Monday, 26 June - Balloon Safari
At 4:30 AM there's a knock. Having had a really terrible night I was awake and like springbok, we ger-sprangen out of bed, dressed and met Wilfred (so many Africans have such formal English names), our balloon safari driver who took us to Keekorok Lodge where we'd get the BALLOON. Happy (very belated) birthday to P as this was his gift for a birthday a year and a half ago.
Waiting in the lobby of this very nice lodge (our tour of it would come later) we met our expat British captain who explained boarding and landing procedures. A short drive later brought us to the 3/4 filled balloon and we watched in fascination as the burners slowly heated it upright. At the signal we (there were 10 clients, captain and 1 crew needed to balance the weight) scrambled aboard and then we floated free. Silently lifting above the savannah we looked east. With the sun's rays beginning to pierce the clouds, we enjoyed the free float, punctuated only by the occasional blast of the burners.
Courtesy Lonrho Hotels
I'd recommend the balloon experience to anyone. Just to get the feeling of oneness with everything you see below and around. To have the same field of vision as an eagle, to move with the effortless direction of a cloud, to watch your own shadow making its own "mara" (spot) on the Mara. For the quiet and the peace...very comparable, I'd say, to being under the water on a scuba dive...a sense of belonging in an environment, rather than looking at one. We were enthralled.
There wasn't a tremendous amount of activity below...a lazy lion, groups of sleepy antelope, 4 hyenas which we gave chase to. But the view of the plains as they stretched endlessly below was the reason we were there. And all too briefly the hour was up. Having been prepared for a jolt in landing the easy glide down and slight bump was almost a disappointment. We had watched the chase cars come closer and as soon as we were down and out they deflated and folded the balloon.
The champagne breakfast was set out and we chatted with the captain and Wendy, one of the other pilots at Balloon Safaris, as we toasted and ate. We received our certificates, bought P a hat and a sew on badge and departed back to Keekorok, game driving on the way back. Caught Mr. and Mrs. Lion napping at the road's edge and in a very embarrassing position it should have been for him. "King of the Beasts," huh.
On arrival we met David, toured the Lodge, which is lovely, and set off for our next stop: Mara Intrepids Club. This is another Luxury Tented Camp and I have to say its level of luxury far exceeded Siana Springs. Here, too, we were given the complete tour. Intrepid has its own airstrip, as did Siana Springs, and Air Kenya, the domestic airline makes scheduled stops.
Prior to our arrival at Mara Simba Lodge, our next site inspection destination, David detoured to enable us to witness the wildebeest crossing the Tarek River as part of their migration route. An enormous herd had gathered on the opposite bank – it just takes one to start down and then they all follow. Gnu are not noted for either intelligence or for independent thought. One started and some began to follow but mass confusion reigned and some headed back up the bank. Driving to a better vantage point we saw the reason...two lionesses patrolled...looking for an easy kill from the crossing confusion. They weren't lucky this time, but clearly, they planned to wait out the next crossing attempt. The strategy was fascinating: the lionesses knew the likely spots where dinner was easily had.
We arrived at Mara Simba Lodge around 3 PM and were given the FULL tour: guest accommodations plus vast, immaculate kitchen, modern laundry, generator, boiler room and their own water treatment plant that recycles waste water to be used for grounds irrigation. The only Lodge to do so. Very impressive all of it. But we're lukewarm on Mara Simba...really not upscale enough for our offerings. We had a long drive back to Mara Sopa and in 1-1/2 hours we made it. We both took hot showers, P went off to meet with the hotel manager and me to write. There's so much to write that if it's not done daily, the details get lost in the backlog.
Game driving is the activity here. They're usually scheduled for early morning and late afternoon, but having had 5 or 6 game drives under our belt we could see that any time is a good time as long as it's cooler months. . It was midday when we witnessed the giraffe birth and also midday when we saw the big cats. Plus at midday you're not neck and neck with hordes of other game-driving vans. Just a point to consider.
