A Dream 30 Years Deferred
By Rick Mannshardt
Part 1 of 3
Timeline: September, 1995. Kenya, East Africa
To fully appreciate how the elephant dominates the African landscape, one needs only to see one in the wild… up close. Several years ago, quite unexpectedly, I did exactly that.
Our caravan was heading back to the lodge for the evening after our first game drive in Tsavo. We hadn’t seen anything larger than a zebra all afternoon, but it had been a good day; I’d gotten some decent black and white shots. It was getting dark and the moon had yet to rise. Riding in the second van, I had my head sticking out of the roof hatch as usual, enjoying the view and the evening breeze as we trundled down the dusty road.
Suddenly, the lead van stopped about twenty-five yards ahead of us. I figured they must’ve spotted something. It was too dim to see very well from that distance so our driver maneuvered our van to illuminate the area with his headlights. In the tall grass at the edge of the road stood a large solitary bull elephant. Nearly twelve feet high at the shoulder, he towered over the nearby vehicle and its half dozen passengers. As soon as the beam of our lights hit him, the animal broke loose and charged the lead van.
My head shot back down inside before I even had time to think. Only when the elephant came to within five yards of their windshield did it pull to a stop– dust clouds churned up by its massive feet. On the seat beside me, my camera lay within easy reach. Yet the thought of using it never entered my mind; a far bigger priority was at hand. Inside our darkened van, motionless and silent, we watched… and waited. I couldn’t imagine what my friends in the other vehicle were going through; I’d seen cars knocked over like kids’ toy blocks by these animals before.
Then the elephant turned, and taking his time, disappeared back into the bush. It was over. We waited a moment, then pulled back onto the road and continued on our way.
What we had just witnessed was a mock charge, a bluff tactic intended to intimidate and command respect. It did exactly that. It also served as a reminder that we weren’t in a zoo or some fenced-in game preserve. This land was the elephant’s natural domain. We were merely visitors… trespassers, if you will… sitting inside vehicles that offered about as much protection as a grass hut.
Yet as an intelligent, resourceful, highly social animal known for its strong family relationships, the elephant rarely needs to throw his weight around; his prowess is undeniable. We hadn’t escaped tragedy because we were smarter or more technologically advanced, or even because we were lucky. We’d survived simply because this animal had allowed us to. Though he had no reason to cause us harm, he easily could have if he wanted– and there was literally nothing we could have done. It was a humbling moment. If I live to be ninety, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that first encounter with a wild elephant. Nor do I ever want to.
The Birth of a Dream
For thirty long years, I’d been wanting to travel to Africa—specifically Kenya in East Africa. And for thirty years, I had waited. My reasons for waiting were many. They seemed important reasons at the time, but of course they weren’t. I kept waiting for just the right time, just the right itinerary, just the right traveling companions; I wanted the experience to be perfect. And of course there was the issue of money—several thousand dollars for a single trip; money that I didn’t have.
I’d grown up in an environment where travel was something you saved up for your whole life—only to be enjoyed after retirement. So waiting seemed a normal thing to me. Besides, I thought I had, as the saying goes, “all the time in the world.” I didn’t realize how finite and how precious that time really was.
For me, Africa was more than a travel destination; more than a name on a map. It represented the very essence of adventure—the place where men went to test themselves; the place where dreams were born. For me that dream began in 1966, when my parents took me to see the film Born Free for the first time. I was nine years old:, impressionable, naïve, and full of wide-eyed wonder. Enthralled by the sweeping panoramas of the African savanna and its magnificent wildlife, I found myself quickly seduced by John Barry’s equally magnificent musical score. I knew at that point I had to go to East Africa someday. If anything in my life could be considered destiny, this was it.
From that point on I was all-consumed. I devoured every bit of Africana I could find: books and magazines; movies and TV shows; toys, photos, maps and museum artifacts—even savoring the few precious minutes each time I rode the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland and marveled at the animatronic creatures of beautiful downtown Anaheim.
It was, I admit, a naïve dream: overly romanticized, culturally presumptuous, and ultimately western-centric. It was also somewhat passé. People of my parents’ generation and those before them all too often traveled to Africa for the trophy hunting; to bag the “Big 5” on safari, and to toss back a few frosty gin & tonics at the taxidermied Zebra Lounge in town afterward.
Rarely was there any talk of Africa’s other potential: her vibrant cities, her peoples or industries; rarely did one hear about her diverse geographical, cultural, and political landscapes; her contributions to the arts and science. Instead, hearing the word Africa was to envision a land frozen in time; a primeval land of unlimited opportunity—ripe for “exploration”… yet all too often, exploitation.
I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that as a kid, I too succumbed to the notion that the wildlife was the only reason to visit Africa; that this wildlife was there for the taking; and that the supposedly “dark continent” was nothing more than a playground for the rest of the world—particularly affluent Europeans and Americans. It would take time for me to outgrow this mentality, but thankfully, I did.
Initially I pictured myself, like Born Free’s George Adamson, becoming an African game warden: khaki-clad, bearded and sun-bronzed, and oh-so-cool tooling around in my battered Land Rover– though I clearly had no idea as a kid what this profession actually entailed. In later years, with a clearer sense of purpose, I envisioned becoming a wildlife biologist, living under a canvas tent on the acacia-covered plains of the Serengeti, studying the native wildlife as Mount Kilimanjaro shimmered on the horizon. Continuing to devour all the books on the subject I could get my hands on, I grew to adulthood– still harboring the dream that had propelled me as a nine year old boy.
