A minor panic just ensued as both the lady at the Kenyan Airways checkin counter and the guy at Kenyan passport control asked me where my South African visa was, and then gave me a look that clearly said “you are so screwed” when I responded that I had been advised that Americans could visit South Africa for less than 90 days without a visa. After enduring some cold sweat while roaming the mostly-empty terminal 1-A here I finally managed to get online and re-verify on the South African government site that I can indeed enter South Africa without a visa. Visions of becoming Tom Hanks in The Terminal, living in limbo in the Johannesburg customs area, have been temporarily vanquished, although the true test will be when I hand my passport over to the South African customs agent and see if he also gives me the “bureaucracy is about to make your life very unpleasant” look.
Moving on from visa issues, the giant mountain pigs and leopards decided not to visit the Mountain Lodge’s waterhole last night, but we did have a visit from some insanely noisy hyenas at 4 AM. Our sole activity for the day was a walk through the forest, the highlight of which was a small group of colobus monkeys, which sort of look like giant skunks except for the fact that they live in trees and are monkeys. From there it was back to Nairobi, traffic, and civilization, and the realization that another phase of the trip has sadly come to its end. On a positive note, I got a quick shower in our day rooms before being whisked away to the airport, then got another shower while walking from terminal 1-C back to 1-A in a thunderstorm after a mix-up over my drop-off point; whatever dust was embedded on me from the savannah has finally been washed away.
Assuming I can get through customs I’ll be heading to a hotel after midnight tonight, then returning to the airport again tomorrow for an 11 AM departure to Kruger National Park – journal entries may be delayed for a few days, as I suspect the restcamps in Kruger won’t offer internet access. There is approximately zero chance that the short safari experience in South Africa will come close to matching the adventure of the past few weeks, but it will be nice to see the animals at my own pace for a few days before checking into a private lodge and again having the chance to do some game drives. After that I meet Audrey in Capetown for the last two legs of this massive odyssey.
A black colobus monkey against a bright sky isn’t anyone’s idea of an ideal photography situation, but I only took ten photos today and they were all of this monkey, so a washed-out background will have to suffice.
Last full night in Kenya, and it’s ending in a spectacular way. The Mountain Lodge is built in Mount Kenya National Park surrounding a waterhole, and I’m writing this journal entry from the patio outside of the bar area while floodlights illuminate a huge expanse with bushbucks and other critters roaming about in the shadows. Earlier tonight two genets arrived to eat scraps left out on a tall platform, and there are chances for leopards or giant mountain hogs during the night – if I eventually decide to sleep, the lodge lets you sign up to be woken up should a particular animal arrive. I wasn’t able to sit still at dinner and kept creeping out to see what else had arrived to drink – I have the excitement.
Prior to our arrival here we did a final game drive in Samburu Game Reserve, and the leopard made an appearance high on a ridge to send us on our way. Lions and other animals also made appearances before we returned to Larsens Camp, said goodbye to the awesome staff there, and embarked on the four hour drive to Mount Kenya. During the lengthy drive we stopped for a restroom break at a souvenir shop that we had used as a lunch stop three days ago, and the guys there immediately recognized me as the visitor who had been interested in an African mask on our prior visit. They wanted $250, which I thought was highway robbery, but like so many merchants in this part of the world were insistent that they might be able to offer me a better price. I’m not sure what the final price might have been – the mask was very cool, but I didn’t really want to buy anything – but by the time I finally exited the store and hid in the van the price looked like it would probably sink to $50 or lower; the key to successful bargaining is apparently to not care whatsoever whether or not you actually get the item in question.
It’s weird to think that tomorrow ends the Tanzania/Kenya portion of the trip, and that I’ve now been traveling for nearly six weeks. Time seems to fly, but somehow at the same time my days of working in front of a computer seem very, very distant; a lot has happened in these past weeks. The thought occurred to me today that there probably isn’t a child in America who doesn’t want to visit Africa and see elephants, but only a very small percentage will ever get the opportunity to fulfill that dream. I have been insanely lucky in many, many ways during my life, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone and everything that has given me such an abundance of good fortune and allowed such wonderful experiences recently and throughout my 38 years.
We saw this tiny baby elephant every day that we were in Samburu Game Reserve, and stopped to watch him play almost every time we crossed his path. Hopefully today won’t be the last day on the trip that I spend with elephants, but if it is I’m glad this little guy was a part of it.
