A Tale of Two Safaris: Rwanda and Kenya

Sep 23rd, 2018, 11:55 AM
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One afternoon we wrapped up the game drive in time to be back to camp for an early dinner. We were going to head out for a night drive and see what we could find under the cover of darkness. I'll admit, I didn't have high hopes, something about finding something in pitch black just didn't seem to resonate with me, but I'll give anything a try.

On the way back to camp, we came across three lionesses and a bunch of cubs, just lying about.

It rained a bit around dinner time and there were some thunderstorms lingering about, but we still went out in the light rain. I had low expectations for this night drive, thinking maybe we'd see aardvark or aardwolf. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we'd see what we did.

The drives are done in the same safari vehicles as we use during the day, but the spotter uses a spotlight with a red filter on it, so that the light doesn't blind the animals and make them vulnerable to attack when they can't see. The drivers are also supposed to turn the headlights down when they're driving toward an animal.

Almost as soon as we left camp, Kappen spotted a single lioness who was walking with a mission, very focused and intent. Her walk turned into a run and we couldn't keep up on the muddy earth. By the time we got close enough to see what was going on, she'd already caught a Thomsons gazelle, which is really just a snack for a lion but better than nothing. The problem was her sister came barreling in, followed by the four cubs. This was the same set of lions we'd seen right before dinner, and now the sisters were fighting over the gazelle! There was a bit of a chase and a lot of growling and howling. The lioness who made the kill sat on it. Literally. She let the other lioness eat what was sticking out from under her, all the while she was making this very loud purring/growling sound I still can't explain (Was she mad? Happy to have food? Adoring the attention of her sister?). The greedy lioness ate with abandon, with the cubs sitting nearby watching. After about 10 minutes, one of the lionesses made a move and the gazelle was split in two, with the one who made the kill finally getting to sit away from the fray and eat what she caught. The cubs made an approach and the littlest ones ran to the greedy lioness who gladly shared her part of the gazelle since the cubs were her own. The two older cubs, the males, belonged to a mother who was out on a date with Frank and Jesse and just being looked after by these two lionesses, so they had to fight for what they got. One of those males got scraps and didn't seem interested in fighting for himself.

A bit grainy given the conditions, but the better of them are a bit too graphic to post.

It was all incredibly fascinating to see, as I've never seen lions in such a situation. And if the game ride ended there, I'd have been thrilled. But there was more.

We saw not one, but two African wild cats. I was struck by how much they looked like a housecat, and how unbothered they seemed to be by us. Documentary shot (proof I saw it, nothing more!)
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 11:59 AM
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On our second to last day there, the Amani saga (she of no food) continued. We'd seen the cheetah at least twice a day since we'd been there, and seen a couple of "almost" hunts but nothing ever materialized.

That morning, bush breakfast was on an overlook under an umbrella acacia. The spread was pretty much the same as every other morning including my favorite eggy bread. We got settled down and were about halfway through the meal when David heard a jackal barking behind us and said "Leopard". We quickly hopped in the Land Rover, leaving Kappen to watch over our food, and drove higher up so he could look down in the direction of the jackal bark. A few minutes passed and no leopard materialized. I think the plan was to go back and finish breakfast and then go drive slowly through the low brush to find the leopard. But that wasn't meant to be either.

David got a call on the radio that Amani and her cubs had been spotted and were looking to hunt. We quickly packed our breakfast stuff, chairs, tables, coolers, and took off. She wasn't that far, less than a 5 minute drive. By the time we got there though, the was just happening. She'd killed, and the three cheetah were eating, a Thomsons gazelle. The guide who spotted her said the gazelle had been old and slow and practically turned itself over to her rather than put up a chase. All three cats were really tearing into the carcass and I was so relieved she finally got a meal. She'd not eaten since we'd been here, which was evident from the three cats' painfully thin physique. This meal would go far towards remedying that situation. Within a very short timespan, maybe 20 minutes, there was next to nothing left of that Thomsons gazelle and the three cats sauntered their way to a large acacia tree to lie down in the shade. Satisfaction, for cat and aficionado.

Very full bellies!

