Saturday, June 21, 2014


According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, about 8% of Kenya's land is protected for wildlife conservation. With a total land mass of 224,080 square miles (about the size of Texas), that means approximately 18,000 square miles are game preserves. Kenya has 23 national parks (complete protection where the only activities are research and tourism) and 28 national reserves (some human activity allowed, such as fishing or wood collection). Conservation areas are a separate subdivision and can include both parks and reserves.

Our trip included the following national parks and reserves:
Mount Kenya National Reserve (Kenya)
Buffalo Springs National Reserve (Kenya)
Shaba National Reserve (Kenya)
Lake Nakuru National Park (Kenya)
Masai Mara National Reserve (Kenya)
Serengeti National Park (Tanzania)
Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area (Tanzania)
Nairobi National Park (Kenya)

Our route is shown below. We began in Nairobi and traveled counterclockwise until we arrived back in Nairobi.
Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, was founded by the British in 1899 as a rail depot on the way to Mombasa, but it grew quickly and was named the capital in 1907. With a population today of over three million, it is the largest city in East Africa and 14th largest city in Africa. Unfortunately, I didn't get very many pictures of Nairobi on that first day, but here is one of a roundabout near our hotel:
The slogan  is a bit awkward, don't you think? I get "Better" and "Simple" as single
word goals, but what is "Life"? With no periods, it still doesn't make sense.
"A better, simpler life" or even "better simple life" with no periods make a little more sense.
Our driver Steven told us a few interesting things about his country:

Kenya is still part of the British Commonwealth and recognizes the queen as the head of
     that commonwealth.
Unemployment in Kenya is 40%.
83% of Kenya is Christian and 11% is Muslim.
Del Monte owns the pineapple fields around Nairobi.
The most common meat eaten by Kenyans is goat. (We like goat, but unfortunately, we
     did not see goat on the menu anywhere we ate. I guess they keep the good stuff for
     the natives.)
School kids have only three or four weeks of vacation, and those weeks off are in April,
     August, and December.
Kenya has two official languages: English and Swahili.

On our way out of town we saw a lot of what we Californians would call "strip malls," but they are not typical California shopping centers. Most of the merchandising seemed to be going on under the umbrellas alongside the street.
It wasn't long until those umbrellas gave way to less sophisticated sales stalls:
These were everywhere in the countryside and were full of local fruits and vegetables:
When we passed through small villages, the stands looked nicer and sold manufactured goods rather than fruits and vegetables:

Every single town had lines of stalls selling goods. These are definitely not tourist shopping spots, but more like a neighborhood grocery store or the African version of Wal-mart or Goodwill.

Other sights along the way included farm animals. Of note were the donkeys that were everywhere, working hard. I've never seen more donkeys than what we saw on this trip:
I loved the faces and clothing of the people, especially the women, but I was reluctant to take too many pictures. I'm sure they don't like gawking tourists always pointing cameras at them.
By the way, note the dirt roads above. Once we got out of Nairobi, we were often driving on dirt roads of varying quality. When the roads were paved, they weren't much better than the dirt roads. In the game reserves, roads are never paved.

Sometimes I took a picture from behind as we drove by. I think this woman was carrying her purse on her head. I have tried to copy her technique, but it doesn't work very well for me.

After a few hours, we needed a bathroom (or "washroom," as it is more commonly called in Kenya), and our caravan had a pre-arranged stop at this little shopping area in Karatina that was conveniently located on our route and had a bathroom out back. Funny how all the bathrooms on our trip were accessed through shops.

Across the street there was a big harvest of what looked like sweet potatoes going on:
. . . and I mean a BIG harvest:
We entered the shop to discover a massive collection of tourist stuff, accompanied by lots of "helpful" sales people. This was our first exposure to a million carved African animals found in every gift shop in Kenya, and to the very aggressive men and women who make a commission from selling them:
Kenya is really into making sure you know where you are. Latitude, longitude, and elevation are posted in the strangest places. I was grateful to see those stats here so that if I got lost in the shop, I'd at least know where I was.
1400 meters = 4593 feet
In case I wandered really far or was totally clueless (a definite possibility), this map of Africa would be helpful in reminding me where Kenya is located on the continent.
Bob sure was interested in this African flame tree. Was it because he knew I was reading the book The Flame Trees of Thika? (See review below.)
Hardly. No, he was more interested in these two creepy fellows hanging upside down in the branches, just waiting to unfold their leathery wings and fly away at dusk:
East African epauletted fruit bats
I myself was snuggling up to King Kong, who was sitting quietly in the corner. And here I thought the gorillas were in Rwanda!
There is something really appropriate about this photo, but I can't figure out what it is:
After buying a few trinkets and a soda to justify our use of the shop's washroom, we continued on our way until we reached Mount Kenya National Reserve. Established in 1949, it is 548 square miles total, but 276 square miles of that is a national park that includes the actual peak of Mount Kenya. The national park sits inside the national reserve. We went to the reserve, which includes the lower slopes of the mountain, but not the park, which includes the mountain summit. Confused? Me too. The map helps. The green is the reserve, and the purple is the park and mountain summit.
We entered the reserve through the Kihari Gate.
The National Reserve/National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
These animal skulls on the gate are so homey and welcoming:
The Serena Mountain Lodge is about 120 miles (193 km) from Nairobi and located on the aforementioned lower slopes of Mount Kenya.
The 41-room timbered hotel is set up on stilts, giving a great view over the forest canopy. With its wooden, multi-level structure, it looks and feels a bit like the Ark, except when we were there all the animals were outside and the "sinners" (aka "attorneys") were inside!
Gangplank entrance
Every room has an outdoor balcony overlooking the watering hole behind the hotel,
but we were not allowed to actually GO  behind the hotel where wild animals might
eat us. Therefore, I had to borrow this photo from here.
The watering hole and salt lick behind the hotel is a popular gathering place for animals. This was the view that greeted us from the lobby window on our arrival (the birds were painted on the glass):
Note that the island in the watering hole is shaped like Africa and has an umbilical cord-like path that provides access. Hmm. My guess is that this is a man-made feature. However, man-made or not, our first sighting of African animal life in a natural habitat was very exciting:
Mama and baby Cape buffalo
More Cape buffalo
Time for an afternoon snooze:
Although there were lots of Cape buffalo, there were a few other animals as well, such as this bushbuck (a type of antelope very common in sub-Saharan Africa):
. . . and this Egyptian goose, also very common in Africa:
. . . and the giant forest hog:
 (Photo by MJL)
(Photo by MCE)
. . . and the nimble Sykes monkey:
The view from our balcony included a reminder about the monkeys:
(Photo by MCE)
The forest surrounding the water hole is very dense, and no doubt harbors a lot of other kinds of animals.
By late afternoon, all the animals had disappeared, which was too bad as the light was absolutely stunning.
But while we were eating dinner, darkness fell, and when we  looked out later at the watering hole, just barely lit by artificial light, it was a shock to see it surrounded by dozens of elephants:

