Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kenya Kenya Kenya

Our 2 week holiday to Kenya began with an overnight flight to Mombasa. We went with African Safari Club who have several resort hotels, their own airline and safari lodges. From Mombasa , we travelled north for an 1 ½ hrs along bumpy pot-holed roads to their Seahorse Club hotel in Kilifi. The minibus was a funny battered old thing - at one point the driver stopped to pick up a bit of metal that fell off and added it to a pile of other bits of metal at the front. Seahorse is a quiet resort - there were only about 20 or so guests there (with a capacity for 70-ish), with probably a lot more staff than guests. The Kenyan staff were all very friendly & helpful, with a happy-go-lucky laid back attitude and enjoyed teaching us Swahili words. Unemployment is high, but with a strong division of labour, there was no multi-tasking! The the staff at the hotel each had their own particular tasks. One guy's job was to look after the sun loungers & get cushions for those using them. Considering there were so few guests, and it rained for the first few days, I don't think he was particularly overworked!

We stayed there for a few days to unwind, lounging about reading before we left for our week long safari. So back in the minibus for another bumpy ride up to the airstrip which was located near to a prison (our driver took a short cut through the prison fields!) and also near to a shanty town, so we were a bit nervous when he drove through a deserted waste land to get to the tiny airstrip at Bamburi. We flew with another family from our hotel on a small 18 seater propeller plane to the Crocodile Camp, which is situated next to the Galana river on the outskirts of Tsavo East National Park. Tsavo is a huge park, about the size of Wales; it is home to 50 varieties of mammal and 400 species of bird, and is famous for its 'Red Elephants', so called because they cover themselves in Tsavo's bright red soil.

On arrival at the camp, we were greeted with the sight of Vervet monkeys scampering about playing just in front of the bungalows that we would be staying in. It was then pointed out that on just the other side of the river, there were a family of lions that had come down to drink (including a couple of little cubs). Amazingly the first picture that I took for the whole holiday was of a pride of lions. As this is the "mane" event of any safari, we were incredibly lucky.

We then went for our first game drive in Tsavo East in an open top minibus. Our driver, Ali had an expert knowledge and like all Kenyans, incredible eyesight/talent for spotting animals in the distance. The drivers have to study English/wildlife/driving for 2 years before they get official safari driver's accreditation. Unfortunately we shared our vehicle with a bit of an annoying Chav family with 4 kids – a few hours in one small minibus can get very wearing!!. They seemed astounded that we would have any interest in any animals in the park that weren't elephants, and were taking photos with their camera-phone. Frustratingly, they didn't have any binoculars or even a zoom lense on their cameras between them, so they unfortunately had no patience because they couldn't see things properly.

From our very first drive we saw so many amazing animals, some very close up, including Elephants, Giraffe and all kinds of antelope. After our first drive, we returned to the camp for dinner and then watched as the massive local crocodiles were called from the river, and then fed . The crocodile feeder at the camp waiting til it was dark, and then banged on a brick wall several times. The crocodiles could feel the vibrations and so all came crawling up out of the river in the dark all soaking wet. The biggest croc was 5 metres – unbelievable. The feeder warned us not to go anywhere near the wall because if we fell down, there's no way they would come after us.

We went on several more drives, usually at dawn and sunset - the best time to view the animals. We had some amazing encounters, including being just a few meters away from a group of 1 male and 2 female lions. The lions of Tsavo are meant to be some of the most ferocious in the world, infamous for eating their way through 130 railway workers during the construction of the railway to Uganda in 1960. They even made a film about it and this generation of man-eaters is still about in Tsavo.

Other times, a family of elephants would also often be by the side of the road wanting to cross, and with a little patience, they would cross the road just in front of us. All animals in the parks have their own 'Autobahns' set pathways they have been following for hundreds of years. So the elephant road crossing were always in the same places.

On Day 3 we flew to the Kilimanjaro-Kimana Game Sanctuary situated at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro and reserved exclusively for African Safari Club guests. This well-populated reserve is fed by the Kimana fresh water springs and is extremely rich in wildlife all year round. On arrival we went straight on a drive around the area, seeing many giraffe, wildebeest & eland antelopes. It seemed the least "wild" of the 3 parks we went to, having relatively smooth surfaces to drive on, and having so many animals in a much smaller area, it felt a little more like a wildlife park. However the park had no barriers, so the animals are free to pass through the area on their Autobahns, which stretch hundreds of miles between the different reserves. This meant that there can be many, or few animals at any given time, depending on where the animals had wandered that day. In fact the park is so open that they employ local Masai rangers to chase animals off the dirt runway when the planes are arriving (baboons are the usual culprit).

At Zebra camp, our accommodation was very cool looking wooden bungalows with a large sloped roof & zebra themed bedspreads. Before dinner we sat around a large campfire, started by a local Masai. After dinner, we were escorted back to our room by the same Masai. When we told him our bungalow was the furthest one, he grabbed an extra spear. With all the wildlife free to wonder about, it can be a bit dangerous, particularly as bungalows were next to a small river and the Hippos come up onto the grass after sunset to spend the night grazing on land - passing through the grounds of the camp. During the night we could hear the distinctive noises of hippos munching on grass outside our bungalow!!

