Canary Islands – The Forgotten Islands, somewhere between Europe and Africa

In late December of 1997, I took advantage of an award ticket on Swissair to travel to the Canary Islands, a collection of small volcanic islands 100 miles off the coast of Africa. I was really looking forward to a vacation, having been out of the country on business trips for the entire month of November, missing the Thanksgiving holiday for the past three years! As I prepared to leave home early in the morning, I not only packed my bags, but also wrapped my Christmas gifts and posted all my Christmas cards. When the morning of my departure arrived, it felt more like the beginning of another business trip, rather than the start of a vacation! On the ride to the airport, there were gorgeous views of the snow-covered San Gabriel Mountains under clear blue skies. The flight to Atlanta was very comfortable in First Class, and the hot breakfast of Mexican scrambled eggs, peppers, potatoes, and sausage was most welcome. After landing in Atlanta, I spent some time enjoying the atmosphere and amenities of the new International Business Class Lounge before boarding the SwissAir 747 for the 9 hour flight to Zurich. Just after takeoff, I relaxed with a cold gin and tonic, along with a delicious appetizer of grilled shrimp, smoked fish, and very tender roast beef. For the main dinner course I chose a superb, very delicate, poached Norwegian salmon, served with new potatoes, steamed carrots and broccoli. The meal was very fresh and delicious, accompanied by a chilled glass of Swiss white wine from the Fendant du Valais region. After dinner, the dessert and cheese cart came by with a selection of Swiss cheeses, dried fruits and nuts. A cup of expresso soon followed, along with a glass of port. I finished the evening with a glass of Cointreau on ice, feeling very relaxed and well on my way to enjoying my vacation! Several hours later, I awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the French Alps, and soon we were landing in Zurich, where the entire countryside was covered in a blanket of fresh snow. As I walked out of the airport terminal, the freezing air made its presence felt immediately on my nose! It was a short ride on the shuttle bus to the Airport Hilton Hotel, a place I was already very familiar with from many past business trips. After checking in, I took a much needed nap for a couple of hours, before going downstairs to the Swiss Tavern Restaurant for an early dinner. The restaurant was a very authentic replica of a typical Swiss village tavern, and offered very traditional fondue, a uniquely Swiss dish. My server highly recommended the “Farmer’s Cheese and Ham Fondue”, and it arrived as a large boiling pot of melted cheese and chunks of ham, along with a huge basket of crusty bread. The taste was incredible, and by the time I reached the bottom of the pot, I was pleasantly stuffed! Seated next to me was a table of locals enjoying a special “Fondue Chinoise” (Chinese fondue). At the end of their dinner, all the men ordered large snifters of French brandy and Cuban cigars, selected from a large wooden chest. Nearby, at another table was a young American gay couple who had recently passed the dating stage and were now living together for the first time. One of them ordered the fondue, to which the other remarked, “are you going to make a meal of just bread and melted cheese?” His partner was a bit more worldly and replied that he had done this before, and it was very good. After a fabulous dinner, I went up to the lobby lounge for a Swiss beer and listened to some very nice, relaxing music by an Italian musician playing piano and synthesizer.

The next morning I was awake at 3:00am, but avoided getting up until 6:00am for the return trip to the airport. After checking in for the flight to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria Island, I had coffee and pastries in the SwissAir Business Class Lounge before boarding was called. The MD-80 aircraft was almost completely full, but I was lucky enough to have an empty seat beside me for the 4 ½ hour flight. Gran Canaria Island lies to the southwest of the European continent in the Atlantic Ocean, 100 miles from the coast of Western Sahara.

The Canary Islands
Map of the Canary Islands

The first two hours were pretty bumpy, as we flew through the strong Jet Stream, and unfortunately that was also during the breakfast service! (coffee cups were spilling into the aisle) But at last, the pilots found smooth air over southern Spain, and it was a pleasant flight after that. The skies began to clear as we approached the Canary Islands, and we landed under brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures – dramatic contrast to the snow and cold of Switzerland! As I walked out of the terminal and looked for the hotel shuttle bus, which the guidebook said would be meeting arriving flights, it was no where to be seen. So I asked the airport welcome desk for the hotel’s phone number and received two different numbers. The first number I called turned out to be a private residence, but the man who answered was kind enough to give me the correct number, which turned out to be a “transposition” of two digits. He sounded as if he received calls for the hotel on a daily basis. Once I connected with the hotel front desk, I was told to take public bus #61. I made an attempt to find bus #61, but to no avail, so I finally ended up taking a taxi to the hotel.

Hotel Maspalamos Oasis

After checking in to a lovely room overlooking the ocean, I took a long walk along the beach, before enjoying a wonderful dinner at the “El Senador Restaurant”. Dinner began with sumptuous grilled shrimp sizzling in butter and garlic, followed by the main course, grilled filet of Sea Bream, served in a luscious garlic and lemon sauce. Then I finished dinner with a fantastic burnt custard dessert and a cup of espresso. Back in my hotel room, I enjoyed a glass of Spanish wine and a gorgeous sunset, as I sat on my private veranda – a beautiful, relaxing end to the day!

