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Safaridude and Game Warden's Excellent Adventure - February 2014


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Chapter 1 - "Dr. Wilkinson, I Presume" (Safaridude)

 

As the Cessna circles the runway of the Kinna airstrip at Meru National Park, I am awestruck by a figure looking up at me, standing dangerously close to the side of the runway, both arms stretched toward the sky and the pale, rounded headgear shimmering in the scorching Meru sun.

 

OMG… he really is wearing that thing on his head! And good lord! Look at that beard! Ugh, I hope he doesn't insist on sitting next to me in the vehicle the whole time. The helmet and the beard could get in the way of my photos. He could scare away shy animals even. Boy, this could be one looong safari...

 

I concoct a happy face for the official meeting: “Dr. Wilkinson, I presume.” “Safaridude, what a pleasure to finally meet in person, mate!” An uncomfortably long hug is accompanied by the ndevu engulfing the entire side of my face as well as my backpack. All this is slightly disturbing.

 

 

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The ndevu

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Chapter 1 (cont) - "Anticipation" (GameWarden)
In the distance a small aircraft approaches the landing strip: aboard is the infamous Safaridude and all of a sudden am I nervous to meet him. I know I'll be shown up as the fat phoney bearded bloke who just runs a website. I scuff about impatiently in the dusty soil as his plane lands: arrange the pith atop my head - I have a feeling this safari is going to be great! He clambers out from the cabin arms full with camera equipment: I won't need to take a single photo. I've already vowed to absorb his knowledge and it will be a steep learning curve for me: by the time time I leave Kenya I should be somewhat of an antelope expert. I see the look of awe in his eyes as we break our manhug: his attention focused solely on my beard - he can't take his eyes off it. Little does he know but fifteen minutes previous, as my own plane came into land I had vomited heartily into a sick back and remnants off my shame still clung doggedly around my nose and chin.

For better or worse, my adventure with the dude is about to begin...

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Surely it should be "Safridude's and Game Warden's most excellent adventure"??

 

:D

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Chapter 2 – Meru National Park (Safaridude)

 

Suppose Ngai commissioned you millennia ago to create a perfect “northern game paradise” in Kenya. What would you have done? You would have seeded the open plains with bleached golden grass on firm ground. You would have planted patches of Combretum bushes (not common in Kenya but relished, if not fought for, by browsers). You would have raised the Nyambene Hills to the west as a rain catchment apparatus (perhaps had sundowners in mind as well). One snaking river through the joint? Nah. You would have sketched out 13 streams for good measure. Finally, to add your signature to the place, you would have sprinkled on some doum palm seeds for a Jurassic Park-like look years later (perhaps had sundowners in mind as well). Surely, northern game such as Grevy’s zebra, beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, and Somali ostrich would then propagate there alongside the Big Five. This is Meru in a nutshell.

 

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A tyipical Meru scene

 

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Jurrasic Park, for sure

 

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Reticulated giraffe

 

It appears that Ngai does not micromanage affairs, however. Having been one of the most popular parks in Kenya, Meru fell into disrepair, first in the ’70s and then in the ’90s for good. The Somali shifta basically took control of the park and literally shot it out. In the ’90s, Kenyan tour operators tiptoed around the security situation at Meru: “Meru is very nice, yes, but, uh, I think Samburu would be a good place to visit”.

 

With the help of IFAW and AFD (a French aid agency), an ambitious park revitalization took root in 2000. Meru was restocked with game and cared for. I was privileged to have seen the early days of Meru’s revival, first in 2006 and then again in 2007. After an absence of seven years, it is with excitement as well as some apprehension that I revisit the park to see its progress.

 

Matt is champing at the bit after an absence of six years on the continent. Stanley, a graduate of the Koiyaki Guiding School, is our local guide/driver. And James Sengeny stands sentinel at the back of the vehicle. This is my third safari with James, and he and I have been together for a few days in Tsavo already on this trip. Meru is one of the very few places James has never been to in Kenya; he is wearing a love-this-place-instantly glow on his face as he scans the horizon. The short drive from Kinna to Offbeat Meru Camp follows one of the 13 meandering streams in the park, producing elephants and buffalos practically at every turn.

 

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Buffalo sequence

 

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A big bull sizing us up

 

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Elephant crossing

 

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James standing sentinel

 

There is nothing “offbeat” about Offbeat Meru Camp. Located a smidge outside the Park in Bisanadi National Reserve, the camp melds perfectly into a gallery forest, often visited by elephant, giraffe, bushbuck and lesser kudu. Sean and Tanyth thoughtfully manage this thoughtfully designed camp. They are sensitive to their surroundings and considerate to the staff. A sense of caring, teamwork, and high morale is palpable.

