Sunday, November 18, 2018

Withdrawal

Once the flight finally took off, it was over 15 hours home.  I managed to sleep for nearly 10 hours of that.  The first time I woke and checked our progress on the maps, I had only 4 hours left.  I think the last night of partying with the camp got the best of me.  I filled the last few hours watching Chappaquiddick and having breakfast.  I could get used to lying flat in Business Class!

I’d hoped that a 3 hour window at JFK would be enough, but alas, it was not to be.  We touched down at 7:37, a full hour and 20 minutes late.  After taxiing, I was luckily the first off the plane.  It was a long haul on foot to Immigration, where thankfully I have Global Entry so I whizzed through there.  Then on to the AirTrain to transfer to the next terminal over for my JetBlue flight to Boston.  That’s where the wheels started to fall off.  The security line there was insane.  Even TSA Precheck was sort of crazy.  But it moved relatively fast.  I got to my gate at 8:20, when it was supposed to start boarding for a 9:00 departure.  Luckily, the inbound flight hadn’t arrived yet so I had time to use the restroom and get an iced coffee.  Landing at 9:40 (early!) I was home by 10:30.

In retrospect, this was, hands down, the best safari I’ve been on.  For many reasons, including the accommodations and the sightings.  But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can have the best accommodations in the world, but without the absolute best guides, your safari will be hollow.  Ping was amazing.  Words really can’t explain just how darn good he is! 

Now that my jetlag is almost gone and there’s only one dose left of my anti-malarial, I’m itching to book another one.  I feel like another one is in my future...likely fall 2019.  I’m already mentally counting the days.

No time to pour over my photos, I’ve spent the weekend repacking and cleaning the house for our trip to Mexico City for Thanksgiving.  No rest for the weary!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Leaving the Mara...again

Sunday, November 11

It is probably a good thing that none of us had a morning game drive this morning, as I think we all woke a little worse for wear.  I got the most sleep but the rest of the fireplace gang last night stayed up until 3:00 a.m.  There’s no way I’d have been able to function, not to mention alcohol-related dehydration!

I had a nice breakfast at camp within morning with their homemade museli and yogurt and scrambled eggs.  It was served out on the deck behind the common area.  It was my first breakfast not eaten out in the bush since I left Nairobi.  Most everyone was sleeping in except for me and the male honeymooner.  It was a quiet morning.

David and Kappen took the honeymooners, Mike the intern manager and me to the airstrip at 9.  We said goodbye to Chania and Steve and the dog Nyara and off we went.  It was a somewhat uneventful game drive to the airstrip, except we did pull over to see one of the Offbeat males with his near-mating Acacia lioness nearby.  That was a nice send-off.

Mr. Honeymooner made us all laugh when he said “let’s all agree that if we see two lions fighting two cheetahs we’ll stay and watch and not go home.” I liked his thinking, no matter how unlikely it was.

We hung around waiting for Safarilink in the hot sun.  The airstrip had no facilities and no shade so other than sitting in the shade of our vehicle, we were out of luck.  I tried to soak it up since this will likely be the last I’m outdoors until spring!

Finally the time came to bid David and Kappen goodbye.  I thanked Kappen for the bracelet that his wife made that I bought.  Hugs all around and we boarded.  As usual, I was a soggy mess when we took off, but it made me smile to see the two of them jumping and waving from the side of the airstrip.  It’s a heart wrenching feeling for me to leave, since I absolutely love being there and the excitement of every day being different.

The flight was late arriving in Mara North but it was only 40 minutes so we ended up on time.  Sammy from Emakoko met me and took me there just in time for lunch, which as usual was wonderful.  The starter was an avocado salad.  The main was butternut squash ravioli and salad with homemade mustard vinegarette.  Dessert was lemon mousse.  After lunch I headed up to my room on the hill (I’ve always been at reception level) which was over 100 steps up!  I have no idea how the folks who work there do that all the time!  The view up there was nice, so I opened the balcony doors and sat out there to catch up on my blog, some email and social media.

Something caught my attention just off the deck and I looked and it was a Sykes monkey climbing the tree closest to the deck.  He looked innocent enough, but I remembered the staffer who took me to the room saying to leave the doors closed when I’m not there in case of monkeys.  Now I understood.  He let me approach him for photos but when I sat back down again, he was eyeing the open doors behind me.  I got up to close them and I could see his eyes going to the open windows.  I made it to the last open one just in time for him to be one foot into it.  I barked no at him and clapped and off he went.  I found out later that the night before he’d made it into another room and trashed it while the guest was at dinner.  Perhaps it’s a sign of experience on these trips that I’m not bothered by the hyrax or the monkey and just dealing with them myself.

Around 3:30 a knock on the door and I was asked if I was going to do the game drive in the park.  I didn’t know this was part of the day room package, but gladly took them up on it.  Sammy was our driver.

We headed out and another guest requested that we find white rhinos.  I had no expectations or desires out of this, just trying to maximize the game drives.  We didn’t see much more than plain game for the most part but then we came across four rhinos.  Coincidentally enough, it was an adult male, two adult females and a small calf.  I asked Sammy if he’d talked to Rashid about what we saw with the rhinos last Sunday when the male was going after the baby.  He said yes, and that these were the same rhinos.  My last sighting was coming full circle and finding out that he survived that at least.  One of the females was poking at him, but not in the violent, distressful way that the male was.  For now, the calf is alright.

It rained on and off again around us and over us all the while the sun kept popping through.  We saw a rainbow at the end of the drive which made me smile.