The daytime and nighttime difference in clientele at the watering hole was pretty dramatic. I wonder who got first pick, the Cape buffalo or the elephants? Or maybe they rotate--elephants get the night visit this week, but next week they have to come during the day. In any case, it's pretty nice for tourists to get two completely different photo opportunities.

Another fun feature at this lodge is an underground viewing room, kind of like a bunker, that can be reached from inside the lodge. The windows are just above ground level and give an excellent view of the animals (see photo at left).

The elephant photo above was taken from the deck, and the photo below was taken from the bunker. They look a lot alike, but the viewing experience is different.

The lodge provides lots of other nice touches, such as a free wake-up service in the middle of the night if any interesting game is spotted around the watering hole. (At least one couple in our group took them up on the offer and saw a hyena, but we passed on that one.) They also provide luxurious hot water bottles to protect our feet from the cold night temperatures of our relatively high elevation. There are delicious buffet meals and cooked-to-order dishes served in their beautiful dining hall:
Breakfast omelet
Poached eggs and bacon
Indian-style vegetables
Delicious tender lamb in gravy with vegetables
This little guy was really lusting after our breakfast:

Walking tours, which I cover in the next post, are also available (for a price).

The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood, by Elspeth Huxley, was the perfect book for this segment of the trip. Thika is a large town about 25 miles north of Nairobi that we drove through on our way to the Mount Kenya Reserve. Flame trees have fiery orange blossoms, and we saw several varieties on this drive and more in the coming days. In the early 20th century, Thika was "a favourite camp for big game hunters and beyond it there was only bush and plain. If you went on long enough you would come to mountains and forests no one had mapped and tribes whose languages no one could understand" (Huxley).

In 1913, the author, who was six years old at the time, and her parents traveled from England to Thika to start a coffee plantation. In the early 20th century, the area was a mosaic of English, Scottish, and Dutch settlers trying to carve out a place among the native Kikuyu and Masai tribes. Sometimes the two worlds intersected, but rarely did they blend. Huxley wrote:

"The two arms of the beater [used to make a cake] whirled round independently and never touched, so that perhaps one arm never knew the other was there; yet they were together, turned by the same handle, and the cake was mixed by both. I did not think of it at the time, but afterwards it struck me that this was rather how our two worlds revolved side by side."

Huxley looks back on her family's adventure among the wildlife and wild people of Africa and describes it with insight and humor. Coming from pioneer stock myself, I loved her insights into living on the frontier. Unfortunately, their adventure ended after less than two years because of the onset of the East Africa Campaign of World War I, but Elspeth spent most of her youth in other parts of Africa and then returned often to Africa as an adult. She married the cousin of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, she was friends with Joy Adamson, author of the African classic Born Free, and she was widely considered to be a brilliant journalist, environmentalist, and government advisor. She died in 1997.

In 1981 the book was made into a seven-episode mini-series by A&E. It stars Hayley Mills as the author's mother. Another familiar face/name is Ben Cross (think Harold Abrams in Chariots of Fire) as Ian Crawford. The series was filmed on location and includes many shots of the animals we saw on our safari, making it extra fun to watch. It is available from Netflix on two DVDs.


  1. It was breathtaking to walk into the Mountain Lodge and look out at the cape buffalo through the large glass window. One of those "Wow" moments. The Mountain Lodge is a place I would love to go for several days and just lounge around and relax. Cool, beautiful, lots of game to view from a nice vantage point and great food.

  2. looks like fun, now I know where Disney got its inspiration for Animal Kingdom Lodge.

  3. I hate those places that hard sell worthless trinkets to tourists. They always make me feel irritated and yet guilty about how that is the way they feed their kids.

    You can't beat the view from your hotel. Wow!

  4. If Bob ever comes up missing someday, it's a good bet we will find him wandering around the Mountain Lodge. If not in this life, in the next.

    Love the fruit bats!

  5. I smiled when I saw the monkey peering in at the window. Hey, I'm lusting over your breakfast! The food looks great, and thanks, again for the laying of the foundation for what I'll see next. I love all those wooden animals--how could you not bring home a whole zoo of those?

  6. Letterpress, we actually brought home four carved animals of varying size: a giraffe, elephant, hippo, and rhino.