Tuesday, April 24, 2007

6 February: Let the Safari Begin!

We were up at 5:20 am and had breakfast brought to our rooms (fresh fruit, toast, and pastries). Our bags were picked up outside our door at 6:00 and we were out in the lobby at 6:45 to hop on the Micato bus for the short ride to Wilson Airport. We went through security at the airport and I almost forgot that I had a mini Leatherman in my carryon. I ran back to find my duffel (thankfully we bought two small, colored combination locks for our bags at the last minute; not only did this allow us to lock our bags every day but we could also identify our bags easily) and put the knife in the side pocket. It turns out they were just doing a hand search and they didn’t even check the pocket of my backpack where I had the knife. They also had no problem with us taking liquids on board. While we waited for our flight, Tonnie passed out goodie bags with earplugs (which I never found necessary) and candy. We admired a big 4-engine prop plane sitting on the tarmac in front of us, assuming it was our ride, but when it was time to board we walked right past it. We figured we must be getting on another 4-engine plane just behind the first one, but again we kept walking right on by. We were starting to joke about which bucket o’ bolts we were actually flying in when we finally approached a little Air Kenya Twin Otter tucked behind the other planes. It was a 2-engine, fixed-gear prop plane with seating for about 15 – and a tight squeeze at that! The rows were three across, with one seat on the left side of the aisle and two seats on the right, and we could see right into the cockpit. Our flight at 9,500 feet was surprisingly smooth, and we watched an amazing green landscape unfold beneath us. Everyone got very excited when the pilot pointed to the hazy peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro out the front windshield.

After a 35-minute flight, we landed at Amboseli. As we came in I saw several flocks of pelicans and a hippo lounging in a lake – wow! We landed on the single paved runway – in retrospect I’m not sure it was long enough for those big 4-engine planes. The “airport” consisted of a cement block hangar and shed with a ramshackle bathroom (with running water!) out back. A line of safari vehicles sat waiting for arriving clients. A large sign announced our GPS coordinates and a few facts about the park: Amboseli is 390 square kilometers in size, it became a national park in 1974, its highest point is 1,150 meters, and it boasts 56 animal species and 215 bird species. We all visited the bathroom (first rule of safari: avail yourself of every toilet opportunity!), then piled into our two spiffy Toyota Land Cruisers, complete with snorkels, which are customized to extend out over the back wheels, seating two up front and six passengers in the rear, in comfortable captain-style seats. The pop-tops were open and we realized that Tonnie was serious when he said the drive to Amboseli Serena Lodge was going to be our first game drive. DH and I got into the truck driven by Joel, along with N&D and R&C, while MIL and FIL got into the other truck with J&H and R2&B. (This happened by chance, but it occurred to me that one of the advantages of a group tour is that we wouldn’t be with MIL and FIL every minute of every day – no offense to my in-laws, whom I love dearly, but this probably preserved our sanity!) Joel gave us our first lesson in Swahili, teaching us the two most critical words on safari: “simama,” (sounds like “see mama”) which means “stop” (as in, “ohmigod, I just saw something amazing, stop the truck!!”) and “sawasawa” which means “all right,” as in “O.K. I’ve taken my pictures, you can go on now.”

As we drove away from the airstrip, Mt. Kilimanjaro appeared as a vague white apparition rising above the clouds: our safari had finally begun. Our first wildlife sightings were a loner male wildebeest, a couple of Thompson’s gazelles, and an ostrich. A little further on we saw two ostriches mating. Male ostriches’ necks and legs turn bright pink during mating season. Next we saw a migratory European Stork and several Egyptian Geese. The latter were introduced to eat the over-populated beetles that were introduced to eat the water hyacinth, a terribly invasive species in Lake Victoria – a convoluted story of ecosystem mis-management. Other bird sightings included a white pelican and the aptly named Blacksmith’s Plover, which is a lovely black, gray, and white bird that looks like it’s wearing a blacksmith’s apron. We saw several pairs of stunning Crowned Cranes (the national bird of Uganda), including a family with two fuzzy nestlings flopping around. These incredible birds mate for life, and it was marvelous to watch the pair feeding their young in the tall grass. A hippo surfaced in the lake just beyond the crane family, making for a spectacular tableau.

