Monday, 2 November 2009

A snake park and a health clinic

The snake park where we’re staying is run by Ma, BJ and their son who’s in his forties. They moved up from South Africa 30 years ago and set up the campsite at Snake Park. Enter the bar and you can emerse yourself in 30 years of history. The walls, ceiling and bar is covered in photos, t-shirts and graffiti left behind by people passing through as they travelled Africa. The Snake Park is not just a campsite but an actual snake park with a resident collection of snakes, crocs and birds from Africa. The collection covers everything from puff adders to black mambas and small non-poisonous beaked snakes.

Whist it looks like it could just be a personal zoo, the Snake Park serves a much more important purpose. Ma and BJ have immersed themselves in their local Tanzanian community, setting up the only free health clinic in 150km. The clinic is paid for by BJ and any donations given to them as well as a cut off the takings from the bar and campsite. It specializes in snake bite but also treats everything from chest infections and eye problems to malarial screening and emergency first aid.

With one of the local masai guards (employed because the local populace don’t mess with them…a poison arrow can kill in less than 20 minutes) we pay a visit to the local clinic where we meet one of the two nurses employed there. The clinic is not much larger than a house with a small diagnosis room, a microscope room used to diagnose malaria, and mini ward with a couple of beds and a desk in the entrance with a computer where they upload records. There is also a resident doctor. Together this miniscule medical treat upwards of 70 people a day on market days (mon, tues) and 20-30 patients a day on other days. All the treatment and medication is free, with just an option for a donation if one can afford one.

Jane (the nurse) told us the story of one young lad who was bitten by a black mamba which comes with an 80% chance of death. After 9 doses of anti-venom, a course of antibiotics and some anti-inflammatory drugs the boy’s life was saved. Such a poignant story goes to show this impact of this small and yet valuable health clinic on the local population.

Ngorongoro Crater

It’s cold and damp when we wake. Cloud clings to the crater rim, dampening the ground and our fly sheets. Again, we set off at 6.30am for our morning game drive and our steep descent into the crater. We inch our way along the vertiginous road that leads down to the crater floor. Once on the crater floor, our game drive begins.

As we drive a pride of lions suddenly emerge from the bush. They are young lionesses with cubs of different ages. One cub looks quite young, his feet too large for his body, another has started to grow a mane. They emerge from the undergrowth, blissfully unaware of the 4x4s filling with tourists and impossibly large zoom lenses.

They walk up to the cars and trucks, brushing against them as they make their way to their new resting place. The cubs jostle and scrap, a lioness clambers into a tree before dismounting again, another cub playfully gives chase to an unsuspecting guinea fowl. They make their way shamelessly along the vehicle track and there is nothing that can be done but to watch, enjoy and give way to these stunning creatures.

Later, we approach a soda lake where a lion sunbathes gracelessly on its back, in the water hippos sit and do very little, the odd white egret stood on their backs clearing parasites.

As we leave another lake we see a couple of hippos running, their large backsides waddling as they go. We pass an elephant graveyard – an area of tender grasses that elephants come to spend their days when their six sets of teeth are completely worn down. Elephant skulls lie about the place, the ivory tusks already collected and stored by the rangers to prevent poaching and trading.

Our final sight as we made our way to the road that leaves the crater is a lame, matted hyena hobbling along by the side of the road. It accidently stumbles into the path of a large male ostrich which takes offence and gives chase. The hyena limps pathetically away, lying down out of kicking distance of the ostrich. Senguru, our guide , sighs and says ‘nature will have her way’. From young cubs, elephants and hartebeest to dead zebras and dying hyenas, we got to see the entire circle of life played out before our eyes over two magnificent days in the Serengeti.

Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater

It’s 6.30am and we stumble bleary-eyed into two 4x4s waiting to take us to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater national park where we are to spend the next couple of nights.

As we drive through the gate into the Ngorongoro Crater national park I’m struck by the sudden change in vegetation. Behind us are the arid plains that characterize Tanzania but suddenly we’re faced with lush jungle. A thick canopy of trees towers above us. Lianas hang down, their thin tenticular arms brushing the ground. Interspersed among the thick green foliage are cacti-like trees called candelabras and short stumpy bushes full of purple flowers.

We begin to climb to the rim of the crater, our 4x4 straining at the additional effort required to climb the steep muddy road.. The Ngorongoro Crater was formed over thousands of years of volcanic eruptions. As we reach the rim the foliage thins and we catch our first glimpse of the crater. And what a fantastic sight to see: lush jungle drops down to the crater’s edge where it gives way to a vast flat, grassy plain interspersed with soda lakes and oases. Wildlife is free to enter and leave the crater but many animals choose to stay in the crater all year round due to the favourable environment to be found here.

