Nairobi and national parks (picking up where I left off over a year ago!)

Published: January 25th 2014
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It's now over a year since I wrote (I've had to change that sentence several times as it took longer and longer to finish this entry) . And although I thought about my blog, I assumed it would fade away into the lasting graveyard that the Internet is and no one would mind.


I've received several messages from followers and others who stumbled across my blog and have finally arrived at this moment. I have written and apologised to those who wrote months ago and made a promise to finish off last year's trip. It's been quite humbling and flattering to think some care enough to want to see the trip through to the end.

So yes, I am alive (to the person who asked, thanks for checking!) and am still somewhat struggling to fit into the reality that is work and rent - and no travel. I write to you from the northern suburbs of Melbourne, having come home in July to surprise my dad for his 70th, spend some time with my then six month old niece and attend my cousin's wedding. I stayed. I hadn't planned to but at some stage I had a good hard think about things and came to the conclusion that it was time I see what all the fuss is about my hometown of Melbourne.

I do love Victoria. I love the coastline, the city. The smell of the gum trees. The wide open spaces. I have friends and family here. I love knowing where things are (well, kinda). I'm 'home'. How hard can it be to stay here for eight months? Except it's not home. Because it seems that after so long away, I want to stay away. I want to keep the Melbourne of my dreams right there. Behind the rose tinted glasses in that special place in my heart. I find myself missing the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. I miss London and Oxfordshire where I spent a lot of time earlier this year. I miss knowing that in the northern hemisphere, I'm close to places.

Of course I miss Africa but let's move on. Again there's a lot of rambling (nothing's changed!). The trip seems like a past life already and I have a head like a sieve so these final few entries will be based upon my photographs. If I didn't take
Home sweet homeHome sweet homeHome sweet home

Where the elephants sleep at night. The bed on the right is for the keeper
a photo, it didn't happen!


October 8, 2012

With a week off while based in Karen, outside Nairobi, I wanted to see Tsavo National Park. Home to the infamous man-eating lions that attacked workers building the Uganda - Mombasa railway in 1898, I clearly remember ordering the book by Col. Patterson which must've been in response to the movie based on the events, The Ghost and The Darkness. A slim book that dedicated only one or two chapters (from memory) on the lions, I was nonetheless hooked. Thanks to dismal weather I've seen the actual lions, now housed in the Natural History Museum in Chicago so this was the final piece in my own story. Nico and Denise were keen and we hashed out plans. Tsavo is split into two parks, East and West, and nearby Amboseli was suggested by our guide. We'd spend the first night in a tented campsite on the outskirts of Amboseli, with views of Kili (that Jareb and Cecilie would be climbing), followed by two more nights in hotels near Tsavo East and Tsavo West. I was thrilled. Never had I wanted to see a shallow, empty cave/den and railway tracks as much as this!

But first, there was some wildlife to visit. Not far from our campsite was an elephant orphanage and a sanctuary where we could feed giraffe! We decided to go there with the rest of the gang to share the experience together. Being dropped off at the giraffe sanctuary, we paid our entrance fee and made our way up the stairs and through the small information room, sizing ourselves up against the bones. In all fairness, I didn't really take much of it in because I'd already caught a glimpse of a giraffe being fed just outside the door! Past the humorous "please watch out for headbutts" sign, we met Lynne, the hungriest or boldest (or both) of the bunch as the rest were off out of reach. With a handful of pellets we jostled to get close to Lynne. As she wasn't fazed where her food came from, we eventually took turns so we could all get photos. The idea is this: put one pellet between your lips and be rewarded with a kiss from a giraffe as they retrieve it. Gross? Well, giraffe saliva is naturally antiseptic! Who knew?! Britt went first, followed by a few others before it was my turn. Taking photos and watching everyone's faces was hilarious. And my scrunched up face was just as funny. But being able to look a giraffe in the eye and put an arm around her AND receive a kiss was just thrilling. Across the road was a reserve where giraffe roamed freely but after close to an hour of wandering amongst the trees, we still hadn't seen any. Droppings, yes. Actual giraffes, no. And we were itching to get to the elephant sanctuary on time so as to see the feeding so we all headed off.

