Chapter 33: African Safari by VW Bug… Part 1

I climbed out of our VW bug to photograph this elephant family in Manyara National Park with my Kodak Instamatic. Ah that I would have had a better camera.

I climbed out of our VW bug to photograph this elephant family in Manyara National Park with my Kodak Instamatic. Ah that I would have had a better camera.

African Water Buffalo are known for their nasty attitudes and we were facing a whole herd of nastiness. Thirty minutes before the gas pedal linkage on our Volkswagen Beetle had broken on our trip through Manyara National Park in Tanzania. We had jury-rigged a temporary fix by tying the pedal down. Stopping involved pushing the clutch in while the engine revved at full throttle. It was loud.

The herd of water buffalo crossing the road in front of us apparently didn’t like loud. Or maybe it was just my imagination. I get nervous when 2000-pound beasts with large, formidable horns are contemplating a charge. The fact that our VW Bug tipped the scales at just over 1700-pounds and all its horn could accomplish was a puny beep did not reduce my anxiety.

My travel companions were already nervous. Earlier in our exploration of the park, I had received a solid lecture for stopping and getting out to snap pictures of an elephant family. The week before a bull elephant in Manyara had caught a whiff of tourists in a VW Van and chased them down the road in an earth-pounding run. Having caught up, he rammed his tusks through the rear widow.

Fortunately, neither the elephants nor the water buffalo considered our tiny car and its inhabitants worthy opponents. Just after dark we drove the limping VW back into our lodge overlooking the Rift Valley and Manyara National Park. We had successfully accomplished another adventure in our 2500-mile safari through East Africa.

Peace Corps Volunteers in Liberia were encouraged to go on vacation during the second “summer” of their two-year tour. The majority of Group VI had chosen to charter a jet to East Africa for our month of escape. Our share of chartering the jet had seriously depleted Jo Ann and my savings, thus the self-guided VW safari. We hooked up with another married couple, John and Chris Ogden from New York, to share the adventure and expenses. Like Jo and I, John and Chris had graduated from college in 1965, married and joined the Peace Corps.

John and Chris Ogden join me in front of the Plum Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya during out 1967 adventure.

John and Chris Ogden join me in front of the Plum Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya during out 1967 adventure.

Our first stop was Nairobi, Kenya, an attractive, modern city where we could actually drink the milk. It is amazing how much meaning such a small thing can assume. I would have been happy to just hang out and enjoy the amenities except adventure called; there were lions and gazelles and rhinos, “oh my!” We rented our VW bug, crammed the four of us plus luggage in, and rolled off across Tsavo National Park on a narrow dirt road. Our eyes were glued to the windows searching for wildlife.

“There’s an elephant!” Chris shouted and we screeched to a halt. It looked impressively big from the perspective of our VW Beetle. So were its droppings. We drove around rather than through them. High-centering on elephant dung was not part of the adventure. We spotted an ostrich and then a giant porcupine. John and I jumped out of the car to check out the porcupine. He stood at least three feet tall, had six-inch quills and exuded a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. We called him sir. Just as dusk arrived we spotted our first zebras. John raced down the road to keep pace with them while Jo Ann and Chris squealed about juvenile behavior.

Mysterious Malindi on the Indian Ocean came next. Visiting there was like dropping into the middle of an Arabian Night’s Tale. Vasco da Gama had come through here at the close of the Fifteenth Century, picked up a local pilot to guide him onward, and left behind a stone cross. Long before Europe came crawling out of the Dark Ages and Vasco da Gama began his perilous journey, Malindi had been an important port on the busy Indian Ocean trade routes. Goods from as far away as China had made their way through its bustling markets while the words of the Prophet Muhammad echoed through its streets.

Visiting Malindi, Kenya in 1967 was like dropping into a Tale from the Arabian Nights.

Visiting Malindi, Kenya in 1967 was like dropping into a Tale from the Arabian Nights.

We camped out on the beach in huts and were introduced to sailing by John and Chris. We also tried snorkeling. A native outrigger canoe, complete with three natives, carried us out to a beautiful coral garden. A jellyfish seriously stung me for my efforts while Chris and Jo Ann received exotic shells from the natives. Unfortunately, the shells were still occupied by their rightful owners. After several days of hot tropical sun, opening our trunk became an exercise in courage. We ended up paying five dollars to have the shells cleaned. It was a small fortune for the guy that did it, but we thought it was a great bargain.

Mombasa was next on our agenda. We drove into town under giant, sculpted elephant trunks, a reminder of the role that the ivory trade had played in East Africa’s history. There was also a reminder of when tiny Portugal had been a major world power; a dark, foreboding Fort Jesus looked out to sea with the objective of protecting precious spice routes to the Indies. What impressed us the most, though, were the intricate, highly crafted wood carvings the city was famous for. Out came our wallets as we shipped off piece after piece to the U.S.

Giant elephant tusk sculptures greeted our entrance to Mombassa.

Giant elephant tusk sculptures greeted our entrance to Mombassa.

We crossed from Kenya into Tanzania and Mt. Kilimanjaro slipped by, hidden in the clouds. Several volunteers from our group had chosen to climb the mountain. (The Kilimanjaro link is for a tour group that follows my blog.) We opted for a more sedate experience and drove up its side to check out the coffee plantations. Heading on to Arusha, we dined at a hotel that Hemingway had frequented during his East Africa sojourns.

Much to the amusement of my companions, a large swarm of flies chose to buzz around my head during dinner. Even more annoying was the Tanzanian waiter who chose to point out with a very British accent that I used the wrong knife on my fish.

“That, sir, is your butter knife!” he announced in a booming voice. Hemingway probably would have challenged him to a duel.

I did have one important responsibility in Arusha, buying meerschaum pipes for Morris Carpenter, who had already returned to America. Unfortunately, I kept one when we returned to Gbarnga and made the mistake of trying it out while enjoying my porch. It would be years before I could break the addiction. Tobacco was much more dangerous than the elephants and water buffalo we encountered at Manyara National Park where we went after Arusha.

In my next blog we encounter George the Rhino on the floor on Ngorongoro Crater, chase giraffes across the Serengeti Plains, and dodge crocodiles on the Victoria Nile.

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