2006Trip Report – Kenya
Okay here I am, back all of 6 months from the vacation of my life! Kenya: Elsa’s Kopje and Meru National Park, Loisaba and Ol Malo in the Laikipia Region, Lewa Downs and Lil Governor’s Camp in the Masai Mara. My feet have touched the ground, my mind is here, but I am sure that a part of my heart is still in Kenya and always will be.
Getting out of “Dodge!”
The trip got off to a truly questionable start. After (as many of you know) jumping over the hurdles of shoddy camera purchase done with Butterfly Photo in NYC where I was shipped in a manner that had the carton arrive damaged and missing a $1500 lens, an erroneously cancelled by British Airways, biz class ticket and altered security conditions due to the terrorist Heathrow Scare, my United flight to London found itself delayed 3 hours in SF due to security problems! Yes, we boarded and de boarded. The entire plane had to be security checked! Now for many this became quite a big deal, but for me, knowing this might make me miss the only connecting flight in London to Nairobi, all I could do was laugh and head off to find myself the biggest Decaf Late’ Starbucks makes. After all, it was now mid morning. For days, if not weeks, I’d been jumping through hurdles, but here I was, ticket and camera equipment in hand. Duffle bag checked all the way thought to Nairobi. Nothing would stop me now! (Only once did I find myself wondering if anyone would believe it if I showed up at work the next day!) Three hours later, well fueled with my late’, I was on my way, Biz Class to London, IPod blaring and Canon Instruction Booklet in hand. (Don’t you just love the ff mile award tickets???) And the miracles began….
We arrived London Terminal 4 only 1and 1/2 hours late (isn’t it amazing how planes can make up time? Can they exceed the speed limit?) Big deal, I thought! I had only to pop over to Terminal 3 and jump on my British Airways flight to Nairobi. The good news was that this flight was delayed and was still in the final boarding stage. No problem I thought. I had a boarding pass all I had to do was hurry on over to Terminal 3. Little did I know how far that was! Well, with camera bag (all 18# of it) in tow, off I dashed. Now, a runner I am not, but I clearly figured I could make better time trotting along than hanging around waiting for the bus. After all, I had been jumping hurdles for the entire month prior to take off, and I work in an extremely hectic industry. I just figured that some how my energy, enthusiasm, will (not to mention my fancy, new trail / athletic shoes) would save the day. Of course I didn’t have a clue as to how to take a short cut route from T3 to T4 and the thought that I might get lost never entered my mind. Yes, you got it. I got lost. My famous lack of a sense of direction surfaced big time and there I found myself, lost in the bowels of Heathrow! But... more good news...English...(I was in London) ...communication made easy and the English kindness! The next thing you know, I was in one of those “for the disabled” carts with beep, beep horn blaring, being scooted off to catch my British Airways flight! (The fact that I looked like I weighed 400# what with my camera gear, 17 Oakland A’s baseball caps hanging off my belt and Safari vest loaded with treats for kids may have evoked pity but none of it stopped me.) British Airways did check the size of my carry on due to the heightened security measures and made me remove a few books. Fortunately that was all. (Thank God they didn’t check my “Rocco” vest pockets or weigh me! They may have made me buy a 2nd ticket!!) This cart ride was only the first in a long list of miraculous happenings and one of the countless acts of kindness and generosity that came my way in the course of my 3 week adventure.
Nairobi – Stop #1 for the night.
My luggage arrived “all in one piece.” I was so happy to see that old duffel bag after hearing countless stories about lost luggage, detained luggage etc. I was whisked away through customs with a mere wave. (Having my Kenya Visa already in hand really made the process fast.) Anne Kent Taylor International (my tour operator) had a representative from A&K there to meet me. Off to Ngong House in the Karen District we went. What a trip! I’m an ex New Yorker, and I’ve driven in lots of cities all over the world but Nairobi, at night? What a trip! People walking, cows, security stop posts and traffic everywhere. Whew! Next thing you know I was being escorted to my “Tree House” at Ngong House where my mosquito netted, king sized bed awaited me. My adventure in Africa was about to begin.
Ngong House is simply lovely. It’s a group of three houses nestled on the grounds, very private and quiet....truly lovely. Given that it was almost 11pm when I arrived, and I had to have before sunrise to head to Elsa’s Kopje, I saw little, but what I did see was a wonderful way to start my journey. I collapsed in bed listening to my first sounds of Africa at night!
