lisa_giraffeWe arrived in Nairobi after almost 24 hours of traveling, door to door. We watched at least 10 movies between all of us, going there and back! Nairobi has a seven hour ahead time difference and it was not easy trying to get used to it right away. But we settled into our hotel late the night we arrived, not really seeing much of anything around us but highways.

We woke up to a cloudy morning with a day ahead to tour the city. On the negative side, it is still a very poor place and the traffic is just out of control (it compares easily to any major city in the states, if not worse) and they have NO emissions control, so the smell of smog and car exhaust is just everywhere. It is the third largest city in Africa, behind Johannesburg and Cairo. On the plus side, the people there were beyond nice and English is an official language there so communication was easy. They also speak Swahili, which funnily enough, is very similar to Spanish! We learned so many words and phrases. Africa has so many tribes, so Swahili was and is taught to unify all tribes in language, but many tribes still speak their own.

Anyway, our first stop was Giraffe Manor, a refuge of sorts for giraffes! (“Twiga” in Swahili) We hand fed them and I even put the feed in my mouth and they “kissed” me to get it. So much fun. They also had warthogs (Like, Pumbaa from The Lion King) everywhere who get down on their “knees” to eat so it always looks like they are kneeling or praying when they are getting food.

We then went to the Karen Blixen House and Museum which you may recognize from the movie title “Out of Africa” which starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford about twenty years ago. Anyway, Blixen was a White woman who fell in love with Africa and moved there and did all she could to help the people there, so she is very well loved and respected and the street names and towns named “Karen” this or that, are everywhere. Lastly, we went to Kiambethu Tea Farms (tea is Nairobi’s 3rd largest export, with roses, being number 1 or 2) and had lunch at a huge estate run by a lovely British couple who have had the family farm for generations. The farm had gardens with Colobus monkeys (the black and white ones with long tails) and also had three little Jack Russell terriers (one named “Tetley” that I fell in love with) that practically sat on top of their fireplace on the rainy day we went. We met others on tour with Micato, many from the States and NYC, even.

That night, we had dinner with Max and Jane Pinto, the owner of Micato Tours and they had a surprise birthday cake for me and sang to me in Swahili! It was a great day. She also had an ancient Rhodesian Ridgeback named “Bella”, and two chatty African grey parrots.

The next day, we woke up early to fly to Lake Manyara, in Tanzania. We had to go through customs to get out of Kenya and flew on those typical teeny airplanes to get around, that everyone freaks out about..lol We arrived at Lake Manyara (called that from the Masaai people who named the Lake after a tree that grows nearby that looks like fingers) Our lodgings were like little huts taken straight out of the “Lord of the Rings”, with stone foundations and thatched roofs, but nicely posh inside. We went on a bush walk and toured the area looking for any signs of life and saw dung droppings the size of a man’s head, paw prints, as well as bones dragged up the hills by hyenas. We sadly were told the Lake is drying up due to many farmers pouring their silt into the Lake, left from their farms, but the Lake is still hugely vast and can be seen easily on any map of the continent. The next day was our first game drive and we woke up very excited! We first saw baboons on the drive to the Lake/Reserve and saw Mommy baboons with babies clinging to their bellies or backs. They came as close as a few feet from us in our off road vehicle. We saw elephants, (“Tembo” in Swahili) which were so intimidating but so elegant in their walk and demeanor. They truly are an amazing species. They bond an entire family of mothers, daughters and sisters and are extremely protective of their young and a mother elephant will stay with her baby for days if it has died, mourning. It is true their tusks get larger with age and male bull elephants are eventually set out on their own, which makes them very cranky and dangerous. We heard conflicting reports of the “top three most dangerous animals in Africa” but for the most part, all guides agreed to the list below and strangely enough, they may not be what you think they are: The animals that attack the most are buffaloes (beyond dangerous and they will attack until their victim is dead!) elephants and hippos. If you get between a hippo (“Kibuko” in Swahili) as it tries to get to a water source, watch out! (They are plant eaters but can chomp a man in half with one bite) Lions and crocs (“Mamba” in Swahili) and snakes are not as attack prone as one would think. So we saw tons of Dumbo’s and gazelles (at least thousands on this trip alone) hippos and vultures and birds of every colored jewel imaginable! My favorite there were the giraffes which we saw from close up and running, which is an amazing sight, with the longest legs imaginable, but yet, they run so daintily. I think Lake Manyara (not one of the most popular destinations for game reserves in Africa) was my favorite since there were not millions of safari vehicles all around and we got super close to the animals which all were so close to the roads. I also forgot to mention that the termite hills are just sprinkled over every patch of land in Africa. They look like muddy heaps of poop with holes in it. One was taller than I was and the bigger the mound, the older the hill.

