Safari

Photo Safari

Tana attended Waterford, a private school in Sandy, Utah, along with my daughter Julie.  During the summers, Tana and her family lived in Kenya where they managed a wildlife preserve. Tana’s father, Tim Lagage, shared the experience of the vastness and beauty of Africa by arranging deluxe excursions through Kenya.   In 1998 our family was invited on one of these tours.  Our two oldest children, Amy and Jason, could not get away for three weeks, so my wife Nancy and I and our two youngest children, Julie and Michael, signed up for out first visit to Africa.  It was not cheap—$400/day/person, but everything was included once we arrived in Nairobi, Kenya.

We obtained the required shots, travel visas, and passports and we were given instruction as to what to bring and what to wear.  We had to wear tan or green clothes that blended in with the natural African environment since bright colors alarmed the wildlife, adding to the danger.  At least we did not have to wear those safari hats we see on all those African movies.  I used sky miles for the airline tickets with enough miles left over for an upgrade to first class.  I booked the airline tickets myself, and being an amateur, I did not take into account the overnight date change to Paris, and I had us leaving Paris the day before we arrived there.  The Delta ticket agent was understanding and corrected my mistake a few days before our departure.

This was not going to be the only hiccup on the trip, for as we were about to leave home for the airport, we heard on the news that the U.S. Embassy in Kenya had just been bombed.  A terrorist had parked a truck bomb next to the embassy building, killing 224 people, and over 4,000 people suffered nonfatal injuries.  All flights to Kenya were cancelled, but since we were already in the air, we were able to continue on to Kenya through Atlanta and Paris.

We shared the flight from Paris to Nairobi with medical personnel from Europe who would be providing medical care to those who had been injured in the bombing.  The security at the airport in Kenya was heavy. As we got off the plane, we saw armed guards throughout the airport, each adorned with well-used AK47s.  This was not the time for a bomb joke or even make a sudden move. Those carrying the guns looked like the type who would shoot first and never ask questions later.

The plan was to spend three or four days at each of several large estates owned by third or fourth generation British families whose grandparents or great grandparents had operated  the plantations.  Each of these were extremely large and included luxurious accommodations.  All our meals would be provided, and we would be spending our time experiencing Africa in a way that may become impossible in the not too distant future because of the changing political climate. We were not there to hunt—only to look, feel, hear, talk, photograph and, most importantly, become friends of Africa.

Our first night was spent in Nairobi in the manor house of a relatively small estate called Giraffe Manor.  It was a small version of a game preserve where an abundance of giraffe and other non-threatening wildlife roamed the grounds freely.  I remember it peaceful, green from vegetation, and dark from the shade of large trees, with shrubbery large enough to get lost in.  In the morning at breakfast, we were surprised when a giraffe stuck its head through the window to see what food he could gather off our plates.  A giraffe’s head only inches away is huge. And then there is that tongue!   We were in Africa to see animals, and being that close to the giraffe’s head would be remembered as something wonderful that we will never forget, but it was going to take a day or two to get into the spirit of the adventure and appreciate the thrill of having wild animals at the breakfast table.

We spent the rest of the morning seeing and hearing more giraffes and other wildlife. A small zoo on the property held the wildlife that could be threatening.  The estate was serene and beautiful.  The lush vegetation, exotic smells, and peaceful sounds of the birds and other animals left me with dark green image reminding me that I was in a different part of the world.  It was hard to imagine that politics had raised its ugly violent head just a few miles away.

