Africa Guide
Guide to Africa

Gorillas and East Africa Overland Safari

Jay Lindsay on an African Adventure - January - February, 2012
42 days and 7,200km through most of East Africa from Nairobi, Kenya to Maun, Botswana

Before meeting my fellow adventurers and guides in Acacia Park, a small camp surrounded by a 12 foot concrete wall and razor wire about 15 miles from the town center, I spent two days in Nairobi, one of the largest shanty towns in Africa. Two million of Nairobi’s five million inhabitants live in cardboard shacks, a large brown spot from a few miles away. There’s lots of security in the center of town. A pistol grip AK47 is the weapon of choice, always held at the ready.

Acacia Camp
Acacia Camp

Wary of pickpockets, prostitutes and street scammers, I had copied a small map and was getting my bearings on a street corner when a small man struck up a conversation. He looked pretty busted up: no upper teeth and a limp from a broken leg that didn’t heal properly. He and his family had walked for six weeks from Rwanda, and he had been beaten by the police with nightsticks. They broke his jaw and both legs and arms, yet he said he felt lucky, as many of his friends had been hacked to death with machetes. He was obviously hungry. I don’t usually do this, but we went to the market, and I bought a bunch of rice, cooking oil and sugar for his family of nine. It cost about $65, but perhaps it’s better to help one person a lot than to offer a dollar here and there. He implored me not to tell the police because they would beat him for it.

I walked through the city and came to the Kenya museum. Leakey’s 1.9 million year old skull was there, as well as the bloody history of Kenya; blood and violence is of course pervasive in the history of most African countries. Nairobi felt desperate and dangerous, palpably so. As I was standing outside my hotel a fat woman rubbed up against me and said, “Yah want a massage?”

My traveling companions on this East African odyssey were all in their 20s and early 30s, mostly Aussies, with some New Zealanders, Irish and English. I was the only American. They were a very fit group—five had climbed 19,430’ Mt. Kilimanjaro before starting the trip. The company supplied a tent, and campers brought their own sleeping bags and air mattresses. Our group leader, Amy, a trim woman in her late 20s, ran a tight camp: We were up and broke down our tents and packed our gear at 5:00, had breakfast between 5:15 and 5:45, and were on the road at 6:00 on the dot.

We also had duties every day: food preparation, dish washing or cleaning the truck. Everyone worked together, with nary a complaint in the 42 days of heat, dust, a bouncing truck and lots of bugs. That made a great trip even better. And we had a disinfectant bottle that everyone used when they entered the truck. No one got sick.

We spent a few days in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and saw a regal lion, a big guy sauntering in his realm. In the Great Rift Valley we could see where the earth had been torn apart; volcanic cones dotted the wide valley floor. Early morning mists rose as antelope frolicked and giraffes in their long strides loped over the verdant landscape.

We stayed four days at 6500' deep Bunyan Crater Lake, a prehistoric paradise surrounded by volcanic cones and impenetrable jungle . Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where the remaining 700-900 highland gorillas reside. Dugouts passed with goods for the market.

At the lake I rented the best looking dugout and spent the day canoeing and doing some watercolors. I came upon a pair of Great Crested Herons and some of the locals canoeing to an outdoor market and then ran into a headwind, but the dugout tracked very well.

Gorilla Watching
Gorilla Watching

The next day everyone was excited about seeing the gorillas, but only seven people are allowed to view them for one hour a day. The park is relatively small: The top of a 7000’ mountain with human encroachment high up its sides—spare habitat for the remnants of one of the world’s most beautiful and gentle creatures.

It would be a true test for my heart, as several very fit members of our group—they do clapping pushups for fun—told us how vigorous a climb it was.

The trackers located the gorilla family and reported their location. We then bush-whacked a thousand feet through vines, downed trees and dense underbrush up the mountain.a rougher version of Breakneck Mountain in Cold Spring, New York.then down 500' and up again. As we were on the equator and it was about 95 degrees and very humid, I had hired a porter. Even so, I got extremely winded and was panting like an old steam locomotive. When I felt close to fainting, I lay down under a bush until my heart quit trying to pound its way out of my chest. Finally, I made it to the site.

