Friday, May 12, 2006

Massively overdue post on Kenya & Tanzania, Part 1

I know this is really, really overdue and it's the exact same thing that some of you will have gotten in e-mails, but here it is, part 1. I had to stop because I used up my flickr bandwidth for the month. Photos here:

I'm back in London (and have been...for a very long time) from the Kenya & Tanzania adventure. The adjustment back wasn't difficult at all, truth be told, but it has taken a few days to start sorting through my photos, impressions and memories.

It must be said that we had a fantastic group to travel with. There were seventeen of us overall, all either British (ok, English, Scottish, and Northern Irish) or Australian except for us (the four Americans) and the South African guide. It was a bit surprising that we didn't have any Kiwis or Canadians, but that's life. Many people had already been off climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or tracking gorillas through Uganda before they joined our two week leg and quite a few were going from Nairobi to South Africa. I'm always amazed by the people who will travel for months and months at a time and I'm not sure that I could be one of them. At the same time, I wouldn't have minded a bit more time in Africa....

I really, really didn't know what to expect from the trip, although I eventually figured out that some of the things I had been looking forward to the most weren't exactly on the initerary. It was disappointing in that respect, but I can also see why the tour company preferred that we not explore cities on our own (mostly, there's nothing special to see and they can be more troublesome). I was nervous before we left, that's certain, as those of you who were talking to me online all night can attest. Flight down was fine: we could see Sicily perfectly and I was really impressed by the sight of the African coastline steadily coming into view. We arrived to a night that didn't feel all that different from one of those wonderful Indiana summer nights (you know, warm, but cool enough that you don't notice the humidity) and an overbooked hotel. There were lots of transfers around and we met Suzanne, whose flight had come in just after ours. It was luck that we met her, but really, really good luck, as she turned out to be an absolutely wonderful travelling companion and, now, good friend.

Day #1 we were woken up really early by a phone call from our guide, who had been scouring the hotel looking for us. When I think about it, this whole early part of the trip got off to a pretty rough start and I didn't really recollect myself until we left Kenya. We'd bungled the local payment, for one thing, and found ourselves nearly $300 short and had only a few minutes to throw the stuff that we'd need for three days away from our big backpacks into a day pack. It was all a bit weird. Then, we got to the other hotel, put away our backpacks in the world's largest passenger truck and got into little vans for the trip to the Masai Mara, a game park in southwest Kenya that borders the Serengeti (which is in Tanzania, NOT Kenya). As for that ride, let's just say that infrastructure was not Kenya's strong point. One of our drivers said that because the Maasai don't vote, the government saw very little point in fixing the roads. Corruption? NO! *looks shocked* It was bumpy, bumpy, bumpy, but we drove through the Great Rift Valley on the way and there were some amazing views. Anyway, we were all feeling a bit green around the gills by the time we got to our accomodation on the edge of the park (real, platform tents with camp beds, a flush toilet and hot water shower!). On the other hand, coming out of Nairobi, we had a spectacular view of the Great Rift Valley and a couple of break-downs that gave us the chance to get mobbed by kids and wind up in a van with a Peace Corps volunteer and her friend (who were awesome).

That night was the first of our "game drives," which is a pretty silly term that I'm sure dates back to the days when you wouldn't just shoot rolls of film at the animals (not that we use film now...). You get pretty mobbed when you drive into the park from all the Maasai women who spend their days trying to sell things to the tourists, but we also started seeing stuff right away, including a massive herd of elephants. I rather like elephants. And giraffes. I like them too. Did I mention that we saw tons and tons of zebras on the ride to the Mara? It's hard now that we've spent days and days on these game drives to remember how thrilling the first one was, but our first sighting of an elephant, far away on the the side of a hill was pretty cool. When we got back there was dinner and a bit of getting to know people around the campfire. And I discovered that I really like passionfruit. (Which, I now know, is also available at Borough Market.)

Day 2 involved an all day game drive, starting after breakfast and getting us back just a bit before dinner. We started out the day with some great hyenas camping out in a bush, lots of ostrages and warthogs. The bird life on these trips was also pretty spectacular. I kept think of a friend in Indianapolis who loves birding and thinking what a great time she would have had! On the other hand, all the driving gets old fast. During the heat of the day, there's not a thing in sight and most of us managed a snooze at some point. I think it would have been really cool to get out and look at the wildflowers, but you obviously can't get out of the vans. No one wants the tourists to get eaten. We were allowed out at one point to walk a little ways down the river to see crocodiles and hippos. They were cool, but we were also accompanied by a guy with a really big gun. Oh, and that was quickly followed by my first experience with a pit toilet. Lunch was amazing: we stopped under a big tree in the middle of the savanna with no one else in sight. You can't really imagine how far you can see and how far this landscape stretches until you've been there, I think. We could just see the rain falling for miles and miles, different isolated storms on all sides of us. It was spectacular and also gave us a pretty good idea of when it was time to pack up, in order to avoid a drenching! The weather was very predictable while we were in the parks, sun in the morning, rain starting in the afternoon and often going into the night.