We made it with minutes to spare, finding a crowd of people hovering around the entrance. It would seem they don't let you in long before feeding time begins. There was a bit of a rush for the rope, cordoning off an area and we split up in order to get the best viewing spot. Oversized baby's bottles, filled with milk were grouped in twos in various spots, as well as a wheelbarrow full of more bottles off to the side. The crowd chattered in anticipation and it was great to see schoolchildren as well. Living in a city, I assume they probably don't see wild animals without making an effort, much like ourselves.

And then the first elephants appeared from the scrub beyond. Brought out in two age groups, the youngest came first, accompanied by their keepers who pretty much spend 24 hours with them as a surrogate parent. They feed them, wash them, cover the youngest (only months old!) with sunscreen as their ears are so sensitive to the sun (in the wild they would shelter under their mother) and sleep with them. It's a job I'm sure any of us would've gladly volunteered for! Each one trotted to their 'station' where their milk was and began noisily sucking on one bottle then the other while us onlookers cooed and awwed and took a ridiculous amount of photos (that was me!). They then wandered away to the water troughs and with one directly in front of me, I watched their trunks blow bubbles, nuzzle another trunk, feel along the edge of the container and then attempt to push the container over - with the help of their feet! A staff member came over and told them off and pushed them off. Obviously pushing an elephant away from something it wants to do, even one only a few years old, is about as effective as trying to push ...I don't know, a brick wall. Literally. But they soon lost interest and made a beeline for the keeper with the shovel who was throwing dirt on them. Some lay down and rolled around while other threw dirt themselves (with varying degrees of success) and it was at this time that I felt a bump that knocked me backwards. I looked down to see I'd been headbutted by one of the youngest elephants with sunscreen on its ears! Taking the chance to pat him, his sparse hair was coarse to touch and he still had so much skin to fill out. He was adorable!

Once the group disappeared back the way they'd come, the older 'teenagers' arrived. They made their way in with considerable speed and helped themselves to their bottles, most able to hold them without help. Much of the same hilarity ensured as well as a mud bath. Limbs were sprawling everywhere in the slippery mud as the calves tried in vain to stay standing. This was then followed by more dirt throwing, resulting in much of the crowd being covered, thanks to the wind!


October 9

Early the next morning Nico, Denise and I set off in a minivan with our guide and driver. I remember the traffic out of suburbia being somewhat frustrating but soon enough we were on our way. The housing petered out and soon vast tracts of land, sparsely furnished with trees, became the norm. Following a basic lunch at a local stop, the landscape changed once more and the earth became drier. Dust devils appeared and disappeared before my eyes. I assume I began to doze at this point, thanks to the metadata associated with my photos!!

Amboseli was a beautiful surprise. Close to the Tanzanian border it was green and lush with hippos, elephants, zebra, warthog and numerous others eating almost side by side. We walked up the Observation Hill trail which gave us 360 degree views of the park and Mt. Kilimanjaro behind us, hidden by clouds. A large herd of elephants fed in the swampy grass below and we read information on the park before heading back to our minivan and continuing on. Lions rested in the shade beside the tall grass and a family of warthog rooted through the undergrowth. Zebra flicked their tails and buffalo watched us closely. We had to be out of the park by sunset and when we reached our tented campsite, Kili was starting to emerge from its cloud cover. We were thrilled with the night's accommodation! Denise and I shared one tent with a double and a single bed, a bathroom complete with plumbing and when we unzipped the windows, we could lie on our beds and see the majestic mountain. Awesome.

Dinner was served in a larger tent for all the people staying overnight. With our guide and driver, we sat discussing what we would be doing over the next couple days. I was told it would be too difficult to squeeze in a visit to the caves and was bitterly disappointed, especially as I'd made it clear before we'd agreed to use them that this was the reason we had come. Eventually they hashed out an itinerary we were all happy with. Having been to so many national parks we weren't worried about not seeing any animals. Sure it would be great to see the Tsavo lions but otherwise we weren't too fussed. Once we'd explained that, it was easier to make plans. We sat and talked, told stories and bought them both a beer before wandering outside into the dusk. Kili was now a towering shadow and dim light led us back to the identical tents while we tried to recall which one was ours.


