Day One -  Nairobi

Nairobi is warm and pleasant. Not too hot, but the main impression again, is one of dense air pollution. I am not a particularly sensitive person, but in Nairobi my eyes itch and my throat burns. It's an intense city, people, pollution, traffic, a major hub of Africa and so it reflects the problems of Africa.

We caught a "cab" at the airport to our hotel, the Boulevard. The Boulevard is a reasonably nice hotel. I heard people complain about it …maybe they were expecting five star and it certainly is not that. But it is clean and safe and the food is excellent and the staff are friendly and accommodating. It does a roaring business with the overland and tour companies, who of course are looking for that reasonable balance between price and comfort. We liked it just fine.

That evening we had a meeting with our guides, Bernard and Patrick, two local guides in their thirties whom I liked immediately. Also in our group will be: Vish, a business analyst currently living in London; Raj, a former chemist for Dupont in Texas who now devotes his life to seeking enlightenment by serving as the personal servant of a swami; Margaret, from Brisbane who works in the administration office of a university; Maureen, a New York biology professor with two brothers who are New York firemen.

Although they didn't arrive until the next day, our other two companions were both nurses. Chantel and Julie, both from Quebec, are seeing the world by working in a different country each year. Currently they are living and working in Belgium, so this was their holiday.

They are an extremely well-traveled group. Africa is not a mainstream destination for most people, so the fellow travelers that we met there tended to be interesting people who had already been to many other places. Dinner table conversation was always lively and fascinating, providing insights into the conditions and places we longed to venture off to next.

On a side note, I have to mention that this traveling in Africa is starting to remind me of Europe before the euro. Today I paid our accommodation bill in Harare in US $. I left a tip for the staff in Zimbabwean $. Our departure tax was paid in South African Rand and tonight I paid for dinner with Kenyan Shillings. If mental calisthenics is what keeps Alzheimers at bay, I believe I should be fine as long as I keep traveling.

Day Two - Samburu

Woke up at 6am, raring to go. I am very excited about this leg of the trip because it is why we came to Africa: game viewing, camping out in the parks and generally getting a whole lot closer to nature than we did in South Africa or Zimbabwe.

We don’t leave immediately because Patrick and Bernard are still trying to track down the two nurses from Switzerland. This quickly becomes a bit of a drama as we are all concerned about what could have become of two young women on the loose in Nairobi, which we are informed is known in the tourist trade as "Now Robbery". The front desk has them recorded as having checked in, but when I persuade a cleaning lady to let me look into their room this proves to be false. No one has been in this room in the past 24 hours.

Open Road in KenyaOur support truck left early this morning to set up camp in Samburu, so by 9:30 the decision is made that Bernard will take the six of us on out, while Patrick keeps searching for the women. Sure enough, later that day Patrick arrives in Samburu with Chantel and Julie. As a result of decreased traffic due to 9/11, their flight had been cancelled at the last moment. The airline had promised to call the hotel and leave a message for Bernard, giving him their later flight information but didn’t follow through. No matter, they are here now and we're glad to see them safe.

The support truck is a huge, hulking vehicle. Driven by David and carrying a fellow to put up tents as well as our cook, Leonard. The truck carries the tents, foamies, cots, tarp-tent, chairs, tables, food and water. The daily routine will be that the fellows make breakfast for us, then while we head out on a game drive they break camp if we are moving on and travel to the next site to set up. Enroute, they shop for groceries and whatever else is needed.

By the time we finally make it into camp each afternoon the tea is steeping, fragrant pots are bubbling over the fire, our tents and cots are up and the chairs are ranged round the table or campfire. This is called “comfort camping” and for us, it is the perfect balance between roughing it in the wild, and creature comforts.

It’s a far cry from luxury …the well-used tents smell distinctly of damp canvas and the cot thing is a nightly luck of the draw. Some are new and the canvas is still tightly drawn, offering a firm foundation for the foamy. Others have supported a few too many big-boned campers and sag like a hammock, one so seriously I needed Steve to pull me out of its depths in the morning. Amazingly though, I usually slept very well.

There is always a pot of tea on the fire and a tin of biscuits to go with it. The food is superb …providing you are willing to eat what you are given. Our cook is a native Kenyan and the menu is no doubt created to please the North American/European palate, but there is a distinctly African flavour to it, no doubt a result of the indigenous herbs and spices I watch him sprinkling into everything. That night, for example, we had mushroom soup, fried fish, ungali, curried vegetables and for dessert, fruit salad. All food, even cakes, are cooked over a charcoal fire.

We had spent all day driving from Nairobi to our idyllic campsite on the Ewaso Nyiro Samburu Campsite River in the Samburu Game Preserve. I was to become passionately connected to this place, later coming to regard it as my “sweet spot” on earth.

Impressions through our day-long drive? Nairobi is the most air-polluted place on earth that I have ever visited. Every five feet someone has a charcoal cooking fire smoking away, the vehicles are all what we would call “burners” back home and the farmers routinely burn the grasses off the fields to increase fertility. The result is a dense, burning smog that sears the eyes and throat.

