Friday, March 16, 2018

Lake Nakuru

The last time we were in Africa, we failed to see a rhinoceros. If there was a place where we thought we stood a good chance of seeing one or two of those animals up close on this year's trip, it was Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya, the second stop on our six park tour in Kenya and Tanzania. On our last morning at our camp outside Masai Mara National Reserve, we found out that Simon, our server at mealtimes, was from Nakuru. We asked him if we would see rhinos at Lake Nakuru. 

His response: "Yes. It's a fenced park." 

He's right. Nakuru is fenced.

It took us six and a half hours to get from Nairobi to Masai Mara, including the last 2-1/2 hours on a dirt road in the process of being converted to a paved road. We went out the same way we went in, meaning for the second time in three days, we'd get a two plus hours long African massage thrown into our vacation package for free. Score!

If we thought our ride to Masai Mara was long, we were unfortunately in for a slightly longer one to Lake Nakuru. If you ever make the same trip we did to Kenya, be prepared for a lot of sitting in cars. The trip to Nakuru took us about nine hours, albeit with a planned stop for lunch and an unplanned stop to change a flat tire somewhere on the 2-1/2 hour long dirt road portion. Luckily we had two spares. We stood within about 100 feet of some dude chopping trees on the side of the road with an axe in the middle of nowhere while our driver and guide took care of the flat. After maybe 15 minutes we were off again.

The edge of Lake Nakuru with the dead trees killed by the rising water levels.
Lake Nakuru National Park is a totally different sort of environment from the one we found at Masai Mara. No endless plains of grass here. Instead we found a lot of the same sort of African bush type landscape that we found in Botswana along with some more densely forested parts. It's also a lot smaller than Masai Mara; at just 73 square miles it's only about 15% of the total size of the endless savannah we saw from ground level and aloft just a couple of days prior. Oh, and there's a saltwater lake too. A big one. Hence the name.

Saltwater lake meant one thing to us: flamingos!!! In case you are not familiar with our history with flamingos in the wild, let me bring you up to speed. A little more than three years ago, we took a December trip down to the Florida Keys and the Everglades. We saw a ton of alligators but zero flamingos. Turns out we planned poorly and went to the wrong part. But that miss (and the associated accompanying regret) affected us. We were determined to see flamingos in the wild from that moment.

Fast forward about a year and a half to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. On our last full day in the Islands (after not seeing any in Africa the first time between those two trips I might add) we managed to watch two flamingos feeding in a lagoon for 30 to 45 minutes. I wrote at that time that seeing these two at sunset almost made up for the misses in Florida in 2014 and Africa in 2015. I lied. I still wanted more. So in what seemed like a sure thing, last January we made our way down to the Rio Lagartos Biosphere in the Yucatan in Mexico. They are supposed to have 50,000 non-migratory flamingos there. We saw less than 50. Not less than 50,000. Less than 50!

Lake Nakuru had the potential to make up for all that. But we got some discouraging news when we arrived. Over the last couple of years, increased rainfall and snow runoff due to climate change has irreversibly changed Lake Nakuru. As the Lake has absorbed more water, the salinity level has decreased and the water level has risen. Neither is good for the flamingos and the rising water level is especially not good for the trees that used to be by the side of the Lake but are now dead in what is now the edge of the Lake. They need freshwater; they can't survive in the saltwater. The scene (shown above) is eerie, especially in the light of a coming storm that we saw in our first hour or so driving around in the Park.

Despite the climate changed Lake, we did see flamingos at Nakuru. A lot of flamingos. But we didn't see them close enough to make out individuals and they weren't blanketing the Lake in the thousands like we heard they used to. I saw some fuzzy glimpses of the strange parading mating dances they engage in through my camera but not enough to even get a good picture of them with a line of pelicans in the foreground. The flamingo quest would go on. These things are elusive. This didn't satisfy my need to see them in the wild.

The best flamingo pic of the trip. The quest to see these things up close in large numbers continues.
We got a lot luckier with Nakuru's other famous residents. Simon was right. We did see rhinos. A lot of rhinos. And up close too.

There are two species of rhino living in Africa, the black rhino and the white rhino. They are distinguished from one another in a variety of ways, including how they walk with their young and the shape of their body. But the easiest way for me to tell black from white (because both are grey in color) is by the shape of their mouth. White rhinos are called white rhinos because of an English speaking misinterpretation of the original name given to these creatures; they were originally called "weit" which is an Afrikaans word meaning wide because the white rhino has a wide mouth. The black rhino, which was called black because there was a white one already out there I guess, has a hook shaped lip. Granted, this type of identification only really works up close, although the white rhino tends to graze on grass while the black tends to eat leaves off shrubs so if they are eating, you may be able to name one from afar.

Both species are endangered. There are approximately 5,000 black rhinos in the world today. 95% of these can be found in Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. White rhinos are a little more plentiful, although only in the southern subspecies. There are approximately 20,000 southern white rhinos out there in the wild and they, like their black cousins, are also most frequently found in Kenya, Namibia, South African and Zimbabwe. We were in a good spot to find both black and southern white rhinos, if you consider looking for one of 5,000 or 20,000 individuals across more than one million square miles an easy task.

A couple of notes on the white rhino. The southern white rhino was thought to be extinct in the 19th century, a victim of poaching for trophies and their horns, which some cultures consider an aphrodisiac. Then in 1896 about 100 were found in the wild in South Africa and the conservation effort to save the southern white rhino started in earnest. This species clawing its way back from 100 to 20,000 is for sure a huge success story. Unfortunately, the same thing can't be said for the northern white rhino. As of the writing of this post, there are only three known members of this species alive in the world and I read the other day that one of the three is sick. They are all in captivity in Kenya.

