Kenya trip

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Jan 21st, 2005, 04:28 AM
  #1
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Kenya trip

Just returned from one of the best ever safaris in Kenya with family and friends. I will try to be brief but that might be difficult.

I organised the trip through Vintage Africa who are an exceptional outfit. Our programme was 4 nights at Siana Intrepids Tented Camp which is 30 minutes from the game reserve proper, however, one should note that there are no fences between the game reserve and the outlying areas which means wildlife is free to roam virtually everywhere in the Mara region. From Mara we flew to Sabuk for a 3 night camel trip, yes with the children in tow, and it was the best thing everyone has ever done! Finally we ended up on Lamu Island at a resort called Kipungani. More on that later.

Choice of camp - Siana is a delightful fenced camp set by natural springs. This attracts spectacular birdlife to the camp. We specifically chose this camp as we had children in the party but beyond that it is smaller than other Mara camps and lodges in Eastern Mara, has an excellent setting and ambience and a welcoming pool, has great staff, is good value for money and is on a private conservation area, where off-road game drives are permitted. In the Mara some areas permit off-road game driving and some don't. The eastern Mara does not permit off-road driving but it appears this will soon be extended to the entire game reserve.

We flew straight from Nairobi to Masai Mara. This is the advantage of flying Kenya Airways which arrives early morning in Nairobi and allows you to connect to the Mara flight at 10.00. The plane landed late but Vintage Africa met us right inside the airport and saw us through visa formalities quicker than anyone else - fill your visa forms in advance. As we came out of the airport we were surprised by an african dance troupe which Vintage Africa had arranged for our welcome. This got everyone dancing and in the safari mood - what a welcome to Kenya! We freshened up and had breakfast at Intercontinental Hotel before going to Wilson airport. This really revitalised us after the overnight flight.

Rather than drive,, we flew to Siana. We were met at the airstrip by 2 gorgeous 'brunettes' and their 'minders'. These were the brand new Landcruisers from Vintage Africa and as we discovered during our stay they were the envy of the rest of the Mara pack.

We had booked the 4-wheel drives as we were keen to go to areas where minibuses could not. Vintage Africa landcruisers are stretched and sit 6 people in great comfort and each seat row has access to its own roof which stops the crowd of six banging into each other. There were 3 sets of binoculars for each row and thank goodness they were good quality ones as some of ours were barely worth having. Good binoculars are essential for birding as well as in poor light conditions. As the Landcruisers do not work out much more expensive than the minibus, especially if one is in a group, I highly recommend them.

On the first day we had our first game drive in the afternoon. We left at 3.00 , a little early to compensate for the drive to the game reserve proper. We saw elephant, buffalo, giraffe, the usual plains game and a cheetah. But we were dissapointed by the number of cars. Although the cars were well behaved, to see 15 to 20 vehicles on the road observing a lone cheetah was not our cup of tea. We left the reserve in a state of gloom - is this what we had come to the Mara for? The gloom was lifted as the drivers drove us straight to a sundowner on a hill near Siana which revealed the mesmeric beauty of the Mara landscape. To this day I believe Mara is the most beautiful park in Africa. If you ever go to the Mara try to find an elevated vantage point for a glorious view of the Mara under the the huge African skies, frequently lit up in hues of orange and red at dusk.

The next day we set off for the game drive a little late so that we could have a lie-in and recover from the London flight. The day resulted in the best game drive I have had in many years. Who said the best game drives are early morning ones and late afternoon ones. They are if you are a keen photographer but not if you want to avoid herds of cars.

We set off at 9.30 and 5 minutes from Siana spotted a large group of giraffe, warthog, gnu, topi, ostrich, impala, grant's and thompsons gazelles and hartebeest. And we had a close-up view of all this wildlife as we could go off-road. As we watched the wildlife, there was not another car in sight! Most tourists had returned to the lodge to relax until the afternoon game drive. Throughout the day we encountered only 6 cars and 5 of them on our way back to the lodge at 7.00pm! The Mara was to be virtually ours for 10 hours. The 4-wheel drive played an important part in keeping us away from the crowd.

We had not seen lions yet so the two drivers were keen to keep us happy. Our driver was Euticus, a brilliant birder and spotter who had worked as driver guide for 25 years or so. The first lion sighting was at 11.30, a pride with cubs that sat under a tree to cool off. Not another car in sight and we stayed with the lions for nearly an hour!

