Kenya

“Last Thoughts on Africa”

“It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos.”
-Ryzard Kapucinski The Shadow of the Sun

 

“It changed my life.” I’m not sure what that means exactly. Growing up, one tends to hear that uttered by some co-ed on a MTV reality show or by a friend that goes down to Mexico for Spring break. It’s hard not to be dismissive of it.

And then there is Africa.

Epiphany. Moment of clarity. Pure inspiration. All overused, hyperbolic words these days. How do you isolate it when it happens to you? What’s the difference between joy and realization? I can’t say, but what I can do is give you some idea of what it’s like to be there. But as to that land’s effect on me- it’s immeasurable. It has influenced my education, my tastes in film and music, informed songs I have written, decor in my house, and certainly ways of thinking and views of the world at large.

The path to Africa was paved by a young lady who had to decided to teach in Kenya for one year upon graduation from college. I had to good fortune of getting to know her a few months prior to her departure. I explain this because this allowed for a different kind of vacation. I wasn’t merely going to a safari and staying in some gaming lodge for a week. I can say this with certainty- that is not the way to experience Africa. Africa is not big animals and fancy meals with a pack of Brits. I was, and am, incredibly fortunate to have seen the place for everything that it is–primal, beautiful, imperfect, wild, unpredictable, transcendent, frightening, natural. I would be there over 6 weeks total (two different trips).

“More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere, the sun.”

There is no easy way to Africa. Last I heard, the only direct flight to anywhere on the continent was from Atlanta to Cape Town, South Africa. But Cape Town is not Africa. That’s another story though. So to get to East Africa (or anywhere but the country of South Africa), you have to go through London or Amsterdam or some major European city. That means a long ride and a longer layover. But you must rest when you can because you don’t want to sleep the whole 2nd leg of the trip. Get a windowseat and get ready for a scene from heaven- sunrise over the Sahara Desert. Whatever image that conjures up in your mind- it is beyond that.

The light. It’s a recurring theme in Africa as a whole and certainly in Kenya. Light years to get there. The physical onslaught of the sun on this land. Mostly, the light of the people. Shining personalities- that’s what I remember the most. That’s what puts a smile on my face when I think about my time there. It’s the reason I can still write about the place vividly. It never leaves you. All of this combines into a force I truly can’t explain, but it knocks you out upon arrival.

Nairobi. The modest yet bustling airport is a gateway to East Africa for all Westerners. There is definitely a better way to get acquainted with this land- perhaps coming down the Nile- because your first reaction (once you pick yourself up from the ground from that force i mentioned earlier) is to scoff at Nairobi. I remember landing and asking the guy next to me, who had been to Kenya on business over the years, where the animals were. He just laughed. “You gotta get through Nairobi first.” Imagine driving through Manhattan but throw in about 25% more bikes, about the same number of cabs (relative to the city size), and the freewheeling, demolition derby of the Matatus- transportation buses that are packed as tight as possible and are absolute deathtraps. I do not recommend that as your mode of transport. The city itself, as I remember it, is like the underbelly of most major American cities. It’s the other side of the tracks. Except here the other side of the tracks is absolute destitution. One of the biggest poverty camps in the world is here. We didn’t go near it, but I hear it makes Calcutta look like Paris. Don’t get me wrong- there are nicer parts of Kenya’s capital. I had the pleasure of staying there a night or two, but the only pleasure I got out of it was waking up to the Muslim Call to Prayer. A pretty sound if you have even the slightest interest in eastern/chant style of music.

Now for the real Kenya. About 30 minutes from the airport you start to see it. The hillsides are no longer covered in garbage. People aren’t coralled into small spaces. The air opens up. You start to feel the biorhythms. I have stated before to friends that there is something about the land of Africa. It pulses. Like I said before, vibrancy. I think it has something to do with the origin of man being, allegedly, in the Rift Valley. This is where we emerged from our ape cousins. And that’s what you take from the air and the land-emergence. Coming into being. You can feel it here.

