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Hippos after all!

We met Corinne in 2014 through an introduction from my old school principal.  She started a school in Kitengela, near Nairobi, which Huntingtower (that’s my old school in Melbourne) supports.  Sunrise of Africa School is founded on Christian Science principles, with over 300 students from pre-school to Class 8.  Corinne and her husband George live in Kenya while their children Christoph and Michelle live abroad with their families.  Every few years they all come together at the old house in Nairobi for Christmas.  And in 2016 we were privileged to be part of their celebrations as they planned a safari to the Maasai Mara.

After booking in February, it was a long time coming, but finally we were gathered out the front of the house ready to go.  But unfortunately, it was not to be.  The road to the Maasai Mara is notoriously horrible, for inexplicable reasons given how much tourists pay the local county government to visit Kenya’s greatest game reserve!  While we carried equipment, Michelle and George drove their own vehicles full of passengers.  But when a suspension bush gave way, and some passengers were going a little green from the bumpy road, it was decided that the Maasai Mara was not to be the amazing Christmas safari after all.  With long faces we parted ways – we continued as we had another family coming to join us the following day (stay tuned for the story of the Fink family trip!) while the Corvins returned to Nairobi.

Nairobi National Park

But all was not lost!  On our return to Nairobi, we organised a day trip to Nairobi National Park.  Administered by Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), the roads are in a much better state of repair, not to mention that it is located a mere 8km from the CBD!  We met early in the morning and after battling our way through the ticket-buying bureaucracy (only took 20 minutes to buy 10 tickets!) we were on our game drive at last.

One of the first places we stopped was a waterhole where there are always a lot of water birds squawking around.  Mattias said he thought he saw a hippo, but his dad wasn’t sure and when he asked Francis and I if there were hippos here we both said no …. Well we had never seen any there!  But Mattias was right!  And not just one hippo, but a few.  His sister, Zoe, had been dying to see a hippo, so she was very happy with her big brother.

Despite this sighting, we still headed to the river where more hippos generally hang out.  Lucky that we had seen the hippos in the first pool however – there were none where they were supposed to be.  That’s why it’s called a “game” drive – it’s a like a game of hide-and-seek between humans and animals!  We had brunch at the river and then they went for a walk with Humphrey the ranger to spot some crocs.

As we continued the game drive, we were rewarded with two rhinos, a lion and then a black-backed jackal right alongside the cars!  The jackal simply trotted along unperturbed by our presence, at one point looking directly at James and Michelle’s car, so they got some great photos.  We also got pretty close to some giraffes and watched as some impalas in a bachelor herd knocked horns as they fought for alpha status.

On 18 July 1989, President Moi and Dr Leakey (then head of KWS) sent a strong message to the world about poaching elephants for ivory.  They burned 12 tonnes of the stuff, worth about US$1 million, in the Nairobi National Park.  Today the Ivory Burning Site still remains with the ashes of those tusks as a reminder of Kenya’s stance on poaching.  Although I had been to Nairobi National Park several times before, finally I visited this site for the first time with the Corvins.  It was such an impressive move by Moi and Leakey, I only wish more governments today had the same courage.

And that was the day.  We are still sorry we didn’t get the opportunity to show them the Maasai Mara, but we already have some great ideas for their next visit!  Karibuni tena!!

Bev’s Trip

Bev’s Trip

In June 2014 Bev arrived in Nairobi to start a month-long journey through Kenya and Uganda.  One of the main reasons for her visit was to meet Jared, a Ugandan university student who she had been sponsoring for the past 18 months.

Bev’s timing was perfect: the Lake Turkana Cultural Festival was to take place a couple of days after her arrival in Kenya and so that was the first destination.  Moses and Laura, friends of OTA and owners of Mara Explorers camp in Maasai Mara, were in Nairobi and were cajoled into joining the trip north.  They then invited Scott and Helene, a British couple driving their Land Rover around the continent while they figured out how to spend their retirement.  And so our small band of intrepid travellers started the two-day journey to the far north-western corner of Kenya.

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We encountered a few sceptics who were dubious about the ability of the OTA van to get to Loiyangalani and to cross the desert to Marsabit.   But Francis handled that Toyota like a true professional despite the rain, mud, steep ascents and descents, loose stones and every other obstacle imaginable.  In Maralal we had to find our police escorts to accompany us further north.  There were only a couple of times when Bev found the need to gently push the young soldier’s gun away from pointing directly at her – he was very relaxed about carrying such a weapon, but we perhaps would have been more comfortable had he been a little more attentive.

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The first morning of the Turkana Festival was fantastic.  Fourteen ethnic groups from northern Kenya gathered in Loiyangalani, each setting up a traditional house, donning traditional costumes, dancing traditional dances and singing traditional songs.  The atmosphere was fun as each tribe tried to out-sing and out-dance each other.  Unfortunately, this was the first year the Marsabit County Council was running the festival and it seems that they did not take much advice or assistance from the organisations who had been involved previously.  The program was ignored and we found ourselves doing the scheduled 8am hike up a mountain to see rock art in the heat of the midday sun.

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The second day was even less organised as we all waited for Deputy President Ruto to arrive before any activities could start.  His scheduled arrival at 11am didn’t occur until 3pm and the scheduled activities turned out to be a political rally – it was great for the locals who do not often see their MPs, but for foreign tourists it was not the most exciting “cultural event”.

