Our African Safari
Arun, Babu and Venu Menon
Our African Safari, 2018
From almost a year ago, we planned a visit to Kenya and Tanzania in Aug-Sept as to be the best time to view the migration. Our idea was to travel to Kerala from the US, spend time with family and take the trip to Africa and back, before we returned. Devi’s nephew Bhagyanath (Babu) who had worked in Africa as a banker and had taken such safaris previously, offered to be our planner and companion during the trip. As my brother Balachandran (Rajan) from India and my son Arun from New York were keen on joining and none of our spouses had any interest, it was a four-man team that began preparation well in advance.
Even though my interest to revisit was to see the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, Maasai Mara region and to get a feel of the Wildebeest/Zebra migration and if possible, a glimpse of Kilimanjaro, I was a bit uneasy that my age might create a burden to the youngsters on the team. The concern was further aggravated when the chosen tour entailed a rustic theme, rather than the luxurious one I had undertaken when I was much younger. Though I raised that fear, the others didn’t seem to feel it was an issue, and I didn’t push it, perhaps a bit shy of admitting my limitations. I wished I had, as we endured the excursion!
Babu arranged the trip through Africa Home Adventure, with which he had a previous decent experience. We thought of spending five days in Kenya and five in Tanzania, with a day of travel each way, totaling a trip of twelve days. Arun managed to get some days off so that he could visit relatives in Kerala and leave for the safari before he returned to NY, and Rajan took needed measures for his consultancy to be handled during his absence. I was planning to reach India in June and enjoy the company of my siblings and family members, as monsoon rains would keep the temperature mild as compared to our usual trips in the spring with disturbing heat. Babu was free to plan as he pleased, and took care of all the details of travel back and forth to Africa from India as well as the details during the safari.
Gradually, each of us studied up on the trip, read much about the travel, got excited about the experience we would have, the animals we would see and the pleasure of the company that we would enjoy during the tour. We shopped for safari clothes, shoes, clip on lights, air pillows, light plastic rain wraps, insect repellants, plug adapters, and more knick-knacks. After I reached India, the planning and dialog continued, as we excitedly waited.
But Kerala monsoons arrived with a vengeance, ahead of our plans, cautiously, then confidently and subsequently constantly with an intensity and a rage, dumping the entire sky all over the state. About a week before our catching the flight for the safari, Babu’s home in Trichur got flooded. As they watched, it rose from the street to their yard, then the porch to the living room and into the entire home, filling the first floor, as they frantically moved stuff to the higher floor. Water also waded into the adjacent dental clinic of his wife Priya with the special chairs and equipment. News came in that Kochi airport was flooded and was going to be closed days beyond our intended departure to Africa. It would jeopardize more than our flights, but that of Arun’s arrival and the planned departure of Balram, Rajan’s son, my nephew who was to leave for USA to pursue his dental studies as well.
The immediate thought was that we would have to scrap our safari, since the floods were creating more havoc and all of us could become casualties. But thank God, that did not happen. Water stopped short of our area and we were spared. Kerala showed remarkable resolve, kindness and unity and relief poured in from all over to help the unfortunate victims.
Back to our safari plans. It was all up to Babu who was the most affected, but to our surprise, he was heroic in his tenacity and resilience. He remained hopeful that we would make the trip; and we did. As the water from his home receded in about three days, he assembled help from all over, worked day and night to clean up the mess, piled up the damaged furniture and belongings including heaps of silk sarees and most of the ‘safari gear’ that he had collected and burned them. Past is past, he said. My brother Rajan had to cancel out since he had to take his son to Bangalore and find a flight for him to leave for America. Arun flew into Coimbatore and came to Kochi by road.
A day ahead of our planned departure, the three of us took a crowded Jan Shatabdi train to Trivandrum from Kochi, that took eight hours to get there instead of the usual four. The one bright spot was the delicious dinner packed by my sister Nalini. After breakfast the next morning we boarded our flight to Mumbai and caught our scheduled Kenya Air flight to Nairobi that evening. Never thought it would happen.
We were picked up by our agent George of African Home Adventures and taken to Gloria’s Homestay as arranged. This initial step was the worst of our trip. The place was a disaster. No light or water where they were needed, no pillows on the beds, the sink and shower not functional, just smiling, polite faces of the hosts and tolerable food. We escaped before daybreak, still hopeful and full of anticipation.
