Most tense moment of the trip: the gate at Tsavo, where the KWS had to make a ruling on whether we were residents or not. Visiting a park in Kenya is not cheap. For our family of six, including Luke now as a post-18th-bday adult, to spend two nights in the park camping with all our own gear and food, our own car, no guides or drivers or extras . . we pay about $150 as residents. But if we were tourists, we would pay bout $600. Actually, we wouldn't pay it, we just wouldn't go. So we had spent the time to be fingerprinted and temporarily registered as aliens when our long-awaited residence permit was still delayed, we had sms'd with a park tourism officer, we had stopped at the headquarters of the KWS . . all good news . . but in the end all that mattered was the lady at the gate. Who was not impressed with our receipts, our explanations, our insistence. So she called her boss. Listening through the Kiswahili one-sided conversation we weren't hopeful. But she hung up, and pronounced, "He said that because you are missionaries, you can pay the resident rate". Ahh, so none of our efforts mattered, but God provided.
Most exhilarating moment: Dawn, wrapped in Maasai blankets on the roof rack, bumping along the dirt track, stopping to watch a baby giraffe nurse, then looking up and behold, in the background, Mt. Kilimanjaro in all its glory, bathed in the light of the rising sun, purple and massive with the barest hint of a snow fringe outlining the crater. We knew we were close to the Kenya/TZ border, but honestly we've been in this area, even right at the BASE of Kili before, and never had a view due to clouds. So we had not really thought about seeing Africa's highest peak from Tsavo, until there it was.
Most delicious: toss-up between the chili we cooked up the first night, after setting up our tents, as the sun set and our campfire blazed and Caleb played his guitar . . and the brunch of grilled chicken with roasted carrots, onions, and pasta the next day. Yes, it was ALMOST lunch time, but we realized our cool-bag was not very cool, and thought our chicken might not make it 'til dinner time without making us sick, so we moved up our main meal. Which left us free to picnic on bread, cheese, wine and chocolate atop the Roaring Rocks viewpoint at sunset.
Most disappointing: The rhino-less rhino reserve. A swathe of the park is fenced as a protected area for the nearly-extinct black rhino. A large swathe. It is only open from 4 to 6 pm, and it was about a two-hour drive from our camp site (this is one HUGE park). The drive there was spectacular, in fact the scenery is almost as striking as the animals. Bare red rocky cliffs with tiny klipspringers standing at attention at eye-level as we drive by, elephants bathed in the red dust ambling through the brush (we watched one push over a big tree!), tiny dik-diks darting out of the road, we drove and drove. A lava flow from volcanic activity in the last few hundred years, still black and rough and massive and bare. Winding up hills and into valleys. An ostrich who played chicken with us, staying in the middle of the road until we braked (proving that ostrich are not chickens). By the time we reached the reserve, we had only about a half hour to see the rhinos and drive back by dark. So we were a bit taken a back to realize that one doesn't just drive into the gate and view them. There are supposedly 70 within the fenced area. We drove, and drove. Up one trail and down another, criss-crossing. It was the only place in the park where we ran into lots of other vehicles, pop-top vans sprouting long lenses and big binoculars and hopeful guests. All kicking up dust and looking for the elusive rhinos. We never saw a single one, or found a car who had. For something so large, they can disappear in the thick tangle of bare bushes, grey bark and and grey skin. Or perhaps they don't really exist. Who knows.
Most painful: The roads, by far. The classic corrugated wash-board effect. No matter how slowly you go, or how fast, it feels like your car and your spine are being systematically disassembled.
Most unlikely spottings: By Caleb, a crocodile sunning on a rock as we walked through a literal oasis. The Mzima springs, where water literally bubbles up out of the ground, having been collected and filtered by the nearby Chyungu Hills into an underground water table, it suddenly bursts out in the dry savannah, a fully-formed river in midstream, surrounded by palms, an unlikely spot of green. Blue fish dart about in the clear water, and an armed guard escorts visitors from the parking area to the spring source. But after miles and miles of near desert, a crocodile on a rock was sort of shocking. And by Luke, a leopard sauntering away into the bush, at noon no less, and a few minutes from the park gate as we were about to exit. Though Tsavo is synonymous with man-eating lions, and we heard hyenas during the night, we did not see any dangerous carnivores in 47 1/2 hours . . until the last minute.
Most satisfying boy-moments: Not politically correct I'm sure, but people who shall remain unnamed seemed to derive great satisfaction from aiming harmless slingshot-slung volcanic rocks at the fat little rock hyraxes, and finally it one (a mere sting, nothing lethal). And in running around our campsite with a slingshot and knife as we packed up and the baboon troop moved in, hoping to find our leftovers. It was a bit eerie to be stalked like that, dozens of the baboons moving through the site, keeping a perimeter, waiting. One darted up and stole a carrot in a ziplock bag where I was washing out our cool-bag and packing up cooking items, but I think we packed the rest out carefully. So I was glad to have one of the boys on watch with weapons.
Most unusual animals: the Lesser Kudu, the Orynx, the Eland, all large antelopes which we rarely saw in Uganda. And the lone wildebeest hanging out with a herd of zebra.
And lastly, the best planning, as it turns out: coming to the coast after the game park, to beds and showers and seafood and luxuries like chairs, after two days on rocks and campfires.