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Long Day's Journey into Kenya
April 18, 1986
We left Boston on an adventure. A total of 22 hours in the air started with a stopover in NYC, where we met up with Gramps and Marilyn. We had dinner at a nicely appointed restaurant, then went back up in the air to cross the Atlantic. It was six hours before we got to Senegal, our first foreign stopover. We didn't even leave the plane.
Two hours later, we landed in Liberia and were told we should feel free to leave the plane, but not go anywhere except inside the airport, and absolutely no photographs allowed. We got off the plane by going down one of those "ladders-on-wheels" things that our airports threw out in the 60's. It was really hot. Africa hot. The humidity must have been around 98%, with a temperature around the same. We slowly trudged our way to the airport, beading up in the intense sunshine. The trees to the sides of the buildings were a vibrant green, shimmering in the heat, and the earth was a rich, orange-red colour. The air was so damp, it felt like you could reach up and wring the water out of it. It was a steam bath.
We entered the airport anticipating cooler, drier temperatures to find two decrepit ceiling fans working sluggishly to move air around; they were so loose, they looked dangerously close to crashing down on the people below them. It was certainly no cooler in there...in fact, it was warmer because no windows or doors were open, effectively baking us in the hot tropical sun. Along one wall was a series of floor-to-ceiling windows and outside on the skinny deck stood many Liberians staring in at us as we looked back. They did not seem very friendly. Neither did our fellow travelers within the building. We felt like we were being watched by everyone as we ordered our sodas and sat down at a table. We regretted the decision to leave the plane, but we knew the A/C was off in the plane as well. We proceeded to discuss which would be a cooler situation. A concrete structure baking in the sun since morning or a flying can which had been previously refrigerated, now baking in the sun. It was terribly hot. Each minute seemed like an hour, but finally we were allowed to return to the plane.
When we were finally allowed to board, we realized that the plane was about the same temperature inside as the airport had been. As we sat in our seats, we noticed that our plane, which had been virtually empty so far, was beginning to jam up with Nigerians and the smell of all those sweaty bodies was offensive. The people were very loud and noisy and made the next part of the trip very stressful. They stole all of the toilet paper, soap, paper towels, and other goods from the bathrooms. They pilfered every blanket, magazine and pillow. When we finally arrived in Lagos, even the flight attendants breathed a sigh of relief. We checked our carry-ons and made sure we had all our fingers and toes. The quiet after they left seemed like a choir of angels to us. The next stop would be Nairobi.
We arrived in Kenya in the middle of the night. The landing wasn't bad, but Customs almost sent us back on the next plane. [I really hate customs agents. I sense a pattern here...] We had taken the video camera with us, along with about 20 VHS tapes to record our safari. Apparently, Customs wasn't too thrilled with our attempt to bring it into Kenya. They gave us three choices: one) surrender the camcorder to the Customs official, two) pay $19,000 Kenyan shillings for Customs to hold until we returned from safari and could prove we still had the camera, or three) leave Nairobi on the next plane. We chose option two.
Rajid, the guide Ramona arranged for us (she was the Canadian exchange student I met in India years before), had been waiting with us throughout this, and assisted in our dealings with the officials. We finally managed to leave the airport, WITH our camera, almost three hours after we arrived in Nairobi (not too bad compared to other trips I've taken, but Mom and Chris were outraged). Rajid drove us to the Nairobi Hilton Hotel where we slept the sleep of the dead.
April 19, 1986
Today, we went on a tour of Nairobi. We visited the Conference Center which was hosting the International Women's Conference, the Moslem Mosque, and Uhuru National Park, which overlooked the whole city, and much of the local businesses and such. Chris was not impressed because he thought he could see Firestone Tire Centers and GM plants at home without the passport. He was also relieved to discover that most people in urban areas spoke English. We ate lunch at the hotel--Chris had the gazelle, while the rest of us chose more mundane choices. He said it was quite good.
By the way, did you know that "Uhuru" (like Lieutenant Uhuru of Star Trek fame) means freedom in Swahili? Of course I had to ask, before someone else decided to say it was named after her, know what I mean?
