Gettleman’s Gilligans

Gettleman’s Gilligans

gettlemansbookLast spring my favorite African journalist of all time (I actually think he outdid Stanley) published a memoir, Love-Africa, that so disappointed me I’ve taken quite a long time to think about before writing this.

It was actually way beyond disappointment. I questioned my own perspectives on Africa, wondering if I could be fooling myself as much as the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman fooled himself, and by extension, me. Was at least some of his impactful African reporting that so deeply effected me (and thank goodness, from time to time, Congress) a sham for his own self-aggrandizement? It’s complicated. But it’s time to say something.

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OnSafari: Aberdare

OnSafari: Aberdare

ClassicAberdareAbsolutely Kenya’s greatest attraction is how different one day can be from the other. In all my 40 years guiding, no place changes so radically. It’s magic:

After a week in hot, humid semi-arid bushveld bingo!: we’re in the frost of a precious highland rain forest! Astounding.

Cindy Pease, driver Musa, Jim Pease, driver James, Kakkie Cunningham, Steve Farrand & Shirley Gangwere under Chania Falls
Cindy Pease, driver Musa, Jim Pease, driver James, Kakkie Cunningham, Steve Farrand & Shirley Gangwere under Chania Falls.

Our last two days were in a spectacular jungle but a cold one among rare monkeys and dinosaur-like birds.

The drive from Nairobi was an eye-opener. Veterans to Kenya in the last ten years would not recognize how massive Nairobi has become or how modern its transportation system now is: Six lanes of super highway took us out of the city.Practically every kilometer along the way featured skyrocketing apartment buildings, malls and the still present ramshackle duka. It’s a scene of development hard to comprehend.

Our first day was at the Aberdare Country Club, sister hotel to The Ark tree hotel. I was sincerely impressed by them both. Despite the depressed tourism Kenya has suffered these last 6-8 years, the owners have refurbished both places with new, modern bathrooms and better furnishings.

The country club is situated on one of the most beautiful sites in Kenya, high in the mountains with grand views everywhere. Massive amounts of bougainvilleas and other flowering trees attract dozens of sunbirds and giant mountain birds like the turaco and silvery-cheeked hornbill.

The grounds are teaming with slightly tamed game. Warthog, bushbuck, eland, baboon and colobus monkey lounge on the gorgeous grounds or simply come walking down your pathway!

Jim Pease, Shirley Gangwere and Kakkie Cunningham went horseback riding, and this was no ordinary ride! They trotted among giraffe and zebra!

The second day we went deep into the park and enjoyed a picnic lunch beside Chania waterfalls at around 11,000′. There was a lot of huffing and puffing getting down and then up from the waterfalls at that altitude, but it was worth it! The scenery was fabulous and a variety of unusual plants filled the forest.

On the way back I saw a track I didn’t recognize, so … well, we took it. We passed several beautiful little salt pans, each one surrounded by buffalo. We saw elephant and bushbuck as well, and once again this wonderful birding group found some special species like the alpine chat and mountain iladopsis.

The Ark has been made much more comfortable than when I was last here 5 years ago. Rooms are bigger, bathrooms are modern and the beds new. But the waterhole hasn’t changed, and we watched giant forest hog fend off hyaena and elephant families fight one another for the precious salt.

The full moon shown over Mt. Kenya and reflected onto The Ark’s pool. It was idyllic beyond belief.

Now, on to Samburu!

Sick Kids in Dirty Smelly Homes

Sick Kids in Dirty Smelly Homes

indigenuousTourists who want to see a “primitive village” are people who know dangerously little about the outside world.

One of the most successful cocktail table books to ever be published that includes much from Africa is Jimmy Nelson’s Before They Pass Away. I’ve had the book since it’s been published and its value just increases daily.

But criticism of the book and its exponential earnings curve has reached a crescendo. Indigenous people around the world are growing more and more incensed the more popular and famous the book becomes.

The unending appearances by Nelson with his original prints, which are routinely now auctioning for more than $150,000, now regularly include indigenous people protesting outside the galleries and bookshops hosting the exhibitions.

The protest campaign is being led by Steven Cory of Survival International. The organization publishes a running critique by indigenous leaders around the world of Nelson’s book.

