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Of Old Friends and New: Kenya Revisited - February 2016


Safaridude
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Kenya - February 2016

 

It was the best of safaris. It was the most provocative of safaris.

 

I experienced the single greatest day amongst countless safari days I have spent in my life – a day in which I shed tears of pure joy and appreciation for life… twice.

 

I witnessed the aftermath of the severe drought of 2015 and the associated livestock encroachment into many parks and reserves of Kenya.

 

And along the way, I was able to share fantastic wilderness moments and heady conversations about conservation with an old friend, James Sengeny, and a new friend, Squack Evans.

 

This one… hit like a ton of bricks.

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Sarara Camp, Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy

 

 

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A view from the dining area

 

It is to my pleasant surprise at the Sarara airstrip to find the founder of the Northern Rangelands Trust (“NRT”), the CEO of NRT and the CEO of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, all leading the new Director General of Kenya Wildlife Service on a tour of the northern rangelands of Kenya. And what better place to start than at Namunyak?

 

That Namunyak, the current star conservancy among NRT’s 33 conservancies, was foreseen as a potential wildlife destination at all is hardly believable. In 1989, Ian Craig, the founder of NRT, witnessed the shrieks and splattering blood of a family of elephants being murdered by poachers right where Sarara Camp sits. There was hardly any game left in these overgrazed Samburu badlands, and cattle rustling-induced violence amongst clans and tribes posed danger for would-be travelers. But motivated by the poaching incident, Ian convinced the local Samburu to set aside land for ecotourism, from which the community would be the major beneficiary – under the conditions that ecologically sensible livestock grazing schemes be put in place, the wildlife guarded by the community and violence amongst clans and tribes denounced. The result today is one of the best examples of community-based conservation projects on the continent that is Namunyak – all the more remarkable, given that historically the Kenyan government obstructed enabling conditions for devolved conservation.

 

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A visitor to the camp waterhole

 

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Triplets

 

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Interesting rock formations

 

In the early days, Sarara Camp was overseen by Piers and Hilary Bastard. Piers and Hilary had as much to do with the success of Namunyak as any, as they skillfully managed the relationship with the local Samburu and provided a most authentic, organic experience for the guests. I met Piers and Hilary back in 2009 here, as well as Piers’ son, Jeremy and his then girlfriend, Katie. Jeremy and Katie, now married, have since taken over the management responsibilities at Sarara, but Piers and Hilary happen to be guiding a big family group through. Squack Evans, whom I first met at Shaba a few years ago, is guiding me on this first leg of the trip. He is a well-known quantity at Sarara, and a greeting/reminiscing session over a Tusker with everyone is at hand.

 

Namunyak is at its best when the conditions are dry (the local Samburu and their struggling livestock would disagree with me on this, I am certain), as visibility in the scrub increases and animals tend to concentrate on the riverbed and the camp waterhole. In March 2009 under such conditions, the waterhole was a constant parade of animals, including the normally cryptic lesser kudu, providing a rare opportunity to observe this shy animal in close proximity. No such luck this time. Just as the excellent short rains of December and January were becoming a distant memory, Namunyak received a couple of heavy, localized showers just days before my arrival. Only a few elephants, desert warthogs and a couple of impalas oblige us by watering at camp.

 

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Desert warthog

 

Normally, a guided walk along the hills from camp is in order, but the possibility of wild dog down on the flats is too strong (there had been recent dog activity there), so we resort to game drives only. While the dogs elude us, certain “northern game species”, such as desert warthog, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk and vulturine guinea fowl (Namunyak is among the best on the continent for this dazzling bird) prove plentiful, and hyena pups at a den entertain us with their playful antics.

 

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Gerenuk

 

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Hyena pup

 

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Vulturine guineafowl

 

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Down by the riverbed, it is as if the Samburu and wildlife have a time-share agreement. Around 6pm when the Samburu and their livestock leave for home after watering, elephants and leopards begin to emerge. Sure enough, at last light, Squack detects a female leopard drinking beside a bull elephant on the riverbed. Though not shy, the leopard slinks away and melts into the night before we can track her.

 

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Leopard slinking away

 

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Tinkisi

 

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Ele at night

 

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An impala sundowner

 

In all, the game proves a bit elusive under the unusually green conditions. The consolation is that the area needed a recovery from several years of subpar rainfall and that the Namunyak Conservancy is going from strength to strength. Besides… this safari is just about to warm up…

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More photos from Namunyak...

 

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Lesser kudu

 

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Desert warthog wallowing

 

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One of the conservancy rangers

 

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Katie

 

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Wahlberg's eagle

Edited by Safaridude
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And more...

