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Sunday, February 7, 1999
In the air over Africa

After what seemed like an eternity, the sun peeked over the horizon. There was a thin veil of clouds that prevented a really good view of the land. Finally, we started an agonizingly slow descent while we were still over the Democratic Republic of Congo, or possibly Uganda. The slow descent was actually a good thing, as I was able to keep my ears open. (The fact that Jomo Kenyatta Airport was more than a mile in altitude helped, too!) Over Lake Victoria, we finally ducked below the cloud deck, and I had my first good look at Africa!

When we came back over land, we were crossing the land just north of Masai Mara. After that, we crossed the rift valley floor. Human habitation was present, but sparse. Wherever there was any kind of habitation, it was surrounded by a predator fence, or Boma. These fences stood out very clearly from the air.

A few minutes later, we touched down at Jomo Kenyatta. It took a long time to get off the plane, as there were so many people on it. As I was passing through the front main cabin, I was called by another passenger. He had recognized the Africa Adventure Company logo on my duffle bag, and figured I was one of the other people on our safari. (All five of us were somewhere on this flight.) His wife had Lou Gehrig's Disease, and they would need a lot of time to get off the plane. He asked me to make sure they didn't get forgotten. I looked them over good to make sure I could identify them, and deplaned.

Although the terminal area was thoroughly modern, the international arrivals hall was considerably more rustic. The ceiling was a dark, paneled wood, with narrow slots for fluorescent lights. The passport control stations were painted wood, and showed signs of heavy use.

My papers were in order, and I had no trouble getting my entry stamp. I then proceeded straightaway to customs. This was set up just like the British customs, although there were more people around. I just passed through the 'Nothing to Declare' portal and a few seconds later, I was free!

When I walked out into the passenger pickup area, there was a mob of people on the public side of the rail looking for arriving passengers. I was expecting a sign that said 'Africa Adventure Company'. Instead, I found a sign that said 'Stoffel'. Even better! The gentleman holding the sign (Whose name I have regrettably forgotten.) was very nice, and glad to see me. I was the first person off. He wasn't sure how many people there were in total. I told him five, in the form of two couples and myself. (In retrospect, I think the fact that husband of the other couple, Larry Lesko had a different last name than his wife, Teri Cleeland, caused the confusion. Both last names were on his sign, which would have led him to believe there were more people.) Larry and Teri were the next people off, and they were easily snagged. They were archaeologists from Arizona, and worked for the National Parks service there.

The other couple, as they told me to expect, took a long time to clear customs. When they finally did, they never could find the driver holding up the sign with their name. I finally recognized them, and gathered them in. We were now all together for the first time. The other couples' names are Joe and Joyce Eddington. Joe is a retired engineer (If I recall correctly) and loves flying.

Our gear was loaded into a safari van (With an opening top lid.), and we were then driven to the Norfolk Hotel. The company contracted to move around in Kenya was 'East African Ornithological Safaris'. Their service was excellent, and the driver took care of porters' tips, etc. so we didn't have to worry about them.

We drove through part of downtown on our way to the hotel. Nairobi is a deceptively big city, with a population of about 2 million. It is one of the most modern cities in Africa, so it was replete with high rises, heavy traffic, and people of all sorts!

One of the interesting things I noticed was the penchant for reinforced concrete construction. Even very large buildings were constructed of this material. Only the big skyscrapers probably had steel frames. People's homes were most often concrete block, with poured concrete posts and bond beams. Many homes and businesses had dreams of growing, as re-rod was often sticking out of the top of the posts above the roof line. All in all, this construction was typically far stronger than what is required for the structure size! Maybe this has something to do with poorer grades of concrete blocks. It is more likely that the extensive use of concrete might have something to do with the presence of termites everywhere in East Africa. Another interesting thing was the labor practices used to build buildings. Even large buildings under construction were being built by labor intensive means. Concrete forms were often built of random pieces of scrap wood, and the resulting concrete had somewhat of an uneven appearance. Scaffolding was more often than not long sticks tied together. These, of course, were not very straight. Very rickety looking, but probably safer than they appeared.

