A Tale of Two Safaris: Rwanda and Kenya

Sep 22nd, 2018, 11:32 AM
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A Tale of Two Safaris: Rwanda and Kenya

It's been a while since I've done a trip report on Fodors and I've not seen one here for Rwanda in eons. I'm also waxing nostalgic for safari, so while I kill time until the next one, I've been going through photos. Thought it may prove helpful to some here at some point. Here goes...

I met my friend Kim on an organized tour to China to work at a panda breeding facility in 2011. We hit it off swimmingly and along with two other women from that same trip, we did a private safari to Tanzania in 2013 (a first for all of us). Kim makes it a practice to never repeat an itinerary, so she said she'd pass on future safaris "unless you find something different to do". When I proposed gorilla trekking in Rwanda, she was all in. So we booked mid-2016 for February 2017. By that time, I'd already been to Kenya's Maasai Mara twice and was dying to go back. I explained to Kim how different the Mara is from the north circuit of TZ that we did and it didn't take much convincing to get her to go. In the end, she declared it "the best trip ever".

I booked the Rwanda portion of the itinerary with Treks2Rwanda, the sister company of Access2Tanzania which we did our TZ safari with. The booking process and planning went as smooth as I expected. Karen kept within our budget and assigned us a guide, Tim, who was well-suited to our type A, borderline OCD personalities. It's very hard for both of us to turn an itinerary and execution of a trip over to someone else, but we knew pretty quickly Tim would work out well. And he did!

We both flew from our home cities (Boston and L.A.) and met up in Amsterdam's Schipol airport for the flight to Kigali, Rwanda. We landed late evening and headed straight to our hotel. This is, as you'd expect, very much a blur after 20+ hours of travel. I recall that we were both chastised for getting our visa in advance when it could just be purchased on arrival. It seemed they had no lines open to deal with pre-purchased, so one agent begrudgingly took our documents and sent us on our way. We both slept well at our hotel, the Lemigo Hotel. It's a standard business class hotel. The beds were comfortable and the hallway quiet, which is all we really cared about.

We spent our first full day touring Kigali. Kigali, as with all of Rwanda, has banned plastic bags. It also had mandatory neighborhood clean-up one Saturday a month and car-free days one Sunday a month. The result of this, I believe, is the cleanest major city I've ever been in. The sidewalks and streets were immaculate. And I saw far more people picking up things they'd dropped than I'd seen anywhere. It's a lesson for the rest of us, I'm certain.

Most of what we saw in Kigali had to do with the genocide in 1994. Our first stop was the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. I knew this would be part of the itinerary and I had studied up before I came so that I wouldn't be a total ignoramus. I don't consider myself easily rocked, but one point here really got to me. I knew there was a genocide here in 1994 between opposing tribes (Hutu and Tutsi) but I didn't know that it had been brewing since the 50s and that there'd been a "first" genocide in the 60s. In between genocides, friction between the tribes just grew. Tutsi were required to register as such with the government, and jobs were limited to a certain number for them, based on their representation in society (sound familiar?). In 1994, an order to kill Tutsis came from the top (day after the president was killed in a plane crash) and Hutus took it seriously, killing any Tutsi they could find. Neighbors were turning in neighbors, friends were turning in friend. Worse still, they were killing them too. It was incomprehensible.

So I stomached the personal commentaries, the graphic photos, the tools of the trade (machete was the weapon of choice). I saw photos of the mass graves and the decomposing bodies. But nothing, absolutely nothing, got to me like the Children's Room. Here, they honored about 15 children who were victims of the genocide. They listed their names, favorite food, favorite play thing, who was their best friend and how they died. Most were by machete or by hand grenade. But one little girl, one beautiful little girl with the biggest, brightest smile, loved her chocolate sweets and playing with her big sister. She died by being "slammed against a wall." Slammed against a wall. Are you kidding me? Who does that? I honestly don't think I'll ever be able to wipe her face out of my head. Or how horribly she died. Or what level of coercion, or bad judgment or mental incapacity someone had to have to do that to her. All over being a different ethnicity, having a bigger nose or a narrower face. Sick.

