Zebras after catching lion scent in the eastern Mara

Zebras after catching lion scent in the eastern Mara

Over the coming weeks I’ll be collating notes from my just completed Kenya trip and will convert them to narrative for uploading to this site. I’ll cover four separate and distinct locations and describe some diverse landscapes and wildlife … all in due time. But there’s one aspect of the trip that merits immediate discussion and posting. That is the Sarova Mara game camp and its wonderful people and extraordinary tradition of hospitality.

I’ve visited most of the game reserves in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya and have never been disappointed in the service and accommodation. But I’ve found this particular lodge to be incomparable. It sits on a wooded hill not far from the easternmost entrance to the reserve. It is protected with an electric fence, but inside the wire I’ve seen hyrax, mongoose, dik dik, vervet monkey and impala. It is a permanent tent camp, which is very nice because it offers full access to the sounds of the Maasai Mara night.

The Kenyan people have always gone out of their way to be kind and welcoming. But the Sarova staff always seems to take it a few steps further. At my first lunch – immediately upon arrival, in fact – I was greeted by a gorgeous smile and a friendly face. It was Caroline M., the restaurant receptionist, who I’d met on my 2008 visit. She is, in every way, a lovely girl. Shy and modest, she does her job with grace, dignity and an optimum level of proficiency. I was thrilled and honored that she remembered my name after twelve months absence. Caroline is Kikuyu, originally from the city of Nyeri, which is not far from Mt Kenya. She is not only beautiful, she is brilliant. She speaks Kikuyu, Swahili, English and French … all fluently. And I’m very pleased that she’s my friend.

Caroline M at Sarova Mara

Caroline M at Sarova Mara

There is another Caroline, who helped me battle the internet gods in 2008 when I attempted to send an e mail home. She is now in a management position, and went above and beyond the call of duty in making my traveling partner and me comfortable. She upgraded our accommodation and delivered a complimentary bottle of wine to our front door. She is not only a lovely hostess, she is a genuinely caring and beautiful human being.

Over a malt beverage on a cool evening at the lodge, my friend Moses the bartender welcomed me back for the third time and said “you are now part of us.” I do feel so, and miss the place almost as much as my own home.

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Tommy Dix in the 1943 movie version of "Best Foot Forward"

Tommy Dix in the 1943 movie version of "Best Foot Forward"

I’ve always been fascinated by chance encounters that permanently influence the mind, the heart, or the course of one’s life. The development of relationships with neighbors, at school or in the workplace is one thing. These tend to unfold through the natural course of daily events and are therefore expected and maybe even routine. But the random intersection of lives that results in an enduring human connection is truly providential. Serendipitously meeting a kindred spirit is much like picking the correct number on the roulette wheel. It’s a rare occurrence, but over a lifespan it’s bound to happen from time to time.

Since entering the art fair business I’ve been fortunate to experience such a convergence on more than one occasion. At one of my earliest shows an older gentleman entered my exhibit looking for elephant photos. He was short in stature, but larger than life in every other way. His booming baritone voice, kindly manner and outsized personality instantly marked him as an extraordinary person. He purchased an elephant shot, but requested a mat color that I didn’t have in my print bin. Since the gentleman – one Mr. Tommy Dix – lived locally, I offered to deliver the photo directly to his doorstep.

Entering Mr. Dix’s home was, in many ways, like walking into my own. His love for African wildlife was an obvious common interest, and the book titles in his extensive library closely matched those on my shelves. But there were differences. His hallway was lined with 1940s vintage show business memorabilia … all of which featured a youthful, fresh-faced Tommy Dix.

Tommy, originally from New York City, had been a singer since adolescence. While still a youngster, he’d even written a tune to support the newly created March of Dimes charity initiative … and his composition was eventually adopted by the campaign as a sort of unofficial theme song.  Through his own perseverance and a series of fortuitous events, Tommy actually sang his creation for President Roosevelt in the early 1930s. In the opening years of the 1940s he landed a singing role in a Broadway musical entitled “Best Foot Forward.” His performance in that role, and particularly his inspired rendition of the tune “Buckle Down Winsocki,” earned him a lead role in the 1943 Hollywood movie version, which also featured Lucille Ball, Harry James and future luminaries like June Allyson and Nancy Walker. Before his show business career progressed further, he was drafted into the Army and was severely injured in a stateside training accident. This misfortune may ultimately have saved his life, because the unit to which he was assigned was later decimated in the Battle of the Bulge.

Although he’s a few decades older than yours truly, Tommy Dix and I never run out of subjects for discussion. Our interests in politics, poetry, history and literature are very much in parallel. A few days ago, he presented me with my own copy of his favorite book, Will and Ariel Durant’s “Lessons of History.” The personal, heartfelt inscription is as valuable to me as all the lessons described by the Durants. It says …

“To my friend, Billy Dodson …

It is often said that we ignore the past at our peril.

