Friday, December 31, 2010

Flat Stanley Goes to Kenya (8): Amboseli National Park

Stanley's next big adventure (and ours) was to Amboseli National Park. As readers of these posts have learned by now, of all the splendid wildlife in Africa the African bush elephant seems to hold pride of place for Mr. Guy. So for a long time, Amboseli has been a goal for me, not only for its splendid view of Mt. Kilimanjaro (here's how the mountain looked when Stanley first saw it, as we drove into the park) but for the great collection of wildlife, specially the elephants.
For some reason which I haven't learned yet, the area where the Amboseli National Park is located was pretty much unaffected during the great poaching epidemic of the 1980s, when African bush elephants were slaughtered mercilessly for their tusks. As noted in one guidebook, the park "still harbors some of the region's oldest and bulkiest elephants, sporting tusks whose dimensions have been consigned to history elsewhere in the area." Also in the park is the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, started in 1975 and the world's longest study of a wild elephant population. With something like 1,500 elephants in the park, visitors are treated to sightings unlike anywhere else.

So I was a pretty happy fellow in Amboseli, and I think Stanley and the other members of the safari were just about as excited as I was (here's some of what we saw (other photos from our adventures with Stanley in Amboseli are at the Flat Stanley in Kenya album). We saw hundreds and hundreds of elephants every time we went for a game drive while were at Amboseli,, and it was an amazing experience.

We also got to climb up Observation Hill, the only spot in the park where safari participants can get out of their vehicles, but we had a slight scare when we did that. Here's a photo of me showing Stanley the climb up the hill, and as he was beginning to feel a little independent as we started up the hill, he decided to run on ahead of us. Not a good idea when you are only half-an-inch wide. The wind picked him up and just like when his brother and his friends were able to "fly" Stanley like a kite, he went whooshing up into the air. All of Stanley's safari friends were called into action, running after him so he wouldn't be blown out into the lower part of the dried lake, where the hippos (or rhinos - we couldn't tell from where we were) were taking in the sun. Fortunately, we got to him, but we had to be a little stern with him, since Stanley has to stay with his friends if he doesn't want to be blown away.

Flat Stanley Goes to Kenya (7): More New Friends

Stanley was a big hit in Kenya, and as he got to meet Kenyan children it became clear that young people all over the world like to get to know one another, regardless of where they come from (or how thick they are - even a kid half-an-inch wide can make new friends).

One of our visits was to the community of Gem (pronounced with a hard "G"), near Kisumu, where we visited a family Mr. Guy got to know when he worked in Kenya. As it happened, our friend Sandi Kitt in New York had sent along a present for the young girl of the family, a New Orleans mardi gras mask, and I think Gweth Nyabera was very happy to have the mask to play with. She tried it on immediately and then ran outside to show it to all her friends, so I expect it will hang in a place of honor in her room.

Another highlight for Stanley was a visit to Nyanguru Village, to go to Charles's home and visit with his children and be with his and Jane's family. I had visited Nyanguru Village, near Kisii, earlier in the year because Mr. Charles (who started out as my driver and quickly became one of my best friends in Kenya) had invited me to get to know his family. You can read about that visit here. This photo shows Mr. Guy with three of the children, Justine (who often serves as my "official" photographer when we go on safari together), Ian, and Delfin.

Although I had been to Nyanguru Village before, this visit was very special because now I was going to have the opportunity to visit my African namesake. Claire Kwamboka Ombongi Masese, born just a few weeks ago, is named for Charles's recently deceased sister, and her first name is taken from from my last name. I was very honored when Charles and Jane connected to St. Clair and chose to name their baby Claire. We're calling her "Angel Claire," which is her daddy's special name for her. I am so happy that Stanley and our safari friends could meet her. It was a wonderful day in Nyanguru Village (and in Mr. Guy's heart) when we went to see Claire and all of Charles's wonderful family.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Flat Stanley Goes to Kenya (6): Egerton Castle

Egerton Castle is a very special place for me. I can't say exactly why, except that I greatly admire what Lord Egerton was able to do back in the 20th century, when he lead other settlers in Kenya in helping the local people. It was  his goal to figure out how to strengthen the country's economic role by teaching the citizens about agriculture as a business (instead of limiting agriculture to small farms just for raising what one family required). It was a very noble effort, and it appears to have paid off handsomely, since agriculture is today the country's primary source of income.

