A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: rhinospin

24. Farewell to Kenya and Africa

Memories and highlights

It is time to say farewell; farewell to our guides, to our travel companions, to our tour operators, to our dependable vehicle, to Africa. Our group farewell dinner is held at the atmospheric Talisman in Karen, Trip Advisor’s number one restaurant in Nairobi. At a round table, Eddie, Jan, Graham, Judy, Martin and myself enjoy each other’s company for the last formal time and wish each other the best for the future. After eight weeks of sharing close company we are still on good terms. We partake of an excellent three course meal – I have sushi for starters, prawns and smoked fish with mushroom sauce for mains, and vanilla ice cream to finish. Very enjoyable.

The following morning we say goodbye to Eddie and Jan who have looked after us so well for the last two months, and we take a few more group photos for the memory. Graham announces that we have driven 10,430 kilometres together from Cape Town. Timo, from Africa Expedition Support, arrives to accompany us in our land rovers to his and Debs’ home on the Champagne Range in the Kajiado area. In colonial days, the European population used to drive to the ridge for Sunday picnics and to admire the view. We follow Timo through the forest over rough dirt roads and out along the ridge through the dry hills, our final journey in our land rover. The drive is only 35 kilometres but it takes over an hour and a half to reach Timo’s workshop. The yard is scattered with land rovers, some being prepared for future trips, others there to provide spare parts for repairs; one is a vehicle that Timo is rebuilding for Debs.

With a last nostalgic pat on the bonnet and a final photo, we leave our land rover there and pile in with the Thomases to travel the last three or four kilometres to the house. The road is even more rutted and bumpy, a good security factor, Debs says. The house stands on ten acres of land on the ridge overlooking the valley and the hills beyond, a dry landscape with no expectation of rain for at least three months. With no fences, zebra and antelope are free to wander through the property, to the delight of Debs and Timo. The sun shines and all is still and quiet. I let peace fall upon me as I acknowledge the busyness and constant activity of the last eight weeks. But it has been a really great experience. I am so glad I have come to Africa.

Debs and Timo have an interesting home. The original section was built by a New Zealander, mainly from large metal containers joined together. They have added a new part at the side and plan to convert the old section into a guest wing. Debs has created a sumptuous kitchen with a large mahogany island, display stands for recipe books and purpose-built racks for utensils, knives and ingredients. She obviously relishes cooking, providing a scrumptious lunch on the outdoor patio – roast chicken, roast potato and butternut and a green salad, capped off with coffee and carrot cake. We enjoy their company as we sit and discuss life in Kenya and its future.

At the end of the afternoon Debs runs us back to the Wildebeest and we say a final farewell and thank you to her for the whole wonderful trip. In the morning it is another farewell to Graham and Judy who are on their way to Uganda to visit a sponsored child before the flight back to Australia. They plan to visit New Zealand in November so we expect to see them again then.

We finish our packing and I decide there is room for just one more souvenir, a wire land rover which I purchase from the Wildebeest shop. What better memento of our adventure! We leave the Wildebeest at 12.30am and drive through a deserted city to the airport to fly out to Ankara to visit our daughter and her family for two weeks.

As I settle down for the six hour flight, I know I want to return to Africa. I have been here for over eight weeks, but it is a big continent and there is so much more to see and to understand. But then, is it possible in a life time to understand the issues that surround this continent? We have pondered questions of aid and the good or otherwise that it brings; of unstable politics and the ‘big man’ syndrome, so prevalent; of conservation and the balancing act between preserving culture and nature; of corruption and exploitation, whether it is from an external source or from within – so many interesting issues that provide stimulating thought and conversation, but for which there is no straight forward answer.

I ask myself what I particularly enjoyed. Some of the highlights come to mind: the cable car up Table Mountain on that beautiful clear sunny day, camping in the vast emptiness of the Namib desert, the amazing sand dunes of Sossusvlei, the drenching we got at the Victoria Falls and the sunset drinks at the Royal Livingstone on the Zambesi River, swimming in Lake Malawi beside the simple dugout canoes used for fishing, the brilliant blue of the water around Prison Island off Zanzibar, and the peep into African colonial life at Karen Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’ museum.

Then there are the national parks and the wildlife. My first wild elephant at Etosha, a solitary and elderly male striding along within metres of our vehicle, the rare sighting of the cheetah and her cub also in Etosha, the leopard in South Luangwa National Park, stalking the impala which in turn ran hissing at the large cat, the tree climbing lions at Manyara, and the male lion waiting for his meal while his three females pursued their buffalo quarry. That reminds me of the Serengeti, so impressive in its landscapes and livestock: the iconic acacia trees and the golden grasslands, the large herds of elephants and the wildebeest and zebra migration. There is so much more in the country’s parks – the elegant slim-lined springbok and the lumbering two horned rhino, both emblematic of Africa, but so different.

The people have been so fascinating: the children gathering out of the bush around our roadside lunch spots, the scamp who wanted to sell Martin the t-shirts, the Europeans hungry for empathetic company, the women of Africa carrying their world on their heads or their backs, whether it be babies or firewood or animal fodder or water. I will long remember the village women cooking in their dark kitchen on the floor, bending over their small fires ringed with stones. There was the policeman who with great politeness asked if we wanted to make a donation to his cause, and the confidence and fearlessness of youth at the Victoria Falls bridge bungee jump. From Cape Town to Nairobi there were the vendors with their pleas to Mama to make a purchase.

Even the times that did not run smoothly like the crossing of the Zambesi River from Botswana to Zambia can be put down as part of the entertaining ‘this is Africa’ experience. Similarly one can regard the bureaucracy at the passport controls, the policeman who wouldn’t let Graham post a letter in the postal slot outside the ‘open’ hours, and the boat driver who had to borrow a Leatherman from a tourist when the Chobe boat broke down. They all make for memorable and humourous stories to tell.

