My Travel Map

My Travel Map

25 October 2017

Nairobi, Kenya

After our five day safari, we flew from Arusha, Tanzania to Nairobi, Kenya for a few days in the city (and another country) before heading home.  Right out of the airport, Kenya was a very different country than Tanzania.  The airport in Dar was somewhat formal and sleepy.  Nairobi's was a hive of activity, inside and out.  We jumped in a cab and lucked out with a fantastic driver, who we ended up spending the rest of the long weekend with. He enlightened us to some of the ways of Kenya.  First and foremost, he informed us about how open corruption is not tolerated in Kenya (very much unlike what we saw in Tanzania).  He gave us stories about how even police officers would be mobbed and beaten by angry crowds if someone called them out publicly for corruption.  As disturbing as those accounts were, they were also interestingly enlightening.  On one of our first stops, the Nairobi National Museum, we even found a box for folks to anonymously report acts of corruption.  It was right there in the lobby.

We didn't have enough time in Nairobi, and I didn't find the few parts of it that I did see to be very photogenic.  The people, however, were charming.  There was a clearly successful and growing middle class, which was beautifully racially diverse.  This post will not show the real Nairobi at all.  I'm sad to say that it will only really show a handful of things that the typical tourist might see.  I hope at some point that I'll return to Nairobi and Kenya and explore more of the city and country to get a better taste.  The first was a good one and left me intrigued for more.

The Nairobi National Museum is a must see for anyone visiting the city.  It houses an impressive showcase of Kenya's natural, social, and political history.

The museum also houses an incredible array of hominid fossils, including a cast model of Lucy (below), one of the closest things we know of to a "missing link" connecting homo sapiens (humans) to primates (great apes).

Africa's Central Rift Valley, a geologically tumultuous region which stretches the eastern length of the continent, is the birthplace of humanity.  That is a point that the Nairobi museum takes pride in, as the Central Rift Valley cuts right through Kenya.

This elephant skeleton and model are in honor of an incredible elephant: Ahmed of Marsabit.  Mount Marsabit is a mountain in Northern Kenya with forested slopes that are home to a small group of elephants.  The elephants of Marsabit are known for being big "tuskers", male elephants with long and thick tusks. Ahmed was an individual male that was an especially well endowed tusker.  He gained fame throughout the country and was soon granted national protection, which consisted of two personal armed guards that followed him day and night.  Ahmed died of natural causes at the age of 55 and has now been immortalized in the museum.  Nairobi National Museum also hosts many examples of Africa's prehistoric (and now extinct) mega-fauna, some of which would dwarf even Ahmed here.

This is just insane and a strong and devastating example of how European colonizers exploited native people.  These thumb prints are from Maasai tribal leaders that were coerced, exploited, and/or bribed into signing away land to the British colonialists.  Considering these people signed with a thumb print, it is highly doubtful that they were fully aware of the contract to which they were agreeing.

Such Maasai spears and shield grace the Kenyan flag.

Outside, the museum is an impressive building.

Just across the plaza from the museum lies the Nairobi Snake Park, which was small but had a wonderful and impressive array of some of Africa's most deadly serpents.

Boomslang. Don't let their name fool you; "boomslang" translates to "tree snake" in Afrikaans (and Dutch).  However, these snakes aren't as innocent or harmless as their name might imply.  Unlike cousins of theirs (pictured above and below), the boomslang has a potent venom, large venom glands, and fangs long enough to penetrate human flesh.  Their bite can be deadly; the toxin prevents blood from clotting.  Victims die from bleeding out through their own orifices.  They are indeed tree snakes, and they are infamous for dropping down on people trekking through the forest or jungle; imagine that nightmare.  

There are several other species that are closely related to the deadly boomslang.  These, however, have less potent venom, small venom glands, and fangs too small to penetrate human flesh.  For those reasons, they are kept outside in the open air at the park.

African rock python.  These behemoths are one of the largest species of snake in the world and the largest in Africa.  These snakes are the silent terror that lurk in rocky outcrops called kopjes on the savannas, but their range covers a larger variety of terrain than just that.  These snakes rarely kill humans, but they are very aggressive.

