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Trip Report: Kenya and Tanzania - August '07 - by Safaridude

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Here is my trip report for my recent safari to Kenya and Tanzania.


Aug 10 – Swara Plains (morning only – outside Nairobi)
Aug 10, 11, 12 – Ol Donyo Wuas (Mbirikani Group Ranch)
Aug 13, 14 – Elsa’s Kopje (Meru National Park)
Aug 15, 16 – Wilderness Trails (Lewa Downs)
Aug 17, 18, 19 – Sayari Camp (Serengeti National Park)
Aug 20, 21, 22, 23 – Ugalla East Camp (Ugalla Game Reserve)

Airline: KLM
Travel Agents: Uncharted Outposts for Kenya; Legendary Adventures for Tanzania

Here it goes…

Swara Plains: A Pleasant Surprise

It was that familiar unfamiliar feeling again – from when I used to travel more frequently in business. Having awakened in darkness and in stupor, I desperately tried to ascertain where I was. Where the heck was I? I somehow managed to nudge the curtain, and a small glimmer of light shone from the parking lot outside the hotel. Following the ray, I could barely make out a matchbox with the logo “Nairobi Serena Hotel”. Instantly, I sprang. The world seemed right. For the seventh time in my very fortunate life, I would be traveling on the continent on which I am certain I should have been born.

For the next two weeks, I would be the unofficial leader of five American travelers on a safari through Kenya and Tanzania. By now, I knew Nairobi like the back of my hand, and I wanted us to try something a little different. Before we flew out to our first camp, I arranged for our morning visit to Swara Plains, a wildlife conservancy less than an hour southeast of Nairobi.

Our vehicle skirted the edge of Nairobi National Park almost the entire way down to Swara Plains. Last year, I had written about the demise of Nairobi National Park in my trip report ( and ). Things pretty much looked the same as last year. The big migratory herds of zebras and wildebeests that should have arrived into Nairobi National were missing due to the ecological degradation of the migratory corridors. But enough lamenting already. It turns out that Swara Plains is a decent substitute for Nairobi National Park. This 20,000-acre conservancy, which used to supply the Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi with game meat, is well stocked with pretty much every species of plains game found in Nairobi National Park. It offers a perfectly pleasant day trip from Nairobi. Although we didn’t stay overnight, Swara Plains does offer several different overnight accommodations.

After the nice warm-up game drive, we were picked up by a Cessna from Nairobi. The navigation system in the cockpit showed a computerized map of our route. “Kilimanjaro”, it read. Not a bad place to start a safari.

Ol Donyo Wuas (Mbirikani Group Ranch): The Legend of Richard Bonham (and Woody the Cat)

Several miles northeast of Mt. Kilimanjaro and on the foot of the Chyulu Hills in a Maasai-owned group ranch called Mbirikani, Richard Bonham built one of the very first “eco-lodges” in Kenya 21 years ago called Ol Donyo Wuas (“the spotted hills”). I had been to Campi ya Kanzi in the neighboring Kuku Group Ranch last year, and I was keen to see what this neighbor was all about.

Like Kuku, Mbirikani offers a dizzying array of biomes. Immediately surrounding Ol Donyo Wuas is woodland dominated by stunted acacia tortillas trees. As one looks past the woodland to the west, El Mau (“the twin hills”) stand sentinel to huge, virtually treeless open plains, reminiscent of the short-grass plains of southeastern Serengeti. Turn around, and conical shapes of some of the world’s youngest volcanoes that make up the Chyulu Hills loom. Most peculiar are tracts of dense lava forests that harbor a few black rhinos, which have been exterminated from the nearby Amboseli National Park.

The lodge itself is unique in that the rooms are totally open-air. There is nothing between you and a group of bull elephants drinking from the lodge’s waterhole except for mosquito netting and an inconspicuous electric fence. Genets are regular visitors to your room. The toilet faces the waterhole. It’s a bit strange having a bull elephant staring at you.

During our three-day stay, we saw in abundance most of the classic East African savannah species. Wildebeests and zebras find the open plains near El Mau as their dry season “grass bank” as well as apparently their wet season calving ground. Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles mingle. Impalas and elands stay close to the edge of the woodlands. Gerenuks stick to the whistling-thorn bush land. Puzzling is the fact that groups of fringed-eared oryxes (who are known to be water-independent and prefer open habitat) stay largely within the acacia forest and come to the lodge’s waterhole and that the wildebeests (who are known to be water-dependent) stay out on the dry plains and do not come to drink. We found several lion and cheetah tracks, but we were unsuccessful in finding them.

More than the game, Ol Donyo Wuas is about the personalities. Richard and Anna Vivian run the lodge with relaxed precision. James, our guide, is one of those rare breeds comfortable straddling his Maasai heritage and our western culture. There are various lion researchers living near the lodge. Tom Hill, a great raconteur and conservationist, also makes his home near Ol Donyo Wuas. Then of course, there is Richard Bonham.