Another thing I noticed was common use of HF communications. In fact, one of the skyscrapers had a very large HF log periodic antenna on top of it. These antennas are quite rare in the US. (A log periodic antenna looks like a rooftop VHF TV antenna, except these were far larger-- 30 feet or more long!)

Crime is a real problem in Nairobi, and thieves steal things that wouldn't be stolen in most other places. As a result, many of the traffic lights had cages over them to prevent light bulb theft!

Safari type vehicles were everywhere. Ecotourism is BIG business in East Africa. They were also practical vehicles in the sense that you could not navigate many of the outlying roads in anything less than a land rover.

At long last, we made it to the Norfolk Hotel. This is a first class hotel, and it's service is excellent even by Western standards. It is also very famous as well. Ernest Hemmingway apparently stayed there. There was a clock in the lobby donated to the hotel sometime in the '30's. In any case, they are not hurting for business, as they were doing a multimillion dollar expansion and renovation. This renovation caused us to have to use a temporary lobby. Nice, and quite adequate, but small for all the people who were around.

I was pleasantly surprised to meet the Collette Tours group again. It seemed up to this point we had been following each other! I ended up giving one more quick lesson to the woman who had the same camera I did. I hope she got good pictures on her safari! Eventually, the tour leader for their group showed up, and began giving them their pre-safari briefing. It was now time to go explore my room.

The room was very comfortable, and a welcome relief after the cramped aircraft. (1:36)(These numbers that will appear in the text of the story from time to time are frame numbers of photographs taken. The format is, roll:frame. Sometimes, notes not completely relevant to the story will follow.) I took a shower and reconfigured my pack for safari rather than air travel. I also loaded up my camera with film for the first time since the trip began. After all was ready, I sacked out for about 40 minutes. Boy, did that feel good!

Of course, I turned on TV for a few minutes. There was a small selection of programming available, most of it from satellite. The 50 Hz vertical flicker was present, as well, but there was no immediate way of telling whether the TV system was PAL or SECAM. (I know now it is PAL.)

The power outlets were of the same type as those I saw in England. Line voltage is 220V. The usual special shaver outlet was present, as well.

Our guide met us in the hotel lobby about 2 PM for the drive to Arusha, Tanzania. We loaded our bags, and we were soon on our way.

It was just outside of Nairobi, near the airport fence that we saw our first game: a lone giraffe. It was really out of place there, as there were no trees for thousands of yards around. Nobody could suggest an adequate explanation why the giraffe was there.

The outskirts of Nairobi were like most any big city, alternating between huge industrial buildings and farmland. Many herds of sheep and goats were seen along the road. These were either under the watchful eye of a herdsman, or were in a fenced-in pasture. The presence of all these animals reinforced the fact that Kenya was a great place to be if you were a meat lover.

Soon, the trappings of civilization faded away, and we were in the bush. This particular road we were on is one of the most important road in East Africa, and is referred to as the Trans-East-African Highway. It is Highway A104 in both Kenya and Tanzania. Up to this point the pavement was blacktop (Or Macadam, as they called it there.) and was in generally good condition. Now, we started to encounter stretches of road where the pavement ws simply gone. Whenever we encountered one of these, we had to slow way down and drive around it as best as possible. This slowed us down a lot.

We passed through a stretch of Acacia scrub that matched the description Colonel Patterson gave in his book, 'The Man-Eaters of Tsavo'. Although we weren't going anywhere near the Tsavo river, we did cross the Athi river. This river joins the Tsavo river about a mile from the infamous bridge. Indeed, this area of scrub gets it's name from the Athi river; It is called the Athi Plains.

We finally started to see game along the road from time to time. Mostly Thomson's gazelles. We did see a small herd of zebra as well.(I kept my eyes open for a certain tawny brown predator, but did not see any.) Soon, however, this wildlife started to be replaced by cattle; we were into Masai country.