October 10

Waking early the next morning, I woke Denise as I rolled up the Velcro-held flaps over the windows and then crawled back into bed to look at a mountain I'd secretly love to climb but doubt I ever will. It was fun to think of our two friends currently fulfilling their dreams and I probably would've happily lay there all day. But I wanted to get out there and get a photo before the clouds rolled in so we showered, packed up and made our way out for breakfast.

Hornbills sat in the acacia trees that surrounded the food tent and while playing with my camera, I caught a glimpse of fur in the long grass. With our guide Peter and Denise, we picked our way slowly through the dry, scratching grass and found an African hare, wide-eyed and still. Even just the noise of my camera firing off a shot was enough to see him racing again.

We followed other 4x4s off towards Amboseli which we were crossing to get to Tsavo West National Park. Once through the gates, the surrounding densely packed scrub seemed to add to the theory that Tsavo lions lost their manes through evolution as they became caught in the undergrowth. There was no immediate sign of life in the much drier landscape and we made our way towards Mzima Springs.

Much like a 'desert oasis' as its sign states, it was some surprise to find such a place as the three of us had had no idea it was there. Bubbling out from the volcanic rocks, the water travels from the Chyulu Hills some 50km away and could have spent as long as 25 years underground before entering the springs. After only two kilometres, it retreats back underground and continues on to join the Tsavo River a few kilometres away. Apart from a popular tourist destination (though we saw no one while we were there which was great), the water is also vital for Kenyans, reaching as far as Mombasa via a pipeline completed in 1966.

We ate lunch in the shade near the carpark with the two rangers (it's a requirement that an armed ranger accompany you to the springs as there's a very real threat of animals who both live in the water and use it as a drinking source) and vervet monkeys who stayed at a comfortable distant but watched closely to see if security was lax and they could score an easy meal. Their antics and indignant screeches when something didn't go their way provided entertainment as we sat and once finished, we made our way along the narrow path towards the springs. Vegetation had been cut back on both sides, apparently so you could see which animal was about to greet you. Furthermore, a 'beware of crocodiles' sign by the water's edge was only given a cursory glance as I made my way towards it. The water was crystal clear and icy cold and begging to be tried. So I stepped onto the rocks and bent down, my back to the main body of water and leant forward to cup it in my hands. This is when Denise and/or Nico felt it was an appropriate time to yell 'CROC!!'. The ranger was not overly amused. We moved on.

The crocodiles actually weren't that far away. Looking exactly like logs, it was only because the water was so still and clear and you could see their legs and tails that you knew they were crocs. And they weren't small. We spotted more basking on the banks further down. Cool. Then passing hippos who quickly submerged themselves, we crossed a small walkway over the water and stepped down into an underwater viewing room where fish glided past the glass and we hoped for a glimpse of hippos and crocs. This was where the animals were first filmed underwater in 1969 and was once again in the news in 2003 when the first documented case of hippo infanticide was filmed.

The path continued to another viewing platform and whilst there it began to rain. We sheltered under the large trees, unfazed by the droplets and listened to the soothing forest sounds before continuing onto the carpark, happy with the unexpected excursion.

Back in the van and on the move once again, Peter told us we had to go ask the rangers if one of them would accompany us to the cave. As we would be on foot and the whole reason we were there was because of man-eating lions, this sounded like an excellent plan. Although it wasn't guaranteed that a ranger would agree, I was happily going to make it worth his while and had no thoughts of failure. And there wasn't any. We met a group of rangers heading out to collect wood and one agreed to join us. While negotiations had been taking place, I watched a young boy follow the rangers, only to be sent back to the small collection of huts. He seemed unfazed by the orders and after a slight pause, made his way after them until he was spotted and this time, an axe waved above a head was enough to send him running. It was all good-natured and the men disappeared. Spotting us, the boy made his way over to our van and it turned out that he was 'our' ranger's son. So naturally, we invited him to join us as well. Father and son disappeared for a few minutes and then reappeared, the man now in his ranger uniform with his rifle and the boy with his pink torch and Elmo backpack. Wide-eyed, the boy sat on his father's lap in the front seat and stared at us. I handed him a lollypop which he unwrapped but only held onto for the most part. We were set.

The roads were decent until we reached the turnoff to the cave. It was less a road and more an off-road experience for proper 4x4s. At the end of the day, we were in a white van. Our driver was skilled though and navigated the path slowly and surely, over the rocks and around the boulders. I found it easier to stand than sit and grinned a stupid grin until we came to a stop.

