Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wednesday, 12 September 2007 (Amboseli)

After getting my first solid sleep since we arrived (OK, now that I look through my journal, I guess I was restless for a while), we awoke at 5:30, not to coffee and tea but to birds and insects outside. All the rooms face the park, so you can hear the sounds of nature. We left the back door open with the screen closed, and didn’t bother with the mosquito nets around the bed. Actually, beds – two twin beds pushed next to each other.

(As I made my notes for this entry in the afternoon, we were sitting at the pool. A black-faced vervet monkey was staring at me in my lounge chair, while Betsy took a dip. He’s a bit nervous, because at any time one of the Maasai that stroll the lodge will come along and shoo it off with their sling shot.)

I don’t imagine I can ever think about Africa again and not smile. I’m having a hard time not laughing once a day at the thought that I’m actually here.

The drive this morning was great. The highlight was the young female lion with her fresh zebra kill. Fascinating because last night the cars were zipping around like vultures on a kill when word got out that there might be a lion. Speeding on the roads and even off them to get past us. Joe and Alfred decided we couldn’t make it. They understand patience. This morning we patiently waited for the lion to appear. We saw the zebra but couldn’t make out the lion. The driver behind us (definitely NOT Micato) starting shaking keys trying to get the lion to move. We are not going to do that. Micato (and several other outfits, of course) respect nature and the environment and recognize that we are intruding, and must allow things to happen in due course.

Every now and then the lion would pop up his head, then lay back down (zebra tryptophan?). Eventually a jackal came wandering over to try and get some meat. Needless to say, this girl was not pleased. After a few stares, she stood up and walked to the other side of her kill. This of course got a huge reaction from all of us, as this was the most feline excitement we had had yet.

Frankly, I was as much taken in by the jackal as I was the lioness. One of the things I was really looking forward to was seeing wild dogs and other canines. I’ve always been a dog person, so this was a real treat for me. There are times when I see the little ones at home and think about what dogs and wolves are like in the wild, when their pack behavior takes over. I see the kids behave like pack animals, and I’ve always wanted to see it for myself. In this case, at least I was seeing what a solitary would do. That little guy (girl?) would sort of just walk slowly over a little bit, pause, think about it, then come closer, keep trying to get a bite. I really kept staring at the jackal rather than the lioness. But of course, eventually she shot up to protect her lunch, and that made us all gasp with delight.

Alfred mentioned yesterday the concept of the stupid wildebeest. You can see one, lone gnu just standing out in the open, staring into space. Waiting to be a meal. Not really, it’s usually a male just asserting territory, but he stands there, staring into nothing. I haven’t quite figured this out yet, but it’s funny.

After the morning drive we returned for breakfast. This included a fantastic omelet station, with peppers, onions, tomatoes, carrots, cheese, and jalapenos. All sorts of breads and jams, meats and cheeses, and French press Kenyan coffee.

At 11, Alfred led us in a lecture/discussion on East Africa history, culture, and society. All about the tribes, languages, politics, and customs. I found this really fun to hear and to talk about. I think he realized that we would enjoy this type of experience, given the enthusiasm we had shown, and I think he was right. None of us are here, for the sake of saying that we’ve done it. We’re in Africa because we genuinely want to be here, to experience this. Are we all kindred spirits? Maybe sort of – or at least we all have a common appreciation for what the world can provide, for those who just take the time to see.

Betsy spent some time during the afternoon to swim with the monkeys. OK, not literally, but she wanted to say that she swam while the monkeys were out. And sure enough, those vervets were all over the place, including up in the trees around the pool. I thought it was too cold to swim, but hey, how often can you do this!

