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Trip Report Wildebeests and Tourists - Uh Oh

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Kenya August 2013 - Ol Pejeta and Masai Mara

Here are 2 links - the first is photos (Rwanda is the first part, then Kenya). The second is to a few short videos from Kenya.!i=2715184913&k=XJSMgWN!i=2723061854&k=6SZPLnX

After 4 nights in Rwanda we flew from Kigali to Nairobi on Kenya Airways, arriving around 8pm. This was just a few hours before the Nairobi airport caught fire and the entire international arrivals terminal was totally destroyed, causing the airport to be closed for few days. Lucky us regarding timing!

We stayed that night at the Ole Sereni hotel, about 20-30 min from the airport and right next to the Nairobi National Park. This is a nice 5 star hotel – free use of computers and high speed internet access, very nice amenities, very comfortable. Although our room looked out over the park all we saw was a pair of grey crested cranes.

Next morning we got word of the airport fire but fortunately we were flying out of Wilson airport, so no problem. We flew to Nanyuki airstrip and were picked up by our guide for transport to our first camp – Kicheche Laikipia. Laikipia is the county and the camp is in the Ol Pejeta private conservancy, right on the equator. This was the best camp we stayed at in Kenya – great hosts (Sonja and Andy), really fine quality food, great care of guests. Loved it! Everyone, including me, expects it to be hot on the equator but it was pretty cool, cold at night. Definitely needed the jacket morning and evening. Love those hot water bottles in your bed. When the sun did come out on our second day there it was easy to get sunburned quickly! Mt. Kenya is in this area but we never saw the full extent of the mountain due to clouds surrounding it.

We went for game drives each morning and evening with our wonderful guide Peter – the highlights of this area were seeing both white and black rhino, wild dogs, lion, cheetah and Grevy’s zebra. We visited the chimpanzee sanctuary – started years ago by Jane Goodall for chimps rescued from horrible conditions (mostly rescued from the Congo if I remember correctly) but unable to live in the wild. It’s a very large fenced in area (I think they said 2 sq km) where the chimps live reasonably normal lives together and with other animals in the enclosures. Several of the chimps were near the fence when we visited, wanting to be fed peanuts provided for the tourists to dole out. It’s definitely not like it would be if you could really visit them in the wild, but it’s nice the facility exists for those rescued animals that can’t live in the wild.

We went on one night drive while at Kicheche, which was great. The stars are just amazing for those of us who live in areas with light pollution and are not used to seeing the Milky Way as a giant arc across the night sky. I stood in the vehicle for a good deal of the drive with my head cocked upward to see the sky as we bumped along. We found 3 cheetah siblings we’d seen during the day all curled up together sleeping right by the side of the road. Although they opened their eyes and raised their heads at our intrusion, they didn’t get up and didn’t seem too disturbed. We also encountered a mature male lion walking along and a pack of wild dogs excited by his presence and actually chasing him away. Although he didn’t look too concerned by the dogs, he did trot faster and moved quickly away from their yipping and excited pursuit.

After 2 nights here, we flew to Olkiombo airstrip in the Masai Mara. We had just packed into our vehicle (I say packed because in addition to my friend and I there were 4 other people who had HUGE suitcases and massive amounts of camera gear) to start the drive to Porini Lion camp. About 5-10 min from the airstrip we crossed a pretty dry portion of the Mara river. A group of wildebeests decided to cross at the same time we did – probably about 75 of them in total. We had stopped in the river bed and I was making a video of the crossing when I saw them split in half – some of them backtracked to the bank they’d come from, the remainder scurried quickly to the bank they were headed toward. Odd behavior. I turned off my camera and looked up to see 2 lions that had come out of the grass and into the riverbed. In short order they nabbed one of the wildebeests up on the original bank. There were probably 8 vehicles around with lots of excited tourists…. hmmm. My travel companion and I did not wish to see a kill, but that does seem to be the highest priority for many tourists. It’s there, it’s real, it’s part of the natural order, but why it’s such a high priority for so many people I do not understand.

Porini Lion camp was reasonably good – not the best of camps we stayed at, but our guide (Jared) was super and we definitely saw a lot in this area. It’s in a private conservancy but we also went into the Masai Mara, which is a national park. We stayed 3 nights, but had our worst day of the entire trip while at this camp (not the camp’s fault). We spent one whole day out in the vehicle, hanging near the river in order to see a crossing of the wildebeests. Jared was clearly looking to give us this experience, but it just turned into something so negative – also not his fault. While I had read about the concentration of vehicles around the river there was no way I was prepared for how bad it was. At one point I would guess there were at least 100 vehicles around the river. There were animals standing on the opposite bank, clearly looking to cross. I’ll start by saying a lot of the vehicles were white mini-vans which we were told were out of Nairobi, hired for the day and not driven by trained guides, just drivers. These vehicles parked (and moved) in ways that obstructed the path the wildebeests needed to take to get up from the river. Guides in the camp vehicles would yell at them to move and sometimes they did, sometimes not. It was just utter chaos and it clearly interfered with the animals’ activities. When the animals would move along the opposite bank, the vehicles would move to stay across from them. This went on for hours. We actually wanted to leave and return to the conservancy where things were quiet, but the other person sharing the vehicle with us wanted to stay so we did. Finally a group of wildebeests decided to cross – screeching of vehicles zooming to the area, raising an enormous cloud of dust such that not much could be seen. As the dust settled a bunch of tourists jumped out of their vehicles (not just the white mini-vans either) and ran to the bank, cameras clicking. They often blocked the view of those of us still in our vehicles, raising ire. A guy in a vehicle adjacent to us was screaming at people to get back in their vehicles – very angry. The whole thing was awful and just felt so wrong. At least all the animals made it across safely. At the end we finally were able to drive away, back to the conservancy with the promise from our guide that we would not return to this area the next day but stay in the conservancy (no river access there).

