Kenya (5) – Tsavo East

At dinner tonight one of the waiters was asking the people at the table next to us about their day.  Their answer: ‘We’ve seen lots of elephants and a dung beetle’.  Mum and I couldn’t help but laugh as that pretty much summed up our day as well.

We had 3 game drives today, and we focused our efforts on searching for lions and leopard.  Our driver had heard a lion roaring during the night, but we found no sign of them today.  On the plus side, it was a great day for birds – we saw a number of eagles, some beautifully coloured song birds, and even a secretary bird catching its prey (presumably a snake, though it was eaten so fast, I couldn’t tell).

Over lunch we found time to take a few bird photographs at the camp – much easier than in the park because the birds come so much closer.  We also saw a large group of mongoose whilst eating our lunch, I was kicking myself for only having the short lens with me as it would have been a great opportunity for photography.

Twice during the day, in different parts of the park, we saw huge numbers of elephants – the first time maybe 70-80, the second time probably over 100.  We also came across a number of lone herds – the elephant population must have suffered a lot due to poaching, but it seems that it is increasing.  On a couple of occasions we had to wait for a herd of elephants to cross the road.  The second time it happened we had another nervous lady who trumpeted at us, just to make sure we knew who was boss.  We had great fun watching a couple small elephants – one of whom was pushing and pulling at the other, apparently to show it which direction they should be traveling in.

Over the last few days the amount of wildlife at the waterhole in camp has been slowly increasing.  We’ve been told that this is because the water is coming in, though until now the river has remained dry.  During our last drive this afternoon we drove along a road near camp which crosses a river.  This morning when we drove across the river bed there was no sign of water.  This afternoon it rained quite a bit, and we were taken aback to discover that the river was flowing, and the road had been washed away.  It’s amazing how fast things can change here.

Kenya (4) – Tsavo East

I’m sat on the porch in front of our tent, the sun has set and there’s just a little light left in the sky.  About 10m away from me is a small herd of impala.  The silence is broken by the sound of them nibbling on the grass, and the occasional snorts and gurgles of hippos, who are cavorting in the nearby waterhole.  As I type, a giraffe has just wandered into view and stopped to much on a bush in front of me.  As the light fades away completely we get out our torches and scan the area – it’s so dark that the only thing you can see are pairs of eyes, as the light catches the baboons’ faces.  Switch the torch off, and you’d have no idea you had company.  There could be lions out there.

This is just the culmination of an exciting day.  We had a full day game drive planned, with the intention of driving to the far end of the park.  We set off a little after sunrise, after following Peter’s instructions to eat a hearty breakfast.  Within half an hour of driving Peter jammed on the brakes and we came to a halt in front of a waterhole.  Walking towards it were a pair of cheetahs, what appeared to be a mother and an almost fully grown male cub.  We were lucky enough to get a couple shots of one of the cheetahs drinking, before they stood up and walked away from us, and towards a small herd of gazelle.

The mother lay down and waited patiently whilst her son had some fun playing chase the gazelles.  All part of the learning experience, and the gazelles seemed to know it.  Eventually some more gazelles joined the group and they chased the cheetahs off.  We followed their progress through the grass and then drove around to meet them as they crossed the road.  We then watched them for another 10 minutes or so before they eventually wandered off into the bush.

We continued along, stopping briefly to photograph some more elephants, until we came to the river.  This is the first substantial amount of water that we’ve seen since arriving in the park, and in the dry season is one of the few sources of water remaining, so an important source for all the wildlife.  At our first stop we saw an ibis, and then at the appropriately named Crocodile Point, we caught a quick glimpse of our first and only croc as it slunk into the water.  We followed the river up to the top of the Lugard Falls, nestled within the reddish rock formations.  The water in the river is very brown and blends in to the colour of the rock.

Further along we met a group of hippos, heads barely poking out of the water.  The largest rose up in the water a little to take a closer look, the little ones were more nervous and stayed submerged.  I took some photos, but like my previous hippo photography attempts, I remain unimpressed, they’re hard animals to capture well.

