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Solo female, safari rookie, and now a member of the Porini family


Dec 28th, 2010, 06:02 PM
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Solo female, safari rookie, and now a member of the Porini family

After months of planning, packing (and overpacking, and repacking), daydreaming, and scouring these travel forums with the kind of zeal usually reserved for religious fanatics, I made my visit to Kenya. Thanks to everyone for their invaluable advice, some of which I wisely followed, some of which ... well, you'll see.

Top level details:

Departed from Washington, DC (IAD) on British Airways on November 30th. Transferred through LHR on December 1st, arriving in Nairobi at about 10:00 that night.
2 Nights in Nairobi - Macushla House
Drive to Selenkay/Amboseli
2 Nights in Selenkay Conservancy - Amboseli Porini
Safari Link transfer to Nanyuki
2 Nights in Ol Pejeta Conservancy - Porini Rhino
Safari Link transfer to the Mara
2 Nights in Olare Orok Conservancy - Porini Lion
Safari Link transfer back to Nairobi for BA flight back to Washington, DC (via LHR)

Quick caveat: I'm adapting some of this text from a blog I set up for family and friends, none of whom have been on safari. As a result there may be some extraneous detail here; it's from my explanations to them and in no way reflects my opinion of your expertise!

So, what does a person need to do when she decides to set out for Kenya by herself? Answer: surprisingly little.

Maybe it was the fact that I’m usually cooped up in an office with no windows. Maybe it was living in a city whose “wildlife” consists only of squirrels and pigeons (or rats). Maybe I had just seen Out of Africa one too many times. Whatever the reason, I made up my mind several months ago to book myself onto a safari, and I think the biggest hurdle was just deciding to do it. I went with a Porini safari that I booked through Go2Africa because I’d read good things about the Porini camps and their operator, Gamewatchers, while Go2Africa was able to offer me assistance and good rates on both the safari and some excursions in Nairobi. After taking a deep breath and paying the deposit, it was just a matter of getting trip insurance, a renewed passport, and an array of shots and vaccinations that made me feel like a pincushion for a few weeks. I think that was probably all I needed to do.

As to what else I actually did, well, that’s a different story.

What follows is a long digression into my preparations (also known as “insane overthinking”), so read on at your peril.

They say that planning for a trip is half the fun, and that’s probably true. But it’s easy to get carried away when you’re planning on your first safari, and it’s just possible that I may have gone a little bit nuts during the months leading up to my trip.

As most of you know, the weight limit on the internal flights in Kenya was 15kg (about 33 pounds). That sounds like a pretty generous amount, but when you consider that a lot of bags can weigh 7 or 8 pounds before you add a single item of clothing to them, you start to realize that throwing everything but the kitchen sink into a bag “just in case” — my usual M.O. — might not be an option. Since I also had an inexplicable but persistent nightmare vision of myself arriving in Kenya only to discover that all my luggage had been lost along the way, I decided to do the whole trip from a carry-on bag. This seemed plausible primarily because I knew I’d be spending most of my time “in the bush”, meaning I could get by without a lot of the toiletries that usually make carry-on travel such a nightmare for women. So on the plus side, “make-up” on this trip was going to be sunscreen and lip balm. On the down side, certain essential gear like a decent camera and binoculars were going to add weight, no getting around that.

So, the bag. Did you know that there are whole websites devoted to people who travel with only one bag at a time? There are. And they’re dizzying. Some of these people are really hard core; they drill holes in their toothbrush handles to keep the weight of their bags low and react with horror at the thought of wearing anything as heavy as denim while traveling. Not everyone is such a diehard, but reading sites like onebag.com or onebagger.squarespace.com or whatnot could leave you a bit stunned if you take it too seriously.

I'd had some back issues earlier in the year (a phrase that's guaranteed to make a person feel geriatric even if she's still a "thirtysomething"), so I decided against anything that had to be carried on one shoulder and bought myself a convertible backpack that’s just about the maximum legal carry-on size (the MEI Voyageur, if you care to know). It worked beautifully, and nobody ever gave my luggage a second look when I arrived at the airstrips with it and the smaller daypack that held my camera’s spare memory cards, animal guidebook, small pharmacy (Dramamine, antimalarials, allergy meds, Immodium, Cipro, Vicodin in case my back blew out again, etc.) and so forth.

