Friday, 23 August 2013

DAY TWENTY ~ You Fat ...!

Today is our last full day in Kenya this year, so we decided to wander into Nairobi for some souvenir shopping. Most of the little shops and mini-arcades we used to visit were gone, replaced by finance companies, shoe shops and computer shops. The only real souvenir shopping area we could find was the utter rip-off of the Masai Market (where they will try to fleece you out of hundreds of dollars for a penny-worth of tat), so we headed for the Ya Ya Centre. On the second floor we found a very reasonable little souvenir shop and picked up too many things LOL.

After wandering around the Centre looking in all the shops, including an amazing bookshop that we would happily have taken home complete, we went for a coffee on the ground floor at the Doorman's Coffee Shop. Here we found something that has never been seen on the planet before...a piece of chocolate cake that defeated Howard!!!

The massive slices of cake we tackled in the Ya Ya Centre

Karen looks slightly daunted by the task

We have a winner!!!...And for the first time in history it is the chocolate cake and not Howard!!!

Tomorrow morning we have an early start, as we check in for our flight at 5.30am, so we are spending the rest of the day trying to figure out how to get all the souvenirs into our luggage!

See you on the cold side...

Thursday, 22 August 2013

DAY NINETEEN ~ Back to Nairobi

We got up early this morning hoping to catch some of the insects and reptiles around Hunter's Lodge before they were warmed up enough to be too fast to catch on camera. Unfortunately, none of them were up as early as us!  After breakfast we had a chat with the gardener, who has been brought in from one of the new owner's other hotels to completely overhaul the gardens and he is doing a very good job. We then drove to the Backpackers in Nairobi, had a shower, some lunch and settled down to finish updating the blog...

We have not had time to decide what we will do in Nairobi tomorrow, which is our last day as we fly home on Saturday.

Once again, Kenya has amazed, enthralled and surprised us in so many ways and we are already thinking about next year's safari.

Our apologies for the delay in getting the blog to you on time but we hope you have enjoyed reading it and that if you have enjoyed it, that you will consider making a donation to our fundraising for Save The Elephants through our "Just Giving" page.

Look out for more photos, videos and anecdotes from this trip in the coming weeks...

DAY EIGHTEEN ~ A Break In The Journey And A Touch Of History

Today began in sublime fashion, with the largest herd of Zebra we have ever seen, comprising several hundred, visiting the waterhole at Ngutuni after breakfast. They were very nervous and easily disturbed, which caused many a sudden stampede from the waterhole: this made for some very interesting photographs as they kicked up the dust against the morning sun.

Spooked Zebra.

After saying goodbye to the wonderful staff at Ngutuni, we reluctantly headed north again; leaving our beloved Tsavo behind. Having spent three days in luxury, we decided that a night in a tent with just a long-drop toilet should be a last resort and agreed we would see if there were any rooms available in Hunter's Lodge itself.

Now for the history. Hunter's Lodge was built in 1958 by Dennis Hunter in honour of his father J.A. Hunter, a famous white hunter who had been employed in the area by the British Colonial Government after the second world war to clear the area of Black Rhino to enable them to displace and relocate the Kamba people into the area. Hunter turned out to be brutally efficient in this task, killing almost 1100 Rhinos (source: Rough Guide to Kenya by Richard Trillo).

Today the Lodge is a rather run down twelve room stop over, with reasonable food in a lovely setting but tired and dated rooms and facilities. The Lodge has, however, recently been taken over by Mada Hotels, the owners of Fig Tree Camp in the Masai Mara and they have plans for major upgrades. Construction is already well under way on twenty-four additional rooms and a conference centre. Once this is complete, the original lodge will be updated to match the standard of the new facilities. This work is expected to take a further six to nine months; so we will see what things are like when we come back next year.

We spent a pleasant afternoon photographing African Darter, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Hadada Ibis, Purple Heron and a lone Maribu Stork who wandered right up to our ground floor balcony. We also caught fleeting glimpses of Pied Kingfisher, Monitor Lizard, Yellow Baboon and photographed a troop of Vervet Monkeys who live in the trees around the lodge.

African Darter drying its wings.

A very chilled Vervet Monkey.

We discovered tonight that the reason our new Safaricom modem dongle has been unable to connect is because our version of the Safaricom software was out of date and therefore, incompatible with the new modem. Unfortunately, having solved this problem, we find ourselves in an area with a very poor mobile internet signal; so you will have to wait until we reach Nairobi tomorrow before we can update the Blog.

DAY SEVENTEEN ~ Who'd Be An Aardwolf?

