Kenya Believe We're in Africa? Safari- Part 1

Trip Start Jul 26, 2004
Trip End May 31, 2005

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Toto, we're not in South East Asia anymore. The first thing we saw when we left the Nairobi airport was a giraffe. The lack of buzzing motorcycles and scooters was also a telltale sign, as everywhere we looked people were walking (in fields and beside the highways) to get to their destination. Given the option of taking Nairobi's main form of public transportation, derelict minivans called matatus, crammed with people, we would have chosen to walk too.

Whatever fears we had about landing in Africa, they were all laid to waste with the help of Lara's old friend from Queen's, Dagmar, and her husband Andrew. To begin with, they welcomed us into their wonderful home while we were in Nairobi. Then Dagmar had a hand in organizing our week long safari at four different parks. And if that wasn't enough, she also included us in a weekend self-drive excursion through one of the parks with her ex- pat friends.

Let us just take a minute now to talk a little bit about the kindness of friends and (what were once) strangers during this trip. Everywhere we have gone we have been treated to the most incredible warmth and hospitality by people we have not seen in years, or have just met for the first time. Since we really aren't that nice ourselves, we feel completely abashed at the treatment we have received. I guess this means that we'll have to change our bitchy ways and become nicer ourselves. That's what all of you have to look forward to upon our return. Don't worry, we'll still retain our edge, but once we have a home to live in, you are welcome to visit us- just don't expect a home-cooked meal. Trust us, we're saying that for your own good. Anyway, thanks to all of you who have hosted, supported and taken care of us on our journey, but we digress....

So...our first weekend in Kenya began with a group of Dagmar's friends meeting us at her place where we loaded their 4WD SUVs for the trip to the south end of the Aberdares National Park, which has the notoriety of having more elephants per kilometre than anywhere else in Kenya. After a two-hour ride to get there, we arrived at a fishing lodge that had more than enough room for all seven of us.We unpacked and then we hit the trails on the lookout for animals. Through treacherous trails we spotted some hyenas, a family of warthogs, Cape buffaloes and even our first elephants as the sun set and the animals came out of hiding, preparing to hunt. Unfortunately, we came to discover firsthand that dusk isn't the best time to be on park trails. As we journeyed down 'roads' that looked like they hadn't been driven on in years, we came to the realization that we were a little lost, and time was running out as the big animals were awaking for their night prowls. After much consultation with poor maps, a few steep drives into untouched territory, and some close calls with buffaloes in our way (or were we in their way?), we were able to find the main road back to our cabin. We returned to our cabin under the light of the stars to eat by the warm glow of lanterns and a fire.

On our second day we got a park ranger to accompany us on a three-hour hike to see the wonderful waterfalls in the area. This was the first time we spent any time with someone with an exposed rifle (for our protection from the animals), and although we saw many animal tracks, luckily there was no reason for him, or us, to use it. As we left the lodge and made our way back to Nairobi, we had the opportunity to drive through a stream of Kenyans returning from church in their most colourful attire. Upon our return to Dagmar's we had to pack up once again as we were to embark the next day on a week long safari.

We have been extremely lucky with several things on this trip and our safari worked out to be another one of those things. We had a van with a pop top (on safari all vehicles have sun roofs) and our driver, Michael, all to ourselves - a private safari. Our first day was a long one of driving, as we drove north from Nairobi, in the shadow of Mount Kenya, to a private game reserve called Sweetwaters. After staying in $6-10 hotels in Asia, we had a bit of a shock as we arrived at a 5-star tented resort. Tents of course, mean something different than the ones we are used to in Algonquin Park. These ones have huge double beds, electric lanterns and full ensuite bathrooms that are bigger (and cleaner) than the one in our old apartment (not difficult).

In order to get these type of luxury accommodations, at non-luxury prices (although still a lot more than Asia) we had to tell a couple of white lies (sorry Pa Koretsky). First we pretended we were residents of Kenya, as they pay a 1/4 of the price of tourists. We memorized Dagmar and Andrew's address and made up a story about Lara doing training for the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Exactly, what does a Jewish girl from the city know about farming, but luckily no one caught on. Then we were upgraded further as it was our honeymoon. For those of you who are keeping count this is our 7th honeymoon in 3 years. By the end of the trip we were so confused as to the stories we made up, we decided it was best not to talk to anyone other than ourselves for fear of blowing our cover.

