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Trip Report: Cape Town/Mala Mala, Vic Falls, Kenya, Rwanda/gorillas

Trip Report: Cape Town/Mala Mala, Vic Falls, Kenya, Rwanda/gorillas

Aug 28th, 2008, 02:53 PM
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Trip Report: Cape Town/Mala Mala, Vic Falls, Kenya, Rwanda/gorillas

Just returned from our long awaited 3-week trip to South Africa, Vic Falls/Zim, Kenya and Rwanda, and this trip report is payback for all the helpful advice I found on the Forum. First, let me say (for Tom’s benefit) that this was my first trip to, and my husband’s first vacation in, Africa…but we have traveled extensively (and lived) abroad, so I think my comments on food, lodging and logistics might carry a little extra weight.

Second, this trip was about animals. We had such a fabulous bear watching experience in Alaska last year that we knew we had to go find the mother lode in Africa – any cultural experiences were an added bonus, but they were not the motivation for our trip. Africa Adventure Company arranged our trip and everything went seamlessly. (Special kudos go to Origins, their operator in Kenya.) I used AAC because they were well balanced in handling both Southern and East Africa. We originally thought to visit South Africa/Botswana – but the lure of the Migration was too great not to include Kenya, and then if you’re that close to the gorillas…

[Warning for other newbies: first, safaris are diet-busters – you eat three generally excellent meals a day and then go out and sit in a game vehicle for several hours. Heeding warnings that lions consider joggers as “lunch,” we didn’t burn any serious calories until the 2nd day of gorilla trekking. Second, “sleeping in” (past 6:30 am) is a foreign concept – if we weren’t getting up early for game drives, we invariably had an early morning departure. But, in return, there’s nothing to deter you from falling asleep early listening to the sounds of splashing hippos or “gnu-ing” wildebeest.]


We deliberately flew via London; the layover there allowed us to take the Tube into the city for a nice lunch and stroll around Mayfair and Piccadilly – getting out in the daylight helped reset our body clocks. When we arrived in Cape Town, we packed away our brollies (umbrellas), never to need them again because it was cool and sunny our entire time in the city! (OK, so we were lucky!) Had my first cup of rooibos tea while waiting briefly for our room at the Cape Grace to be ready – then headed off for the hop on/hop off bus tour of the city that the hotel provided to compensate for any inconveniences due to their remodeling. (I have to confess that I was never aware of any work going on!) The Cape Grace gets high marks for service; you sensed that they would try to fulfill your every wish, but it was always unobtrusive.

The bus tour was a good choice: the breeze in our faces helped keep us awake, and we were able to get off and stroll through the Company Gardens and down some of the older city streets when we wanted to stretch our legs. In the end we decided NOT to take the cable car up Table Mountain – heresy, I know…but from the base station we could see a haze over the city that would not photograph well. I decided my memory of Table Mountain would be looking UP at it, not down from it. That evening the hotel’s complimentary car service took us to/from Ginja Restaurant; I might never have found the entrance if the driver hadn’t pointed it out! What a fabulously creative gourmet meal – prawn trio, lamb loin, and pear frangipane tart – and I have to thank Fodorites for the suggestion! Amazingly it was only about $30/person for 3 courses (compared to the mediocre buffet at $40/person we had at Victoria Falls). Had a very nice bottle of Three Cape Ladies red wine to go with it…which no doubt helped us sleep well!

The next day we were off to the Winelands – I booked our private tours myself with Vineyard Ventures, and Mervyn was our knowledgeable guide for the next two days. We did most of our wine tasting near Stellenbosch: Hartenberg (enjoyed comparing their super-premium Eleanor Chardonnay to their premium Chardonnay: why do I always prefer the expensive stuff?!), Warwick (producer of Three Cape Ladies blend, which we still liked in the light of day; had fun drinking without hands from their silver wedding cup), Ernie Els (an emotional favorite as I had purchased a bottle for my golf-writer brother shortly before his death; what a gorgeous setting), and Vergelegen (where we had a leisurely lunch at Lady Phillips restaurant). It’s not often that I start drinking at 10:00 am! We tried 6-8 wines at each stop – I wouldn’t have been able to walk if I’d finished every sample, but it does seem a shame to see so much good wine go into the spittoon! This evening we had a beautiful waterfront view from our table at Baia, but the kingklip meal was average and the waiter was impatient.

The next day we toured the Cape Peninsula. (Chapman’s Peak drive is still closed due to mud slides and probably will be for the foreseeable future.) It was our first close-up of fynbos vegetation and the multiple varieties of Protea, the national flower. We spotted an ostrich family with furry babies trotting along in a row, flea-picking baboons, and of course the penguins at Boulders Beach. (I had expected to see more, but perhaps some were still out fishing?) Lovely late lunch at Harbor House (excellent cob with basil cream and our first Malva pudding) and then a late afternoon stop at Kirstenbosch Gardens on the way back to town. Too full to eat dinner, we sampled another lovely SA red wine (Rust en Vrede) in the Bascule Bar and went off to pack.

Impressions: Cape Town is not “Africa,” apart from the crafts available for sale from across the continent – but is rather something unique. The city is less cosmopolitan than I expected; I’ll remember it for the mountains/clouds, vegetation and beautiful views. Someone told me, “no matter how many days you spend in Cape Town, you’ll wish you had one more.” I could have stayed one more, but it was time to move on… [Note: if you want to shop, it might be smarter to put Cape Town at the end of your trip; we were afraid to buy anything but the smallest of gifts at this point, because we were still facing the dreaded 33# weight limit for some flights. On the other hand, I’m glad we had our wine tutorial at the beginning, because SA wines would be readily available throughout the rest of the trip.]

