What an adventure! I still cannot believe I trekked through the wilds of Africa (well, rode in a comfortable Land Cruiser), saw the Great Migration, and lived to tell about it. A journey like this deserves a beginning fraught with tension and suspense, and I won't let you down, I promise. The wonderful folks at the State Department had my passport crisp and new at the American Embassy, and, with it finally in hand, I began to dream of Africa...Before that could occur, I needed a camera worthy of such savage beauty (remember, mine was stolen along with everything else), and, thankfully, the strangely American shopping mall, City Stars, had a Sony store that carried the exact model of my previous camera. I explain more about the wonderful absurdity of City Stars in another blog, but suffice it to say I was set for my expedition, armed with a camera and passport. Visiting Giza and the pyramids one final time, we also returned to the Khan for a much more pleasant shopping experience to collect all of the knick-knacks that Dad and Andrew could pack in their four checked bags. After that, the family had one final dinner together, along with Frances and her parents at Taboulah's, and then the two males departed for the States amid a few hugs and lots of luggage at 5 in the morning. It was peculiar, to suddenly rend our happy family unit again after we had lived in relative harmony for almost two weeks. It will be another 4.5 months before we reunite back in Minnesota; I'll miss Dad's computer skills (and his sense of humor) and Andrew's brotherly comraderie and passion for sports. I truly enjoyed showing them my world and watching their incredulity as I passed through the chaos of Cairo with diffidence. Was that really their little Laura in the Big City?
Mom and I remained behind for a day of sleeping in, packing, and running a few last minute errands around the city, taking a final meal at McDonald's before leaving for the airport with plenty of time to spare.
In actuality, we waited for the gates to open (airports don't function like they do in the States) checked in aboard our Kenya Air flight, and filtered into the immigration line to leave the country. And here is the discordant beginning-because my passport had just rolled off the printing presses days before, I had no entry visa for Egypt, and, of course, the officials check before they stamp you out of the country. Gruffly gestured out of line by an official, I spoke with several of the officers on duty and explained my situation, in Arabic, of course, while they stared with perplexity at the fount of Arabic spewing from my mouth. You see, there is something about a desperate situation that releases one's inhibitions and grants one the fortitude to speak with relative fluency in a language that is still unfamiliar. Give us a bit of time, one of the men implored as he led us to the seats. I sighed, because I was too familiar with the inefficency of Cairo's buracracy, and waited while the officers colluded, mulled, and eventually summoned me back. We found that you entered the country on August 22nd aboard Al Italia (don't give them too much credit, I told them when I first entered Egypt), but, your visa is up so you must pay a fine. I confess I rolled my eyes at the man's assertion; obviously I had not remained in Cairo twiddling my thumbs for five months without a visa and told the man so. He, too, exhaled heavily and shrugged his shoulders, and I, rather than risk missing my flight over a 30 dollar fine, swiftly paid it in the labyrinth of hallways and stifling rooms that few tourists are ever priviledged to see. I passed through immigration with mom and we found the unmarked gate (of course) and scuttled past security with large quantities of liquid and other forbidden materials. I love Egypt!
Kenya Airlines quite impressed me; the plane was modern and clean, the flight attendants were conscientious (they actually drilled a man about the exit row and made him switch seats when he couldn't answer the questions) but friendly, and they screened Talladega Nights during the five hours between Cairo and Nairobi. We disembarked the plane, walked the long stretch of tarmack to the airport wearily, purchased our visas at the counter (exepensive they were, 50 dollars each), gathered the luggage, and looked around for the Venture Africa booth. Finding the booth without much difficulty, our hearts were nonetheless gladdened to find someone holding a sign that read "Roy Safaris Shcilhctnig". Although the name got a little butchered in the transmission across continents, the reservations had not been altered, and we had two reserved seats on the 8:30 am Impala Shuttle to Nairobi, which gave us two hours to hunker down at a coffee shop in the airport, watch the sunrise, and see the airport languidly come to life as porters, drivers, fliers, and workers entered and exited with jambos, karibus (not caribou, but caribuu, or welcome) and asante sanas. 8:30 tottered by, and we had already spent our exictement using the very nice bathrooms, so we waited patiently until the shuttle arrived, we hopped on, transferred vehicles, and bumped our way down the rattling road to Tanzania. Muddling our way through the human traffic at the visa office in Tanzania, and waiting for over an hour in the stuffy room, we finally entered Tanzania and pulled into Arusha, the nation's third largest city. At that point, we just wanted to sleep, but had to wait a little while longer. Outside the bus, another man greeted us with a sign (same horrible spelling) and introduced himself as Nicholas, our driver for the next seven days and put our stuff into a giant, 9-seater Land Cruiser. Oh, yeah, and this will also be our car, he said as we pulled onto the highway for the half hour drive to our mountain lodge. Whoa! That baby was amazing, and I became extremely attached to our vehicle as it pulled us out of each sucking mucky quagmire with a tantalizing vrrroomm from the engine. Commodious and comfy, the inside allowed us to store our obscene amount of baggage easily and still have room to stretch out, buy snacks, and peer out from the popped-up roof at the animals sauntering by. Truly, this was the best way to safari.
Instead of staying in town, I had decided to book (you see, I planned this trip without mom so she was trusting my good judgement about my lodging selections) a lodge outside of town in the country. In retrospect, staying in town may have been more convenient, but the experience of Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge on the slopes of Mt. Meru was not to be missed. Stepping into the lobby area, we were soothed by the gentle gurgling of a stream rushing beneath the floor and offered goblets of fresh watermelon juice. Taken to our chateau room by golf cart, we walked into the bedroom and discovered the ubiquitious mosquito netting ensconcing our beds while I plopped down in the living room to watch CNN. Before too long, our tummies reminded us that we hadn't eaten for a day, and we wandered into the main lodge area, admired the pool set against the backdrop of the mountain, and attempted to find some food. Our waitress did not speak great English, and 4 pm was a rather odd time to eat, so we accepted what the dining room scrounged together, chips and chicken for me and a strange sandwich and chips for mom. After that, mom soaked in the whirlpool, I passed out on th couch, and eventually we both showered, skipped supper, and went to bed.
