Kenya September 2007 - Travel Log
Tuesday 11 September 2007 - Africa Bound
Frank and I took a taxi-ride to Heathrow Airport's Terminal 4 to catch our Kenya Airways flight to Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi. I was a bit nervous about the whole thing because the airline had had a major plane crash about a year ago. The reality was rather different than we had expected: immaculate and new plane, friendly and professional cabin crew, really nice food and in-flight entertainment that actually worked! We flew Kenya Airways six times in total during this trip (we also went to Rwanda and Zanzibar as per the other travel pages) and each flight was consistent in terms of standard. What was meant to be a cursory flick through their in-flight Magazine ended up being a full read - a great mag packed full of useful information and travel ideas for Africa - I wish I had remembered to take my copy home! Well done Kenya Airways - you've now become one of my favoured airlines and I will fly you to Africa in future when I can!Wednesday 12 September 2007 - Arrival in Nairobi
Dazed and confused (I hardly sleep on planes), we arrived in the dim, early African morning. Upon disembarking from the plane, I was hit - as usual - by the smell of Africa, albeit mingled in with aircraft fuel. Africa has such a particular smell - a kind of undercurrent dusty smell which acts as a carrier wave for the regional smells resulting from, I guess, the flora that is present in a particular area. Whatever it is, I like it and wish some chemist (Frank?) would determine the components and bottle it so I could keep some at home and dab it on a tissue to carry around with me like a kind of emotional decongestant. Who knows, perhaps one day they'll have "smellyweb" so I can share what I mean?
That aside, after collecting our luggage, we were met by our driver and driven down the hectic, haphazard and human-filled Nairobi streets on our way to the Intercontinental Hotel - a journey which should take about ten minutes but usually ends up being half-an-hour as one dodges the matatus (six-seater, usually old and ramshakle mini-buses) and mkokoteni (hand-drawn carts used to carry goods to market).
Driving in Africa seems akin to competing in a rally - vehicles randomly seem to drive up curbs and sidewalks kicking up dust clouds in their attempt to nudge past one-another in the queues of traffic - it is almost as if everyone is a wannabe driver-guide - they drive in the city the same way as a guide would drive on the safari dirt-tracks! It makes for a fun experience before you even get to your destination, especially given the wildlife sights you can see on the way: Ibis's and storks parading on the rooftops and at roundabouts, almost as if conducting traffic surveys!
Notes on Nairobi
With an estimated population of around 3,000,000, Nairobi stands at 1,870 metres above sea level. It has seven districts: Langata, Eastleigh, Westlands, Spring Valley, Parklands, Muthaiga and, west of the city, Karen (named after Karen Blixen of "Out Of Africa" fame) which is framed by the Ngong hills in the background. Whilst the centre of the city is a modern metropolis with a dash of old colonial buildings, the ratio of modern to corrugated-iron-type-shack architecture decreases as one drives through the outskirts of the city. Out here, shanty towns are interspersed around concrete conurbations such as the imposing Blue Triangle Cement eyesore.
We went to the famous Carnivore restaurant when we briefly visited Nairobi on the way back from our July 2007 trip to Tanzania. I found it very commercial - a huge rambling place of interconnected rondaval-type thatched buildings filled to the brim with tourists - definitely not my cup of chai. They even sell memorabilia! Anwyay, if you do go to Nairobi, you should nevertheless try it - and if you are a carnivore (as is Frank), then you'll love the different selection of meats (zebra; you name it!) on offer there! Being a pescatarian (I eat certain fish, but won't eat anything mammal unless I absolutely have to) it wasn't a great deal of use to me!
However, other than that mention of the Carnivore, we have never had the chance to do any of the other things one can do in Nairobi (which are listed at the end of this page) because of heading straight off to other destinations in Kenya. We'd certainly like to spend more time in Nairobi next time we go though. On that note, we were told, and the guidebooks advise, to exercise caution when travelling around Nairobi - it has quite a reputation for crime. You should never walk around with a camera round your neck or a bum bag or handbag - you will be an easy target. The government are taking steps to reduce the crime and one example can be seen by the many police road-blocks you will encounter on a journey through the city as the police attempt to combat car theft and other crime.
So, we arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel at around 09:30. This hotel provides a great pit-stop for the safari traveller before moving on elsewhere. The rooms are plush and the beds comfortably welcoming after having had little rest on the plane the night before. There are three restaurants: Italian, Indian and buffet and a sizeable swimming pool and outside patio/bar area - which is also good for people that watch birds of the feathered variety! The bar (bars are an important part of Frank and my holiday experience!) is cosy and colonial style: dark wooden beams and dim lighting albeit with the modern touch of a couple of large plasma TV screens unobtrusively placed on the walls. Most importantly, the bar sells our favourite Kenyan beer, Tusker, as well as various other African beers. When we are in other countries, we try to drink the local beer (and we drink a lot of it!) because it helps the local economy. It is one of our strategies (alongside things like being careful with water) for offsetting the damage we do to a country by visiting it in terms of environmental damage and our carbon footprint, amongst other things. At least if we put something back into that country's economy (in addition to just paying to go there in the first place) that is something. But luckily the responsibility of drinking Tusker is certainly not a chore to fulfil!
