Friday, March 9, 2012

Kaptivating Kenya

2.30 a.m. and we are at the Dubai International Airport terminal 1, ready to fly to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport Nairobi. The Kenyan Airways flight was quite a discomfort. The seats are stiff, there is no vegetarian food and the flight resembles a flying bar! After the rather tiring journey, we land at 6.30 am at the JKIA. After the on arrival visa formalities and immigration, we come out only to realize we have lost the bag that we checked in! After an hour of running around the airport we finally locate the bag and barged out of the airport to an eagerly waiting Mr. Timothy (our guide and driver). His cheerful smile is a welcome respite. After the terrible flight, what kind of a holiday could one imagine? I for sure am disgusted and my holiday has just gone for a toss!

As Timo (as he is referred to by his friends) drove us in his 8 seater van (one that he is evidently proud of) to our hotel Boulevard, we get stuck for an hour in the traffic jam. I am completely frustrated and fatigued now. Was this the holiday I was dreaming of?? I hear Timo complaining in a rather matter of fact tone about the horrible traffic jams on the Nairobi roads and how it takes hours to drive through them. This just dampened my mood. Then Timo asks us if we would like to go to the David Sheldrick wildlife trust. I give him a meek look and nod. He suggests we fresh up quickly as the trust is open only between 10.30 and 12 in the morning, when the baby elephants are fed. Baby elephants?? My ears broaden and I give him an elephantish nod.

After a quick shower and feeling fresh from the irritating beginning, we set out to the wildlife trust and reach at sharp 10.30. There are many tourists who flocked the place already. We are all queued in a line and lead into a narrow muddy pathway to a smiling lady who is selling entry tickets. It costs 7 dollars per head and we are all lead inside to a playground like arena fenced with a few ropes and all of us gather around the fence. There are long bottles placed at a few places inside the roped area. After around 10 mins, we see a mahout clad in green followed by these muddy brown little things and within the wink of an eye, they rush towards the bottles. The mahouts patiently lift the bottles and squeeze the nipples into the mouths of, yes the Baby Elephants. Brown and my height, with big ears and a cute tail that wags as they walk, these little fellows were having a brunch: Milk! After being fed, they are now in this playful mood and kick up the red mud onto themselves and onto our cameras and us too! That was naughty indeed! The mahout pours water over them and they continue kicking mud and playing football with of course, a muddy ball! The main mahout explained to us the history of the place while we continued clicking these fellows. They bid us a goodbye as their elder siblings entered to repeat what we had seen until now, but in a more rigorous way. We started walking back when we spotted a large creature in a wooden cage like area. A peek inside and I see the Black rhino, one of the famous African big 5 standing all alone and glaring at us. After a few clicks and a heavy heart, we leave the place to land at the Rothschild Giraffe Center. The entrance fees are 10 dollars per head and we are lead to the left where there are three giraffes: a tall one and two medium sized ones being fed pallets by people. The Rothschild giraffe is a species found only in the Lake Nakuru Area we are told. Tall and spotted they just look magnificent and hungry! After patting them and clicking, we realize we are also hungry (we hadn’t eaten for the past 16 hours!).

We reach the Chowpatty restaurant for a good Indian thali. After the yummy lunch, we exchanged dollars for the local Kenyan Shillings (we really had a tough time without them). We reach the Catalyst office where we are briefed by Prachi about out trip and gifted a cute jewelry case! Thank you Prachi. We drive back to our hotel for a short nap.

It is around 5 in the evening and is raining in Nairobi. Our happy Timo calls it just a drizzle. We drive to the Westgate mall, where I buy some Kenyan coffee beans and powder for family back home. We drive to Chowpatty for an early dinner (buttered phulkas and delicious methi and bhendi curries) and head back to retire for the long and tiring day. We are stuck in the traffic for a good 45 mins before that.

Day 2 begins on a fruity breakfast for me and some tea for Pavan. We check out and leave for Nakuru exactly at half past 8. A beautiful morning drive through the city of Nairobi and an hour later we are in the green rift valley. The Valley is spread 9600 km from the red sea in North Africa to the South Africa. High and low we keep driving, as the mist from the clouds that cover the hills of the valley spreads. What a serene sight! We drive further down to Nakor and then reach Nakuru national park at 11.30.

