Kenya Trip Report - Aug. 2000

Aug 24th, 2000, 03:32 AM
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Kenya Trip Report - Aug. 2000


Kenya is the original and still the quintessential African safari destination. No other African country possesses its unique combination of widespread and easily accessible wildlife sanctuaries, fascinating people and culture, amazing diversity in landscape, and excellent range of accommodations catering for everybody from backpackers to folks who prefer to be pampered in ‘super-deluxe’ style. Kenya is where it all started, and while other safari destinations in eastern and southern Africa may be catching up fast, Kenya is still an excellent choice for a wildlife and culture experience.

The country’s problems are many and have been widely reported in the media. Political and fiscal mismanagement and corruption of one kind or another and an unfortunate series of extraordinary meteorological events (El Nino floods & recurring droughts), as well as sporadic political unrest & unrelated bombings, had a seriously negative impact on tourism in the 1990’s. However I think it is safe to say that Kenya is on the come-back trail in a big way. The recently announced resumption of World Bank/IMF funding is indicative of the fact that the country is at last taking the necessary steps to regain the confidence of foreign donors and by extension, the world community.

Certainly, Kenya has suffered from bad press of late and its problems - undeniable as they are - have to a significant degree been exaggerated by various media outlets, such as the New York Times in a recent story by Blaine Hardin. Hardin’s portrait of the Kenyan tourism industry being practically on its knees (‘The last Safari’...) has been widely criticized within and beyond Kenya. During our short August 2000 visit, we found many signs of an upswing. Bookings are solid for the current season and safari operators were very positive about the immediate future. Signs of expansion and construction were not hard to find, notably on the roads which were much better than I had anticipated, especially having experienced those of Tanzania and Madagascar very recently. While power outages and water shortages in Nairobi may be a severe problem for its residents, the average visitor remains largely unaware of this, as none of the large hotels are affected. In the remote wildlife areas one might as well be on a different planet and had we not been traveling with a small shortwave radio, we would not even have learnt of the Concorde disaster. The trip could not have been more relaxed, and concern for our personal safety was never an issue.

So if you are thinking about a trip to Kenya but are put off by what may appear to be all kinds of ‘problems’, keep in mind that isolated incidents of bandits robbing a group of tourists or sporadic car-jackings and muggings in Nairobi are just that - isolated incidents that occur mostly in Nairobi or other populated centers. They do not denote a crime wave in other parts of Kenya. Crimes that occur elsewhere (in the world) are often blown out of proportion, while crimes that occur in our home country are kept in perspective. I cringe when I hear residents of some of the USA’s ‘murder capitals’ (I have lived in two of them - Washington D.C. and Houston) blithely profess to be fearful of traveling to Africa. If every single serious crime committed in those two cities every week were to be cataloged and published under banner headlines in one section of the local newspaper, it would unleash a veritable crime wave... Statistically, you are much safer in Kenya on holiday than you are driving a car - anywhere. The chances of something 'bad' (other than being involved in a wreck) happening to a tourist in Kenya is statistically right up there with being struck by lightning, being bitten by a shark or injuring yourself hanging Christmas ornaments. Most of us can live with that degree of risk - we do it every day. PART 2 TO FOLLOW.
Aug 24th, 2000, 03:36 AM
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I used to think that game-viewing in Kenya, particularly during the migration of the wildebeest herds into the Masai Mara, consisted of little more than thousands of wildebeest, with some zebra and gazelle mixed in. On our visit in early August we certainly did see wildebeest in their hundreds and even thousands, but we were very happy to also see a great variety of other species. In just two full days of game-viewing on the Mara, we experienced many excellent sightings of mammals such as olive baboon, Cape buffalo, dik-dik, eland, elephant, three types of gazelles, giraffe, hippo, spotted hyena, jackal, lion, reedbuck, black rhino, serval cat, topi, waterbuck and Burchell’s zebra. In just more than a week in Kenya, our total mammal list was 35 species, several of which were new to us including the superb Grevy’s zebra and reticulated giraffe, and the no less handsome Beisa oryx. The bird-watching was excellent too. And, as was the case on a visit to the Serengeti Plains in Tanzania in April 2000, we never did come across the ‘hordes of visitors’ who supposedly jockey for position at prime sightings. The most vehicles we ever saw together were three, at a mating lion ‘threesome’ in the Musiara area. It would seem to me - at least on the basis of my own firsthand experience - that East Africa has an undeserved reputation for being ‘crowded’. We found it to be everything but. Those of you that have been there will know just how huge the Serengeti National Park is - and although small by comparison, the Masai Mara National Park is nevertheless massive.

