Monday, 3 July - OutspaM Getaway.
The wake up door pounding came at 6:30. Amazingly we both had actually slept. Departing for separate bathrooms I was lucky enough to snag the last few sheets of TP in "Ladies." Had a quick cup of tea before assembling for the buses and then "First to the Bus" became a reality and we were on our way out. Yes! Squished once again onto the 3 foot double seat we were thrilled to see the "OutspaM" come into view.
Amazingly the breakfast buffet had some decent food – with the exception of the sizzling slabs of blood pudding which sent black fumes off on one end of the buffet table. We gave the 2 French gals a lift back to Nairobi, passing the Central Highlands renowned coffee growing area, and we mostly slept through the cold, dreary rain on the way back. In Nairobi we made a quick stop at Dallago offices, met briefly with Sales David, made a very brief shopping stop to pick up "official" safari boots for P (driver David had been harping on the subject of P's inappropriate footwear and they'll come in handy when he does the Kenyan Tourist Authority Road Show in September) and then we headed south. Both of us dozed on the way.
We stopped at a terrific little roadside cafe for soup and excellent samosas (yup, we travel on our stomachs, ever enlarging as they be), and when we reached Namanga on the Kenya/Tanzania border we took a rest break. Scouring the curio shops I picked up gifts for Annie and for my neighbor who's feeding the horses in our absence, and couldn't resist a beaded Masai bracelet – all for Ksh 1,000 – I'm getting better at Kenya-style dickering.
We left the good, paved road for an overland jaunt, seemingly "Blazing Trail" and scattering goats, cows, gazelles and zebra as we fought road dust (or rather, "lack-of-road" dust) and bumps. And, although off the "main" track for over half an hour, we somehow arrived exactly where we belonged. We were in a good mood and enjoyed this outback adventure.
We arrived at the entrance to Amboseli National Park. Basically Amboseli is a lake bed, dry most of the year but filling to about a yard when the long rains come. Taking an across-the-lake track we watched lake mirage after lake mirage appear, disappear and then reappear as we made our way to our first site inspection at Amboseli Lodge. Not terribly impressed with the property (with the exception of their young, tame gnu and the Lodge employee with the job title of "Shepherd and Baboon Chaser"), we left for the site next door, the Ol Touvai (Masai word for some sort of small palm). This was much nicer with room views of either the elephant stomping grounds or of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is visible on cloudless days all over this part of the country. However, Kili's been in clouds since we first got here. Anyway, this lodge would make a good "Traveler" level hotel.
On to the Serena we went, game driving through the lake basin, fascinated by the volcanic debris accumulated from Kili eruptions. Following a herd of about 30 elephant, David suddenly heard a hissing sound. Stopping and inspecting, our left rear tire was almost fully flat. What good luck this happened only 1/2 km from the Serena, our final destination. We limped in, left David to take care of the bus, registered and started to relax. This is just as nice as the Mara Serena; same curved cave concept after a Masai cultural affinity for curved rather than straight edges. It's built around a lighted waterhole and gnu, zebra and antelope were active visitors while we checked in.
Showering the grime and dust of the road off we relaxed in the lounge, then headed for the dining room. Dinner was leagues above what we'd had the last 2 nights, but, altogether, probably "fair" in quality. We've found that the Serenas can't compare to the Lonrhos or the Sopas in food, and on safari, meal quality is all important, as no doubt you've gathered by the amount of space it's accorded in this narrative. The Assistant General Manager and the Food & Beverage Manager came to visit as we dined. Very solicitous and appreciative of our marketing efforts.
Afterwards we were escorted to the "bush dinner" locale (bush dinners are one of the standard extras...the Lodges will serve special meals, elegantly prepared and delivered to a bush location so you can enjoy the supreme contrast of civilization and raw nature as you dine) to watch the Masai dancing and hear the Serena's Masai expert and resident naturalist answer questions. Very nicely done, very professional, very competent – what we'd expect from our choice in the luxury category here. Only problem was the mosquitoes were more persistent and unfazed by my heavy application of Cutter's repellent, so we went back to the room. Tried with no luck to get on line and then called it a day.
