A game-watching trip to Kenya

We felt we ought to visit Kenya, although we had visions of something more like a great safari park rather than the informal Africa we love. In the event it turned out to be great fun and an enjoyable holiday.

Day 1&2


Our vehicle The arrival at Nairobi airport was a pleasant surprise. It seemed bustling and efficient and things worked. These favourable impressions got through to us even though it was only just daybreak and we were weary from the flight.

The hotel in central Nairobi was comfortable and we went to bed and slept 09:00-13:00. Afterwards we walked around several blocks of downtown Nairobi which all seemed a bit above the usual African standard. At 18:00 it was time for the trip briefing by Keri, our tour leader, and then we all went for dinner in a nearby Italian restaurant. We ate good pizza and drank Tusker beer. Our party seemed to have a good range of people and the first impressions were favourable.

Day 3.

Up at 06:30. The hotel's buffet breakfast was chaos; luckily we were not hungry. One of the party had missed the flight from the UK to Nairobi and was currently following by another flight. We loaded up and arrived at the airport for 09:30, but our late-arriving companion had still not arrived. We continued without her.

Roads seemed fairly good and a feature of the place was a lot of very big plastic sheet greenhouses which were mostly being used for growing flowers. The weather was grey and the temperature, at this high altitude, was cool. We reached our campsite about 14:00 where we pitched the tents and had some food. An afternoon walk had been planned to the Mau Mau caves and a nearby waterfall, but we turned back soon after the start due to rain. Instead we ended up sitting in the bar of the campsite hotel by a wood fire while the rain fell outside. During slacker periods of rain I went out to look at a huge model of mount Kenya in the grounds, which showed the topography and all the routes. Later the rain eased and we went for a shorter walk in the woodlands. It was pleasant enough although we had the customary endless descriptions by our guide of the local plants and what illnesses they cured.

After dinner the whole of the stay-awakes went to the bar again. Claire, who had now caught up with us by taxi, went to bed early. Joan and I sat by the fire that heated the water for showers and talked to the camp's night watchman. He told us about how he had been an international footballer before being injured.


Day 4.

Weaver birds nests Up at 06:00 for travel to Samburu National Reserve. We stopped at the Equator on the way (near Nanyuki). This was infested with souvenir stalls and gentlemen with jugs of water and funnels who were keen to demonstrate how the water swirled in different directions if you changed hemispheres! After partially escaping from them I found a magnificent collection of masked weavers nests in a tree behind the stalls.


 

Loading sacks of charcoal As we got nearer the park, we found ourselves on dirt roads. Conditions were dry and dusty, but traffic was quite light. We stopped on the way to buy two huge parcels of charcoal from the locals; a number of camels lurked nearby. As we drove on we began to notice a few buck and dik-dik as we drove along. The landscape was pretty near desert in character, with a few small bushes and tufts of grass. We entered the park via the Buffalo Gate. The park follows the Ewaso Ngiro, a brown, muddy river which creates a green ribbon around it in the landscape.


 

Superb Starling Our camp was delightfully remote on sand amongst large trees by the river. We shared the site with beautifully coloured Superb Starlings and a few Hornbills.


 

Vulturine Guineafowl In the evening we went for a game drive. We were surprised to see so many Nissan vans out on game drives: it had seemed such a remote place when we first arrived. It is a good place to view game since there are woodlands along the track of the river as well as more sparse brush further away from it


 

Gerenuk There was plenty to see: elephants, oryx, gerenuk, Grant's and Thomson's gazelles, blue duiker, baboons, vulturine guinea fowl and finally a pair of cheetahs. We particularly liked the graceful gerenuk; these are an antelope-like creature with a long neck like a llama or a giraffe. Finally we returned for supper and bed. It was a warm night. I slept well and did not hear an elephant which passed close by the tents on the way to the river.


 

Day 5. Game Viewing at Samburu National Reserve

Elephant Before breakfast, I had a look at the elephant tracks: they passed just behind our tents and into the river. The emergent tracks came up a steeper bank a little distance away.

After breakfast we went on a morning game drive which was only a moderate success. At the end of our drive we went to Buffalo Pools where some of us had a swim in a rocky cistern of clear water. It was now hot and the cool water was pleasant. Afterwards we went back for lunch. The food was good but this is my day for washing-up. After the kitchen chores I sat quietly under the trees for a while. Later we all the went in our lorry to the Samburu Lodge. This is a large and luxurious place where it was possible to sit under a huge thatched patio beside the river. We stayed there until it was time for the evening game drive. We paid 4 for two glasses of cold fruit punch!

