September 18, 2001
Jambo! (aka: Hello!)

Given that I was working in Germany, what a better chance to hop over to Africa for a SAFARI. My dream vacation. After a long flight from Munich, Bary, Caroline and myself settled into our accommodations in lovely downtown Nairobi, Kenya. Not the safest place in the world, as we were told not to venture out of the hotel for any reason. Nothing like hotel beer and pizza in a hostile environment to calm the nerves. Anyway, early the next morning, we crammed into an old bus for the 5-hour drive (on rough roads no less) to Arusha, Tanzania. There, we met, our super-modified Land Cruiser (Rhino-proofed, two spares, extra gas cans, winch, you name it) and Mweta, our personal guide and driver for the duration of the safari.

Before we headed out to the African plains, we hit Red’s Restaurant to review the agenda. Not only was this a great lunch (Especially after a grueling, crammed-over-the-wheel-wells, hot and humid, dusty, bumpy bus ride), but this is where we were introduced to Kilimanjaro Premium Lager. “It’s Kili Time!” would quickly become our war cry after each day out on safari. And, we figured beer was one of the safer drinks around (Good excuse, eh?). After lunch, we piled into the Land Cruiser and headed to Lake Manyara National Park.

Lake Manyara was a good intro for our safari (“safari” in Swahili means “travel”). Our first wild encounter was with a pack of baboons. I managed to go through half a roll of film in my first 20 minutes. Little did we know that those pesky baboons would be EVERYWHERE. But during our two days in Lake Manyara, we also managed to see some giraffes, gazelles, elephants, zebras, wildebeest, wart hogs and hippos. No predators, but not bad for a “starter” park. And we did manage to see two giraffes fighting by flinging their heads at each other (check out the video, on sale soon). And for evening entertainment at the lodge, there was a ping-pong table, which hosted our Beer Pong tournament. Final score: Bary-3, Mike-4, Caroline-zippo.

Our next stop took us up a notch. Old Duvai is in the Great Rift Valley. This is where scientists found the earliest signs of man. If you recall, in 1979 Mary Leakey found 1.8 million year old human footprints preserved in volcanic ash (which proved that Nikes were all the rage back then). The Old Duvai Tented Camp consisted of about 20 tents scattered around a small mountain of rocks in the plains. Maasai warriors in their traditional red blankets, and equipped with spears, bows and arrows, made up most of the campsite help and took us on a hike. They patrolled the campsite all night to keep wild animals away, and were so kind to heat enough water for a 3 second shower. At night, it was pretty loud as we heard all sorts of strange beasts. Makes for great dreams! Apparently, a lion killed two goats the night before; so three Maasai hunted it down and killed it the next morning. Rule of thumb: Don’t mess with the Maasai!

On Day 4, we were ready to venture into the Serengeti (“Endless Plain” in Swahili). It wasn’t long before we spotted a leopard lazing around in a tree. Soon after, two cheetahs sitting on a rock scouting for prey. As we watched a herd of elephants cross our path (with an eye on us as they had young), a pack of mongoose (similar to weasels) approached. Suddenly, an elephant freaked out and charged the mongoose, ranting and raving. No sooner was the Land Cruiser in rapid reverse! Amazing!

After a long day, we unpacked at Migration Camp, in an isolated area of the Serengeti. But the excitement didn’t end there. As we ate dinner that night by the main campfire, we heard lions all around. It was difficult eating with my teeth rattling. By the way, the next morning we learned that 6 lionesses had circled our campfire about an hour after dinner. Askari (night guards armed with bows and arrows, some with AK-47s), were there to escort us back to our tents after dinner, where our only contact with anyone until morning would be via a small whistle they gave us for “assistance”. Now came the sleeping (or lack thereof) episode. All night I heard hippos, zebras and other animals I didn’t recognize. It was like sleeping in the middle of a zoo…without cages! Worst of all, I heard lions (Simbas) on both sides of my tent. The whistle was in my mouth the entire night, and just hoped the lions weren’t in the mood for Asian food that night.