We left the Lake 2 days later and headed out to Ngorogoro Crater (one of the biggest calderas in Africa and the site of a huge volcanic eruption millions of years ago but now the site of tons of African wildlife-pronounced “En-goro-goro)”) Needless to say, all of our road travels were hugely dusty and bumpy. There are no paved roads between game reserves and at the reserves themselves, mostly to reduce speed in the parks and such. It works, the roads are about the worst you have ever seen and you are forced to go slowly and many times we felt as if our off road vehicles were an actual Jeep commercial with the danger of tipping over. But more on that later) The drive to the crater was long, about 4 hours and we stopped a few times in Tanzanian markets. Tanzania is the 3rd poorest country in the world, so you can imagine how it broke our hearts to drive though many parts of it. Kids were begging us for anything. Griselda and I and Ruth had brought things, tons of pencils and gum and Band Aids and bubbles. (Not to mention Mario and Marco giving out dollars) They just died over the writing utensils Griselda brought, as education is now free and public in Africa but the kids must supply their own supplies/uniforms and have hard times doing so. On a side note, I asked our guides what are the three positive things about Africa today that are improving and the three things getting worse and the guide answered the good things are that now, education is free and public, # 2 is that the native people are finally seeing the value and worth of preserving their animals and lands and are taking great measures to protect them. (Yay!) and # 3, that other countries are finally opening up and coming to see the continent and not as “scared” as before. Also, that “FGM” is dying down (Female genital mutilation) But, sadly, the main thing that is worsening is the HIV epidemic. I think the stats are something like, 1 out of every 3 people in Africa will have the virus within 10 years. There are many people who still believe that having sex with a virgin will cure the virus and the country is hugely ashamed of the virus, so they thoroughly deny it is a problem, stating people are dying from malaria and pneumonia and not using or being able to afford preventative measures and medicines. Also, many animals wander onto farming lands and are very unwelcome. This causes many conflicts as well.

But, on a happier note, the trip to the crater was amazing, us climbing, climbing, climbing in the Jeep until we reached the lip of the crater, which was said to be taller than Kilimanjaro before it erupted. (We saw Kilimanjaro from the plane window but that is as close as we got) So we settled into our lodgings, which this time, were made of little stones and Lincoln-log like wood, and had amazing patio views of the crater. It got really cold up there most nights and in the mornings; it was always misty and cloudy, since you are so high above ground. But on the 45 minute drive down, the weather gradually turns sunny and warm. I have never experienced such extreme weather conditions as I have seen in Africa. We saw freezing nights to hot sun burning days to torrential rain to swamps, to dry desert like spaces, all within hours of each other. That day in the crater was truly grand. Our first sight was one of the “Big 5”, (a leopard, (“Duma” in Swahili) which are VERY shy and elusive and rarely spotted) (Oh, by the way, the “Big 5” are Buffalo, Elephants, Lions, Leopards and Rhino’s which funnily enough, there were five of us on the trip, so we got called the “Big 5” often..lol) The leopard was seated at the tip of a dead tree, magnificent at early morning. We then, saw # 2 of the “Big Five”, a black rhinoceros with her baby but from far away, as this animal is extremely volatile and unpredictable (that was also on the list from my guides as one of the most dangerous in Africa) We then spotted a cheetah (“Chui” in Swahili) hunting a gazelle (which she missed) We were also told cheetahs are not very good Moms, as they oftentimes go on hunts and forget where they left their babies. They are also big “chickens” and will rarely conflict but run from sticky situations. We went on to spot tons of zebra, hyenas that were incredibly close to us and lay right next to our Jeep. They stared at us in the eye, but with a curiosity I cannot explain. Our guide made special yips and yowls that they responded to and they certainly were interested. But they too, were skittish. Saw lovely birds everywhere yet we were still on the move for the most popular animals in all Game reserves, the lions. We actually spotted a few but from too far to really enjoy them. One was a “honeymooning couple” (lions will go off for one week to mate away from their pride) and in another group we saw was a Mama lion with a few cubs but they were so well hidden, it was frustrating to try to catch glimpses. The best sight of that day had to be a male ostrich doing his special dance for a close by lady ostrich (males are black and white, females all brown) She actually liked the dance and stopped and waited for the male to mate with her so we actually saw a male mating with a female and boy, was it cool! (But he was done in like, 4 seconds..lol)

