Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Kenya Field Journal: The Rift in the Heart of Africa

During a recent cleaning session in my house I stumbled upon my photo album from an educational trip to Kenya in 1995. I spent five weeks there with 31 other students studying wildlife management with the School for Field Studies. It changed my life.

Sometime after returning I wrote five essays on my experiences and stashed them in the photo album. I had forgotten about them until this past week. They are entitled The Rain, Bright Sun, Night, Simba, and The Rift in the Heart of Africa. Reading them brought back so many wonderful and thrilling memories. I'm posting them here mainly for the benefit of two friends I met there who have become friends for life: Dave and Agnes. Photos were taken by me during my adventure, clicking on them will enlarge them. Enjoy!

The Rift in the Heart of Africa

Eight days after arriving in the magical place of Jua Kali we left it. The students were told we were to go west, towards Lake Victoria, to a preserve called the Masai Mara. It would be a six hour to two day drive, depending on the condition of the roads. I rose before dawn on the 28th of July to wake up my fellow cook crew members. The four of us had just finished getting together stuff for lunch when the rest of the camp started to stir. David made us his famous banana pancakes, I grabbed a few extra for later.

All gear had been packed the night before. All we had to do was get in one of the four Land Cruisers and move out. Passing the familiar trees and landmarks of Hopcraft's ranch I wondered what was in store for us over the next two weeks.Would it really take two days to get there? Would we run out of food? What would it be like to camp out in the open with no protective banda walls around me? Do lions attack people through tents? These were the thing I really wanted to know, but I guess I had to just find out for myself.

We snaked our way through the morning Nairobi traffic as we headed west. Once out of the city we drove through endless field of wheat, and I couldn't help but think: were these fields once vast grazing plains turned into farms? We began to climb and the landscape grew more lush.

It got colder. We came upon a sign that read "The Great Rift Valley View Point Alt. 8,000 Ft." with a picture of Africa on one side and a Coca-Cola ad on the other. Richard, who was driving our vehicle, pulled over and said, "Everybody out! There's a neat view of the valley from here."

The great rift valley. It's a huge scar right through the heart of East Africa, and we were about to drive right through it. I walked towards the viewing deck huddled in my sweatshirt, it was very cold at this altitude. Jua Kali lay at only 3,000 feet, we were now 5,000 feet higher than this morning.

Then I saw it. A vast valley lay before me, speckled with sun and clouds from the northern to the southern horizon. It was as if the earth split open and the scar filled in with green. From where I was there was a 5,000 foot drop to the valley floor where animals grazed as they have been for thousands of years. Volcanoes dotted the other side of the valley giving a pointed border to the vastness. It is hard to comprehend the magnificence of this place without seeing it and experiencing the awe.

We were to drive down the valley walls and across to the other side, to Narok to refuel. How were were to get down was another question that I guess would have to just wait and be answered on its own. Once we took in our fill of the valley, the eight of us climbed into the back of the Land Cruiser and out onto the road. Richard took a right and almost immediately we were headed down. The road was winding and I concentrated as much as I could on the view and not on the road ahead of us: there were no guard rails.

For every hundred feet we went down it grew a little warmer. The flora went from lush mountainous green at the top, to jungle-like lianas and palms hugging the cliffs, to grassy plains at the bottom. It took only 30 minutes or so to get down. And when we looked back at where we had just been it seemed like a far away cloud-land in the sky compared to the bottom-land plains in the belly of the rift.

Once we landed on the valley floor Richard turned left and began to drive right down the center of the scar. He said we had to go south a ways to where we would find a lag in the rift walls and getting out of the valley would be easier. The further we drove the more wild it became. Small volcanoes popped out of the valley floor every so often. Larger volcanoes lined the rim. These pointy mounds must have sprung up as the earth split open, I wish I could have witnessed them grow. As we drove past them they seemed fairly dormant, gentle reminders of a more violent past. But the rift is still growing, someday East Africa will go the way of Madagascar and slowly drift out in the sea.

Once we entered the rift I felt as if we were entering a new realm. Things were further apart. We didn't see another human for at least an hour. I think we saw more gazelles than people that day. They grazed between the volcanoes, seemingly in peace. I didn't see any lions that day either. In fact I saw few animals but gazelles the entire way to the Mara. But the Mara would be different. The Mara is what the tour companies save for last, it is what we got to see first. We didn't know how lucky we were.


That is all that I wrote fourteen years ago when I returned from my summer in Kenya. Sadly, I became distracted by college and never completed my memories. Now, most things are fuzzy even if I look back at my photo album. I will return to Africa one day, I want nothing more than to share these places with my husband and daughter. I hear though that the rift valley is becoming populated with humans and Nairobi has grown one of the biggest slums in the world. I hope when I do return that there's some wild left to share. In the meantime I can try to save as much wild around me as I can so I don't feel helpless and hope the lush memories of Africa stay with me forever.

I will leave you with this photo of David Hopcraft's rescued Cheetah, Chala, hanging out on the roof of our Land Cruiser, one of my more vivid memories, since I was IN the vehicle when she jumped on it. Thanks for sharing my adventure with me.


  1. Wow! It sounds like you had an incredible experience. I can only imagine the awe you felt when seeing the rift. The magnificent beauty of this world can overwhelm you. The Cheetah, Chala, sitting on the Land Rover is awesome too!

  2. An adventure of a lifetime. It must have changed you in many ways- experiencing such a different way of life. So much beauty in nature and so much poverty among mankind.
    I am glad there are people like you who are making a change in this world.

  3. Lynn and Rae: Thanks for visiting! it truly was an adventure of a lifetime and where I met two amazing friends for life as well. Life is short, I'm glad I took a chance and went when I did!



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