Kenya Forest Parks Safari – Photography Expedition

Kenya Forest Parks Safari – Photography Expedition

Reaching Kenya’s seldom found antelopes; from the bongo, to the sitatunga, and roan antelope, means a far distance journey.  Add the de brazza’s monkey, blue monkey, red-tailed monkey and potto to the checklist and you will see prints of a journey to Kenya’s Forest Parks. Not typically a forest only safari, the safari was a mix – a half a month photography expedition to Kenya’s parks with first-rate seasoned photographer Mike Loomis of Mountain Mike Photography.  

Aberdare National Park:

You will not realize the magic of the Aberdare National Park without driving in. Once inside, you will immediately notice the contrast between the park and the surrounding farm lands. I was three times a guided guide on the Kenya Forest Parks safari. Aberdare was the first of those occasions. The park has passable roads except for a short stretch that can be difficult during the rains therefore it is possible to visit without a guide. I have done so numerous times. However, people have been known to get lost, even spending nights out there. Our guide proved to be a master of the place, especially of the birdlife.

Aberdare National Park is hilly moorlands, waterfalls, clear inviting streams, and rivers. The park is also forest – rich flora, with some century old trees, woodlands – including bamboo woodlands. I never thought much of wild flowers but Aberdare got me curious. The black-eyed susan, butterfly bush, and candle bush were some of the wild flowers by the road side. On higher ground the variety gets more impressive.

Birds played with us their usual game. Now you see them, now you don’t; the batis, buzzards, the francolin scaled. I lost count of the birds we saw. Aberdare is said to have 350 types. The antelopes also did the hide and seek – looking and shying away – the duicker, suni, and bushback. The photo sessions would have gone better if all the park residents waited for the camera click like the black and white colobus and blue monkeys. The giant forest hog outdid them however. Seemingly not a jumpy one, it gave us pictures. It is one of the animals that you would do well to find at Aberdare – classified as rare. You will also want to see the bongo antelope because you will only see it perchance in two other locations in Kenya. It is elusive and we missed it. The spotted hyena we spotted in the park looked bigger than normal, hairy.  

The Aberdare National Park stands at 4001 metres above sea level. This is the height of the Ol Doinyo Lesatima, the north – highest peak of the 70 km long Aberdare range. On the south is the 3,906 metre Kinangop peak. There are other peaks as well, plus the table mountain and elephant peak. Adding to the allure of the scenic park is the adjacent Mount Kenya National park. One morning in Aberdare, at 2,300 metres above sea level, Mt Kenya and I had a sunny open meeting.  

The Abedare forest was for a while the hiding place of the mau mau freedom fighters. It was a battle ground during the struggle for Kenya’s independence. The Aberdare history also connects to local cultural religious beliefs and famous international films. 

Samburu National Reserve:

Unlike the forest parks, the arid and semi arid parks undergo glaring season changes. I had been to the Samburu National Reserve about 2 weeks before the Kenya Forest Parks safari and the dry season had taken a toll on the animals. The Oryx especially looked weak and the river Ewaso Ng’iro thin. Driving from Aberdare, I was worried about what we would find in Samburu, but the rain season although just starting, had done well. The previously golden vegetation had already turned green. The river Ewaso Ng’iro was swollen and flowing hurriedly. The animals were chewing cud by 10 am. The lions were healthy. We ticked away the northern special five. Birds almost dominated the game drive. Standing out was the orange bellied parrot.

Samburu National Reserve is known for having large herds of elephants but on this trip they were few. They had migrated but would definitely be back – as always. A young leopard gave us hope of a chase and capture. Could be it happened in the dark after our game drive.

Olpejeta Conservancy:

What I expected of the Olpejeta conservancy is what we got. The park is the only place to find a chimpanzee sanctuary in Kenya – translocated chimpanzees. We started with them. The park is also the where you will meet the world’s remaining northern white rhinos. Getting ‘safari’ close to the northern white rhinos requires permission and prior booking. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed into their enclosure – in fact only two visits/vehicles per day at an additional cost other than the normal park entry fees.

Apart from the northern white rhinos, Olpejeta has the southern white and the black rhinos. In the two days at Olpejeta, I counted six young ones, but not northern white. There is hard work being done as the world waits, hoping, rooting for the procreation of this highly endangered species.

The sky scrapping giraffe at Olpejeta and Kenya’s northern parks is the reticulated giraffe, although the most common giraffe in Kenya is the masai giraffe.  It was a group wildlife experience at Olpejeta. It is a splendid picture when twenty reticulated giraffes browse together. A herd of sixteen bachelor elephants were ‘hanging out.’ Male elephants usually leave their family herds at puberty.

