JAN'S KENYA TRIP REPORT
2-2-08 – 2-21-08
After booking my trip to Kenya, my 13th since 2001, I had real misgivings due to the strife in the country following the much disputed elections. Even my family were questioning whether or not I should go, putting myself in harms way. After many emails between safari company within Kenya, friends who work in the lodges and camps, wildlife authorities (one even promising that if anything broke out within the parks/reserves I would personally have an armed escort out) I decided to proceed with my plans. I did for the first time, however, register with the U.S. Embassy in Kenya so they would know where I was in the country “just in case”. It turned out that all the worry and concern was for nothing. Unless one is preparing to go to the western province or one of the slum areas, travel is perfectly safe.
I would suggest for anyone now interested in going to Kenya, please use a Kenyan tour operator. They know precisely what is going on in the country and where the trouble spots are. If you deal with them you are almost 100% going to be safe. I have personally used Southern Cross Safaris for all my 13 trips and I have always found them to be excellent in their handling of tourists (www.southerncrosssafaris.com). There are many other local Kenyan operators also that you could use. It is far better doing it this way than using a tour operator in your home country that isn’t up to date on what is happening.
I left Logan airport in Boston on Saturday, February 2nd. I had a three hour layover in Amsterdam. When I got on the plane in Amsterdam for Nairobi I was a little frightened. I had just put my camera backpack in the overhead bin when a man ran running and screaming into the back entrance of the plane followed by five men grabbing at him. My first thought was an attempted highjacking and I immediately moved out of the aisle and got in my seat. The stewardess must have seen the shock on my face and came to me and explained not to be concerned. The screaming man was being deported, something KLM apparently did regularly. She assured me that once the plane took off he would quiet down – he was screaming because he didn’t want to go back to Kenya. We never learned what his offence was, but the stewardess was indeed right, as soon as the plane took off he was quiet. Whenever he needed to use the men’s room, two guards escorted him and waited outside the door until he came out and escorted him to the back row.
Incidentally, Schiphol airport is now totally non-smoking. They wouldn’t even let me go outside for a cigarette between flights! By July 1 everything will be no public smoking, including all hotel rooms, bars, restaurants, etc. Thus by the time I arrived in Nairobi I was ready to kill anyone getting in my way of getting off the plane, getting visa and luggage. The Southern Cross Safaris airport representative, Benson Maluki, met me at the luggage carousel and walked me past Customs and let me light up as soon as we got out of the building.
The ride to the Holiday Inn was the quickest I have ever traveled. There were very few vehicles on the road and no-one walking. Due to the clashes people are apparently trying to be home and off the streets after dark. I checked in and was presented with an empty box (as I requested). I have a friend who is a lion researcher in Samburu, and she had asked me if I would transport three Nikon binoculars and several headlamps and batteries for her that she ordered through Amazon.com. When I got to my room I placed her articles in the box, labeled the box to be left with the hotel manager who knows her family very well. I was flying out to Amboseli leaving the hotel at 6 a.m. and her family would pick the box up around 9 a.m.
I got to Wilson Airport about 6:45 a.m. I was the first there. They immediately recognized me as the lady whose luggage is always overweight and who they make extra money from for being over weight. However, this time since tourism was way down and since I was the only one flying to Amboseli they did not charge me extra.
On take-off from Nairobi I noticed many new buildings that have gone up since my August trip that look like 3 – 4 story housing. It was an extremely cloudy day so I didn’t see much down below until we touched down on the Amboseli airstrip. I got the feeling that the flight was a training flight. We had a male and female pilot. My gut reaction was that he was training her. She flew most of the way, but when we landed on one wheel he immediately took control and all was well.
I was met at the airstrip by Lemomo (my usual guide) and the lodge secretary. Usually my friend Rachel, the head of guest relations meets me. I learned that her father-in-law had died that weekend and she was off for the funeral that day. We headed for Ol Tukai Lodge where I was greeted by many old friends and checked into my preferred room (an elephant view room overlooking Longinye Swamp where you can watch elephants and other wildlife all day long).
On my first game drive after arrival I found many elephants (about 300 currently in the park) but much fewer zebra, wildebeest, gazelles, giraffe) than before. We noted a small abandoned baby hippo all alone. He has been on his own for awhile and seems to be surviving. His back left leg has a deformity, ? question fracture, ? genetic problem, but manages to walk where ever he wants to go. That week we saw cheetah on quite a few occasions as well as a serval cat. On one of the game drives we could see rain coming. Since the Landcruiser has canvas sides with zip-up windows, Lemomo got out and zipped the windows, then it started to POUR! Wouldn’t you know it, on the ride back to the lodge we came upon a group of lions relaxing in the rain. I did not dare suggest Lemomo get out and unzip the window, but he did manage to unzip one little corner so I could stick the camera out and get a few shots. Due to the rain, within about two – three days areas that had been brown then greened up quickly. It is amazing to me to see how quickly this happens in Africa. If grass at home dries up and browns, it takes days of heavy watering before it greens up.
