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To Kenya & Back:
A Travel Journal, Written by Andrew Denman, 2014:
In February & March of 2014 I went to Kenya by way of England for a second time with my partner, Guy Combes. We were on the ground in East Africa for about three and a half weeks, spending most of our time on game drives soaking in the scenery, wildlife, and culture, and of course gathering thousands of reference photos for future paintings. We had the distinct pleasure of being accompanied by renowned British Sculptor Simon Gudgeon and his wife, Monique, whom we count among our closest of friends.
The following is not a formal journal, but rather an assemblage of e-mail updates I sent to family and friends back home during the course of my travels. I’ve taken the liberty of editing out the salutations and a very few personal details, and I’ve added headings and a few supplementary elements [bracketed] where warranted. Suffering as I was from “travel brain” at the time, these e-mails went out to painfully few people. Each day I’d remember important friends and family (I even left out my own brother!) that I had egregiously left out of the loop, but poor internet access throughout much of my time in Africa made it impossible to recover the earlier updates and resend them in any practical or comprehensive manner to my ever expanding mental mailing list…so I resolved to play catch up once I returned to the world of technology and noise. As such, if you’re interested, this online version of my “journal” is, with my apologies, your best chance to catch up.
England Part I: Attack of the Monkey     2/18/14-2/20/14
[My trip began with a stopover in England to meet friends and traveling companions Simon and Monique Gudgeon. Simon is one of the UK’s leading artists, and I was to spend about five days with them at their sculpture park, Sculpture by the Lakes, in Dorset before heading off to Kenya.]...I'm having a lovely time with Simon and Mo here at Sculpture by the Lakes. Mo is a delightful cook (amazing prawn risotto last night, that's Riz-'Ought-Oh for Guy), and both of the Gudgeon's are lovely hosts. Their five beautiful dogs, Moose, Mr. Wolf, Kipper, Gopher, and Mink are helping with Ella withdrawal [Ella is Guy’s and my dog back home, wonderfully cared for by my sister, brother-in-law, and parents], especially Kipper, who is a big lurcher (think of a big but slightly less willowy greyhound) who is very much like a giant Ella in temperament and seems to want endless attention from me. (Don't be jealous Ella, you're still my best girl).
Yesterday, the day began with a Skype chat with Guy, who looks marvelous and made the wonderful gesture of buying me an upgrade for our flight home from Kenya to England as a Birthday/Valentines present. We also decided to buy extra legroom on our trip back to the US. Guy is currently hanging out with his friend Rory on a tea plantation in Limuru; if you haven't seen the pictures in his FB feed, check it out. It's just stunning. Hopefully we'll be able to make a visit on our way from Nairobi to Soysambu [Guy’s home base in Kenya, a 48,000 acre conservancy; his step-mother, Kat, is CEO]. Later that day I did a bit of shopping with Mo and had a wonderful lunch with her and her delightful mother, Mutti, who is a bright, sparkling, energetic, enthusiastic, optimistic 90 years old...and still drives herself around! Simon took me on a tour of the studio, which, as always, is filled with wonderful and exciting projects of all kinds. Still itching for the day I can afford to own one of his pieces. I have my eye on an in-progress bird piece, very stylized, reductive, and reminiscent of Brancussi' famous "bird in flight". Last night we had our obligatory "state of the art world" talk, which went well into the night and resulted in the ill-advised consumption of two bottles of wine and a couple of comforting mugs of peppermint tea...then I drifted off to sleep where, for some reason or another, I had vivid dreams of being brutally killed by a gorilla (Don't worry Mom, there are no gorillas where we're going).
Today was supposed to be sunny but is in fact pissing rain, dismal, and grey. That's right, British meteorologists are just as big a bunch of twats as American ones. Hopefully it will clear at some point and I'll get to spend some time walking the grounds and photographing birds. I'm kicking myself for not staking out a spot by the bird feeders yesterday when it was fair...but I have another couple days here, so fingers crossed for another opportunity. Meanwhile I'm going to spend some time editing video (I'm grossly behind on my how-to-video) certainly a good rainy day exercise.
Later today we're expecting the arrival of Ewoud (Woody) DeGrout, a very talented painter (primarily, but not exclusively of birds) who I met years back at Birds in Art and currently hang alongside at Astoria Fine Art. Simon and Mo have some particularly lovely pieces of his hanging in their home. He'll arrive around three, followed shortly by- in a wonderful twist of irony- Paul Stafford, Julie Chapman's husband, who just happens to be in London on business. Julie and Paul were initially going to accompany Guy, Simon, Mo, and I to Kenya but had to bow out in December. Anyhow, with the addition of these two gentlemen, it is likely to be a lively evening.
That's it for now. Time to take a shower in one of these English bathrooms with the towel warmers that exude a sort of warmth quite specific to England and nowhere else. Anyway, I need to wash off the stale, sweaty remnants of that gorilla attack. Why must monkeys always go for the face and genitals? Vicious things!...
England Part II: Jeremy Fisher     2/20/14-2/21/14
The rain finally stopped, at least for a spell, late Thursday morning, and I finally got in a few hours photographing British songbirds: blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, goldfinches, green finches, and the like. I saw some long-tailed tits (one of the cutest birds of all time) for the briefest of flashes, but photos remain elusive. I ran into Edwoud while out stalking birds, and had to smile at the quaintness of England. He was out to catch a pike from the river and looked, with his jaunty boots, stiff waistcoat, and slender fishing rod, distinctly like my favorite Beatrix Potter character, Jeremy Fisher [that’s no to say you remind me of a frog in any unflattering way, Woody!].
