Category Archives: Kenya
With sincere apologies to Karen Blitzen, I used that title to attract readers, a brazen move to be sure.
The more you get to know about any subject, the more you realize you do not know about the subject. Some smart guy said that once, I think he was Greek.
I know a lot more about Kenya after one week as a tourist than I did before, that’s for certain. I now have deep desire to learn a whole lot more.
We were “on safari.” From Wikipedia: A safari is an overland journey, usually a trip by tourists to Africa. Traditionally, the term is used for a big-game hunt, but today the term often refers to a trip taken not for the purposes of hunting, but to observe and photograph animals and other wildlife. There is a certain theme or style associated with the word, which includes khaki clothing, belted bush jackets, pith helmets or slouch hats, and animal skins. Entering the English language in the late 19th century, the word safari means “long journey” in Swahili. Originally from the Arabic (safar) meaning a journey .
Yes, we wore khaki. We read before we left that mosquitoes boycott khaki. Luckily khaki is a popular color among the Indian and Pakistani workers here in the UAE, so I was able to buy mine at discount stores. No, I did not wear a pith helmet or a slouch hat. Ball caps for this boy, I’d wear one to the moon baby. No belted bush jacket, although I saw a lot of them on people and in the hotel gift shops, and I think they are pretty cool. No Animal skins either. I guess I could have acquired an animal skin loin cloth and worn it like Johnny Weissmuller, but I’m sure my wife would have objected. She is much more levelheaded than I am.
We did take what amounted to a long journey, even though we were only in country for a week. We traveled south, then north, then south then north. We went from 2 degrees south of the equator, to 4 degrees, to ½ a degree, to 4 degrees and back to ½ a degree. We did not plan it, our tour agency did. I do not think the itinerary was established by availability of the lodges. It was not high season yet and none of the lodges were full. Consequently I am not sure why we bounced up and down like a basketball.
However I have no complaints. Every drive we made was exciting. Every little town we passed through was in its own way colorful.
The towns were separated by miles and miles of absolutely beautiful open country. My mind, which sometimes works like a jukebox, started playing the old Who refrain “I can see for miles and miles.” Mary Ann who stares at a computer screen all day said “This is so good for my eyes.” Even in the big sky country of Montana, the vistas are broken up by the Rocky Mountains eventually. Not here.
Kenya is not as clean as Hong Kong, but nowhere near as dirty as some other paces we have seen in our travels. It was only littered in small villages. The countryside was pristine. However, we did see a few plastic water bottles tossed on the ground in the parks. We even saw a baboon trying to drink from one. I was so humored that I forgot to get a photo, damn. But whoever disposes of anything, even a cigarette butt in a park should be fed to the hyenas.
Speaking of smoking…
Kenya is most definitely against smoking. They should just hang a no smoking sign at the immigration desk and write below it, Anywhere. When we got to our first hotel, in Nairobi, I walked well away from the front door, across the driveway, and stood in some bushes to light up. I have learned to be this “respectful” of the no smoking fascists in the world, the ones who think if they SEE someone smoking they too will die of cancer. Anyway, just as I lit up, a hotel doorman came running across the driveway and said “You cannot smoke in public in Kenya. You can be arrested for that.” I put out the cig and asked him “Is there anywhere I CAN smoke?” He said, “By the pool.” The illogic of that aside, at least I had a place to indulge my habit without going to jail. For the rest of the trip, I hid behind buildings or elephants, snuck into cactus fields and otherwise obfuscated my custom. I will digress here long enough to say that if someone bans cigarettes worldwide, I will somehow obtain them on the black market and defiantly blow smoke up the UNs arse.
The national language of Kenya is English. It is the primary language of instruction in school. Kenyans also speak Swahili, or a version of it they call Kiswahili. They also speak one of 40 or so tribal languages, such as Masai or Kikuyu.