That afternoon we were flown to a clearing somewhere on the plains of Kenya that functioned as an airstrip.  The only sign of civilization was a solitary windsock. We deplaned and were told that someone would be there soon to pick us up. It was a little eerie when the plane took off and left us sitting on our suitcases in the middle of an Africa plain with no signs of human life except for the windsock for as far as we could see in any direction.  It got even more eerie when 20 minutes passed and we were still just sitting there on our suitcases.  What would happen if no one ever came?  Maybe they got the date of our arrival wrong?  What kind of wildlife would prowl around here in the night?  I had a Weatherman multitool, but I was not one of those guys who could build a shopping mall with it.  We finally saw dust far in the distance from a vehicle coming over a small rise, and suddenly, the scenery became more beautiful and the land around us seemed much less threatening.  It was our host in a Land Rover, one of those vehicles with an open roof so people could stand and see the sights without leaving the vehicle.

We were taken to a camp made up of a large home and several small three-sided cabins.  The cabins and furniture were made from logs or lumber found on the estate. Even the bathtubs were cast concrete and formed onsite.  Transporting goods in Kenya is difficult.  The landing strips can only handle small planes, and there is only one paved crossing Kenya.  All other roads were dirt. The going rate for native labor was only $1.50/day, so whatever could be built locally by natives from local resources was built locally by natives from local resources.

That first evening we ate in the dinning hall with our host, hostess, and three other families or couples.  We received our basic orientation and what was planned for the next few days.  Our strongest warnings were to never leave the vehicle and never leave the camp.  Water Buffalo were responsible for more human deaths than any other animal, and there were plenty of them around.  The plan was to ride in one of the open-topped Land Rovers and see as much wildlife as possible.  Each of the animals was referred to in singular.  We did not see “Cheetahs” we saw “Cheetah” regardless of how many were seen.

Our three-sided cabin overlooked a vast expanse of Africa with Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance.  The scenery was breathtaking. That evening, we had just gone to bed when we looked up and saw some kind of wild cat sitting on the rafters above our heads.  We made enough noise that it ran off with its curiosity satisfied.  The next morning at breakfast, we described seeing the cat, and instead of being alarmed, our hostess was excited that we had seen that particular kind of cat so close up.  We shrugged it off, but we were a little uneasy with the thoughts of what other forms of wildlife may freely venture into our bedroom and give us dubious opportunity to see them close up.  A Cheetah cub in need of medical attention was in a cage in the camp. It looked like a house pet, but it was still a wild animal and had to be treated as one—no petting.

I liked to run, and after breakfast, I got into trouble for running along the road outside the camp.  I was warned again about the Water Buffalo and leaving the camp, but I was accustomed to running every morning and the scenery was so beautiful, I just could not resist the urge, but I did not go for any more morning runs.

We got into an open-toped Land Rover and drove somewhere on the 50,000 acre estate to see the African animals.  I expected to spot a lone antelope, zebra, wildebeest, or water buffalo, but instead, we found ourselves among herds of each of these animals. I was amazed that a pride of lions was living among all these animals like they were the best of friends.  I asked our guide how this was possible, and he said the game animals can sense when predators were hungry and going to feed, and they would run off. They usually escaped the lions, with the exception of the old and lame animals who cannot run as fast as the rest.  There are no rest homes for the elderly on the African plains. It is all part of the balance of nature.

One evening about 5:00 p.m., we were just about to go in for dinner when we saw a zebra lying next to a large tree with a couple of large gashes in its side.  It appeared to have been killed very recently by a predator.  The next morning after breakfast, we went to see the same zebra.  A lioness and her two cubs were just finishing picking the last remaining meat off the bones of the zebra.  The entire carcass had been consumed over night.  The lions were quick and efficient. The meat was consumed before it had a chance to spoil.

The meat that spoils is the meat left in the claws of the lions.  Lions don’t get pedicures or manicures.  One of our later hosts told of an event when he was out hunting when his friend was attacked and mauled by a lion. Our host was able to shoot and kill the lion, but the lion’s claws have so many bacteria that gangrene will usually set in within an hour.  He pulled apart his bullets and poured the gunpowder into the wounds. By lighting the gunpowder, he cauterizing the wounds which was very painful, but it saved his friend’s life.