Back to the Emakoko and up those 100 steps again for a shower and change and repack.  I decided then I’m leaving my bags up there and not coming back for them after dinner.  No way was I doing the steps again!  Dinner was quite good, as usual.  The starter was halluti cheese in a light pastry, baked veggie balls (like meatballs) with mashed potato and green beans and carrots.  Dessert was passion fruit ice cream.  I had my last Dawa made by Lawrence.  I told him his are truly the best out there.  I’ll have to figure out how to make them myself.

It’s a good thing I got my upgrade to Business Class going home.  Anthony, the owner of Emakoko, ate dinner with me and we got to talking and next thing I know, it was 8:30, when I was supposed to be at the airport for my flight!  Yikes!  It took 50 minutes to get there and then the web of security checks started.  First the one outside the airport grounds where I have to get out of the car and walk through metal detectors while the car gets scanned.  Then the metal detectors to get into the terminal, which at this point was a couple blocks long.  I spied with my little eye a Kenya Airways Sky Priority door that I decide to try and I breezed right through.  Then I got shuffled around to a couple of different desks before I got checked in and offered priority passport control access.  Then through another security check to get to the departure gates.  Finally the last security check at the gate.  In all I took my shoes on/off 4 times.  A bit of overkill but better safe than sorry, I suppose.  Unfortunately I had no time for the lounge since I got through all that at 10:25.  If I hadn’t had all the priority access I’m not sure I would have made it.


For all that, the plane boarded late and is currently 1/2 hour late.  Argh...

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Cheetahs all the live long day

Saturday, November 10

Yet another peaceful night in the Mara.  I heard next to nothing all night.  The lions had gotten quite close during dinner but after that, nothing.  I woke just before 2:00 for the bathroom and then again at 5:00 ready for the day.  We weren’t headed out until 6:30 but I figured maybe if I headed out early, we’d go early.

I stood on my front porch and admired the sunrise and the clusters of animals that had gathered here to start their day.  I love this tent, how remote it is and how it fronts the plain and all its wildness.

The honeymooners had to be fetched when they were 10 minutes late (remember: 10 minutes, it comes into play shortly).  They were suitably apologetic but the entire time I was waiting I kept seeing minute by minute of the golden hour slipping away.

6:45 and we were finally underway.  We headed toward where we left the lioness hunting last night.  Right off the bat we saw a handful of vehicles off in the distance and a bunch of wildebeest scurrying.  Kappen thought at first it was the lioness, then as we drew closer he realized it was the cheetah brothers, Malaika’s sons, returned after being away from the conservancy for 5 days.  And they made a kill...which we’d just seen happen from about 1/2 mile away (that’s why the wildes were scurrying).  Arrrrrggggh.

I’ve been really fortunate when I’ve had to share a vehicle so I really shouldn’t complain.  Yet I think this sort of set me off on a bit of a bad mood, that combined with the fact that I knew this was my last morning game drive and that I have to leave tomorrow.  I was sort of grouchy after that for a while.

Anyway, a single hyena quickly took the kill from the cheetahs and they withdrew to some nearby bushes.  For whatever reason, David chose to pull up next to the kill and the hyena rather than follow the cheetahs we’d been waiting on for four days.  I let that sit for a few minutes then asked “Where did the brothers go?”, a couple times until I finally asked “can we go see the cats?”  To that point we’d only seen them from a distance and I didn’t really think the priority would be to sit and watch a group of scavengers on the kill.  Finally off we went.

The brothers were lying side by side on a log cleaning up the mess their bodies had become after a short meal on a baby wildebeest kill.  It was no different than watching my cats clean at home.  The pose was picture perfect, and I was dying to just get to it before they moved on.  David pulled up, and as has aggravated me before with other guides (see I told you I was cranky), he pulled up next to another vehicle so he could chat with that guide, effectively putting the other vehicle between us and the cheetahs.  

Once we finally got within photography distance of them, I managed to get some great shots, and likely would have been happy at that.  But then they spotted impala and topi in the distance and went on the hunt again.  We followed them around the area as they tried.  The first attempt was very premature and half-hearted but as the morning wore on, each attempt seemed to have more intention to it.  In all we saw them attempt to hunt 4 times.  The last was the most serious.  They situated themselves first under an acacia tree in the shade up an embankment from the only watering hole in the area that’s not dried up.  There, most of the plains game could easily see them.  On one attempt to hunt, they both retreated to a thick bush and just watched.  We had to have sat through 90 minutes of waiting on this one attempt, as more and more plains game came in from all directions around us.  Once they’d tried and failed on a hunt, we sat patiently and waited for more naive game to come to the watering hole, knowing that they didn’t know where the cheetahs were, but we did.

David and Kappen did a lot of guessing about which animal was their target as various groups of game cycled through the watering hole area.  The cheetah really prefer topi, but it would have to be a sub-adult as a full-grown adult was too big.  There were some warthog piglets, but the parents with their tusks are too dangerous.  So many possible candidates warily passed by that very bush and we thought sure many of them would be the target.  Finally there was a youngish zebra that seemed quite perfect, and we noticed that the cheetah noticed that too as the one we could still see in the bush was staring at it intently.  The little group that zebra was a part of slowly grazed up the embankment and closer and closer to the bush where the cheetahs were.  They were so ridiculously close we couldn’t believe it; it was almost within paw’s length!  And then, the game was finally up when both cheetahs lunged at a zebra, only each went for a different one! It’s as if there was no plan here at all, they each had a different target!  Hunt was blown in the blink of an eye.  We decided to leave them then, after 5 3/4 hours and go have lunch.  This wouldn’t be my first failed hunt and certainly won’t be my last, but it’s exactly what keeps me coming back.

Bush breakfast was mid-morning nearby the cheetahs, from where we could keep an eye on the vehicles sitting around them when they first retreated from their initial kill.  We had to retreat ourselves when a family of elephants started working its way through the wooded area we were parked in!