Driving out of the city we pass open air markets everywhere with masses of milling humanity. The markets feature home-grown produce, live poultry, on-the-spot butchery and a million pounds of used clothing. As a child, I well remember the church women’s group having clothing drives for the poor people of Africa. Literally. The clothes would be gathered, baled, and shipped off to Africa in the belly of some Bend Over Boutiquesfreighter. These markets, known as “bend over boutiques” are where they finally make their way too.

There is a view that says shipping our old clothes off to Africa has not actually been that beneficial – that it has destroyed the indigenous fabric and clothing industries. I don’t know. I do understand people’s desire to help in concrete ways and I do remember the missionaries telling us that these people had nothing to wear. But then that might have been the western perspective on it. Perhaps the missionaries considered the colourful "rags" these people deck out in as "nothing." I don't know. I do notice, though, through this trip that there are areas where the women, particularly, dress in the colourful African kangas (long bolts of cloth they wrap around their bodies) and look marvelous. Women here seem to be tall and when they wrap themselves, including turbaning their heads and waltz off down the road the effect is striking and stately. They are proud and it shows. You just don't get the same effect off an old Nike sweatshirt.

There is a noticeable absence of the miles and miles of cardboard shanty towns that one sees outside of South African cities. I expect this is because apartheid in South Africa kept blacks living outside the city, whereas in Nairobi one’s personal circumstances, not one’s colour determines where one lives.

There is, however, a real absence of indigenous housing at the sides of the road. Everything is ugly brick, wood and/or plaster. Where there is an occasional thatched roof it appears to be haphazardly created, with none of the pride or craftsmanship evident in South Africa or Zimbabwe where some home owners even sculptured the thatch into beautiful designs.

On the other hand, I don’t see the garbage, particularly the ubiquitous plastic bags, littering the road sides here. Things are cleaner.

Curio ShopWe stop at a number of curio shops. These are a kind of craft co-op where locals bring their carvings, jewellery, masks, batiks, etc. As well, many of the co-ops have workshops where the carvers and artisans work. They were always friendly and eager to talk about their work and their methods. We found many of these fellows were as eager to ask us about our world as we were interested in theirs. Everyone seemed to know someone who had a friend or cousin who had been sent off to North America to college. Education is not free in Kenya, so there is rarely enough money for every child to be educated. At the family level and at the village level, the smartest children will be selected for schooling. Those left behind are proud of these delegates to higher learning and hungry for information about that wider world out there.

I found that hunger for information about my world somewhat bittersweet. How do I tell people that walk 10km each day for a clean bucket of water that I live in a house where the water pours freely out of spouts in the wall, that my bedroom is bigger than their whole house, that every member of my family drives their own not-so-old car, that for what this trip is costing me I could have fed their whole village for a year. So I edit the information I provide. Yes, we have running water at our homestead, but I don't mention that it comes out of fifteen different faucets, including one positioned just to facilitate the washing of cars.

The symbiotic relationship between tour companies and vendors is evident. In exchange for stopping and walking through the shop, the tourists get to use the clean and frequently, flush toilets. The gentlemen selling the crafts are hired for the purpose and are proud of their positions. Like everywhere in Africa, these fellows wear suit jackets, always dressing in their very best. All transactions are preceded by:

“ Habari”
“ Nzurii”

Then down to business ….and these fellows are experts. With their pencil figuring on the strategically positioned brown paper, they would put North American used car salesmen to shame. They boast, they sigh, they throw up their hands in capitulation. The bargaining is high drama and fun for everyone.

David the CarverEven so, it is wise to remember that Africans are people of dignity. Don’t play them. The mask you’re bargaining for is just a bauble for your wall that you can take or leave. The creation and/or sale of it is this man’s livelihood. Bargain for a fair price – that is expected. Don’t ever resort to humiliation. And when you walk away because the price is still higher than you wanted …and he doesn’t follow, you know that it won’t come cheaper.

Although more expensive, we found these craft co-ops were often the best place to get the very finely crafted pieces, just as established artists are represented by the more upscale galleries at home. Bargains could be found in road side vendor markets, but there could also be a lot of poor quality workmanship there.

Back at the campsite I am introduced finally, to my nemesis. My one concern about the camping aspect of this journey was the reference in guidebooks to being prepared to use “long drops”. My knees, quite frankly, are no good. I cannot hold a squat for longer than a sneeze, so these long drops had me terrified. And here they were. No alternatives.

Generally, long drops consist of a hole in the ground. Period. No built up seat, no wooden rail to hang onto, nothing. Just a hole in the ground. So there is the squatting issue and there is the aiming issue. Women simply don’t have the right equipment for accurate targeting. After a few days I noticed that most of the women had learned to roll up their pant legs. Better to have splashed legs than wet trousers. Legs are easy to wash, pants not so much.

On these camping trips you are limited to one medium-sized bag, so that generally means the pants you have on plus one spare. You can’t be changing your clothes after every trip to the loo.

So …I came, I saw, I experienced terror and I triumphed. Let’s just say that nature takes it course, even under the worst conditions.

Because of predatory game, you are only permitted to leave the vehicle at designated (usually fenced) rest stops inside the parks. After one long morning of bouncing our morning tea over deep ruts we were all kind of desperate. Finally, a rest stop with a long drop. Which was fortunate, as there were no available bushes to hide behind. On the pretext of being the quickest, Steve went in first ….and came out again. “You’re not going to like this one, Carolyn.”

