Kenya 6/24/06 - Amboseli Game Drives and Bush Walk

We woke up at 5 am and showered. We met Patrick and James in the lobby. There was a seating area and a patio overlooking thr grounds in the rear of the lodge. We went out onto the patio and served ourselves some coffee at 6:15. There was a plexi-glass cover over some breakfast cakes, and we were soon to find out why. We saw our first resident vervet monkey on the patio trying to steal some food. They are rather small monkeys, maybe 20 inches tall and have a black face. They are very cute. They are afraid of the employees but take advantage of the tourists. We looked forward to seeing some more of them in action later.

We headed to the vehicle at 6:30 for our first Amboseli game drive. We saw some common waterbuck, which can be identified by the "target" or "toilet seat" pattern on their butts. We were awestruck when we saw a large elephant in front of the rising sun. Patrick estimated that it was probably 40 years old. He told us they can normally live to 60. It was a tremendous sight as he passed right in front of the vehicle. He was so massive, yet we couldn't even hear its footfalls. Grace is not a quality I generally associate with elephants, but this was surreal. The elephant dusted itself to try to get rid of ticks. They also rub against trees to dislodge ticks. They strip the bark, and as they repeatedly rub against the tree, the tree eventually weakens and falls. We saw a large group of wildebeest, and several of the adults were squared off fighting with each other. We could see Mt. Kilimanjaro clearly in the distance, and its snow capped peak was glistening in the sun. We saw a group of elephants (baby included) walking along with egrets at their feet. Everywhere we looked we were fascinated.

The soil at Amboseli is very alkaline, which contributes to the very different vegetation we were seeing here compared to on the Mara. We saw an African fish eagle, which is the closest relative to the bald eagle, and the very photogenic crested crane (the national bird of Uganda), which looks like it has a Mohawk. We took a photo of a black-headed heron. Patrick dispelled the myth of an elephant cemetery when we came across a (huge) elephant skull. "They die anywhere, and stay dead," he said. He talked about how giraffes walk one side at a time, i.e. their left front and rear feet take a step simultaneously, and then their right front and hind feet take a step. This is contrary to the way that most mammals walk.

We saw some young wildebeest. Patrick says that they are born in February and March. He explained how stupid wildbeest are. He explained that they will continue to approach a lion even after it has killed one of their own. He had a rather amusing way of talking like he was a wildebeest. "Oh, I wonder what happened to him. Maybe I should go find out." We saw a hot air balloon way in the distance. Patrick said that it's the first time he's seen one in Amboseli. There is no ballooning in national parks (national reservations only, of which Maasai Mara is technically one). We got a photo of some Egyptian geese. Then a serval cat crossed the road. It is a small nocturnal cat that eats the eggs of ground birds. We didn't manage to get a photo, but we watched him run into the brush. They are very rarely seen in the daytime, and we considered ourselves quite lucky.

We saw a snake eagle and a white bellied bustard. From a distance we saw some nocturnal bat-eared foxes. Their pointy ears were about all we could see from that distance. Patrick tells us there are about 1200 elephants in Amboseli. We saw some females in estrus (you can tell because the glands between their eyes and ears leak). We headed back to the lodge. As we got out of the car, I took a photo of a vervet monkey and its baby. When Patrick was distracted they ran up onto the truck and tried to enter through the open roof. They sure are mischevious! Patrick scared them away and quickly closed up the vehicle.

Patrick, James, Craig, and I ate breakfast together. It was a nice buffet. Craig was cut in line at the omelette station by an old lady who then didn't even like her omelette and refused to eat it. He eventually came back to the table with an omelette. We both had orange juice and bacon. I had crepes, cereal, and strawberry yoghurt. Craig had a local donut called "mahamri," and we had some fruit and cheese. Once again it was a very filling breakfast but I tried to keep careful in what I chose. We headed back to the room to get our hiking boots. There were monkeys everywhere - on the walkways and the roofs. They were all raising hell jumping from tree to tree and running around, but they were extremely cute. We wondered how often they get inside the rooms while housekeeping is cleaning them.

