Day 4: Julie’s Awesomest Birthday Part 2: “Safari is FULL of surprises!”

After, what I like to call, elephantopia we headed back to our lodge for lunch and some so far rare unstructured free time. The birthday girl decided to put on her sexy birthday dress and then we went to lunch.

Another note about the food; in addition to having options that are presumed to be desired by westerners they always managed to have a few local dishes mixed into the buffet at every meal. Today’s lunch included a delicious massala with a nice curry and rice and I was in African food heaven. The more traditional dishes here were more or less a pleasant cross of Indian food with Ethiopian food and that made me a happy camper. A happy, stuffed camper so after lunch we dipped our feet in the pool, had a pop then I wandered around taking pictures of all the lizards hanging around the lodge. The majority of these are Agama lizards and skinks which seemed to be hunting the millions of tiny butterflies that were massing on the bushes all around. Agamas run in troops with a big male (blue with orange head) and a lot of speckled females running all around. Here, take a look…

A nice relaxing afternoon and one of the few days we were actually hot in Africa, nice dry heat peaking at about 85 degrees F. I can only imagine what summer would be like there. Also worth noting that we saw nary a mosquito here as we kept applying our fancy insect repellant seemingly for no reason. Anyhow, it was now time for our evening game drive which we were looking forward to but I remember feeling that they weren’t going to find anything that would top the elephants earlier. No fucking way. So, soon after embarking I joyously was able to tick off another animal from my stupid top ten list as we saw a Secretary Bird! (*We actually saw one during the first game drive but it was further away so the second time was the charm as this one was closer thus better pics!)

These are really larger predator birds that primarily hunt reptiles. They run, they fly and stand just about 4 or 5 feet tall. And they rule! Nice, not as thrilling as 17,624 elephants in a river but I’ll take it. I mean, what more do we need to see this day anyhow? Oh, I know, how about our first lions!
This one is in the gallery that scrolls in the top of this blog and is easily one of my best pictures from the entire trip. As soon as I took it I knew I taken my best pic and even momentarily fretted that I may never take a better picture. And that is just one of these three ladies who, not only were hanging out together watching for food but were doing so in a tree. It’s said that it’s very rare to see lions actually in a tree so enjoy these pictures of lions, sitting in a tree then making their way across the Samburu wild.
It was during this game drive that Tony uttered what would become one of his signature catch-phrases for the trip, “Safari is FULL of surprises!” Which I wish I got a video of him saying this as part of the charm was how he said it, both in accent and in enthusiasm. And, he was right, safari truly is full of surprises as almost every trip yielded something. Sure, there were a few dud drives here and there and on those occasions Tony would compare safari to fishing, sometimes the fishing is good and you get a big catch sometimes fishing isn’t so good. June 21, 2012 in Samburu was an incredibly good fishing day.
While we followed the lions a bit we plunged through a dry river bed and actually got the van stuck in the sand. So, Tony had to get out and try to dig out while he waited  for another van from our group to come by and pull us out. He would not let us get out of the vehicle though as we really weren’t all that far away from our new lion friends. While lions have no issue with the vans driving around them, in fact they barely seem to notice them, they said it might be a different story if we got out to say hi to them in person. We got lucky though as a range rover from another lodge came by and plowed right by us and hooked our van to the back and pulled us out. While that driver worked with Tony to hook us up to his rover we met the couple on that safari, a nice French couple who appeared to be on their own personal safari. I literally bid them adieu and said, “merci boqu” after their driver pulled us out of the river bed. Then I had Sampson pour us a spot of tea and chucked at all the commoners. Julie and I also managed to get a couple of really nice pics of the river bed.
Then we found our lions again and here is where I got the awesomest lion shot ever posted before as well as some nice scenic shots like this.
As you can see, they paid no mind to the vans and we able to get right up close. You also might notice from these pictures that it was getting late and so as the sun was setting we made our way back to the lodge for dinner. This won’t be the last we will see of those 3 fine lady lions as they come back for a cameo in Day 5′s post. It’s also worth mentioning that Tony was feeling much better by this game drive and I feel we all really started bonding with him as he asked us what we thought about Osama Bin Laden’s death and Obama’s leadership in general. He is quite pro-Obama and was particularly happy that he had been killed. So far, when Obama comes up the sense is that they really like him though there could be a touch of pandering involved here as, at the end of the day, we are tourists and they will go out of our way to make us feel comfortable. That said, Sammi did mention later that he likes to figure out if Americans are pro-Obama or not as he has had some Americans who were not and it was a little awkward for him.
Now, can you think of many better ways to spend your birthday? I mean, we saw SO many awesome things in just this single day that it melts the mind a little. What more could you ask for? I had worried a touch that since we had been so overwhelmed with preparations for this trip that I hadn’t spent much thought on what I would do for Julie for her birthday. I took her to the lodge gift store and offered to buy her a present but there wasn’t anything she was too excited about and frankly I think she was contented just to have had the day we had. So,onto dinner where we discovered that safari is truly FULL of surprises…
WOW! This is a birthday that cannot be topped. A little awkward as we were unfamiliar with the birthday etiquette such as waiting for them to finish the song before blowing out the candles as it turns out they keep singing until you blow out the candles. THEN you are supposed to cut the cake for your friends, diagonally at that, But no matter it was a beautiful moment, we laughed, we cried, it became a part of us.
There was also a bit of controversy just before the birthday celebration as Sammi had told us that we now had a new option for the next day to visit a Samburu village, which was not on our itinerary and would cost us each an additional $10. This lit off a little scrutiny from some of the others as there was concern that this might become a regular occurrence, “Oh, we actually need more tip money!” or “Here’s new surprise, it’ll cost extra, but only a little.” We hadn’t quite felt out Sammi just yet and he our group of fat Americans so there was a little communication breakdown that made things tense for a moment. fortunately, it worked out for the best and we all voted to go to the Samburu village after all. Sammi was relieved and mentioned to me that it’s important to him to see that this trip is special for all of us and he truly likes surprises and thinks it wouldn’t be a good trip without it.
It was Sammi who made sure to have a birthday celebration for Julie as he checks for that sort of thing in the itinerary and when I profusely thanked him later on he told me that he needs us to see that Kenya is a beautiful country, that visiting Kenya is an amazing experience and that there is nothing to fear. He truly wanted each of us to go home and tell everyone we know that they need to visit Kenya and, naturally, hire Vintage Africa Tours to guide them. He wasn’t just making a buck, he wasn’t scamming, he earnestly wanted us to have the time of our lives and did everything in his power to see that happen. Whether it was done by the places we stayed the people who worked at them or by making sure he listened to us and pay attention to what animals we hoped to see. he even bought Julie several post cards of animals he heard she and I wanted to see and had everyone sign them as her birthday card. He also got them stamped at the Lodge, Giraffe Center, Karen Blixen Museum, etc. Sammi was awesome.
Next up, Day 5 where we visit a Samburu village and another of my top ten animals I hoped to see gets ticked off the list!