Tuesday, 27 June
Up at 6, breakfast at 6:30, tipped our room attendant and George in the dining room, signed guest logs with many promises to return. We enjoyed Mara Sopa Lodge but are ready to see more. First activity: driving to Mara Serena Lodge, a 3 hour trip to go probably 65 miles, and as safari roads go, these were good ones. But, Mara Serena is a jewel. Perched atop a bluff overlooking the vast plain, its architecture, designs and colors perfectly suited the area. There are no straight edges, buildings curve in cave-like shapes with abstract wall paintings, whimsical animals decorated the dining area and the rooms are charming, although just a bit small. So far, we like this Lodge the best by far and will certainly put it on the Luxury tours program to Masai Mara.
Next stop, Kichewa Tembo ("elephant head") tented camp for a wonderful buffet lunch (point: both lunch and dinner always start with soup out here in the bush – maybe to counteract the dry throat road syndrome?). Took our tour of this luxury tented camp and then inspected their $900 a night tent addition soon to open. Looks like Ralph Lauren fused with Hemingway in an Edwardian British Club.
VERY luxurious, can handle 18 guests maximum but for the price, everything is included. Should be. But an absolute bear to get to, at least by road. THE way to do these interior properties is by air. The only way. In fact the road was so bad and the skies so threatening we abandoned plans to see Governor's and Little Governor's Camp, just couldn't get there.
The drive to our day's final destination and overnight stay was Mara Safari Club, just outside the park's northern boundary. The drive was an eternity of bone jarring ruts and once arrived we were shown to their 2nd best tent (however about a 1/4 mile walk away!) but that was OK, we really needed to get our land legs back. P met with Hassan, the assistant manager, and got the full tour while I quickly showered and wrote outside the tent while I still had light.
How to put into words the experience of laptop computer working as hippos (HIPPOS!) snorted and splashed about 70 feet in the river below me? Mara Safari is on a tiny peninsula formed by the Mara River, it's shallow enough for hippos to wade, crocs line the banks, monkeys try to invade your tent and unseen exotic birds screech. WOW, just about does it.
At the lounge before dinner we talked with Americans who were on a very large competitor's safari and were very dissatisfied. Gave me an interesting insight on the competition. Service and communications are the keys and the competitor apparently had offered neither. Hassan joined us for dinner, another excellent buffet starting with soup and we continued a productive chat. Wending our way back to the tent we buttoned and zipped it up, careful to tie the zippers against the monkeys. Late night I was awakened to hippo snort sounds...strangely comforting. Sleep was good.
Wednesday, 28 June - Lake Nakuru
An early start to this day as it's the day of the long drive to Lake Nakuru, north of Nairobi. The cold I'd been fighting arrived in full force so the length of the drive and the sometimes exceedingly poor roads made me fight to stay awake. After about 2-1/2 hours we arrived at Nyeri which we'd first passed heading south to Masai Mara. This time we turned left to take the western north route and shortly arrived at the quality carving shop David promised he'd take us to.
Having seen this demonstrated in Mombasa (and knowing exactly what we wanted) we headed to the showroom. We wanted a 4 foot giraffe and if possible, a 4 foot crowned crane. The giraffe, preferably, should be Mama and Baby, to commemorate what we'd witnessed. Well giraffes there were aplenty, in ebony, mahogany, teak and rosewood, painted or just polished wood in varying levels of artistic quality. And there was every other conceivable animal except birds. Apparently tourists don't care much about the birds so they don't do them. Market forces at work.
I spotted a giraffe I absolutely fell in love with – naturally in rosewood and naturally enough, with a starting price of $1,500. A little too steep...by about 3X what we were prepared to pay. Some bargaining got it down to $1,100 but this was still too much. Finally, after an hour's deliberation we selected a single, smaller giraffe they'd let go for $500. In the daylight the rosewood textures and patterns gleamed in rosy rich browns. This beautiful piece would live on one of the huge speakers next to the entertainment center in the great room.
A little disappointed we couldn't do Mama and Baby, they wrapped the giraffe up like a mummy and for Ksh 200 (about $3) the "doctor," as he called himself, tied it to the back seat of the van. We're going to hand carry this on board...bless Business Class. Refreshed, but $500 lighter, we left. I should say that prices on carvings very greatly according to the quality of the wood and the workmanship and we did get a beautiful, meaningful-to-us piece of art. We still had many miles to go before lunch and were now some 2 hours behind schedule so David poured it on. Later, P, unable to keep a secret, told me he'd picked up a smaller giraffe to match Mama and had it wrapped up with her...so we DO have Mama and Baby. How incredibly, typically P.
