1997 – Kenya (by way of London) by Carol Rist

Carol Rist, 1997

Preparation for a trip to Kenya begins well before the plane takes off, with a visit to the travel doctor. If the lecture on how to avoid diarrhea, the shots for diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid and yellow fever and the dreaded anti-malarial pill, Larium, don’t dissuade you, you’re in for a real adventure.
Since our tour included a day-long layover in London, we decided to extend the layover to three days. We were rewarded with three brilliant, warm, Indian Summer days (or in olde English, “Old Wives’ Summer”). We used most means of conveyance during our short stay in England and found them all superior. We traveled by train (from the airport to Victoria Station and back), by bus (the Big Bus with Hop On/Hop Off sightseeing to major attractions), by boat (The Thames Waterbus had regular service from the dock in front of our hotel to Westminster) , and by taxi (London taxi drivers are far superior to any cabbies we’ve come across in the U.S. Our drivers were authentic Londoners who pointed out everything of interest (including where they had been as they watched Princess Diana’s funeral cortege) and told us how Diana’s death had touched them and their families)
Our hotel was across the street from the Tower of London. Our room looked out on the Tower Bridge, which appeared equally good lit up at night and in the bright sunshine during the day. We spent one morning at the Tower of London, which dates back to the eleventh century. Construction was begun by William the Conqueror shortly after the Norman Invasion. The Beefeaters looked grand in the morning sun, as did the soldiers guarding the crown jewels. But the semi- automatic rifles held by these historically dressed guards warned you that their job was not strictly ceremonial. We stood near where two of Henry VIII’s wives had been beheaded and wondered at the bloody history of this pleasant site.
During our visit to Westminster Abbey we and our fellow tourists could not help thinking back two weeks to the funeral of Princess Diana. Everyone wanted to see the tombs of famous generals, statesmen, royals and poets, but they also wanted to know where Elton John had been sitting when he played “Candle in the Wind” at the funeral. One of the stops of our sightseeing bus was within walking distance of Kensington Palace, so we hopped off, strolled through Kensington Gardens and joined the small crowd paying respects to Diana. Some left flowers, some left letters to Diana, and some just stood quietly.
Our visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral was made particularly memorable because a choir and orchestra were rehearsing for a 5 o’clock service. We climbed up into the dome and were rewarded by beautiful music rising up from below. We climbed further to the top of the dome and were rewarded by a magnificent view of London. Upon climbing down we were told to vacate the cathedral because the service was about to begin. People in robes were converging on the cathedral to take part in the service, which was to be attended by the Lord Mayor of London. At first we thought all of these people were important clergy, but learned that they were liverymen (freemen -and women- of the guilds of London)
At the end of our third day in London we took the train from Victoria Station out to Gatwick Airport for our overnight flight to Nairobi. Nairobi is near the equator but is also a mile above sea level, so the weather is very pleasant. There are two seasons, wet and dry. We arrived toward the end of the summer dry season. Our hotel, the Norfolk, is built around a lovely courtyard where fruit is put out to attract birds. Karsten went immediately to the gift shop, bought a book entitled Birds of East Africa, and began to identify the colorful birds in the courtyard.
Nairobi is less than 100 years old, but has a population of 2.5 million and is a headquarters for multi-national businesses and United Nations bureaus. While in Nairobi we made contact with Achille Uwimana, the son of Veneranda Nikwigize, a Rwandan who had been our houseguest during an international meeting of women in the environment in Miami. Veneranda’s family are refugees from Rwanda. They spent some time in Nairobi before going to the Comoros Islands where Achille’s father is working as a doctor for the U.N. Achille stayed in Nairobi, along with his cousin, Eric, to finish high school. Achille and Eric have little hope for the future of Rwanda.
On our first full day in Kenya we took a day trip out of the congested city to visit the Karen Blixen Museum where the author of Out of Africa (pen name Isak Dinesen) lived and ran her coffee farm from 1917 to 1931. We settled into our pop-top van and got to know the four other travelers who were to be our companions for the next ten days. They were Jeanette Dolezal, a professor at Eastern Carolina University, Ted Phillips, a flight instructor from Maryland and Susan and Joanne Haduch, sisters from Pennsylvania. It was a very compatible group. Before returning to Nairobi we visited the Langata Giraffe Centre, founded to save the Rothschild’s giraffe from extinction. The aim of the center is to teach schoolchildren about conservation, but luckily they let adults feed the giraffes too, because we thoroughly enjoyed placing food on those long slobbery tongues and getting nudged from behind by pushy giraffes.
