George Abert – Stories & Yarns

Notes from an interesting life

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British East Africa – Travels and Safaris

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Almost from the beginning of our two and half years in Nairobi, my family embarked on several journeys and at least two safaris. Eventually I’ll expand on a few of these but shall here endeavor to provide a brief summary of those I still remember (it’s been over fifty years!).


The Great Rift Valley

I think one of the first trips we took was to the east escarpment into the Great Rift Valley. On this first trip we were guests of a family from Texas. This was not a long trip and if memory serves, it took place in a single day. The route to the escarpment took us through some lush landscape locally termed the highlands. One of the towns on the route was amusingly named Gil-Gil, then not much more than a trading post. The highlands were favored for dairy farming and herds of cows could be seen in the lush country side. The lush landscape quickly gave way to a dry scrub once we reached the escarpment. About half-way down the escarpment we paid a courtesy visit to an agricultural mission then run by an apple farmer who hailed from Southwestern Michigan. I think that he was already in his seventies at the time and we were visit that mission once more before leaving Kenya. A few years after that, while back stateside, we visited this same man at his Michigan apple orchard.



What I recall was the second trip was to the neighboring colony of Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to visit Mt. Kilimanjaro. As was the case with our trip to the escarpment, we traveled with the family from Texas. This time we traveled in two cars and due to the distances involved were obliged to spend the night in a hotel located at a high-enough altitude to be within a lush rain forest. If memory serves, it was named the Kibo Hotel. The mountain rests on a high plateau at around 7,000 feet above sea level and rises to an altitude of around 19,000 feet. That makes Kilimanjaro stand out as unlike most other mountains it’s not part of a mountain chain and isn’t surrounded by foothills. Although somewhat distant from Nairobi, Kilimanjaro can be seen from Nairobi for just a few minutes after sunrise before it clouds over. As one climbs up Kilimanjaro, the vegetation transitions from dry scrub at the base to a dense rain forest (remember the clouds?) that starts at around 11,000 feet. These days I’m told that most of the rain forest has been cleared to make way for coffee production. As one climbs higher in altitude, the transition mimics what would happen were one to travel to higher latitudes. The rain forest gives way to a middle latitude deciduous forest and then to a pine forest. Eventually this pine forest transitions to alpine scrub and finally to an alpine desert. As I write, there’s still snow on Kilimanjaro but it’s predicted to be gone within a decade.

Unbeknownst to our parents, on the morning of second day my friend Bud (aged 9 or 10 and armed with a loaded Leica 1 35mm camera) and I (aged 7) summarily decided to climb Kilimanjaro. We simply left the hotel grounds and proceeded to walk in what we presumed to be up along the paved roadway towards the summit. After about a mile or so it occurred to us that this ascent would take far longer than we’d bargained for and turned back. During this attempt at the summit we never left the rain forest, but recall that Bud managed to take some memorable photographs of the rain forest.

The Game Parks

There were quite a few of these and my father managed to get us to see many of them. The names I remember are Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Marsabit (up in the NFD), Mount Kenya, Nairobi National Park, Tsavo and the Ngorongoro Crater. Due to its close proximity to Nairobi, we visited the Nairobi National Park numerous times. I vaguely remember visiting all of these parks. I recall that the trips to Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Tsavo and the Ngorongoro Crater took several days and obliged us to stay in bush hotels. There was also the famed Treetops Lodge which I wasn’t old enough to visit.


We traveled to Marsabit twice. Marsabit is located so far from Nairobi in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District (NFD) that it obliged us to go on Safari. Then and now this area is somewhat lawless and quite undeveloped. In those days there weren’t any hotels and with the exception of a vacation cabin located on the slopes of a small mountain, there were no accommodations whatsoever. On these Safaris we were accompanied by a USAID family stationed in Nairobi and used the Consulate’s MWR Safari setup that included two Jeeps and a tent. One of the Jeeps was one of those cab-over-engine pickup trucks that was fitted with a small slide in camper. On the road the men were obliged to sleep in a tent while the women enjoyed the relative comforts of the camper. As there were packs of hyenas roaming around, it was best to stay in the camper or the tent and keep a campfire going to avoid being summarily dismembered.


As I just noted, the area was quite lawless. Somali bandits roamed the region as the border between Somalia and Kenya wasn’t clearly marked or enforced. If these bandits encountered a group on Safari they were known to be inclined to rob them blind. More recently they’re inclined to capture entire groups and hold them for ransom. As a precaution, in the afternoon of the first day, we were obliged to stop on the way north at a King’s African Rifles Fort to take on protection in the form of a giant King’s African Rifleman. They always assigned one of the largest guys they had. These guys were at least six foot six in height and likely weighed in at well over 200 lbs. They were always impeccably attired in khaki uniforms and carried massive Enfield 303 rifles. They always looked awake and alert and never seemed to be in need of a bath although they usually smelled like onions. They never spoke unless spoken to and ate whatever we fed them.

The NFD is basically a barren steppe interspersed with a swath of craters and a small mountain named Mt. Marsabit. Wild camels, typically not encountered elsewhere in Kenya, are usually the first game anyone sees although there are the usual vast herds of gazelles, wildebeests and other less well known antelope species. Mt. Marsabit is high enough to catch rainfall and hence covered by a middle-latitude deciduous forest. While there we stayed in a large log cabin covered by clouds. One of the peculiar things I remember was the way the builders protected if from termites: they simply applied a heavy coat of varnish over all the logs. They had apparently done this after the logs were already infested as there were a few dead termites encased in what at the time of their demise was unhardened varnish, their heads and mandibles still protruding halfway out of the holes they’d bored.

We stayed in that log cabin on both of our trips up to the NFD. During the second visit it rained and although this presented no problems on the mountain, we were surprised when we ascended to the plains below to encounter a vast sea where there had been a desert steppe the day prior. It was amazing as for as far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon, there was water. We had to turn around and spend another night up that mountain.

Ngorongoro Crater

I don’t remember much about the Ngorongoro Crater except that there was a great deal of game including lions. For some reason the game there seemed unusually healthy. The lions were obviously well fed, huge and not the least bit concerned with our intrusion into their realm. Although it was rare for visitors to other game parks to see lions, they were easy to find in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Tsavo and Amboseli

These are both massive game parks which took us at least two days to visit each. In addition to all the gazelles and wildebeests, there were herds of elephants and giraffes. We encountered Rhinos and saw Hippos near the watering holes. We may have seen a pride of lions and the occasional leopard. Cheetahs were not an uncommon sight. As a rule, with the exception of packs of hyenas, the predatory creatures are far fewer in number than the herbivores they prey upon.

Stay tuned!

I think this bit about Tsavo and Amboseli marks a good end point for this installment. I’m not sure what will serve as the next installment’s focus but I’ve a hankering to discuss the trip to Mombasa and Malindi.

Written by GW Abert

March 22, 2015 at 12:22

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