Snail Races

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Location: Upper Canada

Friday, March 25, 2005

Update from Carl

Here is the latest from the peripatetic professor...

Our trip continues to be a wonderful adventure, full of the expected and unexpected. Into the Kenyan port of Mombasa a bit earlier than expected and we were all able to clear customs in the evening for an early departure the next day. Up at dawn, we packed our bags (traveling light) and on the bus for the half hour trip to the local airport. Easy flight to Nairobi (with the Snows of Kilimanjaro in the distance). There are 35 of us on a safari to the north end of the Serengeti, at a spot called Maasai Mara—the home village of Maasai people who live in the general area but are really nomadic herders with cows and sheep. Annie and I and the trip leader are the “older” folks, and the rest are students. We had a nice van with 7 of us, so quite comfortable. Our guide is a Kenyan (Bantu) named Martin to us English types, but Duojo in his language. Nice man, good driver, excellent guide. A five hour trip to the safari lodge, and about half of it on some rough, pot-holed, and gravel roads. Martin called it the free “Kenyan Massage”, and for sure we had our teeth rattled. Tiring for sure but also fun to see some rural areas after the big cities we have been visiting. We drove through The Great Rift Valley—spectacular cut right down from the Mediterranean to Mozambique. Dry and an historic animal migration route. Much of the area, especially with the Keawe trees (called acacias here), reminds us of Molokai. When we were within a couple of hours of our destination, we began to see lots of the Maasai men with there herds—just walking along keeping the animals moving. And then, fairly suddenly, our first taste of animal life—zebras, wildebeest, gazelles, impalas. All herds, fascinating to see them just on the savannah. Martin stopped the van and all of a sudden we were in the midst of about 15 giraffes, just wandering along eating the tops of the acacias. Felt like we were in a movie somewhere not of this world. We were all so excited, the students were just squealing, while we more sophisticated types just gawked—what strange and exotic creatures the giraffes. As we approached our Mara Simba Lodge, we saw a pair of jackals and a small tribe of baboons with babies. We are not in Kansas anymore Annie! The lodge is large, lovely and wide open, on a river and our first sight was of two crocodiles having their dinner—provided by the lodge. We checked in, we have a nice room a bit away from the action. A buffet dinner and then the local Maasai village men gave a cultural dance/welcome for us. A tall, slim, athletic people—much of their dance is in the form of competitive jumping. Pretty high, and some of our kids joined in only to prove that white men can’t jump—at least in this context. I had a nice talk with one of the leaders, James, and he said we would visit his village as a part of the programme. He told me they get a fair amount of money from the tourist trade, and although a nomadic people, they have used the funds to build a school and to have a teacher. A first major step in a change in their lives. We had a glass of wine and ready to be horizontal. We are at about 1700 meters, the air is cool and feels special—a little like an early Fall day at home. Slept well, oh so quiet and soft.

We were up early and in the van by 6:30 am for an early morning game drive—but we are hunting the “Big Five” with digital cameras rather than rifles. There are huge cranes here called Marabous—second largest bird and highest flying—can go to over 25,000 feet. Quite a wingspan, and after their night roost they were flying over us on the double. We just watched for any large droppings. Each day just seems to be more spectacular, and this was no different. Gazelles and Zebras, and then one of the highlights, two male lions walking through the grass, right next to the van. When a sighting is made, the driver gets on the radio and tells the other safari people and there is a convergence to see the big game. There were five or six vans around, and we all had good views—had some good photos. On the way again and another major find—Martin said, “look over to your left”, and there we saw two beautiful cheetahs, one male and one female. Our guide said they were not mates, but more likely brother and sister. They were on the hunt. We spent quite a bit of time just watching them, so graceful and statuesque, prowling through the open grasslands. Always from the safety of the van in that these cats look domestic but they are hunters, which we were to witness. There was another cheetah across the open space and we went over to check it out when all of a sudden, back from where we had come there was a commotion. The other two cheetahs had tracked some Thompson Gazelles and as we watched, the chase began. The Cheetahs are the fastest running animals around, but the gazelles are not slow and as we watched, I thought the cats were too far behind—high speed for short distance is their forte. Such speed, just a blur really and in a few seconds, the one Cheetah caught the Gazelle, cut its legs out from under it and made the kill with a snap of the neck. Martin brought the van quite close, just as the feast began. There was no hostility over the food, the Cheetahs worked together and had the meal as a team—but always wary, looking out for other predators that might steal their hard-earned breakfast. Our guide said that he had not seen a chase/kill in over a year, so it was a pretty special sight for all of us. Some of the students were upset, but it was pointed out that the big cats have to eat just like the rest of us—and the Tommies are their favourite meal. A rare moment with a certain bottom line.

Back to the lodge for a nice breakfast, and a shop in the lodge store—a few souvenirs and I bought a nice safari jacket—looking like the B’wana type with the bald head. I do not look much like me really, but having fun. Annie got some coffee and rosewood salad tongs. We had a few hours off so just hung around the pool and got some sun. A couple of large baboons roaming the grounds, they are shy and run when they see you. Good thing. The guides gave a talk on the animals and ecology, and then back to the vans for an afternoon drive and a trip to the local Maasai Village. Strong, hard working folks but clearing suffering from diseases like malaria—children all had some respiratory difficulty. A difficult, physical life—a third world country is the bottom line. They are proud, patriarchal, and organized. Women make various trinkets and the students shared their wealth a bit. The Maasai are great traders, and usually get the best of any transaction. Back on the game road, lots of antelopes and then the star attraction of the afternoon, the Elephants. A herd of about 15, babies, young males, older females and a major matriarch. She ruled and it was easy to tell she was obeyed by all. We also saw a couple of Lions (one really old guy) and a large herd of Cape Buffalos—can be pretty nasty guys but were placid for our visit.. Back to the lodge for dinner, we had a huge thunderstorm which began just after we were settled in—lots of lightning showing us the way in the dark. We had a good dinner, and then a slide show about problems of poaching. The elephants almost decimated in the past for the ivory, but quite well protected now. We had a great day, more or less were just poured into bed.

