Just Out Of Africa

My family and I just returned from an amazing trip to Rwanda and Kenya. It’s not my first journey to the dark continent. Over the past decade, we also trekked in Tanzania and South Africa.

The current trip consisted of two parts. On the Rwanda safari, we hiked up a mountain to observe the famous silverback gorillas. In Kenya, we rode in a truck in search of lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, numerous grazing animals, baboons, hippos and magnificent birds. Also, in Kenya we visited a Masai community. More about that adventure later.

Getting to Rwanda from New York is an exhausting trip. We flew 7 hours from JFK to Brussels, Belgium, and then, 7 to 8 hours to Nairobi, Kenya. And then flew to Kigali, Rwanda.

In the morning, we rose early for breakfast and prepared to seek out mountain gorillas. Some live on plains and some in the mountains. The silverback designation relates to the silver hair that grows on the adult males.

The alpha male is a majestic creature of nature that can weigh up to 600 pounds of solid muscle. For such large animals, they are excellent climbers that put on a terrific show of agility. Their athleticism enables the gorillas to find nourishment in the lofty branches of bamboo trees. At times, we were just several feet from the gorillas and totally unprotected. The animals are accustomed to the presence of humans and totally ignored us. The alpha male, incredibly, walked right by me. I could have touched him, but I didn’t think it was such a good idea. He was interested in his female mate at the time.

The gorillas are responsible for a huge source of tourism revenues to Rwanda and local businesses. Conservation of them and the other animals is a most important priority for the Rwanda economy. Interestingly, those who come into contact with gorillas must wear face masks to protect the animals from Covid.

You must earn the right to see the mountain gorillas by scaling a hill that is covered in deep forest.

Each visitor is assigned a tour guide that leads about 8 people, along with a porter for every person. The walk up and down the hill is a grueling activity. The ground is steep, slippery, and fraught with loose vines. There are about 10 groups each day, 80 people in all. Numerous families of gorillas prowl the area totaling over 1,000.

Dian Fossey, a researcher and primatologist is universally credited to be the savior of the mountain gorilla’s race. There is a museum dedicated to her memory that has been funded in part by Ellen DeGeneres, Leo DiCaprio, and other celebrities. She was very aggressive in her efforts to protect the gorillas and was murdered in 1985 by a still unknown assailant.

After three days at our first destination, we travelled by helicopter and plane to Kenya. Generally, the roads in this part of Africa are rugged to say the least. Land Cruisers are the choice of most guides on the unpaved roads. We checked into our quarters after a bumpy ride on a dirt road. The runway was not paved either. The drive took about 1/2 of half an hour. On the way, we saw various grazing animals including wildebeest and zebra. Unlike Rwanda, the land is relatively flat with intermittent treed areas.

The next morning, we set out to observe the various species of animals in the area. It just so happens that the migration of grazing animals was just beginning. Wildebeest, then zebra, then antelope will March in order across the open plains and be attacked by hungry and determined predators. The grazing animals travel in huge herds. There is some  safety in numbers, unless an animal is injured.

We were blessed on our visit to Kenya. We approached lions, just 10 or 20 feet from them. An alpha male lion roared a few times, and it was incredibly loud. He was warning other lions to beware.

We witnessed a female leopard feeding on an antelope She was very protective of her kill. Later we met the leopard’s two adorable cubs.  We saw a cheetah stalking prey on the plains. He was a big male and was targeting animals that he could kill by himself. We were no more than 5 or 10 feet from the aforementioned cats.

The next morning, we visited a Masai compound. There were about 200 people living in the community. The women and children formed a huge ring to present their wares that included carved animals, beaded trinkets and jewelry. We bought some items, and I gave my Dartmouth baseball cap to the wife of the of the tribal chief. She loved it. Maybe someday a Masai warrior will attend an Ivy League university, if one has not already been a student. We also danced with the young women of the tribe. I rarely dance much these days, but I felt the urge to step it out with these young gals. They didn’t think I was a very good dancer though. I struggled with the African beat.

The 1.2 million Masai are moving rapidly into the 21st century. They are adopting western customs, interfacing with other Africans more frequently and even serving in Kenyan politics. They are a resourceful group that is slowly changing their society. We certainly appreciated their hospitality.

The trip, although exhausting and rugged, was sensational. Specific itineraries can be constructed to accommodate older people (like me) and young children. The plane rides unfortunately will probably exhaust everybody.