Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hakuna Matata... Kenya...

**Please go to http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/ for more photos of this trip**

Before I begin my story about the amazing Kenyan safari, I have a confession to make…

I didn’t really want to go.

Seriously. I had no desire to go on a safari. My ideal travel is walking thru beautiful cities with architecture and art and design and the smell of street food leading me along my path. The idea of driving across the savanna looking for animals I’ve seen in zoos just didn’t have massive appeal to me. My friend Tex (see Thailand) though… this was his “bucket list” trip. A massive photography nut, the idea of scanning the grasses for a single pic of a lioness scarfing down a steaming pile of zebra innards gets him more excited than the birth of his son. Not wanting to dash his dreams… I agreed to join him on his expedition.

Tex took care of all the details regarding the trip. Wanting to keep costs down, Tex cast an all-hands invite to everyone we knew to join us. We got an enthusiastic “thumbs up” from two of our coworkers… Eagle-Eye and Rock (they picked their own pseudonyms.) These two are old friends and we were excited to have them join us… but we were a little apprehensive. Eagle-eye is known for his love of all things luxurious and expensive. He is the type of person to rate a country on the quality of there concierges… and we were going on an African safari thru the savannah and bush country. Honestly, I was a little afraid that he may complain about the accommodations or the food if they weren’t up to snuff. Rock is and was nothing but cool… all cool… all the time…

Day 1 - We grabbed a quick flight from Doha to Nairobi, Kenya where our representative Eileen picked us up in a van. She gave us very nice maps and insurance kits (required), but the best gift was our official safari hat! I wore my Aussie style (one side fastened up). Tex didn’t actually need his safari hat as I had already gotten him some protective headwear. Before the trip, Tex spent at least two grand on camera equipment, special lenses, brushes, and special safari clothing. He bought multi-pocket shirts, zip-away pants, and special purses for his gear. I thought the look was missing something, so I went online and bought him a leather strapped pith helmet to complete his ensemble.

As we entered Nairobi, the traffic came to a complete stop. The outskirts of Nairobi are a filthy pit. But as we drove into the downtown area, the city really brightened up. All the buildings were of the 1970’s “brutal” architecture style. Large, blocky depressing buildings of grey concrete. But while the city was depressing, the people were just the opposite. Every sidewalk and street was filled with pedestrians, busily walking thru downtown, all wearing brightly colored business suits. Some of them didn’t fit quite so well… making it look as though the entire city was playing dress-up. As people who have lived abroad for several years, we’re used to being the minorities wherever we travel. But in Nairobi, we stood out like… well… exactly how you think we would stand out. We were the only white faces throughout the entire city. It was the first time I ever felt conscious about looking very different from everyone else.

Our hotel was very beautiful, with a lobby filled with African masks and antiques. We overlooked a large park in the middle of the downtown area. Our travel book warned us about said park… during the day, perfectly fine to visit. At night… expect to get murdered. After settling in we went outside onto the patio to enjoy a frozen hamburger patty with Kenya’s greatest export… Tusker Beer. If you ever have the chance… try a Tusker. The staff was all very friendly and warm to us, and I complimented them on their surprisingly good English… until they told me that English is the official language of Kenya…

Well I look stupid, don’t I?

We hired a cab to drive us around downtown and show us the sights. They included the parliament building, the traffic department, another hotel, a statue of a fist, and a bunch of other nameless buildings that you would never associate with tourism. That night was spent repacking our bags after a buffet dinner and watching boxing on ESPN.

Day 2 - In the morning, we ate a huge buffet with French press decaf coffee with mimosas. Eagle-Eye and Rock are both creatures of exquisite habit… needing fine coffee, a full breakfast including crispy bacon and champagne to start their day. We met up with our guide, Raphael, who greeted us with a booming “Jambo!” Raphael was imposing… six-foot plus, dark skinned, with a deep baritone James Earl Jones voice that could reach the upper mezzanine. He explained that we were headed north out of Nairobi and up to Mt. Kenya for our first safari. Our bags were grabbed by the porters and whisked outside to a waiting line of impressive forest-green Land Rovers with elevated rear seating and canvas open-air roofs. But the porters walked past the leather seats and air-conditioning and put our luggage into a micro van that should have had two surfboards on the roof and a spare tire on the grill. Actually, it was a Toyota-made camper van with golf cart tires. We all looked over our vehicle, and home, for the next week and everyone’s heart shrank just a little bit. The interior was cramped with almost no leg room with seats covered in torn green canvas. When we asked if we could use the 4x4’s instead, Raphael just boomed a laugh and calmly stated that those Land Rovers were for the really rich clients and just for show… real safaris take place in micro vans. Yeah… OK.

Raphael drove thru the shanty areas of Nairobi and out onto the highway. We passed town after town of small buildings painted with the colorful logos of American brands used to distinguish certain businesses. Entire apartment complexes were painted as the logos for Bic Pens or Taco Bell. We saw the Burger King Laundry and the Captain Crunch Diner. Along the highway as traffic came to a stop, a non-stop stream of people would walk past our van selling everything under the sun… from postcards to batteries to gardening shears and Steven Seagal DVDs. As we drove along, the scenery wasn’t much to see… small open markets of bed frames and fruit stands. After a while, Raphael stopped for a restroom and tea break at what would be the first in a series of toilet/curio shops.