Our plan was to head from Fig Tree/Mara Intrepids area towards the Serena area. It had rained heavily the previous night so our landcruisers had a definite advantage over the minbuses as some of the tracks were in a bad state and the rivers were fuller for any minibus to drive through.

As we drove through the Mara we spotted a black-maned lion with several battle marks. A few meters further Euticus spotted a black rhino! Indeed a rare find these days in the Mara. Once again no other cars so we watched the rhino for 20 minutes. Several sightings of elephant and buffalo followed including one with 'five legs' which had the children amused.

A point to note - the landcruisers had open roofs (no cover) so one has to cover onself with sun cream and hat and wear long sleeved shirts for a full-day game drive. I still prefer open roofs as they afford unhindered views of the plains and provides you with a sense of freedom that pop-up roofs don't.

We finally got to a picnic spot at 3.00 - a lone acacia tree with miles and miles of savannah surrounding us - a scene straight out of the film 'Out of Africa'. We were in the Transzoia district which permitted off-road driving. The picnic was wonderful. Vintage Africa had arranged a special one with Siana and instead of the usual boxed lunches we found freshly baked quiche, salads, cold meets, chicken, samosas... They had arranged wine, beer, sof drinks... Here we were in the middle of the Mara with no other car or people in site having a most delicious picnic lunch. Behind us were impalas, zebras, topi and dark clouds with rain heading towards us. The air was heavily scented, remined me of sage. We couldn't have asked for a better lunch venue than the one we were at. Everyone thought it was the best picnic they ever had.

At 4.30 we set off for the Mara River. It was getting late and the light poorer so we were keen to spot the crocs and hippo before heading back home. Our first croc was a massive monster with a big girth probably carried over from the migration period. Hippos were not easy to come by as we followed the river and came across lions instead. Eventually, we spotted tons of hippo pods snorting and groaning as they kept redefining the heirachy and the territory. The hippos are always a fab sight and the children were reluctant to leave. But at 5.30 with the light fading we had to make a move for Sekenani gate which was another hour away. That is until we spotted 2 hunting lionesses. One watched the target, a warthog mother and her babies, while the other manoeuvered stealthily behind the warthogs. We watched this from a distance not wanting to disturb the hunt and thanks to Vintage Africa binoculars we were clearly able to witness the lioness game plan. It was exciting while it lasted. Fortunately the warthogs escaped and the lionesses regrouped with a slight loss of pride.

By now it was 6.00 and we had nearly another hour to drive to the gate. We had to push it a bit but kept on sighting game after game including hyenas lying in mud pools on the road and blocking our path. Fortunately the rain which had threatened to drench us eluded us and we managed to reach the gate at 7.15. After a slight rebuke from the warden , which we could handle after such a fabulous day, we were allowed to continue onto Siana where we arrived well after dark. It was well worth it and the drivers had done a marvellous job!

The next day was the balloon safari from Fig Tree and we thought it couldn't get any better than today...

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Jan 21st, 2005, 04:52 AM
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sandi
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king -

What an outstanding first day, and it sure got the children's attention, if not your own. Waiting to read the rest.

I have got to agree that early (00-dark-30) morning games drives aren't an absolute must. In fact, we've always gone out later, about the time when most early morning visitors are returning for breakfast. That way we've had the parks/reserves practically to ourselves, with few, if any, other vehicles. And we stay out till 1 or 1:30pm returning to camp for a late lunch... picnics aren't a favorite of mine, nor are boxed lunch. Different strokes. And like you, we've been reprimanded quite a few times by park wardens because we're the last vehicles off the land. But it's wonderful to see the sunsets, especially over the Mara.

... more, more and brief isn't necessary. Thanks.
 
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Jan 21st, 2005, 05:18 AM
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Great report!

When were you there? December?

I love the way you described the picnic. Parking on a hill in the Mara with no one else in sight and just watching the 360 degrees action has always been one of the highlights for me in this great park.

Unlike the Serengeti, Tarangire, etc. where most drivers stop at designated picnic spots (which I avoid), the Mara is different.

