Finding that authentic experience

Samburu tribesmen demonstrating how to make fire the traditional way - photo by E Jurus
Samburu tribesmen demonstrating how to make fire the traditional way – photo by E Jurus

My travel sources have lately been reporting a surge in people looking for an “authentic” experience in places like Africa.

Let me begin by saying that one of the biggest obstacles for finding something ‘authentic’ is a traveller’s preconceptions. If you’re looking for a time capsule, you’re not going to find it – there are very few places untouched by modern civilization.

Trying to plan something authentic actually to some extent defeats the purpose. You can’t stage-manage this type of experience; you can arrange for a tribal visit, for example, but you must proceed on it with an open mind and no expectations about what might or might not happen.

A case in point is a visit to a native Samburu village that our safari group enjoyed in Kenya a couple of years ago. It wasn’t on our scheduled itinerary, but our guide suggested it and we were all immediately on board.

Just the fact that the tribe lives in a village is a change from their traditional way of existence – the Samburu were originally nomadic, but a few years ago this tribe received a schoolhouse so that their children could be educated and they’ve had to stop moving around in order to be close to the school.

In many ways the tribe still lives very traditionally, though. The village consists of huts with a frame of tree branches held together with mud and covered in whatever materials they can scavenge – old cardboard and paper, bits of cloth… The huts are an extraordinary sight, surrounded by a thick ‘hedge’ of thorny tree branches that’s too wide and dense for predators to penetrate. During the day the tribe opens up the hedge to go in and out, and at night all the animals (mainly cows) are brought inside and the gaps are closed.

Samburu village surrounded by thorn hedge - photo by E Jurus
Samburu village surrounded by thorn hedge – photo by E Jurus

The villagers dress in colourful robes and jewellery for visitors, but we did see women down at the dry bed of the Ewaso Nyiro River doing laundry in t-shirts and loose skirts. Near the Masai Mara reserve, we saw Masai people dressed in a mix of traditional and modern, often incorporating bits of modern clothing, such as pants and tops with a brightly-coloured cloth as a shawl. Regardless of how much of the Samburu robes were for our benefit, it was a joy to see the wonderful clothing that remains from ancient times.

Bits of modernity have crept in as a result of the tribe staying in one place: the villagers offer tours and sell crafts to bring in money, and our guide had a cell phone to communicate outside the village.

The visit was a fascinating experience, though – the villagers demonstrated some native dances and how they made fire, we sat on benches under a tree where they hold their village meetings, and we sat inside one of their huts to see how they live on a daily basis. The Samburu are known for their elaborate beaded jewellery, and I treasure a necklace that I bought from the hands of the woman who made it. My husband bought a great spear from one of the men – the spear with the tufted leather guard on the blade in the photo below.

Traditional Samburu dances - photo by E Jurus
Traditional Samburu dances – photo by E Jurus

Yes, we paid for the tour and were hit up for donations to the school, but if I’d known in advance that the tour would be available I would have likely brought school supplies as a donation anyway.

As we finished the tour we were steered down a path lined with villagers selling their crafts, and they were a bit aggressive, but they were just being entrepreneurs. Obviously the tribe is aware that visitors like to buy jewellery and spears, and we were happy to buy something on location as opposed to in a shop in Nairobi.

Authentic experiences require interacting with local people in however they live their normal lives, not expecting a historical moment frozen in time. This usually means getting a bit down and dirty, so to speak – avoiding luxury accommodations and getting out into the streets to walk around.

If you truly want a real African safari, e.g., go camping in the bush! I’ve stayed in luxury lodges as well, and while they are lovely, save that for a couple of days at the end of the trip as a treat after roughing it. There’s nothing like being immersed in the African bush for a week or so, as in the days of early safaris. With a good safari operator, you’ll be quite safe, and you’ll experience the magic of sitting under the great African sky at night listening to the sounds of animals settling down for sleep, sleeping yourself snuggled under duvets while the chilly night air fills your tent, waking up to the raucous call of birds, and eating delicious meals cooked over wood fires. It’s an amazingly exciting and peaceful experience at the same time.

