Saturday, July 28, 2007

17 February: Mount Kenya to Nairobi to Stuttgart

This is it: the final chapter in what will certainly go down as one of the most memorable experiences of my life. We got to sleep in for once (at least, after two weeks on safari, 7:30 sounds like sleeping in) for our leisurely 9:30 a.m. departure from the Mount Kenya Safari Club. After breakfast DH and I browsed the hotel shops, bought a couple of Tusker beer T-shirts for my dad and brother, and went to the business office to try to get on the British Airways website to pre-reserve our seats. Unfortunately the dial-up internet connection was too slow and the website wouldn’t load, but the nice woman in the office did not charge us for our time. Before loading up, we all posed for one final group photo in front of the Mount Kenya Safari Club sign (in retrospect I wish we had taken one out in the bush, like we did in Tanzania with Renny).

On our way to the Nanyuki airport we stopped by the side of the road, where a rusty hand-painted sign marks the equator, for a photo op and a little “black magic” – a man demonstrating that water drains in a clockwise direction north of the equator and counterclockwise to the south. Of course FIL, who holds a PhD in physics, was eager to explain afterwards that this was all a bunch of hooey. (Don’t bother arguing with him – apparently some folks at MIT have proven that it is indeed a bunch of hooey.) We all took turns snapping the requisite pictures of each other in front of the equator sign. A string of ramshackle market stalls was set up nearby and the vendors kept coming up and hassling us to check out their wares. None of us wanted to do any shopping for once, so we told the men that we had a plane to catch and looked around desperately for Tonnie, who normally would rescue us from such circumstances. He was having a drink in the shade with our drivers so I went over and said, “Uh, Tonnie, I think we want to go!” He got the message immediately and hustled us out of there.

We had to wait for a while at the airport for our big 4-engine prop plane to arrive. I really didn’t like this plane – I was staring out the window at those huge spinning propellers the whole flight. We landed at Nairobi Wilson airport around 11:30, walking past the familiar waiting room where our adventure had begun just two weeks ago. At this point we split into two groups: Tonnie, DH and I, MIL & FIL, and R2&B climbed into two vans to visit the Mukuru slum, while the rest of the group headed off to do some shopping downtown.

I was completely unprepared, psychologically at least, for the long drive over horribly rutted roads into the Mukuru slum. Over the previous two weeks, I had gotten used to the stares that our comparatively luxurious vans and buses garnered as we drove through the villages and towns of East Africa, but this was different. Here we weren’t just passing through on the highway, we were driving into the very heart of the slum, and I had to wonder whether some of the faces staring back at us were more than just curious – were they jealous, annoyed, even angry? Warranted or not, this was the only time I felt uncomfortable about our safety on the entire trip. We were among the only vehicles on the road, and I kept asking myself, “What happens if we get stuck?” It occurred to me that we might be taking two vehicles – when we could have easily fit into one – for precisely this reason.

We drove through endless muddy streets lined with corrugated tin shacks, colorful hand-painted signs hawking all manner of odd goods and services: Cefra Dispensing Chemist, selling drugs and cosmetics…Starehe Beach Hotel, advertising chai and several kinds of “chapoo”…Ebenezer medical clinic, providing emergency delivery, circumcision, family planning, and HIV/AIDS services…a rather shady-looking establishment called the Shades Butchery…Uncle’s CafĂ©, “for delicious food”…a blue-and-white clapboard shack offering “Hair Kuts”...The contrast between abject poverty and First World luxuries was staggering – we passed a field where people and goats were picking through a vast pile of garbage, only to turn the corner to find a video house advertising the day’s soccer games on satellite TV (Chelsea vs. Norwich at 5:30; Manchester United vs. Reading at 8:00). Women in ragged clothes squatted in filth by the side of the road hawking bananas and limes on low wooden tables, while just down the street, a hardware store sold electronics and cell phones. Everywhere we saw people walking with huge buckets on their shoulders – heading to the communal water taps, Tonnie explained, to buy their daily ration of water. Perhaps most striking was the garbage – there are no city services here, and the streets were littered with every manner of paper and plastic waste, rotting food, and probably far worse. A couple of times a year the government comes through and shovels out the trash, but that has little impact when you consider the waste that must be generated every day by the hundreds of thousands of people living here.

Even in this appalling setting, a little light shines through. Everywhere we went, we were chased by children smiling and waving and shouting, “How are you? How are you?” over and over again. We waved back at them, feeling helpless, yet delighted that we could bring a little cheer to their day. Tonnie said that they probably see people “like us” two or three times a month. I wonder if they recognize the Micato vans, and know that Micato is doing something to help.

