East Africa…Kenya and Tanzania: The Quintessential African Experience
Jambo Everyone !
1ST POST: KENYA – MASAI MARA NP – GOIN’ SAFARI
“You know you are truly alive when you are living among lions.” Karen Blixen, author “Out of Africa”
Our safari vehicle bumped and swayed along the dirt track, gaining a slight rise in elevation as we rounded the large boulder outcropping. The late afternoon sun’s rays bathed the savanna grass and outlying rocks in a golden light. Collectively we anticipated something special was lurking here in the grass judging by the earnest way our driver had driven to this location. Our anticipation proved well rewarded for sitting majestically in the tall grass were a pride of lions, six or seven easy, while the old king of the jungle, the male lion king, sat under shaded coverage several yards away. We gasped in awe! Now we were definitely in Africa!
My journey to get here, Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa, began the usual way for a Western traveler; many hours, many sky miles and several planes flights, traveling nearly half way around the world before I reached ground in Nairobi. A warm evening breeze and a smiling female face greeted me as I lugged my backpack through the airport doors. My Miliwani Backpacker airport pick-up reservation had proven successful. This bode well for my stay. Within three hours from my landing, I had checked in saying “Jambo!” for the first time, grabbed a bite to eat and a cold beer at the backpacker’s outside patio restaurant, e-mailed an “all’s well!” on the intermittently working computer, and settled in to my narrow cubicle room, completely satisfied and exhausted.
That first night in Nairobi my mind dreamt of iconic East Africa images; images created by writers, like Hemingway and Karen Blixen, and movies such as Out of Africa, Born Free, and The African Queen. These images depicted jungles, Lake Victoria, vast grasslands and desert plains, abundant wildlife, snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro and colorful Maasai warriors. My thoughts continued now rummaging through history book passages that told tales of famous British explorers; names like Burton, Stanley and Livingstone, and their quests for the Nile’s source. Still the mind wandered further recalling the story pertaining to the Leakeys’ anthropological discoveries within East Africa’s Cradle of Man, the Rift Valley’s Olduval Gorge. My first international travels to Europe partly signified for me a return to my ancestral roots. Would I feel a similar, even more profound connection here in East Africa, the genealogical origin for all Mankind?
Well… unfortunately I felt no profound connection on my first full day at least not on the streets of Nairobi. Downtown Nairobi was within easy walking distance from the backpackers. The walk, however, after a mere 30 minutes, inundated with dust, heat and suffocating truck exhaust, was… exhausting. And, though Nairobi was pleasant enough by day, try as I might, I still felt like an obvious mazungu. Mazungu is the Swahili term for white foreigner. However I was confident I would eventually ingratiate myself with the locals. To do so on the Nairobi streets might require me to dress up. The Kenyan people in Nairobi were very well-dressed, conservative in attire and hair style; black shoes, slacks, white shirt or sweater, hardly any sneakers and no sandals. Reviewing my wardrobe I thought, OK I guess I shall remain a laid-back muzungu.
During my brief downtown Nairobi exploration, I did visit the namesake for Lonely Planet’s social forum, the Thorn Tree restaurant for a relaxing morning coffee. The Thorn Tree was the original travelers meeting place in East Africa, if not the world. The Kilroy of adventure, Ernest Hemingway, frequented here. Fortunately, the best social meeting place in Nairobi was within crawling distance… my backpacker’s shaded restaurant patio.
Situated a mere several blocks past the Thorn Tree is the beginning of one of Nairobi’s largest slums; the gateway to Nairobi’s numerous less fortunate. At this same section of downtown begins the chaotic Nairobi transportation system. I would have no problem distinguishing between my last travels from here. Kenya’s public transport hub is the antithesis of Iceland’s efficient system. A central bus station was nonexistent. In Kenya, the standard form of distance transportation was small six-seat buses called matatus. They were overcrowded and lacked luggage capability except for placement at the back end of the van. Only a few large buses were available, and only for long journeys to either Mombasa on the east coast or traveling west to cross into Uganda. Transportation north was extremely difficult to arrange especially with the current difficulties along Somalia and Southern Sudan borders.
I’d already met several travelers at MIliwani that had volunteered to work in Southern Sudan: an American couple, retired teachers who were bringing dozens of books in their suitcases to help in their endeavor to establish a school. Southern Sudan had very recently become a new sovereign country. There was also an American medical student who was volunteering his services in southern Sudan at a modified hospital, not far from the danger zone where battles were still being waged. My transportation difficulties seemed quite petty in comparison.
