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Karen's Perspective on Traveling Alone

Africa Winter 2008

I'm writing from Knyssna, along the Garden Route in South Africa after meeting up with Nancy and Andrea two days ago. We spent Christmas Day hiking the dramatic and breathtaking Cape of Good Hope. For those of you who don't remember your Africa geography lessons, that's the famous meeting place of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans and is mistakenly believed to be the southernmost tip of Africa but is actually the 2nd. We had a glorious sunny but windy day along with lots of tourists and natives and as we came out of the park, saw the ubiquitous baboons who had gotten inside a parked car and were wreaking havoc.

Today we did some rather disappointing birdwatching but then had a nice swim in the ocean in water that's still a little bracing but refreshing. South Africa seems as white, orderly and rich (the parts we mostly see) as it did 3 years ago when I was here. I just had the longest conversation I've had yet with a local since I arrived--a 60 something white man at a bar where I stopped to get a salad and he reminded me why I try and avoid just this type of man here--within 5 minutes they expose themselves for the racist, sexist pigs they are.

We leave tomorrow for one night in the Karoo and then to a retreat center I love in the Breede River Valley to celebrate my birthday and New Year's. We often feel like we are at home in Northern CA as we're together and much of the landscape reminds us of home--except for many details like the fact that we have a hard time understanding virtually anyone we talk to--black or white. You also have to substitute ostriches for cows or horses but it is easy to drift off and think we're headed to Bodega Bay at times.

I've adjusted to driving on the left side of the road and Nancy will be behind the wheel starting tomorrow.

My 10 day safari in Kenya was almost everything I fantasized it would be. I had found a 43 year old companion named Mas from Singapore to join me and she was utterly delightful and easy going. She works at a bird park in Singapore so she knew her birds (especially the raptors) and we amused ourselves on the long bumpy rides singing at the top of our lungs to our ipods--our favorite song being "Don't you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?" I'm sure we'll meet up to travel more in the future or she'll visit me in the Bay.

Joseph had planned a great itinerary and we got lucky with the weather and just had one massive thunder and rainstorm which I always love. For at least an hour it was raining so hard that we had to shout to be able to talk to each other.

On to the safari itself. I so enjoy almost everything about being on safari--sleeping in a tent with animal and bird noises all around, waking up early to see the sun rising and then the pure adrenalin and searching for the almost unbearable beauty of the life that awaits. The first herds of elephants or giraffes and of course lions jolt me in a way that nothing else does. You see the animals eating, playing and relaxing and you know they have been doing the same basic things for perhaps thousands (or millions?) of years (depending on the species) and it is truly a privilege to witness. We managed to see almost everything EXCEPT a leopard and that included 3 cheetah sightings, 6 lion sightings, including a pride of 16 at a watering hole with many young adolescents. The strangest sighting we had was at Lake Nakuru where we saw a hyena running along the edge of the lake for 10 minutes causing the pink flamingos in its path to lift up and then resettle after it had passed. We also saw a cobra snake, 3 desert tortoises (one of which was enormous and maybe was 50 years old), jackals, black and white rhinos, chimpanzees (in a sanctuary)river otters, warthogs and lots special birds including the African fish eagle, martial eagle, turaco, lilac breasted roller and 2 sightings of the enormous Verreaux eagle owl which Joseph had never previously seen in 12 years of guiding. I have the photos to prove it, especially the Verreaux owl with its amazing pink eyelids.

One of my favorite nights was in the foothills of Mt Kenya where after dinner I took an outdoor bath in an old bathtub heated with water from a wood boiler with the stars out and the eerie sound of the tree hyrax (looks like a guinea pig on steroids) although I never actually saw the thing and only heard its piercing cry.

I'm now in Kampala, Uganda and will be leaving tomorrow for a 10 day birding safari with a 33 year old Canadian woman I met through Lonely Planet.com. I can only hope she is half as delightful as Mas, my Singaporan buddy in Kenya.

