Sunday, April 29, 2007

8 February: Amboseli to Tarangire

We had a 6 am wake-up call this morning to give us plenty of time to finish packing, put our bags outside our rooms by 7 am, and go to breakfast. I spent a few minutes browsing in the gift shop and bought a small book on common East African birds (by Dave Richards) that proved invaluable. We settled our bill (for drinks and the bush walk) at the front desk and then headed out to the waiting trucks, which were now packed to the ceiling with our big green duffels.

Kilimanjaro was shrouded in a thick fog as we said farewell to Amboseli (with the top down, as our mission today was traveling, not game driving). We had time to stop and look at a couple of hyenas taking a snooze after a long night of scavenging. We drove through the Ghost Camp (a.k.a. Baboon Town) and saw a female carrying her baby and several baboons playing on the soccer goalposts again. We spotted a huge Kori Bustard, a flock of African Jacanas, and lots of cattle egrets. Near the edge of the park we saw three giraffes browsing on acacia – our closest view of wild giraffes thus far.

We passed through the park gate, where brightly-dressed Maasai women called out, “Hi!” repeatedly and tried to thrust beaded necklaces and bracelets through our open windows. We proceeded through a series of ramshackle towns on our way to the Tanzanian border, stopping at a large curio shop to use the bathroom and fill out our Kenyan immigration forms. At the border we stopped to go through passport control on the Kenyan side (I was really tempted to take a picture of the sign that said, “Do not take photographs around here”), then drove about a hundred yards across the border and went through passport control again on the Tanzanian side. The souvenir vendors were pretty obnoxious, but they are forbidden from coming within a certain distance of the immigration buildings. We had to wait in line for quite some time inside the crowded, sweltering building. Then we said farewell to Tonnie (who we will see again in Kenya in five days’ time), met another Micato staffer who would be taking us to meet our Tanzanian safari director in Arusha, and boarded a comfortable air-conditioned bus with seating for fifteen. (We were originally scheduled to fly from Amboseli to Tarangire, but a bridge was out on the road from the airstrip into Tarangire, so we had to drive instead.)

Once in Tanzania we started seeing many more Maasai (I will never get over the sight of Maasai herders talking on their cell phones; Leonard, our bush walk guide, also had one!). We left the rutted dirt roads behind for a while, taking a paved road (with only the occasional bus-swallowing pothole) past rugged mountains, including 15,000-foot Mt. Neru. We passed many Maasai villages en route to Arusha, Tanzania’s fourth-largest city. We stopped at the Arusha Hotel for a lovely buffet lunch, with a fabulous salad bar, delicious curries, tandoori chicken, chickpea stew, and rice pudding and cream puffs for dessert. Here we met Renny (short for Renatus), our Tanzanian safari director, who lives with his family near Arusha. He was not able to meet us at the border because he had just finished a safari in another part of the country.

As we drove out of Arusha, we passed numerous coffee plantations; they grow a local variety of coffee called Robusta. Renny told us a bit about Tanzania’s history and economy. The area that is now Tanzania was colonized by Arabs involved in the slave trade in the 16th century (which is why there are so many Arabic words in Swahili); at the end of the 18th century the Germans arrived and abolished the slave trade. The country originally consisted of Tanganika and Zanzibar, which combined to form Tanzania. After World War II, the area came under British control, and Tanzania won its independence in 1961. The country has an area of 400,000 square miles and a population of about 37 million. The capital city is Dodona, but Dar es Salaam on the coast is the biggest city and the largest commercial center. Renny comes from northern Tanzania, from the Sukuma tribe near Lake Victoria – the largest tribe in Tanzania.

We passed through a beautiful lush landscape en route to Tarangire. Renny pointed out a long, straight, paved road disappearing into the hazy hills and explained that it had been build by the Japanese to provide a smooth tourism route between Tarangire and Ngorongoro. He jokingly called it “the best road in Tanzania” (and probably all of Africa!). Renny explained that we were now in the eastern Rift Valley, which extends 5,000 miles from Turkey to Mozambique, formed by the separation of two massive tectonic plates. As we approached the park we saw our first Baobab trees – magnificent specimens with impossibly thick, ropey trunks. One had a long hole worn through it by elephants, which scrape off the water-retaining bark during the dry months. We bounced along on gravel roads, passing more Maasai homes, and stopped at the park gate to use the restrooms, apply bug repellent, and board a pair of shiny green Micato Land Cruisers.

Game viewing would prove to be difficult in Tarangire because the recent heavy rains had resulted in an explosion of thick, chest-high grass. Renny warned us that we wouldn’t be seeing many of the short-grass grazers like zebra, wildebeest, and gazelles and it would be harder to spot predators and snakes. Our first new sighting was a young male Dik-dik, one of the smallest of the gazelle species, looking decidely cartoonish as it stood wide-eyed and watchful in the middle of the road. We also saw our first impalas - several bachelor males hanging out with a warthog.

Tarangire National Park is known for its birds – and we saw a lot of them! Lilac-breasted Rollers and Helmeted Guinea Fowl were common on our drive in. (The latter competes with the Red-necked Spurfowl as the dumbest bird in Africa – they seem to prefer scampering along desperately in front of the truck instead of taking flight; right when you think you will have to run them over, they finally dart into the grass along the side of the road.) We saw the flooded bridge that we were supposed to have taken on the way from the airstrip and got a kick out of the sign blocking the road that said, “Out of Order.” We saw our first African Sausage Tree, which has fruit that look exactly like, well, giant white sausages. Apparently they are mildly alcoholic and the animals that eat them can get a little tipsy on their juice.

We watched several elephants browsing in the marshy grasses along the Tarangire River, which was swollen almost to the tops of its banks. The tall palm trees and unusually lush vegetation made for a very prehistoric-looking scene. We stopped to watch a Dik-dik pair by the side of the road – I believe they mate for life, or at least until one makes a tasty snack for a lion or leopard. Renny pointed out a giant Baobab tree with a large hole carved out of its trunk; poachers used to hoard their elephant tusks in such spots.

My bird list grew rapidly as we continued into the park: Ring-necked dove, Speckled Mousebird, White-headed Buffalo Weaver, Magpie Shrike, Gray Hornbill, Woodland Kingfisher, Ashy Starling. The road was almost impassable in spots, which made jotting down bird names quite a difficult task!

Tarangire National Park covers 1,000 square miles and is home to a laundry list of Africa's most dangerous snakes - Black Adders, Green Mambas, Tree Pythons, Cobras, Black Mambas (which will "kill you in seven steps" and are the most dangerous because they move so fast), and the dreaded Boomslang, whose venom is the most deadly, but is fortunately quite shy.

We crossed several dry riverbeds, driving through deep sand, and finally had our sighting of the day – two pairs of black-backed jackals, which trotted right up to our trucks. They were gorgeous animals, their coats gleaming in the late afternoon sun. They looked at us curiously for several minutes before continuing on down the riverbed. We saw a tree laden with weaver-bird nests, a large harem of impala watched over by a regal-looking male, and two more warthogs (the official comedians of the African plains).

