Friday, July 25, 2014

Just an Update on Life in Kampala

I haven't posted about regular life in quite a while. Let's see, what's been happening?

It's departure season. The Embassy is emptying out, almost on cue, as people leave on R&R and PCS. I have only cried twice so far, including once tonight as my good friend and travel buddy D left. We'll see each other in DC in a few months, but it's still hard to see her leave. We have been friends since A-100 and have had a blast in Kampala together, so it feels like the end of an era for this tour.

Departure season also coincides with busy season for work, so I thankfully don't have a lot of time to dwell on people leaving. I like staying busy, and that's easy to do these days especially. Plus new people are starting to arrive, which is always a fun time.

My own departure is just three short months away. Departing off-cycle is turning out to be great as I can learn from others about what needs to happen and feel like I have a little more time to prepare. My flights home are booked, the cats have reserved space, my packout is scheduled, my training schedule is set, I have housing in DC, and my travel orders should be done in the next week or so. Every weekend I'm tackling a different room in an effort to purge and clean out. I've been giving away a lot of stuff to my housekeeper and love feeling lighter with each box that's no longer in my apartment.

At the same time, I've been acquiring some great paintings as a reminder of my time here. D and I spent several weekends at a couple of galleries talking with artists and looking around. I ended up buying six paintings from three artists, all of whom I met and got to learn about the paintings from. I spent more money than I had planned, but I fell head over heels in love with these last two paintings that I splurged on. I spent an hour trying to choose between them (they're part of a series and go well together) and finally decided I couldn't decide and needed both. The artist gave me a deal that we both could be comfortable with, and I haven't regretted it - I love looking at them every day! All six are awesome reminders of my time in Uganda in different ways.

My cats are doing well. They had shots a few weeks ago, and Callaghan had an immune reaction that kept him pretty low for a few days. It was a little scary to see him so lethargic, but he bounced right back and is my wonderful baby once again. Griffin has become more of a cuddle bug lately and loves to be with me wherever I am. I'm not complaining!

Lola has become quite a loyal and friendly cat. She was spayed a few weeks ago but recovered very quickly and is quick to greet us when we leave for work in the morning and come back in the evening. She has two surviving kittens, but they are petrified of people and run if you so much as look at them. All three spend time on my porch, though I'm working to wean them off food from humans so they become self-sufficient. One of the kittens has a home if we can catch it. That's a big if. The older kitten from Lola's first litter has been resettled with his forever family and is happy as can be.

And in very exciting news, my mom arrives soon! She and one of our friends are flying over for several weeks of safari and exploring. I can't wait! There will be lots of travel posts, but I know it'll take me forever to get them up after they leave because we'll be pretty go-go-go the whole time they're here.

It was sad not to be home in NH a few weeks ago for my dad's retirement party and to meet my parents' new puppy, but FaceTime does make it a little easier. Knowing I'll be home for Christmas again this year is very comforting. I'm very much looking forward to time in DC and do wish I had a little more time there, but I'm also getting more and more excited for Beirut.

Time is flying, and all's well here.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Masai Mara: Day 5

Sorry for the extended hiatus; apparently uploading gobs of safari photos to Facebook and Blogger eats through my monthly internet bandwidth pretty quickly! Now it's finally July, albeit almost the middle of the month, and I can finish up the Mara posts.

I woke up on our final day at Olonana feeling much, much better. I could see out of both eyes, which was about the best thing I could hope for! We had another 6:15 departure scheduled, so it was an early start again. When I met D and Joseph at the vehicle, Joseph proposed going back to the Mara River area we'd gone two days before to try and see a crossing. It looked like it'd be a beautiful day, and we had time, so we decided to do that. From what others had said about that area the day before, most of the herd had moved back to Serengeti. Nobody had seen cheetahs in two days either. But, we'd been having great luck, so we headed out.

We drove by the leopard-sighting area just to see, but no luck. No sightings or roarings. We did, however, happen upon a family of crested cranes - two adults and several babies. We stopped to watch for several minutes - I'd never seen babies, and they were adorable! Both parents showed them how to look for food, and it was just generally adorable.

As we passed the gate at Little Governor's Camp, the ranger told us he could see rhino up ahead. Joseph was skeptical at first, but pretty soon we too could see rhino. It was the mom and two babies from the night before. This time we got to a spot where Joseph thought they'd cross and watched as they came closer. Sure enough, they crossed right in front of us! Joseph told us the older baby was supposed to have left her mom a while ago but was stubborn and wouldn't go, so now they were a trio. The little one is a male, and he was much more headstrong. We had a great time watching them - our closest rhino sightings yet - and got some great photos.

After that we headed for a long trip to the other side of the Triangle area. We saw some hyena and tons of antelope but didn't really stop until we were closer in. We came across a herd of zebra, and one of them stuck out. He had clearly been attacked by a crocodile in a crossing and had lost a big chunk of his hide. While he was walking fine and eating, Joseph said it would likely be a fatal wound. Poor guy.

