Of Old Soldiers and Elephants

Jan 23, 2013 by

backoffGoing on safari is Mom’s dream. But when you are 80 years old with two artificial knees,  dreams need to be carefully managed. So when the Alumni Association of the United States Military Academy at West Point — my father’s alma mater — offered this trip, we jumped at the chance. From the alums we know who take these trips, we’d learned it was a good bet this would be an older set — which we hoped would mean the activities would be tailored for those needs. We also had a pretty good idea that it would be a fun set. We were certainly not disappointed on that score!

As we got off our various planes in Kilimanjaro airport and began assembling with our tour, it became clear the largest representation in our group of 16 was West Point circa 1954 to about 1965. Add to that, two Naval Academy grads of the same age, plus a few wives, and two daughters of another West Point widow. My mother, as a widow of a Class of ’51 man, would appear to be the ranking “officer” on the trip. The two other daughters and I skew the age bracket way down.

How close did we get to elephants?

How close did we get to elephants?

You couldn’t ask for a more perfect group for Mom. Once we took a census of the various artificial knees and hips, clearly no one was going to feel they were holding everyone up by walking slowly or needing a boost into the safari vehicles. But best of all, there is that special camaraderie and ribbing that always happens when two or more old soldiers meet. We’d barely pulled out of the Kilimanjaro Airport parking lot when the ‘Pointers were instructing our guide, Allan, about the finer nuances of the Army Navy rivalry. When Allan said he’d work hard to understand the difference between Annapolis and West Point, one of the Navy guys piped up: “Just look for the tall handsome guys. All the rest are West Pointers.” Allan quickly jumped into the spirit and, when pressed into service to take pictures, began calling out: “Say West Point.” To which the Navy guys always yell back, “Beat Army!”

Mark my words, those Navy guys are going to be trouble!

Mark my words, those Navy guys are going to be trouble!

After a night at a hotel in the shadow of Mount Meru, we broke into three small groups in three Land Rovers and took off today for the reserve of Tarangire, which Allan informed us boasts the greatest number of elephants per square kilometer of anywhere in the world. Our itinerary was a game drive on the way to a safari camp on the Masai reserve. They weren’t kidding about the elephants. There were elephants everywhere. In big herds. In small herds. In the distance and very up close and personal. Since our Land Rovers have open tops, we could pop up through the roof to get great pictures — that is if you could take a one handed picture while holding on for dear life as you bounced over dirt tracks and through gullies and washes. At first, we were making our guide, Godson, brake for every elephant. By a few hours in, we were so blasé about seeing elephants, we were only stopping for those that were a few yards away or had particularly large tusks or cute babies. And we started paying attention to the nuances of elephant “trunk talk” — from mothers using their trunks to caress and guide their babies to the elaborate greeting ceremonies elephants have when two or more meet.

How close did we get to elephants? THIS close! Here are the last two of our three Land Rover convoy full of old soldiers. (And a couple of sailors.)

How close did we get to elephants? THIS close! Here are the last two of our three Land Rover convoy full of old soldiers. (And a couple of sailors.)

We saw groups of mamas and babies -- the elephant version of a play group -- strolling along the road.

We saw herds of elephants moving from water holes to highlands.

babyandmama

We saw groups of mamas and babies — the elephant version of a play group — strolling along the road.

We saw elephants enjoying community butt scratches and mud baths.

We saw elephants enjoying community butt scratches and mud baths.

We saw single elephants easin' on down the road.

We saw single elephants easin’ on down the road.

Mother elephants protecting teething babies.

Mother elephants protecting teething babies.

 

And tussling youngsters.

And tussling youngsters.

trunktalking2

And trunk talking acacia klatches.

And elephants we weren't sure were happy to see us.

And elephants we weren’t sure were happy to see us.

Sated with elephants, we headed to our bush camp, Kikoti Safari Camp. The camp is next to a large unique rock which, as a landmark visible for miles over the plains, has been a Masai meeting place for centuries. It is also something of a Baboon Masada, as the simians can climb up the rock at night and sleep safe from lions. Allan helpfully told us that the large hairless rump of the baboon — what Allan calls “steeky butt” — helps it stay on the rock without slipping even after nodding off.

