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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Out of Africa - My encounter with the deadly "White Leech of Death"

February 2015 - Yelapa, Mexico

As our three month winter vacation in Yelapa draws to a close it’s time to start thinking where next to send my blog follower while I consider my options for my next adventure. 
I've been following events in West Africa with the same trepidation as the rest of you.  I am heartened to see they are turning the corner to get EBOLA under control.  Coupled with the new testing of several promising vaccines, we may see an end to this scourge once and for all.

A less reported side effect of the outbreak is the effect it’s had on the tourism industry in the other counties of East Africa.  Tourism has drastically declined as people tend to look at Africa as one “place.”   The same rational greatly effected tourism in western Canada more than a decade ago during the SARS outbreak in Toronto.  It didn’t matter that Vancouver was 4000 km away from Toronto; people’s perception was that nowhere in Canada was safe.  

The distances between West Africa and Kenya and Zanzibar are even greater than the distance between Vancouver and Toronto.  There was no EBOLA outbreak– suspected or otherwise - in East Africa.  However there were 4 cases in the US.  So by that logic, you have a greater (although infinitesimal) chance of getting EBOLA visiting the US. 

Kenya is a third world country and travelling in any third world country has its risks.  Generally, if you are on an organized tour and you are careful your chances of anything other than having your camera nicked or your wallet stolen are almost nil. 

West Africa is probably safer than Mexico – and I’m here in Mexico and don’t feel worried about having my grandchildren here.  I’m in a small town of a few hundred that’s so peaceful they don’t need a police force – but that’s not the general perception of Mexico.  Some of my friends scream “It’s not safe there!”    That may be true if I’m planning to visit Juarez – but I’m not.  There are places in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and even Vancouver where you should be careful where and when you visit.  You make informed choices.   It’s interesting that Business Insider’s 50 Most Violent Cities, East African cities  are not mentioned;  but Detroit, New Orleans, and Baltimore are.

Don’t get me wrong, Nairobi is a “scary” city.  But I didn’t venture out at night, and always had a local with me when I traveled during the day.  I didn’t feel scared at all in laid back Mombasa – a beautiful seaside city.  As for the rest of the country, where I assume you’ll be spending your time, if you’re on an organized tour you probably have a greater chance of getting hurt in Disneyland.

This is a long preamble of saying that NOW is probably the absolute best time to plan a safari to East Africa.  They are hungry for tourists, and there are some incredible deals out there.  They won’t be there long as people realize that the EBOLA outbreak is nowhere near Tanzania and Kenya (who I mentioned earlier didn’t have a single case). 

I visited Kenya about ten years ago and it was one of the most memorable trips I ever took.  Like the Galapagos Islands, it’s something EVERYBODY should do once in their life – and it will never be more affordable than now.  The folks at AfricanMecca Safaris & Tours arranged the trip for me and I highly recommend them. 

All that said I thought I’d replay my emails from that trip (there was no blog then) along with some incredible pictures.  I've kept up to date with my contacts there and will be happy to share them with you.  So, with no further ado, we’re off to Africa…. 

November 2006 - Nairobi, Kenya 

My first impressions of being on Safari in Africa is that it’s a lot like camping in your backyard-
Tent washroom
except for the  lions, elephants, hyenas, jackals, and baboons. And it’s not a garder snake and slugs you have to worry about stepping on, but Green Mambos and Cobras. Other than that, it’s more or less the same. On the plus side, the backyard hammock has been replaced with a luxurious “tent”, and every tent is attached directly to its own full bathroom.

Getting to Africa is fairly simple.  You hop on a plane and in a few short hours (actually a lot of long hours – 24 from Toronto) you land at Jomo Kenyatta International airport in the bustling city of Nairobi.    You don’t realize that you’re really in another world until you transfer to the smaller regional airport to catch a charter to the safari camps.

Spare parts
There is a legend that there is a secret place in Africa where elephants go to die. I don’t know if that legend is true; but Wilson Airport is definitely the place where old airplanes go to die. My charter flight to Fig Tree Camp was in a beat-up Dash 6 dating back to the late 1960’s!  The frightening thing was that it wasn’t the oldest plane I saw flying. There were several DC3’s older than me flying out of the airport that day. At the end of the runway were several derelict planes and helicopters left to serve as spare parts and serve as a warning to the relics still flying what would happen to them if they gave up the ghost.

Dash 6
My charter was fully booked with a mixture of missionaries, consultants, government workers along with me and a few other tourists. The Dash 6 has four engines, unfortunately on that particular day only three of them were working. We were asked to deplane while they salvaged some parts off one of the planes at the end of the runway.  When we reboarded the pilot told us he was reasonably certain that the problem was corrected and not to be overly concerned if the engine suddenly sputtered or changed pitch during our trip. The Dash 6 staggered down the runway like a grocery cart with a bad wheel and eventually lurched into the air.  Since it was a Canadian aircraft built around the time Trudeau was elected, I felt honor bound to sing its praises and shut up.

Typical safari tent
Satao Camp consisted of about a dozen quite luxurious “tents” complete with a full bathroom attached to the tent itself.  There was no need to walk out of the tent after dark.  In fact we were told never to venture out after dark. If we wanted to go somewhere we should signal with our flashlight and an armed guard would be sent to escort us.