Travelling in Africa has taught me a new appreciation of land rovers, the only vehicle you should drive in Africa to savour the full experience of the safari. They now have a decided place in my mind and heart. Whenever I see a land rover, my eyes will light up and I will be reminded of our trip. For Martin there has been the exhilarating challenge of the driving, all 10,500 odd kilometres of the journey. He really did enjoy it, even the excursion through the crowded and chaotic thoroughfares of Dar es Salaam, or the villages of Tanzania with their awful judder bars and police at the ready to hand out speeding tickets.

Yes, when I get home I shall write a blog and share our experiences with others. I will write a blog and enjoy the trip again at my leisure.

Post script: A final thank you to Africa Expedition Support for providing us the opportunity to leave the comfort and security of home and travel into the unknown in Africa. You did enough planning to provide a well put together trip without robbing our journey of a great sense of adventure and intrepid undertaking. A fantastic trip.

You, too, my readers, can embark on your own adventure!

For our next adventure, go to www.outbackspin.travellerspoint.com

Posted by rhinospin 14:19 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

23. Karen, suburb of Nairobi

Keys, Giraffe and Elephant Centres and ‘Out of Africa’ Homestead

I have a problem – a set of lost land rover keys. When we start the trip in March each couple is issued with two sets of keys for their vehicle, so Martin and I decide he will have one set and I the other, a good insurance against loss. I should explain the idiosyncrasies of our keys. Each set for our particular land rover has four different keys, one for the ignition and three for the doors: one for the driver’s door, another for the passenger door and the third for the back door; they are not interchangeable. Jan explains that at some stage the locks were tampered with, and he replaced them with locks from dismantled land rovers kept for spare parts; the advantage was the inexpensive nature of the repairs, but the disadvantage was that no one key served all locks. To help the clients differentiate the keys, Jan has notched the door keys: one notch for the driver’s door, two for the passenger door and three for the back one.

We manage the system well. I keep my keys in my omnipresent Kathmandu shoulder bag which also holds my ever-present camera, and for nearly all the trip I do not lose them. Early on in the trip Eddie emphasizes the need not to lose any set, on pain of . . . I’m not quite sure what, but we get the message: don’t lose them. The only thing we think we lose on our travels is Martin’s wallet; that was back at the sand dunes of Sossusvlei in Namibia. I respond with anxiety and panic and Martin with his usual calm level headed organization.

“In the morning we will get up at 6.00am and go back to the place where we stopped in the dunes and have a look. I must have dropped it when I got out of the vehicle.” I suggest we have one more search of the land rover and there is the recalcitrant wallet, on the floor behind Martin’s seat under a water container.

After the visit to Elsamere, I cannot find my keys. I remember locking the back door before we go into the museum, so I know I had them then. Perhaps I dropped them on the lawn at afternoon tea. It is too late to return that evening and in the morning Eddie and Jan offer to go back and ask if they have been found. But to no avail.

“I am sure they will turn up,” Eddie says. I search all the obvious places again, but no keys. Later in the day, as we drive into Nairobi, I stare down absentmindedly at the narrow crack between the old frig box and my seat, and my eyes focus on a slither of something silver. Yes, the missing key set! I retrieve them with much difficulty from their constricted hiding space and declare to everyone that the lost is found.

Along the road, we call in at a group of craft shops where someone has recommended the pottery. But the Masai blankets are the things that take my eye. A red and blue checked wrap would make a great picnic table cloth or rug. Later at home Martin finds another use; he makes a garden tableau centred on the back end of a land rover made from plywood, with a truck-side photo of elephants in the Serengeti and a Masai warrior, made from a log, whom he outfits in a red checked cloak. Most handsome.

Our final accommodation at the Wildebeest Eco Camp in the suburb of Karen, Nairobi, provides a palatial ‘safari tent’ with polished wooden floor, its own ensuite and a king sized bed, surrounded by pleasant lawns and gardens. We empty out our land rover, take everything into our bedroom and begin the task of sorting, throwing out and packing eight weeks of camping gear and newly acquired paraphernalia. Soon we are shocked to hear news of events in the centre of the city, not much more than five kilometres away, where a group of terrorists have shot and killed ten people that same day. Eddie declares that the centre of town is very definitely out of bounds for us and our land rovers.

Nevertheless, we do not feel any threat in Karen, where life continues as normal. We hear that a number of tourists are being evacuated from the coastal areas around Mombasa, but there are still plenty of travellers going to the same places of interest as us. We begin at the Giraffe Centre, a tourist and education centre to promote wildlife conservation, especially that of the Rothschild giraffe. One of four main species of giraffe (others are Southern, Masai and Reticulated), the Rothschild is categorized as endangered, though numbers are rising with successful captive breeding programmes. The two giraffes on display entertain us by very elegantly taking pellets from our hands and even from our lips.

From there we go to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust centre which raises orphaned baby elephants with the aim of returning them to the wild. For an hour, keepers bring in the elephants in several groups before the admiring audience, bottle feed them with formula and allow them to parade around the rink and play in the pool. Like a group of young children, they delight in splashing in the water, rolling in the wet mud and showering each other with dust.

These are babies whose mothers have died, often in poaching incidents, and have been rescued and fostered at the centre. They range in age from two months to three years, after which they are returned to a national park where it is hoped they will bond with a wild herd. As we watch the feeding and the playful antics of the young animals, we are told their stories, the success the programme has achieved and the opportunity to sponsor a baby elephant. I’m sure it’s their hope that few can resist the emotional appeal of these adorable babies.

Martin and I decide to go to lunch at the Karen Blixen Restaurant and to follow that with a visit to the nearby museum. We have both read the book ’Out of Africa’ while on the tour and have enjoyed Karen Blixen’s atmospheric presentation of British East Africa, now Kenya, in the 1920s and ‘30s, its African people and the colonial lifestyle. The Danish connection has increased our interest. Lunch of salmon and chicken salad in the sunshine on the elegant lawn, amid umbrellas and white table clothes is perfect.

