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Jambo Bwana 10: A Week With Elephants

Elephants love ... other elephants.

Friday July 1
Nairobi to Boulder

Just as we’re getting into the Land Rovers for the short drive to the airstrip, an elephant stops by as if to bid us farewell. And then, as we leave the compound, two more show up along the side of the road.

The take off out of Ithumba is spectacular, and we get to see Benjamin and Mondaii and Geoffrey waving to us as we pass Ithumba Hill and bank around north and west through the rest of the park and the countryside around Nairobi before landing at Wilson Airport, where Brian and Jambi are waiting. It’s mid-morning, and our flight doesn’t leave until midnight, so we’re staying at Peter and Jambi’s place for the day before we head for the airport.

We stash our gear, and then Stanley drives us out to Jambi’s mother’s place about an hour away tucked high in the hills of the tea plantations that surround the city. Her mother and sister serve us lunch. The food is great, and it’s fascinating to be at the very place where Jambi grew up. On our return drive, we get a sobering view of more Nairobi suburbs and the poverty that permeates much of the country.

Sundowner with Peter sitting at their dinner table before we head out to the airport, where we’ll sit for a few hours before boarding our flight to Amsterdam. We haven’t had internet access for the entire safari and know nothing about the attacks in Istanbul several days ago. Nor do we appreciate yet the fact that we’re coming into one of Europe’s largest and busiest airports from Nairobi, a known terror hotspot.

Our flight doesn’t leave until midnight, and from the terminal we notice the plane is really large, one of those with a second floor. But it isn’t until ten seconds before we get to our row that I realize we are going to be stuck in the middle two seats of a row with ten seats. (I read recently that they’re added an eleventh seat to that configuration – oh joy!) Even worse, the area where my right leg should go has a metal thingie there that doesn’t allow me stretch my right leg. Welcome to the real world again.

The Amsterdam Airport is a zoo–everything but an anal probe. But we finally get to Detroit, where there are more delays. Later, as we approach Denver, we see thunderstorms pounding the Front Range, and the plane slips in and out of the turbulence until finally landing, and then spends another half hour on the tarmac because it’s storming too hard to pull into the gate. By the time we get into Dr. Reptile’s car after a long wait on a busy night at DIA (it’s July 4 weekend), we’re nothing more than vegetables, talking gibberish and nonsense, and many thanks to him for coming out and picking us up and depositing us home safely. For two days I could still feel the motion of the airplane whenever I hit the pillow.

But who cares? It was just incredible. Those elephants rearranged my brain. Many thanks to Lois Hild, Jambi and Peter and Bustani Safari and our fabulous drivers for making it such a smooth and amazing week.

And thanks to everyone who’s read all or parts of this. If you have, don’t forget that you can foster one of these incredible orphans as they journey back to the wild for just $50 a year. You’ll get monthly updates on the work of the David Sheldrick Trust and watch your elephants as they progress toward freedom. The future of the elephant is in our hands, and anything we can do to save a species from extinction so people can have ivory chess pieces and trinkets is a good thing. Watch this video of these orphans running for their milk and make out your check. You won’t regret it.

Jambo bwana.

Watch videos of our Kenyan elephant adventure.

June 29, 2017   1 Comment

Jambo Bwana 9: A Week with Elephants

This wild, single-tusked elephant watched us each day at the mud hole but kept his distance.

Wednesday, June 29
Ithumba Camp
Tsavo East National Park
Makueni, Kenya

There are several groups of elephants here this morning, and competition for lucerne is fierce among the orphans. At one point, a favorite called Orwa gets pushed completely over while shuffling for hay, and he trumpets bloody murder before he uprights himself and calm is restored. “Here Comes the Sun” is on the jukebox in my head as old Sol pops out along the horizon, and we get to spend quality time watching the amazing and wonderful Wiva being attended to by her matrons and mother.

The scene at Ithumba relocation unit at dawn. Here comes the sun.

Baboons are squabbling as the elephants come in to the waterhole, and they quickly scatter. I get some time to talk with Benjamin, who tells me that when he was young, he was afraid of elephants coming into his tribal village. It’s really hard to believe, given that he is one of the most knowledgeable elephant experts alive, a man who is able to walk with elephants, converse with them and, sometimes, help heal their wounds. (Later, I read in the Sheldrick monthly updates that when another ex-orphan had a baby, she brought it up to the stockade, and all the elephants allowed Benjamin into their circle to check it out.)

