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!