There I was privileged to share their precious surrounds with a giant black-back with a wound on his head, an 800 lb. silver-back and a family. It was a special thrill, but I had really pushed my heart to the edge. A nurse and doctor on the hike said I was quite pale. They were concerned.

Rafting the Upper Nile
Near its source, the Nile has some Class 5 rapids, and the group took a day trip down eight of the most vigorous. When the raft master asked, "Do you want moderate or extreme?" without hesitation our crew hollered, "EXTREME." We barely had paddles in hand when we plunged over a 15 foot waterfall. I hung on with a bronco-busting grip on the rope.

Next, at a spot aptly called The Bad Place, we dropped into a bus-size hydraulic that flipped the boat like a coin. It went underwater and so did I. Down I went, cart-wheeling as if in a washing machine for at least 45 long seconds. Its surprising how long you can hold your breath when you have to. Finally, I popped to the surface under the overturned raft and rested a bit. Just as I came from beneath it, the raft master flipped the raft upright, and I was under it again. When I resurfaced outside the raft, a couple of my camping friends hauled me aboard like a big tuna. We were waterlogged and of us especially. but we were all alive and unhurt.

Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti
We were in wild areas now. Last night hyenas called wooup to let everyone know who owns the dark. As usual, we were on the road at 6:00 am.

Ngorongoro Crater
Ngorongoro Crater

After ascending to 6700’, we viewed Ngorongo, a crater about 12 miles across with a soda lake to one side. In this area there’s more wildlife per acre than anywhere else in the world: Tens of thousands of wildebeests, Thomson’s gazelles and flamingos. Short green grass covers the crater floor. Everything looks vibrant, healthy—the darting gazelles and their newborn, the homely wildebeests with their coats glistening like fine fur.

It’s a paradise for animals, and for us fortunate sojourners as well. The myriad red flamingos formed a red stripe across the white soda lake. And elephants, hippos and lions were in abundance. These lions are different than what you see sleeping or lazing in the zoo. Their eyes glisten, their slightly opened mouths are salivating, their muscles are defined by high speed running, and their coats are festooned with scars from living life wild.

Later we drove into the great Serengeti, a long flat plain that continues over the horizon. Wildebeest in single file migrated to greener pastures. On two occasions we saw leopards lounging in a tree, one with a fresh kill.

That evening we bush-camped in the middle of the Serengeti. There were fresh leopard prints everywhere in the fine dust. A fire was built and we sat around it. Adam, a goodlooking, very fit, 24 year old blond who teaches mountain climbing in his native England, flashed his light and noted that there were lions looking at us. Then we heard the bellow of a water buffalo in distress - a lion kill in process. We all ran for a good view. A jeep shone it lights on the scene about 30 yards away.


Ten lions were involved, one flipped high in the air as the buffalo bucked, another on the water buffalos rear leg trying to hobble it. The lions were doing their best to fall the one ton beast, but it rose and charged in our direction with the lions in hot pursuit. Our leader yelled, "Lions! Run for the trucks. -no, the cooks cage! The cooks enclosure is a low slung affair of concrete and a thatched roof with fencing wire to keep the baboons out.

The fleet-footed and highly motivated lot of us made the 50 yards in a flash, and I found a spot overlooking the spectacle only 20 yards away. The lions were clawing and biting through the thick hide of the water buffalo. Later, another buffalo came to its fallen comrade's aid, trying to get it back on its feet and keeping the lions at bay. But it was too late.

As we went to our tents, the camp leader ordered, "Do not leave your tent tonight, the lions are moving around. The sounds of the night kept me awake: A snort as a leopard passed my tent on his nightly rounds, the ever present hyenas and the bark of the red jackals. Everything could smell the kill, and I hoped they were intent on it and would continue to pass me by.

The next morning we had coffee before daybreak and found the water buffalo nearby. The lion pride had eaten their fill, and one was still inside the carcass. As we passed, they all looked up ready to protect their prize. They would stay there several days while the patient vultures looked on.

