Birds of Kenya (Maasai Mara stories – 6)

Am on to the 6th story of this! I guess patience would be wearing thin already. Well, this is going to be the last of the series. Normal programming will soon resume. Which is, hopefully, normal posts from me. I haven’t been doing too much of those, and I am using these stories to buff up some post numbers. Kind of obvious, isn’t it? Anyway here goes.

Ostrich:

The first bird that comes to mind when you think of Africa is probably the Ostrich. These are the largest birds on the planet. And you can’t help noticing that. They are big. And this is from someone who has seen emus and cassowaries. And their legs! They are really stout. You don’t want to be at the receiving end of any kicks from them!
Ostrich
As with birds the males are more colourful, in this case black with white tufts in the back. The females are a duller grey.
Ostrich, female Continue reading “Birds of Kenya (Maasai Mara stories – 6)”

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Giraffes, Rhinos and other ungulates (Maasai Mara stories – 5)

One of the things that astounded us in Maasai Mara, East Africa in general, was the sheer number of herbivore species. We are used to seeing spotted deer as the main deer, some Sambar deer, Gaur herds and the odd barking deer. Kaziranga had more – swamp deer, hog deer and buffalo herds, but there were two to three species in total.

Here, we started with Thomson’s Gazelle, Impala, wildebeest, Zebra, Buffalo, Topi, Eland, Giraffe, Hardebeest and Grant’s Gazelle! The sheer number of Zebra and wildebeest we saw in 4 days would be much higher than the total number of spotted deer we’d have seen in 5 years. There were that many! Even as we were making our way back to Nairobi from Nakuru, they were there quietly grazing on the sidelines, next to the highway!

No matter how many of them you see, the ones that really fill you with awe are giraffe. You don’t come across such tall creatures everyday, and they are really tall. Although we say “Giraffe” and think it is one species, there are 4-9 of them. The range is because scientists know that there are 9 types of Giraffes, spread over 4 species for sure. There’s still some dispute over whether some of the other 5 types are subspecies or form their own species.

The two species we knew we could see were the Masai Giraffe and the Rothschild Giraffe. The Masai Giraffe have more star-like blotches instead of regular lines separating the darker patches. They are the largest of the giraffes and the tallest land mammals on the planet.
How tall am I?!

Continue reading “Giraffes, Rhinos and other ungulates (Maasai Mara stories – 5)”

Elephant Stories (Maasai Mara Stories – 4)

We really wanted to see a lot of elephants in Maasai Mara. They were one of my main draws. Bigger, heavier than Asian elephants, Savanna elephants are the largest and heaviest land animals on the planet! We expected to see a fair lot of them grazing, but came across them only thrice! We hoped to see more in Nakuru, but our guide categorically dismissed all such hopes – “No elephants in Nakuru.”

We went through two hours on the first evening without any sign of elephants. The next morning as we were starting on our all-day drive towards the Mara river, we saw a bunch of vehicles stopped on the road and folks in them looking into the distance. Turned out that there was a herd in the bush. It was a largish herd, with a massive matriarch.
Elephant herd
Elephant herd, calf shows up
Continue reading “Elephant Stories (Maasai Mara Stories – 4)”

Wildebeest Crossing (Maasai Mara stories – 3)

The main thing about Maasai Mara in July-August, which also defines its “peak season” is the presence of wildebeest. Given the heavy species count there, I did wonder what the presence of wildebeest adds. Turned out, it makes a lot of difference. They are there everywhere. The large presence of a prey species also brings out a lot more predators, and there are thus a lot more kills.
Wildebeest traffic

Their presence is so heavy, that you actually see a lot of carcasses and skulls strewn all over the landscape. There are wildebeest of all ages visible for you. Right from the newly born to the dead carcasses.
Wildebeest
Wildebeest carcass Continue reading “Wildebeest Crossing (Maasai Mara stories – 3)”

Lions and Vultures (Maasai Mara stories – 2)

Sighting of predators like tigers and leopards isn’t common in India. You are considered lucky to really spot one, and people like to tell stories of how many years they went before they saw their first Tiger. This was a similar expectation we had with Maasai Mara, but looking at the topography we thought we might be luckier.