The first time you truly get the sense you are in a different world is overlooking the Rift Valley. Some there call it the Cradle of Mankind. Some say many fancy things to get you to buy their arts and crafts too. It usually works. I found it hard to say no to these beautiful folks. The Kenyan people (an ambiguous term- more on that later) are genuinely a kind people. It took me all of one day to feel at home here. So when they wheel and deal with you- it’s all good-natured fun. You don’t feel like you are being swindled. They are generally happy to see you, and it makes for a pleasant experience. Some of my favorite days here were shopping days. Tip: bring an empty piece of luggage. You will need it to for all of your gifts and souvenirs.

As you continue along the Rift Valley you begin to realize that Africa is nature on steroids. I’m not just talking animals. The mountains are imposing. The grass is a lush green (especially in the Valley). The sky is blinding blue. It’s like going back in time. There still isn’t much development in Kenya (and all of the continent really) once you get outside of the major cities- and each country may have two of those at most. Nature is allowed to flex here and it is nothing short of thrilling. It adds to the pulse and the pleasure.

We stayed in a little town of Naivasha. Hearing that name is enough to make me smile and send chills roaring up my arms. It’s an oasis of beauty in the geographic center of Kenya. Its own center is the glittering Lake Naivasha.

Life in Naivaisha is centered on the lake. The wildlife either stay here or visit the lake during the day or night. Birds as colorful and gorgeous as you have ever imagined are constantly flying about. Giraffe cross the one or two paved roads to get a drink. Let me say that again- you will be driving along towards your destination and you will have to stop for a giraffe crossing. It’s every bit as stunning as what’s going through your mind right now. This is when I personally knew that my world was changing. The hippos also congregate here. You will only see them out of the lake, along the shore, at night. I do not recommend petting them, as cute as they may be. They will kill humans without a second thought. The best way to get a look at them is when they are in the water during the day, bathing and gallavanting. Don’t upset the hungry-hungry hippo.

The best way to experience the lake area is via horseback. If anything, they can get away from hippos much faster than you or I can. But they also allow for general sightseeing- the birds, the monkeys, and the lake and the land. You ride along in the shadow of nearby Mount Longunot in pristine fields, weaving around the unearthly trees, all the while watching the lake sparkle.

Within a couple of miles of the lake there are a bevy of activities- all absolutely worth your time. Elsamere is a special day trip around the lake. Here is what I wrote about in an email at the time:

“For those who have read or seen “Born Free”, you’ll know what I speak of. Joy Adamson’s work was all based from this place where she adopted an injured lion cub and then went on to do more of the same with other animals, gaining many accolades in the process. Pulling into the place seems regular enough (well, for Africa)- little clubhouse shaded by numerous trees, birds out the wazoo, etc. But once you get past the pay gate you see the charm of the place. Lake Naivasha envelops it- glittery, sparkling waters surrounded by small mountains. Anyhow, the main attractions, of course, are the animals. This place had a particularly great collection of birds including Hornbills and the gorgeous Starlings. Ah, but then you see what the REAL attraction is- the Colobus monkeys. They are black and white and furry with long tails…very striking.”

Just don’t walk too close to the monkeys with a tray of food in your hand. Yes, they will come after you. There is a nice video presentation on Joy Adams in the clubhouse as well. The food is fantastic.

Elsewhere in Naivasha, there is Hell’s Gate national park. Like the title says, the park is surrounded by this huge wall of earth- trees, cliffs, shrubs, etc. The first thing you notice- the zebras. Striking creatures. Africa is such a colorful place, but then you have this animal all black and white. I recommend finding a herd of them and just watching them gather speed across the savanna. As you get inside the compound you quickly come upon the main attraction- the warm people of the Massai! Herein there’s a small camp of approximately 50 tribespeople. One thing to note- there are tourist friendly Masai and there are purist Massai. All that I met (on both sides) were incredible people, but the purists will not take kindly to cameras. You’ve heard of tribes who think cameras will take a bit of your soul if your picture is taken. The Masai are one of those. However, the touristy Masai- like the ones in Hell’s Gate- will go to great lenghts to teach their customs and show you around their habitat. We were taken inside some of the huts and learned all about the building process, how the community is comprised, duties of various members of the tribe. They will even teach you how to play some of their games. Fascinating experience and well worth your time. We were given a tour of Hell’s Gate- the valleys, the river and its hotsprings, an amazing cliff overlooking the park. It’s a good bit of hiking, but you won’t realize how far you have walked. For the finale they will do one of their ceremonial dances and they just might ask you to join them. It may seem easy, but you can truly look ridiculous doing it. Trust me on this one.

