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I did follow them. We stayed at the same tented safari camp. At almost the same time. They were there just a few months before my crew and I arrived. And yeah, their accommodations were a little nicer than ours. But still, we all “camped” on the same river, saw pretty much the same animals and danced with the Masai Warriors. And I even got a peek at their en suite baths. Mine was just as nice. See, my life is not all that different from a billionaire’s. At least when going to the bathroom in the jungle.
So what brought us all here and, specifically, to Kenya? Why do a couple of billionaires journey to the Masai Mara? What did they hope to find? And for that matter, what did I?
I understand that Bill, Warren and their families take a yearly vacation together.
Going to Africa made sense since Bill and Warren and their families, are heavily involved in philanthropic endeavors here. Malaria, TB, HIV, polio, infant mortality – these are the timeless miseries the Gates Foundation is seeking to make obsolete… like MS DOS. Or dialup.
Soon, these diseases won’t exist anymore but will be consigned to the realm of archaic history – bizarre maladies that people suffered from “back then.”
Warren so firmly believes in this vision of Bill and his wife Melinda that a while back he took it upon himself to pledge, oh, about 30 billion dollars to the Foundation.
Think how much fun that must have been. Sitting there in Omaha, nursing his after-dinner Coca-Cola. I’m sure Warren fantasized about the moment when he would spill the beans:
“Bill, I’ve been thinking about your foundation and I want to give you the biggest charitable gift in history!” I’ll bet Warren couldn’t stop laughing to himself.
Into the Mara
After bouncing around various camps and national parks in Kenya, it was time for me and the guys to fly to the Maasai Mara. This national reserve of savannah wilderness is so large, it actually accommodates two different spellings of its name. For the government of Kenya, it is: Masai Mara. For Wikipedia and the Maasai Association… it’s not.
Either way, this stunning plain is home to lions, cheetahs, elephants, zebras and wildebeests. And the Masai people who have lived and raised their cattle here for hundreds of years.
It’s a short flight from Nairobi to a landing strip on the edge of the reserve. Our plane is tiny and noisy but that didn’t stop me. From the air, we spot Kilimanjaro in the distance, marvel at it and then I promptly pass out. We’ve been going non-stop for 10 days and I’m happy for the cat nap.
We touched down lightly and easily on the bright field and rumbled to a stop right next to a plane that used to look a lot like ours. Except it’s all smashed in and folded over. The pilot says the plane crashed here upon take off. Well that gives us something to look forward to.
There really isn’t any other way into this place, so I suspect Bill, Warren and their families were also greeted by this wreck when they pulled up on their holiday. Perhaps when it was time to leave they ordered a big chopper to whisk them off to their next venue. The wealthy can dispense with dirt airstrips if they’re not in the mood.
Distracting me from my own possible aviation calamity was the greeting committee from the camp. A young woman in a crisp safari outfit and golden smile smartly marched up to us looking the picture of a 1960’s ingenue from a safari movie.
She brimmed with confidence and hospitality. We would be all right. At least until we took off.
The Great Migration
So why did Bill and Warren come here? Of course, the Masai Mara is a spectacular spot to view game. Under the Mara’s incredible skies, one can view the great wildebeest migration. It’s the largest land movement of animals on the planet and follows the growth of the grazing vegetation.
Act One of the migration is about 300,000 zebras crossing the Mara river from Tanzania into Kenya.
Act Two is 1.7 million wildebeests following them. And then it all wraps up with around 500,000 gazelles, high kicking in formation. It is just a tsunami of animals. All immaculately called forth by God. Or in the animal fantasies of Bob Barker and Betty White.
Also, there are occasional cameos by ferocious crocodiles and hungry lions placing their dinner orders. It’s all insanely dramatic.
This land… and this lodge… it’s a pretty cool vacation spot. But I think Bill and Warren also came to this place to promote their charitable works and perhaps see its results.
Me and the guys were here to promote tourism. It had been declining and the country needed its tourism revenue to increase. The poverty here could be staggering.
This lodge exemplified all the above sentiments. Some tourist endeavors are only about stuff to see and do… and that’s great. Others also give back to the local community. This camp was that kind of place. It even had the word ‘Sanctuary’ in its name.