I went in. There was a very big and very deep hole cut into the earth. Obviously someone was planning ahead by digging such a big hole; figuring, I suppose, that if it were big enough they wouldn’t have to dig another for a hundred years. The hole must have been eight feet by eight feet and at least eight feet down. Over the hole they had suspended a platform of planks. Not real thick ones. They bounced alarmingly when you put a little weight on them. The idea was that you waddled out over the planks to the middle where you squatted over the “hole” in the hole and did your thing, then backed on up and out again.

The line up was growing outside.

I dug deep for courage, used the facilities, so to speak, and walked away empowered by the knowledge of it. I am now confident that I can deal with absolutely anything the world throws at me in the way of primitive conditions.

The guides love telling long drop stories. Patrick's favourite concerned the campsite we were staying in at Samburu. Apparently while a German lady was squatted over the hole, a baboon bounced onto the roof of the enclosure from the trees above. These structures are never all that secure, so sure enough, the roof gave away. The baboon fell through, skidded down the lady's back and into the hole. Predictably, the lady flew out the door, pants at her knees, screaming like a banshee herself.

Settling the lady down was one challenge. What to do about the baboon in the hole was the other. Baboons have really big teeth and nobody was prepared to put their arm down into the hole and help out a pissed off baboon. On the other hand, they couldn't leave him there either. He was making a terrible racket, barking and screaming as only baboons can. His troops were gathering on the fringes, screaming their support, and the situation was rapidly getting out of hand.

Something had to be done. Patrick found a long pole. While Bernard held the door, hiding behind it, Patrick shoved the pole down the hole and ran like hell. The baboon shot up the pole and through the door, shit flying off him as he flew around the camp shrieking his displeasure.

That first night was fitful. First there were the baboons doing what baboons do in the Baboon Troop Movnig on Outnight, which is to mate and fight. Engaged in these activities they bark and howl and scream. For the most part they were on the other side of the river, but it sounded like they were in the tent next door. Then a wicked wind whipped up, making a huge racket as it tore the flys off our tents. When that wasn’t happening there must have been several million frogs in the river, because the composite volume of that many frogs can only be compared to a diesel at full throttle. Then about 4:30 am we heard it …..huff, huff, huff, huff …right outside our tent.

We had been warned that this campsite was within the game preserve and that while armed wardens would be roaming around in the night there were only two of them, with a very large area to cover. It was conceivable that predators would come through the camp to investigate. Under no circumstances were we to leave the tent in the night. The sound of a lion was described … a deep-throated huff, huff, huff, huff.

I lay there, immobilized by fear, alive with adrenaline, thrilled out of my mind. I listened for a long time, the hypnotic huffing eventually mesmerizing me into accepting even the breath of a lion as a natural sound of the night. I drifted gently off to sleep.

As the sun came up over the African savannah, I awoke to the sound of birds trilling their melodies in the trees overhead. We think birds “sing” in North America but they don’t. The birds in my trees at home have a two or three note repertoire. African birds have whole songs and they voluntarily roll them out to wake you every morning. It is magical. Between the birds and the lions in the night, I just knew I was the luckiest girl in the world.

Day Three - Samburu

Awakened by the birds, I soon heard the fellows coming around with hot water and a cheerful “Wake up now!” Every morning and evening they filled our washing up “bowl” of tanned leather skins suspended from a tripod of poles with hot water. It felt so good.

Tanked up with milky tea and oatmeal, we were on the road by 6:00. The theory is that animals are most active in the cooler times – early in the morning and late in the afternoon, so that is the classic time for game drives.

Land RoverWe were traveling in a Land Rover, the work horse of Africa. These barebones trucks bear no similarity to the luxurious vehicles that go by the same name at home. There is no padding in these to save the legs and elbows from the bruising of bumpy trails, the seats are covered in well-worn, dark-stained canvas, air conditioning occurs when you open the window and glory be, flop off the roof hatches.

So picture this …it is very early, the sun just rising over the African savannah, we are popped through the roof, standing on our seats, wind blowing in our hair, looking for lions, looking for lions. Life does not get any better than this, people. It simply does not.

Maasi Mara GiraffeAnd we saw lions, we did. And elephants and giraffes and zebras and an amazing number of exquisite birds. It turned out that Bernard, our guide, was a particularly skilled ornithologist so he was able to point out birds, their habitats, and provide commentary beyond what most guides might have. Kenya has a well-developed guiding program in their colleges and the graduates it turns out are very knowledgeable. In Kenya, they made the game drives extraordinarily rich. Not only were they eagle-eyed spotters, but they were able to answer every question we asked. If he didn’t know the answer, Bernard would reach into the briefcase he kept beside him, searching the texts he carried along for the answer.

We saw wildebeest by the hundreds, springboks and elands and gazelles. The gazelles Zebrasare amazing …leaping over the grasslands like so many ballet dancers. The smallest little fellows are called Dik Diks and the largest of course, the elephants – humongous great matriarchs surrounded by sisters and daughters and children, as well as bulls who always looked to me like they wished the women would let them come home again. Steve would say I was reading too much into it, but I don’t agree. Their body language said “lonely” to me.