We met in the lobby at 10:30 for a nature walk, which was led by the lodge naturalist, Julius. For protection, we were also accompanied by a Maasai named Saitoti who was brandishing a spear and an ebony club. James accompanied us as well, but Patrick stayed behind. Serena Lodge has a park concession where they are able to provide escorted walking safaris. I just couldn't resist and took a picture of Craig and Julius just beyond the "Caution: Animals only beyond this point" sign. We were heading out of the electrified fence, so we could meet up with potentially dangerous animals. Julius told us that Amboseli is a World Biosphere site and that it gets 12" of rain per year (April/May and November/December) but has swamplands that are perpetually fed by Kilimanjaro's glaciers. Amboseli translates to "dusty country", and in other seasons it can be quite dusty. Today was an overcast day, which was perfect for our walk, particularly since I was really hoping that I would feel better and regain my appetite today.

Julius told us that acacias are actually legumes. We saw the devil's horsewhip plant, and the mendocino, whose fruits have antiseptic properties and whose roots are used for dental care. We saw the datura (trumpet). The whole plant is poisonous, but some of it is useful in curing epilepsy (though the price of an overdose is death). We saw a flower called something like "astrichoria" (I can't find the spelling anywhere), which resembles a morning glory. The white flowers are usually found in northern Kenya. But as the south gets dryer, it is migrating southwards, overtaking the grass on which animals graze. We saw a gigantic elephant footprint in the dusty ground. Julius identified it as a front footprint because it is more round than oblong (the front feet bear more weight because of the weight of the skull and tusks). Elephants have no kneecaps, which we thought was an interesting fact. Not something you tend to think about initially but it made sense when seeing their movements. We saw a dragonfly larva in a small hole in the ground. The hole had been made by an "ant lion", which resembles a very small scorpion. The small hole functions as quicksand and trapping prey into the awaiting mouth.

Kilimanjaro erupted 4 million years ago, and the boulders strewn around this area were scattered about by the blast. It is always fascinating to imagine what it must have been like when all these rocks were launched into the air raining down on the land below. We noticed some hippo dung near the marsh. Julius said that the only way you can distinguish hippo dung from elephant dung is that hippos make a mess and splash their dung around. Apparently there is no surface water between here and Kili. The underground water travels 0.5 km/year. Kili is 50 km away, so the water took about 100 years to get here! If it is wasted, it cannot quickly be replenished. At the same time, there should still be water at Amboseli 100 years after the last of Kili's glaciers melt. Julius told us that baby elephants are susceptible to sunburn, so their parents shade them. This made us think of Zurura, and how his keepers must have to protect him from the sun as well as the cold.

We saw a squirrel darting between the rocks. It had a much smaller tail than the ones we get at home, and in fact looked more like our chipmunks. We saw a pied crow, which is rare to see because it is migratory. We saw a kingfisher, which was a brilliant shade of blue. We saw weavers and their nests swinging from branches in the trees. Julius showed us pictures in the guide book illustrating how much their appearances change during mating season. You wouldn't even know it was the same bird! Its color changes completely and it grows super long tailfeathers. We saw some vervet monkeys in the trees. Julius told us that occasionally they make their way to the lodge (too small to be thwarted by the electric fence) but are always chased out by the territorial resident monkeys at the lodge. Those monkeys know they have a good thing going and don't want to share with outsiders!

There are limestone deposits in the ground, which are mined and taken to Nairobi for cement production. We saw the burrow of a mole rat (blind hairless nocturnal animals who live in colonies). We saw lots of animal tracks, as well as the tracks from the motorcycle-tire sandals of young Maasai. We saw some young Maasai boys grazing their goats and taking them to the water. Elephants and waterbucks know that humans use the area during the day, so they stay away and only come to the water at night. The Maasai respect the wildlife here, and the wildlife respects the Maasai as well. We saw a sacred ibis and could hear a woodpecker. We learned that if giraffes browse for too long, perhaps an hour or two, on thorny acacia branches, the tree emits a chemical that changes its taste. The effects passes from plant to plant changing the taste of all of the surrounding trees. Giraffes will stop eating once the taste changes, and this prevents overbrowsing. Nature really has some fascinating defense mechanisms.