A morning in the park brought out roughly eighty olive baboons from the bushes to the open field, roaming, foraging. The evening took them back. The big cats, of course Olpejeta has them. It was a thriving environment with birds like the saddle billed stock and the African green pigeon. We got our second parrot encounter – the brown headed parrot.

Saiwa Swamp National Park:

It was a long drive from the Olpejeta conservancy to our second forest park. Escarpment, meandering roads, small clear water rivers, and forest, was the scenic way we took passing through Eldama Ravine while taking in the view of the Tugen hills. We got to the Saiwa Swamp National Park in the evening. Colobus monkeys saw us in to the 3sq km park, but they granted mercilessly throughout the night above the dome tent I had unknowingly pitched near their roosting place. We had just one night at the Saiwa Swamp National Park.

Reeds and sedge means wetland. Saiwa Swamp National Park is riverine forest, acacia woodland and swamp. Wild bananas grow all over the place. You do not drive in the park. We were on the walking trail by the swamp when the local guide beckoned us to halt. It was not because of the colobus jumping from tree to tree. It was the de brazza’s monkey! We needed to capture it in picture. I saw them, but not well enough for picture taking in the dense vegetation. Mike got some shots. The long distance journey had me wanting the reward of encountering both the de brazza’s monkey and the sitatunga antelope. Both are extremely rare. With one found and one to go, fresh prints of the sitatunga got us eagerly expectant.

We tried different sides of the swamp and the observation deck without luck until moments before turning away when our guide motioned towards the reeds and there they were – the antelopes that can only be found in this one park in Kenya. It was almost mission accomplished – almost, because we did not get pictures of them. Saiwa Swamp National Park is also a butterfly park. Kakamega Forest National Reserve even more. It was our next destination. We did fair enough for one evening and half a day at Saiwa.

Saiwa Swamp National Park is also a butterfly park. Kakamega Forest National Reserve even more. It was our next destination. We did fair enough for one evening and half a day at Saiwa.

Kakamega Forest National Reserve:

Kakamega Forest – a tropical rain forest, is said to have 45% of the butterfly population in Kenya – 445 species. You will not see them all at the same time but you will notice their more than normal presence. We were going after the unique primates there. The potto and de brazza’s monkey are very seldom found. The red-tailed monkey and the blue monkey are also special kinds found in only a few locations.

In the open parks, it is easy to miss or pay little attention to birds. I was more attentive to them in Kakamega forest. The black and white casked hornbill for instance could not be ignored. Their flight is ordinarily a lot like a small flying aircraft and there it was louder than normal, especially since they go about in pairs. Having never seen the Goliath beetle before, I was amazed by the size of it when it flew across our path. It is a real giant of a beetle thriving on tree sap. A head on collision with it will not be just nothing.

In Kenya, there is the pride and chorus of having the Big Five animals (Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, and Leopard) Furthermore, the country’s northern parks have the ‘northern special five’ (Grevy’s Zebra, Gerenuk, Reticulated Giraffe, Somali Ostrich and Beisa Oryx) Not to be left behind, Kakamega Forest National Reserve’s raw forest has what they call the big five trees – Olea Capensis, Prunus Africana, Ficus Exasperata, Maesopsis, and Aningeria Altissima. These and other Kakamega forest trees make the place one of great medicinal value.

The sandpaper tree is medicinal. It stood out with its natural water storage pockets said to be able to hold up to 10 liters of water. The older the tree gets the bigger the storage becomes. Another of the medicinal trees is the Harungana Madagascariensis – the orange milk tree. They call it the nail polish tree since the local community use the colored sap as finger nail polish. The impatiens is a flowered plant that our guide quickly brought to our attention. Impatiens is patient with butterflies and bees – having a special nectar and pollination relationship with them; the plant has a mechanism that works to protect the butterfly eggs laid on it.

Ruma National Park:

Saying Roan antelope in Kenya is as good as saying Ruma National Park. Forward on the Kenya Forest Parks safari, I was going to make my first appearance at Ruma – the out of the way undisturbed park. The Rondo Retreat Centre did commendably for our two nights Kakamega National Park stay. Driving to Kisumu from Kakamega, the whole way, you will not stop seeing people, homesteads, and small towns.

Lake Victoria does not care to hide as you approach Kisumu. You will see it adding to the allure of the lake city. Passing flat swampy Ahero, to Kendu Bay, means going in the right direction to the Ruma. Homabay was our hotel stop.  Ruma National Park is in a valley – the Lambwe valley, and naturally edged by some elevations – escarpment, cliffs, and hills in this case. The park is a sanctuary for the Roan antelope and other translocated wildlife. With the Rothschild’s giraffe there, we were able to have seen 3 types on the safari.

