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Asante Sana
By Lisa Sonne

"Giraffe at 1 o'clock!"

I 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.

As we got closer, a giraffe neck taller than a person swung up from behind the bushes. Then, another giraffe emerged, and another, until there were five.
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.

Magnificent 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 travel warnings.

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.

Tourism 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 them.

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.

Game Drives
Our 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.

They were 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 the area.

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.

'Travel,' 'journey'
The 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.

We 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 15 times.

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.

The 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 than me.

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."