August 2004 Tsavo, Samburu and Amboseli
Just returned from the most fantastic Kenyan safari of six I have taken! Will try to outline some of the highlights, probably in three sections so as not to get too wordy. I must admit I was on an adrenaline rush almost the whole time.
Flew out of Boston on Thursday 7-29 and arrived Nairobi 7-30, with no trouble getting to the airport due to the Democratic National Convention. Spent two nights at the Holiday Inn (simply so I could go on the first complete day and visit some of the elephant orphans I have adopted in Nairobi National Park).
On Sunday 8-1 I flew to Mombasa. Was picked up and driven to the Tamarind Village condo complex where I was again installed in another beautiful condo. Spent a quiet evening on the veranda overlooking the harbor and watching the beautiful sunset.
The next morning I was picked up and driven to Tsavo East National Park - Satao Camp. Was greeted by the Camp Manager and the rest of the staff. The manager had half jokingly bought me a wooden whistle to blow if I saw any snakes this time (had seen deadly snakes on three previous visits). I got settled into my suite tent (much larger than the rest of the tents and they have a refrigerator and fan). Since it was still the dry season there were many of my elephants at the borehole. The second day at Tsavo was also perfect with many elephants keep me busy videoing. The weather was perfect at this time of year in Tsavo. Not hot and muggy as usual but warm enough for just a light blanket at night. On the third day my driver walked up to my tent to ask if I would be going on the 4 p.m. game drive. As he left I heard him yell something to the gardener who was watering the new grass. Guess what folks!! Another snake. This one was poisonous but not deadly - a link-marked snake. Just causes hemorrhaging and lymphadenitis (swelling of the lymph glands). They killed it. That evening we saw a huge buffalo that had been killed by lions the previous evening and two of them were lazily sleeping near the carcas. One lion guarding the kill had the most beautiful lion face I have ever seen. Hope my films turn out on this one.
Thursday my driver drove me to Voi to see some more of my adopted baby elephants. When we got there one of the former orphans who has been living wild for 8 or 9 years was at the waterhole with her two wildborn babies. She left for the bush. The keepers told us where to stand in order to watch the orphans come up the road returning from playing in the wild. I was standing on a stone wall waiting when suddenly everyone was yelling "Run, Run, Run"! I started running downhill on gravel, not knowing from what I was running, when I tripped and fell on my right knee and elbow. When I started getting up someone grabbed me and pulled me under the eletric fence. When I asked what I was running from they turned me around and I came face to face with Lissa and her two calfs. She apparently had not gone into the bush afterall but sneaked around the back of the stockades and had charged me!!! I asked my driver how close she was to getting me and he about about three feet away. Don't know if the fact that I fell had any impact on why she stopped the charge. Luckily I wasn't hurt and because I didn't know what I had been running from I wasn't scared.
The BBC is spending about 10 months with the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust filming all the orphans in Nairobi, Voi and Ithumba. They were in Voi at the time I got charged, so I will write Daphne Sheldrick and find out if the BBC cameras were going at the time. If so, I would love to see the 20 - 30 seconds of my being charged.
The next day I spent filming eles. at the borehole. I went into my tent and sat on the bed to write in my journal when I heard the birds squawking in the bushes in the adjacent tent. I asked the gardener if it might be a snake agitating them. He looked and at first didn't see anything. As the birds continued their ruckus he looked again. I then heard a whack, whack, whack and got up and looked and he had just killed a hissing cobra!. Everyone was fine - no injuries.
However, this does point out that in different places in Kenya there are different dangers. Tsavo does have a lot of snakes. As long as you watch where you are walking and listen to the birds and the monkeys (who often give warning) you will probably be alright. I have a funny feeling that the snakes in Tsavo are probably trying to get to a cool and/or damp place. They have been in the bush or nyika in the heat for so long that they try to find shade. The tents are surrounded by large Tamarind trees and of course the roofs are makuti over the tent which again provides shade. I have been told in several places that snakes also like to get under tents between the tent floor and the foundations - so don't go picking up tents without being prepared.
Even though the two snake episodes and being charged could have been serious, we were all able to laugh about them after the fact knowing that all was well. As I said, an adrenaline rush!
