Blog Archives: Kenya


Lake Turkana

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Lake Turkana, Kenya - Steppes Travel

There are times when the world stands still, when everything but the here and now melts away. Experiences so vivid, so captivating that they drown out the humdrum, the mundane, the banal. Sights so intense that they seem to pull at the very fabric of your soul. Staring out over the jade waters of Lake Turkana, Kenya I experience this unearthly feeling of total submission to the beauty in front of me. I crane forward, scanning the landscape from side-to-side, through the polished Perspex of the helicopter’s cockpit.

A paralysing sense of wonder grips me, as I greedily scour the mishmash of rock, water and sand below me. Flying over the darkened lava flows that disappear beneath the lake’s opaque surface, I gaze forwards, sideways, backwards, attempting to come to grips with scale of this volcanic work of art that carpets the world below me.

Slowly, my other senses return. I finally come back to myself, detaching from my reverie. As if someone has turned up the volume, the sound of music re-enters my consciousness, playing through the helicopter’s headphones.

“But I keep cruising

Can’t stop, won’t stop moving

It’s like I got this music in my mind”

I look across to Andrew, my pilot. He grins. Feeling slightly intoxicated by the sight before me, I grin giddily back, and comment on his unusual choice of playlist. “It is so bizarre to experience all this whilst being serenaded by Taylor Swift.”

“I know. It’s surreal.” Is all he can say.

Andrew has seen this many times before. After all, it’s his job. But he too is gripped by Lake Turkana’s unusual beauty – a beauty that clearly doesn’t grow old. Dropping lower, with our shadow flickering along the lakeshore’s succession of deserted beaches, we drift inland.

The beaches give way to arid plains, punctuated with a polka dot of stunted palm trees, their bases sunken beneath wind-driven mounds of sand. The occasional manyatta flickers into view – sometimes inhabited; other times nothing more than a charred circle. In between, small herds of goats graze on what little plant life there is.

As I look east, I see the plains end and erupt into a grey mass of unforgiving-looking hills. Andrew catches me gazing into this distance and speaks through the intercom: “That’s a wild place – there are still bandits out there.”

I look at him, half wanting to venture east in search of bandits and half worried I am about to hear something that I might quickly want to un-hear.

“They aren’t bandits the way you imagine them; inter-tribal warfare is still commonplace, so they simply attack and steal from rival tribes.”

This hardly allays my fears, but I am gripped.

“Earlier this year, I was flying low over the plains close to the Ugandan border, when I spotted some wild-looking men on the ground below. I knew it was a bit of a risk to land, but the clients with me were keen to do it. I landed the chopper a distance away, then I got out and waved. They waved back. That’s always a good sign – bad guys rarely wave.’’

“They were all covered in blood, which had been smeared on them from a fresh kill – part of a traditional ritual. It was a haunting, gruesome sight. But they were happy to chat, so I called the clients over and we sat down and offered them some coffee.’’

“They were especially eager for our sugar, which is hard to come by in this remote region. Unfortunately, we had no more cups and they only had gourds – these were all full of fresh blood from the kill. The solution was a simple one: they poured the coffee and sugar in with the blood, gulping down the resulting mixture.”

“I’ve never come across them again. But that’s the beauty of the Turkana region – you just don’t know what you might come across. It is truly untamed.”

Soon we are again over the lake, with small rafts below us fishing its opaque waters. And then, suddenly, we bank left and I see a row of tents spread along a white-sand beach, protected by rows of palm trees.

This is Lobolo Camp, one of the few places you can stay on the lake. The camp itself amazes me. My home for the night is a modern safari tent, with running water and mains-voltage electricity. In such a harsh, isolated region, I am surprised by the level of comfort. Suddenly, blood-painted bandits seem a distant memory.

But I do not get long to enjoy my tent, before Andrew is cajoling me into the water. “The lake stays shallow for almost a kilometre, so you don’t need to worry about crocs. Not during the day, anyway.”

It’s hardly convincing yet I find myself in the metre-deep water a few minutes later. Its alkaline quality makes it feel smoother than normal water – like bathing in fabric softener. But in the oppressive heat, under the mid-afternoon sun, it is a pleasant feeling.

We lie in the cool water, chatting. Behind us a group of young Turkana boys are fishing and in front the lake extends into the horizon – the far shore invisible to us. The only disruption on the hazy horizon is the jagged shape of Central Island, a pocket-sized national park.

As the sun begins to lower and the heat starts to recede, we set out again in the helicopter for this distant island. This time, the doors are off and I feel the wind pressing in as I peer out across the lake. As we near the island, it begins to take a more defined shape. Andrew swings us on a wide arc along its southern edge and explains its unique nature to me. “Central Island is made of three volcanic craters, each one filled with water. They are all entirely self-contained – unconnected to the lake that surrounds them.”

Then we dive. And we hurtle down over the first of the lakes, swinging low past steep cliffs that are packed with nesting birds. Above, the crater rim rises high; below the dark shapes of crocodiles are visible in the still water. As the lake end draws near, we soar upwards, slowing over the crater rim’s highest point.

Carefully, Andrew eases us down onto a treacherously narrow strip of rock, and I jump out. I am accompanied by a local Turkana man, who will act as my guide. The helicopter pauses for a few seconds, its rotors still spinning, before shooting upwards and banking away over the island.

Almost instantly, a silence descends. Without the noise of the helicopter’s powerful engine, the air is still. The only sound is a soft hiss. I look to my left, towards the precipitous edge of the rim and see steam spluttering out of one of the rocks. The smell of sulphur wafts towards me – a reminder of the volcanic nature of this remarkable island.

As we ascend the next small peak, another lake appears below. We are almost vertically above, looking down at the dark green waters. It is a mesmerising sight. My guide points at dark patches in the water, “Shoals of tilapia.”

Then I look towards the base of the cliff. “Crocodile,” is all he says. I see the shape, lying almost motionless. Its entire outline is visible, only inches beneath the surface of the lake.

Another ten minutes of walking and we find ourselves at the level of the lake. The lush vegetation here contrasts with the dusty, rock-strewn slopes of the crater rim. Although a national park, the island has remained relatively free of signs of human presence. But here, just before the lakeshore, a wooden placard warns visitors not to walk any closer. The image of the croc still fresh in my mind, I heed the warning.

Leaving the interior lakes behind, we finally reach the black beach that rings the island. It is strewn with white fish bones – leftovers from both birds and fisherman, I guess. As we struggle across the shifting surface, a growing thunder begins to fill the air. Within seconds, the helicopter appears from behind us, setting down on a narrow spit just ahead. It is the perfect spot to watch the sunset.

An exhilarating moonlit flight later and I find myself back in my tent. Although it is still more than 30 degrees, I am comfortable in the dry heat, with a breeze rippling through the tent. As sleep embraces me, my mind replays a memorable day, certain that the excitement is over.

But after only a few hours, Lake Turkana decides it is not done with me yet. I awake to a roaring sound, feeling the tent swaying around me. Then, slowly, I register the noise is the wind howling through the camp. It is a remarkable phenomenon. I am not annoyed by this disruption of my sleep; I am thrilled to be awake to experience it. And that seems, to me, to be the essence of this isolated region.

Although inhospitable and challenging, Lake Turkana is an area rich with experiences. They are experiences that are unpredictable, inaccessible and inconvenient. But they are also experiences that capture the imagination, that chisel themselves into the memory. Surrounded by the roaring darkness, I am aware that every moment here is unmissable.

Get in touch with me for more information on your Kenya holiday with Steppes.

Elephants – Worth more alive than dead

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Whilst I am not an advocate of hunting, I can see a commercial argument for it in marginalised areas. However, I was nevertheless very disappointed to read yesterday that the Trump administration will allow American hunters to import elephant trophies to the US, reversing an Obama-era 2014 ban.

A US Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said the move will allow the two African countries – Zambia and Zimbabwe – to include US sport hunting as part of their management plans for the elephants and allow them to put “much-needed revenue back into conservation.”

Why am I disappointed if hunting can do good for conservation?

In part it is the hunters’ conceited theatrical rituals, the get-up and the vocab – similar to those displayed in hunting (for foxes) here in the UK. In spite of the overall disappointment with http://trophy.film/, there are parts of the film that are impossible to watch without fuming at the grotesque, pampered hunters who preen themselves over the animals’ corpses. I don’t see the difference between one national being allowed an elephant head on his or her wall but another national not being allowed to have an ivory carving on his or her mantlepiece.

But much more importantly, there is a better way. Photographic and conservation safaris https://www.steppestravel.com/south-africa-group-tour-rhino-conservation-project/overview As the below infographic shows, an elephant is worth much more alive than dead.

We are guardians of the planet and its wildlife for future generations.