The dominate religion is Christianity, at about 70%. Islam is second and Hindu third. Arab traders, mostly from Oman, came to what is now Kenya even before the Europeans, sometime in the first century A.D. They stayed mainly on the coast, and that is where you will find most of the mosques. The Hindu religion was brought to Kenya by early traders, but mostly by the people building the railroad. At first, the majority of the Christians were Catholic. Catholicism was brought by The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. Portuguese and Spaniards never went anywhere without priests. Later when the Brits colonized Kenya, Protestant missionaries zealously came to save Kenyan souls from Papal dominance. They were fairly successful. The Christians in Kenya are anywhere from 35 to 50% Catholic now. That % is lowering as ecumenical zealots continue to recruit.
Maize is the primary vegetable staple, I asked our guide if he knew what they Masai ate before they had Maize. He said, “We have always had maize.” I then had to disappoint him and tell him that Maize did not exist in the Eastern hemisphere in pre-Columbian times (That and tobacco, so there) He was surprised to learn that. It was maybe the only question I stumped him on all week.
Coffee in Kenya is amazingly good. I have always believed the best coffee comes from Costa Rica, but I am now reconsidering. There is not a single Starbucks in Kenya, to my amazement. Starbucks stores worldwide often sell Kenyan coffee so I do not know why no store in Kenya. Kenyans will tell you that their beans are often blended with other country’s beans to improve the taste. All I know is that it is wonderful, so I bought home a whole bunch of it.
If you ever saw the movie Out of Africa, you will remember that the main character had a coffee plantation. Her name was Karen Blixen. By the way, seems how I stole the title of this post, I’ll tell you to read the book. The film is LOOSELY based on Karen Blixen’s masterpiece of a memoir. Her farm was just outside of Nairobi. There is a town there now, called…hmmm… Karen. There is a museum to her efforts as a single white woman to make it in a foreign culture where even the fellow expats, dominated by Great White Hunter types, was not easy. Karen is a very wealthy suburb now. Beautiful homes, a first rate mall and world class hospitals. In the movie Blixen is played by Meryl Streep and the role of Denys Finch Hatton is played by Robert Redford.
In the movie, Finch Hatton introduces the concept of travelling from hunt to hunt by plane. That idea still exists big time in Kenya. Now of course you travel between national parks on your airborne safari. Many very upscale lodges have their own airstrips, including one called Denys Finch Hatton Lodge www.finchhattons.com. I am not personally experienced with this lodge nor this level of luxury, so no endorsement, but check it out.
The national beer, Tusker is damn good. it is about US$2.50 a bottle anywhere you go.
Whenever I am in a new country I look at it as a possible place to retire. Weather, cost of living, political stability, friendliness of the locals, and whether or not I can smoke in peace are all factors I consider. Kenya is now, without any truly deep investigation, second on my list behind Thailand, with a bullet.
I need to go back. I’ll wait until high season is over. This time I will go at a more leisurely pace and ask a lot more questions.
Just a couple more things. Overall, my new camera, A Nikon p7000 is an extremely good product. I am happy with my photos that I shared with you in the previous blogs. I said I was afraid they would all come oput looking like elephant dung.
One last thing. In all my travels I have shared the local versions of the washroom signs that can sometimes be confusing.
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The day started with the return drive out of Masai Mara Park. The only thing that made it tolerable was thinking back to what a marvelous piece of earth we had just visited. I want to return to Kenya, but I will not return to the Mara until they fix the road. If you are reading this blog with an eye towards your first trip to Kenya, definitely go to the Mara, but bring a pillow to sit on in your vehicle.
On the way out we went past a Land Rover sporting a logo for the Michigan State University Hyena Study Project. I did not get a photo, but you can Google it to find out that this project has been going on for something like twenty years . Many of the students ,mostly grad students working on a PhD in Hyena (I’m sorry, the job market there must be pretty thin) post stories to http://msuhyenas.blogspot.com. They are a good read. If they cannot find a job being head honcho Hyena researcher, they should try writing.
This is Gideon’s home territory. He showed us a set of four contingent lots he is buying in the first big town outside of the park. He bought the lots because they are building a Catholic University right next to where his lots are. He wants to build 4 houses to rent out to faculty. He is an industrious guy. He is the youngest of four sons to a decently wealthy Masai man. In Masai tradition, the youngest gets the biggest cut of the inheritance, but his father told him he would not get a single goat if he did not do well in school and go out and make his own living.