Benjamin Kyalo heads the Ithumba Relocation Unit, a man who walks with elephants. Benjamin, and the other keepers of the Sheldrick Trust, are truly heroes in the battle to save the species.

People like Benjamin are on the front line trying to save these animals, if that is possible. He is key to the understanding that we need to make between humans and these animals who, despite our many differences, are more like us than any species, except perhaps dolphins and orcas. He is an amazing guy, and I feel privileged to be able to spend several days with him in his unique world.

It’s the last full day at Ithumba, and while we’re out at the water hole, I stand beneath the amarule tree that is the closest we can get to the big wild bulls that gather at the water hole. Benjamin is explaining that a bull we’re observing is about 50 years old, and it pops in my head that this animal was born when I was in college and Richard Nixon was president. We spend a half hour observing each other. Truly incredible. What does this fellow know? How many children has he sired? How many of his family has he seen shot and killed? He seems to be saying, “If you only knew, dude.” Someone points out a wild elephant that allowed Benjamin, after rejecting him one day, to put salve on an abscess on his back. The wound is still visible but healing. I am stirred to my very soul.

And I am just beginning to understand what Dr. Croze wrote me all those years ago. I’m seeing everything he said in action: “Let’s just say that elephants are right up there with the higher apes and whales and dolphins: a complex, fluid society, based on individual relationships and networking served by systems of communication that work along several dimensions, including something very close to a spoken language; high intelligence, both native and that learned from the social group during a childhood as proportionally long as humans; demonstrated insightfulness, compassion, altruism, low levels of tool making, evidence of self-treatment and herbalism, and, quite likely, consciousness of self.”

He was absolutely right.

The wild dogs are back in the afternoon, and we get a perfect view of them this time as Benjamin explains their tactics. Elephants don’t like African wild dogs, who do like baby elephants if they can manage to grab one. There are dozens of videos on YouTube of this phenomenon. The two canines, as gorgeous as they are devious, are skirting the edges of the herd, which brings individual elephants out in their direction, running and trumpeting and trying to scare them away.

Young elephant adolescence is similar to humans -- about ten years under the care of the matrons and herd.

The dogs are much faster than the ellies, and their goal is to perhaps dissemble the herd enough and get everybody riled up and running so they might have a better chance to grab Wiva, the baby, or isolate another younger one. Benjamin says the tactics might work with a larger group of dogs or a smaller group of pachyderms, but not with this herd.

Sure enough, as the dogs continue to raise hell, individual elephants take off after them, with a powerful trumpeting sound that shakes the valley. Finally the entire group heads off in that direction bellowing after the dogs. Wiva is learning a lot, and at one point she runs out ahead of her matrons to help scare off the dogs. See Wiva in action against the wild dogs here.

A while later, we catch up with the herd in the Rover as they stand scattered along the road after chasing the dogs off. One of them swings his trunk and follows us for a bit, and some of the others emit loud trumpets as we pass. See this happening here.

Our last Sundowner at Ithumba. Kilimanjaro is again in the distance to the Southwest. Watch a video of the sun setting that night. A dik dik casually walks the grounds. Birds leap and chatter as the clouds move in from the east.

The view for our final Sundowner.

Our journey concludes here. Watch elephant videos from our trip here.

June 29, 2017   1 Comment

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 7: A Week with Elephants

Monday, June 27
Ithumba Camp
Tsavo East National Park
Makueni, Kenya

We wake up at 5:20am, which gives us just barely enough time to throw our clothes on and make it to the trucks leaving at 5:45 for the 15-minute drive out to the relocation unit. It’s just before dawn, still pretty dark, and as we near the top of the hill where the watering hole and stockade are located, we notice large, very large, slowly moving forms and shadows in the misty, gathering light. As my eyes become accustomed, I realize it’s a herd of elephants. Big, wild elephants of all sizes. They are here, it seems, to hydrate at the two water holes and greet the orphans as they are released for the day. We spend some time watching them in the gathering light before and after the orphans are let out of their enclosures. The sun rises soon after six, and we begin to see more clearly a large number of variously sized elephants scattered among the two water holes. (A video of the scene is here.)