I awoke to the smell of Kenyan coffee, toast and scrambled eggs, all of which were served on my sitting room table where garden fresh roses graced a bowl. What a way to go! I almost forgot it was 4:30 am!!!
6am off by Air Kenya to the land of “Born Free”, Elsa’s Kopje and my 1st Safari! Stop# 2
Located near Meru National Park, Elsa’s Kopje is a unique place carved literally into the side of the hilly terrain. The presence of Elsa from the movie “Born Free” was everywhere. Having seen the movie countless times, I could just “see” it all again, and there I was!!! Each cottage is especially designed to compliment the environment and is completely made from the local woods and rocks; the epitome of “Green” building! From my cottage I could see for miles into the park and at night hear the animals (Giraffes, I think) munching in the trees below. The food here was phenomenal, blessed by the hand of an Italian kitchen and culinary staff. The desserts were delicious works of art. Meals were served in the dining room / bar cottage where one had ones own assigned table. Since I was alone, the managers invited me to join their table for dinners, something I appreciated so very much as eating a candle lighted meal alone is not my idea of fun!! For three days I was up and out by 6:30 until mid day, sometimes back for lunch, sometimes enjoying a packed picnic lunch with my guide by the hippo pools. At 4pm, after tea, off we would go again until darkness fell, usually around -7pm. My guide was John and he couldn’t have been more alert and attentive. What fun we had. This camp is rather small so I was afforded the luxury of my own vehicle. (Boy, was I getting spoiled or what?) We went everywhere. Though it was very dry and dusty, there was very high grass in abundance and hence, many herds were present. Elephants, Zebra’s, Reticulated Giraffes, the White Rhino Conservancy, Hippo’s (a great Hippo pool area), Baboon’s, Monkey’s, Water Buck, Greater Kudus, Dik Dik, Impala, Gazelle, Cape Buffalo, Ostrich, 8 lonely Grevy’sZebra females etc. (This made me so sad. All of the males had been killed off by predators so now there remained only females. Hence no breeding of little ones was taking place. Meru was hoping to have some males brought in from Lewa), and more. Birds! (Wow! I had no idea how spectacular are the bird’s...their sounds...their nests.) The animals in Meru are not very habituated as there are not many vehicles in the Park. At times we had to sit really still and let them come to us. It was amazing to realize that after a while they would forget we were there. Yes, in 3 days my cameras and I became the best of friends. Every day I thought of all of the help people had given me in determining what camera bodies to get and lens to buy. Having an Epson 2000 and 2 camera bodies was simply the best. Dust could have been a big issue but not having to change lenses made this issue moot. At night, while I happily had my first Tuskers of the day (and I LOVE good beer) I would download my photos. My first 3days, traveling alone as a single woman on safari, found me ready for more. Every second of struggle and all of the challenges seemed like things of another lifetime. I was bitten by the African Safari Bug. In my mind I was already planning 2007!! Oh, and by the way, Rock Hyrax were everywhere at Elsa’s. They were completely fearless of me. At times I would find them in my room, along with chameleons, but they didn’t stick around once I arrived. It is hard to imagine that something the size of a guinea pig is an Elephant’s closest living relative! And the chameleons I took as a sign of Good Luck! Ha!
