One of the attractions of safari is not knowing what you will see. The wildlife doesn’t come to order, sometimes it will be there for all the world to see (well, at least you and your driver); while at other times you will scour the area, but sadly finding very little. Over the years visiting Kenya we have seen the expected (or hoped for) and the totally unexpected in equal measure, from the tiniest of insects to the largest of elephants.
This morning we were up early and out on the road in time to see the sunrise over the savannah. Today we were making our way to the Rhino Sanctuary. Meru was once abundant with Elephant and Rhino, but poaching, sadly, almost wiped out the population of both in the criminal’s zest for rhino horn and ivory on false promises of riches or good health. Over the years the situation has been reversed and the populations of both these magnificent animals is on the increase. The thick dense scrub the abounds in Meru is testament to the years that the park was bereft of Elephants, prime grazers of scrub; but now the population has returned they are slowly but surely eating their way to reverse that position.
This morning we were making our way to the Rhino Sanctuary that is now home to well over 100 White Rhinos, in a secure and protected environment, watched over by a permanent ranger force 24 hours a day. On arrival at the sanctuary gates we were greeted warmly by the rangers, genuinely pleased to see us. However hard he tried though, Philip appeared disappointed that he only managed to find us a distant view of two adult rhinos and a calf.
Having completed the circuit of the sanctuary, we headed back to the gate and thanking the rangers re-entered the main park again. As we continued our quest we came across Elephants, Zebra, Waterbuck, Crocodiles and Hippos. The bird life was also plentiful with good views of Grey Chanting Goshawk, Cattle Egret and Great White Egret.
We drove to the banks of the Rojewero River where Philip found us a shady spot to eat breakfast. As we ate, a Hornbill sat on a nearby branch having its own breakfast. After breakfast we continued our game drive, visiting the Hippo Pool, where we saw several Hippos wallowing in the water. All too soon though, it was time to head back on a slow drive to Elsa’s for lunch.
While sitting outside writing up our safar diary, I was joined by a pair of Hornbills in a tree right by our cottage, truly surrounded by the wildlife in this idyllic spot. Talking to Philip the lodge manager, after lunch, he agreed on Philip’s identification of the African Barred Spotted Owlet yesterday, indicating that this was a possible first for Meru and that Philip our driver, should report it the the Kenya Wildlife Service so that it could be recorded.
Post-safari note: On our return home I submitted the sighting and my photographs to Nature Kenya, the East African Natural History Society, based in Nairobi. Sadly they identified it as a more common Pearl-Spotted Owlet. So sadly not a rarity, but despite this we were very happy to have been so privileged to have seen it. To our guide, Philip “Bird” Mukuhi, asante sana for sharing with us your Meru and for showing us some of its matural treasures and wonders.
Later that afternoon it was time for our evening game drive, on which we covered a fair few miles and managed to see a number of unusual sights. Once again, Kenya produced things we had not seen before – a Pygmy Falcon; a Giraffe sleeping (they only sleep for a few minutes every day and they sleep standing up!); a juvenile Snake Eagle; and a Secretary Bird in flight. I commneted to Philip that we had seen fewer and fewer Vultures over the years. He confirmed that they do appear to becoming rarer, but he took us to a group of trees which the Vultures use as a roost site, and sure enough there were several pairs there.
Under a cloudless blue sky, we turned back towards Elsa’s and finding an animal-free spot on the savannah a short distance from camp, we stopped for our sundowners, watching the sun sink slowly behind the hills. On returning to the lodge, once again dinner was served by candlelight on the lawn, but sadly tomorrow we move on from this idyllic spot.
Saturday 23rd July 2016
This mornign was a lie in for both us and for Philip. Following a late breakfast we left Elsa’s saying Kwaheri to this wonderful place and the fantastic people who have looked after us so well.
Philip drove us to the airstrip, taking in as much wildlife as possible on the way, including a terrapin at the swamp! Taking our leave of Philip we boarded our flight to Archer’s Post heading for Samburu. A short flight of only about 20 minutes, landing on the edge of Archer’s Post where we met our driver, Daniel. Leaving the airstrip we drove a short distance before entering the reserve and driving on to Ashnil’s Camp located on the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro river.
After checking-in, accompanied by the usual hot towels and cold fruit juice, we were taken to our tent, No.12, located by the river. After dropping our bags in the tent, it was time to take a slow walk back through the camp to lunch.
Our afternoon game drive set out at 4pm with Daniel scouring the reserve to find us the wildlife. Today the big cats seemed to be in hiding, with us not seeing a single one, but such is the luck of safari. Other animals were present including Elephants, Dik Dik, Oryx, Gerenuk, Grant’s Gazelle and Zebra. We also saw plenty of bird life before returning to camp.
As we returned to camp. we paused to watch the sun go down behind the hills. Tomorrow is another day and in true safari style you never know what will turn up!
Elsa’s Kopje proved to be a location where we got closer to nature without even leaving camp! During the night I was woken up by the noises of the African night! In the trees that surrounded our cottage, a group of monkeys were getting very agitated and vocal. As I listened I could hear a sawing sound, and my sleep befuddled brain tried to rationalise this against the knowledge that I had built up on Kenya’s wildlife. Could it be… ….a Leopard that was the cause of the cacaophony that the monkeys were now making?
At 5.45 am our room steward was knocking at our door with our early morning call, accompanied by tea and coffee. This was followed by a quick shower before we made our way down to reception to meet Philip. Just after 6.30 am we were out on the road keenly anticipating what the day might bring to us. I mentioned to Philip the noises in the night and he confirmed that there was a Leopard that lived on the top of the kopje. Its route down into the park often took it right past our cottage, so yes it was a Leopard that I had heard in the night!
