Day 102: Kenya-Roads Less Travelled

After a month in Tanzania, we left to explore its northern neighbor, Kenya.

We boarded an ‘Impala Shuttle’ at 7:30 and drove 2 hours to the Namanga border crossing north of Arusha. We had filed for e-visas a month before but were assiduously checked by the agents to make sure we had yellow fever vaccinations before entering. The drive from there to Nairobi was another 3 hours and soon after arriving and grabbing an Uber, we were at our friend Kent’s house for two nights of reminiscing of our times in Korea, fast internet and washing a weeks worth of dirty clothes.

Lake Nakuru National Park

We were met by our tour company and guide named ‘Simon’ who drove us 5 hours west to lake Nakuru National Park. The parks in Kenya were more spread out, which meant longer drives with stops in dusty frontier towns for soupçons along the way. Lake Nakuru was by far the most lush park we had ever visited as it bordered a lake which shares its namesake. The highlight of Nakuru was that we finally got to see rhinos, (last of the ‘big 5’), and both white and black ones at that. Black rhinos are critically endangered and their numbers are in the dozens in lake Nakuru. More solitary and skittish than their white sub-species counterparts, we spied one amidst a group of water buffalos down by the water’s edge. We were lucky to get close to a small family of white rhinos and Ava finally saw her spirit animal in the wild for the first time, and planted the seed of her next writing piece; a persuasive essay on rhino preservation.

As we toured the national parks, the parks interpretive areas announced any and everything they were doing to protect its inhabitants and thus, your entrance fee was being well spent. In the case of the more vulnerable and extremely endangered species, displays in multiple parks mentioned that species were going extinct due to ‘conflicts with humans’. The park borders in Kenya were more porous, and because of this animals can enter and exit the park areas with relative ease. Unfortunately, these animals can mix and mingle with local farmers crops and carnivores can take down cows and goats if given the opportunity. In this sense, these endangered animals are seen by locals as ‘pests’ as elephants eat the fruit from their orchards and lions and hyenas eat their livestock. When this happens (as highlighted in the netflix documentary: ‘The Ivory Game‘) local farmers shoot the perpetrating beast outside the park area and claim ‘self defense’ which garners sympathy from local chieftains, tribal elders and government municipalities. With no fear of prosecution, the farmers can then sell the carcass to the highest bidder on the black market. Even though this is not ‘poaching’ per se, it creates an environment that allows the trafficking of endangered animals parts to flourish and incentivizes local farmers to encroach on park lands and bring their herds close to park borders. The payout is more than they make in a year.

Masai Mara National Park

At a rest stop the next day, we met our new safari companions: a solo Italian, a British world traveller and a pair of Germans who were doing east Africa, and we drove southwest to the Masai Mara. By now, we were experts in animal identification and Ava was schooling the adults on how to distinguish a ‘Grant’s Gazelle’ from a ‘Thompson’s Gazelle’ and tell a male giraffe from a female one.

The beauty of Masai Mara national park can’t be put into words, and if there is one park in east Africa you should visit, this is it. Whereas the Serengeti in Tanzania is flat and dry, the ‘Mara’ is fields upon fields of green rolling with plateaus and hills rising up all around you. Glancing in any direction, you’ll see herds of hundreds of wildebeest, groups of elephants and dozens of water buffalo in every direction. The amount and variety of herbivores was off the charts and we saw numerous new species such as Topis, Hartebeest, and huge groups of Elands. This in turn, means the predators are well fed and we saw many of the big cats, kettles of vultures picking apart carcasses, and skeletons everywhere.

By far, the most interesting scene in Masai Mara was the infamous Mara river. The Mara river is one of the river crossings that animals endure as they move from drier pastures in Tanzania to greener ones in Kenya as part of the ‘great migration’. If you’ve ever seen National Geographic documentaries of animals crossing crocodile infested waters, this is the place. When we arrived, there was a herd of 300 wildebeest on the Kenyan side and we drove to the rivers edge hoping for a glimpse of the carnage if the herd made a move. After waiting nearly an hour, we saw only a small group of zebras make the crossing and the crocs were too slow in getting there. Onto live another day.

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Cruising around lake Naivasha.