Nicholas was there to greet us at 9 the next morning, loading our luggage into our behemouth of a vehicle and driving us to the Roy Safaris office to review the itinerary before setting off. It was a Sunday, and Tanzania is about 90% Christian, so we passed by hundreds of Africans walking to church, because everyone walks everywhere, as cars are expensive and terrain is rough. Having lived in Egypt for the past for months, what struck me first was the absence of many things-no veils; no 5 am calls to prayer waking you up or, if you're still up, signaling bedtime; no mosques; no Korans in the cars; no prohibitions against tank tops. Only churches, sandal , dirt roads, cows, verdant greenery consuming everything, and brilliantly colored women in beautiful sarongs and their Sunday best. I was startled to observe that most women crop their hair very short or shave it off all together, as do men, I think to prevent lice and other vermin from infestation. I feel like the more upper-class you are, the longer hair you have (generally, of course).
I was extremely impressed with Roy Safaris, and if any of you are thinking of a safari in the near future, I shamlessly reccomend them. From the moment I began responding with Susan, their American travel agent, via e-mail back in the States until the end of our itinerary in Nairobi, Roy Safaris never failed to provide us with excellent service and care. The trip truly went by without a single issue, probably the smoothest trip we've had. They took care of everything, food, lodging, transportation, and anything else we requested. Greeted with a big hug and jambo from the manager, Theofilo, as if we were longtime friends, he led us into the modern office building, sat us down and discussed each part of the itinerary to be sure there were no mistakes. There weren't any, and we returned to the Land Cruiser, picked up a different guide to show us the village, and 'sped' up the slopes of Mt. Meru for our first adventure!
This was a painful introduction to the truly treacherous roads of East Africa, riddled with large potholes, miny gullies, tenacious, sticky black pits of mud, and large stones inconviently placed in the tire tracks. Talking with Nicolas and Henri, we learned that Tanzania was experiencing its worst rainy season in about 7 years and that some roads in the parks were washed out and many were barely passable. So this isn't normal? I asked.
Nicolas released his trademark short laugh and responded, no, definitely not, these are some of the roads I've seen. All we could do was sit back, lurch and slide as the road crawled up the mountain, and condition our bodies for 7 more days of this. Eventually we reached Nigresi village, a semi-modern Masaai village that participates in a tourism program to raise money for new schools. Very isolated at the top of the mountain, the village does not have a secondary school, so most of their children do not have access to education past 8th grade. Our first stop was the headman's house, probably the only house in the village with satellite television (although no running water), where we were served tea and discussed the village with him and the education problems. Soon, our guide Henri whisked us away on a stroll over the small hills and valleys of the little town, where little children emerged from their parents' huts and followed us, posing happily for pictures and grabbing our hands with grubby little fingers to touch us wonderingly. Wandering past livestock, riotious foliage, carefully tended crops, mud bomas, and modern homes, Henri patiently explained to us the virtues of this plant vs. this plant, the difference between a banana and a plantain, and the types of agriculture in the area. They grow everything! I saw corn growing incongruously beside rice, coffee, bananas, potatoes, wheat, and tropical flowers. Banana trees in particular fascinated me (not, I'm sure, because I grew up in a land of corn and soybean and flatness), and I learned that they only yield one harvest of fruit, and then they must be cut down, but they grow quickly and their roots sprout little banana trees of their own.
As rain sprinkled down from the misty clouds, we came across the infirmary of the village, a rather dismal building with several rooms, a few beds, and even fewer supplies. Perhaps it is more cheery during operating hours? Then we saw the secondary school being built, hopefully to be completed within the next month to educate the recent crop of primary school graduates. To me, coming from America and vast high schools, it appeared pitifully small, with two classrooms each to hold 45 students, but the building also held boundless promise and the hope of a future. To see the money we paid actually being utilized in the improvement of education, to see the tangible result, the cold concrete walls of a school half-built, was refreshing and somewhat poignant, knowing the money was not being pocketed by corrupt officials. Returning to Loti, the headman's, hut, we ate the first of many infamous boxed lunches, mine always being particularly interesting as I could not have gluten and some lodges also tried to maintain a diabetic diet. Suffice it to say I ended up consuming alot of my trailmix that I had wisely mixed up in Egypt as supplementary nutrition. We said goodbye to Loti, gave a donation to his school, and headed down the mountain in a veritable rainstorm, sloshing through the puddles and attempting to avoid soiling the folk walking on the side of the road. The rain eased up soon, we stopped at a grocery store to stock up on water, Diet Coke (for me), popcorn (for me), and toliet paper, just in case. Mom also used her first toliet that really isn't a toliet, just a hole in the floor that occasionally flushes, and she survived, so we set off to Lake Manyara.
Apparently, the Japanese gave Tanzania a beautiful gift of a flat, paved road to lead between Arusha and Ngorongoro crater, and we happily sped along this for two hours, passing small Masaai villages of round mud huts encircling a central animal pen, Masaai warriors dangling their spears carelessly and lounging by the road, young children herding their livestock over the plains and gulches, crowded towns with grinding mills for crops, women carrying their produce to town on their heads, men sitting in cafes sipping tea and chatting (seems to be a universal pasttime ;-), young men swaying by on rickety motorcycles, and fields, innumerable fields stretching through the endless valley. Nicolas stopped briefly at a banana stand and bought a bunch, giving mom and I a taste of pure ecstasy, just-picked sun-ripened bananas dissolving into a sweet blend of pleasure at each bite. Ahhh, those were heaven!
We soon arrived at the gate to Lake Manyara National Park, one of the smallest in Tanzania. Stopping at the visitor's center for Nicolas to buy a permit and for us to use the restrooms (he almost always found us decent restrooms to use, what a guy!), we returned to the vehicle to find the top popped open so we could peer out the roof and view the animals with exceptional clarity. I really am on safari! I thought ebulliently as I clambered in and poked my head through. This is so cool!
Nicolas turned out to be an exceptional guide, exceptionally patient, knowledgable, humorous, and friendly, but it took a day or two for all of us to be comfortable with each other. Two women alone on safari is not unusual, though nor is it the norm, but Nicolas made us feel entirely comfortable and was consummately respectful and brotherly to us the entire time. It was very refreshing, to me, to finally spend time with a man and not have him hit on me or make some other denegrating comment about women (not not that all Egyptian men are, but our Selim and Abdul, two of the married brothers of the Egyptian tour company we used, scandalized mom with their actions towards me, inviting me on horseback rides, calling me, and offering to smoke sheesha. They were great ;-) Anyway, spending about 10-12 hours a day with the same guide forces you to either love or loathe him, and, fortunately, we loved Nicolas and his softly accented English and compendious knowledge of the flora and fauna of Tanzania.
