Journal of My Trip to Kenya
I’m sitting in the San Francisco Airport with my daughter, Elizabeth. Out the window is the Pan Am jet that will take us to London. From there we will travel to Nairobi to go on safari. Africa! I’ve dreamed of going there since I was a boy. Of course, the Africa I dreamed of is the Africa of the 19th Century explorers--wild, unexplored, and largely uninhabited. Africa has been explored, colonized, and liberated from colonial powers--liberated to a degree, since today’s national boundaries reflect more the carving up of the continent by European powers than it does any grouping of African peoples.
Kenya, for example, the country we are going to visit, was once part of British East Africa. It is populated by diverse, and often inimical peoples: The Kikuyu, Luo, Meru, Embu, Somalis, and feared by all the others, the Masai.
Riots a month ago caused, at least in part, by friction between tribal groups, had jeopardized our trip. For a while, the U.S. State Department was advising against travel to Kenya, but when I checked yesterday, the advisory had been rescinded.
But seemingly transcending man’s petty politics are the animals of Africa: among them the tallest, largest, swiftest, and in general the most magnificent on the earth. It is the animals that draw me to Africa.
If man’s politics don’t seem to affect the animals, his economics do: the fight for land, between animals and people is a fight the animals can’t win. Worse, some animals, particularly elephants and rhinoceros, seem to have more value to some people dead than live. This, too, is why I go to Africa: I want to see--I want my daughter to see--these animals in the wild while it is still possible to do so.
We are now at the end of our layover in England. We stayed here with the Holzerlandt family. (Ria Holzerlandt is a friend of Elizabeth.) They live in a rural village just outside of London.
I feel as if we got a chance to see an authentic piece of England. Yesterday we had dinner in an English pub, and today we spent the day in Windsor: we saw the Windsor Castle and watched the changing of the guard. (Elizabeth and Ria spent the rest of the day marching around in cadence.) On our way to the airport we stopped for high tea.
Now we’re sitting in Heathrow Airport waiting for British Airways to start processing check-ins for our flight to Nairobi.
We hae now arrived in Mombasa. Our journey here was not without incident. Most significantly, I failed to retrieve our passports from the customs agent in Nairobi. I didn’t realize this until we arrived here in Mombasa. Then when we arrived at the Mombasa Beach Hotel the staff told us that it was over booked and they had no rooms available for us. When I went to take a picture with my camera, the camera wouldn’t work.
Fortunately, all of these crises have been resolved: the manager of the Mombasa Beach Hotel personally took us to another hotel, the Inter-Continental, and waited to ensure that we had a room. Flamingo Tours, the tour agency that is overseeing our way in Kenya, quickly located our passports and informed us that they will be waiting for us when we return to Nairobi. As for my camera, it was simply a dead battery. I had brought a spare from the U.S. so it was easily replaced.
I am writing this from a small alcove just outside our hotel room. I awoke early, because of jet lag. I came out here just before six. We had been told that the sun rises here just at six, because we ae on the equator, but it was still quite dark when I came out here. I also read that the twilight is quite short here, again because of our proximity to the equator. That part seems true. In the 25 minutes I’ve been here it has gotten much lighter--so much so that I no longer need the porch light to see what I’m writing.
We spent most of yesterday resting from our plane flight, which was quite exhausting. In the early evening someone from Flamingo Tours came and met with us. She was a charming British Lady who had lived in Kenya for years. She told us how she used to have a pet lioness.
Yesterday we spent taking advantage of being in a beach resort. In the morning we went swimming in th ocean, although we didn’t stay in long because the water was too cold. There is no surf here due to a coral reef some half mile or so offshore. We can see the waves breaking out there.
In the afternoon we went out to the reef on a glass-bottom boat. Since we would be given the opportunity to go snorkeling, I took Elizabeth in the swimming pool with fins and mask so she could learn how to use them.
There wasn’t much to see between here and the reef. We first anchored a short distance from the reef. We dove in water that varied in depth from about two feet to perhaps 20 feet. There was a number of schools of tropical fish as well as urchins and starfish. Elizabeth only stayed in the water about five minutes, but I stayed in the full half hour or so that we anchored at the spot.