Not the greatest photo, but it’s unbelievably neat to watch a wild animal like this one at night at close range from a seat on the hotel balcony (side note: genets are the same animals that joined us for dinner
The greater kudus were again waiting for us as we departed on a game drive at 6:15 this morning, and from there it was off see more of the local animals. The Somali ostrich is found here in decent numbers, despite the fact that it is highly endangered, and we watched one large male striding with purpose across the landscape and followed him to a grazing female. He spent about five minutes singing a song and performing an elaborate courtship dance, but when the female finally signaled her acceptance he raised his head high and ran off towards another female further on the horizon. Watching the spectacle of a male pass up an opportunity, Mike astutely commented “no wonder they’re endangered”.
The species rundown for the day was much the same as other days, but I will never be tired of seeing lions, elephants, baboons, and the other animals here. You never know what will turn up around the next bend, or what the animals in front of you will do – when I woke up today I could not have predicted that part of my day would be spent watching a tiny baby elephant roughhousing with its older sibling, or that I would be seeing the wild versions of colorful birds that I had only seen previously for sale in the pet stores back home. Five weeks into this adventure, and every day is still extraordinary.
The huge troops of baboons that we see everywhere are a circus of entertainment, with grooming, fighting, sexy time, eating, babysitting, and all manner of other behavior going on within the groups of a hundred or so that move like a storm of activity wherever they go.
List o’ Highlights, since so much happened today:
- In Tanzania we had a foursome that always saw good things when we drove together, dubbed the Magic Bus. Sadly one of the four is not in Kenya, but three-quarters of the Magic Bus reunited for today’s game drives and recaptured some of the juju, with a great leopard sighting in the morning only one part of our eventful day. Mike and Steph are ridiculously fun to ride with, and Mike’s good eyes ensure that all quadrants are covered for animal sightings.
- The Magic Bus 2.0 day started with a pre-breakfast game drive. As soon as we exited the lodge a small herd of greater kudu were grazing outside of the gates. They are super-impressive antelope that are actually kind of rare to see, so it was a good omen for the day.
- The monkeys are everywhere at this lodge, so they’ve actually hired a Samburu warrior (named Kelvin, heck of a nice guy) to hang out at meal times with a (non-lethal) slingshot to scare them away. We still saw one rush in to grab a plate at breakfast, heads were constantly peering down from the roof, and when I walked out of the breakfast area holding a pastry three furry companions seemed to materialize out of thin air and then followed along until the pastry was gone. I will not soon tire of monkeys.
- Our third and final game drive of the day began with some elephants across the river, including a tiny baby that the guide guessed was two months old. Steph loves seeing animals by the water, and was beside herself when the family began drinking. Then the matriarch of the group decided to lead them across the river and right up to where our vehicle was sitting, passing within feet of us in the process. The baby had trouble climbing the far bank, so right in front of us we watched the entire elephant family pitching in to help it up the incline. Seeing the normally-reserved Steph with tears rolling down her cheeks as this whole drama unfolded was a sight to behold – she was the live-action version of that scene from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas where his heart grows three sizes and breaks the measuring device. At dinner Gail actually started crying just trying to describe how happy Steph looked.
- Further down the river an elephant had recently died – we counted at least sixteen crocodiles in the immediate vicinity.
- After leaving the river we spotted a huge variety of animals before a call came in on the radio that the same leopard from the morning was again stirring. We arrived just in time to watch her jump out of a tree and saunter right next to our vehicle – too close even for photographs with the lens that I had on my camera. Sadly more and more vehicles began arriving, creating a sort of paparazzi feel, so as the leopard disappeared and re-appeared in the bushes we asked our guide to move on rather than join in what felt like harassment of a big cat who had provided a great morning AND evening show.
- The day ended after the final game drive with a group of us standing near the lodge pool at sunset, watching monkeys and recapping our experiences from the day. In the midst of that I saw a flash of white moving behind some trees, but when I looked closer it was the lady who runs the massage room at the lodge. Brenda then said she saw something moving, to which I responded that the massage lady was back there. She gave me a look that would melt ice and politely said “look behind her” – when I looked again the same group of greater kudu from this morning were walking along the lodge’s perimeter fence. Oops.
Days like today have been common recently, but are rare in life, and it was a joy to have this one today. When my time on safari finally comes to an end it will feel strangely empty to pass the hours without elephants and monkeys in them, but I’m hugely glad to have had the good fortune to enjoy all of these tremendous experiences.
Any day with a leopard is a very, very good day.