Our first creatures of the safari were Blue Monkeys screeching and leaping through trees by the side of the road. Monkeys, real live monkeys, in the wild, I thought as I snapped furiously away with my beautiful camera. Emerging from the forest into the savannah, we stopped by the hippo pool and saw a few humps occasionally raise their heads from the water, but soon left the cluster of 7 or so vehicles crowding the pond. Then we came across our first impala, a few males busily cropping away at the grass and oblivious to our awe. Poor Nicolas, us virgin safariers were so fascinated by the impala, but he recited many of his facts about the impala. Now I say poor Nicolas because impala are about as common as squirrels in Minnesota; they're about everywhere and glide through the different ecosystems with ease, be it forest or savannah. We moved on, saw our first giraffe (our favorite animal!) and then came across a large family of baboons, another common species of the area. But baboons are hilarious, fighting, shrieking, grooming, sleeping, sitting, sprinting from tree to tree, cuddling, carrying babies, or observing you with their strangely prescient eyes. Continuing on, we saw a few very reticent vervet monkeys, more impala, and then called the day quits and headed up the cliff of the Great Rift Valley (that's right, the Great Rift Valley of Africa, where life began) to our lodge for the night, Kirurumu.
Turning onto a dirt road characterized by holes, mom looked at me skeptically as we headed deeper into nowhere, following strange signs that bore a signal arrow, no name or insignia, just a white arrow against dark wood. Where did you put us for the night? I had faith in my choice and the advice for Fodorites, but even I became slightly concerned until the lights of the lodge gleamed through the brush and the staff greeted us with fresh fruit juice. While booking the trip, I decided that we should spend at least one night under canvas in the wilds, and Kirurumu was just that place. We checked in and followed the Masaai porters to Boma 3, our tent, where we unlocked the padlock and stepped into our room. Now, one can camp if one desires, but neither of us had any desire to, so our tent was built on a raised platform with beds (mosquito-netted, of course), a desk, nightstand, electricity, and a fully equipped attached permanent bathroom with shower, toliet, and sink. And our front porch had a stunning view of Lake Manyara and the valley, so we weren't exactly roughing it...
All of our meals were taken at the lodges, and dinner began at seven, so we flicked on my flashlight and braved the darkened paths by night, listening to the rustling bushes and soft calls of animals nearby. However they managed to prepare a gourmet meal in the middle of the wild, I will never know, but our meal was pretty fabulous, one of the best of the trip set outdoors under a thatched roof, candlelight, and linen napkins-and bug free! We spent our first night in the bush, getting ready for bed with the animals and rolling down the canvas windows for a bit of privacy. Our shower had a few issues draining, but, other than that, the place was fabulous, and I awoke slowly to the buzzing alarm clock and the twitter of birds and young sunshine peering through the walls. After a wonderful breakfast (omlettes, amazingly fresh fruit, bacon, potatoes, and tea) we headed back to Lake Manyara for a morning of sightings before heading to the Serengeti.
On our way in Nicolas spotted a few lions lounging in a tree, yes, a tree. Manyara is particularly famous for its tree-climbing lions, perfectly normal beasts except for their propensity to climb trees. Although somewhat obscured by branches, I could make out a lioness' face and paws dangling over the tree limbs. A good omen, as Nicolas predicted while we headed further into the park, encountering the usual impala and baboons richocheting from branch to branch. Pulling into one of the picnic areas, we stopped briefly and I was chatting with another safarier when, right below the cliff upon which I was standing, passed a small herd of elephants. Wow! I was amazed at how creatures that large could swiftly conceal themselves within a tangle of bramble, but, indeed, they clomped out of sight within minutes. We drove through more of the park, admiring buffalo, zebra, and wilderbeest, and headed out when we stopped at the tree to see how the lions were doing. One female had already climbed down, one stood poised to come down, and the other lay stretched out comfortably. We sat back and watched the drama unfold, as the golden cats slowly descended from limb to limb and eventually leapt lightly to the ground and disappeared into the high grass. Despite Nick's slight aversion to Lake Manyara (it's not his favorite park), he was impressed and was happy that we had taken some great pictures. It's not every day, even in Tanzania, that you see tree-climbing lions so close!
Then, we took off for the Serengeti, leaving the beautiful road built by the Japanese for one built by the cavemen, or so it seemed by the ruts and bumps we jostled over as we ascended the Crater road, drove alongside the Crater, and then began to descend toward the Serengeti plain. We had briefly paused for our lunch (where mom fed one of the resident emaciated house cats and attacted the resident baboons and rancor of the rangers) but continued to press onwards, driving through heavy rain that slicked the roads and pounded our roof, finally emerging into some sun as we left the Crater highlands. Zebra, we noticed, dotted the foothills, huge herds of them clustered near the road, and Nick stopped patiently every time Mom and I wanted to take a picture. The Great Migration, the annual movement of wilderbeest and zebra through the grasslands of Tanzania and Kenya endlessly forging for fresh grass, currently was grazing on the land between Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, and our jeep slowly bumped past mile upon mile of savannah blackened by the unfathomable numbers of beasts grazing. My eyes became weary after a while of staring at each creature and drinking in its distinct stripes or unique horns, each species finally melding into a black, white and grey blur as the vehicle neared our next stop, Oldupai Gorge, known to the Western world as Olduvai Gorge (this is yet another instance of the white man butchering a native name, as the gorge is named after a plant native to the area, the Oldupai, but the Germans who first came there heard a 'v' instead of a 'p').
Anyway, another name for it is the Cradle of Mankind for its unique strata of rock and fossil that reveal man's evolution from about 1.8 million years ago to the present. Because each layer of the fossil record is present, it is possible to trace the path of evolution to the current day, beginning with the dark rock at the bottom and proceeding to the top layer upon which I tread. Louis and Mary Leakey excavated the site during the mid 1900's and made extraordinary discoveries whose reverbrations have shaped our concept of early man and evolution. Even today, archaeologists excavate the site and continue to exhume new evidence for the records. Of course, tourists don't participate in data collection, but wander through an outdated museum, listen to a brief presentation, and watch Masaai boys herd their goats through the gorge.
After the gorge, we pressed onwards towards the Serengeti, finally crossing the park border around 5 and speeding our way jarringly through the grassland. Strangely, the Serengeti appeared deserted after the confluence of the Migration congregated farther north; instead of lowing herds there was silence, and the denizens cowered low in the grass, hidden from view and the nascent storms watering the land. The Migration had already passed through the area, and the resident herds were not within view, so I felt like I was passing through a land of phantoms, especially when the copjes appeared on the horizon.
