Sunday, June 8, 2008

Kenya: Samburu, Maasai Mara

Before you leave, think about what to take and what not to take. Keith Waterhouse quotes; Hints to lady travellers in 1889: "It is a great convenience to take one's bath with one". and adds: "A hundred years on there is still a nomadic tribal urge to pack everything, including the kitchen sink". Take as least twice as much film as you think you will need. I will take over 30 rolls of film on a two week safari. Make sure you have spare batteries for your camera;.on one occasion, one of our travelling companion's camera packed up on the second day. He was surprised as he had only had the camera two years! Pack about half what you think you will need. The laundry facilities at all the lodges are very good and very cheap. Take only clothes made from 100% cotton. Most of the lodges have swimming pools so don't forget your swimming costume.

Take a high factor sun screen. Don't forget you are going to Africa from an English winter and so you will be very vulnerable from the sun. You will need a hat which is best bought in Nairobi.

Nine hours flying time from London and you land at Nairobi, my favourite of the African Capital Cities.

Maasai Mara Kenya
Nairobi is a Maasai word meaning "Place of cool waters". Named for its vast swamps, the city of Nairobi had its origins in the construction of the East African Railway line at the close of the 19th century. Once the railway line reached Nairobi in 1896, it became a railway town, populated by labourers, soldiers and traders. It was the ideal climatic conditions, and the centrality of Nairobi that led to its transformation into a major trading town and two years later, in 1898, the sprawling capital of Kenya was officially established.

The turn of the century saw more white settlers arriving, many of whom settled in Nairobi and the highlands, a few miles outside the city.

In 1920 Kenya became a British Crown Colony. Following the 2nd World War, Kenyans began to agitate for independence from the British Crown. This led to the birth of the Mau Mau movement and, 15 years later, in 1963, the Republic of Kenya was established.

As you leave the airport which is normally pretty early in the morning after a night flight, the first thing you notice is the profusion of bougainvillea along the road. We have stayed at several of the hotels, our favorite is the Serena.

These days, sadly, it is not safe to walk down into the City centre, even during the day, but the Serena has a courtesy bus that is on hand and will take you down and bring you back. It is not safe to walk out at night under any circumstances. During the day If there are four of you you are as safe as you can be. Don't wear expensive jewellery, or have handbags hanging off your shoulder. In fact just be aware that the cameras you may carry and the jewellery you may wear would keep a poor family for a year - or even for a lifetime.

The indoor City Market is well worth a visit and the courtesy bus will drop you right outside the entrance. We always go into the Nation Bookshop which is just beside the New Stanley Hotel, and a great place to browse if you enjoy books. The first year we were in Nairobi I saw a book "Learn to Drive By Pictures". We had already bought several books so decided we would get it another year. We have searched for it ever since and never found it. There is a moral here; if you see something you really like, buy it then and there.

The best time, we think, to go to Kenya on safari is in February. There are several reasons for this. For one thing it is a good time to leave the UK winter behind. It is also the best time to see the animals as there has been no rain for a while and so the undergrowth has died down. If you go just after the long or the short rains the grass is so high that you see little wildlife and they are all hiding in the long grass.

We have been to Kenya a lot and we have usually travelled with a travel company called Kuoni. Kuoni do the best and the most reasonable safaris. Two of the best they do are the Leopard and the Cheetah safaris. Both these safaris are good value and you see a lot of the country and a lot of wildlife.

With most travel companies you are given a couple of days to get acclimatised to the heat Nairobi is 5,000ft above sea level so the temperature is always very pleasant. One of the first things you need to buy is a safari hat.

The very first time Ralph took me to Kenya I woke up in the morning and said to him "I wonder what the weather is doing?" he said "It's a beautiful sunny day." I challenged him on, saying how could he possibly know. But Ralph had been there before and knew that Nairobi is always warm and sunny in February. He was in Kenya with the Royal Army Vet. Corps in the late 1950's

If you are staying in Nairobi for more than a couple of days there are lots of very good tours you can take. You can visit Daphne Sheldrick's elephant orphanage between 12 - 1pm and watch the baby orphan elephants and rhinos having their daily mud bath. We have visited Daphne on several occasions and one of the things that I will never forget is a baby elephant coming up to me, reaching out with his trunk and ever so gently feeling all over my face; quite enchanting. You will probably end up as we did, adopting a baby elephant.

