Tuesday, August 31, 2010
After our safari was over, we got an early start on Monday morning. We stopped for tea for a few minutes, but otherwise wound up back in Nairobi around 1:30 for lunch at the crocodile and ostrich farm. We had a mediocre lunch and decided not to pay the extra ten bucks apiece to check out the farm where the animals are raised and then sold to a popular restaurant when they are old enough.
Instead, we each had Tusker and headed to the train station for our overnight train to Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. We didn’t know the exact details, but it turned out that the train left at 7:00 PM and was scheduled to arrive about fifteen hours later. Long trip, but we had a sleeping car and the train had a dining car, so it was definitely more luxurious than our overnight trips in Morocco and Egypt.
Yann had the foresight to grab a few Tuskers before we left and we enjoyed one in our compartment before we went to dinner. Dinner was surprisingly good and we even had a not terrible bottle of wine. We were pretty beat after our many days of activity, so we read for a little while, but then went to bed shortly thereafter. I woke up on and off as we stopped at various stations, but at some point, I got the feeling that we’d been stopped for several hours. I even woke Yann up on the top bunk, thinking something might be wrong, but he told me I was crazy.
At breakfast, it turned out, in fact, that we’d stopped for six hours due to a mechanical problem. Rather than arriving mid-morning, it would be mid-afternoon. Oh well, being stuck on the train is about 100x better than being stuck on the plane and about 1000x better than being stuck on the bus. We finally arrived in Mombasa around 2:15 PM, having made up some time along the way.
Our driver didn’t show having been told our train would arrive around 3:00 PM, but we eventually grabbed a cab to our hotel and enjoyed a much needed shower and a light late lunch. And now we’re at the beach until Sunday!
Monday, August 30, 2010
On our way to Masai Mara, Dickson had mentioned we could visit a Masai village after the safari the next day if we’d like. Especially since we’d passed so many herders and families in small dwellings in brightly colored clothing, we were definitely interested. It also sounded like an excellent opportunity to get out of the car. Even though the safari had been awesome and we understood the safety issues with getting out and walking around, it’s definitely a little hard to be in the car all day long.
On our way there, Dickson told us that it would be thirty bucks apiece. I’d like to say we were shocked, but, at this point, we were so used to Kenya being *so* expensive, we barely batted an eye. He told us that we should not pay the men, but allow him to give the money to the women. In his words, “Masai men are very selfish” and the money is supposed to go to the local school that supports all of the surrounding villages. The women would make sure the money went to the school. The men would “drink beer by themselves”.
When we arrived, a group of young men outfitted in the same red clothing we’d seen along the way (and back at Rangers in Nairobi) greeted us cheerfully. After a short introduction, they told us it would be thirty bucks apiece, payable to them. We looked searchingly at Dickson, who quickly took care of it in Swahili.
Then we were each handed a dancing club and treated to a welcome dance by the men, involving jumping competitions—they each tried to jump higher than the other. They dragged Yann in to join them and it appeared that practice does make perfect. I tried my best, but I couldn’t manage to snap a picture of him mid air. They also put a hat made of male lion mane on each of our heads which was a trophy from one of their lion hunts. Even though hunting lions is illegal, the Masai are still able to hunt one lion every four years as a means of preserving their culture. Then the women and one little girl came out to sing to us.
Afterwards, they told us a bit more about Masai culture. The village of about fifty people was surrounded by a fence with two doors, one on each end. Individual houses stood within the fence where each woman lived with her children. At night, the herded animals were kept in the enclosure as well. Each house was divided into four areas: an open area for baby sheep, goats, and cows, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. Polygamy is a part of the culture and our guide’s father, the chief, had five wives. When the man came to stay with each wife, he would take one room and the woman and the small children would take the other. The older children would go to one of his other wives’ houses. Each woman built her own house of sticks, grass, and cow dung over a period of about three months before the clan moved to the new village site. They also cooked and cared for the children. The diet consisted of meat, milk, and blood (of the herded animals). The older children herded the animals.
So what did the men do? They built the fence around the village and were responsible for security. Okay… Our guide quickly cut in, “that’s why you need so many wives…there’s a lot of work to be done!”