On one game drive we could see the elephant research vehicles along with the veterinarian’s vehicle. They were off-road between two swamps, and we could not follow. Lemomo asked his sister, who is one of Cynthia Moss’s researchers, what had happened. He was told a 13 year old bull elephant from the IB family had been speared in December. Since Dr. Ndeerah (the usual vet) was on holiday that month a veterinarian from Nairobi had been called in. He had treated the bull twice but the leg was still badly infected. Thus Dr. Ndeerah was called and darted the bull (for the third time) and spent a long time cleaning out the wound, giving the antidote and watching the young elephant run off. The researchers were hopeful that since this treatment was more thorough than the previous two, that the infection and the antibiotics given, would cure the elephant.
Ol Tukai Lodge was as great as ever. The management wanted to completely re-do the rooms and the employees had already re-done two rooms including new baths with granite counters. However, the management didn’t feel it was quite what they were looking for. The week I spent there they had designers all over the place who would prepare a presentation for redecoration. Once the plan is agreed upon, they hope to have all the rooms redecorated within the next few months. Thus I will be excited to return again in August and see what they have decided upon for design and accomplished.
Many of the usual employees I know were not present during my visit. What many of the lodges/camps have done is insist employees use their vacation time (paid). Since there are far fewer tourists a large number of employees are currently not needed. I was assured these people were not “laid-off” with no pay but were indeed getting vacation pay.
Another decision made, which was probably a good one, is that right after the clashes started employees were told not to talk politics. About half the employees were Kibaki backers and half for Odinga. Many tribes are represented in this group of employees and they have always gotten along very well. Management didn’t want politics to affect the lodge family and it has worked. They are all still getting along very well, not letting tribal differences interfere in their lives.
Almost all lodges/camps have instituted changes in the generator schedules. At Ol Tukai the power was off all day long, coming on around 6 p.m. and going off around 11 p.m. The only thing that one needs to consider is getting camera batteries charged at the appropriate times. It did also affect laundry. Normally when my laundry was picked up in the morning I would have it back the same afternoon/evening. However, since the laundry could be done only at night, it delayed getting the clean, pressed clothes back to the following afternoon.
Sunday, the day before I was leaving Amboseli, I made the mistake of “pigging out”. The chef, knowing I loved shredded carrot salad with pineapple and also red cabbage slaw, made me a huge containing both salads. I also had a pork chop, two small potatoes, and a scoop of fresh garden spinach. That afternoon my stomach was as hard as a rock and I was very uncomfortable. Then during the night I awoke with vomiting and diarrhea (something I had never had before). In the past I had flown by charter flight from Amboseli to Tsavo. However, the plane was grounded awaiting for a part. Knowing I had a seven hour drive ahead of me in the morning from Amboseli to Tsavo East, I took an Imodium and hoped. However, by the morning I knew I couldn’t make the drive that day. I stayed in my room just not feeling well at all. Rachel visited me on numerous occasions and had the lodge nurse come and see me. He brought me Buscopan (an antispasmodic) and Diadis if I needed it for diarrhea. As the day went on I felt a little better but was still so bloated I looked seven months pregnant! That evening the nurse came again. I had more attention given me by Rachel and Samuel (the nurse) then I could ever have gotten in a clinic here. I was deeply grateful to both of them.
The next morning I met my Southern Cross Safaris driver, Shiyuka and we started for Tsavo East. When I had flown to Tsavo before I was busy taking pictures of the mountains and craters and had never been through Tsavo West before so this was a new experience for me. We were stopped before entering Tsavo West to pick up a General Services Unit escort (armed). While waiting for him to join us we had the usual dozens of Maasai at the vehicle window trying to sell bracelets, carved items, canes, etc. On our way again I noted that the bush was much thicker and we saw very few animals along the way. I had never seen the Shetani Lava Flow before, so we stopped for 10 minutes while Shiyuka explained it to me.
A little further along the road we saw a vehicle across the road, and my first thought was it was a hold-up/robbery. Then as we got closer it turned out to be a Sheldrick Wildlife Trust bus filled with young school children with the driver/guide pointing things out to them.