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Hells Gate National Park

After a boat tour around lake Naivasha to see the waterfowl we went to Hells Gate national park to see the volcanic monuments. Unfortunately, our trip to Hells Gate was interrupted by local protesters who set up a barricade across the road of burning tires to protest the poor road conditions and encourage the government to build better infrastructure. With rocks being thrown and police called in with tear gas, we holed up in a local restaurant to let the situation de-escalate. After a few hours and no signs of abating we drove to Amboseli National park, just near the Tanzanian border.

Amboseli National Park

The beauty of Amboseli is that mount Kilimanjaro sits just over the border to the south in Tanzania, making for stunning backdrop. Although it didn’t have the big cats that Masai Mara had, we had many unique moments such as close encounters with a young zebra calf and the closest viewing of warthogs and ostriches we’ve had in our 5 weeks in Kenya and Tanzania. I taught Ava about the rock cycle and after a few hours she could identify basalt, granite, obsidian and knew the conditions that caused each to form.

Morning game drive in Amboseli with Kilimanjaro in the distance.

A friend of mine once told me that you ‘leave a little bit of your heart in Africa‘. Being back here after my first trip 14 years ago, I’m still astounded by the simplicity and complexity of such a vast, beautiful and apparent ecosystem and felt so grateful that our daughter could see it for herself. Our last afternoon in the park, I sketched the sunset with Kilimanjaro in the distance and wondered for which animals will this sunset be their last. Tomorrow, old age or predation will cause their sun to set permanently and return their body to the earth in the ongoing circle of life.

We humans are not much different. We’re all just a phone call, diagnosis, accident, break-up or tragedy away from a life altering event that reminds us that life is fragile, time is precious and we’re all just travelers passing through time whose choices are half chance. One day, you’re plugging along as usual and the next day your life is forever different as a member of your herd dies in front of you and you can do nothing to stop it. Somedays you’re the lion, somedays you’re the gazelle. Somedays you beat your chest proudly like the mountain gorilla, and other days you recoil in unimaginable grief at the loss of your child.

That evening, we had a glorious drunk and talked as a big group into the night on our last night together. Kennith, a Costa Rican and I wrestled a dead tree to the fire pit and got a fire going on our first try while Hanna, the Brit, got some marshmallows at the rest stop and Ava schooled the adults in the fine art of marshmallow roasting. The whisky came out and a portable JBL speaker took turns filling the air with our music playlists. People that woke up to complain about the noise soon joined the party and the young bucks stayed up till 3:00 am putting constellations to bed and tracing new ones that crept up east from the horizon.

Earlier that day, I caught Lisa crying.

What’s wrong?” I asked.

I will miss this place so much. I hope that Ava brings her children here someday and sees the same things as we are seeing now.

By now, Ava took notice and asked the both of us: “Why did you want to bring me here?

Thinking that Tanne asked the same thing of Denys over a hundred years ago, I chose my words carefully:

Well kiddo, we wanted to bring you to east Africa to see it, before…..

Before what?” She asked.

Before it’s gone

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Day 93: Tanzania Part 3- Ngorongoro, Serengeti, Tarangire

Daddy, wake up! I heard something!” Ava said while rustling me awake at one in the morning.

I don’t hear anything.” I said sleepy eyed.

Just outside our tent. Listen!

Sure enough, I heard some footfalls that sounded faintly like ‘clopping’. Moon shadowed shapes danced across the fabric of our tent and I heard plants being pulled up from the ground around us like a group of gardeners hard at work.

They’re most likely just some animals grazing. Nothing to be worried about. Probably not a lion or there would be roaring.

Probably not a lion!? I’m just a 9 year old little girl who has never heard a lion in her life. Can you check it out for me? I’m scared!

As she needed to go pee (and I too which became a nightly occurrence when I hit 40) I slowly unzipped the tent and stuck my head out. In the moonlight all around our tent was a herd of a dozen Zebras that had snuck in and took advantage of the cool evening grasses in our camp. They let us pass without any confrontation to the bathroom and back again reminding us that anything can (and will) happen on safari.

View overlooking Ngorongoro crater

Traveling from Zanzibar to Arusha

We gave ourselves two days to get from Zanzibar to Arusha which is the port city for safaris departing into northern Tanzania. As we’re on a budget, we originally thought we would do overland travel from Dar after the Zanzibar ferry to save money. There are a number of bus companies that offer transport between Dar Es Salaam and Arusha and most of them advertised trip times of 8 to 9 hours. However, most of the customer reviews who took the trip said it was really more like 12 to 13 hours and a bone rattling one at that, and advised against it. A one way ‘Precision Air’ flight for all three of us was $320 from Zanzibar town up to Arusha which was only $100 more than the ferry and busses put together. Add snacks, and taxis to the bus station from the seaport and the cost was essentially the same. A two night stopover in Arusha was more than ample to stock up on provisions before our foray into the bush.