Gaboon viper.  These animals have the longest fangs (up to 5 cm) and highest venom yield (bang for your bite) of any snake on Earth.  They are deadly, and they are large.

Spitting cobra.  Yet another of the deadliest snakes on Earth.

This guy was reared and actually spitting at the glass; it apparently really didn't like my camera.  The shots were aimed right at the lens... and my eyes.  The snakes aim for the eyes when they spit their venom, which can cause blindness in the victim; large snakes can spray the venom up to just about 3 m (9 feet).  This one was easily clearing a meter.  All I can say is thank goodness that glass was there.  I have to give it to them, the coloring on these things is beautiful.

Green mamba.  Another highly venomous tree dweller is the green mamba, another snake you wouldn't want to have fall out of a tree onto your head.  These snakes can be long, over 2 meters, and are very fast.

Black mamba.  They darken with age, but they all have an inky black mouth, for which they are named.  This is yet another of the deadliest snakes in the world and (like the rest here) also found in East Africa.  Before the development of anti-venom, a bite was essentially a death sentence.  These snakes are highly aggressive as well; they are known for rearing up to human head height (~2 meters) and chasing people down.  Our guide in the Usambara Mountains also told us about one that chased after a car he was in... that is certainly the stuff that nightmares are made of.

Snakes... I show you bloody snakes for my first visit to Kenya.  I'm sad to admit... I didn't see much of Kenya at all.  I spent a few days in the capital city visiting tourist destinations with my friends under the guidance of a wonderful gentleman cab driver who got us from point A to point B reliably and with wonderful conversation.  He provided us with our most detailed insights into the country and what life is like there for normal people. The rest of my pictures don't do this any justice.  They are just more of the tourist destination.  But the story changes from here... now I focus a bit more on reality.

Two things are glaringly clear around Nairobi: there are tremendously rich people living there, and there are tremendously poor people there too.  Like so many other places in the world (South Africa, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, England, and the USA all come immediately to mind), Kenya has a glaring, in-your-face dichotomy between rich and poor.  You see houses like these - walled and fortified behind their high voltage electric fences - just a few miles from the Kibera slum, one of the largest clusters of poverty in the world, where a family is lucky to have any electricity available in the home.  It brings to mind a much more extreme form of how I first considered LA - with Skid Row just a few miles down the road from Beverly Hills and Bel Air.  Anger and disgust.  We didn't go to Kibera, but we saw its ugly sprawl from the highway; its enormity is impossible to miss for anyone willing to look up from the soul-crushing traffic or their smart phones.  We did, however, go to and through many neighborhoods nearby like this one, with their affluent houses peeking out from behind high walls and security gates.  We heard how children from these neighborhoods and even larger mansions further afield traveled to school via helicopter. The justification for such luxury was security... their parents wanted to avoid the very real threat of kidnapping for ransom.  However, do they consider that such things may happen possibly because such wealth is a slap in the face, an outright offense, to those living at the lowest depths of oppressive survivalism so nearby?

Oh... they had very nice malls too.  Those malls and the affluence have become a target, as recent history has taught us (for example, the 2013 Westgate Mall attacks).  However, they are also a sign of change... there is a growing middle class in Kenya.  It isn't so clear through these high walls crowned with their electric fences, but it is clear in the gentrified parts of town.  There is a middle class there... normal people, racially diverse and more akin to the hipster generation than to the Kardashians.  That is a wonderful thing, something I can walk away happy about.

Back to tourism now.  Just read the sign.

Yes, baby elephants are adorable.  Oooh, and baby ostriches aren't too bad either.

OK, but to be less facetious here, these elephants have some truly horrific stories and have been given a chance for recovery and rehabilitation thanks to this organization: the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

This is an orphanage for baby and juvenile elephants and rhinos.  According to everything I've found, it is legitimate and doing an excellent job at what it claims to be doing: rescuing, rehabilitating, raising, and reintroducing (back into the wild) elephant and rhino orphans.  If you're ever in Nairobi, you can visit the orphanage and meet the orphans themselves.  It's an incredible experience.

The babies are marched out first.  Visitors get to see the orphans at their feeding times, which they do in a large and open mud yard.  The workers hand out large squeeze bottles of formula, which the elephants eagerly grab and drink.  The youngest babies don't have the trunk dexterity to hold the bottle themselves, but the older elephants practically knock the workers over grabbing for their bottles.  Even as babies, these animals are incredibly powerful and intelligent.

