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Home / Kenya / Nairobi / Travel Tales /
An African Dream
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An African Dream
  Nairobi Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

It was my last night in Kenya and I was out walking. Our camp was situated along the muddy Mara River, home to hippopotamus, crocodiles and hundreds of birds. A security guard nodded a greeting. I almost missed him. He was as black as the sky, which gave little light, even though the stars sparkled like diamonds under a jeweler's lamp.

hippos2.jpg I made my way along the dirt path that bordered the twisted bank and listened to the night sounds. Hippos who slept silently in heaps during the day grunted hungrily, and the hyrax, a rodent-type animal hiding in the gnarled branches overhead made a frightful screeching sound.

I stopped at the viewing platform that hung over the hippos mud hole and concentrated hard, willing Kenya to get under my skin. From the top of my head to the tip of my toes, I wanted to assimilate this country. I wanted to stay affected by the people I met, the animals I saw and the land I imprinted with my footsteps. It wasn't that I forget places I visit, but often, they get buried under new assignments. I didn't want this to happen here. After all, my determination to experience an African Safari played an important role in my life. I wondered, as highlights of the past two weeks flooded my mind, was Africa everything I wished it to be?

When I arrived in Nairobi, the first thing I noticed was the children on the rooftop of the airport building. They waved vigorously trying to get our attention. When I smiled and gave a little wave back, they practically exploded with cheers. That such an simple gesture could mean so much to them, tugged at my heart.

I had four days before I joined my safari tour with Abercrombie & Kent. My driver Eloise, a Park East guide, was knowledgeable, open and warm. He hoped that I would encourage travelers to come to his country.

"Everyone who visits Kenya leaves with remarkable memories." Eloise says. Never having been out of the country himself, Eloise can only trust what others tell him. "They tell me there is no other place on earth quite like it."

africa_leopard.jpg We were on our way to Olerai House at Lake Naivasha. We had stopped at the viewpoint overlooking the Rift Valley. Puffs of steam rose from the panoramic vista, marked with lakes, pinnacles, cliffs and craters. Curly shadows from the cottonball clouds in the pale blue sky moved across the landscape. I hung on to the rail to steady my body, dizzied by the striking scene.

"Do you think so?" Eloise asks me. " I think so," I say, even though I have just arrived.

The moment I stepped out of the car at Oleria House and shook hands with Oria Douglas-Hamilton I knew I was going to like this woman. Dressed in faded pink runners with missing laces and a techni-colored sweater, Oria welcomed me to her sanctuary.

"I was in America last month," she said. "It's a wonderful place to visit, but when I got home and stepped into all this space", her arms swept through the air, " I had such an amazing feeling of gratitude".

I know all about gratitude.

In 1993, I was diagnosed with a form of leukemia that requires a 100 percent cure. That same day, without so much as a trip home for a toothbrush, I was admitted to the hospital and put in isolation. The doctor said I could die from something silly like a scratch or a cold. What I remember most about my subsequent ordeal, which lasted fifteen months, are my feelings of guilt and regret: I didn't spend enough time with the kids; my husband will have to take his dream trip without me and as selfish as it sounds, I haven't been on an African Safari.

Maybe it was the Tarzan comics I used to read when I was a child, I don't know. I can't really explain why an African Safari was important to me. All I know is it had been on my wish list for as long as I can remember. Sure, I had altruistic wants, which included a healthy family and peace on earth, however, one section was strictly frivolous, like driving in a red convertible with the top down and owning a Paris black dress. As to why I hadn't been on a Safari when my career takes me all over the world? Two reasons: I was waiting for the perfect time, which never comes, and I was saving the best for last, a stupid stupid philosophy.

It took four rounds of kemo treatments to destroy the decease. It also took prayers, my family's refusal to let me die, my doctor Linda Vickars' wisdom, my desire to amend regrets and guilt and the determination to make a wish come true.

Now, the moment had arrived. I was in Kenya, in a farmhouse surrounded by purple jacarandas and yellow acacia trees, sitting across from the author of "Among the Elephants." How did I feel? Overwhelmingly thankful and ecstatic and completely enthralled with Oria Douglas-Hamilton.

Looking much younger than her sixty-plus years, Oria has so many goals it's hard to keep track. To raise money to supplement the birth control clinic that she started and for their continuing work on saving the elephants Oria opened guest cottages on her beloved farm.

"One of the itineraries we offer are elephant watch tours where guests are taken into the midst of the elephant's world. Depending on the season, they might see a birth of an elephant or matriarchs defending the family circle."

Oria promises her guests peace and tranquillity. I could hardly believe I slept for 14 hours my first night. Even the trip to Crescent Island, where I walked among the water bucks and picnicked under a cypress tree, had a tranquilizing affect. Perhaps it was the profound silence or the soothing shades of the terrain or the comfortable canopied bed.