If you've ever seen the Lion King, then you've seen a copje-it's Pride Rock. Copjes (pronounced copies) are giant formations of rock serving as the last vestiges of the blast that blew apart the Crater. Deposited in various spots around the Serengeti, they serve as shelter for many creatures and a reminder of the earth's volcanic fury. The Lion King was correct in one respect-Nicolas confirmed that lions do enjoy sitting on them, although all we saw were a few baboons. A few minutes later, we passed a hyena limping down the road, its head bend in exertion as it loped unsteadily on. Most hyenas jump off the road when vehicles approach, but this one did not, and as we slowed down beside it, we saw it was missing its right hind paw; instead, a bloody painful stump hung limply in place. The hyena struggled down the road, pausing every so often to rest and collect the remaining dregs of energy. Poor guy, I feared he wasn't destined to live long.
Our accomodation for the next three days was to be the Serena Lodge, located in central Serengeti in an area called Serona. As the light waned, our car neared the lodge until Mom cried out, Oh! There was a giraffe standing near the road, munching placidly on some branches. I'm sure Nicolas was thinking of a hot shower and bed, but he obediently stopped the car to let Mom and I ooohhh and awwww. Half hidden by bushes, a baby giraffe peered out at the jeep as we moved down the road. Nicolas told us giraffes normally travel in groups, but we didn't see any others nearby. Suddenly, an impala darted in front of the vehicle, and Nicolas swerved bracingly to avoid the panicked deer. A few female lions were passing through the area and had startled a herd of impala.
Heedless of the drama unfolding, we arrived at the Serena and were greeted with warm cloths to wipe the grime from our face and sweet juice to soothe our dirt-laden throats. Whereas Kirurumu was a fairly small lodge, with only twenty tents, the Serena had about 80, and we felt the size as we walked to our rooms with the porters. The place did not exude the same quaintness and intimacy that we had previously received; not that the service was bad, just not as good. It did not help that they put us in a lower floor room that was reached by a flight of stairs descending to the dark recesses of each round shaped building. My mom and I called it the dungeon room, although once inside it was quite nice, two beds, a cute bathroom and Masaai-themed decorating. Exhausted from a day of hard jostling, we went to the dining room and were given a table outside. Now, Kirurumu had some bugs, but the Serengeti was thick with them, mosquitoes, biting flies, giant moths that flew into your face, beetles, and other creepy crawlers that made eating outside an ordeal rather than a pleasure.
Falling into bed soon after that, we slept in the next morning, scrounging up a delicious breakfast (the Serena food was decent) and meeting Nicolas at the entrance gate for a day of game drives. Driving out from the lodge, I noticed the vicissitude of the rains' mark on the land, new river valleys carved out of the soft soil, exposed rock in the road, and flooded lowlands. For the first time, I saw the direct influence of torrents of water on the land, and how, if the changes I saw occured overnight, then over millenia gorges and canyons could be carved from even solid rock. Soon it was time for another life lesson, as Nico, using the radio attached to the roof of the car and his large network of fellow driver-friends, learned of a recent kill by several lions up ahead. A baby giraffe, apparently, had been attacked by several lions the previous night and were guarding the kill near the road. Approaching the convergence of cars in the road, we saw for ourselves the dead giraffe gnawed open by hungry lions and the felines themselves silent sentinels beside the kill. Not far away, a small group of giraffes regarded the lions warily, one in particular. Now, perhaps I'm anthropomorphizing the giraffe, but it appeared to me as if the grieving mom knew her baby lay slaughtered by the lions and edged closer to her young child. Eventually, as her friends sauntered away from the lions, she ended her lonely vigil and followed them. To think that I had seen the baby giraffe alive and curious just last night, that the lions we passed were intent not upon the impala, that, at some point in the night, they surrounded the lone mother and separated her from her child, attacking the baby and dragging it down in front of her. Life is a tenuous thing in the Serengeti, and you could blame the lions (although that'd be stupid), but it really is, to quote my Bible on Africa, a circle of life, and when one life ends another one is renewed. Still, as giraffes only give birth every 5 years, I pitied the mom who was rendered bereft in one terrifying moment.
Proceeding on, we encountered numerous giraffe on our wanderings throughout the Serengeti, feeding, walking, standing, and craning their long necks at impossible angles to reach that succulent leaf just of of reach. Many animals have a particular habit of following you with their eyes, looking up from their feeding and meeting your eyes with their own. Giraffes are no exception, and they posed nicely for alot of pictures.
As the Serengeti was experiencing its worst rain in 7 or so years, many of the roads were flooded or ominous churned pits of mud with unidentifiable depths. Nicolas adroitly guided us over each rut and bump, but at some points mom and I had to look at each other and laugh, the wheels spinning as we escaped from yet another grasping mudhole. And the bumps were pretty spectacular; one time Nico gunned to engine to free us from mud and vroomed over a hidden bump that literally sent our luggage jumping into the air and myself crashing against the seat as my body flailed like a doll. Nico called back, sorry, and we laughed and told him to continue avoiding getting stuck. We spent several hours looking for predators in an area that was strangely devoid of life, aside from a large herd of cape buffalo that plunged across the road in front of us. Eventually, not having discovered anything of much interest, we had lunch at the picnic area (they also had flush toliets, alhamdulillah!), grimanced at the lunches packed by the Serena, and watched the prairie dog-like hyraxes dart among the tables and bushed and lounge on the porches.
Soon we were back on the road, saw a few lions close to the picnic area, and then came across a group of hippos plopped down on an island in a nearby pond. We observed them for awhile, watching some of them enter the water (one kind of fell in, she was climbing to the shore and we heard a splash as she fell the last few feet into the water, funny stuff) and others waddle about to bask in the sun. At about this time, darkly portending clouds obscured the sun and Nico headed back to the lodge, passing a variety of wildlife along the way. Lightening flickered in the distance, and thunder rumbled across the grasslands, but we stopped at the lion kill to check the developments and noticed the kitties pacing in the grass across the road. As we watched, first one, and then the other stopped to drink some water by the road, crossed it, and laid down by the kill. The heavens also decided the commemorate the moment by releasing their deluge upon us, and we scrambled to lower the top and head back as the rain lashed across the windows blindingly. Dinner was more pleasant, as we requested (alright, demanded) a table inside and watched with bemusement as the hostess attempted to make every unwary new guest sit outside, a rather strange policy.