After that we visited the mass graves in the garden. All of these are unknown bodies. 2 million people died in the three month genocide, and not all were found and/or identified. The bodies that were recovered were buried in mass graves here. There are a few cement slabs that could be just about anything under them, but as Tim said, to convince the non-believers, they left one open with a glass covering, so that you can see coffins and flags with crosses on them over them. Yes, that's a mass grave. Apparently as with other genocides, there are a fair number of non-believers here.

We passed by Hotel des Milles Collines which was the location where Paul Rusesabagina harbored many Tutsis who were looking for protection as the genocide happened. I was struck by how big the hotel was. I'd watched the movie (Hotel Rwanda) recently and remembered it being smaller there, but this was good sized, yet still not big enough to harbor 1268 who would have otherwise been killed. There is a pretty fountain outside the hotel that honors the 10 hotel employees who were killed in the genocide.

Our last stop before lunch was the Belgian Genocide Memorial, which remembers the 12 Belgians who died in the genocide. Ten were Belgian soldiers protecting the First Lady of Rwanda as the genocide began. 12 were aid workers who were there. All of this is unbelievable, more so when I consider it was just over 20 years ago. I'm dumbstruck.

Tim told us that many people served time for their role in the genocide and some got early release if they admitted their wrong doing. He said that two things came out of the early release: first, the wrong-doers had trouble reintegrating into the society where they had killed (no, really?!?) and second, a LOT of killers ended up marrying victims' family members. That is just incredulous. Throughout the memorials we saw and through Tim, I've learned that this country has a very high capacity for forgiveness and moving on, whether it's so they themselves can survive and carry on with life, or for the betterment of the country. It's admirable, but makes me wonder if I'm capable of the same. Some of these people lost their entire family at a very young age. How do they not harbor intense distrust and bitterness? While a difficult thing to swallow on "vacation" I really felt that it was integral to our understanding of the people and culture of Rwanda.

We ate a quick lunch and then started the 2 1/2 hour journey to Volcanoes National Park, where we had three days of trekking ahead of us. It was mostly rolling hills and mostly uphill on the way there. But beautiful land!

Our time here would be spent between Da Vinci Lodge and Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, since MGVL seemed to have overbooked and bumped us to Da Vinci for the first night. In the end, we far preferred Da Vinci because it was smaller and had better service. MGVL is really big and impersonal, although the buffet meals were something to behold.

Next up, golden monkey trekking!
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Sep 22nd, 2018, 11:55 AM
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Golden Monkey Day

Tim came for us at 6:30 and off we went to the rangers' station to get our assignment for the day. When we arrived, there was a local music and dance troop performing for all the folks who would be trekking today. They entertained us while the guides got everyone registered and assigned.

There was no doubt that we'd get a license to hike as Karen booked those for us back last summer. But just a warning to those who think you can just show up...our group of 25 was full, and there wasn't a second hike that day.

There wasn't much question as to what we'd be assigned to, as there is only one group going out to golden monkeys. Golden monkeys are endemic to this area (which means we can only see them here) so it's truly a once in a lifetime thing (unless I'm foolish enough to do this again!). There are 125 members in this troop of monkeys. The trackers had found where they were and we were headed off. The group of trekkers formed a caravan and drove about 20 minutes to the start of a trailhead.

So off we went, with me carrying my own backpack (which wasn't very heavy anyway) and with my borrowed walking stick (the rangers have them to loan you). It started out flat enough in wide open fields. In fact, it stayed pretty flat most of the time. What got difficult were the pockets of mud, uneven ground, waist high grass, pricker bushes and bamboo stands that had to be navigated. I trained for this for four months. I ran hills, did the step mill, worked on lower body strength and core balance work. I think it all served me well today, but what I couldn't train for was altitude and such uneven, unstable ground. I was a bit frustrated by the hassle of it all, but stuck with it. I'm not an outdoorsy type but I wanted to see what is at the end of this trek.

On the way to the bamboo forest:


But soon enough the ranger told us to stop and drop our things. We left backpacks and walking sticks with our porters and followed the trackers into thicker bamboo.



There overhead were a bunch of monkeys, lots of them, hard to follow, harder still to photography in the dark, backlit canopy of bamboo overhead. Five minutes in and I was a bit discouraged with the photography. We were still navigating up and over very uneven, muddy, moss covered terrain. There was always the risk of stumbling, stepping in a hole or sliding off rocks. A photographer from Zimbabwe was finding it hard to take photos too, so he told me to follow him and he angled us right under a good looking big male right overhead, the sun behind us. It was at this point, finally after about 10 minutes, I found my groove. I was able to plant myself in a spot, focus on a monkey or two and just shoot some photos.











