“Safari” is a loan word borrowed from Swahili that means “journey coupled with the sense of adventure.” I didn’t know this until recently, yet the word has been in my consciousness most of my life. I must have learned it when I was very young and vaguely understood it to mean hunting big game animals in Africa with guns. Thankfully, except for illegal poaching, the guns have been replaced by binoculars and cameras.
Because much of my life has been about taking journeys with a sense of adventure, I’ve long thought that I would have liked a safari, yet, until last autumn, it had been pretty far down on my list of priorities. What happened was that my wife’s dear friend Jenny wrote, saying that she and her husband Ralph would join a safari in March of 2023. My wife Kay has traveled widely with me during the last forty-four years and has become jaded to the point of declaring she doesn’t care to travel any more. So, imagine my surprise when, enrolled in the idea by Jenny, she declared that we should join the safari, too.
So it was that one day in March, Kay and I found ourselves in Kenya at a hotel near Nairobi, awaiting to be reunited with Jenny and Ralph and to make our first acquaintance with our Safari leader and ten strangers with whom we would share a ten-day adventure like none we had ever had before.
I can’t convey why those ten days were so special without introducing the woman who made them possible. Fareen Samji is a Kenyan, born and raised in the coastal city of Mombasa by enlightened parents who made it possible for her to realize her vision. She is a natural athlete who has risen high in the realm of competitive golf. My ignorance of the sport and its culture prevents me from describing her success in this realm. I imagine it’s that success that gives her the confidence and mastery that she exudes as the creator and organizer of what she names Believe Safari. Our friend Jenny, who knows Fareen through golf, astutely observes that Fareen’s natural inclination is to make people happy. It was in this spirit that we spent many hours together. Years ago, Fareen and some members of her family emigrated to Canada, first to continue their education and then to run a family business. It is for this reason that those who join her safaris are North Americans. Believe Safari does not advertise; people learn of it by word of mouth, and the money it earns stays in Kenya. A final thing to know is Fareen’s commitment to charity work. Mombasa’s Wema Centre, a refuge for at-risk children is a striking example that we will visit in good time.
“Pole pole” (slowly, slowly) is a Swahili expression we were to hear often during our days in Kenya. It characterizes the Kenyan way of life, and taught those of us formed by western culture a more pleasant African experience. As an example, our first day together in Nairobi was a recovery day. While Kay and I had arrived after only a six-hour flight from Istanbul, the North Americans had much longer overnight journeys that involved making travel connections.
So we started our experience together that first day, pole pole, with two short excursions. The first was to the baby elephant orphanage run by the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. These young elephants were orphaned when their mothers died in various circumstances, leaving their babies in the wild unable to fend for themselves. It was heartwarming to see these young creatures as they rushed into an enclosure to drink baby formula from jugs held by their Keepers. Clayton and Deb were the first of our group to adopt one of the babies while Kay and I did so after our return home.
Our 2-year-old elephant daughter is named Amali. Kay was thrilled to visit the orphanage as she had seen a documentary about it years before. She spent quite a bit of time reading about a number of orphans on the trust’s website before she chose Amali.
From the orphanage we went to the Giraffe Centre where we were each given a small quantity of pellets in coconut shells that we fed to giraffes that came up to the barrier where we stood. Giraffes have purple tongues and stretched their long necks to take the pellets we held out to them. It was at the centre that we learned interesting facts about these animals. For example, the ones at the centre are named Rothschild after the scientist who distinguished them by the number of horns on their heads.
It was at a group lunch that day that we learned more about our fellow travelers. I sat between Jenny and Ralph and across from a couple named Joan and Mayland from Victoria, B.C.
We enjoyed Tusker lager from bottles adorned with elephant heads. Laureen and Ralph, another fun-loving couple, live in Oakville near Ralph and Jenny. A first for lunch, was a Kenyan staple called Ugali made of maize and cassava flour. The custom is to form small balls and dip them into a flavorful sauce.
