Out of Africa, Over the Rainbow
by Metty Pellicer, February 2005
On our last day in Zanzibar, while sitting on a deck gently rocked by the lapping of waves, sipping our first cup of coffee, after an early morning beach walk to greet the sunrise, a spectacular rainbow swathed the sky, plunging into the horizon of the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. It was visible only for a brief moment as the rising sun swallowed it swiftly, but it gave much excitement to the moment, as our adventure in Africa was coming to an end. A stripe of many colors, how fitting an image to paint the picture of the memories of these last two weeks.
I arrived in Nairobi at 8:30 PM of the next day, East Africa being seven hours ahead of EST. After a journey of 8500 miles and an eighteen-hour flight from Atlanta via Amsterdam, I barely slept. I watched four movies en route, and had wine with the four meals I consumed on board. Furthermore, the wait for my luggage and visa processing was chaotic and very long. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was very basic and merely functional, a stark departure from the gleaming and entertaining Schiphol, where many amusements were offered. There was a casino, trendy shops loaded with international goods and movable exhibits of the Rijksmuseum. On exhibit was art from the Dutch golden age including Jan Vermeer and his Girl with the Pearl Earrings. There were internet stations, restaurants, bars and coffee shops, sleek toilets and showers, a lounging area where you can stretch and snooze, a massage lounge, banks, currency exchange and ATM’s, and attentive and customer-centered service. I was exhausted as I took a taxi to my hotel. However, less than five minutes on the road to the city center, the taxi headlight shone on a magnificent black and white striped horse standing and facing us. A Zebra! It was so unexpected and so amazing that all fatigue left me. I knew then that I was off to a great adventure.
Our Kenya and Tanzania experience covered over 2200 km. in fourteen days, trucking and camping from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam and four days in Zanzibar. Driving to our destination was long and bumpy and dusty, as many places in our itinerary were not accessible by bus, train, or air. To experience the immense diversity that East Africa had to offer, we used a custom-fitted Mercedes overland truck that was a veritable hotel on wheels. The space under the seats were built with locked storage bins where we unpacked our luggage. The back rests were built with shelves which stored groceries and dry foods and condiments. The outside panels of the truck had shelves and storage under it and it also housed the water tank, fuel tank, coal bin and the camp stools and tents. When we opened camp, the side panels went up and all things were on hand for making dinner. Peter, our camp assistant, was an African from Tanzania. He was amazing in the camp kitchen. Without a Cuisinart or an oven he prepared pureed soups, mashed peas and vegetables, and even baked a cake. Though he did the cooking and heavy cleaning, we all pitched in doing chores. It was a novelty for me to be camping and I didn’t know what to expect. The first night, after driving down the escarpment of the Rift Valley, we pitched tent on the edge of Lake Naivasha. I laid awake listening to strange sounds and sensing the presence of living things outside my tent. I was told the next morning that hyenas and hippos were in the vicinity.
The trip I booked was midway between the really basic camping and the luxury safari. I figured the basic was too rough and the luxury, aside from being very expensive, would not offer the authentic experience of the wilderness. We camped in organized campsites except for two nights in the wild, where there were absolutely no amenities that we had to forego showers. In organized campsites there were showers and toilets and electricity, and some had bars. A few had upgrades for basic lodging with en suite bath which I availed myself of whenever offered. Camping got old very quickly. One upgrade was in the farm campsite in Kembu, which was a charming 1 ½ story cottage. With a twin bedroom on the main level and a queen loft with a veranda, and a kitchen, I shared this with two crazy guys from Vancouver. Our cook didn’t serve brewed coffee, which I missed terribly, so it was a treat to have a kitchen where I brewed fresh Kenyan coffee for the three of us. In Mikadi, near Dar es Salaam, I upgraded to a palm-thatched beach hut. Here breaking waves lapped at my doorstep, the sea breeze caressed me to sleep and the warm sunrise woke me up in the morning. In Kilimanjaro, I booked a cottage built in colonial times with extensive grounds planted with bougainvillea and hibiscus. From a large bar with cushioned couches to lounge in, I watched a bird man feed an orphaned falcon with raw meat.
At first camp, I identified my travel buddies, the Truckin’ Thrashers. They were a motley group of comedians who needed a female audience so their excesses at scatological and lewd allusions would not descend into the gutter. There was the monologist whose string was played masterfully by the artful picker and aided in harmony by the sidekick. The ensemble was completed by the passionate force of our man from Puglia. We sat around late into the night after everyone had zipped themselves into their sleeping bags. Cracking in mirth around the campfire or in the bar, we had been scolded about propriety and to mind our manners. The jokes and the laughs were all about the same things, to conquer sexual anxieties and homophobia and to titillate with erotic fantasies. I smiled at them with indulgence even if I was tempted to wash their mouths with soap. In their other lives, away from the guy group, they could be quite lovable men. I’d remember them fondly, for they made me feel special on this trip and the pleasure was mine.
