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The iconic Eden of our dreams, or at least the Eden of mine, looks like a great African savanna. Wildlife wanders peacefully, nonchalantly, every animal having a place and order. It’s a place of balance, and the beauty and peace comes from that balance. And if I had to be even more specific about what it looks like, if I had to draw a postcard of Eden, if would be a savanna teeming with elephants towering over the land and more species of animals than I could imagine dotting the grasslands around them. Since I couldn’t imagine all of them, I’d draw the ones I know, like lions and zebras and giraffes, and then just a bunch of dots to represent all the other creatures. And in the background, looming above it all, a big mountain like a volcano. Turns out, what I would have drawn is basically Amboseli National Park in Kenya. I didn’t really know anything about what it looked like, but I wanted to go there because it’s renowned for its exceptional population of elephants. I learned, but only after I’d decided I wanted to go for the elephants, that Mt. Kilimanjaro is located there on the border with Tanzania.
So it was an interesting experience to literally drive into the Eden of my dreams. (Although there have never been safari vehicles in my imaginary Eden, haha.) It felt a little surreal. I came to East Africa on a private safari with my mom who, after seeing my photos from safaris in southern Africa and hearing tales from her friends and family who had gone on safari, decided this was something she wanted to do herself. So, it was my first safari in East Africa, and her first safari ever. I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying several other people on their first experiences with African wildlife, and it’s such a pleasure to see the reactions of people to their first animals sightings ... and of course it reminds me of the thrill of my own. But I have to say, my mom’s reactions were a particularly integral part of the fun of this safari. Whenever I get beside myself with excitement over seeing wildlife, I guess I know where that gene comes from, haha: My excitement is exceeded only by hers.
I got recommendations of parks to see from other acquaintances well-traveled among East African game parks. I gave these parks as an itinerary to Elly at Endless Safaris Ltd., and he designed our trip and we got the pleasure of having he himself as our guide.
So I’ve decided to title my series of posts from this trip, “Pockets of Eden,” as everywhere we went really exemplified that space in my psyche that until now I had to just imagine based on books, TV, and other peoples’ photos. Unfortunately the human sphere of sub-Saharan Africa is widely un-Edenic, shall we say, with endemic corruption and exploitation of both human and natural resources on a scale perhaps unparalleled in the rest of the world. And then on top of that there are the dark undercurrents of things like witchcraft culture. Although I’ve exposed some of that world in Namibia to you, much of the witchcraft culture exists just as powerfully and pervasively in other areas of Africa. So the Edens are reduced to pockets in the whole fabric of sub-Saharan Africa. They are threatened by poachers and habitat loss, so they are delicate and precarious Edens, pockets whose threads are so close to unraveling.
I have often said, probably even here on the blog, that if everyone could go on safari just once, there would be no wildlife crisis. There would still be pressures, overpopulation still creates those, but people would be motivated to figure out how to solve those pressures without extinguishing the wildlife. One night at dinner, my mom exclaimed the same thing. “If everyone could go on safari just once, no one would want to kill these animals!” Basically she was echoing the sage sentiment of Baba Dioum: In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." Going on safari is teaching yourself and others about African wildlife. As soon as you know what the elephants do, how they protect their young, how the wildebeests fill the horizon, how the lion cubs play, how the colorful birds sing and spread their wings, you can’t help but love them. Then you will want to protect them. Trophy hunters, I can’t explain them. But they’re the minority. I recently saw a wonderful film called, “The Babushkas of Chernobyl,” in which one of the elderly ladies said, “Some people look in a puddle and see the sky, some people see themselves, and some people see nothing.” She shrugged her shoulders. “That’s the way it is.”
So I'd love to share some of Amboseli with you. I’ll split into two posts.
We spent our first night upon landing in Nairobi in the splendid Hemingway Hotel. Then headed out after breakfast to Amboseli. With, of course, some obligatory cow herd road blocks.
First glimpses of Mt. Kilimanjaro!
Now we are inside the park. For some sense of scale what it’s like to be at the foot of it, try to spot the two safari vehicles in the foreground. It's the world's tallest free-standing mountain -- in other words, it's not part of a mountain range like Everest or Denali.
So for my mom's virgin evening game drive, Elly and his driver, Harrison, parked us at an elephant crossing, where they move from their daytime grazing on the plains toward the foot of the mountain. We saw more elephants than I have ever seen together in one place. Heck, probably more than I've seen in any one entire safari. Although we didn’t keep actual count, we’re sure it was well over 200 elephants. They just kept coming and coming over the horizon, crossing the road in front of and behind our vehicle, less than a stone’s throw away from the car -- like if a particularly weak infant were throwing a pebble, she'd hit an elephant. I’ve seen a lot of elephants at close range, but not in these numbers, so I was very excited ... but my mom was completely beside herself. “I had no idea we’d see so many elephants! And that they’d be so close!” Haha, I came to find out later that she had been imagining we'd be looking through binoculars most of the time.
