Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Progress on both fronts

I've always said that once you book a safari (or any package tour, I now know) there isn't much to do but wait.  I'm in that position again for both of my big trips.

On the Cuba front, I found my own airfare that would get me from Boston to Miami and back on American Airlines.  OAT offered to book it for me for $500.  But I found it for $250 and got to pick my own seats.  Why wouldn't I do that?  I also just made my last payment on the trip, so we're about 95 days out from departure now.  I have nothing left to do on that front but read.  I have some fiction and some highly recommended non-fiction to get me ready for this.

On the safari front, I found out that I do need a typhoid booster.  It really cracks me up that most people never need a typhoid vaccine, or if they do, they only need one.  And here I am getting a booster.  Ah well.  So I've scheduled the appointment for the travel clinic in August and will see if there's anything I need for Cuba at the same time.

I also picked up some hiking gear at an Eastern Mountain Sports summer sale.  This was fortuitous since finding summer gear around here in December or January would be near to impossible.  So I now have a rain jacket, hiking socks, gaiters and breathable, long-sleeved summer weight t-shirts.  I may still get a new pair of hiking boots, but that remains to be seen.  And I need a good pair of gloves, as I've been warned about stinging nettles.  Best of all, Mom footed the bill for all this at the register saying this is my birthday gift!  So score all the way around.

I paid all the deposits for safari 2017 and got the airfare from Rwanda to Kenya.  So now, in terms of that too, it's all over but the waiting and the final payments later this year.  I've been losing myself in trip reports from Rwanda, which always fascinate me with wonderful (and close!) photographs of the gorillas.  I just can't believe that will be me!

All considered, I realize how lucky I am to be taking these "bucket list" trips (for the lack of a better word).  There are still so many places I want to get to, but I've started taking them in order of "better do it while I'm young and spry".  I'll save the US and easier European trips for when I start to slow down.

But the mere mention of a bucket list today cannot pass without mentioning Turkey.  I've been so troubled lately by all of the violence: the bombings in the historic quarter, attacks on tourists and even a recent attack at a concert given there by a US band.  But the bombing at the airport really takes it to a whole different level.  We spent a day there in Istanbul on a layover last year and both of us vowed we'd go back.  It was a fascinating time spent with some wonderful food and friendly people.  Unfortunately the violence is keeping us away.  I'm at the point now where I don't know if I'll ever be comfortable enough to go there in the foreseeable future.  And that makes me sad.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

You didn't think it would take me this long, did you?

I've been quiet for a while, but that doesn't mean that I haven't been busy booking travel.

After my return from safari, I became a bit bitter, hostile even, about what transpired in the Mara portion of my safari.  For a while, I swore off Africa forever.  Between my safari planner, the safari operator who still, for reasons that remain unknown to me, won't tell me why he hijacked my safari with his own vehicle and driver, the he-said/she-said got a bit much.  In all of that, I got lost.  It became more about their saving face than what they can do to make me feel better.  Even an "I'm sorry" would have worked.  I got none of that.

So in early March, on a day fraught with typical New England Winter, I booked Cuba.  Yes, that's right.  A country that was on the bucket list, but pretty far down, got promoted.  Given that Obama managed to reestablish civilized relations with them fairly recently, I decided I wanted to get there before I could buy a Starbucks mug and Hard Rock CafĂ© t-shirt.  So I'm going in October.  Yes, that's the earliest I could get there on the itinerary I want.  I'm going with Overseas Adventure Travel and have a full docket of cultural activities booked with them, as going and hanging out while drinking mojitos still isn't allowed, no matter what Obama does or says.  I booked it all in a day, which is pretty easy to do when all you have to do is get yourself to Miami and hand over a credit card.

But then, Africa started to call again.  I woke many a night with the need to "do it over".  My last Mara experience felt like a highway robbery.  It started in April and got stronger as the month wore on.  At first I contemplated not returning to Kenya at all, and just ("just"???) going gorilla trekking in Uganda.  But then I played the "well, while I'm there" game, and now it's 5 days in Rwanda (including a city tour of Kigali, golden monkey trekking and two days of gorilla trekking) and then off to my beloved Mara back in Kenya.  We have enough time in Rwanda to see the city (including the original Hotel Rwanda and the genocide memorial) and then the gorilla monkey trekking to acclimate to the altitude and learn how to use the camera in rainforest conditions, then two days of gorilla trekking.  I'm beyond excited.  It is 264 days between booking and execution. My China/First Safari Friend Kim is going with me this time, which will be fun.  But now it's all booked and the waiting begins.

This time, instead of leaving it up to safari planner to totally botch up my vacation, I booked directly with the operators on the ground.  Access2Tanzania, with whom we went to Tanzania on Safari #1, now operates Treks2Rwanda, so I booked the Rwanda portion with them.  I booked our camp in the Mara directly with the camp itself, and they're handling our transfer, airfare from Nairobi to the Mara and back.  And we get 6 nights in the Mara.  Heaven.  I cannot wait.

I've already called the travel clinic to see what I need for vaccinations for both destinations.  Hopefully I can kill two birds with one stone and only go once.  If I remember correctly, they said my typhoid vaccination would expire in June of this year, so I'll likely need that again.  Who would have thought I'd have to re-up my typhoid???