Remembering my visit to Egerton Castle back in October (you can read the post here), I knew I wanted to return for a couple of reasons. One, Mr. Andrew is a great lover of architectural history, and I knew he would like this place, as would the others in our safari. Also, since Ms. Nerisa has a connection with Egerton University, she was able to make special arrangements for a private visit and we would have a wonderful guide in Robert Onyiengo (76 years old), who had come to work at the place when the house was being built. So with her help, and that of Mr. Geoffrey, we got to the castle and started with a picnic on the grounds.

As for my second reason to return, I had noted in my first visit that the castle has a children's room, a learning center where young people can learn about how Lord Egerton helped the people of Kenya (along with lots of family photographs about Lord Egerton's family, both in Kenya and back in England), and once we had Flat Stanley on our safari, I wanted to be sure he got to visit Egerton Castle as well.

A special treat for Stanley was that in the children's room he was able to make some new friends, since there was a group of Kenyan families visiting Egerton Castle at the same time we were there. So with all the cameras ready, we were able to take several photos, including one of me with Stanley in the children's room and another as I was introducing Stanley to the other children and their families (I'm not sure they liked the idea of a little boy getting smashed flat, and Mr. Andrew had to explain that very carefully) and describing why Stanley has come on safari with us. Best of all, we were able to have a photograph of two of Stanley's new friends, Valeria and Dorothea (with Mr. Guy grinning like an "I-don't-know-what" - very strange!).

We got the impression from the girls (and their older brothers and sisters and their parents) that they were pleased to have met up with visiting Americans, and they were happy to have met Stanley and learn about his unusual circumstances. I was sorry I did not have an extra copy of the Flat Stanley book with me, but hopefully when the girls get to school they will ask their teachers to find it. Since English is required in Kenya (it's one of the three official languages, the others being Swahili and whatever mother tongue is used in each person's tribe or community), the book can be a good way for young people to be more familiar with English.

Wow! What a Fantastic Way to Celebrate the Season!

Apparently everyone else in the world has seen this, but as I've not been near a computer for a while and my e-mail has not been accessed, it just showed up in my e-mails (from several colleagues both from America and from several different countries, including a note from one international friend who commented: "This is why we love Americans so much!").

So as the holiday season winds down, what a great way to say hello and send best wishes to all my friends!

Go here or click directly:

Happy New Year.

Flat Stanley Goes to Kenya (5): Lake Nakuru National Park

We don't hear much about the flamingos in Kenya, and Flat Stanley got pretty excited when I told him that we could see thousands and thousands of flamingoes in Lake Nakuru National Park. I went there last year on a safari, and I was amazed at how many flamingoes there (I wrote about the park - and the flamingoes - in a couple of posts that you can check out if you like, here and here and here).

So when I told Stanley that we were going to see the flamingoes, he began to jump up and down and I got a little nervous because he can jump so high I was afraid a gust of wind would sweep him away. Stanley can jump even higher than the Maasai dancers we visited in Masai Mara (I'm not sure they liked that very much, and it seemed to make them a little nervous.

Going to Lake Nakuru and other places up in the Nakuru area was a big safari for us. Not only was it Mr. Andrew and Mr. Charles and I - just like the trip with Stanley to Masai Mara - we would be joined by Ms. Nerisa and Mr. Geoffrey - our Kenyan friends - and Mr. Richard and Mr. John, who had come from America to be part of the safari. So there was a big gang of us, and we got up very early to make the journey from Nairobi to Lake Nakuru, about three hours away.

The experts tell us that there are more than 500 species of birds listed for Lake Nakuru, and you can believe it, because they are all over the place. But the flamingoes are the best (there are over 2 million of them at the lake at any given time!), and sometimes one whole section of the lake will be just totally pink with the colors of the so-called "Greater Flamingo" (there are also plenty of the so-called "Lesser Flamingo," which are a tiny bit smaller and have feathers that are more white and less pink, if you're interested in that fine distinction). They all mingle together at Lake Nakuru, along with a large number of pelicans, probably more than Stanley and I have ever seen in any one place in America.

