Nairobi to Tsavo West
Straight after breakfast we met our driver/guide, George, who was originally intended to be with us until we returned to Nairobi in just under two weeks time. Having loaded six passengers and their luggage into the long-wheelbase Land Rover, off we set, straight into Nairobi’s notorious traffic! It was the tail-end of the morning rush hour and our hotel was on the northern side of the city, while we needed to be on the A104 Nairobi to Mombassa road, which lay on the other side of the city centre.
Kenyan roads are… …different and varied! Some can be bowling green smooth, but most are incredibly bumpy and pot-holed, even in a city like Nairobi. Traffic rules are difficult to interpret if, as we were at the time, you are unused to Kenya. We hadn’t gone too far out of the city centre when the traffic ground to a halt on the dual carriageway to Mombassa, not far from the turn-off to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Was it an accident, or just Nairobi’s chronic traffic? No – some local farmers had decided to drive their cattle from one side of the dual carriageway to the other, in order to reach pasture – only in Kenya!
Hold-up on the Nairobi to Mombassa highway
Having cleared that obstacle, the rest of the drive down to Tsavo West passed uneventfully and we arrived at Kilaguni Safari Lodge. We were greeted with hot towels to clear the dust from our skin and a cold glass of fruit juice to clear the dust from our throats.
Kilaguni takes its name from a Kamba word meaning “young Rhino”. The Kamba people are a Bantu ethnic group, or tribe, who live in the semi-arid former Eastern Province of Kenya, stretching from Nairobi to Tsavo, and north up to Embu. The Kamba make up 11% of Kenya’s population.
After checking into our room, lunch, and then a stroll around the lodge’s grounds where Mongoose and Lizards scuttled across the path in front of you, and Rock Hyrax sun bathed on a wall.
A Rock Agama basks in the sun at Tsavo West
Our afternoon game drive took us to Mzima Springs, a set of four natural springs fed by a natural reservoir under the Chyulu Hills, to the north. The Chyulu Hills are composed of volcanic rock, lava and ash, which is too porous to allow rivers to flow. Instead, rain water percolates through the rock, spending up to 25 years underground before emerging 50 kilometres away at Mzima. This natural filtration results in Mzima’s clear stream, which flows through a series of pools and rapids. Two kilometres downstream from the springs, the stream is blocked by a solidified lava flow and disappears below the surface again. With a resident population of Hippos and Nile Crocodiles, Mzima Springs are a popular tourist spot.
As we walked down from the car park, we came across a young Nile Crocodile in the stream, mouth agape, letting the cooling water flow past a matter of feet from where we stood. Had it been any larger I am not so sure we would have been quite so keen to be so close!
Spot the Croc!
There were a number of crocodiles and hippos in the water at the springs, and visitors were able to enter an underwater viewing chamber in order to see what was going on under the surface, but all we could see were some fish!
Driving back to Kilaguni in the sunset, we saw the misty outline of Mount Kilimanjaro, across the Tanzanian border, in the distance. Kilimanjaro was a mountain that would be in our sight throughout our time in Tsavo West and Amboseli.
After dinner, we sat watching the wildlife coming to the waterhole by the lodge – Zebra, various breeds of antelope, Elephants, and Buffalo. It was at this point that Sandra turned to me and said, “I want to come back!” Our adventure had only just begun, but already Kenya was working its spell and enticing us to return!
Our first impressions of Kenya? A wonderful country. The people are so friendly and can’t do enough for you. As for the wildlife, well it’s ten times better being there among it then to watching it on television!
Zebra at the waterhole at Kilaguni
Before turning in for the night, we asked if we could be called if anything interesting, particularly any of the big cats, turned up at the waterhole during the night. Sure enough… …at one o’clock in the morning the telephone in our room rang. Sleepily answering it, I heard a voice at the other end say, “… …Lion at the waterhole!” Quickly waking Sandra up, we went to the window to find a large bull Elephant in one pool and four Lions approaching the other! The Lions then proceeded to drink… …noisily (we could hear them lapping the water from where we were). Once they had slaked their thirst they moved off a short distance away to make way for a herd of Buffalo; who in turn eventually made way for five Elephants, including a baby! This little spot was turning our to be quite busy, but very worthwhile having our sleep disturbed for the experience of seeing the wildlife at night.