Part II - Samburu - Elephant Watch Camp - Samburu
After leaving Tsavo I flew back to Nairobi and spent one night. Then on Sunday, 8-8 I was taken to Wilson Airport where I boarded Air Kenya to Samburu. We stopped at Lewa Downs first to let off some passengers and could see both rhinos and giraffe on takeoff. The next stop was Samburu, just a short distance from Lewa. Was met at the airstrip by Elephant Watch Safari's Alfred and Sumaro. Started the drive into camp. Many, many elephants came within 5' of our vehicle. What a thrill. Then drove to the Uaso Nyiro riverbank and see a young male and female lion, again about 5 - 6' from the vehicle. What a rush! Then we spotted a man walking from the river and it turns out he was a safari driver who got stuck in the sand of the riverbank. We tried getting him out but we too got stuck. We finally got ourselves out and his passengers were taken to their camp until his van could be gotten out of the sand. We arrived at camp and were greeted by wonderful, charming Oria Douglas-Hamilton. For those who don't know, Iain is the gentleman who started research on elephants back in the early 1960's at Lake Manyara in Tanzania. He has created save-the-elephant.org. He has been collaring elephants for many years tracking where they go and learning all he can from them. Oria has been by Iain's side all these years.
Elephant Watch Camp is utterly fantastic and everyone who can should spend at least three nights there. Oria designed the entire camp herself. She decorated everything herself. There are many downed and dead trees in Samburu and these trees were used to make all kinds of one-of-a-kind furniture including sofas, chairs, tables and beds! She designed the shape and size of all the tents. These are not standard square or rectangular tents. Some are round, others other shapes. Instead of a plain canvas tent ceiling, part is canvas and part is like a mesh window. They sit under marula (similar to makuti) roofing.
The dining hall (mess tent) is gorgeous. Very high ceilings with silk streamers or banners running down to the poles. There is a large area to sit and relax or chat on sofas piled high with pillows of all kinds and shapes. There is a large library of books and videos and wildlife books on almost every table. A small bar is also on this side of the dining room. On the other side is a table with small objects one may purchase if one wishes. I got a beautiful sterling silver arm bracelet with a beautiful raised elephant. There are kikois and kangas as well as other objects. The dining table is again the base of a tree with a large circular glass atop. All the guests join Oria and Iain every night as they host dinner and lively conversation. Elephant Watch Camp has only five tents, so a maximum of 10 guests can be delightfully entertained. Oria is of Italian origin. She manages all the menus and cooking, and is it delicious! What a talented lady!
On game drives we saw many reticulated giraffe, impala, gerenuk, many elephants and finally I saw my first leopard! I have seen more up close in three days in Samburu than I have in five previous trips to Kenya. I saw giraffes necking (had only seen it on TV before), saw lions mating (only on TV before). Utterly fantastic.
We watched as one elephant mourned the death of a friend who died last October. It was incredible. If anyone thinks these animals do not have emotions, I will strongly disagree. The elephant walked in acting totally normally. Then she started sniffing the exact spot where the elephant had died and just stood there for quite a long while with her trunk hanging and inactive and she actually looked sad. I am confident she was remembering her old friend. I had read about events like this in Joyce Poole's book, Cynthia Moss's book and indeed Iain's book but I still had some doubt in my mind. That doubt has now been erased. Luckily I got most of this on video tape so I will remember it fondly forever.
A short time later we were sitting in the vehicle on the banks of the Uaso Nyiro River watching a herd of eles. down below drinking. Alfred and Sumaro told me to watch what would happen next. Another family, a more dominant one, approached from the back right side of our vehicle. The matriach trumpeted loudly and the eles. already at the river ran up the bank to the left side of our vehicle. We were now totally surrounded by approximately 30 - 40 eles. trumpeting and rumbling back and forth! Remember, these eles. know Iain and his staff very well and aren't at all afraid of them. I was so excited trying to video, dropping the video camera and grabbing my 35 mm., then getting some more video. It was unbelievable. They were close enough to touch!!! Eventually after many trumpets and rumbles, the more dominant group forced the other group, which had already been at the water, away and lead her family down to the river.
