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A Night in the Ark

Aug 3, 2008
We sat in a glassed-off viewing lounge over-looking the water hole, anxiously waiting for darkness that would bring elephant and buffalo, rhino and bushbuck to sample the salt lick below our window.

Maybe even a Bongo would venture out of the surrounding giant bamboo and into the spot lights, I remember hoping. The San Diego Zoo, where I was public relations director at the time, didnt have the rare Bongo antelope, so I had never laid eyes on one.

Our overnight stop at The "Ark," a tree-top inn high in the Aberdare Forest of Kenya in East Africa, was a highlight of that many-years-ago camera-safari - the most memorable vacation of our life, my wife and I agree.

Hot tea was served that late afternoon as we sat wrapped in blankets to keep from freezing our buns off. It was a bit brisk at 7,600 feet when night fell in the Aberdares, the eastern wall of Africa's Great Rift Valley!

We had departed Nairobi that a.m., made a two-hour, dusty drive through Kikuyland and stopped for a hearty lunch at the Aberdare Country Club. (I had zebra meat for the first time.) Well refreshed, we piled into Land Rovers for an 11-mile bumpy ride into the forest, accompanied by an armed guard.

After debarking, we silently followed the hunter across a draw-bridge, taken up at 4 p.m., so no one could come, or leave. Then into the beautifully furnished Ark Lodge, where our 20-person group were assigned rooms (unheated but had hot-water bottles we later snuggled up to under the icy covers.)

Our group soon settled into lounge chairs on the glassed-in veranda, which featured a roaring fireplace and drinks. To enable guests to continue watching and photographing until late, the waterhole was floodlit from six p.m. to dawn, and spare blankets were provided.

Photo flashlights were not permitted, since they could startle some animals, causing them to bolt to the safety of the surrounding forest.
But we eagerly snapped photos as first a buffalo, and soon, elephants and a fierce-horned rhino were the first wildlife to wander into the small clearing to partake of the salt lick after determining the coast was clear. The close-range viewing of wildlife cautiously leaving the protection of the forest was nothing short of breathtaking.

Unique feature: A buzzer alarm in each cabin -- sounded by the game-spotter on duty to alert guests when an interesting animal appeared, or something unusual happened. My wife and I responded to the first call at midnight, but were too tired to fall out for the second buzzer at 2 a.m. I believe we missed seeing a rare genet cat.

Next morning, after a hearty breakfast (I had warthog with my egg), we resumed our three-week zoo- sponsored tour, where next, we saw the most impressive variety and numbers of wildlife yet - in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.

This 5,700 square mile game preserve contains the world's greatest population of wild animals, if you cared to believe the booklet 200 Mau-Mau's each tried to sell me at the park's entrance. We were soon believers as we encountered prides of lions, hyena gangs, baboon families, cheetah, zebra, and antelope herds of thousands.

Our tour driver even managed to sneak our VW bus across the plains to a small clump of trees, where we excitedly photographed a rare sight -- a female leopard sprawled over several branches high in one.

When we returned home, the local CBS-TV-affiliate used 25 of these shots, including the spotted cat later vacating his snoozing place to chase a little gazelle. (No luck -- the beast instead settled for making a kill on an African hare and victoriously dragged it several hundred yards to cubs hidden in a thicket.)

We have grieved since our return those many years ago to read of the worsening of Africa's political unrest and the continuing decimation of its precious wildlife. Even I, who worked in a menagerie with 5,000 of them, came away with a new appreciation.

And as a living example of how Africa can affect you, one of our tour members, a San Diego doctor, had enjoyed big-game hunting on vacations through parts of the West. After experiencing a first-hand look at the beautiful African wildlife, so endangered, he vowed that the only hunting he'd do in the future would be with a camera! And he kept his word.

If only everyone were given our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and learn to appreciate the danger of extinction many of these wonderful creatures face from wide-spread poaching and encroachment of their habitat, stricter measures could be taken to save them.

As it is, in another decade or two most of these species will be able to be seen only in a zoo such as San Diego's.
About the Author
Bill Seaton is a prize-winning author and lecturer who has served nearly 25 years as public relations director of the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and the California State Lottery. To learn more about the San Diego resident's books, blogs and awards, visit Bill Seaton.
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