After a few days, we were flown to the game preserve where Tana’s family spent their summers.  Our pilot lived there, so we were not left alone in the wilds this time, and we were happy to have a room with four walls, doors, and windows.

This game preserve was large, about 55,000 acres, with abundant and varied wildlife.  The elephants were most interesting.  We had not seen elephants in our last area, but here they were plentiful.  One day we had just started out in the Land Rover when we heard a loud racket somewhere in the distance.  The guide said it was likely elephants mating and we should definitely not miss such a spectacle.  We arrived near the event and found two elephants mating, as we expected.  All the other elephants in the herd were circled around the two mating elephants sitting with their front legs and trunks high in the air singing their loudest elephant songs, which sounded like hundreds of trumpets.  They were cheering the copulating couple on.  This was not a circus, nor was it staged.  It was elephants in their natural surroundings doing what comes natural to elephants. It would be quite a highlight if Barnum and Bailey could recreate such an event, but they would loose their G rating.

That same day we visited a site that was reputed to be the oldest evidence of humans in the world. It was a small pond where you could see stones that had evidently been shaped by early man into tools or weapons.

Our guides were mostly native Africans with some interesting customs. Wearing sandals because scorpions cannot hide in them is one of the native customs we observed. We were shown a leaf that was rough because of small bumps on the surface that was used for sand paper.   One day I cut my leg on a small branch, and our guide found another kind of leaf and rubbed it on my cut.  I did not think anything about it until the next morning when I noticed that I could not see any sign of the cut.  The cut was gone with no scab or scar.  I asked why they did not market such a wonderful medicine to the world and was told that it is because if you ate the plant, it would kill you.  I am sure that such a plant would never get past the FDA.

We saw a hippopotamus swimming in a large muddy river.  We could not get too close to the river in case a crocodile got too curious. The hippos did not seem to mind the mud; they were having a ball playing with each other.  Julie and Michael were able to feed a bottle to a baby rhino that had been adopted by our hosts.  Julie had always loved animals and enjoyed this as one of the highlights of the trip.

Usually we took short trips in the morning, come back for lunch, and then took another trip in the afternoon.  The food was always ample, familiar, tasty, and served elegantly—just like at home.  Once in a while, however we would go on longer trips and could not come back for lunch. On those few occasions, we would stop next to a tall tree where there was some shade, and our hosts would set up lunch. They would first set up a portable toilet within an enclosure, then the table and chairs with linen table cloths and silverware, and then came the food from warming ovens—all from the back of a second Land Rover. Elegance was never sacrificed.

We visited a small native village where people lived in small huts made from what appeared to be mud.  The people in the village were friendly and were obviously accustomed to being visited by tourists.  The young adults were engaged in a dancelike ritual where they stood in circles and jumped to a drum beat.  They were having a great time.   The bare breasted women were dressed in long, colorful wraps with necklaces and other adornments.  The young children were interested in my movie camera, and I let them view some of the movies I took of them.  We were invited into their homes, and in spite of having to crawl to enter, they were amazingly homey.  There were separate cooking and sleeping rooms, and one of the mothers was engaged in sterilizing a water carrier made from an animal skin by directing smoke into the container.  Our guide told us of a native man who had gone to college and law school and was practicing law in Nairobi, but on weekends he would take off his suit, leave his car away from, but not too far from, his family’s village, put on his native wear, and live with his family in their mud hut in one of these villages.

We rode in a sedan to a larger village located on the one paved highway that goes through Kenya. We stopped in front of some shops, and were swarmed by natives wanting to sell us trinkets. Many of the items were made from copper telephone lines.  This was before cell phones, and Kenya had trouble maintaining a communication system because the  wires were stolen to make jewelry and other items to sell to the tourists.  We watched these items being made in little fires on the ground where the copper was melted and formed.

