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Lake Natron

Fish pedicure and hominid footprints


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Lake Natron Camp

We can see the camp from a distance, initially looking little more than dark pointy hillocks or large boulders on the landscape.

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The 'boulders' are in fact large camouflage Bedu style net covers, hiding the accommodation. Like everywhere else we have been so far, a whole army of helpers arrive to help carry our stuff as soon as we pull up in the car, and we are ushered into the open mess tent which doubles as a reception.

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After the usual formalities, we are shown to our tent. They are well spread out, making them very private. The whole tent, as I said, is under a huge fly sheet, offering shade from hot sun.

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The accommodation is relatively spacious and offers three parts – first the screened veranda , with a couple of chairs and a table. The staff leave our lunch boxes here, which we brought with us from Kilimamoja this morning.

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The main part has a large double bed, a writing desk and a day bed which in our case doubles as a luggage rack.

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A partial wall separates the bedroom from the bathroom, where there is a wash basin, compostable eco-toilet and bucket shower.

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We dump our stuff, change into swimwear and head down to the 'spa area'.

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This is another area shaded by a large fly sheet, offering chairs, day beds and a couple of hammocks alongside a natural spring which feeds the main lake.

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We take our picnic boxes with us and enjoy our lunch overlooking the spring and the marshland.

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The main attractions here, however, as far as I am concerned, is the little freshwater spring. As soon as we step into the cool water, the endemic cichlids start to nibble at our feet.

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For a number of years I have wanted to have a fish pedicure, but I have always been concerned about the hygiene in the tanks in British salons (they have since been banned in the UK for that very reason). Here, however, I have no such concern, and am loving every minute of it!

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David, on the other hand, is way too ticklish to get pleasure from it, and merely dips his feet in briefly.

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I could spend hours here, but the sun is very strong and I worry about my photo-sensitive dermatitis on my shins; so we reluctantly go back to the tent.

This area is affectionately known as 'Zanzibar' to the locals, as it is very much hotter than Arusha and the northern safari circuit. We try to have a little siesta, but it is really rather too hot to get any decent sleep.

The not-so-distant thunder than rumbles on and on and on doesn't exactly help. We prepare ourselves for a deluge, but it appears the storm travels all around us, and by the time we are ready for an afternoon excursion, it is thankfully still dry.

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Malisa, ready to see what nature has to offer us this afternoon

Homenid Footprints

Malisa is taking us, along with a local Maasai guide arranged by the camp, to see some old footprints left on the mud flats. When we spoke with Malisa about it yesterday, he had some concern about whether we would be able to reach the site because of all the flooding, and indeed we do get a little lost this afternoon as the road has washed away.

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The floods and subsequent receding water have left some strange formations in the mud.

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When I say “some old footprints”, I am grossly understating, of course, these impressions captured for eternity are seriously cool.

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Some 19,000 years ago, the nearby Ol Doinyo Lengai Volcano erupted, spewing out its innards down to the shores of the lake. Unable to outrun the fast flowing lava, the local people left their footprints in the hot magma as they made their desperate escape attempts.

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Judging by the way the footprints are facing in different directions, it is assumed that the family (there are different sized prints too) were overcome with panic, unsure of which way to run.

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While these imprints are seriously cool to see, I can only begin to imagine the anguish the people felt at the time, stepping on the ground which measured at 600 °C.

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The Ol Doinyo Lengai is unique in that it is the only active volcano known to erupt carbonatite lava. What that meant for these people, is that the thin silvery lava flowed faster than they could run, so there was no escape.

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Today the volcano looks peaceful.

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From here we continue on foot down to the lake edge for bird watching.

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Great White Pelican, Lesser Flamingo, Great Cormorant, Long Tailed Cormorant, Slender Bill Gull

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Blacksmith Plover

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Chestnut Banded Plover, our second lifer on this trip.

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Eurasian Avocet - I love the way they move their head from side to side to stir up the bottom, just like a spoonbill.

