I knew our ten-day trip to Kenya would be too short the second I saw the first animal of the trip –a rhino from the air – as we were landing near the first camp. The next ten days were fast and furious, and absolutely amazing. Every bird and mammal I dreamed of seeing was there to greet me. Yeah, I do know they could care less about me, but I can pretend they all love me, because I love them. From the sleek, young leopard slinking through the dry river bottom to the two male lions in their prime taking over a pride, to a small drab red-capped lark standing boldly and unconcerned surrounded by safari vehicles, they were all wonderful, amazing, and awe-inspiring.
We saw more in ten days than I could have imagined.
We first visited Kenya in June 1976, when I was 23 years old. We arrived around midnight from Johannesburg with no reservations, nor any plan, except to see everything. That night we ended up in a sleazy hotel in a not-very-nice part of the then-relatively small city of Nairobi. The next day we rented a car and were off to Mt. Kenya, the Aberdare Mountains, the Serengeti in Tanzania (where we accidentally ran into my ornithology professor, Dr. Keith Arnold), Mombasa (so we could ride the train over the bridge made famous in the book "Man-Eaters of Tsavo" and, much later, the movie "The Ghost and the Darkness").
Except for a couple of nights in inexpensive hotels, we camped out in a small – and I mean really small – pup tent. There were a few places where we were the only people camping, such as the unfenced campground in the Serengeti where elephants paid us a visit during the night. They apparently liked the grass. I wouldn't have known about them if it hadn't been for my then-boyfriend, now-husband, who spent the night "guarding" me with a panga from the safety of our rental car. I got a great night's sleep because I knew the elephants, lions, and all the other animals knew I loved them, so therefore they wouldn't hurt me. (Yeah, right.) But given the chance (and a more comfortable foam pad), I would do it again.
At the end of our trip this year, we arrived back in Nairobi to get ready for an early departure the next morning. As we drove around I looked in vain for any recognizable landmark in a city that held less than a million people in 1976 and whose population has now exploded to over six million today. We had planned to visit the house of Karen Blixen (author of "Out of Africa"), but were so exhausted we collapsed in our fancy hotel and never left.
Early this morning we arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to begin our flights back to Bozeman, Mont. The airport is totally different than it was on July 4, 1976 when we last left Kenya. If you are old enough you may remember that day for two reasons: the U.S. celebrated its sesquicentennial, and the Israeli army raided the Entebbe, Uganda airport to free hostages who had been hijacked by Palestinians from a plane flying from Tel Aviv to Paris the previous month. The Ugandan dictator and generally crazy person Idi Amin had allowed the Palestinians to house the captives in an unused building at Entebbe Airport. While sitting in the Nairobi airport that day, we barely knew about the hostages and at first absolutely nothing about the Israeli raid. We just knew our take-off was postponed three times, and that no planes were leaving the airport. We didn't know the Israelis had set up a field hospital at Nairobi Airport and (with the Kenyan government's permission) were going to refuel in Nairobi after the raid. At first we were just tired of waiting, but we began to worry as Kenyan soldiers with Sten submachine guns were suddenly everywhere. They made everyone go through a security check three different times. No scanning machines then, just airport personnel checking our dirty clothes and nine empty ostrich egg shells that miraculously all made it home safely.
The main thing I remember about that day is boredom, then confusion, then fear when the soldiers with submachine guns appeared in numbers way larger than I had ever seen. We began to hear rumors from other passengers that the hostages were being freed but didn't know the whole story until after we got home. We knew the Ugandan summer Olympics team was on our plane, and later found out they were a part of the security concerns.
Today I thought about that day 42-plus years ago and the wonderful life I've had since then. I have been extremely lucky. After a not-so-great childhood with an abusive, alcoholic father, I made it through college and graduate school with a major I love. I taught biology, which I love, to many, many wonderful and passionate students. And I was lucky enough to marry the guy I went to Kenya with way back then, who has tolerated a lot of crap from me ever since.
I've also been lucky in what I've seen. While walking through the Nairobi airport on the way to our gate we passed a huge mural. It was a composite of many of the birds and mammals one can see in Kenya – way more species in one painting than you would ever see at one time in the wild. I walked slowly and looked closely. I'd seen every one of them on our short trip, from the graceful giraffes to the misunderstood, but majestic, vultures. Lucky indeed!
As we head home we are already plotting our next African adventure. We hear Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park is beautiful, and I've always wanted to go to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. We also have some ideas about a couple of the less-visited parks in Tanzania. So many possibilities! I can't wait to get home to start researching our next trip to this amazingly beautiful and diverse continent.
Judy Lehmberg is a former college biology teacher who now shoots nature videos.
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