A Family Safari in Kenya | T+L Family
Published: May 2009
By David A. Keeps
For actor Blair Underwood and family, it was the trip of a lifetime: a tailor-made, kid-ready Kenyan safari, complete with hungry hippos, warrior dances, naughty monkeys, and curious lions. Shhhh—here comes one now...
The song is a beautifully harmonized Swahili chant, performed by the married women of Kenya's Samburu tribe to welcome visitors to the manyatta—the village. And today they're singing it for us, an African-American family from Los Angeles on our first safari. As a gesture of respect, I am clad in native dress: a shuka, the large red-and-white cloth worn by Samburu men, and brightly colored tribal beads. My wife, Désirée, and my cousin Lynne wear beaded neck rings, which Samburu women pile up to their chins. The kids—our nine-year-old son, Paris, seven-year-old daughter, Brielle, and five-year-old son, Blake—are sticking to their khakis, but they're mesmerized.
Now the young warriors of the tribe begin their chant, some in long henna-dyed wigs embellished with plastic flowers and chains that loop over their ears and come down under their chins. The wigs are flying as the men leap up in the air and land hard on their heels, a dance originally done to demonstrate strength and agility before a battle. But what we see is more of a social event—sort of a racy sock hop, especially when the eligible women cut in, jerking their heads forward and wagging their bottoms back and forth.
I can't resist joining in, but next to the superlean warriors, I look like Fat Albert. Brielle says, "Daddy, you were the only one whose chest was bouncing up and down!"
I wish my father, Frank, were along to share the laugh. He and his brother, my uncle Bill, always dreamed of seeing the motherland, as they called Africa, and thanks to them, I did, too. I also love the big cats—as a child, I wanted to be a lion tamer—and I've always heard that Kenya is the place to see them. When Blake turned five, Désirée and I decided our family was ready for the trek; sadly, my uncle had passed away by then, and my dad, a retired U.S. Army colonel, was too busy to join us.
Researching the trip, we discovered that many safari outfitters have a minimum age requirement of eight or even 12, but the company we signed with, Micato, was happy to customize a 10-day adventure in June for our young family and Lynne, who lives with us and helps with the children. On the itinerary: Nairobi and three game reserves, with 14 game drives (our group would just fit in a safari jeep). Action-packed, yes, but at our request, days would start at 8:30 instead of dawn.
This is not only the most exotic vacation we've ever taken, it's also the longest: 23 hours' travel time (from Los Angeles via London), an eternity for kids. Lucky for us, somebody invented the portable DVD player. We're toting a small mountain of duffels, plus the camcorder I need to film Lippity-Loppity Lane, a Spy Kids–style movie our children wrote themselves (you can see the flick—and find out how we made it—at tlfamily.com). As soon as we get off the plane, we meet our exceedingly polite and patient safari host, Tonnie Kaguathi. A bald, fortysomething father of two, fluent in English, Swahili, and Kikuyu—the language (and name) of his tribe, Kenya's predominant ethnic group—Tonnie will be our guide for the entire trip, which begins with a drive into the hubbub of metropolitan Nairobi. Cars spew exhaust, people and animals crowd the streets, and kids play soccer in the red dirt. We're surprised to see striking contemporary architecture alongside British colonial buildings like our hotel, the Norfolk, a favorite of big-game enthusiasts since it opened in 1904. With its burgundy and blue velour—not to mention the bidet, which fascinates the children—our two-bedroom suite feels very European.
But there isn't much time to enjoy the splendor. We have only one day to see the local sights, starting with a tour of Kiambethu, Kenya's first tea plantation. Fiona Vernon, whose grandfather founded the venture in the 1920's, invites us to sit with her on the veranda of the hilltop main house, where we drink black tea from porcelain cups, eat English biscuits, and admire the view of Mount Kilimanjaro, while Paris, Brielle, and Blake feed banana slices to the black-and-white colobus monkeys that peer down at us from the roof. This is the first time they've seen monkeys that aren't in cages, and they are thrilled.
