Thursday, February 23, 2017

Is the Mara closed today? And all things elephant

As I write this, I'm sitting in a hotel bathrobe at the Eka Hotel in Nairobi, having just scoffed down a veggie burger and onion rings and drinking my last Stoney Tangawizi on Kenyan soil. Yes, we are back to reality, back in Nairobi.  We've partook in our first shower that doesn't involve a bucket being lifted to give us water pressure or dodging the mushrooms growing in the tile.  But elegant waterfall shower aside, this trip has been outstanding.  I felt like I left nothing on the table, no regrets, no wishing for a second chance.  This is how I wanted to do the Mara.  And it feels good.

Last night I couldn't get to sleep.  The excitement of that night game drive wound me up so tight I wished I could go back out.  One simple thing that made it so obvious how incredible the cats are, all the wildlife out there is, for that matter, is that the guides in all the vehicles turned off both their headlights and the filtered spotlights a few times, so we could just sit in the black of night and listen.  We were completely unable to see, yet the cats can and do hunt regularly.  This is their preferred hour, this time after dark.  It's eye-opening.

I dozed off and on until about 4 a.m. and then the lions started.  They were close.  It felt as if they were right on our deck.  I found out later they were on the other side of the trees, maybe 100 yards from our tent.  They roared for the better part of 40 minutes. Another set of lions was off in the distance doing the reply.  What an absolutely incredible way to wake up on our first morning.  Well, that and our Askari guy bringing our french press and coffee at 6 a.m.  I will miss his melodic "goooood mornnnning" every day to get us up.

We packed everything up because we wanted one more early game ride before we flew out to Nairobi.  Early morning game rides are my passion.  I've never missed one, and never plan to.  So off we went at 6:30 with David and Kappen one more time.  Unfortunately it seemed as though the Mara was closed today and no one told us.  Practically no game was out, either predator or prey.  Regardless, we got to see another beautiful sunrise.  Every day we were there had a completely different sunrise and sunset.  To sit and watch is one of nature's gifts.

We all had as a goal finding Lucky.  All four Offbeat vehicles were out scouring Offbeat pride territory with no luck at all.  At one point Kappen spotted three light beige dots on the opposite side of the valley, almost to the crest of the hill. Completely unreachable by vehicle, that was Frank and Jesse, the pride males, and the mother of the two young male cubs we saw in the lion fight last night.  They were on a date last night (quite literally, she left the male cubs with her sisters to go cavort with the pride males!) and were sleeping it off up there out of reach.  Just below them though, we found the entire set of Offbeat nomad lions, all 13, heading into the hills to sleep the day away.  So we had officially seen all 26 of the Offbeat lions.  All the nomads had big round bellies, so they'd made a kill somewhere in the night.

We returned to camp and said goodbye to David and Kappen.  They were incredible and we both got a long with them so well.  I'd definitely go out on safari with them again.

We ate breakfast in camp for once, and they made a nice omelet with toast, fresh fruit and homemade jam made of passion fruit and something called a tree tomato.  I loved the jam.

A driver called Stanley drove us to the airstrip and Kappen came along for the ride.  And wouldn't you know it, he found five lions of the Acacia pride with a wildebeest kill deep in some bushes along the way.  This brings our total lion count up to 52 for the 6 days in the Mara. That's damn impressive.

So off we went on Safarilink back to Nairobi.  I sobbed as we lifted off from the Mara, as I usually do.  I love it there and am already wondering what it will take to return.

Our driver picked us up in Nairobi and drove us to Karen Blixen Restaurant in Karen for lunch.  We split Kachos (Kenyan nachos, no stretch there) and I had sweet chili peppers over rice and a Daiwa (vodka, honey, lime and ginger over ice).  Then it was off to Sheldricks Wildlife Trust for the private elephant visit.  Yes, again.

We met with Edwin the head keeper first and signed the waivers and then he gave us his safety speech, how to act and interact with the elephants.  We were in the mudbath area again.  And in they came.  Like before, Edwin called out their names as they came running in and the keepers had the bottles ready for them.  Each baby got their milk from their respective keeper before it played in the mud.  When all the baby had finished their bottles, we were allowed to interact, play with, pat and enjoy the elephants.  I had a mission to seek out as many of mine as I could.

Tamiyoi seemed to take an interest in both Kim and me first.  That same inquisitive trunk was all over us.  I found Ndotto, who really wanted nothing to do with me at all after our love affair last year!  Then I found Mbegu who has gotten so big in a year!  She's so pretty and very stoic.  I expect she'll have moved on to the next step of integration the next time I come to Kenya.  She's 3 1/2 now, the oldest in the herd and the mini-matriarch.  She's started to train another female elephant to fill her shoes, which is really an interesting social skill if you ask me.

I found Luggard, one of my more recent fosters, who was shot in the knee by poachers.  He's slower than the rest and he limps and will likely never be able to keep up with a herd.  That's just so wrong.

There's a new arrival at the orphanage that is still too unstable to give a name and foster out.  He was stuck in a snare and has an almost complete amputation of his trunk.  They've strived to stitch it back up but they're unsure how that will work.  I saw him sleeping and he was snoring so loudly, mainly because most of the air goes out of the open wound at the middle of his trunk.  So incredibly sad.

I got a ton of photos as Patrick our driver and Edwin the keeper took a bunch of photos.  I stood in the middle of them and got dusted by one elephant (Ndotto I believe!) and slapped in the back with mud by another.  Coupled with the bunch of knee-level trunk hugs I got, I was filthy.  I forgot how muddy and dirty they get!  It was just so cool to be there alone with 25 babies.  It was awesome.  And I mean that in the "full of awe" way.  Even the second time around, they are still amazing creatures.

We then killed an hour looking at all of our photos while waiting for the foster parent visit.  This is not as hands on as the private visit but still fun.  The funniest part is when they all come running in in little packs from the park, heading to their bedrooms and their last bottle of the day.  It's so funny to watch how excited they are, trunks swinging.

I nearly lost complete control though when Luggard came in.  He is so slow, he's on his own and his knee looks so hurt.  That's just so unfair that he has to live like that.  I know he's in the best place now and they'll take excellent care of him, but it makes me cry.  And not much does.

Once all the elephants are in their bedrooms, visitors can walk and see them one on one.  Almost all of them were eating, either hay or Lucerne or kibble. None seemed terribly interested in seeing us.  I took some photos and talked to some keepers.  I try to thank all the keepers for what they do for the elephants, it's not an easy job and they sacrifice a lot.   I talked to Luggard's keeper and I asked what his personality is like.  He told me he loves to be scratched.  And he went to scratch his hip and his legs and Luggard gets all excited and starts to flutter his ears.  It's so cute.  He's in good hands there.  They love him.

We visited with Kiko the giraffe too, who is MASSIVE now.  He used to still fit in the door of his enclosure but now he has to duck.  He came over and said hi to us and I gave him a good neck scratch.  What a beautiful creature.

When we'd had our fill of elephants, we went back to Patrick and decided we'd get a day room at the Eka Hotel, where I usually spend my first night here.  We both were filthy and didn't want to fly home like that.  They ended up charging us the overnight price, which we split, because it was that worth it to have a shower. We ordered room service and will leave for the airport at 9 p.m. for the midnight flight home.

I can't believe this is over.  I've been planning and dreaming of this since May of last year.  It far exceeded my expectations and I felt I scratched the itch I've had for the last year.  I think the only way to get over this feeling of sadness as I go is to plan another....

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