At the Intercontinental we had to endure the usual sitting about waiting for a room to be assigned to us (as happened when we stopped here the night en route to Tanzania) but eventually we got one at around 11:30, dumped our bags and went out to do some photography and bird watching in the smallish grounds of the hotel. Black Kite are all over the place in Nairobi - you will see many of them flying overhead or just perched in trees. In addition, we saw various Sunbird species; a grey-backed Camaroptera skulking, dunnock-style, in the bushes; the ubiquitous Common Bulbul and a very nosy African Wagtail as well as something I think to be even more unusual to see - a montane white-eye - that was a treat as you can see from the photo on the left! The afternoon was spent sleeping and, after an early dinner in the hotel's rather posh Italian restaurant, we hit the sack in order to be fresh for the long drive to Samburu early the next morning.Thursday 13 September 2007 - Samburu
Bags gathered together, we were picked up by our guide at 07:30 for the drive north to Samburu. Out of Nairobi, the roads become increasingly worse - this is why it takes so long to drive anywhere in Kenya, apart from which there are only a few direct routes between places - mostly you have to wiggle around various villages en route to somewhere. So we journeyed along the A2 Thika road, through the provincial headquarters town of Nyeri towards Nanyuki. At this point, you are on a high plateau called Laikipia and can start to see Mount Kenya on your right and the Aberdares range to your left.
There were some interesting birdwatching opportunities en route. Particularly a rather obliging Tawny Eagle who was not only posing nicely on some telegraph poles, but also happened to take off whilst we were photographing, giving us some great shots as you can see below...
Just south of Nanyuki is where the equator runs through and of course we stopped there for the traditional tourist bit to see the demonstration of the Coriolis Effect where water drains in a clockwise direction north of the equator (in the northern hemisphere therefore) and in a counterclockwise direction south of the equator (in the southern hemisphere). In fact, this is a load of old bollocks - an urban myth - and you can read more about it from the wiki link about the Coriolis Effect that appears at the bottom of this page.
What I would love to know is exactly how the geezers that make money with these demonstrations actually "persuade" the water that they tip down the funnel into a bucket to go clockwise when they walk north of the Equator line (just a few feet), and then counterclockwise South! My only guess is that it must be something in the way they pour it - or swirl it - perhaps it is in the wrist! Perhaps they are all latent chemists just itching to get their hands swirling a flask during a titration! Anyway, it is obviously bad form to let on, so Frank and I watched the whole thing politely, silently trying to suss out how the guy was getting the water to behave that way. Anyway, below are the obligatory tourist shots - Frank on the left and me on the right!
Further on, we stopped for lunch at the Trout Tree Restaurant which is not far from Nayuki. What a fantastic place for a pit stop - or should I say tree stop! Well, the restaurant itself is literally in a tree! Or at least, on a kind of wooden platform built around the mid-section of the trunk, and supported by the branches, of the very large mugumo (sacred fig) tree. Said tree sprouts from the ground adjacent to a hillside down which you walk from the car park, and the restaurant is reached along a planked walkway that in effect links the hillside to the middle section of that tree. It is an interesting bit of architectural design and I really enjoyed the al arboreal dining experience! Sitting in the restaurant, you become aware that you are perched on a platform some thirty feet above the bottom of the hillside below where there are various trout hatchery ponds and poultry pecking their way about.
The vicinity of the restaurant is forested - Yellow Fever and other sorts of Acacia and other trees and bushes - with some paddock area near the car park. The whole area was alive with birds and, after a rushed lunch, I went out with my camera and photographed every species I possibly could! I am sure the people we were with thought me very unsocial, but I treat these holidays as my time - I think that is an important thing - rather than worrying about social etiquette. There's enough of that to worry about at home and at work.
Nearer Samburu, the terrain changed to woodland scrub and bits of Savannah. The Samburu National Park occupies the lowland area north of Mount Kenya and lies north of the Ewaso Nyiro river. South of the river is the Buffalo Springs National Park. These two parks are joined by a large bridge that crosses the river, so really are linked. Around the river, the vegetation flourishes: palms and woodland. Away from this the landscape is arid and consists of acacia woodland and dusty scrub land. Only the toughest species survive in this inhospitable landscape. Grevy's Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe and Beisa Oryx can all be seen here, along with elephant, hippo, leopard, cheetah and lion. We saw all these, but in addition saw a particular target of mine that is native to this area - the Gerenuk - that occupies a niche between gazelle and giraffe as you can see from the photo below!
We also saw hundreds of different species of bird on our journey through the park, such as the beautiful Lilac-breasted Roller and so many others. Frank and I have to be careful to be considerate, because usually the people we are with are not bird watchers. It would be a bit rude to yell out to the driver to stop so we can photograph every species of bird we come across! This can be a little frustrating for us as we often miss species - usually LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) - that we know would be very boring to non-birders! Luckily, the people we were with were lovely - and seemed to get quite in to the whole bird thing during the trip and were very patient with us - thank you Tom and Jenny! There was an avid bird watcher in the other vehicle in our group, so we were able to share stories with him in the evenings and at rest breaks which was fun!
As it was becoming dusk, we headed to our destination for the night. The oldest lodge on the Samburu National Reserve, Samburu Lodge nestles in a bend of the Ewaso Nyiro river. Like most game lodges, the sleeping quarters are in the form of small chalets scattered about the grounds and accessed via a network of paths leading off from the main building which houses the reception, bar and restaurant areas. Frank and my chalet was right at the very end of the lodge grounds, so rather a walk! We didn't mind this because it tends to mean you are closer to the wilderness and away from the noise of people - you frequently get to see more birds as a result.
So, key in hand, we walked down the path to our chalet to be greeted by families of cheeky and curious Vervet Monkeys en route. These are my favourite monkey species; they've just got so much attitude - and blue balls to boot as you can see in the photo below!