Some of the elephants are wild, some ex-orphans who have returned to the wild, and after some kibbutzing around the water holes and the hay strewn near the stockade, the orphans and ex-orphans and wild elephants head out for the day together, accompanied by the keepers, who walk with them. They will wind up at about 11 a.m. at the mud and watering hole a few miles south and then back to the enclosures at 5 p.m. for the night. The elephants spend the rest of the day roaming, grazing and learning from the others how to survive in the wild.

Benjamin Kyalo is project manager of the Ithumba Orphan’s Unit, and he explains the process that allows the elephants themselves to decide when they want to leave for the wild herd. We will spend the next three days watching these incredible stories unfold under Benjamin’s expert direction.

We get our first view of a baby named Wiva. She was born to Wendi on October 15, which makes her eight months old. Wendi was brought to the Trust as a newborn left for dead in the Imenti Forest in 2002 and was hand-reared at the nursery in Nairobi. After coming to Ithumba, she made the transition and is now one of about 30 ex-orphans who remain in the area and are now part of the wild herd. Watch a video of Wiva and her guardians here.

Wendi is an elephant raised completely in captivity but now free, and she remembers the keepers who raised her and is friendly with them, even with the baby around. Elephants love baby elephants, and Wiva is tended by at least five other females, but we are introduced to Wendi right away, because Wiva is looking for mama’s milk. We will see them many times in the next few days. Geoffrey points out two wild dogs at the edges of the elephant gathering, but neither Billie nor I can see them.

Up close, we can see and feel their bodies, hard yet somehow soft, too, and built to hold together their weight and withstand the rigors of the Kenyan outback. We can also observe up close the temporal glands behind their eyes, which secrete chemicals that we don’t fully understand yet but we are learning that it has to do with their emotions.

The mudhole at Ithumba was used by all the elephants at one time or another.

Their ears are almost paper thin, and the skin behind them extremely soft. One stops over to show us her trunk and how cool it is. We can also hear their deep, rumbling voices. Elephant researcher Dr. Joyce Poole has observed that “greeting rumbles or bonding rumbles, in particular, show an extreme range in the frequency of calls.” And many of their rumblings are too low in frequency for humans to hear. Elephants have also been found to “hear” rumbles from long distances through vibrations they feel in their feet.

There are probably 30 or 40 elephants here, and the big ones soon head over for the lucerne next to the stockade. It is meant for the young ones, but today the bigger elephants push them out of the way, grabbing huge chunks for themselves and taking off to munch without interruption. Soon, they are heading off down the road in small groups before disappearing behind a ridge, and we climb back in the trucks for the drive back for breakfast.

Lois stops in to gauge how things are going, and we have a great conversation. We are delighted and completely comfortable with the way things are transpiring. Breakfast includes eggs over easy with bacon, alongside cereals and fresh fruits, juices and coffee. We sit and watch some wildlife coming through the camp until 11 a.m., when we are driven out to where some of the wild elephants are again waiting for the orphans at the mud hole.

The water trucks were busy every day at the various waterholes.

Tsavo East is pretty dry, and it’s winter, so the Trust has built stone water holes for the elephants around the area. They need to be cleaned and refilled, often more than once a day, and the Trust keeps them serviced with a truck that drives up to the water hole right into a herd of larger males. The elephants are obviously used to this, and they stand around waiting. The water truck is a constant companion here, either at one of the water holes or at the stockade or heading between them. The wild elephants are patient as the attendant fills up the holes.

We spend an hour just watching. The mud hole here is much larger than the one at Umani Springs, and there is elephant action everywhere: The mud hole is a pond with maybe a twenty-yard circumference and mud all around it, and elephants are splashing and throwing mud everywhere. At one point, the young orphans are coming in for their bottles stage right while the big males stand at left at the water hole silently gazing over at us.

It’s an amazing scene, the elephants throwing gray sludge on their backs until they turn a darker shade of grey. There is a kind of pecking order going on, with elephants waiting for others in some cases and not in others. At certain points it seems that some of the larger elephants are holding a class in mud slinging for the orphans to show them how it’s really done.