Lunch today was a bush lunch, in a pretty secluded spot near camp.  We had vegetable quiche, potato salad, chickpea salad and iceberg salad.  And of course rose to wash it down.

The afternoon drive was with a newly arrived older couple from England.  This was their first safari so we were stopping every 5 feet for an impala, a warthog, a giraffe.  I just wanted to get to cats.  I was patient and put the camera down for most of the drive, just looking at the landscape without the lens for the last time.  I enjoyed being out but wish we’d seen more cats.  We finally found the new mother lioness who just had cubs.  She has moved them to a new hiding spot and we found her with a warthog she’d just killed.  It’s good that she’s hunting on her own and eating, as she has some cubs to raise.  This girl was one of the 7 month old cubs I saw in 2017 and this is her first litter. I hope for the best for her, as she’s raising the future of the Offbeat Pride.

We went for a group sundowner on the plain.  There wasn’t much of a sunset but an impressive display of rainstorms going on all around us, that never actually hit us.  I chatted with the new Brits and the honeymooners and then we all headed back to shower before dinner.   I forget what dinner was, since we all ended up sitting by the fire and drinking until the wee hours.  I know there was tree tomato crumble for dessert.  This ended up being a fun group of people.  I just wish none of us had to leave tomorrow!




Friday, November 9, 2018

Plush with lions

Friday, November 9

Another solid night’s sleep.  Nothing woke me except the need to pee at 2:45 a.m.  I sat and listened to the Mara for a while but it gave me no reason to stay awake.  I woke again at 5:30 ready to start the day.

David and I headed out at 6:30 as Kappen was taking my vehicle mate from the first two days to the airstrip.  We started by looking for the cheetah brothers which we think are now nearby again.  It was slow going for a while, so I started paying attention to the plains game more.  While there are enormous numbers of wildebeest left from the migration which was very wonky this year, there are also large numbers of topi and especially baby topi.  It’s very surprising how many there are.  Coke’s hartebeest are on the decline, however, and that really shows in their numbers.

Finally we came upon two of the new Offbeat males with an Acacia lioness.  David says that the four Offbeat males are starting to spread themselves too thin and leaving the Offbeat Pride alone runs the risk of having that pride taken over by nomad males when they’re not looking.  Nevertheless, these two lions were in early honeymoon phase where the male is still playing hard to get.  The lesser dominant male was just snoozing nearby.

I thought maybe we’d have a David Attenborough moment when all of a sudden a hippo was approaching the trio.  I don’t think the hippo saw the lion until it was quite close, but the lion saw the hippo...and didn’t budge.  The distance between them was no more than three vehicle lengths, which was incredibly close.  None of the lions were at all bothered, the lioness stayed asleep in fact.  So any hopes I had of capturing some sort of interaction were scuppered when the hippo went face forward into a bush and stayed there.

We moved on from there to the area along the river where David said the River Pride used to be found all the time.  Now that it’s without a male (the Offbeat boy’s chased it off) it seems that the pride is scattered and confused.  We drove in and out of nooks and crannies around the riverbed and then I got the spot, two young cubs lying on the side of the river.  We pulled up and David said they are about 6 weeks old and quite thin.  His hunch was that they’d been abandoned by the mother.  Possibly either Cape buffalo or male lions threatened the pride and the adults fled.  The mother of these two likely thinks they didn’t survive.  David said either a buffalo or a Marshall eagle will get to them if the mother doesn’t come back for them.  It is sad but it’s also survival of the fittest.  If the mother doesn’t have the skills or the willpower to instill survival skills into these guys, they likely won’t grow up to be strong independent lions.  David was going to call a ranger but I’m not sure the right thing to do would be to help them, as much as that is my initial impulse.

Our next sighting wasn’t that far off, it was more of the River Pride, 5 lionesses and 6 cubs between 3 and 6 months.  They seemed to be coexisting nicely as they slept among the short bushes.  One lioness was apart from the rest and David thought that is the mother of the two cubs we just saw.  I wanted to poke her and tell her to go get her babies.  Anyway, we watched the lions interact a bit.  One lioness groomed another but for the most part they just slept, so we moved on.

I got another spot of my own without the help of David or Kappen.  There was a “hidden in plain sight” hyena off in the distance.  Even when I pointed and explained, it still took David a bit to see it.  I’m finally getting my game-viewing eyes back, only in time to leave!

Our last sighting was very similar to the first of the day, the other two Offbeat males and an Aacacia female, another early honeymooning pair.   These two were about as snoozy as the first pair, so we left them with a thought to come back later to see if they are mating.

I talked to David about perhaps staying out midday to try to find the cheetah.  He didn’t seem keen on it but I would have if he did.  Instead we’re going to skip tea at 4 and head straight out.  I hope that gives us a good amount of time to see what we can find before sundowners.  I’ll be alone with them on tonight’s drive before other guests join tomorrow.

Lunch today was all vegetarian: homemade linguini with sauce, a bean salad, roasted veggies and watermelon with mint for dessert.  I washed it down with a Stoney Tangawizi and a glass of rose.  I could get used to this!

The afternoon drive was successful in that we saw lions.  We checked on both sets of almost-mating Offbeat males and their Acacia females.  The first one was definitely not interested in mating yet and were sound asleep. The second pair was more awake but that was more due to the wind picking up and the temperature dropping as a very light rain set in (it lasted all of 2 minutes, for all its hellacious looking clouds!). The male sniffed the female’s rear and decided he wasn’t yet interested and she wasn’t showing any flirtation so maybe she wasn’t ready yet either.  Eventually she set off into the field in hunting mode where we left her.  She had her eyes on wildebeest and topi originally but several vehicles following her closely blew her cover.  David thought she would just hunker down in the tall grass until night fell.

