An American on Safari

I spent 12 days/11 nights on safari, starting and ending in Kenya with 4 days in Tanzania in the middle. This trip journal is more a story format with individual reviews to come in additional journals.

Reflections on my Journey

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on September 12, 2011

Safari: "1890 (attested from 1860 as a foreign word), from Swahili, lit. 'journey, expedition,' from Arabic, lit. 'referring to a journey,' from safar 'journey' (which is attested in Eng. as a foreign word from 1858)." from Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper.

My safari was a journey; a journey of not only witnessing the greatness of the cycle of life as experienced by animals in the national parks and conservation areas visited, but also of mankind in an area of the world that is still underdeveloped and struggling. The day-to-day challenges faced by the wildlife is not unlike what the people of Africa also contend with. The search for sustenance as well as providing for their young, both man and animal must continually be on the move to assure a future for their species.

My safari journey was 12 days/11 nights and during that time, our travel group of four faced several unexpected and in some cases, undesirable surprises. Some were a matter of inconvenience or comfort, others that of money. The good news is that through each of them, we survived. Nothing was of serious enough consequence like "life or death".

I cannot say that however, about those living in the areas of Africa that I had the privilege of visiting. Our safari was in fact, a microcosm of the very culture that I sought to experience. Sure the bathroom situation was deplorable by American standards and yes, I was inconvenienced and a bit unnerved by having to pee out in the wild. I did not like having to pee standing up over a pit much either, but you know what, I survived it. At the end of the day, it was not that big a deal.

One of my favorite movie lines is from "A League of Their Own" when team manager Tom Hanks tells the girls on his baseball team that "It's supposed to be hard. It is the hard that makes it great. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it." Well that is a bit of paraphrasing, but I'm pretty darn close to the actual lines spoken in the movie.

Yes going on safari can be hard. The distances are far and road conditions terrible; the food bland and not very tasteful; and all around you there are deplorable living conditions. As Americans we are blessed in so many ways and take so very much for granted. I am glad that I was able to make this journey and take a safari of self-discovery that I believe will make me a better person.

I've been home for a week and the jet lag seems to have finally subsided. I'm going to bed and waking up around my usual times, so that has been much welcomed over the past couple of days.

I can say that while there were some unexpected surprises some of which remain unresolved with British Airways and my tour operator, this has been truly a once-in-a-lifetime journey that was so very worthwhile. It was not without sacrifice, discomfort and inconvenience, but that said, I would do it all over again if I thought my experience would be matched by all I got to see firsthand during my 15 days in East Africa.

My time spent in Nairobi prior to the safari was much needed if for no other reason than to acclimate to the eight hour time zone difference from the Midwest of America. Everyone at Ngong House was wonderfully accommodating and welcoming. I couldn't have asked for anything more from anyone!

I also enjoyed visiting many of the more well known tourist sites including the Karen Blixen House, the Giraffe Centre and Kazuri Beads. I am also proud to say I'm a supporter of the work being done by Dame Daphne Sheldrick and everyone involved at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To be able to see their efforts first hand was quite humbling.

Once connected with my tour operator and travel companions, we were off on safari. I believe it is fair to say that the safari "experience" was not all everyone expected it to be. That is unfortunate and I hope each will take away and remember only what were their personal highlights. For me, there are many . . .

. . . seeing the sunrise and sunset in some pretty spectacular locales.

. . . watching the creation of life as elephants and lions mated.

. . . observing animals stalk and hunt for food . . . protecting their kill from other predators . . . scavengers dining on the remains left behind . . . and watching the migration that spans hundreds of miles in search of greener feeding land.

. . . learning about a culture and its people, being further reminded of all that I am fortunate to have in family, home and friendship.

To those inclined to take on an African safari, I encourage you to expand your boundaries and explore that which is beyond your comfort zone. Travel in a developing country will test your limits and abilities to be open minded and non-judgmental given your own cultural bias and perspective.

My personal advice is to not give in to the easier way of travel, flying from park to park, country to country. I believe that as important as having the opportunity to see nature in its most natural state, so is experiencing life "on the ground" as only seen through driving the long harsh roads between villages and camps. Admittedly not for everyone, but if you are looking for a comfy posh holiday abroad, perhaps an African safari isn't for you.

A Harsh Safari Reality - Where's Their Next Meal?

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on September 12, 2011

We were fortunate to witness two wonderful life experiences while at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. These are the things that wildlife shows on National Geographic are made of.

The first was that of a pair of lions, presumably a male and his mate sharing a mid morning kill. By the time we arrived on the site, there were some 20 safari vehicles lining the roadside observing out in the distance as the two fed. What was more interesting was the flurry of activity surrounding them, as a pack of some 20-25 hyenas were attempting to take away some morsel to eat. Also, there were a handful of jackals what we were told are allowed to co-dine with lions as they pose no threat to them. Hyenas however, are another story. The lions defended and chased away lone hyenas as they attempted to steal away something for themselves.