The path to our chalet runs atop the bank alongside the river and we spotted several crocodiles either in - or at the side of - the river as we progressed. Apparently, the crocs don't come up the bank which was rather a relief to know! Towards its end, the path had moved slightly inland away from the river across a grassy lawn next to which was our chalet. The room was pleasant, if a bit small, but there was something special about our riverside location and having vervet monkeys and Hadada Ibis hanging out on the lawn in front! The photos below show a Hadada Ibis and a cute baby Vervet Monkey!
After unpacking, it was time for supper. First, we headed for the bar which looks out over the river and also over a curious fenced area adjacent to the river - more on that later! This lodge is very friendly, and after supper there is a talk by a local Samburu warrior dressed in costume: the traditional checked red Maasai/Samburu wraps that sometimes look like they'd be more at home on a Scot than in Africa, loads of beads - particularly a large pearly kind of button worn centrally on the forehead linked with loads of smaller bead work which distinguishes the Samburu from the Maasai who don't seem to use these pearl buttons. The talk was very interesting, although, as ever, I was struck by the shyness - apparent non-committalness - of the watching Westerners! I am so pleased that there are people like this man who are prepared to educate us and in so doing keep their customs alive. After this, we were escorted back to our hut by a guard just in case a croc had come up in search of a late-night human snack with a belly full of dinner from the restaurant as a bonus!Friday 14 September 2007 - Samburu
We had an early morning rise - about 05:30 - in order to be ready for the early morning game drive because we have so many photography gadgets to prepare! We saw even more different birds, including a pair of beautiful rosy-patched bush shrikes, a white-bellied lourie, blue-naped mousebird, fawn-coloured and pink-breasted larks, red and yellow-billed hornbills, a pygmy falcon and many yellow-necked spurfowl which I mis-read in the book and called "yellow-necked superfowl" which I thought was funny! All pretty impressive! We also saw various typical African animals as well as the interesting gerenuk that is endemic to this area before returning to the lodge for breakfast.
Anti-social as usual - or just enjoying some space - I took my coffee down to the fenced area by the river to see what that was all about. I soon found out - it is so the tourists can get close and dirty with the three fat crocodiles that were there but safely the other side of the fence! I got various photos of these scary beasts and was interested to note the presence of a monitor lizard among them which the crocs didn't seem at all interested in eating! Perhaps they don't like the taste of reptile! Or perhaps they get enough food as bait to come and entertain the tourists. Anyway, without my knowing, Frank took a photo of me (in my Maasai cloak) photographing the crocs, as you can see below.
At 10:00 we had opted to go on a birding walk with a local guide - Jacob (the Samburu who had given the evening talk about his tribe the night before). That was some bird walk - I have never seen so many species of bird in one place - out of all the places we went that week, Samburu was definitely the place for birds. We saw a Bare-eyed Thrush, Spotted Palm Thrush, Rufous Chatterer, d'Arnauds Barbet, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Little Beeeater, Fork-tailed Drongo, Eastern Black-headed Oriole, Golden Starling - loads and loads of birds! Many of the photos in the African bird photo gallery were taken on this couple hour bird trip!
After lunch, we had a bit of a rest and generally hung around our hut enjoying the wildlife, in particularly the vervet monkeys. I watched a few of these go into the porch of the next-door hut (Tom and Jenny's) and look through the window as if "casing the joint". A couple of them even tried swinging on the door handle to see if it would open - or at least this is what it seemed to me! When I spooked them by sneaking around the corner, some hilarious Didi-Vervet interactions ensued as they played a kind of hide-and-seek with me! Eventually, having decided I was a harmless human, they wandered off and crashed out on the lawn.
After our rest, we meandered our way back to reception with the aim to meet the group at 16:00 for the afternoon game drive. As with all such lodges, it is surprisingly hard to meet such deadlines if you are me! Getting sidetracked en route is an occupational hazard because of so many photographic opportunities presenting themselves! Luckily, Frank is a good timekeeper and stops me getting too carried away - I am sure I would miss game drives and suchlike if I were on my own!
That afternoon gave us another excellent game drive and more birds, particularly two, perhaps male and female, Common Scimitarbills looking like they were ransacking a weaver's nest. On our way back to the lodge at dust, those in our vehicle missed seeing the leopard that everyone else apparently saw from the safety of theirs on the way back!
We arrived back to the lodge a little miffed at not having seen the leopard, but noted that there was a bit of a buzz going on in the bar! We were told that they'd put some meat out on the opposite river bank to try and tempt the leopard to entertain us with some views from a safe distance! So we grabbed a beer and a seat and waited in some excitement. It got darker and darker, but sure enough, the leopard came. I just managed to get the poor quality photo below - no tripod, nearly dark. What a way to begin supper: having just seen a leopard eating its own!
The most difficult, but nevertheless amusing, thing that evening was attempting to make a phone call to my kind and tolerant (of me going off travelling a lot but who doesn't like adventure holidays) husband, Pete, at home. Most of the parks and lodges have ample phone signal (for my carrier Vodafone, which is called "Safaricom" in East Africa), but not here at Samburu Lodge it seemed! So I had to go through the same charade I went through at Hammerstein Lodge in Namibia last November to try and get a land-line call to Pete in the UK! Now this is quite a challenge.
First one has to pay at reception for the phone call. Then one waits for them to unlock the comms room office (which usually involves a while trying to find the right keys), link up the phone line, contact the local operator to get a call routed through to the International Operator, then eventually the phone at which you are sitting rings, then you tell the operator the number you want and eventually you get through on a line where there is a distinct delay between what you say and what the other person hears which gets very surreal sometimes if you forget to pause properly! I kept that all one sentance because it kind of seems like that's how it happens.