This is a good place to talk a little about the roads. Once outside Nairobi, paved roads are a luxury – and just because they're paved doesn't mean that they're repaired. The unpaved roads are another story altogether. Drivers sway from side to side trying to find the smoothest route, huge boulders are thrown up under the vehicle to tingle the bottoms of your feet, clouds of dust congregate so that opening and closing windows is a game of road strategy. I missed once and immediately the interior was a cloud of dust. P missed once and took a mouthful of the stuff. No wonder khaki is the color preferred. The photo shows the main road to the Oloololo Gate of Masai Mara. But, you don't come here without some expectation of adventure and travel by land certainly rates. However, anyone NOT a good car traveler would be well advised to fly.
Arriving at Lake Nakuru Lodge for a VERY late lunch we ate quickly to get in the game drive before traveling around the lake to inspect the Sarova Hotel. Lake Nakuru is known for its flamingoes – hundreds of thousands of them. The shallow water rimming all the way around the lake is an undulating band of pink that moves as the flock repositions. It IS a sight.
This small game park is also home to lions. We saw a huge black maned male on a distant hill [Interesting side note: males' manes start out tawny and darken with maturity. The black starts appearing around age 5], white rhinos (more immense than their black cousins) and the spotted jackal, first time we saw that, plus the usual assortment of antelope, giraffe, birds, zebra and very malnourished buffalo. These were the only underfed animals we'd seen, lack of rain made forage scarce. Apparently, too, anthrax is common among the buffalo, and according to David, when lions make a buffalo kill they're also in danger of dying from the effects of this dread disease.
Making our way around the lake we searched for leopard in the tall acacia but no luck. Had a good tour and chat with Geoffrey, the Sarova's Manager. This is a nicer property than Lake Nakuru Lodge and their deluxe rooms will be on our luxury package programs. Lake Nakuru is really only a one night stay, 2 at the most, because 1 drive will show you the birds and the rhinos. We returned around the rest of the lake in time to catch a very late dinner. I'd been shown to the room early as I really needed to lie down at this point – and they'd given us their best – The White Rhino Suite, 2 enormous rooms with a king-size leopard print covered canopied bed that would have suited a Chinese emperor.
We had another African buffet meal, soup first, of course, talked with Joseph, the GM who also trains and races horses so he and I had lots in common. They do horseback riding safaris here using recycled race horses and if we were staying another day I'd love to do it. But, aspirin and Dimetapp fortified we hit the Emperor bed – 6 AM would come early.
Thursday, 29 June - North to Samburu
And it did. With no in room phones in the bush you get a wake up knock and they have been flawlessly punctual. In fact, service in every instance has been friendly and instantaneous. Downing an early breakfast we set off on the last of our long drives for a while – to Samburu. Had a good long talk with David enroute – discussed the all important role of the driver/guide in making the safari experience satisfying and talked differing political organizations of Kenya and the U.S. Talked a bit about differences in lodge/resort properties based on the nationality of the management and David came out with this gem, "One Masai is worth 20 Indians." He doesn't care for Asians in general, thinks they're noisy and cheap.
We stopped for gas at a service station patrolled by a uniformed security guide armed with a vicious looking rubber whip! All part of the cultural divide I guess. After a particularly bone jarring/dust clogging last 1/2 hour we arrived at Intrepids Samburu for late lunch and overnight. P's gone off to inspect 2 other area properties while I write. But before lunch we met with Shahnaz, the Assistant Manager, who's absolutely charming.
We were met with cold towels and fruits drinks, a perfect antidote to the trip here. Got the usual "keep your tent flaps knotted otherwise the monkeys will come in and leave you a gift you'd rather not have (!)," AND a new warning – that we shouldn't be alarmed if we hear gunshots during the night. Necessary, don't you know, to scare off elephants!! No, we didn't know!
Dwarf mongoose scurried around the dining terrace (they like cheese, we're told) but the best was the uniformed security guard, who, armed with a furious-looking sling shot, chased the pestering vervet monkeys. They're fast, too...one of them stole 2 rolls from our cleared table scraps and was away in about 5 seconds!