April 20, 1986
Wow--what an exciting day! It was our first real day on safari and being in the bush is quite an experience. Our group consisted of two nerdy travel agents from Chicago, a supposed professor from Columbia University by the name of Warren Shilling, and the three of us in a late model pop-up van that was very clean and comfortable.
Now, with Dad a very active alumnus, Warren had difficulty keeping up his act. Mum was able to speak circles around him regarding current professors at the university, of whom he was either unfamiliar or whom he said he knew, but could add no additional information on. I think we spoiled his little dream of impressing the rest of us. He was quickly labeled "loser", to which he could never rise above after that.
Rajid drove us out to Taita Hills Lodge where we were able to get our first glimpses of African wildlife. The game plan was to do two short game drives per day, one for four hours before lunch and another in the afternoon for about the same length of time. We saw wildebeests, hartebeests, waterbuck, impala and giraffe, mostly inside Tsavo National Park (we did see some baboons out on the highway, but when we stopped, they jumped all over the van and tried to grab stuff through the windows...It was pretty frightening.
We had lunch at Taita Hills Lodge where we were introduced to our first native dance troupe out in the courtyard behind the hotel. All of a sudden while eating lunch, we heard a loud drumming coming from behind us. I almost choked on my warm soda. (If you expected ice, you're dreaming. You should see what they do to precious Kenyan coffee, too. It would make you cry.) We looked outside, and there were about six men dressed in native attire with tall head dresses made, presumably of lion's manes carrying long drums and dancing around in a rhythmic two-step. The beat was very strong and complex, but once you figured it out, it repeated itself over and over again. After a few minutes, we returned to our meal.
Tsavo is a huge place and we went out again, after lunch for a second look. We worked our way towards the Salt Lick Lodge, where we would be staying that evening. It was really a series of tree houses on twelve foot stilts grouped in a sort of horseshoe with walkways between them. This design enabled you to stand above and watch the animals without any real possibility of danger. There was a watering hole situated behind the main lodge, where the animals would come to drink, usually herds of zebra (swahili name: PUN-da mill-EE-ah) or gazelle, which we could watch from our rooms, the walkways, or the main lodge. It was really a very nice concept.
While waiting for dinner, we sat watching the animals and took a more careful look at the acacia trees surrounding the buildings and realized that there were 2-inch long spikes growing up every inch or so along every branch. Upon even closer inspection, we realized that there were large, black rhino beetles (nearly 3 inches long, by 1-1/2" to two inches wide) stuck onto many of the spikes. This made us curious--did birds catch them, then impale them upon the spikes for later eating? Did the tree itself somehow lure them into becoming lanced? I didn't think I'd ever heard of a carnivorous acacia tree, so we ruled that out...We did not figure out the answer to the riddle until after nightfall, when the lights around the trees came on and we realized they were impaling themselves on the spikes as they were flying towards the lights. It was a pretty gruesome sight, especially just before dinner...It sort of put us off our feed a bit...which was pretty lucky in the long run.
Dinner was quite the adventure. It was mutually agreed that it was one of the most interesting meals any of us had ever had. In our lives. The meal itself was simply a beautifully prepared piece of veal, but it came with an unusual ingredient--beetles. No, they weren't in the sauce, but they were practically everywhere else. Chris started it. He walked in, sat down, went to pull a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and WHAM! One of those Amazon-sized beetles landed right on his shoulder. He yelped, jumped up, swiped it off, and then everyone began noticing that these things were landing on practically everyone else like a bomber division. Did you know that screaming sounds the same in every language? Whenever anyone tapped you on the shoulder, or pointed, you knew exactly what they wanted to tell you: that something had landed about your person. The beetles made everyone in the dining room paranoid, looking over their shoulders, and up at the ceiling and the walls (where you would notice the lizards). After a few stiff drinks, though, everyone seemed to get used to it. The dinner itself was very fine.
Mum and I went back to our room and got in under the mosquito netting, listening to the sounds of the animals outside. Chris went back to his room to write about the day, sat down at the desk in his room, got out a pen, opened his book and WHAM! The largest flying wasp he had ever seen took a nose-dive toward his face. He hit the wasp pretty hard with the book, but he only seemed to stun it and watched it fly away...
