The shuttle from Nairobi to Arusha is a large, comfortable, overgrown van type bus and we knock off down the road at a good clip. After 1¾ hours we meet the counterpart to our shuttle traveling in the reverse direction, from Arusha to Nairobi.
The drivers stop to chat for a bit. They always do this on game drives too …stop to lean on the windows and exchange a few or many words – all in Swahili …laugh a bit and move on. Perhaps they are "gathering informations" as Miriam, the Samburu teacher told us is the natural born role of men. This is certainly what men do where I come from too.
We stopped at the border between Kenya and Tanzania. The hawkers were particularly pushy. Sitting opposite was a new arrival, a handsome hunk of a man who turned out be Dirk the Dutchman. He is a sweet, if sometimes naïve and trusting soul. He’d dangled his arm out the window so a scrawny little old crone of a woman snapped a beaded bracelet onto it. He protested that he didn't want the bracelet. No, she assured him the bracelet was free. He figured it was kind of like a Hawaiian lei, land at the airport and the tourist people swoop out to throw leis around your neck (it's never happened to me, but then I've never been on a "tour" of Hawaii) Anyway, I digress.
We warned Dirk that nothing in Africa is free. If he didn't want the bracelet he'd best get it off and back to the woman but she insisted he keep it and he thought we were crazy.
So, we got out and got our passports stamped and had proceeded about 100 yards into Tanzania when this old crone comes screaming after him. He hadn't paid! He was stealing her bracelet!
Looking sheepish, Dirk struggled to get the tight little bracelet off and couldn't, all the while the crone was jumped up and down, attracting a crowd and screaming for her money. One of the other passengers managed to get the damn thing unhooked and Dirk dropped it through the window towards her. Steve slammed the window shut while the hawker continued to shriek.
Poor Dirk, his first lesson in dealing with the border hawkers. They are extremely persistent and they know the drill. It's hot, so the windows are open. They drop stuff through the windows onto your lap, then insist that you pay for it. They depend on our reluctance to just throw something back through the window at them, to let it fall in the dirt and possibly break, so once they land it in your lap or get you to hold it they stand back just out of range so you can't give it back …until they've negotiated a deal with you.
We got quite stubborn about refusing to deal with them …but realized later that some of the best deals to be had on stuff were at these border crossings. On the other hand, people told us that many of these hawkers are actually selling merchandise they stole off legitimate vendors and so will settle for any price because it cost them nothing in materials or labour. What are you going to do?
So, it was thus that
we met Dirk who became
part of our Tanzania
Had a good dinner with new companions. We still have Maureen from the other trip, but now also Dirk from the Netherlands, Greg and Fiona – New Zealanders who now live in London, Marie and her husband from Ireland, Shelly and Nellie – two physiotherapists from Australia, Art and Terri from Los Angeles, and Caroline and Noel from Scotland.
Maureen, of course, is a biology prof from New York. Dirk works in the computer industry as do Greg and Fiona. Art and Terri are both public service lawyers, Marie is an accountant and her husband, whose name escapes me but I see him plain as day – a warmhearted redhead with a face full of friendly freckles, is a lineman for a power supply company. Caroline and Noel are both travel agents who've come to that more or less after years and years of traveling. For example, they met in Egypt and got to know each other in Israel where Noel was running a restaurant or bar or something for a couple of years. They are the quintessential backpackers …now settling down a bit more, own a home, run a business …but the wanderlust remains a crucial element in their lives.
Day Two - Lake Manyera
This looks like a particularly interesting bunch of people that we are traveling with. Before this Africa trip Steve and I had never been on a “tour” and I had some concerns about the trip being ruined by potentially horrible people. The apprehension has proven to be misplaced.
Everyone we've traveled with to date has had the essential ingredients ...a spirit of adventure and a willingness to endure some dirt and hardship for the privilege of traveling on this continent. It must be said, Africa is not for everyone ….or at least overland trips are not for everyone. And those who choose the overland routes do seem to be prepared for it. They're all backpacker types who've seen far worse …for whom comfort camping is indeed luxurious, so there were never any complaints about the conditions or anything.
What I hadn't counted on was how much I was going to enjoy meeting and talking to these people from all over the world …the richness that they would bring to the experience. As well, the crew, and our interactions with them, getting to know them and a little bit about their lives.
With Scots, Irish and Ozzies on board for this leg, the first stop that day was the bottle shop for beer. I insisted we pick up some diet pop too, but I noticed that the crews always gave priority to keeping the beer cold and constantly forgot about the pop!
