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KENYA CONSERVANCIES IN LATE NOVEMBER - Part 1


KCAZ
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INTRODUCTION

This will be a three-part trip report covering visits to several different conservancies in Kenya during the latter part of November 2018: Ol Pejeta Conservancy via Porini Rhino Camp, Ol Kinyei and Naboisho Conservancies via Porini Mara Camp, and Olare Motorogi Conservancy plus the Mara Reserve via Porini Lion Camp.  I am a relative newcomer to SafariTalk, but I found it an invaluable resource in planning this trip, so it is time to start paying it back (or paying it forward for the next person contemplating such a trip).  This won't be an hour-by-hour detailed recap of everything on the trip. Instead, I will try to post things that might interest more experienced ST members, such as animal behavior, new and unusual species (at least new to me), critters I find particularly photogenic, etc. However, this is only my second safari trip and my very first ST trip report, so when it comes to my narrative text and photos . . . be gentle.

 

A little background pertinent to this trip.  I did one of those "package safaris" to Kenya in Sept 2016 with Odyssey Safaris.  It seemed like a good introduction to safaris in general and to Kenya specifically, as it covered Amboseli, Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru, and the Maasai Mara Reserve, all-inclusive with international airfare from the US for under $4000USD. After an initial night on arrival in Nairobi at the Safari Park Hotel, there were two nights at the Amboseli Sopa Lodge, two nights at the Naivasha Sopa Lodge, and two nights at the Ashnil Tented Camp in the Mara Reserve.  I  had a feeling I would fall in love with Africa, so I viewed this first safari as sort of a budget reconnaissance trip for me, and it delivered well for that purpose.  The food and lodging were all better than I expected, the single driver/guide was good (only four passengers per pop-top Land Cruiser), and the quantity and variety of the wildlife was amazing to me.  Interestingly, of the eight guests on that package safari, I was the only one who caught the safari bug and was determined to return as soon as possible.  For everyone else on that trip, an African safari seemed to be a one-time "bucket list" sort of trip.

 

That said, I knew there were a few things I wanted to do differently on my next safari.  First, I wanted the smaller tent camps versus the larger established "lodges".  Second, I wanted to fly between the safari destinations; a lot of potential game-viewing time was wasted on my previous safari in driving time between the various parks and reserves (and on Kenyan roads, that can be hard for someone like me with bad disks).  While photographing with a beanbag under the open pop-top of the Land Cruiser worked well, the side windows made photographing out the sides quite frustrating.  Third, the all-inclusive package price included international airfare that was purchased at the lowest possible fare class through a ticket consolidator - which meant no seat assignments until the day of departure at the airport.  For someone whose personal travel nightmare would be a middle seat on a long international flight, I resolved to handle my own airline reservations the next time around.  Fourth, the arrangement of a single guide that handled multiple safari destinations in Kenya meant he could not be knowledgeable on the latest game activities at a particular location, so I knew I wanted to stay at safari camps that had "resident" guides.  Lastly, being conscious of the numbers of other visitors at places like Amboseli and especially at the Mara Reserve, I wanted to try the private conservancies bordering the national parks and reserves.  After doing underwater photography for 30 years, I have learned that crowds of more people never make for a better wildlife viewing experience, nor for better wildlife photographs.

 

A little research, including a lot of time reading ST trip reports, led me to Gamewatchers and the Porini Camps in Kenya.  From my perspective, they were PERFECT for this second safari.  The Porini tent camps absolutely hit the sweet spot for me - the food is good and the lodging comfortable, but the real emphasis is on the game viewing.  After reading a couple of the most recent Kenya trip reports here on ST, I guess other people already figured that out.  The open-sided Porini safari vehicles (with canvas roof and side-curtains) were were photographer-friendly.  As an aside, of the 8 guests on my previous safari, only my buddy and I would count as remotely semi-serious photographers - one person had a borrowed a DSLR with non-working autofocus, one had a small point-and-shoot, and the other 4 were using only cellphones.  This is not meant as a criticism of how other folks do their safaris; rather, I was not impressed that Odyssey did not seem to put any thought into how they assigned guests to their vehicles, so I felt sorry for the two non-photographer guests who were stuck with us two photographers.  Porini gets it - with the exception of one afternoon game drive, every other drive during this most recent trip was just me and my photographer friend Harry in a single vehicle.  Porini staff make an effort to accomodate each guest's particular safari interests in a way that did not happen for me in 2016.  With a lot of patient help from Phil Bottrell, one of the Gamewatchers representatives in the US, I put together this trip on the assumption I would be traveling as a single.  Fortunately, a friend of mine (Harry from California) decided to join me about four weeks prior to departure.  I welcomed the company of another photographer, but Harry's presence also brought my cost down by roughly $500.  Total trip cost (1 night in Nairobi plus 8 nights in the field), including tips and everything (and use of 80,000 United miles) came in under $4000, which I consider an outstanding value for the safari experience delivered.