These stores are littered along the highways at various intervals. The deal is that you use the restroom, and then spend ten minutes squeezing through particle board tables covered in mahogany and ebony carvings; all ready to purchase. The walls were always lined with African masks and children’s drums. It was the carvings of the animals that first grabbed our attention, each of us wanting to complete a set of the Big 5. Needless to say, we purchased something at every stop. If I was by myself, I would almost never cave into the sales pressure… but Eagle-Eye… oh Eagle-Eye. The man has a sickness for tasteful bargains. His zeal for shopping rubbed off on the rest of us and every curio store stop turned into a nightmarish world of haggling over price and finishing quality of shit I would never normally buy. As I write this in my living room, I can turn around and see four different masks, an ebony mortar and pestle, three mahogany beaded warrior carvings, one leopard, one elephant, one water buffalo, and a set of blue lapis gemstone necklace.

Thankfully, we also picked up a six-pack of Tusker for the ride. As we progressed, the landscape became much greener and lush, dense with trees and shrubs just off the roadside. Soon we could see the peak of Mt. Kenya in the distance. The weather was sunny and surprisingly cool considering we were only a few kilometers south of the equator, which we soon crossed over. Raphael drove us into the Mt. Kenya reserve and down a long, twisting road up the mountain. As we approached the hotel gate entrance, we saw very hairy monkeys scurrying across the road. Tex was excited but cautiously nervous. I think he had a flashback from Thailand when he was mauled by an angry monkey-god. He pulled out a book of Kenyan wildlife he bought so we could identify everything we saw… and it soon became a picture bible of sorts. As he was looking up the names of the monkeys, only a few feet to our right, just off the road and behind the tree line, we saw a pack of elephants. Stunned, we all shouted out and scrambled for our cameras. The largest elephant stared us down, and then started to charge! It quickly stopped, but flared its ears and tusk. Raphael explained that this was a mock charge, but that we should keep our distance… just in case. As we filled up our memory cards, another elephant crossed the road just in front of the van. OK… this was getting pretty good, and the safari hadn’t even started yet.

The hotel was a giant, multi-storied log cabin cut into the dense forest. The signage on the hotel stated that we were well over a mile high in elevation… almost all of Kenya is on a plateau over 5000 feet above sea level. Outside of our rooms was a large watering hole with an island that was once shaped like Africa; but the rains and trampling under foot has caused the island to get fat and bloated.

Anyone who goes on safari will tell you to find the Big 5. The Big 5 are the five animals that brought hunters to Africa for their pelts and difficultly in hunting. They are the elephant, the lion, the cape buffalo, the leopard, and the rhino. Surrounding the watering hole was a huge herd of water buffalo. “Cape buffalo” Raphael corrected. Water buffalo are found in Asia, not Africa. So directly below our windows were two thousand pound cows with horns that covered the entire crowns of their heads. Impressive. The hotel even had a tunnel that opened up right on the edge of the watering hole to see the animals close up. Soon, large antelope creatures called water bucks joined in.

Elephant and cape buffalo… two down… three to go.

Our simple lunch included creamed soup, steaks, and nice salads all on fine china with linen. For the record… every meal we ate included some type of creamed vegetable soup… and they were all really good. Afterwards we signed up for a jungle trek. The staff passed out galoshes to deal with the thick mud and piles of animal shit we would have to traipse through. Our guide, Benson spoke very quietly and with a serious tone when it came to our safety. I thought we would be walking around the hotel, safely fenced in from the reserve around us. Not so much. Benson carried a large rifle slung across his back. You keep forgetting that we are not at a zoo… these animals are wild and completely free to roam wherever they want. He showed us the skulls of the cape buffalo, water buck, and elephants that had recently died. He explained how Kenya got its name; from the black rock and white snow on top of Mt. Kenya (KEEIN-yaa means “ostrich”). All the while he pointed out the huge buffalo and elephant tracks that we were crossing over, estimating how long since the animals were around. Sometimes an hour, sometimes just minutes. He pointed out the thistle plant and warned us all not to touch it, as the thorns from it cause severe pain. So of course, Tex has to go and get hit on the leg with them. And later, so did I. Benson was right… thistle fucking hurts!!

Benson was quick to react, pulling leaves off another plant and rubbing them on our wounds, which quickly made the pain go away. At a small glade of stumps, Benson and another guide had tea and cookies waiting for us. He offered us two types of milk, standard white milk and brown milk… which turned out to be whiskey. We all took our tea with both. After three hours of trekking, we made our way back to the hotel, each of us much more conscious of the history and natural beauty of Kenya.

Freshly showered, we ate another four-course dinner with the ever-present creamed soup and retired to the upper balcony bar where we all watched the sunset cast its final light onto the packs of antelope, water buck, and elephants that made their way to the watering hole. Just outside our window was a twenty foot pole with a small perch on top with a leg of lamb tied to it. Normally, this is to entice the large scavenger birds to come… but tonight, we got a genet. This was our first cat sighting, and it was a cool one. A tiny cross between a fox and a leopard, two genets climbed up the perch and fought over the lamb leg. The cats were no more than ten feet away from our balconies… that was when we understood why our balcony had chicken wire around it.

Full of tusker beer, pate’ choux, and custard creams, we all retired to bed after signing a form giving the staff permission to wake us up in case of leopard or hyena sighting. I went to sleep watching lightning bugs flicker just outside the window.

Day 3 - In the morning swept in a cool, dark mist that covered the forest floor. Cape buffalo and bushbuck were bathing in the watering hole. We had our fancy breakfast of paw paw, fresh crepes and local honey. Raphael picked us up at 8, and Tex cracked open the first Tusker at 8:25. That man needs some help. Soon we were driving through incredibly lush mountain farmlands of deep greens and yellows. Field after field of corn, beans, wheat, and sunflowers covered the rolling hillsides. Out in the distance you could make out the icy top of Mt. Kenya. When Britain sent an explorer to Kenya, he reported back of a mountain with ice on the peak. No one believed him, thinking that ice on the equator was impossible. He was stripped on his title and money until their second explorer reported the same and proved the now deceased explorer correct.