I also managed to get in a good chunk of work on my video editing, then had a blast hanging out with Paul and Edwoud. Mo made a spectacular lamb stew for dinner, and we were joined by lively neighbors Howard and Laura, who were tons of fun. The evening ended with a slightly drunken skype chat with Julie Chapman, Paul's wife back in Montana. It's hard to know who has it rougher at the moment, us here in Mudland (England for the uninitiated) or Julie locked in a cave of ice in the wilds of the Hoth Planet (Montana for the uninitiated).
Today, Friday, I did some laundry and spent a few more hours photographing birds, though this was somewhat hampered by terrific winds which turned an otherwise largely sunny day into a terribly frigid experience. When I finally got to the point where my teeth started to hurt from the cold, I retired inside where I proceeded to torture myself with nearly a full day of video editing. On the plus side, I finished editing another chapter of my video project, which is currently in the process of "rendering" to video, whatever the hell that means, after which point [nothing personal here, just something I need to keep under wraps until it’s finished].
I spent a few minutes crashing in front of some bad British Quiz Show with Simon and Mo, a pack of dogs, and a much needed mug of hot tea before heading out for dinner at Mo's mother, Mutti's place. We had a lovely time, and I've just returned to the house. Time for a quick shower, then off to bed and an early wake up at five am tomorrow, off to the airport at six, and then on to Kenya...
Kenya Part I: From Road Hazards to Blue Waters     2/22/14-2/25/14
[Simon and Mo checked me into Heathrow as their guest, so I was treated to the joys of the First Class Lounge until take off. They also invited me for a drink in the First Class cabin during the flight. Now that I’ve had a taste of how luxurious flying can be, I’m spoiled forever!]
Our arrival in Kenya was quite smooth until we hit the road. We came in at almost ten at night, so there was little traffic, though that didn't stop a very near traffic collision caused by idiots; fortunately Guy is a deft driver and was able to avoid a crash. [Sometime after the fact, Guy admitted that this almost car crash was quite likely an attempted car-jacking, something I omitted from my original e-mails for the sake of my mother.] Not long after, our headlights died, and we virtually crawled through town behind a big truck, relying on it for protection. Fortunately we were still very much in the city with street lamps to guide us. We arrived, happily, in one piece at the famous Muthaiga Club, where we had a lovely first evening.
Next morning we headed off to Guy's friend Rory's tea plantation in Limuru, which is stunningly beautiful. Few things in the agricultural world are as lovely as a hillside enrobed in the luminous chartreuse foliage of tea plants. We picked up The Jennifer, the big land rover Rory has been repairing for us to use around Soysambu [The Jennifer is so-called after one of the participants of Guy’s last GMU Safari, who had the uncanny ability to spot big cats], and then headed to the Conservancy. We stopped along the way for coffee, groceries and supplies, and malarial prophylactic. Mo and I tried unsuccessfully to do some shopping at the Kikoi shop (which had a maddening "back shortly" sign in the window for an hour) and some place delightfully called Happy Color Pants...but we were unable to find the illusive store to match the sign.
We arrived at Soysambu, always a cathartic experience for Guy, where we’ll be staying with his dear friend, Juliet, who lives in a beautiful, if somewhat rustic, mud house (looks better than it sounds) situated amidst a beautiful garden bristling with glorious, unfamiliar pants, buzzing with exotic birds, and shared with a host of chickens, donkeys, and three very enthusiastic dogs. Today we did our first game drive (up at 5:30...are you suitably impressed?) and saw, among other beautiful animals, a carmine Bea-eater, quite a rarity here. We paid a visit to Lord and Lady Delemere at the main house, and had an enormously entertaining chat with two stout Brits of the old school while watching a Robin Chat feast on mealworms!
We had another lovely day on Soysambu and then hit the road for Island Camp (an accommodation Guy once managed) on Lake Baringo. This is unquestionably one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. Our banda [part tent, part hotel room] is lovely and faces the peaceful, lapping waters. Within minutes of our arrival I'd seen a sunbird, a barbet, and a paradise flycatcher. The flycatchers are among the most stunning birds I've ever seen, in white phase they look like strands of white ribbon drifting about through the trees. Magical. I've seen jewel-like kingfishers, trees clotted with yellow and gold weavers, enormous hornbills sitting amongst the high branches like noble, prehistoric guardians of the trees, fish eagles dive-bombing tilapia in the lake, crocodiles hiding darkly in the reed beds, and everywhere I'm surrounded by the pulse of insects, the drone of frogs as loud and buzzing as current through high tension wire, and the ceaselessly varied chatter, babble, and liquid trilling of bird song. All of it is made more wonderful by sharing the experience with Guy, and of course Simon and Mo, who become more extraordinary in my eyes with each passing day.
Well, we're off for an early morning boat ride, so until next time....
[It’s also worth noting that Kenya’s lake levels are the highest in years. Baringo is typically brown and opaque, but its waters are so high they’ve shifted to luminous shades of blue and green. Unfortunately, some of the loveliest accommodations and quite a few private homes are now completely submerged. I’m getting a taste of Baringo as few have seen it before.]