During our August visit we stayed at four camps in Kenya, namely Lewa Tented Camp at Lewa Downs in the north, Sangare Tented Camp in the Aberdare Mountains, Delamere’s Camp at Lake Elmenteita in the Rift Valley and Mara River Camp, on the north-western edge of the Masai Mara, close to the Oloololo & Musiara Gates. The areas in which the camps are located offer a great diversity of wildlife and landscapes. No two places felt the same and every day was a new adventure.

All four the camps are managed and operated entirely by Kenyans, from top to bottom and they exude an atmosphere of ‘old Africa’ as opposed to ‘designer Africa’. The camps are small and personable, and with our expert guide and 4-wheel-drive vehicle (no minibuses) we had considerable flexibility to schedule activities to suit our requirements. It was definitely not a case of relentless game drives blurring the one into the other by Day 4... The food was wholesome and filling rather than gourmet, but the overall operation is very much ‘first-class’ rather than budget-oriented.

Our first camp, Lewa Downs, was very dry, but the game-viewing was nothing short of spectacular. We had barely entered the reserve on the early afternoon of July 29, when we spotted a solitary white rhino at point blank range near the entrance gate. Our subsequent views of black rhino just underscored the size of this behemoth of an animal, the biggest land mammal after elephant. In short order, we saw several of the beautiful Reticulated Giraffe, many Grevy’s Zebra (our favorite new animal of the trip), lots of eland, Beisa Oryx, and some particularly impressive Somali Ostriches in breeding condition. The game drive took us through dry mixed thornveld, grassveld and good patches of riverine forest, dominated by massive yellowbarked acacia, also known as fever trees. Lewa Downs is Kenya as you might wish to capture it on canvas: great grassy expanses of rugged African veld with a backdrop of soaring cliffs, and a ribbon of lush riverine vegetation where the one ends and the other begins. PART 3 TO FOLLOW.

Aug 24th, 2000, 03:43 AM
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At sundowners atop a small kopje, overlooking a large tract of acacia bushveld, Kathleen spotted a couple of black rhino moving rapidly from our left to right. Back in the vehicle our guide Albanus anticipated where they would cross the road and less than 10 minutes later we were literally face to face with an adult female black rhino and her two-year old calf, right in the middle of the road, perhaps 15 meters in front of us. As we were approaching them, she swung around, lifted her head and looked straight at us, displaying her impressive twin horns while uttering a warning snort. It was a very satisfying end to a productive half day of game-viewing. Other game-viewing highlights at Lewa were some great views of waterbuck at the swamp, and several large herds of elephant.

The tents at Lewa Tented Camp (formerly known as Lerai Tented Camp) are large and comfortable with electric light on demand, en-suite flush toilet & showers which took a while to get hot. Lunch was pretty typical fare of roast beef and lamb with peanut sauce, smoked ham, a variety of salads, rice, freshly baked bread and pineapple fritters for dessert.

Our next stop was Sangare Tented Camp where manager Sammy Kabaiko and resident ethno-botanist Paul Kabochi wowed us with their hospitality and unrivaled knowledge. Both Sammy and Paul take their meals with guests, so there is much interaction with them beyond the activities. The food was delicious and one of the other guests, an administrator from Case Western Reserve University, only half-jokingly threatened to hire away the chef. We certainly did enjoy the pork chops, roast lamb, Spanish omelets, excellent coffee and great desserts. As a host, Sammy was warm and relaxed, yet it quickly became obvious that he runs a tight ship: not a thing was out of its place. Our tent was immaculate, right down to having warm water bottles in bed when we came back from our night walk.

Sangare Camp has a beautiful setting with only six tents spread out along a small lake. The tents are well equipped with solar powered lights, flush toilets and showers, hot water provided very effectively by wood-burning stoves. Local activities at Sangare include nature walks, fascinating night walks and horse-back riding. For people staying a day or two longer, half day or full day game drives are undertaken to the Aberdares National Park or Solio Game Ranch which has good numbers of both Black and White Rhino.

Paul Kabochi, the resident guide at Sangare, is like a walking encyclopedia about mammals, birds and plants; what he does not know about practically every living organism in the area is probably not worth knowing. He can ‘read’ the signs of the wild (tracks, droppings, bone & hair fragments, etc.) as well as anybody I have ever observed. His description of a recent incident when guests observed a leopard dragging its prey into a cave, was as good as having been there. Standing at the entrance of the cave, he sketched for us a picture of how the various species of wildlife in the area interact and share the same living space. Using the skeletal remains of the jaws of an hyena and a warthog he succinctly illustrated the mechanics behind the difference in ‘bite force’ of these two mammals. Vaguely remembered, dry biology textbook details from my college days became real and unforgettable in just seconds. Paul is sometimes difficult to understand, but if you stick close to him and listen carefully you will get a glimpse of his astonishing knowledge of natural history. PART 4 TO FOLLOW.
Aug 24th, 2000, 03:50 AM
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From Sangare we drove to Delamere’s Camp via the town of Nyahururu. From there, the scenery changed dramatically as we descended the eastern wall of the Rift Valley. At a lookout point en route, we stopped to enjoy the glorious view right across the rift, which is rather narrow at this point. From there, our route took us past Lake Nakuru, where we could see large pink flocks of flamingoes (they’re back!) to the edge of Lake Elmenteita, where Delamere’s Camp sits amongst a dense stand of mature fever trees, with a wonderful view over the Lake.

