Sunday, November 11, 2012

The 24 hour Safari

Hey Folks,

            I hope this post finds you well, especially my friends and family on the East Coast of the US currently weathering Hurricane Sandy. It seems a long way away from here, and it is, but I am doing my best to keep up to date with what is going on. Stay safe.
            After my exciting October break at Mt. Kenya, I came back to school incredibly refreshed and raring to go. The trip was a rousing success and everyone involved was incredibly proud of what we had accomplished. The first week back was a tough one, but there was a beautiful goal waiting for me at the end of the week. A few months back a tour group, Ketty Tours, had sent an email out to all AKA,M staff offering a highly discounted safari. A few of the staff, including myself, were interested so we all signed up and reserved our spots. So, after removing every last Kenyan Shilling from my bank account (Mt. Kenya and a Safari do remarkable damage to one’s wallet), I paid my fee and waited patiently for the weekend.

            Graeme Telford, who works in the Administration block here, spearheaded the trip organization.  He and his wife, Veronica, are new to AKA,M as well and hail from the fine country of New Zealand. They were very eager to get out on safari and it took little encouragement from them for me to join in. Lindsey, too, wanted to join; even after being in Kenya for over a year she had yet to go on Safari!

            Around 2 pm on Saturday, the Ketty Tour Safari car drove up to campus and out hopped Salim, our driver/ safari master. We introduced ourselves around, hopped in, and headed out. We drove about two hours North West, towards Nairobi, to get to the entrance to Tsavo east and the beginning of our journey.

The ever-reliable Safari Car (note the pop-up roof)

Kenya is world renown for its abundant wildlife and for its remarkable national parks, as I am sure you all know. It has all of the “Big Five” (Rhino, Lion, Elephant, Cheetah, Buffalo), which makes it a proverbial Mecca for wildlife enthusiasts. It also makes it a veritable gold mine for poachers. In the past half-century, poachers have wreaked havoc on the animal populations in these parks. In recent years, it has been Somali bandits, fleeing the unstable situation in their homeland and looking to make a quick buck. The trouble with policing these parks is that the perpetrators are so heavily armed. Before I came, I read a book entitled “The Shadow of Kilimanjaro,” recommended to me by Scott Meikeljohn, a close family friend. It is a fantastic book that extensively explores the creation of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), among many other things. It mentions that, in order to counter these poachers, the KWS had to become somewhat of a paramilitary group that had to become comfortable with carrying assault rifles, engaging these poachers in firefights and, if necessary, shooting to kill. It is, understandably, a well paid job and therefore highly sought after. It sounds like their efforts have been vital in maintaining a health level of animal life in the parks. Interesting stuff!

Anyways, we arrived at the park gate around 4:15 pm. The entrance itself was decorated in a macabre way with skulls of buffalos, elephants and antelopes staring with hollow eyes out towards those who dared enter the park. Their horns were slowly unraveling like the worn ends of shoelaces after aglets fall off. (Aglet: fantastic word for the plastic bits that hold the shoelaces together. The English language is delightful). The elephant skulls had gaping holes where the ivory used to be and a wide flat bone structure that supported their trunk. The entrance to the park itself had large metal gates with metal cutouts of green rhinos on them; a pointed memorial to the majestic creatures that were poached out of existence in the park.

After paying our exorbitantly high park fees (my lucky streak for resident rates came to a halting stop), we entered the red clay roads of Tasavo East. The landscape of the park was fascinating. It was almost completely flat and covered with short, scraggly vegetation with the occasional tall tree with an umbrella-like branch structure. At first glimpse, it would have seemed a dull, repetitive landscape, but, upon closer examination, it was an ever-changing, vibrant environment with a startlingly diverse array of flora and fauna. In between animal sightings, I was perfectly content to become lost in the landscape.

Graeme and Veronica

Within ten minutes we had seen our first beast, a hartebeest that is. A hartebeest is four-legged hoofed mammal, not dissimilar to an antelope. A crowd of them was huddled in the shade of a tree. Five minutes later we came upon a family of ostrich: A father and mother along with a few small explosions of feathers that could only have been their brood. They barely paid us any attention and wandered along, stopping occasionally to eat. They are truly bizarre looking creatures. They have bodies of considerable substance, long muscular legs that end in ferocious talons, and elegant necks topped by a head that seems far too small for an animal its size. Their heads always seem a step behind the creature itself; for every step the head remains in place for a moment, while the body advances, and then the head rushes to catch up, jerking forward.

