From my earliest childhood memories the Africa that I read about avidly was based on East Africa. The classic pictures of giraffe standing under an acacia tree and elephants framed by a background of Kilimanjaro were the images of Africa I carried with me before I discovered the wonders of Namibia and Botswana. It was to be many years before I had the opportunity to visit the place that formed my African ideas.
East Africa is synonymous with big skies, vast landscapes, great herds and predators. It is where the romantic concept of safari was born. It is Hollywood’s Africa and the land of the Great White Hunters.
It was with some trepidation that I approached my first East African visit. I was guiding in Botswana at the time and was worried that my image of the African wilderness would be shattered when I witnessed the ‘crowds’ of tourists that roamed the plains. What I found was something beyond my childhood imaginations! I did see a giraffe silhouetted under an acacia tree and the elephants still walk against the backdrop of Kilimanjaro, but East Africa is more than postcard images.
I have since accompanied groups through East Africa and it is from the group members that I have gained further insight into what Kenya and Tanzania means to our understanding of the wilderness.
My first stop was the Kenyan capital Nairobi. This is the start and end point for most East African Safaris. I stayed at the Norfolk Hotel. It was exactly as I had pictured it from the writings of Hemingway and Ruark. The hotel has managed to hold on to much of its old-style charm.
‘Nairobi didn’t inspire beauty but it held character, and there was life around every corner. Children as young as three and four were wandering the streets begging for food or money, elderly gentlemen sat at the side of the road mending garments on their antique “Singer” sewing machines, ladies would be carrying one months washing on their head with a baby strapped to their back, and gentlemen with torn trousers and threadbare jackets would proudly be wearing a pair of shiny shoes.’ K.E.
The greatest show on earth
Arguably the highlight of the East African safari is the Masai Mara / Serengeti ecosystem that plays host to one of the greatest shows on earth – the migration of the wildebeest, where millions of animals follow the seasons across the plains. It cannot be said exactly when the herds will pass a particular area as the movement is dictated by the rains.
‘When you said we would not see the migrations I thought it was pointless for us to come to the Mara, but after seeing the abundance of wildlife I realize that it is not only about the migrations.’ B.K.
To experience the migrations is a moment beyond description. The mind is numbed by the sheer immensity of the event and by the sound of constant bellowing. The vast grass plains are stained by the ancient dramas playing out before you.
Of the other reserves in Kenya that captured my imagination included Amboseli National Park where I satisfied my yearning to see animals silhouetted by Mount Kilimanjaro, and Tsavo National Park where the great herds of the past are returning to former glories. Amboseli consists mainly of open plains and is ideal for game viewing.
North of Africa’s second highest point, Mount Kenya, is the drier Samburu, home of the uniquely patterned grevy’s Zebra and reticulated giraffe. Here you may also experience the culture of the Samburu people, a people who live close to the land and to their traditional ways despite the influence of westernization. As with their relatives further south, the Masai, the Samburu rely a great deal on tourism. Village visits can be arranged where you can experience part of the culture and purchase traditional items.
From the legendary Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro to Ngorogoro Crater and Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania is a country that still plays to an ancient rhythm. The Serengeti is linked to the Masai Mara in Kenya and it is here that the mind is numbed by the spectacle of the migrations. It matters not what sights you have seen or how long you have lived in the wild areas of Africa, the migrations will leave you emotionally drained.
From Travels in East Africa by Leigh Kemp