Mr. Specter's African Adventure


Mr. Specter at the site 

where Leakey found the famous "Lucy" skull.

This page is still under construction, so stop back often as I expand and refine the tale.

In the overall scheme of things a trip to Africa would have been nowhere near the top of my list of places to visit. I had never been to Europe, the Far East or the holy land; all of which held far more interest than the wilds of the so called "dark continent."  


My wife had already seen many of those places. She felt that most of what Europe had to offer was simply more westernized cities. Africa was her dream of a place to visit. She was interested in the culture, the artwork, and of course the wildlife.


She had gotten together with my mother-in-law many years before I even met either of them and decided to take a trip to Africa. The two of them had decided upon Kenya and Tanzania. Not having been out of the western hemisphere before, and not wanting to be left to fend for myself in the wilds of Mt. Lebanon I was in no position to argue. Like any good husband her goal became my goal. Africa it was.


The trip would have been much less of an adventure had I not been in the middle of a custody battle for my son. The court proceedings delayed my departure. That portion of the adventure is a tale in and of itself, but suffice to say that things were under control, at least for the moment, when I started my saga in an attempt to catch the safari in progress.


Our first obstacle was Overseas Adventure Travel, the travel packager. At first they refused to allow me to even try to join the group in progress. They claimed that some travelers had spent thousands of dollars attempting to catch one of their safaris in progress. Some had even spent more than the entire cost of the trip. All had failed. My wife being who she is, and me being who I am, we persisted all the way to the president of the company. Under threat of legal action they relented and agreed to hold my place on the Safari, but took no responsability for my safety.


After the group left the US a surprise change freed me to leave earlier than expected. I spent some 2 hours on the Internet tracking down an affordable one way ticket to Nairobi. Then I then simply had to get myself to New York and my son to his vacation at my brother's house before I could depart.


Getting Michael to my brother's was a piece of cake. Greyhound would deliver him just a few blocks from my brother's office. After I got conformation of his safe arrival I boarded a plane for my 30-hour journey. New York alone turned out to be an adventure. This was before the events of September 11, but New York was, well, New York. Kennedy Airport was under construction and I wound up having to collect my baggage in a remote part of the runway. I then took a bus to the main terminal. There I had to get to the International Terminal, another 40-minute bus trip away.


At the international terminal chaos reigned. Fortunately BOAC had an understanding ticket agent who was able to combined my flights from Kennedy to London and from London to Nairobi and arrange to have my baggage checked straight through. It took a couple more hours to straighten out the paperwork. They also had to have my bags brought up so they could go through them. Unfortunately I was flying into one of London's airports and flying out of the other one. Nothing could be done about that. Since my layover was some 14 hours I intended to go into London and try to see the sights.


I have to admit that I slept through much of the tour of London. I did manage to get in a ride on a double-decker bus and a boat ride up the Themes River. I began to understand what my wife said about all cities being pretty much the same. I tried the Piccadilly Circus area for lunch and discovered the choices included TGI Fridays and Pizza Hut. I opted for a small British meat pie from a stand near the train station instead.


It wasn't until I was on the plane headed for Nairobi that I got time to deal with the mechanics of actually catching the Safari on route. I couldn't believe my luck. My flight was due in at 10 a.m. local time and the Safari was passing near Nairobi after Sweetwater on their way to Gibb's Farm. Better yet they were stopping for lunch a place called the African Heritage Restaurant.

When I got to the Nairobi airport I discovered that British Airways had misdirected (They never say lost) my luggage. By the time I got the paperwork straightened out the customs people had left for the day and I just strolled out and hailed a cab. There were soldiers with automatic rifles all around. Somehow it made me feel less secure, not more.


I chose a cab driver who looked as though I could take him in a fair fight. We had been warned of tourists getting in cabs and never being heard from again. The cab driver spoke enough English. I thought, "This is cool, I'll just act like I know where I'm going." His assistant, about the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro joined him in the front seat. So much for being able to overpower this guy if he tries anything. I asked the driver to take me to the African Heritage Restaurant.


My driver turned and asked me "Which one, there are three of them." My cover was blown. I opted for the closest one. 25 minutes later I was inside the restaurant trying to determine if I was in the right one. For security reasons no one at the restaurant would confirm I was in ther right place. Fortunately for me the telephone was working that day. I placed some calls. It took about five calls before I was able to confirm that I was in the right place. I paid off the cab driver and his assistant and sent them on their way.