Masai Mara National Reserve:

If you are driving from western Kenya to Masai Mara, the Oloololo gate will be your entry. It was a stunning view we had approaching the park – the Oloololo escarpment and the scatter of trees on the lush green plains. I thought we had seen impressive wildlife groups at the Olpejeta Conservancy but Masai Mara not to be outshined had welcoming parties to see us into the park. Over thirty Masai giraffes met us before we got into the gate. The zebras with them glanced at us expectantly. A troop of baboons was foraging by the roadside. Impalas did some hop and skip across the road. A short while into the park the display ceased and there was nothing to see. It was as if all the wildlife had moved to the gate…then again the ‘big’ welcome continued with around sixty elephants spread out in small herds.

It is said that crocodiles can stay for up to one year without eating. If this is can really happen, the Nile crocodiles we saw basking by the Mara River were perfect candidates for such a program. They lay heavy and lazy. The wildebeest migration had just ended. Lions napping by the road side also seemed to have been “affected” by the wildebeest migration season. Masai Mara had more goodwill for us just before we headed to camp – two sets of cheetahs had to have us see them. One set was Malaika and her two grown cubs – soon to be abandoned by their mother to fend for themselves. The other set was that of two ‘boys’ attempting to hunt but poorly.

The Oloololo gate that we used into the Masai Mara National Reserve is just one of several. The Sekenani gate is the most frequently used from Narok town. The Talek gate is accessible from the western part of the reserve and the Ololaimutiek gate on the eastern part. There is also the Musiara gate and the Sand River gate to or from Tanzania which is currently not accessible. The Mara ecosystem covers 5,500 km2 of which 1,510 km2 is the Masai Mara National Reserve. The rest represents pastoral ranches and conservancies. Even so, wildlife traverses unrestricted even to Serengeti in Tanzania, as does the annual wildebeest migration.

On our second day in Masai Mara, in the morning, we found that the two cheetah ‘boys’ had got lucky hunting. Their mouths said so. Their bellies showed. Again, there were the elephants, and zebras trying the Mara River crossing. The grey crowned crane like a star added shine to the game drive. Our prize of the day was a serval cat that we stayed with for a good while as it tried to hunt – listening, watching, jumping, then moving steadily. A big herd of wildebeest chose to tempt fate. They were escorting what I call them the five amazing cheetah brothers (though not all blood brothers) at a distance too close for comfort. It was interesting to watch them taking off in panic every time a cheetah turned around. They were having fun with trouble but then again what can’t the wild do. Only, never put away your camera until you are sure that you have left the parks. The two hulk lions we came across on our way out of the park reminded us why.

Amboseli National Park:

After Masai Mara, after dropping Mike off at Isebania, the Kenya – Tanzania border point, I had several days break before picking him at Namanga from his tour of Tanzania. If you are traveling from Namanga to the Amboseli National Park, your entry will be the Meshanani gate. Kimana gate is the other official entrance. We drove in through Lake Amboseli – as though driving through a desert. The lake is said to have been alive many years ago but now only gets a bit of its former glory during the March – May long rains. The open plains start at the end of the approximately 7 km ‘lake drive.’ We found fellow park goers keenly observing a lion and lioness. It was evening and elephant herds were heading home to the woods. They usually appear to go to the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro but not quite.

Game drives in the Amboseli National Park are often around the swamps spread out in the park. You will get quite enough elephant pictures in Amboseli, and then you will get pictures of them ranging through the swamps. They emerge from there is two colors; black at the bottom and grey at the top. The hippos stay submerged in the marsh – coming out to bask and eat. A goliath heron stayed at the edge of a swamp for hours. Going and coming back 4 hours later, we noticed it at the same spot – perhaps just lounging. If it was ‘hunting,’ the equally big catfish it eventually got had taken a long time coming – much faster for the fish eagle.

The swamps attract a captivating array of water birds. There were 15 types of birds at one spot; fast moving spoonbills, yellow billed stock, saddle billed stock, hadada ibis, sacred ibis, and the purple swamp hen. Greater pelican were soaking in the sun as the grey heron, squacco heron, crake, little egret and African jackana got busy getting food. The water thicknee and whistling duck were also present.

Mt Kilimanjaro was visible to us on and off. Nonetheless, the high point of Amboseli was an elephant birth – an event that we missed by a whisker but got to see the calf take the first stumbling steps with the family herd sniffing – meeting the new member. Another narrow miss was that of a lioness bringing down an eastern bearded wildebeest. We found the fresh catch at the mercy of the cubs trying to open it up. The eastern bearded wildebeest are bigger than the migrating wildebeest.  

Eight Kenya parks did the safari for us, with Amboseli National Park as the last of them.

Picture contribution courtesy of Mike Loomis – www.mountainmikephotography.com