Day 4: Julie’s awesomest birthday! Part 1

After a very long day on June 20th, right around dusk, we finally arrived in what we would soon learn is a very magical place, Samburu. Soon after passing through the gate into the reserve we encountered our first elephants!

Which was AWESOME!

So, Tony pulled over and gave us a minute to excitedly grab some pictures. Little did we know this was only the beginning…Despite our exhaustion from spending something like 6 to 8 hours on the road after all the previous days flights we had our third, maybe fourth wind, inspired by these elephants. We also saw our first ostrich and a group or oryx.

The roads in Samburu are more typical for Kenya as they were essentially bumpy, windy, dusty, dirt roads. It was our first taste of the adventure to come and we were excitedly snapping pictures right up to when it got dark. It was then that we pulled into the Samburu Sopa Lodge which turned out to be waaaaaaay cooler than we had expected. We were greeted at the lobby entrance with hot towels and water which we didn’t realize we badly needed until we started wiping the dust off our faces. The place is simply a beautiful, welcoming lodge where we were split into pairs and given a hut to sleep in. You can visit their official gallery here; there are several places I will highly recommend staying from this trip and this lodge is definitely one of them.

We were also exhausted and so after some crabby regrouping with the management as to who was staying with who we we’re off to our huts to get settled in for a minute, put our stuff down, then we came right back for our first meal at the Sopa Lodge. I will probably bring up the food many times in the next few posts as this place had excellent chefs with a buffet for every meal. It was decadent; I finally had ugali (not bad, kind of plain, but not bad at all, kind of like polenta), some pork tenderloin, a delightful massala and kales. I was giddy! After dinner I enjoyed my first bottle of Tusker! Which I stupidly exclaimed, “Tusker, it’s Australian for Kenya.” in a bad Australian accent*

*Note: Tusker is a decent, smooth, somewhat sweet beer brewed only in Kenya and has absolutely nothing to do with Australia.

** ‘Nother note: This post, and the next one, will line up best with this post from the pre-travel section of this blog for those who have nothing better to do.

June 21st, 2012. Julie’s birthday! And so it was. I think this was our first nearly complete night of sleep on the trip. We had a delightful hut with two beds, bathroom and back porch all under a thatched, straw roof. We had screen windows we could open and over night we got a pleasant breeze and several geckos running around on the walls eating bugs.

Samburu is a semi-arid climate so it is kind of like desert combined with a with a mountainous forest. It truly was a remarkable landscape and I find myself sitting here a few months removed thinking of this place more than most of the others. Particularly because this day, June 21, was extremely memorable. So much seemed to have happened on this day that it’s hard to believe it was all in one day. I also took about 190 photos and a couple of videos on this day so I think this post should reflect that and be a bit more visual than textual.

So, we woke up about 6:00 a.m. which was pretty much sunrise and had another Kenyan shower then had my first animal sighting as a dik-dik was hanging out behind our hut. Dik-dik are miniature antelope and one of the more adorable creatures we saw on the trip. While we saw them a few more times in other places it seemed Samburu was their preferred climate as there generally was a pair of dik-diks around almost every bend. It was nice to go out on our back porch and take in the lodge at sunrise and listen to the million-trillion birds flitting around. There are seriously A LOT of birds in Kenya, a true birders paradise unparalleled to anywhere I have yet been.

Once we got cleaned up we made our way over to the lodge for another stupendous meal.Had some scrambled eggs (a luxury out in the sticks, as we were, I later learned), African pancakes (folded, not unlike Swedish pancakes with honey instead of syrup, I approved of this), kick ass, old school, butchery style pork sausage and some delicious pineapple and melon. I will beat this into the ground but, again, the food here was amaze-balls!

Anyway, on to our first official Samburu game drive with our friendly, neighborhood driver Tony. It will become hard to not just type a thousand variations of awesome as they started this trip at Samburu for a reason and looking back over my notes it is kind of mind blowing that we saw so much in just two and half days there. Emotional memory makes it feel as if we spent at least a week here particularly on this day as it was all so new and exciting. As the trip wore on one can become ever so desensitized to seeing, say, antelope and zebra just running wild. Not on this day, though, we stopped to look at any and everything and the big surprise was that animals were everywhere and we didn’t really have to wait very long in between sightings. That and many of them were very often right there, real close, easy for making pictures of and it was overwhelming. Though there are certainly other epic memories to come from this trip I do believe if I was magically given the choice to just re-live one single day I very probably would pick this day.

So, fairly rapidly we saw a whole bunch of animals: lots of Dik-Diks, Vulturine Guinea Fowl, Gerenuks, massive termite mounds, all sorts of birds, Warthogs, Impala, Vultures, our first kill, and a nice family of elephants. Here, just look…

Also made a nice video of this family where we also mention elephant boobs. We will also  find out later where these guys were going in such a hurry.

How about that shit, eh? Top that Little Red School House nature center?! As it happens, Tony while happy to show us so many great sights already was a little low key as compared to the day before and after our encounter with that nice family of elephants Tony admitted that he was having some stomach issues and needed to make a pit stop. So, he brought us to the Samburu Lodge which was a little bit more luxurious looking than our lodge as it appeared more upscale and was hidden in a nice, quiet forest. While Tony was evacuating his bowels we got to take a stroll around the lodge and, to our great excitement, there was a troop of baboons and a group of black faced Vervet monkeys hanging out all around. They were up in the trees sending fruits down to their troop mates on the ground and allowed me to get danger close for pictures.

