OnSafari: Last Drive

OnSafari: Last Drive

Many still considered him a youngster. Only 6-7 feet long he was little compared to the monsters of Lake Turkana, many photographed at over 25 feet. But he didn’t feel young, anymore.

Born on a buried sand nest on the edge of the great Mara River, he ate voraciously his first several years, swimming madly away from the large bull frogs the size of soccer balls that gobbled up little crocs by the dozens.

A few years later when he reached a couple feet long he had to eat only a few days each week. He lie motionless just under the water at the shoreline, jumping up twice his length to snatch a bird trying to flee. Soon, irony of ironies, he was hunting the frogs.

When he reached his early teens he was too big to hide any longer among the water lilies in the crags of the great Mara. He began to crawl out onto the rocks to get warmed by the sun like the big guys.

It wasn’t long ago that he started to sleep more and more. When he woke hungry he waited for a small impala coming to drink and that was only a few times every couple months. But back then he ate his hunger rather than the impala if there were any big guys around. He’d seen some buddies persist only to lose the prey to one of the Mara monsters, and sometimes even parts of their snout.

Now at a robust 7-8 feet he found himself with no appetite except twice a year. He slept the rest of the time behind a secluded and log hidden under a big leafed tamarila bush that hung over the river.

His hunger woke him the day we saw him. Perhaps, too, he felt the ripples of the big guys slipping into the river. Whatever it was he was famished.

So no longer junior he couldn’t hang back an instant longer, because the moment he started to swim again after his several month sleep his appetite grew extreme. He hurried out no longer deterred by the current, his sleek powerful body cutting through the turbulent Mara waters as if it were a still lake in the mountains.

Suddenly he was with others his size swimming but without any real direction, nothing to hunt in the deep middle of the river. Then all of a sudden he saw one of his buddies snapping at a head with horns that bobbed among three or four of his peers. The horns weren’t sharp at the end or shiny in the sun. They looked puffy and grey.

The four 7-foot crocs gnawed and slapped their jaws all over the thing but it didn’t soothe their appetites. Soon they backed off and encircled it like the spokes in a wheel.

Finally the 6-month old skeleton sunk back into the water. His appetite soared. He wriggled, challenging his peers, but they quickly swam away. He stayed right there in the middle of the river. He knew something was on the way.

By the end of our 8th day in the Serengeti, our 18th on the overall safari including Kenya we’d seen virtually everything but a rhino. Most travelers lack the inclination for spending so much time and money on an East African Safari today but it reminded me that in the old days I rarely guided a trip that was less than 23-25 days. Marlin Perkins’ first safari with supporters of the Lincoln Park Zoo in 1957 lasted two months and six days!

We intersected the migration big time two days ago in the western corridor. We spent a night at a beautiful camp on a hillside overlooking Seronera and the next morning watched a 5-mile long file of wildebeest race across the valley below. The migration has yet to reach further north, but our schedule had us the last two days in Tanzania’s far north just in case the migration had been early.

On our way up we saw our last group of lions, bringing our total to 46. The family of 13 was draped onto a very small kopjes in the middle of a vast flat prairie like bits of discarded bread dough thrown over a broken spatula. We left the rock of lions just a tad bit south of Lobo and continued moving north. Game became very scarce. The grass grew five feet high.

Our last game drive scoured the veld up to the Mara River and the Kenyan border. This is Tanzania’s Mara District, and the terrain looks almost exactly like Kenya’s Mara: gently rolling hills, verdant and bushy.

But here in Tanzania south of the great Mara it’s higher and drier than just north over the great Mara River in Kenya. There in Kenya the valley is much better watered, less rocky and has better grass.

So our last game drive was pretty scant. The drive was interrupted with a bit of excitement as we tried and failed to pull another tourist rover out of the black cotton soil in which it was stuck. (Not really a good idea to travel in these parts during the rainy season with only one vehicle. Moreover this one had a broken 4×4 system, so it was doubly doomed and got what it deserved.)

We offered the lovely couple from Barcelona a lift back to their camp but they opted to remain with their driver until another vehicle was sent from their camp. We confirmed this happened by radio before we returned to our camp later that day.

