Wow! We spent an unforgettable six days traveling in Kenya while the ship was docked in Mombasa. This was one of the very best trips we’ve ever experienced. We did and saw too much to write it all down here, so I will just summarize in this post and include my rough notes at the bottom. Scroll down to see my rough text notes for the whole trip. Photo galleries to follow in subsequent posts.
In many of our in-country visits, we participate in educational “field programs” organized Semester at Sea. Some of these are just incredible and include activities that we could never hope to organize ourselves, while others are pretty standard tourist visits. It’s fun to travel with small groups of students and faculty on the educational trips, because we get to know our fellow voyagers over a day or three. But in Kenya we decided to take a “vacation” from Semester at Sea and just arrange travel on our own.
Jennifer researched wildlife safaris and booked a five-night, six-day trip that included visits to four national parks. Our wonderful driver-guide Milton Mkilo Mzee picked us up right outside the ship the morning we docked in Mombasa, and we spent the entire six days with him. He took us on an epic road trip all the way across southern Kenya, driving us more than 1200 km in a Toyota Land Cruiser with a safari-pop-top.
Over the course of six days, we traveled west from Mombasa to four National Parks: Tsavo East, Amboseli, Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru, and Maasai Mara. The parks have very different landscapes, climates, flora and fauna. We drove on huge freeways jammed with trans-Africa cargo trucks, on 100-mile stretches of rough dirt roads through farmland and villages, through the center of Nairobi with its 4 million inhabitants, and off-road through grasslands, savanna, woodland, forest, creeks, and hilltops.
In the parks, we were surrounded by the most abundant and diverse wildlife we’ve ever encountered anywhere. All the charismatic mammals we expected: grazing zebras, elephants, giraffes, gazelles, buffalo, rhinoceros, and hippos. The predatory lions and cheetahs that hunt them and the hyenas and jackals that scavenge what the predators leave behind. We saw dozens, maybe hundreds of species of birds: big ones like ostrich, cranes, herons, flamingos, and eagles as well as spectacular smaller species in great numbers.
Our guide Milton was just superb. He shared his expertise learned in college as well as over decades of guiding. He taught us about the plants and animals and their lifeways. He explained the landscapes, the people, the towns and cities and politics of Kenya. He woke us before sunrise each morning to take us out into the savanna and grasslands when the animals were most active. He knew right where to look and how to get there through shrubs and across dry riverbeds and across rough open ground.
Over four nights, we stayed in lovely National Park lodges with incredible views and delicious meals. Some of the lodges had small cottages for sleeping quarters and some had luxurious tents. All the bedrooms had electricity and hot water, at least during peak hours. Most had free wifi so we were able to post a lot of pictures and even videos on Facebook during the trip.
We started at the coast in the extremely busy industrial port of Mombasa and marveled at the way Milton passed hundreds if not thousands of gigantic container trucks hauling cargo into the interior. Tsavo East National Park is on the coastal plain, very hot (high 90s Fahrenheit) and dry this time of year. Amboseli National Park is a vast grassland with huge wetlands fed by artesian springs at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. Lake Nakuru National Park features a big tectonic lake at the bottom of the East Africa Rift Valley about 5800 feet above sea level. It’s also a sanctuary for dozens of endangered rhinoceros and thousands of flamingos. Maasai Mara National Reserve is a huge expanse of grassland, savanna, and woodland in southwest Kenya about a mile above sea level with lush vegetation and incredible views across the border into Tanzania.
Just to summarize a few of the big highlights:
- Our cottage in Tsavo East looked out over a wetland teeming with water buffalo and red elephants, and we watched half a dozen lions stalking them from a distance in the tall grass.
- We woke before dawn to see the sparkling stars of the southern Milky Way, Centaurus and the Southern Cross, with Scorpius high in the sky above them, then watched the dawn break over the snows of Kilimanjaro with elephants around us
- We watched a sunset with at least 15 rhinoceros (both black and white) along the shore of a freshwater lake teeming with thousands upon thousands of flamingos, pelicans, and other shorebirds
- We saw a mother cheetah with three cubs standing on a leaning log; families of lion cubs with their mothers; baby elephants and hippos and giraffes and a 3-hour old wildebeest born that morning
- We visited a Maasai village and learned about their culture, dance, homes, crafts, and animal husbandry
- We saw a whole family of lions with a kill, probably an water buffalo, and heard them ripping rending and tearing it apart! Yuck! But cool!
