Monday, September 29, 2014

AFRICA: KAREN BLIXEN'S ESTATE AND WOMEN'S MEMOIRS

When we started planning this trip a year ago, one of the places I was really excited to visit was the estate of author Karen Blixen in Nairobi. Blixen, who also wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen, is the author of the memoir Out of Africa, a book most of us probably wouldn't have heard of if not for the beautiful movie of the same name. 

Christhopher Ondaatje, the author of Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari, wrote ". . . for anyone who longs to relive African sights, sounds and smells, [Out of Africa] is the film to watch and watch again; the next-best thing to being in the bush." 

I read the book right before our trip, and Bob and I watched the movie, which reminded me how much I love the combination of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. (It won seven Academy Awards in 1984, including the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography.) In addition, the soundtrack has long been my favorite of the many scores composed by John Barry. I think I got the CD for Christmas the year the movie came out, and I've since listened to it hundreds of times.
By the time we finally got to the Karen Blixen Museum, the setting of the movie had become part of our lives-- the awe and unpredictability of the vast landscapes, the wondrous variety of living things, the enigmatic natives--and as we drove up to the house, I could almost picture Karen sitting on the front porch, patiently sipping her English tea and scanning the sky for Denys's biplane.

Did Karen Blixen's Kikuyu servants trim the bushes in front of her house into topiary masterpieces?
I think not.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

AFRICA: GIRAFFE CENTRE OF NAIROBI

During our return drive to Hotel Intercontinental from Nairobi National Park, then from there to our next destination, we enjoyed a few of the sights of Nairobi, a city of over three million people. 

The growing population doesn't stop Marabou storks from nesting in the trees lining the city streets. These birds can have wingspans of up to 20 feet, among the largest of the world's birds:
They reminded us of the beautiful white storks we saw nesting in Strasbourg, France, a few years before:
Strasbourg 2012
How does the stork fold up those enormous condor-like wings to fit its body?
Photo by E. Tooke
In flight, the Marabou stork is a strange combination of a beautiful ballerina and a hunch-shouldered undertaker:
Photo by E. Tooke

Sunday, September 21, 2014

NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK, KENYA

My husband isn't one to let a single minute go to waste when we are traveling, and when he learned that our tour company was going to let us sleep in on our last day in Kenya, he made alternate plans. As long as there were more possibilities, he wasn't ready to be done safari-ing.

For a small fee, our driver Steven was willing to take us on a private safari tour of the Nairobi National Park. Honestly, I was tired and just about safari-ed out, but it was hard to pass up this unique opportunity.
Steven's well-worn copy of Collins Guide to African Wildlife in its customary spot on the dashboard.
Kenya is the only country in the world that has a national park inside a city: the Nairobi National Park, located only four miles from the city center. The park was created in 1946 and was, amazingly, the very first national park established in Kenya. Even Serengeti National Park, what I consider to be the granddaddy of them all, wasn't established until 1951.

At about 45 square miles, or 28,963 acres, NNP isn't very large in comparison to massive parks like the Serengeti (which is 5,700 square miles or 3,648,000 acres), but that's still a pretty big chunk of land to carve out of a city. By way of comparison, Griffith Park in Los Angeles is 1/7 the size at 4,217 acres, and New York's Central Park is only 778 acres. The largest zoo I've been to, the San Diego Zoo, is only 99 acres. Nairobi National Park is still plenty big.
As one would expect, this park is well-protected with electric fences to keep the animals in. I can only imagine what havoc a few stampeding rhinos or prowling lions could wreak on the Nairobi city center. The fence on one side of the park actually runs along the road that leads to the airport. Only three sides of NNP, however, are fenced. The border of the fourth side is the Mbagathi River, which means the park is open to the southern plains, allowing for animal migration. Before the population explosion in Nairobi (which had 11,000 people in 1906, about 100,000 in 1946 when the park was established, and 3,000,000 people now), there was a huge herbivore migration--supposedly as big as the Serengeti annual migration--between Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya that went right through this area. Now a much smaller number of animals comes during the dry season to take advantage of the man-made watering holes, but the migration ends in the park.
Nairobi National Park is one of Africa's most successful rhino sanctuaries; unfortunately, the rhino above and the one below are the only ones we saw:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