Many books have been written on the subject of the Masai people. They have, for the most part, shunned modern civilization, and prefer to pasture their cattle according to the old tradition. This is not to say there are no Masai with educations or that have adopted Western lifestyles. There are plenty of these, but they haven't forgotten their roots.

The Masai people were easy to spot. They wore conspicuous red blankets with various plaid-type patterns on them. They were usually carrying sticks, and were watching over cattle of some sort. These were mainly bovine-type creatures, but there were often goats and maybe an occasional donkey mixed in. The Masai believe that all the cattle on the earth are theirs. Their entire economy and culture is based on cattle; the more cattle you own, the richer you are, regardless of the rest of your lot! It is also considered an acceptable practice to raid other tribes to increase your cattle holdings!

It was men and children that were watching the herds. The women were seen most often close to the Masai villages we encountered. They were often bearing burdens of firewood, baskets, etc. on their head. They also wore red, but had a lot more jewelry on. We will learn more about the significance of this jewelry when we get to the Masai village visit later in the trip.

Although we say plenty of the traditional villages with their round, wattle-and-daub homes, the most interesting Masai villages were the ones built right along the road. These were made up of concrete block or sheet metal structures, and most of these were stores of some sort.

The Masai not only raise cattle, they live by them. Their diet is mainly milk and blood and meat. This reliance on cattle was evident in the villages along the highway. You would see racks of cowhide for sale. Also, every third shop seemed to be a butcher shop of some sort. There were also an awful lot of what we would call taverns. Drinking must be just be just as prevalent among the Masai as it is among Westerners! There were also a few curio shops and an occasional inn.

Now, the country began to grow more rugged, and the human settlements grew fewer and further between. We passed big hills like Mt. Ilemlego and the Maparasha Hills. It didn't occur to me as we were driving through this area that we were entering the Amboseli Game Reserve.

With Mt. Orok towering over it, we soon reached Namanga. Just before we reached the border, we stopped at a large curio shop to rest and pick up the exit cards that we would need at the border. This shop had thousands of wood carvings, swords, shields, stone carvings, books, maps, etc. I took a good look around, but didn't buy anything except some bottled water. Our guide told us we would in all likelihood visit this shop on the return trip. With the bottleneck of the small-plane flight past at that point, that would be the time to buy curios.

The border consisted of three stops. The first one was the Kenya customs office. Checking out of the country was quick and easy. While there, Teri dickered and dickered with a Masai woman and finally bought a beautiful copper-and-brass bracelet for a US dollar. When I had a chance to examine it, I realized she had herself quite a bargain!

The next stop was to change vehicles. Commercial safari vehicles from Kenya are not allowed into Tanzania. We said goodbye to East African Ornithological Safaris and said hello to Ranger Safaris of Arusha, Tanzania. While there, another street vendor tried to sell Teri a beautiful round stone with the earth's map carved in it. The person was asking 120 for it, which none of us wanted to spend. We later realized that they were asking 120 Kenya Shillings, which is about $2 US!

The third stop was Tanzania immigration. This, too was easy. We were through the border!

At several places in Namanga, and all throughout East Africa, we encountered police at various types of roadblocks. These were most often in towns. These were sometimes real gates across the road. Other times they were just sawhorses. There was also an ominous (to vehicles!)type of roadblock that consisted of strips of heavy rubber with spikes. These were so positioned so you had to do a zig-zag to get around them. Most often, there were police at these particular roadblocks, but we ran into some that were unmanned. You really have to watch the road in East Africa!

Most of these roadblocks were to check for illegally smuggled commercial goods, especially food. Tanzania in particular was strict on imports of food. A couple of roadblocks we encountered were just for training drills. The police at these roadblocks, mainly seen around Arusha, were dressed in neat, dazzling white uniforms.

