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Sunday, 24 September 2017

Under African skies, pt 4

The next few days were to be spent on the Kenyan Maasai Mara area, over 1500 sq km in area and lightly populated.  Getting there was a bit of a trial with several hours of badly corrugated dirt roads but boy, was it worth it!  Interestingly, on the way in, we saw quite a bit of road and rail infrastructure construction being undertaken by the Chinese. Couldn't help wondering whether there was a price to be paid at some future date which wouldn't be in the best interests of Kenya.

Before leaving NZ, Jennie and I had purchased a whole load of pencils, pens and paper as we'd heard that education outside the main population centres wasn't well supported by the authorities.  We had a quiet word with our guide Ole, who knew where a bit of help would be very welcome. That lead to one of the highlights of our entire trip, and a pretty emotional one at that.

Seemingly miles from anywhere, we pulled in at a small collection of mud and wattle huts which was actually a school for the children of local Maasai families.  In most situations like this, children don't get an education at all but a local woman regarded this as totally unacceptable and set up some classrooms relying entirely on donations to fund the 3 teachers and materials.

We were welcomed by some of the parents in their traditional costumes which are worn by Maasai everywhere.  The bright colours allows them to be recognised over long distances.  The other male on the safari who is a farmer from the Melbourne area and I were invited to take part in a traditional dance and we were more than happy to make fools of ourselves!

Maasai farmers and two people making fools of themselves

The classrooms were a revelation inside.  Pretty basic, but all the really important things were in place and the kids were absolutely gorgeous.  Staggeringly, they were taught (and were competent) in 3 languages - a local Maasai dialect, Swahili and English.

Wonderful kids - could have spent all day with them

Leading a number exercise in 3 languages!

Back to the classroom

However, it was something else which the woman mentioned which nearly brought me to tears, and I wasn't the only one. Many of us will have read about female genital mutilation practised in this part of the world. It's now illegal to do so but apparently, it still happens in the remote areas. This wonderful woman provides a refuge out of her own pocket for teens whose parents plan to continue this practice and some of the tales were heartbreaking. On the positive side, we were introduced to a girl who had been rescued and was about to leave for university to become a teacher.  It was a fantastic example of what someone with drive and determination can achieve with limited resources and we were all completely humbled.  

During our stay in this region, we lived in tented camps which were pretty cool.  These were a small collection of  individual canvas tents with toilets and showers attached and a canvas communal dining area some 100 metres away. Power was provided by a mix of solar and generator. We had strict instructions that after dark, if we wanted to step outside the tent, signal with a torch and someone would escort us as wild animals of all types roamed freely outside.  Indeed, we could hear things moving about during the night and a thin layer of canvas between us and them wasn't a comforting thought if there was something outside feeling peckish.  The food was excellent although omlettes for breakfast with lethal green chillies in them came as a bit of a surprise (gross understatement) for the unwary!

Here's some of the animals we encountered on our game drives and feel utterly privileged to have been able to photograph them.  The real surprise was the sheer density of the animals.  You only had to drive for a minute or two at a time to find something new.

Wildebeest herd stretching to the horizon - part of the great perpetual migration 

Buffalo and Grant's Gazelle herds

A lioness has just killed a buffalo

Who are you staring at???

I guess we all have favourite animals and mine is the Cheetah.  I'd be hard-pressed to tell you why but it's probably got something to do with their indifferent elegance - a bit like a model on a catwalk.  We came round a corner and there was one chilling out by a bush  - utter magic.  The safari could have ended right then and I'd have been happy but there was a lot more to come.

I'm faster than you, I'm more beautiful than you, human!

We then had a reminder of the life and death cycle on the great plains with a flock of vultures dismembering the remains of a carcass with a Marabou stork hanging about waiting for its turn.

A literal pecking order

A Dazzle of Zebras (what a great term for them!)

Near the spot we were due to stop for lunch, we came upon a male and female lion who were, to use a technical phrase, "getting it on".  Indeed, they were getting it on so often that out of politeness, we had to delay taking our photos!  Here's one between sessions with the lioness in the missionary position.  Those early missionaries had a lot to answer for :-) .

How was it for you, dear?

Lunch stop - our guide keeping a lookout to stop us from becoming lunch!

As a slightly amusing aside, consider the practicalities of taking a pee in hostile country and where there is also relatively little modesty cover.  Or as our guide Ole calls it, "Marking your territory".  Ole has the answer for that.  He parks the Land Cruiser a short distance from the picnic site and the girls go behind it whilst the guys walk a 100 metres in the other direction and stand with their backs turned.  Ole remains in the vicinity of the picnic area with his big knife in case things with lunch on their mind show up.  I must say that everyone took the arrangement in their stride, probably because there was no alternative.

Ole parking the 4x4 at a respectable distance from the picnic site

Secretary Bird looking for lizards and insects

A Sausage Tree - looks like something from a "B" science fiction movie

We headed towards the Mara River in hope of seeing the Wildebeest cross the river as part of the Great Migration.  Sadly, they came up to the river, took a look and for some reason, decided not to cross at that particular time.  However, there were plenty of distractions just upriver including a bunch of hippos lounging on one bank and a rather large crocodile watching hopefully from the other.