We saw the tracks of young and old elephants. Elephants travel over traditional trails, and their predictability leads to susceptibility to danger from poachers and angry farmers. We saw some hippo tracks where their 4 toes were clearly discernible. Hippos are related to the pig and have similar feet. We saw more weavers' nests on the west side of the trees (the wind blows east to west). The entrances to weavers' nests are on the bottom, to prevent snakes from getting in. As we walked, tons of grasshoppers scattered at our feet. Julius told us that Egrets follow large animals so that they can feast on these displaced insects as the animal walks. We saw several fruit bats roosting in a tree. Unlike the bats that we are used to, these are not nocturnal. As they flew away, we were surprised to see that their wings are yellow. Julius heard a pearl spotted owlet in a large nearby tree. It is a 3-inch owl with markings which resemble false eyes on the back of its head. He was able to spot it with the binoculars and pointed it out to us. It was very cute. We saw a dust devil in the distance. This was becoming a rather common site actually.

We had been told that the walk would last until "around noon", and sure enough, at exactly 11:59, we crossed some small volcanic rock fragments to an area where a driver was waiting for us with a cooler full of drinks. Craig had a Tusker beer and I had a Sprite. The driver (unfortunately we never got his name) was asking a bit about where we are from and what the weather is like at home. We broke out the photo album and showed our location on the map of the U.S. Then we showed him the pictures of our house in snow. He looked at them incredulously. "We couldn't survive there!" he said. Julius wanted to see the pictures as well, so I went through all of them with him. The driver came over and looked over Julius' shoulder. It was really nice, and once again, we enjoyed being able to share a little bit of our home with them, after they had so generously shared theirs with us. Throughout the entire walk, Saitoti had kept a good distance ahead of us, always on the lookout for danger, and not speaking. He even kept separate when we were looking at the photos. He had said hello when we were first introduced, and he said thank you when we tipped him, but that was about it for interaction. We thought perhaps he didn't know English, or just wasn't comfortable with it.

At 12:25, we all took the short drive back to the lodge. Upon our arrival, we were given warm orange-scented towels to clean up before we entered the lobby. We decided to go straight to the room to freshen up and then come back for lunch. Craig tries to collect various bottlecaps from beers around the world, and when he ordered his Tusker, he asked Paul if he would save the cap for him. Paul happily complied and delivered a pristine bottlecap to the table. I still didn't have very much of an appetite, so I just had a small salad with cheese and thousand island dressing. Craig, with plenty of appetite, had cream of lettuce soup and salad. He was surprised he liked the soup as much as he did. Cream of lettuce didn't sound like something he would have really appreciated. For his main course he had beef, turkey, delicious Nile perch, and curry. I was feeling rather jealous again. Craig was enjoying all this different food and I just didn't feel hungry.

We could see the computer from our seats in the dining room. At one point Craig noticed it was free so I left Craig to finish his meal and went to the reception desk to sign up for some internet time. We had so little free time, and the computer was so often occupied, that we decided to take advantage of this somewhat rare opportunity. It was 200 Kenyan shillings per 15 minutes. I immediately started typing up an email to our friends and family. Craig had dessert and got another beer to go, and then joined me. I re-upped our time to a total of 45 minutes, and we finished, and sent, our email.

It was now around 2:30, and we had a little free time before our 4:00 game drive. We went out to the back patio intending to fill out postcards. Two Maasai came up to us and one, looking deeply at us, said "Remember?" I assumed it was Saitoti, though I hadn't really spoken to him or even gotten too good a look at him during our bush walk. "Saitoti?" I asked. He was very pleased I remembered his name. "Mama!" he said in return. He asked if we were tired from the walk. So I guess he speaks English after all. He kept admiring my cheap WalMart watch I had been wearing on the trip. He asked if we had any more of them. He then started talking about how handy it would be for someone who worked at the lodge to have such a watch. It was really cute. He asked where we were from, and we showed him our photos. He enjoyed them. He then brought the conversation back around to the watch. "I really like that watch. Does it have a light?" I finally took the hint and asked if he would like to have our extra watch. He said he would very much like that, and got very excited. I headed back to the room to get the watch.