There is a bond between the elephants and their human caregivers.  There is also an incredibly interesting dynamic between the different elephants.

Who doesn't like a good back scratch?  Considering what some of these youngsters have been through, it's incredible that they trust being so close to people at all.  Many of them were orphaned when they witnessed their mothers and family being shot and killed by poachers, or they fell down human wells where they were left abandoned by their families after days (yes, days) of active effort and agony trying to free them from the wet, dark depths.  The worst we heard was about a baby that was speared multiple times by farmers who were angry about her herd moving through their fields.  Yes, that's right, human farmers spearing a baby elephant multiple times and leaving it for dead because of some lost crops.  I'm spoiled... I don't rely on those fields for my livelihood, and thus, I can't at all relate to that experience.  However, even if I did rely on those fields, I hope I would never lower myself to that level of cruelty to such intelligent animals.  The word inhumane comes to mind, but then I remember how our species treats every other species on this planet.  

Anyway, these animals arrive traumatized, but they receive good care and support from the Trust.  The workers here clearly have bonded with these animals.  They are a true example of humane nature.

The adolescents are brought out next.  These are the larger elephants that are getting close to graduating to the adult elephant center where they prepare the animals for reintroduction into the wild.

Despite being the rebel teens, these youths still get the bottle (two each technically).

Their power is obvious.  If you notice, the entire crowd is being simple rope barriers.  Several of these elephants walked over for petting and scratching, and several bumped past the ropes easily and unknowingly shoving ten or more people with their mass.  And these elephants are only 1/4 or less of their full, adult size.  They are incredible animals.  Their skin is so rough... it is clear now that I've touched them why an adult is invulnerable to even the largest pride of lions.  The skin is as if thick dried mud and layer after layer of dense, dry leather were to blend into some impenetrable barrier.  Yet that skin is comfortingly warm, and the elephants clearly liked being rubbed and scratched.  They are one of my favorite animals and I wish them all the best for existence in this mad world.

Not an elephant... a warthog in the parking lot.  Despite the city surrounding us, this is still truly Africa.

Nearby to the Trust is the Giraffe Centre, offering close-up experiences with the tall, awkward creatures.  Yes, that tourist is feeding one from his mouth.  The giraffes will eat right from your hands... they are incredibly gentle, with soft lips and long, blue tongues.

At the center, I was pleased to have a nice and interesting chat with some young, Chinese tourists.  They told me how most Chinese people loved animals and weren't contributing to poaching in Africa.  I argued that the demand of even a small fraction of 1 billion people is still an enormous demand.  In particular, China and several other Asian countries are fueling the demand for elephant ivory, which they use for intricate carvings.  The tourists story also included the good work that Chinese businesses, enabled by the Chinese government, were doing to develop infrastructure and the economy in Kenya and many other African nations.  Their story was entirely different from those of our driver and several other Kenyans that we chatted with.  Their stories were much darker, telling of a Chinese new-colonialism that was a wolf in sheep's clothing scourging their nation.  The story goes that under the guise of "development" and "economic growth", Chinese businesses - themselves state sanctioned by the Politburo - bribe national politicians in African nations to allow them to operate their businesses unfettered and unchecked.  The business often is infrastructure development, but instead of employing locals, the Chinese development firms bring over Chinese workers, who barely contribute to the local economy.  The roads they build most often lead to industrial-scale farms and mines, themselves run and operated by Chinese companies.  There is no doubt that the Chinese are deeply entrenched in Kenyan business and the capital; many of the tallest skyscrapers in Nairobi were crowned with signs written in Chinese characters. The worst stories we heard were how the Chinese construction workers would often resort to poaching the local wildlife, acting as a plague along the roads they built through the countryside, wiping out entire herds of game and troops of monkey as they slaved and paved.

Nearby again is Nairobi National Park, an huge wilderness on the edge of the metropolis.  It is quite the unique place considering the fact that you can view wild lions in front of a backdrop of the city skyline.  Another of the park's attractions, that I would not recommend, is the Safari Walk, where you can go watch a variety of sad-looking animals in large enclosures, like the croc above and hyena below.

