Wednesday, April 25, 2007

7 February: Amboseli

I woke up at 4:30 am and couldn’t go back to sleep; I guess I was just too excited about continuing our safari! Our wake-up call came at 5:45 (right as I was drifting off again) and we rolled out of bed and dressed quickly for our pre-breakfast game run. It was still dark and cool and we were glad we had our fleeces and windbreakers, especially with the brisk breeze coming into the open trucks. A few minutes after leaving the lodge we stopped to watch the sunrise. Kilimanjaro was clear but hazy; the mountain appeared as a periwinkle mass against a pale peach sky. Slowly the huge orange orb of the sun levitated over the distant horizon, shining brighter and warmer as it rose. As the first rays hit Kilimanjaro, the snows on the western face of the mountain gleamed gold. We spotted an elephant train in the distance and drove towards it, stopping to capture some amazing images of the elephants silhouetted against the sunrise. (Of course I had to stop mid-stream to change the memory card on my camera!)

We came upon another group of elephants and watched them for a while as the sun rose higher. The morning light glinted off their tusks and transformed their wrinkled hides from dark gray to golden brown. The elephants moved slowly and silently, gazing at us with mild curiosity as they reached out with their amazingly dexterous trunks to twist off great bunches of tender grass.

We saw our first of many Superb starlings (why can’t starlings in America be iridescent turquoise and orange?) and a Lilac-breasted Roller (a beautiful purple, blue, and green bird so named for the way it “rolls” in flight), along with another jackal and a warthog on our way to a lake surrounded by marshes, where waterfowl were plentiful and active. I was quickly establishing a reputation in our group as the bird freak. I’m not sure why I like birds so much – I suppose it’s in my blood because my grandfather was an ornithologist. I also like the challenge of trying to get good photographs of creatures that tend to fly away as soon as you get focused on them. We saw a Sacred Ibis, an unmistakable bird with a black head and black curved bill, white body, and black-tipped wings, and then a Black-winged Stilt with bright red legs. Out in the shallow water we saw a small flock of Greater and Lesser Flamingos feeding. Then I got a great shot of a Little Egret in breeding plumage, and we saw our first of several dark brown Hamerkops, a very distinctive stork-like bird named for its hammer-shaped head.

Next we drove through an area known as Ghost Camp, an old lodge that was flooded so frequently by the rising lake that it was abandoned. It has been taken over by a population of baboons, who seem to enjoy the playground left by the silly humans. They were climbing on the goalposts in the soccer field and lounging around on top of fences and buildings everywhere we looked. We saw more Hamerkops and then headed out into the grasslands again, where we encountered another large elephant family. This group included several adults with only one or even no tusks, and we saw several youngsters with no tusks that were old enough to be developing them. This is a genetic anomaly that does not impair the females but can be disastrous for males because they cannot fight or defend themselves against other males. There were several tiny babies in this group. I loved watching them nurse and interact with their older family members. On our way back we saw several gazelles, a Gray-headed Kingfisher, and a gorgeous rainbow-colored lizard.

We headed back to the lodge around 9:00 for breakfast – an ample buffet with eggs made to order. Then DH and I signed up at the reception desk for the 10:30 nature walk ($15 per person). As we were walking back to our room, we were intercepted by one of the Maasai men roaming the grounds. He invited us to the afternoon dance performance and lecture, then asked if we wanted his picture. I said O.K., and DH took the photo. Not surprisingly, the Maasai man then asked for a little money. (The irony is not lost on us that the Maasai do not like having their photo taken because they think it will steal their soul, but apparently you can buy their soul!) I gave him 100 shillings (a little less than $1.50), and he asked for more, but that was the only small bill I had.

We met our Maasai guide, Leonard, at 10:30 and were joined on the walk by three Germans, two Canadians, and a French man. We left the lodge grounds via a narrow footpath, walking right past a sign that said, “Animals only beyond this point.” Leonard asked our names and where we were from, then immediately determined that I would be his future wife. It was obviously his regular shtick but it was quite funny nonetheless. He wanted me to answer all of his questions about elephants (length of gestation period, how long they live, etc.), apparently to determine if I was savvy in the ways of the bush. Later in our walk, Leonard asked DH if he would trade me for 10 cows. DH put his arm around me and said, “She’s a very good wife.”