Sunset on Gran Canary Island

The following morning, I began the day with a delicious breakfast buffet outside by the pool, under warm, sunny skies. Later, I joined a group of German tourists for a day long tour of the island. There were five mini-vans, filled with people mostly over 65, all of whom were very nice, but a very quiet group. I was very lucky to be able to sit in the front seat, next to the driver – perfect for taking photos. Our tour leader was Herman and our driver Carlos, a real “ladies man”, who was constantly whistling and singing to himself – mostly for his own entertainment! He was very nice, and very flamboyant, in contrast to the very staid German tourists. His favorite saying was “Mein God”! We drove high into the volcanic mountains on very steep, narrow roads, where vehicles had to reverse many times on tight switchbacks to ascend the mountain. We travelled from the dry, barren south side of the island, over the high summit, to the very wet, heavily forested north side – an incredibly dramatic change in a very short distance. It was almost as if we had suddenly crossed over to a totally different island!

The road up the mountains
South side of the island
North side of the island

Along the way, although the dominant language of our group was German, Spanish was the official language of the island. During our tour of the island, we passed through many small coastal towns and villages, built on steep cliffs overlooking the sea, the houses being a brilliant white with deep purple trim. In many of the steep, narrow canyons were large reservoirs called “Barancos”. At one point, we turned off the coastal road and headed up the “Grand Canyon of the Canarias”, on an incredibly steep and twisting road.

Grand Canyon of the Canarias

Near the top of the canyon, we stopped in a tiny village to visit a small church carved out of a cave. We were greeted by the mayor (Burgermeister), Don Juan Carlos, who had emigrated from Cuba many years before. After viewing the church, he invited us into his house, also partially in a cave, for fresh cactus fruit juice from his garden. Then we watched as he ground corn meal by hand on an old stone wheel. Meanwhile, a local program played on his old B&W TV inside the cave! Just outside his house was gorgeous, huge Poinsettia bush with spectacular deep scarlet blooms. Looking around, the whole mountainside was a collection of small fields laid out in a series of terraces that climbed up the steep slopes.

Village and church
Old house built into a cave
Don Juan Carlos grinding corn

Further down the road, we stopped for lunch at a small hotel restaurant, situated in another steep, narrow valley on the north side of the island. The restaurant was well known for serving a unique dish consisting of thin slices of various meats and fresh vegetables that each of us could cook as we wished on our own “hot volcanic rock” in the center of the table. Along with the delicious meats and vegetables came lots of local red wine, and a fabulous thick cream pudding topped with cinnamon and sugar. The whole meal, including the wine, was very inexpensive, costing each of us only 1500 pesetas (roughly $5.00).

Lunch in the village
On tour of the island
Terraced fields

Leaving the restaurant, we drove down the narrow valley on another incredibly steep, one-lane road, past fields of bananas, papayas, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, corn, and avocados – a very lush, green landscape, in stark contrast to the south side of the island. Eventually we reached the coast again, and soon were driving through Las Palmas, the island’s largest city. As we drove past the heavily developed and industrial area, I was very glad to be staying in Maspalomas, a much more beautiful part of the island. As we arrived back at the hotel, we were rewarded with a spectacular sunset that silhouetted the mountains beautifully. For dinner that evening, I had a delicious dish of sizzling garlic shrimp at El Senador again. After which I had a beer at the “Piano Beach Bar”, where a local singer was performing classic lounge songs. He had a good voice, but he kept hitting off key notes on the keyboard – perhaps he was “tone deaf”? Meanwhile, I watched the waves pounding the rocks on the beach below, listening to their eternal rhythm – a beautiful evening! I finished the night in the hotel lobby bar, listening to an English band called “Sweet Home”. They played everything from Frank Sinatra and classic Viennese waltzes to 50’s Rock-n-Roll! And to top off the night, they played the current popular hit, “Macarena”, to the delight of the German tourists!

Evening at the hotel

The next morning, I was awakened at 8:00am by a phone call from the local “Hertz” man, who wanted me to come down to his office to pick up the rental car I had booked for 12 noon! He claimed it was not possible to wait until noon, so we settled on an 11:00am pickup. Following another wonderful breakfast buffet by the pool, I grabbed my camera, water bottle, sunscreen, and headed into an extensive expanse of sand dunes not far from the hotel. Along the way, I passed a corral where camels were kept for “rides through the desert”. The northern edge of the area had several, large stable dunes covered with a thick forest of Juniper brush. But as I walked south toward the sea, the vegetation quickly became sparse as the dunes became more unstable.

The dunes
The dunes and Palace Hotel in the distance

Soon I came to some very high dunes, and as I reached the crest, I suddenly found myself overlooking a large group of nude men sunbathing and “parading” among the dunes! I managed to seek an alternate route toward the coast. On the way I spotted lots of tracks in the sand from lizards, snakes, and small animals, but during the entire time, I saw only one lizard. (so I suspected they were all nocturnal) Just before I reached the coast, I had to climb one of the highest dunes, but my struggle up the steep soft sand was rewarded with a spectacular view – craggy, volcanic mountains to the north and golden rolling sand dunes to the south. And on the eastern edge of the dunes was the “Palace Hotel”, a massive, pure white structure, gleaming in the bright sunshine! To the west was an old lighthouse, standing tall against the deep blue sky. From the coast, I trekked further west, up and down what seemed liked endless dunes, under the brilliant mid-day sun, before finally reaching a long stretch of beautiful white sand beach and pounding surf!

Palace Hotel
The beach
Dunes and the lighthouse in the distance

As I sat on the edge of the dunes, a constant stream of people strolled along the beach – all manner of bodies passed by, beautiful and otherwise. I couldn’t help but notice quite a few women going topless, though in all honesty, most would have looked better had they kept their tops on! I took off my hiking boots and walked along the beach, my bare feet playing “tag” with the surf. It was a lovely feeling every time the water flooded over my feet, amid the warm sunshine – very peaceful and relaxing. As I continued walking west toward the lighthouse, many young families frolicked nude in the surf – so many that I soon wondered if I had inadvertently walked into a nudist camp! But everyone seemed to take my presence in stride, so I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable. But at one point, I passed a couple of little old English ladies, who must have been more than a bit shocked, as several men strolled by them with everything “flying in the wind”! It was a long but enjoyable walk along the beach back to the hotel, and a wonderful way to enjoy the beautiful sunshine, the roar of the ocean, and the spectacular scenery.

