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Our Days in Samburu

Wildlife in Samburu was abundant. Pre-dawn excursions offered beautiful light. We would typically jump into the vehicles before the sun came up, chase some animals, and stop between 9 and 10 to have our breakfast in the bush. By 11 we were back at the lodge for lunch and a rest before heading out again around 4 p.m. to catch wildlife during the golden hour.

One animal new to me was the gerenuk, aka the giraffe gazelle, for obvious reasons. It’s remarkable how they delicately eat the tender leaves and leave the nasty thorns behind.

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The river running through the preserve was a rich source of activity, including a sighting of wild dogs who apparently haven’t been seen here in over seven years. Their manic racing made it extremely difficult to capture focused images.

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And then there were the scores of guinea hens with their remarkable blue plumage and polka dotted undercarriage scurrying across the road… OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here we saw Rothschild’s giraffes in the wild. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Grevy’s zebras continued to fascinate us, as we followed their peregrinations and antics. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Next up: Lake Nakuru.

 

 

 

 

 

Off to Samburu

A bit about the logistics of this safari: As I mentioned in my first post, there were six of us on this adventure, with our photographer leader, Piper, and drivers Jonathan and Wilson. Our plan was to take off from Nairobi and visit three different national parks over the next eleven days. With two Toyota Land Cruisers, we had plenty of space to spread out: each of us had her own row, so we could shoot from either side of the vehicle as well as from the open roof.

A six-hour drive took us to Samburu National Reserve. En route, we discovered what I call speed bump commerce.  Kenya seems to love speed bumps, which are ubiquitous even on major highways. At these spots where vehicles slow down, there are shops, eating spots and various other types of commercial establishments — even when there is no town.

Our first game drive of the trip didn’t disappoint us, as we saw kudu, oryx, waterbuck, gazelles, dik diks and countless birds. Piper had told us we would see Grevy’s zebras, which are considered endangered, as their grazing lands have shrunk and their population is down over 50% over the past 30 years. This is the only place in Kenya where you can see these zebras.

Larger than the more common plains zebra, they also have bigger ears, and their stripes are narrower, giving them what Piper aptly described as an elegant look.

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As darkness began to fall, we spotted a mother leopard and her two youngsters. They nearly blended into the rocks… I was so excited, as I had never spotted a leopard in the wild before. Little did I know we would see them every single day!

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We had two more days in Samburu, with lots more to see.

Another Trip of a Lifetime

The first day started with irresistible baby elephants at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, located in Nairobi National Park. Each of the six women on this private photo safari had adopted her own calf, and we were excited to discover that we would have a very private visit with those cuties at their late-morning feeding. At some silent signal, the elephants scampered around the corner from their bedrooms, practically knocking the keepers down to guzzle their breakfast.

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My little guy, Kiombo, was born in March, 2017, in the Maasai Mara, and was orphaned when his mother died of unknown causes. When SWF heard about him they dispatched a team to watch him for a couple of days, during which time they identified the body of a lactating female they concluded had been his mother. Poor little Kiombo was in obvious distress, having gone without food for several days. In many cases, another herd will adopt an orphan, but in Kiombo’s case that didn’t happen. So the team wrapped him up, put him in a Land Cruiser and took him to the nearest airstrip, where a charter bush plane was waiting to transfer him to the SWF nursery. He has apparently adapted easily to his new home, and with his friends enjoys a little romp in the nearby bush every day as part of the process of readying him to be returned to the wild.

This wonderful facility has been rescuing orphans for forty years and is worth checking out here.

Just down the road we stopped at the Giraffe Center, established in 1979 to save the endangered Rothschild giraffe, whose numbers had dwindled to a mere 130. Here they breed the giraffes in captivity and introduce them into the wild. Feeding these handsome creatures was a real treat. Rothschilds are distinguished by the dark center appearing in their brown spots.

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What an exciting way to begin our adventure in Kenya!

Farewell, Rapa Nui!

Orongo is a deserted village of stone huts important in the tribal history of Easter Island. The island was plagued with tribal warfare over land, resources and power, and by the latter part of the 17th century the society that had so systematically carved the moai had disintegrated into anarchy and were even beginning to destroy the statues they had so painstakingly created. A group of warriors suggested that the path to restoring order was to create an annual competition, with the winner assuming the seat of chieftain for the following year. Thus was born the Birdman competition.

Tribal leaders would each select one athlete to compete, while they lived and watched from these huts, built into the side of a hill that topped a 1000-foot cliff overlooking the wild ocean and these three islets, Moto Nui, Moto Iki and Moto Kao Kao.

The springtime competition began with a climb down the rocky cliff face and a swim through the chilly, shark-infested waters to Moto Nui, the largest of the islets.  There the swimmers would wait for the first egg laid by one of the hundreds of Sooty Terns that migrated there to lay their eggs and raise their young. Sometimes they’d be on the islet for weeks. The lucky spotter and retriever of the first egg would signal to his waiting chief, who would shave his head and eyebrows and wait for the competitor to swim back to the main island, climbing the steep cliff and presenting the unbroken egg. The chief would be proclaimed Birdman until the next competition. This tradition continued for about 150 years and was central to the island’s religious beliefs.