And still, I waited: three years of high school; eight years of college; a successful career in the movie industry; a not-so successful career as an aspiring screenwriter; and a cool bachelor apartment in an upscale neighborhood (which I decorated in safari-club style in an effort to keep the dream alive.) My twenties and thirties rolled by, fueled by the inevitable distractions of money, sex, and alcohol. Meanwhile Africa languished on the back burner. “Someday” became my mantra; my oft-repeated excuse. There were times, after hearing the endless stories of vanishing species and habitat, when I wondered if I’d get there too late– and have it all be gone.
Then, everything changed in 1994 when my brother Gary died of cancer at age 40. The bomb that had exploded at the heart of our family shook me at the most primal level. Suddenly, I realized I was farther down the road than I thought. While I’d been fantasizing over travel brochures and coffee table books, the time had been slipping away.
As the pain and grief began to subside I realized that my reasons for waiting had disappeared; every last one. Within a month of my brother’s memorial service, I was signed up for a three week safari trip to East Africa with a group of friends from my new job at the Oakland Zoo, including a five-day climb up 19,000 foot Kilimanjaro. I guess sometimes it takes a sharp kick in the gut to get you going.
Yet there was a problem. After three decades of dreaming and planning I found myself laboring under a baggage load of expectations. I’d built up Africa in my mind to such an extent that reality itself could hardly be expected to compete with it. In short, I’d set myself up for certain disappointment.
So before I could embark on this journey, there was something I needed to do: not just pack my baggage, but get rid of it as well. I had to clear my mind of everything I expected to experience in Africa. I needed to throw off the yoke of history and popular culture that hung around my neck … Born Free and Out of Africa, Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt, pith helmets and Land Rovers, Tarzan and restless natives, European colonialism and privilege, Stanley and Livingstone, Banana Republic, great white hunters, and the Big 5– even my beloved Jungle Cruise. In essence, I needed to leave behind the Africa of myth, legend and most importantly, the past. Perhaps more to the point, I needed to leave behind a lifelong delusion of a white Africa; a Hollywood-induced holdover from long ago that I was too blinded to see beyond. Only then would I be able to see Africa for what it was and to experience it in the moment.
This trip was fairly typical as African safari excursions go: pricey, pampered and pre-arranged—though certainly this option was only one of several possibilities. Casting aside my long-held opinions about those sanitized, pre-packaged group tours, I realized you have no business being a travel snob if you haven’t even traveled yet. Besides, it was a good way to see a piece of Africa in a reasonable amount of time. The 2-week Kenya itinerary had us visiting four different game parks: Tsavo, Amboseli, Samburu and the Masai Mara– site of the great annual migration. We’d also be making overnight visits to Sweetwaters Tented Camp and the famous Mount Kenya Safari Club. Then afterward, when my traveling companions would be returning home, I’d be heading off on my own to climb Kilimanjaro in neighboring Tanzania. Everything was lined up; I was all set.
And then the bogey-man stories started cropping up. First it was the deadly Ebola outbreak in Central Africa. Hearing about the virus’ horrific symptoms and frightening mortality rates, my dad was concerned about me going. But I wasn’t traveling within 1,000 miles of the area in question, so worrying about it was as pointless as avoiding a trip to Denver because of an epidemic in San Francisco.
Other stories struck closer to the mark. A few months earlier, a woman had been attacked by a hyena at a safari camp in Kenya. The animal came into her tent one night, seized her in its mouth, and dragged her into the bush.
And when a woman I worked with found out I was also going to Tanzania, she was tempted to relay some of the horror stories she’d heard from Peace Corps volunteers who’d been stationed there. “I’ll tell you when you get back,” she hinted, not wanting to alarm me.
Great. Why is it that as soon as you commit to something, all the monsters start coming out of the woodwork? The same thing happened when I told people I was going to Costa Rica for the first time. Well, I can certainly come up with as many reasons as anyone for not getting on a plane, but when I got aboard that SwissAir jet on that September afternoon in 1995, I knew that after thirty years, I was finally on my way.
I thought back to what my father had said to me at the airport. I worried he might be concerned about my safety on a big trip like this, especially since I was going to be climbing Kilimanjaro. After he hugged me goodbye he looked directly at me. I felt sure he was going to tell me to “be careful.” Instead, he told me to “have a good time.” In any other situation, that would’ve been the normal thing to say. But here, it took on a special meaning: he had faith in my judgment and knew that I’d be OK.
Part 2 of 3
The Dream Becomes Reality
After a trio of flights via Los Angeles and Zurich, my thirteen companions and I found ourselves en route to Kenya, flying high above the Sahara some time after midnight. I was looking forward to my first real glimpse of Africa, one that wasn’t just another image from a coffee table book or a movie screen. Gazing out the tiny window of the plane less than an hour before landing, I watched as the faint red glow of sunrise revealed the horizon on the darkened land below. The fantasy was over; reality was waiting. Not long afterward, we landed in the capital city of Nairobi, the central hub for travel throughout East Africa.
The colors of Kenya caught me by surprise. Traveling up mountain roads through regions cultivated with banana and coffee plantations, we came across rich red earth lush with the greenest vegetation I’d ever seen. In dramatic contrast, the jacaranda trees, with their intense lavender blossoms, seemed almost out of place. They were everywhere in the cities, as well as scattered throughout the countryside. The passenger train depot in Nairobi, with its vintage railway cars, was alive with them. It was the one place I regret not taking the opportunity to photograph, as there was so much else to see during our brief stopovers in the city.