We saw our first rhinos (yes, plural) almost as soon as we passed through the gates of Lake Nakuru National Park. Two single white rhinos and a mother and baby which our guide told us were black rhinos but which disappeared soon after we saw them. Yes, we lost sight of what would likely be a 2,000 pound animal and her baby on what was mostly a flat piece of land. Africa's like that sometimes.

In my first post about this trip, I described the difference between a National Park and a National Reserve. We enjoyed a lot of freedom in Masai Mara National Reserve to follow animals, mostly due to the vast network of established or semi-established roads or trails. We did not enjoy the same freedom in the Parks and we felt the effects of the more restricted rules almost as soon as we arrived at Nakuru Yes, we saw four rhinos, but by the time we had driven down a one way road to get closer to the closest two in our view, the mother and baby were gone.

For a first sighting of a rhino in the wild, having what looked to me to be a really good sized male walk slowly in front of our car and then graze leisurely about maybe 100 feet away was a thrill. These things are absolutely huge and they are like tanks. They are large like hippos (larger actually) but they don't look fat like hippos do. I'm confident if this animal decided to charge our car it could have easily capsized it. It's amazing they can survive and get this big just munching on grass all day.

We got to Nakuru just before 4:30 pm so couldn't linger too much around our first rhinos. We needed to make it to our lodge, which was located in the Park but a good distance away, before dark. So we left behind what we hoped wouldn't be our last rhino in the less than 24 hours that we had to spend in the Park.

Jurassic Park Moment No. 1. Late afternoon with Lake Nakuru in the background.
It wasn't. On the way to our lodge, we saw what our group referred to as our first "Jurassic Park moment" where we saw a number of different species of animals on the move together in pretty sizable herds, a reference to the first time Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler see the dinosaurs recreated in the movie for the first time. We had a similar experience in Namibia two and a half years ago when we looked out the front of our boat just after sitting down to lunch and saw what seemed to be hundreds of elephants walking and eating in large family groups. The  scene at Nakuru, which featured African buffalo, zebra and seven white rhinos set between a gap in the threes with the edge of Lake Nakuru in the background, was no less awesome.

I had felt pretty confident that we'd see some rhinos at Lake Nakuru. It is, after all, what they are known for. But 11 in the first day? And on the move the way they were when we saw them? Nothing really set me up for a sighting this good.

A closer look at Jurassic Park Moment No. 1 showing three very large white rhinos.
The next morning, Nakuru would do better.

If there was any criticism to offer of our first day of rhino sightings, it would be that most of them were pretty elusive and the sky was kind of overcast. Sure we got an up close look at one as soon as we drove into the Park but after ambling in front of our car, he kept going away from us. I feel terrible even just writing these words. Most people would be lucky to see the kind of sight we saw that late afternoon and here I am complaining about it.

But then again, how does seeing two groups of rhino (both with babies) in the early morning sunlight with pretty much nobody else in the world around sound?

I wrote in my blog post about Masai Mara that I went to Africa this year with a top ten list of unseen species. Rhino was number one. The looks we got at a mother and baby and then two more adults and another baby were some of the best looks we got at any species on this trip.

There's a lot of value sometimes in getting up early for a game drive in Africa. There's also a lot of value in staying really near (or inside even) the park you are going to drive around in. Combine an early start with a camp really near some wildlife and you might get the kind of experience we had with these rhinos first thing in the morning. 

It is pretty difficult to appreciate just how big some animals on our planet are. You just have to get up close to them. For most large animals, that means you have to either get to a zoo somewhere or find a way to get to Africa. And zoos are in no way comparable to what you will find in the wild. There's no substitute for watching a large mammal free of captivity living without restraints or restrictions. It's amazing that there are people out there who want to kill these things just so they can say they killed one.

If you are a poacher, by the way, I don't really know how proud of yourself you can be for killing a rhino. These creatures are so gentle and docile that it doesn't seem like much of a challenge. We drove right up to the mother and baby shown above and watched them eat maybe 20 feet from our car. Sure, we were checked out by mom before she resumed tearing grass out of the ground (and it was so absolutely quiet that you could hear the sound of every bite) and went about paying like zero attention to us. It was the sound and the proximity that made this animal encounter perhaps the most intimate of the entire two week trip.

Three white rhino. You can see the wide mouth really clearly in the lead rhino in this picture.
Mother grazing.
Baby rhino. Maybe the best look we got at any baby of any species on the trip. And there were a lot.
Our rhino encounter in the early morning stillness wasn't the only incredible surprise we had on the way out of Lake Nakuru. I promised in my Masai Mara post that I would relate the details of any can't miss encounter with animals in any of the parks, even if those animals didn't fit into the major theme of the particular park. Nakuru's themes were definitely rhinos and another missed opportunity with flamingos. Before there were rhinos that morning, there were hyenas.

Depending on what species are around a kill, there's a pecking order to determine who gets a shot at the carcass in what order. Animals that can kill are the first to get their fill, followed by the scavengers, although animals that can kill other animals will happily slide into the scavenger spot if they are hungry enough or just feel like it. Hyenas can kill and they can scavenge. They can chase away the jackals and the birds and maybe even a cheetah and they are definitely no match for a lion. But after everyone has picked the skeleton clean, the hyenas are the only ones who can finish the job off. Because they can actually eat the bones.