Meru National Park is one of Kenya’s more remote and least visited parks and you won’t find it on many safari itineraries. For years it was plagued by poaching which almost wiped out the local Elephant population, indeed it was poachers who murdered George Admason, of Elsa the Lioness fame, in 1989. As a result of this lack of pacyderm browsing, the undergrowth was allowed to grow and become quite dense. As a result viewing of animals is slightly more difficult than elsewhere and an experienced driver with good local knowledge is essential. It is not unusual to go all day in this park without seeing another vehicle! Thankfully, in more recent years Elephants have increased in number, but it is still possible to be able to hear them but not see them due to the density of the bushes in between!
The day before I had asked Philip if would be possible for us to visit Adamson’s Falls and Elsa’s grave at some point during our visit. Philip had decided that this would be our destination this morning. As we crossed the park, heading for the Tana River, all three of us were scanning our surroundings looking for wildlife. However it was Philip who had the keenest eyesight, for as we were driving along, all of a sudden the brakes came on and he had put the vehicle into reverse before we came to a halt with Philip pointing into the dense roadside bushes.
“There”, he pointed, “can you see it?” For the life of me I couldn’t at first pick out what he was pointing to. “There right in the bushes!” Adjusting my position I stared and then, there it was… ….a Bush Baby, its large round eyes staring at us through the branches! Now came the tricky bit, could I get a photograph? There is a saying in acting, never work with children and animals. Well I think the same could be said in the context of photography! Would that Bush Baby co-operate – not on your life. Even with my 600mm lens and setting to manual focus, it was proving difficult to get the perfect shot as the Bush Baby was inside the bushes and there were branches and twigs criss-crossing my view. In the end I decided that I would have to settle for a record shot rather than that perfect picture with every detail in focus, as trying to focus out the branches proved to be nigh on impossible.
Nonetheless, a fantastic sighting and one which we have totally missed without having an expert and enthusiastic local guide.
It never ceases to amaze me how the safari drivers manage to spot, often the smallest of creatures, in dense bush while safely driving their guests. Their eyesight is phenominal.
Despite the difficulties of getting the shot, we continued our journey wondering what this magical country would produce for us next, happy that we had seen such a small and nocturnal animal in the daylight. Under such circumstances, I often wonder what the animal I am trying to capture is thinking. Was that Bush Baby hanging on in the bush while quietly wondering at the strange behaviour of the homo sapiens in the large tin can, or just cursing us for disturbing its sleep?
En route we crossed the Equator – not a new experience for either of us, as over the years of visiting Kenya we have crossed this line on the globe many times, but it does no harm to stop for the obligatory photograph. Almost everywhere you cros the Equator in Kenya you will find a sign by the roadside to mark this point.
As we drove on we continued to find a variety of wildlife – a Black-backed Jackal; a Tawny Eagle; Hammerkop; Madagascar Bee-Eaters; Warthog and Dik-Dik – this was a relatively quiet morning for wildlife compared with some others we had experienced, but made up for by that sighting of a Bush Baby!
On arrival at Adamson’s Falls, our breakfast destination, we alighted from the vehicle. Overlooking the falls were some picnic tables under some thatched awnings, and as we admired the view Philip was setting out our bush breakfast – a selection of cereals; some salad; hard boiled eggs; sausages; cold meats; bread; yoghurts; fruit juice; tea and coffee. While we ate, the sun started to break through the clouds that had accompanied us so far this morning.
As we finished eating, an African Fish Eagle alighted on some rocks just up river from us, watching the water as it rushed down from the falls, and clearly hoping for its own breakfast. Downstream of us, a troop of Baboons came down to the river. This was certainly a breakfast with a difference!
After packing everything up and disposing of our rubbish in the bins provided at this picnic spot, we headed back towards Elsa’s via Ura River, for it was on the banks of this river that George Adamson had laid his beloved Elsa, the lioness imortalised in the film Born Free, to rest after she died. When we arrived at the spot, we alighted to find a gravestone set in the ground. We stood for a moment with our own thoughts, much as one might do at the graveside of a fallen human. For me it was remembering the film that I had seen in the cinema as a young boy, where I had first learned of this wonderful story. Philip then tenderly brushed away the fallen leaves that lay on the grave, before we took our photographs.
We arrived back at Elsa’s in time for lunch and Charlie was amazed at where we had been that morning, as it appeared we had covered quite a distance. The afternoon was spent relaxing by our cottage, camera never far from hand as the Rock Hyrax came to inspect us, until it was time for our afternoon game drive. Once again Philip was an excellent guide and host, well worthy of the Gold Standard that we learned he had achieved.
This afternoon we stayed relatively local to Elsa’s, at least compared with this morning’s excursion. We saw several varieties of bird, but the one Philip got excited about was a possible sighting of a Pale Spotted Owlet, which I managed to capture several shots of. (Sadly this was later to prove to be a mistaken identity, confirmed by Nature Kenya – The East African Natural History Society, to whom I submitted details of the siting as a possible rarity for this part of Kenya). In truth it turned out to be a more common Pearl-spotted Owlet. Nonetheless an exciting sighting for us!
This afternon we also saw a number of larger non-avian species including Elephants, a Crocodile, several varieties of antelope and two Cheetahs.
After stopping for our sundowner Tuskers, accompanied by bitings (Kenyan for nibbles!) as we watched the sun set behind the distant hills, it was back to Elsa’s for dinner.