Leading Ladies: One of our own – Q & A with Saba Douglas – Hamilton

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Saba-Douglas-Hamilton--Leading-ladies

Saba Douglas-Hamilton is an award-winning wildlife filmmaker, Kenyan wildlife conservationist and television presenter. Working with Save the Elephants in Kenya she helped set up a research station in Samburu that now monitors over 900 elephants.  She is also leading a trip to Kenya with Steppes in January 2017.

When Saba was just six weeks old she met her first wild animal, an elephant named Virgo who was one of approximately 400 elephants that her zoologist father Iain Douglas-Hamilton was studying in Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania.

We asked Saba to share her thoughts on what motivates her to do what she does, who inspired her, which place she is happiest, her best travel advice and more…

What was your earliest or childhood ambition?

Being able to cast spells seemed immeasurably attractive when I was a child, so initially I’m pretty sure I wanted to be a witch. After a while this morphed into more sensible options – like a ballerina or cave-woman, and finally, much later, a wildlife film-maker!

What motivates you to do what you do?

The natural world has never been more fragile than it is today, nor more under attack. Yet it is our home – essential to our physical, spiritual and mental well-being. My love for wild creatures and places, my concern for what’s happening to our Planet, and the increasing uncertainty of my children’s future in a world that is being buried under concrete, drives everything I do.

Who has inspired you to do what you do?

My parents have been hugely influential in my life, opening my eyes to the beauty of Nature and catalysing a passion for all wild things.

As has my grandmother, Prunella Stack – head of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty – who  taught me that one must count one’s lucky stars, have grace and courage in times of hardship, and fight for what one believes in.  Many science writers too have shaped how I think, including Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, David Quammen, and, lastly, E. O Wilson whose perspective on life and call for setting 50% of the Planet aside for Nature aligns closely with my own heart.

If your 20-year old self could see you know, what would he/she think?

When I was 20 I used to think that anyone over 30 was ancient, so I’d probably find now that I was rather old! But I’d be pleased to learn that my older self had had some interesting adventures along the way, married a wonderful man, and discovered that life becomes more interesting the older you get.

If you could do it all over again, is there anything you would change?

I was very unhappy at the first boarding school I was sent to in England at the age of 13, so that’s one thing I would definitely strike off the list!  I also wish I’d kept a better journal, especially in the last decade. Things went a little pear-shaped writing-wise after I had kids!

In what place are you happiest?

I am happiest when I can hear frogs singing at night or feel the interconnectedness of all things in the web of life around me.  As far away as possible from people, pollution and concrete, and in the company of my husband and kids. Bejewelled by the sounds of the night, perfumed by the purest air, and clothed in the softest darkness hung with stars, I feel like the richest person in the world.  Surrounded by myriad sentient creatures – in all their diversity of hue, scale, colour, leaf and shimmering skin – my sanity is quickly restored.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

Yes, often. The health of our Planet plagues my dreams. I try to live as close to nature as possible, to give back through my work in conservation, and do no harm.  We all need to down-size our lives big time, stop this crazy over-exploitation of the Earth’s resources, and tackle the spectre of human overpopulation.

The one essential you travel with?

My hat, which is now very well worn.

Also my sunglasses and beloved Swarovski binoculars and toothbrush and face cream of course!

Your best piece of travel advice?

Keep a diary to record your first impressions. Write everything up as soon as you can when it’s still fresh in your mind.  Get off the beaten track, and and wash your hands often, especially before you eat.

What advice would you give to young ladies wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Figure out what you really want to do then commit yourself 100% – and don’t take no for an answer!  Once you get your foot in the door, be positive, enthusiastic, work hard, and make yourself indispensable. Anyone with any sense will harness the power of your passion, and you will fly! Get in touch with us for more information on your Kenya holiday with Steppes, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

Kenya: Changing perceptions

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Times are changing in Kenya. Blixen’s “Flame Trees of Thika” have grown into a thriving agricultural heartland, Silicon Savannah (a district on the outskirts of Nairobi) is attracting the likes of google and Microsoft and the incredible rise of mobile banking M-Pesa (Pesa being Swahili for cash) means it is easier to pay for a taxi on your mobile in Nairobi than it is in New York City.

The trade winds along Kenya’s tropical coast that draw kite surfers from across the world, continue inland across the wind farms covering Hemmingway’s “Green hills of Africa”, Michelin starred chefs from London are coming to Nairobi and green beans and coffee grown here fly back home in the same plane as our suitcases, destined for Waitrose.

Kenya’s government are equally ambitious – local politics still hold the country back from reaching its full potential – yet the governments ambitious “Vision 2030” initiative is designed to revolutionise security, education and Wi-Fi across the country within the next 15 years (3 of the most important things to many Kenyans, if asked.)

The Safari industry is also changing, with a rise in pioneering eco-lodges, where modern art galleries and sculpture gardens look out over plains where wild dog roam, the lodges attitude and design changing perceptions of what luxury safaris can offer. Alongside this progressive, forward looking Kenya there sits a more traditional country, rich in history where safari lodges full of personality, offer a welcome that only comes from the fact that many of these incredible properties have been family homes to generations of Kenyans.

Herein lies the issue with Kenya. It is very much embracing the future, but remains proud of its heritage and whilst it is one of Africa’s most well-known countries, it should not be judged on that alone. People only seen one side or the other – rampant development or a colonial past, but look closer and there is an unforced blend of the modern and traditional that for me makes Kenya so appealing. On the one hand it is arguably Africa’s most developed countries, but also one of the most visibly traditional. It is a land famous for its pastoral nomads, where the Masaai and other tribes have adapted naturally to modern sensibilities, whilst still living a very traditional lifestyle.

Nowhere else in Africa are local communities also such an integral part of the success of the conservancies and the Kenyan people are some of the warmest, most open people you could meet. Many of these conservation initiatives are using cutting edge technology, to track and protect the wildlife that has been here for millennia – and what incredible wildlife it is.

The daily struggle for survival played out on endless plains under big skies, Kenya does wildlife drama like no-where else but the migration is only one player in an all-star cast. Leave the crowds behind and follow wild dog on foot in the highlands of Laikipia, join elephant researchers in rugged Samburu or fly across the deserts of Turkana and hidden valleys of Mt Kenya. For those who think Kenya too busy or too commercial, pick any number of boutique safari camps and you can sit watching lions hunt across the mara plains under a fiery sunset or follow herds of elephants across Amboseli as the moon rises behind Kilimanjaro with no-one around to spoil the view. It’s all about knowing where and when to go – watching a rhino courtship against a backdrop of wild flowers and lakes ablaze with pink flamingos remains my own favourite memory.

Despite the development taking place, the country is vast and there is much to explore and with all this space, comes a huge amount of adventure to be had. Yes ballooning is great, but enjoy some fantastic fly camping, quad biking, dune-buggies, paragliding, superb horse-riding, mountain biking, or just sit around the fire at night with a beer in your hand, listening to lions in the distance.

After all this excitement, then head to the coast and shake the dust off your boots – cool, Swahili retreats look out across powdery white sand with dhows bobbing on the warm Indian ocean in the distance – a view best enjoyed with fresh lobster and a glass of something chilled. Kitesurfing, deep sea fishing and stunning coral reefs add another dimension to a country known more for its terrestrial wildlife.

Yes there is progress in Kenya and many Kenyans embrace these changing times with enthusiasm, but Kenya’s identity remains as strong as ever. It is the tourists who find this change harder to accept. I’m not saying Kenya is without challenges, but the biggest threats facing Kenya today are false assumptions and bad PR. Issac Asimov once said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Kenya offers a thrilling and very personal wildlife experience in both familiar and surprising ways for those who take the time to look. I urge people to rethink Kenya and travel with an open mind.

Masai Mara Long Weekend

Get in touch with me for more information on your Kenya holiday with Steppes, call me on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

The Mountains of the Moon

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Africa brings people together. It provides an unbreakable common thread which endures and serves to unite friends and family. Here are a few of my most favourite itineraries that I have put together for my clients.

For a holiday to Kenya, I helped bring together four generations of family, exploring the Mara and Laikipia by foot, vehicle and camel. While recently one of the most memorable trips was helping the relative of a famous explorer retrace their ancestor’s footsteps. The great grandson of the explorer John Hanning Speke (who discovered the source of the Nile at Lake Victoria) crossed the “Mountains of the Moon” the Rwenzori Mountain range in Western Uganda to see Mount Speke in all its glory.

We have also organised for a private group of vets to visit Klaserie Private Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger to get hands-on experience of darting, notching and micro-chipping a white rhino. The feedback we got on this trip was humbling; “…a poignant reminder that it requires actions not words to save the planet’s most endangered animals”.