The Karen Blixen Museum is located in her former home; for 15 years she ran a coffee plantation there until she was forced to sell it with the fall of coffee prices and resulting bad debts, and return to Denmark. A well-spoken young guide sits us in the garden and explains the history of the house and the life Karen Blixen, before taking us inside and walking us through the rooms and the exhibits. She is a delightful hostess and it is a most absorbing hour delving into past colonial life. It is most likely that the suburb Karen was named after its famous resident, for the suburb centres on the former plantation and home. Today it is an affluent district with large homes, leafy streets and a large European population.

Before I finish this, the penultimate blog installment, I must comment on a common marketing tool of the safari and tourist trade, the use of the expression the Big Five. It is derived from the days of big game hunting and refers to the five most difficult and dangerous animals in Africa to hunt on foot. The Big Five are the lion, the leopard, the rhino, the buffalo and the elephant. I sometime wonder why the hippo was not included, for they can be very dangerous, but there you are, that’s them. We were privileged to see all five. Another similar coinage is the Small Five which comprise the ant lion (insect), the leopard tortoise, the rhino beetle, the buffalo weaver (bird), and the elephant shrew. Of these, I can claim to have seen only one or two. Perhaps a bit of useless information, but you never know. It may come in handy!

Posted by rhinospin 13:47 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

22. Nakuru and Naivasha

Rhino spotting, a wildlife walk and Elsamere

It takes only a couple of hours to reach our next camping place, a lovely grassed garden attached to a dairy farm, holiday cottages and a knitting co-operative, all run by a European family, the Nightingales, who are fourth or fifth generation Kenyans. After erecting the tents, we travel 30 kilometres to the town of Nakuru and a Westside Shopping Centre to get some money and look at our emails. It has been over a week since we last had internet access and we are all eager to receive news from home. As I sit in the café over my cappuccino and pastry, I recall that it was in another Westside Centre in Nairobi that the recent terrorist attack took place and a number of innocent people were killed. I am not afraid, but it is reassuring to have security on the shopping centre gates, checking all incoming vehicles.

In the early evening we have drinks with Yvonne and Brett, another European couple who have also arrived at the camp. Conversation drifts, as it always seems to, towards Africa and its problems. Yvonne shares her experiences in Ethiopia which she had just visited on a 12 day tour; she really loved it and heartily recommends it; perhaps one day . . . The nights are cool here in Kenya and though we can sit outdoors, we need to cover up and dress warmly.

Near the town of Nakuru is Lake Nakuru National Park, where we spend a day. Until recently the highlight has been the thousands of pink flamingos wading in the shallow soda waters of the lake. However in the last year the level of the water has risen dramatically to the point where some of the buildings near the shore are now standing in the lake and many of the flamingos have taken off to better feeding grounds. We have to be content with giraffe, waterbuck, baboons and rhinos. Rhinos! That’s great, for they are an endangered species and we haven’t seen many on our travels; in fact it’s back in Namibia’s Etosha that we last saw a rhino. Nakuru National Park is a sanctuary for both black and white rhinoceros, with fences to keep poachers out, providing one of the best chances to see rhinos in East Africa. Rothschild giraffe also enjoy the security of the sanctuary.

As we set off around the lake, we see three or four lone white rhino in the distance grazing along the lake shore. We stop, grab the cameras and focus the zoom lens for the distance. But later in the day, on our way to Baboon Cliff, we have a better chance to see one up close.

“Look, Martin,” I say, “Isn’t that another rhino?” I point in the distance. “No, just a rock,” he says sceptically. I insist that it is a rhino and I am proved correct. As we return from Baboon Cliff, we see that it has come down from the hill and is much closer, only about 30 metres away from the road. We follow it, observing the extraordinary creature as it munches its way along the rough pasture. It is a white rhino, more numerous in Nakuru and elsewhere, than black ones. Wikipedia says that in 2009 in the park, there were at least 25 black rhinoceros, one of the largest concentrations in the country, plus around 70 white rhinos. I assume that all the ones we see in Nakuru are white ones, for they are all grazing on the short grasslands surrounding the lake, whereas black rhino browse, pulling leaves from trees. But we did see a black one at Etosha, so we have seen both on our African travels.

We motor up the rough track of the escarpment to see the outlook from the ‘Out of Africa’ viewpoint. It is a glorious sight with the sweep of the lake and the park surrounding it. Baboon Cliff, further along, is just what it says. The park authorities have set up picnic tables, supposedly for the benefit of the tourists, but I doubt anyone would brave the resident baboons and attempt to eat out of their car. As we stop to take in the view, a large bundle of grey fur launches at our wind screen and makes for Martin’s open window, reaching in with his hairy arm to see what he can pilfer. Martin madly winds the window up and the arm withdraws. The baboon skirts across to my side as I rush to shut my window, just in time. Admitting defeat, he retreats to a nearby pole before we can gather our wits to take a photo of him on the wind screen. We glare at him and he glares back. That was a close shave; he’s a big fellow and if he got inside the vehicle, he could have done extensive damage.

We arrive back in camp, grateful to find Eddie has rescued our washing, an accumulation of a week’s clothes. The mornings are fine and sunny but in the afternoon thunder rolls around the hills, bringing heavy showers. Before we leave the camp site, we visit the co-operative venture, Kenana Knitters, run by some of the family with about 300 women involved. Products of the home industry are sold around the world. I oh and ah over the enticing knitted animals, eventually deciding on a leopard and an orangutan – before you jump in with your accusations, I do know it’s not an African primate, but it is lovely and beautifully made. The grandchildren again, you know. By the way, orangutans originate from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Our destination is Lake Naivasha where we have the opportunity to do a nature walk in the Wileli Wildlife conservancy. Marcus, our guide, picks us up in a six seater car and accompanies us around the park, pointing out different plants and animal signs. The walk in the sun makes for a very pleasant morning. We see zebra, buffalo, giraffe, waterbuck, warthog and Grant’s Gazelles. At one stage a giraffe runs through the vegetation within metres of us, so we are able to walk quite close to some of the wildlife.

