Another amazing cat-full safari in Kenya

Old Mar 18th, 2023, 12:56 PM
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Another amazing cat-full safari in Kenya

After nearly 4 ˝ long years, I finally returned to Kenya. The last three years were tough on everyone, I know, and I was still licking my wounds in December when I booked this, after losing my Dad and still isolating somewhat to keep my Mom healthy. I meant for this to be the “just one more” safari and to make up for the blockbuster milestone birthday safari to Zambia I had to cancel in 2020. So I kind of pulled out the stops budget-wise. I was hell-bent on relax/restore/reset and just reveling in my favorite place on earth. I had absolutely no idea how tremendous this would be for me. I just wish I'd done it sooner!! And yeah, that "just one more" doesn't apply to safari any more than it applies to potato chips.

Dates: 11-22 Feb 2023

Itinerary:
Nairobi -- Four Points Sheraton at Nairobi Airport
Laikipia -- Laikipia Wilderness Camp
Mathews Range/Samburu -- Sarara Camp
Olare Motorogi Conservancy in Maasai Mara -- Kicheche Bush Camp
Naboisho Conservancy in Maasai Mara -- Kicheche Valley Camp
Nairobi -- Four Points Sheraton at Nairobi Airport (day room before midnight flight home)

Logistics: Delta-KLM -- BOS-AMS-NBO-AMS-BOS All flights were completely uneventful, I flew carry-on only and managed to score Business class upgrades on the AMS-NBO legs, which was really nice.

I booked this safari the first week of December 2022 with Richard Trillo at Expert Africa. Richard is wonderful to work with. Communication was great and he was open and honest with some of my options, especially as a solo traveler. I told him what I was looking for and he managed to make this itinerary work on what was, for me, very short notice. I was 9 weeks out from departure! I normally book close to a year out! And just like that, I was going on safari.

Nairobi – Spent the arrival night at Sheraton Four Points at Nairobi Airport. It was convenient in that it is literally 5 minutes from the terminal I landed in. After the utter nonsense of immigration (90 minutes, and I was 20th in line!) it was good to just get out of there at 11 pm and get to bed. I had a 5:45 am wakeup call to get to Wilson for my flight to Laikipia. I recall little else about the hotel other than bed/shower. It was quiet, I slept. That’s all that mattered.

SafariLink to Laikipia. The flight was supposed to be at 8:00 am. I got to Wilson at 7:00 am and had just started to eat my yogurt and coffee in the café there when they called my flight to board. We took off at 7:40 am!
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Old Mar 18th, 2023, 02:11 PM
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Laikipia Wilderness Camp

I chose Laikipia Wilderness Camp first because I’d never been to Laikipia and second because I’d seen on various forums that the melanistic leopard near camp was becoming more reliably spotted. As a cat lover, this was something I really wanted to see. So it was worth a shot. The luxury of booking so close to departure is there is less time for things on the ground to change before I got there. But as with anything Mother Nature has her hands in, I knew not to count on anything. Or get my hopes up. And to everyone before I left I would say "It'd be nice if....but I know it might not...." I'd be lying if I said I wasn't desperate to see her.

My guide here was Simon and he really delivered on the leopard! I arrived in time for a leisurely drive to camp and then lunch. We went out at 4 for our first game drive. Since I was only there for 2 nights, I only had 4 game drives to see the melanistic leopard. I was pretty focused on this but knew there were other leopards around. We did an entire game drive looking for other things, elephants, the Northern 5, lions. And indeed, we saw quite a lot of elephants and birds.




For our sundowner, we were high up overlooking the almost-dry riverbed. The view was spectacular. As we watched the sun go down, I lost a bit of hope of seeing her. Suddenly Simon heard a "huff-huff" coming from down below far to the right. He looked at me and said "Leopard!" Never has anyone packed up sundowners and descended to the valley so quickly! Simon drove in the direction of the noise and it was only a few minutes after it had become dark before we came across this gorgeous, massive male.



I've only ever seen a couple of male leopards before (most of my sightings have been females) and before now, this big boy certainly would have been the catch of the day, if I didn't have my heart set on something else... It didn't take long to find her though. Simon knew this boy comes out to steal the kills of the melanistic leopard, so she was most likely out and about too. Not long later and very close by, we found her.