Our next stop was just outside of Arusha, the Maserani Snake Park. This was very interesting. It turns out that most snakes are frightened of humans and will skitter right out of the way, given that option. Humans usually only get bitten when they surprise a snake by inadvertently stepping on it, so we were instructed to wear shoes and keep our eyes open.
The exception to the “more scared of you” rule is the Black Mamba which becomes very aggressive during mating/reproduction and will attack unprovoked. Fortunately, the Black Mamba is very rare.
We had a great lunch in a box …chicken, bread and butter, cookies, banana, oranges, chocolate and juice.
This first day we drove to Lake Manyera and went on safari from 2-4:30. That was too early to see much, but we didn't have any choice because we have to make it over the mountains by 6:30. Still there were quite a few elephants, zebras, baboons and giraffes. The foliage in this park is very thick so it is harder to see the animals than on the grasslands of Maasai Mara or Samburu.
Traveling over the mountains, we are heading for the Ngorogoro Conservation area through a beautiful agricultural area. Although still extremely impoverished, the towns have a little more prosperous look to them. We notice people stopped on the road – bus or truck off to side while men work on fixing it. Everyone is their own mechanic here and parts are improvised. They are probably the finest mechanics in the world, considering that they keep these old hulks running on baling wire and cow dung.
Saw quite a few of the matata traveling over the mountains. These are the highly decorated buses that you hear before you see – with their amplified boom box sound systems cranking out the driver’s preferred “music.”. They are packed to the gunnels, people riding on top of bundles on the roof. They all have scary names like "Ride to Hell" or sometimes religious supplications "Glory to God", but they are all equally dangerous. The roads are in dreadful condition, frequent off-road diversions are necessary and quickly become impassable with even a little bit of rain.
We left the asphalt behind a few days ago and now the roads are red dirt, with a fine dust that rises up in great clouds, impregnating everything. When I came home it took several washes of my clothes …each rinse coming out this distinctive red colour.
Day Three - Ngorogoro Crater
Camp was in a commercial campground. Apparently this is a somewhat dangerous area in terms of bandits, so there is a big fence and guards with big guns patrolling the perimeter to keep us safe. It’s an uneasy feeling – watching the guards playing with their assault rifles while we sit sipping our tea.
Today we headed for the Ngorogoro Crater. Standing on the edge, looking over, it was shrouded in a cloud. We couldn't see anything at first. We went around to the lodge and it had cleared up.
This lodge is magnificent, perched on the rim of the crater. From the deck you can see down into the crater through a telescope - elephants, hippos, rhinos, lions etc.
We won't be going down into the crater today ….we will just be passing along the rim on the way through this area, known as the Ngorogoro Conservation Area on the way to the Serengeti. We'll go down into the crater on our way back through in a few days as we have to pass this way again.
After that, we stopped at a Maasai Village. This was a much sadder village than the Samburu who comparatively were cleaner, better fed, healthier. Here the children were filthy and covered in flies. The chief asked us for medicine for a dying child …we had none with us. Our kit with antibiotics etc was in the big bag on the truck. My first instinct would have been to give him our antibiotics, but then someone said, that's crazy – those were prescribed for a full-size adult – how much would they give the child? None of us are doctors. The other thing that was suggested was that this was just a hustle …that the drugs would then be sold on the black market. I don't know. Never had to make that decision because I didn't have any drugs anyway. This was sad place and we didn't learn much.
It was a very long and bumpy ride, but eventually we came to the entrance of the famed Serengeti, Swahili for "endless plain".
Immediately we came upon an interesting scenario. A huge male and female lion were lying some 15 feet or so apart with their back to each other. Apparently they had been mating, which during the females oestrus happens many, many times. Obviously she hadn’t been fully satisfied because she got up and sashayed over to him, rubbing up against him, cuddling and behaving very seductively. It was fascinating to watch – very humanistic behaviour.
He looked at her, gave a great yawn and rolled over away from her. She jumped up angrily, giving a mighty roar and stomped off, stopping every few feet to look at him and let out an angry roar. A woman scorned. It could not have been clearer.
Came to the camp. This is a very basic kind of place, inside the park. There is a covered place for eating and a cleared place for tents, then at quite some distance a shower shed and a long drop. It is already dark when we arrive but some Maasai warriors have been paid to heat water in a big oil drum. They are doing this when we arrive. It's been a long and dirty day so the shower line up begins. You go in and strip down. The Maasai fellow climbs the ladder over the shed with a big bucket of warm water that he's heated over the fire and pours it into a drum on the roof of the shower shed. Thus, when you open the faucet you have warm water.
