Wednesday, August 21, 2013

AMBOSELI – Seing Beyond Sight

(This is the seventh and last in a series of posts about my recent Kenya safari.)

From the Maasai Mara, we head southeast toward the last of our safari’s major wild game parks and reserves, Amboseli National Park. 

Amboseli, like the Maasai Mara, is situated in the great Rift Valley, just before it spills into Tanzania. It, too, is governed by the local Maasai community. Though only 150 square miles, a fraction of the size of the Mara, it is Kenya’s second-most-popular wild game area.

The park is distinguished by its five major swamps, oases in an otherwise arid savannah landscape. While it claims to be home of the “big five” most-sought species of African wild game, it is best known for its large herds of free-ranging elephants.

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The park is also famous for its proximity to Mt. Kilimanjaro, just over the border in Tanzania. Here, the best—and luckiest—photographers capture those incredible shots of wildlife with the mountain as their backdrop.

Our base for this leg of the trip is the Sentrim Amboseli tented camp, just a few kilometers from the park entrance. As we step from our safari vans and stretch our legs, we're met by the entire staff singing us a cheery welcome song in Maa, the traditional language of the Maasai.

     Even in Eden, life cannot be taken 
     for granted. Here, awareness is a 
     matter of life and death.

During our three game drives in the park, it soon becomes evident that elephants do, indeed, thrive here. They’re everywhere, and not just in the twos and fours we’d been seeing in the other reserves, but in the scores.

Often, we see them wading, knee-deep, in the lush wetlands, where they enjoy the best of all worlds, drinking, cooling off, and grazing on the tall grasses. We smile at the dark “socks” and “pants” they wear after emerging from the water.

Amboseli’s swamps also attract other animals. We’re struck by the variety: zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, rhinoceros, hippopotamus—a glimpse, it seems, of a beautiful, serene, timeless Eden. And yet we’re reminded that, even in Eden, life cannot be taken for granted. Here, awareness is a matter of life and death.


And the birds. Spectacular birds of every size and shape and color. I wonder if they're jealous of the animals for all the attention they get.

Go-away Bird
Superb Starling
Hartlaub's Bustard
Crested Crane

Just before setting out on our last morning game drive, I walk by myself down our camp's long dirt path to a viewing platform. There you can take in a broad sweep of acacia-dotted savannah, and, if you’re lucky, Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background. I am not; the storied mountain is hiding today behind distant clouds.

Still, I’m not about to waste the moment, so I turn to other senses to experience the great peak’s presence. I sit down on the weathered bench and let go my need to see.

     I feel close enough to the animals, 
     at times, to have been but barely 
     more predator than prey.

I close my eyes and bask in the delicious interplay of relentless equatorial sun, shreds of merciful shade from a big acacia tree, and a cool, dry breeze. I listen to the cheery banter of weaver sparrows on a branch just above.

Reaching out through that cocoon of visionless sensation, I will my mind’s eye across the miles, through the clouds, all the way to Kilimanjaro. Believing it’s there, imagining its countenance, I let the mountain into my vision even though I can’t see it.

PHOTO: Anna Langova

Here I am, half a world away from home. Not just in Africa, but in the Rift Valley, the very cradle of the human species. At some level, I know this savanna, perhaps somewhere deep in my DNA. I feel my oneness with this place, and with large, wild animals—close enough to them, at times, to have been but barely more predator than prey.

I realize there's not a single man-made sound to be heard. Not a vehicle, an airplane, an air conditioner...not even the subtle background hum and hiss anyone within earshot of a highway must endure. And in that silence, I can hear Kilimanjaro.

     The boy looks up, and, through the
     cloud of dust, meets my wistful gaze.

As if uneasy with the lull, the gentle breeze wafts a new sound over me. It’s a child’s voice, singing. Singing in the purest, sweetest notes I’ve ever heard, joyously, accompanied only by the crystalline cling—ting-ting of a small bell.

I turn my eyes’ vision back on. There, just across the camp’s perimeter fence, a young Maasai boy, not yet old enough to have earned the full, crimson-and-blue regalia of a warrior, tends—or should I say entertains—his flock of goats as they amble off to a spot of shade for the hottest hours of the day.

At the head of the flock trots a mottled orange-and-white nanny, not much different from the others, except that, under her neck, dangles that little bell.

The boy looks up, and, through the cloud of dust, meets my wistful gaze. He stops singing. I wave, and wish now I’d not seen him. He, like the great mountain, was more beautiful in just his simple song.

Monday, August 12, 2013


(This is the fifth in a series of posts about my just-completed 
Kenya safari.)
Heading southwest from Lake Naivasha, we drove for about five hours toward the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the last hour-and-a-half on rough, dusty, dangerous roads.

Besides Tanzania's immense Serengeti National Park, the Maasai Mara is the African wild game reserve the rest of the world has seen most represented in Nature writing, photography and film. The area comprises some 580 square miles, contiguous with the Serengeti.