This is my first shot of her. She is petite, and lithe, and the spotlight catches the subtle shift in shades of black as her spots and what should be golden yellow merge. She is, in a word, ethereal. She is actually quite small for a “big cat”. That gigantic male leopard we just saw had been frequently waiting for this female to hunt and then steals her kills. He also does that with her mother’s kills. It is thought that this behavior cannot continue and that the females may eventually move on when they tire of that practice.

That night was the most ridiculously noisy I have ever had in the bush. EVERYTHING was awake and making noise! Not that I'm complaining! There was a hyena den near my tent, and they were laughing all night. I heard the huffing of leopards near me a couple times. Lions roaring three or four different times. "Something" munching grass right behind my headboard. The next morning we had no sightings of her but tried hard to find those lions, but never did. The landscape is very dense at ground level, so finding them if they're in there is quite a challenge. We met the rest of the camp guests for a picnic on a platform at a large dam where tons of elephants and other wildlife gathered for water. It was really neat to see a lot of elephants plus zebra, impala, giraffes and hippos all drinking together.




Needless to say, I was hooked on this melanistic leopard like crack (or what I'd imagine being hooked on crack was like!) The next afternoon drive was another unsuccessful attempt to find the lions. Another guest's vehicle had seen them, and Simon followed the directions to where they were but the scrub brush was so thick and we were losing light quickly. I remember saying "we're losing light" and Simon said "I know, we're headed back". It was getting dark quickly and we were trolling along the river where she is normally seen. We were all focused looking left. We went back up to the lookout where we'd heard the male leopard the night before, Simon and our spotter both had binoculars out and they saw nothing. Our 180 degree view didn't afford us the 181 degrees we needed. We descended and started patrolling the river again and suddenly our spotter looked right, up the hill and perched up there, watching us looking for her was our black leopard. I was watching her through the zoom on my camera. She yawned. Cats don't yawn unless they're going to get up. Simon knew this and positioned us for her descent. He had to know the terrain and possible paths to call it correctly. She was coming down and coming right at us!

Simon positioned us right in her path, so there are some shots of her coming right at us which I'm not terribly thrilled with, and my best shot of her was literally 20 feet from me when she successfully hunted a dik dik! I am not posting that here in case there are those sensitive to that sort of carnage, lol. So not only did I get to see her, but I saw her hunt (as in: hop, hop, hop, got it!) She has smartened up to the headlights and our search light and positions herself between us and her prey, effectively blinding her prey. We let her take her kill up a tree and heard the male huffing behind us, so hopefully we were able to provide her enough cover to eat before he came for it. She is pretty thin but still doing well for a young (2.5 years) cat. (Author's Note: she was just spotted mating with him last week, so no hard feelings!)

We drove back to camp, and completely discombobulated in the dark, I thought we had a 20 minute or so drive back, but it turned out to be less than 2 minutes from camp! The camp owners' dogs go crazy barking when they hear leopards (one was once attacked by one!) so the dogs were barking most of that night as they were both so close by.

The next morning was my last drive before leaving. The girls I was sharing a vehicle with were pretty much over the whole leopard thing but Simon wasn't. He wanted to see her during the day. And, he told me later, really wanted me to see her during the day. At sunrise we were back along the river, where it was not long before what we thought was a shadow was actually our heroine. I was hoping for more light when I finally got to see her but this encounter will do!







To say I left Laikipia a happy woman is an understatement. I had a very nice drive with Simon to the airstrip, where I was bound for my flight to my next camp. He was a really sweet guy and I'd miss him when I left.

Laikipia Wildnerness Camp is pretty nice. It's not as luxe as the camps I'd go to after, but each tent had an outdoor bathroom (my first!) and a nice daybed on the veranda where I'd pretend to read (but would really nap) during midday siestas. The meals were great, they accommodated vegetarians very well. I liked their schedule of a quick nibble (granola/yogurt, muffin and coffee) before the pre-dawn game drive and a brunch around 11:30. Then tea around 4 and dinner at 8. The day seemed to flow well like that, rather than stopping mid-morning for a full breakfast.