Some of the most unforgettable trips we have organised to Africa have involved giving our clients an insight into conservation and we are proud that our clients were a part of the habituation process of the Nkuringo group of gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Removing the blinkers

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Kenya’s flag is divided into three colours – black, red and green embossed with a Maasai shield and spears. Each stripe represents a part of this evolving country and its worth remembering that the flag is not divided into 1 third safari scene, 1 third beach and 1 third unrest which might more accurately portray the layman’s impression of this iconic country.

Kenya might well be the original home of the safari but it is also a developing territory and not stuck in aspic, days are not conducted in sepia and all this harking back to bygone days is borderline ridiculous. I’m not saying that safari shouldn’t be romantic and I am not deriding properties with dates in their name – I am saying look beyond the pantomime and see the country for what it is. Celebrate the history without pretending life hasn’t moved on. Some may ridicule Japanese tourists who seemingly all take the same photographs of England and yet are we not massively guilty of the same in Kenya? We want to see wildlife and proud Maasai warriors and pretend that they are not on Facebook. We want to learn a smattering of Swahili and ignore the fact we are sitting in $100,000 Land-Cruisers. Nostalgia is not what it used to be.

I think it’s time to give Kenya the respect it deserves. It is evolving faster than most Western countries and the leap to digital has been embraced. There is still a massive dichotomy on the ground. This is still a land of pastoral nomads – governed by grass, grazing and goats but there is also a capital city with every amenity you can find in London. The roads are suddenly tarmac, there are 50 foot high billboards entering the CBD and you can order a Caesar salad to go.

 

It is almost 20 years since my first tentative trip to Kenya and it pulls at my strings in a way few other places can. Kenya has changed. It has grown up in many ways and it is exciting. There is a real buzz of opportunity and the safari and tourist spheres are just one part of that buzz. Away from the Ferrari safari and those hell-bent on finding the Big 5 before lunch is a triptych of landscapes – rugged mountains, harsh deserts and rolling green plains. There is modern agriculture supplying green beans into Waitrose in the belly of the planes that carry our suitcases. The winds that kite-surfers come to experience on the Indian Ocean continue overland to support the largest wind farm in Africa near Turkana. A jigsaw puzzle of a country with an identity crisis – the rest of the world only sees what it wants to see and the cheap headlines spewed out by the media. Life on the ground is very different – waking up at sunrise with clouds in my coffee and looking at a backdrop of giraffe poling their way to the waterhole – the developed world is a million miles away from this wilderness of 52 separate tribes.

There is a hurdle that needs to be crossed – not a sanitization of safari as found in parts of South Africa with fences and guarantees but a realisation that Kenya offers extraordinary wildlife, beautiful warm people and wi-fi.

It’s time to shelve your preconceptions and come visit.

Lake Turkana – Crossing the Chalbi, Half Empty

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We were heading North by Land Rover, crossing the equator had happened yesterday – the ubiquitous foot either side of the red line photos done – we continued on a quest to the Jade Sea. Looking at a map of Africa, it’s hard to get a scale of how big the pentagonal shape of Kenya really is.

The stats tell us it makes up only 2% of the land mass of the continent. It’s quite the opposite of small though – it’s just that Africa is so massive that the numbers become irrelevant. Where 75% of the population make their living from agriculture it surprised me to learn that 85% of the land is too infertile to farm. The Inspector Clouseau in me then realised that there must be vast empty swathes of land and that is what I had come to find. If the Arabians have the Empty Quarter then the Kenyans are running on fumes.

Maralal came and went – a last chance saloon of a town with supplies for those who wanted to haggle. Jerry cans topped up, two sacks of charcoal and a couple of “emergency” goats in the cage on the back – we began to feel quite intrepid as we left this one horse town. The scenery is harsh, rocks rather than sand dunes and sharp stones rather than pebbles. We pointed the truck north and headed onto the shimmering sea of the volcanic pan. There are no trees out here, no shelter and no shadows, this endless rock desert stretched off to the horizon in all directions. What followed was searing heat and nothing but sand and rocks for hour after hour. I must have dozed off at some point, my head gently knocking against the door frame of the Land Rover.

I awoke, angry that I was missing the experience to see nothing had changed. Some impressive hills were off to our left, they never got closer but at some point they were behind us, they had been our only marker on the map all day. This is the land of nomads, Rendille, Gabra and Samburu, El Molo and Luo and Turkana, fiercely independent tribes; specialists in enduring the heat. At lunchtime on the second day we spotted a cluster of acacia trees way off to the west of the tyre marks we had been following. Some shade and respite from the sun and the perfect stop for lunch. Here we were off the map and our arrival coincided with that of a boy of about 8, in charge of a straggly bunch of goats. We exchanged water and a bag of dates in return for some stilted chat about the direction he had come from. He looked surprised we were there which seemed ironic.

We continued on past the Sands of Horr and eventually the mirage changed hue and Lake Turkana was in front us. You could smell the saline and the soothing relief of the lake only washed away the mental image of sand desert – the shore is home to Nile crocodiles, scorpions and carpet vipers so a cooling dip was out of the question. Grass huts of the El Molo fishermen cluster along the shore and vivid red bolts of cloth marked the locals moving between the huts and the shore, rhythmic chanting carried in waves across to us – the morning catch being unloaded. This was more than a navel-gazing journey -I discovered a colourful oasis of life, a level of stoicism beyond comprehension, dramatic lands and reawakened the pioneer within me.

Something in the air

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There is something you cannot see, smell or touch – you develop another sense that tells you that you are in Africa. Routed in your psyche, the feeling of coming home is profound even to those who have never set foot on African soil.

Perhaps it’s because it’s where we all began, perhaps it’s the earthiness of the place and a longing to return to roots you never knew, but have always been here since hominids first walked the shores of Lake Turkana. So hard to ignore, you rarely meet anybody who comes here just once and this is confirmed by the American lady I sit next to on the plane who tells me it’s her 14th visit in so many years with what looks like the same level of excitement as her first time.

Flight over, a short drive and a long hearty lunch later, I find myself sitting on a hill surveying the open savannah next to a Czech man for sundowners in Amboseli, Kenya. Watching a herd of elephants with their babies in tow as the sun sets behind Kilimanjaro, he tells me he couldn’t get his noise filters to turn off last night. Used only to the sound of cars outside his bedroom window at home, he was kept awake by the nest of birds in a tree above his deck.

“Do you know what they are?” He asks, “yellow and making a really really loud noise”. “I think they are social weavers” I reply, amused by his animated gestures. “Social? I think they are talking major politics up in that tree” he says, cheering up as he sips his gin and tonic (a drink which many safari goers adopt for sundowners even though they never touch it a home). Slightly bleary eyed from his noisy night and early start he tells me he has ticked off most of the big 5, and it’s only his second day. Drinks merrily consumed, we start heading back to camp.

The next morning I ask him if he slept any better. “Still getting use to the noises, but yes thank you”. I think the filters are on. Just as well as he has another 9 nights on safari. Only when he returns to his Prague apartment I know he will miss the lions roaring, singing crickets and chattering weavers to sooth him to sleep as he listens to the traffic. But then something in the air tells me he’ll come home again.

Just So Kenya

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“You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular,” the Ethiopian told the Leopard. “Think of that and purr!”
– Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling was on to something… In his Just So story of “How the Leopard Got his Spots”, the Ethiopian endows his feline friend with spots as camouflage for life in the trees, and on a recent trip to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy I can vouch first-hand that this coat indeed makes him disappear from view.

Seeing cats in the wild is difficult, but especially leopards, who are notorious for their slinky stealthy solitude. They don’t court attention in the same way that lions do – partly because they are solitary creatures and partly because they are also great climbers and prefer to sit in the shade of a lofty perch wherever possible. However their laid back attitude defies their devilish spirit and sharp eyes.

So imagine my surprise when our guide suddenly turned the Jeep announcing “Leopard – The tail hanging from the tree….Can you see?

The swinging tail had given him away – and my heart leapt in excitement. As we drew closer – the young male stood up and seemed to pose for our cameras and then settled down for a cat nap…having gorged himself on a recent kill.

He seemed indifferent to us and indeed the master-of-all he surveyed from his treetop domain.

This conservancy is a huge success story with over 65,000 acres of private land which are home to many species, notably the endangered Black Rhino. Indeed on our way to the air strip for our flight out we also encountered another famous name – Elvis the blind, orphaned black rhino who has been hand-reared successfully and returned to the wild. He sniffed the air and recognised our guide as a friendly smell and trotted over to the jeep to say hello.

And in the words of the other Elvis – all I have to say is “Thank you and Good night” Kenya for a truly amazing and humbling ten days of safari.

Battlefields, Beach and Bush

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While the Cape is the poster boy for South African tourism, Kwa-Zulu Natal is the grittier and altogether more African face of South Africa. The Cape has the Garden Route, justifiably renowned for its scenic beauty; KZN has the Midlands Meander.