This rhino was probably the saddest looking creature that we saw.  It was enormous, but it had an air of melancholy about it that cut to the core.  It was as if it was very chillingly aware of the plight of its species, and how every one of its kind teetered on the edge of the abyss of extinction.

It is devastatingly sad what we humans have done to our natural world.

And if that hasn't put you off: after seeing so many wild animals, you can go eat many of them them. The restaurant Carnivore is a popular place and highly recommended by travel guides and locals alike.  It is basically run like a Brazillian churrascaria, with a huge central grill cooking up all different types of meat and servers wandering around with huge platters and skewers of everything as it comes available.  The place is all you can eat.  Carnivore no longer serves any wild game, everything comes from ranches or farms.  The menu is extensive, and I have to admit that I tried most of what they were offering.

I need to return to Kenya.  I have much more that I want to see in that country and so much more that I want to learn.

03 September 2017

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

The sun rises over a land forgotten by time.  This is Ngorongoro Crater.

This will be another photo-heavy post.  Ngorongoro Crater is a national conservation area in Tanzania, located in the highlands between Arusha and the Serengeti.  It is a unique place, the secret to which is given away in its name.  Ngorongoro is a nearly perfect circular caldera from an ancient volcano.  It is one of the largest intact calderas in the world, and that setting provides a natural wonderland of a habitat that has been largely and miraculously undisturbed by humans.

The sunrise over the crater wall was spectacular, especially so as it revealed the landscape around us dotted with so many large mammals.

The crater is home to many familiar species featured over the past few posts on East Africa.  You'll also notice those caldera walls in every backdrop.  Those are the borders of this wonderland, closing it off on all sides.

There were plenty of babies around too, which is always a nice thing to see.  Life goes on.

Wildebeest and zebras migrate into and out of the crater throughout the year.

This was the most amount of eland we saw at one time on the whole safari.

The enormous eland dwarfed the zebras and wildebeest walking around them.

Roads in the park are few and just simple but very well maintained dirt tracks like this one.  Our prime goal for the day was to drive around the crater floor looking in particular for one animal: rhinoceros.  Every big speck on the landscape brought a glimmer of hope that we might catch a glimpse of the last on our list of the "Big 5".

Most often though, those big blips on the horizon were just buffalo or elephants, both of which boast healthy populations in the crater.

As we learned again and again on the safari, this isn't some peaceful Garden of Eden.  The usual cycle of life and death is ever at play in Ngorongoro, and there are signs of that everywhere.

Shortly after sunrise, our driver spotted these two ominous shapes moving calmly and confidently through the short grass.

Ngorongoro has a high density of Masai lions despite a sharp decline in the population in the early 2000s due to an outbreak of disease.

These animals are purely awesome, devastatingly powerful, and command respect from almost every creature that encounters them.

This pair was beautifully backlit by the rising sun as well.  We were very lucky to capture views of the lions as these pictures show, with their golden hair glowing in an aura around their enormous and powerful shapes.

The prey species nearby all went immediately to high alert when they spotted the killer pair moving so close, and they clearly remained tense and on edge while the lions were within eyesight.

The pair moved right behind us across the road.  We were lucky to have that other safari vehicle behind us to allow me a shot like this one.

The pair were clearly not interested in hunting; they were apparently just simply out for an early morning stroll across the crater.

The access road down into the crater is impressive; the crater walls rise up over 600 m (2000 ft) from the caldera floor below.  The richness of the crater's habitat is thanks in large part to its inaccessibility and ease of patrolling by rangers.  Thanks to the unique geography, poaching is practically nonexistent in Ngorongoro.

Looking down into the crater from the walls above really showcase how it is a world within itself, a full ecosystem largely closed off from the outside world.  This view shows some of the woodlands, plains, and Lake Magadi.

Ngorongoro has a rich and diverse range of terrains within it, from plains to forests to lakes, streams, and wetlands.

In this section of forest, we encountered this troop of baboons.

We were also treated to this spectacular light.

Two of the "Big 5" side-by-side in Ngorongoro's woodland.

Ngoitokitok Spring, a large pool and wetlands area near the craters eastern wall.

