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Maramboi - Ngorongoro

How can we possibly top that?


View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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Breakfast at Maramboi is interrupted this morning by a family of warthogs coming through...

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... a couple of birds visiting the dining area...

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...and the sunrise.

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This morning we get to pick the contents of our own lunch boxes – another thing we like about Maramboi.

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There is quite a selection to choose from – something for everyone.

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Including for Chris, who struggles with the weight of his over-full box!

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Why have a healthy lunch when you can have cake?

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We are off to pastures new this morning – another park, another lodge, another eventful day filled with exciting animal encounters.

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In order to try and contain the elephants within Tarangire National Park, bee hives have been hung from the trees along the park boundaries – it has been found that those big, brave, huge animals are afraid of a tiny little bee! And I thought it was just mice that freaked elephants out, and then only in cartoons. Apparently not.

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The old traditional style

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And the more modern type

Minjungu

At Minjungu Village, Maasai women are busy setting up the weekly market.

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Today we are heading for Ngorongoro.

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We may not be in one of the national parks right now, but that doesn’t stop us seeing a plethora of wild animals along the way.

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Ostrich, Zebra and Wildebeest

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Thomson's Gazelles

Chris spots some animals in the distance and excitedly exclaims: “zebra!” They turn out to be donkeys, but shall be forever known as ‘Chris’ Zebra’.

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Maybe Chris has discovered a new species? A zonkey known as Debra?

Donkeys have extremely strong bones and in an impact with a car they can easily get up and walk away even if the car is a total wreck.

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Albino donkey?

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Nice ass!

Maasai Manyatta (village)

In the far distance we can see a huge Maasai Manyatta (terrible photo, sorry), belonging to the local village chief and his 27 wives! With over 100 children between them, he has even built his own school; which, with the help of the government, has since expanded to allow other local children to attend. One of the richest men in the area, he built his empire to become the biggest supplier of milk in the region . (And he's been milking it ever since)

So it is true what they say about the milkman then!

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I can’t remember seeing so many tuk tuks on our previous visits. These three wheeled auto rickshaw taxis are known as bajaji here in Tanzania. They are cheap and readily available, but probably not a good idea for a safari.

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Mto Wa Mbu

The small town of Mto Wa Mbu is just beginning to come to life as we pass through this morning on our way to the highlands.

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The town owes its fast increasing population to Medicine Men in Loliondo near Lake Natron, some 250 kilometres away. Offering to cure all incurable diseases, the witch doctors are extremely popular with believers who overnight here in Mto Wa Mbu before being taken to meet the doctors. The medicine dispensed is very reasonably priced at 500 shillings (ca. 22cents in US$) – the transport required to take you there, however, will set you back US$100. Sounds like a dreadful, but apparently successful, scam to me!

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Hanging out of the window with my camera in hand, I practise my usual drive-by-shooting.

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Meaning Mosquito River, Mto Wa Mbu is one of the few places around where you can find all Tanzania’s 120 ethnic tribes represented; mainly because of the lure of the tourist dollar and also the aforementioned racket involving greedy quacks.

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Mto Wa Mbu is where you find the entrance to Lake Manyara National Park, so there are plenty of tourist stalls around. Also, all road traffic to Ngorongoro and Serengeti come through here.

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Malisa stops the car and buys some little red bananas for us to try. They are sweeter than the normal yellow type, and Malisa explains how they will only grow successfully in volcanic soil – plant them anywhere else and the fruit turns green rather than red.

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This area is a major breeding site for storks (Marabou, Yellow Billed and African Open Billed) as well as Pelicans.

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Yellow Billed and Maribou Storks

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Yellow Billed Storks

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Yellow Billed Stork and Pink Backed Pelican

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Pink Backed Pelican

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Yellow Billed Stork

It also seems to be a favourite place for Olive Baboons to hang out – maybe they are after berries dropped by the birds, or it could be that tourists stopping to photograph the birds feed the baboons too…

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As we start to climb onto the Ngorongoro Highlands, we can feel the temperature dropping. We are doing some serious climbing today – thankfully by car – from an altitude of 4,150 feet above sea level at Maramboi, to around 7,200 on the crater rim. That’s a difference of a whopping 3,000 feet!

Putting it into perspective, the peak of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in UK, sits at 4,416 feet.

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We stop part way up to look at the view over Lake Manyara, from the shores of which we watched the sun rise this morning.

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As with all places where tourists routinely stop, a number of salesmen hang around. We negotiate a good deal on some fun little necklaces with carved animals, and we all wear one, including David and Chris.

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While sandals made from old tyres are quite a common sight all over sub-Saharan Africa, Malisa has a very much more upmarket version!

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Especially commissioned and made from brand new motorcycle tyres, they are totally unique and even have a cool antenna at the front! I love them, I can’t imagine, however, going in to a Clark’s shop in Bristol and asking for a “size 180/55ZR-17 with a six inch pole and four beds please”.

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That's the best grip I have ever seen on any sandal!

As we climb higher, large fields of sunflowers brighten up the scenery.

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So far on this trip we have been extremely lucky with the weather – especially as we are here in the Green Season – but those clouds looming over the hills do not look very promising.

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Karatu

There’s a different look and feel to this town up here in the highlands than the atmosphere of Mto Wa Mbu in the lowlands.

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And they have motorcycle taxis – known as pikipiki – instead of tuk tuks.

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Loduare Gate

As the portal to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as well as the Serengeti further along, each year more than 1.5 million people pass through this gate!

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It is not just safari tourists who enter – goods and passengers come this way too as this is the main B144 highway travelling north-west from Arusha.

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While Malisa completes the registration and pays the fee, we have time to inspect the small information centre with a cool 3D map depicting the dramatic ecology, ethnography and topography of the region.

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There is also an even smaller shop.

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At least the toilets here have improved drastically since our first visit in 2007, although that wouldn’t take much!

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Malisa has our permit and we are ready to move on to the next part of our adventure.

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Immediately after passing through the gate, the road goes from being a super highway (OK, that may be a slight exaggeration... but at least it is sealed and relatively smooth) to a simple dirt track. This is one of the things I like about Tanzania compared with places such as South Africa – you do feel that you are visiting a real African wilderness rather than a commercial safari park.

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Over a distance of around six kilometres, we negotiate a number of switchbacks as we climb ever upwards. Here the vegetation is more like a tropical rainforest, and I am very surprised – disappointed even – that the usual heavy mist is absent from the densely forested slope of the outer crater wall today.

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In the photo above, you can see the road we just came up at the back on the left

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We even get some quick glimpses of the ‘lowlands’ below us.

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Just as the road levels out, the mist finally appears.

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Then the dense vegetation surrounding the road abruptly opens up into a clearing and we are greeted by the most breathtaking panoramic view from the crater rim, a vista beyond all imagination.

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Chris’ reaction as he looks out from the viewpoint brings me to tears.

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Throughout our trip so far, we have all being uttering exclamations of delight with “wow” being one of our favourite expressions.
Chris on the other hand, has been more level headed. “I am not a ‘wow’ kind of person” he has been saying, “I was prepared to be amazed, and I have been”. For him, therefore, to be calling out “wow” at this point is really stupendous.

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I know how he feels, however. That first glimpse of the crater floor spread out below never fails to excite me as I gaze in awe at the small dark specks, trying to make out individual animals below through binoculars.

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This is our first visit in the Green Season, and I am almost overwhelmed by how verdant the crater floor looks. It looks totally different to the dry season, like a completely different park! I love it!

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As we continue on our way around the rim in a clockwise direction, the mist descends on us.

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The Tomb of Michael Grzimek

HE GAVE ALL HE POSSESSED
INCLUDING HIS LIFE
FOR THE WILD ANIMALS OF AFRICA

The German film maker and passionate conservationist Michael Grzimek is best known for the film 'Serengeti Shall not Die', and his tireless work (and infinite generosity) on the survey of the annual migration in East Africa which resulted in the mapping and extending of the Serengeti National Park.

After his plane crashed following a collision with a vulture in 1957, he was buried here at the rim of Ngorongoro Crater. Later this memorial was erected in his honour.

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I am totally blown away by the colours of the Ngorongoro Highlands in the Green Season. I didn’t notice the difference to the same extent down in Tarangire and surroundings, but up here the scenery is nothing short of breathtaking, with entire hillsides of the Malanja Depression covered in yellow flowers.

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Zebra and Wildebeest

In fact the surroundings look so different this time of year I am beginning to think that I have never been here before. David agrees. Malisa assures us that we must have come this way last time (and the time before), as there is a one-way system in and out the crater, and the only descent route is further down this road. That makes sense, so I guess the greenery makes all the difference.

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Maasai herders taking their livestock to softer grass

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Red Duiker

Despite its best efforts to hide in the tall grass, Malisa spots a Red Duiker – a small, shy antelope. Malisa never ceases to amaze me how he can pick these smallest of animals out while still concentrating on driving. And an excellent driver he is too!

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Patience rewards us with a better view as the antelope forgets we are there and starts to move around, feeding.

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I am particularly excited about being able to photograph this guy, as I have only even seen one very briefly once before, and that one was far too quick for me to be able to capture him on film.

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He eventually decides he’s had enough and makes a run for it.

Unlike Tarangire – and the more famous Serengeti – Ngorongoro is a conservation area rather than a national park. What this means in reality (amongst other things) is that the Maasai are permitted to live and herd their cattle within the area.

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Seneto Boma, a temporary Maasai settlement

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Maasai cattle co-exist happily with wild zebra

The further we drive along the road which skims the rim of the crater, the more convinced David and I are that we have not come this way before. And the more insistent Malisa is that we MUST have done, as there is no other route. Because my memory is usually extremely good (as the tree in Tarangire proved), it bothers me. Greatly.

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It plays on my mind and I keep trying to recall our journey from 20 months ago. I fail miserably, vowing to check blog from that trip when we get to the hotel – and Internet access – tonight to see if that helps to throw any light on this.

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When we reach Seneto Entrance, I have to concede that I have a vague recollection of having been here before, but it seems a lot longer ago than two years. I am beginning to get seriously worried about my mental recall here.

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The entrance area is full of flowers and plants.

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And birds.

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African Pied Wagtail

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Northern Anteater Chat

The Maasai are allowed to herd their cattle inside the crater, but they have to be out by nightfall. They don’t use the same access roads as tourists – here you can see their path leading in and out.

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And this is our road.

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Seneto Descent Road offers a different view over the crater – I love the way whole areas are shrouded in purple flowers!

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The scene is quite surreal, like an impressionist painting.

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By the time we get to the bottom of the road, I am still feeling perplexed as I look – unsuccessfully – for any familiar signs within the surroundings. Nothing. Total blank.

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Never mind, I will just enjoy the crater floor and check on my photos / blog tonight.

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Descending the 2000 feet high walls of this natural amphitheatre is like entering another world. We drove through a rainforest earlier, now we appear to be in the desert. It may only be just over ten miles across, but the flat-bottomed floor of the sunken caldera contains a wide range of eco-systems featuring the whole world of East African safari in miniature.

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Augur Buzzard

Warthogs

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Wildebeest

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Rufous Lark

I really can’t remember seeing Maasai cattle mingle with wild animals on our previous visits to the crater. I drive everyone else mad with my constant doubts: “are you sure there is no other way down?”

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Zebra with Maasai cattle in the background

Zebra

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“Is he dead?” We worry about a lifeless zebra on the grounds with two of his mates looking on.

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You'll be pleased to know he is only taking it easy in the heat of the day.

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Baby zebra are a delightful chocolate brown when they are young, gradually turning to black as they grow up.

Thomson’s Gazelle

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Thomson's Gazelle is the second fastest land animal in Tanzania after the cheetah; which is why you only tend to find them on the menu for the cheetahs: they are too fast for any of the other predators.

Grey Crowned Crane

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Grant’s Gazelle

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These are the first ungulates we’ve seen in any numbers, as they are not present in Tarangire at this time of year. During the dry season large herds of zebra, wildebeest and gazelles can been seen in all three parks, so this is a new experience for us.

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Fischer's Sparrow Lark

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There’s nothing like a dust bath on a dry and dusty day…

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Wildebeest with Wattled Starling on its back

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Female ostriches

Ngorongoro Serena
From the crater floor we can see the hotel we are staying in tonight, the Ngorongoro Serena, perched high on the rim overlooking the caldera.

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A couple of spotted hyenas (with dirty bottoms) stroll by and appear to upset a lone elephant who disappears back into the woods with a loud trump.

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Ngorongoro has much to boast about: it is a UNESCO Heritage Site; the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera, it has the densest population of large carnivores and herbivores anywhere in the world (as in density, not lack of intelligence!), and it is arguably the most impressive geological feature in Africa – no wonder it is commonly referred to as the 8th wonder of the world. The crater delivers some of the best game viewing Africa has to offer, the Africa of wildlife documentaries.

An African White Backed Vulture flies overhead – I love watching the daily life in the Ngorongoro Crater.

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When Malisa claims that the hyena is his favourite animal, I am not sure whether he is joking or not as I personally find the hyena quite sinister looking without any real redeeming features.

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A very unhappy wildebeest alerts us to the presence of a male lion, mostly hidden in the grass.

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Not that the lion appears to take any interest in the wildebeest, but I guess if you are considered a menu item you can’t be too careful.

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Lerai Forest
Its name being Maasai for the tall, yellow barked acacia trees that grow here, Lerai was once a thick forest, but over the years elephant destruction has reduced this area to a mere woodland glade.

And, as if on cue, here are the elephants.

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The big male is in musth and ready to mate. Apparently they pee down their own leg at this time – I will be eternally grateful humans don’t do the same!

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This guy lost one of his tusks when trying to bring down a tree. I would say “serves him right”, but I guess it is what elephants do. When asked if park rangers ever replace the trees decimated by elephants, Malisa replies: “No. They just let nature take its course”

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In order to exit Lerai Forest, we have to ford the Lairatati River. It looks like they’ve had some serious rain here!

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Nubian Woodpecker

Driving through the forest triggers a thought process in my brain, and I suddenly remember that last time we came, we descended into the crater through a host of flat-topped acacia trees. I mention this to Malisa, and he somewhat sheepishly admits: "yes, there is another road into the crater, right over the other side, and there were a few months in 2014 when Seneto descent Road was closed for resurfacing"

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Eureka! I am not cracking up! We really didn't come down the same way last time. I breathe a huge sigh of relief.

It also follows that we used that other road the previous time too, as we were staying in the lodge you can see just to the right of the red arrow.

The mystery is solved and I can sleep soundly tonight!

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We have company for our picnic.

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Hildebrand Starling

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Rufous Tailed Weaver

Ngorongoro Crater has to be one of the most iconic safari locations in Africa, and this incredible caldera is a haven for around 20,000 of Africa’s most cherished animals, virtually the whole range of East African wildlife including all three big cats but no giraffe (the trails along the crater walls are too steep for them to negotiate). We continue our journey in a quest to watch the dramatic unfolding of wilderness action. Malisa is on a mission to find a Rasta Lion.

Black Faced Vervet Monkeys

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A barrel of monkeys (I have been checking out the various collective names of animals) hang around in the trees. This particular youngster is enjoying an afternoon nap.

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Blacksmith Plover

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I’ve never seen one sit like this before.

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Rufous Lark

Wattled Starling

A deafening cacophony emanating from a tree draws our attention to a great number of wattled starlings.

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Dozens of tiny hungry mouths beg to be fed. Every time one of the parent birds arrives in the tree, all the babies clamour for attention, not just the offspring of that particular adult. What a racket! No wonder the collective word for a group of starlings is chattering!

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And when mum – and the food – flies past to feed their offspring, the other babies sulk.

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Until the next mother arrives with food for another baby in a different nest.

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It’s all too much for one little baby, who promptly falls asleep.

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He wakes up just as mum arrives…. to feed his brother!

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Once again he is left hungry as mum goes off in search of more grubs.

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This one’s not for him either.

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Much as we’d like to stay on to make sure ‘our’ little baby gets fed, we have places to go and animals to see.

Sacred Ibis at Gorigor Swamp

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While we’re busy looking at the ibises, Malisa spots a mother and baby rhino way out there on the horizon. The rest of us struggle to locate them, even with binoculars. Eventually, after a lot of directions, we do pick them out through the heat and dust haze that always hangs heavily in Ngorongoro Crater.

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More wildebeest.

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Including this suckling baby.

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Zebra - or horse in pyjamas as Lyn calls them. Or maybe we should call them 'Chris' Donkeys'?

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Always on the lookout for predators, the zebra can smell danger.

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The threat appears in the form of a spotted hyena.

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Two more rhinos – another mother and baby – can be seen on the horizon. This time they are considerably nearer and we can make them out to be a little more than just two blurry blobs.

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Seeing a couple of lions walking on the road in the distance, we rush off to join up with them.

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This one appears to have a broken tail. I wonder how that happened? I'd like to imagine some heroic escape from the clutches of a predator - but as lions have no predators in the crater, perhaps an elephant stood on it?

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These are two youngish brothers, and not the Rasta Lion Malisa was hoping to see.

Malisa gets word from a passing vehicle - one of the very few we have seen - that there is a lioness nursing her two babies further ahead, so we speed off to see for ourselves.

As we approach, they get up and start walking towards the road.

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They come right up to the side of the road, just a few feet away from us, and settle down in the part shade of a small bridge. To our absolute delight, the babies start to suckle!

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If ever there was such a thing as cuteness overload, this surely is it!

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Having had their quota of mother’s milk, the babies are full of life and mischief. If I thought the feeding cubs were adorable, when they start to play, it is almost too much to bear and I feel sure my heart is going to burst!

