Today was Wendy's actual birthday -- the whole reason we're here! After birthday cards at breakfast, it was time to check out of the Hilton. The last two members of our Rhino Safaris tour group (Marcia and Donna) arrived last night. They were supposed to have arrived Sunday night, as well, but had missed a connection in Memphis, TN. I just can't even imagine tacking another 24 hours onto that travelling ordeal!
Our group of eleven split up into two vans, and made our way out of the city. Nairobi's traffic is absolutely insane -- very loose traffic rules combined with the disorienting feeling of driving on the left (Kenya is a former British colony) and jaywalkers dashing out into the street. Our drivers, Pepe and Thomas, seemed to take it all in stride, but I was just certain we were going to crash and/or hit a pedestrian every time we went out! Fortunately, neither actually happened.
As we left the city behind, we travelled through some large-scale agricultural areas. We passed coffee plantations, pineapple fields, and several large greenhouses that Pepe (who was the driver of my van) said grew flowers commercially. Farther on, we passed many smaller farms of the Kikuyu people as we climbed toward the highlands near Mount Kenya. We took a break at our first tourist market that was displaying some beautiful, colorful cloths outside in front of a flowering bougainvillea tree.
Today's destination was the Aberdare Country Club, launching point for The Ark.
The country club had a veddy British air about it -- made you want to sip a gin and tonic on the verandah and talk about what the hell happened to the Empire. We had lunch here in the building below at left (we think the banners were for a golf tournament). The grounds were very beautiful. That's a poinsettia tree at right (yes, the same plant we see in tiny pots at Christmas time!). After lunch, we left Pepe, Thomas, and the vans, and boarded a bus to transport us to The Ark, a 20 kilometer drive away via unpaved roads.
The Ark is an amazing hotel constructed inside Aberdare National Park, and is only accesible via the hotel's bus. After passing through the park's boundry (below left), the valleys became deeper and the land more wild with each passing kilometer. Along the way we saw Cape buffalo, bushbuck antelope, and a couple of baboons, as well as a glimpse of The Ark from a distance (below right).
The sign reads: "Aberdare National Park. Ark Gate. Altitude 6800 feet. No person may enter this portion of the Aberdare National Park without permission of the warden or without a reservation for The Ark authorized by the Aberdare Country Club."
You walk the last quarter-mile over a boardwalk to get to the building. The overall design of the place is intended to minimize the human impact on the animals as much as possible. Unlike the other parks we visited, at this one you stay inside the building and the animals come to you. Every floor (or "deck", to carry out the ark theme) has viewing areas, including a photographer's blind on the ground floor which allows you to get right at eye-level with the animals outside.
The Ark is built right next to a watering hole and natural salt lick. Below left is the view we had out of our room. The salt lick area is to the right, at the end of the building. It is lit by flood lights at night. However, due to my camera's limitations, this shot of the lone elephant that visited the salt lick during the afternoon is the only good picture I got here.
However, the real action started after the sun went down! Wendy got some great shots using the night vision on her video camera. In place of pictures, here's an excerpt from my travel journal: "Mark and Wendy took naps in the afternoon as I caught up in my journal. As I was waking them for dinner, we saw an elephant pass right by our room window! By the time we got to the viewing area, a family of seven were there -- three adult females, a couple of more-mature juveniles, and two babies aged 6 and 10 months.
"We got to observe some very interesting behavior. The 6-month-old was still nursing, so it clung to its mother very closely. The 10-month-old kneeled on its back legs at one point (looked like it was praying) to examine something on the ground. I saw the two older juveniles feeding each other salt -- each one had its trunk in the other's mouth at the same time!
"There was also a great moment involving the two Cape buffalo which were there with the elephants. They were in the middle of the clearing, and the elephants were closer to the building. Suddenly, a hyena appeared on the far side of the clearing. As the elephants closed ranks around the babies, one of the buffalo made a bee-line towards the hyena. There was a momentary face-off between them, and then the hyena turned tail and ran! It hung around the edge of the clearing, though -- in fact, we saw a total of three hyenas skulking in the shadows that evening.
"We watched the animals for a half hour, and would've stayed longer, but they called us in to dinner (everyone staying here gets fed in one sitting in the dining room, so it was come now or don't eat). The entire Rhino Safari group was at one table, and we all sang Happy Brithday to Wendy. I'm sure she'll never forget her 50th!
"After dinner, we returned to find the elephants gone. They were replaced by a larger group of Cape buffalo. The people at The Ark said they were bachellor males who had been kicked out of the herd. They would butt heads occasionally, and dig into the mud with their horns, tossing it into the air and covering their heads and necks with it. They would even get down and roll in the muck.
"We were also entertained by some smaller animals. There were several genets running around right next to the lodge, jumping up on the ground-floor window sills and climbing up the exterior stairs. They are extremely cat-like, although their longer bodies make it look like they were crossed with a ferret. We also saw some sort of mongoose, and what we believe was a honey badger (horrible, pink, possum-like eyes; they're supposed to be extremely vicious).
"After we grew bored with the buffalo, we decided to turn in for the night. The Ark is equipped with a buzzer system in each room which can be turned on to alert you to animals appearing in the night. The buzzer rang only once -- a rhino showed up around 1:30am. After only 10 minutes or so, it appeared that he was ambling off, so we went back to bed. Some of the other guests stayed longer, and were rewarded by seeing two rhinos return and mate!"
The Ark is a very cool place, but we were just getting started....
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