Our first lodgings in Kenya were located in Amboseli National Park which is known for its large elephant herds. We saw plenty of them, some were mucking about in a swamp which was new for me—didn’t know they did that, and others were crossing the great plains eating as they go. Elephants eat about 18 hours a day (or more). They don’t digest all of the food they eat—which is why their poop is very grassy, just in case you wanted to get a good look at it—so they have to eat a lot. Amboseli and the surrounding parks run into a challenge of not having enough foliage and trees to feed the number of elephants roaming about. That’s just one of the challenges they face with the elephants.

Our arrival at the hotel was delayed because we caught site of some wonderful animals on our game drive through the park. We saw a couple of wildebeest chirping at a hyena that just wanted to cool off in the pond. But they wanted him gone so they harassed the hyena into leaving their area. Pretty funny. We were also treated to a few lions who were ambling across the road. One posed very nicely for me as the sun was setting on our game drive.

Poaching and African Dinner Theatre

That evening we had a wonderful lecture from one of the park’s rangers. He informed us about the poaching problem in Africa—how criminals were killing elephants and taking their tusks. In China, ivory is a big seller, so these people smuggle the tusks out of the country but unfortunately leave devastation behind. The African ecological system depends upon the elephants. Some 30 thousand are killed each year in Africa—mostly so that some people in the Far East can use it as an aphrodisiac (so they think) or for jewelry. One thing we can do as individuals is to spread the word that this is an unacceptable practice and to stop the demand for ivory—don’t buy anything made from it.

Now while we were engrossed in the lecture and enjoying the evening breeze, all of the sudden some monkeys (there were a bunch of them hanging about) started to screech loudly and run up the trees near us. The next thing we see is a flash of something run across the field directly in front of us—just yards away from where we were sitting. As we all got up to look across the lawn to the watering hole just beyond, we could see a lion who then skulked away (too much noise from those humans). Sitting there stunned and a bit hurt was a zebra who after checking to see if Mr. Lion had actually left, got up and ran off to be hunted another day (or maybe later that night). Wow. Not every day are you having a happy hour cocktail and listening to a Kenyan ranger when a lion attack happens in front of you. Very cool.

The monkeys then came down and started harassing everyone again per usual. They were black faced monkeys with blue testicles and they would go into your room and steal things if you left the doors open long enough. We were told they get old after three minutes but one of my traveling companions and I agreed that it was taking us longer to get over them; they were in fact fun to watch.

The Masai

In the morning our group went to visit a local Masai village. Our tour director said if you took the stick away from a Masai he’d probably fall over. After seeing hundreds of them throughout our trip, and each and every one carrying a walking/herding stick, I believed him. On our way we saw their herds of donkeys roaming around the swamp nearby. Once out of the jeep and in front of the Boma (the fence they create around their huts), looking at Mount Kilimanjaro in the background, I stopped to pet a cute dog . One of the Masai, John, came over and introduced himself and his dog, Simba, and told us he was the chief. I was duly impressed. The Masai came out and danced and sang a song for us—all decked out in their beautiful wraps and jewelry, and then gathered us for a prayer. Daniel was our guide through the village (they all have western biblical names that are given to them when they start school).

Daniel explained their customs and way of life telling us that their huts are made of cow dung with twig-like roofs. Their doors are short and narrow (they made sure to point that out to me) and it was very dark inside. I found it comical that there was a small little padlock on the door of the hut—the same hut that had twigs in the window and cow poop for walls. Anyway, it was very small and consisted of two “beds” –one for dad and the boys and one for mom and the girls. They had a “kitchen” in the middle which was basically a few rocks where they lit fires. They light their fires with elephant dung—because all that grass in it makes for a good source of fire.

Each of the families had a hut (one hut per wife—the men are allowed more than one wife but must treat them equally, therefore no sharing of huts) with a little back yard. I spotted some girls giggling in the back of one hut and they shared their tiny little puppies with us. I was holding the puppy they named “Toby.”

We got a demonstration of how they bleed their cows by hitting it in the neck with a blunt arrow without killing it. They mix the blood and milk and that is part of their diet. We also were shown some of the herbs and medicines they use; of course they had their own version of Viagra seeing as how the men can take more than one wife.

When the men are ready to marry, his parents get to decide who the lucky lady will be. And since everyone in the Boma is related, they go to another village to find her. The second wife is chosen by the first wife. Some poetic justice in that I suppose. It costs a man about 10-15 cows for a wife. In the Masai world, the more cows you have the richer you are. In the past, the Masai used to steal cattle from other people. Their shoes are rectangular so that when they were stealing cattle, the pursuers wouldn’t know what direction the footsteps were going. Clever little cattle rustlers!