That afternoon we went to a Samburu village. For $20 US per head, the Samburu permit tourists into their homes. At the beginning Steve was skeptical of the whole production, declaring that once we left, these costumed characters would all just take a hidden elevator to the underground parking garage where they would get into their Toyotas and drive home.

But I think he figured out fairly quickly that wasn’t going to happen. The tip off may have been the newborn puppy at the front gate. Lying in the dust, this little one was bleating feebly as the life ebbed out of it. The villagers were obviously oblivious to the puppy, but quickly picked up on the distress of some of our group. The chief had someone remove it before we returned back through that gate.

Human beings eking out a living in this challenging environment hold values that have been shaped by that struggle. Their priorities are all about ensuring their survival and that necessarily keeps the focus on the collective, rather than the individual. Puppies, certainly, do not even make it onto the radar screen of their consciousness.

The Samburu are cattle herders, renowned for the practice of opening a vein in the cows’ necks to mix up a blood-milk cocktail. This is about survival, but also heartily enjoyed. Probably one of those ethnic delicacies like pickled pigs feet that you’ve got to grow up on to appreciate.

Protecting their cows from predators, both animals and the warriors of other tribes, is their highest priority. This is demonstrated by the placement of the kraal in the centre of the village where the cows are protected at night. The first line of defense is the ring of huts and the people within them that surrounds the exterior of the kraal. The secondary defense is the ring of thorn bushes around Samburu Youngstersthe outside of the huts. Miriam, the local schoolteacher who’d been assigned to guide us through the village spoke passionately about the necessity for the village to protect and nurture its herd as its highest priority.

One of our group was incredulous. “But surely you aren’t saying that your cows are more important than your children?”

Miriam looked back just as incredulously. “Yes of course, the cows are the most important. The village depends on the cows to survive. A child is just another mouth to feed.”

In my overfed world this isn’t a choice I will ever have to make, but I could understand where Miriam was coming from and that values are developed to meet the needs of the culture they serve to organize.

We were invited into a few of the huts. These are low, one or two room structures, the walls woven of branches, brush and cow dung. The roofs are primarily thatch, Samburu Hutsmoothed over with cow dung, which hardens into a cement-like, waterproof roof.

Amazingly, the dried cow dung has no odour. Which is a good thing because the adolescent males also use it to dress their hair in elaborate coiffeurs; much like teens in our culture use gel to spike their hair. Both groups seem to be convinced that this increases their attractiveness to the ladies and who am I to argue?

The Samburu have lost most of their ancestral land to the game preserves. The park fees that visitors such as ourselves must pay to visit these parks is supposed to kick back in part to these people, but apparently this is a trickle that evaporates while traveling over the hot sands from Nairobi. The $20 per head we pay to visit them directly benefits the village, so is very welcomed.

When we arrived, Miriam corralled the women to sing a welcoming song for us. They didn’t actually seem to be too excited about doing this ... between their reluctance and the $20 thing the whole visit seemed so staged as to be irrelevant. On the other Samburu Womenhand, we would not normally have any entre to these homes and lives, so I suppose it is better than nothing.

The huts are short …one has to almost crawl into them and inside, walk around bent over. We sat on the “bed” which was a rock hard leather platform. The cooking fire, the goats and a few possessions were all jumbled up together in the dark room. In the heat of the day it was cool, and Miriam told us that in the cold, wet weather a good fire and the low roof means these homes are warm and cosy, and I could imagine that they would be.

She talked about their culture. Boys are circumcised at 12 to 14. Once this has happened they become “warriors” which entitles them to roam the countryside stealing cows. This cattle rustling includes whatever violence is necessary to bring the cows home. Apparently murder is now against the law but Miriam intimated that there is a great deal going on out here that “the law” is not aware of.

The young warriors spend their teen years amassing a herd of cows, so that by age 25, they can begin buying wives. A man may buy as many wives as he has cows to do so with. Why he wants to own many wives I am unclear about, because the practice of the Samburu is that a man may “plant his spear” outside any hut he wishes. When a husband comes home to see a strange spear planted outside his wife’s house he just moves on to another house. The woman is obliged to serve the Samburu "Warriors"needs, whatever they might be, of the man who enters her hut.

I asked, "If this is the case, how do you know who is the father of your children?"
She looked perplexed. "Why would this matter?"
" But how would you know who is responsible for that child?"
Again, she was obviously perplexed by my question, "But the village is responsible for all the children."

Another case of misplaced values, methinks. In North America we have celebrities writing books about the need for North Americans to accept responsibility for all its children, one even entitled, I believe, "It Takes a Village…". And in Africa the village has never ceased to shoulder that responsibility. Makes one wonder where the civilized world actually begins and ends.

Day Four - Lake Nakuru

Slept exceedingly well through the night. If the lions visited I missed them, but there was no evidence this morning so perhaps not.