Cory calls the book “hokum” and “hubristic baloney.” Cory points out that the so-called “primitive people” who still exist are hardly going to “pass away” and in fact are becoming more and more politically powerful.

“If his images look like they come from the 19th century, it’s because they do,” Cory concludes. None of the peoples exist today the way Nelson portrays them: Cory documents that Nelson’s photo shoots are all carefully staged, rearranging reality to what rich westerners want to think about people in remote parts of the world.

The people who make Nelson’s book so valuable, and my clients who insist on seeing Maasai villages, are not by any means bad people. There’s a good motivation and a bad motivation resident in most of these folks’ desires.

The good motivation comes from a self-recognition, an admission if you like, of their global myopia. It’s extremely encouraging that travelers go somewhere blind, worried possibly at how little they know but hungry to know more.

The bad motivation is a deeply set racism. The tourist thinks of herself as so much more intellectual, skilled, trained and educated, than the so-called “primitive person.” She wants to see this “with her own eyes” precisely to validate this lofty presumption about herself.

Unfortunately tourism’s response is so out of whack that the initial, well-meaning desire by good folks is cast aside to the more marketable validation of primitiveness.

So there are hundreds of “villages” that charge excessively high rates that tourists dole out without a blink so that they can see sick kids in smelly, dirty homes. It’s absolutely incredible how fooled tourists can be.

It’s infinitely easier to show a tourist in a half hour a sick kid in a smelly, dirty home, than convey to them how the Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition (MERC) is saving the ecosystem for the whole world or how Twaweza is providing better education to all children in East Africa.

What I’m saying is that there would be many, many fewer sick kids in smelly, dirty homes if there weren’t so many tourists paying to see them.

Or if there weren’t so many people paying so much for Jimmy Nelson’s book.

Wild Animals Aren’t Nice Anymore

Wild Animals Aren’t Nice Anymore

Pepper spray, moats, blow horns, flashing lights … nothing seems to work. People around the world are getting fed up with wildlife.

And it’s becoming frighteningly unclear if the benefits of tourism are greater than the disadvantages that local communities now believe they must bear to support that tourism. And which is more important: agriculture or tourism? Resource development or tourism? A relaxing Sunday walk in the park, or tourism?

And as a result the greater question of biological diversity gets subsumed in this more immediate question.

Last week officials from the Kenyan Wildlife Service held town meetings in southern Kenya to admonish citizens not to try to move ton plus buffalos themselves, while in the west of the country exploding populations of wild dogs have begun to attack farmers’ sheep.

With nearly 15% Kenya’s land wilderness reserves that protect wild animals, it’s hard to find any human area short of the megalopolis of Nairobi that isn’t effected.

But it isn’t just Africa, of course. It’s worldwide. From India to Indiana. From elephants to wolves to beavers. And what’s worse is that the conflict is becoming tinier and tinier!

Two years ago Amanda H. Gilleland of the University of South Florida (USF) completed a meticulous study documenting a growing intolerance for wildlife by the citizens of southern Florida. But not just to cougars and alligators, but to armadillos, possums, racoons, squirrels and … even frogs!

More poisoning, more illegal shooting, more often cruel and unnecessary “eradication.”

Man against Beast.

What’s going on?

Two simple things: (1) increasing wildlife populations which have been unexpectedly even more increased by (2) global warming.

Obviously global warming threatens a few species like the polar bear, but for the vast majority of the planet’s mammalian biomass it’s actually a boon to survival. Wild animals adapt to changing weather much better than people do and warm is better than cold.

When elks move north from Isle Royale because it’s getting too hot for their food source, wolves are then left without a meal. So with the first warm breeze, wolves move towards their next easiest dinner: the nearby sheep farms of northern Wisconsin.

When excessive drought and flooding caused by global warming in the equatorial regions threatens the grass dinners of the African buffalo, the massive herds simply move into people’s backyards and irrigated farms.

And all of this is happening after decades of successful work to conserve wolves and buffalos, boosting their populations even without the help from Chinese factories.

It isn’t as if scientist haven’t been trying to do something. But conference after conference from my point of view seems to slam into the brick wall of the simple fact “there is too much.” There are more people. There are more animals. There are too many.

The host for the black bear/human conflict conference held this year in Missoula characterized his responsibility to sum up the gathering’s scientific findings as “the guy with the broom at the end of the parade, sweeping up the horse apples.”