There is a lot more to tell about this group of people. They are the one tribe in the Tanzania and Kenya regions that is still clinging to their traditions and heritage, but that is changing and some speculate that if you return to Africa in 20 years, you may not see a Masai village like this. But who knows, in the future they may still pull out two of their front teeth to identify themselves as Masai (an awful tradition in my opinion). We ended our stay with the Masai by walking through their “market.” They had all their trinkets laid out on blankets and we picked up what we were interested in (or handed by desperate husbands). At the end, my guide James and I went through negotiations. I put a lot of the stuff back, feeling bad after seeing the little babies and knowing they needed the money, but thinking I had enough stuff I didn’t need at all.

The Masai and Amboseli Park were a wonderful treat. Even the baboons who have taken over an abandoned hotel were fun to watch. Some were fighting, some staring at the workmen having lunch in the distance, and some were just hanging out eating and playing. Tauck Tours does a great job of giving their guests a well-rounded experience of the cultures they visit.

Masai woman collecting water at the well outside the Boma (and too close to the swamp).

Masai woman collecting water at the well outside the Boma (and too close to the swamp).

The market at the Masai village

The market at the Masai village

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Inside the Masai hut, our host sits on his bed.

Inside the Masai hut, our host sits on his bed.

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The Masai warriors outside the Boma.

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Our Masai guide James, who probably has a professional job in town and comes back to the village after work.

Simba the dog. Dogs are used by the Masai as guards to warn of carnivores.

Simba the dog. Dogs are used by the Masai as guards to warn of carnivores.

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These monkeys were all over the hotel grounds.

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Elephants returning to their evening resting place.

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These two male elephants are fighting for supremacy.

These two male elephants are fighting for supremacy.

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These baboons watch a fight unfold while the workman in the background have lunch. The workmen probably stay in bunk houses in the old hotel grounds.

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This hyena is alone and being told to "git" by the wildebeest.

This hyena is alone and being told to “git” by the wildebeest.

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This elephant is sitting in the muck of the swamp.

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This guy got really close and passed right in front of us–no care about the humans!

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lions roaming Amboseli Park with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background

lions roaming Amboseli Park with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background

Day four of the safari itinerary had us stopping off for a bit of culture as well as archaeology and “history.” I put that in quotes because the theories on how old mankind is and our origins are a source of hot debate.

But first things first. Just out of the hotel area we stopped off at the local school that was created to serve the Masai children living in the area. The government has made school mandatory and while more and more kids are going, still some little guys can be seen by the road during the day begging tourist jeeps for money while they tend the cattle. We were very impressed with kids and the school. Remember hearing your parents tell you how they used to walk a mile uphill in the snow to get to school? Well these kids literally walk up to two hours each way (with wildlife walking about by the way). They show up in uniforms, share books and supplies, and cram into benches. They were very well-mannered, smart, and had the most amazing smiles. We spent a few minutes with them letting them take pictures with our cameras (they loved seeing their images in the LCD screen) and then I spent a few minutes trying to figure out what buttons they pushed and how to undo the new settings on the menu. There’s no A/C or heat (it does get cold up in that altitude) and only a few toilets for hundreds of people. They need food, supplies, transportation, toilets, and more. Education has been very effective in helping these folks become healthier and it gives them some hope to live beyond poverty. Tauck Tours gives back to the places they visit and schools like this one are one of the beneficiaries of their goodwill.

The Origins of Mankind?

Now, after singing goodbye with the kids, we were off to visit the Oldapai Gorge where the famous archaeologists, Louis and Mary Leakey made some remarkable discoveries, including what is believed to be the remains of the earliest known hominid. A fun side-note where we can laugh at white people for a minute. The Germans came to the area and mispronounced Oldapai and called it Oldavai so the name has been promoted and pronounced wrong for decades. Oldapai is the Masai name for the Sisel plant that grows in the area. Whatever the official name is, the local dudes selling wood carvings of giraffes and hippos told me to call it Oldapai.

The area is an archaeologist’s dream because of the erosion of the distinct layers in the ground. Over millions of years these layers changed due to conditions of the earth at the time and some left really awesome fossil evidence including some footsteps taken by early men.

Giraffes Necking

After checking out some bones and the scenery and learning about the less than stellar character of  Louis Leakey, we got into the jeep and Pascal, our driver for the day, took us out past some giraffes who were “necking.” It’s not what you think—in the case of giraffes, necking is when two males are battling for supremacy in the giraffe kind of way which of course being males would involve their egos and most prominent part of their body, their necks. They will slap each other neck-to-neck and sway their heads and necks around until one of them gives up. It was pretty cool to see. A little biology lesson here, the giraffes feed on the Acacia trees which have these spikes on their branches. The giraffes however, have these wonderful tongues that can maneuver between the spikes to get at the food on the leaves they need to eat. Now, as another defense, some of these trees can give off a yucky smell or taste making the giraffe move on to another tree to complete its meal.

I keep saying how all of these animals are beautiful and it is true—each one having a grace about them in their unique movements, behavior, coloring, they way walk or run, communicate, eat and survive in the wild. Something you can’t really get from a zoo.