- We slept in a tent overlooking a river with dozens of hippos calling and splashing and grunting less than 100 yards away
- We woke before dawn and floated for 90 minutes / 20 km in a hot air balloon over the savanna at sunrise and saw a multitude of wildlife
- We shared a picnic lunch with Milton in the shade of a huge sausage tree overlooking a huge expanse of savanna rising to the hills of Serengeti National Park in the middle distance
Alas, good dreams come to an end and so we bade farewell to Milton and flew in a little plane from a remote airstrip to bustling Nairobi where we stayed in a high-rise hotel that has seen better days. Finally, we flew back to Mombasa and boarded the ship on day 6, rejoining our jobs with students and colleagues after this magic Equatorial interlude.
Here are my rough notes from the trip, taken on my phone as we went: 1/26/23 Mombasa to Tsavo East National Park Arrived Mombasa 9 am after 8 day’s crossing Indian Ocean from Mumbai Immigration then taxi chaos at port — industrial port not passenger oriented Met Milton in Toyota Land Cruiser Drove through Mombasa Call to prayer echoing through city “All banks are also police stations” ATM Ivory arch commemorating letter M and elephants and Princess Elizabeth 1953 Drive out past suburbs into roasting coastal countryside TSAVO EAST NP Very hot –> 97 F Grevey zebra incredible colors and patterns Lilac breasted roller — iridescent — absolutely gorgeous Red-billed hornbill (zazu) Butler eagles — Huge black eagles with dark red beaks Huge termite mounds Egyptian geese Lesser kudu spectacular faces w/ corkscrew antlers Giant bird nests Common zebras Grant’s gazelle Hartebeest (antelope) Somali ostrich (black/purple, very big) 16 baboons incl a baby! Vulture 4 female lions! Giraffe gazelle female Elephant (male) Family of elephants at water hole 8 adults 2 v young and one young Mongoose Huge herd of water buffalo Many more elephants Five lions stalking the buffalo Aruba Lodge - spectacular! Open air Wetland Small cottages very nice but hot at night Pasta and stir fry fresh fruit Stars and crescent moon ========================= 1/27/23 Aruba Lodge to Kibo Camp Baboons outside our bedroom b4 breakfast! Bachelor and cow elephant groups Giraffes Wild drive at high speed! Mother cheetah with 3 cubs!! Cheetah family interacting Cheetah with hartebeeste Warthogs Other notes: Much cooler and partly cloudy this morning Mombasa second largest port in Africa after Durban Cross Africa highways carry most freight in containers from Mombasa to west Africa north to Ethiopia South Sudan and Uganda south to Tanzania Botswana South Africa Container trucks and safari tourist vehicles majority of traffic Long drive across beautiful savanna toward Amboseli Salt Lick Conservancy Tsavo West NP Way fewer trucks than in trans-Africa highway! Egret 400 Species of birds in Amboseli Long dusty drive across rural landscape w many villages crops livestock Climbed into Kilimanjaro foothills much much greener abundant productive maize on Tanzanian border at Oloitoktok relatively affluent paved highway again about noon Then steep drop back down into savanna Basaltic plateau steps down to valley floor Amboseli Lots of baboons! Kibo Safari Camp Lunch, nap Amboseli National Park 4 pm Group of 10 ostriches parading Mother warthog with three tiny babies Dozens of elephants and zebras Pairs of Great Crested Cranes Gigantic wetlands in the midsts of very dry grassland! Teeming with wildlife White pelicans Three hippos in the water Dozens of Thompson’s gazelles White Ibis Hadada ibis Egyptian geese Gray back jackal Redback antelope Wildebeests! Water buffalo with accompanying spoonbills White heron African jacana Black ibis Abandoned lodge was tight w Jomo Kenyatta but closed for back taxes under new government — also flooded with rising water table Pair of nursing lionesses. Around palm trees in the dust Nice evening with lovely sunset Yummy dinner Moon stars sleep at Kibo Lodge ===================== SATURDAY 1/28/23 Amboseli National Park to Lake Nakura NP Stunning views of southern Milky Way and stars before dawn when we got up to phone kids Breakfast at Kibo then drive