I didn’t know how to write about this trip. It’s been 5 years since I’ve been on a proper tour and half of those were spent while my life was sideways, treading water in an upside-down world changed forever by a plague and other mishaps. So in trying to compare and contrast my experiences, it dawned on me yet again that places have spirits or souls or essences that invite you in or spit you out, like Rajasthan or Istanbul or Botswana or Sardinia or Belize or Aachen or Marrakech or Amsterdam or wherever you call home…each has left its mark on me in a different way.
In Rwanda, I felt held. I felt fed – with local foods, recent history, a collective passion; with knowledge about conservation and community, with a shared compassion and humanitarian heart, eyes towards the future.
In Kenya, I felt sold-to, as if consumerism and capitalism and commercialism had woven its way into the fibers of existence there. It felt like a place that wanted to be so much of what my country stands for that they have shed their own identity. And while the pockets of the natural world there are being protected and nurtured, the delicate balance between selling eco-tourism as a commodity and believing that conservation is the right thing to do felt like a grand fuzzy line.
That said, I still had two days on my own at the end of the trip. So I spent my last couple of days in Nairobi learning more about how the country came to be, and seeing some of Nairobi’s conservation efforts for the Rothschild’s giraffe.
Stop #1 was the National Museums of Kenya (and snake house). The museum itself was a pictorial and diorama-ish narration of the country’s history from essentially prehistoric man to the present. If nothing else, the snake house was an opportunity to see their deadly (“a bite from this snake is considered a major medical emergency”) reptiles in a controlled environment.
The most disturbingly fascinating part of the museum, though, was the Birds of East Africa gallery. I wandered in, completely unaware, and was presented with what was functionally a life-sized Field Guide to the Birds, but instead of photos, each Kenyan bird was represented as a taxidermied example, meticulously arranged in plexiglass cases, labelled and numbered as in a bird book.
Stop #2 was the Giraffe Centre. What I thought would be a serene giraffe sanctuary turned out to be a breeding center and chatty tourist attraction. You are given a coconut shell full of snack pellets when you enter. Then you walk up to the viewing platform, where you can hand-feed and interact with the giraffes. It is a legitimate reintroduction program, as there are only approx. 1600 Rothschild’s giraffes remaining. They are at the centre to be bred, then released into the wild in protected parks throughout the country.
Looming large (and lovely) in the background was the renowned Giraffe Manor, where for $1000 USD a night (or more) you can stay in an enchanting stone manor that sits within the sanctuary’s grounds, as you commune with the resident long-necks. It was a weird but oddly satisfying visit, giving me hope that perhaps the commercialism of this place would help its natural beauty thrive.
Flying back home, I had a couple of distinct thoughts: I left Kenya with more things bought. I left Rwanda with more experiences sought. Yet it’s the little memories that pop into my mind as I digest my experiences:
The night I stood along the fencing separating the Lake Nakuru lodge from the reserve proper, watching a mass of dark hulking beasts make their way to the watering hole, grumbling and chatting amongst themselves in a low snuffling murmur. It was only once I shined my flashlight on the herd and saw 50 eyes staring back at me in the black night that I realised they were buffalo.
The night I went out to look for rhino in the weird Lake Naivasha camp, instead finding bushbabies skittering about (baby tree, said the night watchman). And maribou storks, dozens of the immense and bizarre creatures, using the half-dead and waterlogged trees as their base camp.
A lunchtime impromptu tour of the bush camp in the Maasai Mara, spotting hippos and monkeys and crocodiles, guided by a kind and eager Maasai warrior.
An exploration of the little paths along the park fence in Akagera National Park, wondering what might be stirring in the long grasses or what critters lurked just beyond the wires. I had a staring contest with a baboon in a nearby tree and spotted a family with the tiniest baboon baby (babette?) I’ve ever seen.
That night the Land Cruiser broke down on a long stretch of road between the Northern Province and Kigali and we were rescued (luggage and all) by a park ranger (and a veritable stranger) on his way back to Kigali.
The bicycles piled high with sugar cane. The lush hillsides. The milky way and the Southern Cross. The shoebills and hornbills and storks and kingfishers…brightly-coloured birds of all shapes and sizes.
A flash of history: We drove back from Giraffe-land past the new president’s house at about the same time the Kenyan supreme court awarded Ruto the win. The street outside his gates was lined with cars and photographers.
And the food…Dinner in the gardens at Hôtel des Mille Collines, staring out over the pool and pondering what Kigali’s people went through during the 90s. A homemade Rwandan lunch in the cook’s own kitchen, probably the best meal I had in the 2 weeks there. Dinner on my last night at an Eritrean restaurant in Nairobi, complete with injera.
I’ll come back to Africa. There’s so much more of this amazingly diverse land to experience. I want to see the Serengeti and Amboselli and Madagascar and Uganda…and return to Rwanda to hike more in the Virungas and return to Botswana and camp for longer, deeper in the Okavango. I want to eat injera in Ethiopia, and I want to see Deadvlei and Sossusvlei in Namibia. There’s probably more, not to mention the East African coast, that I don’t even know I want to see yet!
Travel is a privilege and an education. And for me, it is a prescription for the part of my soul that feels lost and wild and homeless and restless much of the time.
Jusqu’à la prochaine fois, l’Afrique !