Safridude's Trip Report Part I - Kenya

Oct 5th, 2006, 03:10 PM
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Safridude's Trip Report Part I - Kenya

In September, after a nine-year hiatus, I embarked on my sixth African safari (my fourth to East Africa) with four friends of mine. Sixth! Needless to say, I am a one-dimensional lunatic, but it’s what floats by boat. The following is what I saw, heard, smelled and felt at five truly magnificent places in East Africa. In short, Campi ya Kanzi was thought provoking with its unique pursuit of resolving human/wildlife conflicts; Meru quite simply stole my heart; Ngorongoro delivered once again; Serengeti mesmerized me with its immensity; and as for Ugalla, ooh… you’ll just have to read on…

Campi ya Kanzi, Kuku Group Ranch – the Future of Conservation

On the morning of September 10, our charter plane from Wilson airport sprinted down the runway southbound toward Nairobi National Park. In three previous trips to Kenya, this had been the official beginning of the safari, the defining moment -- as hundreds of zebras and wildebeests, having migrated from the nearby Athi plains at the onset of the dry season, would soon be seen. But only a couple of minutes into the flight, I came to a quick realization: Nairobi National Park was dead. I had been reading in Swara magazine about the plight of Nairobi National. New human settlements were blocking migratory corridors to the south and east. Cut off from their seasonally plentiful food supply, lions in particular suffered hard. I had seen pictures of the emaciated lions in Swara, but the brown, empty plains below me somehow looked more grotesque.

Thirty or so minutes into the flight, the pilot pointed out Mt. Kilimanjaro to our right. It, too, was an unfamiliar sight, as the snowcap has been reduced to nothing but a sliver due to climatic changes. Just when I was feeling let down, the emerald, improbably shaped hills of Chyulu came into view. Just south of them lies Kuku Group Ranch, where Campi ya Kanzi (“Camp of the Hidden Treasure” in Kiswahili) is located. Ten years ago, Luca Belpietro and his wife Antonella Bonomi, both originally from Italy, struck a deal with the local Maasai landlords to co-develop eco-tourism in this important wildlife dispersal area between Amboseli National Park and Tsavo West National Park. The camp provides employment for the local Maasais, the trust that was set up in conjunction with the camp helps them build and maintain schools and medical facilities, an agreement is made to restrict livestock grazing from certain areas of the ranch, and ultimately tourism revenues are shared. During the next three days, we would explore, in a vehicle and by foot, an array of biomes contained within the 250,000-acre ranch, including the whistling-thorn flecked plains surrounding camp, the artesian spring area several hundred feet below, and the dramatic hills above leading up to a patch of rainforest.

In the afternoons, we opted for game drives or walks above camp. The vistas from high up at Kuku Group Ranch rival those of Laikipia or even Ngorongoro. I took some of the best landscape photographs I have ever taken (it was easy). At sunset, it’s just one of those places -- with an endless view of the plains leading up to the base of Kilimanjaro and a cold Tusker in hand -- to contemplate life. Fauna-wise, the area around and above camp may as well be renamed “Hartebeest Farm”. The long, dry grasslands do not support big concentrations of game, but that is where those awkward looking beasts with fanatical eyes thrive, along with smaller herds of zebras, elands, giraffes and impalas. Lions and cheetahs occur here but in small doses. On several occasions, we saw lion tracks, and we were lucky to spot five cheetahs sitting together one late afternoon. Some unusual observations were made on the hills. We saw a lone male Thomson’s gazelle high up on the ranch in a patch of very tall grass long ways from any watering source (Thomson’s gazelles are reputed to prefer short grass and need to drink every day). As Luca would later point out, most of the research on Thomson’s gazelles has been carried out in Serengeti-Mara or Ngorongoro, and when it comes to wild animals, there is only one rule: there are no rules. We also saw a giraffe utilizing browse on a nearly vertical hill even though there were miles of suitable browsing below.

The highlight of the game viewing experience at Kuku Group Ranch, however, is the trips to the springs. These drives are typically done in the morning. As you descend from camp, one may be lucky to see a naked view of Killimanjaro’s peak before it gets shrouded by the usual late-morning clouds. About 30 minutes into the drive, you begin to come across some of the local Maasais, with their ever-present cattle and goats, in a large swath of shockingly overgrazed land. After passing several Maasai villages on the main road, the vehicle turns left onto a tiny, almost undetectable road. The scenery changes abruptly and dramatically. You enter an area of green acacia trees and shrubs, reminiscent of Amboseli National Park’s edges. Clearly, it is an area endowed with a high water table, because the vegetation stays green throughout the dry season. I forgot exactly what Luca told me about the area, but it is either an area which the Maasais for some reason choose not to let their livestock graze or an area that is off-limits for them according to an agreement struck with them. The area teems with giraffes, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, gerenuks, elands, and offers fleeting glimpses of lesser kudus. In the open plain beyond the acacia patch, I had a good viewing of the fringe-eared oryx. It was, for me, the highlight of my stay at Kuku Group Ranch; because I know their population is crashing, without much fanfare, throughout Kenya and Tanzania. At the edge of the plain, elephants can be seen watering from the springs. Just when you reach that blissful state of mind though, Africa throws you a curveball -- as belts of new cultivation (mostly corn) appears near the springs, highlighting the challenges of human/wildlife conflicts this land faces.

