19 January 2011

Eagles, Kingfishers, Bee Eaters, Scorpions, and Chameleons!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

It’s 10:30 PM on our last night at the incredible Rhino Watch Lodge, and I’m just now downloading today’s pictures.  I’m guessing there may be a thousand, just from my camera today!  Why?  Because we saw LIONS!!!  Up close (if you count about 12 feet away close!) and for a long time.  Three times!!!  We also saw several things today we hadn’t seen yet – Grevy’s Zebra, Red Saddleback Crane, Hartebeests, owls, chimpanzees, otters, and several more new birds.  What a fantastic day!

More about today later – let’s take up where we left off, back at Roberts Camp on Friday, 14 January.  You may remember that the gang had so much fun on the boat tour that they asked to do it again, so I was excited since I had missed the first trip.  We had tea and the went down the road to catch our boats.  Joshua was our guide, and he appears to be Shelley’s new BFF, as he remembered her name and now calls her “Shelley Mama”.  The boats we were in were slightly larger than canoes, with a flat bottom and an outboard motor, and seats for five (or more) people.  In our boat were Rex, Keith, Chris, me, and Shelley, in that order.  We also had Joshua and a driver, so we were pretty loaded down.  Joshua is very knowledgeable about birds in the area, and we spent most of the time spotting, identifying, and watching local birds, but the highlight of yesterday’s trip was feeding the fish eagles who live nearby.  This is a big show and a fantastic photo opportunity!  There are local fisherman in tiny one-man boats made of balsa wood who paddle out with things that look like soccer pads in their hands, and they supply the fish for ‘eagle bait’.  They paddle over next to the boats and toss a fish onto the water’s surface.  Quick as a wink, down from the treetops soars a huge fish eagle (looks a lot like a bald eagle) to snatch the fish for its next meal.  It takes a bit to get the timing of the photo right, and sadly, there were only two fish to use as bait today… Still, it was quite the spectacle!

After luring the eagles, we could turn to other animals here.  In the water, we saw hippos, crocodiles, and lots of dragonflies flitting from reed to branch, and in the air and trees we saw dozens of birds of all varieties, mostly very brightly plumed.  My favorite was the Beautiful Sunbird, although I loved the Madagascar Bee Eater and the Malachite Kingfisher, too.  They are all brilliantly colored – go figure!  Our two hour tour was done too soon, but we had one last surprise left.  Joshua told us he had some scorpions for us to see, and he did!  We got a great show of both a black and a brown scorpion, on the ground and on him!!

We went back to our banda (cottage) at Roberts Camp for breakfast, which was again stellar!  David had fixed us papaya, pineapple, passion fruit, cereal, strawberry yogurt, avocado juice, mango juice, and any style egg could be ordered from the kitchen.  I am getting SO SPOILED!!  After brekky we all packed up our things and loaded the cars, because it was to to get started down the road to our next stop at Rhino Watch Lodge, at the base of Mt. Kenya and almost on the equator.  Frank told us it was about a 2.5 or 3 hour drive, so I’m guessing it will take us at least five hours to get there…

John was our driver, and just after the gate closed behind us, he realized we had left our lunches back at camp!  So back we went!!  And THEN we were off, at about 10:30 or 11:00.  By 1:15 we were back at an overlook of the Great Rift Valley, the Subukia Viewpoint, getting hit up again by Kenyans selling curios.  This time Rex and I both bought a few trinkets!  I bought mine from Grace, who invited me into her shop and who told me she has four children and walks up the big hill from the valley below to the overlook every day to work.  At 1:45 we stopped at Thomson Falls for lunch and a little break, which turned out to be pretty funny.  To see the falls, or get your photo made with some Kikuyu warriors, or play with some chameleons, or take any pictures of same, it would cost you!!  As we belatedly learned….  All was not lost, though, as there was a wonderful washroom (with the big three – seat, running water, and paper!) and lovely grounds.  We ate our box lunch down the hill where we were again beseeched to BUY SOMETHING!!  We resisted.

Back on the road for a mercifully uneventful rest of the trip.  I finished a book and by 5:45 we had been to our lodges and met back at one of the bars at Rhino Lodge for tea.  So much for our 3 hour drive…  I can’t say enough wonderful things about Rhino Watch!  INCREDIBLE!!  More about that later, as I am running short of time to get this posted tonight!  Dinner, and appetizers, as always when David is cooking, were awesome.  Did I mention that David and crew came with us here?  We are so happy about that!

Having a fantastic time and so thankful for the cool mountain air,


17 January 2011

A Relaxing Day at Roberts Camp

Monday, 17 January 2011

I’ve moved from our terrace at Rhino Watch to the Bush Bar, where we are enjoying some adult beverages with Alan and Margie, who also stayed here this afternoon. My Captain and Coke even has lime slices and ICE (made from bottled water – no worries!!)  We have an assortment of appetizers on the rock-topped table in front of our cushy corner couch, and there’s a fire roaring in the fireplace next to us.  It rained much of the afternoon, and the mountain chill is coming, now that the sun is down.  So much for my evening today – let’s go back to Roberts Camp last Thursday and try to catch up!