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Thomson's Gazelle

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The Gang

Flamingos

As I said in my previous blog entry, this time of year normally sees thousands of flamingos descend on the lake to breed. Here the water evaporates leaving behind very high concentrations of soda. Algae and zooplankton thrive in this water, which in turn supports great numbers of flamingos. The combination of remoteness and the hostility of the soda mud-flats provides the flamingos with a relatively safe area to breed and rear chicks. This year, however, as a result of the heavy rains, the vast majority of them have remained at Big Momella Lake in Arusha National Park. We still see a few here though.

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Greater Flamingo

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Lesser Flamingo

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There is a group of four South Africans staying at the camp tonight too, and we see them walking with their guide much nearer the lake edge.

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They look rather unsteady as they cross a small stream, and I keep my camera handy should one of them take a tumble. I am all heart!

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No-one fell!

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We return to the camp via the spa area, where Malisa also finds the fish pedicure too ticklish!

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Little Egret

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White Throated Bee Eater

Sundowners

It is time to sit and watch the sunset with a drink or two.

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The camp fire is lit, but the sunset is rather unimpressive.

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It turns out we've all been facing the wrong direction, the clouds away from the sunset are colouring up beautifully!

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Sustainable Tourism

Lake Natron Camp prides itself on being eco-friendly, with $15 per guest per night going to the local village (as well as an annual fee for rental of the land). It has been agreed that this money be used primarily for secondary education. They are also involved in community projects that have been requested by the villagers themselves such as building new classrooms at the school, teaching the local community about permaculture, making keyhole gardens in the local bomas and creating a vegetable patch by the school.

The camp employs local staff, with 19 Maasai woman working on a 6-week rotation to give an opportunity to other Maasai ladies who may wish to have a job here.

The structures are 100% removable, the toilets compostable with all human waste taken off the site. All kitchen waste is taken off site with all non-biodegradable waste removed to Arusha for disposal, while paper waste is incinerated. Limited charcoal for cooking comes from eco-friendly brickettes – made from recycled wood or coconut husk sources. The decking and furniture in the mess area and pool area, is made out of recycled plastic by a local company from discarded items collected from Arusha.

The glassware they use is from Shanga Shaanga. Over the years Shanga has grown to employ more than 60 people with a range of disabilities to make creative products including weaving, glass blowing, beading, paper making and metal work, using recycled materials wherever possible. We were lucky enough to visit this enterprise in 2011 and 2016.

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Dinner

Once the colourful clouds have disappeared, we move on to the mess tent for dinner.

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Tilapia fish from Lake Victoria - fish and chips Tanzania style

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Ginger pudding with custard

By the time we have finished eating, the camp fire has gone out. So much for toasting marshmallows!

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I set my camera up on a tripod with a wide angle lens to try and capture some of the amazing stars; but the bright moon and bottle of wine (as well as a couple of rum and cokes) that I have consumed this evening, renders it a complete failure.

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Instead we watch parts of Malisa's wedding video on his laptop before retiring to our tent for the night.

Thank you Calabash Adventures for arranging this trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:53 Archived in Tanzania Tagged birds sunset volcano tent safari tanzania camping wine moon birding spa hot lava seagull maasai flamingo thunder eco egret pelican avocet community_projects glamping magma cormorant sustainable gull bird_watching sundowners camp_fire calabash_adventures shanga plover bee_eater lake_natron ol_doynio_lengai volcanic_eruption lake_natron_camp compostable_toilet fish_pedicure freshwater_spring homenid_footprints footprints_in_lava carbonatite_lava shanga_shaanga Comments (1)

Lazy Day at Bakotu

Chillin'


View Galavanting in The Gambia 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

David wakes up feeling flu-like this morning, and as I am still suffering badly with Photographer's Elbow, we decide to take it easy today, starting with a stroll down to the observation deck after breakfast.

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Can't decide what to have for breakfast

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The elevated deck looks out over mangroves and the now dry river beyond, with a boardwalk weaving its way along the edge of it.

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I was hoping to spend some time here watching wading birds this morning, but my feathered friends seem to have other ideas.

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Grey Headed Gull

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Spur Winged Plover

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Senegal Thick Knee

Not sure what is going on here, with one of the birds lying down completely flat as the other one approaches – some sort of mating ritual maybe?