Afterwards, we went over to the market where every woman had a table of handmade jewelry and crafts. Most of it was made of beads and bones. Very pretty, but not really my style, I bought a long necklace, figuring it was still a cool souvenir and that the proceeds would go to the school.
Dickson was extra-talkative when we got back to the car, probably figuring we were a little weirded out and probably a little right. We recounted our guide’s description and he agreed—the women do *everything* and he explained that that was why he didn’t want to pay the men.
WARNING—PG-13 RATING BEYOND THIS POINT!!
Dickson has a Masai friend who asked him once—when you make love to a woman, do you kiss her? Dickson replied, well of course you kiss her! His friend was dumbfounded and Dickson asked, why, do you not? His friend said, no, I don’t kiss her! When I visit each of my wives, I just go in directly and [in Swahili] let the poison out. And I don’t need to do anything else! Dickson sort of shook his head and chuckled, “that’s what they do, they just go in and [let the poison out] and then they are done.” But he also said that if you question any of the women on the Masai culture, they will “kill you”. That’s culture, but I’m still glad I’m not Masai!
Our fourth day of safari started out kind of slowly with some antelopes. Despite the fact that I think Thompson’s gazelles are the sweetest-looking and prettiest animals alive, we’d seen a *lot* of them. Dickson told us that our plan was to buddy up with another driver friend of his and head to the river to see if we’d see the wildebeests crossing. The herds are constantly migrating in a circular pattern around East Africa. At times, the herds can stretch out for up to 40 km and getting to see them cross the river would be pretty impressive. Along the way, we saw some resident wildebeests—Dickson said they’re the lazy ones that don’t join the herd for the migration. We also saw some Cokes Hartebeest, another type of antelope.
Anyway, it was supposed to be a long drive, so we settled into looking out the windows. Yann still hadn’t given up on a leopard spotting, so he continued to scan the trees. Soon we saw some hyenas. Pretty icky looking creatures if you ask me….but we saw quite a few spotted ones (there are also striped ones, but we didn’t see any) and some of them were tagged with enormous collars.
Then we took off in a different direction. Dickson said all the drivers had been talking about a cheetah sighting over the radio. Within a few minutes, we’d found it. This was really really cool—the highlight of our four days of safari so far for us (even though it wasn’t one of the big five). After about ten minutes, *everyone* had found the cheetah. I certainly didn’t begrudge anyone’s opportunity to see this beautiful cat, I know how psyched we were, but the poor animal started to look a little trapped by all of the vans and Land Rovers. He started to chase a bird, but then stopped and laid down. I whispered to Yann, “a much as I love those cute little gazelles, I’d love to see him take one of them out.” It appeared unlikely anytime soon, so we continued on our way.
We saw something *really* amazing after that: five female lions tearing apart a wildebeest carcass! It was kind of funny in that it reminded me of Safi and Simba at home the way they play with their toys. Just a much larger and much more real scale!
Moving on from the carnage, after about ten minutes, Dickson asked us if we saw it. Lo and behold, the elusive leopard, lounging in a tree *right* by the side of the road! How incredibly pretty and close to us, especially knowing the relative rareness…
[The people in the Land Rover in front of us had some *ridiculous* looking telescoping lenses…some in camo! Actually we saw a lot of people *dressed* in camo as well—almost as funny.]
We also saw some vultures tearing apart a wildebeest carcass—nasty birds! [I know, I know, food chain, all that….]
When we finally got to the river, we found out that there would probably not be a wildebeest crossing that day. Bummer, but we did get some lunch in (with the ground squirrels and the vervet monkeys). The river was actually kind of sad; there were a lot of dead wildebeests. Apparently a lot of them trip and drown in the crossing. Dickson told us they are pretty stupid…not like the zebras that rarely do so when they cross. However, we also saw an enormous hippo basking in the sun, which was neat.
After lunch, Dickson took us briefly over the Tanzanian border. Even though we’d both been bummed to cancel our Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro climbs, it was kind of cool to *technically* set foot in Tanzania, even if we didn’t get to stamp our passports or, y’know, climb a mountain. : ) If, after this trip, we ever get the opportunity to return to Africa, the two mountains are first on our list!