Next: the Mala Mala Seven in one day….
skibumette is offline  
Aug 28th, 2008, 03:06 PM
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Welcome back. I'm looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip.
Marija is online now  
Aug 28th, 2008, 03:39 PM
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Aaahhhh, you remembered .
Looking forward to rest of your trip report. The big seven at MM, big five you-know-who plus cheetah plus wild dogs. Outstanding!!!!

regards - tom
ps - who can name the little five????
cary999 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2008, 03:58 PM
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What a blockbuster itinerary! Another Malva fan. My first taste was this past July.

Nice job with the ostrich spotting, to train your eyeballs for more. At least the penguins look pretty much alike, so if you only see a few, you've seen them all.

I like that saying about Cape Town and agree, I could have done another day, even another week of shark trips.
atravelynn is offline  
Aug 28th, 2008, 05:35 PM
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What a great start of your trip. I can't wait to hear the rest.

Tom, I know the Little 5.
sundowner is offline  
Aug 30th, 2008, 07:14 AM
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An early departure and we were on our way by 200-passenger jet to Nelspruit; from there we transferred to a Cessna 206 for the 25 minute flight to Mala Mala. (With just two of us on board, I hate to think what we paid for that, but my private pilot DH was a happy camper up in the right hand seat!) Amazing to see how some people travel “on safari” – for example, there was Miss Size-0 in tight white pants, bow-trimmed leather flats, jewelry, fancy leather purse, and a HUGE duffle to accommodate her wardrobe! And to think how I agonized over our 33# pound limit (which applied to the entire 3-week trip, since we never doubled back to reclaim stored luggage), weighing and reweighing my “medium” size duffle and carry-on! Needless to say, no one ever weighed our bags…or anyone else’s that I could see!

We arrived at MM Main Camp just in time for lunch, welcomed by the first of MANY impala and a few bushbucks for good measure. After quickly unpacking we headed off on our first game drive with our (also) newly-arrived drive mates, a very nice British family celebrating their daughter’s high school graduation. First stop was (I later realized) Rollercoaster Male, sleeping off a morning baby giraffe kill. With reports of a leopardess on the move, we leap-frogged with two other vehicles, following her movements for some time: beautiful! Then on to a herd of Cape buffalo; despite the glares of one ugly male, I especially enjoyed watching the small orange-billed birds (name anyone?) hopping inside the large buffalo’s fur-edge ear to pick out choice insects. Most of this time we were off-road (one of the joys of a private reserve), and it gave me new respect for Land Rovers: they went anywhere and everywhere! You’d think, “oops! dead end!” but then just drive straight over some large bush or small tree! After dark, near the Sand River, we found six napping Eyrefield lionesses and six (9-month old) cubs – they soon roused and we spent a good amount of time following them by spotlight as they started the evening’s hunt. Added to the giraffe, zebra, klipspringer and hyena (not to mention umpteen more impala and bushbucks) we’d seen, we felt we were off to a rousing start – and marked the occasion with our first Amarula toast in the boma that night!

[Note: in retrospect, I have mixed feelings about MM’s system of having your ranger act as your constant host. Our ranger, Bens, was absolutely great (and he often had wine-pouring or other duties that kept him away from the dining table) but did I want to be with him 24/7? And this meant we had every meal with our drive mates as well; don’t get me wrong, our drive mates were super nice people, but I might have liked to meet more of the other guests too? We could have opted out of the arrangement to eat by ourselves….but that seemed a bit anti-social?]

The next day started with usual zebra, impala and two giraffes (how quickly we become blasé!) with lots of kudu and a few baboons thrown in for company. Spent a good bit of time “leap-frogging” a hunting cheetah, then off to find yesterday’s leopardess (*) snoozing gracefully in a tree with the remains of an impala kill. After spotting digging warthogs and some more buffalo (*), we came upon a female white rhino (*) and calf…then two young rhino males – I noticed we didn’t try to get quite as close to these big brutes as we do to smaller animals! After a few more kudu and a duiker, we found 2 ellies (*) near the river close to camp. Bens, our ranger, is not too fond of ellies, so I should have realized he had something up his sleeve! Instead of heading back to lunch, we continued on to sight most of the Styx pride (*), including six cubs; sleeping moms were not amused (clamping a paw on top of its head) when the cubs wanted to nurse! Bens’ plan became apparent: the Big Five (*) and cheetah in one morning!

That afternoon was very different; we drove and drove (for two hours) without sighting anything more than a small herd of buffalo; I knew times were tough when we stopped to view a herd of impala! But not long after, Bens half rose up in his seat and crowed, “wild dog!!” And off we went, racing with a couple of beautiful adults; photos do not do these gorgeous animals justice! And what did we find but a pack of 9 adults and 8 pups, just over the border from Kruger! Going REALLY off-road, we tracked them for almost 45 minutes until another vehicle arrived to take over. They were hunting (one missed duiker) and trying to find a den for the night, stopping periodically to regurgitate food for the yipping pups. We’d done it: the Mala Mala Seven in one day! Whatever was Bens going to produce the next day to top it?

Next: drama at Mala Mala….
skibumette is offline  
Aug 30th, 2008, 12:07 PM
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MALA MALA (continued)

Awoke the next morning to the sound of roaring lions – an omen? It seemed like they were just outside my window…and a few minutes later I spotted a lioness patrolling the river edge of the lawn, sending baboons fleeing from nearby trees. Just after setting out we saw two Styx lionesses on the far side of the river, but we headed off to find Rollercoaster Male crunching away on the remains of his giraffe, a jackal and two vultures hovering on the fringes. Just then we got a report of four males (castoffs from the Eyrefield pride returning from Londolozzi) stalking the Styx cubs! Apparently, squabbling among Styx females over a kill had attracted the males’ attention, and they were hunting down the cubs.