It’s interesting to hear how the Maasai (like David and Kappen) predict weather.  They’ve been saying for 2 days now that the weather is going to change.  It’s that the clouds are getting thick, or that the wind is picking up or that the animals are sitting down more.  In any event, rain is coming according to them, although they always says tomorrow, and it hasn’t really happened yet.  I just hope it holds out one more day so I can get some good drives in before I leave.  I know they need the rain but I want to finish this safari strong!

The honeymooners were off having a bush dinner, so I was with the family that came in yesterday.  It ended up being a lively conversation mostly about politics, but it was cathartic in that we at least shared the same political views.  That’s enough to unite anyone.

Dinner tonight was really good. The starter was roasted eggplant on toast with a feta/yogurt/mint side.  The main was eggplant stuffed with spinach and parmesan, couscous, carrots and zucchini.  Dessert was an Amarula panna cotta, which was wonderful.  And me with a dawa pre-dinner drink, rose with dinner and Amarula after dinner drink.  This is truly life.

Up for one more day of drives tomorrow.  I’ll be with the honeymooners as their guide is needed elsewhere in the morning.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

Back in Mara North

Thursday, November 8

As much as I absolutely adored my game drives the last three days, being out all day with no break is a killer.  We’d leave at 6:15 a.m. and come in close to 7:00 p.m.  I loved every minute of it but last night I was nodding off during dinner.  I excused myself at the first opportunity I got and went to bed at 9:30.  I woke a little before 4 a.m. feeling fine but then drifted off again until 5:30 when I woke just before the alarm clock went off.  There was next to no noise here to keep me awake so I probably slept more soundly than I did at Ping’s camp.  I heard lions but quite a ways off in the distance a few times but not close enough to wake me or keep me awake.

I’m suffering a bit of Ping withdrawal today.  Every day with him had an air of excitement and anticipation to it.  I loved riding shotgun with him up front, with three sides around me open to the elements (sun included, my dermatologist may disown me).  I need to start to interpret the stay here at Offbeat as a separate and distinct event rather than see it as an extension of or comparison to my time at Enaidura.  But it’s tough.  Ping is the safari equivalent of mainlining heroine.  I miss that.

Anyway...we met at the vehicle and I filled my metal water bottle for the day.  I think in addition to exhaustion yesterday I’m also dehydrated.  I’m going to try to knock that out today if I can so that I stay healthy and sane.

We headed out and first checked on the dense bush where the guides had seen newborn lion cubs last week.  They didn’t see them there yesterday and now not today (we checked twice) so we’re convinced now that the lioness moved them.  We’re also more convinced that the lioness that passed my tent yesterday is that one and the cubs are between my tent and the staff quarters.  I’m more than happy to babysit should the need arise....

Next up was looking for the leopards that we didn’t find last night.  It wasn’t long before the other vehicle out of camp spotted them and let us know.  This is resident female leopard Nalangu and an unknown male.  (Nalangu is the mother of Rana, the leopard treed by lions the last time I was here). It was right around where we thought they were last night, so we were not far off.  They weren’t actively mating but were walking across the valley towards some thick undergrowth and an attractive-to-leopards acacia tree.  The light was the perfect golden hour and at one point both leopards were walking right at me.  The grass is a bit of a challenge but I’m happy enough with what I got.

Kappen then spotted a lone lioness walking through some tall grass.  She seemed to be vocalizing and at first they thought that this was either Leah or Lucinda and that she was calling to her cubs.  She seemed fat and happily fed.  Nearby we spotted the cubs running toward her, but she growled and ran from them, settling near us and hiding from them.  She definitely did not want any part of these cubs.  It turns out that she was a sub-adult of the Offbeat Pride, so she would have been one of the cubs I saw here in February 2017.  The cubs continued on running, looking for their mom.  Through the binos I could see that they had round bellies and blood on their faces, so they too had eaten recently.  They went off to hide in some bushes.  Other guests here told me that they were reunited with their mothers later.  Phew!

We saw a couple of lionesses off in the hills hunting on their own, but not close enough to pursue.  The big, cohesive prides just don’t exist here any more.  Since Frank and Jesse were kicked out, other males have spread themselves too thin across the remaining prides, and I guess one of those pride males recently died so that leaves more work for the one remaining.  What was the River Pride when I was last here left the area.  The Acacia Pride then split and formed a new River Pride in the same territory.  All of the prides are in such small numbers, single-digits even.  It seems like a very unstable situation with no sign of it ending.

Driving along, David spotted a hyena chasing a mother topi and her baby.  They were going at top speed and the mother was doing well keeping between the hyena and the baby.  They were really moving!  Finally the mother led the baby over near some shepherds and a flock of sheep.  They figured they’d be safe there, and for the moment, they were.  The hyena retreated back down the hill toward us.  Then the shepherds’ dogs started to chase the topi and baby.  So another chase ensued.  This time the dogs drove the topi pair right into the path of the hyena.  With that, there is one less baby topi in the world.

Further on, we were looking in River Pride territory hoping to see some of those lions.  David got a tip from Kicheche guide and followed it, getting us to a dense area of tall grass with short acacias.  Five lionesses and one cub were split up and sleeping under a few of the acacias.  Even sleeping, they’re not cohesive at all.  Apparently yesterday there were two cubs but one was killed somehow during the night.

After the lion sighting we were traveling along and found an elderly female elephant and a calf of maybe 5 years old I’d say, browsing in the shade.  We pulled up next to them to watch and both mother and calf came right over to the vehicle.  I recorded a minutes’ worth of video of the calf browsing right next to me. It was both slightly anxiety-producing and soothing at the same time.  To be so close to an amazing creature is a gift but also potentially harrowing.  The female seemed distressed and very thin.  David thinks she’s had a run in with humans of some sort and is very anxious now. The calf seemed better in temperament.  That’s the second time on this trip I’ve seen elephants that are upset by an encounter with humans.

