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Trip Report Trip Report: Kanya/South Africa, August 2011

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Trip Report Kenya/South Africa, August 2011
I am going to start this trip report by referring back to what others have mentioned in past reports.
Wish I Had Brought: warm hat/gloves/bandana/rain jacket for game drives...yes I bought them but decided I couldn't possibly need them...wrong-o!
Glad I Brought: sports bra and cough drops/hard candies for game drives
Brought But Did Not Need: wash cloth and conditioner (every camp supplied them)
Liquid Soap to Wash Unmentionables: also supplied in camps

What an unforgettable experience! I was a bit nervous about going solo but all you Fodorite friends said it would be no problem -- and it wasn't. Thanks for the encouragement! You also said I would be planning my trip as I returned and I am -- next up is Botswana and likely Namibia. Stay tuned! Trip stats: 25 days out of the country, 16 days on safari, 25 game drives, 6 camps in 2 countries.

Depart August 6--Arrive Nairobi August 7PM
I flew from SFO to London using miles and flying first-class which was nice and relaxing. After a 2-hour layover in Heathrow, I flew BA to Nairobi. I slept much of the flight, even used their navy blue "sleep suit" which felt a little strange since it was sunny out! Upon landing at 9PM, the visa process seemed to take forever because I didn't realize that I could have used the "fast track" line. I also had my only sweater stolen in the baggage area and my bags did not arrive from London. Not an auspicious beginning! I finally got out of the airport with my driver and checked in at the Ole Sereni Hotel after 11PM. I don't remember much about the hotel except that they did not have complimentary toothbrush/paste and that was very bad news!

August 8-9 Amboseli/Tortilis Camp
I didn't get much sleep and the driver picked me up at 6:15AM for the drive to Wilson. I was feeling really out of sorts -- not to mention uncomfortable in dirty clothes! -- but the flight to Amboseli on Air Kenya was smooth. I had to wait about an hour for the 5 other Tortilis guests, a French family with an absolute mountain of luggage! Did they not read the incessant warnings about the 15K allowance? It got quite chilly on the drive to camp as I had no warm jacket, but bought one first thing at the gift shop at Tortilis. The managers (Italians Andrea and Manuela) were very helpful, bringing me toothpaste/brush and even some moisturizer and cleanser. They also realized I was the only solo traveler at the camp so invited me to eat with them in the evenings. I lived in Italy for several years, so it was a fun way to practice my very rusty language skills. They are both very funny and I thoroughly enjoyed their company.
My first real game drive, wrapped in my newly acquired fleece jacket, was a wonderful introduction with lots of the Amboseli eles, hyenas, Thompson's and Grant's gazelles, guinea fowl and wildebeest. Unfortunately Kilimanjaro was shrouded at the top -- and remained so for my stay at Tortilis. Game drives the next days were full of more elephants, Masai giraffes, Burchell's zebras, female lions, hippos, ostriches, buffalo, vervet monkeys and waterbuck. We also did a lovely bush breakfast, complete with a wooden toilet and TP behind some thick bushes! Derek and Beverly Joubert were also guests at Tortilis and it was interesting to see them in their "natural habitat." My luggage arrived the next afternoon -- what a relief. I never thought I would actually look forward to donning those ill-fitting safari clothes but it was wonderful to have all my things at last. We visited the local Masai village which is a real village, not one of those faux ones that disappear at night. We saw a dance, prayers, learned about herbs (even what they called Masai viagra), went into a dung hut and watched them make fire. My six-year-old vehicle buddy Timothy made a lot of little Masai friends by showing them their photos in the digital camera. They walked all over the camp arm in arm -- so cute!