The overall experience at Campi ya Kanzi is one of total harmony. The camp is set inconspicuously on a gently rolling terrain. The individual tents and the main mess area are built in a completely eco-friendly manner. No careful planning was spared in this regard. For instance, each toilet has two flush buttons: one for small flushes and one for large. I came away from Campi ya Kanzi thinking that there are endless ways we can all strive to conserve. Ultimately, the place is about Luca. His magnanimous personality trickles down the plains and percolates up the hills. A self-described lunatic, he almost single-handedly created this innovative experiment in conservation. He is fluent or conversant in many languages. With just a hint of an accent, his English is much more eloquent than yours or mine. More so than any place I have visited in Africa (yes, I have been to the wonderful Lewa Downs), this was the most intimate and familial. It’s just like being a house guest in a Tuscan villa – except, of course, for the sound of Cape buffalos grazing twenty feet away from your tent at night.

Campi ya Kanzi was ultimately stimulating to the mind. It charged me up. I saw the future of wildlife conservation in Africa there: give an economic stake to the local people living on the periphery of national parks. I see this as the most logical, sustainable method of wildlife conservation. Campi ya Kanzi has been around for ten years. The neighboring Ol Donyo Wuas, located on the adjacent Mbirikani Group Ranch, has been around longer. I do not know how financially successful these concession areas are to the operators of the establishments or the Maasais who ultimately own the land. But, I do detect an enormous amount of positive vibes from the folks at Campi ya Kanzi. During my stay, I met a young man there whose family is close to Luca and Antonella. This current resident of South Africa and frequent visitor to Campi ya Kanzi told me that at times it is hard to be optimistic about Africa, but we both agreed that it doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Ecological failure is not an option for those of us who love Africa so much. The first step for all of you is to visit places like Campi ya Kanzi yourself. It will help, even if only marginally, to financially validate the innovative conservation model. Besides, you’ll love it. You will be profoundly moved. In many ways, it is a richer overall experience than “doing the Big-Five” at Maasai Mara. Thank you Luca, Antonella, Stefano, Samson, Matasha, Thomas, Pashiet, etc. at the Camp of the Hidden Treasure.

(Note: I, along with many people I met on the trip, generally agreed that places like Campi ya Kanzi, Ol Donya Wuas, Lewa Downs, etc. are better to visit at the end of your safari. This is contrary to what most travel agents recommend. I just think it is better to get the Big-Five/cats/migration thing out of your system at places like Maasai Mara first, so that you can relax and take in everything these other places have to offer.)

Next up: Meru National Park
safaridude is offline  
Oct 5th, 2006, 05:44 PM
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Your overview has me hooked.

Depressing start with a dwindling Nairobi National Park, then a melting Kilimanjaro, but that's reality. On a brighter note, Camp ya Kanzi is fascinating and really seems to be a hidden treasure. What a privilege to see what you labeled as the future of tourism. I can understand why you were moved.

Five cheetahs together? Does a group that size have a name? A chat of cheetahs or something?

Glad you saw the fringe eared oryx.

You had an outstanding start. How long at Campi ya Kanzi? Sorry if I missed it.
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 04:47 AM
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This is a great start, thanks for sharing! I can't wait to read more.

jenn24 is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 05:35 AM
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I had a very similar experience on my second visit to Nairobi NP in August 2003. I first visited the park in August 1999, and saw several lions, and several small herds of zebra, topi, wildebeasts, giraffe and ostrich, and a few black rhino (although the rhino were at a distance).

During my second visit, the park was largely devoid of animals (a few birds and very, very few large animals). I was also told that increased and relocated populations have interrupted historic migration paths.

My personal opinion is that Nairobi NP should be fenced, and used to protect black rhino (similar to the fenced reserved within Tsavo).

thit_cho is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 06:40 AM
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Great description, safaridude. But how could you neglect to mention the food at Campi ya Kanzi?! Among other delights, perfectly cooked risotto in the Kenyan bush...
Marija is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 06:48 AM
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Love your description of the land, the vistas, the flora and fauna, the maasais.....look forward to the next installment.


