Sep 142014
 

Amboseli eles

Amboseli eles

Kenya – Past, Present and Future

By David Bristow

“The strange thing about Africa is how past, present and future come together in a kind of rough jazz, if you like.” Ben Okri

The Kenyan national parks preserve some breathtaking tracts of wild Africa. In a country where wildlife is not confined to strict park borders, you get a sense of what it must have been like several decades ago when the game was far more numerous, and the people far fewer (Kenya has the highest population percentage growth on the continent).

You can also easily understand why the colonials of old were so besotted with the place. There is a vast openness, a sense of freedom and the promise of [wild] opportunity every way you look. Almost subconsciously, the mix of rift valley and volcanoes gives the place a sense of geological freshness, as though the physical landscape is still forming, right before your eyes.

Layered on top of that is the knowledge that this was where our closest hominin ancestors roamed. This understanding imbues your sense of being there with a deep connection to the place. No matter where you were born, when you stand on the East African savanna a voice in you says: this is where you belong, this is where your spirit was born.

Satao Elerai lodge

Satao Elerai lodge

Amboseli, abutting the Satao Elerai Conservancy where we are staying, is one of Kenya’s medium sized and most popular national parks. It is impressive for its wide-open vistas and plains where tortillis or umbrella thorn trees create an almost archetypal African landscape. The seasonal wetlands support abnormally large herds or grazers. Huge herds of elephants travel between the palm forests and the wetlands daily, creating one of the most memorable game sightings imaginable. Predators have plenty of cover in the thick marshy reed stands and palm forests. And all this unfolds at the foot of colossal Mount Kilimanjaro, its ice-crusted summit glowing in the early light.

Yet this undoubtedly great game reserve suffers from three significant modern maladies. The first is the upwardly mobile and extortionate park entry fee (US$80 a day per person, every day or every time you enter. Then there is the problem of mobbing. You cannot enjoy any predator sighting without becoming embroiled in a melee of game drive vehicles and you just want to push off (except for the chattering masses, who don’t seem to mind).

 But more significant, and one that will ultimately determine the fate of this and all the other parks, and most of the wildlife, is the conflict between the game areas and surrounding communities. Things are particularly bad in the Amboseli-Tsavo region (but admittedly not as bad a around the Masai Mara National Park).

We feel immensely fortunate to be staying on a 7,000 ha conservation conservancy that lies between the park and the slopes of Kilimanjaro – for several reasons. The first is that we can flee the masses whenever we chose. There is plenty of game on the conservancy, and we can also walk whenever and pretty much wherever we chose, with a game guard. The quality of service and guiding is also of a truly superior standard.

Most important though, is that the partnership between the lodge and the community is a solid one, where the Maasai community is the landlord and tourists basically pay the rent. By comparison the lodges inside the parks pay little towards conservation.

If wildlife is to survive in Kenya, and as much for the whole of Africa, tourism can no longer be a white man’s game, or indeed a rich man’s game. Buffer conservancies such as Satao Elerai (the only one in the immediate Amboseli area) offer a far better safari experience than staying inside this and the other popular parks.

One thing Kenya gets really right though, is luxury-rustic and here again Satao Elerai Lodge is a fine example. While in many other safari regions they are falling over themselves to court the fictional Mrs Schwartz from The Hamptons, NY, here you feel that you are still in real Africa. The architecture is inspired and environmentally appropriate.

There are no fences, there is no pampering or flattery, nature comes right up to your room or safari tent, and that includes elephants and any other wild animals that happen along. An askari escorts you between your room and the lounge-dining area at night.

Like the wild animals in so many areas, this kind of genuine safari experience is getting rarer all the time. I guess we have become quite discerning after 30-some years working in Africa’s wild places, and this is how we love it.

Satao Elerai

Satao Elerai

Sep 112014
 

Way Out of Africa
The Great Rift Valley Lodge

by David Bristow

The Great Rift Valley is a perplexing place, and always has been. People have lived here since there were people, and pre-humans (as well as the ancestors of the great apes) before that. The rifting created great troughs where water collected, and the volcanoes that accompanied the faulting spewed out wonderfully fertile soils. It was all anyone, or any animal, could ask for.

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In times not long past the Maasai were masters of the Rift, or Eastern Rift – there is also a Western or Albertine Rift – but colonial land grabs and later political intrigues have wrenched much of it away. This they wholly resented and it has led to explosive tensions and conflict, often within modern conservation areas.

Today the main Rift Valley region of Kenya is an all too real African scenario, where the burgeoning human population pushes up against wildlife areas and national parks struggle to retain their authority. And beyond all this it is not hard to see why the old colonials fell so hard for the place.

