Monday, December 6, 2010

Safari in East Africa

I will start this post with the Swahili “tourist song” we heard almost every day during our travels in East Africa with Tanzania substituted for Kenya when appropriate:

Jambo, jambo bwana
Habari gani
Mzuri sana
Wagena, Wakaribishwa
Kenya yetu, Hakuna Matata

The translation is:
Hello Mr./Ms.
What's the news?
Very good!
Welcome guests!
In Kenya we have no problems/worries.

As indicated in this song, we found all East Africans to be very welcoming and they often were thrilled to hear we were from the U.S. (AMERICA!) and wanted to know what state we were from as many had learned some North American geography in school. One guy even knew about TVA for all you Tennesseans reading this!

One thing we quickly learned is that going on safari is hard on your body. You spend up to eight hours per day in a 4WD vehicle (either a minivan or Land Rover) traveling mostly on rough dirt tracks which means lots of bouncing & banging around and guaranteed bruises. The guides jokingly call this an African massage. However you’re advised not to wear a seatbelt during game drives so you are free to stand up and view the animals or scenery from the open roof. There is dust everywhere which is unavoidable and will find its way into every crack & crevice of your photographic equipment, binoculars, day bag & body. Also, toilet facilities are extremely limited and often it’s not safe to get out of the vehicle, so be prepared to “hold it” for long periods of time, to “check the tires” (ie, squat behind the vehicle) and otherwise to use pit or squat toilets with no toilet paper or running water.

We typically went on one or two game drives per day, each lasting about three hours, with one early in the morning just after sunrise and the other later in the afternoon just before sunset. This arrangement leaves plenty of time for eating, lounging by the pool, reading or napping during the day. Of course, I spent the majority of my spare time reviewing & editing all the photos I had taken the previous day(s)! Alternately, if the park is vast enough or the drive time to & from the lodge is significant, you can go out on an all day game drive lasting up to eight hours with a short break for a picnic lunch. We also spent a lot of time in transit between the parks which we selected in order to see the widest variety of landscapes & animals, so many days involved an average of four hours driving from one lodge to another.

Our Kenya safari was private, meaning we had a personal driver/guide and a minivan that could seat up to 9 passengers all to ourselves. In Tanzania we had a driver/guide and a Land Rover that could seat up to 8 passengers. Here we were part of a diverse group of travelers that included two women from London who had climbed Mt Kilimanjaro for a charity fundraiser the previous week, a Belgian couple on annual holiday sans kids, and an Italian woman vacationing solo. Of course there are pros & cons to both arrangements but we actually ended up enjoying both equally. The pros for our private safari were having more 1:1 interaction with our guide, more space in the safari vehicle to move around to take pictures or just to stretch out on long rides, and the flexibility to request slight changes to the itinerary as needed (ie, extra pit stops, modify game drive start or end times, etc.). The pros for our group safari were sharing the experience with others (we were lucky to have funny, smart, well-traveled & easygoing companions) and having more eyes looking for hard-to-spot animals.

As you’ll see in my park notes, we stayed in a variety of lodges in Kenya but only Serena properties in Tanzania with the exception of The Arusha Hotel. All of our accommodations were 4-5 star which I would equate to 3-4 star by U.S. standards. Considering the remote location of the lodges, the facilities and service were excellent overall. We always had ensuite bathrooms with shower & sit-down toilet, hot water, clean sheets & towels, a reasonably comfortable bed, a fantastic view and unique properties that blended well with the natural environment. At all the lodges we were given cold or hot washcloths and fresh juice, usually mango, upon arrival.

I personally thought the Serena properties were a step above the others we stayed in, particularly concerning the quality of the food. Meal times are standard at all the lodges: breakfast is from 6:30-9:30AM, lunch from 12:30-2:30PM and dinner from 7:30-9:30PM. I would have preferred to eat dinner earlier, especially on days when we had been up since 6AM. We never were hungry for very long as most meals were served buffet-style but sometimes with the soup, entrée & dessert a la carte, especially when there were few guests. I’m sure we both gained weight from eating three meals a day, not to mention enjoying treats like bacon, sausage, made-to-order omelets, desserts, etc. that we rarely eat on our RTW travel budget. A note to vegetarians: there are plenty of options to choose from and often the non-meat dishes were the highlight of a meal. I also particularly enjoyed the peanuts, cashews and cassava chips that were served with drinks at the bar before dinner!

