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Trip Report - You can outrun an elephant but not a ranger

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This may not be too relevant given its age, but here goes.
It was 2005 and we were on our first safari to Kenya as a family. We were sitting amongst a very large herd of elephants at Lewa, our second stop on our itinerary, and were faced with a large bull in musth. Now I have been chased by an elephant as a child (in a car) and it was terrifying but my husband hasn’t … so he was cool and I was anxious.

At this stage our excellent guide Ken (from Sunworld Safaris but booked by us using Bunsons in Nairobi) chose to tell us a story about one of his guiding friends.
The guide was taking out a small group of tourists on a walk in a conservation area and as was the custom had been appointed an armed ranger. This ranger was new to him so they made each others acquaintance and then proceeded to give the walkers the wildlife watching rules. All very familiar to us I am sure.
The walk proceeded as planned with the usual plains game in evidence, usually tail view only because ‘man on foot = danger’, plant discussions, insects and reptiles. As they walked between some small bushes a large elephant, ears flapping stepped out. The tourists froze, the guide tried to calm them saying the usual soothing words, stay quiet, no sudden moves, we’ll back away slowly when all of a sudden the armed ranger started yelling “run, run we’ll all be killed” at which point he charged through the tourists pushing them aside and all they saw was his dust. The tourists threw caution to the winds and followed as fast as they could and the guide, who was left to face the now angry elephant, took off his jumper threw it in a bush and made haste.
The guide confronted the ranger later and asked why he had behaved so stupidly as he was there to provide protection and security and his answer was that he had never actually seen an elephant before and didn’t know that they were so big! The guide retrieved his jumper, now torn and dirty and a bit disgusting and the tourists lived to see another day and went home with excellent stories to tell their nearest and dearest. Don’t know whether the ranger kept his job.

Can’t vouch for the veracity of this tale, but it sounded pretty real the way Ken told it.

Ken drove our family of four from game park, to conservation area to wildlife reserve and gave us excellent guiding throughout, finding us wonderful animals but almost best of all were the vivid and entertaining stories he told us.

Anyway, after that Ken took pity on me and turned the 4x4 around so at least we were facing an escape route. He even (kindly because it was cool) took off his jumper so that it was at the ready to throw out of the window in the event that the elephant bull needed to be put off our scent if he should choose to charge. Unfortunately, when reversing he landed us in a huge hole in the ground, you’ve never seen such a big but obviously invisible hole in your life and the sight of us trying to rock the Landcruiser out of the hole made the elephant pretty grumpy.

Our first 2 nights were spent with family friends who live in Karen and it was interesting to notice that there were no street signs (or hardly any) and no street numbers and our driver really had no idea where to take us. We drove up and down lots of streets past massive gardens with glimpses of some pretty amazing houses. Fascinating to see the razor wire which was the first step in making some of the new fences we observed. This involved large rolls of the razor wire with hedging plants growing up between them. Nasty surprise for any ill intentioned person trying to push through the hedge in years to come! One of the unsavoury things about living in a city such as this. We did eventually find our friends house which had a large wooden gate, and a hedge although I can’t vouch for any razor wire here. There was a large metal disc at the gate with a metal bar attached and you banged the disc making a horribly unfriendly noise until someone (usually the gardener) let you in. All the gates had signs saying ‘mbwa kali’ and our friends certainly had ‘jibwa na kijibwa’ but they were pretty friendly towards us.

One night we had take away pizza, not what I was expecting somehow, but I am still wondering how they found the house. My husband remembered cold pizza so perhaps they hadn’t found the house very easily at all.

We purposefully made this a driving trip so that we could all look at the country, see the little villages and shops and get a feel for the country. Mind you, the terrible driving and roads makes it an experience that is only needed once. We didn’t have to share our vehicle which was a big plus although it is an advantage having a local guide at some parks. We were lucky because Ken had worked as a guide at many different locations so knew them quite well.

We began our safari at Sweetwaters where we saw lots of black rhino, 2 lions, the chimpanzees (including the baby ‘Joy’) and various plains species. Ken did a lot of tut tutting because of the rain and the sticky black cottons soils which made driving and game viewing so difficult, and said “wait until we reach the Mara, this is nothing” … but it wasn’t nothing to us. We saw 4 of the big 5 in our first day, not that it was our aim.