Tuesday, 4 July
Had a comfortable sleep in this very attractive hotel. We like the Serena's a lot. Greeted at breakfast with a glass of "bubbly" we enjoyed the buffet. One of the probably 17 people who waited on us asked if we wanted more "bubbly" and P pipes up with "No thanks, we want to see the animals, not dance with them!" which was good for a laugh all around.
Telling David in the bus that we had to celebrate our independence day, he produced a water bottle with milky white fluid. "Masai Beer" it was – so when we stop for lunch we'll drink a toast to July 4th. I'm eying this bottle suspiciously – its contents look exactly like the water my clothes washer produces after the first rinse, but probably not as clean. Driving through Amboseli back to the border point, we both concur that Amboseli isn't a terrific destination, comparatively – flat and boring actually – there are others much more interesting and with better animal views.
At 10 AM we're at the border, got out and joined the line at Kenyan Immigrations, got stamped and proceeded to wait, fending off advances by the extremely persistent Masai women. Our bus was going back to Nairobi with Mama and Baby Giraffe plus a diskette for Nick. We met Andrew, the Tanzanian driver, and waited for David to get his papers processed. The border is a lively hub of confusion, everybody trying to make a few shillings.
The persistence of the Masai women is first interesting, then irritating, and then pathetic. They'll sell or trade anything for anything and "no" is an unknown concept. Interestingly, they would start by offering "1 for 4 dollars" and then, trying to strike a deal, on to "2 for 10." No comment necessary. As they hammered on the bus windows we finally were able to get out, get our stuff transferred to the Land Cruiser we'll be using in Tanzania and finally get a move on.
The road to Arusha is interesting: prosperous-looking little villages and farms, trading areas nestle in green hills. The road is PAVED, bump and pothole-free and smooth enough for both of us to snooze. In Arusha we settle at the "Cultural Center," another name for elaborate souvenir stand, and eat our box lunches in the bar. Or at least try to. Must be a box lunch formula: 1/2 cold roast chicken (which P won't touch because it's eat with your fingers here), a sandwich with filling 1/16" thick, a huge roll, 2 pieces of dry cake, 6 pieces of fruit, chunk of cheese and a fruit drink. One box would feed a Masai village, but quantity does not reflect quality. P gave up with disgust and he and I wandered the carvings shops looking for the rest rooms. Found 'em and they were clean AND had TP. Good place after all! Never did crack open the Masai beer and I'm quite relieved at this.
Our destination is Tarangire, a less-visited park, and after another unscheduled stop for an unknown reason (this happens a lot in Africa), we arrived at around 4 PM, first chasing an ostrich off the highway with the Cruiser. Game driving the route to our hotel (the only difference between game driving and destination driving is about a 5 kph difference in speed and whether the top is up) we saw more elephant families than anywhere else yet. A few Southern giraffe, zebra and gnu who hadn't begun to migrate yet, my favorite, impalas, and those weird leftovers from primitive times past, the baobab trees. These can live 1,200 years but David says they're useless, the sap in the wood keeps them from either burning well or being used in any manufacturing, but elephants eat their seeds and pythons curl around their branches. This, I would like to see.
The Tarangire Sopa is a welcome sight. These long days driving – especially since today we've come to know the Cruiser's seat padding is in name only – are wearing. The hotel initially seems to be a bit old, a little shabby, but the public areas are bright and well decorated and we can see an elephant from our room balcony. Who needs a treetop hotel? NOT ME OR P.
Whoops, totally inaccurate impression recorded above...it only looks old and shabby out the back balcony. This is the newest of the Sopa's...only 5 years old...and its public rooms are beautiful. Native granite and multi-patterned parquet designate separate flooring areas. It's got the trademark round Sopa main buildings, huge lounge and dining room, intricate carvings. It's a gem on a grand scale. Can't believe I was so wrong at first.
P met with the manager, a charming Indian lady, and got the full tour and story (while I showered and used the rare in-bathroom hair dryer...YES!). At dinner we enjoyed her complimentary wine and both had an interesting Singapore noodle dish, with, of course, an excellent soup: cream of mushroom and herbed consommé to start. Afterwards we met David and Andrew for drinks and an interesting discussion on differences between East African tribes and American nationality backgrounds which started with the request to "tell me about the tribes in America.". We like this Sopa – it's not intimate, but it's beautifully done and very comfortable. And, we both enjoyed a very good night's sleep. Happy 4th of July, African-style.