Remember that rumbly tummy I woke up with at the Ostrich Farm?  Well, today was a bit worse, so I decided to stay at the house instead of hopping on a small boat for a three hour tour…  Turned out that I would have been fine, but you never know!  At any rate, I was up at 5:30, showered and dressed in time to watch the sunrise and see everyone off for their boat trip on Lake Baringo.  I spent the morning on the lanai (still don’t know the Swahili word!) blogging and culling photos, watching birds and boats and animals, and taking photos here and there.  Frank kept me company, as he worked on his computer, and David was busy in the kitchen preparing breakfast for us.  The rest of the crew rolled in a little before ten, and they had enjoyed themselves so much that we decided to go back again tomorrow morning, so I’m excited!  I’ll tell you all about the boat rides in my next post!  David had a huge spread ready for us, complete with avocado juice, mango juice, peach yogurt, cereal, tropical fruits, homemade bread, and eggs cooked to order.  We had a bit of time to ourselves after breakfast, and then Chris gave us an hour-long basic photography overview, which was excellent.  Now we were prepared for the afternoon’s activities!

Jess, Margie, Pat, Rex, and I were going with John back to Lake Bogoria to photograph the flamingos from land, and the rest were either recovering from tummy troubles or resting or going to a nearby snake park.  It took us about an hour to drive to Lake Borgoria, but it was so worth it!  I didn’t feel like I got many great shots from the plane, so I was glad to have another shot at the flamingos!  I started out with the 400 mm lens, Pat used her 500, and Margie was using the 600 on a tripod.  We each trekked along the lakeshore trying to find a good spot for photos, but it was hot again (of course, it was midday!) and we soon got smart and hopped back into the car and started shooting from there!  It was SO much easier and cooler!  Even then, Pat and I both had a little sinking spell, and that was after we had scarfed down our box lunches (as if we hadn’t pigged out on brekky!)  We all took turns using the 600 mm lens as we searched for that technically and aesthetically perfect shot.  Three hours and 650+ photos later (that’s just counting my photos!), we were headed back to Roberts  Camp, and we rolled in about 6:30 after stopping for an ostrich family, a beautiful rainbow, and a herd of camels!  And that’s what I love about Kenya – you never know what is waiting for you just ahead!

Back at home, we were in time to see a Marabou crane in the yard and a heron in the water, and we got to watch David barbeque some meat on the grill.  Dinner was delicious once again, and we even had ice cream for dessert!  Another fantastic day in the bag!

Still seeing pink,


Odd to Graceful: Ostriches to Flamingos

Monday, 17 January 2011

Today we have an easy day, and we were ready for one!  It’s been go, go, GO! ever since we stepped foot in our safari jeep!  Pat, Max, Margie, Alan, and Chris left early this morning, headed back to Solio Ranch in hopes of spotting the elusive big cats.  Shelly, Keith, Rex, Jess, and I didn’t wander down to breakfast until 9 AM, since we were making a trip to Aberdare Country Club for a nature walk.  We all met back at the Bush Bar and Restaurant at Rhino Watch for lunch, and now everyone is taking a much needed afternoon break.  There is hope that we may be able to do a nighttime game trip this evening, but that has yet to be determined.  For now, I’m on the terrace of our lodge, looking out over the colorful terraced grounds.  I just borrowed one of Chris’s macro lenses to take some up close flower pix.  Sweet!

When last we chatted, we had tucked in for a peaceful night at the Maasai Ostrich Farm.  We had a nice big tent there, with a double bed and a twin bed.  I should explain a bit about these tent camps we are staying in, lest you think we are completely roughing it.  The tent platforms are permanent – concrete or tile – and the rear portion of the platform is walled in and contains a bathroom with running water – a toilet, sink, and shower.  Now, the water is not fit for consumption, so we use bottled water to brush our teeth and we try really hard not to get any water in our mouths while showering.  It’s not as easy as you might think, as almost all of us can attest today…  The tents connect to the rear portion of the platform, and sometimes the complete ceiling is a tent.  We have mosquito netting around our beds, as malaria and yellow fever, both borne by mosquitoes, are the most feared diseases (other than HIV/AIDS) in Africa.  You must have documentation that you have been vaccinated against yellow fever in order to leave Kenya, and we are all taking oral anti-malarials and covering ourselves with DEET every day.  Because of mosquitoes, though, we must keep our tents closed at all times, which has made for some pretty warm evenings so far.

