The last true Eden
The last true Eden, East Africa is a natural paradise, the ‘cradle of mankind’ and the ethnic homeland of us all. A land of vivid contrasts it offers pristine wilderness and golden savannah, snow-capped peaks and volcano-studded valleys, wildlife-teeming plains and flamingo-pink lakes. Fringed by white beaches, and shaded by coconut palms, the silver ribbon of the Swahili coastline, meanwhile, offers the ultimate tropical paradise. Set against the backdrop of the last of the great coastal rain forests, it is washed by the waves of the Indian Ocean, beneath which lie the coral gardens of one of the world’s greatest barrier reefs – home to dolphins, turtles and gentle drifts of tropical fish.
Africa is the largest continent in the world, which can be simply divided into two main geographical regions: High Africa and Low Africa, which lie to either side of the line that runs diagonally across the continent from the mouth of the Congo River to the Red Sea coast in northern Ethiopia. East Africa lies in the plateau of High Africa and is dissected by one of the world’s largest geological features: the Great Rift Valley – a 6.500 km fissure in the earth’s crust that stretches from Turkey to Mozambique and features sheer escarpments and a chain of lakes, hot springs, steaming fissures and volcanic cones.
African vegetation can be classified according to rainfall and climate zones. The tropical rainforest zone, where the average annual rainfall is more than 1,270 mm (50 in), has a dense surface covering of shrubs, ferns, and mosses, above which tower evergreens, oil palms, and numerous species of tropical hardwood trees. A mountain forest zone, with average annual rainfall only slightly less than in the tropical rainforest, is found in the high mountains of Cameroon, Angola, eastern Africa, and parts of Ethiopia. Here a ground covering of shrubs gives way to oil palms, hardwood trees, and primitive conifers. A savannah woodland zone, with annual rainfall of 890 to 1,400 mm (35 to 55 in), covers vast areas with a layer of grass and fire-resistant shrubs, above which are found deciduous and leguminous fire-resistant trees. A savannah grassland zone, with annual rainfall of about 500 to 890 mm (20 to 35 in), is covered by low grasses and shrubs, and scattered, small deciduous trees. The thornbush zone, a steppe vegetation, with an annual rainfall of about 300 to 510 mm (12 to 20 in), has a thinner grass covering and a scattering of succulent or semisucculent trees. The subdesert scrub zone, with an annual rainfall of 130 to 300 mm (5 to 12 in), has a covering of grasses and scattered low shrubs. The zone of desert vegetation, found in areas with an annual rainfall of less than 130 mm (5 in), has sparse vegetation or none at all.
East Africa, and most particularly Kenya, is the uncontested ‘Safari Capital of the World’, and has been since the 1900’s when royalty, aristocracy, politicians and movie stars flocked here to hunt the ‘Big Five’ (lion, rhino, buffalo, elephant and leopard). East Africa is also home to the ‘greatest wildlife show on earth’ the annual migration of some 2 million wildebeest and around half a million zebras between the plains of Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Among the many animals our visitors can hope to see are: cats great and small, vast herds of elephant, black and white rhino, giraffe, antelope, hyena, hippo, crocodile, monkeys, oryx, kudu, jackal, gorillas, aardvark – to name but a few.
The Great Wildebeest Migration
Between early July and September each year the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania, is home to one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. The great wildebeest migration involves some 2 million wildebeest and around half a million zebras (accompanied by many thousands of gazelle) trekking north from the adjoining Serengeti National Park in Tanzania in search of fresh grazing. Following close behind are the lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and vultures. The crossing of the Mara River at full flood is the greatest test.
East Africa, an ornithologist’s paradise.
East Africa is the bird capital of the world. Kenya alone boasts 1,137 bird species and has the second-highest country bird-species-count (after the Congo) in Africa; and the fourth highest in the world. East Africa is also home to the world-famous Rift Valley lakes, where over two billion greater and lesser flamingoes frost the shores coral pink. Out on the savanna plains, crested cranes dance, whydah birds act out their elaborate courtship rituals and Secretary birds strut. Above them, eagles, vultures, kites and harriers soar, while deep within the last remnants of the rain forests, scarlet-winged turaco swoop, casqued hornbills call and one of the world’s rarest birds, the elusive Narina’s trogon lurks deep in the forest cover.
East Africa is home to several hundred ethnic groups which can broadly be distinguished into two major language groups: Bantu and Nilotic. The coastal region is the home of the Swahili people.
There are several hundred distinct languages or dialects in East Africa. English is the ‘official’ language in all of them while the lingua franca (common language) is Swahili (or Kiswahili). The term Swahili derives from the Arab word ‘sahel’, meaning coast, and the language came into being some 1,300 years ago when Arab and Persian traders settled on the East African coast. Since then the language has spread widely to become the ‘lingua franca’ of East Africa. Basically a Bantu language, modern Swahili has incorporated thousands of foreign words, the majority of them being Arabic.
Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and traditional beliefs.
Africa is generally agreed to be the cradle of the human race; genetic testing in recent years has confirmed archaeological finds. Some 5 million years ago a type of hominid, a close evolutionary ancestor of present-day humans, inhabited southern and eastern Africa. More than 1.5 million years ago this tool-making hominid developed into the more advanced forms Homo habilis and Homo erectus. The earliest true human being in Africa, Homo sapiens, dates from more than 200,000 years ago. A hunter-gatherer capable of making crude stone tools, Homo sapiens banded together with others to form nomadic groups; eventually these nomadic Khoisan-speaking peoples spread throughout the African continent.
Most hotels offer forex facilities, though sometimes at disadvantageous rates.
Foreign currency can be changed at banks, foreign currency bureaux or hotels.
ATMs are generally available country wide with 24-hour access. Most accept international VISA cards.
All major international cards are accepted. Credit card fraud occurs in East Africa, as in most other parts of the world, and the usual precautions should be taken.
Travellers’ Cheques are accepted at most banks, bureaux and hotels.
Tipping is a common practice among Kenyans. In restaurants: you may like to ‘round up’ the bill with a small gratuity if the service has been good.In the tourist-oriented sector a service charge of 10% is usually added to the bill, plus 16% VAT and 2% catering levy. Most hotels have a STAFF BOX, and prefer that you make a contribution to this (the contents of which are shared amongst ALL the staff) rather than tipping a specific member of staff. Tipping of taxi drivers is not required, unless you have received extra-special service.
Most tourist guides and safari drivers will expect some kind of a tip, and most go to great lengths to ensure that you have a good safari. There are no guidelines as to how much such a tip should be, but it helps to bear in mind that many people in Kenya live on less than a dollar a day. When staying as a guest in a Kenyan household, it is customary to tip the house staff, working on the basis that they will have had to work harder than normal during your stay.
Shopping and business hours
Hours vary from country to country, but in general business hours are: 08.30 to 12.30 and 14.00 to 17.30 Mon-Sat. Many businesses work Saturday mornings.
The art of barter
Most craft traders are loath to give you a price. They prefer to ask you what you will pay for the item of your choice. If pressed, the price they offer will often be unrealistically high; more especially if you are white. One way to circumvent this is to ask for the trader’s ‘BEST price’, which may cut some of the wilder figures. There is, however, a ‘real’ price, below which the trader will not go. Your job is to find this price. Methods differ. You can take the offered price, halve it, and haggle up from there. Or you can make an offer of a price that you feel happy with, and haggle from there. The acid test is in walking away. If the trader lets you walk, your offer really was unacceptable. If he/she calls after you – there is still room for negotiation.
GMT +3 all year-round. East Africa maintains an almost constant 12 hours of daylight. Sunrise is typically 06.30 and sunset at 18.45.
220-240 volts AC, plug fittings vary country to country. In the lodges and camps, electricity will normally be available 24 hours, but in some lodges/camps the power will go off from around midnight (or when the last guest goes to bed) until early morning. It will be possible to recharge batteries in your room or the reception provided you have the correct adaptor.
Visitors are not advised to drink the tap water. Bottled water is readily available.
Cell phones in East Africa are also known as ‘mobiles’ and are immensely popular, not least because of the inefficiency (and high cost) of the fixed line system. There are now over 6.5 million (2006) cell phone users in Kenya alone and it is estimated that 80% of the calls are made by cell phone. Most subscribers use the ‘pre-paid’ service (‘pay as you go’ with ‘scratch cards’ that can be purchased just about anywhere and in affordable denominations). A ‘post-paid’ service is also available. East Africa uses the GSM 900 system (compatible with Europe and Australia but not North America). Handsets are easily and cheaply available, as are SIM cards (sold in a pre-paid starter packs from the relevant providers.
Do’s and don’ts
Throughout East Africa it is generally an offence to: deface a banknote; urinate in public; sunbath topless; hire a prostitute; buy or take drugs; remove wildlife products, export products made from elephant, rhino or sea turtle derivatives, or to remove coral. Swearing and blasphemy are inadvisable. Visitors are requested to stand when the national anthems are played, or the national flags raised or lowered. They are also advised that photographing the president of any East African country without prior permission; or any military installation is not permitted. Bond or bail can be granted at the police or magistrate’s discretion and all cases must be brought before a court.
It is considered courteous to ask people if you may take their picture before doing so, particularly in the more far-flung rural areas. A small (token) payment for the photograph may be expected, rather more as a form of polite appreciation than anything else.