KENYA & TANZANIA
On our first night in Nairobi we made a “rookie mistake” - we broke our travel rule to shop around before signing up for anything. Dazed with jet-lag after 18 hours of flying (Boston-Amsterdam-Nairobi), we fell into the clutches of a smooth tour operator at the airport, and before we knew it had agreed to a ten-day safari at $1000 each to begin the next morning.
Had we just blown our chance for a great wildlife safari? Nope. There’s another travel rule: "Dumb tourist luck trumps a rookie mistake!" We had a great ten days – the first four in Kenya and the last six in Tanzania.
Nairobi, Lake Nakuru, Masai Mara Reserve, Maasai village
KENYA June 2005
Still groggy from jet lag, we were picked up at our Nairobi hotel the next morning by our friendly guide Ben, and away we went in an old ten-seat Nissan van with a pop-up safari top. That evening, we took a sunset drive along the pink shoreline of Lake Nakuru to enjoy the "backhoes" and "butlers". The miles of pink border turned out to be millions of flamingoes dragging their beaks backward through the shallows as they filtered algae like feathered backhoes. Meanwhile, maribu storks congregated above the shoreline awkwardly tugging on tufts of grass. In their hunched-over formality, they looked like a group of elderly British butlers.
As we left the lake, Ben spotted two rare black rhinos out for an early evening romp on the edge of an acacia grove. The baby was running in one direction and then abruptly in another while the permissive mom, gigantic in comparison, lumbered along following the little guy’s lead. This was a special sighting - we never saw another black rhino in four months in Africa. But there were lots of other animals to watch that evening: spindly-horned gazelles, watchful jackals, long-haired waterbucks, frumpy warthogs and a herd of white rhinos. The next morning at breakfast on the Lake Nakuru Lodge veranda, we watched buffalo bulls sparring in a nearby field, while a troop of baboons sat silently. The baboon mother (below) was no doubt pondering, as did our ancestors, “Is it time for us to start learning Greek?”
That morning we drove on a rutted dirt road to a Maasai-owned camp. Along the way we delighted in pairs of wide-eyed dik-diks; greyhound size, they are the tiniest of the antelope family. Then, without warning, we drove around a bush and startled a HUGE bull elephant; our alert driver backed up and got out of there FAST! That night it was difficult to sleep because of the monkeys banging and squealing on the tin roof of our cabin.
MASAI MARA RESERVE
Although June isn’t the main tourist season in Masai Mara because the migration doesn’t usually arrive here until August, the park seemed overrun with safari vehicles. From a distance, they looked like lines of white lunch boxes with open lids crisscrossing the savannah, then converging hungrily around sightings of game. While we did manage to see a few sleeping lions, hippos and crocs, and some wide-awake giraffes, ostriches, waterbucks and impalas, the day was mostly disappointing. The only exceptional observation was of four adolescent cheetahs playfully prowling through the golden grasses - dropping to the ground, stretching, rolling over, then rising and stalking again like all young cats do.
One afternoon we visited a village of the distinctive Maasai near the border of Kenya and Tanzania. Easily the most fascinating tribe in East Africa, they are known for their long, lean bodies and colorful dress. The men wear brilliant beaded jewelry and wrap-around red plaid blankets. Their lean body shape is due in part to the traditional diet of cow’s blood mixed with milk. As nomadic herders, they keep their food fresh by storing it inside their animals. When hungry, they make a small incision in the cow’s neck, collect the blood in a gourd, then patch the wound with a dab of mud. They milk the cow, mix blood into the milk, and – voila! Dinner is ready!
We were greeted outside the village of 200 by two of the chief’s sons, Moi and Manuel, and a dozen warriors and elders - some in braided hair, others with cut-and-stretched earlobes, most with brilliant red blankets - chanting, line-dancing and jumping. How the Maasai love to jump! (Note that the people are called Maasai, but the park is Masai Mara.)
Thatch-roofed, dirt-floored, mud-and-wattle Maasai huts last only eight years. Because this village is already three years old, it will be abandoned in five more years and the community will move on. The huts are arranged in a circular compound with a thick outer fence of brush and sticks as protection against lions and other predators. The cattle are herded into the center of the compound at night, turning the interior of the village into a quagmire of bullshit.