On our way back, we finally saw some elephants! Evidently the males travel solo, so this was a group of females with two babies. As we moved closer to them, this was more obvious. They started out eating on one side of the road and eventually crossed. After our experience at Mt. Kenya, we were worried that they were going to try to run us off, but they just kept an eye on us, turning to look at us occasionally (excellent photo ops), and kept the smallest baby on their other side away from the vehicle. Really really really cool! And at this point we’d seen the big five, so mission accomplished—we thanked Dickson.
Otherwise, that day, we saw a lot of birds, but not nearly as many as at Lake Nakuru. I’m not sure if that was because we were seeing so much other cool stuff or if there were so much less brush, trees, and other stuff for them to perch on that we just weren’t seeing them. We did see the blue-naped mousebird, Madagascar bee-eater, and some enormous ostriches!
Sunday, August 29, 2010
When we were in Noru Maro, I asked Yann what the big five were. He had no idea either, but my first guess was a hippo to which he immediately snorted. No way did he think we’d see a hippo—one of the largest land mammals (second only to the African elephant), they are really aggressive and have no natural predators aside from man. His thought was that if we saw a hippo we’d really be in trouble.
The next morning we asked Dickson about it and first of all he said, oh yes, you usually see hippos and no they are not really dangerous, since they are used to seeing humans anywhere where we’d find them. (Sneaking up and surprising them, however, was a different story.) He also said that if we wanted to guarantee seeing them, we could stop at Lake Naivasha on our way from Lake Nakuru to Masai Mara.
We left Lake Nakuru pretty early. We had a *long* day of driving ahead of us—at the best of times, the drive to Masai Mara was at least six hours and we were going to stop to see the hippos. After about an hour, we arrived at Lake Naivasha and checked out some kingfishers (really cool), ducks, and great white pelicans while we waited for our guide, Paul. He escorted us over to his little skiff and we were off.
Within about 50 meters, we saw some eyes and ears poking out of the water. Yann immediately started snapping away, but Paul laughed and said, don’t worry, you’ll see many more that aren’t so shy. He moved us along and then we saw a whole huge school of hippos! We watched them for a while—there were about ten of them: some large, a baby with its mother, some well submerged, and one sunning himself on a rock. They were really neat.
After that, we headed over to the deeper part of the lake so we could find some African Fish Eagles. Along the way, we got a couple of tilapia from a fisherman. Paul scanned the tree tops, whistled a bit, and finally chucked one of the little fish into the water. The only birds that seemed hungry were some seagulls that he shooed off expertly. He picked up the fish and set off to a different part of the lake. This time it worked and we saw the big pretty eagle swoop down within only about ten feet of us. Awesome!
On our way back, we stopped by Crescent Island, were we could see a hippo walking slowly on land. There were all kinds of other cool things: zebras, gazelles, impalas, waterbuck, and our first sighting of two wildebeests. Crescent Island is where the movie Out of Africa was filmed (one more to add to our list) and evidently a lot of the animals were moved in for the filming and then stayed.
We then returned to shore, met back up with Dickson, and were back on our way to Masai Mara. I’ll admit that I’m really bad about falling asleep in the car. I was even worse about it on this trip because Yann usually sat up front with Dickson, so I would just sit in the back and doze. As we drove through each small village, I’d wake up for the speed bumps and then conk right back out. After we’d been on the road about an hour, I woke up for the speed bumps, but then kept waking back up. Dickson pulled into a gas station on the side of the road—he thought it was the fuel injectors.
Back at home, I feel like every time you have car trouble, it means taking your car to the shop and leaving it for a few days. On this trip, it seemed like Dickson either fixed himself or took the car to be fixed daily. I have no idea how sound the work was, but there’s a lot to be said about an hour versus several days. Anyway, he and another guy had the car operating again within about an hour. And that was good, because Yann and I took a walk around town, and, despite my guilt over saying so, neither of the two hotels there really appealed to us.
Dickson spent the next four hours, *flying* over dirt roads. I am absolutely shocked that we didn’t get a single flat. Although he’d have been well-prepared for that, he had three full-sized spares in the back.