Now, what to put in the bag? I’ve mentioned some items that went in my daypack, but imagine, if you will, the near-obsessive consideration that went into every item and you’ll end up ready to burst into hysterical laughter at how I’ve spent the better part of my autumn. For example, I mentioned the spare memory cards for my camera, well, first I needed a new camera. My old one is one of those point-and-shoot deals that can fit in your pocket; hardly the sort of thing you’d want on a safari. That meant I had to research digital cameras: how user-friendly are they? How much do they cost? How much do they weigh? How long do their batteries last? What kind of batteries do they take? What level zoom do they feature? What do people who have owned them say about them? Do I need special filters? How many memory cards do I need? How tough are they? Do they have decent image stabilization? Should I also bring the old camera as a back-up? That’s just some of what I had to decide before buying the camera — think what I had to learn when looking into binoculars, which seem to have a whole different vocabulary.

Consider, too, the clothes it’s “suggested” that you bring. It’s the start of summer and the end of the “little rains” in Kenya at this time of year, so I had to dress for rain and for African summer. One of the camps I was booked at is on the Equator (hot days! but at elevation (cold nights!, meaning clothes for both temperature extremes were necessary. Layers were a must, but only what would fit in a carry-on bag. And, as nearly everyone who’s ever met me has pointed out at one time or another, I didn’t really own many “play clothes” so I had to buy almost an entire wardrobe.

And then there’s the matter of color; there are quite a few points that most safari outfitters will make when advising newcomers. Black and dark blue attract tse-tse flies (there went most of the t-shirts and casual clothes I did own). Bright colors are a no-no; they might startle the animals (doubtful — lots of them are colorblind, and they’ll hear you coming anyhow). White’s not a good idea because it’s so dusty in Kenya (true). Camouflage is actually illegal in some parts of Africa because it’s for military only (I wasn’t about to challenge that). My conclusion: there’s a reason people in those old safari movies were always wearing khaki. To REI and Sierra Trading Post and other online outfitters I went, and they got a sizable portion of my budgeted vacation fund when I had to buy a number of articles of clothing in sun protectant, insect-repellent, breathable, quick-drying fabrics in colors ranging from “sand” to “British tan” to “blacken pine”. Toward the end of this charade, I bought a lightweight shirt in bright red out of sheer obstinacy.

Witness the level of paranoia: I had a "to pack" pile in my spare room a couple of weeks before I left. Among other things, the pile included two ridiculous hats and guidebooks (I ultimately took only one of each), too many shirts (one in the very risky dark blue, which I later removed from the bag), lots of antiseptic wipes and toilet tissues (hey, we've all been warned about "bush breaks"), a raincoat (didn’t use), travel pillow (barely used), and much, much more. Binoculars, my eReader (a Barnes and Noble Nook), a converter for my battery charger, spare batteries, sunscreen, insect repellent … these things add up surprisingly quickly. When I finally weighed my bags, I was just under the 15kg weight limit, and that was after I’d ditched one of the books and a number of articles of clothing.

Not to worry, though, I had bigger things on my mind. Chief amongst them: it was only in the days immediately preceding my departure that I noticed I had only an hour and 25 minutes between my connecting flights in London. I don’t know how many of you have had to travel through London’s Heathrow airport in the past, but my recollection was that it was a nightmare, and the fact that I was connecting to another international flight meant I’d have to go through security all over again in London. Calls to my travel agent and British Airways resulted in assurances that even an hour was sufficient to make the transfer and that BA would put me on another flight if I missed the connection. This was somewhat less than reassuring, as I wanted to be able to experience my whole trip as it was then planned, not just what could be squeezed in after flight delays.

Salvation came, oddly enough, in the form of the snowstorm that hit the UK. I was watching my flight information 24 hours before my departure when I noticed that it had a projected snow delay getting into Heathrow. The good people at British Airways might just have been getting tired of hearing from me by then, but when I called again and mentioned the storm, they agreed to put me on a flight leaving DC three hours earlier than originally scheduled. I had to hustle to get to Dulles on time to catch my flight out but, finally, all that obsessive packing and re-packing paid off; I was ready to go at the drop of the proverbial hat.