But the show wasn't over yet. We went back to the carcass, where about 10 vultures had landed. They had been circling while the cats ate and waited their turn to move on to the gazelle. They made quick work of some of the meat, but then the third act started. The hyenas watch for the vultures overhead and make their way to where they land. About 6 hyenas quickly displaced the vultures, and the alpha female hyena took the head with horns and most of the spine and ribs and ran with it. This was her prize. Seeing the dead gazelle's head with those lifeless eyes running around the plain was sort of surreal. The other hyenas gave chase, one hyena was running with a leg as his reward. There was much hooting and hollering and scrambling but most of them ended up with bits of it. And there ended the life of that gazelle, a drama in three parts.
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 12:09 PM
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We'd just missed Amani's kill, but wouldn't miss the next one. One morning started off a bit slow and we started combing "cheetah country" to perhaps see something else. Cheetah are opportunistic hunters, so even if they're not hungry, if they have the opportunity, they will hunt. This became obvious with our next sighting.

We spent a lot of time driving through "cheetah country", expansive flat lands filled with lots of Thomsons gazelles, impala and Grant's gazelles which are the cheetahs main prey. We came up empty for a while. Then there was quite a lot of chatter on the radio between David and Kappen and another Offbeat guide. We ended up following them with a sense of urgency and pulled into another patch of "cheetah country" just as we saw a young cheetah dragging a baby Grant's gazelle into some shade. Quite literally, we had just missed the chase, but weren't too late to see the actual kill. The gazelle was struggling a bit, despite being dragged by a vice grip around the neck. Turns out this is one of Malaika's 2 1/2 year old cubs (Malaika being one of the super cheetahs in the Mara, who a friend of mine at work saw with this very cub on her safari 2 years ago). This cub is newly independent from Malaika and still an inexperienced hunter. So while she has the chase and catch part down, she's not very good at the kill part. By the clock on my camera, from first shot to last was over 30 minutes. This gazelle did not suffer well. It seems as if the cub thought it was dead and would drop it, and the gazelle would attempt to stand, or move, or bleat, and the cub would become agitated and pounce on it again and again, and try once more the stranglehold across the neck. We kept thinking it was finally dead, but then it would start breathing or trying to stand again. It wasn't easy to watch but as time wore on it became obvious the cub wasn't even hungry. She was just catching food for later. She laid down next to it and tried to recover from the exertion of the chase and catch, but she was nervous and jumpy. David thinks she was afraid hyena or other predators were going to come after her and the kill.

Sadder still was when we drove away there was one lone female adult Grant's gazelle standing up the hill watching the cheetah and the baby gazelle. David said that was the baby's mother, who likely saw the whole thing play out and was helpless to do anything. It must have been awful to hear the baby bleating and not be able to do anything about it.

So finally, on safari #4, I see my first kill.

Video of this cheetah with this kill...WATCH AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 12:18 PM
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A few random shots from other drives...

Kappen on patrol through the roof window. When he did this, I knew he was on to something.

David at our breakfast spot on the Mara River

Another Mara sunrise

Another Mara sunset (on my list for "next time" is a silhouette photo a lot closer!)

The ubiquitous lilac-breasted roller.

A misty elephant morning

I can't remember what type of antelope this is, but the forward-facing antlers were interesting!

I love the mohawk on sub-adult males!

Offbeat's sundowner spot, just about perfect!

The gorgeous Amani

Can't have a safari without elephants!

I never understood in zoos how lions are camouflaged. Now I know.

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Sep 23rd, 2018, 12:21 PM
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I'm probably the least artsy person I know, but I liked the geometry of this shot:

And a croc for good measure:
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 12:25 PM
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Near Offbeat Mara there are three lion prides: Acacia, River and Offbeat. We managed to see all lions of each pride during our stay, which was 52 lions in 6 days. The River pride lionesses are very skilled at taking down hippo, and we saw one of those (again, a bit too graphic here) which was fascinating. One lioness of the Acacia Pride was spotted alone with her new cub. Lionesses will keep her cubs away from the main pride until the cub is able to defend itself from older half-siblings. This is not the youngest cub I've ever seen, but was the youngest on this safari.

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Sep 23rd, 2018, 12:36 PM
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Summing up the Mara... once again I wasn't disappointed. We had the option to venture into the Reserve for a day (included in our package), but with sightings as good as we were getting in the conservancy, and the limitations of staying on-road and the potential for a lot more traffic in the Reserve, why would we? The only thing that could have delivered more was leopard. We saw one on our first day get treed by lions. He stayed up there for the entire day and descended in the night when the lions moved on to hunt. But given how strong our cheetah and lion sightings were, and how utterly spoiled I've been in the past with leopard sightings, I could overlook that.