April 21, 1986
In the morning, we were really impressed by the "Big Sky" of Kenya. It seems to overshadow the savannah in its immense size and depth...The drama of the rolling cloud cover and the colours of dawn playing over them like fingers of fire were breathtaking, like nothing we'd seen before.
We left Salt Lick Lodge early this morning, well not as early as we'd hoped. Our "Columbia Professor" was over an hour late...for what reason, we have no idea. Considering he seemed to only have one set of clothes and a small backpack, what could have kept him--we afraid to ask. What we DID know was that Rajid was going to have to make up that time on the road.
We didn't get to see much, considering we were driving along rutted dirt roads at over 50 mph, spewing dust. I think I left my spleen somewhere out there as well. We travelled about 30 miles to where we would be staying that night, the Kilaguni Lodge. Chris has been particularly interested in the monkeys. He loved watching the baboons climbing into the terrace dining room and stealing bread off the tables. Rajid explained that these were the smaller, friendlier baboons than those found in Northern Kenya (where we were headed). Chris hoped this didn't carry over to the insects as well :-)
One interesting sight we saw early on this morning's game drive was a pair of mating lions. Rajid explained that lions only mate for seven days (non-stop) out of the year. They don't eat, hunt or do anything else. This lovestruck pair were right by the side of the path with no thoughts of anything but love on their minds! Chris got them on video.
April 22, 1986
Today we arrived at the Amboseli Serena Lodge. It was a thatch roofed concrete structure located deep in the Masaai Mara Game Reserve. Masaai is the name of the tribe that used to control this part of the country until it became a democracy. Our first encounter with them began with a "do not photograph" warning from Rajid. He explained that the Masaai have become quite commercial and they will only allow you to take their photograph if you give them $50 shillings (about $7 US). The government backs them up, so you either pay them or pay a fine. I really didn't have problem with the idea. They should get something out of preserving their culture and traditions...
Today's game drive was very fine, though. We managed to find two rhino, more elephant and an eagle. We also saw more lions and cape buffalo, plus a lot of other animals. At one point today, we were allowed to leave the van and walk around at a small pool in an outcropping of tall trees. Beneath those trees were a large family of black-faced vervet monkeys. Mum and Chris became very excited because the monkeys would almost come up and touch you. There were a lot of them, even little babies still suckling their mother's breast...It is such a treat to look another species in the eye, and understand that it is aware of you, unafraid, and willing to interact. It was a special moment.
There were a lot of shots that were impossible to take this afternoon...one in particular of two lionesses stalking cape buffalo about 150 metres out and another sighting of a buffalo calf that was clearly going to die soon. It was very sad.
April 23, 1986
Today we travelled to the Mountain Lodge, way up in the mountains at 7,200 feet above sea level (Hey--this is pretty high up for Africa.) It was very much a lodge and I loved it. The ride here was a good eight hours, with a two hour layover in Nairobi. On the way, we passed through a town and had stopped to take a photo of a mosque. We had already snapped off a few shots when a man stuck a shirt in front of Chris' camera in an antagonizing manner. Rajid went nuts, hopped out of the van and started arguing with him at the top of his lungs. Rajid wanted to take him to the police, but the other townspeople said to just give him a good smack in the head. He later explained that the guy had been smoking a bit too much hooch and was higher than a kite. I'm not sure if that's true, but hey, who cares...let's get going. If Rajid had taken him to the police, the man would have been in very big trouble indeed regardless. You don't mess with the tourist industry.
Later during the same trip, some children threw rocks at the van and again, Rajid pulled a nutty, grabbing the kids and looking for their mothers. It was sort of a waste of time, especially for Rajid who spent all that time trying to get some answers. We all felt it was worth the trip when we got to the lodge, though--wow.
