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Jambo Bwana 8: A Week with Elephants

The older, wild elephants kept their distance. Some of these big tuskers were born in the 1960s. Wouldn't you like to get inside one of those brains?

Tuesday, June 28
Ithumba Camp
Tsavo East National Park
Makueni, Kenya

Although it is hardly primitive, the Ithumba Camp is more the experience I had imagined. This is tent living. It’s great to get a hot outdoor shower and then stand in the sun on the stone floor next to a giant scarab art piece and let the sun dry you off. That just doesn’t suck.

We have noticed large anthills behind our tents, but when I go back to investigate, I discover they are actually camouflage for the solar panels that provide each tent with the hot water for those wonderful showers. And, like at Umani Springs, we throw our dirty laundry into the basket, and it comes back washed and folded in the afternoon. Did I say I could get used to this wilderness living?

We are up at five, so we don’t have to rush to make the 6 a.m. feeding. Watch the morning gathering here. The wild elephants aren’t anywhere to be seen when we arrive, and as the orphans are let out, one turns right at the gate, comes right over to me, touches me with its trunk and heads on over to the lucerne. It’s so magical, I can barely believe it. Did that really happen? High-fived by an elephant? Are you kidding? I’m higher and feeling more fortunate than I’ve ever been in my life.

High-fived by an orphan!

After the elephants and keepers head off, Lois has planned a breakfast at the Tiva River, which is about 20 miles south of the camp. The Tiva is one of the main rivers in Kenya and in this area, but it is dry most of the year, as it is today. It runs only for a few weeks, and though it flows toward the sea, like the Colorado River, it never reaches it. Even though it appears to be completely dry, there is lotsa water beneath, which occasionally appears as springs, and we can see instances along the dry bed.

Tiva Riverbed, where we had breakfast this morning.

That groundwater beneath becomes apparent almost immediately. Geoffrey manages to get his Land Rover into the dry bed of the river, but Mondaii’s truck gets stuck right next to it in wet mud. It’s serious enough that we all have to come back in the one Rover while Mondaii waits for somebody from the Trust to send out a tractor to rescue him. Despite the sinkage, we walk upriver, where breakfast is served, so we enjoy our boiled eggs and fruit and cereal sitting on what we think are rocks. When I push down to get up, the “rock” crumbles beneath me. It’s nothing more than sand and dust, the bottom of the riverbed and underwater when the river is full. “All other ground is sinking sand,” as the old Lutheran hymn goes. Pretty cool.

There is plenty of room in the Land Rover for all of us, and we head back to the mud hole and spend a long time there. See a part of our trip here. The wild bulls are over at the waterhole as the truck pulls up noisily and the attendant gets out to fill it up. We watch the red elephants again, putting on their warpaint like Comanches in Oklahoma territory in the 1850s. Watch the red elephants of Tsavo here and here.

The wild bulls are standing at the waterhole as the truck pulls up noisily and the attendant gets out to clean and fill it up. I wind up looking one of the bulls right in the eye for awhile while standing beneath a small tree. Lois comes over and points out that I am standing beneath an amarule tree, the fruit from whence we get Amarula, and a bush elephants will seek out – perhaps they get a Amarule buzz, too. Elephants everywhere, and so comfortable.

The Amarule Tree at the Ithumba waterhole

During our down time, we can sit in the assembly room and watch an array of monkeys, baboons, warthogs, mongooses, ground squirrels, hornbills, parrots and other birds make their way through the waterhole not far from the compound on their way someplace else. A male greater kudu, the distinctly striped antelope of east Africa, spends some time, and I get to see the markings on his back that almost seem like some kind of hieroglyphic. And we get seriously acquainted with the dik dik, the small antelopes that are everywhere. We literally see thousands during our time here; they are as ubiquitous as squirrels. And, we find out, even they are poached and the meat sold in local villages as a delicacy.

A hornbill stops by to peck at the ground and entertain me. They are like robins, almost tame and ubiquitous. Out of nowhere and right in front of us, a hawk swoops in and takes a smaller bird. A few guineafowl shuffle through before a large baboon troupe makes its way noisily to the waterhole, maybe 30 or 40 in all, with little squabbles and fights breaking out among the members all the time. They’ll fight about any little thing.