We learned a bit about some plants growing in the area, and that elephants will eat acacia bark during the dry season. We passed a spring and saw a bunch of weaverbirds building their round, hanging nests. There were two Maasai women washing clothes at the spring and Leonard asked us if we knew why one of the women was wearing all black. He told us that it meant that she was just circumcised and is now ready to be married. The black is a warning that she cannot be with any men during this time. Leonard then explained that the Maasai have come to an agreement with the government to phase out female circumcision over the next three years.

We passed a small pond ringed with hippo footprints and their characteristic “sprayed” excrement, which is how they mark their territory. Along the way we saw Pied Crows, a Black-headed Heron, an Abdim’s Stork, a Sacred Ibis, a brilliant orange and black Red Bishop, more Superb starlings, and another Lilac-breasted Roller. In the distance, a lone Maasai man walked across the plain with that characteristic long stride.

We came upon three Maasai donkeys, as well as some cattle and goats, although I saw no sign of the little boys who probably should have been watching them. We passed a small village, which I presume is the home of most of the Maasai men we’ve seen around the lodge. It was a circle of grass-roofed huts surrounded by a thick fence of branches. Several small children peeked out of the gate at us, but we kept our distance. We walked across a barren grassland, dotted here and there with the occasional acacia tree. At the end of the walk we were brought cold drinks and watched a long train of giraffes way off in the distance, almost at the base of Kilimanjaro. They looked positively dinosaur-like as they moved along with their slow, undulating gait. We got a ride back to the lodge and gave our thanks to Leonard before heading to the dining room for a light lunch with MIL and FIL (a repeat of yesterday’s buffet).

The weather so far has been perfect – the sun was hot on our walk but there has been a light breeze and the temperature is probably in the mid-70s in the shade. After lunch we talked to Tonnie for a bit about some of the conflicts that the Maasai face in the modern age. Maasai children are now required by the government to attend school; families who do not comply are fined a cow, the Maasai’s most valued possession. Educated children tend to leave home in search of jobs, and Maasai girls who attend school are more likely to oppose traditional facets of their culture, such as arranged marriages. Thus ironically, education endangers the traditional Maasai culture more than anything else. The Maasai have traditionally been semi-nomadic, moving in search of the best grazing lands for their livestock, but this is no longer possible for many of them. They have also had to be convinced not to kill lions, which occasionally kill their livestock. Killing a lion is seen as a tremendous act of bravery for young Maasai warriors.

After lunch our Maasai friend came by again and asked us to attend the dance performance, but Tonnie had told us that we would be going to a Maasai village later in the trip and shouldn’t feel obligated to attend the performance here, so we politely declined. We spent an hour or so just sitting on the patio enjoying the peaceful afternoon. On our way back to our room we watched two vervet monkeys tussling on the ground, pulling each other over in somersaults and back flips.

We left at 4:00 for our afternoon game drive. En route, Tonnie (who alternates between our two vehicles in the mornings and afternoons) told us how the Maasai acquired their famous red plaid blankets. The Scotsman Joseph Thompson was one of the first European explorers in East Africa in the 1880s. On his expedition into Maasai country (so the story goes), a chieftain was very impressed by Thompson’s red plaid kilt and allowed him to enter the Maasai lands. (The Maasai believe that red frightens predators, so you almost always see them wearing some article of red clothing.) Recognizing this penchant for bright red fabrics, Thompson returned on his next expedition loaded with red plaids for all of the Maasai chieftains that he met, thus ensuring safe passage across their lands. They've been wearing the plaids ever since.

