Trip Report - Kenya Feb '07

Old Mar 11th, 2007, 09:45 AM
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Trip Report - Kenya Feb '07

Trip Report

We got back two weeks ago from a 12 night safari in Kenya. I won’t even attempt to come up with an appropriate superlative to describe how wonderful the trip was. Since I learned so much from the various trip reports I read when I was planning my trip, I thought I’d return the favor.

2 nights at Tortilis in Amboseli
2 nights at Lewa Safari Camp in Lewa Downs
3 nights at Elsa’s Kopje in Meru
4 nights at Saruni in the Masai Mara.

It was a private flying safari organized by Gamewatchers. There were two couples. I was the trip planner. Prior to this trip, I had been on both a one-day safari in South Africa and a 3-day tiger safari in India, so I had a fairly good idea of what I wanted -- open vehicles and to be as far away from crowds as possible. This will sound strange, but I was more interested in feeling like I was on the other side of the universe than in seeing massive amounts of animals. I guess I’m what you call a scenery guy.
Pre-trip I worried about all the typical things. Would there be somebody at the airport to meet us or would I arrive to find that we had been fleeced out of our money by con artists? Would we get carjacked on our way into town from the airport? Would Somalian bandits travel hundreds of miles through the night and kill us in our sleep? (Hey, those State Department warnings can get under your skin.)

I worried for nothing. Everything went off without a hitch.

We were extremely lucky with the timing of our trip. The recent rains meant that the typical migratory patterns were disrupted. In some cases, spectacularly so. Our first stop was Amboseli. The only reason I chose it was because I wanted to see Mt. Kilimanjaro before the snows disappeared completely. Well, in the words of the little girl from Poltergeist, “They’re back.” I don’t know anything about the science of global warming, but it seems that at least as far as Kilimanjaro is concerned, Mother Nature is fighting back. The mountaintop was completely filled with snow. It was a breathtaking sight.

As for Amboseli itself, I expected a dust bowl and not too many animals. Was I wrong. The elephants that usually desert the park this time of year stuck around to enjoy all the greenery. And what greenery. And what elephants. Hundreds of them at a time. On our drive to Tortilis from the air strip, our guide raced us to a spot where he had just seen two hundred elephants. I remember thinking rather placidly, “oh that’s nice.” Then we get there and the vehicle is suddenly surrounded by hundreds of elephants. I was completely blown away. The only thing I could think of was Jurassic Park. We spent an hour with the elephants before heading to Tortilis, our home for the next two nights.

I loved Tortilis. It’s a beautiful, friendly camp with a busy waterhole down the hill from the dining area. Speaking of the hill, I noticed some of the older guests having a moderately difficult time with the walk from the tents up to the dining area/lounge/reception area. It’s not a massive climb, but if you have mobility issues, you should be aware that the beautiful vistas at the camps perched on hillsides come with a price.

We saw few other vehicles during our stay. When I asked our guide about that he said he was keeping us away from the crowds on the other side of the park. Being away from the crowds certainly didn’t impact our sightings. One interesting story: we were driving along and noticed another vehicle parked on the road observing a massive herd of elephants a couple hundred yards away. We stopped to watch, as well. After a couple of minutes, the other car drove off. Our guide Joell (sp?) shook his head with what can best be described as disgust at the other driver and said, “I think they are going to move.” Sure enough, five minutes later the entire herd, led by Big Mama (my name for the matriarch) began lumbering toward us to begin their evening activities. Once again we were surrounded by a massive hundred plus elephant herd. They were on the move, though, so we didn’t get to spend that much time with them. But, man, what a rush. The young bulls jostling with each other, the baby elephants chasing after their mothers… I love the baby elephants. Baby elephants are my new favorite thing in the world. Baby elephants and cheetahs. Baby elephants and cheetahs and dik diks. Baby elephants and cheetahs and dik diks and… never mind.

In addition to the elephants, we saw the usual Amboseli suspects. No predators. We did the typical safari stuff: nature walk, sundowners, visit to a Masai village. I loved every second.

General observations:

It’s real easy to over pack. I was under the weight limit and still had too much stuff.