We decided after breakfast today to explore the river circuit at Ngutuni as some American students we spoke to at dinner last night told us they had seen Cheetah along there. We had not gone far along the route when we came across a pair of Aardwolf locked in a sexual embrace...literally. Like all canids they lock together during intercourse and can remain locked for some time afterwards, we waited for around half an hour but the pair were still immobilised by their copulatory clinch.

The ecstasy and agony of Aardwolf love.

We left them to it and carried on along the circuit Along the way we found another Aardwolf; it was amazing to think that we had never seen Aardwolf before and yet we came across three in one day. When we came back round an hour later the amorous pair were still imprisoned by love; by now they were starting to look a little fed up with the whole experience and somewhat knackered! We bade them fair well and went back to the lodge for lunch. We were surprised to find that we were the only residents for lunch in the lodge, although there was a small touring party. We debated having a second game drive after lunch but as this is our final day of luxury on the trip, we elected to spend the time watching wildlife on the waterhole from our balcony. Some of the more unusual visitors this afternoon included; a female Ostrich who was naturally very wary of the Elephants as she came in to drink, later a large gang of Banded Mongoose invaded the waterhole at speed, leaving just as quickly after a brief visit.

Aardwolf number three.

Mrs Ostrich is very wary of the Elephants.

But she does eventually get a drink.

Tomorrow we head for the KWS campsite at Kiboko near Hunter's Lodge, where we will spend one night in the tent before heading to the Back-packers in Nairobi.

DAY SIXTEEN ~ The Downside of Upgrading

The day began with a lovely breakfast followed by a drive around the Ngutuni Sanctuary, we saw plenty of Elephant, Zebra and Giraffe, we also managed to take picture of the lodge with wildlife in the foreground from the track that runs along the Tsavo East National Park boundary with Nugutuni Sanctuary.

We had seen this huge bull dominating the waterhole but it was nice to meet him up close.

Giraffes and Ngutuni.

We planned a second game drive for after lunch to explore more of the sanctuary but had to change our plans when the laptop refused to download any more files, with a full hard disk! It seems there is a downside to these super-duper twenty four megapixel cameras; we had to spend the afternoon transferring five hundred plus Gigabytes of image files to a back up hard drive and rebuild the Lightroom catalogues, which took us until well after dinner.

DAY FIFTEEN ~ The Good, The Bad And The Utterly Amazing

Conscious of our low fuel, we decided to take our time getting up this morning and take a leisurely drive along the Voi River Circuit, where we found a small herd of Gerenuk, including a very energetic youngster, who leapt and bounded around.


Boing!!!...The little Gerenuk catches some air.

From there we headed along the Pipeline Road for one last look and came across a pride of five Adult Lions lying under bushes around 90yds from the track. We photographed them for a while and sat back to watch them. Vehicles came and went, as every tour guide for miles around tried to guarantee a good tip. Eventually, when we were alone but for one tour van, the Lions wandered over beside us and spent some time with us before crossing the track and heading into the distance. We felt very privileged that they accepted our presence enough to come and spend time with us.

Lioness resting in the shade of a bush.

Everybody needs hugs!

Beautiful Lion Face.

Family Portrait.

The Maneless Male could be a descendent of the infamous "Maneaters of Tsavo"

Grooming the King.

Standing Watch behind the King.

Head-rub greeting.

After the Lions, it was time to head off. Back at the Voi Gate, we stopped to purchase some souvenirs at the shop and the girl in the shop told us that our Landrover is exactly the same colour as the one the Lion researchers use, so that is probably why they accepted us. She said she has been out with the researchers a few times and the Lions often approach them closely.

From Tsavo East, we headed to Voi for some fuel and then drove round to Ngutuni, where we booked in for three nights. After three nights camping in the bush, we were delighted to be able to have a shower and a cold Tusker!

Elephant Yoga by the Ngutuni waterhole.

From our balcony, we watched as more and more Elephants arrived at the waterhole. There were around fifty or more, with huge bulls, sub-adults and several tiny babies. If you want to see pure joy, stick a good waterhole in front of several baby Elephants! What a fantastic sight they were. There were push and pull games, splashing, rolling, piling on top – every Elephant game going. Among the adults, there was some argy-bargy over access to the best drinking water and some of the adolescent males were putting themselves about. One in particular was bullying younger babies until the adults put him in his place.

Baby Elephants playing in the waterhole.

The school bully.

In the distance, a huge herd of Buffalo sat resting. Some of them came in for a drink and that caused some aggro with the Elephants. There were moments when it looked like a pitched-battle between the Elephants and Buffaloes was about to break out over rights to the waterhole but eventually things calmed down.

Well that's the good and the utterly amazing but what about the bad?

Unfortunately, we do have to mention a couple of incidents which left a sour taste with us today.