As we sat drinking our pre-dinner Tuskers, Charlie wandered round talking to guests about their day. Stopping to talk to us, she asked us if we would like a bottle of sparkling wine with our dinner, to mark our wedding anniversary – a lovely gesture. Once again, dinner was served by candlelight on the lawn. A perfect end to yet another perfect day – a day of new discoveries, of creatures that we would not have seen without Philip’s keen eyesight.
Following our encounter with Somak’s Justin Cole at Birdfair in August 2015 we settled on one of the example itineraries in the Somak brochure for a flying safari with stays in Meru, Samburu and the Masai Mara. Meeta, our consultant at Somak https://www.somak.com/, was one of the most helpful people we have ever come across. Nothing was too much trouble for her and the added bonus was that she had personal experience of some of the locations we wanted to stay at. By the beginning of July 2016 we had everything finalised, visas obtained, transport to Heathrow booked, and we were set to go!
Monday 18th July 2016
Jo, our driver, picked us up from home for the drive around the M25 to Heathrow, dropping us off outside Terminal 4 in plenty of time to check-in for our flight https://www.kenya-airways.com/uk/en and make our way through to the Business Class Lounge to relax and wait for the flight to be called. Boarding the flight we settled into our seats and with an on-time departure were soon airborne.
Flying down across Europe, as we crossed the Alps passing close to Munich, off to the east we could see towering anvil clouds and occosional flashes of lightning lighting up the sky. However, we were well to the west of this storm and continued southwards in relatively smooth air. Throughout the flight we enjoyed the usual high standard of service that we had previously experienced with Kenya Airways.
Tuesday 19th July 2016 – Happy Anniversary!
Happy 30th Wedding Anniversary – yes, we touched down in Nairobi at 04:35 (local time) on the morning of our 30th wedding anniversary – the reason for this, our 3rd visit to Kenya! Having passed swiftly through Kenyan immigration and collected our bags, we made our way to the front of the terminal to find our driver. Since our last visit in 2011, following the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in 2013, security had been stepped up throughout Nairobi, and the various holiday reps had been relocated from directly outside the terminal doors, where they had previously waited for clients.
Of course, we were unaware of this until a very helpful member of the cabin crew from our flight came out on her way home, saw us waiting there, and came across to help us. She pointed out the group of people standing on the opposite side of the road in the shadows, and advised us that we had to go and find our rep. Thanking her, and armed with this information, we soon located our driver who whisked us off to the Somak Lounge at the company’s offices on Mombassa Road, to wait for our hotel room to become available.
Our room at the Ole Sereni, No.344, overlooked the Nairobi National Park, which was quite literally just the other side of the fence. Having dropped our bags we made our way to the hotel’s Waterhole Restaurant, overlooking the park, for lunch. They do a very nice range of pizzas which are prepared and cooked to order – the Nyama Choma pizza for me, and a Hawaiian pizza for Sandra, washed down with a bottle of Tusker lager each. Nyama Choma is Swahili and literally means “roasted meat”. Most of the time goat meat is the default genre and this pizza was an inter-continental twist on a traditional Kenyan dish, combining as it did, European cuisine with that of East Africa.
Later in the afternoon we were picked up by a Somak vehicle and driven to the Nairobi National Park. We found that there had been some changes since our last visit. gone was the public access to the KWS Orphanage from our previous visit, and in its place was a Game Walk, winding its way between large enclosures containing animals that had been injured in the park and been brought in for treatement by the KWS vets. Some were released following treatment, while those too badly injured to be able to fend for themselves back in the main body of the park are kept here to provide an easily accessible educational source for local schools.
During our visit there were a number of very well-behaved local school parties visiting, and it was good to see steps being taken to educate Kenyans that the wildlife is an asset to the nation to be conserved for future generations. Signs warned drivers of the 20 kph speed limit on the road, advising that “Warthogs and Children have right of way”!
We had heard a lot about this restaurant and at last were able to visit it for ourselves. As the name suggests, the emphasis is heavily on meat and the menu contains a variety of meats from the exotic (Ostrich and Crocodile), to the more day-to-day (Chicken, Beef, Pork and Lamb). The meat is all cooked on swords over an enormous charcoal pit. The staff were more than happy for us to watch them cooking the meat and to take photographs. Once cooked the meat is brought to your table, one variety at a time, and carved from the sword directly onto your plate. On the table is a miniature flagpole with a flag. While the flag is in the raised position, they will continue to bring meat to your table, one variety at a time. Once you have eaten your fill, then you lower your flag to indicate that you have had enough. As you can imagine, the accent is very much upon meat, so this is not a venue for vegetarians!
As we ate we looked out onto the gardens, with monkeys playing in the treetops and various local birds flying from tree to tree until darkness descended. Our meal over, we were driven back to the Ole Sereni for a good night’s rest after a long day.
Wednesday 20th July 2016 – Let the safari begin!
Following an early breakfast we were driven to Wilson Airport for our Air Kenya https://www.airkenya.com/ flight to Meru. Wilson Airport is a short drive along the Nairobi Southern Bypass from the Ole Sereni Hotel and in no time at all, we were checked-in and ready to board the single-engined Cessna aircraft. Our flight took off on time, climbed out over Nairobi National Park and the suburbs of the city, before reaching our cruising altittude of around 9,000 feet. Unfortunately, most of the flight was in cloud, but 45 minutes later we were coming in to land at Meru, where we were met by our driver, Philip “Bird” Mukuhi.