This extracurricular visit, which later became the envy of others in the group who had not yet seen any baboons, was also the birthplace of our first trip legend. Van-mate Ima also had to use the facility and when she went to the ladies’ room she found a black faced vervet monkey sitting on the lounger in front. This alone was funny but, as the legend tells it, said monkey was taking a break reading the paper and smoking a cigarette. So Ima did what anyone would do when encountering such a rare sight…she made out with him. And our first running bit from the trip was born.

So, Tony returned and though he had some movement he still seemed a bit under the weather so Barb gave him some Advil which seemed to really help him feel better and he began to perk back up to his usual self. And it was back on the safari road where we saw another couple thousand animals, this time including Reticulated Giraffe and more Oryx. All of which was INCREDIBLE and better served with another run of pictures…

Gawd damn this place is amazing. While looking at the giraffes the radio kind of ginned up and Tony, who had allowed us to take in each sight, seemed like he wanted to wrap up the giraffes and get moving. He then turned around and sped away from the giraffes and brought us to a ridge over looking the river in the reserve and we were then treated to one of the most amazing sights of my entire life. Elephants, probably 90 of them (some say 120), all drinking and bathing and even the drivers claimed to have never seen so many in one place. Lets take a look…

And lo, our next trip legend was born as for the rest of the day the number of elephants kept growing. We counted about 80, another fan said 90 and later other people said they counted 120 and after a while we all just decided to deliberately exaggerate how many elephants were there;

“90? Oh no, no, no I counted another 72 coming out of the woods across the river…There was actually 162 elephants there!”

“162? Are you crazy?! There was easily 347 elephants in that river.”

“347 elephants? What, can’t you count? There was clearly 1,000 elephants there that day, I know, because I counted, cataloged and made a spread sheet.”

“1,000? No, I radioed air surveillance and there was another 773 out of view so there was probably more like 2,236 elephants there.”

And on and on it went…And all of this before lunch…Speaking of which, since this post is already over 1600 words lets break Day 4 into two posts, shall we? Up next: Safari IS full of surprises…

Day 3: The best banana EVER

June 20, 2012 was our third day on the adventure and first time we were in Africa in daylight. (FYI: This post parallels with the pre-travel post, “Day 3: The Landingening” for those who have too much time on their hands.) So our first morning in Kenya began bright and early after a decadent 4 hours of sleep. I had a Kenyan shower where you rinse, turn water off, soap up, rinse, turn water off, shampoo, rinse all while keeping eyes shut and avoid allowing any water to get in your mouth or up your nose. Then we were off to our first breakfast in Kenya in the Hotel 680 open window dining room.

Julie in Nairobi

(click pics to embiggen)

I was very pleasantly surprised by the food, it wasn’t stellar at the 680 but it wasn’t particularly bad either, in my notes I said, “breakfast at the 680 was alright.” Plus they had coffee; not gloriously good coffee but good enough. Alongside my numerous cups of coffee I enjoyed some french toast with honey for syrup, delicious pork sausage, some taters, and some little triangle-cut, chapati that I originally thought might have been ugali.

Not long after finishing breakfast it was time to meet in the lobby with luggage in hand and prepare for our day 1 excitement. I also exchanged some American money for Kenyan Shillings which was a cheap thrill for me as I used to collect foreign money as a child so I was happy to collect some in an actual foreign country. Now as to the itinerary for day 1; if you have been following along from the beginning here then you already know that there has been some self-created controversy over the itinerary as it had shifted from the one “in the brochure” to the fabled “itinerary of lies” during the lead up to this trip. So, it should come as no surprise that it had been changed once again upon arrival. When I originally wrote about this day back in “the Landingening” the plan was:

After some 20+ hours of flying the itinerary has us landing in the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport then heading directly for the famous African Fund of Endangered Wildlife Giraffe Center!

In later versions of the itinerary we we’re told the giraffe center would be out and the Sheldrick Elephant Conservancy was going to be in. Then, right before we left, we we’re informed that the itinerary had been changed yet again and we would not be spending two nights in Nairobi as initially stated in the itinerary of lies. Originally we we’re supposed to land, stay a night in the Hotel 680, see the Giraffe Center and/or the Sheldrick Conservancy, the Karen Blixen house, possibly the Kenya Railway museum, and then stay another night in the Hotel 680.

In reality we landed, got smuggled into our hotel, got up, ate and spent the morning in the richer, relatively safer Karen suburb, saw a few sights, then got the fuck out of Nairobi altogether. They took no chances and truly worked to ensure that nothing even vaguely negative happened to us what-so-ever. It’s worth mentioning that absolutely nothing in the way of crime, or worse, did happen largely due to this extra effort keeping us safely insulated from the actual day-to-day in Nairobi and throughout our trip. Which had pluses and minuses; we always felt safe and rarely felt exposed, lost or otherwise but we also experienced very little of the real Kenya. Rarely got out of the vans in most places, never really stopped in towns at all, seldom interacted with any indigenous people that were not tourism related. Not that it was a big deal as it went a long way to quell any or my previous paranoia about being circled in the street by a gang of thugs beaten into a stain in the dirt. Despite this we did actually pass a dead body on the side of the road with a few police standing around it so Nairobi is and Nairobi does.

Now back to our story; So, we had our group meeting in the lobby of the 680 where we were properly introduced to our drivers and vans for our trip. It was here that we were to decide who our travel friends were to be as our group was divided into smaller groups of six  for each vehicle. Essentially, though it wasn’t necessarily required, we would stay in these micro groups for the whole of the trip. Which was a bit of a relief as I was mildly concerned that we would end up all piled into a minibus together for two weeks fighting over who got the window seats and so on. As it happened, Julie and I lucked out as only two other people elected to join us in our soon to be motley crew and we chose the center van, named “Kasuku” (which means parrot in Swahili) and met our new best friend Tony.

Tony was an absolutely delightful person and truly helped make our trip special. It was not long before he officially earned his title of Number 1 Driver. Tony was not only our driver but our guide to all things Kenya as he has driven across the entire country numerous times and was well versed in the all the wildlife, culture and people and was very entertaining in general. We’ll learn much more about Tony as we go along. Soon after climbing aboard Tony’s van it was decided we had the coolest van since we were the easier group to manage. A pleasant foursome of Julie, Barb, Ima and myself. Thus Team Kasuku was born!

