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.