That is why in some remote places you have to dial "00044" rather than just "0044" - the first zero is apparently to do with getting to some special other central exchange from where they can place international calls, some remote places aren't on the "main" phone system and kind of have to dial onto another exchange or something. You can imagine how long it took me to find that one out when I kept being unable to place calls from my cell phone to England - if you haven't specified this properly in your phone book, you have to dial manually to get the extra 0 in! So, all this took me about ten minutes before I could even talk to Pete!
So the phone situation can be rather irritating and unbelievably time-consuming. However, in some ways it is kind of nice to be in a place sufficiently remote that modern conveniences such as mobile phones - and even "normal" land-line telephone service - just don't work!
Everyone was very amused when they found out what had taken me so very long! Anyway, the stress of that finished with, we went to bed to get enough beauty sleep for another early start the next day...Saturday 15 September 2007 - Aberdares and Treetops
At some time in the early hours of the morning, I was woken up by all sorts of unpleasant noises from the bathroom - Frank being ill - he seemed to have gone down with some sickness bug. Boy did I feel for him - the long journey we were to make later on that morning would be rather challenging for him and we had to be quite insistent with our driver to stop - and quickly - at one point, on our way to the hilly and tropical region of Kenya known as Aberdares.
Whilst being worried about Frank, I was struck by the changing landscape - from the arid yellowness of Samburu, to the lush greenness of Aberdares, home of many coffee and tea plantations and, as a result, old colonial houses.
We arrived, in Frank's case rather the worst for wear, for lunch at the Outspan Hotel - the "gateway" to the famous Treetops Lodge. The Outspan has beautiful, lush gardens which are home to a variety of birds. Frank was unable to eat, so I left him suffering on his own while I had a bit of lunch. Then I had the complicated process of sorting out our luggage. Earlier that morning we had had to prepare an over-night bag with basic essentials for Treetops (there isn't room for anything else), so these bags had special labels put on them and were put down with the other bags to go on the coach to Treetops, whilst our main luggage had other labels put on and was put in a storage cupboard! Keeping an eye on all this and making sure that each bag was put in the right place was a little challenging, especially since poor Frank was in no fit state to help! Finally, we were all ready to leave and boarded the large coach that was bound for Treetops. That's when the fun really began, because I started feeling ill too.
We sat at the very back of the bus as this seemed to be what would suit Frank the best. I hadn't thought about the fact that I tend to get travel sick. As we ascended the hills, we noted that the road conditions were becoming steadily worse due to the unusually high amount of rainfall (for that time of year) that the Aberdares area had been experiencing. As we turned into the Treetops reserve area, we noted with horror how extremely badly rutted and boggy the track was - there was no road, just a mud track! How the hell were we going to get all the way up there? I was already feeling sick and Frank looked like he was about to die. Of course, pretty soon we got stuck. But not just stuck - we actually slid right across the track and the bus ended up tilted - feeling as if it would tip over at any minute! A lady in front got into such a panic she began crying. That was just what I needed - I am excellent under pressure and it brings out the best in me and makes me forget myself. So sorry for her, but attempting to calm her meant I forgot to feel ill! It took several other drivers, two 4wd, various rather flimsy-looking bits of cable and several attempts lasting probably over an hour to get us out! Just when we really thought we'd have to get out and walk all the way to Treetops (through a potentially dangerous park) we lurched ahead and managed to slither the rest of the way to Treetops.
When we finally arrived at Treetops, it was nearly dark - not much good for game viewing! I wish I had taken a photo of the state of our coach - it was plastered in red, Kenyan mud! At this point I was feeling too ill to think of anything except getting Frank and I and our overnight bags to our room, which I managed. We immediately crashed out and slept. We were both too ill to go for dinner; I just had a bit of "room service". I have to say that the staff were wonderful and helpful to both of us regarding our being so ill. We were freezing cold - our room was right near one of the exit doors - and upon my asking that the door be kept shut, they did so, but boy was it cold and damp there. Each of us had piled on blankets and eventually we warmed up.
I narrowly managed to miss being sick on several occasions and woke up at some point in the night feeling a lot better - as if my body had won the fight over whatever had been trying to "get" me. I've always been very lucky to have a strong stomach - I think the travelling I did with my parents as a child gave me good immunity against the normal tourist illnesses. At whatever time it was - perhaps 03:00 - I decided to go and explore.
Now as you may know, Treetops was the place that the young Princess Elizabeth was staying when she learned about the death of her father, King George, and that she was to be Queen. That original Treetops is long-gone, but the new version (where we were staying) was built in the same style and located only slightly around the water hole from where the original one had been. So what of our version of Treetops? Well, it has to be the most ugly building I have ever seen! Forget colonial - it is kind of like a giant tree house with walls filled in with planks of wood, bits of RSJ and angle iron with the odd natural huge tree branch thrown in for good measure making some of the already narrow corridors rather hazardous to navigate! The about four floors of the building are connected by a spiral staircase at each end of the "building". The top floor is open; a kind of viewing platform from which you can look out over the water holes that are located each long side of the building and the parkland. One end of the bottom floor has a room, the wall of which acts as part of the fence to one of the water holes and through which there are slit openings for photographing the wildlife - like a kind of hide. When I did my exploring bit, I came face-to-face with a buffalo when I looked out of one of these! This was one of the high points for me - there was no glass there - I could have reached out and touched it! Here's a photo...