We visited Morani (the black rhino) whose mother was killed by poachers in Amboseli. He is one of the last of the legendary Amboseli black rhinos but can’t breed as he was attacked by another bull in a territorial dispute and emasculated. Now he is in a protected area of about 70 acres with 2 giraffe and a few impala. We walked about 10 minutes with a ranger before finding him asleep. The ranger spoke softly to him all the time so that he knew we were there and not a threat. By the time we had walked back to the car park the wet black cotton soil had given us platform soles of 5 or 6 inches. My husband and I had no problem with this as we had lived through the disco era, but our children struggled.

We left Sweetwaters and drove past vast wheat fields with the Mathews ranges in the background. They looked so prosperous but I imagine that the prosperity is for only a few. We arrived at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy which was quite a change of scenery, much like the Flinders Ranges at home. They were setting up for the Lewa Marathon, to be held in a few days, where all the contestants run through the reserve.

My journal says that I saw something very interesting in the bushes by our tent this day but I can’t read my writing, it looks like chicken but I can’t believe that I thought that was very interesting, even back then!!

About 10pm after we had gone to bed, Ken came to our tent flap and called out that someone had seen a leopard by the swamp and did we want to come and try to find it. We all leapt out of bed and then sagged back as we remembered we had a sick child. She heard the word leopard and pleaded with us to come so we bundled her up in lots of clothes and went up to the car which happened to be one of the Lewa open vehicles. So cold! Ken and the driver with her bucket between her knees. Ken and the driver (I think he was David, but we met a lot of Davids so am not sure) supported her and were very kind. We sat in the back with 3 other visitors and went for an exciting drive through the African night. Actually it seemed to be a faster drive than through the day, but I suppose we weren’t stopping to see animals along the way. We found the tree kill quite easily but no leopard. We drove around the swamps as Ken told us what to look for. The reflective eyes of the cats are different to all the other animals about, such as the antelopes and zebras, so we had a few false alarms including a jackal. Then the spot light picked up the green reflective light we had been looking for and there in front of us was a leopard with her 2 cubs. It was exhilirating and she came within 10 metres of our open sided vehicle. My dear little daughter, all of 7 years old was so pleased to see them and didn’t complain about the long drive, the cold or the vomiting or anything, I was so proud of her.

Lewa was a trip highlight, lots of elephants, white rhino, black rhino, grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, somali ostrich and hardly another tourist in sight. The safari camp was very pleasant and we were looked after well, especially with our sick child.

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    Three years later we were to return to Lewa, it was as good as we remembered.

    After 2 nights we travelled to The Mountain Lodge but I didn’t find it very thrilling. The rest of the family really enjoyed it but since they’re not writing this trip report I can leave the details out and save everyone some reading time. Suffice to say that I found it a bit musty and claustrophic.

    We saw a colobus monkey on the drive, but not much else. The little villages on the way were very interesting and different to those on the plains. They seemed more desperate somehow and less friendly. Perhaps tourists don’t stop and so they get no benefit from our travelling and disrupting their lives.

    We saw our first hyaenas at The Mountain Lodge which persuaded Ken to tell us his hyaena story about another good friend of his.

    This guide was with clients who were fly camping so they were out in the wilderness, fairly isolated and enjoying their private experience. Ken’s friend told them to be careful at night and not to leave the zip undone and definitely no food inside so the clients very cleverly threw their dinner remnants outside the tent before going to sleep. The guide was woken to the most terrible noise you could imagine, he told Ken he thought a witch doctor had come. He came out of his tent to see his client’s tent in a big writhing heap with screaming, yelping and all sorts of horrible sounds. Then out of one section of canvas came a hyaena, legs and body intertwined with guide ropes, biting at the tent and making very un hyaena noises. The poor campers, they had thrown out their dinner remains which included some very tasty and smelly chicken bones which attracted the hyaena. It then carefully came between the guide ropes and the top fly canvas but bumped the side of the cot where upon one of the campers woke up, looked out the little window saw the hyaena looking back and screamed. Well, of course the hyaena grabbed the chicken bone and turned to run, tripped over the guide rope and down came the tent. It all ended ok but it was a lesson to make sure your dinner remains land by someone else’s tent, not yours.

