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Jambo Bwana 6: A Week with Elephants


Sunday, June 26
Ithumba Camp
Tsavo East National Park
Makueni, Kenya

After an early breakfast, we left Umani at 8:45 a.m. for the drive to Ithumba. Though it is no more than 60 kilometers as the vulture flies, our route takes us 240 kilometers, most of that distance on dirt roads of varying degrees of quality. That allows us to stop in a little village on this Sunday morning and then to meet Peter and Jambi at a point along the way to transfer the food (and more importantly, the Amarula! – we have all acquired a taste for it) for the four days in Ithumba.

It takes about four hours on thoroughfares that ranged from mediocre pavement to almost non-existent dirt road. For awhile, we are on the infamous A109, the Mombasa Highway, the main road between Mombasa and Nairobi. It is narrow, super busy, super hazardous, and even on Sunday morning clogged with huge trucks, cars, four-wheelers and motorcycles.

Beyond Nairobi, the two-lane A109 links the Kenyan coast to the land-locked countries of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan. More than half of all goods traded in the East African community come via this highway. Dangerous? In 2013 alone, 3,179 people lost their lives in traffic accidents on the combined Mombasa–Malaba Road. That’s ten times the number of highway deaths in a year in the entire U.S.

We saw this dog along the main street in Kibwesi, a hub town on the Mombasa highway. The irony was not lost.

We stop in Kibwezi, described by Mondaii as a hub town upon which smaller villages rely for goods and services. I would hardly consider it urban. Population of about 5,000. It’s Sunday morning, and as we walk up the main street, many locals are decked out in their finest duds – it reminds me of going to church in the 1950s in America when everybody dressed to the hilt for services. We are the only white people I see during our short time there. Some of the women in the group are buying dresses and material.

There is no pavement nor sidewalks, and you can see by the large gouges in the red dirt that when it rains, it just takes out more of the street. We pass shops advertising everything from a butchery (with a dog sitting outside the front door) to a photocopy shop, nail salon, electrical and electronic supplies, propane gas tanks, banks and clothing booths. Many advertised that they accepted M-Pesa, the phone-based money transfer service exploding in Kenya and Tanzania. Many Kenyans have cell phones, but there are few smartphones. Bars and restaurants line the streets, and there is a huge open area where people are walking and meeting and kids are playing. As we sit in the car, a huge herd of sheep pass along the way amidst the general clamor.

Another shot along the main street of Kibwesi.

At one point we are accosted by a thin, emaciated fellow with bad teeth who hadn’t taken a bath in awhile and was hefting a piece of metal pipe in his scrawny right hand. He is obviously not happy with our presence, and Geoffrey immediately takes him aside and reads him the riot act as we walk on. Mondaii also talks to him after he continues to shade us, and I watch later as he skulks around the outer edges of the group. Later the drivers tell us that he was an addict and upset that we weren’t giving him money. We are cautioned about taking pictures of people because they will ask for money.

We get back on A109 and head south, more heavy traffic in both directions. Mondaii talks of his wariness about the growing Chinese influence in Kenya and other African and Asian countries today. The Chinese government is providing funds to rebuild the historic railway, and as we head south we begin to see evidence of the train construction all around Manyani Junction as well as a rejiggering of the intersection with new infrastructure.

I had read about hijackers along the highways, and Mondaii said that a few years ago, when he was driving a van/type bus on A109, that thieves on the side of the highway threw rocks at him, which made him swerve and crash the bus. Although nobody was hurt in his case, these kinds of attacks happen here often, we are reminded. The thieves don’t mind killing people just to loot their bags.

When we stopped for supplies at Manyani Junction, we heard the Shiloh Tabernacle choir on Sunday morning. The heavy equipment behind is part of the new railroad being built by the Chinese from Mombasa to Nairobi.

We hook up with Jambi and Peter at Manyani Junction  before heading north to Ithumba. It’s a wonderful moment. You can see the new railway being built here, giant infrastructure changes and heavy equipment. Vans like the one Mondaii was driving when attacked, are lined along one side of the intersection, and Chinese motorcycles pass us in all directions. People are gathering at a restaurant on another corner. The highway is slowed in both directions. Across the access road is a large tent with Kenyan worshippers singing what sounds like American gospel music in Swahili harmonies. Large vultures with enormous wings take advantage of the winds above us. I manage to get a video of the junction before we climb back in and head for Ithumba. (Watch the Manyani Junction video here.)