Eventually, by the fourth day, I was able to arrange a safari trip to Masai Mara National Park. Our journey took us through the Nairobi urban sprawl, down the high plateau to the panoramic Rift Valley, past several Kenyan shanty towns, and out along the open desert plains that lead to the Masai Mara. The desert plains were reminiscent of my New Mexico southern landscape; open sparsely vegetated spaces with hazy mountains in the distance.
Nearing Masai Mara, the road becomes the road from hell; a dirt line constructed by grooves, bumps, rivulets, potholes, boulders, and dust. Here, you see the elongated, red-cloaked Maasai men walking with their cattle herds, undoubtedly thinking what silly fools we were bouncing along in that metal contraption.
The end of the “road from hell” lay at our lodging compound; the compound situated at the outskirts of a Maasai village, just outside the Masai Mara National Park. This was no Disney-esque Maasai village either; this was the real deal… cows, sheep, traditional clothing, traditional dung-covered huts, tons of flies, etc. We quickly settled in to our new tent enclosure homes, for that evening, we would enter the Masai Mara.
Besides the sheer joy one experiences wandering among the majestic wildlife, an additional key ingredient to an enjoyable safari adventure is to have a fun group of people to share the experience. I was fortunate enough to hook up with such a group, as well as a fine Kenyan guide named Lowry.
Joining me on the safari was Claire, an intrepid British girl who had recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Claire had also done some volunteer work at a lion rehabilitation facility in Zimbabwe. My additional companions was a young London couple, he of Polish descent and she originally from Kenya.
Masai Mara is a tranquil setting; expansive grasslands and rolling hills, open stretches and forested sections, a large area providing lots of space for wildlife to roam. Though this region is protected by the Kenyan government today, undoubtedly in part for its financial benefits derived through tourism, I fear for its continued existence.
he rapidly growing city populations in Nairobi and Tanzania’s Dar Salaam, with their rapidly growing abject poverty slums, will eventually reach a boiling point; either the wildlife land preservation practice will continue or the growing populace will begin an encroaching migratory expansion to preserved lands.
For now, and forever, that first evening, I knew that we, the human travelers, were the interlopers in this region.
Some straggler wildebeests greet us near the gate. They apparently didn’t receive the memo to migrate south toward the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania. After passing several graceful moving giraffes and elephants, we would soon draw our vehicle ever so close to those majestic lions we discovered perched on the rocks. A short distance below them sat a large Cape buffalo herd grazing amidst the thick marsh grass. We learned from our knowledgeable guide Lowry, the lions would not move in for the hunt until under the cover of darkness.
At first light the next morning, we would find the results of their hunt.
2nd POST: MASAI MARA NP AND MAASAI VILLAGE
“I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up I was not happy”.
The setting was both civilized and adventurous. Like a scene from some Victorian era painting, African style, we sat under the lone acacia tree, enjoying our picnic lunch under its shade-providing branches while we watched the passing zebras and impalas watch us through the golden savannah grass. We felt perfectly safe, even though we were out in the open splendor of the Masai Mara, where lions did roam. By this point, we had seen much already that day; lions, families of elephants, cape buffalo, giraffes, two cheetahs under a shady acacia tree, hyenas, hippos and crocodiles at the Mara River, ostriches, baboons, zebras, tope, wildebeest and warthogs. We felt at ease with our new kinship with these lovely creatures.
Our morning started early. As the sun’s rising rays broke over the Masai Mara hills, we drove into the park, hoping to get an early viewing of the wildlife while they’re at their most active.
The passing herds of elephants were always a graceful event. The elephants and giraffes’ rhythmic loping movements exuded that breathless African tempo; a grace and dignity unsurpassed.
No immediate signs of the prior night’s Cape buffalo hunt were visible however; we did find a single lioness enjoying her warthog breakfast in the cool grass. It’s easy for lions to hide within the tall shady vegetation. We drove right past several sleepy lions before finally spotting them.
Ever alert for more sightings, Lowry continued maneuvering our vehicle through the bush along a series of dirt tracks. A young male lion and his accompanying pride were casually strolling across the land, much to the chagrin of an obviously anxious lone gazelle. Fortunately, for this nervous fellow, today was his lucky day! Lions apparently only hunt once every five days which would explain these lions’ blasé attitude toward passing galloping meals! “Whew!” said the small gazelle as these four lions passed him by.
Equally blasé’ were two cheetahs, barely awake, lying in the grass, too lazy to chase the neighboring zebras and topes for their breakfast, despite our urging.
