Jan's Kenya Trip Report
7-28-08 - 8-18-08
The much awaited day has finally arrived! Last minute packing done, I wait for the Airport Limo driver to pick me up. Then a quick 40 minute drive to Boston, check in and we're off! As usual, the plane was full from Boston to Amsterdam. Two hours between flights and then we're on our way to Nairobi. On both flights the planes were totally full. Thus despite everyone saying business is not yet back to normal in Kenya, there were certainly plenty of people arriving on 7-29-08!
Knowing there is an additional Visa booth down the hallway at JKIA, I rushed toward it. Most people aren't aware of this extra booth and go to the only one visible. Thus I was first in line for the one furthest down the hall from the one most people use. I plunked my $50.00 dollar bill down, gave him my signed visa entry application and waited. Instead of stamping the passport pages, they now have a full page form they fill out, peel off the back protective cover and paste it into the visa. It will use up a passport much quicker this way because this pasted document takes up an entire page. Once the visa process was completed I went to the luggage carousel. It was a little more organized this time and didn't take quite as long for the luggage to come through. I immediately innocently walked past the "nothing to declare" booth and went out the door. My Southern Cross Safaris representatives met me, lead me to the vehicle, allowed me to have a much-needed smoke and then we were off to Holiday Inn. Again due to jet lag I slept from 11 p.m. - 1:30 a.m. and then was awake the rest of the night.
Kenya too has now instituted a no-smoking policy, not only in enclosed rooms/areas but also outdoors. There is no legal place near JKIA one can have a cigarette. Moi Airport is much better with a designated area curbside. Hotels still have rooms you can smoke in. However, many of the out-door lodge bars have instituted a no-smoking policy (doesn’t make sense to me when there is a strong breeze blowing the smoke away). In one place they had smokers sit outside the bar at the fire pit, and the smoke just blew into the bar anyway. Go figure! Anyway, the fine is 50,000 KES or jail, so if you are a smoker beware!
I had an early breakfast and was picked up at 6:15 for the trip to Wilson Airport. Again because my bags were overweight I had to go to the office and pay extra. The Amboseli plane today was an 18 seater, and all seats were filled. The flight lasted about 40 minutes and then we touched down on the airstrip. I was met by Rachel, head of guest relations, and Lemomo, my driver guide from Ol Tukai Lodge. Due to the fact that I was having a lot of pain with my left leg, I decided to forego the 10 a.m. game drive and spent the time getting unpacked and organized for the week. After lunch I started back on my Naprosyn (NSAID) hoping it would knock out the inflammation and relieve the pain. On the afternoon game drive we saw lions lying in the road, lions off the road and some cheetahs relaxing - as well as my favorite elephants. I was also fortunate to see Echo and her famous family, now numbering 35!
The next day on a game drive Lemomo tell me that the lion population in Amboseli is now up to 50!! Great news because we didn't see many in February and I was concerned about it. Then Lemomo gets a cell phone call and hands me the phone. It was Phillip from Southern Cross Safaris in Mombasa telling me they would have to make other arrangements for my charter air flight to Tsavo on 8-6-08. The Southern Cross Safaris charter plane had crashed!! I was extremely concerned about the pilot, Verner, whom I had gotten to know over a few charter flights and was told that he was "recovering". I decided that rather than have them schedule another charter company I didn't know, and didn't know if that company's pilot had ever landed on Satao's grass airstrip, to have SXS send a driver for me again (it had worked well in February).
That afternoon, because the lodge's Nairobi office had overbooked the lodge, I gave up my seat in the Landcruiser to people who had never been there before. However, Rachel insisted I go on a game drive and arranged for the sons of the elephant researchers to take me out. I felt badly about this, feeling sorry for two young men having to take an old lady out -- but we had a wonderful time and I am so glad I went. We were up close watching Echo's family when a young bull elephant of about 10 years old decided to charge us (bluff charge). He ran at us full tilt trumpeting wildly, and then as soon as he got about 10 - 15 feet from us he'd come to a dead stop. We would start off in the vehicle again and he would repeat it over and over - until he got close to his Mama. Then he walked slowly to her side and shut up and behaved himself. It was great fun.
The next day it was very cold, probably about 45 - 50 degrees (colder than I remember in Amboseli in August before). Saw many elephants and so many more hippos this time than before. Before lunch I decide to go to my room and read, but it was so cold in the room that I need a blanket just to keep comfortable - and with the comfort I fell deeply asleep (still had jet lag I guess) and didn't wake until 1:30. Had to rush to lunch that day! A helicopter arrived later in the day dropping off guests for Kibo Village and "parked" very close to the lodge (dangerous). They also did an air game drive in the park scaring many of the animals. I have to remember to write KWS about this. It does not seem right that private planes should be frightening off the wildlife (the animals are used to the larger planes using the airstrip - but they were afraid of the helicopter). Planes with dangerous fuel should only be allowed to "park" at the airstrip and not close to building and lots of people. Guess Kenya doesn't have any hazardous material strictions.