Watching a matriarch lead her family of about ten elephants, including a tiny baby, across a river is magical. Watching a fellow passenger absolutely melt with joy as the event unfolded was even more magical.
If you think this sweet little face would be incapable of stealing you blind, you would be wrong. If you think having a troop of robbers in camp would not bring great joy to the people staying here, you would also be wrong.
At tonight’s “tent” camp we were told to securely zip our tents lest curious monkeys break in – three of them were milling about on the porch when I went out just now; I continue to very much enjoy the odd little requirements of travel in Africa (note: “tent” = luxury cabin with canvas walls and roof).
Today started with a short morning game drive at Lake Nakuru that included a ten foot long python slithering out of a pool to sun itself. We then embarked on a long journey north, but the roads were shockingly good, and a significant portion were actually blacktop, with some even having lane lines. After enduring several hours in the safari vehicle we arrived around 4 PM at Samburu Game Reserve and immediately spotted a number of new species in the arid landscape here. The additions to the species checklist included new varieties of zebra, ostrich and giraffe, as well as the gerenuk, which looks like an impala but has the ability to stand up on its hind legs to browse the high branches on shrubs – I can now check “gazelle that can stand upright” off of my list of things that I never had any clue existed but am hugely glad to have seen.
The lodging is another ridiculously fancy one along a river, although we were warned not to get too close to the water on account of crocodiles, and to be careful in the mornings lest elephants are out and about – it’s easy to arrive at a comfortable lodge and temporarily forget that I’m in Africa, but the constant danger of being eaten or smooshed is an excellent reminder. The monkeys are also everywhere at this camp, so this may be another location where the wildlife around the lodging is competing heavily for attention with what we see on the game drives. Three nights here should provide for some interesting times.
The red-billed hornbills were present in great abundance when we arrived, most of them posing on branches.
Sometimes we get close to the animals.
No one knows who trained the gazelle here to stand on two legs, but tourists arrive in droves to see them do it.
Today and tomorrow involve lots of driving and a little bit of wildlife viewing. After a 7 AM departure we left the Masai Mara area and began a long slog over some “roads” that had more in common with riverbeds than land transportation routes. Seeing the Kenyan villages along the way was eye-opening, but just as in Tanzania people seem to be hugely upbeat for the most part.
In the midst of that long overland journey I was thinking about why I take these types of trips – journal readers notwithstanding, they don’t really provide value to anyone else, and it’s a lot of time and money for just a fleeting experience. However, there is something to be said for experiencing true wonder at the world we live in. I’m not a particularly religious guy, but I can still marvel at the miracle of creation and have a huge appreciation for the opportunity to explore even a small part of it. Additionally, as I stated to some fellow passengers at dinner tonight, visiting a place like Africa creates a sense of gratitude for things that, most of the time, the majority of us wouldn’t even notice. Seeing people manually lifting heavy culverts while repairing part of the insanely bad road, or carrying huge stacks of produce miles to market on the back of a bicycle, is a gigantic reminder that the infrastructure and opportunities back home were created for us by generations that came before and put in a lot of difficult work. There isn’t a Home Depot here, gas stations aren’t on every corner, school buses don’t bring kids to the schools that are available, safe drinking water isn’t piped into homes, etc, etc – all of those things are worth stopping to appreciate.
Moving on to the likely-more-interesting news of animal encounters, we arrived at Lake Nakuru National Park in time to do a few hours of game driving, had an up-close encounter with a massive Rothchild’s Giraffe that was a few feet from the vehicle, and spotted the first white rhinos of the trip – the second-largest land mammal walked right in front of our vehicle without giving us a second glance, all the while cameras were clicking away. Birds along the lake and some close-up encounters with baboons finished the day.
If this two-ton fellow had strayed a couple of feet to his left he would have walked right into the front of our vehicle – we’re getting reasonably close to the animals.
Doug and Gail got their crossing today, and it was a grizzly one for the wildebeest – a herd of at least 3000 animals took their time choosing a spot to cross, and finally picked a spot with steep banks and a few crocodiles in the water. Our vehicle was on the wrong side of the river to see them going down, but the dead animals that floated by us downstream were a testament to how something we take for granted like crossing a river can be a life-and-death endeavor in the animal kingdom.