Whilst the service is excellent and the food and restaurant "posh", the rooms are extremely basic. There are suites and nicer rooms available apparently, but our standard rooms were tiny and cold and you had to walk a way up the freezing corridor to get to the bathroom! Our room was also extremely noisy; being right by one of the end exit doors and the metal staircase - at Treetops people are up all night as they get alerted by a buzzer in the room as to when a particular animal is by the water hole. You can elect to turn off this buzzer which, being ill, we did! Anyway, it was an experience staying there, and whilst being ill and bad weather probably didn't contribute towards any positive memories of the place, I do think it is over-rated nevertheless. But that's just me - I do like my creature comforts!Sunday 16 September 2007 - Lake Naivasha
After having had the brief exploration I mentioned above, I had gone back to bed and awoke at about 06:00 feeling much better. Frank had slept solidly through the night and was better too. So we packed up and went up to the top floor to see what was going on outside. It was misty and cold as it had been the previous night and we didn't stay out there for long! However, we were thrilled that one of our main reasons to come to Treetops was satisfied - a Mountain Bongo appeared by the water hole. Sadly, conditions were so bad, and the creature was so far away, that photography was not an option. But you can see what one looks like and read about it here.
At around 06:30, the coach turned up in order to get us back to Outspan. This time we decided to sit at the front of the vehicle - we knew it would be likely that we'd get stuck again! We did indeed get stuck again, but this time we knew we would and we weren't feeling so ill so it seemed more like an adventure than the nightmare it had been the day before! It did make me wonder about future tourists who would be making that same journey over the next few weeks to Treetops and have it worse than us as the road becomes increasingly bad because of all the mess the stuck vehicles had been making! I wondered if they may actually have to cancel at some point.
We arrived at Outspan in time for breakfast. This time I didn't feel like it, so Frank went and had his first food for two days whilst I organised sorting out our various bits of luggage and went out to photograph some birds. A while later we were back in our usual six-seater safari Toyota and on the way to Nakuru and Naivasha. The first stop was a brief one at Thomson's Falls. We had a gentle stroll about as both of us were still feeling a bit rough. The waterfall is beautiful, if rather muddy (as shown in the photo below) and we were still at fairly high altitude, so the weather was drizzly and a bit chilly. The inclement conditions hadn't deterred two Kikuyu people from attempting to make some tourist money from photos though!
I was saddened to note how discontented these two Kikuyu seemed - they were almost surly; no doubt soured by having to interact with a constant stream of rich - and often aloof - Westerners. You can see this particularly in the woman's eyes in the photo above - she is smiling, but look at her eyes. I gave them an amount of money that I knew they would deem "unusual" for simply taking their photos - about $20 - and attempted to chat to them. They were surprised! But, I like to think that it was my respectful and courteous attitude which softened their attitude towards me, not just my generous financial contribution. The interaction reminded me how important it has always been to me to be an ambassador when I travel. In fact, thinking about it, it isn't really that! It is simply wishing to treat people as I wish to be treated (and I am an atheist). If more people behaved that way, it is my opinion that half the problems that occur in the World would never happen. Perhaps it takes someone with Asperger's Syndrome such as myself to break it down that way - or at least, to consciously be able to enact being "nice" in interactions with others. It seems to me that there is too much cynicism and unpleasantness in this world as it is without tourists being tight-fisted with their money when they have so much and the local people have so little - and when us Westerners have, over the centuries, taken so much from countries such as Kenya. Isn't it about time we put something back? I know the World Bank, various charities and countries attempt to help these countries, but surely if we are lucky enough to get to travel to such destinations, we have a responsibility - as individuals - to put something back too, not just in the money we pay airlines and travel companies to take us there? In Kenya (and other places in African) it is in fact illegal to take a photo without paying, but so many tourists expect things for nothing and become surly and surprised when asked for money. And they are surprised at local people being cynical and surly, why? It only takes disrespect from a few tourists to be make indigenous people soured for future tourists, just as it only takes a few disagreeing people to start a war...
We continued on to Lake Nakuru. This is a definite one not to miss. The park through which you drive to get to the lake (woodland and grassland) is itself a wonderful place for wildlife and birds - you can even see leopard in the woodland near the gate apparently (though we didn't!). When you begin to see the actual Lake Nakuru in the distance, it just looks pink! As you get closer, you see why - it is because of the millions of Flamingo - both Greater and Lesser - that blanked the shores of the lake. When you get even closer, you see the odd Spoonbill; various types of gull and tern; Storks and Pelicans intermingled with the pink, deep-pile carpet made by the bodies of all the flamingos.
After a photo stop at the lakeside (see the photo below), we continued on our journey in the safety of the vehicle and saw everything from Rhino, Elephant, various gazelles and antelope such as Waterbuck, and even more birds including an unusually posey Hamerkop and an even posier lilac-breasted roller because it was right by the vehicle having its disgusting lunch of some huge, fat insect! We then drove through wooded areas and saw such delights as a Grey Woodpecker.
From the woods, we ended up at the top of a cliff - a viewpoint called Baboon Cliff. The view over Lake Nakuru is outstanding from here, as you can see in the photo below which shows only a bit of it! I could have sat for hours just soaking in this view, interrupted by the odd noise from the Rock Hyrax's that seemed to be enjoying it too!
Too soon we were off back down the cliff and arrived at our lunchtime destination - Lion Hill Lodge. Now this one looks like it would definitely be a nice place to stay - not only can you see the lake and enjoy the beautiful lodge grounds, but they even have posh things like massage and spas there which the other places we stayed didn't have, so I assume this lodge was a higher standard than the others! After lunch, we continued onto our final destination for the day - Lake Naivasha and its Simba Lodge. This lodge was another of my favourites for that trip - really extensive and bird-worthy grounds bordering Lake Naivasha itself, so even more different types of bird! We had a lovely evening there and it absolutely tipped it down with rain so we had to run to our room, hoping that the weather would be better for our boat trip around the lake the next morning...Monday 17 September 2007 - Lake Naivasha
We awoke with baited breath - what was the weather going to be like? Fine, was the answer, upon looking out of the window! We didn't need to be anywhere until 10:00, so took the opportunity after breakfast to stroll around the grounds and do some birdwatching. The highlights for me was a Klaas's Cuckoo, Bearded Woodpecker right near the restaurant up one of the giant acacias, a winding cisticola, scarlet-chested sunbird (a real treat to see), black cuckoo-shrike and white-fronted beeeater.