So P visited the Serena and the Samburu Lodge, together with Intrepids these 3 fit nicely into our scaled programs. I wrote the afternoon, getting massive hand cramp, and we met back at 6 PM for showers, to download the day's pictures and enjoy the lovely complimentary Beaujolais as we watched the night fall from the tent deck. Of course we've been given the best tent, half a "suite" – 2 tents with outdoor sitting area in-between, all covered. Charmingly "civilized."
Dinner was table d'hote, a nice break from buffets and excellently prepared food. Meals, we've found, are carefully designed to suit palette preferences. Prior to dinner we had visited the shop, P got a lovely shirt and spent productive time explaining our program to Shahnaz. To the tent we went after the meal, half hoping to hear a blast "to encourage the elephants to move along" (!) but sleep would not be denied.
Friday, 30 June
Wake up "Jambo" at 6, followed by the usual excellent buffet breakfast (help yourself to heated pots of potatoes, sausage, bacon, wonderful lentils, vast selection of cereals, breads and fruits) and made-to-order omelets. P got the Intrepids tour and got pictures BUT before we could leave we had the departure "quiz" – we'd been told on arrival we had to be able to name 10 staff members. P valiantly came up with 9, pleading the tour operator 10% discount entitled him to 1 FREE.
We left (reluctantly) with promises to return and set off on the morning game drive. Samburu is known for the Grevy Zebra and the Reticulated Giraffe, along with the Gerenuk (antelope giraffe who browses on hind legs). With David's magic touch of finding perfect shot locations we slowly made our way around the park. Samburu looks like parts of the American West, arid, low vegetation, a high desert, streaked with vibrant green from the flowing rivers. In a word, magnificent. Tracking a herd of buffalo from the opposite bank we stopped to watch them.
Suddenly I saw a slinky shape disappear behind a far bush. When it jumped to the higher bank, we could recognize a leopard stalking the buffalo. Too far for a photograph but incredible to witness. We think we like Samburu just as much (if not more so) than the Masai Mara. But they're so different. Since we'll be putting accompanying pictures in this narrative once it's up on the site I won't catalog what we've seen – except to say the photos were wonderful, and the experience even more so.
We hated to leave BUT were due at Sweetwater Tented Camp for lunch so we "made tracks" (sorry!). Sweetwater's Tented Camp was once the home of the infamous Lord Delamere, its hunting lodge style main building dates from the 1930's and is pleasant in a genteel run-down fashion. They have 30 tents opening on to a waterhole viewing area. This would be a good place for kids as they have activities and camel rides, etc. We ate a nice buffet, got the tour – this was the most ordinary of the Tented Camps that we saw but it's history was probably why Lonrho (the up market Kenyan hotel chain) added it.
But on their private preserve is a rescue center for chimps, and New Adventures decided to "adopt" "Naika," a 7-year old female, for a year. We went out to see our new addition and were happy to see her playing with a friend. These chimps came from the Jane Goodall Center in Rwanda during their war and they're now trying to rehabilitate them so they can be turned back into the wild. Some have heartbreaking stories, but happy endings since they've ended up here.
Moving on we paid the obligatory visit to "Morani" (Masai for "warrior") the tame black rhino, had our pictures taken as Morani continued to unconcernedly eat pelleted food. His skin felt pretty horrible, like sand paper on a grand scale. Having to "endure" the obligatory stop at the Nature Center, complete with "Touch Boxes" (we did David's tutelage proud, between us both we aced the quizzes) and a belly-laugh inducing "Poops of Sweetwater" display, we set off for the most renowned Kenyan establishment: Mt. Kenya Safari Club.
I won't go into its star-studded origin and history, nor will I waste time on describing when pictures will do the job much, much better. However, I will say that gracious civility in the very best of the colonial tradition, combined with the best that native Kenya has to offer create and environment that's unforgettable. It totally measures up to my high expectations. We were given a lovely cottage room, huge sitting area, giant stone fireplace with fire laid in and roaring, fruits and cookies on a plate inscribed in chocolate "Welcome to Our World." And VERY welcome we felt. Nice hot showers revitalized (game drives, by definition, mean dust), we went down to dinner ("No T-shirts, no sneakers or "sport shoes," and "no children under 12 under no circumstances, strictly enforced" – we like this!).