Speaking of Kenya, some of you have no doubt been following the violence after the lections there on Dec 27th. It was a bitterly contested race with Kibaki, the current president declaring himself the winner. But the EU and US say there were many irregularities and seem to be calling for a recount. Meanwhile, I've been only recently getting reports from Joseph as all outgoing emails and phone calls were shut down across the country for 5 days. He says things are calming down but it doesn't seem that way from reading the international press. Over 250 folks have died, including 50 in a church where they had taken refuge.

Andrea, Nancy and I had a wonderful time the rest of the week we were together in South Africa. After 2 days in Knyssa on the Garden Route where I saw an amazing bird called the Knyssa loerie we headed through the Karoo to a little village called Prince Albert. The Karoo is avast dry area that has much of the same vegetation as the great deserts of the Southwest. At the end we were traversing an enormous deep gorge that reminded me of Kings Canyon near Joshua Tree with some of the rock faces covered by a green lichen. We had booked a triple room but were happy to have been upgraded to a little cottage all to ourselves. The next morning I rented a bike for a short hot ride to see the beginning of the famous Swathberg pass that goes through the Karoo

I enjoyed my 49th bday starting with a very rugged 6-8 mile strenuous hot hike out to this amazing waterfall where I was 3 years ago. Nancy and Andrea did about 1/2 the hike but were getting too hot so turned back. I kept more or less cool by dipping my hat in water anytime I could or submerging my whole body in some river crossings. I saw no one the whole hike and had the waterfall pools to my self so I skinny dipped and enjoyed the refreshing cold water.

We ended our time in South Africa by making it to Table Mountain and were impressed with the engineering feat of the cable car going up as well as the expansive view with the atmospheric fog or "tablecloth" moving in and out.

Uganda/Kenya Safaris

I spent the last 3 days of my trip with my dear friend Joseph (a Kikuyu) at Lake Naivasha, a gorgeous freshwater lake with hippos where we saw a marsh mongoose and many birds including the giant kingfisher. We stayed at Elsamere, the former home of Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame. Elsamere is now a guest house and research center and it was sad since we were the only guests, as the tourism industry is completely tanked. Joseph and most of his coworkers have been laid off and perhaps over 500,000 folks in the tourism related economies have lost their jobs. We still managed to have a wonderful time reconnecting and visiting the national park Hell's Gate where we saw four silver backed jackals.

Lake Mburo/Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

I had spent the previous 17 days next door in Uganda and had a wonderful 10 day birding safari with a 27 year old guide named Emmy who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the birds. He knew every single bird call and could make the diverse calls as well. My traveling companion Dawn from Canada was ok but I didn't have anything like the connection I had with Mas from Singapore. Still I admire the fact that she is an accountant and is spending 3 months volunteering at an orphanage in Tanzania. We got a late start leaving on safari as the company was completely disorganized and had terrible camping equipment. The first night I slept in a pup tent and could have been overlooked and trampled by a hippo so I borrowed a tent and sleeping bag from our first guide Moses at Lake Mburo for the remainder of the trip. Moses works for the national park service and was excited to tell us that the 5ft endangered shoebill stork had been spotted in the marsh for the last 2 days because of the rains. It had not been sighted in all of 2007. We literally crept behind him as he spotted the stork and made our way around the swamp to get a better view. Attached is a photo of our amazing sighting!

There is a reason they called it Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I've been in quite a few tropical rainforests but I've never experienced the density of Bwindi near the border of Rwanda and home to the famous gorillas. Mahogany and other hardwoods loom overhead while the forest floor is covered by ferns and a huge diversity of rare plants. We arrived at our overnight camp/ranger station just as a fierce lightning and thunder storm hit. We had passed a crazy muzungu (white person) from The Netherlands who had ridden his bike up the mountain and seemed to be grateful when I invited him to join us for wine and dinner before a roaring indoor fire. Lucas the crazy Dutchman was bicycling around Uganda for 5 weeks and this was short trip as he had previously biked from Tanzania to Capetown during 9 months.

Although there was no electricity, I opted to stay inside the ranger station for the nice dry bunk room. I could pull out my sheet but really who cared who had slept in the sheets previously? The next day we all trekked for forest birds over the same demanding terrain as some folks trek for gorillas. We saw many endemic species and the impressive blue turaco and even witnessed some very recent gorilla feces. I guess a forest with "impenetrable" before it is not complete without some form of punishment and ours included stinging nettle and fire ants. The fire ants were so determined to live up to their name that Dawn and I literally had to drop our pants and pick the damn things off each other.