Stop #3...by Tropical Charter to Loisaba in the Laikipia Reserve. Getting there found me in the cock pit with a Bush pilot, Eston. What fun! (Now I’d love to learn to fly!) From the air I got my 1st glimpse of Mt. Kenya, Manyatta’s in the middle of no where, herds of Elephants running and vast, ever changing Terrain, at times dry and cracked, at others mountainous and green, and always vast in the valleys and plains. The contrasts were enormous to see. In the morning light the colors were just beyond any words that I can think to describe... For many, Africa seems to be about the wildlife. (For me the colors, textures, topography and animals are all equally embedded in my mind...along with the people.) Had anyone told me my trip could only get better, I’d never have believed It., However, when I stepped onto the grounds of Loisaba, I was speechless, and this is something I rarely am! What beauty! Honestly, I almost cried (and I live in the Bay Area where beauty abounds). Again, mastery in design utterly elegant and charming all at once. The main lodge, the guest cottages, the dining hall, and landscaping were incredible. I could have spent my entire 3 days just looking at the rocks, the fauna and flowers. From everywhere there were breathtaking views of the plains below of the vast Laikipia Reserve. For 3 days I didn’t know what to photograph first: the grounds, the Game, the Masai or simply the goings on at the water hole as seen from the veranda of my room! Yes, there was a big old water hole where daily the procession of animals arrived to drink. It was fascinating to see the order of it all: first came the smallest species, then the mid size and then the largest. Never did the groups co-mingle. It was all so orderly. I again found myself set up in a private vehicle with my own guide, Phillip. What a joy! Phillip told me his mission as a guide is to simply leave a legacy with each guest…the Legacy of Kenya and her wonderment. He was a real pro and his enthusiasm for his profession was infectious. He never quit. He talked about Kenya, his life, his family, the animals. I was moved by his candor and insight. Here was someone who clearly had had a tough life yet he lived as a wealthy man, if you can get my drift. To this day, whenever I find myself feeling a bit out of sorts or overwhelmed at work, I think of him, and I am re-inspired. Anyone who is lucky enough to have him as a guide will be blessed. Not only did he know where and what, but he turned out to be one of Kenya’s top bird experts. I “became” a bird nut. It mattered not that I didn’t have a long enough lens to photograph them. It mattered not that my neck was totally frozen from looking upward. I was glad to have brought my own binoculars and relished every flutter of wings that I saw. Here there were Grevys Zebras in great number (unlike at Meru), and I fell in love with them. For 3 days we were in search of predators, but had no luck. We traveled over everything, on road, off road and sometimes I wondered how and if we would make it! We found road kill, foot prints, and that was all. The predators eluded us completely though others had sightings of a
Leopard and Cheetah. However, the game was varied and plentiful. Phillip even spotted a baby tortoise the size of a quarter on the red, dusty roadway. Can you imagine seeing something that small with a color practically the same as the dusty road? He missed nothing! Topping off these incredible 3 days, was a visit to the local Masai Village where I was treated like a queen. We danced, sang, and visited. I was so moved by the pride, generosity, creativity, kindness, and joy of these people. They have so little and give so much. They bestowed me with gifts. I didn’t know what to say or do so I took photo after photo of them so I could send them back to them upon my return. When I tried to give the Chief some money for his village (in addition to the little gifts I had brought for the children (pencils, candy, a soccer ball and stickers), he refused my offering. When it was time for me, my cameras and Phillip to leave, we all had tears in our eyes! I felt truly blessed to have been able to experience being in such a gorgeous place, where I shared such great food, had such an amazing guide and shared time with such wonderful people. How could it get any better I wondered? And yet it did….
Stop 4... Off to Lewa Downs Wilderness Trails by Tropical Charter again
What away to go! (This small plane flying is catchy! I loved it!) To have the additional time on the ground that it allows was such a treat for me! From the moment I hit the Lewa Reserve I knew I was in a very special place and something very different from where I’d been. First of all I saw other vehicles. (Imagine that!! I had not experience seeing anyone else for days when I was out and about!) And then the evidence of organization, fences etc. The Craig Family has 65,000 acres, and their land embodies a lot of activity (organic gardens, gaming, lodges, Rhino Conservancy etc.).and contains a lot of game! My accommodations at Wilderness Trails were simply grand though albeit a tad rustic. I shared one side of a cottage with a sitting room/veranda in between 2 bedroom suites. My suite was huge and again fresh roses everywhere! At any time of the day or night I could wander forth and have something to drink in the comfort of my own sitting room. I could also curl up with my Epson by gas lamp light and tend to all the demands of downloading etc... How great is this? The Craig family live onsite in a beautiful English country manor home where every afternoon, pre game drive teas took place. All meals were held in the main dining lodge, out of doors, with open family style seating. For me, a solo traveler, this was great. I got to mingle, and I found the family presence at meal time a contribution to the warm intimacy of W.T. and the other 14 or so guests. And what food! Lunch buffets were my favorites. Even the cheeses were made by Will’s Mother! For me, the