Before the evening drive, everyone gathered out on the veranda, to have coffee and biscuits. I think this is a common thing, at least at this Serena lodge, to provide refreshments to the guests before they head out for the drive. (I think I’ve mentioned before how neat it is to see all the safari vehicles lined up outside, waiting for their charges. I wonder what the lodge looks like during the drives. I imagine it’s pretty sparse.) Anyway, earlier in the afternoon Betsy and I enjoyed a coconut latte. This thing is fantastic. It’s a latte, served with a jigger of coconut flavoring, for about 200 shillings, or roughly $3. Frankly, you’d pay more than that for a specialty drink at Starbucks. So having had that already, I stuck with one small cup of coffee not wanting to need a bathroom while out in the park.

The evening drive was warm, and the animals showed it. They were mostly lying around with dust swirling around them. Our crew was still hanging tough, R&B in the middle, E up front, Betsy and I in the rear. As always, I’m wearing my hat on my head and the glasses around my neck. I felt real!

The Micato vans are pretty neat. Plenty of room to stand up and hold on. It feels like something out of a movie to be standing up in the back of the van, with the glasses, looking front, back, everywhere, like I’m some sort of expert!

Our goal was to venture off away from the crowds and find some leopards. This didn’t happen (although we didn’t know at the time that we would have success later). But we did get more elephants, the occasional Japanese rhino (aka warthog), and some fast-moving ostriches. There is a unique elegance to that bird. And in dryness like this, they really kick up the dust. We saw five of them taking off across the landscape, leaving a trail of dust behind them.

Eventually we stopped at overlook hill, ostensibly to get a view of the surrounding area from a great distance. We were let out to start walking up the small climb. Betsy and E needed the facilities, so they decided to check out the hole in the ground. I missed out on this life-changing experience. Apparently, this was one of the worst smells on the trip. Sorry I missed it. This was nothing more than an outhouse with a huge hole in the ground. There were two ladies from another tour that skipped this and went straight to the bush loo – this was the preferred option.

Betsy and I walked up with R&B to grab a picture together with Mt Kilimanjaro in the background, plus a few landscape shots. Back at the foot of the hill, we had our first bush drink. Alfred, Joe, and Martin had set up a table with wine, drinks, chips and nuts, to toast our first taste of wild Africa. We toasted our experience. I had to stop and look around me, realizing I was having wine at the foot of the Mountain, my mountain, acacias around me, wildlife moving to their chosen resting location, sun setting on the horizon. Very rarely does reality even match fantasy. We tend to take the images we gather over time and blend them into an expectation of our own true account, should the opportunity arise. It was while we were out here that I realized – this is what I pictured! This was a fantasy come true. All of it matched what I had imagine it would be like. My God, I am blessed.

Given that all parties are supposed to be out of the park by 6:30 every night, Joe hightailed it through one of the many “very good” roads leading out of the park proper, taking us along the back way, past one of the local Maasai villages towards Serena lodge. This was our first African massage, what we were supposed to find out later is a common experience on the road to Arusha.

Back at the room we had waiting for us two beautiful eyeglass holders, hand made by local Maasai. We cleaned up and headed back to dinner.

On our way we discovered a group of impalas, perhaps 30 or so, hanging out inside the grounds, grazing. They were still there after dinner. This was the second of the our neat lodge animal experiences. The first was before the evening drive, when the vervet monkeys, one in particular, attempted (and often succeeded) to steal whatever snacks could be found un-attended on a plate. It was while this little guy was working the crowd that I got a great shot of him, standing not but two feet away from me. I understand that they are pests and cause problems for the staff, but for us newbies they are a cute addition. Or at least to me they are.

At dinner B joked that she would start auctioning off her 33 pounds of plane space, since her KLM luggage had not arrived yet. We got a good laugh out of this, and she seemed to be taking everything in stride.

We headed back to the room to pack up our stuff for tomorrow’s journey to Arusha, Tanzania. Once again, we crashed pretty quickly.

Today's pictures.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Tuesday, 11 September 2007 (Nairobi - Amboseli National Park)

Before I begin, I should add one more individual to the cast of characters. My sister, Betsy. Thanks to Mom for pointing that out to me this morning. (Oops.) And to clarify who everyone is, just in case.

