Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Kenya and Tanzania: Introduction!

     My husband and I just returned from 19 days in Kenya and Tanzania, a somewhat difficult trip which included stays at 6 permanent tented camps and 4 lodges throughout various conservancies, national parks of Kenya and Tanzania and private game reserves. The positives of this trip far outweighed the negatives, but it was still a difficult trip, with long days in safari vehicles on perhaps the most consistently horrible roads that we have encountered on any of our visits to 91 different countries. Yes there were individual roads, for example in Costa Rica, and the one to Sani Pass in Lesotho that were worse, but these were in limited areas. The roads in Kenya and Tanzania's bush are universally and consistently horrible. There is really no consistent attempt to bring in gravel, or to grade them, and many are just dirt tracks which the rainy season turns into absolute quagmires which then dry to be a combination of hillocks and potholes that require even the 4 wheel drive safari vehicles to go very slow and time the acceleration just right to get past each such segment. My bottom became very sore, from the bumping and sliding that you do inside the vehicle hitting each of these potholes. There is a lot of ground to cover inside these large national parks and plots of land, so some degree of speed has to be maintained. One day I even took the tent bed pillow with me to help cushion the shocks.
The Great Rift Valley in the highlands of Kenya.

      Sometimes I kidded our guides: "You are familiar with the beautiful Great Rift Valley. Well, there is a Lesser Rift Valley opening up right in the middle of this road." They would always politely laugh.
A typical road across the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.

    Just when I would think that I wanted to go back to camp, there would be an animal vignette which touched my heart and I would forget about my sore bottom and just enjoy. I plan to present some of these vignettes in words and photos over the next few postings on this blog, so stay tuned to Renaissance Woman Retired blogsite for more information.
A heard of impala grazing near our tent in Porini Lion Camp.

Grant's gazelle near our camp. Very attractive ungulates.

Giraffes were absolutely everywhere.

Hippos near the Mara River.

     Perhaps I should comment on some recent world happenings that centered in Nairobi, Kenya and how they affected us. Though we spent almost no time in the city of Nairobi itself, we did fly into Nairobi and spend a night at what used to be a Holiday Inn in the city. Actually it was only about 5 hours because our plane arrived at about midnight and by the time we got our baggage and proceeded through the entry procedures, and got to our hotel it was about 1:30 AM and we were being picked up at 7 AM the next morning to begin our travels. We had a lot of miles to make that first day, heading for the Olare Orok Conservancy adjacent to the Masai Mara Game Reserve in northwestern Kenya for a two night stay in a tented camp with game drives in the Conservancy and into the Masai Mara. We also flew out of Nairobi about 2 1/2 weeks later, and 1 day after the end of the siege and destruction of the modern mall by Somali terrorists in downtown Nairobi. We were in Tanzania while much of this tragedy occurred but we were concerned about how procedures at the airport might have changed due to the tragedy and we also had a vague sense of unease just because again terrorism had struck down innocent people just going about their normal day to day business, having harmed no one to so deserve death and injury.

     First of all, the Nairobi International Airport had a major fire occur in August, 2013. It was not thought to be any kind of terrorism, but foul play has not been ruled out. It started in the immigration department in the very early morning hours when the airport was inactive. There is some contention that it was an attempt to burn records that might show all the illegal immigration that has been occurring there, perhaps people and items that are coming or going with knowledge of local authorities but without the proper documents and approval. At any rate, whatever the cause, with some questioned delays in fire department response, almost the entire airport building was gutted. One small wing of gates survived and that is now used for some departures and waiting areas. Many departures wait in a small room in the basement of that surviving wing and then are bused to tents as their airplanes pull up to the tents. Arrivals, immigration and customs are in another tent. I think the airport would be a relatively easy target the way it is now set up, but I don't know what the security around the perimeter is like. I did notice a lot of people, who didn't seem to have a particular job, but wearing the yellow jackets of airport personnel around those tents and airplanes, so perhaps there was an increase in security. The President of Kenya had announced after the mall incident that security at the airport had been increased.

      Of course, all this takes place in Nairobi, a crime ridden city where some statistics say a car is hijacked 10 times a day, just to obtain the car. Our US State Department has a long list of cautions and does not recommend taking any public transportation in the city. The mustatas ( small mini vans that serve as public buses) are often subjected to robberies. Muggings and purse snatching, even walking into hotels and forcing the staff at gunpoint to open the safes in the lobby for robbery are not uncommon. Many crimes are not even reported because people do not trust the police force. In fact, sometimes scams are run by people masquerading as police, and yet it is difficult to prevent this because police regularly run check points and all vehicles must stop at the checkpoint. How is one to know which are criminals and which are the legal police? I think we were safe all the time because we were patrons of Gamewatchers' Safaris, a reputable tourist firm. We were picked up at the airport as we exited by two young men holding our name and with papers describing our trip and with particulars that only Gamewatchers' people could know. We had to drive to our hotel at about 1 AM in the morning, but again there were two young men with us. Our hotel had a gated parking lot and security personnel at that gate. We felt safe there. The warnings also say that there is banditry also in the national parks and reserves, including the Masai Mara, but it does state that mostly people who are traveling on their own are at risk. Our guides always had a short wave radio and are in contact with the other tourist vehicles. And we had two Masai warriors as guide and driver. We always felt safe. At the tourist entrances and rest areas that we stopped, there were lots of people, but clearly most were tourists and their guides. I must admit that I had not read the extent of crime on the Internet until I prepared for this article. But I always felt safe in Kenya because we were with reputable guides, and also in Tanzania.
Our tent at Porini Mara Camp.