As we follow the road around the rim of the crater, the vegetation that surrounds us, changes again. The earth becomes drier, the grass is no longer green and soon we’re surrounded by the dusty, grassy savannah that is recognized instantaiously as the southern part of the Serengeti national park. Further north the grassy savannah gives way to acacia savannah (grassy plains dotted with acacia trees) and further north still and the Sernegeti transforms again into thicker bush-like scrub.

Entering the Serengeti we are greeted with almost clear, blue skies that stretch across the vast plains of golden grasses. The light is rich and bright, forcing you to squint behind sunglasses as you scan the horizons for signs of life. An acacia tree sets down the slightest bit of shade; a cheetah lays beneath, just inches from the track we’re following. It stretches out in the shade, desperately trying to stay cool.

We head towards the purple-tinged mountains that rise up boldly from the horizon. Here we watch, straining our eyes, as a leopard drags the mangled carcass of a wart hog higher into the branches of tree in which it resides. Shortly after, we’re met with the stomach churning sight of a lioness and her cub tearing away the meat from the hind flank of a zebra. The zebra was pregnant so the flaccid head of the foal is clearly visible, covered in the entrails torn cleanly from the zebra’s body.

Pastal pinks and blues and yellows appear as the light diminishes and dusk begins to fall across the plains. Rays of light break through the thickening clouds and the mountains take on a darker shade of purple.

We head to the campsite where we set up tents and dine. In the evening, casting our torches across the bush, we see the green eyes of hyenas circling as they wait to raid the area for food scraps. As night falls, we go to sleep to the sounds of the witch-like cackle of hyenas as they prowl about our tents.

6.30am the following morning and we head out for a morning game drive just as the sun raises its head over the horizon. The morning air is crisp and cool so we wrap up warm as we begin our search for wildlife. It’s prime hunting time for cats and Simba, (the guide in the other 4x4) is quick to spot a cheetah concealed among the tall grasses.

It’s on high alert, its head twitching as it searches for a flicker of movement or the scent of a dik dik or other small gazelle. Over the horizon come a herd of hartebeest. These would make a formidable opponent to the cheetah but amongst the herd the cheetah spots a young hartebeest, only a few months old. Oblivious to the cheetah’s presence they’re relaxed, grazing happily. The cheetah bows its head, shoulders hunched it crouches closer to the ground and it begins to stalk the herd. Somehow the hartebeest sense the cheetah’s movement. Suddenly, it’s a stand off and both parties stand taught and still as statues staring each other down. They stay like that for what feels like hours, then, suddenly, the large male hartebeest makes a move for it and the others follow, galloping comicly through the grasses. The cheetah barely moves a muscle. Again, the hartebeest stop to stare in the direction of the cheetah. The cheetah starts to move but the hartebeests know exactly where he is. The cheetah doesn’t stand a chance; five minutes later and the hartebeest have negotiated safe passage behind a cluster of rocks, well out of reach of the cheetah. The cheetah sits, defeated.

An hour or so later and we see the magnificent attempt of a lioness as she stalked and then chased a huge herd of Thompson gazelle as they made their way down to a watering hole to drink. She too failed to make a kill and sat looking crest fallen, panting to get her breath back after the sudden exertion.

On our way back to camp we come across a massive herd of elephants. Twenty to thirty elephants surrounded our vehicle as the grazed. We watch as their trunks masterfully remove tender leaves from within the impentrable clusters of thorns and spikes that adorn the trees and bushes.

The sun is high in the sky and the animals retreat into the few shaded spots they can find. We make our way back to the Ngorongoro crater rim where we camp, surrounded by grazing zebra, wart hogs and hyenas.

A soggy Tanzanian welcome

Our new driver is an English guy named Tim. We also have a new truck with Dipsy the Teletubbie as our mascot. We were warned that the ride on the Tanzanian side of the border would be rough as the authorities had dug up 97km of road and had yet to re-lay it. This coupled with torrential rains which appeared out of nowhere as we processed our visas made for the toughest day of driving yet. The new truck is laid out in such a way that everyone sits sideways with two seats facing forwards at the back. The road was so rough that the boys were taking it in turns to sit at the back of the truck where they could be thrown a good foot in the air everytime we hit a particularly deep pothole/crater in the road. Everyone was glad to see the welcome sign for the Snake Park (and yes…it housed an entire collection of snakes and crocs) where we were to spend the night.