We got picked up early from our hotel where we met our guide ‘China’ and the other guests for our trip. The first was a French couple named Lea and Jeremy who worked in IT, two Argentinian doctors named Berta and Victor, and lone Slovenian who joined us only for the first day. Having Berta and Victor was great for us to dust off our Spanish and after a few days the words and phrases poured out without having to think about translating phrases from English in my head. Lea and Jeremy were kind enough to throw a few licks of French at Ava. Ava’s French teacher, Mademoiselle Luu would be proud.

Our safari crew

Ngorongoro Crater

We drove west to Ngorongoro crater national park which is an ancient volcanic caldera and is one of Africa’s seven natural wonders. Its floor covers over 3,000 square miles and the wildlife that lives in the crater don’t migrate so it resembles a mini biome akin to ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’. We drove down from the edge into the bottom and were greeted by a herd of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles. Soon after spying them, we were surprised by the elegant ‘secretary bird’ and a group of warthogs. A herd of elephants greeted us and everywhere we looked were new species to be discovered.

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On safari at Ngorongoro crater. Northern #Tanzania

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We drove around finding creatures we only saw in zoos. A group of ostriches darted across the plain (males in black feathers the females in grey) and by late afternoon we found our first lion. It was a female panting heavily in the sun. China told us that lions are more active at night or dusk and spend their daytime hours in the shade trying to keep cool. Ava found a ‘lilac crested roller’ perched in the acacia bush.

Do you know why it makes its nest there?” I asked Ava?

I don’t know.” She replied.

The acacia bush has sharp thorns, so building a nest there is protection from predators. The roller eats insects so they have a symbiotic relationship.

So they live together and benefit from each other?

Baobab tree project with ‘Paper 53’ One of Lisa’s many life science lessons.

Olduvai Gorge

After a night of zebras invading our camp in our Ngorongoro rim camp site, we set off on a long drive to Serengeti national park. On the way, we passed by Olduvai gorge where the Leakeys fossil findings of the mid 20th century turned human evolutionary theory to fact. The first time I learned about Olduvai was in a freshman year anthropology class back at college in Iowa, and the site in northern Tanzania seemed so far away, it might as well have been another planet. Now, it was in front of us.

DJI Osmo Action In Stock, Unleash Your Other Side.

Serengeti National Park

At 15,000 square kilometers, Serengeti National Park is the third largest in Tanzania and is reputed to be the best place to see ‘big cats’. China said it was his favorite of all the parks. The vastness is what makes the Serengeti unique and soon after entering through the southern gate of Naabi we found a female cheetah and her two cubs in town on the prowl across the plain. We went to our campsite and set up camp so we could enjoy an evening safari. We saw random animals like dik-diks, jackals and black faced monkeys. We came across a small lion pride resting under a tree and a troop of baboons mixing with a herd of impalas.

There is only one male with this group of impala.” China said.

The males will compete through a duel and the winner will be the only male that will be with this group of females. He will mate with as many as possible until he is challenged again. Females will mate with the strongest and best looking impala.

Just like humans.” Jeremy said.

It was then that we witnessed quite possibly the most awesome scene in nature that we’ve seen in our entire lives- a duo of female lions stalking and killing a zebra.

It started slow, with the two lions separating and keeping low. The herd of zebras was making its way across a field down to a small creek in which hippos were wallowing. The hippos grunted.

The hippos grunt to warn other animals of danger.” China said. We learned that wildebeest also co-mingle with zebras as the zebras have a better sense of smell and can alert the group (gnu) of impending danger. Another symbiotic relationship that keeps everyone alive. Usually.

One of the females worked her way around the side to flank the unsuspecting zebra. In this display, it was amazing to see cats worth together communally, patiently waiting for the right opportunity to strike and having learned the tactics to do so. From where we were, their strategy was more than apparent. One would flush the zebra to the other. But which would move first?

The lions crept from 50 meters to 40 meters to 30 meters to their prize. The zebra suspected something was amiss as it kept a steady gaze onto the field. The lions were far enough away from one another that they were not in the same field of view, so when the ungulate was watching the area near one of the cats, the other advanced low and to the ground. It would shift its gaze in the other direction and other one would move up. All told, the whole hunt took about 30 minutes. “That zebra is gone.” China said matter of factly and without remorse.