into Amboseli Jaw dropping views of Kilimanjaro at dawn and in sunrise with many photos Multiple lion families with at least 4 cubs Male lion youth rolling on his back in the morning sun, stretching and yawning just like a 250-pound housecat! Layers upon layers of diverse herds of animals across the endless grassland stretching into the distance with Kilimanjaro towering over all Many many elephants and zebras and giraffes and gazelles and lovely huge birds Left Amboseli about 8 am Amboseli to Lake Nakuru Drove rural road for maybe 100 km to Mombasa-road (Trans-Africa Highway 8, see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-African_Highway_network) Stopped at ATM in Emali then west toward Nairobi on great northern highway Giant container trucks bound for everywhere polé polé (slowly slowly) then wild frantic passing and braided traffic , over and over again the whole time on the Great Northern Highhway Climbing climbing through hilly savanna interspersed with terraced farms Landscape looks like New Mexico. Villages definitely do not! 4 giraffes on the wrong side of the highway fence (sad) One panicky wildebeest trying to dash across the highway Outskirts of Nairobi giant traffic cf Accident on freeway traffic re-routes itself both ways across many lanes and medians Thousands of wine bottles spilled ! Hundreds of bystanders out of vehicles, gathered the wine bottle, and righted truck by hand Thousands of vehicles in median, offroad both sides, even wrong-way in oncoming lanes to get around the accident, no police or emergency vehicles that we saw. Self-correcting Traffic continues onward into city Nairobi 4 million people “during the day” 1800 m elevation Air pollution Bypass road around city center Climbing climbing Fairly affluent wooded suburbs Eucalyptus forest Road to Lake Naivasha 7500 feet densely forested hills Sudden descent 1500 feet to bottom of rift valley! Wowsa! Mount Longonot 9100 feet across rift Lake Naivasha is 135 sq km tectonic lake at the bottom of the rift Heavily developed area near Naivasha town. Affluent. Many tourist hotels. People have cleared predators and grazing animals very abundant in lush grass near waters edge. Felt more like an urban park with “guides” charging to see almost tame wildlife Hippos (including babies) Zebras Wildebeest (incl one born today!) Impala (including Vlad) Eagles Storks Egrets Herons Jacand Sacred Ibis Drive along rift valley from Naivasha to Nakuru — finally can believe there are 58 million people in Kenya. Very crowded very heavy traffic bad air pollution. Urban sprawl. The mix of extremely slow freight containers with fast cars is maddening. Lake Nakuru NP just by Nakuru City, with tight security Eland — largest antelope — pair Zebras Many fishing eagles Pelicans Buffalo with clouds of flies and birds perched on top Dusty late day sun Flooded shoreline with dead trees Animals crowded along wet shoreline to graze Many rhinos Thousands of flamingos Hundreds of pelicans Groups of Pelicans fish in unison! Maribo stork At least 15 rhinos including a baby (Both black and white) Hyena Lion stalking hyena Fancy fancy lodge Sarova Lion Hill Lodge Drums and dance Exquisite food Lovely cottage ========================= Sunday 1/29/23 Lake Nakuru to Maasai Mara 6:30 drive Cold ~ 50 F Hyena and baboons Poachers are hunted by well-trained and well-equipped 24/7 anti-poaching units. Endangered animals are gps tracked. CCTV surveillance. Hunters are killed on sight, at a distance, without warning or questioning. There is no legal hunting and no gray area and it doesn’t matter who they know in the police. Rothschild giraffe lost horns in dawn by shore. We have seen lots of Maasai giraffes it maybe our first Rothschild. We won’t see reticulated giraffes because we’re not going to the north Hoopoe Lion group - 2 mothers and 3 cubs Playful kittens pouncing rolling tussling climbing trees chasing one another Impala 2 loser males Dominant male w harem Tower of Rothschild giraffes at least 15 mixed makes and female adults plus several young Parade of dozens of zebra Impalas — dominant male chasing others on ridge line away from females Lovely pool with dried