PART I - THE OL PEJETA CONSERVANCY AND PORINI RHINO CAMP

 

For this return visit to Kenya, I wanted to add a destination in central Kenya to pick up some of those unique species resident there such as Grevy's zebras and reticulatied giraffes.  And most especially I wanted to see some wild dogs.  As I was finalizing the arrangements for this trip, I used to tease Phil at Gamewatchers about making sure to "reserve" a pack of wild dogs for me (preferably slow ones that would be easy to photograph).  When Harry decided to join this trip, seeing leopards was at the top of his wish list, to which I readily agreed as I never saw any leopards during the 2016 safari.  Believe me, I understand from my scuba diving days that you have to take whatever nature gives you, but I find having a goal or two in mind makes the trip planning more focused.  And it does build up one's anticipation prior to the trip.

 

After a late evening arrival in Nairobi on 19 Nov (Phoenix >> Frankfurt >> NBO), and a short night at the Eka Hotel, we departed at 0615 for a short drive to Wilson Airport (which would not have been a 15-minute drive later into morning rush hour).  Since I was carrying a photo pack with approx 11kg of camera equipment, I was a bit concerned about fitting within the 15kg total baggage limit for in-country safari flights.  Before I ever had a chance to put a camera and lens over my shoulder and a couple batteries and chargers in my pants pockets, the staff at Wilson weighed my total baggage at 16kg (Harry's was similar).  Nobody seemed to care about that slight over-weight issue, and once we boarded our AirKenya flight, we realized why - Harry and I were the only passengers on the DH Twin Otter flying to Nanyuki that morning.  Technically, we flew into an alternate dirt airstrip (Nanyuki West?) on the western side of the Conservancy, as we were told the main Nanyuki airport was undergoing repairs.  One additional aside regarding air travel - after obsessing a bit about the plastic bag ban in Kenya, on arrival at NBO - no obvious signs regarding plastic bags, no questions about plastic bags, in short zero hassles.  The Nanyuki West airstrip is only a 10-minute drive or so to the Rhino Camp, so we did a lazy meandering drive to reach the camp around lunchtime.  Nice small tent camp with only seven tents spread along a small creek.  To me, it has two big advantages - first, most camps and lodges are on the eastern side of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, so it felt like Rhino Camp guests had the western half of the Conservancy pretty much to ourselves. Second, the porch of the main dining tent looks out on a nice waterhole which attracts a good variety of animal life (and bird life on the vegetation bordering the streambanks).  After checking in, getting unpacked in the tent, and a nice lunch, we did a short walk with the Maasai staff for the spear-throwing and dancing demonstration, and then headed out for our afternoon game drive.  

 

My personal highlights of that first day (20 Nov) at Rhino Camp included a Kori bustard doing his mating display, some attractive reticulated giraffes (these photos were taken at the camp waterhole,as was the nearby Speke's weaver), and several curious young jackals and  hyenas.

 

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A Speke's weaver, taken from the porch of the Rhino Camp dining tent:

 

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 As you will eventually figure out through this trip report, I do have a thing for some of the smaller mammals in Kenya, and some of the ones like hyenas that we sort of take for granted.  And for zebras.  But those were just the appetizers.

Toward the end of the afternoon, our guide Benjamin and his eagle-eyed spotter Henry saw something light-colored high in the trees in the distance.  Turned out to be a leopard!  Mind you, this was quite distant (photo is taken at 500mm with DX sensor, and cropped significantly), but still . . . any leopard sighting is a good sighting when you have never seen one in the wild before.  A promising end to our first day at Rhino Camp in Ol Pejeta.