Kongoni_Sanctuary

A short drive away, going away from the lake, is the Kongoni Game Sanctuary. This is actually where my abode was for my time in Kenya, in a little 2 bedroom house (that looked like a one-story log cabin except no logs) with a little kitchen and living room. Extravagant luxury by African standards. It’s more than you would ever need there. Hundreds of yards behind this house, the land opens up into this vast scene of green plains surrounded by mountains with wild animals such as antelope, zebra and giraffe (as well as the occasional rhino) roaming freely. This was the only time we rode in a designated safari style vehicle. Along with the ever-present Brits, we made our way all over the sanctuary. The highlight-although I am pretty sure he is not there any longer- is a cheetah named Teva. He was rescued as a cub and raised in a large holding area in Kongoni. The attraction, aside from seeing a cheetah in general, is that you could walk in and pet him. He was very docile, but I think he realized I am not a fan of cats. Thus, when i touched him (and he only did this to me, mind you), he flipped over from his laying position and proceeding to grasp my ankle with his jaw. Have you ever seen a cheetah’s teeth? Exactly. My ankle and I survived and the safari party had a nice laugh, as did the game warden. We continued to this level part of the prairie and the Kongoni management folks had laid out a beautiful wine and cheese spread. Nothing between us and the wild all around. That is the way to do it. Avoid safari vehicles if you can (more on that later).

Crater Lake

Near Kongoni is another beautiful, isolated sanctuary- Crater Lake. It’s not quite as stunning as the one in Oregon, but it’s damn sublime in its own right. The difference between visiting places in Africa and most anywhere else is the true wildness. You come around the corner and you really do not know what you will find. Yes, it is scary…but it is absolutely exhilirating and unforgettable. Case in point, we walked around the lake and down a dirt road that clearly had not been used very often, and as we chased away a couple of monkeys we were very mindful of Cape Buffalo storming in through the bush at any given time. Like hippos, they are deadly animals. And they are everywhere in Africa. Not just another stroll in the park. Give yourself a chance to walk among the wild at least once. That’s the best advice I could give to anyone going there.

I would be remiss if i didn’t mention two more places before exiting the Naivasha section: Acacia Academy and Fisherman’s camp. Acacia (named after the ubiquitous smallish trees that dot the African Savanna) is a privately owned primary school with students ages six to early teens. I had the pleasure of teaching P.E. there during my stay, and I must say the kids there were incredible. Attentive and respectful, but also joyful and vivacious. I still remember their names and faces. Pay them a visit, say hi to the kids, maybe donate some money. Fisherman’s, on the other hand, is for the big kids. It’s a loud British-style pub in the last place you would be looking for a loud British pub. It sits next to Lake Naivasha and is a favored spot by many of the British soldiers that are based in Kenya as well as western Peace Corps workers. I remember a lot of marginal food, hippo watching (at night) and a lot of loud Queen music. Somehow, even in the African outskirts, Freddie Mercury was the perfect choice.

One last note on Naivasha- no one really goes out at night unless they are looking for trouble or if they have no other choice but to *be* out at night (homeless or nomadic). That is a good standard to follow, but I will say that if you take a night drive you see some things you wouldn’t see otherwise. Many of the hallowed African animals hunt at night so there’s a better chance to see them in action. There is also the knowledge that anything or anyone is fair game at night in the wilds of Kenya. To some that may not be enticing, but it’s Africa and, thus, it is worth your time.

