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Kenya - February 2012 - Loisaba, Shaba, Tsavo East and West, Amboseli


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#1 Safaridude

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Posted 22 June 2012 - 07:29 PM

This was certainly not a standard Kenya itinerary. It combined places I’ve longed to tick off but had not (northern Laikipia and Shaba), a familiar jaunt with still unrevealed secrets (Tsavo), and a return to the first African national park I visited some 23 years ago (Amboseli). And no Masai Mara… but with a Maasai guide from the Mara.

And that guide would be Tuleto “James” Sengeny. The eldest of seven Sengeny brothers, all of whom guide at various camps in and around Masai Mara, James is one of the kindest, gentlest human beings imaginable. His knowledge of birds and plants is second to none. But more importantly, James brings a Maasai perspective to things. Despite remaining very much “bush” at heart, he understands the Western culture. He is one of a very few Kenyan tribesmen to have a successful private/freelance guiding business.

James and I would be joined by fellow Safaritalk members Paolo and Ilenia, though at Loisaba and Shaba only. For the Tsavo-Amboseli leg, James and I would be joined by driver/guide “Chui”, he himself a bronze level guide.

Itinerary:

The Emakoko, Nairobi National Park – 1 night
Loisaba Lodge, Northern Laikipia – 3 nights
Joy’s Camp, Shaba National Reserve – 3 nights
Satao Camp, Tsavo East National Park – 2 nights
Lake Jipe KWS Bandas, Tsavo West National Park – 2 nights
Finch Hattons Camp, Tsavo West National Park – 2 nights
Tortilis Camp, Amboseli National Park – 2 nights


The Emakoko (Nairobi National Park)

Disease, pestilence and sitting in traffic en route to a Nairobi hotel after a long flight – these are a few of my least favorite things. Thanks to Anton and Emma Childs’ creation, The Emakoko, one of those things will no longer be an issue. The Emakoko is a brand new lodge on the southwestern edge of Nairobi National Park and allows guests to completely avoid downtown Nairobi and its monstrous traffic. And since traveling to and from either Jomo Kenyatta International Airport or Wilson Airport requires a drive through a portion of Nairobi National Park, it adds up to more time spent in the bush.

I befriended Anton and Emma when they managed Elsa’s Kopje during my repeat visits to Meru National Park several years ago (they also subsequently managed Ol Donyo Wuas) and had been in touch with them regarding their plans to build The Emakoko. Luck would have it that my trip would coincide with the opening of the lodge, and I would be Emakoko’s first guest ever (arriving a few hours ahead of the others in the party). How new the lodge? Upon entering my room, I notice a black smudge on my hand. It turns out to be from the not-quite-yet-dried paint on the door handle!

The southwestern part of Nairobi National is not busy, and the downtown high-rise buildings are generally not in view. Game is surprisingly good here. Nairobi National is reliably good for rhino, and its lion population is experiencing an unlikely renaissance at the moment. One skirts an extensive and lovely fever tree forest (home to the park’s few leopards) on the way to the lodge. The lodge is technically just outside the park, as a quaint wooden bridge separates the two.

The view from the mess area is more reminiscent of perhaps something like the Aberdares. It’s well vegetated and quiet. There are many fascinating photographs of Nairobi from the bygone days displayed around the bar. The food is some of the best I’ve had in all of Kenya. It’s just really nice and peaceful here. I shall not go into downtown Nairobi ever again.

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Mess area/bar at The Emakoko

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Anton and Emma Childs

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Zebra, Nairobi National Park

#2 Safaridude

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Posted 22 June 2012 - 07:38 PM

Loisaba

Within seconds of landing at Loisaba, located on the northern tip of the Laikipia plateau, one enters a pleasant world. The air is pleasantly cool at 6,000 ft. There is a wide variety of habitats ranging from flat, open plains to gently rolling, dotted savannah to dramatic, rocky hills – all in view with a single swivel of the head. There is a rather relaxed Samburu elder guide greeting us in a charming, beaten up Land Cruiser. A short drive to the main lodge reveals no visible stress on the land – though not completely immune from the droughts of the last few years in Kenya, the semi-arid Laikipia is often blessed with passing showers even during the dry season. We pass by dams filled to the brim with water. We would later learn that Loisaba is doubly blessed in having many natural underground springs. It is no wonder that so many European settlers chose to make Laikipia their home.