The main industry in the Lake Naivasha area is floriculture. Graham and Judy call in to one of the businesses and ask if we can have a look at the operation and they make an appointment to return after lunch. George, the production manager, takes us through some of the enormous plastic shelters where millions of roses are grown, harvested, sorted and exported. Everyday up to 1.4 million rose stems are flown to Holland. That’s amazing! George asks us not to take photos because the operation is commercially sensitive, but in the sorting shed he relents and allows me to take some of the beautiful blooms. Around the walls of the sorting shed are pithy sayings aimed at encouraging the workers: ‘we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give’. The place we visit is just one of a number in the area. No wonder there is pressure on the lake water used to irrigate the tunnel houses.

In the late afternoon we visit Elsamere, former home of Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame. You have to be at least in your 50s or 60s to remember the famous lyrics of the highly successful film based on Joy’s book about Elsa the lion, whom she reared and returned to the wild:

Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows,
Born free to follow your heart
Live free and beauty surrounds you
The world still astounds you
Each time you look at a star
Stay free, where no walls divide you
You're free as the roaring tide
So there's no need to hide
Born free, and life is worth living
But only worth living
'Cause you're born free

We begin by viewing a most interesting 40 minute film about the couple. An unusual individual, Joy had three marriages, was an accomplished painter of plants and African people, and became a committed wildlife champion. After looking around her home, now a museum full of memorabilia about her life, we partake of tea and cakes on the front lawn overlooking Lake Naivasha and watch the black and white colobus monkeys playing in the trees. It is lovely to relax; I realize again that we are becoming tired with all the travel and the amazing things we have seen and done. As we leave we inspect the land rover that George was driving when he was shot and killed by Somali bandits in northern Kenya.

We return to Fish Eagle Camp for our final night in our Oz tent, for the next day we travel to Nairobi where we stay in more upmarket and stylist accommodation.

Posted by rhinospin 21:39 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

21. Into Kenya

Lake Victoria and Tea Country

From the Serengeti, we head north to Musoma on Lake Victoria. We have been travelling seven weeks and we are all getting a little weary. But a very pleasant stopover on the peaceful lake with an upgrade to a motel unit overlooking the water revives us. Tanzania is one of three countries that borders Lake Victoria, the others being Uganda, which we visited in 2010, and Kenya, where we will be in a day or two. There are obviously still large fish to be caught in the lake, for a fisherman comes by showing off his catch, three quarters of a metre long and twenty to thirty kilograms in weight.

It is Saturday evening and two different wedding parties arrive for photographs on the lake front, providing entertainment for the muzungu. The parties are serenaded by bands on the back of vehicles, one with live musicians and their instruments. Radiant brides in full white regalia, dapperly suited grooms, beautiful adorned bridesmaids, flower girls and page boys, flamboyant mamas in the latest fashion, guests swaying to the music – everyone loves a wedding. Martin and Graham ask if they can take photos and the wedding parties are only too happy to parade their finery. Judy and I are more hesitant to intrude, watching in the background.

As we leave Musoma next morning, we are met by a stream of young bikers carrying charcoal bags into town. One after the other, precariously balancing their loads, they step it out uphill, straining with all their strength to get to the top of the slope. Then they mount and fly downhill at full speed, oblivious of the danger should the heavy load topple over, expressions of intense pleasure on their faces. Charcoal is big business in Africa, causing severe deforestation in city hinterlands. Dar es Salaam, for example, burns 12,000 tons of charcoal every day, we read in a magazine in the motel.

Near the Tanzanian-Kenyan border there are a number of police check points and we are asked questions indicative of increased security, like where we have come from and where we are going. At the border, chaos rules; there are no signs or lanes indicating where to go. We come to a barrier where we stop. It is apparently the gate into Kenya. A man asks us if we are leaving Tanzania. Yes, we reply. Well, you have to go back to passport control, he tells us. We have inadvertently driven straight past it. As we turn around two men tell us where to park – in two different places. Form filling and passport stamping follows. Now we are ready and in line to go through. But we are told to clear the road and wait. Where can we park? The road is narrow with no lanes and little parking. Martin manages to back into a small space and we wait. A long line of trucks rattle past – it is obviously their turn. Eventually we are issued through into the Kenyan side.

In an old office at the back of a building reached via a narrow passage way, there is enough room for one official behind an old desk and for two people to stand waiting to be served. There is nowhere to fill in the form we are given except outside in the narrow corridor against the window sill. I line up at his desk and he fills in my visa; I inspect it and see he has put today’s date twice, both for the day’s date and for my exit date from Kenya. Am I destined to stay in Kenya for good or should I leave today to avoid trouble? I point it out to him and after some consideration he changes the month to August. Good, now I can stay in his country for three months, though actually all I want is a couple of weeks. As I leave I notice new buildings beyond the fence, not quite completed; so soon there will be much better facilities.

Out of the Kenyan gate, heading towards Nairobi, the street is thronging with people, trading, dealing, buying, selling. Away from the town travel is slow with heavy traffic, occasional deep pot holes and vicious speed bars. In addition, Martin has to carefully watch the edges of the road, for the seal is often much higher than the side gravel. The locals find that the most convenient place to pass the muzungu is as he slows down to cross the judder bars; Martin needs eyes in the back of his head!

It is Sunday and Kenya is going to church. Deliverance church, Redeemed Gospel church, Calvary Covenant church, King’s Outreach church, East Africa Pentecostal church, Trumpet Tabernacle church – these are some of names that I note as we travel. As well, there are the usual denominations - Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist and so on. Along the side of the road, well dressed church goers make their way to their local place of worship; families with little children beautifully decked out, men in suits or white shirts, women in elegant outfits and bright fabrics. In the supermarket Christian music is playing, but I suspect its style is European rather than African, and on the back of a mini bus I see a depiction of Jesus, but he is white; shouldn’t he be olive complexioned or even black? Would that not be more appropriate?