Jambo! Karibu! Hello! Welcome! in Swahili. From Nairobi, we drove down to the Rift Valley on bumpy pot-holed roads. The shanty suburbs was teeming with activity of the market on Sunday. Kenya looked very poor. I was reminded of the squatter district in Tondo, Manila, with its dirt-floored huts with corrugated aluminum roofs and salvaged cardboard walls. Children waved and ran after the truck, laughing in merriment. The people were very friendly. Everyone on the street saluted and greeted us. However, tourism had corrupted some of them. In cities and tourist areas they were intrusive and accosted us with offerings of service or goods for sale. I got lost in the labyrinthine alleys of Zanzibar and I asked a little girl, about eleven or twelve years old, for directions. She asked for money first before showing me my way. On the other hand, one of us left a camera in the Land Rover in Ngorongoro. Our African driver returned it promtly. But the taxi driver on the way to Dar es Salaam airport quoted 15000 shillings when I engaged him, which I verified clearly, then tried to rip me off by demanding 50000 when I got off. I prevailed.
The Rift Valley took my breath away. It was formed 20 million years ago by a violent tear of the Arabian and African tectonic plates and ripped the earth from Syria to Mozambique. In its wake volcanoes and lakes and mountains and vast plains were formed. Serengeti, the endless plains or siringit, as the Masai called it, was an ocean of undulating golden grass from horizon to horizon and beyond, as big as Belgium, as big as Ohio. Its surface was dotted by kopjes, charcoal gray volcanic rock outcroppings that took on fanciful shapes and precarious positions as they were molded by changing temperatures through the millenniums. The immense landscape of grass was relieved by the graceful spreading crown of acacia trees. It was the season of migration. Around January and February 1.6 million wildebeests, and hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles, impalas, topis, waterbucks, hartebeests, buffaloes, warthogs, and giraffes march from Masai Mara in Kenya to Serengeti and Ngorongoro in Tanzania. They followed the rains to graze in the new vegetation and mate and give birth. Later in the year the reverse trip occurred as the rains turned north. It was dazzling to drive amongst these wild animals and see them up close and personal. There were wildebeests everywhere. They were massed in front of us and behind us, and surrounded us. Against the horizon, thousands of them trudged along in a file, following the one in front of them from nose to tail. They didn’t bother us and seemed not to be bothered by us. They gave way for the truck to pass through. We came upon a family of giraffes, lumbering and very tall and very colorful. They fed on acacia trees and sucked water from the tall cactus. Click and whirr, the cameras snapped. It was fatal for giraffes to lower their heads so they could not drink from the ground. We camped in the wild and set out before the sun was up to look for the predators, and to observe them as they stalked their prey and made their kill. With serendipitous timing, we spotted a lion as it was walking away after gorging on its kill of an impala. Two hyenas emerged from the bushes and helped themselves with the carcass. Meanwhile, vultures hovered silently and patiently. They perched still on treetops, vigilant, ready to pounce as soon as the hyenas had their fill. In a moment we heard shrieks and the rush of wings. About twenty vultures swooped into the abandoned remains in a feeding frenzy. In the distance the lion was walking away in a relaxed stride, looking for a cool spot under an acacia tree to rest and sleep, his hunger satiated for the next three days. Our guide spotted for us a solitary leopard up in a tree. Jackals and more lions and hyenas completed our morning. We felt invigorated seeing a kill here and other evidence of it with abandoned carcasses of downed wildebeests and antelopes, but in the alleys of Zanzibar, we were repulsed and turned away from a cat feeding on its kill of an alley rat.
We took a boat cruise On Lake Naivasha, one of the many lakes in the Rift Valley, where hippos and birds could be easily spotted. We identified the fish eagle, ibis, kingfisher, various sea gull and pelicans, superb starlings, sparrows, an owl and a flock of the weird huge bird, the maribu stork. We visited Elsamere, on the other side of the lake, the former home of Joy Adamson, of “Born Free” fame, now a conservation center. We had tea on its lawn, where colobus monkeys stood alert to steal our crumpets, then playfully grinned and made faces at us. In lake Nakuru, a soda lake, we beheld the dazzling sight of thousands of feeding flamingos, swathing the edge of the lake with a ribbon of pink. There were mean rhinos in the near distance, known to attack with the least provocation. We had to walk behind the cover of the truck, to keep them at bay. We had lunch high on a kopje, and feasted on a sweeping panoramic view of all these grandeur. We spotted the rock hyrax, a tiny strange rodent-like animal, the nearest relative of the elephant, believe it or not! And elephants, we saw herds of them, feeding on acacia trees and bulldozing the landscape.