Once we got off the terrible road it was swift and comfortable trip to our next and final destination. Lake Naivasha. This is a popular expat enclave, few hours out of Nairobi. The lake is beautiful. Birds abound. It sits at 6,222 feet above sea level and less than ½ a degree south of the equator. Put all that together and it makes for a wonderful climate.
All that aside, the reason we came here is called Crescent Island. The island is the remnant of the top of the volcano that formed the lake. It is a private game reserve. Some rich guy owns it and he somehow got permission to relocate all types of non-predator animals from the rest of Kenya to this island.
You pay to get a boat ride and a guide to the island. Your boat trip passes thru thousands of water fowl, and herds of hippos. Actually a bunch of hippos is called a bloat. We saw three separate bloats, I think they were independent families, so maybe altogether they made one bloat. (Sorry about that, I just like using the word bloat. Try working it into a sentence with a friend in a bar.)
While I’m on this theme, and before I allow you to look at my pretty pictures, I feel I must let you know that a group of giraffes is called a tower. No, really. A group of hyena? A cackle. Here is a strange one, a group of wildebeest is called an implausibility. A group of baboons is called a troop, and a group of Zebras can be called a zeal or a dazzle. All that is only helpful if you are working on a PhD in safari guiding. A herd works fine doesn’t it.
Ok now for the bloat.
Once you are on the island you walk amongst the animals. It is not a huge island but I will bet there is more dung per acre here than anywhere else outside of a stock yard.
It is a close as you can get to zebra, gazelles, impalas, water bucks and giraffe anywhere. Basically the animals just let you and your camera invade their space. It is as if they know they are there for that particular reason.
I actually have many more photos of the animals on Crescent Island. The new age of digital photography allows one to shoot like mad. But if I showed you more animals, I would probably bore you with more nomenclature.
In the morning we leave for Nairobi, and sadly make our way “out of Africa.” Final thoughts? Well read my next post because I have to find a way to express how much I loved what I saw. Please share this post with your FB friends as well as your real friends. AND PLEASE make a comment.
We set out today at the crack of dawn. Our objective was lions. Yes, we had seen lions in Amboselli, but not up close. We ran into a vehicle with a flat tire and while Gideon stopped to help, we were able to get out and walk free on the savanna just like the animals. We used the time to enjoy the freshest air anywhere and just observe a sunrise on the Mara. By the way, Mara is a word in Masai that mean spotted, but applies to the land here which is spotted with bushes and trees, instead of covered like a jungle.
We quickly headed off to see what this herd of humans was viewing. We were pleasantly rewarded with a Momma lion and four kittens. What a great start for a day.
We spent a lot of time enjoying the lioness. She and the babies did not pay us any attention. Their attention was riveted on a herd of zebras a mile away. I was hoping momma lion would get up and go catch one, but I was sure she would not leave the kittens behind.
We returned to the lodge for lunch and a nap. All the game drives take place in the morning and again in the afternoon because this is supposedly when the game are most active. There is a train of thought developing that the animals have gotten smart and are now most active while the humans are back in the lodges. It would not surprise me.
We had two objectives for our afternoon game drive. One was a black rhino, the toughest of the big five to see. The other was an adult male lion.
We had driven a long way when all of a sudden the radio went wild like it did the day before for the leopard sighting. Gideon did a bush style u-turn and said to me “You said you wanted to see lions mating. Well lions are mating and we are on our way.” We flew over hill and dale, past herds of “boring” stuff like zebras and topis. We drove and drove. We got all shook and rattled in the vehicle. Then we came upon the scene. It looked like the paparazzi had found Paris Hilton mating. There were at least twenty pop top vehicles with people pointing cameras at these two poor lions.
By the time we got to the lions, we were late, they were spent. The lioness looked like she was passed out. The male lion was not in much better shape. We took photos and waited. Gideon told us once they get started they mate 3 or 4 times and hour for 3 or 4 days. We waited for an encore, waited and waited. The male tried to rouse the lioness a couple of times but she was having none of it. I recorded all this for you my faithful readers, so please enjoy what passes for ‘Lion Porn’.