Kenya Part II: The Brother of the Bees     2/26/14
It's been a magical couple of days on Lake Baringo. We were scheduled for only one night, but Mrs. Gudge looked so crestfallen that we might be leaving that we decided to stay another night. Our room the previous night was so close to the water it was actually hard to sleep, so they upgraded us to their best banda, complete with its own plunge pool...or cuddle puddle. We had a lovely boat ride this morning to the mainland here we saw all manner of birds including yet more rare Carmine bee-eaters, African Darters, Kingfishers, and my first hippos. I have to say it's very intimidating to be in a small boat and watch something as large as a hippo simply disappear under the water. We came back and had a leisurely day swimming, enjoying cocktails, lounging and, for me anyway, scurrying about after birds. The day's prize was a series of great shots of red-fronted barbets, precious little red, yellow, black, and white birds that look something like pocket-sized crosses between finches and parrots. Our lunch was entertained by a visit by two dwarf black mongooses that came to the rock wall by the dining tent looking for scraps. We obliged with bits of watermelon and watched their noses twitch in excitement!
In the afternoon, we took a boat to the main island, Ol Kokwe, where a young guide, Levis, [pronounced like levi in “levitate” with an “s”] was terribly eager to show us about. Levis was only a boy when Guy ran Island Camp, but he distinctly remembered Guy's visit two years ago when Guy was attacked by killer bees and nearly died. Unbenounced to Guy, the incident made him something of a local legend. They call him “ndugu ya nyuki, "brother of the bees." Levis brought us through some fairly rough terrain, which I had some difficulty navigating in my flip flops. The island is volcanic, and much of it was walking through loose dirt and endless fields of pebbles between golf ball and fist-sized, meanwhile trying to dodge brambles colloquially revered to as "Wait-a-While" bush, because once you get snagged you could be there for a while. Finally we emerged at the highest point on the island, a place Guy used to visit to clear his head, and one of the first places he came to after his father died. The view was breathtaking.
Back at Island Camp, we had a beautiful dinner of grilled steak with pepper sauce and watched rare, long-eared bats hunting moths in the rafters...I'm in bed now beneath a massive canopy of insect netting and feeling quit Victorian! The lake level is so high that when the wind picks up at night there are actually waves. It's a wonderful experience to drift off to sleep hearing breaking waves, chirping bats, and the constant piping of frogs all at the same time.
We head back to Soysambu tomorrow, then off to the Aberdares where our friends Juliet and Du Du will join us for two nights at the stunning Rhino Retreat Lodge...
Kenya Part III: From the Mountains to the Mound     2/27/14-3/3/14
After Baringo, we came back to Soysambu for a brief regrouping before heading off to the Aberdares, Kenya's highland cloud forests. We had a fairly extraordinary occurrence at Juliet's that night. We were all on the veranda having drinks when there was a bright light in the yard, much like someone wildly swinging about a high-powered flashlight. A few second later, there was a bright flash like a firework and Mo and Guy saw a huge, broad-tailed meteorite streak red, green, and gold across the sky. We learned a few days later that it had crashed into a house in Kuresoi, a small town in the Rift Valley about five miles from us. A child was injured-we don't know how seriously- and two other children managed to flee the house before it burned down!
Anyway, we went off to the Aberdares, this time joined by Juliet and another long-time friend of Guy's named Du-Du. We went in a different entrance than Guy and I used last time. The elevation is well over ten thousand feet, and the environment more like Scottish Moorland than what one would expect in Africa. We stopped at some amazing waterfalls for a lunch and short hike, and I found myself rather affected by the altitude. Trudging back to the car took an embarrassing amount of effort. He had a bit of car trouble as well, but Mr. Gudge saved the day and Jenny is still chugging along...of course expertly piloted by the indefatigable Guy behind the wheel. Things were in a bit of a state when we arrived at Rhino Retreat. Sammy, our cook and caretaker, was out ill, and no one had thought to have a replacement on hand, so our first night was a bit hectic. Moreover, I was somewhat out of commission (either from a bug of some kind or possibly heat stroke) and spent much of the evening in the bathroom, shivering with cold, and generally feeling a bit crap.
None of that, however, spoiled a rare treat. A family of rare Giant Forest Hogs visited the lawn behind the veranda and were shortly joined by elephants, warthogs, and more. Just spectacular! The next morning, we had a nice breakfast while watching birds on the veranda, then headed out for a visit to Combes Bridge where Guy's dad's ashes (and his uncle and grandfather's) are scattered, for a picnic lunch. Along the way we were treated to sightings of Ross's Touracos, which never cease to astonish as they sail through the luscious green of the canopy on luminous red wings. We stopped for tea at Rhino Ark, a beautiful lodge built around a large watering hole. We had a brilliant time, enjoying tea and coffee (the latter of which I rather desperately needed) while watching elephants, bushbuck, and warthogs. The warthogs were especially entertaining. There was a mother with three piglets, including one tiny runt barely half the size of its siblings that we were all tempted to gather up and take home with us. The sow was being mercilessly followed by a huge boar that was obviously ready to produce another litter of piglets, despite the fact that his mate was still more than occupied by offspring fighting it out over every available nipple.