Before he could finish his sentence, the attack happened in a plume of dust, and it was over quick. As the zebra darted away from one of the females, it inadvertently ran into the arms of the other. The zebra’s defense is speed and kicking and when the ambushing lion was within reach, it launched its full weight on the rear haunch of the zebra weighing it down with its massive weight and claws to hold it steady. The zebra was unable to run, essentially being buckled down to its knees and within seconds the other lion was upon it with its teeth around the jugular. By the time the dust settled, the zebras thrashing went still. The nearby dazzle of zebras neighed their agast horror.

Fifteen minutes later, one of the blood covered females made her way back to pride to announce the dinner bell and other guarded their kill from the hyenas who had already caught the scent and advanced on the perimeter.

How did that make you feel to see that Ava?

Sad.

But, know this: the food will keep the lions fed and their baby cubs too. If there are too many zebras, they’ll eat too much of the vegetation. The lions keep the population of other animals down.

Are lions endangered, or are zebras?

Lions are vulnerable and their population is decreasing. Zebras are very plentiful. We have to make sure to protect lion populations as they are also the top predator and there are not many top predators in any ecosystem.

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The Maasai

The night in Serengeti was a good nights sleep and I was awoken at 5:00 am from a lion whose growling announced that, yes, a lion was in our camp for real this time. Somewhere behind the bathrooms best I could tell. I decided to let Ava sleep in until it wandered off.

We stopped at at Maasai village on the long drive to Tarangire national park. We were met by ‘Olle’ who was the chief’s son and had three distinct cut marks under his eyes. The villagers greeted us with a welcome dance and invited us to participate in their courtship displays of singing, dancing and jumping. The village was laid out in a high, circular perimeter fence with 15 mud huts made of thatch and wood and reinforced with mud. The Maasai practice polygamy and Olle confessed that he had 2 wives but wanted 3 more. We visited his house and met his family and I wondered how his wife felt about the prospect of sharing her husband with other females. Was there a kinship or sisterhood within which they could bond? Would they be nothing more than competitors for his affections? I was curious if any Maasai from his village were drawn to city live and left looking for a better life but I decided against asking.

Ava, would you like to stay here?” Olle asked as Ava picked up a goat. “You could play with the goats and cows all you like.

How about I trade you Ava for some of your goats?” I said jokingly.

For her, I would give 50 cows and 20 goats.

Seriously?

Oh yes, a young girl with her skin would be worth a lot.”

Tarangire National Park

Tarangire is known for its baobab trees and watering holes so it has a distinctly different feel than Ngorongoro and Serengeti. There were three large watering holes in Tarangire and they brought in herds of zebras, gazelles, elephants and giraffes so there was always a lot of action. The baobab is one of the strangest looking trees of the world and they can grow to be thousands of years old. The tree below was around at the time of christ.

At every location we camped, Ava was by far the youngest person in the camp with the next oldest being college students. One night at dinner, we walked in past a group of well-to-do looking travelers with our 9 year old in tow and the conversation fell to a hush. We saw this disapproval on their faces as their eyes narrowed as if to say:

What kind of parents bring a child to Africa? Shouldn’t she be in school where she can learn something?

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Day 84: Tanzania Part 2- Zanzibar

“Jambo!” “Hakuna Matata!” “Hello my friend!” These all announce your arrival in Tanzania’s most famous island. The turquoise waters were an iridescent blue I hadn’t imagined in my wildest dreams.

We boarded the Azam Marine ferry at 9:30am and made the two hour voyage to Zanzibar Town on the west side. Our guidebook said to be wary of unofficial people on the boat requesting dubious fees and sure enough, we shooed away a couple of charlatans in dated uniforms and smudged credentials asking for a boat tax. Upon arriving, we met our driver and were whisked to the Makofi guest house after an hour and a half drive to the island’s northern most point, Nungwi beach-known for its sunsets and beach life.

Nungwi Days

Staying at Makofi brought us back to our backpacking years in Southeast Asia. All three of us slept together on a single queen sized floor mattress under a mosquito net and the shared bathroom and showers were downstairs. Having a shared bathroom was an accommodation which we haven’t had to endure since our late 20’s, however, the seven night stay for all 3 of us was just under $400 and that included breakfast every morning so budget-wise, it was great. It hosted 5 dollar lunches and a $12 barbecue every other night and the staff were wonderful.