After nearly 27 nonstop hours of flying halfway around the globe, I was surprised that jetlag was practically a non-issue. Aside from a little sleepiness at dinner the first evening, I was able to re-set my internal clock with little trouble. Every morning, I woke up clear-headed and ready to go. Aided by southern Kenya’s temperate climate (due to an altitude ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 feet) we found pleasant game viewing conditions nearly every day.
Kilaguni Lodge, located in Tsavo West National Park in southern Kenya, was our first stopover in the bush. Together with the larger Eastern section of the park, Tsavo covers over 8,200 square miles, making it the biggest in the country, with some 60 recorded species of mammals and 400 species of birds. A hundred years ago Tsavo was notorious for its man-eating lions, but today it enjoys a more amiable reputation as a quiet tourist-friendly haven for elephant, rhino, and other large game.
As we stepped out onto the veranda at Kilaguni, the view awaiting us was absolutely captivating. Stretching from the wooden railing to the horizon lay a rich palette of East African colors: dusty red volcanic soil surrounded by a sea of blonde grass, with olive green flattop acacia trees reaching back to the foot of muted purple hills. And everywhere you’d look were animals—zebra, impala, waterbuck, baboon, dwarf mongoose and warthog, as well as numerous birds and lizards, all converging at the nearby water hole. The next morning this near perfect vista was made even more dramatic by the appearance of three hundred massive black Cape buffalo, who stopped by the water hole to drink. My years of waiting hadn’t been in vain. The magic was still here.
The lodge was filled with German tourists, similar to the national parks in the United States. Impeccably dressed and well informed, they established a European theme that would continue throughout my travels here. Yet there was another group at the lodge that caught our attention—a troop of hungry baboons. Aggressive and constantly on the prowl for handouts, they posed enough of a threat that the management had posted sentries by the railing of the veranda. Armed with slingshots (but no rocks) their job was to scare off the simian marauders when they ventured too close to the guests. Apparently, just the snapping sound of the slingshots was enough to send them fleeing back to the bush… at least for a few minutes.
By the end of our first game drive that day, we’d seen only a few birds and small antelope. But on the way back to the lodge, things improved dramatically. As evening approached, we stopped at an oasis called Mzima Springs, located in the middle of the dry scrub country. Its crystalline blue waters were fed by the snows of Kilimanjaro more than fifty miles away. On the surface it looked like any other African water hole. But descending into the ten foot concrete underwater viewing chamber, we watched as hippos and crocodiles cruised by the window in slow motion. By sundown, we were still there, mesmerized. The rangers had to kick us out.
In contrast to the rainforests of Costa Rica, where I’d traveled only six months earlier, the photography of East Africa was a delight. Here, the animals were of much larger scale and could be easily found out in the open– free of the natural barriers that camouflaged so much of the tropical wildlife of Central America. There was no need to peer through binoculars, or strain our eyes to locate the animals here. Everything was right there in front of you.
Consequently, we rarely needed to utilize our guides to help us find the wildlife; they were free to simply drive the safari vehicles. With so little need to converse, I sometimes found myself forgetting that there were other people in the van with me. It was just me, my two Nikons, and the vastness of the African bush. The only thing I needed to remember was to take a break from the viewfinder occasionally so I could experience things through my own eyes.
Early on the trip, a situation arose that harkened back to my earlier expectations of Africa. An older married couple in the group got upset when the drivers had to make a minor departure from the itinerary, in this case arriving at one of our destinations late in the afternoon instead of the following morning. As a result, we didn’t get to spend much time there. Everyone else accepted the change without a problem, but this one couple let the incident ruin their evening. I thought back to my own entrenched expectations of this trip, grateful that I’d been able to shed many of those preconceptions before I left home. I could tell already that there would be many things here that were out of our control. One example lay directly ahead.
During the drive between Tsavo and Amboseli, 60 miles to the west, we passed through an area in which the Kenyan government “couldn’t guarantee our safety.” In the previous months, a group of tourists traveling this road had been ambushed and robbed by gunmen. This one incident, the first in several years, represented a better safety record than any country in the world could boast. Yet to quell fears in their vital tourist industry, the park service assigned armed escorts for vehicles passing through this corridor. It seemed however, that having the escort only served to heighten the apprehension. All I remember about the two hour drive was the young uniformed guard seated beside us with his rifle and the shimmering black lava formations we passed along the way.
Residing in the shadow of nearby Kilimanjaro, Amboseli National Park was said to be the most crowded wildlife reserve in all of Kenya, yet I didn’t get the sense that this was true. Often absorbed in watching grazing herds of elephant, we barely noticed other vehicles during our game drives on the grassy plains.
The resident sneak-thieves at the lodge in Amboseli were even more daring than the baboons of Tsavo. I was reading a chapter of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not by the pool overlooking the savanna, when a commotion erupted nearby. A band of vervet monkeys was pressing the tourists for some of their extra goodies, coming down out of the nearby trees when the opportunity seemed ripe. Everyone at the lodge had been warned by the staff not to feed or annoy the animals. But enough visitors had done it in the past to make the cycle impossible to break. The problem was that the monkeys responded aggressively to any attempts to chase them away. Trouble soon escalated into near panic when these two species began to interact. Watching wild monkeys chase fully clothed adults into a swimming pool was something I hadn’t anticipated when I came to Africa. I tried to stay out of the way, keeping one eye in my book and the other on the ruckus. The young woman who got bit in the ass had apparently moved too fast around them‑‑ or perhaps not fast enough.