We are moving on to Lake Nakuru today so there is no rush. Sipping our morning tea at the water’s edge, we are warmed by an amazing sun, lighting the river on fire before us. Just stunning. We are sitting quietly, soaking up the peace and good vibes …when a humongous monitor lizard comes creeping out of the river and up the bank. This fellow must be 8 or 9 feet long. He thinks we don't see him so he moves stealthily, pausing to sniff the air every few feet. We make the mistake of reaching for the camera, but even as we do this as discretely as possible, he sees the movement and is back in the water in a flash. Too bad. He was awesome. I don't think they hurt people, but I don't know. Here in Africa you become accustomed to being in close to predatory animals. Don't move, don't engage in eye contact, and wait for them to leave. It usually turns out okay.

When I took my shower today, I opened the shower door to a herd of elephants. Literally. There was a herd of some five or six elephants regarding me. Megatons they may weigh, but elephants walk on thickly padded feet. They don't make a sound. I stood very still as they passed beside me. The secret, I was informed, is not too challenge them in any way. Unfortunately, some elephants have been attacked by poachers in the past and they do not forget. It is these elephants that pose the greatest risk to people because they will attack humans without further provocation. Game wardens try to weed these out and remove them, but you never know.

ElephantsDue to protection in the parks, elephant populations can now become too dense for geographical areas. When this happens, I was told, a whole family group will be identified and removed en masse. In most cases they can be relocated to another park with more room, but if absolutely necessary, will be put down. But the family structures are respected, elephants are not normally singled out for relocation or removal.

Still sipping our tea, we were honoured by a visit from our resident baboon troop. I was surprised they were actually up so early, having heard them partying all night again on the other side of the river. But here they were, bouncing around us, curious to see what they might scoff. Figuring on putting it on the truck for our long drive that day, I'd put a bag of cookies on the table. These were, of course, gone in a flash. We'd been warned not to leave glasses, cameras or basically anything of value outside of a zipped-up tent or the locked truck because the baboons will steal anything and everything.

Patrick told us a horrifying story about another camp where a young infant was scooped out of its basket by a large baboon who carried it into the high branches above the camp. Of course the mother and everyone else was frantic. The baboon just sat, high in the tree, snuggling the baby and watching the chaos below. One of the guides, with a little more presence of mind than the others, placed an offering of food on the table and told everyone to back off. When they did, the baboon swooped down, placed the baby on the table and waltzed off with the food.

Mind you, I am starting to realize that Patrick has a "story" for every occasion.

A particularly large male baboon had managed to steal some bananas from the back Baboon breakfasting with Steveof the truck and he brought these to within a foot or two of where we were sitting. He squatted beside Steve and staring at him with obvious interest, peeled and ate the bananas. It was amazing, sitting in the morning sun, breakfasting with baboons.

We had a fair drive ahead of us this day, to Lake Nakuru, famous for the flamingo migration. I had seen this wondrous sight on National Geographic many times so I was anxious to witness it in person. But first, a full days drive over some bumpy, dusty roads.

We had been told that the most dangerous place to be in Africa is on the roads and I can believe that. There is almost no maintenance, so they are in exceedingly poor condition with potholes as big as some lakes. Vehicles are not maintained either so one cannot assume the guy coming towards you has the ability to steer or brake. There is no driver traNakuruining and drunkenness is more likely than not. Yes, a recipe for death on the road, but what can you do. Nothing but hang on and hope for the best.

We pass so many towns today ...and are struck by the masses of humanity everywhere. And always, the open-air markets with their fruits, vegetable and mounds of used clothing. At the stall, one often sees women sitting …one braiding another's hair. They do an incredible job of this, I saw the most intricate braidwork, genuine masterpieces of artistWoman in Braidsry. They may not have money for other things, but there is always someone who knows how to braid, and it passes the time.

We also drive through the Rift Valley today. That, along with Lake Nakuru and the Maasai Mara were major motivations for choosing this particular itinerary. The Rift Valley is a massive geological phenomenon, extending as it does from Jordan in the Middle East to South Africa at the bottom of the continent. The valley is the result of separating geological plates and offer extremely fertile soil and here, at least, a remarkably green landscape.

Lake Nakuru FlamnigoesWe arrive, finally, at Lake Nakuru and it is everything one could imagine. There are literally millions of birds, all neatly differentiated by species. First there is a strip of shore birds, then a strip of water. Next a strip of several thousand big white pelicans, then water. Finally, furthest out on their long skinny legs, the masses and masses of pink flamingos. And does it stink! Millions of birds make a mighty stink up. That and the noise. You hear it from several miles away …the chatter magnified by a million is incredible. I am so sorry we didn't bring a video camera because it would be the only way to capture the size and the sound of this incredible world wonder.

At our new campsite we are introduced to a new danger, cape buffalo. These great, hulking beasts kill more people in Africa than any other animal. We are warned to give them an extremely wide berth. Right.

Julie and Chantel head off for the long drop, located at some distance, behind a hillCape Buffalo. They come flying back, white as ghosts. The long drop is surrounded by a herd of cape buffalo. Great.

There is another long drop in the other direction. But this one is close to the river and presents another danger …the river is full of hippos who hate people even more than the cape buffalo do. During the day they pretty much stay in the river, but in the evening they come out to munch on the sweet new grass. And they run, much faster than you would imagine. Apparently what they don't do well is corner, as Patrick (who seems to have gotten into many scrapes in his career) explained. Most important rule: never get between a hippo and the water. HipposThey are so territorial they’ll think you are moving in on them and kill you.