They get an even closer encounter of the same kind at the nearby Giraffe Center, a temporary home for abandoned and injured baby giraffes. The shy creatures can't resist the alfalfa-pellet snacks on our flattened palms, and their superlong tongues feel like slimy sandpaper—"Ewwww!" say the kids.
Désirée wants to stop at the Karen Blixen Museum, the Danish author's homestead on the northern edge of Nairobi where she set Out of Africa, a memoir of her experiences as a colonial coffee farmer. The ranch house is now a museum, decorated with her desk, lion-skin rugs, and photographs— of her lover, the big-game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton, and her ex-husband, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, the philandering aristocrat who gave her syphilis. (Needless to say, we don't tell the kids that part of the story.) After our tour, Tonnie herds us on to the animal nursery in Nairobi National Park run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Here, a team of naturalists care for and rehabilitate young animals, many of whose parents have been killed by poachers. We see a black rhino and watch baby tembo (Swahili for "elephants") being fed and put to bed. A handler leads each into a darkened stall and keeps it company, just as its mother would have, until it falls asleep.
The following morning, we're in the air, flying about 45 to 50 minutes north to the vast Laikipia Plateau and its 100-square-mile Loisaba Wilderness Conservancy, home to some 300 varieties of birds and beasts. Our camp, Loisaba Lodge, is run by a private conservation group that uses profits from tourism to preserve the land and help local people start their own businesses, one of which is building Star Beds—thatched-roof rooms on stilts— for the lodge. From a distance, Star Beds look like giant mounds of grass sprouting out of the rocky landscape, but each holds a modern bathroom and a four-poster bed on wheels that can be rolled out to an open platform for sleeping under the brilliant night sky. Once we settle in, Tonnie loads us into a van with a pop-up top and steers us through the bush to a spot where we can go horseback riding. We wonder if our safari has been structured so that each day we see increasingly exotic animals. This afternoon it's dik-diks, tiny antelopes that crop up all over as we saddle up and ride off into the sunset.
Désirée and I had planned on making tonight a date night and letting the children sleep in the lodge with Auntie Lynne, but the kids are so enchanted by our Star Bed that they climb in, too. With all of the mysterious hoots, growls, and calls—and three kids tossing and turning—sleeping isn't really an option. But even insomnia has its upside: around midnight, we all watch three shooting stars, one after the other. Not bad for our first night in the bush.
Camel rides to the river are on the morning's agenda, and the kids can't wait, except for Blake, who tries his best stuff: "I'm not okay with this! I'm not okay with this!" After about five minutes of crying, he realiz es that the creature is not going to buck him, eat him, or even lick him, and he's riding high. It's time for me to film two crucial scenes for Lippity-Loppity Lane. In one, Paris and Brielle have a mysterious conversation on camelback about "the map and the key;" in another, they listen to directions in Swahili from three tribesmen.
Our next stop is Samburu Intrepids, a camp in a lush area by the Ewaso N'giro ("Brown Water") River, in the middle of the Samburu National Reserve. From here on, we'll be staying in preserves where the animals are so close that we don't have to drive more than a half hour from our lodgings to find them. Guests at the Intrepids camps (there are two in Kenya) are put up in luxurious platform tents, each decked out with a mahogany bed draped in mosquito netting, a desk, a wooden trunk for clothes, and a bathroom tiled in fieldstone.
The meals are as appealing as the rooms. At breakfast there are crêpe-thin pancakes for the kids, omelettes made to order for the adults, and the world's sweetest pineapple. Dinners eaten in an open-air dining room feature plenty of grilled meats, which we all love.
Everywhere we go the kids are treated kindly, especially by Tonnie, who always makes sure the activities are fun for them. At night he leaves them little souvenirs on their pillows: leather bookmarks, beaded bracelets, toy bows and arrows.
We're all itching for a game drive, but Désirée and I also really want our kids to see how the tribespeople live, and that's how we find ourselves at the Samburu manyatta near the Intrepids camp, where I try hoofing it like a warrior. After the opening ceremony, we're invited into one of the huts. Traditionally, Samburu men tend the cattle, and the women, literally, make the homes. No bigger than 15 feet in diameter, the huts are constructed of mud mixed with cow dung and water. The roofs are woven palm fronds; the beds are cross-tied ropes spread with animal hides. Men and boys sleep on one side, women and girls on the other; a hearth is in the center.
