Kenya - Day 4

The theme of Day 4 of our trip, per Emmy, is baby animals, though Matt might say it was cheetah.

On Day 4, we did a 'long drive' from Cotttars' Camp into the Maasai Mara National Park. Cottars itself (and most of our adventures so far) sits in land adjacent to the park in a privately-created conservancy, where the Cottar family and others work with local residents to build an economically sustainable model of development for local residents that still respects and protects the wildlife. More on that later.

The National Park is, like parks anywhere, protected and owned by the government. It took a bit of a drive to get there, along the border with the adjoining country of Tanzania (and the Serengeti)

On the border

On the border

Once we got into the Mara, we ran into the remnants of the great migration. Each year, hundreds of thousands of herbivores (wildebeast, zebra, buffalo and more) migrate from the Serengeti into the Mara and then back again, following good grazing. Following them, of course, are the carnivores. This generally happens earlier in the year, but we caught the tail end of it, and even that was amazing. Plenty of National Geographic and BBC specials cover the event, but I can tell you that on the ground the things you notice most are the poop (everywhere!) and the flies.

A tiny part of the migration. 

A tiny part of the migration. 

We were looking today for hippos, one of the "Big Five" and our guide, Enock, did not disappoint. Enock is a local maasai and has been guiding at Cottars and elsewhere for a while. He is a Silver Level certified guide in Kenya and is taking his test for Gold level certification at the end of the month. Cottars has three other Gold level guides, the most of any safari outfitter in Kenya, and Enock is deserving of being the fourth.

He did not dissapoint, finding a large number of hippos including some babies (for Emmy) and crocodiles in the Mara river.

Hippos! 

Hippos! 

After the hippos, we hit the highlight of the trip so far for Matt, cheetahs. Enock found three juveniles asleep, who proceeded to wake up for us and put on a show. One went to hunt; the other two lost track of their friend (sibling?) and hunted for him. It was fascinating to watch. As an aside, it's really hard to describe how close to the wildlife you can safely get in the car. We were likely within 6 feet / 2M of these fellas, and it didn't bother them at all.

Cheetah! 

Cheetah! 

The weather has been overall really great. The camp is empty because this is post-migration and in the 'short rainy' season. All I can say is that it was a tremendous value for us and I'd reccoment others travel at the same time. There has been rain several days, but it is brief, tropical rain that doesn't really disrupt the trip, and there are still plenty of animals to see!

After returns to camp, we had dinner by ourselves in the main dining tent, right by the fireplace. William, our head waiter, and the staff sang us a great 'happy anniversary' song (at least I think....it was in Maasai) and we went to bed tired but happy in our wonderful tent.

Kenya - Day 3

Today we woke up early - pre-sunrise, though an amazing sunrise it was.

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Wildlife in the Mara are most 'awake' early in the day and around dusk; during the heat of the day, they tend to be inactive (though 'heat of the day' is a bit of a misnomer - it was chilly this AM!). Enock drove us through the unimproved roads, tracks and over land, tracking the various animals we might want to see the whole time from scat, footprints and damage they did to the countryside.

It is remarkable how quickly you became accustomed to things that would have seemed remarkable 48 hours ago. Herds of zebra, or a handful of giraffe, barely merit slowing the land cruiser down. We were looking for lions and elephant. We succeeded in both hunts.

Male lion

Male lion

First, the lion. We happened upon a tribe of twenty (!) lions on the hunt. Led by two males (one pictured above), there were numerous females and adolescents. We watched for an hour as they attempted to hunt a wild buffalo; eventually, the buffalo 'won' the battle as the lions retreated. Buffalo can actually kill a lion when they defend in numbers, and the lions in the hunt were immature and just learning. Our guide Enock indicated that it was likely that the lions would return in the evening to finish off one buffalo, with the help of some of the mature females.

Female lion

Female lion

After watching this incredible pride of lions for a while, we decamped nearby and had a 'bush breakfast' surrounded by wildlife. A word about the vehicles we're driving in. This is truly 'off road' driving - 4WD the entire time, never moving more than 10 mph across dirt tracks or the actual countryside. For some reason that still escapes me, the animals are not too upset by the vehicles, and in fact just ignore them about 90% of the time. We had one of the lions pictured above pass less than 6 feet / 2 meters from the car - from my elbow - and barely even notice it! The ride is rough but the vehicles get us where we need to be to see the best wildlife.

Me in front of the Land Cruiser

Me in front of the Land Cruiser

Matt, Emmy, Enock

Matt, Emmy, Enock

After a great lunch at camp and a rest, we did our afternoon/early evening game drive. We were slightly delayed by rain. November is traditionally the 'little rain' season in Kenya (explaining the complete absence of other tourists. Featuring short, afternoon, tropical-type rain storms, we were treated to the full range today. Like all tropical afternoon rains, they cleared out quickly but were intense for a brief period of time.

