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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Under African Skies, pt5

We stagger out of bed before dawn to catch the early flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania.  This is a flight arranged by the tour company and as with our inbound flight, Nairobi Airport is heaving with people, even at this early hour.  I'm the first to check in, using an automated self-check booth then disaster strikes!  I help the next person from our safari to use the terminal and it won't confirm the flight for her.  A hurried consultation and we decide to join the normal check-in queue to get it sorted.  Well, it doesn't get sorted.  In short, my check-in must have been sheer luck because the Kenya Air flight has been grossly overbooked and the rest of the safari party have been bumped.  This is the first time anywhere in the world that any of us have experienced this and having the group split up with tight schedules and a new guide due to pick us up at Kilimanjaro, things are looking pretty grim.

To cut things short, the decision is taken for me to go ahead on my own, meet up with our new guide and see if he can get things sorted.  The flight, getting a visa and meeting our new guide, Rama, all go smoothly and he leaps into action.  Kenya Air can't get Jennie and her two fellow travellers on a flight for 12 hours so they put them up in a nice hotel to while away the time.  Our schedule calls for us to pick up 2 new members for the Tanzanian leg of the safari in the nearby city of Arusha, visit Tengeru village on the outskirts of the city, then travel some distance to a tented camp at Miguna to begin the safari proper.  Because of this, arrangements are made to put the stranded safari members up in an Arushan hotel overnight, then bring them to the tented camp early the following morning with another driver.  If it hadn't been for the prompt action by Rama, things would have unravelled pretty quickly.

Driving into Arusha, it became immediately apparent that in the urban areas, Tanzania was a lot cleaner than Kenya.  Rama said that on one Sunday a month, all Tanzanians are expected to spend a couple of hours cleaning up litter in public areas - nice one!  After picking up the new safari members Mervyn and Denise, also Australians; at a hotel, we headed for the village where a nice surprise was waiting for us.

Tengeru village was leading a self-help environmental sustainability programme and other support activities for the surrounding area, giving villagers the tools to collaborate with each other on horticulture, coffee production etc whilst minimising their footprint on the environment.  Other activities such as women's projects and orphange support were also funded by cultural tourism (  It was being run by a lovely woman called Gladness Pallangyo and 2 young men in their 20's who were incredibly motivated and smart.   They were even using cattle effluent to produce methane which was in turn used for lighting and cooking, then onto the plantations as fertiliser.  Just how cool can effluent be, especially to an engineer? (No need to answer that!)

Spent effluent coming out of the methane reactor - no smell at all

Our guide Rama (right) with one of the movers and shakers - cool stools for coffee tasting!

We were shown their Arabica coffee plantation and then taken through a traditional process to manufacture coffee, including drinking the end product!

Young Arabica coffee plants with a banana plantation on one side

Ripening coffee beans

Winnowing the beans to get rid of the husks

Roasting the beans with methane gas
- about 10 minutes to get a medium roast

Pounding the roasted beans whilst singing - delightful!

Adding the ground coffee to a simmering pot - it was absolutely delicious!

It was fantastic to see and hear about a self-help programme run by locals, for locals in action.  Far more effective than just throwing aid money at it which has a tendency to create dependence.  Just before we left, I strolled over to Gladness to thank her for spending time with us and to wish her well for the future.  In the delightful, open way that Africans have, she grabbed me in a bear-hug, planted a kiss on each cheek and said, "That's for your family".  Then she planted a smacker straight on the lips, winked and said, "And that's for you" !!  Wonderful - I could get used to that!

Setting off mid-afternoon for the tented camp at Miguna saw a fair bit of travel on sealed roads but far from being boring, there was always something to see. Rama noticed a movement in the roadside bushes at the roadside and pulled over........

One seriously big dude

This bull elephant was the advanced guard for a small herd of elephants crossing the road.  In NZ, you might encounter the odd deer, cow or sheep in the road but in Africa, the consequences of running into one of these doesn't bear thinking about!

Don't smack into one of these!

We received the normal warm welcome at the camp but it felt odd not having Jennie and the other two members of the safari with us, hoping that their travel arrangements to meet up early the next morning worked out ok.

Miguna tented camp - wonderful! (file photo)

Sitting eating our breakfast early the next morning, Jennie, Silvana and Bev arrived from Arusha having got up at 4 a.m for the drive to meet up with us - delight all round as mobile phone communications have been patchy to say the least.  It was a relatively short hop to our next destination. The park consists of 330 sq km of arid land, forest, and a soda lake which can cover as much as 200 sq km in the rainy season. The amount of bird life at the lake was truly mind-bending with so many species - flamingoes, pelicans, storks, egrets etc.  You name it and they were there.

Noise and movement - unbelievable!

An outnumbered zebra

Yellow-billed stork looking for a feed

Cattle egret picking parasites off a buffalo

Hippos chilling in the lake - unpredictable buggers to be avoided 

Leaving the lake edge for the trees and grassland, we were again staggered at the sheer profusion of wildlife.

Giraffe and the ever-present bird life

Don't fall onto these!  Wicked Acacia thorns over 2" long

Snacking on the shrubbery

Large lizard on the track

Family of giraffes striking an artistic pose for the camera

Where there's water, there is greenery.  Once the water stops, there's almost nothing.  It really surprised us how sharp this transition can be.  In the photo below, we're in an area where there are springs and standing water.  In the background perhaps half a kilometre away, that's not water, just a dry dusty plain stretching into infinity obscured by heat haze.

 Water means life to everything

Next stop that evening was another tented camp at that magical word, the Serengeti.  To many, this is the place which conjures up the mental image of Africa and David Attenborough striding the landscape with that wonderful voice of his.  I must say that I was hoping not to be disappointed with the reality of it after seeing so much on the TV, but those fears very quickly dissipated.  The journey there was to be a long and testing one over rough terrain but more of that in the next post.

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!