Finally, after nearly ten hours on the road, we arrived at Tarangire Sopa Lodge. The cavernous main building resembles an elephant’s head and the rooms are built to look like large Maasai huts. Our room was not nearly as nice as at Amboseli Serena lodge. For one thing we had two double beds instead of a single king, and the bathroom was aged and a bit on the grimy side. We did have a nice balcony overlooking the pool and surrounding woodlands – I figured a leopard was probably out there somewhere, watching us. We saw a funny small rodent-like animal crouching on the roof and later determined that it was a Rock Hyrax, which is the closest living relative of elephants. We had seen something jumping around in the trees at night at Amboseli (not a monkey) and Renny figured that it was probably a Tree Hyrax or a Bushbaby. The hyrax are quite cute – they look like a cross between a squirrel and a koala bear.

We had forty-five minutes to clean up before our safari briefing at 7:15. It had been a long, hot drive so I was very happy to take a refreshing shower. We met the group for drinks (courtesy of Micato) in a private room in the main building and after downing two large vodka tonics I felt much better. Renny gave an overview of the Tanzania portion of our trip, and then we went to dinner in the large dining room. The meal was rather ordinary – cream of vegetable soup, a rather sparse salad buffet, and a mediocre selection of meat entrĂ©es, but there was a nice sherry trifle and coconut cake for dessert. When we returned to our room we were surprised to be escorted by a hotel employee (although we found out in the morning that not everyone got an escort!). We are just spending one night in Tarangire, so we will pack up again in the morning, go on a game drive, and then press onwards to Ngorongoro.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

7 February: Amboseli

I woke up at 4:30 am and couldn’t go back to sleep; I guess I was just too excited about continuing our safari! Our wake-up call came at 5:45 (right as I was drifting off again) and we rolled out of bed and dressed quickly for our pre-breakfast game run. It was still dark and cool and we were glad we had our fleeces and windbreakers, especially with the brisk breeze coming into the open trucks. A few minutes after leaving the lodge we stopped to watch the sunrise. Kilimanjaro was clear but hazy; the mountain appeared as a periwinkle mass against a pale peach sky. Slowly the huge orange orb of the sun levitated over the distant horizon, shining brighter and warmer as it rose. As the first rays hit Kilimanjaro, the snows on the western face of the mountain gleamed gold. We spotted an elephant train in the distance and drove towards it, stopping to capture some amazing images of the elephants silhouetted against the sunrise. (Of course I had to stop mid-stream to change the memory card on my camera!)

We came upon another group of elephants and watched them for a while as the sun rose higher. The morning light glinted off their tusks and transformed their wrinkled hides from dark gray to golden brown. The elephants moved slowly and silently, gazing at us with mild curiosity as they reached out with their amazingly dexterous trunks to twist off great bunches of tender grass.

We saw our first of many Superb starlings (why can’t starlings in America be iridescent turquoise and orange?) and a Lilac-breasted Roller (a beautiful purple, blue, and green bird so named for the way it “rolls” in flight), along with another jackal and a warthog on our way to a lake surrounded by marshes, where waterfowl were plentiful and active. I was quickly establishing a reputation in our group as the bird freak. I’m not sure why I like birds so much – I suppose it’s in my blood because my grandfather was an ornithologist. I also like the challenge of trying to get good photographs of creatures that tend to fly away as soon as you get focused on them. We saw a Sacred Ibis, an unmistakable bird with a black head and black curved bill, white body, and black-tipped wings, and then a Black-winged Stilt with bright red legs. Out in the shallow water we saw a small flock of Greater and Lesser Flamingos feeding. Then I got a great shot of a Little Egret in breeding plumage, and we saw our first of several dark brown Hamerkops, a very distinctive stork-like bird named for its hammer-shaped head.

Next we drove through an area known as Ghost Camp, an old lodge that was flooded so frequently by the rising lake that it was abandoned. It has been taken over by a population of baboons, who seem to enjoy the playground left by the silly humans. They were climbing on the goalposts in the soccer field and lounging around on top of fences and buildings everywhere we looked. We saw more Hamerkops and then headed out into the grasslands again, where we encountered another large elephant family. This group included several adults with only one or even no tusks, and we saw several youngsters with no tusks that were old enough to be developing them. This is a genetic anomaly that does not impair the females but can be disastrous for males because they cannot fight or defend themselves against other males. There were several tiny babies in this group. I loved watching them nurse and interact with their older family members. On our way back we saw several gazelles, a Gray-headed Kingfisher, and a gorgeous rainbow-colored lizard.

We headed back to the lodge around 9:00 for breakfast – an ample buffet with eggs made to order. Then DH and I signed up at the reception desk for the 10:30 nature walk ($15 per person). As we were walking back to our room, we were intercepted by one of the Maasai men roaming the grounds. He invited us to the afternoon dance performance and lecture, then asked if we wanted his picture. I said O.K., and DH took the photo. Not surprisingly, the Maasai man then asked for a little money. (The irony is not lost on us that the Maasai do not like having their photo taken because they think it will steal their soul, but apparently you can buy their soul!) I gave him 100 shillings (a little less than $1.50), and he asked for more, but that was the only small bill I had.

We met our Maasai guide, Leonard, at 10:30 and were joined on the walk by three Germans, two Canadians, and a French man. We left the lodge grounds via a narrow footpath, walking right past a sign that said, “Animals only beyond this point.” Leonard asked our names and where we were from, then immediately determined that I would be his future wife. It was obviously his regular shtick but it was quite funny nonetheless. He wanted me to answer all of his questions about elephants (length of gestation period, how long they live, etc.), apparently to determine if I was savvy in the ways of the bush. Later in our walk, Leonard asked DH if he would trade me for 10 cows. DH put his arm around me and said, “She’s a very good wife.”

We learned a bit about some plants growing in the area, and that elephants will eat acacia bark during the dry season. We passed a spring and saw a bunch of weaverbirds building their round, hanging nests. There were two Maasai women washing clothes at the spring and Leonard asked us if we knew why one of the women was wearing all black. He told us that it meant that she was just circumcised and is now ready to be married. The black is a warning that she cannot be with any men during this time. Leonard then explained that the Maasai have come to an agreement with the government to phase out female circumcision over the next three years.

We passed a small pond ringed with hippo footprints and their characteristic “sprayed” excrement, which is how they mark their territory. Along the way we saw Pied Crows, a Black-headed Heron, an Abdim’s Stork, a Sacred Ibis, a brilliant orange and black Red Bishop, more Superb starlings, and another Lilac-breasted Roller. In the distance, a lone Maasai man walked across the plain with that characteristic long stride.

We came upon three Maasai donkeys, as well as some cattle and goats, although I saw no sign of the little boys who probably should have been watching them. We passed a small village, which I presume is the home of most of the Maasai men we’ve seen around the lodge. It was a circle of grass-roofed huts surrounded by a thick fence of branches. Several small children peeked out of the gate at us, but we kept our distance. We walked across a barren grassland, dotted here and there with the occasional acacia tree. At the end of the walk we were brought cold drinks and watched a long train of giraffes way off in the distance, almost at the base of Kilimanjaro. They looked positively dinosaur-like as they moved along with their slow, undulating gait. We got a ride back to the lodge and gave our thanks to Leonard before heading to the dining room for a light lunch with MIL and FIL (a repeat of yesterday’s buffet).

