When we were first planning our trip we offered an open invitation for anyone who wanted to join us to choose where or when they wanted to meet us and we would do our best to arrange our schedule accordingly. Not surprisingly, it ends up that Africa was the big winner for folks being willing to pack up and travel halfway across the world to come join us. After four weeks with the Lowell’s (Deb’s brother and his family), we headed to Cape Town for a week of Western Culture, school and wine tasting then met up with Grandpa (Colburn’s dad) in Kenya for a magical ten-day safari organized by Nella Nacini of Tin Trunk Safaris.
Unlike our previous safaris, this one did not involve endless days of driving to see everything that we could possibly see but rather focused outings based on specific viewing goals. Because the Great Migration is not in Kenya at this time of year and the fact that our lodges were all situated on conservancies rather than in national parks, the viewing is wonderfully intimate. The extensive herds of wildebeest and zebras are down on the short grass plains of the Serengeti at this time of year so we split our time between an area known for its big cats (lion, leopard, cheetah), another area known for rhino and elephant conservation, and a third area which has strong tribal culture.
Unfortunately, the area we were supposed to visit for tribal culture is experiencing extensive cultural “tension” over grazing rights, so we had a last minute change to an area that was not as interesting, but offered wonderful views of Kilimanjaro and the opportunity to have drinks with Richard Bonham, a gentleman who is working diligently to prevent rhino and elephant poaching through his foundation Big Life.
The Maasai Mara is the northern boundary of the wildebeest and zebra migratory path. The flat horizon-line of the Serengeti gives way to gently rolling hills, lightly green after the onset of short rains. An open landscape of volcanic rock, acacia trees and open savannah, the Mara has many small rivers providing water throughout the year and supporting resident populations of grazers which in turn support an extensive populations of the big cats.
The leopard is the most elusive of the cats but because of the density here, we were able to watch a female for the better part of an hour as she gave a half-hearted attempt to hunt then rested in an acacia tree. We were the only folks in the area until our driver-guide called another group in the area to let them know of our find.
Although we didn’t see any actual hunts, we came across four or five groups of lions and cheetahs gorging then relaxing after a kill. Because the populations are resident (not transient), the individual animals and their territories are known to the guides which allows you to follow a particular animal over several days to see their behaviors, their range, and the intricacies of their life rather than simply bagging yet another amazing photo opportunity.
The other amazing area we visited was the Lewa Conservancy in northern Kenya. Once a private cattle ranch, this area has one of the most stable rhino populations on the continent because of extensive conservation efforts. Rhino populations in Kenya have plummeted from more than 65,000 in the 1970’s to less than 3,000 in 1990’s, with the vast majority of rhino’s being poached solely for their horns which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Some estimates indicate that the rhinos will be extinct within the next 20 years if stronger anti-poaching practices aren’t implemented. Lewa employs more than 250 people to protect and monitor individual animals as well as herds. We were able to observe a single ranger who protects three baby rhinos: one born blind, one whose mother is blind, and a third whose mother was poached. Witnessing the plight of these amazing prehistoric animals has stirred Mac into action to preserve these magnificent animals.
In Tanzania and Namibia, we saw rhinos (both black and white) but always from a great distance. Rhinos are shy animals that spook easily so we would usually see them from a hundred or more meters away – really more of a rhino speck on the horizon rather than an animal up close. In Lewa it was very different – the black rhino are still shy but the whites will peacefully munch on grass even though the truck is only fifteen or twenty meters away. After so many encounters that involved a brief glimpse of a rhino butt as it ran away or a small dot on the horizon, it was wonderful to be able to watch them from such proximity as they were comfortable and did not fear for their lives when humans approached.
The other aspect of our time in Lewa that made it so memorable was genuine interest and friendship demonstrated by our guides, James and Peter. Both men are Maasai warriors from local clans who speak excellent English and have undertaken additional studies post high school to become professional guides. Beyond being able to spot wildlife from great distances and provide extensive background information about the animals we were watching, James and Peter were engaging, funny, and helped us understand a great deal about life in Kenya and Maasai culture. They embraced Mac and Lucia as if they were a distant niece or nephew rather than a paying client or child from a different culture halfway across the world. Warm pats on the head, gentle ribbing or chiding, and arms draped around shoulders were common occurrences.
One afternoon we hiked up to a local waterfall for a swim and picnic lunch. James had removed his traditional bright red and white fabric robe so he could swim (don’t worry, he still had shorts on!). As we were drying off, he offered the opportunity for Mac to try it on to see what he would look like as a Maasai warrior. The traditional dress of warriors in this area is intricately braided and adorned long hair, red robes held tight at the waist with a leather belt, and extensive beadwork adorning wrists, chest, neck, and head. The next ten or fifteen minutes were spent adorning Mac with James’ and Peter’s regalia – the red robe, a beautifully beaded belt with large knife, strands of beads crisscrossed across his chest and back, headdress with interlaced beading, necklace, etc.
Mac immediately recognized this as a great honor. Since we have been in Africa, Mac has developed an interest in weapons of all sorts – bows, spears, knives, etc. Knowing that Peter and James are really warriors for their clans made them demigods in Mac’s view of the world. Mac realized that to have these men sharing their warrior dress with him – literally taking it off their bodies and putting it on him – was a very special honor. I will never forget the look in Mac’s eyes or the smile on his face as he wore the regalia of a young Maasai warrior.
We ended our time in Kenya in Nairobi. By all accounts, Nairobi is not an international tourist destination, yet we enjoyed our afternoon there. From hand-feeding endangered giraffes to visiting the Sheldrick Elephant Trust and adopting protected baby elephants to souvenir shopping in the local crafts market, we had a good time in Nairobi.
And now we are back in the US to help a family member who is ill with a very aggressive type of cancer. Our trip is on a hiatus until late August when we are planning on returning to Africa to continue the adventure. There is still a great deal of the world to explore and we are deeply committed to spending more time exploring what it has to offer. In the mean time we will be enjoying our time with family and digesting our nearly ten months on the road. This time has changes us in both obvious and not-so-visible ways.