A special treat at Lake Nakuru is also the mingling together of the zebras and the waterbucks. The latter is large animal, one of the large antelopes family, with a shaggy grey-brown coat. When they are mixed up with the striped zebras, as one of them is in this group of waterbucks and zebras looking at Stanley, it's a very pretty picture.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Flat Stanley Goes to Kenya (4): Masai Mara Game Reserve

Masai Mara is one of the most famous game reserves in the world, a great place for a flat boy who wants to see some of the wild animals he has read about. I've had two previous adventures in Masai Mara, so I was pretty excited when I was going to be visiting the game reserve again with my partner. The others joining our big safari will be with us later, but for this visit it's just Andrew and me and Charles (our wonderful driver and good friend).

There's much to see and do, and the whole Masai Mara idea just seems to cry out to be shared with someone else (and so as not to repeat, if anyone wants to read about my earlier visits, go to the posts for my first trip to Masai Mara in May, 2010 and the migration safari, written about in September - see links to the left).

I'm a great fan of the famous (and well-managed) Sopa Lodges in Kenya, and Andrew and I opted to use them for this trip. One reason of course might have to do with my great love of the elephants, which the Sopa Lodge folks seem to share. Their decorators include images of elephants in the lobby's wall decorations, giving Flat Stanley and me an appropriate background for our first Masai Mara photo op.

One of the reasons why Masai Mara is so well-regarded is the variety of wildlife. Some claim that lion sightings are almost guaranteed, and perhaps that's so, since we had pretty good luck seeing the lions.These were resting in the sun when we first spotted them, and they were not at all concerned about having a vehicle stop nearby for some photographs. I continue to be intrigued with how docile lions can be when they are not hungry and looking for food. They really are just great big cats, perfectly content to lie in the sun and observe what's going on around them or, with most of them, just sleep the afternoon away.

We also were very lucky with many other animals as well, and Flat Stanley had a good introduction to wildebeests (which I don't think we have in America), hippos, the African buffalo, and all sorts of other animals and birds, including topi, gazelle, eland, and the ostrich and the kori busturd. There are plenty of zebras, great herds of them, and they make a pretty impressive picture when seen from a distance. The zebras, too, don't seem to mind when they are close to the track and a van or 4X4 comes by and stops so the visitors can have a better look.

At Masai Mara we got to see plenty of elephants which pleased me and, I'm happy to say, pleased Andrew and Charles and Flat Stanley as well. The African bush elephant is definitely my favorite animal now, and there's just something about their grace and their huge size that intrigues me. They are very social animals and it is always interesting to watch them moving about in groups and try to figure out what the relationships are. The bulls are often off by themselves, but not always, and as friends and I found out when we was on the migration safari, bulls can be extremely possessive parents.

While at Masai Mara, we had the good fortune to have Tomas as our guide. A member of the Maasai community, Tomas had been our guide when Charles and I visited in May, and it was Tomas who arranged for us to visit a Maasai manyatta, the family compound where he and his relatives live. He took Charles and me there on the previous safari, and he agreed to take Andrew and Charles and Flat Stanley and me there this time. It was a pretty exciting trip, and not only did we and Flat Stanley get a chance to go inside a Maasai hut, the men and women of the community danced for us, demonstrating some of the ritual dances that have become almost a trademark for the Maasai.

The men of the Maasai community are easily recognized by the brightly colored toga-like wrap they wear, the shuka (also now one of the cheapest and most popular souvenirs a visitor can bring home from Kenya). They color their hair with henna, giving it sometimes a rust-colored tint, and they wear a great deal of jewelry, both metal and beaded jewelry. They measure their wealth in the number of children they have and, perhaps as important, the number of cows (they don't use our plural word "cattle"), with a man not being considered wealthy unless he has at least 50 cows. The manyatta is not only the family compound, for at night when the cows are brought in from where they've been taken to graze during the day, it becomes their home for the night, shared with the people living there.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Flat Stanley Goes to Kenya (3): Fourteen Falls

One of Stanley's best adventures came when he visited Fourteen Falls, near Thika. The town of Thika is the setting for one of his favorite books, The Flame Trees of Thika, by Elspeth Huxley, about a little English girl growing up in Kenya at the beginning of the 20th century.

Stanley went to Thika with Mr. Guy and Mr. Andrew and Charles (their driver and friend) to visit the falls, shown here. Water everywhere, and you can go out in a boat and float across the river below the falls. That was fun, and going out in the boat gave Stanley a good view of the falls.

But the boatride also made Stanley very nervous because he's so flat that he would have floated away if he fell out of the boat. But he didn't fall out, and he had fun.

