Kenya

November 2010

I just got back from the trip of a lifetime! It was a combination personal and fam.

Preparing for it involved getting shots for yellow fever, hepatitis and typhoid plus prescriptions for malaria pills as well as a variety of diarrhea fighting meds. I also decided to get my visa before hand to avoid delays at the airport.

Interesting tidbit: as I was checking in at the airport I was offered a "special" upgrade in business class (you pay for it but at a lower price than normal). I took it for educational purposes. After all, I have to know what transatlantic business class is like if I want to sell it to my clients! It is NICE‚ large seats, nicer food, nicer wines, nicer toiletries and overall better service.

Total flight time was approximately 17 hours, split in 2: first a transatlantic flight Montreal to Zurich and then Zurich Nairobi.

And I was in Kenya!

Kenya is a smallish country of 580,000 km2 (a bit bigger than France) on the eastern side of the African continent, along the Indian Ocean. It is bordered by Somalia to the northeast, Ethiopia to the north, Sudan to the northwest, Uganda to the West and Tanzania (home of the Kilimanjaro) to the West and South. Lake Victoria is to the southwest and is shared between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

From the coast on the Indian Ocean, the Low plains rise to central highlands. The highlands are bisected by the Great Rift Valley (a fertile plateau in the east). The Kenyan Highlands comprise one of the most successful agricultural production regions in Africa. The highlands are also the site of the highest point in Kenya (and the second highest in Africa): Mount Kenya, which reaches 5,199 m (17,057 ft), which is pretty close to the Kilimanjaro Uhuru peak at 5,891 m. To the southwest lies the Masai Mara National Reserve, a large game reserve that is the northern continuation of the Serengeti National Park game reserve in Tanzania.

OK having dispensed with the geography lesson on with the trip story!

The first, and most lasting, impression of Nairobi is the traffic.The roads are not adequate enough to handle the number of cars circulating on them, and this creates chaos. Having said that, the local drivers seem to take it in stride and are fairly patient when stuck in a jam, which is a daily occurrence.

There are a variety of neighborhoods ranging from slums to the most exquisite gated communities. Contrary to what one would expect in an African country, Kenya as a whole and Nairobi specifically, are not dry or arid and the vegetation is very green and lush. I saw spectacular Jacaranda trees in full violet bloom.

I did not stay long in Nairobi as we left the next morning for Lake Naivasha, two hours northwest of Nairobi. We drove through the Rift Valley, a flower growing area. The arrangements we saw at the hotel and long stem roses given to us when we left the hotel confirmed this.

The hotel was located on a hill offering us spectacular views all around and especially over a small watering hole where we caught glimpses of out first wild animals.

We had our meals outside on the terrace and were entertained by playful monkeys.

We had two game drives that weekend: one by car and the other on foot. During the driven one, we saw a lone lion who looked wise and a bit dejected.

some photogenic zebras

and a jackal which is an animal I did not see again on this trip.

Although I was worried about the walking one it turned out to be fascinating. We saw a newborn antelope "hidden" by its mother between 2 rocks and a couple of eagles tearing into a flamingo they had just killed and later eyeing the new calf.

We also saw a big herd of hippos in the water. It seems that they are the most feared animals as they can attack and kill very quickly.

We also saw the large flock of flamingoes, this area is famous for.

This was a great area for bird watching in general and I fell in love with these little guys.



After this lovely introduction to Kenyan Wildlife, it was time to head back to Nairobi. On Monday I was picked up by a driver, by the name of Pius, who took me everywhere for a day of exploration before I joined the group for the fam part. We started off with the Giraffe center, The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya (A.F.E.W Kenya Ltd), which was founded in 1979 by the late Betty and Jock Leslie Melville who wanted to save the Rothschild giraffe from extinction. This is a fun opportunity to get up close and personal with these endearing creatures as they come up to the viewing platform to get fed. I am told you can also reside in the manor, where the giraffe can share breakfast with you.

Not too far from there Pius took me to the crocodile farm. Not my cup of tea, but the sheer number of them was scary, let alone their lightening quick reaction when prodded with a stick.

