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Kenya Nov 2018 - Part 1 (Kalama and Samburu)


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INTRODUCTION - This is Part 1 of what will ultimately be a four-part trip report, with Part 1 covering the Kalama Conservancy, the Samburu National Reserve, and the Saruni Samburu Lodge.  Part 2 will cover Amboseli National Park and the Selenkay Conservancy, based out of Porini Amboseli Camp.  Part 3 will cover the Ol Kinyei and Naboisho Conservancies from the Porini Mara Camp, and Part 4 will address the Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Olare Motorogi Conservancy from the Porini Lion Camp.  I discovered the advantages of the private conservancies back in 2017, so structured my 2018 trip around those.  I was travelling solo for Part 1 of this trip, and will be joined by friends Dick and Kathy for the remaining parts.  I originally planned to spend only three nights at the Saruni Samburu Lodge, but scheduling difficulties using my airline miles meant that I would have to arrive into Nairobi one day earlier.  Given the choice of spending the day in Nairobi versus out in the bush, well, that was an easy decision to make.


I had learned on my previous two trips to Kenya that Africa has a way of frustrating your expectations, but once you learn to relax and enjoy what she offers to you, you won't be disappointed.  And sometimes she will offer up a surprising wildlife encounter or two.  For Part 1 of this trip, I hoped to see the Samburu Special Five (Grevy's zebra, Somali ostrich, Beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe, and gerenuk).  I also hoped to see wild dogs, having only seen one solitary female last year a the Porini Rhino Camp in Ol Pejeta Conservancy, and I am always intrigued by the smaller mammals and colorful birds.  I did not expect to see many big cats in this part of Kenya, but I was confident I would see more than enough of them later in the trip.  There are many members here on ST who are more experienced safari travelers, better photographers, more knowledgeable about birds and East African wildlife, etc.  I photograph and write about whatever catches my attention, be it an unusual bird or animal I haven't seen before, unusual behavior, or an aesthetically pleasing landscape.  Of course, that still won't save you from images of zebras, warthogs, and lilac breasted rollers, because I can never pass those by.  Best that you view this trip report and the following three sections as the safari equivalent of An Idiot Abroad.




SARUNI SAMBURU LODGE - This five-star operation is the only lodge or camp located within the 384 square kilometer Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy, so crowds are never a problem.  The lodge consists of six private villas strung out along the top of a rocky ridge, with a central dining and lounge area, and two pools.  The villas are a definite step above the typical safari tent, with a large sitting and dining room connected by a covered breezeway to a large bedroom with attached bathroom, two outdoor decks and an outdoor as well as indoor shower.  To be honest, I felt a little guilty as one person with all this space to myself; I also felt that maybe Saruni Samburu was intended for a better class of guests than me.  Beyond the level of luxury and service, a large part of the attraction of this lodge is in its setting up on that ridge, with unobstructed long-distance views to the west.  Most safari camps are situated on low-lying ground near a stream or waterhole and offer some diversions while you are in camp, but they aren't really designed as a place to linger.  By contrast, one could be quite content at Saruni Samburu just lazing away an afternoon, soaking in one of the pools, getting a massage, and just enjoying the view.  I should also mention that the food here, which is Italian-inspired cuisine, is up to the same standard.  The camp is well-managed by Zoe and Johann, and the guides are local Samburu tribesmen (though we did have one Maasai guide on a cross-training experience).  There is some local wildlife in the area of the lodge, and there is a permanent waterhole at the base of the ridge with a photographic hide located nearby.  






















































SAMBURU SPECIAL FIVE - These species were all located without much difficulty, either in the Kalama Conservancy or the nearby Samburu Reserve, which is only a 20 to 30-minute drive south of the lodge.  Despite the time of year being toward the end of the short rainy season, it was obvious that things were very dry in the Kalama Conservancy and the Samburu Reserve.  That meant that wildlife was somewhat sparser than normal in the Conservancy (according to the guides), but also somewhat more concentrated near the Ewaso Ngiro River within the Reserve.  My overall impression is that this part of Kenya did not have the large numbers of grazing animals, and the predators that feed on them, compared to other areas like the Maasai Mara.  But the wide open scenery and fewer people made the wildlife encounters somehow feel more personal and more enjoyable.  Most daytime game drives were down into the Reserve and the areas around the Ewaso Ngiro River, while most late afternoon or evening drives stayed in the nearby Kalama Conservancy.