Right after we looked for the newborn lion cubs again, we crossed a dry river bed where there was a herd of elephants.  I stood up and watched through the roof, snapping some shots.  My camera is starting to misbehave which I think is due to all the dust here.  I’m going to have to send it to be cleaned, I just hope it makes it through this trip first!

Breakfast this morning was out on the savannah, with coffee, eggy bread (French toast) and a great vegetable fritter that they made for me.  I also had yogurt and some granola and a hard boiled egg.  This at 9:45 and we had lunch at 1:00!  That was good too, vegetable kabobs, tomato and avocado salad and beet and mandarin orange salad.  Banana cream pie for dessert.  They’re spoiling me here.

I settled down for a siesta around 2, hoping to continue to catch up on some sleep!

The afternoon game drive got underway after I took a 40 minute nap.  I can see I’m settling into the siesta routine nicely.  We weren’t more than 90 seconds outside of camp when a young bull elephant caught our eye so we stopped to watch him.  Behind him, however, was a herd of topi all with laser sharp focus in one direction, which begs investigating.  So off we went.  Kappen went up through the roof, so I knew he meant business.  There were no tell-tale signs of large cats, so David thought perhaps it was a serval, which had me salivating since I’ve never seen one.  We looked for a while, hoping to see something to confirm or deny through the tall grass, and came up empty.  

We carried on for a while, turning out attentions back to finding the cheetah brothers who have been spotted here and are believed to be Malaika’s last cubs.  They had been here for a while but moved out of the conservancy but David heard from a ranger that they are back.  He stopped at one point to question a little boy shepherding a bunch of goats and the boy said he’d just seen two cheetah, so David decided that what the topi saw just outside of camp was the cheetah pair, since it was close by and in that direction.  All this taking place in front of my tent!

The rest of the drive was productive only in that we found another Offbeat sub-adult lioness who was calling out to the others.  David heard from another guide that the males who’d been ruling Offbeat were back in the area, so we tried hard to find them and came up short.  After a gin and tonic sundowner we headed back to camp, spotting two bull elephants sparring just as we got within view of camp.


I had a dawa at the bar with the young honeymoon couple from England.  We were talking with one of the managers, Steven.  Dinner tonight was butternut squash soup, some sort of spicy vegetable dish with spinach, mushrooms and zucchini, warm beet salad and mashed potatoes (the meat eaters had pork).  Dessert, though, was the best part: sticky toffee pudding!  It was so good.  I had amarula for an after-dinner drink.  I’m comfortably full now and feeling fine.  My Facebook photography friend leaves early tomorrow, so I’ll be alone with David for the morning game drive.  Up early so off to sleep now.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Honoring a legend

Wednesday, November 7

The first half of today ended up being quite emotional yet still one of the best mornings I’ve had on safari.

There was a fair amount of noise overnight, but no where near what it was the night before.  I got more sleep but when I did wake up I definitely heard lions each time.  Ping says he never has a night here without them.  Staff told us that a couple of lions and a rhino cut through camp overnight, up near our tents.  That still amazes me that that happens while I’m sleeping.

We all were packed and ready to leave camp since we were all checking out today.  Dinner last night was a little longer for all the chatting and this morning I felt a touch of nostalgia as we gathered at the vehicle for the last game drive.  We’d really become an interesting foursome over the last few days.  Our bags would catch up with us later this morning along with our bush breakfast.

We headed out looking for the four big male lions, the Four Muskateers, that roam around the Paradise Pride area.  One of them is Scarface, who we saw from a distance lying asleep on our first night.  I was happy then to have seen him at all, and considered that enough.  We had a delightful drive around the camp and the light was absolutely perfect since it was just 7:00 a.m. and within that golden hour of the morning.  Up over a rise we came and there I saw a beautiful male posing regally in the morning sun.  I pointed him out to Ping (it was my spot!) and he said “It is Scarface.”  I could not believe it, I got an absolute picture perfect experience with him, not 25 feet away.

I took his portrait as I do and admired him in all his awesomeness.  Even with the injury to his eye, he is still a beautiful male. Ping thinks he’s one of the most handsome there have been in the Mara.  He is close to 13 years old now and his days are coming to an end.  I’d read in a few places that he’s slowed down and isn’t well.  I think people suspect he will be gone any day now.  Never was this more apparent than when he started to roar right next to us.  He did a contact roar and it wasn’t answered.  No lions replied or came to him.  Ping said there wasn’t the same power in that roar that there once was, the type of power that would rattle the mirrors of our vehicle.  We decided to wait until 7:30 to see if he would move.  A few minutes later he did, and we saw that he cannot walk on his hind right paw.  He was limping badly.  He changed positions twice and moved into the shade of a bush to sleep.  We’d find him there still a few hours later with a few vehicles around him admiring him.

I put the camera down for a bit and just watched him.  I saw in him all of his legend and history.  He was an epic male of the Marsh Pride and now the Paradise Pride.  Ping said he’d reigned from one side of the Reserve to the other.  And now he’s here, thin and lame, sleeping by himself, his calls going unanswered.  Tears started to stream down my face as I couldn’t hold them back.  It seems such an undignified way for such a personality to go.  As a big cat fan, I am blessed to have seen him so close and so handsome.  I will choose to remember that profile in the soft golden glow of this morning, when he looked as if all this is his kingdom.

