Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Safari

Map picture

We finally arrived on the east coast of Africa, making port at Mombasa, Kenya. As soon as we were cleared ashore, our group of 38 headed off to the airport for our 90 minute flight to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, which is located in central Kenya on its southern border with neighboring Tanzania. Our “chartered private aircraft” was over an hour late picking us up, but hey, it Africa after all. The plane was a Dash 8 turboprop, and was operated by a local airline called “540.”IMG_4523

We had been told that a very bad drought had impacted the region, however, the night before our arrival they had received heavy rainfall. So imagine as we are turning onto our final approach and I see that we are landing on a dirt strip that has standing water on it, I thought this might be interesting. On touchdown I felt the aircraft start a slight slide to the left, but correctly the captain stopped using the brakes and instead used reverse thrust, so the problem was quickly corrected--thankfully. In our pictures, I have one that shows how deep the mud was around the aircraft tires. Fortunately the crew was departing with an empty aircraft, or it could have really been interesting.


Our group was warmly welcomed and shepherded in to Land Rovers for a short outing before going to the lodge. That was an experience. The ground in places was soft chocolate colored mud. Lisa described our ride as being in chocolate mouse. We slipped, slid, and bounced along, occasionally doing all three motions simultaneously.IMG_4623 One of our vehicles became hopelessly stuck in the, but that did not seem to faze our drivers, who had the problem solved in almost no time.

I don’t think any of us knew what to expect when we arrived at our lodge. We all were aware that we would sleep in tents, so I, for one, had visions of scenes from Out of Africa, sitting around a fire and bedding on cots, with wild animals roaming outside our tent flap. Well, not so in the least. The grounds were surrounded by a high electrified fence. The “lodge” was a magnificent large structure, and the service was six stars at least. It is true that our room was a tent, but it had a very nice bed, hot and cold running water and toilet facilities. All in all, it was not bad for “roughing it in Africa.”


There is one interesting story to share. As many of you know, I suffer with sleep apnea, and must have a machine for breathing at night. I carry the darn thing with me whenever we travel. This adventure was no different. However, when our room steward saw the device he exclaimed that we would not have electricity all night. This huge isolated valley does not produce enough electricity to provide power to everyone 24 hours per day. So, instead, they provide power in six hour increments. The power is on for six hours and then off for six hours in a rolling pattern. No sooner had our steward apparently reported the problem, than the camp’s electrician showed up and said he was here to solve the problem. The solution was a huge battery; about 4 times the size of a car battery that was hooked to some type of sensor device so that when the power went off, my machine would continue to function from battery power. It was an amazing little contraption and it worked flawlessly.

After a wonderful buffet lunch we set off on a 3 hour safari in our little Land Rovers. We saw a great many animals, and I will let the pictures do the talking. Each vehicle was in radio communication with the other vehicles and they “hunted” as a pack. At one minute we were all racing off in different directions until one vehicle found something and before long all the other vehicles were converging on the “find.” It became apparent very early on that the animals were very accustomed to the presence of all these vehicles and literally paid us no attention. Shortly after we set out, we all stopped on a hillside where we set off on a short climb up the hillside. Waiting for us were some rangers who had discovered a family of white rhinoceros. I was amazed that the animals ignored our group. We were able to get quite close. In fact, the baby rhino was asleep when we arrived, and we could actually go right up to it and rub its skin. Finally, the baby tired of all the rubbing and set off to rejoin the family. This was pretty amazing stuff.

At the end of a very long and very tiring day, we were treated to entertainment before dinner and then a full sit down dinner with a very good menu. Finally it came time to sleep in our tent. We fell asleep almost immediately, encased in mosquito netting and surrounded by the sounds of the African night. The next thing either of us knew, our steward was calling from outside the tent that he had coffee for us, and that it was time to wake up. I looked at my watch and it said 5:30 am. We quickly dressed in the cold – yes, I said “cold.” After dark the plains cooled rapidly, and we had to wear our jackets the next morning as we set out at sunrise for yet another safari run before breakfast.

After breakfast and checkout, we had some free time before lunch and our flight departure at 2pm. We were offered the opportunity to visit a nearby Maasai village, and everyone in the group took up the invitation. It proved to be real treat and a highlight for both of us. Our visit was also a highlight for the village itself.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the village chief and his son.