“Bear managers in North America are victims of their own success,” he concluded.

It’s incredibly ironic that successful big game management, which the Kenya Wildlife Service inscribes as Kenya’s “posterity,” is a main source of the problem. Wild dog is the best example.

Nearly extirpated throughout Kenya ten years ago, a large scale project to vaccinate pet dogs that lived on the outskirts of wilderness areas essentially controlled distemper that had been migrating from those pets into the wild population. Now pets and wild dogs are distemper free, but sheep farmers have become quite ill tempered.

Of course a huge part of the problem would be easily solved if we solved global warming. (Oh, and by the way, that solution would create a few other benefits to humankind as well.)

But even if a sudden, miraculous consensus was found in the world to deal with global warming, it would take a lot longer to accomplish than some sheep farmers in Kiambu or Wausau are willing to tolerate.

Besides, it’s only half the problem. The other half of the problem is that animal populations are growing. In some cases like elephants it’s fair to say they’re exploding, and in almost all cases so are the human populations sitting next to them. “There is just so much flour you can put into a loaf of bread,” my grandmother used to say.

But not resolving the issue to at least some extent will create the defacto solution implicit in the USF study:

Wild animals won’t be considered nice, anymore.

Africa may have presented us with the solution, although it’s expensive.

First accomplished in Namibia with Etosha National Park in 1973, the 500-mile 9-foot reenforced double electrified fence with moat, successfully divided big game from ranchers, and over the last 40 years both ranching and tourism have prospered.

And more recently in Kenya, the Aberdare National Park is now fenced in. The 250-mile long fence included 100,000 posts hand driven into the ground. But it cost what amounts to the average annual wage of one million Kenyans.

There’s no alternative, folks. Some places like Tanzania’s Serengeti and Botswana’s Okavango Delta may remain mostly unfenced for another generation or two, but the day is coming. If we don’t stop the war of Man Against Beast, we know who will win.

An African Movie Book

An African Movie Book

There are more African cocktail table books than of any other continent, and that’s neither a surprise nor news. So it’s no surprise either that one of the newest productions picture books is multi-media, employing every modern IT trick available. Is this the preview of all future picture books on Africa?

The Kalahari Dream by Chris Mercer and Beverly Pervan is certainly good but nothing outstanding for either its pictures or text. But the compelling story is about rescued animals in the Kalahari all of which have happy endings. The couple worked there for seven years, and this is their joyous report.

Movie Book, is how the world is now beginning to characterize it, and if you download to your eBook reading device, it’s a seamless process to link to the more than 100 photos, videos and audio clips complementing the text.

Some day, of course, all books will be like this. I’m delighted it seems to be starting with Africa!

Mue or Zoo to the Rescue?

Mue or Zoo to the Rescue?

I actually snapped this Rothschild in 1986 along a farm road near Wamba, Kenya.
My bongo pix are all on slides. This one is from the Louisville zoo.
Two beautiful African animals face extinction because wildlife officials and scientists can’t agree on how to reintroduce zoo-bred individuals. And interestingly, it’s now become something of a contest (battle?) between the American zoo-world, and the American museum-world.

According to the IUCN, the mountain bongo and Rothschild giraffe face extinction in the wild if immediate efforts to reintroduce zoo-bred offspring aren’t successful.

I had just started my safari businesses in the 1970s when we routinely saw both animals on each and every safari. The bongo appeared nightly at The Ark and other tree hotels, and we often stopped on any rural road anywhere in Laikipia and could see a Rothschild.

This is as big news for Africa as the demise of the polar bear is to North America. The Aberdare National Park’s insignia continues to be the bongo. So in my life time, two large poster animals have almost disappeared.

There are plenty in zoos. Why can’t we just … put them back? Well, we tried. And failed. So far.

There is more hope for the Rothschild than the bongo. The Rothschild is living and breeding well in several places in Kenya, especially Lake Nakuru National Park. The problem is that these are not truly wild ecosystems: animal movement in or out of Nakuru was stopped when it was fenced more than 15 years ago.

There are 65 Rothschild in Lake Nakuru. There is a population twice as large in the unenclosed Ruma National Park (formerly “Lambwe Valley”) adjacent Lake Victoria in Kenya’s remote western province.