We spent the next day doing much of the same, searching for game. Mario spotted a rare creature-bat eared foxes, (which our guide said he hadn’t seen in years since they are strictly night animals)

At our lunch stop in Ngorogoro, we went to an old swampy area, where we were told, old male bull elephants go to die. We actually saw two there while eating! But not only that, the place we parked our car, the elephant was coming directly towards it! NOT charging, but just walking. We figured he wanted to just get by so we actually had to step out of the way and lower the radio to let him pass. It was terrifying for some of us, (okay, me..lol) yet totally exciting! He was huge and must have been ancient; he had tusks that almost reached the ground! There were also gorgeous birds coming practically onto our laps, begging for lunch scraps, which we were not allowed to give.

We were onto the long 4-5 hour drive to the Serengeti. This one, by far, had to be the dustiest road I had ever experienced. All of us in the car had our faces covered with our hats and shirts and jackets, since the reddish brown mist was everywhere in our clothes and hair and on our bodies. On the way, we saw some enterprising young Masaai warriors, trying to get us to stop and take photos- which we did. They amazingly have this belief that is you take their photo, it steals their souls away, but incredibly, by giving them a dollar, it magically gets restored back! So we learned quickly, and took many photos with them. They had on their red cloths with face paints and beads. The teenage males, after circumcision, are in black with white face paint. You will see in the pics that we all took.

tanzaniaWe stopped at Olduvai Gorge, which was a hugely famous archeological site in the 50’s, when the Leakey’s discovered artifacts and bones from ancient man. We heard a fairly interesting lecture and we continued on our way to the Serengeti. Wow, if you thought our lodgings were in the middle of nowhere in Ngorogoro, you had to see this place! Again, we were at the top of a mountain, in stone huts with thatched branch roofs. It took us 40 minutes just to get to the roads of the Serengeti!(Which by the way, is one of the most popular Game parks in Africa and one of the largest, if not the largest. It creates so much revenue that the profits go to other parks that do not do as well, but this also causes it to be crowded, grrrr..) This was where we finally got some of our best lion sightings (“Simba” in Swahili) Griselda spotted two females off road on a “Kopje” ( a Dutch word pronounced “Copy”) which are rock formations in the Serengeti that lions and other creatures LOVE. We drove so close to them as they slept and took tons of pics. The highlight as when we saw a pride of about 9 females, again, all mothers, daughters and sisters, sleeping under bushes. We also saw a “reebok” (not the sneaker, but a species of deer) and a spotted owl, which again, were rare to see. But the best of the day was spotting a solitary male lion, in the middle of a grassy field. The lions blend in supremely well with their surroundings of wheat colored tall grasses, so you have to really have eagle eyes when looking for them. Plus, they don’t move much during the days, so that makes them even harder to spot. But, this male crossed directly in front of a vehicle in front of us, which was breathtaking, even by the most jaded of onlookers. He strolled right over to a female lioness, not very far away and we assumed they were family. Males are shunned out of the pride when about 18 months and usually stay solo or find another bachelor male to kick around with. Then, they hunt for prides and take over as male of that group. But it can get violent and messy, we learned. They truly are nature’s most magnificent animals (in my opinion) I felt bad for them for the flies were having field days on them L We also saw two females super close to the road, munching on some kill they had made. We saw a bloody, bone ridden piece of meat and actually could hear the purring, grunting sounds they were making while eating. The one big regret we had, however, was not seeing a live kill. Our guides joked for we did spot a bird catch a grasshopper and they said that was the kill we wanted..lol