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Grey Headed Gull

After a somewhat disappointing bird watching session, we escape the heat and retire to the air conditioned room where we doze, chat and read for a while.

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It is somewhat warm today

I end up lunching on my own as David is still not feeling very good (the most dull and bland burger ever!), and afterwards I take a stroll through the gardens. The hotel grounds are beautiful, very well laid out with lots of flowers and trees with meandering walkways.

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Sacred Ibis

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Western Red Billed Hornbill

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I make a new friend

More relaxation follows, then drinks on our own little terrace outside our room before dinner.

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Chicken Yassa - very, very tasty, more than makes up for the disappointing burger at lunchtime.

After dinner we return to our outside patio where we sit and chat to the lovely night guard for a while before tucking in for the day.

Posted by Grete Howard 12:26 Archived in Gambia Tagged birds flowers cat relaxation hot seagull chilling ibis west_africa gull gambia bird_watching thermometer thick_knee plover hibiscus bakotu bakotu_hotel kotu observation_deck pre_dinenr_drinks Comments (3)

Port au Prince - Montrouis

Beach time!

34 °C
View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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We have a nice leisurely start this morning before being picked up for the two hour journey to Montrouis and the Moulin sur Mer beach resort.

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Breakfast of hareng a l'haïtienne (herring in a spicy vegetable sauce), maïs moulu blanc (corn grits) and some sort of cake.

Unusually, we are spending the first two days of this trip in a beach hotel in order to acclimatise to the time zone and get used to the heat before we throw ourselves into the melee of the celebrations.

From the hotel we take the back-roads of Port au Prince out on to the main highway, with a couple of police checks on the way. Once on the main road, we encounter a massive traffic jam. We are both really struggling to stay awake for the journey, it must be the effect of the jetlag.

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Moulin sur Mer

We arrive at the beach resort around midday, and are greeted in the parking lot by a golf buggy, which takes us and our luggage down to reception and then on to our room.

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The room is nice and airy, with a large bathroom and a terrace outside. We leave the A/C on for the room to cool down, and go for lunch.

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Fresh mango juice

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Club sandwich (cheese, ham, egg and tuna) and 'Moulin' burger.

The restaurant is open air, but shaded by a roof, and looks out over the blue Caribbean sea.

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The hotel is spread out over a large area, and once we have filled our bellies, we explore the extensive grounds.

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Although the thermometer says 'only' 34 °C, it feels like it is way over 40 °C this afternoon with the humidity! We are both really struggling with the heat, and decide to go back to chill in the air-conditioned room.

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When we get there, the room is far from cool, instead it is stifling hot and whatever we do with the temperature on the remote control for the A/C unit, it remains so. After about an hour of slowly melting, we take another look at the controls, and realise that the settings were in fact on 'fan' rather than 'cool'! Doh! As soon as the air cools down a little, we both drift into a blissful and much needed siesta.

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Feeling very much more refreshed, we wander down to the beach and order a beer ready to watch the sunset over the sea.

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In the bay we overlook is a loud, obnoxious American (apologies to all my lovely American friends), who, as soon as he spots my camera, starts to shout out various camera settings. Maybe he is trying to be funny, but he just comes across as an insecure small man with a big ego and a small 'lens'. I try to ignore him, but he won't go away. Groan.

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Despite an insipid start, the sunset pans out very nicely and we stay and watch until there is no light left in the sky.

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After a quick shower and change, it is back to the restaurant for dinner – prawns in garlic for me, chicken goujons for David; followed by cheesecake which I can't finish as I am so full!

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Feeling completely shattered, we retire to the (now) cool room. I am not sure if it is the heat or the jetlag, but it seems to us that all we have done so far on this trip is to eat and sleep.

I would like to say THANK YOU to Jacqui of Voyages Lumiere for arranging this trip to Haiti for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:03 Archived in Haiti Tagged sea sunset beach travel hotel island breakfast sand caribbean resort hot heat beach_resort haiti herring voyages_lumiere hotel_le_plaza le_plaza moulin_sur_mer montrouis tap_tap Comments (0)

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)

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)

Khartoum - Sahara

Our introduction to camel riding and the Sahara

46 °C
View Sudan Camel Trek 2004 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This is not a recent trip, rather it is taken from the journal I wrote on our adventures in Sudan in 2004.