It was the following day that I got my first taste of what being on safari would be like. It consisted of a long drive to our first camp in a national park named Lake Nakuru. Our convoy consisted of four adapted truck-like vehicles that I will refer to as jeeps. In our jeep Jenny, Ralph, Kay, and I were driven and guided by Peter, a veteran of 20 years experience. We would learn to have great respect and admiration for this man who could answer any question and had an ability, almost a sixth sense, to spot animals that we could never have seen on our own. Kay also appreciated how well he took care of her, especially as she got in and out of the vehicle and, at times, assisted her walking in difficult terrain.
Our jeep was equipped with four-wheel drive and had high ground clearance; both would be indispensable in the coming days. That day, we were mostly on paved roads where even on the smoothest the jeep gave a rough ride.
On two-lane blacktops, we passed many shops, markets, and businesses that looked poor. As it was a Sunday, people we glimpsed wore their going-to-church finery. There were small buildings marked hotel that were really tea rooms. I found it all to be very exciting and would have liked to have stopped along the way and taken pictures.
On our drive we saw a kind of tree new to me, whose branches all seem to be about the same length and reach upwards to form a shape like a goblet. It’s called a euphorbia candalabra or cactus tree. As we neared villages, we drove slowly over speed bumps that the locals call sleeping policemen. We passed shrubs that grow a yellow fruit known as Sodom Apple that we were told is deadly poisonous. Animals will eat the leaves of the plant but not the fruit.
We made a couple of rest stops. At each, toilets were located in a large curio shop filled with an enormous number of items, mostly carvings of animals. Executed in different kinds of wood, they ranged in size from tiny to very large. The toilets were located at the rear of the shops, causing us to walk past the items on display. In the first shop, I bought a mask to add to our collection at home. And we bought a wooden puzzle map, showing all the countries of Africa in different colors to give to our cleaning lady’s young daughter.
We finally arrived at the Flamingo Hill Camp near Lake Nakuru, a large body of salt-water. After a tasty late lunch of fresh-baked nan, potatoes, goulash, minced lamb, green salad, mixed vegetables, crème caramel, & Tusker beer, we got back into the jeep for our first game drive through the park.
We saw storks . . .
warthogs . . .
zebras . . .
cape buffalo . . .
baboons . . .
blak (sic) faced vervet monkeys . . .
rhinos . . .
and fish eagles. The unimproved dirt roads that crisscross the flat land are deeply rutted and make rough riding. We were bounced around a good deal. What made seeing and photographing the animals easier was that Peter raised the roof of the jeep eighteen or twenty inches, allowing Jenny and me to stand and have unimpeded views for our cameras. While he drove, Peter spotted animals and birds. Patient, he stopped to allow us to take pictures.
Back at camp, all of us enjoyed cocktails and a tasty dinner. Kay and I went to our accommodation, a large tent with a king-size bed and a full bathroom. Its only inconvenience was the low lighting. Before sleeping, I downloaded my photos and charged both batteries. We had to be ready to leave camp at 6:15 in the morning in order to see the animals who feed early.
Monday, March 13th was an extraordinary day for game drives. In four or five hours we saw a great number of birds and animals.
The list includes first hyenas . . .
then zebras . . .
black rhinos . . .
Thompson gazelles . . . including the long-horned impala, baboons again and black-faced vervet monkeys, pumbas (warthogs), cape buffalo and fish-eagles, marabou storks . . .
water bucks . . .
and Rothschild giraffes . . .
There were many flamingos, pelicans, and cormorants. I also spotted a single white heron . . .
and at the end of our hunt we saw a pair of grey-crown cranes.
The rarest sighting was the sequence of a female lion chasing a pumba and working with difficulty to pull it from its hole . . .
She dragged it to a spot and after resting began to eat it. Even eating it was hard work for her, as chewing through the tough hide was a real chore. She really worked for her meal! According to Fareen, it was rare to see a chase like this that ended in a kill. Watching the whole process amazed us.
During that outing, we saw hundreds of gazelles and zebras. With my 400 mm lens, I was able to get some great shots, including closeups of heads and faces. We took our time and stopped repeatedly to watch and photograph.