Aside from the carnage at the river, today was a very pleasant day. Everyone in our van agreed early on that we didn’t want to rush around chasing wildebeest, so we went at a slow pace and watched the herd make their way down to the river, then sat on the banks to observe while other vehicles raced to the bridge to get a good viewpoint on the other side. As the drama unfolded, our driver showed an incredible ability to anticipate exactly what the beasties would do, and accurately predicted their meandering path, including selecting the exact tree that they eventually wandered to along the river bank. The afternoon was a similar slow pace, which allowed time to sit and enjoy the animal behavior at length.
Tomorrow we’re off early (of course) to see parts of Kenya further north, so today is my last day in the Serengeti, at least for a while. It’s a great place, and hopefully I’ll be back again.
Wildebeest stampeding at the Mara River after their original path was blocked by a lion. Yeah, it was awesome. The video is a minute long (and overexposed, oops), but it took probably five minutes for the entire herd to run by us.
Waterbuck are apparently only rarely preyed upon by lions or other predators because they taste very, very bad.
While watching two crocodiles try to figure out how to eat a dead hippo (side note: how awesome is it that I can start a journal entry with that?!?!) I asked our guide why there weren’t any vultures on the hippo carcass. He answered “probably they don’t find it yet”, then gestured to the surrounding Serengeti and noted “also, there is plenty of yum yum for them”. Point well made, as the vultures here aren’t hurting for selection.
The Cheesemans remain somewhat obsessed with getting everyone a glimpse of the wildebeest herds crossing the Mara River, while the wildebeest remain obsessed with the crocodiles in the river and thus far haven’t obliged Doug & Gail by taking a plunge. Given all the time spent at the river today, other wildlife sightings were limited, although we did get some time with a cheetah and her juvenile cub, and a day with cheetahs is always a good day. Heavy rains at the end of the day caused a cancellation in tonight’s night drive, although that may be a blessing in disguise as exhaustion was setting in, so a bit of extra rest will be much appreciated.
One other random story from safari thus far: typically when a vehicle spots something exciting the driver radios the other four drivers in our group so that anyone nearby can drive over to see it. The drivers speak in Swahili, and often won’t immediately tell us what the radio chatter is about because they don’t want anyone to be disappointed if the animal wanders off. However, at this point we’ve learned a little bit of Swahili so that we can sometimes figure out what is causing the excitement by picking out key words like “simba” (lion), “duma” (cheetah), “chui” (leopard), etc. Yesterday the word “barabara” was being repeated numerous times during a particularly enthusiastic exchange, so after conferring with the other passengers to see if anyone knew what it meant, a lady from Taiwan timidly asked the driver “what is a ‘barabara'”? “Barabara means ‘road'” was the answer from the driver – apparently one of the drivers had radioed for directions.
Wildebeest always seem to have somewhere to go.
Two crocodiles eating a dead hippo, for those who have gotten sick of cute baby animal pictures.
I’m pretty sure I could go on safari every day for the rest of my life and be very, very happy, provided there was some time for naps on occasion. Getting up before sunrise and standing in the back of an open-top vehicle in the fresh air while driving around beautiful places and looking at amazing numbers of incredible animals is a wonderful way to experience life, even if it is only for a few weeks.
Today was more of the same, although we finally got a good look at a black rhino, which is an animal that may sadly disappear from the wild due to poaching – if you ever see a shop selling medicines made from endangered species, please call the cops and get them shut down, because it’s far too amazing seeing the animals in a functional ecosystem to even tacitly support their destruction (and I’m descending the soapbox… now). We also went chasing up and down the Mara River trying to catch wildebeest crossing, but they outwitted us and we finished the day having seen only dry beasties. For my part I’m just as happy sitting in the midst of the massive herds and don’t really feel the need to see them go swimming, but it’s supposed to be an impressive sight, so I have no complaints about spending some time trying to catch them eluding crocodiles.
The day ended with another night drive, and this one was also great – we saw a lioness stalking zebra, an assortment of mongoose, hyena, and others, and also a serval, which is like an African bobcat. The wildebeest eyes reflected in the searchlight continues to astound me – it really does look like a synchronized parade of thousands of fireflies – and I’ve got one more night drive tomorrow, so we’ll see what else pops out in the African dark.
Having now seen thousands of zebra, it is embarrassing how much trouble I’m having getting a good photo of them, so this one will have to do.
A rainbow agama lizard, which I came all the way to Africa to photograph on the hotel walkway.
“RAWR!” says that hippopotamus.
Our lodging for the night looks like it was taken from the set of the first Star Wars movie, and it has a view over the Serengeti that is most definitely worth the price of admission – all good things.
