Many Happy Returns

Sunday 24th July 2016

The title of this post can be read in two different contexts -first in the context of our repeated visits to Kenya, every one of them classes as a happy return; but today was my wife, Sandra’s birthday, and where better to spend it than in a country that both of us have fallen in love with, Kenya.

We were awoken this morning at around 4am. Outside it was still dark, but we were not alone. Just beyond the walls of our tent we could hear the sound of foliage crunching underfoot. Looking outside we could make out the shape of an Elephant passing by our tent on the riverbank, browsing as it went.

Birthday or not, the wildlife waits for no one in this slice of paradise, so as usual we were up before dawn and waiting by the vehicle for Daniel. There was a slight delay in setting off as the vehicle wouldn’t start, but the staff literally ran around to ensure that a replacement vehicle was brought to us in double-quick time. Having climbed aboard the replacement we set off to see what wonders Samburu would reveal to us today.

As usual we were not to be disappointed – there were plenty of Elephants about including some family groups with youngsters. The African Elephant, this giant of the natural world, is amazing to observe. For all their size and weight, they are incredibly graceful in their movement and to observe them with their babies is to witness a demonstration of tenderness and motherly love. Elephants tend to move about in extended family herds with an elderly matriarch in chrge of the group, accompanied by any number of younger females, together with the calves. Each adult female, whether it be an aunt or the mother, or even an older sibling, will take care of and look out for the youngsters.

Browsing generations

Elephants were not the only mammals out and about his morning with their offspring, as we encountered a Giraffe with her calf, already several feet taller than an adult human!

Mother & calf Giraffe

Driving close to the river, we disturbed a Crocodile that had been lying on the opposite bank absorbing the early morning sun, as it rose into the sky and the day started to heat up. As we got closer the crocodile launched itself from the river bank into the water.

Crocodile enters the water

This side of the river was alive with various species of antelope this morning; Gerenuk – the rather odd looking “giraffe antelope” with a long slender neck, out of proprotion to the rest of its body, topped by a small head, again lookin lightly out of proportion. Oryx – with its black and white face and long slender, scimitar like horns. The horns are made of Keratin, the same material that human fingernails are made from. This is also what Rhino Horns are made from, which really does beg the question as to why some humans believe that they have medicinal properties!

Zebras were present in abundance, their herds interspersed with Impala and Waterbuck. The latter are nicknamed the “toilet seat antelope” by the guides, to describe the elliptical ring marking on their rumps, which looks very much like a toilet seat! As we entered a clearing we disturbed a Warthog, which raced away from us, tail erect like an antenna, demostrating by this sudden burst of speed, from a standing start, why the Kenyans nickname them “Kenyan Express”. The Common Warthog is capable of speeds of us to 35 mile an hour!

We returned to camp for lunch and to spend the hottest part of the day in the shade of the palm trees along the river bank, or in the cooling waters of the swimming pool. After lunch we took a walk along the fenceline of the camp, watching the birds on the trees and bushes, and picked up some discraded Porqupine quills lying on the ground. The Porqupine is a nocturnal animal, so we were unlikely to see any, but the discraded quills were evidence of their presence in the area. A pair of Little Bee-eaters were perched on the wire of the fence, one of them with an insect in its beak.

A brace of Little Bee-eaters

As the afternoon started to cool, we set off on our second game drive of the day, this time Daniel took us to the far side of the river. On our way to the bridge where we would cross, we saw the lodge on the far side of the river, which had been where we stayed on our 2008 and 2011 visits to Samburu. Continuing to the bridge we crossed over on the northern side of the Ewaso Ngiro river into an area that we knew, from our previous visits, was prime Leopard territory. Sadly, today was not to be the day for a Leopard spot, but Daniel did manage to find us a Lioness with her cub, and we were able to witness some beautiful interactions between the mother and her cub.

Interaction between mother & cub

Monday 25th July 2016

We got off to an early start this morning – the first vehicle out of the camp, and we were heading once more for the bridge across the river, with Daniel determined to try and find us a Leopard today. En-route we saw the sunrise, but very little else. It appeared that we were up even before the wildlife this morning!