Micato operates a non-profit organization called America Share which, with the support of their clients, provides food, clothing, school and medical supplies for nearly a thousand orphans across Kenya and Tanzania. They are also in the process of constructing a hostel in Mukuru to provide a safe living environment for orphaned children when they are not in school. We stopped at the building site, on the grounds of an orphanage, where a wonderful man named Benedict showed us around, pointing out the new well and water tank that Micato helped build and the progress on the hostel, a complex of three cement-block structures that will open later this year. We also met several members of a women’s group that raises money by making and selling handcrafts (beaded jewelry and woven handbags) to provide meals and health services to AIDS-affected families. At the end of our visit, Benedict gathered the children together – ranging in age from about three to fifteen, outfitted in a bright hodgepodge of ill-fitting hand-me-down clothing – and they sang us a song, then three of the smallest children stepped forward and shyly recited a poem. I had brought three miniature World Cup soccer balls from Germany, toting them around in my duffel bag for the past two weeks, waiting for the right opportunity to give them away, and I knew that this was the time. I explained to Benedict that I only had three balls and wanted the kids to share them, so first he called up two of the girls (since there are more girls than boys at the orphanage) and I handed them two of the balls. Then Benedict called up two little boys and I presented them with the third ball. As we drove away from the orphanage, we saw an older boy playing with one of the balls. We watched as he handed it back to one of the little boys, who ever-so-carefully brushed the dust off the ball. It was a small, silly gesture, giving these kids who have nothing but the clothes on their backs a couple of balls, but sometimes it’s the little things that count.

It was quite a shock to drive from the Mukuru slum to the shady, gated parking lot of the Italian restaurant where we met Jane Pinto and her daughter Anna for lunch. The rest of the group was already there; we joined them at a long table in a beautiful courtyard for delicious pizzas and pasta. Those of us who had gone to the slum then went back to the Collector’s Den for our final shopping opportunity. DH and I bought a tall Maasai spear (they break down into three pieces for easy transport), a long piece of batik-printed fabric depicting a string of zebras, two T-shirts, and a beaded belt, which all came to $109. Our next stop was our “day room” at the Norfolk, which was really a “two-hour room,” as we barely had time to shower and repack our bags before it was time to leave for dinner. Our room was virtually identical to the first room we had stayed in at the Norfolk, except that this time there was a rather ominous smell coming from the bathroom plumbing. Needless to say, we were happy to get out of there.

Our final stop was the much-anticipated Carnivore, a dimly-lit, smoke-filled restaurant where the main event, is, naturally, meat! The centerpiece of the restaurant is an enormous circular grill; a constant stream of servers meander between the tables bearing long steaming skewers, forking out hearty portions of pork ribs, roast beef, chicken wings, turkey drumsticks, alligator chunks, and ostrich meatballs. In the center of each table a tiered platter holds a dozen different sauces and condiments, topped by a little flag which we were supposed to “lower” to signal when we were finished. I was not impressed with the alligator – it tasted like a cross between fish and chicken and was really bony – but the spare ribs were delicious! Many of us sampled the dawa – a delicious concoction of vodka, lime juice, honey, and crushed ice, all mashed together with a wooden stick (similar to a caipirinha, or Brazilian margarita).

Our goodbyes were emotional but rushed…J&H were going back to the hotel for the night, as they would be leaving for Johannesburg in the morning, and R2&B were flying to Egypt on Monday to start, amazingly, another two-week tour. Saying farewell to H was especially tough, as she had become my “adopted mother” over the course of this trip. We all promised to stay in touch and then the rest of us who were flying out this evening piled into the bus and headed for the airport. N&D were dropped off first, then we headed to the British Airways terminal, as R&C, MIL & FIL, and DH & I were all on the same flight to London. We said goodbye to Tonnie as we got in line for the first of many security checks. I got stopped for a random search, but fortunately they didn’t completely unpack my bag, which was by now fairly well stuffed!

