Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Very Kenyan New Year

Kilimanjaro at Sunrise

I went on what I believe will be my last wildlife safari this week to Tsavo National Park. Tsavo is the largest park in Kenya, covering more than 13,000 square miles and split into an East and West park. My Pfizer colleague Fiona and her visiting friend Liam and I had planned to spend 4 days at a tent camp there, going on game drives, lounging by the pool and generally just taking it easy.

We arranged the trip through Tim, the cab driver/travel agent who had organized our Zanzibar trip. All these guys seem to be connected somehow, and he had said that Michael, the driver who took us to Nakuru and Amboseli would be our driver once again. Unfortunately, early Monday morning I got a call from Michael explaining that he could not make it, but instead his friend Jimmy would be our guide. He assured us that Jimmy was a safe driver and knew the area well and we were in good hands.

Jimmy picked us up on time and as we started to head out about 9:00 am, he asked if we wanted to stop at the grocery store to pick up some snacks. We asked him how long the drive would be and when he replied 2.5 hours, we decided that we would be fine without a stop. The 2.5 hours didn’t sound quite right to any of us as we thought the park was more like 4-5 hours away, but not being familiar with the country or the roads, we believed what he told us. That was our first mistake.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Kenyan roads are just awful. In Nairobi proper, they are riddled with potholes large enough for a goat to fall into (and they do.) Outside of the city, there is a push to repave some of the major roads, such as the highway that runs from Nairobi to Mombasa. However, unlike in the States, repaving does not take place during low-traffic times, nor are cars shunted to other lanes during construction. Instead, a dirt road strewn with rocks is created parallel to the road under construction. These roads last for miles, and the bumps and dust is unbelievable. Also, although it is supposedly two lanes, but in actuality only about the width of one car, cars and truck perilously pass one another on both sides. We saw horrific accidents, most involving trucks and matatus who misgauged the on-coming traffic.

We finally arrived outside the park gates about 2:00, and thought that the lodge would be a short drive inside the park. By this time, we were hot and hungry and were looking forward to a late lunch at the lodge. We were relying on Jimmy to know how to get there, but that was our second mistake. First, Jimmy took us to see Mzima Springs, a series of clear pools where hippos can be seen from an underground viewing post. After a brief visit, we got back in the van to head to the lodge. Unfortunately, the signage in Tsavo West did not list either the lodge or the entry gate where we needed to go, as it was approximately 60 miles away from where we had entered (we couldn’t enter any closer to the lodge because we would have had to go through Tanzania.) We started driving in circles, trying every small road and off-shoot. We were all frustrated, including Jimmy who wanted to go back to where we entered the park and start fresh. It so happens that he had never been to Tsavo before and he had no idea of where to go. We finally stopped at another lodge, asked directions, bought a useless map for $15 and were told we had a 1.5 hour drive ahead of us.

We finally arrived at the camp around 6:30 pm and were greeted with the traditional warm towel and cool glass of juice and found out that the lodge did not have a swimming pool - argh! We were then shown to our tents - no need for room keys here. When I first walked in, I was on the verge of tears. The standard issue green tent was furnished with three twin beds, a crib and a bare light bulb hanging over one of the beds. It was not the luxury tent I had envisioned (or seen at other lodges) and was more like something found at a Girl Scout camp. The back of the tent was partitioned with a canvas flap to hold a bathroom, complete with toilet, sink and shower. A single light bulb illuminated the bathroom, but not enough to see anything beyond the dark green of the canvas and the fixtures. I was convinced that we should leave first thing in the morning and go to the lodge where we had asked directions.

Dozing Crock

However, after a not very satisfying shower, a tasty dinner on the lawn in front of the animal watering hole and good night’s sleep, things looked somewhat brighter in the morning. The camp provided the guests with a personal naturalist, so Steven, a Masai, took us on a nature hike around the camp to see hippos, crocodiles and taught us about the native plants and birds. That afternoon, he accompanied us on a game drive, but unfortunately, aside from a recently deceased elephant carcass, we didn’t see any interesting animals. In the evening, we went on a nighttime game drive and again, there were no animals to be found aside from some bush babies up in the trees.

Baby Monkeys Playing on Hammock

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

We had read that the lodge offered horseback riding on thoroughbreds, so the following day, decided to give that a try. To say that the horses were thoroughbreds would be the wildest stretch of imagination possible. They were housed at a farm a few miles from the lodge, in one of the poorest villages I had seen. There were four horses, but only two were capable of riding (they barely looked capable of standing), and the guide needed one, so Liam went for a ride while Fiona, Jimmy, Steven and I went to the local bar (no matter how poor a village, there is always a bar) and had a cold drink. I suspect we had a better time discussing politics, poverty and healthcare than Liam who said his horse went so slowly he was afraid it would fall asleep.

On New Year’s Eve, the lodge threw a party. First, were cocktails and “bitings” (appetizers) on the lawn. Then, dinner with a presentation and dancing by a group of Masai warriors. As midnight grew closer, the lodge staff came out and started dancing to the boom box that was playing hits from the 70s. The chef tried to keep order and announce the stroke of midnight, but everyone’s watches were different, so at sometime near twelve, he gave up and pronounced it 2009. Balloons were spilled on the ground to be stomped on, champagne and cake were passed and the Masai started dancing to Kool and the Gang. It was a memorable evening and one that won’t soon be forgotten.

It’s back to work on Monday, after a nearly two weeks off. I suspect the next eight weeks will go quickly as I wrap up work, get in my last travels and head back to the States at the end of February.


Michael said...

Hi Marge. Glad you have survived yet another (mis)adventure. Loved the monkeys on the hammock! Happy New Year. - Mike

Meet Melida said...

I agree with Mike, I'm not sure the monkeys on the hammock can be beat... Of course videos of the Masai dancing to Kool and the Gang might be a close rival. Happy New Year and safe travels. It seems all your journeys in Africa have been about letting go of expectations...

Ant said...

Hey Marge
Thanks for continuing to share these. Boy does it bring back a flood of great memories.