It was an exciting day for Flat Stanley. Guy and Andrew were asked by some of the local boys if they would like to see them (the boys) jump off the falls into the water below. They even offered to take Stanley with them and let him jump shen they jumped, but Mr. Guy wouldn't allow that. After all, what if the wind caught Stanley up and he floated away? What would Mr. Guy tell Mr. and Mrs. Lambchop?

Still, watching the boys jump was a thrill for Stanley, even if he didn't get to try it himself.

At Fourteen Falls, Stanley had his picture made with Mr. Guy and Mr. Andrew. He thought a lot about his friends Mal and Claudia and Bayley in Mobile AL and all his other friends and wished they were in Kenya with him. They would all be having a lot of fun together.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Flat Stanley Goes to Kenya (2): Visiting Mt. Kenya

When Mr. Guy and Mr. Andrew invited Flat Stanley on the Kenya safari, they said he would see some beautiful countryside, and the safari began with a visit to Mt. Kenya. The Kikuyu, Meru, and Akamba communities think of Mt. Kenya as the home of the gods, and it is easy to see why. It is the highest mountain in Kenya, and a great attraction for serious mountain climbers. Our guide, a member of the Akamba community (the Kenyans say "community" instead of "tribe'), is an employee of the Kenya Wildlife Service and he works as a rescuer for climbers who get caught high up on the mountain and need help coming back down.

Our drive took us from the Naro Moru Route up (shown above) to the second "level" of the mountain. We hiked up for a distance from the second level, and here is a photo of Mr. Guy and Mr. Andrew and Stanley as we began our hike. It was from this vantage point that we were able to take photos of the splendid views from the mountain (one of which is shown below).

Flat Stanley really liked the walk up the mountain and he kept talking about how his friends would enjoy the hike as well. There were lots of trees and wildflowers to see, and many bushes and dead trees to jump over as Stanley climbed up ahead of Mr. Andrew and Mr. Guy and the guide and Mr. Charles (their driver and good friend).

But even if they can't be with him, Stanley sends good wishes to his friends in Colorado and to Brian Hopkins and Julian Lafferty in Santa Cruz, CA. He wishes they were with him on this safari so they could all have a good time together.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Flat Stanley Goes to Kenya (1): Arrival in Nairobi

When our friends decided to have a three-week safari and explore Kenya, we thought our group was a pretty good one, made up of congenial friends who would have a good time together.

And then our safari got better. We got an added bonus: Flat Stanley would be coming with us.

[If you don't know Flat Stanley, here's how they describe him on the back of the book about his adventures (Flat Stanley: His Original Adventure, by Jeff Brown, published by HarperCollinsChildress, 1964): "Flat Stanley is an ordinary boy. At least he was, until the night his bulletin board fell off the wall and flattened him. All of a sudden, Stanley can slide under doors, mail himself across the country in an envelope, and fly like a kite!"]

Mr. Guy and Mr. Andrew brought Stanley to Africa because Cindy Hill, a good friend in Los Altos, California, mailed him to them. When Stanley arrived at the St. Clair/Berner house in New York, he politely asked to come to Kenya, as his friend JT in Mrs. Nix's Class at Alpine Elementary School in Longmont, Colorado would be very happy if Stanley could visit Kenya and go on Safari.

So welcome, Flat Stanley. Here is a picture of Stanley arriving at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi on a wet Sunday night (with Mr. Guy and Mr. Andrew - in Maasai clothes - and their friend, Ms. Nerisa, and in another picture with Mr. Andrew and Mr. Geoffrey and Ms. Nerisa). He is happy to be in Kenya with his new friends (and soon some other Americans will join them for the safari).

Flat Stanley says hello to his friends in America and all over the world, and especially to JT in Colorado.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Visit to the Nairobi National Museum

A recent Sunday provided three of The Great Four (Geoffrey couldn't join us) an opportunity to have a day out, spending lots of time doing things we had wanted to do but had not been able to fit into the schedule. It was a sort of gloomy day anyway, so we decided to take on activities that would mostly keep us indoors, starting with church (hence the way we are dressed).

Our first stop was a long-delayed visit to the Nairobi National Museum (see a selection of photos here). The flagship museum of the National Museums of Kenya, the Nairobi National Museum was started in 1910 by the then East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society. In those days, the organization was mostly colonial settlers and naturalists who wanted to keep and preserve their collections of various specimens, and that's the sense that comes through, especially when you look at some of the older collections. The bird collection is definitely dated in its style and presentation, but it is so comprehensive you just don't think about that. It's an amazing collection (and I've just offered a tiny sample in the photos).

