Monday, September 8, 2014

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

THE SAMBURU & MASAI TRIBAL CULTURES


Cyrene, our personal server


How exotic: lunch at a table outside by the Samburu River (but not too close due to the crocodiles). We have our own server assigned to take care of only us - a young waitress intern named Cyrene Mwikali with perfectly braided corn rows, and a shy smile. And a Samburu warrior in traditional dress named Kelvin Lerantilei whose job is to keep the vervet monkeys at bay with a sling shot.







Warthogs graze on the lawn, and at our 3rd camp on the Masai Mara National Reserve the vista from our restaurant included herds of zebra and occasional giraffes - just beyond the camp’s pool (which we didn’t use). Also at this camp the Masai warriors sang and danced every other night, blowing a horn made from an antler.

View from Kichwa deck and pool. Balloon rides available: $450.
John  Shira


I became friends with John Shira, a Masai warrior whose job was to impart the Masai culture to the guests. I went with him to visit the village, and also his home.

John’s father has eight wives - so John has two dozen siblings. It is actually the first wife who urges her husband to take another wife - so the work is shared and doesn’t fall all on one wife.

When John was a boy his father sent him out to tend the cattle, but John fell asleep under a tree and when he woke up all the cattle were gone. As "punishment" his father sent him to school, and he was no longer entrusted with the cattle. As a result John is fluent in Swahili and English, and with his outgoing personality he has done well with tourist tips and selling the beaded crafts his wife and sisters make. Most Masai homes are sticks and adobe, but John’s house was cement walls and a tin roof. He also had solar powered electricity and even a TV.

Like all Masai & Samburu men, he was missing his bottom two front teeth - a practice to allow for inserting a straw when someone was sick or unconscious to pump in water or herbal medicines.

The teeth pulling was also one test of pain tolerance. At fourteen years old boys are circumcised and are expected to not react to the pain - even by blinking. Also, to prepare them they are scarred by burning a circle on their arms or legs with a red hot spoon, and by cuts on their cheeks.

If a boy failed these tests he was banished from the community because he was seen as too weak and lacking in courage to be a warrior. In past generations a Masai warrior had to also kill a male lion with a spear, and raid other tribes to steal cattle to increase the size of their own herds, the Masai symbol of wealth (and buying power for dowries to acquire wives). They believed all cattle belonged to the Masai, so the raids were only retrieving what they were entitled to rather than stealing.

The Masai eat a steady diet of cow’s blood (extracted from the neck with a special bow and arrow), and cow’s milk. The meat is reserved for special occasions like weddings. More typically the meat consumed is from sheep or goats. The Masai don’t eat chicken, or eggs, although the And Beyond Lodge had gotten them into the business of raising chickens to supply the camp. It also provided women with money of their own.

The Samburu tribe is an offshoot of the Masai. They speak the same language and sometimes intermarry. Both tribes demonstrated to me how they start fires by creating a hot coal by rubbing a hard stick into a soft wood hole; then putting the coal into dry grass or elephant dung, and blowing on it. The process was surprisingly quick.

It seemed there was a standard protocol used by both tribes in dealing with tourists: Q&A, followed by a fire starting demonstration, followed by a welcoming dance by the women, followed by the men, followed by an impromptu market set up on blankets with their crafts. This was the sequence followed by both the Samburu and Masai tribes.



 
 
 
 A barrier of branches surrounds their homes and is guarded by warriors at night to prevent intruders - both human and wild animals. They also keep dogs for an early warning system. An inner circle within the camp is also constructed to hold the cattle and protect them from predators.

The Masai houses are constructed by strong branches tied together and covered with mud. The houses have a front sitting room and a sleeping room. It takes three months to build a house. In contrast, it takes the Samburu a week to build their houses - which are smaller and round, often using cardboard on the roof. I observed that a plastic tarp would be more efficient, but was told plastic held the water inside as well as out - so wasn’t practical.

All the houses had dirt floors and some small fire pits. The Masai houses had windows built in the walls for light and ventilation.

John’s house was larger and more Westernized with linoleum on the floor and posters on the walls - favoring soccer teams.

Both tribes danced for me, and the men of both tribes compete to see who can jump the highest, accompanied by chanting.



Of the two tribes I liked the Samburu women’s dancing the best. They wear large beaded necklaces which they flop up and down with the dance rhythm. They even got Frank and I to dance with them - Frank awkwardly shuffling along and me not much more graceful. Unfortunately, I had with me only the camera’s mic - which was inadequate to pick up their singing.