But small 50-square mile Ruma is considered critically threatened by encroaching farmland. It’s hard to get to so draws few tourists and so no revenue for wildlife management. And it’s surrounded either by the waters of Lake Victoria or densely populated areas: not a real fence, but a human fence.

There may be an additional 600 animals in various, remote and scattered places in the wild in Kenya, Uganda and the southern Sudan. But definitely no more. Uganda’s remote Kidepo National Park may hold the healthiest population.

American zoos have bred Rothschild giraffe extremely well but none are being exported back to East Africa, because of the embarrassing debacle of trying to do so with bongo. Eighteen bongo were sent to Kenya for reintroduction in 2004 but they have yet to be reintroduced into the wild.

The bongos came from Busch Gardens, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the Houston Zoo, the Cape May County Zoo, the International Animal Exchange, the Jacksonville Zoo, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Peace River Refuge, the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, the San Diego Zoo, the St. Louis Zoo, the Virginia Zoological Park, and White Oak Conservation Center.

Big consortium. Cost lots of money. And six years later the bongo is in worse condition than before. There are now only 103 bongos left in the wild. In 2004 when the zoos made their move, there were about 200.

Half the wild bongo population lives in the Aberdare National Park and I’m still lucky enough about every 3 or 4 visits to see one. The other half of the population is scattered in Kenya’s unprotected forests and on Mt. Kenya.

The penned-up for-reintroduction 18 bongos are something of a sore spot among us non scientific wildlife enthusiasts. But officials argue that simply releasing zoo animals into the wild is a near death sentence. They must be taught to fend for themselves – no easy task – and they must develop an acute vigilance against predation, also hardly a cinch.

But you’d think if six years weren’t enough schooling for zoo animals to learn the wild ways that they wouldn’t have been sent to Kenya in the first place. For Pete’s sakes, give them to Spielberg!

Bongo declined rapidly in the 1980s because of encroaching human populations around the giant Aberdare reserve that forced lions from the savannah into its altitudes. Lions don’t normally live in rainforests: No zebra or wildebeest up there, but the 300 kg bongo is just as tasty.

In less than a decade, the lions were eating the bongo to extinction, until the lion were forcibly removed from the Aberdare, and the Aberdare was then fenced.

So why not just drop them back into the Aberdare, now? The park is fenced and there are no lion!

Because those 18 bongos, (as well as another 500 bongos still kept in worldwide zoos), all came from a single wild population extracted from the Aberdare in the 1960s. It’s feared the inbreeding would be as devastating as lion.

Didn’t anyone know this before buying their airline tickets in 2004?

According to a press statement issued a few weeks ago by the Kenya Wildlife Service, The American Natural History Museum has now become involved, an interesting assertion that American zoos couldn’t muster enough good science to figure this out in the last six years.

ANHM will supposedly run critical DNA science on both the Kenyan-held, zoo-held and wild populations to help KWS decide where to go from here.

I hope it isn’t back to Orlando.

On Safari: Fabulous Aberdare!

On Safari: Fabulous Aberdare!

Emily Burrows, Mark & Glen Cronan on the deck of The Ark.
The Aberdare has always been a favorite park of mine, and today it lived up to my highest expectations.

Day 2 of the Cronan Family Safari: we left Nairobi early, around 730a, because I wanted to get to one of the waterfalls at the top of the park for lunch. The new Thika road helps, and although a long way from being completed in its 10-lanes of glory, traffic moved much more quickly than over the old road.

It was an absolutely picture perfect day! Bright, cool with few thick, white clouds and a sky so clear we could see Mt. Kenya literally from Thika! We pulled out of Nyeri onto the Nyayo tea plantation road and my long-time driver, James Ngugi, stopped to explain tea farming to everyone… He is, besides a driver/guide, a tea farmer.

We then went through the buffer forest intent on finding colobus but only saw sykes. After the electric fence and proper gate we immediately saw evidence of elephant, which we found all day long.

Most of the park’s game is down towards the periphery where Treetops and The Ark are found, but the adventuresome spirit of my family drove us further up the mountain towards the waterfalls.

The park is in spectacular condition after heavy rains. Everything was in bloom, including many orchids. Our lunch at Chania Falls was almost too wet.