We bid a teary goodbye to Offbeat and David and Kappen and headed back to spend a day in Nairobi before our midnight flight home. I was sad to go, but little did I know then that I'd be heading back to Offbeat 21 months later (November this year). Yes, it was that good. I'm going back to Offbeat!

Next up, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and its elephant orphanage.
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 01:55 PM
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Back in Nairobi, I'd pre-booked a private visit to the Sheldrick elephant orphanage. I foster 12 elephants and have done the private visit once before and loved it. I figured Kim would too, so I surprised her by booking it again. For those who don't know, David Sheldrick and his wife Daphne founded this orphanage 40+ years ago. They rescue elephant babies who are still milk-dependent who are the victims of human-wildlife conflict (either poaching, snares, or falling into wells) and rehabilitate them, with the ultimate goal of them being transferred to one of three remote parks to "step out" back into the wild. Their method has proven hugely successful with 150 baby elephants being successfully hand-raised. Foster parents pay $50 a year to foster a particular individual elephant orphan.

Our driver picked us up in Nairobi and drove us to Karen Blixen Restaurant in Karen for lunch. We split Kachos (Kenyan nachos, no stretch there) and I had sweet chili peppers over rice and a Daiwa (vodka, honey, lime and ginger over ice). Then it was off to Sheldricks Wildlife Trust.

We met with Edwin the head keeper first and signed the waivers and then he gave us his safety speech, how to act and interact with the elephants. We were in the mudbath area again. And in they came. Like before, Edwin called out their names as they came running in and the keepers had the bottles ready for them. Each baby got their milk from their respective keeper before it played in the mud. When all the baby had finished their bottles, we were allowed to interact, play with, pat and enjoy the elephants. I had a mission to seek out as many of mine as I could.

Tamiyoi seemed to take an interest in both Kim and me first. That same inquisitive trunk was all over us. I found Ndotto, who really wanted nothing to do with me at all after our love affair the previous year when he was climbing in my lap and following me everywhere! Then I found Mbegu, my first foster, who has gotten so big in a year! She's so pretty and very stoic. I expect she'll have moved on to the next step of integration the next time I come to Kenya. She's 3 1/2 now, the oldest in the herd and the mini-matriarch. She's started to train another female elephant to fill her shoes, which is really an interesting social skill if you ask me.

Me with Mbegu

Video with Mbegu

I found Luggard, one of my more recent fosters, who was shot in the knee by poachers. He's slower than the rest and he limps and will likely never be able to keep up with a herd. That's just so wrong.

There's a new arrival at the orphanage that is still too unstable to give a name and foster out. She was stuck in a snare and has an almost complete amputation of her trunk. They've strived to stitch it back up but they're unsure how that will work. I saw her sleeping and she was snoring so loudly, mainly because most of the air goes out of the open wound at the middle of her trunk. So incredibly sad. (Updated: this is Enkesha, who I fostered when I got home. She's doing fine now, still a hole in her trunk but she has full mobility of her trunk and will likely live a completely normal life when she's reintegrated in the wild)

I got a ton of photos as Patrick our driver and Edwin the keeper took a bunch of photos. I stood in the middle of them and got dusted by one elephant (Ndotto I believe!) and slapped in the back with mud by another. Coupled with the bunch of knee-level trunk hugs I got, I was filthy. I forgot how muddy and dirty they get! It was just so cool to be there alone with 25 babies. It was awesome. And I mean that in the "full of awe" way. Even the second time around, they are still amazing creatures.

We then killed an hour looking at all of our photos while waiting for the foster parent visit. This is not as hands on as the private visit but still fun. The funniest part is when they all come running in in little packs from the park, heading to their bedrooms and their last bottle of the day. It's so funny to watch how excited they are, trunks swinging.

If ever you need a smile, watch a bunch of baby elephants come running in for their bottle!

I nearly lost complete control though when Luggard came in. He is so slow, he's on his own and his knee looks so hurt. That's just so unfair that he has to live like that. I know he's in the best place now and they'll take excellent care of him, but it makes me cry. And not much does.