Soon the mountains became some of the most beautiful hills I have ever seen. This part of Kenya wasn’t the dry, grassy steppes I had always thought of… this was more like Oregon wine country. Huge fields of flowers of deep purple and blue sprung up around us. Enormous greenhouses were everywhere. Turns out, most of the flowers you see and buy everyday actually come from Kenya! Planted forests of pine, fir, and palm trees were being harvested for their oils and wood. It was absolutely not what I was expecting.

We needed an ATM, and pulled off into a small town to find one. Raphael was insistent that we be careful. Some places and areas are very safe and friendly to tourists, but the poorer areas, just like everywhere else in the world, are rife with crime and violence. He stated that this town was very much not “hakuna matata.” That is… not a place with “no problems.” And when Raphael says “hakuna matata,” it rolls off his tongue with a deep, guttural flow. It is much more than just a saying to the native Kenyans, but a true way of life…not just the Disney catchphrase.

We started a rapid decent down from the hillsides and into a deep valley. This was part of the Great Rift Valley; a geological formation that cuts across Africa and all the way up into Iraq. It is why the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth (foreshadowing). In the valley, the forest was replaced by dense grasses and rocky soil. Herds of camels crossed in front of the van. Cactuses that were so old their trunks had turned into wood and acacia started to appear. This was the African steppe and savannah I had always imagined. We turned off-road (which was a good thing, since their roads are shit), and drove along a narrow dirt path to the entrance of our next destination, the Samburu reserve.

As soon as we passed the gate, Raphael let us pop the top. Our van’s roof could be unlocked and raised two feet, giving us plenty of room to stand up and view the scenery with 360· vision. We didn’t realize that our hotel was over an hour away through very rough and rocky roads. Dust would kick up and just coat us solid… pretty much the same as Doha. But any discomfort or grit was easily forgotten when we started to see the animals.

Raphael would stop and point out the amazing creatures that were all around us. Multiple elephants were just standing around and we could drive right up to them. Monkeys, oryx, antelope, and gerenuks were all grazing in small herds. We got into a rhythm that whenever we wanted to stop, I would bang on the roof to signal Raphael. Pretty soon we had a good system going.

Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere. Along the way we saw small huts and lights along a river’s edge, but we turned away and were nowhere near them. The hotel was open-air and incredibly quiet. Why so quiet? Because we were the only guests. Four people, and we had an entire hotel’s staff at our disposal. Also… it turns out the hotel has no electricity. Only four hours of juice per night… that’s all. No television, no internet, no air conditioning, no power at all. I can live without the TV… but air conditioning in Africa? I wear a fat suit and Tex looks like Sasquatch. Dear god, how are we going to cope??

We were given cabanas away from the main hotel, and had to be escorted by natives of the Samburu area who carried small clubs. When we asked if it was necessary, we were reminded that our hotel was in the middle of a reserve. It had no fence, no guards, and people are forbidden to kill the animals except in extreme circumstances. At any moment, and lion or elephant could walk onto our balconies or tear through our thatched roofs. Oh shit…

After a satisfying cream soup and pork croquettes, we all took warm naps in the room before meeting up with Raphael at four to set off on our first true safari. During lunch we watched deep blue guineas and warthogs make their way to the nearby watering hole. As soon as we pulled away, we started to see the wildlife up close. More elephants and oryx. Dik diks, tiny miniaturized deer, some with small beaks for mouths. Raphael explained that you will always see a pair of dik diks, never solo. They mate for life, and when one of them dies, the other simply stops eating and starves to death. Bushbucks and gerenuks were feeding on tree leaves. The birds around us were stunning in their color and size. Grey herons and eagles the size of children were flying overhead while huge flocks of guineas slowly walked all around the van. We spotted blue-tailed squirrels and longbill somethings. Out in the distance we could see other tourists being driven along the winding trails in their own micro vans. Raphael had a CB that would constantly buzz away from other guides, each of them telling the other drivers of special sightings or distress calls, some as far away as Tanzania.

Suddenly, Raphael said to hold on, and he quickly bolted down a path and met up with a caravan of other vans. The lead van would turn off down a path with the caravan closely following. The red dust was choking everyone. Inevitably, the lead van would get stuck or come to a dead end, and all the vans would have to back up through the dust clouds. This happened over and over as all the vans were trying to find the same thing, but with no luck. The reserves have no road signs or directions… just general areas to meet up. Raphael wouldn’t tell us what we were heading to; just that it was a surprise.

Finally we pulled off the main road and made our way down near the river where at least fifteen other vans were parked. Everyone was staring up into a huge tree. It took us a moment, and then we saw it lounging along a tree branch… a spotted leopard. This huge cat is the most sought after and rarest of the Big 5 to see simply because it disappears into the background so easily. Raphael explained that spotting the leopard was actually very rare… but we got to see it.

Three down… two more to go.

As we continued the safari, it quickly became aware to me that I had the largest penis in our group. Why? You ask. Because, my camera was a simple point and shoot. Tex, Eagle-Eye, and Rock each had monster cameras with multiple lenses and filters… none more imposing that Tex’s. Therefore, if you know your psychology and realized that those three were compensating for their sexual inadequacies by buying large, phallic lenses… well then, it only stands to reason. At this point, we came up with the plan that I would be the lead spotter, warning the guys behind me of road problems (“lean”, “bumps”, “thorns”) while the other three used their much better cameras to take the photos.