I was up at 4 am this morning, ready to go. (OK then, so perhaps early-on during the safari, my sleep was unusual, but this morning the cause was excitement, not jet lag.) We had trouble with the air conditioning, but the fantastic staff brought fans, two of them actually, and it really helped. I would have been up anyway, I was ready to go! We left our bags in front of our room around 6, with the door slightly cracked open (I have this American fear about leaving bags unattended anywhere that isn’t secured). Sure enough, the porter was by promptly to take them to the bus. At 6:30, we gathered at in the lobby, some of still shaking the sleep out of our eyes. We were on the bus at 6:45 and we were gone.

The trip to Wilson airport was fairly quick, maybe about 15 minutes. Wilson is more like a landing strip – well, no, better than that. Probably more like a local airport in the States like PDK, but with a bit more traffic. We thanked our Nairobi driver, George, and proceeded to the security area. Security consisted of a hand-check of our carry-ons and a walk-thru machine. The bags were weighed while Alfred oversaw the operation. I didn’t think weight would be an issue, since we were short one bag thanks to B’s lost luggage. As expected, we had no problems in this area. And as it turned out this would be the only time the bags would be weighed anyway. (And as a plus, the carry-ons don’t get weighed, which meant all the camera equipment was excluded from the calculation. This was excellent, and as I had hoped based on some comments on various sites.) Boarding passes are just a laminated card of a particular color. Today, we were handed a yellow card (insert soccer joke here). When the time came, we walked through the door, handed the ‘gate agent’ our little yellow card, and walked out to the twin otter, 18 seat prop.

After buckling up, Alfred handed out little Micato pouches, with gum and ear plugs inside. And the on-board refreshments provided by the airline are a little box of mints/candies for the trip. I think this is kind of neat. It was pretty overcast outside, so we really didn’t see anything until we got low. But as we descended, I noticed the small hills. Well, I thought they were hills, but they were really trees. No, my mistake, those are clearly bushes. And they are moving. Wait a minute! I’m seeing African wildlife!

Holy cow! We arrived at Amboseli NP, and the cars were waiting along the strip. It was so exciting to see the Micato vans sitting there, two smiling faces waving. There were two drivers greeting us, Martin and Joe. We chose the latter, for no real reason other than the name! When I mentioned my name is also Joe, he gave me a hug. Serving hot coffee and tea right there on the strip was a nice touch, too.

Kilimanjaro was waiting for me! It was peaking out of the clouds, however briefly. Fortunately, I would see more of it later in the day.

Betsy and I sort of gravitated to travel with R&B, so they joined us in the vehicle. We sat in the back, R&B took the middle, and E joined us in the front. So that left an extra seat for shifting around as we wanted to. And we enjoyed moving every now and then, just because.

Seeing that little warthog go running off like there’s no tomorrow was awesome. Joe said (maybe it was Alfred) that it is a rather stupid animal. In fact, pumba (pumbavu) is Kiswahili for stupid. The reason being, they will go running off away from a predator, then stop and forget why they were running. Sort of like “Run away! Run away! Run…oh look – food.”

I saw wild elephants! My god, they are beautiful. It looks neat seeing them in the waters, they come out with a black marking from the water level, like someone was painting them and couldn’t reach the top.

The drives are great. With five people there is room to stand up (actually, even with six there would be room) and shift for photos. We all tended to make room for each other, to make sure everyone got a good picture. Water is always available in the vehicles, as well as very strong Micato binoculars.

Just on day one, we saw:

v Saddle-billed Storks
v Spotted Hyenas
v Blacksmith, Spurwing, and Long-toed Plovers
v Ostriches, both male and female
v Hippos
v Wildebeest
v Cattle Egrets
v Burchell’s Zebra (Plains Zebra)
v Cape Buffalo
v Elephants
v Yellow Baboons
v Egyptian Geese
v Reedbucks
v Grey Crested Crane (national bird of Uganda)
v Grey Herons
v White-bellied Bustard

I remember being worried at the time that we would get too used to seeing some of these animals, sort of de-sensitized to it all.

