Saturday, January 5, 2008

January 5, 2008 - Our Christmas Vacation

Before I write a blog about what's been going on in Kenya, I wanted to share our vacation with you. As soon as we have technology up and running at home, we will add pictures and/or video to share!

The day after Christmas, we escaped to Lake Naivasha, a rural area about 90 miles northwest of Nairobi. Armed with our Rough Guide Kenya, we drove above the breathtaking rift valley to a beautiful lodge called Kiangazi at about 9000 ft. above sea-level (well above Nairobi which sits at 5000 ft.). While needing to be extra cautious of the sun on our vacation, at this altitude we were pleased to not have to worry about malaria-ridden mosquitoes one bit! Kiangazi is one of two Naivasha lodges affiliated with the Dutch company “Oserian”, which owns a large wildlife sanctuary and rose farm in Naivasha, among other enterprises in Kenya. We planned to stay at Kiangazi for 4 nights, and half of the time we had the entire lodge and staff to ourselves. If you want to enjoy the wildlife of Kenya without roughing it one bit, you should stay there as well! “All inclusive” at Kiangazi doesn’t just mean meals and drinks, but game drives, guided nature walks or hikes, and boat rides as well. It was a tremendously peaceful, relaxing place to stay. Upon arrival, our room was decorated with rose petals and chocolates, a fire was lit in our room’s fireplace, and the biggest bed we’ve ever seen was turned down nightly under a canopy of mosquito nets. It was extremely romantic and we were served the most delicious vegetarian meals there. We never had to think about a thing – everything was taken care of for us! It was really like a second honeymoon/almost-6th month anniversary for us! We were also fortunate enough to meet some very interesting people, notably a British/French couple (both teachers!) from the UK, who we really enjoyed getting to know. We took some fantastic video footage and pictures, and we hope to return to Kiangazi in the future.

On our first afternoon game drive we were introduced to our ranger, Albert, who was with us for all of our Kiangazi adventures. He took us into the sanctuary on 3 game drives over the 4 days. Albert knew everything about every animal, bird, tree and plant we saw and was an amazing resource in our quest to know as much about Kenya and Kenyans as possible. We became very fond of him after 4 days together and hope that we will see him again!

Now to the animals…We were thrilled to see the same dominant male leopard on each of our game drives (very rare to see him 3 times in a row!); at one point he walked about 15 feet from our completely open land cruiser! On all three of these occasions, we instantly felt very small knowing that this wild animal, an extreme predator, could easily overpower us. It was a nice reminder that the entire world does not revolve around us! We saw several types of antelope: eland, waterbuck, dikdik, topi, impala, gazelle, and steinbok to name a few. I am sure you have heard of all of those (wink wink), or maybe you are like Kristoffer and refer to each animal as a “deer” J. We were also lucky enough to see 9 of the 13 rhinos that live in the sanctuary, including an adorable baby rhino. There were many Masaai giraffe around us, and we noticed that giraffes aren’t the most observant mothers, often wandering very far away from their babies. Buffalo and wildebeest (gnu) were plentiful on the sanctuary, as were two breeds of zebra. After eating dinner at our sister lodge one evening, we even saw three hyena on a chase when we were being driven home! So, we happily experienced three of Africa’s “Big Five” animals – buffalo, leopards, rhinoceros, elephants, and lions – named so for their survival instincts and defense. The sanctuary, at 18,000 acres, is not big enough to feed elephants or lions, and, in fact, you don’t see them in that part of Kenya for the same reasons.

While we loved seeing all of these animals, many for the first time ever, we were most entertained by the most common of all the animals: the warthogs (which we fondly call “Pumbas” because of the Lion King). They are hysterical! They live in families in holes in the ground; they come out of their holes running and when they return to their holes they reverse in, which is so funny to observe. The thing about pumbas is that they are the least relaxed animal you can find. They have no neck so they can eat only what is on the ground in front of them and, while you think they would spend a good amount of time grazing, they are constantly afraid of things around them and so are constantly running. Pumbas – even babies! – are extremely fast and so while you may think you see a rock in the distance, very quickly that rock with will be sprinting away and you will know that it was a warthog. While they are the least attractive animals (although I think we secretly found their beauty) they are the most fun to watch!

We learned so much about African animals on our game drives and two of our three drives concluded in what was called a “sun downer”. This is when the lodges have a camp fire in the evening for several guests to watch the sun go down while eating snacks and drinking a bit. The fire keeps you safe from the animals and it is an amazing feeling to socialize under an African sky at night. Outside of the sanctuary, we walked around Crater Lake and Lake Oloiden, and took a boat ride on Lake Naivasha. On these excursions, Kristoffer saw his first flamingoes and we saw many, many hippos! Now hippos are also quite funny because they stay in the water for most of the day and they seem like harmless vegetarians, but in fact most wildlife deaths in Kenya are caused by hippo at night. They don’t eat people, but they will stampede and trample or bite you. As Albert told us, “If a hippo is grazing and you stand between him and the lake, then you will die.” In addition to our access to Kenyan wildlife, at Naivasha we also experienced the beautiful landscape. We did a small hike at “Hell’s Gate”, a park with natural gorges and staked out Mt. Longonot, a large crater that we will climb on our next trip.

After our four days at Kiangazi, the honeymoon, as they say, was somewhat over. Due to post-election tensions in Kenya we were not permitted to go back to Nairobi by UN Security (more on that in the next blog) so we had to stay in Naivasha for three more days. Kiangazi was booked and, to be honest, we couldn’t afford to stay there indefinitely. The wonderful manager at the lodge found another lodge that had room for us and we headed over to “Elsamere” on Sunday the 30th. Elsamere is the former home of George and Joy Adamson, a noted wildlife conservationist and his author wife, and is also the home of a current conservation education organization (say that three times fast!).

While Elsamere was not as luxurious as Kiangazi, it was an extremely comfortable, beautiful setting on the lake where we were visited nightly by hippos and zebra grazing outside of our room. We were well fed and were extremely safe from the violence that erupted in other parts of Kenya following the contested presidential election. We visited the beautiful Oserian rose farm and a local snake farm (Kristoffer trying to conquer his fear!), and we experienced being the only white people (“Mzungu”) in the town of Naivasha when we went hunting for gas and water. The highlight of Elsamere for us, however, was meeting a group of American educators who work for the US government on military bases throughout the world. Two of them currently live in South Korea and the other on a base in northern Italy; we had a wonderful time getting to know them before their vacation lead them elsewhere and we headed back to Nairobi, which we finally did on Wednesday, January 2nd. We also thought the staff members of Elsamere, like at Kiangazi, were phenomenal. They even let us in to their staff house to watch the local news, instead of the less-detailed international news showing in the lodge, and they provided us with different news and viewpoints of Kenya’s political situation. We are lucky that we were well taken care of on Lake Naivasha when the chaos began here because we know of other people who got stuck places with gas, food, and water shortages.

Our first Kenyan holiday was full of adventure and education, and we really look forward to our next trip in this country, which will probably be to the Masaai Mara sometime in the spring or summer.

LMW

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