Delamere's Camp was every bit as enjoyable as any of the other camps. We were totally charmed by camp manager Elia Buko who really made us feel 'at home' in no time at all. The camp consists of 16 tents, all with excellent lighting, lots of room to unpack, huge bathrooms, and very hot showers. Definitely a good place to spend more than just a day or two, especially if you are a keen bird-watcher.

The sundowner experience at Delamere’s Camp on the cliffs overlooking Lake Elmenteita will probably remain as one of our most lasting Africa memories, ever. Having just left the camp on foot, en route to the sundowner spot about half a mile away, we noticed the presence of a small group of buffalo, who were watching our progress intently, obscured by the relatively thick bush. Fortunately they were far enough away not to pose any imminent danger. Even so, their presence added a bit of excitement to what may have been a rather uneventful stroll.

At the top of the cliff a beautiful vista awaited us. Reflected in the glassy surface of the lake, several towering columns of clouds seemed to be slowly dissolving into the golden-yellow hue of the setting African sun, like watercolors on a colossal canvas. Suitably humbled by such a display of nature’s beauty, we quietly sipped our sundowners and enjoyed our grilled venison kabobs and spicy Samoosa treats, watching a group of Greater Flamingo in pursuit of their own late afternoon snack.

An earlier nature walk along the shores of the Lake was extremely informative and was a nice break from the vehicle. The guide, Dominic, talked enthusiastically about a wide range of topics including the feeding habits of the Lesser & Greater Flamingoes, the structure and organization of an harvester ant colony, and the origin of the name of the fever tree. On a second full day at Delamere’s Camp a game drive can be undertaken to nearby Lake Nakuru National Park which has a high density of big game species such as rhino, lion and leopard. The park is known as a haven for the Defassa Waterbuck, a particularly photogenic antelope species. PART 5 TO FOLLOW.

Aug 24th, 2000, 03:57 AM
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It was a long way by road from Delamere’s to the Masai Mara. Although the actual distance is only about 200 miles, it took a good 6 hours. Road conditions were fair to good, until just beyond Narok, from where a very rough road leads to the Oloololo Gate of the Masai Mara National Park. About 12 kilometres outside of the park boundary, right up against the 1,000 feet high Oloololo Escarpment, we passed several small Masai settlements, turned a couple of times onto even rockier tracks, and found Mara River Camp right inside the riverine forest along a muddy stretch of the river with the same name.

Mara River Camp is no 5-star luxury retreat, and there are no grand ‘out of Africa’ design elements visible in its cozy lounge and dining area or in its closely spaced tents. The rather uninspired cooking isn’t going to win any awards either. Even so, you’d be making a mistake to scratch it off your list of places to go and things to see. Mara River Camp will definitely appeal to folks who prefer a very comfortable, friendly and highly personalized experience over the glitz of its upmarket competitors. What really made our stay at Mara River Camp memorable - other than the superb setting of the camp itself - was the staff, who were exceptionally friendly and helpful. Manager Godfrey Mwirigi set an excellent example of hospitality of the highest level and he was hardly ever out of sight, always making sure that everything went smoothly. If he wasn’t chatting to guests, he was teaching them to play Mbao, an ancient African board game. Kathleen really enjoyed her lecture on the Masai culture, presented by a Masai camp assistant, Tito, who hails from the area and who is very active in promoting education amongst Masai women. Kathleen regrets not having had time to go and visit the village; this is something we would definitely recommend to our clients. The village is very close by and visiting female guests may opt to go dressed in the Masai style, complete with a kanga & beaded jewelry. PART 6 TO FOLLOW
Aug 24th, 2000, 03:59 AM
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The game-viewing drives with local guide Chris were superb - so many different mammals and such great views. Chris has a nice sense of humor and had us chuckling all along the way with his homespun wit, on topics such as the mating habits of lions to the antics of the wildebeest. Chris also helped us find an amazing variety of wildlife. The Mara is fantastic, no doubt about that. Amongst the special things we witnessed were the sight of an African Fish Eagle, keenly watching a writhing mass of barbel (catfish) trapped in a rapidly shrinking small muddy pond at Musiara Swamp. We also experienced an elephant sighting which was sublime. Sitting in the stationary vehicle right in the middle of a very relaxed herd, we watched them split up to the left and right to avoid us, so close that the cameras and binoculars were of little use, and all we could do was to stare in awe, marvel at the unbelievable size of these most gentle giants, and experience a twinge of apprehension at the sight of their impressive ivory.

