Friday, February 24, 2012

Nina's Africa Diary, Part II

The children greeting us upon arrival to school, which is situated five miles from camp.
Africa Diary, Part II
by Nina Griscom

After a few days on the road, we had become close as a group
, and also aware of certain behavioral patterns amongst us. Some liked to rise early, and others enjoyed staying up later at night. So we established a two-tiered morning drive system, whereby one set left camp at 6 a.m. and another at 6:45. Though I did not stay up late, I do like my sleep, and as such, threw in my lot with the later group.

5 a.m. brought Little Joseph to my tent with the tray of tea and biscuits. I always laid out my clothes the night before, to allow more precious time in bed.

A community classroom.
Not all drives result in spectacular sighting of game. It is always a crapshoot, with Mother Nature in control. This drive was more about the beautiful early morning light and the peacefulness of the landscape at this hour of the day. Not many animals around. Returned to camp for breakfast at 9:30.

One of the most enjoyable, rewarding and interesting aspects of the safaris that Krista Krieger leads is our visits to local communities on behalf of the Africa Foundation. As I have mentioned, the AF provides grants to communities in East and South Africa in the name of generating water supplies, schoolrooms, dormitories, kitchens, food storage facilities, and health clinics. I am privileged to be a member of the AF Advisory Board, and many members of our travel group are also involved and give generous donations to the AF.

At 11 a.m. we set off to visit a local community (where Jackson happens to live), five miles from camp as the crow flies, but 45 minutes by jeep on a rugged road. More herniated discs.

A visit to a local community is always a loud and lively occasion. The kids are told that we are coming and are excited to see newcomers. Normally, we roll up while they are still in class, and are invited inside the classrooms to meet the teachers and their pupils.

The children all wear uniforms and sit at their desks studying subjects such as anatomy, geography, English and Swahili. I always love to take digital images of students and then show them the results. You have no idea how amused and excited they are to see their faces on my camera screen! If they are not happy with the picture, I delete and re-do it until they are satisfied.
Nina with a new friend. Lyn Pederson with 2 new friends.
Normally Krista brings many soccer balls to hand out, and some of us bring other products from America for the kids to enjoy. My friend Zita de Zagon brought fruit roll ups, and I carried many Sponge Bob comic books with lots of stickers to go into them.

The degree of things needed is overwhelming, yet the children seem happy in their daily lives, with no outside influences or comparisons to consider. Communities have no computers, or iPads; no way of contrasting and comparison to other lives out there in the world. This is a serious subject; one which needs reflection and actionability. I mention it only as a dialogue within many other disenfranchised communities that I have seen, which present different reactions.

After two hours in the community, meeting with officials  to learn of other projects which need funding, and checking out  existing infrastructure, our group drove on to an open air Masai market, to look at beautiful beadwork created by the women of the village. It was a clear and sunny day, and a gorgeous setting, atop a sloping meadow overlooking the Masai Mara Plains. I picked up some lovely things for my daughter Lily, including a beaded fly swatter which was incredibly useful to me later on the trip when flies were swarming over my body like a black pestilence.
The open air Masai market.
Returned to camp at 3 p.m. and went straight to my tent for reading time on my Kindle Fire and a languorous nap. At 5 p.m., the heavens burst forth with the most ferocious rainstorm, the strength of which I have never seen. It was an event unto itself. I sat up in bed and watched it unfold, as I would a sporting event. The power of that rain was incredibly seductive and beautiful to witness; a force of nature that one does not see in our hemisphere; nothing like a hurricane, which is unforgiving and widely distributed. This rain was in some way guided and specific in its purpose; intent to bestow needed water upon an arid area.

The sound of torrential rain pounding on my tent, and the wet smell of fresh dark earth, along with a clear vista of the soaking plains intoxicated me; and I found myself channeling Karen Blixen, wishing for my Dennis Fitch Hatton (my husband, Leo) to be under the covers with me. Moments like this should be shared, and savored.