But wait, you say, "Wasn’t this an animal safari?"
 






 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

GAME DRIVES


That it was (about wildlife), and for six to eight hours a day, starting at 6:30am and going past sunset, with a break in the middle of the day for lunch and maybe a shower and a nap.


We bumped along in a Toyota Land Cruiser modified for the off road challenges of a safari. In 2 of the 3 camps Frank and I were the only passengers with a driver doubling as a guide.

Our third camp was an And Beyond camp called Kichwa Tempo on the Masai Mara National Game Reserve. We shared a Land Cruiser with Zach and Lisa, a young couple from New York, a producer and actress. Also with us were Brian Lupton-Smith and his wife, JoAnne from South Africa. They own a chemical company which makes a wide variety of products.








The peak animal encounter for me was one in Sambura National Park where we stayed with a pair of lionesses for over an hour, watching them stalk some impala. They used a strategy where one was a "striker" who would charge, and drive the antelope toward the "catcher". In this case the catcher was creeping up on her potential prey - and we were right in between. The lioness came straight at me, ultimately using our car as cover, crawling right underneath me!

The two lionesses did not make a kill in the end. After all that stalking they didn’t attempt a charge. The antelope moved out of striking distance, and the lionesses trotted back to their cubs.

Stalking Lioness with Masai Chanting from Mike Holtby on Vimeo.









These encounters often involve a lot of waiting for something to happen. We saw a lot of lions laying around on their backs with full bellies from a kill the night before.















I saw my first cheetah - in fact 3 or 4 cheetah sightings. Again we waited for something to happen. One young cheetah waited almost until dark to charge (their sight isn’t for nighttime hunting like lions and leopards). When he finally did charge it was very impressive how fast he moved. A cheetah can reach speeds of 70 miles per hour, but runs out of gas in thirty seconds. In this case the cheetah was unsuccessful. It was a streak and I lost sight of him in the failing light.



More than once we came upon a kill from the night before. In one case it was a hippo we’d seen lying in a ditch the day before. I had taken a photo of it’s eye - showing fear at the time. On this trip we saw dozens of hippos in the rivers, on land and even in the pools of small streams. Usually a hippo is a formidable opponent - even for lions. This hippo was alone and evidently injured or sick.



A lion kill proved to be a productive spot to see jackals, hyenas, vultures and other raptors. We saw a tawney eagle fight over some leftovers with a juvenile fish eagle - and got some dramatic photos. It is amazing how a large kill like a hippo or buffalo can be picked clean in a matter of hours.

Unfortunately, we missed the Great Migration by a matter of days. We saw two lone zebra cross the river. We also saw wildebeests but I didn’t even get a good photo of one.

When the wildebeests mass on one side of the Mara River their numbers push the ones ahead forward into the river. They can number in the thousands. It becomes a stampede into the jaws of waiting crocodiles. But even more lethal is the wildebeests jumping on top of one another on the way down - drowning some or breaking bones. The banks become littered with carcasses. And the Masai harvest the tails to make ornamental fly swatters with beaded handles. (Both Frank & I bought one from John, made by his wife).


  

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

THE CAMPS

The first camp, Elsa’s Kopje (Swahili for "gravesite") was in the Meru National Park. It was where George & Joy Adamson’s lioness, Elsa lived and was buried. They were authors of Born Free. It was a hilltop and our room was the best of all the places we stayed. It was built into a rock wall with an expansive view and two large rooms.













The hydrax climbed the trees outside our window. They’re sort of like guinea pigs. There the highlight was probably the elephants - although in this park all the game was unused to vehicles and would move away from us.



We saw one maneless male lion. Some lions apparently don’t grow manes due to the heat. We also went to a rhino reserve and saw a white rhino with a baby - which I was able to film.













In this camp we had a guide named Philip, who had been a guide for 28 years. He would move us along from one game sighting to another a little too fast, but we had some great picnic breakfasts on the road - a spread by a river.

Later we had a guide describe stopping when game was sighted with a group of Japanese tourists who had already taken their quick snapshot and wondered why he’d stopped. They apparently insisted a hippo was a rhino so this guide subsequently referred to hippos as "Japanese rhinos".