My dip in the pool at the Ostrich Ranch really helped, so I was able to sleep pretty well, but I woke up with a bit of a rumbly tummy.  Nothing major, but around here, when bathrooms are few and far between, even minor annoyances can lead to big issues!  Today’s agenda was complicated, as we were traveling from the Ostrich Farm to Lake Baringo by both car and airplane, but since only three of us could fly at one time, we were playing musical chairs!  We left the Ostrich Farm after breakfast, a bit after six.  We were in three cars, and let me tell you, it was like the Three Stooges on a road trip!  Frank had told John to take this short cut to the airport (a term that is used very loosely around here!) but he only knew how to get to the shortcut…  We were in John’s car, in the lead, and John stopped some shy school girls to ask directions.  The children here are just precious, always proudly wearing their brightly colored school uniforms, but they are very shy when directly approached by strangers.  John told us there have been too many incidents of bad things happening to children, just like back home.  Keep in mind that here, almost everyone walks almost everywhere, and it could be miles from village to school.  Children as young as three are out with older siblings and friends on their daily walk to learn!  One little girl sent us back in the opposite direction, so off we went, with the other two cars following us.  Then we pulled off the paved road onto a dirt track, then onto grass.  Then we all backed up and went back to the road, and John pulled into a drive to ask directions from a woman in the yard.  Finally we were on our way to the airport.  Security was tight.  A Wells Fargo agent greeted us at a padlocked gate, spoke a few words to John in Swahili, and let us pass.  A chicken wire fence surrounded the area, and even though there were no trespassing signs posted, schoolchildren were trekking down the hill inside the fence.  When we got to the top of the hill, I understood, as there was a small village there next to the airfield.  This airstrip was tarmac, and there were about ten or twelve hangars for small planes.  Waiting there for us was Joachim and his twin-engine four-seater Cessna with the rear door already removed and stowed in the back.  First up for the day were Chris, riding in the co-pilot seat, Max, riding next to the open door, and Shelley, riding behind Joachim.  We all listened to the safety spiel (fasten your seatbelts, try to stay inside the plane, and use the bag provided should you become ill) and encouraged them to take lots of photos!  And then they were off!!

The rest of us got back in our cars and took off for the next rendezvous point, which was at a Kenyan Army airfield many kilometers away!  Our drive took us north and west, passing through the towns of Matasia, Ngong (of Out of Africa fame), Karen (named for the author of Out of Africa and home of the Nyumbani AIDS Clinic), Kikuyu (home of one of the best schools in Kenya), Sigona (famous for cow skins and Marengo sheep), and into the spectacular Great Rift Valley.  The Great Rift Valley stretches from Jordan (or Israel, by some accounts) to Mozambique, some 6500 km long.  We stopped at an overlook for photo ops for us and easy sales targets for the local merchants there.  Most of us bought some trinket as a memento of the Great Rift Valley, and we all learned a few tidbits while there.  We next drove through Kikopey, the barbeque capital of Kenya, and soon we pulled up at the 81st Tank Battalion were security was SERIOUS.  John warned us not to take photos of anything military or police in nature, so we didn’t!  Now it was our turn for the plane ride, as Keith, Rex, and I were due to fly next.  We were happy to see Shelley, Max, and Chris all safely on the ground, although they had been waiting for us in the hot sun (no shade in sight) for about 90 minutes or more.  They were even looking forward to that car ride now!

We boarded the plane and Joachim fired up the engines and we toddled out to the airstrip, which might have been partly paved at one time, but now it is mostly gravel.  If there was communication between Joachim and any air traffic control, I was not aware of it!  My job was to pretend to be the door and, on Joachim’s signal, push a button that the closed door usually activates.  It was a pretty important job, as I was now operating the wing flaps!  Okay, then.  A new skill to add to my set!  Take off worked, and soon we were airborne.  The countryside and the Great Rift Valley looked beautiful from the air, and we could so easily see the well-worn footpaths that crisscross the countryside and hills.  Most Kenyans are farmers, raising crops like corn, potatoes, and other vegetables or raising cattle or goats, and we could see all of this from the air.  Soon we approached Lake Bogoria, which is truly not to be believed!

Millions of flamingos live on the lake, giving the illusion of an undulating pink quilt on the lake’s surface.  Parts of the lake are natural hot springs, as much of Kenya is like Yellowstone National Park – volcanic soil, craters, hot springs, canyons, and more.  It was difficult to get good photos from the plane, as my lens would find its way out of the plane and then get almost pulled out of my hands!  And when I remembered to keep my camera completely IN the plane, it seemed that each time I pressed the shutter, we encountered a bit of turbulence.  Add to this the fact that we were warned we would be cold and should wear a jumper (sweater), so I had on a polar fleece sweatshirt.  Given that it was 11:15 when we took off on a very warm (and getting warmer) day, the fleece was a BIG mistake.  I was SO HOT!!  The heat added to the turbulence, but it was still such an incredible experience!  At times I just put down my camera and enjoyed the spectacle!  Joachim would fly down quite close to the lake, and huge flocks of flamingos would scamper across the water on their spindly pink legs and take off in flight, seemingly in unison.  It was AMAZING!!!  We made several passes around the lake, getting closer each time, and then we flew on to the next rendezvous point near Roberts Camp, where we would be staying for the next two nights.  This time, the landing strip was gravel and dirt, but our landing was a very smooth one, somehow!  Just after we landed, a car drove through the gate with a couple of men who were there to fetch us.  Joachim secured the plane, and the six of us (Joachim was as tall as Rex) piled into a little Toyota and took off for Roberts Camp, which thankfully was only about a five minute drive away.