As Timo drove us in through the park, we see loads of birds and animals on both our sides. For the first time in our lives, we see a live zebra, not the picture in our alphabet books. Wowww!! Timo speeds through the park and suddenly stops telling us to look to our left. And what do we see?? A Lion relaxing on top of a tree! Stunning! But he is neither disturbed nor bothered. It seems only the lions at Nakuru know to climb a tree, a feat indeed it is for them. We drive down to the Lion hill lodge for some yummy dal and rice and check in to a short siesta. Timo wakes us up to tell us we are at the wrong lodge and we check out in 10 mins for the first game drive of our vacation.

We kept glancing left and right as Timo spotted and named the birds- solo ones, a flock of them, a couple of them and so on... From Pelicans to the common sandpiper, we saw around 40 different species of birds of the 469 that reside in this place. Lake Nakuru is also called the pink lake for the millions of Flamingos it houses. However, this is not the season, reason being the rains result in fewer algae in the lake for the flamingos to feed on. So we drove all around the lake to the other corner to find a flock of them in a long pink line. In light pink bordered with black streaks, they just look like a Malkalmur saree that my mom has. Just beautiful. There are a few veggie flamingos as well who do not feed on fish etc in the water. Interesting I thought.

Coming to the animals, we first spotted the Impalas followed by Waterbucks, a few baboons (yes they are here too), Zebras and Wildbeests, another of the African Big 5. The Wildbeests are wild buffaloes and the most dangerous of the big 5 it is said. This is because they have sharp horns and a single wildbeest can easily kill even a lion. That is the kind of strength they possess. Timo warned us from even going close to a single or injured wildbeest. It is more dangerous than a dozen lions put together it seems. After the Wildbeest I spotted this single large grey animal sitting all by itself in between the grass and shouted “Rhino”. Timo was amazed with my keen eye and explained to us the difference between the wildbeest and a rhino. It is simple - the wildbeest has two horns while the rhino has a single horn. Yes, this guy is the White rhino, not as ferocious as the black counterpart and very human friendly. We drove further down to find a baby rhino grazing with his mom. When chased the White rhino babies run in front of their moms and the black rhino babies run behind their moms. This is because of their vision it seems.

A little about the Big 5: The African Big 5 are five of the most dangerous animals found there. Animals those are hard to bring down and ferocious. These are the Rhinos, Wildbeests, Elephants, Lions and Leopards.

Excited to have seen 3 of the big 5 we reached the lake Nakuru Lodge, the correct one this time and checked in to a room in the midst of the jungle. We are warned to keep the windows and doors shut, you never know when a wildbeest could enter! Gosh!!

We then head for an early dinner only to find no vegetarian food. We have a few carrots and zucchini dipped in yoghurt and hit the bed early, we have to be up and out by 7 am tomorrow.

Day 3 and I get an early morning SMS from Dad and mom wishing us a very Happy wedding anniversary. Thank you Amma and Nana (Btw, dad kept a trail of SMSes with us knowing what we did every day. This just added to our excitement). We have early breakfast, checkout and leave by 7 am. We drive for around 2 hours to reach Nakor with Timo filing fuel at regular intervals. On the way, we drive past the Elementita Lake and Lake Naivasha. Lake Nakuru, Naivasha, Elementita and Lake Baringo together are the four lakes of the Great Rift Valley in this region, with Elementita being the smallest of them. We have seen three of them. En route after Lake Naivasha we get to see a dormant volcano, one that is said to have erupted many years ago. The crater is still clearly seen and large. We drive through a few cabbage and maize fields to take a right at Nakor and drive straight into Masai Mara.

Masai is a big region (1500 sq kms) and the actual reserve is around 100 km further. The road is a nightmare. Muddy and stoned, it is a feat to drive on this road. The fuel costs in Masai Mara are very high and that is the reason for the regular refills we are told. We have a bumpy 2 hour ride to finally reach the entrance of the Masai Mara reserve. While Timo is busy at the entrance with the tickets and other formalities, I have a few local Masais as the villagers are referred to knocking on my window to sell some of their popular crafts. I put my bargaining skills to test and successfully buy some authentic African dolls and wall hangings for my bommala koluvu. As usual, I buy for Neeharika as well.

We enter the reserve at around 1.30 pm to bumpy drive further for another 20 km to reach the Keekorok Lodge where we are to put up for the next day and a half. We receive an SMS from my in laws and Varun wishing us. Keekorok and Sarova camp are the only two lodges inside the reserve and this is an added advantage while going for the safari.

We are welcomed to a yummy lunch with Baingan Masala, Dal Tadka, Rice, Rotis and Yoghurt. What more can one ask for a wedding anniversary lunch. With the dinner we had skipped, we were famished and ate stomach full to relax for an hour before our great game drive through the Masai Mara.