“nude” sunbathers

When I reached the far end of the beach, I found a perfect place to stop for a cold beer – the “Café Bachstueben”. It had the original Budweiser beer from Budvar, Czechoslovakia. As I sat on the terrace, overlooking the beach, it didn’t take long to realize, with so many people nude, just how few are really attractive! But it’s great to see that they feel OK to “let it all hang out”, whatever it is and whatever it looks like. Back at the hotel, I relaxed on my veranda with a glass of wine and watched a gorgeous sunset. Later, I strolled through the small town of Maspalomas and stopped at “La Bodega Terraza” for a fantastic dinner of fresh grilled fish and vegetables, along with a cold pint of German beer. Meanwhile, a young guitarist played old rock and classic jazz tunes, sometimes very good, but all the time competing with a couple of Spanish guitarists at the restaurant next door!

The next morning, after another incredible breakfast buffet on the terrace, under clear blue skies, I savored my last day in the Canary Islands. I packed my bags and loaded them into the Hertz rental car – a very little red car, with just enough space behind the seat for my bag. Then I got directions from the hotel concierge about how to get to the road that would lead to the small villages of San Bartolome and Santa Lucia, high up the steep mountains in the center of the island. As I drove up the steep, narrow, twisting road, I found the little red car was perfect for driving in the mountains. There were times when it was a bit scary though, even with guard rails on the edge of the road, especially when approaching oncoming traffic. Soon I reached the summit of a high ridge, where I was rewarded with a spectacular view of a massive rock headwall, looming high above the deep valley below. In the distance, clinging to the incredibly steep slope, at the base of the thousand foot high headwall, were the two small villages. Brilliant white washed houses clung to the mountainside, neatly stacked one on another – a gorgeous scene under the clear blue skies and radiant sunshine.

Village of San Bartolome
San Bartolome
Santa Lucia in the distance

As I followed the narrow, sinuous road, it dropped sharply into the deep valley of the “Barranco de Tiranja”. When I finally reached the valley floor, I came to the tiny village of “Fataga”, where there was a large oasis and a small herd of camels. (the village was famous for “camel safaris”) As with so many other traditional villages on the island, all the houses were white washed and topped with roofs of red clay tile that gleamed in the mid-day sun.

Barranco de Tiranja
Village of Fataga

All too soon, I had to make my way to the airport for my return flight to Zurich. The 5 hour flight was very pleasant, with a delicious dinner of pork tenderloin in a wild Morel mushroom sauce, along with a chilled glass of Swiss white wine. I reflected on the trip to a beautiful place that I would remember for a long time, and that in two days time I would be sharing Christmas with my sister Lynn, Nils, and Leslie – by way of Zurich, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, and Boise. From warm, sunny beaches to snow covered mountains – such is the pleasure of travel!

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Kenya – The East African Plains: On the Ground and from the Air

In July and August of 1991 I embarked on my second “around the world” trip to conduct software training classes in Singapore, Kathmandu, New Delhi, and Nairobi. My itinerary included stops in Anchorage, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Calcutta, New Delhi, Mumbai, Nairobi, Frankfurt and New York before returning to Los Angeles. One part of the journey was especially memorable, the time I spent in Kenya, specifically the opportunity to visit Masai Mara National Park, on the border with Tanzania. After landing in Nairobi on an Air India flight from Mumbai, Mike picked me up and we drove to the headquarters of the Kenya Wildlife Service where I would spend the next five days training the staff in the use of the latest GIS software. During the daily commute to the training facility, I observed the traffic, a chaotic mix of old buses, and small mini-vans called “Matutus”, all of them “packed to the gills”, with people “hanging from the rafters”! In the midst of this chaos, hundreds of pedestrians made mad dashes across the streets, deftly dodging the traffic. But the most unusual sight had to be the huge dump trucks hauling people in the back of the truck, even during the rain. What a ride it must have been, but at least it must have been cheap. One evening Mike suggested that we have dinner at the world famous “Carnivore Restaurant”, which is known for its extensive menu of wild game. I ordered the smallest plate, but even at ¼ kg it was huge, so I couldn’t imagine what the 1 kg plate must have looked like. When the plate arrived, it had a large assortment of meat, including Hartebeest, Zebra, Cape Buffalo, and Crocodile tail, which was especially tasty – sweet and tender.

Downtown Nairobi
Serena Lodge – Nairobi

At the end of the week, we left class early so that Mike and I could drive down to Masai Mara National Park for the weekend. Mike’s friends Monica, Bridgette, and Suzanne joined us, and soon we were on our way south through the “White Highlands” and the Great Rift Valley.

White Highlands

The girls had prepared all of the food, enough for a two week safari, though we would only be gone for two days. Slowly the highway climbed up to the top of the Kikuyu Escarpment at an elevation of 8,000 feet, through a region of lush forest, rolling hills, and beautiful tea plantations. Later we turned off the main highway on to a narrow, unpaved road that dropped steeply over 5,000 feet down the side of the escarpment to the floor of the Great Rift Valley – a much warmer and drier environment.