While on the subject of Sheldrick Wildife Trust I must honestly state that I feel that this is the best wildlife organization going. Not only does the Trust raise the orphaned elephants and rhinos, but they have seven desnaring teams that walk the boundaries of the park collecting snares and arresting those setting them, they have the veterinary team for Amboseli-Tsavo and another vet. team caring for the wildlife in the Mara/ Rift Valley. They work closely with schools explaining wildlife conservation, have donated huge sums of money donated to them to Kenya Wildlife Service for fuel for vehicles, parts for the anti-poaching airplane, have installed fencing in areas of high human-
Wildlife conflict, and installed windmills in Tsavo to draw water for the wildlife. I would encourage any and all of you to help them out by adopting an orphan ($50.00 a year) or contributing to the veterinary or desnaring teams. Your money will be well spent. It can be done safely using a credit card online. Since tourism is down, their income is also down but their costs remain high (they have to fly in the milk substitute for the orphans from England as well as hire charter planes for rescue) as well as all their other expenses including veterinary care.
We exited Tsavo West at the Mtito Andei Gate and then proceeded along good highway from there to Voi where we entered Tsavo East National Park. From Voi to Satao Camp we saw many elephants along the way. I was welcomed by many of my Satao friends and immediately made to feel right at home. They had saved my favorite tent, Kocha, for me and I immediately started watching the wildlife at the waterhole. I had forgotten the difference in temperature between Amboseli and Tsavo and it was a bit of shock to the system which necessitated a quick, cool shower.
There were not nearly as many elephants at the waterhole as I had seen in August, partly because there were still puddles of water in the roads from previous rains, and the elephants could get water there (they save the waterholes for when there is no water available anywhere else).
Due to decreased tourist numbers, many of the lodges and camps had instituted a power-saving (money-saving for the camp owners) order of limited generator use. At Ol Tukai the generators were off all day long and came on at 6 p.m. and went off around midnight. At Satao the generators were on from 11 a.m. until about 3 p.m. and then on from 6:30 – 11 p.m. In the past the waterhole had been lit all night long which was great. When one heard animals during the night you just had to sit up in bed and look at the waterhole and know what was going on. However, with the flood lights off now it did diminish the safari experience for me personally. Where I am in a room/tent alone, and since I had been robbed on a previous trip, I sleep lightly, and if I hear a noise I am awake quickly and want to be able to see what is around. Thus if lighting at night is important to you, check with your tour operator before you leave to see what the lighting/generator rules are now.
During the night I heard the hippos grunting at the waterhole. I mentioned it to the manager in the morning and he said they had left. Satao shares the hippos from Aruba Dam. When the water level in Aruba gets very low, the hippos come and stay at the Satao waterhole. Apparently what had happened is that the 4 year old male hippo had come to the waterhole on his own without his family. During the night his family had arrived and convinced him to move elsewhere, so that by the time I got up they had all disappeared.
At breakfast Bobby, the manager, asked me if I had been awakened by all the commotion near the restaurant during the night (I hadn’t as my tent is quite a distance away). Apparently between 11 p.m. and midnight a leopard had walked into camp and grabbed one of the impala right behind one of the tents. (Satao now has a resident herd of almost 100 impala and 40 waterbuck. They are all out in the bush during the day, but as evening approaches they all come into the center of camp). Thus Bobby and I followed the drag marks of the kill to a tree at least 200 yards from camp where the leopard had hidden the carcass. Though we know the big cats are strong, I wouldn’t have believed the leopard could have dragged a 100 pound animal for that distance and then managed to put it up high in a tree.
After returning to my tent, a herd of 20 old male buffalos arrived for their daily water followed by a large family of elephants and their babies. In the past there had only been 3 or 4 buffalo there. It was a 2-shower afternoon this day. Temperature was well over 100 degrees!
Another interesting event I watched on a few occasions was the way the jackals make friends with the impala families. The impalas would be lying down for the night and the jackals would be in amongst them. The impalas got so used to the jackals being there that they didn’t see them as a threat. Then on two occasions the jackals just grabbed one of the newborn impalas and ran off with them to have their feast. One would think that the impalas would learn and become leery of jackals, but they don’t.