First up of the Samburu Special Five, a male Somali ostrich and a small group of females:





































The Beisa oryx are impressive animals, and quite photogenic.  They seem to be relatively rare, as I  saw only a handful of them during my 4-1/2 days in this part of Kenya.













































The reticulated giraffes are not present in large numbers, but are relatively easy to spot given the open terrain in the Conservancy and the Reserve.  To be honest, I find the patterning on the Maasai giraffe to be a little more attractive, but giraffe are such stately animals that any giraffe is a good giraffe.






















































The gerenuk are a rather unique long-necked antelope perfectly adapted to grazing vegetation at a higher level than the other antelopes can reach.  Again, not that hard to find in this area, but not all that common either, and not present in large numbers.  Surprisingly, I saw more gerenuk later in the trip, further south in Kenya.













































Last but not least are the Grevy's zebra, my favorite of the Samburu Special Five.   And my favorite zebra as well, being larger than the plains zebra and with a more interesting pattern of stripes.  One doesn't see the large herds of Grevy's here, as you might with plains zebra elsewhere in Kenya, as they tend to cluster in smaller groups.  My only other encounter with Grevy's had been in November 2017 at the endangered species enclosure in Ol Pejeta, so it was nice to see these thriving out in the wild.































































First of all, if you like dik-diks, this is the place for you - it seems like there is a pair under every third bush, and they are particularly abundant close to the ridge where the Saruni Samburu Lodge is located.  They seem to be EVERYWHERE.

I believe the ones in the photos below are all of the Günther's variety of dik-dik.  Compared to dik-diks seen elsewhere in Kenya, these seem to be particularly approachable, as the photos suggest.









































































Another animal that seemed relatively abundant, especially along the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro River,  as well as being relatively approachable, were the olive baboons.  




























































































 Looking equally thoughtful is a black-faced vervet monkey:




































There are supposed to be a couple leopards in the area, including one known to hang out in the vicinity of the Saruni Samburu Lodge.  I had no luck with leopards here, though some other guests did see one in the Samburu National Reserve.  We did locate one good-looking cheetah in the Reserve:













































When it comes to the smaller mammals, did not see anything dramatically different during the daytime.  On one of the night game drives, we did manage to see a genet and a white-tailed mongoose, but both were pretty elusive and impossible to photograph successfully at night.  Saw more dwarf mongooses during the day than the banded variety which seems more common down south.



































And I did find one of my favorite small mammals, the rock hyrax.  May I count this one as three hyrax sightings? 





BIRDS OF THE KALAMA CONSERVANCY AND SAMBURU NATIONAL RESERVE - This is where I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity and approachability of many of the birds here.  The dry acacia scrub harbors the usual suspects, and the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro River attract a fair share of water-loving birds.  The one notable absence was of the larger raptors, and that could be a temporary absence due to the lack of rain and therefore the lack of suitable small prey.


First, a pair of yellow-necked spurfowl:




Followed by hornbills, the one on the left being an Eastern yellow-billed hornbill, while the one on the right is a red-billed hornbill.
























And views of two different white-browed sparrow weavers.  Note on all bird identifications - I based them either on the ID provided by the guides, or by relying on Birds of East Africa by Stevenson and Fanshawe.  If I am in error (likely the case), I would welcome corrections to my initial identifications.  











































The one bird that I found to be particularly skittish was the golden-breasted starling; they always seemed to fly off to a distant bush whenever the safari vehicle got within 100 feet or so.  This photo is the closest I could get to one.