Our morning drive was basically the commute from the landing strip to the Amboseli Serena Lodge. A rather roundabout commute, though. I love going on a drive when we’re actually headed to a destination. We arrived at the lodge, and the staff was waiting for us at the drive. We received a warm jambo (and cool washcloth to wipe off the dust). Inside we all received a drink (a fantastic juice of some kind, frankly now I can’t remember). We were handed our keys with a schedule to return shortly for lunch.

Lunch was buffet style. Choices included roast goat, roast beef, salad bar, desert bar, pasta bar, etc. Actually, I eventually realized I couldn’t keep up with all the choices of food, so I stopped trying to write it all down. Just know that there was always an option, and you would never be hungry. In the immortal words of R (R&B), “God forbid you have a hunger pain.”

My plan for journaling in the afternoon fell apart when I fell asleep instead. But there was something that felt so good about being there and seeing Africa with my own eyes that brought me great comfort – I think I had already reached a state of serenity. Napping was easy now.

The evening drive was neat from the start. All the vehicles left at the same time from the lodge, making it feel like a race. Of course, it felt like a race when, all of a sudden, some vehicles go whizzing by on radio talk of a lion spotting. (I was just waiting for Wilson to come over the radio and tell Ms. Jobson to slow down.) Alfred and Joe decided we couldn’t make it to the supposed location without jeopardizing the safety of the wildlife. I admire that. (Alfred was in our vehicle for Tuesday evening drive. He shifts between the two drives everyday.)

I’ve seen the African sunset on television and in books, but it is something that must be experienced to truly understand. If I face one direction, a see the blue and purple skyscape of Kilimanjaro. If I turn 180 degrees, I see the red and orange horizon of the setting sun. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – the same sky, two completely different sets of colors. Every time I would look up at that mountain, I just started smiling. Isn’t that what a vacation is supposed to do to you?

Dinner was very enjoyable. The food was wonderful, as expected, but the company was even better. Very quickly I felt comfortable with this group. I don’t think that always happens – this turned out to be a blessing, having such a wonderful set of companions.

We eventually rolled back to the room, completely wiped out from our experience. Our turn-down gift was a hand-made journal, bound in what I assume is cowhide. This and all gifts would be locally made. This was a nice touch, and would come in handy when I needed to make a quick note. We fell asleep quickly, ready for our first full day out in the parks.

And the photos from today's safari.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Sampler of Pix to Come

Because everyone is anxious to see more pictures, and I can't post fast enough, here's a sample of what's to come. Enjoy.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Monday, 10 September 2007 (Nairobi)

Today was a big day. It was our first full day in Africa, and all the excitement was really set to begin now. I expected to have trouble sleeping for a few days, but looking back on it now, I never had any problems at all. Well, save of course for those few moments when I could have slept in, but for what I like to call "Natures Cacaphony." (Actually, that's not fair, there was nothing discordant about any of it - it was harmonious beyond imagination. But more on that later.)

We started this morning with a meeting to discover what we would be doing these next two weeks. We weren't really hungry, still being on a different eating schedule. So after a quick bite of banana and muffin, we headed on down to the conference room reserved for the Micato group. There, we met some of our Micato staff who would guide us during our stay. We had already met our Kenya-side director, Alfred, last night. Kisea (I hope the spelling is right) would be our concierge in and around Nairobi, and assisting her was Regina. Both ladies were just lovely. They handed us our awesome hats, shukas (Maasai red wrap) and hard-carved wooden necklaces (Betsy and I wore this everyday). Alfred walked us through the trip summary, giving us the highlights to come, and some tips for safe travel (don't stress, take your pills, wear long pants and sun protectant, use your Micato hat).

Rakita the elder talked for about 10 minutes, telling us a little bit about his way life as a Maasai. The thing I remember most about his comments, and the thing I try to remember every single day, is the following: "Put your problems out of your way. Stress, I will not allow you to enter my life." (Boy, have I used that the past month since I got back.)