I went to the dining room at supper time, though I am still not feeling like eating. I had a Coke and sat and talked with friends when it started to pour. Not the typical Tsavo 5 minute shower. Thunder and lighting, unusual for February in Tsavo. I knew I wouldn’t see many animals the next day as there would be water everywhere. Indeed, the next day only bull elephants were at the waterhole along with zebra, giraffe, waterbuck, impala, kongoni, wart hogs, etc. As I was enjoying watching the bulls, one of them walked right up towards my tent looking at me the whole time. I asked an askari if he was close enough that I needed to go inside the tent, but he reassured me that the bull had no bad intentions and that everything was OK. It made me wonder if this could have been one of the former Sheldrick orphans because he didn’t seem at all uncomfortable in the presence of people.
I noticed several differences in the elephants in Amboseli and Tsavo, and I’m not quite sure of the reasons for it. I’ll try to get an answer from one of the experts. In Amboseli the young, usually male, elephants are always sparring with one another. In Tsavo you rarely see it. In Amboseli the older bulls are usually off by themselves, joining the female groups when in musth for breeding purposes. In Tsavo you will often see a group of 7 – 8 bulls always traveling together, not off on their own. Also, on all my previous trips to Satao the big bull elephants would spend their entire day lying in the waterhole and only get out to feed at night. This time, despite it being very hot, the bulls never went into the waterhole – only drank from it. Interesting.
At dinner time my stomach still wasn’t right and I didn’t feel like eating. The bartender suggested Angostoura bitters which I had never heard of. I tried it and it amazingly did help a little bit. Thus I will keep that in mind should I ever have a stomach problem again.
While in Amboseli there were very few tourists with the lodge only about half-full. At Satao with only 20 tents they were almost full every night. It was school vacation and a lot of families from Mombasa brought their kids out for a day in the bush. Because there were so many young children in camp, Bobby decided to leave the generator on all night meaning the waterhole was again lit at night (Yeah).
Finally on Saturday, almost a week since the tummy upset, I felt like eating and started enjoying the wonderful Kenyan food again. This was an unusual event and I won’t let it stop me from enjoying the great cuisine.
The next morning a large matriarchal herd of elephants arrived at the waterhole and had their fill of water. They started to leave and came to a dead stop beside my tent. They stayed for an entire hour and I was able to get some good video and pictures of them. I am convinced that elephants remember people, voices and smells. I always talk to the elephants as they pass next to my tent. I am convinced that this family remembered my voice, knew that I was no threat and stayed close by.
This day I saw a young male elephant I had originally seen back around 2003. There were two bulls in 2003 I had seen at a waterhole in the Ndara Plains, both badly crippled, the older one with an old fracture of his right leg around the ankle area and
a younger one, about 12 years old with a totally stiff right knee. I was told by Simon Trevor, a wildife photographer who lives in Tsavo that both the elephants had been hit by the Nairobi-Mombasa train. I saw the older one at Satao last year so I knew he was still alive but I hadn’t seen the younger one. Today the younger one showed up beside my tent. Thus despite their severe injuries, they have survived and are doing well. Both realize their weaknesses. They always give way when they see other elephants approaching so as not to be jostled or knocked off balance, but they have been able to travel about 20 miles, eat and drink and it was so good seeing them. One wonders about the amount of pain they might be having, but one has to remember that animals feel pain differently than we humans. ( A dog of mine had a mastectomy and hysterectomy and the next day was up and running around like she had never had surgery). I would surmise there is arthritic like pain for these elephants, but still they seem to be doing well.
This is the first time on safari that I began to feel resentment of policies. We all know that tourists are charged a higher rate than the residents/citizens in both park fees and lodge/camp rates. This had never bothered me until now. However, the past two weeks I’ve seen so many WEALTHY Kenyan families showing up in parks and lodges paying a heck of a lot less than I and I felt it unfair. As tourists we hope our higher park fees and lodge/camp rates will allow poor families to see what we see when we see their beautiful country and wildlife, and learn to appreciate it as we do. However, when you see family after family pulling up in their LandRovers, with several nannies, drivers, etc. it makes me think we are being played for fools. I have mentioned this to KWS and to lodge/camp owners, but there is really no politically correct way for them to distinguish which citizens can afford to pay full rates. It was because of the political turmoil that occurred and the tourist agencies trying to promote local tourism that this was so very obvious this time. I don’t like feeling this way, but it did happen. No easy answers.
