Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Safari in Kenya

Hanging out with zebra in Buffalo Spring Reserve

Many, many months -- maybe more like years ago -- we started dreaming about our travels and going on a safari was always one of our top priorities.  We hemmed and hawed over where and when to go.  Then one day Jason said he absolutely wanted to see the wildebeest migration.  The what???  I had no idea what he was talking about.  But he quickly convinced me that seeing thousands of wildebeest cross the Masai Mara during their annual migration was something we needed to see.  We were put in touch with a friend of a friend and planned our safari in Kenya for mid August.  Seeing the migration became a cornerstone for our travel planning timeline.

Our safari van!

Let me start by saying our safari was flipping awesome.  If you ever have a chance to go on one you should jump at the chance.

We had an awesome guide who was with us from the moment we landed in Nairobi until the day we left.  He was incredibly informative about everything we could think to ask about Kenya, the people, politics, the landscape and of course all the animals we saw.

We each had our own wishlist of animals to see.  I wanted to see a family of elephants with a baby.  Aside from the migration, Jason hoped to see animals being animals, maybe a little hunting and attacking.  Adele most wanted to see elephants and zebra.  And Spencer hoped to find a cheetah and a baby giraffe.  We were fortunate to see all of this and so much more than we had ever anticipated.

Family of elephants we spotted up on a hill.

They walked right by our van!

Our first stop was 2 nights in the Samburu National Reserve.  We did game drives in the Buffalo Springs Reserve and had our first glimpse of zebra, orick, warthogs, gazelle, ostrich, impala, giraffe and elephants, just to name a few.  All of us were caught up in the excitement.  Every new animal we found, the kids quickly looked up in our guide book and shared facts about them.  We made an ever growing list of every single creature we came across.  And the thrill of spotting the next animal never got old.

Balancing on the equator.  It was quite cold here, not what we expected.

Our second destination was Ol Pejeta Conservancy.  This place is a gem and, on reflection, was the absolute highlight for me.  This place started with lunch and one of the ugliest birds we'd ever seen.  This stork casually watched us eat nearly all of our meals.

Marabou stork at lunch.

Here we met Baraka, a blind black rhino, and learned the difference between black and white rhinos and about the struggles that keep them on the critically endangered list.  We were even fortunate to see the last 3 northern white rhinos in the world.  Turns out, rhinos are neither black nor white, both are a steely gray color.  The name "white" was derived from a mistranslation of the dutch word for wide: wijd.  The white rhinos are distinguishable by their wide mouths.  Then the other species was named "black" rhinos for the sake of differentiation.

Baraka the rhino loves his sugar cane!

After meeting Baraka, we explored a small but informative museum where learned more about animals in the bush, the circle of life and conservation efforts.  It was a great hands-on exhibit for the kids!

                 Elephant leg bone
Giraffe neck bone

At night we watched a herd of 17 elephants slowly cross the grassy field.  A baby and two adults stopped right in front of me to drink from the water hole.  We were close enough to hear their feet rustle the grass.  We heard the rumbling vibrations they make to communicate with each other (I thought it was a lions roar at first).  As dusk turned to night we watched until every last elephant faded into the darkness.  Magical!

Fading into the night.

We headed to Lake Elementaita next.  Here we saw hundreds of flamingos; so many the lake looked pink!  We watched them walk back and forth across the shore, then spectacularly take flight all at once.  On the beach we came across a herd of water buck.  They were quite skiddish.  As soon as they heard us, every last one stopped what they were doing to stare at us.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Then they took off running.

Greater and lesser flamingos taking flight.

A flamingo pink lake.

Sadly the most memorable part of this location was Jason's illness.  After about 5 days of taking a prescribed anti-malarial, it finally took a toll.  He was laid up in bed for 24 hours and we had to contact a doctor to check him out.  He got new meds and was back on his feet the next day.  We were very fortunate to have an amazing tour company and hotel staff to help us.  It wasn't pretty, but he survived.

Our final safari stop was the much anticipated Masai Mara.  This place is well know for big 5 animal sightings along with the migration.  We had one less day here due to Jason's illness, but we made the most of it.  We were able to check off several things from our "hope we see this" list.

This cheetah gave up his hunt and walked by our van instead.

Our guide kept in constant contact with other drivers and managed to get us front and center to see a cheetah pursue some gazelle.  But apparently they are lazy hunters and he gave up, walking right in front of our van!  This was the closest we got to seeing a hunt, so Jason didn't get his Animal Planet wish of seeing a successful kill.  But, we did catch word about a pride of lions finishing up some zebra for breakfast.  Yikes!  Sad on one hand and fascinating circle of life on the other (note to self, put Lion King on our watch list).

Lions having a little zebra for breakfast.

And on our last and final game drive, we set out for the all day adventure of trying to see the migration.  We knew going in it would be an 8 hour day, so we prepped the kids with activities and packed food to go.  We found a prime spot on one side of the river where we could see hundreds of zebra and wildebeest.  Several times we saw large groups approach the water, wade in and consider crossing.  But there were always hippos guarding the river and scaring them back up the banks.  There were 16 hippos in this stretch of the water and they lurked around, splashed, fought and intimidated the hopeful migrators.  At one point we saw a mom and baby zebra wade out well past half way, we were so worried for them.  They must have seen something, because they turned and high-tailed it back.

Mean hippo scaring back the zebra.

Hippos fighting for territory.

Hundreds more wildebeest gathered on our side of the river looking for a place to cross, unfortunately a number of safari drivers were blocking the parts of the banks that had access to the water.  So they just wandered around, would line up and then back off repeatedly.  We did see one lonely wildebeest cross on his own, I guess he was tired of waiting.  We were beginning to think he would be our only migration sighting.  One wildebeest.

Wildebeest gathering and gaining confidence to cross.

At 4pm, our driver said it was time to head back to camp.  We started up the hill with deflated hopes and "we gave it our best shot" sentiments.  Then suddenly our driver flipped a u-turn to another section of the river.  He had gotten a radio call that it started.  He found a spot to squeeze between other vans and we saw it!  A couple hundred wildebeest were crossing!  We could see them go across, up the bank and trail off into the bush.  I was so happy we saw it, after all our planning and dreams it would have been a huge bummer to miss.  Our guide was amazing, he kept saying to be patient and it would happen.  These animals are unpredictable and quite indecisive, which is part of their survival instinct.  Who would want to cross a river filled with crocs and hippos?

Finally, the wildebeest found a safe spot to cross!

Eleven hours later we made it back to the lodge.  The timing was perfect I guess, as this last day on safari marked our 11th wedding anniversary.  There is no one I would rather spend 11 hours in a van with or a year traveling the world with.

Happy 11th Anniversary to us!

Since this post is crazy long, I'll post more pictures separately and some safari related writing and drawings by the kids.

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