Let the countdowns begin...

Friday, February 26, 2016

Day Ten -- No really, THIS is how you end safari!

It's always strange how these trips turn out, I suppose, with the least expected segment being the one that is the most memorable in the end.  I had known Nairobi would be good for the elephant visits, but I didn't know how good and why.

I had the chance to sleep in this morning, but I think being conditioned to be up and ready for a 6 a.m. game ride had the wrong consequence today, as I was awake and ready to go out at 5:15, but we weren't leaving until 9:15.  Ugh.

So I laid in bed and listened to the noises outside.  It had been fairly active most of the night, with some weird honks and growls I'd not heard before.  At one  point it sounded as if the greenery were being rushed by a trampling herd of something.  
At breakfast I learned it was likely one of Nairobi National Park's rhinos passing through, as it has done the past couple nights.  That's right, right under my window.  Crazy.

When I finally got out of bed (a very good sleep, by the way) I looked out the window only to find two waterbucks out there.  It is not often that happens.

I took a good shower (waterfall no less) and dressed for the day.  It was finally here, elephant day!   This was the day I made three trips to David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, to meet my five fosters and all the other orphans.  I had no idea how incredible that would be.

Breakfast was unbelievable, as all the meals here have been.  I had scrambled eggs, granola and the tastiest cinnamon pancakes.  OJ and a fruit smoothie to top it off.  I had had coffee delivered at 7:30 but still had another cup anyway.  No way I can resist Kenyan coffee.

Peter met me at 9:15 across the Emakoko bridge.  We were off first to a shop for me to buy some souvenirs and then to the elephant orphanage.  Shopping quickly done, we headed off.

The orphanage is pretty much how I pictured it, with enclosures for each little ellie, the mud pit where they get their bottle during the daily public visits and various areas for staff and supplies and whatnot. It's all dirt and clearly an animal habitat.  Peter got me the best spot, shooting photos away from the sun and right in front of a whole lot of mud and a large bucket of water.  As folks gathered around the rope keeping us from the orphans, I got so much more excited than I thought.  Finally, the first little ellies came running down the hill and into the enclosure.  They'd go right to their keepers who were standing with bottles and quickly gulp them down.  If the keepers weren't fast enough, they'd trumpet to show their displeasure.  Some are more impatient than others!

Edwin, a keeper at the orphanage, presented to us the purpose of the facility, how it got started and the rules of engagement (don't get down low and look like a soccer ball to them, don't yell, don't use your phone to call people).  He also introduced each elephant one by one and told what each of their stories was.  Meanwhile if the bottles were done, the elephants would be off basking in the mud, getting the mud shoveled on to them by a keeper, rolling in the dirt or over at the water buckets.  One clearly wanted to tip the bucket on us.  It kept sitting on it and rocking and rolling it forcefully in our direction.  Another was a little more direct: just suck up some water and blow it at us.  I got splattered with mud on my pants and a big glob on my chest, but it was fun being that close.  Little did I know how close I'd be in the afternoon!

The orphans were split into two groups, so the littlest ones came out first.  My Mbegu, Tusuja, Alamaya and Mwashoti were in this group.  It's hard for me to identify them if they don't have easily identifiable characteristics, but the keepers can identify them at a distance.  Unreal.  Alamaya is know for his missing tail, and because he was thought to be a she until that injury was examined further and it turns out that most of his genital region was eaten away and they had to create an artificial means for him to urinate.  He seems to be doing well now.  Tusuja has the tell-tale sign of having been stuck in a snare, with the swollen foot.  It was hard for me to identify Mwashoti and Mbegu without the introductions.  Maybe because Mbegu was my first, I had her in my head as being a lot older but she was still with the little ones.

The keepers cleared the area and led the little ones out.  They know the signals and the routine and off they went.  The bigger elephants came down next, and it just broke my heart to see poor Simotua, last in the line, slower than the rest.  He was the victim of a snare on his foot, so he has the deformity but also a hatchet wound on his forehead.  As soon as he took his milk he turned inward to face the bush and never came out to play.  (I would later ask Edwin about this at my private visit and he said it's because he's afraid the other elephants will be rough with him.  I asked and he said that he'd get over that eventually, it will just take time.)  The poor guy.  It broke my heart.

These elllies played and wallowed just like the others.  Whenever one stepped out of line, like trying to sneak another's milk bottle, the keepers would make a sound or point a finger at the offender and that was usually enough for that elephant to behave again.  Or just sneak around the other side of that keeper to weasel in on someone else's milk bottle.  It was fascinating to watch, especially how they can use their trunks to grasp the bottle and hold it for themselves. 

Much too soon, it was time for these elephants to go too.  They have a schedule to keep and they were off out to the fields of the park again.

We drove back through the park (as Sheldrick's is part of Nairobi National Park) to the Emakoko for lunch.  As usual, it was delicious.  It was a cucumber yogurt  amuse bouche, which was fabulous.  The main was butternut squash ravioli, incredible.  And I love how you just start to regret having eaten it so fast, and the staff appears automatically with a second serving!  