Finally, for the Naivasha region, my favorite spot- Crescent Island. I can’t tell you about this in any elaborate detail. I vaguely remember some small house on a hill and maybe a dog or two. I don’t remember how I got there. Did I imagine it? Sometimes I feel like I did. What I do remember is walking along some slice of Eden-along the shore of stunning Lake Naivasha, lush green land, a spectrum of birds and flowers…and walking alongside free roaming giraffe. You and girafee (among other animals) walking along together in one of their natural habitats. I recommend it.

Veering back to the touristy side of things, a quick puddle-jumper flight from Nairobi will take you to the coastal city of Mombassa. Like many third world coastal cities, its interior is nothing to speak of. Getting to the coast will give you all the glimpse you need-a reaffirmation of the fact that you shouldn’t leave the coast. Having said that, the payoff is worth it. The Africana Lodge is a Carribean-worthy coastal resort. Individual huts with all of the necessities (like a functioning bathroom and the ever-present mosquito net hanging over the bed), an attractive lobby area with good service and anything you would need (as long as you remember you’re in Africa). A nice pool with lounge/patio area is the central area for meals, laying out, watching Kenyan “escorts” pair up with German tourists, and even a visit from a local Masai tribe. The meals are exceptional, and at dinner there is often an amazing musical presentation of the East African variety. Drums and dancers! The draw of Mombassa, though, is the Indian Ocean itself. What it lacks in waves it makes up for with luminescence– it’s as though the Indian Ocean is not made of water but highly fluid mirrors. The sun hits you from all angles, and you are guaranteed the deepest tan of your life if you come here. Two great modes of transport here on the sands of the Indian– camels and wooden boats. Camel rides are abundant and if you can endure the widestance soreness post-ride it’s the only way to travel. Many entrepenureal young Africans will have their man-made wooden boats ready to take you out on the sublime seas. Part of the joy of the ride is listening to the Rasta-Kenyans’ take on his country, American politics, and the like. Oh, and Bob Marley. The dreaded captain will then pause for a snorkel excursion if you so desire.

One short trip along the coast gets you to one of the few jewels of inland Mombassa- Shimba Hills national park. A huge sign at the entrance has a quote from Jomo Kenyatta (first President of Kenya) stating the governments mission to protect its wildlife sanctuaries. This park, perhaps more than any other in the country, takes that very seriously. Much of the land here is pristine. Only a few well-worn dirt roads can be found. Within a few feet of entering the park, we saw quite a mass of grey ducking into the deep brush along the road. That turned out to be my first, but certainly not last, elephant sighting. If there are elephants roaming, you know the park is doing its job of preservation. We continued on, literally passing a strutting, enormous ostrich who had obviously decided the dirt road was the easiest way to travel. I do not advise sticking a video camera out of the window aiming at these creatures, however. Much like the purist Masai- they do not like it, and they will take a swipe at you with a powerful beak. The colorful, spirited guinea fowl dart across the road as you continue on to a winding road leading to a high ridge with another heavenly view. Cape Buffalo and the endangered Sable Antelope look on as you then walk down a jungle trail (accompanied by an armed guard– again, the wildness is all around) to an enchanting waterfall. Shimba is bliss.

Back inland, one perk of Naivasha being your homebase is that is central to many of the universally lauded national parks that bring thousands upon thousands of people to East Africa each year. There are so many of them- a credit to the Kenyan government- that we did not come close to seeing them all. Nairobi National Park, Tsavo, the Abederes, Lake Bogoria- these will be adventures for another time. But I can say that I visited three of these that I believe to be God’s personal canvass: Nakuru, Lake Baringo, and the Masai Mara/Serengetti.