The photographs show Skud the young rhino that Daphne Sheldrick reared. This young rhino was adopted by Arsenal Football Club. Skud grew up and had her own calf. The other picture is of the baby elephants having their mud bath which is essential to young rhinos and elephants to keep their skin in good condition.

Once you leave Nairobi on your safari you start to see the true countryside of Kenya. Your first view of the Rift Valley is quite breathtaking

Your first overnight stop is likely to be one of the tree houses around Mt Kenya. There are three of these lodges. The most famous one is Treetops. This is the lodge that Princess Elizabeth climbed into one night as a princess, and climbed down the next morning a Queen (King George IV had died in the night).

You arrive at the Outspan Hotel where everyone who is going to any of the three tree houses start. If you are lucky you will have lunch here, and on one safari we stayed there overnight.

The Outspan Hotel is at Nyeri and just before you arrive at the hotel you can visit the little church and graveyard in the town. This is the place where Lord Baden Powell and Lady Powell are buried.

It is a lovely place and I loved the sign of Baden Powell's grave which means, to any of us who were girl guides or boy scouts "I have gone home".

Baden Powell lived at the Outspan Hotel for many years and he had a house in the grounds called Paxtu which means "Just Peace." The house still stands in the hotel's beautiful landscaped grounds.

Leaving your case at the Outspan and packing an overnight bag, you leave the Hotel about 3pm. To get to Treetops you pile into a ramshakle old bus and travel 10 miles over fairly rough roads and tracks. When you arrive you leave your vehicle and walk the remaining few hundred yards with an armed guard who has already warned you to be quiet and not to smoke. "The elephants do not like cigarettes". Treetops certainly do things with style. When you arrive in the afternoon there is tea, cucumber sandwiches and scones up on the roof overlooking the waterhole. There are outside spiral steps that take you from floor to floor. One time I was going up the stairs and met a baboon coming down, I don't know who was most surprised but I think it was me.

They have a good system at most lodges, you can arrange to be called if anything unusual comes to the water hole during the night. We tend to sit up quite late watching the water hole, and then get up several times in the night to see what is there.

The other two tree houses are Mountain Lodge which is our favourite and is the lodge where I saw my first wild elephant; that was the sort of special moment that I shall remember all my life. Then there is The Ark where we saw five rhinos around the waterhole on one evening.

Leaving Mount Kenya on your way to Samburu you cross the Equator. This always fun to do, and it is well worth watching the 'Paul Daniels' of the area who demonstrates how water, going down the plughole goes firstly in a clockwise direction, then if you cross the equator line it will go down in an anti clockwise direction; and then, finally, right on the line of the equator the water goes straight down. I really believed this the first time I saw it done. A few years later we watched the same demonstration and I noticed that they had moved the Equator line by about 50ft! And every time we go it seems to be in a different place.

Samburu. This is one of our top favourite lodges in Africa. Here you would be very unlucky not to see at least one leopard. There is a baited tree across the river from the lodge and the leopards come for the meat in the evening. At the lodge there is also a crocodile bar which is also baited with meat every evening Huge crocodiles and monitor lizards come after the meat here. There was a big debate one evening about how long one huge crocodile was; nobody was prepared to go in and measure it! We have even seen a male leopard in that area, also after the meat.

If you are lucky you will see the beautiful genet cat that comes into the dining room on most days We have seen her every time we have been here. When she has young she brings them too. The waiters feed her, but she is not "tame." She sits on top of the doorway that leads into the kitchens.

The lodge has a good swimming pool which is a good place to spend the afternoon before your afternoon game drive.

At Samburu it is very arid and you will see quite a few different animals here. The Grevy's zebra, with its narrow stripes and large ears. The Somali ostrich which has a mauve neck and legs.