We arrived at the gate with about two hours to spare and were stuck in a huge waiting room with no access to bathrooms or refreshments. It was really stuffy in there and by the time we got onto the plane we were all feeling tired and cranky. A man standing in line with us pointed out a famous British TV personality who also looked a bit miffed, probably because no one recognized him. We waited on the plane at the gate for another 90 minutes, during which time I started to feel a bit claustrophobic from breathing the canned air. Our state of mind was not improved by the fact that one of the ovens in the kitchen galley started smoking, although the flight attendant assured us that it was just steam! We watched “Man of the Year,” refused dinner (since all we had done today was sit and eat) and actually slept for two or three hours. We had a high-carb breakfast box in the morning. Fortunately we made up time in the air and arrived in London only 45 minutes late. DH and I said goodbye to FIL & MIL and R&C before we got off the plane, since we had to make a run to the other terminal to catch our flight to Stuttgart. We felt pretty foolish because we rushed past all of these people, only to get on the bus and wait while they all caught up with us again. We ended up getting to our gate 30 minutes early and were the first to arrive – of a total of 13 passengers! We had the entire rear compartment of the plane to ourselves; it was rather funny when the flight attendant gave her safety spiel as if she was addressing a full compartment. We landed in Stuttgart around 9:30 a.m., walked to our car, paid 122 Euro for the parking (it was worth not having to take a taxi), drove home and literally collapsed for the rest of the day.

Finally, regretfully, my tale must come to a close. As I write these words, five months after our safari, I am flooded with fleeting images of Africa…the chaotic streets of downtown Nairobi…the kiss of a greedy giraffe…a blazing orange sun rising over Amboseli…an elephant train making its slow way across the acacia-studded plains… the mesmerizing eyes of a lioness in Ngorongoro Crater, and that startling primeval urge to flee…the history of humankind painted in the striated cliffs of Olduvai Gorge…a thunderhead forming above the endless plain of the Serengeti…the animated faces of the Maasai villagers who opened their homes to us in the Mara…the lively stories of our marvelous Micato guides and drivers…and of course, the people who enriched the whole experience with their laughter, their camaraderie, and their shared wonder for all that Africa has to offer – my amazing safari mates!

I sincerely hope that through these words and images, I have been able to convey some sense of the endlessly diverse beauty and culture of Kenya and Tanzania. If you have not been there…GO. If you have gone, then you know what I am trying to say. Kwaheri!

Monday, July 23, 2007

16 February: Mount Kenya

There’s no rest for the weary, even those on their last day of safari! We were up before 7 and on our way to Sweetwaters Game Reserve at 8 a.m. sharp. (We had a nice buffet breakfast in the dining room and enjoyed a clear morning view of Mount Kenya.) En route to Sweetwaters we saw a couple of Reticulated giraffe and several African Forest elephants. The Reticulated giraffe sports a distinctly different pattern from the Maasai giraffe (the species we had seen throughout our trip). The Reticulated giraffe looks like a web of white lines drawn on a brown background, while the Maasai giraffe sports jagged brown splotches on a pale background. The Forest elephant was recently determined to be a distinct species from the African Bush elephant. Forest elephants are considerably smaller and have rounder ears and more curved tusks than the Bush elephant. The ones we saw were browsing in the trees by the side of the road, befitting their name. We also stopped to watch a large troop of baboons socializing noisily just off the road. (I felt a bit sorry for our driver because he kept pointing things out and we kept saying, “Yeah, we know that,” or “Yeah, we’ve seen that,” adding a hopeful, “Seen any leopards?” It must be really challenging for the drivers to entertain a group of jaded safari travelers at the very end of their trip!)

Sweetwaters is a 24,000-acre private game reserve located on the plains below Mount Kenya and is the closest reserve to Nairobi (about 250 km) to boast all of the “Big Five” game animals. One of the main attractions is the Chimpanzee Sanctuary, a 200-acre compound established by Kenya Wildlife Services, the Jane Goodall Institute, and Lonrho East Africa (one-time owners of Sweetwaters) to provide a near-natural setting for the rehabilitation of orphaned, abused, and illegally traded chimps. The sanctuary currently supports about two dozen chimps. We were split into two groups and walked through a gate in the high electric fence into the sanctuary to look for the chimps (my understanding is that the chimps were actually on the other side of the river from us – they can be aggressive and unpredictable and it would be dangerous to walk into their territory). We walked along a narrow, winding trail deep into the bush but didn’t find any chimps, so we retraced our steps to the main entrance and climbed up a sort of lookout tower, where they have an exhibit identifying each of the chimps by name and telling the story of how they ended up at Sweetwaters. Many of these stories are heartbreaking – it is impossible to know how many chimps have been captured, abused, and killed as part of the illegal pet trade – but it is comforting to know that places like Sweetwaters exist. We did eventually see a few chimps, who made their way over to the tower and then sat in the shade scratching their heads and staring at us. (Unfortunately my camera wasn’t working because I didn’t have the lens on properly – thanks to DH for figuring out that dumb mistake! – so I only got a couple of photos.)