Another pair of cheetahs, also resting under a shaded acacia tree, suddenly became alert when the Kenyan driver on the vehicle we were flanking hopped out with his assistant to replace an ill-timed flat tire. Now we know how to get a cheetah’s attention… just step out of your jeep!
The playful exchanges one encounters as the passing interloper are always entertaining; for instance, two male impalas were butting antlers trying to impress their nearby female counterparts only to be left alone and foolish by the unimpressed females who had quietly walked away.
Within our small group, we would take turns as the keenest observer. Whereas a cursory glance by the others at the waving grass yielded no response, I noticed the reason why the grass periodically waved was because a pack of baboons were racing through it.
Elephants of course were unanimously spotted, their large gray bulk slightly visible within the open fields. Of all the animals, the elephants remained the most camera shy, never pausing from their continuous march across the savannah grasslands.
After many miles, we eventually reached the Masai Mara boundary at the Mara River. Like a bored ski instructor at Sun Valley in the summer, we see a crocodile lounging lazily in the Mara River shallows. He had an abundant amount of time to lounge for this was the Mara River’s off season for him. The Great Wildebeest Migration which brought over a million frantic wildebeest crossing this same river section in August was seven long months away. Today he floated quietly dreaming about those upcoming chaotic days which will provide him a feast for the stomach and the soul.
By late afternoon, our group was doing their own lounging back at camp. This gave me the opportunity to explore the neighboring Maasai village.
Although a definitive iconic symbol of Kenya, the Maasai represent only one of 52 tribes that constitute Kenya’s ethnic diversity. President Obama’s father was from the Luo, a tribe located in western Kenya. Other prominent tribes include the Kikuyu, Meru, Samburu, Luhya, and Embu. The Kikuyu who are originally from Kenya’s central highlands dominate the country politically and economically.
Maasai are a herding culture. They drink the milk and blood of the cattle to sustain life. They also eat rice, beans, and ugali, a maize-based product. There was one definitive sign that the modern world had entered their lives; they possessed cell phones, apparently with better reception than in the States.
Aside from the cell phones, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Maasai community still retains their traditional ways. The houses are short, hot, cramped mud huts with thatched roofs. Sheep, when young, stay in the boma-style constructed pen as well as the cow calves that are nursed in the courtyard. Keeping them inside the compound helps protect them from predators such as lions since their Maasai community is open to the elements. I was told just the previous week a lion had tried to enter the compound. A definite downside to this close-knit communal arrangement with the animals is the proliferation of cow and sheep feces which of course draw the hoards of flies. Be careful where you step!
To protect their houses from the erodible effects of rain, the Maasai house’ roofs are constructed with water resistant material. Inside, the houses are dark, cramp and extremely hot during the late afternoon.
A Maasai man was asked by a foreign traveler if he has ever lived elsewhere. He said yes, pointing to a section of the village several yards away that used to house his family. After nine years they had to relocate to a new hut due to the termites devouring their old home.
Recently issues related to Maasai cattle overgrazing such as desertification have become a major concern for east Africa. The Maasai have not been able to roam as freely through their lands as in past generations, a factor that has led to this overgrazing.
An interesting note, I was told by a local Maasai that they rarely have incident with malaria, thanks to a prolific bush whose leaves they pick, boil into a tea, and use as an anti-malarial remedy.
That evening, I walked outside the compound, admiring the view across the landscape that reached to the Masai Mara lands. There was no fence that separated me from the wilds. Some Maasai young men tending to their cattle walked over to me to talk. They talked about their journey to manhood in which they or at least someone in their group must kill a lion; a rites of passage tradition that obviously still continues today.
There is a Swahili word I was taught that aptly describes this wonderful experience I had at Masa Mara and the Maasai village. The Swahili word is Poa which means “cool!”
3RD POST: ELEPHANTS AND MOUNT KILIMANJARO AMBOSELLI NP
“The gladdest moment in human life, methinks, is a departure into unknown lands. The blood flows, with the fast circulation of childhood.”
Sir Richard Burton
While I waited for my next safari to join I was able to get to know several of the travelers who had been staying for some time at the Miliwani Backpacker. Each person represented a hopeful future direction for Kenya.
First was Max a young Dutchman eager to move to Nairobi and join his African girlfriend. To do so he was hoping to become a gainfully employed economist working for Kenya’s economic development ministry. While he patiently waited for Kenya’s bureaucratic decision-making process to eventually make this move possible he was lending his economic expertise to Kevin, the resident elder statesman. One of the girls working at the backpackers jokingly called Kevin “Santa Claus”. Kevin was British but born in Kenya; his life and spirit embodied both his Kenyan and British roots. Kevin had worked many years in various African nations’ agriculture / forestry management departments. Kevin had also worked as a driver for film productions in Kenya including the movie Mad Max.