After a short lunch stop back at the Falls we continued on our way.  The roads in this part of the park were very narrow, and before long we came face to face with an elephant who was snacking on the trees by the road.  Fortunately, as there was very little space to manouevre, he didn’t look too bothered by our presence – as a general rule, the elephants in Tsavo are far more nervous (and therefore aggressive) than in some of the other parks, because of the history of poaching.

This area of the park is full of interesting rock formations.  We stopped at the Mudanda Rock, ‘mudanda’ meaning ‘strips of meat’, as the shape and counters of the rock are reminiscent of strips of meat laid out in the sun to dry, and indeed the rock was used in the past for this purpose by the local people.

Heading slowly back, we came across another herd of elephants who wanted to cross the road in front of us.  We waited for them to cross and then slowly proceeded forward.  One of the herd took exception to our presence, suddenly turned around and came running after us,  ears raised and trumpeting.  Quite an experience, and it certainly wouldn’t have been a good time to run out of gas!  Although the elephant numbers in Tsavo seem to be good, it’s very sad to see the effects of years poaching on the elephants’ temperament.  Peter pointed out that when the elephants here hear cars coming they tend to turn their back, because there is such a history of them being shot in the head.  I think it will take a very long time before the elephants here will become less suspicious of humans, and rightly so.

The rest of our drive home remained uneventful, although we did have the good luck to spot a monitor lizard as it crossed the road in front of us.

Back at camp, the vervet monkeys had set up shop on our veranda.  The amount of wildlife at the camp is increasing… as the promise of water comes closer, there are more and more impala and oryx coming in, and the hippos are really making their presence felt also.

Kenya (3) – Tsavo East

Although we didn’t see any big cats yesterday, they still made their presence felt – as we were lying in bed, we heard a lion roaring in the distance.  This morning, we were up at 5.15 for our early morning game drive, and heard the strangest grunting noises around our cabin, which turned out to be made by a male impala chasing off a rival… quite a start to the day.

At 6 o’clock we were on the road, setting off in a different direction from yesterday, to an area that seemed rather drier and more desolate, following the sound of the previous night’s lion.  The safari got off to a slow start, as we searched and searched for a couple hours before finding any sign of life.  The sun came up, the light was beautiful, but there was nothing to photograph.  Eventually we came across another jeep driving in the opposite direction – good news, they’d seen a lion.  We sped off and kept our eyes peeled.  A few minutes later, there he was, lazing on a termite mound, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world.  We were able to come quite close in and get some good portrait shots.  He didn’t seem at all perturbed by our presence, and after a short while we took our leave and left him in peace.

As so often happens, once you’ve seen one animal, your luck appears to turn, because it wasn’t too much further before we happened upon a huge herd of buffalo.  There was a steady stream of animals, literally thousands.  We watched as they poured across the road – adults, young and injured alike.  Fortunately we were able to get through a gap in the traffic, and watch from a safe distance.

Not much else to see this morning, a few impala, and a herd of elephants right on the horizon.  We were back at the lodge by 9am, just in time to eat before breakfast was cleared, and then went back to our tent to download the photos and take a long nap before lunch and our afternoon trip.

The afternoon safari was another slow starter and we travelled quite a long way from camp before we really saw anything.  We were in prime cheetah area, but unfortunately, the cheetah, like the leopard, remained elusive.

Eventually we happened upon some elephants… all in all we must have seen between 50 and 100, scattered into small groups with quite a few calves, and dotted around nearby, lone bachelors.  We hoped for some good sunset shots of the elephants, but they didn’t quite want to co-operate.  Nevertheless, just after the light dropped we were treated to a display of two young elephants taking a bath in a waterhole.  With an ISO of 4000 I was just about able to capture some action as the two played together briefly in the water.

We thought that was it for the day, but we saw one more critter today – a genet which was hanging around the restaurant, sitting high up in the rafters.  It’s looks like a small domestic cat with a very pointed face and a very long thin raccoon like stripey tail.

Kenya (2) – Tsavo East

We woke up to a cacophony of noise this morning – hornbills, weavers, impala and monkeys all contributing. The rain continued through the night, so the ground was rather wet, perfect for spotting cat tracks, but the weather today was dry and noticeably hotter. After a quick breakfast we were on the road at 7.30 (quite leisurely for a safari!), and yet again, our first sighting was of some giraffe.