After our two nights in the Aberdares, we headed back towards Soysambu with plans to stop at Du-Du's place in Gil-Gil for lunch. Unfortunately the car had a bit of trouble, and our drive back was less than restful. Mr. Gudgeon diagnosed the problem as dirty fuel, so we soldiered on with poor Guy struggling behind the coughing and sputtering engine, and we jerked on down the highway...looking very much like we belonged on a Kenyan road. Jenny backfired numerous times, always on the busiest stretches and terrifying passerby and bicyclists, who no doubt thought they were being fired upon. Finally we made it to Gil-Gil where Du-Du had already arranged for a mechanic to come by. [The mechanic] cleaned the carburetor and replaced a clogged oil filter, and we were back in the pink on our way to Soysambu.
After a somewhat stressful afternoon, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at Serena Camp, Soysambu's very poshest accommodation. We had a magical game drive on the way over. We saw dozens of giraffe, several with babies, moving majestically amongst the towering candelabras of giant Euphorbia in the orangey-pink wash of late afternoon light. We were treated to an absolutely spectacular sunset that reflected bands of violet, pink, and gold over a flock of wading flamingos. After the sun went down we watched Crowned Cranes engaging in their balletic breeding dance on the shores of Lake Elementita in the last, smokey, grey violet light of the gloaming. When we arrived at Serena, we were quite enchanted by the beautiful setting- even in the dark- and Mo and I in particular were quite taken with the numerous ponds and walkways filled with gloriously fragrant Hedychium ginger and exotic plumes of Papyrus. As we approached reception, the air was thick with the musical, metallic piping of frogs, which would have been annoying loud had it not been so beautiful. We had an absolutely marvelous dinner, and the Gudgeon's very sweetly insisted on paying the bill.
At the moment, it's another beautiful morning. We're taking it a bit easy today, with no major field trips planned. Tonight we're having sundowners, and Guy's and my unofficial engagement party, at the Serikwa Mound [a very spiritual place on Soysambu, and the sight of an ancient boma (a place where cattle are held for the night) made by the now nearly extinct Serikwa Tribe]. We've invited tons of guests, but we're still keeping it a low key affair. We'll need to make a quick run into Nakuru to get supplies, at which time I'll take advantage of a good internet signal to, among other things, send this e-mail...
Kenya Part IV: King Solomon’s Mines     3/4/14-3/6/14
Guy's and my engagement party on the Serikwa Mound was lovely, and ended with a good hour of stargazing and goofing around with the Gudgeons before heading back to Juliet's. Simon took some amazing photos of everyone in the golden, late afternoon light which I'll share soon. The sunset was beautiful, and just as the sun was going down we had a few minutes of very light rain, which everyone in attendance agreed was a Kenyan blessing. Our friend Anna said that it was the spirit of the Serikwa Shaman giving a nod of approval to Guy's and my union. [Du-Du very sweetly gave Guy and I a beautiful pair of pangolins carved from Jacaranda wood as a gift.]
We bid a temporary farewell to Jennifer, our land cruiser, in favor of a more fuel economical Prado for the drive to Tsavo and the coast. While waiting for the new vehicle, we had lunch at The Sunbird Lodge near Soysambu, where I was delighted to see a wild Fischer's Lovebird, much like my dear departed Rainbow. It felt like having a visit from an old friend.
From there we headed on to Nairobi (always somewhat harrowing) and had a pleasant evening at Muthaiga Club before getting up at 5:00 am to beat the traffic. We were on the road at 5:30 but still sat in traffic to escape the city. We stopped along the way for a late breakfast at Hunter's Lodge, one of those "only-place-between-here-and-there" sort of choices. We had some lousy tea, worse coffee, and a greasy "fat boy breakfast" that sat in our stomachs like bricks, but we did enjoy the weaver birds, grey heron rookery, and a small flock of the bizarre and prehistoric looking Knob-billed Duck (a new one even for me!) that came to take advantage of the abundant water of the Hunter's Lodge ponds.
Finally we arrived in Tsavo, which is achingly beautiful, gloriously green, and covered in wild flowers. We had some difficulty getting through the gate at Lumo Conservancy because when Guy prepaid for our accommodations at Lion's Bluff at their Nairobi office he thought the conservancy fees were included...and no none had bothered to say otherwise. As it happens these fees are to be paid at the gate. Fortunately, after much stubbornness on Guy's part, we were allowed to enter and the conservancy fees were added to our bills at the camp. Within minutes we saw all manner of stunning birds, including a plethora of Eurasian Rollers, whose glorious turquoise and chestnut plumage is hard to miss in the field. When we crested the ridge and neared our camp, the beautiful Lion's Bluff Lodge, I was reminded of the scene in King Solomon's Mines when Deborah Kerr emerges from the desert onto the veld and exclaims, "Good heavens, it's just like English countryside." I can't adequately express the vastness of this place. It seems to stretch on in endless profusion, one vast, borderless swath of green, peppered with acacia and baobab trees and brilliant red termite mounds, all cradled from above by the vast empyrean of deepest blue and clouds like ever shifting sculptures in white marble that cast indigo shadows on the land. In this great vastness, elephants are mere specs on the landscape, and one can almost make out the very curvature of the earth.
Within minutes of arriving at our banda, which perches out on a stunning view, I encountered a wasp the size of my fist, a giant locust, a spectacularly huge praying mantis, and something not unlike a thorny potato bug. On our first game drive we were treated to herds of elephant made the color of terra cotta pots by the red soil, hartebeest, Grant's gazelle, and ostrich. European storks were everywhere, and all manner of birds surprised us around every corner. The day ended with an utterly spectacular sunset that I'd be hard pressed to describe; it should suffice to say that if one of us had ordered up the most amazing sunset ever we would scarcely have been disappointed with this one.
