Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Amboseli Recap

I probably should have used the last week without decent internet to write a few blog posts and have them queued up to go, but that was an afterthought, sadly.

It has been almost a month since my fabulous journey to Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, so this post is long overdue.  Plus I'm going on safari again this weekend, so I only want to have one trip to write about!

I flew from Entebbe to Nairobi on a Thursday night after work, getting to my hotel about 10pm.  I noticed on the drive from the airport how much more developed Nairobi seems than Kampala.  It reminded me of South Africa - and not just because we passed a Steers and Spur on the way!  I stayed at the Crowne Plaza, one of my favorite brands.  The hotel was very nice.  The room service, however, was horrific.  I honestly don't think I've ever had a more inedible meal.  Oh well.

At 7:30 the next morning I was picked up by my tour operator, G Adventures.  I did a G tour in Jordan and am a big fan of their packages.  This was an independent type tour, but I was expecting at least a couple of other people.  Nope, just me!  I settled into a comfy seat in the 7 seater 4x4 safari van, and my cook and driver/guide (two people!) explained the trip as we drove through Nairobi morning traffic.

We stopped at Uchumi to stock up on provisions.  I bought an insane amount of water, which turned out to be a good thing.  The drive to Amboseli is about 200km, but most of it is on a two-lane road with lots of truck traffic on the Mombasa-Nairobi-Kampala-Juba route.  This is the same trip my car took on its way from the port.  We stopped once in the bustling market town of Emali, which was abuzz with Friday afternoon activity.  As we filled up at the petrol station, I started to realize that many of the people walking by had elaborate beaded jewelry and gorgeous, brightly-colored clothing.  Welcome to Maasai country! 

Leaving Emali we started on a 90km road to Amboseli's Kimana Gate.  Not 10 minutes on this road, and the guide pointed out a gorgeous Masai giraffe on the side of the road.  I spent the remainder of the ride glued to the windows, spotting ostrich, zebra, elephants, giraffe, and dozens of herds of cattle, goats, and sheep tended by young Maasai.  Amboseli is not fenced, so the animals often migrate between parks or venture farther afield for food.

Our camp was a very basic one a few km from Kimana Gate.  It had permanent tents and bandas, but my tour called for a dome tent.  After settling into my tent and eating a late lunch, I wandered around until 3:45.  I knew we were close to Mt. Kilimanjaro, but all I could see was the outlines of its sides.  The summit was shrouded in clouds.

My guide popped the top on the van so I could stand and have amazing 360 degree views from the vehicle.  We passed a few elephants on the access road as well as a herd of giraffe.  And lots of herds of cattle.  After doing a bit of paperwork at the gate, we entered the park!  Amboseli is crisscrossed by a series of defined roads, much like Kruger and other parks, so there's only so close you can get to the animals.  Almost as soon as we entered the park the clouds around Kili opened up, and we could see the rain in the distance.  It was gorgeous.  We passed lots of herds of zebra, wildebeest, Grant's gazelles, Thompson gazelles, and several giant herds of elephant (but the latter from a distance).  This is the end of the dry season, so the animals are more concentrated around water sources, but the herds were pretty far back from the road most of the time.  A crowned crane did a wonderful job of posing for photos - they're so gorgeous in real life!  (Not so much on the Ugandan flag, in my opinion.)

We drove on and looked for animals, and I re-trained my safari eyes.  The rain started coming closer, and we had a wonderful rainbow for quite a while.  Finally it started raining over us, so we closed the roof and headed back to camp, by which time the rain had stopped.

After a hearty dinner and a good helping of Mockingjay, I settled in to sleep.  The next day we had a relaxed start, foregoing the early morning game drive for a day in the park.  I got up, got dressed, walked to the dining pavilion, and sat down.  Then I looked up and almost gasped.  There was Mt. Kilimanjaro, in all its glory, perfectly visible.  The lyrics from 'Africa' in my head (and perpetually thereafter), I snapped some photos and sat back down to gaze.

On the way down the access road we stopped and gave a lift to two women.  As we drove farther down, it made sense.  There was a large bull elephant on the side of the road, and he apparently isn't fond of pedestrians.  He's only slightly more fond of vehicles.  We waited until he wandered away, drove on to the gate, bid our passengers goodbye, and carried on.

We spent a good seven hours traversing the park today, under a gorgeous blue sky, with Kili as a phenomenal backdrop.  We had many more close encounters with animals today, seeing more gazelles, zebra, and wildebeest than I thought possible.  Near a swampy area we spotted two hyenas lying down in the grass, but they had no interest in hunting, despite a plethora of meal choices. 

I should stop here and say that the one thing I've never seen on safari is a kill.  And for some, perhaps morbid reason, I really want to.  I love animals, I hate seeing them hurt, but I just really, really want to see a predator attack prey.

