I’ve never done a purely personal post before. But lately, I keep thinking back to an incredible trip to Kenya and Tanzania that my wife and I took, a year and a half ago, to celebrate a big birthday of mine. An African safari had been a dream I’ve had since childhood. I grew up when Disney and National Geographic did countless documentaries on African wildlife. Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” was my favorite T.V. show. I was always spellbound, in love with both the animals and the exotic settings. Later, I’d read and loved all of Isak Dinesen’s novels and short stories, Beryl Markham’s “West with the Night,” Elspeth Huxley’s “Flame Trees of Thika,” Kuki Gallmann’s “I Dreamed of Africa,” Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and many other stories and histories of British East Africa. And then, there were the movies. The ultimate being, of course, “Out of Africa,” Sydney Pollock’s great film (one of my all time favorites) with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and arguably, the best movie score ever written, which was composed by John Barry. So, when I did go to Africa, it had to be Kenya. Here we are, above, having breakfast on the Masai Mara, on the morning of my birthday. I felt like I was inside every romanticized Hollywood movie I’d ever seen about Africa – except for the tupperware!
Our first couple of days were spent outside Nairobi, near Isak Dinesen’s (aka Karen Blixen) farm. Her real famhouse, below, is the model for the one in the movie, “Out of Africa.” Her actual house was quite a bit smaller than the film version.
Between the giraffe coming through our window on the second story of an old manor house, and the view out the window, I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Our brief stay at Giraffe Manor was a smooth introduction to the idea of being an intruder in this vast animal habitat.
The property was orignally an orphanage for abandoned giraffes. Nearby there is also an orphanage for baby elephants.
After two days outside Nairobi, we flew to the Maasai Mara, for the start of our “safari.” The Mara, tucked into the south-western corner of Kenya, is the northern continuation of the great Serengeti plain which crosses the Equator, and stretches into Tanzania. It’s the home of the famous bi-annual animal migrations from north to south, and south to north, as the wildlife follows the water.
The Mara is the home of the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people with very distinct dress and customs. Below, left, is a Maasai village, right, a group of Maasai. Wherever you see Maasai, you inevitably find their cattle nearby. Cattle is the measure of wealth for the Maasai, and a central part of their culture. This time, they were in the middle of the road.
The first afternoon, towards sunset, we took a guided walk to a waterhole. We were not alone. A pride of lions approached nearby. We found ourselves closer than I had ever dreamt of being, to a lion in the wild.
It took me a while to believe we were, indeed, where we were. Experiencing lions in such close proximity, right away, made me feel like I was in one of the scores of documentaries I had seen. Having been exposed to so many films of Africa and her wildlife, I was almost desensitized to the real thing. What I felt was not just culture shock, but cellular, genetic shock. It was being transported back to an earlier time in the development of the species. The memories were still alive but covered by our veneer of civilization and remoteness from the natural world. When they were awakened, however, they were incredibly powerful. I felt alive on a different scale.
For the next four days, our young Maasai guide, Nelson, showed us even more incredible sights; cheetahs, elephants, hippos, crocodiles, among what seemed like a parade of endless wonders. Like all the Maasai we met, Nelson was warm, bright, and eager to show off his homeland to us. I was particularly struck by how the Maasai who go to school, seem to effortlessly balance their worldliness with their love and pride in traditional culture. The government mandates that schools and medical centers be located in reasonable proximity to all villages. This is an attempt to wean the Maasai from their semi-nomadic way, to develop a more ‘”modern,” fixed, social structure, by using a contemporary, “wired in” education, to plug young people online, into global awareness. The young Maasai we met seemed very comfortable straddling two worlds. How the tension between the two forces plays out, however, is a controversial matter in the national politics of Kenya. Here are some of the amazing animals we saw out on the Mara.
We were fifteen feet away from these cheetahs who were feasting on a fresh kill. Even Nelson couldn’t believe how close they let us come to them.
Below, hippos heading down into the Mara River, and crocs coming out of the water.
Elephants were everywhere, and for the most part, completely oblivious to people, even with their young.
Kathy and I back in camp.
A birthday celebration the staff threw for me on the Mara. Unforgettable.
The next day we sadly left our many new Maasai friends, and went to Tanzania to see the southern Serengeti, Lake Manyara, and the Ngorongoro Crater, a world heritage site.
Here are some of the marvelous animals and landscapes we saw there.
A yawning lion.
I could never get enough of zebras. They’re everywhere, especially in the Serengeti, alongside the wildebeasts, during the migration.
Here are two of the typical camps we stayed in.
The camps we used were all fixed sites. Every night, no matter which camp we were in, to get to, and from, the common dining area, we had to be acccompanied by a Maasai with a spear. We could often hear lions close by and ominous thrashing in the brush. The nights were as black as they can only be where there is no environmental light pollution, and the stars of the Southern Hemisphere shown with the most intense clarity. Night was alive with sound. One was lulled to sleep by a varied cacophony of animal noise.
There were always, however, others besides us, who just watched.
On the way to the Ngorongoro Crater, we stopped at the Olduvai Gorge, often called, ” The Cradle of Mankind.”
The gorge is a steep ravine that snakes for 30 miles through The Great Rift Valley. It has been the source of the oldest hominid fossil remains of our species and its progenitors. Louis and Mary Leakey began excavating here in 1931. Their work was continued by their son, Richard. The record for the oldest fossil remains has, over the last few decades, gone back and forth between Donald Johanson’s discoveries in Ethiopia ( eg. the famous, “Lucy,”) and Richard’s new findings, here in the gorge. Regardless, it is a magical place that fills one with awe at the thought of standing, literally, in the flow of evolution.
From Olduvai, we went on to the Ngorongormo Crater, which has been called,” The Eighth Wonder of the World.” It is a huge volcanic caldera whose area is close to 100 square miles. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site that is the permanent home of over 25,000 large animals, and even more, during migratory season. There are game trails up the side that allow migratory animals in and out. It is basically, however, a completely isolated, unspoiled location. From the edge of the crater the view is breathtaking, from inside, the concentration of animals, incredible.
When they’re not hunting, lions like to sleep and cuddle. I was always shocked at how close they let you get to them. The king of the jungle is certainly not afraid of humans.
The awe and humility one feels being in this wild and ancient environment is life changing. It gives one a new sense of the order of things, and of how humankind fits into the larger environment. In some ways we have come far, but in others, we are so disconnected and out of harmony with the planet. One can’t help but feel we have been made custodians of a priceless treasure that is our duty to protect. Without this living history of our past, what kind of future will there be? We are all, “Out of Africa.”
I want to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. I feel such a deep gratitude to have been able to see these wonders in Africa. I hope everyone has the opportunity, at some point, to fulfill one of their life – long dreams, as I did, with this trip. Thank you all, as well, for your terrific support of the blog.