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Mum, however, is exhausted and all she wants to do is sleep.

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After spending a few tender moments with her little ones, mum is not amused when the cubs start jumping on her and pulling her tail.

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Eventually she loses her temper and lets out a frustrated snarl at her cubs: “will you guys leave me alone. Please!”

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As so many other mothers all over the world have done before her, she gets up and walks away is sheer exasperation to try and find a place where she can have a few minutes of peace and quiet.

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Time to smell the flowers

Much to the cub’s displeasure: “Where are you going mum?” “Mum??”

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She crosses the road to lie down in the shade, leaving her offspring behind, hoping that a bit of rough-and-tumble will have them worn out by bedtime.

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One of the cubs appears to have lost interested in playing.

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At a mere three weeks old, these cubs are incredibly inquisitive and heart-stirringly adorable.

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When I look into those deep eyes, I feel like I am very much part of a wildlife documentary, not just merely on holiday! I have to pinch myself that this really is happening. I feel exceptionally privileged to be here, witnessing this.

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We spend fifty minutes with the lioness and her delightful cubs, during which time we see one other vehicle. They stop for just a few minutes, take some photos and move on. I don’t understand that mentality at all – observing the interactions between the family members is what differentiates this wilderness experience from a zoo, surely?

This year's experience is also in stark contrast to our last lion cub encounter in the Ngorongoro Crater, in September 2014 during the dry season, when we struggled to get anywhere near the cats!

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Ngorongoro 2014

As we bid our cats goodbye and head towards the exit, I rib Malisa: "These cubs are very cute and all that, but you promised me a Rasta Lion! Where is he? It’s just as well Malisa understands my twisted sense of humour.

We see our two young brothers again (the one with the broken tail), walking across the marsh, but no Rasta Lion. I think Malisa is making this up.

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Further along, a couple more lions rest in the grass right by the side of the road (that’s the shadow of our car you can see in the photos). Did Lyn say before we left home that she was worried about not seeing any lions on the safari? How many is that so far? Twelve? And it’s only Day Two of the actual safari.

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Golden Jackal

Finally, there he is – Malisa’s Rasta Lion, an eight years old king and a very powerful one.

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Really? He looks more like a big pussycat to me.

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Now, there’s a reason why I spent this afternoon teasing Malisa about his ‘Rasta Lion’ – we brought over a T shirt as a gift for him from Bristol Zoo, which coincidentally features… yes, you guessed it: a Rasta Lion! Although we had planned it as a parting gift, now seems to be the right moment.

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We make it to the exit with seven minutes to spare until closing time – being late carries a $200 fine!

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As he does every evening, Malisa asks us about today’s highlight. As if there is any doubt!?! Malisa, of course, claims seeing the hyena was his favourite moment. Really?

Ngorongoro Serena Hotel

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As usual, we arrive at our accommodation for the night after dark. So do a lot of other people, so check in is not as quick and smooth as we are used to.

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Our room seems to be down an awful lot of steps, and after a very quick shower, it’s time to climb back up them for a drink in the bar while we watch the Maasai dancing.

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For such a big hotel (also part of a bigger chain), I find this evening’s set-up quite amateurish – there is no stage as such, just a small area of the bar, which has been cleared of furniture. A good view of the dancers is limited to those people in the front row only. The outfits are colourful, and the dancers fairly enthusiastic, but I find the whole scenario too commercialised and touristy for my liking. The main dance moves are rocking of the necklaces for the women and traditional jumping for the men. At least half of the performance is dedicated to ‘audience participation’. No thanks.

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The hotel redeems itself over dinner. The restaurant is super, the staff friendly, the menu table d'hôte and the food tasty.

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Nguru Wa Kupaka - king fish in exotic Swahili sauce

What a day! What can I say, apart from “How can we possibly top that?”

Thanks, yet again to Calabash Adventures – not forgetting our wonderful guide Malisa - for what is turning out to be a holiday of a lifetime!

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:26 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds monkeys food road_trip travel vacation elephants adventure roads sunrise cute holiday africa safari tanzania zebra birding tourists photography souvenirs lions maasai donkey baboons flip_flops babies roadtrip lion_cubs ngorongoro woodpecker memory cattle glamping caldera boma wildebeest ngorongoro_crater bird_watching suckling karatu game_drive road-trip african_food adorable safari_vehicle manyatta calabash calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators best_safari_company out_of_africa maramboi olive_baboons vervet_monkeys black_faced_vervet_monkeys cuteness_overload maasai_cattle seneto seneto_descent_road malanja mto_wa_mbu Comments (1)

Tarangire National Park

Elephants, elephants and more elephants. Oh, and did I mention cute baby elephants?


View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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I am awake before the alarm goes off this morning, being abruptly dragged out of my slumber by the not-so-distant roar of a lion.

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It’s another early start today, leaving the lodge at 05:45 to get to Tarangire National park entrance for opening time at 06:15. Bleary eyed, we set off in the pitch black with humble expectations.

We don’t have to wait long for our first sighting. Just a couple of hundred yards from the lodge, we spot something in the car headlights.

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Two lionesses with two cubs!

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It is so dark out there we can only make them out with a torch or the car headlights, so I am surprised that the camera has picked anything up at all. (For those of you with an interest in the technical aspects, these photos were taken with a Canon EOS 6D with a 24-105mm f/4 at ISO 25,600 at 1/50 sec. Some of them have been cropped in the post processing stage, but no editing beyond the RAW conversion.)

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Now it makes perfect sense why we are not permitted to walk around the lodge grounds after dark without an escort!

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Mum is on the look-out for food, while the cubs just want to play.

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Before we left England, Lyn was concerned “what if we don’t see any lions?”, and here we are, before 06:00 on our first day of safari, before we have even left the grounds of the lodge, let alone reached the national park; and we have four lions within feet of the car! Talk about beginners’ luck!

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By 06:15 we are still here, and the sun starts to rise. We never did make it to the gate for opening time.

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While it is still quite dark, at least it does mean we can actually see the lions now without resorting to shining a bright light on them.

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It also means that I can bring the ISO down to a more manageable 6400-8000.

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We stay with the lions until they move out of sight in their quest for breakfast.

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This bachelor impala has been kicked out of his herd and will stay on his own for a while before creating his own harem and herd. He seems to have a growth on the side of his neck.

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Impala bachelor herd

Progress is slow for us this morning as we encounter animals after animals within the lodge grounds.

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Giraffe family consisting of eight members, young and old.

Including some very cute babies, thought to be around three months old.

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As far as male giraffes go, females believe that the darker markings the better, as these are thought to be the stronger animals. Definitely a case of wanting their mates to be tall, dark and handsome!

Having read that the giraffes in Tarangire are darker than usual with deeper marking, I am keen to inspect the difference for myself. As the national animal of Tanzania, the killing of giraffes is illegal. Unfortunately, bush meat poaching is still big business in the rural areas, and illegal market hunting for meat is well known to be rampant around Tarangire.

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We reluctantly tear ourselves away from the giraffes and move on to the next animal sighting – Olive Baboons.

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There is a lot of squealing going on as a mother punishes her babies and they run to hide under our car.

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There is playing, mating, grooming and fighting going on, with the old males just sitting around doing nothing – much like our local pub on a Friday night.

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There’s another animal that seems to have a growth on its side.

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Two males chase one ready-to-mate female. After a loud fight, the winner takes it all.

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A warthog looks on with amusement.

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Lilac Breasted Roller – apparently they got their name from the way they roll when they mate. I had no idea…

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Blue Cheeked Cordon Bleu

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Yellow Crowned Canary

Marula

This is the marula tree – the fruit that makes the delicious liqueur Amarula. Apparently the elephants have been known to eat the fruit and then get drunk – the thought of meeting a drunk elephant in a dark alley is a frightening one…

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Baobab Tree

It is unusual to see a young baobab tree such as this one – believed to be about sixty years old – as the elephants destroy them. A Baby Baobab tree looks very different from its adult form and this is why some Bushmen believe that it doesn't grow in the same way as other trees. They think it suddenly crashes to the ground with a thump, fully grown, and then one day simply disappears.

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We have finally left the grounds of the lodge and are now heading towards Tarangire National Park – just about two hours later than planned.

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We are still not actually inside the park yet, and we make a few more stops before we are. That’s the beauty of a safari – you never know what nature is going to offer you.

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Red Bishop

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Rufous Tailed Weaver

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Fischer's Lovebird

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Ashy Starling

Tarangire National Park

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Our arrival at the Tarangire National Park Entrance Gate could not be any more different to the last time we were here – this time we are the only car waiting; last time the car park was full!

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September 2014

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May 2016

Last time it took 3/4 hour for Dickson, our guide, to get our permits. This time Malisa has the necessary paperwork in no time at all!

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The queues for the permits in 2014

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The queue in 2016

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Permit in hand – we’re ready to roll!

Tse Tse Flies

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One of the main problems with travelling to Tanzania in the Green Season is the prevalence of tse tse flies. These pesky insects are very attracted to the colours black and navy, so large flags have been hung from trees throughout the parks to encourage the insects to land on them. The material has been impregnated with poison, so that any unsuspecting flies which come into contact with them become sterile.

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There have apparently been a few cases reported recently about tourists having contracted sleeping sickness after being bitten by the tse tse fly in Tarangire, although Malisa and the other guides get bitten all the time and they haven't contracted the illness. It's probably a case of the media making a mountain out of a mole hill. It is certainly one animal that I really would rather NOT see while we are here, but unfortunately they are present in all the parks we are visiting, and are said to be particularly bothersome in Tarangire during the wet season.

These pesky flies have a painful bite, and when I was bitten on our last visit to Tanzania, the bite became quite red and swollen, but the fly thankfully did not carry the sleeping sickness disease. This time.

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Von der Decken's Hornbill

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Red Necked Francolin

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White Crowned Fiscal Shrike

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Common Waterbuck. They excrete a bad taste which predators find unpleasant, so are not generally found on the menu of the local lions and leopards.

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Yellow Necked Spurfowl

Dwarf Mongoose

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Black Faced Sandgrouse

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Senegal Coucal

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Crowned Lapwing

A large troupe of banded mongooses stare at us in disbelief before scampering; stopping occasionally to check if we are following them.

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Superb Starling. Chris soon gets the hang of differentiating between Superb and Hildebrand Starling – it’s all in the white band on its chest and the colour of the eyes!

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Magpie Shrike

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Crowned Lapwing

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Giraffe with passengers

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Yellow Billed Oxpecker

African Green Pigeon

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The long grass almost completely hides a pair of Southern Ground Hornbill, and they are pretty large birds!

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Elephants

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Tarangire National park is best known for its concentration of elephants – the densest anywhere in Africa – so I am therefore rather surprised that we don’t see any for quite a while after entering the park. In fact, some two hours pass before we come across the first herd – or memory as they are called – of eleven elephants, which includes this cute one-week old baby.

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We have a delightful close encounter for Lyn and Chris’ first wild elephants, as the family group saunters past our car.

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Helmeted Guineafowl

Mr and Mrs Ostrich

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Rattling Cisticola

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Little Bee Eaters - one of my favourite birds!

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Two Banded Courser

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Dwarf Mongoose

Malisa spots some fresh lion footprints on the main track. They are heading towards the same picnic site as we are.

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Matete Picnic Site

With great views over the valley below, Tarangire River, elephants and with a tree hyrax in the railings, Matete Picnic Site is not a bad place to stop for breakfast.

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Elephants in Tarangire River

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Tree Hyrax

The facilities here have improved immensely since our last visit, with clean and modern attended toilets. A few other vans stop here too while we have our breakfast, including a group of American college student we saw on the flight from Nairobi. I am quite chuffed when – after a quick exchange of pleasantries with their driver in this native tongue – he asks: “where did you learn Swahili?”

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Lilac Breasted Roller

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Pygmy Falcon - the fastest bird in the park!

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Grant's Gazelle

Sausage Tree

– Kigela Africana
Named after its large sausage-shaped fruit (that is in fact a wood berry, not a fruit), which can grow up to a metre long! It's a useful tree in that monkeys eat the seeds and elephants chew on it for water. Humans make brushes from the dried fruit and even brew beer from it. Sausage Tree Beer – it has a certain ring to it, don't you think? It's all the rage these days to drink randomly-named designer beers from micro-breweries. Like so many African plants, it is thought to have a range of medicinal benefits, including curing syphilis. I shall have to remember that. The fresh fruit, however, is poisonous. The other danger from the tree is fallen fruit – being so big, they can cause some serious damage to anyone (or anything) underneath at the time!

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More Elephants

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This 40-year old male is in musth – as can be seen by the 'tear' secreted from his temporal gland. Musth is an annual cycle when the male is primed to mate, and is indicated by a heightened sense of aggression. Elephants in musth are known to attack and fight other males, and even destroy inanimate objects that get in their way. Such as safari vehicles.

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In order to get some relief from the heat, elephants wave their ears about; they are able to cool down an impressive 12 litres of blood at a time this way.

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The grass here is so long at this time of year that the baby elephants are almost hidden in the meadow. The play around like babies of every species do, wrapping their trunks around each other, and mock sparring.

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Infrasound
Elephants use this low frequency sound to communicate over great distances – vibrations are passed through the ground by their lowered trunks and can be picked up from up to 5 kilometres away by another elephant through the feet. Absolutely amazing stuff!

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The elephants are unbelievably close now, as they go about their daily business, wandering right by our vehicle; occasionally looking up to gawk at the humans in a tin can.

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In the photo below you can see just how close these elephants are to the car – that is the ledge of the car you can see in the bottom left! They are literally just feet away!

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The adults are extremely protective of their youngest, most vulnerable family members, doing their best to hide them from prying eyes by placing them in the middle of the herd; but occasionally we get a brief glimpse of one of the babies through the foliage from between mum's legs.

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Isn't he just simply adorable? I love the way he looks so young and innocent while his skin looks so wrinkly and weathered!

This is, without question, one of those unforgettable, magical moments.

Elephants eat around 300kg of vegetation a day; but only 60% of that is digested – the rest goes straight through. They spend a large part of the day eating, some 80% apparently! I know some people like that too.

It also means their droppings are still full of nutrients. The elephant's that is, not my acquaintances'.

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We reluctantly bid the elephants goodbye and carry on to see what else nature has to offer us today.

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Hammerkop

Much excitement ensues when we spot a Savannah Monitor on the banks of the river. A very rare beast indeed, this is a first for us. Good job Malisa!

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There is in fact not just one monitor, there are three of them!

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A Southern Ground Hornbill preens itself in a tree. As the name suggests, this is an unusual bird to find on a tree branch.

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So much greenery this time of year!

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Fischer's Lovebirds

Black Faced Vervet Monkeys

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It's at this point that I have to admit that it took me 29 years of safaris in Africa (last year to be precise) before I actually noticed that vervet monkeys have blue testicles. And I don't mean just slightly bluey-grey; these balls are as bright as they can be!

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Baobab Trees – the Tree of Life

Regarded as the largest succulent plant in the world, the iconic baobab tree grows across 32 countries in Africa where it is often known as the ‘Tree of Life’. Found at the heart of local folklore, the baobab tree is steeped in a wealth of mystique, legend and superstition.

To me, this curious-looking ‘upside-down’ tree is synonymous with the African bush – its uniqueness in terms of geographical distribution, shape and size makes it one of the most impressive symbols of the African Savannah.

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The story of how the baobab got his looks

An old bushman tale explains that the baobab was one of the first trees that were created. It was short and stocky, and when the slim, graceful palm tree appeared, the baobab was jealous of its elegance and insisted that he should be created taller like the palm. Then the glorious flowering flame tree came along and again the baobab was dissatisfied, crying out that he wanted a mass of beautiful red flowers! The magnificent fig tree also aroused great envy, as the baobab was desperate to have sweet, tasty fruits growing from his branches. Eventually God got so fed up with the baobab’s selfish, demanding ways, and in one swift motion uprooted him and stuck him back down again upside down, hoping to shut him up once and for all.

And that, my friends, is how the baobab got his peculiar upside-down appearance.

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Water storage
Of course, there is a very good reason for the thick trunk and spindly branches: The tree has adapted to life in seasonally arid areas. In the wet months water is stored in its thick, spongy, fire-resistant trunk in readiness for the nine dry months ahead. A large baobab can store up to 120,000 litres of water in its trunk and can withstand long periods of drought; in fact it has been known to survive for ten years with no rain. Many animals take advantage of this - they survive drought by accessing the water within the tree, including elephants who cause a lot of damage to these ancient trees in Tarangire. Baboons and warthogs also enjoy feasting on the seed pods.

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Home, sweet home
A lot of birds make baobab trees their home, such as barn owls, spinetails, hornbills and weavers, making nests in the branches or clefts. The creased trunks and hollowed interiors also provide homes to countless reptiles, insects and bats, and in some cases even large cats have been known to take refuge inside the trees.

Humans too utilise the enormous trunks (the largest circumference on record is 47m) and baobab trees have been used as jail, water tank, post office, shop, toilet ( apparently complete with a flushing system), bus stop and pubs, amongst other things.

The baobab is a prehistoric species, predating both mankind and the splitting of the continents over 200 million years ago. In Tarangire there are some pretty ancient trees, with most of the larger specimens exceeding one thousand years old. The baobabs can have a lifespan of up to 5000 years.

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This tree is believed to be some 1,800 years old and the huge vault was created when an elephant broke down a branch.

Leaves
Having only ever seen the trees naked (“oh err missus!”) - as the branches are leaf-less most of the year - I am very excited to find leaves on them today!