The next day was our last full day in the Serengeti, and Nico had at first wanted to return for lunch, but I dared to ask for boxed lunches to have more time with the animals and he, or course, acquiesced. We set out at about 8:30 and Nico informed us that we were going to the Gula (sp.) copjes near the entrance that are famed for their predators. He knew we wanted to see more cats, especially male lions, leopards, and cheetahs, and since he had boxed lunches, we could roam farther afield. After a two hour drive and brief stop at the visitors center (bathrooms again), we bumped our way over the flat plain toward the innumerable copjes dotting the land, us and about 20 other vehicles. Happily, the area was so expansive that we were rarely crowded and were often totally secluded from the rest of civilization. At the first copje we pulled up to a number of other vehicles staring at something in the grass. A male lion! He was fairly close, maybe 30 feet away and laying in the grass superciliously observing his admirers. Then, he rose to his feet and padded towards us, eliciting ooohhhs from the excited fans. As his body neared our vehicle (and he somehow decided to head straight for us), I was struck by how incredibly large he was, the great furry paws, the incredibly downy mane and the sheer massiveness of his body and the coiled power latent beneath his steps. He passed 2 feet in front of me, and I trembled as I held my camera, so close was I to the magnificent king. Wandering past all of us mortals, he posed majestically on a rock and then disappeared into a stand of trees. Not bad for our first sighting.
Nico then sped off to another copje that looked promising, and, as we pulled up, three lithe felines stalked in the grass towards some rocks. Cheetahs! Whereas lions are simply massive, cheetahs are slender and gangly, built for speed rather than power. They leapt up onto some rocks, surveyed the terrain and settled down contentedly. Now, we were fairly close to them, but not close enough for really good pictures, but I couldn't get any closer without technically breaking the law. However, in the grassland, the law is malleable, and staying on the road is debatable, as the road is often a faint set of tire tracks barely bending a few stalks of grass. An excellent driver, Nico conversed with the other 3 or 4 drivers in the area, seeing if they wanted to move a little closer to the cheetahs. Only one protested, and he soon left, so Nico slowly approached the cheetahs, stopping at a respectable distance but bringing mom and I daringly close to the three brothers. Two other cars soon joined us, and we snapped away madly, barely breathing as the cheetahs merely flicked an ear towards us, otherwise ignoring us totally. Their coats were absolutely gorgeous, black spots splotched over golden fur with non-retractable claws splayed over the rock.
Eventually, we reluctantly left them and roamed around the copjes, discovering numerous varieties of gazelle, zebra, and other species, returning the the cheetahs' rock for lunch (although they had wandered off and we could only see their slender forms trotting off into the distance). Mother got to try a new kind of toliet, the go-behind-the-truck-when-there-are-no-cars-around kind ;-) and we ran into some other tourists with Roy Safaris and Nico chatted with their driver. We had passed several other Roy Safari vehicles (always big white Land Cruisers specially equipped to handle Africa) other days, including birders (mom and I always laugh when we pass birders, because, no offense intended, they drive really slowly and get more excited over a lark than a lion), and Nico would usually stop for a few minutes to gossip. I realized that his job is a bit lonely, stuck in a car with spoiled foreigners for days on end without any real friends with whom to talk. Anyway, Nico's talks often proved valuable, and this time he heard that some lions were over that way (he gestured vaguely in the distance with his hand), so we sped off to find them. It took a little while, and a bit of creative driving, as these copjes were seldom visited and had no roads, but we finally found a group of lionesses reclining on a rock and staring back at us. Cute!
After that, it was time to head back to the Serena, and we did, feeling our desire for cats almost fully satisfied...A few jackal were spotted, but, despite Nico's best efforts, a leopard did not materialize on the branches of the trees we scoured. Oh, well, it was a good day, and about to get better. Almost back to the lodge, Nico looked into the trees off to our left and said, elephants. Mom and I sort of squealed (we also like elephants) and watched as the elephants tore through the trees, trampling bushes and trunks and devouring mouthfuls of leafy goodness as they moved hastily onwards in fairly straight line, with one elephant following obediently behind the next, the babies near the middle of the pack surrounded by big siblings urging them forwards with a trunk. We tried to head them off further uproad, but they moved further into the bush, so we returned home, ate, and slept.
The next morning we were scheduled to do a morning drive and then head to Ngorongoro Crater, and we checked out fairly on time (we never kept to the early safari hours where you get up at the crack of dawn, are out by 6, return to the lodge for lunch and rest, and go out again. We preferred to start a bit later and stay out all day. As most of you know, I've had enough early Arabic grammar classes to last a lifetime. And there's still next semester...uggh) Anyway, we checked the giraffe carcass one last time (the lions were still there, hiding in the tall grass) and got a tip of a leopard in the area. Awesome! Nico sped over to the spot, pulled up alongside 15 other vehicles, and saw...a tree in the distance. Pulling out the trusty binoculars, I just made out the shape of the cat sprawled across the limb, its beautiful coat half hidden by shadow and distance. Unfortunately, that was the closest we came to a leopard. Every other species we encountered at astonishingly close range, but the leopard remained elusive. I guess we'll just have to do another safari ;-) We officially left the Serengeti behind and drove through the netherworld of grassland between it and the crater vibrantly alive with the herds of the migration. This time, we had Nico stop a few times to capture the phenomonon on camera and were also stopped frequently by the occurance of animals laying and lazing in the road. Wilderbeests seem like particularly dumb animals; when giving birth, if the mother is threatened, she will drop the baby and run away, which is why about half of newborn wilderbeest perish. Perhaps its their features, but they simply aren't that charming, quite uniquely crafted, as if God pasted a bunch of different animal features onto one body, but not that appealing. Partiularly when they get that herd mentality and pour onto the road in a panicked frenzy, one after the other, sprinting from...a hyena. Although I did get some great shots of a running wilderbeest.
We finally passed the Migration, drove up into the crater highlands, got our permit (and ignored the Masaai swarming our car and begging us to buy something), and plummeted down the Crater road that heaved us into the car walls and threw us back in our seats as we rocked and slid down the steep road into the crater. As always, the recent downpour didn't ameliorate the roads any, but we hit the bottom with relief and drove towards the sizable lake in the center. Admiring the flamingos perched on its shores, we were drawn to a couple of cars staring intently at something in the water. What fascinated them about a dead gazelle? Well, it was the hyena stealthily approaching it, and we watched with lurid interest as the hyena plucked the gazelle out of the water and tore into the flesh, growling and yanking off chunks of meat and disemboweling the carcass before our eyes. Thank goodness I have a strong stomach, because the sight of bloody innards yanked out of a dead animal is enough to make most queasy.