The next day we had a lovely encounter with a good sized herd of elephants, including some adorable newborn babies, and everyone but me saw a very distant cheetah. Our game drive was interrupted by a spectacular and sudden rainstorm. We made it back to the lodge and hunkered down, and I spent a good while watching a gecko lick droplets of water from under the eaves. As suddenly as it came, the storm left and the misty grey landscape blossomed into sunshine. The earth smelled amazing after the rain, and in short order the air was filled with white, gold, and yellow butterflies which in turn brought hoards of acrobatic swallows. Little grey and red waxbills bathed in the puddles, then preened and fussed about in great clumps on the sun soaked branches of low-growing shrubs.
Not long after the rains, I had a marvelous close encounter with the not uncommon but always elusive Go-Away-Bird. I could hear the loud calls of a nearby pair and asked Guy to play recorded song from his Kenyan iBird App. Within a few short minutes, the pair came to investigate, and I was finally able to get some good pictures. Later that afternoon we had an amazing encounter with a small herd of young male elephants playfully fighting for dominance. When our car back-up alarm (on a safari vehicle- WHY?) made a bit too much noise, an irascible male with a deformed ear that Mo nicknamed Van Gough gave us a good tantrum and saw us off down the road. Later we saw another heard moving single file in front of a picturesque mountain ridge and mist-shrouded, stormy sky. The sight was beautiful and primordial, and for a moment I could imagine mastodons lumbering across a Pleistocene landscape. We saw a pride of lions (sort of) but the stampede of touristy vehicles was so horrendous it spoiled the magic. We returned to camp just in time to avoid a very impressive storm that turned the whole sky a deep, sumptuous, sooty blue, and serenaded us with resounding booms and growls of thunder that made the air and ground tremble.
We had a lovely and quiet cocktail hour before dinner and then retired early with plans for an early morning game drive tomorrow.
Kenya Part V: From Bureaucrats to Bliss     3/7/14-3/11/14
Our last day in Tsavo was an educational one. Our game drive was as awesome as ever, with several more amazing elephant encounters, my first look at wild Massai Giraffe (a different subspecies than I'd seen before) more new bird species for all of us, and huge herds of zebra and giant eland. All of it was slightly overshadowed, however, by my first encounter with real Kenyan bureaucracy.
When we returned from our first game drive there was a uniformed woman who harassed us in the parking lot about how we'd not paid for two people for two nights of our accommodations. We were confused as we'd paid a hefty deposit and we're not checking out until the next morning, when the balance of a bill is typically paid. She demanded to see our receipts and seemed annoyed that I needed to go to the room to get them. Apparently she thought we'd just have our receipts handy in the parking lot when she ambushed us? After producing my receipt and talking to Naomi in reception, it became clear that our uniformed friend was not from Lion's Bluff at all, but from Lumo Conservancy, come to collect the conservancy fee we'd not paid on entry. Of course, we thought we'd dealt with this already, so things got a bit testy. Finally it was clear that Lion's bluff never intended to add these fees to our bill and pay the conservancy on our behalf (which is what we believed had been worked out) and we'd need to pay Lucy, our humorless conservancy lady, in US cash. I didn't have enough US cash, so Mr. Gudgeon had to cover half of it. Lucy took about fifteen minutes to count out 200 dollars, examining both sides of each bill, carefully spreading out each one, and staring for an absurd amount of time. She refused to take one five dollar bill because of a torn edge, and she refused one twenty because it had been minted pre-year 2000 and "wasn't good anymore." Finally the bill was settled and I thought all was well...until the next morning when she appeared again. They'd made an error and charged us for two nights, rather than three, so we had another $96 to pay. Needless to say, I was ready this second time around and handled the situation better. I've been in charge of the finances, accounting, and record-keeping during this trip, and Simon dubbed me "the Fiscal Shrike" after a locally common bird species here.
We had our last day at Lion's Bluff, checked out the next morning and headed for the gate, where we were immediately corned by a guard insisting we hadn't paid the conservancy fee for one night. Fortunately, the Fiscal Shrike saw this coming a mile away and was ready with our receipts showing the full fee paid. We were let through the gate and on our way. The drive to Diani was somewhat horrendous, with poor Guy constantly battling to overtake huge lorries on the Mombassa Road. We were, fortunately, spared the horror of the Mombassa Ferry (think World War z with Africans) and circumvented the harbor to reach Diani by the circuitous but much less trying Samburu Road.
This time, instead of staying at Tracy and Eddie's house, we were staying at The Flamboyant, one of their boutique hotels. It's absolutely stunning, and given our very full schedule so far, we decided to have a relaxed first full day, which was spent doing almost nothing...other than enjoying the beach, the pool, cocktails at the beach bar, great food, and much needed rest. It's been great fun watching vervet and colobus monkeys in the surrounding trees as well. Occasionally they run along the roof and stare in the windows looking, as monkeys often look, like they are distinctly up to no good.
We planned a dinner at the famous Ali Barbour's Cave Restaurant, a wonderful restaurant built inside a fossilized coral cave. Unfortunately, poor Simon was feeling ill, and we decided to reschedule. Our second day began with an amazingly torrential tropical downpour that lasted just a few minutes. Soon after, Guy, Mo, and I hiked through the Kia Konondo Sacred Forest (Simon staying behind for R&R) which was gorgeous but stunningly hot and humid. We were all soaking with sweat by the time our tour ended, but we were rewarded with colobus and vervet sightings as well as trumpeter hornbill, touracos, eagle owls, some very beautiful crab spiders, gorgeous yellow and violet butterflies, and an amazing array of beautiful tropical plants.
