Africa Journal – Kenya

IMG_1206Africa Journal November 25th, 2017 

Kenya- the next step in my journey! I arrived in Nairobi, but as planned, I didn’t get a chance to see the city as it was a mere transit point for safari in Amboseli National Park. Upon landing, I quickly paid the ATM a visit for some Kenyan Shillings and went right to an airport hostel/lounge. Yup, that’s about it for Nairobi, a pity, but there’s so much wildlife and so little time and safari is on the mind.  

I’m not in Nairobi Anymore

7am the next day on the 22nd of November, my safari vehicle was awaiting to take me to the national park. Heading farther and farther from Nairobi I got to see increasingly scenic landscape along the highway and started to see the Masai peoples tending to their herds as they graze, all a sign I was getting closer to what I came here for. 

The paved roads disappeared as we headed closer to my lodging just outside the park. No longer could we simply keep driving in the designated left lane (no, this isn’t England, but a former British colony) but instead strategically swerved all along the road, dodging potholes and large troughs and crests on the dirt road. Despite the “bumpy” start, things got much more luxurious at the lodge. As a result of limited days for seeing Amboseli, I had few options for tours and there weren’t any real budget accommodation options. Turns out, what I booked was essentially “glamping”. The staff was sure to greet me immediately once I arrived at Kibo Safari Camp and swiftly took me to my glamorous tent. It was a permanent tent with a solid overhang superstructure. Inside had electricity, full plumbing, and nice lighting. Outside my tent was a private patio with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro (when there aren’t clouds in the way), and down the path was a pool, a full bar, fire pit, and restaurant. I was quite honestly uncomfortable at first, as I’m not used to staying at such nice places. It was almost too nice for me. Not to mention it wasn‘t a typical place for backpackers like myself and instead it was a cushy place for couples and groups of foreigners. The clear downside of the demographics of the place was that it clearly lacked in the social aspect that I would experience at a much more modest hostel. However, I embraced the place for the next couple nights and let it give me an opportunity to catch up on sifting through my photos thus far and uploading many of them online. 

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View from my “Tent”

Still, the same afternoon I arrived, we had time for an afternoon game drive in the park. One of the main reasons I chose Amboseli as a destination was mostly for the Kilimanjaro views coupled with the safari wildlife. Unfortunately, this main draw was hiding in a thick, rainy cloud the entire afternoon. The drive was still successful, encountering elephants, gazelles, zebras, baboons, and even lions! I determined this was just the warm-up and hopefully tomorrow Kilimanjaro would rear its head among the surrounding plains. I was certainly excited, don’t get me wrong. When I first started laying eyes on my first animals, I was so happy that I was finally experiencing a top bucket list item of mine and could sit back enjoy the ride and start clicking away photos to my heart’s content. After a good start the safaris, we head back near dusk. 

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Ostrich in Amboseli National Park

A Part of the Tribe

The next morning, I was given the opportunity to visit a Masai village nearby. With a contribution, I went following a Masai man to his village. It was a beautiful morning, it was warm and comfortable, and to my pleasure, Mount Kilimanjaro was fully visible on the entire journey to the village. Following a Masai tribesman as we walked towards Kilimanjaro was such a fulfilling feeling. It, too, was a big reason why I came. The village was simple and very tribal in nature and most importantly, authentic. They configure the village in concentric circles. The outer ring is sharp shrubs and sticks to keep the elephants and predators at bay. Inside this is a circle of cow dung structures reinforced with more wooden sticks. Then inside this inner ring is some walking and living space with the next layer being another defensive and containment perimeter, keeping cattle reserved in the center of the village where they are least vulnerable from hungry predators.  

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Masai Medicine Man

I felt very welcomed at the village, where I was handed off to one of the sons of the village doctor. He gave me a tour of one of the homes, occupied by woman I would peg as being in her 50s or 60s of age. Inside was dark and tight and somehow managed to have enough space for a bed or two and a “living room” were a fire was burning. The smoke produced by the fire made it difficult to breath but their design of ventilation certainly kept the smoke a much safer level that would occupy the structure otherwise. Afterwards back out in the open, fresh air he showed me some of the natural medicines the Masai people use. They were various twigs and roots retrieved on 7 day treks every month or two that are meant to curb or prevent many ailments, such as malaria, stomach aches, muscle and join pains, and even erectile dysfunction. Following learning what old men and men with multiple wives used to “keep them going”, they showed me how to make fire. It seems to follow the same procedure the Boys Scouts follow- a soft wood stick with a hard wood friction board in combination with tinder, which in this case was dried cow dung. Between three tribesmen switching off on the exhaustive task of rubbing sticks, they got the dung ablaze.  