You may be forgiven for thinking this sounds more like a wrong turn on the Spaghetti Junction than a tourist attraction, but don’t be put off by the name. This spectacular stretch of road through KZN’s heartland twists and turns in the shadows of the Drakensburg mountains and not only offers beautiful wilderness but is home to a variety of artisans, from leather workers to wood craftsmen, to cheese makers and beer brewers.

Continuing with the comparison, the perception of Durban is as the under achieving cousin when held alongside Cape Town. In fairness though, there are few cities in Africa that can hold a torch to Cape Town’s location, style and chic but what Durban has is an affability its more fashionable cousin cannot match. With Durban you get an unconditional welcome – a shake of the hand and come on in and help yourself to a cold one in the fridge. There’s no sideward glance, looking for a designer label and scant attention paid to whether you prefer a Castle Lager or a chilled Chenin Blanc. Durban is Melbourne to Cape Town’s Sydney – it feels more lived in and more lovable for it.

I was there on a Saturday and stayed in the excellent Beverley Hills Hotel in Umhlanga Rocks (and yes, it does) where the endless stretch of beach was a playground for families, lovers, joggers, dog walkers, surfers and tourists alike. Heading downtown I enjoyed a fabulous lunch at the House of Curries (Durban has the largest diaspora of Indians of any city in the world), visited the house of John Dube where Nelson Mandela cast his vote in the historic 1994 elections and hired a bike and cycled the length of Durban’s promenade which would have felt a lot like Brighton if it wasn’t for the sand and the mercurial Indian Ocean whipping up a spume.

Most of my forays into African territory are motivated by a need for wild places, open space and wildlife. This trip with the KZN tourist board was no different but had the added attraction of visiting the Anglo-Zulu battlefields. I have lost count of the number of times I have watched “Zulu” and badly mimicked any number of Michael Caine quotes (“chin-chin, do carry on with your mud pies”).

On the battlefield of Isandlwana, such frivolity was just not appropriate as the enormity of the loss and the utter futility of it all was bought home by the poignant narrative of our guide, Rob Gerrard. A steely eyed ex Gordon Highlander who served in Kenya, Rob left you with the impression that he would not himself have been out of place on this battlefield, standing his ground alongside his men in the face of such terrifying hostility. The Zulu victory at Isandlwana was of course a pyrrhic one, yet this does not diminish the incredible bravery of the Zulu impi and the tactical acumen of the chiefs who conceived and implemented the perfect offensive, now well known as the horns and chest of the buffalo.

Later that evening, looking down from Isandlwana Lodge’s veranda, it was hard to believe that so much blood was spilt on a setting that looked so benign and bucolic. My week in Kwa-Zulu Natal was a wonderful reminder that South Africa is more than just winelands and Garden Route. For the real beating heart of South Africa, visit Kwa-Zulu Natal where the hospitality is on a par with the Cape and the experiences exhilarating, fun and profound.

To find out more about Jarrod’s trip or for any help or advice on planning your holiday to South Africa please call our experts on 01285 880 980.

Kenya – changing pre-conceptions

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It was with some trepidation that I flew into Nairobi, with Kenya having been in the news for all the wrong reasons prior to my arrival. From colonisation to rebellions, independence and autocracy, this economic hub of East Africa has grown at a staggering rate with wide ranging consequences – the forthcoming elections in March another historic milestone.

Whilst there is plenty of talk about the future of the country, it was interesting to find out that 70% of Kenya’s population is under the age of 30 and it is this new population who are offering a refreshing optimism in a country whose government can be overshadowed by tribal divisions. Today’s Kenya is keen to respect the traditions of the past but is ready to embrace change with a very modern sensibility.

I began my own adventure along one of the country’s most spectacular – and popular – coastal regions – Diani beach, where the warm Indian Ocean laps the powder white, palm fringed shores. Local, wooden dhows bobbed on the horizon, bringing home the freshest catch for dinner at the relaxed, low key lodges tucked away in this seemingly endless stretch of paradise – far removed from the development further south. The Swahili culture adds a touch of style to the luxurious properties found here, but venture out from the lodge in the other direction and within minutes you are walking amongst traditional fishing villages, where colourfully robed women sell dried fish and gossip in the shade of trees and children run out from small gardens
thick with mango’s.

I then flew north-west to Amboseli, the park taking its name from the Swahili word for the fine volcanic dust that covers the park where over 1,000 resident elephants roam the endless plains, huge herds shimmering in the distance. The lush springs, (home to great birdlife) and the imposing presence of snow-capped Kili as constant backdrop, adds a beautiful contrast to the region and is quite rightly, a photographers dream destination.

Continuing further north, I flew over the landscape of the Great Rift Valley, primeval in its rawness and scarred by ravines and gorges, before landing in Samburu, a dramatic landscape of semi-arid desert and volcanic plains, softened by lush springs and doum palms. Here we enjoyed game drives in the shadow of sacred mountains, worshipped by the colourful Samburu tribes, whose decorative beadwork puts their southern cousins to shame. It is also here you also find the nomadic and lesser-known Boran, translated as “friend” with camels replacing the Maasai cattle and their culture captured in haunting songs passed down through generations as way of educating children. The nomadic nature of the Boran and their semi-permanent settlements made of branches and grass makes village visits and cultural interaction virtually impossible, giving any chance encounter with these communities all the more engaging.

Leaving this rich cultural heartland behind, I then flew in to the best wildlife region in Africa – the Maasai Mara. Somewhat unfairly derided by many for being too busy, too commercial, and not the real Africa, those who put such prejudice aside are richly rewarded. Is the Mara busy? Yes, but no more so than other iconic destinations people are lucky enough to visit but by choosing lodges carefully, staying in the privately managed and award winning wildlife concessions surrounding the park I enjoyed world class game viewing away from the crowds. Lion kill, leopard and cheetah in a morning’s drive was pretty special…

Kenya is certainly Africa’s most well known country, but should not be judged on that alone. The classic combination of a rich cultural heritage, spectacular beaches and world-class game viewing proves that in constantly looking for the next big thing, it is easy to overlook the familiar and miss what makes Kenya so hugely appealing the first place.

 

2012 Migration update

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The Kenyan Wildebeest migration continues in the Masai Mara. In the last few days there have been some very good crossings on the Mara River. Yesterday many zebra and wildebeest crossed from east to the west at the main crossing points along the River. There are many wildebeest spread out across the plains surrounding our camps. Huge lines of wildebeest were seen this morning filing over Rhino Ridge and towards Paradise Plains.

The lions of the area are doing well, there are two cubs up on Paradise Plains which are the same age as the new Marsh Pride cubs and the two large males are back on Paradise Plains, no doubt attracted by the large herds of wildebeest and zebra. And the male lion Morani has been mating with one of the young Marsh Pride females. Yesterday evening Siena another of the Marsh Pride females managed to tree a young male leopard at Lake Nakuru and the leopard was kept high up in a Teclea tree for most of the day, it had moved out of the tree by this morning.

People flying on the Governors’ Balloon have been enjoying spectacular views of the herds of the great migration. Governors Camps in Kenya still have some tents available for this year’s migration season, so if you would like to come on safari and see this incredible wildlife spectacle then contact Steppes Travel on 01285650011 to book your Governors migration safari.

The Migration has arrived in Kenya

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*Migration 2012*
A little later than in recent years, the Great Migration of 2012 finally kicked off just over a week ago. Due to heavy rains in the Serengeti-Maraecosystem since early this year the Plains grass has been long and has hampered the progress of the wildebeest, delaying their arrival north into Kenya.

As of 17th July the herds have been making steady progress into Kenya, with the first reported arrival in the Mara of a group of around 10,000 Wildebeest. From the Sand River area isolated concentrations of Zebra and Wildebeest were observed congregating in the north of the Serengeti.

According to sightings in the area the current migrating herds have split into three distinct groups with one making its way up from Grumeti in the eastern Serengeti; another moving north from Bologonja (approximately 10 miles south of the Masai Mara in the northern Serengeti) towards the Sand River; and a third approaching from the eastern side of the Kuka Hills. This third group started trickling into the Mara on 17th July. On 20th July guests at Porini Lion Camp reported having seen several hundred wildebeest crossing the Mara River and on 24th July thousands of Wildebeest were seen crossing the Sand River between Sala’s Camp and the Mara River South Bridge, very likely part of the group which had been coming up from Bologonja – the action has most definitely started!

*How it works…*
The Great Wildebeest Migration, the longest and largest overland migration in the world and one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of Africa”, comprises around 1.5 million Wildebeest, 200,000 Zebra, 350,000 Thomson’s Gazelles and 12,000 Eland making an epic circular journey of approximately 2,000 miles in search of “greener pastures”.

