Tuesday, 13/09/2011: Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserve,
By morning we already had a new monkey man named Patrick, as the other one had just lost his mother and had to return home. Patrick turned out to be a nice guy, very quiet and, to be honest – he didn’t really scare the monkeys, although he did his best whenever we were around! Overall, we didn’t seem to be visited by the baboons all that often, so it’s a nice little scam insisting on one. But at least it gives the local guys some work and Charles had some company – an assistant who could share some of the hard work with him.
We decided to start our first game drive on the Samburu side of the river and, shortly after leaving camp at sunrise, we saw a civet trotting along and disappearing into a ditch! Unfortunately, it was still too dark to take decent photos; but it was a first for us and what a start to our time in Samburu! We then slowly wended our way along the river and came across an elephant mum and her two calves in the bushes along the riverside. They were all very relaxed and browsed their way slowly right past our car! At one point we were found ourselves between mum and her calf, but she wasn’t bothered about it at all. That’s Samburu’s friendly elephants for you!
We also saw lots of reticulated giraffe - at one point a group of twelve which we followed heading towards the river, where we watched them drinking by awkwardly spreading their long legs apart and bending down.
On the way back to camp we came across a big group of elephants having a siesta under an acacia tree. A biggish male turned up and chased some of the females away from a prime spot in the shade, but otherwise they didn’t pay him too much notice. Some of the younger ones even flopped out and slept on the ground.
We also saw two lionesses that some other safari vans had spotted, but they were quite far away and tried their best to hide from all the onlookers. While manoeuvring around for a good look, we suddenly noticed some dwarf mongooses living in one of the road signs.
Back in camp Charles was already waiting with lunch. He would typically prepare a three-course meal for us and this time there were even strawberries for dessert! Plenty of birds were hanging around, always hopeful for a few leftover crumbs.
In the afternoon we crossed over to the Buffalo Springs side, where we first drove along the river and then higher up into the hills to the view point. There were plenty of elephants in the bush near the river, but most were either distant or had other vehicles with them. From the riverbank we saw the two lionesses again on the other side, where they had come for a drink. The poor creatures were surrounded by no less than 18 vehicles! We also saw oryx, Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk, impala, Grant’s gazelle, ground squirrel and a big crocodile. Numbers of some of the “Samburu specialities” seem to be up compared to our last visit three years ago, where we didn’t get to see all that many of them. When we returned to the camp we found a group of elephants drinking on the opposite bank, but we couldn’t get anywhere near them. We would have had a great view from our campsite and maybe we should have asked Charles to charge entrance fees for all the spectators that had gathered there!
We had chicken for dinner, and Charles told us that he would always be visited by a genet when he cooked chicken in Samburu. And low and behold, not much later “Janet the genet” appeared out of the darkness! It hung around for quite some time, eating scraps and looking through the rubbish, so we could take lots of photos, which didn’t seem to bother it at all. It’s amazing to approach to within half a metre of one of these beautiful animals. At one point a second genet appeared, but Janet would have nothing of it and chased it away with lots of hissing and screeching.
There are plenty of rangers patrolling around and checking on the campsites in the evening, and they all know us already - “Ah, you are the ones staying in the Butterfly campsite for six nights!”
Wednesday, 14/09/2011: Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserve,
Today we went to Buffalo Springs first thing in the morning. We found some fresh leopard prints on a track next to the river and followed them for as long as we could. Eventually, we lost them and, of course, couldn’t see a leopard. Driving around we could also smell a kill somewhere in a patch of dense bush, but we failed to locate it precisely or see any predators, as the bush was just too dense. We then headed up the hillside, following a wooded gulley and found a large group of cars clustered around a troupe of baboons! There can’t have been any predators around if they were so desperate they stopped for baboons! A little later we came across a large group of oryx antelopes, which were scared by something and ran in panic. But again, we couldn’t see the source of the scare. They were posing nicely with Ololokwe in the background.