Looking sneaky. They pretty much always do.
There are few animals with the jaw pressure of a hyena. And even those that have similar or superior jaw power, like crocodiles, don't eat the bones of animals quite the way hyenas do. They can survive on these things if they have to and have digestive systems powerful enough to draw nutrition from such a diet. If you are in the wilderness in Africa and come across some white poop, guaranteed it's from a hyena that's just eaten a meal of bones.

On the prettiness scale, the hyena has to be one of the ugliest animals out there. I've written in the last two weeks about the Big Five, the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot. The spotted hyena, which is the only species of hyena we saw, has the distinction of being one of Africa's Ugly Five, a far less notable and desirable list to occupy. Their sneaky, hunched nature combined with their scavenger's mentality and sometimes maniacal looking faces gets them on a list with the wildebeest, the lappet-faced vulture, the marabou stork and the warthog. Not exactly a great list to be on.

I was dying to see a lot of hyenas on this trip. I don't think they are that ugly but they are for sure one of the less noble looking animals we found. On our way down to Lake Nakuru that Wednesday morning, we came across maybe seven or eight of these animals moving through the yellowish grass that almost matched the color of their fur. We saw a lone hyena and then a group of two adults with a younger pup and then four more gathered around what had obviously been a kill site.

Although these hyenas were pretty close to our car and didn't scatter when we approached and stopped, it wasn't what we saw that morning that was notable, it was what we heard: the crunching of bones, a slow creaking of something solid followed by a crack as the skull of an animal gave way beneath the might of the hyena's teeth. If it was the late morning or afternoon, we likely wouldn't have seen these animals by the side of the road; it would have been too hot. But we for sure wouldn't have heard them breaking bones down into food; there would have been too many other noises, most likely from other vehicles with tourists like us in them. We got extremely lucky I think.

Breaking bones. Big bones. Look at the teeth!
After our encounter with the hyenas, some 30 minutes to an hour spent with rhinos as close as we could have wished for and another missed opportunity with the flamingos, it was time to say goodbye to Lake Nakuru. It produced an experience that was totally unlike Masai Mara in almost every way. It is almost unfair to compare the two places because they were so different. If Masai Mara was our favorite (and it was) our trip wouldn't have been anywhere near as good without Lake Nakuru. Oddly enough, we were able to say that about most of the parks we visited after Masai Mara. We'd never see another white rhino after Nakuru. It was a species totally unique to that location for us.

If you ever get lucky enough to see a rhino in the wild, you may see a little bird on each one seemingly inseparable from its large host. These birds (which you might also see on African buffalo) are red-billed oxpeckers, so named for their red bills although they also have yellow-rimmed eyes with red pupils which are pretty striking against their brown feathers. The cover picture of this blog post shows a closeup of the one we saw on the mother rhino in the early morning. These birds feed off the insects that they find on the hides of large herd animals, including rhinos. They will eat flies and maggots but their favorite food are ticks, which are typically filled with blood. I assumed that the oxpecker assumed a symbiotic relationship with the rhino, with the bird getting a moving cafeteria of sorts and the rhino getting rid of unwanted pests. Turns out that's not necessarily the case. The birds really want the blood and they have been known to keep wounds open on their hosts just so they can keep feeding on the food they love the most. 

Pretty macabre stuff. I'll leave you with that thought. On to Amboseli.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Up In The Air

I'd never flown in a hot air balloon before. Somehow it seemed like the natural spot to try this for the first time was in a place where we'd be landing somewhere on a vast plain of grass which might be visited that day (or even at the very moment we touched down) by wild animals like lions, hyena and leopards. Hey, there's a first time for everything. Sure! Why not?

Most everything about our trip to Kenya and Tanzania was planned in advance with very little ability to do something different from what was scripted. We had a free day on the front end of the trip in Nairobi and a similarly free day on the last day in Arusha. In between, we traveled as a group pretty much everywhere with all five (in Kenya) or six (in Tanzania) of us doing the exact same thing at the exact same time.

But there were a couple of opportunities to engage in optional activities. Two of the three or four options involved flying in a hot air balloon above the savannah either at Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya or Serengeti National Park in Tanzania or both. We figured this was something we just couldn't pass up. We also figured once would be enough (these things are expensive) so we signed up for the cheaper of the two at Masai Mara. Exciting stuff!

So about that heights thing. I'm not particularly crazy about them. In fact, I might not like them much at all.

Firing up the engine!
At about 6 a.m. when it's pretty much pitch black and you can't see what's lurking in the grass (are there snakes out there?) and there are hippo noises coming from the trees about 30 feet from you, comfort at heights is really one of the furthest things from your mind. If it weren't for the eight or ten guys directing a giant flame into an enormous oh so flimsy looking balloon to get it to inflate that is. Will this thing really stay up there and not catch fire?

The flame was hot by the way. Like really hot. Despite the heat, I inched (or maybe footed or yarded) a bit closer to the balloon after hearing the hippo. Putting a few more feet (and maybe even a person or two) between me and a hippo is worth getting a little bit of a burn. In the end, nobody got charged by a hippo or burned but I still don't like those hippo grunts.

By the way, can you see the basket in the picture above? It's actually a basket. Like made of wicker. I'm going up in the air in that thing? Like 1,000 feet above the surface of the Earth? I'm sure it's safe, right? These people are professionals, right?

I eventually stopped being a baby and climbed in. If you look carefully in the photo above, you can see there are already some people in the basket. They had to get in there on their backs while the thing was on its side and then get tipped rudely into their current place. It did not look comfortable. At least I didn't have to do that.