Then, only about thirty minutes into our safari, we saw the one animal we had all been aching to see; an animal that we would soon see close to eighty of: the African Elephant. A family of eight walked right across the road in front of us. They were covered in the Tsavo dirt that had earned them the moniker “the red elephants of Tsavo.” We caught them in the half-light of the late afternoon and they seemed a surreal fantasy before us. Seeing an elephant up close is a unique experience. In a book or on TV, they hardly seem real, an exotic creature. In the flesh, they are truly sight to behold. Their separate parks almost insists that they be an awkward, clumsy creature: the long, ground scraping tusks, the outlandish trunk, the monumental limbs, and the leathery skin. But when considered as a whole, an amalgamation of all of their disparate parts, there is something remarkable, admirable and weighty about them. Because we had come up upon these ones quickly, they fled before our car so we only really caught an eyeful of their large haunches. Later experiences in the park would make this only a minor disappointment.

The elephants were certainly the highlight of our first day on the road. We had to rush to get to our hotel before nightfall as the park strictly regulates nighttime driving. But even in our haste, we still saw a plethora of animals: warthogs, guinea fowl, giraffes, oryx, hyenas, jackals, zebra and buffalo. Oh, and about eight lion, but from a considerable distance, we would have a more notable experience with lions later.

Our hotel was the Voi Safari Lodge, named for the nearby city of Voi. The lodge was obviously built in the late 60’s or early 70’s and had a great retro feel to it: lots of browns and grays, kitschy d├ęcor and a circular UFO-looking dining area. The location could not have been better. It sat on a hillside over looking not one, but two watering holes. As we ate dinner, we were able to look out on the oases as jackals, hyenas, and about fifteen elephants came to drink. I couldn’t tell you how the food was as I was too fixated on the creatures below. We shared the dining hall with a sizeable number of Europeans who were FAR less excited about the animals than we were.

Unsatisfied with the already excellent vantage point, the architect had also designed a tunnel down to watering hole. The tunnel started halfway down the hillside so as to obscure the movements of us loud human beings. It looked like something out of World War II: a concrete tunnel, descending into the bowels of the earth, lit by bare bulbs and no attempt at decoration what so ever.  The end of the tunnel opened out into a similarly barren room with bars over the windows, which at first appeared inhospitable until you realized the reason for them. The tunnel placed you about two meters from the watering hole. The elephants were right there, you could see them, hear them, even smell them. It was fantastic. In the morning I went down by myself and watched two separate families of elephants, a number of warthogs, and a baboon bathing themselves and drinking. It made for a great photo opportunity but after a few minutes I just turned off my camera and watched them go about their morning routine.

Our second day started early. We went out on a two-hour safari starting around 6 o’clock. It was a great start to the day and we added to our giraffe, buffalo and elephant quota. Seeing these animals never gets old and we stood fascinated by every different animal we saw. Our driver, Salim, was less engrossed and frequently replied to our requests to slow down and stop with “yes, yes, elephant, I know.” He would slow down briefly and would then zip off in search of different species.



Grant's Gazelle

After a quick breakfast, we were back out for easily the most noteworthy and thrilling part of our 24-hour safari. We headed out through a few rocky passes and down across a wide open plain to a scraggly looking tree with a bulldozer parked underneath it. The bulldozer had been working on creating a new watering hole presumably to attract more wildlife to the remote area. There were a few cars gathered around the bulldozer with fellow safari goers fixated on something not visible to us. Lindsey and I had been constantly checking trees in the hopes of seeing a cheetah or leopard perched in the branches, so our natural reaction was to stare up into the branches. We still couldn’t find anything. Our car lurched forward a bit, and our driver pointed, “Simba.” Lion. And sure enough, basking in the shade offered by the bulldozers blade, was a massive lion overlooking its recent kill, a small buffalo. The male lions of Tsavo do not have manes, and this one was no exception. It was completely unperturbed by our presence and lounged around, yawned, and looked generally regal. When it yawned it revealed huge, ivory-toned teeth; I was increasingly nervous that only a few centimeters of metal separated my soft, tender flesh from those marvelous incisors. We spent about twenty minutes admiring the massive mammal before our driver started slowly maneuvering the car away. If he hadn’t torn us away from there we would have spent all day there.

Looks a bit like Scar from the Lion King...