waterfall Pair of white rhinos grazing in the sun Thousands upon thousands of pink flamingos by shoreline in the morning sun Back to lodge for breakfast 830 Long drive to Maasai Mara Climb climb climb up out of rift through rural villages and landscape Top of rift valley ridge: lots of farms. Yams. Carrots, barley, potatoes, beans 9400 feet! Huge fields Lots of money in these crops but almost entirely owned by rich people Our guide bought Irish potatoes from roadside vendor Formerly protected rainforest. Cleared for farming due to corruption Money all goes out to owners People are very poor while surrounded by hugely productive farms Other side watershed of Mara river flows to Serengeti plain Recent policy forcibly removed farms and houses on west side and replanted forests Very high rain fed farming communities in patchwork with woodland and forest Big stone-lined storm water ditches along roadside Narok — biggest Maasai town — also waypoint between. Nairobi, Tanzania, Uganda. Medical school. Banks. Businesses. Veterinary services. Very very busy. “bon appetit” in Swahili = “chakula kizuri” President visiting and speaking in local stadium in Narok! Huge banners across street. Big crowds. Box lunch Maasai village visit Donation Dancing Excellent explanation from chief-elect Jumping Men’s and women’s roles Moran Defensive perimeter 5 warrior guards at night Cattle goat sheep pen Chickens for sale — raptor attack — group defense House construction House interior Fire Jewelry School Snow Maasai Mara game drive 4 pm Emerald green by comparison to other parks we’ve visited 5180 feet elevation Many springs and rain 2 weeks ago Broken shallow cumulus and pleasantly cool 1500 m Vast grassland not dusty! Baboons Zebras giraffes elephants gazelles impala Two cheetahs on a bluff overlooking a water hole (both young males) Semester at Sea field program with Kelly and Peter and many SAS students. Also encountered private safari w Barb and Ed (dean dan had to leave early) Secretary birds 4 lions with a kill. Drinking water Rending tearing sounds in bush Huge male with mane Entrails in gully Sleeping it off Female ripping carcass Tiny cubs like kittens! Jackals at edge of action Mother w two tiny cubs snuggling playing Injured hyena crossing road Three resting hyenas 6 Elands (male plus 5 females) with a group of Thompson’s gazelles Night at Fig Tree Camp Tent overlooking river Many many Hippos! Very active especially in evening but also sometimes during the night. Much more rustic feel than other lodges Lush vegetation, dim but adequate lighting, generator only during certain hours. Amazing jungle sounds in the night (birds, monkeys, hippos) ============================== Monday 1/30/23 Maasai Mara, Hot Air Balloon, Wildlife, Flight to Nairobi 5:15 wake up to hippos Coffee in bar Balloon flight! About 90 min, 21 km, 50 to 200 m agl Vast expanse of grassland and savanna Sunrise! Pumbas Giraffes Zebras Elephants Directional flying Streams valleys hills enormous distances Hills of Tanzania Landing Big breakfast Passengers from England, Northern Ireland Denmark and US (Conn) Game drive 10 am Many Lion cubs- 4 very young and 2 youth Parents in stream shrubs Several families of elephants with babies Drive across Mara to Tanzania! Many family groups of warthog They run run run away! Low on the food chain Sand River Gate Kenyan checkpoint Granitic rocks Gneiss? Tanzanian border Serengeti National Park Crossing prohibited Now starting to air strip at noon Picnic lunch under a sausage tree Airstrip with many elephants at 1 pm Sad to leave this magical place! 1221 km from Mombasa to airstrip!! Boarded flight with just “is this Scott and Jennifer?” No tickets no passport no briefing. 12-seater, 1 engine. Landed in 10 minutes to pick up more passengers, then on to Nairobi Flight in boundary layer the whole time — pretty bumpy. Maxed out at 12200 ft Night in fancy hotel downtown Nairobi ================= Tue 1/31/23 Nairobi to Mombasa (commercial airliner) Bad traffic Multiple layers of airport security Flight to Mombasa over Rift Valley with Kilimanjaro in the distance Bus through industrial shipping port Back to our ship and SAS