Sunday, November 29, 2009

More safari & animals

I'm sitting in the departure lounge waiting for VS672 back to London. That has got to be the easiest & quickest international (economy) check-in I've ever done - even Nairobi airport is better than Heathrow! The security in triplicate did seem to be a bit of overkill though. After the excitement & all the travel of going to Uganda last weekend, this week has been pretty lazy really - sitting around resting my shoulder (which is much better, thank-you) & slowly ploughing through "The State of Africa" by Martin Meredith. It is a pretty dry & long history book about Africa since most countries were granted independence around fifty years. The words dog and show go a long way to summing it all up - it was all pretty depressing; the detailed explanations of what happened in Rwanda and then Liberia & Sierra Leone in the nineties were particularly grueling reading. I eventually finished it - so the challenge is still there, Carmen.

Friday afternoon, Adrian knocked off early & the three of us (Kimberley included) jammed the Suzuki full of camping gear & food & headed off to Nakuru National Park for the night. The great advantage of Nakuru is that is only a relatively easy two-hour drive from home (not that I did any driving, thanks Adrian). I was also assured that I would see plenty of rhino - the only of the Big Five that I did not see in the Mara. Lake Nakuru was disturbingly low, but it did mean we got to walk over the salt flats to try & see the flamingo - apparently, there weren't all that many, but still more than I had ever seen at once. Shortly after, we did see my first rhino in Africa (this one had a young one with it) & then we found three more making there way across the dry part of the lake bed.We managed to get to the campsite & pitch the tents & get the fire going before it got too dark. It was so great camping out & when the clouds cleared quickly, there was of course a great sky to look at. As we were chowing down on some quite wonderful steaks & the rest of our dinners a very large herd of buffalo made their way down the ridge next to our camp for a drink. Later on at about 10.30 well after the rest of the herd had made their way back past; alone buffalo, who was pretty damn big, wandered over a lot closer - thankfully he was just curious & not the slightest bit shirty. After a fitful sleep (for me at least) we were up before six to go on what turned out to be a fantastic game drive.

I'm not so good at describing game drives - but as always it started off slow & then we saw a whole heap more of rhino (they are frigging massive - in both senses of the word; but no great surprises there), including this rather cute pair. Down at a water hole there were a lot more buffalo & as we were next driving aimlessly around (or so it seems when you are looking for game), Adrian was very interested in what had a herd of impala rather spooked. Eventually he & Kimberley spotted a leopard slinking through the bush - I was in the back, so couldn't see it as much as I tried. After waiting around for quite a while wondering where it had gone, it eventually crossed the road right in front of us - what a beautiful animal. We tried to find it on the other side of the bush it was walking through, but had no luck there - we traded sightings with another van (they found our leopard & we found their group of seven lions later on). The said lions were happily resting near the road & we quite easily watched them for ten or fifteen minutes. By this time it was going on for four hours of driving & no breakfast, so we started heading back to cook brunch & decamp. On the way back it was quite neat to see a small group of giraffes near the road & then cross right in front of us.Upon our return, we discovered that the pesky baboons had gone through our fire lighting material & decided a bottle of kerosene was the only thing worth taking. Needless to say, that made lighting the charcoal a bit harder; but with a lot of fanning of flames, bacon & scrambled eggs & toast was finally cooked & devoured before we decamped & hit the gravel roads for another few hours. Exploring some different areas of the park, we didn't see a whole heap (except some more magnificent giraffes) before we headed up to Baboon Cliff for a great panorama of the lake. The resident baboon up there must have been fed previously as he was mighty bold, jumping on the car as soon as we stopped & tried to get in the window. A swift punch in the face & much throwing of rocks from Adrian saw him off; that was until he came back to jump on top of the next van that came up & try & get in the open top - completely freaking out the child inside.On the way out of the park, it was back to the group of lions we had seen earlier - they had moved a whole five metres to the shade of a different tree, so we quite happily watched them while we had lunch. Just before we left the park, we stopped & watched a wonderful black-maned lion & lioness lazing around between attempts at expanding the Nakuru lion population; pleasantly, it started to hose down while we were there - the park definitely needs a lot more rain. So it was back home to pack (for me), eat & sleep. So that is the end of my Kenyan adventure for this time - I sure am looking forward to getting back to London & having a decent sleep without being woken up at all hours by crazy dogs. I'm not looking forward to the winter however - the Kenyan weather has been fantastic. In the air now & just crossed the equator for the fourth time in three weeks - plane is a lot better & less cockroach infested than the Akamba bus. Less than six weeks to Canmore, Alberta! Hope my shoulder is up for skiing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wayne being in prison was an example of a down

Yes, I watched The Castle again last week with my antipodean friends in Kenya; and yes, it has been a week of ups & downs. Monday saw me out for another ride around the tea-fields & factory. As I was starting to get my bearings in the countryside a bit more, I was able to extend the loop to get a bit more of a work out. As I was making my way back to Brackenhurst (where Adrian & Carmen work) I somehow got a bit away from the tea-fields. As I found my way back, I was particularly pleased to be welcomed by a pack of dogs; I don't think they were too happy to see me either - thankfully, I escaped with a slight scratch on my thigh (NZO Dobies are so fantastically bombproof), which later bruised up nicely, and no bites.

