Kenya Trip 2007 – Journal

In 2004 Lynn and I took our first trip to southern Africa.  I wrote an article on my expectations on that trip prior to our safari.   I didn’t do that before our recent December 2007 trip to Kenya, but I thought that you might enjoy reading my thoughts before and since the Kenya safari.

The trip was scheduled, but I was concerned about getting our Kenya visas in time for this trip.  A phone call to Blythe Hall at Big Five Tours and Expeditions, resulted in a suggestion that we get them in advance of our trip.  We would avoid standing in a long line at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport to get them after spending 15 hours flying (New York-London-Nairobi). Also, she said that the rules regarding obtaining a visa could change causing confusion when we arrive in Kenya. We ordered the visas expedited from ZVS in Washington, DC and indicated that we needed them at least a week before our trip.  We have used ZVS several times and always had excellent service. On the day that we expected the visas they had not arrived.  I called the visa service agency on the day after Thanksgiving only to learn that their offices were closed.  Going on-line I found out that our visas were in process at the Kenya embassy in Washington.  A phone call on Monday confirmed that the visas should be retrieved from the Embassy and that they would be sent overnight to us.  Fortunately, we received the visas by FedX the following morning.  We were to leave for Kenya on Friday!  Whew.  Close call!  The few people in our group that decided to get their visas at Jomo Kenyatta Airport had no problem and probably stood in the Customs line no longer than we did.  I was still happy that we had gotten ours in advance.  Trouble as a result of the Kenya election broke out just 3 weeks following our trip.  I can imagine the problems that we might have encountered if we had arrived then without a visa!
  
A look at our itinerary indicated that we would be staying in lodges in two of our four safari accommodations. Two of the accommodations would be in permanent luxury tent camps.  On our first safari all of the accommodations were in tent camps.  All would be in National Parks or or Private Reserves as opposed to being on the outside of the Parks which would require a time consuming drive into the wildlife areas.   This was great since we remember being told on that first safari that it is really a lot better to be within the Parks.  Of course, it is also more expensive.

As it turned out all of the accommodations were wonderful.  The first three camps were part of the Serena chain.  Our first, the Mountain Lodge, was a structure with unobtrusive pecky wood siding. It reminded me of the lodges in the Adirondacks in New York.  The building was constructed this way to not bother the animals that would walk to a pan behind the lodge at sunrise and sunset to lick salt from the soil.  None of them, particularly the elephants, would drink from the water which they peed in.  A special small pool with fresh water had been built by the resort near the pan for the elephants to drink from.  The Mountain Lodge was near the Equator and basically a midway point before arriving at the next lodge.  There were no game drives here however an optional opportunity was offered to do a walk with a guide.  We opted not to do this since we had done a walk on our earlier safari.  The main purpose of a walk is not to see animals, but to learn about animal behavior through analysis of tracks, dung, termite mounds and flora.  Nice, but we were here to watch wildlife.

All of the rustic rooms in Serena’s Mountain Lodge have porches that are great for relaxed game viewing.  There is also a nice porch in the bar area.  That’s where we decided to go.  Many cape buffalo, kudu and birds approached this area just prior to sunset.  A very nice stop in the shadow of snow covered Mt. Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain.

The next lodge was the Sambura Serena Lodge.  This is a very attractive establishment.  The dining area is a beautiful open area built of stone. All of the rooms here are in very nice small wooden A-Frame type buildings. Each building accommodates  two families.  I think what surprised us the most at both this lodge and the Mountain Lodge was that there were power lines coming into the camps which were not far from African civilization.  On our earlier safari all of the camps were quite remote and power was generated or we had kerosene lamps.