Meru lies approximately 225 kilometres north-east of Nairobi. The origin of the word ‘Meru’ is believed to come from the Maasai people who referred to the Tigania and Imenti forests as the Mieru forests, or simply the Quiet Forests. The Maasai are also believed to have used the term Mieru to name any tribe that did not understand their Maa language.
The Meru National Park is also, of course, the setting for Joy Adamson’s book Born Free, telling the story of the lion cub, Elsa, that she and her husband, George, adopted. The book was later made into a successful film of the same title.
Having loaded the bags into the vehicle, we set off for Elsa’s Kopje https://www.elewanacollection.com/elsa-s-kopje-meru/at-a-glance which was to be our home for the next three nights. On the way to Elsa’s we took in the wildlife with some fabulous sightings of Elephants, Waterbuck and Giraffe, plus a variety of birds, the latter being a special interest of Philip’s, hence his nickname.
Elsa’s Kopje is one of those places that just takes your breath away. Situated part way up a large rock rising out of the surrounding bush, it is reached by a steep winding track before you are deposited at reception, in the shade of the surrounding trees. From ground level, Elsa’s is all but invivisble unless you know where and what to look for – close up the only visible sign was the roof of the main reception area! Here we met the resident managers, an absolutely delightful couple, Philip and his wife Charlie.
After completing the check-in formalities, accompanied by warm towels and a cold fruit drink, we were taken to our accommodation – a small cottage, with a thatched roof. This was amazing!
Built onto the rock, following as far as possible the contours, it was on several levels with a decked area outside the bedroom, overlooking the park below, where we could relax in the sun and admire the views.
Lizards were frequent visitors, scurrying across the rocks, while some very large dragonflies filled the sky as the sun broke through and cleared the clouds away. Rock Hyrax scampered nimbly through the adjacent trees and then onto the railing surrounding our decking – one even climbed up onto the coffee table and sat there! Small orange butterflies flitted across the decking, momentarily pausing on the rocks. Inside the cottage, geckos could be seen clinging to the walls, keeping the accommodation free of any annoying insects in the process. A different experience, showering in the morning watched by the lizards and geckos clinging to the walls! There is nothing quite as thrilling as accommodation with immersive wildlife!
At one o’clock everyone gathered in the lounge area for drinks. Lunch was a serve-yourself buffet which we ate sitting on the terrace looking out over the lawn. After lunch we returned to our cottage to relax until 4pm when we met up again with Philip for our game drive.
Meru National Park http://www.kws.go.ke/content/meru-national-park, sitting a long way north of Nairobi, is little-visited by tourists and is utterly unspoilt. During our stay it was unusual to meet another safari vehicle during our game drives, and if we did it was likely to be one from Elsa’s Kopje. During this, our first game drive in this slice of Eden, we spotted Grevy’s Zebra, Cape Buffalo, Impala, Dik-dik, Somali Ostrich and the Black-backed Jackal.
As the sun sank towards the western horizon, we parked up and got out of the vehicle for our sundowner Tuskers and “bitings” – the Kenyan version of what we would refer to as “nibbles”, so quite a literal translation! As it started to get dark, we drove back to Elsa’s Kopje narrowly avoiding Zebra and Buffalo in the road, almost invisible in the fast gathering gloom.
After a quick freshen up, dinner was served on the lawn, sitting out under the stars! The tables and chairs had been moved down from the terrace onto the lawn; oil lanterns sat on the top of the wall surrounding the swimming pool, while each individual table was lit by candlelight – what an absolutely wonderful way to end such a perfect day!
Most visitors to Kenya will require a visa, obtainable from the Kenyan High Commission closest to you. These can be obtained on line, by personal application from the High Commission, or at your port of arrival in Kenya. Personally, we live some 40 miles from London, so usually apply in person, travelling to London on the train and then spending some time in our capital city once we have conducted our business at the High Commission.
If applying in person, you will need to drop your application and documents at the High Commission, and then return the following working day to collect them once the visa issuing process has been completed. Full up-to-date requirements in relation to applying for visas, along with the application forms, can be found on the Kenyan High Comission website http://kenyahighcom.org.uk/visas-2/ or the relevant website in your country of residence.
The experience of applying in person is an interesting one. On arrival at the High Commission it is usual to find the office to be quite crowded with a mix of Kenyans applying for various documents from their government, and British citizens applying for visas. It is clear that Kenyans and their government officials enjoy the same relationship and frustrations as we do with our government officials, with the bureacracy seeming to make a relatively simple process an ordeal!
However, my own experience has always been a pleasant one – perhaps the official behind the glass sees the presence of a mzungu (literally Swahili for “white person”) as a pleasant relief from the queue of Kenyans frustrated with their government’s processes. On arrival at the counter I greet the offical in Swahili, “Jambo, habari gani?” (hello, how are you), which always results in a smile (something you will rarely get from a British official in similar circumstances). The rest of the formailities, are quick and efficient – you part with the requisite fee and receive both a receipt for the money and a raffle ticket. The latter is the receipt for your passport and its counterpart is affixed to your application. When you collect your duly processed passport the raffle ticket helps them to quickly and efficently find your passport and return it to you.
I know that some Kenyans reading this might find it difficult to recognise my description of their government officials as friendly and efficient, but this is my experience of them on every occasion I have gone through this process (and indeed when passing through Kenyan border controls at Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International Airport). They have even, on returning my passport to me, wished me a pleasant trip to Kenya.
Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and other parts of the world, Kenya unfortunately suffers with the risk of a number of tropical diseases such as Yellow Fever and Malaria, as well as more “international” ills such as Hepatitus. As a result it is a requirement for most foreign visitors to ensure that they are innoculated against these ailments, or in the case of maleria, take a prescribed course of tablets to prevent falling victim. The last thing you would wish to do is fall victim to one of these ailments which could not only ruin your adventure, but also impact on your health afterwards.