Up again at dawn for another game drive adventure. The ground really soaked up the rain (rainy season just underway), so not too much mud to contend with. In the past few weeks, there had been quite a few brush fires and there was some scorched earth, and we saw smoke now and then from continuing fires—but the rains will really help. We saw lots of grazing animals, even a couple of ostriches which are close to extinction due to eggs being stolen. Always something from the human interference. A large herd of buffalo came into view, and we saw two very large male lions stalking the critters. Big cats, obviously waiting their chance—too far away for us to get photos. Our guides told us the lions would follow for the day, and then make their kill attempt in the dusk when they have the sight advantage. Nice morning, back home for a late breakfast and then a nature walk with some Maasai warriers. One of the students quipped: “What did I do today? I went on a hyppo hunt with some Maasai warriers, doesn’t everyone do this?” And he was right, this is a pretty special experience for the Semester at Sea kids. The Maasai in their colourful red clothing—they are very distinct. We learned a great deal about medicinal herbs and plants and trees. Our leader (his name is Dickson Koehi) was a young man who had been to school in a large nearby town, and he is going to go to university in India for business management—the first of his tribe to do so. He speaks excellent English and knows the culture inside and out—he would be a fine inter-port student and I will suggest that to SAS. We hiked for an hour or so and came to a river where we found about two dozen giant hyppos just cooling in the water. They are huge, and when one of the students got a bit too close to the river edge—the largest female charged at him. Pretty scary until the animal stopped about 10 yards from the bank. Since we were in the bush, we were also accompanied by some guards with rifles, and they were ready in case something happened. These animals are fast for their size, and from what we learned, quite dangerous when their territory is threatened. Hot walk home, shower felt great. Had a couple of hours of down time and then back out for another game drive. Annie and I are just loving all of it, and the students are truly thrilled by this experience of their lives. A day for Lions (Simba)—about 15 in a pride that we watched for quite a while. The female always the head of such a group, but several of her young males growing up fast. Then we saw a mating pair, and I got a great photo of some of the amorous action. National Geographic type shot. On the way home a beautiful sunset and some nice giraffe photos in the twilight. Finally home for a bottle of South African wine and grilled beef, chicken and pork. An animal meal for sure. The Maasai celebrated for us again, and this time the students joined in and they had just one hell of a time. What a special adventure for everyone. There is a guitar player in the lounge who sounds an awful lot like Tony Bird—one of the folk singers we knew. People said Tony sounded like Donald Duck on acid, and that is not far wrong. To our nice, comfy rooms, some reading and asleep before 11. A truly fine day.

Annie having a few stomach problems so stayed behind this morning while we went on our last game drive. We hunted for an hour looking for the elusive leopard and rhino, but with no luck. Very shy creatures indeed. Saw the grazing folks—giraffes and zebras, before heading back to pack up and get ready to leave. Annie really not feeling good so we just took it easy and then into the van for the long 5-6 hour ride back to Nairobi over the tough, washboard roads. Saw animals all the way along for a couple of hours, and lots of Maasai with their herds. My observation in general is that the people in Kenya walk everywhere. Even in the big towns, few bikes or scooters. You can see dozens of people just walking along the roadsides, sometimes with nothing around for long distances. They walk for miles, and they are trim and fit when healthy—life expectancy about 50. Bought a couple of souvenirs from people along the road whenever we stopped. When we neared Nairobi, we stopped at an old colonial tea farm for lunch. Granddaughter of the original owner and builder still runs the farm—an interesting look at how the old English were the leading colonists in this part of the world. Independence has been since the l960s, and still working out from under the colonial yoke. As we drove into Nairobi to catch our plane right at sunset, there were herders with their cows and goats on the main streets of this city of three million. Quite a sight. Easy check-in, Annie hanging in there—she needs her bed. Easy flight, and the ship had waited dinner for us—light meal for me and crackers for Annie Fannie. She is feeling some better and on the mend. A few people around, gathering back to our ship board home.

Our last day in Kenya. Annie feeling well, and so we went on a tour of Mombasa and the Islamic art here. About half of the population of the city is Muslim, so basically architecture and mosques to see. Went to a work shop at a Swahili cultural centre, but on some hard times. Government monies dried up and no resources to really carry on. A good business plan, and some more students to practice the old arts and crafts would help. Probably a good idea gone wrong—sad to see the old way disappearing from lack of support. We had a couple of local guides, one black and one white. Together they know much about the place. We went into a few mosques, the women (there were only 7 of us on the tour) were able to go in with the proper attire. Walked around Old Town, got a few souvenirs and had a fair lunch at a local Muslim restaurant. Finally a trip to some Mosque ruins out on the ocean front—very impressive remains of a society that disappeared about 500 years ago. Somehow the fresh water dried up. A few folks took a swim, we just relaxed in the shade. A hot, humid part of the country. Annie is all better and enjoyed the trip. Again, as we drove back to the ship, many people walking along as their mode of transportation. And for us, all of the people back on board as we leave Kenya tonight on our six day voyage to South Africa. That is our story, we are sticking close to it. We miss our family, especially the little ones. We get some news from home but the internet is a pretty expensive communication on board the ship. Be talking to you soon—we love reading the e-mails. Talk with you again from Cape Town. Love and aloha, Carl and Annie.


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