Our third accommodation was at Sweetwater’s Tented Camp.  Again, this camp was only about 7 miles west of the town of  Nanyuki which is famous for being right on the Equator.  Sweetwater's is in the Olpejeta Reserve.  The tents were luxurious with electric lights and running water.  Big comfortable beds.  There was a panoramic view of wildlife directly behind the tents encouraging a visitor to sit out on the porch of their tent and take in the views of the animals.  There was a small electric fence here to protect the guests from the animals. This was the only camp that had any fences.  The dining accommodations were in a beautiful manor type house.  For the most part everything here was first class. However, Lynn and I both agreed that the food at this camp was horrible!  This was the exception since food in all of the other camps was excellent.  Perhaps just a bad day or trouble in the kitchen.

Our fourth and final camp, Little Governor’s Camp in the Masai Mara was incredible!  The Governors group has several camps here.  All are luxury camps.  I loved this location since it was a small camp with only 12 tents and beautiful open dining area.  Plus, you can also eat outside under the stars. Little Governor’s Camp is remote along the Mara River about 60 miles from any village.  There is no electricity here, but there are generators at the office to power battery chargers and laptops.  We had a delightful tent with two kerosene lanterns including one in the bedroom area and the second in the bathroom.  Also, there were a few candles.  All of the tents had a porch that opened out to a beautiful wetlands area populated by warthogs, zebra, hippos, crowned cranes, marabou storks and many other animals and birds. No fences here. In the morning, a guard would stop by the tent, holler “Wake up”, unzip the tent and light the lanterns.  He would leave hot chocolate and ginger snaps.  How cool is that?  Little Governors Camp and The Masai Mara were definitely the highlight of this trip.  Oh, how I want to return here one day!

So, what were our expectations regarding wildlife and the safari vehicles.  We expected mini-vans for the game drives.  We were told by friends who had traveled to Kenya not to expect the open Range Rover vehicles that we loved in southern Africa. I was concerned since from pictures that I had seen it appeared that there wasn’t a lot of room in those pop top hatches to take pictures.  We did have mini-vans for the first three camps.  There were only 4 people in our vehicle plus our guide (Lynn and me plus our new friends Collette and Diane). There was plenty of room in the top for all of us.  I had the only big lens (Nikon 80-400mm VR) in our mini-van which made for wonderful photography.

In the Masai Mara at Governors Camp we had the open Range Rovers that we had been used to on that first safari.  They are more comfortable than the mini-vans. The advantage to these open vehicles is that you can almost be at eye level with the animals. That’s how you get those beautiful toothy photos of big maned male lions!  Yet, you are no threat to the animals.  That is unless you get out of the vehicle which is a real no-no!

We had been thrilled with our wildlife experience on our first safari.  We had seen hundreds of elephants, cape buffalo, baboons and many other animals.  We even saw 4 male lions.  We didn’t expect to see many different animals on the Kenya safari.  As a matter of fact we had a hard time imagining that we might see more animals.  Boy, were we surprised!

On this trip we saw a much larger variety of animals.  Here we saw bat eared foxes, gerenuks (deerlike animals with long necks that stand on 2 legs and chew acacia leaves), black backed jackals and rhinos.  Certainly, we also saw the elephants, giraffes,cape buffalo and wildebeests that we had viewed before.  But, we also saw many cheetahs and lions, both male and female. We saw one unsuccessful attempt at a kill…lions vs. wildebeest. We saw so many new born animals…baboons, zebra, topi, hyena.    At Sweetwaters Camp we were able to visit Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee reserve where we saw five huge chimps in their natural habitat while the rest of the troop of 27 stayed under cover and out of sight in the trees. 

When we researched this trip we anticipated that we would be late for the Wildebeest Migration which takes place on the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti Plains in Tanzania in September and October.  But, we were so lucky! The Masai Mara had received a good deal of rain in the Fall so there were still many animals that had not yet made the crossing of the Mara River in early December.   On the final morning in the Masai Mara our guide, Joseph, noted a huge herd of wildebeest lingering on the plains near the Mara River.  He said when the leader decides to cross the River that the entire herd of about 200 animals will follow.  The migration played out before our eyes exactly as Joseph described it as hundreds of wildebeests marched across the River.  We thought that we might witness a kill since the final wildebeest in the herd was aged and lame.  Huge crocodiles hovered in the Mara and we had seen several lions along the River earlier.  But, this time all survived. I guess the predators were well fed and were too lazy to hunt.