The Migration is not a single occurrence; it is a never-ending cycle which begins for a Wildebeest with its birth and ends with its death. Wildebeest are born in a mass birthing (known as “calving”) which takes place during January and February on the plains near the Ngorongoro Crater and the Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania, at the southernmost extent of the Wildebeests’ range. Nature has ensured that, to increase its chances of survival, a newborn Wildebeest calf is able to stand within 2-3 minutes of birth and run with the herd within about five minutes! It is believed, from recent fossil discoveries, that Wildebeest have been grazing the Serengeti for more than a million years.

Towards the end of the short Dry season, in March, the grass plains of the southern Serengeti start to dry out and the Wildebeest continue their journey, intuitively following the rains and fresh grasses first westwards towards the small, seasonal lake of Ndutu (Lagarja), and then northwest towards Lake Victoria. From here the herds gradually head north into the Masai Mara – and more of the life-or-death river crossings that prove such a draw for tourists from all over the world.

The Wildebeest converge at the Mara River in their thousands and gather on the plains and banks beside it, waiting to cross. The cacophony as they call to one another is unprecedented. Their numbers can grow for days at a time and observers will often wait in suspense beside the river, anticipation building, until – for no apparent reason – the Wildebeest turn from the river, as one, and move away! Eventually, however, the herds will select a crossing point (frequently more than one), and the intrepid journey to the opposite bank will begin. It is still not known what prompts them to turn back or to cross – or even where they will choose to cross in any given year.

Usually, the Wildebeest begin their journey south again by late October, when the first of the Short Rains reach the plains of the Serengeti, bringing fresh growth and brimming seasonal waterholes. Rutting having taken place in May and June, the majority of the cows will already be heavily pregnant – and so the cycle continues on in perpetuity.

To find out more about the holidays to see the migration in Kenya and where to stay, please call our Africa experts on 01285 650 011. We currently have some special offers on to see the migration in Kenya, please contact the office for more details.

Loisaba Predator Project

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With an array of different activities available, Loisaba Wilderness really does offer something for the whole family. Whether spending a morning by the river, enjoying a family camel trek and bush breakfast; or pampering mum at the Spa while the kids learn traditional bush skills (with Loisaba’s Samburu guides), Loisaba is the ideal destination for those wanting to combine a traditional African safari with a rewarding child-friendly holiday.

Loisaba’s assortment of different accommodation options also means that families can choose to have a private safari experience at Loisaba House or Loisaba Cottage (their own exclusive home-away-from-home), or mix with other families and guests at Loisaba’s Lodge and Starbeds.

And for the cat-lovers out there? Loisaba is a proud supporter of the Laikipia Predator Project, which helps to conserve large carnivores by studying the behaviours, movements and ecology of predators living within Laikipia, monitoring predators’ response to conservation actions and improving livestock practices (to prevent human-wildlife conflict). As well as Loisaba’s Northern and Eastern plains, the kingdom of Loisaba’s lions, the bushy terrain in front of Loisaba Lodge makes it ideal leopard territory, with five leopards living in this vicinity alone.

Guests at Loisaba are able to become involved in Laikipia Predator Project’s research and monitoring activities – a fun, hands-on activity for families, as they track lions using receivers and antennae (approximately one lion per pride wears a VHF or GPS collar), identifying individuals and reporting their findings back at the lodge. Laikipia Predator Project’s key researcher, Marc Napao, is based at Loisaba and has spent many hours monitoring and identifying lions with Loisaba’s guides. Marc is now developing an online database which will allow guests to identify and report their lion sightings after each game drive. With the ability to track individual prides, learn about their movements and history, then upload images and report additional identification features online, Loisaba guests are actively playing a part in helping to conserve Laikipia’s lion population.

For more information about Loisaba or the Laikipia Predator Project, please contact our Africa consultants on 01285 650 011.

Kicheche Mara Camp and Breezes Baraza

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After a recent holiday to Kenya and Zanzibar Steppes Discovery’s Deborah West gives us a snippet of her fantastic wildlife holiday. She was lucky enough to capture the above photo of a newly born giraffe on one magicaly safari.

Kicheche Mara Camp:

Coming down the track to the Kicheche Mara Camp for the first time gave us an insight as to what we would call home for the next three nights – remote luxury tents nestling in the beautiful Acacia Valley with Thomson Gazelles grazing in the foreground. On arrival we had a wonderful reception from the Camp Managers, Simon and Olivia, they were so warm and friendly.

It feels like home already as we settled in our spacious tent, delicious food was served to us looking over the beautiful surroundings, we were totally spoilt.

We were up early for game drives, to get the best photography and viewing of the wildlife rising from their slumber, there was never a dull moment and always something to see. Our Maasai Guide, David, was quietly spoken and very knowledgeable about his culture and the surrounding wildlife. He did not fail us and we managed to see everything we hoped for, even the bonus baby giraffe, born about 30 minutes prior to our arrival. Still staggering to get on his feet, being nursed by the mother, a wonderful site.

The highlight – well it had to be the leopard. Sleeping on a branch, you had to be a good spotter to find him and David was the man for the job. He never failed and it was our last game drive too, I am sure he was leaving the best to last!!

And then to Zanzibar…

Breezes Baraza:

If you are planning a holiday to Zanzibar… save your pennies and go to the Breezes Baraza, you will not be disappointed. We were overwhelmed with the beauty and spacious opulence of the bungalows. It was a struggle to leave and I will definitely be saving my pennies for a return trip. The service was exceptional, the food delicious, the weather unbroken sunshine – perfect!

To speak to Deborah further about her holiday to Kenya and Zanzibar, or to discuss wildlife holidays to Kenya and Zanzibar please contact the Discovery team on 01285 643 333.

Big Cat Photography

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Big cat photography

One often hears how digital technology has made photography more accessible, however the above takes the biscuit and gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘wildlife photography.’

Our friend Paul Goldstein from Kicheche Camps witnessed an amazing scene when out on safari and took this remarkable photograph. Here is Paul’s account of what happened:

“Two Belgian photographers dropped their tripod and camera and some playful Marsh lions swooped on it. The comedian Bob Newhart once said ‘give a million chimps a typewriter and one will write the complete works of Shakespeare’; this must have been the one in a million lion.

Not only did he get the tripod erected but also (photographers take note) he had the camera in the correct portrait format. He also took four shots. Sadly after this impeccable preparation they were really very poor with the ISO too high and the horizon shockingly uneven. The camera survived with some cracks, the photographers got it back and did not see the funny side at all. They were the only ones who didn’t. Normally any sort of interaction with animals is wrong, but this was extraordinary, nothing or no-one was harmed and those who saw it, particularly the three Kicheche guides that day: Amos, Joseph and Jackson are still laughing now.”

Kicheche has 3 camps in the Mara and they have a reputation for delivering the goods when it comes to game viewing, but feline photographers?! This is exceptional, even by Kicheche’s high standards…

The Migration in Kenya

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*Game Report from Governors Camp – Kenya*

*Weather and grasslands*
November was an extraordinary month, lovely weather to begin with, then scattered showers and heavy downpours from mid month. In the early hours of the morning of the 10th there was a big rainstorm which caused the Marsh to fill up with water. A few days later another big rainstorm added yet more water to the Marsh causing much entertainment to the regular troop of Olive Baboons who sat on the Marsh verges watching the water levels rising.

*General game*
River crossings of wildebeest and zebra continued into November with around 2,000 wildebeest crossing the Mara River towards Governors, one was sadly taken by a waiting crocodile. Then again over the following few days an estimated 5,000 zebra and 1,000 wildebeest taking the plunge. The crossing on the 5th was so large that it took all morning and one unfortunate zebra foal was taken by a hungry patrolling crocodile.

Topi have been giving birth on the plains, calves can follow their mothers’ immediately after birth, with many guests witnessing this as well as Cokes Hartebeest or Kongoni.

There are many warthogs are across the plains and those that have piglets have lost up to 50% due to predation, some families have been completely wiped out by hungry lions, hyena and leopard.

The big buffalo herds in the Bila Shaka and Rhino Ridge areas have many calves and some of these young calves have also fallen prey to lion and hyena. There are a dozen or so male buffalo who spend their days close to the Marsh enjoying the soft grasses.

Elephant with many young calves have been moving back and forth between the Marsh and the woodland and now that the Warburgia trees are fruiting this will entice the Elephant to spend more time in the woodlands and between the camps.

Teclea Nobilis are also fruiting, their fruit, which is red when ripe attracts many birds including the stricking double toothed barbett.

The woodlands are full of breeding herds of impala, many of these herds have young fawns of varying ages. Young fawns can fall prey to many including male Olive baboons and both Jackal species especially the Black Backed Jackal. Olive baboons live in groups or “troops” as they are often called, ranging in size from 15 to 150 individuals.