The bird that I have found skittish elsewhere in Kenya and relatively abundant and approachable in Kalama and Samburu was the stunning vulturine guineafowl.





































Maybe a touch less approachable were the helmeted guineafowl.  Both kinds of guineafowl had a habit of running along the dirt tracks ahead of the oncoming safari vehicle before they eventually would take a turn off the track into more cover.




Another dryland bird, but one that seemed somewhat rare here, was the black-faced sandgrouse (I believe this is a female):




Although I mentioned the relative absence of raptors, there was one large exception to that observation - the magnificent secretary bird, a predator that stalks along the ground.




There were a lot of different varieties of weavers in the Conservancy and the Reserve, with these black-capped social weavers being the most obvious due to their very spherical nests hanging from the larger acacia trees.




One of the few raptors sighted here was the African harrier-hawk:




Closer to the Ewaso Ngiro River was this beautiful white-throated bee-eater:





And a lovely little bee-eater ready to chow down on breakfast.

























































And a cute (and alert) grey-headed kingfisher:


























































One group of noisy birds, and a new species for me, were these green wood-hoopoes:




Last but not least is this greyish eagle-owl (or the greyish variant of the spotted eagle-owl) seen on a night drive from the Saruni Samburu Lodge.  A note for the photographers in the audience - this was shot at 1/6 of a second at ISO 12,800.  Maybe 3 or 4 frames out of 20 were sharp enough to be keepers.













































THE SURPRISING HIGHLIGHT OF SAMBURU NATIONAL RESERVE - What would turn out to the best part of my visit to this part of Kenya also turned out to be the least expected by me.  But it should have become obvious on my first day there, with this first clue on the dirt track driving south from the Kalama Conservancy into the Samburu Reserve - the distinctively-shaped rock on the horizon.




Yes, that one was really a rock formation, but it signaled the beginning of the best time I have had with elephants in the wild.  There are other places in Kenya with bigger elephants, and with larger herds, but Samburu has some of the friendliest and most mellow elephants I have seen.




This photo and most that follow were shot with a wide-to-short telephoto zoom, simply because the elephants were typically so close to the vehicle.  These seemed to be predominantly females with their young.  Lots of little elephants everywhere.Kenya2018-1161.jpg.4f72e9809f4ac29018c0ae80c24ef5a3.jpg




























































The elephants were easy to find every day as they followed a predictable ritual - move from the drier terrain toward the river for a drink and a splash in late morning, linger around the vegetation near the river banks in the midday heat, and then amble back to drier land for the evening.  


































































We generally kept a respectful distance when the elephants were drinking or eating, but when they were on the move, the guide would position the vehicle 100 yards or so ahead of the elephants' line of march.  And they would approach and simply flow around the vehicle with no hesitation or signs of nervousness or aggression.  The little ones were curious and almost always came up close to sniff the safari vehicle and sometimes touch it with the tips of their trunks; the mothers would be 10 feet or so behind the little ones, and showed no indications of stress or concern.  Well, technically that is not 100% correct, as we did witness two examples of stressed elephants.  In the first instance, a juvenile elephant grazing near the river bank was spooked and driven off by that most vicious of creatures . . . a water thick-knee protecting its egg by squawking and flapping its wings vigorously.  Of course, if you are going to lay your egg in a pile of elephant dung, possibly you should expect to encounter some elephants in the neighborhood.








































The other incident occurred when a juvenile elephant passing the vehicle decided it was a good time to practice his "big man on campus" routine, so he flapped his ears, shook his head, did a mock charge at us, and trumpeted loudly.  Well, "trumpeted" might be too generous a term - more like a sound from a cornet.  It was a pretty entertaining moment, though I am not sure that junior appreciated our laughter.  I hope he understands it was respectful laughter.















































