Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just “home”. It is all these things but one thing – it is never dull.
West With the Night
The grand landscapes of East Africa require the overview of a pilot such as Beryl Markham, and even with such a perspective, disbelief prevails. Wild creatures revive our childhood imaginations, providing fodder for The Lion King, while elephants commandeer an IMAX screen as easily as they upstage Africa’s tallest peak and the snows of Kilimanjaro. On this terrain rich in geological history and the legends of great explorers, there is something for the child in all of us: striped horses, fanciful tree house lodges, secretary birds with writing quills, spotted cats, archeological ruins worthy of Indiana Jones, and the impossible notion that is a giraffe.
A giraffe may be a pretty sight in a zoo or wildlife park, but seen in their natural habitat, they bring to life the story of evolutionary design. With their long neck reaching leaves higher than other browsers, giraffe refined that quintessential logo of Africa, the acacia tree. The straight lower tree line that runs parallel to the horizon, called a browse line, is as high as giraffe can reach to feed. That alone is reason to come here.
Like the Galapagos, the savannahs of East Africa serve as a living laboratory where you can see nature’s whimsical experiments in form and function. But here there is one monumental difference; it was from Africa that humankind emerged. Few people, black or white, come here and do not feel the powerful tug of roots, an often inexplicable emotional link with the landscape, as if we have managed to go home again.
“Here I am where I ought to be,” wrote Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, a feeling that has inspired many a visitor to stay. Cynthia Moss, the American who left her job at Newsweek to devote her life to the study of elephants, was captivated by the vast Africa sky while on safari; Kenya has been her home now for over three decades. Richard Leakey reckons visitors feel an affinity for Africa because it’s in our blood. People write of their safari experience as “the odyssey of a lifetime” and feel the odd epiphany, as if by being on this terrain they are “somehow part of eternity.”
The yearning that people feel for Africa may also have to do with all that we squandered in our own nations, including space, ancient native traditions, and the great seasonal migrations of wildlife. Few can witness the extraordinary parade of over a million wildebeest thundering across the Serengeti and not be reminded of the American buffalo, slaughtered as part of a strategy to undermine Native Americans. In Africa one can still find effective strategies for the preservation of wildlife sanctuaries, along with the development of new ones, such as Kenya’s phenomenal Private Reserves and Tanzania’s expanding National Parks. There is an effort among some lodge owners to preserve traditions and pride among locals, particularly their knowledge of medicinal herbs, their music and dance, and extraordinary jewelry and art.
The bandwagon for ecotourism is full and noisy, and travelers must delve beyond brochure prose to know which lodges and tour operators are sincerely making a difference, or just being fashionably Green. We give you some background in individual descriptions, but the test is in the behavior of drivers and guides [particularly when it comes to harassing wildlife or off road driving] and whether a lodge or operator favors quality over quantity.
The trend among the best is towards very small groups, at small, unobtrusive lodges or temporary camps. Walking, mountain biking and horseback safaris are options to the increasing minivan traffic. While we provide information for exploring national parks, several (including Amboseli, Ngorongoro, the Maasai Mara, and Serengeti) have become too popular for their own good, or for that matter, your enjoyment. You need not cross these places off your list, but avoid the peak season, or stay in a small remote, private camp outside the park.
Should you be choosing between Southern Africa and East Africa, a major draw for Kenya and Tanzania are the exotic archipelagos on the Indian Ocean, and the lakes of the Great Rift Valley. Should you need to choose between Kenya and Tanzania, either can give you beautiful scenery, fine lodges and excellent guides, but Tanzania is less crowded.
There is a musical beauty in this land, in the melodic tongue of Swahili, in a mourning dove’s lament, and golden grasses that weave their own hypnotic song. The notion of an upright ape that migrated out of Africa to populate the globe and invent hip-hop is best contemplated as you gaze into the face of a wild chimpanzee, best seen in Tanzania’s Mahale Mountain Park. Descendants of those upright apes who migrated out of Africa are returning by the thousands to get the feel of Africa beneath their feet.
Walking safaris and tented camps are becoming increasingly popular because office-bound visitors want to have Africa revive their senses as well as their soul. They track elephant and rhino on foot the old-fashioned way, trade stories around a campfire, and wonder when they hear the haunting yip of a hyena, who will have the last laugh.
The life and death dramas that you may witness (especially when big cats bring down their prey) take on more power during the moveable feast known as the wildebeest migration, as does the wild glint in a leopard’s eye. Cats have a strategy for dinner. First time visitors are profoundly surprised by the timbre of a lion’s roar that cuts through the night air, to land on your rib cage and take your breath away. Many an evening has been spent around a campfire listening to roars in the distance, and wondering what these cats are saying to each other. Some of it is surely territorial, but there is also a plan to their discussion, for when silence falls, the lions are often on the move in the dark, hunting as a team –one of those things once considered uniquely human.
The terrain that produced humankind also delivered snow-capped mountains that loom over equatorial landscapes where dustdevils dance. While it can snow in South Africa, nothing on those southern ranges competes with Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain. Superlatives also apply to the majestic Maasai. Adorned with beads, feather headdresses and draped like Romans, a Maasai can make you feel underdressed and overweight in the flash of a spear, or a smile. They beat Buckminister Fuller with their own version of a dome as a home, and their everyday crafts remind us why Picasso was inspired by so-called primitive art. People who come here find long held notions about primitive nature promptly undone.
Here nature can still express the greater rhythm of life on earth, the fundamental, and cut through the mundane like a laser. For many travelers, East Africa becomes not only the trip of a lifetime, but beckons us back with a power as primal as lust. On the heels of one long safari, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All I wanted to do was get back to Africa.”
Sunset on Botswana’s Okavango Delta