Naturally, by the time I get in line it's all gone. But they promise to heat more water in the morning so I resolve to go then. It's not the hot water I want so much (although we are at a fairly high altitude here and it's too cold outside for a cold shower) it's that it is so dark. There is no light and so you have to shower and dress and everything completely in the dark, feeling around for things …it's just a bit miserable. I crawl into my bag as I am. It won't be the first or last time.
Day Four - Serengetti
Today is my 50th birthday and this trip, my gift to myself on that birthday.
I was sleeping very well …snuggled deep into my down bag when the alarm went off. This perplexed me because I couldn't figure out why I would have set it …but I gamely crawled out in the cold and started hunting through my pack to find out where it was ….only to realize finally that the sound was coming from an adjacent tent.
Greg and Fiona had booked a sunrise cruise on a hot air balloon …the alarm was for them. It just sounded like it was in our tent. I snuggled back under and was just getting comfy when the crew came around, and woke us up. Time for the sunrise game drive. Up and awake …coffee and a couple of biscuits then off to look for lions. Although we hadn't heard them, they'd left a significant amount of evidence when they'd visited the water tap during the night. And I'd been up peeing behind the tent during the night. Not a good idea.
It's very cold with a biting wind. But it was a great game drive. We saw a family of about 25 lions …maybe 5 mothers and all their little cubs of different ages, tumbling over each other playing and cavorting. Absolutely charming. We saw hippos …tons of them with their babies, and crocs lying in wait on the sandy banks. The crocs will take a baby hippo if they have a chance but wouldn't take on an adult. The adult hippos are very scarred up and I asked if this was because of the crocs but apparently not. They fight viciously among themselves.
During the drive we saw Greg and Fiona up in their balloon, floating high above us. It is a very expensive ride – one hour for $385 US each - that would be more than $1000 Cdn for the two of us. I think not. I understand that during the wildebeest migration, with millions of the animals thundering just feet below you, the balloon ride can be a unique experience but the migration is not yet underway so I think they actually had a bit of a boring trip.
"At least we got a nice breakfast," they said. This is true. We'd seen that from a distance too. A beautiful white bwana type silver service on white linen presentation is done under an acacia tree on the Serengeti plains. Kind of a cool experience, but certainly not worth $1000 to us!!!!
I think Fiona was most pissed off too because we'd seen all these little lion cubs playing. For the rest of the trip she was fixated on finding lion cubs and of course we never did again.
We also saw a lot of mongooses up close and some very cute baby warthogs. These animals run through the grasslands with their tales pointing directly up – like one of those bicycle flags you put on kids bikes to make them more visible – skinny little rods of tails straight up with a tuft of fur on the top flying behind in the breeze. They are so ugly they are cute, but very skittish so difficult to get a good photo of.
Back to the camp for brunch – beans, pizza, quiche, salad, cukes, carrots, fruit salad, toast and corned beef. Wonderful, and it didn't cost an extra $1000.
After lunch we settled down in the heat of the day to tend to our laundry, do some reading, catch up on our journal writing, talk. The crew had also found some more showers down the road a few miles, so we jumped in the truck and headed over. It wasn't that far, but this is the middle of the game park so you aren't allowed to walk outside the immediate environs of the campsite, because here, you are the prey.
The shower consisted of huge rain barrels on top of a small outhouse-style building. You open the spigot and what water is up there comes out. We had no idea how much or little there might be, so we showered military style. You know… wet yourself down, turn off the water. Soap up. Turn on water just long enough to rinse off. Turn it off. Which was just fine by me. You would think, sitting up there in the direct sun that this water would be pleasantly warm, but no. It was bracing. But once again, I was reasonably clean and that felt wonderful.
While we are resting, reading, etc. the driver of the big truck and his helper have basically dismantled what looks like the drive shaft or something. The whole bottom of the truck is sitting on the ground. In this country everyone is their own mechanic and these guys do this major work, just at the side of the road with a wrench or something.
The rest of the crew is fascinated by a transistor radio with which they've managed to bring in the BBC. Apparently the US has been bombing Afghanistan and bin Laden has released a video. So the world appears to be at war and these fellows are anxiously trying to capture every scrap of information. Everywhere they go, they are constantly trying to tune it in …scratchy reception, scary words.
I guess that I should want to hear this, but I don't. When September 11th happened we made a decision to continue with the trip. We had determined that with the airports closed in North America, we would pretty much have to row home over the Atlantic. Our families were safe for the moment, and there was nothing we could do.
As I said to one of our companions, "Bush isn't calling and asking for my advice so perhaps I should just try to screen this out and get on with savouring the experience of being in Africa." That's easily said. Not so easily done. One cannot erase the element of anxiety that runs like a current under everything we do. We can pretend that it does not exist, but we are hungry for fresh information. Throughout the trip, any decent size town we go into we are looking for an English language paper and we all crowd around to read it. But of course nothing is happening. And once that is determined I do not want to see it anymore.