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Flowers
Once it reaches the age of 20 or so, the baobab produces large, sweetly scented flowers on long drooping stalks. Having never seen them flower, I was hoping that the rainy season might bring them out, but no such luck. The flowers bloom at night only and bushmen believe that the flowers are home to spirits and that anyone picking the flowers will be torn apart by lions. The flowers only last 24 hours after which they turn brown and give off an unpleasant aroma. Pollination by fruit bats also takes place at night.

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Fruit
Six months after flowing, large, egg-shaped fruits – known as monkey-breads – are produced. These have a hard outer shell and a white powdery interior, which was previously used to produce cream of tartar. Rich in ascorbic acid, drinks made from baobab fruits are used to treat fever. It doesn’t really taste of much – we tried it last time we were in Tanzania.

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The baobab fruit is said to have an amazing amount of health benefits, however, and is reputed to be one of the most nutrient-dense fruits in the world.

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A good all-round plant
Almost every part of the baobab tree is utilised; in addition to nutritious drinks, porridge is also made from the pulp, seeds are used as thickener for soups, the pollen can be used as glue, and the leaves are eaten as a vegetable. Fibres from the bark are used for string and ropes, and the roots produce dye.

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Medicinal uses
Traditionally the baobab is thought to have a wide range of medicinal benefits, and various parts of the tree are used to treat a number of ailments: kidney and bladder disease, asthma, insect bites. Maybe that is something worth trying for tse tse bites?

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Superstition and folklore
As well as the story of the origin of the ‘upside down tree’ above and the one about evil spirits in the flowers punishing anyone who picks them by being ripped apart by a lion, there are a number of traditional beliefs surrounding the baobabs. I love legends, so here are a few others I have heard over the years or found during my research:

In some part of Africa the tree is worshipped as a symbol of fertility, and shrines are built at the base of the tree, such as this one we saw in Taberma in Togo in 2006. There is some scientific truth behind this superstition, however, as eating plenty of baobab leaves has been proven to increase a woman’s fertility rate.

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In Zambia, one particularly large baobab tree is believed to be haunted by the ghost of a python, who inhabited the tree long before the arrival of the white man. Locals worshipped the python, who in turn answered their prayers for good luck on their hunting expeditions, rain for their crops, or a good harvest. When the white hunters arrived and shot the python, the consequences were disastrous. It is said that you can still hear a loud hissing noise from the tree on a still night.

Drinking the water in which baobab pips have been soaked is believed to protect you from crocodiles, whereas sucking or eating the seeds will attract crocs.

Bathing a baby boy in a bark infusion will make him strong, but if you leave him in the water for too long, he will become obese; and should the water touch his head, it could cause this to swell.

Again in Zambia, there is a tree known as ‘Kondanamwali’ – the tree that eats maidens. Legend tells that the tree fell in love with four beautiful young girls, but when they grew up and got married, the tree opened up its huge trunk during a raging thunderstorm and swallowed up the girls in a fit of jealousy. To this day you can hear the pitiful cries of the imprisoned maidens on a stormy night.

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The Big Screen
Does the tree look familiar to you? There could be a reason for that. Baobabs played an important role in Disney’s Lion King – Rafiki (the baboon) lived in one. It has also featured in Avatar (The Tree of Souls), Madagascar and The Little Prince.

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Termite mounds

The park is also famous for the termite mounds that dot the landscape. Those that have been abandoned are often seen to be home to dwarf mongoose or snakes as we saw earlier.

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Tarangire Tango
We slide and slither along the sandy tracks, from one side to the other, doing the Tarangire Tango, as we make our way along the unmade roads that criss-cross the park.

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Red Billed Hornbill (male)

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Red Billed Hornbill (female)

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Common Waterbuck

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White Headed Buffalo Weaver

We come across another cartload of vervet monkeys, including some young babies.

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This little kid looks so blissful during the mother-child bonding session (AKA picking-nits-out-of-the-little-bugger’s-fur)

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Lilac Breasted Roller - another of my favourite birds

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Ashy Starling

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Red Billed Hornbill

Another large memory of elephants grazing merrily under the trees in the far distance.

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Three Banded Plover

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Another Hammerkop – one of Malisa’s favourite birds

Lunch

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Tillya has another surprise for us today – in honour of our wedding anniversary yesterday, he has arranged for us to take lunch at the Tarangire River Lodge, which is inside the actual park; rather than having the usual lunch box.

After all our animals and bird sightings this morning, we are running a little late, so the lodge calls us up on the radio "Calabash, Calabash, are you there?", to make sure we are still coming. I guess it is getting towards the end of the lunchtime session and they want to finish serving soon.

When we enter the lodge, we are welcomed with the greeting: “At last you arrive”. It’s nice to feel welcome… All joking apart, everywhere we go on this trip, we are made to feel like we are extremely welcome and much anticipated VIPs.

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A large-ish lodge, it has great views over the plains and river below from its expansive terrace.

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Although the usual lunch boxes provided by the lodges are more than adequate, it is very nice to be able to choose hot food from a buffet and eat with proper knives and forks. And very tasty the food is too.

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Chicken enchilada, beef meatballs, spicy beans, pilau and chapati

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Pancakes with mango

We make friends with some of the local inhabitants.

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Bat

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Stick Insect

Soon we are on our way again, checking out some more of the critters in the park.

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We seem to go ages, however, without seeing anything this afternoon. It is hot, the sun is beaming down on me, I had quite a big lunch..... I find myself starting to nod off. Game viewing is nearly always best first thing in the morning and last thing at night. In the middle of the day, the birds and animals don't tend to do much. Probably because they feel just like I do now...

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We eventually come across a couple more elephants – perhaps not surprising, as that is what Tarangire is most famous for. Some 3000+ of them live in the park year round.

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It was just what I needed to drag myself out of the land of slumber.

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Crowned Plover

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Grey Headed Kingfisher

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Green Wood Hoopoe

We come to a stop as the road is ‘blocked’ by some impala.

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And an African Ground Squirrel.

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For a while there is a most peculiar staring match between them.

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After a while both parties get bored and wander off in their different directions.

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I know impala are two-a-penny in the Tanzanian parks, but I still very much enjoy seeing them, and still find them rather cute – especially the youngsters.

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Grey Breasted Francolin

We are being bitten to smithereens this afternoon by those pesky tse tse flies. Their appearance – and bite – is somewhat similar to the horse fly, equally painful when they get you. They are quite slow in their reactions, however, so we manage to swat quite a few before they know what’s hit them! Reducing the population doesn’t seem to have any effect though; I get around 15 bites in a short time. There has to be something that repels them?

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This is thankfully not life sized!

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Grey Kestrel

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Bare Faced Go Away Bird

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White Rumped Helmet Shrike

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Dik Dik – this normally shy and very skittish antelope stands completely still right by our vehicle. This is almost unheard of and we discuss possible reasons for its lack of fear These tiny animals mate for life, but there is no sign of his wife anywhere, so maybe a leopard has taken her and he has lost the will to live?

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Whatever the reason, he does not seem to care at all about our presence and goes about his daily activities regardless, even when we start the engine and drive off. Most bizarre.

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Lost the will to live?

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These little Red Necked Spurfowl chicks cause us a bit of concern as one of them appears spread-eagled and totally motionless on the track, while the others tip toe around.

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Chris is ready to get out and give the little fellah a helping hand, but thankfully no intervention is necessary – he is obviously just warming himself up in the sun and as soon as we start the engine he plods along with his brothers. We all breathe a sigh of relief.

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Egyptian Cobra - another item I can cross off my wish list this afternoon! In all the years I have been coming to Kenya and Tanzania on safari – this is the first time I have seen one.

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Further along the track we see a few of these Red and Yellow Barbets – one of which is not only considerably larger than the others; it also has no tail! Chris theorises that with no tail he is unable to exercise (fly), hence he has put on weight. Hmmm

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Looking at the pictures on my computer screen back home, I think that the smaller one is possibly a Crested Barbet rather than a Red and Yellow, or maybe a juvenile; which would account for the size difference.

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Oh, and our tail-less wonder does fly, so no need to get a personal trainer involved.

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Giraffe. There is something so prehistoric about this animal; so graceful yet so awkward looking. I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing them in the wild. It was the very first wild animal I saw on our very fist safari in Kenya in 1986, and I was captivated. I still am.

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Impala

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Fresh lion paw prints, but no lions.

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Grey Headed Kingfisher

A lone elephant kicks up dust as he walks along the track in front of us. We follow him for a while despite that we are now in a little bit of a rush – we have to be out of the park by 18:30.

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Elephants are fickle creatures, and right now this particular one has changed his mind. He turns round to walk in the opposite direction.
Malisa starts to back off, as Tarangire’s elephants are not known for their friendliness. Best to play safe, so we keep our distance.

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He really is not happy now, so Malisa speeds up (going backwards) and eventually reverses into the bushes, leaving the track free for the elephant to pass. Does the animal not know we are on a tight schedule?

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Did I mention that our elephant friend is fickle? Instead of making his way down the track past out vehicle, he eventually – after a few tense moments – wanders off into the bush again.

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Phew. We can continue on our way towards the gate as the sun gets lower on the horizon.

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Egrets flying home to roost for the night

A flock of Red and Yellow Billed Oxpeckers congregate on a giraffe. They have a symbiotic relationship – the giraffe provide the oxpeckers with a dining table while the birds remove insects from the larger animal.

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As with our last two previous visits to Tarangire, we have been 'side tracked' by the animals and are in a mad rush to get out of the gate. And this time too, I stand in the vehicle, trying to hold on for dear life with one hand and photograph the sunset with the other.

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While the sunset is not overly spectacular as sunsets go, it is still worth the effort.

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Tarangire has to be one of my all time favourite places to photograph the sunset – those awesome baobab trees make for striking foregrounds.

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A large herd (obstinacy) of buffalo hinders our progress towards the gate.

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I do find their stare rather unnerving.

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One of the photos I took while travelling at speed to reach the gate before the official closing time in 2014 has somehow become my most popular image on Flickr, with 36,000 views and over 500 ‘favourites’. This picture is in the back of my mind as I am hanging on to the rattling car for dear life and shooting wildly towards the sunset this evening.

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And there it is! My tree! The others don’t believe me when I tell them I recognise the tree from 20 months ago (Chris suggests that maybe I need to get out more), but here is the proof!

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Same tree, different sunset!

We make it to the gate at 18:35, and Malisa does not get fined when he checks out. Phew.

The lodge is busy tonight with lots of people coming down from Arusha for the weekend. We take a quick shower and sort out our luggage as we are moving on to another park and another lodge tomorrow; then go for dinner.

I love the the Maramboi Tented Camp, their grounds are like a safari park in its own right – as soon as we enter through the gate this evening, we pick out a giraffe in the headlights of the car!

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Lit almost entirely by candlelight, the open air dining area is very dark at night. Even at ISO 25,600, my camera struggles to pick up much of the surroundings here.

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Another thing I like very much about Maramboi is that, unlike most other lodges, the guides eat with the guests. During dinner Malisa asks us, one by one, what our highlight of the day has been. It is hard to choose – the lions in the lodge grounds before sunrise, or the elephants that came so close to our car? Maybe the little one peeking out from behind mum’s legs? Even the savanna monitor gets an honorary mention. It was all go good – how can we possibly top that?

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I huge thank you must go to Tillya and his team at Calabash Adventures for yet again organising a superb safari for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:35 Archived in Tanzania Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises trees animals birds monkeys sunset road_trip restaurant travel vacation views elephants adventure roads scenery folklore holiday fun africa tanzania birding photography lions giraffe baboons roadtrip monitor night_time waterbuck cobra stunning bird_watching game_drive tented_camp road-trip african_food safari_vehicle night_photography canon_eos_5d_iii testicles calabash calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators which_safari_company best_safari_company maramboi hammerkop savannah_monitor sname egyptian_cobra olive_baboons vervet_monkeys black_faced_vervet_monkeys blue_balls tarangire_river_lodge Comments (0)

Nairobi - Kilimanjaro - Arusha - Maramboi

Let the next stage of the adventure begin


View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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After a fitful sleep we drag ourselves out of bed this morning for a 05:00 pick-up for the airport and a day full of security checks ahead.

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The first check comes in the form of a road ‘block’ on the approach road to the airport where the cars are given a once-over while passengers get out and walk through an X-Ray and security screening.

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Security Check # 2 sees our tickets and passports inspected in order to gain entry into the terminal building.

Check # 3 is a conveyor-belt X-ray for all the bags, including the checked-in luggage. Panic sets in when the tray containing my camera and phone is accidentally pushed off the belt by the stuff behind it, and lands upside down on the hard tiled floor. A broken camera on the second day of the trip is the sort of thing I have nightmares about! I take a quick picture of David to check it out, and thankfully it appears to be fully working. Phew.

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Having checked in on line last night for today's flight, the bag drop is fairly painless. Check # 4 = passports.

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In order to be allowed to join the queue for Immigration, we have our passports and boarding cards checked (#5).

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At Immigration, the passports are scanned, fingerprints are taken and we are photographed. (Check # 6) We have now officially left Kenya.

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Consulting the departures board to see which gate we are going from, we are dismayed and somewhat confused to find our flight has been cancelled. Why on earth did the check-in staff not say anything when we dropped our bags off some ten minutes ago?

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We queue for the Kenya Airways Customer Service Desk, and find that the flight has not really been cancelled as such, it has just been combined with a flight to Zanzibar – which means that our flight leaves half an hour earlier than scheduled (and then travels on to Zanzibar).

Customer Services check our passports (#7), and re-issue the boarding cards. When we checked in on line last night we specifically chose left-hand side window seats behind the wing in order to be able to see Mount Kilimanjaro from the air as we come in to land in Tanzania. I ask for similar seats this time too, but am told that it is not possible as the plane is full. Bummer! Mind you, it is very dull and grey today, and quite misty, so I don’t suppose we would be able to see much anyway.

Between the main departures hall and the gate is security check # 8, with all hand luggage X-rayed and a full body scanner. All accessories must be removed, including watches, shoes, belts, glasses and such like.

Not until we reach the departure gate does Chris realise that he has left his watch behind at the scanner. He rushes back to retrieve it. “I left my watch behind” he tells the security officer, pointing to the watch, which is still exactly where he left it. “What does it look like?” the chap asks. “Well…” says Chris, rather bemused by now …”it has a blue and red strap… like that!” gesturing towards the watch. “Oh”, says the security guard, “is this yours?”

Chris arrives back just as we are called forward to go through security check # 9, showing our passports and boarding cards before getting on a bus bound for the plane.

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The cabin crew perform check # 10 (boarding cards) as we enter the plane.

Much to our amusement – and joy – we find we have exactly the same seats as we chose last night when we checked in on line: window seat, left-hand side, just behind the wing.

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There is a low cloud cover some hundred metres or so above the ground, but it is just a thin layer, which we fly above.

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Mount Kilimanjaro’s twin peaks rise majestically above the cloud cover. At 4,877 metres, it is the highest mountain in Africa and very popular amongst climbers.

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The next peak we spot is Mount Meru, a 4,562 metre high dormant volcano, which is believed by some to be the point where Noah’s Ark came to rest as the flood receded. There is no sign of the Ark today.

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From the sunny skies above the clouds, we descend into the thick pea-soup layer where we can hardly see the tip of the wing. A very strange sensation indeed.

.

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Soon we are through to the other side of the clouds and ready to land at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania.

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Two more checks (passport and customs – numbers 11 and 12!) and we are finally in Tanzania! After all the warnings we received about immunisations, none of us are asked about our Yellow Fever certificate!

As I said before, our flight left half an hour earlier than scheduled, and it is a larger plane than the original - thus faster, which means we arrive some 45 minutes before ETA and there is no one there to greet us. We are not alone as we wait outside the terminal building for our driver.

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A huge dung beetle causes some amusement amongst the waiting passengers, and Chris calls me over, as he knows that this is the item right at the top of my wish list. Pfft. This one is dung-less, that doesn’t count.

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Malisa turns up just as the rain starts, wearing a ready smile that we will come to know and love over the next couple of weeks. Instantly likeable, he seamlessly fits into our ‘family group’ and immediately joins in with our sarcastic sense of humour.

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First stop – the supermarket to stock up on some of life’s little necessities.

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On the one-hour journey from the airport to Arusha, Lyn and Chris take in all the African street scenes that have become so familiar to me over the years. Having safari newbies with us means that I look at these scenes with new eyes as I share their excitement and wonder.

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Carrying milk churns

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Malisa explains that farmers with five cows or fewer don’t tend to send their cattle out to graze, they send their men out to fetch the fodder while the cows stay home.

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Works are in place to make this road into a nice new dual carriageway. It’ll be great when it is finished, but for now the construction causes the usual traffic jams.

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Blue Heron

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At the Blue Heron in Arusha we meet up with Tillya again. He took the bus from Nairobi to Arusha last night, a journey which used to take six to seven hours when we first started coming to Tanzania, but can be done in a speedy three hours now that the new road has finally been completed.

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Blue Heron is run in conjunction with Malaika Children’s Home, a charity that helps local underprivileged children. One of the many things I like about Tillya and Calabash Adventures is that they are very socially and environmentally conscious in their choices of places to visit / stay / eat.

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Chicken Shawarma and Mango Juice seem to be the popular choices for lunch.

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Our lunch is accompanied by a pair of Yellow Bellied Sunbirds.

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After (the very early) lunch we are back on the road, heading for the wilderness and our first safari lodge. A road trip in Africa is always exciting, with many things to see along the side of the road.

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Whistling Acacia

The whistling acacia tree is so called because these brown nodules (they are not fruit, but hollow swellings) have small holes in them (caused by ants) which creates a whistling sound when the wind blows.