Frustration! There were already three vehicles at the site so, on tenderhooks, we had to wait our turn, listening to ferocious roars from the other side of the hill. Rollercoaster Male paused over his meal, listened with ear cocked, and departed in the other direction, dragging his giraffe by the head with him…leaving the scraps to alert vultures. At last, we were able to move and we sped over to a mound of rocks where three lionesses were guarding four cubs – one was calling for the missing cubs (although we’d heard that one may have been killed). There were reports of one male heading in our direction, and one of our drive mates was in tears at the prospect of witnessing further attacks. Then the females started moving – one or two with the cubs and at least one monitoring the flank. And then another female and two more cubs appeared! Among them, one female had scratches on her face while another had some on the neck and shoulder. After a brief stop to nurse they kept moving….

We found the now-spent males resting not far away; of the four, one seemed to have a freshly bleeding wound on his left foreleg. Apparently a fifth older male had joined in the fracas as well and was the worse for wear, nearly losing an eye; we dubbed him Scarface. There was one Styx lioness with them; she didn’t dare try to join the rest of the pride, for fear of leading the males back to the cubs. With the situation stabilized for the moment, we went off for a belated bush breakfast and a short bush walk.

That afternoon our drive mates decided they wanted to go look for elephants; they were leaving the next day and had seen only one – in truth, I think the mom couldn’t face the prospect of witnessing a cub kill. While I certainly didn’t want anything to happen to the cubs, we were witnessing a potential power grab….drama in Mala Mala! I wanted to say, “yes, let’s (quickly!) go find some ellies…and then can we get back to the cats?” We found a matriarchal herd of ellies, getting just close enough that one trumpeted but didn’t charge. Eventually Bens worked us back around to the male lions, who were just starting to stir. Two ambled off to the west, while the injured male stayed with the Styx female for the time being – one other, plus Scarface, were still trying to decide what to do. We learned later that evening that the six cubs we’d seen earlier were spotted at the far northern edge of Mala Mala territory and were presumably safe for now if the males continued west. Of the original nine cubs, one more had been found hiding among rocks, one might be dead, and another was still MIA. Our evening drive yielded little; it was as if all the animals were either nervous or worn out!

Next: Vic Falls
skibumette is offline  
Aug 30th, 2008, 08:12 PM
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Hi skibumette

The birds on the buffalo would have Red-billed Oxpeckers - really quite a comical little bird. The Eyrefield Pride would have been 3 lionesses and 9 big cubs and those 3 have all done exceptionally well to keep the cubs alive. I had read about the incident with the Eyrefield Males and the Styx Pride, it would have been absolutely dreadful to witness them killing the cubs but luckily, because the Styx Pride are really good mothers, they fought off the males and I am certainly hoping the males head off. It is amazing how the Rollercoaster Male is knowingly avoiding any confrontation. You were lucky to get Bens especially when tracking, as with him you get a ranger and two trackers. I have witnessed his tracking skills many times, and he is exceptional.

Regarding the topic of sharing your meals with the ranger and/or other guests from your vehicle. I always love having meals with the ranger, certainly not always with other guests, in which case I sit separately. Dinner is different as you sit with your vehicle and next to other vehicle guests. If you choose to dine alone, then people normally eat in their room. I am not sure why you didn't ask to sit by yourselves for breakfast and lunch, but you certainly could have and no-one would have minded I am sure. If people in my group wish to sit by themselves I have no issue with it, in fact sometimes I also prefer them to sit by themselves.

You were lucky to see the dogs and I also believe them to be absolutely stunning animals with the most amazing skills as they are really quite a slight dog.

Kind regards

KayeN is offline  
Aug 31st, 2008, 06:31 AM
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Hi, Kaye! Thanks for your reply and the name of the birds! I went back to check my notes on the Eyrefield pride, and I had indeed noted 6 lionesses and 6 cubs -- could it be that some of the "cubs" are now so large that they compete in size with their moms? (The total # of 12 is the same as yours.) Of course most of our sighting was after dark, so it was a bit harder to keep track!

We didn't make any special requests on the seating, because it wasn't a big deal for the amount of time we were there; as I said, our drive mates were lovely people. It was just an organizational arrangement that we didn't find elsewhere -- and we did get to meet more of our fellow guests at other camps. Of course, the MM winter drive schedule (with two 4-hour drives a day that didn't start until about 7:30) left little time for socializing anyway! I was lucky to get my trip notes done between drives!

Yes, Bens was amazing -- I credit his skills entirely with finding the wild dog pack. I gather from the MM site that they stayed around for longer than anyone dared hope!
skibumette is offline  
Aug 31st, 2008, 05:56 PM
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Hi skibumette

Regarding the Eyrefield Pride - I saw them in July and while some of the male cubs were bigger, they are still not of a size to confuse them with the Lionesses - though a different matter if all lying together in the dark!

Bens is amazing and I still am in wonder when he was looking at a big mess of tracks how he recreated what had happened with the Styx Pride and 6 little cubs and a kill in the river - what he said happened was exactly what did happen and really the tracks were a mess going in all directions - an amazing skill!

With the guests - I have had some terrific ones and some horrific ones, but I always enjoy talking to any of the rangers. I have also been to many camps where the rangers only eat dinner with you once or twice during your stay - and as I am very used to MM arrangements, I found this arrangement odd especially when the gamedrives seemed to be timed to a minute of getting you to a meal, and it seemed to me, off his hands to have his free time! Each to his own I guess and what you are used to but a great ranger certainly plays a huge part in a great gameviewing experience!

