August 2010

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Boarding our Caravan in Nairobi for our flight to the Mara. Photos by David Lansing.

We are flying low over The Great Rift Valley in a 9-passenger single-turboprop Caravan, a popular plane in Africa because of its capability to use rough, pitted fields for landing strips. Below us a train of wildebeest, marching like soldiers in a column that stretches across the plain as far as the eye can see, slowly moves north. The seasonal migration from the southern Serengeti to Masai Mara has begun.

A few minutes earlier we passed over a herd of maybe 60 or 70 elephants crossing the Ewaso Ng’iro River; not the big river with the same name that rises from the western slope of Mount Kenya and flows north through Samburu where, in March, it burst its banks and flooded much of the famed game reserve, including Elephant Watch Camp, which we plan on visiting at the end of our expedition, but the smaller river rising from the Mau Escarpment that flows south to Lake Natron in Tanzania. (Perhaps the confusion of names comes from the fact that Ewaso Ng’iro means brown or muddy water, which could be said about half the rivers in Eastern Africa.)

Our pilot, Hamish Rendall, has slowed the Caravan to a crawl so that Pete can open a rear window on the plane and hang out as far as he dares to shoot the vast array of wildlife below us—hippos in the river, zebras in the plains, as well as ostriches, waterbuck, warthogs, giraffes, sable antelope, eland, impala. In addition to the hundreds of elephants and an endless parade of wildebeest.

“It’s like Jurassic Park,” says Fletch, who, along with Hardy, took a red-eye from London last night, arrived in Nairobi two hours ago, and now is flying over one of the greatest displays of wildlife in the world.

Pete asks Hamish to make another pass over a mixed herd of wildebeest and zebra that, having broken off from the migrating group, mingle in a tight circle, like drunks at a cocktail party, and as the plane’s shadow cuts across the animals, blocking out the sun for just a moment, the crazy-tailed wildebeest shake their heads, kicks their hoofs, and flee to the four winds, maddened by our shadowy presence.

We all laugh and shake our heads in wonderment, just as crazed as the beasts below us.


From Nairobi to Tanzania

Chris Mahoney, waiting for us at the Aero Club of East Africa. Photo by David Lansing.

So this is how it starts: Inching our way slowly through pre-dawn traffic in Nairobi, the radio station in the car broadcasting a Kenyan version of an early-drive show with two DJs pimping a free Safaricom cell phone to the caller with the best story about why it is sometimes necessary to cheat on your wife or girlfriend, as a way to gain their respect, as our Kikuyu driver quietly, efficiently, stealthily ignores all road rules, as do all Kenya drivers, elbowing his way through a roundabout, inventing a new lane on the dirt path where women, piled high with plastic containers, walk unconcerned.

Ahead of us, an overloaded matatu, the ubiquitous 14-seater Nissan minivans that are to Nairobi what the Tube is to London, stops in the middle of a two-lane road to drop off a woman carrying a cage with several chickens in it. Four young men want in the matatu but there is no room so they hang on to bumpers and running boards, looking back dispassionately at our black Audi as we pass.

Matatu is Swahili for “three people” but I have no idea how these rolling deathboxes got that name since there is never fewer than a dozen people, their sweaty bodies jammed shoulder to shoulder, knee to butt, in them. The current Transport Minister of Kenya, Amos Kimunya, announced last month that he is fazing matatus out. “You should be ready for this so that when the time comes you do not say your livelihood has been taken away,” he warned the matatu industry, but no one believes him. What, after all, would replace them?

Nairobi has the worst traffic congestion in the world. Hands down.

It takes us almost 90 minutes to travel from our hotel, just blocks from the U.S. Embassy, to the Wilson Airport which is exactly 14.5 km, or less than 9 miles, away. If we had jogged there, doing an easy 10 mph, we would have beaten the car. And not had to listen to early morning callers explain why cheating on their girlfriends was a good thing. As we pull up to the famed Aero Club of East Africa, where we are meeting our pilot, our driver tells us we are very, very lucky that we got here before 7 a.m.

“After that, no good,” he says, taking our luggage out of the trunk. “Hapana m’uzuri.”

Standing in front of the Aero Club, hand in pocket, wearing untied hiking boots coated with the red dust of the Mara, is Chris Mahoney who, for the better part of two months, has received my almost-daily e-mails requesting updates, changes of schedule, additions and deletions to itinerary, and odd questions like What’s the best malaria prophylactic with unflagging cheerfulness and good humor (Sample: When I’d requested, for the ninth or tenth time that he change the itinerary once again, after he’d just spent two weeks arranging for some very tricky stops involving multiple small planes and maybe a helicopter, he immediately e-mailed me back with, “No worries. We’re as flexible as Russian circus gymnasts.”)

So here we are. At the Aero Club of East Africa, on the edge of the Athi Plains, the very place where Beryl Markham, whose photo is in the lobby, smiling beside the debonair figure of Douglas Fairbanks, who she taught how to fly, touched down over and over in preparation for her little jaunt across the Atlantic in her Vega Gull, The Messenger, celebrated in her memoir West With the Night. Now as soon as our aides-de-camp show up, we’ll be off to Cottars 1920s Safari Camp in the Olentoroto Hills bordering Tanzania, a 175 mile flight to the southwest that should take us less time than our ten mile drive to the airport.