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The acacia tree and the ants have a symbiotic relationship, a kind of mutual respect. The tree provides the ants with food by secreting droplets of sweet fluid, and the ants in return protect the tree by attacking anything that tries to eat its leaves. The pheromones given off by the ants act as a warning to giraffes and other animals who then leave the tree alone.

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It's not all lovey-dovey between the two parties though, as the ants also fiercely protect 'their' tree from enemy ant colonies by trimming the branches and flowers of the acacia, which stunts the growth of the tree, killing the tips so the tree cannot propagate itself.

Maasai Manyatta

This is Maasai land we are passing through, and you can tell the number of wives a man has by the number of huts. One hut = one wife. This guy has seven, although some can have up to 20 or more.

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Sisal

A plant in the agave family, sisal yields a stiff fibre used to make a variety of products such as rope, mats, bags, carpets and cloths. I have seen these plants along the side of the road before, but had no idea what they were. I just thought they were a pretty plant.

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I certainly never expected to see camels grazing in the fields. I can’t remember ever seeing camels on previous visits to Tanzania.

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While the rest of us admire the marvels of nature and man, David takes an afternoon nap.

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The road along this stretch has improved beyond all recognition since we first came this way nine years ago. It is now very smooth and comfortable and cuts the travel time between parks considerably.

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Every now and again we get a glimpse of Lake Manyara, the alkaline lake Ernest Hemmingway dubbed “the loveliest in Africa” and whose shores we will be staying by tonight.

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Donkey Cart AKA Maasai Landrover

A local family struggle to get a heavily-laden donkey cart up a slope.

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The more they push, the less willing the donkeys become. Is this where the “stubborn as a mule” expression comes from?

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In the shade of a tree, a group of Maasai village elders hold their weekly meeting.

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I am amused to see that some of them arrived on motorbikes - 21st century Maasai.

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Birds of prey soar above or rest in the trees.

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Pale Tawny Eagle

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Tawny Eagle

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Augur Buzzard

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Pale Tawny Eagle

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Dark Tawny Eagle

This tree is home to a number of weaver birds – notice how they make their nests on the western side of the tree due to the prevailing winds.

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Chestnut Weaver

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Lesser Masked Weaver

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Chestnut Weaver

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Lesser Masked Weaver

Soon we start to see our first wild animals.

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Thomson's Gazelle

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Eland and Zebra

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Zebra

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Wildebeest

The wildebeest are chased by four young Maasai boys, wearing black and with their faces painted. Although they look menacing, the attire merely signifies that they have recently undergone the circumcision ceremony, which takes them from being young boys to becoming feared and respected morans (warriors). The white paint which adorns their faces (you can’t see it very clearly in these photos as they are a long way away) is used to repel any ‘evil eyes’ to help aid their recovery after the operation. Armed only with sticks / bows and arrows, the boys wander alone in the wilderness for three months to prove their manhood.

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Even during the Green Season there is a lot of activity around the waterholes.

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Egyptian Geese

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Great White Egret

At a small settlement we see catfish from Lake Manyara drying.

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While the kid is pleased to see us, the mum is none-too-happy with us taking photos of her dinner, so we make a hasty retreat.

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Impala Harem – one male will have several females. These gazelles are affectionately known as McDonalds after the M shaped markings on their rumps.

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Impala

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Grey Headed Kingfisher

To me there is something even more special about seeing these wild animals along the side of the road rather than in the actual national parks. I know there are no physical boundaries around the parks so that the animals can wander freely between them, but even so…

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Zebra

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Fischer's Sparrow-Lark

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Maramboi

After three hours or so on the road, we reach the turn-off for Maramboi, our home for the next two nights.

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Almost immediately after entering the large grounds of the lodge (it set in an exclusive conservancy area that covers 25,000 hectares and is run by the local Maasai community), we encounter a giraffe right next to the track.

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More follow.

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Magpie Shrike

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Helmeted Guineafowl

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Hibiscus tea - a new experience for me

Check in procedures are interrupted by a group of warthogs walking through the grounds.

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We stayed here at Maramboi a couple of years ago, but at that time we arrived in the dark and left before it got light, so it is really nice to be able to see the lodge in daylight today.

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It is quite a big place, and the main restaurant / bar area is on a raised wooden deck, with views of endless vistas of rolling golden grassland and palm lined desert across to the shores of Lake Manyara and the escarpment of the Rift Valley / Ngorongoro highlands beyond.

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Since our last visit there have been a number of upgrades, such as all new decking/railings, refurbished rooms and a completely new swimming pool area.

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We are shown to our rooms, and we spend some leisure time on the balcony with a drink. There are not many places where you can see giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, impala and a plethora of colourful birds from your private balcony.

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Our room

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View from our balcony

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David with his Savanna

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Beautiful Sunbird

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Common Bulbul

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Female Beautiful Sunbird

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Common Bulbul

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Beautiful Sunbird

Grete & David's Wedding Anniversary

This evening we have a private sundowner by the lake to celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary.

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I set my camera on a tripod, affixing an intervalometer to it so that it will automatically take one photo every 30 seconds until I tell it to stop. That way I can enjoy the sunset, drinks, snacks and company too.

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The sunset is not spectacular, but the ambience, surroundings and company make it very special indeed.

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Flying spoonbills

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We have to be back up at the lodge before daylight fades completely, as it is not safe to wander around the grounds after dark.
As we start to make our way back, it feels wrong to leave the waitress on her own down by the lake, with only an empty bottle of wine to protect herself against wild animals with, so we hang around until the askari (Maasai security guard) can be seen making his way across the plains.

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That, of course, leaves the five of us walking back in the dark with a couple of tripods for protection. All is well that ends well, and we all make it back to the restaurant without incident.

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Dinner

This evening the kitchen is serving a Mongolian BBQ where we choose our vegetables from a buffet and the chefs prepare them, along with our chosen meat, in a large wok. They add various sauces of our choice and finally pasta or rice. The result is absolutely delicious.

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As we finish our meal, a commotion is heard behind us. All the kitchen workers come out singing, with the guy at the end banging a dustbin lid. As you do. They walk around the tables for what seem like an eternity, as if they are not quite sure whose birthday it is. Eventually the cake is placed in front of me!

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So… there is apparently a story behind this cake. Knowing that it is our wedding anniversary today (39 years, how time flies), Lyn wanted to do something special. She saw on the Maramboi website that they do celebration cakes so she contacted them. They replied to say they were very happy to provide a cake but they needed our booking reference. This, of course, is something Lyn doesn't have as we booked the lodge as a package through Calabash Adventures. Lyn then contacted Calabash, and Tillya managed to get this organised for her. Thank you both, it was a lovely thought and helped make the day very special for us.

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The perfect end to another perfect day. Thank you Calabash Adventures for organising this safari for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:45 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds sunset road_trip travel vacation airport holiday africa safari tanzania birding giraffe kilimanjaro glamping arusha bird_watching sundowners tented_camp calabash_adventures which_safari_company best_safari_company maramboi kenya_airways blue_heron Comments (4)

Nairobi

Close encounters with giraffes, elephants, birds, flip flops, history and exotic meats

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View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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As we are enjoying breakfast in the hotel, Tillya (owner of Calabash Adventures) arrives and greets us from behind a huge smile. He has come up from Arusha to personally show us Nairobi today.

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Giraffe Centre

Our first port of call today is the Giraffe Centre, and we arrive nearly half an hour before they open. They kindly let us in early, and we have the place to ourselves apart from one other family.

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Betty Melville founded the Centre in 1979 with the main objective being the breeding of the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe whose habitat had been reduced to an 18,000-acre ranch that was slowly being subdivided to resettle squatters. Only 130 animals remained at that time. Betty rescued two of them and founded the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, a Non-Profit making organisation.

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Following fundraising efforts, 26 breeding giraffes were rescued, rehabilitated and relocated to other parks within Kenya. Since then, the programme has had huge successes, having rescued, hand-reared and released around 500 orphaned giraffes back into the wild since opening.

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The Giraffe Centre is now one of the top tourist attractions in Nairobi, where visitors can come to hand feed the giraffes. And that is exactly what we are doing this morning! Tillya recommended that we arrive at the centre first thing in the morning in order to successfully feed the giraffes – apparently the giraffes are often too full to be bothered to come out for the tourists later in the day!

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Our first close encounter is a pregnant female who is quite happy to be fed but doesn’t like being petted.

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We are encouraged to place specially formulated food pellets in our mouths for the giraffes to grab them with their long tongues, making for some hilarious reactions.

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No one seems to have told the giraffes that it is not 'proper' to do 'tongues on a first date'.

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I am a little concerned that Chris appears to be enjoying the kissing a little too much…

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David, on the other hand, isn’t quite so sure.

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He soon gets into the swing of it, however.

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The ranger assures us that giraffe saliva is antiseptic. That’s OK then…

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It's all good fun!

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After a lovely long snogging session, it’s time for some education. In 1983, conservation also became part of the organisation’s agenda when they opened the environmental education centre. The primary objective here is to provide conservation education for school children and the youth of Kenya and they offer all sorts of free programmes to schools and other youth groups. They also give an interesting and numerous presentation to us tourists about all things giraffe, where we are treated to a very hands-on experience.

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Wild warthogs run freely around the grounds and have a symbiotic relationship with the giraffes – apparently they like to hang out underneath their tall friends in order to snack on giraffe droppings. That brings a whole new meaning to the expression 'friends with benefits'.

Warthogs are said to have small brains, a simple mind and a bad memory. As soon as the giraffes start to run, the warthogs follow; but they will soon forget why they are running.

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They also seem to have a high sex drive...

Nature Trail

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A naturalist guide named Moses takes us on a short nature trail, and explains about the medicinal, poisonous and other plants we see along the way.

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The bark of this tree produces a milky substance, which – if you get it in your eye – will make you go blind. I like Moses' logic: “If you get the milk into your eye, you have two options – you look for running water. If you cannot find running water, you go blind. If you cannot find running water, you look for a lactating mother; and it’s very hard to spot a breastfeeding mother on safari…”

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The Alaeodendron treats syphilis, diarrhoea and bloody cough, but the leaves are poisonous to cattle.

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The sap from the Acokanthera schimperi tree is collected to produce the poison used on hunting arrows. It can also be used to treat syphilis.

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Before we left home, I created a wish list of animals and birds I would like to see on this trip, and one of the items is a chameleon. I'm off to a good start, being able to one tick off on the first day!

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Jackson's Chameleon

These termite mounds appear to have been evacuated, probably because an anteater appeared on the scene, and a snake has moved in. Both aardvark and python are on my wish list, but we see neither.

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David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

We are early for the Elephant Orphanage too, and end up waiting outside for a while.

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Daphne Sheldrick set up David Sheldrick’s Wildlife Trust in memory of her husband after his death in 1977. The trust has played a significant and important role in Kenya's conservation effort, something the Sheldricks had both been heavily involved in prior to the creation of the trust.
Orphaned baby elephants are brought to the centre and are hand raised using Daphne's special baby milk formula - not an easy job. Armed with enormous patience, the staff take on the role of the elephants' mothers, teaching them how to suckle, use their trunks and ears, roll in the dust and bathe.

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The baby elephants are fed every three hours and continue to be mothered up until the age of two, when they are able to feed for themselves; at which stage the slow process of reintegration into the wild begins. This could take up to ten years.

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For an hour each day, the public are allowed in to the orphanage to see the elephants being brought out to feed.

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We stand at the rope waiting for the elephants to arrive, while looking around for other wildlife. A herd of impala wander past, a pin-tailed whydah flitters about and an inquisitive serval causes a bit of a stir.

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One by one the baby elephants start arriving. Slowly at first, then the anticipation of food gets the better of them and the excitement is palpable.

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The baby elephants are adorable, and watching them drink, play and being generally mischievous is an enchanting experience.

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Alamaya

Lyn fosters a baby elephant called Alamaya (a Mother's Day gift from her daughter Kelly). Ravaged by hyenas, Alamaya had lost her tail and suffered severe trauma in the attack, and it wasn't until three months after her rescue, when an operation was performed to help cut away scar tissue which was inhibiting her from urinating, that they discovered that Alamaya was in fact a he. So severe was his injuries when he was rescued from the Masai Mara in neighbouring Kenya two years ago that nothing remained to give the vets any evidence of his genitalia or indication of gender.

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Lyn at the entrance to the sanctuary, showing off her adoption certificate

Kelly chose Alamaya in particular, because the lack of a tail would make him easier for us to spot in amongst all the frolicking baby elephants. His name Alamaya is the Maa (local language) word for 'brave'.

You can read all about Alamaya here and even see the video of her/his rescue.

So, here we stand, looking at the backside of every elephant as they appear from the forest. They all have tails. A little disappointed, we resign ourselves to the fact that Alamaya is one of the elephants not making a public appearance today.

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The last elephant saunters in to the arena, and much to our delight, he is tail-less! This is Lyn's transgender immigrant foster child.

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Seeing Alamaya now, it is hard to imagine what a tough start in life he had!

We have some amazing close encounters with the elephants as they wander up to the single rope fence that divides us from them. What an experience!

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An African Love Story

If you have an interest in African animals and elephants in particular, I would wholeheartedly recommend reading Daphne Sheldrick's autobiography 'An African Love story: Love, Life and Elephants'. I read the book very recently and absolutely loved it. It is an extraordinary story of unconditional love of animals and enormous dedication to conservation. Well worth a read.

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As we leave the centre, Tillya decides he wants to do his bit and become a foster parent to a baby elephant. Here he is with the certificate for his adopted child. Congratulations on your latest offspring Tillya!

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Utamaduni Craft Centre

Utamaduni, which means “culture, tradition and folklore”, consists of a number of individual craft shops, where a portion of the profits supports charities including Street Boys.

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Veranda Restaurant

Our main reason for visiting Utamaduni is to have lunch in its peaceful restaurant on a shaded patio.

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I don't want to fill up too much at lunchtime today, as we are going to Carnivore for an early dinner tonight, so I settle for the melted steak and cheese sandwich.

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After my disappointment finding a lack of birds in our hotel gardens yesterday, the grounds here at Utamaduni more than makes up for it. I spend the entire lunchtime jumping up and down from my seat trying capture some of the feathered inhabitants that flit around the feeders and bird baths.

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Red Billed Firefinch

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White Browed Sparrow Weaver

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Baglafecht Weaver

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Olive Thrush

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Large Golden Weaver

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Dusky Turtle Dove

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Red Billed Firefinch

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Bronze Mannikin

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White Browed Sparrow Weaver

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Reichenow's Weaver

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Marula Studios

In most parts of Africa recycling is not a modern environmentally friendly feel-good concept; it has long been a necessity:
over the years we have seen petrol sold in used glass bottles along the side of the road, children's toys created from whatever is available, old car tyres becoming sandals or a toy for the kids, jewellery made from seeds or ring-pulls, cement sacks turned into clothing, sardine tins reappearing as oil lamps... you get the picture.

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The concept of recycling and upcycling has been taken one step further here at Marula Studios. Started by Julie Johnston after seeing the creative toys produced from plastic waste by the children of Lamu Island off the Kenyan coast; stuff which would otherwise have been an environmental hazard to birds, turtles and other marine life.

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From its humble beginnings in 2005, the enterprise now employs over one hundred women to collect discarded flip-flops (and the now more ubiquitous Crocs - Homer, take note!) dumped or washed up on Kenya's beach resorts.

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Truckloads of odd sandals are transported to the workshop here in Nairobi where the flip-flops are washed, sun-dried, sorted into colour schemes and then glued together to form bigger shapes.

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We are given a private tour of the workshops, with each stage explained to us in detail.

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Washing

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Drying

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Sorting

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Gluing

Using ordinary kitchen knives, the resulting blocks are carved into all sorts of shapes such as animals, toys, ornaments, photo frames, coasters, key chains, Christmas decorations, bottle holders and much more.

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Larger pieces start life with a core of Styrofoam before the flip-flops are affixed.

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Sanding machines add the finishing touches.

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The end products become stunning works of art and are sold here at Marula Studios and exported all over the world.

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To complete the recycling loop, any off-cuts left over from the carving is used for the creation of the soft mats found in children's playgrounds.

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The concept is a simple one, but it benefits the society in many ways:
· Cleaning up the beaches, making them more appealing to locals and tourists
· Preventing birds and marine life from getting sick or dying from ingesting waste
· Creating local employment on the coast as well as in the workshops and studio
· Reducing the amount of waste
· Offering domestic and foreign visitors unique souvenirs and gifts for friends and family back home

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These two pieces now happily coexist in their new home in Bristol.

Naturally, exit is through the shop.

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Karen Blixen House

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For those of you old enough to remember the book Out of Africa and subsequent award-winning film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, the name Karen Blixen will be familiar. The film provides a vivid snapshot of life in the last decades of the British Empire and some breathtaking scenery shots, although not a true version of Karen's memoirs of the 17 years she spent in Africa.

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On a private tour of the house, the guide tells us all about the history of the house, pointing out the original pieces of furniture from Karen's time and the movie; as well as recounting Karen's Blixen's personal life story.

History of the House

Karen and her husband Bror von Blixen bought the house in 1917 as part of a coffee farm venture in Kenya, which was then called British East Africa. Karen called the house 'Bogani' or 'Mbogani' meaning a house in the woods. When their marriage failed after eight years, Karen continued to run the farm on her own until she returned to Denmark in 1931.

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Later the farm was broken into 20 acre parcels for development by its next owner Remy Marin, who is said to have named the subsequent residential Nairobi suburb Karen after the farm's famous resident.