In wildebeest news, it rained early this year, so the beasties are a bit confused and dispersed more than expected, but there are still a lot of them roaming the plains below – at one point today I saw a single file line of wildebeest that must have stretched for at least five miles, with each animal following the one in front to whatever destination had been selected. The single file thing apparently has evolutionary advantages, but it’s still funny to see several thousand shaggy beasts lined up in perfect order in a queue that extends across the horizon.
The upside of being in constant motion is that the wildebeest always get good grazing; the downside was evident as we crossed the Mara River – dozens and dozens of wildebeest who hadn’t survived the river crossing were floating in the water and being picked apart by hundreds of vultures. Gail indicated that these were just the ones who had drowned, and that many others were in the bellies of the numerous crocodiles we saw. As has happened many times on this trip, I said a silent “thank you” for the fact that humans generally die in bed instead of in the belly of something with large teeth.
Other animal sightings included playful lions cubs at dawn and dusk, a super-tiny baby elephant, and a cheetah charging a herd of wildebeest thrown in for good measure. After returning from the day drives I embarked on my first of three night drives, and got to experience the odd sensation of seeing hundreds of eyes reflected in the spotlight as a herd of wildebeest ran by – it looked like thousands of fireflies moving across the landscape in sync – as well as a lion hunting along the road and dozens of hippos out grazing. More to come.
The marabou stork is a member of the “Ugly 5” (stork, vulture, hyena, warthog, wildebeest), but don’t tell him he’s not beautiful.
Ryan’s journal: all lion photos, all the time. Variety may be the spice of life, but baby lions are very, very cute.
We’ve seen so many amazing things on this trip that we might be getting a bit jaded – today, after driving up to some rocks with female lions sleeping on top, Bruce took a look at the inactive cats and lack of good photography light and said “well, there’s a cool looking lizard in front of them”. Life is pretty good when you can see one of the world’s fiercest predators lounging in front of you and be more interested in the tiny reptile at its feet.
Today we got lots of cats – lions and cheetahs – and more huge lines of wildebeests. The park we’re in doesn’t allow off-road driving, so when someone finds something good there is a bit of a paparazzi feel as vehicles come rushing in from all corners to get a look. We had a cheetah that had just killed a small gazelle to ourselves for about a minute before the cavalry came charging over the hill in the morning, but in the afternoon we went to a different corner of the park and managed to get a cheetah completely to ourselves. The next park on the itinerary supposedly allows off-road driving, so it may again be possible to escape the “crowds”.
Aside from the animals, today’s excitement came from driving after last night’s rains – everything was muddy, and the tires didn’t have a ton of tread, so we were slipping and sliding all over. Just before lunch we veered slightly off road to pass someone and there was a crash – our vehicle had broken through an aardvark hole and was stuck. Since being stuck in the bush isn’t exciting enough, our breakdown was right in front of a young male lion. While AAA might be hesitant to service a vehicle with a giant carnivore watching, the guides here had no such qualms and we were extricated fairly quickly.
Hopefully people aren’t sick of seeing lion photos in this journal – they are fun to photograph, particularly when the cubs are playful and the light is good.
“Simba” is Swahili for “lion”. I asked a guide in Tanzania what “Mufasa” meant, and his answer was “it means Disney made up a word”.
Eleven new folks joined us this morning for the safari in Kenya, although most of the day was spent driving from Nairobi to the Masai Mara Game Reserve. We still had time for a four hour game drive in the afternoon, and while afternoon game drives haven’t been as exciting as morning drives, the new folks still got a great variety of animals today, including just about every major mammal that we’ve seen previously except for cheetahs and leopards. Thinking back to my first day on safari nearly two weeks ago, the excitement of seeing a wild giraffe or hippo for the first time is pretty tremendous, and it was fun to hear the stories at dinner.
For the rest of us the exciting thing today was seeing just how many wildebeest are here at the northern end of their migration route. At some points the landscape was filled from horizon to horizon with black dots, while in other places we would see single file lines of the shaggy beasts that stretched for hundreds of animals. Beyond the scale of the scene, watching a few young animals jumping in the air and acting frisky despite the obvious dangers that they face every minute of every day gives the impression that these aren’t unhappy creatures, despite their often unhappy fates. Africa is a hugely awesome place.
I’ve burned countless pixels trying to get a wildebeest in motion shot, so now that I’ve finally posted one it is inevitable that I’ll finally get a good image tomorrow morning.