Near the center of the country lies Nakuru. This was actually the last big trip I went on during my first visit to Africa, and honestly I did not expect much. I had already seen the Mara, the coast, so much that it had overwhelmed and spoiled me at the same time. But Nakuru is stunning. Compared to most of the parks I saw or read/heard about, it has the greatest diversity of land. Ridges of all altitudes, low level watering holes, mountains, dense forest, wide open meadows, and the otherwordly, gigantic Lake Nakuru. To get to the lake you drive (again, if you can afford it, rent your own car for this..no need for safari vehicles) through the varied landscape passing baboons, birds of all sizes, an astonishing array of mammals such as waterbucks, antelopes, dingos, and if you are lucky- lions and rhinos. I had seen lions at the Mara (read on) by this time, but had not seen my favorite animal the rhino. The beauty of Africa is that you can be driving down a dirt road in a sanctuary or park or just some wide expanse of nondescript land, with no one around, and you can suddenly come upon a modern dinosaur like the rhino. From about thirty yards away, we saw this incredible mass of life lumbering across the field in front of us. Dirty from cooling off in the mud, it made its way across the dirt road and stopped on the other side, like it was waiting for us to catch up to it. The beast peered at us and then made its way into the forrest on the other side. Later, we came upon a lone tree near the lake to find a couple of rhinos lying side by side in the shade. Common sense tip of the day= don’t get out of a compact car to get a better shot of rhinos, even if they are reclining in the shade. A rhino outweighs a compact car and has a big horn that could hurt you. I came close to finding that out firsthand.

The lake itself has a natural attraction about it. Slowly, you begin to realize what you are about to see. There is an old wives’ tail that says there are only a few things you can see from space (other than land and water masses)- the Great Wall of China ,the Staten Island landfill, and a colossal herd of flamingos in Africa. A giant pink dot on the Earth. It’s almost an illusion or a hallucination. What you don’t realize is that you are driving closer and closer, thinking you can drive all the way to the birds themselves. Nature knows better and protects its treasure by the ground going from solid dirt roads to a sulfuric white substance (i can only describe it as looking like a volcanic eruption’s aftermath) that looks like foamy rubber. Beneath that is deep mud that you cannot escape from. Suffice to say, one cannot get to within 50 yards of the birds in a vehicle. Having said that, one of my greatest memories is walking towards the lake and its pink inhabitants in the African sun. There are paths to get to high ridges and hills where you can get an aerial view of the lake (seen above) and I would not leave without doing just that.

Lake Baringo is a painting. It’s one of those places that is incredibly difficult to reach, but then somehow the harsh land reveals an oasis of remarkable beauty. Baringo and its more famous sister Bogoria are internationally known as meccas for birdwatchers. Do as I did and go to an open meadow next to the lake. Take some bread and scatter just a couple of pieces across the grass. Within two minutes you will have some of the truly gorgeous creatures in the planet eating from your hand (and they are wild, make no mistake). The lake itself is mesmerizing. High hills reign over the islands that dot Baringo and you can take -what else- a wooden ship tour of the island. If you are lucky, your guide will take you to the hot springs and its mystical powers. He or she may also pull a fish out of the boat and raise it high in the air a few seconds before flinging it, seemingly, back into the lake. Out of nowhere, the African Fish Eagle swoops down from the hills and takes it out of the air. Another mighty animal resides here- the crocodile. Be careful walking around the lake, but again you must do so. It’s enchanted. My experience here was like a dream. I can’t remember many more details of Baringo because it leaves your senses severed.

The Masai Mara (and adjoining Serengetti) is the crown of Kenya. It is the prime tourist destination in the country and most reknowned safari in the world. Some may find that to be a deterrant; I would have been one of those had I not seen it. But like The Beatles in rock music or The Godfather in film- sometimes the most popular thing can truly be the greatest of its kind. In other words- a well-deserved reputation. Rather than rhapsodize any further I will let my own words, fresh from the visit at that time, do the talking:

“The Mara stretches from south Kenya into Tanzania, and it includes the Serengeti, which is a name you might recognize. Vast fields resembling the wheat fields of the US, but not wheat at all. High grass, if you have ever seen “The Ghost and the Darkness”- it looks like that. There are scattered trees and bushes and watering holes throughout. It’s enclosed by a small mountain range, once you get higher up the grass gets greener. It’s breathtaking really…

