Elephants and Mt. Kilimanjaro - Amboseli NP

Trip Start Jan 27, 2012
Trip End Feb 27, 2012

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Amboseli National Park

Flag of Kenya  ,
Sunday, May 6, 2012

"The gladdest moment in human life, methinks, is a departure into unknown lands. The blood flows, with the fast circulation of childhood."

Sir Richard Burton

While I waited for my next safari to join I was able to get to know several of the travelers who had been staying for some time at the Miliwani Backpacker. Each person represented a hopeful future direction for Kenya.

First was Max a young Dutchman eager to move to Nairobi and join his African girlfriend. To do so he was hoping to become a gainfully employed economist working for Kenya's economic development ministry. While he patiently waited for Kenya's bureaucratic decision-making process to eventually make this move possible he was lending his economic expertise to Kevin, the resident elder statesman. One of the girls working at the backpackers jokingly called Kevin "Santa Claus". Kevin was British but born in Kenya; his life and spirit embodied both his Kenyan and British roots. Kevin had worked many years in various African nations' agriculture / forestry management departments. Kevin had also worked as a driver for film productions in Kenya including the movie Mad Max.

Having Lived in London for the past few years Kevin was happy to return to, as he put it, "home" in Kenya. Kevin wanted to see his Kenya succeed, as did Max, and both wanted to contribute to its successful future. Kevin was working on a plan to establish a large-scale bamboo farm. Bamboo production has many advantages: providing a solution to Kenya’s deforestation problem by providing a better firewood source, has a stabilizing root system that helps mitigate soil erosion, provides a strong, durable source for furniture-making, is faster growing than a normal tree, is very profitable and provides employment. They were working on a sales proposal to secure investment in their plan, hoping to pitch the plan to a representative from the Dutch embassy’s economic development division.

The third gentleman went by the name of “Easy”. He was a German/ Turkish 40-50ish world traveler. Intelligent, charismatic self-proclaimed Ladies Man, Easy had lived an interesting life; having lived in Spain and most recently Panama, always in search of new discoveries, both spiritually and financially. “Kenya”, he mused, was currently “calling him”. He had just hooked up with a pretty slender Nairobi woman he met through a social network web site. He operated his own marketing online yellow pages business. As he says, he sells space. Nairobi was fast developing and marketing itself as the future technology hub for east Africa, if not all of Africa, and “Easy” wanted to be a part of that future.

After several days at the Backpackers, I was back on the road, heading toward my next adventure, Amboselli National Park. Not as prolific in wildlife as Masai Mara, Amboseli National Park still offered a wide range of animal species to view. The highlight of the park is viewing the hundreds of elephants that live within its boundaries, observing their daily migration under the shadow of majestic Mount Kilimanjaro; the quintessential Africa image.                                                                               
The elephant’s daily migration ritual begins with the elephants leaving their forested refuge, crossing the desert plain to reach the cool waters and lush vegetation around the swamp and outlying lake sections. By late afternoon, the elephants begin their return journey back across the open plains to the forest.

Once again, I was fortunate with my tour guide selection. His name was Oscar, around 40 years of age, a veteran in the tour guide business. He was an amiable gentleman well liked by others judging by his jovial conversations with other guides, policemen and park rangers. What I especially liked about Oscar was his joyful enthusiasm. Eight years of driving tourists along the same dirt tracks looking for animals had not diminished his appreciation. His voice still lit up with excitement whenever we came across a wondrous animal sighting, like it was his very first time.

With our quiet Polish friend staying back at the camp, Oscar and I drove through the Amboseli alone, meandering down the dirt roads while observing the wildlife. By late afternoon, we strategically positioned our vehicle to witness Amboseli’s glorious highlight… 200-300 elephants marching across the dry plains with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background, illuminated by late evening’s dramatic light.  Along the road, we quietly waited for the approaching elephants. The whole event felt like a well-orchestrated pageantry; Natures’ own classical symphony. The first elephant families marched at a very mellow, rhythmic pace; slow and steady moved the mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, teenagers and baby elephants. Having smaller strides, the baby elephants often had to race alongside the pack to maintain the same pace as their much larger family members.

With each new group procession an increasing tempo accompanied their pace, especially as the evening light grew fainter. Faster and faster they moved, kicking up swirls of dust in their wake, until finally the fast trot accelerated into a full strident charge, elephants trumpeting across the plains as the thinning golden light blanketed the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro. The air was alive and vibrant, full steam ahead ran the elephants as surprised zebras and wildebeest scrambled to get out of harm’s way! Nature’s crescendo triumphant! Then… the denouement, the quiet soon engulfed the air again. The elephants were gone, and the sunset’s vanishing glow silhouetted the graceful acacia trees. Kilimanjaro was also fading, curtains being drawn, disappearing behind its own billowing clouds. “What a performance!” Oscar and I cooed. Bravo!

Back at camp, on a more serious, reflective note, Oscar explained the current difficulties park management has been having in regards to the elephants.  Elephant overpopulation had become a new reality. The elephants’ past ability to migrate to more manageable habitats when herds became too large has been impeded by the advancement of new villages established between Amboseli and West Tsavo National Parks. This impediment to the elephants’ natural population growth dissemination has led to Amboseli’s elephant overpopulation and increased deforestation. Naturally, politicians were not addressing this concern and so nothing was being done.