vegetarian, heaven had come my way! Everything was organic and was either raised or grown on Lewa Downs. I visited the grand 5 acre organic gardens. Wow! I have never seen avocados grown so large and papayas so big. There were 6 different kinds of bananas! I really was in heaven!! Game drives took place3 times a day with Peter as my guide! Again, I found my self in my own vehicle! Can you believe it? Here I was in the high season being given such a treat! (By the way one might wonder, if, as a solo traveler I ever felt unsafe or lonely. Simply...No! People were so kind and giving; the guides so great. There was no time to feel lonely. When I did find myself alone at night, I was too busy and/or too tired! (I still can’t understand how simply standing up in a L.R. all day could be so tiring??) Though my safari was not inexpensive I am very glad that I splurged and choose to stay in smaller, private places where the level of care was so intimate and assured.) At Lewa I met my first predators. Yes, in the waning light of my first late afternoon game drive Peter spotted a Leopard and her cub, thanks to the alert cries of a band of Monkeys and the Royal Crown Cranes flying behavior. Wow! I watched her until dark! Lewa Downs grounds are vast and varied. Here was a ton of new firsts: Black Rhino, Cheetahs, Lions, Gerenuks, Klipspringer, Hyenas, Jackals, Mating Ostriches, etc. Peter, my guide, loves the Cheetahs so we spent tons of time following the big three boys. (3 males who dominate the Lewa Reserve). I witnessed hunts and kills, a Cheetah being run off from her prey and another being stalked by Hyenas, the missed opportunity of a meal when a baby Zebra escaped the chase of a Cheetah, petted a Rhino at the White Rhino Conservancy, rode a Camel amidst Giraffe etc. At night the roar of lions could be heard and rumor had it that the leopards were about. However, again, the predators eluded me for the most part, but I was thrilled for all I had seen. Had my safari ended here I would have been in heaven, but off I flew to my next stop, Ol Malo.
Stop # 4 Ol Malo.
I was here for only 3 nights. What a beautiful place and what gracious hosts. The Francombes and their son Andrew could not have been nicer. The place is very intimate with cottages tucked into the hills. Meals were yummy and served family style. One was doubly blessed by great food and great conversation colored by tales of Kenya. From every where were views of the vast Francombe Reserve. Here the gaming was less abundant, but all else was superb. The Francombe’s support a Workshop Project for the Samburu Children and Women at Ol Malo. Each week 700 children and women come through the school and work place. They walk up to 10 miles for the opportunity to receive a meal, take some food back to their families and “earn” their way by water color painting (the children) and beading ( the women). My visit to the workshop was one of the high lights of my stay at Ol Malo. The day I was there, 60 children sat around patiently waiting for lunch and to watch a video. I was moved by their polite behavior and could not help but be touched by their joy. Normally they would “work,” doing water colors but not this day. The art workshop had run out of water color paper! (Money is raised through donations to the Ol Malo Workshop Foundation and through the sale of the children’s art.) Sometimes supplies are stolen. This day they were non existent due to a lack of funds. For me this was too much. I have now begun a project to raise money for this worth while cause. I resolved to make sure that the $5000 needed annually to just keep the water color paper in supply be a done deal. Outside the workshop the elder women tended to the babies; inside the mothers beaded items which would eventually be sold with all of
the proceeds going back to the community and/or towards supplies for the workshop. Julia Francombe’s, the daughter, effort here is selfless. My photos are some of the best of my trip as the pride, power and joy of the mothers and children leap from the shots. I felt privileged to make this visit. I also visited the Samburu Village on the Ol Malo Reserve and did so at a very interesting time. It seems that war had been declared, (another tribe had made a way with over 2000 head of cattle) and most of the warriors had been called away from the village to fight. Yes, a real war was being waged! A very few were left to defend the village. My visit was much more intimate than my visit to the Masai Village at Loisaba. The remaining warriors and young maidens danced in celebration of my visit. The chief’s first wife (one of 5) invited me into their hut showed me their worldly possessions, how the blood was prepared (Samburu, like Masai, eat a predominantly milk and blood diet), and explained the “fire”. (I now understand why so many have eye problems. The hut is small with only a tiny window so smoke is always in the air.) I was impressed by the order and overwhelmed to think that as many as 10-14 people might live in a place smaller than many large bathrooms. And yet the pride of the woman was so apparent. I, again, was so moved. Africa, yes, is about the wildlife but the people are also her treasures. At Ol Malo I spent no time in a Land Rover. I rode horses amidst the Giraffes and Zebras and went on some incredible hikes accompanied by guides along the river where we saw a Leopard’s tracks...only. Here I also had the opportunity of seeing the new lodge at Ol Malo, designed to accommodate 12-16 people with their own chef, pool etc. What a way to go, and what a place to stay, if one comes with a large group. Ol Malo proved to be a nice respite given how hectic had been the days before and the days to come. (By the way, the infinity pool at Ol Malo is other worldly.) Leaving Ol Malo was like leaving ones family. In a few short days I had become attached to everyone, including the dogs. I just can’t say enough about how gracious, warm and fun the Francombe family is as hosts. I shall return 2007.