The roads in Africa, especially on the route to the Mara- horrendous. We were bouncing around the whole way there, in the sanctuary, and on the way back…

Even before the Mara itself we saw Wildebeests crossing the road in front of us, Thompson Gazelles, Zebras, and even a tribesman who had all his flock in the road (goats, cows) and I decided to film that- he ran after me with his herding stick!…

So we enter the park and drive around for a while, seeing nothing but hoping for the best. We come across some antelope (at this point they’re right next to the road, gorgeous creatures) and big animals called Topi that look like a cross b/w horse and deer. Finally, we see a few safari cars parked around a bush and pull over there to find 3 cheetah just lying around! It’s one thing to see Teva in that big cage, but it’s another to see wild animals in their environment. We moved on to see different species of giraffe, countless birds, and then came upon a herd of baboons! One of them decided to mess with us and jump on the hood of our car! And another couple decided to express their love for each other in front of us…”

Simon (our driver we picked up on the side of the road..yes, we drove here in the compact car) started getting cranky when we wanted to stop and look at other animals, and we couldn’t figure out why. But we didn’t realize he was trying to beat sundown and take us to where he knew our next big animal would be- the king of the jungle itself- the Lion!… I’ll say that we were less than 15 feet from 3 of them. Two males (with those grand manes) anda female. One male was eating dinner (a buffalo). After that it was camping time. We had a guard (a Massai) the whole night so that any creatures of the night wouldn’t get us. It was a little scary, I’ll admit. Simon went to another camp with friends and came back the next morning at dawn, ready for day two. Off the bat, we saw lions walking in the brush. Moved on to a big herd of Buffalo. At least 50. In the background though, Simon and I caught a glimpse of another must-see- the Elephant! A HUGE one at that. So Simon took us right to him. He was just walking down the slope of a hill on the way to a watering hole. We got to within 25 feet…Simon then took us to another spot where there were 5 more elephants feeding. After two other safari cars had left, we stayed around and watched the big boys and girls (and a baby) walk the road in front of us. Simon starts chasing them! Not a high speed chase or anything, but enough to make them mad. So the big one at the end turns a 180, facing us ..We stop, of course, and the baby then turns and mimics his dad and starts waving its trunk at us! The big one yelled at us too. Just awesome. After that, we drove into the Serengeti (this is where the big Wildebeest migration is in the summer) and soon we were upon the Tanzania border. ..Drove to a creek and saw a big group of hippos (mostly underwater) doing their thing…

Finally –the leopard! This is, by most accounts, the hardest to spot b/c they are night/morning hunters. We found him slacking up in a tree in the mid-day sun. Laying there looking tired, but doing a nice pose for the camera. I think I would say this is the best looking of all the animals I’ve seen. Their coats are so defined and bright. Really sharply cut bodies. A sight to behold.”

Two musts here at the Mara: try not to go with a big group (or any group at all) and, if at all possible, camp out. We picked up Simon on the side of the road and he makes his money by driving visitors who have their own cars. He knew just where to go at the exact moment an animal would be there for the best picture possible. Always stick with the locals if you can. It helps the economy and it goes directly to the people who need it. It was like a private luxury tour in a Subaru hatchback. You do not need to experience a safari in a gas guzzling monster with 12 people. Camping out is the only way to experience a place like this. ( But you do need a guard…wildnesss abounds! ) I’ve never felt the earth like I did at this place. The rhythm. The pulse. The life.

epilogue:

Earlier I mentioned bringing a spare piece of empty luggage so you can bring home all of the African souvenirs, crafts, trinkets, etc. Better idea- bring a big piece of luggage and fill it with clothes or medicine or food and give it all away to the African people. Unfortunately, much of the charity money that makes its way to the continent is pilfered by corrupt governments. So called “street kids” are everywhere. Poverty and hunger are very real problems, even in beautiful lands like Kenya and Tanzania. Support the people. Do it yourself. Don’t leave it organizations or goverments.

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