Kind regards

KayeN is offline  
Aug 31st, 2008, 06:46 PM
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Kaye: We've just started sorting through our 3768 (!) photos and I think we've got a good one of Rollercoaster Male heading for the hills that day, dragging his giraffe with him. I'll eventually get some posted!
skibumette is offline  
Sep 1st, 2008, 08:07 AM
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Two ellies bid us an early farewell from the end of the Mala Mala runway. Two additional flights later, we arrived in Victoria Falls airport just after lunch – what chaos! Lots of people offering small services, hoping for a tip; for example, someone spotted the AAC tags on our carryon bags and enterprisingly located our similarly-tagged luggage in the big heap off the plane – then “watched” it for us while we waited in the long Immigration lines to buy visas.

The Victoria Falls Hotel is the essence of British colonial: sweeping, manicured lawns (trimmed by the occasional warthog), liveried personnel, high ceilings, polished wood, etc. This doesn’t always mean perfection: the screened door to the lawn in our room has a 1-inch gap at the bottom, the mosquito net has a few holes in it, we have to ask for the TV remote and hair dryer, and there’s no water the next morning. Oh well, I guess we’re in Africa! Our local guide, Esther, takes us on a tour of the Falls, cleverly bringing an umbrella to hold over the camera (not us) while taking photos! Even though it’s the dry season, there’s plenty of water over the Devil’s Cataract and the Main Falls; there’s less to the right of Livingstone Island, the only part you can see from the Zambian side, and it will dry to a trickle by next month. There are many vivid rainbows and billowing clouds of mist; in the wet season the mist can completely obscure the falls!

We return to the hotel for beers and people watching. The staff doesn’t seem interested in doing anything that won’t generate a tip? And, regardless of what you tip, they almost always seem slightly disappointed in the amount? The most helpful staff members seem to be the trainees. Interestingly, we ask everyone we meet (guides, the tourist police, drivers, etc) if they are from Victoria Falls – and no one is! The hotel manicurist explains: you must have graduated from the Tourism School or the Hospitality & Catering Academy in order to work at the hotel; “local people don’t have the necessary skills to deal with customers," she said. And things here seem expensive in comparison to South Africa; tonight’s buffet dinner at Jungle Junction was pleasant (actually the crocodile was very good) but more expensive than a gourmet meal in Cape Town. My manicure, albeit taking a soothing hour, cost $35!

The next day we started with the well-run elephant-back safari, which we thoroughly enjoyed. It may not be “authentic,” but our driver was very informative and we loved feeling the gravely hide on Miz Ellie’s head…and comparing it to the butter-soft leather feel of her ears. Contrary to the controversial lion encounters, I think these ellies are well cared for and have a lifetime sinecure. We contributed to their conservation fund by purchasing a footprint made by Miz Ellie on recycled paper that includes elephant dung…it should make for interesting conversation at home?
Afterwards we decided to walk to "no man’s land” on the middle of the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia, in the vain hope of finding some bungee jumpers – it’s a holiday so the jumping operation has the day off. The touts are very aggressive, especially on the bridge, and we are relieved to have the services of the tourist police escorts to shoo them away. If you decline to buy that ebony hippo (the seller was later seen applying black shoe polish to the wood figure, so one should take the “ebony” part with a grain of salt), then their fallback position was, “well just give me a dollar; you are the only one that will keep my family from starving.” Pretty heavy stuff…far more so than what we experienced in Rwanda, which is equally poor.
Later we had a very nice cruise on the Ra Ikane, named for Livingstone’s guide – and spotted enough hippos that we almost forgot to photograph the sunset! We were also unexpectedly close to the elephants that had swum out to several of the Zambezi islands. I would have liked to see the Falls from the Lower Zambezi in order to feel the power of that cascading water – but the jet boats were being refurbished and river rafting seemed guaranteed to dump you in the drink, something my Infectious Diseases employer highly discouraged!

The next morning we took the helicopter “flight of the angels” and were pleased to find that the pilot was black. Many of the “prime” jobs here seem to be held by whites? Had to weigh in; gosh, my binoculars were heavy! The ride was longer than I expected; the most impressive part was seeing the gorges created by the force of water below the Falls. Then off to the airport for our predictably chaotic departure; Johannesburg seemed like an oasis of tranquility in comparison! Nice overnight with an excellent dinner at the Airport Sun Intercontinental – and a chance to check email….it would be the last chance for the rest of the trip.
skibumette is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2008, 01:28 PM
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The pilot swung by Kilimanjaro twice on the descent to Nairobi, allowing both sides of the plane to see the hiking trails up to the snow-capped, 19,000-foot peak. We battled our way through the diesel-clogged streets of Nairobi, with every vehicle jockeying for position, its front end barely ahead of the next vehicle. Renovations at the Norfolk Hotel are NOT done and dining options are limited – but the bedroom is nice and there is no hammering to be heard. Kenyan friends arrive for drinks bearing an armful of beautiful flowers; it’s cool and threatening to rain so we have drinks inside and then a late dinner in the hotel’s small Ibis dining room.

My flowers will never survive the trip to Amboseli, so the next morning I give them to Rosemarie, the Origins representative who picks us up and delivers us back to the airport each of the three times we transit Nairobi. The calm early morning traffic en route to Wilson airport is a false omen of our airport experience: we check in at Safarilink and then all passengers are driven over to the Wilson departure terminal where our “checked” bags are left in the hallway. It becomes apparent that each of us needs to take our suitcase through Security – the x-ray machine isn’t working so each bag is hand inspected….we have to cut off the plastic electrical ties we’d just put on the zippers! I’m asked if I have any metal in my travel vest; gosh yes, that’s where I’ve stowed all my heavy batteries and electronic paraphernalia to minimize my luggage weight! Of course, no one ever weighs our bags, and I notice LOTS of much larger duffles and suitcases.