But good thing he did. We zipped off, weaving along the dusty red clay road, and out in to a vast open plain. The horizon was hazy with the heat radiating off the earth like you might see on hot pavement; the trees in the distance ebbed and flowed like a mirage, distorting our reality. The scene was set for something otherworldly, and nature delivered. The horizon was dotted with countless dark spots and as we approached we came upon, first, about thirty zebra, then, in the distance, a whole herd of buffalo, I would wager about fifty. At this point, within twenty meters of the car was a giraffe, with at least four more in the near distance. And, most remarkable of all, were the two large groups of elephants making their way to a big, wet mud pit in the middle of this developing wildlife spectacle. It was like every children’s book about exotic animals had come to life before my very eyes.

We drove right up to the mud pit. Little elephants, maybe three months old, scampered in front of us to the other side of the road and plunged into the brownish-red morass. They struggled to get to the other side as the mud created heavy suction when they dropped their little limbs into the puddle. They labored across in the, dare I say, most adorable way. They reached the edge, exhausted, while their mothers grasped them with their trunks to extricate them from the soggy morass. The larger elephants slurped the thick maroon muck and sprayed it all over their backs, sides and legs. The sun soon dried the newly applied body paint and caused the elephants to appear a bright red color.

Elephant, Giraffe and Zebra all in one picture. My life is a dream.

Before long, these elephants moved along while another, equally large, group of elephants moved in in their stead and executed a similar performance. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect capstone to our brief but wonderful trip. We headed back to the lodge with grins on our faces and silent wonderment in our minds. Our trip out from the park was during the hottest part of the day, twelve to two in the afternoon so our animal sightings dropped of precipitously. I spend most of the time exploring the landscape and losing myself in my thoughts.


Before we knew it we were out the gate and on our way back to campus. Upon return, it felt like we have been gone for weeks, in the best way possible. We couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing weekend.

Final list of animals seen:
Guinea Fowl
Tree Hyrax
Egyptian Goose

-Mzungu loving the Kenyan life but itching to get home over December break!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mt. Kenya (Part II)- The Summit and Descent

10,000 ft- 13,800 ft

            After another solid night sleep, we awoke to a breakfast of sausage, pancakes and tea. We quickly packed up our gear and threw on our daypacks and hit the hill at 7:30 am. It was a warm morning so we delayered quickly and were down to t-shirts and light jackets. We made our way quickly along muddy tracks, crossing the occasional washed out road and in an hour or so had made it to one of the few manmade landmarks: Africa’s third highest weather station. It was powerless for the time being but a very clear and regular line of tall wooden poles wove its way down the mountain and was presumably waiting to be strung with electric line to make the station fully operational. Kimau told us not to hold our breath on the weather station becoming operational; the project was already ten years in with no end in sight.
            After passing the weather station, the rain started. It was a persistent rain that varied in intensity throughout the day and did not stop until early the following morning.
            Mt. Kenya is a beast of a mountain. Our ascent was taking us from the base of the mountain to Point Lenana, the third highest peak on the mountain and the tallest point accessible with out technical climbing. Our over all elevation gain on foot was 11,847 ft. But overall, in 72 ½ hours, our elevation gain, from Mombasa to Point Lenana, was 16,335 ft. To counteract the effects of altitude, we were told to drink water, as much as possible, all the time. Those that know me, or have travelled on long car rides with me, know I drink a lot of water as it is. So when I was told it was necessary for me to drink lots of water, I guzzled it down. I probably went through 12 liters on that second day. Out of control. But I felt great the whole way up! If only that feeling had lasted…

            The farther up we climbed, the stranger the landscape became. We soon left behind the low lying shrubs, and entered a fantastical landscape of lotus-like plants and large tree like plants that almost defy explanation. They sprout leaves continuously in the middle of the plant while the older leaves wither and die and allowing the other leaves to flourish. The plant grows higher and higher on the dead leaves and forms an ominous, human-like (especially at dawn and dusk) pillars up to 15 ft. high. These plants cover the landscape like silent sentinels guarding the valley they inhabit.

            The wildlife up there was fascinating as well. I saw one bird, picture below, the likes of which I have never seen. It had a long black double tail with a radiant green chest and an elegantly curved beak. It perched on a tree for a while as if posing for us as we walked by. We also saw the rock hyrax. Besides having a great name, these critters look like giant guinea pigs with the face of a koala (That may be a stretch). They are related very closely (somehow) to elephants. Apparently it is all in the feet. The hyraxes were extremely comfortable with our presence and allowed us to get incredibly close.

Rock Hyrax

            Aside from the wild animals, we also ran into some people on their way down from the summit. They had reached the top but with limited visibility and they seemed disappointed with the conditions. We had received word the as well that the day before a British military group had attempted to summit and were turned back because of harsh conditions and heavy snowfall. Our path to the summit looked that much more daunting.