Somehow, that night I got convinced to tag along to an aerobics class in Limuru at a tiny little gym. Not having been to aerobics class before, a Kenyan one was sure to be an introduction - I think I went for the cultural experience & a good laugh. I think there were about seven of us in a tiny basement room sweating it out (I was soaked after ten minutes & I'm not sure how I survived an hour of it). Of course, they only have one tape & the old Aqua songs provided much amusement. But most of my amusement (& probably Carmen's) came from my total lack of coordination when things got a little too complicated for my simple brain. Somehow winning a half-hearted sit-up challenge before the session started was not looking like such a great idea half way through the hour as we moved to the mats (it smelt decidedly funky on the ground - urgggh) & we proceeded to do a lot of sit-up-esque exercises. I had previously forgotten that I had muscles lying dormant around my stomach - I was reminded time & time again over the following two days. I sure hope I'm a little fitter after my Kenya trip - what with all the extra riding, the aerobics & eating less.

Tuesday I was off to the slums near the airport again with the volunteers. I spent a few hours at a small medical clinic, but it was a quiet day & they didn't have a lot for me to do. For the first time in years, my hands were covered in lactose after I spent an hour or two packaging drugs from a bulk container. I think that afternoon Adrian & I went for another of our run/rides around the fields; after the exertions the day before, I was slow again up the hills - but enjoyed blasting down the hills of course. As this was the last night that Jeff & Christina (two of the great volunteers) were in town, most of the volunteers arranged transport in to Limuru for a night at the Beehive - a local bar. Once we at the ACTS house had organised ourselves, we finally made it for a few Tuskers. We weren't sufficiently organised enough to have had dinner before we left, so had to wait for the cook to light the fire & cook what looked like most of the torso of an unspecified animal (never worked out if it was beef, sheep, goat or something else). Anyway, the Nyama Choma (roast meat) was very good, but very salty. A great night out, even if we were home relatively early (some of us have to work - not me of course). Just been informed it was goat.
After another sleepless night (all the water before bed didn't exactly help), we were off with the volunteers again to a feeding program. Thankfully, it was local & the drive was short - if somewhat circuitous due to the rain finally starting up & muddying up the dirt roads (apparently it is one of the rainy seasons at the moment - but the weather has been perfect up until this point; thankfully the rain is becoming a little more frequent). Hundreds of people had turned up for the dispersal of flour, grain, matches, fuel, salt, bottles, & other such things. I couldn't believe how many people there were & how far some had walked; all very sobering really. I handed out salt all morning, so for the second day in a row I was covered in the product of uni summer jobs. That afternoon, we were back to Makeu - the school & boarding for about thirty disabled children that we had visited last week. It was life-skills lessons, so a couple of volunteers tried to teach the kids how to make beds, brush their teeth, clean the classroom & use the long drop properly ("In the hole!"); I'm such a horrible teacher, but thankfully Kimberly has endless enthusiasm & she did a great job while I defaulted to crowd control.

