Wednesday, February 19
After an absolutely solid night's sleep here -- practically 8 hours which never happens at home -- I woke to the gentle voice of one of the Masai staff saying "good morning" and silently slipping a tray with hot chocolate and peanut butter and chocolate bars into my tent. He slipped away as quietly as he came, leaving me at 6:00 to hurriedly get dressed and ready to face the first half day game ride at 6:30 a.m. At this ungodly hour, it was tough to get out of bed, especially since under the covers was still so warm from the hot water bottle left there last night and it was pretty darn cool outside. For all my complaining about bringing a fleece jacket, I was damn glad I had it this morning.
If I learned anything on my first safari, it was to never, ever, ever miss an early morning game ride. And today would be no different. I dare say (and apologies to my travel mates on my first safari) that this will most likely go down as the best game ride I've ever been on, which was a relief because I have to admit, yesterday left me skeptical. I just didn't know if Kenya or this area, even, could deliver. But deliver it did, in spades.
The chef packed us a picnic breakfast for later, so no messing around and out we went. I immediately zipped my fleece up to my chin and laid the flannel and rubber poncho around my legs. With all the sides wide open, it was drafty out there and moving created a bit of a chill, but again, all things being relative, it was still a hell of a lot warmer than Boston this time of year.
We started out with a gorgeous view of the sun coming up behind Mt. Kenya, which is a dramatic steep peak nearby. We passed a couple of elderly Cape buffalo who'd abandoned their herd because they couldn't keep up and now were living the rest of their lives peacefully sleeping in brush together. Then Nicholas saw an elephant heading toward a watering hole, so we stopped to watch him approach and then disappear again into the bushes, they are so silent in their movements, if you weren't looking you'd surely never know they are there. We spotted a giraffe and managed to get fairly close. These giraffes seem so much bigger than the Masai giraffes we saw in Tanzania. There was a pretty good sized herd of Cape buffalo we drove through and stopped to take photos at they looked on inquisitively. There is something about them that makes me think "stoic and proud". So already, right out of the gate I've seen two of the Big Five, a few times over.
I'd told my guide Benjamin and driver Nicholas that I came here for rhino. Hint hint. And Ol Pejeta has a mission to protect and conserve them, including a rhino sanctuary with black and white rhinos. We drove on for a bit and came across two rhinos out in the conservancy, a mother and a four year old baby. They are just gorgeous to watch even as all they did was graze. I cannot fathom how anyone could harm them. The mother rhino had quite an impressive and sharp horn on her. I was fortunate to have seen these two and at good range too, when Benjamin's eagle eye saw two more on the horizon, so off we went. These two turned out to be three: a mother, her older child and a young, three month old baby. I about keeled over, the baby was so darn sweet. We sat and watched for a good while, taking in all that is good about nature and conservation. I'd no expectations whatsoever about how many rhinos I'd see but was beyond thrilled with these five, especially the little one. These older rhinos had had their horns filed down because at one point they lived in the sanctuary and since it is a contained space, the rangers didn't want to tempt poachers with the horns. So, no horns, no poachers.
I asked Benjamin if poachers had managed to get in here, despite the security both around the conservancy and the sanctuary and he said yes, as recently as last year, when one poacher was killed trying. Fair play, I say. But my day wasn't done just yet.
We stopped for breakfast at an approved picnic spot (can't eat just anywhere) and it really quite extravagant for a picnic: fried egg with cheese, thick pancakes, sausage and bacon, coffee and water, fresh fruit and toast. By this time (and in all honesty I have no idea how late or early it was) I was hungry and the food gave me a boost. Between all the excitement and the fresh air, I think my appetite has gone into overdrive.
The good news is by breakfast it had warmed up enough for me to shed my fleece and just wear a t-shirt. And I seem to be getting some color too, despite wearing SPF 30. That's more like it!
As we moved on, I noticed two vehicles up a hill so we went to see what they were stopped for. There was an elephant moving through bushes, just eating away very nonchalantly. And off to the side was a lioness crouched down keeping watch, with about 10 young cubs and two other lionesses behind her! I was over the moon, I could not believe my luck! The lions eventually moved about 20 yards farther away, and we did as well. As we pulled up about 30 feet from them, the protective lioness growled at us, I suspect as a warning more than anything, but ultimately she plopped down and relaxed in the sun, hopefully realizing we were no threat at all. When it became too warm, she joined the rest of the pride under a thick bush. I couldn't get an exact count on the cubs, because they were lolling about all under and deep inside the bush, but Benjamin and Nicholas know them to be members of a pride of about 15. The cubs seemed to be about the same age and had those darker stripes and spots that the younger lions eventually outgrow. When finally all the heads dropped down to sleep, we moved on. How incredible was this day already?
As we hit the road again, Benjamin pointed out three adult and 2 young oryx, which is just a type of antelope but not one I've seen before. They are sort of like topi, only with black knee pads instead of socks.
Eventually we came upon the rhino sanctuary, which is lined entirely by electric fence, patrolled on foot by rangers and marked with observation towers along the way. These folks mean business. Not only do they have rhino but also the rarer Grevy's zebra, which has much thinner stripes and a white belly and legs as compared to the common zebra. We pulled into the sanctuary lot and were met by Jamie, a ranger here. He took me on a short walk to meet Baraka, the resident blind black rhino. Baraka was injured in a fight 6 years ago and lost an eye to an abscess and then contracted cataracts in his other eye, so now is completely blind.. But as rhinos have poor eyesight anyway, he is doing pretty well with just his hearing and smell. The rangers take really good care of him and use as an ambassador for his kind to meet people like me. Yes, I met Baraka, and fed him, and petted him! Seriously, how much better can this day get already??? Baraka was sleeping in the sun as we approached and his ranger went out to rouse him with the promise of hay. He came right over to the wire and I met him with a snack. He really seemed to be a gentle guy, and Jamie explained that they coddle him and treat him well so he'll continue to serve as ambassador for the rhino cause.