On our way to see Morani the rhino, we spotted another Reticulated giraffe, who posed obligingly for us in front of Mount Kenya. Morani (which means “warrior” in Maasai) is a black rhino who was rescued as a baby after his mother was killed by poachers in Amboseli National Park. They attempted to return Morani to the wild, but he didn’t get along with other rhinos, so they established a 100-acre enclosure for him at Sweetwaters, where he is protected around the clock by armed guards. We hiked through the bush for about ten minutes to find Morani sprawled on his side in the dirt, enjoying a midday siesta. Our guide started to throw sticks at him to try to get him to wake up, but we all protested – Morani just looked so content (and we weren’t sure we wanted to be that close to a cranky rhino).

We all took turns kneeling next to Morani for photos and giving him a pat, which he didn’t seem to mind. To be so close to such a huge and normally dangerous creature, touching that impossibly thick, wrinkled skin and smooth horn – so coveted by poachers – was simply amazing. Of course what we didn’t realize until we looked at our photos later is that in our khakis and safari hats, we looked the epitome of “The Great White Hunter” posing with our prize trophy! Morani did lift his head once and literally bowled over poor B, who was kneeling next to him at the time, but I’m quite sure he didn’t mean her any harm.

We drove back to the Safari Club for a buffet lunch (which was much better today) and then DH and I headed to the meeting point near the stables for our horseback ride, joined by FIL and C. There was some confusion over our reservation (the man at the front desk had signed us up for yesterday instead of today and didn’t have FIL on the list at all, so they had to go saddle up another horse) but we got it all sorted out eventually. I rode Casper, a friendly dark bay. We headed out into the bush, past a sign that read, “Guests are not allowed outside this gate unless accompanied by a hotel guard,” and headed up a fairly steep, forested trail. It was a very quiet ride and we didn’t see a single living creature except for the occasional bird. We did see a lot of bleached-white cattle skeletons and when we asked our guide about them, he said in a rather ominous voice, “There was a drought in 2005. Many Maasai brought their cattle here to graze. Most of them died.” That was pretty much the only thing our guide said on our one-hour ride. I am always happy to get on a horse, but overall I was a bit disappointed with the ride – we followed a rather dreary pre-determined loop trail and our guide reluctantly let us trot for about 20 yards on our way back to the lodge.

We had just enough time after our ride for a quick dip in the pool, which was quite heavenly. This was the one and only time that we wore our swimsuits (and shorts for that matter) on the entire trip! Before dinner we returned to the animal orphanage to make a donation, which means our name will be engraved on a tile and we will be able to enter the orphanage for free if we ever have the opportunity to make a return visit.

We all convened in the “Trophy Lounge” for drinks before dinner and watched a group of dancers sporting feathered costumes and long drums performing on the lawn as the sun set on our last night in Africa. Then we all gathered in cushy chairs in a big circle in front of the lounge fireplace, sang the “Jambo Bwana” song, and chatted about the highs and lows of our safari experience. I looked around the room and realized that at this time tomorrow, we would be saying farewell to our now close-knit safari family. In telling this long tale I have not spent a lot of time talking about the members of our group. Suffice it to say that one of the biggest surprises of our trip was not the amazing wildlife or the stunning scenery – those things you expect from a safari – but rather the camaraderie of sharing the experience with a wonderful group of people. I will never forget our safari mates.

Dinner was lovely – I had pasta with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes for a light change of pace and then we trundled off to bed.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

15 February: Masai Mara to Mount Kenya

We were up around 7 a.m., which gave me time to sit for a few minutes outside the tent listening to the birds, the river, and the occasional blast from a hot air balloon in the distance (hopefully they got that knot worked out!). On our final walk to the main lodge for breakfast, we paused to watch the monkeys jumping through the treetops, and noted that the very determined male warthog was still going after his lady friend on the lawn. One last bumpy ride in the Land Rovers delivered us to the airstrip, where we said farewell to our drivers, Wesley and Eric, and to the Mara itself. A few minutes later we watched our plane touch down on the dirt runway. Today’s transport was an Aero Kenya twin prop with Czech-made engines (the engine was right outside my window so I was staring at the label the whole flight, which read “Powered by Walter Engine, Praha, Czech Republic”). It was a short flight to the bustling (relatively speaking) Nanyuki airport, which was the most evidence of “civilization” that we had seen in some days. We were too early to check in at the Mount Kenya Safari Club, so Tonnie suggested that we pay a visit to a nearby girls’ boarding school (I have the name of the school written down, but it is buried somewhere in my Africa paraphernalia) and then stop by the Nanyuki Spinners & Weavers project. I was very happy to hear this because I had read about the Nanyuki project on the Fodor's board before our trip, but had forgotten exactly where it was and figured we had missed it already.