And we we’re off with our first stop set to be the historic and well-known, Karen Blixen Museum. Which was about a half an hour drive away and on the way we we’re able to take in the general vibe of Nairobi in all it’s diesel fueled, street market glory. It was a bit overcast and cool when we arrived at Karen’s house to meet with our next, new friend Charles who gave us a tour of the farm and spoke of Karen with great reverence and affection. He pointed out often which items in and around the farmhouse were actually used by the real Karen Blixen or when they were props from the “Out of Africa” film shoot in the 1980′s. So, if you were unimpressed with the real story you could always be excited that Meryl Streep and Robert Redford were there and touched stuff and what not. Let’s look at some pictures:

Our visit was brief and our schedule was tight so we we’re then whisked away to our next destination, the AEFW Giraffe Center.

Where we were introduced to this young fellow named Ibrahim.

And saw this warthog…

And we got to feed the giraffes!

It was fun! Some members of the group even got a kiss from Ibrahim. Fun fact; giraffe saliva is a natural antibiotic on account that they often eat off of thorny acacia trees so they evolved a quick  healing mechanism. This also makes them safe for kissing or having them lick your wounds, you know kind of like peeing on jellyfish stings! *clears throat* Anyway, we also visited our very first gift store at the center and I got to spend some Kenyan Shillings on post cards and a nifty giraffe pin. Fun place though a lot smaller than I had expected and right smack in the middle of a rich suburb. We were there for just about an hour and soon got back on the road as we had lunch and long ride up to Samburu planned for that afternoon.

And so it was a long ride, several hours utilizing our first lesson in Kenyan roads; they have good road, and less than good road. Our first day was spent on a major, Chinese built highway out of Nairobi into the mountainous area around Mt. Kenya. 100% good roads all the way up to the Samburu national forest area. The good roads also serve as a major point of commerce for your average Kenyan as all along the way up, whether in or near a town or not, there were various vendors everywhere.

Also, in addition to numerous other vehicles (driving at a wide variety of speeds), most pedestrians and people traveling by bicycle were also busy making their way to and fro. In and around Nairobi there were street vendors of all sorts everywhere selling just about anything you can imagine: fruit, vegetables, meat, furniture, various kinds of sculpture, art work, clothes, lumber, fabrics, jewelery, and gravel. Saw many people who simply set up at the side of the road, sat there and smashed rocks with a hammer so they could literally sell small piles of gravel. Think about that the next time you are hating your job. As we moved into the mountain region we began seeing many, many fruit stands all of which seemed well stocked with bananas, passion fruit, pineapples, mango, and hell of a lot more…One of the drivers later told me that they grow everything in Kenya! Having a climate good for farming year round is bound to do that.

Another thing that we learned about on our road trip to Samburu was khat (pronounced ‘cot’) which is a chewable stimulant that is very popular in Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and other places in the region. I had read about khat in one of my Kenya books along the way and knew that it was largely grown on the slopes of Mt. Kenya and is, in fact, a huge business for Kenya. They have to harvest it quickly as it starts losing potency as soon as it’s picked so I read that they pile it in trucks and rush it as fast as possible to Jomo Kenyatta airport to be exported to Somalia and elsewhere as soon as humanly possible. The khat trucks therefore drive like bats out of hell and are not under any speed restrictions.

Our driver Tony was surprised and impressed that I knew what khat was when I asked him  if we would see any khat trucks while we were in the Mt. Kenya region. Sure enough, we did, and he would point them out when they came whizzing by at 90 plus miles an hour flashing their headlights. Later in the day we stopped for gas in a small mountain town and he also pointed out a guy seated near by who was selling khat on the street. My first true instance of all my research paying off!

After several hours of driving we had a bathroom break as we pulled over for our first curio shop visit. There are no rest stops like you find on American highways in Kenya but most of the tourist oriented curio shops conveniently have public restrooms which can only be accessed by passing through the entire curio shop. This particular shop was wall to wall with all sorts of carved sculptures, small ones, massive ones (that we can ship home for you!) carved from all sorts of ebony, soap stones, hard woods, all by local artists. As soon as I entered the store a guy materialized next to me and immediately struck up a conversation, “Jambo! Are you American?” Not fully realizing what I was in for I was happy to chat with him until I quickly realized that he was there to sell me things I didn’t want or need for “good price.”

Julie had made her way to the bathroom so I headed in that direction only to find two or three more new friends who had great deals on all kinds of ebony and soapstone African animals. It kind of stressed me out as I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to start haggling with the locals over shit I had no intention of ever buying so I headed outside. As I left the store they started handing shopping baskets out to all the ladies in our group as they expected all of our fat, American asses would start handing out cash hand over fist. And truth be told many in our party did make a few purchases though no one seemed to go for the giant lawn ornament style pieces to be shipped home.

Outside of the curio shop proper they had a small convenience store that sold soda, beer and snacks and while waiting for everyone to finish shopping for hand-crafted gifts at good prices another member of our group, Frank,  bought a beer (Tusker! more on that later), and asked if they had any bananas. The shop had just run out of bananas and Frank expressed his disappointment that after literally passing 100 different fruit stands the one we stop at had no bananas. One of our drivers heard that and acted, he jumped in his van and sped away returning a few minutes later with a bunch of probably 50 bananas.

And here is where this meandering post gets it’s title…It was THE BEST BANANA I EVER ATE! It was so good I nearly cried, I gushed over it for the next hour as it was simply amazing. It had so much banana flavor that I questioned if it was artificially flavored with banana chemicals. The bananas we get in stores in the Midwest can barely be called bananas and should be shamed from existence. If you have not eaten a banana right off a tree in a place that bananas actually grow then you have not eaten a banana. A couple of British soldiers pulled up to have a smoke and beer and I was like, “Fuck them. Have you tried these bananas?!” The curio shop guys were like, “You want this ebony elephant sculpture? Only $20?” and I was like, “FUCK YOU, BANANAS!! MAN!!! THESE BANANAS ARE BLOWING MY MOTHERFUCKING MIND!!!*”

*swearing quota reached

To this day I regret not taking any pictures of the bananas mostly on account that I was too busy shoving them into my stupid, fat mouth. So, after banana-a-palooza we got back on the road with a promise that our next stop would also involve our mouths and the inserting of foodstuffs into them as we we’re now headed for the Trout Tree Restaurant outside of Nanyuki. Trout Tree was actually built into a tree and quite resembled an Ewok village.

