The story of my lifelong dream trip to Africa continues:
Nanyuki is a town we pass through on our way to our next destination. It is much like other small towns through which we have passed, but it seems to want to dress itself up a bit. There is still the look of bedraggled poverty and shacks among more modern structures, but along the road through the center of town, the dividing islands are planted with trees and flowers, giving the town a sense of caring and pride in their little community. We are again confronted with that contrast between what seems so awful and what must be to the inhabitants perfectly normal. When we stop at a Barclay’s Bank in town so some can exchange their American dollars for local currency, there are street peddlers who approach the cars asking us to buy whatever they may have to sell. They are very aggressive, and while not really frightening, they cause some apprehension. Some of their items are not bad: wood carvings for which they don’t really ask that much. My concern comes from the aggressiveness and the thought that if we buy from one, we will be “swarmed” by the rest. So we say, “No thanks," but they don’t take no for an answer. We are safe inside the vehicle, but it makes me feel like a thoughtless tourist to ignore them. In all the time we were in Africa, it was one of the few times I was genuinely uncomfortable. Not enough to put me off of the country, but enough to haunt me a bit. To us it is so little, but to them it is so much!
On the other hand, while still in Nanyuki, the drivers take us to a weaving collective of women, who come here to learn the craft of weaving and then work together to create and sell items to support their families. They walk us through the process, show us their works in progress, and welcome us taking pictures. Again, it felt a little intrusive, as though they were objects, but the photographer in me won out. It is a rare opportunity for the kind of journalistic photography I wish I had done earlier in life and don’t get to do often. I find that perhaps I was not cut out for photography that dehumanizes. Whether or not these women are the sole support of their families, it is an incredibly impressive project, one we were more than happy to support by shopping in their collective store.
Our next stop is the Aberdares Country Club for lunch and a transition to our ride to The Ark. The country club is a pretty place, although we don’t see much of it. It sits on the top of a hill with a glorious view of the countryside that goes forever.
After lunch, we head to the Ark. The Ark is a large lodge built above a watering hole frequented by various groups of wildlife. The bus takes you to a spot where you get out and walk a wooden walkway up to the building. After we are shown to our rooms, we rush out to see what there is to see, but it is a bit early for any action. We all agree to, “Wait for dusk, they’ll be out,“ and sure enough, out they came. Most of the action here is nocturnal, so we wait. We see a few animals come and go, and try to figure out what the odd, somewhat large thing floating in the pond is. Some hold out hope that it is a hippo, but most agree it must be an otter or something of that kind. We are assured there are no hippos here. After dinner, the show begins to get good. We see something in the distance, but cannot tell what it is. As they gather and move closer, we see it is a group of Cape Buffalo. It’s very exciting and we are in the middle of a photo frenzy, when we look up and see a herd of elephants coming in. This happens just at twilight, so the light is glorious. Maybe because this is our first real encounter with wildlife, we may have gone a bit overboard on the elephant pictures, to the point of it becoming hysterically funny.
Eventually, the elephants make for quite a show, coming very close and in a fairly large number. A few of us discover the “bunker” on the lower level, and pretty much take it over. It’s cold, but we just can’t leave; there’s too much going on. Space is limited, but everyone is pretty good about taking the shot and moving back to let others in. After things get a bit quieter, we go sit inside and watch from a lounge area. About 1:00 AM, we’ve been sitting and watching the unfolding show before us for hours, so we decide to go to bed. I find I can’t sleep, so I take my book, my jacket and my camera and decide that I will probably be up for the night. There is a couch in a common area with a fireplace which is near one of the viewing areas, so I set up camp there. Here at the Ark turned out to be the only time on the whole trip when I needed to wear a jacket, so the fireplace was very welcome. For the most part, I’m alone, but there is the occasional other guest who is roaming nocturnally also. We say hello, chat a bit here and there, but mostly it’s quiet and serene. Occasionally, I get up to see if anything is happening down below. There is an employee whose job it is to stay up all night and watch for animals. If anything of interest occurs, he is supposed to ring the bell that will in turn ring in all of the rooms. On this night, there are some animals, but none that haven’t been there before, so he never rings the bell. What a job! I know I will be paying for this night of wakefulness, but some things are just too good to pass up.