But the highlight of the morning was yet to come: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage! This organization rescues orphaned baby elephants and raises them until they are old enough and mature enough to be released back into the wild. Each elephant has a personal caregiver who will stay with him for years. At the beginning those babies need to be bottle fed every three hours and cared for like human babies. Right now there are 18 below the age of 2 at the orphanage. Most of them lost their mothers to poachers, others to the drought. Visitors are allowed to watch them for one hour while they feed and play. The commentary is very interesting as one of the guardians talk about each calf... his story, personality and prognosis. Some of them were curious and came close enough to rub against us. Their skin has an unexpected texture, a bit leathery but with hair on it. They were funny as they slipped in the mud trying to get out of the water hole they were playing in.

After lunch Pius took me to the National Museum and made sure I had a guide. I had a fascinating visit and explanation of the Masai and Kenyan culture and traditions. We also went to the Nairobi National park. While most cities have a zoo, Nairobi has this 117.21 square kilometres (28,963 acres) park, a stone throw's away from the city! And the variety of animals is impressive!

Too soon it was time to head for the hotel to meet the group.

Now this fam was organized by a rather high end company, so the hotels and resorts we stayed in were very nice and this story will be about the accommodations as much as the sites.

After a one-night stay at the Fairmount Norfolk hotel we set out on a drive north towards Nanyuki on the slopes of Mount Kenya. The hotel there was Mount Kenya Safari Club. Interestingly it sits right on top of the equator.

It is a spectacular location and you can actually see the top of mount Kenya if you get up early enough before clouds envelop it. There is a maze on the grounds, as well as an animal orphanage. There are fireplaces in the rooms and ours was lit when we returned to our room after dinner. The public areas are covered with photos of movie stars who have stayed there since this club was once to home of William Holden, a famous Hollywood actor.

From there we went to visit a different property called: Sweetwaters Tented Camp.

From here on we traveled in open 4X4 vehicles. They are perfect for viewing and photography, albeit it does get cold before and after sundown. But, more importantly, they can go anywhere.

On our way we stopped at the Ol Pajeta chimpanzee center. I always find chimps to be unsettling animals to watch, as they are soo similar to us.

Sweetwaters was our first tented camp. It is interesting to see how these tents are up on a platform. Each has a veranda overlooking the water hole. These tents each have their own bathrooms. This is not roughing it!

And then we were off on our first game drive. We spotted a large group of giraffes on top of a hill that got prettier as we got closer.

We came across a couple of rhinos; they will always spell prehistoric to me with their thick skin and strange horns.

That night when we got back to our hotel rooms there was a fire burning in the fireplace!! There even was a small banana cake on a plate ready to be devoured.

But the most spectacular sight was Mount Kenya early the next morning before the clouds enveloped its peak.

After walking through the millennium maze (a human size greenery maze) and visiting several rooms we hit the road again towards the Borana Ranch near the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. There are two hotels on that property. We first stayed in Laragai house. After passing under an arch of Wisterias, you enter a huge living room with two enormous fireplaces, deep sofas, game tables and piles of books and photo albums. Sitting there with a drink you were taken right back to the film "Out of Africa".

The rooms were interesting also. Ours had windows on three sides thus offering us great views. This was our first experience with the hot water bottles! When you sit on your bed to take off your shoes at night and feel something warm moving under you it is a bit startling at first, but you soon become used to and strangely dependant on this nightly companion.

We went on a game drive on their private reserve. We came across a game warden who was tracking some of the tagged lions using a rather primitive looking apparatus.

The next night we stayed at the Borana Lodge, again on the same property but a few miles away. If the first one was nice this one was breathtaking! It is hugging the sides of a cliff, thus offering fabulous views. Our cottage housed 2 rooms separated by an open stone terrace overlooking the watering hole at the bottom of the valley. It had a bar and fur covered benches. Each of the rooms had floor to ceiling windows, leather seats, a fireplace and an unbelievable bathroom with a pointy thatch roof and again windows galore. The infinity pool, the bar and eating area are all located on the highest point of the property which make for more spectacular views.

They had an unusual mascot at that hotel, an animal that had come there as an orphan and stuck around. His other horn got bent out of shape in a fight.

We went on a game drive in the area. In the afternoon our driver drove up to a large outdoor fire surrounded by chairs and flanked by a table set with glasses and bottles and plates of food. We got to experience what is called a sundowner.