August 10-12 Meru National Park, Elsa's Kopje
It was very cloudy and drizzly back in NBO. We had two stops from Wilson to Meru airstrip and the plane was helmed by two females -- yay! I had only one companion in my game vehicle and that meant lots of interaction with the guide, Sammy. Elsa's was one of my favorite camps. My lodgings were in "Tana", the tree house which it was, quite literally, with two large trees coming up through both levels of the place. I loved the room with its panoramic view of the terrain. The shy rock hyrax that were all over the camp took me by surprise at first when I saw one sitting in the open window of the main building, but the manager quickly assured me they were "not rodents" and I just as quickly developed an affection for them. Charley and Philip, the managers, are delightful third-generation Kenyans who also invited the other solo traveler (my drive buddy) to eat with them each night. The food was delicious! Cheli&
Peacock (Italian owned) manages both this camp and Tortilis and their chefs clearly have learned how to make light as air pasta; the spinach ravioli were especially yummy! The desserts were also outstanding, especially one sinful chocolate pie. The bar also offered some very nice S. African wines. Lunch and breakfast were buffets, but the lovely dinners were served outside under the amazingly starry skies...just about perfect in every way!
I am told that Meru is one of the least visited of the parks. The habitat is very different from Amboseli with rivers, grassland, trees, etc. Apparently Meru went through a bad patch several decades ago and almost got "decredentialed". Elsa's is the only camp within the park, although there is a public camping facility. They have made a huge effort to bring the park back, and seem to have been successful. The rhino sanctuary is very interesting, with 72 animals (I saw a mom/dad/baby trio) and they are also trying to revive the Grevy's population.
Game viewing included lions, many reticulated giraffes (how beautiful they are!), waterbuck, crocs, eles, buffalo, baboons, dikdik, kudu, gerenuks. We witnessed a hippo fight in the river one morning during our bush breakfast -- what a noise they make with water flying everywhere! Didn't get a good photo of the fight, but did get one of the poor loser leaving the "battlefield" and the river. The best sighting was two Grevy's zebras -- there are only eight in Meru -- mingling with the Burchell's. It was very easy to see the differences with them so close together. Elsa's has a lovely gift shop and it stocks books that we purchased for the local school. That is a great way to contribute something and from photos I've seen, much appreciated by the kids.
Note on clothing: Many of the camps I was in were full of Europeans who did not seem to adopt the "central casting" version of safari clothes -- no baggy beige pants for those women! At breakfast the last morning in Meru, the two at the next table had sparkly flip flops and shorts. OK so that's over the top, but it does seem that one doesn't necessarily have to do the whole "look at me, I'm in Africa" wardrobe to be comfortable. I should have brought some jeans, for example. Live and learn for sure...

August 13-15 Samburu National Park, Larsen's Tented Camp
Samburu has a similar habitat to Meru, with savanna/grassland. There was a big rain the night before I arrived so things were pretty muddy, though the animals weren't complaining. Larsen's Camp started up in 1986 and is billed at one of the "small luxury hotels of the world." Not so much. I had to stay in a tent that was apparently not often used, given the switch plate off the wall, the cracked toilet seat, the lack of a hair dryer in the hair dryer stand or detergent in the detergent container, etc. I moved the next day to a riverfront tent, but this all left a bit of a bad taste. I did love the vervet monkeys who sit right outside the tent, hoping for a snack. One different thing about Larsen's is that you must tip the waiter, room steward, barman, backroom staff and guide all separately. After such personal treatment by the managers at my first two camps, I was also a bit surprised that the manager never introduced himself to me. There were two Micato tours at the camp during my stay, so perhaps that made things overly busy?
We saw a whole range of wonderful birds at Samburu: a secretary bird really strutting its funny stuff, lilac breasted rollers, red/yellow billed hornbills, bateleur eagles, yellow billed storks patiently fishing in the river, superb starlings (how gorgeous they are with their orange and iridescent blue bodies), snake eagles, and the ever-present oxpeckers. There are also lots of reticulated giraffe, impala, and large baboon troops near the camp. On my second day I finally saw my first cheetah! She walked straight at our vehicle for about 100 yards, walked around it without even looking up, then walked cool! That day I met up with folks from another vehicle and we had a delicious bush breakfast (and my first bush comfort break) then went off to the Samburu village where we met the chief, had the dance, the fire making, etc. This was a rehash of what we saw at the Masai village but I still enjoyed it, except for the really hard sell at the end of the visit. Several people followed me out to the truck still trying to sell me something I didn't want. We had made donations to the village for entry ($30) and to the local anti-female circumcision cause ($20) so I didn't feel bad not buying still another bracelet!

