Thursday, July 19, 2007

15 February: Masai Mara to Mount Kenya

We were up around 7 a.m., which gave me time to sit for a few minutes outside the tent listening to the birds, the river, and the occasional blast from a hot air balloon in the distance (hopefully they got that knot worked out!). On our final walk to the main lodge for breakfast, we paused to watch the monkeys jumping through the treetops, and noted that the very determined male warthog was still going after his lady friend on the lawn. One last bumpy ride in the Land Rovers delivered us to the airstrip, where we said farewell to our drivers, Wesley and Eric, and to the Mara itself. A few minutes later we watched our plane touch down on the dirt runway. Today’s transport was an Aero Kenya twin prop with Czech-made engines (the engine was right outside my window so I was staring at the label the whole flight, which read “Powered by Walter Engine, Praha, Czech Republic”). It was a short flight to the bustling (relatively speaking) Nanyuki airport, which was the most evidence of “civilization” that we had seen in some days. We were too early to check in at the Mount Kenya Safari Club, so Tonnie suggested that we pay a visit to a nearby girls’ boarding school (I have the name of the school written down, but it is buried somewhere in my Africa paraphernalia) and then stop by the Nanyuki Spinners & Weavers project. I was very happy to hear this because I had read about the Nanyuki project on the Fodor's board before our trip, but had forgotten exactly where it was and figured we had missed it already.

We climbed into two Toyota minivans (now we really knew we were back in civilization) and stopped at the school first, driving through a secure gate into the dirt courtyard, where a bunch of girls with close-cropped hair in matching bright-colored dresses were running around. They all stared at us when we arrived; some waved and giggled shyly when we waved back. The school principal greeted us warmly and showed us around, obviously quite proud of her students’ achievements. In her office she showed us a board displaying the students' test scores in various subjects over the past few years. Another listed the top student from each class and what secondary school and university they had attended after graduating. A small number of the students are orphans; their names were listed separately and it was obvious that they receive special attention. The school is funded in part by the Presbyterian Church but is a government school (as opposed to private). The grounds were tidy and the buildings – simple concrete structures with corrugated metal roofs – looked to be in good condition; there was even a computer lab. We were led into a 5th grade classroom where the girls, who are just starting to learn English, sang several perfectly enunciated songs. Outside, a 7th-grade class recited a poem for us on the theme, “education is the key to life.” I felt a bit awkward with all those wide-eyed faces gaping at us, but I really enjoyed our visit. I wish we had had the opportunity to talk to some of the girls individually.

Right next door to the school is the Nanyuki Spinners and Weavers project, also funded in part by the Presbyterian Church to provide poor, widowed, and single women with weaving skills to support themselves and their families. We got to see the entire process from start to finish as we proceeded through a series of rooms full of women, their hands in constant motion: first carding and spinning the wool into yarn, then boiling and dyeing the yarn with all-natural plant materials (the dyeing takes place outside, in heavy iron pots over open fires), and finally weaving the yarn into rugs, wall hangings, shawls, and sweaters. Outside, the weavers’ small flock of sheep was wandering freely on the grounds. Many of us bought items from the small shop – DH and I finally decided on a wall hanging of three elephants under an acacia tree ($58), similar to the “Elephant Runner” pictured on their website. Several women in the weaving room were working on a special order of wall hangings depicting two cat faces in bright shades of purple, green, and orange – they were gorgeous and I really wish they had had some of that design available for sale.

Then it was on to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, nestled in the lushly
wooded foothills below the craggy, snow-topped mountain (the second-highest in Africa) that gives the club its name. I had high expectations for the Safari Club, given its illustrious history: it was founded in 1959 as an exclusive hunting retreat by the movie star William Holden and his friends, and its membership roster reads like a “who’s-who” of international aristocracy and celebrity (charter members included Walt Disney, John Wayne, Lyndon Johnson, Clark Gable, and William Randolph Hearst). The club is now a Fairmont hotel, but signs of its storied past are everywhere. The low-slung main buildings have an understated elegance – posh but not overdone, with hunting trophies everywhere and lovely courtyard gardens.