The entire Safarilink operation works perfectly well, based solely on clipboard passengers lists. You give your name (no photo ID required); if your name is on the list (just point it out), then put your bags on board and climb on yourself. Simple, but it works. Our small plane goes first to the dirt runway at Tsavo West, then on to Amboseli; interestingly, one of our fellow passengers is wearing high heels?! There are wide-open vistas with umbrella acacia trees in every direction, reminiscent of an “Out of Africa” setting. And later we would learn about the omnipresent Amboseli dust – it gets into everything!!

We really enjoyed Tortilis Camp, perhaps even more than our 5-star camp in the Mara. There’s a large bar/lounge area overlooking the lighted water hole where wildlife come to drink, a nice dining room with delicious North Italian cuisine, a very nice gift shop, and our tent had a straight-on view of Kilimanjaro, IF it appeared. There are virtually no extra charges, except gift purchases and tips. Even our short two-day stay included:
• bush breakfast with Masai cloth-covered tables set under an acacia tree and omelets cooked to order. They even dug a hole for a folding bush loo chair, strategically placed behind bushes!

• Masai Village visit, an (albeit commercial) “experience” – we danced with the warriors and finally got the chance to photograph them. Toured the village, watched them start fires (“how many warriors does it take to start a fire?” seemingly three…and maybe more than one try), and then negotiated (no doubt poorly) our beaded bracelet purchases, gifts for my co-workers. Afterward we gave our vendors red, white and blue bandanas, which seemed only a bit incongruous next to their red Masai robes! Another warrior wanted a gift too, so we gave him a pencil; he promptly whipped out his panga and carved a perfect point for it!

• cliff-top afternoon sundowners – wow! All day our guide had been calling our attention to Kilimanjaro if even a bit of the peak showed through the clouds. I cheerfully kept saying I’d really like the classic Kili photo: ele or giraffe in the foreground, acacia tree, and a totally clear Kilimanjaro in the background. About 45 minutes before sundown a breeze came up…and blew off every bit of cloud covering the mountain. We drove up an unbelievably steep incline to the sundowner site – there was Kilimanjaro in all its glory! Folding chairs were set up in a row facing the sunset, and we alternated taking photos of the mountain and the sunset. Minutes later the sun was gone….and the clouds moved back in to cover Kili. What staging!

While it was a bit frustrating (after Mala Mala) not to be able to go off-road inside the park, our shared guide, Joel, was a pro at placing us just where animals would cross the road, including matriarchal elephant herds and two bull elephants “in musk” searching for willing females.

And what a difference some water makes! Whatever animal we saw, we saw LOTS of them…all drawn to the swamp areas filled with runoff from melting Kilimanjaro snow: our first awkward wildebeest, warthogs, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, ostrich, hippo and one lone cheetah. There were few striped-butt impala but plentiful Tommies (Thomson’s gazelles) with black “racing stripes” down their sides. However, the large number of elephants takes a toll on the countryside; their huge appetites (eating 18 hours a day but digesting only 30%) decimate the trees and flora away from the swamps, producing all that dust.

The next day brought lots of giraffe, waterbuck with white toilet-seat markings on their rear ends (their best defense is the bad taste of their meat, so they’re hunted only as a last resort), oryx (what impressive horns!) and a visit from mongoose and dik dik to out tent. (Others had Vervet monkeys trying to unzip their tents!) Morning highlights were two family groups (males, females and cubs) of lion, all from the same pride, and a matriarchal herd of 15 elephants, plus one lone bull. We must have irritated him because he came right up to the car bumper, half his trunk and one tusk filling the view through the windshield! We waited with bated breath, half expecting the bull to try to flip the car; Joel admitted he was ready to throw the car into reverse! [People watching comment: one of our drive mates kept trying to whistle and call to the animals; our guide kept saying “don’t make noise; you’ll scare them away” ….with little impact. When confronted with the bull elephant, he said, “don’t make noise; he’ll come straight at us!” At least that seemed to work and our drive mate was blessedly silent!]

Next: waiting for wildebeest in the Masai Mara
skibumette is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2008, 04:11 PM
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Glad Kili cooperated, if only momentarily. Now the whistling vehicle mate needs to cooperate.
atravelynn is offline  
Sep 5th, 2008, 05:07 PM
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Our transfer to the Masai Mara was delayed slightly in Nairobi by the official (red carpet) departure of the Kenyan President from Wilson airport; as it turned out, he was also headed for the Masai Mara. Once we landed our driver mentioned a cheetah sighting – and off we went to find her. I guess I'd watched too many episodes of Big Cat Diary; I guess I expected to find a cheetah on every termite mound in the Mara – this one, searching lazily and unsuccessfully for prey, would be the only one we'd see there!

But, if we thought there were a lot of wildebeest in Amboseli? Welcome to the Great Migration! For good measure throw in a few zebra, hartebeest, ostrich, an eland harem (14 females for one male), topi (not cheetah) on every termite mound, tommies, buffalo, ellies, hyena and hippo! Not to mention the attentive vultures and Marabou storks – the feeding is so good here that the cats depart a kill without picking the bones clean; life is pretty good for a Mara scavenger at this time of year! Interestingly, the “elusive” leopard was plentiful – we saw three the first afternoon and 4-5 every day after that...what beautiful animals!

Mara Explorer Camp has only 10 tents and a more intimate feel; our tent is more luxurious than the one at Tortilis (especially the bathroom) and the food is definitely gourmet, always served rather than buffet. This was the ideal place to have a private guide – the morning schedule with two 1.5 hour drives sandwiched either side of breakfast meant that you didn't have enough time to get to and from the crossing areas. If you had your own driver, you could take a picnic breakfast and stay out all morning.