Having Lived in London for the past few years Kevin was happy to return to, as he put it, “home” in Kenya. Kevin wanted to see his Kenya succeed, as did Max, and both wanted to contribute to its successful future. Kevin was working on a plan to establish a large-scale bamboo farm. Bamboo production has many advantages: providing a solution to Kenya’s deforestation problem by providing a better firewood source, has a stabilizing root system that helps mitigate soil erosion, provides a strong, durable source for furniture-making, is faster growing than a normal tree, is very profitable and provides employment. They were working on a sales proposal to secure investment in their plan, hoping to pitch the plan to a representative from the Dutch embassy’s economic development division.
The third gentleman went by the name of “Easy”. He was a German/ Turkish 40-50ish world traveler. Intelligent, charismatic self-proclaimed Ladies Man, Easy had lived an interesting life; having lived in Spain and most recently Panama, always in search of new discoveries, both spiritually and financially. “Kenya”, he mused, was currently “calling him”. He had just hooked up with a pretty slender Nairobi woman he met through a social network web site. He operated his own marketing online yellow pages business. As he says, he sells space. Nairobi was fast developing and marketing itself as the future technology hub for east Africa, if not all of Africa, and “Easy” wanted to be a part of that future.
After several days at the Backpackers, I was back on the road, heading toward my next adventure, Amboselli National Park. Not as prolific in wildlife as Masai Mara, Amboseli National Park still offered a wide range of animal species to view. The highlight of the park is viewing the hundreds of elephants that live within its boundaries, observing their daily migration under the shadow of majestic Mount Kilimanjaro; the quintessential Africa image.
The elephant’s daily migration ritual begins with the elephants leaving their forested refuge, crossing the desert plain to reach the cool waters and lush vegetation around the swamp and outlying lake sections. By late afternoon, the elephants begin their return journey back across the open plains to the forest.
Once again, I was fortunate with my tour guide selection. His name was Oscar, around 40 years of age, a veteran in the tour guide business. He was an amiable gentleman well liked by others judging by his jovial conversations with other guides, policemen and park rangers. What I especially liked about Oscar was his joyful enthusiasm. Eight years of driving tourists along the same dirt tracks looking for animals had not diminished his appreciation. His voice still lit up with excitement whenever we came across a wondrous animal sighting, like it was his very first time.
With our quiet Polish friend staying back at the camp, Oscar and I drove through the Amboseli alone, meandering down the dirt roads while observing the wildlife. By late afternoon, we strategically positioned our vehicle to witness Amboseli’s glorious highlight… 200-300 elephants marching across the dry plains with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background, illuminated by late evening’s dramatic light. Along the road, we quietly waited for the approaching elephants. The whole event felt like a well-orchestrated pageantry; Natures’ own classical symphony. The first elephant families marched at a very mellow, rhythmic pace; slow and steady moved the mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, teenagers and baby elephants. Having smaller strides, the baby elephants often had to race alongside the pack to maintain the same pace as their much larger family members.
With each new group procession an increasing tempo accompanied their pace, especially as the evening light grew fainter. Faster and faster they moved, kicking up swirls of dust in their wake, until finally the fast trot accelerated into a full strident charge, elephants trumpeting across the plains as the thinning golden light blanketed the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro. The air was alive and vibrant, full steam ahead ran the elephants as surprised zebras and wildebeest scrambled to get out of harm’s way! Nature’s crescendo triumphant! Then… the denouement, the quiet soon engulfed the air again. The elephants were gone, and the sunset’s vanishing glow silhouetted the graceful acacia trees. Kilimanjaro was also fading, curtains being drawn, disappearing behind its own billowing clouds. “What a performance!” Oscar and I cooed. Bravo!
Back at camp, on a more serious, reflective note, Oscar explained the current difficulties park management has been having in regards to the elephants. Elephant overpopulation had become a new reality. The elephants’ past ability to migrate to more manageable habitats when herds became too large has been impeded by the advancement of new villages established between Amboseli and West Tsavo National Parks. This impediment to the elephants’ natural population growth dissemination has led to Amboseli’s elephant overpopulation and increased deforestation. Naturally, politicians were not addressing this concern and so nothing was being done.