The elusive Bush Buck are seen in the early morning and evening light often mingling with a troop of baboons as they forage for food. Defassa Waterbuck are also spread out with this rain but still close to the Musiara marsh.

The Bat Eared Foxes are out and about, there are many dens with some young cubs. Bat Eared Foxes will feed on many insects favouring harvester termites and dung beetles. They have a well developed digastric muscle that allows them to snap at approximately 3 times a second. Black Backed Jackals also have pups at the moment and they are taking up residence in old termite mounds, appearing in the early mornings.

There have also been some lovely sightings of two male Black Rhinos up on Paradise plains.

Mid month there was a lot of action close to Il Moran camp, during early evening two hippos had a huge fight with one hippo dead by 2am. The scavengers then moved in and the night air was filled with the cackling of excited hyenas. When the sun rose the hyena disappeared and the vultures moved in devouring what was left. Over a hundred vultures mainly the white back, Hooded and ruppels Griffin covered the carcass.

*Big Cats*
*Lion*
The Marsh Pride have been covering an area from the Marsh to Rhino Ridge. The four ‘new males’ are a formidable foursome and have been killing buffalo and a young hippo. Joy’s five cubs (including the much smaller adopted one) are doing well. Within the first week of the month there were three new cubs, with all the rain there have been no further firm sightings of these little cubs and the worst is feared. The 4 large males related to ‘Notch’ are being seen near the Talek river but ‘Notch’ himself has not been seen lately. There is a lioness that has three cubs which are about two months old now and she is in the croton thickets on the Emarti side of the Talek River.

*Cheetah*
The two males have been seen between the Paradise Plains and the Talek River, they have were last seen feeding off the remains of a warthog sow. These two brothers were seen earlier on in the month on the plains east of the Marsh, they had killed a Grants Gazelle but hyena moved them off very quickly, unfortunately this is the problem cheetah face. A female cheetah on the Posse Plains (North West side of the Talek River) has three young cubs which are about two months old. She has been seen hunting Thompson Gazelle. The older male has been seen near the Musiara gate and he has been seen feeding off warthog piglets, he has a little sarcoptic mange around his face and ears so he will have to be monitored.

*Leopard*
Olive, her 11 month old cub and the two year old son remain close to the Talek River. A large male Leopard has been in the river bed south of Bila Shaka towards Rhino Ridge. The young male who frequents the croton thickets close to the Mara River has again been seen more often this month. The female with two cubs who are about nine months old have been in the riverine tree line at the bottom end of the Bila Shaka river bed. A female leopard with two very young cubs was in a dry river bed near to Look out hill. These cubs have just opened their eyes so are thought to be a little over one month old.

*Walking in the Koiyaki Conservation Area.*
Due to the weather only two walks were able this month. Good numbers of Thomson Gazelle can be seen on the open plains above the ‘Fly over’ and also in the open areas between the acacia woodlands. Two Thompson fawns were killed by a pair of Black Jackals on the 3rd of November, Jackals work as a pair and run their prey down which is similar to many of the canids, they are amazingly agile. On the 3rd at the bottom end of the Olare Orok a large clan of hyenas were seen moving away from the remains of a Zebra kill and that was presumed was taken by the acacia lion pride. Three lionesses and 5 cubs of varying ages were seen well into the croton thickets below the salt lick, although lion are habituated to cars it is a different ball game whilst on foot. A few male buffalo were seen and these are more often seen in the deep croton thickets and occasionally on the open plains. Topi with calves and Cokes Hartebeest are also being seen. There is a touch of scarlet on the plains and Laval escarpments with the Fireball lily, gloriosa superba and crossandra Nilotica.

For more information about Kenyan holidays or to witness the action from the migration for yourself, please contact our Kenya specialists on 01285 880 980.

Wild Dogs are denning!

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Sosian Lodge has had a full month of rain in November and is beautifully green, full of nesting birds and baby impalas, warthogs and wild dogs!

The Sosian pack denned on the 28th of October in the same site they chose two years ago amongst some rocks about 2km from the lodge.The pups are usually kept hidden in the den for approx 3 weeks after their birth and once thay are allowed to see the light of day the alpha female keeps a very close eye on them. At this stage they are very susceptible to lion predation and in other parts of Africa where lions are more prevalent there are incidents reported of whole litters being killed by lions, keen to eradicate any potential competition for food.

Seeing wild dogs pups on hunting forays with the adult dogs is a fascinating encounter. The adults will of course make the kill but will immediately stand down and allow the pups prime position on the carcass. We will be in close contact with Sosian over the next few weeks and will be sure to keep you informed on the wild dog pup’s progress.

For more information about our wild dog tours to Kenya, please contact the office on 01285 643 333.

Dog Day Afternoon

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“As a young boy I would wake to the sound of wild dogs yapping as they ran past our manyatta in the early hours – some mornings I’m not sure if the noises were real or just a dream…”I never tired of hearing Joseph, Kicheche Mara Camp’s senior guide, recounting stories of his childhood. Every time I heard his lament that hunting dogs had not been seen in the northern part of the Greater Masai Mara since 1994, the dog’s mythical status was reinforced in my mind.

In 2009 I was manager of Kicheche Mara Camp. One afternoon, we heard a report that wild dogs had been sighted on the Olchorro plains in front of Killeleoni Escarpment. I immediately dropped what I was doing and Joseph and I jumped in a vehicle and began the search. With senses heightened, mottled rocks, speckled bush and skittish dik-diks were all mistaken for various canine anatomies but as we entered a large clearing the view that greeted us was clear and unequivocal. A flash of white from his tail was the first we saw of the alpha male as he ran in front of our vehicle in the direction of a croton thicket. Just as we were ruefully thinking he would disappear into the bush, he stopped and upon seeing the rest of the pack enter the clearing he ambled back towards us. He was warmly greeted by the dominant female and in the next ten minutes we counted a total of sixteen wild dogs, their unfeasibly large ears standing to attention and their wet noses reflecting the last of the day’s sunlight as they interacted less than 50 meters from our vehicle.

Sightings like this are still rare in the Mara but if you head north to Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau there is a private concession, known as Sosian Ranch where the wild dog sightings are exceptional. In conjunction with John Wright, a professional wildlife photographer who shares my passion for wild dogs, Steppes Discovery’s first Wild Dog Photographic safari has just returned and successfully photographed Sosian’s dogs on five occasions.

This was John’s comment when I spoke to him in Nairobi: “We had three sessions with a pack of 28 dogs. On two occasions we were with the dogs for over 2 hours each with many dogs only 5 metres away from our vehicle. The first of these was while they were on a kill…we got some amazing photographs and the most incredible memories of Africa’s most enigmatic predator.”

I spoke to the managers of Sosian Lodge last week and they tell me the dogs are now denning within sight of the lodge.

Lemarti’s Camp

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As we arrived our pilot told us that Lemarti’s is a spiritual place and people come away changed. I don’t know if it was the relief of knowing that the Lewa marathon was over, or if we were truly touched by the spirit of the place – but we certainly came away with a sense of calm and in touch with nature.

From the smooth, rich feel of the reclaimed cedar beams under our bare feet to the concert of bird song that welcomed us to our luxurious tent, it was clear we had entered a different world.

Lemarti himself, is a laid back host, very entertaining out in the field, but leaving his guests to amuse themselves once back at camp. And Anna has thought of every luxury, her taste is exquisite, part Kenyan – part European, but very naturally chic and comfortable. A fascinating selection of books tempt one to stay lounging in the mess tent, as well as the tactile local games carved in wood that lie around. But there is barely any time to relax. Whether it is having your tin bath drawn by the colourful Samburu staff, following elephant footprints along the muddy riverbank or watching baboons through binoculars – there is a host of new experiences going on.

Our first ‘proper’ excursion, but it actually could not have been more casual, was a walk along the river to Kockei’s honey tree. High up in the trees, rolled drums of bark are hung for bees to create their hives. Every local has his own tree and can only collect honey from ‘their’ tree. Firstly, fire is lit – the natural way, rubbing a branch of fig wood against cedar. Some small branches are tied together and lit to create smoke. Kockei straddles a leather strap and hoists his way up the trunk of his tree. Balancing 20ft up, the smoking bundle is passed to him, along with a leather pouch for the honey. He climbs further, reaching about 40 ft with no safety harness and sometimes just the bare pads of his feet to grip. His only protection is his kakoi’s wrapped over his face, as he smokes the bees out of their hives and then reaches in to grab dripping honeycomb from within. Eventually when he has exhausted that hive’s supply, he nimbly shimmies down the tree and generously offers us the MOST delicious fresh honeycomb I have ever tasted. And as if that was not adventure enough, half an hour later, Lemarti is chasing elephants down the hill with his 4 year old daughter on his shoulders.