A night out in Karen

We arrived back at Karen on the outskirts of Nairobi to drop off Jas and Jenny and to pick up Daniel and Dave. With two nights at the camp it was a good chance to communicate with the outside world, make use of the hot showers to catch up with some much needed ‘personal administration’ and, in true overland spirit, take Henry out to say goodbye and get terribly drunk.

As is frequently the case when you travel abroad, we ended up at an Irish bar/club called the ‘Double Inn’ (see what they did there?). We were fine getting in as it was a local ‘mzungo’ Kenyan hang out but initially they wouldn’t let Henry in because he was a single black male. At this point Jenny demanded to see the manager and quite clearly and categorically explained that the only reason they had an extra 14 mzungos through the door was because of Henry. It was a battle that Jenny won and Henry was finally allowed to join us.

The clientele were mostly white Kenyans who had the air of public school boys (think men with floppy hair and pastel v-neck jumpers slung over the shoulders of a polo shirt or, more unusually, a pink ‘Smurf’ t-shirt!), well-to-do Asians and a handful of well established black Kenyans, most of whom had white girlfriends. It was an odd mix of people and there was a slightly odd vibe…it certainly wasn’t a traditional African night out.

Despite the unusual clientele and the dodgy regulations at the door with regard to skin colour, we had a fantastic night out. Unfortunately, the DJ appeared a little unprepared for people hitting the D-floor until 3am as he ran out of music very early on and resorted to playing the same tracks three or four times each. Nevertheless, it was a great night out and a great send off for Henry.

Masai mara

The Masai Mara is part national park, park home to the Masai tribespeople who are characterized by their stretched earlobes, blood red shawls, elegant beaded jewellery and traditional weaponry of poison arrows and hyena clubbing stick. As we hobbled over the potholed, dusty road to the gates of the Masai Mara national park gates, we passed traditional masai villages consisting of clusters of circular mud huts with pointed, foliage-covered roofs. Every now and again across the shrubbed plain you’d catch a glimpse of red as a masai tribesman herds his skeletal cattle in search of water and any grass or leaves they could eat. The rains here are nearly a month late and it’s taken its toll – cattle carcusses are strewn everywhere, the rotting stench of putrid flesh greeting our nostrils as we pass by.

At the gates we are all but hijacked by over zealous Masai women desperately trying to sell us jewellery or wooden clubs. Leave a wrist on show and they pin a bracelet to it and demand money; try and give it back and they won’t take it. The only way to escape is to throw said bracelet on the floor and make a run for it. It’s a sad sight to see these warrior tribespeople who have survived successfully in the harshest of terrain for thousands of years lowering themselves to the level of tacky souvenir sellers. Unfortunately, it’s a sight that’s all too common to see with indigenous peoples around the world and is the bitter aftertaste of modern tourism.

We had both an evening and a morning game drive in the Masai Mara national park…and what great game drives they were! Some of highlights we saw were a pride of lions lying bloated and dozy after feasting on a kill (a lion can eat 35kg of meat in a single sitting!), two antelopes battling it out, a dorky looking giraffe, its legs splayed as it drank, wilderbeast fresh from their migration from the Serengeti forming a long black line across the horizon and the rarest and most beautiful sight of all – a leaopard walking in front of the truck and climbing a tree right next to it, barely 5m from us.

Unfortunately, the damage done to the countryside is all too evident as track marksw criss cross the off the official tracks. Guides want their passengers to get the best view and best photos possible which means flounting the rules. Most of them, including Henry, go offroad to get up close to animals. This means that when an animal of interest is seen, it is suddenly hounded by four or five 4x4 trucks competing with each other to get as close as possible.

Henry, along with five other drivers, got fined for going off road to get close to the leopard. The standard fine for going off road is a substantial $1000 which comes straight out of the guide’s pocket. However, this is Africa; a cheeky smile, a quick chat and an offer of a few drinks at the end of the day and Henry got away with a $300 fine which went straight into the rangers’ back pockets. Not a cent of the fine went towards the upkeep and restoration of the national park. With five drivers stopped after one incident, each fined a similar amount, it’s little wonder the rangers looked so happy with themselves!

A drink with Henry

Homemade punch was awaiting our return to Fisherman’s Camp from Hell’s Gate. After cycling all day it was a welcome treat! According to Henry it was Kenya’s Independence Day whilst our guide, John, said it was the President’s Day…either way it was an excuse to cook up a storm and drink copious amounts of booze!