Back out again at 2:00 to Sheldrick's for the private visit.  Private meant me, all 24 orphaned ellies and their keepers and my guide Peter.  That was it.  To say it was worth every penny is a vast understatement.  I cannot believe how good it was and how fast it was over.  The ellies came in either individually or in small groups.  Edwin the keeper would recognize who was coming and shout out the name to the other keepers to have the bottles ready.  These elephants know what's coming and they go right to their keeper for their milk.  They guzzle it down with record speed and then know it's time for them to wallow and muck about.  I was thrilled to see Simotua was the first elephant down, and he looked quicker on his feet and happier than he did this morning, although he still stayed out of the way of the others once his bottle was done.  

I was completely captivated watching the elephants invade the little space and did not notice when a little one crept up on my right and rested his trunk in my lap.  This was Ndotto, one I do not foster, yet, and he then proceeded to try and fit his nearly 300 pound body on my lap.  At this point any thought of keeping clean was out the window as he was covered in mud and rolling on me from foot to lap.  He loved to be rubbed and talked to and seemed frustrated that I couldn't hold him better.  I know I was!  Finally I stood up because all the elephants were done with their bottles and I could walk among them.  I found Alamaya, my tail-less boy and Mbegu.  I couldn't pinpoint my other fosters, so I just sort of wandered among them and pet them when they seemed open to it all the while Peter and Edwin were snapping photos.  It was a tremendous honor to be among so many of these beautiful creatures.  It is fun to watch them interact and see their personalities play out.  What a perfect little universe, if only it wasn't so necessary.

Edwin took us to see Maxwell, the blind rhino whose mom abandoned him when he became blind.  He will live out his time at Sheldricks because black rhinos need to fight for their territory and he won't be able to.  He didn't seem to want to come out for a look, as his pile of scrub that he was munching down seemed much more enticing.

As my visit came to an end I realized how absolutely amazing it had been and how very lucky I was to be able to do it.  I will never, ever forget that hour.  And I will certainly have to get home and foster Ndotto asap!

I spent the hour between the private visit and the foster visit drinking Stoney Tangawizi and chatting with Peter in the car.  We get along really well and I was sad that we won't have another few game rides together.  But the best was really yet to come...

The foster parent visit at 5:00 every day is really very good, if you haven't done the private visit.  The foster parents line up and wait to see all the babies paraded in from out on the plains.  They come in in little groups and Edwin announces who they all are as they pass by.  It's so funny to see them run in, or saunter in in some cases, and they head right for their own enclosures as they know that's where they'll get their milk and fresh foliage. It seems like they are very much operating on a set schedule and they know how things play out when.

Once the elephants are in the enclosures, the foster parents can walk around the enclosures and visit them.  I found all my kids: Mbegu, Alamaya, Mwashoti, Tusuja, SImotua.  I also found Ndotto, who is still little enough that he likes to have the Maasai blanket over him for comfort when he's in his enclosure.  His keeper still sleeps with him too; there are soft mattresses in all of the enclosures where the keepers still need to sleep with them.

I have one other elephant that Mom fostered for me, but he has already been reintroduced to the next step of the integration process so he is not at the orphanage.  I took photos of all my fosters, and found Kiko the giraffe for mom and Rapa for my friend Bev.  I told Edwin that when I hear the names and finally get to see them in person, it's like seeing a rock star.  I read so much about them every day.

I passed by two enclosures that had no names or rescue dates on them yet.  I peeked in and found two teeny little elephants, so much smaller than those I'd just seen.  They'd just been rescued in the last week or so and have names but there's been nothing made available about fostering them yet.  One sweet little one (his name began  with an L) came right over to me and wrapped his trunk around my wrist.  He was strong!  But he kept opening his mouth and wanted me to scratch the roof of his mouth or allow him to suckle, which we aren't allowed to do.  It was so sweet to see how he reached out to his keeper when he was unsure or in need of encouragement, but brave enough to investigate newcomers.

I passed by Alamaya again and his keeper asked "are you still here?" with a big smile.  I told him that I can't get enough of the elephants and he said "me neither!"  I thanked those I could talk to for taking care of them.  They do such important work and look at how successful they are in giving these babies a second chance.  Wow.

My flight home left at 11 and we left Sheldrick's around 5:45.  That should have been plenty of time to get back to the lodge, have a shower and pack, have a nice dinner.  Then the sighting of the trip happened.

We were driving along in the beautiful golden light that is a photographer's dream and suddenly Peter stopped, reversed and told me to look directly right.  Up in a big acacia, straddling a branch was a gorgeous male leopard.  This was Peter's first leopard sighting of 2016 and it's a big deal because leopards are so seldom seen in Nairobi National Park!  I could not believe my luck.  Peter was thrilled, this was an incredible sighting for him and under such spectacular lighting conditions.  Except he hadn't brought his camera along!  Oh no!!!  He rang Anthony at Emakoko, who is a big leopard aficionado.  We hoped he'd be able to make it to the sighting in time but he was 20 minutes away and this leopard was starting to make motions as if it was going to move, standing up and cleaning himself.  Finally he went down the tree and disappeared into the tall grass.  Sighting complete.  I was leaving Nairobi National Park with a bang!