Great Rift Valley – Kikuyu Escarpment

The road had been built in the early 1940’s by Italian prisoners of war, and it had way more deep potholes than road surface. We stopped for petrol in the small town of Narok, and as we drove through the town, I made note of some very interesting landmarks that included “California Grocers”, “Side View Hotel”, and “Supa Dupa Dressmakers”. Leaving Narok we drove across vast expanses of grassland, dotted with scattered Acacia (Thorn) trees, and occasionally a large wheat farm. The sight of huge green and yellow John Deere combines harvesting grain, as herds of cattle and goats were being tended by Masai warriors nearby, was a stark contrast of cultures! All along the side of the road, we saw Masai warriors dressed in their traditional red cape and carrying a long spear – very primitive, yet proud and majestic.

Masai Warrior

Further on, the road deteriorated rapidly into a narrow dirt track, so we locked the hubs in 4WD. As we approached the National Park boundary, we began seeing more wildlife, including large herds of Gazelle, Impala, Kudu, Ostrich, and Cape Buffalo. When we arrived at the park gate, Mike handed the guard a letter from Dr. Andere, the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, granting us entry without having to pay the park fee. Leaving the ranger station, we drove over a low hill and onto another dirt track that took us to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Research Station where the Aerial Survey staff were camped. Nearby, the British Army had a small camp, as they were working to renovate the research station. The KWS staff had their tents pitched in the tall grass beside a small grove of trees, overlooking the hills to the east – an ideal setting for a safari camp. We set up our tents on the edge of the circle and the girls promptly laid claim to the large tent, “assigning” Mike and I to the small alpine tent!

KWS Aerial Survey Camp
KWS Camp
Mike and our Alpine Tent

As dusk approached, the KWS staff had a roaring campfire going, so we joined them and grilled our marinated beef over the flames. It was delicious, along with the German potato salad and cold Tusker beer. Later in the evening, we shared our meager ration of Johnny Walker whiskey with the KWS guys around the campfire and related our experiences of being in Africa. As we talked, the fire burned slowly, and the stars above us shone bright in the night sky – the surrounding hills became beautiful silhouettes! (a magical evening) As I lay in my sleeping bag that night, I listened to the occasional sounds of Hyenas and Lions in the distance. There was a guard (“escari” in Swahili) posted on duty throughout the night, just in case. Our camp was the only one permitted in the park, as all other visitors were required to stay in one of the park lodges, for safety reasons. Visions from the film “Out of Africa” filled my head that night.

The next morning, I was up with the sun – the early morning air was cool and the tall grass glistened with heavy dew. There were a few lingering sounds of Hyenas in the distance, and the surrounding hills were awakening under the early rays of the sun. Just then I noticed a troop of Baboons slowly making its way around the edge of the camp toward the grove of trees beyond. They scampered through the tall, wet grass, lead by a large male. Meanwhile, several youngsters played tag with each other and generally “harassed” the rest of the troop! It was a fun scene to watch, but one had to be careful, since Baboons can be dangerous if they feel threatened.

Troop of Baboons

By this time, Mike was also up, so we got the water boiling for coffee and waited for the girls to wake up, which finally came around 9am. Then it was off to Keekarok Lodge for breakfast, where the girls also took advantage of the washroom facilities.

Keekarok Lodge
Keekarok Lodge

After breakfast in the lodge, we headed west on the main track (aka dirt road) toward the Mara River, and along the way we spotted our first large herd of Wildebeest and Zebra. The scenery was very classic East African plains – high rolling hills and wide valleys, covered in tall grass and scattered flat-topped Acacia trees. It was beautiful! When we reached the crossing of the Mara River, we saw a large pool of Hippos, some of them stretched out on the river bank, sunning themselves. As we stood on the edge of the river watching the Hippos, a couple of Vervet Monkeys sat in the tree watching us.

Hippos in the Mara River
Vervet Monkey watching us

The Hippos periodically surfaced, blew their nostrils, and submerged again. All of a sudden, a great upwelling of Hippo manure appeared in the middle of the river – it just kept bubbling up and bubbling up – massive! It was a sight not easily forgotten. We bid farewell to the Hippos and headed north to Serena Lodge, with the 5,000 foot Olooyou Escarpment in the distance. The lodge was located atop a large hill overlooking the Mara River and designed to resemble a traditional Masai “Manyatta”, built into the side of the hill facing the river.

Serena Lodge

The view was spectacular as we sat on the terrace by the pool, with our cold Tusker beers. Below us, Elephants and Cape Buffalo grazed in the tall grass near the river – the vast East African plains stretched to the horizon. While we relaxed by the pool, a young Hyrax scampered past us on the rock ledge. It’s so strange to see one of them and know this overgrown Guinea Pig is the closest relative of the Elephant!

Hyrax

Later, we drove south, following the river on a little used dirt track, and stopped at a large bend in the river to have a picnic lunch beneath the lovely Acacia trees. That’s when we noticed two large Crocodiles “lounging” on the opposite bank, while a group of Hippos bathed in the water downstream – so we named the place “Crocodile Point”. Across the river we could see a large herd of Wildebeest in the distance and hear the faint sounds of their “snorting”.

Crocodiles in the Mara River

That afternoon, on our way back to Keekarok Lodge, we came upon a large, black-maned male lion and a lioness on the edge of the track, no more than 20 yards away. Further on, we encountered a group of tourist “combis” that had surrounded 6 – 8 lions asleep in the bushes. The lions paid no attention to the efforts of the tourists to get them to respond!