We climbed into two Toyota minivans (now we really knew we were back in civilization) and stopped at the school first, driving through a secure gate into the dirt courtyard, where a bunch of girls with close-cropped hair in matching bright-colored dresses were running around. They all stared at us when we arrived; some waved and giggled shyly when we waved back. The school principal greeted us warmly and showed us around, obviously quite proud of her students’ achievements. In her office she showed us a board displaying the students' test scores in various subjects over the past few years. Another listed the top student from each class and what secondary school and university they had attended after graduating. A small number of the students are orphans; their names were listed separately and it was obvious that they receive special attention. The school is funded in part by the Presbyterian Church but is a government school (as opposed to private). The grounds were tidy and the buildings – simple concrete structures with corrugated metal roofs – looked to be in good condition; there was even a computer lab. We were led into a 5th grade classroom where the girls, who are just starting to learn English, sang several perfectly enunciated songs. Outside, a 7th-grade class recited a poem for us on the theme, “education is the key to life.” I felt a bit awkward with all those wide-eyed faces gaping at us, but I really enjoyed our visit. I wish we had had the opportunity to talk to some of the girls individually.

Right next door to the school is the Nanyuki Spinners and Weavers project, also funded in part by the Presbyterian Church to provide poor, widowed, and single women with weaving skills to support themselves and their families. We got to see the entire process from start to finish as we proceeded through a series of rooms full of women, their hands in constant motion: first carding and spinning the wool into yarn, then boiling and dyeing the yarn with all-natural plant materials (the dyeing takes place outside, in heavy iron pots over open fires), and finally weaving the yarn into rugs, wall hangings, shawls, and sweaters. Outside, the weavers’ small flock of sheep was wandering freely on the grounds. Many of us bought items from the small shop – DH and I finally decided on a wall hanging of three elephants under an acacia tree ($58), similar to the “Elephant Runner” pictured on their website. Several women in the weaving room were working on a special order of wall hangings depicting two cat faces in bright shades of purple, green, and orange – they were gorgeous and I really wish they had had some of that design available for sale.

Then it was on to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, nestled in the lushly
wooded foothills below the craggy, snow-topped mountain (the second-highest in Africa) that gives the club its name. I had high expectations for the Safari Club, given its illustrious history: it was founded in 1959 as an exclusive hunting retreat by the movie star William Holden and his friends, and its membership roster reads like a “who’s-who” of international aristocracy and celebrity (charter members included Walt Disney, John Wayne, Lyndon Johnson, Clark Gable, and William Randolph Hearst). The club is now a Fairmont hotel, but signs of its storied past are everywhere. The low-slung main buildings have an understated elegance – posh but not overdone, with hunting trophies everywhere and lovely courtyard gardens.

For the moment, Mount Kenya itself was hidden in the clouds. We sat in a spacious lounge, enjoying the view of the very tempting pool and landscaped grounds framed between two giant elephant tusks, while Tonnie checked us in. Then we went straight to the dining room for lunch, which was a bit of a disaster. The place was busy, with what looked like a lot of businessmen, although nowhere near full. We never got the drinks we ordered, there was a huge line for the buffet, and by the time we got to the food, they had run out of all sorts of things. DH finally gave up and decided not to eat (very unusual for DH). I ate quickly, then we signed up for a horseback ride tomorrow afternoon before heading off in search of our room. The lodgings sprawl over many acres (they actually have vans to take guests to their rooms) and I think ours was one of the furthest away, but we weren’t complaining, as we needed the exercise. A guard in a police officer-type uniform encountered us mid-way and insisted on carrying one of our backpacks and walking us all the way to our “riverside cabin” (#119 – by “riverside” I think they mean that you can hear the river). He wavered momentarily by our door as if he might be expecting a tip, but we didn’t give him one since we hadn’t requested his services. Our room was huge and nicely appointed, with a stone fireplace, comfortable armchairs in a large sitting area, and a private veranda. We had a gray marble bathroom with two (!) sinks, a shower, and sunken tub. (We had only been supplied with one small bottle of water and had to request more from the front desk; remember that we even brushed our teeth with bottled water.) In spite of all this, the Safari Club was not one of our favorite lodgings on the trip. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I couldn't help feeling like the whole place was a little faded, perhaps resting a bit too heavily on its laurels.