Breakfast is a substantial affair, with egg, sausage, toast, fruit, yoghurt, muesli etc. I fill up as much as I can, as meals from now on are an unknown, as is every aspects of our day. Today we will set out on our very intrepid adventure: a ten day camel trek across remote parts of the Sahara.

We drive through Khartoum, stopping briefly at the Libyan Market to stock up on supplies.

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Omran heading for the market

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Michael in deep discussing with Omran. I always think Arabic, when spoken fast, sounds like people are shouting angrily at each other. It is a harsh sounding language, but absolutely fascinating to listen to.

As we head out of town we see a number of 'temporary' refugee villages for the displaced persons from Darfur. As this conflict has been in the news so much recently, it really hits home quite how bad the situation is here, with mud huts stretching as far as the eye can see.

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We head for an open area on the outskirts of town where we meet our camels who will be our trusty steeds for the next ten days. Gulp. The air is thick with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, with Michael barking out uneasy orders in Arabic to the animal handlers and porters.

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Omran, our local guide

Last night Michael was explaining how the loading of camels this morning will only take half an hour, but by the time two hours has passed with disorganised faffing about, I feel the need to sit down. It is just so hot, and no shade to be found. Sudan is experiencing a heatwave at the moment, with temperatures at least 10° hotter than normal for this time of year.

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While we were all busy admiring the camels and worrying about what lies ahead, Michael has changed into his local outfit of a long flowing djellaba and headscarf.

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It's time to try out camel riding, something that is new to almost all of us, and we have varying success.

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Eventually it is my turn. I have been putting it off and putting it off, feeling a rising panic as I realise I cannot delay the inevitable any longer. I fall off before I have even got on, overbalancing as I lift one leg. (Apologies for very poor quality photos, these are screen grabs from a video)

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I try again, this time with greater success, although I do feel very wobbly as the camel gets up from her knees.

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The whole experience is rather unsteady and uncomfortable, and again I overbalance when the camel gets down, headbutting the poor animal in the process. Eeek. What have I let myself in for?

Apparently Omran has never been on a camel before either, something he failed to disclose to Michael when he was interviewed. Michael is not happy.

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The saddles are home made and very rudimentary, and make me wonder just how comfortable they will be after a few days.

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Suddenly it is all go and we're off. We walk for the first few hours, with the camels loping behind us. Our two camels, which we have named Fatima and Fluff, are much better behaved than some of the others, obediently following us at the end of a lead, much like a dog would, while a couple of people really struggle to get their animals to move at all. The camels carry a lot of heavy gear with all our personal stuff, tents, sleeping mats, mess tent, cooking implements and all our food for ten days. Water for drinking and cooking will be collected from wells along the route, while personal washing is not really including in the plan.

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David and Fluff

The weather is blisteringly hot with no relief from shade nor any clouds, while the scenery is uninspiring with neither impressive sand dunes, not any kind of vegetation to break the monotony. Just sand. A few tufts of scorched grass dot the landscape and the odd dried-up acacia shrub. These plants seem to be rather small and insignificant here, unlike in Sub-Sahara further south where they grow into tall, majestic trees. It's a brutal environment and we see few living creatures as we wander further into the sand sea that is the Sahara.

Although it seems to me that I am constantly drinking water and refilling my 1.5 litre bottle, I am aware that the glaring sun and unforgiving climate is taking its toll on my body and mind. Despite the frequent fluid intake, I am beginning to feel progressively unwell.

For a while the surface under our feet is soft sand that makes for hard going as the weight of my body makes me sink in with the muscles in my ankles and calves taking to brunt of the work. Densely packed earth, baked, parched and cracked by the relentless sun gives way to gravel and stony ground seemingly sizzling with in merciless heat. This bleak and merciless environment demands respect, but I feel more and more ill as the morning wears on. Eventually Michael signals that it is time to stop for lunch. Close to tears and ready to give up, I struggle into the camp set up by the porters and collapse onto a chair. Thank goodness I packed a collapsible chair for this trip.