I made friends with the owner who lent me a book about African homes and artwork. I sat down in the restaurant to wait for my wife. About 15 minutes later I was paged to the telephone. A voice on the other end identified themselves as the tour operator in Nairobi. "Where are you?" they asked. I said "You called me, so you must know where I am".
"Who met you at the airport?" they asked. "No one", I replied. "How did you get to the restaurant?" was their next question. "I took a cab." I fired back, getting a little impatient with the line of questioning. "Are you nuts?" The voice on the other end of the phone screamed.

They then explained that travelers disappear all the time in Nairobi. Even natives have people meet them at the airport to assure their safety. They explained that not having luggage probably kept me from being identified as a tourist and may have prevented me from being robbed or worse. "We'll be right there, wait for us." I was told. I told them I felt perfectly safe and wasn't planning on leaving the restaurant until the safari arrived. I also asked them not to notify my wife of my arrival because I wanted to surprise her.


The tour operator arrived just ahead of the safari. I was told that they had radioed the driver to let him know I would be joining them, but they did so in Swahili so as to not spoil the surprise. They told me that no one had ever been able to catch one of their safaris before and were amazed at my resourcefulness. They apologized that I had been inconvenienced. I told them if I had wanted convenience I would have gone to a Holiday Inn and ordered room service. I came to Africa in search of adventure. Though at the moment, I explained, I was more interested in meeting my wife and getting some sleep.


I positioned myself with my back to the restaurant and pretended to read the book. My plan was to jump in line behind my wife and make a silly comment about the food. Anyone who knows my wife knows how she feels about artwork. The restaurant was also an art gallery. My wife was the last one into the dining area. The tour operators could contain themselves no more. They went over to my wife and kept pointing in my direction, saying "Look over there!". She looked past me at the buffet table. She told them, "That's a buffet table, I've seen those before." "I'll go eat in a few minutes".


Finally she realized what, or should I say who, they were pointing at. Well, my surprise didn't come off as well as I had planned, but needless to say she was glad to see me safe and sound. We both agreed that if we had truly understood the difficulties we might have reconsidered having me try to catch the safari. I was either very lucky or very smart. Or most likely a combination of the two.
Penn Dot has nothing on the Africans. You haven't a clue how bad roads can be until you travel in a third world country. Shocks on our vehicles are replaced every two weeks. The locals call a drive an African Massage. A 25 mile trip can easily take all day. We travelled in vehicles with pop up roofs so we can stand on the seats while stationary to take photographs. When moving you feel the rough terrain down to your bones. As tired as I was I didn't get any sleep until we got to Gibb's Farm.
Our guide was Hotti, a very interesting individual. Hotti trained as a history teacher. He taught in Arusha, Tanzania for a number of years but then realized he could make more money as a guide. He went back to school for another 2 years to train. He claimed to be friendly with Nelson Mandela. He said they had lunch together every so often when Mandela was in Arusha for Pan-African meetings. Hotti is fluent in about a dozen languages so he is able to communicate with many tourists and native groups.
We visited two Masi Villages. The Masi maintain their own culture which has resisted western influences. They are a nomadic people. The women build their huts which are made primarily of dried cow dung. I have a great deal of video which I shot at the villages. Many of their leaders spoke English and told us about much of their culture.
In addition to the Masi the region has over 127 tribes, each has it's own language, history and traditions. Most Africans speak their own language plus one or two from neighboring tribes in addition to Swahili. Swahili is promoted as the international language of Africa.
We visited a western-style school set up by a charitable group for the Masi. The school had no running water, electricity or windows. What passed for blackboards were so bad that it was nearly impossible to read what was written on them. The students sat on long benches and were packed some 50 students to a classroom. The older student classrooms had bars on the windows to prevent them from escaping. Education is mandated by the government though funding is very limited. Teachers are paid less than hotel bellhops.
The school principal proudly showed off a water holding tank that had been donated by a tourist from Great Britain. Anyone who complains about the American educational system has no idea how lucky we are. The schools are spartan buildings with rectangular holes in the walls serving as windows. The school library was a single torn up box in the back of the room. Lessons at the school we visited were taught in Swahili, English and French.
During one of our game drives we were challenged by an older bull elephant, seen on the left. The animal trumpeted and threw dirt over his shoulder, indicating that he was about to charge. Tourist vehicles in preserve areas are forbidden from carrying firearms, even for defense. A number of vehicles are overturned every year by charging elephants. We braced ourselves for the inevitable. Fortunately our elephant was hungrier than he was disturbed by our presence. He turned to grab some foliage for a quick snack and our driver hit the accelerator for a quick getaway, while the elephant's back was turned. Later we were informed that the particular bull elephant we encountered had a history of attacking tourist vehicles.