While in South Africa, this was all so fresh that some people wanted to discuss it and discuss and discuss it. What would Bush do? What would bin Laden's next move be? Was this the end of the world?
There was nothing we could do. We needed to be focusing elsewhere. At one meal I just got up and ran out, tears streaming down my face. Like everyone in the world, including those Tanzanian drivers with their scratchy BBC reception I was terrified that the world was at the abyss. But there was nothing I could do so I couldn't keep talking about it.
So no, we didn't want to huddle around his radio. I think his feelings might have been hurt – but all I wanted to determine was what was happening and then turn it off.
The media feeds people's terror by broadcasting non-stop, even when there is nothing to report. This was really obvious with the 9/11 thing because we would only see a TV set every couple days. When we did come on one, we clustered around, anxious to find out what had happened next ….only to discover …nothing. The media were continuing to replay the same footage, reduced to interviewing each other and anyone who'd ever even taken a 2 day weekend in New York. They had no new news …yet they were continuing to broadcast nonstop in that hyped up style they adopt for crises …that accelerates the anxiety of those people huddled around their television sets 24/7.
That evening, the crew presents me with a chocolate birthday cake. It is a sweet and charming gesture.
But first they have some fun. They give me a beautiful chocolate cake and a knife to cut it with. I try and try to cut the cake. It is very difficult. I keep trying because I know they will have baked this cake over a fire and that these cakes can be a bit hard and chewy. Not wanting to offend them, I keep trying to cut the cake as if it is an easy thing to do. At one point I lick the icing off my hand. At this they near about pee their pants, they are laughing so hard. I cotton on to the fact that this is no ordinary cake.
And it isn't. As it happens, elephants drop their stools in lovely hard, perfectly round chunks, exactly the size and shape of a round chocolate layer cake. So it is tradition for the cooks on these trips to cover one of these offerings in chocolate icing and have a joke on the travelers. It worked, everyone laughed and it was delightful to see how much of a kick they got out of playing this joke on us.
Then the real cake came ….same size, shape and appearance. How did I know this was the real one? How could I trust them? "Oh mother, we wouldn't really let you eat elephant dung," the cook crooned. And he didn't. Although as hard and chewy as you'd expect a chocolate cake cooked over a charcoal fire might be, it was fine and I was extremely happy.
As I had always dreamed, I was in Africa. I was celebrating my 50th birthday with wonderful people, on the Serengeti, with lions stalking the perimeter and elephants providing the jokes. What more could a girl ask for? Good sex maybe, but that would have to wait for a little more privacy than the proximity of our shared canvas walls permitted.
Day Five - Ngorogoro Crater
Leaving the Serengeti today, we stopped first at the Serengeti Nature Centre, kind of what we would call a "Visitors Centre" at the entrance to our national parks. It had displays and naturalists and a couple of marked hiking paths. Some of my fellow travelers wanted to do the hike but it was extremely hot so I chose to stay in the shade on the deck of the center and catch up on my writing.
That didn't happen because the fellow who manages the center came over to talk. He has a degree in wildlife management and supervises the crews of park wardens who ride around the reserve/park protecting the animals and the integrity of the environment. They sit up on hills or rocks with high powered binoculars observing the vehicles driving around the park, ensuring that the guides stay on the marked trails, don't bait the animals and aren't damaging the ecology. Of course, there is a huge temptation for the guides to go off the marked trails if it means getting their tourists closer to the wildlife. In one instance, in the Maasai Mara, we had seen guides doing this.
There was a leopard up in a tree with his (or her? how would I know?) kill, an impala, dangling from a fork in the branches. This is what leopards do. They are nocturnal animals that hunt at night. While very fast and plenty vicious they are solitary animals and not actually all that much of a match against a determined pack of hyenas after the kill. So they haul their kills, sometimes several times their own body weight, up into a tree where they eat at leisure over several days.
Both because they are usually only active at night and because they sleep up in the branches, they are notoriously hard to see. The tip-off is usually the sight of kill slung over the fork of a tree. If you spot that, look next for a dangling spotted tail.
Anyway, there was a leopard and it's kill up in a tree …but some distance off the marked trail. I have no idea how these guides spot things this far away but they do and so several of them had driven off the trail to park their tourists directly beneath the tree. Our guide, Bernard, has a wife and kids and a living to protect so he declined to drive over.