One was successful in getting what appeared to be a leg or some part of one. As the dog-like animal scampered off with its steal, others were chasing behind trying to catch and take away the meal. Eventually, another did catch and take the food away. Curiously, that was the end of the chase as if pack leader, alpha dog was in possession of the food. It went off in an opposite direction to feast on the spoils of victory.

Later in the day after lunch we stumbled upon a cheetah resting in the tall straw like grass. Not seemingly aware of anything around, it stood up and stretched. As it sauntered right to left across the crater floor, its posture changed. It went from taking a stroll to what was clearly a stalking position. Walking, crouching, stopping to lay in the grass . . . the cheetah had it sights on a gazelle some 200 yards off in the distance.

We continued to watch, as our driver repositioned our vehicle moving quite a distance backwards as the cheetah continued to make its way towards a small group of gazelles. We stopped as it stopped. We watched as it watched. I found myself holding my breath as I saw the cheetah go totally flat in the grass. Just 32 seconds later, the cheetah was on the gazelle taking it down to the ground.

It was an amazing feat of speed and hunting prowess that allowed this cheetah to capture its next meal. The gazelle did not go down without fighting, kicking and rolling over on the cheetah with everything it had left inside. In less than two minutes, however, it was over. The gazelle was dead and the cheetah was now catching its breath after what had to be an extreme amount of physical exertion to overtake and kill the prey.

I've read that only about 1:100 safari visitors are witness to a kill. It was an amazing thing to experience first hand. The beauty of the lean cheetah making way across to what was seemingly a totally unsuspecting gazelle, is almost beyond words. The tragedy of the death of the gazelle while sad, is all part of the food chain in the wild. What is more tragic, death by starvation or at the jaws of another?

Our Time in the Maasai Mara

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on September 12, 2011

Yes it was indeed a whirlwind of an adventure! During our 12 days on safari we visited seven parks . . . four in Kenya and three in Tanzania. When folks head out to Africa, there is an expectation of seeing "the big five" (Elephant, Rhino, Lion, Cape/African Buffalo and Leopard) and we were no different. Amazingly, we got to see four of the five during our first park, a three day visit to the Maasai Mara, home of "the greatest show on earth" - the migration of herds from Tanzania to Kenya in search of greener pastures and food.

Because of the vastness of this park, I was glad that we had three days to observe the animals in what would set the standard for game viewing for the rest of the trip. Unfortunate however, because as our guide said, winter in the Mara is a time for feast for all. The wildlife was abundant and in good health. The cycle of life in full swing as hunters hunted and scavengers waited. Grazing animals had plenty to eat and were healthy enough to sustain those who depended on them for their next meal.

We did not have an opportunity to witness an active hunt or kill here in the Maasai Mara, but there were plenty of chances to see animals enjoying the fruits of their labor. None was more spectacular than seeing a pride of 16 lions early one morning dining on a wildebeest kill on the hillside before us.

We did not get to see the much anticipated migration of the wildebeests as they crossed the Mara River. While at the river's edge, we did see what seemed to be thousands looking for the right spot to cross. Unfortunately, some self-drive safari folks decided to drive between the herd and river bank, sending all of the animals away from the crossing points. While not the most famous aspect of "the migration" that people come to see, we were able to see the migration in progress in the Mara several times.

Cheetahs were a very common sighting at the Maasai Mara, including what was believed to be these three young males, most likely brothers. They were seen a couple of times during our game drives, often just lazing away the afternoon under the protection of shade. In this photo it was especially interesting to see how they positioned themselves so as to have a full 360 degree view around them. Perhaps they were scoping out the area for supper.

My time spent in the Mara was not without some harsh reality too. This young lion was obviously injured, as his walk had a noticable limp to it in spite of no outward appearance of injury. He walked ahead of our safari vehicle for some distance before making his way atop a termite hill. There he sat, scanning the area as though to be searching for something. He then began to vocalize a low tone puffy like roar. After doing this for a few minutes, out from the brush about 50 yards ahead, came a beautiful lioness. She responded to his vocalizations with her own very loud and what seemed to be grumpy response. It was an amazing interaction between the two, as though nobody else was around. I felt blessed to have been witness to them.

The Accommodations Were Anything BUT Third World

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on September 12, 2011

We utilized eight lodges or camps in the seven parks visited during our safari. The tented camps (Mara Sarova and Voyager Ziwani) were very authentic to the experience of going on safari back at the turn of the 20th century, with the exception of the bathrooms and outstanding dining facilities.

With no locks on the front . . . mmmm . . . tent flaps, and mosquito nets around the beds, it really felt like we were staying out in the wild. While staying at the Voyager in Tsavo West, we were also cautioned to not leave the confines of our quarters after midnight as the power generators would be turned off at that time and the local hippos would make their way onto the property to graze the lush green grass. Sure enough, when I got up to use the bathroom at around 3:00am, I could hear SOMEthing outside the bathroom tent window munching. My travel companion Jane said she heard the same thing at some point in the night as well.

Much of the lodging experience was built around meals. Many of the lodges had very extensive buffets, featuring a wide range of choices given the international nature of their clientele. There were some meals that I felt a bit challenged by, mostly because of my general nature to not be very adventurous in my food choices. That said, I never found it difficult to find something good to eat.