2nd September 2008
Tsavo West to Amboseli
Breakfast was taken overlooking the waterhole with Zebra, including a foal; as well as a Giraffe mother and baby, coming down to drink. The area was teeming with wildlife, but it was time to move on. After breakfast we drove to Amboseli, in convoy with an armed escort from the Kenyan Wildlife Service, armed with AK-47 assault rifles! The reason for this was that route lies very close to the Tanzanian border and their had been a history in the past of bandit attacks on vehicles. A necessary precaution, but everyone seemed quite light-hearted about it.
Just after leaving Kilaguni, we rounded a bend and a Leopard walked out of the bush behind us! George brought the vehicle to a halt, but the Leopard crossed the track and disappeared into the bush before any decent photographs could be obtained. Already we had seen FOUR of the Big Five: Elephant, Lion, Buffalo and Leopard – only the Rhino to go and this is Day Two of our safari!
Our route this morning covered a variety of roads from the stony park roads to the rutted, dust main Nairobi to Tanzania highway. We arrived in Amboseli and enjoyed a short game drive as George drove us to Ol Tukai Lodge, where we arrived in time for lunch.
Ol Tukai is located in an area renowned for its Elephants and consists of a central lodge housing reception, the restaurant, etc. and a number of smaller blocks, each of which contains four en-suite rooms, each with its own verandah. We had been allocated No.34 Elephant View, which as the name suggested, commanded an open view of the plains beyond the low five strand wire fence – all that separated us from the wildlife! From our verandah we could see Zebra, Wildebeest, Buffalo and Elephants!
No.34 Elephant View, Ol Tukai
After lunch we went to the Conference Centre for a fascinating and entertaining talk on the Maasai people. The talk was given by two Maasai tribesmen, dressed in their traditional attire, or shuka. They explained, in some detail, their way of life; the significance of their beaded necklace designs; and in fact everything from the Cradle to the Grave to do with the Maasai.
Before dinner we embarked on game drive, straight into a dust storm. However, despite this we managed to see a number of Lions, including one wearing a radio tracker collar as part of the then newly established Amboseli Lion Project. In July 2007, five lions within the Amboseli National Park were fitted with radio collars, to enable researchers to establish the movement of Lions within the Amboseli Eco-system, providing the local population with data that could help prevent conflict between Lions and local tribesmen safeguarding their livestock.
3rd September 2008
We were up at 5.30 am ready to set out on our game drive at 6.30. It was warmer than we expected, but a lot less dusty than the previous day. The sun rose very quickly, bathing the savannah in a beautiful light, as the cloud cleared from the summit of Kilimanjaro, to reveal its snow-capped peak.
At 20,000 feet high, Mount Kilimanjaro, or Kili for short, is the highest mountain on the African continent, and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Kilimanjaro has three volcanic cones, Mawenzi, Shira, and Kibo. Mawenzi and Shira are extinct, while Kibo, the highest peak, is dormant but could erupt again in the future. However, the most recent activity was about 200 years ago, and the last major eruption was 360,000 years ago! Almost every kind of ecological system can be found on Kilimanjaro; cultivated land, rain forest, heath, moorland, alpine desert, and arctic summit.
The mountain’s snow caps are rapidly diminishing, having lost more than 80% of their mass since 1912. Scientists have predicted that the day when they could be totally ice-free is not far off.
Mount Kilimanjaro seen from Amboseli
It was wall-to-wall Elephants this morning, including a number of youngsters, one of which was only approximately 10-days old. There were also a numbers of Lions, Zebra, wildebeest and Giraffe to be seen as well. There was plenty of evidence of overnight kills by predators, mainly Zebra, with Hyenas and Vultures in attendance feeding on the left-overs. Further on we came to the swamp where we counted ten Hippos wallowing; and further on another one out of the water grazing, normally a night-time activity. Close-by we saw a pair of Crowned Cranes, the National bird of Tanzania.
We returned to the lodge just before 9 am for breakfast and to change, before setting out to visit a Maasai village. On the way we had an impromptu game drive, spotting a Secretary Bird out hunting.
Called Maasai after their form of speech which is known as “Maa”, the Maasai are renowned for their bravery. They are also distinguished by their good manners, impressive presence and almost mystical love of their cattle, which weave an invisible thread through their lives and their culture. “I hope your cattle are well” is still the most common form of Maasai greeting. Milk and blood still remains part of the traditional diet of the Maasai. Cowhides provide such things as mattresses, while live cattle establish marriage bonds, and complex cattle-fines maintain social harmony.