Saturday morning we left Nairobi behind to begin our visits to Kenya’s national parks. We headed south across the Athi plains and were enchanted by the sight of the Maasai in their colorful cloaks, herding their cattle, sheep and goats and striding regally as they walked from seemingly nowhere to nowhere. Dust devils all across the horizon gave the landscape a surreal look. The road was unbelievably dusty and rough. But when we arrived at Amboseli National Park, we knew that the trip had been worth the effort. With Mt: Kilimanjaro looking down on us from across the border in Tanzania, we set out on our first game drive and began to experience the thrill of seeing giraffes, elephants, lions, gazelles, warthogs, etc. up close and personal. Sometimes the animals were a little too up close and personal. When we went into the Oltukai Lodge for lunch we found a baboon helping himself to the buffet. The staff shooed away the baboon but didn’t bother to replace the dishes the baboon had been sampling. That night was our first night spent sleeping inside mosquito netting. Every night thereafter mosquito netting was carefully placed around our beds even though we didn’t see a single mosquito during the whole trip, except in Nairobi where they don’t have mosquito netting.
Our next wild animal adventure was a nighttime encounter at a lodge called the Ark, located in Aberdare National Park. We arrived at the Ark late in the afternoon, ate dinner and were assigned a spartan bedroom with a bell in it. The area outside the Ark features a brightly lit watering hole and salt lick. Whenever an interesting animal arrives, the bells in the rooms alert the guests, no matter what the hour. If the bell rings once it is probably not worth getting up, but if it rings four times there is probably a black rhino out there. We didn’t get much sleep but had a lot of fun and saw lots of water buffalo, hyenas, elephants, and a rhino.
After the spartan Ark, our next accommodations were quite luxurious. The Mt. Kenya Safari Club, which was changed from a local hotel to a retreat for the international jet set by the American actor, William Holden, is located on the equator, as is Mt. Kenya, which rises up to the east of the Safari Club. At the nearby town of Nanyuki we experienced the difference between the forces of nature north and south of the equator. Demonstrating the Coriolis effect, a man walked twenty paces to the south of the equator, placed a dish with a small hole in the center on top of a pail, poured in water, and the water began to swirl in a counter-clockwise motion as it flowed out. Next he walked twenty paces north of the equator, executed the same experiment, and the water swirled in a clockwise motion as it flowed out. Then he poured water into the dish at the equator and the water flowed straight out, without swirling at all.
After a dusty ride so bumpy we thought the fillings would be jarred out of our teeth, we were rewarded by the wonderful sights of the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves. The grevy zebras and the gerenuks (giraffe-necked gazelles) were the special attraction. We stopped for a box lunch at Buffalo Springs and were immediately surrounded by rather aggressive baboons who wanted a share of our lunch. Each of the box lunches prepared by the Mt. Kenya Safari Club contained enough food for three people, but unfortunately we couldn’t share with the baboons for fear they would become even more aggressive.
The Great Rift Valley is part of a geological fault that runs across Africa from Mozambique to the Jordan Valley. Some of Kenya’s best farmlands are found in the valley, along with fresh and brackish lakes. Lake Nakuru is home to thousands (if not tens of thousands) of flamingos. We couldn’t get very close to the flamingos, standing out in the alkaline waters, but the unending pink mass was impressive. As we drove through Lake Nakuru National Park our driver, John, told us if we looked up in the trees we would probably see a leopard. We looked and looked, but no leopard. Then after a conversation via walkie talkie in Swahili with another driver John drove to a spot where people in a van were looking at the ground. The leopard must have had a newborn who might have fallen out of a tree. The newborn cub was skillfully hidden from us, but, the mother was spectacular. We had lunch at Baboon Cliffs overlooking Lake Nakuru. No baboons bothered us, but the rock hyraxes were very bold in begging for food.
Lake Naivasha is the highest of the Rift Valley lakes. As we waited for nightfall on the dock behind the Lake Naivasha Lodge, we saw giraffes silhouetted against the sky across the lake, hippos in the lake who showed us only the tops of their heads as they waited for nightfall to come out of the water and graze, yellow-billed storks, a grey heron, etc.
After another grueling drive we reached the gem of the Kenyan nature parks, the Maasai Mara. The Maasai Mara is geographically an extension of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. During our stay in the Maasai Mara, wildebeests and zebras were beginning their trek back to the Serengeti, where they will stay until next summer. A line of wildebeests could be seen over a hill, down a valley, over another hill, as far as the eye could see, marching mostly one by one to the south.
Not only did we see great numbers of elephants, zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, warthogs, and giraffes, we also saw numerous hyenas, cheetahs, lions, rhinocerous, hippos, and secretary birds, and a few jackals, and crocodiles.
We visited a nearby Maasai village and were surprised at how comfortable the mud and dung huts were. We enjoyed talking to Keneday, a young Maasai who has been to school and speaks English. He is the son of the village chief. Most of the children in the village must have belonged to the chief, because he has seven wives.
Our last morning in the Maasai Mara we got up before dawn, climbed into a hot air balloon and sailed up into the sky as the sun came up. Down below we saw life and death on the African plain. The bodies of some hyenas below were covered with blood as they finished off an overnight wildebeest kill. We could see Tanzania in the distance and the lines of wildebeest heading in that direction. As the animals moved south they stirred up clouds of dust in the dry plain. It was good to know that the wet season was about to begin, bringing new life to the plains of Africa.

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