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From Lake Turkana, we headed east to Marsabit where we had a slight accommodation disaster but a great food find.  While Bev, Francis and Tracey headed into town for dinner, Scott cooked at camp for the rest of the group, including our police escorts.  Pasta with vegetables – not quite what soldiers in northern Kenya are used to and they were a little nervous about this mzungu food.

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Continuing south, the next stop was Archers Post where Bev spent some time at the Umoja School.  It’s a brand new school with only 14 students, and so Bev spent the morning teaching science to the whole school.  They made rockets and learnt about air pressure.  In the afternoon Francis took Bev into Samburu National Reserve where a lion walked not five metres past the vehicle!

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We said good bye to Scott, Helene, Moses and Laura in Nairobi before travelling west to Busia.  There we stayed with Chrisphine and spent half a day at the Blue Bells School, again dragging all the students outside for a science lesson.  A lot of education throughout Africa is taught straight out of the text book, sitting in class and answering questions.  So to get away from the desks and try things out for themselves was a bit of a novelty.

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Crossing into Uganda was something of an event with Tracey nearly getting arrested thanks to the Kenyan insurance company failing to fill in the Comesa insurance certificate correctly.  We still need to express our thanks to Amaco Insurance for putting us in that predicament!  However, after a few hours we were able to clear the border and get to Jinja.  After the stress of the border crossing, it would have been wonderful to get a good night of sleep, but it was not to be.  Normally Tracey can sleep through anything, but a bagpiper wandering through the campsite at midnight managed to wake her.  Sticking her head out the tent, she asked “Really?” and the bagpiper apologised….. only to start up again!!  Is it necessary to say that we may have lost our tempers a little bit?

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The next day was much better though with a boozy lunch cruise on the Nile.  The birdlife was spectacular and the new camera has proven itself to be an excellent purchase.

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In Mbale, on our way to Sipi Falls, we finally met Jared.  Bev and Jared had been communicating extensively via email for 18 months but this was the first time they were to meet in person, so it was very exciting.  We got lunch and continued the journey to Sipi as the two chatted in the back of the vehicle.  All seemed to be fine – which was a relief!

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At Sipi Falls we met Punky the cheeky Turaco.  At first we felt incredibly privileged to have this beautiful bird come so close.  Then we realised that the only privilege being afforded to us was that we had been able to eat the majority of our breakfast before Punky came to greet us!  Having fallen out of the nest as a chick, Punky has been raised by Minette and Andy (managers of Sipi River Lodge) but has freedom to fly away now he is fully grown.  But it seems he has too much fun bullying the dogs and cat so he stays.

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Jared, Francis and Tracey hiked two of the three waterfalls that make up Sipi Falls.  The third involved ladders and steepness that we decided wasn’t necessary – we got a fine view from where we were.

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Across Uganda to Murchison Falls National Park where we enjoyed a cruise and a game drive.  The Nile thrusts itself through a 7 metre gorge, creating the most powerful waterfall in the world.  And we saw it!

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In western Uganda we spent a few nights in Fort Portal where we ate pizza and played cards.  We also did a hike in the Rwenzori Mountains up to a school.  The guides took a look at Bev and said the school was too far and we probably wouldn’t make it.  But we did and kudos to Bev for pushing her comfort zone!  We were trying to be quiet so as not to disturb the children in the classroom, but curiousity obviously got the better of them and just before finishing time, suddenly they all rushed out to greet us.  Bev got bombarded with children wanting to shake her hand and just generally be near her.

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The next day we went chimp trekking, but did not have much luck.  Our guide was a little gung-ho in the beginning and the chimps were on the move rather than sitting somewhere convenient for us to take pictures.  We saw three black blobs moving through the bush over the several hours we wandered in Kabale National Park.  Once we told the guide we were OK with not seeing any chimps, he relaxed and even cracked a smile.  He cracked more smiles as we neared the end: we asked how far we were from the road and he said “About 600 metres”.  After about 2km, we asked again and he gave the same answer.  After a few repeats of the pattern we just had to laugh and ask him “So only 600 more metres?”

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Driving south, we passed through Queen Elizabeth National Park and were quite shocked at the speed several police trucks were swinging themselves around an escarpment, especially as they passed by a school.  We stopped at Uganda Lodge, a project started by a Ugandan man and British woman where there is a school and a new clinic.  Bev taught a few more science classes and we went with some volunteers to deliver bananas to the children’s ward at the nearby hospital.  Jared is studying public health and was very keen to visit the hospital and ask lots of questions.

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Finally we reached Kampala where Bev was to spend her last week seeing Jared’s life.  We dropped Jared at his home where his aunt gave us two of the biggest avocadoes you have ever seen and a bunch of sweet bananas.  Then it was back to battle Kampala’s peak hour traffic to get to the hotel for a final dinner together.  There we met Ishmael, who was to take over driving responsibilities for Bev’s week in Kampala while we rushed back to Kenya.  From all accounts, Ishmael became as much a part of Bev and Jared’s week and we had been a part of their holiday.  Jared showed Bev plenty of universities and hospitals, he invited her to his house for a meal, his family came to town for another meal and they went to a school sports day and cheered on the Parrots…Ishmael joined the cheering as well!

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What a journey!  Bev and Tracey had travelled together for five weeks in 2009 from Beijing to Istanbul and here again was another month of new experiences, incredible memories and plenty of laughter.  Bev and Jared have cemented their mother-son relationship and Jared’s university education is assured (so long as he keeps getting good grades!).  And we all look forward to Bev’s next visit….or will it be Jared, Francis and Tracey coming to Australia to visit Bev?!

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