«       »
October 23rd 2007 by Tina
Safari Prelude and Day One: Unhappy Camper

Posted under Africa & Kenya

Safari Itinerary:

Day One – Leave Nairobi at 8am to drive to Lake Nakuru National Park, stopping for lunch. Arrive at campsite in early afternoon, drop off bags, leave directly for afternoon game drive. Dinner at campsite.

Day Two – Leave Nakuru campsite at 8am to drive to Masai Mara National Reserve, stopping for lunch. Arrive at campsite in late afternoon, drop off bags, leave directly for evening game drive. Dinner at campsite.

Day Three – All day game drive in Masai Mara National Reserve, from 8am to 5pm. Dinner at campsite.

Day Four – Early morning game drive at Masai Mara, from 6:30am to 9am. Late breakfast at campsite. Depart for Nairobi, stopping for lunch, and arriving around 5pm.

Happily stuffed with another delicious continental breakfast at Bush House, we were picked up by the safari driver/guide. We picked up one other French Canadian girl downtown and soon we were off – just three of us in a 7-person minibus! The road to Nakuru was rough: dirt and gravel with occasional sections of blacktop pavement so full of potholes that our driver played slalom with them, and with the oncoming cars that were also swerving to avoid them. I spent the majority of the ride alternately engrossed in the novel of the moment and staring out the window at the beautiful country. The colors of Africa are unlike those in any other place. The soil is the rich red of fertility – think “burnt siena” in the Crayola crayon box. This fertile earth begs to be reaped and sown; it is ripe with vitality, brought to life by the sweat of generations of toil. Life is not easy here and age does not exempt anyone from doing his or her share. I saw women my parents’ age (or maybe younger but aged by their labors) carrying large bundles of wood on their backs. Farm women work stooped over, their hands never idle, for hours in the sun. Men work hoes, one chop at a time, through the yielding earth while children as young as five or six single-handedly tend to herds of sheep, cattle or goats. People wave, especially children, to the minibus as we roll by. Schoolchildren, all donning uniforms, play soccer and climb trees in the schoolyard. The towns are tiny, rural and poor. There are makeshift houses and storefronts, serving simultaneously as hotels, restaurants, butcheries, and pubs. There are service stations and souvenir shops, selling water and snack items as well as the usual hand-carved wooden crafts – safari animals, tribal masks, jewelry – none of which we want to carry around in our backpacks. It is their beautiful art and their livelihood but, realistically speaking, a wooden giraffe would never make it past the garage (once we have a garage again, that is) and would inevitably be sold at a garage sale for fifty cents. We manage to tactfully (mostly) avert the souvenir touts along the way and arrived at our Nakuru campsite on schedule.

I should take a moment here to lay the foundation for the upcoming story. First and foremost, I am not a camper. When Aaron and I had originally discussed the particulars of our journey around the world, I firmly stipulated that while hostels would be an obvious necessity, I prefer to have a private bathroom whenever possible and absolutely NO CAMPING! As we priced the safaris, we discovered what we already knew to be true – even a cheap safari is expensive. I succumbed to the allure of the wilderness; somehow rationalizing that sleeping in it would intensify the safari experience, and agreed to a camping safari. Regarding my camping background, my parents were, are, very much “indoor people”. We always stayed in nice hotels when we traveled, though certainly not five star. Camping, or even something like a Super 8, was never considered. I have the utmost appreciation for the level of comfort that I was afforded as a child. I, having a naturally adventurous spirit, was always drawn to outdoor activities such as camping, boating, hiking, rappelling and other sports though my opportunities for such things were few until I flew the Midwestern coop for the desert terrain of Tucson. Things changed dramatically for me in Tucson. Not only did I meet a plethora of likeminded people but the weather permitted outdoor adventures almost year round. I hiked the desert mountains like a mountain goat, quickly falling in love with Mount Lemmon, Sabino Canyon and Madera Canyon among others.

I camped a few times in the mountains, mostly just overnights – and that suited me well. My friends and I would hump our tents and gear, as well as food and water, up the mountain. We would set up camp, build a fire, cook dinner, stay up late talking, and then head back down the mountain the next morning. I love everything about a campfire from gathering the wood to watching the last embers burn until you’re cold enough to turn in. The few other times that I camped for more than one night involved a boat and a lake. We would spend the days on the lake and the nights in the camp. Those camps always had communal showers and toilets but we slept in tents. The boat friends were the kind of campers who had all of the fancy camping gadgets so they were able to create an outdoor home of sorts. It was cozy but a different level than the mountain camping. My point is that I have camping experience.