AFRICA: AN AFRICAN BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION AND OUR RETURN TO KENYA

A certain member of our group had his 50th birthday during our stay at the Serena Ngorongoro Lodge. (Don't worry, Bill. I won't say who it was.) Since it was such an important birthday, we decided a Maasai Manhood Ceremony was in order. We dressed him for the occasion in a red Maasai shuka and a Maasai necklace, and we presented him with a real true Maasai spear, purchased from a real Maasai:
We considered but decided against the "cutting ceremony" but DID go for the traditional Maasai drink: cow's blood (okay, we had to use a substitute) mixed with milk. Our victim birthday boy proved his manhood by downing the tasty beverage:
I'm sure he slept like a baby after that concoction--a baby with colic.

We got an early start the next morning because we had a long, long way to go, almost 300 miles on sketchy roads plus a border crossing on our way back to Nairobi.  As is usual in the morning, a heavy blanket of clouds was ringing the crater, making the beginning of the drive out of the Ngorongoro Crater region in thick fog on a dirt road rather treacherous.  We passed a group of Maasai herdsman on their way into the crater to find grazing land for their animals:

Saturday, September 13, 2014

AFRICA: NGORONGORO CRATER, Part 2 - Lions, Lunch, and Lots More (TANZANIA)

Late in the morning we noticed a bit of a traffic jam in the Ngorongoro Crater. It was as if a magnetic force field had drawn every piece of metal from the entire caldera to this one spot:
When we finally made it to the party, we realized that the draw was two big simbas, the Kikuyu word for LIONS:
As mentioned in the previous post, the crater has one of the densest lion populations in the world. Seeing these two giants was a real thrill. I didn't realize the males sometimes hang out together. Lions are much more social than cheetahs and leopards, which we never saw in pairs or groups.
Their manes make them look about twice as big as they really are, which helps when they want "the lion's share" of the meat that the hard-working lionesses have killed while the males have been napping.
These two fellas didn't look like they were planning on doing any hunting--or anything else--anytime soon:
After a while, one of them finally decided to go for a stroll, but not in the direction of the potential lunch behind him. No, he came towards the road where lots of prey was sitting locked up in some vehicles.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

AFRICA: NGORONGORO CRATER, Part 1 - The Garden of Eden (TANZANIA)

After a few very l-o-n-g drives on this trip, it was nice to have a shorter one--less than two-and-a-half hours of driving time from our Serengeti Lodge to the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge, with stops on the way at the Maasai Village and Oldupai Gorge.
The countryside was dotted with traditional round, thatch-roofed African homes. In contrast to the Maasai villages, these hamlets looked downright modern:



The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is over 3,000 square miles of protected land bordering the Serengeti. Two hundred years ago, the Maasai moved in, and approximately 42,000 still live there, most of them herders of cattle, goats, sheep, and donkeys.

The most famous feature of the NCA is the enormous Ngorongoro Crater, the world's largest intact volcanic caldera. The almost vertical walls are 2,000 feet tall, and the flat, almost perfectly circular crater floor covers 102 square miles. The original volcano, which erupted and collapsed two or three million years ago, could have been as tall as 19,000 feet--the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro. These days Ngorongoro Crater basks in the glory of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is listed in some places as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.
Map from here
The local Maasai are allowed to graze and water their herds in the crater, but they may not live or grow crops there. In fact, they have to actually leave the crater at night.