The beautiful gerenuk, with its long neck, quite the most beautiful of the antelopes.

And the reticulated giraffe that is quite different from the maasai giraffe that you will see further south.

From Samburu you start to make your way back. There are three soda lakes in the Rift Valley, and on one or other of these lakes the huge colonies of flamingos gather. Your safari driver will know where they are and I'm sure he will take you to one of the lakes so you can see this spectacle.

On your way to the Maasai Mara you will stop for the night somewhere on route. We have stayed at Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and the last time we were in Kenya we stayed at Lake Elementatia Lodge.

Lake Elementatia Lodge was build by Lord Galbraith Cole in 1916. It still retains the features and atmosphere of an early colonial home. The original house houses the hotel's dining and sitting rooms, bar and conference room. We were shown Lord Cole's study where he had drawn pictures of zebra's on the walls.

In the sitting room there are still Lord Cole's books sitting on the bookshelves, which we were able to read if we wished. In 1929, blind in one eye, riddled with pain through arthritis, and spending his days in a wheelchair, Lord Galbrtaith shot himself. Lady Eleanor, his wife, had a monument or obelisk erected by the side of the lake in memory of her husband. Across the lake lived Lord Delamere, greatest of all the pioneering settlers. The thousands of acres across the lake are still in the hands of the Delamere family.

Probably the last park you will visit is the Maasai Mara. The Maasai Mara is quite different from everywhere else. You will see a lot of lion, zebra, hartebeest, buffaloes, ostrich and other plains game here. If you want to go up in a hot air balloon this is the place to do it.

The Maasai Mara is an extension into Kenya of Tanzania's great Serengeti National Park and lies along the border between the two countries. It is 155 miles west of Nairobi and is considered by many people to be the best of Kenya's wildlife sanctuaries. Established in 1961, the Mara covers an area of 695 square miles. In the outer regions of the Reserve the land is shared by the Maasi who graze their cattle alongside the wildlife, and take their chance with the lions. But the area around Keekorok Lodge is treated as a National Park, with no settlements or grazing allowed.

The landscape of the Mara is one of gently rolling savannah grasslands, intersected by the rich acacia woodlands which occupy the banks of the Reserve's two main rivers, the Mara and Talek.

We stay at Keekorok Lodge. I was sitting on our veranda one evening, camera at my side, when the guard who is patrolling all night stopped for a chat. " If you see anything," he said, "do go inside as thereare lion around this evening." Keekorok is open to the African plains. I sat there in the dark and suddenly I saw a movement, there was an animal crossing in front of me, I took a flash picture of it and dived back inside the room. It was only when I got the photographs developed back home that I found I had photographed a hyena.

When the safari vehicles leave to go on a game drive it is a bit like the M25. We tend to ask our driver to go in the opposite direction to everyone else. We may not see quite so much game but it makes for a much nicer game drive. On one of these occasions we were miles from anyway down near the Tanzanian border on a narrow track looking for rhino when we had a puncture. As we got out and stood on the narrow track with the tall grass surrounding us we continued looking very hard for signs of rhino! We did find the rhino but thankfully not until we were back in our vehicle.

After two days spent in the Maasai Mara, the drive back to Nairobi is very long and the roads last time we drove that route were pretty rough. We said that next time we go down to the Mara we will fly back to Nairobi.

Back in Nairobi, you have the choice of leaving for home or going to the coast to relax after your safari. We usually go down to the coast for a few days.

Mombasa, for us, is not somewhere to explore a lot. It is very hot and humid at the coast but at the hotels which are nearly all on the beach there is normally a cooling breeze for most of the day. We spend about five days relaxing at the hotel, swimming, reading and relaxing before going back to Nairobi and flying home to London.

If you have ever wondered if you should go on safari, don't wonder any more. Go. It is the most wonderful holiday you can have. Once you have seen the animals in the place where they should be, you will never again feel the same way about them. You stay in first class lodges that are very comfortable, all with en-suite facilities, and the food is excellent. Have a super safari.

Kwa heri ("Go happy").

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