All in all, I feel better here than any time on the trip, and the simplicity and ease of our days is really easy to fall into. I love the rhythm of getting up early, spending an hour with the elephants, coming back for breakfast and break, returning to the mud hole at 11 am for another hour or so, coming back for lunch and a nap and heading back out at 5pm for another hour or so watching their return before returning for our Sundowner and dinner. Three-four hours a day surrounded by elephants. Who could ask for more? Watch the elephants, including a second baby, in this scene.

This evening the orphans are accompanied by a large group that includes wild elephants and ex-orphans, and there’s a lot of socializing going on. As the orphans make their way through the melee to their respective places, one of the wild elephants, probably an ex-orphan, gets inside one of the pens, and a keeper comes over and quickly extricates him. Watch a video of this here. Once orphans decide to go wild again, they are not allowed to return to the stockade. Another ex-orphan, his temporal lobe streaming liquid, is up around us later, obviously tired and in distress. Benjamin explains that he wants to return and will probably sleep up against the stockade tonight near the orphans. Tough love.

Along with the pellets, the orphans get stacks of acacia branches, from which they extract the bark, a particular delicacy. I spend some time watching and filming one work over her stack of branches, marveling at how she uses his mouth and teeth as well as the trunk to pull the delicate bark from these tiny limbs. Again, that trunk. Amazing how well it works.

Sakuta, a wild ex-orphan, is particularly friendly, and she touches me, grabbing my fingers for just a moment with her trunk, exhaling and leaving hot air and red dirt on my hands. On the way home for our Sundowners, Mondaii drives us down a road that takes us past the cell tower tree, where we can see its red beacon shining as a guidelight into the world, though it never gives us cell service of any kind. Then Mondaii drives us back out to the mud hole, where we find a couple of tardy elephants looking over their shoulders at us as they leave the area.

At sunset, Lois and I are both upstairs, but we’re a tad late for the sunset. It’s no less gorgeous, however. We’re looking down into Tsavo West and beyond to a long line of purple hills to the south and west above the park. I see a large blue prominence lurking above the line that I haven’t seen before. It’s a cone-like structure, with another smaller one to the south. Lois confirms that it is Kilimanjaro. Nice. Amboseli National Park is over there, and the Masai Mara.

Nancy arrives at the second-floor lookout area with another bottle of Amarula, and we refresh our glasses and continue to enjoy our view of the mighty volcano. Dinner is a wonderful chicken curry and rice dish with carrot soup and homemade vanilla ice cream for dessert. We got to talking about the reptilian aliens that reside beneath Denver International Airport when Lois brings up the legend about the hidden city beneath Mt. Shasta in California that houses Lumurians. Life is good!

I think I have mentioned the soups before. We have a bowl at almost every dinner, and all are pureed and served as cream soups. We have all sorts of veggie flavors, and each is really good. I’m not a big soup guy, but I inhaled every bowl I was served in Kenya.

We admire the immensity of the Milky Way without any light interference before we retire for the evening. Later, Lois takes a magnificent photo of our hazy galaxy, hardly visible at home, over our tent. Wow.

Lois Hild took this incredible photo over our tent at Ithumba Camp.

Our elephant journey continues here. Watch more videos here.

June 26, 2017   No Comments

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.

June 21, 2017   1 Comment

Jambo Bwana 4: A Week with Elephants

Our first morning with the Umani Springs orphans was pure magic.

Friday, June 24
Umani Springs Camp
Chyulu Hills National Park
Kibwesi Forest, Kenya

People go on safari for different reasons, and there are enough to accommodate diverse palates. The most common and best-known are the “Big Five” or “Big Six” safaris. In Kenya, that means going to the savannahs of the Masai Mara or Amboseli National Park and spending the day in trucks marking off the Big Six list: generally, lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, buffalo, hippopotamus. It’s similar to what we did in Yellowstone in the years we spent watching wolves and grizzlies.