The next morning's highlight was a leopardess on the hunt, the surrounding wildebeest and impala oblivious to her slinking through the tall grass. What did she fancy for lunch? Obviously not tommies, because two passed safely within feet of her. At least 18 vehicles watched as the wind shifted and the impala caught her scent and gave alarm; all the animals scattered. As the unsuccessful huntress slunk off to the river for a drink of water, the impala regrouped behind her and HISSED at the cat's passage!

Wildebeest were on the move...in the general direction of the river, but our guide assured us they wouldn't try to cross for several hours, so at his suggestion we head back to lunch. Naturally, what ensues next is a guide's worst headache. A sizeable group forms up and heads to cross, aborted at the last minute by the arrival of a lone hungry lioness. Another couple (also staying at Explorer Camp) left the leopardess and, returning via the river road, witnessed the aborted crossing and reported their adventures over lunch!

I think we’d made very clear to our guide from the absolute beginning that we were prepared to do whatever it took to see a crossing: get up early, skip meals, return to the river in the middle of lunch...anything. If there wasn't a crossing, there wasn't a crossing – but if there was a crossing, I surely didn't want to miss it! After this missed sighting, I did my best to convince him that I wanted to see even a small crossing (sure, thousands would be great, but I'd settle for a couple hundred) or an aborted crossing (snapping crocs and hungry hippos would be ideal, but I was interested in seeing them simply form up and debate whether or not to cross).

So, while there were no crossings that day, we had a good afternoon for cats:
• a lioness and 4 cubs met up with another lioness and cub; much rubbing and playing ensued. The cubs “play charged” some wildebeest with little finesse, but wary zebra and wildebeest lined up in rows to watch their every move. We were the only humans in sight.

• three large males that we spotted in the morning continued sleeping

• the lioness spoiler of the noontime crossing was found sleeping off her success

• two lionesses hunted (badly) across the plain, not really concealing themselves

• two leopard feasted on a kill up in a tree

The next day our guide, Edwin, told us he'd done a “wildebeest dance” to bring on a crossing; there hadn't been a crossing in more than 5 days so surely one would occur that day! First we spotted almost all the cats we'd seen the afternoon before; there seemed to be too many lions in this area to make a crossing likely. Then we heard reports of wildebeest massing on Paradise Plain and heading for the river, but they had turned around by the time we got there. So we set up our picnic breakfast, but after only a half cup of coffee reports came that the wildebeest were forming up – so we threw everything in the car and repositioned ourselves at the southernmost Main Crossing.
Down to the water's edge they came, but Edwin said, “they won't cross; there's too many crocs” -- and soon they turned away. We moved to the next possible crossing place and waited. (I eventually counted 50 cars watching here!) The wildebeest gradually inched towards the water. One or two come to the front...but then they would think again and circle around to the sides. Then a couple more inched to the front. Progress is slow! Eventually the more courageous zebra moved through the crowd to the front...and led the rest to the water's edge. A few sniffs, a drink or two.....and then, for whatever reason, they started moving back. What you don't appreciate as you watch the drama unfold is that there are THOUSANDS of wildebeest back up the plain behind them, waiting for a decision.

The flank surged on to the next possible crossing point; steeps banks on the opposite side didn't make for an ideal site…and several hippos blocked the shore. So we sped ahead to the last possible crossing site for many miles to await their arrival – only to find 23 hippos and lots of vultures waiting too! The hoard never arrived.

Despite hopes that they might regroup at one of the earlier rejected sites for a second try, they spent the remainder of the day milling around the fields. Eventually it started to rain, and the wildebeest headed towards the rain...which meant away from the river. Edwin admitted they probably wouldn't cross for several days now; fellow Explorer guests who met up with us in Rwanda confirmed that the fields were virtually empty the following day!

We drove over really slippery muddy roads back to camp, taking photos of dramatic lighting on the plains. DH must have taken tons of hippo photos in recent days, trying to get a “yawn,” so Edwin took us to an out-of-the-way hippo pool where they were virtually frolicking in the water....one exuberant fellow was doing his best to mount a female, but it was pretty easy for her to slip away in the water! Near the airstrip the wildebeest were going crazy after the rain, racing around the fields like absolute lunatics!

At dinner I mention to Marianna, the manageress of Mara Explorer, that we kept hoping to see elephants or hippos in the river outside our tent as other had; could she arrange it? <grin> She says she'll try! Not an hour later while turning off my bedside lamp, I hear “clomp, clomp, splash” “clomp, clomp splash.” Flashlight in hand, I tiptoed out on the deck and shone my light on the river – there are two young hippo, splashing at water's edge. Wow - what service!
skibumette is offline  
Sep 5th, 2008, 08:26 PM
Join Date: Feb 2007
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What an itinerary for a first trip Skibummette! You had a wonderful start to your safari with your first afternoon at Mala Mala., and fantastic game viewing the rest of your stay as well. And just when you started to feel like you weren’t going to see anything except that herd of buffalo, you found the dogs. They really are the most beautiful creatures, aren’t they? Bens sounds like an amazing guide. No wonder people say Mala Mala consistently delivers.

Did you enjoy Vic Falls? It sounds like the staff at Vic Falls Hotel put a damper on that part of the trip. I did the helicopter tour several years ago and found the scenery breathtaking.

Tortillis Camp sounds really nice. Wildlife was plentiful, and lucky you, the breeze swept away the clouds for your perfect Kili photos. I can’t wait to see them.

I want to go to the Mara now! You certainly were in the right place at the right time, weren’t you? Somebody in your vehicle was definitely a leopard magnet. Too bad you didn’t see more cheetahs, but leopards truly are magnificent animals. Even with the aborted river crossing, you had some phenomenal game viewing. Thousands of wildies, whether crossing or backing away from the river to avoid danger, is a sight to behold.

I’m really enjoying your report and am looking forward to the rest of it.
Dana_M is offline  
Sep 6th, 2008, 08:58 AM
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Join Date: Jun 2006
Posts: 509
Hi Dana!