On the way down we saw Jackson’s francolin and mountain reedbuck, but the colobus was still eluding us. We’d see dozens of buffalo, lots of waterbuck and warthog, and constant evidence of (but no sighting) of elephant.

Then about 4k from the lodge we came across a wonderful troop of colobus fortunately not too high in the forests and we got great views. As we pulled into The Ark I could see elephant by the waterhole, but not until we got down into the open turret was the real scene revealed.

At least 30 elephant from several families were digging salt among buffalo and bushbuck. And it grew even more dramatic when another two families stormed in from the side. A truly fantastic first day out on safari!

Misery in the Mau

Misery in the Mau

Photo by Joseph Kiheri of Nairobi's Daily Nation
Photo by Joseph Kiheri of Nairobi's Daily Nation

Today a stream of now homeless farmers began leaving Kenya’s Mau Forest for fear they would be killed by security forces.

The Mau Forest story is one of the most heart-wrenching in Africa.  It has parallels to development stories throughout the world, including America’s Dust Bowl of 1930-39, and it is as somber and seemingly irreconcilable as any Grapes of Wrath saga.

But as with all modern phenomenon in Africa, everything is sped up in the time warp of development.  It took a decade or more to discourage then displace the American southern plains farmer in the thirties, and moving at that speed even the American government was able to gear up to provide work through the WPA and useful advice on how to better use the land.

In the end only about a quarter of the southern plains farmers couldn’t make it through.

But in Kenya the drama is all but three years total.  In the end there won’t be one remaining of the 40,000 families who last year were farming the Mau.

And not a cent of the promised government compensation of just under a million shillings per displaced family (about $120,000) has been seen.

And if they aren’t successfully evicted, it is likely that within a decade there won’t be a drop of water for Nairobi.

The Mau Forest is considerably west of the Aberdare and other highland mountain catchments that feed Nairobi’s three reservoirs, but it’s now understood that they are all intricately linked.  The Mau directly feeds the Great Rift lake system of the central province (Naivasha and Nakuru) as well as the Mara River.

These areas provide the irrigation for huge agricultural areas as well as the country’s extremely important flower export business.  Without the Mau’s water, the Rift agriculture would start to die quickly.

And as this became apparent, the agricultural interests would begin long-distance siphoning, or would actually move further east towards the Aberdare which is the water catchment area for more than 7 million people in and around Nairobi.

There isn’t enough water to do all this.

Too many things are happening too quickly in Kenya.  Progress fighting aids and other mortal diseases like malaria have buoyed population growth.  GDP growth averaging twice that of America is creating a middle class that wants better cars and longer showers.

But the land of Kenya is one of the most stressed on earth.  Only 14% of the country is arable; the rest near desert useful only in some sections for stock farming.  It is mineral poor.  And only the few highland areas, like the Mau and Aberdare, catch water for the 40 million people.

The drought of the last three years (breaking now at last) focused into stark relief to Kenyan leaders the looming disaster.  And despite the enormous media attention given to the drought, it was mild when compared with  droughts of the past.

Global warming actually makes the equatorial regions of the world wetter than they would otherwise be.  But the lust for water for development is just too great.

In 1996 after the last more serious drought the then dictator Daniel Moi began handing out choice parcels of the Mau forest, mostly to his fellow Kalenjin tribes people.

Bigwigs were actually given deeds.  Many others were given little “resident cards” and thousands others simply followed their kinsmen from the dry lands of the kalenjin onto this fertile ground.

No one knows for sure how many people ended up first clearing the forests to sell the timber, then farm this critical ecological zone.  The government says 40,000 families, and the average size of a farming family in Kenya is between 6 and 7.  So that could be about a quarter million people.

I’ve seen the beautiful little homesteads in the Mau.  The many log houses are tidy, with little vegetable and flower gardens, and often a cow or two in a tiny fenced area.  There are small fields of corn, millet, potatoes, beans and even wheat in some places.  Any random scene in a farming village in the Mau would likely depict a near idyllic scene for a developing African country.

Schools wre built and the government supplied teachers.  Dispensaries and some of the best small hospitals in Kenya were built here.  A sheep industry developed, and many residents wore heavy sweaters and woolen coats self-made as protection against the highland climate.

A typical Mau Forest farming family looks pretty well off.