Speaking of flies, we were spooked a few times from tsetse flies; the kind that cause “sleeping sickness”. Our guides told us to avoid them as much as possible and we all whacked some dead a few times when they tried to take a big bite out of us. We used repellant daily and didn’t have that huge of a mosquito issue, but still saw them here and there and put up nets around our beds on some nights. It is winter over there so they aren’t a huge issue now. But in summer.. yikes.. Our pills gave us no side effects, really and we stayed healthy the majority of the trip, with a few upset tummies here and there. But nothing even remotely worrying and long lasting. It is with great conviction that I urge any reader to travel to such a magnificent place. We felt very safe and well protected while in Africa, all the way from the nasty bugs to any political strife. The Africans feel very strongly about tourism and welcome it greatly. That is the truth. The food was yummy (Mario and I gained at least 5 pounds) and so zesty. Ruth commented on how flavorful all the food was and I agree. They certainly know how to season things! Ruth couldn’t get enough of the coffee, which blows away Starbucks any day. Ruth may move there just for the hot drink..lol They also have a very large Indian influence, with many Indian people living there now. (Which many Africans resent)

The last few days were spent flying back into Kenya, to the Masaai Mara. Unusually, the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masaai Mara in Kenya are one and the same piece of land. They are just titled differently since they are in two different countries, separated by a border. But they are one and the same, so the animals and geographics are essentially, identical. We flew over Victoria Lake, the largest lake in Africa and the source of the Nile River. At the Mara, we stayed in tented camps, which were beyond cool! Our tents were located about 100 yards up from the Mara River, which was crawling with LOUD hippos! Please don’t ever complain about dogs barking at night, for these guys make grunting, growling and snorting noises that can be heard for miles! It’s truly comical and unique. One starts and the others chime in as a chorus. (It is usually the dominant male starting and making noise to tell everyone “I am the King”..lol) The tents were lovely, with mosquito netting over the beds and hot showers and full bathrooms in all of them. The surrounding areas were jungle and had flowers smelling of gardenias (called “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrows”) Much of the power was solar and it was a truly lovely place, called the “Mara Safari Club”. We did much of the same game runs we had already done but what differed this time was seeing the enormous amounts of wildebeest everywhere! The Great Migration had started and the animals we saw had made the River crossing already, and they were like pigeons, over every spot of land imaginable. (1.5 million actually cross annually) We had to drive our car on the roads with them getting up from lying in the middle of them. (Wildebeest are NOT intimidating, since they are true scaredy cats and do no harm to humans, unlike zebras and giraffes which have given lethal kicks to humans and animals) We traveled to the River to try to spot some of the wildebeests crossing but just missed it and could not predict when more would cross, so it is a big waiting game. But in the meantime, we spotted our first real crocodiles basking in the sun at the River’s edge, sated from all the wildebeest they could eat, from the ones they snapped at while crossing or scrapping up the remains of the ones stampeded upon or the drowned. There were many dead wildebeest in the River, sadly, but we know, this is the law of nature. Vultures too, were picking on the scraps of the dead. I truly learned there, that nothing is ever wasted. Hyenas, jackals and vultures are the cleaning crew of Africa. A sign of a kill, we learned, is when you see overhead circling buzzards, it is a for sure indicator of a kill or soon to be death (Oh, we spotted many jackals as well; they look like little foxes)