Anthony met me when I returned to camp with a big smile.  It was an amazing sighting for us.  He asked for photos to put on the Emakoko Facebook page and I complied.  While they were a bit too far off to be crystal clear, they are still pretty good.  That was one handsome cat.

The trouble with lingering over an amazing sighting like that is that it left me with only 35 minutes to shower, change, pack and eat.  But somehow I did it.  I ate my last delicious meal at Emakoko: smoked salmon on puff pastry, eggplant parmagiana and a passion fruit and almond meringue.  We were on the road by 8:20 and at the airport just after 9.

I have to say looking back over the last two weeks, the highlight was definitely the last two days.  Regardless of whatever happened at any other point in the safari, my last sightings in the Mara, coupled with my time with the elephants, my time at Emakoko and the amazing leopard sighting in Nairobi National Park made these last two days unforgettable in so many ways.  While I may have had my doubts at some points in the trip, I will definitely be back.

I slept most of the way from Nairobi to London, thankfully, and will head off to a day room in London to pass 6 hours before my flight home.  I'm so sad this is coming to an end, but blessed for the experiences I've had and the people I met.  That's what this is all about.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Day Nine -- THIS is how you leave the Mara

4 a.m. found me awake just before what sounded like a pair of lions started to roar right near our camp.  I made note of the direction and listened, then heard a chorus of jackals start yipping like the next door neighbor's yip yip dog.  When I got out to the land rover to leave for our game ride, Nabala hadn't heard them!  I tried to explain where they were coming from.  Sammy, the camp manager, heard them and was going out to find them.  We got about 20 minutes out and I could tell we were off course, because by now I could see my tent on the other side of the plain and knew we'd gone too far.  Sammy radioed and said they were right where I said they were, and off we went.

These were 3 males, likely the mohawk boys I saw earlier in the week.  They had full bellies but there was no sign of a kill around.  Two of them were quite skittish and ran off when I moved around in the vehicle, but one stayed to comply with photo requests. We followed the other two to a large bush that would be their bedroom for the day.  The morning light was just perfect and I think/hope I got some wonderful shots.  We went back to the remaining boy and waited to follow him back to the same bush.  He followed the scent his brothers' paws left in the grass and went right though the same opening to the bush to sleep the day off.  How funny!

It wasn't much longer before Nabala spotted a lioness in the grass evaluating a herd of zebras.  We watched her for a bit and then she disappeared, further on though, the 6 sub-adult lions from Friday night (who attacked the two interloping brothers) were all lying in the grass keeping an eye on the same herd of zebras.  One female was quite in the lead, crouched low and watching as the zebras cluelessly (oblivious to the lions' presence)  wandered in her direction.  We sat there for about 90 minutes, just Nabala and me, waiting.  I suggested we go eat breakfast and come back if he thought it'd be ok to do.  He felt it better to wait, so we ate right there.  Just as we'd finished the food but still had coffee, another of the females went for it.  She sprinted down into the salt lick where a few zebras had gathered and out she came, with her siblings joining as quickly as they could. It all happened so fast.  When the lioness was very close, it seemed like she'd grabbed the zebra but it flipped over and tried to kick her, then flipped back and got away.  I didn't even have time to even think about lifting the camera until it was well past me.  It was just insane, but what a rush!!!  Of course that would be my last sighting in the Mara, and I'm so hungry for more.  Incredible.

Nabala dropped me at the airstrip and we said goodbye.  I did have a good time with him and some amazing sightings.  As the plane lifted off, I was a blubbering mess.  I so love it here.

Got to Nairobi and was met by Peter at Emakoko.  He knows a lot of the folks on Safaritalk, so we have that in common.  He asked what I'd not seen so far and I said "rhino" and next thing you know, we were in front of 6 white rhino.  Unbelievable.  I cannot believe this is in the middle of a major city!

The Emakoko is gorgeous.  It's made up of five houses set into a hill.  Each house opens out on to a balcony with large double doors.  There's running water and electricity, which is a bonus!  A beautiful queen bed that is dying to be slept in.  Rock hyraxes are all over the place here, and they even come into the rooms!  The girl who showed me to my room said it's ok to leave doors open, completely safe.  I'm sitting on my balcony now, where it's nice and cool, and getting ready for a 4:30 game drive.  Lunch was fabulous.  There were little spicy thai peanut spoonfuls that were heavenly.  The entree was a fish (red snapper) fry with salad, grilled tomato and eggplant.  They offered me a glass of sauvignon blanc. Dessert was a warm rhubarb custard with meringue top.  I could get used to this!

Went on a game ride this afternoon with Peter, my guide here at Emakoko.  The contrast between the city skyline and the expanse of the land here is striking.  45 square miles of beautiful with a skyline looming in every direction.  Just incredible.  In the few short hours I was out, I managed to see 12 rhino, both white and black, so I've seen the big 5 on this trip too.  We spent some time at a hippo pool for one lone hippo and at a lake for several others.  Peter says the lone hippo likes the shallow pool for himself, even though he can't submerge himself, he will loll about and do flips in it to cool his back off.  Lots and lots of white storks and some Maribou storks at the lake, many Coke's hartebeest here too, many more than I've seen anywhere else, I think.   We spent that golden hour before sunset with some rhino and that was quite impressive and very memorable.  I can't believe what a treasure this park is and that it is so accessible.  I'd be here all the time if I lived here.