Sunday evening after 6 p.m. when the reception had closed for the night (people aren’t supposed to be driving in the park after dark), tooting and honking occurred from the car park. A group of six (three couples) who work in the port in Mombasa arrived drunk as skunks. Sorry Nico, but they were all Italian. They sat on their verandas talking loudly. When one of the askaris was chasing a big male baboon away from camp the men were yelling at him (not a good sign). These folks somehow managed to stagger to the dining room at dinner time thoroughly wasted. There wasn’t much the manager could do – he couldn’t send them away from camp (driving at night is illegal in parks plus they were so drunk they might have killed wildlife along the way). After dinner Bobby and I sat around the campfire talking of events we had seen that day. One of the men approached me and Bobby just pulled me up and insisted walking me to my tent and had the askaris walk the drunks to their tents (adjacent to mine). The next morning they were sobered up and quiet. As the day went on they started drinking again, and again became obnoxious. They were yelling at and teasing another large male baboon standing just below their veranda. When the baboon jumped onto the veranda railing they all jumped back and threw things at the baboon (even though they had provoked him). I used by walkie-talkie to call the askari and he read the riot rules to them. As they left camp they emptied the contents of all their bottles they brought with them onto the African bush.
The day before I left Satao a large wedding party arrived. The couple were from England and had brought many of their friends with them. They were staying at Satao for two nights and then the wedding would be performed at Satao Rock. Once the wedding was over at the Rock, the Rock would be closed until July 1st. Since tourist numbers were down so much, Southern Cross Safaris would keep only two of their three camps open – Satao and Elerai. Also adding to this is the fact that there were over 20,000 cattle in Taita Ranch, so game drives at the Rock weren’t possible now. Hopefully in July, August and September tourists will feel safe coming back to Kenya and camps/lodges will again be at their normal capacity.
Since the charter plane was still grounded, they sent a private vehicle to drive me from Satao to Moi Airport. On the way out of Tsavo we saw many, many elephant families enjoying the grass and water in many waterholes. The road from Buchuma Gate to Mombasa has now been completed (about time!) and is great. I now wouldn’t hesitate to drive rather than fly.
On my last day in Kenya I made my usual trip to see the Sheldrick elephant and rhino orphans. All were fat and happy and doing well, and it was so good to see and talk with Dame Daphne and her daughter Angela. Before I left home for Kenya Angela had asked if I would be able to bring some adoption brochures back to the U.S. with me. I heartily agreed to do so. When I was at Sheldrick Trust they showed me the brochures and my heart sank. It was a full carton of adoption certificates and pictures, which I knew I couldn’t fit into my duffel. However, they had a spare duffel and we fit them all into the borrowed duffel and I guaranteed they would get to the U.S. (for a fund raiser in the state of Washington). I then went to Kazuri Bead Factory and picked up some beautiful necklaces to give to the ladies who covered for me at work while I was away.
Upon my return to my hotel my friend Shivani Bhalla, the Samburu lion researcher, was waiting for me. We had a lovely lunch together and she brought me up to date on her work. She told me of a new lodge, Sasaabe, just outside Samburu, which she said is beautiful. She said there is a difference between the lions in Samburu and those outside. The Samburu lions are much easier to find (not as much bush) and are habituated to people/vehicles. It is much harder finding them outside Samburu due to thicker bush and fear of people. You can keep up to date on Shivani’s work by going to
www.ewasolions.org. Shivani is trying to find out what effect, if any, the lions have on the decline of the Grevy zebra. Thus she is collecting lion feces, drying it out in her tent, and then searching for Grevy zebra hairs in the dung. You can read of a close encounter she had at http://www.ewasolions.org/diary.php?hash=35ba54939852b66d72dad9206b192785&mnid=13&page=
It was wonderful having the opportunity of seeing this lovely young lady again and following up with her studies and work.
Alas, that evening it was time to leave Kenya. On showing up at JKIA I checked in and went to the area where smoking was allowed. Guess what? They now have a no smoking policy. Thus I exited the building and hid in the back of a parking lot to have my last smoke before Amsterdam. Upon arrival in Amsterdam, with an eight hour layover, I decided to get a hotel room where I could relax and have a smoke if I wished. I stayed at the Courtyard Marriott which was very nice. I was told by reception there that all of Amsterdam including restaurants, hotels, everything will be non-smoking starting July 1, this despite the fact that 60% of these people are smokers. He said it will be interesting because the no smoking rule goes against another law there of not discriminating. Thus they are breaking their own law of discrimination in their creating the non-smoking law.
Before I had left for Kenya I had read of empty planes flying to and from Nairobi. However, I must state that on every single flight to and from Kenya the flights were totally full (with the exception of my flight to Amboseli in which I was the only passenger). The trip from Amsterdam to Boston was likewise full. We circled the airport for a long time. The pilot then came on the intercom and announced that due to a snow storm we might have to land in Syracuse, New York (a 7 hour drive away). Luckily they managed to plow the snow from one runway and we were able to land safely.
Home at last,, but already wishing I were back in Kenya.