I was mellow and rested when we arrived at Giraffe Manor. Minutes after the car pulled up, the Rothschild giraffes with their soulful eyes, long eyelashes and long legs rambled over to greet me. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I would be close enough to a giraffe to wrap my arms around its neck.

Inside the stately stone manor, photographs of Betty Leslie-Melville's fascinating life adorned the walls. Betty Leslie-Melville, author of many books, including one chosen by Barbara Bush to read in her literacy program, fell in love with Kenya when she arrived in the early 70's. When she and her husband Jock learned of the plight of the Rothschild Giraffe, they formed the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife: AFEW, and translocated five baby giraffes to their 100-acre property.

Betty wrote "Raising Daisy" about the experience. It was made into a TV movie in 1978. In 1983, the Giraffe Center was erected so that African students would have a place to study conservation. Unbelievably, 85 percent of Africans never see wild animals.

I loved watching the children feed the giraffes. They giggled uncontrollable. The gentle creature gobbled the pellets out of my hand, too, its tongue tickling my palm. I couldn't help it. I giggled out loud remembering.

I must have startled the guard, because, he flashed his light in my direction. .

I stepped down from the platform still deep in thoughts. I suspected, by the time I joined the Safari, my love affair with Kenya, its animals and its people had begun.

Francis Brown, a zoologist and historian by profession, has been with Abercrombie & Kent for seven years. Francis has guided hundreds of safaris and seen thousands of animals, yet he doesn't appear jaded.

"The animals are not predictable." said Francis. "They live on instincts, yes, and they have habits, yes, but we can never be absolutely sure how they will behave. This is what makes every safari a new adventure."

During our game viewing drives, which took place before breakfast and late in the afternoon, youngsters never asked "when are we going to get there?" On the contrary, with squinted eyes, they scanned the horizon as intently as the adults, their favorite sightings the magnificent elephants and comical baboons.

elephantadobe.jpg The children did not have a monopoly on excitement. When a parade of elephants charged towards us, my heart pounded so intensely, it hurt. And when I saw my first lion, I hollered stop so forcefully, our driver braked instantly. We were crossing a muddy creek, not the best place to halt. Of course, we were stuck, which added to the adventure.

We moved from one national park reserve to another, sometimes by plane, sometimes by car. The roads were incredibly terrible, potholed and rutted, the reserves melancholy, magical and mysterious. Bird nests hung from tree branches like Chinese lanterns. Termite hills the size of small mountains sprouted from the ground and when the sun set and turned the horizon a fiery red, it was enough to make me cry. The most reverent images were the sporadic Acacia trees silhouetted against the distant sky and the fearless Masai warrior standing guard over his cattle with a simple bow and arrow.

"The lion fears the Masai" said Francis, during one of his lectures. " If it dares attack a cow, it knows the Masai will hunt it until it is killed"

Not a acre existed where some form of wildlife didn't abide: Vultures and wart hogs, monkeys and mongoose, gazelles and gerenuks, they all belong to Africa. Some animals were hard to see even in plain view: The cheetahs and lions blended into the golden grasses. The giraffe's coat matched the bark and leaves of trees, and the baboons looked like crooked branches. However, the wildebeests and cape buffalo were sighted easily, by the thousands, slowly migrating across the plains in a mesmerizing procession.

"Look" said Francis, almost in a whisper. "It is a leopard. Leopard's don't usually come out in the open. We are very lucky."

The sleek muscular cat sauntered by our vehicle slowly, looking at us briefly. It moved each paw deliberately, purposefully. Out of nowhere, other vans and jeeps appeared, staying back at least 20 feet, the way the rules dictate. Engines turned off, the only sound heard was the clicking of our cameras. Eventually, the clicking stopped and we were quite content to watch the leopard nibble its tail and lick its paw before disappearing into the bush.

We didn't ever seem to hurry and yet here it was, the night before the morning of departure.

The guard watched me curiously as I climbed the stairs, stepping deliberately and with purpose. I thought back to my time in the hospital, how I envied the pedestrians outside my window, how I regretted that I never appreciated the simple act of walking, how I swore when I got out, I would never take anything for granted.

"Mummy, mummy! A monkey is eating your face-cream!" squealed a child's voice from one of the tents I passed. What a thrill, I thought, to return to Kenya, this time with my grandchildren.

I unzipped the flap. No, I thought, and stepped back outside. I'm not going to sleep my last night in Africa. I made myself comfortable in the porch chair and began counting my lucky stars. Maybe it was my imagination, but they seemed the brightest stars I had ever seen.

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