Being around all of these mellow elephants, especially the little ones, was an absolute delight.  


















































































ONE LAST PARTING GIFT FROM THE SAMBURU RESERVE - I was fortunate that I had a number of game drives at Saruni Samburu with me being the only guest in the vehicle.  Definitely the best arrangement for the photographer, though I am fine with having one guest per row in the vehicle, as that permits easily photographing out of either side.  For whatever reason, we had five guests in the vehicle on my last full day there, and we spent the first two hours of the morning game drive searching unsuccessfully for big cats.  We eventually worked our way down to the Ewaso Ngiro River, where we found the usual group of elephants enjoying the water.  After our break for the bush breakfast (which I spent most of photographing bee-eaters hunting over the river), we worked our downstream to a giraffe carcass we had spotted the previous day.  So far, a rather unexciting morning in the Samburu Reserve.  There was a male lion lounging near the carcass, probably recovering from his breakfast.  




We had noticed three younger cubs milling restlessly around the area, and our guides figured out what was going on.  A group of 7 lions had probably scented the giraffe carcass from the far side of the river, and the male and three cubs had crossed earlier in the morning to feed on it.  This left two females and one more cub on the far bank (visible to left of center along the top of the steep bank).


























































Our guides parked the vehicle with a clear view of the river, and we settled in to see what would happen next.  After about 40 minutes of watching the three lions on the far bank pacing back and forth, without much warning one of the adult females leaped down the bank and into the water, followed quickly by the other female and the remaining cub.




Note the cub in the middle of the previous photo, and now in this next one, where its head is just barely visible above the water level.









































































Once all members of the group were on the same side of the river, they settled in for lunch on the dead giraffe.  Nothing brings a family together like a dead animal carcass - remember that at your next holiday dinner with your family!  The guides told us that there are only 14-15 lions in total in the Samburu Reserve, so we felt privileged to see half of them at one time, and executing a river crossing at that.  A good ending to a good visit to Samburu.





  • The lack of recent rain meant reduced numbers of wildlife in the Kalama Conservancy, but the trade-off was that the wildlife was probably more concentrated in the Samburu Reserve, especially near the river.  I would like to visit this area when it is greener and there is more wildlife in the Conservancy.  I suspect that the afternoon game drives in the Conservancy would be much more productive under those conditions.
  • Saruni Samburu Lodge is a delightful place to stay.  I didn't think I needed that level of luxury on a safari, and yet . . . the pool was nice in the afternoon, as was the complimentary massage.  One could certainly get used to this!  Kudos to Zoe and Johann for a well-run operation.
  • Maybe this was a function of traveling solo for this portion of the trip, but I was surprised to find myself enjoying the company of the staff and other guests more than I expected.  As an example, one evening and two other guests (Jon and Shana) went down to the photographic hide with my favorite guide here, Sambara.  From up at the lodge, we had seen various groups of elephants using the waterhole, and apparently there had been a group of two dozen wild dogs visiting a couple weeks previously.  The night we chose to visit the hide, we had a thrilling encounter with a herd of massive . . . guineafowl.  And you know what?  We all had the best time that evening.  Admittedly, there was some alcohol involved, but nevertheless it was good time.


A photo of Sambara, my favorite guide at Saruni Samburu, plus a couple scenic shots of the lodge to close this portion of the trip report.  Stay tuned for Part 2 soon.














Edited by KCAZ
two photos incorrectly included
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6 hours ago, KCAZ said:

To be honest, I felt a little guilty as one person with all this space to myself; I also felt that maybe Saruni Samburu was intended for a better class of guests than me


That was a very good report and this was a particularly amusing passage that I can totally relate too!

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Thanks, @dlo.  Clearly the Saruni operation needs to do a better job of screening the guests who stay at their lodges.  Otherwise, riff-raff like me will show up, and there goes the neighborhood.