The following day, on the way to board a small plane to the Masai Mara we got another glimpse at Mount Kenya.

We were also shown a rock formation that is said to have inspired the creators of the Lion King in inventing pride rock.

This is a national reserve as opposed to the private ones we were in up in the Mount Kenya area. It is the continuation of the Serengeti National Park reserve in Tanzania and takes its name from the tribe that lives there: the Massais. As for the Mara part, there are two theories: the river that runs through it is the Mara and the word Mara in Massai language means spotted, an apt description for the circles of trees, scrub, savannah and cloud shadows that mark the area. The scenery is quite different as there are no mountains at close range, so it is mostly vast stretches of savannah, dotted with shrubs and trees and herds of animals.

Our first stop was to visit a resort called The Bateleur camp, a luxurious tented camp. The main tent was decorated with old artifacts, old suitcases, musical instruments, books, ostrich eggs, some lampshades were covered in feathers, The view of the savannah was unobstructed and guests could watch the animals graze quite close by as they themselves had their meals. The individual tents were outfitted lavishly; the bathroom glasses were cut glass tumblers, and the toiletries were of spa quality.

Our next stop was the Olonana where we were staying for one night. Our first in an actual tent! But what luxury! It had four poster beds draped in netting, full bathrooms, a private terrace with a suede covered day bed and a coffee table that served as a display case for beautiful beaded wedding necklaces, and most importantly a direct view to the river where hippos were frolicking freely.

We, of course, went on more game drives there! And this is where we saw our first lion family. Initially it was the male lying in the grass with the female sitting on top of a molehill, but as we looked around we finally saw the babies, hidden not far away in a bush.

We saw predators of another variety in those birds.

We also saw a leopard. Such an impressive cat. I find it more so than the lion. The skin is stretched more tightly on its body giving it a more purposeful appearance.

The next day we were off again and visited the Governor's Camp before crossing the river in a row boat to get to Little Governor's Camp, another very nice tented camp. I just loved their cushion covers and wish I could have purchased some. These tents even had bathtubs!

The game drive that followed allowed us to take amazingly close photos of a lioness.

We also got to see the leathery ass monkeys (my name)

The next camp on our list was the Explorer. We stayed in this one, it was beautiful! Its claim to fame was that each tent had a bathtub set up outside so you could view the animals as you soaked in a nice bubble bath! The rest of the sanitary installations, inside the tent, were very very nice.

And to make sure no humans appeared at a bad time, there was a Massai spear by the entrance that you inserted in a holder to indicate visitors were not welcome.

And yes of course I tried it! Although I must say that bathtubs in Kenya are so long that you cannot block yourself from sliding with your feet as they do not reach the end of the tub when you are resting your back on the other end. But that is an insignificant inconvenience to someone who is always too tall for everything else!

Dinners in this property were always preceded by cocktails by a huge bonfire on the terrace and the food was exceptionally good! There were also spa services available there. As there are no fences to keep the animals away, guests are not supposed to roam the property after sundown. If you want to go from your tent to the dining room you must use the walkie-talkie provided to you to call a Massai to come and escort you and then the same thing when you are ready to go back to your tent. You are also given a whistle to use in case of emergency. Unfortunately I never had the presence of mind to use either of them in the middle of the night when a herd of elephants came grazing around my tent, rubbing against it and scaring me to death when I heard them breaking branches and crushing things between their teeth.

On the game drives out of there we got to see the usual, plus some cheetahs, which were a novelty for us at this point. They are probably some of the fastest animals around. They are much leaner than the leopards and have black lines in their faces.

These are beautiful animals, but not all are as good looking. The hyenas are ugleeeeee as are the warthogs.

The next day we saw a new group of lions comprised of mother, cubs and juveniles, no longer cubs but not yet adults. They look a little gangly like teenagers do.

We also met a family of elephants, again with mother, juvenile and baby.

Speaking of families, I found this sight especially touching.

On the way back we came across a large herd of hippos frolicking in some very murky water. It is hard to make them out but there were many of them out there. A lot of excited young ones were bothering each other until one huge male rose up out of the water and let himself back down in a thundering crash. That quieted the kids down quite effectively.

The next day we visited yet another camp: the Intrepids.

Another luxurious tented camp. This one even had family tents with two bedrooms separated by a sitting area.

