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Amboseli and Tsavo - August 2006

You are here: Travel Reports Amboseli and Tsavo - August 2006

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Posted by  Tuesday, 07 November 2006 02:18

Amboseli and Tsavo - August 2006

7-29-06 – 8-17-06

The day I’ve been waiting for for six months has finally arrived. With family responsibilities done with, I finished packing, showering, doing hair etc. I left for the airport around 2:30 p.m. The flight from Boston to Amsterdam and also the one from Amsterdam to Nairobi were full as usual. It makes me wonder why more NW flights don’t leave from Boston. Most of the flights have you flying from Boston to Detroit or Minneapolis, and then flying back to the East Coast again before heading for Europe. Doesn’t make much sense.

I arrived in Nairobi on time at 7:05 p.m. My first stop on arrival was the Forex Bureau in the airport. I had been to the bank before I left and gotten all my money, but unfortunately I had only counted it and not checked the dates. I tried changing 10 one hundred dollar bills to Kenya Shillings and they would accept only three of them because the rest were 1996. Apparently Kenya feels 1996 bills are no good or counterfeited. Only had to wait about 10 minutes to get through the Visa booth. Then headed out to get my luggage. It took about an hour for the bags to be loaded onto the carousel.

I spent the first night at the Holiday-Inn Mayfair. I slept soundly for three hours and then was awake the rest of the night. Some of this was due to the fact that I had slept most of the way from Boston to Nairobi, some of it was jet lag and most of it was excitement at getting going to Amboseli.

At 6 a.m. on 7-31-06 I headed for Wilson Airport. The usual “guys” that I knew (who always laughed when they saw me coming because they knew I took a lot of stuff to the elephant researchers and my luggage was always overweight) weren’t there. Thus I tried a pleasant smile, but it didn’t work. After weighing the bags they sent me upstairs to pay $60.00 for extra weight! I still wish we could convince them to weigh the person and the bag. Doesn’t seem quite fair that I at 130 pounds with a 70 pound bag get charged, and yet someone weighing 250 pounds with a 30 pound bag doesn’t get charged. Oh well, it was worth the extra bucks to see the excitement on the girls faces when they tried out their shoes and other gifts.

We landed at the airstrip at 8:05 a.m. My driver and the head of Guest Relations from Ol Tukai Lodge were there to meet me and it was so good seeing them again. We saw a few animals on the short drive to the lodge. I checked in and got my favorite room, quickly unpacked and then joined Lemomo for my first game drive at 10 a.m. I prefer a later time for game drives, particularly at Amboseli, because I know the elephants don’t start to arrive until around 9:30 – 10:00 a.m. and also there are not so many vehicles out at that time. We saw lots of elephants, gnus, zebra, wart hogs, giraffe and gazelle on the first game drive. We returned to the lodge for lunch.

After lunch I headed to the home of Rachel, the head of Guest Relations. She had had her first baby just after I left in February and I hadn’t yet seen him. I had three outfits plus three blanket sleepers for him (cold at night in Amboseli). I was a little worried that he might be afraid of a muzungu since he had never seen one before, but he didn’t bash an eyelid. Dieudonne is a beautiful five month old now and it was such a joy spending time with him and his mother. Rachel has a girl to help with the baby when she is at work so she doesn’t have to worry about him. As she stated, the problem will come when he is old enough to go to school. There are no schools in Amboseli for the children of lodge workers, so either she or her husband (who also works for Ol Tukai) will have to move with the baby to the city. The clothes I took for him either fit him perfectly now or he will grow into in a couple of months.

On our second game drive of the day we were fortunate enough to see a family of six cheetah. I hope this means we will see more cats this time. We didn’t see many in February.

Of note, I had been in Amboseli nine previous times and NEVER saw a mosquito. There were plenty of them this month. I started on my Malarone immediately. I was never bitten, but better safe than sorry.

