Thursday, November 21, 2013

Enjoy the wild side of East Africa: Foreign Correspondence interview

Mark Wheeler, 42, is regional managing director for East Africa and South Asia for the luxury/safari travel firm andBeyond ( The British native has worked in adventure travel for about 20 years, and has been based in Nairobi, Kenya, for the last 3 1/2 years. AndBeyond holdings include lodges in South Africa, Botswana and India, tourism companies in Sri Lanka and Bhutan, and properties in Tanzania and Kenya.

Q. Does “adventure tourism” always mean “safaris”?

A. Safaris are a big part of what we do, particularly in East Africa. “Safari” is actually a Swahili word that means “to take a journey.” People usually think of being out in the savanna, seeing the big five – elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion – but there are other possibilities, like climbing Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.

Or – in Uganda and Rwanda – seeing the only wild population of mountain gorillas left in the world: 780. And there are places such as Gombe Stream and Mahale in Tanzania where you can also find chimps.

An integral part of the adventure experience is the cultural side. There are about 42 tribes in Kenya and approximately 120 in Tanzania. The most famous is the Masai, known for a strong cultural heritage they still maintain.

One of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in East Africa is Ngorongoro Crater, an old volcano caldera that forms a natural refuge for wildlife and offers a unique game-viewing experience.

And of course you’ve got some wonderful beaches on the East African coast, primarily around Zanzibar. You may have heard of our private island lodge called Mnemba.

Q. What’s the most popular draw?

A. The safari, which in East Africa is different from other areas of Africa. You can see the great wildebeest migration in Tanzania and Kenya between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara.

It’s year-round, but the best times would be in the southern Serengeti in January through March, with 1.5 to 2 million wildebeest and antelope following the grass that comes up after the rains. In the southern Serengeti, you see them giving birth at that time, normally over a month. From an evolutionary standpoint, this results in higher survival rates: If you have 600 baby wildebeest arriving at the same time, they are so numerous that predators are sated very quickly, and a higher percentage of wildebeests survive.

Also, July through September in the northern Serengeti and Masai Mara, you get to see river crossings, with 20,000 to 50,000 wildebeests crossing at the same time, with crocodiles taking some of them. The scale of wildlife is such that you won’t see anything like that anywhere in the world.
In August, we drove through a herd of about 600,000 individuals. At 15 mph, it took me 20 minutes of continuous driving to get from one side of the herd to the other.

(Note: Photo of wildebeest migration at the top of this post is by Anup Shah - Washington Post)

Q. What’s the most rare animal you’ve seen in the bush?

A. Probably something like the bat-eared fox or another nocturnal animal. In several of our East African camps we have our own private concessions on the reserves, so we are able to offer night drives, unlike in some of the national parks where (doing that) can be illegal. This allows us to spot some of these rare species, such as cerval cats or bat-eared fox.

Q. Give what you do, do you view animals differently?

A. I think you have greater respect by having seen some amazing interactions – such as a mother hippo rescuing a baby wildebeest from a crocodile during a river crossing, or male lions fighting for domination of a pride. Seeing nature at its rawest, basically. It’s a humbling experience.

There’s another side to this as well. We can visit various projects, like the giraffe center here in Nairobi. There are giraffes you can feed and interact with; this proximity gives you a different level of respect. Also, the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya’s Nairobi National Park. You can see and interact with orphaned elephants who have been rescued by the project. They come from all over the country, can be as young as 10 days old, and human custodians will feed them milk and care for them. This continues until they’re about 2 1/2 years old, when the elephants are able to care for themselves, and are released into the wild.

You realize how helpless they are without their mothers, and you gain a new appreciation for for some of the amazing animals in this part of the world.