One of the most amazing things is the honesty among the natives.  There would be dozens of men putting things in front of us or through our car windows.  If we saw something we liked, we would hold up the asking price in either Kenya or U.S. currency, and one of the many hands would take the money.  As I watched, regardless of who took the money from our hands, the currency would be given to the rightful seller.  These men were not far from starvation, trying to support families, yet honesty seemed to always win out. I appreciate a society with such integrity no matter how primitive they may appear.

There was a movie, “I Dreamed of Africa” staring Kim Basinger as Kuki Gallmann and Liam Aiken as her son, Emanuele.  Yahoo’s synopsis of the movie plot is: “A beautiful, inquisitive woman, escapes her comfortable yet monotonous life in Italy to start anew in the wilds of Africa with her son Emanuele and her new husband Paolo. …for a completely new life filled with exotic surroundings, unimaginable hardships and unknowable danger…”

This is a true story, and one of our hosts was a boyhood friend of the real Emanuele.  Emanuele liked snakes and kept several as pets, including a king cobra.  One day his pet cobra got loose and went down a hole.  In an effort to get the snake out of the hole, they poured gasoline down the hole and began to dig to get the snake out.  When they found the snake, it was alive but unconscious from the gasoline.  They found a straw, put it down the snake’s throat,  and tried to revive the snake by taking turns blowing on the straw.  The cobra eventually regained consciousness.  Our host said, “Can you believe I was giving artificial respiration to a king cobra?”  Tragically, Emanuele died from a snake bite a few years later.

The only extremely poisonous snake we saw was a puff adder on the road in front of our Land Rover.  We were allowed to look but not leave the vehicle.

The final 50,000 plus acre estate we visited was run by an attractive young couple.   They were extremely friendly and made us feel at home as if we had been friends for years.  We stayed in a cabin with a small pond about 30 feet across just outside our front door.

One evening after returning from a photo trip, we were relaxing next to the pond and were surprised to see a herd of elephants drinking in the pond on the other side.  We did not hear them arrive, but we were not alarmed.  We had become accustomed to animals of all kinds, and our guides and hosts always protected us from danger.  It just added to the serenity of the total African experience.  We were surrounded by wildlife, both within and outside the camps. That same evening, an armed guard came to our door and said we were to keep inside our cabin until he came to accompany us to go to the main building for dinner.   A lion was perched in a tree within the camp, and from his actions, he was obviously hungry and wanting to feed. We could hear him roar.  I thought of the old zebra left behind by his younger companions as an offering to the hungry lions.  I did not want myself or any of my family to end up like that poor zebra, so we obeyed the warning and stayed put until we were escorted to dinner.

These two events, the elephants and the lion, so accurately summarized our African experience.  We experienced the beauty of nature found in the landscape, the mountains, the streams, and the vastness of the plains with its large numbers and variety of wildlife living together in harmony.  We also loved hospitality of our hosts and the native Africans.   However, there were constant dangers.

Throughout our trip to Africa, there was no TV or Internet; we spent our evenings talking about our experiences of the day, what we saw, and what it meant to us.  We heard stories like the stories about the snake and the lions.  Our final host was impressed with the Leatherman multitool I kept on my hip. It included a small socket set, along with the other features common to a Leatherman.  I offered it to him as a gift for his hospitality.

The plane back to Nairobi was not Tim’s private plane, but a larger twin-engine plane from a much more serious airport with paved runways and a building.  We landed in Nairobi and back into reality.  We were picked up at the airport and driven past some really scary slums and the remains of the American Embassy.   We ate lunch in the best restaurant in Nairobi (according to our driver), and I had another reality check when a very attractive African prostitute propositioned me as I was leaving the restroom.  I politely declined and joined my family at our table.  We had several hours before we had to catch our flight to Paris, so we did some souvenir shopping.  The small items we took with us and we mailed the larger items home.

On the way home we allowed ourselves a few days in Paris to tour the Louvre, Versailles, and the Notre Dame Cathedral among other things, but none of those wonders were as impressive as our Africa experience.