The day has been fine and sunny but in the early afternoon heavy rain begins to fall. Torrents of water run across the road and down both sides. Little children huddle under coats, and stall holders attempt to shift their merchandise into shelters. Four men scurry into a shop carrying a coffin covered in bright blue velvet fabric and three others squashed onto a motor cycle in their Sunday best suits hunch their shoulders as if to avoid the pouring rain. Africa looks miserable and dirty in the rain. But not everything looks poorly. We pass through a village with street lighting, grass lawns around the houses and fenced rural lotments beyond the homes, and I wonder why it is so trim. Someone tells us that the region is one of the densest rural areas population wise in the world.

The road climbs higher into the western hill country of Kenya. The landscape is a rich tapestry of different shades of green. Most rural houses have corrugated iron roofs and are scattered across the cultivated plots rather than grouped in clusters to form villages. Soon we enter tea territory. The plantations are brilliantly green and immaculately clipped; pickers make their way through the narrow corridors, baskets under their arms or on their backs, gathering the fresh leaves. Orderly rows of small identical cottages line the gentle slope, providing housing for the plantation workers that seems of a superior quality to other rural houses.

Our accommodation is the Tea Hotel at Kericho, a former elegant and substantial colonial guest house surrounded by a tea plantation. High ceilings, wide entrance way and hall, large lounge with graceful French doors opening onto the patio and garden, four course dinner with utensils stylishly laid out, waist coated waiter there to serve just for our table – it all speaks of a past glory that is now ebbing away. For the hotel shows little evidence of maintenance and repair. Roof tiles are cracked and broken and light bulbs are missing in our bedroom – yes, we have upgraded again because of the rain and the long hours of travelling.

However it is a pleasant stay with the gardens providing a relaxing place to wander. Martin spends half an hour next morning in the car park with a hose and a bucket of water washing the Serengeti off the land rover, greatly improving its appearance and my ability to stay clean as I get in and out of my seat. Meanwhile news has reached the local tourist trinket vendors that we are staying in the hotel and they arrive in the grounds to display their wares. Inevitably we make some purchases. The morning, after yesterday’s rain, is clear and crisp, and we head off to Nakuru on our way to Nairobi.

Posted by rhinospin 21:36 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

20. Discovering The Serengeti

The famous great migration

The Serengeti is the most famous of all the African national parks and game reserves. But visiting the park is expensive. I have no idea until Eddie presents us with our permit of entry, itemising the amounts. We have already paid our share in our payment for the whole trip, but it is interesting to look at the details. The entrance fees for our group of six people for two days are $720, the cost of taking three vehicles into the park is $240, and the camping fees for 6 people for 2 nights are $360. All in US dollars. That’s a total of $1320. It’s enough to make you catch your breath and determine to value every moment in the park.

The whole Serengeti region includes the national park itself, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. To reach the park, we need to travel through the Ngorongoro area. We leave a cold wet Mto Wa Mtu early in the morning, and climb the road up the escarpment to a viewpoint where we look down on the blue of Lake Manyara and the green of the national park forest. The land slopes gently from the top of the escarpment, green and leafy with subsistence cropping, shrouds of mist covering the hills. We travel through a series of wet muddy villages and towns, each with their rugged speed bumps, and we stop to fuel up. Martin does the refuelling and I have time to observe my surroundings.

Only the main street, lined with small shops, is sealed; I wonder what conditions were like in this weather before the tar sealing; it must have been hard to escape the mud. The local people, shoppers and traders, are dressed for winter with warm jackets and coats. It is the first time I have noticed this in Africa. A tuk tuk struggles up the hill, overloaded with passengers. Several land rovers full of Europeans, probably overseas tourists on their way to Lake Manyara, race through town. They, like us, are in their own little comfortable world, cocooned from the life of the town and its dirty footpaths and maize porridge for dinner. Locals pass by our vehicle, unaware of my observation, intent on their cell phone to their ear. As one woman chats animatedly to her unseen friend, I wonder at how readily she has adapted to some aspects of the modern world.

As we reach Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the rain falls more heavily. We enter thick jungle on both sides of the narrow winding gravel road. Eddie and Jan have already warned us in ‘team talk’ time to proceed with great care as the road is poor and other drivers leave a lot to be desired in their highway manners. As we climb to 2200 metres, it is impossible to see very far ahead, for thick mist blankets everything. But I can just make out a dozen olive baboons clustered in the middle of the road, content to sit there until our vehicle is just about on them. We stop at a viewpoint along the crater rim, the large volcanic caldera within the conservation area, and stare into the soupy fog, not a vestige of the grassland crater below to be seen.

In the mist we pass the cairn to Michael and Bernhard Grzimek. Father Bernhard was a German zoo director and conservationist who did much to highlight the need to conserve the Serengeti. His film and best-selling book, ‘Serengeti shall not die’, became very popular and contributed to the creation of the Serengeti National Park. His son Michael followed him down the conservation track, but died in a plane crash in the Serengeti in 1959 and was buried on the Ngorongoro crater rim. When his father died some 30 years later, his ashes were placed there too. The words to Michael read: ‘He gave all he possessed including his life for the wild animals of Africa’. We remember we are still in Masai country, for we meet several groups of Masai herders and their goats and cows along the road. Land in the conservation area is multi-use and unique as the only conservation area in Tanzania that protects wildlife while allowing human habitation and subsistence cropping.

The mist and low cloud begin to lift, and by the time we reach the turn-off down into the crater, we can see part of the wide grassland basin and the crater lake. We stop to take a photo but do not descend into the crater, for our destination is the Serengeti. The landscape changes dramatically: from luxuriant green jungle to savannah dotted with acacia trees to dry open grassland, some of it sparse and overgrazed. We pass zebra and wildebeest and in the distance several Masai villages, upright staved fences encircling the humped mud huts and red clad women gathering their cloaks around them as if to fend off the cold. The view opens to a broad sweep of extensive grassland, across which wander lines of grazing brown and black cattle. We pass some on the road, their protruding ribs evidence of insufficient feed.