On the way home I took some nature shots and some sunsets, The Masai Mara is a photographers dream. I hope you enjoy the pictures.
I will start with some shots of trees and bushes.
Excuse me here while I give you a little lesson I learned on safari. You very often see large groups of wildebeests and zebras browsing together. In fact, the zebras accompany the wildebeests on their famous migration from the Masai Mara to the Serengeti and back every year. This migration follows the same circular route each year and corresponds to rainfall patterns, hence growing grass. The reason they travel together is that the zebra eat the tall grass, exposing low grasses to the wildebeests. During the migration, the carnivores feast. Lions and crocodiles get fat for the lean time. The crocodiles, in fact the largest crocs in the world, wait for the wildebeests and zebras to cross the Mara River. Thousands perish. The lions attack at will along the way. The other benefit the wildebeests get from the zebras is that when the lions attack, and the joint herds run, the black and white stripes of the zebras, in motion, confuse the lions. Still, thousands more perish.
OK, now to the iconic Masai Mara shots, the sunsets. Until this trip I never thought I would see a sunset finer, more striking or more memorable than the ones I watched from Maui. Hawaii move over, Africa has you beat.
Asante san for reading. Please share with your friends. Please make a comment. Please come back for my next post when HTT Holidays and Incentives takes us to Lake Naivashu and Crescent Island where you can walk right up to a giraffe and knock on his knee!
We took off after a wonderful breakfast at the Lion Hill lodge. The objective was to get to our lodge in Masai Mara National Park and the Sopa Lodge by 1:30 for lunch and the afternoon game drive.
By the way, if you ever go on safari in Kenya or Tanzania, I can recommend the Sopa chain without hesitation, and no, they are not paying me to say this.
At 1:30 all I wanted was out of the vehicle. We had just spent an hour on the worst road I have been on in years. Gideon, who was working hard at the impossible task of missing potholes asked me if I could drive this road. I told him I had driven worse and described a road equally as beat up but in the mountains of Mexico where you had no room on either side to swerve because of the mountain on one side and a 2000 foot cliff on the other. When I was done describing that experience I told him how glad I was he was driving instead of me by saying “I’m to old for that shit anymore”. The road is the only road to Kenya’s most visited park. The government has fixed a lot of roads in the last couple of years, but for some reason, not this one.
All is well that ends well. We got to the lodge and checked into yet another very nice room. Before we could really rest, it was time for the afternoon game drive. We soon forgot about the drive to the park, in favor of the wonderful drive in the park.
This is the only single park in Kenya where if you are lucky and diligent, and have a good guide, you can see all the “big five”. We got lucky, and we have a great guide.
Big game guides are no different, really, from fishing guides. Except they speak Swahili and Masai. When they pass each other on the road they share information just like the fishing guides. Except instead of asking ”Where are the lunkers”, they are asking “Where are the lions”. At least that is what I think they are asking. They might be swapping stories about the idiots they have in their vehicle that just will not be happy until they see lions mating. I am one of those people. I told Gideon I would not be happy unless I saw something kill something, and animals mating. We both laughed at that, but an hour later, while we were observing a troop of baboons, he said, ”Look, baboons mating.” Sure enough. This being a full service blog, here is the photo.
I never thought that at any point in my life would I say, “Big deal, another herd of elephants” or snidely comment “Oh boy, more gazelles.” Nor did I think I would ever know the difference on sight between a lesser gazelle, a greater gazelle and an impala. I do now.
I have always wondered why no one ever domesticated the zebra. Gideon told me that the zebra has a weak back. I thought about that and said “too bad, it would be a beautiful sight to see a Masai warrior riding a zebra.” I honestly think he likes my weird sense of humor, because he sure laughs at me. It is a wonderful thing to see herds of zebra grazing amongst gazelles and wildebeest out in the wild.