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    These are hilarious. Glad you have recounted them. And the hyenas have some tales to tell to. I never thought about my ranger never having seen an elephant up close.

    This reminds me to resurrect my Recollections thread for this kind of thing.

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    Lynn, yes - please do your recollections thread. I could have saved some writing time just putting in the funny stories and left out all the boring bits holding it together. Maybe if I post some photos it will all be ok.

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    The next day we made our way through Nyahuruhu with a stop for a picnic lunch at Thomson’s Falls. The children had their photos taken with a couple of chameleons which of course cost us a few shillings, but I didn’t really mind paying out shillings for Equator crossing certificates and chameleon photos as it provided an income for a Kenyan family.

    We stopped at the lookout over the Rift Valley which was beautiful even though I don’t think the platform passed any building regulations. Looked very unstable. We were on our way to Lake Nakuru NP where we were spending only one night … for the birds.

    In the end, we didn’t really have long enough there. We arrived mid afternoon and spent some great moments on the lake shore photographing flamingoes and pelicans. It was the smell which really hit us. Nothing like the other parks owing to the number of birds, shallow water and build up of various unsavory by products on the shore. It was fantastic and we spent ages being bird observors.

    We had great sightings of white rhino and big troops of baboons. We also saw half a python and no, it wasn’t dead and chopped in half, it was moving into the undergrowth. It still counted as a viewing in my eyes.

    Lake Nakuru Lodge looked lovely with the tropical gardens and flowers everywhere with little cottages. It was very busy, even at this time of year. The worst thing was the beds, the mattresses were so hard we just couldn’t sleep. Food was excellent but sadly guides were not encouraged to sit with their guests so that made us a bit annoyed as Ken’s stories were much more interesting than ours.

    The biggest down side to Lake Nakuru was the crowds. We hadn’t been exposed to this number of people before and they were everywhere. The lookout was filthy with rubbish and smelt. I think the tourists were using it as a toilet. But the birds made up for it and I would definitely go again if only for that.

    We left early the next morning heading for the Mara. Ken owned a house and farm on one of the roads leading to Narok so asked if we would like to go this way. It was a better road and didn’t have much traffic on it so we readily agreed. Plus it meant that we would see some different country which we did. It was so interesting with little farms and really lovely views in all directions. We saw Ken’s farm, but he didn’t live there as his wife worked as a teacher in Narok so lived there with his daughter and he of course spent most time in Nairobi.

    Eventually we reached Narok where Ken left us at one of the tourist shops so that he could get the tyre repaired (we had a flat earlier) and asked if he could visit his family. Well, of course we said yes.

    Everyone who drives to the Mara must surely feel that electric thrill buzzing through them as they leave Narok and start to seeing a few grazing wild animals on the side of the road. We had a picnic lunch under a tree just off the road before reaching the Reserve. It felt very wild and beautiful and my husband showed off by juggling the little green oranges which had been in the lunch boxes. This was a new skill for him which he felt needed practice.

    Much has been written about Masai Mara’s wonderful rolling plains, cropped acacias, golden grasses, migration but no one had prepared me for the sky. It was azure blue one minute, floating cotton balls sailing past the next and then dark thunderous clouds edged with silver letting through arrows of light which just glanced the earth below. If you’re lucky you can get a photograph of a wonderful herd of animals standing in a pool of light with thunderstorms around them. I didn’t get the animals!

    We spent 3 nights at Kichwa Tembo in one of the family rooms which are no longer used for guests. It did give us lots of room and electricity for charging batteries and was very private, but a little run down. We had our own hammock and little grove by the river with monkeys in the trees but felt very isolated as it was a long hike from the tents and main area.

    One night, just as we were falling asleep the whole room lit up with what appeared to be fairy dust. Glowing lights flitting around and amazing the children. Fire flies had invaded our room and it was an additional bit of magic from the Mara.