We then went to the reef itself. We anchored at a place where three is a sand bar covered by less than a foot of water, where we proceeded to splash about in the sand. Elizabeth was particularly amused by watching the wavelets from the ocean side collide with those from inside the reef.
After our return to the hotel we went to a small store just across the road to inquire about renting bicycles. They didn’t have one Elizabeth’s size but they said they would get one this morning.
We then walked down the road for a while. We were accosted by two or three beggars. There were quite a few people walking along the road, and they all seemed quite friendly, several greeting us with “o-jambo,” the Swahili word for “hello.”
There are three restaurants in our hotel: The Vasco de Gama, which serves French cuisine, and is only open for dinner, the Dhow Terrace, a seafood restaurant, which is closed, and the coffee shop, which is where we have been eating. They normally have a buffet which includes a wide variety of European and Indian food. We have quite enjoyed it, especially Elizabeth--always a fussy eater--who could pick the course and portions that suited her.
Yesterday for breakfast, among the usual eggs, breakfast meats, waffles, etc., they had baked beans, which I found rather strange as a breakfast item, but I have since learned that beans are a common breakfast food in east Africa.
I’m writing this from the train somewhere between Mombasa and Nairobi. We have just come back from the dining car where we had winner with a young couple from New Zealand who are just returning from Zanzibar.
When we returned to our sleeping compartment, the conductor came to ask us if we wanted bedding. I said “yes,” since we have pre-paid vouchers for those items.
Then the conductor said, “Unfortunately, we don’t have any.” They may get some, he said, when we stop at 11 p.m.
The train looks as if it’s quite old, although we were moved to a newer car than our original--in order that some large group could travel together. This is the second time on this trip where some piece of confusion has netted us better accommodations. This compartment even has a screen so that we can open the window without admitting bugs. (That reminds me: I didn’t see a single mosquito in Mombasa.)
This morning we rented bicycles and peddled around. There wasn’t too much to see except resort hotels on the ocean side of the road, and fields on the other. After a short distance, we stopped and someone ran up to me, seemingly out of nowhere, and handed me the lens cap from my camera! I hadn’t known I had dropped it; I guess he had run after us.
Further on, Elizabeth stopped too fast on the gravel and lost her balance--she got a small abrasion on her hand, which I treated with the only antiseptic I could find: Listerine.
I had thought to go into Mombasa this afternoon, but Elizabeth said she’d rather go to the beach so we did.
Then at the appointed time, we packed our bags and headed for the Mombasa train station and so here we are on the train to Nairobi. Right now we are probably in Tsavo National Park, which we will later return to while on safari. Out our window in theory is Mt. Kilamanjaro, across the border in Tansania. I say “in theory” because we can see nothing. It is night, with a moon just past new, and utterly dark. We left electric lights behind as soon as we left Mombasa.
This is probably the stretch of track where construction of the railroad had to be halted because the workers kept getting eaten by lions.
I awoke about 6:30 this morning. It was starting to get light outside the train window. I woke up Elizabeth and we went to breakfast in the dining car. As we ate we could see gazelle, zebra, and ostrich out the window. It was quite exciting: our first view of Africa’s wild animals!
After breakfast we went back to our compartment and continued to watch for animals, which we continued to see, right up to the point where we entered the outskirts of Nairobi.
We are now at the Norfolk Hotel, where we will stay until our safari departs on Wednesday morning.
Yesterday was fairly uneventful--even boring. We spent almost the entire day in the hotel. Our passports showed up, later than promised, but still to my great relief.
In the afternoon we went to the National Museum, which was mildly interesting. On the grounds of the museum were a snake farm and also a model Kikuyu village. (The Kikuyu are one of the groups of people found in Kenya. Apparently the word “tribe” is out of favor. It is the Kikuyu that currently hold most of the power of government.
We are now in the Tsavo National Park, the largest national reserve in East Africa. 8,000 square miles. Our safari has begun!
As I write this, I’m sitting on the balcony of our room. From here, just now, I can see zebra, storks, gazelle, and water buffalo. We’ve also seen from here wild pigs, and baboons. One baboon ran up during lunch, jumped on our table, and stole Elizabeth’s bread.
The zebras have now give up their domination of the water hole and a few of the water buffalo have come in to drink.
