Thursday, May 24, 2018

Elephants, Camels and Sky Beds

Spot the Leopard
 We found more wildlife in Loisaba than I had anticipated.  The Loisaba bush lacks the tall grasses of the plains of the Lewa Conservancy; it is rockier and more purely bush country.  At a man-made water hole, we saw the largest herd of elephants I can recall seeing so up-close and personal in all my years of game viewing.  A leopard lounging in a tree provided a rare viewing of that animal, although I have no photographic proof that the leopard exists unless you count a photo of a tree with a long dotted branch swaying the breeze.  One negative factor in the Loisaba bush is the presence of an invasive species of prickly pear cactus that was originally imported into Africa to provide fencing.  The cactus plants now outnumber the African thorn bushes.  I remember going on hunts in this area when I lived in Kenya in the early 70s.  Almost all of the Laikipia plains were private ranches and many of them leased hunting blocks. 

Camels and lunch
Game viewing is hard and we were relieved to round a bush and find a table set for food and libation.  Our bush lunch in Loisaba offered the opportunity to take a camel ride.  The camel rides, as well as the the mountain biking expeditions and horseback rides offered by Loisaba, are possible because Loisaba is a private conservancy.  Wildlife viewing is more closely regulated in Kenya and Tanzania's national parks which require closed vehicles for tourists.  Loisaba is hoping that the more active wildlife viewing options, along with the elegant tented camp, will draw millennial travelers. 

Loisaba Sky Bed
One of the unique offerings of Loisaba is their sky beds.  Comfortable double beds with feather duvets are built on car tires and rest inside a thatched shelter.  The beds (and their occupants) are rolled out at night on to an open platform where two lucky people spend the night under the clear African skies, counting the innumerable stars and locating the Southern Cross.  They wake with the sun to a cup of hot tea or coffee delivered to their bed while they watch the elephant bath in the water hole below.  The Sky Bed units even have one made for families with two double beds and a small "crib".  Each unit has its own "facilities", and there is a comfortable central lounge and dining area where guests can gather and share their safari experiences.
Sky Bed washroom, family room and viewing platform overlooking the waterhole.
In the afternoon, the Camp host treated us to a "back of the house" tour of the Tented Camp.  The most amazing things there were the ONE (yes, only one) washing machine that providing clean sheets, towels and laundry to the entire camp, and the water treatment and storage area.  If you'd like to try glamping in Africa, think of Loisaba!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Loisaba - Better Together

Cheers! at the Lewa Air Strip
Bidding us farewell from
Lewa Safari Camp

Our glamping adventure continued on the morning of 16 April when we packed up and were transported to a cloudy, misty Lewa Air Strip.  The mist prevented us from seeing the other side of the air strip, and it looked like we would be spending another night at Lewa Safari Camp.  In typical Safari Camp fashion, however, our drivers broke out the Sundowner supplies and we toasted our situation with cold Tusker beers.  It must have brought us luck because shortly thereafter the skies cleared, our airplane arrived, and we were quickly transported to the other side of the Laikipia plains to the Loisaba air strip.

At Loisaba, were greeted by our drivers and invited to enter a display hall which told the story of the Loisaba Conservancy whose motto is "Better Together."  It explained how the local population, which previously had often poached animals on the plains of Laikipia, had bought into the value of tourism and game conservation.  The conservancies on the plains have joined together with the government to form the Northern Rangelands Trust.  Local pastoralists still graze their herds on the plains, but they are taught how to conserve grazing lands and over-grazing which was previously widespread, has disappeared; farmers are taught modern farming techniques and gifted with manure fertilizer collected from the bomas (corrals) of the pastoralists; poaching which was previously widespread, has diminished to next to nothing.  Wildlife, specifically those subject to the most poaching such as elephant, rhino, and lion, are banded with radio receivers and their movements tracked.  Rangers patrol the area constantly.  Ranger headquarters are equipped with computers, GPS tracking systems, helicopters, and dogs used to direct anti-poaching activity. The area has not had a rhino poached in over three years. Like the Lewa Conservancy, the Loisaba Conservancy has been a win-win for the game and for the local community.