Along the way back Raphael followed a set of cheetah tracks for half an hour hoping to get lucky. Around dusk, Raphael had to head back for the hotel, since it was illegal to be out after dark. But as we drove around a large rock outcropping, another driver flagged us down, and we got to see an adult leopard sitting on top of a boulder, with two cubs playing around it!

No one sees leopard cubs. No one. Raphael said that in 15 years of being a guide, he had never seen leopard cubs. He was just as in awe as we were! The cubs toyed with each other while the mother just whisked them with her tail. We stayed at least half an hour just staring at them and taking great pics. It was getting pretty dark when Raphael drove like a bat out of hell just to get back to the hotel before he got in too much trouble. We got back to the hotel in what can only be called waaaay past dusk. If I was a kid and gotten home that late and tried to explain to my dad that it was still dusk… I would have gotten my ass whipped.

We had a great dinner of fried trout with a paw paw crumble (and yes, there was creamed of something soup) with plenty of Tusker beer all around. We talked to our waiter Michael about our day, and he assured us that no one had ever seen four leopards in one day. How cool is that!! We quickly showered to get the grime off of us and hurried to charge the camera and computers before the power was shut off. On the balcony, insects the size of my fist started to congregate. It would be a rough night ahead.

Day 4 – I awoke very early, around 5:45. I didn’t sleep well since Tex and I kept waking each other up with our snoring. I’m pretty sure we woke up Eagle-Eye and Rock in the next cabana. I dressed quickly in the pitch black darkness and went to the lobby for fast coffee. We met up with Raphael and got into the van for morning safari. The sun was just coming up over the nearby mountains, creating a sky of deep purple and red from the dust above. Way off in the distance, we saw the head and heck of a giraffe a full mountain over. We were surprised that this was the first giraffe we saw… we kinda thought they would be everywhere. This morning Raphael was spotting for lions in a rarely used path at the rear of our mountain. But no luck. We did spot one of the leopard cubs again on the same rock as the day before, and even saw jackals and kudus.

Raphael made his way to the Samburu River to the bridge crossing, but the bridge had been completely destroyed. A flood that occurred only a month earlier had washed away the only bridge. We would have to drive all the way to the reserve entrance just to get to the other side. We decided it wasn’t worth it, so we continued on ahead. We drove past downed trees and I spotted fresh puddles and huge pile of shit in the road. I asked Raphael if elephants were close. The moment I said it, we turned a blind corner and drove straight into a herd of fifteen elephants! There were very young baby elephants playfully pulling at the ears and trunks of each other. We even saw the one-tusked bull that we had spotted when we entered the park. We stood and watched, very quietly, for twenty minutes. The elephants would walk right up the van and flare their ears. It actually got a little scary at times as we were completely surrounded by them. Two and three more would pop out of nearby brush and increase the size of the herd. We could have stayed all day looking at them pull the bark off of the felled trees, but we had to move on.

We drove another two hours without spotting anything new besides some helmeted guineas. We went back to the hotel for omelets and rashers of bacon with hot cocoa. Everyone took naps and set their alarms for lunch. We ate curried pork chops and a tasty yet terrifyingly green velvet cake. Around 4 we jumped back into the van and drove the long way to a nearby mountain where we saw… nothing. I mean nothing. We didn’t see a bird, a squirrel, not even any dik diks, and those things are everywhere! It was really eerie… like the calm before the storm. Strangest part… Rock’s phone started to get signal. So while we were spotting for anything, he was reading off our work emails.

Way off in the distance, I spotted something with my binoculars… a lone zebra, something we all had wanted to see. Suddenly on my right, I saw the face of a cat poke its head up out of the grass, then disappear. We searched and searched for it, circling the area over and over, but never saw it again. Based upon the book pictures, it was probably a serval. We drove up to see the zebra, a Grey’s zebra. Raphael said that since it was alone and not part of a group, that it would soon be dead without the protection of the herd. We saw piles of elephant and zebra bones, dead due to the winter drought or spring flooding. Later on, more oryx and antelopes encircled us. A lone elephant was walking along the side of a mountain.

As we made our way back to the hotel, we passed along the riverbank. Across the river was a family of elephants who made their way to the river’s edge, got onto their knees, and used their tusks to bring water to their mouths. A monstrously huge crocodile was lying on sandbar in the middle of the river, patiently waiting for the great wildebeest migration from Tanzania that would come later in the month. After the elephants and crocodile left the banks and we finished taking our sunset photos, Raphael pulled away, and suddenly slammed the brakes, throwing us all forward uncomfortably into each other. Quietly, Raphael whispered… “leopard.”

On our right, not twenty feet away, was the leopard, frozen in mid-stride as it was sneaking up on us. We all froze. This thing could have pounced on us in a heartbeat. It sat down and we all stared back at each other. We pulled out the cameras and snapped away. Tex decided he wanted to photograph every animal we saw face-on… and he wasn’t going to get a better chance than now. The leopard slowly walked away and we quietly followed. Raphael CB’d the other drivers, and soon a dust cloud was forming in the distance heading straight for our location. At this point, we left the leopard alone to be bothered by all the other tourists.