While I was gone, the hotel's Maasai staff all congregated out behind our building somewhere for a singing and dancing demonstration. When I returned to where Craig was sitting, Saitoti was no longer there. Craig said that as he ran off he'd promised to be right back. A few minutes later, he ran back, apologizing saying he had to go do some work. We gave him the watch and he was really excited. "Does it have a light?" He shaded it in his hands while Craig demonstrated the light. He thanked us and I asked if we could get a photo. He said no problem. He stood next to Craig, and just as I was about to snap the picture, his Maasai friend Peter jumped into the frame on the other side of Craig, giggling. I got all three of them in the picture. Saitoti asked if I wanted to get a photo too. He and Peter stood on opposite sides of me with their arms around my shoulders. Saitoti, fondling his new watch, thanked us again. I sat down and Saitoti slipped a blue beaded bracelet off of his arm and onto mine. This was very special to me. This was right off his arm, not even something extra he had laying around. He asked our names and I gave him one of our travel cards. He asked me to write our mailing address on the back. He couldn't stop thanking us and he said he would see us around again. He left, and we showed our photos to Samaito, another Maasai, and Terry, another employee. Our photos were a big hit with many folks. We were very happy that we brought them along. When Terry saw the picture of my mother, he said "Old Stephanie!" and smiled. At 3:30 we went back to the room to perpare for another game drive. We never did get those postcards written, but that was fine by us.

We met Patrick and James at 4:00. As we exited the gate of the lodge, we saw another dust devil. We saw a herd of buffalo which included a brown calf. We also saw zebras, wildebeest, and elephants dusting themselves. Then all of a sudden, two long-tusked elephants squared off and started to skirmish. You could hear their tusks clash. It was very exciting to witness. We saw a lone buffalo (which Patrick says is more dangerous than a herd). Patrick pointed out the tattered ears on the buffalo. This is its unique identifying characteristic (for cats it is whiskers, and for zebras it is stripes). We saw some feasting hyenas as a bachelor eagle looked on, perhaps hoping for some scraps. As we passed the swamp, we saw elephants in the water. Very often, just their ears and heads were visible. Babies were almost completely submerged. The adults had white egrets riding on their backs. When they get out of the water they appear two-tone because part of them is wet and dark, as opposed to the the light dry part. Out in the swamp we could also see the ears of an underwater hippo. They can stay fully submerged for five minutes at a time. They come out of the water at night but are usually only seen in water during the day. We saw a giraffe and a baby male and female ostrich. We also saw a yellow neck spar fowl.

Elephant during sunrise Amboseli game drive

Sunrise Amboseli game drive

Herd of wildebeest

Mt Kilimanjaro from Amboseli

Craig and Julius. Caution: Animals only beyond this point.

Steph showing photos to Julius and driver

Peter, Craig, and Saitoti

Steph and Saitoti

Elephant dusting itself

Elephants skirmishing



Herd of 52 elephants

As we moved through the various trails between bushes we came across an electrical fence put up to protect acacia seedlings from large game. We drove right under the hanging wires and continued on. We saw another elephant fight in the distance, and some more hippos in the swamp. Patrick told us you never want to get between a hippo and the water. They are vegetarians, but they are not above killing for pleasure. They can also be dangerous when you are canoeing. Craig and I couldn't even imagine coming across a hippo in a canoe. We saw a huge family of elephants in the distance, and after several attempts at counting them we both came up with 52. It was a tremendous site and fascinating to watch so many different elephants hanging out as a giant family. I had severe stomach cramps at this time and they started getting worse. We were a long way from the lodge and I knew I just had to deal with it. What could I do? I tried to ignore them and enjoy the game drive, but that soon became impossible. I looked at Craig in obvious pain, and he made Patrick aware of what was going on. Patrick immediately stopped the vehicle and told me to do what I needed to do. I protested, saying I know that people are not allowed out of their vehicles. Patrick said that this was ridiculous, and that I needed to take care of myself. He told me to stay on the road, and go to the bathroom behind the truck. This just seemed wrong to me (we were in a national park, for goodness sake!) but there was no way that I was going to be able to make it back to the lodge, so I got out emergency supplies from my bag and hopped out of the vehicle. I hid behind the vehicle and did what I needed to do, while being watched by a herd of 52 elephants on one side of the dirt road, and a wildebeest of the other side. It was a humbling experience. I packed everything up in a plastic bag, and got back into the vehicle, feeling rather embarrassed. But hey, what can you do? Patrick and James were very matter-of-fact about it. I think that is definitely a cultural difference. Patrick was disappointed that I had suffered for so long with the cramps without saying anything. I just really hadn't thought I had the option. He insisted that I needed to take care of myself and do whatever was necessary. That it was a very natural thing.