And has a trout farm in the ground around the tree which also serves as it’s main dish. Not being a fan of eating fish I was able to accommodate myself with some delicious spicy vegetable curry. It was here that realized that the food was going to be pretty damn good on this trip!

It was also here that we had our first non-captive, non-farm animal sighting as Trout Tree also happened to have a troupe of Colobus Monkeys hanging around in the trees near by. Which, not unlike the bananas before, just about blew my mind.

So, let’s recap, we’ve been in country barely 24 hours at this point and I have my mind completely blown like seventeen times by fresh fruits, seeing my number one “hoped to see” animal, and being able to enjoy one of my favorite foods (I LOVE CURRY) all within a few hours. You can’t see it in this picture but my brains are leaking from my ears in a fuzzy, warm, effervescent way.

After lunch we piled back into our vans with the promise that our next stop will be the Samburu Sopa Lodge.Though we did stop at the a fore mentioned gas station to “top up” and when Tony got out to refuel the van with petrol we were inundated in the van with locals trying to sell us jewelry and other trinkets. They would hold their hands in the windows and say, “Mama, I have all big five on this necklace. Buy dis thing twenty dollars.” another guy came up to the other side and wanted to talk to us about Obama. He was a supporter and said Kenya has had money come their way since he became president. We actually did not encounter anyone there who wasn’t pro-Obama actually. He is quite popular there, at least in the parts we we’re in, SK told me later that isn’t true at all in the coastal regions.

From there we finally arrived at the Samburu National Reserve which is where I will pick up in the next post…Julie’s awesomest birthday.

Days 1 & 2: 24 hours of flights

June 18th, 2012 has been on our calendar almost three years as THE departure date.There have yet to be any other dates in my life so far that have shared this sort of looming quality. Looming ahead for good reasons and for anxious reasons detailed already ad nausea in my previous, pre-trip posts here. So, when it finally arrived I found myself up and at ‘em by about 5:00 a.m. re-jiggering my IPOD playlist, adding some stuff, deleting some stuff, mostly finding myself  throwing in things that make me nostalgic, remind me of home, past vacations. The excitement was palpable giving me a pseudo-buzz feeling which I then channeled into a nice, long bike ride through town. Followed by an excellent porridge breakfast at Blue Max Coffee in Forest Park (great place by the way!)

My memory of this morning remains vivid, partly because it was only a month and half ago, and partly because it had a sort of “Christmas morning” kind of vibe to it…All the prep was prepped, bags were packed, a few final, last minute things needed doing, but we had finally made it to THE DAY. The BIG day we we’re to begin our journey and venture as far away from home as we have yet to venture. Just no presents. So, once we made our way to the airport, like most major incidents of extended travel, the theme of the day quickly became, “hurry up and wait.” Hurry up and get to O’Hare, hurry up and get in line to check in, hurry over to get in line for security, hurry up and take off the shoes, remove belts, empty pockets, account for metal objects surgically installed in the body, prep for cavity search, x-ray machines, pat-down then get to the terminal for extended waiting. Sit at terminal for eleventy hours while attempting to identify who is in our group and who isn’t. Who looks like they would be cool to hang out with for three weeks and who doesn’t. How many airport snacks do we want to buy while we wait? Bottle of water and a candy bar? That’ll be $29.95 please.

And finally, round 4:00 p.m or so, we boarded our plane for leg 1 on our international journey, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Chicago to Amsterdam. Seven and a half hours of cramped, uncomfortable, window seat fun! We were not seated together so I got to break bread with a nice young couple named Igor and Beth who were on their way to the Ukraine. I had “the beef” (which may or may not have been beef) that I ate T-Rex style since I barely fit into the half of a square foot of space allotted to me and lost meaningful use of my elbows. The adrenaline of the day would also not wear off so my idea of sleeping through the majority of the flight was not happening. Instead I listened to Queen Live at Montreal which is excellent, by the way, remastered so well it sounds like it was recorded this year.

We arrived over Europe at dawn and we were able to see a little of Ireland and England in between the clouds on our approach to Amsterdam. We arrived there somewhere around 5:30 – 6:00 am their time which was about midnight home time. So it was while walking through Schipol Airport in Amsterdam that my body started realizing that I had been awake too long. By the time we were finished hurrying up and waiting at our Schipol terminal it was about 3:30 am home time and I was a bit red-eyed and unknowingly neurotic.

So, it may come as no surprise that I came closest to having a mental meltdown during this period of time. Exhaustion plus anxiety equals an amazing ability to nearly lose my shit over just the simple notion that I might have issues charging my camera batteries in Kenya. Some of our new travel friends had mentioned that in addition to power plug adapters they also brought along voltage converters and wondered aloud if that was really needed to charge camera batteries. Coincidentally I had just taken out my camera and snapped this picture:

AFTER noticing my first battery was already dead. Oh no, I thought, what if I can’t charge my camera batteries? The main reason I am here is to take awesome pictures?! WHAT’S THE POINT OF GOING ANY FURTHER?! Julie, who knows me too well, could see this frantic dialog spinning around inside my head. I was getting sweaty and jittery so off to the airport gift store to see if they sell voltage adapters which they did, as well as additional batteries for my specific camera, both for extremely high prices. Finally, I took a few minutes to breathe and remembered I had my camera user guide with me and discovered I did not need a voltage adapter and all was right with the world again.

At least until we went through security again to move into the boarding terminal and I couldn’t find my zip-lock bag that had my prescription for malaria pills in it. Essentially, again largely due to anxiety fueled by exhaustion, I decided that obviously I was going to die. And as always, my rock Julie helped me dig through my bag to find the zip-lock had fallen all the way to the bottom. At this point it has become clear a certain rookie traveler needs to get himself a little nap so his insufferable, white-people problems won’t make him cry.