After we pulled away 100 meters, we had to stop again since a group of giraffes had appeared back across the river. It was the first time we got to see their entire bodies; long and graceful as they wrapped their tongues around tree branches. Raphael had to haul ass back to the hotel, since he gets in trouble if we arrive after 6:30… we got back at 7:00. We plugged in our gear to charge, ate another fantastic creamy tomato soup with fresh turkey breasts and a Swiss roll. We took our foul smelling, dirt laden clothing to the desk for laundry service, and went back to the room.

Tex had left the windows open (but still screened) to keep the room cool. But African insects don’t give a shit about screens. Our room was filled with strange little creepy-crawlies…. not my favorite thing. After the power went off, Tex was reading on his computer while I watched episodes of “House” on mine. I was enjoying the night until my screen went dark with the shadow of a praying mantis on the screen.

I freaked. I seriously freaked out. I don’t like bugs. I never have. I really don’t like creepy bugs in the dark. I sure as hell don’t plan on starting to like them now. After another one jumped on me, drawn to my laptop light, I called it a night and bundled myself deep under my sheets. But I couldn’t sleep. I had night terrors all night… I kept feeling bugs crawling along my skin, making me nervously twinge and soak the sheets in a cold sweat all night long.

Day 5 - When the sun finally arose, I pried the sweat soaked seats from off my body. We had a final omelet for breakfast and left tips for Michael, Lawrence, and the rest of the staff of the hotel. We took off around 7:30 and had a long drive to our next destination. As we were leaving the hotel, a game warden stopped us and demanded a ride to the main gate. Yup, we picked up a hitchhiker in the middle of Africa who was also carrying one big… damn… gun. Along the way we had to stop for more photos of giraffes and ostriches.

When we finally hit tarmac, there was a strange sound coming from under the van. At a gas station, Raphael discovered that a skid had broken and needed to be repaired before we could continue. So, he pulled off behind the gas station to a repair shop… really just a guy on the road with an acetylene torch. I had to get out of the van while it was being repaired… mistake. Ten guys carrying curios and carvings descended on us shoving things into the windows for us to buy, not taking no for an answer. After half an hour the plate was repaired and we drove on, crossing the equator once more. A while later, we crossed the equator again and again, as we were actually driving on the equator. Raphael turned off the main highway for a shortcut that put us on a dirt and gravel road for about two hours. More than once Raphael had to turn around or stop and get his bearings. We saw a black rhino behind a fence… but that wasn’t going to count. We wanted to see them in the wild.

After crossing the equator for third time that day, we stopped at a curio store that showed us the Coriolis Effect of the northern and southern hemisphere (water drained clockwise in the northern hemispheres, counter in the southern) and we bought some Tuskers for the drive. At one point the road seemed to end abruptly, but it was just headed straight down. We had come to the main branch of the Rift Valley. We stared out on a cliff down to the valley over 1000ft below. Raphael let the van cruise down into the valley and had to push hard for it to climb back up the other side. Around midafternoon we reached our destination, Lake Naguru.

We were supposed to have lunch at 1pm at a fancy 5-star resort at the entrance, but we arrived late due to the repair job on the skids. We quickly stuffed ourselves with pork chops and fried fish. Worst part… they were out of desserts. So I improvised with a big pile of fresh whipped cream mixed with chocolate chips and fresh nuts. Back at the van, we had to pull out the bug spray and coat ourselves with DEET. The mosquitoes were terrible at Lake Naguru, and were a constant reminder to take our anti-malarial pills every day. Raphael gunned it down a narrow road into the reserve for a fast, pre-dusk safari. Baboons were walking along the road carrying their young on their backs. Raphael almost drove over a snake… personally I was glad that he almost killed it. When he found out, he backed up to see if he had hit it. He was really upset that he may have killed an animal… thankfully he missed. We could see the lake down thru the trees below. As soon as we got past the trees and into the marshy plain that abuts the lake… we saw him… a white rhino. Massive in size, it lumbered only a few hundred yards off the road and was slowly walking towards us. The enormous bulk of the rhino actually surprised me. This rhino was the size of our van!

Four down… just the lions to go.

Along the lake edge were a multitude of white vans and 4x4s. The vans all contained a mix of Aussies, Japanese, Spanish, French, and Brits. Just beyond the vans were incredibly massive herds of zebras and cape buffalo… hundreds if not thousands strong. Tex quickly spotted the heads of lions poking out at least 500 meters away. Even with his powerful lenses, you could just barely see them. We decided they didn’t count just yet. A heavy rain started to pour, strong enough that we had to lower the pop-top for a while. But it didn’t deter us at all. We drove thru the herds of antelope, buffalo, and zebra. Zebras were fighting each other, rearing up on their hind legs while biting their necks. A group of rhinos were quietly eating the grass underfoot. As we reached the lakefront, thousands of flamingos, some pink, some still young and white, were landing into the water and feeding. Further down the road we drove into a pack of giraffes, two types. Their colors and patterns very distinctive from each other. As the rain slowly stopped, we made our way back along the road a break-neck pace to reach our hotel in time.

Raphael drove for an hour and an half thru more downpours along the busy Kenya highways. As dusk came, he pulled off the road onto a track of pure, thick, mud. The skinny tires of the van would lurch us around the worn ruts in the mud. As the sky got darker and darker, we were driving entirely in the dark, with only the headlamps to guide Raphael. Finally, we pulled up next to a great open-air tent the size of a gymnasium with a roaring fireplace alight. Guards gave us each a hand-charging flashlight with a squealing alarm. The porters carried our luggage about half a kilometer thru the rain, while the armed guards walked in front with umbrellas for us. Our rooms were private cabanas that were each larger than my first house. Huge open-air rooms all made by hand with local lumber and thatched roofs. One entire wall of the room was nothing but rollup screens that opened up onto a full balcony. Down below, you could hear running water, but were unable to see in the dark. Once we unpacked and dried off, we had to set off the alarms we were given to alert the guards to escort us to dinner. It was so dark we couldn’t tell where we were walking. Without the flashlights, you couldn’t see the ground in front of you. But back in the main tent, we sat by the fire to warm ourselves with glasses of nice wine. A really sumptuous dinner of pumpkin soup (my favorite) and spicy pork really helped warm us up. By this point the rain had stopped but the air had become bitterly cold. The only thing you could see on the way back to the room was your own breath.