For most people a trip to Kenya will be the “holiday of a lifetime” and will be the one and only time you will visit the country, as our first trip was supposed to be! You will want to capture your memories in the form of photographs, and the opportunity in Kenya for truly memorable photographs is a given.
There are few rules to remember, but to ensure that you don’t inadvertantly fall foul of local laws, generally photographing Government buildings of any kind; airports; the military and the police; is prohibited. You might also find that some shopping centres in Nairobi are also reluctant to allow you to take photographs, and it is inadviseable to take photographs of the security arrangements now prevalant at hotels in Nairobi. Sadly, Kenya has been victim of terrorism in recent years and with this comes suspicion if you are taking photographs in certain areas or of certain installations. If you are asked or told not to take photographs, apologise politely and move on.
If you want to photograph people, as with anywhere else in the world it is only polite to ask for the person’s permission. Generally, most will agree to a polite request, but be prepared that some will request or demand payment. Whether or not you wish to make payment is of course your choice, but please remember that most of the people who you might wish to photograph will not earn a great deal of money and your small financial contribution could be important to them.
Generally, once you are on safari, in the National Parks and Reserves, there are no restrictions. Subjects for your camera’s lens will be abundant and varied, although some will be elusive and most will move quite swiftly if spooked by anything.
It is not necessary to have professional or semi-professional camera gear to obtain reasonable images of your once in a lifetime safari in Kenya. Indeed, many people venture out with no more than the camera on their mobile phone! My wife uses a digital bridge camera and obtains some very good images, sometime better than I manage!
My “weapon” of choice for wildlife photography is my 500mm lens. With this I am able to capture some fantastic shots of wildlife, without infringing upon their “circle of fear”. The circle of fear is the distance at which an animal will take fright and run away. In most circumstances while on safari this will mostly apply to the prey animals, i.e. the animals that predators such as Lions or Leopards prey upon. Many of the species you will encounter on safari have become habituated to the presence of safari vehicles in their territory and, for the most part, will ignore your presence provided you follow some common-sense practices such as keeping noise to a minimum and remain inside your vehicle.
Conduct on a Game Drive
Your driver/guide is your local expert. He will know the area and its wildlife; he will know the best spots to go to in order to see specific types of animal; and he will have an understanding of what you want as a photographer. If you are extremely fortunate, as I have been, you might even find that your driver/guide is a photographer himself and once he has got into position for you to obtain your photographs, will pick up his own camera and get his shots!
It is important to follow your guide’s advice – if he advises you to sit down, it usually means he is about to move the vehicle in order to obtain a better view, or you are off to another location where he has heard there is soemthing worth seeing. Your driver/guide’s primary concern though, will be your safety. He will not knowingly put you into a position of danger – follow his advice and you will have a safe and successful safari with, hopefully, some fantastic memories.
Wild animals are totally unpredictable. With experience and observation of certain species over time, you might become atuned to their behaviour and learn to spot the tell-tale signs that predict what they mkight be about to do. However, most of the time, things will happen very quickly and you will need to be prerpared to react to the changing behaviour of your subject. If you want to learn about the behaviour of the animals you are likely to encounter, prior to your safari, then I would recommend that you try and get hold of a copy of The Safari Companion – A Guide to Watching African Mammels by Richard D. Estes and is published by Chelsea Green Publishing Company – ISBN 1-890132-44-6. I have had my copy since our first safari in 2008 and have found it an invaluable resource. (I have no connection with either the author or publishers of this book. I am purely a very satisfied owner and reader of this volume).
Prey animals realise that these “canned creatures”, i.e. human beings in a vehicle are not out to eat them; and the carnivores realise that without a large tin-opener you are not on their menu for lunch. This means that your driver is often able to get you quite close to the wildlife and obtain for you the views that you desire. While it might be tempting when animals come within touching distance, please do NOT try to stroke or pet them. At best you will spook them, spoiling the experience for you and everone else in your vehicle; at worst it could result in injury to you or your safari companions. I know you might think that this piece of advice is unnecessary, but unbelieveable as it may seem, I have seen tourists trying to stroke or pet wild animals while on safari!
Finally, while we are talking about conduct on your game drives. Please, please do NOT leave litter – take it back to your camp or game lodge with you and dispose of it responsibly. Sadly there are people who thoughtlessly, think nothing of discarding their empty food wrapper or drinks can or bottle, carelessly. Not only does it create litter which is totally alien to these unspoilt natural environments that you are privileged to be experiencing; but it also presents a danger to the wildlife. An inquisitive animal that chances upon your litter could very well end up with an injury, or more seriously suffer a slow and agonising death, all through a moments thoughtlessness.
Leave no sign that you have been other than your footprints (or tyre tracks).
Is there such a thing as writer’s block for blog-writers? I pose this question because this instalment has been a while coming and for that I would like to apologise most sincerely to my readers and followers. Having recounted to you our experiences on our first two safaris, I wanted to mark the change between them and our subsequent visits to Kenya. But how? Having spent time, too much time agonising over this, I settled on bridging the gap with some, hopefully, useful hints and tips for those of you have never been on safari. So, sorry for the delay folks, but we are back on track.