After surviving a sleepless night, we piled into the Land Cruiser for a drive to the Kenyan border. As we headed toward the rainy season, the dry plains slowly transformed into lush green pastures. But there was an eerie feeling around as the plains were littered with bone fragments and animal skulls. And for the first time, we came across predator and prey within eyeshot of each other. On one side were two male lions just hanging out under a tree in plain view. On the other side was a herd of about 100 wildebeest (about 50 yards away), staring at the lions, snorting loudly (apparently snorting is a show of defiance). Bary jumped out and acted like a wounded wildebeest, but to no avail. No chase, no excitement, and pretty bad acting. And as we cruised the Serengeti for the next couple of days, we ran across many more lions. Some staking out watering holes, some just lying under a tree, and others munching on human remains (just kidding).

Our next stop was Ngorongoro Crater. It’s a 265 sq. km crater (23km across) with 600 foot sloping sides that pretty much contains it’s own ecosystem. There are 3 small lakes, lots of flamingos, 17 black rhinos, a pride of lions, and birds that literally steal your lunch out of your hand if you’re not extremely careful
(Just ask Bary). Since no one is allowed in the crater during the night, we stayed in nice hotels (yes, solid walls, no fear of being eaten) on both sides of the rim. One highlight of the crater was finding a den of hyenas, and watching from 10 feet away. The alpha female was trying to separate her newborn cubs from fighting, meanwhile putting the smaller male in his place, who was cowering in the corner (She was definitely wearing the pants in that family). A young hyena was chomping on a bone, while another threw up (oops, I guess I could’ve left that out).

After 2 days, we headed south to Tarangire National Park. As it was the peak of the dry season, the large herds of wildebeest and zebras weren’t evident. Still, thousands of elephants are known to roam these grasslands. In fact, most guides are most fearful of elephants, as they tend to charge at vehicles in this park. And yes, we got our share of elephant stares, roaring and some threatening running (from a safe distance). One night, we spotted a lone African buffalo by a small pond. The next morning, in the same spot, there was only a buffalo carcass, surrounded by 4 lions. We tracked a couple of cheetahs, but didn’t see a chase. There were some incredible sunsets, framed by Baobob trees. Most of our interaction with wild animals happened at the Tarangire Tented Camp, where vervet monkeys were always trying to get into our tents, steal our passports, try our lipstick (Uh, I mean Bary’s lipstick-just kidding). Well, I guess that’s better than lions…

Our final safari stop was back up north to Arusha National Park. We saw black and white monkeys, dik-diks (tiny antelope), buffaloes, and other animals, but the main attraction were giraffes. It’s amazing watching them run. It’s like something moving in slow motion. From Arusha, we could also see Mount Kilimanjaro (highest point in Africa) through the clouds. Hiking up Kili will be part of my next trip.

After 10 days of being bounced around in a Land Cruiser, we were ready for some R&R. We said our goodbyes to our trusted guide, Mweta, and headed to Zanzibar Island to be pampered and get in some diving. It was a great way to end the vacation and get ready for (ugh) work…

September 2001

P.S. Great pictures available on request!

Posted by mbang at 03:06 PM
July 18, 1999
Oh! Boom!

Oh! Boom!

The weekend started off on a relaxing note, as we all veged at my house for an hour Saturday morning, waiting for Barbara to bring all the food, and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink. It was a well needed nap, given most of the crew had been up late Friday night, buying those last minute camping supplies, Super Soakers and carefully packing. Uh, everyone accept for Alan, that is.

When we finally got everything packed and tied down, the 7 of us (Barb, Steve, Yianis, Chuck, Kris, Alan and myself) were off to Nevernever Land. But the dream was abruptly interrupted by the grotesque image of a hairy butt. I guess our only consequence was that we (Barb, Steve and myself) didn’t have to ride in a car that had a butt print on the window. Hmm, I can’t think of a better reason to sell a car.

Back to the drive.

Soon, we were detouring through Lockhart, in search of the best-rated barbecue in the country: Kruez Market. Mmm! Well worth the stop! No sides (just crackers), no barbecue sauce, no plates, not even any forks, but some home cookin’ (and Big Red) that could almost rival Barbara’s mastery of the culinary arts.