Rain at the camp, seen from the comfort and dryness of the mess tent.

Rain at the camp, seen from the comfort and dryness of the mess tent.

After the rains let up, we went for an evening drive in search of elephants. We found one, on an inaccessible hillside but nonetheless visible via binoculars. We stopped for a sundowner and a spectacular panorama of the Mara and Serengeti.

Panorama of the Serengeti from just inside the border of Tanzania

Panorama of the Serengeti from just inside the border of Tanzania

On the way back in the dark, we came across a hyena working on a recent kill, with two jackals standing by to finish off the left-overs.

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We got to camp and had a wonderful dinner by the fireside with Enock, then headed off to bed.

Kenya - Day 2

We took a small plane (about 8 seats + pilots, single prop) to the airstrip for Cottars' Camp, where we will be staying for the next week. (Photos now inline, so scroll down for more)

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We landed on this dirt airstrip, the only passengers getting off. We were met by our guide, Enock, who will be with us the rest of the trip, as well as a spotter. I'll describe the vehicle in a later post, but it is a 4WD Land Cruiser, which is needed to navigate the 'roads' in the Maasai Mara ("the Mara"). The road simply constitutes a track for two wheels in the dirt, driven by many vehicles before us. More to come.

We arrived at the camp and were met by Micah, our 23-year old camp manager. A native Kenyan, his dad was from Texas, mom from Austria, and he was educated in west Texas. We discovered we were the only guests in camp this week, as it is low season. While on the one hand, it's awkward because, well, we're the only guests, on the other hand it gives us an incredible level of personal service.

We did a quick walk around of the camp. It's amazing. Wildlife is walking through the camp, which consisted of tents with luxurious furniture and honest-to-god bathrooms. They carry the 1920s theme throughout, as the Cottar family has been guiding in Kenya since then. Our tent has a functioning crank record player and many other antiques. It's open to the air, but at night, flaps come down with netting and canvas to provide security and privacy.

After resting (and Emmy getting a massage), we went for our first game drive. We expect these to be the pattern for the next six days. We'll go on drives early in the morning and around dusk; the two times the wildlife is most active. We drove for about 3 hours - maybe 15 km - over dirt tracks, rutted roads, across rivers - you name it - and saw giraffe, zebras, lions, and many other animals. The pictures are crazy-amazing. A selection is below but when I get home, I'll post an album of 'best-of'. Sufficie it to say that it's hard to take a bad picture of wildlife when it is 10-15 feet away from you.

In the evening, we had a nice campfire and dinner with Calvin Cottar, the owner, as well as Enock, Micah and a few other members of staff (remember, we are the only guests...). We enjoyed talking about conservation and tourism, as well as the challenges of running a business, with Calvin, a genuinely nice guy.

We were escorted back to our tent by a Maasai warrior / security guard to protect us from the wildlife. After zipping in, we slept a sound sleep to the sounds of wildlife near and far.

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Kenya Trip - Days 1 &2

Emmy and I are going on a trip to Kenya. I'm going to try to post along here, more in-depth than I can do on Facebook, connectivity-wiling.

I'm writing this in the lounge for SAX (formerly Safari Air Express) [http://www.fly-sax.com]airlines. We're about to hop on our last of three flights to get to our ultimate destination, Cottars 1920s Camp [http://cottars.com].

We started out Sunday evening on a British Airlines flight from Chicago to Heathrow. After a short connection, we were on another long-haul (8 hour) flight from Heathrow to Nairobi, Kenya. We arrived Monday evening at around 8 pm, and after clearing customs and buying a local SIM card, were met by our guide from Ambercrombie & Kent, Christine. She shuttled us to the Ole-Sereni Hotel [http://www.ole-sereni.com].

The hotel was really quite nice. It borders directly on the Nairobi National Park [http://www.kws.org/parks/parks_reserves/NANP.html], a large game reserve in Kenya's capital city. We had a nice dinner outdoors (temps around 60F/15C) before going to bed. It was a pretty long day of travel - 16 hours in the air.

On Tuesday morning we woke up to a beautiful sunrise (pic below). After breakfast, thanks to the time difference, we got to watch the first votes in the US Presidential Election being cast in some small town in New Hampshire shortly after midnight Eastern).

Christine met us and ferried us through Naroibi's challenging traffic to the domestic airport, Wilson Airport [https://kaa.go.ke/airports/our-airports/wilson-airport/] for our 45 minute flight to Cottar's airstrip.

Sunrise in Nairobi

Sunrise in Nairobi

Boarding passes

Boarding passes

First dinner in Kenya

First dinner in Kenya

Somewhere over the Atlantic

Somewhere over the Atlantic

Our ORD-LHR ride. 

Our ORD-LHR ride.