There’s this amazing new mosquito repellant called Repel. At least I think it’s new. Its primary ingredient is Lemon Eucalyptus oil, and it works extremely well. I’m a mosquito magnet, so I brought about a gallon and a half of DEET to serve as back up. I didn’t break out the DEET once. By the end of the trip, everyone was using my Repel.

Bring a back up camera. Anything can happen. In my case, I brought a 110 volt AA battery charger with me to Africa. Pretty stupid mistake. Luckily, I had my film camera as backup, and Elsa’s had a AA charger I could borrow. So even though I had to be slightly more judicious with my photo-taking than I would have liked, it all worked out in the end.

Up next, Lewa Downs…
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Old Mar 11th, 2007, 10:22 AM
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I remember your planning stages questions and that you were feeling the burden of being in charge and hoping you had chosen well.

Tortilis was a wonderful start.
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Old Mar 11th, 2007, 12:07 PM
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Howdy TravelinFool... Nice start to your trip report. I laughed out loud to your comment

"I love the baby elephants. Baby elephants are my new favorite thing in the world. Baby elephants and cheetahs. Baby elephants and cheetahs and dik diks. Baby elephants and cheetahs and dik diks and…"
=D>
I know exactly how you feel! Thnaks for the tip on Repel -hope it is avaialble here is Australia. Looking fwd to Lewa...
Cheers
Thembi
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Old Mar 11th, 2007, 12:48 PM
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Great start. Tortilis was the very first camp we stayed at almost 13/yrs ago. Believe it was their 2nd year after opening. I do remember that walk up the hill from the tents to the dining area. No real problem, but noticed even we took it slow dragging our butts. But they were building two tents on the upper level, right next to the reception area, specifically for those who might have issues navigating that hill. And their addition of a Family tent, I believe, is just recently completed.

Waiting for more.
 
Old Mar 11th, 2007, 02:00 PM
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Sounds magical! Thanks for reporting back and can't wait for the rest...

And Thembi beat me to it in reference to the passage he/she quoted... struck a chord with me too!
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Old Mar 13th, 2007, 01:29 PM
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Thanks for starting your report. Nice you were able to stay away from the crowds and still have good sightings in Amboseli. Looking forward to the next installment.
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Old Mar 17th, 2007, 12:49 PM
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Okay, part two. Sorry for the delay. Thanks for your comments. You write these things and wonder if anybody's going to read them.

Lewa Safari Camp

We left Amboseli at the crack of dawn, and flew to Lewa Downs via Wilson Airport and Samburu. We were met at the airstrip by our guide for the next two days, David. David didn’t like us very much at first. It might have been because the first words out of my friend’s wife’s mouth were, “We want to see lions.” No “hello.” No, “My name is…” I was mortified. That being said, David did eventually warm up to us, and he ended up sharing many interesting stories about his life.

We stayed at Lewa Safari Camp. The camp was lovely, and we enjoyed our stay there very much, but it did at times seem as if tourists were an afterthought. Meal services felt a bit rushed, and the staff didn’t go out of their way to talk to us or make us feel welcome the way they did at the other places we stayed. It’s hard to describe an intangible, but the atmosphere wasn’t as warm as the other camps we visited. Not that everyone wasn’t perfectly polite, it was just… different. (Given that their mission is conservation, not tourism, that difference is probably understandable.)

I don’t write any of this to dissuade anyone from visiting Lewa, I simply wanted to relate our experience. In fact, I highly recommend visiting Lewa if you’re in that neck of the woods. A) Our tourist dollars help them continue their good work. B) It’s stunningly beautiful. C) We saw one other vehicle the entire time we were there. D) Rhinos, rhinos and more rhinos. (Not to mention the other Northern species.)

The conservancy itself is beautiful and extremely well maintained. (I didn’t realize just how well maintained until we got to the Mara.) Apparently the rains caused so much damage that they had to close down for a week in January. By the time we arrived a month later, the bulldozers had been out in force and all the unpassable stretches of road had been repaired and/or worked around. There are five different ecosystems at Lewa, which made for diverse and interesting game sightings. And the weather, for those who keep track of these things, was ideal. Not too warm during the day, not too cool at night.