Tuesday after lunch the “girls” came to visit. What a hoot. The girls included Soila and Norah (two of Cynthia Moss’s researchers), Rachel and Sian, Soila’s 11 year old daughter. Sian is a charming young lady who wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps researching and protecting the elephants. About two months previously she had been having severe back pain. Soila took her to Nairobi to see a physician and found she had a “slipped disc”. She received physical therapy for that. In the meantime she totally lost her voice – not hoarse – NO voice. She was taken back to Nairobi and a physician put her on an antibiotic. It didn’t work and three weeks later she still couldn’t talk. She told me her throat wasn’t sore at all, she could eat normally, and the only time any sound came out was when she coughed or sneezed. I told Soila to get her back to Nairobi and see a throat specialist because she could have a paralyzed vocal cord. I told her that if she didn’t have any luck in Nairobi I would fly her here and have her seen by someone at the Mass. Eye and Ear Infirmary. Anyway, we gals all had a ball trying on shoes and clothes. It was fun.

Incidentally, Rachel told me that they now have the hot-air ballooning at Amboseli. They don’t fly over the park though. They start in the area near the Serena and fly parallel to the park along the side of Mt. Kilimanjaro to Kimana or Oloitokitok. I wonder what, if any, effect this has on wildlife in the area.

On Thursday I went out with one of the researchers while she censused the elephants along with little Sian. It is truly a thrill going out with these ladies. They are the only ones allowed to drive off-road in the park, they know all 1,300 eles, and they get right up next to the elephants. The eles, know their vehicle, smell, voices, etc and aren’t at all concerned about them being there. We pulled up next to a 40 year old bull elephant and watched him for some time. Then the researcher got out of the vehicle and I panicked! I thought she would be killed. She said not to worry – she was on the far side of the vehicle and all the ele saw was the vehicle. She stepped several steps ahead so she was at the side of the hood, and again he wasn’t at all concerned. Then she stepped just to the front of the bumper and the eles ears went up, the head went up and he got nervous. He then saw her as a person not connected to the vehicle. When she got back into the vehicle I had to tell her she was either one gutsy lady or one stupid lady. However, when you have dealt with these animals for 20 or 30 years their reactions are usually FAIRLY predictable, though with no certainty.

After the afternoon game drive I again ran into the same situation as I had before. When I returned to my room there was a Mama elephant with two babies, one quite young, just on the other side of the fence peacefully eating the long grass. Before you knew it, there were five separate people who ran literally to the fence (about 10 feet from the Mama’s face) shooting their cameras and flashes into the ele’s. faces. I tried moving several of them back, but one young man kept coming back over and over again to take more pictures. I was furious.

At dinner that night I kind of read the riot act to the manager. I told him that on the nights when the elephants were right at the fence he had best post someone there to avert a disaster. I don’t give a damn if a stupid tourist gets killed from his old stupidity. However, I wouldn’t want to see that Mama elephant shot because she charged and killed the stupid tourist to protect her baby (and that is exactly what would happen – whenever an elephant kills someone, the rangers kill an elephant (even if it isn’t the one that killed the person).

The next day Sian asked if she could join me and Lemomo on our game drive and, of course, I told her I would love it if she did. Now, I have to say I am amazed at the eyesight of some of the Maasai. Even this 11 year old girl could spot game far off that I couldn’t even see with my telephoto lens or binoculars! I guess we on safari are so used to looking up close at things, that our eyes don’t scan the bush in the same way as a native. When we returned from the morning game drive we were told that someone had spotted an elephant stuck in the mud. The researcher went out to try to find it, but couldn’t, and she figured it must have gotten out on its own.

At 4 p.m. Sian, Lemomo and I headed out again in our vehicle, with the researcher and the man who actually reported the stuck elephant in their vehicle. They drove to the spot he had seen the ele., but couldn’t find it. They were off road, we were back on the road. Suddenly we spotted a trunk behind a bush, and we started pointing to the area to the researcher. She then verified the sighting and called in KWS. While waiting for them to arrive, she drove to our vehicle and picked us up and drove closer to the elephant. There was a stream between us and the elephant. The guide, Dewan, rolled up his pants and with a long stick crossed the stream on his own. We were extremely nervous because we knew there were 7 lions in the bushes nearby (and 10 hyenas across the road). When KWS showed up they turned around and started to leave. I begged them not to leave the elephant there. It would be dead by morning from the hyenas (or lions). He said they were going for help.