(Mondaii tells us a great story about a group that wanted to see the Big Six. It took him less than an hour to find examples of each. They took photos and were ready to come back to the camp and hang out the rest of the day.)

This week is different. Instead of trying to see all the animals, on this safari we get the chance to see one species up close and personal. (The second week of the safari heads to Masai Mara, where you get those amazing photos of the sun setting with a giraffe or lion standing before it.) And when I first realized, while riding to and from the elephant stockades, we wouldn’t be going on game drives or seeing other animals, I was a little disappointed. But not for long.

We have done adventures before, with mind-bending results. In 1999 and 2000 we traveled to Brooks Falls and McNeil River, respectively, two areas in southwest Alaska where dozens of brown bears gather and tolerate each other and the humans gawking at them while they fatten up on the salmon bounty at both areas. We spent a total of eight days over two trips in the wild with the great bears in their native habitat doing what grizzlies spend most of the time doing, and I learned that it doesn’t include chasing and eating people – unless provoked by said humans.

We felt privileged to sit among brown bears at McNeil River and Brooks Camp in Alaska in 1999 and 2000.

And we spent half a dozen Octobers in Yellowstone chasing the wolves in the early 2000s after they were re-introduced into the park. We were able to observe animals in a pack and how they relate to their surroundings and each other. One incredible, cold morning, on a hill overlooking the Lamar Valley, we watched for an hour as a mother grizzly and two cubs overcame seven wolves and took over an elk kill site. Powerful stuff.

So the chance to see another species, especially the largest land animal, up close was persuasive. Like brown bears and wolves, elephants dominate their ecosystems. I had left Alaska understanding that humans, especially since the advent of the repeating rifle, are the apex species – no doubt about that – but that we might not be the smartest in the sense of how we have adapted to our environment, and we loved seeing that kind of thing in nature.

Brown bears just want to be left in peace. Any so-called “attack” is nothing more than a living being protecting itself and its family or near enough starvation to actually entertain consuming a human. Brown bears can and do kill people if necessary, and so do elephants, but both, for the most part, are pretty docile. And when there is conflict or competition, animals always pay the price for their actions.

The final reason why I succumbed didn’t dawn on me until later. It goes back to seeing those first films of those orphans run for their bottles and watching their absolute joy for life as they went through their day. It reminded me that I was orphaned young, too, and how much I hated that word, how much I wanted to rid myself of its stigma, of that dread feeling of not being part of something. Seeing them become reintegrated into society with family and friends is a big part of it for me.

We’re up early today, and I grab a quick cup of strong Kenyan tea Peter has ready for us so we can be out at the elephant stockade at 6am as the guys and gals are let out for the day to roam the forest with their keepers. Just before we get in the Rover, I notice that a bunch of ants had gotten into my left shoe. I spent a little time ridding myself of the intruders, and it was the last insect incident of the trip.

When we get out to the stockade, I notice that the bark has been perfectly stripped from every tree limb that was placed inside their enclosures last night. They head off in a line, and as we leave the stockade behind the elephants, they all turn left at the gate and head for a small clearing the keepers have filled with lucerne, or alfalfa, which has nutrients that the ellies love.

Standing there in the forest in the hay, we have our first experience actually up close and personal with them, and it is amazing. (Watch the scene here.) Dawn is creeping into the forest, and here we are, eight tourists, two drivers, six keepers and 11 elephants in a pretty tight area. And we just walk around among them in wonder, feeling their trunks, scratching their ears, looking into their eyes, watching and listening to them eat, asking questions, learning to stay out of their way and just marveling that we are actually in the wild more than 9,000 miles from home communing with another species. This is what we came to do, and it feels soooo good.

The keepers seem as gentle as the elephants, able to communicate with words and gestures, keep order and put up with our insistent questions, and we have many. They are always calm and collected; I never see one of them panic at any time. Philip, head of the Umani unit, is the first of two keepers to tell me that elephants are as smart as humans, maybe smarter, and yes, the keepers get very attached to the animals, and yes, the animals get attached to certain humans. These elephants have been traumatized. Some were rescued while circling their dead mothers and screaming, “WTF?” and then brought back to an unfamiliar place, the nursery.

