Friday, August 29, 2008

The Safari Begins at Samburu (August 23-29)

What better way to celebrate being 42 than to go on an African Safari!

The first day of the safari began with a 5 hour drive from Nairobi to Samburu Namtional Reserve. On the way, we stopped at a curio shop. Before leaving home, I had decided to buy a few more souvenirs than I normally would - in order to support the local economy. What I wasn't prepared to do was pay extreme prices. I know bargaining is part of the deal, but when prices for something worth $25 start out at over $500, the process isn't even fun! I got the prices for a couple of batik "paintings" down to a reasonable amount (although still a bit overpriced) and bought those.

We stopped at a gas station to fill the tank at Isiolo, the last town on the main road before hitting the gravel road and driving north to Samburu. I got out of the van to stretch while Crystal ran off to find ice cream bars. A man started talking to me about Barack Obama: what a great leader he was; how Kenya was proud of him; what did the US citizens think of him; and if I was planning to vote for him. At first I thought he was just a friendly guy. Then his friend joined him, claiming he was from Obama's home town and was collecting money to support Obama. Then the original guy tried to sell (for $100 USD!!!) a crinkled old newspaper clipping of Obama that he had in his pocket. Crystal returned - without ice cream, but had a coke and popcorn - and suddenly the van was surrounded by people trying to sell us stuff - rusty looking bracelets, knives, newspaper clippings, etc. We were practically slamming doors and windows as people were reaching in the van all around us, shoving their wares at us. It was NOT FUN!!!!

After a long drive on bumpy gravel roads, we finally arrived at Samburu Game Reserve. As we entered, we were met by our first sighting of wildlife - the reticulated giraffe.

Our safari vehicle was a pop-top minivan.
This picture gives you an idea of how close we were to some of the wildlife.

A cluster of mutant conjoined twin giraffes?

We were also met by elephants grazing right off the side of the road.
It was an exciting feeling being so close to a wild elephant.

After a short drive to observe some of the wildlife, we arrived at Samburu Lodge for lunch and to check in. Throughout our lunch, a Samburu warrior in costume kept "informing" us that the cultural show was about to start. We were hungry, tired from driving, and just wanted to have a relaxing lunch. The last thing we wanted to do was to rush off to a show. We wanted to see it even less when he kept harassing us about it. Several times we had to ask him to let us eat in peace and that we would go to the show if we wanted once we finished lunch.

After lunch, we decided that we would rather watch the elephants in the river than head to the cultural show. He kept harassing us. Then we decided to take pictures of the vervet monkeys that were playing in the trees around the lodge.
Oh no! We couldn't actually enjoy ourselves. We HAD to go to the cultural show! It was a MUST! How else would they extract an additional 500 KSH (about $8 USD) out of our pocket?

So the Samburu warrior threw stones at the monkeys close to the lodge and pulled out his slingshot to hit the monkeys closer to the river. Needless to say, we were very upset by this behavior. We could understand keeping the monkeys out of the restaurant and the lobby of the lodge, but not hitting them when they were playing happily in the trees. We were at the point where you couldn't pay us to see the Samburu cultural show if this warrior represented their culture! We skipped the cultural show and went to our room to relax before the afternoon game drive.

Samburu National Park Game Drives

Later in the afternoon, we had another game drive. Samburu National Park is a very dry region, with scrubby, thorny vegetation.
In this picture, you can see an umbrella acacia tree, with lots of weaver nests hanging from it.

Samburu contained some very attractive birds, including this yellow-billed hornbill.

Red-billed hornbill

yellow-necked spur fowl

The gerenuk (giraffe-necked antelope) was very common at Samburu.
Here one is in the classic pose of standing on its hind legs to reach higher branches.

The dik-dik is a very small type of antelope. The tiny horns on its head are so cute.

There were quite a few impala

including this mother and her two young ones.
There were also other antelope present.

Another animal that was unique to the Samburu area was the Beisa Oryx.

Unfortunately, they weren't particularly cooperative for getting a picture from the front.
This jackal apparently took posing tips from the oryx. Every time I got her in focus, she would turn her back and walk away from me.
This hare was only slightly more cooperative.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we were losing daylight, but spotted this young male lion. He walked away, and crouched down at the perfect angle to the sun for a fabulous picture. I had him perfectly centered, and thought to myself "smile pretty".