    No migration for us as it was late June and that year the herds came late anyway. We did see some of the resident herds of wildebeest so if I had the time and inclination I could photoshop them all together and pretend that we had seen thousands. A bit unethical. I don’t have the time.

    Animal viewing was excellent. We found our own pride of lions, 8 in total and enjoyed them for quite a while before the mini van brigade arrived and we moved off. I asked Ken why he didn’t radio other drivers when we found something special and he replied that many of the driver/guides were lazy and just waited for someone else to find the animals and he wasn’t encouraging them.

    It was an excellent day’s viewing as we left the lions for others to enjoy and as we drove past the airstrip we came across 3 cheetahs lying in the grass. The grass was very long so it was lucky that we saw them. There were, by this stage, a few vehicles watching the cheetah so we were quite surprised when one walked towards our car and jumped onto the bonnet. We ended up with 2 cheetah on our car and felt very privileged. Of course this meant that we were stuck there for as long as the cheetah wanted to use us as a viewing platform. It was very emotional for us all.

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    Nyamera - don’t read this!!!

    Ken had been a driver for Big Cat Diary and related to us the story of the time a cheetah was chased by an angry topi mother and took to the 4x4 which Ken was driving, jumping onto the bonnet and crashing into the windscreen. Sadly the topi couldn’t stop in time and crashed into the bull bar and died. If the car hadn’t been there the cheetah could have escaped anyway and the topi would still be alive, well it probably wouldn’t be alive now of course but you know what I mean.

    We were lucky because as we were leaving the cheetah, a mini van approached us and a very kind man (from Belgium) said he had taken photos of the cheetah on our car and would email me some. I gave him my business card and after a few weeks, the photos duly came through.

    This was definitely the highlight of our trip … definitely.

    It had been raining in the Mara so the roads were slippery but that didn’t stop Ken from taking us on a mad rush across the plains to where a black rhino cow was standing with her calf. She was on a termite mound obviously having chased off any topi that might have been present. This was something we hadn’t expected and I believe this rhino was the one who had been seen making friends with an Eland bull in earlier years as reported in SWARA.

    We also saw the elephant cow who had twin calves. Now I don’t know whether she gave birth to twins or whether one was adopted but I remember the report in SWARA which showed photos of her when the calves were new born and both suckling. When we saw her one calf had grown quite a bit bigger than the other but we saw both suckling from her. This was on our last morning at Kichwa Tembo before flying back to Nairobi so it was an amazing end to an amazing part of our safari. You can never underestimate the Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem.

    My daughter fell in love with a Maasai warrior. Totally in awe of him she was making wedding plans until we went to the village and realized that not only was she going to have to make a hut out of mud and manure but she was going to have to make an entrance in the thorn perimeter. A short lived romance. She was only 7.

    A postscript to this was that we received an invitation to his wedding to be held later the next year. He said that if we let him know when we were arriving he would arrange to collect us. If we couldn’t come, not to worry, just send money. We wrote a congratulatory letter back but of course how could we go to the wedding and let our daughter see the opposition!

    We say a sad goodbye to Ken as we wait for our flight back to Nairobi. We have stayed in contact, vaguely as you do and it has been tough this year for him with so many tourists cancelling. I keep hoping that he is getting work.

    We are met at Wilson’s by Nicholas who drives us down to Tsavo East so that we can visit our oldest Sheldrick’s orphan. We stay at Tarhi Camp. I love Tsavo, it is so wild and old and uninhabited. We are too late to see our ele get put to bed at the Voi stockades and as our authority from Daphne was only for that, we spend some time the next day getting it changed so that we can visit the orphans in the Park. Because tourists can’t get out of vehicles in National Parks, you have to have special authority to go and see the elephants away from the stockades. The ok eventually comes through, thank goodness, and we follow the keepers with the milk into the bush. There is a wild herd of elephants at the mud wallow where the babies are congregating, so we stay very close to the keepers. There are 23 orphans, only a few still being on milk. We get out and stand near Seraa and take photos of both children with her. The milk is finished very quickly and then they are off, dashing towards the mud wallow and the interesting wild elephants.

