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Walk on the wild side

On safari in northern Kenya

Giraffes always stop eating and stare at things they are curious about. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Thin fog was slowly floating against the backdrop of mountains above the Loisaba Conservancy in northern Kenya. It was nearly dawn when I woke up in my tented camp to the songs of chirping birds.

I went out to the porch of my tent and took in the cool breeze. On the horizon were the golden rays of sunlight gradually shining on Mount Kenya. Not far from where I stood, two hyraxes looked at me with curiosity. I wondered if they were interested in their new neighbour or the cookie in my hand.

This morning, my travel companions and I would have an up-close safari experience by joining a bush walk in the conservancy. We were advised to wear clothes that blended with nature like green or khaki. But it was cool, so each of us decided to wrap ourselves with a shuka cloth of the Masai. Each fabric was woven in a chequer pattern with bright colours like red-and-black, blue-and-pink or orange-and-yellow.

Mohamed, our guide from Loisaba Tented Camp, looked at us with wide eyes. He later said that our costume was OK. We had a ranger named Lucky to lead our group. He carried with him a rifle. He also wore two ammunition carriers on both right and left sides of his belt.

"We'll walk in one line, following the ranger. We must not make any loud noise. Be as quiet as you can while walking so that we can get as close to the animals as possible," said Mohamed.

It looks as if elephants in Loisaba have brown skin, but it is because of the mud. Elephants like muds bath to cool themselves under the strong sun. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

It was 7.30am when we walked from the hotel and out to the wilderness. We stayed in one line as we were told to do. Our first stop was at a Sodom apple shrub. The plant had yellow round fruits that looked like makhuea kheun, or cockroach berry, in Thailand. The fruits had a bitter taste, said Mohamed, but its juices help stop wounds from bleeding and could cure toothaches. The stems could be used as a toothbrush and the broth of boiled roots can help relieve stomach pain. It is a traditional medicine used by locals in Kenya, he said.

Next to the Sodom apple plant is a large bush of cactus. It is known as opuntia, or prickly pear. The cactus has yellow flowers and bears red round fruits. When the fruits turn purple-reddish, they are ripe and edible, said the guide.

The cactus was an alien species. It was brought to Kenya in the 1950s. Today the cactus can be found almost everywhere in Loisaba.

"Animals such as elephants like eating them, but the fruit has hairlike prickles and small spines on the outer skin. That can hurt us if we pick it by hand," he said.

Mohamed took some dry grasses and rubbed them around the ripe fruit until the tiny thorns were removed. He tore the soft fruit in half. It revealed a purple-reddish juicy meat and many small black seeds inside, like a tomato. The taste was mildly sweet.

"We can make juice out of it," he said. The juice is purple. It can be prepared by crushing the fruit and adding herbal tea made of ginger, lemon juice, mint and sugar. The smell is refreshing. That was our welcome drink when we checked in at Loisaba Tented Camp.

We continued our journey by foot for a while. Then we stopped when Mohamed pointed to a pile of something that looked like small black beads. Mohamed said it was a heap of dung from the dik-diks. It is a dwarf antelope around 30-40cm tall at the shoulder. The name came from its unique alarm call when facing a predator.

A family of dik-diks with one offspring. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

"Dik-diks are monogamous. They live in pairs and the female is the boss. The female is bigger and the male has a pair of tiny horns. They are also territorial animals. It's like two acres around here. Every place they put middens in one place to mark their territory," he said.

Dik-diks also mark their area by preorbital glands. It looks like a black spot on the corner of both eyes. It produces black fluid. When they mark their territory, they rub their face in the bush. The waxed fluid would stick on the tips of grass or twigs.

"It is very smelly so other dik-diks will know that it's somebody's territory. If one dik-dik crosses another territory, they'll fight," he said.

We also stopped at the manure of a hyena. It looked like small white round rocks.

"The hyena pooh is white because it eats and can digest bones. The colour will be whiter when time passes. Some animals, like rabbits, giraffes and Pumbaa [warthogs] feed themselves with the scat when they need calcium. Sometimes giraffes also chew some bones from a dead animal," he said.