Throughout the trip, thoughts of my upcoming climb of Kilimanjaro were never far from my mind. The first time I caught a glimpse of it rising above the clouds was unforgettable. We were in Amboseli, observing a group of elephants, when I turned and saw the mountain high above the savanna. No one else seemed to notice. It was probably my most private moment in Africa. I knew that when the other members of our group were back home with their families in the United States, I would be up there on that mountain. I took the opportunity to come to terms with my anxiety over the climb, and “made friends” with Kilimanjaro. That way, when I returned later, I wouldn’t be a stranger.
Five days after arriving in Africa, I got sick. I can’t say it was unexpected, since it’s a common occurrence while traveling in developing countries. But I’d seriously hoped that I wouldn’t be one of the unlucky few. Fortunately, it was nothing as dangerous as malaria, yellow fever or sleeping sickness, but let’s just say I was “losing it from both ends.” After spending half the night in the bathroom, I was drained. But worse, I was worried. All I could think about was Kilimanjaro.
The climb was barely more than a week away, yet I was in no condition to be tackling a 19,000 foot mountain. I felt weak… fragile… and more than a little dispirited. I’d spent the last several months in training— untold miles of uphill bike riding and hiking steep trails with a pack. Now, I could barely walk across the room. It being far too late to get my money back, I felt like I’d blown it. Two thousand dollars was getting ready to sail right down the toilet.
But I was too nauseous to think about that now. Today was a major travel day. We’d be on the road for more than eight hours, covering several hundred miles of questionably paved roads before reaching the next lodge. It was a day to remember. Our driver couldn’t be expected to worry too much about my condition. He had a schedule to maintain. Flooring the accelerator, he flew over the dusty roads of rural Kenya at more than 80 miles an hour. I sat up front next to him in the van, hanging on the entire time—both inside and out.
We were heading for the Sweetwaters Tented Camp, located at an altitude of 6,300 feet within Ol Pejeda, a private rhino reserve in central Kenya. A light rain was falling as we arrived at the camp in the late afternoon. The cold damp air was a noticeable departure from the dry subtropical climate we’d grown accustomed to. Walking past the neatly trimmed lawns on the way to my tent, I smelled the smoke of a low-tech water heater fashioned out of twin 55‑gallon oil drums. Dried elephant dung burned within its stone hearth; raindrops sizzled on its metal surface.
Due to my nauseous condition, I appreciated the peaceful ambiance of the camp, which was more reminiscent of an English country inn than an African game reserve. But I was weary from lack of food and rest, so after settling in, I threw on a heavy sweater and climbed into bed, choosing to forgo dinner with the rest of the group.
I’m the first one to admit that I’m a wimpy patient. When I get sick, I get emotional towards anyone who shows me even the slightest bit of compassion. From my bed, I scribbled a heartfelt note thanking the woman who’d simply bought me a soda to settle my stomach earlier that day. After suffering another brief bout of vomiting after arising from my nap, I uttered a few not-so-quiet obscenities, but then was surprised when I quickly started to feel better. Regaining a bit of my appetite, I soon found myself sampling some of the food that my roommate had brought me from the dining room. Things were finally turning around.
The next morning I returned to the world of the living, and had my first full meal in twenty four hours. As we’d all been warned by our group leader earlier, these African intestinal maladies hit you hard, but they never last more than a day. Sure enough, I was back on my feet and ready for our next adventure. I now found myself in an enviable position, since everyone else in the group began to worry if they’d be the next one stricken.
The rains that had greeted us at Sweetwaters had continued most of the night, rendering the game viewing roads impassable, so everyone spent their time hanging around the lodge instead. Even by morning, the roads weren’t much better. One of our vans got stuck in the mud for over an hour on the way out of the reserve. So we saw no rhinos there at the rhino reserve. But better conditions awaited us ahead.
North to Samburu
Our next stop was deep in the interior of Kenya, amid the arid dusty lowlands of Samburu National Reserve. The lodge, situated on the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro River, provided a welcome rest after our long drive. Almost as if on cue, the lodge’s resident food thieves made their appearance as soon as we arrived. This time the culprits were small birds. Each day at mealtime, a Samburu warrior stood guard near the food tables, armed with a stick to ward off the dozens of feathered intruders that flew in to sample the cuisine. The birds were a bit of an annoyance, but I had to admit it was a lot more charming than being mobbed by pigeons at the park back home.
Although one of my most beloved stopovers in East Africa, Samburu was the scene of some shameful human behavior. Due perhaps to the fact that this park was exceptionally crowded, the vehicle traffic in the bush devolved into a traveling circus.
During our morning game drive, we were fairly inundated by khaki-colored safari vans. That was bad enough. Then one of the drivers located a female leopard wandering along the open terrain. Once the van started to approach her, the other vehicles converged on the cat in a photographic feeding frenzy. She had nowhere to go, and nervously set out trying to hide in the nearby rocks. Two dozen excited Europeans clicked away with their cameras from a distance better suited for pitching pennies.
I was ashamed to be any part of this scene. Eager for tips, the African drivers seemed willing to go to any length to get their clients close to the wildlife. What bothered me most was the mentality of many of the tourists I saw throughout the trip. With a virtual checklist in their heads, they raced from one location to the next, snapping a quick photo and then turning their attention to the next attraction. They didn’t care to spend any real time observing or appreciating these animals. You could almost hear them saying: “Been there, done that. What’s next?” Our group, on the other hand– mostly animal professionals, docents and veterinarians– had spent an entire day quietly following a herd of elephants from one feeding ground to the next. The majestic animals seemed barely aware of our presence.