So, it wouldn’t be right to be in Meru tents while in Laikipia. It has to be a “colonial-era guest house” thing: stone and wood and flower gardens. The mess hall must have a library near a fireplace with decomposing coffee table books and artifacts collected by former inhabitants of the property. Staff shall be non-intrusive, as to allow you to monopolize the mess hall and make your own drinks. Most importantly, sherry must be drunk before dinner.

We set out for the craggy hills to the north and east our first afternoon. Patches of croton bushes and Acacia tortilis (many are short and contorted here) alternate. Elephants, impalas, reticulated giraffes and plains zebras begin to appear, and soon thereafter, a big male leopard is seen out in the opening across a small gully. With so much dense vegetation, rocky hills and the dearth of lions here, leopards do quite well, and this male appears to be familiar and relaxed with vehicles. Unfortunately, it’s a bit early in the afternoon (perhaps too warm still) for him, and he retreats behind a bush never to be seen again. In the evening, by a hide near the lodge, a striped hyena visits a waterhole.

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Impala herd

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Big male leopard

We explore the open plains to the west and south of the lodge the next day. Dry country inhabitants such as gerenuk, Grant’s gazelle, and Somali ostrich are sprinkled across the plain. Two Grevy’s zebras and a herd of 30 plus beisa oryx are surprisingly easy to approach. As is typical of a large breeding herd of oryx, the several mature bulls in the herd are in chaos, fidgeting and sparring, constantly trying to establish dominance. A couple of lionesses and cubs are spotted by another vehicle. By the time we arrive at the scene near a dam, the lions are fast asleep in the deep thickets. They are down for the count for the day.

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Grevy's zebra

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A herd of Beisa oryx

There are a few specialties in this part of Kenya. The greater kudu, very rare in Kenya partially due to rinderpest outbreaks in the past, survives here in northern Laikipia, and a tame pair is seen hanging around the lodge. The Kenya hartebeest (also referred to as Jackson’s or Lelwel hartebeest), resident only in Laikipia, is seen on the open plains. Lastly, wild dogs, thought to have been almost exterminated from the region, have made a raging comeback in the last decade. There are now multiple packs roaming Laikipia and the northern rangelands of Kenya. A huge pack which frequents Loisaba, unfortunately, is last seen at the neighboring Mpala Ranch.

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Greater kudu

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Kenya hartebeest

The history of conservation in Laikipia is a fascinating one. Shorty after the trophy hunting ban of 1977, cattle became the only game in town – until some years later when ranches such as Lewa began offering wildlife tourism in order to diversity their income base. Many soon embraced this tourism model, and the end result today is a mosaic of private ranches and communal conservancies that act as a wildlife corridor linking Mt. Kenya and the vast Northern Frontier District. To be able to observe these grass roots efforts mature while enjoying the pleasantness of the plateau is a uniquely Kenyan experience.

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James and Paolo

#3 Paolo

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Posted 22 June 2012 - 08:12 PM

Geat start!

I re-lived our trip through each words of yours. So evocative.

P.S.: to all - I am not wearing a pith helmet in the picture, just a normal safari hat! The Pith Helmet Award has been granted to me by the GW only recently....

Edited by Paolo, 22 June 2012 - 08:14 PM.


#4 twaffle

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Posted 22 June 2012 - 10:14 PM

Wonderful and evocative writing again Safaridude. I almost feel as if I'm sitting on that balcony with Paolo and James.

… clarity in thought comes after challenge …


#5 Atravelynn

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Posted 22 June 2012 - 10:32 PM

Guest #1, now that's an honor. Nice kudu. Looking forward to a another great Safaridude report.
When you think of a rhino, think of a tree (African proverb)

#6 Game Warden

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Posted 22 June 2012 - 11:09 PM

A fine start with some great photography. Paolo, I would be on your case if your pith looked battered and limp like that. Piths are to be treasured, as is your ST Pith award... :)

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#7 Anita

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 09:09 AM

Wonderful, evocative and fantastically tempting! Look forward to more, especially Shaba as for some reason Lewa, Shaba and Sarara have been stuck in my head as my first visit diversifying from the Mara!

Whats your opinion on the star beds option in Loisaba?

#8 Safaridude

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 11:07 AM

Thanks everyone.

Anita, I have heard great things about the star beds, but I did not see the location. The photos I have seen look great though.

#9 Paolo

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 11:19 AM

I went on a walk one afternoon (with a Samburu guide and a Turkana scout - rather fastly paced!) whilst the others opted for a game drive, and I actually saw (from a distance) the location of one of the Starbeds.

Quite impressive, right on the edge of a dramatic cliff. It should be a good experience, I think.