Again, we were not particularly lucky with finding the more exotic game. There were also hordes of nasty little vans everywhere, but I guess they were not appreciative of our own handsome big lorry!

Day 6. Drive to Lake Baringo

Today it was a case of up early and away. There had been a big debate about whether to take the shorter route to Lake Baringo, since a lorry had been shot-up the previous week on that route and its contents stolen. It was eventually decided that the longer way would be used and this involved back-tracking as far as Nanyuki. Another complication was that the day had been declared a day of national strike in Kenya and there could be problems on any of the roads. Certainly there were crowds out in Nanyuki and police with riot shields were much in evidence.

We continued as far as Thompson Falls, where we encountered heavy rain. We stopped and went into the hotel, where bought drinks and sat in some style while we ate our packed lunches. As we were about to leave, we met a tourist van entering and they said they had been stoned further up the road although there was no damage.

We continued with some apprehension. Apart from us not wanting to be stoned, the stoning seemed a pretty inappropriate action from the locals, who just want free elections. An equally inappropriate type of action might be to chop up a passing lorry-load of mzungus with pangas! In the event, things passed off quietly. However, as we negotiated a roundabout at Nakuru, we could see fresh broken glass on the road. I sensed that passers-by were looking at us much more frequently than usual.

Once beyond Nakuru we were out into wilder country of bush, swamp and sisal plantations and few people. Here we could relax again.

The rain had continued and at the Baringo campsite we had to put up the tents in light rain. We also set up a rather inadequate canopy against the side of the lorry, but by dinner time the rain had stopped.


Day 7. At Baringo; drive to Lake Nakuru

Lake fisherman The day started with a lie-in. We managed to get a welcome shower before breakfast. After the rain of yesterday, this proved to be a pleasant sunny morning. At 08:00 we went for a boat trip to an island in Lake Baringo. On the way we saw a bit of bird life in the reeds around the lake shore, including some Jacarnas and a set of Jacarna eggs laid straight on to floating vegetation. Further out in the lake we met some local fishermen who paddled themselves along while sitting on minute boats that looked more like small shields; it was an odd sight to see a seated man scuttling along in the middle of the lake!


 

Fish eagle catches a fish We bought fish from one of the fishermen and later used it to bait fish eagles. I had tried filming fish eagles before on previous trips, but without success. When these slides were later developed, it turned that I had finally managed to photograph a fish eagle snatching the bait.

The main aim of our trip was to visit a village of locals on the island. They proved to be very friendly and welcoming and showed us around their village. In our turn we arranged that Keri, our group leader, would buy some books and writing materials in Nairobi for the village school and would bring them on her next visit.

We then drove on to the town of Nakuru. There some had a slight problem in that all the banks were closed since it was Saturday afternoon. The whole group of us toured a large supermarket while our provisions were being bought. It was impressively well stocked and bustling with locals buying things. Certainly I had seen nothing as good in Zimbabwe, which is usually reckoned to be one of the more successful African countries.

To me the name Nakuru was well known from TV nature programs and I had always visualised it as having a remote and exotic location. I was more than a little surprised when we drove to the suburbs of Nakuru town and, just opposite the football ground, turned in to an entry in a wire netting fence which was labelled the regional National Park. We were only half a mile inside this when we reached our campsite in a clearing amid a wood. It felt far too suburban, although this was not to be an opinion held by everyone after they had been kept awake the following night by a lion roaring at various points around the camp site.


Leopard in tree Before nightfall we went for a game drive, when we saw big flocks of Flamingos feeding in the lake. The flamingos were certainly spectacular, although the shallow slope of the lake shore means that they are too far away for them to be seen as individuals. We also saw Rhino and Leopard as well as the more common animals. The leopard was laid out on the branch of a big tree to the side of the road, where it looked splendid. To see it so well was a great treat for me, since in five previous visits to southern Africa I had never seen more than the tips of a leopard's ears in the grass.

By this time we were beginning to feel that the town was very close to the lake rather than the converse.


Day 8. Drive to Lake Naivasha

Rock Hyrax We got up before dawn so we could drive in the dark to a small mountain called Baboon Cliff and watch the sun rise over the lake. As we waited we got a surprise when we had a pair of hyrax materialise by our feet at the top of the cliff. I think that the hyraxes were a little surprised too!