There is no speed limit posted on most roads. You would find some speed limits in the towns. Instead of relying on police to control speeds, the areas where speed limits were posted often had speed bumps in the road. This was much more effective than police! Too bad we don't do more of this in the US! A couple of spots where the local people were very serious about speed limits featured the unmanned spike-strips mentioned previously! I often got the impression the speed limits in areas that had them may have been set up by neighborhoods and not by the local government.

The road in Tanzania was rough at first, but steadily improved as we got closer to Arusha. The scenery also started to change, as we encountered truly large mountains. The first of these was Mt. Longido. When we were past Mt. Longido, we started to be able to see Mt. Meru. This is the biggest mountain I have ever seen from the ground, with an elevation of 14,980 feet. It's top is young and jagged. From some angles, it comes to a distinct point. From other directions, it has a small ridge as it's peak. In any case, I fell in love with Mt. Meru and photographed it extensively. (1:35)

Mt. Kilimanjaro was visible too, but it's top was hidden in the clouds. (1:34) It somehow didn't look as impressive as stories make it out to be when nearby Mt. Meru is also in view.

We soon hit the outskirts of Arusha town. Unlike our short foray into downtown Nairobi, we stayed on the outskirts of Arusha. Things here were much more crude than in Nairobi. There was electric power in Arusha, but it was uncommon in most other areas. The power system seemed crude and somewhat massive by US standards. I later found out that many people do their own electric hookups and some are killed in the process! Most of the concrete block homes didn't appear to have windows, but I learned later that they wern't really necessary. Also, if homes had windows, they frequently swung completely out of the way when not in use. What looked like glass supports in the window openings were usually iron bars. On some homes, these bars formed decorative patterns. A sunrise pattern was popular, and some of the windows at Mountain Village had this pattern.

There were all sorts of businesses. Stores, (Even 'supermarkets', which usually had a stock mix similar to a convienence store here.) bars, beauty parlors, butcher shops (Many of these had a big piece of meat hanging in the window, like a cow's hindquarter.), gas stations, etc.(A couple of these were ultramodern, complete with pay-at-the pump!) And there were people everywhere! They socialized along the roadsides. And although this all looked poor by Western standards, I suspect that most of the people were basically happy. There were also a lot of banana plantations along the road in Arusha.

Eventually, we turned off the road, and traveled South a couple of miles to Mountain Village. Mountain Village is a hotel situated on Lake Duluti, and is just South of Arusha. The hotel is part of a Coffee plantation, and you could see coffee growing along the road into the hotel.

The hotel consisted of a main building and 36 rondavel huts. The main building included the business office, dining room, gift shop, and an observation platform. We went in here to check in. While there, we met a representative from Africa Adventure Company. Although we were supposed to have our safari briefing that evening, we decided to delay it until tomorrow morning. Everyone was tired!

I went to my room. It was a rondavel (Circular dwelling), made of concrete block. The roof consisted of bundles of local plant fibers. The outside of the rooms was overgrown with vines, making it look most natural. The land was also on the steps of a steep hill, so there were rock outcroppings and a little waterfall just outside my door. There were flowers planted everywhere. The groundskeepers obviously went to a lot of time and trouble to keep everything so nice looking!

The room was spacious and comfortable.(1:33) The most noticeable feature was a small patio outside each room. Although I didn't figure out how to open the door, I did on the way back through near the end of the trip. There was the usual furniture one would expect to find in a hotel room. One interesting piece was the small table. It is actually a drum with a fur-on cowhide top. The rooms had a refrigerator, but they were not normally plugged in unless the occupant wanted it.

The bed was of an unusual shape, with foam mattresses. (1:32) The end of the bed was rounded. The rounded shape facilitated enclosing the bed in mosquito netting at night. This netting hung from pipes suspended over the bed, and attached to the walls with velcro.

The bathrooms had a normal sink and toilet. The 110V/220V special shaver outlet was also present. The unusual part was the tub/shower. The tub was enormous, and set in the floor. There were steps down into it. The shower head was over the tub, and there was no curtain of any sort. The tub was big enough to catch the spray. Hot water came from an electric heater in each room. A switch turned the heater on and off, and you were asked to turn it off when not needed.