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For a time the house was only sporadically occupied until the Danish government purchased it in 1964 and presented it to the Kenyan government as an independence gift. After the success of the Out of Africa film in 1985, the government opened the house as a museum. Many pieces of furniture that Karen Blixen sold on her departure were acquired for the shooting of the Out of Africa film, and are now part of the exhibition in the Museum. The architecture is typical of late 19th century, which includes the spacious rooms, verandas, tiled roof and stone construction typical of this period.

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The grounds contain old farm equipment, and from the terrace we can see the famed Ngong Hills, as mentioned in the opening scene from the Out of Africa film:

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills...”

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Karen Blixen's life

Born in Denmark in 1885, Karen entered into a marriage of convenience with her half-cousin Bror van Blixen who promised to buy her a dairy farm in Africa. Bror, however, developed their farm as a coffee plantation instead. The farm fared little better than their marriage - which ended in divorce after hard-drinking womanising Bror infected Karen with syphilis (funnily enough, the guide omits the bit about syphilis in her story) - and was plagued by a number of disasters including fire, repeatedly bad harvests and falling market price for coffee.

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Karen Blixen

After her divorce, Karen fell in love with an English man, Denys Finch Hatton. Tragedies were to follow Karen, however, and after Finch Hatton died in a plane crash in 1930 (he is buried in the Ngong Hills we can see beyond the house), she was forced to return to Denmark where she pursued a career in writing.

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Denys Finch Hatton

Karen died on her family estate in Denmark in 1962 at the age of 77.

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We go back to the hotel for a quick shower and change before Peter – Tillya’s driver – takes us to Carnivore Restaurant for dinner, where we again arrive early, nearly half an hour before they open for dinner. This means we have to sit and have a drink in the bar, oh the horror of it!

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The well-fed and very expectant cat follows us in to the restaurant when we are seated.

Carnivore Restaurant

The Carnivore opened its doors in 1980 to instant success as a strikingly different dining experience to anything previously seen in Kenya. Voted by UK magazine Restaurant to be among the 50 best restaurants in the world in 2002 and 2003 in recognition of the fact that you could dine here on exotic game meats. When we first came here in 2001 (and later in 2006) we were told that they had their own farm where they bred exotic game for the BBQ, and we were served meat such as zebra, warthog and even giraffe!

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In recent years, however, strict new laws mean that zebra, hartebeest, kudu and the like are now off the menu, which is quite ironic as I can buy all those and others in a store less than 20 miles from where we live in Bristol, UK (OK, I have never seen giraffe meat in the shop, but certainly all the others). Exotic meats or not, this is NOT the place to visit with a vegetarian – the Carnivore is a meat speciality restaurant whose motto is 'The Ultimate Beast of a Feast'; not dissimilar to a medieval banquet.

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Tonight's menu

Nyama Choma

This certainly is a BBQ with a difference and not for the light eater – hence my choice of a small lunch earlier. The Carnivore is a rather indulgent ‘Nyama Choma’ (barbecued meat) dining venue where we can sample a variety of local meats roasted over a charcoal fire. Dominating the entrance to the dining room is the spectacular fire pit, the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else on our travels. Whole joints of meat – legs of lamb and pork, ostrich, sausages, rumps of beef, spare ribs, chicken wings, kidneys and crocodile steaks are skewered on traditional Maasai spears and roasted over the fire.

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We are shown to our table and the movable feast can begin. Knowing from experience what is about to come, I urge the others not to eat the soup for starters but dive straight into the feeding frenzy of grilled meats.

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When the meat has reached a perfect temperature, an army of carvers carry the full skewers from table to table, carving slices of meat on to our sizzling cast iron plates for as long as we want and as much as we can handle.

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As long as the little white flag on the table is still flying the meats continue to arrive.

As I said earlier, most of the meat these days is of the more mainstream type, but that does not mean there is a lack of variety:

Roast beef
Roast leg of lamb
Roast chicken
Pork sausages
Crocodile
Ostrich
Turkey
Beef sausages
Honey glazed pork ribs
Chicken wings
Lamb chops
Beef ribs
Chicken legs

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Some of the ‘speciality meats' are brought out in little taster-sized morsel on a tray.

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There are chicken livers, spicy lamb sausages, rabbit and bulls’ testicles.

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Yes, you read that right: bull’s testicles. That’s what the small half-an-egg-shaped item is at the front of the plate. Not a strong taste, but it has a somewhat odd texture. Not unpleasant, but not something I would be in a rush to order again. At least I have the balls to try it!

The food is piled on our plates until our stomachs are over-full and the lurking (ever-expanding) cat has devoured any 'accidentally' dropped leftovers. Something tells me we won’t be sleeping well tonight – such an enormous amount of meat on top of this morning’s Larium*** tablets doesn't bode well!

  • ***Larium is a malaria prophylaxis known for its rather unpleasant side effect of psychotic nightmares.

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When we reach the point in this gastronomic overload that even just one more mouthful will send us over the top – we declare defeat and lower the white flag in capitulation.

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Yes, it is fairly pricey; and yes, it is most certainly touristy, with the zebra-aproned waiters’ theatrical ‘performances’ giving it an almost Disneyesque feel; but Carnivore has been an icon amongst tourists, ex-pats and wealthier locals for the last 25 years for a reason. Love it or hate it, I do think visitors to Nairobi should experience this circus-like dining adventure at least once.

Peter takes us back to our hotel for an early night as we have an early start tomorrow.

Thank you Tillya and Calabash Adventures for a great first day in Africa!

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:50 Archived in Kenya Tagged animals birds travel vacation elephants adventure holiday fun africa safari lunch bbq photography kenya giraffe flip_flops charity barbecue crafts kissing nairobi braai recycling bird_watching canon_eos_5d_iii calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators karen_blixen giraffe_centre snogging tongues which_safari_company best_safari_company nature_trail utadamuni marula_studios out_of_africa isak_dinesen carnivore carnivore_restaurant nyama_choma Comments (1)

Birmingham - Dubai - Nairobi

We've finally arrived in Africa!


View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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As we approach Dubai Airport after seven hours or so in the air, the sun rises and we get a brief glimpse of this modern metropolis from the air.

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On exit from the plane, a series of transfer buses are waiting to take us to the terminal – it’s all very well organised, with a different bus depending on your onward flight destination or whether you are stopping in Dubai. We board a bus for Nairobi. Not literally of course.

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We have a three-hour layover here in Dubai, so we spend a lot of time sitting about in the airport lounge.

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Eventually we are called for the flight and moved to another lounge at the departure gate, where we learn that the flight is delayed for over an hour – more sitting around, waiting.

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The next flight is also very comfortable, with space to spread out. I spend most of the time sleeping, only waking for food and again just before landing at Nairobi.

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At the immigration control in Nairobi, David is berated for having a Transfer Visa and is told that he should have a ‘proper’ visa if he is to leave the airport and stay overnight. This, of course, is quite contrary to the information on the Kenya Immigration Website, and the three of us go through the passport check without a single comment. David must have got the grumpy one this afternoon. Thankfully he is let through and we have finally arrived in Africa!

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The luggage is very slow to turn up, and as more and more bags arrive but ours are nowhere to be seen, we start to get a little twitchy. Eventually the last one appears on the luggage carousel and we breathe a sigh of relief. I suppose someone’s bag has to be the last one.

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At customs I am questioned at length about commercial filming due to all my camera equipment, but we finally make it through to the outside world, where William is waiting to take us to our hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi.

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As usual, the Nairobi traffic is appalling despite the fact that we are not even entering the centre of town, and we sit in one huge jam as the road improvement works causes major diversions and delays as we make our way to the suburb of Karen. Eight months ago when we came this way on the way back from Lake Turkana, the road was pot-holed, rutted and chock-a-block with traffic. It is comforting in a way to see that some things never change.

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As we pull up at the hotel, we are delighted to see our friend Abdi, who has travelled down from North Horr to meet up with us.

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Karen Blixen Coffee Gardens, Restaurant and Cottages

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Tillya (of Calabash Adventures) came out to Nairobi last month to personally check out our rooms here at Karen Blixen Cottages, and as we are shown to our room, we concur that he has made a good choice.

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Each room is set in an individual period-style cottage designed after the historic Swedo House in the so-called first generation style , and comes complete with a four-poster bed, a seating area with a fireplace, high-beam ceiling, a dressing room and a large bathroom with separate shower, toilet and bathtub. There is also a nice verandah (with a very friendly resident cat) for relaxing with a pre-dinner drink. The room evokes a taste of the past with yesteryear historic ambience from Kenya's early pioneering days.

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History

Much history is attached to this place - Karen Blixen Coffee Gardens, Restaurant and Cottages (that is the longest hotel name we have come across since the 'Best Western Premier Amaranth Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel' in Thailand) is set in one of the largest and oldest formal gardens in Kenya, in what was once the estate of Karen Blixen (the author of the best selling book 'Out of Africa' which was later made in to an award-winning film).

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Meandering paths lead through the gardens, connecting the cottages with the main buildings, gym and swimming pool. It is hard to imagine how the original house was surrounded by indigenous forest, bush and grasslands at the time of its construction in 1906 – the 5½ acres of formal hotel gardens are now full of ornamental trees such as candelabra cactus, jacaranda (my favourite tree when in bloom) and bottle brush, as well as numerous (over 200 species I am told) exotic flowers.

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I am a little disappointed however, with the lack of bird life – I expected the flowers to attract a number of birds, but all I see is this ‘measly’ little sunbird.

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Swedo House

This building within the grounds was once the hunting lodge, and the farm manager's residence for Karen Blixen's coffee farm. Later Thomas Dinesen (Karen Blixen's brother) lived in this house, and Karen herself also spent a great deal of time here. It has since been refurbished to its original style.

The architectural style of Swedo House is typical of the pioneering days of Kenya, being built on stilts with the original walls of corrugated iron lined with wood inside; and sporting raised verandas with arched roof supports. The corrugated iron walls were later replaced by cement plastered over chicken wire. These days the house contains the lounge and gift shop.

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Meaning ‘medicine’ or ‘magic potion’ in Swahili, Dawa is the signature cocktail at Tamarind (the chain which owns the hotel restaurant). Based on the famous Brazilian Caipirinha, the cocktail it is made from vodka, sugar, quartered lime, ice and honey, and is apparently one of the most widely consumed cocktails in Kenya. As I really don’t like honey, I didn’t think I’d like it. I was wrong. The honey is served on the little wooden stick in the glass, and just tastes sweet rather than a strong honey taste.

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The curiously named Elephant Mudbath cocktail is a must as we are going to be visiting the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in the morning. The cocktail comprises of coffee liqueur, Amarula, Vodka and ice. A little drop of heaven in a glass!

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To go with the cocktails, an amuse bouche of chilli chicken and crab cocktail arrives.

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The chicken is surprisingly bland, whereas the crab cocktail is nicely spiced and absolutely delicious.

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At dinner I practise the little bit of Swahili I have tried to learn in the last few weeks, much to the amusement and delight of the staff.
“Nataka chakula cha kiafrika” (I would like African food) I ask, and John, the waiter, suggests the Chicken Ndogo Ndogo, a whole spring chicken grilled with ginger, soy sauce, garlic and lime juice.

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Ndogo ndogo apparently means “young lady” or "nice thighs" in Swahili, and a few slightly risqué comments are banded about.

I ask for the chicken to be served kali (spicy), but instead they include a selection of pili pili (chillies), hot sauce and freshly chopped coriander. The chillies certainly pack a powerful punch!

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To go with my chicken I order ugali – the staple food throughout East Africa – a stiff polenta-like dough made from millet flour and water.

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Chris settles for the Fish with Mushrooms, a fillet of fish topped with mirin-flamed mushrooms and served with fried rice and creamy champagne sauce. From the contented murmurs and delighted exclamations, I am deducting that he is enjoying it.

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My request “tafadhali nakata nne bia Tusker baridi” gets us exactly what we want – four cold Tusker beers! This Swahili-speaking lark sure is fun!

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At the beginning of the meal John (the waiter) asks Chris to write down all our names on a sheet of paper, and from then on he calls us by name as he dishes up our food. Very personal service indeed. I am even more impressed when the dessert is delivered. Only David orders a pudding – crepe suzette – but the rest of us get complimentary petit fours, beautifully served on personalised plated with a Swahili saying and our names written out in chocolate! This certainly is a first for me!

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As we leave the restaurant, the serenade of the frogs in the grounds is almost deafening as you can hear from this little video. There is no picture as such as it is pitch black by now, but it is worth a listen for the sound alone.

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Having travelled for 24 hours through the night to get here, jetlag descends on us after dinner and we retire to bed for an early night.

Thank you Calabash Adventures for a great start to our trip!

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:00 Archived in Kenya Tagged food fish restaurant travel vacation flight holiday fun africa safari packing chicken dubai karen kenya cocktails emirates birmingham gourmet nairobi good_food tamarind african_food calabash calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators karen_blixen_coffee_gardens_and karen_blixen dawa_cocktail dawa Comments (1)

Bristol - Birmingham - Dubai

Let the adventure begin


View The Gowler African Adventure - Kenya & Tanzania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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The day has finally arrived! After weeks and months of planning, we are off on the Great African Adventure with our friends Lyn and Chris.

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Thankfully Chris drives an estate car, which means we can get all four plus luggage into the one car. Unfortunately Bruno thinks he is coming too. On our previous trips with Lyn and Chris we have taken Bruno with us (three different canal barge holidays), so it is perhaps not surprising that he expects to be part of the trip this time too.

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It's an excited little gang who leave Bristol for Birmingham Airport

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For convenience and speed, we have chosen valet parking at the airport, and we just pull up in the car park right by the terminal building, hand over the car keys for someone else to park, and head for the check in.

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I am not saying we are keen, but we end up first in the queue before they even open the check-in desks!

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We sail through the Fast Track security lane and head straight for the executive lounge.

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With free food and drink, we start the trip the way we intend to carry on. There is a self-service salad and pastry bar, a menu to choose hot items from, and a well stocked bar.

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The food is fresh and tasty, although the portions aren't very big. But then we don't really want to be digesting a massive meal on our flight.

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Fish finger sandwiches! Mmmm

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It’s a very relaxing way to start this adventure, and we stay there until our flight is called.

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At the gate departure lounge, Chris spots a bag on the seat next to him which doesn't seem to belong to anybody. Having asked around the people in the immediate vicinity, he reports it to the airline staff, who are quick to react.

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It turns out the bag belongs to a chap who is standing by the window the other side of the room, too busy chatting on his phone to notice the commotion his bag is causing. The official loudly berates him for leaving his luggage unattended, and all is safe and well in our world again.

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Much to our delight, the flight is not full, and we are able to spread out, taking a whole row of seats each. This is Lyn and Chris’s first long haul flight – I hope they realise that having room to spread like this is the exception rather than the rule!

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I ask one of the crew members to take a photo of us all, chatting about the adventure we are about to embark on.
Soon the air stewardess comes back with a Polaroid camera, snapping us (and other passengers) and creating a very nice little personalised memento from it.

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All in all Emirates are a great airline to travel with, and we have a very enjoyable flight, with good food (in fact Chris reckons this is the best air-plane food he has ever had!) and plenty of drink.

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Tandoori chicken - very tasty!

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Two bottles of whisky - Lyn's happy!

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Although no Captain Morgan, Grete is happy too!

After dinner, the cabin lights are dimmed, with little ceiling lights creating the impression of a starry sky, as I settle down with the free wifi and the others watch live football on the TV screens.

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Shame the football results aren’t as good.

Just another five hours to go...

Posted by Grete Howard 01:12 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged travel vacation flight holiday fun africa safari packing emirates birmingham Comments (2)

Lake Turkana

People of the lake

sunny 40 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day six of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

The wind certainly kept us awake in the night, rustling through the palms, banging tree branches against each other, sending the wind generator mental, knocking over chairs and making our mosquito nets billow out away from the beds. But it definitely helped keep the temperature down: I even had to cover my legs with the blanket at one stage!

Travelling overland down through Africa in a Land Rover has always been my dream, but one that I have never been brave enough to set into action, nor have the circumstances been right. I am now beginning to feel we are getting too old for it – I am therefore quite surprised when I meet Andrea, an Italian photographer and the occupant of the overland truck, this morning: he has at least ten years on us, maybe even fifteen! They have driven all down through Africa from Italy and are now on their way back home again. In broken English he asks John for directions to Sibiloi as his Sat Nav is “kaput”. We get our map out and explain as best as we can: 20 kilometres north, turn left, then left and left again. Seems simple enough, but his English is extremely limited. I cannot help to wonder how much his lack of English is a hindrance in his travels – not many people speak Italian in this part of the world! They scoff at the offer of taking a local chap as a guide and confidently set off on their own.

We are off to the lakeside this morning, starting early to avoid the heat of the day. Seducing and mesmerising in its simple beauty, the conflict between the abrupt and severe surroundings against the dazzling and dreamy water of the lake makes it all the more beguiling.

The Jade Sea

Originally named Lake Rudolph in 1888 by two Austrian explorers, in 1975 the lake was renamed Turkana after the local tribe who inhabit this area. It is also known as the Jade Sea because of the colourful, ever-changing reflections that decorate its surface – which you can't always appreciate fully from ground level.

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I would have loved to have been able to take a sightseeing flight over it for photography, but as that is not an option, you'll have to make do with some images from google:

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The colour comes from algae that rise to the surface in calm weather.

El Molo Tribe

The lake is a source of life for some of Kenya’s most remote tribes, including the El Molo people who live in just two small villages on the south-eastern shores of Lake Turkana. We are visiting one of them this morning.

