As we drove through the mist of the African cloud forest, I became contemplative, reflecting upon our journey, our safari of the heart, spirit, and mind, and how expanding and liberating the act of travel is. This was a special place with special wildlife, people, and scenery, an area we humans protect to remind us of our humble beginnings. I came, I saw, I shot (photographs). We treasured our moments here.
We moved from the misty highlands to the arid wilderness of the Great Rift Valley. Moving farther we entered Arusha. Beyond, the airport. Then flying on we arrived in Nairobi. We were shuttled to the Safari Park Hotel, our circle, our safari, now complete. It has been first-class, it has been worth it. My lifetime longing to see the great African animals has now been fulfilled. I shall never see a zoo the same way again. While others imagine a safari, we lived it.
We were up at 5:30am, getting everything together. At 6am a small breakfast arrived at our room. I stepped onto our patio. It was cold and very misty, heavily socked in with clouds. A porter brought our things to Richard, who was waiting and in his usual jovial spirits. His enthusiasm for showing us the wildlife and his country was contagious, but this is a sad day. Our last day. We drove somewhat the way we came along the crater rim. Here a lone buffalo, there a lone elephant in the mist. We descended along the hard-packed dirt track toward Arusha. Richard drove safely but fast and passed other vehicles despite only meters of visibility.
We came to the park checkpoint, then drove beyond. Immediately we drove onto a very modern asphalt road. We passed wheat, corn, and coffee farms. We stopped at the T-Shirt Shack, where we bought several shirts. (It is recommend that the reader skip this shop. Their shirts are expensive and the printing comes off with the first washing!). We then drove a little farther, where Richard stopped for fuel. I got out and stretched my legs. Nearby, a little boy was playing along the road with a homemade rolling toy. He motioned with a writing gesture in his hand. I pulled out a pen and he smiled. I threw it to him. I was soon descended upon by dozens of children who depleted me of all my pens. We drove on descending to about 3,000 feet into the Rift Valley. We saw Lake Manyara from the bluffs above. It is a large salt lake surrounded by heavy forest and cliffs. We descended on the highway to the forest level. This is another popular national park. There is a very touristy kind of semi-shanty town catering to tourists. Fruits, souvenirs, carved wood. We continued to about 2,800 feet into an arid wilderness. We passed many Maasai villages. There were no fences except for the animal corrals. The huts were wood with conical roofs. We passed many Maasai children herding cows. The barren landscaped was filled with an amazing number of tall gray (from the volcanic soil) termite mounds.
Along the way we saw an occasional ostrich. I finally saw a Baobab tree. These trees were numerous at altitudes below 3,000 feet. No leaves this time of year because they are deciduous. Richard told me that Tanzania had been a German colony from the early 19th century to the end of WWII, when the British acquired a mandate. He noted that there were German farms all around and even in Ngorongoro. Tanzania provided food to Germany during WWII. He pointed out some shops displaying Nazi swastikas. He said some old Tanzanians even have a swastika tattooed on their arm. He said many Tanzanians fought with the Germans against the British. We came to a flat, arid area with an Army post. He said a major battle between the British of Kenya and the Germans was fought here and the dead were buried in a cemetery on the post.
Driving on, we saw more humans, garbage, and people meandering along the road. We were nearing Arusha. Richard stopped to let us browse a souvenir shop he warned had “American prices” (the stop was our idea). The shop was very large and loaded with mostly wood carvings. The quality was poor and the prices outrageous. We looked at some zebra skins, but they cost $500 and more. Tanzania (unlike Kenya) still allows some limited game hunting in designated area (except rhino and elephant).
We continued to drive to the edge of Arusha to the “cultural center,” actually a large souvenir shop owned by a white South African. The selection was large, the prices not bad and somewhat negotiable, and the quality very good.
We continued our drive to the outskirts of the city. The area was hilly, jungly. Not as trashed as Nairobi but still trash, shanties. We passed colorfully dressed women balancing baskets on their head. The airport was 50km away from the Arusha. Despite my pleas to get us to the airport and skip lunch, it appears Richard was under orders to get us a lunch, so they arranged one with a lodge 0.6km from the airport. After sitting down and beginning to place our order, I looked at my watch and noted our departure in 45 minutes, so I made an executive decision to leave without lunch (I found later that Vintage had been informed that we skipped lunch). Mt. Kilimanjaro airport was not very busy. We passed through a couple of X-ray and metal detectors, checked our luggage, waited a bit, and then boarded a twin-engine Otter. It was overcast during most of our 55-minute flight to Nairobi. About 10 minutes out I could barely distinguish the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I continued to observe the mountain for the next 20 minutes. The last 5 minutes of the flight took us over the flat, green bush of Nairobi national park. My last view of wildlife on this journey was of a single-file herd of brown-gray elephants as we descended farther to a landing.
We quickly passed through Passport Control, X-ray of carry-ons, then out into the tiny terminal. Faithfully awaiting was a Vintage driver. It was lightly drizzling as we made our way through downtown Nairobi. A strange sense, but I felt as if I had arrived back home. Ironically, it was a familiar, comfortable place despite its mean, bleak appearance. We arrived “home” at the Safari Park hotel (our third time). Peculiar feeling of being home again. At any rate, a full circle was now complete. We were given a room similar to the one we started with. All roads, for us, seemed to lead to this place. I thought about our first days here and how it now felt like years ago. We were so careful about disease-carrying mosquitoes, tense not knowing what harm might be just around the corner. We starved ourselves the first day because of potential for infectious food. Now we were very relaxed, casual, and knowledgeable about our surroundings. We shopped for last-minute souvenirs in the dozen stores on-site. We met up with the Vintage manager, Evans Munanga, and had dinner and talked all night about our safari experience. We said our final farewells and headed back to the room. We had either thrown away or given away about a third of what we had packed with us, yet we still had lots of luggage. We packed carefully throughout the night, then went to bed.
We were up at 4:40am in readiness for our long return to the West. This travel day took us from the early 20th century to the early 21st century and from the third to the first world. And, unfortunately, from the less expensive to much more expensive in London. I am pleased to have fulfilled my lifetime desire to see east Africa but am happy to return to my part of the world and culture.
Our driver and escort took us through the dark, drizzly Sunday morning streets of Nairobi. The airport security was very tight, with multiple X-rays, questioning, and metal detectors. Very little room to sit at the airport. Our plane was guarded by several soldiers. Our flight back was uneventful. From Heathrow we took a $110 taxi ride to our hotel in downtown London. We checked into the Park Lane Hotel. I stood at the room window peering out onto Piccadilly Road, watching well-dressed people walk by, the modern and expensive cars lined up at the intersection, and the highly manicured Green Park. The contrast could not have been greater from the last 4 weeks of travel. We stayed in London for another 10 days, but I could not get my mind off of our adventure in Africa. And so this seems a good place to end my journal on my sojourn to the wildlife of east Africa. I thank my three loyal readers and bid you good travel.