January 9th, 2022
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a 360 km2 (140 square mi) not-for-profit wildlife conservancy in Central Kenya. The Conservancy boasts the largest black rhino sanctuary in east Africa; in 2013, it reached a population milestone of 100 black rhino. It also houses the two remaining northern white rhino in the world, who were moved there from the Czech Republic.
The Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary is situated here which provides a haven for orphaned, abandoned, and rescued chimpanzees. It is the only place in Kenya where chimpanzees can be seen.
The Conservancy is host to the “big five game” animals among a large selection of other African animals, which makes it a popular safari destination. It also operates a successful livestock program, which serves to benefit local pastoralists and wildlife. Through the conservancy’s community development program, Ol Pejeta provides funding to surrounding communities to aid health, education, water and infrastructure projects. They also support the provision of agriculture and livestock extension services and the development of community-based conservation tourism ventures.
History: During the colonial era, the Laikipia Plateau was used as an extensive cattle ranching area. Lacking the rainfall required to successfully cultivate crops, cattle ranching was seen as the next best way to utilize the land. In the past, wildlife was perceived as having little or no value to landowners.
John and Jane Kenyon took over the management of Ol Pejeta in 1949 when it was owned by Lord Delamere and together they spent the next 15 years developing the ranch. When the Kenyons first took on Ol Pejeta, they were joined by Delemere’s school friend and business partner, Marcus Wickham Boynton. Together they organized the ranch into a successful beef producing company. The Kenyons left Ol Pejeta for a year in 1958, then returned for a further ten years, before finally retiring to run their own cattle ranch to the north. Since then, the ranch has had a number of owners.
Over time, cattle ranching became less and less profitable. Elephant populations, which previously used the ranch as a transit area from the north to Mount Kenya, increasingly took up permanent residence on the property. As a result, the fences required to maximize cattle productivity were destroyed, and became impossible to maintain cost-effectively. In the face of declining wildlife populations elsewhere and as a means to effectively utilize the land, the land has seen increasing emphasis placed upon wildlife conservation. In 1988, the Sweetwaters Game Reserve 9,700 hectares (24,000 acres) was opened by another of Ol Pejeta’s previous owners, primarily started as a sanctuary for the endangered black rhino, wildlife populations (including the “big five”) have steadily increased since that time.
In 2004, the ranch and surrounding land was purchased by the Fauna and Flora International and together with funding from the Arcus Foundation, Ol Pejeta Conservancy began to fulfill its business model as a Kenyan-owned operation benefiting local community development and economic growth in addition to its impact on conservation.
We entered the park at the north entrance where you let yourself in the gate, closing it behind you and then drive in a ways to the ranger ticket office. Here you show him your reservation and he writes up your ticket – (so you don’t really save all that much time buying online).
The park as two sections on either side of a river; the main section on the east side encompasses about one third of the total area and is the most popular while the western section has fewer roads and larger open spaces and is not as popular.
This park is a nonprofit and offers some “adventures” for which you can up $120 upwards to take part in, all of which we passed. There are three free activities: one being visiting the blind black rhino named, Baraka ; the second visiting the chimp enclosure and lastly walking out to the river to see the hippos.
Upon leaving the ticket booth, we encountered animals very shortly and for the next nine hours never went more than five to ten minutes without seeing some wildlife.
Doug got to touch the blind black rhino – a highlight for him as rhinos are his favourite African animal. It was sad to see large deep cuts on it but the ranger said these are caused when they scratch themselves against trees; there are flies and bugs that are constantly feeding on these wounds so they don’t seem to heal. We saw these also on some of the many white rhino we saw in the park.
This park has lots of rangers, some of whom just walk around the park and they are very helpful. A group of three of them pointed out that we’d pass some lions a ways back so we turned around but they must have left as we never saw them. This park also offers you a brochure that includes a map!; a pleasant surprise.
We tried to make our way to the Rhino Cemetery first and somehow made a wrong turn and ended up along the northern edge of the park where there was not much wildlife. So we decided to head south to do the Hippo Hide walk. The ranger there said there was only one hippo at this time as the others had wandered downstream and he’d try and find it for us. While we found it, it was hiding on the wrong side of a bush in the water so we only say the ripples in the water and bubbles from his breathing.
Next we made our way towards the chimpanzee enclosure where they keep two troops of them divided by a river. Chimpas are not indingeous to Kenya; these are all rescued animals who over time, became “families”. It’s a huge space with electric fence around it. It was now late morning and getting hotter. No chimps were in the vicinity of the entrance but our guide, Liani, asked one of the chimp caretakers and he suggested going inside the main fence (you cannot do on your own) and walking down the outside and lo and behold we came across Oscar sitting beside the fence. He apparently has an eye infection and was staying solo these days. He mostly just sat there but at least we saw a chimp (we expect to see more in Uganda).
All in all this “activity” was almost as disappointing like the hippo walk as we could only see him through the thick fence.
Eventually we found the Rhino cemetary; there are several graves here of mostly rhinos who were killed for their horns.