Unlike our forests, Maasai Mara is mostly open ground with the odd tree and valleys between the undulating terrain which usually house some water holes and bushes, which is where the predators live, away from plain sight of their prey.
Eland herd
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Cheetahs and Vultures (Maasai Mara stories – 1)

The concept of an all day safari was mouth watering. We were supposed to leave at 7:30 AM and return by 4:30 PM. That’s 9 hours of wildlife. Technically, that’s 8 hours of wildlife, as the road from the lodge to the gate is pretty bad and takes a good half hour one way with no sighting except cattle and sheep! The lodge had packed our lunch boxes which were to be eaten in the forest, and we had an early breakfast.

The drive goes on till the Mara river where you can see the famous crossing by Wildebeest. And if you are lucky, you might chance upon a crocodile or two attempting a hunt on crossing herds. The river is so far away that it takes a few hours to drive up there, and then the same amount back. Along the way you take a few digressions to catch more wildlife. It’s a lot of fun.

We started off with an elephant herd, a lot of Wildebeest herds running, or hanging around.
Elephant herd, calf shows up
Wildebeest traffic Continue reading “Cheetahs and Vultures (Maasai Mara stories – 1)”

A vacation that actually happened

A vacation happened, to Kenya. And am sitting here writing about it. After a lot of scuppered vacation plans – thrice to the same destination, costing me Rs. 50000, once to a local one costing Rs. 6600, and one halfway aborted trip which didn’t cost anything in money – this came as a major relief.

When it comes to vacations I worry about a lot of things – all that documentation that needs to be carried to either get a visa or arrange a visa (if you’re going to a Schengen country it becomes even worse – you need to submit your documents just a week before the trip and expect the passport to arrive in time!), all the bookings that need to be done before the trip – flights, hotels,  about things being OK at home – no one falling sick at the last minute, about your not falling sick – which was a sore point this trip, international issues – Trump and North Korea threatening each other wasn’t helping.

In this case the visa was easier, we opted to go the eVisa way and save carrying some cash. We had to get Yellow Fever shots and Polio drops, and this was done 3 weeks before the trip. Never mind that absolutely no one was interested in seeing them when getting back to India. The accommodation and vehicle were arranged stress free, but with a lot of emailing. Some money needed to be wired and that took some time and stress, but it was done. More people should use PayPal!

I started the week before the trip with some mild stomach irritation. A visit to a nearby elderly doctor and it was supposedly an infection, and I was on antibiotics for a couple of days. Once I realised that they were not working, I dropped by my Mother’s more expensive doctor. He raised an eyebrow at the antibiotics, said it was a case of dyspepsia, or just bad indigestion, asked me to watch what I eat, and prescribed some meds. This came less than 2 days before I was to be off.

How does one manage indigestion in a foreign country, that too when one is a vegetarian? Surprisingly, things became ok pretty fast. The food turned out to be mild, and well done. The hotel for the night we arrived turned out to be owned by an Indian with an Indian restaurant at the top. Thankfully, no hunting for different food before you crash. In the lodges in the forests,  the African vegetarian versions included some Maize cakes, called Ugali, with some “Kenyan Greens” which turned out to be our own Dantu soppu steamed with some onions and salt. Tasty as hell, and mild on the stomach too. Along with some carrots or “potatoes with herbs”. The main course was usually some Indian curry with some roti/chapathi and rice. Given that the guests were predominantly European/American, the food was done mildly and again, easy on the stomach.

The surprising thing, in fact a logical thing, was how they were getting their vegetables. Being hours away from a major city poses logistical problems. All these camps/lodges got around that by setting out a plot of land to grow their own vegetables. With the Masai nearby, cattle is aplenty and takes care of their dairy and meat needs.

So it was that after 5 days of a lot of fun, and the most amazing wildlife experience ever, we got back, and once back, the placated stomach started acting up all over again. Be thankful for small mercies I guess.

Will post stories and pictures next post.

Dhole packs and bathing elephants at BR Hills

We had been looking forward to this trip for a while now. Divorced from the pressure of big cat sightings, the BRT Tiger Reserve in the BR Hills offers up a wide array of wildlife – from a wide variety of bird species to elephants and tree shrews. The trees here are greener unlike the bare bones trees of the deciduous forests in Bandipur or Nagarahole. The guide said that there were four varieties of forests in those hills – from shrubs and deciduous to moist evergreen and evergreen.

Despite the short distance between Bandipur and here, the elevation gain changes a lot. There are no peacocks, which are so ubiquitous everywhere in Bandipur. The Langurs are also fewer. And despite being a drought year, there was a surprising lot of water in the waterholes. The elevation helps.