With her phone camera, Kay mostly photographed trees that fascinated her. Near the lake there were many dead ones whose trunks and branches made arresting patterns against the sky. Among the live trees, Jenny was fascinated with the distinctive yellow bark of the fever tree, or acacia xanthophloea, that were everywhere.
At one point about 10:30, our group rendezvoused at a picnic spot to eat box breakfasts. We had left early, having drunk only coffee and tea. Items we didn’t eat, we collected to give to the park rangers.
We arrived back at camp, shaken and exhausted, after 2 o’clock. We ate a delicious lunch of cooked lentils, pan-fried fish with tartar sauce, vegetables, bread rolls, fruit salad, and orange cake with chocolate sauce.
I went in the swimming pool with Clay, Deb, Fareen, Joan, Clay, and Kathleen. Dried myself a bit in the sun before returning to our tent to change and go to the camp’s reception area to write my journal. As I walked around a corner by our tent, I came face to face with a pumba. There was another, larger one, that had come close to Jenny and Ralph who were sitting in front of their tent next door. Jenny adopted the pumba as her spirit animal.
Before dinner, we all gathered with drinks to celebrate Kathleen’s retirement after a lifetime of work as a veterinarian. She is a stout-hearted woman with an intriguing story. The celebration included the Friends of Lake Nakuru, a group of singers led by a large, very energetic Kenyan who introduced his group by singing Amazing Grace and other well-known Christian songs. He worked us as if we were in church, getting us to sing along. In the dining room, he was joined by a bass player, a drummer, and three or four others who entertained us as we ate. Once we finished eating, many of us danced with abandon. As Kay says, she may have trouble walking but she can still dance!
We enjoyed an excellent dinner, consisting of barbequed beef and lamb, spaghetti with tomato sauce, spinach purée, fries with hot ketchup, passion pudding, and carrot cake with chocolate sauce. Jenny, Kay and I shared a bottle of Malbec before I crawled into to bed very tired.
Tuesday was a long, rough day that Kay and I were happy not to have to repeat. We left Lake Nakuru at 6:30 in the morning to drive to the larger Masai Mara National Reserve where we would do the second part of our safari. On the way out of the park, we spotted a group of hyenas, and I got a good look at the face of one and the spots that covered its body.
On the highway, we passed several villages, all poor, and a couple that I can only describe as squalid. We saw many villagers, some with motorcycles that Peter called boda bodas. He said that they provided taxi services to outlying areas. The villages had colorful, hand-lettered facades and unusual names. There was some commercial advertising but not much. We passed a number of schools, all affiliated with some religious denomination. In one village, I spotted the dome and minaret of a mosque.
Our route took us up and over a mountain whose terrain was different. There were pine trees; the land on the hillsides and in the valleys looked dark and rich. We saw fields of agriculture with maize farming abundant. There were many sheep and goats, too, and herds of cows whose ribs showed prominently. The mountain scenery was a nice respite from the land below.
Driving in Kenya is on the left, British fashion. I sat on the right side of the vehicle behind Kay and next to Jenny. Ralph rode shotgun next to Peter. There was space behind us for our backpacks and the Coca Cola crate that Peter would set on the ground beneath Kay’s doorway to help her up and down from the jeep.
The Masai Mara encompasses almost two thousand square kilometers. We entered through a gate guarded by military men in uniform and began a splendid game drive. There were many more kinds of animals to see. We sighted Masai giraffes with different leg markings from those around Lake Nakuru . . .
And we saw elephants for the first time, taking their time and moving slowly. Late in the afternoon, we saw a female with a baby . . .
For a long while we watched a cheetah. As it moved slowly, we wondered if it would go after a gazelle that watched from a distance. Peter told us that cheetahs eat only fresh meat and that this particular cheetah must not have been hungry and would not hunt the gazelle. Besides the cape buffalo and water bucks, we spotted a jackal near a tree. Late in the afternoon, we came upon a herd of Wildebeests with tufts of hair on their throats that resembled beards. I saw a vulture perched high on a tree.