Depending on the lay of the land and the vegetation, it wasn’t always possible to get close to the wildlife. One particular instance created a bit of confusion. Later that same day we were alerted to the presence of an adult cheetah lying in the dry grass about thirty yards away. At first it appeared that she was grooming herself. After some squinting and maneuvering, a young woman in the next van swore that the cat had two cubs with her. How cute they looked, she said. But when we eventually saw smears of blood on the cheetah’s face, it became clear that she was simply eating something she had killed; there were no cubs with her at all.
As had happened earlier in the trip, we lost track of the time that evening at Samburu. At sunset, the rangers came by to shoo us out of the park before it got dark. As with every other area we had visited, the place was full of predators, most of whom preferred to hunt at night… and whose usual prey could kick harder and run much faster than any of us. We would’ve been very easy pickings. Back at the lodge after dinner, a (baited) visit from a crocodile missing half his tail made for a unique tableside diversion.
Ever since arriving in the bush, we’d spent nearly all of our time watching Africa’s wildlife. At this point we were overdue to meet some of her people. The next day we had the opportunity for an early morning visit to a Samburu village located within the park. Like their brethren the Masai, the Samburu raise cattle, which are their most prized possession and measure of wealth. The chief of this particular village spoke English and served as our host. He led a kind of double life, often traveling into town on business, dressing in modern apparel when he did so. His people wore the traditional bright red cloth wrapped around their bodies, and adorned themselves with an abundance of colored beads and jewelry.
Their villages, comprised of a dozen small huts, were surrounded by a double wall of thorny acacia branches to protect them from lions. Within the first of these perimeters (known as bomas) lay the huts, constructed of sticks and dried cow dung. Inside the second boma, where it’s more secure, were the cattle.
I’d been studying Africa since I was a child, yet I still found myself amazed at the brutal reality of this place. These villages seemed so vulnerable. There were no concrete walls or barbed wire to protect them. No gates on the fences; no doors on the huts. No firearms, electric lights, or technology of any kind. The men slept outside on the ground, resting their heads not on pillows, but on small wooden blocks to keep them from sleeping too soundly. If trouble arrived in the night, they were obliged to face the 400 pound predators with nothing but an iron-tipped spear in their hands.
My own experience sleeping outside on the ground consisted of backpacking in the mountains of California, where our biggest concern were the resident black bears. Compared to living among a population of African lions, that was like camping with Winnie the Pooh. These Samburu warriors were hard men—resilient and resourceful, yet some of the friendliest and noblest I’d ever met.
We were invited inside one of their huts. A narrow curved passage that wrapped part-way around the dwelling served as an entrance, reminiscent of an igloo. Within the dim interior, a smoldering fire from the night before kept the hut surprisingly warm against the morning chill. An elderly woman and a young child had just awakened. They greeted us modestly. Yet it was hard to avoid feeling intrusive in their home—as if we were peering at a museum exhibit– so we didn’t stay long.
Back outside, we were shown how the Samburu obtained fresh blood to drink from their cattle. Along with meat and milk, cow blood is an important source of protein in their diet. After restraining an animal, they shoot it in the neck with a small arrow, catching the stream of blood in a hollow gourd. The wound is quickly cauterized with ashes and the animal is released. This blood is then mixed with cow urine or drunk as is. A young child stepped up and took a drink from the gourd, showing us a smile of bloody teeth afterwards.
In East Africa it’s customary to pay tribespeople a small gratuity for the privilege of photographing them. Here, this was accomplished with a lump sum given to the chief; money he could use to buy things for the village. This in theory gave us free reign, but just the same, I kept my photography discreet. I couldn’t forget that this was their home.
Several of the women had laid out an array of handmade articles for sale. Spread before us on a red blanket was a collection of beaded jewelry, wooden carvings and hunting spears that represented countless hours of work. It was rewarding to buy African artifacts from their source for a change. Much of what we saw for sale in other parts of Kenya was made by people we never met.
Contrasts exist in East Africa as in any other locale, yet seeing them in close proximity made them even more vivid. After leaving the dust of Samburu behind, we traveled south to a place that exemplified these extremes. Near the town of Nanyuki, we found ourselves wrapped in a cocoon of luxury at the world famous Mount Kenya Safari Club.
This formerly exclusive playground of royalty and celebrity was founded in 1959 by actor William Holden, who spent much of his leisure time in East Africa. Located exactly on the equator, the club sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet at the foot of Mount Kenya amid floral gardens and manicured lawns. Decorated with rich hardwood, oriental carpets, and an extensive collection of African artifacts, the club’s regal atmosphere spoke of both history and adventure. For any traveler wanting to be pampered, this was the place to be in Kenya. Like a cruise ship with walls, they offered a wealth of leisure activities and an incomparable menu. There wasn’t much point in fighting it—giving in to the extravagance was pretty much expected of everyone.
Of all the places I visited during my three weeks in East Africa, the Mount Kenya Safari Club seemed the most likely to represent the milieu of my boyhood fantasies. Here was where I expected to find an unabashed holdout of the colonial mindset and Old Boy network, with well-heeled aristocrats and great white hunters hobnobbing at the mahogany bar; with white-gloved and fez-capped Kenyan employees pouring gin for stiff-lipped Brits. But stepping inside, I found myself both surprised and yet not surprised by the more progressive atmosphere of a place that better represented a modern post-colonial Kenya. Lacking the pretentiousness I half expected to find, the mood of the club was comparable to that of any hotel or country inn I had ever set foot in. With that realization, I was able to enjoy myself, free of guilt or expectation.