Masai Mara, being the most popular park in Kenya, even before high season, has quite a few visitors. This equates to quite a few vehicles out in search of game. They all have short wave radios in case they have a break down. But what they really use them for is sightings of the rarer animals. Today, as we were casually driving around, all of a sudden the normal chatter over the short wave rose to a euphoric level. Even though they were all speaking in Masai, I knew something big was up. Gideon did a four point turn and found a seldom used trail through the savannah and started hustling. “They spotted a leopard. We must go see the leopard.” Mind you, the leopard is one of the big five, and any guide worth his Shillings is going to make sure you see one. We started flying across the open fields until we came to an established trail and headed to the leopard sighting. We turned a corner around some trees and BAM we were in the middle of a huge heard of buffalo. One thing buffalo are not is in a hurry. Another thing they are not is intimidated by a safari vehicle. They probably outweigh one and could redefine the term fender bender with those horns of theirs. Gideon was motivated. We had to see the leopard. He inched his way thru the herd and we were back on our fast paced quest.
Now the human herd started to appear. Vehicles were converging on the site where the leopard was from every point on the compass. They came on trails, across the fields and through ravines. No obstacle was going to stop any guide from treating his guests to one of the big five. Mary Ann and I started laughing. We could point in any direction and there was another Land Rover hell bent for leopard.
It was worth it. It was an incredible cat just meandering its way thru the bushes and fields. It had no concern for the human element. All the animals seem to know they are protected. Or maybe they know they cannot attack a vehicle. At this point in the history of human/big game relations there is a comfortable peace.
After we navigated our way out of the traffic jam, we noticed another group of vehicles. Could we be lucky again? YES! Gideon again made a bee line to the new sighting and we found our 4th of the big five. Not one but TWO cheetahs. They were laying in the shade watching the humans watch them. They had very obviously just consumed a rather large lunch. They looked too fat to even walk. These are the world’s fasted animals, but apparently not after a feast.
I asked Gideon “if this were high season, how many vehicles would have come to see the leopards and the cheetahs?” He wistfully responded “at least a hundred.” It goes without saying, come to the Masai Mara before high season.
Again asante san for reading. Please hit share so your FB legions can enjoy it, and oh please make a comment.
We left Amboseli at 7:30 for an 8 hour drive to Nakuru Lake National Park. The park is located ½ of a degree south of the equator, so I can definitely claim to be in equatorial Africa. The park and lake are in the Rift Valley. This valley is over 9000 kilometers long and extends from Mozambique to Israel. It is a valley of legendary big white hunter tales. If you want to know a lot more go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Rift_Valley I remember it best because Richard and Mary Leakey have done significant work in the valley.
Along the way we stopped at a view point and took in quite a bit of it in one vista.
You are welcomed to the park by baboons.
The park itself is very lush and green. It sits on a large salt water lake which provides sanctuary for millions of birds, especially Flamingos. This is not the peak time for the Greater Flamingo migration, but there were still tens of thousands of the lesser flamingos grouped along the shoreline turning it pink. There were thousands of white pelicans as well as guinea fowl and marabous. Time for photos? OK
We saw impalas, water buffalo, white Rhinos, waterbucks, and troops of baboons. I hope you enjoy these pics.
We are staying at a place called Lion Hill Lodge. It is fabulous. We are only here for one night, so I’ll steal a towel.
We lost an hour of game viewing because an ATM ate Mary Ann’s card. Our tour agency HTT Holidays and Incentives (www.travelhtt.com) did everything short of ripping open the ATM machine with one of the Masai swords. They even lent us cash for the rest of the trip. It all worked out because of the dedication of the HTT staff and our guide Gideon.
In the morning we head off to Masai Mara National Park. This is the big destination for great white tourists like us. We have already seen 2 of the big five and we look forward to checking off the other three. When we do, I feel like cracking open a bottle of champagne, except I hate champagne.
Maybe we will just have an extra Tusker. Tusker is the beer of Kenya.
The national drink of Kenya is the Dawa. The Dawa reminds me of the Pisco Sour of Chile. It is an acquired taste sort of thing. I’ll certainly have couple more if I see a black rhino and a cheetah, the two most difficult sightings of the big five.
Asante san (Thank youu very much in Swahili) for reading. Please pass this along to a friend and please make a comment.