We had three game drives at Lewa. Our first drive started off interestingly enough with sightings of Grevy zebras and reticulated giraffes, plus the other usual suspects. It was all quite pleasant, then David got this look in his eye. He spotted cheetah. Our first predator! Make that predators -- three cheetah brothers lazing about in the tall grass. But they weren’t just lazing, they were keeping tabs on a nearby herd of zebra. David excitedly told us if we were lucky, we would get to see our first kill. We weren’t lucky. The cheetah brothers weren’t very good hunters. But it was thrilling watching them stalk the baby zebra they had their eye on. When they began chasing it at full speed I got goosebumps. Well, maybe not actual goosebumps, but I did check my arm to see if I had any. It was that kind of moment. The others were glad the zebra got away. Not me. I wanted blood.

On our way back to camp, we came across a pride of nine lions. Neophytes that we were, we thought that was a large number. Unfortunately, it was getting dark and we heard more than saw them cross the river. We then watched as they disappeared into the night. Went back to camp, had dinner and then crashed. I usually have so much trouble with jet lag. Not so in Africa. Nothing but deep, deep sleep.

The next morning was rhino morning. We came across a pair of black rhinos that our guide duped into walking toward us by doing what sounded like bird calls. But no, they were rhino calls. Who knew? The inquisitive looks on their faces was priceless. As soon as they realized we weren’t rhinos, they ambled away. Maybe it was the clicking and whirring of our cameras that tipped them off. We then found some white rhinos, which I’m embarrassed to say, I though would be white. Or at least tan. (I really should have studied up on my animals before the trip.)

Then came the highlight of the morning – our up close and personal encounter with the baby rhinos. The very large baby rhinos. If memory serves, their handler told us they were 1200 and 1400 pounds each. We were allowed to get out of the vehicle and pet them. The rhino handler then asked us if we wanted to sit on them. Not knowing what sort of behavior was appropriate when visiting 1200 and 1400 pound baby rhinos, we demurred. The handler insisted the rhino wouldn’t mind and demonstrated how one sits on a baby rhino. It was more of a lean than a sit, but he was right, the rhino didn’t seem to mind. So we leaned/sat on the 1400 pound baby rhino. I’m not sure if this constituted rhino abuse, but the rhino didn’t seem the least bit phased.

We made a quick pit stop at the clinic for flu medicine and then headed back to camp for the old breakfast, nap, lunch, nap routine I was quickly getting used to.

That afternoon two of our party went on a camel ride, while the other two of us visited the Wilderness Lodge for tea. (I had done a camel ride years before and my back isn’t what it used to be, so I decided to be cautious on this, our third day of safari.) We met up with the others after their ride, did a little bit of game viewing and then had sundowners.

There was definitely a difference in sundowner style. At Tortilis we were driven to the top of a hill, where there was not only a lovely spread waiting for us, but a butler. You know, cause serving yourself hors d’oeuvres is hard. (Actually, spelling “hors d’oeuvres” is hard.) At Lewa we were handed a tin of sausages, some potato chips, and had nothing to sit on other than rocks. It was more fun. I felt less decadent.

After sundowners we went on our first official night game drive! Didn’t see a thing. Had a nice time anyway. I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad time doing anything on safari. And that was it. Our two days at Lewa flew past. We were going to go on a short game drive before our flight the next morning, but we dawdled too long and had to head straight for the airstrip. David scolded us for not spending enough time at Lewa. He was right, three days would have been better. There was a lot to see and do, and we barely scratched the surface. But if I wish we had spent more time at Lewa, I really wish we had spent more time at Elsa’s. I LOVED it there. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Up next, Elsa’s Kopje…
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Old Mar 17th, 2007, 03:11 PM
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Your wife got her wish at Lewa with a pride of 9. That's 9 more than I saw and I was there three days.

I can understand your guide David's reaction to the greeting of "We want to see lions." My friends and relatives react strangely too when I greet them with those words.