Aloft with Captain Barnabas.
I think it's important when we travel that we try to see the places we go from as many perspectives as possible. In some cases, this means talking to people who live and work where we are visiting to understand their perspective on life or deliberately visiting somewhere non-touristy. Other times, it literally means seeing where we are from a different angle for ourselves. I wanted to take this balloon ride because I wanted to see the grassland that we spent a couple of days each in Kenya and Tanzania not from ground level but from above and see if it looked any different or if my perception of where I was changed. Sometimes when I travel I can get this different perspective by climbing up or taking an elevator up to the top of a tall building. Can't really do that in Masai Mara National Reserve so we were left with climbing an acacia tree or trusting a wicker basket with a dozen or so other people suspended below a giant ball of gas. Acacia trees have too many thorns and then there's that whole you might meet a leopard up there. Balloon is safer.

Once the thing is inflated and you've been tipped into place or have climbed aboard, you are ready to take off just about as soon as it gets light and before the wind dies down. And yes, we are wind dependent for propulsion. Our captain, Barnabas, claimed he could spin the balloon round in mid-air to get the different sides of the basket views of whatever we would see that was amazing but we had no jet thrusters or anything like that. We'd have to go where the wind took us.

The plan (and I assume these people that run this gig know that the plan will always work) was for the wind to take us from our spot near our camp out over and into the Reserve so we could get a quality look at the landscape and maybe an animal or two or a hundred. We'd land after about an hour (which seems like a really short time) and be picked up wherever we happened to touch down. Seriously? Yep. We were trailed loosely speaking by a truck (for the balloon) and a bus (for us occupants of the balloon's basket). Of course, the balloon flies where the wind lets it go; the truck and bus have to stick to the roads. Hopefully they can keep up.

The view from the balloon. I like this one because of the heron flying above the water.
I think what I expected from this ride was that we would get some amazing looks at enormous herds of prey animals grazing and moving over the Earth. I found out pretty quickly there were two problems with this expectation. First, it's not the Great Migration in Masai Mara yet. That event, when there are huge herds of zebra and wildebeest moving, occurs in July and August. Sure, we saw a group of maybe 100 or so African buffalo but most of the groups of animals were in the twos and threes or maybe 10 to 15 tops. And most were standing still.

Second, we didn't necessarily fly right over the animals. Remember we are a little bit at the mercy of the wind. We can't just hang a left or right and zoom down to get a close look at a group of impala or a lone bull elephant. We were able to descend and ascend and did this throughout the ride, getting us a closer and more inclusive look at what was below. But buzz a group of topi or giraffe? No sir! I think the best looks at the animals that I thought I would get are below, a group of three topi (I guess the balloon made one skittish and he took off faster than my camera could capture) and a partial look at a harem herd of impala. Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the chance to see and capture these creatures from a different angle; I just didn't set expectations very well for myself on the animal front here.

Three topi directly below...
and a few female impala grazing in the breaking morning light.
What I did get out of seeing Masai Mara from above was just how vast the landscape is. It seemed to go on forever and ever. I know the park is pretty big at 580 square miles but it seemed like I couldn't see anything close to the end of it. There was grass everywhere just punctuated every so often by a single tree. Except where there was water.

Seeing the surface of the ground from above really emphasized for me how precious the few spots of water were. The only place where it occurred (and animals like hippos were singularly constrained to these spots) were these tiny (relatively speaking) gashes in the landscapes surrounded by life. There were more trees, thicker grass and hippos and birds packed into these tiny areas than any other place we could see. I'm not sure if some of these things form a river or a connected group of watering holes during the rainy season but seeing them just every so often really emphasized what a precious resource water would be in place like this. I'm not sure how I could appreciate these oases in quite the same way if I weren't flying above them.

The precious water in an open gash in the grassland.
Now...about that fear of heights. I have to say it was amazingly nonexistent. The wicker basket that I imagined was flimsy was surprisingly solid and the fact that it came up to mid-chest level made it seem like there was really no way we could fall out. I suppose there really was no way we could fall out unless we started climbing on top of the basket somehow and who's going to do that? We for sure were high above the ground below but the ride was so gentle and soft and the rise and fall was so slow that it was almost like we ourselves were floating on the air. I've never been so high above the ground and felt so secure. It was kind of weird. Everything about the ride was so smooth from the very moment we drifted gently off the land to right before the instant we touched down.

I wrote that last sentence deliberately. Everything until right before we landed was soft. The touching down, though, that was kind of tough. Our departure up, up and away felt like we were being transported away on some pillowy cloud. I expected the touchdown might be equally comfortable. And I have no idea why.

Imagine you are being carried by the wind rapidly and just above the surface of the earth in what (again) is a surprisingly solid and rough basket and you are going to crash. That's us right before we touched down. We are sitting down on the (thankfully padded) benches in our craft and holding on to the straps on the opposite wall for dear life. We can't see anything other than the weaving of the basket about 24 inches from our face because sitting down (as shown in the second picture of this post) our heads are below the top of the basket.

To understand when we might hit (and it seems at this point we are moving very fast) we have to listen to the instruction of our captain, Barnabas, who does a remarkable job of informing us, thankfully. When we finally hit / crashed into the very firm Earth, it wasn't that bad and I expressed as much. Barnabas let me know we weren't down yet. In other words we bounced. Then we bounced again. And maybe again a couple of other times, finally dragging to a halt and slowly at first, then pretty rapidly, we tipped over and slammed on our backs finally on solid ground.