Lion and lioness
Giraffe on the plains

Back at the lodge, we sat on the veranda with cold Tusker beers in hand, and watched a group of young Vervet Monkeys steal some small jars of marmalade from one of the tables in the restaurant. At the same time, their “criminal activity” was captured on film and video by several tourist cameras – the monkeys were definitely not camera shy!

Monkey stealing marmalade

I took a short walk to a platform overlooking a large water hole, and along the way I discovered a camera bag that had been left by an Indian family I had passed earlier.

Boardwalk to Water Hole
Water Hole Observation Point

When I returned their bag, I found out they were from Palos Verde, California and the entire family of two adults and five children were on a month long safari to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary! (they had to be very wealthy to afford such a trip) To my surprise, their two teenage daughters didn’t like Indian food – it was too spicy! Before leaving the lodge, Mike and I bought a case of beer from the staff canteen to take back to the guys in the KWS camp. (they really appreciated the gift and it was soon gone) As we drove back to the camp, we could see some large grass fires burning on the northwest horizon. It was possible that the fires were set by the Masai to encourage the growth of fresh, new grass. As we pulled into camp, there was a red glow on the horizon that was reflected in the clouds above us. While we began to prepare dinner, a herd of Cape Buffalo grazed near the perimeter of the camp, reminding us that we were indeed in Africa.

Cape Buffalo
Wildebeest and Zebra
Thompson’s Gazelle
Hyenas stalking Hartebeest and Gazelle at a waterhole

After dinner, the British Army contingent paid us a visit from their camp nearby. They brought along an ample supply of rum and cokes, but alas, no ice. The entire camp joined in singing old songs around the campfire, accompanied by Mike on his guitar. It was a wonderful evening as night fell upon East Africa. I headed to my sleeping bag around midnight, since I had to be up before dawn the next morning for a hot-air balloon safari. (Mike continued partying with the army) During the night I was awakened a couple of times by the sounds of Hyenas and Lions in the distance. Finally, I woke up before sunrise to a strange mix of African radio music and the sounds of Hyenas. I was excited about joining the balloon safari, but it took a bit of prodding to raise Mike so that he could drive me to the lodge. He was very hung over from the evening of rum, but we arrived at the site of the balloon launch just as the faint light of dawn broke above the horizon. We watched the raising of the balloons as a cool wind came out of the east. The final stage of the raising was the spectacular firing of all the gas jets – lighting up the sky with a brilliant yellow glow!

Final stage of balloon raising
Balloon raising

Then I joined a group from England and we lifted off at sunrise, slowly gaining altitude until we were silently floating a couple of hundred feet above the vast African savannah. A gentle breeze pushed us southwest over Masai Mara toward the border with Tanzania. As we rose higher in the sky, so did the sun, illuminating the plains with a soft orange glow. It wasn’t long before we saw a pride of lions stalking a small herd of Gazelle and Impala. (the tourist combis were stalking the lions!) As we slowly drifted over the grassy plains, the silence was amazing, broken only by the occasional sounds of animals below us or a short burst of the balloon’s gas jets. No one on board made a sound, except to quietly point out some animals.

Floating over the plains of East Africa
Balloons on the horizon
Migrating Wildebeest from above

The experience of silently floating 100 feet above the ground over some of the most productive wildlife habitat in the world was almost like a dream! (I had to pinch myself at times, just to make sure it wasn’t a dream) In general, the animals ignored us – at one point, a group of Waterbuck “jousted” with each other for the privilege of “soliciting” the attention of the females. The whole African wildlife scene played out before us, while we were a very transient audience, as it should be. As we neared the Tanzanian border, our pilot Chuck became concerned about finding a suitable landing site, before we ended up crossing the Sand River and entering Tanzania. He related one incident where two of his Kenyan crew were arrested by the Tanzanian border officials and spent two months in jail! But as we descended to 50 feet above the ground, Chuck spotted the track along the border and sat the balloon down with the greatest of ease, so that we did a light “touch and go” and then a gentle landing very near a Warthog den in an old termite mound. Luckily, the Warthogs were not at home! The crew had already arrived and rapidly deflated the balloon as we all climbed out of the basket.

Deflating the balloon
Kenyan crew

At the same time, other crew members were busy setting up tables and stools in the grass for our Champagne brunch. Soon the tables were overflowing with a dazzling array of fresh fruit, pastries, quiche, bacon, and eggs. The champagne glasses sparkled in the brilliant morning sunshine, and were soon filled with the chilled bubbly! We all raised our glasses to toast our pilot Chuck, and the two British couples on their honeymoon. The luxurious experience of enjoying delicious food and drink amid the vast African plains was almost indescribable, but definitely unforgettable!

Champagne brunch on the plains of East Africa

Following brunch, we all jumped into the waiting Land Rovers for a pretty rough ride back to Keekarok Lodge over a seldom used track in a remote corner of the park. Back at the lodge, we sat in a special area on the veranda reserved for balloon safaris, and shared our experiences over coffee, while Chuck filled out our official certificates, that included a list of all the animals we had seen that morning. Later, Mike and the girls arrived, and a few minutes after that, his friend Jack “buzzed” the lodge in his plane, having just returned from the morning wildlife aerial surveys. Jack was from Canada and the official pilot for the Kenya Wildlife Service. We all headed to the airstrip to meet him, along with the hope of joining him for a flight over the park. As it turned out, Jack was eager to take us up, so we climbed into the plane.