We passed several small herds of zebra, all on their daily trek to their watering holes. I’ve always loved horses so I have to admit that zebras are among my favorite African animals. We saw several elephants way off in the distance, then more gazelles – both Thompson’s and Grant’s (which can be distinguished by the size of the white patch on their rumps – the Grant’s rump patch is larger and extends up onto the hips), and a huge old male Cape Buffalo lying in the grass, looking more forlorn than deadly (they are considered the most dangerous animal in Africa). We were struck by how green the landscape was; Tonnie had told us that they had experienced unusually heavy rains in December and January – in fact, it had only stopped raining a few days before we arrived. We drove past “Baby Kilimanjaro,” a low hill crowned by an observation hut that was used as a lookout by game wardens back when poaching was more common, and stopped to gaze at a convention of blue herons all clustered around a rotted log. We spotted more elephants way out in a marsh, then finally we got up close and personal with a lone bull elephant, who thoughtfully showed off every angle for us as he browsed in the tall grass.

We saw many more zebras, including some young foals, and watched them gallop across the plain, kicking up clouds of dust as they went. One group was standing stock-still, all staring off in one direction, and we hung around for a while, hoping we might catch a glimpse of whatever had put them on alert. This was near an area of date palms were lions and cheetahs like to hang out during the day, but no predator appeared. We passed another bull elephant browsing in the marsh, surrounded by white cattle egrets that were busy pecking at the insects stirred up by the elephant. As we approached the lodge, we stopped to admire an amazing panorama of zebras and gazelles grazing amidst the graceful silhouettes of acacia trees, all set against the backdrop of Kilimanjaro.

We spotted the electric fence marking the boundary of Amboseli Serena Lodge and passed a group of young Maasai men wrapped in brilliant red and purple blankets sitting near the entrance gate. On our way in we saw black-faced vervet monkeys romping beneath the trees, including a mother with a baby clutched to her chest. After unloading, we were greeted with glasses of refreshing fruit juice, then we waited in the reception area for Tonnie to get us checked in. The lodge is something out of a tropical fantasyland. The main building has high-ceilinged rooms open on one side to the cooling breezes, with comfortable rattan furniture and long, hollowed-out gourds hanging in clusters from the ceiling (some made into fabulous lamps). Outside, there are several tiers of large stone patios outfitted with comfortable lounge chairs all looking out into the bush. We followed the porter through the lushly landscaped grounds to our room, set amidst thorny acacia and candelabra (cactus) trees. Our room was decorated in yellow, blue, and red, with some marvelous touches including Maasai beaded lampshades, an elephant mural on the wall, and a small private patio with a view out to the grasslands.

After settling in, we all met back at the dining room for lunch, which was an excellent buffet with lots of curries and other Indian- and African-inspired dishes. I tried the roast goat (delicious!) and loaded up with chicken curry, lentils, veggies, and rice. The salad bar was also very good. Tonnie told us that all of the fresh produce is washed in bottled water, so we could help ourselves to all the raw fruits and vegetables. After lunch DH and I wandered around the grounds, admired the inviting pool (which we never had time to enjoy), and looked for monkeys, but didn't see any.

We met out front at 4:00 for our afternoon game drive. At first we saw only a few elephants, ostriches, wildebeest, and gazelles. We passed through an area scattered with elephant bones and Joel explained that elephants often come back to their dead and spread the bones around, sometimes picking them up and seeming to play with them. Some researchers believe that elephants can identify the bones of their relatives. We saw another family of Crowned Cranes, this time with three babies, and then two jackals trotting across the plain. We saw our first warthog, running along with tail held high. Joel explained that the warthog has a brain like a chicken – they start running when they are frightened, but they quickly forget why they are running and stop, at which point they often become a lion’s meal. Joel’s eagle-eyes also spotted a saddle-billed stork making a nest in the top of a large acacia tree. This is a striking black-and-white bird with a brilliant red-and-black bill. Other bird sightings this afternoon included Crowned Plover, Helmeted Guinea-Fowl (which has a dinosaur-like horn on its head), and a Hadada Ibis with brilliant iridescent green plumage.