Most lodges offer free evening entertainment like Masai dance, acrobatics, live music or naturalist-hosted slide shows. You can also take advantage of optional activities like massage or beauty treatments, nature hikes, hot air balloon rides or traditional village visits. Surprisingly, most of the lodges had swimming pools although we only swam once, at the Samburu Sopa, as it was quite hot during the middle of the day between our game drives.

What we didn’t like was that smoking was allowed in the lodges’ indoor areas (e.g. the bar and lobby) and on game drives (but not inside the vehicle). We also encountered a few families with very young children under the age of five whom we heard screaming/crying during mealtimes as well as during big game sightings on safari (the jeeps would pull so close together and the windows & roofs were open so you could clearly hear your neighbors). I think the minimum age at the safari lodges should be at least 12! Another minor gripe is that all the lodges offered a bad exchange rate for U.S. dollars although that was the preferred form of payment for extras like soft drinks & alcohol plus they wouldn‘t accept credit cards for bills under $20. For us that meant that a bottle of beer priced on the menu as the equivalent of $3.75 would cost us at least $4.50 and even if we paid with a credit card the mark up due to the lodge’s exchange rate (not the bank’s since transactions were recorded in dollars not shillings) was a minimum of 7% and as high as 30%!

Tipping at the lodges is not required but is suggested by tour operators. However we found tipping can be tricky because staff often share responsibilities. For example, during mealtimes, we would have a designated waiter who took our food or drink order but often other staff cleared our dishes and even delivered the food, thus doing the majority of the work. I never saw another guest leave money on the table and I only did it once in the very beginning but thereafter decided to hand it ($1 per meal) to the person we felt deserved it the most. Another example: about half the time two porters carried our bags (one bag each) versus one porter carrying both bags but since the suggested tip is $0.50 per bag we usually gave $1 to only one of the porters and hoped they would split it somehow.

Last but certainly not least, I want to mention my friend Tim Geiss who helped to plan then made the arrangements for our safari. His years of experience traveling (as a Delta flight attendant) and leading small group safaris to East Africa were invaluable. He customized our itinerary based on numerous emails & phone conversations we had in July. This safari was a dream come true for me and Tim played a critical role in making it all come together so smoothly.

As for the remainder of this blog post, I have first listed some general observations from our travels in each country followed by a few notes or highlights from each park. I have also tried to document the names of all of the animals we saw, but have only touched on the proper names of all of the birds & plants. We were so lucky to have some amazing animal experiences which I mention briefly for each park. However, this is where my photos & videos come in handy, as words cannot do justice to what we saw but images will give you some idea.

Kenya - misc.
Kenya - Lake Nakuru
Kenya - Samburu
Kenya - Mt Kenya
Tanzania - misc.
Tanzania - Lake Manyara
Tanzania - Serengeti (warning: there are graphic photos of recently killed animals in this album)
Tanzania - Ngorongoro
I haven't been able to upload my videos due to the slow internet connection speeds here in South Africa, but please keep an eye on my Facebook page for updates as they are well worth waiting for!