Tonnie also told us a little more about Amboseli. It was originally established in 1964, encompassing an area of 1,000 square miles. Unfortunately this included many Maasai lands, and the Maasai began killing off the rhinos and lions in protest. In 1969 the government began negotiating with the Maasai and in 1974 the park was reduced to its present size of 151 square miles. Unfortunately there are no rhinos left in Amboseli, and all of the lions were killed, but lions were reintroduced in the mid-1990s and there are now four or five in the park.

This afternoon we saw our first waterbuck from a distance, four wildebeest (the most we have seen at one time so far!), a hippo, and more elephants browsing in a swamp, including an adorable youngster, probably only a few months old, that looked just like Dumbo. We also witnessed a large bull elephant urinating, which, I have to admit, is something to see. I had somehow missed seeing the “fifth leg” on a bull elephant yesterday evening, so J wanted to make sure I saw it this time. We continued to tell jokes about the infamous fifth leg (which can weigh upwards of 50 lbs) throughout the trip. Later on we saw several African Jacanas (also known as “Jesus birds” because they can literally run across water), two Yellow-necked Spurfowls, and a Collared Pratincole. We spotted three giraffes, their heads and necks visible above the acacia trees, but they were quite far off. We passed through an anti-elephant enclosure where they are studying the effects of elephant browsing (or lack thereof) on the acacia. Not surprisingly, within the enclosure, the acacia are much more dense than outside.

We drove across a savanna area heading straight toward Kilimanjaro, which was looking just gorgeous rising above a circle of clouds. We spotted two more warthogs and then a Secretary Bird – very distinctive with its gray and black plumage and bright orange eye area. It is supposed to resemble a secretary, wearing a black skirt and red lipstick, and its long tail feathers were once prized as writing quills. The road took us through a sizeable herd of zebra, intermixed with a couple of wildebeest and another pair of Crowned Cranes. It was an amazing sight – the brilliant black-and-white zebras against the lush green grass, with Kilimanjaro looming in the distance. Here we also saw red-billed oxpeckers doing insect duty on the backs of zebras.

We stopped to climb Observation Hill (a.k.a. Baby Kilimanjaro), which involved a nice brisk walk up 150 steps to a lookout pavilion with an incredible 360-degree panorama of the park. Directly in front of us was a large lake and swamp, which was teeming with hippos. Two elephants had climbed onto a rocky promontory below us, apparently to get a better view as well. We took a bunch of pictures and then walked back down the hill to enjoy our first sundowners in the bush. Several elephants were browsing nearby and some people from other vehicles were getting rather close – too close, Tonnie told us. Joel, Tonnie, and the other driver (whose name I didn’t seem to write down) set up a little table and served us beer and wine while we took turns taking each other’s pictures in front of the elephants, at a safe distance.

As we drove away, we watched a magnificent sunset behind Observation Hill. I stood at the back of the truck, holding on tight as we bounced over the potholes, buffeted by the wind, and admired the view. As darkness fell, we saw a hyena and then two lionesses (most likely the same ones as last night). They were lying in the grass again; one of them yawned and got up, walked a short ways, and lay back down. It was after 7 pm, so after watching them for a few minutes we had to hightail it back to the lodge. We tidied up and went to dinner – salad, minestrone soup, vegetable quiche, and beef filet.

After dinner most of our group watched an excellent video about the Amboseli elephants, documenting the work of a woman who has been studying them for more than 30 years (she lives for part of the year in a tent inside the park). The film followed a particular family led by a female matriarch named Echo. She had a calf named Ely, who was so big that his front legs had not developed properly. When he was born he could not walk, and literally shuffled around on his knees. His family stayed with him for several days until finally he was able to get his feet under him. A young (11-year-old) female in the group gave birth during a terrible drought and her baby was sadly stillborn. Another baby was suffering during the drought, and its mother tried to lift the baby with her trunk in a vain attempt to get it into the shade. Tragically it died soon after. Every year, the researcher returns to Amboseli and seeks out Echo and her family to see how they are doing. Tonnie told us that Echo is still around (the film was made in 1991) and doing well. Perhaps we saw her out there in the savanna, leading her family to the next watering hole...

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