After that rather successful bit of bird-watching, we headed off through the grounds towards the little jetty at Lake Naivasha's edge. The path becomes a boarded walkway as the ground becomes more swampy. We then saw all sorts of species of kingfisher: giant kingfisher, pied kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, grey kingfisher. Staggering! Anyway, just as we were reeling with shock at all the added bird life, it was time to board one of the several small boats for our 10:00 boat trip around the lake.
The boat trip was wonderful and fun too - we saw loads of bird life and also rather a lot of hippos. The latter made me rather uneasy - since some of these hippos were sometimes underwater and would suddenly surface, it did make me wonder how the guides avoided them - how easy it would be to have the boat capsize should a hippo choose to surface beneath us! I couldn't see any evidence of bubbles, but somehow the guides knew where the hippos would be, and even though we got rather close to the various places that seemed to be popular with the hippos, we managed to remain unscathed! We did have to stop periodically for the guide to remove weed from the out-board motor though, as you can see from the photo below! We saw many DeFassa Waterbuck as we boated around the lake - you can see why they it is called a "Waterbuck" - the one in the photo was literally wading about picking out choice morsels of the species of waterweed that they like!
The freshwater Lake Naivasha's size varies depending on the rainfall, but is about 13 kms across. Its shores are partly wooded (as our side of the lake was) with yellow-barked acacia, but other sides of it are grassland where it is edged with papyrus. It actually wasn't there for a while during the early part of the 20th century - it dried up and the land was farmed - but heavy rains rescued it a few years later and it has hung about in that location ever since! The name "Naivasha" is actually a misnomer - the locals called the lake "Nai'posha" which means "rough water" in Kiswahili - because of the winds that can suddenly whip the lake up. The British later mis-spelt the word to make it Lake Naivasha a little like they have done with a lot of places such as Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania (which is actually "Oldupai"). Anyway, the photo below was taken from the opposite side of the lake from our Naivasha Simba Lodge.
Probably one of my favourite photos of the trip is the one below. People photography is not "my thing" - to be honest I find birds and wildlife far more attractive (and usually nicer to know!). But, this guy looked so graceful and so "at one" in the beautiful environment of Lake Naivasha, I couldn't resist! I just wish he had been close enough to pay him for the photo - this was taken with a telephoto lens from rather a long distance away. When you bear in mind there were hippos and buffalo around - let alone nasty things like Bilharzia in the water... yet he's just carrying on with his business of washing regardless.
After that great boat trip, and a lot more bird watching whilst walking back up the path to Naivasha Simba Lodge, we had some lunch and then it was time to head off to our last destination - the famous Masai Mara reserve in southern Kenya, right on the border with Tanzania and in fact joining Tanzania's own Serengeti National Park. The Serengeti and the Masai Mara are really one great reserve covering over 6,000 square miles divided by the Kenya/Tanzania border, and home to thousand of animals. We were particularly excited because this time of year sees the massive annual Wildebeest migration, so we were hoping we'd witness this at some stage during our visit.
The drive from Naivasha down to the Mara is a really tedious one - a long stretch of tarmac road but even longer stretches without. The last town before the Mara is Narok. This town has the worst stretch of road going through it of any that I have so far experienced, let alone a stretch that goes right through a fairly large town! You haven't experienced pot holes until you have travelled along this road - it is bumb-numbing! The good news is that they have a grant from the EU to rebuild this very long stretch that runs from the north of Narok, through its centre, then south to the Mara. They are trying to turn it into a dual-carriageway I think. However, rather than surfacing one stretch of it at a time, they seem to be attempting to do the whole distance at once - perhaps out of some extreme enthusiasm to get it done perhaps! So when I say "miles and miles of road works", I really mean miles and miles! This was great fun to navigate - there are contra-flow systems, but only at the discretion of the drivers! So one moment you are heading rather quickly (everyone drives fast here, no matter how bad the road!) towards a large lorry, and the next you are passing the lorry on the wrong side of the road and trying not to collide with vehicles trying to overtake that from the other direction! I find it staggering that upon independence, the English left Kenya's roads in such an awful state. Interestingly, Rwanda's roads are much better!
Eventually, we arrived with rather sore bums to the entrance gate of the Mara. The outside part of the Mara is a National Reserve - which means that the indigenous peoples, such as the Masai, have grazing rights and live alongside the animals. Once you are through the gate, then you enter the National Park part of the Mara - which is for animals only. There were many Masai ladies attempting to sell their jewellery and suchlike through the windows of the vehicle. I am afraid I just wasn't in the mood after such a drive, so remained inside and impassive.
My good humour returned as we began our drive through the Mara towards our destination for that night - Keekorok Lodge. We had the roof of the vehicle up, so stopped to look at various game and birds en route. Eventually we got to Keekorok Lodge not far from one of the Mara's airstrips. This was a fabulous place, not least because the grounds are "open" - you have to get escorted from and to your room at night by an armed guard. Indeed, on our way back from supper that night, we found there were Zebra grazing in the dark outside our front door! How cool is that?! They galloped off when we approached, but there was something truly special about the whole thing - and seeing eyes glowing in the guard's torchlight, not knowing quite whose eyes they might be - perhaps a Hyena, or a lion wondering what human might taste like - or perhaps they already know from previous experience!Tuesday 18 September 2007 - The Mara and Keekorok Lodge
At breakfast, it was way too exciting to do anything other than have a quick coffee and then have a quick mooch around the extensive, verdant gardens at the bottom of which there is a fairly extensive elevated, planked walkway that runs above a marshy bit of the Mara. From that planked walkway, we had some fantastic sightings of a striped kingfisher repeatedly flying down from its perch way up in a tree to grab a small snake for lunch from the ground below. Each time it took the snake up into the tree to eat it - providing us with some great photo opportunities such as the one below...