Once on the other side of the river it was not long before we came across a line of vehicles parked up by the side of the track. Daniel stopped and spoke to the driver of one of them, and then turned to us and advised us that they had seen a leopard go down into the ditch on the far side of the track. Daniel decided that we would go to the far end of the line and wait to see if the Leopard would reappear. So, having passed all the other vehicles, Daniel switched off the engine and we settled in to wait, trying to keep as quiet as possible.

It was not long before, to our utter amazement and delight, that the Leopard emerged from the ditch, right in front of us! Here we were, the last to arrive at the party, but the ones with the best view of all! It paused on the edge of the track, allowing us time for plenty of photographs, perhaps even posing and asking, “have you got my best side”, before crossing the track and heading off into the bush on the other side. One can only imagine the frustration of the occupants of some of the other vehicles, who had got there before us, and perhaps didn’t get as good a view as us. However, we had had a fantastic Leopard encounter, and possibly the best one so far of all our trips to Kenya.

Samburu Leopard – “Wow! That is pin sharp”

On our return from Kenya we went to Birdfair, at Rutland Water, an annual event where we usually catch-up with Kenyan resident, wildlife photographer and film-maker, Jonathan Scott, a man who knows his way around filming and photographing Kenya’s wildlife. Without fail when we catch-up with him, he asks if we have been back to Kenya recently and we discuss our latest trip. I showed him the photograph (above) of the Leopard we had seen in Samburu and his immediate reaction was , “Wow! That is pin sharp!” That will do for me, coming from a professional wildlife photographer of his calibre!

We had now seen three of the Big Five on this trip and we don’t reach the Masai Mara until tomorrow. The photograph above left demonstrates quite clearly how well camouflaged the Leopard is in the sometimes dense bush of its habitat. Note how the bulk of its body is virtually invisible behind the bushes and foliage. After seeing the Leopard we drove to the river, where we stopped to have our bush breakfast in the shade of the trees along the riverbank.

After breakfast we continued our game drive, spotting a pair of Tawny Eagles and some Elephants, before exiting the reserve and driving into Archer’s Post and along the main road to re-enter the reserve on the other side of the river and drive back to camp for lunch. The Tawny Eagle is a common resident brown eagle, which is quite widespread in many parts of Kenya. However, coming from a country that has few large birds of prey, it is always a thrill to see them, however common they may be.

Once we were back in the reserve we passed a herd of Giraffe and then a huge herd of Oryx as we neared the camp. after lunch, as temperatures climbd to 33 degrees, a cooling swim was the order of the day, before preparing for our afternoon game drive.

Oryx

The afternoon game drive produced sightings of Giraffes, Zebras and Elephants, with one female Zebra suckling her foal. Antelopes included Oryx and Gerenuk, both unique in their own way and markedly different from one another. The sky produced a sighting of a Martial Eagle, riding the thermals and soaring ever higher – another widespread bird, but again exciting to see.

Zebra foal suckling

One of the thrills of safari is witnessing animal behaviour that you might not otherwise see, unless it was in a wildlife programme on the television. While zoos have their place in conservation, as has been proven by the reintroduction of some species bred in captivity, in these captive situations you rarely witness truly natural interaction. A pair of bull Elephants took the measure of one another, each sizing up its rival. With heads raised high, they engaged their tusks and trunk bases – was this the prelude to a challenge ritual, play, or serious fighting between the two. Usually in this behaviour the larger of the two will usually dominate, while equals will often proceed to pushing and trunk-wrestling. In this instance the pair appeared to be merely playing, but nonetheless this was a privilege to witness such behaviour.

Sparring Bulls

As the sun started to sink behind the hills we headed back to camp, for a cold Tusker lager and dinner, before we turned in for the night to dream of the adventures that await us tomorrow.

All Creatures Great and Small

Friday 22nd July 2016

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.

Rock Skimmer

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.

Samburu Tusker

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.

Rhino with Ox-peckers

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.

Wallowing Hippo

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.

On the road from Archer’s Post – Caution Wildlife Crossing!

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.

View from our tent at Ashnil Samburu

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!

Samburu Sunset

A Day of New Discoveries

Thursday 21st July 2016

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.

Bush Baby

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.

Crossing the Equator (again!)

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!

Madagascar Bee-eaters

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!

Pearl-spotted Owlet

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.

Meru Sundown