No storm lasts forever, and this one was no exception to that rule. At 6 p.m. Little Joseph entered my tent and delivered a shopping bag. When I opened it, I found a Madonna (circa 1980) outfit, complete with crucifix earrings and stockings. I read the accompanying note, and saw that we were going to have a dress-up party that night, courtesy of Jenny Kennedy, one of the greatest girls on the trip, who had gone shopping in Miami and bought 13 outfits for all of us to wear.
"Father Mike" and Suzanne at a dress-up party at Bateleur.
This was totally unexpected, and I didn’t quite know how far I should take this. Thank God Bateleur had electricity and I could use my mini curling iron, and apply ridiculous 80’s makeup with decent light in my tent. Jenny and Krista had spent the better part of the afternoon assigning costumes to us. I was eternally grateful that they “got” my fat arms and as such had given me an outfit that hid that nasty part of me ...

When I appeared in the living room, I immediately saw Ranger Mike, who was resplendent in full priest drag. He looked fabulous, and a LOT awkward. When all of the ladies filed into the room, wearing their Jenny outfits he began to look extremely panicked. This was not an act. Mike, who is happily married, has led many safaris, but has never served as the ranger for a group of 13  insane ladies. So this dress up evening was a huge shock for him, and I suspect most of the staff at the camp.

Krista and a staff member rocking out on our dress up night at Bateleur.
Everyone looked fabulous in their Jenny clothes, but Krista was the STAR. She rocked her 1970’s disco sequined outfit. So there we were, 13 ladies in slutty costumes that evoked Madonna, the '80s, the '70s and even the priesthood. Amazing. There was one Nun’s habit which you will see in the image ... I thought it should have been mine, but never mind. There was ONE sole older male guest staying at the camp who took one look at us, and RAN for the hills.

Cocktail hour was a long affair; mostly with us laughing and Mike hyperventilating at the sight of us, wondering how he would explain this to his wife, Lisa. The staff looked slightly bemused. Lots of 70’s and 80’s music provided by Jenny and Krista on a sound box. Dinner was divine and raucous as ever. And after dinner some of the group danced on tables. So much fun! I took a powder on the early side. Less is often more ...

Moses, my night walker, escorted me back to my tent, with an AK47 on his shoulder. Not sure if I was reassured or terrified by the specter of this weapon. Guests are NEVER allowed to leave or enter their tents alone after dark. Hmmm. Slept with the distant sound of Madonna floating from the dining area. I’m sure there were a few animals around that didn’t know what to make of this.

Tues, Jan 17th

Mike had promised to take us to a part of the Masai Mara, located on the Tanzanian border that he refers to as “Heaven." It was a 10-hour day in the vehicles and I sincerely hoped that his notion of heaven and mine would line up ...

Straight off we came across a small pride of Lionesses and their 4 cubs. Sadly the mortality rate among cubs is 80%, so we were happy to see them thriving and well.
Heaven, close to the Tanzanian border.
Lions have a harder life than one would imagine. The term “pride” refers to a group of Lionesses and their cubs. Males are technically not part of the pride, but rather come and go at will within two separate prides that they have mated with. The Lionesses hunt for food and care for their offspring, sharing the suckling role in a very democratic way, insuring that the cubs are always nursed in the initial stages of life. A matriarchal society which functions very well.

Males are viewed in a dim light by the females as they cause a great deal of stress when present. And they are not exactly family men. Sound familiar? Young males leave the pride and have a sort of walk about stage for several years, learning to hunt and survive on their own. The attrition rate during this stage is fairly high. Those who survive will mate with two different prides within his established territory.
Mating lions on the road to heaven.
The same mature male, napping.
Mature sleeping lion in our path on the way to Heaven.
Emotional ties to their cubs is distinctly lacking, and a male will kill a cub he suspects he has not sired. Charming! Males will typically spend four or five days with one pride, and then slip off to do the same with his second family, miles away. Somehow I think I have been to this movie.

Enough of Lions 101! We carried on towards our destination, with the morning light following our tracks. Mike regaled us with fascinating stories of life in the bush and all manner of information about the animals we were seeing.
A lioness in the Masai Mara.
As we drove along, the plains stretched out as far as the eye could see, with tall grass waving in the breeze. We were just a speck upon the vastness of the land. Perfect weather; sunny and the bluest of skies. At one moment, we turned a corner in the road and found a large, mature Lion basking in the sun, right in our path. It was almost too perfect and I wondered about the odds of that happening! We stopped and observed him for a few minutes, but he was impervious to us and continued napping.