 

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We awoke early on Day 2 (around 0430), with nearby hyenas making quite a racket over their breakfast of zebra.  

 

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Enroute to the eastern side of the Conservancy, we came across a small pride of lions working their way through the acacia scrub.  Lion cubs of any size, age, and location are always cute . . . even when wet.  

 

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Also a pair of cheetah brothers, either just waking up or just falling asleep - one can never be entirely certain with cheetahs.  

 

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I should note that, when driving between Rhino Camp and the eastern side of the Conservancy, one passes by a substantial livestock operation including a slaugterhouse and worker housing (little village is named Kamok?).  At first this struck a bit of an off note with me in the midst of so much natural beauty, but I came to accept it.  After all, the Conservancy was formerly a 90,000-acre cattle ranch, and continues with a sustainable livestock operation that provides a source of both food and income to the local people.  And the wildlife certainly seems to enjoy the watering stations that were built for the cattle. 

 

The eastern side of OP, though it gets more visitors than the western side, definitely has more beautiful terrain, especially the riverbanks along the Ewaso Nyiro River.  Made a lovely spot for a bush breakfast.  

 

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A local elephant herd seems quite at home in the river valley environment, and several family groups with cute baby elephants were present in the area.  Note where the elephant calf is nursing in the first photo; this fact becomes significant later in the trip.

 

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Several African fish eagles also seemed to appreciate the location along the river.  

 

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The central part of the Conservancy abounds with both southern white and black rhinos, though there seemed to be quite a bit more of the southern white variety (or possibly the black rhinos were feeding back in the bushes and therefore less obvious).

 

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These appeared to be family members playing together rather than any serious tussle.

 

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On the drive back to the western side for lunch, we came across a nice martial eagle, and one of my personal favorites (another underappreciated animal), the common warthog.

 

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But then, but then . . . let's just say that Christmas came early for me last November.  Our guides spotted a lone wild dog moving around in the shade of a large tree.  Apparently this young female was separated from the rest of her pack during a hunt roughly half a year ago, and the pack moved on while this young female was left here.  Sort of sad to see a pack animal without her pack, and a social animal being all alone, but fortunately she looked quite healthy.

 

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After a lunch break, we headed out later in the afternoon with Benjamin and Henry trying to see if we could find the wild dog again.  Close by the camp, we were passed by a herd of Thompson's gazelles zigzagging past us at full speed, headed in the opposite direction . . . followed soon thereafter by the wild dog.  We tried reversing course to follow them, but it wasn't really possible with all the acacia scrub and the speeding animals, so no pictures of the solo wild dog hunting.  Shortly thereafter, as we reached an area of more open grassland, keen-eyed Henry spotted our wild dog in the distance, apparently feeding on a kill.  It was clear she has figured out how to catch gazelles on her own, without the rest of the pack to help.  Also clear that she had to pass through some muddy terrain to catch her dinner this day.

 

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It was fascinating to see the hunting and feeding behavior of this distant relative of our domestic dogs.  I know our Norwich terrier had a pretty strong hunting instinct around small rodents and lizards, but the shih tzu - not so much. His idea of hunting was to bark at the refrigerator.  

 

So within the span of about 26 hours at Ol Pejeta, we had both a leopard and a wild dog sighting.  At this point, if the rest of the trip just had shown me the routine African wildlife, I would have felt this to be a successful safari that already met my expectations.  We did spot a bird I had never seen before, the white-bellied go-away-bird:

 

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But there was one more interesting incident later that afternoon.  Near the wild dog kill, a pair of young jackals were engaged in a tug of war over their dinner (some sort of very young grazing animal, not sure what).  Unfortunately, they made enough racket to attract the attention of a nearby hyena.  One jackal had sole possession of his prize for a brief moment in time, but as soon as the hyena came near, the jackal dropped the carcass and the hyena came away with a free dinner.  If nothing else, these pictures show the significant size discrepancy between the two animals.  Smart jackal.

 

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The end of a good full day in Ol Pejeta.

 

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Our Day 3 morning (22 Nov) involved another trip over to the eastern side of the Conservancy, this time to see the three remaining northern white rhinos and the Grevy's zebra.  The morning drive eastward brought us a nice tawny eagle looking for breakfast:

 

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Some up-close-and-personal views of a reticulated giraffe:

 

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And the ugly-but-strangely-elegant marabou stork:

 

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I love seeing cheetahs, especially young sibling groups.  They seem to share an almost telepathic connection.