At 4 pm sharp, we set on the game drive to first spot a few Grand Gazelles, followed by Coxbeests at a distance. We keep driving through the long grass and suddenly there are a few giant creatures in front of our van. Yes the African Elephants. Big with large ears and a tiny tail, they are busy grazing the dried grass. No wonder they are called Jumbos. Each elephant weighs around 7000 kilos and drinks around 200 litres of water every day! Now that is some real appetite, I should say. By the way, the fourth of the African Big 5 is done.

We drive further down and suddenly see loads of similar vans heading in the same direction. We were worried, thinking something was wrong only to realise that they and we are seeing the famous African lions, the cubs all seated around a small bush. As the cameras go on a clicking spree, these guys are their lazy self, undeterred and continue their evening relaxation. They give us this occasional glance filled with gait and pride, one that we kept waiting to click standing tucked inside a van, the door that I had locked to feel strong and safe.

Suddenly there is something said on the walkie-talkie radio Timo is holding and all the vans sped across, ours too. We now see a pride of lions (around 5 to 6 of them) feasting on a wildbeest they conquered around an hour ago. Roaring and plunging their teeth into the wildbeest it was a rather difficult sight for me to click, so I told Pavan to click and looked away. It was an interesting sight on the other side, a few silver-butt jackals and hyenas waited eagerly for the lions to finish their dinner so that they could feast on the leftovers and clean the place. What a moment. Just looked like a page out of the Panchatantra book. The female lions hunt while the male lion is the first to feast on prey. The cubs are always left with the female lions, as the male lion is king of the jungle. In addition, the male lions are said to indulge in infanticide or kill the male cubs with a fear of competition and threat to their position. This is one of the major reasons for the decline in the number of male lions. Another reason is the erstwhile Masai culture where in a young man had to kill at least one male lion to get married. Else, he wouldn’t be allowed to the knot. However, over the years, the custom has changed and now the man has to take a cow and live in the grasslands for three months bringing the cow back safely. Then he can get married.

As the clicking continued, the light dimmed and it started drizzling. We realized that we had to drive around 80 plus km back to the lodge. How did we end up so deep into the grasslands I pondered as Timo sped through to reach Keekorok just before the rain turned heavier.

We are greeted at the entrance by one of the Lodge staff saying, “Jumbo”. I give him an excited look and say,”yes we saw them” assuming he was inquiring about the Elephants or may the big 5. He gives me a confused look and leads us to a hippo-filled pond. Flabby and brown, opening its big mouth once in a while they did seem quite noble. When I heard they are herbivorous and normally don't go beyond 12 kms scouting grass, I was evidently surprised. Most of them were submerged in the water while a couple of them dragged themselves out for a few minutes, a baby hippo being one. We clicked a few pics and returned to the lodge for an early dinner.

This time it was some real good Aloo mutter and mixed dal. We also got to have the customary curd rice and Lime pickle, every South Indian's crave and that too amidst these grasslands in Kenya. Woww I thought. We retired early for we had an early morning game drive the following day. With the grunting hippos, chirping birds, creaking crickets providing background music and a baboon sitting outside our room for company, we just tucked ourselves into the soft bed. What a wedding anniversary it has been! Among grazing elephants, feasting lions we ourselves feast on curd rice and lime pickle. A memorable one indeed.

Day 4 started early at 6 am. We drove out with a couple of vans following us on the early morning game drive. Surprisingly we saw a few Zebras. It is said that the Zebras migrate here from the Serengeti only during the great migration and are otherwise not seen in Masai Mara. These seemed resident Zebras. We then drove past the Keekorok Airstrip, one that has daily flights from Nairobi for a reasonable 100 dollars per head and it takes just 45 mins we are told. As we tried to drive through the rain wet, muddy paths the inevitable happened. Our van got stuck in the black mud. For another half an hour 2 other van drivers helped Timo in pulling us out of the mess while Pavan happily clicked the sunrise and I went through a brochure of the Keekorok lodge to realise that 'Jambo' in the local Swahili language meant hello or Namaste. I laughed to myself recalling the confused look on the guy's face the previous evening.

Out of the mess and the white van turned brown, we drove into the grasslands to spot another hyena. A few kms ahead we see long necked animals feeding on tall trees, the Giraffes. These are the Masai Giraffes and are differentiated by the spots they have on their limbs too. We are told that we have entered Serengeti and Tanzania. I am a little perplexed and excited to have seen two countries on one visa. We go a few kms further to find another pride of lions, now in their early morning lazy mood. The golden grass that surrounded them and the golden sunrays that fell on them just enhanced the golden color of these lions. Marvel, I must say.