MOUNT KENYA SAFARI CLUB
We leave Nanyuki and the Ark behind, and go on to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, where we will stay for two nights. As it happens, two nights were not enough. This place is glorious. I have known about it for many years and it always held a special attraction: I always pictured drinks on the terrace as we watched the African sunset. Nothing has prepared me, though, for how absolutely beautiful this place is. The grounds are extraordinary and much more expansive than I expected. Our “room” is a small cottage, with a living room, bedroom and huge bathroom with a sunken tub, which, unfortunately, there was no time to enjoy. The fireplace has two sides, one opening to the living room and one to the bedroom. A fire was laid each night while we were at dinner. What a lovely treat to return to. The grounds are so large that you need to get a ride to your rooms, and a shuttle is readily available whenever needed. As before, everyone is determined to do a great job and provide excellent service. There is a pond below the main building where live very exotic and very large birds. The marabou storks that inhabit the grounds are fascinating and funny creatures. They must be three to four feet high, and stroll around casually as though they own the place. They are definitely not concerned with the human presence. Oddly enough, the other place they can be seen is sitting atop the branches of the trees around the pond. How they do that is beyond me! There is a lovely little flower-covered chapel and a maze on the grounds. Pam and I decide to give the maze a try in late afternoon and got a little lost! Contrary to what we were told, it was not all that easy to find the way out. It seems as though we are just walking in circles, which I guess is the whole point of a maze. Eventually, we make our way out, but it was getting a little spooky as the sun was setting over the horizon and dark was about to descend. Pam actually pondered the idea of crawling under the hedge. We realize that it probably wasn’t the best idea to head in there in late afternoon without telling anyone where we were. It all ended happily and was yet another unique experience to remember.
There is an animal orphanage on the grounds of the club, which we looked forward to visiting, but never made it. Time was against us again.
Mt. Kenya Safari Club sits right at the foot of Mount Kenya, a snowy peak that we were told is rarely seen due to the clouds. The peak dominates the horizon and stands sentinel over this lovely place. While sitting on a bench waiting for Pam to finish her massage, I look up and realize the mountain had come out of the clouds. The sun was on it and it was as clear as glass. I scramble to get my long lens out quickly and get some beautiful shots. We never saw it out of the cloud cover again.
It seems that each place we stay has its own unique quality, and each one an experience not to be missed. I only wish we had more time to really immerse ourselves in the beauty here.
Everywhere we go, the young children are happy and excited to see us drive by. It seems as they get older, their interest and enthusiasm wanes some. Perhaps the little ones have not yet learned how much more we have and don’t understand the inequity of the world from which we come. As they get older, I am sorry to say it seems that reality sets in, bringing with it disinterest, distance, and perhaps bitterness. Oddly enough, the friendly attitude seems to come back, for a few, in adulthood, although many we see along the road seem to suffer from a kind of lethargy. I can honestly say, however, that no one is ever rude or unfriendly when speaking with them. Perhaps, from my perspective, it is because I make a point of treating people with respect, regardless of their place in their society. It is a constant state of concern to me that not everyone takes that approach.
It is never far from my mind that there are the children we don’t see; those who are suffering from the ravages of AIDS and even more severe poverty. Even here, where everything seems so lush and green and food seems plentiful, I don’t forget that we are seeing what the tourists are allowed to see. I find myself wishing I had the courage and strength of character to experience the real Africa of today; to experience a place like Kibera. Even if I did, no tour group would take us there. That would have to be for another trip.
Sweetwaters Game Reserve is our first opportunity for a game drive. We are thrilled to see the animals so close and in such abundance; little do we know how much more there will be in the Mara! We did see some baboons and warthogs on the way in to Aberdares and of course, the gathering herds at the waterhole at The Ark, but this is different. This is natural light and not such a constrained area. We go a ways without seeing much to impress, but as we drive deeper into the park, we start to see wildlife and it’s getting exciting!
Sweetwaters is a very different scenario from the Mara, but it had its moments. We saw some testosterone on display with a fight between two Cape Buffalo. It was like watching a “gang encounter,” with one of the gang calling out an outsider who came too close and in the background, a few of his buddies who stand and watch. They don’t get involved, but it was like they had his back. As he finished the fight and drove the outsider away and then walked back to his friends, you could just hear him saying, “Who’s the man?” and the reply coming back, “Dude!” I guess guys are guys anywhere and in any species. It was hilarious.
It seems that all the young “bucks” had some fight in them that day. We see some warthogs taking each other on and a giraffe encounter as well. In addition to fighting warthogs, we also see babies and baby anythings will always bring an “aww” especially from the women in the group. There is just nothing like baby animals!
From a distance, a giraffe fight would seem to be rather benign and passive activity, with them slowly taking turns “whacking” each other in the neck with their own neck. In reality, however, their necks are very large and powerful and could really hurt if hit by one. They seem to be quite polite, each taking their turn while the other calmly waits to be hit. When you see them up close, they appear to be such gentle souls, so you have to wonder what brings on a fight.