A VAST array of silverware greeted us and seeing the menu we realized dinner, table d'hote, is a 7 course excursion. Three entree choices and 2 desserts – everything else was set menu. Describing the menu will give a good overall view of the way Mt. Kenya does things:
- First Course: Parma ham over fruit coulis in seasoned sauce
- Second Course: Herbed consommé with vegetable slivers
- Third Course: Sautéed trout filet seasoned with coconut flakes
- Fourth Course: Passion fruit sorbet in pastry cups
- Fifth Course: Salad, individually selected, sauced and tossed by the chef
- Sixth Course: Entree...we both opted for IMPALA medallions in a sweetish "millefeuilles" of beetroot sauce. Verdict: we enjoyed it thoroughly (even though we're chowing down on one of my favorite animals)
- Seventh Course: Dessert. My choice was banana and coconut cake and P had an apple custard strudel topped with vanilla ice cream.
The dignified band did mature easy listening favorites (with the weird exception of the Chicken Dance song —?) and we sipped a nice Chilean red, feeling pampered, well fed, and very sell satisfied. Really feeling the altitude at almost 7,000 feet, we made our way back to cottage 105, seeing the Southern Cross clearly in the late night sky. The room had been turned down, fire banked, hot water bottles in place (they do that here and it's a terrific accommodation to chase the chills) and we fell asleep.
Saturday, 1 July - The Door and The Ark
Slept in late! Till 7:15 at least! Had the expected wonderful breakfast buffet, wandered the grounds, admiring the plantings (fabulous bougainvillea in a riot of colors), P took my picture at the Equator sign, Mt. Kenya Safari Lodge says it's exactly on the line when actually it really is 2 minutes south of it. Visited the Club Logo Shop (I really wanted a shirt from here), saw the stables filled with 7 Thoroughbred ex-racers, a wee bit underfed but uniformly friendly, and then the high point trip purchase took place at the jewel of an art gallery on premises (one of two premium art galleries in Africa, we're told, the other is in Cape Town). DO NOT MISS the experience of visiting and seeing the cream of African art, antique and modern.
To make a long story short, we wandered through and both of us had the same reaction to a hand carved ornamental door from Cameroon - instant love. It's about 5-1/2 feet tall by 3 feet wide, carved elaborately from a single piece of wood with scenes from a royally ordered lion hunt. It's also emblazoned with tiny brass figures guarding the edges. After a very brief discussion and some price haggling, we got it. Elated that the gallery would pack and send it off for shipment, we settled our bill and David drove us the hour's short drive on good roads to Aberdare Country Club, gateway to the Ark, one of the 3 "treetop" hotels in Kenya.
The luncheon buffet was opulent (like Mt. Kenya Safari Club, this is also another Lonrho property) and afterwards we toured their facilities. This is a comfortable, older property, the main house was a resident whose British owner abandoned it after Kenyan independence and they've added cottages, conference facilities and lots of sport activities. We met with Damien, the GM, had a very pleasant and productive chat, and got VIP treatment, transferred in a land rover by Joseph, the naturalist and "main man" at the Ark, the Aberdare's Treetop extension hotel. As we ascended to the 7,500 foot location, the flora changed again, mountain forest, very green and lush as the Aberdare Mountains capture and hold the rain clouds.
We had a good view of the Ark as we approached – Moses on Sinai couldn't have done better. It's an oasis of human habitation in a world where we're just observers. You come here prepared not to sleep as the waterhole/salt lick attracts elephants, antelope, rhino, buffalo and hopefully the big cats – giving us an up close and intimate look at lives we're privileged to view. We arrived about 3 PM, were shown to our "berths" (the ship illusion continues...) and then scattered to the indoor and outdoor viewing stations.
Elephants were the first on the agenda – 29 in total, comprising 2 related families so the water and salt resources were more or less amicably shared. Big bulls led the packs in, fighting off lone bulls and the matriarchs seemed to keep the rest of the herd in line. Mothers protected babies still nursing (they nurse until about age 3, when the tusks start coming in, and when Mother's ripe for a new calf...22 months gestation for elephants) and young bulls testing their valor chasing out buffalo and warthogs who wanted to share the riches. The elephant display went on for about 2-1/2 hours and then slowly they departed back into the trees to find safe cover for the night.
