Kenya - May 2008
Staying at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, with their 'Lion Habitat', made me want to go back to Africa. I checked VJV and Kuoni to see if there were any interesting offers, but neither had availability. Then I found the African Safari Club while web surfing and they had some incredible deals.
Thanks to the unrest in Kenya at the start of the year tourism had suffered and the country was anxious to entice people back. ASC offered a great two week holiday, including flights, hotel and 'full board', at the Dolphin Hotel on Shanzu Beach, north of Mombasa. I hoped this hotel would be better located than on my last visit, and I would have a chance to explore.
I also booked a seven night safari package that included ASC's Kilimanjaro-Kimana game sanctuary and the Mara Buffalo Camp.
The flight was provided by Monarch and I had no real complaints. They are a budget carrier and so expect to pay for drinks and snacks; also the in-flight entertainment is rather old fashioned. The food wasn't bad and the legroom was acceptable, even for a 9 hour flight. I was a little concerned about the alcoholic woman from Aberystwyth sitting next to me though, she drank at least 1½ bottles of wine on the flight.
Entry into Kenya seemed a little faster than I remembered, and it wasn't long before I had my bag and was making my way to the bus. There was quite a long wait for the other passengers though. This was the moment I discovered that I was staying at the Flamingo hotel; as tourism was down of all the hotels in the ASC complex only the Flamingo was open.
The drive to the hotel was around 40 minutes, thankfully much less than my trip south to Diani the year before. There was a warm welcome at the hotel and soon everyone had settled into their rooms.
I checked out the details of my safari and booked a couple of tours; a Mombasa city tour and a 'follow the dolphins' tour. I also arranged a relaxing massage for the following day. The rest of the day passed without much excitement apart from a short electrical outage.
The next day after breakfast I went for a great massage courtesy of Walter. When his fingers attacked my calf muscles I felt the tightness and stress melt away; the rest of my body soon enjoyed the same result. For €23 this was a definite bargain.
The rest of the day was spent enjoying the sun and the pool.
The third day in Kenya didn't start too well. I woke up with mosquito bites in strange places, like my ear and knuckle. My dolphin watching boat trip was a disappointment too. Four hours at sea in the pouring rain and not a single dolphin to be found. The following day's tour of Mombasa was a little lacking in excitement too, although we did visit the Old Town with its arabic influence, Fort Jesus - built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the famous Mombasa Tusks - built to commemorate the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the town in 1952.
It was almost time for my safari.
On my fifth day I packed my bags and made my way to the airstrip for the flight to the Mara. The flight was around two hours (we did have to land in Kimana to drop off a few items) to ASC's Buffalo Lodge. The Buffalo Lodge isn't actually inside the Masai Mara National Reserve, but some distance north west of the boundary.
After settling in to our new accommodation our safari group were sent out on the first game drive with our driver Kachache.
It wasn't long before some of the wildlife appeared. Our first sighting was of some giraffes, followed quickly by impalas, topi antelope and Thompson's gazelle.
During the drive I chatted to some of the people in our vehicle, including Irmgard from Frankfurt. Irmgard has visited Kenya many times and impressed the locals with her Swahili language skills!
On our second day of safari the amount of wildlife was amazing. Herds of elephants strolled through the bush, we drove past sleepy buffalo and giraffes relaxing in the long grass. Wildebeest looked on as we passed by and ostriches ran away from our vehicle.
African elephants are the largest living land mammals. As well as being physically striking, they have remarkably complex and interesting social lives.
African elephants live in matriarchal groups of pre-pubescent males and females of all ages. The oldest female in the group guides the family unit, joined by adult males only for mating when the females are in oestrus.
Elephants are the only animals in Africa that dig deep holes in search of water. The holes, excavated using the trunk, can be several feet deep and it's thought that the locations are learned from social interactions. Elephants are also very fond of bathing.
Giraffes form loose, scattered herds of up to 20 individuals, and constantly move from one group to another. Mature males often roam in search of breeding females, and fight for dominance using their necks and buttressed skulls.
We came across a troop of baboons followed by some delightfully photogenic zebras and more gazelles. A sighting of the Southern Ground Hornbill and a great deal of other birdlife excited the birdwatchers on the safari.
Zebras - or as a friend describes them 'horses with good PR' - are social animals - communicating through changes in the positions of the ears and tail as well as sound. The social group consists of a male and a few females, which stay in the same harem all their adult lives. However, harems often group to form herds, joined with large numbers of bachelor males, and in places where the dry season is harsh, such as the Serengeti, the harems gather to migrate.
We drove towards the hills to spot one of the Mara's rare creatures, the rhinoceros. However, despite all the variety of animals we had seen, the big cats had eluded us and I was disappointed.
They do say that anything can happen on safari, and they are right. As the day turned to evening, suddenly from the long grass three lionesses walked purposefully directly towards our vehicle! Passing just a few feet from us they strolled on through the grass towards what I can only assume was the evening's hunting grounds.
More excitement followed when three cheetahs appeared to delight everyone.
Cheetahs are the fastest animals on land. Reaching speeds of over 60 mph, they can easily outrun any animal over short distances.
The cheetah's body is adapted for speed. Its legs are long, thin and muscular. Unlike other cats, it cannot fully sheath its claws, which are blunt like a dog's. This makes for better traction when running.
It was a very good end to a long day on safari.
Day three of the safari started quietly with just a little birdlife. One rather colourful bird we saw was a lilac crested roller. Continuing on through the bush, the sky filled with large black shapes. Vultures were on the move and we went to investigate.
Vultures were gathering for a tasty meal. A recently killed gazelle was attracting attention. Jackals had arrived and were ripping into the flesh of the gazelle; the vultures were keen to get in on the action.