The staff offered to change cash for those who needed to do so, which was a nice touch. And the rate was better than I got at the airport. Oh well. After that, we headed outside to the big van, where Felix and Jane Pinto stopped by to say hello. We also spoke briefly with Rakita, who told us about his only trip to the States. He had gone to New York with Jane to appear on The View. Naturally he was wearing his traditional clothing, so he was spotted constantly afterwards all over the streets! He had several offers to buy him a beer. They then went to Chicago, where he discovered the joys of deep dish pizza. It was neat to hear about his travel to our country.

We boarded the bus to drive briefly around Nairobi, stopping at the pre-selected store, where we could browse and think about what we might like to buy when we return in about two weeks. We drove past several landmarks, including government buildings, churches, parks and the location of the former American embassy. Every year on August 8th a memorial service is held.

We had to cut short our city tour and head over to Lingata Giraffe Center. This was fantastic! Feeding giraffes is an awesome experience. You can't help but smile when you do this. They tend to be pretty gentle, although Daisy will do a nice little head-butt when she's not getting enough.

Then we went to the Karen Blixen Museum (in Kenya, not Denmark - that would be a long drive). This is her former estate/coffee plantation/home of the greatest chick story every told. OK, having never read Out of Africa, I didn't have the typical experience that most everyone else seems to have. (I probably haven't seen the movie because of my attitude toward Meryl Streep - I'm with Jerry Seinfeld on this one.) Still, you could tell this was neat for those who knew what to look for. Frankly, the highlight for me was seeing a real African flame tree. More properly called the African tulip tree, the bright orange flowers up top naturally lend its nickname. I thought this flame tree was just something made up - I was wrong.

For lunch we headed to the Kiambethu Farm, where Marcus welcomed us to his home, for a brief lesson on the tea trade, coffee and drinks, and the first of a zillion fantastic meals. The Colobus monkeys that live on the estate are a sight to see, especially when one of the 10 dogs starts barking at them.

We eventually headed back to the city for a brief rest. That evening we ate dinner at the Pinto's estate. Although Felix was out, Jane met us at the top of the stairs to welcome us to her home. We started with an awesome passion fruit punch, wine, and veggie dip (yummy yogurt-based). Dinner was curry chicken, sweet potatoes, corn off the cob in coconut sauce, and many other treats. We were treated to Alfred leading a chorus of Jambo Bwana, while presenting the birthday cake to B. (That reminds me, I need to introduce everyone, so my shorthand makes sense. See below for our cast of charcters.) Jane and the staff of Micato presented the first of what would be a nightly gift. (In Africa, it is tradition for the host to present a gift to the guest when invited into the home.) The men received a hand-carved soapstone dish, and the ladies were presented Malachite bracelets. We were instructed that we would be leaving at 6:30 tomorrow morning, so we headed back to the Norfolk for the night, with instructions to have our bags outside our door at 6:15 for the porters to deliver to the bus. Betsy and I went to bed that night, with heads spinning and so anxious to get to Amboseli!

For a few shots to enjoy, click here.

And now, introducing our cast of characters:
R&B - A couple from outside Jacksonville, Florida. FSU fans. In our safari vehicle. (They have tried several tour companies, and love Micato.)
B&MJ - A couple from outside Tampa, Florida. Travelling with MJ's sister-in-law E. (MJ can make things happen.)
E - Single traveller from New York. In our safari vehicle. (Having her in the van was a true gift - her enthusiasm is infectious.)
Jn&Je - A couple from Bakersfield, California. VERY experienced travellers. (Je takes excellent candids.)
B&M - Two friends from opposite coasts. (B is a second-time Micato guest, and M tells fabulous New York stories.)

Monday, October 8, 2007

Sunday, 9 September 2007 (Amsterdam to Nairobi)

(As told to my journal by me) -- Technically it is Sunday morning, though I don't feel like it is. The flight went pretty quickly, actually. We had a decent breakfast, sort of a breakfast panini and a box of cookies. And normally I don't drink coffee on the plane, but given all the travel and the need to stay awake, I splurged.