The weather is now fine and sunny and the dusty road descends towards the Serengeti plains. We see a group of majestic giraffe, then some Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles. Finally we pass under the Naabi Hill Gate into the park and stop for lunch. The grassland becomes longer and more luxurious and we spot more wildlife – gazelles, wildebeest, buffalo, zebra and elephants.

Wikipedia says the Serengeti, established in 1951, is the jewel in the crown of Tanzania's protected areas, covering 14,750 square kilometres of savannah, forest and woodland. Today the park protects the greatest and most varied collection of terrestrial wildlife on earth, and one of the last great migratory systems still intact. It is the migration that makes the Serengeti so famous. Over a million wildebeest and about 200,000 zebras flow south from the northern hills to the southern plains for the short rains every October and November, and then swirl west and north after the long rains in April, May and June. And we are among the more than 90,000 tourists that visit the park each year.

Before reaching our camping ground we take the opportunity at the park centre to peruse the informative material about the wildebeest migration. The centre is sited beside one of the kopje or rock formations, common in the area, where the hyrax or dassies run in and out of the rock crevices. They are small cute mammals a little larger than a guinea pig, but apparently related to the elephant family.

Despite the substantial fees, our campsite, Nyani, consists of three very simple but sizeable concrete block shelters – a kitchen, a toilet and shower block and a dining space where we provide our own tables and seats. In the middle is a rough sparsely grassed area for erecting tents; there are no fences and wild animals are free to wander through. In fact, we don’t see any, though we hear the jackals and hyenas at night.

On our first and second day in the park we have three expeditions to view the game, in the late afternoon, after setting up camp, at 6.45 the next morning until early afternoon, and then later in the day from mid-afternoon until early evening. That gives us plenty of opportunity to see a variety of wildlife. The park is not overflowing with specimens as you might imagine from watching nature documentaries, but there is enough to hold our interest. The best area with the highest concentration of animals is along the river, on both sides of which run gravel roads, allowing easy access to the water.

It is fascinating to watch the numerous groups of elephants, sometimes clustering together in a protective huddle under trees, other times walking in a long line one after the other through the grass. The babies are so appealing and always well looked after by the herd. Among the most common of the antelopes are the Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, slender and delicate like the South African springbok. The Thompson’s gazelle is a prettier animal with a black stripe along its flank, while the Grant’s gazelle is slightly larger and generally plainer but with its white rump patch coming up higher above its tail; their horns are also more lyre-shaped.

There are warthogs, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, baboons, dik dik, mongoose, hippo and buffalo. Two that I don’t remember seeing well in previous parks are the hyena, five running through the grass one after the other, and the topi, a reddish brown short horned antelope with dark blotches on the face and above the legs and a hump above the shoulders. As in other parks, the lions are a highlight. We see a number of different groups, some with cubs, some with a male lion. We watch as the king prowls around, finds an elevated dirt hillock and settles down to survey his kingdom. The females gather around and relax in his presence.

Later toward evening we witness a little drama. Across the river, I see a herd of buffalo running, all in the same direction, their lives dependent on escape; we stop the vehicle and I realize they are being pursued by three lionesses, fast and determined. As they disappear from sight, I see the male lion following more slowly behind; then he stops and looks across the valley towards us. Written on his face is the question: have they made a kill and will I enjoy a meal shortly? Night is falling and we need to be back at our camp site by 7.00pm, so we decide not to further follow the spectacle; but it is wonderful to be an eyewitness of nature in action.

On our final morning we leave the park via the western corridor, driving 150 kilometres to the Ndabaka Gate. It is there that we see the wildebeest migration in operation. As one golden plain gives way to another wide valley, the landscape is dotted with thousands of wildebeest, all on their way to the Masai Mara in Kenya. Black dots moving slowly against a background of green and brown savannah. They are strange looking creatures, with their humped shoulders, scraggy manes and goatee beards, short curved horns, and darker stripped coloration on their neck and body. We come across a lone confused young wildebeest, obviously separated from its mother; it runs and runs along the road in front of our vehicle until we overtake it; poor thing, it won’t survive long.

Zebra are part of the migration too, with their rounded rumps and clean black and white strips. A long line of zebra cross the road in front of us, following one behind the other like a procession of children organized by their teacher. Sometimes a few are scattered in amongst the wildebeest, sometimes they form large groups by themselves. It is so tempting to take yet another photo for the record. Eventually the numbers of migrating animals thin out and we are soon at the end of the park with half an hour to spare before our required departure time. We are so pleased to have been witness to part of the famous migration.

Posted by rhinospin 18:05 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

19. Among the Masai

A Masai Village and Lake Manyara National Park

The young man introduces himself as Jonathan and invites us to accompany him. He is dressed in a red check cloak, wrapped around his strikingly tall slim figure and he wears black leather sandals with soles made from rubber car tyres. He is a Masai warrior, from the tribal groups that live in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya.

We walk together to a nearby Masai village where he has arranged a visit for us; we pass several large vegetable plots and some donkeys laden with harvested grass for cattle fodder. “When I went to South Africa,” he says, “people at the airport offered to buy my clothing and my shoes. The colour of our clothing indicates our stage of life.” He tells us he had the privilege of visiting Nelson Mandela who showed great interest in the Masai people and their culture.

We arrive at the rudimentary village, a collection of circular and oblong mud-walled dirt floored huts, home to the one husband, his five wives and their 30 plus children. The older siblings are away at school but about a dozen little ones, some with obviously runny noses, cluster around us, the bolder ones wanting to hold our hands or be picked up. One small child hovers close to his older brother, afraid of the white strangers in his village. Most of the children have their heads shaven, but wear western style clothing. Jonathan tells us that this village is relatively small, for some Masai men may have up to 30 wives and 300 children.

“How many wives have you?” we ask. “Just one, and that’s all I expect to have, as I am a Christian,” he says. “I had to pay 15 cows as the bride price for her.” So far he has one little child.