Think about it. These animals have no good reason to trust humans, knowing our treachery, and here are these men who walk with them, talk with them, feed them, sleep with them, comfort them when they’re lonely in the darkness, in effect becoming their surrogate family. Keepers are moved around in sleeping quarters so animals, or keepers, don’t get too attached to each other. We are witness to so many instances of the marvelous interaction between these humans and animals. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I would seriously consider giving up the ghost right this minute if I could come back as a keeper in a green Sheldrick tunic.

By the time we return for breakfast, dozens of vervet monkeys have taken over the lodge area, playing and jumping around in the bushes, along the edges of the swimming pool and out on the lawn. Scientists have studied vervet communication, and the species, which is widespread in Kenya, has been found to incorporate extensive patterns of communication. Young ones learn vocalizations from older relatives and siblings, which one to use to say “watch for a snake,” for instance, or “watch for another predator.” No doubt all this is taking place, but for us, it’s just thirty minutes of sitting and observing the entire troupe, which must number at least fifty, sweep through the area, over the deck chairs and around the pool, often with little outbreaks of action, before finally dispersing into the trees.

After breakfast we take an hour-long hike to the actual Umani springs, the underground aquifer that supplies the water here, before heading over to the mud bath in an open area a short walk from the lodge at 11 a.m. Soon, we can see the orphans at the edge of the forest, each one spotting the keepers and beginning to run for the milk formula bottles.

I’ve said it before, but watching the pure joy emanating from every ounce of these creatures as they head for their prize is still perhaps the best part of the entire experience. It connotes unabashed, overwhelming enthusiasm for life itself, and it just overwhelms me. Some of them get the bottles from the trainers and then hoist them with their trunks, others pick them up themselves and suck in the full five liters – it takes about thirty to forty seconds to drain one — before trumpeting for another. Orphans finding their way back into real life. (Watch the orphans run for their bottles here.)

Then they make their way over to the mudhole, where the orphans step in and slap mud onto their bodies. One just splays himself out into the natural sludge and works his limbs clumsily while trying to cover his body. The hole is not that muddy, and it’s not easy for them to cover themselves. But once they do, they walk over to a pile of dirt nearby and throw it on themselves happily before disappearing with the keepers back into the forest.

One of the keepers mentions again that since these animals can be here for a few years, the keepers switch off so that the animals don’t become attached to one trainer over another, which can be dangerous for the animals and complicate their return to the wild. It’s hard on the keepers, too, to keep from becoming too close to the animals for whom they are father/mother/matron/friend/companion. When I ask about intelligence, he says, “very intelligent, more so than humans.” No arguments here, so far.

The cement pond: Did a crocodile or a monitor lizard slither into the cement pond? Inquiring minds need to know.

Back at the lodge, lounging around before lunch, I look up just in time to catch something slither into the little cement pond on the front lawn. Some of the others got a longer look and identified it as a crocodile. At lunch Mondaii argues that it was a monitor lizard, which I never knew would have existed here, but they do. Peter, the chef, contends that it was a crocodile, and at dinner it becomes a kind of meme for the group: Step up and give your opinion: Was it monitor or croc? Most are going with the latter. I’m not the only one to think Mondaii is putting us on.

One thing we notice is that Peter, besides cooking great food, also makes our napkins into animals, a new one each meal – he tells us later that he has 30 choices so he can do a different one for every meal for longer than a week. Lunch today is a ham sandwich, spinach lasagna and a dessert made of raspberry and mango with the same salty chocolate cookie we got yesterday with vanilla ice cream. Billie is a little tired and doesn’t come for lunch. Peter is concerned and takes her a plate of food.

The Kenyans’ general warmth, friendliness and gentle ways are infectious. We get the chance to really get to know Geoffrey and Mondaii, our two drivers. Geoffrey is 33 and has been a driver/guide since he was 19. Mondaii is 49, with a wife and four kids, the youngest about kindergarten age, and who he really wants to be educated in the United States. Since I’m the only other male in our group of eight, the three of us develop a pretty close bond, and I like them immensely. Miss them both.