For the moment, Mount Kenya itself was hidden in the clouds. We sat in a spacious lounge, enjoying the view of the very tempting pool and landscaped grounds framed between two giant elephant tusks, while Tonnie checked us in. Then we went straight to the dining room for lunch, which was a bit of a disaster. The place was busy, with what looked like a lot of businessmen, although nowhere near full. We never got the drinks we ordered, there was a huge line for the buffet, and by the time we got to the food, they had run out of all sorts of things. DH finally gave up and decided not to eat (very unusual for DH). I ate quickly, then we signed up for a horseback ride tomorrow afternoon before heading off in search of our room. The lodgings sprawl over many acres (they actually have vans to take guests to their rooms) and I think ours was one of the furthest away, but we weren’t complaining, as we needed the exercise. A guard in a police officer-type uniform encountered us mid-way and insisted on carrying one of our backpacks and walking us all the way to our “riverside cabin” (#119 – by “riverside” I think they mean that you can hear the river). He wavered momentarily by our door as if he might be expecting a tip, but we didn’t give him one since we hadn’t requested his services. Our room was huge and nicely appointed, with a stone fireplace, comfortable armchairs in a large sitting area, and a private veranda. We had a gray marble bathroom with two (!) sinks, a shower, and sunken tub. (We had only been supplied with one small bottle of water and had to request more from the front desk; remember that we even brushed our teeth with bottled water.) In spite of all this, the Safari Club was not one of our favorite lodgings on the trip. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I couldn't help feeling like the whole place was a little faded, perhaps resting a bit too heavily on its laurels.

We had the afternoon to ourselves so DH and I visited the animal orphanage (1000 shillings per person). This experience was even better than advertised. We simply showed up at the gate, where we were met by a very nice young woman who gave us a personal guided tour. First we went over to visit the three orphaned cheetahs (two brothers and a sister) because it was their feeding time. They were all lying on top of a sort of tree house structure in one corner of their enclosure and really had to be convinced that it was worth the trouble to come over for their supper. They were fed big bowls of raw meat, one at a time, in a separate small enclosure, then sprawled on the ground and cleaned their faces. After seeing these amazing cats in the wild, it was nice to get a close look at them, but I think this was the first time I realized that visiting a zoo will never be the same. Next we met Patricia the ostrich, who snapped corn out of our hands, Oliver the adorable 4-month-old Cape buffalo (hard to believe he would turn into one of Africa’s most dangerous animals), a baby eland, and a baby wildebeest, all of whom were wandering freely on the grounds of the orphanage. Oliver was so persistent in his pursuit of our corn that our guide had to lure him away and put him in his pen. We saw two African porcupines and a variety of monkeys, including a very inquisitive Sykes's monkey and a black-and-white Colobus named Jack, who is wild but comes to visit his friends every day. He will jump on your arm to be fed but unfortunately he wasn’t feeling very sociable when we visited. I did feed another Colobus through the wire fencing – I had never felt a monkey’s hand before, and the sensation of those small, soft fingers taking the corn out of my hand was unforgettable.

The parade of animals went on and on…various species of small cats (including forest cats with kittens that looked just like house cats), two “zebroids” (half horse, half zebra – originally bred in an attempt to develop a new pack animal), a pair of pygmy hippos who were fast asleep in a mud puddle, two white rhinos (the female has a two-and-a-half-foot-long horn!), a giant tortoise, and a pair of crowned cranes (the male had broken its wing, so they brought the female in too because they mate for life). The orphanage also has a captive breeding program underway for the bongo, a beautiful, endangered forest antelope with dramatic white stripes. One of the bongos had just given birth, and for the sum of $500 the youngster was available for “adoption” complete with naming rights. We really enjoyed our visit to the orphanage and were quite impressed with the whole operation; it is truly much more than an orphanage, as they are engaged in a variety of breeding programs and release many animals back into the wild. We assured our guide that we would come back tomorrow to make a donation to their efforts.

After our visit to the orphanage, we wandered through the club’s numerous art galleries and shops, then made our way back to our room. Dinner was a much more pleasant affair – a four-course meal (I had beef with a mushroom sauce) with a delicious pineapple and ice cream dessert. Now that we had finally arrived at Mount Kenya, we were really struck by the fact that our African safari was coming to a close. Soon we would be returning to Nairobi for our flights home, but we were looking forward to our final day – especially our visit to Sweetwaters Game Reserve to see Morani the “tame” black rhino.

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