|Amboseli elephants on the Tanzanian side (2008).|
|Hadza fixing a new bow.|
|Overlooking traditional hunting grounds.|
“Life is about lifers, i.e. seeing or experience things you’ve never seen before”.
Sometimes staying in lodges isolates you from night life in the bush and the first two night on this trip with elephants and leopard around the tent made me realize how great the Kenyan luxury mobile camp is- providing the luxury without taking away from the experience. I’ve selected a few encounters to write about from this last two week trip in Kenya with Simon Belcher.
I’m sitting on a foldable chair outside my tent. There’s a small flame burning in the kerosene lantern but I’ve turned that down. The wind is blowing and there’s a slight chill to it. But I can see the stars and there are elephants feeding. I haven’t heard them at night in so long and I was actually in bed but have come to sit and watch. I can see their silhouettes against the starry sky. There is no moon and the elephants look huge. The sound that they are making makes them sound much closer than they are. I love this. I can hear them pulling up the Doum Palm seedlings. Occasionally I can hear the low rumble as they communicate with each other. It’s amazing to think that the sound I’m hearing are actually the higher notes that they are making and there’s so much going on that I can’t hear. I’ve turned the screen off so there’ll be plenty of spelling mistakes but I’ll correct that in the morning… oh I hear a third elephant joining and it looks like this one is moving a little closer. I can actually see her trunk now and hear them breathing.
I spotted 4 Somali galagos or bush-babies in an Acacia tree this morning. I was quite surprised as they are usually strictly nocturnal and tend to hide in thick foliage or nests during the day. We know so little about these little animals. From Jonathan Kingdon’s map and description I think these are Somali galagos of which very little is known. “Food: Presumed to be mainly gum and invertebrates”. (Pg 104, The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals). They are very similar to the Lesser galago (G. senegalensis), the closest animal we have to Madagascar’s lemurs. These amazing little animals are the high-jump, triple and long jump champions of the mammal world. With a standing jump of up to 7m, they can repeatedly bound (bounce) along the ground. Their eyes are so big in their heads that they can’t move them in their sockets. This gives them excellent night vision and they can see up to 20m just in starlight. I’ve heard one guide say that if we had eyes as big as theirs relative to our body size, ours would be the size of basketballs. Tonight, a large leopard walks through camp. He grunts his loud contact call that sounds like sawing wood so close to my tent that it takes my breath away for a second. I lie in bed listening as he walks around the tent and continues through the bush calling.
This afternoon the other vehicle spotted a cheetah mother and her daughter. We sat and watched from a distance as they stalked some grant gazelle, the young one lagging behind. As the mother inched closer, the young one suddenly ran at a 90 degree angle over the horizon and then around, spooking the Grants gazelles towards the cub’s mother. The hunt failed, but this is the second time now that I’ve seen young cheetah behave in this fashion. The first time was last year in Samburu National Park, and resulted in a successful kill.
I scored a lifer today. If you don’t know the bird watcher/ twitcher’s term, a lifer is a bird that you’ve never seen/ identified in your life. I love the birds and when I see a particularly special one I get quite excited. Getting out of the car at the picnic spot we’d chosen I disturbed a pair of Pel’s fishing owls. These owls are specialized fish eaters and rather rare. We followed the pair up the river until they disappeared among the Doum palm leaves.
As Jonathan Kingdon writes: “When animals have become as scarce as rhinoceroses have today it is difficult to describe them as successful. Yet living African rhinos were, until recently, the widespread, abundant, advanced and successful representatives of a family that had seen a very wide range of types in the past (i.e. 30 fossil genera).” Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals.
We’ve now seen so many that we’ve almost become blasé about these wonderful animals. In total we’ve seen at least 7 black rhino, and upwards towards 20 white rhino. Add a leopard sighting, lions in trees, and the mystical yellow fever-trees, the rising mist, the bubbling cassinas in the night, the croak of black and white colobus monkeys in the trees- it is no wonder that Africa captures people’s souls.
This morning we stand again on the shore of Lake Nakuru as the dawn brings the sunrise, drinking coffee and eating warm cinnamon rolls. The large flocks of Lesser flamingo flock in vast numbers eating Spirulina algae that flourishes in the alkaline waters of East Africas rift valley lakes. Having woken up before dawn we are there as the sky begins to change color. It’s a spiritual moment and we stand quietly watching. The sun rises and the pink colors of the flamingos, a result of the high levels of carotenes in their food, become vibrant and reflect off the water.