Upon arriving we were given an orientation session by Bobby, the Swiss camp manager.  Bobby had a last name, but he claimed it was unpronounceable.  (I did not get off to a good start with Bobby when I kept shouting out “Rumpelstiltskin!”). Bobby was flanked by about 6 very tall Masai tribesmen in full native regalia. Bobby explained there would be three “animal drives” a day:  one at daybreak, one in the afternoon, and one at sunset.   Seeing only about a half dozen tribesmen I asked where the rest of the beaters were.
Bobby - "Rumpelstiltskin"
“Why on earth would we need beaters?” Bobby asked
“You know,” I stated.  “To form a big line to chant and beat on sticks and drive the animals to where we could see them.  I saw it in a movie once.”

Bobby gave me a look that I later recognized as the one he reserved for errant Baboons. He pointed to the Land Rovers and said “These are your guides and drivers.  They drive YOU to the animals!”

George of the Jungle
An hour after I arrived it was time for the first game drive. I also met my guide and George, our driver, (who I immediately nicknamed “George of the Jungle.” George had been assigned to our small group for the duration of our stay.  George is a Masai native who stands about 8 feet tall and weighs 40 pounds, which includes the jeweler he wears on his neck, ears and legs. As soon as we got into the Land Rover the rain began.

 Everybody who goes on safari hopes to see the “big five.”  I have no idea what they are, but people are  big on them.  In between torrential showers I saw rhinoceros, giraffes, zebras and antelope.  “George of the Jungle” would stop for a few minutes for the group to take pictures, and then I would shout “Moja Kwa Moja” which means “Forward!”  in Swahili -  and off we’d go.  Soon my phrase was picked up by everyone and all of us were shouting, “Moja Kwa Moja,” until George starting glaring at us and stroking the spear he was carrying  contemplating sticking it into my fleshy parts.

stuck in the mud - again!
 Despite wearing heavy long pants, a heavy long sleeve cotton shirt, heavy vest, and rain coat I’m freezing my ass off!  It’s late afternoon, I’m in Africa, I’m on the equator, and I’m wishing I brought ski clothe.   The rain continues and what passes for roads are rapidly becoming impassable!  We get stuck several times and have to get pushed out by other Land Rovers who get stuck pushing us out and have to wait for the next group to come along.  Our group of merry travelers arrives back at the lodge around 8pm to be met at the bar by waiters who have lit caldrons of burning briquettes to help us warm up. 

If it's the equator why am I freezing?
My waiter asks if I’d like a rum and coke, I tell him the only way I’ll drink rum was if he brings me hot buttered rum.  In just one day I’ve already experienced two of the  ten plagues with water, and beasts - and guess what’s next folks - Locusts . 
In a matter of seconds the entire bar and dining room is filled with Catacids – a type of flying locusts.  And I mean filled - thousands of them – millions of them -  in my food, in my hair, and worse of all - in my beer!  I just kept picking them out and drinking!  In about 20 minutes or so they disappear as fast as they came.  The food is served buffet style -and aside from the locust appetizer  is excellent. Through it all it rained and rained 

My status in Bobby’s eyes did not improve after my first night alone in a tent on the African Savannah in what Satao Camp  now refers to as “”Jeff’s Unfortunate White Leech Incident”.
white leech
My first night sleeping alone in a tent listening to the animals only a few feet away was to say the least,  a bit scary.   The staff pulled the mosquito netting around my bed and closed the front flaps of my tent basically locking me inside. When the lights went out it was as dark as the inside of a cow.

I woke up around 3:30am, feeling something on my leg. I reached down and felt this worm like thing firmly attached to the inside of my calf. Needless to say I was a bit noisy about it.  My screams woke up the Japanese girls in the tent next to me and they joined in.  This, of course, woke up other tents which joined in the chorus– and well, you get the picture.

The staff came running with flashlights and rifles.  By that time I had found a flashlight and had a chance to examine the “leech” which turned out to be a gummed price tag that had somehow got rolled up and affixed itself to my calf. We didn’t need to burn it off, but Bobby suggested keeping the “leech” and burning me off of it instead.

full gulch
dry gulch
The camp calmed down for a few hours till 5:00am when I hear a lot gurgling – like water running down a pipe -it gets louder and louder till it’s a roar.  I get out my flashlight and go out on my balcony to see what’s happening.  My dry gulch is now replaced with a roaring river about 30 feet wide!!!! 

lion - close up
 About half an hour later I am awoken again and told I have 15 minutes to get ready  for the morning game drive!  The rain has almost stopped but what passed for roads in the park are now trails of deep greasy mud.  So the routine is to drive a mile or two, see some animals then get stuck in the mud for half an hour.  “George of the Jungle” could use some lessons driving in Canadian snow.  The drive is quite spectacular.  We see over 19 lions up close, and when I say up close I mean UP CLOSE  Maybe only ten or fifteen feet away.  We stay in the land rover for safety.  The lion don’t seem to notice them. 

Charging Leopard
While the Lions seem pretty benign, there are other animals that aren't quite as welcoming.  We came across a carcass that a leopard had just put in a tree for safe keeping.  What we didn’t know was that the leopard was close by and burst out of the woods roaring and made a feint like he was going to jump into the vehicle before veering off.  It worked on me.  I asked George if we could go back to camp so I could change my pants.  George agreed to take me back – but we were stuck again in the mud.  I offered to get out and push.

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