After 4 hours of driving, and seeing copious wildlife and many species of beautiful birds, we finally arrived at the Gates of Heaven. And I must say, I had goose bumps looking at the specter before us. Mike was right ... this spot was truly perfection.
On the way back from heaven ... nary a soul in sight for miles.
We could look out and see vast herds (500 or more) of elephants gently grazing on the ripe grass, Zebras alongside them, blissfully unaware of our presence, and gazelle, wart hogs, hyena and giraffe, all co-existing on this verdant plain as they must have done 5,000 years ago. There was not another human being within miles, and one felt totally alone on the planet – a spiritual experience at its best. We sat silently there for a long while, absorbing all that we were so privileged to be witnessing; almost biblical in its pure essence.

Mike and Daniel, our local guide, brought out the fixings for a bush coffee, and laid a table with nuts and fruit and cookies, to go with the tea and coffee. We stretched our legs and smelled the fresh air, savoring our special time in this place.

In the future, I shall conjure up this sight in my book of memories, whenever I need a glimpse of peace and serenity. It was extraordinary and I am blessed to have seen what is surely both Heaven AND The Garden of Eden.
A croc still bloodied from a recent kill.
Sadly we had to turn back for the ride to camp. The drive home was filled with wildlife, and we saw a pair of Lions mating; a rather loud and BRIEF affair. But when one considers that they mate over a period of 5 days every 40 minutes, for 20 seconds, it is a wonder that any of them are able to stand, let alone roar. Talk about stamina!

We chalked up 19 Lions, several crocs, countless herds of elephant, gazelle, zebras, African leopard tortoises, hippos, many species of birds, and a black-footed mongoose. It was an epic day in Technicolor!!!

We rolled into camp at 7 p.m. feeling elated and also exhausted. I nearly wept when we were informed that we were expected on deck in half an hour to go to a “special surprise." Frankly all I longed for was a 12-hour nap. Then, maybe dinner. But other minds were in control. So I reported for duty at the appointed time.
In the bush: Aisha Haque and Jenny Kennedy and Lyn Pederson.
7:30pm: Back into the vehicles, and onto the same God forsaken dirt road; this time in a different direction. This little journey, into a ravine informed by even rockier terrain, took us half an hour to negotiate the 3 miles to our destination: a beautiful spot for an elaborate barbecue dinner replete with Masai festivities.

One of the Masai’s favorite activities (done by warriors, of course) is a jumping contest. Apparently, the highest jumper has the status of a rock star, and all that comes with that territory. Think many cows being given away to young ladies' families ...
The Masai jumping. Look how high!
So after a Bush Cocktail (1:1 portions of honey, vodka, lime juice and ice, robustly shaken) we sat down on canvas chairs in a circle to watch the jumping contest, illuminated by a blazing bonfire. The participants were all dressed in beautiful traditional robes and beaded jewelry. This went on for quite some time, to allow all of the members of the group to compete. Glad I wasn’t doing this as I doubt I could clear 2 inches off the ground at this point of my life.

A winner was proclaimed, and then all the warriors broke rank and ran to pull each of us guests into a circular dance, which involved guttural utterances on the part of the warriors, as well as a particular gait governed by the dance. It took me awhile to catch on, but I did my best grunt and tried to keep up with the deep knee bends that my Masai partner was doing. I am sure that he was appalled.
Needs no further explanation.
Dinner came next: roasted lamb, grilled chicken and a beef tenderloin along with vegetables and then Bananas Foster, in addition to a lovely iced  celebration cake for Krista. After some time, we all piled back into the vehicles and returned on the same ghastly route to camp. Saw a hippo alongside the road. I don’t know about you who are reading this, but I was exhausted at this point. It was a spectacular night, and we all greatly appreciated the kind spirit and effort that went into creating it for us!
The BBQ at the Masai party from Bateleur.
Wed the 18th of January

No departure from camp is ever seamless. And right on cue, a green Bush Snake slithered under the breakfast table, directly by Krista’s feet. I have never heard such a shriek in my life! The snake was dispatched into the bush by the staff, and we were able to leave Bateleur on schedule. We boarded 2 bush planes (Caravans) and flew off to our next destination, feeling very sad to leave all our new friends behind after such a wonderful visit to their camp.

