Monday, March 20, 2017

Trip to Kenya and Tanzania

I know that many of you  have all heard about the recent trip to Africa that Lora, Maya, Brian and I took in bits and pieces, and perhaps seen a few of the pictures on FB or in other places but after having been back for over a for a few weeks now, I thought I’d attempt to describe trip as a whole since it does not make total sense out of context.  

The trip began because Maya’s travel conference for ASTA this year was in Nairobi and Lora, Brian (Maya’s fiancĂ©e) and I all decided to take advantage of it.  The plan that we came up with was to visit two places each in Kenya and Tanzania.  As exotic as Africa sounds, there was no way this crew was going to rough it.  In Kenya, we stayed at the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi and the Savona Camp in Masai Mara. In Tanzania, we stayed at the Mbuze Mawe camp in the Serengetti and the Sopa Lodge at the Ngorongoro Crater. While the everyday language of people in Kenya is Swahili, many people (especially those in the service areas that deal with tourists like us) people speak English since Kenya was under British rule for so long, so communication was pretty easy for us there. Tanzania was a bit tougher in terms of language.  Swahili is the main language and even though some people speak English, even for most of those in the tourism industry, it is clearly a foreign language.  In preparing for the trip, we had to think about what money we would use.  I was able to Kenyan shillings through our bank, but the Tanzanian shilling is pretty unstable and not available out side of Tanzania, so we ended up just using Kenyan and American money there.

We left from Newark airport at 6:30 PM on the Feb. 23 and arrived in Nairobi, the next evening at 9:50 PM.  This included about a 4 hour layover in Amsterdam and was actually a longer trip than it appears since there is an 8 hour time difference between NJ and Kenya.  When we arrived at the airport, we ran into our first (and really only unexpected obstacle) of the trip. The driver that was supposed to be there to pick us up at the airport to take us to the hotel never showed up.  After going back and forth with the company who was supposed to have sent him, we ended up taking a cab, but it worked out well.

When Maya originally made inquiries about Nairobi, she got the response that it was just a big, dirty city, but we found out otherwise.  To begin with, we stayed at the Stanley Hotel, the oldest hotel in Nairobi and a throwback to the British Colonial days. It was absolutely beautiful and the staff could not have been better. We’d come in a day early so we had hired a driver to take us around.  His name was Martin and her was terrific. (In fact, all of the drivers/guides we had in Africa were excellent.)  One of the main points that we wanted to hit was the Sheldrake elephant rescue.  A few years back, Maya had given Lora the gift of an elephant adoption. Her elephant, Kamu, had been at this shelter, but had since been moved out.  It was an interesting experience to see how they rescued and cared for the elephants.