We're scheduled to land in about 15 minutes, or 6:45AM. Given that were booked for a 7:25 touchdown, that's pretty good. No way Delta would have made that time, and they get priority out of ATL. (So far, KLM has done a great job. I really didn't know what to expect, but it's been better than I thought it would be. Although I don't understand why they collect the headphones at the end of the flight. Glad I have my own.)

9:53AM -- The airport got busy quickly this morning. Luckily we arrived at gate F-2 and had to go to F-9. We ran into the same couple we saw at ATL, at check-in, then again at the mailbox at concourse E. They were on our flight over, one aisle behind us, then right in front of us at F-9. (This would end up being a theme.) They are from Alpharetta, meeting some friends for another safari. He said they did it about five years ago, and the experience was just indescribable (yet another recurring theme - although isn't that adjective pretty much contradictory?) They said they are doing a sort of private safari, picking particular places they'd like to visit this time, based on what they saw earlier. Meanwhile, I heard my first Kiswahili being spoken, to the Dutch flight attendants behind us. And I haven't found any other Micat-ites yet.

1:52PM -- Trying to get myself awake. Probably a good idea not to sleep the rest of the flight, so as to get on the right schedule. I should put my contact lenses in. And when do we cross the equator, anyway? I want to say a little hello and thank you to Paw-Paw when we do - as adults, we never got to talk about his Navy experiences, but Mom said he always remembered getting thrown into the Pacific on his first southern crossing. I'm making my own!

5:41PM -- Now I am seriously clock-watching. And just a little bit nervous! Whoever said the food on KLM was bad was nuts. I just had a great soup, salad, and dessert. It was a curry soup with those little fried onion things, and a carrot salad with dried papaya fruit. And it was served McDLT-style, which is awesome.

10:52PM -- I' M HERE! Wow, this is too amazing. We bought some cash as soon as we got off the plane. No idea how good the rate was (65:1), as compared to non-tourist locations. (Didn't know at the time that Micato would change Shillings for us tomorrow at a slightly better rate.)

We had to wait in two different lines at visa control because they didn't know what to do with us since we already had our visas.

Waiting for our bags was actually nerve-racking, not knowing what to expect, how long it would take, which direction the thing would go, etc. It seemed to take forever. Little did (wait a minute - shifting now to past-tense reporting style) we know that Micato had an ace up their sleeve - Selma, she who can make magic happen at NBO! I think she spotted us when we reached for another Micato bag, not ours. Within seconds she was over to introduce herself, and to welcome us to Kenya. She said there were six total on the flight, us plus four others. (These would turn out to be the couple from California, J&J, and the two friends that work together, but live on opposite coasts, B&M. B's luggage experience, and Selma's relentless pursuit of the bags, would come up again later.) When the bags showed up, Selma showed us where to sit and wait for the other four. After gathering everyone, we proceeded to the vans, joined by driver Charles. The drive to the hotel was sort of uneventful, since it was well into evening at this point and there was very little to see.

The hotel, the Norfolk , is beautiful. It looks like classic royal lodgings. The lovely Micato hostess (Kisea, our concierge), brought our keys and led us to our rooms, with an appointment to get started on our Monday gathering at 7:45AM. The room had roses waiting for us, and a wonderful fruit basket. This was also my first experience with bottled water as a cleaning tool. It's easy to slip up with things like running your toothbrush under the faucet by mistake. But there is always bottled water available at every lodge, and Micato always makes sure you have plenty available wherever you are. The room was two twin beds, and a very comfortable bathroom. There was some construction going on, so we had a view of the under-renovation health club. But as we would find out quickly, it wouldn't matter too much, because Micato makes sure you earn your free time (i.e. - they keep you pretty busy!) We settled in pretty quickly, cleaned up just a bit, then went to sleep, ready to get the adventure started tomorrow.