The campground view could not be beat, with Mount Kilimanjaro’s majestic magnificence within clear view. Outside the compound, I could see a baboon family scampering through the brush. Today, the snows of Kilimanjaro have diminished considerably since Hemingway’s time. The undeniably rapid effects of climate change are having their impact here on this iconic setting as the snows of Kilimanjaro are receding, as are the glaciers on Mount Kenya.
On our last morning Marcos, me, and our local Maasai guide went for an early morning hike. Not your typical morning stroll or hike through the woods, like back home, where you might, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of a scurrying squirrel or a passing deer. Here, unfenced, unprotected, we walked through the open brush where zebras and giraffes grazed less than fifty yards away. “Could we come across an elephant?” we asked. “Is possible” said our young guide. How cool is that! We ultimately didn’t… but we could have!
Amboseli is not too far from the Tsavo National Park. Tsavo’s name is forever linked with the Maneaters of Tsavo legend. Over a hundred years ago, during the construction of a railroad link with the port in Mombasa, two maneless male lions had claimed the lives of near one hundred railroad workers. Two movies, The Ghost and the Darkness and Bwana Devil loosely depict this story. Eventually hunted and killed, their bodies were found to have abnormally high levels of testosterone, which could explain their hair loss and extreme territorial behavior. Tsavo lions in general have a reputation for ferocity versus their more laid back cousins in the Mara.
In Amboselli, we did see a large pack of lions, ambling through the jungle vegetation. I wondered if these were the ferocious or laid back variety of lions. I also wondered if we could have come across them during our morning walk…. Is possible!
I returned to Nairobi after three days in Amboseli. Now greeted by familiar faces at the Miliwani, I would here the latest tales being told by the latest round of traveling characters.
Two great world travelers, Mark and Todd, one Aussie, and one Brit/Norwegian had just finished their overland backpacker drive from Capetown, South Africa to Nairobi, Kenya. Mark particularly liked to travel to the more remote, more exotic and even dangerous countries. The guys were abuzz with crazy stories to tell, mostly themed around trials and tribulations, lowlights and some highlights. Their trip begins with amiable Mark getting robbed and having his passport stolen on New Years’ Eve by several South African rednecks who see him, Todd and their black tour guide having a beer.
Once underway, the much-hyped overland truck adventure offered a less than comfortable incredibly bumpy ride. Outlawed as a transportation vehicle in every other continent, the overland trucks are designed for cargo transport, not people. Only Africa allows these trucks to be retrofitted for this purpose. The days are mostly spent bouncing in the vehicles, pitching their tents and food preparation in the evening and getting up before dawn to pack tents in the morning; very little time for sleep and sightseeing.
Often, in places like Zimbabwe, traffic accident delays were common with numerous fatal accidents along Zimbabwe roads.
Todd’s description of Malawi’s current plight was a particularly telling anecdote for many African countries’ situations. Malawi’s precipitous decline into economic ruin stems from the British government’s recent refusal to fund the Malawi government as a punishment for Malawi’s government’s new anti-homosexual law. Malawi’s GDP was 80 percent reliant on foreign aid subsidy. Being land-locked, Malawai has no port, and few commercialized natural resources. As no surprise, their president is also blatantly corrupt. The country is suffering from hyper inflation due to embargoes and the government’s inability to pay for petrol from Mozambique. Commerce grinds to a halt w/o fuel for trucks. No supplies means hundreds of thousands are now starving; the economic domino effect which always hurts the people the hardest. This is just one of many sad African contemporary tales.
Then came the Stone Town, Zanzibar tale: the majority of their group getting dysentery; one poor girl was in such bad shape she needed IV at the hospital. Possible dysentery source… poor hygiene conditions, cheap wine, fake cokes, refilled water bottles… take your pick. Todd would repeatedly preface these stories with the pessimistic catch-phrase TIA, which means That IS Africa, to universally cover the unique ways and events that persist on the African continent.
There was a highlight they beamed and that was the incredible prolific wildlife viewing in Serengeti. Perfect, I said, for that would be my next destination… Tanzania and the Serengeti Plains.
While Mark and Todd’s organized tour had its multiple shares of pitfalls, there was one crazy fellow who blissfully traveled alone through the Dark Continent without incident. He was a Greek Australian traveling in his model T-Ford who had arrived at our Nairobi Milimani Backpacker for a brief respite. His goal was to travel from Capetown, South Africa to Moscow, via Iran. He wanted to replicate the same route some other intrepid adventurer took in a “new” model T-Ford back in the early 1900s.
I’m not certain if our Greek gentleman had taken the geopolitical changes that have taken place in the last 90 years into account, however, raw determination seemed to be his guiding light for this journey. His next northern route would take him through current war zone regions in the Sudan and Ethiopia. Then of course, there’s Iran and Russia.