An afternoon of leisure found me exploring the club, visiting the shops, and finally ending up at the Zebra Bar Lounge, where a formal four o’clock tea was served. After being joined by several of my travel companions, I spent the duration reading Hemingway and writing in my journal—in what was eventually to become the genesis of my travel writing career.
After tea, I strolled the grounds and found a trail that meandered through the forest. I had no idea where I was going. Soon I was met by a young uniformed Kenyan, whose job it was to escort people to the edge of the river that lay ahead. He wore a blue coat, visored cap, and carried a short silver staff. We walked through the forest together.
He was a Masai, born and raised near the Mara Reserve, and was the son of a man with ten wives. He was amazed that a man my age hadn’t even one. His own wife and two children still lived back in the Mara, two hundred miles away near the Tanzanian border. We walked further on, ending up at an observation platform beside a waterfall where groups of elephant and buffalo gathered to drink at night. We talked a bit more as I walked with him back to his guard station, each managing to understand most of what the other was saying.
Back inside the club, I found a comfortable chair by a roaring hardwood fire in the center of the parlor, and read more Hemingway before dinner. After dragging that damn jacket and tie halfway around the globe, I finally got a chance to use them. We dressed for dinner and gathered in the parlor for drinks. At eight o’clock, we adjourned to the dining room for an exquisite five course meal.
Afterwards, a buddy and I retired to the billiard room for a game. Upon arrival, we found the table was set up for snooker, which neither of us knew how to play nor had the patience to learn, so we improvised with a spirited game of “6‑ball.” Just the same, I’d satisfied one of my longest running fantasies: I’d finally played billiards at the Mount Kenya Safari Club.
Nearly all the Kenyans we met throughout our trip were openly friendly. Children standing along the roads waved at us as we drove by, as if greeting old friends. But the merchants at the roadside Equator Marketplace in Nanyuki caught us off guard. We’d stopped at many other shops along the way and felt we had a good grasp of local African commerce. But these guys were a breed apart. They needed to be‑‑ many of their customers were patrons of the Club, located just up the road. Big money rolled through there and they all knew it.
I was able to fend off the first half dozen pursuers, but finally succumbed to a tenacious chap who practically dragged me into his tiny shop. He was determined to sell me something whether I helped him out or not. I wasn’t sure if anyone had seen me go in, so I kept checking outside to see if the van had left without me.
Part 3 of 3
On to the Mara
The next morning aboard a small chartered plane, we flew over the Aberdare Mountains to the Masai Mara Reserve in Southwestern Kenya, where the famous wildlife migration was getting underway. There, during our three-day stopover, we had the opportunity to see some of the 1.5 million wildebeest who migrate annually between there and the Serengeti, across the border in Tanzania.
Scattered among these black and gray hoofstock were a number of zebra, who travel with them for protection against predators. Like a pioneer wagon train, an endless column of animals snaked from one end of the horizon to the other; a dark river on a sea of green grass. At the banks of the Mara River, we came upon a group of several hundred of the animals cautiously waiting to cross. They had good reason to be wary. Although the great majority of them make it to the other side safely, many are drowned or taken by crocodiles. When we drove off half an hour later, they were still waiting.
What exactly initiates the move across the river is unclear, but sooner or later one brave soul gets the idea to go and everyone else just follows. While we didn’t get the chance to witness this particular crossing, we saw the evidence of a previous attempt. A few miles down river, a dozen dead wildebeest lay wedged between rocks in the muddy current. Their bloated bodies, reeking of decay, had attracted several vultures. The birds sat perched atop their backs, seemingly unconcerned, since no predators dared venture into the strong current to challenge them.
Nearing the end of the morning game drive, we came across a female Thomson’s gazelle with a freshly born baby. Tommies had always been one of my favorite African antelope, with their distinctive wide black stripe between their tan flanks and white bellies. This calf was so young it was still wet from the birth, and couldn’t even stand up yet. Of all the wildlife scenes we had witnessed over the past two weeks, this baby gazelle was the most touching. From perhaps fifty feet away, we watched as it struggled to use its spindly new legs—walking a few steps, then falling, and getting shakily to its feet again.
Gazelles, like other hoofstock, develop quickly. In order to survive in the bush, they need to be able to walk and even run soon after being born. The many predators that inhabit the area– lion, leopard, hyena, jackal, and wild dog— are constantly watching for these fragile new lives. Sadly, they make the easiest meals. When we left to return to the lodge for breakfast, it was difficult to ignore the poor odds that this baby faced on its very first day in the world. But like so much of what we would see in Africa, that was the reality of life here; part of a balanced ecosystem that had nothing to do with humans.
From that display of delicate new life, we happened upon a scene of great power and violence that same day while we were stopped at a grassy bank overlooking the river. Amid the muddy waters below us, a dramatic fight for dominance was unfolding. In a prolonged battle over territory and breeding rights, two male hippos were locked in a head‑to‑head struggle. For over thirty minutes, the two animals– weighing perhaps as much as 7,000 pounds apiece– fought to push each other backwards down the river.