Our glamping headquarters for the next two nights would be Loisaba Tented Camp.  The camp occupies a stunning location at the top of an escarpment.  Tents are lined up along the edge of the cliff and each has a splendid view of the valley below where a large water hole attracts plentiful game in the dry season. 
Deck of the lounge/bar area of Loisaba Tented Camp
after a refreshing rain

Infinity Pool at Loisaba Tented Camp
Loisaba is a newer and a little more luxurious camp than Lewa, but somehow it lacked the warmth of Lewa.  Maybe it was the mist and rain which dampened the mood.  Our rooms were huge, luxurious, with better plumbing than Lewa, and the view from their patios spectacular.  At any rate, it was a festive day because two of our members were celebrating birthdays on this trip and the party went on into the night, although yours truly has to admit to an early bedtime.  Nevertheless, snug in my tent, I could hear the strains of Miriam Makeba's Pata Pata late into the night and feel the joy of another night in Africa.   

Saturday, May 19, 2018

On Safari

In the lions' den.
"Safari" is a kiswahili word extracted from the Arabic "safara" and originally meaning merely "journey"  From that, it came to mean hunting for big game in the bush of East Africa.  In contemporary times, it means hunting for game with a camera rather than a gun.  For me, a safari is a uniquely East African occupation.  One does not go "on safari" to South Africa, rather one tours there -- the pursuit of game is not the sole reason for the journey.  If your bucket list includes safari, East Africa is the place for you.  No place can equal the landscape or the plenitude of the game in Kenya, Tanzania, and increasingly once again Uganda. 
Our Driver, Dennis

An East African safari is centered around "game drives" which usually take place twice a day, in the early morning and late afternoon, the times during which game is most active hunting or feeding.  Animals are sensible enough to hunker down during the hot noon-day hours. 
A rare solitary hyena.

Male impala
Game watching on safari is a competitive sport.  Gaggles of tourists bundle themselves into Land Rovers, closed and open, mini-vans, and other assorted vehicles and head out with a sense of adventure.  (My personal "safari vehicle" when I lived in Kenya was a Volkswagen Beetle which could bump along off-road with the best of them. The African veldt does not have the huge boulders and rocks we have in Colorado.)  From the time you depart the tented camp, the competition begins to see who can spot the most game, both in number and variety.  Extra points are awarded for sightings of the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, and rhino).

Our group was divided into two cars, and we set out on our first game drive with great anticipation. The Laikipia plains were full of animals and we gazed with awe at herds of impala, ostrich, zebra, and elephants, along with big birds such as bustard and ostrich.  Our Turkana driver was very knowledgeable and seemed to enjoy the animals as much as we did.  One of our number spotted a leopard in a bush, and we were off tracking the leopard as she enticed us on by showing her spots here and there meandering through the bushland.  Our guide radioed the other vehicle to let them know of the sighting.  They arrived shortly thereafter and the leopard, of course, stopped near their car and posed for close-up photos!  Later our driver learned by radio contact that the other vehicle  had spotted two rhino in the act of fornication!  We rushed off to join that party, but by the time we arrived, the two had separated and the male was trailing after the female, spraying his scent and pleading with her to return. 

Game Drive Bragging Points:  Our group: 1/2 point for leopard sighting; Their group: 2 points for rhino fornication and leopard photos.  The game was on!

Bush Sundowner
Mother giraffe with newborn
The day had begun with a bush breakfast (see last post).  It ended with a bush sundowner, that is, a drink to toast the ending of the day.  And, it was on the way to the sundowner that we saw the greatest view of the day.  A giraffe had just given birth and we sat with hushed voices and watched as the mother encouraged the baby to get up and take his first steps.  We were all winners!  Safari! What an experience!   

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Glamping at Lewa Safari Camp - 14-16 April 2018

Our tent at Lewa Safari Camp
"Glamping" is a new and popular term in the U.S., but it must've been invented in Africa.  The concept is to experience nature without depriving yourself of modern conveniences, such as toilets and kitchens.  Africa's tented game camps fit that description to a "T" with a lot of luxury thrown in.  Lewa Safari Camp consists of 11 safari tents, each with en-suite bathrooms and a spacious veranda.  There is also a viewing blind overlooking a waterhole, a cozy sitting room with fireplace, a nice dining area and, of course, a swimming pool. 

Lewa Safari Camp is a part of the Elewana Collection, a group of boutique camps and lodges throughout East Africa owned or managed by the Elewana Corporation.  Elewana comes from a kiswahili word  that means "harmony" and "understanding" and all of their sites are specially designed to take advantage of the unique and iconic landscapes of Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar. 