IMG_5028 The son spoke for his father and welcomed us. In the background, there was much song and dancing as slowly the village warriors started marching towards us in a snaking congo line.

IMG_5042 They arrived amid much celebration and started escorting us toward the village.

IMG_5047 Marching towards us were the village women. All the while the villagers are chanting and singing our welcome. When the two groups merged, we were all taken by the hand and welcomed inside their compound.

This was a very large village, housing over 200 people in traditional Maasai style. The perimeter of the village was completely surrounded by a fence made of tree branches. There were a few portals in and out, which were closed up at night with branches and then opened during the day. The village is built in a large circle, and just inside the fence are the small mud brick huts also laid out in a circle. In the very center of this huge compound, is another fenced in circular area. It is here that the villagers herd is kept safe during the night. During the day the fence is opened, and the herds are shepherded outside by young boys.

The men and the woman each put on a show for the group.

IMG_5104  For the warriors it was a traditional dance in which each warrior demonstrates just how high he can jump from a standing position. All the while this is going on the group is loudly and gleefully singing a rhythmic chant.


IMG_5112 The women then set up in a line where they sang traditional songs for our entertainment. We were then split into small groups and each group was given a tour of a nearby hut. The huts are quite small and I was not sure that I could get inside. Our guide insisted and somehow I managed to squeeze through the elaborate and narrow entrance to stand in the center of the dwelling. On one side was a small baby sleeping under a mosquito net, with his young mother nearby.

IMG_5142 The room was quite warm with a small fire smoldering in a dirt pit. A small hole in the wall let the smoke out and a small amount of light in.

There were some surprises for me in visiting these gentle people. For one thing, in spite of the conditions under which they live, they were all very clean and neat. Unlike the rest of what we have encountered in Africa, they did not “smell.” Everyone we spoke with was conversant in good English, and we learned that children below a certain age were all going to school now. One of the men with whom I spoke was 30 years old, and he had no formal education. However people younger them him were now all required to have schooling. Another young man proudly told me that he would graduate from High School this year and hoped to be able to work in the nearby lodge. A few of us spoke with an elder about this transition, and he explained that the village realized that it needed to grow into the modern world and that they were very supportive of it. So far no one had failed to remain in the traditional village, but they knew someday that would happen.

In the end, I was sad to leave my new found friends. The village had gone out of its way to welcome us and to share they music and their homes. It was a really great experience. But, all good things come to an end, and so we set out for our return to the ship, but it was not to be quite that simple.

Our flight departed at 2pm and we flew north for 40 minutes to Nairobi. Once there we all had to leave the aircraft, which had parked at the general aviation ramp. We then walked a very long way to the international terminal in order that we could clear immigration to leave Kenya. Once that was completed we then went to our departure gate and once again cleared security that is all but poor Lisa. She had acquired a small scepter as a souvenir while at the Maasai village, and incredible as it sounds, the authorities were not going to let her go on the aircraft. After making her stand for a very long time, security worked out a plan in which the souvenir would be taken by a gate agent to the aircraft and shown to the captain. If he was OK with it being onboard the aircraft then it would be returned to Lisa. Actually it was quite humorous to everyone, and as expected the Captain almost laughed when asked about it. So off we flew, south to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where with any luck our ship would now be waiting for us. The flight was 90 minutes long.

Upon our arrival we were all bone tired, having been up since before dawn. The sun was setting and all anyone wanted was a shower and a chance to clean up – but there was one little problem; we did not have entry visas for Tanzania. I do not know where the screw up occurred, but we were all told that the ship would handle our visas and charge our shipboard account for the cost. Well, it did not happen. So, instead of going to the ship, we all had to pile on a bus and be driven over to the main terminal where visas could be obtained. While it took almost a hour to sort all this out, fortunately our guide was able to convince the authorities to let us sit in our bus while they completed the visa forms on our behalf.

Thus ended a very long but very rewarding two days. I am sorry I have not been able to write sooner, but the very next morning we visited the island of Zanzibar and I am just now getting caught up. I do have some good news however. If you check the picture file, you will see that I do have pictures uploaded from this adventure. I have not had time to give them proper labels yet, but I think you will enjoy them none-the-less.


1 comment:

scapel said...

So you are in Africa touring while I am in Antarctica trying to do the same thing. Enjoyed the reading. Jim, you are a good writer. You surely made a better grade than I in English Copmosition.