We sat and watched for a long time a Mama ele. trying to teach her younster how to use both teeth, trunk and tusks while pulling branches of trees down. It was super.
Then, Alfred and Sumaro had been telling me of one ele. who was so sweet that she would walk right up to them. Sumaro is a Samburu warrior and wears the usual Samburu clothes and headbands. The Samburu love to put silk flowers in their headbands. This young ele. would walk right up to the vehicle and reach out for Sumaro's flowers on his headband, and Sumaro would have to lean back into the vehicle so she couldn't get the flowers. Well, we were sitting watching many eles. when the above lovely ele. came out of the trees with a piece of blanket on her head! At dinner other guests told us they had seen this stuck on a tree. It was if she was saying to Sumaro, "you can wear adornments on your head and so can I". It was really funny to see. After a minute or so she put her trunk up and took it off.
Meeting Oria and Iain was a thrill in itself for me. I had many of my questions about elephants answered by Iain and was able to visit Save-the-Elephants office about four miles down the road from the camp.
The weather in Samburu was similar to Tsavo. Very comfortable, one light blanket weather.
If you have only three days to spend in Kenya, spend them at Elephant Watch Camp. You will never regret it.
Part III - Amboseli
Afer the excitement of Tsavo and Samburu I figured my "home away from home" would be quite dull and unexciting.
I stayed as usual at Ol Tukai Lodge. I thought it was near perfect before, but you should see the many improvements. New walkway or boardwalk to reception, new brick pavement for driveway, new swimming pool, and many, many other improvements. The management has done a fantastic job. Remember, this lodge was built only in 1996 to replace the old bandas. Since Block Hotels couldn't keep it up, Ol Tukai is now back in the hands of the architect who created it and what positive things he is doing! The best part of this lodge is its wonderful, caring staff.
I found out that the "new" Sopa Lodge is outside the park and is the former Buffalo Lodge.
To any of you considering Amboseli, I would suggest at least two nights and I would definitely advise Ol Tukai Lodge. I have been to the Serena and it really isn't in a very pretty area at all. Tortillis has a great reputation, but again not a very pretty area. In both of these lodges you have to drive into the main swamp area to see the animals anyway, so you might as well stay at Ol Tukai, a very attractive area, and see all the animals from your room.
This being our summer, all the lodges and camps were full almost all the time with families enjoying their holidays together. I told everyone now they would have to stop blaming the US and UK for their travel decline since things were on the upswing again (admittedly mostly Europeans).
The weather at Amboseli again surprised me. It would be delightful from about 10 a.m. until about 5 p.m. Wore shorts and sleeveless blouse all day long. However, about 5 p.m. a cold wind would start to blow off Kilimanjaro and from that time on you would need a heavy sweater, sweatshirt or fleece jacket. Also, at night I used an extra blanket folded in half on top of the regular blanket. Remember, the lodges and tents aren't air tight like our homes. Anyone planning a trip between now and November should definitely take a warm sweatshirt or fleece with them.
We had a mini-migration in Amboseli. I have never seen so many wildebeests and zebra.
However, one day we saw a hyena who had already obviously allready eaten attack the behind of a zebra. Her buttocks were eaten away. Later in the day the zebra was down but trying to get up. Wish I had had a gun to put her out of her misery. The next morning the vultures were there and all that was left was the skin of the neck.
We saw a Mama lion and her five cubs eating a zebra they had killed during the night in the swamp. When they finished they all went to lie down and rest. Then a herd of about 30 - 40 eles appeared and would not walk any further until the lioness and her babies had moved.
There weren't nearly as many eles. this time as there are in January-February. We saw many hippos in the swamp and enjoyed watching them cavort. We watched as a large herd of zebra were drinking at a waterhole when some Maasai herding their cattle into the park chased all the zebra away so the cattle could drink.
Someone in Kenya really needs to do something about the Maasai in the Kilimanjaro area. The government built them their own pipeline so they could water their livestock, and they deliberately broke it so they would have an excuse to go back into the park.