Speaking of my transfer to the next camp, that's where one of those "discussions" with Richard at Expert Africa came in. He said logistically, getting from Laikipia to Sarara Camp was tough. Either several hours of driving on hot, dusty roads or a quick 30 minute charter flight. Sign me up for that charter! Which was a good idea until I saw this. The two-seater Cessna! The smallest plane I'd ever been on!




Last edited by amyb; Mar 18th, 2023 at 02:16 PM.
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Old Mar 18th, 2023, 02:24 PM
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More photos from Laikipia

Rufous crowned roller


Vulturine guinea fowl


Goshawk




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Old Mar 18th, 2023, 04:04 PM
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Your pix are STUNNING!!!!!
I'm sooooo jealous about your melanistic leopard, but so glad for you.

The photo of that goshawk is ridiculously good!!! You are quite the photographer! Thanks for sharing.
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Old Mar 19th, 2023, 09:04 AM
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Thank you Songdoc! I've had to decrease the image quality to get them to load here, but I'm really happy with them!
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Old Mar 19th, 2023, 10:55 AM
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<I've had to decrease the image quality to get them to load here, but I'm really happy with them!>

You SHOULD be!!! Really awesome!
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Old Mar 19th, 2023, 12:12 PM
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Sarara Camp, Mathew's Range

Mathew's Range is a mountain range that runs about 90 miles across from Laikipia into the Samburu region. The Samburu tribe are frequently seen in and around the area and indeed are employees of Sarara. I'd been advised that a visit here isn't so much about the wildlife and game viewing as it is about appreciating the region and especially the Samburu culture. In retrospect, I do wish I'd taken that a bit more seriously and added another day to the three I had planned here. There is so much to see, so much to experience, so much to learn, that I feel I barely scratched the surface.

The camp is, in a word, extraordinary. It's made up of just 6 "tents" that are incredibly spacious and hardly recognizable as a tent. Only the front tent flap zipped open and closed, yielding on to the front balcony with my daybed (place to read/nap midday) and a small table/chairs for pre-dawn coffee and biscuits while watching the sun come up. The door opened to a large bedroom with desk/chair and oversized chair for lounging and a floor fan. Behind the bed is a closet/shelving area that leads to the inside toilet and sink. Then another door exits out to a small rocky path to the outdoor toilet and shower. It was absolutely gorgeous and some place I could easily hunker down for several days and just enjoy this kind of luxury "outdoor" living and be spoiled rotten, as Sarara's staff was so keen to do.

What I didn't realize is that looking back a month later, most of the stories I tell about my trip came from these three days. I could tell you about how delicious the food was (even as a vegetarian!) or how wonderful the staff was (I could barely place an empty glass down before it was snatched up and refilled). Or I could tell you how friendly and familiar Robert the camp manager and his staff all felt to me upon meeting them. But all my "experiences" came from the Samburu, especially my guide Daniel. From the moment he picked me up at the airstrip (oh yes, I survived the Cessna! What an amazingly smooth ride that was!) to the moment we said goodbye on my last night, he was giving, open, and honest about everything we talked about and what I asked. He let me know almost immediately that I was not to take photos of any Samburu. They believe that a piece of their soul is taken with every photo. Quite a contrast to our selfie-obsessed culture! I was fine with that of course, and I think not seeing everything through the lens brought it all into sharp perspective, if that makes sense.

Game drives are on offer, certainly, but I found that most of the larger game I would see were easily seen coming and going from camp or from the common area of the camp itself, where a large watering trough attracted everything from elephants, buffalo, giraffe, impala, kudu. I did two game drives and didn't see anything on those that I didn't already see coming and going, but what it did afford me was the chance to slow down and really explore. Daniel and I got out of the vehicle to find cicadas on a tree, hearing their alarm-like calls speed up as we approach (we never did find them!), or stop next to a resident giraffe to watch it swallow its cud down, but then watch the same neck spasms bring it back up for more chewing! In 5 safaris before this, I'd never even noticed that! I did see more birds than I normally do, or perhaps I was just paying attention. I did two game drives and enjoyed them both, especially the sundowners, which were in great locations, one a dry riverbed that was like a big sandy beach with no water, just really cool. But I do wish I'd done more of the Samburu-related experiences.