The campground view could not be beat, with Mount Kilimanjaro’s majestic magnificence within clear view. Outside the compound, I could see a baboon family scampering through the brush. Today, the snows of Kilimanjaro have diminished considerably since Hemingway’s time. The undeniably rapid effects of climate change are having their impact here on this iconic setting as the snows of Kilimanjaro are receding, as are the glaciers on Mount Kenya.

On our last morning Marcos, me, and our local Maasai guide went for an early morning hike. Not your typical morning stroll or hike through the woods, like back home, where you might, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of a scurrying squirrel or a passing deer. Here, unfenced, unprotected, we walked through the open brush where zebras and giraffes grazed less than fifty yards away. “Could we come across an elephant?” we asked. “Is possible” said our young guide. How cool is that! We ultimately didn’t… but we could have!

Amboseli is not too far from the Tsavo National Park. Tsavo’s name is forever linked with the Maneaters of Tsavo legend. Over a hundred years ago, during the construction of a railroad link with the port in Mombasa, two maneless male lions had claimed the lives of near one hundred railroad workers. Two movies, The Ghost and the Darkness and Bwana Devil loosely depict this story. Eventually hunted and killed, their bodies were found to have abnormally high levels of testosterone, which could explain their hair loss and extreme territorial behavior. Tsavo lions in general have a reputation for ferocity versus their more laid back cousins in the Mara.

In Amboselli, we did see a large pack of lions, ambling through the jungle vegetation. I wondered if these were the ferocious or laid back variety of lions. I also wondered if we could have come across them during our morning walk…. Is possible!

I returned to Nairobi after three days in Amboseli. Now greeted by familiar faces at the Miliwani, I would here the latest tales being told by the latest round of traveling characters.

Two great world travelers, Mark and Todd, one Aussie, and one Brit/Norwegian had just finished their overland backpacker drive from Capetown, South Africa to Nairobi, Kenya. Mark particularly liked to travel to the more remote, more exotic and even dangerous countries. The guys were abuzz with crazy stories to tell, mostly themed around trials and tribulations, lowlights and some highlights. Their trip begins with amiable Mark getting robbed and having his passport stolen on New Years’ Eve by several South African rednecks who see him, Todd and their black tour guide having a beer.

Once underway, the much-hyped overland truck adventure offered a less than comfortable incredibly bumpy ride. Outlawed as a transportation vehicle in every other continent, the overland trucks are designed for cargo transport, not people. Only Africa allows these trucks to be retrofitted for this purpose. The days are mostly spent bouncing in the vehicles, pitching their tents and food preparation in the evening and getting up before dawn to pack tents in the morning; very little time for sleep and sightseeing.

Often, in places like Zimbabwe, traffic accident delays were common with numerous fatal accidents along Zimbabwe roads.

Todd’s description of Malawi’s current plight was a particularly telling anecdote for many African countries’ situations.  Malawi’s precipitous decline into economic ruin stems from the British government’s recent refusal to fund the Malawi government as a punishment for Malawi’s government’s new anti-homosexual law. Malawi’s GDP was 80 percent reliant on foreign aid subsidy. Being land-locked, Malawai has no port, and few commercialized natural resources. As no surprise, their president is also blatantly corrupt. The country is suffering from hyper inflation due to embargoes and the government’s inability to pay for petrol from Mozambique. Commerce grinds to a halt w/o fuel for trucks. No supplies means hundreds of thousands are now starving; the economic domino effect which always hurts the people the hardest. This is just one of many sad African contemporary tales.

Then came the Stone Town, Zanzibar tale: the majority of their group getting dysentery; one poor girl was in such bad shape she needed IV at the hospital. Possible dysentery source… poor hygiene conditions, cheap wine, fake cokes, refilled water bottles… take your pick. Todd would repeatedly preface these stories with the pessimistic catch-phrase TIA, which means That IS Africa, to universally cover the unique ways and events that persist on the African continent.

There was a highlight they beamed and that was the incredible prolific wildlife viewing in Serengeti. Perfect, I said, for that would be my next destination… Tanzania and the Serengeti Plains.

While Mark and Todd’s organized tour had its multiple shares of pitfalls, there was one crazy fellow who blissfully traveled alone through the Dark Continent without incident. He was a Greek Australian traveling in his model T-Ford who had arrived at our Nairobi Milimani Backpacker for a brief respite. His goal was to travel from Capetown, South Africa to Moscow, via Iran. He wanted to replicate the same route some other intrepid adventurer took in a “new” model T-Ford back in the early 1900s.

I’m not certain if our Greek gentleman had taken the geopolitical changes that have taken place in the last 90 years into account, however, raw determination seemed to be his guiding light for this journey. His next northern route would take him through current war zone regions in the Sudan and Ethiopia.  Then of course, there’s Iran and Russia.

 I wished this mad adventurer best of luck… and a guardian angel or two by his side.

To see more of my photography, please visit www.michaelmcguerty.com

To read more of my writings, please visit www.pecoskid.com

To view my Africa video, please visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7Sb2ncvmzw 

Hakuna matata!

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