I like the open safari vehicles better in the Mara but it appears the Vintage vehicles have been upgraded, or were these vehicles from Sianna Springs?
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Jan 21st, 2005, 06:42 AM
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The day of the balloon, we set off from Siana at 4.30 in the morning in a battered truck which belonged to the balloon company. The adrenaline flow was so high that no-one minded the early start, the bumps and the hard seats. After a quick coffee fix at Fig Tree we were herded to the take-off site. The balloon lifted off at 6.30 as the sun began to rise over the Loita hills. Soon the Mara plains were bathed in brilliant sunshine. First sighting - a pride of lion, followed by more lions. Then elephants, a herd of 200 or so buffalo, and 2 different black rhinos. We couldn't believe our luck. We glided over savannahs, rivers and forests for 60 minutes expecting the balloon to land soon. But once again luck was on our side as the balloon kept drifting very slowly towards its landing site thus giving us another 30 to 40 minutes in the air. My previous balloon trips have resulted in one only upright landing on the ground so what the pilot was about to do this time took all of us by surprise - he landed straight on the back of the balloon truck upright! How cool is that! Nobody now cared that the champagne was poor quality sparkling wine. The landing was awesome, the cooked breakfast was equally good and the Mara was gorgeous. I highly recommend the balloon, even for the children.

The drive back to Siana was another eventful game drive with several lion, elephant, buffalo and hyena sightings. Finally we came across a female cheetah we thought was Kike from Big Cat Diary. She was perched on top of the roof of another landcruiser scouting for prey. This is the only other car we saw that morning - a confirmation that off-peak game drives are significantly better.

In the afternoon we swam in the pool before sauntering off to a local Masai Village with a naturalist. The Masai morans were in good form that day and danced their hearts out for us. The chief's son, a very bright educated chap, showed us around the Masai Boma and huts. A fascinating tour which ended with a visit to the Boma 'supermarket' selling Masai trinkets and beaded jewellery. Fortunately there was no pressure to buy but many of us , especially the children, felt sorry for the Masai women behind the counters and bought a few things. You may haggle but everything is so cheap that it just isn't worth it.

Later we had a nature walk, which everyone found fascinating. The children enjoyed the spear and stick throwing. The walk ended in yet another surprise sundowner and a chance to see the awesome views of Mara again. By now we were thinking that this was the last of the Vintage Africa surprise. Of course not! In the evening we were invited by the camp and drivers on what was billed as a special night game drive but which ended up being a superb surprise bush dinner. As we sat round the camp fire having cocktails, suddenly whistles rang out from all directions. None of us could quite work out what was going on until we saw ourselves surrounded by the Masai Moran who immediately went into chant overdrive. Soon they were rewarding the children with masai names and the whole event just blew everyone away. The children loved it and decided they want to work in the Masai Mara!
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Jan 21st, 2005, 09:30 AM
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WOW! What a trip! It sounds like it will be hard to top this one.

Can't wait to hear more.
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Jan 21st, 2005, 10:25 AM
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KIng, this is great hearing your report when we are just going!

One thing I'd like to ask you is how hot is it? both during the day and at night.

Keep hearing it can get "chilly" but what IS chilly??

We are off tomorrow (sat) at 5.30am arrive Nairobi about 9pm and are going to Tanzania too. I'm at that stage where I'm looking at my case and dithering! so a weather brief would help.
Thanks
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Jan 21st, 2005, 10:47 AM
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King,
Welcome home. Great trip report. It is definitely getting me geared up for my return to Kenya and the Mara in February. I can't wait.

Looking forward to reading the rest.
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Jan 21st, 2005, 11:55 AM
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sandi
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phil16 -
Is it that time? Gee, it seems like only yesterday that we were working out your itinerary. I'm so excited for you. You're going to have a fabulous time. And, of course, we expect a report from you. Safe and happy travels.

king -
Siana Springs often surprises guests with bush lunches, more often, dinners. Friends stayed here, the only guests when they visted, and likewise were surprised with a 5* bush dinner, with fine china, silver and so much wine they didn't think they'd make it back to the camp.

We've found the Masai to be absolutely wonderful when it comes to children who visit. Bye the way, how old were the children? Waiting on the rest of your adventure.
 
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Jan 21st, 2005, 04:21 PM
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Thanks Sandi - YES it is THAT time!
Feels unreal and I won't believe it till I'm in Nairobi (tomorrow night

When I come home (and down to earth) I'll try and post a trip report!

PS Never did discover what was "chilly" but I'm about to find out .... hope my packing makes sense over there.
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Jan 25th, 2005, 11:40 AM
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Day 4 and everybody decided to take a breather from game drives which had already yielded excellent sightings in just 3 days. One thing sorely missed though was the leopard which we never saw during the trip.