#10 Safaridude

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 12:04 PM

Shaba National Reserve

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To borrow a phrase from Ilenia, Shaba is a love at first sight. So utterly stunning are the views, Shaba is one place (Natron in Tanzania would be the only other) where I would pay to return even if no animals were present.

And that (no animals) was nearly the case just a few years ago. The crippling drought of ’09 vaporized all available livestock grazing around Shaba, and the Samburu, Rendille, Turkana and Borana pastoralists and their dying stock converged onto the few perennial springs inside the Reserve. Animals were chased away from water sources to make room for the cattle, and the four tribes engaged in violent skirmishes with each other and against government security forces directed to evict the tribes out of the Reserve. Thanks to an initiative by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a team of elders representing all four tribes was assembled in order to find a peaceful resolution to the matter. Two months of hard work resulted in the herdsmen voluntarily leaving Shaba and thereby avoiding a potential deadly clash with the government security forces.

Africa has a short memory, and today, the saga of ’09 seems as improbable as the perennial springs that flow up from this semi-desert. Due to the recent rains, the normally barren lava plains are bathed in golden grass. NRT has recently set up a conservancy called Nakuprat-gotu bordering Shaba and is helping the Borana tribe, among other things, manage grazing more sensibly. There are no more cattle incursions into the Reserve, at least for the moment.

Did I mention the views? Granite hills, springs, the aforementioned lava grasslands, doum palms, the Ewaso Nyiro River, waterfalls, and comically perfect Acacia tortilis – it is impossible to justly capture the essence of Shaba with a camera.

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Beisa oryx on the lava grassland

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Somali ostrich at a spring near Joy's Camp

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Waterfall near the Ewaso Nyiro River

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One of many comically perfect Acacia tortilis

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James

During our two-day stay, we keep to the eastern part of Shaba. We basically see three areas of animal concentrations: the springs around Joy’s Camp, the riverine area of Ewaso Nyiro and another spring area toward the center of the Reserve. Oryx, Grant’s gazelle, gerenuk, Somali ostrich, and reticulated giraffe are well adapted to this arid land. Grevy’s zebras do exceptionally well here. There are a few lesser kudus (though we did not see any) in the Reserve, and a few greater kudus sometimes come down from the hills outside the Reserve for a drink. A lioness is seen in a dense patch of bush just outside camp, scrutinized by Grant’s gazelles and a single bull oryx snorting in alarm. A huge herd of buffalos come to the swampy spring right in front of camp to graze and wallow. Apparently, this herd goes back and forth between the camp spring and another a few kilometers away, closely followed by the resident lions.

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Reticulated giraffe

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Beisa oryx near a spring in the center of the Reserve

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Buffalo

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A warthog family at sunset

Two male gerenuks spar at dusk. Except in sketches, never before have I seen these shy, dainty animals display aggression. According to Jonathan Kingdon in East African Mammals, “… this species has developed a unique form of fighting in which the heavy horns are clashed together by means of violent nods of the head. Conducted with the head down near ground level, this mode of horn clashing has the advantage of keeping the delicate muzzle and jaws shielded… the thickening of the cranium not only protects the brain from blows but also provides very necessary buttressing for the phenomenally heavy horns…” In fact, the thickening of the cranium extending down the nape of the neck can be observed on a male gerenuk broadside.

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A rare sight of gerenuks fighting

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A side view of a male gerenuk clearly showing the extension of the cranium down to the nape of the neck

As a practical matter, Joy’s Camp is really the only functional lodge in Shaba, as guests of Sarova Shaba (the only other permanent lodge) tend to conduct their drives in Samburu/Buffalo Springs rather than in Shaba. A bit over the top but undoubtedly stylish, Joy’s Camp is indeed a joy. There is an oasis-like tranquil quality to Joy’s, clearly aided by the fact that Willem and Francien are two of the most pleasant hosts one will encounter. And the camp having been created by Stefano Cheli (of Cheli & Peacock), it goes without saying that authentic Italian food is prepared to perfection. But above all, Joy’s Camp is responsible for putting Shaba back on the map not only in terms of tourism but also in terms of conservation. Already, the camp has raised over 1 million Kenyan shillings toward construction of a scout outpost in Nakuprat-gotu, and there are ongoing discussions regarding other potential projects. Unbeknownst to many, Shaba has as much connectivity to Meru National Park as it has to Samburu/Buffalo Springs and is thus a critical conduit for wildlife in the north. It will be fascinating to follow this partnership between Joy’s Camp (a private enterprise), and Nakuprat-gotu, (a communal conservancy), in their attempt to conserve this gem.