We waited and waited, constantly talking to the elephant. Whenever we saw trunk or head move we would clap and yell “come on girl, you can do it”! She knew we were there to help. The rest of the elephants moved father back into the bush, but didn’t desert the elephant. About 30 minute later vehicles started arriving. They were not KWS but volunteers from Ol Tukai Lodge. Apparently KWS had gone to all the lodges asking for help (Serena and Amboseli) but only the men from Ol Tukai showed up. There were 28 of them with ropes. They all had to cross the stream by jumping from rock to grass tuffet to rock. Many of them fell in (and I’m sure a lot of them couldn’t swim). The one armed KWS ranger still there proceeded to put ropes around the neck and legs of the ele. and the guys started pulling in tug-of-war fashion. They worked at this for quite awhile being instructed by the KWS ranger. I was taking still pictures at this time. They filled a bucket with water and dropped it into the mud near the ele. to dilute the mud, then pulled some more. I dropped my still camera and grabbed my video camera at this point. After a bit we saw the legs of the ele. flop up and over, and we knew that they had freed it. At this point they all started running like hell toward the stream! After about a minute the elephant stood up and started running off, turned for about 2 seconds to look at the men and then ran into the bush. It was a “he” – not a “she”. More men slipped in the water coming back to the other side, but all were elated at their success. I was so very proud of each and every one of these men. At times I am down when I see what Africans do to wildlife (their heritage), but when I see so many young men like this volunteering to help an elephant, then I know there is still hope for wildlife. I asked the manager to give me a list of the rescuers and made out envelopes for each one with a little something in it – not much, just a way to say Asante sana to them.

Monday, August 7th, I left Amboseli and flew to Wilson. I was transferred to JKIA where I caught the Kenya Airways fight to Mombasa. When we landed in Mombasa it was raining! I had never seen rain in Mombasa before. I was driven to Kijipwa airstrip north of Mombasa for my charter flight to Satao Camp. By the time we arrived at Kijipwa, the rain was coming down in buckets. The pilot said it wasn’t safe to fly (single engine plane). I had them contact the Managing Director of Southern Cross Safaris in Mombasa to see what he wanted me to do. I could stay overnight at the Tamarind Village, fly the next day if possible or stay at the Tamarind and take the SXS private bus the next morning. Instead he had them drive me back to their office, switch to a 4 x 4 and we sped to the Buchuma Gate hoping to get there before dark. As I’ve said before, the Nairobi-Mombasa highway at the Mombasa end is atrocious!!! Not just potholes – CRATERS – everywhere. Add to this the huge trucks driving cross country from Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda trying to get to the coast and it is a disaster. We saw quite a few vehicles with broken axles. As we got farther away from Mombasa there was a “diversion” on each side of the road. This was still dirt and mud, but far better than the real road. A company from China is in the process of re-doing the road. Hopefully when I go again in late January I’ll see an improvement.

We arrived at the Buchuma Gate at 6 p.m. Bobby, the Satao camp manager, was there with the Landrover to meet me. The driver of the 4 x 4 headed back to Mombasa. We had a leisurely game drive to camp and I got caught up on everything that had happened since I left in February. I checked in and got my favorite tent with the best view of the waterhole, and there were many elephants there! I was going to enjoy this again!

My first night at camp lions were roaring the whole night. First from one direction, then another. It was an awesome feeling. I tried recording the sound with my video camera, but the microphone wasn’t strong enough to pick it up adequately.

The next day the elephants didn’t show up at the waterhole until around noon. The weather was cool (probably around 75 – 80), there was still some water in some of the natural waterholes and grass was plentiful. I just relaxed all day on the veranda watching all the animals.

The next day I awoke a little late. I had been awake a lot last night enjoying the lions roaring again. In the morning Ilingwesi, the 45 year old bull I had spent time with in February, showed up at the waterhole. It was great seeing him again and knowing he was doing well. That afternoon we drove to Voi to see my older adopted elephant orphans. On the way out of camp we spotted a pride of three adult lionesses with many cubs. We arrived at the orphanage a little early before the eles. returned from the bush, but enjoyed seeing the orphaned zebra and lesser kudu that are being raised at the stockades until they are old enough and sufficient enough at finding their own food to “going free in the bush”. The older elephant orphans are all doing well including Mweiga, the female with the heart problem. She has been holding her own now for several years. Several of the other orphans act as her askaris and protect her if anyone gets too rambunctious. Also, if she doesn’t feel up to climbing the large hill (mountain) one or two will hang back with her rather than leave her on her own. It is touching to learn of and see the caring of elephants. One of the younger orphans in Nairobi was orphaned by poachers. His mother was shot, and a bullet lodged in his jaw also. They have been battling infection, pieces of bone coming out, etc. for many months. Whenever Kora has to be treated, one of the other orphans is always there for him. He suffers daily treatments that are painful, but he never fusses, and he knows that his friends will be close by for support.