 

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A visitor to the dining room

 

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A dead tree

 

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More vulturines

 

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Klipspringer

 

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Spiderman

 

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Ele at the waterhole

 

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The main mess area

 

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Saiwa

 

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African hoopoe

 

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Jeremy

Edited by Safaridude
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I can't wait to read more, you've already lured me in! Cannot wait to hear what your best day ever was!! And excellent photos!!! I think I may have just missed you at the Emakoko, they mentioned a fellow STer SafariDude was just there.

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~ @@Safaridude

 

I did a double-take when I first saw the image of the main mess area on my computer screen.

A baby elephant got in? My bleary eyes — it's 3 am here — focussed, showing that it was art. Nothing would have surprised me, given the quality of your experience.

That's one honey of a hoopoe photograph — lovely!

Tom K.

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I was so looking forward to this trip report. Your photos are always fabulous! Thank you for sharing.

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Sounds very promising for another intriguing trip report. I love the impala silhouette, very moody. And the vulturine guinea fowl … lovely photos and beautiful birds.

 

Given all the bad news coming out of Kenya, a little bit of good news via Namunyuk is welcome.

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Well, that is quite a hook in your first post - can't wait to see more.

Great stuff so far, especially the guinea fowl. Also really like the B&W ranger photo.

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Oh man, what a start, I can't wait for more! Also, nice portraits of the ranger in Post #3 - very dignified.

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Alexander33

Looks to be another compelling trip report. Can't wait for more.

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madaboutcheetah

@@Safaridude - brilliant start!!! I will have to pencil Northern Kenya next year!

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@@Safaridude - great opening post. If that doesn't lure readers in then I don't know what will. Wait a minute; the pictures do just as good a job and the Kenya trip reports on here of late are really doing at the job of peaking my interest for a trip there in the near future. The opening picture is of the sort of place I dream of when thinking about safaris. Sneaky elephant got quite close as well and can probably get to the pool for a cold drink (with the camp's dog)?

 

I had never heard of vulture guineafowl until a few weeks ago and don't think I will ever tire of seeing them now that I have discovered them. Beautiful birds.

 

Looking forward to more (@@Alexander33...I appear to be following behind you tonight...are you on Jamesons also?).

 

kind regards

 

deano.

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I'm strapped in and bracing for those tonnes of bricks. it sounds like bad news and good news all mixed into one "provocative trip".

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Alexander33

@@deano

 

Cabernet. Not sure which label -- or maybe multiples!

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SafariChick

Great start - looking forward to hearing about the best day ever (coming from you that is quite something!) and all the rest of it!

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@@deano

 

Welcome to the world of vulturine guineafowl. I know of some people, for whom that is the number one reason for journeying to northern Kenya!

 

They are very active and fidgety. Capturing them in a photo with no blurs is a matter of persistence and luck!

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Game Warden

Cracking shots as always @@Safaridude but there need to be more beards.

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A great start and superb photographs.

The Vulturine Guinea Fowl photos are really special - such amazing colours.

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Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserve

 

For the sake of convenience, Samburu National Reserve and Buffalo Springs National Reserve, which are adjacent to each other, will be referred to simply as Samburu National Reserve or Samburu (sorry, Buffalo Springs).

 

The word, “teeming”, is often used in describing wild places. I, for one, judge the term on a relative basis. The short-grass plains of Serengeti during the wildebeest calving season shall always “out-teem” in the absolute, but surprising concentrations of life in less favorable environments, in my opinion, teem nevertheless. In this sense, Samburu National Reserve, an oasis in an otherwise inhospitable biome, remarkably, always teems.

 

Perhaps it’s the sweet veld with a high mineral content. Or perhaps it’s simply the fact that this small area had been given protection for decades. Whatever the case, this particular tiny stretch of the Ewaso Nyiro River is where you find the highest concentration of game in Northern Kenya.

 

Our choice of stay is Elephant Bedroom Camp (not to be confused with Elephant Watch Camp). Set apart on the eastern corner of Samburu and away from a cluster of camps, Elephant Bedroom turns out to be an excellent choice. The camp receives both “full game-package” guests and self-drivers, and it does a deft job at catering to both. Considering the location, level of service and price point, Elephant Bedroom is among the best in Samburu.

 

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An elephant from by bedroom at Elephant Bedroom

 

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Ewaso Nyiro River

 

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Reticulated giraffe

 

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Grant's gazelle

 

The “condensed” nature of Samburu often ensures “ticking off the boxes” in a matter of hours, but it is also responsible for the old bugaboo – vehicle crowding. Has the drought of 2015 and the current slump in tourism affected any of that? It turns out the game numbers may be thinner than usual but the worst fears not realized: Samburu is still teeming. And the vehicle traffic is definitely down.