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Joy's Camp at night

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James relaxing in the mess area

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A sundowner after a walk

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A view from just above Joy's Camp

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The essence of Shaba

Edited by Safaridude, 23 June 2012 - 12:23 PM.


#11 Jochen

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 12:45 PM

Fantastic images!
Keep it coming!

#12 Paolo

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 01:55 PM

As an Italian, I can testify that Joy's Camp cuisine is really good.

I have to add that there are two exceptionally attractive campsites in Shaba, one in a shady grove along the Ewaso Nyiro and the other at Funan, in the centre of the reserve, close to a spring. I was supposed to stay at this latter campsite in 2009, but the tribal unresy which Safaridude mentions prevented me to visit Shaba at that time (I went to Meru instead).

To me, the fondest memory of our time in Shaba was a scenic flight on a Super Cub which I was fortunate enough to take one morning: passing very low (at times just a few meters) over those magnificent landscapes, spotting an elephant or a lesser kudu here (OK, I was the one in our party seeing lesser kudu in Shaba!), a buffalo herd there, was really an enthralling experience.

Edited by Paolo, 23 June 2012 - 01:58 PM.


#13 Patty

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 03:33 PM

As always, I feel like I'm right there. Looking forward to more.

#14 twaffle

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 03:44 PM

Shaba ... landscape heaven.

… clarity in thought comes after challenge …


#15 Rainbirder

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 05:14 PM

A thoroughly enjoyable read with lots of info and cracking images.

I had never given Shaba serious consideration before, you've changed that! ;)

#16 Safaridude

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 06:09 PM

Well, Rainbirder, your report on Bogoria inspired me. I will check out Bogoria and you can check out Shaba.

#17 Game Warden

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 06:27 PM

And you can both take me to do a Safaritalk special report :)

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#18 Safaridude

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Posted 24 June 2012 - 11:56 AM

Tsavo East and Tsavo West


Satao Area (Tsavo East)

I am endlessly fascinated by Tsavo. Much of Tsavo is wild no more – with snare lines on the periphery of the park, throngs of minibuses in certain popular spots, and certain roads graded and marked too well. But it’s big, and you get the sense that there is yet just one more nook that should be discovered.

So, it’s my 5th time in Tsavo, and my 3rd visit to Satao Camp in Tsavo East. To well-heeled safari goers, Satao must be a hilarious place: fixed tents placed very close together; an electric fan in each tent; an artificial water hole that really looks artificial; and electric-power transmission lines visible from camp. But the place somehow grows on you. The friendly Kenyan staff (most are from the coast) is helpful and engaging, and the area offers one of the best game viewing in Tsavo East.

It is my 3rd attempt to find some translocated hirolas in the Satao area. These hirolas never belonged in Tsavo, but KWS conducted two separate translocations into this area (the last one being 1996) in order to establish an insurance population. I am out of luck again, but I do see a few coastal topis. Topis never occurred naturally in Tsavo, but unlike the hirolas, these topis migrated into the park of their own volition some time ago from the coast, most likely following a trail of artificial waterholes.

There are three main game circuits from Satao. The first is a vast scrubland south and west of camp. The game is generally thin, but you do get a sample of the dry country ungulates such as Grant’s gazelle, Coke’s hartebeest, gerenuk, fringe-eared oryx and lesser kudu. Small groups of elephants and zebras frequent the few artificial dams. Then there is an endless open plain on the eastern side of Satao. I have seen excellent game here in the past when wet. Presently, the plain is basically abandoned – the area not having received any rain in several weeks – except for a few big tuskers crossing the plain and a martial eagle with a monitor lizard kill. Lastly, the Aruba Dam area to the north (and a track west from Aruba along the seasonal Voi River), while crowded, gives one of the best elephant viewing in all of Africa. I’ve always had good luck with predators here also, and indeed we spot a mating pair of lions and a solitary cheetah.

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Martial eagle with a monitor lizard kill

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Bull elephant crossing a plain

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Eles on the run

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Fringe-eared oryx at a waterhole

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Chui

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James

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A lone cheetah near Aruba Dam

#19 Safaridude

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Posted 24 June 2012 - 12:06 PM

Lake Jipe Area (Tsavo West)

The adventure portion of Tsavo is next – to an area I “discovered” two years ago – the Lake Jipe environs on the southwestern edge of Tsavo West. Captivated by the area then but only able to spend a single afternoon, I vowed to return. With no other lodging options nearby, the KWS bandas along the lake are the call this time.