We moved on in search of lions, having noticed that there were no large herds of wildebeest on either side of the river. We went up to the hill where we'd seen the third pair of mating lions two days before and found nothing. Just then Joseph took a call on the radio, and we headed out to see three lions - two large males and a female. Joseph thinks the female and larger male were the mating pair and the other male may have been fighting for dominance. They were all pretty sleepy when we found them, and we watched them for more than thirty minutes to see if one or the other males would mate and/or if the males would fight. Neither happened, so we moved on to a trio of lionesses who had just had a botched attempt to take down a wildebeest, as another vehicle told us. They were pretty lazy when we saw them, though one did walk around our car and get very close. Joseph told us not to look her in the eyes, which was hard to do as we wanted to watch what she was doing. Lots of side eyes and using the camera to see. She finally settled down with the other two and went back to sleep.

It was about time to start heading back, so we turned around and drove back towards Olonana. It was very quiet today, few other vehicles but absolutely gorgeous weather. There were lots of antelope around, but we didn't really stop until we turned off the main road to check out a string of 'picnic' trees, places where vehicles can set up a meal in the shade - checking, of course, for predators first. Joseph was looking for a leopard who lived in the area, so our eyes were trained on the tops of the trees. They probably should have been focused on the ground as well, as we found two large male lions underneath the second tree! They weren't very bothered by us and barely looked up to acknowledge our presence. We checked the other trees for the unlikely presence of a leopard but found nothing. Oh well.

On the way back we detoured to a section of the Mara River we hadn't seen before to check out some large crocs. There were only a few of them that day, though, and not nearly as large as in Selous or Murchison. Joseph told us this spot was also known as "BBC Crossing" as so much footage is filmed there during the migration of amazing crossings. We used our imaginations. We did finally see a couple of hartebeest - some of my favorite antelope but apparently not too common in Masai Mara.

A few giraffes and a hyena popping out of a bush were the final sightings as we made our way back to Olonana. After changing clothes, finishing packing, and one last lunch overlooking the river, it was time to go. We bade farewell to our amazing hosts and promised to come back. Joseph was gleeful that our plane was slightly delayed, so he took us leopard spotting one more time. We were almost to the clump of trees where we'd seen the leopards when we heard the roar of a plane - our plane! It was fifteen minutes early. We turned around and sped to the airstrip, stopping only to observe a large monitor lizard with a missing tail.

We made it to the airstrip just as the plane turned around and the pilots emerged, so we weren't late. More goodbyes, and we were off. It was just us and one other woman on board; we made one stop to pick up another couple and then headed to Nairobi.

As we landed at Wilson Airport we noticed a red carpet at the next terminal and inquired who was landing. The President, everybody said excitedly. We wavered between wanting to stick around and see the hoopla and wanting to get to the other airport without being stuck in presidential traffic and chose the former. We arrived at Jomo Kenyatta Intl Airport with more than three hours to kill but were able to check our bags right away. We walked the terminal several times, poking into souvenir shops and checking out the wares. D ran into a few of her contacts from Uganda, so we spent some time chatting with them and then grabbed a bite to eat at the very crowded only restaurant in the terminal. Finally it was time to board. Boarding was long and chaotic - I never understand why airports don't use the jetways except as stairs and instead bus you to far-off parking spots - and then we were off.

We landed exactly at 11:45, unfortunately, and it took a while to get through immigration and wait for our bags. Our driver was waiting and, thankfully, the ride home was blissfully quick. You never know how traffic will be. Still, I didn't get to bed until 2am and had to be up a few hours later. The next day was rough, but I made it through, and this trip was definitely worth it! It's not too long until the next safari, so stay tuned!

Mama and baby crested crane

Family forage time!

Mama and two babies.

Pretty rhinos!

Crossing the ravine.

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Smelling the air, not, as we thought, sticking out her tongue.

Mama and daughter.

Crossing the road.

Poor zebra :-(.

Lioness and male #1.

Male #2.

So gorgeous!

One of the three hunters.

Checking out our vehicle.

Lots of scars, poor dear.

And, all is right with the world again.


Cox Hartebeest.

BBC Crossing

Lovely markings!

This guy was in a bush on the side of the road and surprised us!

Cattle at the manyatta closest to Olonana.

Tail-less monitor lizard.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Masai Mara: Day 4 Part 3

We left at four for our final afternoon game drive, sad to realize we only had 24 hours left at Olonana. This drive was, spoiler alert, the only one of the whole trip where we did not see lions. We did, however, see the other four of the Big 5.

Shortly after entering the park we found a tower of giraffes who were very content to pose for us among the acacia trees. I don't know about you, but giraffes and acacia trees are quintessential safari images for me.

Joseph was a man on a singular mission today, hell-bent on finding a leopard. We weren't really complaining, because we saw some pretty neat things and some different areas of the park. We had two and a half hours before we needed to be out of the gates and intended to make the most of it. We headed to an area known to be home to a large male leopard. We didn't find him but had a grand time with a pair of lilac-breasted rollers and then a couple of snake eagles.