The other notable event was sighting about a dozen giant crocs in the Mara River. Generally these 12-18 foot beasts hide themselves for most of the year in a dormant state. But they know the wilde are coming. This is one of the two times in the year they eat: when the wilde come, and when the wilde go back.

So they were out on the sand banks waiting in the sun or slithering anxiously through the river, positioning themselves for the hundreds of thousands of beefsteaks that will arrive probably in the next 2-3 weeks.

We even saw four trying to devour the head of a wildebeest. We didn’t see the kill and it was possibly the skeleton of last year’s migration, pulled from its crag under water.

So it was a very soft ending to a great safari.

As Steve said to me at our last dinner in camp, it’s a bittersweet time. Everyone looks forward to going home, but no one wants to leave.

OnSafari: Bingo Beast

OnSafari: Bingo Beast

So by the end of our 5th day in the Serengeti we topped 30 lion including three kills, 3 cheetah, thousands of elephant and literally tens of thousands of gazelle. Oh, and a python, serval cat and an absolutely wonderful chocolate cake presented to us with song at our last camp!

But remember this safari is “chasing the herds” and we’d only seen a couple hundred wildebeest. No real surprise, but the pressure was on.

Radio chatter (which only reaches about 10k) wasn’t helpful. You call a camp and ask honestly, “Is any of the migration there?” and inevitably you’re assured that several million animals are right outside their mess tent. Incoming drivers insist that they’ve seen the whole kit and kaboodal because no one wants to admit otherwise. So even after five days gathering intel it’s sort of a crap shoot.

Tumaini and I decided that at least a portion of the great herds had to be in the western corridor, probably around the Musabi Plains. This would be a little behind normal, but the rains have been so good and extended for so long that it would make sense.

We were in the Moru Kopjes. The Musabi Plains was pretty far away, a good couple hours or more at breakneck speed. So everyone got excited and agreed to have breakfast at 630a and leave promptly at 7. So the stage was set!
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OnSafari: Where they go?

OnSafari: Where they go?

Hundreds of vultures. Mounted on the acacia trees, flying between the patches of thick forest, landing and taking off from the meadows within the woods. So we plowed back and forth through the high grasses trying to discover what they were scavenging. What dinosaur could bring so many birds together?

Radioing back and forth between our rovers we covered almost every inch of open ground and could find nothing, even as the shadows of their huge wings slipped back and forth across us. What was going on?
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OnSafari: Lion Story

OnSafari: Lion Story

It should have been the best day of his life. Instead, with every step he made walking away from the big black-maned pridemaster who was seated on the veld like the sphinx watching him, he pressed his eyes closed, lowering his head slightly. I wasn’t sure since I was looking at him through my binoculars from about 80 meters away, but I think he was in great pain.

Still, his belly wasn’t thin. In fact, it was pretty full. In fact all 11 in the pride including the kids had full bellies. The wilde must have been killed 2-3 hours before we arrived shortly after dawn, but it was already nearly licked clean.
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OnSafari: Endless

OnSafari: Endless

The unexpected night at Hemingway’s resort in Nairobi refreshed and rejuvenated everyone. I love Hemingway’s. I thought of Raffles in the Seychelles, an over-the-top property specifically marketed as a “fancy resort and spa.” I like Hemingway’s better.

The rooms are bigger, the bathroom is just aw large and gorgeous, the woodsy grounds with flowered landscaping a fine substitute for the Indian Ocean, and the dozens of chirping swifts, grunting colobus and melodic bulbuls more relaxing to me than the crashing waves on the beach.

Hemingway’s is where you go to rest up, not worry about which jewelry worn to dinner will perfectly reflect the candlelight. I ordered a hamburger.
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OnSafari: Gun Fire

OnSafari: Gun Fire

I haven’t delayed telling you. It’s just been an awfully busy time. Our two days in Samburu were cut short by automatic weapons and mortars. Everyone is fine, excited to keep going, we immediately returned to Nairobi and I’m infuriated that the Kenyans have wrapped this up. After one day of oblique reporting, the trouble in Samburu which we experienced first-hand is as if it had never happened.