We had the afternoon to ourselves so DH and I visited the animal orphanage (1000 shillings per person). This experience was even better than advertised. We simply showed up at the gate, where we were met by a very nice young woman who gave us a personal guided tour. First we went over to visit the three orphaned cheetahs (two brothers and a sister) because it was their feeding time. They were all lying on top of a sort of tree house structure in one corner of their enclosure and really had to be convinced that it was worth the trouble to come over for their supper. They were fed big bowls of raw meat, one at a time, in a separate small enclosure, then sprawled on the ground and cleaned their faces. After seeing these amazing cats in the wild, it was nice to get a close look at them, but I think this was the first time I realized that visiting a zoo will never be the same. Next we met Patricia the ostrich, who snapped corn out of our hands, Oliver the adorable 4-month-old Cape buffalo (hard to believe he would turn into one of Africa’s most dangerous animals), a baby eland, and a baby wildebeest, all of whom were wandering freely on the grounds of the orphanage. Oliver was so persistent in his pursuit of our corn that our guide had to lure him away and put him in his pen. We saw two African porcupines and a variety of monkeys, including a very inquisitive Sykes's monkey and a black-and-white Colobus named Jack, who is wild but comes to visit his friends every day. He will jump on your arm to be fed but unfortunately he wasn’t feeling very sociable when we visited. I did feed another Colobus through the wire fencing – I had never felt a monkey’s hand before, and the sensation of those small, soft fingers taking the corn out of my hand was unforgettable.

The parade of animals went on and on…various species of small cats (including forest cats with kittens that looked just like house cats), two “zebroids” (half horse, half zebra – originally bred in an attempt to develop a new pack animal), a pair of pygmy hippos who were fast asleep in a mud puddle, two white rhinos (the female has a two-and-a-half-foot-long horn!), a giant tortoise, and a pair of crowned cranes (the male had broken its wing, so they brought the female in too because they mate for life). The orphanage also has a captive breeding program underway for the bongo, a beautiful, endangered forest antelope with dramatic white stripes. One of the bongos had just given birth, and for the sum of $500 the youngster was available for “adoption” complete with naming rights. We really enjoyed our visit to the orphanage and were quite impressed with the whole operation; it is truly much more than an orphanage, as they are engaged in a variety of breeding programs and release many animals back into the wild. We assured our guide that we would come back tomorrow to make a donation to their efforts.

After our visit to the orphanage, we wandered through the club’s numerous art galleries and shops, then made our way back to our room. Dinner was a much more pleasant affair – a four-course meal (I had beef with a mushroom sauce) with a delicious pineapple and ice cream dessert. Now that we had finally arrived at Mount Kenya, we were really struck by the fact that our African safari was coming to a close. Soon we would be returning to Nairobi for our flights home, but we were looking forward to our final day – especially our visit to Sweetwaters Game Reserve to see Morani the “tame” black rhino.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

14 April: Masai Mara

Despite yesterday’s violent weather, our hot-air balloon ride proceeded as scheduled. This meant a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, which was eased by the delivery of a thermos full of hot chocolate (coffee or tea if you preferred) and heart-shaped shortbread cookies (for Valentine's Day). DH and I were already awake (we seemed to be on some type of “safari adrenaline” for the duration of the trip, always waking up before we were supposed to), so we pulled on our clothes, sipped some hot chocolate, and then were accompanied by an armed guard along the path to the trucks. (This is the only time I recall seeing anyone carrying a gun.) We had a dark and bumpy ride to the balloon launch site at Governor’s Camp, arriving just as the sky was brightening to a dusky purple. We met up with some other passengers from other camps, signed waivers, and got sorted into two groups.

Our group, which consisted of me, DH, FIL, N&D, J&H, R2&B, and Tonnie (R&C and MIL having decided to sleep in), plus four Japanese people and another jaunty-looking couple in matching safari jackets, met Captain Steve and watched as the two rainbow-striped balloons were inflated. Each balloon basket can carry sixteen people – four in each of four padded compartments – plus the captain, who stands in the middle surrounded by the gas tanks and controls. We learned that our basket might tip over when we came down so we were instructed in the proper landing position (sitting on the bench seat, heads down, and hanging on tight). The two captains released a small balloon into the air and watched it to see which way the wind was blowing. It was rather comical to see them studying this little balloon so intently as it disappeared into the heavens. After one final trip to the spacious, tented loo (the Governor’s Camp operation seemed to be all Brits so I’ll use the appropriate lingo), we were ready to go. Our balloon was now fully inflated and the basket, which had been lying on its side, was now upright. We all climbed in and watched the other balloon take off first, then ours lifted ever-so-gently into the pre-dawn stillness. We rose above the trees just as the sun broke through the clouds, casting a rosy glow over the Mara, the plains fading off into the distance in undulating shades of blue.