After breakfast, we went out on a game drive. It was a rather quiet morning first of all, but eventually we saw some of the usual suspects such as lions, cheetah and the usual array of ungulates. However, one of the things we saw taught us something interesting about how the Mara operates. We had been driving around leopard country - ravine places with trees with suitable branches and cover that a leopard would use - to no avail.
However, a little later we came upon a load of other vehicles watching a leopard displaying very unusual behaviour: out in the open and not looking terribly alert, this leopard was injured - you can just about see the wound on the sacral area of its spine in the photo below. We later learned that a vet had been called out from Nairobi - they have specialist vets for various of the animal types - and such vets get flown in! Sure enough that afternoon, we heard a plane come in to the airstrip and our guide said it was the vet. So the Mara is not as "wild" as it might at first appear. Now, I have mixed feelings about all this. Just indulge me a moment by reading what will perhaps be a somewhat contentious stance, and a possibly surprising one coming from a vegetarian animal-lover like me.
From an anthropomorphic perspective - how "nice" that humans come to the rescue of this injured leopard! But it does make me wonder where in Africa (or where on Earth, these days) natural selection is taking place as nature intended. We, as humans, need to be careful not to undermine the genetics of a species - and its ultimate survival therefore - by undue intervention based upon our guilt or concern at already having wrecked the ecosystems upon which such species depend. Trying to "play doctor" to remaining members of a species seems a rather "lock the stable door once the horse has bolted" approach to me. Far better would be to repair the species' habitat and ensure that the size and quality of that habitat is suitable to support a given - larger - population and then take steps to maintain that. Then leave the species alone - albeit with some monitoring to ensure the habitat repairs have been sufficient - to breed and sort out their genetics in their own way. It is my understanding that, whilst not the case with all species, there are enough leopard populations left to be able to do this.
Perhaps it was some genetic weakness that either caused non-advantageous behaviour leading the leopard to get injured, or an immune system that couldn't manage the injuries? In the wild, natural selection would take place - the leopard would die before spreading either any, or too many more of those defective genes. The veterinary intervention that occurred could lead to that leopard breeding more of those defective genes in an already narrow gene pool caused by reduced population clusters of that species. And, "bingo", you end up with a population cluster - and eventually the entire species if enough of this kind of human intervention occurs with defective specimens - dying out before its due date! And all because humans messed - even more than they already have done - with the gene pool by trying to be too kind! Of course, the injured leopard may not have defective genes at all. Perhaps it was just unlucky, and the vet can go home safe in the knowledge that it will live to breed another day! But what if it did have defective genes? Perhaps, symbolically at least, that vet unwittingly contributed - albeit in a way that is probably tiny - to signing that species death-warrant by intervention in a supposedly wild environment. That's just my opinion. We've messed enough with different species genetics: you only have to look at cats and dogs to see that! We've also messed enough with our own genetics - being asthmatic I'd be dead if I had to survive without medication and it's one of the reasons I decided not to have children. Let's stop while the going is just good enough still, and leave life be.
We returned to Keekorok for lunch, and after this we went back to our chalet to sort out our photos. Outside the chalet is alive with birds and just ambling around we saw a red-fronted barbet, several chin spot batis , several African grey flycatcher and various others. On the lawn in front of the main building, we saw many purple grenadiers of both sexes who seemed particularly tame. We also saw a less tame but incredibly beautiful Ruppell's Glossy Starling up a tree as well as a few not so shy nubian woodpecker who seemed very keen on the yellow-fever acacia trees in the garden! In an area that I felt most uncomfortable in because there was buffalo poo there, we saw a very timid white-browed coucal and further along the planked area, a white-headed barbet and a couple of red-cheeked cordonbleu. One of my best treats was having a Verreaux's Eagle Owl fly straight out in front of me and land up a tree - it all happened rather fast but I did manage to get a photo as you can see below!
Suddenly it was time to meet up with the others for the 16:00 hrs game drive. We set off on, what was for me, the most interesting game drive we had there - all of which involved close encounters with interesting animal behaviour. One such incident concerns a hyena who, if I hadn't had scientific training, I would swear appeared to be exhibiting grief! What happened was that we came upon a dead hyena being eaten by vultures, as you can see in the photo below. As we watched with considerable distaste, I noticed another hyena running over the plains towards us - perhaps "enticed" by the wafting smell of rotting flesh. Now this was going to be interesting - would it join in the feast or not?
The visiting hyena made its way down through the scrub by the track to where the dead hyena lay, scattered some of the vultures aside, and proceeded to sniff the dead hyena. Then, just as I thought it was going to tuck in, it stiffened, backed off, paused, receded into the scrub and turned around looking in the dead hyena's direction with a most interesting expression on its face - it looked (from a human perspective) most unnerved. I have attempted to capture this in my photo below. Note also the uncertainty conveyed by that hyena's ear position as well as the look in its eye. It is important to note that this hyena didn't seem interested by us watching it, so I don't believe it was our presence that had such an affect on its behaviour. Now, it wouldn't surprise me for a hyena to know another hyena and not want to eat it - or perhaps even to grieve over it! But I'd love to know. It is also interesting that this hyena has an injury to its face - perhaps it was involved in a skirmish with a lion (a serious hyena enemy) - may be that's how the other hyena actually died... If anyone reading this knows about hyenas, I'd love to hear an informed hypothesis for this fascinating behaviour.
