Africa Stories and Tips

Safari Day 5: Nairobi to Amboseli (Elev 3400 feet). Game at last!

Zebras along the road to Amboselli Photo,

The heat of the day gives way to the cool breeze of the night and the sheer blackness of the sky dotted with stars. The smell of exotic flowers mixed with the smell of burning wood from campfires. Insects swarm around kerosene lanterns that light the way in our island in this primitive world. The natural sounds of the night. The rustle of monkeys in the trees. A terrifying, almost human scream of baboons nearby. The deep roar of a distant lion and the squeal of unfortunate prey. The rhythmic chanting of native people. Away from the modern world and into an inner peace with nature. This is what brought me to Africa. These are the dreams of Africa. This is what I have come to find. This was the disappointment yesterday in Nairobi, but the dream that was found today!

Still not able to sleep the night. Mostly extreme jetlag but also the images of the reality many of Nairobi’s citizens face. In the early morning our guide was dutifully waiting for us in front of the hotel lobby. That Safari vehicle and his broad smile told me we were in for a thrill today. The sky was bright blue and sunny and the temperature mild as we drove along the highway leading into and through downtown Nairobi. The route he took today was different. We avoided the river area and actually saw a city that looked very normal and mostly clean and modern. People were dressed for business and moving briskly from buses and matatus and along sidewalks. Heading southeast along a pretty good road we left the city passing factories and small towns. About 20 minutes out of Nairobi we saw our first game. Zebras and ostriches grazing along with domestic cattle along the road. Excited, we stopped to take photos while our driver smiled pointing out this was nothing compared to what we will see soon. We drove through beautiful, dry hill country. Here and there we passed through villages with colorfully dressed Maasai along the road. We were warned that we should not photograph them unless they give permission. Our guide said that they feared their soul being taken from them. Then again, for a dollar, they will agree to be photographed (i.e., part with their soul). We passed more herds of zebra, ostriches, hawks, wildebeest, kori bustard, thomson gazelle, hornbills, and storks. We passed large farms and a few more factories. We left the hills and entered flat country. I cried out to the driver to stop the car and raced outside. There in the far, far distance standing alone on a flat plain was Mt. Kilimanjaro! We were at least a hundred miles from it and there it stood in all its magnificence, the icon of Africa. None of the perpetual clouds that normally cover its top. We could see clearly the white of the glacial crown of this spectacular mountain. We slowly descended onto parched hilly land. We approached a village sitting on the Tanzanian border where we took a sharp easterly turn immediately placing us on a dirt road. We followed this for the next 60 miles. Our Landcruiser took the road well and the ride was not uncomfortable at all. But the white, floury dust was very thick. We arrived at the entrance to Amboseli National Park after the three and a half hour drive. We entered the park on a very flat, very dry salt pan. This was a swamp in the rainy season but there was no signs of water today. Flat, white, no trees or vegetation of any kind, no visible water, the air just above the flats boiled from the heat and sunlight giving rise to mirage of lakes that disappeared as we approached. And here and there in the distance were tiny black moving objects. Our guide drove rapidly toward the objects. It was incredibly surreal. Elephants!! Huge African elephants wandering in this vast nothingness! Then, to my right, a herd of gray wildebeest. And there, cape buffalos. A herd of zebra raced along side us then veered rapidly away. Then tall giraffes lankly walking in long strides in front of us. And yet there was nothing here but flats of salt. It was incredible. Our driver smiled and said nothing. In the distance dust devils danced in front of our views of Kilimanjaro. We continued along the trail until we could see islands of trees in the distance. As we came closer I could see small fences around one of the islands. We passed by a lodge. Along the forested trail were troops of large Baboons. They were not bothered by us. Many just sat and watched us pass by. We continued out of this compound and across a dry, grassy savanna dotted with herbivores of many types all grazing together. We came to another green island guarded by colorfully dressed Maasai armed with spears. We had arrived at Amboseli Serena lodge, our home for the next few days. An oasis in this desert. The rooms are designed like native mud huts. While small, they were beautifully decorated with African artwork. Velvet monkeys ran wild through the compound. A beautiful tropical pool with a commanding view of the hot plains. A nice, covered open air veranda and restaurant with a small stream running through. Spear carrying Maasai stroll through the grounds with a watchful eye toward harmful game and mischievous monkeys and the occasional Baboon . It was warm, there was no air conditioning, nor fans but it was actually comfortable in the shaded areas. The rooms had screened windows that provided good ventilation. There was electricity and hot water. The lodge was filled with tourists, mostly Americans. The staff was very friendly and attentive. We walked around after lunch but the grounds were very small. I would say there was not more than perhaps 20 rooms in the lodge. We were advised not to venture too far without an armed guard.

At four, we left on an afternoon game drive. We headed out across the dusty, flat savanna. We saw lots of zebras, wildebeests, and Thomson gazelles all grazing together. Few took notice of us. We approached a herd of elephants crossing the road. The largest elephant was standing guard at the roadway helping to escort the others across. We passed through some green swampland and saw a number of elephants, each with a white bird on its backs, and up to their stomachs munching on the grasses. Close by were hippopotamus lounging. There were many types of water fowl; Egyptian geese and egrets. We also saw a number of birds that I cannot name but were surprisingly colorful. Our driver had several good books of birds and animals that he continuously showed us. The driver was eager to show us big cats. So we continued to drive. He monitored the crackling Swahili coming out of his two-way radio for the word "simba" to indicate a lion spotting. He scanned the land for not just cats but also swarms of cars that might be observing something of interest. Every time a car came in the opposite direction, both would stop and observations were quickly exchanged in Swahili. Our driver now pushed on hard. He had heard something from the other driver. He swung onto a very dusty road following a group of vans heading to the edge of the savanna to a large area of wild date palms. The vehicles gathered at a clearing. There below a palm lay two sleepy, young male lions. They occasionally lifted their heads, then feel back asleep. I wanted to be excited about this find but it was hard as these Kings of the Jungle just lay there like tamed house cats! We sped away. It was getting near 6pm, the time all vehicles must be off the roads. We briefly stopped to see a family of spotted hyenas. A couple of cubs and the parents prowling about. I had pictured hyenas as being mangy but these looked well groomed. We stood up through the roof to enjoy the rid, catch the cool wind and watch the sunset on the savanna on our speedy ride back to the lodge. Once back, we were completely coated in white powdery dust. We had a great dinner and talked the night about what we had seen. Back at the room, I sprayed the mosquito netting with permethrin and sprayed the rest of the room with insecticide. There was no entertainment of any kind except for the books we brought and my small short wave radio.

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