The camp itself is set in the middle of the forest, unlike JLR’s properties in Bandipur and Nagarahole. This means that there is no external power connection. What they had last year was a diesel generator running for 3 hours in the morning and 3.5 hours in the evening. This time, they had installed solar panels which promised power all the way till 3 or 4 AM. It lasted till 1 AM one night, and I slept like a log the second to notice.

Being in the middle of the forest also means that you can be woken up by deer calls in the middle of the night, sounding the alarm over a passing leopard. You can stand around the camp and see spotted deer, wild pigs, and even one barking deer passing by. The birding in the camp is itself amazing, and we spotted both types of barbets, Jerdon’s leafbirds, a yellow-crowned woodpecker among others.

But the surprising thing this time was the safari. Unlike with the big two reserves where you drive around for a long time not seeing anything, and suddenly something big turns up, BR Hills has a lot more to offer. You are constantly noticing something every 5-10 minutes. The forests are noisy with birdsong – whistling thrushes, Indian and Hawk cuckoos compete to be heard above the din of horseflies. And of course, Crested Serpent Eagles!
Crested Serpent Eagle

Although we hardly seemed to have seen much the first evening, we came away happy. There was a lone elephant cow grazing on the side of a hill, and she looked very weak and bony. This being summer, and right at the fringe of the monsoons, this was expected. Hopefully, the monsoons will be good and there’ll be good fodder for everyone soon.

Elephant
Elephant

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The Bazookas of Kabini

Visits to Kabini began in May 2012, initially as a one-off visit. Yesterday we returned from our 6th visit to that place. So much of it is the same, and yet so much different. We now know many of the naturalists, and they recognise us. Even then, every year it’s a different experience, bringing its own set of birds and animals. And even humans in the form of other guests. Sometimes even that trend is bucked and we start noticing people who had been seen in earlier trips, and their idiosyncrasies. And usually hoping we don’t end up with them in the same jeep.

Given its high density of Tigers and leopards, and that prized catch – the solitary Black Panther, Kabini sees a high density of ‘Bazookas’. A Bazooka is anyone, usually male, who has a camera attached to a large lens. The camera is usually a single digit Canon, or equivalent Nikon, and the lenses would be in 600mm usually. Despite the differences in brand, model or lenses, all Bazookas are united in one thing – they want to see big cats, and only big cats. They would be doing regular trips on forest safaris, but they always want big cats, and in different variations – a big cat sitting, or a big cat marking, a big cat posing with forelimbs on a mound, big cat in water, big cat drinking water, big cat resting on the ground looking at the camera with mouth open.

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Day Ride – Lepakshi

After much “being on the radar”, the Lepakshi ride was finally agreed on. Anand had already been there some months back and knew the way. There really isn’t much knowing the way required, though. You head straight North on the Airport Road from Bangalore, avoid getting into the Airport, and keep going North. Cross the border into Andhra, and take left where a board with an arrow left says “Lepakshi”. Go on for 16 km on that road, and you see the Nandi on the right. Go on a bit further, turn left where everyone else does, and you have the Veerabhadraswamy Temple.

Well, this is pretty much what we did. We left from my place at 7:45 AM, me on my Bullet Electra, and A on his Classic 500. I expected an arrival at Lepakshi at 10:30 AM with a half hour for breakfast. The Goraguntepalya railway overbridge is now ready, so timings should be predictable. The breakfast stop was at the fancily named “The Indian Paratha Company”, which was reached at around 8:45 AM. The place was crowded, and seating was in the morning sun. The Paratha came on time, but we spent 20 minutes waiting for tea. What was expected to be a 30 minute stop, took 1 hour. Really good food, but service needs to go a long way!

The ride along NH7 is plain boring. There is no other term for it. You get your speedometer to 80-90 Kmph, and stay there on the four lane road and keep watching the odometer ticking. There are neither trees nor curves to keep you interested. We reached the turn-off from NH7 by 10:40 and the Nandi before 11 AM.

The Nandi is carved out of a monolith and thankfully we got a few shots before the crowds streamed in. I figured it might be smaller than the one at Bull Temple road or the one at Chamundi hill. Turned out, I was wrong on all counts. This is the second largest Nandi in India, after one in Aimury, Kerala.(Not completely verified accounts I believe. Some claim it’s the largest.)

Monolithic Nandi - Second largest in India!

Nandi from the back

Apart from size, the carvings showed a garland of bells, and what looked like two ghosts on the body.

Bhoothas...

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