There is a very healthy population of hippos at the spring.  Interestingly, there are no crocodiles in the crater; they are physically incapable of getting up over the rim walls and down into the crater's watering holes.

Sometimes, it really is hard to believe that these are the most dangerous animal in Africa.

That's no boulder in the water there...

There were hippos in some of the other smaller pools around the crater floor too.

Back onto the plains, we found this little jackal along the side of the road.

He was just lounging in the hot sun.

This other jackal was busy fending off an eagle and multiple vultures from something it was scavenging on.  He was not having as leisurely a time as the previous one we saw.  That eagle is about as big as the jackal... that little guy was feisty and fierce.

This picture and the one below shows the jackal charging in amongst the vultures.

The tough little jackal is in the middle here, attacking the vultures with raised wings toward the right of the group.  As soon as the jackal was in amongst them though, most of the birds swooped in without hesitation on the unguarded carcass to steal what they could while they got the chance.

We also saw the serval seen in the background here.  These shadow cats are common in the crater but elusive to spot.  We got lucky again with this one!

And then there was this guy.  That big dark mound in the foreground is an enormous male lion with a very big, dark mane.  There are two more cubs on the right of the picture.

After a few minutes, this female got up and started marching off.  She was followed closely by those two cubs.

We saw several more lions around the crater, but nothing as close as we got in Serengeti.

And the elephants... one of my favorite animals.

The elephants moved around the crater floor like gods around the landscape.  They clearly feared nothing and went wherever they wanted to.

This big male with the broken tusk came over to our vehicle and spent some time near us.

It was incredible to watch the dexterity he displayed with that trunk.  I can't imagine he can sustain himself and that behemoth bulk by grazing completely on that short grass though.

Some of the shots here in Ngorongoro must have set the record for the highest number of different species I was able to capture in one frame.

Elephant bones.  An adult elephant has no natural predators; they die when their molar teeth are ground down by decades of use, rendering them incapable of chewing the food an elephant needs to survive.  At that point in its life, an elderly elephant will leave the heard and wander off to find a place to lay down and die.  The bones will end up scattered by scavengers, as an elephant carcass provides a feast for every scavenging species.  The most interesting thing about this though is that surviving elephants are known to repeatably return to the bones of their family members... it is as if they are paying their respects and/or remembering the dead in some ritualistic manner.

Ostriches and other birds are also in great abundance in the crater.

Finally... we spotted one, a black rhino!  We had spent 5 days in natural lands and these were the first rhinos we saw.  In 1970, it is estimated that there were 65,000 black rhinos (like those here) in Africa.  Vast herds of them used to roam the savannas.  Now, the number of black rhinos is less than 6,000.  Their population has literally been decimated.  The eradication of this population of mega-fauna is entirely the fault of humanity.  There is international demand for rhino horn, which is used for traditional dagger handles in the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa and for "medicines" used in China and other parts of Asia.  That demand has combined with a growing number of wealthy elites and middle class in those regions to concoct a potentially deadly recipe for extinction of these incredible animals.  Ngorongoro is a special safe place for rhinos, due to its high defendability against poaching.  Private game reserves - those same ones that appallingly allow hunters to shoot and kill rhinos - are also last resort havens due to their private security forces and fences and special interest in keeping healthy herds for big game hunters to cull.  However, to save the rhino, more education and pressure needs to be put on the sources of the market demand: heirloom daggers in the Middle East and quack medicine in China.

Our first rhinos were in the distance, and our driver made them out immediately.

We were pleasantly surprised to find multiple in a group!

Like elephants, rhinos stood out amongst the surrounding hordes of other species.

Rhinos really are like nature's tank; they are tremendously formidable creatures.  It would be terrifying to get charged down by one, whether in a safari vehicle or not.

I loved these shots with the golden crested storks...

Two of the "Big 5" in the same shot again.

I loved these shots with the warthogs... the two animals remind me of one another, but the size differential is hilarious.  Seeing the two stare each other down like this was really amusing. 

Is there hope?  Here at least, it seems there is for now.  Ngorongoro is truly a magical place.  It is rare to find a self-contained ecosystem so entirely cut off from humanity.  I hope the people of Tanzania continue to protect it as well as they have so far.