Now, a few words about electricity. Electric power in most of Tanzania is very unreliable, and expensive. Many facilities (Such as Kirurumu and Serengeti Sopa Lodge) generated their own power. Guests were requested to use it conservatively. The line voltage was 220V, same as Kenya and Britian. The outlets were also the same as Kenya and England. However, there was one large, 3 round pin outlet on the wall near the bed. The pins-holes suggested an outlet good for 30 amps or more. I later learned this was a telephone jack! (All the rooms had telephones, and this was the only place we stayed in Tanzania that had them.) Because of the power problems, each room was equipped with candles and a kerosene lantern.

The view out the window was wonderful. (1:31,27) You could look down on Lake Duluti. There were coffee bushes growing on the lowlands by the lake. Colorful flowers were planted along the sharp dropoff to the lowlands.

After unpacking, and a nap, I worked some more on my travel journal. Although I was trying to write it out in longhand, it soon became apparent that just making notes was a lot easier. I would write out the long form (This document) when I got home. Despite not wanting to be tied to technology, a notebook computer with good batteries would have been quite useful.

I went up to the main building and explored the grounds a little bit. I then made a visit to the gift shop. I bought a topographic map of the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The other side of the map contained a map of Mount Kilimanjaro National Park and important info for climbers.

While in the gift shop, I noticed a strange hum coming from one of the lighted showcases. After contemplating the source of this hum for a moment, I realized I was listening to fluorescent lamp ballast hum when the ballast was being supplied with 50 Hz power. A very different sound which I soon came to easily recognize.

Dinnertime finally came. Dinner was served buffet-style and was excellent. There was a wide selection of various main dishes. My favorite was the lamb rib chops, which were sectioned along the full back of the animal. The complex shape of the bones made these great for gnawing on. These wern't really popular that night, so the server at the buffet made sure I got an unusually generous portion. If all meals were like this, I wouldn't have to worry about going hungry here!

Our group table was marked with a wood block that had 'AAC' carved in it. Apparently, Africa Adventure Company was such a good customer that they had their own reserved table. There were several other reserved tables, the names of some I recognized as other tour companies.

Although food was part of the trip cost, drinks were not. Bottled pop (Pepsi here) cost $1 US. Bottled water was $2 US. Eventually, we bought our own supply of water and kept it in the safari vehicle. The soft drinks were sweetened here with sucrose, instead of fructose like in the US. The flavor was much better as a result. It was a treat having sucrose sweetened pop after years of the less-sweet fructose.

The owner of Mountain Village, an American woman, paid us a visit. She told us of some of her adventures running a hotel in Africa. In any case, it was clear she thoroughly enjoyed her work!

The Eddingtons hadn't remembered that drinks weren't included with the meals. I had a big plate of lamb to eat, and was the last person to leave. As I was finishing, I was presented with their bill as well as mine. Surprise! They paid me back the next day.

When I got to my room, the last activity was a look at the sky. It took only about 30 seconds to find the Greater Magellanic Cloud! (The Magellanic Clouds are our closest galatic neighbors. They are satellite galaxies orbiting our galaxy. They are not visible in the US.) With some effort, I could have probably found the Lesser Magellanic Cloud as well. At this location, they looked like fuzzy blobs in the binoculars. It took darker skies to pick out details in this galaxy. I've always wanted to see the Magellanic Clouds; now I have! I also saw the star Canopus, and followed the constellation Eridanus all the way to the end. (Only a small part of Eridanus, the longest constellation in the sky, is visible in the US.) The only other thing that I wanted to see that night was the constellations Leo and Leo Minor. Unfortunately, the vertical nature of the terrain blocked my view of these.

I tried to work on my journal for a few minutes, but quickly became drowsy. So, it was lights out, and my first night in Africa. Needless to say, I slept very well.

Next: Our first game drives!

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