The first I did was a visit to the Singing Wells. This is really hard to explain and going into it I thought it was a demonstration, but arriving there I quickly realized this was how they live, it was a necessity of life. There's an area with dozens of underground wells. The men drive their cattle, goats, donkeys, etc. to this location and then one goes deep underground with a bucket and with his helpers, they do a bucket brigade which brings water up from deep below to fill a trough at the edge of the hole. The men sing both to keep themselves motivated but also to attract their herds to their location. They do this several times a week depending on what animals they need to water. That was sobering enough, but then I saw two little boys strip naked, wash their clothes in a bucket of this water (which was just like mud soup, if I'm honest) and then wash themselves, only to put the wet clothes back on. Another man just drank that water right out of the bucket. Just an incredibly eye opening experience.

Another night I went on a village visit. The Samburu are nomadic, so when the grass runs out or water is hard to find, they pack up their homes and move on. The homes are a circle of sticks covered by corrugated metal or cardboard that they've found. On the way to the village, my guide stopped the vehicle next to a little girl. She was walking along, dragging a plastic keg and kicking a second one. He asked her where she was going and she was headed to the village we were going to. He asked me if we could give her a ride. Of course we could! It was about an hour to sunset and little did I know we were still about 2 miles from her village. She was carrying 30 liters of water (15 in each keg)! She was only 8 and weighed no more than 70 pounds. I was aghast....how does she do this, that's a LOT of water. Daniel actually struggled to heave it up into the back of our vehicle. We delivered her safely to the village where she disappeared into the group of kids. Lots of little ones running around with just shirts on, lots of loose chickens, goats running around. It was a lot to process and it really got to me. I returned to camp that night and an older man who was a returning guest noticed I was visibly upset. He explained to me all that the Sarara Foundation is doing for families like that, with more access to wells, mobile medical clinics and for as long as the kids are around, schooling. I could have done trips to visit any of those, but I just didn't have time by the time I learned of that. His point to me was that things used to be worse. They are getting better, and Sarara and its foundation are really trying to help. It was a tough day to swallow.

Sarara Foundation also supports the Reteti Elephant Orphanage, which was the main reason I wanted to visit up here. I'm a supporter of Sheldrick in Nairobi and have been supporting Reteti for a couple of years now. They tend to only rescue and rehabilitate animals in the Samburu area and their approach is somewhat different than Sheldrick's. One thing they do is pay Samburu women for milk from their goats. These "milk mammas" will deliver the goat milk to Reteti a few times a week and get paid, which is almost unheard of for women. Women are also keepers at the elephant orphanage, and do the same work the men do. It was fun to see the little eles come in for their bottles and then head to the mud bath to play and cool off.

One afternoon two Samburu women came to do a beading session with me. They made me a bracelet out of beads I picked, and we sat and talked (through a translator). They weren't even mid-teens and already were married with their first child. They seemed older beyond their years and very eager to share info about how they live now and were mindblown by the photos of snow I showed them from the weekend before I left home. It was kind of fun to try to explain that to them.

Sarara has one "resident" bull elephant, Boris. He runs the show around camp and everyone knows him by sight and he's been pretty habituated to the comings and goings of the camp. Boris sings to his own tune though. Once he was standing in the water trough rather than just dipping into it. He will also feel for the water pipes running underground and stomp on them to create an impromptu sprinkler, leaving the rest of us with no water until it's hastily found and repaired. I had my own Boris encounter though. I'd retreated to my daybed to read/nap in the heat of the day. After a bit I heard something munch and moving through the bushes behind my tent. I looked over my shoulder and jiminy crickets, it was Boris. He was maybe 30 yards up hill from me. And getting closer. At the 20 yard point, I realized there was nothing between me and Boris, and I retreated to inside the tent. The back of the tent has two "windows" so I went to watch him from there. And he got closer, and closer. He was then close enough that I could hear the "swish-swish" his ears made as he moved them to keep himself cool. I shifted my position once and he stopped eating, lifted his trunk to sniff in my direction, then continued on, not bothered at all. Finally he was as close as he could get without stepping down off the short retaining wall behind my tent. He eventually moved on, but I stayed put until he was well past the walkway down to the main area. I asked the camp manager about him and they said he knew Boris was up by me but knew he'd leave me alone. Wish I'd known that!

