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Last Stop in Africa - Kenya

Last stop in our northern trek in Africa landed us in Nairobi, Kenya for a few days followed by our final safari to the Masai Mara.  Kenya is about 80% the size of Texas and straddles the equator.  Nairobi, the capital, is in the south-central part of the country in the highlands at about 5,500ft so is definitely greener and cooler than we expected.  The city is quite large, with a population over 4.7 million.  It is definitely a mixture of first and third world cultures – many big city office buildings and hotels, cars, and traffic. Most people cannot afford cars though so local minibuses, called matatus, dominate the inner city and the commuter routes.  Plenty of bustle but with a large dose of third world poverty still apparent - ever the contrast.  


We hired a driver through a connection at the US embassy to take us around Nairobi for a low-key tour.  Turns out it was the perfect way to spend part of the day.  We saw all the main government buildings – the office of the President, Senate, Treasury, State House, Nairobi City Council, and the Kenyatta Tower.  From the top of the tower, we had a great view of the city and all its growth.  We also visited the US Embassy memorial where the US Embassy was bombed in 1988.  For those who don’t recall, al-Queda had two simultaneous embassy suicide bombings in Africa, one in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and one in Nairobi.  Many were killed and several thousand wounded, mostly Africans.  A sobering visit with the realization that the worst attacks were yet to come in NYC.

Ever the adventurers, we went off one afternoon to the city center in search of a camera shop that would rent Mark a large lens for our safari.  A cab took us from our hotel about 3 miles into the center - think gridlocked minibuses and wall-to-wall people.  We were looking for a small shop that was invariably going to be on an upper floor, unmarked at street-level.  Our poor cab driver turned the wrong way and a local policeman hopped in the car to “accompany” us.  Eventually we got out of the cab to wander the street where the shop was supposed to be located. 


We had 2 challenges – locate the shop, then relocate our driver! We eventually found the shop, indeed well concealed on the second floor, and successfully rented a lens.  Next challenge – find our driver!  Even though we traded WhatsApp numbers, there’s no talking while driving and remember, the policeman is still in the car.  We were easy to spot being the only white skinned people in the area.  The car, not so much!  He kept circling the block until he spotted us and got out waving.  All good except that he had gotten a driving ticket which he had to pay on the spot.  Needless to say, our fare included the price of the ticket – not much for us but a big deal for him.

Our 5-day safari to the Masai Mara began with a 5-hour drive to the park which is located in southern Kenya bordering Tanzania.  The Mara, as it is known, is part of the Great Rift Valley where some of the earliest human ancestor remains, tools and weapons have been found. It is also famous for its migration which Betsey saw on the other side of the border and for its large concentration of animals.  Many predators, especially lions and leopards live in the area because of the availability of zebras, wildebeests, a variety of antelope and warthogs.  There are also plenty of elephants and giraffes – both reticulated and the endangered Masai varieties feeding amongst the trees and high bushes.  


Several lion prides were evident as we had multiple sightings each day. We saw moms with very young lion cubs feasting on a recent wildebeest kill, we saw a male coalition lounging as well.  None of the lions were particularly concerned about vehicles as long as people were quiet.  They would circle the vehicle, lie down in its shade to cool off or mark on the tires.  They were sometimes so close that only a cellphone camera could capture an image.  There were a few leopards as well – both male and female, and a single cheetah. They are all solitary cats that tend to hide very well in the vegetation.  

After spending 4 days in the Mara, we headed to Lake Magadi, a lake that has a high soda level but is also fed by hot springs, so it does have some aquatic life.  It is known for its flamingos (greater and lesser) and rhinos.  The flamingos feed on red algae and insects that accumulate at the edges.  Apparently, the lake can look quite red at certain points of the year but not when we were there.  There are two species of rhinos here – southern white, which tend to be a bit more social and black rhinos which are more solitary.  We were greeted by a southern white family and followed them for a while as they foraged for food among the grasses.  We were also lucky enough to see a black rhino but only from quite a distance.  Supposedly there are only about 6,000 left in the wild. Finally, after days of trekking over dusty dirt roads, we arrived back in Nairobi in search of a hot shower and clean clothes!  

We had one day left in Africa and an important place to visit – the Sheldrick Foundation Elephant Orphanage, part of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.  We had each adopted a baby elephant, both females recently rescued that were 8 and 9 months respectively and we were going to see them at feeding time and learn more about the group's work.  The younger group of babies (15) came running down the hill with several keepers into a fenced area looking for their bottles.  After quickly gulping down a few gallons of formula, they proceeded to snack on leaves and branches that had been spread around while the head keeper told us about each of them.  They were absolutely adorable, and it was fun to see our new adoptees.  After the young ones finished, a second group of 2–3-year-olds repeated the process.


The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has been around in Kenya for 45 years focusing on conservation and reintegration of elephants.  It operates one of the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation operations in the world.  They also rescue and rehabilitate rhinos as well.  Elephants become orphans due to poaching, habitat destruction and human-wildlife conflict.  They may have gotten stuck in the mud at a well or caught up in a snare.  Their mom may have been killed or the baby abandoned because it could not be freed from its predicament.  Whatever the cause, it is very traumatic for the orphan.  With lots of love and care over a several year period, the orphans are raised, socialized and reintroduced to the wild. The process can take up to 5 years but has been very successful.   Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has raised and reintegrated 288 elephants.  A visit to the orphanage just outside Nairobi was a great way to wind up our time in Africa.


It's hard to believe Africa is now in our rear-view mirror.  It was an amazing 2½ months – humbling and life changing, frustrating, and rewarding.  We often think of Africa as one place but it’s 65 countries, each one of them different from the next.  We will for sure go back but for now we’re just reveling in our experiences.