What a sight it was to finally see Enchanted Rock. Well worth the drive. And as we set up our “refugee tent camp”, we realized the extent of our over-shopping spree (5 tents-enough room for 12 people, 3 stoves plus fuel) and our under-shopping talent (not enough beer, not enough Super Soakers, not enough Alan coverage). But there was nothing that a quick trip to WalMart couldn’t solve.

And before long, we were playing horseshoes, hiking up Little Rock, and having massive water gun fights. Yeah, baby! I guess we really worked up an appetite as we soon chowed on Barb’s incredible pork chops and mashed potatoes. Mmm! I don’t eat this well in Houston! Later, it was the start of the endless quoting from “Austin Powers” and “South Park”. Enough already! Why does everyone think they’re sexy??? But at least we got a break with Yianis’ imitation of The Diceman! Just learn how to smoke next time.

By now, we were well fed, tired, and ready for a relaxing Saturday night in front of the campfire, for some star gazing and watching the raccoons rummage through our food. But the serene atmosphere was shattered by those unforgettable words: Oh Boom! Right in the face! Hahahahaha!!! (Poor raccoon.). My gosh Steve, I’ve never seen such animal instinct! Almost as intense as the look in Chuck’s eyes as he ran around with his Super Soaker, trying to maim anyone that dare oppose him! And here I was, stuck in a remote campsite with these menaces. Not sure if this was a good thing, or a bad thing.

In any case, by now, we were all exhausted from a full day, so we retired to our sleeping accommodations. Actually, only 4 people slept in the 12-person tent camp. Chuck, Yianis and Alan braved the elements (and the mountain lion) and camped out on the rock. You go girls!

Sunday morning was our first introduction to Kris in the morning. Wow. I mean, I’ve read about cases like this in The National Enquirer, but wow. Well, it was nothing that a good Barbie breakfast couldn’t cure. And then it was off on our hike up Enchanted Rock. Great view, nice weather, but pretty raunchy conversations, where I learned a new word that I immediately wanted to forget. The brief rain helped cool the heat, but also made the rock slippery enough for some butt sliding. But once it dried out, Alan donned the rock-climbing shoes and led us to some death-defying heights.

Pretty soon, all tired out from hiking, butt sliding, rock climbing, Austin Powers quoting, and water battles with our neighbors, it was time for, you guessed it, another beer run! But there’s always time for the good old Alan bashing session. “It’s almost dinner. I guess it’s time for Alan to start his regular rummage for utensils.” “For just ten cents a day, you can sponsor Alan, and get a postcard each month…”. And so on.

After a roasted pepper quesadilla meal, it was off into a pitch-black parking lot for some night football, before retiring once again to a roaring campfire. Not much going on that night, except for Chuck enjoying a little too much wine, and a hilarious ghost attack on Alan and Yianis as they slept on the rock. “Yaaa!” “Get off of me!!!”.

As Monday morning came around, the camp was buzzing with action, as we ate breakfast, packed up camp, cleaned the grounds, loaded the cars, planned the route home and listened to Alan thank everyone for lending him everything. Oh, and right about then, Kris woke up. Good morning!

Unfortunately, Yianis and Chuck had to head straight back to Houston, but the rest of us took a detour to New Braunfels for some toobing! What a great way to wrap up the trip. The water was a little cold, especially when it was time to relieve ourselves, but the beer cooler kept us happy (except for Steve’s camera). No major accidents, although we almost lost Kris in one of the rapids. Barb found my G-spot, and somehow lost her plaque in the process (Don’t ask). There was a dog that had more energy than all of us combined, we were being trailed by dumb and dumber, and there were just too many South Park quotes.

After a nice, relaxing dinner at the Grist Mill in Gruene, and we had finally run out of reasons to avoid the drive back to Houston.

What a vacation. No traffic, no crowds, no bugs, good weather, awesome hiking, fabulous food, great people and conversation, fun water fights and endless Austin Powers quotes. Life just don’t get no better than that!

July 1999

Posted by mbang at 01:13 PM