I should also note that it has been about six years since my last camping excursion and I have lived some of my most plush and comfortable years since then (not counting the years in my parents’ house). I’ve grown a bit older since then and slightly less adventurous in regard to rugged living, although the past fifty-one days of travel have taken their toll on my yuppie snobbery. I generally like my habitat to be clean and bug-free. I always prefer a private bathroom with a hot shower. I am past the point of coping with dorm-style rooms, shared with grungy twenty-somethings and dirty, co-ed communal bathrooms. Other than those specific requirements, I can function in the bare minimum of comfort. After fifty-one days on the road, we have reduced our standards of comfort and cleanliness to the levels required for this journey. I brush my hair usually once a day, right after my evening shower. It looks like a lion’s mane in the morning so I either run my fingers through it until it stays out of my face or sweep it up into a messy pony tail. I wear makeup on rare occasions when I won’t sweat it off before noon. We usually function on two or less cups of coffee per day. We wear the same clothes over and over again with no regard for fashion; I wore sandals with socks today and didn’t care. My outfit for the day is determined by the weather and which of my two pair of pants is cleaner, as opposed to which ones are clean. Clean has become a relative term. We wash our clothes in hostel sinks and bath tubs or we take advantage of cheap laundry service when it is available. Our hygiene habits have not diminished. If anything, they have improved. We don’t want to get a cavity on the road, especially in Africa! We use bottled water to brush our teeth, when necessary. Many of the beds are old and uncomfortable, with big dips in the mattresses. Many of the bathrooms are moldy and dirty. In short, we are pretty rugged these days, especially for two yuppies, fresh from the ‘burbs. But now let’s get back to the camp at Nakuru…

After a rough, dusty ride, we arrived at the campsite. We followed the proprietor as he showed us the communal showers and toilets (which made for one unhappy camper) and then led us to our tent. The toilets were the normal porcelain bowls but with no seats! This works fine for number one but NOT for number two! The very thought of this heated my blood to a slow simmer. Aaron, however, is much less sensitive about these things. He tells me (in his all-knowing “I’ve traveled more than you have” tone) that this is not the worst bathroom situation that I will have to endure. Needless to say, I am not comforted by these words. The tents are permanent so they aren’t so much like tents as basic stone and mortar structures with cement slab foundations and metal slanted roofs. They are not totally enclosed, however, thereby allowing full access to the local bug populace. Inside were three twin beds with heavy but worn blankets and linens. After our initial (appalling) inspection of the camp, we dropped our bags and headed out for our game drive.

At the entrance to the park, our driver/guide, Ben, got out of the bus to pay the entrance fee, at which time we noticed two small, curious, grey monkeys with black faces. One had climbed onto the passenger side window of the minibus next to ours and was eating some kind of medicine tablets that it had stolen from the dash, much to the astonishment of the Asian tourists inside. The monkeys, called Vervet Monkeys, according to Ben, seemed domesticated and unshaken by the throngs of tourists and guides around the entrance.

As we made our way into the park, our adrenaline was already pumping in anticipation of all of the animals that we were about to see. Our cameras were charged and ready for action. We saw zebras almost immediately, striking in their splendiferous black-and-white yin yang coats. Many wild animals, through the process of natural selection, develop exterior features that are protective or blend into their environment to camouflage them from predators. The unmistakable stripes on a zebra’s back don’t conceal it from anything. Zebra’s seem to exist to be beheld and admired, to make little zebras, and to occasionally provide dinner for a few hungry lions. We would see zebras throughout the entire safari, grazing the days away, peacefully co-existing with the other herbivores, and I would never grow tired of them.

Soon we arrived at the lake, where literally thousands of pink flamingos lined the water’s edge. I have never seen anything like it. The lively birds squawked, fluttered, and fished: bending their long legs at the joint and poking their heads into the water. We stood on the shore, about ten meters from the flamingos – a sea of pink against a breathtaking mountain-and-waterscape. Interspersed with the flamingos were large, white pelicans, equally boisterous in disposition. With their shorter legs and deep, orange beaks, they stayed closer to shore, entertaining their audience with dramatic take-offs and landings on the water. The shore was lined with trampled flamingo feathers. The birds lined the shore for as far as we could see. I wondered why we couldn’t just set up camp here but then remembered that there was much more to see. The Flamingo Party was simply the opening act. Still, as we pulled away, I was sad to go. The pictures don’t do justice to the magnificent panoramic view but they will have to do.