The much anticipated game of Ultimate Frisbee was on Wednesday night & that when my week got a lot worse. It was a fantastic game, exhausting, but a lot of fun & we were winning (there was not a lot experience - me included). If it wasn't such a great game, I may have been a little wiser & realised that my right shoulder clicking & popping was a really bad sign. My poor arms obviously aren't strong enough & all the jumping & reaching (I think it was this rather than the throwing) was too much & I eventually dislocated my shoulder. It went back in once, but the last time I couldn't get it back in & it frigging hurt. Thankfully there were a few nurses on hand & Carmen is an OT. None of the nurses were too keen to put it back in; but thankfully Carmen was up for it (with a bit of help from the trusty interweb thingy) & a bit of forced movement later we were both stoked to feel it pop right back in to place. My hero - thanks Carmen. Since then, it's been pretty good - a few days immobilised in various slings, a little discomfort & with a bit more rest, I hope it never happens again (of course, that is not how such dislocations usually go).
Thursday was a bit of a write off with a gammy arm; but Carmen & I did take a couple of kids from Makeu to the doctor in Limuru. One had a horrible scar from a burn sustained in last year's post-election violence on his upper arm & another had a horribly infected thumb. There wasn't much to be done for the scar (I sure was fortunate to escape any permanent scarring from my little altercation with Melter 1); poor John screamed blue murder for ten minutes while all the pus was drained from is thumb (just as well Carmen had gone to get lunch, it was heartbreaking listening), hopefully the necrosis under his thumb nail isn't too extensive. I wasn't too displeased to have to miss dance aerobics that night.
Uganda & the Nile beckoned on Friday - Adrian had wonderfully organised ten of us to go up Friday night on the bus (arriving Saturday morning), relax at the camp Saturday & spend Sunday rafting down the river. At the last minute, Adrian had to fly to Kampala for work & unfortunately the bus ride was such an experience he is not likely to be forgiven for a while! I think Akamba must have dragged the last & worst bus in their fleet out for us to take the twelve hour trip through the night to Jinja. It didn't start off too bad (except we had to retrace our steps through Nairobi traffic) & it was stinking hot in there. However, it quickly became apparent to quite a few of our group that the bus was infested with cockroaches & they were none pleased to have them crawling across their faces & all sorts of other places. I was lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me, but that was quickly filled when Carmen spied the possibility of sleeping against the window. Actually, here is a photo of one of the few times during the whole horrendous trip which Carmen is not actually sleep - just pretending. Being able to sleep while travelling would have been a real bonus - we had three blow outs & associated hour long stops to change tyres - one of the blow outs pushed the border crossing out to an hour and a half over sunrise. I had a week's worth of Hamish & Andy podcasts to catch up on, so that helped pass the boredom a little. Needless to say, we were all happy to be off the roach-coach at nine on Saturday morning. The Adrift truck picked us up & we spent the rest of Saturday relaxing next to the Nile or next to the pool at the next-door resort. On first impressions, Uganda is considerably nicer than Kenya - the roads were markedly better, the cars on the road are much nicer & it just looks a lot more orderly. Unfortunately, somewhere on Saturday afternoon I got quite sick & lost my appetite- that only really helped by lessening the blow of being unable to go rafting. That evening we watched the All Blacks beat England with the Nile right next to us - that was a little surreal. I was even quieter than normal that night, so it was with some relief to head off to bed well to early - the bunk room was like being in a submarine with the bunks seeming to be only a foot apart, it made getting in & out of bed difficult with only one good arm.Five of the group decided to do the bungee on Sunday morning before they headed out rafting. I was keen to give it a go a few days prior, but wasn't really up for all things considered.
Andree (also sitting out the rafting for medical reasons) & I lazed around the bar while everyone else hit the river. It was a great afternoon reading, chatting, eating & enjoying the view. Later in the afternoon a couple of hundred of the British Army descended on the camp after many weeks in the bush, so we made a hasty exit to meet the rafters at the take-out point thirty kilometres downstream. By all accounts it was a fantastic day & it was really frustrating to hear all the stories; on the upside the food was delicious.
Monday morning, Carmen & Adrian were flying back to Nairobi for work & considering the state of my digestive system & contemplating another hell bus ride, I joined them at 4 am in a taxi to the airport. I managed to get a ticket for the flight & it was very pleasant with great views of Lake Victoria (saw a good sunrise during the taxi ride too); just as well the plane was pretty empty, as the final podcast I had was side-splittingly funny & it would have been even more embarrassing. What is it with small airlines in third world countries leaving before the scheduled departure? Admittedly, this wasn't as noticeable as Yeti Airlines in Nepal - but it was a little odd.

So home to catch up on sleep & washing; it turns out that the bus ride back was better by orders of magnitude, but I'm still not sure if I would have survived so well. So that was the end of great weekend had by everyone else - I quite enjoyed it, but it was frustrating & disappointing at the same time. But at least my arm hasn't popped out again.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Masai Mara!

So for the fourth night in a row I have woken up at about 2.30 & this time I decided I couldn't take any more of my mind going in circles with no hope of resolution & a rumbling stomach; after some toast, here I am doing something slightly productive.

I have spent the previous three days in the Masai Mara National Reserve (& on the four-five hour van ride to & from). The Mara is in south-west Kenya & borders Tanzania at the Serengeti (pretty much making it the top of the Serengeti) & Adrian had organised for me to tag along with four of the volunteers - a wonderful opportunity & not one to be passed up. The park is over 1500 square kilometres & is named for the Masai tribe that live there & the Mara river that flows it.

Hopefully this posting won't have much text as normal & lots of photos. I am pleased at how a lot of the pictures turned out from my little Canon. Sure, it would be nice to have an SLR - but this camera was bought for one function only, to sit snugly on the shoulder strap of my Camelback while riding. Hopefully I can filch some good photos from the rest of the group sometime - but they all had compacts too.