The monkeys didn't give any thought to us whatsoever. It was really as if we weren't there at all. To be able to just sit or kneel or walk amongst them as they played and wrestled and ate was pretty cool. The monkeys came down from the trees soon enough and were playing and eating on the ground right in front of us. At one point, two were wrestling right in front of me.

It was really no different than watching the cats at home, who can ignore me equally well as they go about their business. I couldn't count how many were around, above and near us, but I'd say I saw maybe 50 or so on this trek. There may have been many more I couldn't see through the canopy or thick bamboo around us. It was pretty crazy.






Finally the ranger said our time was about up. We are only allotted an hour and it went by so fast. He let us take a few more photos and we turned around and went back the way we came. It seemed shorter heading back, but I think it was all mental. In any event, it was a nice warmup for the next two days. On to the gorillas!
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Sep 22nd, 2018, 12:14 PM
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Loving this, amyb! Looking forward to more.
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Sep 22nd, 2018, 12:15 PM
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Gorilla trekking day 1

We drove out to the same rangers' station again today and Tim went off to do our bidding for a group. I was a bit nervous after yesterday's muddy but flat trek, because I told him we could definitely not do an advanced hike and maybe not even a sort-of-advanced hike. I don't think he picked up the message, because he ended up getting us an intermediate hike. We were trekking to the Amahoro family. We had wifi at the rangers' station so I quickly looked up this group to see what the scoop is. They are a family of 17, with two silverbacks. The gorilla research website said that "getting to this group is a hassle, but most travelers are rewarded by a fulfilling encounter." Hmmmm. While it seemed promising, I had in my mind that it'd be some work to get there. I wasn't wrong.

I purposefully went into the day with a better attitude, that all this mud is a means to an end. That seemed to help me muddle through. Well, that and my porter Appollonaire. We met the porters about 20 minutes from the rangers' station at the start of the trailhead (Gisha Trail) where we hired as many as we thought we'd need. There were 8 travelers in our group, plus our guide. Kim and I were the only ones who hired porters. I'd read that even if you don't think you'll need a porter, hire a porter. Many of them are former poachers (killing gorillas and selling the body or body parts for money) and this is a safe, legal way for them to make a living that results in a better future for the gorillas. So that's how Appollonaire and I got acquainted. He spoke no English, I spoke nothing he could understand, but somehow he managed to get my butt up and down the volcano and thanks to him, I'm alive to tell about it.

So off we went. It was about a 10 minute walk through flat farmland to the famed cobbled wall surrounding the national park and the start of the trail up. It seemed to go well enough for a bit and then we hit the muddy bits. And when I say muddy, I mean, step quick or my shoe will get stuck. Or I'd keep hearing that sucking noise I'd expect to hear just before I'm vacuumed down into quicksand. It was tiring to trudge through this. I'd trained on clear cement pavement, even treadmill and level steps, this was nothing like any of that. And that's where Appollonaire came in. He'd pull me up steps, be there to help me step down, navigate me around the worst of the muck and yank me up by the arm when I'd start to go down. I only officially fell once, and not into mud, but without him I'd have spent a good part of the day on my ass.

Our guide would stop every 15-20 minutes to let the group catch its breath and have some water. We hiked for about 90 minutes before we caught up with the trackers. The trackers are yet another part of this team. They stay with the gorilla families until they start to build nests for the night. They remember the location and return there early the next morning to see if the family is still nearby. If it is, they radio that location to our guide and we head in that direction. If the family has moved, the trackers need to find the family before we get too far into the hike, or we end up hiking after them. Even a half hour before we ultimately got there, our guide still didn't know where our family was. That made my stomach sink because I'd heard of cases where the trekkers are chasing the families all day. Our guide told us that one day the week before he was out until after 5 p.m. on a trek because the family kept moving. Gulp.