 

Groups of the most chilled out elephants on the continent (along with those of Amboseli’s) pass right by (almost through) our vehicle on the way to and from the river. Impalas and Grant’s gazelles occupy the riverine area and the plains, respectively. A pride of lions, led by a patchily maned male, is encountered near the riverbank one early afternoon. Later in the evening, three cubs are found at the same location relaxing on the road, soon to be approached by two adult lionesses. They proceed to engage in a greeting ceremony, filling the dusky air with extra-guttural growls and yearnful meows so foreign.

 

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Cubs on the road

 

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A greeting ceremony

 

Samburu is the one place that offers the privilege of close observation of gerenuk and beisa oryx, both typically shy elsewhere. Most of my observations of gerenuk standing bipedal while browsing have occurred in Samburu, and this time is no exception. Why do they do it? Gerenuks have never been observed drinking. They obtain all their moisture needs from succulent browse, which means every morsel counts. If you observe carefully, they can be seen using their olfactory senses to sniff out the juiciest leaves. If such browse occurs high up a bush, apparently the rewards of such morsels outweigh the energy required to stand bipedal. Some relaxed beisa oryxes allow an approach of about 50 meters (this is an impossibility in most other places). Grevy’s zebra proves a bit problematic on this occasion. Only one Grevy’s zebra is sighted (on the Buffalo Springs side), and incidentally, no plains zebra is observed at all. Zebras tend to disperse after the rains, but Samburu and the surrounding rangelands have been drying out for several weeks. Samburu has never been a stronghold for plains zebra, but I have always seen small groups them alongside Grevy’s zebras in the past. To what extent last year’s drought and livestock invasion into the Reserve have affected these bulk grazers is an interesting inquiry.

 

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Gerenuks feeding bipedal

 

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Beisa oryx

 

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Sure, the reason to visit Samburu is to see the specialty northern species, but Squack isn’t going to let me leave Samburu without seeing some spotted cats. Squack knows of a female leopard that loves to hang around the lower slopes of Koitogor, and we make a beeline to the spot the first thing in the morning of our last full day. Magically, we find the exact female, accompanied by her cub, sunning on a ridge, and we enjoy them in privacy for several minutes before a few other vehicles arrive on the scene.

 

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Leopard sequence

 

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With her cub

 

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Cub

 

In the afternoon, we find a family of elephants that appear to be heading toward the river for a drink. Squack thinks if we approach from the side we might scatter the herd, but if we pick out a spot in front of them and park, with any kind of luck, they could parade right by us. Indeed they follow the road trail toward us, barely budging to get out of the way of the vehicle while marching resolutely toward water. I hurriedly mount my wide-angle lens for some objects-may-be-closer-than-they-appear shots.

 

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Elephant marching sequence (a white-throated bee-eater photobombing in the first photo)

 

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We pick up the female leopard again later in the evening, this time without her cub. The various gawkers let out a collective gasp the moment she suddenly and effortlessly explodes up a tree. Quiet a show, this: a beautiful leopard perched on a branch in soft, fading light. But my mind is elsewhere. I have an appointment tomorrow, an improbable one that I refuse to believe until it actually happens. Feeling anxious, sleep proves elusive…

 

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The same leopard in the evening

 

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More photos from Samburu...

 

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Reticulated giraffe

 

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Giant eagle-owl

 

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A huge-horned gerenuk

 

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Dwarf mongoose

 

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White-throated bee-eater

 

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A breeding herd of beisa oryx

 

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A lunch time visitor

 

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Tusker!

 

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Red-and-yellow barbet

 

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Elephant march

 

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Leopard at sunset

 

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Moonrise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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offshorebirder

Oh boy - I have been really looking forward to this trip report. Cracking start as usual @@Safaridude.

 

Squack did well on the Leopard - some good photos you got there.

 

Interesting to hear about how much things changed with Grevy's + Plains Zebras in a few weeks' time in Samburu. We had Grevy's all over the place and multiple Plains Zebra sightings in mid-to-late January. Sounds like timing is important for maximizing Grevy's sightings and photo opportunities.

 

* Question for you: what was the approximate ratio of Desert Warthog to Common Warthog for you in Samburu + Buffalo Springs?

 

I am really looking forward to hearing about Lake Jipe - I'm in the early stages of planning a visit there on my next Safari and am eager to hear about the state of things.

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