At the camp, we pulled out the box lunches that had traveled with us from the Ostrich Farm, to the airport, on the plane, and in the car to Roberts Camp and settled in at the Thirsty Goat Bar and Restaurant to enjoy our meal.  There was the usual hard-boiled egg, fruit, juice box (mango this time!), cookies, an ostrich sandwich.  A cool Tusker from the bar completed our meal.  We sat in the shade and watched even more splendidly feathered birds frolic in the trees, but it was still very hot.  I had pulled off my fleece before the plane had even come to a complete stop, and I was already down to just my camisole, but I was pretty uncomfortable.  Shortly, a man named David (Frank’s brother-in-law) appeared and led us to our new digs.  We would be sharing a house with Shelley and Keith, so we had plenty of room and we each had our own bathrooms.  David took Rex and me on a tour of the grounds, and before we had even gone a few yards, we had seen a gorgeous hornbeaked bird  and a graceful egret.  We stumbled upon a swimming pool, so I promptly took off my shoes and socks, unzipped the legs off my pants, and sat on the side of the pool, splashing cold water all over me.  AAAAHHHH!!!  Once I had cooled off a bit, I found a chaise and took a little siesta until I woke up hot again!

We made our way back to our house, and I’ve already written about my afternoon nature sightings (see my post from 12 January), although I will tell you that there were a few minutes I was thinking I might need to be wearing my adidas instead of flip flops when that croc was nearby!  After a bit, Pat, Margie, and Alan arrived from their plane ride, and they were exhausted, as they had driven all the way here and then taken their trip to Lake Bogoria.  Jess was with them and had been a really good sport by riding all the way and not getting to fly!  Shelley, Max, and Chris were still at the lake, photographing the birds up close, and we weren’t expecting them back until well after dark. The birds put on quite a show for us, with the prize being the Red and Yellow Barbet, which is a glorious bird!  At one point, there were probably a hundred birds on the feeder and on the ground below it!  Everyone cleaned up a bit and then we gathered back on our lanai for sundowners.

David was to be our cook for the next week, and his first night’s meal was a huge success!  First we had some delicious appetizers, and while we were munching away, the rest of the group arrived.  As soon as they were ready, we sat down together for dinner.  David had cooked red snapper, a spinach salad, and a rice dish, and they were all delicious!  Truthfully, I don’t even remember much more about that night or the meal – it was a long day!!  No one lingered too long after dinner, partly because we were all beat and it was still HOT!!We said our good nights and everyone retired to their rooms, as we had another early day planned!

Visions of pink flamingos filling my head,


16 January 2011

Game Drive, Car Ride, Ostrich Farm

Sunday, 16 January 2011

I’m lying on my king-size (almost – they are not quite as long as our beds in the States!) bed, listening to the gentle pitter-patter of rain on the thatched roof above me and looking out across a cloudy valley.  Enormous Mt. Kenya is completely shrouded by the clouds, and dusk is almost upon us.  We are back early from our afternoon game drive, as rain, photography, and open-sided safari vehicles are not a great combination.  Rex is reading with his eyes closed and we have a couple of hours before “sundowners” and dinner, so maybe I’ll get another day or two in the bag here!

When I last posted, we were at Kibo Safari Camp and dawn was breaking on Tuesday morning.  The day’s agenda included an early morning game drive, breakfast back at Kibo, then packing and loading up our gear for an another game drive and then a trip to our next stop, the Maasai Ostrich Farm.  The morning’s sunrise was spectacular, and we were quickly entertained by our elephant friends.  We stopped by the site where our fellow travelers had seen a baboon tribe steal a baby gazelle away from a cheetah yesterday afternoon.  The poor mother gazelle was still standing watch, waiting for her baby, who was now dinner for a couple of hungry jackals and who would soon be only bones after the vultures we spied in the trees finished with it.  Frank’s car, with Margie, Alan, Pat, Maxine, and Chris had witnessed the carnage the afternoon before while they were repairing a flat tire.  I’m sort of glad we missed that part…

Mt. Kilimanjaro was visible this morning, so that was a treat!  Our next treat was an hilarious display by a couple of ostriches doing a little mating dance.  Now I know where the Las Vegas feather dancers stole their routines!  More elephants, including the sweetest little baby and its mama, arrived (silently) on the scene, followed by a huge herd who crossed the road directly in front of us!  Talk about up close and personal!!  We watched a couple of elephants go tusk to tusk, until the referee elephant walked by and broke up the fight.  I can’t tell you how fascinating it was to watch these giant animals curl their trunks around the grasses, kicking the roots with their feet if needed, pulling them out of the ground, and then taking them to their mouths.  I observed that most elephants seemed to wave the grasses in the air three times with their trunks before popping them in their mouths, and I guess that is to knock as much dirt off as possible.  John told us that elephants have notoriously bad digestive systems, so most of their day is spent eating so that they can have a hope of getting enough food.  We rounded out the morning with herds of gazelles and lots of birds, and then it was time to bounce down the track back to Kibo.