As we drove back to keekorok for breakfast, Pavan suddenly screamed in an excited tone, “Pumba”. Yes, he spotted the Warthog or Pumba from Lion King. We clicked a few pics humming 'Hakuna Matata' and returned to the lodge to relax for the rest of the afternoon.

Late noon at around three, we set of on our final game drive. This time we got a close view of the Okapi, a long distance view of elephants and a few ostriches that hopped past. Of course, not to forget around 500 wildbeest grazing together. When we saw the wildbeest, it just implied the lions were somewhere around. As expected, we find a pride of them resting under a bush with a keen eye on the wildbeest.

There is a sudden commotion again and Timo speeds through the grass and comes to a screeching halt before a tree. I look up to find a lepoard climbing down as hundreds of cameras try to capture him. He silently but swiftly climbs down and walks through the long grass, evidently camouflaging himself into the bushes. The leopards are a rare sight it said as they are nocturnal for one, always on treetops for the second and can disappear in between a wink for the third. An interesting tidbit that Timo shared was that the leopard cubs are warned by their moms not to climb down the tree until they complete at least 12 months. These leopard cubs are a great prey for the lions and hyenas and they wait under the tree for months together trying to grab them it seems. We successfully finish the African Big 5 as Timo again speeds through the grasses followed by a few more vans.

This time we see two fully-grown male lions sitting amidst the tall brown grass and stringently observing the wildbeest that are grazing at a distance. Timo claims one of these wildbeest is going to be their prey this evening. The blacker the mane, the older the lion and lions live for around 25-27 years. These ones had a brown mane with a few black streaks (Wonder what they must be saying, ouch I'm blacking!:P)

We then drive back to the bushes where we started the evening game drive and where the lions were posing for a group photo. A typical 'vote of thanks' scene. After the photography session and bidding good-bye to the hospitable lions, we drove back to the lodge for another filling dinner and good sleep. The slight drizzle just kept the night cool and soothing.

Day 5 and we were ready by 7 sharp. Had a heavy breakfast and bid a heavy bye to Keekorok and Masai Mara to drive back the back breaking 100 kms and another 160 kms through the cool and pleasant rift valley to Nairobi. En route, we drive past Lake Victoria, Barak Obama's native and coffee and tea plantations. The country seems to be enjoying a relaxed Sunday with most of the people coming out dressed around forenoon to visit the church.

We reach Nairobi around noon and head straight to the National museum where we learn a lot about the History of Kenya and the evolution of animals, birds and humans. A knowledge-inspiring visit I must say. We then drive to the Swaminarayan Mandir for some divine blessings. Thanks to the large population of Indians in Nairobi, temples are a common sight.

We have a Gujarati thali with some sweet and slurp shrikhand and lassi at Aashiana before driving around the city centre of Nairobi. Timo showed us the memorial of Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta beside the Kenyan Parliament. Further, down the street we saw the office of the Prime minister, President, The supreme court of Kenya, the tallest tower and few other classic old administrative buildings. We drove over the old railway station, one that the British had constructed and for which the Indians were brought to Kenya. They later settled down here.

We reached the JKIA at 3 pm and after thanking, wishing and bidding a good bye to the ever-smiling and enthusiastic Timo, we checked in and waited for our 7.20 pm scheduled Dubai flight. A bumpy flight but this time, we were surprised with the Asian vegetarian meal that we had opted for. As usual like all flights that land at T1 of DXB, this flight too hovered around the Burj Khalifa for a good 20 mins before landing. Anyone traveling to Dubai on a non-emirates flight is sure to get good clicks of the Burj Khalifa even before you land.

We reached home at 4 am in the morning, a good 22 hours of travel to hit the bed. A great vacation coming to a close. One of our superb vacations, a different wedding anniversary and most of all, a once in a lifetime experience.

Thank you Nityanand mama for the initial lead, Catalyst travels, Prachi, Timo and of course Amma, Dad, Mamaigaru and Pavan for the constant support. I really had immeasurable fun on this one.


Anonymous said...

very interesting n well written article.enjoyed reading every bit of it...can imagine how it cud be to experience in real.congratulation for a lovely n adventurous vacation n (belated)HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!!cheers....bindu

Pratnee said...

Thank you Bindu :)

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