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Kenya and Tanzania: The Game That Was, 1975

September 7, 2010

Photography by Ken, Peg, and Kit Herring

I was hanging out in Cairo during the autumn of 1975, at loose ends and wondering about the next stage of my trip, with its eventual goal of landing in India.  My parents chose this time to go on safari in Kenya, really a “Wing Safari” as it was called, since they planned to fly from destination to destination in East Africa rather than travel overland.  The theory was that a tourist could cover more ground that way and spend more time pursuing game instead of  bouncing along for countless days on miserable dirt roads.  Kenya and Tanzania are huge countries and the distances required to travel from place to place are sometimes daunting.

They wrote to me at Cairo’s Poste Restante to suggest that I accompany them on this safari, which was to last three weeks.  It took about thirty seconds to decide to say yes a few hours fighting Cairo’s antiquated international phone system to let them know that I would be happy to join them.

The style of travel was not what I had become accustomed to.  This was to be a first class affair, with plenty of personalized service and expert guides.  But hey, a good traveler adapts to any situation he or she finds themselves thrust into.

I flew to Nairobi a week before my parents arrived in order to acclimatize myself to sub-Saharan Africa, at least superficially.  Nairobi in those days was still a small city; lions had still wandered its streets within living memory.  I stayed at the local YMCA, a cheap accommodation that also offered inexpensive food.  Many of my companions there were Egyptians who had bolted from their country two years previously to avoid the draft during the 1973 war with Israel and who for obvious reasons could not return to their home country.  So, curiously, I felt right at home.

Finally my parents arrived.  I met them at the airport and accompanied them to their own more upscale lodgings at the Nairobi Hilton.  I moved into my own room there.  Quite the change from the last five months of sleeping in ditches, camping, or living in fifty cent a night hotels.

After my parents settled into their room I suggested we walk around Nairobi.  I’d been living in Africa long enough that I no longer took notice of race, but the expressions on my parents’ faces showed their surprise and shock at being surrounded by a sea of black bodies.  In any case there wasn’t a lot to see in Nairobi.

One of the stranger sights, though, were the stuffed remains of Kenya’s iconic national symbol, the elephant named Ahmed.  He had died a few years previously and been placed on exhibit in the National Museum.  I had heard that his tusks – real record-breakers in length and weight – had been stolen and replaced with fiberglass replicas.  Sure enough, I reached out and touched his tusks only to discover cheap imitations.  The ivory had been poached from the very soul of the country.

Corruption is not an abstract concept in this part of the world.

We didn’t linger much more in Kenya’s biggest city but soon headed north to the lands of the Njemp tribe and the awesome Lake Baringo.

1) Njemp home

I remember feeling embarrassed and awkward as we crouched and entered this hut.  Inside the temperature was frightfully high and the interior buzzed with flies.  But we were not being given a show; these proud people lived in this fashion.  Their main food was derived from cattle and they even washed themselves in cow urine.  Bowls of blood were passed around for general consumption while we were in the kraal but I think I managed to avoid drinking the substance.

The highlight of our first destination was Lake Baringo, whose waters teemed with life, including hippos.

12) Hippo yawning.  Sometimes this is a threat display

The guide who accompanied us throughout the trip, Mohammed, had been game warden of Tsavo National Park, an impressive background.  He was from the coast and was descended in part from Portuguese immigrants from Goa and from coastal Arabs.  He helpfully pointed out that hippos cause more deaths in Africa than any other critter excepting possibly crocodiles.  We passed very close to them in small boats on many occasions but they always left us alone.

As far back as 1965 Peter Beard, in his seminal work, The End of the Game, predicted the demise of the great herds of animals in East Africa.  His reasoning was sound.  Between wanton hunting and poaching, along with diminished habitat due to human population growth, his thesis held that the animals would not survive much longer.

They say a lot of his predictions have come true, but in 1975 the sheer numbers of animals were amazing.Our itinerary included Samburu and Mt. Kenya in the north, Masai Mara and Tsavo further south, the Serengeti and NgoroNgoro in Tanzania, as well as Lamu on the coast.

The herds of wildebeest we saw during their annual migration must have rivaled the similar spectacle of massed buffalo that was once common to the American plains.

3) Wildebeest

And as the plant-eaters were plentiful, so were their predators, the big cats.

4) Sleepy and well-fed lions

My good friend Jack, camping alone one night near a national park, was awoken as a lion tripped open his tent.  He figured the only thing that saved him was his spontaneous blood-curdling scream of terror.  The cat fled.

5) Cheetah

Other animals abounded, too, in the bounty that nature provided.

6) Giraffes

7) Elephants

One fine day we took a walk through the bush on foot.  A local guide led the way.  He carried a spear to fend off Cape buffalo, notoriously bad-tempered critters.

8) Guide with one of our fellow tourists

9)  A solitary Cape buffalo, the least friendly variety

At Samburu Lodge they told us about a crocodile that came very night to snack on food scraps.  While probably a really bad idea to feed such a beast, he was quite the sight at seventeen feet in length.  Told that crocs could not jump on land, I climbed atop a two-foot wall to get his portrait.

The scenery surprised us with its beauty at every turn, especially around the snow-covered peaks of Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, snows that were derided as an impossibility when first reported in Europe.

10) Mt. Kenya up close and personal

11) Kilimanjaro from the air

13) The approach into Lamu Island

And so we witnessed the end of the game, which was vanishing even as we glimpsed its diversity and the interdependent ecosystems in which it thrived.  Humans are merciless creatures and seldom are they satisfied until the last harvest has been reaped and the last dollar gained from resources that are gifts from Mother Earth, not commodities to be consumed.

14) A Black rhino at NgoroNgoro; its horn is probably the most valuable natural substance bought and sold by humans.  A complete specimen sells in the Arabian peninsula for tens of thousands of dollars, to be used as the handle for the djambia, the traditional Yemeni knife that every man carries.  As an aphrodisiac in China its value may even surpass that in Yemen.  In the 1970s East Africa still maintained a population of several thousand.  Now, thirty five years later, the rhino is virtually extinct in the wild

It is not my place to determine blame for the ecological devastation that has destroyed so much of Africa’s pristine beauty.  Merely to record the progression is painful enough.

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