July 20, 2008
The half-hour plane ride out of Nanyuki provided the visual high point of our trip. Kerry Glen, our guide for the walking safari, had referred us to a bush pilot whose $400 service would be the most expensive flight, per mile, I have ever taken. The choice, however, was between that and a six-hour jeep ride over unmaintained roads. I resolved to spend the money on air, rather than chiropractic, services.
Jamie met us at the Nanyuki airport, and I immediately misidentified his accent as Australian. Apparently, Englishmen loosed in open territory for a generation start to sound alike. Jamie's air service catered to tour companies such as Kerry's, drawing clients from beyond the limits of commercial airlines and, for that matter, paved roads.
This being pre-9/11 African bush country, the Nanyuki airport's security measures involved lifting our bags to guess their weight, then gesturing for us to carry them out to our plane. We sat in the shade of a wing while Jamie figured his fuel load.
Here we met our first American since leaving the states. A doctor from Los Angeles, his dress and demeanor reminded me that African safaris are typically the province of the wealthy, and how blessed Squeeky and I were to have taken this trip when we did. Once Kenya's reputation healed and international travel became more expensive and complicated a few years later, a couple of cheapskates like us would be hard-pressed to enjoy something so adventurous and beautiful on our budget.
as we belted in, Jamie gave us headsets which, after liftoff, burbled with New Age music as we swept over a plain scattered with giraffes, elephants, and zebras nearly invisible in their camouflage. They stared up at us passing a few hundred feet over them, and we gaped back, almost weeping at the virgin beauty of the landscape opening under us. I have never seen so much wild territory at once.
Mount Kenya loomed in the steamy afternoon air. Another, much smaller peak passed under us at a clearance no FAA controller would have allowed; we could discern individual rocks. Pictures could not have captured the moment, so for most of the ride we stowed our cameras and just soaked it all in.
Jamie took a moment to alert a nearby military base of our passing, for which I felt gratitude, not least because getting shot out of the sky by a twitchy teenage conscript would've made such a bathetic coda to my short life.
At the end of our ride, we acquired a dusty airstrip, flew over it at treetop level, then looped around to land.
"Why'd you do that?"
"Drives the animals away."
U.S. Tourists Killed As Tour Plane Strikes Rhinoceros
At least that news item wouldn't have been officially suppressed.
Kerry greeted us at the runway's end, next to an off-road truck teeming with traditionally dressed natives. As they took our bags, we expressed our hope to Kerry that we could add two days to the agreed-on plan. She dismissed our apprehension. This was the African outback, not New York City, with its timetables and agendas. Adjustments would be made.
on this, our third full day in country, we'd put many long miles between ourselves and medical services, and I recalled that it wasn't fear of the unknown that came closest to preventing the trip from taking place at all. It was the known—specifically, the vaccines. At least we think that's what had caused Squeeky to break out in a rash which no stateside M.D. could identify.
A week or two prior to departure, and shortly after we took our yellow fever preventative—one of a half-dozen inoculations we endured to stave off diseases the West had conquered by mid-century—a palm-sized brownish splotch surfaced inside Squeeky's left elbow. It didn't itch and didn't spread. A dermatologist we consulted couldn't say what it was. Since it was shaped roughly like a pigeon in flight, we dubbed it "bird-itis" and kept a close eye on it. As our travel date approached, we finally shrugged it off, even though it hadn't faded. Something could kill us on the trip anyway, and it might as well be some bizarre immune disorder as a jaguar.
This came sharply to mind again when, immediately after we took our seats in Kerry's truck, a wild animal bit me.
Some time before our arrival, Kerry had discovered a baby mongoose in her camp. Small enough to stowaway in a pocket, backpack, or hat, the little rascal took every opportunity to investigate his surroundings, including me and Squeeky.
Kerry introduced us as he ran across Squeeky's lap and into mine, stopping to peer up at me like some Disney character. I gently rubbed his fur, and he responded by playfully tackling my hand. Then I poked his nose, and he grabbed my thumb and forefinger and sank his teeth into the frenum connecting them.
As he scampered away, I stared in disbelief at the four little red holes in my flesh. No bleeding, but no way to know what sort of venom or exotic microbes were on their way to my central nervous system. I remembered our choice back at Nanyuki: a half-hour flight or a six-hour drive. I wondered if I would survive the latter should Jamie prove unavailable once a fever had incapacitated me.
All this worry evaporated when we saw the mud bog.
At the end of our 20-minute drive across roadless terrain, Kerry stopped the truck just short of some particularly dark grass, and when we climbed out I realized why: It was impassable for wheeled vehicles.
At her suggestion, we doffed our boots and socks and plodded into tar-black mud, sinking halfway to our knees. Each step made a long, wet, sucking sound. It wasn't difficult, just deep and, frankly, unexpected. Two hundred bucks a day, and we'd have to ford a swamp barefoot.
just past the muck, our first campsite had already been set up for us. We spotted the tents first, then noticed activity behind some bushes. Then a camel emerged. Then another, and another. By the time they all gathered, there were 15, loaded with various equipment including coolers full of foodstuffs. Eleven men in tribal garb ordered the beasts to kneel for unloading.
Here we camped the first night, in the shadow of the Karisia Hills. The name struck us so nicely we considered naming our first daughter Karisia.
Kerry directed the men, whom we learned were of the Samburu tribe, to start dinner, which they did over an outdoor fire. Tilapia would be the main course, accompanied by quiche.