Early on we stopped and I decided to take a drink and put my jacket in the backpack (on Appollonaire's back). I was now at the back of the line of hikers and Kim was just ahead. I heard the guide saying something up towards the front but I wasn't really paying attention. Kim told me to look up and there the guide is, holding a stick overhead with this massive floppy flesh colored work. It looked like a 12" floppy uncooked hotdog. I squealed like a girl and looked away. The guide said to the others "hurry and take a picture so she doesn't have to look." It was funny but gross and downright appalling if you ask me. Who needs worms that big??? And even less funny was the second one I almost stepped on on the trail right after that. Gross.

At a later stop, the guide said "we are close now, we know where they are." I asked how close. He pointed downhill and said "see that bush? Behind there." We were surrounded by bushes and shrubs and small trees. Sometimes it's better not to know.

Finally we reached the trackers. We left everything with our porters about 25 yards away from where the gorillas were. We went with a couple of trackers and our guide deeper into the undergrowth. If you'd told me I'd be weaving and dodging through god only knows what kind of foliage this is, I'd have told you you're crazy. This isn't me. I'm not outdoorsy and I don't enjoy being THIS close to nature.

Our guide reminded us of the rules. He will tell us when and where to move. We're not to touch or reach out to the gorillas. If approached by a baby or juvenile, we're to step aside. If the silverback approaches lean away and look down. Keep together in a straight line as a group. Seemed simple enough. You'd think.

We were stepping over foliage that had been trodden down or cut down by machete by the trackers. Earlier that day, all of that was still standing. I had no idea what to expect. In my head I'd hoped for a nice little clearing with the gorillas all gathered around in a nice family portrait-like setting but of course it's not that easy. This is how they live, in and amongst thick brush. I was anxiously scanning the bushes until I finally saw the face of a silverback. It was a face and shoulders, but enough to tell me I'm here, I'm among them, I'm in there world. Finally.

The first gorilla sighting, not 10 feet from me.




And then that moment that I've had before crept back in. As we got closer (and it was a hell of a lot closer than 7 meters or 21 feet) the silverback acted out. He hollered some and rose to his full height. The tracker and the guide both made guttural noises like we clear our throats and he settled back down. But we don't belong here. We've cut this path up the hill to them, we've flattened the foliage around them for better views and better photos. And this guy is making it known he's uncomfortable. The guides settled him down, but still.

That's not to say that I would trade the next hour for anything in the world. It was incredible. We kept working our way around the larger bushes and followed the silverback, a blackback, a juvenile female and a couple of babies around. And we were so damn close. It was just so intense to see their eyes, their hands and their expressions and realize there's no cage there, no glass there, nothing at all between us. It was incredible. I am a very fortunate person to have the privilege to be this close to such amazing creatures.

Some of the 462 photos I took on this one trek:





Look at the fingernails and cuticles on this guy, hard to deny that we're related!





This one had just been picking her nose...













This is Kim following the silverback





Finally the guide said our hour was up and we needed to head back down. I started to hear thunder in the distance and was somewhat anxious that we'd end up in the deluge that we saw yesterday. But we were blessed by the weather gods, and made it down the same steep, muddy climb that we came up. It was just over four hours all told and it did sort of go by in snap.

The guide asked if any of us would be back tomorrow and when Kim and I said we would, he promised us a very easy group tomorrow after what we went through today. We both hoped he'd stick to that promise!
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Sep 22nd, 2018, 12:23 PM
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Wow, this is great. Something impossible to forget.
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Sep 22nd, 2018, 12:39 PM
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Gorilla trek #2

At one point during our first trek, one of the other guests showed me her GPS on her phone and it seemed that we had somehow wandered into the Congo! As Volcanoes National Park is on the border of Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo, it's always a possibility that the gorillas can wander between the countries, but a little less likely that we would.

Surprisingly, the roads around the Volcanoes National Park are enviously smooth and well paved. This is a result of the tourism that the gorillas bring and the exorbitant cost of the licenses to trek there (it was $750 per trek when I was there; it was raised to $1500 a few months later) . It's also good to see how much employment the gorilla business brings to the region too, better to keep poachers out of the mountains.

Morning came quickly. We headed out to the rangers' station yet again. We met Callixte, our guide from the last two days and he and Tim went off to negotiate our assignment for today. We stood and watched the tribal performers again and waited for the news of our assignment. Finally Tim and Callixte came back and, true to his word, Callixte said that we were assigned to the Sabinyo group, which is among the easiest to trek to. Phew! So off we went for our briefing with our new guide, Fidele. He explained that the family is 16 strong, with two silverbacks, one of whom is the oldest gorilla in the region, at 46 years old. There are also two young babies in this group.