Generally, animals in the crater seemed tamer, or at least more accustomed to vehicles and not very skittish, allowing the Land Cruiser to pull close and not have them snort and dart away. I've forgotten to mention the plethora of warthogs we also saw on the trip, real-life Pumbas running around the savannah often followed by piglets with little wet snouts that sniffed in your direction inquisitively. I know they're just pigs, but somehow they seem so much cuter than the ones raised on farms back in the States. And since pork is forbidden in Islam, it's been a while since I've laid eyes on a healthy hunk of pork (licking lips yummily ;-)
Ostrich also roam the Crater floor in abundance, and I enjoyed watching them in their natural habitat (rather than on a farm) dipping their long necks towards the ground in search of food and gallavanting around on their stick legs. The Crater is also home to 21 black rhinos, very shy creatures that shun the spotlight of their fame, rarely venturing close to the road. We came across one that day, according to Nico, very close for a rhino, and it was pretty close, and watched it lumber through the grass, casting a strange shadow upon the grass of unicorn and wrinkly flesh. Ahhh, but the day wasn't done yet, and next we found two male lions slumbering soundly in the grass literally right next to the road. Although numerous cars rumbled past and pulled up beside them, the lions didn't so much as twitch and scratch their bellies and sleep on through the commotion. The clock was nearing 6, and the park gates shut hermetically at six (we had no desire to sleep with the animals, spending the day with them was enough), so we headed toward the exit road which climbed gradually out of the park far less severely than the entrance road. On the way, Nico couldn't help but spot some elephants. Do we have time to stop, we asked, and he, of course, agreed we did, so we cut the engine and sat in silence as the large herd spreading on either side of the road ventured closer, one male in particular. He chomped voraciously through the trees swifter than the most powerful chainsaw, trampling paltry brush and heading straight for our car. Hmmm, he edged closer, very close in fact, a bit too close as he stomped his feet threateningly, flapped his ears and waved his trunk. I may not be an elephant expert, but I've watched enough nature shows to know an angry elephant, and he was definitely angry. Mom walked up to me and asked, not loudly, but too loud for the situation, what he was doing. Shut up, whispered tersely and a bit rudely, but it was a tense moment. All three of us trained our eyes on the elephant, hardly daring to breathe, until he suddenly backed down and wandered away, thank God. Nico promptly sputtered the engine to life and told us he'd pull ahead a little ways to stay in front of the elephants about to cross the road. Smart man, because you really can't make an elephant move any faster than it wants to, nor should you try honking at one, because then you might find yourself in an overturned car being trampled upon. Was that dangerous, Mom asked him, as we moved further up.
Might have been, he replied with his usual nonchalance. We were a little too close. The rest of the herd wandered by us, near enough but not too near, parading the babies across the road cautiously while other vehicles were stuck waiting for them and experiencing the same stand-off that we did with angry elephants. We had dawdled long enough, and it was perilously close to 6, so we gunned it up the Crater, made it through the gates and drove to the Sopa lodge conveniently situated near to the gate.
Because of the high altitude, few insects penetrate the Crater rim, and the Sopa lodge was mercilessly free of most bugs. Of course, the height is also conducive to chilly evenings, but, honestly, they weren't that cold, no worse than Cairo and alot warmer than Minnesota. Our room at the Sopa was fairly nice, quite large with an enclosed porch providing an unparalleled view of the Crater (which is, by the way the largest in the world), although the Sopa had a some interesting policies. For one, hot water was only available 6 hours per day from 5-8 every morning and evening, which didn't allow for showering after dinner. On the plus side, they provided a 'doctor' and medicine free of charge, and since Mom had developed a rather wracking cough (we think she picked it up in Egypt, my poor country gets blamed for everything ;-), she received medical care for a small tip. Dining at the Sopa was very pleasant, as it occured indoors in a vast windowed hall overlooking the Crater and consisted of pretty tasty food and good service.
The next day I had scheduled a hike into one of the nearby craters for a change of pace, but, unfortunately, the road to Empakkai Crater was washed out (gotta love the rain), so I instead tackled Olomoti Crater, another one in the area. Mom had planned on coming along, but her cough would not have appreciated a strenuous hike into the mountains, so she rested and sent me along alone. My guide for the hike wasn't Nico (he laughed when I asked if he was coming along) but a park ranger named Albert (slightly lecherous Albert, I like to call him ;-). I had thought he was going to be armed, but, in retrospect, it was probably best that he wasn't. Nico drove us for an hour over barely passable roads, probably the worst I'd been on, until we reached a small village and he shooed us up the mountain, waiting for us in the car. Guides certainly do alot of waiting. Anyway, Albert and I commenced our hike, passing the village with its amalgamation of modern and traditional Masaai houses, up through the tall grasses that tripped me up several times as I could not see my feet or the ground, and up into the forested section of the hill. Along the way, Albert would occasionally pause and explain to me the medicinal uses and Masaai names of a few of the plants we encountered, not that I can remember them now. The route was quite steep, especially for someone who had spent the last week sitting in a car for 10 hours per day, but the gnarled trees and soft moss and trailing lianas made for a pleasant change of pace. Until, I guess, Albert stopped in the middle of a rather secluded part of the trail and asked if I wanted anything here. What is it with men and mountains? It was almost the exact same wording as my horse guide in Dahab...Anyway, this time,I said assertively, no, and turned towards the path snaking upwards. A little bit later he showed me a plant whose leaves, I think, relieved pain in the joints, and its roots, well, Masaai have many wives, 10-20, and the man spends 2 days and one night with each one. If he gets 'tired' the women boil the roots into a tea so he can continue visiting his wives. At least that was how he explained the Masaai version of Viagra, I chuckled and we moved onto the summit.