I remember little else of that first evening other than feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the attention. I grew up in the South, in the '70s, and the idea of my every need being attended by black people left me a bit uncomfortable. Not only did they heat water after dinner and heft it atop a canvas stall for our evening shower; they also heated more at dawn for use in a washbasin, which they placed outside our sleeping quarters. For Kerry's usual, high-end clientele, this probably wasn't unexpected. For us, accustomed to doing most things for ourselves, a feeling of helplessness underrode our enjoyment.
eventually, we realized there were no duties for us except to show up as appointed for breakfast and then to walk, very fast, for long distances through the African bush. Also, to sleep, despite a leopard prowling within a yard of us.
Kerry had explained that our tents were specially designed with sheer roof panels that let in the moonlight but repelled water. The walls were of a material that would let us see out—provided there was enough light outside to illuminate anything—but obscured the view in. Furthermore, the animals, she explained, see the canvas as being impenetrable, much as humans see brick walls, and won't bother with it. (A concept similar to that we saw on the approach to Treetops the previous day.)
Shortly after we settled into our sleeping bags, Squeeky heard the sound. "What is that?" she whispered.
The footsteps fell too swiftly for anything but a four-legged animal, and I recognized the growl as feline.
"I don't know," I replied, then groped quietly for the only weapon at my disposal—the mini-flashlight. I had neglected to ask Sanders what use it might be against a nonhuman predator.
The growling resumed intermittently, and the footfalls ran together in such a way that I couldn't be sure where the animal was. I considered shining the light through the tent wall, then stopped when I realized that if I lit up what I suspected was out there, Squeeky and I would probably scream.
The noise diminished and I checked the tent's zipper. At least we would hear the slashing before it silenced us.
We lulled ourselves to sleep whispering, "Canvas is brick. Canvas is brick. Canvas is brick...."
"jambo!" a samburu man bellowed as he filled our washbasin with steaming water.
Squeeky and I pawed our way out of the tent and squinted into the sunrise. A half-dozen more Samburus went about their work all around us, with Kerry in the midst, adjusting her hat.
"Did you see the leopard?" she asked, as if it were something as regular as a shooting star.
"That was a leopard?" Squeeky replied, as Kerry pointed to the footprints outside our tent.
Had I actually switched on the flashlight that night, we would likely have needed some rather embarrassing laundry service from the Samburus.
That day our guides set off on foot at a pace Squeeky and I could barely keep. At nearly six feet tall, Kerry seemed to cover a yard with each step. Likewise, the Samburus reminded me why so many Kenyans win marathons: They strode fast and tirelessly all day, and never appeared to break a sweat.
Our camels literally bore the weight of our expedition, and because they lacked the agility of, say, mules, Kerry sent them on a less-challenging path toward the same destination. Occasionally we'd spot them on a distant hillside while we fought through brush-filled inclines.
Although we lagged at times, Kerry remarked on our stamina, especially when our pedometer registered 20 miles one day. I have difficulty believing we actually covered that distance, though it was possible, and impossible to certify because apparently no one's made any decent maps of Kenya since the British left. Kerry consulted a postwar-era map (wisely laminated at some point) to plot our course.
At times I wondered what the British had found here that made them want to conquer the place. Before we arrived, Kenya had gotten an especially wet spring, and many of the bush paths along the Ewaso N'giro (river) had overgrown. Much of the plant life we encountered seemed eager to pick a fight with whatever passed by. Within minutes of leaving camp we encountered a vine called the Wait-A-Bit, which is exactly what the colonial explorers said when it brought them to a standstill. All you can do is stop and pluck away the widely spaced barbs, which takes a moment because they cling to fabric like tentacles. (The Samburus seemed to glide right past them.) No sooner had we picked ourselves free from one than we sauntered right into another. The Wait-A-Bits and other thorny, knee-level surprises meant my shorts would stay packed for days.
at our first break of the day, Kerry brewed tea for herself and proffered a sweet blackcurrant drink called Ribena for the ambivalent and less-sophisticated Americans. We watched her plan our next tack with Shilengi, leader of the Samburu team. Frequently, Shilengi would go off to conduct animated discussions with the other Samburus, presumably getting their input. Then he'd return to Kerry to hash out a plan, in Swahili.
For our protection, Kerry packed an elephant gun. A double-barrelled monstrosity of a caliber I did not recognize, it looked to weigh about 40 pounds. Elephants, however, weren't her main concern. It's the water buffalo (pictured several photos up) which have a nasty habit of rising suddenly from their daytime nap to charge intruders. Capable as Kerry appeared, I had concerns as to whether she (or anyone) could bring the enormous rifle to bear before one of us got flattened. Later, Sanders advised me that the effective range of a handgun—which I've always considered superior in close quarters—would come into play only a split second before horns met flesh. So the rifle was, in the end, a better bet. Kerry warned us that, if a charge appeared imminent, we should drop to the ground to give her a clear shot.
Two hundred bucks a day, and we'd have to dodge bullets.
Actually, that's a helluva deal.
See also Honeymoon, Part I.
Posted by: Squeeky at July 21, 2008 09:16 PM (QxQlc)
we took our yellow fever preventative—one of a half-dozen inoculations we endured to stave off diseases the West had conquered by mid-century—a palm-sized brownish splotch surfaced inside Squeeky's left elbow.
That's exactly why I alternate between being terrified and grudgingly accepting them. They just love to inject us with stuff don't they? It's funn you wrote this because I don't think you saw my post on vaccinations the other day.
btw- You done hooked up! Squeeky is beautiful!
Posted by: pajama momma at July 22, 2008 05:10 PM (f3xJa)
It's funn you wrote
that was supposed to say funny, it's been a long day
Posted by: pajama momma at July 22, 2008 05:11 PM (f3xJa)
Posted by: DawgMom at July 23, 2008 02:09 PM (0vy18)
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