Adventures in East Africa—Part I

After taking off from Lagos, our charter plane headed across the vast continent of Africa on its way to Nairobi, Kenya.  It flew for hours and hours and for miles and miles.  Africa is more than three times bigger than the continental United States.  According to Wikipedia, Africa is 11,725,385 square miles, while the United States is about 3,618,780 square miles.

After many hours of flying, we landed in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, about half-way to our destination, to refuel.  From what I saw of the city, it appeared to lack much development and seemed like a traditional African town.  The roads appeared to be solely dirt roads.  There were many rectangular mud houses with straw roofs but not built in any particular design or pattern, from what I could tell.  However, it struck me that all the houses seemed identical.  French was the official language of this country.  Interestingly, airport officials ordered us not to take any pictures of the airport.  In 1966, the population of the capital was 153,000, compared to 910,000 in 2021.

Nairobi was and is, the capital and the largest city in Kenya.  According to Wikipedia, its population in 1966 was 427,000, but it has grown to 4.9 million in 2021.  The city’s name comes from the Masai language and means “cool water,” a reference to the Nairobi River that flows through the city.  Colonial officials for the British East Africa company founded Nairobi in 1899 as a rail depot for the Uganda Railway.  It grew quickly and supplanted Mombasa as the capital of Kenya in 1907.  Kenya gained its independence in 1963. 

As we flew into Nairobi, we observed a generally flat, spacious barren countryside.   I was somewhat perplexed what I was going to do.  I could have gone with George, John, and Garry, my fellow PCVs from the Ivory Coast, but their desire to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, left me unimpressed and disinterested.  As it happened, Pat Kerr, Susan Hitchcock, Lisa Lancaster, and Augusta Lucas—other PCVs—asked me if I would join them.  They wanted a male to accompany them because they knew nothing about cars.  I tried to tell them I knew nothing about cars, either.  But they insisted simply because I was a male.  After repeating that I knew nothing about cars, I agreed to go with them.

Sunday, July 24, we rented a Ford Zephyr so that we could drive wherever we wanted.  Our first choice was to visit Nairobi National Park.  Kenya established the park in 1946 in an area of abut forty-five square miles.  An absolutely spectacular array of wild animals filled the park with baboons (loads of them), two species of antelope (Bush-Bush and Dik-Dik), large eland, Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle, giraffe (many dark-colored and dark-spotted), hartebeest, hippopotamus, impala, jackals, monkeys, warthogs, wildebeest, and zebras, plus a crocodile, two tortoises, and an ostrich or two.  We missed seeing hares, hyenas, lions, mongooses, and squirrels inside the park. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed this wide array of wildlife.  It also amazed us to see the wildlife being so accustomed to cars and people inside them they were frequently not afraid even when the car moved to within ten to fifteen feet away.  Examples of animals with this behavior included giraffe, ostrich, wildebeest, and zebras.  And, of course, baboons!  Baboons climbed all over the car.  If you fed them, the baboons would converge en masse on your car.  We had one that rode on the car for a short while.  Some carried their babies on their backs or clinging to their stomachs while they mingled with the cars.

When we arrived at the animal orphanage at the main gate of the Nairobi National Park, we observed hyenas, a cheetah, a leopard, three lions, mongooses, a bush pig, and many species of monkeys, and a chimpanzee.  What really shocked me was seeing a cheetah with a three-foot high fence around it at the gate display zoo.  That was the only protection between me and the cheetah!!  A cheetah is certainly one of the fastest animals on earth.  I was afraid it would be a simple effort for a cheetah to jump the fence and enjoy a human feast.  So, apparently, the cheetah was tame enough or incapable of jumping a three-foot fence.  I never did find out which was true.  Just seeing the cheetah like that made me really nervous.

On Monday, we needed to get a visa to visit Tanzania and to make preparations to enter Amboseli National Park in Kenya.  It was also time to purchase food and any other items we thought we needed.  In the immigration office, we waited about two and a half hours for our visas.  A mass of people had converged on the office this day and, needless to say, most were Americans.

In the afternoon, we toured the National Museum that had opened in 1929 as a memorial to Sir Robert Coryndon, a former governor of Kenya.  The museum displayed wildlife in natural settings, including a lion, leopard, eland, mongooses, and numerous species of antelope.  Other displays showed skulls, tools, and weapons of prehistoric humans and animals.  It was fascinating to note such things as the declining sizes of human jaws, the forward big teeth of lions, and the decreasing size but increasing curvature of the warthog.  Paintings of East African wild flowers decorated the walls.  It was fabulous to see an enormous collection of birds of all sizes, shapes, and colors from sparrows to eagles, plus insects especially butterflies.  Perhaps about 1,000 species of butterflies comprised the collection.  Native tribal clothing, normal and ceremonial headdresses, elementary musical instruments,  recreational games, and metal works constituted another display.  We also saw displays of fish and reptiles.

I decided to go to the snake park where I saw live species of deadly snakes such as cobra, vipers, and mambas plus harmless snakes as well.  Some vipers were four or five inches wide but only three feet long.   I sure was glad these snakes were in glass cages or enclosures and not roaming freely,  I had the chance to see two crocodiles too.  In addition, they had a display of many birds of which one species was green, yellow, and blue—beautiful and colorful.