During the briefing, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Jack Hanna! He was here with his zoo's tour group and he was in a briefing with them. But no time for dallying, or so I thought. We used the toilet quickly and were heading off with Tim and Cyrus to the start of the trailhead when I mentioned that Jack Hanna was here. Tim showed me a photo on his phone, he'd just met Jack Hanna! I acted jealous, and he offered to introduce me. So off we went. Tim thought nothing of just making it happen for us.

Jack was gracious and kind and I was actually coherent rather than the speechless starstruck fan girl I tend to be in situations like this. I explained that I watch his show every Saturday morning on the treadmill at the gym and that I appreciate his work. He asked how Kim and I met and found it curious that we met in China working with pandas. He told us how much we would love Rwanda, as he does, and that he's seen so much positive change since he was first here before the genocide. Tim took our picture and that was how my day started. Very cool!




To clarify, the "easy" hike wasn't necessarily much shorter but it was flatter and less muddy. I'd say we reached the gorillas in just over an hour but there were some harrowing spots. Today I hired Innocent as my porter and he was pretty good. I think he knew when my spirit started to flag a bit because he'd squeeze my hand or give me a thumbs up and a smile to keep me going.

The terrain today was quite different from yesterday. After we crossed the buffalo wall (a cobbled wall meant to keep animals from wandering out of the park into the village) it became a bamboo forest, with large tall stands of bamboo that were in spots quite thick and dense.

I learned a lot from Innocent. He showed us white daisy-like flowers that are dried and ground down to make Permethrin, the insect repellant. He explained that a vast open space we were passing through was a dried up lake. The large round gourds we saw on the ground were elephant squash. It was all pretty interesting.

Finally we came across the trackers. They'd been out for 3 hours, starting from where this family had gone to sleep last night and followed them to where we caught up with them. It was dark and very damp. It was tightly packed bamboo. Curiously the middle of this area had a huge structure that I suspect was just naturally built, but it looked like a big-top jungle gym type contraption. We'd heard bamboo snapping all over the place, whether from us walking on it or the gorillas climbing on it. So it wasn't the sturdiest thing going, but our first sighting was of a mother and baby up on the top of part of it, just hanging out eating the leaves off it.

Not the best, shot, but given the light and the angle, it was the best I could do for the smallest gorilla we'd see:



As we dodged and weaved through the bamboo and wet leaves, we were jockeying for position for photos and struggling with some pretty low light. While I'd hoped for an overcast day for good light, I really wasn't prepared for it being so dark, so I put it in Program mode for the most part and hoped for the best, adjusting the white balance as I needed to.

Today the family was much more active, especially the young babies who were climbing and moving non-stop. One little guy kept playing drums on one tree trunk, which was really cute.


At another point, a little one climbed up a bamboo tree and traversed across others right over our heads, coming down right in front of me and walking over to his father, the silverback. It was just incredible how fearless he was.


A couple of times we'd be moving from one gorilla to another, as they were spread out a little ways, and one gorilla would start moving right towards us, not in a threatening way but just to get to where it wanted to go. All we were asked to do was step out of its way and it would pass right by us.


At one point we were taking photos of the baby and Fidele shouted us to come over to him as two adults were mating. He was astounded that this was happening so I'm pretty psyched we got to see it. The story is that the male in this pair was "just" a blackback, and he was bald at that. He shouldn't have been mating with any of the females since he wasn't a silverback. So these two were doing it on the sly. The look on the female's face looked like she was formulating her grocery list, she certainly wasn't too into it. But as 6 pairs of eyes gathered around within a few yards, they both lost interest and she disappeared, as if doing a walk of shame. Not more than a few minutes later though, the silverback showed up, as if he he'd heard that something was going on he needed to see. He missed all the action though. Very cool to see this play out.

The breeding male, with male pattern baldness!




More from this trek:






















With this family we got to see a lot more activity like eating, grooming, nose picking, climbing and one gorilla was even cleaning a wound on its arm. It was a very active sighting.