Jonathan invites us into one of the houses and we sit on the couches learning more of the Masai culture. Cattle are highly valued, the basis of their wealth and their currency, providing a diet of meat, milk and blood. The village includes a circular fenced kraal where the cattle are kept at night; in the day, it is the job of the older boys to wander with the herd, finding grazing for them. He explains that boys are circumcised at 15; girls used to be, but it is now illegal. Jonathan implies that it is a practice of the past, but I have read that it is still carried out in places and valued as part of the culture. With all my heart, I hope that custom is soon dead and gone.

Jonathan tells us about a bush camp he attended where he ate herbs to clear his system. He walks everywhere, like his tribesmen who are used to walking long distances; however I see a young man arrive at the village on a motorbike and wonder if the long distance walking could be changing. Another force for change and modern tool is the ubiquitous cell phone.

Outside again, eight young men, attired in bright blue and red cloaks, arrive to entertain us with energetic song and dance. Their repertoire includes the athletic jumping dance, when one or more dancers leap high into the air as if they were springing on a trampoline and not on the hard bare earth. At the end they invite us to join them in the dance and one of them wraps his cobalt blue garb around me for a photo. Jonathan takes us through the small cultural museum near the camp site and explains more about their semi-nomadic lifestyle.

Beyond the campsite there is a cattle market which seems to take place over several days. We wander along the metal kraal railings, looking at the specimens for sale. They are domestic zebu or Brahman hybrids, with humps on their shoulders, drooping ears and large dewlaps hanging down below their chins; their ability to tolerate high temperatures makes them most suitable for the Masai environment.

In the evening we sit in the camp bar and listen to Ma tells how she and her husband, BJ, came from South Africa to Tanzania 20 years earlier, bought some land and established a snake park. One day an overland truck stopped by with vehicle problems and they asked if they could stay the night. So began the overland camping business; for some years they gave accommodation to many trucks, though the numbers have declined more recently.

We travel on through Masai country, with its herds of cattle and goats attended by check-clad minders. It is evident that overgrazing is a problem with little grass growth available for pasture. We are told that the Masai are reluctant to limit the size of their herds, symbols of wealth and prestige, but with modern land usage curbing the extent of their lands, overgrazing and erosion have resulted.

Our main purpose in camping at Mto Wa Mtu village is to visit Lake Manyara National Park. But there are other highlights. We buy a painting in the Tinkatinka art work style – in bright colours, with naïvely drawn caricatural African animals, particularly the big five. The style began in Dar es Salaam and has spread across the continent, aimed especially at the tourist market. But we like the cheerful humourous style.

A row of huts full of art sits along the main road near the camping ground entrance. But trade is poor at the low end of the tourist season. No wonder the eyes of the traders light up when we appear in the late afternoon.

“Come and look, Mama, come to my shop,” the second vendor implores after we have shown interest at the first booth. We wander on, keen to see if we like anything better. “I haven’t had a sale for two days,” says another. With the few tourists around, I am sure what he is saying is true, but we can’t please them all. At the last shop we turn around and return to the first hut. The in-your-face salesman introduces us to Sulemmi, the artist, who by way of contrast is shy and gentle. We negotiate to purchase two works, a small one for a grandchild and a larger piece for ourselves, both featuring elephants. We ask for them to be removed from their frames so we can roll them up in our cases.

In the evening two tuk tuks pick us up in the dark and take us to a village home for dinner, part of a community development project. We disappear off the main tar seal road and down an unlit uneven dirt lane. Where are we going? I wonder. I reassure myself that the expedition has been organised by our guides, so it must be okay. We splash through some puddles and a group of dogs bark in the darkness.

The community development worker introduces us to the home owner, a Moslem woman who has three children and two grandchildren. He tells us the village is a mixture of Moslem and Christian families living amicably side by side. Long may it stay that way, I think to myself. We are invited to see the kitchen where the cooking takes place. As we enter the small dark circular room, a woman stoops over some terracotta pots on the floor, several sitting on rocks over small fires. She stirs one of the pots and looks up at us with a smile. I wonder if anyone trips in the heat and darkness and burns themselves in the fire. I think of my kitchen at home with all my mod cons and determine never to grumble again about my cooking conditions.

There is electric lighting in the dining area where there is a table for the dishes. We sit on benches around the walls with members of the family, chatting pleasantly with the aid of the development worker. The very acceptable meal consists of about ten dishes, all vegetable except for the beef dish which is perhaps a little tough. Most of the dishes are very tasty, though I am not sure I could acquire a liking for ugali, a solid porridge-like substance made from millet or maize, widely eaten in this part of Africa. Someone brings in our hostess’s little granddaughter and Martin takes the opportunity for a cuddle, a substitute for the grandson born just before we left home, whom we haven’t seen yet. The tuk tuks arrive to transport us back to the camp ground and we agree it has been a most memorable evening.

Lake Manyara is the first of two Tanzanian national parks that are on our itinerary, the other being the Serengeti. It is a narrow stretch of flat land comprising forest and savannah lying between the shallow soda lake and the Rift Valley escarpment. The day is overcast and showery but I enjoy the self-drive trip immensely. We see lots of baboon, wildebeest, zebra, African buffalo, antelope and warthogs. The Masai giraffe there are the largest subspecies of giraffe and the tallest land mammal; the spots on their bodies have a jagged appearance and the dominant males tend to be darker, almost black from a distance. A family of banded mongoose play in the road dust until the noise of our land rover scares them and they scamper away. We spot a shy Kirk's dik-dik in the undergrowth; it’s a petit antelope, only 70 centimetres high.

A group of six large impressively tusked elephants pass us on the road, so close that we can reach out and touch them if we dare. As one overtakes the vehicle in front of us, he turns around and swings his trunk menacingly towards it. I watch as the couple inside, with their pop top elevated, instinctively duck as if to avoid him. If it was me, I would be petrified. Fortunately the animal backs away and turns to follow his companions. What amazing creatures they are!

