately this race is for the “leader of the free world” and two rich ivy league frat boys are the two best people 270 million of us could come up with? As usual in American politics, our selection comes down to a “lesser of two evils” decision, as neither man is about to set the world on fire with his ideas or personality. At least we can say that weasily “no controlling authority” Gore could at least write an entire book about environmental issues while party boy “no real career” Bush can hardly string a sentence together without calling his Dad for advice. We really wish wee were back in the States to see all the interviews, especially Letterman and Leno and the actual debates. We have also heard some news from the UN Millennium Summit, where hundreds of heads of state paid lip service to the problems of poverty, education, disease and corruption in the developing world without really doing anything about it. Also, as expected there were no breakthroughs on the Palestinian negotiations and we are now four days from their planned unilateral declaration of statehood.
Day 129, Sun, Sept 10, 2000 – We slept in for a change and went in to town to visit the old Portuguese stronghold, Fort Jesus, which changed hands some nine times throughout the struggle for the coast territories. It is pretty run-down, but provides some insight into the history of the area. The traffic and crowds were very light since it was Sunday, but we still got a feel for the neighborhoods and people representing the poverty that no area of Kenya has escaped. Like Nairobi, the primary means of public transport are small private vans (matatus) always overstuffed and with bright decorations – usually with some catchy phrase like “Love Machine”, “Big Daddy” and “Jammin”. They remind us of the Jeepneys n the Philippines. There was a great rag-tag soccer match in the yard outside the fort and we had flashbacks to the makeshift match in Nakuru. We asked our taxi driver to stop at Uchumi where we picked up groceries so we could self-cater and avoid the exorbitant hotel food prices. There was a huge line around the block due to the sugar shortage in the country – apparently they were expecting a delivery. When we got back to the hotel, we were pleasantly (and ironically) surprised by Marina and Chantal who wanted to have dinner. They had visited the beach near our hotel and popped in. We were more than happy to store our groceries and eat with them. We had a lovely Chinese dinner although we all admitted to missing Bahiti’s “comfort food”. The moon was full and beautiful over the sea.
Day 130, Mon, Sept, 11, 2000 – Our comfortable beds (and lack of unruly wildlife) really let the Larium dreams really kick in. Before we left LA, we had been warned by our friends Tony and Marina to heed the doctors’ warnings about side effects like “hallucinogenic” dreams while on this prescription anti-malarial drug. We have had some pretty wild ones in the first four weeks, but last night was a riot. I spent the evening back in grade school with friends I hadn’t thought of in years, working on an undercover FBI sting, trouncing through snow with some colleagues at Warner Bros., and fending off a leopard that was a pet but got a little too friendly. I woke in a sweat waving my arms. It was pretty wild because I usually don’t remember many dreams and I never have bad ones.
Anyway, we had our homemade coffee, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and apples for breakfast, then I wrote a bit, had lunch and went for a scuba dive off the coast. We took a boat about 20 minutes out to “shark reef” and saw a couple reef sharks, some spotted rays, a huge grouper and a sea turtle. It was pretty good diving, but we heard that the best was up the coast. Back at the hotel, we took car of admin. matters, had some tuna sandwiches for dinner and tried to email and upload. We are seriously considering dumping Mindspring for a web host with more professional support (and cheaper)
Day 131, Tues, Sept 12, 2000 – Well we had a long discussion today about spending the next few days in the Nyali Beach Prison versus doing something else. We bounced around a couple of ideas before finally succumbing to our infamous “you only live once” doctrine and decided to fly to Zanzibar for a few days. The exotic name alone is enough for some people, but we had to rework our budget somewhat. What finally decided it though was its prominent and unique place in African history, as well as the excellent reviews we kept getting whenever someone discussed it. We made all the calls and reservations and actually got the tickets delivered in time to chill outside at the beach for a while. We checked email again and I had a few from friends of mine back home in Indiana because Bob Knight was finally fired as their basketball coach. I am disappointed he won’t be around to break the career victory record at my alma mater, but most fans knew he had it coming for some time – he was undoubtedly a genius at coaching the game and getting the best out of players as well as a great (low-key, unpublicized) philanthropist, but his gruff manor and volatile temper never made him a favorite with the media and outsiders. The last straw that violated IU’s “zero-tolerance” policy on inappropriate coaching behavior was a minor altercation with a student who just happened to be related to a fierce media critic. Fortunately, he did not sign off by striking an opposing player like Woody Hayes did at Ohio State as his critics would have liked.
To Follow us to Tanzania, please click here: Photojournal September 13 - 27.
If you have any comments, suggestions, or other feedback, please see our contact information and send us a note.
Thanks for your support!