We moved along and came across a large herd of wildebeest who looked like they might be trying to cross the river.  Off in the distance was an even larger heard headed our way.  We sat and waited and watched the indecision of the “would they, won’t they” nature of the river crossing.  Ultimately we never found out because Ping spotted another of the Four Muskateers on a nearby hill.  We were too far off for a photo but I watched through the binos and he was big and fat and round, likely having just eaten.  Another sign that either Scarface can’t keep up or they’ve just chosen to leave him; he clearly had not eaten by the looks of him.

Ping wanted to show us the main river crossing, and on the way we passed a large herd of zebra all looking in one direction.  That is always a sign of something to investigate, perhaps a leopard hunting.  It turns out that a wounded zebra was lying just off the road and they were all watching him.  It appeared that his rump was torn into by something (which Ping thinks was a lion).  While the zebra may have escaped the lion, he appeared to be dying, which was hard to see.  But the social and emotional response of the zebras, nearing it closely and watching intently, was really something to witness.  There was nothing they could do for it, it was a helpless situation.

The mood changed a bit when we got to Mara River crossing point.  There were a fair number of crocs in the river and a pair were idling near a wildebeest carcass that would be their meals for the foreseeable future.  Across the river though, was a large croc that had a Thomson’s gazelle carcass, and it kept taking it and whipping it from one side to the other over it’s head, beating it against the water to make it smaller to consume.  The splashing was something, but the photos of the act are quite impressive, with a very dramatic arc of water around the croc itself.  There are so many shots I can’t wait to see when I get home!

We were off now to meet up with our breakfast and our bags.  Breakfast was the same as the others: pancakes, hard boiled eggs, croissants, fruit and coffee.  Just enough to keep us going.

I said goodbye to my vehicle mates and wished them fair winds and smooth flights home.  We had some good laughs the last couple of days.  I wasn’t lying when I said I wished they’d be coming to Offbeat with me.

Ping took me in the direction of Offbeat in Mara North.  Conveniently the area we saw the young female leopard on Monday was on the way.  This is also the territory of the son of Kiboso/Pretty Girl.  In contrast to Monday, there were only 2 vehicles there when we arrived, and they’d found the son.  He was perched up in a tree surveying the plains and the scrub bush around him.  Ping thought for sure he’d come down to hunt.  And of course he did.  We followed him all around this area as he stalked prey.  It was exciting to be just one of 3 or 4 vehicles there, and all of them were behaving perfectly, giving him a wide berth to move around and see as far as he could.  After 90 minutes of this, we had to move on to Offbeat so I could have lunch and before my permitted time in the Mara Reserve ran out.

I was filled with a sense of sadness and even dread as we got closer.  I had an absolutely epic three days with Ping.  I saw things I didn’t even think were possible.  FIVE leopards?  Leopards mating? Lions mating? Lions fighting?  That croc? Two leopards hunting?  Wah, as Ping would say.  He told me that he finds the last day difficult because he’d built up a relationship with his guests and then he has to start all over.  I gave Ping a big hug and thanked him for exceeding my expectations.  I didn’t think the Reserve could be as productive as this, but now I know you just have to have the right guide.  Suffice to say, I’m already thinking in my head about when I can get back.  Again.

There are a lot of things that made both Enaidura and Ping so incredibly good.  First, Ping is the best guide I’ve been with.  He can interpret a situation or animal behaviors like no one else I’ve been with.  A couple times I doubted what he said only to find out he was absolutely right.  We’d be positioned in one place waiting for animals to turn directly towards us while everyone else on the sighting was facing a different direction, and we’d end up being in the perfect spot. I was always perfectly positioned to frame a shot, take advantage of light and avoid shadows from the vehicle.  I was always closest to the sighting.  If Ping was shooting too, he was behind me.  His guests come first, and this shows.  The detail in the tents with two power strips for charging batteries, lights in every necessary location (closet area, toilets, shower) and his staff with their non-stop care and attention were all absolutely perfect.  I can’t await to go back.  As if you couldn’t tell.

Here at Offbeat, I’ll be with David and Kappen again, as I requested.  There is a honeymooning couple from the UK here as well as an older gentleman who turns out to be a photographer I follow on Facebook.  He and I will be sharing David and Kappen!  Small world.

Lunch was good, a chickpea, zucchini and tomato salad, iceberg salad and corn salad with pineapple for dessert.  I washed it down with a glass of rose.  Jesse the manager is no longer here but Chania is along with two other managers.  The mess area got washed away in the floods earlier this year and has been expanded and rebuilt to include a back deck, a bar and a fireplace.  I’m curious to see how this experience stacks up against last time and in the wake of my epic-ness with Ping.

I laid here dozing for a quick siesta and welcomed the rest.  I’d essentially had 5 days of non-stop game drive and/or travel and I think I was starting to feel the effects.  I had just started to doze when the alarm woke me. 

As I came to, I kept hearing what I learned from Ping was an impala alarm call, a very distinct “cluck”.  I looked out the opening of the tent, which had the flaps tied up so was wide open, and saw two impala and an eland all at alert staring to my left.  Surely, I thought, I wouldn’t have the tent flaps wide open if there was any danger.  But those animals looked and sounded on alert.

It wasn’t until I was on the game drive that I learned that a lioness had passed across the front of my tent just at that time and encountered a staff member outside the staff tent to my left.  So I wasn’t crazy.  Or dead yet.

I met in the mess tent for tea at 4:00.  It was great to see David and Kappen again.  I’m glad I have them and am eager to see what they can conjure up.

We headed out at 4:30 and very quickly found ourselves with Leah and Lucinda, two of the remaining Offbeat Pride females.  There are now only 7 Offbeat members left after Frank and Jesse have been chased out.  There are 4 new pride males, who have also taken over Acacia Pride and have their eyes on a pride in Olare Motorogi, the next conservancy over.  Lucinda and Leah the lionesses (who were here when I was last here) each have an adorable 7 month old cub.  There were eight and these are the only two left.  We spent some time with them but they were just lying there dozing, so there wasn’t much to see.