Since there could be truth in those words, this little book may be an interesting and useful intellectual companion and a valuable beacon to the searching mind in the poorly charted seas that lie ahead.

It is a condensed microcosm of the hard lessons gathered during their lifetimes by two historians whose skills, dedication, objectivity and scholarship are seldom equaled – and it is a companion to the Durant series already in your personal collection.

I will occasionally revisit it to reset the anchors of my human perspective and to recalibrate my values.

In the years ahead, long after I shall have departed this veil of wrath and tears, your passing glance may fall upon this book. Hopefully, in that second or two, you may be prompted to remember your old friend, Tommy, and the civilized thoughts we once exchanged.

With respect and affection,
Tommy Dix”

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I visited Zambia during the first two weeks of November in 2008.  I captured just over 5,000 photographs during the course of the trip … about a third of the number I’d expect to take during a visit of the same duration to Kenya or Tanzania.  There were several reasons for the relatively low photo count.  First of all, the itinerary covered a lot of ground, geographically speaking. We (my son and I) were on the road or in the air for at least four full days of the expedition … and it’s generally not possible to accumulate animal photos while you’re in transit from point A to point B.  Another reason for the reduced number of photos is the Zambian landscape … unlike the open plains of east Africa, the game reserves in this part of the continent afford the animals much more cover.  It is a gorgeous combination of bush and trees, both dead and living … including a heavy population of the thoroughly outsized and egregiously implausible baobab.   The point is … you can’t photograph what you can’t see.  But all this is okay … because any visit to a completely new destination must generally be considered a scouting mission anyway.  The idea is to see as many locations as possible, and take careful note of those areas that merit a second, more focused visit.  We traveled to Kafue, South Luangwa and the Lower Zambezi areas.  Each of these locations is unique and beautiful in its way … and all rate a return visit.

As it turns out, it didn’t much matter if I’d taken 5,000 or 50,000 photographs.  That’s because my portable hard drive — and all my images — disappeared somewhere between Johannesburg, South Africa, and Atlanta.  I don’t think it was deliberately and maliciously taken … after reflecting back on the hours in the airports I came to the conclusion that I was likely too careless and failed to properly secure it in my carry on.  That just means I’ll have to return to Zambia very soon and give it another try.  My notes and memories did survive the trip, however … and I’ll be turning those into narrative and posting them here in the coming weeks.  And there will be a few photos … but they will be my son Joe’s and not mine.  Based on what I saw during the trip, his shots turned out better than mine anyway.

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There is a particularly lovely spot just below a wide bend in the Kafue River in central Zambia where the hippos number in the dozens and the elephants roam with complete freedom.  Its western bank is an intermittently wooded grassland with an occasional low hillock … dotted with impala, waterbuck and puku.   It is classic bush country … and it sees far less human traffic than my usual haunts in Kenya and Tanzania.  It’s also home to McBride’s Camp … one of my favorite places to stay in all of Africa.

McBride’s is unique in many ways.  Its lodgings are secure but open to the fresh air, taking full advantage of the temperate year round weather and offering guests the best possible view of their surroundings.  The food is wonderful and the dinners are candlelit, with all the sounds of the African night well within earshot.  During the day, a fruit basket placed by the central dining hut attracts a wide variety of birds, including the lovely and colorful Heuglin’s Robin.  The camp structures, made almost entirely from thatch and indigenous materials, are as perfectly integrated into the surroundings and environment as anything manufactured by human hands can possibly be.   One of the area’s most reticent species, the bushbuck, is sufficiently comfortable with the camp to stop by and sit quietly on the grounds on a near daily basis. 

Africa seems to abound with adventurous characters and interesting people.  The camp proprietors, Chris and Charlotte McBride, certainly fall within both of these categories.  They are two of the most fascinating people I’ve met in my many visits to the continent.  Chris has spent much of his life in the bush and has authored a couple of books on lion behavior.  Soft spoken, kind-hearted, personable and intelligent, his dinner conversation alone is reason enough to visit the camp.  He is blessed with a keen mind and a dry sense of humor … he is a supremely gifted storyteller who willingly and generously shares his thoughts and memories with his guests.  Charlotte is a remarkable woman in many ways.  Within minutes of meeting her I was overwhelmed by her enthusiasm and passion for the bush.  Despite having lived on the Kafue for many years, her excitement at any wildlife sighting – be it a lion pride, reed cormorant or a barred owl –is heartfelt and infectious.  She generally serves as the armed escort on the walking forays into the bush.  Her rifle is half again as big as she is … but she wields it with maximum effect.  Those who know her best describe her marksmanship as “deadly.” 

I expect to visit the McBrides again in the not too distant future.  The peace and quiet that comes with the remoteness of the camp, the near proximity of the wildlife, and the quality of the companionship make this one of wild Africa’s most unique and wonderful locations.

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