We arrived at Fig Tree Camp around 3:30, which was a record, considering our two stops. Fig Tree Camp seemed like the Marriott of tented camps to me. Still in no way a “camp”, it was very nice, clean, and certainly luxurious. Unlike Flamingo Hill at Lake Nakuru, it was a bit larger and more sterile. I can’t complain, though—it seems like safari accommodations are very nice (as Tiffany had told us they would be).
We all checked into our rooms and ate a small late lunch before heading out for a quick game drive. We saw some antelopes and zebras….pretty unexciting at this point. But then we drove up to three sleeping female lions. They looked pretty much like our cats at home—lazy! One of them rolled over and stretched, but that was about the extent of the excitement.
Then we saw a male lion. He was a bit more awake and it was really amazing to be so close to him. It seemed like he was starting to get a bit sick of the gawking , though, because he stretched, looked around, and sauntered off.
We were pretty psyched since were now 60% of our way through the big five with our rhino, water buffalo, and lion sightings. I was starting to give up on seeing a leopard as Dickson reiterated how rare they were and that they are more common in the trees at Lake Nakuru. If we saw elephants the next day, I’d be happy!
That evening, we also saw a bunch of stuff that we’d seen at Lake Nakuru like zebras, gazelles, and baboons. New ones to add to the list were topi (another type of antelope), eland (the largest antelope), Masai giraffes (these are the common giraffes, unlike the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe at Lake Nakuru), mongoose, and warthogs (we’d seen warthogs before, but these were much closer).
Friday, August 27, 2010
Early yesterday, Dickson picked us up from Noru Maro River Lodge so we could move on to Lake Nakuru, the site of the first half of our safari. Woohoo—wildlife, here we come!
After about two hours of driving on the world’s bumpiest unpaved road, we stopped at a coffee shop/souvenir stand that happened also to be on the equator. We watched a young guy pour water into a bowl with a hole cut out in the bottom. He demonstrated how ten meters north of the equator, water swirls out clockwise and ten meters south of the equator, water swirls out counter-clockwise. On the equator, it doesn’t swirl at all. (Neither Yann nor I can remember what this effect is called, but I remember learning about it in sixth grade…) Yann proceeded to buy a piece of paper “certifying” that we’d crossed the equator for about four bucks….I’m sure the cost to frame it will be a multiple of that.
After another two hours, we arrived at Flamingo Hill Camp. I’ll immediately object to the use of the word “camp” to describe this place—it’s definitely not like any camp *we’d* ever been to! Upon arrival, we were served chilled, fresh-squeezed passion fruit juice in a glass with a flavored sugar rim. We were then shown to our “tent”. I think each tent is about the same: a heavy duty canvas tent on a concrete platform (with electricity), a large full (and fully plumbed) bathroom separated by a canvas door, and a stone veranda overlooking the plains. Each evening, they turned down our king size, canopied bed, put hot water bottles under the comforter, and let down the mosquito net. These may be our nicest accommodations yet! [Michele and Virgil, you can use this as inspiration to upgrade your already super swanky crawfish boil set-up.]
We settled in to enjoy a delicious lunch and chill out for an hour or so before Dickson retrieved us for our first game drive at 4:30. Around that time, the sky looked pretty menacing, so we grabbed our rain jackets. We entered Lake Nakuru National Park and immediately saw a big bunch of baboons. Dickson stopped so we could gawk and take pictures, but little did we know it was only the beginning!
Dickson had told us ahead of time that the main point of all safaris is to see the “big five”: water buffalo, rhinoceroses, lions, elephants, and leopards. This is leftover from the original big-game hunting safaris from back in the day—hunting safaris are now, of course, illegal. The main draw of Lake Nakuru was supposed to be flamingos, rhinos, and leopards, *if* you could find them. He said that in seven years of guiding safaris, he’d probably only seen ten leopards.
We drove over to the lake full of flamingos and pelicans and it started absolutely pouring. Great, we figured all of the animals would seek shelter and we wouldn’t see anything. That couldn’t have been further from the truth though—we saw a ton. After we left the flamingos, we saw herds of water buffalo. Then we saw a rhino! It was all alone, sort of far away, and not very visible in the grass. Yann took several photos, thinking it may be our only chance to see a rhino. It turned out to be a black rhino—they are very aggressive and travel solo. However, we caught back up to him later and managed to get some really great shots. And then after that, we saw a group of white rhinos—they are not very aggressive and travel together.