We have just returned from a drive around this portion of Tsavo Park. (As our driver was quick to point out, Tsavo is far too large to allow us to cover any significant portion of the territory in one afternoon.) Nonetheless, we did see an impressive variety of animals. We saw giraffe, various gazelle, zebra, hippopotamus, and crocodile. The latter two species were at Mzima Spring where a large river suddenly appears from below ground. The quantity of water coming from this spring is sufficient to supply water to the entire city of Mombasa.
As one might expect, the land around the spring is quite lush with vegetation. The rest of the country around here is dry with small scattered trees. The ground is mostly covered with short brush and brown grass.
We are surrounded at a distance by steep mountains, many of obvious volcanic origin. There are also lava flows into this large valley.
I had wondered how hard we would have to search to find animals. It turns out to be rather easy. It usually isn’t five minutes of driving before we spot something interesting.
I had also wondered how close the animals would be to our vehicles. I had seen pictures of animals coming right up to the trucks. On the other hand, I wondered why we would then need binoculars and a long camera lens. (200-400 mm was recommended.)
The animals we have seen so far have all been rather close. One group of giraffe were right next to some cars when we drove up, although they moved away as more vehicles gathered. Still, the binoculars and long camera lens have proved useful: to reveal details of the animals’ features, not otherwise seen.
The only animal we have seen so far that really needed binoculars was the crocodile. It was lying perfectly still, as crocodiles are wont to do, and without the binoculars, it was difficult to tell whether it was a crocodile or just a log.
We have now transferred from the Tsavo Park to the Amboselli Park. From Tsavo, we drove back along the Uhuru highway that connects Mombasa to Nairobi. About half the way back to Nairobi, we turned on to a dirt road, which we proceeded along for two hours of bumpy, dusty, travel. Most of the road was outside the park. This land belongs to the Masai, the tribe that has stuck most strongly to their traditional ways. They wear bright red clothes, outrageous beads, and paint their faces. They make their livelihood by tending cattle, and to a lesser degree sheep. Many now supplement their income by aggressively selling cheap curios to tourists.
We stopped to stretch at some little woe begotten spot with a souvenir stand and rest rooms. While we were there a Masai warrior came up to within a short distance of the parking are, and just stood there observing us. One of our drivers tried to engage him in a conversation but got only brief replies. The Masai seemed unwilling to converse, but rather was content simply to watch. He stayed there until someone tried to take his picture. Then he moved off.
After our next stop we headed down more dusty roads, past more Masai tending their cattle. Often people standing by the road will wave to us as we pass, but the Masai never do.
Even before entering Amboseli Park we saw some zebra and gazelle, and even a baboon. Once inside we saw large herds of zebra, water buffalo, and wildebeest. We also saw our first elephants. The view from our lodge is not as spectacular as it was in Tsavo. Nevertheless we can see a large number of wildebeest from our room.
We went out for about two hours this afternoon. The land here is mostly barren--apparently caused by natural chemicals in the soil.
We saw our first lion--a female sleeping in the grass far from the road. This is the first time that we really required binoculars to make an animal out.
We also saw two other herds of elephants.
Late in the afternoon we came upon a mother hyena and her babies. Their den was in a small crevice in the road. As we approached, the mother retreated about 30 feet and watched us with feigned indifference, while her cubs retreated into their den where we could no longer see them.
I am constantly struck by how big this country is.
We have travelled back to Nairobi. We went by a different route than our trip out.
On the way, we stopped in a small town to get gas for our vans. The place was full of Masai hawking souvenirs and offering to pose for pictures for a fee. They are quite aggressive.
For lunch we ate at the famous Carnivore Restaurant. Both its name and its fame are well deserved. We ate saugage, pork ribs, beef, lamb, and giraffe meat--all cooked over a huge charcoal fire. It was served with an equally diverse and delicious array of vegetables and condiments. I also decided this would be a the occasion to try Kenyan coffee. (I normally don’t drink coffee.) It was rich and bitter and delicious.
After lunch we went into downtown Nairobi so that I could buy a replacement camera for Elizabeth--I bought a cheap Kodak from an Indian merchant who kept trying to talk me into a 35 mm camera, even though I kept explaining that I already had 110 film.