The highlight is a group of tree-climbing lions. We round the bend and there they are, relaxing in the branches of a large tree beside the road, surrounded by several vehicles filled with open-mouthed captivated humans, all snapping their cameras. There are at least nine lions including two or three cubs up in the tree. We are entranced. From time to time they stretch their limbs and shift their positions a little, but mostly they are at peace, enjoying the afternoon warmth and unfazed by their audience.

The bird life is varied and Martin enjoys focusing his lens on species like the saddle billed stork and the grey crowned crane, the national bird of Uganda. But it’s the 1000s of flamingos that particularly attract our attention, even though we can’t get close to them. Standing in the shallows of the lake they form a pink band of bright colour across the blue water. Lake Manyara NP may be small, but it is really beautiful and well worth a day’s visit.

Posted by rhinospin 17:38 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

18. Out of Dar es Salaam

Traffic mayhem on the city streets

The heavy rain continues all night and by the time we take the tents down (left up during our stay on Zanzibar), everything is sodden. We line the land rovers up in the ferry queue about 7.30am for an early start to the day, but the streets are gridlocked and nothing is moving. No one knows what the problem is and after waiting for nearly an hour to board the ferry, Eddie decides we will drive the long way around. It gives me plenty of opportunity to observe city life from my elevated land rover perch. Join me on a journey through Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city of nearly 4 ½ million people. Literally its name means ‘harbour of peace’, but driving through is anything but peaceful.

In the countryside wide areas of low land are flooded after the recent rain and muddy puddles abound. As soon as we reach the outskirts of the city, throngs of people converge around the bus stops and the mini buses overflow with passengers; three wheeler taxis dodge between the buses, and motor cycles, bearing three or four passengers, weave precariously in and out of the trucks. We pass a bicycle truck loaded with sugar cane, hanging wide over both sides and out the back, vulnerable to any small bump or accident.

Football is highly valued in the culture, for we pass two huge circular stadiums dedicated to the adoration of the sport; a team of yellow T-shirted young men jog by, singing as they go. Goats browse in the rubbish piles beside the road and a man sleeps with his feet on the tarmac, oblivious of the traffic mayhem.

It is a world of traders. Beds for sale are laid out on the rough grass next to stacks of timber. Vendors come along side our vehicle at the traffic lights, offering a myriad of merchandise – a red emergency triangle, a fire extinguisher, a mini vacuum cleaner, ear phones, and soda drinks, anything you need as a driving accessory. When a young man offers to wash our windscreen, we yell, ‘no, no’. But he goes ahead and we agree that it does look good, much better for snapping photos. I hand him a 1,000 shilling note, the smallest I have. Cyclists risk life and limb to sneak across the traffic lights between the changes.

I watch in amazement as one woman helps another lift a package on to her head, an item so heavy that the pair struggle to raise it up to head height. The heat inside the land rover increases as the sun comes out, raising the humidity in the damp environment. We pass churches and mosques. Women dressed in bright colours, covered from head to foot against the dust, sweep the road edge. Another worker wields a grass slasher with one hand, expertly mowing the centre verge.

Martin frowns behind the steering wheel, intent on his driving, refusing to give an inch to the other vehicles. He goes through a red light, fearing to lose Eddie in the lead vehicle. In front a man struggles to peddle his bicycle, laden with bulging bags of charcoal, one on top of the other, so heavy that the rider can hardly steer – I count nine bags. Another cyclist carries trays of eggs, ten high on his back carrier, balancing between the buses and trucks. White uniformed police beckon the traffic onwards, seeking to disperse the congestion.

In the chaos, we come to a halt behind a truck, broken down in our lane. As other vehicles nose in from the left, Martin, perspiration increasing, attempts to change lanes to the right and pass the truck. As he crosses the line, a bus driver gives him a loud blast with his horn and rumbles past; no one voluntarily lets another into his space. Other motorists seize the moment of opportunity to gain a few feet. Half a dozen police start pulling all the buses over to the side of the road, but they wave us through. The heavy traffic temporarily easies and we relax a little.

We turn onto another main arterial route and recognise it as the one with the new bus shelters that we travelled on five days earlier. We find ourselves unintentionally in the concrete bus lane and forced to stop behind a bus that has broken down. No, it seems it has run out of fuel. Martin extricates himself from the stationary line and rejoins the slowing crawling traffic, only to find we are at a standstill again behind road works. Everyone fights to change lanes again. A truck load of bananas strewn over the road adds to the chaos. A truck ahead spews out thick black evil smelling smoke. We pass him and breathe again. Then six army Leyland trucks drive towards us on our side of the road, adding to the bedlam.

The dual carriage way ends and the congestion increases on the old road. The trading on and off the road is endless – local tomatoes and potatoes, plastics from China, newspapers, bikes, bananas. I note a building with the grand name of ‘Glory to God Miracle Centre’; it carries a cross, so it must be a church. We swerve around another broken-down vehicle, this time a petrol tanker. We are almost in the country now, surrounded by plots of maize, but travel is no faster at 25 kilometres per hour. At last we reach a ‘Safari Njema’ sign, announcing farewell and bon voyage. We are officially out of Dar es Salaam after nearly three hours of driving. And hallelujah, there’s a weigh bridge into which all the trucks are issued. The road clears and we speed up. Another sign announces ‘Nende Polepole’, ‘slow down’, a timely reminder.

It is a long day. It takes another lengthy day of driving to reach Meserani Snake Park beyond Arusha, where it is a relief to do our washing and dry off our saturated gear after more wet weather. Debs from Africa Expedition Support has driven down from Nairobi to meet us and give our guides our Serengeti documentation. We talk into the night on a range of absorbing African topics – poaching and conservancy, the overland tourist business, politics and the impact of international aid and development. They are all thought provoking subjects with no simple conclusions.

We are in Masai territory, looking forward to learning about these remarkable people.

Posted by rhinospin 17:39 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

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