As we drove along the Pipeline Road this morning, we spotted two tour minivans around 100 metres off track; something that is illegal in Tsavo East, to protect the fragile environment. As we approached, they sped off: we suspect because they thought the green Landrover might be KWS Rangers coming to sort them out. Their tyre tracks showed clearly that they had driven right up to the Lions, to within less than 3 feet! (you can see the tyre tracks next to the Lioness in the first picture above).

This was not the worst incident of today, however. After we had put our cameras down at Ngutuni this afternoon, many of the Elephants had left the waterhole and we were downloading our images when we heard a load “crack crack”. Looking out from the balcony, we saw a young man in jeans and a blue-hooped shirt standing on the terrace, deliberately clapping his hands loudly in a pattern clearly intended to simulate the sound of semi-automatic gunfire. This had exactly the effect the young braggart was trying to impress his mates (or girl) with: it cause a mad panic at the waterhole, as around fifteen Elephants and several Buffalo and Zebra stampeded into the bush in terror. That was around two hours ago and no animal has come within a thousand yards of the waterhole since. Some people are just a complete waste of DNA.

DAY FOURTEEN ~ How Many?!!!

Today we decided to head north to the Galana River, the only continuous source of water in the whole of Tsavo East National Park. It's sandy shores, fringed with Doum Palms, provide a stunning scene in the midst of arid and harsh desert terrain. It is also home to Crocodiles and Hippos in large numbers.

Galana River with part of the Yatta Plateaux in the background.

The life-source of Tsavo East is the ever-present Galana River.

Our route north took us past the Aruba Lodge once more and about a kilometre south of the lodge, we came across a pride of Lions walking through the bush. We were amazed as more and more Lions emerged from the bush, one after the other. We have see large prides in the Mara but never in Tsavo, so this was amazing for us to see, as thirteen Lions paraded past us before settling into a new rest spot under a thick thorn bush about 300 metres from the track. It seemed as if Tsavo East was rewarding us for coming back instead of going to the Mara!

One of two small cubs in the pride of 13 Lions.

The Lions just kept appearing through the bush!

Approaching the Galana, we had a great view of the Yatta Plateaux, the longest continuous plateaux in Africa. With fuel running low, we decided not to continue all the way along to Lugard's Falls and instead turned south on a track that we know we can find some spectacular Termite Mounds on.

The Yatta Plateaux.

One of many amazing Termite Mounds; this one was around 6 feet tall
but the largest we have seen is around 8 feet tall!

Back in the Voi end of the park, we took a drive along the Voi River Circuit to the campsite, meeting a herd of Masai Giraffe. A male was clearly courting a female in heat and she seemed to be responding. However, every time he tried to do the deed, she got shy and pulled away, clearly unhappy with the attention of another male, who was shadowing them closely. Eventually the interloper became too much for the randy male and he broke of to attack his rival. With several earth-shaking blows, they hammered each other but within 10 seconds it was all over, as they suddenly realised that their contest was futile. A third male had spirited the young female away whilst they battered one another!

Another failed romance...

DAY THIRTEEN ~ Spots Before Our Eyes

After a noisy night, which started with a Leopard's snarl and continued through most of the night with Elephants browsing in the trees around our tent, punctuated by the whoops of Hyena and a lone Lion roaring several kilometres away in the distance, we packed the tent and headed out to look for wildlife to photograph.

Sitting at the fire with Ndololo Campsite to ourselves.

Along the Pipeline Road, we found a Jackal and then two Lions who had made a buffalo kill probably two days previously. The remains of the kill were just visible behind small hillock about 100yds from the track. The Lions were resting just the other side of a waterhole, roughly half-way between the kill and the track. We photographed them for a while, until they requested privacy by moving away, then we headed for Kanderi Swamp.

The Jackal stops to look at us, as we stop to look at it.

Lionesses along the Pipeline Road.

Who's watching who?

On arriving at the Swamp, we could not believe our luck, as two Cheetahs walked north out of the swamp and sat perched on a small Termite Mound. They seemed to be headed somewhere purposefully, so we headed up the track about half a kilometre and waited. Surely enough, they strode towards us, eventually arriving at a dead tree beside the track, which they scent-marked before carrying on on their quest.

One Cheetah jumps onto the dead tree.

Tsavo has one of the most important Cheetah populations, monitored by the Tsavo Cheetah Project

We then headed for Aruba along the River Route, before turning east to head out into the semi-desert expanse of the Ndara Plains, where we found a large herd of Fringe-Eared Oryx, including several calves.

Fringe-Eared Oryx on Ndara Plains.