Rhino riding? There was a little guy that we petted when I was there. Maybe he's the ridable rhino now.

Did the two camel riders enjoy their outing?

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Old Mar 17th, 2007, 09:13 PM
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Atravelynn,

We didn't ride the one rhino, just sat on him for a brief photo op. (One at at time.) I don't remember their age, but I think it was around a year, give or take a few months in either direction. How long ago were you there?

The camel riders enjoyed their outing very much. They were able to get close to some giraffes. I wish I could have joined them, but the getting on and off seemed too iffy a proposition for my temperamental back. It's always the wierdest things that throw it out of whack, and I didn't want to spend the rest of the trip flat on my back.

And it was my friend's wife who demanded to see the lions. My partner was slightly better behaved than that.
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Old Mar 19th, 2007, 10:04 AM
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Thanks for the latest installment. Two questions about Lewa, could you go into more detail about what the 5 different ecosystems were? Were the baby rhinos orphans? Can't wait for Elsa's!
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Old Mar 19th, 2007, 02:24 PM
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Patty,

I couldn’t remember the official names of the five ecosystems, so I looked it up: “Open savannah, Acacia forest, rocky gorges and ravines, Mountain forest and, our backbone, the Lewa swamp.” The Wilderness Lodge is located in the mountainous region and the views from common areas were very Lord of the Rings.

And yes, the babies were orphans. Since we were in and out of Nairobi so quickly, we didn’t get a chance to visit the Animal Orphanage. This was a nice substitute.
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Old Mar 19th, 2007, 06:41 PM
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Great report. Looking forward to the next installment!
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Old Mar 20th, 2007, 07:46 AM
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TravlinFool,
Didn't mean to disparage your wife! It makes sense that a person with a description of "larger than life" would be adamant about seeing lions.

I was at Lewa in 2001.
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Old Mar 20th, 2007, 08:44 AM
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Loving your trip report TravlinFool and your attitude throughout it - "I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad time doing anything on safari." You read some trip reports (on this and other boards)and you wonder what the person thought they were getting into by complaint #59. Keep it coming.

Juliet
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Old Mar 20th, 2007, 09:03 AM
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Thanks, TravlinFool. What's the area like where Lewa Safari camp is located?
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Old Mar 20th, 2007, 03:18 PM
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enjoying your report, can't wait to hear the rest.
hope we get to see some pictures too
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Old Mar 20th, 2007, 05:47 PM
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Good report. Keep it coming.
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Old May 20th, 2007, 11:38 AM
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Dear Travlinfool, how did you like Saruni?
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Old May 22nd, 2007, 11:25 AM
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I can't believe I haven't finished my trip report yet. Will do so ASAP. And post pictures and video.

Alejandra --

Yes, I liked Saruni very much. Beautiful camp, beautiful location, great atmosphere, great host (Riccardo, the owner), extremely friendly staff.

Be aware that it's pretty far outside the Mara proper, and the roads are hideous getting to and from the reserve. There's a ton of resident game, though, and most of our best sightings were in the conservation area near Saruni. Huge lion prides, three separate leopard sightings, every other animal you could want to see. Plus cattle, which annoys some people. Be aware.

We spent four days there. The first day I questioned the wisdom of staying so far outside the reserve. By the 3rd day I couldn't imagine staying anywhere else. By the 4th day, I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. You don't feel like a tourist. You feel like you're staying with your charming European friend at his villa in Africa.

That being said, if I were to visit the Masai Mara during migration, I would probably split my time between Saruni and a camp inside the reserve.

Patti --

To answer your question from many weeks ago, Lewa Safari Camp is located in a nicely shaded area at the top of a small hill. The entrance to the camp, the dining area, lounge and pool are at the top of the hill. There's a downward sloping lawn at the rear of the property that leads to the tents. The view from the top of the hill and some of the tents is pretty breathtaking. Especially from the pool and lunch area.
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Old May 23rd, 2007, 08:20 AM
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Travlinfool, thank you so much for your response. We'll be staying 2 nights at Naibor, 3 nights at Serian and 2 nights at Saruni. I cannot wait.
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