Kenya - Racing the sunset
us with our driver/guide Thomas
Our driver/guide of 14yrs Thomas Kinyanzui (Kamba tribe)
Fines for staying out in parks past 6:30PM due to risk from poachers; fines for driving off-track
Huge variety of birds - too many to identify & list
We’re lucky to have a private vehicle so we can spread out to take pictures and not bump each other when moving
Kenya main roads are pretty bad; some stretches are ok, recently paved and with lines; most have huge potholes, few markings, rough shoulders, must watch out for other vehicles driving erratically, people & animals (donkeys, cows, sheep, goats); many roads are unpaved/dirt
Most villages seem more like shanty-towns; nicest buildings are almost always churches and there are many; examples of names: Redeemed Gospel, Saint X, Y or Z, Spirit Ministry, 7th Day Adventist, Christian Rock Mission Center, Refuge of Hope, Highway of Holiness Center, God’s Endtime Rescue Mission, Wonders Tabernacle Church, Liberation Ministry; one building advertised a “Marriage Encounter” sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of Kenya
Tusker beer was referred to as “elephant piss”
Coffee & tea plantations in the Rift Valley
Del Monte pineapple plantation - biggest in Africa
Children walking to school in uniforms
Matatus - shared vans, new regulation is to only carry 14 people but we still saw some with more
Animals being transported by motorcycle or bike (live, squirming pig in sack; sheep in bike basket)
Crossed the equator multiple times but stopped once for the Coriolis effect demonstration
USAID signs in many locations
Drove past the privately-owned Lewa Wildlife Conservancy where Prince William visited in November around the time he proposed to Kate Middleton
Highlands wheat fields & greenhouses (flowers, vegetables) owned by companies like Tilaflor & Homegrown
Saw BATUK vehicles, soldiers, compound (British Army Training Unit Kenya)
Checkpoint at Isiolo where roads go to Somalia & Ethiopia
Local men & women come up to van any time we stop somewhere and try to sell us jewelry, fruit, art, etc.
Animal guidebook says hyrax & elephant are closest relatives; the hyrax is a small rodent-like creature, that’s why this seems impossible
Villagers carry machetes like we carry a purse or umbrella; babies are tied to mothers with a shawl or blanket
Due to seasonal nature of safari work, lodge employees/drivers/guides work almost nonstop during high season then take weeks off during low
Thika was referred to as “the Birmingham of Kenya” on a road sign
A Chinese company is building a highway to/from Nairobi; we questioned their motivation but believe it is to gain access to surrounding regions/countries that are mineral-rich
Had minor accident driving through heavy traffic & road construction just outside of Nairobi; luckily the other driver, a female, did not demand police intervention as it really was her fault
Masai village visit costs extra $30 per person

Lake Nakuru
Lake Nakuru Lodge sits on a hill overlooking the park & lake
Watched Cape buffalo & baboons at watering hole near the lodge’s outdoor dining area
Rhino standoff with our van
Must lock doors to keep out baboons
Slept under mosquito net

Samburu
Drove by several Masai villages
Samburu Sopa Lodge blends in with surroundings; power is by generator so electricity only available a few hours in the morning & evening
Dik diks everywhere; tiny antelopes but remind me of dogs
Two lions with fresh warthog kill
At night, escorted by security guard with club to ward off animals (no fence around lodge)
Wart hogs, guinea fowl, oryx came to drink at small water hole by dining room
Elephant herd passed 6ft beside our safari van
2-month-old elephant playing with older sibling; plus saw 1.5-week-old baby elephant
Leopard lounging in tree
Ewaso Nyiro River, Ololokwe (table mountain)

Mt Kenya National Park
Serena Mountain Lodge built overlooking natural watering hole; has underground bunker plus multiple levels of open air viewing areas and all rooms have balconies
Lush, green, densely forested and much cooler at 7200ft
Squirrel in dining room; monkeys plus another unidentified animal (mongoose or genet or civet) walked across our balcony railing
Food quality was step above previous lodges; ate pecan pie on Thanksgiving day
Must lock doors to keep out Sykes monkeys; noticed that many are deformed (missing whole or part of arms, legs, tail, ears)
Animal order form: naturalist came to dinner table to take “order” for what animals we would want to be woken up for if they came to the watering hole during the night

Swahili words we learned & used:
Jambo = hello
Kwaheri = goodbye
Karibu = welcome
Hapana = no
Asante (sana) = thank you (very much)
Hakuna matata = no problem
Sowa sowa = okay
Duma = cheetah
Chui = leopard
Simba = lion

Animal checklist:
Common zebra
Olive baboon
Black-faced vervet monkey
Cape buffalo
Impala
Thompsons gazelle
White rhinoceros
Warthog
Lion
Black & white colobus monkey
Rothschild’s giraffe
Rock hyrax
Common waterbuck
Kirk’s dik dik
Defassa waterbuck
Reticulated giraffe
Grants gazelle
Gerenuk
Unstriped ground squirrel
Beisa oryx
African hare
Nile crocodile
Hippopotamus
African elephant
Savannah monitor lizard
Greater kudu
Grevy’s zebra
White-tailed mongoose
Spotted hyaena
Leopard
Sykes monkey
Leopard tortoise
Large-spotted genet
Bushbuck