Having a week of beach time with no agenda meant we could resume Ava’s curriculum of study in the mornings which had been on hold since Budapest. She made tremendous progress on Zanzibar, (mainly in math), where she breezed through 20% of her yearly curriculum in ‘Khan Academy’. The big news however, was that we started (and finished) our second book, ‘My Side of the Mountain‘ by Jean Craighead George which tells the story of a boy named Sam Gribley and how he leaves city life to live off the land in the Catskill mountains in New York State by himself. I was surprised how much Ava took to the book and she was awestruck at how effortlessly Sam pulled trout from the stream and fashioned clothing and necessities out of thin air. Before long, Ava was carving spears with her knife, inquiring how to make a snare trap and even trying to start a fire with a small flint our friend John had given her for our trip. A fitting end to our unit on ‘survival’ and I hoped her interest in the beauty of nature would continue through such greats that inspired me like Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Aldo Leopold.

Ava’s MP3 recorded with ‘Garage Band’
The mixing board in ‘Garageband’

We used ‘Garageband’ to record an MP3 with a faint background track and hosted it through ‘Soundcloud’ to share her reflections. A few years ago, I had helped the high school English department and their students record family stories and they too used ‘Garageband’ with multiple audio tracks including parent dialogue in Hangul which made for amazing podcasts as they ended up being more than mere projects, but cultural artifacts.

Now that I’m on the subject, I’ve been thinking a lot about the digital divide since we’ve been here. As many of my colleagues around the world post innovative videos of their students making 3D printed products, autonomous robots, coded arduinos and independent raspberry pis, I’m reminded of the sobering opportunities that students have in the developed world and private sector compared to the developing world. While out for a walk one afternoon, we passed a primary school and peering in the windows, I noticed that the students didn’t even have workbooks on which to write. Blackboard chalk was a luxury. Here, STEM is not taught in schools but is rather a tradecraft passed down among family members. Mothers teach their daughters how to weave baskets, and repair fishing nets. Fathers and older brothers teach younger siblings how to carve and press boat hulls at the shipyards and bring in a catch that will feed the entire village. Here, children leave school when the family needs them to: and their apprenticeship becomes full time and forever.

Pwani Mchangani

After a week at Nungwi, we took a shuttle to the east coast to stay at the ‘Waikiki Zanzibar Resort’ on Pwani Mchangani beach. The resort might as well have been a 5 star luxury resort in the Maldives as we had an en suite bathroom, a queen bed for the two adults and a single, separate bed for the girl. There was a ceiling fan and air conditioner so we enjoyed afternoons napping and watching movies on our Macbook to stay out of the sun. Our room was serviced daily and had a nice porch on which to have sundowners before dinner. On this side of the island, we caught the sunrise rather than the sunset and the reef was an unreachable 1 kilometer walk through a minefield of sea urchins. We went through 4 bottles of sunscreen and Lisa and I read a new book every day. The resort was run by Italians and their wood burning oven meant we had some of the best pizzas outside of Italy and we split two for lunch every day so our the waistlines of our pants felt snug at check out.

Zanzibar Town (Stone Town)

Stone town has an eclectic past to put it lightly. Sultans of Oman erected huge palaces for their harems here and under their tenure, slave trading flourished as enslaving muslims was against their religion. In the mid 19th century, nearly 600,000 slaves who were abducted from as far west as Congo passed through Zanzibar en route to European plantations, many at the hands of dreaded merchant ‘Tippu Tip’ whose home here still stands to this day along with the slave quarters which have been turned into a church.

The winding alleys are an intoxicating stupor of smells and sounds both Arabic and African at the same time. Since it’s been a trading port since before the time of Christ, one can’t help but feel fortunate for drifting through this storied place and contributing a sliver to its history. I wondered what late night shenanigans sailors on shore leave got up to over the years, what fashions looked like in the 800’s, if pioneer town bars still stood and which buildings among us housed ambergris and gems from Araby.

Our friends the Fossgreens joined us for a weekend night at the ‘Warere Guest House’ in north Stone town and we had a gluttonous night of seafood for dinner, creme brûlée for dessert and gelato on the walk home. After they left, we spent our days getting lost in the old town, sampling the best Indian food in town and clothing shops to get us ready for safaris.

We gave a hug to our friends at the sea port on Sunday; each of us wondering where and when we’d meet up next time, or if we ever would again.

By Ava

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