Amboseli, Samburu and Tsavo - August 2005
I left Logan Airport on time. I had purchased a transformer to step-down the electric current in Kenya from 240 to 110 for use with my new DVD player I was taking with me and thought perhaps going through X-ray it might be a problem because it was a large black metal box packed in my check-in luggage. I had stapled a picture from the box to the handle of my duffel and no-one questioned it thank goodness. The flight to Amsterdam was great. Had a three hour layover there and took off on time for Nairobi. Both flights were completely packed, as usual. We arrived in Nairobi a little before 8 p.m. I was the first in line for visas so didn’t have any wait. This is the first time in eight trips though that I was stopped by a Customs officer. Luckily she just asked me what I was bringing with me and I just said safari gear and she let me pass without actually opening my duffel (which was loaded with small gifts for friends as well as three expensive veterinary books I was taking to the Tsavo-Amboseli veterinarian)! Exiting the airport to find my safari company I discovered my favorite guide there to meet me. He had just driven in from the Mara, heard I was arriving and had come to the airport to welcome me before going home to sleep. Anyone that has Joshua from Southern Cross Safaris as a guide is truly lucky. I was taken to the Holiday Inn Mayfair for a few hours sleep before flying to Amboseli.
At 6 a.m. the next morning headed for Wlson Airport for the 7:30 flight to Amboseli. In the past the plane has been a small 10 – 12 seater. However, on this day it was a 50 passenger plane and it was full! It was really cloudy that day and we couldn’t see anything until we were low enough to land. I was met by my Amboseli driver, Lemomo and the head of Ol Tukai’s guest relations, Rachel, both old friends of mine. We went immediately to the lodge where I checked in and was given my favorite room on the elephant viewing side of the lodge. I quickly unpacked my duffel and went to the car park to meet Lemomo again for a 10 a.m.. game drive. I love doing the later game drives anyway. At Ambosesli most of the people go out early on game drives because they want to see lions with their kills. Since I am more an elephant person and know that the elephants don’t come into the park until about 9:30 or 10:00 a.m., I prefer going out later. Not only to I see “my elephants” but we have the park almost to ourselves. No traffic jams. I shared the vehicle today with a great couple from England. Julie was also an elephant lover so we got along well. She told me how marvelous “The Elephant Diaries” were in England and said she would send me a DVD so that I could view it before it is shown here in the U.S. (not til March 2006 on Animal Planet)!!
The next day I awoke to the cold. In the past Amboseli might have been cool at night but day time was always fine for shorts. This time it was probably 45 – 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and knowing we would be riding in an open vehicle made me wear long pants and fleece jacket. We kept thinking the clouds would clear and it would warm up, but it didn’t. On my 9:30 game drive today I was joined by four young people from the Atlanta, Georgia area. Caroline is a professional photographer, Roger works at Georgia Tech,, Linda is a nurse and I am not sure what Dave’s occupation is. They all loved birds and it was fun sharing their excitement. By the end of their two days there, they too were becoming elephant people. Caroline was fascinated by the caring she saw with the elephant families.
The next morning when we headed out we spotted a wildebeest with an obviously fractured right foreleg. He will probably be a meal for the lions or hyenas tonight as he can hardly walk. We see what is probably thousands of Maasai cattle being herded into the area for water. Kenya Wildlife Service has posted rangers in the area to ascertain the the cattle are quickly watered and leave the park and don’t linger eating what little food is left for wildlife. The Kenyan government had put in a pipeline some time ago so the Maasai could water their cattle, but they didn’t like the idea of being kept out of the park and deliberately broke the pipeline.
Later in the day I was fortunate enough to go on a game drive with one of the elephant researchers and getting REALLY up close to the elephants. The researchers know every single elephant from Amboseli. They go out daily censusing the herds and noting who is missing, who is ill or injured, who has had a new baby, which bulls are in musth, etc. Without these girls being so diligent over the last 20 years there wouldn’t be many Amboseli elephants left now. Amboseli was the one place during the poaching holocaust that the herds managed to survive pretty well because the researchers were always around. The problem they had then is when the Amboseli elephants, particularly the large bulls, traveled into Tanzania they were often shot by hunters. I don’t know how these hunters can live with themselves shooting an almost “tame” Amboseli bull who will walk right up close to your vehicle. It doesn’t take any talent , bravery or daring to do that.