 

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Cheetahs on the hunt are so focused . . . 

 

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But sometimes their brother is only dreaming of the hunt . . .  so much for my telepathy theory.

 

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As I mentioned before, there were lots of healthy-looking southern white rhinos in the central part of the Conservancy and other healthy grazers, I guess visual proof that the conservancy model is working well.

 

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On the previous day, we had visited the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary along the Ewaso Nyiro River to see Poco and the other rescued chimpanzees from elsewhere in Africa.  Admission was included with the stay at Rhino Camp, and it was a worthwhile visit, but nonetheless a somewhat grim place.  We had the option of visiting the Endangered Species Boma the next day, but opted to pass.  Our guide Benjamin suggested that we could see the endangered Northern White Rhinos and the Grevy's almost as well from the outside of the fence, which is what we did.  Again, this facility is a sad place, to see animals fenced in that should be in the wild, but it is sadder still to know that it is necessary because of human actions. Other than a nice view of the Grevy's zebras, I did not come away with any good pictures of the three northern white rhinos other than some for record purposes.

 

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Soon afterwards, we did go to visit Baraka the blind black rhino.  Maybe a little inconsistent that I did not have such a negative reaction here, but that might be because here humans are taking care of a native Kenyan animal that was injured by forces of nature rather than by human actions.  In any case, Baraka was worth seeing (this is Harry with one of the local rangers).

 

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On the way heading back to the west side and Rhino Camp, Harry and I had been looking for small birds such as lilac breasted rollers and bee eaters.  My friend Harry is a real birder; I am not.  I enjoy photographing large impressive birds and small colorful birds, but the little brown jobs (however rare) don't do it for me.  I wasn't getting great shots of these small perching birds, so to amuse myself I tried to get some flight photos, right after they take off.  I tried quickly panning to the right or left, but wasn't at all successful, so eventually I zoomed out to try to catch the bird in flight in any direction it might head.  I apologize in advance for the quality of the following two photos.  They are poor technically, but are interesting for another reason.  This first photo shows what Harry tells me is a European bee eater, perched on a branch.

 

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Not real exciting, right?  Now take a look at the picture taken just a split second later, when this bee eater has decided to fly away.

 

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Note that he not only did a nose dive off from his branch, but he has also rolled through 180 degrees, which is why we are seeing his underside rather than his back.  I thought that rollers (and related bee eaters, in the same order Coraciiformes) were so named for acrobatic maneuvers they perform during courtship - either these particular birds also do these acrobatics during daily life, or this guy is practicing for his big date.  Or more troubling, this little bee eater is courting a Land Rover Defender.  In any case, I am impressed . . . 

 

Came across a rhino parent and young one enjoying a mud bath at the local spa

 

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And a warthog family group enjoying the same treatment.  Entertaining watching a warthog parent and adolescent interact with each other (well, maybe more fun for the little one than the parent).

 

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A few more scenes that caught my attention on the drive back to Rhino camp, all pretty much self-explanatory.  

 

Black rhino with oxpeckers (kept waiting for the rhino in the first photo to sneeze out the oxpecker, but didn't happen):

 

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Olive baboon mothers with young ones:

 

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And an elegant (and not ugly) sacred ibis:

 

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Can never go wrong with more baby elephants . . . 

 

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Though young hyenas might give them some competition in the cute category . . .

 

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I knew I was visiting near the anticipated end of the short rainy season, so I fully expected to see some rain during this trip.  We were lucky with no showers during the first three days, but rain started during dinner on Day 3 and was occasionally pretty heavy during the night.  The game drive the next morning, enroute back to the Nanyuki West airstrip for our flight down south to the Mara Camp, was fairly sparse as far as large game goes, and the ground was still pretty wet, but we did see a few interesting birds including this Speke's weaver, and one good-looking black-backed jackal.  

 

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And of course a parting shot of our wonderful spotter Henry and our guide Benjamin.  

 

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Both did an exceptional job, as did camp manager David and all the staff at Rhino camp.

 

Thanks for reading this far.  END OF PART I.