That evening we had a lovely dinner at a resort called Sails where Guy knows the chef. It was a perfect Kenyan evening, where nearly everyone who showed up for dinner was a friend of Guy's, several of whom ended up at our table and drinking their dinner.
The next morning we were up early to take a shuttle to Wasini Marine Park. Our shuttle "bus" was ultimately more of a matatu (one of the terrifyingly overloaded mini buses that crowd Kenya's highways). We were packed inside like sardines when Guy very smartly demanded that we be let out. We blamed the change in plans on Mo's car-sickness and had a much more pleasant ride to the jetty than would otherwise have been in store for us. The large German tour group we'd left in the bus arrived about fifteen minutes after us, looking like so much spoiled sour kraut. Our boat took off past the beautiful, picturesque, Baobab tree-lined shoes of Wasini Island towards some supposedly very shallow waters for snorkeling. I'd almost decided get in the water until it became clear that "very shallow" meant middle-of-the-damn-ocean with no trace of the bottom visible, and I decided to stay behind in the boat (where, in part, I'm writing this email). I was also made nervous by the fact that the boats "dropped off" the snorkelers and circled at a fairly considerable distance before coming back in. This was made even more nervy by the fact that all of the tourist boats look the same, and it would be very easy to become disoriented in the water and lose track of one's boat. I still don't know how they keep track of where people are in the water. There were no discernible markers. Of course, everyone came back raving about the experience, but I was undeterred in my resolve to stay on the boat, even when our next stop was in a shallower area. [To those who don’t know, I’m not necessarily aquaphobic, but I don’t particularly care for the idea of being in the water with living things other than humans.]
Finally we arrived on the island for the promised seafood lunch. We had fried coconut, some delicious fish bites, and some amazing crab with ginger sauce. As usual, Guy won a new Kenyan friend (one of the tour guides) on the boat ride over, and we were all rewarded with extra crab. The next course was a gorgeous whole fish in curry with chapati and rice. The food was wonderful, though interrupted several times by photo opportunities, first the fruit bats roosting overhead in the rafters, then a beautiful yellow-headed gecko scuttling up a beam. Guy smartly asked if we could leave early and head back to the mainland on one of the smaller rafts (cutting out a tour of the local village but also avoiding a cramped Dow ride with tourists), which we did. Not long after we were having drinks in the pool. Later that night we introduced Simon and Mo to a traditional nyama choma or “burned meat" meal at The African Pot, then called it an early night [Simon and Mo enjoyed the local cuisine with the exception of the ugali, a sort of rubbery maize meal that traditionally accompanies nyama choma. Very much a love it or leave it kind of thing!]Tomorrow we're up early-AGAIN- and off to the Shimba Hills, where we have a shot at seeing Kenya's last remaining herd of sable antelope.
Kenya Part VI: From Shimba to Nakuru     3/12/14-3/16/14
Our last couple of days in Diani went by quickly. On our final full day, we decided to visit the Shimba Hills, a densely forested park about half an hour outside Diani. We spent our first several hours with frustratingly few wildlife sightings. The park is famous for, among other things, Kenya's last remaining herd of sable antelope, which we saw but from an extreme distance. We were just about to give up and head back to the hotel when Guy suggested we try the Mwele Forest road, a turnoff he'd not explored before. Again, we saw very little wildlife, but it was one probably the most beautiful forests I've ever seen. There we huge, straight trunks disappearing hundreds of feet into the canopy above like the legs of unseen giants, great spreading trees draped in mantles of moss, lichen, and epiphytic ferns, huge, sculptural buttress roots that straddled the Forest floor like the inverted vaults of cathedrals...and hanging from everything wild, cursive twists of liana vines in shapes that could inspire even the dimmest imagination to new heights of primordial fancy. Unfortunately, we were attacked by tse-tse flies during much of this exploration, but it was well worth the occasional bite (in this area the flies don't carry the infamous African Sleeping Sickness, and anyway, to contract that disease requires multiple exposures over an extended period). Besides, as per usual, the insects seemed to leave me alone in favor of other members of our party. I'm probably tempting fate, but this entire trip I've sustained only one insect bite. [Poor Simon on the other hand.]
When we finally emerged from the Forest, we decided to give the sable one more try. When we returned to the spot where we'd seen them before, they were suddenly right by the road: a gorgeous male with an impressive rack of huge, recurring horns, a number of females, juvenile males, and babies. Once we saw the sable, the Shimba Hills curse seemed to lift, and we were treated to great sightings of warthog, hartebeest, bee-eaters, and more. [We also saw a very unusual looking bird of prey, which we only identified sometime after the fact as an immature Palm Nut Vulture.]
Of course, all of this delayed our leaving the park, and Guy and I had made a blunder in our role as tour guides that morning by forgetting to bring any snacks of any kind, so by the time we returned to Diani we were starving. We had lunch with a friend of Guy's who ownes a local art gallery, and the service was, in typical Kenyan fashion, AGONIZINGLY slow. It was forty-five minutes before we even got our starters. Of course there was no apology or explanation (and in fact fairly direct rudeness) from our waitress. When I gave her a less than stellar tip, I got a look that could take paint off the side of a battleship. Fortunately we had a better experience that evening when Guy and I took Simon and Mo to Ali Barbour's Cave. It was a beautiful meal, and we sat in the lower part of the cave under the open sky, looking up at a waxing gibbous moon...the perfect ending to a beautiful stay in Diani.