My sundowner tonight was a Stoney Tangawizi.  I think my time with Stoney is drawing to a close so I'm trying to remember it as best as I can.

Dinner tonight was wonderful.  More Sauvignon Blanc, with cream of tomato soup and vegetable phylo, followed by white chocolate mousse.  The phylo in particular was very yummy.  Believe it or not I think it was all mushroom based, which is surprising that I liked it as much as I did if that's the case.  These folks here know how to do vegetarian food.  It may be a toss up between here and the Tawi Lodge for best food!

I'm already behind my mosquito netting in a wonderful king-sized bed listening to the noises of the night.  No need to close anything up, just listen to it all and breathe in the air.  I've been outdoors now for 10 days straight!  That's a lot of fresh air.

Tomorrow are my Sheldrick's visits.  I cannot wait.  Although I'm sad to be headed home at the end of it!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Day Eight -- A Mostly Quiet Day, Sort Of

The day was pretty telling, I think, when I realized at 5:00 am that I hadn't heard the lions.  A pretty stiff wind had picked up overnight and Nabala said that the cats don't come out in the wind.  I don't understand the reasoning, but in any event, it definitely was an indicator of how our morning would go.

We headed out at 6:15 and saw both the full moon set and a gorgeous orange-pink sun rise.  Nabala wanted to try to find the mother lion with the young cubs, but we returned to the spot where she was last seen and came up empty handed.  Indeed, most of the morning would be like that: looking for lion, leopard and cheetah and finding nothing at all.

Our ultimate destination was far from camp on a vast flatland with next to no grass, bumps, logs or trees, definite cheetah territory.  None were to be seen though.  So we settled in to have breakfast near a manmade dam and watched the plains game (zebra, topi, wildebeest) come by to drink.  I spent a lot of today taking photos of that sort of game, as I feel I ordinarily give them short shrift.  I think I got some great shots, especially in the perfect morning light.  Breakfast was the same as previous days, with the addition of mini-vegetable quiches which were quite good.

After breakfast we started to head back towards camp and came upon a family of 10 elephants, so we stopped to watch and take some photos.  Elephants are somewhat harder to find here in Naboisho.  Someone among the guests was desperate to see elephants here, and Nabala radioed that we'd found some and where.  As we turned to drive back to camp for lunch, Victoria (British mom in my vehicle) spotted another vehicle flashing its lights to Nabala.  We told him to go back and good things we did.  That vehicle had spotted a lioness stalking a small group of hartbeests and zebras.  She was low in the grass, only her ears could be spotted from where we were.  We watched as she paw-by-paw slinked through the grass closer to the game, narrowing the distance between them.  The folks in the other vehicle said that there'd been 5 females and they fanned out.  We could only see her.

All of us decided we'd wait this out in case they ended up attacking.  She didn't slink quite close enough but decided to leap and when she did it set the hartebeest on alert and they and the zebras bolted.  It seemed a half hearted attempt on her part and her sisters never materialized to help.  We rode through the low bush to see if we could find them, but we never did.  We followed the one lioness until she laid down under a bush in the shade, panting from the exertion in the hot sun.  Nabala thinks she is one of the sub-adult females we saw on Friday night with the eland kill.  Whatever the case, she needs to dial in her sisters for help, there's no way she was going to make this kill on her ow

Before lunch I packed everything except what I was wearing now or what I'm going to wear today or tomorrow.  It's hard to believe I'm at that point already.  I'm really looking forward to Nairobi National Park, the Emakoko and the elephant orphanage in the next couple of days though.

Lunch today was excellent, or at least one dish was.  The avocado, tomato and onion salad was absolutely to die for.  I would make that at home if I knew how to do it.  It would be fabulous in the summertime.  There was also a romaine, tomato and mozzarella salad, egg noodles with mushroom stroganoff for me.  A little slice of fudge for dessert really hit the spot.  I went back to the tent with a Stoney Tangawizi to read on the bed in my onesie.

The family I've been doing game rides with wanted to visit the Maasai village nearby.  I couldn't think of a reason not to and was glad to tag along.  I doubt I would have done it by myself.  It was essentially a large plot of land with several bomas and a few mud and stick houses built on it.  The 70 year old man who owns the land and all the cows, sheep and goats on it has several wives, each of which has their own home on the land.  They all have kids, ranging in quantity from 13 to just 1.  One 15-year old wife has one already and another on the way.

The littlest kids were the first to greet us.  They all came right over to us and offered us the top of their heads.  I had no idea what was going on so I backed away from them.  Nabala told me to put my hand on their head and say "sopa" as a welcome.  Then we took photos of them and showed them their image, which they loved.  Sam, the youngest son of the family I was with, was playing chase with some of them, while Bill the dad was teaching them how to high five and do a handshake.  The best I could do was hold their hand and pretend I was being electrocuted.  Hey, I'm not a kid person, but they seemed to think it was funny.

The homes were ridiculously simple.  Sticks and mud made up the outside, and the bed was made of sticks and a cow hide.  There was a small stone stove that could hold two pots and the very small room was hot and smokey, despite the holes in the walls to let the smoke escape.  And the rooms were loaded with flies.  And there were flies all over the kids.  I have no idea how they don't seem phased by that.