The flight to London was pretty low key; it’s never fun to be on a plane for hours, but there weren’t any real hiccups. I started to feel like I was really getting somewhere when I got on the shuttle for my connecting flight to Nairobi. The shuttle was packed and I was afraid I’d sat on my neighbor’s coat when I sat down, so I apologized. He turned to me with a face-splitting grin and exclaimed with all sincerity, “Family!” We shared a smile and headed for the plane. (Sadly, that leg of the flight was less fun than the previous one. This was due to the screaming child sitting in front of me. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I lost patience, but I believe it was right around the time the oversized giraffe-shaped beanbag came flying over the seat back and onto my head.)

When we finally touched down in Nairobi some eight hours later, it was about ten at night, and I was directed to a line to get my Kenyan visa. There were four of these lines, and I was behind an absolute scrum of passengers; I was probably 40th or so in a line bunched up in a crowded, overheated immigration area. If (when) I go back, I’ll consider getting my visa in advance; I could only watch glumly as the family with the screaming child was led to the front of one of the lines (probably because the airport staff loved them about as much as I did) while everyone else waited in the lines that seemed to be moving at a speed rivalled only by glacial ice floes. I think I counted five people getting through in the first 22 minutes. Mercifully, the airport staff finally took pity on us and started directing the people awaiting visas to any open desks, whether they were designated for Kenyan citizens only or not. I made it out of the airport about an hour after landing, which, all things considered, was better than I had hoped. On the plus side, the visas were only $25, not the $50 I'd expected (rumor has it that the cost goes up after the New Year).

I was picked up just past immigration by Gamewatchers, who had sent both a driver and another guide (Gideon and Victor) to take me to Macushla House. It was only about a 20 minute drive and they were very friendly, telling me about the city as we went. To be honest, even though I really appreciated the friendly faces and chatter, I can’t say I retained much of that conversation, as I was pretty sleep-deprived by then. And it was dark outside, which limited what they could show me. Still, I was able to catch glimpses of flora unlike what we’ve got in DC, and it was great to pull into the drive at Macushla House to be greeted by a smiling man named Walter who offered me some dinner (I declined) and took my order for the next day’s coffee and breakfast before showing me to my room. I think I managed only a quick tooth brushing, barely remembering in time to use bottled water, before all but passing out.

In the morning, I woke up greatly refreshed and had my first cup of genuine Kenyan coffee (sublime), made my way to breakfast, and had a brief look around the grounds. The vervet monkeys were out in force, leaping about on vehicles, woodpiles and so forth. It seemed like no time at all had passed before my driver was at the door, and it was time for the next step of the adventure.

As we drove off toward the Giraffe Centre, I thought about the woman who had served me breakfast and spoken with me briefly. She had noticed me staring out at the colorful area near the pool and smiled when I told her how much I'd been looking forward to getting out of the city (Washington) and back to where there was some actual nature to see. In reply, she nodded and said, "You can feel yourself coming alive." Yes, and a thousand times yes!

Sightseeing in Nairobi (well, Karen) to follow ...
WindowlessOffice is offline  
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Dec 28th, 2010, 07:00 PM
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What a great start! Smart idea to call ahead to the airline when you learned about the weather.

I do hope you have a photo of yourself wearing some of the British tan. I'd like to find out just what shade of tan that might be.

The onebag link was interesting.

Your $25 bucks to the good before the adventure begins!
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Dec 28th, 2010, 07:45 PM
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This is, and is going to be, a fun read !

regards - tom
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Dec 29th, 2010, 02:02 AM
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super nice report great detail keep it comin...
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Dec 29th, 2010, 08:27 AM
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nice! looking forward for the rest of your story

Really can relate to the packing struggles as I was trying to get all my stuff within 10kg while going to Nepal. Didn't manage to get it in a bag the size of handluggage though, that must have been a whole other struggle!

very smart to phone the airlines like you did!
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Dec 29th, 2010, 10:35 AM
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Thanks for the positive feedback!

I know I must have gotten really lucky with those flights; I was the only person at the first of my camps, but there was another couple that was supposed to have been there. They simply didn't show up, and we were pretty sure it's because they got caught in the airport closures in London.

I'll have to check my photos to see whether I have any with the British tan, atravelynn; I've gotten good at avoiding being in pictures, in general, as I'm the very reverse of photogenic. As to the onebag link, I agree that it's more helpful than most. I'm not exaggerating when I say that some of those sites are ... intense, but that one is actually pretty reasonable and informative.