There is a wonderful acceptance of guests into their lives. Later that evening we sat around a campfire as the nonstop chatter between the Samburus went on and on, completely disregarding the fact that we could not understand a word, they would discuss, the quality of the honey, the elephants, perhaps the tyres of the custom made jeep or the goat they slaughtered the night before. Then one of them would break into song and the group would join in with their un-European harmonies. But it was not contrived, it was all totally natural and easy.

The food, made by Paul, the illiterate chef, is delicious, the recipes created from memory. Lovely light soups followed by salad and meat for those who need more and heartier more filling meals in the evening. A drinks trolley, weighed down with an airport selection of spirits, liqueurs and wines and puddings in perfect quantities, leaving you wanting more.

Night time, we are led to our tents by a torch bearing Samburu, past the sounds of the cicadas and the nightjars, to our glamorous tent, all zipped up and free from nasty night beasties. A plume of ostrich feathers on a spear is the Samburu sign that a man is visiting his woman, and this is the Do Not Disturb sign at Lemarti’s that you plant outside your tent to show you are inside.

At dawn, it is the sound of leopards, baboons or elephants that awaken you before the birdsong begins again. The camp is directly opposite the huge Impala Ranch, a 50,000 acre wasteland given to the Smithsonian for research and totally devoid of tourism. But guests at Lemarti’s can be taken on game drives here, crossing the river in Lemarti’s very swish, leather seated jeep and driving for hours in a wilderness filled with giraffe, elephant, lion, buffalo and hippos – as well as the endless zebra, impala and waterbuck, dikdiks, vultures, eagles, tortoises, snakes and rare wild dogs. Anything can happen here and although there are rangers, there is a great sense that you are the only tourists – something so rare in Kenya today.

After another delicious lunch, there is the chance of a massage or a siesta, before the local dancers arrive to show off how high they can jump. Elegant warriors in their beads and colourful sarongs, with plaited hair caked in red ochre, pogo their way around the garden, attracting the attention of the pre-pubescent girls who come gilded in necklaces of red beads and royal blue capes. It is a ritual, but one they obviously enjoy.

The staff at the camp have carefully chosen one representative from each local community, so that no two villages benefit more or less from working in the camp – so the dancers, enjoy coming to Lemarti’s camp, they meet one another, see some new girls, and catch up on news.

That night Anna Trzybenski, our hostess, regaled us with stories of how she met Lemarti and took him to Europe and America, it is a romance that in itself is the biggest adventure of all. In the background a local crooner, sat under the magic fig tree and plucked his homemade instrument late into the night.

It was casually suggested the next morning that we visited the local market, an hour’s drive from the camp. This was in fact, the highlight of our visit, filled with preening warriors and clusters of local girls all in their fantastic colours and beads, circulating, meeting, exchanging goats and soap and not a tourist in sight. Genuine, real, amazing Samburu life, carrying on regardless as to whether we were there or not. A goat cost £30, a camel £200 and thousand mile shoes, £4. It was difficult to keep my itchy fingers from taking photos of everyone and everything, but without the camera it all carries on naturally, unselfconsciously and the moment a black piece of equipment is pointed at them, the chemistry changes. For the morning we just mingled with this marvellous crowd as naturally as we could, before being driven back to Lemarti’s for a last farewell lunch.

Our visit was short, we could have easily stayed another 2 nights. We didn’t even get to play in the muddy water slide down the side of the river. But it is the sort of place, I’d like to return to; somewhere I’d like to share and show friends. Very happy, very comfortable and very unusual if not unique. Glorious!

I no longer sell, but if you are interesting in hearing more about my time in Kenya, or would like to discuss options for your holiday to Kenya, please contact us on 01285 880980.

Well I Made It!

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Well I made it and without the help of the stretcher bearers! Not perhaps as fast as I had hoped, but 23 seconds under 3 hours! I was placed 693 out of 1,100. No one was eaten, although at one point the spotter helicopter had to stop a protective female elephant charging a group of runners. I was lapped at the 12 km mark by the winner, a Kenyan, who nonchalantly loped past and by all appearances had not even broken into a sweat. He completed the full marathon in 2 hours 18 minutes.

I can categorically say I hated pretty much every minute of the run and as you will see from the pictures, I’d designed my own T-shirt, much to the delight of many fellow runners. The route was solidly uphill from the 5 km to the 14 km mark on a narrow track gouged and rutted from rain. We were up at 5 am for some breakfast and at the start line for 7 am to watch the 5 km children’s race set off, slightly delayed by lions having a zebra for breakfast on the course. By 7.30, when the race began, it was already starting to get hot so the water/Lucozade stops every 2 kms were a most welcome respite and an excuse to walk.

Running aside, the event was huge fun. Amazing logistics, brilliant atmosphere, wonderful place and surprisingly good food in a tented camp housing upwards of 200 people – overall a fantastic experience. Several teams from the City (Deutsche Bank, Blackrock, Artemis – each of whom raised in excess of £100,000 for Tusk), a lovely group from Admiral Insurance in South Wales, an army team of wounded soldiers from BattleBack, Americans travelling with Marathon Tours (crazy people who run marathons in 7 continents) and of course the majority were locals, many of whom travelled up from Nairobi the night before and who clearly had never run anywhere in their lives.

We visited several projects funded by the Tusk Trust, in the preceding days. A couple of schools, a water project and land, irrigated and fertile by Tusk efforts. It made us realise we were running for the sake of a very good cause. And on the early morning game drives we saw some Black Rhino, the endangered beast that is so well protected on the Lewa Downs – a treat, on top of the aches.

Having posted beforehand that I would never, ever, ever do it again, the pain of the run, rather like childbirth, recedes (or so I am told!) and is replaced simply by the memory of the experience. Who knows? I cannot help feeling we should have a full Steppes team for 2012 with a combination of staff and clients.

Anyone up for it?

Loving Leopards in the Masai Mara

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When leading a safari, it is always a relief to bank a sighting that gets the pulse racing on day one of the trip. Mating leopards en route from the air strip to the camp, however, was frankly setting the bar impossibly high and while feeling elated I was also left with the niggling concern of how do we top this?

Fortunately, the safari Gods were smiling on the recent Steppes Discovery Kicheche Wildlife Safari, led by a local masai guide, Daniel Minchil and I. While the rains had not been prolific during April and May there had been enough to give the plains a vibrant, green hue and so big herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle were grazing happily on the Mara’s fertile savannah. This in turn meant the predators were happy as a fresh supply of well fed game was on hand to satisfy their uncompromising appetites.

We saw an abundance of lion – the River Pride and the Cheli & Peacock pride who vie for supremacy on the plains of the Mara North Conservancy; the Moniko Pride in the Olare Orok conservancy who currently have cubs ranging from 2-12 weeks in age; and the famous Marsh Pride of Big Cat Diary fame. A game drive accompanied by the Living With Lions researcher Sara Blackburn gave a sobering insight into the current plight of lions in the Masai Mara. Given the number of lions we encountered, it would have been easy to have left the Mara with a positive impression of how lions are currently faring however having heard the challenges they face from human-wildlife conflict and habitat destruction we were left with no doubts as to the struggle these iconic cats face. It wasn’t all bad news though as most conservationists agree that the way to save the lion is through conservancies just like Olare Orok and the new Naboisho where lions are afforded protection through greater community involvement in tourism.

There are some myopic tour operators that attempt to shoe-horn the Masai Mara into August and September to coincide with the annual wildebeest migration. While this spectacle is unquestionably worth the hype, our trip in June proves that the Masai Mara is no one trick pony and for the perceptive and patient traveller the most prolific game reserve in Africa can deliver in spades at almost any time of the year.

Black Rhino encounter on the Masai Mara

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Within 30 minutes of arriving at Olkiombo air strip on the edge of the Masai Mara Nature Reserve I sat admiring a young female leopard seeking shade halfway up an olive tree. She had a fresh impala kill draped over the bower next to her and her relaxed demeanour confirmed that for a leopard, life doesn’t get any better.

“You’ve set the bar very high Moses” I teased my Masai guide.

“Ah, we shall see…” he replied with an air of confidence and a wry smile that confirmed my first impressions; I was in very safe hands.
This was the beginning of 48 hours courtesy of Basecamp, spent at their 2 camps in the Masai Mara, renowned for their exemplary green credentials and strong sense of community based tourism. My first night was spent at Basecamp Mara, perched on the edge of the Talek River and no more than 5 minutes drive into the Reserve. After a morning “transfer” from the air strip to camp where I saw leopard, cheetah and lion, the afternoon drive was spent in the company of 3 adult male lions who have formed a formidable coalition and have taken to hunting hippos for their main source of food. The next morning’s game drive started quietly as we headed to the Meta Plains, east of the Reserve and an area I was not familiar with. Moses (or Big Moses as all who knew him would refer) stopped the vehicle, reversed 10 feet, stopped and then got out.