August 14-17 Masai Mara/Little Governor's Camp
I thought I'd sleep in this AM since I was leaving, but they woke me up at 5:45 by mistake! Ah well, gave me time to do a leisurely pack up and get to the air strip for the flight to the Mara. Had to make several stops and arrived in a light rain. It had been raining for two days so roads were pretty soupy too. Little Governor's is a fairly small camp, with only 17 permanent tents. Mine was #16, so about as far from the main building and the vehicle stop as possible. That was fine because it provided a bit of exercise before the drives. To get to the camp there is a short river crossing (rope pull type) and a walk down/uphill. On several occasions, there were hippos near the boat, but the guides easily shooed them away with well-aimed stones. The tents are quite pleasant, with large open showers, wood, tile. The camp looks out on a large marsh and is unfenced, so various animals do come very near the tents: several zebra, eles, a hippo at night, warthogs. (These are around in abundance. One lunch I heard something and looked down to see a cute one on his knees munching on the grass, about 2 feet from my table!) There are rangers and they give warnings when it is not safe to go to/from the tents. They also take you with torches to/from dinner at nights.
It is the Mara so wildlife was abundant! One scene I wish I had not witnessed: one of the juvenile males from the Marsh Pride (BBC stars) playing cat and mouse with a baby impala, who was screaming the entire time. What a horrible sound! We asked to drive away after a few minutes. (There is a photo of this in the online album I post below.) The first day we came across lots of topi, zebras, many members of the Marsh Pride with Masai herd cow carcasses they had killed. Also nursing lionesses, a clan of hyenas with two babies, a jackal making away with the leg of a gazelle and many wildebeest...just waiting by the river.
On the second day it was quite hot so I broke out my capris/short sleeved shirt -- and it started to rain about 5 minutes away from the camp. The temperature plummeted very fast (apparently not uncommon here) and we all huddled somewhat damply under the drive blankets. But it cleared up within 30 minutes or so and we then saw the three "Honey Brothers" -- juvenile cheetahs who are offspring of "Honey" a well-known local sight. They were lined up as if by design, watching a warthog with a broken leg limp slowly away from them. They didn't move, but did keep the potential prey in their sights, perhaps for a later snack? We also saw a lioness with two litters, two-year-old males and a four playful six-month-old cubs. So darling! When we returned to the camp, we had to wait because there were two hippos near the boat. Once that was cleared up, we got back to the main building and I was told I couldn't go further because there were two eles eating the tree next to my tent. Wouldn't have minded except that I was still wet from the rain. They finally moved on and I was able to have much delayed hot shower!
On August 16 I did the hot air balloon ride in the early AM. It leaves from Little Governor's so that was very convenient. I had done other rides (the one in Cappodocia was fantastic!) so this wasn't such a revelation but it was beautiful seeing the winding Mara River -- and being greeted by a delicious champagne breakfast upon touchdown. Saw elands that drive, my first. That afternoon we followed large herds of wildebeest out to the river and parked as more and more arrived and massed near the water. We were pretty sure we would finally see a crossing...until the weather once again changed in a snap: 20 degree drop in temp, thunder, lightning, high winds and very heavy rain. We waited and we waited...and then the lead animals started turning around. More arrived. They left. We also left finally and made our very slippery and muddy way back to the camp.

