Wednesday, February 1, 2017

In Africa

At the time of our marriage in 1975 my wife and I “signed” a pre-nup.  We agreed to have children and to go to Africa.  The children came along in due time, and after forty-one years together, we completed our vows with a trip to Kenya and Tanzania.

No thanks to me, the planning went very smoothly.  Somehow I contacted an outfit styling itself TrueAfrica.  I thought that I had gotten their recommendation from a friend who had recently visited Botswana, but no.  Well, perhaps from my sister-in-law, a world traveling physician, not her, either.  I must have imagined or dreamed up TrueAfrica.  But whatever fates placed us in their hands, we were blessed with everything we hoped the trip would be.

Traveling to Africa requires a lot of sitting in airplanes.  At this time no US-flagged carrier flies non-stop to east African destinations.  Our choices required a flight to a European capital and subsequent travel to former colonial regions.  We chose BritishAir, Houston to London and London to Nairobi. Two months after the trip I remember nothing of our time in the air; memories begin at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

We arrived at 10:45PM and retrieved our luggage at midnight.  Airport infrastructure, at least the baggage handlers, could not manage the near simultaneous arrival of two international flights.  As we stood around, we met a number of our fellow passengers—a couple of Londoners on their honeymoon, a 30-year British expat returning to Kenya after visiting relatives in England, and a 40-something man who became so distressed with waiting that he had a Trump-like tantrum, yelling at the baggage handlers and cursing Kenya in general as a disorganized, third class country.  Our greatest worry was that the long delay might have complicated our transit to the Nairobi hotel.  Lucky for us Kenyans have first class patience.

The Fairview is a lovely place, built at what was the edge of Nairobi in the 1940s.  Much has changed in seventy years, and now the property sits smack dab in the middle of a gated community that also houses several embassies.  Security is tight.  We passed an armed guard at the hotel gate and a baggage scanner before check in.  In anticipation of President Obama’s visit in 2015, the authorities installed surveillance cameras, similar to those all over the British Isles, to record street traffic.  We inadvertently tested security the next day as we walked through the hotel gardens.  A path that promised a panorama took us to a position with a view of the garden and the hotel. Across the street rose a high wall with Kenyan soldiers patrolling its perimeter.  My wife noticed a sentry post on the wall itself, manned by a soldier of clearly un-Kenyan nationality.  She waved.  Rather than returning her friendly gesture, the soldier pointed and scowled.  Almost instantly, a man in a suit hurried up behind us.  He introduced himself as the hotel security chief and told us to return to the garden.  Turns out that we had gazed into the Israeli embassy compound.

Later in the day the hotel arranged a taxi ride to the Kenyan National Museum, our only tourist foray into Nairobi. The museum holds a well curated display of the country’s history from pre-colonial times to the present, sprinkled with skeletons and taxidermied bodies of the country’s celebrated wildlife.  The ride back to the hotel displayed the capital’s not-so-famous rush hour traffic.  Automobiles mixed it up with motorcycles, pedicabs and pedestrians. My wife and I agreed that Nairobi’s drivers are even less observant of rules of the road than their Latin American counterparts.  The Fairview welcomed us back with an early dinner and a comfortable bed.

Our flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International Airport, just across the Tanzanian border, took us to the east of the majestic mountain of the same name.  The view from the plane would be our only glimpse of the peak.  Clouds occlude the summit for 300 days of the year, and our day at Hatari Lodge was not among the favored sixty-five.  Hatari (“danger” in Swahili) was the title of a movie filmed in the locale in 1962.  Howard Hawks directed and John Wayne starred, but more important for the future of the lodge was the appearance of the German actor, Hardy Kruger, in a supporting role.  The beauty of the area so impressed Kruger that he purchased land used in the filming and attempted to attract German tourists until newly independent Tanzania imposed laws discouraging foreign involvement in the national economy.  While the property offers fine accommodations and an open park that attracts game—we saw zebras, cape buffaloes and a pair of giraffes—its charm pales against that of the Tanzanian game reserves and national parks that we would see in the days to come.

To cover our wide-ranging itinerary, we made several short hops in single engine aircraft.  The first, Arusha to Kuro (Tarangire) had a pilot who spoke with a Castillian accent.  He looked so young that one of our fellow passengers asked how long he had been flying.  I was thinking “Tanzian Foreign Legion Air Corps.”  But Luis, from Madrid, proved older than his looks and had flown several years for Air Excel.

Tarangire National Park is justly famous for its large elephant population.  The park includes a large marsh that attracts animals when other water sources disappear. Although we saw elephants everywhere we went, the view of more than 100 in a single location was unforgettable. We also saw our first lions in Tarangire.  A pride of four females devoured a cape buffalo as we watched from our open Toyota Landcruiser.  We were so close, too close for my comfort, initially, that we could hear the lionesses crunching the bones of their kill.  As long as we did not leave our seats, the beasts apparently saw us and the vehicle as an unthreatening background.

In her pre trip research, my wife identified a site off the safari track.  The Kondoa rock paintings document ancient human occupation in east Africa.  Mary Leakey described the paintings in a book published in the 1940s, and more recently UNESCO has declared them a World Heritage Site.  To our request, the tour operator responded that no one had asked to visit Kondoa before.  That should have signaled hatari, but with our intrepid driver, we set off on the “highway” south.  Turns out that despite its cultural importance, Kondoa is rarely visited, and we discovered why.  The track to the paintings is steep, rocky, and gullied.  Only by the grace of the high-clearance, four wheel drive Landcruiser did we reach a parking lot.  Just who did the art, its significance and its dating are yet to be determined.  But clear to anyone with eyes and an imagination, the paintings show two dimensional representations of humans and prey animals—buffalo and giraffe.  I expect that the next time that tourists utter “Kondoa,” the True Africa folks will reference our experience and suggest that they reconsider.

From this point on everything—the fabulous Ngorongoro Crater, the giraffe colony near the Dunia Camp, waiting in vain for the Wildebeests to cross the Mara River (but seeing them framed in a double rainbow), and the single cheetah followed by a dozen tourist vehicles—went by like a dream.