George welcomed us at the door and after picking up Chris who had arrived from England, drove us to the tour office where Albert and his crew were waiting to explain the whole trip to us. Final payments were made and we were shifted to Tom and his Toyota Land cruiser that would be our vehicle for the next five days and Tom, our driver and tour guide. Then we drove to the Rift valley, and reached Maasai Mara by the afternoon.
The Maasai Mara lies in the Great Rift Valley, the fault line, some 3500 miles from Ethiopia through Kenya and Tanzania to Mozambique. A rift valley is a lowland region where the earth’s tetonic plates are constantly in motion, shifting apart from each other. We settled in the Enchoro Wildlife Camp, our residence for the next two days. The set up in the camp was adequate with scattered permanent tents on raised concrete bases, with beds and mattresses, as well as toilet and shower facilities within the tents, but electricity from solar energy providing faint light, rationed for brief periods in the morning and evening. Dining was in a separate building and the food was tasty and plentiful.
In the evening, we walked to a nearby Maasai tribe village, accompanied by Jonathan, one of the many house leaders of the village. The tribe settlement we visited had about 160 members living in about ten huts in a circle with one entrance gate. The center courtyard was covered by muddy clay and cattle dung, with the tiny huts entered through a crack of a door and one slit window barely allowing light. The kitchen occupied the middle of the hut with teeny rooms on either side. There was a small bench on which we were welcomed to sit as Jonathan explained about their lifestyle, his unit with wife and four children as part of the larger 160-member commune. It was a pre-historic existence, with one piece of cloth wrapping their body, each person carrying a stick and assigned to their roles. They raised cattle, goats and chicken and they had dogs and cats as pets. They drank the milk of cows along with the blood tapped from their necks. They made handicrafts and sold it to the visitors. They would collect donations and perform for the visitors dancing and jumping up and down and inviting us to join them. The man who can jump the highest would need to give the least dowry to get a bride. They are allowed many wives, if they could collect many cows. They coexisted with the animals and knew how to get along. Surprisingly many of the Maasai spoke English, having learned from the visitors. They wished they could send their kids to school in neighboring towns, and slowly they are changing. We were told that Maasai numbered a few million in Kenya, Tanzania and neighboring countries.
Next two days, we watched hundreds of game and birds in Maasai Mara. The all-wheel sport utility vehicle would navigate through terrains of slopes, rock and mud, the raised roof allowed us to stand and watch, as Tom, the expert guide drove us around throughout the day, spotting the animals from a distance, hidden among the bushes or moving through the grass.
Maasai Mara triangle in Kenya covers about 500 sq. kilometers and is home for hundreds of game and birds. We saw many cheetahs, some leisurely devouring their prey and nonchalantly ignoring the many visitors watching them from the jeeps. We saw packs of lions, the mothers guiding their cubs to plan, chase, attack and capture their prey and eat them leisurely and with discipline. There were hundreds of zebras, looking well fed, and often in the company of wildebeests and grazing non-stop on their meal from the ground. There were giraffes and buffalos, topis, elk, gazelles, and antelopes.
In the southern edge of Kenya, we witnessed a portion of the incredible ‘migration’, the most dramatic sheer drama of the animal kingdom, involving about two million animals. As far as we could see from the distant horizons, thousands of wildebeest and zebras marched hurriedly in continuous clusters towards some far destination, following the leaders ahead of them. When we watched them, they were on their southward journey towards the Serengeti plains of Tanzania, and would make a circle and come around in a few months, following the grass and sprouts.
The next morning we were taken to watch the sunrise from the Maasai plains, a spectacular experience watching nature’s bountiful donation. As the darkness at the far horizons gradually lightened up smearing the canvas into multicolor shades and as the glistening glow rose in its gentle routine of protecting our existence on this planet earth, it was divine realization. Viewing it with all the pristine purity from unadulterated abundance of earth wrapped around us, and the morning air caressing our senses, it was serene, astoundingly enchanting.
Doing justice to the visual treat, our gastronomic needs were amply met. Food was plenty, tasty, healthy and prepared especially for us. Morning and afternoon tea or coffee, breakfast, packed lunch boxes for picnicking during our break, dinner as we returned each evening along with a big supply of bottled water.