After a 5 hour drive SSW out of Nairobi we arrived at the Amboseli Sopa Lodge, located on the outskirts of Amboseli National Park. The lodge is stunningly beautiful and comfortable. Yes, we are “in the bush.” I know, because there is no internet and cell phones do not work. Actually the lodge has had internet, but it does not work anymore, and the cell phone coverage is limited to one carrier, the name of which is, wonderfully, Safaricom. The lodge provides every other creature comfort one would expect in an expensive lodge anywhere. The people who designed and built this place did not miss a detail. The woodwork is all hand carved with animal scenes. The bed has a big elephant head carving for the headboard.
The hotel sits near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa. The mountain itself is actually in Tanzania. It is often covered in clouds and everyone hopes it makes an appearance.
Everything is in the style of the Masai tribe, from the curtains to the lamps and the rugs. The bar, called the Hemingway Bar is huge and is reminiscent of the big white hunter days. We are here two weeks before high season starts, and the place is almost empty. I think service here would be excellent if they were chock-a-block, it is incredible right now.
This is Masai country. The Masai people still “exist” just like you have seen in the movies. If you saw Out of Africa, and remember Robert Redford’s Masai servant, well that is how many of them still dress. I’m not talking about some show they put on for tourists. Uh Uh. I’m talking about how they dress out herding their goats or just walking cross country. They are incredibly kind people and seem as interested in us as we are in them. Plug into this experience the fact that the national language is English and they all learn it in school, and the opportunity for cultural exchange is just incredible.
Our guide happens to be Masai. His name is Gideon. All the Masai have baptismal names in English. We have him to ourselves for the entire week, just the two of us and large Land Rover with a pop up roof. I met a teenager on the road and we exchanged names. His was Evan. I told him mine and he said “like the bush?”
Before I try to describe our first game drive, I am going to pass on a few things I learned about the Masai today. I inherited the ability to ask nosey type questions from my mother, so sometimes I actually learn interesting things others might miss.
When you see a pair of Masai men walking together (actually one behind the other is the way they walk, not side by side) one of them will always be carrying a long stick. Even if two are on a motorcycle, one will have a long stick. I imagine that if two of them ever flew on an airliner they would sit one in front of the other, and one would have a large stick. I had to ask why. Gideon’s answer was “self protection.” He saw the perplexed look on my face and said “against animals.” Then he went on to say that the second fellow will always be carrying a sword or club strapped to his leg. To prove the point, he pulled out a two foot long formidable club from under his western cargo pants and said “we never leave home without it.” When I met Evan, he was carrying the big stick and I had to ask if he ever had to use it. All he said was “I have it if I need it.” Gideon was standing with us. He reached under the Masai blanket (They wear them like robes) of the other young man and yanked an eighteen inch sword from a sheath strapped to his leg and said basically “we all carry.” These people live every day amongst lions, hyenas and what not. Be prepared is not just a slogan for them.
Gideon told us that at age 15 the men get circumcised (ouch) and then spend up to a year wandering in the bush. To become a warrior, they have to kill a lion. If they do, they get branded with a hot piece of metal on their cheeks and thighs. The leader of the group must cut the tail of the lion before they kill it. I’m not sure they still kill lions, but that is the old way. Gideon only wandered for two months and then he had to get back to school. He is not branded. He has a University education in tourism. He had to learn a lot of Kenya history and of course flora and fauna. He is adding an incredible amount to our experience. Mary Ann and I are planning an enormous tip.
I was learning bits and pieces about the Masai all day, but one thing totally blew my hair back. Innocently I asked about their burial traditions. I had not seen a cemetery so I asked if they practice cremation. Now remember, the Masai of today are Christians. Gideon explained that what they do is shave the body, and cover it with oil. Then they slay a cow, skin it, wrap the deceased in the cow skin and take it out in the bush for the hyenas to eat. Then they feast on the cow. I would not have known if I had not asked, which just might put a damper on what else I ask. But probably not. Tomorrow we are taking a side trip to an off the tourist track true Masai village, where I Intend to learn as much as I can about these fascinating people. Having a Masai as an escort should break the ice nicely. The next post will cover that along with some truly cool animal shots!
Asante is Swahili (Kenya’s second language) for thank you. So Asante for reading and please pass this along to your friends on Facebook and in the real world also.