Not a bad place for a shower.

There are a couple of swings hanging from the acacia trees that surround the main building, and I take advantage any chance I get to just swing. During the afternoon siesta, I keep hearing a loud male voice outside coming from different locations. I’m guessing that it is the caretakers keeping the elephants in line, but I learn at dinner that it was a large male baboon out near the mud baths trying to find his mates. On our ride out to Umani, we had driven past a small village that had a dozen baboons running through the area, and we are getting used to expecting animals to be around. Baboons are known thieves, and someone tells us that they will run from men, but not from women. Huh?

It still feels surreal to be in a place so nice and modern. Umani Springs was opened just a few years ago, and apparently one of the British royal family has stayed here. Lois says it’s nice enough that some people get here and don’t want to see animals just because it’s such a nice resort. I could see that. But the Trust runs this as an adjunct to the orphan rehabilitation area. In order to stay here, you must pay for the entire resort, which allows only eight people, and bring in your own food, which is prepared by a safari chef trained for this experience. In that regard, Peter is the best, serving us an array of dishes that are tasty and plentiful.

At 5 p.m we are back at the stockade for the arrival of the orphans. I spend some more quality time with Mwashoti, and he seems to warm to Lois and I, sticking his trunk out to check us and letting us pet him and talk with him. I get so caught up in filming him taking his milk, that I’m not paying attention and quickly turn around to another group coming in right behind me, passing on their way to their pens, milk and saplings. Two of the “troublemakers” follow the others into the wrong area, and the keepers bark at them and point him in the right direction while we scramble to stay out of their way as they find their own enclosures. (Watch the whole scene here.)

Our Sundowner tonight takes place on a wooden deck that faces the Chylulu Hills, a volcanic mountain range and national park that fills the sky to the south and west as the sun sets. The hills are volcanic and considered still active, the last eruption in 1856. The hills separate the Tsavo plain from the Amboseli plain to the west. We’re looking at the eastern flanks. The western side is operated by the West Chyulu Game Conservation owned by the Maasai.

The drive to the deck is brutal, even for Kenya. It’s almost straight up, with the Range Rover lurching and digging desperately for any traction during the first few minutes of the climb before it finally levels off nearer the deck, which is about halfway up the hill. At one point, the angle seemed so great, it appeared we might flip over. But Mondaii keeps the tires digging into the soil, and it’s worth it. The deck looks down into a gorgeous valley with the hills across from us, and the drama of the sun fading behind the hills as they turn different shades of blue and gray is just wonderful.

Peter has set up a table with snacks, drinks and ice that was packed in an old-fashioned looking wooden box. Very Out of Africa. What I called Amaret last night is actually Amarula, a South African liqueur with an elephant on the bottle, and it really catches on with everyone and becomes a big part of this trip’s lore. And we were so happy to find it’s available here in Boulder, too. Every time I sip it, I’m back on the deck here or on the second floor of the main building at Ithumba.

But the view also clearly shows that we’re not that far away from the rest of the world. As I find out later on Google maps, Umani Springs, as the crow flies, is only a few miles from the Mombasa Highway to the north and east. Giant power lines bisect the valley below, much as they do across the American West and many other wild landscapes we have visited, which gets the group into a discussion about landscape photography.

Lois explains both sides of the argument, how some photographers would eliminate the power lines from their shots, even by manipulation, to present a more wild picture, while others, like Edward Weston, would never alter a photo. I subscribe to the second view, since the power lines are important to understanding the landscape, too. But with cellphones and apps, that’s all kind of moot by now—people can modify their photos simply and instantly, so who cares, right? Later, we will find a poorly disguised cell phone tree on a hill overlooking Ithumba. And we’ll see more power lines bisecting the wilderness miles away on our breakfast trip to Tiva River there in a few days.

The Chylulu Hills are a perfect place for a Sundowner.