The women did three songs for us while the kids watched.  Then we got to ask questions.  I asked what they were making for dinner tonight and they said some sort of corn meal and water mixture, sometimes with salt and fat.  They asked us and while the British family had a very traditional answer, I said I am vegetarian and they asked why.  When I said that I didn't think animals should have to die for me to eat, the matriarch asked if I was Christian, to which I answered yes.  I'm still unsure of that connection.  She informed me that when she felt unwell and ate meat, she felt better.  Ok....

One non-sequitur though was that one of the younger women had a cell phone.  Somehow that just doesn't follow for me.  They live in mud huts with no running water, electricity or plumbing, yet she has a cell phone.  How does she charge it?

They have dogs, a cat and chickens.  The dogs alert to danger, the cat kills mice and the chickens do nothing.  These Maasai don't eat chicken or their eggs, so we're unsure what they are meant for.

This was a very interesting visit, surely more authentic than the Maasai village I visited in Tanzania. It makes me feel very fortunate for what I have.

Victoria asked Nabala on the way back why he is missing the bottom middle tooth.  He said it is first a marker of his Maasai tribe.  Second, it is for if/when he gets lockjaw from tetanus, they will still be able to feed him.  Honestly, I can't make this stuff up.  We noticed that most of the women in the Maasai village we visited were missing that tooth.  That is so hard to believe.

On the way back, I think we were all expecting a sundowner and an early night.  Instead we came across four lionesses dozing in the low thorny acacias.  The lions started to yawn and lick their lips and I knew they'd be getting up.  Nabala thinks these were about 5-6 years old because their noses were mostly black.  It was so touching to see them bond, clean each other, nuzzle.  I'm always so astounded by how similar they are to house cats.  Or how similar my house cats are to them!  I could not have been happier seeing four cats on my last night, especially given how slow the day had been otherwise.  It was a joy to share my sundowner with them.

I will miss my adoptive game ride family.  They were very nice, very smart and a joy to be with. I appreciate like minded travelers and have found so many here.

Dinner tonight was split pea soup, a vegetable bake with cheese for me and tiramisu.  I had my last glass of Unbelieveable red tonight.  I will miss that. 

Off to Nairobi tomorrow, after an early morning game ride!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Day Seven -- The Mara As It Should Be

I was up before the alarm went off again, as lions were nearby from about 3:00 onward.  It's funny because it's sort of like me with thunderstorms in the summertime, I wake up well ahead of them and wonder why I'm awake, then the storm comes.  Only I like lions so it was fine to be awake for no real reason only to then hear them roaring their heads off some distance away.  They were not as close as the night before, but I relish any opportunity to hear them.

The askira were very late picking me up at my tent.  We were meant to leave at 6:15 and I was ready at 6:00 as they usually come too early for me.  Today I was ready and they never came.  I had to call on the walkie talkie for a lift.  It seemed that without the Porini vehicle there they forgot to get me.

No matter, after I apologized profusely to my new car mates, we were off at 6:30.  I'm back with Nabala as a guide, who was the one who picked me up on Friday and did the evening game drive.  Right away, we went to look for the leopard from last night but didn't find a sign of her.  Hyenas and jackals were about, which made us think the carcass had been dragged nearby, but we never found it, or her and her cub.  Nabala then decided to drive on and look for lions.

It didn't take long to find them.  In the early morning light, we saw two coming across the plains.  We met up with them both just before they got to the orange leafed croton bush they'd be dozing in all day.  At first it appeared to be a young (1 1/2 years) male and female, but on further investigation it was two males, one of which just hadn't developed much of a mane yet.  The other male was the boy we saw wounded the other night!  I was so happy to see he is still alive.  He is indeed walking with a pronounced limp and quite the scratch on his right hip, but he's moving and much farther than he was able to when we left him on Friday night (which is to say, not at all).  Nabala posits that perhaps these two lost their pride or were pushed out, or they just had a bad mother.  Their biggest challenge will be learning to hunt and eat on their own, as they are too young to be out of a pride yet.  Perhaps what we saw happen the other night was them trying to integrate themselves into an existing sub-adult pride.  We will never be sure, but we can guess.

We then heard from other Asilia guides that there was a pride of lions feasting on a kill near the Ol Seki airstrip.  We got there in plenty of time, after a fast rough ride to get there.  This was, Nabala said, the Sampu Enkare pride.  They normally number 10 but we saw 9.  There are two males that appear somewhat older than the others.  One of those males is actually a female displaying male characteristics.  They will be watching her to see how she develops in life and whether she gets any mating opportunities at all.

We moved down to a plain where the three male lions were spotted this morning but found no obvious sight of them.  By then the sun was high enough that it was likely they were in the bush asleep already.  So of course we decided that was the perfect place to stop for breakfast.  I will say that using the bush bathroom with the potential that lions were watching was somewhat unnerving!

Breakfast was good, same as the other days with granola, bread with Mara honey (which is awesome!), hard boiled eggs, coffee, juice.

The rest of the game ride included stops for hippos in a seasonal pool, Coke's hartbeests and zebra.