The cutest encounter transpired as we watched a mother white rhino feeding with her calf. Parked about 25m from them we sat quietly watching when the calf decided to come play. He approached so close that had I stretched my hand out to scratch his developing horn I would have been only about 8 inches short. He (she?) then proceeded to prance around like a 2 week old goat-kid.
There’s a reason to get up at dawn that is only really understood when you get to slowly follow a male lion for a few miles through waist height grass, blind to the scents that drive him towards a pride of 3 females and their cubs, only to watch and listen to the females put him in his place before he proceeds to steal their kill. We ended up seeing these females every day including the last day, as a monstrous storm drenched the Mara, using headlights at 6:30 p.m. we found them sitting in the middle of the road, as we returned from our finale sundowner. This last drive also pulled out a new ‘lifer’ for me- the Pennant-winged nightjar as it flew low across the grassland, the stormy winds approaching.
The excitement of looking for animals and spotting.
Standing in the jeep and the wind in the hair.
Watching dynamics happening between animals after we’d just been told about them.
The sky at sunrise, sunset, and night.
Tarangire National Park
Sitting with the elephants in Tarangire for a long time and watching their dynamics.
Lions roaring close to the tents.
The lion cubs posing on the termite mound.
The picnic on the river bend with elephants drinking, zebra stampeding, baboons eating sausage flowers and impalas hanging out underneath.
Finding tracks of two leopards on the path outside the tents.
Ava spotting the leopard from the lookout at the lodge.
Dikdiks everywhere we looked.
Tracking the two lioness until we found them.
Breakfast next to the hippo pool.
The sheer beauty of the landscape and so many animals.
Serengeti National Park
Popping open a Kili beer as we watched black baby hyenas playing around their den.
28 lions in one day.
The leopard coming down off the rock and walking through the grass.
Being alone for the whole morning.
Climbing and making music with the gong rocks in Moru.
(Camp in Nakuru)
As I stood alone on top of a granite outcrop, watching a dramatic sky and landscape change as evening crept in, baboons climbed the biggest granite outcrops, bickering for the best roosts and a lone white-necked raven cawed as the darkness and silence set in. We had arrived on a beautiful piece of land just south of the Ewaso Nyiro River in northern Kenya. The next morning we headed off on a long morning walk while the camels moved camp. Three camels accompanied us should anyone tire or feel like riding.
That night, the Maasai sat around the fire watching buckets of smokey water heat for the guest’s showers, murmuring and sipping on camel milk chai. A chef diced vegetables for a wonderful dinner he was preparing, all the while watching his metal box oven covered in coals, taking care not to burn the fresh bread. Everything had arrived on camels that had been hobbled for the night.
The next day we set off on the walk after a wonderful breakfast. The rains on the previous day had cleaned the ground and we picked up fresh hyena, caracal, kudu, and warthog tracks. We talked of the animals, the plants, and insects that we found along the way. In a sudden clearing we stumbled upon our new camp, fully set up. The camp chairs sat under a flysheet looking out across the bush, the tents were tucked under trees, and a table had been set with campfire baked pizzas.
Another highlight materialized as I left the next day to drive to Meru National Park. Not 10 minutes out of camp I drove around a corner to find African Painted Hunting dogs, otherwise known as wilddogs as they regrouped around a large male impala they had just killed. I am very fond of wilddogs and this sighting allows me to boast, having now seen members of 3 of the 4 largest populations of wilddogs in Africa.
Meru National Park proved to be another beautiful corner of Kenya where we closed the safari sitting on the banks of a river, reading and fishing as the sun set.
Together with another lioness, this one killed this zebra in perfect light right in front of our eyes. It had been such a peaceful scene with elephants and baboons digging for water, and zebra waiting their turn to drink from the holes the other animals had dug. She waited in a bush until the elephants had left then attacked. It was interesting to see all the baboons come and sit around this sight- they would get so excited every time the zebra twitched.
The rains end in April and early May and by June the long grass has turned golden. The grass seed-heads are mature and many of the trees start to lose their leaves or are turning red- its Africa’s version of autumn. Distant waterholes have started drying up and the Ruaha River takes on its role as the animals slowly return to the floodplains. The surface water on the Mwagusi Sand River is limited to a few spots that become wallows for elephants and regular drinking troughs for huge herds of buffalo. The skies are clear of dust and smoke and the last clouds depart as the dry sets in.