Survival of the fittest is the law here, so you often come across scenes like this one.

I am not a bird lover but these Guinea Hens fascinate me. I remember them from South Africa and how difficult they are to photograph because they are always in movement. I love their bright blue head and polkadot plumage. Another striking bird is this one.

Being in a Massai area we had the opportunity to visit a Massai village. The Massai people are quite tall. Their traditional dances involve a lot of jumping up in the air with no apparent momentum.

The villages are circular and comprise houses made of wood and cow dung. There is obviously no electricity nor running water.

The herds are brought inside the walls of the village at night to protect them from predators.

The women wear colorful costumes and earn a bit of money making beaded jewelry. Because of a recent law making school compulsory in Kenya, the Massai children now attend regular schools which will probably mean the extinction of their culture as there will be no time left for the elders to teach it to the young ones.

We had one last game drive where we got to see more of the cheetahs and then we flew back to Nairobi, where this fam ended and everyone parted ways.

 

But my adventure was far from over as I still had another area to visit: the coast! More specifically a place called Lamu. It is supposed to be Kenya's oldest living town and was one of the original Swahili settlements along coastal East Africa. (For this reason it is on the World Heritage List).
To try and explain what Swahili refers to: it can be the people, the culture, the language, the cuisine. Swahili culture is the product of the complex history of East Africa that has been influenced by Middle Eastern, Arab, European and Asian cultures.

The port of Lamu has existed for at least a thousand years. The town was first attested to in writing by an Arab traveler Abu-al-Mahasini who met a Judge from Lamu visiting Mecca in 1441.

We flew from Nairobi and were then taken by boat from the airport to our hotel in Shela, which is the resort part of Lamu. That's when you took off your shoes and did not really need to put them back on. There are no cars in Lamu, no streets to speak of. aPeople walk, ride a boat or a donkey to get around. There is a variety of boats providing an ever-changing backdrop. The traditional boats are called dhows.

This is a Muslim country so the women wear black and are veiled while the men wear long white dresses, which must be nice and cool in what has to be the hottest place I have even been in.

The beach is an endless dune, and the water is the warmest I have ever put my toes in outside a bathtub.

The only visitors were camels and donkeys walking by..

The town of Lamu was a little intimidating at first as we arrived in the middle of some holiday and the narrow alleys were swarming with people. Fortunately as the day wore on the crowds cleared and we were able to wander and take photos at leisure. The carved wood doors are fascinating.

We visited a traditional Swahili house as well as the museum.

 

We also visited the Takwa ruins. These are the remains of a thriving 15th and 16th century Swahili trading town before it was abandoned in the seventeenth century. The position of the site at the narrowest location on the whole island was most probably a strategy. Takwa's position/location with shallow waters must have been of considerable importance especially during its peak, when many of the sails that came into view were likely to be hostile. Therefore access to the site must have been primarily from the shallow channel that could only admit vessels of shallow draft.

Takwa's eventual abandonment in the 17th century was due to salination of the once fresh water.

This shallowness meant that we sailed over and then had to transfer to a rowboat and finally walk the rest of the way to get there.

We saw a spectacular baobab tree there. The African tribes call the tree "the upside down tree". When bare of leaves, the spreading branches of the Baobab look like roots sticking up into the air as if it had been planted upside-down. An African legend tells that the baobab was amongst the first trees to appear on Earth. When the palm tree, the flame tree and the fig tree appeared, the Baobab began to grumble that it wanted to be taller, to have brilliant flame colored flowers, and bear tasty fruit too. The Gods grew angry at this incessant wailing and pulled up the tree by its roots, and replanted in upside down to keep it quiet! The African baobab tree is also called the "tree of life" as it can store water during the drought season that is sometimes vital to the rural population. Large baobab trees could contain more than 30,000 gallons of water. To get to it, Kalahari bushmen use hollow pieces of grass like a straw to suck the water out.

Back in Lamu we explored some more both by sea and land and found lovely alleys, flowers, and beaches.

Too soon it was time to leave this hot paradise and return to the twenty first century...to fly back, first to Nairobi, then to Montreal. I almost missed my return flight, a sure sign I will come back... Even if I never do it in such luxury again, I look forward to my next adventure to Kenya...