We leave the bustling highway, and from there it’s a long, quiet drive through the countryside, punctuated by encounters with lots of smiling people who wave as we pass. It reminds me a lot of the drive from Belize to the Tikal ruins in Guatemala. Mondaii is an experienced driver, carefully treading in some places where the road has washed out. I forgot to get a picture, but we went by one building that advertised itself as the World Trade Center. As we get closer to Tsavo, we begin to see strange volcanic rocks jutting up from the landscape like giant stalagmites. It is winter, and Tsavo, though not that far away, is a much drier climate than Umani Springs.

East Tsavo is a large park, 8,000 square miles, and it is home to Kenya’s principal elephant population, currently numbering about 12,000 individuals. It’s the only park in Kenya that offers the space elephants need for any real quality of life.

Mondaii also stops to show us baobab trees. It’s the most widespread of the Adansonia species, and he points out a couple of great examples of their immensity and also to note that the wood is not as substantial as it appears, though they live a long time. They are symbolic in many ways of Africa, and they will become a presence in Tsavo in the next few days.

From the second floor of the Ithumba central building, you look down over the entire countryside over West Tsavo to the hills that finally point to Mt. Kilimanjaro, and it was easy to notice the baobabs sticking above the rest of the canopy of greyish, dry shrubs and bushes. No matter where you look here, you always see the baobab, filled with the legends and myths and mysteries of Africa.

The camp is great, much more like what I imagine a safari camp would be than Umani Springs, though it’s pretty cool to have both experiences. (And we learn there is another, newer Sheldrick camp on Ithumba Hill that is more modern and includes a swimming pool and higher views over the park.) Our tent sits off the ground, has nice rugs on wood floors, a thatched roof built over the tent, an area behind the beds to store gear and a zippered entrance to an outdoor bathroom with a six-foot stone wall surrounding it.

We loved our outdoor facility at the rear of our tent at Ithumba.

I was leery of the outside toilet facilities. I get up at night, and I was concerned about sitting on the throne outdoors in an area where we know baboons, monkeys and other animals pass through day and night. But it turns out to be pretty neat. Taking a shower is a real pleasure, the water always perfect and Ithumba Hill looming behind, and our little enclosure makes a fine bathroom. Plus, we can see the Milky Way while sitting on the toilet. That just doesn’t suck. And we didn’t see any baboons, at least around our tents.

A thirty-second walk takes us to the large, open-air building that serves as dining room, living room and second-floor deck, a place where we can eat, relax and literally and figuratively, technically and mentally, recharge our batteries. Taking all these movies of the elephants eats the iPhone’s battery at a prodigious rate, but I’m able to keep ahead by recharging between each session and transferring the .MOV files to the laptop, and, so far, it’s been pretty easy to keep both phone and computer ready for all occasions. I wind up taking way more film than I planned. But I’m really glad I did.

We go out to meet our new orphan friends for the first time at 5pm. This facility is a lot different from Umani Springs. There is no hint of forest here. The Ithumba Unit is one of two places (Voi is the other) where orphans reunite with wild elephants and other ex-orphans and make their way back into the wild. After they are transferred here, they continue to spend the nights in the stockade and days in the wild. It can take several years, but finally each one will one day decide to leave the stockade and not return. (Watch Sakuta greeting us here.)

The first group of five saunters past us into their pens for their bottles, all moving at a steady clip, and a couple of minutes later another group of five comes into sight and follows them into their pens for their milk. This is going to be fun. We get to spend time just watching them in their enclosures eating their pellets and stripping the bark from the saplings left for them to enjoy, which they certainly do. (Watch the drinking process here.)

The care of these orphans is an amazing, 24-hour-a-day process. Baby elephants need their mother’s milk to survive. After years of trial and error, Daphne Sheldrick came up with a formula that included cocoanut oil. To make these elephants welcome again after the trauma of losing their family and friends, the keepers feed them at three-hour intervals day and night, keep their colorful blankets and food available, play with them, console them and get them ready, ultimately, to become a wild elephant.

We aren’t quite as pampered here as we were by Peter at Umani Springs, but that’s not a complaint. The beef with several different fresh veggies are all prepared just right and are perfect after a long day on the road. And Lois and Renae, who each bought a colorful African dress in Kibwesi, give us a fashion show. Amarula and early to bed.

Our stay at Ithumba Camp continues here. Watch videos of our Kenya trip here.

1 comment

1 Jambo Bwana 5: A Week with Elephants — Jukebox in My Head { 06.22.17 at 6:18 am }

[...] head for Tsavo East National Park here. Watch videos of our adventures [...]

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