It is dark and smoky inside and smells of fire and animals. The kids are quiet and respectful, just taking it in. I am proud of them; they never once make faces because something looks different or has an unusual odor. More used to being the observers when we travel at home and in Europe, they are now the observed. They seem a little self-conscious at being fussed over by the Samburu, but after about 20 minutes, I see them relax. By custom, the tribeswomen keep their heads shaved, and they're intrigued by Brielle's hairstyle, playing with her braids as she grins.
Making and wearing elaborate jewelry is an important part of Samburu culture, and on the ground outside one hut there's a display of intricately hand-beaded necklaces and bracelets, as well as carved-wood elephants, and pouches made of goatskin and cowhide. No one pushes us to buy anything, but we spend quite a few Kenyan shillings; they're beautiful souvenirs, and you just want to give back to thank these people for their hospitality.
The next morning, we're on another small plane, this time heading south to the Masai Mara National Reserve. Our hosts at the Mara Intrepids camp warn us to zip up our tent and drape the doormat over the zipper to prevent vervet monkeys from rifling through our gear. Within minutes we see a monkey on a railing by our tent, and Paris grabs his camera. Out of nowhere, another appears, and as Paris clicks away, the two of them start mating.
"What are they doing, Daddy?"
"Oh, that?Just monkey business."
The Intrepids camps are known for their terrific children's programs. Our little posse is led by Joseph, a big Masai in his twenties who has so much personality he could be an entertainer). He jokes a lot with the kids and teaches them how to catch Blue Pansy butterflies, fashion slingshots, and play bao, their version of mancala. By the river, he shows them fresh leopard tracks, and they make a plaster impression of a paw print. Later we return to shoot a montage of the kids crossing a suspension bridge straight out of Indiana Jones.
Mornings and afternoons, a jeep takes us deeper into the reserve, where zebras and wildebeests migrating across the plains attract predators. You can see the Big Five here: black rhinos, cape buffalo, elephants, leopards, and lions—the game most coveted by hunters at the turn of the 20th century because they were the most dangerous to bag. Now protected in game parks, the beasts are used to the sound of vehicles, so we're able to get unbelievably close, even when we come upon two mating lions. As long as you whisper and don't startle them, you're fine, but I worry the kids might scream or laugh out loud—and then it's going to be me and those big cats scrapping.
The night expeditions are a whole different experience. Far from any city lights, it is the pitchest black you can imagine: when the guide shines a big light into the void, you see the animals' eyes before you can focus on their shapes. Lions' eyes appear yellow; the eyes of gazelles are blue. Hippos that seem to be as big as our jeep lumber out of the water to feed on the grasses. And at night, you have a much better chance of witnessing a kill, since predators typically hunt under cover of darkness. Even so, it's not until our last morning drive that we see a pride of lions—seven cubs and two mothers—with a freshly slaughtered zebra. Our timing is perfect: watching the attack would have been traumatic for the kids, but it's amazing for all of us to observe the lionesses feeding the cubs, pushing them forward to eat first.
Before leaving the bush, we visit another manyatta, where the Masai live just as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. One of the elders gives us a detailed explanation of how a youth becomes a warrior, including the circumcision ritual performed when he is 16. Paris listens wide-eyed as the elder tells us that during the operation the boys are not allowed to flinch, much less cry, lest they be labeled cowards. We also learn about their diet: meat, milk, maize, and cows' or goats' blood. The Masai do plenty of walking, running, and dancing, so they have little body fat and few heart problems. They live off the land; the money they make selling souvenirs goes to purchase animals, their real currency. Joseph, who had come along to translate, helps us buy some bracelets and serving spoons, brokering the deal with the chief's son—who rings up the total on a state-of-the-art calculator.