He explained to us that the fine for going off the trail was something like $200, an exorbitant amount for someone like him. If we were willing to pay the fine he would consider going over but we chose not to.
I like to think Mother Nature rewards the ethical, and in this case she did. On the last day or our trip in Tanzania, in the last moments of the last game drive, a leopard jumped out of the grass beside us. She moved with such grace and beauty and dignity – sashaying down the road like a high-end model on a Paris catwalk, showing off her extraordinary coat. It was an incredible experience because leopards just don't do this …walk around in the middle of the day, with no fear, posing for the cameras. What an honour.
Back at the Serengeti Nature Center, I enjoyed talking to this fellow so much. He reinforced for me, what I had been learning everywhere, that family and the extended family through the village is of primary importance to these people. Like every other African male that I had a chance to speak with at any length, his own wife and children were back in "the village" to which he returned at every opportunity.
Like every other African I met as well, he had an insatiable curiosity about North American life and it was a bit of a contest, which of us was going to get the most questions in.
Today, we drove back through the Ngorogoro Conservation Area to the lip of the crater. We will be staying here tonight, along with hundreds of other people. The camping site is not all that big so we are crowded together, hundreds of tents with basically 3 or 4 feet between them. Being as how there are only so many kinds of tents and colours of tents, one needs to develop some landmarks (3 rows up, 12 tents over) to find their own home …especially in the dark! One of our group, an American lawyer who otherwise appeared to be an intelligent fellow, seemed to be somewhat challenged by this and repeatedly wandering into the wrong tents. His partner got to the point of insisting on accompanying him everywhere!
Up on the lip of the rim we are very high, at 2600 metres or about 7800 feet and it is very cold. The wind whips through here chills one to the bone. Tonight I put on every piece of clothing I own and zip up to my forehead to fall asleep. Unfortunately, during the night I have to make the inevitable trip outside and with tents in such close proximity I dare not just nip outside. There are predators, as the armed guards constantly patrolling attest to, and for a moment I thought I'd stumbled on one in the dark, but it just turned out to be a huge mother of a wild bush pig. These beasts are not particularly dangerous but neither are they scared of people. We were warned to keep food out of our tents because they are known to just bulldoze their way into tents when they smell something delicious ….bananas are apparently irresistible to them.
Climbing up to the crater earlier that day we had passed one of the overland trucks. It sounded like it was grinding on one cylinder, just awful. The passengers, young people from all over the world were hanging on, knuckles white, faces frozen with cold. After we were asleep we were awoken when it finally ground it's way into camp. Out they all piled, trying to find their tents and belongings in the biting cold, looking for something to eat, giving up, finally crawling into their bags. They were still asleep when we pulled out the next morning.
Day Six - Ngorogoro Crater
The day started with an icy wind whipping through the camp, chilling to the bone. We cupped our hot tea and snuggled in every thing we owned. Then, embarked on the big drawing card of this trip, the trip down into the crater.
It was a great day of game viewing in this unique habitat. While animals are certainly known to climb out of the crater, most stay put, particularly the rhinos. The enclosed nature of this natural habitat makes it so much easier for the wardens to protect the rhinos, each of which apparently has its own contingent of 'round the clock guards.
By late afternoon we are on the road again and back to Kudu Camp in the Kerutu area.
This is a comfortable "commercial" camp that offers showers and washing up facilities. We will be home in a few days so forgo the usual laundry process, but a number of our group are continuing on to climb Mount Kilimanjaro so they take advantage of the opportunity to wash and hang their clothes. It's a constant endeavour here because on the one hand, limited space means that you cannot bring very many clothes, but on the other hand, the persistent dirt, dust, heat and sweat mean that you need to clean your clothes even more frequently, perhaps than you would at home. So you learn to live with levels of dust and dirt that you wouldn't tolerate at home.
Terrible night. That same big overland truck that ground its way up to the crater, waking everyone in the camp at the crater rim, spent all day grinding its way to Kudu Camp. Unfortunately, it didn't make it. So at some point during the night they got in touch with our driver/mechanic and support crew drove out to help them. They used our truck to tow the other truck into camp, a very noisy process. Then, of course, everyone piled out (this was about 3am) and engaged in making camp, eating, and so on. Meanwhile our big, noisy truck spent all night ferrying back and forth between the broken-down truck and our camp, bringing people, supplies, etc. Needless to say, there was no sleep for anyone.
It was kind of amusing in this camp, because we'd been having a discussion about how long drops are actually more hygienic in this environment and how we'd grown to prefer them to toilets with seats ...until we discovered that at the front gate of this camp there was a bar/restaurant and in this facility they also had several sit down toilets. Well, you should have seen us, trucking on up the road for the pleasure of sitting down!