The elephants in Amboseli are still under stress today. For hundreds of years they have traveled to the swamps in Amboseli daily for their water and then late afternoons have gone to the tree line at the foot of Kilimanjaro to browse on the trees at night and sleep there. For years this was not a problem. However, lately many Maasai have moved into the area, some with cattle and some with gardens. Now when the elephants try eating their garden they spear them. When an elephant kills a cow it is speared. I find this fascinating because I have watched the elephants in the park for weeks and have NEVER seen an elephant going after another animal. Thus one has to wonder if it is the cattle herder who agitates the elephant to the point of going after the cow. In addition to spearing the elephant, the owner of the cow also demands reparations. In order to prevent more spearing, the researchers go out and investigate and if it looks like the animal was definitely killed by an elephant they pay the owner for the cow. When an wild animal is found injured the researchers call in the veterinarian and assist him in treating the injured animal. I was with them last August when a female elephant was darted and treated. These girls do their work with efficicency and caring. I was told that two weeks before I got there the oldest bull, Bad Bull, had been poison arrowed and died and also another of the older bulls, Masaku, had to be euthanized from wounds he sustained during a musth bull fight. There are now precious few old breeding bulls left in Amboseli, probably could count them on one hand. The female elephants don’t want any part of the younger musth bulls. Thus one wonders if the genetic pool will be compromised and one will see more and more genetic abnormalities in the future. Any way, for anyone who has ever been to Amboseli and enjoyed the elephants, please give thanks for Soila, Norah and Katito for the work they do seeing that the elephants are doing well.
The next day I got to go on game drives alone with Lemomo. Most people coming to Amboseli come with a safari company and go on drives with their driver. Those of us who fly in have the pleasure of Lemomo for a driver. Often In the past I have been in the vehicle alone with no other guests. Lemomo loves elephants as I do (two of his sisters are elephant researchers and another sister is a baboon researcher) so we could sit for hours and watch the elephants. We noted that the injured wildebeest was still alive!
One day we started out for our drive and came upon a wonderful scene A young male lion was babysitting four or five cubs while the females were preparing to hunt. We saw one female staring across the road and noticed a single wildebeest slowly approaching. It was interesting to see the lionesses in their crouching position inch forward until they were hidden by a palm tree. They waited and waited and eventually the wildebeest crossed the road. Then they made their move. Unfortunately one started out a little too early and the wildebeest fled. No meal that time! The females went back to where the babies were and it was a wonderful sight seeing the pride bond together. We also saw quite a few cheetahs this week. Don’t know if it was because the weather was cooler or what. Of interesting note was that land anywhere near the swamp looked green while land farther away was totally burned and dry.
On my last game drive at Amboseli we were watching a pride of nine lionesses and babies sleeping at the other side of the park when Lemomo got a call about something I had never seen before. We rushed to the swamp, with about 20 vans following us, to see a python strangling a gazelle. We watched for quite awhile but as it was getting dark we had to get back to the lodge. We were later told by a man in a private vehicle that he had stayed. The python started to ingest the head of the gazelle when all of a sudden the gazelles back legs started twitching, so the python extracted his mouth from the head and coiled all over again. I have spent eight weeks in the park and have never seen this before, so first timers, don’t expect to see this.
The next morning we headed to the airstrip for the flight back to Nairobi. At Wilson I quickly changed planes and got on the Samburu plane. It was about a 45 minute flight with no problems. I was met at the airstrip by my guide Sumaro and Simeon, my driver, as well as Shivani Bhalla, a lion researcher at Samburu. We went to Elephant Watch Camp where I was assigned to Tent 5 – another beautiful tent. I have now stayed in three of the five tents and they are all marvelous. Hand painting on lamps, toilets, etc. This camp was built by Oria Douglas-Hamilton, the wife of the elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton. His research camp is about four miles down the road from Elephant Watch. He has trained all the camp guides, who know all the Samburu elephants. You can get closer to elephants at Samburu than anywhere I have ever been. Met some very nice people here also. A presenter from Fox news in New York, a wonderfully funny young English chap and a honeymooning couple from Wales. Samburu was warm and it was nice to be able to wear shorts again.