This is the bench in the hallway behind my bed where I sat to watch Boris. Those are his legs!



Last edited by amyb; Mar 19th, 2023 at 12:32 PM.
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Old Mar 19th, 2023, 12:29 PM
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I haven't mentioned yet how painfully hot it was here in February. I've been to Vegas in July and August, and that had nothing on Samburu in February. Daniel was very keen for me to do a walk with him. I agreed to do it, only if we went out very early and were back before it got hot. I made it to 9 am before I was too hot to go on. Daniel is a "mountain Samburu" and climbs like one. He was tough to keep up with. But I did learn about medicinal plants and other animals in the region. We did see fresh tracks from both a big male lion (based on the distance between the paw prints) and at least two leopards. But we saw neither.

Male lion print and my hand


More photos from Sarara...
Sunrise from my balcony


The watering trough area in front of the common area at camp


Vervet monkey


The scene driving into camp


Peekaboo vervet monkey


Reticulated giraffe (one of the Northern Five)


Golden breasted starling


Grevy's Zebra (another of the Northern Five)


Lesser Kudu (photobombed by another Lesser Kudu)

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Old Mar 19th, 2023, 12:58 PM
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And with that, my time up north was over. It was time to return to my favorite place on earth, the Maasai Mara. It was a tough call for me, but I decided that if I was giving in to another safari that I would push myself outside my comfort zone and try all new camps and at least two new areas. Instead of a return to Offbeat Mara in the Mara North Conservancy, which had been so good to me in the past, I chose to return to Olare Motorogi and Naboisho conservancies. I'd been to Olare Motorogi before at Porini Lion and Naboisho before at Encounter Mara. At the time OMC was all about Fig the leopard and I had not the greatest cat experience in Naboisho, but I'd read that the balance had changed quite a lot and there were a couple of huge lion prides in Naboisho in particular. I decided to go with Kicheche this time, staying in the Bush Camp in OMC and Valley Camp in Naboisho. Kicheche is well known for having all silver-level guides and for catering well to photographers. While I don't consider myself a "photographer" per se, I did want to leverage whatever advantage I could get taking photos there. They were darn good at setting us up for the very best photos, certainly the best of anywhere I've been.

First up, Olare Motorogi Conservancy, and my first lions and cheetahs on this trip, plus a special leopard appearance.

These two cheetahs are Kiraposhe's boys, who I spent an entire day with in November 2018 watching them hunt unsuccessfully about 6 times. Good to see they are still together.




We then came upon the Enkoyani pride which had piles of cubs to watch play fight. Especially over a coveted stick.



That could easily be my sofa...someday he'll grow into those paws.




We had our sundowner just watching this pride interact, rest, nurse the cubs. I could not have been happier. Or I could I....
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Old Mar 19th, 2023, 01:07 PM
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The next morning we came across the Iseketa pride, which had four even smaller cubs. We pulled up just before sunrise only to see three lionesses but as the sun started to rise, the called to the cubs who came bounding out of the deep bushes. I was beside myself with happiness. There is nothing I love more than lion cubs! One lioness (the one sitting next to the log) had had her fill of these rambunctious cubs and would put her paw on one of their heads and hold them down as if to say "STOP, enough already!" But each time it would squiggle out and rejoin the fun.









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Old Mar 19th, 2023, 01:21 PM
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One afternoon the call came across the radio that a leopard had been spotted. I normally really hate following the crowd, I'd much rather the guide find things on his own and we enjoy it alone, but in this case it meant seeing leopard, which we hadn't yet. This is Akira. The guides knew she'd just had cubs which hadn't been seen yet. She was attempting to hunt impala, but was thwarted by another overzealous driver. (Another huge pet peeve!) I think until you see them like this, you really can't appreciate how well leopards camouflage. When we pulled up to this sighting, I still had to look hard to find her!