After breakfast we left for an idyllically beautiful place known as "Gibbs Farm". This is exactly the same landscape as the villages around about, but the difference is remarkable. At Gibbs they've landscaped the grounds, encouraging the proliferation of gorgeous indigenous shrubs and flowers like lilies and poinsettias. They've built attractive cabins using local materials, then persuaded vines to crawl up and over the front porches. Comfy cane loungers are set out in locations that sport splendid views over the Rift Valley.
There is a nice waterfall there …which the more energetic in training for Kilimanjaro climbed up to, but we chose to recline in those cane loungers and contemplate the view. It was lovely and peaceful.
One of our guides, Ernesto, had told me that if I loved elephants, Tarangarie would be my favourite park and he was right. We had an amazing experience there with the elephants.
At a small lake, there was a gathering of the bulls. As the bulls live more solitary lives, this gathering of what I counted as 22 massive bulls plus many adolescents was unique. The younger ones were playing in the water, just as adolescent boys would – knocking each other over, spraying each other, tumbling and tussling and having a wonderful time. At some point the big bulls became aware of us, parked at the edge, observing and three of them came over. They formed a massive wall of protection for the others, standing shoulder-to-shoulder about 15 feet away, regarding us steadily and warily. It was obvious that while they weren't openly aggressive, they would brook no further incursions into their space.
The guide told us about experiences with elephants, where they had come over to the truck and with their trunk, reached in through the open roof and explored the terrified tourists. In one instance an elephant had rolled the vehicle, over and over, angry about the incursion into his space. They are known to kill people with no provocation, although this is thought to happen when that elephant has witnessed poachers killing and maiming family members. These elephants just stood guard, watching.
Then we became aware that another bull, the largest of them all, had come around behind the truck and was regarding us through the foliage of a nearby tree. So, now we were surrounded. This increased our uneasiness, but at the same time, heightened our fascination. This was such an extraordinary experience, being so close to them. The guide warned us not to talk, make any sudden movements or challenge the elephants with eye contact. This was definitely the time to concede ground to a more powerful adversary. We behaved with meekness and humility.
According to the guide, when it is time for a herd to move on to better feeding grounds, the bulls will gather like this, to discuss it, I guess and decide on where to send advance scouts. This then happens and when the scouts return with news of where the better feeding is, the bulls inform the matriarchs and the whole herd moves there. This conference of the bulls was apparently what we were witnessing.
Eventually, the herd moved on out of the water and started back across the plains. When even the smallest had gotten some distance away, the "guards" withdrew and followed them, casting the occasional glance back to ensure that we were not following.
We had earlier experienced an instance of an elephant on the verge of charging and it is a frightening experience. We were observing an elephant feeding. When a minivan came screeching around the side and screeched to a stop in front of us, and right into the face of the elephant. He reared up, his large ears flapping aggressively and roared. Then he watched to see what would happen next. The van stood still and silent, so after what seemed like an eternity, the elephant turned on his heel and marched off down the road.
The road to our next campsite was blocked by police. After 20 minutes of heated discussion they finally let us through. As this whole discussion was in Swahili we were curious and pestered our driver with questions. Well, perhaps we shouldn’t have. Apparently the police did not want us to proceed because on this particular stretch of highway there was a band of Somali bandits who would cheerfully slit our throats for even a little food or money. People are not allowed onto this road anymore.
But persuading the police that we didn't have too far to go, we drove around the barrier and proceeded several miles down the highway and then off it, onto a goat trail for several kilometers, even further into the wilderness. We asked him if this was safe, considering that the police were not letting anyone into the area. "Oh yeah, the bandits aren't here, they are 100 kilometres away." We reminded him that 100 kilometres isn't far away. He assured us that it was far enough. That night I made Steve take out his pocket knife and keep it under his pillow.
We'd been held up so long by the police that it was very dark by the time we got to the "Wild Palm Camp", ensuring that we didn't know anything about the terrain and assumed that every shadow was a Somali bandit. The toilets were about a city block away so needless to say, we peed behind the tent that night! Woe betide anyone with tummy troubles on this night. Between the bandits and the animals no one was keen to make that long, dark trek to the long drop.
Day Eight - Tarangire and Arusha
Today we head for Arusha …and begin the long trek back home.
But before that, one final game drive in the Tarangerie Reserve. We never saw the gathering of the bulls again …whether they dispersed or moved on I don't know. But what we had discovered during this trip was that every game drive had a highlight. Sometimes you had to wait till the very end to see it, but there was always something very special.
