I felt incredibly small just barely poking out over our 4×4, standing barefoot next to my tall Maasai guide wrapped in a bright red and blue plaid shuka. The red and green savannah stretched out for miles as far as I could see, spotted with extraterrestrial acacia. I followed the direction of Enock’s binoculars with my camera ready. No migration, no “National Geographic moments,” no other safari vehicles. Suddenly we stopped. “See that?” I did not. “Two male black rhino on the hillside, they are meeting each other. Maybe they will fight. You know, there are only fifty black rhino in the entire Mara. It is rare and special to see even one.” And I believed him. This was the last game drive of my first safari trip to Africa and he just about summed up my trip: rare and special.
Here are some highlights from my journey.
The theme of my trip was wildlife conservation and traditional tribes. After seeing some of the world’s most endangered species I realized the very real possibility of being one of the last people to actually see these creatures. I met a lot of great people – land owners, hoteliers, Masai guides, Kenyans and ex-pats – who have made it their goal to prevent that from happening.
This fairly new conservation model has been largely successful in benefiting both local tribes (which are primarily cattle-grazers) and wildlife. Some areas of Kenya are divided into various parts where eco-minded camp owners can rent land from landowners for an extended period time. There are restrictions on grazing and on how many tourists each camp can hold, thus preventing an over-saturation of tourism. Luxury camps keep the number of visitors low and still bring in money needed for the economy. This is a great system and has been a role model for other African countries with similar problems.
Ol Pejeta Rhino Sanctuary
A project called “Last Chance to Survive” initiated the transfer of four of the seven last Northern White Rhino to this sanctuary in 2009. Despite all efforts, it does not appear that they are breeding and may be the last generation of this breed. A few of their very passionate keepers took us on a private tour around the sanctuary.
We also met Baraka, a black rhino who lost his vision during a fight with another male black rhino. If it weren’t for his rescuers, he would not have survived out in the wild. These visits can be emotional – you want to be happy about the rescue, but the reality of poaching and what is happening to these giant creatures is terrifying.
It was like Christmas – my first stop in Nairobi and I was expecting breakfast with giraffe at this charming Nairobi hotel. I arrived late, so all I could see were the shadows of their long necks against the darkening sky. At 5 am I was dressed and equipped with my camera and coffee waiting for their arrival. Not long after I was greeted by flirty eyelashes, big brown eyes and rough purple tongues.
In connection with the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) Giraffe Center, orphaned giraffes are taken care of until they are about five years old and then reintroduced into the wild. Giraffe Manor’s charm is its floor-to-ceiling windows that allow the curious ones to pop in for a morning snack.
You feel small. The animals are enormous up close. You sense danger. The savannah is vast. All senses are on alert. Scents and noises are much more noticeable. Insects crawl around your feet and on trees. Plants, skeletons and small animals appear. This is a completely different experience than driving around in a vehicle. Highly recommended.
Sweetwater Chimpanzee Sanctuary (SCS)
Before I even approached the 250-acre enclosure, Poco was at the fence happily greeting us. He stood there, completely upright, showing off his human-like fingers, opposable thumbs and gait. The sight of such a human-like animal was especially emotional. Then we heard his story. Poco probably stands out the most to visitors because he is friendly and bipedal. Tragically, he spent nine years in a cage suspended above a workshop in Burundi and was rescued in 1995. During this heart-wrenching experience I met orphaned and abused chimps rescued from West and Central Africa, many with forms of PTSD and the inability to be reintroduced into the wild successfully.
Initially started by the Jane Goodall Institute and Kenya Wildlife Service as a lifelong refuge for mistreated chimps, the SCS is now part of a bigger initiative throughout Africa. Through public education and lobbying for political goodwill, the organization is making a real effort to conserve the species, other primates and their habitat.
Guides and Getting to Know the Locals
All of my guides were incredible. My first guide grew up in Naiboisho, a Maasai community, was highly educated and had very modern views of the world. He believed in the empowerment of women and advancing the lives of disadvantaged Kenyans. He is a photographer and working on what would be the equivalent to a PhD. Great guides make such a difference.
The guide at the last camp I visited was also very educated, but had a very different perspective. He believed in education and preserving the Maasai traditional way of life. He took me to his village to meet his two wives and nine kids. As you can see above, one of his son’s, Mama, likes taking selfies, pretty impressive considering the size of my camera!
I could go on about each one of my guides, but I will save that for another time.
Africa – I am hooked! Be back soon.