We were hungry now, as it was about nine and we’d been up since five!  Breakfast at Kibo was served buffet style, as all meals were.  There was a selection of cereal (none for me, thanks!), juices (mango, pineapple, and passion fruit), fruits (mango, pineapple, passion fruit, and some greenish oranges), and brown egg omelets, cooked to order.  There was bacon, sausage links, and meat patties, too.  Pretty typical, and kind of surprising to me, since we were in the middle of the bush!  After eating, we returned to our tents to pack up, and then we loaded up the trucks and by 10:30 we had headed out in search of more game.

Our first stop was to photograph a brilliant blue bird with a lilac colored chest – it was so pretty!  Next, we saw a HUGE herd of elephants in the distance, along with some gazelles right next to us and the occasional wildebeest lurking about.  There were some good dust devils today, too.  They are pretty impressive here at Amboseli (which means dusty place) as they pop up from out of nowhere and rise high in the sky like geysers.  They whirl around like a waterspout or tornado, but it’s just dust and wind, and then they disappear.  Right after we saw the big lot of elephants, a big herd of zebras crossed the road right in front of us.  Zebras are a bit more skittish than elephants, who do not seem to be afraid of anything.  Given that they are bigger than everything else, I guess that makes sense!  The zebras had to get up  their courage to cross the road, and they went in smaller groups.  Probably four or five groups finally galloped across, then stood there eyeing us suspiciously as they grazed and frolicked.  There is a lot of frisky behavior in the animal kingdom!  Our elephant herd was on the move again, but we only knew it because we saw the dust rise up – not a sound!!  Wouldn’t you think that hundreds of heavy elephants would be noisy???

We spied a hyena, slinking around as usual, and soon we were near the watering hole beneath the lookout where we ate breakfast yesterday.  Lots more birds to photograph, but then Frank urged John to keep us moving, as we had miles to go!  It’s hard to resist the stunning crested cranes, though, and then we spotted a majestic fish eagle!  Alas, we got one shot and then had to go!  But, our next treat was a fun one – we drove along a dried lake bottom that reminded Rex and me of the Bonneville Salt Flats.  It was nice to be able to go fast and have a pretty smooth ride!  All too soon, we were back on a dirt road, passing an abandoned Maasai village before leaving Amboseli National Park (and more chances to buy trinkets at the gate!)  John pointed out the border between Kenya and Tanzania to our left as we turned to head north for the evening.  I was sort of surprised to see that there was an armed crossing.  We drove for some time and then stopped for lunch about 1:30 at a little restaurant and shop in Nmunga where we sat on the patio and ate our box lunches from Kibo.  We were able to order a beer or soft drink and there were flush toilets with seats and paper!!  Isn’t it funny how easily pleased we can be!

At the restaurant, Rex and I were amused to see an Obama – Biden bumper sticker on the door.  We were told Obama is very highly regarded in Kenya.  There was an intricate mural painted on the wall around the patio, and the bougainvillea was loaded with blooms and was so pretty!  It was a nice change from the poverty we had been seeing along the road.  We spotted a beautiful bird that had nests in the trellis above the patio, and Frank told us it was a Paradise Flycatcher.  We spent a good bit of time trying to get a good picture of one!  After lunch, Pat called me over to have a look at something in the dirt, and at first glance it looked like a sea urchin.  Since I thought that was pretty unlikely, I looked closer and realized it was a little hedgehog!  And there were two of them.  We had fun photographing them and watching them curl up to protect themselves.  After lunch we had a chance to shop for curios with no pressure this time!

We were back on the road by 2:30, headed for the Maasai Ostrich Farm.  Most of us snoozed, read, chatted, or culled photos off of our cameras to pass the time.  I tried to work on the computer, but it was way too bumpy for that!  We had brought our lunch leftovers along with us in hopes of finding some children who might want them.  That turned out to be harder than we expected!  The children in Kenya go to school at an early age (as young as three!) and they wear the most colorful school uniforms.  We saw some young boys and tried to give them the food, but even with John speaking to them in Swahili, they were terrified and ran away.  We finally found some other boys whose mothers were nearby, and they were so happy to have our leftover juice boxes and cookies!  About 4:45 we rolled up to the Ostrich Farm, which had beautiful grounds and main building.  Signs on the property called it a “Haven of Peace”, and it was very restful.  We were greeted with delicious passion fruit juice and shown to our tents.  We had a little mix-up, as our key wouldn’t open the lock on our tent, so we got moved.  We had to rush, though, as we were getting a tour of the ostrich farm.

We first had to sanitize the soles of our shoes, and then we were shown some actual ostrich eggs, which are equivalent to about two dozen chicken eggs!!  Then we got to see the baby ostriches, which are so ugly they are cute!!  We saw five or six pens of different aged chicks, and then we saw the breeders.  The male ostriches had bright pink legs and black feathers, while the female has gray feathers and cream colored legs.  They were pretty funny!  The guy doing our tour said they had more than 6000 ostriches on the farm.  Most are slaughtered at 8 months and sold for meat.  Once we had finished our tour, we all hit the swimming pool, which was pretty chilly!!  We were so hot that it felt perfect!  We cooled off, then cleaned up for our buffet dinner of salad, goat stew, ostrich, lamb, and several side dishes.  For dessert, we had creme caramel and bananas and chocolate sauce.  Yum!  Off to bed we went, with another EARLY morning wake up call on the horizon.