So, after two safaris in Kenya we had got the bug! We left Kenya in July 2011 vowing to return. At this, currently, the halfway point in our safari adventures, it was time to take stock and look at how we could improve the experience. Our first two safaris had been with Kuoni Travel, a UK based holiday company https://www.kuoni.co.uk/
As established clients, when they opened their new store in Cambridge’s Grand Arcade shopping centre, just 16-miles from where we live, we were invited to the opening event. Over drinks and canapes we discussed our experience of the company so far, and when we expressed some dissatisfaction with the experinence of staying at Treetops, we were advised that they could put together a tailor-made itinerary for us. We left with an appointment to return later in the week and sit down with one of their consultants to discuss our requirements. Sadly,sitting down with the consultant is as far as it got, because despite several phone calls, the promised itinerary and quote never materialised. We cast around looking for another supplier who could offer us an itinerary that did not include Treetops, but to no avail.
Now, every August we visit an event held on the shores of Rutland Water in England’s smallest county – Rutland. Birdfair is the go-to place if you are into wildlife observation and travel involving watching wildlifehttps://birdfair.org.uk/ Here, for one weekend a year, you will find dozens of companies offering wildlife watching gear, clothing and holidays; accompanied by talks from some of the top experts in the field – Jonathan & Angela Scott; Nick Baker; Martin Hughes-Games; David Lindo; and Chris Packham, to name but a few!
One of our regular stops at this event is the stand of Nature Kenya, the East African Natural History Society, based in Nairobi http://naturekenya.org/ It is always great to catch up with the team each year; to discuss our latest trip to Kenya; our hopes for our next trip; pick up the latest edition of their journal, Birding Kenya; and of course to try out our Swahili! As a result of our visit to them in 2011 I was lucky enough to get a short piece written by me, entitled Kenyan Wildlife – A Visitor’s Perspective, together with three of my photographs, published in the 2012 edition of the magazine.
On our 2015 visit to the Nature Kenya stand we met Justin Coles, the Business Development Manager of Somak Holidays, a company based in north-west London specialising in safaris in Kenya. https://www.somak.com/
Justin showed us their brochure, which contained a sample itinerary for a flying safari, visiting three locations within Kenya, and using aircraft to transit between the reserves. We left with the brochure and Justin’s business card – by the time we had finished our lunch our minds were made up, Somak were about to become the supplier of our next safari experience!
However, before we reach our 2016 safari I want to share some thoughts, advice and guidance on how you can select your safari, and what you need to take with you in order to have the best possible experience.
The only non-stop direct flight between Nairobi and the United States of America is currently supplied by Kenya Airways, who fly overnight in each direction between Nairobi and New York JFK Airport.
Both British Airways and Kenya Airways fly into Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, located on the south-eastern side of the city.
Drive or Fly
Our first two safaris (2008 & 2011) were Driving safaris, while our third and fourth (2016 & 2018) were Flying safaris. So what are the pros and cons of each type?
Driving – Driving safaris are the cheaper and more common option. Every day of the week, dozens of vehicles set out from Nairobi conveying tourists to the various National Parks and Reserves so that they can see Kenya’s wildlife. You will find yourself sharing a vehicle, either a minibus or a 4×4, with other travellers – usually there will be a maximum of six of you with a driver. Each passenger will have a window seat and it is common practice for you to move round one seat per day, so that everyone will sit on either side of the vehicle and at the front and back, during the course of the safari.
All of the safari operators will request that you pack your belongings into soft-sided bags (rucksacks or holdalls are suitable), as these are easier to pack into the limited luggage space of the safari vehicles.
On a Driving safari you will see more of Kenya as you are driven from location to location. The journey will be split into easily manageable sections, with breaks for the driver usually at a roadside curio market where the passengers will have the opportunity to browse, and if they wish to, purchase wooden carvings, bead jewellery and other crafts. All of therse locations also have toilet facilities and some a place where you can obtain a cup of tea or coffee if you so wish. On longer sections there will be a stop for lunch at a suitable restaurant en route. Your driver and vehicle will remain with you for the duration of your safari.
Kenya’s roads vary in their standard – even the main roads can be riddled with potholes, but where foreign investment from the likes of the European Union, and more recently, China, has been used, great improvements have been made in the infrastructure. Travel by road will be long, hot, dusty; and can be tiring.
Flying – Flying safaris are the more expensive option, but will facilitate a quicker transit time between destinations. On most flights you will be in single-engined aircraft carrying no more than 10-12 passengers and flying at an altitude of no more than 10,000 to 12,000 feet. On the more popular and busy route between the Masai Mara and Nairobi, the airlines tend to use larger twin-engined aircraft.
The two main operators are SafariLink http://www.flysafarilink.com/en and Air Kenya http://www.airkenya.com/en (not to be confused with the larger national airline, Kenya Airways). All of our flights on our flying safaris have been with Air Kenya, who we can recommend without any question. Both airlines operate from Wilson Airport in Nairobi, to the south of the city centre.
Again, all of the safari operators will request that you pack your belongings into soft-sided bags (rucksacks or holdalls are suitable), as these are easier to pack into the limited luggage space of the aircraft and also into the vehicles that will transfer you between the airstrip and your lodge or camp. There is usually a 15kg per person weight limit on these internal flights as well.
In the next instalment we will look at camera gear; visas and the all important innoculations. I promise that the next instalment will be along very soon!
Clothing – should be lightweight and comfortable. Once on safari no one expects you to be imaculately attired, even for dinner in the evening, so leave your dinner jacket at home! During the day shorts and t-shirts are usually the norm; while in the evening once the sun has gone down, it will get slightly cooler and you may wish to change into trousers and perhaps put a lightweight jumper or fleece jacket on.