Then, heading back to the leopard area from this morning, we happened upon a colony of safari ants moving their nest. Thousands of these sizable black ants moved in impressive order to and from the old nest, ferrying larva and food to the new location. We stopped and watched them as they crossed the road for about 10 minutes. D, who adores ants in motion, got out to get a better look with Joseph; they both tried to get close enough to observe without being bitten by the soldier ants intent on keeping them away.

This was about the time when I got sunscreen in my eye. A sad tradition, I almost always have a drive on a safari when my super-duper SPF 100 (seriously) sunscreen melts on my face and migrates to my eye, irritating it to the point of not being able to see. Water flushes and time are the only antidotes, but it's painful and frustrating. My left eye was the compromised one, but this time my right eye wasn't feeling up to compensating, so I was basically visually impaired for the remainder of the drive. I was pouring water in my eyes as much as I could and doing lots of blinking, but it wasn't helping. I tried alternating covering one eye and then the other, which helped some; it was basically too painful to keep both eyes open. My eyes were watering like crazy, so I also looked like I was crying, but there wasn't a whole lot anyone could do. So, I made do.

We stopped next to another vehicle and located three rhino in a stand of trees, very close to where we'd seen the first rhino on Day 2. This was a mama and two babies. We never got great views, but we did see them again the next day. As we were watching a vehicle pulled up with two U.S. PhD students who work with a rhino tracking/protection unit from the Ann K. Taylor Foundation (AKTF). We talked to them for a few minutes - one went to Duke and noticed I was wearing a Georgetown hat, so we laughed about rivalry - and they asked Joseph for an update on a particular rhino. I looked up the AKTF later - seems like a good organization doing good things. Joseph was very positive about their impact.

It was about 6:00 by now, and we were headed for one last sweep of the leopard area from this morning before heading back. We'd been on the radio all day with people; nobody had seen any leopards for days. The only exception was a leopard that walked across the path of a few guests staying at Little Governor's Camp late the previous night. We were just passing Little Governor's Camp when another Olonana vehicle came on the radio:  leopards, on the move.

We sped up, and Joseph was beyond excited to get there in time to see not one, but two leopards. By this time I could barely see, but I was still determined to enjoy my fourth and fifth leopard sightings.

We arrived in the trees to find the other Olonana vehicle and one other there. Nobody seemed to see anything at that moment; Joseph was just asking where they'd last been seen when all of a sudden two leopards walk out of the bush and right in front of us. OMG. I have had three leopard sightings before, but nothing like this. This was a father and an adolescent son, who was really too old to be hanging around Dad still, and Dad was obviously aggrieved. They ambled around, occasionally resting in the bushes, almost out of sight, and covered a bit of distance as we tailed behind. They were EXACTLY where we'd heard the roar this morning. Amazing. Dad had a kill inside a bush and was intent on keeping the younger one away, so we were treated to a bit of roaring and growling. They were so close! I had never seen leopards so close before, even in a zoo. Unbelievable.

As I reflect now, it's easy to forget about how much pain I was in and how poorly I could see at all and how frustrated I was that it was dusk and photos weren't coming out, but this was one of the most stressful safari moments I've had for these reasons. I got some decent photos (totally by accident as I went through a million settings on my camera hoping something would come out), and I was trying to squint out of only one eye, so my vision was definitely compromised, but it still was a phenomenal experience. Our very own leap of leopards! They finally walked out of range, and we had to speed to make it to the gates, a bit late, but very energized. How amazingly cool was that? Joseph was even more excited than D and me, if that's possible. What an amazing end to the evening. Big 5, all in one day!!

We made it back to camp, and I was pretty miserable by now. I went to the bathroom and did some major eye flushes, which helped for a few seconds, and then we settled in for pre-dinner drinks. I was getting a bit cranky by now from the pain and inability to see, and I almost went to bed without eating, but I knew I was too hungry to make it to breakfast like that. D and I were some of the first to find a table, and we had a pretty quick dinner because I literally kept my eyes closed as much as possible and could never open both at once. She felt bad and told me I could leave anytime, but I stuck it out. Finally we headed back to the tents, and I managed to shower - which helped some - and lay out clothes for the next day. I settled into bed and tried to read, but my eyes were just not up to it. I put down the iPad and fell asleep quickly, relieved to be able to close both eyes and let them heal. I did feel MUCH better in the morning.

Afternoon giraffe!

This guy was just chilling, laying down in the grass.

Hello! So inquisitive.

Just gorgeous scenery.

Quintessential safari.

Lilac-breasted roller.

One of my favorite birds to see on safari.

Snake eagle - think this one was brown, but we also saw a black one.

Safari ant moving party.

Elephant crossing.

This was a very old elephant - shortened tusks, beat up ears, lots of battle scars. Still trucking along!

Mama rhino in the middle, one baby to the left, one to the right (barely visible).


This is Dad - he was much more camera shy.

And son, who did his best to pose.

Ignore the blur, focus on the pretty markings.

So incredibly gorgeous. And close!

Proof there really were two. Dad is on the left.

Last decent photo before he went into the bush to rejoin Dad.

Sunset giraffe to top things off.