In Kruger it had been the lions lying directly beside the road. In Samburu it was the lions and baboons coming right into camp. In the Serengeti it was the lions mating and in Tarangerie that day it was the leopard I referred to earlier. Leopards are usually the hardest of the "big five" to bag on a game safari. They simply do not come down out of their tree and stroll around in plain sight during the day. It was an extraordinary experience witnessing this one, sashaying off down the road in front of us. We were mesmerized.
The road from Tarangerie was difficult …bumpy, dusty, hot, and dangerous. We hung on for dear life, bruising thighs on the sides of the truck, banging our heads on the roof when the truck bottomed out, jolting our backs so badly that even those of us without back problems got out finally, feeling like we'd now developed a back problem.
Reaching Arusha, we made a stop at the market for a final souvenir push. We had occasionally stopped at curio shops in Tanzania but found them prohibitively expensive. We'd asked the drivers if there was anywhere where crafts were more reasonable. Thus, the market in Arusha.
There was certainly lots of stuff and it was reasonably priced …dozens and dozens of vendors so very competitive …hard bargaining. It was difficult because as I entered the market I didn't want to buy immediately, until I had seen a fuller selection, but of course everyone wants to deal. I promised to come back (and they certainly hold you to it) but it was hard to keep one straight from the other. The vendors know that if they "lose" you, you will buy elsewhere so they are very persistent. I finally settled on sets of gorgeous carved salad tongs for all my sisters and sister-in-laws. I also bought several baskets. Steve purchased two big black ebony busts …one stained and one natural. They are gorgeous pieces of art …but they weigh a ton!.
It is a bit unsettling in the market. Tourism is so depressed, post 9/11 I guess, that our small group of 5 or so were basically the only whites in the market. Very quickly we were separated as we looked at things. When I thought about it, I felt very vulnerable, standing there with pockets full of money, which of course they knew, as I had to pull bills out to pay for things.
At one point a young man came up to me, and pushing his face into mine, said, "I hate you. I would like to kill you."
I asked him why, and he responded, "You are the enemy."
I tried to reason with him, reminding him that we are just ordinary people in the world, each of us wanting the same things: a home, safety, food, a better life for our children. He didn't agree.
Fortunately, the vendors were appalled by this behaviour, afraid , I suppose, that I would be frightened and leave the market without buying more stuff. So they pulled him away, admonishing to leave "Mother" alone and treat her better.
Even so, the hawkers were extremely pushy ….it was very hot and they moved in a mass around me as I proceeded up the road and back to the truck. They were all pushing and pulling at each other and eventually the inevitable happened and I was pushed to the ground. Steve saw this happen and went nuts, thinking that I was being attacked, but I wasn't. It was just an accident. They were pushing each other and one of them stumbled and fell into me, just as I stepped down into one of those humongous potholes and I was thrown to the ground. They were extremely contrite and trying to help, "Mother, mother …" Steve was frantic, thinking that I was being attacked as they fellows were trying to pick me up. Bad scene.
My knee which is always vulnerable was injured quite badly and my thumb was painfully flexed backwards injuring the tendons. We stopped at a hotel so I was able to get some ice and that felt better. Also took some of those T3 that we'd brought but not needed to date.
We spend the night at the Maasai camp on the outskirts of Arusha. It is basic by North American standards but luxurious by African standards: hot showers, flush toilets, a bar and restaurant. This is living!
We've run out of clothes …cannot bear to put on dirty things again so even though it is now cooler I put on a pair of clean shorts that had gone unnoticed in the bottom of the bag. I wash out a pair of black pants and a black t-shirt so that in theory at least, I will have something clean to wear home.
We have a final dinner together with our group. Tomorrow we are off to Nairobi then home, the two Ozzie physios are off to Madagascar and the rest to climb Kilimanjaro. I am looking forward to going home, although the beaches of Madagascar sound mighty inviting. The notion of snorkeling through the translucent aquamarine waters of the Indian Ocean sounds pure wonderful. Next time.
Day Nine - Nairobi
Well, that night could have been great …except that a pack of dogs was chasing a wild pig through the camp all night. Between the squealing and the barking I finally decided to get up for a bathroom trip, only to find some of my mates sitting in the bar ….equally unable to sleep. In the distance, the Maasai were chanting and singing, as they do all night. Once you decide that they are probably celebrating someone's wedding and not revving up for a massacre, it is possible to sleep through this, but the squealing pig was impossible.
Up at 5:45 for our usual breakfast of sweet, runny porridge and milky tea. As our Scots friend says, "It isn't porridge if the spoon don't stand up," but this is the way the Africans always make it, like soup.