What, you may ask, is the difference between the white (more common) and black (less common) rhino? It actually has nothing to do with color. The white rhino was called "wide rhino" by some Dutch, who were misquoted as saying "white". The "wide" refers to their mouths, which are very wide and straight across. The black rhino, on the other hand, has a hooked lip that is pointed. White rhinos graze on the ground (which is easier with a straight flat mouth) and black rhinos tend to eat at eye level, bushes and shrubs. Whites have heavy, low hanging heads and straight backs; blacks have lighter, smaller heads and concave backs. White are known to be more passive and larger than blacks, which are smaller but more aggressive.
I left the sanctuary a mile high. This was just a too good to be true first full day on safari. We meandered on, heading back toward camp where we came upon 6 giraffes, with one male actively trying to mate with a female, who really would have none of it. It was sort of funny watching him trying to keep her separate from the rest and the others looking away out of modesty.
We got closer to camp and lunch and both Benjamin and Nicholas noticed a large herd of impala standing and staring in the opposite directions. All of them, fixated on one point. So off we went in that direction and came upon a female cheetah lying under a tree. So she was what all the panicked stares were about! We sat and watched her lie peacefully for a while, her familiar teardrop face looking right at me. Oh how I have missed this! She was gorgeous. Known to Benjamin, he last saw her with two of her three surviving cubs. It seems she's now pushed them off to adulthood and was living the solitary life of a female cheetah again. Honestly, I don't know what else I could ask for today. Leopard maybe?
I returned to camp and sat out on the veranda with another Benjamin, who works on staff and was dressed in his Masai garb. They are all so friendly here and attentive to every detail. Benjamin was interested in politics and religion in the US and is especially fond of our President Obama, being a fellow Kenyan and all. It was great talking to him and I'm sure we both learned a lot from each other; I know I did.
Lunch was served late as the new arrivals had not yet arrived, so I ate on the veranda overlooking the salt lick. It was a cold pea soup, cold tuna salad with sundried tomatoes over a slaw, couscous and a salad. Dessert was key lime pie. It really hit the spot and was delicious, as all the food here is.
I only had an hour's rest today. At 4:30 I headed out on a walk with the Masai members of the staff who were all dressed in traditional garb. We walked about 20 minutes. Benjamin (the guide) came with us and joined in the dancing and singing, as he is Masai also. He pointed out the thorny acacia bush that is ubiquitous here, and how the ants infiltrate the bulbs on it, burrowing holes top and bottom that become whistles when the wind blows. He also noted that the sandals the Masai wear are made from tires, because they are durable for a lot of walking. Since there is no transportation here for the most part, when the Masai need to get somewhere, they walk. We got to a clearing (within eyeshot of where we left our cheetah!) and they showed me how to throw spears and dance and sang for a few songs. Benjamin explained to me that the songs are the method Masai use for both celebrating circumcisions and marriages, as well as pass the oral history of the tribe down to youngsters, stressing the importance of owning cattle over time.
From the walk, we were picked up by Daniel, another driver (Nicholas was serving as mechanic on another vehicle). We headed back out again in search of cats. I think even for the guides that is where the excitement is. Even while I kept my expectations in check, I secretly held the wish to see more, as perfect as today had already been.
I got to see yet another animal I'd not seen before in the patas monkey. They are similar to the vervet monkeys of Tanzania, only they are orangey in color but just as playful and quick.
Driving on, we saw a few heads poke up out of a dip in the ground and drove closer to find a mother hyena nursing an almost newborn puppy with four older puppies nearby. We're not sure who the older puppies' mother was, but it was fun to watch them play with each other and some scrap they had. Hyenas are adorable as puppies! Just as we were thinking of leaving, another female arrived and caused a stir. She spooked the other mother and the pups. Looking closely, she was covered in blood, which was why they were all a bit freaked. It looked as though she'd been in a fight and her nose was torn up. Poor thing!
Back on the road it was starting to get dark. We drove for a bit in silence and suddenly I looked straight ahead and saw a cheetah sitting proudly in front of us. Of course Daniel and Benjamin had seen it long before I realized it was there, so my surprise was funny to them. This girl was younger and smaller than the cheetah we saw earlier today; she still had the soft fuzz of a youngster on the nape of her neck. But she was old enough to be on her own. Benjamin thinks she might be the newly liberated (he says "dropped" when the mom pushes the babies away finally) daughter of the cheetah we saw earlier. Well, we sat and planned to wait her out, but after about an hour, and with next to no daylight left, she had the last laugh and laid down next to a dirt mound to keep warm. Her day was over, as was ours.
Arriving back at camp I met three British folks, parents and an older daughter, who'd arrived during the day. There was a bit of a difference in opinion about the plan for the day tomorrow, but I'll be up and out at 6:30 so that's all well.
Sitting around the fire tonight, the staff flashed their lights out into the salt lick right behind us and there were two elephants, literally right in camp. How crazy is that?
Dinner tonight was mixed vegetable soup, lamb with a gravy, roasted potatoes, thinly sliced peapods and carrots and brownies with chocolate sauce. It all tasted so good, but I was glad for the meal to be over so I could take a nice warm shower and climb into my bed with the water bottle. All told, I think I spent 11 hours on game drives today, and believe it or not, it's exhausting!