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@KCAZ,  enjoying your report, we were in Samburu January 2017, so can easily relate to your photographs.

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I was in Samburu in 2004. Going to need to make it back but headed to TZ in 2 months so it will have to wait. Lol. Great read, and my, what a beautiful camp. Not as beautiful as the special 5... Whom I was lucky enough to see, as well. 

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Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and excellent photos.  Heading to Kenya this fall for the first time and have 3 nights at Samburu.  Reading this just makes us more excited.  Thanks.

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your pics are lovely, especially the bee eater getting ready to eat and the many eles, my favorite!

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Wonderful photography of fantastic sightings.


Thank you for preparing this excellent trip report.


Samburu is one of my favorite places anywhere.


Tom K.

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Thanks to all for the kind comments on Part 1.  Saruni Samburu Lodge is definitely a cut above the usual safari digs, both in terms of luxury and privacy, but also in terms of setting.  I neglected to mention how much I like the terrain in the Samburu National Reserve and the Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy.  It is fairly open acacia scrubland (not sure if that is the correct term), but is broken up by a series of stark rocky ridges.  These create some visual variety as well as providing some nice sheltered habitat for the wildlife.  And the Saruni Lodge blends in so well on the top of its ridge that it feels like nature designed it to be there.  It also attracted a very international set of guests, with visitors from the UK, France, Italy, Sweden, and Portugal, as well as the US, while I was there.  All in all, a delightful place to visit.

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@KCAZoutstanding trip report and pictures. Loved the crispness of your bird photos. Thanks so much for sharing.


We stayed at Saruni Samburu a few years ago and the views are just amazing. When we were there the river was bone dry so it was good to see some water in it. We were lucky to see the dogs one afternoon. We viewed them trotting North past the water hole while sitting on our deck. We then raced along the path, down the back side of the camp to watch them drink at the small reservoir down the step rock, there were about 20 dogs. My favorite part of your report...your picture of Sambara, we spent five with him while at Samburu and Saruni Rhino, we were fortunate to meet his beautiful wife while transferring between camps.  


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Excellent photography throughout. I particularly like the Vulturine Guinea Fowl, the Gerunuk and the lions at the river sequence.

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@KCAZ, I am looking forward to this TR since we will be headed to the Porini camps in about a month ourselves.  Your first installment was great.  Your pictures are outstanding and capture that leg of the trip very well.  The Grevy's Zebara and Reticulated Giraffe shots shots are my favorites.


By the way, it's nice to know there is a fellow Arizonian on ST :).



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HI @Atdahl  I think you will like the Porini Camps - which ones are you doing?  I am essentially done with my Part 2 report (Amboseli, Selenkay, and Porini Rhino Camp) but am hesitant to post it.  I sent a few friends who are not ST members the link for Part 1 and they are not able to open it.  Same problem for me if I am not logged in - I just get an error code of 2F176/1 and no content is visible.  I have sent a message to the ST Admiin about this.  I hope the rules haven't changed to make content only available to ST members, as I would like to share my trip reports and photos with a number of old and new friends who are not ST members.  By the way, your two bodies and two zooms should be the perfect safari combo.

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2 hours ago, KCAZ said:

HI @Atdahl  I think you will like the Porini Camps - which ones are you doing?  I am essentially done with my Part 2 report (Amboseli, Selenkay, and Porini Rhino Camp) but am hesitant to post it.  I sent a few friends who are not ST members the link for Part 1 and they are not able to open it.  Same problem for me if I am not logged in - I just get an error code of 2F176/1 and no content is visible.  I have sent a message to the ST Admiin about this.  I hope the rules haven't changed to make content only available to ST members, as I would like to share my trip reports and photos with a number of old and new friends who are not ST members.  By the way, your two bodies and two zooms should be the perfect safari combo.