Southern White Rhino Group 1.jpg

Edited by KCAZ
Make clear there are three parts to this trip report
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Looks like a great start! Thanks for sharing the background info. I am also in the midst of planning and reading your TR solidifies my plans to visit Ol Pej. Can't wait to read about the rest of your trip.

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Great to have you onboard ST @KCAZ Thanks for this overview of your time at Ol Pejeta, looks to have been a productive time there. I wonder what the rest will bring...

 

Matt

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@KCAZ what a cracking start to the trip - leopards n a solo wild dog. There was a famous wild dog in Mombo named Solo who overcame her need for a pack by adopting black jackals and helping to feed them.  She survived on her own for a while until a new pack of dogs came into the area and she e's never seen again. Hopefully this single resourceful dog will survive longer. 

Wonderful of you to share such great details. It's ncredible  you were able to keep costs down at 4K. 

Looking forward to the next instalment. 

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Thank you for sharing the background and how you decided to on the itinerary. Look forward to the rest of the report and welcome to ST.

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Thanks for the kind words, @Dawnvip.  If I can answer anything about Ol Pejeta or the Rhino Camp operation, or you want to see any pictures of the camp itself, don't hesitate to ask.  It was obviously a great place to see some of those species you don't find in southern Kenya - the wild dog alone made it worth the trip.  And lots and lots of rhinos . . . 

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Thank you for the warm welcome,  @GameWarden.  With all the exceptional trip reports on ST, it is a bit intimidating to take that first plunge.  Now that I did, I am glad I dove in - if nothing else, going back through my notes and photos helps to recapture that safari excitement in the middle of winter.

 

As for what comes next from the Mara Camp and Lion Camp?  Hint . . . cats, cats and more cats.  And maybe even some "bitings" (and not the quaint British usage of the word).:P

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@Kitsafari, I share your concern for this lone wild dog in Ol Pejeta.  I have my fingers crossed she can continue to thrive on her own, but deep down would love to see her re-united with her pack sometime soon.

 

I concur on the costs, I was also surprised at my final trip budget.  Though some of that comes from traveling in late November 2017 versus late September back in 2016, I don't think that was the primary factor.  On my 2016 safari, in hindsight we spent too much time on ground transportation between destinations, and missed those special pre-dawn and post-dusk times because of stricter park regulations.  The more sensible conservancy rules, coupled with the priority that Porini gives to the game viewing, meant that it felt like I had twice as many hours out on game drives in Nov 2017 as I did back in the Sep 2016.  More time on game drives translates obviously to more game sighted, but I realized it offered two other advantages:  the time to search intensively for particular animals (as we did with the wild dogs), and the time to linger with individual animals watching for things to develop (as we did with big cats later in the trip).  So having more time out on the game drives seems to offer not just a quantity advantage, but a real QUALITY advantage as well.

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I am glad you found that background information worthwhile, @anocn4.  I hesitated on whether to include it or not, but hoped it might help the next person planning their safari.  Also, once I described what I was seeking in this safari, Phil at Gamewatchers was very helpful in matching my desires to the right camps and destinations.   I highly recommend Gamewatchers, and on my return back home even received received an email from Jake Grieves Cook (the founder of the company) asking how my trip went and any suggestions for improving things in the future.  Wish more companies took that kind of care on customer satisfaction.

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Enjoying reading your report and looking forward to the rest of your report. As we were out at the Porini camps in October, we feel that we are back there again.

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Amazing TR thus far. I, too, traveled with a group on my trip to Kenya. My return will definitely be private safari and smaller, tented camps (though we did stay at a few tent camps). My next trip in April of next year is to Tanzania for the northern circuit, so my inevitable return to Kenya will have to wait a couple years... Unless I win the lottery;)

Edited by Amylovescritters
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Great start to your trip report.  Thrilled that you got your leopard and wild dog almost right off the bat.  Looking forward to more!

 

 

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A wonderful first report, thanks so much for sharing. You had some absolutely wonderful sightings in Ol Pejeta, Cheetah, Leopard, Wild Dog - wow! Great photos all the way! Especially like the first Cheetah shot (stretching). About the Rhinos, the Blacks are browsers, more wary and therefore generally much harder to see. Like you I quite enjoyed visiting Baraka some time ago, touching a Rhino felt pretty special and I was under the impression he leads a good life there given his condition. Not 100% convinced about your Martial, something seems a bit off for me (not dark enough for an adult, too brown for a juvenile), looks more like a Brown Snake Eagle to me. Looking forward to the next chapters very much!