Day 6 – I awoke before sun up, having the best sleep of the trip so far. The air was crisp and cold, requiring a fleece after a quick shower. I unzipped and raised all the screens to let in the morning air. As the sun came up, you could finally see that the bungalows were perched high above a raging river cutting thru a thick, dense forest and jungle below. Tex took an icy cold shower (as we only had about one minute of electricity), and we rang the alarm for the guards to take us to breakfast. The narrow path now visible, it was easy to see why we needed the guards. The path was just a walking trail through the dense jungle… any animal could easily have cut into our path during the night. The dining room opened up onto a sheer cliff with rapids crashing on boulders under us. We spoke with the manager who told us that this reserve, all 3500 acres, was privately owned by the Kukuru tribe. After a filling breakfast in the open air, we got back in the van and drove around the reserve. The van had some difficultly driving back up the hillside due to the mud, but we were rewarded with giraffes up close, warthogs, and elands… antelopes the size of horses.

A short drive later, we pulled up to a small shack near the shore of a large lake. After we checked in and signed some waiver of liability forms, we were escorted a few minutes down a path to the edge of the lake and a few very long, very narrow blue canoes. We all boarded the boat, threw our lifejackets on, and the driver started the small motor and pushed off into the black water. Any movement caused the boat to wildly sway from side to side. Spread across the surface were flowering lilies and other assorted water plants. Ibis, herons, and ducks were spread across the surface. Flamingos circled overhead and were landing on the far surface from us. Hibiscus plants floating on the surface were sturdy enough to hold small nests with bright green spotted eggs.

The driver spun the little blue boat into a secluded spot on the lake where, just poking out of water’s edge, were a brood of hippos. We had some fun on the video as my boss, a French-speaking Lebanese, pronounces them as “hip-pop-o-tam-oos.” Our guide stated that the hippos are extremely territorial, and that we could only get so close or they would charge us. Occasionally we drifted too close and one would dip below the surface and a stream of bubbles would start to approach. The brood was fifteen females and one dominant bull. It was easy to find the bull when one massive hippo lunged and climbed aboard another… and started to mate. The bull started to make a series of loud, guttural grunts… “love sounds” as the guide called them. We couldn’t stop watching. He finally finished after eight minutes (beats my best time) and climbed down off of her for a sandwich and a cigarette.

After motoring around for a while we pulled up to a floating island of reeds and grasses where we met a man who tossed some small fish into our boat. Our driver tossed the fish into the water, stopped the boat, and loudly whistled. Off the top branches of a nearby tree flew a fish eagle with a massive wingspan. It soared straight down to the surface of the water and grasped the fish with its talons. We encircled a small island where the driver performed the same trick with another fish eagle. This was the only occasion where my tiny point-and-shoot camera got better pics than my cohorts.

After we disembarked from the boat, we loaded up into the van and settled in for a long, two hour drive south. At one point, the tarmac ended, and we drove another full two hours off-road. Soon we saw very tall, very skinny, dark skinned men wearing bright red cloth (sukaras) slung around their bodies… the Masai. All the men were leaning on long beaded walking sticks. The women all had their hair cut short to the scalp. Both sexes had huge beaded piercings in their ears with their stretched lobes wrapped over their ears. We drove on and on into the Masai Mara across endless rolling hills. Soon the hills ended and turned into scrub brush and true savannah. Lunch time came and went, and each time we asked Raphael if we were close… “ten more minutes.” Over and over… “Ten more minutes.” I clocked it… we landed at the Lion Lodge exactly 74 minutes after he first said it. We were the last diners for a very late lunch, said “hi” to some other Texans, and scrambled back into the van. Soon we were crossing more steppe plains where herds of giraffes crossed the roads directly in front of us for our first really close look at them.

Raphael heard a call on the CB and pulled a quick u-turn, driving illegally off the paths to reach a nearby van. When we pulled up to the other van, a pregnant cheetah was lounging on the grass. This was our first cheetah, and the last of the big cats. It didn’t move at all, even though vans started to pull up to stare at it lying in the grass.

As we pulled away back onto the main trail, we had to make a quick stop, because just in front of the van were three lions slowly walking towards us! Three… two males and one female, full sized, were just walking down the road gingerly past the vans that had pulled of the road to make room for them. These animals were not living in a zoo. They were scraggly with large cuts and wounds to the faces and bodies from fighting and hunting. There they were… the kings of the jungle, only two feet away.

But we had done it… five for five. But we still wanted more.

Raphael said that we had a long drive thru the Masai Mara to reach our hotel, and that we had to hurry. He drove quickly along the dirt tracks for two hours, winding up and down grassy slopes and thick savannah. Lone acacia trees dotted the landscape. Dark purple clouds started to swirl on either side of us with sheets of rain falling on either side of our van. Sun beams broke thru the clouds creating dark double rainbows against the gray rains. At one point we asked Raphael to stop the van for a moment. We had not seen a car in over two hours, and found ourselves completely alone in the wilderness. But there was no sound around us. All the animals had burrowed themselves for the upcoming rain.