I wished this mad adventurer best of luck… and a guardian angel or two by his side.
4TH POST: ULTIMATE SAFARI – SERENGETI PLAIN, TANZANIA
“Since we humans have the
better brain, isn’t it our responsibility to protect our fellow
creatures from, oddly enough, ourselves?” — Joy Adamson, Author “Born Free”
It’s 3AM, and I’m sleeping soundly in my tent. Suddenly, my bodies’ urge to find a bathroom awakens me. I glance out my tent window…. silence. My visibility is pitch blackness. The air is chill but not cold. I start to unzip my sleeping bag when all of a sudden the deafening silence is broken by the loud yelping sound of a hyena… then two hyenas. The sounds are not far from my tent. Silence resumes until a low-pitched, steady, gurgling roar of a lion emanates from the same darkness not far from my tent. There is no fenced perimeter between me and those sounds. Potential dilemma I thought. I decided I could convince my bodies’ urge to wait a while longer before venturing outside my tent.
I sat in my sleeping bag, smiled, and whispered to myself “this is cool! ” THIS was the Serengeti !!!
This after midnight safari adrenalin rush would happen again, same time (3am) different campsite. Perched on the edge of the famous Ngorongoro Crater, the 3am calling arrived. After three nights straight wearing my contact lenses, I decided I needed to give my eyes a break on the fourth night of our safari. So, when I unzipped my tent to sprint across the campground grass toward the direction of the bathroom, my vision was slightly blurred. However, when I came within 10 yards of the bathroom, I could still identify the slow moving large black object ahead of me as a Cape buffalo. Squinting, I pointed my small flashlight in the direction of the black object to confirm my hunch. He, or she, was munching on the grass. Friend or foe, I did not know, and with capricious Cape buffalo, you never do know. This one was heading right in front of my path too, blocking my entrance and/ or exit to the bathroom. Bugger, I said, and wisely retreated, finding a blurred but safer piece of shrubbery. Now, would I have had near as much fun with animal encounters if I stayed at the Sheraton Inn?!
These were just two great wildlife encounters I had during my Serengeti Plains safari in Tanzania. To get here, one week earlier, I had taken the public shuttle bus from Nairobi to Arusha, Tanzania. Arusha is the launching point for safaris into the Serengeti.
The border crossing at the Kenya/Tanzania border was no small feat. Bad enough, the incredibly squeezed condition in the sardine-packed shuttle bus, the passport process was a well-scrutinized prolonged event. By scrutinized I mean each individual crossing into Tanzania had their fingerprints checked. Heavens knows, I understood the Tanzanian governments’ caution. The risk of some North American / European tourist being an international criminal, spy or counterterrorist must be considerable! Oh yeah, and there was the $100 visa requirement ($50 if you’re not an American) for Tanzania entry as well.
Hey, but this was East Africa, so “hakuna matata”…no worries man, and I just smiled and joked with the other travelers.
“Hakuna matata” is a Swahili phrase meaning “no worries” in English, which I felt proud of knowing having studied my Swahili phrase book. However, to my chagrin I discovered my due diligent study habit was an unnecessary way to learn Swahili. After talking to anyone younger than 35 years of age all I really needed to do to learn Swahili was watch the Disney animation movie Lion King!
Quite a few people on board the bus were bound for Moshi, the launching point for treks up Mount Kilimanjaro. These enthusiastic mountain trekkers will have to climb over 19,000 ft. to get to the summit. My sights were set on Mount Kenya for my mountain trek later on this trip. Mount Kenya, a mere 17,000 ft. was not as high as Mount Kilimanjaro but still a challenge for me. My goal here in Tanzania was to arrange a safari to the Serengeti from Arusha, Tanzania, my next stop.
I liked the feel of Arusha. Arusha was more relaxed, more colorful than cosmopolitan Nairobi. Mount Meru, a classic conical-shaped dormant volcano, rises prominently on the horizon beyond Arusha’s city limits.
The Tanzanian women in the city wear colorful kangas; brightly colored light dresses that add a lovely ambiance to the passing scene. A religious mix is noticeable here, with African Christians and Muslims together roaming the streets. Not too many miles further east is Dar Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city which has a predominantly Muslim population.
Arusha Backpackers, where I stayed, offered one key highlight: the third floor open air dining lounge. From this vantage point, I could watch this passing street scene unfold, always in amazement at the amount of goods a woman could carry on her head. The women always kept perfect posture too, walking straight as an arrow.