It was not a surprise this would happen.  But last year into the 2nd year of the country wide drought, Nairobi water reserves began to be rationed.  Crops failed lower down the forests, even though the Mau and other highland areas were still getting reasonable rainfall.

Sixty Minutes from America produced a television story on the great wildebeest migration, and showed the declining level of the Mara River, and wondered if this were “the end of the migration.”

Actually, it was the start.

The government decided last year the Mau had to be cleared of farmers.  A security contingent swept in, burned homes, released livestock and randomly shot farmers who resisted.

The scandal erupted into huge Parliamentary fights and became – as so much in Kenya does – tribal.  The evictions were halted, but ultimately, they had to be restarted.  More carefully, with more notice, and with a better management of the idiot politicians trying to earn kudos with the controversy, the evictions have started for real.

And they will continue until not a man is left in the Mau.  And only a fence and heavily armed security forces surround the 16,000 sq. miles.

It seems like a pretty small area for a population approaching 40 million.  But that’s Africa, today.  Every little bit counts.

Aberdare Done!

Aberdare Done!

Kenya’s Aberdare National Park is now encircled by an electric fence, protecting a precious 300 sq. miles of unique habitat in a sign of the future.

The reason for the Aberdare fence, and the 20-year story of actually building, are both wonderful stories in their own right. First, the reason.

The rectangular national park which includes the highest elevations of the Aberdare Mountain Range, contains a precious biomass seen nowhere else in East Africa. It is the only remaining habitat for animals like the mountain reedbuck, Jackson’s mongoose, golden cat, and several types of red and blue forest duikers. We hope that bongo are still found here, once in abundance, and if so, the last place in East Africa.

The Range holds 52 of Kenya’s 67 Afrotropical highland species and six of the eight restricted range species in the Kenyan montane endemic bird areas. Essentially, three-quarters of Kenya’s endangered forest birds are found here, and a majority of those found only here.

But the greatest biomass diversity comes in the plants and trees, many of which have long since disappeared elsewhere in Africa. A 2003 UNEP report accounted for 778 species (UNEP Report of 2003) of larger plants and trees.

All of this is from a safari guide. Now comes the really important part:

The Aberdare are the main water catchments for Sasumua and Ndakaini dams, which provide most of the potable water for the city of Nairobi.

Unfortunately for the Aberdare it is in Kenya’s richest agricultural area, the Kikuyu Highlands. When I began safari work in the 1970s, the Aberdare national park was nearly 1000 sq. miles in size, and such grand animals as bongo flourished. But so must people flourish, and inch by inch the ecosystem was pecked away for agricultural land.

One of the greatest erosions of public land to private land occurred during the reign of Kenya’s dictator, Daniel arap Moi. We often enter the national park through gate close to Nyeri town, and we pass through huge tracks of tea that Moi created from what had been park land. There is no doubt that this is productive for the economy of Kenya, although his arbitrary giving of huge swaths of this land to his cronies remains a political issue, today.

But besides corporate tea farming, individual truck and dairy farming eroded huge portions of the park. With nearly two-thirds of the initial park gone, Kenyan conservationists decided (20 years ago!) that something had to be done.

Pole pole [slowly] the fence was built and recently celebrated as the last posts were driven in. It’s a remarkable story on its own. The amount of electrical wire used would stretch from Nairobi to London. The fence is 250 miles long and wiggles about from time to time to protect important elephant corridors. The cost of the whole project is around $10 million and was entirely Kenyan-raised. There were 100,000 posts, of which a remarkable 20,000 were made from recycled plastic waste!

Fencing of wilderness is not new. Many, many wildernesses in southern Africa are fenced, including the gargantuan Etosha National Park in Namibia and much of South Africa’s great Kruger National Park. Kenya’s first fenced park was Lake Nakuru. Nobody likes to see fences, but natural fences had long ago sequestered the Aberdare.

Long ago, elephants roamed from the Aberdare into the rest of Laikipia up to the Northern Frontier, but that probably ended 20 years ago as agriculture and industry surrounded the park.

Today, the fence is as important for keeping people out as keeping animals in. And the balance has been achieved. Of course a greater use of Aberdare land for tea, wood and farming would improve Kenya’s agricultural base, but it’s now understood it would end Nairobi’s water supply. This kind of far thinking approach is hard to impose on a day-to-day life struggle, but it has been, and kudus for those in Kenya who made it possible!

