Saturday, February 19, 2011


So much to report in the last 48 hours... I'll likely break it up into a few messages.

The early bird gets more than the worm here... woke up Friday at 5:30 AM in preparation for a 6:30 AM departure into Nairobi National Park. My guide, Vincent, arrived early and we set off.

Given that I expected to spend the next 4 or more hours with my guide as my sole human companion, we began to make small talk. It's still bracing to me how quickly tribe (or as I've been reconditioned to refer to it - community) comes into the conversation. Vincent's Luo heritage was not only the first thing he shared with me, but it seemed to color his views of living in Nairobi, politics, economics, other tour groups and even the treatment of the park. He was tickled that I knew that Barack Obama's heritage was Luo as well, and we enjoyed a bracing round of US political discussion immediately prior to arrival at the park. Early in line, we paid our entry fee and proceeded into the smallest of the Kenyan wildlife parks, but one so close to the city that planes fly over during the duration of your visit and the Nairobi skyline is often the backdrop to the animals that you see.

At this point, my sense of safari was founded. I admit, I have been conditioned to zoos, and we visit the National Zoo in DC quite often. In a zoo, the pace is typically "Animal, animal, animal, animal, animal, lunch, animal, animal, animal, animal, animal, animal, go home". This is not a safari attitude. Safari is more akin to "Drive, drive, drive, drive, squint, drive, drive, drive, drive, drive, drive, animal!, photo, photo, photo, photo, photo, photo, drive, drive, drive, repeat". It's not boring per se, but it does require a clear set of expectations and a zen-like attitude. If the animals are to be seen, you will see them. And as my guide said repeatedly "No rush in Africa."

Fortunately, Vincent stayed ahead of the larger buses, so we were able to spot animals that were chased away by the louder, larger vehicles. Zebras, hartebeests, gazelles, elands, baboons, hyraxes, ground squirrels, guinea fowl, water buffalo, giraffe, ostrich, maybe of them just a few feet from the car. It's quite exhilarating to see them in their natural surroundings, but one's plan of action having honed in on this majesty is rather unclear. Admire it, certainly. Capture it for personal posterity. But there is a certain ... futility in this magnificent voyeurism. It's momentarily exhilarating, has undeniable natural beauty, is set against an undeniably transcendent backdrop, and yet - maybe I'm just not a safari guy. I don't think the absence of lions and black rhinos made the experience any less than. I just don't think I got "it" my first time out.

The only point at which we were allowed out of the car once in the park is at designated picnic areas, which not coincidentally is where some baboons congregate. Once we stopped one quickly took up a position on top of our vehicle, transparently taunting us. There were more than a few young, and I am still amazed at how much watching the families of baboons interact recalls looking in an evolutionary mirror.

Out of the animals we saw, the water buffalo were certainly the most threatening. Built like furry tanks, their craggy horns bespoke their previous violence. After I photographed a herd of three and gazed upon them for a short while, Vincent started the car again to pull away. Immediately all three water buffalo snapped a rear leg into position to charge and visibly tensed the muscles in their powerful forelegs. If wildlife was wont to quote movies, the next words would have been "Go ahead, make my day." We drove away from the group without incident.

On existing the park, we stopped to admire the site at which former President Moi burned 12 tons of confiscated ivory in a two story bonfire to demonstrate Kenya's determination to halt poaching of its elephants. Dramatic and impactful, it goes to show that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Though any exemption from environmental criticism is quickly dispelled upon viewing the preposterously ostentatious, red-roofed villa that Moi permitted his crony to build smack dab in the middle of the park in disruption of migration routes.

From the park we scooted over to the David Sheldrick Trust where baby elephants which have been orphaned (largely due to poaching) are raised until the age of three until they begin the long road towards adoption into an existing herd, a process which takes anywhere from five to nine years, all of it under the supervision of the Trust. So far in their 30 plus years of operation, they have successfully reintroduced 130 elephants, and some rhinos as well. The 19 two and three year old elephants currently in their care came down in a parade before the assembled tourists and school children, were hand fed baby formula via comically large bottle, and proceeded to play in the mud, wrestle, and generally make themselves irresistibly adorable.

We proceeded from their to the Giraffe Manor in Karen where a similar rehabilitation agenda is in place for the nine giraffes that live on site.

These last two experiences, while certainly less wild by a long stretch, offered up close and personal views of the animals not far from their natural setting. To my mind, the ability to observe their behavior at longer length provided a more fulfilling encounter, offering at least a glimpse into the way the animal intelligence expresses itself, often in very human ways.

Much more to say about Friday especially as both the leading edge of my teammates and Shabbat arrived, but I'll save it for another post.

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