I quickly discovered the “Tanzanian way” can be quite humorous. Trying to get into my room, I found my key would not open the door’s padlock. The tumbler must have broken inside. I thought, ok, no problem. To me, the easy solution simply required a good pair of bolt cutters and a new lock. Oh… how wrong I was!
I got a hold of a staff worker, who, instead of getting a bolt cutter, and after much scrutiny, tried to cut the thinner bolt clasp which held the lock with a barely sharpened knife. The hallway light wasn’t working (to save electricity past 9am apparently), so his co-worker shined his cell phone pen light on my door. I had to give them credit for effort and tenacity. A half hour later, success, I could get into my room. We cheered this near insurmountable task and I shook the young man’s hand. Since my room’s door could not be secured anymore I inadvertently received the upgraded room next door which had a fan!
An interesting footnote, there was a fully modern hardware store (with bolt cutters and new locks) two blocks down the road. Also, when I returned to the backpacker after my safari one week later, that same room was still missing a lock….
During my search in town for a safari to join, I talked with several young men who worked in the tour industry, and they informed me that the owners of the large tour guide companies based in Arusha made tremendous profits while their employees were poorly paid. This was evident by the enormous mansion I saw where one of the major tour companies’ owners lived.
Eventually, I made the right safari company connection, and myself, a young Australian couple, a young Dutch couple, Roger, a cook from the island of Jersey, and our guide and driver Mohammed drove westward toward the Serengeti Plain. By the third day we all unanimously agreed to call our laid back yet very informative guide Mohammed, Morgan, due to his uncanny resemblance to Morgan Freeman. We all laughed, he rolled his eyes, and agreed. I couldn’t ask for a better group of folks to go on a safari. We were all wonderfully crazy! and became a great extended family.
Seasonally, early February was an excellent time of year for wildlife viewing. The wildebeest calving season was upon us, as well as a host of other animals that were having their babies. These events spark the interests of the big hungry cats and so, with Nature’s circle of life patterns at play, there was much activity afoot.
The Serengeti Plain was teeming with wildlife: tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebras slowly migrating westward, roaming lions and cheetahs, leopards up an acacia tree with a recent kill, numerous elephants and giraffes, gazelles, monkeys, buzzards and storks, Cape buffalo, and the occasional waddling giant hippo cruising the wetlands.
There can be no greater pleasure in life than to set your day’s only goal: to observe the activities of these incredibly beautiful animals in their natural surroundings. The Serengeti safari experience is nourishment for the soul. Our group kept pinching each other in sheer excitement, recognizing how blessed and lucky we were in our wildlife sightings for those few short days.
The Ngorongoro Crater was also a bastion for wildlife activity. The crater is a cordera long ago left by a former volcano, now filled in with varied topographies and vegetation that supplies sustainable nourishment for the indigenous wildlife community.
Again, the interplay between the animals is fascinating to watch, some scenes comical, others informative such as the handling of territorial disputes. We watched a large male lion in hot pursuit, an action rarely witnessed since they’re usually pretty lazy, lounging around while letting the women do the work. This fellow was hot on the trail of a young male lion that was muscling in on his ladies. “Them’s my ladies dude!” he growled. The neighboring zebras and wildebeest said, “oh, oh…we’re getting out of his way!” and scattered for the hills.
Finally, here in the Ngorongoro crater, our group could check off our last “Big Five” animal to be seen, spotting two white rhinos doing their usual grazing activities.
Satisfied with this last sighting, we moved up and out of the crater, and headed in the direction of Lake Eyasi where nearby we would join the amazing Hadzabe tribe the next day for an early morning hunt!
5TH POST : HADZABE TRIBE
I’m in my tent and its 3:00 in the morning. I’m semi-awake, semi-dreaming, imagining a scene from a movie. The movie is called “The Naked Prey” which premiered in the 60s starring Cornell Wilde. Cornell Wilde’s character is in Africa, and is stripped naked, running through the African bush trying to escape his native pursuers as well as survive in the wilds. He was quite literally stripped down to Man’s bare essentials. Would that be me in several hours running naked in the bush with my bow and arrow chased by the Hadzabe tribe?! “Hakuna matata” I thought, at least that’s easier than looking for a bathroom with lions and Cape buffalo roaming around!
In reality, the highlight of our safari would be waiting for us that morning for we would be attending a morning hunt with the Hadzabe tribe. Some sources say the Hadzabe are related to the pygmies, and have similar physical characteristics and cultural traditional ties to the Bushmen of South Africa’s Kalahari region. The Hadzabes are the last traditional hunter-gatherer African tribe in existence. Over the last 150 years, efforts by missionaries and the Tanzania government to introduce them to farming and Christianity have largely failed, and many Hadzabe still pursue virtually the same way of life as their ancestors.
