Sunday, January 16, 2011

Africa - Maasai Mara National Park

Elizabeth, me, Jambo and Willy
Okay, now I'm impressed. I'm from Alaska, a state whose nickname is "The Great Land". And it is. Big, empty, wild, and crawling with large critters, many dangerous. But the sheer scale of these African plains is mind blowing. The dome of the sky is immense, the landscape dwarfs everything in recent memory and it's packed with wildlife, big, dangerous wildlife. During our one day in Maasai Mara National Park we saw virtually all the animals I had hoped to see during the entire trip. This was a three day trip in which one day (on both ends) was spent traveling over some very poor roads just to get to the park, which is about 350 km from Nairobi. But that one day inside Maasai Mara Park was incredible.

I am traveling with three friends from Homer, Jambo, Willy and Elizabeth, and in the photo above you see us formed up in front of our vehicle, an all-wheel drive, heavy-duty Mercedes diesel truck set up for off road touring.

The first 250 km out of Nairobi are over normal roads, if a bit rough and crowded by most measures. The last 100 or so are rough, very rough. Especially when you're traveling in a big truck, far above the pavement and the truck's center of balance. The driver would get our truck up to maybe 30 mph and then a rough spot would appear and he would hit the brakes, shift into 1st gear and crawl over the pot-hole or sag, the big truck rolling and heaving violently from side to side. The going was very slow during that last part of the trip. I had a great seat -- up front with a good view of the road ahead.

On the road to Maasai Mara.  The pavement was rough and pot-holed.
We had some rain on the way in. Typical of the tropics, it came in fiercely, slashing the windows with big drops, and drumming on the roof.  But before long the sun was back out and the road drying before our eyes. We had a good preview of what was to come when a jackal crossed the road ahead of the speeding truck. Just a few miles after that we spotted some giraffes and Thompson's gazelles. And we were crossing through Maasai grazing land at this point -- we were still far from the treasure that is the Maasai Mara Preserve.

The road to Maasai Mara after the rain-  we're in the African bush at last
Finally at about 6 pm we arrived at Acacia Camp just 1 km outside the park boundary. We were assigned tents and supper was started. After supper our guide, Moses, issued orders to be up by 6 am so we could be finished with breakfast and in the truck by 7 -- the whole next day would be spent in the park.

The tents at Acacia Camp were comfortably fitted out with more or less normal beds and mattresses. The temperatures here in Kenya at this time of year are perfect and due to the high altitude, the air is dry. We had temps in the daytime that ranged from about 70 to 90 degrees while at night it got down into the high 60s -- perfect for sleeping and thankfully not all that friendly to mosquitoes. I reckon I knew this in advance but the altitude around here, including Nairobi, is mostly above 5,000 ft. We're only a degree or two south of the equator which would ordinarily mean hot, humid conditions but here the high altitude effect kicks in and makes for very comfortable days and nights. After a nice supper we turned in and set the alarms for 6 am -- we wanted to get an early start so as to maximize the amount of time spent in the park.

As soon as we crossed into the park proper we began to see wildlife, lots of wildlife. Pictures will tell the story. The first animal we saw, appropriately, was the wildebeest. The Mara River, our furthest destination within the park that day, is famous for the fact that migrating herds of wildebeest cross it and when they do, they fall prey to crocodiles that are plentiful along its shores. The big migrations occur in July so we won't see that spectacle during our time here, but check out the photos below for a taste of the drama of the river crossing.

Wildebeest - Masai Mara
Mara River shore - bone yard for deceased wildebeests
After the wildebeests we saw so many animals - cheetahs, elephants, lions, ostriches, warthogs, spectacular birds, cape buffalo, impala, zebra, giraffe, the list goes on. Near the end of the day we came close to a black rhino, a lucky break according to Moses. We tried to get closer but the beast was skittish and trotted off before we could get close enough to photograph it.

A cheetah with her two cubs

The Cape Buffalo - one of the most dangerous of big game animals 

I thought we had been very fortunate to have seen a cheetah right away and then just after that, we saw cape buffalo. When I was a hunter many years ago, I remember reading about how the cape buffalo was considered the most dangerous big game animal in the world. I can't vouch for that but these animals are most impressive. I never thought I would ever see one in the flesh, yet here they were, a herd of about twenty animals, quietly grazing in the protected confines of the park. Awesome!

And then, just a few hundred meters from where we saw the cheetahs, lions! It was a group of three males, perhaps brothers Moses said. Here are two of them.

I imagine you're getting the idea floating around in my head by now. This place is a paradise, but a fragile one. It's a preserve, a last holdout against man's incessant incursions. A treasure. A treasure like Alaska's North Slope, like the Galapagos, the Brazilian rainforest. A threatened treasure. Even we benevolent tourists threaten the balance. That cheetah was bothered by us, and bothered all day by people like us, people interested in preserving species but by our actions,  threatening her very survival. Did she hunt that day? I doubt it.

Yes, we saw elephants that day as well. No big bulls as yet but we enjoyed seeing them just the same.