I was on the cook team and was on chapatti dough rolling duty whilst Jas was on chapatti cooking duty. My drink in one hand, a rolling pin in the other, I got cracking producing a heap of chapatti to go with the BBQ meat and veg.

After dinner and an entire cool bin worth of punch, we managed to persuade Henry to take us to his local bar. We headed down to the small village along the roughly Tarmaced road, occasionally tripping over a pothole or two in the dark.

The bar was handily located behind the butchers, which, even at 9pm, was still open. (I say ‘handily’ because the butchers sold cooked goats meat which, in Africa, is the equivalent to a 2am kebab)

The bar was small, dark and filled almost entirely with men bar a couple of prostitutes who hung around by the men’s loos. Henry was the centre of attention as he walked in surrounded by 14 ‘mzungos’ aka ‘dollar signs’. Suddenly the prices at the bar jumped. Admittedly, the drinks here were a quarter of the price than back at camp but we were still paying inflated mzungo prices. Someone quite rightly pointed out that it was more than a little unfair that prices were based on skin colour and wondered what would happen – and how many riots would occur – if you did the same in the UK. I guess, given the fact that the whites colonized and enslaved black Africans over hundreds of years, we now get our comeuppance when we re-visit the countries in which we wreaked havoc. Nevertheless, there is something that feels a little morally amiss about it all

A guy named Marcus, a local gin den and a rather large hippo
Marcus was born in Wales, educated in an English boarding school and has worked for the last three years in South Africa…needless to say, his accent is a mess J He is one of those people that anyone who writes aspires to be…he gets paid to write about his travels. In Capetown he was a sports journalist for Sky but after he quit his job to travel from Capetown to Cardiff by public transport alone (no planes!) Sky Travel asked him to write about his experience. Nat met him at Fisherman’s Camp eight months into his travels. He’d had malaria twice, been arrested and almost deported in Malawi for refusing to pay a bribe and had interviewed a local witch doctor. I got chatting to Marcus and Nat and we ended up spending the morning together.

We had the day off to do as we chose but nearly everyone was hungover so the day consisted of sitting by the pool or in the bar area recouperating. Instead, Nat, Marcus and myself decided to pay a visit to the local village to find some local grub to get stuck into. We asked a local market stall holder where a good place was to get food and we were directed to a tiny little hut with a sign saying ‘Mama’s kitchen’ and a fruit stall out front. Inside were three or four plastic tables and chairs, a small counter with a bowl of eggs to one side and a few pastries on show and a hole in the wall that looked into the kitchen. Choosing the food was simple as there was only one real meal on offer – a mixture of vegetables and chickpea stew with a side of chapatti.

Mama was a bubbly character who was very keen for us to try everything she had on offer. We gratefully tucked into a plate of food (which was noticibly smaller than that of the local sat opposite us…I guess mama was hoping we’d ask for seconds) followed by slices of fresh pineapple from her fruit stall. As we ate, cows wandered aimlessly passed the open door and every now and then a small child would pop their head in to smile and giggle at the mzungos. Our meal cost us 100 Kenyan shillings each – less than a £1 for a two-course meal.

Marcus was keen to find out where he could get hold of some local tipple so he asked the two local men eating on the tables across from us. They laughed knowingly when he asked and one of the men offered to take us to find some. Following our newly found guide, we headed back towards Fisherman’s Camp then carried on a little further up. Along the way we managed to pick up a horde of young kids on their way home from school. Marcus entertained them by saying the word for ‘bum’ in Swahili which they all found hysterically funny.

Just beyond Fisherman’s Camp we entered a small homestead that backed onto one of the flower farms. There were a couple of houses, a few goats milling around, a tiny puppy rolling in the dust and a couple of kids playing together. In front of one of the houses was a small wooden shack with a roof made of clear plastic. Our guide ushered us in whereby the chitter chatter of the locals inside fell briefly silent only to be followed by ‘karibu, karibu’ (i.e. welcome, welcome).

The inside of the small shack was lined with wooden benches. In one corner was a ‘bar’ which was literally a small bar of wood with a large plastic vat of some suspiciously clear and ominously toxic liquid. We were ushered in and sat on a bench next to some rather colourful characters who’d obviously been sat there for a fair few hours already. One guy had only a couple of brown teeth left and one of his eyes hung low so that it was almost closed…a visual personification of one being ‘blind drunk’.