I have to say I truly loved the little creatures called “hyraxes”, (which are harmless little rodents that look like a cross between guinea pigs, squirrels and ground/hedge hogs) They are everywhere, on rocks and trees mainly and even the last night of our safari, in the Mara, we saw a baby one in our lodge and I held him! (Okay, not the smartest thing to do..lol) . The lodge has a resident cat, named “Paka” (Swahili for “Cat”..lol) and we were worried that Paka would scoop up the baby hyrax. But a resident naturalist (who owns the cat) scooped the baby up and told us about them, which was super interesting.

We went on a drive on our first day of the Mara, and told to get out of the Jeep, since we would be going on a short bush walk. Astonishing gasps were heard when we turned a corner and saw three HUGE white rhino’s about 15 feet from the group, all grazing happily. (White rhino’s are not even as close to being as dangerous as the black, so we were pretty safe) We were told that the populations were being reintroduced in the Mara and that the female was pregnant and due in spring! Awwww…

The last day was truly the most exciting, I must say. On our way back from seeing the River with the crocs and a few resident hippos, our guides spotted a lion sleeping in some bush. We went in closer to get some photos, but our Jeep got stuck in a ravine with rocks behind it. The clutch could not “catch” and we were stalled and stuck. It would have been a snap to roll the truck out of the spot and get it going again with 4 men in the Jeep, but… we were thirty feet away from a LION and could not get out of the car! (Oh, by the way, we had many times where we were allowed out of our vehicles to take photos and walk around, just not too far and in certain designated areas) Anyway, the guides radioed some other vehicles, but this was the Serengeti, so there are no road markers or signs along the road, so we knew it may be awhile till we got found. We all joked and laughed about it, and all was fine, until I heard our guides speaking Swahili and they opened the doors and got out to push the car! YIKES! But as if that weren’t scary enough, Mario and Marco got out of the car too and started pushing! I was honestly scared. I thought for sure, not so much that the lion no longer asleep would come on over (he was a youth) but that his mother was watching from close and would attack. They rocked and rolled the car and made some progress, but they were all cautious due to our friend so close by. But, about 45 minutes later, two Jeeps of others came by and helped push us out. Mario has a battle scar; he blistered his hand and now has a true war story. (We captured all of this on videotape) As if that weren’t an inconvenience, our Jeep’s radiator now had a leak, probably from the scraping of the rocks underneath and we kept losing water and starting to overheat, so our driver had to stop and pull over every few minutes to pour water in. But, we ran out of all the melted cooler ice and bottled water in there, so as Murphy’s Law would have it, it started torrentially pouring! The rain came down in gushes and the guys were actually catching rain water on the roof and in puddles to pour into the car! But worse, the roads were getting muddy and washing away. It took us about 3 hours to get back to the camp, whereas it normally should have taken a third of that.