One friendly elephant, taller than we are, comes right over to us. He’s an ex-orphan and friend of Benjamin, who’s also standing with us, and this male elephant is checking us out with his trunk and talking with Benjamin while larger males eye us warily from about thirty feet away and another line of elephants passes just beyond us. There are literally elephants everywhere, and I am deliriously happy.

A busload of Kenyan schoolchildren in their blue outfits is standing around the orphans, and some of the more adventurous ones get to feed the young orphans their bottles. Education at a young age is an important part of the Kenyan conservation effort, and I wonder to myself how many of these children’s families might be involved in poaching, or which of these kids might become poachers themselves, given the right economic circumstances. It’s a vicious cycle, and I find it hard to blame the local Kenyans hired to kill elephants for ivory, none of whom are the main beneficiaries of the wealth that comes from those tusks. (Watch the mudhole scene here.) On our way back to the compound, we pass a jeep with six rangers, all armed with machine guns, just another reminder that we are not in Disneyland and the elephants here are not necessarily safe.

Later in the afternoon, back at the stockade watching the young ones coming back in, I ask Benjamin if any keeper has ever been hurt by an elephant, and he says no. Elephants always announce their intent before charging, he says. And the keepers learn each of their vocal mannerisms so they can tell if an elephant is expressing pleasure or displeasure. Elephants, he adds, are smart and observant enough to know which humans to trust and which to avoid. Obviously, they trust this man.

Wiva is a wild elephant born of Wendi, a Sheldrick orphan who returned to the wild.

A group of twelve comes walking in, a reddish stain running along parts of their backs. Six head right into the stockade for their bottles, and the keepers direct the others, probably ex-orphans, out to the water holes. I spend some time just watching one of them drink. I love the way the trunk can just suck up water and then deposit it in her mouth or anywhere else she wishes. One of the keepers says that larger elephants can take in up to five liters of water at a time into their trunks. He sucks the liquid into his trunk, then lets it rise above him, drops it into his mouth and then dips back down into the water. Very elegant.

Besides the milk formula and acacia bark, pellets form a big part of the orphan diet. I think they’re made of alfalfa, too, and they seem to be the same or similar to the ones we let the giraffes take out of our mouths or that horses eat in the states. The elephants love these little pellets. I spent a lot of time just watching them eat every last one they can get their trunk on. It’s time-consuming to keep grabbing one or two at a time, but they don’t seem to mind. This afternoon, one orphan moves quickly to chase another one off some pellets – she isn’t nice about this – before a keeper brings calm to the situation. God, do these ellies love their pellets. Watch as two argue over them.

And as I’m caught up watching one of them scrounge up the pellets, another one outside the compound comes up behind me waving his trunk. The others warn me of his approach, but I’m standing right next to a road grader, and with two steps I’m behind it in time to get a movie of the waving trunk before a keeper comes up and restores order by moving him toward the water hole. Hard to say for sure, but he seems a little pissed.

Later, the wild elephants move away from the water hole, and a lone baboon and a couple of warthogs take their turns, watching carefully and purposely in all directions each time before dipping their heads into the hole.

I wind up sitting and talking with Mondaii and Geoffrey about Trump – they can’t believe him, either — and about how much they want to come to America. Mondaii would like to see his youngest daughter, now five, have the chance to be educated here. Geoffrey doesn’t have a specific reason, but he wants to see what America is all about. Most of what they know is what they see on television.

On our way back to dinner, Mondaii drives us over to the water hole, where a couple of wild elephants are throwing water and mud over themselves as the sun is setting. It’s completely quiet, the only sound is the water falling around their shoulders in the fading light. A warthog behind them on the far shore completes the picture.

As we sit up on the balcony looking over Tsavo East with a glass of Amarula, it’s dawning on me the scope of what we are seeing. What a day.

Our stay at Ithumba continues here. Watch more videos of the elephants here.

June 21, 2017   1 Comment

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 5: A Week with Elephants

Saturday, June 25
Umani Springs Camp
Chyulu Hills National Park

We wake up at 6:20 a.m., too late to make the early elephant visit – and the only one we miss all week. Happy to report that Billie is feeling better. At breakfast, everyone says that the morning visit had a completely different vibe from yesterday, when the animals were friendly and quiet. The wild elephants in the forest visited the stockade last night, which apparently upset the matriarchs. Two females, Sonje and Murera, have become matrons to Mwashoti, and as soon as they were let out of their enclosures, they bolted to the young one, flaring ears and letting everyone know of their concerns.