My favorite dining was at the lodges that provided a full four course meal ordered off menu. Breakfasts were generally still buffet style, but lunch and dinner were plated service. I found dining in this manner to be far more relaxing, providing for more opportunity for us to have conversation about the day's activities.

Every place we stayed had a swimming pool, and by all accounts from my travel companions, they were in good shape with the exception of one that appeared suspect due to green water. The views from the pool decks were outstanding and provided a wonderful place to relax at the end of a long day.

For me, I didn't find much time for relaxation poolside, however, as I did not skip any of the afternoon game drives in favor of swim time. Others in my group did however enjoy the opportunity to do so.

I found the greatest tranquility at sunrise and sunset, especially at the lodges that provided the vantage point for a great view.

(Yet to come: Look for detailed reviews on each of the lodges & camps we stayed at.)

The Maasai People

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on September 12, 2011

Kenya has 42 tribes, with the Maasai in their traditional red shuka probably being the most recognized to those from outside of East Africa. Maasai are also found in Tanzania especially in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and surrounding land. We saw a lot of Maasai herdsmen as they moved their cows and goats throughout the countryside in search of pastures for their livestock to graze. I do not believe that throughout our 12 day safari while moving between parks, there was not a single day that we didn't witness the migration of the Maasai with their herd.

Their existence is a poor one by most standards, measured in their culture by the number of cows, goats and children they have. Practicing polygamists, many have multiple wives and households. Prearranged marriages are the norm, with girls being "given" as early as age 10. Her family will receive gifts from the man's family, in the form of livestock.

Boys become men at the age of 14 through a ritualistic practice that includes public circumcision followed by up to three months away with others donning black clothing and white face paint. When they return, they are of age to consider taking a wife, although most will wait until late teens. During our time passing through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we saw several groups of these young men.

While in the Maasai Mara, our guide arranged for us to make a visit to the neighboring Maasai Village (for a price of $25/person). We were met by one of the tribe's elder warriors, who served as our guide throughout their village. A group of Maasai greeted us by performing their ceremonial Welcome Dance, followed by the women's greeting. (You can see "us" in this photo with the ladies.)

The men demonstrated how they make fire, the old fashioned way like you did in scouts, by rubbing sticks together over highly flammable straw. We were also shown how they make and maintain their houses using cow dung and water. The thatch roofs are also maintained and transported from location to location when the tribe migrates away from this particular village in search of better pastures for their cattle.

At the center of their village were two large areas, fenced in and enclosed using sticks, for their cows and goats. Kept separate at night, there is always a warrior standing guard to protect against attacks from lions. While this particular tribe does not seek to kill the lions, they will do so if necessary in defense of their homes, families or livestock. Other Maasai tribes, however, are not so kind to the lions as they still practice old rituals that include hunting and killing lions, which by tradition is necessary to demonstrate warrior qualities.

The Maasai people seemingly depend on the tourism to the area in support of their financial needs which include outside medical services and clothing. Wherever we went, there was a constant reminder of their poverty whether through the aggressive attempts to sell their beaded jewelry or wood carvings, or the outright begging for money at park entrances. Even the privilege of taking their photo is a means that they use to generate cash from tourists. Check out the dollar bills in the hands of the young black-clad men above!

Many of the lodges we stayed at employ the Maasai as porters, servers and in other service staff positions. More often than not, they wore uniforms of the resort although some resorts did have traditionally attired Maasai around on the property. I personally got a kick out of the one at Oltukai Lodge (Amboseli Nat'l Park - Kenya) whose job it was to chase away the annoying monkeys using a slingshot.

In talking with workers at some of the lodges, it became clear that doing so was at great inconvenience to the employees and their family. One young man named Joseph supported his one wife and two kids through employment with a lodge. He told how he lives on site for two months at a time, being allowed to return home for about two weeks, before having to report back to work again for another two month cycle.

During his work cycle, his hours are generally 5:00a until 10:00p, seven days a week with no time off until his return home to his family. While this requires much sacrifice, he explained to us that this is necessary if he wants to provide for his family and to pay to send his children to a decent (private) school. While there is "government school" (aka public school), he told of poor learning conditions which he felt was not good enough for his kids.

I also learned from a young single Maasai mom that the Maasai lifestyle is not necessarily embraced by all who are born into the tribe. She was the eldest of three children. Her father wished better for her, so he has refused to "sell her" to wed within the tribe. She went to school to learn cosmetology and is employed by a lodge as a masseuse and manicurist.

She told of how poorly the Maasai men treat their women and that her father wanted better for her and her younger sisters. While they still live on Maasai land, it is only through the grace of the tribe as her uncle is one of the tribes most senior elders.

As an employee of a lodge many hours from her village, she rides the bus over four hours to work. Once there, she works for six weeks straight doing a variety of duties as necessary. Her break to go home to her three year old son lasts only eight days, at which time she must return to the lodge for another six weeks.

Some of the lodges offered evening entertainment provided by the local Maasai, often through song and dance. For those who did not have an opportunity to visit a local village, this was a great opportunity to take photos of the Maasai in their traditional clothing.

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