The huts have no electricity, running water, inside toilets, floors or even windows – just a door and a tiny opening in the roof for the smoke. Invited into a hut, we squeezed through a small arched door and groped our way in the darkness. It felt like the inside of a nautilus shell as we spiraled into the tiny dark chambers centered on a fire pit. Although the Maasai are taller than we, the ceiling was so low we couldn’t stand erect. It was hard to imagine how a half-dozen people could cram into this small space to sleep - along with the family sheep. Fortunately, they don’t invite their cattle in too!
Look at the contrast between this woman's brilliant clothing and the mud wall and ground. How does she keep herself and her child so clean when water is limited - and a long walk away?
We talked with a young man named Joseph – one of 11 children by his father’s two wives. Though his name is Christian, he is an animist. At age 12 Joseph was circumcised, received a bull from his father, and became a warrior. He told us that about two out of ten Maasai boys cry out in fear or pain when they are circumcised; they are shamed, and the bull they receive from their father is killed by the other eight boys and the village has a feast. Following circumcision Joseph grew his hair long and wore it Rastafarian style. At 17 he shaved his head and will keep it very short - signifying a greater level of maturity. When he marries, he will become an elder of his village.
Later we passed two Maasai boys dressed in black with white paint on their faces, indicating they had been circumcised within the past two months. When we asked, “Did it hurt?” Their answer was a resounding “YES!”
Joseph told us that at age 11 girls are also circumcised and by age 15 are married off to an older man. When his father chooses Joseph’s first wife, he will pay 12 cattle to the parents of the bride and 50 cattle to Joseph. When Joseph’s herd grows sufficiently he will choose and buy additional wives. He expects to end up with three wives and a dozen children.
In the back of the village was a small market with village crafts for sale. Joan selected a colorful beaded wedding necklace and Lou squatted on the ground with Moi and several other men to discuss the price. Moi explained at the beginning that the price was not fixed – it was appropriate to negotiate. “Great,” thought Lou, until Moi opened with the ridiculously high price of $200. “OK,” Lou said to himself, “I can be ridiculous, too” and countered with an offer of $2. Everyone looked shocked, then burst into laughter. Now they knew they were dealing with “Berber Man Lou” - who learned to bargain from Arab carpet merchants in Morocco. After ten minutes of good-humored negotiation, a price of $45 was agreed upon and everyone was happy - including the necklace-maker (below, right.)
In the evening we checked into the Mara Sopa Lodge and after dinner watched the feeding of kitchen scraps to a group of slinking hyenas; the noisy gnashing of fangs and crackling of bones made it easy to imagine this pack falling on the carcass of an unfortunate impala or gazelle. You'll have to imagine this hyena pack (below) - Lou promises to get a more powerful flash on his next camera!
(Note: Lou used a 4 mega-pixel, 3-power Olympus Stylus digital camera for these Africa photos. He chose it because it's lightweight - we're already carrying 40 pounds apiece on our backs - fits in a pocket and is weather-resistant, especially important in Africa's humidity. The downside of the camera was major: a stronger zoom is needed for photographing wildlife.)
Next day, on the misty Rift Valley route back to Nairobi, we felt as if we’d driven into a museum diorama. In the foreground were obviously three-dimensional fields of corn. Behind them were cardboard giraffes – sometimes a dozen at a time munching off the tops of cardboard acacia trees. And in the background were the painted murals of volcanic cones against the distant escarpment.
A 16-hour day of car and bus travel took us from Mara through Nairobi to Moshi, Tanzania - a staging town for treks up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Moshi, Lake Manyara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, campsite near Bushmen, Tangire, Moshi
Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam
TANZANIA June-July 2005
The next morning our new guide Massawe and cook Joyce picked us up at Springlands Hotel and we headed off for six days of private camping safari in a dark green Toyota Land Cruiser with a pop-up lid. On the first day we visited Lake Manyara – a national park with forests, meadows and a lake of exceptional beauty. The highlight was watching two of the many hippos rise out of the water and run along the bank. They're fast! As we were driving away through the forest, Lou asked if he could get out of the car and take a photo of Joan poking through the top. Massawe looked very concerned and explained he could lose his guide’s license if he allowed us to get out of the vehicle in the park. Five seconds later a couple of huge hippos appeared at the side of the road! More people die from hippo attacks than from any other creature in Africa.