Did I mention also giraffes and six kinds of antelope and buck and warthogs? Also this little fellow who is the national bird of Swaziland.

Did I mention also giraffes and six kinds of antelope and buck and warthogs? Also this little fellow who is the national bird of Swaziland.

Our camp was magical, a series of individual open air daub, wattle and wooden huts  on stilts surrounding a large hut that served as our open air dining room and common area.  The only sticking point: there is absolutely no walking around after dark. In fact, if you want to travel the 50 yards from your hut to the main hut, you have to flash your flashlight out into the night and one of the Masai who patrol the grounds will materialize with a spear and escort you down the path. Apparently, this is not just for atmosphere. The night before we arrived, some lions took down a Masai cow and devoured it just behind the camp. Allan, who is ethnic Masai himself, assured us, if we followed the rules and our Masai guides, we’d be safe as all Masai are trained as warriors.

Well, Allan. So are most of us on this tour. So are most of us.

You'll always feel safer with your personal Masai. That is if you don't have a personal West Pointer.

You’ll always feel safer with your personal Masai. That is if you don’t have a personal West Pointer.

We enjoyed a bonfire ignited the traditional Masai way -- with grass, elephant dung, a stick and a sword.

We enjoyed a bonfire ignited the traditional Masai way — with grass, elephant dung, a stick and the blade of a spear.

The whole process took about 5 minutes -- no matches. Take that Boy Scouts.

The whole process took about 5 minutes — no matches. Take that Boy Scouts.

Then a small group of local Masai gave as a traditional welcome dance -- including high jumps.

Then a small group of local Masai gave as a traditional welcome dance — including high jumps.

And invited us to join in. Which those of us with artificial joints politely declined.

And invited us to join in. Which those of us with artificial joints politely declined. These are “The Daughters”. You’ll be hearing about them.

Other highlights of today

A group of Masai came to give us a demonstration of how they start a fire on the point of a spear, a stick and some dried elephant dung. Then they treated us to a song and a high jumping welcome dance.

A night game drive, which didn’t find us any lions, but showed us how teeming the surrounding area is with animals.

Waking up at 4AM and listening to the thump and murmur of animals padding around my hut and Bush Babies skittering on the roof.

Bonus Serendipity

I was telling Margaret, the other widow, of my packing tussles with Mom. Her answer: “Oh my daughters are always telling me things. The important thing is just not to listen.” Can I predict two new BFFs?

Funniest Factoid

Allan has been teaching us a few useful Swahili words. Hello is Jambo! One of “the daughters” kept greeting the staff with Jamba which was causing giggles everywhere. Finally Allan had to pull her aside and let her know that Jamba means fart. (Good to know if you are still twelve at heart and come upon a Jamba Juice.)

Today’s pictures here.

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8 Comments

  1. Same as West Point, which is just the place where the U.S. Military Academy happens to be. But people will never stop abbreviating it to West Point and Annapolis.

  2. PDA

    What a fantastic adventure! Btw, as the daughter of a graduate of the United States Naval Academy (which happens to be in Annapolis, MD) I quickly learned growing up that he did not graduate from “Annapolis,” he is a graduate of the US Naval Academy! So Go Navy, Beat Army! Wherever you are.

  3. martina

    So much fun going on safari via the internet with you and your mother! Thanks!

  4. Maybelline, I would recommend it. My mother could never have done this trip without them. She was headed to a wheelchair fast and now she’s climbing in and out of Land Rovers. The trick is really, really, really committing to the physical therapy — which my mother wasn’t that good about.

  5. KathyB

    Wonderful trip, thanks for taking us along. Does not sound like a five star hotel out there on the plains, but definitely secure and watched over.

    Maybelline, my mother had knee replaced in her late sixties. Made such a difference. Takes a while for rehab afterward, but worth it.

  6. PS – I’m enjoying your adventure.

  7. This is for your mom Lisa.
    2 knee replacements? You’re just the person I need to ask…my 81 year old other is considering knee replacement surgery. Do you recommend the procedure? She is in great pain.

  8. Susi

    Fantastic!

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