He told us about inadvertently getting between a hippo and a swimming pool at a park entrance one day. That wouldn't seem to be a place you'd run into a hippo, but apparently there'd been a drought and the only fresh grass was near this man-made pool. So, not noticing the hippo there (although this begs the question how one could not notice a two-ton hippo?) he walked out of the building on a route that inadvertently put him between the hippo and the pool. The race was on. Patrick survived, he says, because he zigzagged back and forth across the parking lot. The hippo tried to follow his movements and it slowed him sufficiently to enable Patrick to reach safety.

So, now we have cape buffalo at one long drop and hippos at the other. Nerve-wracking - squatting over the hole that evening, flashlight clenched between my teeth so I don't step into the hole in the dark. I resolve to make this an effective visit so I don't have to make the trek in the truly scary dark again.

Which was a good plan ….during the night a great hulking shape bumped into the wall of the tent, startling Steve awake. Thank God he didn’t push back.

Munch, munch, munch, munch …..guess the grass was sweetest beside our tent. Was it a cape buffalo? Was it a hippo? Does it matter? We were just concerned that this behemoth would decide the grass was sweetest under the tent.

Day Five -  Navashu

Despite the hippos in the night, I slept exceedingly well. I awake again, to the sound of the birds and understand that the songs, the rustlings, the munching in the night are the sound of the savannah since the beginning of time. When I am back in my busy little urban world, wrapped up in my busy little concerns, the birds will still be singing in Africa, the hippos and buffalo will munch their way through this campsite …there are all these parallel universes and if I really want to, I could step over the line and into another universe forever.

It is possible. Everything is simply a matter of choice.

But, living in the garden of Eden would be very different from touristing through it.

So we get up and wash up and make our treks to the long drop. Mercifully now, the sun is up and the animals have retreated to wherever they call home to sleep off their busy night.

We took a game drive around Lake Nakuru, seeing many rhinos and of course the major feature of the lake, the flamingoes. We drove up to an excellent vantage point called Baboon Cliffs, from where we could see the whole lake …astonishing sight …millions and millions of flamingoes. And this is not the only lake they feed at.

Today is also a travel day …we’re off to Navashu. Enroute, our fellow travelers had asked for a shopping stop. People were in need of a few things – we had run out of shampoo. The market we were taken too was in a “safe” town. Even so, Bernard was warning us to stay within the shop and return to the truck – do not wander off. I wonder about this. Is he being hyper careful because as a tour leader is responsible for our safety – much the same as my vigilance over a neighbour’s child is more hyper than over my own. After all, people do backpack around Africa. Not many …we never saw any, but I’m sure they do.

The shop held the same kinds of goods that any small town grocery/drygoods store might. We purchased shampoo, cookies, and some clothes pegs for hanging out our wet laundry. Prices seemed reasonable to us by North American standards. For example, in my notes I see that the total price for cookies, shampoo, clothes pegs and two bottles of pop was $7.60 Cdn. But these things are no doubt very dear to people who don’t earn even a fraction of what we do in North America. As always, people were kind and friendly but it is noticeable that shops like this always have a highly visible contingent of security guards at the doors.

The campground on Lake Navaishu is actually a private, commercial enterprise where we are assigned, for the night, to rondavel-style huts. They are round, with screened, open-air windows all across the front, opening onto a covered patio. It’s raining lightly, but the covered patio offers the potential of drying our clothes and there is actually a well-organized laundry facility with great cement tubs and running water pumped up from the lake so we get busy. It’s been some days since we’ve had an opportunity to do laundry and we’re getting desperate! The first attempt at hanging our laundry ends in heartbreak. The load is so heavy it snaps the line and everything lands in the dirt. Load it up, back to the tubs and re-wash. I think it might actually be dirtier now than it was, but no matter, we rinse in the murky lake water and re-hang. This time we’ve begged some sturdier line and drape the heavier items over a fence that won’t collapse under its weight.

We’re off for a walk to the lake where we’re shown the dhows that we are expected to paddle out in after dinner. We are not normally nervous nellies, but these boats have an exceedingly shallow draft, even sitting empty at the dock. We’re told that one will carry seven of us, no problem. It’s growing chillier by the minute and the wind is kicking up the waves. Lifejackets? Don’t see evidence of any. The plan is that we are going to be taking the dhows out across the lake to some kind of bird sanctuary. Steve, who never misses an opportunity to see something he’s never seen before, declares that he’s never been all that keen on birds.

The lake is also home to many hippos …which proves to be true. We hear them rummaging around all night and step into the evidence later. Those boats are awfully small.

First we have dinner to prepare for in the dining “hut”. This is a lean-to kind of structure with a corrugated tin roof. The fellows have their fires going in the hearths and the tea is on. In Africa it is most common to put the tea, the sugar, the milk and the cold water all into the pot at once, bringing it to a boil. Thus, one quickly learns to take their tea sweet and milky. It’s cold, so we gather around the fire, cradling the tea and looking hopefully into Leonard’s bubbling pots. We talk, play cards, and write in our journals about how we never figured on having to cope with such cold and chilly weather in Africa.