Day 4 began with an 7am "walking safari" with a Masai Game Ranger. This made a nice change after being on a bumpy bus for several hours at a time everyday! We enjoyed a nice morning walk around the Kimana Game Sanctuary as the ranger explained about all the different kinds of animals and plants, pointing out different footprints. He carried a big spear again though, and told us to stay close and to follow his instructions, should we get into a sticky situation...

One interesting thing we saw was a heron flying nearby carrying a snake in its beak. The heron saw us and dropped the snake, then a Tawney eagle following the snake swooped down to pick up the snake, but then saw us and flew away to a nearby tree. We walked over to see the snake, a small mamba that the Masai told us to keep our distance from as they spit poisonous venom.

After breakfast and short visit to the hippo pool, we took our next flight out to the Masai Mara, an extension of Tanzania's vast Serengeti and one of the most densely populated wildlife regions in Kenya . We stayed at the Mara Buffalo Camp, where they have a semi-tame Zebra called Millie that hangs about trying to steal people's meals. The camp is located just on the river, and it has amazing views of a large group of Hippos who lounge about in the water all day, and who climb out onto the opposite bank in the evening. Our bungalows were very basic again, but the people were so lovely and the wildlife so amazing, we didn't really care where we stayed. Jo said "It's a bit like sleeping in a garden shed, but hippo proof!" At night we could hear the hippos "honking" outside to talk to each other and mark their territory.

We set off on our first game drive almost immediately in an old customised 4x4 Toyota landcruiser with open hatches on the roof to stick our heads out of. The terrain was different again, with lots of grasslands, and we found that the animals were a lot less concerned about being close to our vehicle. We encountered many antelope, zebra, gazelle, giraffe, wildebeest and all sorts of other animals. We would have seen less grass, but more animals had we visited during August, when the Wildebeest migration takes place, and the large Nile Crocodiles pick off the animals crossing the rivers. Our driver pointed out that the long grass makes it particularly difficult to find big cats that lie down in the grass.

Over the next few days we went on many more drives, we spotted a lioness in a bush, with it's eye firmly on the herd of Masai cows that were in the distance. We also spotted a Cheetah with 2 cubs in the long grass - it is incredible that we found them at all, as they are virtually impossible to see until you are almost on top of them.

Rhinos are very endangered, and they only have 3 White Rhinos (so-called because they have a wide mouth) in the area. There are only 5 rhinos in the whole Masai Mara, which covers about 18000 sq km. So these three were kept in an area where they are free to roam, but protected by Masai rangers to guard them from poachers. The masai rangers also act as guides to the tourists that visit, and they led us up to where the Rhinos were. It was incredible to be on foot within just a few meters of these enormous powerful animals, especially once we realised that they were so rare & virtually extinct. The two males were actually playfighting on our second visit, an amazing sight!

We had a brief visit to a Masai village. When we arrived they sang us a song that included the word that Jo recognised was the Swahili for "white person" - she let them know this, to the villagers' laughter. The village is arranged in a circle, with mud huts around the edges. Most of them didn't have shoes and besides the mud huts and Masai there were just a few goats and a dog. The masai ranger took us inside his house and showed us their cooking pots and sleeping area, which were two cubby holes with a bed made out of cow skin. He explained that all babies were born inside the house and that two other women from the village would come and help the mother out during labour.

Videos at the masai village: 1, 2

At the end of the tour they showed us to their "shop", which was a huge circle of all the women from the village, who had laid out their goods in front of them on the grassland immediately outside their village. They all were selling identical things, so it was a tough task to select just one person to buy from. Jo selected a bead bracelet from one of the women who was not as pushy as the others.

Elephants were not as numerous as in Tsavo, but we had one amazing encounter on the way back to camp one evening. It had started raining and a family of elephant began crossing the road in front of us in the rain. The baby elephant slipped and fell over, whereupon one of the juvenile elephants tried to help him up and also fell over. The other elephants seemed to think that rolling about in the muddy road looked like fun and before we knew it there was a whole group of 7 or so elephants all rolling around in front of us.

Video of the elephants rolling: 1, 2.

By the end of the visit we had seen elephants, lions, rhinos, hippos, cheetahs, hyena, giraffe, buffalos, zebra, jackals, baboons, vervet monkeys, rock hyrax, gazelle, antelope, impalas, warthogs, mongoose (mongeese?), topis, wildebeest, hartebeest,eland, ostrich, eagles, and many other birds and even more animals that I can't think of right now. The only animal we didn't see that we would have liked to was a leopard, but apparently it is rare that they are seen (or spotted).

When we left the safari we were taken to the airstrip for the two hour return flight to Bamburi, and were the only passengers on the 2 hour flight back to Mombasa. We felt like proper VIPs. Ish. Whilst in the air, we noticed that our two pilots were 'taking it easy', first they got out their picnic (they had just had lunch on the ground), then they started reading the newspaper, quick chat on their mobile phones, and then the co-pilot took a nap for the rest of the journey, with his head tucked into his arms folded up & resting on the dashboard. As we came down through the clouds, the main pilot prodded him a couple of times, he raised his head, looked up, but then went back to sleep again because we obviously weren't close enough!

The remaining days we spent relaxing back at our hotel by the creek, catching up on some reading, trying to tan (or at least be a little less pale) and recover after all those early mornings on Safari.

See a slideshow of our photos here.