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I am guessing our escort and facilitator Abdi is some sort of 'royalty' or high caste within the local society, as after speaking with the village chief, it was agreed that Abdi should be called Number One, while the local chief would be referred to as Number Two.

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Number Two shows us around his village and explains about their culture.

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The name El Molo comes from the Samburu expression loo molo onsikirri which means 'the people who eat fish'. Also known as gurapau, 'people of the lake', they are the smallest indigenous tribe in Kenya – in numbers, not stature - with around 10 true members left (only one in the village we visit) out of approximately 1000 inhabitants; the rest being of combined Samburu and Turkana bloodlines though intermarriage.

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As a result of their almost constant suffering from other tribes over the years, they prefer to remain cut-off from much of the world, maintaining a very traditional life eking out an existence from fishing.

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Hunting/Fishing and Diet
When the El Molo originally migrated down into this area from Ethiopia around 1000 BC, they found the land to be too arid to sustain their livestock, so they abandoned agriculture in favour of fishing.

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The El Molo have no access to fresh water, and as they do not engage in agriculture; they survive on fish alone, turning to the alkaline lake for their drinking water. According to Wikipedia, the water is “potable, but not palatable”, yet later in the same article it is claimed that it “is more alkaline than seawater”. Either way. I fail to understand how people can survive on a constant diet of fish and salty water.

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When fishing, the El Molo use number of different implements depending on the circumstances: spears; harpoons; fishing rods made from the roots of an acacia with doum-palm fibre and a forged iron point or hook; or nets made from doum-palm fibre.

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The fishermen brave the waves, winds and swells of Lake Turkana in traditional boats crudely made from doum-palm logs held together with rope. Modern boats would be too difficult to maintain and are rarely available anyway, due to their expense. Imagine the skill required to ride this into the waves of the lake and chase after crocodile or hippo - then kill them with a hand held harpoon! These days, however, they mostly fish for catfish, Nile perch, tilapia or Solomon fish.

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The catch is either roasted immediately or preserved for eating later by sun-drying it on mats on the ground or the roofs of the huts.

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Every part of the fish is utilised, including all the innards.

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Housing
The El Molo live in lakeside homes made from the little vegetation this volcanic wasteland has to offer – straw and palm leaves are woven together by the women to create little igloo-shaped huts.

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People
It is thought that the singular and exclusive diet (high in protein but lacking in fruit, vegetables and carbohydrates), along with drinking the salty lake water, is to blame for the high incidence of ill health and genetic defects amongst this group – blindness, bow legs, and early death. I also guess with so few members of a tribe, inbreeding is inevitable, adding to the genetic deterioration. In addition, every few years cholera outbreaks run rampant through the village causing the demise of the very old and the very young. In a society where reaching the age of 40 is considered 'old', their spartan lifestyle has taken a toll on their appearance way beyond their years.

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Seats
Men often carry stools, known as ekicholong, which are used as simple chairs. They also double as headrests or pillows, keeping the head elevated from the sand, and protecting ceremonial head decorations from being damaged when they lie down. I remember seeing these in a museum in Ghana some years ago and thinking how uncomfortable they look but it's the first time I have actually seen one in use.

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Journey to extinction
There are calls from human rights groups and environmentalists for the government to step in to provide much needed medical and sanitary facilities, secure funding for a fresh water drinking source and save the community from the impacts of climate change, as they fear the ethnic group is on a journey to extinction if nothing is done.

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Thirty years ago an anthropologist who visited the El Molo wrote, "I felt as if I'd stumbled on a race that had survived simply because time had forgotten to finish them off." Very little has changed since then.

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Counting my lucky stars
Spending time amongst these people and seeing how they barely eke a living in such a hostile and inhospitable environment, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of appreciation for the privileged life I was born into, and gratitude for the hardships I have not had to face. I humbly admire their resilience in the constant uphill battle against adversity and the mercilessly grim terrain as they cling steadfastly to their somewhat tenuous existence. Having adapted to their surrounding environment, their simple code of life is built on survival: eating, sleeping and reproducing.

We are One
Being with these indigenous tribes with their seemingly naïve purity and primordial lifestyles, I feel like I have been transported to a bygone era, the Africa of long ago. Despite enormous disparities between our lifestyles and prosperity, I sense a strong connection – we may have lives that are poles apart, but we are still the same - and I find myself wondering: "What are their dreams for the future?" Not the all-encompassing future popularly written about by environmentalists and social reformers, but the more tangible, everyday, personal circumstances of tomorrow or this evening. Fun, laughter, love, appreciation, family, friendship, food... we surely share the same emotions and desires?

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Island of Ghosts
El Molo practice a traditional religion centred on the worship of Waaq, with shrines known as gantes. The shrines are located on an island known as the 'Island of Ghosts' or 'Island of No Return'. Legend tells the story of how the tribes people would retreat to this island when being attacked and use huge piles of catfish to barricade themselves in. The spiny fish bones would ensure raiders were unable to reach the villagers.

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We take a boat out to the island – thankfully a much bigger, motorised boat than the ones the locals use when fishing.

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There are four shrines (which look curiously like the huts the people live in on the mainland) on the island, each with a different function:

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The first hut is a shrine where barren women spend time with a village elder to receive blessings in order to conceive. Today there are baby goats inside...

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Next is the place where sacrifices are made and ceremonies are held to ensure good luck while hunting hippos, although following Kenya's anti-poaching laws, hippos are now officially off the menu. The El Molo's hunting prowess, especially with regard to the ferocious and murderous hippo (hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal – apart from the mosquito), have earned them a reputation for bravery among other Kenyan tribes. During the ceremony – known as ngwere – songs and dances pay tribute to ancestors and the young warriors have their bodies whipped and slashed before being sent out on the hippo hunt!

The third hut is reserved for female circumcision. The practice is outlawed in Kenya, and the hut appears dilapidated. While in the west we have an absolute abhorrence towards what we call Female Genital Mutilation, the general feeling on the subject here is much more ambivalent and complex. Although ingrained in their culture, some girls feel it is an outdated and barbaric practice and they are glad it is now outlawed; while others are more philosophical. As one girl we spoke to said: “the circumcision is all the girls here have, that is purely for them. Everything else in society is about the men - women are rated somewhere below the goats - and this ceremony is the only time in their lives they are the main and most important character.” While I can see the rationale behind this theory, I can think of way better ways of making a young girl feel special and valued!

The last shrine is dedicated to the sick, used as an isolation unit or a place to make requests for protection against diseases.

Birding
While David and Number Two go hiking to the top of the hill on the island, I do some birdwatching with Abdi.

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Crested Lark

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Little Egret

During March and April, Lake Turkana is a major stopover point on the flight routes of migratory birds on the journey back north to their European summer homes. The area also has many local residents, with up to 350 species recorded, including pink backed pelicans and flamingoes who thrive in the brackish water, supported by plankton masses in the lake.

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Slender Billed Gull

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Pink Backed Pelican

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Egyptian Goose

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Grey Headed Gull

While not a true twitcher, more of a dude; I am a lister and am happy to announce 103 trip ticks so far, of which 27 are lifers.

Roughly translated from 'bird watching speak' to plain English, this means that “I am a keen birder but a novice and more into the photography aspect rather than serious study. I do, however, like to keep a list of birds seen in the wild, and I have identified 103 different species so far on this trip, 27 of which are new to me”.

See more English twitcher vocabulary here.

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Spur Winged Lapwing

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Long Tailed Cormorant

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Kittlitz' Plover

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Ringed Plover

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Common Sandpiper

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Long Tailed Cormorant

From the island we spot the Landrover carrying the two Italians driving along the shore of the lake, which is somewhat strange as they left Loiyangalani long before us!

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As we say goodbye to the El Molo village, we give a lift back to town to three girls. One of them is nine months pregnant. She was intending to walk to Loiyangalani, some 20 kilometres away (in this 40 °C heat), in order to try and find a truck which would hopefully be able to take her the six hour drive to Maralal to the maternity hospital. It's a hard life.

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When she gets out of the car in town, I slip her some money “for the baby”, which reduces her to tears. Through Abdi she thanks me and asks my name – she is so grateful she wants to name her baby after me! I feel very humbled and honoured so I cry too. To me it is not a huge amount of money, but I am later told that it is probably the largest sum of cash she is ever likely to have and is equivalent to a week's wage of a skilled worker. I guess that would be the same in relative terms as a stranger giving me £500.

Back at the lodge we are told the Italians got very lost this morning, having not listened to – or understood – the bit about driving 20 kilometres north before turning left. They effectively drove around in a circle and ended up back at Palm Shade Camp where they changed their mind and sheepishly hired a local guide to show them the way.

It is at times like this that I am grateful we have our trusty driver John.

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John bought some some fresh fish in the El Molo village this morning, which the lodge chef cooked up for him and served it with ugali, the staple starch in East Africa. Made into a porridge-like consistency, using millet, maize of sorghum flour, ugali is eaten by rolling a small amount into a ball with your hand, creating an indent for scooping up the sauce. We have come across this in various guises throughout Africa. It is bland but filling. For someone (that someone being me) who has such a low boredom level that I dislike having the same meal two days running, I cannot imagine this being my complete diet. Every. Day. Day in. Day out. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Only intersperced with some salty water. My heart sinks and my tastebuds go on strike at the mere thought of it!

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Turkana Tribe

After lunch John suggests we visit the local Turkana tribe to see if we can negotiate for the women to don their 'skins' and dance for us. David is somewhat taken aback by Abdi's question while he is conferring with the ladies: “How many women do you want?”

Well....

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While Abdi puts the finishing touches on the deal, the children crowd around the car: shaking our hands, touching our skin and practising their English: “How are you?” “What's your name?”

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Goat or cow skins are tanned, carefully sewn together and adorned with beads and ostrich egg shells. The skins are worn by both men and women on special occasions such as the annual Turkana Cultural Festival where many different tribes from the region come together to show off their outfits and traditional dances. Today these ladies are putting on a private performance just for us.

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Livestock is the core of Turkana culture with goats, camels, donkeys and zebu being the primary herd stock. Livestock functions not only as a milk and meat producers, but also as form of currency used for bride-price negotiations and dowries. A large herd is a sign of wealth, so it is not surprising that the songs and dances of the Turkana culture are a means of boasting about their prized cattle reflecting the economic life of the tribe.

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Dances are held during a variety of special occasions such as giving thanks after the rains or a successful cattle raid; the birth of a child or a marriage and so on. As well as when the Howards visit of course.

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Love this woman's earrings: key-rings and beer-can ring-pulls seem to feature heavily.

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The women seem to be having a lot of fun; and even John joins in the festivities.

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The audience too are enjoying themselves.

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No, this is not the result of some bloody sacrifice thankfully, just a custom to smear oil followed by ochre on your body for decorative purposes.

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Time is moving on, shadows are becoming long, the sun is getting low, and we are getting thirsty. It's time to go for a sundowner. And what better place than by the shores of Lake Turkana.

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The three boys that made my journey special: David, John and Abdi

As we wait for the sun to make its daily journey behind the mountains, I play around with my cameras, my 'models', different lenses, white balance and aperture/shutter speed settings.

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It is not until this evening, with the background being a single, plain colour, that I realise just what a curse dust is for a photographer and what a toll it has taken on my camera! The amount of dirt that has managed to get in to it and settled on the sensor is quite phenomenal! Thank goodness for in-camera sensor cleaning!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to relieve a nagging headache (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. Cheers and welcome to Lake Turkana.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:41 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises lakes people children birds boats desert travel village holiday africa hot kenya roadtrip dust tribes turkana undiscovered_destinations northern_kenya laketurkana loiyangalani el_molo Comments (2)

North Horr - Loiyangalani

It is good to have an end to journey towards but in the end it is the journey that matters

sunny 40 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day five of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

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Finding it hard to sleep at 38 °C, I wake several times in the night. From outside the room I can hear loud meowing and moreover the sound of buzzing around the mosquito net: both hoping to get inside. As with elsewhere in North Kenya on this trip, it is totally, utterly pitch black. Eventually my bladder wins the battle of wills, and I get up to use the loo, swinging my legs over the side of the bed as I grab my torch from the bedside table. There is something soft against my legs! I gasp audibly and switch the torch on. In the beam I can see a pair of eyes staring back me. I gasp once more, and my heart begins to beat faster – until I realise the cat has somehow managed to get into the room during the night. We have another cuddle for a while, before the kitty is once again shown the door.

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Managing to catch a few more hours of sleep, I get up early to see the sand grouse which fly over North Horr every morning just after sunrise on their way from the local waterhole. For the best part of half an hour, the sky is filled with birds: there must be thousands of them! What an amazing sight!

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When we've just finished eating a hearty breakfast of beans, tomatoes, onions and bread, Sister Annicia brings us freshly made mandazi, a very common local food, not dissimilar to a doughnut. They are popular in this part of East Africa, as they can be eaten in accompaniment with many things. They are usually made in the morning or the night before, eaten with breakfast, then re-heated in the evening for dinner.

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We pick up Abdi who has spent the night with his family in town, and almost immediately drop him off again at the other end of the town as he needs to go and check on his mother-in-law. She was bitten by a scorpion yesterday, and despite suffering badly, she is too afraid to take any 'modern medicine', relying instead on natural remedies. Abdi worries for her.

North Horr is built around a waterhole, as are all the towns and villages in this area. Again we find literally hundreds of camels waiting to be watered. I had no idea there were so many camels in Kenya, it is not an animal I associate with this country!

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Compared with yesterday, today's journey is fairly short, but again with changing road surfaces and a vast emptiness of bare but beautiful scenery.

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Gas

We pass through a village called Gas, a stark reminder to appreciate what we've got back home: homes with temperature regulators, electricity with lights during the hours of darkness, comfortable beds, refrigerators with cool drinks, taps with clean water, supermarkets with a huge variety of food, telephones, television, internet, washing machine, cooker, shower, access to doctors, dentists and medicines but to mention a few of the necessities we take for granted. None of those are afforded to the inhabitants of this village. I cannot even begin to fathom how people live under these conditions.

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With the help of EU money, public latrines have been installed in this and many other settlements in the region. A small but very important comfort which helps keep diseases at bay as well as assisting privacy, modesty and safety.

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'Pocket Tree'

Affectionately known locally as the 'Pocket Tree', the mutually beneficial relationship between the acacia tree and ants is what you might call symbiosis: an affiliation between two parties which is advantageous to both.

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The tree provides food for the ants in the form of nectar as well as hollow thorns which they use as nests. The ants return this favour by protecting the plants against being eaten by much larger animals.

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I am constantly left with the question: “What do the animals find to eat in this area?”

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Turkana Herders

She is nine or ten years old and is never likely to know any other life. Her home is the dry boulder-strewn semi-desert of the Turkana region and she spends her days watching her family's animals, 'protecting' them from cattle rustlers and wild animals such as the hyena. Her older brother carries a home made spear. For 100 Ksh (around US$1) she is willing to forget about the 'evil eye' of the camera, and let me photograph her.

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This is her 'workplace'. Day in, day out. At temperatures around 40 °C most days. What a life!

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Just contemplating the simple act of walking on these boulders brings my ankles out in a nervous quiver.

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From chatting to her brother, Abdi establishes approximately where their village is, and John goes 'off piste' to search it out, making tracks where no tracks existed before.

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We see camels in the distance and head that way.

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The village remains elusive, but from a viewpoint on a ridge, we spot a number of Gabbra digging a well. Abdi goes to talk with them to see if they will let me take pictures. From where we are sitting, still inside the car, discussions do not appear to be going well, things get a little heated, negotiations break down and we make a hasty departure. Photography didn't happen this time (boohoo), but here is an explanation of the famous Gabbra Singling Wells:

Singing wells

It's not the wells themselves that sing, of course, it's the people tending to them. In an age-old tradition local Gabbra herders bring their animals to drink and to fetch water for themselves and their cattle. The wells are deep, with crude steps cut into the walls: each ledge holds a young boy, part of a human chain to haul up precious water from the depths of the earth. Rudimentary tin cans and leaky leather buckets hoisted by long frayed ropes are passed from person to person, hand to hand, one by one. It's a laborious task. And all the while they sing. From each well comes a distinctive, simple song, each family's ballad being different to the next one.

It is undoubtedly a joyful way of making the drudgery seem less of a tiresome slog, with the tempo of the music defining the rhythm of the action much in the same way as we would rock along to music in the gym back home. Except this is not a first world artificially-constructed exercise machine, this is a way of life, a daily slog and an absolute necessity for survival.

The singing also has another, more important, purpose: with so many animals and their handlers in one place, confusion is the order of the day, cattle mingling aimlessly here and there. However, over time the animals have learned to recognise 'their' song and subsequently head to the correct well to be watered. Now that is a great connection between man and beast!

This Youtube clip gives you an idea of the wells.

In our rush to get away from the uncomfortably hostile atmosphere at the Gabbra wells and back to the 'main road', we follow a well trodden footpath. As you do.

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After getting a little stuck in some soft sand, John locks the front wheels to engage the four wheel drive. I am surprised that this is the first time he has felt the need to use the car as a 4x4. Impressive!

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Lake Turkana

As we reach the crest of the ridge, the jade waters of Turkana opens up before our eyes, the iridescent colours of the lake dramatically counterbalancing the black and almost lifeless surrounds. Like a resplendent jewel, the glistening waters are almost bewitching with their vivid shades of turquoise and blue.

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After days of monochrome landscapes seeing the sparkling lake, twinkling like little fairy lights at Christmas; we can be forgiven for thinking we have stumbled upon a mirage.

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At a length of 300 km in North-South direction and a width of 50 km, Lake Turkana is the largest alkaline lake in the world, the worlds largest permanent desert lake and the largest lake in Kenya. It has a longer shoreline than Kenya's entire Indian Ocean coast and is also the most northerly of the Great Rift Valley lakes.

