By Lisa Sonne
"Giraffe at 1 o'clock!"
pointed excitedly from the open top space of our Safari van. Our driver
and guide, Mungai Njungo, had already slowed down on the bumpy dirt
road that seemed to stretch ahead to nowhere but took us everywhere.
His keen Kikuyu eyes spotted animals before we did, but he let us enjoy
our own sense of discovery.
we got closer, a giraffe neck taller than a person swung up from behind
the bushes. Then, another giraffe emerged, and another, until there
When I zoomed in with my camera, I saw delicate
eyelashes. The gawky yet graceful creatures ignored us as they grazed,
and we gazed. We were in Kenya's Amboseli National Park and had already
stopped for families of stately African elephants to cross our path.
Ears flapped, tails swished, trunks swung.
Sheltered between the
tusked behemoths were two "little" babies. The smallest of them simply
fell over at one point, as if forgetting for a moment how to walk. The
youngster rose quickly and carried on with the herd.
and majestic, all seemed unfazed by our presence. There were four of us
humans clicking away as we shot them (with cameras, not guns). We were
part of a larger group of 200 international journalists who were
invited by the Kenyan Tourist Board to visit as soon as internal
politics stabilized a bit and the U.S. State Department eased their
A coalition co-presidency was set up to end
Kenya's violent civil disturbances. Last December's disputed election
triggered more than 1,000 deaths and the displacement of hundreds of
thousands of nationals. Although no tourists were reported harmed, the
tourist industry itself was a casualty. Operators and managers I spoke
with cited visitor decreases ranging from 45-90 percent.
has been a billion-dollar-a-year industry for the country. At stake are
the livelihoods of workers and their families, the tribal centers that
sell crafts, and the animal reserves that count on visitors to send a
strong message that protecting animals is more profitable than poaching
As the country tries to rebuild socially, it is asking
the tourists of the world to help it rebuild economically — not with
long-distance hand-outs but by visiting firsthand and spending money.
In a country where the average income is less than 120 shillings (about
$2 US) a day, tips alone can affect family life.
weeklong journey in southern Kenya took us in Safari vans from Nairobi,
a modern city of almost 3 million, to the 400-year-old coastal port of
Mombasa. The trip would have been about 520 kilometers (323 miles) if
driven directly. But we added side trips to lava flows, tribal
homesteads and hippo hangouts. We also enjoyed several "game drives"
before flying Kenya Air for an easy return to Nairobi.
called "game drives" because we drove past game animals in their
natural habitats. Ironically, we were the ones captive, in our metal
cage with wheels. Out in the bush, we were not allowed to leave the
vehicle without special permission. There may have been man-eating
lions, testy buffalo and mothers aggressively protecting their young in
On our second day of game drives, we rounded a bend to
see a 6-foot ostrich in the road. Behind the huge, feathered drumstick
of a creature was a mesmerizing mosaic of moving black and white lines
— a group of zebras.
A fellow passenger, Lorne Mallin, gave
new meaning to "road trip" by beginning to keep track of all the
animals we found in the road. Even Robert Burch, who had been on
"better safaris" during his more than 60 trips to Africa, was not jaded
when we spotted a striking fringe-eared oryx. This creature was a
"first" for him, and he excitedly captured multiple images of its
distinct facial markings and long, straight horns.
word "safari" is actually Swahili for "travel" or "journey." The "Big
Five" for hunters to bag were lions, buffalos, elephants, leopards and
rhinos. During my short trip, I captured four with my camera, missing
only the swift leopard.
Nevertheless, I was moved beyond
counting when I saw giraffes, zebras, hyenas, warthogs, bat-eared fox,
kudu, dik-dik, waterbucks, hartebeests, impalas, gazelles, blue
monkeys, Vervet monkeys and baboons. When we stopped at the oasis of
Mzima Springs, I even observed hippos and crocodiles in the wild.
ended up watching most of the animals featured in "Lion King" including
the hornbill bird (the animated major domo Zazu). But this was real
live action, not a cartoon. We smelled the grasses, felt the caked dust
dissolve to mud on our perspiration and, sometimes, when we stopped the
van, we could hear the animals.
We were in some of the most
beautiful landscapes of the movie "Out of Africa," which was set and
filmed in Kenya. My vistas sometimes expanded to infinity and took me
with them in every direction.
The flat-topped acacia trees
punctuated the long grassy parchments of earth with tales we are almost
illiterate in now. But we sense the ancient story. Kenya is sometimes
called the "cradle of humanity." Dr. Richard Leakey found human bones
there that speak of our earliest origins. Some primal memory seems
scratched in the magnetic draw of the place.
"When I return to
Kenya, I feel like I am coming home; East Africa has become my place of
refuge and renewal," David Dolan told me before I left. The chairman of
the Southern California chapter of the Explorers Club has been to Kenya
The country also is trying to be a place
of sanctuary for animals. Kenya now has 59 animal parks and reserves,
one of the largest concentrations in the world. We only had time to
visit Amboseli and Tsavo West and East as a group.
On our free
day, I opted for a day-trip out of Nairobi along the commanding Rift
Valley to Lake Nakuru National Park. It is the renowned home of
countless pink flamingos, but for me the highlight was getting so close
to a white rhino that we heard it chewing.
In this brief sojourn
to Kenya, I witnessed an injured lioness with her two cubs, huge open
spaces with hundreds of buffalo roaming, a sunrise with the peaks of
Kilimanjaro poking through opalescent clouds, and birds with the colors
of tropical fish. Standing in the van with the wind in my face, I felt
like I was sailing over a terrestrial ocean as large as any sea.
roads took us, ultimately, to the beach resorts of Mombasa on the coast
— truly white sands line-dancing with the light blues and greens of the
Indian Ocean. I needed an ocean safari and dipped in the Indian Ocean
with some tanks to see large eels, swift sharks and a sea turtle larger
I love the word "safari," and "hakuna mahtata" ("no
worries") has become a classic, but my favorite Swahili phrase for the
trip is "Asante sana," which means, "Thank you very much."