I was fortunate enough to go on a game drive with the elephant researchers and watched while they were doing their elephant family censusing. They know almost every elephant in the park, up to 1,300 now. They check off each elephant there, know who
is missing and record the GPS locations. It is wonderful watching the elephants from the researchers point of view (they are able to drive off-road and get up extremely close to the elephants). The elephants have learned what their vehicle looks like, knows it sound, knows the scent and voices of the people and are completely trusting of them. While with the researchers, we came upon the family of the female that had been speared 7 times several years ago. It was wonderful seeing her. Other than her broken tusks, she looks tremendously healthy. It is a miracle that she survived, particularly the spear wounds in her skull which had been so deep. There are also so many more musth bulls in the park this time. Two years from now there will be a lot more baby elephants!
Again I ran into tourists who don't realize how dangerous these animals can be. One day I showed up for lunch to see Adam, a young bull that hangs around with Echo's family, in full musth, just about 10 feet outside the electric strand fence. Tourists were all running up to the fence to get their pictures. I finally yelled "danger, get back". Adam is normally a fairly placid young bull. But any bull in full musth MIGHT present danger and you don't press your luck with them. People just don't understand that a small strand of electric wire is meaningless if an elephant wants to get you. They could be through that wire and tusk you to the ground in about 5 seconds if they wished to do so. Just a sneeze, cough or sudden movement might provoke an animal who is being crowded by people. I wouldn’t want to see an innocent elephant shot because of a stupid tourist provoking it.
I was told by some experts that the Chinese have already infiltrated the Kimana area telling people they will buy ivory from them for 200Sh. for any pieces they find. When those small pieces of ivory are no longer available, the people will most likely start thinking of poaching. I don't think the Kenyan government has yet caught on to the fact that their relationship with China may well end up devastating their country of its natural resoures and wildlife. So sad.
All in all, Amboseli was wonderful. There were many small herd animals, but not quite as many elephants as I saw in February. It seems many of them are "out of the park", which is worrisome for their safety. I saw far more lions this time than before, not quite as many cheetah, saw a beautiful serval cat nearby, many birds. We also discovered that the hyena dens in the rocks had been taken over by a family of bat-eared fox! Perhaps the best thing this trip is despite not much food and water (except for the swamps) the elephants and rest of the wildlife looked healthy, and I saw no spearing or snaring. Great news!
After a wonderful week in Amboseli it was time to move on for 10 days in Tsavo East. Southern Cross had sent a driver in a Prado to pick me up. I met the driver at 8:40 a.m. The GSU agents were there. One vehicle would be the lead vehicle and one at the end of our caravan. We set off at 9 a.m. Had to stop at the Kimana Gate and check out of the park. Then on through Kimana. The road is even worse than it was in February. The road was washboardy much of the way, but in one place there was a huge 3 - 4 foot deep gully right down the middle of the road for quite a distance. If someone tried driving that at night and didn't know about the gully, they would be doomed! When we stopped at the Shetani Lava Flow to let people get out and walk around, there were several KWS buses filled with kids learning about their country. I'm so glad to see KWS doing this to let Kenyans see the wonders of their country as we tourists do. After existing Tsavo West we stopped in Mtito Andei for fuel and then continued on to Tsavo East. We arrived at Satao about 3 p.m.
It was so wonderful checking into camp and getting to see old friends again. As soon as I got to my tent I knew I'd be in 7th heaven. There were about 200 elephants at the waterhole right in front of my tent!! At the bar that evening prior to dinner one of the chefs had specially prepared my favorite samosas for me. This is going to be a great time! My first night in camp the lions were roaring on all sides. It was wonderful.
The next day there were 300-400 elephants at the waterhole at one time. They came and went all day and night. It is truly fascinating to watch them, their antics, their domestic squabbles between families, etc. I found out that last night a jackal had again taken one of the baby impala. Impalas must be really quite stupid. This has happened over and over again. The jackal will walk right into camp in the evening where the impalas feel they are safely resting for the night. It will lie amongst the impala for a night or two behaving itself. Then the next night when it joins the impala it just grabs one of the babies and runs. The adult impalas have never learned to distrust the jackals and just let it happen! There were also many dwarf mongooses around my tent today, making me worried that perhaps they knew snakes were around (although the manager, Bobby, had assured me the men had found and relocated the snakes before I got there).