Finally, we had another morning with the Enkoyani pride and their playful cubbies.










And in case you worry that we didn't see anything else, here's a cute little ele learning how to use his trunk.


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Old Mar 19th, 2023, 08:14 PM
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Wonderful photos and what a fabulous bust-the-budget return safari. I love Kicheche--who were your guides?

Laikipia has long been on my wishlist! Have always thought about booking with Offbeat too and would certainly do so in the future. Glad to read you have liked them on past trips.

Looking forward to more.
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Old Mar 19th, 2023, 10:16 PM
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Terrific photos and report. It sounds like you had a wonderful adventure. I am so envious of your leopard sightings but also really enjoying your bird photos. The birds in Africa are so beautiful!
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Old Mar 20th, 2023, 05:52 AM
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Thank you, Leely2. My guides were Benja at Kicheche Bush and Twala at Kicheche Valley. I thought Twala was the stronger of the two, definitely on par with Ping at Enaidura and David at Offbeat Mara (the two best guides I've ever had). Twala was a really good teacher. I learned things I didn't already know, which is always good! At Kicheche Bush almost all of our sightings were all the Kicheche vehicles together, like a swarm. I only did 4 game drives there since I was there just 2 nights, so maybe it was just coincidence, but it wasn't my preference. With Twala at Kicheche Valley, we were almost always alone or with 1 or 2 vehicles from other camps. He seemed to like to operate independently.

I'd say Kicheche camps are slightly more polished than Offbeat. Faux wood flooring instead of just the tent floor, plumbed water instead of bucket showers, in-tent charging. But food and service was pretty equal.

Thank you KTtravel, I agree with you on the birds! I don't normally pay much attention to them but I did see a lot of pretty ones that I just had to take photos of!
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Old Mar 20th, 2023, 09:48 AM
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Amy: You're killing me! It sounds (and looks) INCREDIBLE -- except for the heat. I don't think I could tolerate it. I was MISERABLE in Las Vegas during summer months.

But those lion cubs ... Be still my heart. ALL of your photos are stunning. I'm thrilled for you.

The interaction with the Samburu women also sounds very special.
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Old Mar 20th, 2023, 01:04 PM
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Thank you again Songdoc. Samburu was really the only place that hot. Laikipia was cooler (pants ok all day long and downright chilly in the mornings). I think the Mara would have felt warmer if I hadn't just been to Samburu. I'd guess high 80s to low 90s, but after Samburu that felt like spring. I was wearing shorts the entire time in Samburu (even first thing) and a lot of the time in the Mara.

All of the interactions I had with the Samburu were pretty special, I just wish I'd done the school and medical center visits too. Others who went to the school said it was so incredible to see the little kids learning and the teachers making do with almost nothing in the way of supplies.

One more installment left for my last 3 days in the Mara...
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Old Mar 22nd, 2023, 07:50 AM
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oh amy i am so happy you got on another safari and tried kicheche. I know our first safari started at Ol Lentille which was definitely more culture than animals and that has some of our favorite memories also bc we spent so much time with our guides visiting schools, villages etc.

we had mika at kicheche valley and charles at bush camp. mike was our absolute favorite-so knowledgable. best animal sightings at bush and we were typically the only vehicle there.

keep it coming!!
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Old Mar 23rd, 2023, 05:02 AM
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thank you plambers! I know you are a big Kicheche fan and I see why! I still have my last few days to get through for this TR (and some of my favorite wildlife moments!) but I'm off to Amsterdam this weekend for the Vermeer exhibition, so it will have to wait until I return.
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Old Mar 29th, 2023, 09:18 AM
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Enjoying your trip report and looking forward to the last leg as we are just back from the same camp/guide. The pictures are terrific, esp love the first leopard and velvet monkey in the tree.

So many friends thought I was fearless going on safari, but going alone on safari is a whole different level of fearless!
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Old Mar 30th, 2023, 11:08 AM
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General help with Safari/Amyb

Hi Amy: I have been reading up on African Safaris on Fodors and other sites and have really enjoyed your posts. I wanted to know if you would be so kind to communicate with me directly regarding a few inquiries.

Thanks.

Mona

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