The camp staff, Lucy, a woman of English parents, who grew up in Kenya and spoke Swahili; and Chloe who regaled us with stories of working on a yacht for the super rich - that rented for $600,000 a week. They were both in their twenties, and were relief staff while the regular hosts were on their own vacation. We also shared a meal with a couple of interesting newlyweds, Alex who was French, Amy who was British, who were living in Hong Kong.

Meru Park is full of a red dust that gets everywhere on us, our clothes and cameras. It was a particularly dry country where the trees shed their leaves to conserve moisture in the heat. The acacia trees also protect themselves with sharp spiked thorns. But that doesn’t deter the elephants who strip them to get to the tender insides. We were told elephants need to eat 400 lbs of vegetation a day, and consequently only get 2-3 hours of sleep a night.

The second lodge was Larsen’s Camp in Samburu National Preserve. Here we had a large tent by a river and had to be careful with the door zippers, as the vervet monkeys had figured out how to open them.

 At this camp we had my favorite staff and guide, Ezekial - Izzy (who thought it was very funny that Frank’s dog had the same name). He is the one who tracked down the lionesses - first sighting just a head peaking up in the distance (only really visible with binoculars). Then there were Kelvin, our monkey shooting Samburu warrior and Cyrene our waitress (pictured here). The first night in the camp we were the only guests.

The Samburu park was along a river which concentrated the game. Besides the lioness hunt, the biggest animal event was probably seeing male oryx fighting for dominance. They have very long, sharp horns and try to stab one another.
The countryside was greener than in Meru, but reminded Frank and I of the land around Buena Vista, CO - but with lots of game.




Between camps we flew on a Twin Otter prop engine plane that held about 20 passengers. While waiting for the last plane a group of school kids arrived. They were on an outing to see our plane land and take off. They were all dressed in green uniforms, and I mistook the girls for boys because they all had closely cropped heads. In my naivete I asked the school principal why all these boys were wearing skirts! We took photos with them, and they sang to us - a church hymn.



Our third camp was the Kichwa Tented Camp owned by And Beyond (who arranged the whole trip for us). It was quite large, housing about eighty-five guests. Our tent was #31, which was a very long walk from the dining room, over a stream and bridge and through the jungle. The first few times it took getting lost to learn the way there. We had to allow ten minutes to get from our tent to the main part of the resort. We thought twice before making the trek. In the tent next to us were a couple from Kansas City, Doug and Chris. We had an instance of "six degrees of separation" as it turns out their son lives in Stapleton within a half mile of Judy & I.

Chris was a retired cardiac nurse and Charles sold a medical supply business, and has been retired for ten years (since he was 55 y.o.). He had some angst spending his kids’ inheritance on their travel - but if his son lives in Stapleton ...



The Masai Mara National Preserve is where Out of Africa was filmed, as well as the Disney’s 2011 documentary, African Cats. It had magnificent vistas that I think of as stereotypical with expansive plains and trees that looked like mushrooms because the leaves were only on top. The bottoms had been eaten away by elephants and giraffes. And there was some concern the elephants would eventually knock all the trees down to get at the top branches.




It is also a place with large herds of zebra (I love their signature whinny), giraffes and all sorts of gerenuks, gazelles, impalas, cape buffalo, and so many others listing them would be too much. One morning we also witnessed two black rhinos, as well as regularly visiting a herd of elephants.




And of course birds were all over in many varieties. Just in the class of raptures there were many different types - more than I’d seen in Botswana. I was able to catch several birds in flight in photos: a tawny eagle, a bateleur (a type of eagle that is used by And Beyond for their logo), a go away bird, and a red billed hornbill.






In this park there are so many safari vehicles the animals ignore them. Park rangers are in evidence and cars can’t go off the roads. And when a cat is sighted a maximum of five vehicles is supposed to park to watch in an attempt to limit the impact. If more than five vehicles arrive they are supposed to stay only fifteen minutes. This was not always abided by, but we weren’t subject to crowds of tourists.

A couple of mornings we ate breakfast by a river full of hippos and crocodiles. The hippos grunt and squeal like pigs, but much louder. They also hurt and kill more people than any other animal. They weigh three tons and it’s easy to see how you could be trampled.

We were unsuccessful sighting a leopard and our fruitless search on three evenings meant we saw little else as well. I was less patient with this than others seemed to be. When I was not on an all-day game drive because I was visiting a Masai village Frank and the other two couples did find a leopard, but he was apparently some distance away.