Safari tent, Okavango Delta, Botswana - photo by E Jurus
Safari tent, Okavango Delta, Botswana – photo by E Jurus

When we were in Egypt many years ago, for the first couple of days in Cairo we felt like we were in a fishbowl riding around from sight to sight in our tour bus. It wasn’t until we had some free time and walked to the museum and the market from our hotel on the Nile that we really began to feel a connection to the people and their culture. Never fill your leisure time on a tour with back-to-back excursions – leave some time to just walk about, sit in a sidewalk café or restaurant, and watch the ebb and flow of life around you.

One of the best experiences we’ve ever had took place on our last day on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. We were flying out that night, so we arranged with our resort to have a driver guide take us on a tour of some of the island before we headed for the airport. We visited the botanical gardens, some wonderful Hindu temples, a sacred lake, a jungle waterfall, the Seven Coloured Earths of Chamarel (naturally coloured sands), and ate fresh guavas handpicked for us by our guide Roger. Since our flight wasn’t until late, we inquired about somewhere to eat dinner other than at the airport, so he took us to a little place he knew on the side of the road across the street from the ocean. We sat out on the front porch and had a fantastic spicy chicken curry with rice while we watched the traffic go by and were waved at by the passersby. It was the perfect way to end that trip.

If you want authentic experiences, you need to get away from the luxury spots and obvious tourist traps and truly interact with the locals – walk where they walk, eat where they eat, and genuinely engage them in conversation. See how they really live, not how you’d like them to. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about the world by accepting it for what it is.

The new Samburu village school - photo by E Jurus
The new Samburu village school – photo by E Jurus

Cracks that turn into chasms

A Reticulated Giraffe in Samburu Reserve, Kenya - photo by E. Jurus
A Reticulated Giraffe in Samburu Reserve, Kenya – photo by E. Jurus

I had the good fortune to be able to visit Kenya a couple of years ago. Given the recent tragic events at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, you might wonder if I’d go back, and yes, I would. Kenya is one of the most beautiful countries that I’ve ever seen, and the people are wonderful.

The game reserves are superb, although they’re reduced to pockets of land surrounded by urbanization and reachable by drives of several hours over incredibly pockmarked roads that are an adventure in themselves. I have photos of vehicles driving all over the roads and shoulders in every direction to dodge the worst potholes – it’s quite entertaining when you’re in the middle of it, like being in a live pinball game.

My favourite reserve was Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya, which is an area that official travel warnings advise that you avoid, but the reserve is just on the southern fringe of the region, and the big issues are more along the Kenya-Ethiopia-Somalia border area.

Crossing to northern Kenya did require driving through a government road-block, but as part of an official safari tour we had no hassles getting past, and it was well worth it. Samburu has a spectacularly beautiful landscape, amazing rare animals that you won’t see in many other parts of the continent, and great cultural opportunities to visit authentic Samburu villages. Not many people go to this reserve, so you often feel like you have this corner of heaven to yourself. If you go in the dry season, as we did in late February, the photography is wonderful – the animals really stand out against the drier

However, even before we left Nairobi we could see the cracks that exist in this wonderful country. The disparity between rich and poor was huge, one of the biggest I’ve seen in a country with a supposedly healthy GNP. In addition, corruption in the government is a widespread and well-known problem. I took a photo of a sign posted at the university in Nairobi stating that it was a “corruption-free zone” – clearly the university was making a statement.

Yet out in the bush, surrounded by rolling hills that disappear into the hazy blue sky, flat-topped acacias hung with weaver-bird nests, blood-red termite mounds, antelope that stand on their hind legs to graze, cheetahs stalking dinner in the golden afternoon light, it’s easy to forget all the troubles of the world. In Kenya, you gaze off into the seemingly infinite wild landscape and feel like you’ve gone back in time to the beginnings of the world.

Politics in most parts of Africa are convoluted, and when religions get involved it makes matters much worse. The question of how much the corruption in Kenya’s government influenced the attack on the Westgate Mall may never be fully known, but by all accounts it certainly allowed the terrorists a foothold inside the building. I think governments around the world should take note of how murky politics can widen cracks into gaping fissures that allow terrible events such as these to take place. Certainly tourism in Kenya is likely to suffer because of this attack, and it will be a shame for this magnificent country.