“He has been here recently,” he said.

“Who?”

“Kifaru…rhino.”

Having worked in the Mara for 2 years and having been a frequent visitor for 10 years before that, I have never seen a black rhino on the plains of the Mara. We got back in the vehicle and 5 minutes later we stopped again to examine a copious pile of rhino poo.

“This is very fresh, he must be close.”

As we drove away, I checked the setting on my camera for the fifteenth time. With only 46 left in the Mara I knew how privileged we would be if we were to find a black rhino and I sensed that Moses shared my sense of anticipation. A momentary glimpse of a red billed ox-pecker was the final sign that Moses needed to home in on the rhino’s whereabouts and as we waited by a croton thicket, hoping the animal would reveal itself, we quietly discussed the plight of the rhino in Africa.

In 1970 there were approx 20,000 rhino in Kenya. By 1990 there were 400. The seemingly insatiable appetite for rhino horn in China and Vietnam is responsible for the demise of one of Africa’s most iconic animals. Used in traditional medicines, it is believed to cure a whole range of conditions, from cancer to baldness and as the demand grows, so does the price and with it the lengths that poachers will go to in their efforts to kill rhinos and cut off their horns. 2 white rhinos, located at a sanctuary in the Greater Mara were recently killed and in the last 9 months, poachers in Lewa have killed 2 black rhinos. With South Africa losing 1 rhino a day to poachers, it is clear that drastic action is required at the highest level before it is too late.

Our rhino appeared exactly where Big Moses had said it would, still with the ox-peckers that had betrayed its location, in attendance. It was a young male, about 2 and-a-half years old and was surprisingly bold, oblivious to the tightrope he and his kind currently walk. No more than 10 meters away, he sniffed the air in our direction, twitched his ears and ambled into the long grass with a lone ox-pecker precariously balanced on the tip of his large horn.

Lions poisoned in Amboseli and the Masai Mara

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In the last few weeks 8 lions have been poisoned in Kenya – 5 near to Amboseli National Park and 3 in the Masai Mara’s Lemek conservancy. In the latest incident, the carcasses of two lionesses and a young male were discovered near Lemek, apparently killed in retaliation for attacking livestock. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) arrested a local cattle herder who admitted he had used the pesticide Furadan, to poison the lions.

Unfortunately, incidents like this are not new. Reports of lion poisoning in Kenya made headlines in 2008, and in response the manufacturers of Furadan, FMC, withdrew the product from sale in Kenya. Unfortunately the Kenyan government has not taken steps to officially ban Furadan and therefore it can still be found on the shelves of agricultural shops and the active ingredient, Carbofuran, is still available in other over-the-counter pesticides. Carbofuran is a virulent poison, the deadly effects of which can pervade right through the food chain. Anecdotal reports of vultures dropping from the sky have been attributed to Carbofuran poisoning and leopards and hyenas have all fallen victim to the poison as well as numerous wetland birds.

Conservationist, Richard Leakey recently commented:

“The future of tourism in Kenya is at risk if dangerous pesticides like Carbofuran (sold locally as Furadan) remain on the market.Time and again, we’ve seen these substances used to slaughter our national heritage and destroy one of our greatest economic assets. Yet the authorities continually fail to follow up cases of abuse and prosecute the culprits. The Kenyan government must show that it is serious and take swift action to ban deadly pesticides like Furadan and enforce the law.

“If we fail to put a stop to poisonings, our lions could go extinct in a matter of years; a catastrophic loss for anyone who cares about our national heritage, but also a devastating blow to the tourism industry that currently brings in hundreds of millions of dollars to our economy.”

Predictably, the cattle herder arrested for the recent poisoning in Lemek has been released, allegedly following the intervention of a local politician. Until those that deliberately poison wildlife are properly brought to account and the Kenyan government take action to ban Furadan, Kenya’s cherished wildlife will continue to tread a precarious path towards extinction.

Steppes Discovery works closely with the Living with Lions project which is currently building a database of lions in the Masai Mara and employing local Masai guardians to protect the lion population. Head of Steppes Discovery, Jarrod Kyte is leading a trip to the Masai Mara in June, where the group will meet with the Living with Lions researcher to learn what is being done to preserve Kenya’s diminishing lion population. Find out more about this trip.

My favourite place in the world

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A two week holiday in Kenya has left me wanting to go back for more…again! There’s something magical about the remote northern coast – within minutes of arriving at Kiwayu Island and Mike’s Camp I felt all the unnecessary stress and strain of the western world simply lift off my shoulders and disappear. I first visited this island in the Lamu archipelago back in 1994 when I was backpacking through East Africa – the camp was in its early stages after Mike stumbled across it on his dhow fishing safaris through the maze of winding mangrove channels and surrounding marine national park. I instantly fell in love with it and the contrasting sides of this thin long island left me mesmerised – 6km of empty white sandy beach on the turquoise Indian Ocean to the east, and the calmer emerald green creek side to the west which boasts the best sunset view I’ve ever seen on the whole East African coast.

You can snorkel in the coral reefs off the beach on either side of the island, go sand yachting, kayaking, boogie boarding, sailing, waterskiing, wake boarding, kite surfing, picnicking on neighbouring remote coral islands, deep sea fishing, fly fishing. Mike might even take you on a motorbike spin up and down the long empty beach…..but the walk is also highly recommended! I hadn’t been back since I was lucky enough to work there in 2006 and it’s as heavenly as ever – since then I’ve obviously visited many camps and countries in southern and eastern Africa for Steppes Travel and this is the truest “eco camp” I’ve ever seen, relying 100% on wind and sun for power, bandas made from palm leaves and the donkeys still bring the water up from the well to camp and your bucket shower.

Being on top of the dunes you need to be fit and well to really enjoy to-ing and fro-ing to the beach in the heat of the day. It is still my favourite place on earth and if you are young…..ish, adventurous, not overly concerned with running water and minibars, love the wilderness and privacy you find in such remote areas, then I can’t recommend it highly enough. The birds are all around in the bush outside your banda and along the creek and beach – kingfishers, herons, fish eagles, osprey. Some other guests went deep sea fishing and were joined by over 100 dolphins before returning with yellow fin tuna for sashimi that evening. The perfect idyllic home away from home – super relaxed! I’m already planning my next trip there.

Whilst staying with friends on Soysambu Conservancy the tour operator in me couldn’t resist checking out a couple of camps there – we had a great dinner at Mbweya Camp which had an interesting mix of guests, good atmosphere and I was very impressed with the lovely fresh feel to their bandas which are a very good price indeed. And we also went to inspect the progress on the building of the new Serena lodge on the edge of Lake Elementaita’s shores – a smaller venture than normal for Serena with only 25 rooms and great views, I think this will be an excellent option for those keen on birds and visiting the neighbouring Lake Nakuru National Park. We had fantastic sundowners on the lake’s edge where we watched the flamingos and pelicans in vast numbers flying low over the lake before they settled on their breeding ground for a night time bath in the dwindling sunlight ……stunning views.

It really does have it all in Kenya! It keeps you coming back for more as there is just so much variety and you don’t have to sit in a bumpy 4×4 for hours on end to appreciate the wildlife all around.

View our journey ideas for Kenya

Where Bush meets Beach

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35km of vast uninterrupted, uninhabited beach, remote, unexploited & wild, this is the true meaning of where bush meets beach. I was lucky enough to visit the Tana Delta, on the northern coast of Kenya in March of this year.

The Tana Delta is a unique & diverse wetland area, the only one of its kind in East Africa with incredible bird life, shade dappled creeks, large pods of hippo’s & basking crocodiles on the banks of the Tana river. I grew up in Kenya, and had been to the Tana many years ago. Quite often childhood memories take a different shape over time & ones expectations grow, this however, did not disappoint! With 360 degree panoramic views, the castaway style rooms of the Delta Dunes Lodge are tucked away in the rolling, rippling dunes amongst the large shade of the indigenous coastal forest.

Sitting on the verandah in the early morning sipping freshly made coffee as the sun rose over the Indian Ocean, we watched a fish eagle hard at work. Eyeing its unsuspecting victim it waited for the moment it would fling itself off the doum palm and swoop down, talons first, into the water. In stark contrast to the other side of us a pod of bottle-nose dolphins frolicked in the breakers in shore. Sand dollars in abundance, lion tracks on the beach, baboons catching crabs, exciting game tracking… this is a place I could go back to time and time again. We had bird watching trips up the tributaries, game viewing river excursions, cultural tours, fishing trips, sundowners, floating across the river mouth on rubber rings, early morning bush walks, sand yachting and kayaking.

You can do as much or as little as you like. Fabulous for honeymooners and families alike, a truly amazing place and fantastic experience and one I will cherish.