By Joe Alexander
Photos by Phil West
David and Lauren Bush Lauren, Natalie Portman, Grace and Robert DeNiro and Hilary, Chelsea and Bill Clinton, are just a few of the New Yorkers who have followed the call of the wild to experience the world’s most amazing wildlife habitat…Africa. We put our planning in the hands of Phil West of Royal African Safaris, which has organized expeditions for everyone from Microsoft’s Paul Allen to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Westguided us throughout our trip and took the pictures that accompany this story.
The Green City
Our first stop is Nairobi, the capital of Kenya where we elected to skip the traffic and noise of the city and stay at Emakoko. This is a family-owned and run lodge built into the side of a valley on the Mbagathi River, a 45-minute ride from the airport, making it an ideal place to start and finish your safari.
This perfectly appointed 10-room lodge built by Emma and Anthony Childs sits on the edge of the Nairobi National Park.The nearby metropolis is called “The Green City” because of this astonishing park, which sits on the edge of this teaming urban area of 4 million. The beautiful park is a safe haven for lions, leopards, cape buffalo, white rhino, zebras, giraffes and dozens of other species; most of which are viewable from an armchair on your balcony.
The Lion King
Leaving Nairobi, we rented a small plane to fly to the Maasai Mara. This is “Lion King” country so make sure your pilot points out the actual Pride Rock that inspired the Broadway set where Simb stands guard over his kingdom. We landed at Naibor, a boutique camp of comfortable en-suitetents erected along the Mara River. While sipping tea or champagne you can watch a pod of hippos frolicking in the mud before heading into the wilderness in your land cruiser to view the Big Five: Lions, Leopards, Elephant, Rhino and Cape Buffalo.
On our trip, we came upon a pregnant cheetah, which had just killed an impala. Suddenly a leopard sprang from the bush and stole it away from the expectant mother. Scenes like this immediately thrust you into the reality of the wild. This is Africa at dusk, when everyone is hungry. In the sunshine you can spot a herd of elephants sharing a watering hole with a crash of rhinos and a gang of water buffalo as a dazzle of zebras and a tower of giraffes look on peacefully as eagles, hawks and heron soar by and vultures perch menacingly in dead trees. Everyone co-exists in this Garden of Eden until somebody gets hungry.
Our final stop in Kenya may be Africa’s most glamorous address-Kifaru House. In Swahili, Kifarumeans means rhinoceros. This private residenceis situated on top of a mountain overlooking the 55,000 acres of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. When Ralph Lauren brought his family on safari, they stayed at Kifaru House, which has a staff of 18. This chic compound is made up of six cottages but they only accept one family at a time. The Conservancy’s core mission is to protect the 120 rhino on their preserve, including 60 of the world’s last 660 East African black rhinos. Poachers kill these magnificent creatures to harvest their horns, which in powder form is considered an aphrodisiac.
Here, every rhino has its own, armed “babysitter,” who carries a transistor radio that plays music so their charges know they are nearby and safe. The Conservancy is also a haven for 70 other different types of mammals, rare birds and exotic flowers. British Princes William and Harry spent a month at Lewa building roads and helping the veterinarians care for the wildlife.
Gorillas in Rwanda
We flew into Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to track the last of the 800 mountain gorillas left in the world. We drive to the charming Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in the foothills of the volcanic Virunga Mountains that stretch through Rwanda. We are here to encounter the legendary Silverback Gorillas, which the country considers a national treasure. There are now just 18 families of gorillas made up of 12 to 20 members remaining here. After a hearty breakfast, we are briefed on the dos and don’ts of meeting with our forebears in the forest. Although we will get within six-to-20-feet of these incredible creatures, our hosts’ warn us to not touch the gorillas-even if they touch you. This is not because of the danger they present to you-but the danger we present to them. Gorillas are susceptible to human diseases.
We are outfitted in gators and gloves to avoid the stinging nettles and thorn covered bushes we will encounter on our trek through the thick African brush. The Sabyinyo Family is the oldest gorilla family and possesses the largest Silverback named Guhondo. He is a living, breathing King Kong. For the trek we hire porters, who, for $10 a piece, carry all your gear, and, if necessary, they will even carry you to the gorillas.
You amble through picturesque farmlands planted with potatoes, wheat and fields of daisies. Once you tiptoe across a tightrope made of four slim, unlashed logs placed precariously over a rushing river, you are in the jungle. It is here that you stroll along one of the most beautiful paths on the planet,bordered by an enormous grove of bamboo trees featuring sunlight streaming through the leaves.
Once through this oasis your tracker’s job is to locate the gorillas. They use their machetes to cut a narrow trail up what can be steep terrain to where the constantly moving gorillas, make a new nest every night. When you get close to the great apes, your escort takes you to visit your family…alone and without a weapon.
When you encounter them, you will find them surprisingly docile and hospitable…if you play by the rules. If a Silverback thinks you are getting too close to his offspring or harem, you must act submissive, avert his gaze and emit a slow grunt-sign which in gorilla language means ‘I’m no threat.” Wise men don’t confront a gorilla.
There is no single adventure on earth that can change your relationship with the universe like a safari. Africa, go before its too late.
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