P.S: Wow!!! 5 cheetah....
Oct 6th, 2006, 06:53 AM
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Excellent start! Can't wait for Meru.
Patty is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 08:50 AM
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You are absolutely right, Marjia. The food. The food. The food. But, I did say it's just like being in Tuscany...
safaridude is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 09:02 AM
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The cheetahs. The cheetahs. The cheetahs.
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 11:01 AM
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Meru National Park – Reclaiming Paradise

No, I didn’t grow up with “Born Free”. As you may know, Meru National Park was where Elsa, the lioness, from “Born Free” was released. A few weeks before the trip, however, I did take out from a local library a couple of books written by Joy Adamson about her cheetah, Pippa, who was also released in Meru. The books were revealing. Adamson describes what must have been an absolute paradise. She describes Pippa surveying her options on the plains filled with big herds of Grant’s gazelles and beisa oryxes. Today, Meru is a far cry from what Pippa saw. Somali poachers began infiltrating the park in the ‘70s and then again in the ‘80s (there was an infamous incident when a poaching gang, armed with automatic weapons, killed off several white rhinos along with their human guardians in 1988). After a brief period or respite, the poachers returned with a vengeance in the late ‘90s when they virtually anchored themselves inside the park and poached out pretty much everything in sight except for the unpalatable waterbucks. Once a park that drew 50,000 visitors a year in the ‘70s, Meru became defunct. In 1999, however, Meru received a sizeable foreign aid in a bid to restore the park to its former glory. Since then, poachers have been forced out, security tightened around the periphery, local community relationships improved, and hundreds of animals translocated from other parts of Kenya. As a ringing endorsement to the state of affairs at Meru, several black and white rhinos have been moved into the park again – in a closely guarded rhino sanctuary in the northwest corner of the park. All of this information can be found on the internet in far greater detail. It’s exciting stuff.

Frankly, I was a bit apprehensive about Meru, not because of the security situation which is now iron-clad, but because I had been told by some people that the game can be “spotty”. How wrong they were! All the classic “northern species” are represented at Meru, and their numbers are good and growing. Samburu, Meru’s closest rival, is a more condensed experience. The total wildlife numbers are probably much lower at Samburu, but due to Samburu’s small size, one can see everything there in a day and a half (including many species of mini-buses). At Meru, you need more time and have to cover more ground to see everything. But, an efficient network of roads allows you to do that. The scenery is diverse and at times downright haunting. Mature doum palm trees dot the open plains, giving one the sense of being in Jurassic Park. Thick strands of commiphora dominate the south. Bright green, stunted combretum trees, spaced out evenly forming an orchard-like setting, provide contrast to the bleached grass underneath.

Elsa’s Kopje, the main lodge, is a marvel. Built onto Mughwango Hill, which is often referenced in Joy Adamson’s books, every room is uniquely designed. Elsa’s is currently looked after by Anthony and Emma, both Kenyan-born Brits, who will give you your privacy at first but charmingly engage if you are willing. Great food, smiling staff, and an inviting pool – you needn’t hesitate to skip a game drive.

On the first afternoon, George, our guide took us to the rhino sanctuary. Elephants, zebras, Grant’s gazelles, impalas, Coke’s hartebeests, dik-diks, reticulated giraffes, Somali ostriches, and a mess of waterbucks were seen along the way. No fewer than thirteen rivers criss-cross Meru. Every crossing point is negotiated over an unobtrusively designed bridge. Inside the heavily guarded sanctuary, we saw a total of five white rhinos – gentle giants they are, peacefully grazing on the floodplain, unaware of the bounty on their horns. The following day, we explored the northern part of the park. We saw a couple of lionesses sleeping off the ostrich meal from the previous night, but we did not see the rest of this big pride. I was pleased to see relaxed herds of beisa oryxes and a relaxed bull eland. These antelopes are wanderers, often moving out of protected areas, and they taste good to humans – as such, they tend to be the most skittish of the antelopes. The fact that they were so tame is a testament to the kind of quality protection Meru is currently providing them. I have not had good luck with the lesser kudu in the past, speaking of skittish antelopes. Despite having been to Amboseli, Tsavo West, Tsavo East and Tarangire, where they occur, I have only one marginal photograph of a full-grown male lesser kudu to show for it. Not only are they rare, they are also well camouflaged, and all you get by the time you point the camera is the flash of the tail. As a result, there are not many good photographs of them anywhere, and they are something of a holy grail for serious African wildlife photographers. But, in Meru, they run around like rats! In two full days, we had just shy of 20 separate sightings, and on three occasions, the males actually posed for a few precious seconds. The only “northern species” we did not see was Grevy’s zebra, although we saw spoor. Apparently, the translocation of Grevy’s zebras from Laikipia didn’t work out well. Only 20 or so Grevy’s zebras were moved in, not nearly enough for a viable population, and the lions took a heavy toll on them. There are only six or seven of them left in Meru now, and they are all females. Given that Meru is classic Grevy’s zebra country, I am certain one day a more successful translocation will take place. Thinking back to what Luca at Campi ya Kanzi said about how there are no set rules when it comes to wild animals, we observed or heard about more unusual animal behavior at Meru. Gerenuks are reputed to be ecologically separated from lesser kudus by their preference for relatively more open bush land. We found the exact opposite at Meru. While lesser kudus were, especially in the evenings, found in the relatively open bush, gerenuks were only seen in the impenetrable commiphora forests. One of the staff members told us that some cheetahs in Meru prefer the commiphora, subsisting on dik-diks and largely ignoring the impalas and Grant’s gazelles on the plains.