I wasn’t quite prepared for how loud it would be when Captain Steve turned on the gas. It was a little disconcerting to be floating along in absolute silence, only to be startled by the tremendous blasting sound from the burning fuel. We started rotating in slow circles shortly after take-off, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. We saw a small herd of impala grazing below us and a lion watching them from a stand of trees nearby, along with a couple of hippos in the swollen, muddy-brown river, but otherwise the Mara was empty – for the moment. Signs of life were everywhere; the plain was crisscrossed by a web of trails leading from one watering hole to the next. We enjoyed the peacefulness and this new perspective on the grasslands. Steve took our picture using a very clever camera rig (he set the camera on a self-timer, then reeled it out on a line until it was about ten feet away), and told us they would give us a CD at the end of the trip with our group photo and a set of ballooning pictures.

After a while I noticed that we seemed to be drifting lower and lower while the other balloon – quite far off by this point – was soaring higher and higher. I finally asked DH, “Aren’t we awfully low?” The next moment (when we were only 20 or 30 feet off the ground), Captain Steve said very calmly, “Well, I’m sorry folks, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to land.” It turns out that a line to one of the vents at the top of the balloon had a knot in it, so the vent would not open properly. This is why we were turning in circles, and we had been burning twice as much fuel as we should have in order to compensate for the malfunction (hence more ear-shattering blasts than normal). We quickly assumed our landing positions and touched town only seconds later. It was very smooth – we barely felt the basket hit the ground, and then we glided along in the grass for a few moments before coming to a stop.

Steve called “Nicky” back at base camp to tell them to pick us up, but had some trouble communicating our predicament over the radio. Steve ended up talking to the other balloon captain, who transmitted the message back to base. There was mention of a “difficult retrieve” from last week – apparently we had landed in an area that was rather tough to get to by car. Apparently Steve didn’t think too highly of Nicky as he kept making rather impolite comments about him (“He’s a great guy...when everything goes as planned”). While we waited, Steve explained that he could have tried to get the minimum 45 minutes out of our flight (the trip is promised to last between 45 and 90 minutes, depending on the winds), but that would have required taking us over a swamp and/or a forested area, both of which would make for unpleasant landings. He decided to play it safe and landed us in the grass after only 30 minutes. He assured us that we would get a 50% refund, which I thought was quite reasonable.

About this point we were all joking that it had been pretty smart of MIL and R&C to sleep in. We had to sit in the grass for a while as Steve tried several times to confirm that the trucks were indeed on their way to rescue us. (DH: “Tell them to look for the big balloon.” Steve: “You’d be surprised at how easy they are to miss.”) We only waited for about twenty minutes or so, but sitting out there on the open plain, it felt much longer, as I figured we resembled a giant picnic basket full of juicy morsels. (Steve: “We might as well stay in the basket, as wandering around here is going to be a pretty wet experience.” N: “Yeah, that’s ONE of the issues.” H: Holds hands together in prayer. N: ‘Where was that lion again?” Steve: “Not that far away, but they aren’t near enough to bother us.”) Steve passed the time by telling us about a freak balloon crash last year, in which the captain and one passenger were killed. Needless to say we were glad he told us this story after we landed.

Finally the trucks arrived, and we clambered out of the basket while the balloon deflated. We drove over to our breakfast site near the river, where we shared a champagne toast and a good laugh about the whole experience. The passengers from the other balloon arrived a short while later – they had seen some elephants and giraffe but all in all it had been a quiet morning over the Mara. All 30-odd of us sat down to a lovely bush breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, french toast, fruit, cheese, and mushrooms (the mushrooms are a British thing). A carefully positioned truck served as the loo – this was the closest we got to a “bush loo” on the whole trip. (Apparently part of what makes for a top-notch safari outfit is knowing precisely when and where to schedule bathroom breaks.) A young British couple sitting next to me revealed that they were getting married that afternoon. I told them I was glad they weren’t in our balloon.

R&C joined us after breakfast (without MIL – this was the only time she missed a game drive, and I must applaud her for that; she was a real trooper!) and we set off in search of leopards and rhinos. At this point in the safari even I, of all people, was succumbing to the “life list” mentality – that is, we really wanted to see a few key animals that we hadn’t seen yet, and some of the “regulars” were becoming, dare I say it, mundane. We did get very close to a small herd of topis and had a front-row view of topis mating, which was quite fascinating (in my pictures it looks like several youngsters are looking on intently – to learn the ropes, so to speak). We saw an ostrich, more hippos, several giraffe, a troop of baboons, and a rather worse-for-wear Cape buffalo, who was covered with mud, had huge chunks missing out of his ears, and was swarmed with irritating flies. We spotted one new bird – a yellow-throated longclaw – but, sadly, no leopards or rhinos.