That’s no way to boost tourism.
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OnSafari: New Nairobi

OnSafari: New Nairobi

Once I really liked Nairobi. But our two-day visit here was like walking back and through a time warp in an nondirectional universe. The pandemic did a number on a lot of things. I was here just before the pandemic and I swear some crazy aliens confiscated the city, goofed around with it and just now dropped it back down to earth!

There are highways, sometimes multistory, all over the place. The 27 km southern bypass is reported to have been built in two years, all of it elevated and on each of the four sides of the hundreds of concrete pillars on which the concrete sits three stories above the ground are at least 500 tiny holes each containing a live nasturtium plant kept alive by the rain drainage from the highway above!
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OnSafari from Above

OnSafari from Above

I just love the flight down from Europe to East Africa! Whether from London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Zurich or Paris most of the flights are day time and travel over some of the most dramatic scenery on earth!

This time I started from Frankfurt flying over the gorgeous springtime greenery of what many of us Americans consider an overly manicured Europe. But you’ve got to admit those perfectly planted farm fields with bursts of little thick forests all around them are definitely where the Pied Piper is hiding his kiddies!
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OnSafari : 1st Impressions

OnSafari : 1st Impressions

My Uber driver somehow noticed my app came from America and greeted me in perfect English, “Where you from?” I told him Chicago. He thought a moment then sort of sardonically guffawed:

“Are you prepared for the trouble?”

I’d let my routine slip recently, not following Kenyan news as I usually do. I knew the presidential elections were coming up, always a bad time to be in Kenya. My mind raced through all the too many different times in my life I’d stepped into trouble in Africa, rarely accidentally. But I’m much older now. My heart didn’t race like it did when I was young. There was no adrenaline. I always got through it before. Would now. No matter what it was.

“So what’s wrong?” I finally prompted him.

“What?!” he asked incredulously. “You didn’t hear about the shooting of children in Texas?”
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Slow Go

Slow Go

I’m on my way back to Africa, the second time since the pandemic began oscillating downwards. As with the first safari it’s much longer than pre-pandemic.

Responding to my clients’ wishes I built a long, multiple country itinerary with almost every possible wildlife stop. A certain anxiety among traveler enthusiasts has resulted in them pushing to go longer and deeper once they make the decision to go.

Sort of like, ‘Well if we’re going to do it, we better do it all!’
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Not So Good

Not So Good

Things aren’t going well for tourism. It’s best in America where local travel has doubled over last year and is only about 15-20% below pre-pandemic levels. Europe is a close second. It’s really bad in Africa and the Middle East where current tourism is still only a third pre-pandemic levels. And the worst of all, of course, is Asia where China is learning the hard way that you can’t wipe out the virus like the Uyghurs.

Soon I return to Africa with 9 travelers, and as disappointed as I felt with the less than full safari my guys on the ground are ecstatic. At least I’m coming! Tourism in Africa isn’t anywhere near the level that was predicted, and this is leading to some very interesting stuff.
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Me Worried

Me Worried

Written years from now history will describe the fall of Mariupol not so much a military as political defeat. Then more years hence when books are written about the end of modern America, a connection will be made with Mariupol.

Then more and more cross references will weave a history of our current times as one of privileged classes intoxicated by their comfort, unmotivated to carry on the battles for everyone that got them to where they were: Coopted if not corrupted by their own satisfaction.
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Imminegration

Imminegration

Courtesy / The New York Times
Two of my closest African acquaintances are settled in America. Both hurdled right over all the obstacles to immigration into the States: One is a political refugee and one is an accomplished physician.

It’s left me scratching my head. What distinguishes these two individuals from the hundreds of thousands pounding on our southern border with similar motivations and urgencies?
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Scared To Death

Scared To Death

It’s very hard to write in a public forum about anything other than the Ukrainian war. Referring to my own interests rooted deeply in Africa can’t assuage any of the guilt that we’re not doing enough to stop this monstrous conflict.

They say age increases paranoia: Thousands of memories of African dictators and gruesome conflicts sweep through my head, but nothing rises to the destruction in Ukraine. I don’t feel this way because Ukraine is a “white man’s war” or because Ukrainians seem to be more culturally and economically aligned with my own privileged ecosystem than the good citizens of Uganda fighting the LRA. That’s hogwash.
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