Otherwise, last night, we also saw zebras, impalas, Thompson’s gazelles, and birds: sacred ibis, marabou stork (*nasty* looking scavenger), crowned cranes (also the national bird of Uganda), egrets (they like to ride on the buffalo—I’m not sure how water buffalo made it into the big five. I don’t care how big you are; if you look like a big dumb cow and have birds perched on your back and head, you do *not* look menacing), superb starling, drongo, herons, crowned plover, seagulls, bee-eaters, and probably some others I’m forgetting.
Back at “camp”, Yann and I decided to have a cocktail before showering. I had a dawa and Yann had a Tusker beer. Dawas are something that I’d completely forgotten about since Tiffany made us drink them at Rice after a trip back home to Nairobi. Swahili for medicine, they are pretty delicious—vodka, honey, lime, and ice! Afterwards, we cleaned up in the world’s most awesome shower and headed back to a lovely dinner. We were done around 9:00 and, I’m not kidding, pretty much fell into bed. Not sure if our malaria drugs will take some getting used to or if Dickson is right and going on safari is more tiring than you’d expect.
Today, we spent about six hours in the park. We saw pretty much everything we’d seen last night and also saw Rothschild’s giraffes, black-faced vervet monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, Grant’s gazelles, warthogs, waterbuck, elands, and birds: Ruppell’s starling, little bee-eater, helmeted guineafowl, red-cheeked cordon bleu, lilac-breasted roller, owls, fish eagle, secretary bird, hoopoe, great white pelican, greater flamingo, lesser flamingo, maccoa duck, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten.
I’ll let Yann’s pictures speak for themselves, but there were some highlights.
* We got to see the start of a fight between two black rhinos, seemingly refereed by an egret. Unfortunately, one seemed to lose interest in his opponent (instead getting more excited about trying to charge one of the vans), so there was no real violence. I’ve never understood the lure of boxing, but seeing two multiple-ton animals getting ready to duke it out was pretty cool.
* Dickson told us that black-faced vervet monkeys are also called blue-balled monkeys—no, seriously, the male has a bright powder blue scrotum and Ferrari-red penis!
* A giant grasshopper fell into our van and crawled up my leg—very surprising and ticklish! It was very prehistoric-looking in its size. I could have sworn it was a foot long, but I guess it was only about three inches.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
1) It's cold and wet even though it lies on the equator.
2) So far, it is the most expensive country we have visited.
3) Old American country tunes seem to be a favorite here. That's right, first country music we have heard on the trip!
The original plan for our east Africa adventure included hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya. While planning the itinerary we received a long list of equipment required for both of the hikes: down jackets, sleeping bags, ice picks, cramp-ons, etc... We tried to find out if these were real requirements or just a standard equipment list provided to tourist. With no concrete answer available we canceled both climbs and accepted the next best solution presented to us. Destination number one after leaving Nairobi was at the Norumaro River Lodge located at the base of Mt. Kenya where we could arrange a day hike around the mountain.
We arrived just after lunch wrapping up a four hour drive from Nairobi. The receptionist got us checked into our room and told us that she would let the climbing outfit (company) located next door that we would drop by after we finished eating. Lunch was decadent (three courses--didn't we request budget hotels?) and we were excited to go settle the next days hiking arrangements. We walked into the office and introduced ourselves asking for some information about a day hike. The gentleman explained to us how we could take a 10km ride to the park entrance, then hike an additional 10km up to Met. Station (10,000ft) where we would break for lunch. Afterward we would hike back down and be back at the main gate mid-afternoon.
Everything sounded perfect and we asked how much it would be cost to go on the hike. He referenced a handy price list sitting on his desk and pointed to a number--$320 USD. Whoa, are you kidding? He smiled and said no, that was the price per person! I don't think I've ever had sticker shock quite like I experienced that moment. I looked at Catherine who was also staring bug eyed and jaw dropped in utter confusion. As politely as we could we confirmed that he really did want $640 to take us on a day hike and asked if there were any other options. Apparently a guide would only be $20 but we would have to arrange for our own transportation and bring our own lunch. WTF?