Thanks for your response! We did enjoy the Falls, but I think DH and I agree that, if we were trying to save money and cut back on something, it would have been Vic Falls. While it's "on the way" to Botswana (almost everyone we met was headed to Bots), it was a bit out of the way for us (en route to Kenya) since we had to retrace our steps to Jo'burg....and that raised the price too.

In the end I think Tortilis may have been our favorite camp....perhaps because it far exceeded our expectations. The tent was a bit more rustic and the food not quite as gourmet as Mara Explorer, but Tortilis seemed to go the extra mile: for example, the cloth-draped bar, appetizers and two waiters -- plus the row of sunset-facing chairs -- at sundowners....not just a picnic basket with cold drinks. Of course the view of Kili didn't hurt either!

Hope to get to Giraffe Manor (Nairobi) and the gorillas in Rwanda this weekend, huricanes permitting. STILL sorting our way through the photos!
skibumette is offline  
Sep 8th, 2008, 10:48 AM
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We had decided to take the morning flight to Kigali in order to drive straight through to Volcano NP that day. (The common, but less attractive, alternative is to spend the night in Kigali and make a pre-dawn drive to the park to arrive in time for the 7AM gorilla trek check-in.) This meant spending the night before in Nairobi and, on the advice of friends, we stayed at the magical Giraffe Manor. We arrived in time to meet giraffes Lynn, Frank and Barney on the front terrace before lunch – and I have a picture of me kissing 11-month old Barney to prove it! He’s quite gentle and small puffs of sweet air from his nostrils caress your face at the same time. Lawn mowing chores are handled by the resident warthogs – and the household terriers keep the warthogs on the grass, chasing them off as soon as the little first hoof hits the terrace.

After lunch we went over to the Giraffe Center for a tour and then the Manor’s driver took us to the Sheldrick elephant orphanage for the evening feed, which sponsors can attend. We are one of baby Dida’s (no doubt many) sponsors and enjoyed watching him, clad in his bright blue blanket, show a smaller newcomer the ropes. (The little one wanted to lie down after her feed; he nudged her to her feet, as if to say, “Get up! You have to show off for the visitors!”) The older three ellies in the nursery group hadn’t yet been transferred to Tsavo. All three sites are in the suburbs of Karen, surrounded by pricey real estate guarded by private services. Yet the roads are no better….just dirt in many places although there is perhaps less trash blowing about than there is downtown. One church after another lines the main streets.

That evening we gathered for drinks before the candlelit dinner; another couple had just arrived from Rwanda. When asked about the gorilla trekking, he answered, “It was just fine until I was attacked!” He was, admittedly, quite a large man and he happened to wear a black/grey/white striped shirt that day – and, more significantly, he ended up near the silverback…but a bit apart from the other humans. The 220-kilo Sabyinyo silverback rose up and, in a flash, shoulder-butted the fellow, knocking him backwards through a thicket of bamboo and making a very clear statement about who was the boss there. Uninjured but bruised, the fellow’s only picture of the event showed nothing but a grey blur! After dinner, as we headed for bed, DH was heard muttering, “I was hoping to get close to the gorillas…but not close enough to get beat up!” But a 5:30 am pick up didn’t give us much time to worry – too bad we missed breakfast with the giraffes, who love to stick their heads in through the conservatory windows for treats…and there was no farewell kiss from Barney!


By now we’d met a number of people heading for the gorillas: one couple from Mara Explorer was already there, another would follow us there, and on the plane we met up with a couple from yesterday’s orphanage visit. In the Kigali airport suitcases came off the conveyor belt one by one at an excruciatingly slow pace – someone could have handed-carried them inside faster! DH’s duffle was next to last – by then we had visions of it already en route to Bujumbura and we were debating whether he could trek in just the clothes on his back?

But our trusty guide from Primate Safaris, Arthur, was waiting for us and – after a mini-tour around Kigali – we headed for Ruhengeri. One thing that immediately caught our attention was all the motorcycles, virtually all of them with two people on board wearing matching color helmets – these were the local version of taxis! The number on the back of each helmet was the phone number used to summon one. Later, in the countryside, motorcycle taxis gave way to bicycle taxis.

What a visual change from Kenya! The flat, expansive Kenyan plains were replaced by the “thousand hills” of Rwanda – with virtually every horizontal surface under cultivation. This is subsistence farming; the only cash crops are tea and coffee – and Arthur points out the specific altitudes where coffee will grow. The trash-filled streets of Nairobi were replaced by the neat and tidy streets of Kigali, where disposable plastic bags are illegal and monthly community clean-up days are mandatory (shades of the “work action” days in Socialist Yugoslavia). Outside the city the Chinese-built roads are only two-lane – but there are wide, graded shoulders to accommodate the many, many pedestrians. Everyone walks! Bicycles are used either as taxis, transporting people, or for transporting goods; it was common to see a man pushing a bicycle along the road, laden with two huge sacks of potatoes.

Children along the road would wave and call out; we asked Arthur what they were saying and he told us they were asking for (empty) water bottles – but he entreated us NOT to give them to the children. And we were also told by others not to do it. They believe it would only: (1) cause jealousy (2) produce trash, and (3) encourage the children to beg rather than work. Hard to argue the logic – but it was also a bit hard not to respond to such a simple request. We had, in fact, brought pencils, toy rings, and balloons with us ….but we never seemed to have them with us when children appeared. In the end we left them with Arthur to deliver to a school. As we wove around occasional pot holes in the road, Arthur also pointed out projects (collective farms and the Kinigi Guesthouse) that have been given to Genocide widows to run, so that they can support their families.