We continued with a game drive, seeing another rhino on our way and lots of giraffe. One pair of giraffe were having a fine sparring match in which they clubbed eachother with their own heads, swung in an accelerating arc. After breakfast we struck camp and drove for a couple of hours to reach Lake Naivasha.

There we pitched camp in a vast field catering for campers and for horse-riders. In the afternoon we had a visit to Joy Adamson's cottage; she wrote the book "Born free" about Elsa the lioness. The place was set up as a bit of a shrine. I must admit that having books published and films made does not fill me with awe and make me want to search out and visit the home of the author! However there were some splendid Colubus monkeys in the trees of the grounds.

Towards dusk we spent a happy time standing quietly on the end of a rickety jetty in the lake, watching birds and hearing distant hippos. After dinner we went to the camp social centre to sit and drink cold beer. We left as the disco noise grew. Luckily, we were on the limits of noise range where we had placed our tents.

Day 9. At Lake Naivasha

Today we were off fairly early to Hells Gate Park for a walk. The walk was three hours on a dirt road. We saw virtually no vehicles and it was nice to be walking. We were lucky in having an overcast morning, which held the temperature down. The valley is floored with grass with small bushes in clumps and is defined by cliffs rising on either side. There were a lot of zebra, a few eland, some Coke's hartebeest and a few baboons. Whilst the animals showed some of the usual caution with walking humans, they did not rush too far away.


Strange rock formations At the end of the walk our truck met up with us. We bought some soft drinks from a park warden. Then we set off with an armed warden to explore a spectacular long steep narrow canyon that was only a few feet wide in places. There were also some hot springs in it. These are strange to see, since they are too hot to touch and yet there is a green slime growing in them. Apparently we were not very far away from a geothermal power station that produces about half of Kenya's electricity. Certainly it had not intruded on the area where we were: indeed there was absolutely no sign that it was nearby.

Back outside of the canyon we saw a lot of "whistling thorn" bushes. These have hollow spheres built by ants at the intersection of clumps of thorns to produce a sputnik-like feature. It is these, when there are holes present, that cause a whistle when the wind blows.


Giraffes After a lunch back at camp, we went by boat to the Crescent Island Sanctuary. There are no predators and Joan and I opted to walk without a guide for the afternoon. It was enjoyable. We saw hares, dik-dik, waterbuck and giraffe quite closely and all the usual grazers in the distance. The giraffe we saw at very close range in a patch of sparse trees, which was a delightful experience.


 

Plover Later we met a most agitated plover doing a spectacular act to get us away from its nest. We had quite a good long walk before catching the boat back at 17:30. On the way back we got in on the fringe of another sea-eagle baiting session, but I realised too late to get the camera lined-up for more photos. Near the mainland we also passed by several pods of hippos in the water.

After dinner I went for a hot shower, which had been heralded as a special treat for us in this camp. However, since there was nowhere to put my belongings and the shower valves needed a Herculean effort to turn them, I ended up clean but with all my clothes and washing gear wet! Tonight everyone sat round the camp fire telling stories until it was time to go to bed.

Day 10. To Loita Hills

Today we packed up and set off for a drive along the Rift Valley escarpment. There were viewpoints and tourist shops where one could look down at the flat valley base below, while salesmen pointed out the extinct volcano and the satellite-tracking station before trying to sell some beadwork or a carved animal. Later the road doubled back and lost height so we were to see the same scene again from a lower altitude. Much later the road gained height again and finally lost its tarmac beyond a lively little town called Ewaso Ngiro, like the river.

The dirt road continued beyond here with some signs of work for the future rebuilding of a better road, but the present one is very rough. Finally, our own route took us up a turn-off on something no better than a farm track, which thinned progressively over tens of miles until there was no road at all. We finally arrived at our campsite in a woodland cleaning on a shallow hillside miles from anywhere.

Here we set up our tents and met our Masai night watchmen. During the drive today, we had made a rendezvous with a car that had some spare tents belonging to Explore. Joan and I now had the luxury of a tent without holes in the mosquito net door, although we still had to make improvised repairs to the flysheet. It was a nice campsite and during the night we had bright moonlit which gave the surrounding thorny bushes and trees a delightful appearance.


