Monday, September 24, 2007


Wildebeest crossing in the Maasai Mara--those are hippos in the foreground. They seemed to enjoy the show--I swear they sounded like they were laughing.

Our Tsavo West leopard. I think he's aiming for a starring role on Animal Planet.

Yes, I've been completely delinquent about this.


Since I blogged about Kenya in-depth after my first trip last year, I thought I'd focus on new things I learned this time around.

1. Travelling with one 8-year-old girl is more expensive than travelling with both of her older brothers combined. And it involves looking at a whole lot more jewelery. And stuffed animals.

2. If you want good service while travelling, take a child. Not a baby or toddler (they strike fear into the heart of every other traveller in the vicinity) and not a teenager or near-teen (they mostly look monumentally bored), but an in-between, cute-as-a-bug chatty 3rd-grader. I've never seen so many smiling flight attendants and passport control officers and customs officers. It took us a while to get through immigration at JFK--not because of long lines--but because everyone wanted my daughter to tell them about Africa. (Little did they know that once started talking, she's almost impossible to stop.)

3. A closed window probably won't make a lot of difference against a leaping hippo. At Tsavo West (the oldest national park in Kenya), we drove very near a river and stopped to take photos of half a dozen hippos in the water. While engaged in this innocent pursuit, a hippo came seemingly out of nowhere and--I swear--leaped over an expanse of river to join his fellows. Startled does not begin to cover my feelings. Panicked is slightly nearer. We then drove to the other side of the river to get a different view and I rolled down the truck window to take a close-up of one hippo that was staring me down. It spooked me slightly. For all I knew, this was the same leaping hippo from fifteen minutes before. How did I know he wasn't calculating the distance between his position and mine? So I rolled up the window. Which is when I realized that if a 2-ton hippo decides to crash-land on my car, a window--closed or not--isn't going to make the slightest bit of difference.

4. Babies. Lots and lots of babies. Giraffes and zebras and wart hogs and various antelopes from impala to topi. Call me sentimental, but there's not much cuter than a baby giraffe peeking around a tree at you (and still, naturally, taller than the car we were in.)

5. Leopards. One of the Big 5 that I didn't see last year. I made up for it this year. In the Maasai Mara we tracked down a mother and her two cubs early one morning. We watched the cubs playing in a tree for ten minutes while mama patrolled the ground. The cubs were perfectly adorable (see Babies entry above), especially as they would swing down various branches and then scramble back up the main trunk.

6. And one more leopard. As we drove down the red-dirt road in Tsavo West one afternoon, we were looking for Marker 25 that would tell us how far to a particular spot. We found the marker all right. With a leopard lying on top of it. This is very rare. Leopards are nocturnal, you see, and generally prefer trees. But this leopard was just lying on the marker like some kind of exotic house cat. We stopped the truck not more than ten feet from him and he (or possibly she) posed for us. Really. We've got the leopard lying, sitting, looking at us, looking over its shoulder, stretching, playing with its tail. I've even got a photo of my daughter next to the window with the leopard just feet beyond. (A closed window--in this case, a big help.) When we finally started the truck and began driving slowly away, the leopard jumped down and walked next to us in the grass for five or ten minutes. A definite once-in-a-lifetime experience.

7. The wildebeest migration. Every year, between about September and November, more than a million wildebeest migrate in a big circle through the Serengeti plains. They cross from Tanzania in the south into the Maasai Mara, eat every blade of grass in their way, and then wander back home. (As a side note--apparently wildebeests can live between 15-20 years, so some of them having been doing this migration for a long time. You'd think they'd have it better organized by the fifteeneth or sixteenth time.)

You see, wildebeests are not incredibly smart. They're also not incredibly beautiful, but that's another topic. Wildebeests will congregate at one side of the river they plan to cross and then mill around. For hours. While more and more wildebeests arrive from behind until eventually I kept expecting that one would just shoved in. What usually happens is that a zebra goes first. I don't know why. But once the first set of hooves hits the water, it's like an electric shock to the rest. They just go crazy, streaming into and over the river as quicky as they can.

And quickly is a good idea. There are crocodiles in them there waters. It's a good bet that some of those wildebeests are going to get crocced (as I endearingly heard it called.) So what do the tourists do? We sit around in our cars for hours, watching the milling wildebeests, wishing we could get out of the safari vehicle and shove one into the river ourselves, and then we find ourselves cheering when a croc takes one down. There's something about sitting in the sun for two hours (especially when one requires a restroom) that makes one quite bloodthirsty.

Not that there was any blood to see. Mostly what we saw of the crocodiles were the enormous and sudden explosions of water that marked one snatching a wildebeest out of the line. We did see one dead wildebeest floating downstream (our driver said that crocs will kill a bunch and let them float away then track down their bodies to eat later--it's emergency preparedness is what it is.)

But the vast majority of wildebeests made it across. There were a couple small ones that got lost, coming up farther south on the shore than their comrades and not able to figure out a way to join the rest. And then there were a bunch who, once they reached the other side, jumped back into the river AND SWAM BACK THE WAY THEY CAME! Honestly, it's hard not to think of them as stupid when they do that. I mean, they just survived a dangerous crossing. Now they're tempting fate (and crocodiles) by doing it again?

It was an amazing sight. None more so than the moment when it just stopped. As suddenly as it had begun, the line broke and the remaining tens of thousands of wildebeests on our side of the river went back to milling around. Personally, I think they just forgot what they were doing. Who knows how long it took them to remember. For ourselves, we had seen our crossing.

And I really, really needed a restroom.


Anonymous said...

Yay for Africa!! I've been dying to hear of your adventures the 2nd time around, but decided to be patient, as I know how much work it can be to get it all written up (took me 6 weeks--well, I wasn't working on it full-time). Your leopard close encounter is AMAZING. You were so lucky! Also, did your mom take you to Gemini's? Did you go crazy? Did Emma? Sounds like it! Anyway, I'm missing you--reading your blog was good, but not nearly as good as it would have been to hear about the adventure from you personally. Drop me a line when you can. --Amy C.

Anonymous said...

It was so fun to read about your trip with Emma! I had heard about it from your parents, but reading it with your commentary and humor was delightful. - Aunt M.