But my age came in as a troubling factor, its old joints refusing to oblige, the certain comforts that I have been lately accustomed to making it difficult to cope with the accommodations. The rustic, tented lodging would meet our minimal needs, but was a huge challenge for me to surmount. For more than half of our safari, Babu and I shared a tent, crawling into sleeping bags laid over thin foam pads with our bags and belongings crammed around our sleeping area. The only illumination was the tiny flashlight that we clipped on to our cap or flap of the tent. Once down, often before 9 pm, I was into deep slumber, fatigued from roaming all day, but my prostate would wake me up by two in the morning. Crawling on all four and struggling to stand up, posed quite a contest, but once up, to walk to the distant toilets was dangerous as we were cautioned of the glowing red eyes of the hungry predators waiting at night in the premises for their own supper. But we survived.
Perhaps all those tough conditions, served me in two ways. One was a challenge to keep up with the two youngsters with me, and wanting not to spoil their fun by burdening them, myself becoming an additional baggage for them, and secondly the treat of watching the bounty of nature from its own bucolic and native setting. This safari offered me a totally different perspective than my previous one done in luxury.
After two days of extensive coverage of game in Maasai Mara, we moved on to Lake Nakuru, staying for a change in a hotel Citymax. Main attraction here was the white waves of a few thousand pelicans assembled on the shores of the lake and their collective movements triggered by some provocation. We also saw the white or square-lipped rhinoceros on the plaines around lake Nakuru, grazing leisurely and apparently not afraid of the onlookers. We proceeded to Nairobi that evening stopping by Lake Nakuru Lodge for tea, Lake Naivasha and its jetty and the Rift Valley. Checked in at Hotel Westlake in the city of Nairobi.
After breakfast the next day, we took the shuttle to the city of Arusha, crossing the border to Tanzania. We were transferred to a Land Rover and its captain Julius, our driver and knowledgeable guide along with Freddy, our cook for the next five days. We stayed at a hotel, shopped for essentials at a nearby supermarket (owned by Indians). The next day, we drove to and around Lake Manyara, watching an abundance of elephants at close range, zebras, giraffes, hippos, a lion and several kinds of birds. Checked in at our tent lodging.
On the first of September we drove to the Serengeti, stopping briefly at Manyara viewpoint and Ngorongoro viewpoint. Next two days we would be staying at the camping site on the Serengeti. Continued with the game viewing watching all the big five (the lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard and rhino) and several other kinds of game and a variety of birds. There were wildebeest and zebras in the thousands, buffalos, hyenas, baboons, gazelles, crocodiles, ostriches, impalas, warthogs, topis, antelopes, jackals and foxes, and several that I cannot remember. It was a fabulous display and quite a feast for nature lovers. The fourth person in our team, Chris from England stayed busy with his telescopic camera, clicking incessantly the many birds and tiny creatures along with the big ones.
We owe a special thanks to our driver guide Julius for his safe driving, spotting the animals and knowing interesting details about them. Talking about the harem of impalas, the sole male and his 40 or 50 ‘wives’ grazing and moving as a team, how the lions spot their prey, wait patiently and guide the cubs to attack and capture, how the baboons can distinguish between the locals and visitors, especially the white ones, the leopard carrying a sixty pound gazelle by its neck up to a tree top and leisurely eating it, that an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain, multiple adult baboons raising the young ones together, etc, etc. And our cook Freddy was passionate with his choosing items and instilling his special flair into his dishes, responding with his unique answer when asked, what is in it, Feddy?.. ‘Freddy’! And every one of his items was always delicious.
Our last visit was to the Ngorongoro Crater, as a conservation area protected as a UNESCO world heritage site, about three million years old, formed after a volcanic explosion and collapse, about a mile deep and the floor covering an area of a hundred square miles. The Maasai tribe was moved here from the Serengeti and the ecosystems along with the animals are protected in the crater. We concluded our safari viewing a wealth of game in this fascinating area, ascending the slopes of the crater and settling for the night in a tent site, at the edge of the crater. Night was cold but the feeling was warm having experienced the phenomenal treat of nature with all its trimmings.
Left early in the morning for the long drive to Arusha where we bid goodbye to Julius and Freddy and took the shuttle to Nairobi. Halted at Antony’s Grand Homestay near the airport.
We flew back from Nairobi to Mumbai. Arun stayed back in Mumbai before flying back to the US a couple of days later and Babu and I caught our flight to Kochi, getting back in time for dinner and our own beds.