Queen Elizabeth Park and the Source of the Nile We spent another 2 nights camping in a lovely riverside community camp right outside the park before making our way to Queen Elizabeth Park, the most popular and my favorite park in Uganda and perhaps in all of East Africa because of its varied terrain. On our way in we got lucky and spotted the tree climbing lion (see photo) that we woke from her afternoon nap to get the shot. Biologists think that perhaps these few lions (30 in this park?) first took to the trees to escape insects but now it seems that they just like to sleep in trees as a cultural phenomenon. We took a boat ride along the Kazinga Channel which joins the huge Lakes George and Albert and saw tons of birds and even an African fish eagle munching on a cormorant while a maribou stork looked on hungrily. There were many hippos and crocs and 2 fishermen had been eaten recently when their boat got too close to a mother hippo and her new cub (?). We saw a hippo and her off spring later that night from our van as they munched fairly near our campsite.

After a short overnight stop in Kibale National Park, we picked up Moses (our guide back at Lake Mburo) and his wife and headed over the wearisome and bumpy road to Murchinson Falls National Park along the Nile where we took a boat ride to see the falls and then also saw a lioness and her 3 cubs in the surrounding savannah as well as some giraffe, zebra, elephants and Ugandan kob.

After the safari ended I stayed for one more night at an upscale guest house, lazily watching elephants and hippos in the river below, then catching a ride part way to Kampala (the capital) before transferring to a public bus to Jinga, home to the source of the Nile and new found rafting paradise for tourists. As you may remember, hunting for the source of the Nile that flows northward to Egypt occupied the imagination of the British colonialists for quite some time before it was confirmed that the source does flow out of mighty Lake Victoria. Jinga is a laid back paradise and I spent 4 days and nights watching the life along the Nile and doing a little biking to the falls.

Here's an email I sent to Joseph from there: I've just spent the last hour watching an amazing sunset along the Nile with the vervet monkeys in the trees and the last of the small boats filled with men throwing out nets to fish. I've also been watching a lesser kestrel and crowned hornbill nearby. I've spent the last few hours reading and watching this huge river from the hammock at my platform tent above Bujagali Falls. I've watched the wazungu in kayaks and the Africans in their wooden canoes, one in particular in nothing but a pair of red underwear. I wonder if he wears it because a lover gave it to him for good luck. Now I feel a pang of regret that I've changed my ticket to come home early. Africa is in my blood and it's hard to shake myself free.

Chaos in Kenya

I came home a week early because I was running out of money and had seen what I wanted to see in Uganda. Also, looks like my travel guardian angels were watching out for me as I had originally planned to be at Lake Naivasha yesterday, 20 miles from where the latest horrible burning of over 19 women and children took place yesterday.

I am heartbroken over what's happening in Kenya and I feel the same way that I did years ago when traveling in El Salvador during the Civil War. It feels so decadent and privileged to be a tourist when a country is suffering so much and yet to be a witness and even enjoy the beauty of that country and its people is perhaps one way to combat the violence itself.

It's been hard to find out what women are saying about the state of affairs but I've just read a piece by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai who wrote Unbowed for those of you who want a background look at understanding what's happening. She was voted out of office as a member of Parliament in the same election.

I have just read this in Kenya's Daily Nation by Mildred Ngesa - part of a much longer very moving piece at www.nationmedia.com.

I want to remember more and love you more, even when every indication of the madness around me pits me against you because you are a shade darker than I am, because you speak your language slightly faster and more twisted, because your meals are mixed stranger than ours, because your cultures is more foreign than most. 

I want to remember how to love you, my sister, because from this hilltop where I crane my gaze over oceans of blood flowing from retaliation after retaliation, I know for a fact that it is our love that will make this murderous fools we gave birth to see the light. It is that very same love that will stop yet one more senseless killing because each death diminishes the humanity in us.  I want to remember how to love you now because , if we forget this love, my sister, my mother, my daughter, my friend, then what hope is there tomorrow when the offsprings from our wombs know nothing but hate? 

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