The cat’s out of the bag

Walking with Beasts
Please sir can I have some more?

I didn’t think it could get any better, but this afternoon was possibly the most incredible experience we have had so far. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Another 5.30 wake-up call for another early start. Today’s destination was the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a game park & conservation foundation. We took a “short cut” to get there – 18km of dirt road – although after the recent rain it was a quagmire, and even our 4-wheel drive car struggled. It was even bumpier than our usual bumpy drives, and our driver, John, did a great job just keeping the car on the road. But the scenery was different, as we passed farms & townships, and at one point a fence covered with literally hundreds of swallows, as well as the strangely named secretary bird.

Inside Ol Pejeta, like all the game parks, you have to remain inside the vehicle. We were all getting a bit fixated on seeing the big cats, since that was really the only major animals missing from our “check list”. We drove for a while, passing zebra, giraffe, antelopes, elephants, warthogs, almost feeling a little ho-hum about it all – we have seen so much wildlife, we have been spoiled, and take this amazing place for granted. We saw a different kind of antelope (the hartebeest) and some new birds (which were kind enough to stay still for photos).

Morning tea (well, morning break – we had the hot water & the coffee, but the tea bags were in the other car, which was somewhere else) was near the Visitors Centre. There were some interesting displays – lots of animal skeletons you could pick up (the giraffe femur was rather heavy), and some information about the work of Ol Pejeta, which includes conservation but also providing support to many local community organisations. It was very encouraging.

The other attraction at the Visitors Centre was Baraka, a blind, tame black rhino. Unfortunately he was not quite tame enough. He usually comes when called but he stayed resolutely at the far side of his enclosure. The other carload visited later & got to pet him. Oh well, hakuna matata.

Back on the vehicle after a brief visit to the facilities (you have no idea how you come to appreciate the small luxuries – like toilets with seats) & back on the road. Our drivers, John, Michael & Ibrahim work incredibly hard. They drive all day, and are our chief wildlife spotters, and fonts of all knowledge as well. We pepper them with questions – What bird is that? What to you call that bush? What do warthogs eat? – and they know all the answers! Today we asked John, as he scoured the area for evidence of lions, what signs does he look for, thinking we could look for those signs too. Without a pause he told us “Look for anything that resembles a cat”!

At lunch we were all beginning to fear we would never see a big cat. But it was not long after lunch when Chris spotted two lions in the distance resting under a tree. It was my turn with the big 600mm lens, but even with that they were quite small. Nevertheless we found it exhilarating. It was the moment we had been waiting for for days. We took several photos and then John drove us closer and closer. We got a great viewpoint, and then the lions (it was a young pair, male & female) got up & headed in our direction. They climbed up onto a log and were nuzzling and teasing one another, putting on quite a show. Then they slowly climbed down off the log, stopped for a drink and then ever so slowly walked closer & closer to our vehicle. Our hearts were pounding and our camera shutter buttons working overtime. We didn’t feel in the least danger, we were just overjoyed to have this encounter. They came right up to the road, and were within 3-4 metres of our car. Since we were so thrilled to see them under a tree in the distance, you can imagine how we felt now!! Breath-taking!!! We couldn’t tear ourselves away, but eventually the lions wandered into the bush and we lost sight of them. We were mesmerised!!

It was lucky for us that the lions left or we’d still be there I think. But we had an appointment with some chimpanzees. One of Ol Pejeta’s major projects is a centre for chimps who have been badly treated & orphaned. Their parents were killed by poachers, mostly for so-called bush meat, and the young ones taken as pets. But as they got older & could not be controlled they were chained, beaten & abused. The centre was established by the famous Jane Goodall in Burundi, but was moved to Ol Pejeta during the war in Rwanda. Chimps are not native to Kenya, but these come from Rwanda, Uganda & the Congo. They are patiently rehabilitated, but would never survive in the wild, so will stay at Ol Pejeta for the rest of their lives. They are only open for visiting for a couple of hours a day, and there are displays & signs campaigning for the end of the illegal trade in bush meat & mistreatment of these intelligent animals. Very moving, and although they were not wild animals, it was very well worth a visit.

By this time we were very satisfied with our day, and thought we would just have a bit of a drive before heading home. We spotted our other car, and realised they were looking at another lion. This one was older & larger, and much closer to the road, but was asleep. Boring! But not for long. He soon woke up & looked straight at us, he was not the least bit interested in us, just lay there yawning & stretching, but we were certainly interested in him! Our cameras were working overtime – I took over 200 photos of that one lion alone.

We left completely satisfied. The lion is the ultimate sighting and ours could not have been better!! But there were more treats in store. We stopped for some supplies on the way home, just in time to see the last light of the sun hitting Mt Kenya. It has been covered in clouds or haze the whole time we have been here, but was completely clear & glowing orange. The top is snow-covered, even though it is right on the equator, and quite beautiful.

And to top it off, chef David excelled himself with dinner – baked eggplant, smoked fish & garlic sausage for starters, then lentil soup, then whole baked parrotfish (yummm) with roast vegetables, and vermicelli pie with chocolate sauce for dessert. We all would like to take David home with us.

There was an optional night safari tonight at Solio Ranch, which I was just too tired to go on, but Keith went, so I’ll let you know if he saw anything exciting.

What a day! I can’t imagine there can be many more thrills but we still have 3 days left, so I’m looking forward to whatever is in store. Tomorrow we head to Samburu National Park … I’ll see you there.


PS We broke our all time record for photos in a single day (between the two of us) –1413 photos. It is going to take forever to cull them, but wait till you see some of the shots we got.

PPS. Keith got back from the night safari at 11:00. They had fun, and came back with lots of grainy photos. They did spot the rare striped hyena, but I think they just played with their torches & cameras. There were a few highlights. Travelling with 2 armed guards carrying high powered rifles was interesting (was that to protect them from the animals – or to protect the animals from them?), and getting urinated on by baboons in trees is something to experience – not!


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