Back to the camp for lunch.  I think I prefer splitting the game drives.  Doing long days every day is tiring.  Not much really goes on out there once the cats go to sleep, unless you like plains game and hippos.  Plus I miss my onesie, my nap and my book.  A couple hours in bed in the afternoon with the warm breeze blowing through here is a luxury unique to safari.

Lunch today was salad, buffalo mozzarella and tomato and a veggie mix over rice.  It was reasonably good.  The fruit salad with a dab of vanilla ice cream hit the spot though.  It was pretty hot back here today.  That's the one thing, you don't get the breeze here like you do out in the vehicle, I think it's cooler out there at times!

We headed out tonight and went right for the Maasai gift shop that is at Asilia's other camp in Naboisho.  I think we were all expecting much more.  I managed to find two more beaded bracelets I liked and a Mara Cheetah Project tote bag, but the big score was a new toothbrush.  I've been nervous with my last one since I accidentally rinsed it in the faucet water the other night.  I feel better having a new one.  Now if I can only keep this one clean!

From there we heard that they'd found Osirata the leopard again and she was in the mood to hunt.  We were the second vehicle on the sighting and there appeared to be a sick/lame/weak impala right nearby the bush where the other vehicle said Osirata was hanging out.  They thought sure that she'd go for the impala, because it was a ready-made meal.  Well the third and fourth vehicles came and spooked the impala and off it went.  I felt immensely guilty about that.  It was another sense that we shouldn't be here and be this close in her world.  Our being here was preventing her from hunting successfully.  But she carried on and we tracked her for a bit, playing leap frog with each other and with her.  

It then appeared that she'd go for one of three jackals that were in front of the bush she was in.  The jackals were more worried about us and all three headed straight for the bush she was in to get away from us.  The first one got by her, but she tried to pursue the second and just missed it.  The third jumped a mile and started barking like a lhasa apso to warn all near and far that a leopard was in the area.  She didn't stand a chance now.  But carry on she did.  And off towards some impala further down the hill.  As she approached she was spotted by them and they started firing off warning calls.  Both Sammy, the youngest son of the family I'm traveling with, and I asked Nbala not to approach so closely.  Sammy felt as bad as I did about this.  Finally we all left her to it.  She was approaching a large harem of impala when we left her so hopefully she can score a meal without us around.

I will say though that Osirata is a beautiful cat.  I'm glad I got to see her after she was all hidden in the bush last night and sent her handsome male cub out instead.  I talked to Andrew about her and he said she's about 5 years old and this is her third litter.  This is the only cub she's raised to this age (about 8 months) and originally there were two, a male and female.  The female suddenly disappeared.  He says she tends to disappear for long periods at a time so that she's shown up again now is great.  Victoria, the mother of the British family I'm traveling with, asked Andrew if the animals are terribly bothered by us interfering and he didn't think so.  He said that all the animals are used to vehicles coming by and nothing we did ruined her hunt tonight since we didn't get between her and her prey.  It's an interesting argument nonetheless.

We went to have sundowners by a hippo pool and watched a gorgeous full moon rise over the water.  Nabala brought an assistant who had an infrared light which we used for a night drive on the way back, but all we saw was a waterbuck and a bush baby way up high in a tree. Not a lot to write home about.

Dinner tonight was cream of tomato soup, red snapper over red bliss potatoes and spring snap peas and a custardy pudding thing that was good.  I had my new favorite red wine with that, the Unbelievable blend.

Off to read a bit before I start my last full day in the Mara.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Day Six -- A Change Will Do You Good

Awoken this morning by lions at 4 a.m. is not necessarily a bad thing, at least it made me smile.  I heard them off and on for about a half hour, getting further from camp.  It seemed two were trying out-roar each other.  I have to think this bodes well for my day.

Minor calamity has ensued because I accidentally rinsed my toothbrush in the faucet water last night.  Not the best of ideas but completely by rote.  Now I can't use that toothbrush unless I do something to clean it up.

Askiris were here right at 6 to deliver my coffee, juice and today chocolate chip cookies.  I'll knock those back and be out the door in a jiffy.  

We rode around Naboisho for a while with very little luck until the guides must have heard on the radio that the resident mother lion of the moment with her three one month old cubs was spotted.  We became part of throng surrounding a dense bush through which you could hardly see anything.  I saw the mom switch location and three little cubs scurry quickly after her.  Then everyone jockeyed for position again, trying to get the best spot for her.  I got a bit upset by how the vehicles would just totally put their grill right into the bush, and I saw her jump back at one of them through my binoculars.  I asked my guides to leave rather than continue this, because it just didn't seem fair to her.  I cried pulling away, because there is nothing more I'd rather see myself, but I can't put my own desires ahead of those lions' well beings.  I'm struck again by that feeling that we really shouldn't be here.  It happens every once in a while, but this is the first time on this trip.

Our next spot also came by sighting other vehicles.  This was an odd set of lions because I couldn't quite place the relationships, and neither could my guides, as they are not native to Naboisho.  It was one fully adult female, a 1 1/2 year old female cub (still had the cub spot pattern) a 3-4 year old male lion and a 3-4 year old female.  It was just an odd assortment that I couldn't really digest.  The youngest cub did the best job posing for photos as she could barely keep her head up and eyes open as a nap set upon her.  I hardly saw the male at all other than through the bush.  The mother posed regally at the opening to the bush until she too dozed off.  The other female moved around the bushes for a bit before crashing back inside a bush.  There was a really tender moment when the male rubbed heads with the adult female in a bonding manner.  I of course missed that with the camera, but I took a mental photo.