Lewa Safari Camp hosts Sacha and Tam see us off on a game drive.
The hosts of each camp establish the mood of the camp, and our hosts at Lewa, Sacha and Tam, were incredibly warm and welcoming.  We felt like personal guests, not paying guests.  It was very much a family atmosphere.  Since it was a bit rainy and cool while we were there (April and May are called the "long rains" in Kenya), we especially appreciated the warm fire always burning in the lodge area.  The food was plentiful and were the drinks.  We were introduced to the uniquely African cocktail called a Dawa (the kiswahili word for "medicine).  The tented camp experience is truly all-inclusive.   Game drives are included and drivers are generally longtime and very experienced employees of the camps.  Drinks and snacks are sent out on the Land Rovers on twice-daily game drives.   Even better than that, the luxury tented camps love to surprise guests with bush breakfasts and evening sundowners (drinks) highlighting morning and evening drives. 
The Chef for the Bush Breakfast 

The bush "loo".
Our bush breakfast offered stunning views of the Laikipia Plains and Mount Kenya.  The table was formally set and we all enjoyed a trip to the bush loo and a hand wash before digging in to pancakes, eggs, bacon or ham, fruit, sweetbreads, and other assorted goodies.  Looking into the valley, we were treated to a herd of elephant working their way through their bush breakfast. 

Our first  day at Lewa would provide us with the most sun we would see during our stay in Kenya, and we appreciated the beautiful views of distant mountains.  Because of the rains, the grass was high, but that didn't prevent us from seeing a wide variety of game, from the numerous herds of elephant, impala, zebra and eland to huge bustard birds, ostriches, and small and delicate crested cranes.  Perhaps most exciting the Lewa Conservancy offered us the rare opportunity to see many rhino, both black and white. 

As travel agents, our group quickly bonded around our shared vocation and the special experience of the African bush.  The total of ten was a perfect number.  A trip is definitely improved if it is shared.  Game drives, tented camps, and the awe-inspiring views of the African bush teeming with game, provide a great venue for making new friends and solidifying older relationships by sharing special experiences.  If you haven't visited East Africa, you should definitely put it on your bucket list!
A morning toast. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Nairobi to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, 13 April 2018

I'll take up the thread of this blog more than three weeks after my return having had time to reflect on the experience.

Lewa Conservancy Air Strip
After a short sleep and a delicious breakfast at the Hemingway Hotel in Nairobi, we gathered for the short flight to Lewa Conservancy.  Because of our travel by light aircraft, we were limited to 32 pounds total baggage packed in soft-sided luggage. The short and comfortable flight departed from Wilson Airport, a small airport close to Nairobi built to handle the many regional flights to safari lodges and Kenya's secondary cities.  Flying from safari lodge to safari lodge is definitely an improvement in the time required to visit many different wildlife areas, but I regret not being able to enjoy the beauties of the Kenyan countryside.  The drive from Nairobi to Laikipia's capital city Nanyuki is only 121 miles on paved roads, and it offers many beautiful sites, from well manicured shambas (farms) to the bustle of Nanyuki itself, a small, vibrant African community, and from the Great Rift Valley to a view of the Aberdare Mountains and Mount Kenya.  But we bypassed all of that by air and were delivered to the Lewa Conservancy air strip, where we were met by drivers from the Lewa Safari Camp.
The Laikipia Plateau is shown in red. 

Mt. Kenya seen from the Laikipia Plateau 
The Conservancy model for wildlife management came about because of the steady loss of wildlife, 70% during the last 30 years according to the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA), a key economic contributor to tourism. According to the KWCA, "Conservancies offer hope. A wildlife conservancy is land managed by an individual landowner, a body or corporate group of owners, or a community for purposes of wildlife conservation and other compatible land uses to better livelihoods.  By placing communities at the center of wildlife conservation and improving conservation incentives, conservancies in Kenya are securing livelihoods while reversing wildlife decline, resulting in the protection of Kenya's iconic wildlife for future generations."  A key driver of poaching and wildlife-related violence has always been the competing pressures from farmers, whose crops can be destroyed in minutes by a troop of baboons or marauding elephants, and pastoralists who require more and more grazing land for their herds and have over-grazed many areas of Kenya. 

Herds of elephant wander freely on the Lewa Conservancy
The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013, started as a refuge area for rhinoceros.  It's goal is the use of wildlife to support the local community and give them a stake in wildlife conservation.  Funds from tourism in the Conservancy support local clinics, schools, micro-credit programs for women, adult education, improved grazing and farming techniques, and water projects.  As a result of the community buy-in, the Conservancy has not had one rhino poached in the last three years.  A conservancy has more leeway than National Parks in how they allow tourists to view wildlife...on walking safaris, riding camels, etc. In spite of recent rains and tall grass, we saw an amazing assortment of animals in our two days in the Conservancy.