The weather so far has been perfect – the sun was hot on our walk but there has been a light breeze and the temperature is probably in the mid-70s in the shade. After lunch we talked to Tonnie for a bit about some of the conflicts that the Maasai face in the modern age. Maasai children are now required by the government to attend school; families who do not comply are fined a cow, the Maasai’s most valued possession. Educated children tend to leave home in search of jobs, and Maasai girls who attend school are more likely to oppose traditional facets of their culture, such as arranged marriages. Thus ironically, education endangers the traditional Maasai culture more than anything else. The Maasai have traditionally been semi-nomadic, moving in search of the best grazing lands for their livestock, but this is no longer possible for many of them. They have also had to be convinced not to kill lions, which occasionally kill their livestock. Killing a lion is seen as a tremendous act of bravery for young Maasai warriors.

After lunch our Maasai friend came by again and asked us to attend the dance performance, but Tonnie had told us that we would be going to a Maasai village later in the trip and shouldn’t feel obligated to attend the performance here, so we politely declined. We spent an hour or so just sitting on the patio enjoying the peaceful afternoon. On our way back to our room we watched two vervet monkeys tussling on the ground, pulling each other over in somersaults and back flips.

We left at 4:00 for our afternoon game drive. En route, Tonnie (who alternates between our two vehicles in the mornings and afternoons) told us how the Maasai acquired their famous red plaid blankets. The Scotsman Joseph Thompson was one of the first European explorers in East Africa in the 1880s. On his expedition into Maasai country (so the story goes), a chieftain was very impressed by Thompson’s red plaid kilt and allowed him to enter the Maasai lands. (The Maasai believe that red frightens predators, so you almost always see them wearing some article of red clothing.) Recognizing this penchant for bright red fabrics, Thompson returned on his next expedition loaded with red plaids for all of the Maasai chieftains that he met, thus ensuring safe passage across their lands. They've been wearing the plaids ever since.

Tonnie also told us a little more about Amboseli. It was originally established in 1964, encompassing an area of 1,000 square miles. Unfortunately this included many Maasai lands, and the Maasai began killing off the rhinos and lions in protest. In 1969 the government began negotiating with the Maasai and in 1974 the park was reduced to its present size of 151 square miles. Unfortunately there are no rhinos left in Amboseli, and all of the lions were killed, but lions were reintroduced in the mid-1990s and there are now four or five in the park.

This afternoon we saw our first waterbuck from a distance, four wildebeest (the most we have seen at one time so far!), a hippo, and more elephants browsing in a swamp, including an adorable youngster, probably only a few months old, that looked just like Dumbo. We also witnessed a large bull elephant urinating, which, I have to admit, is something to see. I had somehow missed seeing the “fifth leg” on a bull elephant yesterday evening, so J wanted to make sure I saw it this time. We continued to tell jokes about the infamous fifth leg (which can weigh upwards of 50 lbs) throughout the trip. Later on we saw several African Jacanas (also known as “Jesus birds” because they can literally run across water), two Yellow-necked Spurfowls, and a Collared Pratincole. We spotted three giraffes, their heads and necks visible above the acacia trees, but they were quite far off. We passed through an anti-elephant enclosure where they are studying the effects of elephant browsing (or lack thereof) on the acacia. Not surprisingly, within the enclosure, the acacia are much more dense than outside.

We drove across a savanna area heading straight toward Kilimanjaro, which was looking just gorgeous rising above a circle of clouds. We spotted two more warthogs and then a Secretary Bird – very distinctive with its gray and black plumage and bright orange eye area. It is supposed to resemble a secretary, wearing a black skirt and red lipstick, and its long tail feathers were once prized as writing quills. The road took us through a sizeable herd of zebra, intermixed with a couple of wildebeest and another pair of Crowned Cranes. It was an amazing sight – the brilliant black-and-white zebras against the lush green grass, with Kilimanjaro looming in the distance. Here we also saw red-billed oxpeckers doing insect duty on the backs of zebras.

We stopped to climb Observation Hill (a.k.a. Baby Kilimanjaro), which involved a nice brisk walk up 150 steps to a lookout pavilion with an incredible 360-degree panorama of the park. Directly in front of us was a large lake and swamp, which was teeming with hippos. Two elephants had climbed onto a rocky promontory below us, apparently to get a better view as well. We took a bunch of pictures and then walked back down the hill to enjoy our first sundowners in the bush. Several elephants were browsing nearby and some people from other vehicles were getting rather close – too close, Tonnie told us. Joel, Tonnie, and the other driver (whose name I didn’t seem to write down) set up a little table and served us beer and wine while we took turns taking each other’s pictures in front of the elephants, at a safe distance.

As we drove away, we watched a magnificent sunset behind Observation Hill. I stood at the back of the truck, holding on tight as we bounced over the potholes, buffeted by the wind, and admired the view. As darkness fell, we saw a hyena and then two lionesses (most likely the same ones as last night). They were lying in the grass again; one of them yawned and got up, walked a short ways, and lay back down. It was after 7 pm, so after watching them for a few minutes we had to hightail it back to the lodge. We tidied up and went to dinner – salad, minestrone soup, vegetable quiche, and beef filet.

After dinner most of our group watched an excellent video about the Amboseli elephants, documenting the work of a woman who has been studying them for more than 30 years (she lives for part of the year in a tent inside the park). The film followed a particular family led by a female matriarch named Echo. She had a calf named Ely, who was so big that his front legs had not developed properly. When he was born he could not walk, and literally shuffled around on his knees. His family stayed with him for several days until finally he was able to get his feet under him. A young (11-year-old) female in the group gave birth during a terrible drought and her baby was sadly stillborn. Another baby was suffering during the drought, and its mother tried to lift the baby with her trunk in a vain attempt to get it into the shade. Tragically it died soon after. Every year, the researcher returns to Amboseli and seeks out Echo and her family to see how they are doing. Tonnie told us that Echo is still around (the film was made in 1991) and doing well. Perhaps we saw her out there in the savanna, leading her family to the next watering hole...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

6 February: Let the Safari Begin!

We were up at 5:20 am and had breakfast brought to our rooms (fresh fruit, toast, and pastries). Our bags were picked up outside our door at 6:00 and we were out in the lobby at 6:45 to hop on the Micato bus for the short ride to Wilson Airport. We went through security at the airport and I almost forgot that I had a mini Leatherman in my carryon. I ran back to find my duffel (thankfully we bought two small, colored combination locks for our bags at the last minute; not only did this allow us to lock our bags every day but we could also identify our bags easily) and put the knife in the side pocket. It turns out they were just doing a hand search and they didn’t even check the pocket of my backpack where I had the knife. They also had no problem with us taking liquids on board. While we waited for our flight, Tonnie passed out goodie bags with earplugs (which I never found necessary) and candy. We admired a big 4-engine prop plane sitting on the tarmac in front of us, assuming it was our ride, but when it was time to board we walked right past it. We figured we must be getting on another 4-engine plane just behind the first one, but again we kept walking right on by. We were starting to joke about which bucket o’ bolts we were actually flying in when we finally approached a little Air Kenya Twin Otter tucked behind the other planes. It was a 2-engine, fixed-gear prop plane with seating for about 15 – and a tight squeeze at that! The rows were three across, with one seat on the left side of the aisle and two seats on the right, and we could see right into the cockpit. Our flight at 9,500 feet was surprisingly smooth, and we watched an amazing green landscape unfold beneath us. Everyone got very excited when the pilot pointed to the hazy peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro out the front windshield.