We reached a small bridge crossing over a raging river. Just down from the bridge was a large group of hippos in the river… and unlike the sex-crazed group we had seen before, these ones were angry! They were constantly opening those huge mouths against each other and were digging them into one another’s necks. We watched for a few minutes when Raphael said that we had to leave since the gate at the other side of the bridge closes at 6:30. We arrived at the gate at 6:29 but it was padlocked. Raphael was pissed… we were there, but the guards had left early. So he moved some large rocks around and we drove off-road to get around the gate. While we were cheering when we reached the road again, two wardens came running after us waving very… large… guns. Raphael stopped the van and reversed back to meet the men. We begged him to gun the engine and flee, but to no avail. The game wardens were really pissed off at us. He had broken a major rule by bypassing the gate. He argued that we were at the gate before closing, but the guards made us wait for about fifteen minutes while they took Raphael’s papers. We offered to bribe the wardens, but Raphael wouldn’t let us. After some very tense waiting, they finally let us thru, but Raphael was afraid that he was going to get fined or arrested once we left the park.

But we couldn’t wait… it had taken us an hour and a half to cover 25km… and we still had 30km to go. We finally saw hyenas, but couldn’t stop to take any pics. The rain that we had missed before finally reached us, and Raphael struggled to stay on the trail. The muddy road was disappearing in the rain, and the lack of any lights around us made it a terrifying ride. After another two hours of pitch black skidding around, and a few night-vision “Blair Witch Project” videos, we finally reached the lodge very, very late. The lodge was packed full of guests, and it was a strange sensation after our last lodges had been nearly empty. People were asking us if we were on a night safari… hah. We filled up on roast meats and plenty of Tuskers. Our porters took us to our cabanas. They were concrete prefab rounded cubes painted bright yellow. The room was roasting hot, but Eagle-Eye was able to scrounge us up a fan… thank god. The best part of the room was the mosquito netting around the bed… nice touch. After all day in the van, constantly running late, and the armed police… we were all glad to be able to get some sleep.

Day 7 – When we awoke, we finally got to see that our room was perched on the side of a high mountain overlooking the Masai Mara below. After breakfast we loaded up into the van around 6:30 for an early morning safari. A long line of vans were driving along the main path, still wet and muddy from the previous night’s rain. Raphael decided to break from the pack and trudge along solo on a very wet track. As the van was sliding and slipping along in the mud, the tires got stuck in a trench and the van lurched violently into a ditch. We were leaning sideways, and were stuck. Raphael gunned the van back and forth while we all shifted our weight, desperately trying to get out of the mud. After fifteen minutes, we were still a foot deep in the mud. After much pleading, Raphael agreed that we needed to push the van out… which meant Tex and I would be getting out of the van in the middle of the wilderness. Raphael was apprehensive, considering it was a serious violation of the rules to let tourists out of the van. He nervously scanned the tall grasses around us and pulled his gun out from under the driver’s seat. Tex and I climbed out, dug our feet into the mud, and started to push the van while Raphael spun the wheels, flinging mud all about. While we were pushing, Tex looked down and spotted a lion track just under our feet. Kinda creepy. Eagle-Eye and Tex maintained their integrity and helped the situation by filming us busting our asses.

We finally got the van unstuck and jumped back in coated in thick, black mud. Across the plains we spotted ostriches, hyenas, elephants, and more giraffe. We came across a herd of gazelles that were fighting by chasing after each other, then launching themselves six feet into the air, literally jumping over each other. We also came across the oddest bird I have ever seen. Four feet tall, this large billed grey bird walked along in a pack hunched over like an old man. Every time it bent over and picked at the ground it was eating small snakes. On one hill we saw a lone hippo running along the hillside, kilometers from the nearest water source.

Back at the hotel, as we were walking in a shrew-like thing ran across our path. Turns out this was a hyrax… the closest living relative to the elephant. When elephants need surgery, the wardens use the blood of the hyrax. Later on one ran directly in front of Eagle-Eye and he almost shit a brick. After a quick break, we sat by the pool waiting for Raphael to finish his breakfast. An orange, red, and blue lizard climbed up onto the rocks next to us and waved its underbelly up and down… another freaky creature.

At 10:30 we took off to visit a Masai village about an hour away across the hills. The village was on top of a lone mountain, surrounded by a thick wall of acacia limbs and thorns. Multiple Masai men came out thru a low archway draped in their bright red cloth with beaded piercings along their ears; one with a recent leg amputation. They each had beaded canes and bare feet. They called out to a young member of the tribe who spoke very good English to guide us around their village. We hunched down low and crawled thru the corridor of thorns into the village. Inside in a large outer circle were small houses made of a mixture of mud and cow shit. The entire inner circle was one large cow pen. The cow pen itself was at least four feet deep in cow shit… and the flies and various liquids were flowing everywhere. At one point, I saw a fly land on the eyeball of our guide, and he didn’t even flinch. They showed us how they make fire by rubbing sticks together, how they make their arrows for hunting… and how they stabs their cows to drink their blood.

I’ll repeat that. They cut the jugular veins of their cows (lengthwise) and drain their blood into hallowed out gourds to drink later. Ugh. Also, I accidently stabbed Rock with one of rusted cow-killing arrows. I’m pretty sure he caught… well… all diseases possible. Sorry about that.