Nikao, I can't imagine cutting things back to 10kg, even though I know it's required for certain places. I was thinking about what I'd packed for Kenya and there are items I could have left home, but I don't think it was anywhere near totalling 5kg!

I'll try to get more posted soon (before my holiday vacation ends, anyway); I really had an excellent time.
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Dec 29th, 2010, 05:46 PM
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Thanks for posting your report. I'm looking forward to reading about your incredible safari, especially as I can relive my trip thru your report as you have the exact itinerary and two of the same camps (Rhino and Lion) I experienced for my first safari this past August. I also used Go2Africa and Gamewatchers as the ground operator and had a wonderful time. I can definitely relate to how good it feels once you finally land on African soil after months of pre-planning and knowing you have a spectacular adventure ahead.
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Dec 29th, 2010, 06:41 PM
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Welcome back Windowless! Your 1st installment is already cracking me up so this should be a fantastic read! Hoping there'll be photos coming as well...yes we're a demanding bunch for sure.

What did you think of Macushla House?
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Dec 29th, 2010, 07:32 PM
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I am eagerly waiting for the next installment. I will be going on first safari next Oct. Love the packing anxieties. Tells me what is in store for us.
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Dec 29th, 2010, 07:55 PM
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Great read so far!! I am becoming inspired to try the "carry-on only" trip. I am with you on being "the reverse of photogenic"! Eagerly awaiting the next installment.
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Dec 29th, 2010, 10:48 PM
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how much weight were you allowed to bring with you on the plane?? I thought hand luggage was only allowed to be either 5kg or 8kg?
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Dec 30th, 2010, 05:19 AM
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WindowlessOffice - just curious to know your experience at Amboseli Porini because I keep reading about the drought in 2009. What was the condition like when you were there?
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Dec 30th, 2010, 06:24 AM
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BillJ, I have no doubt you're going to have a wonderful time. A lot of my packing anxieties were unnecessary, but ... I don't know, the hyper-acute focus on all the details was, by itself, kind of fun for me. It gave me an excuse to keep the upcoming trip at the forefront of my mind.

Nikao (and scruffypuma), I think the weight restriction depends on the airline. I know I've heard that American Airlines and others like it do limit carry-on baggage to a pretty low weight, but British Airways didn't. All they asked was that you were able to lift it into one of the overhead bins without assistance (and that you abided by the posted dimensions); the 15kg was not a problem for them. It's definitely something to consider when trying carry-on only, as some airlines will make that undertaking easier than others.

KathBC, I loved Macushla House. Just loved it. It was beautiful and peaceful, the people there were all wonderful, and the black-faced monkeys were delightful to watch. I wish I could have stayed longer (but that's true of all the places I visited). The food was good, too, and the resident cat that was usually sleeping under the dinner table gave it a very home-y feeling.

As for the conditions at Amboseli, travelbs, my impression was that it's well on its way to recovering from the drought. More on that in a later installment, but the animals seemed healthy, and it was actually pretty green when I was there.

nycjv, isn't that just your favorite thing about these trip reports? You get to re-live all your own favorite experiences. I'll try my best to do things justice; I'm working on the next installment now!
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Dec 30th, 2010, 06:46 AM
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It was nine in the morning on my first day in Nairobi when my driver, Julius, stopped by to pick me up. I bid adieu to the scampering vervet monkeys, and we headed for the nearby Giraffe Centre. The Giraffe Centre is home to several endangered Rothschild giraffes, and the staff there works to educate visitors about the animals.

The sun was shining brightly as we pulled up to the entrance, and I saw my first giraffe immediately past the gate. As I made my way up to the feeding platform, I also saw a cheerful sign warning us to beware of headbutts. Ha!

The giraffes there were quite eager to be fed. The two we were feeding that day were named Patrick and Helen, and we gave them pellets similar to those fed to horses (according to the staff). The greedy pair took the pellets from our hands with long, black, and surprisingly nimble tongues that were simultaneously slippery and sandpapery.

