On Safari

Startled Baby Elephant

12/2/12 - For two weeks in late October and early November we went on safari in eastern Africa. What an adventure! It will be difficult to convey the wonder of the two countries we visited through this blog & the accompanying photos & videos, but we’ll try… We started the trip with a bang - Hurricane Sandy was due to hit the East Coast on Monday, the day we were to fly through Kennedy airport to Amsterdam then on to Nairobi, Kenya. Two days before departure we were able to re-book to depart a day early & out of LA instead. How very, very lucky we were to have avoided that monster storm.

We arrived in Nairobi one day early & were able to spend the extra time getting to know the city a little more. It is a large city that struggles with traffic issues & the enormous disparity between the rich & the poor. We drove through horrendous slums and also through beautifully maintained neighborhoods. We traveled with Olivia Tours again & they booked the safari through Micato Safari. Micato has been lauded by National Geographic, Conde Nast, Forbes and Travel & Leisure as the best tour operator for many years in a row. They book about 500 customers monthly, have outstanding safari guides, and utilize their own fleet of safari vehicles - window-seat-only 6 person vans with pop-up roofs in Tanzania and open 4 person Land Rover jeeps in Kenya.

The Micato owners also hosted a welcome dinner at their home for our group where we were serenaded by the Kenyan Boys Choir. The family-run business is very socially responsible - for every single safari they sell, Micato pays the expenses to send an African child to school - for 12 years. A first rate organization! We spent several days in Nairobi, Kenya.

We stayed at the Fairmont Norfolk, a colonial style hotel featured in the movie Out of Africa. Our first adventure with the animals of Africa was a visit to Dame Daphne Sheldrick's Elephant Orphanage. Dame Daphne developed the methods for raising milk-dependent infant elephants, orphaned by poachers that killed the mothers for their ivory tusks. The babies are released into the wild once they are self-sufficient. We were there for feeding time, when the babies ambled out to find their keepers & the huge bottles full of formula. As the smallest of the babies drank, he leaned against a blanket draped between two poles which was meant to simulate leaning against his mother. We "adopted" him with a donation to supplement the babies' care.

The next animal encounter we had in the city was a visit to the Giraffe Center, which rescues & breeds the endangered Rothschild giraffes. This species looks like they have long white socks on their legs. Giraffes can be up to 18 feet tall & weigh up to 3000 lbs! This center also releases the animals into safe areas across Kenya. We were allowed to feed some of the giraffes & got "kissed" by the gentle ones who took the food from our lips!

Our adventure really began when we flew in 10-seater planes from Kenya to Tanzania to explore the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park. At Ngorongoro, we stayed at a lodge on the lip of the 2500 feet deep crater & descended into the 9 mile diameter caldera for 2 days of game drives. This is when we started spotting the zebras, lions, elephants, cape buffalo, warthogs, jackals, hyenas, gazelles, hippos, wildebeests, topis, baboons & even a few black rhinos. To our delight, many of the animals had babies with them at this time of year. We were also very fortunate that our friends, Debbie & Terry, are avid birders, so we spotted magnificent birds all around - crowned cranes, kori bustards, bee-eaters, helmeted guineafowl, superb starlings, lesser flamingoes, ostriches, marabou storks, spoonbills, chats, weavers, tawny eagles. Can you even imagine seeing all these creatures in just a matter of days?!

We drove from Ngorongoro to the Serengeti, through vast open plains with beautiful flat-topped acacias dotting the landscape. Now we started seeing more giraffes, the Maasai variety, among all the animals I listed above. The annual migration was still occurring, so we saw streams of wildebeests, zebras and gazelles as they moved from Kenya to Tanzania. They travel together for efficient protection & grazing. Each have different strengths of senses, so they depend on each others' sense of sight or smell to warn of predatory danger. And they eat varying levels of the grassy plains, so one takes the first cut & another the lower cuts. Here we visited a hippo pool with hundreds of enormous hippos wading in the muddy water. Hippos can be up to 13 feet long, 5 feet tall & weigh up to 3.5 tons. In the Serengeti we also added more birds to our sightings; the most distinctive being the lilac-breasted roller and the secretary bird.

For our last few days in Africa we flew those tiny planes again back to Kenya, to the Maasai Mara. This was our favorite place, for the accommodations of a tented camp where the animals roamed freely through the camp during the night, for the abundance of animals in close proximity in the rolling grasslands & thickets of shrubs, & for the ability of our jeeps to go off-road through the plains to get closer to the animals. On our way just from the airstrip to the camp, we were within 15 feet of lionesses & their cubs, elephant families and scores of zebras! Our "tent" was luxurious & comfortable, with a large bathroom, zippered walls & night guards to escort us without fear of running into a startled elephant or hippo in the dark.

During our game drives we watched elephant families playing in puddles, lionesses serving as babysitters for 6 or 7 cubs while the other lionesses hunted, a cheetah & her cub sunning on termite mounds, elephants chasing off lions & cubs, a serval slinking through the grass, a mama warthog protecting her 3 tiny babies from an angry male, cape buffaloes practice fighting with their horns, hippos resting in pools covered by water lettuce, giraffes grazing the tops of the trees, beautiful African green pigeons and saddle-billed storks feeding on the plains. We saw elephant graveyards, where elephants really do go to die, but primarily because their teeth have worn down & they can only eat the soft grasses in the marshes until they die. Hopefully our photos & videos captured some of the wonder of those moments.

We always like to get a sense of the people of the lands we travel to, & we got a chance to visit a Maasai village during one of our last afternoons. The Maasai are nomadic, tending to their cattle & making huts of branches and cattle dung. They are known for the vibrant red kikois (wraps) that the men wear & you often see pictures of the men, black as ink, holding the staffs they use to herd their cattle. We were welcomed to the village by the men & women dancing & singing. We watched the men's courtship custom of jumping straight up in the air, & we joined in with the women as they danced with shrugging shoulders to bounce beaded collars off their chests. They invited us into their huts & displayed beaded crafts for purchase. We bought a "talking stick" which is used to indicate who has the floor in meetings or discussions. The people were welcoming & gracious, & gave us a chance to learn a little more about their culture & customs.

We hope you have by now gotten a sense of the wonder that is Africa. We thoroughly enjoyed our adventure & are so glad we went. As Ernest Hemingway wrote in the Snows of Kilamanjaro in 1936, "There was never another time like that first time in Africa".

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