Like the movie star you've seen only in pictures, the bigger-than-life reality of the great expanse left us speechless.

The Mara is home to all of wild game's "big five," the animals most sought after, originally by trophy hunters, and now by photographers: lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and cape buffalo. It is also the setting for the awesome annual migration of millions of wildebeest, zebra and other grazing animals to and from the Serengeti.

This is also Maasai country, where what is arguably the proudest, most colorful and, many say, most authentic of Kenya's 42 tribal peoples still practices its ancient herding lifestyle. Though the Maasai are—or once were—a presence in nearly all the areas we visited in Kenya, it is here that their traditions and lifestyle seemed most evident.

Our home for the next two days was the Siana Springs tent camp, set in a lush oasis originally placed in conservancy by the area's first game warden in the 1920s and bequeathed to the local community in the late 70s.

After a brief cultural orientation by our elegant, articulate host, JJ, I set off on my own to explore one of the compound's winding, wooded paths. Rounding a corner and ducking under a low doorway of vines, I found myself in a "room" of dense foliage surrounding a lovely lily pond. Birds' chatter echoed around the enclosure, sweetening the cool, moist air.

(In general, the climate we experienced in Kenya was one of our greatest surprises. Having barely researched the trip, we'd expected very hot weather. Instead, we were met everywhere with the normal conditions for what is, for Kenyans, their mid-winter: cool, dry and beautiful. In the higher elevations of the Aberdare region the temperature had dipped into the 40s at night.)

Later, we embarked on our afternoon/evening game drive in the reserve. This was indeed the iconic, sweeping African landscape we've grown up knowing through TV and film. And I wondered if the familiarity might run deeper, in some latent layer of our genes, as this savanna, archeologists say, was the very cradle of human life.

Like the movie star you've seen only in pictures, the bigger-than-life reality of the great expanse of amber grassland, dotted with graceful, umbrella-shaped acacia trees, left us speechless.

In that brief outing, curtailed by nightfall, the Mara just teased us with the sights it held in store for tomorrow's longer game drives: cape buffalo, topi, zebra and, perhaps most impressive, a broad panorama of wildebeest, scattered across the fields' golden undulations as far as the eye could see.

We were to learn more the following day about the hapless wildebeest and its perilous co-existence with the Mara's most fearsome apex predator. (It may not be the one you think.)


Thursday, August 8, 2013

LAKE NAKURU – An All-consuming Day for a Python

(This is the fourth in a series of posts about my just-completed Kenya safari.)

From Lake Naivasha, we headed out early for the next leg of our safari—with a dispassionate send-off from the resident troop of black-tie-attired colobus monkeys (the only primates, we're told, without thumbs).

It’s just an hour’s drive northwest to Kenya’s fourth largest city, Nakuru, and nearby Lake Nakuru National Park—one of the country's smallest and best game parks. Along the way, especially at higher elevations, we could clearly see the broad sweep of this stretch of the great, 3,700-mile-long Rift Valley, flanked here by the 10,000-foot Mau Escarpment on the west and the highlands and mountains of the Aberdare Range on the east.

   The number and range of animals we 
   were spotting continued to amaze us.

Lake Nakuru is a soda lake, one whose highly alkaline waters support a distinct range of organisms, among them, certain algae that just happen to be irresistible to flamingos. Depending on the season and a number of more immediate conditions, the lake’s shallows can be swathed in pink as anywhere from thousands to more than a million of the showy birds congregate, methodically straining the water.

Though we saw far fewer flamingos than we'd hoped for, what they lacked in numbers these flamboyant birds made up for in the splashes of color and elegance they threw against the backdrop of the lake's calm, gray-blue waters.

With the top of our safari van raised, and Eric, our knowledgeable guide and driver, at the wheel, we cruised the park for the rest of the day. Both the number and range of animals we were spotting continued to amaze us.

It started with our first lion sighting, a big male walking through tall grass nearly a hundred yards away. It was uphill all the way from there: rhinos—both white and the critically endangered black; water buffalo; hundreds of zebras, two varieties of gazelle; impala; waterbuck; giraffes; velvet monkeys…and more lions.

Besides the flamingos, we saw white pelicans and spoonbills, hovering black-and-white kingfishers, a variety of gorgeous songbirds, imposing, five-foot-tall marabou storks, a couple of ostriches and the showy, snake-eating secretary bird.

Around mid-day, we wound our way up to the top of Baboon Cliff for a spectacular overview of the lake and parklands below. There we met some more amazing birds, some red-headed rock agama lizards and the engaging rock hyrax.

    The best place to spot a leopard is 
    draped over a lower, horizontal branch 
    of a tree.

That afternoon, we’d stopped to admire one of those marabou storks standing by the water’s edge when we noticed something moving in the grass not ten feet away. A better look, through binoculars, revealed the sad truth; it looked like a dying flamingo.

At first, it appeared the poor bird lay on its side, writhing. But, on closer inspection, we could see that a rock python, and not a very big one at that—maybe seven or eight feet long—had caught the big bird unawares, squeezed the life out of it and started ingesting it head first.