I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Bonham, who along with wife Tara gave up the day-to-day business of running Ol Donyo Wuas several years ago and now live in a separate house about 20 minutes away from the lodge. He is certainly one of the great characters of the African bush. If you don’t believe in reincarnation, you will after meeting Richard Bonham. He is most certainly a “Great White Hunter” reincarnate in the mold of Denys Finch Hatton/Frederick Selous. Tom Hill tells a spine tingling tale: several years ago, a rogue male lion was terrorizing Mbirikani Group Ranch. This unusually large male was capable of jumping over bomas in the middle of the night to claim a cow or goat. He even mauled children. He was also as cunning as he was fierce, for he escaped the spears of Maasai warriors hell-bent on revenge. One day KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) contacted Bonham and requested that he find and kill this lion. So, off went Bonham and Hill on a “fly-camping trip” with three Maasai trackers. After days of following the spoor of this monster, the trackers, armed only with spears and walking sticks, suddenly began waving and pointing frantically – in panic but in silence -- at Bonham. It was difficult to make anything out in the thick bush and no words had been spoken, but everyone knew what was happening. At this point, Bonham, indeed an experienced big game hunter, in one continuous motion, loaded his rifle while taking it from its resting position on his shoulder. He shuffled his body sideways, cutting himself up in hundreds of places from the thorns, but in the process drawing the lion’s attention from Hill and the trackers. A single shot and the “witch was dead”. As they went around the various villages with the lifeless former king on the flatbed, men came out to shake Bonham’s hand, children laughed as they touched the mane and the tail, and women celebrated with songs.

There is another legendary figure at Ol Donyo Wuas. In the mid-‘90s, the lodge was managed by Sandy and Chip Cunningham, now proprietors of Uncharted Outposts, the travel company which executed our trip flawlessly. When Sandy and Chip decided to leave Kenya in 1997, Sandy bequeathed to the Bonhams her pet cat “Woody”, whom she had kept around the lodge. Bonhams, for whatever reason, decided to take Woody to their new home several miles way from Ol Donyo Wuas. As soon as they took him to the house though, he went missing. Four to five days later, everyone was flabbergasted when Woody showed up at the lodge, unscathed from his casual stroll through prime leopard country. Dazed but still determined, the Bonhams took Woody to their house again, only to have the episode reoccur. They finally decided that Woody had had enough, and this friendly housecat has since been greeting guests at Ol Donyo Wuas once again. He is 14 years old now, still basking in the sun and gazing at Kili’s peak on cloudless days.

Elsa’s Kopje (Meru National Park): Spotting Lesser Kudus for Dummies

Half the greatness of Meru National Park lies in its history. As I wrote about last year, the park has been completely reclaimed from poachers. Meru is now all the way back. It is a true, untouched wilderness – like when it was home to Elsa, the lioness. I encourage you to read all about the history of this park on the web. It’s invigorating stuff.

It was good to be back in Meru again and to see it under different conditions. Even though this year’s visit was a month earlier in the dry season compared to last year’s, the park looked much drier. The long rains had practically failed in the eastern half of Kenya this year, and the otherwise mint-green combretum leaves were showing signs of stress. Unlike last year, Elsa’s was full of guests, which was good to see. Hosts Anthony and Emma greeted us warmly once again. Knowing from last year my fondness for kudus, Anthony advised that the park was full of lesser kudus like last year and there have even been a few sightings of greater kudus, which have historically not been recorded in Meru until recently. “Kudu sana”, also boasted our guide John.

As the sun started to set on our first day, I was mystified. I had only seen one sub-adult lesser kudu all afternoon and a fleeting glimpse at that. Last year, it seemed the place was over-run by them. Not that they are ever easy. They are frustrating creatures in fact. They tease the photographer by standing stock still for a moment to pose. By the time you get done manually focusing (highly recommended in the thick bush), they are gone and you are merely left with a blurred image of a white tale. This time though, they appeared not to even be around to give me a chance at frustrating moments. Where did they go? Did they move out because they felt inferior to the newly arrived greater kudus? It was then that I remembered. Last year, I bumped my head twice on the roll bar of the Land Rover before my first game drive – this is on the way from the airstrip to the lodge! Angry at the vehicle and myself and with a bump on my head, I sat in the back of the Land Rover on every game drive. You see, lesser kudus are found in dense bush, and one has a much better chance of spotting them by sitting in the elevated back section of the three-decked Land Rover. I distinctively remember spotting them from my perch last year while our guide/driver drove right by them on occasion. On our second day this time, we instituted a bush animal spotting system. Whoever sat in the back, once spotting a lesser kudu or any other animal in the thick bush, would whisper (you don’t want to spook them) out the name of the animal and tap the shoulder of the person sitting on the middle deck. That person would then tap John’s shoulder, and he would stop the vehicle. What a difference it made. For the rest of our stay, we were rewarded with ten or so sightings of the beautiful lesser kudu.

Due to the drought, the game was concentrated around various swamps. Mulika swamp and Bwatherongi swamp in particular had large numbers of elephants and buffalos. The typical northern species were seen – the beisa oryx, gerenuk and Somali ostrich. Twice during our two-day stay, we ran into a pride of lions who had been feasting on a zebra kill. Between last year’s visit and this year’s, I learned that Meru has its own endemic race of hartebeest. Sometimes described as Jackson’s hartebeest and sometimes as Coke’s hartebeest, the hartebeests in Meru are in fact hybrid. So are the hartebeests found in the Laikipia district of Kenya. However, the ones found in Meru are distinct even from those hybrids in Laikipia.

Anthony joined us on our game drive our last afternoon. I can’t really recall in detail everything we saw on that drive. What I remember most is just taking it all in – the smell, the sound, the texture of the air – knowing that I was seeing Meru at its best. Anthony told us that three or four potential new lodge sites had been offered up for tender. We even drove by one that appeared to already have had some construction activity. That is a good thing since tourism revenues help justify the existence of national parks. On the other hand, for me it was like having my favorite neighborhood restaurant suddenly being discovered by others. I am confident that the park is large enough to support a number of new establishments without sacrificing its remote feel, and the park will always be wild. I will be back to see Meru again, but I can truly say I saw it twice in its heyday.

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