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Masai Making Fire

My favorite part of the visit was the tribe dance. Roughly 15 of the village’s men and women came out to perform a traditional group dance for me, with “Kili”, as Mount Kilimanjaro is affectionately nicknamed, in the background. After a few minutes, they asked me to join in and I started dancing like a Masai, jumping up and down as high as I could. Not being a person who has ever been known to have “ups” and I suspect they’ve been practicing all their lives, it was not contest regarding who could bounce higher- me or them. Though I was quickly put in my place in vertical ascension, I had fun and it was experience I will remember.  

Amboseli

The dancing got my blood flowing, but Day 2 of safari must begin and so we reenter the national park for another game drive. Unfortunately, during this time the clouds swiftly formed around Kili and it was gone. Just like that. The cursed late morning heat! I was hoping to get a decent photo of wildlife set against the mount, but that opportunity vanished as quickly as my basketball career apparently. It was never a guaranteed thing and was still happy with my Masai visit and I still got to see much more of the park. More and more zebras and gazelles, now with warthogs, vultures, bushbucks, impalas, and water buffalo. My favorite wildlife sighting was definitely the six or so elephants walking towards our vehicle and one other. They weren’t bothered by us apparently and one elephant even got up right next to the other vehicle where the others blocked the road. Elephants, lions, and giraffes were the animals I was looking forward to most, and got two of those under my belt. And as far as the fabled Big 5 goes, by the end of the morning drive I was at 3 out of 5. Not too bad! 

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Our drive was complete and we drove through the park en route to the Tanzanian border at Namanga. When I thought I was done and wasn’t about to see any new wildlife, I was jolted at the slamming of the brakes for some giraffes near the roadside. One of my most anticipated safari animals was now before my eyes. And this wasn’t the last time, we came across two more groups of giraffes lollygagging through the trees to get a munch.  

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I’m not in K…enya Anymore

The border town of Namanga is nothing noteworthy besides the border control itself. It’s the first time I’ve seen the set up that they had, which was where the border posts of both countries are in the same building and is technically in Tanzania. My taxi drove into the parking lot, where my new Tanzanian cabbie parked literally right beside. It’s more of a border check than a hard border. I went into the building, through passport control, and walked out the other side. I felt like I could have skipped the process and just went straight into the next cab and drove into Tanzania without check. It felt incredibly loose and wouldn’t be difficult to cross borders illegal. One thing’s for certain, it’s not the USA-Mexico border.  

When I booked the safaris, which is all through the same operator, he really wanted me to stay at a hotel in Arusha during my transition to the next safari. He did give me a good price and was just a place to crash but still was craving hostel life. I made the best of my evening there, with a free dinner, in addition to having some drinks while going through more photos.  

After taking full advantage of the free breakfast in the morning, I was picked up early to head towards Serengeti National Park with a stop at the Ngorongoro Crater view point. Already in the vehicle were Kelly and Andrew. Both came across as nice people right from the start. After some talks, I find that Kelly is a journalist from Ireland who quit her job from a big national newspaper there to travel over the course of the next year while doing some online gigs. Andrew is a student at the moment taking a break and traveling with his friend Jake, who we’ll soon pick up at another hotel down the road in another town. Jake works in athletic training also taking time from work to soon get back to school.  

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Ngorongoro Conservation Area Entrance

Our stop along the way was the Ngorongoro Conservation Area view point. The drive through the conservation area was nice enough with quite an ascent up the crater rim, complete with plenty of curves and steep drops and view of the vast expanse beyond the crater. The rim view was gorgeous. To the far left, far right, and far into the distance were the crater rim as it rises and encircles the plain held within. The plain itself is vast, full of green, and 21 kilometers from rim to rim. All of which made for a great photo-op with new the new safari-mates.  

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Ngorongoro Crater

The drive from Ngorongoro took about four hours, arriving at the Serengeti National Park gate, shortly followed by the Serengeti welcome center. The gate was nothing more than an archway bannering the name of the park but the welcome center was a picnic spot, with a lookout point, a souvenir shop, and coffee shop and is where our guides had to check in with park officials to arrange everything necessary to enter. We took our time here at each of the aforementioned amenities. It started to rain, but it didn’t stop us from hiking up the slippery slope up the hill to the lookout and while everyone was rushing down the hill, we were the only ones toughing it out to reach the top. This short hike was fun despite the view being not particularly the best with one way being a partly visible plain and the other direction was featuring two obstructive cellular towers (as one pictures in the Serengeti, right?). But joking around with the good company in the rain more than made up for the underwhelming view.  

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Masai Near Ngorongoro

Though we did have make the best of the drizzly weather, we were in fact getting pretty wet so we boarded the safari Land Rover and set off into Serengeti National Park. It took just a matter of a couple minutes out of the hilly terrain into the plains to spot our first zebras. At the time it very exciting. After all, I was in the Serengeti and was looking at a zebra! All of us were quick to start snapping photos, ogling at the beasts. But little did we know, we’d be seeing as many zebras that we could possibly want and in much more picturesque settings. Good thing our guide knew to keep moving so we didn’t get hung up on the animals that just so happened to be closest to the park entrance. Even with moving on, we were quick to stop again. This time, though, was warranted. We had suddenly come into mobs of animals – zebras, wildebeest, and gazelles – all mingled in these huge hoards grazing the plains for as far as the eye can see. It was incredible as the horizon itself wasn’t the visible edge of the curvature of the earth but the masses of mammals blending into the sky above. 