After that we drove north of Nairobi. It is much more mountainous and greener. As a result there are more people here. There are small farms on the mountain sides, and coffee plantations on the flatter land.
We climbed up to the Aberdare Country Club, where we transferred from the mini-vans we have been travelling in to a large bus for the trip into Aberdare National Park and to the Ark.
It has been overcast ever since we began our safari. Today we climbed up into that overcast--to a thick, damp, cold fog. This is exactly the weather I expected in London, but not in Africa.
On the road, we stopped at one point because there was a leopard in the road ahead. By now we were inside Aberdare Park and the mountainside farms had given way to lush, thick undergrowth. At the top, we were surrounded by fog. Unlike the other places we’ve stayed, there is no “grounds” for us to walk around in, we are confined to the Ark (shaped like Noah’s Ark as described in the Bible, i.e., a big rectangular box--no bow and no stern, like the common notion). Anyway, there is a short raised walkway, otherwise we’re confined.
Outside one end of the building is a large watering hole. When we arrived there were a number of water buffalo and small antelope there.
Later, when I was in our room (Should I say “cabin?”) a buzzer sounded, indicating that something “interesting” had showed up at the watering hole. When I went to one of the observing areas, I saw nothing--all the previous animals had departed. I soon discovered why. Slowly emerging from the fog came a whole pride of lions! A short time later, the lions were in turn replaced by two rhinoceroses.
The rhinos bullied their way in and forced the lions to retreat to one corner. One young lion started to chase after one of the rhinos. The rhino simply turned around and went after the lion. It was treat fun to watch, and we had a ring-side seat.
While we were watching all this, we were called to dinner. No one went, so they issued a more insistent call. (These calls were issued on a small xylophone.) Still no one came, so they gave up and waited.
Presently the rhinos left, allowing the lions to once again have control of the water hole. At that point, most of us went to dinner.
The menu called for “tender lion” which would have topped the giraffe meat we had eaten for lunch. This, however, turned out to be tender loin, a no-doubt deliberate transposition error.
I have mentioned that there is a buzzer in our room that is sounded when interesting animals show up at the water hole. There is also a switch so that we can leave the buzzer on or off while we sleep, depending on whether we want our slumber interrupted if animals come in the middle of the night. Elizabeth and I both want to leave the buzzer on. We have laid out clothes so we can jump into them--like fire fighters sleeping in the fire station waiting for the alarm.
Well, the alarm never sounded. There were some male lions that came around 1 a.m. but we missed them.
This morning we took the bus back down from the Ark to Aberdare Country Club were we transferred back to our own vehicles. From there we travelled north, crossing the equator, and eventually arriving at Samburu Park. It was a hot, dusty, bumpy drive. Today the sun has come out and it is quite hot.
We passed through one fairly large town that had a big open-air market, crowded with people.
After lunch, Elizabeth went swimming and then we attended a dance show put on by the local Samburu tribe people.
In the late afternoon we went out looking for game. We saw quite a few elephants, as well as giraffes et al. At one point we saw some wart hogs running for all they were worth. We soon saw the reason: a lion was chasing them!
Today is the first day we are not travelling from one park to another. So we got up even earlier than usual and went out for an early morning game drive. We didn’t see much.
Now we’re sitting on the porch of our room overlooking the Usaso Nyero River. It is about fifty feet across and very slow moving and muddy. It is also very shallow: no more than three feet deep. (I’m judging the depth from having watched an elephant wade across it yesterday.) Yet, despite its shallowness, neither people nor animals--other than the elephant--wade into the waters. The reason: It is infested with crocodiles.
We just came back from our afternoon game drive. We didn’t see nearly as much as we had yesterday afternoon, even though we covered more or less the same territory. We did see two leopards and a small herd of elephants--one of which came within a few feed of our van, so all in all the drive was worth it.
Today we drove from Samburu to the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, a fancy resort founded by William Holden, et al. From our room there is an impressive view across a green forested valley to Mt. Kenya, which unfortunately, is shrouded in clouds.
Since we are not in a game park, we did not take a game drive this afternoon. However, we saw quite a big of game on our drive out of Samburu. The highlight was spotting a mother cheetah with her two cubs. The cheetahs were on the move and our guide noticed that the mother kept looking back. He reasoned that something must have scared the animals off, so we went to investigate and discovered two lions dining on a breakfast of freshly killed wart hog.