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Larger than Warwickshire, about the same size as the US state of Delaware, and just slightly smaller than Luxembourg; standing on the sandy shore of Lake Turkana and looking out across the water it is hard to believe this is not an ocean. In fact, talking about size, and putting it all into perspective, Lake Turkana is 38 times as large as Samburu National Park which we visited a few days ago.

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Loiyangalani

On a journey that can be best described a punishing, this is probably the toughest stretch of 'road' we have encountered so far.

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Of course we could have just flown in and saved ourselves the last few backbreaking, bone-rattling, bum-bruising, spine-jarrings days; but the saying “getting there is half the fun” has never been more appropriate. The overland journey to reach Lake Turkana has been an ambitious, adventurous and arduous expedition, challenging and demanding at times, punishing and exhausting, but that is all part of the allure. It has been a compelling, engaging and thought-provoking odyssey through what can only be described as a 'living ethnological museum'; to a remote, exotic and far flung destination well off the beaten path - and it's by no means over yet.

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Although not exactly 'undiscovered', this region is certainly an extraordinary, intriguing and rarely-visited corner of the world.

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Some things are always better retrospectively, however, as someone once said: "An adventure is never an adventure when it's happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment, and an adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquillity".

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Palm Shade Camp

The camp consists of a cluster of mud huts with straw roofs, all shaded by doum palms in this delightfully green oasis of calm and serenity. I love it!

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Having devoured what little information I could find on line prior to leaving home, I had read good reviews about this camp's clean but shared long drop toilets so I get a huge surprise when I enter our little cottage: we have a more classic style brick building with our own western style en suite bathroom! Yay!

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Our room is next to the bar, and as soon as we've checked in, John arranges for a couple of chairs and a table to be brought to our terrace followed by ice cold drinks. Bonus!

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Again we are the only ones staying here, and the service is exceptional. Nothing is too much trouble.

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The camp is beautifully natural, with an unpretentious, laid back feel to it, including hammocks (although this one appears a little too high...?)

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Today the heat has finally got to me: I have zero energy. I collapse for the rest of the day under the mosquito net in the room like a lazy lion (one of John's favourite sayings). The temperature is still in the high 30s (centigrade) and I have a restless sleep with many odd dreams.

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By the time I wake up and brave the outside world, an overland truck has turned up. We are no longer alone, but they are camping and self catering, so our paths never actually cross.

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After dinner we sit outside gazing at the stars for a while, which is about the extent of the night-life here. Suits me!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to give me much needed energy (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. What more could a girl want? Stars, rum and a head torch. Life is good.

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In order to relieve the stifling heat inside the room, we lift all the curtains away from the windows, exposing the net-covered grills to let the wind pass through the cottage during the night. And boy is it windy!

Wind

This region is well known for its turbulent air which is caused by the fact that the lake heats and cools slower than the surrounding landmass. This creates extremely strong on- and off-shore winds, with sudden, violent storms making frequent appearances.

Initially we both agreed the breeze permanently rustling through the palms was a charming feature, cooling the air and giving us some respite from the searing heat. However, what starts as an inviting breath of fresh air, soon turns into an unparalleled wildness with ferocious gusts lashing through the camp, thrashing anything not secured, hurling it in every direction like an electric whisk in a furnace.

The wind is unrelenting.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:42 Archived in Kenya Tagged africa kenya roadtrip turkana northhorr laketurkana loiyangalani Comments (1)

Samburu

Animals and people of the Samburu region

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View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day two of our private Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations

Having taken our weekly dose of Lariam yesterday (malaria prophylaxis), I had a number of horrible dreams in the night. At one stage I woke up screaming for David to release me from a fishing net which was dragged me under water and I was convinced I was drowning. In reality my foot was tangled up in the mosquito net. Panic over, but after being mostly awake through yet another night (I've only had around six hours sleep in total over the last three nights), I am feeling a little weary this morning when the alarm goes off at 05:30.

We are greeted by the sun gently creating a warm glow reflecting in the river as we go for a coffee before an early game drive. The air is already warm and the sun is not yet above the horizon.

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I ask the askari (tribal security guard) about the noise I heard in the night which sounded like a cat. “That is a cat” he replies with a wry grin. There was I hoping for some exotic animal. Oh well.

Setting off on a game drive before the day has completely broken, we head straight to the place where we saw the dead donkey last night – the kill has been moved, but there is still no sign of the predator. We also return to the spot we supposedly saw a leopard yesterday, but still nothing.

Beisa Oryx
The third of our Samburu Special Five appears this morning - the East African oryx, also known as the beisa, a species of antelope similar to the gemsbok, which lives in this arid semi-desert area. One of the more unusual attributes of the beisa is its ability to store water by raising its body temperatures in order to avoid perspiration.

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In the distance we can see a number of vultures and eagles circling above a bush, and guessing there has been a kill, John heads that way.

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Tawny Eagle

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African White Backed Vulture

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Tawny Eagle

He is right. A young male cheetah saunters out from the undergrowth as we approach, then joins his two brothers in the shade for a bonding session.

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If you look carefully, you can see the blood on the side of his face and forelegs from having just eaten.

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"Let me clean that up for you"

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With the big cats out of the way, the birds of prey feast on the remains of the kill.

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Tawny Eagle

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African White Backed Vulture

We have the cheetahs to ourselves for a good 20 minutes, but after John has radioed the other drivers, up to 25 vehicles turn up, so we leave them to it and move on in search of the next animal encounter.

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Vulturine Guineafowl

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Vulturine Guineafowl

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Warthogs

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Warthogs

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We startle a hare

Somali Ostrich
The Somali ostrich is native to south-eastern Ethiopia, across most of Somalia, Djibouti and northern Kenya. Though generally similar to other ostriches, the skin of the neck and thighs of the Somali ostrich is grey-blue (rather than pinkish), becoming bright blue on the male during the mating season. The neck lacks a typical broad white ring, and the tail feathers are white.

I am not sure I could tell the difference without seeing them side by side, so I take the experts' word for it.

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Somali Ostrich - number four of the Samburu Special Five

Another congregation of safari vehicles draws us to the side of an escarpment. Facing into the sun, with the hillside being in the shade and a lot of dust hanging in the air, it is hard to pick anything out. For a while I am just looking at stones.

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Then I see it: a leopard! (with thanks to Photoshop for helping to make it a much clearer picture post-processing)

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She jumps up on a rock, then slopes off into the undergrowth.

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For ages all I can see is rock (again), with the occasional movement of a tail behind the shrubs. Then she re-appears – or maybe she was there all along and I just didn't see her.

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As she moves in and out of our sight, I become aware that there is not just one leopard, but TWO.

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After playing with her cub for a while, they both settle down, curled up on the rocky hillside.

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They remain out of sight for quite some time, and we are just starting to drive off when they re-appear and begin to climb up the rock-face.

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We stay and watch them until they have climbed all the way to the top and disappear into the bush once more. What an amazing encounter! This really is the best leopard sighting ever for us! With all the excitement, I offer no apologies for the number of photos of these cute little kitties I have posted here.

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Time for some other animals:

Grévy's Zebra - the last of the Samburu Special Five
Now considered endangered, it is believed that a mere 2,500 specimens of the Grévy's zebra remain in the wild; against some 750,000 of their most widespread zebra cousins, the Plains Zebra.

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Named after Jules Grévy, then president of France, who was given one by the government of Abyssinia in the 1880s, the Grévy inhabits just parts of Northern Kenya with some isolated populations in Ethiopia.

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From Wikipedia

If you thought a zebra was a zebra (or a horse in pyjamas as my friend Lyn calls them), you'd be wrong. The three species (there is a Mountain Zebra as well) are very different: while the Plains and Mountain zebras resemble horses, the Grévy’s zebra is much more like its close relative, the 'wild ass'. Compared with the other zebras, the Grévy is taller and has larger ears. The main difference, however, is in the stripes as shown below:

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(This illustrative poster was seen (and photographed) in the grounds of Marwell Wildlife)

On the subject of stripes – each zebra's pattern is unique, in much the same way our fingerprints are. While zebra stripes are dazzlingly striking to the human eye (and camera – I love photographing zebras!), the big cat predators view the world in black and white only, so those stripes are excellent camouflage in the tall grass!

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So, the eternal question – are zebras white with black stripes or black with white stripes? The answer to this question comes down to perspective. Many zoologists would say that a zebra is white because its stripes end towards the belly and the belly is mostly white. Others would say that a zebra is black because if you shaved all the fur off a zebra the skin is mostly black. Not that I have any intention of shaving a zebra...

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So, we have now managed to see the Samburu Special Five: the Beisa Oryx, the long necked Gerenuk, Reticulated Giraffe, Somali Ostrich and Grévy's Zebra. Result!

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There is much more to Samburu National Reserve than just the Special Five of course.

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Let sleeping lions be

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Impala

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White Browed Sparrow Weaver

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Red Billed Hornbill

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Eastern Chanting Goshawk with kill

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Elephants

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Reichard's Seedeater

Suddenly a grinding noise starts to appear from underneath the car, sounding like sand caught in the brake drums. We stop and John gets out, checking all around the car. There is nothing obvious. What is obvious is that being outside the car while surrounded by wild animals (I can still see the elephants nearby) is risky business. David and I keep a close eye out for any predators.

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I somehow don't think this Lilac Breasted Roller posts any threat to John's safety though.

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David gets in the driver's seat and revs the engine while John listens out for the sound from the back, front, left side, right side, underneath.....

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Not being able to find anything particularly amiss, we continue on our way, keeping an ear out for the disturbing sound, which worryingly appears and disappears intermittently. Not a good sign for the off-the beaten-path thousand-mile-journey ahead.

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I am surprised about the relative small size of the oryx: for some reason I imagined it to be bigger than the zebra, more like the size of an eland.

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Crowned Lapwing

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The tiny Dik Dik

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Black Faced Sandgrouse

Surrounded by birds and animals of the African bush, we stop for a while and enjoy a late breakfast which we brought with us as a picnic box from the lodge.

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Superb Starling

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White Headed Buffalo Weaver

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Warthogs

I love the way these guys hold their tails straight up when they run. So cute! That is if you can actually call a warthog cute. I have to admit they have the sort of face only a mother can love.

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White Browed Sparrow Weaver

Dust
The dry season may be good for watching the animals, but it is bad for the dust, which gets into everything: the car, my nose, eyes, mouth, the camera, my clothes, skin, bags... maybe even the drum brakes?

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Gerenuk

I would dearly love to see a gerenuk stretching its long neck and eating from the top of one of these bushes, as they do, but this one doesn't seem to want oblige, however long we hang around.

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Baby Oryx

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D'Arnaud's Barbet

Ethnic Groups

One of the primary focuses of this tour is ethnology, concentrating on the minority groups who live in the north west region of Kenya: learning about their lifestyle, their customs, their culture, their modus vivendi.

The people of Kenya are an eclectic mix, with some 70 or so different tribes, each with its own unique culture. Which ethnic group you belong is still the most important factor in social, work, business and political life. Political parties, for example, are largely based on tribe and less on ideology.

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Samburu

In this region, the main group we encounter is the Samburu, who inhabit a large area in the north of the country. Leaving the national park behind, we head for a small manyatta (village) near Archer's Post. John negotiates a price for us to visit their village, which also includes being able to take photographs. I am particularly interested in that aspect as sneaking covert shots of the locals is a definite no-no in this region, and I have been itching to take pictures of the colourful people I have seen as we have been driving through the villages.

The Samburu, also known as the 'Butterfly Tribe' for the bright colours they adorn themselves with, are enchantingly distinctive and mysteriously remote, having maintained the authenticity of their culture by guarding their ancient customs and traditional existence proudly, largely defying modern trends. Migrating from Sudan in the 15th century and settling in this area, the Samburu were not particularly affected by British colonial rule as the British did not find their land useful or attractive.

We are assigned a guide called Lende, although he says we can call him Simon. Lende speaks good English after having studied at university in Nairobi - paid for by Pontac Productions after he starred in the German movie 'The White Masai' which was set and filmed in this area. However, he didn't like the bright lights of the city, preferring to come back here to Samburu country and live with his family in their manyatta.

The Samburu are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd mainly cattle but also keep sheep, goats and camels; moving them from one place to another in search of fresh pasture and water. Each time they move, they build temporary huts from tree branches, mud, cow dung and grass in compounds called manyattas, in which they live; keeping their cattle in corrals fenced by thorny branches as can be seen on the right in the picture below.

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The entire compound is surrounded by a barrier made from thorny bushes. The number of entrance gates in this fence denotes the number of married couples who reside within the manyatta: each family have their own gate through which they bring their cattle back each night to keep safe from predators.

When the rainy season comes (it has not rained for four months now), they have bits of plastic which they weave in to the roof over the top of the huts to keep them dry inside. The interior consists of three rooms: a bedroom for the parents and another in which the children sleep; with cow skins used as mattresses. The third room is the kitchen. I really can't imagine how hot and claustrophobic that would be: some of the smaller huts are barely five feet tall, and the temperature outside is 35 °C. Crouching over a fire in such a tiny room at those sorts of temperatures, not to mention all the smoke...

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Clothing
Brightly coloured traditional cloths, called shukas, wrapped loosely around their bodies, are worn by both men and women. The most colourful costumes are reserved for the moran – the warriors – who also keep their long hair in braids. Not sure where the warriors are today as all the men we see wear their hair short, or tied up in a kind of hairnet - or maybe that is their braided hair in the nets?

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Jewellery
While the elaborate beaded necklaces and intricate jewellery the women wear may look beautiful, they are much more than mere decoration - the colours and patterns indicate the girl's status and wealth: red necklaces for unmarried women which is changed to multicoloured once they have wed. The shape and colour of the necklaces are deeply symbolic too: the rise of the concentric circle is indicative of the volcanic cones in Samburu country, green represents fresh grass for the cattle, blue denotes the desert skies, red is an emblem of life giving blood, and black is illustrative of the colour of their skin.

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Single young men also adorn themselves with necklaces, but once they marry the jewellery is passed down to a younger brother or cousin.

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The first part of the initiation rite of passage for a young boy - “first pain” as Lende calls it – is the extraction of the bottom middle tooth. The boy must not cry, flinch or even blink; if he does he will bring shame on himself and his family, become ostracised from the village or possibly even stoned to death.

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Mancala
Said to date back to 1400BC, this board game is found in towns and villages all over Africa, the Middle East and beyond. The rules of mancala are complex and vary from region to region and sometimes even game to game, but the aim is to 'steal' all your opponents pieces.

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Dances
In true tourist style, the people of the village perform a couple of short (thankfully) dances for us, including the traditional 'jumping' by the men. Kenya's iconic image of a jumping warrior is not only part of the dance, but also illustrates to all how gifted each man is. The jumps, known as adumu, are part of a number of rituals that make up the the ceremony in which the junior warriors, or morani, graduate to the ranks of manhood.

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Children
The village care for a number of orphaned children whose parents have been killed by lions and other predators while out in the bush tending to their animals. The children perform for us by reciting the alphabet and numbers in English; followed by the ubiquitous request for sponsorship. David performs for the children (and confuses them) by reeling off the alphabet backwards.

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Fire
To me, the most interesting part of the whole experience at the manyatta, is the demonstration of how they make fire. Here is how to do it in case you want to have a go at home:

First take a stick with small dents hollowed out. Fill one of the dents with some sand for friction and a very small amount of dry grass.

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Find some zebra or elephant dung as this is better than cow droppings for dryness and ease of burning. Separate the dung by hand into fine particles.

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Using a long stick with a rounded end, rub your hands together as rapidly as you can.

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Keep going until you see smoke. Where there is smoke, there is fire.

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Empty the glowing embers onto your dung and carefully blow on it. Pile up more dung and grass to create a proper flame.

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Voilà! You now have fire!

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In this short video you can see the whole process:

The Samburu make fire twice a day, morning and evening, and usually just one person will start the fire and others will come here to collect some for their own kitchen.

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Saying goodbye to the Samburu villagers, we make our way back towards the park again, only to find the road completely blocked by a carefully placed roll of barbed wire. Fearing it to be a trap by some of the renowned 'bandits' of the area , John is not willing to take a chance so goes back for reinforcements.

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Making sure the local car complete with an armed guard goes in front of us to investigate, John cautiously keeps well back when they get out of the vehicle to remove the road block. I sneak a couple of photos covertly from the back seat of the moving car hoping no-one will notice, but as you can see, they are pretty blurry and of low quality. I am sure they help convey the jittery atmosphere though.

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A tense few minutes for sure, but no 'bandits' appear; we breathe a large sigh of relief and go on our way for more game viewing.

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A 'Tower of Giraffes' - yes, that is the collective noun for giraffes.

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Beisa Oryx

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Elephants

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Check out those ears!

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Grévy's Zebra

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African harrier Hawk

Having now seen all the Samburu Special Five, I have set John another challenge: I want to see the gerenuk in its typical pose on its hind legs eating leaves from the top of a bush. This is the best he could do, as the antelope jumps down as soon as we move in for a better view.

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We return to the lodge with the rest of the day at unexpected leisure – John needs to go back to Archer's Post to get a mechanic to investigate the noise coming from the car before the long, remote journey over the next few days. Sounds a very good plan to me.

After a lovely lunch of fish in sauce and beef casserole, we chill with a drink in the grounds of the lodge. Yesterday we were six people for dinner in the restaurant but this morning two people moved on, leaving just us and two German birdwatching gents as the remaining guests.