The long drops are actually flush toilets at this highly-civilized encampment so we each take our turn going for a leisurely sit. While Steve is out on his visit, the sky opens up. It’s as if God dumped a tub of water on Africa. I live on the west coast of Canada, in what’s known as a rainforest. We know our rain. We have attitude about our rain. But this rain was in a whole new category. It was a spectacular, over-the-top, overwhelming force of nature. Under the corrugated sheet metal roof we’ve each dropped our activities and risen to a stand, mouths gaping open. We are exceedingly grateful that we are here under this roof and not in some flimsy canvas tent, but more than this, we are simply awestruck by the wonder of it. The raindrops are so BIG and so violently propelled that the roof sounds like a dump truck is unloading a never-ending river of rocks onto it. When we thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. The rain turned to hail. We couldn’t talk for the noise of it …even to the person standing right next to us.

Steve? He’s way off in the distance, trapped in the toilet. No one would actually walk out in something like this, the hail is as big as baseballs. So he waits. I start giggling, amused by the irony of it. After a week of squatting in the dirt we were thrilled to find a real toilet and now it looks like he’ll be sleeping there!

But of course, he won’t. It lasted 30 or maybe 40 minutes, before settling down to a “normal” rain for the evening.

Dinner was wonderful: fried fish, sweet potatoes mashed with cocoanut milk, steamed kale and fruit in cream for dessert. We have several vegans on this trip and they all pronounce themselves very happy with the food.

The trip on the dhows? I think the hail sank them.

Day Six - Maasai Mara

After all that we slept well. It had been cold to start with so I’d zipped into my bag wearing my turtleneck sweater on top of my pyjamas, but this is Africa after all. Once the cold front passed during the night, the temperature shot up considerably and I was tossing off the bag by morning.

We’re off to the famed Maasai Mara today. What magic there are in those words. Young Maasi Girl They jump off the pages of my Grade 6 text book. Maasai Mara, home of the red-robed Maasai warriors and the lions who tred in fear of them. This is so very cool. I hug myself in excitement.

But it’s a long trek out there, over some very bumpy, dusty roads. I am so glad neither Steve nor I have bad backs. This would be intolerable for someone who did. How unfortunate for them, because as exhausting as this kind of travel it is, it is the only way to see the towns, villages and street life of Africa. I would not ever presume to imply that we came to “know” Africa, but the glimpses we had were real.

At Maasai Mara later that day we stopped at the airstrip to use the facilities. A neat little plane had just landed. Very clean, well-dressed tourists were alighting from the plane and into a shiny green, leather upholstered vehicle for their short drive to one of the luxury lodges where they will shit on a sparkling white toilet and foam scented body gel over their bodies under endless gushes of hot water. They’ll eat stuffed Cornish game hens off English bone china on white linen tablecloths. And in the morning they’ll be carried out to see a few lions and an elephant and a giraffe. And then they’ll fly out again. They’ve been on safari.

I’m not totally mocking it. For people incapable of the long road trips, and the stamina required to endure them, the flying safaris enable them to get into the game preserves and that has to be better than nothing. I know that I will always hunger to return to this place, so perhaps when I am old, I will come this way too.

But for now, I am very glad that I am me. Although, from the way those upmarket tourists are regarding us, I can see that they are saying the same thing to themselves.

On the road to the Maasai one of the trucks breaks down. Well, not literally. It manages to limp into the parking lot of a curio shop. Well, at least that means there is a bathroom and a cup of tea to be had.

Our guides leave us to the tender mercies of the curio salesmen …while they limp away to a town where they think there might be a mechanic to help them. The salesmen are obviously delighted. This bunch even carries calculators. For the first hour, we look at the crafts. The salesmen stalk us, each staking out their territory on our aching bodies.

Knowing that I already have more bags of carvings/bowls/masks than I will ever be reasonably able to display or give away at home, I tire of this quickly. I don’t really want to buy anything and I don’t wish to lead them on. Steve, however, is still much into it. At first I think it is just for the sport and am annoyed with him. He’s told the fellow shadowing him that I won’t let him buy more stuff.

“Mamma, Mamma,” the fellow comes running after me. “Pappa wants an elephant. May he not have this fine elephant? It is a very fine elephant and here, beside it I have the baby too, just as fine.”

I glare at Steve and march him out the door. “Pappa will get back to you in a moment,” I promise the earnest young man.

An intense discussion uncovers the fact that Steve is not playing the guy …he genuinely wants to buy some more stuff. “When will we every be here again and these are really nice quality carvings.” But he knows we’ve already bought a lot and he thinks I’ll be against it. But wily coyote that he is, he knows how I feel about supporting the local economies so he sends the sales guy, who is no more than a kid in a grown-up’s suit over to soften me up.

I don’t really care if we buy more stuff. I don’t know where we’ll put it to carry home, but we are talking about such small amounts of money for most of this stuff that I really don’t care.

I beckon the fellow. “Pappa needs to make a good deal,” I tell him. His face lights up and the two of them disappear inside to wheel and deal and fill Steve’s day pack with wild animals.