Later we came across a group of elephants on their way to the river. They split up into two groups, one of which we could actually see drinking at the river. The other group joined them a bit later and we had to back off in order not to be in their way. We nevertheless ended up being closely surrounded by them, which was a little nerve-wracking. But luckily, the Samburu elephants all tend to be very relaxed and not too bothered by the presence of cars.
A driver told us about a cheetah on the Samburu side, so we went to have a look. We found it easily by the large number of cars jostling for best position. As it wasn’t close to the track, we decided it was unlikely to beat our Meru experience, so we left again.
As we were nearby, we dropped into the “Save the elephants” (STE) (www.savetheelephants.org) research camp, to confirm our meeting we had arranged with them by email before leaving home. All the researchers were out somewhere, so we just left a note saying that we had arrived in Samburu already. Back to camp for lunch and a siesta, after which a hippo appeared in the river near our tents. Just after we left for our afternoon game drive, we happened to bump into the STE camp car. One of the guys, Gilbert, told us we could drop in anytime and that tomorrow Iain Douglas-Hamilton would arrive as well.
We had another quick look along the river and came across a group of five Grevy's zebras grazing the lush grass. After looking at them for a while, their narrow stripes make your eyes go funny… Each pattern is unique though and makes it possible to identify individual zebras.
The afternoon game drive started with a group of five Greater kudu – one handsome mature male, one young male and three females. We were very pleased to have found them ourselves; later other vans asked us if we had seen the kudus. Obviously they are not a very common sight there, and it added another new mammal species to our list! The drive towards Westgate, which was recommended by one of the rangers, turned out to be rather boring. It is much greener that way, but, apart from one distant elephant, we only saw one lone Grevy’s zebra, one hare, a couple of warthogs and gerenuks, impala, dik-dik and ground squirrel.
Thursday, 15/09/2011: Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserve,
In the morning we headed out on the main Samburu track and, while we were looking at some large cat tracks, Mick suddenly spotted a honey badger! It clearly wasn’t happy about being caught out in the open and disappeared quite quickly. We tried to drive parallel to him and, despite the poor light, we got a couple of half-decent photos. Wow, another first for us! It really pays getting up early and leaving camp at 6:00!
We continued along the river, where it was still very quiet and then headed into the hills. We had fantastic views of Ololokwe, and on a big cliff face we found a Verraux’ eagle, which kept returning to its nest there. While we were watching the eagle, another safari car appeared and the driver thought that we had spotted something interesting (which we had). He tried hard to find what we were looking at, and eventually asked what we had seen. When we told him about the eagle, he wasn’t very excited and left soon after. Looks like only the Big Five count for these guys!
On we went through the hills in the direction of Archer’s Post and passed Leopard Rock without seeing any of its alleged inhabitants (what else could we expect with our lousy luck for leopards?). On the main track we nearly missed an elephant behind a bush – it’s amazing how they can hide behind the smallest bushes! We also saw several gerenuks and some oryx with calves.
In Archer’s Post we wanted to buy water and petrol. We thought we might get fuel cheaper in Archer’s Post compared to the lodges, where it is quite expensive. There is no actual filling station at Archer’s Post, but while buying water in one of the little dukas, Mick asked if there was anywhere we could buy petrol. “No problem” was the response, “How much do you want?” "Forty litres would be enough to keep us going for a while, but where do we get it?" “Just wait here please!” A couple of minutes later there was a flurry of excited activity and some guys came running up the road towards us carrying cardboard boxes crammed with one litre plastic bottles full of petrol! A big crowd clustered around the car as the bottles were poured into our tank one at a time, each bottle being counted in under Mick’s supervision. It turned out that we had to pay a whopping 180 bob per litre, but we made a lot of friends! One of the guys was the Mr Fix-it for Archer’s Post, who proudly demonstrated his mention in the Lonely Planet travel guide, although for some strange reason he only had the Italian edition. It was an interesting opportunity to have a good discussion with the local guys, as the whole process took some time. They told us that they don’t like the Chinese who are building the roads nearby, because they eat everything including dogs and donkeys and encourage people to kill the elephants.
Back in the reserve, we drove through an area in which two cheetahs had been seen earlier in the day, but we couldn’t find any trace of them. Obviously they had either moved on or found a good hiding place. Another van arrived and the driver didn’t believe that we didn’t know where the cheetahs were. He thought we wanted to keep them secret from him and got a bit shirty with us! The drive along the river back to camp was again rather quiet except for a herd of Grant's gazelle and some gerenuk. A group of female gerenuk were hiding in the shade under a tree while others fed on the acacia trees by standing on their hind legs. With their match-stick like legs and necks they look very fragile.
After our siesta we drove back to the STE research camp, and again everybody was out, as there had been a report of a dead elephant nearby which they were investigating. With time on our hands, we decided to cross back into Buffalo Springs and wend our way along the river. We came across a couple of impalas with tiny newborn calves.
We could see some elephants on the riverbank and one in the water, so we quickly headed that way. The elephant in the river was actually in quite deep water and struggling to get out again. He managed to do so and joined the others heading up the bank and past our car. The matriarch passed really close and then made a loud rumble, presumably a “let’s go” signal for the rest of her family. The others slowly followed and one of the younger elephants came very, very close and started sniffing the bonnet of the car! That got our hearts racing and made Mick drop down in a flash from filming through the roof hatch to sitting back in the driver’s seat ready to go! But the elephant was very friendly and just wanted to check us out.
The birding is very good in Samburu and we came across lots of helmeted and vulturine guinea fowl, which are both very bizarre looking birds. But there are plenty of others too, like pale chanting goshawks, pretty bee-eaters, parrots and hornbills.
There were lots more elephants browsing in the bushes and others heading out of the riverine forest all along the riverbank. We had two more close encounters with friendly elephants.
When we passed Larsen’s Tented Camp, we saw a large crocodile basking on the riverbank. Shortly afterwards it started drizzling but it looked as if it was raining properly in the direction of the campsite. On our way back the ground was really wet and big puddles had filled the hollows in the track. It was obvious that it had rained quite hard and it started again just before we got to the bridge leading back into Samburu. In camp, Charles and Patrick were hiding under the trees and our tent was pretty wet. Fortunately, it stopped raining and soon afterwards the skies were clear again and we could enjoy our dinner sitting by the campfire.
Friday, 16/09/2011: Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserve,
As we wanted to go back to the STE camp (third time lucky?) we stayed on the Samburu side and drove around lots of stunning rocks without seeing any of our “special friends”, the leopards. Not much was happening all round; we only saw two rock hyrax, some impala and a tortoise. Just before 8:00 we went to the STE camp in the hope of catching the researchers before they headed out for their day’s work. We first had a chat with Geronimo, who told us that they had already lost 50 elephants this year, including some through natural deaths. But the number of poached elephants had increased dramatically! Then Gilbert, whom we had briefly met a few days earlier, took over and showed us their satellite collar tracking system on Google Earth. He took us outside to show us a big collection of old radio collars that had at one time or another been worn by elephants.
David Daballen, their lead researcher in camp during everyday operations, briefly came to meet us, although he was clearly very busy. We asked him to identify the elephant family that we met during our last trip that gave us some unforgettable memories by passing close around our car on both sides. It wasn’t a very difficult task for him with one female with only one tusk and a big notch in her left ear. He told us that the family was the “Poets” and this specific female was “Rozz Williams”, who by now has her own calf! It is truly astonishing how he knows all these elephants more or less instantly! Very impressive indeed! David had to leave and Iain Douglas-Hamilton wasn’t expected until later, so Gilbert promised to call us when he arrived, so we could return to meet him too. We were there for a couple of hours, during which we showed Gilbert some of our whale and dolphin photo-ID images, which he found very interesting, as these use the same principle in the recognition of individuals from notches and marks on dorsal fins as they use the notches and holes in the ears of the elephants. We could also look through their photo-ID catalogue, which amazingly only seems to exist on paper. Outside we could look at an old Landcruiser pickup which had been smashed by an angry bull elephant called Rommel. Incredibly, the two guys in the car got away unharmed!
We were also told that the dead elephant they were investigating was a bull that had been poached by a gang of four Turkana in Shaba. It seemed that these four guys were responsible for the majority of poaching events in the area, but they just couldn’t be caught. The day when we arrived in Samburu, there had also been an attack on a tourist car in Shaba and the tourists were robbed of all their belongings, including cameras. As we were running a few days ahead of schedule, we had been thinking about visiting Shaba on that very same day, but now we felt very glad that we had decided against it! Imagine ending up on safari with all your camera gear and everything else taken away!
After our meeting with the STE folk we crossed to the Buffalo Springs side and drove around near the river. In the riverine forest we came across some elephants that had just finished a cooling mud bath. They all walked past us at close range and one elephant scratched itself extensively against a tree just a couple of metres away from the car. That was really funny to watch, and the sounds were great!
We also saw a very large herd of oryx – there are really many more around this time than three years ago. Also, it seems to be impala birthing season, as we kept coming across mums with tiny babies hiding away from the main herd. The little ones are terribly cute with their big black eyes and big ears. Maybe they stay away from the main herd so that mum and baby can get imprinted on each other before joining the throng?
After our siesta we downloaded our photos and headed back out to the Buffalo Springs side again. We didn’t see anything for ages, but near Larsen’s Tented Camp we found a very big group of elephants feeding in the scrubby bushes. They were well spread out and we picked a group with a fairly small calf. The little one was really sweet and already quite proficient in the use of her trunk, although at some point it just didn’t work out with picking the grasses up with it and she knelt down and bit them off with her teeth! At some point is started raining, but fortunately not for long. At last the sun came out and we had some great light for taking photographs. This was one of the few opportunities for good light during this trip so far; most of the time the skies were grey and the light very flat. The little calf was really funny to watch, especially when it started chasing an egret around. Despite several other cars being around, we spent a wonderful time with these elephants quietly browsing away unconcerned by the presence of the cars. While we were watching the elephants, Gilbert called to say that Iain was in camp, but we didn’t feel like rushing all the way back to Samburu and we were told that he would be back tomorrow. So we’ll try again then.
On our way back to camp we were flagged down by one of the rangers, who at first asked if we had had a good game drive and then wanted to know if we had seen somebody’s missing camel, and did we know that someone had died or was dying and then asked if we could drive somebody to the doctor’s in Archer’s Post. What a turn in conversation! The last part was somewhat confusing and we couldn’t entirely understand if it was about a person dying or already dead (although then there wouldn’t be the need for a doctor). We agreed to drive to Archer’s Post, thinking that it could be an interesting night game drive, which you can’t otherwise do. However, they needed to get some money from the lodge first, and after more than an hour’s wait we were told that they had found another car and that our help wouldn’t be needed. So we didn’t get a night game drive, but that was in a way probably quite good, as the corrugated track to Archer’s Post is rather awful and the thought of a dying or dead person in the car wasn’t too appealing neither.
Saturday, 17/09/2011: Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserve,
Maren’s birthday! Mick serenaded her first thing in the morning, but there was no mercy and she still had to get up early for a morning game drive! We drove back to the view point in Buffalo Springs to take some more photos for a panorama, but unfortunately, the sun never gathered any strength and the distant mountains stayed hazy. The light at this time of the year is nowhere near as good as it was when we visited in December last time.
On our way we came across a couple of hares trying to hide in the scrubs. We continued on into the hills, where we spotted two elephant families heading along the ridge and down towards the river. We drove on down ahead of the elephants a couple of times, stopping to let them pass a little distance from us, but, when it came to the third time, the matriarch seemed a bit fed up. She came down the hill shaking her head, ears and trunk from side to side, which looked really funny, but we decided to leave them alone after that as they seemed a bit annoyed with us. But later we found some more amenable elephants close to the river bank.
Although we had seen lots of giraffes in the last few days, this day we came across some males fighting. It was a very bizarre sight, like a slow motion dance, the giraffes trying to hit each other with their necks and stumpy horns on top of their heads.
We had a telephone call saying that Iain wouldn’t be in the STE camp until later, so we headed across to the Samburu side to have a look around there. We found a small family of three elephants heading to the river, as well as several male gerenuks, two of which were fighting. They look so fragile with those spindly legs! Just when we started photographing them, Gilbert called to tell us that Iain would arrive in camp in a few minutes. So we headed once more for the STE camp, and, when we arrived, it turned out that Iain had been delayed, as he had come across some cattle inside the reserve’s boundaries and had to do something about that. Trying to get hold of him proved rather more difficult than expected! How many times have we visited this camp now?
We had an early lunch of potato salad. After lunch Maren went to make her birthday telephone calls. A small piece of pineapple left on her plate was enough incentive for a vervet monkey to jump up on the table and grab it. Mick shouted at it, which didn’t seem to impress the monkey in the slightest. It knocked the plate onto the ground and even came back to retrieve a piece it had dropped! It wasn’t in the least bit frightened. While watching baboons earlier, we had even seen them start throwing things down onto our car! Cheeky monkeys! That’s why you are supposed to have a monkey man when camping in Samburu. But where was he?
Halfway through our siesta we got a telephone call to tell us that Iain had actually arrived in camp. We drove over straight away and this time we got lucky! Iain was really there, although he was apparently very busy. Dressed in khakis and with a wild hairstyle he looked like either a “zerstreuter Professor” (as Maren said in German) or an aging hippy (as Mick said). He is a gentle, soft spoken guy, who was also very interested in our work, particularly as his son in law - Frank Pope, Saba’s husband – works as the ocean correspondent for the Times newspaper. Mick and Iain chatted about the coincidence that Iain knew and had worked with some family members from his half-sisters side. He also told us that he had been to Lamu recently and actually stayed in the very same tent where a British guy had just been shot dead and his wife kidnapped. That must be very unsettling. We had hoped to ask him a bit more about the project they run in Mali, as we would very much like to go there one day, but we didn’t have enough time to get around to that. But at least (and at last!) we managed to meet Iain, if only briefly! Gilbert told us that he had looked at our elephant photos from 2008, which we had given to him on a DVD, for which he was very appreciative.
After leaving the camp, we went back to the Buffalo Springs side, in the hope of finding some more elephants along the river. We were still hoping to actually see some bathing in the river, because so far we always seemed to have found wet elephants that had just emerged from the river! After our morning encounter with the slightly ratty elephant family, we were a bit wary, but we met several very friendly elephants, who peacefully came very close to us. That restored our trust in the friendly Samburu elephants again!
And, as a special highlight, we actually managed to see some swimming elephants in the river! They were thoroughly enjoying themselves, rolling around, kicking each other, swishing their trunks around to splash water and generally having a great time. When they tried to cross over to the other side, they got into some very soft sand in the river and it was rather worrying to see how they kept sinking in and trying to get their massive bodies out again. A younger member of the herd was pushed from behind by an adult, and at last they all arrived safely on the other side. Unlike yesterday, there were few elephants out in the open, so we drove back to camp a bit earlier.
It was amazing to see how the little bit of rain we had, instantly transformed the landscape and made lots of plants bloom within a couple of days.
The birthday dinner consisted of lamb chops and Charles had put his full chef’s uniform on to serve them: black trousers and perfectly clean white jacket and hat! It was very bizarre to see him dressed like that in the middle of the bush, when we ourselves felt rather dusty! For dessert he brought out a cake, which he delivered with a special African birthday song and a little dance. It was a big round chocolate-coated cake and came with a very big knife to cut it. Maren tried her best to cut the cake, but the knife just wouldn’t penetrate it! Charles started laughing. Mick tried to cut the cake too – but to no avail. Charles laughed even harder. Charles tried to cut the cake himself – it didn’t budge and he started laughing so hard that he couldn’t do anything else! It was bizarre, as obviously there was something not quite right with his cake. Patrick, the monkey man, had stayed on today, and even he was laughing! Something was up here! All our attempts at cutting the cake had only chafed off a few flakes. In the end Charles gave in and admitted that the “cake” was in fact a large piece of dried elephant poo decorated with chocolate and icing sugar! We couldn’t believe he had really come up with an idea like that and were all laughing hysterically! Well, that’s certainly a birthday cake we won’t forget! But Charles had also baked a real chocolate cake, which we then shared between the four of us. It was really delicious, and quite likely more so than the poo cake! We were just glad that we hadn’t tried eating that one!
Janet the genet reappeared as a special birthday guest. We took lots of photos of her again, and she came really close to us and even sniffed our feet! Genets are such beautiful animals that you just want to reach out and touch them, but at the same time it is a bit nerve-wrecking having a truly wild animal sniffing around at your feet. What if it doesn’t like the smell? Overall, it was a birthday to remember: meeting Iain Douglas-Hamilton, seeing fighting giraffes, watching elephants splash in the river, having an elephant poo birthday cake and being visited by a genet!
Sunday, 18/09/2011: Samburu National Reserve – Lake Nakuru National
Park, 340 km
We had a wonderful time in Samburu and we could easily have stayed longer, but we felt that we should move on and see something different. We were still running ahead of schedule, so we decided to spend two nights in Lake Nakuru National Park, which is located conveniently on the way back to Nairobi. So we packed up camp first thing in the morning, which wasn’t easy, as it was very windy. The whole time we had spent in Samburu was really pretty windy, and the light was hardly ever good for photography. We bade our farewells to Patrick and all had a good laugh that the genet had attempted to eat the poo cake at night. At least it got a good dose of chocolate!
We set off at 7:30 and headed towards the main gate. En route we saw all the “Samburu specials” again. This included a lone, young elephant bull. We happened to drive past him at nearly the same time as another car, so he seemed a bit unsure of what was happening. He did a little dance, gave us a head shake and ear-flap and a wonderful “Tröröööö!”! Mick’s response was “Goodbye to you too!” Although he clearly wasn’t fully relaxed, it was still a great farewell to the reserve. We saw a few more elephants later, but this guy was definitely today’s star!
On the way to Isiolo we stopped at an elephant road sign to take some photos.
Heading on south, we even caught a few glimpses of the peaks of Mount Kenya, before clouds obscured them again for the rest of the drive. At some point we followed a bus that had just departed a little village. To our amazement two guys were still on the roof securing the baggage, while the bus was going really fast already. When they finished, they climbed back down and into the bus through the window.
We went via Nanyuki, where we stopped briefly to get some money and top up our supplies. There were some guys with small stalls selling carvings outside the little supermarket, who all wanted to sell us their goods. We bought a little carving from one stall, thinking that we could get away with it, but no! We ended up having to buy from four different stalls, in order not to upset anybody! It took us forever to bargain the prices down to something reasonable, but we managed to do it and enjoyed the experience. And we also had our first gifts to take home! At Naru Moru we took a short-cut, turning onto a bumpy dirt road that follows the border of Solio Ranch. Later we rejoined the main road and stopped for lunch at Thomson’s Falls. As we didn’t want to pay the entrance fees, we only saw the upper part of the waterfalls!
On we went to Nakuru, driving down the escarpment. On our way we passed the equator about eight or nine times (we lost track after a while), if these signposts really are all on the equator! Next to the road we could see lots of sweet corn being grown and nearer Nakuru the crops changed to tea and coffee plantations.
When we got closer to Nakuru, it started drizzling and we were a bit concerned about camping in the park. But as it didn’t seem to be too bad and we didn’t really know of a suitable place to stay in Nakuru, we entered the park and luckily, it stayed dry from then on. The lakeside was full of pelicans, but not many flamingos, and we also saw three white rhinos, plenty of buffalo, zebra, impala and some Rothschild’s giraffe on the drive to the campsite at Makalia Falls. There was a huge troupe of baboons hanging out at the campsite, which was quite wet and soggy. Even in the darkness, the baboons kept up their racket.