The Sycamore fig tree at Lemarti.
A one-hour flight north brought us to Anna Trezbinski’s Lemarti’s Camp. Before landing, our pilots did a quick fly by to ascertain if any animals were on the bush runway. None were, so we landed in one piece.

Anna, born in Kenya to German and English parents, is a local legend and has the best taste of anyone alive! She and her husband, Lemarti have created a camp that is unlike any other in this realm. Her passion for bringing all the unadulterated natural beauty of the surroundings and local life to her guests, sans modern interventions such as electricity or running water, is evidenced by all the incredible details and beauty of her camp. This is the best of what safari must have been 50 years ago, at its zenith.

The physical anchor of her camp is a huge Sycamore Fig tree, situated by the river, adjacent to the living/dining space. When we arrived, Anna’s 4-year-old daughter, Tasha, was being pushed on a swing under the tree, by one of the camp’s staff; who all seem to be extended members of Anna’s family.

When we landed on the airstrip, Anna was there to meet us, and insisted that we visit the local Wednesday market, on the way to her camp. This is a venue where locals meet up with friends and do their weekly shopping for food, healing medicines, and clothes. Even saw cocoa leaves for sale. Tempting, but didn’t go there.

What knocked me out was the extraordinary array of gorgeous clothing worn by most of the inhabitants of the market. For a New Yorker, accustomed to a wardrobe of black, the brilliant range of color was intoxicating, and I felt very bland in my khakis.
The local Wednesday market.
A restaurant at the local Wednesday market.
Vermillion, Baboon Pink, Chrome Yellow, and Indigo Blue shukas were masterfully layered, and adorned with the colorful beaded neck collars and bracelets which are characteristic of the Samburu and Masai tribes. 

Toothless Grandmas, hunched elderly men, and beautiful young girls carrying tiny babies on their back joined young warriors, and interlopers like us in this local pageant. It was teeming with people and though we walked around freely, I did notice a few hostile eyes. I was dying to shop, but wiser hands pulled me away.

After a half hour spent in the market, we jumped back into the vehicles with their vintage brown leather seats and set off for Lemarti’s Camp, a 40-minute drive on equally uninhabitable roads as Bateleur.
A view of Lemarti's main tent.
My tent at Lemarti's Camp.
My "bathroom" at Lemarti's Camp.
A delicious lunch at camp, and then a blissful down time for me in my luxurious tent, overlooking the river. Reading and writing were the order of my afternoon.  Around 6 p.m. a staff member in traditional dress came to light the kerosene lamps in my tent and along the perimeter, as well as filling up my bucket shower with hot water.  I ventured out in the fading light around 7 p.m. for a refreshing  open air shower and washed away all of the considerable grime.

Anna Trezbinski.
Around 7:30, we congregated in the main tent where Anna joined us for candlelit cocktails and a superb dinner of cold soup and freshly grilled meat and vegetables, followed by a white chocolate mousse. Incredible food in superb surroundings!

In her Nairobi workshop, Anna produces gorgeous colored pashmina shawls,
festooned with Flamingo and Guinea Fowl feathers, as well as locally made sandals with beading and croc skin. Then there is a line of beautiful suede coats and jackets, a staple of well dressed women from the US to Zanzibar.

She also has cotton sarongs and lovely tribal inspired jewelry. After dinner we all semi-politely fought one another to get into her Aladdin’s Cave to see and buy all these wonderful things. I bought a divine hand crafted wood toilet seat for our house in Millbrook (OK, I am a bit weird), and a beautiful cotton caftan in saffron colors with black stripes. So chic!

At this point our band of Merry Ladies had become very close, and we’d thrown off all of the initial stuff that happens when you meet new friends. It takes time to bond, but there is nothing like Africa to accelerate that process.

Part III, coming Monday (2/27)
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