August 17-18 Nairobi/Departure for South Africa
The morning I was leaving, I was reading on my porch when my room steward said "Mama, come in to the tent." I did and realized that the side of the room was swaying dramatically because the tree shaking eles had returned! They finally decided they were full and strolled off -- and I got to leave for the next adventure. The driver took me to Carnivore for lunch when I arrived in Nairobi, not where I longed to go but apparently it was included in what I paid for the overall trip. Can't say I was enthralled with the food (turned down the bull's testicles, camel and ostrich) and the place seemed more Disney/show than serious restaurant but it was an experience. That afternoon I did a private tour of the Sheldrick wildlife center and met my little adopted ele "Sities". I got to feed her from two huge milk bottles, then fed some of the other little ones. After milk we went for dessert to the nearby trees and had some luscious leaves -- quite an experience as there was a whole lotta jostling going on! Got stepped on a few times, had ele trunks tickling my neck, got totally covered in red dirt -- and had a ball! Also visited with Maxwell, their 6 year old blind black rhino. Stayed at the Fairmont Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi which was nice but pretty much like any other Fairmont I have ever seen. A wonderful dinner at Tatu, their restaurant, with giant prawns which were delectable.
Before catching my flight the next afternoon to Jo'burg the driver ran through the itinerary I had given him for things to do in Karen: a visit to the Blixen Museum and home (I am a big fan of "Out of Africa," Kazuri Beads store/factory (bought way too much) and Utamaduni Craft Center (ditto!) and even fed and kissed the giraffes at the Giraffe Center. It was a very nice day. I was sorry to leave Kenya. I loved the country and found the people to be so friendly and authentic. Many asked me about President Obama when they found out I was from the US. I do hope to be back soon.

August 18-22 Jo'burg/Pafuri Camp, Kruger National Park
Had a quick overnight in Sandton at the Da Vinci Hotel. Unfortunately I arrived so late that I could not take advantage of the hotel's proximity to the Nelson Mandela Square and shopping center. Left the next AM through surprisingly light traffic to Lanseria and caught a lovely six-passenger Wilderness Air flight to Pafuri Camp in northern Kruger. Pafuri is truly a lovely camp, built on wooden decks about 2 meters off the ground. There are 20 "tents" in all and they stretch over almost a mile. The camp overlooks the Luvuvhu River and there are animals walking by all the time, including impala, nyala, etc. My room was very large, with beautiful mossie netting, and stone work in the bathroom which had showers inside and outside. I took an outdoor shower one day with a large male nyala watching me from below! The camp owners have a clear dedication to the environment and conservation; the staff is young and earnest. They have a partnership with the local Makuleke Community to run the concessions so maintain good community relations.
The daily schedule is different, with a big brunch after the AM game drive, tea/goodies before the PM drive and dinner at 7:30. My guide was Edward -- I called him Prince Edward because he was our "prince" -- and we had a lot of fun with him. I saw my first leopard on my first drive at Pafuri, a juvenile male hiding in a nyalaberry tree. He was very hard to spot but I got a great photo of him -- included in the attached photos. The other unusual sight was a huge yellow fever tree forest, one of only three in the world. We had a sundowner in the clearing by the forest and it was lovely. Pafuri is well-known for birds and we saw many that were new to me. The camp supplies extensive bird lists and the camp is a paradise for bird watchers. The terrain is full of nyala and jackalberry trees and we learned an interesting snippet from Edward: baboons shake the berries from the nyalaberry trees for the impalas who are waiting below! Wonder what they get in return? We also saw baboons making away with the big pods from the sausage trees which are apparently quite a treat for them. In later drives we saw jackals, duiker, civet cats, genets, bushbuck, elands, kudu, two kinds of mongoose. We visited Crook's Corner (where S. Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe meet) and saw tons of crocs and hippos. We were headed home when we got a call about a leopard sighting so we sped over there and found 3 leopards on a rocky outcropping. After watching them for about 20 minutes, we drove off, turned the corner and about 40 feet ahead saw another leopard pooping in the road! He finished his business and sauntered off, but we followed him closely for quite a while. Quite a thrill! On our way back from the leopards we met a small herd of eles crossing the road and blocking our way. We stopped and only then realized that we were between a baby and her mom! We got a mock charge (I almost ended up in the lap of the lady next to me because I was on the charge side) and then the road cleared up and we could drive off.
My last afternoon at Pafuri I made reservations to go to the local 16th century ruin with two of the camp guides. Thulumela was a civilization similar to Greater Zimbabwe and lasted from about 1550-1650. They traded with the Arabs, India and the Portuguese; about 1000 people and their king lived there. The ruins are up a substantial hill (and it was hot!) but quite fascinating with burial mounds, skinning tools, sword sharpening stones and grinding stones still visible. Edward knew all about it so I got the quickie history of the place.