One thing that was more obvious with this family than it was yesterday was the amount of gas they were passing, and quite liberally. No one was immune to it and it was really quite funny to witness. Fidele joked that that sound was "number 3, giving the warning that number 2 is coming."

Finally our time with the gorillas was up. We got a little bit extra I think because we were having such a good sighting. I am glad I followed advice and did two treks, because they were two entirely different experiences in terms of family interaction, terrain, lighting and activity. If I had a few more days here, I would have like to another but I really need a rest day after three consecutive days of trekking. But I was about to go sit in a safari vehicle for 6 days, so my reward was coming!

Our trek down was pretty harmless, although I think we both just wanted it over. Once we hit terra firma again and thanked and tipped our guide and porter, Cyrus and Tim returned us to the lodge with late checkout so that we could shower and clean up before lunch. We hit the road around 3 for Kigali and arrived back at the hotel around 6. We leave for the airport at 4:30 so it was an early night for us.
amyb is online now  
Sep 22nd, 2018, 12:48 PM
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Summing up Rwanda...

Gorilla trekking is definitely life changing. What a perspective it gives you on nature, evolution and just how small you are in the world (when compared to these creatures but also in the denseness of the rain forest).

A few tips:
-- HIRE A PORTER. I didn't get one on the golden monkey trek, and wish I did. Even if they do nothing but carry your camera bag, you're giving them work for a day and making even an easy trek easier.
-- Wear gloves, gaiters, rainpants, hiking shoes or trail sneakers, long socks and long sleeves. The stinging nettles are nasty but fire ants are worse. The mud is disgusting. Don't wear anything you care about, there's no guarantee the mud will come out after sitting for days/weeks until you get home to laundry. The lodges all have a boot/shoe cleaning service that take the shoes off you the minute you arrive back at the lodge. They return them to you about 5 hours later, immaculately clean and dry. It's one of life's greatest mysteries how they do that.

One thing I was unprepared for is that there's really nothing to do after the treks. You go back to the lodge, shower, change and dry out a bit, then there's nothing. So we ate. And drank. And ate and drank some more. I was lucky to have a few good books, a iPhone loaded with music and a couple card games to pass the time with Kim. MGVL had nice grounds but not nice enough to schlepp around in pouring rain or for more than a couple hours.

I've been asked if I'd do it again and if I'd do it in Rwanda again. The answer is an unqualified yes. Even with the increase in permit fees, I loved Rwanda and the people. I know I can see gorillas in Uganda, but I've also heard the treks aren't as good or are more difficult. This was perfect for me, and I'd want to support Rwanda again with my tourism.

Next up, back to Kenya's Maasai Mara.
amyb is online now  
Sep 22nd, 2018, 01:41 PM
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Thank you AmyB for sharing your fantastic detailed written and photographic description. Love the little tidbits, eg "Number 3"--hadn't heard that before!
I need a couple hours to savor this report as it deserves.
Coincidentally, there's an article in todays NYT about Akagera Park in Rwanda. https://tinyurl.com/yahwaaee
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 09:33 AM
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Thanks for the link, CaliNurse. I do wish I'd spent time in other parks in Rwanda, but trip planning in hindsight is always 20/20. I know a few folks who've recently been to Akagera and they enjoyed their experience, especially with so few other visitors. It should be noted that with the increase in gorilla trekking permit prices, there is a coinciding discount given for other National Parks. I just looked it up to confirm and it's 30% Discount (US$ 1,050) on gorilla permits if visiting other Rwanda national parks (Akagera national park, Nyungwe national park) for 3 days and more during the low season of November – May.

Apologies for the typos...I'm embarrassed that it seems that I don't know there/their, but I took much of the text from the diary I keep on the road, so it's very much in the moment so I don't forget details!

Next installment coming up!
amyb is online now  
Sep 23rd, 2018, 10:01 AM
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I've not been shy about my utterly all consuming love for the Maasai Mara. Ever since my first time there in 2014, I have an unshakable addiction to it. Each time I leave, I'm in tears as the Safarilink flight lifts off, stifling a sob, often causing the pilots to think I have a fear of flying. Each time I say "that's it for now, I have other destinations on the list". And each time, I'm finagling a way to get back before I'm even stateside again.