Out of Africa

Karen Blixen did not live near the Rift Valley, but the excellent film based on her superb book was filmed largely around Lake Naivasha. Crescent Island, a private estate in the lake, was used as the primary location. Across the lake on its western shore lies Elsamere, the last home of Joy Adamson. Today it is a small lodge and museum dedicated to the Adamsons, the Born Free story and all the other incredible stories – and animals – of their lives.

Elsamere

Elsamere

She and husband George (her third) led bursting and adventurous lives, with more exploits than you could reasonably fit into 10 or more books, and several films. Joy was variously described as lascivious, neurotic and worse, and in the end it was her irascibility that was her undoing: the cook, with a machete, in the bedroom. George came to grief in a hail of bullets from Somali Shifta bandits when he went to the aid of a group of tourists who had been ambushed in Kora National Park where he lived with his lions.

The Great Rift

Joy was probably all the things said of her. One thing was certain: when this Austrian vamp set her sights on a man, he was a goner. All of them remarkable men! But then ordinary people seldom lead extraordinary lives and it took an exceptional woman to live the “born free” story. And for that she needed an equally strong partner, which she found in the tough-as-old-camel-leather hunter turned conservationist.

George had started out trading goats in Kenya’s harsh northern territory. He then turned hunter, then park ranger, always living a rough life in the roughest of places. When they married Joy fitted right in. But he was rock solid and she was flighty and so their ways parted. Her vices were mainly men while his were whisky and his ever-constant pipe. Still they remained bound to the end by the spirits of the animals they lived with, none more so than Elsa.

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A Lodge With A View

For the past five days and nights (nights mainly, since Roger, Pat and I have been up an hour before sunrise most days headed for Hell’s Gate, Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru National Park and various other places of the Rift) I’ve been looking out of my chalet at the Great Rift Valley Lodge (and golf resort). The view is more than generous, and across the lake is the looming 3,000-m Mount Longodot and somewhere in the haze is Elsamere.

The lodge – more like a country, or bush, resort – is by far the best place to stay. Everything about the place has impressed us way beyond expectations. Golfers are expected to avoid hitting the zebras.

If you have the beat of Africa in your heart and its waters in your veins, you need to visit the Great Rift Valley. And if you do then you need to stay at this lodge. Everything about the area seems to vibrate with the essence of all that is wonderful and untamed, both wildlife and human, about the continent. And if you do, a visit to Elsamere should be high up on your itinerary: it will give you new eyes with which to see the place. The documentary they show on the lives of the Adamsons – much of it George’s “home” movies – is likely bring out deeper feelings than you bargained for.

Great Rift Valley

Great Rift Valley

Sep 092014
 

By David Bristow

Mashatu Game Reserve is the largest tract among many private properties that constitute the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Started in the 1890s it was known as the Tuli Block, a marginal farming area created by empire builder Cecil John Rhodes where the Shashe and Limpopo rivers meet, the spot where the borders of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana intersect.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Mashatu Game Reserve.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Mashatu Game Reserve.

This is where we chose to feature our Leopards icon, much to the surprise of many game aficionados. Why not MalaMala, Londolozi, Mombo, South Luangwa… they asked, sometimes incredulously. For various reasons, we’d reply. First because of the grandeur of the landscape there, a place that has been dubbed the “land of giants”.

Also, because it is one of the most magnificent places to photograph wild Africa… and because Mashatu, more than any other safari operator provides opportunities for serious photographers with permanent and mobile hides.

But mainly, we felt, it was a place we knew we could photograph leopards in a completely natural setting, unlike the more popular places where the leopards’ every name and moves are known, and where they are so habituated there is no longer any unknown, no sense of tracking, or adventure left. Or even maybe the chance of not seeing them. Sometimes you have to take a chance and, as is often observed, fortune favours the brave.

Leopard (Panthera pardus) in tree at twilight. Mashatu Game Reserve.  Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Botswana.

Leopard (Panthera pardus) in tree at twilight. Mashatu Game Reserve. Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Botswana.