A bloat of hippos

Never smile at a crocodile, la la......

The stay in Maasai Mara concluded our stay in Kenya and we headed back to Nairobi ready for more adventures in Tanzania.  We were really sorry to be leaving Ole behind as he'd been such fun and a wonderful guide.  We were also sorry to be losing Chris and Martin, two of our Aussie friends who had been such great company.  They were heading to another part of Africa to continue their travels.  On the way back, I took some random photos to illustrate everyday life along one of the main highways.

Colourful chaos in Narok

Motorcycle taxi rank, Kenya style

Roadside fruit and veggie stall

Maasai herdsman moving cattle along the roadside

Three donkey power water tanker

Ascending the edge of the Great Rift Valley

For several km coming into Nairobi, the main road margins are literally jammed with businesses plying their wares and make a both interesting and colourful backdrop.  For some reason, the manufacture of ornate gates for properties is fairly common and it has to be said that despite a lack of modern manufacturing tools, the standard of workmanship is exceptional.  Also, coloured pots make a great roadside display.

Beautifully made gates

Pots by the thousands along the roadside

All too soon, our week in Kenya was over and it was sad to say goodbye to Ole who was a superb ambassador for his country.  What a thrill it was to see all those animals in their natural habitat, the stunning scenery and equally importantly, the wonderful people we met along the way.  Time to head to Tanzania for the next part of the safari!

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Under African Skies, pt3

On the drive to the World Heritage site of Lake Nakuru, we saw the Great Rift Valley for the first time and it's overwhelming. Unless you happen to be a Creationist, it's regarded as the Cradle of Mankind where the oldest traces of our ancestors have been found.   It's some 6000 km long and runs approximately from Lebanon/Jordan/Israel through to Mozambique.  Almost impossible to get your head round the vastness.

A valley on an epic scale

Our first view of the Great Rift Valley - surprisingly green at this point

En route, we crossed the equator and stopped for a tug of war across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres!  The coloured buckets below were full of water and for some coins, the locals would apparently demonstrate that when poured through a funnel, the water would rotate in different directions either side of the nominal centre line.  We weren't that anxious to part with our money! 

North vs South tug o' war!

People-watching on the main highway was a pleasant diversion and just like south-east Asia, motorcycles are strictly cheap utility vehicles as opposed for fun.  We saw all sorts of precarious loads on them and the photo below is by no means the worst example.  In this case, two fully laden milk churns for the local village and a massive plastic bag full of something unidentifiable must have made the handling quite interesting.  Being an IAM Observer, it's nigh-on impossible to stop analysing other people's riding and driving habits.  Jennie hates driving whilst I'm in the car because she reckons that she can read my body language!  Anyway, I digress.  I'd been casually watching our guide Ole behind the wheel and was quite impressed with his road positioning and overtakes which indicated a good degree of situational awareness. Turns out that when he worked for British Petroleum in Kenya a few years ago, they put him through an advanced defensive driving course and it certainly showed.  Didn't mention any of this to Jennie on account of not wanting to be called a sad bastard, followed by the obligatory eye-rolling and sighs.

Well, that's one way to pop easy wheelies!

Just before turning off for the long dirt road drive to Lake Nakuru, we stopped at a roadside stall that featured crafts by local artisans.  They were beautifully made and really cheap after the expected haggling.  We eventually settled for a stylised wooden giraffe and a print of Maasai girls on cotton fabric which we're going to get framed.

Ooh, what long legs you have!

Seven Gorgeous Maasai Girls

On reaching Nakuru National Park, it was much more like my idea of Africa with grassy plains, interspersed with trees and some water.  There were iconic African animals everywhere, although we still had to encounter big cats.

Baby baboon hitching a ride

Hyenas chilling in the late afternoon sun

Coming out of the treeline, we encountered a couple of rhinos which steadfastly ignored us.  Whilst poaching still goes on from time to time in Kenya and Tanzania, summary justice meted out by armed park rangers and increased penalties has significantly reduced the incidence.  A lot of work is now going on with Chinese authorities in particular to curb demand by a series of initiatives. 

Tandem eating. What an absolute privilege to see them in their natural state

Zebra were everywhere and were often found with Wildebeest.  Apparently, it's a sort of symbiotic relationship where zebras have acute eyesight and Wildebeest have great hearing and smell.

Does my butt look big in these stripes??

Our first sighting of giraffes in the distance

Pink flamingos on the lake edge

Next, it's on to Maasai Mara, the highlight of the Kenyan leg of the safari!

Under African Skies, pt 2

Doha airport (Hamad International) is a staggering place and the business class lounge was more like a 5 star hotel with exquisite seating and as much free food and drink as it's humanly possible to tuck away!  We merely settled for a light breakfast as pigging out early in the morning didn't appeal one bit!

A quiet corner of the business lounge - talk about opulence!