The next morning I walked to the office to show Bobby a picture I had taken. He told me to quickly jump into his rebuilt 1962 Landrover. We drove over the two wooden bridges going out of camp (they go over what is usually the dry Voi River). As soon as we crossed the bridges there were two cheetahs sitting in the bushes trying to decide what they wanted to dine on. It was great seeing them this close to camp. The last time I saw them this close was about two years ago. Later in the morning I am filming eles at waterhole and see two lions in the bushes off to the left side of my tent. This is great – I love every minute of it. Lions roaring every night now, eles., giraffe, zebra, Kongoni, impalas, cheetahs, baboons, monkeys. The only thing I am missing this time is buffalo.

We had many quick showers today which are unusual for the times that I go to Tsavo. It would rain for 5 minutes – then stop. Again about 45 minutes later, another shower. Not really enough to do much good – but better than nothing.

In the morning I am watching the waterhole and see five lions, four leaning over the side of the waterhole getting water and one watching from the side. Later in the afternoon I am watching the waterhole and I see a lion at the waterhole picking something up in her mouth. Can’t tell for sure what it is, but after showing Bobby the picture he says it is a cub.

On Saturday Bobby told me an interesting story. A family of 6 had arrived in camp yesterday in their own vehicle. They were Kenyans and supposedly knew the roads, rules etc. Five of them had decided to go on a game drive at 4 p.m. The son, about 25 – 30 years old, decided to stay in camp. He showed up for dinner and didn’t say a word. Then Saturday morning around 7 a.m. he decided to tell Bobby that his family had never come back from the game drive!! Bobby radioed all his drivers to be on the lookout for a particular kind of vehicle. It was found overturned. The occupants were injured but alive, and had had to stay the entire night in an overturned vehicle in the bush surrounded by roaring lions. One had a broken wrist, one had back and neck pain, one had a concussion, the other two were OK. The SXS plane was flown in to pick up the injured and took them to the hospital in Mombasa. Why on earth the son didn’t tell the manager at 7 p.m. (one is not supposed to drive in the park after dark so he must have known that something was amiss) that they were missing is still a mystery. The roads in Tsavo are murram, but because of the texture of the soil, lots of sand-like “stuff” accumulates on the road, particularly on the shoulders. I am guessing that they must have been driving fairly fast, saw someone coming in the opposite direction and pulled onto the shoulder to allow them to pass, then flipped over. Luckily no-one was killed.

Sunday I was told about the terrorists caught in the U.K. Read one of the staff’s papers and it tells about no carry-on luggage, only a plastic bag with personal belongings. Wow, how I am going to pack for the trip home? I gave my second duffel to Rachel in Amboseli. I hate to let my camera gear out of my hands. Will try to find out more about this.

Monday, wrote all my envelopes for staff and gave to Bobby to hand out. Another wonderful day watching the animals at the waterhole. I haven’t felt the need to go on one game drive – why bother when all the animals are right in front of my tent at the waterhole.

Monday night I had dinner with Bobby. Around 9:15 – 9:30 I went to my tent and he to his. I went into my tent, zipped the zip, threw my waist pouch (fanny pack) onto my bed between the pillows along with my video camera, got into my nightgown, unzipped the back zip and went into the bathroom to pee, and wasn't in there more than a minute and a half. When I went back into the tent the light was out. I thought perhaps the bulb had burned out. I flipped the switch and the light immediately came on. It was then I noticed that the FRONT zip was undone (and I knew I had zipped it). I looked around the tent and found my camera gear all there, but my fanny pack was missing! I immediately yelled for the askari who came running. He checked out the tent - no one there. When we went on the veranda he asked me if I had put a Coke bottle on the edge (corner) of the floor of the veranda in the far corner. I hadn't - I had left it on the veranda table. As we started to the dining room to report this to the manager he spotted bare foot prints around my tent, and you know with my fear of snakes that I wouldn’t be walking around in my bare feet!!!