Now we have hurried up and waited ourselves into our final terminal for another hour or so as we prepared to board another KLM plane to Nairobi. It was here I got to witness one of fellow travelers ignore the advice given about not taking pictures of Kenyan people without asking. There was a young mother standing near by who had a toddler with her and she held the kid with a blanket, essentially strapped to her back, so the kid could sleep. As the trip went on we saw this often with children, piles of lumber, groceries, pretty much anything one could carry on one’s back with the use of a blanket.

It was unique, it looked “cultural” and it was our first glimpse into where we were headed so one of our gals walked over and took a photo of the mom and kid and the mom flipped out. She flat out yelled at her, said that was rude, demanded that she delete the photo immediately and then threatened to tell KLM so they will remove her from the flight. I really wanted to find out if KLM would have done so, “What?! She took a picture without permission? GET HER! Take her off the flight, send her to prison, put her in the mines!” Kidding aside, it was a good lesson for all to see as these people are fucking serious about unwanted pictures. I actually took remarkably few pictures of locals on the trip and when I did it was either by accident, with permission, or most often because I paid for it.

Finally, we were allowed to board our next flight and my body’s all out of adrenaline. Surely, I will sleep through this flight! And I sat down next to another member of our group and we got to know each other a little bit and within 30 minutes my head dropped. I didn’t sleep so much as stop working, total blackout. When I woke up suddenly I had figured, “shit, that must have been half the flight, right?” It was 30 minutes. Six and half hours to go so I enjoyed my airline “pasta” and watched 21 Jump Street (hilarious!) and then played Pac-Man on the little screen in the seat in front of me.

If modern me was able to go back in time and find past me playing the big, stand-up arcade version of Pac-Man at Lynwood roller rink in 1985 and tell past me that I was going to play Pac-Man in an airplane seat on the way to Africa some day…Well…Past me probably would have cried and told mom some creepy bald guy was leering at him by the Pac-Man machines. But still, the future has it’s pluses. Another plus on this flight was that an extended portion of the flight was over a part of the Sahara desert. Which is actually quite impressive to see, essentially an ocean of sand occasionally dotted with a settlement here and there. Also the second thing we saw on this trip that clearly indicated we were going somewhere quite different than anywhere we have been.

So, we landed in Nairobi in the evening, I want to say 6 or 7 pm their time and discovered their airport looked awfully 1970′s with a third world flavor to it best described as an odor that was body odor and part earth. Now having barely slept in 32 hours I was on a second wind, getting somewhere entirely new will do that to you. That and right away I started wondering if I needed to get the bug repellant out and are there going to be people here trying to steal our shit and so on.

There were a few mosquitoes in the airport but the people were more or less chill and, other than the usual confusion of being at a foreign airport, it was fairly simple process to arrive and get our bags. We stopped at their customs booth and they took a picture of us and had finger print scanners so they recorded both hands. This was the most modern technology we would see during the whole of the trip. The other convenient thing about Kenya was that everyone we encountered spoke English and almost every sign we saw was in English which was helpful in easing our arrival.

After acquiring our bags, which were flown directly to Nairobi from Chicago, we met our main tour guide from Vintage Africa, Sammi (SK). Vintage Africa was a tourism company in Kenya contracted by our education tour company and they were our guides, our drivers, essentially our ambassadors for the entire Kenyan portion of our trip. So, Sammi welcomed us all and began explaining that we would be broken up into several smaller groups and driven to our hotel in Nairobi. This also became our first lesson in African disorganization, I mean, it’s not as if it was a chaotic nightmare, just a few minutes of, “What did he say? What’s happening? Where are we going? Do we get in that van?” fumbling around. As it happened Julie and I were the last to get into a van and leave, with Sammi and a couple of group members who had been to Kenya before.

Sammi was awesome, later we learned the other drivers called him “Mifuri” (spelling?) which I was told meant, “My Theory” because Sammi always had a theory. Sammi drove us through Nairobi’s industrial district which was quiet as Kenyans do not work night shifts. A half hour drive later we pulled into Nairobi proper which, pretty much, smelled like diesel. It was dark, the streets were narrow, and we drove fast. Our hotel, wouldn’t you know, was essentially in their red light district (at night, by day their government district, go figure) and we passed by real, live African prostitutes. When we arrived at the Nairobi 680 hotel we were brought into a sub basement of the building and brought up a freight elevator into another waiting room. Essentially, they smuggled the stupid fat Americans into the hotel in the dead of night so as to go out of their way to avoid any trouble.

Once in our waiting room they offered us juice which we were all afraid to drink and gave us Vintage Africa hats and Maasai warrior wraps!

They then performed another demonstration of awkward organizational skills as they explained the itinerary for the Kenyan portion of the trip. It should be noted that the itinerary was now the THIRD version we have seen though it wasn’t drastically different from the second one, but definitely different.That said, as we spent more time there I began to see that there is a method to their madness, and they really do like surprises, more on that in future posts.

It took about an hour to fumble through the itinerary and all were exhausted, confused mixed with excitement…It was a kind of tired adrenaline fueled crabby vibe. Plus when they announced who was staying in which rooms they apparently guessed wrong on who was planning on staying with who so they were greeted with a nice dose of American exceptionalism. “Excuse me, I am here with THIS person, not THAT person?!” etc. We were tired. It’s also worth noting that Kenya is really into the filling up of forms. We were given paperwork for our departure in two weeks, forms for our arrival, pencils to write with…It was like we were in a third world, poorly lighted class on Kenyan confusion.

Finally, by about midnight their time (4:00 pm home time) we were in our rooms and I was in a somewhat stiff but not entirely uncomfortable bed trying to write my first journal entry after 48 hours of straight travel. So, by the smell of diesel fumes and visions of elephants and lions dancing in my head I finally slept…But not before I took this picture, I give you Nairobi by night:

So, a long, dull post for a long and dull bit of travel…Moving forward there will be more pictures! Asante sana.

So? How was it?

Surely, dear readers, you have been waiting with bated breath, wondering…JUST BURNING UP inside from insatiable curiosity…DID I manage to see all of the 1,000 animals I had hoped to see when I was in Africa?! Certainly, you have been checking here daily for the past month and half just dying to see if I have survived this great journey, this safari, this unparalleled adventure into the scary, equatorial, third world.