 

“Northern game” is what we are after, and Meru does not disappoint, even though the so called “Samburu Five” (Grevy’s zebra, beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, and Somali ostrich) takes a bit longer to tick off in Meru than in Samburu. Of the five, Grevy’s zebra is a bit problematic in Meru. The Grevy’s zebra was wiped out in Meru by the year 2000 and was subsequently restocked from Lewa Downs. Little did the participants in the translocation exercise realize at the time what wrath a healthy lion population can inflict on Grevy’s zebras. Due to their highly territorial and conspicuous habits (and to boot, braying like donkeys to advertise their presence to the females), Grevy’s zebra stallions became easy prey for Meru’s lions. By 2007, all the stallions had been felled, and only a handful of females remained. Kenya Wildlife Service subsequently translocated a couple of stallions into the park in hopes of boosting the population. Beisa oryx and gerenuk, both scarce back in 2006 and 2007, appear to be doing very well now; reticulated giraffe and Somali ostrich have always been plentiful.

 

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Beisa oryx sequence

 

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Reticulated giraffe sequence

 

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Gerenuk sequence

 

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Somali ostrich

 

One morning we head east toward Pippa’s Grave. The sun has yet to drench Meru, and in the deep shadow far ahead an outline of a cheetah is atop a stone-based road sign. He is startled by our approach and leaps into thick bush. Just as I think the sighting is over, the not quite fully mature male cheetah begins chirping (a remarkably bird-like call) for his lost brother. Stanley and James conjecture that some ruckus possibly involving lions or hyenas separated the two cheetah brothers overnight. The cheetah is somehow progressing through a nearly impenetrable patch, but we are able to follow him by turning off the engine once in awhile and listening for the chirps. Some vulturine guineafowls and a group of hartebeests mind us but not the cheetah. What they think they hear is simply a random bird chirping: nature granted the cheetah with the deceptive call, allowing the fragile cat to evade detection by stronger, dangerous predators. The chirps become more mournful and desperate as the day heats up. The cheetah finally shows himself in the open but then plunks down in the shade for the day. He shall try again this evening to find his lost brother.

 

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Cheetah sequence

 

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Speaking of hartebeests, unbeknownst to many, the ones in Meru are unique. DNA research conducted by Nicholas Georgiadis and Collins Ouma determined that there are three separate Coke’s/Lelwel hartebeest hybrid populations in Kenya, and one of them is confined only to Meru National Park. Though morphologically close the Coke’s hartebeest, the Meru hartebeest was found not to be genetically closely aligned with Coke’s. The wide Tana River to the south and the Nyambene Hills to the west are likely responsible for isolating this population.

 

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Meru hartebeest sequence

 

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To many, the showpiece of Meru is the lesser kudu. The lesser kudu is as frustrating to pursue as it is beautiful to look at. The internal (and sometimes external) cursing that inevitably follows lesser kudus bounding away without being photographed emanates not only from frustration, but also from being dumbfounded by their supreme alertness. The first afternoon, a male with the most perfectly spiraling horns freezes for a nanosecond before diving into the Combretum, the ivory tips of the horns glimmering a few times just above the bushes. It’s taunting, really. “&%#*!” Because ideal lesser kudu habitat equals thick bush, it is nearly impossible for the driver of the vehicle to detect the animal unless it is very close. The pursuit of lesser kudu would so require James’ standing on the back seat of the vehicle for a giraffe’s eye view, snapping his fingers upon detecting a kudu in hopes of not disturbing the naturally wired creature, and Stanley’s abruptly but smoothly stopping the vehicle. For whatever reason, lesser kudus become much more confiding as the light fades during the last few minutes of the “magic hour”, and I am able to photograph a few specimens in leisure.

 

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Lesser kudu

 

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Definitely more relaxed at dusk

 

One morning we follow the Rojewero River, the largest of the rivers in Meru, and it is on this drive that the diversity of the park really hits home. Merely 50 meters from the river is dry-as-bone, bleached grassland/semi-desert. Closer to the river is a strip of verdant grassland with towering doum palms sprouting out in multiple stems. Right next to the river is a gallery forest where you can feel the temperature suddenly plummet. Buffalos, elephants, and waterbucks are everywhere along the Rojewero. A crowned eagle, a forest raptor most likely coming down from the Nyambene Hills, flies right overhead, exhibiting its stunning black and white underwing patterns. James is especially pleased. This is his first ever glimpse of this rarely seen eagle.

 

So, it turns out that the first few days – my return to Meru and Matt’s return to Africa – are a resounding success. It is apparent that Meru is going from strength to strength. Perhaps we could have wished for some lions (there are plenty in Meru, but we just didn’t have the luck; Matt is probably anxious to out-ndevu some lions.) or leopards, but Africa surely has a plan for Matt. She is not going to reveal all too early.