August 22-26 Sabi Sands, Mala Mala Main Camp
Upon arriving my ranger took me on a tour of the camp. The rangers at Mala Mala stay with their drive guests, eating all meals with them, giving the AM wake-up call and helping to solve problems should any arise. My lodgings were a bit of overkill for a solo traveler: two bathrooms, sitting room, fridge, hair dryers, telephones, two desks, a dressing area and a large bedroom. Downstairs there is a gym and steam room, an Internet and wi-fi room with satellite TV. The place is actually more like a resort than a camp. But it does have quite a history and it was very interesting to see all the photos and mementos of the early hunting lodge days. And the camp has an outstanding wine cellar full of delicious S. African wines, many of them served by the glass. Food was fine; dinner was served in the boma in a circle around the large fire.
Being Mala Mala, the game viewing was wonderful. We saw all the "big 5" in the first two hours! In addition, we had lots of sightings of such animals as klipspringers, hoopoe, long-tailed shrike, bush hare, hyena, black-backed jackals, a gazillion impala, beautiful birds, ostrich, hippos, eles, cape giraffes, baboon troops, kudu, nyala (male and female which look radically different), rhino, and buffalo. There is a lot of off-roading at Mala Mala (which made me uncomfortable a few times but certainly does get close to the animals) and we tracked a rather ratty lactating female leopard for about an hour through all kinds of vegetation. We never did see the cubs but got some great leopard shots -- and a flat tire. Our last two drives were quite exciting. At night we saw a leopard eating her impala kill in the tree. The next day we returned with one other truck and she was still there, but resting after her big meal. She soon awoke and moved under the other vehicle for a nap! I have great photos of her tail trailing out from under the truck! That truck stayed until she left (about 30 minutes) but we left to track a gorgeous male lion who led us on a merry chase around the bush before sauntering on to the road and going to sleep also. Wonderful!
Our ranger was quite young and clearly could have used more interaction skills. He often ran right by things that could and should have been explained to those in the vehicle who were taking their first drives. When asked, he seemed to have the right answers but did not have the breadth of experience that some of the older guides had had that allowed them to tell stories about the animals. All that added immensely to the drives and I felt it was lacking at MM.

August 26-30 Cape Town, Cape Grace Hotel
I took a teeny plane from MM to Nelspruit, with room for pilot, co-pilot (there wasn't one) and two passengers. It was only me and the pilot who jokingly asked when we were getting going if I knew how to fly a plane by any chance. Funny guy. A 2.5 hour flight to CPT was more mundane. After settling into my room at the Cape Grace I ran over to the V&A mall to buy a rain jacket because everyone had told me it was raining in CPT. We had NOT ONE drop of rain the whole time I was there, though I am certainly not complaining about that! A bit like knowing it will rain when you wash your car, I guess. There were high winds, however, and despite our attempts we never did get up Table Mountain. I did three tours in CPT: half-day around the town, then on my own to Robben Island (what an experience!!); a day out to Cape Point, Boulder's Beach, penguins, etc; and a final day in the winelands. I live near Napa/Sonoma in northern CA so probably could have skipped that day. But Franschoek and Stellenbosch were lovely. Had a dinner at Belthazar's which I also loved -- yummy baby kingclip with an amazing Rijks shiraz that I ended up hunting for an bringing back to the US. [Unfortunately already consumed....) The Signal restaurant at the hotel was also lovely, though a British couple at the next table brought their little boys who yelled the whole time. I'm sure the parents didn't have any better experience than the folks around them!
Did some wonderful shopping on my last day. Three stores merit special mention: MonkeyBiz and Streetwires in Bo-Kaap (non-profits that make darling wire/bead animals and other figures) and Tribal Trends on Long Street, where I ordered a big Zulu basket and a beaded Cameroon Namji doll to be sent home. I also bought a few things at Greenmarket Square (doesn't everyone?) and made the "noon gun" firing one day. Despite the countdown, the decibel level of the firing shocked everyone there I think. Had a relaxing cream tea at the hotel the afternoon of my departure and that was very civilized. Archbishop Tutu was on my flight to London -- what a thrill! He didn't even eat but went right to sleep. He deserves the rest to say the least!

Here are photos of my trip:

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