It’s obvious you have been sitting nervously in your home and/or job constantly refreshing this webpage thinking, “Why hasn’t he posted during the trip? Did he survive? Did he get sick? Did he get non-stop, uncontrollable, diarrhea? Did he take any good pictures? Why start a self-important blog about a vacation then not post anything about the actual vacation? Why do all that ‘research’ then never follow up? Why did I bother reading all this bullshit in the first place? Why do I even care about this guy’s trip anyhow? You know what? Screw him. Screw his trip, his blog, Africa…I’m never visiting that garbage blog ever again…”

Well, fear no more loyal readers who are nice enough to indulge me and suffer through my poor grammar, foul language and minimally competent musings! I have returned! And in a word, the trip was spectacular. I have every intention to go back through the itinerary as described before I left and actually detail what we did on a, more or less, day by day basis. This may take some time and I am doing it primarily to transcribe my travel journal along side some pictures and videos taken along the way. I will do my best to keep it entertaining for those who have so nicely chosen to waste some time here, and for that I thank you.

Also, a special JAMBO has to go out to my fellow travelers who have taken the time to read through all my pre-travel “research” and have now returned to enjoy my virtual take on our three week adventure. It was a pleasure to meet all of you and I was truly humbled that so many of you took the time to read through my sweary notes before we left.
Asante Sana!

So, let’s dive back in essentially right where I left off…Did I actually see the “top ten animals” detailed in my last post? The short answer is YES! I saw all 10 and I managed to get pictures of most of them, so, let’s take a look:

10. Leopard?

Yes! Leopards are quite hard to see, which is somewhat ironic as there are more of them than any other species of big cat in Kenya & Tanzania. We only saw one the entire trip, fairly early on in our adventure, and way up on top of a cliff. This picture is zoomed in all the way, and cropped up some as well. Julie actually has better shots of this cat as her Nikon has a waaay better zoom than I had. Through binoculars though you could get a good look at him laying around on his rock.

9. Common Genet?

<DID NOT GET A PICTURE :-( >

But we did SEE one. The lodge we stayed at Samburu said they had one or two who regularly visited in the rafters looking for snacks but managed to not stop by while we were there. Later on, at the Sentrim Tented Camp in the Masai Mara, we had to get up super early one morning (4:30 am) to meet at their lodge for our balloon safari and someone came up to us and said, “did you see they have a kitty in here?” And she pointed over to it and it was actually a genet! Cool looking critter that immediately skedaddled before I could whip out the camera.

8. Vervet Monkey?

Yes! Many, many times. The above is probably my favorite of many pictures I was able to acquire of these mischievous primates. I was a little amazed at how quickly we all got used to seeing monkeys and baboons as the longer we were on the trip the more often, and greater number of them, we would see. Early on, we we’re all like, “Boy, I hope we can see some monkeys?” and by the end we we’re like, “Hey, there’s a monkey…whatever…”

7. Secretary Bird?

Yes, indeedy. Several times, in fact. I was quite excited to see these very impressive, large birds. They are also known locally as “kick-boxing birds” due to their kicking ability. They are good reptile hunters as they primarily like to eat snakes and lizards. This picture is from Samburu where we saw several but we also saw them, sometimes in pairs, in the Maasai Mara as well. Very, very cool bird.

6. Serval & Caracal Cats?

Yes to both! However, I was not able to get much in the way of photos. My lone Serval pics came from our balloon adventure so the above was taken…from the air…Which is why it’s a little hard to make out the serval there in the middle. We saw another in the Serengeti but it went out of view before I could get a shot off. The caracal we saw run across the road on our way out of the Mara in front of our van. Much smaller than I expected and all muscle, it sprinted across the road and then leaped straight up to get over an embankment in it’s way. Both cats were awesome and based on the fact that seeing any cats, besides lions, is not easy to do as they are fairly tough to spot and not as common as many other animals, like say the number five animal on this list…

5. Warthogs?

We started seeing these so often that I stopped bothering with pictures knowing,”we’ll see more…” The above picture was taken in the Maasai Mara where we generally found them anywhere we found any groups of animals. We also saw them all over in Ol Pejeta, Samburu, Kigio, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater often in family groups. They are both ugly and hilarious especially when they run as their tales stand straight up…Like this:

It was amazing how quickly I got used to seeing these, elephants, giraffe, zebra, gazelles, guinea fowl all of the time, every day in fact, that it became almost unremarkable by the end of trip, “look guys, an animal…*yawn*”

4. Hyena?

You know it! Our first hyena sighting was at the end of our lone night game drive in the Kigio Wildlife Conservancy, which was an amazing place. The above photo was taken in the Mara which is probably the closest we got to one. We saw a few here, a few in the Serengeti, and a few in the Ngorongoro Crater. A few people we met on this trip mentioned that Hyena’s are quite dangerous as, if you happen on more than one in the wild, you can be in real trouble. They are fairly aggressive in groups and are said to prefer eating their prey alive. Meaning if they bite they are biting to start eating you alive. They are just so uniquely ugly and look like monsters, and naturally, I find them to be quite impressive!

3. Jackals?

Yes! The first one we saw we spotted while in a hot air balloon over the Mara and I got a picture of it and figured that might be the only one we would see. On our final game drive in the Mara, however, we we’re fortunate to see the one featured above right on the side of the road. I had thought it unlikely we’d see too many more but we actually started seeing them often especially at Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Three different species, in fact, the above is a side-striped jackal, I believe. In some ways they are kind of an equivalent to coyotes round these parts.

2. Cheetahs?

YES! Not as many, or as close, as I had hoped but we did get to see one on our third day in Samburu (pictured). We saw two more in the Mara and one other in the Ngorongoro Crater…The one above was the closest for pictures. They really are impressive animals and much bigger in person than I had expected. For whatever reason I always thought they would be closer to a mid-sized dog than the full-grown greyhound size they actually are…My favorite big cat! They are also tough to see when they lie down…Here’s a fun game to play in the following picture from the Crater…Spot the cheetah:

1. What about your favorite Colobus Monkeys?

Pretty much right away! I had worried prior to leaving that we may not go anywhere that has many of them and fretted that they would be tough to spot even if we did. Turns out the second day, on our way to Samburu, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant built into a huge tree, called the Trout Tree Restaurant, which happened to have the pictured troupe just hanging around while we ate lunch. I was very excited. We also had some in the trees above the Naro Moru River lodge so I was pleased to see, “My #1 animal” almost as soon as we started seeing non-farm animals. So, YAAAAY!!!