After a 35-minute flight, we landed at Amboseli. As we came in I saw several flocks of pelicans and a hippo lounging in a lake – wow! We landed on the single paved runway – in retrospect I’m not sure it was long enough for those big 4-engine planes. The “airport” consisted of a cement block hangar and shed with a ramshackle bathroom (with running water!) out back. A line of safari vehicles sat waiting for arriving clients. A large sign announced our GPS coordinates and a few facts about the park: Amboseli is 390 square kilometers in size, it became a national park in 1974, its highest point is 1,150 meters, and it boasts 56 animal species and 215 bird species. We all visited the bathroom (first rule of safari: avail yourself of every toilet opportunity!), then piled into our two spiffy Toyota Land Cruisers, complete with snorkels, which are customized to extend out over the back wheels, seating two up front and six passengers in the rear, in comfortable captain-style seats. The pop-tops were open and we realized that Tonnie was serious when he said the drive to Amboseli Serena Lodge was going to be our first game drive. DH and I got into the truck driven by Joel, along with N&D and R&C, while MIL and FIL got into the other truck with J&H and R2&B. (This happened by chance, but it occurred to me that one of the advantages of a group tour is that we wouldn’t be with MIL and FIL every minute of every day – no offense to my in-laws, whom I love dearly, but this probably preserved our sanity!) Joel gave us our first lesson in Swahili, teaching us the two most critical words on safari: “simama,” (sounds like “see mama”) which means “stop” (as in, “ohmigod, I just saw something amazing, stop the truck!!”) and “sawasawa” which means “all right,” as in “O.K. I’ve taken my pictures, you can go on now.”

As we drove away from the airstrip, Mt. Kilimanjaro appeared as a vague white apparition rising above the clouds: our safari had finally begun. Our first wildlife sightings were a loner male wildebeest, a couple of Thompson’s gazelles, and an ostrich. A little further on we saw two ostriches mating. Male ostriches’ necks and legs turn bright pink during mating season. Next we saw a migratory European Stork and several Egyptian Geese. The latter were introduced to eat the over-populated beetles that were introduced to eat the water hyacinth, a terribly invasive species in Lake Victoria – a convoluted story of ecosystem mis-management. Other bird sightings included a white pelican and the aptly named Blacksmith’s Plover, which is a lovely black, gray, and white bird that looks like it’s wearing a blacksmith’s apron. We saw several pairs of stunning Crowned Cranes (the national bird of Uganda), including a family with two fuzzy nestlings flopping around. These incredible birds mate for life, and it was marvelous to watch the pair feeding their young in the tall grass. A hippo surfaced in the lake just beyond the crane family, making for a spectacular tableau.

We passed several small herds of zebra, all on their daily trek to their watering holes. I’ve always loved horses so I have to admit that zebras are among my favorite African animals. We saw several elephants way off in the distance, then more gazelles – both Thompson’s and Grant’s (which can be distinguished by the size of the white patch on their rumps – the Grant’s rump patch is larger and extends up onto the hips), and a huge old male Cape Buffalo lying in the grass, looking more forlorn than deadly (they are considered the most dangerous animal in Africa). We were struck by how green the landscape was; Tonnie had told us that they had experienced unusually heavy rains in December and January – in fact, it had only stopped raining a few days before we arrived. We drove past “Baby Kilimanjaro,” a low hill crowned by an observation hut that was used as a lookout by game wardens back when poaching was more common, and stopped to gaze at a convention of blue herons all clustered around a rotted log. We spotted more elephants way out in a marsh, then finally we got up close and personal with a lone bull elephant, who thoughtfully showed off every angle for us as he browsed in the tall grass.

We saw many more zebras, including some young foals, and watched them gallop across the plain, kicking up clouds of dust as they went. One group was standing stock-still, all staring off in one direction, and we hung around for a while, hoping we might catch a glimpse of whatever had put them on alert. This was near an area of date palms were lions and cheetahs like to hang out during the day, but no predator appeared. We passed another bull elephant browsing in the marsh, surrounded by white cattle egrets that were busy pecking at the insects stirred up by the elephant. As we approached the lodge, we stopped to admire an amazing panorama of zebras and gazelles grazing amidst the graceful silhouettes of acacia trees, all set against the backdrop of Kilimanjaro.

We spotted the electric fence marking the boundary of Amboseli Serena Lodge and passed a group of young Maasai men wrapped in brilliant red and purple blankets sitting near the entrance gate. On our way in we saw black-faced vervet monkeys romping beneath the trees, including a mother with a baby clutched to her chest. After unloading, we were greeted with glasses of refreshing fruit juice, then we waited in the reception area for Tonnie to get us checked in. The lodge is something out of a tropical fantasyland. The main building has high-ceilinged rooms open on one side to the cooling breezes, with comfortable rattan furniture and long, hollowed-out gourds hanging in clusters from the ceiling (some made into fabulous lamps). Outside, there are several tiers of large stone patios outfitted with comfortable lounge chairs all looking out into the bush. We followed the porter through the lushly landscaped grounds to our room, set amidst thorny acacia and candelabra (cactus) trees. Our room was decorated in yellow, blue, and red, with some marvelous touches including Maasai beaded lampshades, an elephant mural on the wall, and a small private patio with a view out to the grasslands.

After settling in, we all met back at the dining room for lunch, which was an excellent buffet with lots of curries and other Indian- and African-inspired dishes. I tried the roast goat (delicious!) and loaded up with chicken curry, lentils, veggies, and rice. The salad bar was also very good. Tonnie told us that all of the fresh produce is washed in bottled water, so we could help ourselves to all the raw fruits and vegetables. After lunch DH and I wandered around the grounds, admired the inviting pool (which we never had time to enjoy), and looked for monkeys, but didn't see any.

We met out front at 4:00 for our afternoon game drive. At first we saw only a few elephants, ostriches, wildebeest, and gazelles. We passed through an area scattered with elephant bones and Joel explained that elephants often come back to their dead and spread the bones around, sometimes picking them up and seeming to play with them. Some researchers believe that elephants can identify the bones of their relatives. We saw another family of Crowned Cranes, this time with three babies, and then two jackals trotting across the plain. We saw our first warthog, running along with tail held high. Joel explained that the warthog has a brain like a chicken – they start running when they are frightened, but they quickly forget why they are running and stop, at which point they often become a lion’s meal. Joel’s eagle-eyes also spotted a saddle-billed stork making a nest in the top of a large acacia tree. This is a striking black-and-white bird with a brilliant red-and-black bill. Other bird sightings this afternoon included Crowned Plover, Helmeted Guinea-Fowl (which has a dinosaur-like horn on its head), and a Hadada Ibis with brilliant iridescent green plumage.