Check-in for Kenya was rapid and efficient, if not somewhat bizarre.  One of the first questions we were asked was whether we had plastic bags in our possession!  Apparently, Kenya had banned plastic bags a few days beforehand because of a major plastic waste problem and we had to dispose of the various bags we had for wrapping dirty clothes and shoes.  Visions of the Plastic Bag Police at the border throwing us in jail after finding a small zip-lock bag hiding in one of the many recesses of our luggage!

Our plane for the 6 hour flight to Nairobi was a new Boeing Dreamliner and was really classy with coloured mood lighting and individual seating modules.  The windows also went opaque in different colours once in the air.  I can only assume that it was some electrostatic effect to replace the need for shutters.  The seats also converted to full beds and had in-built vibrating pads to stop various parts of the anatomy from going to sleep! Or maybe some other purpose entirely.....

Madame looking totally at home

Arrival in Nairobi was a shock to the system after the luxury of the flight.  A chaotic arrivals hall saw us queuing (an inappropriate word if ever there was one) for over 90 minutes to get through immigration. However, the hotel driver had waited patiently outside and soon we were on our way to the hotel in the city.  It soon became apparent why there was a plastic bag ban.  The city approaches were over-run with plastic and paper blowing everywhere and it was filthy - not the best start to the holiday of a lifetime.  However, the city centre was markedly better and the Sarova Panafric hotel was excellent. Later that evening we met the other 4 members of the safari, all Australians, and we hit it off instantly.  Likewise with our guide, Ole, who was a Maasai tribesman in traditional clothing - really impressive.  More on that later.  Another interesting fact..... in both Kenya and Tanzania, virtually no-one smokes!

Early next morning, we headed for Aberdare National Park, a 1300 acre wildlife park in a long wheelbase Toyota Land Cruiser with a pop top for viewing in relative safety.  Toyota have this market totally stitched up as they are apparently bulletproof compared with other brands.  On the main highway, it was interesting to people-watch and see what was happening around us.  Private motorcycles are often used as local taxis to help bring in income as the unemployment rate is around 40%.  The one in the photo had a sort of  elongated umbrella attached to help keep off the rain!  Most of the bikes were Chinese and one might assume that the cheaper than Japanese purchase price was soon offset by the cost of breakdowns! 

Air conditioned local taxi.  Helmets strictly optional!

All sorts of local enterprises flourished along the main road.  The photo below shows beds which were being manufactured on the spot.  Must say that the standard of workmanship was exceedingly high.  Presumably aimed at wealthier Kenyans.

Beds R Us, Kenya style

Roadside fruit and veggie stalls.  Sweeping the roadside dirt seemed a bit pointless!

The first night was spent at the Aberdare Country Club which is a throwback to colonial days and a stepping-off point to the park itself - all very genteel.  Nothing really nasty in the grounds, just various antelope species and a troop of baboons in the distance so it was a gentle introduction.

Aberdare Country Club.  Slumming it (not)

The next day saw us enter the park proper with strict instructions not to leave the vehicle without say-so as there were things with claws, teeth and horns waiting to make a snack of us.  Note the altitude on the sign below.  Much of our stay in Kenya, and Tanzania come to that; was at similar altitudes or higher. This kept the  temperatures to a pleasant high 20's C or early 30's.  The thinner air was noticeable for the first few days with any reasonable exertion.

Warning notice - everything kills you in this park!

The vehicle of choice - long wheelbase Toyota Land Cruiser

Our Maasai guide Ole - one super-cool dude who was right on top of his game

First encounter was with a single male buffalo.  Apparently, these feisty loners from outside the big herds are the ones to watch out for.  They pretend they're not interested in you until it's too late to run and then you're kebab meat on one of their horns.  The one below wasn't interested in taking on the Land Cruiser.

Would you like to come and pat me?  I'm very friendly.  Yeah, right!

Wild boar - pig ugly

Ever had the feeling that something is watching you?

This region doesn't fit my mental impression of Africa with its vast, arid plains.  Its altitude and location means that it's covered with trees and bushes.  Not really jungle but a lot of vegetation and it's a bit disorientating.  There are a few big cats but we don't see them as they live at an even higher altitude where there's a handy food source of some type of antelope.

That evening, we stayed in park accommodation called the Ark.  The main feature was a waterhole adjacent to it with floodlights so we could watch the animals coming down to drink at night.  In the late afternoon, food was also put out for the birds and what a profusion of colours there was.

The Ark


More birdlife

Antelope and baboons at the waterhole in daylight

Elephants coming to the waterhole at dusk

Some of the wild animals actually interacted with humans.  Every night, a family of Genet cats which are similar in size to a domestic cat would ascend the spiral staircase outside the kitchen for meat scraps. They're only given a small amount to stop dependence.  Gorgeous creatures.  The photo I took isn't particularly sharp as I didn't want to scare them by using flash.

 The beautiful Genet

Leaving the park the next day,  we spotted some hyena cubs by the roadside which took no notice of us whatsoever. Clearly, Mum wasn't far away and we left them to their own devices.  The interesting thing is that in the national parks, very few of the creatures that live there have had adverse encounters with humans because of the strong protection laws so they take little notice of our presence, at least inside vehicles.  Outside, we'd be just another source of protein!

Hyena cubs by the roadside