We have nothing but praise for our driver/guides. When we encountered another vehicle coming toward us, both stopped and the drivers exchanged greetings and information, always in Swahili.
This may how we learned of another lion kill . . . Two females were devouring a cape buffalo. They had to work very hard to tear through the animal’s tough hide. There were several jeeps lined up around the site, and I was able to get great coverage with my long lens. The closeups are most interesting.
Next we spotted a cinematic view of giraffes, on the horizon, almost as if they were re-enacting the final shot of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Peter drove us closer to the group, and they approached us slowly, beautifully. When they walk, it’s almost as if they’re dancing. As soon as Jenny and I finished taking our photographs, the dark clouds opened up and it began to rain, to pour. Peter lowered and secured the raised top just in time because it poured for a good while, turning the dusty dirt tracks to mud. At one point, he got out to lock the front hubs and put us into four-wheel drive. At times we slipped and slid in a way that was a bit scary, but we had full confidence in his driving. By the time we arrived at our new campsite at almost 7 o’clock, it had stopped raining, and we were beat. Kay, in particular, was really shaken – and fully appreciated how Peter held her hand, said “pole pole” and “breathe deeply” in order to recover herself before walking into the camp.
The Mara Crossings Luxury Camp is located on the Mara River that just upstream falls over large rocks. The river featured a couple families of hippos, parts of which we could see easily from where we gathered on a terrace at the center of the camp. We sat in a circle under a thatched roof where Fareen complimented us on having come through a tough day. We were handed a local drink made with honey, lemons, limes, soda, and vodka called a dawa that we sipped through hollow rounds of wood like straws. With dinner set for 8 o’clock, men carried our cases and belongings to our tent that we were warned to always keep zippered when inside or out because the camp had no surrounding fences to protect it from animals.
Both Kay and I were pleased with our fresh accommodations. Our tent was large with a king-size bed. At one side of the bedroom was a long, narrow table containing a lamp and an electric plugging strip that we put use immediately. I charged my phone whose camera I planned to use on our next game drive. (It would be good to have had two camera backs so that I wouldn’t have had to change lenses. My long zoom lens is wonderful for distant shots but no good for things that are too close. I get tired in the jeep standing up repeatedly and bracing the heavy lens in shooting position.) Behind the bedroom was a space with a shower, a toilet room, two sinks and space to unpack and hang our things. I was able to reorganize clothes and camera stuff. Kay was pleased that the camp offered free laundry service, and that they did an excellent job with it.
That night, returning to our tent after dinner, we were accompanied by a tall Masai, who held Kay’s hand, and was carrying a long knife, a cudgel, and a flashlight. Besides lighting the path in front of us, he scanned the approaches on either side for whatever might be lurking. We were warned to call our “Jambo!” (“Hello” in Swahili) if we wanted to leave our tent during the night, so that a guard could accompany us. As it turns out, we were so tired and ready for sleep every night that we had no desire to leave our tent. In addition to the mosquito netting surrounding our bed, it was a pleasant surprise to find two hot water bottles under the covers when we returned after dinner every night; we were amazed that they stayed hot until morning.
I woke several times that night, once to hear a hippo pass the back of the tent while I stood just on the other side of the canvas. While they come ashore to feed after dark, they mostly stay submerged during the day with only parts of their dark backs and nostrils visible above the water. We were intrigued by a large female that had recently given birth. Her calf, weighing as much as two-hundred pounds, stayed close by her.
On the afternoon of the following day, I approached the river and saw one whole family on the rocky bank across the river. Slowly, one after another rose on short legs and returned to the water.
Near us, on a spit of land near the water’s edge, a large crocodile sunned itself. Soaring overhead were two yellow-beaked storks.
Fareen or Far as we called her, is a veteran of fifty safaris. She and her team have acquired the experience to unroll them with finesse, giving us a gift of surprise and discovery. Late that afternoon, we climbed into our jeeps and drove slowly out of the camp.