At Olduvai Gorge we peered down into a big dry ditch. Frankly, there’s not much there there, and the museum is tiny. However, we’d done a lot of background reading, so for us it was an exciting stop. Olduvai is where the Leakey family and colleagues made breathtaking discoveries of hominid skulls over 1.5 million years old, along with stone tools that these people made. Not far away at Laetoli they discovered 27 meters of fossilized footprints created by a party of three walking fully upright through volcanic ash 3.6 million years ago! An on-site guide explained to us some of the archeological finds and the small museum had fascinating exhibits (below, right), including a cast of the Laetoli footprints.
In 1997 an international team of American and Ethiopian paleontologists found a 160 million-year-old skull near the village of Herto in Ethiopia - the oldest known modern human fossil. "The human fossils from Herto are near the top of a well-calibrated succession of African fossils," said Dr. Tim White, University of California-Berkeley biologist and team leader. "This is clear fossil evidence that our species arose through evolution."
Meanwhile, back in Tanzania: Late one afternoon on the Serengeti savanna we came upon thousands of wildebeests and zebras. Wildebeests look like small, slope-backed, bearded bison. They give out short nasal honks like “gnu” which is their other name. The less vocal zebras manage a “hoo, hoo, hoo” like a high-pitched owl. Put these together and the result is an unforgettable cacophony. The two animals make good companions against lion and hyena predators because the wildebeest has a better sense of smell while the zebra has better eyesight. But they apparently had neither smelled nor seen what was right on top of them.
Massawe parked us six yards from a sausage tree in which were perched two tawny female lions. (The females do most of the hunting; then the males show up to eat the lion’s share.) One lioness was resting on a branch just above where our heads tentatively poked out of the top of the Land Cruiser. Yikes! The other, licking her chops, rose on her branch to better observe the dinner prospects below.
Fortunately, she was looking at the wildebeests and zebras, not us. Our guide said they would fall on their prey as soon as night fell. Vultures circled overhead, waiting for the leftovers - we counted nine perched in a single tree.
The next morning we saw long moving lines of wildebeests and zebras on the savanna. We were excited to be watching a part of the most spectacular event of the year in the Serengeti - it was the beginning of the annual migration of over two million animals northward to Masai Mara.
In the afternoon we stopped at a pool filled with dark humps, pink ears, googly eyes and an occasional toothy yawn. But it was like looking at wildlife in your septic tank because the 60 hippos were sloshing around in their own excrement. The eight-year old girls next to us predictably burst out with “GROSS!” Which it was.
After camping on the foggy ridge of immense Ngorongoro Crater, we descended past weird candelabra trees onto the golden grassy crater floor. We stopped for half an hour to watch a gorgeous cheetah stalking 25 gazelles grazing near a shallow stream. When the cheetah suddenly broke into a full run, the herd went streaking to the opposite bank. By the time the cheetah splashed through the stream, the last gazelle was beyond reach.
Remember how we used to play "tag" when we were kids? Someone in the center was "it" and the rest gathered around in a circle as close as we dared - to taunt the one who was "it" and dash away to safety at the last moment. While in the crater we watched an exciting game of tag played by several hundred hoo-hooing zebras and gnuing wildebeests. They were running frantically in several directions. What was upsetting them? "It" was a large lioness walking slowly about in the center of the agitated animals. Suddenly the lioness began running, changed direction, ran a few paces more, then walked again. In response, the wildebeests circled warily around, running away for a bit then returning to watch her. They repeatedly teased the lion - feigning movement in one direction, then hurrying off in another - sometimes crossing right in front of her. Over the course of half-an-hour the circle of wildebeest and zebras repeatedly disintegrated and reformed as she moved and her prey taunted. Meanwhile, several round-eared hyenas waited in the grass - hoping to share in a kill that didn't happen while we were there. (We later learned that the herds were safe as long as they could see the lion, which must get close before springing. Unlike the cheetah, lions cannot run far or fast - so usually hunt when hidden by night.)