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We have the swimming pool all to ourselves this afternoon apart from a red headed agama lizard sunning himself on the stone wall.

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Our free afternoon goes something like this:
Eat
Drink
Swim
Drink
Sleep
Bird watching
Drink
Pack
Shower
Drink
Eat
Drink
Sleep

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Superb Starlings

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African Silverbill

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David looking for birds - of the feathered variety

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Yellow Spotted Petronia

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Red Winged Starling

The black faced vervet monkeys amuse us for ages with their shenanigans: running around on the roof of the chalet next door (I heard them on our roof in the night too), balancing on the bannisters and jumping into the hammock, swinging around for a while, then repeating the whole thing. They seem to be having such a lot of fun!

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As we are enjoying a pre-dinner drink (in the dark) on our little balcony, one of the askari guards – armed with a spear – comes to tell us not to walk alone to dinner as there is an elephant in the camp. Although the lodge is surrounded by an electric fence, it is still possible to enter the grounds from the river front. Providing the elephant is peaceful and not causing any problems, they would rather let it go about its business than upset it. Makes sense.

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John joins us for dinner and explains how the noise we heard from the car was the prop shaft bearing. Unfortunately they didn't have the required part in the small town of Archer's Post, so he had to go all the way back to Isiolo to make sure the car is in tip top condition and ready for the journey across the northern wasteland of Kenya. He has only just got back!

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As a treat, we enjoy a very nice South African wine with dinner tonight, and just as I have taken a photo of David with the bottle, my flash gun gives out an angry sizzling sound, a puff of smoke and a strong smell of burning. Oh dear.That's the end of my flash photography on this trip.

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The firepit has been stoked up this evening in order to keep the rogue elephant away from the restaurant.

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After dinner we toast marshmallows while we finish off the wine. Everyone packs toasting forks and marshmallows when they go on holiday, right?

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Photo using my mobile phone

Ever since our visit visit to the continent in 1986, I have been captivated by the African sky. Rarely do you see so many stars anywhere, largely as a result of very little light pollution. The sky appears to me so much bigger in Africa than it does back home, and I can sit and gaze at it for hours. I make a feeble attempt at astrophotography tonight, but there is too much light in the camp, and too many trees around for it to be successful.

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to help me sleep through the terrible nightmares (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed.

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Cheers and welcome (back) to Samburu.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:05 Archived in Kenya Tagged animals birds village africa safari zebra cheetah kenya lions leopard samburu manyatta barsaloi beisa Comments (1)

Nairobi - Equator - Isiolo - Samburu

Crossing the Equator - it's all a matter of latitude

35 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day one of our private Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

After last night's safety paranoia, the surroundings look peaceful and tranquil this morning as we explore the hotel grounds and load up the car for the great adventure that lies ahead of us.

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An early start to some great birding:

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African Harrier-Hawk

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Streaky Serin

I would have loved to have had some more time to take advantage of the hotel's facilities, but as always there are places to go, things to see.

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It feels good to be on African soil once more, a continent I fell in love with many visits ago and which still touches my heart and soul like no other - that's why, 30 years and 25 visits later, I keep coming back for more.

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Africa, often referred to as the “Dark Continent”, is inherently misunderstood by most westerners and consistently misrepresented by the mainstream global media. Mysterious, complex and enigmatic, there is so much more to Africa than meets the eye.

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#TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou

Today we set out to explore some of Africa's many secrets and hidden wonders, on a voyage along roads less travelled.

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Let's go!

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Heading out of town on the main TransAfrican highway going north, we encounter a number of police check points, each with a vicious 'home-made' stinger across the road. At some they make us stop so that they can check John's papers; at others they just wave us through.

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Wide load on the highway:

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Our first stop is the obligatory curio-shop. The toilets are nice and clean, and the artwork they sell is of high quality. We rarely buy souvenirs, but I do have a weakness for traditional masks, of which I have a wall full at home. I am tempted by an unusual carved set of two 'masks' (maybe not traditional, but beautiful all the same), and manage to negotiate an acceptable price. That'll be my shopping for the week!

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My living room wall at home, full of masks from all over the world!

Crossing the Equator

The Equator is an 'imaginary line' around the middle of the earth, dividing it into two: the northern and southern hemisphere.

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The above picture is dedicated to a friend's daughter who, after having been taught about the Equator at school, excitedly ran home to tell her mum about the 'imaginary lion' running around the centre of the earth.

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The Equator dissects Kenya some 90 miles north of Nairobi.

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Crossing from one hemisphere to another is theoretically painless and unremarkable, indiscernible even. However, always looking to exploit a money-making opportunity, souvenirs stalls have been set up next to the signs which attract camera-wielding tourists and notorious selfie-takers: YOU ARE NOW CROSSING THE EQUATOR

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Coriolis effect
You may have heard about the water going down the plug hole clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the southern hemisphere, and drains straight down on the equator?

David, our guide, uses a bowl with a strategically placed hole in its bottom, a jug of water and a couple of matchsticks to demonstrate the effect. It does indeed seem that the water changes direction just 20 metres either side of the equator.

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So what causes this? It is something called the Coriolis effect, which is a result of the rotation of the Earth and the inertia of the mass experiencing the effect. This force causes moving objects (including ocean currents, wind patterns and hurricanes) on the surface of the Earth to be deflected to the right in the northern Hemisphere and to the left in the south.

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So far so good.

However, it grieves me to say that according to scientists, the effect the Coriolis force has on a bowl of water is much too small to actually see, especially so close to the equator; and may be better explained by the conservation of angular momentum: any rotation around the drain hole that is initially present will accelerate as water moves inward.

In other words, the person carrying out the demonstration gently encourages the water to travel in the suitable direction by carefully angling the stream of liquid or the placement of the object.

I feel quite disappointed and truly deflated; rather like a child who has just discovered that Santa is not real.

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Please say it is not so!

I study the movements of the guide. I look at the direction of the spiralling water coming out of the bowl as well as the way the matchsticks move. I even try to shake the bowl to make the matchsticks move in a different direction. They don't. Call me gullible, but I still want to believe the effect is true, and if not: this guy is good, damn good!

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After the demonstration and the presentation of a certificate, we are obliged to visit one of the many shops. For fairness, visitors are taken to a numbered shop in turn – one vehicle to number 28, next car to number 29 and so on. Having already done all my shopping for the trip earlier this morning, we do our duty by browsing the allocated store, but despite calls to have a "closer look", we return to the car empty-handed.

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The Birminghum Cool Shop!

A few miles later we stop at a road side stall to buy some vegetables for the evening at North Horr in four nights' time. The accommodation there doesn't offer meals, so we have to bring our own food. Ingredients are more readily available, and offer greater variety, here than they do further north, so now is the time to stock up on fresh stuff.

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John chooses a courgette for our dinner

In this heat, these green tomatoes should ripen to a beautiful red by the time we need them.

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As we head further north, the scenery becomes more and more rural, the countryside filled with pastorialists toiling the soil in age-old fashion.

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Isiolo

The town of Isiolo apparently has a newly acquired status as a 'resort city' (billed as 'the new Dubai'), as part of Kenya's 'Vision 2030' plan. The design is for Isiolo to become a tourist centre to include casinos, hotels, upmarket retail outlets, a modern airport and transport facilities. This brings up a burning question: “why?” The answer lies in the pipeline that brings crude oil from the fields in South Sudan to the ports on the Kenyan coast. With the area's reputation for lawlessness, I guess the government felt it prudent to consolidate the surroundings politically and offer some hope for the future to its inhabitants in order to protect their 'black gold'. John points out the site of the new international airport as we pass.

Wikitravel isn't too optimistic about the town: “Isiolo is the 'last stop' before travelling off the paved road to the towns of Marsabit and Moyale in northern Kenya. Be very aware that Isiolo is not the safest place on earth, and if you are on your own, hire somebody to protect you from the thugs.”

Reading the local news I can see their point...

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Oh, and there is apparently a cholera epidemic here – thankfully we made sure that our inoculations were up-to-date before we left home.

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Isiolo is the north-east’s most important town and a frontier town in every respect, separating the sedate south from the wild, wild north; inhabited by a rendezvous of AK47s and their uniformed owners. Having been rigorously warned by Wycliffe last night not to take pictures of people in the north without asking first, I resist the urge to photograph the gun-toting locals. Probably a wise move.

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I am beginning to be grateful we are merely passing through, although to be fair, we do not notice even the slightest amount of tension or hint of danger. What is noticeable is that the town is inhabited by a larger percentage of Muslims than further south, which is evident by the presence of several mosques and the attire of the people.

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Isiolo is the last big town on our journey, so we stock up with diesel, as do several other safari vehicles on their way to Samburu. In order to ensure the tank is filled to the brim, the vans are either shaken as the fuel goes in; or put up on a one sided ramp to make the most of every available centimetre in the tank.

Fuel (as well as a number of other items) can be paid for by phone using a branch-less banking service known as M-Pesa. Each till has its own number and you dial in from your mobile to make payment. In an area where banks are few and far between, this is a great idea!

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The land is flat, dry and fairly barren here, and the cattle we saw further south is replaced by camels, while straw huts take over from tinned-roofed mud shacks.

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At the side of the road I spot a number of Rendille nomads carrying their entire lives – including the materials to rebuild their huts – on donkeys as they migrate from one place to another. The scene is colourful, exotic and picturesque, and I am itching to take photos, but John's earlier warning resonates in my mind: “People here are not photo friendly, be careful! Don't even snap from a moving car as they might come after us and there are a lot of armed bandits here.” OK then.

Archer's Post

Disappointed we don't get the same level of welcome as President Kenyatta did when he came to Archer's Post earlier this year. Don't they know who we are?

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The Howards have arrived!

Safari time!

We are now entering the wilderness and heading for the verdant bush; ready to come face to face with Africa’s storybook animals. The route to the Jade Sea just happens to be taking us close to one of Kenya's finest wildlife reserves (as you do), so it would be rude not to 'pop in' for some game viewing.

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The expression 'Safari' is derived from a Swahili word, meaning simply 'long journey', although over the years it has taken on a broader meaning, with the dictionary describing it thus:

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Sentrim Samburu Safari Camp

From the gate we head directly to our home for the next two nights: Sentrim Samburu Safari Camp. Located on the shores of Ewaso Ng'iro River, the camp originally consisted of individual safari tents dotted along the riverbank. In 2010 unseasonal and heavy rains created a devastating flash flood which raged downstream, destroying bridges and washing away buildings and tents, scattering furniture and equipment. Sentrim was one of six camps wrecked by the wall of water, which completely demolished the camp, leaving everything covered in a thick layer of mud. Since rebuilt on higher ground and further away from the water, the lodge is now constructed from more permanent material and features individual cottages on concrete platforms with views of the grounds and the river beyond.

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Our room

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View from our balcony

We check in and go for a late lunch, followed by a little siesta.

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Welcome drink

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Glazed pork with rice

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And of course a Tusker

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Siesta on the balcony

Samburu National Reserve

Located just north of the equator in the rain-shadow of Mt. Kenya, the rugged and semi-desert Samburu is a lot drier and hotter than the rest of the Kenyan parks; featuring a mix of wood and grassland interspersed with riverine forest and swamp.

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Samburu National Reserve is relatively small in size compared to the other Kenyan parks, such as Tsavo (which is massive) or even Masai Mara; and minuscule in relation to the Serengeti in Tanzania which has been the destination of choice for our last few safaris: 64km² against 14,763km².

Putting it further into perspective: the area administered by Bristol City Council (our home town) is 110km².

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Samburu Special Five
Most safari-goers – especially first-timers - have their heart set on seeing the 'Big Five', but here in this park the most famous collection of animals to spot is the 'Samburu Special Five'. These are rare species of animals not found in most other East African parks: the long necked gerenuk, Grevy's zebra, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich and Beisa oryx.

Having been lucky enough to see the zebra, giraffe, ostrich and oryx back in 1986 when we came to Mount Kenya and Meru National Parks (both of which are in this region), I explained to John that the gerenuk is of particular interest to me on this trip.

When the very first animal we spot on this afternoon's safari is a gerenuk, John dryly comments: “You can go home now then”. I do like a driver with a sense of humour!

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Gerenuk
Looking like something of a cross between an antelope and a giraffe, the long-necked gerenuk is also known as the Waller's gazelle. The name gerenuk comes from the Somali word Garanuug, which is translated as 'giraffe-necked'.

The gerenuk is endemic to the semi-arid areas of North east Africa, from Kenya through to Somalia. The secret to its survival in the harsh conditions of the desert-like terrain, is its ability to go without drinking water, instead obtaining enough moisture from the food it eats.

Entering through the lodge gates directly into the park this afternoon, before us lies the endless plains, stretching out as far as the eye can see: a flat and uniform landscape, speckled with acacia trees. Initially the open savannah is seemingly bereft of any wildlife; then with mounting excitement I pick out a few vulturine guineafowl. Slowly more and more birds and animals come into view and over the next few hours we absorb a string of heart-stirring animal encounters. This is the quintessential Africa of wildlife documentaries, but no matter how many TV programmes you may have watched, nothing prepares you for the real thing.

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Vulturine Guineafowl

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Olive Baboons

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Eastern Yellow Billed Hornbill

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Northern Red Billed Hornbill

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Tawny Eagle

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Blue Naped Mousebird

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Elephant

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African Pygmy Falcon

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White Headed Buffalo Weaver

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Yellow Necked Spurfowl

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Black Faced Vervet Monkey

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Impala

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Dik Dik

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Superb Starling

Reticulated Giraffe

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The reticulated giraffe, also known as the Somali giraffe, is one of nine subspecies of giraffe, and is native to Somalia, southern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya and is one of the Samburu Special Five.

So how does it differ from the more common Masai giraffe?

  • The reticulated is taller than the Masai, especially the males.
  • The reticulated giraffe has lighter brown spots in a polygon shape with straight, smooth sides, while the Masai giraffe has rather unpredictable, very deep brown spots

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  • The reticulated is only found in northern Kenya and Somalia, whereas the Masai is resident in southern Kenya and Tanzania.
  • Sheer numbers – while there is estimated to be just 5,000 reticulated giraffes left in the wild, some 40,000 Masai giraffes roam the African plains.

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Donaldson Smith's Sparrow Weaver

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Common Waterbuck

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Impala

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Gerenuk

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Elephant

John is constantly in contact with other drivers via his CB radio, and gets to hear about a sighting which he wants to check out. In the distance we see a herd of safari vehicles and realise it must be something good.

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We arrive in time to see a lioness out for an evening stroll.

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There are five lions in total, scattered around in the undergrowth.

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Born Free
For those of you who can remember the book and movie 'Born Free', Samburu is one of the two areas in which conservationists Joy and George Adamson raised Elsa the Lioness and later re-introduced her to the wild. The film itself was in fact shot here in the Samburu National Reserve.

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These lionesses could then be descendants of Elsa herself!

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Sign at the entrance gate to the park

Moving on, we come across a kill tucked away under a tree – an oryx partially devoured by a lone lioness.

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On the horizon a black backed jackal eyes the meat hungrily, looking for any opportunity to move in for a meal.

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The moment the lioness starts to walk away, the jackal makes a beeline for the oryx carcass.

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Realising that tomorrow's cold leftovers may be lost to a much smaller rival, the lioness decides to come back to protect her food source.

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The jackal scampers at the mere sight of her, but hangs around in the background for a while hoping for a tasty titbit.

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When the lioness settles down close by her kill to protect it, the jackal slinks off into the bush. For now.

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Kamunyak
Seeing the lioness with the oryx kill brought to mind an unusual story that took place in this park some years ago: the tale of Kamunyak, a lioness with a reputation for adopting orphaned and abandoned young antelopes. Kamunyak (meaning 'Blessed One'), is known to have cared for at least 6 oryx calves, establishing an inconceivable relationship with her unlikely protégés, defying nature and baffling scientists.

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This amazing and bizarre story was told by Saba Douglas-Hamilton in a BBC / Animal Planet documentary called Heart of a Lioness in 2005. I would recommend you watch the incredible film (42 minutes) which is available on YouTube. But I warn you – it does not have a happy ending.

Another congregation of safari vehicles promises a leopard on the hillside in the distance. Apparently. Everyone says there is one there, but no-one seems to have actually seen it. We leave them to it.

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No sooner have we driven away from the leopard traffic jam, John hears word of a cheetah sighting and rushes off. On the way we spot a herd of elephants but decide not to linger in order to prioritise the cats.

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The cat sighting is a false alarm. A wild goose chase. It is now getting quite late, and way past the time we are supposed to have left the park. We head for the lodge but encounter a bit of a road block. Just like the men with guns in Isiolo – you don't argue with these guys!

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A stand-off ensues with a couple of mock charges by the young bull.

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Eventually they disperse and we can be on our way.

Nearby we spot a dead donkey under a bush, most likely killed by a leopard. The leopard doesn't appear to have eaten much, and will probably be back later for more.

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Unfortunately we have to leave – regulations state there must be no driving in the park between 18:30 and 06:00. The time is already 18:50 and we have some way to go to get to our camp. John speeds off on the rocky track with me holding on for dear life. David, however, is fast asleep in the seat, with his head bobbing up and down with the bumps.

Back at the camp we have a refreshing cold shower (when the temperature is 35 °C, a cold shower really is refreshing, trust me!), followed by dinner of Vegetable Spring Rolls with a Dipping Sauce and Chicken Maryland.

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to stop me getting dehydrated in the heat (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed.

Cheers and welcome to Samburu.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:14 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes animals birds travel holiday africa safari hot kenya lions equator samburu game_drive undiscovered_destinations safari_vehicle isiolo northern_kenya Comments (1)

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