As dawn was breaking we made our way out for our game drive. We hadn’t gone too far when we met some vehicles coming in the opposite direction, which Nicholas advised us had been the ones that got stuck in the mud during yesterday’s downpour. They had apparently spent the night out in the bush, returning to their lodges at first light.
Our first wildlife spot was a pride of Lions with the remains of a kill; mostly bones with some scraps of skin remaining, but enough to tell us that this had been a Zebra. Again this sighting gave us the opportunity to observe animal behaviour as the Lions greeted one another, rubbing heads and faces, before relaxing; most of which involved rolling around on their backs! Lions are sociable animals living in prides that can number as many 40, although you will rarely see all of them together in one place. Prides consist of related females, the female being the dominant sex, with adult males being limited to one! In the main, it will be the females that will undertake the hunting; while the male will be ever alert to the threat of a takeover by younger males.
A herd of giraffes, including a youngster, ambled past us a short distance further on; and a short while later we came across a lone female Elephant with her young calf. The calf nuzzled up to its mother, wanting the safety and security of her bulk, as we watched from a respectable distance.
Herds of Wildebeest were wandering across the savannah, the migration from Tanzania, northwards into the lush grass of the Mara, now being in full swing. Nicholas then informed us that we were in actual fact now in Tanzania! We had driven across the unmarked border, the only indication being a concrete marker defining the boundary between two countries!
Safely back in Kenya, we drove on heading for the Mara River in search of more wildlife. As we expected the river was alive with Hippos, while some sizeable Crocodiles lay on the banks, always with an eye on any opportunity to snap up a tasty snack!
Stopping at Mara Bridge, Nicholas spoke to the rangers and then turned off the main track. We hadn’t gone far when we stopped – there, hanging in the tree was the carcass of an antelope. As antelopes are not renowned for their tree climbing prowess, there was only one way it could have got there – a sure sign of a stashed Leopard kill! sure enough, at the base of the tree lying in the undergrowth was a Leopard, fast asleep. As Nicholas switched off the engine, it opened its eyes, looked up at us, and then resumed its slumbers. Sandra always asks our drivers to find her a “Leopard up a tree with its kill”… …well I think this is close enough!
Leopards are the embodiment of feline beauty, power, and stealth. Solitary creatures, you will rarely find two together in the same territory unless you are lucky enough to come across a breeding pair, or a female with cubs – both rare sightings indeed. They tend to lie up by day and during the early part of the night, in trees and dense undergrowth. It is often advisable to scan the undergrowth at the base of trees, or in amongst the foliage where the branches branch out from the top of the trunk, for a chance to spot a Leopard during the day.
Early in the morning, you may come across a Leopard as it returns to one of the spots it uses to lie up, after a night hunting.
As we made our way back to Keekorok for breakfast, we came across a Cheetah, sat on a low mound, looking out across the savannah, and posing for photographs.
After relaxing in the lodge grounds, at 4pm it was time to head out again on our afternoon game drive. The Savannah was teeming with herbivores of all description, a feast of temptation for the cats later on this evening and through the night, as the circle of life revolved across the Kenyan grasslands.
Lions were present in numbers, but the highlight of the afternoon was another pair of Cheetahs. These are beautiful cats and Sandra’s favourites amongst the big cats.
Cheetahs are mostly diurnal; seldom active at night, but usually rest during the heat of the day, hunting in the cool of the dawn and dusk. Cheetahs are of course renowned for their speed, although they are only able to sustain this over fairly short distances. If they haven’t caught their prey within 600 yards they will generally give up the chase.
Friday 29th July 2011
Sadly today we were scheduled to return to Nairobi, so breakfast was taken at a more normal time, no game drive today. The journey from the Mara was over all too quickly and arriving at the Southern Sun Mayfair we very reluctantly said goodbye to Nicholas. Nicholas summed up our two weeks together when he said to us, “we started out as strangers and finished up as family”. The family is very important to the Kenyan people and their culture, so we took this as the highest possible compliment, that he felt this way about us after two weeks together.
One final thing though was to give him his tip as a reward for his hard work in finding and showing us the wildlife of his fabulous country. We also presented him with his own copy of Helm’s Field Guide to the Birds of Kenya & Northern Tanzania, as a thank you for his friendship and for sharing his country and wildlife with us. We had noted his frustration with the field guide that Private Safaris had equipped him with earlier in our travels. To say that he was delighted with this gift is perhaps a gross understatement.
Having checked in to our day room, we dropped our bags off and had a stroll along Parklands Road to the Sarit Centre for some last minute shopping. As we strolled, ordinary Kenyans displayed to us just how friendly the Kenyan people are, and cemented our love for this wonderful country. They were returning from work or from shopping, but as they met these two white, total strangers bright smiles appeared on their faces as they greeted us, “Jambo Jambo”!
Returning to the hotel it was time to get our cases packed ready for the drive to the airport for our overnight flight home.
Farewell Kenya – we are sure that this is not the last that we will see of you! We have fallen in love with you and we will return.
After lunch we relaxed in the grounds of the lodge until it was time for our afternoon game drive. The bird life in the area was amazing with some wonderful colours on display.
Down at the Hippo Pool we sat in the shade provided by the bar and watched as the Hippos wallowed in the cooling water.
Our first encounter this afternoon was with a pair of Giraffes – a mother and calf, gently browsing on the lush vegetation. Watching them, wandering with such grace through the Savannah, it was difficult to appreciate that if attacked they will defend themselves and their calves to the death against predators. Their main defence weapon being their hooves, with which they are capable of inflicting fatal injury.