Day 11. In Loita Hills

Our Masai guides Today we went for a walk up a local hill with three Masai guides, setting off at a leisurely 08:00. The conditions were overcast and reasonably cool. It was an enjoyable walk although not spectacular. From the top we could see the surrounding flat plains with occasional distant hills. There was not much wild life. On the return journey I had just been asking about tortoises when we spotted a small one beside the path. Our round trip took us 3½ hours, done at a leisurely pace.


After lunch we got in the truck and bumped along to a nearby hamlet, where it was market day for the surrounding countryside. We toured round in a group past the few microscopic shops and walked around the large area behind where hordes of locals had brought cattle and goats to trade or sell. It was a spectacular scene, with hundreds of Masai all wrapped in red blankets. Sadly photos were taboo as it causes a lot of trouble and we did feel a little intimidated .

Our return drive was marked by a determined effort by part of our group to buy local beer. They finally managed to buy a 5-litre container of the stuff {which can legally be brewed by the locals but its sale is illegal}.

Masai dance Back at the camp we sat for a while in the shade since it was now sunny and hot. As the day cooled, a gang of local Masai men assembled. They had come to dance for us. Masai dancing is a simple affair and mainly serves as a background to the spectacular competitive jumping of the participants. This time we could take photos and did so.

During the dancing a lot of women and children had assembled and after the dancing there was beadwork for sale. The men also put clubs and sticks on display and I bought a club with a head and handle which were elegantly carved from the tree trunk and a branch.


Once again it was a fine moonlit night and it felt good to be living out in the open. The beer did not get drunk by our party. I tried some and found it better than other maize beer I have had in Africa: apparently this local beer contains honey and herbs as well as maize. Our night watchmen drank the rest of the beer. We did not suffer any thefts or hyena attacks during the night, although I suspect that the night watchmen were fast asleep!

Day 12.

Today we struck camp and set off for the Masai Mara. Initially the road from the Loita Hills was little more than a few tyre marks on the plain and it was hard to picture it as a journey to anywhere. After perhaps 30-50 km we made contact with the main road to the Masai Mara. This itself is a rough dirt road, although it was used by the Nissan vans carrying tourists. The more affluent fly in to the Masai Mara!


Zebra We entered the Masai Mara National Park via the Sekanani Gate and drove past endless herds of wildebeest and zebra to reach the Talek Gate, where our campsite was just outside the gate. We arrived early afternoon when it was very hot. We set up the tents around a group of trees that gave us a some shade in the hot sunshine. We cleaned up a little and had a rest. Later, as it cooled, we went out for a game drive. As well as the herds of zebra and wildebeest there were many Thompsons gazelle and an elephant or two.

After some travelling some distance we saw a cluster of vans ahead. They were grouped around a grass-filled gully in which a wildebeest was being eaten by young lions. Other lions, including a large male, were sitting on the opposite side of the road and showing no signs of wanting to eat. Perhaps they had their own meat somewhere? We sat and watched for some while before setting off back to camp in the failing light. During that journey we were lucky to see a cheetah resting quietly a little distance from the road.


Day 13.

Hyena startled Up early for a dawn game drive. Fairly early in our drive we saw a family of hyenas. To our surprise we saw that some were fitted with radio collars. We then noticed a red 4wd parked behind us tracking them with a directional aerial!


 

Lion Later we arrived at the lion-kill site of the night before. By now the big male was alone at the kill and was gnawing on the remnants. We stopped for a long time to take photos, but he never once turned round to look in our direction.


 

Sunbird near swimming pool Back at the camp after our drive, we had lunch then sat under the trees. Later we went to spent the heat of the day by the swimming pool at Fig Tree Camp. The camp does have a large fig tree with a staircase up it to a platform where you can sit and drink while you gaze out over the roofs of the camp. The camp has a swimming pool and one can lie on sun-loungers and look at birds on the plants around the pool.


A few days before we had decided that we would be extravagant and go for a balloon flight. Now we heard that our balloon flight booking had been confirmed for tomorrow.

In the evening we went for another game drive in a remote part of the park. There was not much game there although we did see some distant lions and saw a 4wd vehicle illegally following them off-road. It was not one of our best outings: personally I did not take a single photo! As we returned there was a magnificent sunset. We stopped to take some nondescript photos of it. The sunset was gone before we got to where there would have been a good photograph.


 

Day 14.