Shortly after reaching the trail, we stopped to watch and photograph a Secretary Bird that walks daintily as if on high heels. The park contains many termite mounds, some no longer viable. Termites are food for the anteater, a rarely seen creature, with a long snout, that feeds only at night.
As we approached a spot on a flat plain with a single tree, we saw that a row of chairs and small tables had been set up for us. Freddy, the bartender from the camp, had set up an al fresco bar with bottles of wine, gin, vodka, etc.
We sat on the chairs wrapped in plaid Masai blankets, sipping our drinks (for Kay, it was a dawa or two) and munching on vegetable samosas.
In front of us the lone tree was silhoutted against the sun. That setting and low clouds overhead made for a spectacular sunset.
As the hours and days passed and we became better acquainted, it became clear that we were a well-traveled group that relished adventure.
Catherine and Karen, partners who had met thirty years before while working at their first jobs, love to camp. One week each year they take a canoe trip on northern Ontario lakes portaging their canoe and gear between them.
The following day, Tuesday, I woke to heavy rain on the tent roof. The plan was to have coffee at 6 and eat a box breakfast later in the morning. I had packed my light rain jacket that I put on over my fleece since it was pretty cool. As I sat in the dining room sipping coffee,
Mayland joined to chat. He is a judge on Victoria Island, most often presiding over domestic cases. Shortly after, Far arrived. I learned that she had spoken Swahili since chiildhood and studied it at school. She said it is a phonetic language with no ‘q’ or ‘x’ in its alphabet.Many moths circulated around the light fixtures, and I was told that they live underground and that rain water disturbs them, causing them to emerge and fly around.
The rain stopped shortly after our convoy left the camp. Although many of the creatures seemed to be hiding, we did see a few:
a lilac-breasted roller . . .
a hornbill . . .
a yellow-beak stork and two Egyptian geese among the birds. I spotted a turtle crawing out of one of the wet, muddy, ruts and we stopped with fifteen other jeeps to watch a cheetah eat some small animal. The jeeps formed a semi-circle aroud the cat, which didn’t seem to mind our presence.
Later in the morning we watched hippos and a female lion sitting on a mound that allowed her to calmly survey her surroundings. She appeared to be a queen surveying her kingdom. The lack of other animals surprised us. We had been so lucky to have seen so many on the first two days of our safari.
As we ate our box breakfasts, we saw some elegant giraffes walking slowly. The sight caused me to declare the giraffe my spirit animal.
The event of the afternoon was a visit to a Masai village. Far had paid for the experience that included a welcoming performance and then singing and jumping on the part of the younger Masai men. They are known for their ability to jump high from a standing start. Only four extended families live in the village that numbers nearly 100 persons.
The mud-and-dung huts that make up their homes are arranged in a large circle entered by four narrow gates. At the center there were many cows. Masai wealth consists of cows, and the more cows a man has, the better chance he has of attracting a good wife. He needs at least six cows before he can hope to marry. Masai culture is polygamous.
We separated into groups to be shown around the village. Jenny, Ralph, Kay, and I were taken inside of one of the larger huts, which belonged to our guide who is married with two children. It was very dark, small, and low ceilinged. Jenny provided lighting with her iPhone. The coals of a cooking fire burned in the center of the room where we met. I was troubled by the lack of ventilation.
Our visit culminated with a tour of stalls, each containing handicrafts made by the village women. I was amused by a toddler with drooping drawers who was just learning to walk. I encouraged him, and he walked a few steps from his mother to me and held my hand. Speaking of holding hands: Kay says she has never had her hand held as much as on the safari in Kenya.
As we toured the village, a young unmarried Masai man helped Kay navigate, holding her hand at all times. When he realized that she was not interested in buying any of the items for sale, he found a shady spot to stand with her as we waited to depart. We very much enjoyed our visit and the friendliness of our hosts.
It was Friday. The location of this camp near the Mara River with its hippos, crocodiles, and water birds was splendid. That morning we had to pack and get ready to leave. Kay became quite emotional. She had bonded with Wycliffe, the guard who held her hand as he accompanied us to and from our tent. The staff that served us and helped in every way had been wonderful. What a great experience!