Boarding Jack’s plane

Jack was insistent that I take the front seat next to him so I could get the best photos, as I was the only one of the group with a camera! We taxied out to the runway and before we knew it, we were climbing into the bright blue African sky, headed northwest to find the great herds of migrating Wildebeest and Zebra, which number in the hundreds of thousands. As we flew over our campsite, we saw the herd of Cape Buffalo grazing nearby, along with a small group of Elephants.

KWS Campsite and Research Station

We continued northwest, and passed over herds of Gazelle, Impala, Giraffe and Zebra, before spotting the main band of Wildebeest. Suddenly the plane swerved and dropped abruptly as Jack maneuvered to avoid a collision with one of the huge vultures circling above us! The impact with one of these birds having a wingspan over 6 feet could be serious, even fatal! Jack was always on the lookout for them. Soon we began seeing long, sinuous black lines in the distance, stretching out across the savannah. These were the great herds of Wildebeest, migrating northward from the vast Serengeti plains of Tanzania, in search of new grass, following the annual short rains. As we neared the eastern side of the Mara River, Jack estimated there were well over 500,000 animals in our limited view! Then, as Jack circled around to the river, we saw a large number of Wildebeest scrambling down the steep bank and diving into the swift current, being swept downstream and emerging in a cloud of dust on the opposite shore.

Migrating Wildebeest crossing the Mara River
Mara River crossing

It was the exact spot where we had enjoyed our picnic lunch the day before. We wer

Mara River

e witnessing an event that had been repeated for thousands of years – magnificent! Jack took us down for an even closer look with a steep, banking turn, which was great for taking photos, but a bit rough on the stomach. As I clicked away with my camera, Mike finally lost it and had to grab the airsick bag – so much for his late night partying with the British Army! By now it was time to head back to the lodge, and Jack followed an old DC-3 to land at the airstrip. Mike and I bought another case of beer for the guys back in camp, and then began the drive back to Nairobi. Along the way, we passed three large trucks overturned on the side of the road, which wasn’t that unusual, since at times there was no shoulder, just a sharp two foot drop-off.

Overturned trucks

As we reached the main Naivasha – Nairobi highway, a light rain began to fall, so that by the time we got to the turnoff to Kijabe, the unpaved road looked to be quite muddy. We got out and locked the hubs in 4WD, but we were only able to advance about 300 yards up the steep muddy road before the SUV began sliding all over the road. As other vehicles ahead of us became stuck, Mike decided to abandon the shortcut and reverse back down the road – something much easier said than done! Everyone’s nerves were on edge as the vehicle slowly “slid” down through the soupy mud. At last we reached the main highway again to continue our journey to the city, albeit by a longer, though safer route. (however, by that time my boots were covered with sticky, red mud – a souvenir of our weekend trip perhaps) As we negotiated the heavily pot-holed highway, sometimes at a mere15mph, we passed through a small village and suddenly saw a man “dart” into the incoming traffic. He was almost hit three times, but continued chasing the mini-bus that had almost him! It was a really wild scene to watch, and probably happens almost every day. Slowly the road climbed the steep Kikuyu Escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley, through a lush, green forested region with yellow-green tea plantations scattered amongst the forest. The region was known as the “White Highlands”, where the English colonials settled, having displaced most of the native Kikuyu people. (eventually, the resentment of the Kikuyu lead to the “Mau Mau Rebellion”, and finally the independence of the country)

The White Highlands

From the top of the escarpment we had spectacular views of the Great Rift Valley thousands of feet below, and in the distance were the legendary Ngong Hills, made famous in the film “Out of Africa”. At last we arrived at Mike’s house, unloaded our gear, and enjoyed a “hot-n-spicy” pizza at a local pizza parlor.

The next morning I awoke to the startling news of a military coup in the Soviet Union! It sort of made my training class seem somehow less important, but this was the last day of the class and everyone was looking forward to a small party to celebrate. I gave the office secretaries 1500 Kenyan schillings (about $40) to buy the food, and they cooked the entire meal in the tiny canteen kitchen. Later in the afternoon, we all gathered in the canteen to share a traditional Kikuyu meal called “Jama Choma” – a simple dish of boiled beef and vegetables, served with lots of bread and fresh fruit. (most Kenyans did not like spicy foods) During the party there were speeches by the managers of several departments, but people kept eating. Finally, at the end of the meal, Dr. Andere presented me with a very special gift – a gorgeous ebony carving of a rhinoceros! The party concluded with a class photo outside in front of the KWS headquarters. The next morning, I reconfirmed my airline ticket and went to the New Stanley Hotel to have a coffee in the Thorn Tree Café, just as I had done many years before. As I sat on the terrace, watching the action on the street, many fond memories of my trip overland across Africa in 1974-75 filled my head. A lot of things had changed in Nairobi, but there were still some familiar experiences that made my time in Kenya very enjoyable. Later in the afternoon, I joined Mike, Bridgette, and Monica for a visit to a special place called “Kazuri Beads”, where beautiful jewelry and ceramics were on display, all of which were handcrafted by young single mothers. The shop was part of Karen Blixen’s estate in the heart of the Ngong Hills, a lovely region of low hills, small villages, and green coffee and tea plantations – so reminiscent of the film “Out of Africa”.

Kazuri beads
Karen Blixen’s estate

After the customary British tradition of afternoon tea and biscuits, we returned to the city by way of Nairobi National Park. It was an amazing experience to see Zebra, Wildebeest, Lions, and Giraffe with the backdrop of Nairobi skyscrapers shining in the distance. Only in Africa! Arriving back in Nairobi, we joined Jack and his wife Daphne at their house for the “requisite” drinks before dinner, a long-standing custom with most “expatriates”. After dinner, we arranged to meet Jack at Wilson Airfield the next morning for an “air safari” to Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.