Being in the crater is like being a microscopic amoeba in a petri dish; the surface is flat, the sides rise perpendicular to the floor, and the ground is teeming with life:
During our morning drive, whipped cream clouds sat ponderously on the caldera rim:
Later in the day, the clouds lifted, and we could see the smooth rim top, unchanging for almost the full 360 degree view.
With approximately 30,000 large animals, the crater has the highest density of big game in all of Africa, which is why it is called Africa's Garden of Eden. If there is a snake in this garden, we didn't see it during our day-long drive, but we saw just about every animal we had seen in other places, with the exception of topis, impalas, crocodiles, and giraffes, which for various reasons don't inhabit the crater.

I kept a list of what we saw, and it's pretty impressive:
     wildebeests
     water buffaloes
     warthogs
     lions
     zebras
     flamingos
     *crowned cranes
     ostriches
     warthogs
     brown plover
     hippos
     hyenas
     elephants
     hartebeests
     jackals
     Kori bustard
     white-backed vulture
     spur-winged goose
     hyrax
     *Hildebrandt's starling
     butterflies
     yellow-billed kite
     Speke's weaverbirds
     sacred ibis
     Grant's gazelles
     Thomson's gazelles
     vervet monkeys
* Only sighting on our trip

Friday, September 5, 2014

AFRICA: OLDUVAI (OR IS IT OLDUPAI?) GORGE IN TANZANIA


When we first booked our trip, my husband talked with the tour company about adding a little detour to Olduvai Gorge, which wasn't on the itinerary. They said they thought they could work something out, and when the day came, our regular driver took us there on the way home from the Maasai village. It turned out the visitors' center was just a few miles off the main road.
We paid our fee . . .
. . . and noticed a typo.

Shouldn't it be Olduvai, not Oldupai?  We learned that the correct version is the latter, the Maasai word for a wild sisal plant that grows in the area. (Not a very glamorous name origin.) Way back, someone misspelled the name, and it wasn't until 2005 that the name was officially changed to OLDUPAI. (Nevertheless, even Wikipedia has it listed as "Olduvai," as do some of the displays in the museum itself.)

Monday, September 1, 2014

AFRICA: VISIT TO A MAASAI VILLAGE (TANZANIA)

Earlier in our trip, we had the opportunity to visit a Samburu village in Kenya. The Samburu people are an offshoot of the Maasai, the proud group of African warriors who were once among the most feared of the African tribes. In the mid-19th century the Maasai occupied most of the vast Rift Valley, but at the end of the century the population was decimated by diseases such as smallpox and cholera that coincided with a severe drought. More than half of the Maasai population died. Not much later, two-thirds of their land was taken away to be used by colonizers and for national parks and reserves.

In his book Hemingway in Africa, Christopher Ondaatje points out: "Until the nineteenth century, the Masai dominated the grassy plains that stretch eastwards from Lake Victoria almost to the Indian Ocean and southwards from the highlands north of Nairobi to the Masai Steppe of Tanganyika. Then, in the second half of that century, cholera and cattle diseases almost obliterated them, and the northern part of their lands were taken over by European settlers. . . . By 1953 Hemingway felt that the tribe was a sad shadow of what it had once been. . . . [He] blamed the tribe's demise largely on drugs and alcohol . . . ."

Typical Hemingway. The pot calls the kettle black.

In the last 50 years there has been a resurgence of the Maasai population, which now numbers over 850,000 (but is still only about 0.7% of Kenya's population and about the same in Tanzania), and a lot of effort is being made to help them preserve their culture and lifestyle while also providing education for their children. However, there continues to be much controversy over who owns the Maasai ancestral lands that have become part of the game reserves and are so important to the tourist industry and also highly desired by the government for other natural resources, such as geothermal energy.

Tourists are generally shielded from the many complex issues related to indigenous people, which is understandable given the fact that one of the ways the Maasai make money is giving tours of their villages to those tourists. The last thing they want is for us to be drawn into their politics. For the most part, we were ignorant of any problems.

It was on our drive to the Maasai camp that we first experienced what became a regular habit: animals running down the road in front of our Land Cruiser in a crazy game of African Chicken:
Note the endless expanse of grass. Classic Serengeti.
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