Finally, it was time for the main event: elephants! Amboseli has a population of some 1,300 elephants, which certainly is not a huge number, but they are contained within a relatively small area and thus this park boasts some of the best elephant-viewing opportunities in East Africa. As luck would have it, we saw several hundred of them over the course of this single evening. (I’m sure the drivers know exactly where to be, but it sure seemed lucky to me!) We stopped alongside a vast marshy area where several large family groups were browsing. We pulled off onto the side of the road, and waited. Slowly, the elephants started moving out of the marsh and across the road – in front of us, behind us, until soon there were elephants all around us – to head into the woods for the night. Mostly the groups moved in peaceful, well-organized trains, with the matriarch at the head and the young sheltered protectively between their mothers, older siblings, and aunts. Several of the babies were so young that they didn’t even have the beginnings of tusks – these were just a few weeks to a few months old. One matriarch had tusks so long that they almost reached the ground. We saw some amazing interactions, including two males that faced off on either side of the road and sparred with a great clatter of tusks for several moments. Another face-off between three bulls involved a lot of trunk-raising and a brief clash; two of the males backed off and it was over almost as soon as it began.

I couldn’t believe how close we were to these magnificent creatures – I could see the tiny wrinkles around their wise, solemn eyes, every rip and notch in their enormous flapping ears, and the caked mud and dirt on their broad, humped backs. They walked silently, on huge spongy feet. We watched for a long time, as the sun dropped low in the sky, casting long shadows across the golden grass. One by one the elephants disappeared into the gathering dusk. I don’t think I could ever tire of watching them. Finally, it was time to move on.

Joel took us back to the date palms where he assured us that we would see a lion. How did he know? We soon began to realize that the drivers communicate with one another via radio and cell phone, informing each other about the best sightings. They speak in Swahili of course, so we have no idea what they are saying, we just know that something’s coming! On the way we saw a huge herd of Cape Buffalo. Then, just like magic, as the sun was casting its last rays across the plain, we spotted two lionesses lounging on a bare patch of ground, maybe 200 yards from the road. The setting sun literally glowed on their whiskers. What an incredible end to our first day!

Joel rushed us back towards the lodge, as it was approaching the “witching hour” when all vehicles are supposed to be off the roads. Somehow he timed it perfectly so we could get our ultimate sunset shot of a magnificent acacia tree silhouetted against a lazy brushwork of clouds tinted with gold and peach. Once we got our shots, Joel held up a page from a park magazine so we could compare our photos with a shot of the exact same tree in the magazine. We all agreed that our sunset was better!

Back at the lodge we were handed cool lemon-scented towels to wipe away the dust. We had drinks with MIL and FIL on the patio and then joined the group for dinner. Dinner was a five-course affair: salad from the buffet, minestrone soup, a mini pizza with eggplant, and a choice of entrĂ©es. I had Nile perch with dill sauce and DH had pork with mustard sauce. The service was a little slow and they didn’t bring the mustard sauce for the pork until DH had almost finished eating. Frankly we liked the lunch buffet better. We shared a bottle of wine with J&H and shared travel tales. After dinner we showered and were off to bed to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for our 5:45 wake-up call.

Brief reflections on our first day on safari: I had no idea we would see so much in a single day. If I had to go home tomorrow, I would feel like I had gotten a glimpse of all that Africa has to offer. One note of realism: I was a bit depressed by the “traffic jam” that was created when everyone flocked to see the elephants this evening. In some cases trucks actually got in the middle of family groups and the elephants were obviously agitated at being separated. I was pleased that once our truck found a spot, we basically stayed in one place to watch the show.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

5 February: A Whirlwind Tour of Nairobi

Warning: this will probably be the longest entry of the whole trip. We experienced a little bit of everything that East Africa has to offer in the space of 12 hours: urbanism and wildlife; wealth and poverty; colonialism and tribalism. It was an overwhelming day and one I will never forget.

We were up at 7 am and had breakfast with MIL and FIL in the Norkfolk’s lovely dining room. There was an extensive hot and cold buffet, with eggs made to order and delicious French-pressed coffee. We ate inside as there was no room on the lovely veranda. We met Tonnie at 8 am for our safari briefing. We sat down and started chatting informally with our fellow safari companions, then did the rounds of introductions (by the end of the day I think I had everyone's names down pat). Our group is twelve in total (six couples); in addition to R & C, we are joined by R2 & B from Illinois, N & D from Pennsylvania, and J & H from Florida. I was not terribly surprised to find that everyone else in the group is at or near our parents’ ages, but it seems like a great group of outgoing, active people and I could tell almost immediately that we were going to get along just fine. After the briefing R said he felt sorry for us being with all the “old fogies,” but I told him, frankly, we just feel very lucky to be here! (I think it is safe to say that R is the official “class clown” of our group.)

Tonnie gave us the lowdown on today’s itinerary as well as an overview of the entire trip, along with some basic “dos and don’ts” (e.g. Don’t drink the tap water. Ever. That means closing your mouth when you shower and brushing your teeth with bottled water, which will be available in every lodge.) He told us we were at an elevation of 5,500 feet in Nairobi but would be descending to 3,600 feet in Amboseli tomorrow, where there would be more bugs, so be sure to wear long sleeves and pants. We picked out our cool Micato safari hats (blatant advertising, yes, but also very comfortable and practical) and then heard from Rakita, a Maasai elder, who was dressed in traditional garb with a characteristic red plaid blanket and beautiful beaded jewelry. Rakita was very proud of the fact that the Maasai are one of the only African tribes to have held onto their culture despite Western influence. We were to observe this sense of pride over and over throughout the trip. The Maasai are just one of forty-two distinct tribes in Kenya. There are between 300-400,000 Maasai in Kenya and about 1 million in Kenya and Tanzania combined, representing about 1% of all tribal people in Africa. The Maasai migrated from Egypt and Sudan along the Nile to Kenya and Tanzania, settling there only in the last 150 years or so, making them relative newcomers. Traditionally the semi-nomadic Maasai survived on a diet of cow’s blood, milk, and meat (although most now supplement their diet with corn and vegetables). Their society is polygamous, with one famous chieftain having 200 wives and some 2,000 children. (Rakita called cow’s blood their Viagra.) Rakita has two wives and wants more (especially an American, naturally).

Maasai men are responsible for obtaining food and guarding the cows and goats; boys are ceremonially circumcised at age 14-15 as a demonstration of their strength and courage, after which they become warriors and grow their hair long (although this practice is disappearing as the boys are required to cut their hair short for school). Around age 25 they get married, shave their heads, and become elders. The traditional roles of women are cooking, taking care of the children, and finding water. (The Maasai also practice female circumcision, but we didn’t learn about that until later in the trip.) We had been warned that the Maasai do not like to have their photo taken without permission, but Rakita told us that we were welcome to take his picture. I started reading The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior by Tepilit Ole Saitoti on the plane; it provides fascinating insight into Maasai culture and the conflict between their traditional lifestyle and the “benefits” of modern society (education, health care, etc.).