The Umani facility is for elephants with special needs. Several, like Mwashoti, have been caught in snares, which limits their ability to stand up. One leg down makes it more difficult, but the Trust is still hopeful these elephants will someday return to the wild. After watching a video of the snare wound that Mwashoti endured just a few short months ago, it is amazing to see that this vicious wound is hardly visible except in a limp by now.

Elephants love their mudbaths.

We’re out for the 11 a.m. feeding and mudbath. Watching the orphans’ enthusiasm is just as exciting as yesterday, and I get that overwhelming feeling of great joy as they begin to accelerate to make it to their bottles of milk and the way they noisily make their way through the five liters and get a second. Though I have seen this before on YouTube and yesterday in the flesh, it’s still something that makes me so infinitely happy. And alternately, very sad since when these guys and girls get back into the wild, they might be hunted for their tusks, which become more prominent each and every day. One of them trumpets just before getting his bottle, and the unthrottled roar pierces the quiet. It is magnificent. (Watch this scene here.)

Researcher Joyce Poole writes of elephant trumpets: “The sound quality is highly variable and might be described as squealing like a pig, screeching, roaring, shouting, yelling, crying, and even crowing like a rooster.” (Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, p. 83) This one sounds like the squealing pig. We will hear many of the others throughout the week.

On the way back we pass the cement pond and finally spot the crocodile, a small fellow, who’s sunning himself along the edge. He slides into the murky water before we can get very close, but Angel got a photo that authenticates that it is not a monitor lizard. Our question has been answered over lunch today, the Kenyan version of pizza, with a crisp crust.

Geoffrey and Mondaii are worried about tsetse flies being around in the area of a planned nature walk, which would have gone up another side of the large hill where we went last night for the Sundowner, so that is cancelled, and we all spend some down time in the afternoon. At one point, I’m kinda lethargic in my swing. Idly scanning the mud hole area with binoculars, I spot Julia trying to get cell service. Nodding off, I wake up and, scanning the area again, see the big baboon we keep hearing at exactly the same spot. I wonder, “WTF,” before finding out Julia is now sitting nearby and fine.

Sometimes elephants can just be ... funny!

The 5pm feeding is great fun, and I get some videos of the gang arriving, and spend some time talking with Philip, the head keeper, about the animals here. As several of us are filming a group coming in, a baboon brouhaha takes place in the forest close to us. It’s really loud and sounds vicious and spiteful and nasty. With baboons, we find out, you never really know. As someone mentions, baboons will squabble about anything.

At one point, we allow the ellies to pick up pellets from our open hands, which gives you a sense of the power of the trunk, which has two main lobes, those “fingers” inside. I never tire of watching them incorporate these appendages, which they use much the same way we use hands and arms. Not as efficient, perhaps, but they have learned how to make the most of them. And maybe, they are more efficient than ours.

At the Sundowner everybody talks about their favorite moments of the day while we watch the mongooses and bush babies and the genet grab their snacks in front of the lights. I find out later reading Dame Sheldrick’s book that feeding these animals is a kind of tradition here – they do a similar thing at Ithumba.

Dinner includes some great mushroom cream soup. (A note about Kenyan soups. We are served cream soup every day, generally some kind of veggie turned into cream, and it’s always yummy.) Today’s menu includes pork spareribs and more of those fresh, crispy veggies, as always, exquisitely prepared. We find out there is a national school for safari chefs, which is not so surprising, since safari is a big source of income for the country and its citizens. Afterwards, we are all singing again before we retire, the three songs Mondaii is teaching us, especially “Jambo Bwana.”

The flashlights appear again as we begin to walk to our lodges. It’s so wonderful to be so well taken care of, and we are sad that we must leave Peter and Lefty and the others tomorrow, but happy to continue our journey with Geoffrey and Mondaii in the drivers’ seats of the Land Rovers.