The day was spent writing diaries, reading, swimming and chatting to the naturalist who highlighted the conflicts which exist between the government and the Masai.

Observation - I feel children need a break of a day or two from game drives otherwise they will get ratty and simply lose interest in the safari. On one of our game drives we saw a family whose children were deeply engrossed in electronic games! How sad.

Day 5 - we flew back to Nairobi and had a super lunch at Macushla House before visiting the giraffe center. Feeding giraffes and warthogs was great fun. We thought Carnivore would be too, but it wasn't. We all had our worst meal for several years at the Carnivore - the meat was overcooked, tough, tasteless and inedible. (The only game meat they now serve is crocodile and camel, the rest has been banned by the government). The salads were awful and the sauces completely watered down. This is the restaurant that is so often recommended in this forum but I would advise any fodorite who loves good food to avoid it. Try Macushla House instead. It is beautifully decorated and a homely place to stay if you wish to avoid the big city hotels.

Day 6 and we were all looking forward to our camel trek. We took a charter flight to Loisaba airstrip and were then driven to Sabuk Lodge overlooking the Ewaso Nyiro river (good elephant and greater kudu sightings on the way to the lodge). This is a gorgeous little place with only 5 beautiful rooms and a lovely sitting and dining room, all open at the front.The children wanted to inherit their bedroom as soon as they saw it! The lodge is run by Tamsin Corcoran who is an excellent host and a fabulous cook.

We spent the first night at Sabuk Lodge which is on a small conservancy leased from the local Masai. The aim of the owner is to provide a safe haven to wildlife by keeping the Masai cattle off the land. The Masai however continue to flout the agreement as and when they feel like - such is the importance of land to them. With the rapid increase in Kenya's population, the pressure on land is immense and future for wildlife looks bleaker as it is cornered into smaller and smaller areas. But the Kenyans are not sitting idle, especially the settler families who have been opening their massive ranches to tourism and wildlife. I just hope that lodges like Sabuk have a future.

After a pleasant lunch at Sabuk, we were offered a swim in the river and most of us jumped at the offer as the day was scorching hot. I have to say that there were a few sceptics amongst the group who feared hippos, crocs and water-borne diseases but the rapidly flowing Ewaso Nyiro has none of these at Sabuk . We played in the river for a couple of hours, with children particularly enjoying 'tubing' down the river and jumping off a boulder. Apparently, a few days earlier wilddogs (yes wilddogs!)had killed 2 dik diks and almost caught an impala just next to where we swam. I was glad to be at Sabuk.

After the swim and showers we lazed on the huge cushions sipping beer and wine and munching tasty snacks. Dinner was on the viewing deck under the stars and was brill. Yet another amazing day in Kenya with the children and friends. The children, aged between 12 and 19, were loving it and this was turning out to be a very successful holiday - the best ever for all of us. But the camel trek was still to come and there could be some fallouts.
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Jan 25th, 2005, 12:41 PM
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King
I am interested in your dinner comments in Nairobi. I posted a little while ago asking about these 2 restaurants and did not get good comments about Macushla House which I think looks lovely on the web site. I was thinking we may just go to Carnivores and then on the the airport but now I am reconcidering and an early dinner at Macushla House may be preferable. We won't be back in Nairobi until noon - 1pm ish so was thinking light snack lunch and then early dinner. If you have any other comments to make I would be interested. We leave Saturday and I am so excited!!!

Thanks so much for your excellent report it is getting me even more excited.

J
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Jan 25th, 2005, 02:18 PM
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Thank you for the exciting report. I was glad to read about your rhino siting.
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Feb 17th, 2005, 10:06 AM
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king,
Will you be posting the rest of your trip report? I'm still anxiously awaiting the camel trek part!
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Feb 17th, 2005, 01:04 PM
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Thanks, great report. Interesting news about Carnivore -- I have eaten there a few times, in August 1999 and August 2003, and each time they served a variety of meats (zebra, hartebeast and ostrich being the best). The crocodile was terrible, and if its now paired with camel, which I ate in Saudi Arabia, the Carnivore is going to lose much tourist business.

