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

Early to rise  on our next day of the African safari because the animals don’t have A/C and they do their moving, eating, playing, killing, etc. early in the morning and late into the night. Every day our tour director had fun stuff for us to read at our tables and every day as we took advantage of the yummy buffets in these magnificent hotels, we read animal fables, jokes, and histories of where we were going and what we were going to see.

Today was a long game drive, down into the Ngorongoro Crater. From what I’ve read, the Masai named it after the sound their cows’ bells make. (Seriously, this country needs some brand marketing expertise.) This vast dining table for many of Africa’s animals and birds is the largest un-flooded continuous caldera in the world. It spans 12 miles and hosts 30 thousand animals who come to feed and drink and hang out in the lush grassy plain that millions of years ago was the inside of an active volcano. The volcano imploded and I’m pretty sure left its ejected remnants back on that road we took getting up there. Looking around at how big this thing was, I was left in awe of how big that volcano must have been.

The drive down was fun and beautiful trees and flowers dotted the side of the “road.” As we went, we could see across to the other side of the rim, the sun starting to peek through the clouds. One of our first sightings was the warthog. Yes, the warthog—remember Pumbaa from Lion King? This thing looks like a little pig with huge tusks. Actually, it is a pig with big tusks. It’s a funny little thing that leans down on his front wrists when feeding and is so stupid that it will start running at the sound of a predator, then a minute later stop running because it forgot why it was running and consequently will get eaten. But, I will say they made me giggle because they are just so funny looking when the run and hey, how can you not be entertained by a warthog?

Along the road we also saw lots and lots of gazelles (in fact they were pretty much everywhere we went). I surmised they were in such abundance mainly due to the fact that they were dinner for many a predator. There were two kinds, Thompson and Grant gazelles. A difference being in a bit of color here or there. We also saw lots of varieties of the antelope family. One prevalent species was the Impala. You could tell it was an Impala by the “M” on its behind. There were two black stripes that ran down on either side of a black tail forming an “M.” I also told my dad he could look at their eyebrows—the females don’t have horns but do have a uni-brow. (I had to explain that one to him after a few dubious looks.)

The gazelles had lots of grazing buddies and had no problems hanging out with the Cape Breton buffaloes (big huge animals with heads and horns that looked like the kind of hats the Spanish matadors wear). Anyway, they looked like dumb cows to me. In addition, we saw a bunch of flamingos swimming in the big lake in the middle of the crater and a few other birds such as the Crowned crane, quite a beautiful bird, especially when in flight. Another pretty big bird we eyed was the Kori Bustard. The driver guides who were telling us what everything was called had thick accents, so my ongoing joke for the remainder of the trip was, “there’s another bastard at 2 o’clock.”

Also grazing were wildebeests, who were everywhere in various stages of the migration. Wildebeests look like a combination of animals. Our guide today, Steve, told us the story of how they came about. Side note: I asked “Steve” where he got his name and he said it was short for Stephen which then made sense. The Germans had a stake in the area before they got kicked out after losing the war. Now back to the story at hand…When all His creating was done, God realized there were parts left over from all the animals he made. Not one to let something go to waste, He used some stripes from the zebra, a head from a warthog, a neck from a buffalo, the body (or legs at least) of an antelope, and some mane from a lion to create one last animal—the wildebeest. Millions of them migrate throughout Tanzania and Kenya each year and move where the food is.

The big predator in the crater was not the lion, (we did see a few in the far off distance) but the hyena. The hyena is a funny fellow who makes little nesting places (shallow burrows it looked like) and tries to scavenge food when possible. They do in fact attack prey in groups but can be shooed away by larger beasts if alone. We saw a few hanging out by a waterhole and being watched intently by the nearby herds.

Of course the treat for me in this place was seeing the zebras. I’m not quite sure their real purpose on this planet since they can’t be used like horses and donkeys (backs aren’t strong enough) and they don’t seem to be a major source of food for predators (although they are on the diet of crocodiles, big cats, etc. when they get caught off guard), and I’m not sure that they eat anything that needs to be eaten. They are pretty to look at though. And they are pretty smart. They stand in unique positions when grazing so that predators can’t quite tell how many of them are in a group. They like to confuse others with their stripes and stand head to tail to keep watch (and I think to help bat away flies with the tails). They are known to lead the wildebeests to the big rivers to cross, then back off and let them go first (to get eaten by the crocs). The young ones are brownish and each zebra’s stripes are unique (like snowflakes). Now that’s God’s artistic work—especially when you see herds of them all over the place. Beautiful creatures, yes.

The drive continues as we spot a group of jeeps in one area—always a sign of something cool to see. So we ride on over to where the hippos are all hanging out. This was my first close-up view of them in the water and I loved it! Ladies and gentlemen, here is an animal who hangs out most of the day just floating in water. It doesn’t intentionally hurt people or animals, it just keeps to itself, letting birds hang out on their backs, rolling around in the muck…ah the life. Now if you mess with one of them or get between them and where they want to be, then watch out, because they can turn into mean S.O.B.s in a hot second. There are more humans killed by hippos in Africa than by any other animal. I still like them. When I win the lottery and build my personal lazy river, I’m going to install hippo art along the river as a reminder of my new friends.

So now off to lunch. But where to have lunch in a place like a crater filled with wild animals? Eric the tour director teased us beforehand by “ordering” lame sandwiches for a quick and dirty lunch when in fact they actually put out quite a first-rate picnic for us in the bush. Table cloths and real silverware with tasty barbecued chicken and rice went well with our African beer and wine. We dined under some yellow acacia trees—called yellow fever trees. When early pioneers came to Africa, they camped out under these trees (which grow near swamps filled with mosquitoes) and contracted yellow fever. They blamed the trees at first (brilliant), so hence the name.

After lunch we drove through the other side of the crater seeing more herds moving about and some colorful birds. Up and up through the beautiful acacias onto a hellishly bumpy road, we circled back around the rim to paradise—our hotel at the top of Ngorongoro. We ended the night with a nice reception and dinner with our fellow Tauck traveling family. And to put a nice touch on the end of a day of adventure, the hotel put hot water bottles in our beds at turn down. After a minor freak out at what was lurking in my sheets, I sank into happiness and bliss. Next stop—the Serengeti!

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The beautiful zebra, each with its own unique pattern.

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“…I will survive, I got all my life to live, I got all my love to give, I’ll survive, I will survive, hey hey….”

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Rollin, rollin, rollin, keep that hippo rollin…weeeee!

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Kori Bustard (there’s goes another bastard) bird

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The female ostrich blends into the daylight scenery for camouflage when nesting. Males are dark for blending in when they guard the nest at night.

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A herd of wildebeest roaming the plains of the Ngorongoro Crater. Just some of the millions that migrate each year.

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“I’ve…almost…got..it. Man this things been stuck in my ear since the Mara.”

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“We see you hyena dudes. Keep walking, that’s it, just keep walking…”

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A Crater grazers committee meeting roll call: “Okay, um, wildebeests?” “Present.” “Gazelles?” “Here!” “Hippos?” “We’re over here!” “Flamingos?” “Yup, present.” “Zebras? Hey, where are the zebras and who’s watching the hyenas?”

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Hyena watches us from his resting place.

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Just out for a stroll–hyena

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Gazelles are not sure what to make of our jeep.

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Mr. Warthog.

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More zebra!

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The Cape Breton buffalo. Or what I like to call the cow matador.

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A view of the salt lake in the crater as we make our way down the rim.

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Another beautiful view of the crater rim and valley.

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Lunch in the bush, done Tauck Tours style.

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Masai tribe members dance and sing for us (and jump high to show their prowess).