We stayed at the smallest of the camps in the park (only thirty beds) & were extremely well looked after - there was only one other group there the first night & no-one other guests the second night. The food was fantastic & I have never stayed in such a flash tent - bath, shower, toilet. We had to be escorted to our tents at night by a sentry carrying a spear as there was much wildlife wandering around at night - we saw a lot of buffalo tracks the first night & Lotte & Ansje (sp?) saw a couple of buffalo outside their tent before going to bed on Saturday. Enough of such details - while the camp was excellent, that was by no means the highlight of the weekend.
I went on four game drives over the weekend (three of the group opted out of Saturday afternoon - which turned out to be my favourite - after a six hour drive in the morning). It was all new on the first so we were very pleased to see hundreds of zebra (they are such comical looking animals with such vivid patterns; the funniest thing I saw all weekend was zebra lying on their side & then rolling over with all legs sticking up in the air to scratch their backs), impalas, wildebeest, buffalo (they do have such strange looking horns) & a few giraffes.

Source of bad joke - a zebra crossing.

That night we saw (actually were right next to some of them) a pride of at least twelve lions (including glimpses of a very cute looking cub); we watched for quite a while - as it was near the end of the day, they were still lying around keeping out of the heat. On the way back to camp we saw a small herd of elephant - the only time we were to see an elephant calf. Elephant are especially cool to watch as they grab lots of foliage off the trees & eat it - I think this was the first time I have seen so many elephant still with their tusks, so that was neat (I think in Nepal & Thailand they had be detusked). So back for dinner we had seen three of the 'Big-Five' (apparently the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot), with just the rhinoceros & leopard to go.

Saturday morning we left the camp at six with a massive packed breakfast. I still couldn't get over how many zebra there were - they all look so well fed, but I'm told they look quite round even if they don't have much to eat. The Mara had been in drought for seven months previously & has only just started to get a bit of rain & green up a bit; consequently, the Masai have been running their stock further in to the park, which means reduced feed for the wild animals & therefore lower numbers. We added a cheetah resting on a bushy knoll to our list - it was gorgeous, if a little restful. This took quite some time to find & in the meantime we had gotten the van stuck twice in mud - stuck enough for us to have to get out & push, the first time took quite a while to get out - I was glad that there were no animals around. We also a lion & lioness stalk a limping zebra for about fifteen minutes, that was neat to watch - incidentally, the zebra managed to get away.
We managed to find a good spot away from all the animals to get out & have a very large & very late breakfast, before heading off in search of the elusive rhino (apparently there only four to five hundred in the park & they are very hard to find).Before long we had found another cheetah who was out for a bit of a stroll. No one seemed interested in a sprint against it & the herd of zebra close by were pretty unperturbed by its presence.Returning for lunch, the rest of the group lounged by the pool while I tried to grab a nap in tent - but it was a bit warm - so when Yvonna & I headed out again at three-thirty I was still pretty tired. But I figured I wouldn't be here again in a hurry so, I would just suck it up & enjoy it. Which was just as well, because although the drive started off pretty quiet looking for that elusive rhino - it ended in a flurry of fantastic sightings. First was this lion just dozing in the shade & here is a photo to prove that I was actually there (there is a lion there - I assure you). Next we found a hippo sitting in a pond that looked like it had be made quarrying for roading materials - this was a great surprise as we had been told that hippos are mostly down by the river which would have required a whole day excursion, which we were not keen for.After seeing a big herd of elephants in the distance, a couple of giraffe crossed the road right in front of us. I can look at giraffes for so long - I think I've really liked them since I was quite young - the patterns on their skin are so cool & they seem such unlikely animals.Then what turned out to be my favourite sighting of the weekend - a leopard up the tree. We couldn't get quite as close to it as some of the other animals (that is what I am telling myself is the reason why I only took one photo of it - & that isn't even very good). But it was a delight to stare at through the binoculars as it lazed on what looked like some pretty precarious branches high up surveying the surrounding scrub (looking for dinner perhaps). I thought it had an extraordinarily long tail, & I now know why a leopard doesn't changes its spots - they are quite incredible to start with & not worth risking I think. It was getting darker now, but we still managed to a cheetah & two more groups of lions. The last group (a male & two females) were a bit more active than most of the others we had seen & the two females had a bit of play fight that was entertaining. There was also a nice sunset way off across the plains (it got better than this, but it was hard to take a decent photo while bumping along the dirt tracks & road).This is Edward - our Masai scout - in traditional garb, you can almost make out his ear lobe that (because it has a massive hole in it) he wears pulled over the top of his ear. You can't quite see his traditional knife or traditional cell phone.
Sunday was off again early in hunt of that rhino. However, we never found it - that was a little disappointing, but I didn't mind too much as I have seen one in the wild many years ago in Nepal (albeit briefly as someone yelled "Rhino!" on spotting it & it ran away). We saw quite a few big herds of giraffes (more than thirty in total) before heading back home. What a weekend - Joe (one of Adrian's flatmates here) wasn't kidding when he said the Mara was one of the best, if not the best, things he has seen in his life - it was incredible.