On my first game drive we saw one of my favorite eles. Babyl, the one I had seen last August with the dislocated hip. She is doing well and had made it through the year well!! A young bull elephant about 20 – 25 years old named Chris starting walking right toward my side of the vehicle. When he was only feet away and extending his trunk I got a little nervous and leaned back on the seat. He meant no harm. Just trying to get our scent. However, this is the first time I have felt any nervousness close to eles. Interesting that it didn’t happen on my first trip huh?! Watched a wonderful scene near where old Larsen’s camp was. The elephants have gouged out the river bank in the shape of a huge bathtub. An ele. family approached and the matriarch walked down to the river and entered the “tub”. She kicked and splashed the water and was having an absolutely marvelous time when all the babies and adults were watching her and awaiting their turns. When she had had enough the babies entered the “tub” and amidst squeals and trumpets were also splashing and having a wonderful time. When they were done the adults did the same. It was an awesome sight and I got most of it on my video camera. On our last game drive at Samburu we saw Naserian, one of the leopards that Shivani knows about. Unfortunately there were about 30 safari vehicles surrounding her so I asked if we could please leave.
This brings up a point that I feel needs emphasizing. If on your drives you feel that your driver/vehicle is contributing to what amounts to harassment of wildlife please SPEAK UP and ask your driver to not contribute to it. At both Amboseli and Samburu, because they are both small parks, you often see 20 – 30 vehicles surrounding an animal to the point that the animal can no longer hunt, get to water, or indeed cross the road. This is not right and the only way it can be stopped is if each and every one of us speaks up. Sorry for the sermon, but I think it needs to be said anyway.
Got to the airstrip and caught the 10:50 flight to Wilson. Transferred to JKIA and caught the 2:30 plane to Mombasa. Am met there and driven to the Tamarind Village condo complex where I again have another lovely condo for the night. Am picked up the next morning, taken to Southern Cross Safari’s bus and we head for Tsavo East. The road from Mombasa to Tsavo is even more atrocious than before. It is truly dangerous with huge potholes and vehicles often traveling on the bumpy shoulder because it is safer than the road. Supposedly Kenya has awarded a contract to a Chinese company to re-do the road but nothing has improved so far. When we arrived at the Buchuma Gate we exited the bus and got in our respective Southern Cross Safaris Landrovers for the trip into Satao Camp. I was met by Bobby, the camp manager and he saw to it that I got my favorite tent, Kocha. The waterhole is right in front of my tent. When I got to the tent I was thrilled seeing so many elephants at the borehole. In fact, I never went on one game drive – I just sat on my veranda all day long video taping the elephants, hippos from Aruba Dam which are now back at the Satao waterhole, zebras, buffalo, hartebeest, giraffes, impalas, and many other species. It was truly wonderful. Tsavo was warm but not hot and muggy as usual.
I didn’t see one snake at Satao other than one the men killed the day before I got there, a baby black mamba. However, I did have one thrilling moment. In past trips to Satao the men have always told me when the lions were around camp and I would take my video camera to bed with me hoping to get the roaring sounds on video tape. I never got those sounds. One night I went to sleep around 10 p.m. At 3:05 a.m. I was awakened by the baboons barking in the tamarind tree near the borehole. I got up and walked to the mosquito netting at the front of the tent and saw nothing. I figured since I was up anyway I might as well go to the bathroom. I unzipped the back zip of the tent to the bathroom. I had just sat down to pee when GRRRR, GRRR, GRRR coming from right behind and both sides of the bathroom wall!!!! I very quickly got back into the tent and thought, ‘what should I do now”. Bobby had told me that the lions won’t bother people in the tents, and yet I had read books by Iain Allen and other Kenyans who warn people that if the lions try to get into your tent get under the bed and pull the mattress over the edge. I was thinking that perhaps I should dive under the bed when the noise started quieting down. Thus I sat in the middle of the bed waiting to see what would happen. Finally when I finally felt they were gone I lit a much-needed cigarette. Unfortunately because I didn’t expect them, I didn’t have my camera closeby to record the sound. In the morning Bobby and the askaris told me there were six lions behind my bathroom!! Wish I could have captured that sound. I may never get to hear it again.
