Our East Africa adventure marks the start of my soixante-cinq, a mellower way of saying and facing sixty-five. To start the year with a bang, I organize a trip of a lifetime – 15 days on safari in Kenya and Tanzania to see all those amazing animals that have attracted everyone from Stanley and Livingstone to Earnest Hemingway; royalty to remittance men, we’ve all been attracted at one time to the romance that is Africa.
I would not have considered this trip a decade ago; emboldened with experience from a few other adventures and with Kristen, Blair and Christopher as co-explorers, it seems the right time to explore Africa. To have them share the experience raises this adventure to something approaching adventure-heaven.
We arrive in Nairobi on Sunday Dec 15th and, next morning, set off north with Albert, our guide, in a Toyota Land Cruiser for Samburu National Park, a desertlike area halfway to Ethiopia. Five major animal varients are exclusive to the area; we saw them all, the reticulated giraffes were particularly photogenic.
Within days we are old hands and have to restrain ourselves from Experting – a verb Kristen invented to describe tourists who try to show how smart they are by telling a veteran African guide all about Africa. Experters are usually seen in a safari game wagon wearing matching Tilley hats, some with the sale tag still attached. (If you ever see me in a brand spanking new Tilley hat, you have my permission to kill me).
A long drive takes us to Sweetwater, an exclusive resort of tent camps; tents like no other fully lit with showers, toilets, sinks, and with wonderful beds and linen. If this is roughing it, count me in.
Sweetwater is, as Blair describes it, a game park not a game reserve; it is full of game and the animals seem cued by central casting to step out of the brush to greet us when we arrive at their designated spot. We meet my favourite beast, Baraka, an elderly blind black rhino who has been carefully nurtured by his human keepers for the past ten years. In the Darwinian world of kill or be killed, Baraka would not have lasted long. He is the centre point of an eloquent display of the destruction wreaked by poachers, who have slaughtered thousands of elephants and rhinos for their horns. Shooting with Canons is infinitely better than shooting with cannons.
While there is a vastness and resilience to this land, there is also tremendous vulnerability to human predators and to the encroachment by humans on the space wild animals need to survive; it is a delicate balance, complicating the already delicate balance inflicted on animals by Mother Nature. I suspect the animals are losing.
Our tent is perfectly positioned for a view of the sunrise coming over the top of Mount Kenya, the second highest, but toughest climbing peak in Africa. Blair is the lead photographer and has been capturing our adventure with diligence – he’s up at five to capture sunrises – with his tripod and camera bag he has his own weight training program as well.
Chris is capturing moments on his camera as well and is proving to be our best game spotter.
Another long bumpy ride ends near the shores of Lake Naivasha; a quick boat trip into the lake and we add several dozen of the most beautiful African birds to our list of sightings; cormorants, snipes, egrets, cranes, a few flamingos and a glorious African fish eagle. What a joyful, colorful expansion from just game watching. John Bechtold has turned me into a birder and Africa has shown me how marvelous birdwatching can be.
We head to the Masai Mara, the Kenyan extension to the Serengeti at the far northern end of the great Rift Valley – a geological fault line of epic proportions. Our oasis is Mara West, a small exclusive camp of individual cottages with impressive views of the sunrise over the Mara and some of the best food ever, rivaling restaurants anywhere. Albert our guide/driver treats us to two days of game watching; warthogs, black rhinos, buffalo, elephants, topi, wildebeest, etc.
The magnificence and grandeur of the Mara is forever imprinted on my memory with a dawn balloon ride over the valley; we scraped the ground in spots and soared above it in others, spotting our first leopard, a lion pride gorging on a fresh kill by the Mara River, dozens of hippos and other game. The quiet balloon gives us the element of surprise; it is glorious.
Champagne breakfast after, in a field under an Acacia tree, was pure ‘Out of Africa’. In fact, the ‘funeral’ of Robert Redford had been filmed here. Albert had worked for the film company, a minor role carrying Meryl Streep’s extensive wardrobe around. He said she was a true human being, kind, generous, approachable and hospitable; Redford, well, he helicoptered back to Nairobi every night. (I always thought he was too pretty…). I digress…
Mara West is all ours, we are here in the off season, staff and service abounds. John, a Masai, takes us safely to our cottages after dark and admonishes us to stay inside until morning; he now takes us on a nature walk. He can read tracks like we read subway maps; he uses that knowledge to keep himself alive in a world where a spear and a bow seem to offer little protection. In the space of a morning he allows us into his life. I learn to discern elephant droppings from gazelle nuggets; they taste remarkably different. We also visit a ‘traditional’ Masai village where Kristen gets to participate in some welcome songs and we overpay for trinkets, a small ‘tax’ to support a dying way of life.
I love the Mara but we must move on; to Tanzania and the Serengeti. We stay in an isolated lodge on the remote western end where we celebrate Christmas. We drive miles amid clouds of dust and swarms of black flies; if we drive fast we keep ahead of the flies and dust but have to deal with the bone crunching Mara Massage; it’s a worthy trade-off.
The Serengeti lives up to its promise. We witness four separate groups of cats; first a leopard in a tree, sleeping off the nights kill, then a pride of lions, some in a tree and some on the ground lazing away the afternoon. A few miles further, we spot three leopards, almost hidden in tall grass but occasionally raising their heads to scan the horizon for tonight’s feast and finally, a second pride protecting a roadside kill. A mother and two cubs are moving so slowly they seem doped; their bellies are distended and they are obviously suffering from binge eating and the meat sweats, but they won’t leave what’s left of the poor zebra. Like a late night pizza order, there’s enough left over for breakfast.
Another long hot drive brings us to the Ngorongoro Crater Park. Our lodge is in the middle of a Tanzanian coffee plantation, again we feel indulged; there has not been a single hotel/lodge/tent camp that is less than five star – that’s North American five star. We all feel a bit guilty but it has been booked and paid for so we must stick to the program.
The Ngorongoro crater, over 20 kms wide, has reached a surprising ecological equilibrium; tight control of intrusions has not destroyed the delicately balanced ecosystem. We see a Noah’s ark of animals; despite the law of diminishing returns, a few that are new to us. A serval, a beautiful cat hunts for rodents a few meters from our Toyota, as word gets out there is a Toyota stampede rivaling the migration of wildebeests heading for our spot. The serval remains unfazed and hunts away; hunger is the alternative so it ignores our intrusion. I lift my head and see a 600 meter wall of the crater lip surrounding us like a fortress wall. We are in another world; as close to Jurassic Park as I can imagine.
At last, in our last stop at Amboseli National Park, we are in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. Our morning game drive rewards us with elephants. A baby, weeks old, is still trying to figure out how to maneuver his trunk around and so small he can run under mother’s stomach; restless adolescents spar with each other, running around making elephant mischief as the herd heads for water.
I hold off deciding to devote my life to these fascinating mammals. I do commit to adopting an orphan elephant baby, Garzi, just approaching two, at the David Sheldrick Foundation, http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org. Garzi, one of over 30 orphans, will be nurtured and reintroduced into an elephant family when he is able to survive and will be accepted. It seems a small way to support wildlife who had given us such joy.
My senses are overwhelmed with the novelty of it all; I struggle to process all we’ve experienced. My dreams at night are vivid and sometimes scary, presumably my subconscious is also trying to make sense of this, or it could be the dinner…
I have one piece of advice; already clear to me. If you can manage it, take a trip to Africa. It must be seen up close and personal; movies and documentaries will never capture the phantasmagoria that is Africa – a wonderland of sensual overload. If you want to make it extra-special, blow the budget and take your whole family; the shared experiences will fuel a thousand dinner conversations for decades to come.