Just a song before I go

Okay, tomorrow morning very, very early Pete and I will be given a lift from Tribe to the little Wilson airport where we’ll hook up with two of our colleagues and the four of us will fly down to the Mara where we’ll meet our expedition leader, Calvin Cottar and spend some time at his family lodge, Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp, which I am really excited about.

But before all that, I want to show you this very short video of the kids from the Cura orphanage singing to Pete and me just before we left. I mean, all you have to do is look in the faces of these kids, who are really amazingly happy and well-adjusted (particularly considering that they’ve all lost their parents to HIV/AIDS) to see what a terrific job Moses and the housemothers at Cura are doing.

These little kids really worked their way into Pete’s and my hearts and left both of us with a haunting memory. It’s one of those rare instances where you think you’re going to meet some people and maybe do something nice for them but when you leave you realize that they were the one who gave you a gift—of caring and emphathy and wanting to be a better person. I may be too far gone for that, but I’m going to try. And if, after watching this 30-second video I shot, you get a little tug in your heart, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to succumb to it and sponsor one of these kids. Which you could do by checking out the Cura Orphanage web site here.

I’m just saying.


Bonobos invade the orphanage

Cura orphans, the new fashionistas of Nairobi, get clothing from Bonobos. Photo by David Lansing.

One of Pete’s photography clients is Bonobos, a very cool e-commerce clothing store, primarily for men although they’re now launching a women’s line of clothing as well, whose mission is “to banish the saggy bottom.” I don’t get a nickel or even a free sample from Bonobos, but I do own some of their pants and shorts and can tell you they’re just about the greatest fitting clothes I’ve ever owned.

Anyway, Pete told Brian and Andy, the co-owners of Bonobos, that he was going on an expedition to Africa and that maybe they should give him some of their gear to shoot over there. And they said cool. Then he mentioned, at the last minute, that we were also going to visit an orphanage in Nairobi and they said, Hey, why don’t you take some shirts and shorts to the kids. So he did.

Now, while Bonobos is getting ready to launch of line of women’s clothing, they’re nowhere close (as far as I know) to doing kid’s clothes. So Pete knew going in to this that everything was going to be a little large. Or even a lot large. But, you know what, Moses didn’t care and neither did the kids. They were just thrilled to get the new clothes. Even if the psychedelic board shorts and plaid polo shirts were a little out there compared to their usual uniform of blue-on-gray. Who knows? Maybe these little guys will start a whole new trend in Nairobi fashion.

And if you’re truly concerned about orphans in Nairobi wearing preppy clothing designed by a couple of guys from the Stanford, well just remember that for only $52.80 a month, you could not only clothe but also feed and educate one of these kids. And send him or her your own clothes. And to find out how to do that, check out the Cura Orphanage here.


Norman the cow is pregnant

All photos by David Lansing.

As you can probably tell, I was kind of smitten with the kids at the Cura orphanage. Pete and I planned on being out there for an hour or two but after three hours, neither one of us was ready to head back to our hotel, despite the fact we hadn’t slept in 36 hours and were running on fumes.

I was curious about what sort of meals the housemothers were able to make for the kids. Moses told me that they pretty much have the same menu every week. Their main meal goes something like this:

Dinner for 50--beans and potatoes.

They have a bean and potato stew once a week (that’s what they were eating when we were there). Twice a week they have a traditional Kikuyu dish called githeri which is a combination of beans and corn with maybe a little chopped cabbage added to it, and on Sundays, when they’re lucky, they get a little piece of meat.

The orphanage is also lucky in that they have a shamba, or small vegetable garden, right next door that is fertilized by Norman. Norman isn’t the gardener but a very pregnant cow (I have no idea why they named a cow Norman) that, since June, also provides the orphanage with milk, saving them about $40 a month. Norman has a very nice livestock shed next to the shamba that was built by volunteers and upstairs from Norman’s digs is a new chicken coop where a hundred or so hens have only recently started to lay eggs.

As a result, the kids at the orphanage now get chapatis with eggs or chicken once a week as well. And, of course, the chicken manure also goes to fertilize the shamba. So this is a pretty damn green orphanage (and maybe the first Slow Food orphanage in the world).

I can’t say that I’m the most philanthropic-oriented person in the world (in fact, I’m probably one of the worst), but watching these bright-eyed kids wolf down their beans and potatoes, I had to ask Moses how much it cost to feed them every day. A $1.76, he said. Not “About two dollars” or “Just a couple of dollars a day,” but one dollar and seventy-six cents. Exactly. When someone tells you that, you know they’ve got their budget figured out to the penny.

The fact of the matter is, Moses told us, the orphanage was built to house 150 kids. But they only have 50 right now because that’s all they can afford to feed and clothe and educate. But if a few more people wanted to sponsor a child to the tune of $52.80 a month, they could take in more orphaned kids. I’m not saying you should think about sponsoring a Cura orphan. I’m not even saying that I will. Not for sure, anyway. I’m just saying that if you’re curious, like I was, and would like more information, you could always check out the Cura Orphanage here.


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