The lodge itself is an old hunting lodge from the British colonial days, complete with the heads of nearly every animal on the Kenyan savannah and rain forest. (That was bit unsettling, but it just wouldn't have been appropriate to be politically correct here in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a mountain.) It was a three story building elevated on huge stilts, but the trees were even higher still! The building had 10 inch wide ledges running the perimeter of the third story which enabled the monkeys to roam freely from window to window right outside. There were warnings to keep the windows completely closed and locked when sleeping or vacating the room or you could expect furry thieves to ransack your room looking for food. The lodge featured a large watering hole behind it where water buffalo, elephants, monkeys, and even a rhino came to frolic in the mud, and I mean mud. It looked like it would have smothered the smaller animals, and the buffalo were covered in it.
April 24, 1986
Chris really had fun with the monkeys here. They were very bold and rambunctious. When Chris awoke, he got up and took a shower, then came back to the room to shave and brush his teeth as there were sinks in the rooms. As he shaved, walking down the ledge outside his room came two of these little guys. They stopped at his window and peered in at him like two young boys at a pet shop. Being cordial and a bit foolhardy, he opened the window, keeping in mind the stories of monkey suitcase riflings. Apparently, the monkeys stood there for a second, then like two kids, jumped up and ran around the corner, but kept looking around the corner at him. Trying to be a gentleman, Chris decided to go out and greet his "guests". They reacted with shy curiosity, but came closer. Chris sat for a moment silently side by side with the smaller one, trying to give it some kind of assurance that he was friendly. Finally it reached up its head and sniffed his hand. Realizing there wasn't any food, the monkey looked directly at my brother, then at the ledge, then back at my brother, then took off. During breakfast up on the third floor, one of them grabbed a roll from a dish on the table and ran to the trees with it.
We traveled to the Samburu Game Lodge today. During our lunch break, we were able to watch some of the Samburu tribesmen and women perform traditional dance and song. We were all shuffled into an enclosed courtyard with seating in a horseshoe to both sides of the entrance. There were about eight men and three women (Chris named the women the Supremes).The leader would explain in very broken English what the dance and song were about, but we could barely understand him. The dancing, songs, and traditional dress were very exciting to see. We were allowed to videotape them as well. I was really impressed by the power of the songs and the height the men could achieve when they jumped.
The game viewing today was terrific. We got our first view of the leopard, dik-dik, Grevy's zebra and a bat-eared fox with a litter. We even got to see a movie, which I had seen before about the Roots, a well known couple, which showed how wildlife photography and films are actually accomplished.
The leopard was extremely difficult to locate. To see him, we had to fight the elements of nature, one being many downed trees which we make some of our own paths to circumnavigate the area. We had glimpsed the cat going around a corner, so we scooted as quickly as we could, turned the corner to find another downed tree. To this, Rajid exclaimed, "Fucking elepunt!" Later, after getting our photos of the leopard, Rajid related, "Eef dare had been a elepunt dare, I wood haf jumped oot und keeked eet."
The leopards a reputed to be the most challenging to find and the most feared cats in any park. Rajid had wanted to see it as much as we did. Most safaris don't get to see them as they are becoming more and more rare. What a day.
April 25, 1986
We arrived at the Mount Kenya Safari Club at about 11:30 in the morning. Chris thought it looks a little bit like Napa Valley...well, maybe slightly. Whatever you say, bud. The club sits on the side of the mountain, its crest visible through the clouds for fleeting moments. The well groomed landscaping is really breathtaking. There are many ponds, at which storks, herons, and peacocks gather. Everything was in bloom and the air had a palpable fragrance of frangipani. It was quiet except for the occasional shriek from a peacock or the softer sounds from the other birds and animals. The place had that colonial British style so familiar to me, with its myriad of little rooms, the little window awnings...it was really quite lovely.
Chris and I visited the animal orphanage, which was part of the game reserve associated with the Club. Chris fell in love with the orphanage's huge Siamese cat -- it made him homesick for Chun Li, the Siamese cat waiting for him at home.