Also on our way here we crossed the equator again. We had crossed the equator on the way to Samburu but that had been a longer drive so we didn’t stop; today we did. They gave us a demonstration of the Coriolis effect. I was surprised to see that you could actually observe this effect as little as 20 meters from the equator.
At dinner they wouldn’t let us eat in the dining room because Elizabeth was under age. I raised a fuss and they eventually let us eat in the “members only” dining room where we probably got better service, but the same food, as in the main dining room.
Today we drove to Lake Nakruma where we saw thousands of birds--mostly flamingo. We also saw numerous water bucks and wart hogs.
On our way to the lake we stopped at Thompson’s Falls, the beauty of which was somewhat marred by the fact that we were pestered the whole time by souvenir hawkers.
We had a picnic lunch with barbecued beef and chicken and various Kenyan foods, the favorite of which is a peanut salad.
Today is a “typical” day on our safari. We got up early and had breakfast and then got in our vans to travel from one game park to another--in this case from Lake Nakruma to Masai Mara. The road was a combination of pot-hole laden asphalt, smooth asphalt (for which we had to pay a toll) and dirt roads. All the roads within the game parks are dirt. Even here there is great variability from smooth gravel, to rough rocks, to a fine power that raises a choking dust and can infiltrate the van even with the windows closed.
Today’s drive was about five hours. We stopped twice for gas and to stretch our legs. (Normally we only stop once, but I guess there was no gas available at Lake Nakruma, so we couldn’t start with a full tank.)
I should describe our van: It is a Toyota; it does not have four-wheel drive. It can seat the driver plus nine. Ours is carrying the driver, Ben, our guide, Elizabeth and me, and one other couple.
The roof pops up so that we can stand when going on game drives. (We’re not allowed out of our vans in the parks.)
The view on our drives between parks can be quite interesting: we pass through farm land--where the local people typically wear “western” or “European” clothes; and grazing land, where the people tend to wear traditional dress.
We pass through small towns. At the beginning and end of each drive we are driving within the game park, where we often spot animals. Even outside the parks, we sometimes spot game.
The scenery can, nevertheless, become monotonous, and so I try to read whenever the road smooth enough. Many of the paved roads, and all of the dirt roads are too rough, and I find it impossible to hold the book steady enough to keep my eyes focused on the words.
We saw quite a big of game inside Masai Mara as we drove in: some elephants right by the road and a huge herd of zebra in migration. The other van in our party also saw a leopard, but we missed it.
We just came back from our afternoon game drive. The animals are present here in far larger numbers than anywhere else we’ve been. We saw huge herds of wildebeests, countless zebras, and many lions. It is a constant thrill and source of amazement to me to be surrounded by these wild animals, especially in such large numbers.
This morning we went on a game drive to the Mara River, where the hippos bathe. We saw dozens of them. On the way we saw two lions, a male and a female right on the road. They were drinking from a puddle in the road, gouged by truck tires, and filled by a thunderstorm we had last night.
We just came back from the last game drive of our trip. The highlights were a large pride of lions including several cubs, and a rhinoceros.
Last night a noise awoke me around 11:30. I got up to look and discovered three zebras immediately outside my door. There were several dozens more grazing around the lawn of our lodge. Eventually someone came and shooed them away but as soon as he left, they came back. I opened the curtain of our window wider to watch them. They stayed all night. When it started getting light, hey disappeared back into the brush.
Today we drove back to Nairobi. Ben, our guide, promised the worst road in Kenya. He was not joking. The road was paved--it had been build by the Italians, I believe during Word War II. Apparently it has not been maintained since. Three were huge potholes some yards across. Whenever the shoulder was wide enough, our driver drove there, since the dirt shoulder was smoother than the pavement.
Despite the roughness, it was a beautiful drive, climbing up out of the Rift Valley and winding through green mountains.
Now we are back in Nairobi, once again in the historic Norfolk Hotel.
This afternoon, Elizabeth and I walked through Nairobi, pretty much traversing the downtown portion. I find it exciting to walk through exotic cities; but it may have been a little too strange for Elizabeth.
This evening we will catch our plane and fly out of Kenya, back to England. Our safari is at an end.