Anyway, after deciding the hyenas were too lazy to hunt, we continued on.  About 11 am we drove through a grove of trees, one of the few forested areas in the very savannah-dominated park, which is where several of the lodges are located.  We drove past a lodge that shut down a decade ago, all its buildings abandoned.  Just when I thought there was no activity, I noticed that dozens of baboons were lurking around the property, on every available surface and in all the surrounding trees.  Talk about eerie!  We stopped at one of the lodges to use the restroom - it was truly gorgeous there.  Made me all the more excited for an upcoming lodge safari.

The rest of the day was more gorgeous scenery and unreal photo opportunities.  Pretty much any animal posed in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro is awesome.  We crossed paths with a researcher from the Elephant Research Camp in Amboseli, one of the most indepth population studies over time that's ever been done.  My favorite part?  The 4x4 had an 'Obama 2012' bumper sticker.  Gotta love Kenyan pride for one of their own!

Lunch was a picnic at an observation site with some cheeky starlings.  One jumped right into the vehicle to try and scrounge a few crumbs.  We headed back to camp as the clouds started surrounding the mountain again, and I had a nice late afternoon rest while reading more Mockingjay. 

One thing I want to note is that I was amazed and excited by the number of baby animals I saw.  Be they elephants, warthogs, zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, baboon, hippo, or really anything else, there were TONS of babies.  I loved seeing the baby elephants try desperately to nurse as their mothers plodded along in search of water and greenery.  Baby wildebeest are squee-dorable.  As are baby zebra, with their fuzziness and just-like-mama mimics.  That was pretty awesome to see.

After dinner and a shower (in the exceedingly rustic facilities, though there was some solar-heated hot water), it was early to bed for an early start.

We got to the park just as it opened, and we were treated to some phenomenal hyena and jackal sightings.  I was starting to think I wouldn't see any cats, which made me a little sad.  But the hyenas were pretty awesome.  Not to mention all the herd animals, which were out in force yet again. 

After a couple of hours we were on our way out of the park when my guide got a call on the radio.  It was all in Swahili so I didn't understand what it was, but we turned around and headed back into the park.  And drove, at the speed limit - which was much faster than we'd gone most of the few days! - for several kilometers.  Then I saw the collection of safari vehicles. 

We were still pretty far away, and my heart was beating pretty fast by now wondering what was up there.  We maneuvered into a spot, and there, in the distance, I saw the distinctive head of a lioness lying in the tall grass and surveying.  There was another one nearby.  They were quite far off, so even my best zoom wasn't great, but they were lions.  After a while they got up and started moseying off, so we turned around and tried to head them off.  They stopped again and flopped back down.  Then we noticed another little yellow animal walking toward them - a cub!  It had been completely hidden in the grass earlier.  The next 30 minutes was a waiting game.  The lions stood up and moved a little.  The gazelles froze in place and watched them.  The wildebeest on the other side of the road didn't seem to notice them.  Would they hunt?  Would they move closer?  Lions are notoriously lazy in the daytime, so nothing of the sort happened, but it was still an exciting time.

Then it really was back to camp, packing up the tent, eating breakfast, and hitting the road.  We stopped at a Maasai village for a visit.  I knew it would be super tourist-oriented - and it was - but it also seemed to be a real village and not just one for show.  The men and women came out and danced and sang with Kili in the background, and then they took me for a tour of the compound.  I saw the process of making fire (quite unique, with friction and teamwork), some traditional medicines, and I was invited inside one home.  There was a primary school, a few livestock corrals, and then a huge market area where all the women sold their wares.  That part was super touristy, but it's a moneymaking opportunity.  But the Maasai are a fascinating, proud, and enduring culture, and I was privileged to get a closer glimpse in any setting.

Then it was back to Nairobi.  I saw animals all the way up to about 30km outside the city this time.  Giraffe, zebras, wildebeest, ostrich, gazelles, etc.  What an amazing country.  We arrived at my hotel mid-afternoon, I bid goodbye to my guide and cook, and then I set out for the spa.  I desperately needed a massage and a manicure after three days of bumpy roads!  I had an okay dinner in the hotel restaurant and had a great night's sleep.

The next day was election day, and everything was closed.  I arranged for a late checkout and airport transfer and stayed off the roads as much as possible.  Even most of the shops at the airport were closed!!  I had plenty of time to check in, meander, and read, and my flight was on time.  The drive from Entebbe to Kampala was long and slow, but it often is.  And with that, my first Kenyan adventure came to a close.  I'll be back, for sure.  There is so much more to see and do!

Day One Highlights

Day Two Highlights

Baby animals galore!

Day Three Highlights

Maasai Village Highlights