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Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 5 - Tsavo West

The next day started with an early morning drive in Amboseli that afforded us the first opportunity to see Kilimanjaro's normally cloudy peak. Distinctly flat and surprisingly spread out, the peak and its supporting mountain, despite being Africa's highest point, reminded me more of a large hill. If you think all mountains should have a distinct and easily viewable pointed peak, Mt. Kili is not for you.

150 very bumpy kilometers later, we arrived at the Serena Kilanguni Lodge in Tsavo West National Park. Not having had the chance to do the same the day before, we took advantage of the early arrival to take a quick dip in the pool before lunch. Tsavo West, despite having the reputation among our fellow visitors for a dearth of animals, was Lauren's favorite park. True, we didn't see many animals other than some giraffes and elephants, but the landscape was what left us most in awe. Even on the drive in Michael stopped at a spot where as far as the eye could see in all directions was uneven black lava rock. Full of volcanic hills and mountain, Tsavo West was dramatic. Whereas Amboseli and Tsavo East are basically what you would expect on safari after watching the Lion King or Planet Earth, this place was one of bountiful greenery, never-ending hills, and stark visual contrasts of reds, browns, greens and blacks, all together painting as stunning picture.

Due to the draught, most of the animals had moved on to the East and we later encountered several disgruntled tourists who went looking for leopards and cheetahs on the rocks and came up empty-handed. This leads me to a fundamental lesson learned: when you go on safari, do not raise expectations beyond reasonable levels. We traveled to Kenya knowing that we would undoubtedly see some animals, but fought the urge to start a checklist. Instead, we breathed in the fresh air, gawked at the occasional animal and soaked in the marvelous surroundings of another one of God's monuments to himself. What animals you see is dependant on a whole host of external factors that have little to do with your tour. You will see what you're meant to see, so you might as well pull out the binoculars, focus the mega-zoom lens, and enjoy the ride.

Towards the beginning of our drive, Michael took us to Mzima Springs, the source of water for the surrounding area actually originating some 30km but coming together in this place to form a jungle-like oasis beaming with wildlife. Pete, a kalashnikov-wielding soldier in full camo gave us a tour. We think Michael came straight to Mzima because when we arrived there wasn't another tourist in sight. Well-maintained, Mzima Springs was home to crocodiles and hippos, among other birds and less harmful creatures. Lauren swears that hippos are the deadliest animals in Africa (Dirk confirms), but I'm not sure how something so fat and cuddly could be dangerous. Nonetheless, I kept my distance just in case.

During the walk we actually saw two smaller crocodiles, one before and one after the submarine viewing station halfway down the path. This sunken "booth" of sorts was reached by a short ladder that took you to a glass viewing area. From there we watched fish swim by and other underwater life. If was definitely amused when Pete and Lauren both spotted a submerged hippo not too far off, his head visible above water and body sitting down underwater. I'm not sure who was more excited about it really, although I'm pretty sure it was Pete.

Before heading in that evening Michael took us to the Mudanda Rock, a kilometer-long freak of nature on which for centuries locals have dried meat. Climbing to the top under Michael's very watchful eye (safaris don't usually involve leaving the vehicle... for good reason) we could see for miles around and felt, maybe just for a moment, like we were on top of the world.

Ratings for Tsavo West and the Serena Kilanguni Lodge are as follows:

Room amenities: 3.5 (it had everything, just not as nice as Amboseli and the mirror in the bathroom was not over the sink... big faux paus)
View form restaurant: 5
Staff: 4
Animals in park: 3 (not that many but the elephants, giraffes and pack of wild dogs were great)
Scenery in park: 5
Overall lodge quality: 4 (decent room, great food and good facilities outside the room)