I love the Aberdare. I love the great waterfalls and the huge tracks of magnificent forest. The battle isn’t over, of course. Fences are but irritants to some elephants and poachers alike. But the first, solid step is done!

Forest High

Forest High

The Aberdare Forest is the perfect way to begin an exciting safari. There is a lot of game and beautiful scenery.

Most visitors to the Aberdare National Park travel only to one of the famous tree hotels, which we did on our second night. But our entire first day was spent deep in the park all the way up to the spectacular Karura waterfalls.

The Aberdare is a huge park, stretching almost 100 miles from Thomson’s Falls (Nyauhuru) in the north to east of Naivasha in the south. About 50 miles of east-west tracks link the west side with the east side, and the habitats traveled over this route are astounding.

We didn’t traverse the park, but rather entered from the east at around 7000′ through the Moi Nyayo Tea Estate into the middle forests just below the bamboo line. There was a lot of evidence of elephant, but we saw none.

We climbed through the bamboo forests, which were horribly dry and brittle, and encountered our first family of elephant at around 9,000′. The family of eight individuals was literally encased in white flowering bush shrubs that must have hidden a small marsh.

We continued onto the moorland bumping into Jackson’s francolin all along the way, but it was very dry and we didn’t see the mountain reedbuck as we usually do. Instead, we encountered bushbuck above 10,000′ which is rather odd. Once again, I think the unusual weather is contributing to the unusual animal situations we’re finding.

Near the top of the road, though, rain had fallen and it was quite green and lush. So the waterfalls were lovely, and it is a welcome half-hour trek from the carpark to where several viewing stands have been constructed. On the way back we had our box lunch.

The kids were much more adventuresome with our lunch than their parents! I showed everyone how to bite off the top of a passion fruit and suck in the seedy fruit, and India fell in love with the taste. She began trading parts of her lunch for fruit from others.

Ada remarked on how beautiful the park was, and that’s half the reason for the day’s outing. Peter said it was the most beautiful place he had ever been. It was a bonus when we descended into the heavy forests near the park’s edge and began seeing great game. We encountered several elephant families, a lot of buffalo, and more bushbuck and baboon.

But the highlight of the whole day was seeing several families of colobus monkey. The first sight of a colobus brought screeches of delight from Emma and Phoebe. Phoebe immediately pronounced the monkey the best animal in the world! They are truly striking, thick black coats covered with a long white manes. Their very long, bushy white tails fly among the forest as they leap from tree to tree.

We got to The Ark tree hotel just as a number of elephant arrived. After Zanzy got his requisite tea down, we went immediately to the bottom turret and watched fabulous elephant encounters as multiple families came to dig for salt.

Later, in fact, more than 30 elephant congregated on the salt lick at the same time, with remarkable behaviors as certain families met or remet others. There were very young babies, and the mothers combined to try to keep all the males away.

Until super-Ele arrived! One of the largest male elephants I’ve ever seen, he must certainly have approached six tons and stood 11-12′. The females didn’t try to move him out of the salt lick, and he went politely among the different families introducing himself to the special delight of the youngsters.

The day ended after dinner with giant forest hog and hyaena. Everyone left their buzzers on, which awakens you to anything special, but the day had been so exciting, not a soul stirred the whole night long!

Driving on Safari

Driving on Safari

A flying safari with no overland experience isn’t a good enough travel experience.

It’s become more and more popular, today, to fly from game lodge to game lodge in Africa and avoid the sometimes trying overland travel through Africa’s deteriorating cities and towns over some of its horrendous roads. That’s just as bad an idea as sending a kid from boarding school to boarding school, and moving up from suburb to glen to city skyscraper. You can move through life without ever knowing how most people live.

We’re all members of the Family Man on planet earth, and I think it extremely important to at the very least have a glimpse of how most of the world lives. One of the best ways to do this on safari is to drive – at least partially – from place to place.

In Kenya that’s an enormous challenge, since the country’s roads are in such poor condition. I thought it particularly funny this week that following the government’s announced budget where the ministers of various departments were told they could no longer have SUVs, but would have to use more fuel efficient, smaller cars, that there was an outcry from many of them. Some complained that it was beneath them to drive cars that “teenagers drive” while one minister in the government said in absolute irony that a small car wouldn’t do well, “because Kenya’s roads are so bad.”