Continuing on our drive we came across a lone Hyena, trotting along the track heading straight towards us. It wasn’t until it was almost upon us that it turned and disappeared into the bush. Hyenas are such ugly looking creatures, but perform a vital task in the circle of life, scavenging on the remains of the kills of the apex predators, such as Lions.
And Lions were the next species we encountered, coming upon a pride with a number of young cubs. We sat watching them for some time, with the cubs climbing the tree under which their parents were seeking shade; or playing with what looked like a lump of wood that one of them had discovered! All the time they were under the watchful gaze of the adults.
With the arrival of other vehicles keen to get a view of the Lions, we left, the photographs safely stored on memory cards and our own memories in our heads. Dusk was starting to gather, and in this part of the world, darkness arrives very quickly, so we made our way back to Keekorok to get ready for dinner. What adventures await us tomorrow?
Wednesday 27th July 2011
Out just after sunrise, our first siting of the day was a Martial Eagle, perched in a tree top, as it scanned the landscape in search of a meal. Close by, we came across a male White Rhino, who paused from his browsing to gaze at us, scanning for any sign of threat. Satisfied that we meant him no harm, he treated us to a display of scent-marking as he sprayed his urine on the surrounding vegetation as he claimed this patch of grassland as his territory. Job, done, he trotted away!
White Rhino Scent Marking
Early morning is one of the best times of day to watch wildlife in most parts of the world, whether it be your own garden, or as in this case, Kenya’s Masai Mara. Before the sun climbs to high in the sky, and temperatures soar with it, most animals are quite active. The herbivores, such as Zebra, Wildebeest, Buffalo and the various antelopes are grazing contentedly, happy in the knowledge that they have survived another night without becoming a meal for one of the big cats.
For the predators it is time to seek a shady spot where they can lie up for the day, sleeping off their night’s exertions; perhaps digesting the meal that they killed and devoured during the night. In these early morning hours, they are often to be seen returning to a favourite spot to rest after a night’s hunting. A pair of Lionesses were picking over the remains of a Zebra carcass, by now reduced to just the skin and a few bones, in the hope that some tasty morsel had been left.
Not finding much to satisfy their appetite, they wandered off, perhaps in search something else to feast upon, but instead encountered a lone juvenile male. We watched in anticipation as they greeted one another with much sniffing and head rubbing. The outcome of such encounters is difficult to predict; will it turn violent as the females reject any advances by the male; will the male try to assert his dominance, claiming this patch of land as his territory and by inference all available females within it? On this occasion, following the ritual greeting, they proceeded to roll around on the ground in a tangle of legs, before being joined by two more females and the whole group wandering off.
A little further on a female Elephant, accompanied by her young calf, came into view. As we approached, keeping our distance so not to disturb them, the calf took refuge under the grey bulk of its mother, taking the opportunity to suckle. The more they got used to our presence, both appeared to relax, with the calf taking a great interest in us and Mum happy to proudly show off her offspring. This was turning out to be a fantastic morning, but there was still more to come.
On any safari game drive you never know what will turn up. To the keen eyed, a safari will turn up all manner of creatures, both great and small. If the wildlife is there, your driver will do his very best to find it for you and to ensure that you get the best possible opportunity to view and to photograph the animals. Nicholas was no exception and so far on this safari had not disappointed. After leaving the Elephants to continue their day, we drove on in anticipation of what we might see next. Rounding a curve in the track we came across… …Cheetahs!
A mother and her sub-adult cub were grooming one another. As we settled in to watch, to our amazement and delight, three more Cheetahs emerged from the long grass and they all greeted one another. After observing them for a few moments, Nicholas advised us that this was group that he had been watching for some months on his regular visits to the area. The four sub-adults were the adult female’s litter from earlier in the year. This was testament to what a good mother she was; the fact that four cubs had survived this far despite the harsh terrain and the presence of predators who wouldn’t think twice about killing the cubs if the opportunity arose. So this was a special moment for all of us, not least Nicholas, and his keen interest and knowledge was testament to how lucky we were to have been given him as a guide.
As we made our way back towards the lodge for breakfast, we came across a group of Lions with four cubs. Completely ignoring our presence, the cubs played happily in the sunshine with two of them play fighting, while a third honed its tree climbing skills.
Back at the lodge, breakfast over, we relaxed in the lodge grounds until it was time to head out on our afternoon game drive.
Our first sighting of the afternoon was of a male and female Lion, wandering across the savannah together, constantly on the alert for danger, or an easy meal. Then out of the grass emerged two more females – the King’s harem was complete!
Driving on we came across two female Elephants with their calves, gently browsing on the abundant grass. As we watched, we noticed the rapidly darkening sky to the North of us, as rain clouds gathered and rolled in. The Elephants noticed too, sniffing the air with their trunks as the rain approached. Sure enough, the first spots of rain splattered onto the windscreen and we hurried to close the roof hatches. The next moment, our view was obliterated as a torrential downpour struck!
Within minutes, the previously solid marram roadway had been transformed into glutinous mud! Over the radio a conversation between two drivers was taking place, and Nicholas pointed out to us, some vehicles in the valley below, advising us that at least one of them was stuck in the mud. Earlier we had split from the other Private Safaris vehicle, although they were not far away, and it was obvious that Nicholas was worried both for their safety and for us. Fortunately, the other vehicle emerged from the torrential rain, and slowly we made our way back to the lodge.
It wasn’t long before the rain stopped, but so heavy had the downpour been that the ground was now far too soft to risk exploring any further. Off to the west, the dusk was rapidly gathering, no doubt hastened by the dark clouds. We cautiously made our way back to Keekorok, satisfied with what we had seen and ready for dinner.