At 10 o’clock, we had a lot of help getting ourselves and our luggage into our jeeps for a two-and-a-half-hour drive to an airstrip in the park. I kept my camera with its long lens at the ready, which was good since we saw and photographed more birds and animals: cape buffalo, secretary birds, gazelles, warthogs, heartbeasts, and two cheetahs that were walking slowly toward a shade tree.
Just as we left the camp, we had seen a lone giraffe, my spirit animal, that seemed to be saying goodbye.
At the airstrip, we said a heartfelt goodbye to our drivers who had been such help to us. We took group photos with them and boarded two chartered eight-passenger Cessna 208s for a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Mombasa on the Indian Ocean. We flew through white cloud cover and looked at the land below.
The greatest sight was the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain.
We landed at the small tropical airport of Diani, a town about a forty-minute drive from the large Neptune Resort Hotel complex where we would spend the next four nights of our adventure. The drive to the hotel abounded in color. There is bougainvillea, and large trees with orange blossoms called flamboyant (royal poinciana). On the road were many tuk tuks that Far said we could use if we wanted to go to a shopping center.
The Neptune has three hotels, separate but connected.
Ours is the Palm, the most high-end of the three. On arrival we were given our room assignments and an orientation talk about the facilities. We were warned not to leave our terrace doors unlocked because the monkeys that live on the grounds would enter and ravage the room looking for food. Staff carried our luggage to the two-story building that contained our room and three others. Jenny and Ralph were next door to us. It was a first-class, air-conditioned room, with a large king-size bed, a writing desk, fridge, full bathroom, closets, etc. We had a terrace with a day bed and comfortable seating.
It was getting toward the end of the afternoon by the time we were settled. We walked out to a raised, covered lounge area with comfortable seating that overlooked a lovely pool. There we chose drinks from an all-inclusive menu. The all-inclusive deal we had at this resort included our meals, house wine, and many cocktails. Other alcohol was available at a premium.
Dinner was at the Palm buffet where there were many choices. I ate a plate of grilled beef with Swahili sauce, French-style green beans, chapati, vegetable biriani, fried vegetables, and dessert. I drank water and a glass of white wine with my meal. While we ate, Far busied herself making reservations for some of us at on-site Indian and Italian restaurants for the next two evenings. She also introduced Kay to Grace, the woman who runs the buffet dining room, asking Grace to be sure to take care of her. From that moment on, throughout our stay, Kay was never allowed to carry her own plate as she selected food during any meal at the Palm buffet.
After dinner, I attended an extraordinary acrobatic show at Neptune Village, the hotel adjacent to ours. The five young men who performed the amazing stunts were lithe and strong. They had wonderful balance and were very well rehearsed. Many guests watched the show, and at the conclusion when it was time to drop thank-you donations in a hat, it surprised me that so few who had watched gave money.
Saturday. Breakfast at the Palm, the nicest of the linked Neptune hotels, was copious. Here is an example: Among the juices were orange, lime, passion fruit, beetroot, and mango. There were eggs cooked to order, pancakes, waffles, butter, and maple syrup. Bean dishes and porridge were also available. There were several cheeses, pork sausage and bacon, chicken sausage, charcuterie, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, banana smoothies, and fruit including watermelon, mango, and pineapple. There were always one or two Indian dishes, for instance uttapam or idli and sambar. A spread of several breads included muffins and rolls both savory and sweet.
It was hot this morning, and with Jenny and Ralph I lay in the shade by the large pool on a chaise lounge covered with a large towel. I talked with Jenny about the Philippines, asking her about resorts. It seems that the islands that compose the country are grouped and the groups are far enough apart that they need to be reached by plane. She spoke of a sliver of an island called Palawan where there is illegal logging. The government is corrupt and will not stop it so a man organized a group of volunteers who steal the loggers chain saws to prevent them from cutting trees.
The three of us went into the pool together. Its water felt like a warm bath. Ralph and I spoke about our fathers who were both raised on farms, mine in New York State, his in Canada in the Maritimes.