Diving under the water and then lunging forward to grab the other’s jaws, they bloodied each other’s mouths and flanks, sending great splashes of water into the air. Numerous scars, both old and new were visible on the hides of both animals. Clearly this wasn’t the first fight for either of them. A pair of red‑billed oxpeckers, hoping to feed on parasitic insects, perched themselves on the animals’ backs– unperturbed by the violence. The larger of the two hippos eventually pushed the other downstream, yet they continued to fight, vigorously splashing the entire time.
This was one of the few places where we were allowed to get out of the vans and walk around. Most of the time it was too dangerous. Yet here, our position high on the bank kept us safe from predators. Once the excitement of the hippo duel had died down, an almost magical ambiance settled in. Below us, the river wound its way through a lush green savanna studded with palm trees and shrubs. Above us, a deep azure sky was made even more brilliant by the gray and white clouds billowing in the distance. And in between it all, a gentle fragrant breeze complimented the scene, putting me in the kind of abandoned mood I’d been looking forward to ever since I began dreaming of Africa. If the trip had ended right then and there, I wouldn’t have felt cheated.
Back at the lodge, we encountered the latest chapter in the “resident critter” saga. This time, we got a break. Unlike the marauding food bandits of the other lodges, the Mara Serena Lodge was home to a lazy enclave of bush hyraxes. To mention that they’re the closest living relative of the elephant would only confuse things. Suffice it to say that the hyrax is a plump, rabbit-sized animal with dense brown fur and the snout of a rodent.
These little guys were about as far from being pests as you could get, so no sentries were needed to protect the guests or guard the buffet. Content simply to be in the company of humans, they lounged around the pool like a pack of stray cats. This particular group had a fondness for outdoor furniture. I was constantly looking under my chair so I wouldn’t step on them. One morning, I even found one of them rolling around in the ashes of last night’s fire to keep warm. It almost made you want to sneak one home in your luggage.
I’ve often found that the mood of a place is just as important as what you see or do there. The feeling of the Mara was like that. High atop a hill overlooking the savanna, the lodge offered sweeping views that stretched for miles. Even the weather was made more dramatic by our location. Late one afternoon while preparing to go to dinner, I was “awakened” by a distant thunderstorm that produced lightning flashes every few seconds. Each time, the sky lit up behind a dark wall of broken storm clouds, accompanied by the gentle roll of thunder in the distance. A light rain fell briefly over the lodge, setting the stage for an atmospheric evening. I don’t even recall what we had for dinner– nor did it matter.
Our last day in the bush found us on a final morning game drive in the Mara. After several uneventful hours, we happened upon an increasingly rare find: a black rhinoceros and her calf. This pair were the only examples of their species we’d seen on the trip, including the rhino sanctuary in Sweetwaters. I’d waited a lifetime to see a rhino in the wild. It was one of the few expectations I’d clung to. They stood quietly in the dry grass about twenty yards away. We watched them as they watched us. It was sad though, that their numbers had been depleted so drastically by poachers, even though they were protected here in Kenya. Nearly every other species of animal we saw in Africa was far more abundant.
After a morning that seemed hard to beat, we pulled off the dirt road to the foot of a small hill. There, at the base of a huge sausage tree, our drivers laid out blankets and surprised us with a picnic lunch. That in itself may not have been noteworthy. But as I sat there with that cardboard lunch box in my lap, it struck me how much effort had gone into preparing this meal. Packed neatly inside each of those fourteen boxes were several small sandwiches, four pieces of fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cookies, drinks, and many more things‑‑ no less than sixteen items in all. I was so impressed, I actually counted them.
While we ate, we watched elephants wandering across the savanna in the distance. It was one of those times when things slowed down enough to allow you to reflect on the broader picture. It reminded me of something a friend had said to me several years earlier, just after she herself had returned from East Africa. Looking back on her adventurous four‑week tented safari, she said some of her favorite moments were spent in the quiet early of the morning, sitting by her tent with a mug of hot coffee in hand, watching the African savanna slowly come to life. I remember privately sniffing at her sentimental story; it seemed an uneventful way to spend one’s time in Africa. It took my coming here to finally understand what she meant—and to appreciate it.
A journey without the unexpected is no journey at all. One of the most memorable experiences of our trip came as a surprise, and had nothing to do with animals. During our last evening in the Mara, we gathered in front of the lodge for a nighttime game drive—something we hadn’t had the chance to experience on this trip. I remember the sense of anticipation among the group as we climbed into the awaiting 4-wheel drive trucks. What would we find out there tonight… a lion kill? A secret elephant bathing pool? Yet after descending a rarely used road for several miles we came across nothing more than a few rabbits, a gazelle, and a pair of grazing hippos. Then we saw several large camp fires up ahead in the darkness.
At first I thought we’d stumbled upon a poacher’s camp. Hushed voices in the truck offered various explanations, but it was difficult to know for certain. My mind raced through a number of possible scenarios, conjuring up every story of tragedy or mishap I’d ever heard about the African bush. As we drew closer, a large tent canopy came into view. In the dim amber light we continued trying to make sense of what was going on around us. Then the caravan came to a stop.
As we got out of the vehicles, we found ourselves in front of a dinner table set for fourteen, complete with linen, silver, wine glasses and candles. A dozen cooks and waiters from the lodge were there, preparing a lavish feast for us. Fourteen collective jaws fell open as the full extent of the evening became apparent. It was our farewell bush dinner, a special treat that the staff had managed to keep secret till the last possible moment.
On a huge barbecue grill, potatoes and several kinds of meat were sizzling. A nearby table brimmed with side dishes and a wide assortment of desserts, across from which stood a complimentary bar. With hyenas undoubtedly sniffing about just outside the perimeter of the camp, we sat down to a great meal amid the richest, most romantic atmosphere anyone could ask for.