Wondering how God decided to make a bird like an ostrich,


15 January 2011

Life is Good Today! And Everyday!!

Friday, 14 January 2011

This evening, I’m sitting at a desk in a proper room overlooking Mt. Kenya, the highest mountain in Kenya and the second highest peak in Africa.  I’m gazing down on the thatched roofs of the other huts on the beautifully landscaped terraced hillside of Rhino Watch Lodge.  As we arrived here this afternoon, a thunderstorm arose, so now all the air is clear and water droplets glisten off the brightly colored flowers dotting the hillside.  We’re in mountain country now – where the world-famous Kenyan marathoners live and train – and the air is thin and mercifully, cooler!  We’ve just unpacked, as we will be here for four nights, and had a spot of tea with the rest of the group.  I’m using the time before happy hour and dinner to do a little catch up blogging!  If the roads were a bit smoother, I would have had plenty of time in the Range Rover today (and several other days) but I quickly realized that would be futile.  I have a new appreciation for our roads and it will be a long time before I whinge about potholes again!

So, where did I leave off?  I believe we need to go back to Monday morning at  Kibo Safari Tent Camp and the Amboseli National Park….

Safaris are not for the lazy!  Our day starts at 5 AM, as we are to be on the road by 6:00 so that we can catch the animals in the subdued light of daybreak.  I’ve learned that showering in the morning is not for the faint, either, as solar powered hot water is not a peak strength before dawn.  So, a cold shower it was!  Those who know me well will know that means I was either really hot or really dirty to subject myself to that, and the answer to that is that I was BOTH!   I had not slept all that well, which is to be expected on the first full day of a time zone 9 hours ahead of the one I’d left.  Add to that the heat of the day and the excitement of the whole trip and my normal bad sleeping habits and, well, there you have it!  We met at the Karibu Bar (karibu means ‘welcome’ in Swahili) for tea and we were piling in John’s jeep by six.  Today, Jess was with us, and I got to have first play with the 600 mm lens!  WOW!!  Am I ever spoiled!

It didn’t take long for us to come upon our first photo opportunities, between the sunrise and a herd of elephants, including several nursing babies.  And then the real show started, as one of the bull elephants was feeling a little frisky, if you catch my drift!  It was a sight, I can tell you that!! We passed a wildebeest and some gazelles, and then we caught another of the ‘Big Five’ – a LION!!  The Big Five refers to Elephants, Lions, Rhinos, Leopards, and Cape Buffalo – the common prey of big game hunters.  So, two down, three to go!  Next sightings were gorgeous crested cranes, many more elephants, a fat hyena and friends, gazelles, ostriches, and a glimpse of snowy Mt. Kilimanjaro peeking through the clouds.  We saw a Goliath heron and a herd of Cape Buffalo (check!) On our way up to the lookout atop Noomotio Hill, where we were to have breakfast, we saw a stunning blue bird. We took tons of pictures of this bird, called a superb starling, and when we got to the top of the hill, there were dozens of the same bird, foraging in the rubbish like common old US starlings…

We had a box breakfast that had toast (with butter and jam), fruit (orange and pineapple), a meat patty, a sausage link, a hard-boiled egg, some biscuits (cookies), a chocolate mint candy, orange juice, and of course, coffee and tea.  As we looked down onto the steppes below, we could see the Cape buffalo, pelicans, three zebras, and bunches of birds, but by far the cutest thing was a line of elephants (including two babies) doing an elephant walk, tail to trunk, through the reeds in the swamp below!  One of the first things we saw once we were back on the road was a herd of zebra at a water hole, including several young ones, who have brown stripes instead of black.  We passed the Cape buffalo and saw a few random wildebeests, and then we caught a glimpse of some mostly submerged hippos.  A spectacular African fish eagle was perched on a log – it is very similar to a bald eagle in looks and size.  We watched some Cape buffaloes ‘lock horns’ and then even more elephants joined the party.  Our surprise sighting this morning started with a solitary giraffe that seemed to just appear at the side of the road, and then we saw a whole herd of them, munching away on nearby acacia trees.  On our way back to Kibo for lunch and siesta time, we saw more gazelles, wildebeests, and elephants – pretty good for a morning’s work, I’d say!

We were again greeted with cool wet cloths at Kibo, and we needed them.  This is a hot, dusty place!  We dropped off gear at our tents then met for a buffet lunch.  It was really hot, so we decided to take a swim – the water was great, but the steps into the pool (that really slick ceramic tile!) were so slippery that I stepped one foot on the top step and slid on my bum to the third step.  And I’ve got the bruise to prove it!  I’m sure it was ultra-graceful.  Always happy to provide the humor….

By three o’clock, we had rested and cooled off enough for another game drive.  This afternoon, we saw gazelles, ostriches (including a mating dance), elephants, lots of birds, including crested cranes and pelicans, a jackal, hyenas, and some hippos.  Rex had the big lens for a time and got awesome pix of the hippos in water.  After sunset, we were back at Kibo for dinner and then bedtime.  Tomorrow will be another early morning start!