I had thought the hike would terminate here, as there was a sizable group of other people seated on rocks staring into the crater and the gorgeous waterfall plunging down the sheer cliff at the bottom. We go down there, Albert pointed to the crater floor. I think I shot him a skeptical look, eyeing the steep slope with trepidation, but I followed willingly enough. At least I was within sight of others. Scrambling, sliding, stepping and slipping down the slope, I eventually reached the bottom and stared up at the height of my descent. Albert gestured to a rushing stream feeding the waterfall that roared about 20 feet downstream. Alot larger than me, Albert's long legs leapt nimbly over the rocks in the stream to the other side. I stared at the clear water for awhile, took a deep breath...and fell in. With my camera around my neck, I had feared this happening, but Albert was good for something, and he caught me before I completed submerged, which saved my camera, although he also stepped in. The water only came up to my knees, thankfully, so I waded to the other side and waited while Albert emptied his boots. Then he proceeded to lead me down a very sheer slope that paralleled the waterfall and stretched dizzingly down to a valley hundreds of feet below. At least he enjoyed taking pictures of me, so I have photographic evidence of my waterfall adventure. He also basically carried me up the slope to the valley floor as vertigo set in and I would have preferred to cling to the walls rather than ascend. He didn't actually carry me, but he did pull me up the slick rock footholds that served as ascendants; and I only slipped once, and have a lovely gash on my leg and hole in my pants to show for it. We climbed a much smaller hill in the crater and then heard a crack of thunder peal overhead. We had lingered too long in the valley, waiting as I finally decided to wade across the stream again rather than risk totally falling in. We swiftly ascended to the crater rim, entered a cloud, saw the other folk heading out, and descended again into the valley where a light rain was falling and where we met Nicolas for the ride home. All told, the hike was about three hours, but it seemed to stretch half the day. Leaving the village, the sprinkle turned into a downpour, and our Land Cruiser, bless its engine, safely carried us through the almost-washed out road (another rain like that and it, too, will be closed) with our expert driver behind the wheel. We made it back for lunch, so I rounded up mom and sprinted through the rain to the restaurant. I was chivalrous and gave her the umbrella ;-) The rest of the day we relaxed, napped, read, and gazed out our porch at the crater suffused in a cloak of mist and cloud.
The last day of our safari was melancoly, of course, the last game drive of the trip and our final day with Nico. Returning to civilization, family, and friends was tempting, but the lure of Africa is merciless, and will confess I mourned our departure more than celebrated our return. The Sopa was having hot water issues, so we began a bit later than scheduled (Nico was very patient, as always) but we finally began our drive into the Crater, watching the wilderbeests slowly awake from their sleep one last time; the zebras and their young sedately crop the grass and playfully butt each other; the petite Thompson's gazelle shy away from the road as we approached, forever wary; the hyenas cool themselves in the lake and lope off into the distance, far more charming than I had imagined; rhinos slowly ambling through the grass; warthogs nosing their young along and stopping to root out a tasty morsel; elephants pacing off in the distance, always on the move; cape buffalo lowing and grunting with glassy stares; lions greedily watching game and eventually being chased away by buffalo, lions, who would have guessed! We needed to pass through the park gates by 12:30, and, despite Nico's most aggressive driving, didn't reach them until 12:40. The ranger chatted with Nico for a good five minutes, in Swahili, of course, while mom and I listened ignorantly, wondering if he was being castigated. No, no, Nico said, he was asking me about the rain on the rim. Oh!
Traveling on the blessed road, a divine gift from the Japanese, we made excellent time, allowing Mom and I to stop at one of the tourist traps by the road and finally do some shopping. To remember the trip, Mom bought each of us a beautifully carved wooden animal of our favorite species, which were quite numerous. In the end, we ended up with giraffes, elephants, lions, cheetahs (or leopards, I can't really tell, it's a spotted cat) zebras, rhinos, and, for me, a warthog, along with some carved masks. We tried to bargain, but I'm not sure of how great the deal was-either way, we each have a little Serengeti menagerie. And then we returned to Arusha, searched the city for an extra luggage bag (padding those delicate giraffe legs and elephant tusks takes lots of space), found one, and drove back to Ngurdoto, which seemed far more lovely with eyes not clouded with sleep deprivation and hunger. We said goodbye to Nico that evening, not sure who would pick us up to bring us to the Impala Hotel to catch the shuttle. Not entirely sure of what to tip him, we ended up giving him double what Susan recommended, which seemed rather stingy, at 10 dollars a day. 20 dollars a day seemed a little more fair, and we really did enjoy Nico and his idiosyncracies and stories about life in Tanzania. On the way back, we chatted about the differences between life in America and Tanzania, and then I added my perspective about life in Egypt, so it was a very global conversation. As we were passing through a town, he saw a woman officer carrying a gun and made a comment about the absurdity of the sight, as woman can't carry guns, which launched into a discussion on women in our cultures (Egypt lost). Anyway, this is one of the reasons I love to travel so much, to experience the different cultures of the world and observe, however superificially, they differ from my own. I try not to judge,just to observe (although that's hard sometimes, like Siwa, is it really necessary for women to dress like that?).
Alright, so the next morning we saw Nico pull up in the trademark Land Cruiser to bring us to the afternoon Impala Shuttle, which was fairly banal, the visa stops swift and simple. I hate people who shove themselves into my face and try to sell me things, which is why I brush past alot of people in the Khan even if their store looks interesting, but my mom and I wanted to buy a few wooden animal necklaces for gifts and waded into the swarm of Masaai women hawking their goods. When they know you're interested, they harass you all the more, and I briefly haggled for a few, shoved some money at the lady, and waded out, leaving mom to fend for herself. They followed me to the bus, pushed open my window and shouted at me until I finally locked it when Mother returned with some cute carved animals. Chaos!
The shuttle bus brought us right to our hotel, the Intercontinental, and walking in, I finally felt like I was back home. The safari lodges we stayed at were nice, but this was luxury and Western service. The elevator put the one in my building to shame (I mean, it actually had a door that closed, not to mention marble floors and covered light bulbs) and our room was bland African oppulence, just what I ordered. We dined in the restaurant that night, sick of buffets and ready for a menu with real choices. I had arranged a tour for the next morning with a guide recommended to me on Fodor's at 10:30, so we even managed to sleep in.