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

June 21, 2017   1 Comment

Jambo Bwana 1: A Week With Elephants

Oh papa, don’t you say I can’t
I just want to see the elephant

-James McMurtry

Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Karen Blixen Cottages
Nairobi, Kenya

It is overcast and a light rain is falling as we arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. It’s 6am local time. Stumbling off the plane, I see Robert is there holding the Bustani Safari sign, and though we are dead tired, confused and jet-lagged, he shepherds us through customs, and we sign some forms, hand over our cash and obtain our Kenyan visas without hassle. We hook up with Nancy King, one of the six other members of our tour group who was on our flight and is also spending the first two nights at Karen Blixen Cottages. It’s misty and grey, but the breeze is warm as we step outside the main terminal to wait for the car that will take us to the hotel. It’s winter in Kenya.

Stanley, a smiling, 30-ish Kenyan with dreadlocks partially covered with a safari hat, is our driver, and we pepper him with questions as he patiently negotiates the intense lines of traffic on the four-lane boulevard in and out of the airport. It reminds me of the congestion in Denver and Boulder except that in Kenya, a former British colony, they drive “on the wrong side of the road.”

Actually, in Kenya, they drive everywhere. There are no middle lines or shoulders, and cars, trucks and motorcycles are turning in front of each other and switching lanes, much as we do here, only backwards. It’s really crowded, and some vehicles pull out behind us, drive slowly past us on the non-existent shoulder and then pull back in front of us. Drivers taking incredible chances to get one car ahead. Motorcycles are dashing in and out of traffic from all directions. Just chaos. But somewhat amazingly, even though people are doing irrational things, nobody is honking. Stanley is the personification of driving patience.

To our left, just outside the craziness of the vehicle traffic, we get quick glimpses of Nairobi National Park in the gloomy mist. I have imagined, in my almost total ignorance, that this 43-square-mile national park, Kenya’s oldest, established in 1946 and located just a few kilometers from the city center, would be a jungle. Of course, it is nothing of the sort. It is a savannah, a grassy plain with a few trees, and the mist and the fence make it look even more exotic. Nairobi guidebooks say there are more than 400 species, buffalos, giraffes, lions, leopards, baboons, zebra, wildebeest and cheetah, out there in the grassland gloom, and they showcase dazzling photos of giraffes silhouetted against skyscrapers. But we see neither buildings nor animals this misty morning.

Somewhere in the park, just two and a half months ago, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to huge pyres, turning a total of 105 tons of elephant ivory, 1.35 tons of rhino horn, exotic animal skins and other products such as sandalwood and medicinal bark into billowing smoke and ash, an in-your-face protest against ivory poaching, which is threatening the wild future of both elephants and rhinos. Ten percent of the entire world’s supply of ivory was torched that day, the fourth such event in Kenya since 1989. Kenya is serious about ending the murder of elephants for their ivory.

Stanley is explaining that sometimes giraffes and lions come up to the fence along the road. Recently, he added, a lion made it across all four lanes of this airport highway and into the city. It’s not an uncommon event. We see no wild animals, but we do notice large numbers of pedestrians walking along muddy paths on the sides of the road and crowding the occasional pedestrian overpass. Sidewalks are non-existent. Mostly, there are just paths worn down through the shoulder weeds. Sidney says that people are going to work.

It takes about 45 minutes to reach the Karen Blixen cottages, a small group of one-story duplexes in a lush, tropical setting. The cottages are located in the midst of one of the oldest formal gardens in Kenya, once part of Blixen’s huge estate, and the grounds are thick with well-established, huge jacaranda, candelabra, cactus, bottlebrush and other trees.

This was just outside our suite at Karen Blixen cottages.

Just before we walk in, I notice a wonderful statue of an eagle on the surface of a tiny pond in front of our suite. Inside, there is a gift bag on the bed for each of us from Bustani Safari, our Kenyan shepherds/hosts for the week, that includes bottle openers, small flashlights and safari hats for each of us and a card welcoming us to Kenya and the cottages. A nice way to start to unwind and get ready for this adventure.

The Karen Blixen Cottages guidebook tells us they were designed after the Swedo House, a hunting lodge built around the turn of the 20th century on the property, and each duplex features Scandinavian-style hi-beam ceilings and fireplaces and stone floors, indicative of the early structures built by Europeans who settled in Kenya.

The Karen Blixen Cottages were a wonderful place to land after a series of cattle-car flights to Kenya.