Luggard's entrance

Once all the elephants are in their bedrooms, visitors can walk and see them one on one. Almost all of them were eating, either hay or Lucerne or kibble. None seemed terribly interested in seeing us. I took some photos and talked to some keepers. I try to thank all the keepers for what they do for the elephants, it's not an easy job and they sacrifice a lot. I talked to Luggard's keeper and I asked what his personality is like. He told me he loves to be scratched. And he went to scratch his hip and his legs and Luggard gets all excited and starts to flutter his ears. It's so cute. He's in good hands there. They love him.

We visited with Kiko the giraffe too, who is MASSIVE now. He used to still fit in the door of his enclosure but now he has to duck. He came over and said hi to us and I gave him a good neck scratch. What a beautiful creature.

We also got to see Maxwell again. Maxwell has cataracts that are not correctable with surgery. He will live out his days at Sheldricks, but gets frequent visits from the elephant orphans, warthogs and other rhinos that live wildly in the Nairobi National Park.

When we'd had our fill of elephants, we went back to Patrick and decided we'd get a day room at the Eka Hotel, where I usually spend my first night here. We both were filthy and didn't want to fly home like that. So we had a shower and a good meal, charge our electronics and got ready for the flight home.

And with that, that's safari #4 in the books.
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Sep 23rd, 2018, 04:45 PM
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Thank you again for sharing these beautiful, moving, additional written and picture stories— your weekend labor of love from which we all benefit. I’m setting aside more time to enjoy, reminisce (your descriptions remind me sooo much of why I love E Africa) and be envious— in a happy way!—for your upcoming safari.

Asante sana!!
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Sep 24th, 2018, 05:40 AM
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Amyb, so happy you posted this! For the first time in ages I dont' have another safari planned bc daughter will be a senior next year and we are focused on college visits etc. We also fostered Luggard-I let the kids choose and they felt so badly about his knee. The private visit is the best. I love the artsy shot of the 2 trees and the giraffe sitting. I can' t believe you saw a cheetah hippo kill. We have been "lucky" and have seen a kill on each safari. The first was a cheetah killing a spring hare so not too touch to watch. This year was a cheetah killing a pregnant tommy. She sort of killed it and then was trying to teach her 4 baby cubs how to finish the deal - like yours it was tough to watch.

I wish my husband could handle a gorilla trek but think it would be too much for him.
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Sep 24th, 2018, 06:43 AM
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Two of my favorite places on earth. Thanks for sharing!
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Sep 24th, 2018, 07:47 AM
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amyb, such a wonderful and well-written read and the pics are amazing. Thank you so much for sharing. I'm planning on making the first of what I hope is many trips to Africa in the next couple years. Reading your report makes me wish I was already there.

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Sep 24th, 2018, 09:55 PM
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Thanks Amy this was an enjoyable read and your photos were great! I may have missed it but what camera were you using?
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Sep 25th, 2018, 01:12 AM
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Amy, thank you for the trip report, which brings back memories of my gorilla tracking experience in 2002, only eight years after the genocide when memories were even more raw than now. The trip was primarily to help set up donated computers in the Anglican diocese of Cyangugu, near Nyungwe Forest, where we got to see black and white colobus monkeys. The trip was focused more upon people than animals. We met many ordinary Rwandans and were invited for meals in people's homes. I was the only one in our small group who wanted to see the gorillas, so set off alone in an Okapi bus back to Kigali, where I stayed overnight before taking another Okapi bus to Ruhengeri. I stayed in a guest house in Ruhengeri the night before the tracking day.

In those days the procedure was to pick up your pre-booked gorilla tracking permit at the ORTPN headquarters in Kigali, then take it to the ORTPN office in the center of Ruhengeri, where you were divided into groups and taken to the park. I picked the Susa group, which was the most difficult to reach at the time, but had 35 gorillas, the largest habituated group in the park. I understand since then Susa has split into two smaller groups when its population reached 42.

I was reasonably fit, just shy of my 60th birthday, but when I discovered the others who picked Susa were 20-something Aussies who had just climbed Mt Kenya I thought I had made a big mistake. Well, I made it, but during the hour and a half it took to get from the road to the park boundary I seriously thought about turning back. Luckily Susa was near the park boundary that day, and we could even hear them while we rested against the boundary wall, which had land mine warning signs (yikes!) posted on it. That's when you have to put your trust in the rangers who guide you through the park.