We camped for a night on the banks of Lake Victoria, the second largest fresh water lake in the world. Next in size to Lake Superior, as big as Ireland, and bordered by three countries, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, it was the source of the headwaters of the Nile. With a glass of wine, we pondered the romance of its waters, flowing through the legendary river in the land of the Pharaohs, as we watched its spectacular sunset unfold before us.
We left Serengeti to drive to Ngorongoro, a collapsed crater 16 km wide and with steep walls 600 meters high. We camped at the rim of the crater before descending in five-man land-rovers early the next morning. As we opened camp, three zebras galloped across our site and hyenas laughed and kept us awake all night. But the night was magnificent with the pitch black sky and brilliant constellations so clear and shooting stars drawing a bright flash across the horizon. I was reminded of Van Gogh’s swirling starry night. We descended the crater in the early morning mist. The sunrise peeked out of the caldera’s rim and illuminated the lake below in muted surreal light. Ahh, I had no care in the world. I could live like the Masai who were allowed to graze and water their cattle herd in the Ngorongoro reserve. The Masai man led his cattle from the village to the water every morning, laid in the shade and waited for every animal to finish grazing, then herded them back to the village at night, to repeat the same thing everyday. The women remained in the village and built their mud and dung huts, cooked, gathered wood, fetched water and tended the children. On second thought, I’d like to take back my wish.
Ngorongoro was a natural zoo with about 100,000 animals living permanently there and swelling in numbers during migration. The elephant population was old, all males, as the females stayed up to be with the children, as once down they could not climb the steep walls of the crater. Similarly there were no giraffes. It was disconcerting to see everyone here. Land-rovers in huge numbers darted here and there in stalk of animal specimen. Unlike in the Serengeti, where it was so vast, we seldom saw anyone else. There were three van-loads of Korean tourists. If a party spotted anything of interest it was relayed to the guides in other vehicles and everyone scrambled to the site. It was gridlock. It spoiled the experience for me, but it illustrated the dilemma for tourism in this country. It was a poor country and needed dollar exchange revenue badly. It had limited habitable land, and population was growing fast, yet they have reserved vast wild parklands for protection, for the rest of the world to experience.There was no place on earth like this, unchanged from the day of the big bang or from when god created it, depending on your persuasion. It could be the birthplace of humankind, based on finding “Lucy” near here.
We paused at the hippo pool for lunch and were warned to guard our meal from the black Kites, scavenger birds who had learned to steal the lunches of tourists. I barely lowered myself to sit on a driftwood under a tree when a Kite swooped from nowhere and ripped the two sandwich bags from my hands, nearly amputating my fingers. “Shit, there goes my lunch!” Later on, I was still fuming as I told the story, when something dropped at my feet. It was one of the bags, with a piece of bread crust still in it. I looked up where it came from, and over my head, up there in the tree, was the bird, amused, at my expense. And then, I felt something trickling down my legs. Guano, the bird’s chalky excrement! Such nerve, I got no respect.
It was a long drive to Kilimanjaro but I was filled with anticipation. I recalled Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro”, the movie with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward and Ava Gardner. I saw it as an adolescent in the Philippines, and I fell in love with it! I had yearnings then of going to Africa, and to see the world, and here I was, right in its bosom. I had to climb Kili. It was the highest free-standing mountain in the world at 19335 ft (5895 m), rising from the hot savannah and rolling plains of the Great Rift Valley to its frigid snow-covered peak. One could climb it without mountaineering skills but one had to be fit and could stand sustained running for half an hour. The altitude could be a killer. It took four hours to reach Mandara. I was huffing and puffing and stopped every twenty steps for the last thirty minutes, to catch my breath. Pole-pole, slowly, in Swahili, that was how you finished. I never acclimatized to the low oxygen tension, climbing only to 2700 m, up to Mandara base camp, in the Marangu route. I would not climb my dear Kili to its snow-capped peak after all. The descent was a cinch. There was a refreshing drizzle, and breathing easier, I took in the beauty of the tropical lushness along the way.