lisa_africaBefore we got back to camp, though, we all stopped at a Masaai village that we were looking forward to hitting all week. This was I think, the highlight of many of us. A man dressed in their typical clothing came out to greet us and our guides and the leader decided how much we could give to allow us to come into their homes and take photos and just, well, be tourists. They agreed on ten US dollars. Although the Masaai don’t use money often for their normal day life, they use it for building up their cattle supply and other things the village needs and uses. They certainly have been influenced by Western culture- that is for sure! Cattle to them, is like cash to us. That is how their wealth is determined. The more cows you have, the wealthier you are. Anyway, as we walked into the village, about 10-15 kids, ranging in ages from 3 or 4 to about mid teens, starting singing to us. We were told it was a “welcoming song”. They truly looked genuinely happy to see us and share all they had. This is where we all had field days, of giving out pencils, gum, bubbles and dollars. The kids made a formatted line, so they could each get something. The little ones were dressed in slightly westernized clothes, mainly, with the older kids dressed in their usual red capes and garb. They were all barefoot. Mind you, it had just rained a huge amount, and the ground was muddy and thick with dirt and grass, everywhere. The first man, who seemed to be the “leader” of the village, allowed us to enter a woman’s home and gave us a “grand tour”. Their homes are made entirely of cow dung and branches. They only are about 6 feet high and they have to move the whole village every 7 years, for that is when the dung starts to break down. They have a spot when you walk in, for a calf, in which they get fresh milk from in mornings. Then, they go out and “bleed a cow”, which means they poke a hole in one of their prized cattle’s neck and get an amount of blood and mix it with the milk. (It essentially does not hurt the cow and they are used to it) That is a huge staple of their diet, along with meat, (cow, eggs, goats and lamb) No veggies, fruit or much of anything else. Then, in the home, there is a steady burning fire in the middle (it was toasty in the hut, and the people there certainly have a unique smell, which I learned, comes from that fire. It is a smoky, earthy smell) The woman was showing us her “kitchen’ with no electricity and no running water (they get water from the River) They then have two bedrooms on either side of the hut. One for the kids and one for the Mom and Dad. But you should know that a Masaai man can have as many wives as he likes, as long as he is able to provide well for them all. He usually goes around from hut to hut, stopping to see them all and sleeping in one hut or the other, trading off. But, I will say, as offensive as this may seem to us, it works for them Masaai, although many of them told us over the time we were there, that women are no longer standing for it and are adapting a more “Western” belief of having only one wife. We were then shown a huge circle in the middle of the village, which we learned was the “holding pen” for the cattle, where they go at night. It was bordered entirely by large stickly branches and shrubs. They also had many dogs and pups running around, to aid in the herding.

Lastly, we were then shown a little area where the village sells visitors items, kind of like the “Masaai Mall”. Again, we learned these people are venture capitalists! They showed us each little table they had and we had salesman, artisans, and guides all lead us around, showing us every table, encouraging us to stop and buy. They bargained with us and we bought many nice crafts which we got at awesome prices (or so we thought..lol) Mario pulled out the video camera and as cliché as it sounds, the village (especially the teens and senior citizens) got a HUGE kick out of seeing themselves on video and asking if they would be on the Internet, which they wanted to be! All of us walked out an hour later, on a natural high, thankful for all we had at home, for the Masaai live with little but so much and so genuinely touched that these people were so kind and welcoming (and a little too business saavy!..lol)

To top it all off, we were invited to a “Sundowner”; which is little wine and cheese and snack party in front of the setting sun in Africa. It was awesome; we ate and drank wine in the middle of the Mara with others from our tour and compared stories of our last 10 days.

Our last day was spent souvenir shopping and we told our Nairobi guide, Patrick to take us to the “local spots”, so he brought us to a genuine African market selling fruits, veggies, meat, flowers and items that many of you will see. Four of us bought carved wooden masks which we will put in our homes. The precious ones are made out of mahogany. Then, we went to lunch at a famous restaurant in the city, called “Carnivore”, where they bring out exotic meats similar to Brazilian Churrascaria style, for the patrons to try. They actually used to have very exotic stuff, but since it is now illegal and banned to eat many of those animals, they are fairly “tame”, serving chicken, beef, pork, lamb and crocodile, camel and ostrich! I am sure you are dying to know what these all tasted like and Ruth and I were big ole chickens and really didn’t go for them much, but Griselda, Mario and Marco had a field day. The croc kinda looked like fried fish and tasted the same as such. The camel, they said was wayyy too tough and very dark. The ostrich, was the big hit, kinda tasting like a cross between ham and roast beef. (Nothing tasted like chicken, I am afraid to say..lol)

We then went back to our hotel and prepared for the long journey back home. Oh, and we saw Cindy Crawford, the model, at London Heathrow airport at 5 30 am..lol she was on our flight back to NYC. Now how do I convince Mario that Down Under is the next stop on my “Go to” list?