The hotel has a good laundry service that Kay took advantage of. This was useful because we hadn’t packed many clothes, and the weather was very hot.
After lunch, Fareen organized a shopping trip for five of us to a strip mall about twenty minutes away. The hotel bus, new and air-conditioned, made for a pleasant drive. In the shops I bought a t-shirt and a refrigerator magnet, and Kay bought a pretty hat. We bought a couple of gifts for friends in Istanbul. It being Saturday, the banks were closed, but Fareen was able to change a one-hundred-dollar bill into smaller ones. At the hotel I bought more shillings to use for tips.
That evening, some of us went next door to the Village restaurant for an Indian meal. At our table were Kay and me, Jenny and Ralph, Laureen and Ralph, and Nancy and Kathleen. The service was friendly but slow. We began with spicy papadam and samosas that we dipped in a sauce that tasted like avocado. Then came dishes of lamb curry, fish curry, and butter chicken. We had rice, dal, and nan. Most of us drank beer.
The following day, as Kay and I walked to the dining room for breakfast, it began to rain, slightly at first, then quite hard. There was thunder, too. Jenny and Ralph joined us, as did Kathleen. We thought about the group that had gone golfing early that morning. The rain got so strong that we had to change tables.
I chatted with Kay, Jenny, Ralph, and others in the lounge until it was time for lunch. Jenny and I talked about politics and dictators. At lunch I ate some delicious pan-fried calamari and something called gulab jamun, fried balls of dough made from milk solids and semolina and soaked with an aromatic syrup.
Kay and I looked over the colorful clothes made by a woman near the beach. I bought a wildly colorful cotton shirt for $15.00 that I will enjoy wearing on the hot days of summer. I looked at the beautiful white sand beach for the first time and would have walked on it but for the intense afternoon heat.
As Kay and I napped in our air-conditioned room, we were startled by something hitting the French doors to the terrace. I looked out and saw monkeys playing and wrestling with each other on our terrace. I watched their antics for a while before photographing them through the glass.
Tonight, Kay and I had a drink before walking to the third of the Neptune hotels for an Italian dinner. Although the food was only so so, the company at our table was first rate.
Clay told us about some serious ailments he had suffered, ones that we had never heard of. I described my bicycle accident that broke three of my ribs and my collar bone. At another point, I asked Clay to tell me about what managing a grain elevator entailed.
Monday, March 20. At 9:30, we all except Kay and Ralph met at the beach and boarded a small, no-frills boat that took us from the hotel to snorkel. The boat was about twenty feet long with open sides and a solid roof that allowed some to sit on it. Seating was on benches facing two wooden frames enclosing glass bottoms that allowed us to view the sea floor as we passed. I was stuck by how shallow the sea was even quite a way out from shore.
After several minutes, the man operating the outboard motor shut it off, and we were treated to a demonstration of sea stars, sea urchins, a sea cucumber, and a sea spider. The second young man on the crew dove down and retrieved examples of each object. We handled them, passing them around. The sea stars were hard and colorful, and the urchins felt alive in our hands, tickling our palms with their legs.
By the time we reached a spot around a long sandbar where we would snorkel, we found at least six other boats there for the same reason. Among the motor boats was a dhow, a wooden boat of ancient design with a single mast and sail. I guessed they were used by locals for fishing.
We were each given masks and snorkel tubes but no fins. In the water we were free to go in any direction. After a bit, I found myself near a mound of coral where I saw several kinds of small fish. The prettiest had vertical stripes on its sides and yellow markings on its top.
Because the wind was blowing on shore, it was easy to swim away from the boat but much harder to return. By the time I reached it, I was ready to quit. Jenny was quitting at the same time so we went ashore on the sandbar together. Far and her family – her mother, father, older brother, and younger brother with his two kids – had set up an umbrella with a couple of chairs for those of us over 70. They also had a small barbecue grill frying small fresh fish. There was cold beer, too, and I drank some out of a plastic glass. We reboarded the boats as the tide came in and began to cover the sandbar.