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Serengeti National Park Entrance

Here was the beginning of a great experience in the Serengeti. 

 

Africa- Journal 1: The Start of the Trip of a Lifetime

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Some of the many elephants spotted on safari. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

November 17, 2017

When it comes to epic trips to do in one’s lifetime, an African safari is certainly one that comes to my mind. It’s right up there with walking climbing the Great Wall of China or gazing upon the northern lights. Since I have a seemingly automatic and natural allure to these bucket list trips, I’m embarking on this very African extravaganza. Safari isn’t the only thing on my mind that this vast, beautiful, chaotic continent has to offer. Although I have done extensive research and planning into this trip, I can’t wait to see it all unfold over these next three and a half weeks, and share my experiences during and following my journeys.

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Some of the fun to come – Atop Victoria Falls, on Livingstone Island, Zambia

As a write, I’m sitting at the bar in the international transfers terminal at the Istanbul Ataturk International Airport. At this point I’m still flush with excitement and anticipation of arriving in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, my first stop along the trip. So far it’s been a comfortable journey. It all got going with a great send-off from my Uncle Bob and Aunt Kim over some drinks at a brewery near the Chicago O’Hare airport. They’re the best hosts around and really know how to help kick the trip off right. Soon enough after, I whisked myself away through the airport security and the journey had officially begun.

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Boarding a jet bound for Nairobi bound for Kigali.

Although the flight was standard with no surprises, I got the same thrill that I have every time I fly, particularly abroad. To me, there’s an incredible sensation about the moment when an airplane’s jets engage, propelling the vessel into motion, accelerating and accelerating to the point where suddenly feel a sudden lift in combination with the quick disappearance of the rumbling of the tire on the runway pavement, followed by the inclination of the plane’s nose towards the sky. There’s just something about disconnecting from where you were and knowing the next time you touch the ground is going to be somewhere totally different. This feeling is the strongest the moment I leave US soil because there’s something about being in a foreign land, and when the tether is severed for weeks at a time, it’s strangely liberating.

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There’s something about reaching new nations. On Victoria Falls Bridge at the Zambian border.

Well my beer is finished here in Istanbul and I have the next leg of my transit to catch. Here we go!

Brian’s Packing List

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Items to Pack 

This list may is not all-inclusive for all travelers and some items on this list may not be necessary for yourself on your travels. However, it is what I typically pack on a trip in my backpack and is a great starting point for your packing as well. Rememeber to pack smart! Whatever you pack you have to lug with you the rest of the way and be sure to leave room for souvenirs!

Here’s what to consider packing:

  • Outlet splitter or power strip to increase the number of things you can plug into one outlet/socket
  • 3-prong to 2-prong (Ground to no ground) converter, if necessary 
  • 3 copies of passport info page. One to keep hidden in backpack. One to keep on person when not carrying actual passport. State ID also good idea. And one for someone back home to hold on to.
  • Spare passport photos – optional in most cases.
  • Spare zipper-seal bags 
  • Printout of return flight confirmation (in case requested by immigration official) 
  • Pen and paper (pen at very least). Have on the plane with you for customs forms.
  • Spare credit/debit card(s)Leave one hidden in bag/at hostel 
  • Rain poncho 
  • Paper clip(s) for opening SIM card tray 
  • Back-up U.S. Dollars (keep hidden in bag/at hostel) 
  • Combination lock (mostly for hostel-goers for in-room lockers)
  • Small bottle opener 
  • Mini bottle of hand sanitizer 
  • Travel adapter or converters
  • Passport! 
  • Power bank (and spare batteries if needed) 
  • Sunglasses 
  • Clothes for warm, for chilly, and the beach. 
  • Travel-sized toiletries 
  • Miscellaneous equipment (e.g. camera, GoPro, laptop, selfie stick, etc.) 
  • Phone charger and other chargers 
  • Earbud headphones 
  • A couple of plastic grocery bags. One to store soiled or wet clothes. Another to keep sandals in. 
  • Toilet paper and/or sanitary wipes 
  • Medications (i.e. ibuprofen, acetaminophen, antacids, anti-diarrhea meds, etc.) 
  • Travel wallet/belt 
  • Luggage tag with contact info on baggage 
  • Travel insurance card if you obtained one.

 

Things to Do Before Departure

  • Download offline locations on Google Maps or on the app called Maps.me
  • Contact credit/debit card companies to alert of foreign travel transactions 
  • Save (star) important locations (esp. acoommodations) on offline maps and Google Maps
  • Convert some cash to destination currency ahead of time – optional
  • Reserve seat on plane – optional 
  • Check-in for flight 24 hours ahead of time or per airline policy.