But, I guess its better to preserve the animals than eat them, even though Carnivore always claimed the food was farm-raised.
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Feb 17th, 2005, 02:28 PM
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Thank you for this report... WHAT a trip!
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Feb 17th, 2005, 04:13 PM
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Thanks for the report. Awaiting the camels.
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Feb 28th, 2005, 09:12 AM
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Apologies for the delay due to busy work schedules. The next few installments will be slow.

The camel trek.

Yet another perfect dawn. The sky was still filled with stars and the moon and the sun behind the hills was making a slow appearance. Soon the day was glorious. In the yard behind the kitchen the camels were being prepared for the trek. I wandered off to see the progress and was greeted with excited camel minders and helpers. I was pleased to see that the staff did not find it a chore and were actually looking forward to the trek.

After breakfast I heard some bad news. A few days back, a woman walking with her friend back to her village nearby had been trampled to death by an elephant. This is the last thing I wanted to hear just before the trek. I was now confronted with the dilemma of revealing the news to everyone and the possibility of some of us abandoning the trek. In the end all of us continued with the trek with the knowledge that we were all taking a risk albeit a lower one as we had 2 armed guides. The parents were happy for the children to continue too.

At 9.30 we set off into the Kenyan bush. The path was lined with acacias and euphorbias and thick scrub covered the ground on both sides of the track. The only way to see beyond the scrub was from the camel's back. I decided to walk with the armed guide at the front while the rest were paired on 5 camels of varying temperament - one was a serial biter, the other a kicker and so on. The minders however were well versed with the camels' foibles that they managed to keep them under control with the crack of the whip (a flexible stick really)and a solid rebuke.

Ten minutes into the trek, we came across the first elephant prints. Fresh ones. My mind imagined an elephant attack, with camels on the run and the passengers barely hanging on. Within seconds the guides spotted a big herd about 200 meters to the left. They were moving in a parallel course to ours.
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Feb 28th, 2005, 09:34 AM
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Thanks for continuing your report. It's much appreciated!
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Mar 2nd, 2005, 05:38 AM
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The guide judged that the herd was at a safe distance for us to continue. The trek was beginning to reveal some of Kenya's beautiful landscapes further north, mountain scenery that rivals that of Nambia.

The guide identified a few plants and prints along the way and an hour into the trek made the first drink stop under a massive kopje. We clambered to the top of the Kopje and were confronted by breathtaking views of the Sabuk wilderness and the Ewaso Nyiro river below. Standing on the kopje I suddenly felt the immense magnetic force of the African wilderness - a force so powerful and irresitable that I let it take hold of me.

I stood on the Kopje for as long as I could, inhaling the air, scents and the freedom of Africa and savouring the raw nature. Even the lions, the leopards or the wild dogs mattered little until one of the spotters announced another herd of elephants directly in the path we were to take for our next stop. We decided to skirt round the herd, keeping a safe distance from it.

The sun was beating down by now - it is important to be well covered on a camel trek. I walked in the shadows of the camels for over an hour before we came to our next Kopje which revealed more amazing views of northern Kenya. 50 meters below us the elephants continued foraging and playing. It appeared they had stalled their advance in the heat and had taken shelter under the trees.

At mid-day, we had another hour's trek to our camp - this was longer than normal as we had had to take a detour round the eles . The heat was relentless and except for the children the rest were beginning to suffer now. We stayed cool by pouring water on the heads and chests. An hour was beginning to feel more like a day.

We first caught site of the camp as we reached the edge of the escarpment. Down below, the Ewaso Nyiro cut a meandering course through the valley. The camp was already up. Smoke and laughter rose towards us through the heat haze. We descended down the steep bank dotted with fresh ele markings for 10 minutes, sighting greater kudu herd along the way, and were greeted by beaming Masai,cold towels, fresh juices and cold beer on arrival. What a relief!

Our setting was stunning - the camp and the tents (standing room, not ensuite) overlooked the fast flowing Ewaso river and was surrounded by towering escarpments. Boulders and rocks lay strewn across the river and the riverbanks. Our lunch table was positioned under an acacia tree on the banks of the river. There was no fancy cutlery or silverware or crystal on the table, just plain enamel cups and melamine plates, but that didn't matter as the fresh bread, salads, cold meat cuts and fruit were divine. The food had all the hallmarks of the food we ate at Sabuk and we knew we were going to be well fed for the next 2 days at the camp.
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Mar 2nd, 2005, 08:16 AM
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Thanks for continuing.
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