The bus came and took us to the Novatel Hotel in Arusha. There we got another bus that drove into the downtown area of Arusha and sat until every inch of it was full of people and the roof overflowing with luggage. We made it to the border where ever piece of luggage had to be offloaded, lugged into the customs office and pawed through for drugs and weapons. Bags cleared finally, our passport is stamped and we start re-loading the luggage on the bus. It was a long ride on very hard seats over a very boring road.
Eventually, the Boulevard Hotel comes into sight and relax. I am feeling flushed and unwell, having developed a certain urgency enroute for the toilet. Thank goodness the worst of it has hit me now that we are in a hotel with a flush, sit-down toilet and running water.
We spend the rest of the day relaxing and reading. There is a wedding in the hotel that evening and we enjoy sitting on the balcony watching the proceedings. It's a very elaborate, obviously upscale wedding with a plethora of bridesmaids and flower girls. They are all in the garden for picture taking and we enjoy watching.
Day Ten - Nairobi
We leave today, but not till 10pm tonight. So we're up later than usual, then into the shower and downstairs for the breakfast buffet. We re-claimed all our souvenirs from the lockup and take them upstairs to organize and re-pack everything. So, now we hike it all back downstairs where they graciously store it in the lockup. We also give them our passports, extra money, tickets, etc. to be locked up in the safe. This is highly recommended if one is going to walk around Nairobi. It costs 200KSh or about $4.
We went out, walking to our objective, the Nairobi Natural History Museum. This is actually a large complex with lots of interesting displays. I particularly enjoyed the display of stunning Joy Adamson paintings. She was the lady who became well known for raising wild animals in Kenya, particularly the lions that we all came to know and love in the movie "Born Free" and "Living Free".
Her husband, George Adamson, was actually the Senior Game Warden of the Northern Frontier Province.
When she came to Kenya 1937 she started painting the indigenous flowers of Kenya, illustrating 5 books depicting the flowers, trees and shrubs of East Africa. She came to realize how fast the traditional culture was disappearing, so in 1949 she signed a contract to paint 20 ethnic groups over 18 months. The project grew to a legacy of 600 portraits, between 49 and 55. People activities, culture, careful records of places, dates, names, ornaments, artifacts, etc. Extraordinary record.
Our guide through the museum was Edward Matsumi. These fellows are on staff at the museum and approach you to show you around and talk to you. They didn't appear to expect anything and we almost got the sense that he might be offended if we gave him something, as if he were a professional doing his job. I hope we guessed right because I would gladly have given him something.
He took us behind the scenes to see Ahmed the elephant. Ahmed was 60 years old and apparently had tusks that were actually longer than his trunk, making eating difficult. But he was a very gentle, social elephant so people fed him and care for him. Eventually he actually came under presidential protection and died of old age. His fully preserved skeleton is being prepared as an exhibit.
Had quite a talk with Edward. He confirmed what we'd learned about the intensely strong ties to tribes and family. His wife lives in a village about 400 km away, in a village with Edward's family. When he has a few days off he immediately heads for the village. In Nairobi he stays in a friend’ house, with many other men, in town to work.
We spend most of the day at the museum. It is a fascinating place, arrested in time, somewhere around the 50s or 60s. Obviously since independence there has been no money of any kind invested in the place, so the display cases are of that period, the information tags yellowed and curling or even missing. It is a marvelous collection however, and needs to be preserved.
We return to the hotel eventually to relax and enjoy our final dinner in Africa: Kingclip, steak, salad, and fabulously refreshing peach melbas for dessert. Eventually we re-claim our passports, our money, our identities and our baggage and climb into a cab for the airport. Driving the twilight, through the congested, smelly, polluted, dangerous streets of Nairobi, the tears stream down my cheeks.
Do I want to stay? No, not really.
This isn’t my home. I don't belong here.
Do I want to help?
Do I have any idea what form this might take?
Not a clue.
Why am I crying?
It has taken me a year to figure that out.
I am crying because I have come to love this place and these people. And I have come to understand that I am helpless in the face of the pervasively corrupt system. Yes, I can and will sponsor a child, or pay for a well, or send some school books. But I cannot change what needs to be changed. Africa is a country of bottomless potential …primarily residing in the faces of its people. I have hope when I look in the faces of the educated young men and women who want a different Africa. But I fear that they may be overwhelmed by the problems plaguing Africa. That the angry young men throwing rocks at us …the ones without education, without options, without hope …will continue to be sucked in by the despots and corrupt regimes, believing this is this their only chance for a better life.
I am crying because my whole life when I see a problem I determine a solution and I fix it. Period. I am solution oriented.
And here I have grown to care so much and feel so helpless.