Our pre-dawn morning hunt with the Hadzabe tribe began for our group at 5AM. Still half-asleep we crawled into the safari truck and drove the backcountry dirt/ boulder track that led to the Hadzabe village located on the remote outskirts of Lake Eyasi. A gigantic baobab tree marked the entrance; the baobab representing spiritual strength.
A bonfire illuminated the rock outcropping where the hunters were gathered. Young men, most in their teens, greeted us at the bonfire. After brief salutations that mostly involved head nodding and hand shaking, the hunters, with their dogs, bows, and arrows were suddenly afoot, swiftly running through the brush out of our sight. The hunt apparently was on!
We quickly followed suit. Scrambling through the thorn trees was a challenge for our larger clumsier frames while the more nimble smaller Hadzabe navigated the thorn trees with ease. The adrenaline rush I felt from the fast-paced hunt was invigorating! The Hadzabe hunter’s accuracy was also impressive; their arrows landing lethal strikes on a dik dik, a squirrel and a small owl.
Next, still out in the bush, our young hunters quickly proceeded to start a fire, utilizing the old-fashion rubbing the stick between two hands method. Some local plant leaves were picked and rolled to form stimulating cigarettes which they smoked. The young men’s chatter was fun and animated as they made the necessary preparations for cooking the dik dik over their roaring fire.
Our group members were all quite moved by the innate success and basic survival skills that they so adeptly performed. We felt that basic primitive man instinct to self-provide well up within us; a basic skill long lost now rekindled.
As a gesture for male bonding among tribes (Hadzabe and white guys), one of the Hadzabe young men offered Craig, the Aussie , and myself a piece of the dik dik’s liver to eat. We looked at each other tentatively then in unison gratefully accepted. Chew, gulp, don’t grimace and make yummy smile… bonding complete.
After the hunt our safari gang was able to practice making a fire by rubbing two sticks together as well as conduct archery practice with the Hadzabe’s bow and arrows, using a dead antelope carcass as our target.
The Hadzabe were very congenial people who tended to laugh and smile easily. We were so taken by their hospitality that we felt we should offer them something in return so the young Dutch fellow taught the guys how to juggle with stones. He was an instant hit with the Hadzabe guys whom I sure if we return in a year will have become the juggling masters of East Africa!
Without our suggestion, the men and women began a lively circular dance, assumingly for their own pleasure, to celebrate the hunt.
Finally, with some sadness, we waved goodbye to our new friends. Our return journey to modern civilization would have to begin. Our journey back passed along the perimeter of Lake Eyasi. Due in part to the current mini dry season and the ongoing drought, Lake Eyasi was a long shallow lake, its alkaline flats shimmering under the afternoon baking sun. The Rift Valley Mountains guarded the lake to the south and east, while the lush rim of the Ngorongoro Crater shown in the distance. We watched fishermen manually pull in their catch from their large nets and carry the fish several miles back across the alkaline flats to the distant village.
That evening good fun was had by all at the Panoramic View Camp site. The campsite outdoor patio offered great views of Lake Manyara. While I played the guitar, our group and accompanying fellow travelers enjoying good conversation and a few boxes of wine as the African sun slowly faded over Lake Manyara.
Before the evening’s festivities, a young boy walked up the cliff from his village to our panoramic camp site, hoping to find someone who could give him a pen or pencil so he could finish his school lesson. Craig gave him a pen and a Swahili / English translation book. The boy was very appreciative. He quietly sat in the brush finishing his school lesson. Finished, he said “thank you” and returned back down the steep cliff to his village.
A distinct difference between the Kenyan government and the Tanzanian government was their education systems. Kenyans are offered free education through the Kenya government while the Tanzanian government does not offer free education. Parents must pay for their children’s basic school materials if they want their children to go to school.
Tanzania does seem to have obstacles ahead hindering their progress. Here is a sample tale of progress frustration in Tanzania. A European entrepreneur tries to start a pig farm. He is initially successful however when he leaves for a brief period he comes back to an empty farm. The workers had eaten or sold the pigs for short-term need or profit instead of long term needs. Another example, Tanzanians, for some unknown reason, are bad farmers.
Today fortunately we had witnessed two shining Tanzanian examples for hope; one in the form of the traditional Africa represented by the noble Hadzabe tribe, and the other this young boy hungry for education willing to climb a steep cliff to help obtain his goal.