The roads inside the park are rough and uneven, often snaking through the meadow grass; the safari ride is rough, no matter what kind of vehicle you’re in but I found myself realizing that there is, after all, a practical use for a Hummer. Somehow I don’t think that Hummers will make it to Africa for quite a while. Even the swankier resorts and safari companies all seem to use the same white, nine-seater minibuses with the pop-up tops.

Ben pulled our bus into a clearing, where a seemingly vacant house stood in the center. He said that we were stopping for a quick cup of tea (which we believed because we have come to observe that most Africans, unless they are trying to sell you something, exhibit no real sense of urgency about anything) but we pulled around the back of the house to discover, much to our delight, two sleeping lions! As we marveled at the male lion’s giant golden paws, he seemed much more oblivious to the three minibuses full of gawking, photo-snapping tourists than to the swarm of flies that plagued his afternoon snooze. Now that we had seen the King of the Jungle, we set out to find the rest of the Big Five: leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros. They are called the Big Five because they were once the most sought after prizes for the game hunters. Now that the locals have realized how lucrative the business of safari tourism is, I doubt that the guardians of this great Golden Goose allow greedy poachers to diminish their lion population for sport.

We encountered a herd of buffalo, grazing in the meadow, barely lifting their black-horned heads to pay us any mind. Sleek, graceful gazelles, more nimble and skittish by nature, darted quickly out of our path. The males have long, shapely horns for fending off predators while the females have none. We found it difficult to get a good photograph of them because of their timid behavior combined with the driver’s inability to master the sneak attack. We would have a perfect shot in our sights as we approached but, instead of stopping at a safe distance, he would clumsily trudge through the herd, scattering them to either side of the road and by the time the clunking bus came to a halt, we had a great view of little gazelle butts scampering away.

We slowly made our way to the top of the mountain range, spying rhinos, giraffes and a waterbuck, and stopped to take in the view of the lake from above. We could see the entire mass of flamingos, spanning the shoreline. In the late afternoon sun, the mountains across the lake and the puffy, white clouds above reflected on the calm, glassy surface of the water. As we took in the wondrous view, we were met by an enthusiastic group of baboons that were climbing around the lookout area, scrounging for tourist scraps. A sign warned us to refrain from feeding them so as to minimize baboon menace and Ben explained that that they can become aggressive over food. It is screamingly obvious which baboons are the males. Their genitalia are nearly identical to human male genitalia but the organs hang, in flesh-colored contrast to the animal’s grey, wire-haired body. The only baboon photo that we kept was one where the animal’s arm discreetly covers it so as to avoid baboon pornography on our website. The baboons were playful and we enjoyed watching them clamber around, looking for mischief. There was a group of men, who were constructing a small shade pavilion and, as we were walking back to our bus, about ten baboons had nonchalantly climbed into the workmen’s truck and were rummaging around. When they were inevitably discovered and shooed away, at least half of them scurried off with some booty from the truck. We were thoroughly amused; the workers less so.

We pressed on, gradually descending the mountain to the far side of the lake where we came upon a family of rhinos. There were two massive adults and two smaller ones; each of the smaller ones was paired with an adult and they were learning to spar. As Ben excitedly, and perhaps over-ambitiously, pulled in for a close view, one of the adult rhinos turned toward us, huffing and stomping its enormous feet, threatening to charge. Quickly realizing his error, Ben thrust the gear into reverse and hit the gas. When we had retreated to an acceptable distance, Mama Rhino relaxed and resumed her lesson. For a heart-stopping moment, we felt the rush of being on the receiving end of a charging rhino horn. The four heaving masses of bulk playfully sparred along the lakeside as we watched in amazement from the safety of our bus – safety meaning that the bus, with a good head start, could probably outrun a charging rhino.