10 Facts About Mashatu and Tuli

  1. Tuli means dust, and the Limpopo River Valley in this area verges on desert, the khaki veld and stony ground suitable only for the toughest of animals and people.
  2. The Northern Tuli Game Reserve began in the 1960s as the Limshapo Game Reserve, where a variety of private landowners grouped together to ring-fence the area against poachers from South Africa and goat and cattle herders from what was then Rhodesia.
  3. The reserve’s first warden was Adrian Boshier, one of the most colourful and enigmatic characters the region has ever seen. He lived in a cave even after he married and his first child was born, when his mother-in-law insisted he “get a proper job”. That child is the equally peregrinacious and inspired artist of the African wilds, Bowen Boshier.
  4. The first humans known to live in the area were San, who have been called the Boskop culture. There are many rock art sites in the valley that can be visited.
  5. Bantu herders arrived in the area around 1,200 years ago. The Mmamagwa ruins on Mashatu indicate the place where a cattle herding culture first takes root in southern Africa, which led to the evolution of a stone-building culture that dominated the region for centuries, culminating in Great Zimbabwe.
  6. Mapungubwe National Park, across the Limpopo in South Africa is the most important archaeological site in the area, where trading and metal working reached its peak around 800 years ago.
  7. The name Mashatu comes from the nyala berry tree Xanthocercis zambesiaca, one of the giants of the reserve. The name means “python tree” in an ancient language, and refers to the fact that the largest specimens – which are massive and can live to 600 or 700 years – have hollow boles where pythons like to lie up.
  8. During the Anglo Boer War this area was a scene of action in the opening days of hostilities. Fort Tuli was a British outpost that attracted a massing of troops from both sides.
  9. Bryce’s Store on Mashatu was a staging post for the Zeederberg coach service that linked Pretoria and Bulawayo. During the Anglo Boer War it was flattened by Boer artillery.
  10. The other giants of Mashatu are the baobabs, elephants, lions, giraffes, elands, ostriches and kori bustards.
Baobab, Kremetart, Kuka, Seboi, Mowana, Shimuwu or Muvhuyu (Adansonia digitata) at sunset. Mashatu Game Reserve.

Baobab, Kremetart, Kuka, Seboi, Mowana, Shimuwu or Muvhuyu (Adansonia digitata) at sunset. Mashatu Game Reserve.

Sep 032014
 

By David Bristow

Flying over the mist-shrouded green expanse of the Congo Basin just over a week ago seems like a dream, or another life. Descending towards the dense textured forest of Odzala-Kokoua National Park (where gorillas hide), I experienced the kind of travel jitters I haven’t felt for decades, like when I saw the mighty Himalayas, and the Antarctic for the first time.

Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Cuvette-Ouest Region. Republic of the Congo.

Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Cuvette-Ouest Region. Republic of the Congo.

I have seen hundreds of wild places in Africa and a million photos of the African savanna, but the “jungle” is so much more mysterious. Wilderness Safaris’ Ngaga Forest and Lango Bai camps: they’re not easy to get to, and you have to work for your pudding, so to say. This is a place where you have to walk to find out what the jungle shelters: gorillas and monkeys, forest elephants and buffaloes, giant forest hogs and red river hogs, bongos, pottos and anomalures, bushbuck, duikers and mouse deer.

You won’t see them much any place else. The western lowland gorillas are the undoubted stars of the show here. The species numbers around 100,000 and Odzala has the highest density. This is the only place where there are habituated troops – 15 years of tireless work by the local researchers and their trackers – where sightings are virtually guaranteed. Even if it means traipsing for several hours through the humid, tangled forest as your guides cut the trail.

Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Cuvette-Ouest Region. Republic of the Congo

That is why “old Africa hands” photographers Roger and Pat de la Harpe and I chose Odzala as one of our 21 icons. This is where ecotourism should look for new frontiers, and for where they can make the biggest contribution to conservation on the continent. We pretty much all know that rainforests are the biodiversity epicentres of the planet, and nowhere has it been more practical to delve right in on ground level and enjoy the most exciting safari of your life. It’s like another, secret world down there on the ground.

As for ebola, so long as you are careful about sharing body fluids with locals and don’t go eating any gorillas, you’ll be just fine. Rather worry about the biting flies. (Best tip: soak or spray your clothes with an antiseptic such as Dettol. It keeps them away better than Deet or similar insect repellent sprays).

10 facts about Odzala

1. Odzala-Kokoua National Park and the surrounding buffer zone are managed by African Parks , a privately funded conservation organisation that rescues abandoned national parks on the continent.
2. The forest people of Mboko village were removed, voluntarily, in 2000 to the new Ombo village in order to expand the Odzala-Kokoua National Park.
3. The people of Ombo agreed to cease hunting primates, forest elephants and buffaloes in order to create a conservation buffer zone to the park.
4. Their best hunters are now trackers who have helped habituate three troops of western lowland gorillas.
5. The habituated troops at Odzala are the only habituated western lowland gorillas.
6. Western lowland gorillas number around 100,000 individuals, the largest population of the four species (Cross River, western lowland, eastern lowland, and mountain).
7. Ngaga and Lango Wilderness Camps employ local people so they are no longer dependent on hunting bushmeat.
8. Troops of western lowland gorillas are ruled by one silverback, but the females of each troop select the one they want.
9. Gorillas are especially susceptible to ebola, and its spread is attributed largely to forest people taking dead gorillas for bushmeat.
10. The Odzala area has the highest density of western lowland gorillas, about 22,000. However, the species is listed as critically endangered: around 20 years ago the number was estimated at 42,000.

Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Cuvette-Ouest Region. Republic of the Congo