We then began just doing game driving until about 12:30 when we arrived at the park’s only restaurant for lunch. They have tables under cover with canvas walls and tables outside with umbrellas. We opted for the latter to keep our distance. It also gave us the opportunity to see some of the birds that hope to get fed around the tables.
Speaking of social distancing, Kenyans are quite good at the rules; nearly everyone is wearing a mask and 99% in cities for sure; all stores and restaurants have hand washing or sanitizer you must use on entry and they often do a temperature check. In the smaller towns, masks are not quite as prevalent.
After a pretty good lunch, we spent the next three hours driving around doing more game watching. It’s now early afternoon and many can be hidden but we still managed to see so much. We crossed the river into the larger western section of the park and saw animals we’d not seen in the eastern, main section, including Fran’s favourite: giraffe. We saw about fifteen of them.
Of the big five that you can see here, we saw elephant, rhino and buffalo – no luck on the lion or leopard (the latter of which is really hard to spot) but we had seen lots of lion in Tanzania in 2014 so we were not feeling cheated. This park has huge herds of buffalo, elephant, zebra and we must have seen nearly 100 rhino! Naturally there were plenty of impala and Thomson Gazelles (aka springboks) and we saw more elands than we’d ever seen before. There were really very few cars, a few safari company vehicles and it was quite nice not to encounter others often while watching game and feel like your chasing them.
In the park there is an equator sign and we stopped to take a few pics.
We had a great time and saw so much except lions 🙁 but we’re happy. We returned to our AirBNB and spent another warmish night, sleeping a little better but not up to usual standards. We got up early (cause we were up anyway….) to begin the long drive to Amboseli (maybe 8 hours) and it passes through Nairobi which we expect will be a very slow section based on our trip from the airport last week. Shortly after leaving the city of Nanyuki we encountered a troop of baboons crossing the highway but there was no place to pull over.
Their is a huge part of this road north of the capital which was under construction so there were slowish bits and very rough bits but for the most part, moving traffic. As we approached the north side of the capital city, we were on a freeway with 6 to 8 lanes but then as we skirted to head toward the coast we hit major construction.
This slowed us down considerably but once we got through it, we sped back up and then the freeway ended and we were back to a two lane highway with lots of trucks.
Fran found a place for us to sleep on Booking.com about 20 km from the entrance to the park. We turned off the main Mombasa Road at Emali, got some meagre groceries and a car wash. The next highway was paved until we reached the village of Kimana – about 22 km outside the park. Well before arriving at the eco camp, we began to see Mt. Kilimanjaro! If you recall Doug climbed this back in 2012 with our friends, Matt and Pete and we saw it from the Tanzanian side back in 2014 when we went on safari there.
With a bit confusion, we found the safari camp we booked in the early afternoon. However it turned out somehow we booked a double room with a shared bath (hence the $18 price we guess) but as there was one with a private bath available we took that and the receptionist said she’d have the manager come see us to sort it out. We spent the afternoon relaxing on the veranda of our “tree house”. It went all around the house and there was a lovely breeze at the back. The front part faced “Kili” but during the afternoon, it was cloud covered.
We never saw the manager that afternoon and upon going over to the main hut where reception and the kitchen/bar/restaurant were located later in the afternoon, the chef, Jackson, advised that the manager would be in this evening. We asked about dinner and it was only $10 a person so we opted in.
We headed over there before dinner to have a beer and a young Dutch couple arrived to take residence in the other “tree house”. Robin and Franz joined us for a beer in the bar and then Jackson called us down for dinner. Shortly after sitting down, the power went out! Jackson made a joke and provided us with two sets of candelabras to enjoy our dinner by. It was a simple meal but filling: avo salad, rice, beef stew and beans.
By 8:00 ish we were getting sleepy and headed back to our room. The weather had cooled somewhat which was appreciated as there was no AC or even a fan.
The manager had still not come to see us and we had hoped to settle the upgrade and spend a second night. Booking.com showed no room with a private bath available online so we messaged him through the app but by next morning we had not heard anything. We wanted to get to the park around opening time which is seven so as to see animals before it got too hot. Doug went to the kitchen and saw Jackson to get our stuff out of his fridge/freezer and we gave him the extra money we felt was owed for the upgrade (price had shown $33 for that “room” so we gave him $15 USD) and opted not to come back. We managed to catch Kili this morning without cloud cover too.
Amboseli National Park
Amboseli National Park, formerly Maasai Amboseli Game Reserve, is 39,206 ha (392.06 km2) in size at the core of an 8,000 km2 (3,100 sq mi) ecosystem that spreads across the Kenya-Tanzania border. The local people are mainly Maasai, but people from other parts of the country have settled there attracted by the successful tourist-driven economy and intensive agriculture along the system of swamps that makes this low-rainfall area, average 350 mm (14 in). It is one of the best wildlife-viewing experiences in the world with 400 species of birds including water birds like pelicans, kingfishers, crakes, and 47 raptor species. The park protects two of the five main swamps, and includes a dried-up Pleistocene lake and semiarid vegetation.
In 1883, Jeremy Thompson was the first European to penetrate the feared Maasai region known as Empusel (meaning ‘salty, dusty place’ in Maa). He, too, was astonished by the fantastic array of wildlife and the contrast between the arid areas of the dry lake bed and the oasis of the swamps, a contrast that persists today.