Ironically, one of my best photos was after a long game drive when we came back to the resort and parked, and in the tree above us was a colorful pied kingfisher with a frog in its mouth.


The Masai Mara and our Kichwa resort were quite manageable despite the number of tourists - 85 in our lodge alone, and a neighboring lodge had another 40. I was told there were 40 resorts in the park - or was it 140? It didn’t feel like we were overrun with people in the Park. It’s size reminded me of Yellowstone.

On our last day we took a Twin Otter prop plane back to Nairobi. We weren’t flying out until 10:30pm so we had a driver for the day and visited a giraffe rescue center, featuring the endangered Rothschild Giraffe (versus the Masai & Reticulated Giraffes). But the Center wasn’t as nice as our own zoo in Colorado Springs where you can also feed the animals and see them at eye level.

We then went to a place which makes thousands of beads for jewelry called Zakuri. It is set up to help women who are single moms, and provides them with stable employment. We got a tour of the process from making the clay, to shaping the beads, to the kiln, to the hand painting, to the glazing.



And finally and best of all, we went to the elephant orphanage, which unfortunately, allowed us to stay only an hour. It is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where they take in baby elephants who have been orphaned often after their mothers were the victims of ivory poachers: http://sheldrickwildlifetrust.org. Their caretakers spend time with the babies 24/7, and sleep in their stalls. One caretaker told me his baby would wake him up in the middle of the night for a bottle by pulling his blanket off.


We saw them all run in and get a bottle of milk and then some branches to eat. They ranged in age from a few weeks to a few years. They are gradually re-introduced into a wild herd, a process which can take as much as ten years. I "adopted’ Kithaka who was quite social and smudged my camera lens with his trunk. He liked air blown into his trunk. I transferred his "ownership" on to my grandson, Ben.






For more on Kithaka go to his profile:
http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/asp/orphan_profile.asp?N=263


In the evening I’d typically have a double Amarula on the rocks, a liqueur I was introduced to in Botswana. This was followed by dinner. Each meal came with several courses, three times a day. I ended up gaining about four pounds - which I have yet to take off.

It was quite a luxury! And was a great time to be with Frank, my best friend of 37 years. It is something we may not be able to do again.


THE JOURNEY THERE & BACK

The only downside was the flights - long and grueling with seating getting narrower and with less leg room. We started the trip home with a flight in a Twin Otter that was an hour (and of course it was late by about two hours). After the time in Nairobi we drove for two hours to the airport in the slowest & longest rush hour I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. Without traffic it would have taken a half hour.


Then there’s the eight hour flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam, and then a five hour layover. Amsterdam involved another security line - even though we had not left a secure area. It took well over an hour - being thorough as well as inefficient. This was followed by a seven hour flight across the Atlantic to Atlanta. Then another three hour layover, and then the final flight to Denver (2.5 hours). Frank stayed overnight but he had an additional flight to Eugene.

On the first flight from Denver to Detroit KLM/Delta did not honor our seat reservations, and we both ended up in middle seats. On the Detroit to Amsterdam flight we were given a middle row - also not what we’d reserved. We sat next to a young man, who ignored us the entire flight, despite no personal space between us. I thought he had no use for these two old men. But I struck up a conversation with him at the very end of the flight, and was surprised all my preconceptions of who he was were all wrong. He was older than he looked, and was quite eager to talk. He is a doctor and was on his way to Ghana to do spinal surgeries for two weeks.

People are often not what they seem to be. For instance, you’d expect tribal warriors to be fierce, but Kelvin, our Samburu warrior was a gentle soul who although a quite confident young man, was also a bit shy.

On the third flight over, the one from Amsterdam to Nairobi, we had paid extra for the seats we had - last row with a window and an isle seat and no middle seat (G & H 66). However, the seats were so narrow it was difficult to eat, and some sort of metal box was installed under the seat in front of me - which meant there was even less leg room than in a regular economy seat.





We had booked the same seats on the way back, but were able to change to better seats with an accommodating agent in Nairobi. So the return was somewhat more comfortable. But the journey still took over thirty hours. We each managed to get about two hours of sleep in the entire 30 hours of travel.


 
 












It was worth it, however, for the safari itself. I’m aware that much of what we saw in terms of the animals may no longer exist in another couple of decades. An elephant is being killed every fifteen minutes in Africa for it’s tusks, and rhinos are almost all gone.


The Five Minute Kenya Safari from Mike Holtby on Vimeo.