After dessert, we were treated to a performance by a dozen brightly dressed Masai dancers, who chanted and leapt high into the air. We’d seen them briefly the night before in the lodge. But their appearance here tonight felt far more authentic, being in Masai territory: beside the roaring Mara River; beneath a brilliant African full moon. If there was such a thing as magic, we had certainly found it by the amber glow of the camp fires and kerosene lanterns on that last evening in the Mara.
As it turned out, there was one more celebration scheduled for us before our group departed for home. The following night in Nairobi, we slipped into our remaining clean clothes and headed downtown for a farewell dinner at one of Kenya’s finest restaurants. A private upstairs room had been reserved for us.
The two choices of entrée, lobster or poultry, seemed a no-brainer– especially since the meal was already included in the trip’s price of admission. Yet as the waiter came around to my side of the table, my pragmatic side resurfaced. I’d been careful about food ever since I’d gotten sick in Amboseli. And I was leaving for Kilimanjaro the next morning, so I didn’t want to take any chances. Figuring you can never go wrong with poultry, I chose the game hen.
When our food arrived, my plate was the only one at the table without a huge succulent lobster. I looked down. Drenched in a greasy brown gravy without a shred of garnish or side dish lay the scrawny carcass of something resembling a pigeon. Throughout dinner, the juicy orgasmic sounds of a dozen people devouring lobster filled the air. Meanwhile, I picked through the skin and bones of something that looked like it might’ve been shot off of the fence behind the restaurant with a slingshot. It didn’t matter in the slightest. Our bush dinner by the river the night before had been my farewell feast.
But my trip wasn’t over yet. An even bigger adventure awaited me across the border in Tanzania: Kilimanjaro. The next day, after I said goodbye to my friends in Nairobi, my driver took me south to the border, and left me in the hands of two strange men in a Peugeot. They were the first of several people who would escort me to the foot of the mountain I was to begin climbing the next morning.
A goodbye for now and many thanks to my driver, and I was off again‑‑ nearly flying down the road at speeds up to 90 miles per hour on pavement that was probably designed for half that. My new driver was a maniac. Or maybe he was just trying to make up for lost time. For some reason they’d forgotten to pick me up at the border and had arrived several hours late.
The roads in Tanzania weren’t as bad as people had warned me. Most of the route was in adequate condition. But there were short stretches of pavement that were absolutely terrible, followed once again by miles of decent roadway. I watched the Tanzanian countryside whiz by from the back seat, scanning the horizon for another glimpse of Kilimanjaro. I was in a dreamy, euphoric mood, excited about what lay ahead.
Suddenly, the car jerked into the next lane. Three seconds later, it swerved back again. I looked behind us to see what had happened. Had we almost hit a zebra? An injured elephant? Apparently, the driver liked to wait till the last second to avoid potholes in the road. By the third pothole, I’d had enough. I decided to curtail my daydreaming until later and kept my eyes fixed on the road ahead. At 90 miles per hour, my next adventure had already begun.
Thoughts of Closure; Reflections on Dreams
Back home a week later after an entire day devoted to sleep, I found myself philosophizing about the trip. So what happened to that childhood dream, sidelined for thirty years until finally being realized in middle age? Did reality measure up to it or did it fall short, as I initially feared it would? In terms of the wildlife I was privileged to see, I couldn’t have imagined anything more. In those two weeks I’d encountered elephant, black rhino, and Cape buffalo; lion, leopard, and cheetah; zebra and giraffe; hippo and crocodile; mongoose, baboon and warthog; vulture and vervet monkey; hyena and hyrax, as well as numerous species of antelope including wildebeest, gerenuk, Thompson’s gazelle, waterbuck and impala, and several varieties of birds and reptiles.
But rather than simply clutching a full checklist and its accompanying photos, I brought back experiences of birth, life, and death; of cultures both struggling and proud; and of a country whose landscapes lay painted with a palette of color to rival that of any artist’s.
I’d met tribesmen of the Samburu and the Masai; city dwellers, farmers, merchants and villagers young and old; I’d stood within four-star safari lodges and dusty mud huts. I’d even straddled the Equator, swam a few strokes, shot some pool and puked my guts a couple of times. All in all, I have to say I’d had a full experience.
But did I satisfy that lifelong quest; did I find the elusive magic I was seeking? Yes and no, actually. Somewhat like chasing the horizon, you never really get to where you think you’re going. But that’s OK. Not once during this trip did I find myself distracted by expectation. I lived in the moment; and I accepted Africa as it was, not as I had wanted it to be.
It’s funny though. Years after returning from that trip, I still find myself reminiscing, but not always about Africa. Just as often, I catch myself remembering the period of time before the trip, the golden years of anticipation that preceded it. It seems that the imagination and longing of that era had carved just as deep a groove in my soul as did the trip itself. In a sense, it was almost as rewarding simply looking forward to it.
The lesson learned here is simple, though perhaps cliché. Don’t wait forever to follow your dreams. Pursue them while they’re still fresh and alive. Then, do what I did: keep up the momentum and realize your next dream… and then the next…
And it helps to remember one of the most important things I’ve learned about travel: Gratitude. Regardless of how big or how small your destination, be grateful that you were able to go; be grateful that you were able to come home. Not everyone is as fortunate.
As I was preparing to leave Kenya, a wise man told me of an old proverb: If you travel to Africa, you are destined to return there someday. I like to believe that’s true.
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