Last Tuesday the elephant researchers found a Mama elephant who had been speared 7 times by the Maasai. Five of the spears had already fallen out. Two were still deeply embedded in her skull and bent in half (I doubt very much that they were thrown by a 14 year old moran - must have been a much stronger man). They called the veterinarian in, and the ele. was darted. Four men couldn't pull the spears from her skull. They were embedded 8 - 10" deep!! They had to use a "spanner" to knock it loose! There is absolutely no excuse for this type of barbarism. And no, I have no pity for the Maasai. They knew when they built their manyattas there over the last 10 years that the eles. went there nightly. They claim eles. kill their cattle - why is it then that you never, never see an elephant killing cattle, zebra, wildebeest or anything else in the park, and yet they kill outside the park? Maasai yelling at, throwing at or otherwise scaring the eles?
The next day I went out with the researchers trying to find the above elephant. We couldn't find her, but found her family. While watching the family, the researcher disovered that two of them had also been speared! She called the veterinarian who was on his way back to Tsavo East and had him return. I was lucky enough to be with them and in the vehicle with the vet. when he darted this second female. As soon as she started falling down the rest of her family was chased away, ropes were placed around her neck and she was pulled onto her side (if eles. stay lying on their chests their lungs will collapse). The vet. explained to me that it was not an anesthetic but an immobilizer - the ele. is awake and can hear and see, she just can't move. Thus everyone tried to do their job as quietly and quickly as possible. The vet. dug into the wound and cleaned out as much pus as possible and then added some antibiotic and a drain. I was kept busy taking pictures with the researchers camera for them and my own 35 mm. and my video camera. Got some good pictures on video and I hope the 35 mm. also turn out well.
If any of you cares about elephants half as much as I do, it is letter writing time again. We didn't succeed with our last batch of letters, but when and if my pictures of the female with the spears in her head turn out, I will submit them to the Kenya newspapers with an article "Is this How You Want the World to Remember Kenya?" Perhaps if enough Kenyans, who often do not get to see wildlife as we do, see it and are shocked and horrifed by it as I was, maybe they will start putting pressure on their own government to finally do something.
Unfortunately KWS doesn't seem to know what they are doing at this point. When the first ele. with the spears in her head was found, the researchers called Nairobi and asked for more KWS help. They were sent to Amboseli and were told by the KWS rangers at Amboseli that "no elephants have been speared" and they went back to Nairobi. It wasn't until pictures of the elephant were sent to Nairobi that finally people started listening.
Everyone at Amboseli was talking about the possible privitization of KWS and all were very upset and angry about their legacy for their people being sold to the highest bidder so to speak. However, in the Nation of 8-19-04 the board of KWS has axed the board chairman in his "controversial bid to privitize KWS" and has also
"reprimanded" Evans Mukolwe who is the Director of KWS. We will still need to be vigilent about this in the future, but I think a lot of Kenyans are very much aware of what would happen if privitization takes place and don't want to see this happen.
Other than the sad events in Amboseli, (though exciting for me to be able to take part in the rescue), it was the most thrilling of my six trips. At the airport layover in Amsterdam I already started working on January/February trip!NO
NOTE: I understand concern for the snakes. However, unless you have a herpetologist or an expert on hand who knows how to safely remove them and also has antivenin on hand it is best to do away with them when unknowing people are around. There are so many in Kenya. I never saw one in Samburu, but I was told that one of the warriors that I met had been bitten several months ago by a cobra. They immediately applied compression dressings and drove him to Intrepids Camp where they apparently have an infirmary with antivenin on hand. Luckily for this young man, he survived. However, many Africans die each year by accidentally stepping on snakes.
I am not trying to scare anyone. Just please be aware of your surroundings as you walk, particularly in Tsavo or Samburu with their hot climates.
I have noticed over my six trips that most safari goers walk around like they are in a zoo and perfectly safe from all dangers. They are totally unaware of possible dangers. They don't stay on the paths as they are told and will walk right up to an electric fence with elephants and buffalo on the other side. They are just inviting tragedy.
It behooves all of us to remember that we are in the animals territory and it is our responsibility to watch out for them, not the other way around. If everyone uses good judgment all should be well.