The drive back is sometimes almost straight downhill, but much more pleasant than the ride up. Dinner tonight is lamb with veggies, potatoes, green beans, carrots, all fresh and prepared perfectly. Dessert is a nice, fruit mousse, and afterwards, we sing quietly, with Mondaii and Geoffrey leading us: “Jambo. Jambo Bwana.” The crocodile/monitor meme goes viral with the group and will continue until we unravel the mystery of what’s lurking down there in the cement pond.

Julia took a photo at the mudhole, where you can sometimes get cell reception, and she showed us a leopard track that was yuuugggeee, larger than a human hand. Last night we heard lots of strange noises around the resort, including a couple of hyenas. We find out that someone watches the camp all night, both to make sure we are out of harm’s way and, perhaps just as importantly, to keep the roaming animals off the grass lawn, which they love and will destroy quickly if allowed to linger. Billie still isn’t feeling well, and Mondaii suggests we serenade her after dinner, which we do before retiring. It’s a nice moment to see her wave back at us while we’re singing.

Sunrise over the cement pond.

Our elephant adventure continues here. Watch videos of our trip here.

June 21, 2017   No Comments

Jambo Bwana 3: A Week with Elephants

Thursday, June 23
Umani Springs Camp
Chyulu Hills National Park
Kibwesi Forest, Kenya

We get breakfast early before hauling our bags up front and say our goodbyes to the cottages and the nice people who run them. Brian picks us up and takes us on a short drive to Wilson Regional Airport, where we’ll board a charter to an airstrip near our destination at Umani Springs. Wilson Regional services the safari planes and small airlines that operate within Kenya.

Jambi has gotten us there in plenty of time to store our hard luggage in the terminal. Last night, we transferred our stuff to smaller, lighter bags, which carry all we’ll need for the entire seven-day safari. Though we have been limited to 33 pounds each, we never get weighed, and there never seems to be a problem. As it turns out, there is laundry service at both places, so everything works out fine — we could have brought half as many clothes and gotten by.

We have some time to kill in the lobby of the small airport, so we order some coffee and Danish at the counter while watching several groups of Kenyan kids in their matching blue and yellow school uniforms on a tour of the airport walk by us, peering at the white people and waving at us as they walk out onto the tarmac to see the incredible array of prop planes parked near the terminal. We join in waving, and I will not forget easily the dozens of smiling faces in their blue uniforms as they passed by.

This was the Cessna Caravan that took us to Umani Springs.

We are using a charter from Safarilink, and we climb aboard a Cessna Caravan, a ten-seater built specifically to take off and land on dirt and grass airfields. The flight gives us a nice view over the rural countryside outside Nairobi. There seem to be equal numbers of estates, small towns and poor villages and huts. I am amused when we are given a little sack with a boxed fruit drink and a couple of pretzels for our 45-minute, 120-mile flight, which ends as we bank in just over the heads of Peter and Jambi and the drivers, who are there to meet us, before a rough, bouncing landing on a dirt-and-grass field that we never see until we’re right on top of it. Everybody loves it.

It took about a hour to fly down to Umani Springs Airfield from Nairobi.

Jambi and Peter, along with Geoffrey and Mondaii, our drivers for the week, have taken the land route in the two Rovers to greet us. Each will become valued members of our entourage. The vehicles are packed with the food we’ll take into Umani Springs, a self-contained lodge in the Kibwezi forest. In no time, our group gets into the two vehicles for the drive to Umani Springs while Jambi and Peter board the plane back to Nairobi. We get in the car with Mondaii.

That’s when we get some really bad news. Mondaii informs us that, even though it’s warm and it will be uncomfortable, the windows in the Land Rover will have to be rolled up tight because of the presence of tsetse flies, two words he spits out with particular distaste. That’s because these venal fuckers feed on blood, spread diseases like human sleeping sickness, and even one hit hurts like hell.

Mondaii is determined that none of us will get hit, and he says that once we arrive at the lodge area, things will be fine because it “has been sprayed.” It makes for perhaps the most unpleasant and stifling half hour of the trip, with my imagination going wild as the sweat poured off my head. One of my pre-trip fears was mosquitoes and other winged insects, but I hadn’t dreamed of tsetse flies, and here they are … literally attacking the car windows. There are dozens out there bombarding the car from all directions.