After a brief photo session with Rakita (who joined us for the rest of the day's tour), we hopped on a comfortable air-conditioned bus for a tour of downtown Nairobi. On the surface, it looks like a typical bustling metropolis, but when you start looking closely you see some of the ragged edges. There are skyscrapers, but many have broken windows and look like they wouldn’t meet a whole host of modern safety standards. Often we saw phone and computer lines dangling haphazardly out the windows, strung like clotheslines from office to office. There were plenty of well-dressed businessmen (fewer women), but also many shabbily-dressed people just wandering around seemingly aimlessly or sitting on curbs. We passed a slew of government buildings and the former site of the U.S. Embassy, which was bombed in 1998 and is now a memorial park. We passed the city marketplace, a large mosque, the offices of The Nation (the country’s largest newspaper), a huge conference center built to resemble a Maasai hut, and several famous old hotels. The central business district was crammed bumper-to-bumper with cars, trucks, and buses, and of course people, mobs of people, walking everywhere (a trend that we would see all over East Africa). Bright green “City Hoppa” buses were plentiful. Whenever we were stopped in traffic, street sellers came along shoving their wares up to our windows - everything from cheap beaded jewelry and T-shirts to kites and thigh-masters (honestly!). It's a good idea to keep your windows closed and avoid making eye contact. Gorgeous red hibiscus trees bloomed everywhere and we saw lots of “City Council of Nairobi” signs promoting the city’s sponsorship of everything from garbage bins to beautification projects. The city and highways are papered with billboards; even though we knew the official language of Kenya is English, it was surprising to see all of the ads and signs in English with only a few bits of Swahili here and there.

Along the way Tonnie talked about the city's history, Kenyan politics and economics, and the national education system. Nairobi means “cool waters” in Swahili and was originally a swampland; it was planted with eucalyptus trees to absorb the water and now has a population of 3.5 million, making it the largest city in East Africa. Kenya has a British-style government with a house of parliament and an elected president. In 1992 they imposed a presidential term limit of two five-year terms (formerly it was possible to be “president for life”). There is a dearth of educated professionals such as doctors, nurses, and engineers in Kenya because many go to the U.K. or South Africa to find better-paying jobs. For instance, there is only one doctor for every 3,000 Kenyans. Unemployment has dropped from a high of 33% in 2002 but is still hovering around 20%. Children are provided free public education for eight years of grade school, then must pass a national exam to enter high school, for which they must pay tuition (approximately $600 per year). The government provides student loans for young people to attend university.

Our only stop in downtown Nairobi was a place called the Collector’s Den, an arts and crafts shop were we were instructed to “look but don’t buy.” The point was to get an idea for the quality of crafts available and the general prices of goods so we would know what to look for on our trip. Micato must have a special arrangement with this shop as they open only by appointment; the people were very nice in answering all of our questions. Obviously they anticipate that people will do some shopping there at the end of the trip. They have some especially beautiful animal carvings, paintings, and gemstones that were way out of our price range, but we had a nice time looking. We eyed some Maasai spears and batik-printed fabrics and put those on our wish-list. We were hassled a bit by street vendors as we got on and off the bus outside the shop, but we found that as long as you don’t look them in the eye they don’t bother you too much.

Back on the bus we headed out of the city, passing a sprawling slum of corrugated-metal shacks that houses over 500,000 people – one of the largest slums in Africa. Tonnie said that every morning the people come streaming out of the slums looking for work. Many find day jobs in construction. The lack of sanitation in the slums is a rampant problem – there is no sewer system and they have a term called “flying toilet,” which leaves little to the imagination. Some of Kenya’s top marathon runners are helping to fund the construction of toilet facilities in the slums to improve sanitation. (Many of the marathoners come from the Nandi tribe high in the Rift Valley; they are so good at running because as children they have to run many miles to school every day.)

We headed out of the city on paved but heavily pot-holed roads that we soon realized are the norm here. We stopped at the Giraffe Center, home to a group of endangered Rothschild giraffes (distinguished by their white “socks”) from the Rift Valley. Their population was reduced to just 150 individuals due to hunting by farmers because the giraffes were eating crops, but has been brought up to 800 thanks in part to captive breeding. (There are nine species of giraffe in Africa; three in East Africa. The most common is the Maasai giraffe, followed by the Reticulated giraffe.)

At the center we had the opportunity to feed several giraffes, both from the ground and from a special elevated platform. They eat pellets that look like giant rabbit food. Giraffes are vaguely horse-like when you get up close to them, except that they have extraordinarily long, black tongues – the better for reaching between the spines on acacia trees to get at the tender leaves. Their faces and ears are soft and velvety, while their "horns" are covered with fuzzy coarse hair (females' horns are tufted; the males' are not). The giraffes aren’t exactly friendly, and will butt you rather firmly with their heads if you are not feeding them fast enough, but they take the pellets from your hand gently enough. I volunteered for a giraffe kiss, which involves holding a pellet between your lips and letting the giraffe take it from you. It really was not gross at all, honest. But for some reason DH, FIL and MIL all declined the opportunity to be kissed by a giraffe.

The center also has a wonderful display of artwork by local schoolchildren. You can buy a piece of artwork and the money will go to support that child’s education. I purchased a wonderful painting of a zebra that caught my eye. (Unfortunately it accidentally went back to California with MIL and FIL at the end of the trip but as I recall it was painted by a fifth-grade boy.)

We boarded the bus again and drove through a neighborhood of lush, gated estates called “Karen” after Karen Blixen. I was awed by the giant poinsettias (the size of small trees), brilliant pink bougainvilleas, and morning glory vines. This area is what is left of Karen Blixen’s farm, which she tried to preserve for the local Kikuyu tribespeople that she employed. (The Kikuyu, originally farmers from the Mt. Kenya area, number about 6,000,000 now and are the largest tribe in Kenya.) Our next stop was Karen Blixen’s house, where she lived from 1914-1931, attempting unsuccessfully to grow coffee, although a few of her plants remain. We took a short guided tour of the house and learned that many of the details in the film Out of Africa are reasonably accurate, except for the fact that Denis (Robert Redford’s character) was British, not American. Blixen’s story ends sadly; Denis really did die in a plane crash and she returned to Denmark where she died in her 70s, suffering from lung cancer (she was a chain smoker), syphilis and anorexia. The house is full of Blixen’s original furniture and personal possessions or replicas thereof, along with a number of props from the movie. The home is dark and cool, comfortable but not spacious, with a separate kitchen building and peaceful grounds. Blixen was a talented artist as well as a writer and there are some incredible portraits that she made of her Kikuyu friends and servants.