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Thank you, @CDL111.  I encountered a number of repeat visitors at the different Porini camps I visited, and now I understand why.

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What, @Amylovescritters, you didn't win the Powerball lottery?  I did enjoy my first safari with the packaged group tour, and with only four guests per vehicle, and the game drives never felt carmped or over-crowded within our vehicle.  However, some of the sightings, especially in the Mara Reserve, had too many other safari vehicles all jockeying for position.  The thing that hit me is at breakfast and dinner time at the larger lodges, when you suddenly were reminded there were 50 or 60 people (or more, there was a UN conference at one of the lodges) all there at the same time.  The small tent camps have a more intimate, and even an antisocial person like me can handle dinner conversation with 4 or 6 other guests at the table.  Put me in a room with 50 other people and I just tend to zone out.

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Thanks, @Alexander33.  I am close to having Part 2 done and posted, so please stay tuned.

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I absolutely agree with you, @michael-ibk, being able to touch a black rhino was a special moment.  One note on the martial/snake eagle - if I had the time, I would try to dial in a little positive exposure compensation when photographing dark birds against a brighter sky background.  More often than not, I either did not have time or did not remember, so typically I would bring up the shadows a bit in post-processing to bring out some feather detail.  Only raising this point as this particular bird could well have been darker in nature than in my photo.

 

I didn't really do this at Rhino Camp, but learned from watching my friend Harry that it is worth spending some time with the camp guide books at the end of the day to identify some of the species photographed.  If you or anyone else knows of a good birding guide for East Africa that I could download onto a Kindle or Android tablet (not iPad), I would appreciate hearing your recommendations.  I probably should also purchase a good hardcopy guide to have here back at home.  

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when at kicheche laikpia, we did the private visit with sudan. we all got to touch him and it was a scary, humbling and sad moment, knowing he is most likely the last male of his kind. my teens got to feed Baraka sugar cane and they really enjoyed it but that was also sad because he kept banging into the wood slats.

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@michael-ibk, thanks for the birding guide recommendations.  I just checked on the US Amazon site, and the hard copy book is $65, the paperback version is $21.50, and there is "digital upgrade" available for only $7.  Can't find any explanation on exactly what this digital upgrade or what devices it is compatible with, maybe it is a disk or download available only after you have purchased the book.

 

The Google Play Store shows the app for the eGuide version of the book for $30, but some review comments raise questions about whether it works well on Samsung devices (which my tablet is).  So I think I will start with the paperback version of the book as a desk reference.  Guess I have my work cut out for me, reviewing and probably revising a bunch of my bird IDs.

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@plambers, it is pretty neat to touch a living and breathing rhino.  I had a different impression of them (massive, ornery, antisocial) before this visit to Baraka, and also seeing the other rhino family members playing together, eating together, etc.  Now they just seem . . .  I guess "cool" would be the proper adjective.  Definitely makes one wish for a worldwide on the rhino-horn trade.

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Impressive delivery by Ol Pejeta!! 

 

Love the bee-eating roller. :D

Edited by pault
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@KCAZ Yes, the background info is indeed helpful. I am glad Gamewatchers worked out for you. For my last trip, I almost booked with them but I was not happy with the Gamewatchers lady rep (in the U.S.) and I went with someone else, since she did not seem to care for my business. I wonder if I can ask for Phil next time or you're stuck with whatever you're assigned with after you send out the inquiry.

 

Your sightings at Ol Pejata were impressive, especially the cheetahs. I can't wait to read the rest of your trip report.

Edited by anocn4
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I know I called Phil at Gamewatchers directly, @anocn4, and that worked out very well for me.  But then I did not submit an inquiry on the website, but rather called Phil to get more info.

 

If you like cheetahs, you will definitely want to take a look at Part 3 when I get the trip report done.  Maybe another 2 weeks due to some time commitments.  Hint: cheetahs in action.

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  • 2 months later...

Just the time frame I am interested in!  Great deal you got.  The hyena action is exceptional along with the many rhinos, including a bit of a tussle. Rhino Camp lived up to its name, that's for sure.  I believe one of the 3 Northern White Rhinos just died, the male.  You found the warthogs doing interesting stuff too.  What an impressive start.

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