I go back outside. Some of our group has gathered around a decrepit old picnic table with a bit of thatched roof over it. This roof now reveals more sky than thatch, but we sit, refugees from curio-land, waiting for the trucks to return.

And something wonderful happens. The salesmen understand that we have exhausted our interest in shopping so they shuck their hustler personas and we begin to talk, now like people. They want to know everything about our lives in North America and willingly share theirs. I learn, and this lesson has been repeated in Johannesburg and Lesotho and Nairobi …that family is everything. Most of these men work to maintain wives and children and parents who usually live in their home village, a day or mores journey away. They work long hours and long weeks, saving their time and money for a time every few months when they can go home for a few days.

While they work, they live within a community of men, longing for the warmth of their women and the laughter of their children. They are inordinately proud of their home villages, of the accomplishments of their children or others. Everyone knows someone who has gone to college in America or England. They are so hungry for education, now for their children. They are very, very good people. I am struck, as I always am when I have the opportunity to get to know people apparently vastly different worlds, how we are no different when it comes to the important things in life. The warmth of our loved ones, the security of our homes, a future for our children …it is the same all over the world ...among the people.

When the trucks return …we wave goodbye. So much enriched by this serendipitous encounter in curio land.

Day Seven -  Maasi Mara

Last night we camped within the boundaries of Maasai tribal lands. There were no Maasai Warriorfences to protect us from predators, so Maasai warriors were hired to watch over us all night. This was a tad spooky. These very tall, very thin warriors are draped in the traditional red plaid blankets. The paint their bodies in cow dung and the story is that between the plaid blankets and the cow dung, the lions are afraid of these warriors so they walk through the savannah untouched by the giant cats.

There is certainly an odor that one comes to associate with Africa, it is unforgettable. I don’t know whether it comes from the cow dung or the charcoal fires or both ..but it is not unpleasant. It is simply the smell of Africa.

We sit around the campfire in the dark, telling stories and sharing our lives. The Maasai are there, just out of the light, vigilant. Every time one of us heads for the long drop, a warrior jumps out and precedes us, another follows behind. Then they crouch at a distance that respects one’s privacy, but who cannot be aware of them out there.

As we turn in, one comes to crouch directly behind our tent. This is weird. Are we SURE these guys are getting paid enough to keep us alive?

I guess so, because we survive and at first light they melt into the bush.

We are treated to a huge English breakfast of omelet’s, sausage, bacon and toast. As we head out of camp I spot, way off in the distance, a young Maasai herding his cattle down to the river. It’s a picturesque shot so I ask the driver to stop so I can get it.

As I’m poking my head out of the roof, focusing my telephoto, a grizzled old crone jumps out of the bushes and starts shrieking at me. Apparently she believes that I am taking her photo and she wants payment. Bernard explains that I am actually photographing the cows off in the distance, but she doesn’t believe anyone would photograph cows. We leave her screaming after the truck. I’m thinking that doesn’t bode well for the next group coming through here looking for Maasai protection but Bernard is gunning it back down the road before I find some money to pacify her.

So you are warned, beware old crones in bushes.

At the Maasai Mara we spend the day on a game drive. It is, indeed, a magical place and I am content. One of the places we go is the Mara River where I’ve seen the National Geographic films of the wildebeest crossing. The wildebeest are now massing in the tens of thousands for their next crossing. The crocodiles sun themselves on the banks waiting. Millions of white bones, bleaching in the sun, witness to the slaughter. The wildebeest are driven to cross the river by the movement of the rains and the concomitant growth of new grass. They are grazers and they move with the new grass.

Back at the camp for dinner, Leonard goes all out with roasted lamb, an incredible vegetable stew and a chocolate cake for dessert. I talked him into sharing the recipe which he actually seemed very honoured to do. So here you are:

Leonard’s Vegetables

Wash and chop: zucchini, onions, tomatoes, eggplants, green peppers. Cover with congees sauce and cook together until everything is soft, Stir in some cream. Then spoon vegetables onto a platter and sprinkle with cheddar cheese.

Congee Sauce
Crush ½ garlic – fry with one onion
Mix in a tin of tomatoes and a tin of tomato paste
Add some chicken stock or cubes
Add aromatic
Thicken with cornstarch
Add in salt, pepper, mixed herbs

So this is all fine …except what is aromatic (you can buy it anywhere, he explained patiently) and what mixed herbs? We struggled with the herbs, finally agreeing that oregano was one …but beyond that we couldn’t come on an English translation for his secret spices.

Day Eight -  Nairobi

Woke up with the birds again, packed up and took group pictures. We leave this group today, so there is some sadness. They've been stimulating, invigorating, wonderful companions.

We were on the road by 7:30, heading for Nairobi and the Boulevard Hotel. We won't be staying …just connecting with the shuttle to Arusha in Tanzania. We were able to pack up all our souvenirs though and give them to the Boulevard Hotel to keep for us until we return to fly out when we'll be spending a day and a night here again.

The shuttle arrives at 1:30 and we are off to Arusha for the next leg of our African adventure – Tanzania.

Carolyn Usher


This trip was taken in 2001 by Steve and Carolyn Usher.