They also had an orphaned baby baboon that was so playful and energetic. It kept grabbing Chris' hands, rubbing its head around his ankles and jumping on him. Chris was smitten and wanted to smuggle the baboon back to America. We got to ride on giant tortoises, and I was able to handle a bush baby. Have you ever seen one? Picture a pair of huge brown eyes the size of quarters glued onto a tiny bit of grey fur, the softest fur you've ever felt. It couldn't have weighed more than an ounce, it was so tiny. We were able to feed the bongos, a very rare antelope and when I went to feed the great crested herons, they rushed me like a group of linebackers, so I took off out of there pen in a heart beat. Laugh if you will, but boy, when you have ten or so 4-foot tall birds running at you in a closed pen, you'd leave too. They were really interesting looking with their gold feathers sticking up off the top of their heads like punk rockers...
We didn't do any game drives today, just relaxed and enjoyed our surroundings. The Mount Kenya Safari Club has an international reputation for its hospitality and dining...we were anticipating something special. Our dinner really was superb, the service wonderfully attentive, and the champagne was pouring. Chris identified another red wine to collect, a "Nuit St. Georges"...We had a lovely time.
April 26, 1986
This morning it was 45 degrees Fahrenheit! Brrrr....a little chilly for all of us. Chris started the day off badly by trying to start a fire in his room (in the fireplace, silly). It took him about an hour to realize that starting a fire with aftershave and paper just won't work. He decided to take a shower in spite of the coolness of the room, but the ever changing temperature of the shower kept you alert if you wanted to keep your more sensitive body parts from being alternately scalded and frozen. Then came breakfast where he spilt tea all over his only clean pair of pants, which naturally were white.
Today we said goodbye to Mount Kenya and moved on to the Lake Naivasha Country Club for lunch. Things turned pretty nasty once we left the Club and headed down the mountain. The four hour long drive through mud, rain and very slippery roads in a stuffy, humid van with dirty windows you could barely see through nearly did us in when we finally saw Lake Naivasha, filled with pink flamingos as far as the eye could see. The hotel is located approximately 300 to 400 metres from the shore, but it was raining so we weren't able to go boating as expected around the lake and islands. It was nice there, though... very hushed and serene... every 30 metres or so there was a huge banyan tree and beneath were benches with beautiful plantings of exotic flowers, but with the rain, it was a bit tough to sit around outside. The bungalows were very nice, very clean. On a nice day, this would have been a splendid place to stay, but there really wasn't much to do in the rain.
April 27, 1986
We left Lake Naivasha, having seen little of it due to the rain, and continued on towards Keekorock Lodge on the border between Tanzania and Kenya. The trip was much better than our last trek through the mud and the weather cleared up beautifully. Our drive took us through the Rift Valley, where the oldest fossils of Man were found. It was an incredible experience coming around the corner and all or a sudden coming into this space. You could feel that something special had occurred there. There were many animals around as the area is part of Hell's Gate National Game Reserve. On our first outing from Keekorock, we found our first pride of lion--sixteen strong. They acted exactly like big housecats, kittens chasing tails, licking each other, play-fighting, etc. They did an awful lot of sleeping, which bored us after a while and we moved on. We returned late to the lodge, with barely enough time to dress for dinner, which turned out to be a big mistake.
We had really bad service and the food was even worse. Chris became very upset and Mum was indignant. Before Chris became too obnoxious, I went out and complained to the desk. Things improved.
After a free bottle of wine, and another bottle of wine, and three more rounds of drinks, we were all a bit tipsy. We weaved our way back to the cabins. We sat on our flagstone porch which was level with the ground. I sat closest to the edge and set my drink down next to the chair. We were talking away, when suddenly I was pushed from the side, my drink knocked over and a zebra walked right across the porch! Then we looked over and watched the whole herd walk between our cabin and the next. Wow! Being a bit hammered, Chris and I had a bright idea to "become one with the zebra". Chris was ahead of me, maybe 5 metres, walking toward the center of the herd. I watched Chris as he raised his hand to touch one of them. The next thing I knew, zebra were heading in different directions very quickly and I barely managed to keep from being trampled. Chris walked back toward me with a sheepish look on his face. We both felt pretty silly, even sillier when the security guard came up and berated us for being stupid tourists, and yelling at us to get back in our cabins.