My family safari began overland. I make a point to leave Nairobi only on Saturday or Sunday, when the traffic is only mildly chaotic. We traveled north past another slum, past the main city prison and then past the huge sports stadium on the outskirts of the city, which not even the poorest Kenyan resents having been built.

It takes a terribly long time to reach anything approaching “country.” Those who had read the book or seen the movie, Flame Trees of Thika, are startled when I tell them we’re approaching this supposedly idyllic country town. All the way to Thika is now urban and slum sprawl.

But shortly thereafter the highlands do present a picture of real beauty. Fortunately, this area has received a decent rainfall. The majority of Kenya hasn’t, but the central highlands look good. The banana and paw-paw trees, the blooming red flame trees and oodles of bougainvillea splashed on hills cut by running streams is a picture to remember.

This was Saturday, the biggest day for the Karatina Kikuyu open-air market. Everyday the market is incredibly colorful, run mostly by big Kikuyu women dressed to the nines, in colorful big poko-dot dresses selling as many varieties and colors of beans as the poko-dots on their dresses. There are stacks of custard apples, oranges, apples, figs, passion fruit. I bought everyone fresh slices of new pineapple that were delicious!

The market has a very small curio section that is mostly Kikuyu baskets often purchased by people in the highlands. They are gorgeous, and Ada, Joannie and a few others bought up the most beautiful ones. Whitney wanted one of the beautifully beaded belts made here, but unfortunately according to the wonderful lady who made it, he had eaten too much and she had none that would fit. She told him to change his diet to lemons and come back when he had shrunk enough!

Interaction with locals, wherever you travel, is an essential ingredient for understanding where you are. Without it, you simply carry your TV screen around the world. The Karatina market was a wonderful way to do this, but even just gazing out the window passing the confusions and blisters of a poorly emerging nation helps, too.

Global warming has given Kenya a patchwork of drought. From Nairobi to Karatina, the country was beautifully green as it should be after the Long Rains. But north of Karatina, including the Aberdare where we ended the day, is suffering a serious drought.

The dedicated staff of the Aberdare Country Club made it wonderful even in the midst of a drought. After we checked into this historic manor, some of the group walked with a guide through the backlands of the estate where there were many giraffe, waterbuck, warthog and impala. The lush grounds of the estate with its endless bougainvillea and mature flowering bushes was still good enough for a variety of beautiful sunbirds.

But even in this most protected of animal habitats I could see distress, particularly among the waterbuck, the first to suffer. It’s now been almost a year since they’ve seen rain.

Long Rains Begun?

Long Rains Begun?

Our fingers are crossed that the Long Rains have begun.

Today we went deep into the Aberdare National Park. It was terribly dry. The November short rains failed. We aren’t certain yet if the long rains will, too.

In this part of East Africa there are normally two rainy seasons: the short rains begin by mid-November and continue through the end of the year. This year they lasted for only about a week to ten days. The long rains should begin, now, and continue through May.

We entered the Aberdare National Park at the Nyeri gate through the Moi Tea Estate area. The tea looks good; there’s been decent rain, here. The tea workers are back, after the horrible events of December, 2007, that sent them running away in fear.

We had a wonderful game drive. The rains have begun in earnest, but so far only in the very narrow strip of the path of our game drive, a path that transects the Aberdare Mountains diagonally from Nyeri towards Nakuru. It was beautiful and green and fresh smelling. We encountered very happy and very clean buffalo, healthy bushbuck and several big families of elephant.

When we arrived at the end of the day at The Ark, there were 20 elephant around the waterhole, which was refilling quickly. Later we would see giant forest hog, lots of bushbuck, buffalo and hyaena. According to The Ark log, rhino was a regular visitor throughout the week of March 9.

But because the short rains last November/December had failed, many of the fig trees and other fruiting trees had little to harvest. The hornbills population is way down as a result, and turacos, too, have suffered. Colobus numbers seem reduced. Everything depends, now, on whether this season will develop as hoped.

The economy has hit this industry hard. There were only 9 of us at The Ark on Saturday, March 14. We had a super time! Great wildlife viewing and superb service from the staff. But as selfish as I might wish to be, one wonders what will become of Kenyan tourism if business doesn’t improve quickly.