            In spite of the rain, our hike was a pleasant one but I could feel the altitude starting to affect me. I kept trucking along and crested the last ridge at full speed, I was afraid that stopping would only make me realize the symptoms of the altitude even more. I reached the camp first out of our group an achievement that would end up being the root of my downfall.
            The rest of the group trickled in and soon enough we were all gathered around the table, drinking tea and catching up on the day.
Night fell. I started to feel a headache coming on so I drank more water. Nausea set in. It came in waves. Every five minutes or so I would pause, start sweating, strongly consider running outside and vomiting, calm down and the feeling would pass. Our cook served up dinner: minestrone soup, veggies, spaghetti. I tried to eat but I every bite I took caused my stomach to heave so I ended up skipping dinner all together. I stopped all conversation and had, according to my fellow hikers, a dour look on my face and pale complexion (not that the pale is out of the norm). I was well and truly in the grips of mountain sickness. Gioko suggested that I had not rested enough on the way up and that my pace didn’t allow me to acclimatize appropriately. Reasonable enough. He also said a few hours earlier, my tongue had been blue, apparently a sign of oxygen deprivation. I felt terrible and in a conversation with Lindsey made very clear that if I was to continue on in this vein, there was no way I was going to attempt the summit.
The summit attempt was planned for a 2:30 am wake up and a 3 am start. I went to bed at 7:30 pm. I made note in my notebook in hastily scrawled chicken scratch, “undecided as to whether I will attempt summit. Altitude sickness.” I attempted sleep from 7:30 onwards but, thanks to my legendary amount of water consumption, I woke up to pee every single hour at least once. Every time I flicked on my headlamp, gingerly lowered myself down from the bunk, tiptoed my way around the other beds, and stood in the windy, cold latrine, my head throbbing from the headache. Each time I woke up, Lindsey or Amal would ask, “you coming?” To which I would grumble in reply, “I dunno yet.”
Two o’clock rolled around and I was still feeling miserable, although less so than before. I lie awake, staring at the four cold metal staples holding the plastic roof in place eight inches from my face on the top bunk, while I tried to fight the feeling of nausea and the ebb and flow of the pounding in my head.
I really wanted to climb this mountain, but I kept rationalizing in my head, “hey, you’ll be in Kenya for the next two years, you’ll have another chance, no big deal, just sleep in, by the time you wake up they will be back already as if it never happened, no sweat, just sleep, come back next year.”
Two-thirty struck. I heard Amal, Jacob and Lindsey shifting in their sleeping bags. I stared at the ceiling. Waited. Rolled out of bed.

13,800 ft.- 16,355 ft.

            Breakfast consisted of three biscuits and a cup of tea, hardly fortifying and the only food I was able to consume since 14 hours earlier. We hit the trail at 3:15 am, headlights blazing through the dark night. The sky was cloudless and moonless. Even a quick glance up at the stars was enough to instill a healthy sense of awe into each one of us. It is a rare occasion to be so far away from any sort of light pollution as we were that night, and we all recognized the beauty of the heavens as we lumbered up the steep scree slope.
            We were seven in number: Amal, Lindsey, Jacob, Gioko, Mkongola, Kimau and I. George, Nicole and Kristine had opted to stay behind. Their progress thus far had been admirable in itself. Kristine had powered up the mountain, her first, with out a single complaint and with a smile on her face even through the wettest and steepest situations. Nicole had just conquered malaria a few days before our trip so her ability to push through the pain and make it up to Shipton, our second camp, was remarkable. George, I think, could have made it up to the peak, but he seemed completely happy to be up amongst the clouds in the shadows of the snowy, craggy peaks.
            Guided only by our headlamps, we slogged through trails sodden from the rain the day before. Before long, we began to see patches of snow. The going from this point on was slow. The altitude was taking its toll on many in our group meaning we had to take frequent breaks to catch our breath and take our bearings. Amal, easily the most athletic of our crew, began to struggle around the 4 am mark and Lindsey soon began to feel the same. The hour between 4 and 5 stretched on and on. The group was silent. Mkongola had not slept well the night before and was not his usual bubbly, energetic self, but a few months back he had promised Linsdey that he would take her to the top of Mt. Kenya and he was not about to renege on his vow. Amal set a marker for himself, if he could make it past 5 am, he could make it to the top. I became fixated on my watch, checking every 30 seconds. The closer it got to 5, the longer it took the seconds to flick by.

Amal tore his pants as you can see clearly here.

