Christmas In Africa – 1974

69-620x310My first Christmas vacation in college I had a memorable plane trip on my way to Africa. I was to fly from San Francisco to Minneapolis to Nairobi and meet my parents for a two-week camera safari. I had made my flight arrangements through a travel agent in New York and understood that I would change planes in Geneva.

I arrived in Geneva at seven in the morning and went to the transit desk. They told me that I could go into town or get a room at the airport if I wanted because the flight didn’t leave until midnight that night and then they also mentioned that I was wait-listed anyway. What??? I had not looked closely at the ticket. There I was in Geneva, Switzerland. I had a $20 traveler’s check to my name, and I was wait-listed on a flight that left at midnight. There was nothing I could do but wait and see. I spent all day dozing on airport seats and reading my book. I didn’t eat anything because I figured I should save my money and anyway, I was too nervous. It came time to check in for the flight. I went to the gate and they told me I would have to wait until everybody else had boarded the plane. It was agonizing as I watched hundreds of people boarding.

I kept seeing myself stranded in Geneva, eating out of the vending machines and spending Christmas by myself in the terminal. I would have to spend the night in the airport. How would I let my parents know where I was? Finally the airline called the stand-by passengers to the desk. They told me there was one seat left but I had to go downstairs and get my seat assignment. I raced down the stairs but there was nobody there. I waited a while in a panic and then I ran back up the stairs and told them there was nobody down there. Finally a woman got up and said she would go get it for me while I went through security again. As soon as I had my seat assignment, I ran all the way to the plane. I was scared to death they would take off without me. When I reached my seat, I buckled my seat belt and broke into tears of relief.

I arrived in Nairobi the next morning and there was nobody there to meet me. I went to the bank and changed my $20 traveler’s check and figured I would have to take my chances with a taxi. I went out to the parking lot and there were lots of taxis lined up but no people around at all. While I was standing there trying to figure out what to do an airline steward came walking up and I asked him if he knew how I could get a taxi. He said he didn’t know but it wasn’t safe for me to go anywhere in a taxi. He asked his captain if they could give me a ride.

I arrived at the hotel in an airline minibus and rang my parents’ room. No answer. I rang our friends’ room. No answer. I walked all around the hotel lobby and outdoor area. When I returned to the lobby there was my mother sitting on the couch.

She took one look at me and said “What are you doing here?” At this point, I was exhausted, broke, hungry, confused and frankly, a little pissed off. “Thanks, mom.” I said. She replied calmly, not knowing my state of mind. “Your father is out at the airport looking for you”. Communications got really screwed up somehow and they thought I was coming in on a flight from Rome. I wish I could say this was an unfamiliar scenario, but travelling the million miles that I have, this kind of thing happened all the time.

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Kenya was wonderful. We drove around several game parks in Kenya and camped in tents. The tents were fairly large and had cots in them with mosquito nets and a bucket in the back for the toilet. There was a communal dining hall where everybody sat on benches and ate family style.

We were driving through a park just at dusk one day and we came upon a lone baby zebra. The game warden was with us and he seemed upset. We asked him what the problem was and he said the zebra would be dead by dark. He said it must have been separated from the rest of the herd somehow and now it didn’t have a chance. We asked if maybe we could take it with us or help it in some way and of course there was nothing we could do. That was just the way things worked: the world was one big food chain, but it was heartbreaking for me to witness it in person.

We crossed over into Tanzania and went to Ngoro Ngoro, a huge volcanic crater with a large plain inside where wildebeasts, flamingoes, hyenas, lions, rhinos, hippos, and monkeys all co-existed. It had a very prehistoric, eerie feel to it. The only way to get to it was in a four-wheel drive jeep creeping over the edge of the volcanic rock that completely surrounded the area. As we were driving across the middle of the plain we came across a family of rhino. Rhino cannot see very well but they hear well and have a good sense of smell. We were down-wind from them but the noise of the engine must have taken them by surprise because they turned and started to run right at us. The driver immediately turned off the engine. The rhinos froze in their tracks and we did too! Pretty soon the rhinos turned and started to walk away but then changed their minds. We sat perfectly still for about 20 minutes while the mama and papa rhino had a quickie and the baby was the lookout.

Another day at another park we came up behind a herd of elephants that was just crossing the road. There was an auntie at the end and she turned and started running towards us, ears flapping and trunk trumpeting. She took our driver by surprise. He shoved the car in reverse going full speed backwards in retreat. When we were a safe distance away, and the elephants had moved on a little we approached them again. This time when they charged us, the driver just gunned his engine. The elephants were afraid of the noise and backed off. When we returned to camp that day, we were told that it was becoming rarer and rarer to be charged by animals because they were becoming too accustomed to people. That was somewhat good news but really bad news in the larger sense of things.

On the way back to Nairobi we camped at the foot of Kilimanjaro. None of us were adventurous enough to climb it but we enjoyed having it as our backdrop.

On my way to Treetops

On my way to Treetops

We spent New Year’s Eve at the Outspan Hotel. From there we took a bus to Treetops, a famous salt lick with a hotel originally built in a tree. It burned down and has been rebuilt, but as you walked along the corridors you could still see branches coming through the walls. We arrived in the afternoon and had to trek in from the bus. Everybody had tea up on the roof. The baboons were really gutsy and came up and tried to steal women’s handbags. We had been warned about them. At night, animals came for the salt and so there was lots of activity. My friends stayed in the Queen Elizabeth suite. Elizabeth was staying there when her father, George the VI died, in 1952.