I'm also a staunch supporter of the conservancy concept in Kenya. Through shared ownership and cooperation, camp owners and local tribes benefit from joint land ownership, each making money from safari tourism while protecting lands for cattle to graze. It was no question that I'd be staying in a conservancy on my return. After a lot of talk with other safari goers, I narrowed the search to the Mara North Conservancy, which is adjacent to Olare Motorogi, a conservancy I loved on my first time in Kenya. A bit more research and I decided to book with Offbeat Mara. I saw that they had a pay for 6, stay for 5 special which included transfers in Nairobi as well as Safarilink round trip flights. We were in. I booked directly with them and ironed out the details.

We left our Kigali hotel at 4:30 for a 7 a.m. flight to Nairobi. The airport was open but not staffed when we arrived; we had to beg someone to check us in and take our bags. The RwandAir flight was barely 1/4 full. Nairobi was the first stop on the way to Entebbe, and Kim and I were the only ones getting off in Nairobi. We were told it was to arrive at 10:40, and our flight out of Wilson to the Mara was at 3:00 p.m. So many people told us that was a too tight connection, especially with the notoriously bad Nairobi traffic, and I had a good deal of anxiety about it. In reality, the flight landed at 9:15, we claimed our bags, went through immigration (where our Yellow Fever certificates were required, since we'd come from Rwanda) and were greeted by our transfer contact and at Wilson by 10:30! We now had 4 1/2 hours until we could even check in for the Safarilink flight! Who knew!? We sat at Java House and soaked up some iced coffee and free wifi, but I will say it was a struggle to stay awake at points, having been up since 3:30 am.

Never fear, adrenaline kicked in and once I started to see the familiar Mara landscape from the air, I was wide awake! We landed and were greeted by guide David and spotter Kappen, whose reputations preceded them, at least in my online safari universe. I was thrilled. It didn't take long at all for Kappen to conjure up the Offbeat pride, so named for its home territory around the Offbeat camp. I was thrilled...not minutes after arriving and already we have cats!

Rather than do a day by day from here, I'll just post highlights. I realize I had quite a few bloody kills which I'll refrain from posting as I know there are some sensitive eyes and stomachs around here. But the non-bloody shots are just as compelling...
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 10:09 AM
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We came across a hyena den pretty quickly. Hyena are one of the "ugly five" but their puppies are so darn cute!





Our first look at the Offbeat Pride:








This last little cub is named "Lucky" by the guides. Kappen told us that he was named Lucky, because he and his sister were born to a mother who was too old to produce milk. The sister cub died but Lucky was taken on by an auntie who had a set of cubs and would nurse him too. I decided there and then I need to take Lucky home with me! We came across this pride a couple times as we headed back towards camp and they were heading (it seems) towards a kill they had hidden somewhere. Excellent start to the safari.

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Sep 23rd, 2018, 10:14 AM
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One of my rules on safari is to never, ever miss the morning game drive. As hard as it can be to get up and out before dawn, I've never been disappointed. And the early morning "golden hour" light is well worth it. Our first morning in Mara North would be no different.














At one point, we came across giraffes play-fighting or "necking", which is interesting. They can kill each other if they really want to!
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 10:19 AM
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And finally, we meet the Offbeat Pride males, brothers Frank and Jesse. Since I was there, they've both been displaced by new, younger males. I know there have been sightings of Jesse since then in other parts of the Mara, and it seems he's a lone male now. No one seems to know what became of Frank. I'm anxious to get back to Offbeat later this year to see what's become of the pride, particularly Lucky. I've heard that one female took a bunch of cubs off to safety when the takeover happened (the incoming males would have wanted to kill all the existing cubs) and it's believed that Lucky was one who went with her.







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Sep 23rd, 2018, 10:21 AM
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Amyb, continuing on with delight! Really enjoying your reports and great photographs.

I once experienced looking into the defiant eyes of a silverback in a zoo (San Diego?) and, never a fan, have not been in a zoo since. I agree with your often stated ambivalence about following wild animals around, but of course agree that if it prevents them from dying at the hands of poachers it must be preferable.
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 10:23 AM
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Back in 2014 I came across a gorgeous cheetah and her cub in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy. The guides call her Amani. She successfully raised that cub to adulthood (she's now spotted with cubs of her own). When we were there she had two almost-adult female cubs who are now successfully independent. It was sort of neat to see her 3 years later with still more offspring. At this point, Amani hadn't made a successful hunt for 2 days. We would follow her for the coming days hoping not just to see her make a kill, but just to see her eat. Cheetahs get painfully thin quickly!