That evening, our group was treated to a special dinner, commemorating the ending of our adventure. Tables had been set up on a grassy area not far from the buffet. Kay had watched young men prepare the decorations while we were snorkeling: palm fronds woven to create arches covered with bright flowers. On a dais two musicians and a singer entertained us as we drank our cocktails and found seats at a long table. Seafood is the specialty of Neptune Palm, and we were each given plates containing half a grilled lobster, a skewer of three giant prawns, and a piece of fish. We accompanied our seafood with side dishes from the buffet. Fareen’s family joined the festivities.
The evening culminated with dancing on the grass in front of the musicians playing covers of old favorites, including “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Tuesday, March 21. Our last day together meant final packing, paying bar bills, and eating a quick breakfast before saying goodbye to Neptune Palm and boarding a bus for a two-hour drive through the center of Mombasa that is called an island, even though it is attached by a sliver to the mainland and is thus technically a peninsula. This is the city where Fareen grew up. We passed by the course where she learned to play golf at an early age. She pointed out the features of the course that is close to a busy road, saying that she had broken more than one windshield with stray golf balls. We drove by something called the statehouse where the president stays when visiting Kenya’s second largest city. During our drive, Fareen kept up a running commentary about the city of her youth.
In spite of Mombasa’s heavy traffic, there are no traffic lights. Fareen told us that electrical power is so erratic that lights would often be disabled and intersections would be even more dangerous. She said it is the lack of power and infrastructure that keeps Kenya, with its large potential labor force, from being a more successful manufacturing country.
While we drove, I tried grabbing shots through the open window next to my seat. The roadside sights interested me.
Our destination, reached before noon, was the Wema Centre, a remarkable place of refuge for children who would otherwise be living and begging on the street to help support their homeless families.
It is a charity important to Fareen and her family, which they have supported for years. Our group of fourteen separated into two smaller parties as we toured the facility.
In a pretty classroom decorated with colorful murals displaying the days of the week and months of the year in English along with posters showing pictures of fruits with their names among other visual aids, very young boys and girls sat at low tables drawing and copying words. It was a kind of pre-school classroom, preparing the kids to enter traditional classes.
In a large room equipped as a kitchen, we saw older girls learning cooking skills. A couple of baking recipes were written on a blackboard.
One was for donuts that we would sample later in our visit. We were shown dormitory rooms for girls containing a couple dozen bunk beds.
These children had had traumatic childhoods and would often suffer night terrors. A house mother slept in their room with them to give aid and comfort.
The highlight of our visit was seeing, hearing, and even participating in songs and dances that a large group of children performed under the supervision of a social worker who said he had worked for the centre for twenty years.
It was an emotional time for us, as we saw the beauty of the transformation the centre was making in the lives of these street children. They looked genuinely happy as they sang and danced accompanied by three percussionists.
Far, dressed in a head covering and colorful top was one of the drummers. She is obviously loved and respected for the support she has given to the centre. Wema, we learned, means wellness. The staff and some of the older children wore t-shirts lettered with “Love Never Fails.” Looking into the glowing faces of these girls and boys and thinking about how they are getting a rare chance at happiness in this poor country moved us to tears.
On the bus, as we left the Centre, Far explained that its yearly operating budget was $400,000, of which three quarters needed to be raised through donations. We all gave donations to Far to pass on to the appropriate person.
Lunch was at another Neptune Hotel near the Centre, after which we reboarded the bus for the short drive to the Mombasa Airport where we waited a couple of hours for a plane to Nairobi. Although Kay hadn’t requested a wheelchair, one appeared with a helper named Felix. (We often joke that her cane possesses magical powers.)
The flight to Nairobi airport on Kenyan Airways was short. There, we said an emotional farewell to those who had been strangers when we met ten days before and were now friends. We hoped to meet again in the future.
I have to say that although Kay and I have taken several trips that we’ve ranked trips of a lifetime, our ten-day Believe Safari was one of the best travel experiences of our lives.