Stonetown, Zanzibar
Stonetown, Zanzibar

It was a 14 hour drive to Dar Es Salaam, then camping and a ferry ride to Zanzibar, the main port for slave trading.a sordid history. Zanzibar is as exotic as its name. The tour group spent four days there.

While the others stayed in a resort, I spent two days in Stone Town, the oldest part of Zanzibar and constructed of football size stones and concrete. There aren't many larger stones in the area. Everything is fortified with high walls and turrets. The notorious slave market, where slaves from all over East Africa were sold, is located in the center of a main fort.

In town I observed the construction of a lateen-rigged sail boat.a traditional craft with triangular fore and aft sails.with the same building techniques used since the time of the pharaohs: Copper nails and simple hand tools. Later, when I'd rejoined my fellow travelers, we enjoyed a pleasant day sailing and snorkeling.

After two long, hot driving days and 600km we arrived at Lake Malawi. The next day I decided to do a little snorkeling on my own in a rented canoe, a strange fiberglass affair with a trapped air chamber. As the lake was as smooth as glass, I brought my sketchbook along.

A small island lay about a 1/4 kilometer off shore. As I neared, I saw two young boys on the rocks and paddled off to the side of the island secluded from them by dense foliage along the shore. While I was snorkeling, the boys stole my wallet with my credit card and $85 from my bag. I called them over and identified one by his blue shorts. I said I wanted my wallet back. When they denied the theft, I said I was going to have them arrested, and they looked sheepish and ran off.

As I started back, just offshore the leaking canoe sank. Though my first thought was to save myself and forget about the rest, I managed to swim with the wet bag, towing the canoe. Finally, I reached the mainland, fleeced and exhausted.

First, I told some locals about the theft and that I knew they could find the culprits. They said they could. I said, “I’m going to sit here in the shade, and if I don’t get my wallet back within two hours I’m going to call the police.” Within an hour my wallet was thrown over the fence by the dive shop where I’d rented my equipment. It had my credit cards inside, but of course the money was gone.

The town elder brought the two boys with ten villagers. The kids denied the stealing. I said, “I’m not going to call the police. The kids will want to spend the money, then it will be obvious who did it, and the village can take action that they think is appropriate to discourage this type of behavior.” I emphasized that tourists won’t come if they think they will get ripped off.

The tribes have their own councils and can deal with things like this. The police, however, interrogate with nightsticks and water boarding. This is Africa.

Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls
"The Smoke that Thunders"
Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and the most spectacular falls I’ve ever seen. I spent the afternoon viewing and later did a couple of watercolors. We arrived in the high water season, with Victoria the equivalent of 5 or even 6 Niagara Falls. The Zambezi River falls into a basalt gorge and the mist can be seen six miles away. Some members of the group did some rafting but were disappointed because, “We didn’t even dump once.”

Choosing not to be disappointed, I went instead on a horse safari on the back of a spirited thoroughbred. He reared up once, but I stayed aboard. We got quite close to a family of warthogs and a ring-tailed antelope. The horses were allowed to graze when we stopped, and the wild animals didn't appear to notice the riders. It was raining lightly.

When we reunited, the group was as always in a partying mood, and I could hear them singing "American Pie" at 4 am. Then the next morning, nursing hangovers, five of them went on a 111 meter bungee jump off a bridge, free-falling about 4 seconds. Ah, carefree youth.

In general the East Africa that I traveled through is impoverished. In many places workers make less than a dollar a day and live on subsistence farming. Families are large, averaging four or five kids and exponentially increasing the population every generation. HIV/AIDS and violence are a big problem, as well as the plastic litter that covers the roadways of every town.

Overpopulation means that the land the animals need is used up by humans, and anything they can trap is eaten. The population of lions, for instance, has decreased 90% in the last fifty years. Nevertheless, no country would ever impose human population control, even though life expectancy is the early 40s.

Botswana is an exception. Diamonds were discovered during a time in which an enlightened president ruled. He made the mining company build roads, hospitals and a decent education system; even so the company made a profit of $11 billion last year. Life expectancy in Botswana is 74.

Chobe Elephants
Chobe Elephants

Chobe, Botswana
Chobe is a 60,000 square kilometer park with 87,000 elephants, as well as hippos, giraffes, lions and other animals. Wildlife viewing, though, is 90% luck.

