My trip to Africa this month was so good that I couldn’t screw it up.
But I tried.
A colleague last month told me I was lucky to visit now because in 30 or 40 years, much of the wildlife will be wiped out or driven into corners of the continent.
I was indeed fortunate to go to Tanzania and Kenya for 10 days with my sister, Beverly Wagoner. I had only briefly been to Mexico and Canada, so this was a huge adventure.
There were many excellent moments.
We saw lions mate. Duration of act: 3 seconds.
A warthog wallowed in a mudhole, scooping muck with his snout, scratching himself, lying down, then sloshing out another muddy nest for himself.
We saw two giraffes , which means fighting, evidently for dominance. The battle seemed almost in slow-motion as they awkwardly tried to whack each other with their necks, rake each other with their horns and push each other into a tree. A guide said giraffes sometimes die in these fights.
We saw a honey badger trotting home early one morning, paying no attention to the gazelles and guinea fowl nearby. Our guide, Deo Magoye, said: “You know what his nickname is? Badass.” Honey badgers, he said, have been known to kill male elephants by ripping their genitals off.
Beverly, 74, is a retired Denver schoolteacher, and I left the planning to her. She worked through The Wild Source, a Colorado-based safari planner that lined up accommodations, food, guides, created our itinerary and recommended travel arrangements.
We paid the agency roughly $6,375 each, spent $1,770 for air travel (including several flights inside Africa) apiece, and we bought travel insurance for about $435 each.
We purchased some recommended safari gear to guarantee that we would look like American bumpkins. We got required immunizations and malaria pills. We bought passports and visas. I purchased a $340 camera, plus at least $100 for a memory card and a couple of camera batteries. More on the camera later.
Throw in tips and gifts and each of us paid well over $10,000 for the trip.
I fretted for weeks about losing my passport, visas or billfold and ruining the vacation. But as the trip neared, I felt better about the adventure and was psyched to see great African animals.
Oh, and did we see animals. Zebras, impalas, gazelles, elephants, lions, cheetahs, leopards, giraffes, hyenas, warthogs, jackals. Hippos, mongoose, rhinos, waterbucks, cape buffaloes, wildebeests, hartebeests, baboons and vervet monkeys. Ostriches, secretary birds, cranes, herons, vultures, eagles, storks, hornbills.
We visited Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks in Tanzania, and the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Nairobi National Park in Kenya.
The temperature was in the 70s and 80s. It rained only once. Our guides liked the fact that we dug just about everything we saw and heard.
Hippos sound like diesel trucks. Zebras make a barking noise that you’d think belonged to jackals or hyenas. Hyenas make a noise that goes a bit like: “Uh-whoop! Uh-whoop! Whoo-OOH-uh!”
The guides were great. Deo Magoye, of Arusha, Tanzania, brought his 20-year-old son, Yusuf, along. Deo, 53, was the youngest guide in the region when he was a teenager, he said, and he aims to become the oldest by working into his 70s.
Yusuf is a kind and smart guy who loves cheetahs, studies them and writes about them. He wants to be a guide, too, and hopes to prevent cheetahs from becoming extinct.
The guides know species and animal behavior. They can spot a leopard in a tree from a mile away. Guides spend the day driving tourists like us around national parks on rough (understatement) dirt roads.
Deo and our guide in Kenya, Pingua Nkukuu, remain enthusiastic about their jobs. They bring their binoculars. They take photos every day. They work long hours — often from 6:15 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. on pocked dirt roads. They’re patient and smart. It’s still fun and exciting for them after years of guiding.
Bev and I fell for Deo and Yusuf. The four of us laughed a lot. Deo recalled the time he drove a family around and they came upon a couple of big cats mating. The family members hid their eyes. When they got back to the camp, the father scolded Deo for subjecting his family to the X-rated scene.
When Deo and Yusuf took us to a small airport for the trip from Tanzania to Kenya, the four of us hugged. Yusuf said: “I will see you again.”
The people of Tanzania and Kenya are well aware of the importance of their natural resources and animals to their economies. Tourism is vital to those nations.
Kenya has banned single-use plastic bags. Both nations have large ranger systems designed to protect their wildlife from poachers. Deo had an uncle, a ranger, who was killed by poachers in the vast, beautiful crater region called Ngorongoro.
After the flight we boarded a van to go to the Kenyan immigration office. The driver said: “Do you all have your yellow fever cards?” My sister told him she was exempted from the yellow fever shot at her Denver travel clinic because of her age. The driver wanted to see an exemption paper. Bev never received one.
A woman from Australia said: “Oh, you have to have an exemption paper. You have to. Maybe they’ll immunize you now. You have to have the paper. We do, in Australia.”
We waited in the immigration office for more than an hour. Bev was sure her lack of an exemption slip was causing the delay. I was certain I had made an error on my visa application. We waited longer. Bev gave a man $50 because she didn’t have her paper, and apparently she was off the hook.
It turned out the Australian woman and her husband had expired visas, and they were the cause of the delay. Ha!
Then I began digging through my pockets. That camera in my safari vest pocket actually was a can of Altoids. The camera must be in this pocket. No. This one? Nope. Here? No. Repeat process 15 times. No camera. I checked my bags. No. The realization began to sink in. I felt hot and sick with shame. My self-image — irresponsible 62-year-old with a tinge of buffonery — wracked me.
I couldn’t find an excuse, either. Could I blame someone else? I could not.
For four hours I tortured myself. I believed I’d ruined our vacation. Then it occurred to me that I’d never be in Africa again. Letting a material thing ruin the trip was unacceptable. Nobody was injured or sick. I had my cellphone with which to take photos. Onward.
We typically stayed in camps with large tents containing beds, toilets and shower systems fed by buckets of hot water poured from the outside by staffers. The camps are basically tented hotel rooms.
Most staffers spoke at least a little English and some spoke it well. They worked hard, fed us nice meals, treated us great (embarrassingly so). Yes, they had a mercenary motive. The tips would be better and more visitors would come. As Americans, we understood being motivated by money.
In one camp, our toilet backed up. Mice skittered through our tent during two nights in that camp. They chomped on Bev’s pills and bit through a tube of lotion.
In Kenya, Pingua, or Ping, has been a guide for 23 years and sometimes wears the bright clothing of his Maasai people. He, too, started the journey early in the morning and worked late, basically driving us around the Maasai Mara from sunup to sundown.
Both Deo and Ping drove Toyota Land Cruisers over those cratered roads. Deo’s had windows and Ping’s was more open on the sides. Ping had one other tourist besides us, a Boston info tech project manager named Amy Battis. This was her fifth trip to Africa. She loved big cats and knew a lot about them. The four of us — Bev, Amy, Ping and I — had good chemistry and great fun.
Once a leopard walked right past my side of the Land Cruiser. “Don’t move,” Ping said, seriously.
We never got out of the vehicles except to relieve ourselves and to eat. The guides respect the animals’ power and unpredictability. Bev annoyed me a bit by cooing in a child’s voice, “Hi baby,” to some of the animals we drove past.
She and I went on 11 safari rides, most of them daylong. I will confess that by about the sixth, I began to wear down. Unless you really love wildlife, three or four of those rides will suffice. Bev’s attitude, on the other hand, was, “Let’s roll!” She never said anything about being battered by the roads and relished each day.
It’s wild to think there are still places where lions grumble, hippos snort and hyenas yip all night long.
We know. We heard them.
By Rick Ruggles