On the backside of this village is Rano Kao Crater, which we had visited earlier in the week. Much more scenic on a fair day!

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Our organizer photographer arranged a model shoot one day at Anakena Beach, and we were fortunate to be able to meet these beautiful people and make pictures they can use on social media. As I usually do, I’ll end this series of posts with faces from Rapa Nui.

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Spectacular Skies

Being out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Rapa Nui has some seriously dark skies. And even during daylight, the heavens are pretty spectacular, with roiling black clouds signaling rain, or just achingly blue clear sky.

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The new moon happened on April 2, which made the skies above Anakena Beach even darker. Our local guide and astrophotographer, Marc, pointed out the various constellations, including the Southern Cross, Pisces and Orion, as well as the International Space Station and several planets, among them Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus.  Shooting stars zipped across the void. After unsatisfying night shooting in Alaska (Northern Lights and freezing) and Namibia (a malfunctioning lens at wide angles) I was determined to get something — one good shot — to bring home. My first one delivered a big surprise…

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The cloud, which appeared to the naked eye as a blob of puffy grayness, had been brilliantly tinted by the brush fire we had smelled earlier in the evening. It made for some real drama as it shape-shifted throughout the hours we stood on the beach. See the shooting star directly above the rightmost moai, above?

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What was so great about the cloud — or was it actually smoke? — was that it made every shot just a bit different from the others. Now I’m really hooked on dark skies!

Tongariki Sunrise

Most stories about Easter Island include photos of this iconic spot. Like Macchu Pichu or the Eiffel Tower, Tongariki has been photographed countless times from every angle and has no secrets. And yet, being there is another thing entirely, especially as the sun begins to reveal itself through the swirling clouds.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These fifteen statues extend 220 meters — over 720 feet! In 1960, an earthquake on the Chilean coast measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale was followed by a tsunami that scattered the fallen statues.  Between 1992 and 1996 these moai were moved back and replaced upright on the ahu, a colossal effort given that these are the largest moai on the island. The biggest of the statues weighs about 88 metric tons (a metric ton being about 10% heavier than a US ton). A construction company from Japan donated a crane for the restoration job, and when it broke down, they sent another — gratis!

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After the sun came up, I wandered around behind the ahu to the rocky beach, calm on this day. I did notice that one of the moai might have been a plumber…

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On the other side of the day, we journeyed to Rano Raraku, a quarry called the nursery of the moai, as it was the spot where most of them were carved. Disembodied heads  stand watch, or simply lie on the ground where they fell. Broken moai were thought to have lost their mana, so were abandoned. 

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This guy is Pitu Pitu, a sort of famous moai. I love his cocked head and quizzical expression. Up here we could get closer to the statues than anyplace else — close enough to see the distinctive carved features (note his nostril) and tattoos. This is where their personalities came to life.

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Sad to say, because the moai are carved from porous volcanic rock, rain, wind and sun are steadily eroding them, and there is at present no effective way to preserve them.

We Meet the Moai

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I knew there were hundreds of moai on the island, I assumed they were all pretty much the same. Wrong! At Rano Raraki, known as the birthplace of the moai, I discovered that the carvers imparted the heads with unique facial expressions and characteristics. More on our visit there later.

I also assumed from my reading that these giants looked out to sea. Wrong again! Only one group of moai gaze seaward; the Rapanui worshipped their ancestors, and these benevolent statues resembling important tribal elders and dignitaries were erected to look over and protect the people of the villages.

Another misconception is that the people deforested the island in order to move the statues from the carving sites to their desired spots. While the early settlers did cut down some of the trees to build homes, clear land for cultivation and provide wood for cooking, the greater damage to the palms that once abounded was most likely caused by Pacific rats brought aboard their canoes. These rats feasted on the seeds of the palm trees, to the extent that they could not propagate. Also, the Rapanui did not begin creating their moai for quite some time after they arrived.

Just outside Hangaroa, the only town, is Ahu Tahai, and that’s where we had our first introduction to the moai. This is thought to be the earliest inhabited area of the island.

The moai sit on platforms, called ahu. Once they were positioned on the ahu, sockets were carved and the eyes were placed, giving the statues their mana, or spirit. The eyes, made of white coral, always gaze slightly upward. The reddish topknot on this guy’s head is made of scoria, a different stone from the volcanic type of which the moais’ bodies are composed. Not all of the heads have topknots, which are thought to represent a hairdo (think man-bun) rather than a hat.

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Ahu Akivi, a line of seven statues standing at attention on a small hill, is a bit further inland, and we visited there in the harsh light of afternoon.

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Like many other ahu,  this one is positioned to align with the spring and fall equinoxes.

One morning we left the hotel early to catch the sunrise at Rano Kao, the largest crater on the island. Rapa Nui was formed when two volcanoes erupted, then a smaller third one joined. The lake inside the enormous crater  (1 km across) is covered with mats of grasses, and on a good day the sky and clouds create stunning reflections in the water. Unfortunately, sunrise didn’t materialize except for a brief moment, but a downpour did.

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Next up: a real sunrise!