The distinctive odor of burning kerosene
was heavy in the air as the faint light of the lantern flickered gently, the luminance just enough to peruse a book I had
packed in my backpack for my trip. As I read all manner of fantastically odd African bugs landed on the pages for a frolic
in the light. The lantern was about the only light by my tent that night, apart from a nearby campfire and the ever so small crescent of moon above. I was camped far
away from the chaos of civilization and the industrial word, my abode now a small tent
in Southwest Kenya in the Masai Mara, the natural extension of Tanzania’s Serengeti across the Mara River into
I had traveled 7 long hours from Nairobi
in a dodgy minibus across ruff and tumble dirt roads with potholes seemingly the size of small autocratic African republics.
Just days earlier I had been staying in the UK carousing the pubs of central London with old classmates from my University
of London days. I stayed with a friend in East London with its endless rows of
aging Victorian houses, a far cry from the African bush. London was well, London.
There is a certain charm to London to be sure, Admiral Nelson stoically perched
high above the pigeons in Trafalgar square staring squarely toward the gothic
spires of Westminster Abby and Parliament looming drearily under an overcast
sky along the banks of the murky Thames. Covent garden sits not far away with charismatic street performers captivating impromptu
audiences and string quartets performing
Mozart and Hayden chamber music in front of small wine bars. It was just before Christmas in London and not so telltales signs
that the season was near were evident by the Christmas lights stretched high above Regent Street and masses of shoppers ducking
in and out of the cold into the endless department stores and boutiques along Oxford Street.
But now I was in the African bush and the
contrast between a safari in the bush and the Englishness of London could be no more different. Gone were the bright lights
of Piccadilly Circus replaced with the even brighter celestial speckle of an untrammeled mass of lesser stars and brilliant
constellations stretching unabated across the endless African sky. The cacophony of beeping horns from London taxis and newspaper
hawkers shouting the days headlines at tube stop entrances replaced with the Zen like syncopated cadence of bugs, bats, and assorted mysterious African beasts chirping and howling in the dark night, ah to be in Africa…
The flight from London to Nairobi
was 8 hours long and landed at 11 PM. I landed in Nairobi with nothing in the way of concrete plans, just the general idea
of a arranging a safari and finding accommodation. Eventually I ended up finding a
hostel around 2 AM and sorted out a safari trip to the Masia Mara. I was excited albeit somewhat apprehensive about Nairobi
as the lonely planet guide book was less than generous in its choice of words used to describe the Kenyan Capital. It dubbed
Nairobi as the “new Johannesburg” replacing the South African town as “one of the most dangerous cities
in Africa”. I attributed those lines to lonely planet’s occasional penchant for over dramatization and poetic
license but a local taxi driver I later met told me to lock the doors right off,
even as a local he had been mugged 3 times in the past year and as we drove he
pointed out different groups of thugs prowling the streets for prey.
did not spend a lot of time after dark traipsing the back alleys of Nairobi needless to say but the place was enjoyable enough.
Swahili is the main language although the Queen’s English was also widely spoken there. During the day it was an interesting
place, bustling with people and commerce and chalked full of myriad colonial era buildings. Nairobi’s a rather peculiar
place, every small store in downtown was manned by an armed guard including an ice cream shop. Downtown’s street corners
are lined with merchants hawking lottery tickets and entrepreneurs pop up here and there with Nairobi style payphones comprised
of tattered office phones attached to long cords on wooden tables along the sidewalks. Despite Nairobi’s shortcomings
in terms of crime Kenya actually has a fairly stable political history unlike its bordering neighbors Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia,
Uganda, and Tanzania and once out you travel out of Nairobi Kenya is relatively
Eventually it was time to leave for my
safari I had sorted out to the Masai Mara. The main road leaving the city winds past shanty slums like Kibera, the streets
lined with trash and endless rows of tin roofed shacks where rampant poverty begets rampant crime. A few hours away the road
eventually comes to an escarpment overlooking an expansive plain below know as the rift valley. The view from above of the
parched desert wasteland is nothing short of surreal. The road then descends down into the rift valley. The dirt road stretches
on and on, along the way Masia tribes people herd animals and large acacia trees sprout from the dry cracked earth somehow
eking out an existence in the desiccated soil.
The Masai Mara
The shear vastness of the Masai Mara
is best appreciated sitting atop a safari van with the wind blowing through your hair as the scenic vistas float by. The Masai
Mara is 1,500 square kilometers of protected safari habit and home of the peoples of the Masai tribe. The sights are spectacular
and at times appear unreal. The dirt paths are endless and swoop past a diverse landscape of
endless savannas, rocky cliffs, rolling grassy prairies, long rivers,
and still ponds.