Apparently the resident female leopard here has been mating the last 2 days with an unknown male here. David, Kappen and my vehicle mate Richard saw them last night.  Our next goal was to find them.  We drove to where they were, where they might be and even where they might not be.  It wasn’t until we had headed back for home that Kappen, who by now was standing on the seat with his head out the roof, heard the growl of leopards mating.  David heard it to, but swore it came from the opposite direction from where Kappen heard it.  We drove around a bit more and never found it, sacrificing our sundowner in the process.

The best news of all is the report on Lucky, the lion cub we came to know on our safari here in 2017.  There is a lone male lion living near the salt lick that the guides are pretty sure is Lucky.  They say he is big and powerful and doing well.  Chania the camp manager told me a story that on one kill when he was still little, the pride males wanted to eat without the cubs.  One of them growled and all but one scampered for cover.  It was Lucky who growled back and continued to eat with them.  I think when my vehicle mate has left I’ll see if we can try to find him.

Popped back to the tent and had a quick shower then a dawa and roasted chickpeas before dinner.  The meal tonight was good, with corn risotto as a starter, then a stuffed pepper (I remember those being delicious), broccoli, Peapods and couscous.  For dessert a custard tart.  All in all an excellent day.



Tuesday, November 6, 2018

When Mother Nature deals you a better hand

Tuesday, November 6

Honestly, it’s days like the last three that make Kenya utterly irresistible to me.  Every day I’ve thought that the next day can’t possible out-do it.  And it does.  Even if it ended right now, this safari would likely go down as my best.  Not to say it hasn’t had its harrowing moments where I’ve felt all was lost.  But then I put my faith in Ping, and it pays off.

Ping left us last night saying two things:  he would do some research on where the Fast Five and Amani were and that it was going to be a very vocal night.  And was it ever.  No sooner had I turned out the light than the lions were roaring right across the river.  With the echo of the deep embankment, it sounded as if they were on my front porch offering me a dawa.  They sounded so close that I actually looked at the tent walls and wondered if they were enough to keep them out.  Then I decided to try to record the roars on my iPhone, so I was jumping from tent opening to tent opening trying to get it.  I guess that makes me a lion dork.  I can’t count how many times I heard lions all night, or express how close they seemed to be, not to mention a virtual non-stop chorus of hippos, but I did not sleep through and just got bits of sleep here and there.

Fear not, though, I sprang out of bed when the alarm went off at 5:30 and was dressed and nearly ready when my coffee was delivered at 5:45.  It was colder this morning than yesterday but we just tied shukas around ourselves and settled in.  This morning was less cloudy so we got to see the sunrise race up over the horizon.  

Ping said that most of the roaring last night was females.  I of course asked how he knew that and he said the female roar drops off at the end of the sound, whereas a male’s does not.  Good to know.  I need to pay more attention tonight.  And I learned something else on this safari.

Ping said that the lions around here are weird, in that once he hears them that vocal, he never finds them, and today was no exception.  We couldn’t find a lion near camp to save our lives.  It’s a good thing we didn’t depend on that, since cheetah was on the agenda.

We passed a small herd of elephants that was very wary of us.  He said ordinarily the elephants are as skittish but these really didn’t like us.  He suspected that the elephant had passed through a nearby camp and had a negative encounter with humans.  Gosh, I hope not.  They were great to watch, nonetheless, because they had two little ones.  The littlest one was so cute though because it had enough trunk control that it was able to browse on the greens successfully, but when it wanted a particularly tasty bush of some sort, it would just face plant and eat it right off the ground with its mouth.  Too funny.

He’s found out that the Fast Five were on the side of Lookout Hill closest to us today, and that ended up being nearly an hour drive.  He also knew where Amani and her new cubs were last night and it wasn’t that far off from there, so we headed in that general direction, unsure of which we’d do or if the cats would even still be there.  He was using a channel on the radio to talk to his cousin and two other trusted guides and they were working together for the same cause.  Ordinarily I’m not a fan of the radio thing but this was the best way to guarantee we were at least headed in the right direction.  Finally Ping’s cousin called to say he’d found the Fast Five.  They were on the other side of Lookout Hill and they looked hungry; he thought that they were going to try to hunt.

It took another 40 minutes to get near there, but we did stop for breakfast, photos of various things and at Lookout Hill itself for the vistas towards Tanzania (remember that I’m not alone here in this vehicle. and we need to balance the first-time safari-goers experience with mine).  In the end I could do a lot of “we shouldn’t have had a second cup of coffee” or “we shouldn’t have done the photos at Lookout Hill”.  But we did, and in doing so, missed the Fast Five fighting amongst themselves and then dispersing.  By the time we got there, there were no Five to see.

The Fast Five are a five male cheetah coalition, which is extremely rare.  They formed in December 2016 and experts at the time said it wouldn’t last.  Now it’s become the stuff of legends.  It’s on everyone’s want-to-see list, including mine.  The five are made up of two sets of brothers, two who are Naborr’s sons (I saw her in Naboisho a few years ago) and three who are of an undetermined mother.  Ping seems to think the mother of the three was from somewhere in the Reserve because when they lead the pack, they go there and when the two do, they go back toward Naboisho; they retreat to where they were born.  Lately I’d noticed that Ping has been posting on social media that there have been a lot of fights between these boys, which he doesn’t think is good for their longevity.  That’s what had happened today, and the sets of brothers split up.  It wasn’t long however until we found Naborr’s sons sleeping under a tree.  So I saw 2/5 of the Fast Five!