A few minutes later we came upon a leopard sitting in the bushes beneath a tree, its gaze fixed on two small gazelles 100 meters away. Vultures perched in the top of a nearby tree, looking over the possibilities. Soon the leopard began stealing across the savanna - its white-tipped tail waving just above the tall grass to lure the gazelles. They were mesmerized by it. As the leopard slowly stalked them, the gazelles retreated but then returned like moths attracted to a lamp. For half-an-hour we watched the leopard make small advances while the gazelles closed most of the gap - dancing back and forth to within 30 meters. They finally wised up and bounded off.
HUNTING WITH THE BUSHMEN
A dozen alarmed guinea fowl shot out from a tamarind tree and took off for a safer perch. Three Bushmen and their mangy mongrels took off like bats out of hell in pursuit. For five minutes Lou ran after them at a rapid clip, catching up (huff, puff) just in time to see the village chief use a single arrow to pierce the breast of one of these dumb but gorgeous black-and-white-speckled birds perched high in a sausage tree. The impaled bird did not fall out of the tree but flew off with the embedded arrow and the Bushmen ran after it - twice as far and twice as fast as before. Exhausted from his previous run, Lou tried to stay with them - crashing through the thorny acacia thicket for five more minutes - only to find himself bloodied, clothing frayed, without water and totally alone. At that point he imagined being lost forever in this arid wilderness. But what a great way to go - for he was out hunting with the Bushmen of Tanzania!
At dawn that morning Lou had visited the hunters' tiny village - a clearing beneath a grove of acacias where 20 diminutive people in minimal clothing and colorful bead necklaces were sharing pipes of a local leaf around campfires. Lou's guide explained that smoking ensured they'd be lucky in the coming hunt - i.e., there would be barbecued baboon for breakfast. (Unable to face a breakfast of baboon, and nursing a bad head cold, Joan chose to stay in her sleeping bag back in the campground.)
The Hadzabe tribe - comprised of about 20 of these villages - has lived in this wilderness for 10,000 years. Hunter-gatherers, they live today much as they did back then: on berries, tubers and bush meat, with no roof over their heads. If they live beyond childhood, they'll make it to about 40. It's a hard life. There are fewer than two thousand Hadzabe. With the Wadorobo and a few small groups of Pygmies, they are Africa's last surviving hunter-gatherers. Their San relatives who live in the Kalahari (featured in the hilarious film The Gods Must Be Crazy) are no longer able to live a traditional life-style. Below are photos of the eldest woman (age 40) in this family and the young chief (age 20) whose father, the former chief, had recently died.
Beneath impala, kudu and dik-dik hides hanging from the trees, Lou sat by the fire and listened to the men converse with distinctive clicking sounds like those of the San people. They were talking about the women, who had returned from yesterday’s berry gathering expedition with three things: empty baskets, an excuse (they couldn’t find anything), and berry seeds stuck in their teeth. The men laughed and agreed they’d do likewise on today’s hunt.
Soon, the chief and two of his men grabbed their feathered bows and arrows tipped with wood, metal, and dark poison, the dogs unwound from their lethargy, and Lou and his guide Hassan followed the hunters into the bush.
After three miles, they came upon a genet (a type of wildcat) up in a tree. The chief hit the animal with his first shot, but it managed to escape, arrow and all. Time to smoke. By rubbing two pieces of wood, they quickly started a coal to fire their pipe. After the smoke, it was time to hunt some more. Within a few minutes the guinea fowl flew up - and the rest is history. (Fortunately, one of the little dogs eventually led Lou back to the hunters and so he survived.)
The Bushmen built a fire on the spot, cut up the bird, laid it directly on the coals and soon everyone had breakfast. (Lou looks proud in the photo, but admits he did absolutely nothing towards the success of the hunt.)
It was delicious - better than chicken - especially after the six mile workout. After all had cleaned their teeth so the women wouldn’t find out they’d caught anything, Lou offered a sincere Nubair (thanks) to each of the hunters as he shook their hands.
Back in the Land Cruiser Lou told Hassan that, even though he hadn't smoked, he felt quite lucky in the hunt - lucky that they HADN'T killed a baboon for breakfast! (Below, Joan is in the campground - eating a non-baboon meal with Hassan.)