Why all that about hyenas? Well, in my opinion, hyenas are extremely interesting and highly misunderstood creatures. They are one of my favourite animals; in fact, I far prefer them to Lions! So I'll just give a little more information about the most common of the two species that occur in East Africa in the hope of countering their poor image - the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) that the Masai call "Fisi" - for me, the most interesting member of the hyaenid genus. The photo below is of this species.
Hyenas are more closely related to mongooses and meerkats than to dogs (though there is some debate about this). They form extremely complex hierarchical social groups - called clans. Females are dominant in hyena society, and a clan can number up to 100, if the environment permits it, and consists of a number of matrilines, each of which consists of a different family of females. A female stays with her clan for life, so a clan may consist of several very ancient lines of families. Each matriline has a fixed status within the clan - young females inherit this position from their mothers so it remains fixed down the generations. The higher the status of the matriline that a hyena is from, the better the choice she gets for food and mates. There is such a thing as "rich pickings" in hyena society. In that way, they aren't any different from us really, are they?!
Hyenas are highly intelligent, so much so that some literature likens their intellect to that of apes. I can't help but think that one can see this intelligence in the eyes of the hyena shown in my photo above. They are not the scavengers that people think - they are in fact highly organised and strategic hunters and, contrary to popular belief, usually kill for themselves such animals as Wildebeest, Zebra and even sometimes Buffalo. In fact very often it is the lions that are scavengers, not the hyenas - as lions will frequently steal hyena kills! However, if one is intelligent, why bother wasting all that energy hunting when you can feed off other's kills? So hyenas will often lie in wait below a tree in which a leopard is eating its kill, or a safe distance from feeding lions, in order to clean up afterwards. And, since hyenas have the strongest jaws of any mammal, they can eat the things that the lions and leopards can't - bones - even large wildebeest femur bones! In fact, they obtain much of their nutrition from bone marrow. Bone calcium is the reason that hyena faeces is often white in colour.
Being highly social, hyenas have a large range of vocalizations. The only two that I know about are the "giggle" - aka "laughing hyena" - and the "whoop". The giggle isn't what it seems. A Hyena uses it to signal fear and submission in a situation such as when it is being threatened by a more dominant hyena or a lion. So you will often hear this from an inferior hyena (a male or lesser matriline hyena) to a superior one when debating over food - it is kind of a pacifying vocalization, a bit like when we laugh nervously. The "whoop" of a Hyena is their long-distance communication sound and is that eerie call that you will hear at night.
The final thing I will say about hyenas concerns the strange genitalia of the females! A female hyena has an enlarged clitoris - called a "pseudo-penis" - and in fact it does look remarkably like a rather strange-looking, extended penis! Females give birth, copulate and urinate through these protruding genitalia! This isn't such a good thing because the females suffer injuries to this organ when giving birth. No one knows why female hyena genitalia have evolved in this way. Female hyenas have been found to have unusually high levels of testosterone - increasingly so the higher up their status in the clan. Perhaps that they have such genitalia is connected to their testosterone levels!
Why do hyenas - particularly spotted hyenas - have such a poor image? Because of their ability to eat and digest all parts of a carcass, their scavenging behaviour, and particularly the fact they have been known to scavenge from graves and take human babies! All of this has tended towards them becoming part of African folklore that speaks of hyenas calling victims by name and that they are what witches and sourcerers ride on! So if you were one of those that don't like hyena, I hope you might feel a little more friendly towards them having read these few paragraphs! They are, after all, just trying to eek out a living in the same way that we do. It's just that some of their culture clashes with ours!
Anyway, after all that stuff about hyenas, as it was getting dark on the Mara, we saw our next interesting bit of animal behaviour: displaying secretary birds. Now I am not sure if this was about courtship, territories or something else, but it sure was impressive behaviour to watch - and again, the birds couldn't care less who was watching! Here's a couple of photos of many that I took as we watched this action over about five minutes before they disappeared over the hill.
So we'd had a fantastic day on the Mara and headed back to Keekorok just after the Secretary Bird incident, just as it was getting really dusky. The joys of the day weren't quite over however, for on the way back we were treated to a spectacular sunset over the Mara landscape, which included the unusual natural phenomena of upwards-shining crepuscular rays, as per the photo below.
When we got back to Keekorok it was really dark, but there was another interesting experience in store for us. On the plankway that we had been using for birdwatching earlier, we had already spotted that a section of this lies adjacent to a small water hole - and that there is even a human watering hole there! So Frank and I went down for a beer or two and sat down to enjoy some interesting hippo action, including what can only be described as a water fight between two very noisy members of that species! It was too dark to take any photos, but a wonderful experience nevertheless.Wednesday 19 September 2007 - Back to Nairobi
It was our day to head back to Nairobi but not before we got some more birding in! En route, we enjoyed a game drive and did see some evidence of the wildebeest migration, as per the photo below. We were sad not to have seen it "like you see on the telly" but it may be that we'd caught the tail end of it (pardon the pun!).
Eventually we arrived back at the Intercontinental Hotel, Nairobi, exhausted and dusty. We enjoyed a good afternoon sleep and awoke ready for drinks in the bar, then dinner in the Italian restaurant and much discussion about what the following day's trip to Rwanda would bring. To read more about that, check out the Rwanda pages.
Things to do in Nairobi:
Here is some information about the places we visited: