Thursday, 22/09/2011: Nairobi – Voi, Tsavo East National Park
After a slightly unsettled night Maren awoke not feeling fully well. It was the second time that the food from the restaurant at Karen Camp didn’t quite agree with her. We set off at 6:30 and drove via Ngong and Kitengela. It was a terribly pot-holed road and it took two hours to reach tarmac again. The main Nairobi-Mombasa road is still not fully finished, and we had to make our way through a maze of road works. Incredibly, the main national highway linking Nairobi with the port of Mombasa has been recently rebuilt as only a single carriageway! It seems rather odd, given the amount of trucks with heavy containers that use it, not to have taken the opportunity of the reconstruction to make it a dual carriageway. And as soon as one vehicle slows down on a hill, everybody else wants to overtake, so they just pull out and expect the oncoming traffic to give way! On one occasion there was a broken down truck on the other side and all cars and trucks just drove on our side. Even us flashing our lights and blowing our horn (and shouting lots of abuse) didn’t’ impress them in the slightest, so we had to pull off the road. The accident rate is horrendous: we saw one accident, where an oil tanker and a truck with two containers had broken through the crash barrier of the road, rolled over and spilled lots of oil. It really isn’t surprising that there are so many casualties, the way people drive. We found some peace in the Sikh temple in Makindu, where we stopped to use their clean toilets and have an early lunch of chapattis and spicy potato.
We arrived at the Voi gate of Tsavo East National Park at 14:00. Trying to pay for seven days stay in the park but only five nights of camping (we had already booked Ithumba Camp for two nights), one of which was to be in a special campsite, turned out to be another mission impossible. The KWS guy at the gate made things really complicated and kept coming up with different totals to charge us. Despite their high-tech smart cards and clearly published fees, there is no organised system for totting up the amount due, so this is always done on scraps of paper. The lady at the payment desk was much more helpful and came up with a simple sum, but then the guy intervened again, telling us we couldn’t do it the way we wanted. After about 45 minutes we managed to charge our safari card with the money necessary for the entrance fee and for the parking, but we were told that at the Voi gate we could only pay for the time spent at the Ndololo public campsite. The rest we will have to pay when we get to Ithumba. It all seemed rather ridiculous, as we didn’t want to cheat them and were fully open about what we were planning to do.
After entering the park we immediately spotted a small family of red elephants. Elephants take frequent mud and dust baths, taking on the colour of the soil, which in Tsavo happens to be a bright red laterite. We also saw zebra, gerenuk, impala, ostrich and a very dead giraffe. At Ndololo we were welcomed by the baboons and vervet monkeys always hanging around there. But they have now built a kitchen hut, so we could store all our food in a safe place. We set up camp very close to this building, so Charles could keep an eye on things while we were out. After the drive from Nairobi we decided to stay in camp and take it easy, as even from there we could watch two elephant families walking right past the campsite. One female had beautiful tusks and another one had a little baby at her heels. We met a German couple from Munich, who were driving through the whole of Africa. Another tour van arrived too, and they wanted to share the kitchen, something that Charles wasn’t too happy about.
Friday, 23/09/2011: Voi area, Tsavo East National Park
Given that Tsavo is on of the driest parks in Kenya and hadn’t seen any rain since April, we were very surprised when it rained in the night, again at breakfast time and continued to drizzle on and off for most of the morning. It seems we were bringing the rain with us to most of the parks (except Meru).
For our first game drive in Tsavo we decided to head along the Voi River towards the east. Much to our horror, we saw that that nearly all of the tracks had been upgraded and were now nearly as wide as the Mombasa highway! With drainage ditches every few hundred metres, the ground looked very disturbed. Now there was even a big track across the swampy area where we got stuck on our last trip! It had obviously been done with all the safari vans in mind, but, in our opinion, it had diminished the wilderness experience, especially by changing the character of the smaller tracks that used to be there.
We saw a couple of herds of elephants heading towards the swamps, but they seemed to be quite nervous. We also came across a big herd of hartebeest and one of reddish oryx antelopes. How different they are here, thanks to the red laterite soil!
All along the Voi River we encountered elephants, including some bulls with splendid tusks. We also figured out why some of the termite mounds we have seen are so rounded and smooth. Elephants use them to scratch their backsides! We also encountered a very skittish family group, where one young elephant tried her best to get a whiff of us before they all disappeared into the bush. Near Aruba Dam we saw a big group of bull elephants hanging around a herd of females and young.
At Aruba Dam everything was very dry, except for the rain that started falling again! We decided to head north a bit in order to avoid the main corrugated “highway” and the many safari vans using it. We didn’t see much there at all, until we came upon a fairly fresh buffalo carcass. Mick then spotted a lioness and her medium-sized cub lying under a bush nearby. They were well hidden, but she got up briefly, showing us what a powerful cat she was! We had them all to ourselves for over half an hour, but, as she was obviously resting and not going to do anything exciting, we left her to it. It was a great sighting of one of “Tsavo’s man-eater’s”, and close enough to the track to get good views of them. Earlier we had come across several safari vans staring excitedly at two extremely distant lions that one could hardly see. So we were very pleased with these two lions we found ourselves and decided not to tell anybody else about them.
In the afternoon we first checked the way to the stockades of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which we are going to visit tomorrow. Having got our bearings we decided to head back into the swampy area, where we found a lovely family of elephants in great afternoon light. Unfortunately, we had to share them with two other cars.
We were told about another lion, but, when we checked the spot out, we couldn’t see anything. It seemed that nobody had found “our” lions, if they were getting so excited about some invisible sighting! We came across more elephants, many of which were males; some of them sported magnificent big tusks. Right next to the highway we found an old bull elephant, who posed for us sedately for some time.
When we returned to camp, Charles told us that several elephants had been nearby, and we could still see some more walking past. The elephants here in Tsavo seem overall much bigger and have bigger tusks. Now we are just hoping that the weather will clear so we can take some photos of these beautiful red elephants in good light. Other animals seen included zebra, dik-dik, waterbuck, Masai giraffe, tortoises and many interesting birds, such as Kori bustard and white-browed coucal.
Saturday, 24/09/2011: Voi area, Tsavo East National Park
The morning dawned with few clouds. It was good to get up, as we both had an unsettled night after Mick found a tick crawling on him! Flipping it off in a panic meant we had to somehow locate it in our tent, which wasn’t quite so easy with just a torch. We found it and killed it, but it left us feeling all itchy… We headed up to the Galana River to check out the crossing for our trip up to Ithumba. The causeway was fully exposed, so crossing would not be a problem, unless we suddenly had torrential downpours.
Everything was very dry and we hardly saw any animals during our drive. We caught some hippos in the act – not that we could see much as it all took place in the river. We headed on to Lugard’s Falls, but no sooner had we got to the waterfalls when four safari vans and a car turned up, spilling out lots of young Italians. They stayed true to their Italian temperament and a noisy mayhem ensued. We were rather annoyed at having our quiet photo session spoilt before it even began, but we thought it would be better to leave straight away in the hope that the Italians would be busy for a bit and we wouldn’t end up following them later. One of the drivers told us that they had seen a leopard much further to the west, in the opposite direction to where we wanted to go. Great! Not only had they spoilt our photo session but they had also seen a leopard, which we were still looking for desperately!
We continued along the Galana to the east, but were soon overtaken by some of the vans. It was a very frustrating game drive, as there was simply no game around and the track was terribly corrugated. We saw lots and lots of elephant poo and elephant tracks, but just no living elephants!
After a long while we found a little track down to the river, where we had a nice view over a big sandy bend. We only had been there for a few minutes, when at least three safari vans raced towards us, pulling up right next to us and demanded to know what we were looking at. They obviously thought that we’d seen something very exciting. We told them that we had been simply looking at the scenery, but were now looking at lots of cars. One of the van drivers was very apologetic and left straight away, but the other one ticked us off for having driven off track. Well, what the hell was he doing there then??? These van drivers all seem to be desperate to find the big five for their clients, and, especially near the Galana River, that seems to be almost impossible. They all left, but we felt that this place had been spoilt for us, just as Lugard’s Fall had been earlier.
At the next possible opportunity we turned south again and soon came across a herd of 500 or so buffalo. They were plodding along very slowly and they all looked very skinny and listless. Many of them had wounds on their backs, presumably where they had been attacked by lions.
We didn’t see much more until we came to the artificial waterhole at Aruba, which is being maintained by the DSWT. By this time it was pretty hot and we only saw a few elephants, tucked well away under shady trees and bushes. We also found a small waterhole in the Kanderi Swamp, but again it was too far away from the track to take any sensible photos of the animals drinking there. We saw an elephant and her two calves, one of which was limping badly. Overall, it was a rather disappointing game drive. There appear to be lots of elephants near the Galana River, but they were nowhere to be seen all morning.
We came back to the campsite to find that KWS staff were preparing a party there. They had already slaughtered a goat and were playing loud music. So much for the peace and quiet of the bush! Today everything seemed to be against us!
After a long siesta (with lots of music) we set off to the DSWT Voi stockades. All the keepers, and especially head keeper Joseph, were very welcoming. Soon the smaller orphans arrived. They all lined up on one side of a fence, while we stood on the other side. Maren was allowed to give Kenia her milk bottle, while Mick fed a little tuskless bull named Tassia.
They downed their milk in next to no time and we were then led to the upper stockades to meet the older orphans. There we each gave a bottle to Mzima, who is sporting quite sizable tusks for his age.
Unfortunately, here the orphans are behind a proper fence, so that one can’t easily interact closely with them. One exception was Siria, who is being kept outside of the area where the other orphans are. We were allowed to stroke him and learned that the backside of elephants ears is really soft and warm, as they use them to cool down when they get too hot.
After the milk all the orphans were given some copra and branches, so that they were rather occupied and didn’t really want to know about us. We had a long chat with head keeper Joseph, who is a really nice guy. He told us that there had been a rescue from Voi airstrip yesterday, a young bull named Kasigau. We told him about the injured calf we had seen in the morning and he promised that he would tell the vet. As we sat chatting, Mpala, a 13-year old ex-orphan arrived at the stockades all by himself. He is very splendid with long tusks.
There was also a group of Germans there from Rettet die Elefanten Afrikas (REA) e.V. (www.reaev.de), a charity that supports several elephant projects in Africa, including the DSWT. One of them noticed that Mpala had a small thorn stuck under his eye, so they tried to lure him close with milk bottles and copra in order to remove it. After a while he got close enough, and, as soon as the thorn was removed, he left again. It appeared as though that was the reason why he appeared at the stockades in the first place! These guys are really clever; they know exactly where to get help. After about one hour we left with muddy hands and milk splattered all over our clothes!
Near the campsite we saw a family of elephants, but something seemed to have scared them, as they were all running and very wary. We saw that they had a tiny calf with them and we could later see that the camera trap had captured them. Fortunately the KWS party seemed to be coming to an end already when we got back to the campsite, but lots of new campers turned up for the weekend. One of them was a large Indian family, and Charles again wasn’t too happy having to share the kitchen. And we weren’t too happy when they were really noisy and kept their floodlights on for most of the night!
Sunday, 25/09/2011: Voi area, Tsavo East National Park
We headed towards Aruba Dam again. It was very quiet and the first elephants we saw were at the artificial water hole. There were some bulls and a family, and some of them stood right in the water trough! It was very interesting to observe the dynamics: who was allowed to drink first and who got kicked out when attempting to climb into the trough. We could also observe more elephant families heading towards the water hole.
Near Aruba we also came across several Kori as well as white-bellied bustards.
We continued to drive south and came across a marvellous red tusker, who was a bit unwilling to pose for us, but when we returned a bit later, we managed to get his picture.
Most activity seemed to be at Kanderi Swamp, where there were lots of elephant families, as well as lots of other animals. One family had a tiny baby with them that was still pink behind the ears! They did their best to stay well clear of the track though, which wasn’t really surprising given the small calf. Something suddenly caused a panic, with many of the elephants running away, but we never managed to figure out what had actually spooked them. This was definitely the most interesting area we visited that morning.
Looking at our photos later, we could see that the second family we observed was the same one that we had encountered two days earlier. Two of the females are completely tuskless and two have only one tusk each.
We decided not to return to the DSWT stockades this afternoon, despite having another invitation, but headed back to Kanderi Swamp instead. It was much quieter than in the morning though, so we drove around the river loop again. There were quite a few bulls around, but none were really out in the open.
On the way back, when it was already getting dark, we met an elephant family with a tiny baby crossing the road. As it was very close to the swamps, it was probably the same family we had seen earlier. After a shower and dinner, we visited some fellow campers: Sandra, Melissa and James, who are all kite-board instructors and are off to Melbourne soon. We had a good long chat with them and, when we came back to our tent, we found that Charles had stayed up to make sure that we “got back home” safely. After all it is a long, long way across the campsite and one never knows what lurks in the shadows! Despite lots of campers, it was nice and quiet for a change.
Monday, 26/09/2011: Voi – Ithumba, Tsavo East National Park
We got up at our normal time and started packing up all our stuff. While we did that, a big elephant family sneaked through the bushes and we nearly didn’t see them! They had a very small calf with them, too. They were pretty close and it is really amazing how such big animals can move around unnoticed! We left at 7:20 and immediately came across more elephants in nice light. Typical, if one hasn’t got the time, that’s when they all turn up! This time we saw a lot more animals on our way to the Galana River: elephants with several small babies, giraffe, zebra, dik-dik and a jackal. Mick drove just a little over the speed limit, which made the corrugations a bit more bearable.
Once we had crossed the Galana River without a problem, we headed across the ridge of some hills, which were criss-crossed by elephant tracks. The track was in good condition and we could make good speed. We followed the big electricity line for quite some time, before we got into some dense bush. It seemed very difficult to spot any animals, even in the dry bush, so we were wondering what it would be like after the rains, when everything is green? We came across the old Air France van that Tal had told us about. Apparently a flight crew went on safari, but they were attacked by bandits and never seen again. Their rusting minibus, complete with Air France logo, remains as a monument to their ill fortune.
We crossed the Tiva River, which was really only a little stream half dried up, and arrived at Ithumba at 10:45. We were just going to offload our things when we were told we should drive to the mud bath immediately. It is only about ten minutes drive away, so we got there before the elephants. There were 16 orphans at Ithumba at the time of our visit, and they arrived in groups of four for their milk feed. It was all a bit overwhelming, as most of them look very similar, at least when one is unfamiliar with them. Kilaguni and Murka stand out, due to their missing tail (Kilaguni) and their marks to their ears (both). We tried to get to grips with our foster elephants, but they proved to be rather tricky. Melia has a small notch in her right ear and Tumaren has a tiny hole at the bottom of her right ear. Otherwise they all appear rather non-descript, so it will be a bit of a challenge to pick them out in this mass of elephants! It didn’t take them long to finish their three milk bottles each, and then they first went to the water trough and afterwards into the mud bath.
The mud bath was full of very grey, thick and sticky mud, and not all elephants seem to find it quite so appealing. Some dive right in, some only spray a bit of mud over themselves and others prefer to stay well clear. At one point an elephant walked up to Maren and stuck his trunk right into her face and a bit later Kibo approached her. He was actually one of those who hadn’t been in the mud bath, but he nevertheless had a very muddy trunk, which he wrapped all around Maren’s arm and started pulling on it. Arm-wrestling with an elephant makes you realise how much strength even the little ones have! And it makes you just as muddy as they are! A bit later he stuck his trunk right under Maren’s skirt – just like little boys do…
The elephants then went on to have a dust bath in the pile of Tsavo-red sand that had been brought in and dumped next to the mud bath. They were throwing it all over themselves, and they came out in funny colour combinations: grey, greyish-brown, red and any mixture of the three! We took lots of photos of them, especially when the sun briefly came out. It is a truly amazing experience to stand in the middle of a group of elephants and to be able to touch them and interact with them! Tumaren was hiding in the middle of the group though and was not inclined to say hello.
Kalama stayed behind when the group left and Mick got some trunk touches from her. Benjamin, the head keeper in Ithumba, is a really nice guy and he answered lots of our questions. The whole session took no more than 45 minutes and then the elephants were off again to continue feeding in the bush. Even Charles briefly touched one of the elephants, but he still didn’t seem to be convinced that they are not dangerous. Apparently there had been a domestic dog at the mud hole, suggesting the presence of a bushmeat poacher nearby.
We returned to Ithumba Camp full of elephantastic impressions, giggling and smiling and saying “Did you see…?”. It’s difficult to put into words what one feels after such an encounter, but it certainly left big smiles on our faces! Ithumba Camp is located in a very tranquil setting. Charles was pleased to see the big kitchen building, fully stocked with everything one needs for cooking, and proper china plates and real glasses. The living and dining room has two stories, a thatched roof and a fantastic view from the upstairs relaxing area.
There are three two-person tents, each with their own thatched roof to keep them shaded. The tents have two real beds, a small storage area and an outdoor bathroom with flush toilet and solar powered hot water shower. Absolutely fantastic! We loved the place immediately! There’s also a small waterhole, where Mick set the camera trap up. We had already seen some dik-diks, warthogs and ground squirrels around.
After a shower (during which it was actually drizzling!), lunch and a short siesta we set off to the KWS headquarters. We couldn’t pay though, as the man responsible wasn’t there, so we continued to the stockades and arrived there at 16:30.
Some of the ex-orphans and a wild bull were there. We sat on a bench with Benjamin and he told us who was who. There were Yatta, Kinna, Nasalot, Selengai, Orok and Buchuma. Two others, Makena and Zurura, were kept in the stockades as they had lost condition during the drought and had to be given extra food in order to improve. Nasalot slowly edged closer and closer, while pretending that she wasn’t actually coming any closer. Eventually she stood right in front of us. She is nearly 12 years old, and despite being nowhere near fully grown, she was pretty big when she stood right next to us! Benjamin told us that it was fine to stand close to her, so we took lots of photos of us hugging a big elephant! It makes you speechless to be so close to what is essentially now an elephant living in the wild. She was incredibly gentle and obviously really wanted to be touched by us and seemed to enjoy the experience just as much as we did. Kinna and Selengai on the other hand were shooed away by Benjamin the moment they came closer. Nasalot stayed with us and even followed us around. She is a very gentle and trusting elephant and it was awesome to feel that she came so close to us out of her own free will. We felt truly privileged.
The younger orphans arrived in three groups, as they are currently kept in three stockades abutting each other. They were eagerly awaited by the ex-orphans, and especially Yatta, Nasalot and Kinna, but all they thought about were their milk bottles and the freshly cut branches that were waiting in their stockades. So our attention was held by Nasalot and the other big orphans. It was absolutely fantastic!
We headed back to camp, which was all lit up by candles as soon as it got dark. We enjoyed a lovely dinner on proper plates and with real glasses. Everything was very quiet and it seemed somewhat unreal that we had this whole place and three extra staff all for ourselves. Charles loved the place, and when he found out that one has to rent the entire camp and that it costs 500 US dollars a night, he was completely awed. Well, it was our one concession to luxury on this trip, and it was already worth it for our wonderfully intimate elephant experience!
Tuesday, 27/09/2011: Ithumba, Tsavo East National Park
We headed towards the stockades at 5:30, before dawn, but our “night” game drive yielded only one dik-dik. At the stockades we were met by several large wild bulls waiting for the water trough to be refilled. The little ones were quite unruly; pushing, shoving and bellowing for their milk bottles. They were fed one group after the other and were then let out. They didn’t hang around long; they just took some water and then disappeared straight into the bush.
￼We stayed and watched the bulls for a bit. More and more appeared and the trough had to be refilled again. It was interesting to see how they have learned that these people at the stockades are not going to harm them, so they only briefly back off a few paces when the water bowser comes in. Even we could stand only ten metres away from the tough, as long as we were sheltered by the truck. One of the bulls had half his trunk cut off by a snare. He had to bend down in order to drink and then his trunk was only just long enough to reach his mouth. Despite his disability he seemed to be in pretty good shape otherwise. There was quite a bit of shoving going on and one rammed his tusks up the backside of another. Kinna, Nasalot and some of the other ex-orphans were at the stockades again, but this time they were both told to stay away from us. Instead they happily mingled with the big bulls. Just when we were about to leave, Yatta turned up and there was quite a greeting ceremony with all three females trumpeting and screaming. They couldn’t have been apart for long, but they greeted each other like long lost friends.
After breakfast we relaxed in the delightfully comfortable living room, Maren wrote postcards and Mick took some ambient sound recordings. On our way to the mud bath we stopped at the KWS headquarters again in order to pay our park fees. We were met by Said, the customer services manager. He is half Somali and a very chatty young man. He was actually so chatty that we started fearing we would miss the mud bath. When it came to paying he made his calculations on a piece of scrap paper (did we really expect anything else?) and got two different results in two attempts. So we went through the whole calculation with him together and it seems the lady in Voi got it wrong and we had paid 150 shillings too much. The payment system is just ridiculous – there were problems every time we wanted to pay at a KWS run park! Also, the reading machine for the Safari card didn’t connect to the system, so we had to leave our card with Said for later payment. We asked him about the special campsites for our last night in the park, and he told us that the Roka campsite was much nicer than the Makoka campsite and it was perfectly safe.
We arrived at the mud bath at 11:00 sharp and watched the orphans guzzle down their milk. After a while we went to the water trough and mud bath. Today, only some went all the way in, most just sprayed themselves a bit or didn’t touch the mud at all. But those who did go in had a lot of fun!
At some point Ololoo tried to climb out of the mud bath where the bank was particularly steep. Ithumbah walked towards him and it looked as if she was going to offer a helping trunk, but instead she just pushed him back in and then slid in on her belly herself!
The four groups were strung out quite a bit, and the first ones quickly disappeared back into the bush. It looked as if the whole elephant meeting would be over rather too quickly, but luckily they all came out again and gathered in a big group near us. Little Sabachi first investigated Mick’s video camera (these things seem to be irresistible!) and then sniffed Maren’s feet and also stuck his trunk under her skirt! What is it about these elephants? Naughty, naughty!
We then located Melia, the elephant we foster for Maren’s mum, and took lots of photos with her. Suddenly Maren was completely surrounded by elephants! That was just unbelievable! Benjamin then took some photos of the two of us. Charles hid in the car for most of the time, although he had wanted to join us going to the mud bath. In the end we managed to convince him to come out and he even (just) touched one of the little elephants. Tumaren was there somewhere and at some point she pushed Maren around a bit. Given that they are nearly namesakes, she wasn’t very interested in Maren, which was a little bit disappointing.
When the little elephants started to leave, some of the ex-orphans arrived at the mud bath. Most of them we had seen the evening before, but they also had a wild friend in tow. They had a drink, a mud bath and then a good dust bath, before dispersing into the bush again. It was amazing not only to be so close to the ex-orphans but also to a truly wild elephant in their midst, although Benjamin always kept a watchful eye on him. All in all it was a great session and we got really close to many of the little elephants.
After lunch we had a siesta, took some more photos around camp and set off for the stockades again. Benjamin wasn’t there when we arrived, so one of the other keepers looked after us to start with. There were several ex-orphans there again. Nasalot didn’t say hello, but some of the smaller ones came to investigate. We were not quite sure who all these elephants were, as all the names disappear in a blur when there are so many of them. One elephant, who was apparently Selengai, allowed Maren to touch her, before pushing her away and a bit later smacking her with her trunk in the tummy! Not that it really hurt, but it just came out of the blue! Mick got it all on video, and we are convinced that Selengai is grinning and is very pleased with herself! Naughty or what? Now we understand why Benjamin chased her away straightaway yesterday evening!
When the little elephants arrived, all the ex-orphans tried to sneak into one of the stockades as well, but they were kept back by the keepers.
Kora was busy testing his strength against another elephant at the water trough, where he was later challenged by naughty Selengai. Being a gentleman, Kora let Selengai win the pushing contest.
Kora then approached us, while Selengai was immediately told to back off by Benjamin, who had by now appeared. Kora is a beautiful young bull of seven years with quite big tusks. However, just like Nasalot, he is a very gentle and trusting soul. Mick took some funny wide-angle photos when he was stretching his trunk up into a tree, in which can even see his teeth! There are probably not many elephants with whom you can practically stick a camera in their mouth! And he also allowed Maren to touch his tusks.
Today we also saw Mulika, who – just as Yatta – is pregnant and is expected to give birth to her first calf around the end of the year. As yesterday evening, the ex-orphans were much more interesting and it was incredible again to get so close to so many of them. Maybe it was quite good that Benjamin only arrived later, because otherwise he would have probably shooed most of them away and not let them come close. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed Selengai to smack Maren.
Said dropped into the camp just before dinner to drop our Safari card off, confirming he had deducted our park fees and that we still had 150 shillings credit. He chatted on and on, telling Maren how they were fighting the poachers and how they were driving the illegal cattle out of the park. He also went to great pains to confirm once again that the Roka special campsite was perfectly safe. At dinner we not only had great food, but we also found some spectacularly folded serviettes in the shape of flamingos next to our plates.
After dinner we showed Charles and the three guys from Ithumba camp our photo slide show from Gabon, which they all found very interesting, as Gabon is so completely different to Kenya.
Wednesday, 28/09/2011: Ithumba, Tsavo East National Park
We set off early again, but only saw one bat. At the stockades we found Lualeni and Naserian, so, according to Benjamin, we have now met about three quarters of the ex-orphans. Only Wendi and her closest friends were missing, which was a pity, as Wendi always seems to be happy to interact with any visitors. But then one can’t have it all! The younger orphans made quite a racket again before being let out. Once let out of their own stockades, they went straight into the one where Makena and Zurura were kept to finish off the grass they had left. They were not happy when Benjamin told them to leave, as they still hadn’t finished all the grass that was there. Some scurried out with trunks full of grass! Lualeni and Naserian stayed on with their two ex-orphan friends, but there were no other wild visitors at the stockades this morning. As we have to pack our things, we decided to head back to Ithumba Camp.
Before breakfast Mick checked our camera trap. One of the guys had put out some cat food the evening before, having told us that they had even attracted leopard this way! We didn’t catch any leopards (luck was still not on our side), but we had photos of dik-dik, a duiker and two civets polishing off the cat food! Comparing the patterns we could tell that there were two different civets. But we did see some leopard prints on the track just outside the camp. The camp was also full of ground squirrels and in the surroundings we had seen a blue-faced monkey and two bushbucks.
After breakfast we packed and took some photos of Njagi and his colleagues. We signed the guest book and left at 8:20, as the next guests were expected that morning and everything had to be cleaned before they arrived.
As it was more than 2 ½ hours to go before the mud bath, so we decided to do a little game drive. There was only one small loop we could do and the track was pretty overgrown in places. Obviously, not many people go on game drives here, probably also because there is very little game to be seen. The loop took us less than an hour and all we saw were a few dik-diks. As there was nowhere really to go, we just waited for an hour and a half at the mud bath, where the only thing to watch was a woolly-necked stork that fished a dead bird out of the gooey water. The orphans were nearly half an hour late – typical for a day when we had been waiting so long already! Just before the orphans arrived, two cars with the Germans from REA e.V appeared. They were the ones staying at Ithumba after us. At least Charles had the company of the other drivers and could stay well clear of the elephants. The Germans went to see the orphans being bottle fed, so we hung around the water trough and the mud bath. First Kandecha arrived and a bit later Tumaren. Looking at her closely, we could see the tiny hole in her right ear, which one can only see if she isn’t too muddy. But at least now we knew what to look for!
Tumaren went into the mud bath, and came out pretty filthy, and, funnily enough, that was the time when she allowed Maren to come up to her and stroke her! We managed to take some more photos of her while she was scratching against a tree.
Some of the other elephants, including Kilaguni, were having a hell of a time in the mud bath, diving completely under and splashing about. It always seemed to be the same ones that like to mess around in the dirt. It was really funny to watch, but we had to be very careful not to get covered in mud ourselves!
Melia was there, too, and as she hadn’t had a big mud bath session, we could even touch her without getting too dirty! She really is a very friendly elephant and we took lots of photos of her. Today, they completely missed out on the dust bath and just slowly disappeared into the bush. We had a bit of a chat with some people from REA and also with DSWT’s coordinator for the area.
After saying good-bye to Benjamin we headed towards the Tiva River first for lunch and then to find our special campsite.
There were lots of elephant tracks going down to the river, although there was not much water left in it and we only saw a few vervet monkeys along its banks. We then went in search of the special campsite and on our way we met a KWS patrol as well as the DSWT’s desnaring team, who were aware that we were going to the special campsite. When we finally thought we had found it (it wasn’t signposted), it didn’t turn out to be very special at all. In the nearby bushes we could see lots of goats and cattle and where there are domestic animals there are also people, none of which should have been in the park. It didn’t feel entirely safe to camp there, and we were wondering why the two cars we had met earlier hadn’t said anything. Rather than just moving to the other campsite, we decided to head back to the headquarters to tell them about the goats and cattle and also to let them know about our changed plans. We immediately ran into two more large herds of cattle, driving several of the cows ahead of the car. These animals were about 50 km from the park’s boundary, and the ground was completely covered by their foot prints and dung, so this must have been going on for quite some time. ￼
We continued until about 20 km away from the headquarters, when suddenly there was a loud bang! We thought a tire had blown out, but when we got out (among lots of lion’s foot prints), we discovered that all six studs had broken off on our rear left wheel hub and the half-shaft was hanging out. Our first thought was that we were stranded in the middle of nowhere with no mobile phone signal and nobody knowing where we were. We could picture ourselves spending the night in the car surrounded by lions waiting for a search party to come looking for us. At least Said knew that we wanted to go the special campsite, so eventually somebody would come looking for us. But Mick put the car into four wheel drive and the front axle managed to move the car along. Every so often we had to stop as the half-shaft kept sliding out, so Charles jumped out to kick it back in. Fortunately that worked and we limped back slowly towards the headquarters. Very close to the headquarters we met a KWS car with several people in it, one of whom was Daniel, the warden in charge of the northern sector of Tsavo East National Park. Apparently he was on his way to meet the cattle herders at the Tiva river. He said that there are lots of political problems and their only option was to negotiate with them, because if KWS drives their cattle out with a helicopter the owners will retaliate.
At the headquarters Said was a bit concerned about what had happened. He felt bad as we were a little upset (although he seemed to worry more about the broken car than the not so special campsite) and called one of their mechanics to help fix the car, so we could go and spend the night in another special campsite, considering we had paid for one. At this stage we would have preferred to just pitch our tents at the headquarters, but we had to get the car fixed first before going anywhere. One mechanic from KWS and another one from DSWT got to work, taking the wheel off, cleaning all the spilled oil and replacing the studs. While they were working at the garage, Maren went to the headquarters, which was about 200 m away. Everybody was walking as the HQ area is surrounded by an electric fence, but when Said saw Maren, he said that there was no way tourists could just walk around with all the dangerous animals around. He told her he would drive her after she had made all the necessary phone calls to Cruising Cruisers in Nairobi. Making phone calls proved to be rather difficult, as there are only a few spots in the area with a mobile phone reception. For one you had to climb on an overturned bucket, hold the phone in a particular position and not move! As there wasn’t a car available to drive to the garage, he sent two guys armed with automatic weapons to guard Maren. When she asked what dangerous animals were around, and they said “elephants, lions, leopards and dik-diks”! Oh, my, an armed escort is especially needed for the last of those evil buggers! We did indeed see some dik-diks, so Maren was very glad of her armed escort…
When the mechanics finished their work it was already 18:00. It then turned out that all but two studs were broken on the other rear wheel hub as well and that they had just used all their spares. After some bargaining, although it wasn’t real bargaining as we had to name the price, we paid them 3000 shillings for the temporary repair. It would have been foolish to drive all the way back to Nairobi with only two studs, so we called Cruising Cruiser’s mechanic David again and he agreed to drive down to Tsavo first thing the next morning and meet us at Ithumba, so that we could hopefully return to Nairobi as planned. We didn’t really want to lose our last day in Nairobi.
When the car was ready to move again, Said insisted that we had to go to a special campsite and that it wasn’t possible to simply stay at the headquarters. He told us that there was one only 8 km away from the headquarters, where some of their workers were currently camping. In order to find it, as it was by now pretty dark, he insisted on an escort, so he himself and several other guys piled into a truck and raced ahead of us much faster than we felt comfortable going with our car. Suddenly they stopped and said they had to return to the headquarters, as they had forgotten something. We were supposed to stay where we were. What a crazy idea! First they are all worried about our safety and then they leave us in the middle of the pitch black night! Eventually they returned and told us we had to turn around and go the other way in order to take a shortcut. After 30 minutes driving at 60 kph (the speed limit inside National Parks is 40 kph!) we still hadn’t arrived! When we did eventually get there, we found ourselves in the middle of thorny bush. Said said we should find ourselves a nice campsite, which seemed to be a bit of difficult task given it was so dark. Actually, it was rather ridiculous, as there wasn’t a cleared and level patch anywhere in sight. They all got out of the cab of the truck, and we could now see that there were five of them, two carrying guns, so they had gone back to HQ to pick up the guns. We all started wandering around in the bush looking for somewhere to pitch the tents. At last we settled on a likely looking spot and had lots of “help” putting the tent up. Eventually our escort left and we discovered that we had lots of huge acacia thorns coming through the bottom of the tent! It was nearly 20:30 and it wasn’t really funny any more. Charles insisted on cooking and then we just crashed out after this somewhat mad end to our stay at Ithumba.
Thursday, 29/09/2011: Ithumba, Tsavo East National Park - Nairobi
Despite wanting to sleep in, we woke up at our usual time, but decided to stay in bed a little bit longer. After breakfast we explored our “special campsite”, which was just like any other place in the bush! It turned out that it was called Chamanyenze and was actually right on the Tiva River, some 20 km away from the headquarters!
We packed up all our things, including the tent with a few big holes in its ground sheet, and slowly drove back towards the headquarters, where we were scheduled to meet David, the Cruising Cruisers mechanic, around 10:00. By then he should have already been on his way from Nairobi with a set of studs to replace our broken ones. We drove slowly, but suddenly there was another loud bang and the remaining studs on the right rear wheel broke! This time it wasn’t so scary, as we knew that we could still drive on the front axle. We continued nursing the car along the dirt road, when suddenly a KWS truck appeared coming towards us around a bend at high speed. It must have been going something like twice as fast as the 40 km/h speed limit and it didn’t slow down or move over to its side of the track. In order to avoid a collision, Mick had to quickly swerve to the side of the track. We were all in a bit of a state of shock, which didn’t get better as the car now started making loud clonking noises. The front universal joint had broken! Now we really had a problem! By this time the truck had disappeared behind us in a big cloud of dust.
We decided to try and continue very, very slowly. Every time Mick changed gear, there were terrible noises and eventually it got so bad that it seemed unwise to continue. We found a little bit of shade under a tree and stopped there. We didn’t worry too much, as we were on the main track towards the headquarters and we knew that David would come along this way. Said had also said that he would come looking for us if we didn’t turn up at the headquarters by 10:00. So we stayed and waited, hoping that the first one to turn up wouldn’t be an angry elephant, as there would have been little we could do in in the event of a charge. After some time a KWS car appeared and they offered to tow us to the headquarters. All we had was our broken, extra short, tow rope, so we were very close behind the other car, which went faster and faster. When we were towed up the last little hill just in front of the headquarters, the tow rope broke! After some searching they found a metal bar and some wire and towed the car the last few metres, before deciding that it would actually be better off at the garage at the bottom of the hill. So we pushed the car back and Mick rolled it down to the garage. Said, Charles and I followed on foot – despite elephants crossing the track further away. So much about all the safety stuff from yesterday!
David and a friend of his arrived around 10:45 and they both seemed rather surprised by the faults in our car. One of the KWS mechanics helped out again and the three got to work. They took the wheel off to fix the studs and decided to remove the front prop shaft, as they didn’t have a spare universal joint. Mick had noticed play in the rear differential right at the beginning of the trip, and it seems that in the long run this had caused snatches in the transmission, which finally caused the studs to shear. It also turned out that we had broken a spring leaf. After the car had behaved impeccably for nearly a month, the problems just piled up at the end! Fortunately, everything was fixed (enough), so we could set off from Ithumba just before 13:00. But before we left we complained to Said and Daniel about the speeding truck, saying that they should be setting a good example by sticking to the speed limit and not endangering other traffic and the wildlife – we had found a freshly dead hornbill on the track after they had passed us, that they had presumably hit. Given what could have happened had they hit us, we hope that the driver got the promised good bollocking!
We were glad to be on the road again, as we were still hoping to make it to Nairobi, or at least somewhere nearby, so we could do some shopping there on our last day before flying home. The road from Ithumba via Ithuka and Kibwezi turned out to be quite bumpy and slow. But fortunately the Mombasa-Nairobi highway wasn’t too busy, so Mick tried to keep the speed up. By this time the engine joined the protest and two of the six cylinders stopped firing, so that the car lost more and more of its power and threatened to stall whenever we stopped in traffic. From then on it became a struggle to overtake the lorries, but at least we knew that David was behind us to come to our rescue if we needed him. We decided to press on to Nairobi nevertheless, as the alternative would have been to spend the afternoon and night in Makindu or at Hunter’s Lodge. It went quite well until we got to Kitengela, where the traffic got denser and denser. Coming into Nairobi the traffic ground to a halt and hardly moved at all but we made it to the outskirts while it was still light. When we got to the first big roundabout the reason for the traffic jam became clear: traffic policemen acted like traffic lights; they stopped the traffic from three directions to let one direction go through, except that they stopped each direction for something like 20 minutes! Ridiculous! Why have roundabouts if you don’t use them in the way they are intended to be used? Shortly before the Fairview Hotel, where we had booked a room for our last two nights, David overtook us and could lead the way. That was really good, because otherwise it would have been a struggle to find the hotel!
We arrived around 19:30 and were pretty knackered after this long day and crazy drive. David agreed to take Charles home to Dagoretti, so we checked in and decided to have a Hollywood shower before doing anything else. The shower was great: very powerful and hot, but obviously not powerful enough, because when it came to drying ourselves off, we left the nice white towels in a rather pitiful, dirty-red condition… Ooooops! We then had a meal in the outdoor restaurant: pizza for Maren and chicken with humus for Mick. We were even serenaded by a guy with a guitar! After dinner we just collapsed into bed. In the night we could hear it raining quite hard and we were tormented by mosquitoes.
Looking back on our days in Tsavo East, we can say that the Voi area seemed a bit disappointing this time, but mainly because all the nice little tracks have been turned into big highways. Also being September, there were probably more tourists who come to the park on short excursions from the coast. For us there were too many safari vans in the area, and a lot of the drivers were poorly behaved, including racing past elephants in search of any of the other big five that were still missing from their tick list. Ithumba on the other hand was an unforgettably wonderful experience. Clearly it’s not a great area for watching game, but then one really comes to meet the orphaned elephants. And we were very lucky in not only being able to interact not only with the younger orphans but also several of the older ex-orphans. Ithumba Camp is a fantastic refuge and we decided that, when we return next, we want to stay there a night longer just to enjoy it even more!