The manager immediately called all staff to the dining room and lectured them for 1/2 hour asking the culprit to step forward. He was not only hurting "Mama" but it reflected poorly on the whole staff and it wasn't fair to co-workers. Naturally no-one stepped forward. Most of the men then tried tracking the footprints in the sand in the dark with their torches, but due to the fact that so many elephants were around they had to break off the search. The theory was, that this person must have been watching me, grabbed the Coke bottle and turned off the light while grabbing my fanny pack while I was in the bathroom. The Coke bottle would have been used on me as a weapon had I unexpectedly come out and caught him. Knowing I was alone, the manager posted an askari on my veranda all night.

The next morning while eating breakfast the manager came to tell me they had found the pouch and no-one had touched it yet. He wanted me there when it was retrieved. I followed him to the back of camp to the mechanics shop. On the makuti roof was my pouch. They think the culprit may have seen or heard someone coming the night before and tossed it on the roof, thinking he could come back to it later. When the men got it down EVERYTHING was still in it!! The majority of my money and passport had been locked up, but I had about 450.00 in my wallet along with license, health care cards, Flying Doctors card, pictures, etc.

At this point I suggested the manager just forget it but he said "no way, now I know I have a thief in camp even I won't be able to sleep". Thus he called a meeting of his safety committee to decide what should be done. Their recommendation was "bring in the nganga (witch doctor)". When I heard this I laughed and said "you have to be kidding". I was told that 80 - 90% of the people believe in the witch doctor.

The morning I left camp by charter flight the head of Southern Cross Safaris arrived and spoke with all employees and told them the witch doctor would be arriving that night and he would be able to tell who the thief was. We got on the plane and headed for Mombasa for my flight to Nairobi.

Upon arrival in Nairobi I checked my email and had a note from the camp manager that they now knew who the thief was. One of the employees, after hearing the witch doctor would be there that night, took off on foot through the bush. KWS and the police were notified.

Most lodges and camps have a safety deposit box or safe. Please be sure you put ALL your valuables including money, passport and insurance information in them. I use them but failed to put the belongings from my wallet in them. I carry it with me all the time with brush, comb, lipstick, cigarettes, lighter etc. and didn't give it much thought. I will do it differently next time.

I still put my trust in 99% of the employees I know, but it only takes one bad apple to ruin everything. Will I go back again, you bet! Luckily this happened to me. I've been there 10 times and know this is not the norm. Imagine if it had happened to someone who had never been there and didn't know who they could trust.

Like many of you, I am not wealthy. At 66 years old I still work full-time to be able to travel to Africa twice a year. However, to the average African, we are all wealthy. When one is desperately trying to figure out how to feed their family, one can understand the temptation.

In the end everything worked out fine, the head of the safari company, the camp manager and all the employees went above and beyond what I would have expected, but I learned an important lesson.

While still trying to figure out how to pack for the flight home it dawned on me. My camera bag is a Quantaray backpack. It has an inner lining pack with the cubicles for all your cameras, lenses, etc. I ended up taking the inner pack out of the backpack and putting it in my duffel, with shoes, sweaters etc. from the duffel going into the backpack. Both were locked with TSA approved locks. When I got to Nairobi I called KLM and asked if carry-ons were allowed and I was told no. Thus I left Nairobi with a FRAGILE sticker on my duffel (to protect anyone from throwing something heavy on my camera gear). I was just hoping and praying that the camera gear wouldn't be stolen from the duffel in the Nairobi airport. When I got to Amsterdam I found that you could indeed take a carryon aboard, but my bags had already been checked through to Boston.

I had an uneventful flight home (remember, I sleep most of the way). Upon arrival home I immediately checked the duffel with the camera bag liner and camera equipment and all was there and in perfect working order. Now I just have to have my gear sent in to Canon for a good cleaning. After two trips to Kenya with all the dust, it will be great to have it done professionally.

All in all it was an another wonderful trip. Makes me think that when I retire in a year or two I would like to spend three months there, 2 weeks on safari, one month volunteering at an orphanage, one month volunteering at a hospital and a final two weeks on safari before heading home. Now I just have to figure out how to do it. I looked up car rentals – 3 months = over $13,000.00!!! Anyone have any ideas of how to do this cheaper?

Please don’t let my experience with the theft scare anyone off. It is unusual. Just be sure you have the manager of the camp you are staying in lock up ALL your valuables either in a safety deposit box or safe.

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