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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