As we took off the next morning, there was a heavy ceiling of clouds around 5,000 feet, but Jack flew a mere 100 feet above the ground for a real “bird’s eye” view of the country. In fact, we were often below the birds! On the way to Amboseli, we flew over dozens of Masai “Manyattas” – huts surrounded by thick high fences made from Acacia branches whose sharp thorns kept lions at bay so the cattle could be protected at night. It was a very effective building technique passed down through many generations of Masai. Occasionally we passed children who excitedly waved to us as they jumped up and down.

Masai “manyatta”

As we neared Amboseli, we began seeing long green stretches across the brown grassland. These were the “seasonal swamps” that result from the short rains. Flying over the swamps, we could see long, thin tracks that looked like “snakes” in the grass. Actually, they were made by Elephants wading through the swamps as they chomped on the tall, dark green grasses. From above, the Elephants looked more like giant pigs “wallowing” in the grass.

Elephants in the swamp – Amboseli National Park

After flying over the lodge, we turned southeast toward Tanzania and flew over a large lake that had formed in an ancient volcanic crater. Then Jack climbed through the thick clouds, up to 10,000 feet, in an effort to get a view of Mt Kilimanjaro, but the massive peak remained shrouded by the heavy cloud cover.

Mt Kilimanjaro in the clouds

As we descended, I recalled the memories from 1975 when I had climbed the mountain and saw the sunrise over the East Africa plains from the 19, 340 foot summit. Before long we were flying over Tsavo National Park, home to large numbers of Elephants and Rhino. Jack circled Kilaguni Lodge, landed at the airstrip, and taxied right up to the front door! The lunch buffet was served in the beautiful open-air restaurant overlooking a large water hole, where we watched all manner of wildlife come to take their daily ration of water. As we enjoyed the many delicious African dishes, we noticed several Baboons sitting on rocks in front of the restaurant.

Kilaguni Lodge – Tsavo National Park
Baboon at Kilaguni Lodge
Baboon “scouting” out the restaurant

Suddenly, one of them rushed forward and “charged” the table next to us. And just as quickly, the Baboon was on top of the table, “screeched” loudly, and grabbed a dinner roll from the plate of one of the ladies at the table! She jumped from her chair, but it all happened so fast that no one got it on film, despite the large number of cameras on hand. In order to combat the “Baboon attacks”, the restaurant staff carry sling shots, and the very sight of one would scare the devil out of the Baboons! One time, Jack “pretended” to have a sling shot and it was enough to scare them off. Having lunch while we gazed upon the plains and mountains of Tsavo, with the abundant wildlife that visited the water hole, was like watching a National Geographic film, but in real life! Eventually, it was time to leave the lodge and head back to Nairobi. Several children stood patiently on the edge of the airstrip, as Jack warmed up the engines, and as we took off from the red earth runway, they waved excitedly!

Children at Kilaguni lodge awaiting our takeoff

On the return route, we followed part of the Nairobi – Mombasa railroad main line. All of a sudden, Jack spotted a large bull Elephant standing a few feet from the tracks, as a freight train approached. We circled around for a closer look, just as the locomotive passed the huge pacaderm, missing it by only a few feet! It almost seemed as if the Elephant was “challenging” the locomotive – a poor contest at best!

Nairobi – Mombasa railway

As we approached the hills east of Nairobi, we could see they were extensively terraced fields of tea and coffee – the dark green color in beautiful contrast to the deep red volcanic soil of the Central Highlands. After having landed at Wilson Airfield, Jack and Daphne invited us for a BBQ at their house. It was a lovely way to end our air safari!

The next morning, I packed my bags for the return flight home. Mike picked me up at the hotel and said that he had arranged a short meeting with Dr. Richard Leakey, on our way to the airport. It was a very special event for us, and even though Dr. Leakey was a very busy man, he still gave us his full attention – we felt that he had made the time just for us. As we told him about the work of KWS using the new computer mapping software, he seemed genuinely interested and asked many questions. I left the meeting having felt his “presence” – clearly a brilliant and impressive man. Dr. Leakey gave us a National Parks pass and insisted that we drive through Nairobi National Park on the way to the airport. The drive afforded us the opportunity to once again see Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Gazelle and Ostrich, along with a huge Cape Buffalo that insisted upon walking in the middle of the road! We had to pull off to the side of the road to avoid a confrontation. The highlight of my final “wild game tour” came when we spotted a den of young Black Jackal pups sitting alongside the edge of the road. They were really cute as they sat and stared at us – sort of bewildered, but at the same time, overcome with curiosity!

Young Black Jackal pups

It was a perfect way to say farewell to Kenya and the East African plains. All too soon I was boarding Lufthansa flight 581 bound for Frankfurt, continuing on to New York and eventually Los Angeles. As I settled into my Business Class seat, I noticed a young boy walk up beside the Dutch man sitting across the aisle from me. The little boy began “adjusting” the man’s channel selector and volume control of his stereo headset while the man was reading. Suddenly the man looked up to see what was going on, and he laughed! As we flew over Sudan, Libya, Italy and Switzerland, I recalled all the fond memories of my most recent visit to Kenya, a place which remains among my favorite destinations in the world! (Stay tuned for more adventures in Africa!)