Counting elephants in my sleep,


13 January 2011

Jeannine Was Right! Elephants Are Quiet!

12 January 2011

I’m sitting in front of Lake Barengo, a volcanic lake in the Rift Valley, watching a crocodile sun himself on the bank as snowy egrets silently stalk their prey in the shallow water, slowly moving through the tall grasses.  Numbers of birds, not familiar to me, have joined us on the lanai (not sure what the Swahili word is…), anxiously awaiting dinner, while presumably trying to avoid being someone’s dinner.  Proper tea has been served, complete with milk, sugar, and biscuits (cookies), but how ANYONE can drink ANYTHING hot today is beyond me.  I have unzipped the legs off my pants, making them shorts, and taken off my safari shirt (not to worry, I have on a camisole), and stuck my feet and arms in the nearby swimming pool, and I am still hot. 

We arrived here at Roberts Camp in the heat of the day, after taking a plane ride over Lake Bogoria, where millions of beautiful pink flamingos line the shoreline.  Oh, and it wasn’t just ANY plane ride!  It was a small four-seater Cessna with the back door removed.  Rex was riding shotgun in the co-pilot’s seat, Keith was behind the pilot, and I was sitting next to the open door.  Our mission: take fantastic flamingo photos and enjoy the ride.  I’m hoping I got a few good shots, but I’m really counting on Shelley, Chris, and some of the others to have gotten the stellar shots!  But it was so worth it!  And had I not been warned to wear a fleece, I might not be so hot!  As it was, I thought I might expire on the plane, even next to the open door.  Did I mention we are very near the equator?  I will be ready for the coolness of the mountains in a few days, after spending our first few days on safari in the dust and heat.  Lest you think I’m complaining, I’m not – it has all been fantastic!!!  And hot and dusty!

But let me try to start at the beginning….

We had an uneventful and fairly typical flight from Houston to London’s Heathrow Airport on British Airways, which is still civilized enough to serve decent meals and free alcohol (meals are free, too!) on its overseas flights.  We spent a couple of hours at Heathrow, getting online and having brekky at Starbucks.  We got to our gate early, and I inquired about the possibility of getting upgraded to business class.  I was told no, not now, we’ll see, so we figured, oh well… But, as we were preparing to board the bus that would take us to our plane, the clerk informed us we had been upgraded!!  Woo hoo!!  Now we are completely spoiled, as we had our own little cubby and seats that reclined completely with an adjustable footrest, electricity, champagne, three course meals, warm blankets, and more!  Crossing our fingers for good luck on the flights home!  We arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, a bit early, about 9:20 PM local time on Saturday.  It took us a while to get our visas, but we finished just in time to collect our bags and see someone holding a sign with our name on it.  We had another passenger on the van to the Hilton with us, and in the ‘small world’ category, he was from Cary, NC, just down the road from Durham!  We arrived at the Hilton, and after passing through fairly tough security, we saw Shelley and Keith waiting for us on the stairs!  Big hugs!!!  And then another surprise at check in – I gave the clerk my Hilton Honors card and he upgraded us to a suite!!  So, up we all went to the 16th floor and a HUGE set of rooms – living room, dining room, kitchenette, king size bedroom, and two full baths!  Shelley made us tea and we sat down and visited.  It was so great to see her and Keith!!

Sunday morning we met Shelley and Keith in the hotel restaurant for brekky, which was a HUGE buffet – cheese, smoked salmon, pastries, breads, cereal, yogurt, omelets, waffles, breakfast meats, and hot foods that looked more like lunch!  I am going to be tested though, not having ANY ice or iced tea for two weeks.  Sadly, the water is not safe enough to drink, so ice is out of the question….At the table behind us were fellow safari members Alan and Margie from Adelaide, Australia, and Pat from Victoria (near where Kerrianne grew up).  We would be picking up Maxine at the airport later.   After breakfast, we packed up our things and met Chris and Jess, our guides, and the rest of the group in the lobby.  Hugs all around, and pressies from Chris!  Oh, and I forgot to say that Rex and Keith made a quick trip to Tusky’s for a universal adapter, as ours was not able to accept three-pronged plugs (like the one for the computer!  Details!)  Soon we were on the curb, meeting Frank and John, our drivers, and loading up our gear into the safari jeeps.  Frank is German, but has lived in Kenya for some time, and John is a native Kenyan.  Off we went to the Giraffe Centre for our first taste of wildlife.  Soon we were up close and personal to a very friendly giraffe who ate right out of our hands!  He didn’t have a black tongue like giraffes I’ve seen at zoos, but he was very slobbery!  In the yard was a warthog (Pumba!) and out in the forest were several other giraffes.  We went inside for a short presentation by Vincent, who told us about the three kinds of giraffes found in Kenya.  They are the Reticulated, the Rothschild, and the Maasai giraffes, so now we know what to be on the lookout for! 