It was one of the most memorable days of my life! The gorilla family was moving around while we were with them, we ended up right in the middle, and I had to step aside when the head silverback walked toward me. I guess no one told the gorillas about the 7-meter separation rule. ;-)

Last edited by Heimdall; Sep 25th, 2018 at 01:15 AM.
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Sep 25th, 2018, 04:29 AM
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KathBC, thanks! My camera is the Sony RX10 iii, which I love. The pics here are somewhat degraded since my out of the camera photos were too big to upload to Fodors directly, so I downloaded them from FB thinking that was a quick shortcut to smaller file sizes, and then found I had to resize them again anyway, so they've been beaten into submission twice for posting!

Heimdall, that is a great story! I can't imagine how raw the emotions there must have been then. It still seems to be right under the surface even now, but they are healing. Their capacity for forgiveness, as I said, is overwhelming. I'm not sure I could be as strong. Yes, the Susa group is still around. A couple we ate lunch with one day had a delightful journey to see them. (Susa did split into two groups but one group is still called Susa). Everyone seems to want to see them if only because that's the group Dian Fossey studied. But I share your sentiment, the torture of the trek is well worth that time with these creatures! You have quite a tale to tell about getting around Rwanda before it became more tourist-friendly. I'm envious!
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Sep 30th, 2018, 09:18 AM
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Amy I was glad to see your trip report today. The photos and videos are fantastic. I agree, the gorilla experience is unlike anything else. We will be doing Uganda ( I did both Uganda and Rwanda last year), and although I enjoyed Rwanda more the price tag is now just too high for my grand daughter. I am going again this time with my 17 year old grand daughter in June and I just adopted my first elephant for her Christmas present and look forward to our visit there. I did not go to the sanctuary last year but looking for to it this year. Your photos and videos were great, thank you.
I look forward to hearing about your November trip.
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Sep 30th, 2018, 10:54 AM
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So glad you enjoyed the report!

Yes, live42day, I know the trekking price is sort of crazy now in Rwanda. I worry about what it means for the people who make a living based on the numbers of tourists coming through. I think of all the porters who were former poachers. If they aren't busy, what will they do? I haven't seen anything yet a year out about how the numbers have been under the new pricing scheme.

Your granddaughter is so lucky to go and go young! May it instill in her a love for Africa! The elephants at Sheldricks are wonderful, I can't wait to go back!

I'll post a TR after my November trip.
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Oct 1st, 2018, 02:09 PM
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Near Offbeat Mara there are three lion prides: Acacia, River and Offbeat. We managed to see all lions of each pride during our stay, which was 52 lions in 6 days. The River pride lionesses are very skilled at taking down hippo, and we saw one of those (again, a bit too graphic here) which was fascinating.
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Oct 3rd, 2018, 07:29 AM
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Yes, the tracking permits in Rwanda are expensive, but it's not exactly a high volume business. Currently there are 12 habituated families in VNP, and 8 permits per day are issued for each family. That means only 96 people per day can visit the gorillas in Rwanda, a far cry from the numbers that visit the big game parks in Kenya and Tanzania. There are other activities in Volcanoes National Park, including golden monkey tracking and visits to Dian Fossey's grave.

Before gorilla tourism much of the park was lost to agriculture, charcoal production, etc, reducing the gorilla's habitat and forcing them to move up to higher altitudes. It is necessary for VNP to pay its way to resist further encroachment. Some of the money from tracking permits is channeled to local communities to build schools and health centres.
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Oct 3rd, 2018, 10:54 AM
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Well, the golden monkeys only add 25 more slots a day in the way of activity, so not much more. My concern is more about "Rwanda trekking is too expensive, I'm going to Uganda instead". Has that had an effect on Rwanda's numbers to the point where the fee hike is detrimental? Are they not selling out those 121 spots a day for weeks on end as they were before? We were told that the revenue that the trekking brings in is what is paying for the infrastructure out there, for example the roads that are immaculately smooth once you get inside the area of the park, and that the tips from tourists are keeping former poachers from going back to a life of wildlife crime. If the attendance drops even 10% because of fees that doubled, do those benefits continue? I've not read anything official on that anywhere yet, but from the shameful amount of time I spend on safari forums, the anecdotal evidence of the number of people choosing Uganda over Rwanda for this reason is of significant note.
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