As we went into the park, we saw some gazelles and an elephant or two. Then we drove into a major thunderstorm, the clouds low and black with lightening strikes all around. As the canvas top of the safari truck was worn and torn, our bodies were drenched. But not our spirits or our voices: During the height of the storm the group sang, “I bless the rain that falls in Africa” and “Singing in the Rain.”

Fortunately, our tents were up when we arrived at the bush camp. They were set about ten feet apart so the elephants, who forage at night, could pass easily. It was quite disconcerting, though, to hear limbs cracking and being munched right outside the tent.

We were warned to stay in our tents, and the next morning understood why when we discovered the tracks of a very large lion on the road next to the campsite. The gameviewing drive that morning was spectacular—hundreds of elephants, numerous lions and scores of hippos on the islands in the Chobe River. The day before we’d seen scarcely anything.

Poling, Okavango
Poling, Okavango

The next day we drove seven hours around the park and onto the Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta in the world. It is resplendent with animal life.

That night our camp was enclosed by a fence. I had set up my tent with the door next to the fence and didn’t feel like turning it around. When I retired for the night in the pitch dark, apparently I had startled a lion, for he let out a ferocious roar. I dove into the tent like a mouse in a hole, thinking, ”I hope he’s on the other side of the fence.”

On the Okavango we went in a pole-driven dugout for a two-day bush camp. It was extremely hot and humid, and I put a wet towel over my head to keep cool. One of my fellow campers quipped that I looked like Lawrence of Arabia. Later, I learned from the leader of another company that a woman on one trip didn't drink enough water, fainted twice and spent two days in the hospital. My feet were swollen from the heat, but I made sure to drink plenty of water.

In addition to the sweat, there’s lots of other stuff to be aware of. To name a few: Deadly scorpions, flesh eating caterpillars and a milkweed that’s poisonous and whose sap will cause blindness.

Masai Painting
Masai Painting

Maun: The End of the Journey
The group left our enclosed and electrified campsite 15 miles outside of Maun, Botswana on Sunday morning, February 26, at about 7:00 am. Because my plane didn't fly to Johannesburg until the next Wednesday, I had a few days to do some much-needed painting based on ideas this trip had spawned.

I rented a small cabin at the edge of the compound. It was the off-season and I was alone. Or at least I thought so.

I had been warned of thieves in the area. For good reason: In the middle of the night my door, which I had bolted after entering—but it wouldn’t bolt completely—was rattled. When I barked, “Who goes there,” whoever it was slipped away. I could hear talking in the distance. It was a fitful night

The next day, as I was drawing near my cabin, a young woman came over and introduced herself. She was employed in the campsite office. She said she was 30, but she looked much younger, with the fullest, most beautiful lips I’ve ever seen. She enjoyed looking at the watercolors and said she wanted to do something, like drawing, to make her happy. She asked if she could model for me. If she hadn’t asked, I would have.

Maatle posed for me during her break and told me stories of her life. She was one of 12 children. When she was six she and her sisters sneaked off to a nearby lake to go fishing— a forbidden activity. They caught sardines in a jar. Then her father came running with a whip, and they were all disciplined. When I asked why it was forbidden, she said, “Oh because of the crocodiles and hippos.” She told me she wanted to swim in lakes like we have in America that don’t have hippos and crocodiles.

Maatle was an intelligent and articulate woman and, because she had expressed an interest in drawing, I gave her a drawing pad and a couple of ink pens. As I was leaving, I noticed she had a false leg, and that one of the groundskeepers had a stump for an arm—a telling and sad conclusion to a grand odyssey, indicative of the Africa left behind after the adventure ends.

I had a grand time on my 35 day plus 8 days overland Africa travel safari. I am 68 years old. Amy was great, also our driver Eloise was excellent and professional and the cook Duncan was first rate. We ate a lovely variety of well balanced meals including a full roasted pig on one occasion. The fruits and vegetables were very fresh, bought from roadside stands on the way. I will give it a 10 on all counts.

Walking with Lions
Walking with Lions

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