We stayed at Ol Tukai Lodge in a cabin that faced the mountain. Elephants often grazed in the marsh just a short distance from the cabin. And the lodge has its suite of typical hospitality staff – the waiter and waitresses, bartenders, bell hops, reception staff, etc. And then one of the most hilarious jobs I’ve seen – baboon watchmen: Masaai men who stand around the edges of the eating patios with slingshots. Everywhere else I’ve been in Africa, the vervet monkeys are pests at lodges and campgrounds. Here it is baboons! Baboons scare the heck out of me. They have enormous canines and can get really aggressive. The babies are cute, but the adults … yikes! Here my mom was going to eat a little snack on the porch of our cabin and within minutes a huge baboon had come over to get a little piece for himself. Mom beat a hasty retreat into the cabin! So we found out the staff wasn’t kidding about not taking any food away from the restaurant. And stupid me, I reinforced the veracity of the staff’s warnings a day later, not thinking about taking away a chipati back to my cabin! Ooops. Fortunately no altercation with the baboon.
Went to bed and woke up with Kilimanjaro as the dramatic backdrop. A majestic ode to the past volcanic activity of this region ... once it was a violent fiery field, and now it lays so still and serene. A friendly reminder that everything changes.
One magical morning we got up in the pre-dawn to find the waters full of pink flamingos.
Flamingos are cool and especially en masse. So a photo like this is all about color. Pink band in the blue, bracketed by yellow and green, and topped again with blue. I feel like a cake decorator or something when I say that.
But the bird I was most excited to see was the gray crowned crane!! Yes, double exclamation mark. Actually, that’s understatement. Let’s add a few more … !!! I first met these birds in Uganda and fell deeply in love with them. But Uganda was way back in 2012 and since then, my safaris have all been in southern Africa, where I have not encountered them. So in the interim, the lilac breasted roller became my favorite. But after being reunited with the gray crowned crane, I feel drawn back to my first love.
Another animal I was excited to see early on in this trip was the spotted hyena. I’ve seen a few of them in southern Africa. Usually at least one per trip. But my last safari in the Okavango, I didn’t see any, even though they are one of the most prominent features of the nighttime audio landscape anywhere in wild Africa. So I was happy to encounter them again. Here they were finishing up a meal just past dawn. Some shenanigans going on about who got the last bits.
So I was happy to see some creatures I hadn’t in awhile, but pleased as well to see the usual suspects. Like zebras! And especially when I saw a new behavior … zebra breakdancing! I saw them doing a roller derby in Moremi, Botswana. And here I saw them breakdancing. I think people generally do not give zebras enough credit for the breadth of their interests and talents.
Another usual suspect: the cape buffalo. Generally a cantankerous creature, they have their tender moments. And warthogs! A lot of people call them ugly, but I find them to have a certain charm. I love how they put their tails straight up in the air when they run, and all the little piglets running after the mum: I think they’re pretty cute.
So although the baboons were scary at our lodge, the vervets were as cute as ever. They are pesky but not scary. Well, except once at the UWEC one attacked me as I was walking home carrying leftover pizza. But as a general rule, I love watching and photographing vervets. And it always feels like, “Oh, I’m in Africa again!” every time they’re around. Though actually this was really the only place we saw much of them during our East Africa trip.
A water spigot leaking little drips of water. Vervet says, "Mine! Mine! All mine!"
But I think the single-most comforting thing, the thing that makes me sigh, “Ah, I’m in Africa again,” is the sunsets. Red and orange with the savanna dust, blanketing the entire sky, acacia trees punctuating the landscape.
And a sunset leads to a marvelous sunrise and a whole new day of excitement. Seldom do I feel so motivated to get up before dawn! But on safari I wake up full of anticipation, almost jittery from the hope of what we might see juxtaposed with the suppression of expectation, because nothing is guaranteed. But there's the knowledge that we’ll see *something* even if just one amazing animal. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning who just can’t wait to see what’s in those packages under the tree ... On safari: what is today’s dawn towing behind it?
In Amboseli it towed lots of elephants every day! Me and my mom and our guide, Elly, thrilled with the elephants just outside the vehicle:
This greenery was right near our lodge, basically in the “driveway” to the lodge. Goodbye mom and tot, we’ll see you tomorrow!