The Great Hall of Mammals is quite spectacular (and a neat spot for some close-up pictures with some of the animals you dare not get close to on safari!). Also great fun (and a unique learning experience) is the Cradle of Humankind exhibition, with a reconstruction of how human beings lived millions of years ago. A recent addition (and behind very secure doors and a two-doored walkway) is the collection of skulls and skeletons from early mankind, deposited at the museum from Louis Leakey's Centre for Prehistory and Paleontology from the days when he was the museum's honorary curator (1941-1961). Very impressive indeed.

And for fun, perhaps the most visited exhibit is in the museum's courtyard: Ahmed the Elephant. He is enormous and has those fabulous, long tusks. Actually, what's on display is a replica of Ahmed, to bring attention to the the famous tusker who was put under armed protection in the 1970s to demonstrate Kenya's commitment to eradicating poaching (and connecting with the beautiful memorial at the National National Park).

Friday, December 3, 2010

Very Unusual Art Work

Not being an expert in the fine arts, I'm somewhat at a loss as to how to describe some of the things I run across in my travels. And I have to admit that even with that caveat, I'm a little challenged about the art work I found in one section of the Crocodile Farm in Nairobi (the Nairobi Mamba Village).

It is the facade of a building that - I gather - once housed an art gallery and gift shops, but now it is totally abandoned and even gives off the air that the inhabitants left in a hurry (perhaps the crocodiles got loose one night?). Even the gift shop still has many items inside, all covered with dust, sort of as if in an old-fashioned "ghost town" one sees from time to time in the American West.

Whatever its purpose, it's not a small building, and it is spread out over a good-sized area, and mostly one floor, although one can discern some second-floor space at some sections). But what fascinates me and my friends, as you can see from the photographs, is the artwork fashioned into the facade of the building. It's a little of everything, depicting African historical themes, considerable early-history warfare (I presume tribal, although one conquering warrior seems to be in Arabic dress), wildlife, what appear to be legends or narratives of one sort of another, and a depiction of ritual circumcision. Someone put a great deal of thought and labor and talent into the creation of this facade, and the whole work is quite charming.

Not surprisingly, we were very distressed to see the condition of the facade, and who knows what will happen to it? Whatever the fate of the art, seeing it is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While some of the photographs give some idea of what it looks like, the facade also appears destined to be a thing of the past, since I don't have the sense that it is cared for or will have any future. I think the medium is poured concrete, molded before it set, but it could be anything (again, I'm not an expert in these things). No matter. As a fascinated thing to view this art work is a real treat, and if it disappears, that will be too bad.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Nairobi's Crocodile Farm

Yes, you read that right. In Nairobi - right in the city - there's a place called "The Crocodile Farm" and all I can say is that I'm happy I don't live in that neighborhood. Of course it's not dangerous and the area is well controlled but it's not a place I would particularly want to be near. I seem to have this attitude about crocodiles, probably dating back to a first safari a long time ago in Kruger National Park, in South Africa. Even though we were far away - as we were when we viewed the crocodiles on the migration safari in September in Kenya - I just don't want to be anywhere near crocodiles.

The place is officially known as Nairobi Mamba Village and it's not exactly in the heart of Nairobi, so I should not have worried. But it is in the rather up-scale suburb of Karen, and it's laid out around a man-made lake with beautiful gardens. I don't think it's a government or local authority place, as it seems to be more of a private operation and, sadly, seems to be a little run-down. There are several buildings that are not open and in obvious disrepair, and even though there is a playground with rides and such (and a reticulated giraffe and quite a few ostriches, which visitors can feed from their hands) and a very nice restaurant, you get the feeling that the place has seen better days. There's even a nightclub attached, built up over the place where the 60-some Nile crocodiles are kept and fed (gory thought, that) and while the mamba (the Swahili word for crocodile) are all fenced in, it's a strange sort of attraction. The crocodiles are mostly docile during the day, but at feeding time when chunks of what smelled to me like very rancid meat (I had to leave the area) are tossed to them by the attendants they become extremely active. It was all pretty unpleasant, as far as I was concerned.

Nerisa, brave soul that she is, took the photos and she did a great job. I will enjoy remembering my visit to the Crocodile Farm from looking at her good pictures. That's close enough for me.