As we check out the place, Billie notices lots of photos and paintings of cheetahs on the walls, and indeed, we find that we are staying in the Cheetah Suite. We stow our gear, and notice that breakfast is still being served on the grounds in an open-air area with a roof. We stroll down and are treated to an omelette with sausage on the side and a table with all kinds of breakfast goodies, including an abundant fruit plate that has fresh papaya and mango slices, two of my favorite foods, among the offerings.

Soon we are eating and talking with Nancy and admiring the gargantuan plants on the cottage grounds. It’s like they’re on steroids. It’s misty and cloudy but nice, but there are a few well-placed portable fire pits that are moved around to ward off the chill. Much-needed showers in our beautifully tiled bathroom, and then we sleep.

Waking up in early afternoon, we are confused. We join Nancy and meet Renae and Angel, two other members of our eight-person safari, and as we’re all walking up to the main building talking about this, we run into Jambi.

It’s one of the best moments of the trip. Here is the person with whom we have been corresponding by e-mail for months, our safari contact on the Kenya side, and she immediately eases any and all of our concerns. We come up with a plan for the afternoon and evening. Her smile and demeanor are instantly comforting, and from that moment, I completely trust Jambi, which turns out to be the right thing to do. All we have to do for the rest of the trip is show up.

This is what all the roads we traveled in Karen were like. No shoulders, narrow pavement and people walking in the dirt along the side of the roads.

Brian, another likeable young Kenyan driver, is there with Jambi, and we head off to exchange money and visit the Karen Blixen house, now a museum, where we spend about an hour touring the grounds. The home is in wonderful shape, and it includes many of the personal items and furniture that Blixen brought with her.

Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen, a Danish baroness and author, is best-known for Out of Africa, a memoir of her time in Kenya, where she lived, running a coffee plantation here beginning in 1912. The autobiography, especially her affair with Denys Finch Hatton, was featured in a film of the same name that starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

Inside her home were lots of personal items Dinesen brought with her to Kenya.

At one point, we see, neatly folded on a hangar in a closet, the actual trousers that Robert Redford donned in his role as Hatton in Out of Africa. We know this, because, as it turns out, Nancy’s husband teaches tennis, and Redford plays at the same club and they are good friends. Nancy had found out that the trousers were here, and when she told Redford, he couldn’t believe it. There is no photography allowed, but when she asks for an exception to get a shot of the pants for Robert Redford himself, the guide acquiesces, watching the door to make sure nobody sees her taking the photo. It’s a funny moment, one that will never go viral on Facebook or Twitter.

Then we hit Utamaduni Craft Centre, a cool, local marketplace nearby with a dizzying array of small, high-ceilinged rooms filled with artists’ work, clothes, trinkets, books and souvenirs of all kinds. I manage to grab a guidebook for the animals of east Africa, which I figure might come in handy, but I lose it in my luggage and never find it again until we get back home.

It’s been misty and grey all day, and I’m thinking we are going to need the rain gear we brought. The drivers are all complaining about the “cold.” Located just below the equator, Nairobi’s winter season feels almost exactly the same as the late spring/early summer weather we just left Boulder on Sunday. Highs in the 70s, lows in the 50s. Nice. Winter.

By late afternoon we have driven all around Karen, a suburb of Nairobi which is on the higher end of the city’s economic scale, though it wouldn’t be considered that here. Some say Karen is named after Blixen because much of the area was once part of her coffee plantation, but there is some disagreement about that assertion that’s not worth getting into here. The dominant color is green, the vegetation varied, thick, dense, moist and pungent.

We see a lot of semi-modern apartment buildings, and many of the private residences and properties are large, and all share high stone walls with barbed wire strewn across the top. Almost all businesses and apartments have gates and gatekeepers. Dozens of tiny, make-shift businesses in tin-roofed shacks line the main intersections, where you can buy everything from fast food to cell-phone accessories during the day.

We pass the famous children’s orphanage and a hospital that Jambi says is pretty high quality for Nairobi, but we also see people walking everywhere along the sides of the road. A line of motorcylists crowds the corners of every major intersection and little shopping areas at cross streets looking for riders.