The view to my right after our crash landing. Hoping there are no lions nearby.
So there we were on our backs looking up at the tallest of the grasses around us in the Masai Mara National Reserve. The bus to get us out of there was, of course, nowhere to be seen because it wasn't flying and hadn't managed to make the kind of time the balloon made. So we were left for 20 minutes or so standing on some of the most gorgeous landscape on the face of the Earth in the same Reserve with lions, cheetah, hyena, leopards and African buffalo. How cool is that?

On our last trip to Africa, we'd never intentionally left our vehicle (be it a boat or car) when inside a park. True, we had to get out and push our truck once when it wouldn't start (not kidding!) but given our druthers we wouldn't have broken down in the first place. Now we were standing where the previous night or week or month elephants might have trodden or lions might have dragged down a kill or a family of mongoose may have passed by. It was so incredibly peaceful. But I was ultimately glad the bus was on its way. As romantic as the idea of being alone (well with 12 or so others) in the middle of the African landscape was, I'm glad we had a rescue vehicle coming. We kept an eye on some African buffalo that were comically far away. We kept an eye out anyway.

I'm not sure when (or even if) I'm taking my next balloon ride. If I only do it once in my life, I can't think of a cooler place to do it. It might not have met all of my inflated expectations but it did what it was supposed to do: get me a different way of looking at where I was. That one hour floating above the ground for sure got me an increased appreciation of a place I knew I already loved.

I'm also glad we didn't land in the middle of a pride of hungry lions. That never happens, right?

Spotted from the basket. Good thing she wasn't around when we landed

Monday, March 5, 2018

Masai Mara

It's been a little more than a week since I returned home from my second trip to sub-Saharan Africa. I think it's about time I started blogging about what I found there so I can remember it years from now. Isn't that part of what this whole blogging exercise is about after all?

I've been giving the subject of how to write about this trip a lot of thought over the last month. And for those of you doing the math at home, that would be since I got back, while I was there and even before I left home and saw my first lion or gazelle or visited my first Masai village. Yep, that's right, I was thinking about how to record what I've seen in my time in Kenya and Tanzania before I even saw any of it. That might seem strange. To me, it seems natural. I'm constantly thinking about how to organize information. This blog is no different than anything else when it comes to that sort of stuff.

So what's the big deal? Why is this trip so difficult? I saw some animals, interacted with the locals, maybe did or saw a thing or two that made my heart race a little faster. What's all the fuss about? How much can I really say about all that? Well, as it turns out, a lot. There was so much that we saw over the course of two weeks in east Africa. It's a challenge just thinking about how to present and memorialize all the parks, the cities and the local culture we experienced.

Do I write a single blog post about all the wildlife we spotted? What if there's too much great stuff (there was) and the post ends up being really long and can't keep the interest of the audience? Do I make it a multi-parter? Will that lose people from post to post or will I have the dozen or so regular readers of this blog on the edge of their seats waiting for the next part? I think, for the record, that answer to that last question is probably no.

What about separating the trip into different posts by park? We visited six parks or reserves in our two weeks. Don't all the parks kind of have to be a little different to do that? Otherwise I am just writing the same thing over and over, right? What about by day? In addition to ending up with a lot of posts (like 14), doesn't that present the same challenge as separating the trip record by park?

Lion. Grass. Masai Mara. Not sure what else to say here.
How about devoting posts to specific animals? Doing that would mean even more posts, right? I mean separate posts for six parks or 14 days seems small compared to the 30 or 40 different species of animals we saw last month. Should I lump some of them together? One post for predators and one post for prey? What about the birds? Do they get their own column? Or columns for predators and prey? And what about the non-animal stuff (because there was non-animal stuff)? One post for that? Two? Five?

I realize this is not my first time doing this type of a trip. Why not copy the same format I used back in 2015? Good question. And the answer is because last time, we really only visited a single park in Chobe National Park in northern Botswana. We saw the same animals from the water and the land and interacted with two specific animals (hippos and elephants) in very intimate ways. It made sense to write about specific species and our visits to four countries in six days in a non-sequential way.

In the end, I've made the decision this time to devote a single post to each of the six parks or reserves that we visited and sprinkle some other thoughts about the two countries in between those six posts. Didn't I just say that each park had to be a little different to approach things that way? Yes, I did. And fortunately, that's sort of exactly what happened. In many ways, there was a different story or narrative about each place we went to watch what has to be one of the greatest displays of nature in the world.

Lions in various states of repose. Masai Mara National Reserve.
So let's start at the beginning of our trip, meaning the Masai Mara National Reserve in western Kenya, a 580 square mile portion of grassland set aside in 1961 to preserve an environment and ecosystem that has been greatly reduced in size since white man set foot in Africa. The name of the place comes from the Masai people and from their word to describe the landscape when viewed from a distance; mara means "spotted" in the Masai language.

We arrived in Kenya at about 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning after a multiple hours long layover (with delays) in Amsterdam. Of course, there are no planes that fly from Amsterdam to Masai Mara so we started out not at the Reserve but in Kenya's capital city of Nairobi, where we spent a day and two nights. Before we could experience Masai Mara, we'd have to get there from Nairobi. That's not to say that you can't fly to Masai Mara. I'm sure you can, in a small plane to what is likely a dirt landing strip. But you can't fly directly there from Amsterdam. We'd have to drive.

Before we left home, I checked out how long it would take us to get from place to place on this trip. It seemed to me that we'd be doing a lot of driving (or in our case, sitting while someone else drove) and I wanted to be prepared for just how long we'd have between stops. The time I wrote down to get from Nairobi to our hotel at Masai Mara? 5 hours and 10 minutes. Seemed pretty reasonable to me.