One encounter in Sweetwaters gave our fellow travelers in the other truck an exciting moment. Coming upon a herd of elephants moving across a meadow, the drivers each decide to do what they can to get us into a good position to observe and photograph the herd. Our driver opted to go a bit into the trees, where we could see, through an opening in the trees, the elephants moving across a clearing beyond the trees. The other driver, however, anticipating approximately where the herd would be coming out of the clearing, decides to move their vehicle to that spot to wait. His estimation may have been a bit too much on the mark, as one large bull came out of the trees right where the truck was waiting, and I guess the presence of the truck startled him. There was the typical threatening gesture of flaring his ears. For a moment, our fellow travelers thought they were about to be charged! We learned something about that, however. Apparently, flaring the ears is a threat gesture, but if they lower their head, then they are about to charge and it’s time to run! Anyway, part of our troop certainly had their excitement for the day. I suppose if we had never gone to the Masai Mara, this would have seemed the ultimate viewing experience. Little did we know what a spectacular show we were in for! In retrospect, however, this was the place where I got my favorite elephant shots.
While in Sweetwaters, we visit two private reserves. One is the home of Morani, a white rhino rescued from another area and who now has her own private park to graze safely to her heart’s content, under the protection of fences and rangers. We hike to an area where the rangers knew Morani would be and come upon her dozing in the partial shade of some trees. One by one, we are able to step up, take some pictures and pet her as though she were the family canine. She is either quite docile, or so content in her napping that she never moved, just patiently tolerated our presence. Frankly, here I was again, feeling a bit like we were intruding. I seem to be struggling a lot with the sense of treating people and wildlife as objects. Perhaps as photographers, we do that on a regular basis. So how do I reconcile that with a passion that I don’t think will ever burn out? I just hope that we are all according our subjects a sense of respect in our efforts, but again, I’m not sure that is always the case.
Our guide on the hike to see Morani is carrying a high powered rifle and it makes me wonder about the purpose of it. I ask him if it were ever possible that Morani would get aggressive and he assured me she would not, ever. I then asked if there were other animals within the compound that might be aggressive or dangerous and again, he assured me there were not. So, of course, I had to ask “then why the rifle?” The response was “poachers.” That answer was disconcerting, but should not have been a surprise. I had not, until then, given thought to what is one of the greatest dangers to wildlife here: those who value the dollar more than the beauty of the animal life and will kill and maim for the money alone. They are the scourge of the wild areas of this beautiful country.
While in the area, we are taken to a chimpanzee sanctuary sponsored by Jane Goodall. When we first heard we were going there, I think some of us thought we’d have the chance to hold a chimp, as we’ve seen in the movies. In reality, they are behind a fence and inaccessible. At first, it was something of a bore, but then we hike a bit to a river, across which were the chimps in their element. It was amusing to watch their food gathering antics, especially the one whose intent seemed to be to hoard everything by carrying all he could, not only in his hands, but in his feet as well. Funny guy!
We prepare to leave and head to the Masai Mara. The Mara is the same eco system as the Serengeti, which is in Tanzania, but just has a different name on the Kenya side of the border. Our point of departure is Nanyuki Airport. It looks more like a country lodge than an airport. It is a charming little log structure with a small airstrip upon which the planes roll right up to the building. Our plane turns out to be larger than we anticipate, more like a Lear jet than a light prop plane. When it’s time to go, we grab our bags, walk out on the pavement and climb into the plane. It’s a tight fit, but the plane isn’t full, so we are comfortable.
What we don’t know is there is another stop, at Samburu, to pick up more travelers. Then the plane is packed, but it’s a short hop from there to our final destination of our tent camp in the Masai Mara. Samburu is even smaller; a few grass huts and an almost dirt airstrip. I love this stuff! In preparing for the trip, we were advised that we would be limited to small luggage on this flight, so we had to leave our primary luggage at the travel agent offices in Nairobi and pack efficiently for three days into a duffle bag they gave us. Of course, we can still take our camera gear. When we stopped to pick up passengers at Samburu, we watched as they came out to board pulling their large rolling bags along with them. We decide they are probably on their way to Governor’s Camp, which I think is kind of the “Beverly Hills” of the tent camps. Later, we discover their vehicles to be a lot fancier than ours, so there you go.
As we fly across Kenya, it’s impossible not to be aware that we are flying over the Rift Valley and be in awe of what I am seeing. Much of what we are seeing has not changed since the beginning of man. What an awesome spectacle!
The story continues in: A Dream Realized.