Brian tells us they are boda boda, motorcycle taxis common in east African cities like Nairobi that have sprang up as alternatives to Uber and Lyft for Kenyans. The Chinese have invested in cheap, rather garish-looking motorcycles and selling them at low prices on credit to Kenyans, and like cannabis in Colorado, it’s given young people another way to make a living and, he says, a way to show off for their friends and girls, too. The motorcycle carriage business is also, for the most part, unregulated, and traffic accidents involving boda bodas are reportedly on the increase. We saw some that seemed to be carrying enormous, off-balance loads on that back, others that had girlfriends hanging on to the driver for dear life as they darted in and out of traffic. Babe magnets, those motorcycles.

There isn’t much speeding because the roads are so clogged, and it’s difficult to go very fast. Quite often, especially around schools and public buildings, there are really hard-assed speed bumps. These aren’t the kind like in Boulder meant to slow traffic in neighborhoods that most cars can glide over at 10 or 15 mph without much trouble. These force you to a complete stop and then a gentle plop over before starting up again. There are three or four bumps every 50 feet to negotiate in some places, like the hospital, which slows everybody down considerably.

The infrastructure is especially primitive. If you think right-sizing Folsom Street in Boulder was a nightmare, you wouldn’t believe Nairobi. In neighborhoods, there are only two-lane roads, no paved shoulders, nary a bike lane in sight, and we never saw a stop light and just a few stop signs in Karen. This means cars and trucks and garish motorbikes and bicycles are crossing in front of one another in outrageous ways, especially at the many roundabouts and intersections.

But again, this insanity goes on without the frenzy or indignation of Highway 36 commuters, and our drivers show a restraint that I immediately feel I should emulate when I get home instead of getting frustrated and screaming in traffic. Not once do any of the Bustani drivers show any propensity for irritation or annoyance.

And we get into the first of many conversations about the Chinese influence here. Besides motorbikes, China is invested heavily in Africa, building roads and even a major railroad that will link Mombasa, the country’s second-largest city on the Indian Ocean south and east of Nairobi, with the capital. (Later in the trip we will see parts of this ginormous construction project.) The country is investing in, to environmentalists’ consternation, Kenya’s first coal plant. China does $200 billion in trade annually with Africa, and many people, including all Kenyans we talk with about it, are very skeptical and afraid of China’s pledge not to interfere in politics or internal affairs. For them, it’s like the 21st-century Chinese version of The Ugly American.

We stop for a bite to eat after driving around all afternoon in the Blixen Cottage bar, where I get a smoked-salmon appetizer and Nancy and I enjoy our first Tusker, a Kenyan pilsner stronger than but much like Beck’s or Heineken, and perfect for my beer palate—Billie got me a Tusker t-shirt at Utamaduni. Though it is chilly – it’s winter, remember — there are those little portable coal pits that staff keeps moving around that keep things quite comfortable. I think I’m going to like it here.

The Karen Blixen Cottages were once part of Dinesen's huge gardens.

We freshen up, do a little internet through the Blixen Cottage server, which is slow enough to remind of the days when you twiddled your thumbs waiting for the dial-up to happen, before Brian picks us up for dinner at Jambi and Peter’s house. They are an interesting couple. He’s American, just a couple months older than me and retired; she is Kenyan, from an old family near here, and they live in Berkeley half the year and spend the other half here in Nairobi, where they run Bustani Safari, among other things.

We all have a great time talking and eating in an outside area just off the main house with colorful banners on the ceiling. All our safari companions are here together for the first time, and we get acquainted with Lois, our host, and the other members of our group, too. A chef has prepared lots of steaming, wonderful Kenyan dishes, a kind of first-class introduction to what we’ll be eating all week, but I’m still too jet-lagged to fully appreciate the feast.

Still, we are all sitting on couches in this little outdoor area decorated with large, colorful quilts. The air is chilly, but a firetender in one corner stuffs an oven with branches that helps keep us all clear of the chill. I’m listening to Peter explain why he, like everyone else who can afford it, has a large water tower just opposite the house. He explains that the city only supplies water from a line on their street once a week, so each residence has to have a water tank to store its water, a precious commodity that we take somewhat for granted in Boulder. And meeting their five dogs briefly is a real treat before Brian drives us back. We’re in bed early, my dreams of jet lag and confusion amidst gigantic plants in lush gardens.

Part Two continues here. Watch videos of our elephant journey here.

June 21, 2017   No Comments