Dinner was served at 7:30: soup, buffet salad and turkey for main course followed by a strawberry shortcake. They treat guests very well. Seated at a table with Brits now living in Kenya and a native Kenyan – all involved in the sugar industry – we had a lively dinner conversation on comparative advantages of the various lodges and tented camps and the Kenyan economy in general.
Around 10 PM some elephants reappeared, Mom, older brother and a very little baby, maybe around 3 months old. Baby stayed close to Mom, trying to imitate her digging/scooping actions but finding it more convenient and flavorful to nurse. As we watched 2 hyena slunk in and moved towards baby, intentions obvious. Older brother went into action, trumpeting, charging and running them off twice. Elephant families are close and babies are protected at all costs. Decided to get some sleep and had just about settled in when the room buzzer buzzed twice, indicating something of lesser importance (NOT a cat, in other words) at the waterhole. Ignoring it, we fell asleep, partially dressed. Later we learned it was a rhino and amazingly I was glad not to have sacrificed a night's sleep for a rhino!
Sunday, 2 July
Awake around 5:30, no buzzers during the night, must have been a slow night at the hole. Washing quickly and reassembling we returned to the viewing area – where there were still elephants. The lights gleamed on flying bats. We checked the view report – elephant, hyena, genet cats, buffalo and dik-dik plus the one rhino had come to visit. No big cats. We watched the elephant families intrigued by their herd behaviors and amazed at their territorial behavior shown to birds, ducks and bush buck wanting to share the salt mud. Surprising that elephant's excellent sense of smell (compensating for very poor vision) doesn't let them know that these animals present no danger. Other herbivore types graze and browse peacefully. Maybe competition for the spot is too great.
P was talking with Joseph the naturalist, hoping to get a better differentiation concept of male and female in elephants. Joseph, looking in a different direction, began by saying that males are larger and darker. But when he said males also have antlers, suddenly P realized Joseph wasn't talking elephant. They both had a good laugh.
Had breakfast, got our stuff together and departed. We certainly feel it's best to schedule The Ark early in a tour. Had it been early in our tour we certainly would have raced to see the rhino at the buzzer. And the exhilaration is part of the fun. So, on being taken back to the Aberdare Country Club to meet David we left for the short drive to Mountain Lodge. The advantage of Mountain Lodge is that you can drive right up to it – no transfers and then bus service to an alternate location.
Mountain Lodge is old, looks like an Old West garrison fort, somewhat shabby, but the room renovations will improve it greatly. June, the new Manager gave us a comprehensive tour, and now that Serena Hotels have taken over this property we're sure to see some major upscaling. The watering hole, with an island the shape of Africa, is the viewing focal point. Leaving there after a very short tour we arrived at the Outspan Hotel, the take-off point for "Treetops," the third of the treetop hotels.
The day disintegrated rapidly from there. David beat a hurried retreat back to Nyeri, the close town where he would spend the night and get the bus all tightened up after the punishing roads and cleaned up, and we arrived at the luncheon buffet. I should say the Outspan is an old hotel trying, but failing at, not appearing decrepit. Following our noses to a peculiar smell, we were suddenly in the presence of food. "Cream of Arrowroot with Uncooked Avocado Chunks" was the soup. And it got worse.
Entrees and salads were weird concoctions put together with no rhyme or reason (Mushroom and Boiled Egg Curry?, Aubergine Mash with the look and texture of auto grease, Spaghetti and Butter which despite the warming trays remained resolutely cold...etc., etc., etc.) Saw P make the table circuit cautiously, pessimistically and return with a half filled plate, totally uncharacteristic for him, and a big groan, with tales of a possible sighting of the best left to extinction tangerine and cinder block stew.
Photos of Aberdare Country Club because
we didn't waste digital film on the
I am kidding, but not by much. Outspan caters to the down market holiday-maker and the sight of skin headed, nose pierced, shorts stuffed on top of fat butt patrons was unpleasant at best. Then came dessert. Brave P tackled the table, came back with an assortment, and a tear in his eye. First time ever there wasn't one even partially tempting offering. Some places here have a talent for dressing up foam core with icing – tastes like angel food left standing for a few weeks. I made my way over, still unsatisfied from what I had taken for lunch, and when I saw the first liquid simmering on the dessert table, looking for all the world like goat eyes in blueberry sauce, I made the mistake of looking back at P. Almost lost it totally.