It was starting to heat up and I didn’t want all of us to hang out there just waiting for the cheetah boys to wake up, so we moved on.  Ping thought maybe we could find a cheetah mother with five cubs (I’m unsure who this might be) so we started heading into her territory.  That’s when Ping’s radio started to go wild.  Beyond that territory, a cheetah was starting to hunt.  Around the same time, another guide let Ping know that two leopards were hunting.  Ping had already made the turn towards the cheetah mother/cubs territory and he quite literally stopped the vehicle and said “We have a decision to make here, we either go see a single cheetah attempt to hunt or we go see leopards mating.”  I voted for the leopards but said I would commit to whatever we as a democratic unit agreed.  Beverly and Rick said they didn’t really care, so Ping headed towards the leopards.  He said at dinner tonight that that is what he really wanted to do.

Without the benefit of understanding Swahili, I had no idea what the guides on the ground were telling Ping but when we pulled up he told us that there were two male leopards vying for the mating rights to a single female.  Unfortunately they were in a ravine surround by shrubs.  We managed to get a spot initially from which we could see one of the two males.  We drove around a cluster of vehicles and saw the other male.  The female was meandering about in the thicket.

The adrenaline was pretty high by now so what took place over the next hour went so fast but was so fraught with anxiety.  I wanted to see them mate and I wanted the photos.  There was no telling what they were going to do when or where.  Sunshine was turning to clouds and eventually looked like rain.  Ping said if it rained, the leopards would come out into the open.  A reserve warden showed up and booted us all out of the thicket (maybe 5 vehicles, that’s all that could fit).  Ping parked us along the road with an eye on one leopard so he’d know when they were moving.  It started to rain, the leopards started to move, but in the opposite direction.  Ping rolled down our windows and told us to cover up with a shuka so as not to get wet.  Through binoculars to the open field, I saw that one male appeared to give up on the female when she was following him, but as soon as she turned her attentions to the male who was following her, he was all interested again.  We tried to find a quick way to cross the ravine to get to the cats in the open field, then they doubled-back and headed back.

When the leopards had passed back over the ravine, we were right where the mating male stopped to wait for the female.  He was really close off the passenger front of the trunk.  I had a perfect shot.  The female showed up and lured the male away from us and into some grass where they promptly started mating. I tried to stand to get a better view but to no avail.  I was not pleased and immensely stressed.  Ping told me not to worry, “we’ll get this”.  He moved the car yet again, along with the other handful of cars following this, to where he thought they’d eventually come out of the thicket.  And wouldn’t you know, out came the mating male and he plopped down about 25 feet directly off the front of our vehicle, and a perfect clearing.  The female came over, flashed her tail in his face and that was all he needed.  He mounted her and I heard the voice in my head saying “push the shutter release”. I’d remembered to keep the camera set on multi-frames per second and just let it go.  I got the whole thing!  I didn’t screw it up!  The shots are excellent.  And I just saw one of the rarest sightings for a safari-goer, mating leopards.  Better still, two males aiming for the second female, which even Ping said he’d never seen.

During all this Ping was assessing the situation and said the female is Lorian’s daughter and this was her territory.  What likely happened is she’s gone into estrus and has been scent marking all over the place.  Both males wandered through and decided to try for her attentions.  One male was larger; they were both huge compared to a female but one was just enormous.  They’d had some skirmishes before we got there.  The mating male was limping and the other had a gash on his cheek.  The non-mating male was literally worked into a lather, he was drooling heavily and was quite agitated.  All three cats were growling deeply and persistently.  After the mating session we got to see, the males moved on to another area of thicket and Ping thought for sure there’d be a fight.  The female did too, I think, because she followed to a point and then sprinted off, not wanting to be caught in the cross-fire.  We’d seen plenty at this point so Ping suggested we leave before the warden returned again.  I agreed.  This was so much more than I could have imagined.

We headed away from the sighting to use the bush bathroom and have a hot lunch packed for us.  It was now 3:00 and I was astounded how quickly the day had gone.  We had rice, a curry vegetable stew with zucchini, carrots and onion and rice.  I think we were all exhausted from another long day in the vehicle but the excitement was enough to carry us.

After that we saw a few more sedate but memorable sightings.  There was a fairly impressive line of wildebeest moving along the plain and Ping positioned us so that the wildebeests were coming right at us with an artistic acacia tree right next to them.  I also managed a great shot of an in-flight vulture.  I’m impressing myself with my photography skills, when my stupidity doesn’t screw it up.

We got back around 5:30 and had time to pack and shower before we sat around the campfire with a drink, which was really nice on our last night here.

On the path back up to our tents from the parking area, the staffer who was walking me up jumped to the side so as not to step on something.  I looked down only long enough to ascertain something black and squiggly.  I ran ahead of him and nearly climbed in his sweatshirt with him.  I’ll pretend for now it wasn’t a snake even though he said it was.  It was small and thin, I’m leaning more towards worm...

Dinner tonight was ugali (like polenta, a Kenyan specialty) and then something like tortillas with something like salsa.  Barbecue was the main course for the others, I had fish similar to last night’s.  There was something I think Ping called pizza that was so good, lots of cheese and veggies.  There was orange cake for dessert.

At dinner tonight we were asking Ping all sorts of questions and Rick said that one of the guards mentioned that there were lions in camp once.  And yes, Ping said, they were there walking up the path to our tents last night!  Yee ha!  I can’t even imagine.


As I’ve sat here in bed typing this, the chorus of lions has been going on.  Near and then farther each successive time, and now it seems closer again.  I’ve never stayed anywhere that it’s been this reliable and close.  I’ll be sad to leave here tomorrow, as much as I’m looking forward to Offbeat again.