We were up early the next morning to beat the traffic into Nairobi. Fortunately for us, Guy is incredibly adept at driving long distances in awful conditions, and his talents were certainly called for this time as we passed the relentless stream of lorries on the Mombassa Highway. When we actually entered the city, traffic was deeply snarled and seemed to be made worse by police presence ineptly directing traffic at every major intersection. In and of itself, none of that is unusual, so we thought little of it until we arrived at the Muthaiga Club and heard from Tracy [Our friend who runs the Flamboyant Hotel] that there had been riots on the highway. Apparently we'd driven right through it all!
We had a pleasant evening at the club, a good sleep (despite a huge rain and thunder storm raging outside), had a late breakfast (which unfortunately made both Guy and and I ill) and then (after many bathroom visits) headed off to do some shopping before returning to Soysambu. We had a lovely dinner at Mbweha Camp, which Guy used to manage...also the location of Juliet's amazing 50th Birthday Party during our last visit to Kenya. There had been some rain during dinner, but on our way home, the floodgates opened, and with it came a staggering emergence of toads. On our way out of Mbweha camp I picked up and moved a few toads from the road, but by the time we returned to the main highway, it was evident that this was a larger phenomenon. The sound of toads singing was deafening, and every single puddle was clotted with dozens of toads. The tarmack was littered with them (alive and otherwise), and despite Guy's best attempts at swerving around the most concentrated areas, I shudder to think how many toads we squashed on the highway.
The next day we woke early to leave for a game drive in Lake Nakuru National Park, but the pounding rain forced us back to sleep. After a couple of hours, we woke and drifted about in a somnambulant delirium making breakfast before heading off to the park. Despite the damp weather, we had an amazing time. I was particularly enthralled by an experience with widow birds (think red-winged blackbirds with foot long tails) that fluttered about in groups of six or eight birds, looking like glorious black and red streamers caught in a wind storm. A close encounter with a Greater Spotted Cuckoo yielded similarly great reference. In addition we saw warthogs, black and white rhino, a ridiculous number of giraffe, and all manner of ungulates. At Baboon Cliffs, we saw not a trace of a baboon until poor Simon was taking some equipment out of the car and was practically accosted by one large male. The big male baboon had a fairly hideous wound on his face (half of his muzzle was torn away revealing the inner workings of his jaw and tongue in obscene, nightmarish detail) and we gave him a wide berth. On our way out of the park, we were treated to another great dose of Kenyan inefficiency at the gate, temporarily relocated due to flooding. Somehow scanning Guy's "smart card" on exit took ten minutes...which was actually record time considering the French group we saw who had been trying to enter the park for a staggering two hours!
When we arrived back at Juliet's, we had a quick nap before heading off to dinner at Sleeping Warrior Camp, where Simon and Mo had sweetly offered to treat Guy and I to a farewell dinner. The evening began on shaky ground with the worst cocktails any of us had ever had (embarrassing when a bartender can't make a Dowa, damn near the national cocktail), and just got worse from there. To be fair, the soup course was lovely, but the salad was basically a non-offering, and the lamb chops were stone cold, fatty, cartilaginous, and accompanied by overly salted potatoes, and stone cold, weirdly sugary vegetables. It was so bad that we actually sent the food back. Sadly, the second attempt was little improved, and the dry Black Forest Cake for desert was inedible. Oddly, the bad meal was one of the liveliest and most entertaining of the entire Safari, and we went home- if not physically sated- emotionally satisfied.
Our last day was mostly packing up and getting ourselves to Nairobi. About this time I felt an internal shift. I'd already been missing home, but I suddenly found myself dying to get out of Africa, desperate for a place where clean clothes stay clean, where the internet and phones work, and were everything isn't covered in either dust, grime, or smoke. We stopped at Guy's cousin Tash's place in Karen [a suburb or Nairobi] for a nice lunch, then spent the afternoon charging our various electronics, taking much needed baths, and preparing ourselves for travel. We arranged for a supposedly seven seater taxi to accommodate four people and a lot of luggage, and were horrified when a painfully small car showed up. Thanks to Simon's amazing organizational skills, we were able to just squeeze in, but the ride to the airport was claustrophobic at best. It was not helped but the almost opaque, blacked out windows, which we all kept rolled down despite our driver's concern that we might be cold, because we didn't think he'd be able to see otherwise; we were, after all, flying out after dark. Only in Kenya! The ride was alternately terrifying and humorous as our driver's policy seemed to be to honk obstreperously at road hazards- including pedestrians- and then aim for them. We arrived at the airport in enough time to have a mediocre dinner at Java, then go through the most invasive security check I've ever encountered. Both Guy and I had our leathermans confiscated and were subjected to the humiliation of an airport screener fingering every item in our carry-on bags before we were checked through. We had been looking forward to checking in as the Gudgeon's guests and spending time with them in the first class lounge prior to boarding, but sadly, Nairobi international has no first class lounge...but we were treated to free drinks. About this time, I discovered that my iPad screen (which I'd replaced only a short while before leaving CA) was cracked, something I'm fully convinced happened during security screening. I can safely say that Nairobi International is the grossest, nastiest, grungiest airport I've ever been through. I'm here now waiting for my flight...and VERY READY to go to England and then home.