DAY TWELVE ~ The Long Way Back

The Backpackers was full today, so they could not accommodate us for another night. This left us having to make a decision about where to go today. The forecast for the Mara and the Rift Valley was 4 days of thunderstorms with a day off, then two more days of thunderstorms, so there was no way we were going to attempt them. Meru was an attractive alternative, as it is somewhere we would love to explore and the forecast was pretty good. However, to get there would require driving on a route that also had forecasts of heavy rain for most of the week and with the flooding already on the Thika Highway, we decided it was better to look south, where the weather was forecast to be more suitable. We thought about the self-catering lodge in Kibwezi Forrest and the Rough Guide said it was KES4,000 per night. However, when we called to enquire if it was available, we were told that it was but that the rate for non-residents is USD550 per night! We gave that a miss. We decided to head for the Kiboko Campsite but then changed our minds on the way, figuring that we would be better heading back to Tsavo East for a few nights at the Ndololo Public Campsite, so that is what we did.

Karen driving the Landrover in Tsavo East

By the time we had arrived at the Voi Gate for Tsavo East it was after 4pm, so we only had time for a short game drive before heading to the campsite to pitch our tent. At Kanderi, we were welcomed back to Tsavo East by a large Lion sleeping under a bush. It was quite far into some scrub and not worth photographing but we watched through binoculars for a short while, then headed to the campsite. The new kitchen building is a fantastic addition, allowing peace and quiet to prepare food without the attentions of the aggressive local Baboons. A few years ago, there were no problems with the Baboons here but some time in that time, some people must have stupidly thrown food to the Baboons because they have become a major nuisance; so much so that there is a caretaker employed full-time, who spends most of his day trying to keep the Baboons from destroying the site and attacking visitors.

The water supply to the toilet/shower block on the right keeps being destroyed by Baboons and Elephants.
The building on the left is a new kitchen to let campers prepare food without being attacked by Baboons.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

DAY ELEVEN ~ Take a shower - Rain stops play!

After breakfast, we said our goodbyes to everyone and left the Bandas, taking a brief detour along Kuldip's Ponds one last time, where we found a large herd of Buffalo. We then headed for the gate at Mtito Andei and on to Nairobi.

When we reached the Backpackers on Milimani Road, something was wrong. The gate now said “Manyatta Backpackers” and inside, most of the place had been demolished. The girl at reception said that Milimani Backpackers had moved and then closed down but we knew this wasn't true, so we phoned and found that Milimani Backpackers has moved recently due to increased security problems in the old location. The girls at Milimani arranged for a taxi to meet us and guide us to their new location.

We had a shower and tried to get the Safaricom modem dongle to work but it still can't find a signal, then we went for a walk to get our bearings. We had just reached Uhuru Highway when one of Nairobi's infamous thunderstorms started. If you imagine the heaviest rain you have ever seen in Europe and then multiply that by twenty; throw in some hailstones the size of peas and raucous thunder and you get the picture. By the time we got back to the Backpackers, we were drenched from head to foot. We dried off and put on another change of clothes, then waited a few hours for the rain to subside so that we could go across to the main building for something to eat.

Fortunately the new and improved Milimani Backpackers has free wifi, so we have been able to catch up with the blog. With the heavy rain continuing, we checked the weather for the Masai Mara and the rest of the Rift Valley and it is forecast for heavy rain for most of the next week. With the disaster we had on our way to the Mara last year in mind, we have had to re-think our plans for camping in the Mara and the Rift Valley Lakes. We will probably spend another day in the Backpackers tomorrow to re-adjust our plans.

DAY TEN ~ Elephants can climb mountains

At breakfast, John came over and told us that Towet, the Masai Askari, would like to take us on a longer bush walk than the one we did a couple of years ago, so we jumped at the chance. We headed up into the Ngulia Hills behind the Bandas. We stopped briefly on the rocks we had photographed the bandas from in 2011and carried on up. Along the way we found evidence of Lion, Hyena and Leopard, plus the skull and some of the vertebrae of a Buffalo that had been killed by a Lion.

Amazingly, we could see Elephants climbing the hills further along and they were higher than us! At times it was a steep scramble over the rocks but each time we came across Elephant spoor, as proof they had climbed this far, we were amazed at the climbing abilities of these agile giants. John said that sometimes during the rainy season, some of the Elephants prefer to climb to and stay at the very top of the Ngulia Hills, rather than risk getting bogged in the mud in the valley below.

Elephants climbing in the Ngulia Hills

Dragonfly in a cave spring high in the Ngulia Hills that supplies water to the Bandas

Towet, Howard and John at the cave

John, Karen and Towet high above the Rhino Valley 

We got back just in time for a shower before lunch and spent half the afternoon photographing some amazing birds around our balcony before taking another drive along to Kuldip's Ponds.

We'll need to look this gorgeous fellow up in the bird book when we get home

Another to look up at home

One more for the bird book

Another to look up

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Great Egret