Our first hour or two in the park on August 2 can certainly only be described as magical. Some very recent rainfall had refreshed the area, and sizable herds of wildebeest, with lots of other species sprinkled in, could be observed in any direction from the main track just inside the Oloololo Gate.

It was not just the abundance of game which made the Mara special on this day. It was the setting, the isolation and the knowledge that we were observing a spectacle that has little changed from what it might have looked like thousands of years ago. As it has done over countless millennia gone by, year in and year out, the soft golden light which fell on the Mara on this early August morning in 2000 imbued everything it touched with a warmth and natural vitality which is peculiarly African. Having seen it a hundred times before makes it no less special - and knowing that it will happen again a million times over makes it no less precious. This is the Africa that connects with visitors in some subtle, unspoken but deeply moving way - that keeps them coming back in search of one more magical morning, one last glimpse of the vanishing world of nature.
Aug 24th, 2000, 07:56 AM
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Bert: Many thanks for taking the time and effort to post this. It is a terrific report and I know I will go there someday.

I live in Washington DC and have recently seen the zebras you write of at our National Zoo, a poor substitute for seeing them in the wild, I know. Their stripes are different from other zebras -- closer together, I think?

I was interested in your reassurances about Kenya as a safari destination. You are right of course about the irony of Americans in crime-ridden cities decrying Kenya as dangerous. But Kenya's problems have been so publicized, and recently it seems I have heard more favorable reviews of safaris in Botswana. It is good to know that many of the attractions that made Kenya the preeminent safari destination for years remain so impressive.
Aug 24th, 2000, 10:15 AM
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What a report! When reading it, it felt like if I was there again - we have made a safari in Kenya in 1996.
Like most people who have once been in Africa, we also feel that we must go back to this beautiful continent.
So we are making plans for another safari in 2001, probably to Botswana or Zimbabwe if the political situation is stabilized by then.
Aug 25th, 2000, 09:58 PM
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Bert, congratulations and a heartfelt thank you for a wonderfully detailed and interesting trip report.
It brought back many wonderful memories of my Kenyan photo safari back in January 1986...Amboseli, Aberdares, Samburu, Masai Mara, and Mt. Kenya Safari Club.
You really ought to offer your trip report to your local newspaper, AAA magazine, etc. They just might buy it as the interest in Africa/Kenya is certainly still there.
Aug 26th, 2000, 01:13 PM
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Thanks Bert for a great report, may I ask a couple of questions? Are you a travel agent? I ask because I know when agents travel for "educational" purposes, they get extra special treatment that us ordinary folks don't. That's not a critisizm just an observation. Also, did you take a packaged tour (with who) or go it alone? I absolutly want to see Kenya and maybe Tanzania also, so I really enjoyed your tale.Thank you.
Aug 27th, 2000, 08:07 AM
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To answer your question, yes I am a travel agent who specializes in Africa and Madagascar. Having done quite a few educational trips in places such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and now East Africa, I have experienced both sides of the coin. On some trips I have definitely received 'preferential treatment' if one can call it that, on others not. On this particular Kenya trip most of our activities and all our meals etc. were enjoyed in the company of other guests, so we experienced exactly what any 'regular' guest would. Matter of fact most guests would have a smoother ride as they would fly between some camps, whereas we drove all the way.

We did not go it alone - we were on an abbreviated (several one night stands) package trip operated by East African Ornithological Safaris (EAOS), a first-class Nairobi-based operator.
Aug 27th, 2000, 12:33 PM
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Hi Bert
My husband and I spent two weeks in June in the same four camps you mentioned in your trip report and our guide in Sangare was Paul and in Delamere's Dominic. We flew from camp to camp and we decided this was a way to go in Kenya. However we are independent travelers and our experince may be a little different but we had a fantstic trip. What we did not like in Lewa Downs - Lerai Tented Camp was a manager who spent all her time with a travel agent from London and she disregarded the other guests staying at the camp. But all stuff and game drives at Lewa were excellent and we would not hesitate to return there. We were planning this trip to be our first and only one safari but because it was inexpensive in comparison to the other companies offering safaris in East Africa we are able to plan our next trip in 2002. Too bad you did not have a chance to spend a night at the Tree House at the Delamere's. Regardless of my English as a fourth language do you think anyone would be interested to read a safari report desribing the same camps?

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