England Part III: Of Pheasant Pie & Embassies     3/17/14-3/21/14
I’m finally back in England after a reasonably pleasant flight. Simon and Mo insisted on arranging a driver to pick us up at the airport in luxury and style, which has proven to be an amazing gift. Guy had an appointment at the American embassy to have his Visa stamped just a few hours after we landed at Heathrow, and it was wonderfully convenient both to have a pleasant ride to the embassay and to know that our luggage was safe in the car while we had a quick breakfast, coffee, and tea at the Mount Street Deli (Simon and Mo’s recommendation) and then Guy trudged off to deal with bureaucracy and I wandered the streets of London. I had great fun poking into shops and galleries and discovered, in the sprawling, beautifully appointed Selfridges & Co. mall on Oxford Street that I have even more expensive taste than I previously thought. [I’m also thinking that I really must get my sister over to London.]
When Guy was finished with his appointment (his Visa has been stamped but we’re still waiting for everything to be processed) we met up with our convivial driver, Paul, and headed off to Tewkesbury, where we’re spending the majority of the week with Guy’s mother, Susie. We’re already having a lovely time getting caught up. Meanwhile, Guy is burdened with doing load after load of laundry while I spend hours on the computer and sifting through receipts to finish the post trip accounting. I’m glad to say that I’m nearly finished. I am, however, sagging a bit under the weight of allergies. I had a bit of a problem off and on in Kenya, mostly due to the dust, but nothing compares to allergies in England...a combination of mold from the damp and lots and lots of agriculture, particularly the insidious rape seed. I feel like I've been gargling broken glass and that someone has applied a constant steam of glue around the corners of my eyes.
This morning we were up early and of to Yorkshire to visit our friend John Grimshaw, who was recently appointed director of the Yorkshire Arboretum near Castle Howard. It was a long drive, but well worth the trip. We had a lovely ramble about the castle grounds and Ray Wood, then went to John’s for a lovely dinner of chicken and pheasant pie with celeriac crust and roasted vegetables. Neither of us had seen John for just over a year, so we had a great evening of gossip and catch-up in front of a roaring fire as-yet again- the English weather raged outside. The next morning we were off to Tewkesbury, but took a bit of a detour through Birmingham to pick up Guy’s passport (with newly stamped Visa) from the depot the embassy uses to ship out passports. We were concerned that if we had it couriered directly to the house, it might not arrive before our flights. The pickup went without a hitch, but we made the poor decision to stop for lunch and thus stagnated in dreadful traffic out of the city. Fortunately, we’re back home again in comfort and looking forward to a busy day tomorrow, including Guy’s best friend Helena’s birthday party, which includes, God-Help-Me, pro wrestling.
England Part IV: The Home Stretch     3/22/14-3/24/14
We had a lovely day today as we gear up for the trip home; first, a relaxed morning with Guy's Mom, then a lovely lunch with Andy, an old friend of Guy's, at a local pub before heading home to pack.
Guy, Cindy, and I had an unexpectedly amazing time at Helena's Pro a Wrestling Birthday Party. Of course the wrestling was just as silly and choreographed as you'd imagine from seeing the occasional commercial for WWF on TV in the states, but it was also the most extraordinary people-watching I've ever experienced. The match took place in Gloucester, which is something like England's version of Rio Linda (or perhaps, to be honest, Antioch). It was amazingly interactive, and quite hilarious to see everyone from little kids to old women heckling the "bad guys" and cheering their hearts out for their heroes. Bizarre though it was, the whole thing was so earnest, I’d be hard pressed not to enjoy it. I kept having the feeling I was watching kids playing pretend so intently they actually fool themselves into belief. One perhaps seventy year old lady who looked to have no more than two teeth in her skull, nearly climbed into the ring herself when some underhanded moves sent her favorite fighter sprawling into the aisle. The wrestlers' costumes (when they weren’t falling off!) left very little to the imagination, so in a strange way there was something for everyone. Leave it to Helena to plan the most random, bizarre, and utterly surreal evening ever (one which I was frankly dreading) and magically pull it off into among the most memorable birthday parties I've ever attended.
Despite having a brilliant time, we went home straight after the match, knowing without question that Hel's after-party back at hers would have insured that we were utterly ruined the next day, and we were determined to get up early enough to have a relaxed morning before heading off to London. On our way out of town, we had a pleasant lunch with Susie and Cindy at Jamie Oliver's Restaurant, The Courthouse, in Cheltanham, which is ingeniously built in a disused courthouse; the downstairs restrooms are actually built in what used to be torture chambers...and still look the part (in a quaint, non-threatening way). We said our goodbyes and climbed on board the National Express, England's famous (or perhaps infamous) bus line (if you want a good description, listen to the song, "National Express" by the Divine Comedy. Neil Hannon paints a word picture as no one else can). A serious highway closure sent us on a considerable detour, and we arrived late to Heathrow, where we grabbed a cab and arrived at our airport hotel in enough time to have a decent dinner before hitting the hay.
We’re up at 5:30 and off to the airport. True to form, I know I won’t sleep on this flight. I’ll invariably watch a few movies, but mostly my head will be swimming with images of Africa. I feel very fortunate to be able to have such potent and inspiring adventures, even more so that my life’s work allows me to relive these moments in front of the easel, and to share them with you.
-Andrew Denman, Feb/March 2014