We saw some wildebeest and another African fish eagle. Craig took some great photos of elephants silhouetted against the sunset. At this point I was still physically feeling pretty miserable and I wondered what might happen next. Minutes later, I got sick out the side of the car again. Patrick offered to take me to a doctor if that was what we wanted. We were asking if he really thought that was necessary or if he was simply offering whatever we wanted. He said that frankly, all they would do would be to give me Cipro, which I was now already taking. We agreed that there was really no point to this, but I appreciated the fact that Patrick offered it as an option. Patrick thought that this was my body's reaction to trying to hold it too long.

It was getting dark as the sun had set so we drove back to the lodge and went back to the room. I, almost immediately, got sick several more times. Craig comforted me for a while but I insisted that he go to dinner with Patrick and James. There was also the possibility that the president of the Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition might be joining them for dinner tonight. Eventually, Craig left for the dining room at 7:30. I took some medicine, drank plenty of water, rested, and wrote in the journal when I was feeling better.

Craig ate dinner with James and Patrick. Craig was told the MERC president was stuck in Nairobi and couldn't make it after all. Unlike the other meals, dinner was a buffet out on the patio. There was a lot of traditional East African food, much like what Patrick says he eats at home. Craig filled his plate with traditional food: ugali (maize meal cake), irio (veggies, maize, and potatoes mashed together), githeri (fried maize and beans), goat stew, beef, goat, and chicken barbecue. Patrick said that he was impressed that Craig cleaned his entire plate and truly enjoyed everything he ate. They talked over plans for tomorrow's Maasai village visit, which we were expecting to be one of the highlights of this already fantastic trip. We were all hoping that by me resting tonight, I would be well enough to visit the village tomorrow. Maasai singers and dancers paraded through the dining area and then back outside again. Craig didn't get a good chance to see them but James assured him that the singing and dancing in the village tomorrow would be much more enthusiatic. This must have been around 9:00, because I could hear the singing from my room. When I finished with the journal and laid down to try to sleep, it was nice hearing the music. I felt part of the festivities even though I had confined myself to the room for the evening.

At 9:45, Craig returned to the room and told me all that had gone on. Paul, the maitre d'/waiter, had been worried by my absence and asked, "Where is madame?" When he found out that I was still feeling a bit sick, he offered to send something to the room for me. Craig thanked him, but said that I was resting and that he would probably bring back some rolls and crackers for me when he returned to the room. The next thing he knew, Paul appeared at the table with a plate containing two nice rolls and four dry crackers. It was nicely covered in plastic wrap to help keep eveything fresh. What a sweetheart! When he presented it to Craig, he asked if it would be enough. Craig knew it would be more than enough and thanked him profusely. On his walk back to the room, Craig snapped a cute photo of a vervet monkey with a baby clinging to its stomach. He showed me the really cute picture, which cheered me up. The plan for the morning was another game drive. Craig and I discussed this, and we both decided that it would probably be best if I would skip the game drive and sleep in. We agreed that the Maasai village visit was too important for me to jeopardize by pushing myself too hard. As much as I hated to miss any activities on the trip, we felt that it was the safest thing to do to ensure that the village visit went off without a hitch. We both went to sleep at about 10:30.

Elephant at sunset

Sunset at Amboseli

Vervet monkey and baby

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