With fascination slightly outweighing revulsion, we watched as the ambitious snake unhinged its jaws and began stretching its mouth around the feathery
pink carcass.

As we slowly cruised the park, besides looking for animals grazing in the open, we were constantly scanning the trees on either side for as far as we could see. It seems the best place to spot a leopard, especially mid-afternoon, is draped over a lower, horizontal branch.

Now and then, Eric would stop, pull out his binoculars and check out some dark mass on an acacia limb two hundred yards away. And, though we never did spot a leopard, this technique paid off in other ways, including being able to sneak up on a young lion resting languidly in the crotch of a tree.

When we got back to Lake Naivasha Resort that evening, the wildlife wonders continued. Sally and I were rounding a corner on our way to our second-floor cottage when we saw the giraffe leisurely trimming the hedge up there next to our door. We stopped and watched with renewed admiration for this majestic creature.

Just before going to bed, we decided to take one last look out our patio doors onto the dark lawn below. There, munching away on the grass just below our deck were no fewer than eight huge hippos! We watched a while, quietly closed the doors and drifted off to sleep, smiling.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

LAKE NAIVASHA – Up Close with Wild Game's Stately and Stout

From the Aberdare region we headed northwest a ways, just far enough to cross the equator and see stunning Thompson Falls. Then it was back south for a few hours, arriving at our lodging for the next two nights, the lovely Sopa Lake Naivasha Resort.

From the moment we passed through the gates, it was clear our lives here would be intertwined with those of the local wildlife. Zebras roamed freely here and there, crossing the roads and grounds at will. Giraffes—lots of giraffes—grazed off the tops of 20-foot acacia trees.

Herds of waterbuck, a stocky member of the antelope family, wound their way along paths and between buildings, all over the property. And hippos...well, we were to meet them too, closer than we could ever have imagined.

It was here at Naivasha that I began to realize that, of all the amazing animals we were seeing in Kenya, giraffes would come to stand out (pun intended) as the ones that most surprised and delighted me. Of course, I'd seen giraffes before—perhaps a dozen in my life, at zoos—but never moving and feeding like this, freely and naturally.

Everything about them speaks of peace, 
and I could listen all day.

I suppose it's their gentle power and the unhurried grace of their movement that touches me, especially considering their size (adult males reaching nearly a ton) and the apparent awkwardness of their shape. Everything about them speaks of peace, and I could listen all day.

(Our amiable safari-van mates, Maria and John, seemed to agree, coining a clever name for the place: Giraffic Park.)


After check-in and lunch, we made our way down to the lake for a little cruise.

Lake Naivasha is the largest of the eight ecologically fragile lakes dotting Kenya's stretch of the Rift Valley. A freshwater body, Naivasha varies seasonally in depth, depending on rainfall amounts in the watershed. Right now, it's at a 20 year high, with thousands of acres of shoreline underwater, its graceful acacia trees stranded and slowly drowning.

High water or not, in terms of wildlife, Naivasha is known primarily for two things: birds and hippos. And, if you're a local, fish.

Winding our way in small motorboats along lush wetlands and through thin stands of wading trees, we could see that this is indeed prime habitat for birds—cormorant, ibis, egret, heron, stork…in fact, over 150 species of waterbirds alone.

Sacred ibis
Black and white kingfisher
Yellow-billed stork

A highlight of the cruise was our guide's stopping to coax a spectacular African fish eagle to swoop down from a distant treetop to snatch a piece of fish bait he'd thrown out on the water.

African fish eagle

In utter counterpoint to the birds' easy flight lurked creatures we couldn't see—at least not right away—munching, right under our noses, on masses of abundant, bright green, succulent water plants. Our guide would stop the boat and ask us to watch a certain area, and eventually, a pair of round, pink ears would pop up. Then two huge, protruding eyes, followed by an enormous gray island of flesh. A quick breath, and down they'd go again.

They told us we'd have to have escorts 
to get from dinner back to our cottages.

Hippos were bobbing up and down everywhere! Apparently aware that more folks die of confrontations with hippos than with any other wild animal in Africa, our guide gave them a wide berth.

That night, we were to hear that many of these same hippos exit the lake after dark to graze on land…on grass, in fact—the very grass surrounding the guest cabins at our resort. They told us we'd have to have escorts to get from dinner back to our cottages.

We suspected this might be a bit of showboating for the tourists—until, that is, we indeed had to zig-zag all over the grounds in the dark to find our way 'round all the huge, round, looming silhouettes in our path. (We could easily hear their munching and grinding as we passed!)

Clearly, given a choice between evasion and employing our escorts' rather silly weapons (flashlights and puny sticks), the former was the sensible option. (Once again, we felt the need to coin a slogan for the situation: Beware those pesky killer-hippos!)

(Next day, we're off to explore another of the Rift Valley lakes, Lake Nakuru, but that's another story. Stay tuned…)