The first morning at Elsa’s Kopje, I was sipping my coffee by the swimming pool which overlooks the vast plains to the east. As the sun rose, my eyes welled up as I imagined what the scene must have been like in Elsa’s and Pippa’s times; then again in 1999 after the plains had been ravaged; then again 5-10 years from now. Then, it occurred to me that Meru will become a superstar again. As long as adequate protection is given, the herbivores will thrive (the proliferation of waterbucks, who were largely spared from poaching, hints at the potential of other herbivore population), which in turn, will lead to an increase in the number of carnivores. But the time is now to see Meru before it becomes popular again. You will have the whole park to yourself. Especially, if you have “been there and done that” at Samburu, you must go see Meru. Given the checkered history of Meru, this is, in all likelihood, the last chance for its survival. It is off to a great start, but we can all chip in to ensure that it prospers. Recall Bernard and Michael Grzimek’s groundbreaking work titled “Serengeti Shall Not Die!” I say “Meru Shall Not Die!”
safaridude is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 11:02 AM
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My question is how on earth you made it through your nine-year hiatus?!?

Wonderful start to your report.
Leely is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 11:05 AM
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Leely, rhino tranquilizer is the only thing that worked for nine years.
safaridude is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 11:31 AM
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How I would love to make a sacrifice for conservation visiting Campi Ya Kanzi! I don’t know what it’s called to feel let down by the reduced snowcap of Kilimanjaro while sitting in an airplane. :-? I need more info about Nairobi NP to know how much I disagree with Michael. You’ve convinced me that Meru has to be visited, not that I had any doubts before… I’ve actually spent a minute there and I won’t tell what kind of transport I was using. :-S I’ve been away from Africa for a year and three months and I’m becoming nastier each moment. You have to tell everything about Ugalla – VERY SOON.
Nyamera is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 12:45 PM
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I'm so happy to hear your comments about Meru. I can't wait to be there myself in two months!
Patty is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 02:54 PM
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Atravelynn, I was at Campi ya Kanzi for three nights. The final night is when I ran into Bruce and Marjia, fellow Fodorite and two of the nicest people around.

It's one of those places where you can spend a week chilling out.
safaridude is offline  
Oct 6th, 2006, 03:13 PM
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really enjoying your post. great descriptions of the places you visited. my first safari is coming up the end of november and Meru will be one of our stops after samburu.

can't wait to see your pictures

joeyi is offline  
Oct 7th, 2006, 11:43 AM
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This is a great trip report safaridude. Excellent perspective and I'm enjoying it very much.

If you haven't seen it, there is a 6 hour plus French documentary about the remaking of Meru which is very moving - well if, like me, you're moved by that sort of stuff. I can see it might be a bit slow moving for some though. It shows on Animal Planet from time to time. It's not that easy to get on DVD but here's a start.
kimburu is offline  
Oct 7th, 2006, 03:27 PM
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Will we be seeing any lesser kudu photos?

Are you on the Meru marketing staff? I think you have sold me. Your details on the wildlife were excellent. I knew Elsa's Kopje had a nice loo, but that alone did not entice me. Your report has!

You've lifted my spirits with a couple of success stories, first Campi ya Kanzi and now Meru.

Somewhere in this report can you post your complete itinerary? Thanks and looking forward to the rest.
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 9th, 2006, 10:23 AM
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Kimburu, I tried to get that DVD before the trip, but I couldn't. Did you get it? If so, how?

Atravelynn, my itinerary was as follows:

Campi ya Kanzi - 3
Meru - 2
Ngorongor - 2
Serengeti (Kirawira) - 3
Ugalla - 3

As for the pictures, I am turning professional -- so, I won't post them on this site (copyright reasons). Soon, however, I will have a website, and I'll let you know how to find it. In the mean time, I'll send some pics to your e-mail since you publish the address.

I will put the Tanzanian portion of the trip report on a separate thread. Ciao for now.

safaridude is offline  
Oct 9th, 2006, 10:37 AM
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Any photos of Meru and Elsa's Kopje that you'd like to share would be greatly appreciated pchang1972 at yahoo dot com. Thanks!
Patty is offline  

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