 

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Edited by Safaridude
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More photos from Meru...

 

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Python

 

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Yellow-necked spurfowl

 

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Mulika swamp

 

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Doum palms everywhere

 

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Doum palm sunset

 

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The Grant's gazelle population has exploded in Meru

 

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Waterbucks are numerous along the water courses

 

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A shy lesser kudu family

 

 

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Zebras

 

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James relaxing in the mess tent

 

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Ah, Tusker!

 

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Offbeat Meru Camp

Edited by Safaridude
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The opening paragraphs are hilarious!

 

The photos are gorgeous and another most interesting report on Meru.

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The best thing about your report is neither your photos nor your narration, it's your great sense of humor. I hope that the rest of your report is so hilarious.

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Little does he know but fifteen minutes previous, as my own plane came into land I had vomited heartily into a sick back and remnants off my shame still clung doggedly around my nose and chin.

 

 

 

Now, you tell me...

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You had me at "Dr. Wilkinson, I presume?"

 

 

 

and, seeing GW,Dr. Wilkinson gulping a tusker!

(Not to mention the awesome scenery, pics, James and camp)

Magic.

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@@Safaridude

@@Game Warden

 

Excellent start - great writing from both of you and great pictures. I am looking forward to next steps.

Offbeat Meru looks like a good camp(one we might consider in the future so all detail welcome!)

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Love the double perspective narration, more of it please! Especially interested about Safaridude's thoughts about the spectacular Pangolin sighting. And the mankini, of course. ;-)

 

And the "serious stuff" is brilliant as usual. NG could - and should - publish this.

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Offbeat Meru is a great camp and the park is just magical! I was there in 2012 and Stanley was our guide. I'm looking forward to returning in September.

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One of the most interesting trip reports. Excellent writing and superb photography! Looking forward to the next installment...

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The task is getting too heavy - I do not think I will ever write a trip report :ph34r:

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Nicely done gentlemen.

 

I never tire of Meru photos and naturally yours are superb Safaridude. I do expect a little more input from the hairy one in upcoming posts, given the haranguing he gives us regarding trip reports. ;)

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Chapter 2 (cont) – Meru National Park (Gamewarden)

 

I could feel no higher even if you'd pumped me full of illicit substances - my introduction to Kenya had been amazing so far, meeting up with @@optig and @@Rupert Finch Hatton, Charles Oluchina from TNC Africa and Nigel Hunter of the EAWLS whilst in Nairobi. Spending a day with Anton at the Emakoko and being shown round Nairobi National Park. However, it was arriving at Wilson that I realised the "real" safari was about to begin...

 

The pith certainly drew some interest: the few words of swahili helped matters. And the beard always breaks the ice. I was excited to be flying towards Meru, however, sitting at the back of the plane was a mistake and even getting out at Lewa, stretching my legs, (and almost being left behind), did not help my disposition and consequently, despite my best efforts, ten minutes out from Meru my fellow passengers looked on in pity as I hunched over a paper bag, hurling breakfast into it, gasping for breath, thinking I was going to choke on my own vomit...

 

I felt sorry for Stanley who greeted this staggering ndevu mzungu as I almost fell from the plane. My garbled swahili greeting made no sense to his ears nor mine and I made directly for the toilets in which I did my best to wash chunks from my beard. It mattered not, the rest ended up on @@Safaridude's shoulder during the manhug...

 

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Glad to see the back of this Air Kenya flight. Felt sorry for my fellow passengers though, some who we'd meet later...

Safaridude made me feel at ease straight away: introducing James Sengeny, our private guide for the trip. I'd heard so much about him and it was clear we would forge a great friendship. I did my best to enjoy the drive back to camp: I was empty, sweaty, smelly and still somewhat dizzy from the flight. Not the greatest of starts to my Meru adventure...

 

(more to follow on Meru...)

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"I was empty, smelly and somewhat dizzy from the flight"

 

Exactly how a great safari usually starts :D

 

Can't wait for MORE MERU.

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Great start gents! I'm happy the GW finally got back to Africa and happier that the trip was such a success.

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This is going to be an epic Trip Report!!! Look forward to the rest of it ........ not just the super images, but, the narration too.......

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Well, you have set the bar pretty high here. No wonder there are a few trip reports missing from me.

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great stuff. And interesting that you spare us no detail about chunks from the beard ending up on Safaridude's shoulder.

And @@Safaridude! Great photos of those Lesser Kudu. Love it.

 

Meru always has been and always will be my favourite KWS park in Kenya. Love the TR already. Keep it up!

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Think @@Safaridude was too distracted by the pith and the beard to notice those bits left by the Warden on his shoulder.

 

But surely that will heighten his sense of Meru magic. wonderful story-telling from both of you, and hoping to read more soon!

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