From the Maktau Gate (an efficient way to get from Tsavo East to Tsavo West is to actually leave the park at Voi and then drive through Taita Hills to the Maktau Gate of Tsavo West), there is a straight road of some 45 kms that runs southwest toward Lake Jipe. This savannah, aptly dubbed “the Little Serengeti”, is perhaps the best intact southern Maasailand savannah east of the Rift Valley (the real Serengeti being on the western side of the Rift). Coke’s hartebeests and Grant’s gazelles part like the Red Sea as our vehicle glides through the savannah. There is an odd gerenuk or lesser kudu in the brushy areas.

As we near Lake Jipe, a fantastic surprise awaits us… zebras, zebras and more zebras. Apparently, thousands of zebras have abandoned the dry interior of Tsavo West and are now congregating around the Lake, the only permanent source of water in the area. Unknowingly, we have driven into a zebra migration. Interestingly, the groups are small at 10-20 in size, but there appear to be hundreds of such groups. They are amongst breeding herds of fringe-eared oryx, a massive buffalo herd making dust, the always skittish eland herds running away, and elephant families heading to water. We reach the bandas near sunset. The bandas, rustic but fun, are located right on the lake near an anti-poaching post. Birdlife is phenomenal on the lake, and hippos and crocs abound. Bohor reedbucks graze near us. Across the lake, the Pare Mountains in Tanzania display panoply of colors at sunset. Two different groups of lions roar all night. We wake up to a clear view of Kili.

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Zebras near Lake Jipe

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Zebras, zebras and more zebras

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Eland

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Eles

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Checking out the vehicle

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Bat-eared foxes

Every game drive delivers an astonishing concentration of animals. We cannot believe we just walked into this. Is it always like this at Jipe when the surrounding areas dry out or did we get enormously lucky? Collective insanity is the only reasonable explanation as to why there are no tourist facilities at Jipe aside from the KWS bandas. James is daydreaming aloud about having his own camp here as we pass by a particularly beautiful kopje. “This would be perfect here. You are far enough from the lake, so you don’t have too many insects in the wet season. You have a clear view of Kili. There’s lots of game around. But you would have to re-route that road there so you don’t see it when you are having a sundowner.”

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Lake Jipe from the bandas

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Lake shores with Pare Mountains of Tanzania in the background

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A view of Kili from the bandas

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Gourmet meal taken at the bandas

Edited by Safaridude, 24 June 2012 - 12:29 PM.


#20 Safaridude

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Posted 24 June 2012 - 12:11 PM

Finch Hattons Area

Our final stop in Tsavo is the northwestern tip of Tsavo West – an area with another permanent water source – this one originating from the Chyulu Hills. A vast fever tree swamp near Finch Hattons Camp is an oasis during the dry season. Oryx and eland do quite well here. It is the only area in Tsavo where wildebeests occur (this is the eastern edge of their distribution in Kenya). The resident pride of lions has killed a giraffe, and the half-eaten carcass is seen not far from camp. Unfortunately, the lions are sleeping it off for the day.

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Wildebeest, Coke's hartebeest and giraffe -- friends for life

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Lesser kudu family portrait

“Click, click, click”… even though I had been close to bull elands on many occasions, this is the first time I detect the clicking noise (made only by the bulls). Dr. Bro-Jorgensen in a recent study writes that the clicking noise is most likely made from the tendons in their knees and that there is a correlation between the sound frequency and the body size of the animal, the noise, as such, serving as a dominance signal. Though catholic feeders, elands tend to gravitate toward certain food sources at certain times of the year, and they are no doubt attracted to something in this corner of Tsavo West at the moment.

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Bull eland

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Bull eland

“Click , click , click”… is also the sound of the beverage tab running up on me at Finch Hattons Camp. Not even bottled water is inclusive – something I view as an anachronism for such an upscale camp. Finch Hattons is actually all about anachronisms, as it tries to recreate the Denis Finch Hattons days with Mozart streaming out of a gramophone, bellmen in all-white mess uniforms, and waiters in Swahili tunics, vests, white gloves and fezzes – if you are into that sort of thing. Well-meaning and friendly staff for certain, but I am not sure they successfully pull off the cliché.

In any case, we find the Finch Hattons area is another area full of game. Despite Tsavo’s checkered past (some 75% decrease in plains game in the last 40 years), its immense size has allowed it to carry on. And in pockets like Satao, Lake Jipe and Finch Hattons (I am sure there are others), one can still get a glimpse of the past. Oh, and unless James, Chui and I were hallucinating, there is a zebra migration thing going on at Jipe…





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