April 28, 1986
Today's morning game drive started out pretty well, except for the hammering in our skulls from our overdoing it the night before. We saw what was becoming "the usual": gazelles, a couple of giraffe, lions, a hyena or two, some wildebeests, etc. At the border, we stopped to see the hippopotomi. We were all very bored. Hippos are dull. Our afternoon game drive was rained out. We decided to wait in the lounge until dinner, which we thought topped off even Mount Kenya's stellar meal. What a difference from the night before!
April 29, 1986
We left Keekorock Lodge early because we were supposed to leave Warner Shillings at Cotter's Tent Camp near Keekorock, then proceed to Nairobi. Things didn't work that smoothly. We were supposed to meet a jeep at the end of the 10 kilometre road that led to camp. The jeep never showed, so that meant dropping him there. Warner was a real wimp, and we died laughing as the guides told him about all the snakes they had been finding in the camp. Since it was all tents, it was pretty hard to keep them from getting in and the camp was surrounded by a thicket of trees and shrubs...he didn't look like he wanted to stay as we left him to make the mad dash (2 hours late) directly to Nairobi.
Once we arrived back in the city, we had to spend the remainder of the day dealing with bureaucrats trying to get our $19,000 shillings back from Customs. Rajid's employer, Jeremy, assured us he could help us get our money back. We went to the airport, then the freight area of the airport, then a few more government buildings back in Nairobi, to no avail. To our dismay, we figured out at 5:00 PM, that would not see our money until the next day. Jeremy was totally incompetent. I blew up at him and he said he would find someone who could help who worked for another tourist aid company. I was not satisfied. After all, we were destitute by this time and needed cash for the evening. I bullied him into giving us his cash, about $2,000 shillings (about $130 US) to make through the evening. It gave us enough to have dinner in the room, but it was pleasant enough, watching a bit of Kenyan TV, taking a nice long bath and just relaxing.
April 29, 1986
The morning went smoother than expected. We got the check from Customs, then cashed it at Kenyan National Bank, after an hour-long wait. Each time it was due to processing, making copies, etc. The country is underdeveloped--we never saw a computer, except at Western airline counters, and not even one stapler on all these bureaucrats' desks -- they still used straight pins, like the British did before the paper clip was invented.
We gladly left the bureaucracy, paid Jeremy back, and went shopping, got our bags set, ate a nice lunch and took off for the airport.
Louis L'Amour once said something about when you relate your difficult journey to a listener, they always exclaim "What an adventure you had!". Our stay had been very wonderful, sometimes slow and relaxing like during the rains at Lake Naivasha, sometimes filled with heart-stopping excitement, like during the leopard chase at Samburu Lodge. A lot of time was spent inhaling the fresh air, smelling the wafting exotic fragrances of the bougainvillea and frangipani, animal droppings, and the scent of dead things. Time was spent staring at the big sky which, in its ever changing drama of colour and clouds, filled us with awe. The power the weather has over you in a safari situation can be frightening and the distances to safety deceiving. You can watch the rain pouring down heavily a few miles ahead of you and by the time you're thinking, "time to head back", the rain has started and the roads are practically washed away. The sheer numbers of animals, particularly when you see the great herds of wildebeests, fools the eye. The mind says that it's just not possible to have this many animals in one place as far as the eye can see...and still coming. I think the pioneers must have felt the same way when they first saw the great herds of American buffalo on the westerns plains of our fair country...
The ability to see these animals with your own eyes, not in a zoo, not via a television, makes it all the more special. This is their home. You see the nuances of each animal in greater detail, your eyes start to focus on the aspects that distinguish one animal in a species from another.
We were especially lucky to have seen so many young animals. These babies made the trip ever so much more exciting and special than any of us could have imagined. Just incredible. Despite the trouble that occurred, it was worth every convenience, every indignity.
Speaking of indignity -- what is about Man that allows us to think we can do whatever we want with the land? Why can't we share? Is there some way to save these creatures and their habitat? Become a member of the East African Wildlife Society, and help them save these beautiful and oh, so necessary fellow inhabits of our planet Earth.
What an adventure. We left Kenya with a feeling that we had somehow changed, that Kenya had left its mark on us, that we would appreciate these other inhabitants a little more...I think that's reason enough.