After feeding the giraffes for a bit, I was led (along with a tour group that had arrived at the same time) into a room just off of the feeding platform where one of the Giraffe Centre’s staff members told us a bit about the Rothschild giraffes. They're the most endangered of all the giraffes I would see while in Kenya, and I certainly wouldn’t see any in the wild, where only about 400 are thought to exist. They have darker patches in the middle of their spots and their legs are mostly white, making them look like they’re wearing stockings. According to the staff at the Giraffe Centre, one reason for their low numbers is that part of the Rothschild giraffes’ native habitat is Uganda. The former dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, used to instruct his soldiers to use them as target practice. Incredible!

The info session was interesting; the staff explained the giraffes’ social structure (males keep “harems”), the breeding period for the Rothschild giraffe (between 14 and 16 months) and lots of other facts. I learned that with most giraffes, checking the horns is a way to determine which are the males and which are the females: the females generally have furry horns (“for beauty”) while the males’ horns are usually bald because the fur is rubbed off during fights. You don’t want to be kicked by a giraffe; they can kick with a force measured in tons. At one point, the staff passed around a giraffe femur; you could use them as pretty hefty free weights if you worked there, because they’re really heavy.

After leaving a donation, I made my way back onto the feeding platform, where the staff convinced me to let one of the giraffes (I think Patrick?) get really close. Yes, I too did the famous "giraffe kiss". You hold a food pellet between your lips and let the giraffe come get it with its prehensile tongue. I won't say it's the most "action" I'd seen in a while — heck, I'd just been through security at Heathrow! — but it was by far the most unusual. Since the staff at the Giraffe Centre had already assured us that giraffe saliva had antiseptic properties, I figured it would be unpardonably cowardly of me to back away from the "kiss". And I have a photo to prove it — quite a conversation starter, if I can find the courage to display it (and, considering how much I dislike photos of myself, that might be harder than getting the "kiss" was).
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Dec 30th, 2010, 08:12 AM
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Windowless- You must show the giraffe kiss photo, even I have showed that one around. I stayed next door at Giraffe Manor and I am sure they lost money on me because they keep a big can of the food near the door and I think the giraffes saw an easy mark and followed me from room to room. Ready for your next installment please!
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Dec 30th, 2010, 09:39 AM
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Ask and you shall receive, scruffypuma!

My next stop was Sheldrick's Elephant Orphanage to see the baby eles, and I really have to say that there’s something about baby animals. They’re so cute, so fragile, so cuddly.

Okay, so “cute”, “fragile”, and “cuddly” might call to mind puppies and kittens before elephants but, truly, the nursery babies at Sheldrick’s are all of those things, and more. Baby elephants are playful and suck their trunks the way baby humans suck their thumbs, but they’re so fragile that they can sometimes die of stress or pneumonia even if they’re being lovingly cared for. They are very attached to each other and to their keepers, and they love being scratched behind their ears. And if you get to see them at Sheldrick’s, you quickly fall under their spell. Coincidentally enough, NBC’s Nightly News ran a brief story on the orphanage in the week after I got back from Africa — I guess the fates are conspiring to see to it that Kenya stays on my mind. If this link's still good, the story is here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40704375..._a_difference/

Anyhow, Julius and I arrived at Sheldrick’s just as it opened for its public viewing hours, and we walked past some rhino pens (more on that later) and several elephant sleeping stalls before entering a dusty area facing a large mudhole; the viewing area was cordoned off from the elephants by a single rope line. One tiny elephant named Wasin — the youngest then in the nursery — was hidden almost out of sight at the end of the rope line. She was a real heartbreaker, shyly attempting to stay behind a hanging blanket or the green coat of her keeper. Before long, the rest of the young nursery babies were led out. They tripped forward in a single file behind their keepers and made quick work of the bottles of milk that awaited them near the rope line.

They were incredibly endearing. We watched them enthusiastically running about, butting into one another, and climbing over one another to get to the mudbath while their keepers told us each orphan’s story (most involving poaching or some tragic contact with man). It was clear that most of them were happy and playful now, though. It was always funny to see when one would approach the mudbath, hesitate at the edge, then be pushed ungracefully and unceremoniously into the hole as one of their enthusiastic fellow calves crowded just a bit too closely behind. They’d work up a good coating of muck — it serves as a sort of sunscreen for their otherwise sensitive skin — then make their comically slippery, sliding way out of the deeper mud.