In addition to the Sheldrake, we visited the Train Museum, the National Museum of Kenya (which was a historical and cultural museum), a marketplace and Uhuru Park, which celebrated the birth of Kenya as a nation. Martin also took us off the beaten track a bit to show us the residential areas where the Kenyan people themselves lived.  The driving in Kenya was among the craziest that I have even seen. As Martin said, red lights mean nothing and if you decided to stop at one, you are likely to be rear-ended. It was kind of a free for all, but, unlike Philly, there was not a lot of horn-honking or shouting. The conference itself was fraught with technical difficulties, but that did not dampen our spirits.
            To get to our next location we had to take off from the small Wilson airport in Nairobi.  The waiting room was probably about the size of the floor area in our house.  In fact, when they called us out on the tarmac to get on the flight, there were 10 people.  The pilot discovered that two more people were going to be coming on board, so they sent us all back in to wait so that they could lessen the amount of fuel they were carrying and redistribute some of the luggage weight on the plane.  Unfortunately, because it was flying at such a low level, Maya and I both got motion sickness.
As our plane descended, we saw zebras by the side of the air strip. When our plane landed, we were met there by our driver and guide, Edward (who was terrific) who had a an open air all-terrain vehicle to take us to the next camp.  Edward met us with a lunch (though Maya was not feeling much like eating at that point). 
The area that we had landed is called the Masai Mara.  It is a huge game park in Kenya.  The land had all belonged to the Masai people (who were semi-nomadic) at one point in time, and hence, the name.  Edward drove us to the place we were going to stay, the Sarova Mara Camp.  On the way there, we immediately knew that we were in the heart of Africa. We saw zebra, water buck, impalas, wildebeest and even Masai herding their cattle on our journey to the lodge.  The day was warm and the sun shining, even Edward told us that we had exceptionally good luck in the amount of animals that we were seeing.
Although the Sarova Mara is called a camp and we slept in “tents,” they were tents with all the features of a hotel room.  There was a dining hall with buffet style dining containing some of the best food we have ever eaten, dishes coming from all over the world.  In fact, the camp kept an organic garden where it raised and experimented with new vegetables.  We met the head gardener there, James, who wanted me to try spider plant.  A green-leafed plant that he was trying to get onto the kitchen buffet. He asked if I wanted to try it for dinner – and I did – so he had it cooked up for me specially. 
Before I left, he gave me seeds from some of his medicinal herbs.
            The morning of the next day, we got rose when it was still dark and drove out to where we were going have a sunrise hot air balloon ride. The basket for the balloons were larger than the one I had been in with my son Pat the previous year.  They were divided into four sections, each holding two people and one additional crew member.  Lora, who hates heights, braved the trip and actually began enjoying it after the first ten minutes or so.  The balloon took us up over the Mara where we saw elephants, lions, wildebeests, zebras, warthogs, and a variety of antelope.  At one point, the captain lowered the balloon so we came right down to the top  tree where a lion family was resting. The balloon landed in an area that was set up for us to have a picnic lunch.  A baboon was sitting watching us, waiting for the scraps when we left.  A herd of zebras was also near us.
            That afternoon and most of the next day were spent on safari. During that time we saw the animals I have mentioned above as well as hyenas, jackals, hippopotamuses, mongooses, elands, dik diks, vultures, ostriches, hartebeest and cape buffalo. One special treat was the spotting of African hunting dogs, which are extremely rare and which are driver himself had not seen in several years.  I neglected to mention that all of the roads were dirt, most of them a red clay and our driver, Edward, frequently just cut paths across the terrain.  It rained almost every day. The most dramatic was the first night that we were there.  We were quite a ways from the camp when the sky darkened and it began to rain.  As it got dark and lighting was flashing, Edward, rolled down the sides of the car. Because of flooding roads the previous day, the roads were covered with water in some places and deeply rutted in others, so that the swerving and bouncing was literally like something out of an action move.  Edward was not allowed to turn on his lights because it would cause some of the animals to freeze and get hit by the vehicles, so when the lightning flashed we see zebra or Thompson’s gazelles crossing the roads right  in front of us. At several points we found ourselves in the midst of a herd of Masai cattle who had been herded (illegally) into the park to graze at night.  When the ride ended all of us applauded.  It was definitely exciting – the best piece of driving I have ever seen.
            On the second day there, between safari outings, we visited a Masai Cultural Village.  In a sense, it was a tourist trap, but in another sense, it was the real deal. The Masai traditionally follow the growth of the grasses with their cattle. They make temporary houses out of mud and cattle dung that are arranged inside of a circle surrounded by a fence made of brush. Though I say that they take advantage of tourists, I mean they charge you for everything they show you – though we were the only ones there, so it was a personal tour including dancing, going into their houses, a small market where they sell souvenirs, traditional fire starting, and the bleeding of the cattle where they use the blood for food. They are incredibly poor, their houses like smoky caves, so we did not mind having to give up the money.