Inside the tent. The bathroom and shower are behind the central curtain.

    Again it should be strongly stated that once out of Nairobi, we had no reason to feel fear. In Kenya, we traveled with Gamewatchers' Safaris between camps. They took great care of us. All transfers were there waiting for us and got us exactly to where we were to meet someone from a Conservancy camp, or a driver to take us to the next site. The vehicles were well marked and identifiable.  We stayed in three Porini camps: Porini Lion Camp, Porini Mara Camp, and Porini Amboselli Camp. These permanent tented camps are located in several private Game Conservancies scattered along the edge of the Masai Mara National Game Reserve, and along Amboselli National park near Mt. Kilimanjaro.

     I need to explain the origin of these Conservancies, which has come about just in the last 10 to 15 years. The Kenyan National game and tourism authorities, various international foundations, and some internationally known biologists joined forces and persuaded the local Masai tribes who own the land to give up grazing their large herds of cattle and goats on the land, and to give the land over to wildness for the wildlife. Previously the land had been terribly overgrazed and there were few if any wild animals. Agreements and contracts were drawn up that pay rent to the Masai elders for their tribes for the use of the land by wildlife and small private tourist camps which are very limited in scope. Restrictions are placed on the density of these camps, both in the total acreage that each camp must have, and a limit of 10 tents per camp. This limits the number of tourist vehicles that are thus driving through the conservancies. Also there were agreements to employ the Masai in the camps. Indeed, each of the Porini camps employ almost entirely Masai men as housekeepers for the tents, cooks and servers, guards, drivers and guides. Only the camp director, head of security and chef may be non Masai, and in Lion Camp Mara everyone is Masai including the director and the chef. These young Masai men, wearing their traditional shuka robes, took extremely good care of us. They all spoke some English. They cooked us delicious food and presented and served it with poise. It didn't take them long to learn what we liked in our coffee and how we liked our eggs prepared in the morning. They gently awoke us with a soft Good Morning, outside our tent in the morning, carrying a tray of our selected hot morning beverage. The security detail patrolled the camp grounds during the night making sure that we were not endangered by wild animals that were not monitored and observed to make sure they were not marauding. These tall Masai young men drove our tour vehicles skillfully on those terrible roads, and guided us with amazing knowledge of nature and everything in these wild places. The guides go to the equivalent of 2 years of college and then require a 3 year internship in the field. They continue to educate themselves moving through three levels of guiding, the Bronze, the Silver, and the Gold. One of our guides was working toward his gold Level. In addition to the exam to pass into the next level, for the Gold level, the applicant must have an individual research project. Our guide's project was working with rhinos. He had spent 2 years at Porini Camp Rhino, where he had worked with animals brought from the San Diego Wildlife Reserve, where they had not succeeded with encouraging the breeding of a threatened subspecies of white rhinoceros, the Northern White Rhino.

     While in Tanzania, we were in the capable hands of a single guide/driver working with one of the larger touring companies in Tanzania, the Leopard Tours. Our guide, Innocent M. was charming, funny, and very knowledgeable. He worked hard to ensure that we could observe every animal possible in the various Tanzanian National Parks: Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, and Tarangire National Park. We also spent two nights at a Singita Camp in the Grumeti Game Reserve, privately owned by Singita. We were at one of their 5 lodgings in the private game reserve, Faru Faru. I will do a separate description of that place. It was fabulous. There we had the Singita guides. They do not allow outside guides to drive their private roads. And those roads are graded and maintained. Of course, this was a very expensive place to stay, but no limits on money, I would send all tourists to Faru Faru. It was a phenomenal place.
     Our trip included a visit to an authentic Masai village and I will outline that visit with photos in a separate posting coming up.
Our safari vehicle of Porini Mara Camp. We joined up with another Porini
 vehicle to have a bush breakfast. It will become obvious in the next photo.

We parked in this yellow barked acacia grove for breakfast.

Our Masai guides setting out the breakfast for us that Porini cooks sent along.
You can see we did not miss anything at this breakfast.

Our Masai taking their turn at breakfast. It was delicious.

     This was a phenomenal trip and it will keep us busy on this site for several postings. My husband is just about done sorting out all his photos and I will be able to access them to punctuate my narrative with actual views of some of what we saw. Certainly if anyone has any questions, email me or enter a comment on these posts and I will answer to the best of my ability.

There is another tradition in the Masai Mara. During the late afternoon game drive, the guides have some favorite high
places where we stop and have what is traditionally known as "Sundowners". That is we watch the sun go down while
snacking and sipping on cocktails. Just like the bush breakfast, the camp kitchen sends along the snacks and each of
our individual requests for a sundowner beverage. When the sun is down we drive back to camp, but often are able to see
some nocturnal animals with the red spotlight.  Wow!



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