After ten days of camping, we were weary and ready to relax on the beach of Zanzibar. The drive was long, through sisal, coffee and tea plantations, before descending to sea level and confronting the heat and humidity.
We reached the port of Dar es Salaam, a busy city teeming with people and honking vehicles. Up until this point we encountered only occasional trucks and buses on the road. There were no private cars on the highway in Africa. The locals walked to their destinations, long walks sometimes on bare feet. From Dar we took a two-hour ferry ride to cross the channel to Zanzibar. The ferry was packed. There were custom checks and bag inspections. The locals elbowed their way through and did not queue. The population stank with a peculiar body odor which gave me a headache. I was soaked with sweat as I had to cover my knees and arms, in deference to the custom of the majority Muslim population on the coast. We were held in an airless packed compartment, six to a row, and the sailing was more choppy than usual, we were told. I needed to breathe. I got out of my seat and stood on the deck among the crates and sacks and chickens in cages. Sa-id, the ticket conductor invited me to the bow of the ferry where there was a better view and where I could sit on a stair and face the horizon. I remembered my grandfather, who was a fisherman, “ To avoid getting seasick, face the horizon.”, a lifelong lesson which made me seaworthy. On the way to the bow, I had to pass through the galley and got to meet the captain and the officers. Captain Chile was chatty. We had a long conversation. He informed me that Coretta King had died. That was Thursday, February 2.
There were no more gigolos on the beaches of Zanzibar. That went with the Aga Khan and Rita Hayworth. Zanzibar was steeped in exotic and ignominious history. In its heyday, it was a busy and rich trading post for cloves and other spices, ivory and slaves. It was ruled by sultans and sheiks who lived in gilded palaces. It was a tropical island with bananas and coconut trees, white fine sand beaches and the red colobus monkey. But it was run down and faded like an old dowager who had lost her fortune. It was slowly crumbling into ruins. But I could imagine how it could be a jewel if restored and cared for. Stone Town, with its narrow alleys and remains of grand houses, with intricately carved doors accented by brass finials, could be imagined to be once magnificent and shining. But alas many sections were in ruins with the dwelling’s guts exposed and inhabited by alley cats. It had become receptacles for the ubiquitous used plastic bags that littered every place. The oceanside park was inhabited by locals who squatted or napped there all day. I was aggressively pursued with touts of tours or goods or taxi for hire. At night it was lovely from a distance with the night fish market and bazaar, but it was intimidating for the tourist to stroll through. There was a program unveiled for restoration, but the government had no money and had no private benefactors to do the massive work. It was such a pity for it was a world heritage site. However there was a Freddie Mercury restaurant, the local world recording artist celebrity. There were several fine restaurants housed in the few restored grand houses, and the meals were cheap and the South African wines were great, as the beers, Kilimanjaro and Tusker. I tried their Chinese restaurant, and it felt strange not to have pork on the menu. The newly appointed Minister of Agriculture was being honored at the next table. There was a nice shopping section but there were no unique blings to buy. Tanzania was not the place to buy Tanzanite jewelry. There were no chic shops. New York and Las Vegas had the best designs in Tanzanite. In Stone Town, the slave market was conducted and in Prison Island, recalcitrant slaves were held until shipped to the New World.
To cap our safari, off we went to the beach in Nungwi, north of the island, 1 ½ hours from Stone Town. It took determination to get there. The road was dusty and bumpy and pot-hole ridden, passing through little villages of thatched huts and roadside vegetable stands. In Nungwi Village our accommodations were third rate but adequate. Nearby, a twenty minute walk on the beach, was a new international caliber resort, Gemma del Est, with competitive international 5-star rates, but expensive by local standards. Regardless of where one stayed, the beach was the picture of paradise; endless and broad white stretch of fine sand, turquoise waters, clear blue sky, coconut trees curtsying to the sand, and quiet coves where no one else was there but me. I spent the day following a snail as it crossed a sand ripple, watched a spindly sea urchin roll on its many spines, studied shallow pools formed by the receding tide, turned over stones to coax colorful fish out in the open, picked shells, stalked sand crabs to its hole, dug for clams, looked for starfish in different colors, picked brilliant broken off corals, read a book, dozed and dreamt, cooled by the gentle breeze and listening to the rhythmic lapping of the waves.
I arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson in a downpour, and learned that my sister was boycotting her daughter’s wedding, that my son and his girlfriend had broken up, that my Philippine Foundation executive director had resigned, and Coretta King was dead. I was back to my life, but on that last day in Zanzibar the rainbow dipped into the horizon and I thought the other end might be found in the Amazon.
Posted by Miman at 3:45 PM