Amboseli was set aside as the Southern Reserve for the Maasai in 1906, but returned to local control as a game reserve in 1948. It became a national park in 1974 to protect the core of this unique ecosystem and was declared a UNESCO site in 1991.
The park is famous for being the best place in the world to get close to free-ranging elephants. Other attractions of the park include opportunities to meet Maasai and visit a Maasai village. The park also has views of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world. It contains four of the big five game (no leopards).
ON our way to the park we saw hyena, 3 zebra, a giraffe, 4 impala and a wildebeest – this park looks promising for wildlife if we’re seeing this much outside the park!
We were at the park just after opening. The cost for this park is $60 pp for non-residents and $3 for the vehicle. We paid an extra $15 for a laminated brochure that included a map – a first so far. It also included a “checklist” of African animals for identifying purposes. The map was pretty well done and helped us get around. The park has numbered rock/concrete sign posts at all intersections and turn offs which helps a great deal.
So we hoped to see the four of the big five in this park as there are no leopards but lions hard to spot in the tall grass. There is a white rhino sanctuary enclosure here.
The “money” photo here in Amboseli is getting the elephants in frame with Mt. Kilimanjaro – this was one of Fran’s hope for this park. Well, within fifteen minutes of entering the park, with Kili, clear we came across a herd of elephants on the wrong side of the road for the photo
but two minutes later, lo and behold – there was a small herd of elephants with young ones in front of a view of the mountain. The lightning was a little pale but we got her!
A little while later from a different angle we got this shot:
Unbelievably, maybe five minutes later we saw a safari vehicle stopped on the right side of the road (not the Kili side) and asked what they were observing: it was lions feeding! There was a male and four lionesses chowing down about 300m out! Even with Fran’s 83x zoom camera it was hard to get clear shots but she did get an okay quality video.
Doug used his monocular and we stayed here about fifteen minutes mesmerized and pinching ourselves. Finally – lions and to boot, feeding lions!
We took the first road turnoff in the park and headed alongside a marsh. Shortly after turning, Robin and Franz drove up beside us (we had left shortly after them, but Doug is a more aggressive driver on these bad roads – again, leading to a national tourist attraction) and we asked if they’d seen the lion kill – they hadn’t so we told them it was worth heading back for because it would not be over quickly. After that we never ran into them again.
Along the marsh/swamp roads and beyond, we saw so many animals: the other four of the big five, as expected. It was fantastic.
We came across a large body of water in the marshy swamps and saw hundreds of flamingoes:
At one point in the late morning we felt a kinda of dragging sound under the car and got out immediately; seems the front cowling had come detached at the front end. We pulled the car floor mats out for him to lie on and Doug took a look underneath – the bolts were long gone and it actually looked like this was not the first time this had happened as it where it was attached, it was attached with wires! Doug managed to find a longish piece of wire and got it hooked back up.
We’ d had a fantastic morning. We thought we’d go for lunch at one of the two lodges that have a restaurant open to the public and checked out Serena Lodge – they wanted $30 USD each not including beverages for lunch so we passed. We also seemed to be the only ones around. It looked quite upscale. We used the facilities and then decided that seeing how it was mid-day and the animals would become more scarce maybe it was time to keep the memories good and head towards our next park, Tsavo West.
We checked our mapping app and it seemed to suggest we had to go all the way back to the Mombasa Road and then into that park although our guide book showed a road connecting the two parks. We asked an employee of the lodge who happened to be outside at the parking lot and he said “yes there is a road but you need an armed escort to drive it”! This was news to us; he told us they can be arranged for 9 and 11 am and 1pm. It was now 12:45 and he wasn’t sure if he could get one as no one else had requested one, but he called and luckily, someone could be here in 20 minutes or so.
Since we’d opted not to each lunch at the lodge, we took advantage of this time, to make some quite PBJ sandwiches and then Kevin showed up with his shotgun in a bag over his shoulder. He works for a branch of the military that takes care of this sort of thing and off we went. Kevin sat in the back seat and we began the eastward drive to the Chyulu gate, – the western entrance of Tsavo West National Park, about 90 km away.
It’s quite surprising how in a country that relies on tourists to come to its safari parks, how bad the roads to them are. So far both parks have rough rutted dirt roads that are not direct access to the park but sort of round about ways. Oh and the signage is awful – you’d expect that there would be much more road signs. And as we mentioned, forget about getting an actual map as often they are not available or if they are, you have to purchase them. For what you pay to enter the park, a map is the least they can give you.
About 35 kms into the drive we arrived at a security check point gate where Kevin stepped out and spoke with the agents there and Fran got out to check us in. They needed the details of the driver, number of passengers and our vehicle license (which by now she has memorized: KCS 987R). We recorded the time we entered this area (but no one checks us at the other end although at that point we’ll be entering the park so perhaps that’s the checkout as they record the time you enter the park on your ticket – you get 24 hours in the park) and off we went. It’s mostly farms out here and we’re still not completely clear why we need this escort but gathered it had something to with drugs, rebels and kidnapping – guess that alone is a good reason.