We headed out into the countryside next, driving through a small town where we got our first shock of the harsh realities of life for the typical Kenyan. The town was no more than a string of ramshackle tin-roofed shacks; Tonnie explained that the economy is based around the local slaughterhouse. We saw women selling tired-looking produce from wooden stalls and men hawking small buckets filled with chunks of charcoal, which is used for heating and cooking. A sign on one shack advertised “four-day-old chicks, layers, and broilers.” Another sold cell phones - yes, we saw cell phones everywhere! Glum-looking men sat by the side of the road in small groups, waiting for work. The roads were lined with donkey carts and men pulling carts themselves. Everywhere we went, people stared at us as we drove past in our Micato bus, which could very well be the nicest bus in all of Kenya.

We turned onto the “biggest freeway in Kenya” – three lanes in each direction. If you drive ten hours west you’ll get to Uganda. Vans and trucks here have a speed limiter on them which prevents them from going faster than 50 mph, and for good reason - and not just because of the potholes. People were constantly running across the road in front of us, and cows and donkeys were grazing just feet from the highway. Sometimes we would bear down on someone riding a wobbly bicycle and they would veer out of the way at the last minute. People were cutting the tall grass (for feeding their cows) at the side of the road with machetes. A naked child squatted by the side of the road. I saw a group of women and children sitting together on the ground. One of the young women looked at us and waved; I waved back and she smiled. At one point there was a checkpoint where most cars were being stopped; our driver Ali waved at the officer and we drove right through. We saw churches of every faith imaginable – mostly rickety-looking structures, but some solidly built out of cement blocks. School children walking along the road in brightly-colored uniforms – blue, orange, purple, or yellow – waved and smiled at us as we whizzed by.

We drove through rolling hills of vivid green tea plants and stopped for lunch at a tea plantation that has been run by a British family for three generations. The main house is a simple white farmhouse surrounded by green lawns and gorgeous landscaped flower gardens. We ate lunch outside at a long table shaded by umbrellas; there were several other tour groups eating there as well. Lunch was a buffet of corn chowder, stewed beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, carrots, salad, and delicious creamed corn. For dessert there was homemade vanilla ice cream, lemon custard, and fresh fruit. A woman with another group was celebrating her birthday and shared her chocolate cake with us.

After lunch we sat in the living room and learned about tea-making from the current owner, whose wife’s grandfather came to Kenya in 1918 and planted Asam tea from India. The climate here is well-suited for tea, with more than 50 inches of rain per year and slightly acidic soil. This operation uses no chemicals but they do use fertilizer. Prunings are also left on the ground to fertilize the soil. The tea plants are harvested by hand, so the plants are kept short, although one of the original bushes has been allowed to grow over 20 feet tall. They employ one person for every two acres of tea; at one point the family owned 80 acres but have sold off some of the land. The plants are harvested after 2-3 years and only the very topmost leaves are picked. The tea is oxidized in the sun or with hot air (fueled by wood – they grow eucalyptus for this purpose), at which point it turns dark brown, then rollers crush, tear, and curl the leaves into small pieces while steam is blown through it. Four kilos of leaves produces about one kilo of ground tea. There are many different grades, determined by how finely the tea is ground. The finest grades go to Egypt. Britain purchases Kenyan grade “PF1” tea and blends it with other teas from India and Sri Lanka. The three main buyers of Kenyan tea are Egypt, Pakistan, and Britian, but more and more is being sold to the U.S.

On the way back to Nairobi we passed the new U.S. Embassy (out in the suburbs) and the U.N.’s African headquarters. Picture-taking is strictly forbidden here – the guards watch the cars like hawks and will chase down and confiscate your camera and/or film if they spot anyone taking photos. Back at the hotel we took showers and DH took a short cat-nap. At 5:00 we met out front and got on our bus again for the short drive to the Pintos' house in the hills above Nairobi – which I take it is the equivalent of Beverley Hills. All of the houses have high fences and gated drives, some with guards. The Pintos live in a sprawling, multi-level home filled with incredible African art; it is like walking into a museum. We were warmly greeted by Jane Pinto, who is from Goa, India, of Portuguese and Indian descent. Mrs. Pinto ran a taxi company with a fleet of VW bugs in Nairobi called “Mini Cabs and Tours" - the origin of the name “Micato,” which she started 40 years ago. There are still a couple of her VW Bugs driving around Nairobi.

Before dinner we were served wine in the vast living room and talked a little about our trip preparations. We all expressed concern about the oversized duffels; some people knew their bags were overweight. Tonnie said not to worry because his bag only weighed about 15 pounds. I said that the Micato packing list was somewhat repetitive and mentioned LyndaS's excellent packing list. Mrs. Pinto told everyone to leave behind anything nonessential and to be prepared for early mornings and long days; she warned that we would need a vacation from our safari by the end!

Dinner was an elaborate buffet with Portuguese, Indian, and Kenyan influences. We started with “peanut soup” (pumpkin soup), followed by curry chicken, curried tilapia, bean salad, curried cabbage, steamed spinach with onion and tomato, and rice. My favorite was the chicken curry, but it was all delicious! Our group was divided between two tables; DH and I were seated with MIL, FIL, R2 & B, and Mrs. Pinto. After a while Mrs. Pinto moved to the other table and Tonnie came over and joined us. DH and I talked to him about Kenyan politics, attitudes towards tourists (Tonnie said the locals recognize the trickle-down benefits of tourism dollars), and the pros and cons of being a game warden versus a tour guide. (Tonnie decided the latter would be more interesting, involving more travel and meeting more people.) At the end of the meal Tonnie and the staff paraded out singing a “Hakuna Matata” song (not the one from The Lion King) and carrying birthday cakes for R and MIL. We left promptly at 7 pm so we could get to bed early; we have to be on our way at 6:45 in the morning for our flight to Amboseli!

Friday, April 20, 2007

4 February: Africa, Here We Come!

The alarm woke us up painfully early and we were out of the house and on our way to the Stuttgart airport by 5:45 (on time, for once). We lugged our huge Micato bags from the long-term parking garage to the far end of the terminal, by which point we had determined that the rolling wheels on the duffels are nice but mostly for show, as the bags are incredibly awkward to pull. We checked in at British Airways, went through security and passport control (which we thought was rather odd since we were just going to England, which last I knew was part of the E.U.) and boarded our plane a short while later. There were only about twenty people on our 1 hour-20 minute Sunday morning flight to London. We watched a salmon pink sunrise (left) over cottony clouds, with the Alps forming a jagged line across the southern horizon. We had a strange sandwich for breakfast – a white bun, tasteless cheese, and a cream cheese spread with chives. Must be a British thing. We crossed the English Channel and started descending towards London, passing over mossy green fields framed by neat hedgerows. The fairytale image of Windsor Castle came into view for a few fleeting moments, glowing golden in the morning light. It was unbelievably huge! Maybe I will need to add that to our U.K. itinerary. DH was sitting in the aisle seat and couldn’t see it. He honestly didn’t believe that I had seen Windsor Castle. If only I’d had my camera handy, it would have been an incredible picture. It wasn’t until we were very close to landing that I noticed that all of the cars were driving on the "wrong" side of the road.