A few mornings before we left Florida on the trip I had breakfast with my friend Joe Reinman, a fellow photographer who had also been to Kenya.  Joe said that if we are offered the opportunity that we should take a hot air balloon ride over the Masai Mara.  Luck again was on our side.  As I drove home from breakfast that morning I received a call on my cell phone from Lynn.  She said that she had just gotten a call from our Kenya tour operator who asked if we might be interested in a balloon ride over the Masai Mara!  I guess we just live right!  The two hot air balloons from The Governors Camp Balloon Safari launched from directly behind our tents.  It is another once in a lifetime spectacle to see the sunrise over the Masai Mara from a hot air balloon.  We also were able to view hippos and crocodiles in the meandering Mara River as well as elephants, impala, kudu and other mammals grazing on the plains.  If you do a safari you must include a hot air balloon ride in your itinerary.  The Governors Camp balloons each held 16 people.  The ride was followed by the traditional champagne toast, a hot breakfast cooked on the plains and the presentation of plaques.  It was our 8th balloon ride.

I did not plan to photograph birds on this trip though I did include my 1.4 teleconverter in my backpack.  Kenya is again loaded with a variety of birds and I had the opportunity to photograph a few of them.  It would be easy to do a strictly birding safari in Kenya.

On our first trip to Africa we didn’t really see much of village life while on safari.  I was looking forward to seeing the small villages and the tribal folks in their colorful garb on this trip.  We visited a Samburan Village near the Serena Sambura Lodge. The Sambura and the Masai tribes are nomads.  The women of the tribe build the villages which they abandon when they migrate after a few years.  The residents showed us their homes which were built out of twigs and cardboard.  They offered crafts for sale, showed us how to build a fire by rubbing sticks together and posed for photos.  We also got to see their young children in a school setting out in the open.  These tribal folk are gentle but they really do carry sticks and spears. And, they do wear the colorful red, orange and blue beads in their daily life. We paid the chief of the village that we toured $30 US each for our visit.  That covered being able to photograph as much of the village and people as we wished.

On our first safari we had done all of our travel  between camps by bush planes.  We were looking forward to seeing the terrain and towns on this trip. Three of our four camps were reached by driving.  The road from Nairobi to Nanyuki was only a fair 2 lane paved road.  When we left Nanyuki the road to the Sambura Serena Lodge became a two laned rocky, potholed rut.  The road, which our guide, John, called a “super highway” was so miserable that he spent the majority of the 1 ½ hours driving “off road.”  I’m not kidding.  The towns along the way were shacks for the most part.  The poor villagers don’t have refrigeration.  As a result the residents shop daily for their food.  They ride their bicycles and they take their oxcarts to the dairy every day.  You see folks on bicycles with as many as four or five 5 gallon plastic milk jugs tied to their bikes. I was intrigued by this.  

Also, there were many police stops along the way.  We never really figured out what was going on or how our safari guides were able to drive around the barricades while all of the other cars stopped.  In the one case where we did stop we were besieged by poor village girls clamoring at our windows hollering “Daddy daddy please buy something from me so that I can feed my baby.”  This was depressing.  I knew if I gave to one person I would have every one of these young people to contend with.

Kenya is a wonderful place for a safari.  It is sad the way that the Kenyan election between candidates from competing tribes (Kikuyu and Luos)  on December 27, 2007 set off rioting and bloodshed which has greatly effected tourism to this part of the world. Unfortunately, the news media failed to mention that all of this violence took place within the slums in just the major cities.  My understanding as of this writing is that not one tourist experienced any delay at the airport or while on safari.  No visitor was injured.

I continue to echo the words of Sara Taylor, the agent that sold us our first trip to Africa in 2004.  She said “Africa is a magical place.  A visit to Africa will seem like a spiritual experience.”  Amen!

Copyright 2008 – Dave Hutchinson

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