The younger group was led away after they’d had their feeding and fun, and we went through the same process a second time with the slightly older orphans, these closer to two years old and just developing their tusks. They were also full of energy and fun, and I had a laugh watching several of them attempting to shake over a large tub of water near the rope line before one of the keepers stepped in to stabilize it. While watching them, I failed to notice until the last second that one was headed toward me, her keeper following closely behind. She prodded me inquisitively with her trunk a few times, making me giggle. Then her keeper told me to blow into her trunk. I picked up her trunk and blew a breath of air toward the end of it and, seeming satisfied, she walked away as her keeper explained that she would always remember me now; I could come back years later and she’d remember my scent. Awww.

All too soon, the hour was up and the rest of the eles were led away, but because I adopted an elephant about a month before my trip, I was allowed to return later in the evening to see the evening feeding and bedtime.

The orphans were still out in the park when I arrived for the evening feeding, so Julius and I had the opportunity to look in on the three rhinos who stay at the orphanage. The first, Shida, is partly wild now and roams freely into the Nairobi National Park during the day. He’s a black rhino, and black rhinos are territorial, which is why he comes back to his enclosure at night; it’s to protect his territory. We watched as he ate large amounts of whatever types of foliage it was that had been left for him. The second was a blind black rhino named Maxwell. Although the Trust paid for an operation on his eyes, it was determined that he would never regain his sight. Since he’d be unable to defend himself in the wild, he lives at the orphanage full time. We heard him making the most pathetic whimpers from time to time as he ate; a more incongruous sound coming from such a huge animal could hardly be imagined. The last of the Sheldrick’s rhinos we saw was little Solio, whose mother was a poaching victim. Solio is now settling into life at Sheldrick’s, with her keepers and Maxwell keeping her company. I have to say, the keepers at Sheldrick’s really do a wonderful job with all of their charges.

The elephant orphans soon made their return, and I was almost alone there to greet them (the other visitors that evening were a photographer and sound technician, I’m not sure from where). The keepers told us more about the orphans and the work that the Trust did, and we had nice time walking around to see each of the elephants. My orphan’s name is Sities (inspired by and pronounced like the CITES agreement that bans ivory sales, etc.), and she’s one of the youngest nursery babies at Sheldrick’s. The Trust isn’t quite sure what happened to her mother; Sities turned up alone and desperate for companionship one day when she was not quite two months old, and she was brought to the orphanage when it became clear that she was an orphan.

I stood at her enclosure for a while, talking to the keeper who’d be staying with her that night, and Sities sucked my hand into her mouth as I noted how cute I thought it was that elephants seemed to suck their trunks like babies sucking their thumbs. He agreed, but warned me to be careful if she started to use her trunk to push my hand any further into her mouth. Sities, as it turns out, has a sneaky trick of doing that, and elephant molars are strong enough that you really don’t want to be in a position to lose a finger! She was otherwise quite willing to be handled, however, and I was allowed to pet her and touch the backside of her ear, which was very warm and soft. She was asleep before I left.

I think the most memorable orphan I saw there (aside from Sities and maybe Wasin) was Murka, who has badly scarred ears and a large indentation in her forehead from where she’d been attacked. When she was found, a Maasai spear was protruding from her forehead; it had been thrust in to a depth of over eight inches, and the Trust feared she couldn't recover. She was suffering from these wounds and more (she’d clearly been struck by an axe, too) when she was originally found, and it was a long time before she’d let her human keepers anywhere near her … not really a surprise. But by the time of my visit, she’d been at Sheldrick’s for several months, and she was a calm and even a trusting calf, from what I saw. It was heartwarming, watching her with her new “family” of keepers and the rest of the orphans.

Julius and I stayed for perhaps an hour, learning about each of the rest of the eles, and we saw them start to fall asleep before finally leaving (all fingers safely accounted for) to head back to Macushla House. It was a fantastic experience and one I’d recommend to anyone going to Nairobi.
WindowlessOffice is offline  
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Dec 30th, 2010, 11:12 AM
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Wonderful report. Love the details.
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Dec 30th, 2010, 12:47 PM
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Great report and looking forward to more.
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Dec 30th, 2010, 01:07 PM
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Thank you, Windowless! Like Femi, I love all the details as well. It certainly brings back fond memories.
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Dec 30th, 2010, 04:08 PM
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Love love the wonderful work done at the Sheldrick Animal Trust - wish I could visit it myself. You reminded me that I had not given my usual donation for 2010, so I got right on line and took care of that
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