Everything about the Masai people was about the cow. They eat the meat, drink the blood and milk, use the milk to make a yogurt, use the leather for their houses, and sell the cows to afford their wives. Inside their homes it was completely dark except for quarter sized holes for light. A small fire was burning directly next to their stiff leather-on-sticks bed. To prevent the calves from drinking the milk of their mothers, they bring the calves into the homes to sleep next to them. Ugh again. Little acacia cages covered two feet think in cobwebs were used to hold goats. They showed us a small hole in the fence where a leopard had recently crept into the village and stolen some goats.

All the women in the village came out to greet us and sing a welcoming song and dance. Of course they asked me to join in, sensing my love of all things “Glee.” Afterwards, we were invited into a large circle of tables where all the women were selling their beadwork… and this is exactly what Eagle-Eye and the group was waiting for. We ended up buying beaded canes, spears, carvings, tribe elder clubs, cloth, and the one thing we all really wanted… cowhide shields.

We raced back down the mountain so Eagle-Eye could get a massage (how high maintenance…) plus lunch buffet and a six pack of Tuskers. I had to pull out the magic bag and repack all of our gifts and curios we had bought. And then it was time for our last safari of the trip. We loaded back into the van and headed out to see… nothing. The rain started to come down in sheets, and we drove over two hours without seeing a single animal. Oh well… we had to have a non-eventful safari at some time. The rest were so wonderful, it was our time to be disappointed. We were about to turn back when a game warden off in the distance waved us down, and Raphael drove off-road to meet them. As we approached, we understood why the game wardens had wanted us to stop.

Lying docile in the grass was an entire pride of lions. Two large females followed by a large male just behind. Just down the patch was another pair, then a female with two cubs jumping behind her. Several more were walking around the area pacing back and forth, collapsing into their afternoon naps. It was amazing! It was just us and nine lions not more than ten feet away. No other vans around. No noise. No dust. It was us and them. We spent at least an hour just watching them stare back at us. Rock climbed on top of the roof to take better pics, but the game wardens bitched at us.

Our final drive was one of the best parts of the entire trip. Back at the hotel, we invited Raphael inside for some Tuskers where he regaled us in horror stories about shitty tourists and breakdowns. His van once broke down in the Samburu and he was stranded inside the van for three days! We all got buzzed on Tuskers, wine, SoCo and vodka. We enjoyed our final buffet where we all got a little loud. We walked back to our rooms in the pouring rain to enjoy our final full night in the Masai Mara.

Day 8 - Early the next morning, we checked out and started our long drive back to Nairobi. When we got past the reserve gate without Raphael getting arrested, we knew were OK for jumping the gate. Raphael had to stop to get a tire repaired. As soon we had stopped, we were manhandled by a bunch of Masai women, as they ran towards us and began shoving their arms into the windows, trying to get us to buy their curios. We all had the sense to push them back out and lock the windows, but Tex failed to get his locked in time, and soon it was like a Japanese tentacle monster was invading the van. It was really funny because Tex started to get pissed off and began yelling obscenities at them… hah.

On the way back we stopped at a curio store perched on a cliff overlooking the Great Rift Valley. It was truly amazing to see the geological formation of continental plates ripping themselves apart for millions of years. At our final curio stop, I opened the van door, took a single step out, and got my other foot stuck inside the van. Momentum took over and I toppled flat on my back on the rough gravel. I quickly leaped back onto my feet, saw the fifteen other drivers staring directly at, stifling their laughter, and shouted out “Jambo!”

It took seven hours to get to Nairobi, but we made a quick stop to the national museum. It was a simple museum with odd mannequins explaining the tribal life and stuffed animals. The best part was the bird exhibit, where they had every bird species in Africa (over 900) stuff and behind glass. They also had the tools that the tribes had fashioned out of plants and animals around them. They had an entire exhibition window dedicated to a woman’s sanitary needs.

Our hotel tried to move us into another hotel, but Eagle-Eye protested vehemently until they caved, not wanting to try out a different, and possibly not-as-good hotel. Turns out Vice-President Biden was staying at the other hotel… so we could have stayed with the VP… but someone had to get cranky. We booked a cab to take us to a restaurant called Carnivore. Once a famed restaurant that served exotic game meats like zebra and hippo, it now only serves huge cuts of all-you-can-eat pork and steak with the oddball meats of ostrich and gator. The only thing I couldn’t eat was the chicken livers… ugh. We lounged around eating huge servings of charred, smoky flesh with mixers of sugarcane vodka. A bloated gut and a zebra-print apron later, we were back at the hotel for a very deep, well deserved sleep.

Day 9 - In the morning, Raphael picked us up for a ride to the airport. We said our goodbyes and gave him a wad of tip money. Raphael was fantastic! He explained in detail everything we wanted to know, got us everywhere safety, all the while fighting graft-wanting game wardens and shitty roads. We were also finally able to get him to say “hakuna matata” on tape. At the airport lounge we all sunk into the most broken down leather couch you have ever seen, and stared out the window at Air Force Two.

I really have to give it up to Tex for planning this trip. It was his baby from the start, and he did a great job. Most the photos posted on this blog were probably taken by him… so I’m giving credit where credit is due. Also, Eagle-Eye and Rock were fantastic traveling partners that were a ton of fun, and I would easily travel with them again.

I was wrong about Kenya. Horribly and completely wrong. The trip I was dreading; driving around all day just staring at empty fields… turned out to be exactly what we did… and it was fantastic! There was so much excitement every morning about what we might see that day. It was a challenge to find the animals camouflaged in the brush, and thrilling when you came across something new. Kenya was incredibly different from what I was expecting, and I absolutely would recommend anyone who can to visit this amazing country.

All the pictures of this trip can be found at http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/

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