Rules have not changed but the permissions have not been re-opened yet. Pain in the *** and not sure why it has not been communicated (no doubt “it’s complicated”) but you’ll just have to wait until Matt does whatever he needs to do to feel okay about reopening to the public.


Really nice report anyway and lovely photos of Kalama. You got beauties of all the right suspects and the lion river crossing is a truly great sighting. Love the birdie shots too. 




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Thanks for the info, @pault.  It helps to know it is not a permanent rule change.  I will just have to be patient and wait for Matt to do his thing.

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Love your photos from one of the most stunning areas of Kenya.  You were lucky to see the lions cross the river and capture some good photos of them.


I'm not sure when the forum will be fully opened to non members, Matt is the only one who can answer that.  I'm sorry that your friends can't see and read your trip report, hopefully it won't be too much longer.

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This is an excellent start to your safari.  I haven’t been to Samburu yet, but you’re putting forth a good effort to get me there!  So many excellent photos.  The color and light is unreal.  That second to last baby elephant is smiling, I’m sure of it!  And I don’t think I’ve seen vulturine guinea fowl, only the helmeted, but what an exquisite bird.  This is all dangerous information to have (especially the lodging info) as I plan my return to Kenya!  Looking forward to more!


(PS there is a thread elsewhere requesting that access to Trip Reports be reopened to visitors, maybe put a word in there?)

Edited by amybatt
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I just had to add my 2 cents worth.  Your photographs are absolutely outstanding!!!!!!!!!  (if I may, what was your main lens?).  I'm really looking forward to your next instalments as I'm headed to Porini Amboseli and Porini Mara in October (so long to wait).

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Thanks for link to that other thread, @amybatt.  I just added my two cents there.  I also experienced a new problem attempting to post Part 2 of my Kenya trip report (the Amboseli portion), where I received a new error message, although I was logged in to ST at the time.  Obviously nothing posted, but I can't seem to recover either my text or uploaded photos, so I worry that the AutoSave feature did not work.  I have reached out to @Game Warden for help on both issues.

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Really enjoyed following along with you on this portion of your trip. I’ve been to Ol Pejeta, but not Samburu. I definitely need to add that to the list. That lodge looked extremely nice — works for me!

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Thanks for the kind words on my photos, @MMMim.  I took two Nikon D7500 camera bodies, one with an 18-140 zoom (for things like the elephants, giraffes, and lions) and the other body with the Nikon 200-500 zoom, mostly for birds and the smaller mammals.  That combination works well for me, and then I bring along a 70-300 zoom just as a backup in case there is a problem with one of the other lenses.  


I tried posting the Amboseli portion of my report (Part 2), but it did not work - no text or photos posted, and I can't seem to get back what I had uploaded.  So I am holding off on Parts 3 and 4 until Matt can get this issue resolved (and also hopefully restore permission for non-members to view trip reports).

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Hoping all gets worked out... Very eager to read the rest!

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@KCAZ I have to tell you that Saruni Samburu is one of my favorite lodges anywhere. I thought that the place was simply outstanding in every way except for the manager Tom Hardy whom I disliked. I'm happy to say that he's no longer there. I remember the rest of the staff most fondly especially Benson the Masai head waiter and Sambara who was my guide. I can't wait to return to Saruni Samburu in combination with Samburu Rhino. The views from Saruni Samburu lodge were the finest I've seen anywhere. They have a great deal at Saruni Samburu where if you book and pay for 3 nights you can have one night free of charge. I also felt that when I stayed there for 4 days there was an outstanding variety of activities on offer. Apart from game drives there were night drives in the Kalama concession,visiting a Samburu village,walking safari and a helicopter trip over the Northern Rangeland Trust. I didn't think that Samburu National Park was overly crowded for the most part because my guide Sambara knew how to avoid the crowds at most of the sightings and of course there was plenty of wildlife in the Kalama Concession. I did enjoy the bush breakfast.I saw cheetahs, lions, and a leopard and of course all of the Northern Five.



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