Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Day One -- The Getting There and Amboseli

As much as I dreaded the getting here part, it wasn't all that bad, or it seemed to go by faster than I expected.  I left Boston in unprecedented cold, highs not even in the teens and wind chills with a "real feel" of somewhere around 30 below.  Even the 40s in London during my layover would feel balmy at this point.

The flight London to Boston had me in the second to last row on the plane, on purpose, because that's where the seat configuration went from 3 to 2 and I had decent legroom without having to pay crazy ticket prices.  The flight London to Nairobi had me in the last row, with the same hope, only the legroom was on the aisle seat, which I did not have (but have switched to for the return flight) but the gentleman in that seat got moved since his tv didn't work and I ended up with both seats to myself.  Score.

I ate fairly well on British Airways, having requested vegetarian fare for all flights.  That meant pasta (of course) with the exception of the breakfast as we landed in London, which was applesauce and nothing more.  With my 4 hour layover I charged my iPod for more movie viewing and ate a breakfast of omelette and french fries (chips).

I'd gone ahead and bought the eVisa ahead of time, allegedly under the premise that I could avoid the madness of the visa queues on arrival.  No such luck.  I (along with other tourists) was directed to the "Visa" line, where we waited nearly an hour only to be chastised by the immigration official, who tried to get us to go stand in another line. He was meant only to collect money, not issue paperwork.  My money had already been collected.  I stood my ground and he stamped my passport, but did not glue in a visa and waved me on. I hope to hell that doesn't come back to bite me later.  I changed my US dollars into Kenyan shillings, and an hour and 40 minutes after we landed, I met my driver from Asilia.  Thank god I didn't still have to wait for my luggage!

I suppose it's a good thing when the driver saw my luggage and said "Oh you travel light, so little bag".  HAAA!

I settled into the Eka around 11 and asleep by midnight.  As excited as I was for the waterfall shower, the water was cold, both last night and this morning.  But I am clean and dressed for the adventure.  I guess that's all that counts.

Up at 5:20, I partook of the Eka breakfast with a made to order omelette, some wonderful little plain donuts, a yogurt and some pineapple and mango.  The first meal since home that wasn't cooped up in an airplane seat felt good.

It looked a bit dark and foggy this morning as we left the hotel, but it was 13 degrees Celsius which I think is somewhere in the 60s.  I didn't need my coat in any event.  This is practically beach weather already!

I was picked up at 6:30 by the same driver and we headed for Wilson Airport.  It only took 45 minutes or so.  Both my luggage pieces were weighed.  My carry-on duffle is only 10k and my day bag is 7k.  I'm a little over my 15k limit, but this is far better than last time!!  No angry "you're too heavy" arguments at the check in.

Before my driver left me, he said to be sure to sit close to the front of the plane, and even said I can sit next to the pilot if there are no professional photographers on the flight. We'll see if I have the stomach for that!  I don't recall being issued "boarding passes" or having my luggage tagged before, or having my passport checked for that matter, but they did.  It's a tiny airport and there are about a dozen planes sitting waiting to take people to paradise.  It's about 45 minutes until liftoff...Amboseli here I come!

The flight to Amboseli took about 40 minutes.  It's a bit disconcerting to climb into a 12 seater plane (four rows of 3) right behind the pilot and co-pilot and the pilot turns and hands you a tin of peppermint candies as part of the pre-flight service.  Anyway, after much discussion between them and programming of the dials, we were off.  Sitting right behind them, I could see that they were on auto-pilot for the whole time with the exception of when the "warning: traffic" voice came on, and they both craned their necks to identify and then point to a nearby plane.  Hopefully not too nearby.

I landed and was quickly picked up by Julius, who was my guide and driver for the rest of the day.  He was letting another couple off and one couple, Glaswegian retirees who now live in Wales, stuck with me for the rest of the day.  We were off on safari immediately, with elephants being the appetizer, main course and dessert.  Julius says you come to Amboseli to see the landscape, the mountain (Kilimanjaro) and the elephants.  I'm fine with that as I'd completely overlooked Amboseli on my last trip.  

It didn't take long before we spotted two lone cape buffalo, here a dustier grey than I've seen before where the sand is browner or even redder.  After that it was elephants everywhere I could look.  I mean, the ground wasn't bumper to bumper with them, but you could look in just about any direction and see an elephant or 10 or 20.  Julius knew that a few bunches of them were headed in the direction of a swamp, so we stopped for coffee on a scenic overlook with stunning views of Amboseli and Kilimanjaro (who has a shawl of clouds over her shoulders today).  It was easy to see from up there Julius was right, there were maybe 30-40 or so elephants all headed toward the swamp.  We had coffee and cookies and then headed in that direction too.

The elephants are so majestic, and so huge, but so silent.  They are like gentle giants.  They move silently and just sort of float past our vehicle.  Two or three times they crossed right in front of us, hardly a bother on them.  Julius explained how he can tell how old the elephants are by their tusks, whether they're just starting to grow in on a young one (they come in at about 4 years of age) or the medium length tusks on a 25-30 year old bull.  He says that there's one bull elephant in Amboseli named Tim who has tusks to the ground.  We'll try to find him.  

We saw a few hippos hanging out in the swamps and lots of bird life.  I've seen a few lilac breasted rollers already and have thought of my fellow Safaritalker @graceland, as I know that if she is with me now, it's as a lilac breasted roller.