            After three days at Masai Mara, we left for our next destination. Edward drove us to the landing strip that we had first come in on and the plane took us out.  We landed at the Migori airport (smaller even than Wilson) where a driver and guide picked us up and drove us the rest of the way to the Tanzanian border.  There they helped us to get our visas for Tanzania and get through the border, and then we drove over the border to Tanzania and headed for the Tarime air strip.  The air strip is just what it sounds like a field where planes landed the only structure on the field was a restroom.
            The next plane was even smaller. We were the second of two stops and by the time we arrived in the Serengetti, we were the only three people on the plane.  When we landed at the air strip in the Serengeti, we were met by our Tanzanian driver/guide, Basili who picked us up in his jeep.  He was young, gregarious and – as we found out – extremely knowledgeable. Unfortunately, for Basili, he faced the double issue of our being exhausted from the extensive travel and our having seen a huge variety of animals on the Masai Mara, so we were a bit hard to impress. Two animals that Edward had been unable to find were the leopards and rhinos.  On the way to our lodging at Mbuzi Mawe Camp, Basili was able to spot two leopards in trees – though from our vantage point, they were basically shadows.
            The Mbuzi Mawe camp was located in the northeast part of the Serengeti. Basili explained to us that one of the reasons we were not seeing the big herds of animals that people coming to the Serengetti expected to see is that the migration took a huge circular path through Kenya and Tanzania, and that currently all of the herds were down in the southern part of Serengeti.  The Mbuzi Mawe camp was perched high atop an outcropping of rocks with a view of the valley below. As with the Sarova camp, our tents were tents in name only. There were, however, some differences. The first was that if we were to go outside of our tents in the dark, we had to call for someone from the staff to guide us because the ground was open to all of the animals. In fact, the second evening that we were there, Maya and Brian were guided back to their tent, only to see two cape buffalo and a water buck next to it.  The place also had small rock hyraxes running all over, they are small guinea pig size animals that, incredibly, are related to elephants.  Water was shut off periodically as well, as Brian found out once when he was showering with his hair full of shampoo.  Here the food was served in courses, where you picked the selection that you wanted from each course. Because this was Tanzania, communication was a bit more difficult.
            We were only at Mbuzi Mawe for one full day. In the morning Basili picked us up early. We saw a stream full of hippos and witnessed some of the social interaction among them. We saw crocodiles as well. Basili was very knowledge about the birds in the area, so in addition to the ostriches, we saw other large birds like secretary birds, Kori bustards, and a number of eagles and vultures as well as a lot of the colorful ones that lived in the thorn acacia trees that the giraffes ate.  In the Serengeti, we had to stick to the main (dirt) roads so could not always get as close as we wanted, but the streams that went through gave us a chance to see more animals that hung around the water. That afternoon it poured.  We barely made it back to camp before the storms became almost violent.
            The next morning it was time to head off to our final lodging destination at the Nogorongoro Crater with plans to stop along the way at Olduvai Gorge. Basili suggested that we take a detour via a more southerly route to see if we could see animals in the great migration.  And indeed we did.  At one point, as far as you could see wildebeests and zebra stretched from one horizon to the other.  Usually, the wildebeest charged across the road in front of us but on one occasion, one was blocking the road.  The reason was that she was protecting a young calf, which Basili said could only have been a few minutes old and was still trying to learn to stay on its legs.  We ate lunch at a place designated “Lion Rock” because it was the spot where producers of the lion king had drawn their inspiration from for the rock in the movie.
            One of the most remarkable things on our way to Oldevai Gorge once we left the Serengeti was the incredible changes in landscape, they range from deserty scrub land to lusher areas covered with trees.  In the dry areas we saw many Masai herders, but here they were herding sheep and goats.  Oldevai Gorge, of course, is the area where Louis and Mary Leaky discovered some of the first remains of our human-like ancestors (notably Zinjanthropus and Homo Habilis).  We through the museum there and heard a short talk, but simply standing staring out over the Great Rift Valley where all excavations had been done was really memorable.
            Our final lodging was at the Sopa Lodge on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. It was without question a luxury resort, created in a very throwback African inspired style. The crater itself is a caldera, an extinct volcano that provides an environment for almost all of the African animals that we had previously seen, but these animals did not migrate. On our only full day there, we drove down into the crater. The crater was rimmed and overhung with clouds. It had a misty, other worldly appearance.  We saw a lake full of flamingos and – at long last – the endangered black rhinoceros which survives in few other places in the world.  We saw many of the animals we had seen before, but a few new ones like a black-eared fox.  Basili also pointed out some of the wild plants that the people living in the area used for food.  He helped me collect seeds for some wild spinach.

            Our final day was a long one.  We drove for several hours through the various towns and villages of Tanzania to the city of Arusha. There we caught a plane that flew us to Dar Es Salaam. We had an eight hour wait at the Dar Es Salaam airport, which we had to exit because of changing to an international flight, and were not allowed back in the airport until three hours before the flight which took place at midnight. We bought a pack of cards and hung out in the only available venue – a Burger King type restaurant called Tasty Life. We bought a pack of cards and played cards to pass the time. Once we were able to board our flight, it was another four hour stop in Amsterdam, and then home.