And it is at this odd intersection of cultures that I finally build the bridge between my African-American family and the continent we came from. I had asked my father for a photo to take with me, and he chose one of himself and Uncle Bill standing together at Dad's retirement party. As we bid farewell to the Masai chief, I tell him how much the motherland meant to these two distant sons and leave the photo in his hand.
Joseph nods approvingly. He tells me that in his culture, history is recorded orally, passed down from father to son. "The chief will save the picture," he says. "He will hand it down to his children, and tell them the tale of the American man who brought not only his wife and kids, but also his father and uncle to Kenya." ✚
Blair Underwood currently appears in CBS's The New Adventures of Old Christine. He stars in an HBO dramatic series, In Treatment, airing in early 2008.
We were very happy to discover that many safari outfitters are helping native Kenyans develop businesses and build schools. AmericaShare (americashare.org), Micato's nonprofit organization, sponsors more than 900 East African children, many of them AIDS orphans. With contributions from its safari clients, AmericaShare provides food, medical care, housing and a primary education. On our return from the bush, we visited an AmericaShare project, Nairobi's Kwa Njenga Primary School, to deliver gifts we'd brought—precious commodities such as toothpaste, washcloths, pencils, and notebooks (okay, some candy too). The students, dressed in gingham uniforms, came up one by one to say thanks in both English and Swahili. Out in the dusty schoolyard, they performed acrobatics for us using an old tire to launch themselves into incredible airborne somersaults. Our kids left with a few new pals and a giant appreciation for the privileges we enjoy at home. —B.U.
Where and When to Go
Kenya, one of the first countries to establish game preserves, has some of the best wildlife viewing on the continent, especially from June to September, when zebras and wildebeests migrate there. The weather is temperate year-round, although light rains fall in November and December; still, these can be good months to visit because parks are less crowded. When the heavy rains arrive in April and May, many lodges close.
Package safaris have set itineraries, dates, and fees and are ideal for families who like traveling with others. Custom safaris offer plenty of variables: you can opt to pitch your own tents or stay in luxe lodges and either drive or fly between destinations of your choice.
Some outfitters include travel time to and from the United States—typically two days—in the length of a tour; a 12-day safari, for example, would give you 10 days in Kenya. Certain companies include overseas airfare in the price of their package, while others don't. Be sure to clarify the terms before booking.
Top Family Outfitters
800/642-2861; micato.com; 12-day safari package about $7,545 per person; custom tours from $1,000 per person per day.
Abercrombie & Kent
800/554-7094; abercrombiekent.com; 12-day package tours from $6,750 per person (the cost of in-country flights are an extra charge); custom tours from $500 per person per day.
800/545-1910; premier tours.com; custom only; a 10-day safari (transportation by ground) from $2,500 per adult, $1,600 per child.
888/852-3742; ccafrica.com; custom only, from $200 per person per day.
The Underwood family turned the record of their trip to Africa into a short scripted movie, Lippity Loppity Lane, worthy of a children's film festival. The kids wrote the script; Dad shot and directed; and everybody along the way—even three Samburu warriors who delivered their lines in Swahili—got to perform. Here, Blair's tips for a memorable vacation flick:
A digital video camcorder lets you edit on your home computer. I used a Canon XL2, a "prosumer" camera that got all the shots I needed.
An adventure/mystery story—ours is about the search for a rare diamond—allows you to shoot the sights as you discover clues along the way. We watched the Spy Kids movies for inspiration.
Don't expect the kids to perform more than 30 minutes at a stretch—this should be fun, not work—and try to film in the morning, when energy levels are high. I wanted the cast to enjoy themselves, so I basically limited my directions to "Quiet on the set" and "Stop laughing!"
Let the kids gather props from around the house and choose their own wardrobe. We always carried a few essential pieces in a backpack in case we stumbled upon a good location.
I edited the footage with Final Cut Pro, an advanced program, but both iMovie and iDVD, which come in Mac's basic software package and are easy to learn and use, will do the trick. I cut the 600 minutes I shot into a 25-minute film and a 10-minute blooper reel. Then I made a montage of leftover images and added a soundtrack—our very own music video.