Hopefully, if you read this blog and you actually know me then you are also a Facebook friend as I have many of these photos posted in galleries there. You can friend me iffen’ you want to (and I know you) but I will be posting photos here as well, probably slowly, but surely. Stay tuned!

The Top 1,000 Animals I hope to see in Africa

Alright readers, you have been waiting and waiting for the oft alluded to “top 1,000 animals  I hope to see in Africa” list and the 24hourflights editorial staff have been hard at work painstakingly researching, arguing about and ranking all of east Africa’s wildlife for your enjoyment. For animals ranked 1,000 through 990 please visit online here. And now the TOP 10 animals I am totally excited about hopefully seeing in Africa and perhaps photographing (photos below stolen via Google as usual.)

….Drum roll please!

10. Leopard (Kiswahili: chui)

Really, all big cats ought to be on this list as they are all cool. However, the leopard (and two other entries coming up) are appealing partially because they may be fairly tough to spot. They hang out in trees and are generally nocturnal and despite Kenya having a fairly large population are somewhat rare to see. Our best chance to see on may be in Samburu or the Masai Mara possibly in trees.

9.Common Genet (Kiswahili: Kanu)

Another nocturnal, cat like creature that seems a little like a cat crossed with a raccoon and a lemur and is likely not to be seen in the wild per se. I have read that we will stand a good chance to see them prowling the rafters of our lodge in Samburu.

8. Vervet Monkey (Kiswahili: tumbili/tumbiri)

Honestly, it’s difficult to drill in and pick individual monkeys as I am truly excited to see any wild primates including these vervet monkeys which we may see in the Masai Mara. These guys are described as delightful or mischievous depending on their familiarity with people and have a complex, developed communication system reflective of their high intelligence.

7. Secretary Bird “the world’s most atypical raptor.”
This is a five foot tall bird that eats primarily snakes and lizards. There are SO MANY different species of birds in Africa that it is really difficult to narrow it down. All kinds of buzzards, herons, bee eaters, hornbills hoopoes, weavers, an on and on and on. I expect to have a lot of bird pics along with a lot of field guide consultation to attempt to keep any of them straight. Secretary birds, however, really stand out and are largely found on the ground likely in Masai Mara and perhaps Samburu.

6. Serval and Caracal cats (Kiswhaili: Pimbi (serval) and ? for caracal)

Serval

Caracal

Both are smaller, harder to see and, turns out, are sometimes kept as pets as I found many pictures of both species in peoples homes, sitting on the couch, with their kids…who knew? They are a bit bigger than your average house cat but not THAT much bigger. There are also wild African cats that essentially look just like house cats with longer legs. We stand a chance to see these guys in Masai Mara (where everything is) and maybe in the aberdares.

5. Warthog (Kiswahili: Ngiri)

Pumbaa! Many these are so ugly and weird which is primarily why I want to see them. That and to see if Timon shows up and they sing Hakuna matata (which is a real kiswahili phrase that means, no problem, or no worries) and then we all dance and have fun!
I frequently tell people that we will be visiting the area in Kenya where The Lion King  was filmed and so far not one person questioned that at all. Fun fact: Meerkats (Timon) do not fucking live in Kenya or Tanzania. Disney lied to us and now will probably sue me.

4. Hyenas (Kiswahili: Fisi)

Another ugly, fairly horrible creature that we will quite likely see in Masai Mara, Samburu and even the aberdares is africa’s second largest predator and stand roughly three feet high at their shoulders. If happen across any kills, which is a good bet we will, we will probably see these and frankly a dozen other animals. I am also keen to hear their nefarious laughing bark in person. It’s hard to like these things but they are certainly interesting and make for a unique mix on the savannah.

3. Jackals (Kiswahili: Bweha)

There are actually 3 different species of Jackal we might encounter; the black-backed (above), side-striped and the perhaps more common golden jackal. Any or all would be cool to see and are all possible to spot in the Masai Mara and Samburu. They seem to be half way between foxes and coyotes here. There are other canines not posted here such as African wild dogs, bat-eared fox, or aardwolfs that would also be quite cool to see! Africa is not just all about the cats…Although…

2. Cheetahs. (Kiswahili: duma)

It doesn’t get much more awesome than cheetahs. I have seen most species of big cat in zoos with the main exception being the fastest cat on earth. No dis to lions, which we will definitely see many of (probably mostly sleeping), but for me it’s the cheetahs I want to see. And see them we will as they seem to be fairly common in many places we are going but particularly in Ol Pejeta and Masai Mara. Fun fact: If we get really super lucky there is a minute chance of seeing a striped cheetah

And the number 1 animal I am MOST hopeful and excited to see!?

Colobus Monkeys! (Kiswahili: Mbega)

For reasons unknown I have always been drawn to Colobus Monkeys. Somewhere, in storage, I know I have a toy one from Brookfield and I was bummed their exhibit was closed on our last visit a few weeks ago. My innate love for colobus monkeys may have even informed my decision making when we adopted a cat a few years ago…
Colobus will likely be difficult to see and we are not going to visit too many forested areas where they live though we could very well see them in the Aberdares (as well as blue monkeys!) and possibly in or near Arusha national park in Tanzania.

And there you have it! If I do not see ALL of these ten animals listed and acquire professional quality pictures of them THIS WHOLE TRIP WILL BE A FAILURE! You may also notice that the “Big 5″ (except leopards) do not appear in my top 10 nor do ostriches, giraffes, hippos, rhinos or most of the other giant things in Africa. I also left out the wide variety of antelope here as well, partially because I have covered some of them in other posts, and partially because OF COURSE I want to see all of those things nearly as much as what is detailed above but these animals are a good sampling of some of my favorite creatures I would love to spot “in the wild.”

The countdown number is getting small…The malarial medicine course has begun…Soon my pretties!

Random Vacation gallery

Here’s some past vacation pictures posted in an effort to learn how to create a gallery, enjoy…