The wildlife of the Mara as its colloquially
known is abundant and endless. Prides of lions sit lurking just beyond the sight of large
buffalo herds, stalking their prey and ready to pounce in between the long hours they spend napping. Thousands of striking termite mounds more than four feet tall litter other parts of the plain . At one point we came to the Tanzania border where
the Serengeti meets the Masia Mara. The Mara river is beautiful and majestic. It is here that the annual wildebeest migration
takes place every October when literally millions of the bizarre ungainly beasts jump
headlong off the rocky embankments and frantically attempt to cross the river
from Tanzania into Kenya. In December however, the ripples of the surface are relatively calm and full of bloated hippos bathing
lazily in the cool waters. The meandering river reflects the deep blue sky as crocodiles crawl beneath large green palms sprouting
along its fertile banks. Elsewhere in the Mara giant elephants amble on the plain lumbering past the occasional solitary acacia
tree. Lanky giraffes walk awkwardly amongst herds of thousands of gazelles, topi, impalas, onyxes, buffalo, and zebras. Warthogs dart about and hyenas piddle in the mud
as vultures swoop high above. Jackals scurry about waiting to compete with the other scavengers for leftover carcasses.
The Masai people
To observe tribal life in the bush is to
realize how far away from this world one truly lives. I walked about a mile from my tent and visited a Masai tribal village. The place was fantastically primitive.
There were perhaps 30 circular huts made from cow dung with thatched roofs, no electricity or running water. In the middle
of the small village was a corral for keeping the cows and other livestock safe
from predators at night. Every morning the towns youth would shepherd the livestock to the surrounding hills setting off at
4 AM and return to the village just before dusk. A young villager took me around the village and communicated in the broken
English he had picked up from the occasion safari types that wandered near his village.
We entered one of the homes, inside it was dark its walls blackened with soot from the small fireplace in the corner.
There was one large room inside the small hut and a young child played with several goats huddled in a corner inside.
The Masai are an exotic people with tribal
scars on their faces and long dangling earlobes. The men wear bright cloaks of red and blue
and survey their land with large shepherd sticks in hand. The whole village was splendidly photogenic and as I snapped
picture after picture I felt like I was on another planet, no doubt they must
have thought the same of me.
Kenya to Tanzania
I eventually left the Masai Mara and set
off for Tanzania from Kenya, another long journey that was not short on interest. Often the journey somewhere is half the
fun, this theme seems to recur time after time in my travels. There are few things more interesting than the chaos of an African
border town. The bus stopped at a town called
Namanga on the Kenyan side and I walked
a few hundred yards to the Tanzanian side. The visa line at immigration was chaotic to say the least as locals pushed and
shouted their way though the queue. Hulking lorries sat like idle dinosaurs between the massive gates separating Kenya from
Tanzania. Once finally over on the Tanzanian side the fun began. At one point the road was washed away by heavy rains and
mud and the entire bus went off-roading as local tribal kids gleefully directed the bus through the grass and mud. We passed
another bus stuck in the mud with all its passengers foot deep in mud trying the free the stranded vehicle. Eventually the
roads cleared and the bus continued the long trip south. Somewhere along the
way just to the east was Mount Kilimanjaro obscured by clouds and rain. I wondered what Africa was like in the 1930’s
when Hemmingway was there writing The Snows of Kilimanjaro. At length the bus eventually got to a small provincial town called
Arusha where I later arranged a safari to Tanzania’s Ngorongoro crater.
The roar of a landrover is loud and distinctive
not unlike that of the lion’s roar though whose rolling savannas it trespasses. The landrover would be my vessel in
Tanzania in search of big game and lesser animals. I had left a small town called Mtowambu with three German medical students I met along way. Mtowambu is a sleepy
town whose name literally translates to “mosquito river”. I did not see a river while I was there but I did see
plenty of mosquitoes. The hungry little bastards have an uncanny ability to somehow
magically slip though the tiniest of holes in the fine mesh of any mosquito net. Eventually
with the landrover loaded with backpacks and 10 liters of water we left Mtowambu and headed for a safari to the Ngorongoro
The Ngorongoro crater is an amazing microcosm
of life. Two million years ago the cone of a giant volcano collapsed on itself creating a giant caldron-like bowl surrounded
by a 2000 foot high rim all the way around. In the middle of the bowl is a savanna 100 square miles in area and an amazing
soda lake. Like the Masai Mara the crater is full of diverse life, lions, wildebeests, rhinos, cheetahs, impalas, gazelles,
elephants, hyenas, ostriches, and zebras to name just a few. In the middle of
the caldera sits a soda lake which from afar has a distinctive pink hue. Upon getting closer a sea of thousands of pink flamingos
frolicking in the shallow waters becomes visible. Along one of the banks of the lake limbs of dead trees gently sway in the
breeze the scenery is utterly amazing and world all its own.
My African journey eventually came to an end but hopefully I will be
back to explore the rest of Africa one day in the near future……………