Birds:
Marabou stork
Cattle egret
Crowned plover
African fish eagle
Great white pelican
Greater flamingo
Lesser flamingo
African spoonbill
Tawny eagle
Lilac-breasted roller
Verreaux’s eagle owl
Coqui francolin
Hoopoe
Vulturine guineafowl
Yellow-necked spurfowl
Grey-crowned crane
Whitehead buffalo weaver
Secretary bird
Helmeted guineafowl
Superb starling
Somali blue-necked ostrich
Glossy ibis
Fulvous whistling duck
Egyptian goose
Dark chanting goshawk
Kori bustard
Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse
Speckled pigeon
Ring-necked dove
Malachite kingfisher
Little bee-eater
Red & yellow barbet
Red-billed hornbill
Eastern yellow-billed hornbill
eastern violet-backed sunbird
Black-headed oriole

Plants:
Jacaranda
Yellow barked acacia
Flat topped acacia
Candelabra tree
Flame tree
Doum palm
Desert rose

Tanzania - Safari Njema
the Tanzania safari gang
Sumawe was our driver/guide with 14 years experience
Overall main roads were much better than Kenya’s; park roads (which are really just very rough dirt paths) are comparable
Safari vehicle was a 4WD Land Rover with 2 gas tanks and 8pax capacity; more suited to the rough terrain than the minivan we had in Kenya
Our traveling companions were Hayley & Mimi (London, England), Hans & Arianne (Bruges, Belgium) and Vicenza (Rome, Italy)
Tried Kilimanjaro, Serengeti & Safari beers
Flew in on 11-seat Air Kenya plane; 50min from Nairobi’s Wilson airport to Kilimanjaro airport; 10,000ft or lower for most of flight; some turbulence which was a bit scary in such a small (but very nice & modern) plane
Visa fee was US$100 per person cash
Lots of signs for orphanages
Saw Masai animal herders as young as 5-years-old alone
Alternating sweet & earthy smell
Sumawe calls old male Cape buffalo “retired generals”
Masai wear bright colors, particularly red, to scare away wild animals
Saw one Masai in traditional attire carrying a spear but wearing a white cowboy hat; saw another wearing a fancy watch
Children by the road waving but sometimes holding out hands for money or making hand to mouth gesture
Serena hotels were all very nice but king size beds were hard
Masai village visit costs extra $50 per group
Loved the strong coffee although one day it almost made me sick from too much caffeine because I drank three cups at breakfast

Lake Manyara
Lake Manyara Serena Lodge overlooking lake & valley; baboons near our room, squirrels & birds in dining room; checked on Tim’s tree
Turndown service includes mosquito net
Were supposed to have “bush dinner” (picnic) but it got rained out
I thought the nametag for a dessert called “malabia” said “malaria”
Hippo pool with all kinds of animals around
Baby monkeys playing; baboon grooming
Small car overloaded with bananas
Boys with chameleons on a stick

Serengeti
Scenery truly is “endless plain” but there are plenty of green, brushy areas (tsetse flies) & water
Serengeti Serena Lodge turndown service includes mosquito net; required to have security escort after dark (no fence around lodge) - saw elephant near our room, owl on nest, dik diks, guinea fowl; told that water buffalo drink from the pool every night; Vincenza saw lions outside her room
Male impalas fighting for domination
Saw two leopards in one day
Watched female lion (leader of pride) get up from resting spot under a tree to slowly hunt & kill zebra
Bat swooping in & out of lodge bar
Rained in the late afternoon or evening both days
Saw a cheetah


Ngorongoro
Oldupai Gorge is a bit anticlimactic; tiny museum has good info & displays but otherwise not much to see
Heavy rain on drive from Serengeti then again during lunch the following day and in the evening
Ngorongoro Serena Lodge sits on the crater rim; saw a bushbuck near our patio
Saw another cheetah
5-legged elephant
Black rhino
Two old male lions are called coalition brothers
Had to eat picnic lunch in jeep due to black kites

Animal/bird/plant list (only includes different species than we observed in Kenya):
Black rhinoceros
0xpecker
Silvery-cheeked hornbill
Masai giraffe
Masai ostrich
Coke’s hartebeest
Wildebeest
Topi
White-bellied bustard
Black-bellied bustard
Bateleur eagle
Dwarf mongoose
Mousebird
Magpie shrike
Speckled weaver
Black-spotted hyena
Yellow-billed pelican
Blue monkey
Fireball lily
Golden jackal
Black backed jackal
Black cobra
Cheetah
Black kite
Grey-headed social weaver
Crinum lily
Sacred ibis

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