We saw lots of lions in this area (spent a couple of peaceful entertaining hours hanging out with 4 adult females and 13 cubs), cheetah, buffalo, zebra, elephants, leopard, baboons, eland, oryx and banded mongoose. No dogs or rhino – those we saw only in Laikipia. One evening at the camp all the Masai there did a dance for us – so entertaining and appreciated by all. At night we could hear hippos grunting most of the night as there was a pool pretty close to our tent. Porini Lion camp does not do laundry (be advised) which was a bit of a problem as we’d been told they did by our tour operator. Other camps we stayed at did provide laundry service.

After 3 nights at Porini Lion we returned to Olkiombo airstrip where our next guide from Entim camp picked us up. This camp sits on the edge of the Mara river. You can sit in front of your tent or in the dining area and watch the river and animals. Lots of hippos in the river. We saw zebra and hyenas on the bank at different times. You can take a walk down to the river along with a Masai guide and some guards. We did this although didn’t really see much during the middle of the day. The morning before we arrived some people saw a crossing of wildebeests from the camp. At night the hippos come up from the river and wander around the camp – we could hear them munching grass right outside the tent. The camp is very nice and we enjoyed our stay here. Lovely campfire each night with drinks and snacks served before dinner – the main chance to chat with other guests. Dining here is at individual tables rather than the communal table of the other camps. We prefer dining as a large group, but some people probably prefer more privacy. Our guide at this camp was Daniel and we loved him. So kind and interesting. This camp is in the park so no night drives are allowed. We drove to the river several times but never saw any animals crossing. If we had been that lucky I’m sure we would have enjoyed it, as in this area there were very few vehicles around. We saw lots of big crocs on the river, some really close up sightings of leopard and cheetah.

There is a cheetah named Malaika, famed in the Mara for jumping up on vehicles. Daniel had told us about her and we came upon another parked vehicle with her on top of it. She stayed up there for 5-10 min, then hopped off, on her way toward some Thomson’s gazelles she had seen. Her grown son was still with her and the two of them stalked the gazelles from afar for about the next hour. Finally the son made a run for them – my first time seeing a cheetah run full stride- wow. The gazelles got away so no dinner for them that evening.

In this area I saw my first bat eared foxes (2) and an oribi antelope. Also saw a few dik dik – shy little things, hard to photograph. There was a group of hyenas with about 4 pups – pretty cute. Hyenas love to find muddy pools to lie in, so they are usually crusted up with dried mud.

After 3 nights at Entim, we were ready to begin the long journey home. We flew from Olkiombo airstrip back to Nairobi, arriving at noon. We were picked up by our guide in the city for an afternoon of whirlwind activity before a late night flight. We were first dropped again at Ole Sereni hotel where we had a day room. We ended up only staying only about 2 hours – enough time to shower, repack the bags and eat a buffet lunch. While the lunch was good, it was a shocking $37 USD per person.

Then we headed with our driver to the Kazuri bead factory first. This operation was begun in the 70s as a way to give single mothers employment (making beads). Two women were hired initially. Today about 300 women are employed (and some men) making beads and other goods that are sold all over the world. The tour was very interesting, only taking about 15 min. The beads are all made from soil from Mt. Kenya. Everything from making the clay, to the beads, to firing, to glazing and painting, is all done there. After the tour we went in the gift shop and purchased a few items. Next we headed to the Giraffe Center where we saw some Rothschild’s giraffes. This place is pretty zoo-like so not much reason to spend more than 20 min or so there, feed the giraffes and move on. Next we went to Sheldrick’s at 5pm for the sponsor’s visit. I’ve supported them for years, so it was really nice to see the place in person. You can only stay for 1 hour but you get to see the babies returning from the Nairobi National Park where they spend the day. They trot right up to the barns and eagerly enter their little enclosures where food awaits. One just plopped on her side in her hay bed and was zonked out right away – too tired for food. My adopted orphan, Ajabu, who was very young, was fast asleep in her stall covered by a blanket. Sadly about a week after I got home I received an email notification that she had died.

Once we left Sheldrick’s we headed to the airport, arriving about 6:30 pm – plenty of time for our 10:30 scheduled departure on KLM. The airport had been open again for more than a week, although I would say some degree of chaos was still evident. There were so many document check points I lost count. It was confusing at times where we were supposed to go, but we eventually got through all the security checks (although my friend got held up at one of the x-ray check points when they found some bones she’d picked up off the ground in the Mara and took them away from her. She also had a river shell which they confiscated.) and were sent outside to a large white fabric tent that had been set up for a waiting area for the departing flight. They’d set up a snack bar (including beer and wine) and had portable latrines. We waited here about 3 hours or more as our flight took off 1 hour late. Boarding was rather chaotic as well. They were calling out boarding zone numbers with a bullhorn and you just queued up (sort of haphazardly like a bunch of wildebeests on the river bank) and walked out on the tarmac to the plane. But considering the devastation of having an entire terminal burn 10 days prior, they were handling it pretty well.

Last thoughts: now that I’ve been to the Masai Mara during the migration, I would say that I wouldn’t do it again. Not trying to dissuade anyone from going during this time, but if I wanted to return to the Mara I’d do it at a less hectic time. I’ve now seen the migration in both Tanzania and Kenya, and while it’s interesting, it’s not worth the crush of vehicles and the disturbing human behavior that goes along with it. It’s just not that interesting. I’m sure if the animals could voice an opinion they would also wish that humans didn’t find them that interesting.

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