After a month in Tanzania, we left to explore its northern neighbor, Kenya.
We boarded an ‘Impala Shuttle’ at 7:30 and drove 2 hours to the Namanga border crossing north of Arusha. We had filed for e-visas a month before but were assiduously checked by the agents to make sure we had yellow fever vaccinations before entering. The drive from there to Nairobi was another 3 hours and soon after arriving and grabbing an Uber, we were at our friend Kent’s house for two nights of reminiscing of our times in Korea, fast internet and washing a weeks worth of dirty clothes.
Lake Nakuru National Park
We were met by our tour company and guide named ‘Simon’ who drove us 5 hours west to lake Nakuru National Park. The parks in Kenya were more spread out, which meant longer drives with stops in dusty frontier towns for soupçons along the way. Lake Nakuru was by far the most lush park we had ever visited as it bordered a lake which shares its namesake. The highlight of Nakuru was that we finally got to see rhinos, (last of the ‘big 5’), and both white and black ones at that. Black rhinos are critically endangered and their numbers are in the dozens in lake Nakuru. More solitary and skittish than their white sub-species counterparts, we spied one amidst a group of water buffalos down by the water’s edge. We were lucky to get close to a small family of white rhinos and Ava finally saw her spirit animal in the wild for the first time, and planted the seed of her next writing piece; a persuasive essay on rhino preservation.
As we toured the national parks, the parks interpretive areas announced any and everything they were doing to protect its inhabitants and thus, your entrance fee was being well spent. In the case of the more vulnerable and extremely endangered species, displays in multiple parks mentioned that species were going extinct due to ‘conflicts with humans’. The park borders in Kenya were more porous, and because of this animals can enter and exit the park areas with relative ease. Unfortunately, these animals can mix and mingle with local farmers crops and carnivores can take down cows and goats if given the opportunity. In this sense, these endangered animals are seen by locals as ‘pests’ as elephants eat the fruit from their orchards and lions and hyenas eat their livestock. When this happens (as highlighted in the netflix documentary: ‘The Ivory Game‘) local farmers shoot the perpetrating beast outside the park area and claim ‘self defense’ which garners sympathy from local chieftains, tribal elders and government municipalities. With no fear of prosecution, the farmers can then sell the carcass to the highest bidder on the black market. Even though this is not ‘poaching’ per se, it creates an environment that allows the trafficking of endangered animals parts to flourish and incentivizes local farmers to encroach on park lands and bring their herds close to park borders. The payout is more than they make in a year.
Masai Mara National Park
At a rest stop the next day, we met our new safari companions: a solo Italian, a British world traveller and a pair of Germans who were doing east Africa, and we drove southwest to the Masai Mara. By now, we were experts in animal identification and Ava was schooling the adults on how to distinguish a ‘Grant’s Gazelle’ from a ‘Thompson’s Gazelle’ and tell a male giraffe from a female one.
The beauty of Masai Mara national park can’t be put into words, and if there is one park in east Africa you should visit, this is it. Whereas the Serengeti in Tanzania is flat and dry, the ‘Mara’ is fields upon fields of green rolling with plateaus and hills rising up all around you. Glancing in any direction, you’ll see herds of hundreds of wildebeest, groups of elephants and dozens of water buffalo in every direction. The amount and variety of herbivores was off the charts and we saw numerous new species such as Topis, Hartebeest, and huge groups of Elands. This in turn, means the predators are well fed and we saw many of the big cats, kettles of vultures picking apart carcasses, and skeletons everywhere.
By far, the most interesting scene in Masai Mara was the infamous Mara river. The Mara river is one of the river crossings that animals endure as they move from drier pastures in Tanzania to greener ones in Kenya as part of the ‘great migration’. If you’ve ever seen National Geographic documentaries of animals crossing crocodile infested waters, this is the place. When we arrived, there was a herd of 300 wildebeest on the Kenyan side and we drove to the rivers edge hoping for a glimpse of the carnage if the herd made a move. After waiting nearly an hour, we saw only a small group of zebras make the crossing and the crocs were too slow in getting there. Onto live another day.
Hells Gate National Park
After a boat tour around lake Naivasha to see the waterfowl we went to Hells Gate national park to see the volcanic monuments. Unfortunately, our trip to Hells Gate was interrupted by local protesters who set up a barricade across the road of burning tires to protest the poor road conditions and encourage the government to build better infrastructure. With rocks being thrown and police called in with tear gas, we holed up in a local restaurant to let the situation de-escalate. After a few hours and no signs of abating we drove to Amboseli National park, just near the Tanzanian border.
Amboseli National Park
The beauty of Amboseli is that mount Kilimanjaro sits just over the border to the south in Tanzania, making for stunning backdrop. Although it didn’t have the big cats that Masai Mara had, we had many unique moments such as close encounters with a young zebra calf and the closest viewing of warthogs and ostriches we’ve had in our 5 weeks in Kenya and Tanzania. I taught Ava about the rock cycle and after a few hours she could identify basalt, granite, obsidian and knew the conditions that caused each to form.
A friend of mine once told me that you ‘leave a little bit of your heart in Africa‘. Being back here after my first trip 14 years ago, I’m still astounded by the simplicity and complexity of such a vast, beautiful and apparent ecosystem and felt so grateful that our daughter could see it for herself. Our last afternoon in the park, I sketched the sunset with Kilimanjaro in the distance and wondered for which animals will this sunset be their last. Tomorrow, old age or predation will cause their sun to set permanently and return their body to the earth in the ongoing circle of life.
We humans are not much different. We’re all just a phone call, diagnosis, accident, break-up or tragedy away from a life altering event that reminds us that life is fragile, time is precious and we’re all just travelers passing through time whose choices are half chance. One day, you’re plugging along as usual and the next day your life is forever different as a member of your herd dies in front of you and you can do nothing to stop it. Somedays you’re the lion, somedays you’re the gazelle. Somedays you beat your chest proudly like the mountain gorilla, and other days you recoil in unimaginable grief at the loss of your child.
That evening, we had a glorious drunk and talked as a big group into the night on our last night together. Kennith, a Costa Rican and I wrestled a dead tree to the fire pit and got a fire going on our first try while Hanna, the Brit, got some marshmallows at the rest stop and Ava schooled the adults in the fine art of marshmallow roasting. The whisky came out and a portable JBL speaker took turns filling the air with our music playlists. People that woke up to complain about the noise soon joined the party and the young bucks stayed up till 3:00 am putting constellations to bed and tracing new ones that crept up east from the horizon.
Earlier that day, I caught Lisa crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I will miss this place so much. I hope that Ava brings her children here someday and sees the same things as we are seeing now.”
By now, Ava took notice and asked the both of us: “Why did you want to bring me here?”
Thinking that Tanne asked the same thing of Denys over a hundred years ago, I chose my words carefully:
“Well kiddo, we wanted to bring you to east Africa to see it, before…..”
“Before what?” She asked.
“Before it’s gone”