            Soon enough, however, we conquered time. There was no turning back now. The sun began to light up the horizon and by 5:45 we could turn our headlamps off, our path illuminated by the shades of red emanating from beyond the sea of clouds. The break of day lifted all of our spirits and before long we were cruising towards the peak. Our movement was now slowed, not from fatigue, but from our constant stops to glance around and admire the alien and stunning landscape before us. In the early glow of morning, the sharp ridges of Mt. Kenya were softened and the tarns and snowfields sparkled. The red orb of the sun was perched in the soft wool of the clouds.

            We began the final stretch and had to carefully work our way over and through exposed rocks until the peak was in sight. We were all exhausted but with final bursts of adrenaline we scampered across narrow paths, clutching cables embedded in the rock, towards the rebar ladder build into the six feet of rock that constituted the summit.
            We popped our heads up over the rock wall and were buffeted by wind. We had made it. The wind was a welcome sign of our arrival to the top of the world (or so it felt). Lindsey ran over to tall pole that marked the actual summit and held on and gazed out over the endless landscape. She turned back with tears in her eyes and I looked on, confused, until I too looked out.

 I was overcome by emotion. I was so struck by the beautiful panorama before me: Bation peak across from us with its cloud halo, the rigid sharp spine of the mountain ridges, the blood red sun, the pink and white quilt of clouds and the snow glazed glaciers. I was moved to tears. Nature got me something good.

16,355 ft. – 10,000 ft.

            After our initial moments of awestruck admiration, we realized how cold it really was and started snapping photos so we could start heading down. I have what might be called a tradition at this point of bringing a Tennessee flag on my most exciting hiking trips to fly high above the mountain I have just climbed. So naturally, I hiked it up to the top of Mt. Kenya as well. The past few times I have been accompanied by Samir Sheth, one of my best friends from Bowdoin and a fellow Tennessean. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), he is helping out the Obama campaign in Denver right now and could not take time out of his busy schedule to take a light hike up Mt. Kenya. I’m also a proud recent graduate of Bowdoin College, as is Lindsey. This past weekend was Bowdoin Homecoming but we were thousands of miles away from Brunswick so to celebrate Homecoming we brought up a Bowdoin banner to the summit as well. Many epic pictures were taken.

The victorious crew, best group shot I have on the peak, we'll get it next time

We made it!

            After the photos, we quickly scurried down the ladder and back to the snow encrusted slopes. With adrenaline rushing through our veins, the descent started off quick and cheerful. The snow was slick enough that I was able to slide down a lot of it on my rear and conserve some energy and have some fun at the same time. Energy ebbed the closer we came to camp but in two hours we were sat at our breakfast table, celebrating with sausage and toast. Dark clouds were forming so we packed up quickly and hit the trail at a break neck pace. In our haste, we forgot to snag our pack lunches, while led to a grueling and less than cheerful descent. As we lost altitude, most headaches eased away, but hunger still remained. Conversation ceased early on in the hike as determination to get down took over. I made full use of my iPod and listened to podcast after podcast to block out the pangs of hunger and the cold rain. After the rain set in, we had a few injuries, and we had not had a substantial meal for ten hours by the time we reached our lower camp. We wolfed down our dinner and all fell into coma like sleeps lasting about 10 hours.

10,000 ft. – 7,000 ft.- 0 ft.

            The next day we had a leisurely walk out. I hadn’t mentioned it before, but the early part of the trail had us cross the equator! Exciting stuff. We ran into a large troop of Baboon along the trail who followed us on the final part of the trek down to the Sirimon Gate. We sprawled out on the dry grass and relished in our achievement.

One more night at the base of the Mountain and we were back off to Mombasa. As we drove away, I was struck by how colossal Mt. Kenya actually was. It dominated my field of vision, blocking out the horizon. We all felt a great sense of accomplishment as the mountain receded behind us. Our next challenge is to find something to top Mt. Kenya.
            A brief plug for the mountain itself and the climbing experience. The mountain everyone thinks of when they think of East Africa, or Africa in general, is Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro generally costs $300 per person per day with most trips lasting 5-6 days. That price is without transport, with out visas and without pre- and post-trip accommodation. It really adds up. All things told, our six day Mt. Kenya trip cost us ~ $350 per person for the whole trip including: Guides, Porters, park fees, food, transport to and from Mombasa, and accommodation. Our guides, who lead on Kili as well, said Mt. Kenya was a much more interesting climb. If you are thinking about visiting East Africa to experience the natural side of things, consider Mt. Kenya. It is a bargain and an excellent hike.

Thanks for reading,
-Mzungu still riding the feeling of conquering Mt. Kenya