Elephants grazing in Maasai Mara
I recognized the impala by noting that the male's horns looked like the emblem on a  62 Chevy Impala, my first car. Eventually, after many bumpy miles, the road led to the junction of the Mara River with the border of Tanzania. We stopped for lunch there and saw yet another animal I had not thought we'd see, the hippo. (Note: We saw hundreds of hippos in subsequent days.)

Hippos on the Mara River

On the way back to camp that evening, we saw a hyena laying right next to the road. We had seen one other earlier in the day chasing a wildebeest. This one spooked as soon as we stopped the truck so this photo was taken from some distance --- I include it because it is the only shot I have of this bizarre looking predator.

I must close now. My batteries are about done and it's late. We depart early tomorrow for the 21-day safari we signed up for last summer, the actual trip. We'll go first to the Serengeti in Tanzania, of which Maasai Mara is only a small northern extension, and then to the Ngonongoro Crater. And Zanzibar after that.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Africa - Nairobi

I arrived in Nairobi early this morning after one of the most uncomfortable flights I've ever experienced. Kenya Airways may call itself  "The Pride of Africa" but apparently comfortable seating isn't part of what they take pride in. My knees were jammed into the seat ahead of me for 9 long hours. I caught a few hours of fitful sleep but when those wheels finally touched the runway at Jomo Kenyatta Airport I was the happiest man on that airplane.  I quickly grabbed a taxi ride from the airport to our hotel, The Kenya Comfort Hotel, in city center. I walked in to the hotel restaurant at about 7:30 am and caught Willy,  Jambo and Elizabeth having breakfast. It was good to see them after all the planning, emails, and hours of travel from our respective origins for this meeting in Nairobi. And how very strange to see these friends here rather than at our weekly saunas at Kirk's. I'm sure the feeling was mutual. After a nap and lunch we met up with Moses, who will be our guide for the first part of our adventure extravaganza, a 3-day trip to Masai Mara. This park is the northern extension into Kenya of Tanzania's famous Serengeti Park. We'll leave tomorrow morning after breakfast. Moses thinks we will see elephant hyena, giraffe, zebra, oryx, and impala. If lucky we might see a  black rhino, cheetah, or leopard. We'll also visit a Masai  village. Tomorrow will also bring me my first view of the famous African veldt I've been reading and hearing about since childhood.

I have no photos to post as yet but have some first impressions. This ain't Thailand. LOL I'm in a big city and it's busy and crowded. The people here aren't as friendly as the Thais and we foreigners stand out more because they are fewer of us here than in Bangkok. Rather than the smiles I've become so accustomed to there one gets mostly stares here; some are merely curious, others less so. It's the contrast I think I'm reacting to. I didn't get friendly smiles in Paris either. I'm curious to see if rural people are more open than these city folks. It's also more expensive than Thailand. Our hotel room is costing $95 USD for example. We're four of us sharing a smallish room, which drops the rate considerably, but it's still expensive if you consider the fact that this place would probably be classed as a 2-star hotel tops. A Tusker beer I had during dinner cost about $2 but at only 4.2% alcohol, Tusker is both weak and bland. I'm missing my Leo and Singha already.

I'm sure the Internet access we;ll have will be spotty so I'm not sure how or when I'll make my next post.  Eventually something will appear in this spot, something I'm betting will be quite a bit different from my usual entry.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I buy a refrigerator in Bangkok

I know, that's a strange name for a travel blog post. Let me explain.

As you know if you've been reading this blog for any length of time I've been traveling for the past few months with Nut, my beautiful Thai girlfriend. It's been a wonderful experience getting to know her and, at this point after spending every minute of every day and night for 3 months together, I'm feeling very connected to her. When I left Bangkok last spring I had only spent a few weeks with Nut. I was infatuated with her, sure. After all she's an exotic lover, a Thai woman 20 years younger than me, so very unlike any other woman I've ever been with. We kept in touch over the summer via Skype but as the time for my return drew closer I began to wonder just where this relationship could ever go. There is this huge language and culture gap separating us for one thing. Also, given my history, I'm more than a little bit cynical about relationships at this stage. But it's always a turn on to "ride the wave" as a good friend confided to me one day concerning her new love affair. Who doesn't enjoy that feeling of being swept up in something big and new and romantic? It was in this frame of mind that I met up with Nut after our six-month separation. Long story short, things have worked out better than I ever expected. We're still together and I'm growing fonder of her every day. As Nut is fond of saying, "We can't know the future. We just accept whatever happens day by day." 

Getting back to the refrigerator story. Before we went to Cambodia last month her apartment was broken into. My guess is that some local guy had seen me, a wealthy tourist in his mind, coming and going and one day when we left her place to have breakfast he seized his opportunity and ripped out the wire mesh in a window to gain entry.  Nut had decided to return from breakfast alone leaving me at the cafe to do Internet stuff and surprised the would-be burglar inside her room. He ran off without hurting her and got nothing. I had only about 80 bucks in my suitcase and had my camera and computer with me but our passports, my extra credit cards, and my GPS were inside. We caught a very lucky break, two lucky breaks actually because Nut wasn't hurt. But from that point on I carried all my most important stuff with me whenever we left the place and I never left her there alone again. It was time to find a new place.