    We had an interesting tour of the stockades where Joseph showed us the snares they recover. When a new building goes up the put the snares in the foundations under the cement.

    Nicholas took us for a drive further into the park where we saw a lone Tsavo lion of man eating fame. Must be the stories around them but this lion certainly looked meaner than any other lion I have seen. We also saw a kudu plus the usual giraffes, zebras, antelopes included Grant’s gazelle which apparently they call Peters gazelle in Tsavo because they have developed less white on their flanks. It was new information for me but there is always a story behind everything in Africa.

    Tarhi Camp - we loved the position of this camp. It was secluded and unfenced, a real bush camp. A wild buffalo bull who took up residence in the camp caused a few concerns and elephants came down to a salt lick by the open air dinning area. The down side was that the staff didn’t seem very happy. I have a few theories on that, but on reflection it is probably not the forum to discuss that here.

    We continued onto Mombasa where we spent 3 days so that the children could chill out. Big tourist hotel, The Voyager, but although it wasn’t our style of place the children had a fantastic time and really enjoyed their beach break.

    This was a great trip and having your own vehicle and driver meant total flexibility with game drives.
    Places I would like to spend longer at: Tsavo East, Masai Mara
    Places I wouldn’t bother to visit again: Sweetwaters (although we did enjoy it and great for first time travellers), Mountain Lodge (just because we didn’t see much - would prefer the Abedares)

    I wrote the following in my journal shortly after we returned home.

    There is no peace when the heart is broken between two places. The spirit soars with thoughts of the open plains, dusky skies, the smell of Africa. The heart is content with the safety of known places.

    Who knows what I meant, but Africa can make you write some pretty silly things when you look in retrospect at them.

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    Twaffle, despite the tragic topi story I’m very glad I didn’t miss this retro report. It looks like Ken taught you a thing or two about story telling.
    I’ve never seen a rhino in the Mara and you’ve seen a rhino on a termite mound. Is there a stronger word than “jealousy” to describe this feeling?
    I stayed at Tarhi Camp in 2004 and it’s my favourite camp that I’m always planning to return to. This is exactly the right forum for theories about camps. Some time after my trip - maybe in 2005, but probably later - my driver sent me an email saying that he was no longer working at Tarhi. I replied with some questions that never were answered.

    Your photos are an example of what really good photos look like, especially the fat shiny topi and the topis that are lion watching. I don’t like camps with pools, but I could make an exception for the kind of pool they have at Kichwa Tembo. You have some really expressive lions and cheetah paw.

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    Thank you Nyamera for your kind comments on my photos. Kenya is a magic place but it is hard to get magic using megapixels.
    Tarhi camp - would have loved to stay longer. I hope it has changed but when we got there it was being managed by the boss's son (very young, perhaps that was his excuse) but he told us that he used to play with all the African children in camp until he came back from school and was made assistant to his Dad. Then he had to make sure that everyone knew his place! It was very "I am the boss, you are the employee" and in such a small, beautiful and isolated camp it just felt unfriendly. The staff tried so hard but I could see that they were unsure of how to interact with us. And we and our children really found one of the best parts of small camps was the interaction with the local staff and inhabitants of the area. He has probably grown now and hopefully has a better and more mature relationship with the staff at Tarhi.
    BUT I would still go back given a chance … it felt authentic. I don't want to put people off at all, 3 years is a long time and all things must pass.

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    That's great you served as a termite mound for the cheetah. Maybe one of the same cheetahs or a relative that jumped on our vehicle near Little Governor's.

    You have some good photos of it too. Someone must have sent you the photo with 2 of them on your vehicle.

    You have a very artistic eye from the looks of your photos. The focused impala in the moving herd is fantastic. You've even made warthogs into a work of art. The selected animal body parts are lovely.

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    Thank you Lynn for your nice comments.
    I have always had a soft spot for warthogs so it is nice that you thought the photo did them justice.
    A very kind Belgian tourist took my email address and sent the photos he took of the cheetah on our car to us once he returned home. People can be very kind.

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