Maasai performing a traditional welcome dance
Thought to have migrated to Kenya from the lower valleys of the Nile, the Maasai have had a troubled history in their adopted land. From famine and disease, to the arrival of the European settlers, this proud race has endured many trials and tribulations. despite the primitive appearance of their way of life, the Maasai have adapted and today rather than killing the lions that killed their cattle, they are actively engaged in protecting them. Many are actively engaged in the tourism industry, creating lodges, serving as guides, and of course explaining their traditions and way of life to the visitors.
Some things however, will never change, and above everything else the Maasai love their cattle. No matter how large the herd, each animal will have a name and only in the harshest of circumstances will a Maasai part with a single animal. So why do the Maasai love their cattle so dearly? Perhaps the best explanation is one given by the Maasai themselves in this folktale:
In the beginning the Maasai did not have any cattle. Then one day God called to Maasinta, who was the first Maasai, and said to him, “I want you to make a large enclosure, and when you have done so, come back and inform me”. Maasinta went and did as he was instructed. Then God said, “tomorrow, very early in the morning, go and stand in the enclosure and I will give you something called cattle. But keep very silent no matter what you might see or hear.”
Very early in the morning Maasinta went into the enclosure and waited. Suddenly there was a great clap of thunder and a leather thong descended from heaven. Down is descended hundreds of cattle in all the colours of brown and black, some with great horns, others with velvet dewlaps . Meanwhile the earth shook so violently that Maasinta’s house nearly fell over and he was gripped with tremendous fear, but he did not make a sound.
It was at this moment that Dorobo, who shared the house with Maasinta, woke from his sleep and went outside. there, seeing the cattle descending down the leather thong, he let out a great shriek.
Immediately God withdrew the thong into heaven and, thinking that it was Maasinta who had shrieked, he said to him, “what’s the matter? Are these cattle not enough for you? If that is the case, I will never send any more – so you had better love these cattle in the same way that I love you.” And that is why the Maasai love their cattle so much.
Maasai women dancing
The Maasai language, Maa; their history and their stories and songs are not written down in any way, but are passed down from one generation to another. It is only with the interest shown by non-Maasai in their history and culture that their heritage is now being recorded and shared with a wider audience.
Visiting a Maasai Village
Arriving at the village we were met by Daniel, one of the village elders, who welcomed us and outlined what we would see. The entire village came out and welcomed us with traditional dancing and singing, followed by prayers for our safe travels. We were then given a conducted tour around the village and into one of the homes.
Inside the house it was totally dark and it took some time for our eyes to adjust. The only light that entered the house was the small amount that comes through the very small gaps in the wattle and daub walls.
The village consisted of 125 people, living in a community of four extended-families. After viewing and purchasing their traditional beadwork, we were taken to the small school, which also doubles as the community’s church, where we were invited to meet the children and their volunteer teacher. The children, ranging in age from four to eleven years, recited the days of the week; the months of the year; the alphabet; and their numbers to us in English. Bearing in mind that the first language of the Maasai is Maa; and the common language of Kenya is Swahili; and most Kenyans also speak English, many of these children will grow up to be tri-lingual!
We then said our farewells and made our way back to the lodge, through a dust storm, for a late lunch.
Maasai school & church
After lunch we sat out on the verandah outside our room, enjoying the sun. Two Little Bee-eaters perched nearby on the fence, while on the other side Elephants slowly wandered across the Savannah.
At 4 pm we set out on our afternoon game drive, very soon coming across a group of four Cheetahs. At first they didn’t appear to be that interested in the Gazelles that were nearby, so George decided to move on and look for something else. However, as we came back up the track, all of a sudden, all four Cheetahs broke into a run. What an amazing sight! They stopped, and then took up the chase again, before giving up and sauntering back into cover behind some bushes.
The rest of the game drive produced a varied bag of wildlife ranging from Lions to Elephants, As we made our way back towards the Lodge, we saw the vultures queuing up for their turn on a kill, but we were unable to see what was on the menu this evening! As we arrived back at the Lodge, the setting sun was reflecting off the snows of Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped peak – what a beautiful sight.
Kilimanjaro at Sunset