In this area of Bangkok, Banglamphu, there are many apartment buildings. Actually, apartments as we know them stateside, are fairly rare here, at least for ordinary people. Most live in one room flats like the we just moved to. Anyway, after a few days of walking the neighborhoods we hit on this place -- a nice, partially furnished room at ground level, all tile, with A/C and wi-fi Internet, a big bathroom, and a very private, completely tiled patio where Nut can wash clothes and cook. It's in a quiet neighborhood yet only a short walk to the big tourist center of Khaosan Road where Nut will work after I return to Alaska. And it's on the shady side of the building so the sun doesn't roast the place all day, a big consideration for this large farang. Her old room was tiny, stiflingly hot, and had a bathroom I could barely squeeze into, not to mention the narrow and exceedingly steep stairway to the second floor. This place seems heavenly by comparison.

Nut doesn't own much in the way of furniture. She sold most of her stuff when her marriage broke up a number of years ago. This place came with a desk and table and chairs and a comfortable king size bed but I needed a refrigerator to keep my beer cold. And Nut has cooking skills, extensive cooking skills it turns out, that I wanted to enjoy. Off we went to the local department store, Tang Hua Seng, which reminded me of a older Sears Roebuck's, where we bought a small Panasonic fridge. It cost 5,000 baht, about $150 USD. We added a nifty induction hot plate for another 1,000 and as I pushed my Visa card toward the clerk I asked if they could deliver the fridge.
"No problem", replied the salesman, "we can deliver today."
"Great. When today?"
"Right now."
"Wow!," I replied, surprised by his answer. "But we have a bit more shopping to do."
He wrote down his cell number and said as he handed it to Nut, "Call me when you're ready and we'll meet you outside. You can ride with us in the truck and show the way."

We picked up a few more things, a mop and broom, a bath mat, a dish towel, the sorts of things you always buy when moving to a new place. After about 20 minutes Nut made the call to tell him we were ready.
"Watch for us downstairs. We'll be out in a minute". A moment or two passed and out came our new refrigerator in its shipping carton with the salesman and a helper, another appliance salesman, pushing it along on a two-wheeled cart out onto the street. I'm already regretting I don't  have my camera because the sight of these two salesmen in white shirts and ties actually delivering the refrigerator they just sold to me is such a far cry from what happens stateside that I wanted to capture the whole improbable scene. As if that isn't crazy enough, he signals to a passing tuk-tuk and when it pulls to the curb he begins to negotiate the delivery with the driver.

Thus I learned there would be no truck involved in this delivery. Instead the lowly pick-up truck of urban Thailand, the tuk-tuk, usually powered by a noisy, smoking 2-stroke engine, invariably operated by drivers who rev those engines incessantly at a red light, and I must add here, a vehicle thoroughly despised by my friend Albie, was to deliver our purchase. The driver lowered the tailgate and together with the salesmen strapped our fridge onto it. Although bulky, it's a small unit only weighing about 90 pounds so the load isn't as heavy as it appears. Of course we're all riding together in the tiny vehicle so Nut and I hop into the small cab with our bags of other purchases. Our salesman wedged himself in beside us while the other guy hangs himself off one side of the driver's seat. Off we go to make the most bizarre appliance delivery I've ever heard tell of.

The tuk-tuk drove us right up to our doorstep and the salesmen muscled the carton to our doorway where they unpacked it and walked it through the door. They plugged it in and after assuring themselves that it was in good working order, departed in the tuk-tuk. The store picked up the tab for the delivery, as promised. Imagine this happening in the states. I don't think so.

Giancarlo and Albie with me and Nut and the new fridge
We had a little gathering the other night, an impromptu housewarming, attended by our friends Albie, Walter and Phil, from Homer, along with Henry, who introduced Nut to me last spring, and Giancarlo, an Italian expat and like the rest of us, a lover of Thailand. This is the group I hang out with when in Bangkok and by now they all know and like Nut a lot. Here are a few scenes from that celebration.

Henry at the housewarming - Nut and Walter in the background
Walter at the Gecko Bar next night
Phil at the Gecko Bar
Anyway, that's the story. Nut and I are really enjoying our quiet and cool apartment. We've been picking up little things here and there-- a wicker chair, a folding table for the patio, some cookware. Bangkok's become very comfortable all of a sudden. When it gets hot later in February we'll just use the aircon but for now we leave the sliding glass doors open day and night. It doesn't get much better than this.

I'm off to Africa in a few days. I'll be back in a month but I'll miss Nut a ton while I'm away. I booked my return flight for Mar 31st. I'll miss the Songkran festival this year but by then it's just too blasted hot in Bangkok for this farang. Okay, signing off for now -- next post will be from somewhere in Africa.