From here, we headed back toward Nairobi on Langata Road and stopped at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage to see the one hour feeding of the baby elephants!  You cannot imagine how CUTE they are!  Down on the plain below us, we saw several giraffes in the distance, but the stars of this show were the adorable baby elephants.  Down they came, doing the Baby Elephant Walk, so excited to get their giant bottles of milk and then have a chance to frolic and play in the mud and show off for the hundreds of people lining the ring to take pictures!  On our way out, we stopped by to see a rhino that is being cared for by the trust.  He was not nearly as cute as the baby elephants!  Next it was lunch at Haveli’s, a local Indian restaurant, and the food was delicious!  I had Chicken Markhiti, onion rice, na’an, and a Tusker, my new favorite beverage of choice.  I see a lot of Tuskers (beer) in my future!  Now we were about to get going, stopping to rendezvous with another driver who had picked up Maxine from the airport.

I can’t begin to tell you how different driving is in Kenya.  Although Nairobi is very populous and has a lot of traffic, it is evident that most Kenyans walk to get where they are going.  Everywhere we went there were people walking along (or on) the highway.  And not just people – goats and cows were out in droves as well!  Outside the city, roads may be anything from asphalt to tarmac, to lots of potholes to gravel to dirt to heavily rutted dirt.  Let’s just say we’ve had some very bouncy rides, and more are in our future!  In Nairobi, we saw lots of familiar billboards and ads for common products, but outside the city, the “strip malls” took on an entirely different look.  Shacks of sticks and tin line the roads, offering fresh vegetables, butcher shops, colorful plastics, ‘hotels’, food, cell phones, hardware, lumber, clothing, curios, and more.  I was surprised to see that almost all signs of all kinds are written in English.  Swahili is the official language of Kenya, but all children are taught English in school and each of the 42 tribes of Kenya has its own language.  What was very remarkable to me was that in spite of the incredible level of poverty here, almost everyone has a cell phone! Our trip out of Nairobi took us south to the Amboseli National Park, on the border of Tanzania and at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Part of the road we traveled was good, and newly constructed, but most was bumpy!  We were rewarded though, with a herd of giraffes that we spotted on the side of the road.  Frank drove us right up for a close look at them, and we easily identified them as Maasai giraffes!

As we entered Amboseli National Park, about three hours after we picked up Maxine, we were accosted by about a dozen Maasai women who wanted to sell us beaded bracelets, carvings, necklaces, and more.  They tried very persistently for the whole time we were at the gate of the Park (which seemed an hour, but was maybe 15 minutes!) but we did not buy anything – this time!  Once in Amboseli, we had only driven for fifteen minutes before we spotted our first herd of elephants!  We must have taken hundreds of photos of the grazing elephants and their constant companions – the lovely white birds who ride on their backs and eat insects off of the elephants!  Shelley got to use one of Chris’s $16,000 600mm lenses, which are INCREDIBLE!!!  It takes some muscle to maneuver that giant thing, but it is so worth it!!  When we could finally tear ourselves away from the elephants, we next spotted some ostriches strutting around. followed by a slinking hyena, the beginning of a beautiful sunset, and a wildebeest.  But then we got a HUGE blessing and saw a cheetah stalking a herd of gazelles!!  We watched it watch them for about ten minutes, but dusk was upon us so we moved on toward Kibo Tent Camp.  On the way, we got a good family portrait of three elephants by the side of the road, and just as we got to camp, a giraffe stepped into the headlights! Soon we arrived at Kibo and were greeted at the reception area with cold wet washcloths and a glass of juice – both were very appreciated!!  By 7:30 we were settling into our tents and preparing for dinner.  What an exciting first day!!

03 January 2011

It All Started With........

.....a skype chat!

And as I type those words, I laugh to myself as I think how MANY stories I have written and told that started with the words, "It all started with ________" and you can fill in the blanks - an email, a phone call, a chance meeting, a casual comment.......  I guess that tells you right away that I am a pretty impulsive person.  It doesn't take much!

But back to my story!

It all started with a skype chat.......from Shelley, my friend from Sydney (see previous blog posts!)  She was very excited about about something she had seen on a website, so she sent me the link, and here's what I saw:

"The Holy Grail of Photography"

I wasn't hooked yet, but I was intrigued.  And then I started reading.  And looking at the pictures.  And THEN I was hooked!  Now, the funny part of this is that as much as I love to travel, Africa and/or a safari were not even on my Top Ten list.  Heck, they were not even on my list of things to do before I die!  But, before the end of the day, I had talked to Rex, shown him the website, and determined that we would be joining Shelley and Keith on this trip!

Needless to say, there were details to work out, but that was back in June!  And now it's January, and Shelley and Keith are already on their way to Africa, and Rex and I leave in a few days!  We've had our shots (well, I have one more...), we have our prescriptions, plane tickets, passports, safari clothing, bug spray, cameras, computers (well, still waiting on the iPad repair...) and a long list of things yet to be done, so I'd better get busy!  The catch is that we are not expecting to have phone or internet connections for most of the trip, so the blog posts may not show up until after we get back, but I'll do my best to not only write, but post daily.

Thanks for coming along with me!


PS  And after I got a new Canon camera in November, I saw this post in December.  I. CAN'T. WAIT!!