A mess tent is erected offering some relief from the ferocious sun. My thermometer reads 46 °C in the shade, and I feel like I am wilting, even in the shade. As my feet have been hurting for the last few miles, I carefully take my boots off, noticing both little toes are sporting blisters. Covering them with blister plasters, I put my boots on again and hope for the best.

Life around me is a bit of a blur, I hardly notice what I am eating and taking photos hasn't even enter my mind for several hour now. I must be ill!

After lunch I decide to have another go at riding. Fatima is carrying bags of firewood as well as being fitted with a large wooden saddle for me. Several of the men stand by in case I fall when mounting the camel, but all goes well. I don't feel at all wobbly and the saddle is surprisingly comfortable.

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For the first couple of hours Fatima is plodding along quite happily, being led by Osman, while I am reasonably comfortable perched high above the ground.

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Later we take a short break and Michael adjusts my saddle, moving it a little so that it is better for the camel. It may be better for Fatima, but shortly after we start off again, the wooden knob at the back starts digging into my bottom. After another couple of hours we stop again and as Fatima leans forward on the her knees and I lean backward to avoid headbutting her, the saddle totally disintegrates and I tumble, head first, onto the hard cracked earth. I don't have any pain, but feel somewhat dazed and confused. Michael is furious with the porters for not assembling the saddle properly in the first place (a basic structure, the saddle consists of pieces of specially shaped wood fastened together with rope).

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I opt out of riding for the last few miles, preferring to trust my own two feet rather than the lofty animal with its rickety seat. The blisters on my feet are seriously bothering me and I feel increasingly weary, ill and in pain as the trek seems to go on and on and on this afternoon.

The expedition is not really going to plan as per Michael's briefing last night. He suggested that we would be all sorted out in camp and having snack before dinner, watching the sunset while the chef prepares our meal. Not so this evening. Sunset comes and goes while we are still walking.

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Eventually we stop and again I collapse into my much-welcome chair. Not for long, however, as we end up having to put our own tent up (Michael had indicated that the porters would do that for us) while we wait for the camels to be unloaded and the mess tent erected. Not expecting any rain overnight, we leave the outer cover off the tent to allow for some ventilation.

Taking my boots off is a great relief, but my toes are now just a mass of blood and puss. I am not sure what to do for the best, so I just put a pair of sandals on and leave them to dry out overnight and see how they feel in the morning.

We end up having to help another couple of people with the erection of their tents, and once we are all sorted, we gather in the mess tent for drinks. Non-alcoholic, of course (Sudan is a dry country), and the promised snacks do not materialise either. Two people are asleep already and Michael sends someone to wake them so that he can have a little talk about how the day has gone (not really to plan and he is anything but impressed so far with the staff he has hired), what our plans are, and if anyone has any concerns. Despite feeling more and more apprehensive about the adventure, I say nothing.

We talk and talk and talk, sharing travel stories and generally get to know each other. Still no dinner. From time to time Michael goes to check up on how the chef is doing, and each time he comes back and reassures us: “soon...” After a while his word become rather hollow and I really just want to lie down and go to sleep. Eventually, at 22:10, over three hours later than planned, the food arrives: a sweet and sour soup with bread rolls, BBQ chicken with mooli and a vegetable salad in mayonnaise. Although the food is all very nice, it is way too late for me to eat, and I leave most of it, preferring to go to bed instead.

Not wanting to be cooped up inside the stuffy tent (I suffer from mild claustrophobia), I take my mattress and thermarest outside and lay down under the stars with my fleece sleeping bag liner covering me. Sleeping outside in such a place as this, far, far away from any light pollution, is one of the great joys of life; the stars are simply awesome and I go to sleep feeling quite contented.

Posted by Grete Howard 13:52 Archived in Sudan Tagged market camping tents hot camels heat camel_riding refugee_camp heatwave khartoum darfour_displaced_persons darfour refugess Comments (3)

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