Finally, it was time for the main event: elephants! Amboseli has a population of some 1,300 elephants, which certainly is not a huge number, but they are contained within a relatively small area and thus this park boasts some of the best elephant-viewing opportunities in East Africa. As luck would have it, we saw several hundred of them over the course of this single evening. (I’m sure the drivers know exactly where to be, but it sure seemed lucky to me!) We stopped alongside a vast marshy area where several large family groups were browsing. We pulled off onto the side of the road, and waited. Slowly, the elephants started moving out of the marsh and across the road – in front of us, behind us, until soon there were elephants all around us – to head into the woods for the night. Mostly the groups moved in peaceful, well-organized trains, with the matriarch at the head and the young sheltered protectively between their mothers, older siblings, and aunts. Several of the babies were so young that they didn’t even have the beginnings of tusks – these were just a few weeks to a few months old. One matriarch had tusks so long that they almost reached the ground. We saw some amazing interactions, including two males that faced off on either side of the road and sparred with a great clatter of tusks for several moments. Another face-off between three bulls involved a lot of trunk-raising and a brief clash; two of the males backed off and it was over almost as soon as it began.

I couldn’t believe how close we were to these magnificent creatures – I could see the tiny wrinkles around their wise, solemn eyes, every rip and notch in their enormous flapping ears, and the caked mud and dirt on their broad, humped backs. They walked silently, on huge spongy feet. We watched for a long time, as the sun dropped low in the sky, casting long shadows across the golden grass. One by one the elephants disappeared into the gathering dusk. I don’t think I could ever tire of watching them. Finally, it was time to move on.

Joel took us back to the date palms where he assured us that we would see a lion. How did he know? We soon began to realize that the drivers communicate with one another via radio and cell phone, informing each other about the best sightings. They speak in Swahili of course, so we have no idea what they are saying, we just know that something’s coming! On the way we saw a huge herd of Cape Buffalo. Then, just like magic, as the sun was casting its last rays across the plain, we spotted two lionesses lounging on a bare patch of ground, maybe 200 yards from the road. The setting sun literally glowed on their whiskers. What an incredible end to our first day!

Joel rushed us back towards the lodge, as it was approaching the “witching hour” when all vehicles are supposed to be off the roads. Somehow he timed it perfectly so we could get our ultimate sunset shot of a magnificent acacia tree silhouetted against a lazy brushwork of clouds tinted with gold and peach. Once we got our shots, Joel held up a page from a park magazine so we could compare our photos with a shot of the exact same tree in the magazine. We all agreed that our sunset was better!

Back at the lodge we were handed cool lemon-scented towels to wipe away the dust. We had drinks with MIL and FIL on the patio and then joined the group for dinner. Dinner was a five-course affair: salad from the buffet, minestrone soup, a mini pizza with eggplant, and a choice of entrĂ©es. I had Nile perch with dill sauce and DH had pork with mustard sauce. The service was a little slow and they didn’t bring the mustard sauce for the pork until DH had almost finished eating. Frankly we liked the lunch buffet better. We shared a bottle of wine with J&H and shared travel tales. After dinner we showered and were off to bed to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for our 5:45 wake-up call.

Brief reflections on our first day on safari: I had no idea we would see so much in a single day. If I had to go home tomorrow, I would feel like I had gotten a glimpse of all that Africa has to offer. One note of realism: I was a bit depressed by the “traffic jam” that was created when everyone flocked to see the elephants this evening. In some cases trucks actually got in the middle of family groups and the elephants were obviously agitated at being separated. I was pleased that once our truck found a spot, we basically stayed in one place to watch the show.

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