Editor’s note: join Sam, our traveling rabbi, for this amazing look into Kenya. For more of his wonderful writing, click here.
Before I even met my wife, I saved my travel points with one idea in mind: one day, I will treat my wife to the honeymoon of her dreams and it will all already be paid for. Being the trip planner that I am, as soon as Jill and I got engaged, she got to work planning our wedding and I got to work planning our honeymoon. The one question that I asked her was, “What is something you have always wanted to do?” Her answer: African safari. Immediately, I looked at perhaps the most famous safari park in Africa, the Serengeti of Tanzania and was shocked to see how pricey these safaris were. However, as I looked frustrated at the costs of the safaris, I noticed that the northern part of the biosphere dipped into Kenya, and upon crossing the border took on a new name – Maasai Mara – and that safaris there were literally half the price. Maasai Mara is about a tenth of the size of the Serengeti, so perhaps the Serengeti would be better for a multiweek safari. However, for three days of safari exploring, Maasai Mara seemed plenty big enough and it did not disappoint! Beautiful landscapes, lions stalking warthogs, giraffes jousting with their long necks, elephants sounding their trunks, giant crocodiles chomping down on unfortunate zebras, leopards, cheetahs, jackals and hyenas hunting for pray, we saw it all! However, beyond the animals, Kenya was a fascinating place to visit with people who have immense pride in their rich culture and a sense of responsibility to help preserve the animals who call Kenya home.
Crocodile eating a zebra
A beautiful leopard
In the area of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, many Maasai tribespeople live as they have for hundreds of years. As we were driving to the village, we occasionally passed groups of teenage boys who were going on a four-month quest across their tribe’s section of land, sleeping outside. At the end of their journey, when they are initiated as senior boys in the tribe on their path to becoming warriors, they are circumcised and given livestock to celebrate the occasion. Upon arriving at the village, the structure and layout of the dung, electricity-free huts stand out. Surrounding the village are thick brush and bramble sticks with the exception of two places of opening and the fifty or so huts are built in a circle. When you walk out the front door of one hut, you can see the front door of every other hut in the village. We were greeted by Maasai warriors who were demonstrating the infamous Maasai jump and encourage visitors to join in with them. The chief came and greeted us and encouraged any and all questions about their way of life. He told us about how the Maasai still practice polygamy, demonstrated how they used elephant dung and a stick to create a fire, and proudly showed the lion pelt from the lion that came into his village ten years earlier that he killed. As he talked, I watched as goats and chickens came out of the huts. The chief explained that the reason for the brambles and the circular formation of the huts was to protect the community from lion attacks as the lions were scared to enter an entrapment. Likewise, the chief explained, livestock slept inside the huts next to the families to protect them from lion attacks, with only dogs sleeping outside so their barking would alert the Maasai warriors to any lion attacks. While clearly the Maasai faced daily challenges and threats that were foreign to me, other challenges that they faced were universal. While we were in Kenya in December, a time that used to never get rain, flashfloods and torrential rain came washing away cars, people and entire streets with several feet deep rushing water; effects of climate change are creating carnage in Africa. Our jeep axel broke on our journey and an entire village came out to help repair the car and weld it back together.
Away from the tiny village of the Maasai is the bustling capital of Nairobi with a metropolitan population of approximately 10 million people. While there, we splurged a bit for our special trip and stayed in the Kempinski Hotel, a popular place with world leaders such as President Barack Obama. Though expensive for Kenya, for $200 a night, this was one of the fanciest hotels where I have ever stayed featuring luxurious rooms, multiple lounges with live music, a world class spa, and their own fine dining Chinese, Italian, and Middle Eastern restaurants, the last of which had belly dancer performances. Though Maasai Mara is considered one of Africa’s premier safari parks, the six-hour journey from Nairobi may be too daunting for some people. Fortunately, the capital city has plenty to do itself with its own national park right in the heart of the city, featuring a large population of rhinos among other species. Yet, the beauty of visiting Nairobi is that as a tourist you can interact with the animals while helping them too by visiting three different parks: The Giraffe Centre, Mamba Village, and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Each of these special places is located near each other and can be visited in half a day, and all feature zoologists who have devoted their lives to saving the native species of Kenya. The Giraffe Centre, as one might assume, focuses on breeding the endangered Rothschild’s Giraffe and educating people of their plight and reintroducing the giraffes into the wild. While at the center, guests can feed the giraffes and even put a treat in their mouth to get a once-in-a-lifetime smooch! The Mamba Village, unlike the other parks, does not focus on reintroduction, but rather is a sanctuary for injured crocodiles that would not be able to survive in the wild, yet features other animals like ostriches too. At the Mamba Village, the zoologists explain the fascinating biology of these feared and misunderstood creatures. While the Mamba Village is the least visited of the parks, providing a special experience of having the place to yourself, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is easily the most visited and for good reason. With a narrow window of visiting hours, hundreds of guests cram together as dozens of orphaned baby elephants parade out into a center area while their personal caretakers, which they each have, come and feed them from a bottle. If you are lucky, a baby elephant will approach a guest for a chance to be petted and provide the visitor with a cherished memory. While the elephants feast, zoologists talk about the history of the trust program, about the biology of elephants, and then go through and tell the unique story of how each elephant came into their possession. Sadly, the baby elephants were often found orphaned after their mothers were killed by poachers for ivory. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust seeks to educate locals and foreigners of the crime of poaching and buying unnecessary ivory trinkets, while at the same time saving these elephants in operations, raising and rehabilitating them, and then rereleasing them into the wild where they came from. While there, guests have the chance to adopt, for as low as $50, a baby elephant and receive a watercolor picture of their elephant, and receive updates on it throughout the next year, plus are invited back later in the day for a second feeding.
Feeding a baby elephant
When thinking about where to visit in Africa, do not pass up Kenya. Tourists will get more bang for their buck (and I did not even mention their other great parks and beach towns that I did not get the opportunity to visit), see incredible wildlife, learn from fascinating cultures, and will have the chance to do something good while having a memorable experience.
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