Six and a half hours after we left our hotel in Nairobi, we got to the Masai Mara gate. Not our hotel. The gate. We'd have about another 90 minutes or so after that to get to the hotel. Rush hour traffic; a little shopping or browsing at the curio shops; some bathroom breaks along the way; a stop to gaze at the gorgeous Great Rift Valley (more on that much later); some slow time behind trucks (or lorries, if you prefer); and a stretch along an in construction road (read: dirt) financed by the World Bank extended our journey by a few hours. Oh, and by stretch along a dirt road, I mean 2-1/2 hours worth.

Lioness with two cubs. There's a third in the tree that hadn't yet emerged.
Concerned about the long trip? Don't be. There's plenty to see along the way. If you go, you'll be traveling through Masai land, which means you will see plenty of Masai wrapped in their signature tartan blankets herding cattle, sheep and goats. You'll also pass through town after town made up of concrete and corrugated metal buildings (with maybe the odd mud and stick building thrown in) in towns that will seem anywhere from too small to support a population to so crowded as to be completely chaotic. You'll pass hotels you might not ever consider staying in, butchers with freshly carved animal parts hanging in the unrefrigerated storefront window, hair salons (or saloons depending on the local spelling) and bar after bar after bar with Coca-Cola-provided marquees and red plastic chairs. This is Kenya; don't impose your own standard of what a town is. It won't matter, after all.

Eventually, and with a 2-1/2 hour African massage just before the end, you'll get to the gate. If you can get by the Masai women selling just about everything while your driver or guide or you get your park tickets, you'll be in a different world very soon. A tip here: as difficult as it may be for you and unless you really want to buy something, ignore the women. If you tell them you don't have room in your luggage for whatever it is they are selling, they will come back with something smaller. If you say you don't like the color or material or whatever, guaranteed there will be an alternate product available. As hard as it may be, it's probably best to not engage.

So now you are in. And you are probably in a place that most people think of when they think of Africa and particularly a safari: vast rolling fields of yellow-green grass maybe a foot or so high with the horizon (whether it be near or far) punctuated every so often by a solitary acacia tree with a twisted trunk topped by an umbrella-like canopy of leaves on thorn covered branches. And maybe a lion or elephant or something nearby, right? This is what I wanted to see the first time I visited this continent. I was just in the wrong spot and didn't know it.

Think you will see animals (other than cattle, sheep and goats) along the way to Masai Mara? You probably won't. These animals know what trouble-makers us humans are and I'm sure they really want to stay away. But once you are inside the gate, you might see something pretty immediately. About five minutes after we passed the gate we saw a pride of lions from a distance and partially shown in the photograph above. This seemed like a pretty good sign to me.

Masai Mara is classified as a National Reserve. The other two prime wildlife viewing properties we would visit in Kenya are National Parks. What's the difference? Well, National Parks have relatively few roads and some are one way, meaning if the wildlife is far away from your truck or car, there's not a whole lot you can do about it; it's going to stay far away from your car. In a National Reserve, you have a lot more flexibility; you can't exactly go just where you want, but there are generally speaking a lot more ways to get close to what you came to see.

You may have noticed every picture in this post so far has been of a cat. Mostly lions. I know the first picture doesn't seem that it's a picture of cats, but trust me, it is. If there's one thing Masai Mara is known for, it is cats. And if there's one huge advantage in finding cats in the wild, it's the ability to not have to stick to a relatively small number of roads. So Masai Mara is both stocked with cats and has rules in effect to enhance the viewing of cats. Our guide suggested we spend our time there trying to find as many as possible, particularly lions, cheetahs and leopards, because we might not have the same opportunity to view them in quite the same way elsewhere. Sounds good to us; we're in! Let's get going on our first game drive. We grabbed some lunch, rested for a couple of hours and then set off.

Cats have a way of attracting cars. Or should I say cars with gawking tourists inside with every sort of camera known to man. The same kind of cars as our small group occupied. Toyota Land Cruisers with three rows of passenger seats (so everyone gets a window) and a top that pops up to allow the tourists to stand and see and take pictures of the animals in the wild. On our first Masai Mara game drive, we found a cluster of cars and headed for it. We arrived at the spot shown in the cover photo of this post.

What we had found (or perhaps more accurately what someone else had found) was a group of bachelor cheetah males keeping themselves cool in the late afternoon sun on the grasslands. They were almost perfectly squashed into the shade of their acacia tree and their ability to lie almost perfectly flat on the ground in the foot-high grass rendered them almost invisible. I managed to take a picture zoomed in on one of the cheetah's heads (above). It's really pretty difficult to spot these animals. Their yellow coloration which looks so bright in the sunlight shows more grey in the shadow of a tree. I can imagine some sort of prey heading for the shade of the lone acacia only to be surprised to find five hungry cats. Although let's face it, most prey animals probably have better eyesight than me.

This was a special moment for me. We had failed to see any cat other than lions (not that I'm complaining about that!) the last time we visited Africa and seeing a cheetah on our first day in a Park or Reserve was a real thrill. I'd come to Africa on this trip with a Top 10 list of animals we missed on our first trip in 2015. Cheetahs occupied the four spot on that list so this was a significant find for me even if they were just lying around in the shade so they could barely be seen.

