Thursday, October 15, 2009

Off to the races

By the way, lots more pictures are here

After a classic English breakfast with sausage, bacon and eggs, it was
off to the Rift Valley in cute little AWD Japanese mini vans. In true
safari style, we also ranked a chase bus with the cooks and tents.
Slightly less grand style, the room for baggage was severly limited,
even with only 6 people on a van. And of course there's always one or
two who didn't read the "bring only one bag" in the itinary. But after
some rearranging, muffled cursing, and a photo-off between the DSLR
owners we got going at 8.Still surprised how comparatively empty the parts of Nairobi we drove
through were compared to other 3rd world cities. OK we were in the
really nice parts like the embassy quarter, but it was a bit striking.
The first stop was to pick up water for the next few days at a swanky
mall that could have been in any US town--the only hint that it wasn't
was that the mall security was schlepping AK-47s, but it still could
have been Alabama. Once out of Nairobi, we really hit Hem's Green Hills
of Africa, a lot like central America or southern Italy 30 years ago.
(Damn, writing that makes me feel my advanced age). Only on the second
glance, it started to sink in that the maize crops looked less than
healthy and that a lot of people walking or biking along the road were
carrying water from wells to their homes. Signs of the drought that's
been haunting the area for the last few years.
The drop into the Rift Valley was so much less impressive than I thought
it would be. It really has nothing on dropping from the Sierra into the
Central Valley, or the Andes. Nice roadside stop at a view
point/souvenir stand. Even the Kenyian hawkers are very laid back and
not at all pushy--except the one Elain ran into who got really pissed
when she called him on changing the price from about $2 to more than 30.

Up to this point, the only animals we've seen were the chicken next to
the "interesting" bathroom, but now the first babboons and Zebras
started to show up to everyones great enjoyment. (only two days later,
we implemented an informal: "Nah, we don't stop for zebras anymore"
policy.) The contrast to any other place I've even been to was striking:
if you go to a national park you normally have to look for the wildlife,
here zebras just graze on a main road to Uganda.

At the campsite, a funny pattern emerged: the tourists--who paid about 5
times the average Kenyan annual income--settled into the tents, while
the Kenyan staff sleept in the small hotel rooms that also were part of
the site. The other pattern was that--safari-like--midday was spent
having lunch and taking a siesta. Both because the animals are usually
only out in the morning and late afternoon, and because Kenyan parks
only allow a morning and an afternoon drive. Hot lunch was terrific.
Even more so when it turned out that all courses--tea, soup, curry,
naan, vegetables, desert were done with a few pots, an iron grate, a
steel plate, 5 knives, and a wood fire.

And now the live audio from the drive: Are we going to see animals? A
Joking aside, it's really mindblowing. Animals everywhere. And doing
animal things. And more animals.

The only downside was that due to the low water in the lake, there was
no way to drive or even walk close to the flamingos. A pity, because there were so many of them that we had already seen them from the main
road 10 miles away. A big portion of the lake was simply pink. We tried
anyway by getting out of the van and walking--occasionally checking for
lions, and I tried to keep the oldest guy between me and the trees, but
it was still thwarted by the muck getting muckier. The absolute
highlight were the giraffes at the end of the drive (weirdly, the best
animal viewing is always in the last 45 minutes).

What is really striking about Lake Nururu is that it is on the outskirts
of the third largest town in Kenya, barely 3 miles from some pretty
large buildings. I never expected that many animals that close. The part
is about 90 square miles, so obviously not every part is close to
Nururu, but the lake is. Massai Mara, the Serengti and Ngorogoro are out
in the middle of nowhere.

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