It’s so oppressively hot that we’re all literally about ready to pass out by the time we get to Umani Springs, but except for another 15 minutes when we leave this area, that will be the last we have to deal with tsetse flies, or any other kind of insect, for that matter. Billie says she’s been bitten more since we got back here in Boulder than when we were in Kenya! Ithumba, our second destination near here, is much drier, and we see no insects there at all. Mondaii has succeeded in getting us here sweaty but safe.

Almost surreal and very wonderful: Umani Springs

The setting at Umani Springs is surreal. It could be the set of a Hollywood movie. This is as close to jungle as we’ll actually get, and we’re staying in modern structures carved out of a magnificent forest. It’s just outrageous. There are three suites, each in its own building, with a central building that serves as living room, bar and dining room. One of the suites is a two-story building with balconies around the whole thing. Beautiful. Lunch is served by Peter after we get settled in. Nancy and I split a Tusker, beginning a lunch tradition.

We get our first real look at the elephants at the 5pm feeding. They are housed in a stockade near the resort, and we spend an hour with the gang, which numbers about ten animals.

Lois and I get some quality time with Mwashoti, a young orphan who almost lost a leg to a snare in February.

Umani Springs is the Sheldrick location for orphans recovering from a myriad of injuries and still not ready for Ithumba or Voi, the two areas where they are finally assimilated back into the wild. Mwashoti, for instance, who was brought here earlier this month, had part of his left front leg almost ripped off in February by a cable snare, a particularly nasty poaching implement. The orphan in the enclosure next to him had his genitals and tail cut by a hyena, and a U.S. surgeon was brought in to fix the damage. He pees sideways now, but he’s doing fine. I’m immediately drawn to these two, and this hour is a stunning and humbling beginning to our week with elephants.

After freshening up, we meet up again on the deck outside the dining room to begin a safari tradition: The Sundowner. It’s an old British ritual, customarily done with a gin & tonic, while the sun is setting, to sit and unwind with an alcoholic beverage and talk about the day. I find it mighty civilized, much like America’s happy hour. Lois and Jambi have added a uniquely Kenyan twist: they brought in a couple of bottles of an African liqueur that tastes a bit like Bailey’s. Amaret or something.

Just surreal.

We sit on deck chairs in a circle on the porch outside the dining room as the daylight disappears slowly around us behind the hill up against which the camp is nestled. Peter has set out some food in front of a lamp that illuminates a tree about ten feet from the deck where we are sitting. Soon a genet, a small Kenyan feline, is grabbing bits and pieces and quickly retreating to the surrounding vegetation to enjoy the bounty. At another tree, we watch a couple of mongooses helping themselves, and soon a bush baby joins the feeding cycle, leaping to a perch in the tree to enjoy her portion.

At dinner Mondaii begins teaching us a couple of Kenyan songs, including “Jambo Bwana,” a popular Kenyan song that translates roughly to “Hello, Sir.” We learn that not all groups eat and socialize with their drivers, but we insist. Geoffrey and Mondaii are a major part of the week’s activities. Both are intelligent, curious, funny, and bountiful sources of information about Kenya and the people here. The songs are a great ice-breaker, and I won’t forget the table of us trying to sing along.

Jambo, Jambo bwana
Habari gani
Mzuri sana
Wageni, Wakaribishwa
Kenya yetu Hakuna Matata

We had neglected to bring the flashlights that we received in our Bustani Safari gift bags upon arrival, we’ve had a couple of drinks, and it’s already really dark as we head around the swimming pool to our building. But just as we enter the darkness past the swimming pool, flashlights come on to help guide us home. The stewards have been waiting for our departure. Just wonderful.

We thank everybody and head in for the night. The mosquito nets have been put around the beds, and we sleep somewhat fitfully. The big windows, many of them with just screens, are open, so the blinds wave all night in the gentle breezes, the sound mingling with the animals that seem to pass us from all directions. Perfect weather. Visions of animals roaming through the compound, and trying to imagine what they are.

Our elephant adventure continues here. Watch videos from our safari here.

June 21, 2017   1 Comment