Paying the Right Price and the Highway to Hell

Eric told us when bargain shopping in Africa (which is how you have to shop—no set prices), the price you end up paying for whatever souvenir crap you’re buying is the right price. Even if the teenager next to you got a spear for $5 less because “she is baby and got a special discount.” If you want something and are willing to pay for it, then that is the market balancing at a very micro economic level. And really, these are very poor people so anything you buy is helping these folks feed their families. With that philosophy in mind, Pascal chose a path of his own—the right path—to get us onto the famous “Serengeti Highway.”

When Eric our tour director told us this was a very busy highway, I expected some pavement, lines, etc. Poor Dawn, still thinks like a westerner after days of being in Africa…she should know better. The “highway” was busy for sure—with buses and trucks going about 30 miles an hour and dust clouding the view ahead. After miles and miles and endless plains with Masai kids grazing their cattle and gazelles lining the fields all around, we came to the Serengeti gate. There are no guards or anything, just a sign over the road letting you know that you are now entering the Park. The Masai were allowed in the conservation area leading up to the park, but in the National Park humans were only allowed to visit. We stopped for some photo ops and continued onto a game drive through the park. This place was filled with species of animals and birds I’ve never heard of before. So let’s begin.

Serengeti Sightings Included:

  • A cheetah drinking from a watering hole. The first one I’ve seen and she was beautiful. The teardrop eyes looked at us and around her as she kept watch for other predators before slinking off.
  • Toppi—a kind of antelope that is brown with dark patches. We began to these guys a lot throughout the trip.
  • More Impalas. The women hang out together with one male who protect them. The other males hang out in bachelor herds and wait their turn to challenge the guy with the girls. It’s tough keeping up that kind of pressure, so the males do find themselves alone for a bit after being ousted.
  • Hartebeest—another kind of antelope I think. This one is lighter than the Toppi and Wildebeest.
  • Agama lizard—a lizard with bright orange (or red) coloring on his head.
  • Lots of Grant gazelles peeking up from the long grass to make sure Mr. Lion wasn’t lurking about.
  • Superb Starlings—beautifully colored birds that look shiny in the sun. These guys were seen a lot in our lunch areas.
  • Mongoose—little guys who are rodent-like but for some reason didn’t gross me out as they ran under my bench while eating lunch at the rest area.
  • Dik Diks—the tiniest of the antelope family (I think) and very cute. This little guy (see below) was hanging out getting some shade and watching for predators.
  • Baboons, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, storks, and buzzards also filled the bill. We were becoming blasé about these guys already!

Elephants and the Glorious Four Seasons

One big stop before we headed off to the most amazing hotel was to view a family of elephants. Mama kept a close eye out on her little ones while the teenage boys trunk wrestled off in the distance. As the family moved, taking down a small tree in its path, it crossed the road in front of us. We must have been making too much noise because mama stopped right in front of our jeep and turned her head to stare us down. I gave a little jump when she snorted at us but was immensely relieved when she moved on. A little warning goes a long way when a four- ton beast gives you the stink eye.

On to the Four Seasons and a second day in the Serengeti National Park. What can you say about a Four Seasons that is planted in the middle of the Serengeti and has a year-round, clean, reliable waterhole directly in front of the pool and your gigantic rooms? From the moment we got there, baboons, antelope, zebra, gazelles and more took turns coming up to the pool for a drink. We had the most amazing show put on by a massive group of elephants who came up to swim, drink, eat and cool off at the pool right before sundown. Here is a video of just a few minutes of the show. It’s very hard to communicate how marvelous it was to sit on my balcony and take it all in. Some of the elephants had little spats and were chasing each other, others were spraying mud on themselves with their trunks and feet (to keep cool I guess), still others were pushing their young here and there keeping order, and all were taking turns lapping up the delicious clean water filtered into the hole by the hotel’s water system. Truly breathtaking and a great way to end the day!

A male lion hangs out under a tree in the shade while the noon sun blazes.

A male lion hangs out under a tree in the shade while the noon sun blazes.

Masai school

Kids take pictures with our cameras at the Masai school

Dik Dik

Dik Dik is a really little guy.

Elephants at watering hole

Dad pushes the family into the water with a head butt.

nursing elephant

Baby elephant nurses while Mama hangs out at the watering hole.

Serengeti gate

The Serengeti gate on the “highway.”

Giraffes in the Serengeti

Giraffes roaming the Serengeti. Beautiful animals walked around our jeeps looking for trees to nibble.

Toppi is a kind of antelope.

Toppi is a kind of antelope.

The elephants were very close to the pool and right outside our rooms.

The elephants were very close to the pool and right outside our rooms.

Elephants at the watering hole right before sunset cast wonderful shadows.

Elephants at the watering hole right before sunset cast wonderful shadows.

Watch a video of the elephants by the watering hole.