I made my usual trip to Voi to see my older adopted elephant orphans. They are all doing well, even Mweiga with the bad heart. The only interesting thing I noted on the way to Voi was that all the grass on the left side of the road was green and the grass on the opposite side was burned. It almost looked as though the road was the rain line. Very strange. On the way back to camp from Voi we had to stop because in the middle of the road was a female ostrich dustbathing. She was soon joined by five other ostriches. When they were done with their dusting they calmly got up and left. Great fun!
I spent four wonderful days at Satao and then headed back to Buchuma Gate for my transfer to Southern Cross Safari’s new Satao Rock Camp in Taita Ranch just outside of Tsavo Park. I had heard a little about the new camp and wanted to see if myself. It is about a 10 mile drive from the Buchuma Gate. Taita Ranch is a private cattle ranch and they have leased space to Southern Cross for their new camp. I had thought it was built at the foot of a rocky outcropping. When we arrived at camp I was astounded to see that the tented camp had been built about half-way up this mammoth mountain of rock. I checked in and was given Tent 8, the farthest from the dining room but probably the one with the best views. To get to your tent you are walking up and down paths built into the rock. It is truly amazing. From my veranda the vistas were incredible. The mountains in the distance were fantastic. You could look down and see a waterhole and buildings which looked very small from that height. The tents were very comfortable as were the bathrooms. The food was amazing, probably the best I’ve had in Africa! We went on a game drive late that afternoon but didn’t see too much. However, on return to camp the men told me I’d have to walk to the very top of The Rock (above the tent level) to see the elephants climbing the mountain. I thought they were kidding me but went along with it. When we got to the top of the rock we saw a dam below that had two large crocodiles living in it. We could see elephants in the distance but I thought they would walk around the mountain to the waterhole. Instead, just as it was getting dark, the elephants started climbing the mountain!!! They climbed right up to the dam level and entered the dam forcing the crocs to the other side. It was thrilling. I knew elephants were good climbers, but had never seen it before.
Now folks, here I am, this old lady, pitch black outside, on top of a rocky mountain with who knows how many snakes around, wondering how the hell am I going to get down (there were no stairs folks!!). I pictured myself sliding off the mountain into the dam with the crocodiles. Luckily my driver had a torch (flashlight) and he grabbed my right hand and the guide my left and we started down the mountain in a chain, stepping from rock to rock (please God, no snakes on the rocks!) until we got to the dining hall. They asked if I wanted to go to my tent for a shower before dinner and I said absolutely not. If I walked all the way to my tent after that hike I wouldn’t want to walk back just to eat! Thus I bought drinks for all that night and later had supper. I met the man that built the camp and enjoyed the stories he told. I only had one night here, but it was fantastic. What an experience.
The next day I headed back to Nairobi. Relaxed that evening. The next morning I headed to Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to see some of my adopted baby elephants. There was such a crowd there visiting that I couldn’t get many pictures. But that was fine with me. I would rather more people learn about this magnificent organization and contribute to the many wonderful wildlife projects they are supporting. Of all the wildlife groups I have known or read about, this one does the most for the most species, not only elephants and rhinos. Daphne Sheldrick has been saving animals of all kinds since the 1950’s. She is 71 years old now and is still going strong. Many organizations are busy “doing their own thing” but don’t want to get involved with poor government/ wildlife policies so never speak their minds. Daphne is the one person I know of who regularly speaks up for wildlife and calls a spade a spade where the government and wildlife laws are concerned. I am so thankful for people such as Daphne. I truly don’t know anyone who does as much for so many animals, and we should all be grateful for this magnificent lady.
All in all it was another wonderful trip. I am already looking forward to returning mid to late January through early February. By then it should be a little warmer and a little greener. Hope it’s not too green or I won’t see as many animals as this time.