Breakfast was a yummy vegetable frittata, bread, muffins, coffee and juice.

We then drove on to Ol Kinyei Conservancy, which is where my guides usually work.  It meant crossing through Naboisho, over some Maasai lands and then through the gate to Ol Kinyei.  This is a private conversancy so only Porini Mara guests (and me) are allowed there.  That meant in theory I could be the only one at a sighting.  If only there were sightings!  

Late morning we came across a female cheetah, Nosura, and three sub-adult cubs, two males and one female.  They are about 1 1/2 years old and Nosura is getting ready to set them free.  She herself was lying in the shade of one tree, while they were lying in the shade of another tree nearby.  All were pretty tuckered out and didn't seem to want to get up, or need to, as they had full bellies.  We pulled up within maybe 30 feet of them and just sat and watched for a while.  Behind us, a line of zebras sat staring, probably wondering if they or their young would be lunch.  It was funny to see.  Nosura has been an excellent mother, by all accounts.  This is her third litter, and she's not lost any.  Her previous litters were two and three cubs and they survived as well.  That was a great sighting and nice that I was there alone.

The rest of the day was a lot of plains game, elephants, lots of giraffes.  We play a lot of "guess what gender that is" with the giraffes.  I'm getting to the point where I'm often right.  My newest clue is that females have rounder bellies while males have flat bellies, this in addition to the forehead "horn" on males as well as hairless horns on the tops of their heads (hair wears off in fighting with other males).

There are a surprising number of elephants here, certainly more than I remember in Ol Kinyei especially.  We sat and watched a large family of about 12 eat some very succulent greens high above a river.  Some zebras were down in the shallow river drinking and when they heard us approach, they all tried to scurry up the one path to the river bank together.  It was like a mini-zebra migration.  Kind of funny.  Another shot I missed with the camera though.  Ah well, mental memory.

Lunch was pretty good today.  It was a vegetable salad with zucchini, green pepper, mango and olives, and more veggies stuffed into a wrap.  Surprisingly even without protein it kept me full.

Coming in toward camp tonight, we saw two wildebeests attempting to fight.  They seemed upset that we were watching and stopped fighting until we moved on.

For whatever reason, I was dropped here back at camp at 5:30, far later than the 7:15 of last night.  We decided over lunch that tomorrow would be two regular rides: an early morning and a late day.  The middle of the day was a loss for me.  It was nearly a 2 hour lunch and we saw next to nothing but plains game all day.  I had decided after lunch to see if I could go on an Encounter Mara ride instead for the next two days.  Since it was such an oddity that this was my arrangement to begin with, I figured this was my attempt to save my safari and the worst Encounter could say is no.  So I did and they made all the arrangements for me.  But, while I was off in the office complaining about my current guides....

There'd been a leopard sighting right outside of camp and my guides had heard.  They were looking for me to take me to it.  The assistant camp manager gave them directions and off we went.  We ended up being the fifth car on the scene so had to wait our turn.  Once we got in it was one of those situations where we could hear a meal being eaten and we could see the odd tail flick, but in this case, patience paid off.  This was Osirata, the famous leopard of Naboisho, and her cub.  The cub quickly had its fill of impala and came out of the bush a bit.  I managed several shots that I had to contort myself to get them.  After a bit longer, the cub disappeared again, first stalking and then pouncing on his mom's tail with these exaggerated little jumps.  It was just like watching my cats!

Finally, it was as if Osirata told him to go out and greet the public, because he came right out of the thicket and stood in between the four cars, let us take our photos for a minute or two, and he went right back inside.  It was like our token photo shoot for the night.  Osirata herself never came out, but I did see her move position and I saw her face through the grass.  Maybe in the next two days I'll see more of her.  Apparently she hadn't been seen in almost 2 weeks and folks here were starting to worry.

It turns out that Sammy, one of the two camp managers, spotted her.  He heard baboons screeching and lots of raucous so he went to investigate.  He saw game looking in the direction of this thicket and there was Osirata, sitting right on top of a very small tree with the kill (which then she dropped down into the thicket to eat with her cub).  Excellent ears on Sammy and way to investigate.  And coincidentally enough, Osirata's hangout is right past my tent across a small river.  I guess I was meant to be this far up in the camp!!

Returned around 7:00, shower at 7:30 and off to dinner at 7:45.  Andrew met me and confirmed the arrangements for tomorrow.  I'll be joining a family of 4 from England who I ate dinner with tonight.  They are a nice family and I think it'll be decent to hang out with them.  They want to do two short drives, so that'll work out well for me.  I enjoy my mid-day siestas.

Dinner tonight was quite good.  The soup was potato leek, my veg meal was a spanish tortilla which was excellent.  Dessert was chocolate mousse.  I'm addicted to my pre-dinner gin and tonic and my Unbelievable red blend wine.  I could get used to this!