They provided all sorts of assistance to the local Masai community – clinics, schools, lunches – most of the things we take for granted. Also, entrepreneurial endeavors. The Masai women create vibrant beadwork and were always stationed near the entrance of the lodge where they couldn’t be missed.
There they played with their children and sold their beaded handiwork.
We would tumble out of our 4 x 4’s after a day of shooting and the women held up their wares for us to see. They’d smile at us – a sweaty, motley crew. We’d approach and check out the merchandise and their smiles grew bigger, just daring us to ignore the rainbow colors of their crafts.
We’d make our purchases and the next day the same routine would play out again – shy smiles, then bigger smiles and then the exchange of Kenyan shillings for a colorful purse, pin or bracelet.
I wondered how many of these pieces Bill and Warren bought. What’s it like for a billionaire to purchase trinkets? What’s it like for the richest of humanity to transact, share and converse with the poorest?
And what was it like for these local women to sell their wares to the world’s richest men? But I shouldn’t make assumptions. Perhaps to these ladies, me and the guys appeared as wealthy as the two billionaires. We were all just white dudes in safari outfits.
As to Bill and Warren, how much pocket change do they even carry? Although I’ve read that Warren carries discount coupons for McDonald’s in his pocket… just in case.
Still for two guys who have each given tens of billions of dollars to help the unfortunate of the world, does it give them joy to buy these trinkets or is it frustrating? Do they feel the incremental change their purchase has initiated for these self-sufficient women, or do they just want to drop everything and set up a multinational trinket conglomerate – Trinko, Inc. - and really turn things upside down here?
I imagine one’s day might sometimes be frustrating when one has so many resources at their disposal. What to do? How best to do it? A world of choices. These must be the thoughts that fill a billionaire’s mind. Me? I was just thinking about those 500,000 gazelles.
As I mentioned, my tent wasn’t quite as sleek as the tents Bill and Warren stayed in. But it was still quite comfortable. You see, at these lodges the tents are on platforms with nicely outfitted bathrooms and comfy beds. You might ask, why bother with tents at all?
Here’s why: because when you strip away the amenities, all that’s left between you and the jungle is a thin canvas wall. This means at daybreak or even before, you can hear and sometimes feel the animals stirring back to life. They’ll even scrape against your tent as they pass by. You can’t get much closer. Nor can they.
Try that at a Marriott.
As we were going about our business, I tried to view this camp and this experience though Bill’s and Warren’s eyes. The people, the animals, the thread count.
I asked the bright young camp ingenue to show me their tents. She told me that two structures had been built for their stay. How do you build a tent?
When I saw them I understood. While there was a bit of canvas involved in their construction, these two “tents” had walls, doors and rooms. These structures were to tents what tuxedos were to swimwear. They both did the job but was the cummerbund really necessary?
So, their accommodations were attractive and certainly bush-lux but I knew someone staying here wasn’t going to get the full jungle experience. No elephant or rhino would be brushing up against their solar panels or knocking on their French doors.
I’m sure Bill and Warren were big contributors to the camp’s many charitable activities, so perhaps these custom safari pieds-a-terre were a safety precaution. You know, so there would be no chance the two famous billionaires would be bothered… or eaten. Unlike the rest of us.
Dinner at the lodge was fun. The food was obviously local, probably harvested down the street. The local Masai Warriors, danced and shouted at us while we ate. There were couples celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, taking pictures for their friends back home.
Then this big Masai guy “invited” me up to dance with the troupe. Ok. So, I joined them. The Masai are very tall and their dance involved a lot of jumping up and down more than anything else. I jumped with them. But they were way up there, dunking while I was below, just sort of rebounding. I felt like an idiot. But that’s fine when you’re traveling. You’re supposed to.
Being special guests at this camp, there’s no way Bill and Warren didn’t get called up to do this Masai dance. They probably didn’t look like idiots. And even if they did, I’m sure everyone said what “good sports” they were.
See? Even in humiliation, billionaires come out ahead.
Coming to this safari camp on the edge of the Masai Mara in Kenya is about as close as I’ll ever get to Bill and Warren. We won’t ever hang out at Davos together or play internet bridge… but we did share the infinite panorama of the great migration. We’ll always have the wildebeests… and the gazelles.
And the colorful bead work of the local ladies. It’s a small connection. But one the three of us will always cherish. Even if Bill and Warren somehow forget that I followed them all the way to Africa.
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