Making our connection in Heathrow was not that difficult (heck, the signs are all in English, after all), except that we had to go through security all over again and the line was very long. We had a 10-minute bus ride from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4 and then a short walk to Gate 8, and suddenly there was MIL. I had practically forgotten in the last-minute rush that we would be meeting them at Heathrow. It was quite foggy before we took off, so we were delayed, plus they had to de-ice the wings (it was 0° C in London). We ended up taking off about an hour late. We had a very funny male flight attendant who stocked us up with plenty of white wine. At lunchtime, I asked for the chicken casserole, but he frowned and whispered, “Have the beef Bolognese!” so we took his advice. It was fine, accompanied as usual by way more food than one needs when sitting sedentary for nine hours: smoked salmon and potato salad, a roll, and apple pie with vanilla custard. We were pleasantly surprised to find that we had six or seven movies to choose from. We both watched Marie Antoinette (a little disappointing after all the hype) and The Illusionist (excellent). Our afternoon snack was decent – a beef sandwich with horseradish sauce, fresh fruit, and carrot cake. The service was excellent but sadly they didn’t hand out hot towels like they do on Lufthansa.

We crossed the wide blue Mediterranean and then headed over the Sahara and Libyan deserts. It was an extremely desolate landscape, with dramatic, jagged mountains rising like islands from a copper sea. We experienced a bit of turbulence but nothing stomach-turning. I could see that there was a gorgeous sunset; alas, it was on the other side of the plane. After nightfall, I looked out the window and for long stretches at a time I could seen nothing but pitch black. When I did see lights, they were in small clusters of a strange yellow-orange color – the color of fire.

We arrived in Nairobi right around 10:00 pm, having made up some time en route. MIL and FIL got off before us because they were seated about twenty rows ahead in British Airway’s “premier” coach class (which means you pay about 50% more for a few inches of leg and elbow room). DH and I deplaned and were met by Salma from Micato, who escorted us to immigration. The lines were really long except for the one labeled “Kenya / Africa Residents”; Salma told us we could get in that line. We felt rather conspicuous and FIL and MIL laughed at us (they were waiting in the regular line), but then I noticed that a few other Americans were in line with us as well. Apparently those “in the know” realize that no one really cares which line you get in. MIL got held up for a few minutes because she was asked how long she was staying in Kenya and she mentioned that she was going to Tanzania. First rule of travel: never provide more information than absolutely necessary. Once we got through customs we grabbed our four matching Micato duffel bags and met up with C & R, two of our safari mates who were on our flight. They’re from California and also on their first trip to Africa.

We walked out to the parking lot (noticing how warm it was), where we met Tonnie (sounds like "Tony"), our safari director, and climbed into a white Micato minivan. Tonnie opened a cooler set between the front seats and handed out bottles of water. We couldn’t see much on the 20-minute drive to the hotel. We drove through an industrial area, past a bunch of car dealerships and hotels, and arrived at the Norfolk, the oldest hotel in Nairobi. We sat in wicker chairs in the beautiful reception area while Tonnie checked us in. It reminded me of those Ethan Allen “British classics” commercials and I realized that this is where “British colonial” style actually originated. FIL accidentally left his carry-on in the van but our driver brought it in for him – first gold star already awarded! The Norfolk is a sprawling complex consisting of multiple buildings of varying ages framing landscaped courtyards replete with palm trees, bougainvillea, and hibiscus. Our room was about as far away from the main building as we could get; it had dark cherry furniture, mint green walls, stained pink drapes, two tiny double beds, and a somewhat dilapidated wood-paneled bathroom with a tub and separate shower. We were not too impressed with the room, but we did appreciate the fruit basket, courtesy of the Pintos (the owners of Micato). We did a little laundry in the sink (now I know I’m really going to miss my rubber clothesline), then fell into bed.

2 February: Eine Grosse Katastrophe

Our departure for Africa is less than 48 hours away, and we are not even close to being packed! I’ve revised our packing list a million times, so at least I know what I’m bringing, practically down to my last pair of socks.

As if last-minute packing weren’t enough to worry about, our hot water heater decided that this would be a fine time to break down. DH got up this morning and had no hot water for his shower. We have radiators, so this also meant we had no heat. I had to go next door to our landlady and she called a repairman right away. She asked me if it was too cold in our house and if I wanted to wait at their house but I declined – too much to do! The repairman showed up promptly and set about diagnosing the problem. He had to go get a new part and then came back to finish the job. By mid-afternoon he was done and the place was getting cozy again. I suppose we are really lucky it happened before we left; otherwise it may have gone unnoticed and our pipes might have frozen!

Later this afternoon I was busying myself getting all of our camera equipment together. I found a battery in a desk drawer, still in its packaging, and wondered which camera it was for. It looked to be about the same size and shape as the batteries for my Canon SLR. Without giving it much thought, I slipped the battery into the camera. I instantly regretted this momentary lapse in sanity. I tried to get the battery out again; it was stuck. I had to use the blade on DH’s mini Leatherman to pry it out. The battery was hot to the touch and the battery compartment gave off an acrid burning odor. I had this horrible sinking feeling and I thought, “No, no, no, no, no….I did not just fry my camera.” I put the other (correct) battery back in and switched the camera on. No dice. I waited a few minutes and tried it again. Nope. I got on the internet, found the Canon customer service hotline, and talked to an extremely nice man who sounded like he could be someone’s eccentric uncle. He said to put the camera in a cool, dark place for a couple of hours. Other than that, he said I could send the camera to Canon and they could tell me how much it would cost to fix it. I said I was leaving for Africa in two days. He said, “Oh. I’m sorry.” He suggested that I might be able to get a good deal on the previous model of the Canon Rebel digital SLR because a new one has just come out. I thanked him for his help and hung up.

After getting over the fact that I had just ruined my beloved camera less than two days before perhaps the most important photographic opportunity of my life, I considered my options. For a fleeting moment I thought about bringing our old Canon film SLR, which should be able to use the same lenses as our digital camera. But then I thought about how many dozens of rolls of film I would have to buy, and how much it would cost to get all that film developed, and I realized that it would be about as much as a new digital camera. DH called a short while later and, not being very good at keeping secrets, I told him what happened. He actually responded quite calmly (winning major husband brownie points) and, after thinking about it for a minute, said, “Well, we’ll just have to go out tomorrow and buy a new camera.”

Postscript: So that’s what we did. We dropped off our dog and cat at the Tierhotel on Saturday morning and then, when we should have been packing, we went downtown, shopping at MediaMarkt, Saturn, and a small camera shop. We ended up buying the newest Canon EOS digital Rebel XT, which is called the 400D here, at the camera shop, because it was not much more expensive than the model that we already had. We figured we might as well upgrade to the latest technology. Still, that was about 800 dollars we were not planning on spending. The guy waiting on us was rather shocked to make such a big sale in a matter of about three minutes. He asked if I needed anything else for the camera and was surprised when I said no, but then DH told him that our other camera was kaputt and I added that we’re leaving for Africa tomorrow. We also bought an extra memory card, so I now have enough memory for about 2,000 photos on the SLR and another 1,000 photos on our point-and-shoot Canon. Hopefully that will be enough! We spent the rest of Saturday evening packing. I didn’t go to bed until after midnight, but I was happy, because my bag weighed 30.4 pounds!