Stop 5: The Masai Mara:
Oh my goodness! I knew instantly I was in for thrills galore cause from the windows of my small charter I saw herds of Elephants, Giraffes, Zebras, Wild beast! In fact, when we went to land we had to circle several times as there were elephants on the runway!!! My visit took me to Lil Governor’s Camp where I had to cross a river in a little boat to get to the camp. What a site! Here nestled next to a big swamp area were 16 tents, the main dining lodge etc. This was my first “tented” experience. I loved it. At night Hippos and Elephants walked the grounds. By day, the local Wart Hogs milled about. Each day found me out on safari by 6am returning for lunch and then out again by 4o till 7pm. This made more sense than coming back for breakfast as the morning/mid day activity was superb for game viewing. Stanley was my guide, and he really knew where to be to see the action. I shared a LR with a lovely couple from Tanzania who had been on safari dozens of times yet were patient with my 1st timer love of everything! My trip occurred during the Great Migration. Zebra
and Wildebeest were everywhere along with the dangerous Nile Crocodiles! I witnessed several massive crossings as well as the unfortunate death of several Wildebeest into the jaws of the lurking Crocs. Daily we drove through herds. Sometimes their backs would be all that I could see. There were 1000’s. Early mornings were the best, however, for in the dawn of early light the Lions seemed to be the most active. Often they’d be found enjoying a recent kill or in the midst of a great hunt. It was fascinating to watch the prides hunt as a team. When they actually walked along side the Land Rover without so much as a glance at us, I got real clear on what the word “focus” is all about. Wow! What intensity! The patience, cunning and strategic movement! At first, I felt sad to witness a kill, but I soon adjusted to the ways of the land, and I certainly had my respect for the words “survival of the fittest.” Often times Stanley would have us first at action. He just seemed to know where and when to go. Unlike the other places I had been, it was weird to suddenly see other vehicles show up. Sometimes there would be 10-15 vehicles at a sighting. Though I would have much preferred to have more privacy, the abundance of vehicles seemed not to bother the game at all. Lions, Cheetahs, Hyenas, Jackals, Impalas, Gazelles, Hippos, Baboons, Rhino, Zebras, Topes, Cape Buffalo, Elephants, Masai Giraffe’s, Gazelles, Wildebeests, Hippos, Ostriches, etc were just some of the game. Most exciting was seeing again the Cheetah hunt. For the first time, I saw Hippos on land, running through the plains. My goodness they are fast and big. I sure would not want to get in their way! Lunches at Lil Gov’s were GREAT! I was assigned to a table right by the edge of the swamp.
So I had a terrific view of all of the comings and goings. While enjoying a delicious buffet lunch, I could see the arrival of Elephant herds playing in the swampy waters. Daily there would be a procession of Zebra, Elephants, Elands etc. Sometimes you would wonder just how close they would come, but always the grounds keepers kept a watchful eye. Only once were we asked to take refuge in our tent. Dinners were served again out of doors usually around a large camp fire at pre assigned tables. (This was a bit of a discomfort for me as a solo traveler. I would have preferred to be apart of a more open seating arrangement for dinner as there was a little time to interact with the other guests during the days. Balloon rides were offered, but I choose to stay on ground. I just loved being out and about riding around the Mara amidst the game. I loved Lil Governor’s, the tents, the location, my guide and will definitely return 2007. Truly, the Migration is something to see but then so is the Mara.
Last stop: Back to Nairobi/ Giraffe’s Manor Day Room/Sheldricks.
