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

2016 – 30 years Married!

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.

Mid-morning we were driven to the Ole Sereni Hotel https://www.ole-sereni.com/, just off the Mombassa Road, to check-in. This hotel is ideally located on the southern edge of Nairobi; right beside the Southern Bypass and within easy reach of both Jomo Kenyatta International Airport https://www.kaa.go.ke/airports/our-airports/jomo-kenyatta-international/ and Wilson Airport https://www.kaa.go.ke/airports/our-airports/wilson-airport/, the departure point for domestic flights to many major Kenyan towns and the various National Parks and Reserves.

Nairobi National Park from the Ole Sereni Hotel, with the Ngong Hills in the distance

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.

Leopard in the Nairobi National Park

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”!

Warthogs & children have right of way!

Following our visit we were then driven to the Carnivore Restaurant https://tamarind.co.ke/restaurant.php?carnivore in the Langata suburb of Nairobi.

Carnivore

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!

Carnivore’s enormous charcoal cooking area

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 airstrip & our flight from Nairobi

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.

Our first encounter with a Meru Elephant

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.

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!