The Rhino Show was followed by an encore of zebras, buffalo, more rhinos (including a baby that didn’t even have its horn yet – so cute!), giraffes and gazelles and, as we were heading for the exit, we witnessed the grand finale, the climax of our Nakuru safari: the leopard! It was snoozing on the branch of a tree, its fashionable leopard spots shining in all of their splendor in the setting sun. The elusive cat was graceful and elegant as it sprawled out on its branch with its two front paws dangling on either side. I’ve seen numerous photos of leopards in my life but none, however artful, have quite compared to watching the living, breathing thing. Even as it lounged on its elevated perch, my heart raced at the thought of the ferocious agility of an animal that fiercely pursues its scrambling prey, tears it to pieces with razor-sharp fangs and claws, and then ambles off to find a place to sleep. For all of the leopard’s spotted beauty, its untamed power is what inspires awe and respect in the observer. After the leopard sighting, we safari-goers rode away with a giddy satisfaction.

Nakuru is one of the smaller wildlife reserves so you see animals frequently. Our senses were overloaded with the thrill of our discoveries and we were hungry for more, like hunters after their first kill. We still needed an elephant to complete our Big Five repertoire. We wanted to witness the annual wildebeest migration from Masai Mara to the Serengeti and Aaron desperately wanted to see a lion kill something. We were simultaneously charged and weary as we pulled into our camp.

Each camp had a cook who prepared our meals. In Kenya (and most of Africa, I suspect), there is very little processed or pre-packaged food served. Each hot meal consisted of a meat (usually in a rich sauce), vegetables and a starch. Fresh fruit, either bananas or perfectly ripe pineapple, were a sweet ending to every meal, though we usually completed it with a Snickers bar in our tent afterwards. The fresh food is a most welcome change for our processed, preservative-laden American palates.

Our campsite was equipped with electricity but we were informed, upon returning to camp, that there was a blackout that night. After our dinner by candlelight, the evening chill had completely dissipated the afternoon warmth and darkness had fallen. We were exhausted from the day and retired early to our tents. Despite the layer of dust and grime that coated our bodies, we decided to forego showering in the dark, unfamiliar communal stalls. Luckily, we had packed our headlamps, which helped tremendously in the setup of our beds as well as our late night bathroom trips. Aaron went to work, creating his BFZ (bug-free zone) by tucking his mosquito net snugly under the edges of the mattress on all sides, while I arranged my nightstand accessories: book, headlamp, lip balm, water. Since it was brisk outside, I was planning to sleep in my clothes. As I pulled back the covers on my bed for a quick inspection, I immediately spied a suspicious-looking bug. It was tiny and ant-like but had more pronounced legs and antennae. I flicked it away – no big deal – and continued my inspection. Another one. Flick. And another. Flick. After the fourth miniature intruder was discovered, I cursed under my breath and gave my poor, unsuspecting husband that tight-jawed, bug-eyed, “This is why I don’t go camping!” look to which he lovingly responded by lifting a small section of his pristine BFZ so that I could climb in. “Yours must have them too!”, I exclaimed, my temperature rising. We finally agreed that it was better not to look and I crawled into his BFZ, which probably already had bugs with permanent residency under the mattress. I was bundled in cargo pants, wool socks, a long-sleeved shirt over my pajama top, and a scarf around my neck. This constricting, claustrophobic bedtime ensemble actually saved me a lot of hassle during the three occasions throughout the night that I had to walk the cold, dewy path to the lidless toilet – I only had to slip on my shoes.

After about two hours of solid restlessness and the creepy crawly jitters that I had for weeks after watching Arachnophobia, I finally nodded off to sleep. I woke once during the night to the feel of something biting my ankle. I tucked my pant legs into my socks and made it through to morning. Whoever coined the phrase “Don’t let the bedbugs bite” was definitely a camper. It’s like a game and the bedbugs have the home court advantage. I awoke thinking not of the three more days of thrilling game drives ahead but of two more nights of camping to survive!


2 Responses to “Safari Prelude and Day One: Unhappy Camper”

  1. Jennifer Casteix on 23 Oct 2007 at 10:41 pm #

    I think my favorite pictures so far have been of Petra and the animals. Have you felt like it was all part of a dream you being there? (Or nightmare if sleeping with bugs!). I want to know where the picture of Tina in socks and sandals is. We love the postcard – thank you so much!

  2. Andrew Leonard on 25 Oct 2007 at 11:42 am #

    The pictures are amazing! Did you find a McDonald’s on Serengeti? If there isn’t, I just can’t go 🙂

    Tina……you survived all the people in Dallas, but can’t deal with a couple bugs? I mean……come on now!

    I’m ready to sell everything and join you guys on the road full time. Back to the grind stone…….that saying came to be because it’s TRUE! I need another vacation…….where should we meet up at?