It was a good morning drive for herbivores, with plenty of gazelles, oryx, and the remarkable looking genereks, which have ridiculously long necks, almost a la giraffe.

We also spent some time finding a good spot to photograph a herd of elephants. Other highlights of the morning included sparring oryx, a large flock of vulturine guinea fowl, and a couple young zebra. Back at the camp we spent a little time photographing the resident vervet monkeys before settling down under the trees for a buffet lunch.

We had a short game drive in the afternoon, following a lead for the elusive leopard. After a couple hours scanning every tree, he remained elusive! One thing that was striking this afternoon was how green the area was, it’s still the rainy season here, and the park doesn’t have the parched look that you expect from Africa. On our way back to camp we saw a good sized herd of elephants with some young calves, near the road. Unfortunately they took one look at us and walked away.

As we entered camp we happened upon a couple hippos, but it was hard to get a good view as it had already gone dark. It’s strange to have nightfall at 6.30 when you you’ve become used to our long spring days. Back at the camp and time for yet another big meal. The food here has been very good, not to mention plenteous. Our only disappointment is that the menu is geared to Western tastes, and we were hoping to experience some real Kenyan cooking. As in India, the service here is exemplary – as soon as a plate or glass is empty, there is someone ready to remove it and offer you something else. Rather overwhelming when people are at your beck and call every minute. We have an early drive planned tomorrow, meeting our driver Peter at 6am… time for bed.

Kenya (1) – Tsavo East

We arrived in Nairobi early this morning after an overnight flight from Amsterdam.  It was still dark when we arrived, but in the 40 minutes that we were waiting for our stand to come free, the sun rose, revealing a slightly overcast morning.  After a short wait for immigration, and a longer wait for the bags, we were met by our driver for the next week and half, Peter.  With a long drive ahead to Tsavo East we wasted no time in getting to the van and leaving Nairobi.

The first part of the journey was through industrial and village areas on rough and bumpy roads, reminiscent of my trip to India.  Indeed, many of the shacks and market we saw away were very similar in style to those we saw last year, the main difference being that they were manned by a different race of people.  After a bumpy start we continued along the main highway to Mombasa, which was fortunately in better condition.  It was a long trek, and after a night on the plane I ended up sleeping most of the way.  We didn’t reach the park boundary until 1pm, and then we still had about another 45 minutes driving within the park before we got to the camp.

Inside the park, the drive became very interesting.  Whilst we were waiting for Peter to organize the tickets we saw a beautiful lizard – electric blue body with an orange head.  Unfortunately it scarpered before we could photograph it.  Inside the gates, it was only a matter of minutes before we had our first game sighting –  a herd of giraffe.  The joy on Mum’s face had to be seen to be believed, and it’s a memory I’ll treasure.  We stopped to take a few photos of the giraffe, before Peter hurried us on as we were running late for lunch.

After lunch we took our first official game drive.  We’re very lucky to have a 7 seater jeep for just the two of us, giving us all the room in the world to photograph from all sides of the vehicle.  Photography is done through the open roof, which also gives you a surface to rest the camera on.  The only slight difficulty is that being short, the roof is rather high!  That’s sorted out well enough by kneeling or standing on the armrests.  The rainy session lived up to its name, and we had scattered showers throughout our drive.  Thanks to the open roof and the breeze when driving it’s easy to forget how warm it is.

After stopping to photograph a bataleur eagle and some smaller birds, we received a call on the radio and sped away up the road to find our first big cat – a lioness standing up on a termite mound.  The jeep ahead of us had seen that she had 4 cubs with her, and whilst they didn’t make an appearance, she gave us a fine display calling to them from the mound, before jumping down, rolling on her back on the ground a little, and then loping off into the bush to them.

Our next sighting was a small group of elephants.  Thanks to the local soil colour they’re a rather deep reddish brown and very attractive.  Returning back to camp we were lucky to find the same lioness we’d seen earlier, this time with her cubs in view.  They were tiny, about one month old apparently.  Unfortunately the light was fading fast, so the only photographs I have are fuzzy and grainy, but the quick glimpse we had of the 4 little guys playing together was a real treat.