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Travels Near and Far – From Star Trek to Victoria Falls

    Late in March of 1999 I boarded a British Airways flight from Los Angeles to London. I’ve been to London several times, but what made this flight special was the fact that I was traveling in First Class, the result of having swapped my Delta Airlines miles with a colleague in order to enable him to take his family back to Poland. As I settled into my seat two flight attendants descended upon me to take my coat and my drink order. Not long after my gin and tonic with a lime was served I noticed some commotion behind me, and as I turned around the flight attendants were excitedly having their photos taken with one of the Oscar winners from the Academy Awards that had taken place the night before. No sooner had the photos been taken than I noticed a couple taking their seats across the aisle from me. All of a sudden I recognized Patrick Stewart ( Captain Picard of “Star Trek – The Next Generation” ). As he settled into his seat across from me I did my best to keep my composure and not rush to say hello and ask for an autograph. In other words, I pretended he was just another First Class passenger like me! Then out of the corner of my eye I could see him searching through his seat back for the entertainment guide, so I grabbed my copy, leaned across the aisle, tapped him on the shoulder, and said “please take my copy”. A short time later he leaned across the aisle, handed back the guide, and asked me which movie I was going to watch. I told him that I planned to watch “Gods and Monsters” which had just won several Oscars last night. Then Captain Picard said, “well I’m going to watch it as well, since my good friend Ian McKellen won the Oscar for best actor”. That’s when I realized Ian McKellen was seated just behind me and who all the flight attendants had been so anxious to have their photograph with.

    After takeoff we were served an incredible dinner, complete with a spectacular plate of French and English cheeses, accompanied by a 40 year old Port. Ironically, we heard the Chief Purser announce over the intercom that the movie in economy class would be “Star Trek Insurrection”, but little did the passengers know that Captain Picard was actually on board their flight! I’m a huge Star Trek fan, so the experience on board this flight forever remains with me. After dinner and the movie I changed into my British Airways “sleeper suit” (aka pajamas) and retired for the night in my bed with a glass of Drambuie. Upon arrival in London the next morning I picked up my bags and headed for the BA arrivals lounge to take a shower, change clothes, and have breakfast. Then it was a short trip aboard the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and a transfer to the Circle Line for a rendezvous with my dear friends Jiggy and Andrew at their flat in Westminster. Over the next couple of days we had a dinner with friends in south London, a day of exploring the incredible castle and gardens of Hampton Court, and a visit to the new “Princess of Wales Orchid Display” in Kew Gardens.

Hampton Court Palace and Gardens
Hampton Court Palace and Gardens

At one point, as we went out for a pint of bitters at the local pub, I spotted a sign on the door which read “Sorry – no soiled clothing”. (draw your own conclusions about the message)

London Pub
London Pub in Westminster

    The next day Jiggy and I headed north on the train from King’s Cross Station to South Willingham, a small village in Lincolnshire where Jiggy lived in “Rosemary Cottage”. It was a beautiful 200 year old stone cottage with a view of the famous Lincoln Cathedral across the “Wolds” from my bedroom window.

Rosemary Cottage in the village of South Willingham
Rosemary Cottage in the village of South Willingham
500 year old church in South Willingham
500 year old church in South Willingham

The next morning Jiggy and I hiked in the Wolds under brilliant sunshine from the small village of Donnington-on-Bain to South Willingham through deep green rolling pastures.

Hiking in the "Wolds" of Lincolnshire
Hiking in the “Wolds” of Lincolnshire

Soon it was time for me to board the train in Market Rasen for the journey to King’s Cross Station and the express train to Heathrow airport.

    The overnight British Airways flight to Johannesburg was another beautiful, relaxing experience in First Class, with a fabulous dinner that featured seared prawns in Brazilian chili sauce, along with an incredible “winter parsnip soup”. The next morning I arrived in South Africa to find sunny skies and warm weather. Two hours later I was on board an Air Zimbabwe flight to Victoria Falls, and as we approached our destination I could see huge plumes of smoke rising several hundred feet into the air above the forest. Or at least I thought it was smoke, but in reality it was it was the spray of water from the falls as the Zambezi River cascades hundreds of feet over the escarpment. At that point it was very clear why the local people named the falls “The Smoke that Thunders”.

"The Smoke That Thunders"
“The Smoke That Thunders”

    For the next 3 days I explored the falls, the rainforest that it creates in the lee of the spray, and the stunning views from a trail that follows the edge of the steep escarpment on the opposite side of the falls. Probably the most intense and vivid memories I have of the experience are the spectacular rainbows that form over the falls and the thunder of the massive volume of water tumbling over 400 feet to the rocks below.

Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls
Double Rainbow over Victoria Falls
Double Rainbow over Victoria Falls

In all, Victoria Falls spans over one mile in length across the Zambezi River, forming the international boundary between Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana. My hotel stay at the lovely Elephant Hills InterContinental was pure luxury where I had a beautiful suite overlooking the golf course and the Zambezi River beyond. I spent mornings walking on the forest trails along the edge of the golf course where I often saw herds of Gazelle and Waterbuck grazing on the fairways. Then there were the troops of Baboons scampering across the putting greens. But the strangest sight was a sign posted next to the water hazard on the 10th hole – “Beware of Crocodiles”.

    The afternoon before leaving for Johannesburg I took a helicopter tour over the falls that provided one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen, made especially so by my good fortune to be seated next to the pilot with a 180 degree view!

Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River from the air
Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River from the air

And later that evening I joined some other hotel guests for a delicious outdoor BBQ featuring meat from several African game animals. The evening was crowned by a gorgeous sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, with elephants and hippos grazing in the tall grasses along the shore as a full moon rose over the land. I could not have wanted for a more special moment, and it remains forever locked in my memories of Africa!

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