I'll skip a large part of this story and just tell you that we worked out an arrangement with Dickson and the lodge. It was a very expensive jagged pill to swallow but in the end we would get to hike a portion of the trail leading to Mt. Kenya's peak. We had an early dinner then retired to our room and lit the fireplace that sat a few short feet from the foot of our bed. The fire was complimented by a glass of wine and a beautiful woman by my side--life was good.
We awoke the next morning at 6:30am, prepared our bags, and marched off to the mess hall to gorge ourselves on a big "pre-mountain climb" breakfast. It was raining, really cold, and we began discussing whether or not we wanted to cancel the climb. Ultimately we agreed that we would leave that decision to the guide and otherwise proceed as planned. I spoke with the guide and asked if he had read the forecast. He replied saying that it may or may not rain but one group had already headed up earlier. Ok then, we're going hiking.
Dickson was early, we loaded up, and all headed for the gates of Mt. Kenya National Park. Park entrance fees were outrageous but we had already committed ourselves to this adventure. We left Dickson and made our way up the jeep trail our guide Richard. Things were looking up, even though it was a jeep trail it was relatively steep and the altitude made it feel like a decent work out. In addition, it wasn't too long before we spotted a group of monkeys (first of three species we would see that day) hanging out on the trail edge. The rain had stopped and we were taking in as much of the scenery as possible.
About an hour into our hike Richard pointed out some large tracks on the path. "Do you know what this is?" Hmmm, ah yes, an elephant? Correct! How neat, elephant tracks--only in Africa huh? We kept marching towards higher altitude and the prints became more frequent as well as the rather fresh looking piles of dung. The whole time I'm thinking to myself, "this is so cool, I'm hiking in Africa and hopping over elephant poo--adventure!" It wasn't long before Catherine yelled back to me and told me I needed to catch up. Apparently Richard thought there might be some baby elephants around and we should stay together in a group. Elephant tracks became more regular and then we saw the little dung piles left by the baby. As my head was in overdrive processing the environment a tree cracked in the not-so-far distance and Richard stopped dead still. He immediately motioned for us to not speak, slowly turn around, and start walking back down the road. Richard actually looked very on edge and I felt the hairs on my own neck increase their angle of inclination. All of a sudden we heard branches breaking in every direction and Richard was picking up his pace.
A hundred yards back down the trail we pulled off to the side and Richard made a sweep of the area. "I think we should stay here for about a half hour, elephants like this are very dangerous." We all waited and looked to the forest. Eventually Richard seemed convinced that we were in a safe position and insisted we wait where until the truck full of workers came by and we could catch a safe ride past the elephants. I asked whether or not elephants were really that dangerous to which he quickly responded with descriptions of a woman killed two weeks ago and a couple with infant trampled to death only two months ago--fair enough, let's wait for the ride.
Eventually a large military green showed up filled with a bed full of at least 20 Kenyan men going up to Met Station for work. Richard hailed the truck and we climbed in the back with everyone else perched upon bags of grain tied close with natural vines. Everyone seemed very excited that 1) there were two Americans riding in the back of the truck with them and 2) we had narrowly escaped death by elephant trampling. It wasn't long after we had secured ourselves in the truck that everyone started standing and pointing to the forest. Apparently they all had caught a glimpse of at least one of the elephants--Catherine and I were buried deep in the middle of the crowd. The truck got stuck at least three times and it took most of the group throwing dry dirt and branches under the tires to get the vehicle moving.
We made it safely to the top where Richard informed us that he had made arrangements with the driver to take us back down past the elephants so we could make it safely to the gate. It was 12:30pm and we took our lunch at Met Station feeling a little overwhelmed by our morning's experience. It didn't take long before we headed back down in the truck--4 deep in the front seat getting beat to death by the road. Eventually we made it passed the elephant "signs" and were dropped off perhaps 2-3km from the gate entrance. We did see another two species of monkeys which was cool and saw dozens of different birds.
Back at Dickson's van, Catherine and I glanced at one another: "That was the most expensive two hour hike we have ever taken!" Back in town we stopped at the ATM to pay our debt and headed back to the hotel.