My two-week African safari in Kenya was such a rich, wide-ranging experience — full of surprises, revelations, paradoxes, and lots and lots of animals. I doubt that I can capture and express it all in one or two blog posts but I am giving it my best try.
We were three women traveling together on a custom itinerary. Nicole, my BF’s daughter, put the trip together with the help of Go2 Africa and invited me and her aunt to join her. Nick is a consummate animal-lover, really knew her stuff, and created an interesting program taking us through three national parks each with different ecosystems. We stayed at four different upscale camps with comfy furnished tents or huts, known in the parlance as glamping, and were transported either overland by Gamewatchers Safaris or by Air Kenya’s small planes. It played out seamlessly.
All the while, I was fully aware that this was a pampered, privileged, predominantly white-people’s trip. Except for two orchestrated visits to Maasai bomas, we never really saw or interacted with any Africans who were not working either at the camps or for the transport services. Before this trip, I read three books, including Paul Thereoux’s Last Train to Zona Verde; where he reports that “ …corruption is endemic; hunger stalks every corner; there is crime, AIDS and a burgeoning population of disaffected youth.” We saw little of this. Once, on our way back to the airport — a slow drive through heavy traffic and equally heavy smog — our driver pointed to the slum outside Nairobi, claiming it as the largest in all of Africa. We also had a quick stop in the local shopping center to pick up car parts while driving between camps. That’s as close as we got. We were shielded from any unpleasantness, making our safari a Disney version of the country, what Thereoux called “theater”.
Nevertheless, it was still WONDERFUL. Thankfully, the animals and the landscape subsist in the fullness of nature, outside of (or in spite of) any political and economic turmoil. They were the stars, the reason we made this large effort, and they did not disappoint.
Animals in the wild
I knew this would not be like any zoo are game park and yet I was mesmerized seeing so many, many exotic animals in their natural environment, engaged in their daily lives, in their survival — moving about; looking for food, water, or a mate; eating and drinking; sleeping or socializing; playing; caring for their young, even mating. We saw it all.
…herds and herds of them
The annual migration from Tanzania had just begun, bringing thousands of ungulates into Kenya in search of green pastures. To see these animals in large groups, hundreds at a time, interspersed with each other, was spectacular. Wildebeests, straight from cave paintings, honking and galloping. Zebras creating optical illusions. They mingled peacefully among the resident herds of cape buffalo, who loved to wallow.
We saw magnificent elephants in herds of up to 20-25, mothers and babies always led by a matriarch, or as single older males. They move along, plodding in a timeless way, flapping their ears, using their trunks to whisk the dust & dirt over their bodies or to grab grass and push it into their mouths. There were babies nursing; mothers standing in a circle facing different directions to protect the little ones; and several lone males. One was in musth, spraying himself with urine to attract females (his version of cologne) moving faster and more determined. We steered clear of him.
…or smaller groups
The giraffes were everywhere, alone or small numbers. I found them ethereal and enchanting. Never in a hurry, silently and rhythmically loping, loping…
…or poking their heads up from behind a tree to stare at you. They are beautiful yet strange and, when they bend down to drink, quite comical.
There were many antelopes in smaller herds. The most numerous were the impalas, easily recognizable by their rear markings (number 11) and because only the males have horns. It was common to see a harem of females with one male who has to fight to maintain his bounty and then see a bachelor party of just males, lurking nearby, each looking for an opportunity to challenge him and corral a few females for themselves.
So many different antelopes; most I only knew from crossword puzzles. Swift and graceful gazelles, kudus, hartebeests, waterbucks, large elands and tiny dikdiks. Some, like topis, were in mixed herds and hard to tell apart because both male and female have horns and similar markings.
Warthogs, called pumbaa, were alone or in little family groupings. Said to have a small brain and very short memory, they did seem confused and always evoked a giggle. No surprise that “pumbaa” means foolish or silly in Swahili. We found this one hanging out at the Giraffe Center in Nairobi.
Lions were often in small prides: an older male with a few females and several adolescents or babies. We saw one couple on their “honeymoon”, doing their best to ensure the survival of their species.
Hippos were also alone or in small groups in the river, floating up and then submerging, bellowing or blowing bubbles. We saw other animals in twos or threes, like the jackals who were always on a date, or the ostriches with one or two females for every male, and rhinos on a family outing.
Monkeys and baboons seemed to be in extended families of indeterminate size and mongooses scurried around my tent so quickly that it was hard to figure out how many there were…and equally hard to take any photos.
…and very, very close
We were able to get as close as 5-10 feet to some animals, such as elephants, giraffes, zebras, even lions. They seemed surprisingly oblivious to us. Neither the predators nor the prey paid us any attention, which added to the magic. Some animals settled in the road and had to be encouraged to move.
Our guides said they could smell us but, as long as we stayed in the vehicles, they saw us as one large bulky object rather than individually, making us virtually invisible. Even amateur photographers like us could get decent photos. The professionals pay for permits to go off-road and get even closer.
The drives were also wild
None of the roads in all three of the National Parks were paved and were often quite rutted or completely washed out. The four-wheel-drive Land Rovers were stable but we bounced around a LOT. We had to take detours, cross large puddles and small rivers. On one drive, we took on water, stalled, and started rolling backward into the river. We got a flat tire on another. All part of the adventure!
It was more than the animals
We were immersed in a complete sensual experience that extended beyond the magnificent animals. Birds, trees, plants, insects, termite mounds, ant hills, animal dung, rocks, skulls, bones, meadows, rivers, ponds, swamps, a 360º horizon, a HUGE sky, sunrises, sunsets, one enormous mountain, different smells, and intermittent sounds — plodding hooves, buzzing and chirping, loud squawks, roars, bleats, fluttering, splashing, rustling — all within an eerie, vacant stillness. Sigh. Magical.
Complete itinerary, highlights and surprises, including the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, Giraffe Center in Langata, visits to the Maasai villages and a local “mall, and (hopefully) more pictures. Stay tuned.