There hadn't been the faintest idea of doubt until I looked around and saw the hills were still a fair way off. I kinda assumed that a den or cave would be situated in the hills and assumed that the road was impassable and we'd be on foot the rest of the way, hence the armed ranger. Instead, we turned from the hills and walked towards a slight rise...and the ranger disappeared. As we approached, we saw that he'd jumped down into a seemingly natural pit. It was large enough that a tree grew in the middle and we climbed down the rocks to join him, only spotting the entrance to a cave once we had joined him.

It turned out to be a cave used by poachers who stored hides and tusks here before walking the last eight kilometres during the night. The cave was pitch black and the boy's pink torch helped little. Taking photos was nigh-on impossible as there was nothing to focus on but there were a few nonetheless. But at the end of the day, it wasn't the right cave. I didn't say anything until we'd dropped off the ranger and his son but then realized that I'd been misunderstood. They hadn't understood why I wanted to see an empty hollow in the side of a hill and thought we knew about the many poachers' caves that dotted the park. Now, the lions' den was several kilometres down difficult roads that couldn't be reached before the park closed for the day. And because it was a state-run park, unlike Amboseli, it meant that our pass was valid only for that date, not for a 24 hour period. I wouldn't be seeing the park without everyone having to pay entry the next day. I was bummed. But there was nothing to be done.


October 11

Having had two coffees yesterday morning, I didn't get much sleep and in turn, Denise has banned me from any further coffee. I do know that caffeine doesn't agree with me but I like the taste! And although I think I had been deemed 'over-exaggerating' when I told people that I could drink coffee at 9am and then not sleep that night, Denise now has proof...

Still pretty disappointed after yesterday, I tried to forget it and look forward to the new day and new park. Today we went to Tsavo East and it was the beginning of a 24 hour period of firsts. We saw vultures with an undetermined carcass in long grass. From there we came across a large herd of 'red' elephants (so called because of the red earth they dust themselves with), including a very young calf. We also came across a well that three elephants had positioned themselves at, using their trunks to suck the water up through the grill. Other animals loitered nearby, waiting their turn which didn't seem to be coming anytime soon.

We drove around the park and had lunch atop Mudanda, a 1.5km long rock that is favoured by leopards. Below, an empty watering hole and beyond that the Yatta plateau, the longest in Africa. I walked the length of it, enjoying the solitude and silence before we left the park for the day and made our way to a nearby town for the night. Dropping our stuff in the bright, clean rooms, Denise and I walked into the town centre and found a small bar and had a chat with the locals before finding Nico and having dinner in a restaurant opposite the hotel. It was an early night so we could be up and back in Tsavo East NP for another drive before heading back to Nairobi.


October 12

Within minutes of passing through the park gates and whilst watching giraffe, Nico spotted a lion. It was at some distance and I still have no idea how he saw it, sitting still and facing away from us but I was thrilled that he did. And so continued our firsts, culminating in a race with other vehicles to a pride of young lions with a recent kill. Having seen a chase back in Etosha and now seeing the end result, I'd managed to miss witnessing the actual kill which left me with mixed feelings. I didn't know how I'd react if I saw the entire sequence and it was unlikely that I'd now have another chance to see it on this trip.

We spent a long time watching the lions watch us before it was time to head back to the city. Apart from the confusion surrounding which cave I had wanted to see, the poachers' cave was equally -if not more- interesting and the three parks had made been a worthwhile visit. While others visited Mombasa or the Mara and Jareb and Cecilie conquered Mt Kilimanjaro, I was really happy with my decision to see the Tsavo National Parks.

Additional photos below
Photos: 36, Displayed: 36


25th January 2014
Home sweet home

A great looking home
Love this photo.
25th January 2014

Certainly glad you are blogging again.
We are fans who have been waiting for more. Slip, slop, slap, love the elephants. There is nothing better than seeing animals in their natural habitat. We'd love to see the lions watching us. Sounds like a fantastic adventure. Please keep blogging.
26th January 2014

Welcome back...
We would have regretted missing this blog as it brought back wonderful memories of our safari in these parks in January 1984. Your Followers await the next installment with abated breath. The best place to end a long trip is home with family so enjoy until your next adventure!

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