Sweetwaters is set up along a watering hole, so as the animals come to you, you just have to sit in the restaurant or on the chairs in front of your tent, sipping wine and waiting. Not exactly the way the British used to safari. Of course we aren't ones to sit around and wait, so Michael took us on our first game drive. We saw several animals, including zebras, Cape buffaloes, giraffes, warthogs and baboons before we stopped at the Jane Goodhall Chimpanzee Sanctuary. There we had a guide show us the chimps who had been brought there after being orphaned (by illegal poachers) or abused. Our guide had a limited grasp of the English language and would repeat himself often ("Welcome, my name is Francis and there are 37 chimps at the sanctuary." "How did you get the chimps?" "Welcome, my name is Francis and there are 37 chimps at the sanctuary."), but he was friendly and knew all the chimps by name.

From there we went on a ride looking for rhinos. When we couldn't find them in the wild, Michael brought us to see Morani, 'the friendly rhino'. Another wonderful guide brought us to his pen, called for him and sure enough Morani came running towards us. Now this was one of those moments you have where your brain says you're not supposed to just stand there as one of the most dangerous animals in the wild comes charging towards you. Hell, you're supposed to turn and run like hell!...but instead we stood there like dumb Canadians and waited for Morani to come right up to us. Fortunately his title was true and Morani ended up being a sweet animal, kind of like a pug (Lara's comment), although much cuter (Chris' comment). He was so used to humans after his mother was killed by poachers, that it has been impossible to reintegrate him into the wild rhino population on the reserve. He let us hug and pet him (finally a wild animal let Lara hug it) and followed us back to our van, as he didn't want to say goodbye. Our guide also took us to another pen with Carolyn, a friendly warthog. Our driver, Michael, informed us that the other warthogs and rhinos we would encounter would not let us hug or play with them, so it would be best not to try.

The next day we stopped at the Equator line and watched a scientific experiment that demonstrated how water spins in opposite directions on different sides of the equator (remember our toilet flushing experiment in New Zealand?). Our next destination was the Aberdares Country Club for lunch. Again the opulence kind of knocked us out and we're sure we were not the only ones thinking "what the hell are the 2 scruffy backpackers doing here?" We had a wonderful meal overlooking a golf course on the highlands of Kenya, where the sand hazards weren't the only things to worry about, as warthogs and baboons grazed on the green and are considered a two stroke penalty.

From here we were taken to the Ark, a 5-star resort similar to Sweetwaters, with a watering hole and a salt lick to draw the animals to you. Only this time, our lodge was a wooden building that was shaped like Noah's Ark. We could not leave the building as it was too dangerous to roam where the animals do, but we had four floors of viewing lounges where we could have a drink, relax on the sofas by a fire and watch as a herd of buffaloes and giant forest hogs (very rare animals) came in and out of our sight. During dinner we were alerted that an elephant had arrived and under the floodlights we saw him scooping up salt in his trunk.

At the Ark there is an alarm system to let you know if the animals have come through the night. In each room is a buzzer and if specific animals are spotted then you get a buzz: 1 buzz for elephants, 2 buzzes for rhinos, 3 buzzes for leopards, 4 buzzes for any rarer animals, 5 buzzes for a tourist being eaten by any of the above. At about 12:30 am we got the call that elephants had arrived. We raced to one of the viewing platforms and saw 7 elephants roaming the saline area with a little baby. The other animals spread out and gave the elephants their room. Within a few minutes 7 more elephants approached. The herd was very protective of the baby and trumpeted a blast with their trunks as a buffalo and a spotted hyena tried to approach. What an amazing sight! We still had 5 more days of our safari to go, and already we had seen so much.

Instead of overloading you with details now we will update you next time with details of the end of our safari. As it has been very difficult to upload photos, or even access the Internet in Africa, we promise that we'll show you the new pictures whenever we can. Please be patient, (something we're not).
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