The Gorilla’s Nest Lodge was pretty much what I expected: adequate but nothing fancy. Our room was large, clean and there was sufficient hot water if you didn’t take long showers. But the lighting was minimal and a picture was nailed to the wall at an angle designed to drive us compulsive types crazy! After a late lunch we assembled our trekking gear and pre-packed our backpacks – then we headed back to the dining room for dinner, only to discover than the menu was the same for all meals…and there were only four entrees from which to choose. The fish was heavily breaded and the two chicken entrees were very boney – the best bet was the beef “filet.” Off to bed – since there was no heat in the rooms, we requested an extra blanket and ended up wearing our silk long johns to bed….we finally put them to use!

5:30 AM alarm, 5:45 AM wake up “knock” on our door, 6:00 AM breakfast, 6:30 AM departure. We came to realize that group assignments are made primarily according to language and age; our group was an all-Primate Safari group – we three couples who were at Mara Explorer at the same time, plus a younger couple staying at the pricey Silverback Lodge; they arrive with lodge-provided gaiters over their pants – clever! We were assigned the Kwitonda group with two silverbacks and 18 gorillas in total. In truth the trek was not as tough as I’d anticipated: about 5 minutes over fields, then we climbed over the park wall (designed to keep buffalo out of the fields) and hiked 30 minutes through jungle-like growth. Indeed, the guides often had to hack a path through the dense foliage.

Just before we got to the trackers, we met an ex-pat veterinarian who had come to check on the group; two months before one of the babies got caught in a battle between males, breaking his hand and leg and suffering an evisceration – a gash that opened his intestinal cavity. While they would not intervene for the broken bones, the evisceration was life-threatening – so they went in, darted the baby and mother, and operated on him. The baby was doing just fine, although mom was still carrying him a lot while the bones healed.

Then we left our packs and walking sticks (each with a little carved gorilla as a handhold) with the porters and proceed the last 200 feet on our own. But we arrived while the gorillas were still sleeping off breakfast; I wanted to go poke them with my foot and say, “get up!” – not a good idea of course, but tempting nonetheless! It was hard to detect the distinctive gorilla odor about which I’d read, but there were plentiful flies swarming around the huge recumbent figures. The only activity was one youngster climbing trees and munching greenery, the occasional stretch of an adult, and one of the females picking fleas off the silverback.

Finally, all of them rose and moved off to a nearby dell to feed; there was a tiny 2-month old baby, but he did little but cling to his mom and occasionally nurse. Just about 10:30, when our time was up, they headed off up the hill – I’m not sure if they “knew” the humans depart after an hour….or perhaps that’s the point when the guides stopped making the reassuring “all’s well” gorilla noises? I really enjoyed the experience, but it wasn’t quite the “up close and personal” encounter that I’d anticipated?

Interestingly, after we paid the porters (the going rate is now $10 US), one of ours returned and quietly told Arthur that the bill we gave him has a small tear; would we switch it for another? Of course we did, but we’re surprised because we had been very careful to get only new, “big head” bills with no marks of any kind on them. Sure enough, there was a TINY tear on one end. But apparently a couple of local merchants in Kinigi act as informal bankers – and they give a lower exchange rate if the bill isn’t pristine.

After we freshen up our guide suggests we join another couple and their guide for lunch in Ruhengeri as a change of pace from the limited GN menu, an excellent idea. We had a tasty pork curry in town and then head over to see the twin lakes; the best view is from the Virunga Lodge. The road up there was impressively steep and potentially impassable after a rain? Arthur also said he would have to pick us up an hour earlier (5:30 am) if we were staying there to allow enough time for the drive to Park HQ! The view of the lakes from the lodge was beautiful but hazy; we stopped at an overlook bench and within minutes a group of children scaled the steep slope (in one case an older child carried a younger sibling up the incline) to stare at the blonde foreigners. Frustratingly, we’d again left our small presents behind. It started to rain as we drove back to Gorilla’s Nest; would the trek be really muddy in the morning?

[Note: we noticed that Arthur never locked the car here; he said no one would steal from the safari vehicles – the locals depend too much on good will and income from gorilla trekkers…and, besides, how could they explain the acquisition of an expensive camera or binoculars?]
skibumette is offline  
Sep 8th, 2008, 02:46 PM
Join Date: Nov 2004
Posts: 14,440
You and the president visit the Mara! A hissing impala is a new one. Nice luck with the leopard in the Mara.

Interesting comment on the Big Cat Diary swaying expectations. You had Big Cat Diary lion cub action.

Thanks for counting the cars at the crossing site. Do you think they were back far enough not to disturb the wildebeest?

Your story about the porter's tip really emphasizes the importance of crisp, unflawed bills.

The gorillas may have been sleeping but at least you escaped getting beaten up. Mala Mala, the Mara, and Gorillas are really wildlife highlights of the continent. Combined with Vic Falls and one of the most beautiful cities in the world--Cape Town, your itinerary is outstanding. Could you list it day by day for others who might want to do what you did?
atravelynn is offline  
Sep 9th, 2008, 02:30 PM
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Posts: 509
Hi Lynn -- thanks for your comments! The pack of hissing impala was really something -- unfortunately we didn't get a photo because we were too far forward taking closeups of the drinking leopard; the impala formed up to our left. I'm going to contact another couple who were there (they heard the hissing too and commented on it) in hopes that they got a picture from their position.

Yes, while I may not have seen as many cheetah as I expected, I certainly can't complain about either leopard or lions!

I'd say that about 12-14 of the 50 cars at the aborted crossing were on the other side of the river. But I don't think any of the vehicles altered the wildies' behavior -- the time that they came the closest to crossing (when I counted), there was a mound or hillock between us and the animals.

I still have one more (magnificent) gorilla trek to post. And I'll list the itinerary at the end (should have put it up front). Still working on sorting photos too.
skibumette is offline  

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