The whirl/wind activity was far from over! I flew out of the Mara on a scheduled flight, arriving NBO around 2pm where I was met by the driver from Giraffe Manor. I couldn’t wait to get to the Manor (an old) School chum of mine’s best friend’s mother bought the place with her boyfriend many years ago! At the time we, being very young and very arrogant laughed at her idea of going to Africa and rescuing Rothschild Giraffes, after all she was a very proper, conservative lady. We could no more imagine her lasting in Nairobi, but boy, did she prove us wrong! She not only lasted but thrived! What a thrill! I got to visit with the friends of my
friend, who now run Giraffe Manor. I fed pellets to the Giraffes and experienced my first “tongue” Wow! Their tongues really are tough, long and leathery! As if that wasn’t enough, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the Kazuri shop (which has wonderful ceramic pieces and jewelry, all handcrafted and made by the local, single mothers) and finally buy some things to take home. What great buys are to be had there! Then it was off to Sheldricks in time to visit my adopted, orphaned Elephants as they came in for bottles and bed at 5:15 pm. What a treat!! What a great organization Sheldrick’s is! (If one is unfamiliar with it, I invite you to check it out. To think that, a donation of $50 can care for an Elephant for a year.) The keepers there spend 24/7 with their little ones and have so little. Yet they are so grateful and so clearly love their charges... They loved the T-shirts and caps I brought them, and certainly I wished I could have done more. Nest year I will see how it is one can make a donation of money for THEM! (Again thank you Fodorites for the tips on what to bring!) So with milk all over my sleeves from my greedy girl Makena, off I dashed to Giraffe Manor for a good bye to Kenya dinner. I certainly didn’t make much use of my Day Room there, but it was certainly well worth it to have visited with my old friend’s friends and visit the Giraffes. At 8 pm I headed off to NBO to catch my British Airways flight back to reality, sad but happy. I had been to Africa finally and was more than ready to plan 2007 & 2008’ trips. After all, the Gorillas await me!
Things I learned:
1.Less is more. Pack even less than is suggested. Many places provided basic amenities (shampoo, soap, clothes line, bud spray, body lotion etc.)
2.Pack lots of sun block and moisturizing lotions.
3.Familiarize yourself with camera gear and learn how to clean camera equipment of dust etc. before you go.
4.Zip lock bags are a photographer and a girl’s best friend!
5.Having 2 cameras bodies to avoid lens changing, made life in the dust livable.
6.Night drives can be more than chilly due to wind of open vehicle. Having a jacket that repelled dust was helpful.
7.Having an extra duffle to re-pack into NBO made bringing treats home easier.
8.One of my best investments for the trip was in good sun glasses that kept the dust and sun out!
9.Didn’t need a water bottle. There was water in the vehicles.
10.Cotton clothing fared better than nylon types in laundry services.
11.Did not need hiking shoes. Best shoes were waterproof Keene sandals & sneakers.
12.Fingerless gloves came in handy for the chilly am’s, pm’s and using cameras.
13.Used my “headlamp” as flash light and to read etc. in room when gas light was insufficient.
14.Best things I brought for the trip (in addition to camera gear):
A.Head lamp with Halogen bulb
B.“Rocco” Vest (LA Police Gear)
C.Keene waterproof sandals
15.Think smooth & tight. The smoother and tighter the weave in clothing fabric the less dust clung and got through
16.Those travel bags that let you compress clothing really are wonderful.
17.Having a candle in room was a nice touch.
18.Emergen C’s doubled as vitamins and a refreshing drink.
19.People appreciated any and all gestures of kindness and generosity from the little pens of clothing to money.
20.People loved seeing photos from my home, work etc. (next year I’ll revisit: Lewa Downs, Lil Gov’s, Sheldrick’s) and take photos for the folks of 2006 visit
21.I would have like to have had a good digital voice recorder as I found myself too tired too write in a journal but would have talked about my day if I could have.
22.Could have used a small point & shoot camera in addition to 10D & 30D as there were times when it would have been more appropriate
23.Next year I will have learned to use the video feature and/or have a decent video camera. The behavior of animals fascinates me.
24.Animals don’t care if you look good.
25.A friendly smile goes a long way wherever you are.
there you have it. Hope I didn't bore all of you seasoned travellers to tears. I am gratefrul for everyones help. 2007 I amoff to Rwanda and back to Kenya. 2008 well, I am wanting to go to Botswana and? any ideas!
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2006Trip Report – Kenya