Tawi Lodge here is not your average tented camp.   Menno the manager met me and gave me a walk of the grounds.  There are no tents.  Each accommodation is a "banda" or thatch roofed cottage with screened windows and doors.  My banda has a queen sized bed with a fireplace, then steps down into a double-sinked bathroom with soaker tub, separate waterfall shower and toilet.  Everything has a private view of Kilimanjaro, from a private porch with chaise lounges and tables and chairs, when it's not covered by clouds.   There appear to be 12 bandas, with a reception area, dining area, manager's office and reception and gift shop.  All the water running is reused somehow, whether it's to seed saplings or fill pools or whatnot.  The lodge won a couple stars for eco-tourism and being green, so whatever misgivings I had about staying here were alleviated quickly learning all they do to conserve while still presenting a more-comfortable-than-I'm-used-to safari experience.

The dining area overlooks the pool and watering hole just beyond.  There's a fire pit and bar nearby out that way.  Over lunch, 5 zebra, 6 or 7 giraffe and at least one elephant were within 100 yards of me while I ate.  They look this way inquisitively, I'm not sure if that's because they hear, see or smell us.  I had more than a few "what did I do to deserve this luxury" moments.

Lunch today was pretty good.  My safari planner had let them know I was vegetarian and they were ready to accommodate that.  First course was a wonderful asparagus salad, with diced asparagus over a bit of lettuce with chopped olives and balsamic vinegar.  The main course was pasta pomodoro, likely a spaghettini with tomato sauce.  Dessert was a watermelon, mango and pineapple fruit salad.  I had a glass of red with that, I think a cabernet and some still water.  I've not yet really begun to unwind, I can still feel my thoughts wandering back home, but I think I'm on the way.  

I'll spend my 2 hour siesta snoozing here on the chaise lounge where I can see giraffes just past the brush line.  I still cannot believe I'm here!

I managed to read for about 2 minutes before I passed out cold during the siesta.  Good thing I set my alarm to go off in time for the afternoon drive.  I woke up feeling good but definitely not over the jetlag yet.  Ambien tonight for sure.

This afternoon's game drive went back into Amboseli.  We were on the look out for a big bull elephant that the researchers have named Tim.  Tim is known as the oldest male in Amboseli (at the ripe age of 47) but also for enormous tusks that are well past his trunk.  In fact, one is practically dragging on the ground as he walks.  It took Julius a while to track him down but we finally did, on his own just chomping on grass.  The tusks were indeed impressive.  Either he never gets in fights, or he always wins them, because for them to be that long without getting broken is quite the feat.  Julius says Tim's in musth now, meaning he's ripe to mate.  This period can last up to 20 days or more.  So look out ladies, Tim and his tusks may be coming at you.

We see a lot of lone wildebeest out here, more so than I remember anywhere else I've been.  I thought they were herd animals but Julius says the weaker males get chased out of a herd and aren't allowed to mate, so they then will live the rest of their lives alone.  That's sort of sad.  Adolescent elephants are also forced out of their pride when they come of age, but they will eventually form a boys' club with other adolescent males and live as a bachelor herd for a while.  Funny how nature works.

The landscape here is also interesting.  Amboseli National Park is flat with almost no trees at all.  So inside the park, you'll see mainly plains game, but mostly elephants.  There are no giraffes since there aren't any trees really.  There are lions but they are hard to spot and I have to think the lack of available food might hinder them somewhat.  Julius says he hasn't seen a lion in about 5 days, so not that long, but long enough for me to think I won't see one.

Outside the Amboseli, the conservancies are really bushy and filled with trees.  There's a weird African palm that look almost like the palm trees we see in L.A.  But also acacia and baobab.  That draws the giraffes.  And we see them quite a lot more than I expected.  Tonight on the way in we also saw some jackals, another hippo lounging in a pool, two parent Grey Crowned Cranes with four chicks and some zebra.  So the selection is interesting but maybe not exciting.  I'd estimate today I saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 150-200 elephants.  They are EVERY where.  Even here in the back yard.

Julius our guide is an ornithologist.  He knows more about birds than I think any guide I've had before.   We stopped at a bush where hundreds of these yellow weavers (chestnut weavers, I think?) were building nests.  These were the males trying to impress one of two females hanging about.  Whichever male she picked, she'd mate with.  It was quite a cacophony of activity, with the males squeeking and preening and fluttering their wings as they maniacally went about building these orb-shaped nests.  That was really neat to see, and learn why they're doing it.  There are other weavers doing the same thing in the path on the way to the reception area.  I'll have to pay more attention tomorrow.

As the day went on, more and more of Kilimanjaro became covered in clouds.  As the sun set, the clouds seemed to lift and we saw more of it at dusk than we did all day. I'd love to get one good clear view of it just to get the photos.  It is truly beautiful.

We were back here for dinner.  I freshened up a bit and then had a gin and tonic at the bar with Alan and Kay, two Glaswegians living in Wales.  They then invited me to join them for dinner, which was really good fun.  Whomever the chef is really knows how to do a salad.  Tonight's was beet root salad which was just wonderful.  Then a potato leek soup.  My main course (vegetarian option) was a succotash with zucchini, cauliflower, mushroom and tomatos over a handful of french fries.  I'm not sure what the sauce and seasoning was, but it was very good.  Dessert was a slice of cheesecake.  All very very good.  Portions are just the right size given that we do nothing but sit around in the vehicle all day!

Between the jetlag, the sunshine and the fresh air, I should sleep well.  Already have some nice color from the sun.  I forget how strong it is.

Off to bed. 6:30 am departure tomorrow.

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