Back at Kichwa Tembo we had some time to relax before and after lunch, so we took this opportunity to do some laundry (things were also starting to dry out from last night) and I sat in one of the camp chairs in front of our tent for a little while, watching the warthogs graze on the lawn and getting caught up on my journal. We headed out again at 4:00 for our last “official” game drive, as we would be heading to Mount Kenya Safari Club in the morning. We could now clearly see how much damage the night’s storms had done to the roads. The Masai Mara is a private preserve, not a national park, so the safari vehicles are allowed to drive off-road, which just seems to make things worse – instead of a single waterlogged road, there were countless muddy tracks crisscrossing the plain. At one point this afternoon we drove into a hidden hole and got stuck; the other truck had to come push us out and they all had the nerve to laugh at us!

We headed for a wooded area where we found a lioness guarding a fresh warthog kill. Two other lions (possibly her siblings) were hanging out nearby, hoping for a piece of the action. We watched as the lioness growled and hissed at the others, then sat there panting with her blood-stained jaws in full view. We moved on to a large herd of Grant’s gazelles and spotted an immature Bateleur (a large eagle). Further on, our driver Wesley pointed out a dead baboon dangling quite grotesquely from a tree and told us it was a leopard kill, but DH and I found it quite suspicious. We couldn’t figure out how a leopard could have hung a baboon like that (it looked like it was hanging from a piece of bone that had been wedged into the tree trunk). We are inclined to think that a human hung the baboon up there to try to lure a leopard to the spot. I’ll post the photo on Flickr so you can be the judge.

We saw a huge bull elephant browsing in the golden grass; set against the hazy gray-green hills, he made quite a majestic photo subject. Then finally, one of our prayers was answered – we spotted a female black rhino and her four-year-old calf. We were the first to arrive on the scene and spent a long time watching them move slowly through the tall grass. A young giraffe kept walking around nonchalantly between us and the rhinos – he kept looking at the rhinos and then back at us, as if to say, “What’s all the fuss about?” I believe the black rhino is the most endangered animal we saw on our safari, so this was quite special. After a while we left the rhinos to their grazing and moved on to a sated-looking lioness resting her bulging belly on a fallen log. Next we saw a herd of impala leaping through the grass and got a close-up look at some waterbucks, which I think are among the cutest members of the antelope family. We also got a good look at a saddle-billed stork (we had seen one on a nest way up in a tree in Amboseli), perhaps one of the most striking birds in Africa with its black-and-white plumage and large red, black, and yellow bill.

We returned to the kill site on our way back, where all three lions were now grouped together around the warthog. Now the one that had been guarding the kill was eating it. We were so close that we could hear the tearing of flesh and snapping of bones. This was one of the few times that I felt a bit uncomfortable about how close we were to the lions. I just didn’t feel like we needed to be that close. What if she decided we were threatening her meal? (I know many people like the open Land Rovers because they can see out better, but frankly I preferred the security of the Land Cruisers!) As we headed back to camp, we were treated to a spectacular vista of the sun streaming through the clouds to the west, and we spotted a pair of secretary birds nesting in the top of an acacia tree. Just before we headed up the hill and back to Kichwa Tembo, the other truck overheated, so we were able to get our revenge by laughing at them. An application of cold water seemed to do the trick and we got underway again.

Back at camp we showered and changed and then convened for the evening’s entertainment – dancing by a group of local Maasai warriors. It had started to rain again so instead of gathering around the fire pit outside, we convened in the huge lounge adjacent to the dining room. I was a bit disappointed when I realized that the warriors’ long braids were wigs, but Tonnie explained that they must shave their heads for school. The dances were led by Eric, one of our drivers, and it was fun to see him in full Maasai garb. They performed several traditional dances for us, including one in which they compete to see who can jump the highest. At the end we were all invited to join in the dance and then we had one big jolly photo session. We had the opportunity to purchase some of the accessories the Maasai had brought with them – N bought a nice beaded “talking stick” and I was really sorry that we were out of cash as I would have gotten one too. Dinner was another excellent affair, although the dessert was rather unusual – a poppyseed muffin with a slice of soft cheese, topped by a citrus glaze. Over dinner we asked Tonnie for the Swahili translation of “shit happens” (something a bit stronger than “hakuna matata”) to describe our Mara experience, but I forgot to write it down. Perhaps someone can enlighten me. When we got back to our tent, we found a visitor in our bathroom – a little speckled gecko.

This was certainly a Valentine’s Day to remember! Tomorrow we leave the “true bush” behind and head to the relative luxury of Mount Kenya Safari Club.