Bobby introduced me to a veterinarian that was staying in camp. He is from Holland (WildCare International) and has been working with wildlife under many circumstances - zoos, circuses, with KWS and other wildlife organizations. He has been aware how successful planting chili is in keeping elephants away from crops. However, he also knows of times that KWS is called in because of crop damage. They try scaring elephants away by shooting in the air or throwing thunder flashes at them. Some times it just doesn't work and they are forced to kill an elephant. This was unacceptable to the vet, and he had invented a small plastic pellet filled with capsacin, about the size of a large marble, which he can shoot with a paint ball gun. When he aims the gun at the elephant's chest, the pellet explodes against the skin (not hurting the animal), but letting capsacin escape which wafts into the trunk, mouth and eyes of the elephant - thus causing it to run away. He has been testing this with KWS in Tsavo and thusfar they are excited about the prospect of having this to use instead of shooting and killing a problem elephant. Let us hope and pray that they will accept the use of this new method of getting rid of "problem" elephants in human-wildlife conflict areas.
The Managing Director of Southern Cross Safaris, Torben Rune, and his wife Beth and 10 month old baby Kai were in camp for two days while I was there. It was wonderful seeing them again. Southern Cross owns Satao Camp, Satao Elerai (in Kimana near Amboseli) and Satao Rock (in Taita Ranch). Due to the fact that the people who own the Taita ranch have allowed 20,000 cattle to be grazed in this area, game drives were no longer possible at Satao Rock. Therefore, SXS was closing the camp. It is too bad this happened because it was in a beautiful area with marvelous views of the mountains. Southern Cross is working closely with the Maasai community in the Kimana area trying to acquire land to create corridors for the wildlife. Let us hope and pray this will work!
Tsavo also is in the midst of their dry season. However, one day at lunch time we had a shower followed by tropical gale winds which knocked over a 20 – 25 foot tall acacia near one of the tents. The manager had some of the men chopping off some of the limbs which were preventing the tractor from moving the tree close to the waterhole. As I sat down to my table, about 300 hundred elephants ran in terror at the sound of the pangas chopping.
As many of you may know, Tsavo had an awful problem with poaching in the past. I’m sure many of the older elephants that had been at the waterhole remembered the sound of pangas chopping off the tusks of their family members, and when the pangas chopped the tree limbs, it sounded the same – thus they all ran in fear. Then, as soon as the tractor was able to pull the tree out near the waterhole, they all returned and were fighting for space to grab some of the leave and limbs from the trees to eat. That tree was decimated to a small part of trunk about 3 feet long in about one-half hour! Once that was finished, the young bull elephants enjoyed playing with the remaining trunk for the rest of my stay in camp.
Lions were roaring around camp every night I was at Satao. One morning Bobby told me they had made a kill of one of the zebra during the night. One of the camp drivers took me out to see them. There was one lioness guarding the kill under a bush and another lioness lying under a tree a short distance away with two cubs so I managed to get some pictures of them.
Does anyone know of a good brand of small taper recorder that would pick up the sound of roaring lion? I need to get a new one because mine isn’t sensitive enough to capture the sound.
One day my favorite bull elephant walked right past my tent. I was so happy to see him because I missed him in February. He is a huge bull with “great horns”. He stayed around camp for the rest of my stay enjoying the company of so many other elephants.
Again I couldn’t help but notice the difference between the Amboseli and the Tsavo elephants. The big bulls in Amboseli are mostly seen and travel alone. The babies in Ambo are usually quiet except for a few calf calls. The young bulls in Ambo are play fighting a lot of the time. In Tsavo the big bulls often travel in groups of 7 or 8, often remaining together all day at the waterhole. The Tsavo babies are much more vocal. Only occasionally do you see the Tsavo young bulls play fighting.
Also in Tsavo there are many more “domestic squabbles” between families coming for water. There is a very distinct rank or hierarchy of the female groups. Some times one group will stop for an hour or more waiting to approach the waterhole if another group is there. Some females chase other groups away. It is very interesting to watch. I’ve mentioned this to the Ambo researchers and suggested that at some point they go to Tsavo to see the differences.
I heard the rumor that Tony Fitzjohn, an associate of the late George Adamson’s, who has been a principal in Mkomazi Game Reserve, has been asked to start up George Adamson’s lion project in Kora. Let us hope that this will come to fruition. It is much needed.
Again, it was another wonderful Kenyan trip. The wildlife seems to be faring better than the people now. Between the scarcity of some foods (due to the clashes in January) and the high prices due to the shortage of fuel, it is particularly tough on our African friends.