Before we continue, and just so you don't get the wrong impression about this cats thing, we did see other animals in Masai Mara and we did stop and look at them. It's not like we went careening around the park only interested in felines. I have plenty of photographs of elephants, zebra (first time I'd seen them in the wild), impala, topi, hyena, hippos, storks, buffalo and all sorts of other stuff. It's just that as wonderful as all that was, for the purposes of this blog post, we're focused just on the cats. We'll get to plenty of the other stuff in other parks. If there was a can't miss encounter or amazing photograph of some other species that we came across in Masai Mara, I'd write about it or just show you the pic. Trust me on this one. This same sort of disclaimer could apply to each of the other five parks, although I'm not sure I'm putting it in every post.

More lions. This time with some food.
So back to the cats...

My hope that the group of lions we saw just minutes into the park would be a good omen for us seemed like it was coming true. In addition to the pride just inside the gate (and our cheetah encounter), we would see a lot of lions over the next day and a half. Five separate groups in fact.

One of our greatest hopes about this trip was that we would see a pride of lions hunting and making a kill. That may seem kind of morbid or sick but we saw the start and middle of one in August of 2015 and had to leave right before the exciting part because the people who were in the car with us had to get to the airport. We figured twice as long in country and probably four to five times as many game drives might get us a kill.

In Masai Mara, we were out of luck, at least as far as a kill was concerned. But we did find a pride of lions with a carcass, albeit the very end of one. Finally some sort of gore!

It was difficult for us to determine what kind of animal that the lioness we watched was finishing off. It was definitely something with horns because you can see a pretty big one in the pictures below. Maybe it was a young African buffalo? I'm not sure it mattered. From the disposition of the majority of the pride (above) behind the almost skeleton when we came upon the scene, it appears most of the lions had eaten their fair share and it was down to the last female (with cub nearby) to get the last pieces of meat off the thing.

I always think lions are at their most impressive when they are doing something other than lying down, which they sometimes do up to 20 or more hours per day. The lioness we found with the ribcage and maybe some other appendages with a little carrion left that afternoon was the first time in the Reserve we had actually seen one on all four legs rather than with belly on ground. And she really tugged and pulled on that animal and got whatever last morsels of nutrition she could off the thing. These animals are powerful. It was a scene that was made less gory by the age of the remains and I dare say the late afternoon sunlight shining through the meat still clinging to the creature's ribs added some color to the pictures to almost make them beautiful. Strange thing to write about a cat eating raw meat but I believe that. I'm glad we found this.

Guarding the kill...
and getting every last bite of meat off it.
So now we've seen cheetahs and lions, and multiple groups of the latter. But if there's a cat we really hoped to see in Masai Mara, it was a leopard. I've made reference to a Top 10 list that I brought with me to Africa. Leopard was number two, topped only by my hope to see a rhino of some sort (black or white, I didn't care) roaming free somewhere.

If you have been to Africa or if you're at least a little familiar with the history of people and that continent, you may be aware of what's known as the Big Five, a group of animals made up not of the biggest five animals on the continent but instead the most difficult animals to hunt on foot. I know, the list has a terrible origin. Anyway, the last time we were in Africa, we saw three of the Big Five, namely the elephant, the lion and the African buffalo. We were determined to check the other two boxes on this trip, meaning the leopard and the black rhino.

Leopards are just difficult to spot. Unlike lions and cheetahs, they are solitary, meaning it's generally more difficult to spot one cat than it is a whole group. They are also fairly shy, preferring to roam around and hunt in the cover of darkness (when we humans are NOT driving around the parks) and hang out in the leaf covered tops of trees during the day, sometimes with what they have killed on the branch next to them (I'm not kidding). The odds of spotting leopard are, quite frankly, just low.

Leopard on the move. Really our first good look at this animal.
We got lucky. Really lucky. If the odds of finding a leopard roaming around the savannah are low, the odds of finding two in one afternoon are super low. But that's what happened.

Over the span of a little less than an hour and a half, we managed to get some incredible looks at two separate leopards. We'd find more later in the trip but no sightings equal to the quality of these first two on our first afternoon in Masai Mara. Maybe they were out early trying to find food as the sun went down or maybe they were just moving from one spot to the other, I don't know. And I really don't much care. All I know is that we saw two of these animals in a couple of hours which completely changed my impression of them.

When we visited Africa a couple of years ago, all I really wanted to see was big animals. Like the kind we don't find here at home. I mean hippos, elephants and rhinos. Huge vegetarians that are really scary just due to their size. "Might makes right" sort of stuff. And I got all that. But I also got a new appreciation of lions. Lions are so powerful. You can see it when they move. There's incredible strength in their bodies and despite being not so obviously large as hippos, elephants and rhinos, I knew I would never want to come face to face with a lion without some kind of legit protection. In my case, a car would do just fine.

If I was surprised by how impressed I was with lions in 2015, I was even more surprised by how I fell in love with leopards in 2018.

Leopard number one. Sitting.
Other than the lions' power and capacity to cause some serious harm that I got out of our earlier trip, I still don't love those animals. Respect, yes. Love, no. I mean they are kind of unkempt, especially the males with the manes which are typically less than adequately groomed. In the worst cases, they are a little shaggy and mangy. I feel somewhat but maybe a little bit less so the same way about cheetahs but without the full respect factor. Cheetahs are a little bit more put together but I'd way rather fight off a cheetah than a lion, if it ever came to something like that.

After this trip, leopards are different.

First of all, they check the strength box in much the same way that lions do. Sure, they are not quite as big but they can carry something they killed which is twice their weight up a tree and store it for future consumption away from scavengers like hyenas and vultures. That's pretty freaking impressive.