In Nairobi, I took notice that this modern, bustling city had a tremendous number of Indians living there.  Many were local merchants who sold just about everything.  Later in the tour, I found out that there were three price levels for every piece of merchandise.  There was the price for the Europeans, a separate price for the Indians, and a third price for the Kenyans—for the same item, no matter what the item was.  That was disconcerting to me.

On Tuesday, July 25, we drove to Masai Amboseli Game Reserve for a visit and arrived in late afternoon.  We were very dirty from the flying dust on the dirt roads.  On the way there, we stopped in Namanga at the Masai Amboseli Game Reserve entrance at a roadside stand to see the colorful beaded necklaces and other craftwork.  When I tried to bargain with the Kenyans, they refused.  For a ten-inch beaded necklace, they asked for twenty-five shillings.   They simply refused to budge on the price.  It occurred to me that many rich people must have taught them, and all the Masai, that bargaining was unnecessary because the rich people did not know how to bargain and because someone would pay the price, anyway.  Of course, I had no way of knowing whether or not that was true.

Following this shopping spree, we entered the Masai Amboseli Game Reserve or what is now called the Amboseli National Park.  This national park is located in Southern Kenya near the Tanzanian border and covers an area of 151 square miles (392 square kilometers).  According to Wikipedia, it is famous for being “the best place in the world to get close to free-ranging elephants.”  The park protects a wide variety of wildlife such as the elephant, buffalo, lion, hyena, giraffe, Grant’s gazelle, and wildebeest.  It is also known for 400 species of birds including pelicans, kingfishers, crakes, hamerkop, and forty-seven raptor species.

As we drove through the game reserve, we were so excited and stopped for every animal we observed.   Once, when crossing the desert and the dry Lake Amboseli, we thought we could see water.  So, we left the road and drove to investigate.  However, we soon realized we had seen a very realistic mirage.

Later, Augusta, Pat, and I decided to accept the invitation of Mr. and Mrs. Martin, a charming couple we’d just met, to follow them and their guide.  Susan and Lisa complained of being too tired and stayed at the lodge.  So the three of us followed the Martins, who impressed me as being a very congenial couple.  Their personalities seemed to complement each other.  Both acted very friendly and cheerful and were always smiling.  We followed the nice couple and observed many animals in such as waterbuck, wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle.  I kept trying to figure out whether the gazelle I observed were Grant’s gazelle or Thomson gazelle during my tours, looking at the animals.  The Thomson gazelle had a wide black stripe on its sides between its front and hind legs.  However, that black stripe was not on the Grant’s gazelle.  It turned out that I paused too long trying to take pictures and lost the Martins.  As we wandered around, we could not find them.  Finally, to our great delight, we spotted a rhino slowly ambling along across the plains.  We moved up very close and took pictures.  Then we backtracked and crossed a lake area where we observed three hippos wallowing in the water.

At this time, we spotted the Martins, who beckoned us to join them again.  As we followed them, we again saw the hippo.  We learned the Martins had observed two lions eating a hippo while we were separated.  We felt very disappointed that we missed that opportunity.  When we saw the hippo again, we also spotted a huge lumbering elephant. Every time we attempted to photograph the elephant, he turned away and showed his hind side to our cameras.  Eventually, we got a few pictures.  Later, we came upon two lions on the plains.  Apparently, they were the same two lions seen earlier by the Martins.  We drove close to them to take pictures.

It was astonishing to me to see such a tremendous variety of animals in such a small area.  We only drove about fifteen miles from the lodge and then back to the lodge.  I felt very pleased with our safari that afternoon.

The next day, Wednesday, all five of us toured Amboseli and were fortunate to see several arresting scenes.  Standing near the road and chewing his cud was a large buffalo.  He intently watched us drive to within about fifteen feet, and he did not move.  All 2,000 pounds, or whatever his exact weight might have been, stayed perfectly still.  Earlier in the day, we watched two buffaloes run away as we approached.

Then we came upon two lions eating near a water hole.  The muddy ground prevented us from getting very close.   We were just thrilled to see the lions. For all we knew, they could have been the same two lions that the Martins saw the previous day.  Next, after we drove further, we spotted four adult and three baby elephants.  Real excited, we rushed over to see them.  As we drove to the left of the elephants, the babies instinctively moved to the right side of their parents.  When we moved to the right side, the baby elephants moved to the left side.  The parents always remained between the young elephants and potential danger.  When apparently, we moved just a little too close, one enormous elephant turned and faced us and raised its trunk as if to warn us not to proceed any closer.  I quickly stopped and snapped his picture.  Quite thrilling!!  Reluctantly, we left the elephants to see more animals.

We caught up with the Martins and saw they had stopped, not an unusual or infrequent occurrence for people on safari.  As it turned out, a pride of lions was crossing the road. The pride consisted of four lionesses and eleven cubs, half of which were about twice the size of the smaller ones.  They marched in single file in an orderly fashion across the road.  We followed them for quite a while and observed them stalk a wildebeest.  However, the wildebeest became alert to their presence and remained away from the lions.  Those were the highlights of our tours in Amboseli.  Next, we plan to visit the game reserves in Tanzania.

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