During the safari we slept in either rustic lodges or luxury tents. The tents were heavy canvas but had bathrooms attached with running water. The tents offered little protection from wildlife. In some locations we were cautioned about venturing out after dark. We could hear lions roaring in the distance.

Gibbs Farm was an old coffee plantation. The plantation itself had been nationalized several years before, so the owners of the house had to find another way to make a living. . They turned the main house and surrounding gardens into a tourist resort. The food here was a bit better than the other places we stopped. They took us on a tour, mostly to see birds and other wildlife, but also to see how coffee was grown and havested. The coffee bean when harvested looks like a cherry.   There is an outer fleshy skin that is removed to expose the coffee bean. The beans are then dried in the sun before roasting. The resort only raises a small amout of coffee these days and sells most of it to the tourists. The farm is extermely issolated and is difficult to get to. Natives in Africa are employed whenever possible. At the farm this is taken to the extreme. For example the resort doesn't own a lawnmower. Instead each blade of grass is pinched off by hand. It was an amazing sight to see a line of individuals on their knees working their way across the lawn.

The summer heat can be oppressive so both men and women in the region crop their hair exremely close to the scalp. As we toured the farm I noticed several of the women pointing to my wife and laughing. I asked our guide what they found so funny about my wife's appearance. He explained that her mid-length blond hair made her look like a lion. They were commenting on how hot, uncomfortable and impractical her hairstyle must be. Impractical or not, she looked pretty good to me.


After Gibbs farm we headed to Arusha, the capital of Tanzania. I was surprised to find the capital had few paved streets. Goats and what passed for cattle shared the road with bicycles and a few cars. We passed a building surrounded by satellite dishes. I thought it was a TV station. Hotti corrected me. He explained that the building was the Pan-African Council Headquarters. Their meetings were beamed all over the world and heads of state would teleconference whenever they could not appear in person.


It was in Arusha that my luggage caught up with me. All in all it was amazing that I ever recovered my luggage, let alone that it arrived just a few days into our safari. When the airline first told me it was misdirected I assumed I could just stop in the local African Walmart and pick up whatever I needed. Was I ever wrong. In this part of the world the there were no Walmarts, or even brick and morter stores. Most shops were wood, bamboo and straw huts. They had no electricity, running water or bathrooms. Our guide would not allow me to go shopping in the local marketplaces explaining that it was too dangerous. The local water even in the cities was unfit to drink. Even the locals bought bottled water whenever possible.


Here's the location of the two countries we visited. Kenya was more or less a dictatorship with a socialized government. Tanzania was a democracy with a free-market system. Kenya actually was the more developed of the two countries with more paved roads and heavy industry. While we were there Kenyans were hoping for a free election that might bring a less centralized form of government to the country. The average African adult earns less than $ 500 per year.   In both countries the police were heavily armed and were feared by the population. We were warned not to photograph them. They were dressed in camouflaged uniforms and carried automatic weapons. They often stopped and searched civilian vehicles. I could see why the tour operators were concerned for my safety when I was traveling alone.
The African portion of our trip ended in the city of Nairobi. There we visited the estate where the movie "Out of Africa" was filmed and a preserve with Giraffes who had been injured in the wild. Most of the Giraffes were docile and had been trained to accept food from tourists. Food pellets were provided for us. It was very cool, though Giraffe tonges are rather slimey.

Nairobi seemed like an embattled city. There were many checkpoints stopping and searching vehicles. Many of the buildings we passed were like prisons. There were concrete barriers, armed guards and barbed wire protecting the residents and their possessions.

On our last day in Nairobi my mother-in-law decided to venture into a department store. The hotel personel would not allow us to leave the building until we left anything that might identify us as a tourist secured in our rooms. The department store was nothing like a western store. The first floor was a food store selling only canned and boxed products. The upper floors sold dry goods such as clothing, blankets and tablecloths. When we went to pay we ran into difficulty. The clerks refused to take our cash, even the local currency. Since we were not African they assumed our cash was counterfit. We eventually got the store manager to accept our credit card, but only after intense negotiation. For a while we were concerned that we might be arrested. We did not venture out without our guide again.

Even in our hotel room we had to use bottled water for drinking and brushing our teeth. African TV was amazing. Many of the shows were broadcast in Arabic. I also saw shows being broadcast in French, English, Swahili, and a few languages I could not identify.


On our final night our guide took us to a restaurant called The Carnivore. There we were able to sample wild and farm-raised game native to Africa. Crocodile, zebra, wildebeest, ostrich, water buffalo and other exotic meats were on the menu. The lamest joke of the evening: On the zebra, which do you perfer, the white meat or the dark meat?










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