Second, there's something pretty cool about the loner, right? The solitary animal that has to fend for itself. No family to depend on or provide for. Just a cat and his teeth to survive. OK, so maybe that's a little melodramatic.

But above all, these animals are absolutely gorgeous. The unkempt factor that dooms the lion and to a lesser extent the cheetah comes nowhere near the leopard. The fur on these creatures doesn't project a mangy appearance (like the lion) or a fluffy appearance (like the cheetah). These things are sleek and put together. The patterning is completely crisp and sharp in a way that the cheetah (too much fluff) or lion (no patterning at all) just don't have. They are now one of my most favorite animals of all time. I'm extremely privileged to have seen them this way in the wild.

Leopard number two. The sunlight hitting this animal highlights its gorgeous coloration.
We got some amazing pictures of these animals which I think demonstrate why we were so impressed with them. I'll have to throw a little credit (or maybe a lot) to our guide and driver, who may have shall we say "pushed the envelope" on what is considered a road in the Reserve. Some of these pics may have been shot on grass rather than road, although really I'm sure these guys were totally within the bounds of the rules. It's really just me that seemed like we (and everyone else by the way) were maybe a foot or two off the real path. I appreciate the fact that we had such awesome guides. One thing for sure they never ever got anywhere that would interfere with the animals, which is what's really important after all.

In what may seem like an anticlimax (considering I still have five Parks to blog about), I'll offer the opinion that Masai Mara was the best Park or Reserve of the six we visited in our two weeks in Africa. That's not to say that the rest were disappointing because they absolutely were not. But no place got us the quality of wildlife viewing in quite the same way as Masai Mara. What I'll take away from this place is the diversity of wildlife and the amazing looks we got at the predators, but particularly the leopards.

On our way to our next destination, our guide, Joe, told us we would be making our way through the park but anything we saw was on our own, which to me meant that we'd have to take it all in and snap pictures while we drove, rather than having the car stop to allow prolonged looks at wildlife.

Leopard number one. Showing some teeth.
It seems Masai Mara didn't want to let us go. Rather than stopping zero times as Joe had suggested, we stopped five times. For giraffe, two bull elephants, a herd of buffalo crossing the road, a pair of bachelor male lions and the same group of cheetahs we saw on our first afternoon in the park, although this time in the sun and looking yellow rather than grey.

What a great start to our trip. Masai Mara burned itself into my conscience in a way that few places have. It certainly matches our few days at Chobe National Park in Botswana in a way that was both extremely different and more and less intimate at the same time. We left southwest Kenya knowing that if we didn't see anything else the rest of our time in that country, we would have had an unforgettable two days in that country already. Fortunately for us, we'd see more and it would add to our African experience in a way that Masai Mara did not. On to Lake Nakuru.

I'll end this post with a picture of the cheetah we saw on the way out of the Reserve and a trio of lion cubs. Just because.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


It's been about two and a half years since I've set foot in Africa. I think about it every month. Some months I think about it every week. And some weeks I think about it every day. There is no place I've been in the last four plus years I've been writing this blog that calls to me the way Africa does. Heck, there's really no place I've traveled ever that makes me long to go back the way I need to go back to Africa. Every time I get an email from South African Airways or see a post on Twitter about the Dark Continent, I want to be there.

Now, I'm not talking about the whole continent here. I'm talking about sub-Saharan Africa. I'm talking about the bush, the savanna, the rivers and the open sky. I'm talking about wide open spaces with no sign of anything man-made and pitch black nights where you can hear otherworldly noises and see the Southern Cross in the sky. I'm talking about places where there are fewer men than animals by the hundreds of thousands or millions. And I don't mean squirrels or chipmunks or tiny animals. I mean massive mammals that are free and wild and dangerous and a little scary sometimes or maybe all of the time. I miss all of that.

I miss watching elephants eat and interact like families. I miss searching for crocodiles on the banks of rivers. I want to finish watching lions hunt their prey. I miss hippos. I don't necessarily want to be on a river with a pod of hippos in a small boat but I do miss hippos. I want to see more than I've seen. I want rhinos and zebras and wildebeest by the tens of thousands and cheetahs and ostriches and flamingos as far as the eye can see and to lay eyes on an elusive leopard. This is what I have wanted for the last 30 months. The pull is absolutely irresistible. It sounds melodramatic but it's true and it's difficult to actually convey what that place did to me without seeming dramatic.

In August of 2015, we took a trip to southern Africa: a six night, four country journey to Victoria Falls and a bit west where Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia come together at a point. We didn't know what to expect. We expected to see huge open grasslands and watering holes with acacia trees silhouetted against the horizon every so often like you see in The Lion King and nature shows. We expected to be soaked by the Smoke That Thunders in Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe. We hoped to see a few animals and when we did we assumed they would be just all sort of hanging around looking at each other waiting for some kind of predator/prey circle of life action. We didn't get any of that exactly and we got so much more.

Next month, we are heading back. Not quite to the area around Victoria Falls this time. A little further north and east. To Kenya and Tanzania. If there's a stereotypical African safari environment, this is it. Kilimanjaro. Masai Mara. Lake Nakuru. Amboseli. Lake Manyara. Serengeti. Nogorongoro. Six days wasn't enough last time. I'm hoping 13 days will be enough this time. No pre-trip blog posts about wanting to be a zookeeper. I never want to set foot in a zoo again really. Not after last time. Africa is where I want to be. I'll have more stories to tell soon. I hope this keeps me going for another few years.