Kennedy was waiting for us in the lobby when we emerged from the bank with lots of American cash tucked away, having never seen me but guessing who I was (do I really look that American?) He led us to his car, a nice Subaru, and headed off to the Nairobi subarb of Karen, named for our first stop that day, the house and estate of Karen Blixen. Much of Nairobi is impoverished and slum-filled, but Karen seems a world away from that, lush and green with tall hedges and private gates concealing the sprawling mansions of Kenya's elite. Karen Blixen, in case you didn't know, wrote the autobiography Out of Africa of her experiences living in Nairobi in the early 1900's and her coffee farm venture and escapades into the bush with her husband and later her boyfriend before he died in a plane crash. Her story is also romanticized into an eponymous movie with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and inside the house, along with much of the original furniture, are a pair of pants worn by Redford in the movie. Reason enough to visit, I'd say ;-)
Next we went to the Giraffe Centre where guests are allowed to feed and pet the resident Rothchild giraffes. Mom and I found a particularly gentle creature that accepted our caresses and hugs as long as we plied him with food. His coat was short and wiry with some softness, but it was his tongue that really got me, especially when he gave me a big kiss and slobbered all over me! After a bit of shopping in the gift shop (we also adopted a picture and gave a donation to help poor children go on a safari), we headed to the Utamundi Centre and had lunch and wandered through the converted mansion-turned-craft center with wide eyes. So much to buy! We settled on a few things after perusing the 18 rooms, attracted especially to the exceptional beadwork displayed in one. I didn't know beads could be made into boxes, bowls, belts, lighters, as well as the traditional but still gorgeous jewelry. From there we headed to the Nairobi Safari Walk and followed a guide around as he showed us the creatures of the savannah. Mom and I probably annoyed him a bit, but we cut in occasionally to reminisce about our safari and tell him, oh we saw (blank) so close. But then he took us to the cheetah compound and led us behind the scenes into a small cage. In walked a beautiful female cheetah who plopped down obediently and led my guide touch it. He gestured me over and I tentatively stretched out a hand to stroke it, brushing over the soft, almost spongy fur with reverence. I knelt down beside it and wrapped my arms around her, but I didn't want to smother her, so when she decided to lay down, I didn't protest. Laying on her side, she gently licked my hand as I scratched her fur and gazed adoringly into her dark eyes. I was in love! Then she began to purr, and I had to tear myself away to let mom have a turn. She, the cheetah, not my mom, although she's both too ;-) was so beautiful and sweet! We weren't there very long before our guide asked us if we were done because some other people were coming. He said they saw us come in and wanted to do it too, and since he can't deny anyone the opportunity...Well, I'm miserly, but I wanted to say, of course you can deny someone the chance, it's not their right to pet a cheetah just because someone else does, but I kept my trap glued and waited. It was enough to have done it. As we walked out, our guide wanted to know why I didn't get closer to the cheetah. Dude, I had my arm around the kitty, and it is a wild animal, and, believe it or not, I like my fingers, they're nice and whole and I've kept them that way by not lunging at large wild cats I've never met before.
Anyway, we had a bit of time to kill before visiting Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, so we stopped by a little cafe/souvenir store (didn't buy anything) before heading to the orphanage. In order to visit during the evening, you have to be a foster parent of one of the elephants, and mom adopted the baby Makena, to be honest, mainly in order to visit at the non-public time. Arriving at the place, we climbed from the car and entered the main area; someone greeted us briefly, asked us who our baby was, and told us she was still out and to look around while we waited. Look around at what, I wondered, gazing at the long buildings filled with seemingly empty stalls. I saw some people peering into one and joined them, awwwing as I saw a tiny baby elephant suckling from a bottle. Going from stall to stall, I saw several more babies, all covered in blankets and wandering around their stalls or eating with help from their keepers. Sheldrick is truly an amazing place. Rescuing orphaned elephants from the wild, they bring them there and provide 24 hour care to each elephant, their keepers sleeping in their stalls with them at night and following them into the bush during the day. After about 2 years the elephants are slowly weaned from close contact with humans and are brought to a remote location to, hopefully, be eventually released back into the wild.
The cutest baby was a two-month one name Lampaute who was still figuring out how her trunk operated. At times she would toss it back and forth in the air, flailing it about playfully, and other times she'd suck on it like a child does a thumb. Even at her age she was covered with a bristly coat of fur and was only tiny in comparison to adult elephants. Then Makena came along and I forgot about Lampaute for a bit. Born in August 2005, she is one of the bigger girls on campus, and she literally came charging down the path from the forest, thundering past the onlookers, and straight into her stall in anticipation of her bottle, which she downed in about a minute. Strangely, of the 6 or so other parents there, about four of them had also adopted Makena; apparently, she is one the most popular elephants ever, and she lived up to her fame, regaling us with her antics, tearing at the tree in her stall, and pacing around proudly. I'd say she was around 5 feet or so tall, and, according to accounts, growing rapidly. We finally said goodbye to her and Lampaute, the last ones to go, left a donation, and went to find some meat!
Oh, Carnivore, I wish I had gone with an emptier stomach. You see, this restaurant is a meat lover's paradise, a ceaseless parade of succulent meat brought to your table until your pants burst with plentitude. A bit kitschy, perhaps, but I really enjoyed it-Mom and I ordered African drinks, well, sort of African, a mixture of honey, lime, crushed ice, and vodka mixed with a bamboo stick called a Dawa. They were actually fairly good, and the Dawa man prepared them in front of us. After that, a brief course of salad and then the meat. The staff carried skewers of freshly roasted meat to our table and circulated periodically around the restaurant to feed the ravenous carnivores. They had chicken, chicken wings, sausage, pork, roast beef, turkey, ostrich, crocodile, and other types of meat that I can't remember, and it all tasted superb but, at a certain point, I couldn't consume anymore and laid the flag down in defeat, a signal that we didn't want any more meat. Then they brought us dessert and we finally waddled out of there replete with meat.
We had a flight out the next day at 5:20 on Kenyan Air, and, when we woke up around 10, began to ponder some of the things we'd wished we'd purchased back at Utamundi. Well, Kennedy was coming at 2:30, but that wouldn't be enough time, so we called him on his cell phone and he agreed to come earlier to satisfy our last minute shopping cravings. Then the Nairobi airport, a bit sweltering but I relished it because Cairo is alot cooler, boarding the plane slightly late, watching You, Me, and Dupree (funny movie), stopping for an hour in Khatoum (unfortunately, it was dark so I couldn't see much), and back to al-Qahara. Despite my love of Africa, it was good to be home, and I was particularly eager to download my pictures, which turned out pretty well, so well that I created 9 albums on Facebook. Ahhh! That's what a safari will do to you, turn you into an avid photographer. What a trip, it was the most exotic one I've ever taken, and, probably, the best, but I don't like to superlatize my vacations. There's still spring semester and 2 weeks of spring break ;-) I hope the above photo links work, if not, let me know.