We had been persuaded to be up and ready at 04:30 for our balloon flight but the transport did not arrive until 05:30. This was a perfectly adequate time and we bumped along in the dark by back roads to arrive at Fig Tree Camp by a hidden entrance. As we came to a halt we could hear the blower fans filling-out the balloons and, towering above us, we could just make out the two huge rounded shapes of our balloons.

Balloon canopy A little later the pilots arrived and began to blast hot air in from the big noisy burners. There was a certain amount of chaos as we scrambled in to the baskets, not quite sure if the balloon was going to take off before we got aboard! There were six people in each of two vast wicker baskets. It was still dark as the balloons reached the point of lift-off. Our ground crew let go the ropes and we rose smoothly away. A gentle drift took us over Fig Tree Camp just grazing the roofs, which looked grey and colourless in the thin light.

We stayed very low and drifted over herds of Wildebeest and Zebra, who looked cold and inert after the chill of the night. Slowly a glow spread throughout he sky and the first strong rays of sun preceded the full sunrise. It is a delightful way to see the day break.


 

First balloon ahead of us We drifted along over the vast herds and we saw some hyena dens with a few hyenas venturing out in the cold morning air. We were comfortable in the basket with no air movement. Also we had the full benefit from the toasting heat of the burners every few minutes.

I was very surprised by our height control. I had pictured this as being a fairly high flight. In fact the maximum would, I judge, be about 300' and much of the time we were below 100'. At some points we were extremely low; down to 3' above the ground. At one point our pilot deliberately dragged our basket through a tree-top.


 

Wildebeeste, Zebra and our shadow From up here the strange trekking behaviour of the Wildebeest was very obvious. They follow one another in rows that looked exactly like streams of ants on the ground.

Time passed all too quickly. Soon we began our second phase, which was to climb to 3000' or so a.g.l. This had a drama of its own since we were into the gloom just below the clouds and out of reach of the glow of the sun. Below us we could see the meandering line of trees that marked out the Mara river and in the distance we could see the hills.

We descended again. As we got close to the ground we saw a lioness running to cover. We watched vultures from above as they flew from tree to tree. We could see our fleet of recovery vehicles following us with the equipment and staff for our champagne breakfast. The vehicles caught up with us and passed ahead. We flew in low over a bend of the river where hippos were wallowing in the water. Just beyond the bend we touched down. There was a bump and the canopy collapsed as the air was spilt from the vent.


breakfast We climbed out of the basket in the middle of the Masai Mara and walked back to the river bank where, by now, there were tables set with tablecloths. A waiter in a scarlet waistcoat was offering us a tray of chilled champagne and slices of fresh chilled pineapple to go with it. We ambled around taking photos of hippo in the river and baboons in the bushes behind the tables. A chef in a tall white hat was cooking omelettes for us and soon we were seated at the table enjoying them.


 

Champagne and 'tomato juice' At the next table was a party of Japanese from the other balloon. They were not drinking their champagne and we had to help them out! This was very convenient since we were by now a little thirsty. There were also some fine large glasses of tomato juice which tasted very refreshing. Later it became apparent that they were not just tomato juice but very potent Bloody Marys. From this point onwards my memories are less clear.

We must have travelled back in a Land Cruiser. I remember standing up through a hole in the roof of our vehicle for a game drive on the way back. I do have a vague memory of stopping amongst herds of animals and pointing the camera at them. Later I can remember sitting around the pool at Fig Tree Camp, but not how I got there. Later still we somehow arrived back at the campsite and I can remember crawling back into the tent and going to sleep.

In the evening we went on another game drive. It seemed something of an anti-climax. It was notable only for seeing one sad lioness roaring mournfully as she walked along a road followed by a fleet of vehicles.

Day 15.

Up at 05:30 to strike camp, ready for our homeward journey. A last minute treat was to see a hippo returning down the bank opposite the campsite to enter the river there.


African musicians We had a final tour through the park before leaving for the long ride on rough roads. Eventually we reached tarmac and entered Nairobi along a dual carriageway to get to the hotel at 13:00. Went out to do some shopping at African Heritage, which was the only shop open on the Sunday. There was a good local band playing in their coffee shop. Finally, most of us went together for a Chinese meal in the evening.


Day 16.

Up very early and started our return journey. This was smooth enough although the flight was an hour late departing. This proved a blessing as we later passed through Cairo airport without their habitual passport-collection routine and quietly completed our journey home.

Comment

A very satisfying trip in every respect. Full marks to Explore and many thanks to Keri.

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