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Sep 23rd, 2018, 10:26 AM
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Kenyan skies can get awfully moody and change on a dime. It can be bright and sunny where you are, but storming violently across the landscape. These three photos were all taken around sunset one evening. It's a photographers dream. These are as they came out of the camera, no off-camera manipulation here.





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Sep 23rd, 2018, 10:28 AM
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Another early morning game drive saw us welcoming the sun and the Offbeat pride, who'd been coming in from a night out. Every night I had sleep interrupted by lions roaring near camp. It is one of the things that I love most about tented camps, that we're right there in the open and able to hear it all. David and Kappen had heard them too, and headed in the direction of where they were last heard to start our day.









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Sep 23rd, 2018, 10:40 AM
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One pretty funny encounter had us find a nomad male lion, who was pretty hungry and trying to dig a warthog out of a muddy hole! It didn't work, but was fun watching him for about 20 minutes before he gave up. There was a degree of desperation to this attempted hunt, since lions aren't fans of warthog, what with all the fur and the mainly fatty meat.












In this photo, you can see the warthog's body, the furry looking swath of skin running from upper right to mid-lower-left of this photo. He wasn't that deep in there!

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Sep 23rd, 2018, 10:46 AM
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@shouldbewriting, I agree. Although as zoos go, San Diego is among the best. They released a rhino born there back into a park in Tanzania just last week, and they're actively trying to increase rhino numbers with their insemination technique (I believe they are crossing the now near-extinct Northern White with their Southern White in an attempt to keep the Northern genes alive).

I've had a few occasions where I've thought we shouldn't be there at all. On our way to the hot air balloon ride in TZ, we nearly ran over a leopard, the driver was going so fast. I was horrified. It disturbs me to see folks getting out of vehicles and getting in the way, seeing trash all over the place (Kappen will stop no matter what and pick up any trash he sees) or other forms of human-wildlife conflict. Yet they do make a lot of money off us that goes to either preservation of the land or anti-poaching efforts. Double-edged sword?

Thanks for following along!
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 11:49 AM
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One afternoon we came across a lioness and her two young cubs on a topi kill. It was very recent as not much of the topi had been consumed yet and all three were still very much wearing their meals. This is about the only non-graphic photo I have of that sighting.

What was interesting though, was once the three had had their fill (the cubs moved off to lie belly up and sleep off the food coma), the lioness dragged the remains of the topi off under a bush for leftovers later. Then returned to the scene of the kill and "covered over" the blood and other remnants of the meal, much like my housecats do with their food bowls when they're done for now, but will return later. The comparisons are really quite fascinating if you know cats well at all.

The next day as we were driving along, Kappen stood on the seat to scan the horizon through the roof. I've come to learn that when Kappen does that, he's only sharpening his already eagle eyes. This man has eyes like I've never seen, he can spot things with his naked eye that most people need a telescope for. David stopped the car and they were scanning the horizon together. Far far across the river, Kappen saw a lioness "about 10 yards from zebras but they have spotted her." This was the Acacia pride lioness we had seen the day before that had taken down the topi on her own. David said she is an accomplished hunter and likely the dominant female in the Acacia pride. Kappen also spotted about 100 yards away, a lone lion cub, made to wait quietly and patiently under cover of a bush. I looked with binoculars and he was sitting there patiently watching his mom.

We made our way over to them and found that the second cub was with the lioness. He'd likely gone against his mother's orders and followed her as she stalked the zebra. He was now napping up against her. We pulled up behind them, so I could get the documentary shot of how close the lion got to the zebra. It really was extraordinary. David said that this same lioness once stalked a warthog on a totally open plain, keeping low and crawling, stopping every time the warthog stopped. That's some skill for a lion. It's pretty typical of cheetah, but not a lion.

I particularly like this first shot because it shows you how close she got to the zebra before they discovered her. It was likely that the second cub who didn't obey orders to stay put with the first spoiled the hunt.








We left the lioness to sleep off the failed attempt at the zebra. Once she and the cub started to snooze the zebra relaxed but still kept one eye on her.
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