Opposite me was a chatty woman in traditional African dress with a baby strapped to her back and a young girl who looked like her daughter sat next to her. Again, she too looked like she frequented the ‘gin den’ a little too often than was good for her health. After the usual ‘What’s your name?’, ‘Where you from?’ pleasantries, Marcus ordered three glasses of the potent beverage. ‘Changa’ as it is known is created from corn fermented with sugar and then distilled. It forms a clear liquid that tastes like gin mixed with gasoline.

That evening, under the watchful eye of a huge hippo grazing at the end of Fisherman’s Camp gardens, Nat, Marcus and I had a Changa drinking session. Mine consisted of a shot glass full whereas the two guys managed to consume the best part of a litre bottleful followed by a hearty helping of 2kg of goat meat…I left them to it!

Hell’s gate

Hell’s Gate national park is one of the few national parks where there are no large predators…unless, that is, a lion sneaks in which has happened on a couple of occasions. This means that, unlike most parks, you can hire a bike and cycle around the park getting up close and personal with the wildlife.

The bikes we hired would not have met UK health and safety standards. Most had gears that were temperamental at best whilst others didn’t have brakes. Whilst Fisherman’s Camp owned a few of the bikes, most of them were on loan from individuals from the nearby village. This made for an interesting day out!

Our guide, John, was one of the most informative guides I’ve ever met. His father was a ranger in the park many years ago so he actually grew up in the ranger accommodation inside the park. He knew every corner of the park intimately and everything about the wildlife you’d find there. You could ask him anything and he would have an answer for it.

Half the day was spent cycling around the park, the other half was spent gorge walking. Our day almost came to an abrupt end when Ravi had a puncture early on and John informed us we had 4km to go to get to the ranger post where it might be fixed. Using Nat’s initiative and Leatherman, we managed to fix the tire temporarily with a piece of gaffa tape that was holding Claire’s sunglasses together and some micropore from the medical kit I had on me.

The day was fantastic. We had close up encounters with zebra, a rock hyrax, an olive baboon with his thin pink appendage on full show, buffalo and wart hogs. The gorge itself wasn’t huge but interesting all the same with hot springs dripping down the rocks at different points. It involved quite a bit of slip sliding down steep stone faces and clambering about the rocks. The gorge is prone to flash floods which wash away the stone with great force. Since 1992, the gorge has increased in depth by about 20m so it’s only a matter of time before the Hell’s Gate gorge transforms into something not too dissimilar from the Grand Canyon.

Bar Nat, Jon and me, everyone headed back to camp early in the afternoon when all the animals had taken shelter. The three of us hung back for an hour or so just chilling out on a grassy plain surrounded by zebra. It was great just sitting there in complete silence listening to the sounds of nature with not another human soul to be seen or heard. At that point I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I heard complete silence. I can’t overestimate the importance of being able to let your mind wander with no distractions. Right then, I really didn’t miss London!

Afternoon tea at Elsamere

Elsamere is an archetypal colonial abode with lush gardens dropping down to the shore of Lake Naivasha. It was here that Joy and George Adamson – of Elsa the lion / Born Free fame – lived. Every afternoon at 4pm you can visit their home, watch a video of their conservation work and enjoy all-you-can-eat cakes and tea. There’s something slightly distasteful about enjoying high tea when people down the road are living in shacks but you justify it by the fact that all the money made goes to the Born Free Foundation.

Joy and George were passionate about conservation in Africa. George lived in the sticks where he set up various animal rehabilitation centres whilst Joy’s work took her around the globe promoting her various books. All the money she made was ploughed back into the Born Free Foundation and was used to sponsor various conservation initiatives both in Africa and around the world.

Whilst the video discussed their work comprehensively, what it didn’t tell you was how they both died. Talking with a guide the following day, we discovered that Joy was murdered in the very house we visited. She apparently got into a dispute with a worker, accusing him of stealing something. When she docked his wages, he went round to the house and hit her, killing her. She was in her 70s.

George was also murdered. He was hijacked up in the northern border region of Kenya where ‘shifters’ or ‘bandits’ abound. Whilst it could have been a coincidence, our guide John said that some people believe it was politically motivated because he was campaigning against the ivory trade which, at that time, was still legal in Kenya.

Whether the stories of their deaths are true or merely urban myths (I’ll need to do some research to check it out) both Joy and George left the legacy of the Born Free Foundation behind which, even today, works tirelessly to conserve endangered wildlife across the globe.