Monday, July 23, 2007

16 February: Mount Kenya

There’s no rest for the weary, even those on their last day of safari! We were up before 7 and on our way to Sweetwaters Game Reserve at 8 a.m. sharp. (We had a nice buffet breakfast in the dining room and enjoyed a clear morning view of Mount Kenya.) En route to Sweetwaters we saw a couple of Reticulated giraffe and several African Forest elephants. The Reticulated giraffe sports a distinctly different pattern from the Maasai giraffe (the species we had seen throughout our trip). The Reticulated giraffe looks like a web of white lines drawn on a brown background, while the Maasai giraffe sports jagged brown splotches on a pale background. The Forest elephant was recently determined to be a distinct species from the African Bush elephant. Forest elephants are considerably smaller and have rounder ears and more curved tusks than the Bush elephant. The ones we saw were browsing in the trees by the side of the road, befitting their name. We also stopped to watch a large troop of baboons socializing noisily just off the road. (I felt a bit sorry for our driver because he kept pointing things out and we kept saying, “Yeah, we know that,” or “Yeah, we’ve seen that,” adding a hopeful, “Seen any leopards?” It must be really challenging for the drivers to entertain a group of jaded safari travelers at the very end of their trip!)

Sweetwaters is a 24,000-acre private game reserve located on the plains below Mount Kenya and is the closest reserve to Nairobi (about 250 km) to boast all of the “Big Five” game animals. One of the main attractions is the Chimpanzee Sanctuary, a 200-acre compound established by Kenya Wildlife Services, the Jane Goodall Institute, and Lonrho East Africa (one-time owners of Sweetwaters) to provide a near-natural setting for the rehabilitation of orphaned, abused, and illegally traded chimps. The sanctuary currently supports about two dozen chimps. We were split into two groups and walked through a gate in the high electric fence into the sanctuary to look for the chimps (my understanding is that the chimps were actually on the other side of the river from us – they can be aggressive and unpredictable and it would be dangerous to walk into their territory). We walked along a narrow, winding trail deep into the bush but didn’t find any chimps, so we retraced our steps to the main entrance and climbed up a sort of lookout tower, where they have an exhibit identifying each of the chimps by name and telling the story of how they ended up at Sweetwaters. Many of these stories are heartbreaking – it is impossible to know how many chimps have been captured, abused, and killed as part of the illegal pet trade – but it is comforting to know that places like Sweetwaters exist. We did eventually see a few chimps, who made their way over to the tower and then sat in the shade scratching their heads and staring at us. (Unfortunately my camera wasn’t working because I didn’t have the lens on properly – thanks to DH for figuring out that dumb mistake! – so I only got a couple of photos.)

On our way to see Morani the rhino, we spotted another Reticulated giraffe, who posed obligingly for us in front of Mount Kenya. Morani (which means “warrior” in Maasai) is a black rhino who was rescued as a baby after his mother was killed by poachers in Amboseli National Park. They attempted to return Morani to the wild, but he didn’t get along with other rhinos, so they established a 100-acre enclosure for him at Sweetwaters, where he is protected around the clock by armed guards. We hiked through the bush for about ten minutes to find Morani sprawled on his side in the dirt, enjoying a midday siesta. Our guide started to throw sticks at him to try to get him to wake up, but we all protested – Morani just looked so content (and we weren’t sure we wanted to be that close to a cranky rhino).

We all took turns kneeling next to Morani for photos and giving him a pat, which he didn’t seem to mind. To be so close to such a huge and normally dangerous creature, touching that impossibly thick, wrinkled skin and smooth horn – so coveted by poachers – was simply amazing. Of course what we didn’t realize until we looked at our photos later is that in our khakis and safari hats, we looked the epitome of “The Great White Hunter” posing with our prize trophy! Morani did lift his head once and literally bowled over poor B, who was kneeling next to him at the time, but I’m quite sure he didn’t mean her any harm.

We drove back to the Safari Club for a buffet lunch (which was much better today) and then DH and I headed to the meeting point near the stables for our horseback ride, joined by FIL and C. There was some confusion over our reservation (the man at the front desk had signed us up for yesterday instead of today and didn’t have FIL on the list at all, so they had to go saddle up another horse) but we got it all sorted out eventually. I rode Casper, a friendly dark bay. We headed out into the bush, past a sign that read, “Guests are not allowed outside this gate unless accompanied by a hotel guard,” and headed up a fairly steep, forested trail. It was a very quiet ride and we didn’t see a single living creature except for the occasional bird. We did see a lot of bleached-white cattle skeletons and when we asked our guide about them, he said in a rather ominous voice, “There was a drought in 2005. Many Maasai brought their cattle here to graze. Most of them died.” That was pretty much the only thing our guide said on our one-hour ride. I am always happy to get on a horse, but overall I was a bit disappointed with the ride – we followed a rather dreary pre-determined loop trail and our guide reluctantly let us trot for about 20 yards on our way back to the lodge.

We had just enough time after our ride for a quick dip in the pool, which was quite heavenly. This was the one and only time that we wore our swimsuits (and shorts for that matter) on the entire trip! Before dinner we returned to the animal orphanage to make a donation, which means our name will be engraved on a tile and we will be able to enter the orphanage for free if we ever have the opportunity to make a return visit.

We all convened in the “Trophy Lounge” for drinks before dinner and watched a group of dancers sporting feathered costumes and long drums performing on the lawn as the sun set on our last night in Africa. Then we all gathered in cushy chairs in a big circle in front of the lounge fireplace, sang the “Jambo Bwana” song, and chatted about the highs and lows of our safari experience. I looked around the room and realized that at this time tomorrow, we would be saying farewell to our now close-knit safari family. In telling this long tale I have not spent a lot of time talking about the members of our group. Suffice it to say that one of the biggest surprises of our trip was not the amazing wildlife or the stunning scenery – those things you expect from a safari – but rather the camaraderie of sharing the experience with a wonderful group of people. I will never forget our safari mates.

Dinner was lovely – I had pasta with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes for a light change of pace and then we trundled off to bed.

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