After ten days of safari, we had a week of relaxation on the spice island of Zanzibar. The Africans here are mostly Muslim and the muezzins' calls to prayer echo across Stone Town from the mosque towers. Stone Town is a 2000-year-old port and the offshore waters are dotted with dhows - picturesque lateen-rigged sailboats. We breakfasted on the hotel's roof terrace overlooking a fleet of dhows at the fish market (below), walked the maze of narrow streets to enjoy the Arabian-flavored architecture, then bought grilled prawns for a sunset picnic at the beach.
We took Mr. Mitu's Spice Tour - a half-day guided trek through spice and fruit plantations, including nutmeg, pepper, allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, cacao and vanilla - as well as sour sop, pomelo, star fruit, jackfruit and lemon grass. After a delicious (and well-spiced) curry lunch, we finished with a swim at the beach. The next day we caught a dalla dalla (a truck with roof and open sides seating 15 on wooden benches) to the other side of the island. Along the way we hopped off to spend an hour at Jozani Forest, where there are scores of red colobus monkeys (below) resembling punk rockers. "Monkey see, Monkey do" is right; one monkey peed and all 17 monkeys in the tree peed - we had to scramble out from underneath!
After catching another dalla-dalla (22 people were stuffed in back by the time we got off), we spent a few days relaxing in a thatched hotel on a nearly-deserted beach - where Joan learned a bit of Swahili from the dhow fishermen.
From Tanzania we headed south. See ZAMBIA & BOTSWANA
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOKS: East Africa (Lonely Planet); Africa's Top Wildlife Countries, Mark W. Nolting
BACKGROUND READING: See AFRICA BOOK LIST
KENYA SAFARI: Savuka Tours, based in Nairobi http://www.savuka-travels.com/index.htm
TANZANIA SAFARI: Savuka Tours arranged the Tanzania portion of the safari through Zara Tours, based in Moshi, Tanzania. Zara can be contacted directly: http://www.zara.co.tz/index.htm Our 10-day camping safari cost $1020 per person, plus 10% in tips - averaging about $112 per person per day. This was the low season rate. High season is from July 1-December 31, when prices go up as much as 40%. (Our safari was a combination of campgrounds and mid-range safari lodges. The same tour can be taken using only lodges instead of camping, which increases the price - and the comfort - considerably.)
(Although we paid a budget price, our safari turned out to be private because there were no other clients in mid-June. It was just the two of us in the Toyota Land Cruiser, along with driver/guide Massawe and cook Joyce. The tour company supplied tent, cots, mattresses, all food. We carried the two smaller backpacks, plus two daypacks carrying camera, hats, two sets of binoculars, water bottles, sun-block and repellant. We left two backpacks in Grasslands Hotel in Moshi (owned by Zara Tours), where we rented sleeping bags for $1/night - we used our insecticide-impregnated silk sleeping bag liners inside them.)
WHEN TO GO: High seasons: January and February (hot and dry); July through December (cooler and less dry). We recommend June 15-30 for fewer tourists, shoulder-season prices, the beginning of the wildebeest migration in some years, dry and cool(er) weather. (Skep the Masai Mara portion of the safari unless you come between August and February, when the migration has reached that area. Just do five or six days in Tanzania, then head to Zanzibar.)
ZANZIBAR: Malindi Guest House is old, charming, very clean, comfortable and inexpensive. Our double room with private bath, a/c, fan, net and breakfast on the rooftop overlooking the harbor and bustling fish market was only $30/night. It was a ten-minute walk to the center of old Stone Town. If you can afford it, stay at the Serena Hotel: http://serenahotels.com/zanzibar/inn/home.htm
Mr. Mitu's Spice Tour: 223-4636 $10 per person for a six-hour tour in a minivan with a well-informed guide; includes visits to spice plantations, lunch and an afternoon beach swim.
Zanzibar beaches: White sand beaches stretch the length of the eastern side of the island, which is where all the resorts are. Good swimming, diving, snorkeling. We stayed in the Blue Oyster Hotel in the quiet resort town of Jambiani, but had to wade 500 feet to deep water at low tide. For socializing, Nungwi would be a better place to stay - and swimming there isn't dependent on the tides.
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com