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Rivers of Dust


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The Impact of Africa

Three weeks later, I stepped foot on Africa's ancient soil for the first time with no itinerary and not much cash in my pocket. Rich smells and the deep red colour of the earth slowly permeated my senses. As we drove through Nairobi, a mass of humanity was jumbled in the streets amongst the diesel fumes, the grit and the grime, all of which told me I was on a journey of a very different kind.

The city was noisy and dirty and sometimes dangerous, but the country was beautiful and raw and I felt myself falling in love. The comforts of home were far away, however, as we tried to dry ourselves with non-absorbent nylon towels and, if you could find toilet paper, it was so poorly refined that it would have chips of wood in it. The next morning, the ride to Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania was dusty and bumpy and seemed to take forever, but once we arrived at the lodge, and I looked over the crater's rim for the first time, I was overwhelmed.

A Garden of Eden

The crater is home to more than 30,000 animals - Tanzania's ‘Garden of Eden’. It was on this spot, overlooking this wonderland eons old with its abundant fauna and huge spring fed lake below, that I vowed to learn all that Africa could teach me and to bring others here.

My business was born that day and for 20 years I have been bringing clients from all over the map to experience for the first time what I had experienced then. With each safari, I live again the culture shock and the impact of the exotic through their eyes. As we drive back across the rich farmland, above the edge of the rift valley, tossing pens or candy to the children we see, watching women in colourful outfits walking with goods balanced on their heads, each of us has a deep respect for the wonderful people that live this spartan life.

A New Drier Africa

But the water was abundant in those days. In January 2006, my 20th year of leading safaris, I took a group of 11 into the new Africa. While the political borders have changed in name and shape over the years, the real Africa has changed very little. The cities are the same, as are the ramshackle businesses and abhorrent conditions the city-goers must endure. While we now stay in luxury accommodations in the midst of exotic surroundings, the rural villages are suffering the effects of a debilitating drought. Never had it been more apparent than on this safari.

Although I had noticed how dry it was and commented several times on it, it wasn't until we arrived in Samburu, at the beautiful Larsen's camp, alongside the Uaso Nyiro River that was nothing but red dirt, that the full impact hit me. In 20 years this was the first time I'd ever seen the riverbed dry and I was stunned. By a serendipitous event not unlike my own first venture into this ancient land, author Bonnie Nelson was with us and she best describes the scene we met with on our first game drive that afternoon:

The River is Dust

"We leave the throngs of onlookers with the lion pride and start back to camp. We round a bend and look down upon the dust that is the Uaso Nyiro River. In the foreground is a troop of vervets hopping from branch to branch, using twigs from the nearby trees for dental floss. But it is what is beyond these characters below us on the dry riverbed that presents me with the answer I seek, my reason for being here.

"There is a family of five elephants on the red earth. The matriarch and her youngest baby stand side by side, taking turns dipping their trunks into a hole dug by the momma down to the water below the dry surface. Everyone is mesmerized as they watch the baby pushing its mother out of the way to get to the precious water.

"Three others await their turn at the well as baboons and gazelles close in slowly from the edges of the dry river. A crocodile lurks close by. This watering hole will be of no use for them, we are told. When the elephants have had their drink, they will cover the hole and move on. We watch fascinated. Then suddenly I am filled with grief and dread.

Quiet, Ugly Desperation

"It washes over me as I centre the herd in my viewfinder. Such incredible beauty is speaking aloud of a quiet, ugly desperation. I turn to Bwana and tell him I know what the theme of this safari is. It isn't babies; it is the drought. Having an affirmative theme is particularly important to Christopher, who has brought us here to have the experience of a lifetime. He doesn't want the drought to be forefront in our memories of this journey. He wants everyone to have a good experience. I can understand this, but the true theme of this safari is evident and willing it to be something different will not matter to any of us who can read the signs. And in the back of his mind, Christopher aches, for he knows what I say is true. "

The Trust Means Survival

My wife Toni, author of The Gentle Jungle and my daughter Tana, who lives in Kenya, founded what would become the Kenya Water Wells Trust shortly before the end of our safari that year. The concept was a simple one. Raise enough money to bring equipment into the rural villages desperate for clean drinking water, drill a bore hole to the fresh water far below, cap it, install a hand pump and teach the villagers how to use and maintain it.

This fresh water, free from the bacteria that kill their livestock, means much more than livelihood to the villagers, it means survival. Without the herds, there is no way to feed themselves or their children. Sweet water means reducing the mortality rate for their children who are dying from dysentery. Wells near the villages save villagers from having to walk miles to retrieve water from a source that may be contaminated and there's simply no way to carry enough of the precious fluid that we all take for granted to water their thirsty livestock.

The summer following that trip, Toni and I designed the Safari for XL Life Member Mark Victor Hansen's Inner Circle, with coauthor Robert Allen. They had a Kenya programme and then thirteen of the clients climbed Kilimanjaro. We all had firsthand experience with the drought in Samburu, the receding snows of Kilimanjaro and the parched dry Masai Mara.

How to Contribute

When we take clients to the most beautiful game parks in East Africa, they experience exotic lodges and tent camps, with great comfort, good food, fine wines and spirits and service. This Safari experience still exists, but you don't have to go far to see the other side of living in a poor third world country, without - water, sanitation and adequate food.

We have a lot to be grateful for and it's time to give back. If 100 people go to and donate a minimum $100, we can drill a well.

And in her own desire to “give back", for every donation of $100 or more to the Kenya Water Wells Trust, Bonnie Nelson will send the donor her gift, the cd-audio version of her book to be released in September, The Cheetah Portal, a story of her incredible safari experience that changed her life - for good.

You can read more about XL Results Foundation at
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