He returned that thought with a giant roar and a lunge toward me. I let out a startled scream and Thomas - our driver - hit the gas! Then he told me to close my windows (but we could still keep the pop top open). The lion was not happy with all the paparazzi as he was surrounded by multiple safari vans. He kept trying to walk away, and was basically stalked by the vans. I expressed my concerns that I felt sorry for the lion and perhaps we should leave it alone, but it fell on deaf ears. I'm sure the lion was extremely happy a few minutes later when all the vans had to retreat because the park was closing for the night!
Later that evening, crocodiles climbed up the river banks near the lodge.
It was quite the thrill to look inside a croc's mouth!
The next morning, I took a short stroll around the lodge grounds before breakfast.
This colorful lizard was getting his start first thing in the morning.
I also spotted this waterbuck on the other side of the river.
And this hadada ibis enjoying a morning preen.

Before leaving, we had another short game drive. Right away, we saw two lions on the hillside.

They were quite a ways away and the Sun was behind them, which made it difficult to get a good picture.
At least this time, the herd of minivans was further away and stood still, rather than chasing them.
On the way out of Samburu, we finally got a close look at the Grevy's Zebras. The stripes on these zebras are narrower and closer together than the regular plains zebra. The ears are also larger and rounder.

This zebra decided to start the morning off with a nice dust bath.

Next Stop....Aberdare National Park

Aberdare National Park

Leaving Samburu, we stopped again in Isiolo to refuel. Crystal ran to get more popcorn, and I was accosted by the same men who tried to sell us crap the previous day. I pulled a few postcards (of Arizona) out of my bag and showed them to the men. They all wanted one. I told them it would be 20 shillings. At first, I think they thought I was going to give them a postcard and a 20 shilling donation! No way! I wanted 20 shillings per card. If they really liked the card, then I wanted 30 shillings! I can beat them at their own game. In the end, I ended up accepting a scary rusty metal bracelet in exchange for a stack of postcards. I had a blast and thought it was a fun game to play, but Thomas gave me a disgusted look the entire time. When Crystal got back to the van, he was more than happy to speed off (and give Crystal a lecture how her purchases in local stores rather than tourist traps was harmful to Kenya's economy).

We had a long drive on reasonably good roads to Aberdare National Park. The first stop was lunch at Aberdare Country Club. The food was excellent and the grounds were beautiful. There were lots of flowers, trees, and some wildlife on the grounds.

There were a lot of wart hogs that made themselves at home on the grounds.
After lunch, we went on an optional game drive through the park before heading to our lodge for the night.

Elephants were hidden in the dense forest, poking their heads out from time to time. You often heard their rustling long before you could spot them.

A large colony of black and white colobus monkeys played in the canopy of the forest,
and baboons raised their families on the floor.

I saw a lot of wart hogs, and a few giant forest hogs (although the latter were too quick or too far away to get a good picture).
I also spotted this female bushbuck peeking out of the ground cover.

Cape buffalo were plentiful.
Once we arrived at the Ark (our lodge) we were basically trapped there for the rest of the evening.

The Ark was a dump. Our room had a horrible musty smell and the toilet didn't flush properly. The walls were paper thin and there was no lock on the door when you left the room.

We left the room for a while so it could air out. I entered about an hour later and discovered that the carpeting was wet near the bathroom. Gross! We spoke to the person in charge - at first she seemed hesitant to move us - but after I asked her to put her hand on the floor and feel it (which she didn't) she was quite willing to move us. The new room had a dry floor, was less musty, and had a toilet that flushed properly. The water still ran brown and I wasn't able to get hot water.
There were viewing platforms on multiple levels so you could watch the animals that they baited by tossing salt outside. It mostly attracted resident herds of cape buffalos and elephants. The behavior of the animals was signifcantly altered due to the artificial placing of salt.

Some of the elephants were obsessed with digging for salt.

Others tended to have more sexual obsessions.

Many of the animals were very aggressive with each other. I witnessed several dominance challenges with the buffalos and a couple with the elephants.

They had an elaborate buzzer system set up so to let you know if there was anything exciting to view in the middle of the night. There wasn't - and the buzzers were silent all night.

I was quite happy to leave the next morning.

Maybe the buffalos would get along better if they drank a martini rather than fighting over salt!

We returned to the Country Club and were picked up by Thomas. He asked us if we would like to visit a school in the area. We asked what to expect if we visited a school. He didn't actually tell us what WE should expect to see or do. Instead he informed us that we were expected to bring gifts for the children (school supplies and/or candy) and provide a substantial donation for the school, otherwise WE would disappoint the children since they expect that from white tourists. Lovely. We didn't know what constituted a substantial donation, but didn't think we had the funds to make one, so we passed.

Thanks Thomas and Rhino Tours for making us feel like crap for not being rich enough to be "good tourists" for Kenya. We hadn't realized that there was an income requirement to visit.