A group of vultures is called a 'venue' and as the news spread we had a large venue of vultures to pressure the jackals into giving up some gazelle meat.
Suddenly hyenas arrived and the situation turned into a feeding frenzy as jackals, vultures, hyenas and even a marabou stork all were after the dead gazelle. The marabou stork is perhaps aptly called the 'undertaker bird' because of the cloak like wings and back, and its skinny white legs; it can often be found feeding in the company of vultures.
The hyenas had the upper hand, eventually running off with the most delicious parts of the dead gazelle.
After our morning game drive my German friends Irmgard, her brother Dieter and his friend Ralph returned to the Flamingo Hotel. I had to say goodbye to my driver Kachache and joined four Hampshire birdwatchers for the next day or so.
In the afternoon we found some lions relaxing in the shade of a tree. There were two lionesses and a lion with a magnificent mane.
Lions are unique in that they are the only cats to live in groups (prides). The male lion is also the only cat to have a mane, giving it a regal appearance that has earned it the title of 'king of the beasts'.
The mane protects the lion during fights with other males. It also differentiates between genders from a distance across savannah plains and is an indicator of fitness. Lions are the only cats to have a mane, suggesting it is linked to their unusual social system. Lions are also the only cats to have a tuft at the end of their tail.
The lionesses are the hunters for their pride and capture their prey with precise and complex teamwork. Each lioness develops specific skills for her role in the hunting techniques used by her pride and assumes that role during most hunts.
The next day was remarkable in that we saw very little of note. Yes there were the usual gazelle and antelope, and birds of various types, but our driver seemed to have managed to take the birdwatchers and myself to the least interesting places he could find. You can imagine how thoroughly despondent I felt after a full day on safari with nothing but a packed lunch of a processed cheese roll and out of date juice drink (best before April 2008) to hear the news that the two other groups had seen a leopard! The one animal I really wanted to see on my safari, and our vehicle was miles away from the others. Thanks a lot driver. Special thanks however go to Donna, who took the photo of me in the vehicle and provided the photo of the beautiful leopard that left me incredibly jealous.
On my last day in Mara I told the driver I was very unhappy and asked to travel in a different vehicle. I was told I could not, so I said I would not be going on safari that morning. Eventually they decided I could travel in a different vehicle and it provided some good photo opportunities. From a rich sunrise to a variety of animals including hippos, crocodiles and dik-diks. Dik-diks are small antelope and named for the sound they make when alarmed. They are quite shy so it was good to spot some in the shade of the bushes.
There were also warthogs, grey crowned cranes, more lilac crested rollers and a beautiful herd of giraffes.
After a quick lunch and packing we were flown to ASC's Kimana Leopard Lodge.
Another lodge that's not actually in a National Park, Kimana is between Amboseli and Tsavo West with fine views of Mount Kilimanjaro (when the clouds allow).
The Kimana Leopard Lodge was very pleasant with some great staff and lots of delicious meals. Unlike the Buffalo Lodge we didn't have long game drives with packed breakfasts and lunches.
Our afternoon game drive was a bird-fest for the twitchers, with a grey crowned crane, lilac crested rollers and the secretary bird. Both the grey crowned crane and the secretary bird are important African birds - the crane is the national bird of Uganda and the secretary bird features on the coat of arms for Sudan and South Africa apparently.
The afternoon was also one of the better days for viewing Kilimanjaro as the weather was rather cloudy for most of our stay.
The next day I was treated to a uni-mog as the game drive vehicle. The high viewing position was perfect for viewing the larger animals such as elephants, but we also saw some warthogs and were lucky enough to spot a cheetah relaxing right by the side of the road. After some minutes lying in the shade the cheetah decided to put on a show; first climbing to the top of a termite mount then after spying a tasty gazelle suddenly flew across the bush in pursuit of the prey. I hope the cheetah had a good meal that day.
On our next day we were taken to the 'Daktari' animal orphanage, where three lion cubs have been cared for since losing their mother.
Now four years old, they say that attempts are being made to reintroduce the lions to the wild, but I doubt they would be successful hunters and they are too good a tourist attraction to lose, so I remain cynical about their chances of freedom.
There are two lionesses and one lion. The lion is simply called 'boy'; the lionesses are Irene and Cleopatra.
Soon it was time to leave Kimana and return to the Flamingo Hotel. After an hour on the little plane and a short drive to the hotel we settled back into our rooms. That evening Irmgard and her brother and friend treated me to a visit to the Tembo nightclub that is run by a friend of Irmgard. There is a great bar area with a huge disco downstairs, with occasional acts and dancers. There is also a rather tempting Lollipop lounge, where scantily clad pole dancers perform the most amazing routines to please the crowd. It is good to get out and see how modern Kenyans enjoy themselves.
My German friends returned to Germany the next day, and I spent a quiet day relaxing in the sun. The next day I expected to return to England, but Monarch had aircraft trouble. A plane in Egypt had developed engine trouble, so it could not return to London, and then fly down to Mombasa.
We were only delayed by a day, but I was disappointed by many of the people on this holiday. The complaints and rudeness of some people was astonishing, and I have to wonder if 'cheap' holidays attract cheap people.
There was nothing African Safari Club could do about Monarch's flight, and they allowed us to stay in our rooms and continued to feed us along with drinks at mealtimes. I felt that we were lucky to have an extra day on holiday, compared to the poor people stuck at Gatwick losing a day of their holiday.
The next day the plane arrived and we made our way home. Quite an exhausting holiday with lots of great animal sightings; my only regret was not seeing the leopard and it remains on my list of animals to see up close.