Probably the biggest highlight of the trip, for me at least, was our stop in a Maasai village on the way home that night. I mean, I know that some things, probably quite a few of them, are acts put on for the tourists, but it was still really special to engage directly with the few Maasai that we met. I'm really intrigued by the culture and the ways that the Maasai have been affected by changing political, social and economic realities. There were a few dances from the men and a song from the women and the inevitable shop-a-thon (where sucker Joyce decided that the family needed her watch more than she did (I changed my mind a bit when I got back to London and needed a new running watch, but I rarely wear one for anything other than running)), but we also were shown one of the houses and asked lots of questions (Joyce: what's the relationship between the government and the Maasai?). I also wound up playing Simon Says with a whole herd of little kids and was deeply touched by a few kind words from a young woman. I left puzzled. Traditional definitions of poverty just didn't seem applicable and I was amazed that this young women, Anne, was only 26, had been married for five years, had a child nearly that old and a month-old one nested close, I'm sure had comparatively little education, but absolutely made me feel like a child next to her experience. She also made me feel like a sister and absolutely over the moon with just a few words. We had very little opportunity to interact with women on this trip (mostly the men do things with the tourists and the women are away doing house stuff), but I was always amazed at the comaradery that could be established with just a few words. They blew my mind. Anyway, Joni, I'm really jealous of your opportunity to spend months in Tanzania, still.

The final day was an early, early morning game drive before the trip back to Nairobi. It was pretty cool. We saw a group of lions chowing down on a fresh buffalo from close range, some more zebras and a group of three cheetahs. Two of them were youngish (more obvious from their behavior than their size) and kept play pouncing with eachother, while their mother kept a close eye on her surroundings. Then, the drive back with a few sick stops (one that involved the smells of Nairobi's slaughterhouse district) and meeting up with our guide (finally!) for orientation and the first night in tents. We had little two person tents, very quick to put up after you figured it out, and they were really quite cozy. I shared with Laura, my former hall mate, and we stayed pretty warm and mosquito free most nights. The tent leaked a bit around the edges, but wasn't a bad home for a couple of weeks.

The next day was the drive to Arusha and I spent a lot of it looking out the window (again). There was a quick stop at a market and 10 minutes of exploring, but not a whole lot of other stopping except at the borders. Even that wasn't too big a deal. I was glad that we'd gotten both of our visas in advance because they look waaaay cooler in my passport! Not that I'm keeping track.... We had a brief stop in Arusha just to get or exchange money (who knows when the next time is that I'll need to get 370,000 of anything out of an ATM?) and I at least got to see the sign for the ICTR. It was one of the things that I'd put at the top of my list to do, but simply wasn't going to happen. I came to terms with it eventually, but was pretty upset when I first found out that the ICTR would have to be off the list. Um, we drove to a campsite that somehow involved a snake park and called it a pretty early night. Apparently one of the other overland trucks had an all night party that involved really loud music all night long. And, yours truly didn't hear a word. I was really confused when everyone started complaining the next morning at breakfast!

After sorting out money stuff, we left for a three day trip to the Sarengeti, which was such a highlight of the trip! To begin with, the roads are really, really good. They were built by the Japanese government as an infrastructure project/gift thing and were in great shape. I was also surprised by just how green and sort of jungle-y much of the scenery looked, especially as we drove into the higher latitudes. We had a quick stop at the gates for the guides to arrange park fees and we all amused ourselves by pointing at the giant map of the National Park. Hee.

Our other stop was at the first place that you could see Ngorogoro Crater. Which. Wow. OMG. If you've been there, you know what I mean. If you haven't, go look at the photo, because I don't think there's a good way to describe the scale and the beauty of the Crater. UNESCO knew what they were talking about with this World Heritage Site stuff. We visited 3 on this trip: Ngorogoro Conservation Area, the Serengeti and Zanzibar's Stone Town. I think that brings my total to 25...which I can't believe I just bothered to look up and count. Hee. Oh, right. Easily distracted, but here's the panoramic photo:


Lindsay said... Reply to comment

AWESOME I want to visit Africa!