A herd of impalas. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

We walked down a hill for a little while before seeing a herd of gazelles running on another hill. I thought they were being chased by a predator, but our guide told us something different.

"They are playing. After the rain [last night], the weather is good so they are running because they are happy," he said.

We also saw a tower of three giraffes walking far away and another herd of gazelles walking with a harem of Burchells zebras, a common type of zebra, on another hill. Mohamed used his binoculars and asked if we can spot a white zebra in the group.

Ripe edible fruits of Opuntia cactus, or prickly pear. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

"It's a rare type. It's even rare to spot it in the wild," he said. Then our ranger gave a sign for us to stop.

"Look to your left in the bush ahead of you. Do you see the elephants?" asked Lucky, our ranger.

He lowered his legs and scooped soil in his right hand. He slowly let it flow from his hand to the ground to see the wind direction.

"We are opposite the wind direction. They cannot smell us, so we can go a bit closer to them," he said.

Our guide told us to stay quiet. "Elephants have good ears, but bad sight. We will find a good spot to see them up-close," he said.

Our ranger led us to higher ground. While we hurriedly walked up, I saw the herd of four elephants walking in our direction, perhaps 100m away. We were directed to stand behind Opuntia cacti while watching them.

The herd had two adult elephants, including two young ones. The leader made a trumpet sound while walking and that made my heart pump faster. They were about to cross a road while a safari car was approaching. The car made a stop and the herd then changed direction and gradually moved further away.

"Are you OK?" asked our ranger with smile. He gave a sign for us to move on. I asked our guide if they ever experience animal attacks. He said none. The gun, he said, was supposed to shoot in the air to warn the animal if the ranger feels the group will be in danger.

"The first rule is to not run. Just stay still. If the ranger feels the need to use the weapon, he will shoot bullets in the air three times as a warning. It's illegal to kill wild animals here," he said.

Our walking trip was cut short because a light shower rain became heavier. Our guide radioed the hotel to pick us up. We were easily spotted because of the bright shuka cloth we put on us to protect ourselves from the rain.

"I'm sorry our bush walk had to stop because of the rain. But rain is a blessing in Africa," said our guide. In this case, I think we were blessed too.

A family of three female Lesser Kudu are always around Loisaba Tented Camp and enjoy eating fresh leaves. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

African buffaloes are one of the Big Five in Africa, along with elephants, lions, leopards and rhinos. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

The Grévy's zebra, or imperial zebra, is the largest species of wild horse. Listed as an endangered species, the zebra has narrow stripes and a white belly. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

A flock of vulturine guineafowl, which has bare skin on its head and the neck of a vulture. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Shuka cloth of the Masai looks like pha kao ma (the chequered loincloth in Thailand), but is two times larger. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Lucky on duty with a gun. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

The male Von der Decken's hornbill. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

TRAVEL INFO

  • Kenya Airways provides daily direct flights from Bangkok to Nairobi. The departure time from Suvarnabhumi International Airport is 1am and the arrival time in Nairobi is 6.05am. Flying time is about 9 hours. Visit http://kenya-airways.com/th/en or call 02-630-4545 for more details.
  • Loisaba is a 22,700 hectare wildlife conservancy. It is home to abundant wildlife, including 260 species of birds and 57 mammals, like elephants, lions and leopards. The road trip from Nairobi may take about 5 hours. An alternative is to take a domestic flight or take a charter flight of SkySafari by Elewana. It offers flights to its properties in Loisaba. Visit http://ftp.skysafari.com.
  • Stay: The Loisaba Tented Camp, which is like a boutique hotel, offers 12 tents with prices starting at US$490 (16,170 baht) per person per night while Loisaba Star Beds offers four rooms with prices starting at $300. The net prices include safari activities, game drives, food, drinks, shuttle service to airstrip, and laundry. Visit http://elewanacollection.com.
  • For more information about Loisaba Conservancy, visit http://loisaba.com

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