Was finally able to identify bananas in chocolate sauce in a nearby pot, so reminiscent of the actual display entitled "Poops of Sweetwater Reserve" we were subjected to and lectured about in their Nature Center, BUT, narrowly avoiding a leg cramp the night before, the need for potassium overrode the decidedly fecal look of this "treat." Stomachs turning, contained laughter pains piercing, burps and belches heralded the way to "Ladies" and "Gents." I can only speak of the "Ladies" experience – and the fact that the illumination turned off whenever the hot air hand dryer was in use. Phil took no photos and didn't even bother to ask to see the rooms. Oh God, why are we here? We already know we hate it won't sell it.
We've renamed the hotel "OutspaM" and Monty Python absurdity will reign for the 15 hours we'll be trapped at Treetops. "Trapped" is the word. Herded like convicts onto ancient buses with double seating that wouldn't have suited 7 year olds. The trip to Treetops, the lodge famous for hosting England's Princess Elizabeth when she got the news that she'd become Queen, was long, bumpy, steep and uncertain as our bus (a former school bus from the First World circa 1950) jerked and lumbered forward.
Deposited in a lump in the middle of nowhere, the buses heaved on their way. We were led to the Treetops sign by a rifle-bearing individual, conspicuously loading his weapon, introducing himself as "Hunter" and demanding silence. It seems we were to do the last bit on foot, 265 yards up a hill (this is at 7,200 foot altitude), huffed and puffed our way past shelters explained as covers in case of animal attack. Of course at some 50 to 100 feet distant, the predator in question would have easy pickings as the tourist herd scattered.
Our first view of Treetops did nothing to dispel the Cell Block impression. Massive wooden walls rose ungraciously – this was either a movie double for a Dark Ages tower or a home to someone partial to hockey masks and slasher knives. Winding our way up steep and potentially slippery metal stairs we reached 12A (no doubt formerly "13"), the cell assigned. As big as our clothes closet at home, 2 twin beds faced a window with wooden bars. To its credit, the window overlooked the waterhole, a round, swampy attraction currently occupied by bush buck and warthogs.
With a tug, the cell's window bars came off in a clatter. Looking around we suddenly noticed no other door, opening or alcove. This room had no bathroom. NO bathroom. BATHROOMS were "down the hall." A "single holer" in "Ladies" with 2 semi-covered shower stalls. P discovered there were NO rooms here with bathrooms (with the exception of the "Queen Elizabeth" Suite...could it be that her stay at Treetops at the beginning of her queenly career is what contributed to the famously dour facial expressions she espouses??). This won't do. Won't do at all.
We want out - if not possible physically then at least we can savor a consciousness disassociation through soothing ruby fluid. We found the lounge. Seated uncomfortably, first staring in misery at the "mess hall" configuration of the dining room (and this was NOT a crowd one wanted to share intimate functions such as dining or ablutions with), we were suddenly approached by the Assistant GM. We and only we could help him. We needed to give up our room as a large Indian family did not wish to be separated and were in rooms surrounding ours.
When we informed him that we were tour operators he blanched (yes, this IS possible for an African)...clearly he had NOT gotten the word to give us an upgraded room...and now he was asking us to make a change. Making like switching posed some kind of huge hardship, P wrangled 2 free glasses of wine as compensation, in the best African tradition. Of course when delivered the waiter expected to be paid and had to be told "complimentary" twice.
So, camped out at a decent viewing window we had front row seats over the almost lifeless waterhole below as minutes ticked off like decades. They only significant time that mattered was tomorrow morning's departure at 7 AM. As we raised our glasses in toast, P proposed "First to the Bus!"
So, I inputted the journal into the computer to the amusement and amazement of the Treetops staff and P tried hard to stretch the reading of the Kenya guidebook over as long a period as possible. At 7:30 the hungry hordes gathered for mess call.
Three long, dreary tables held us. Each table was equipped with a runner slate down the middle whose purpose became alarmingly clear. Each course was slid down the center, you took your own portion and then dirty dishes were similarly cleared. Yuck. As if the food wasn't bad enough (I took 3 miniscule slices of roast beef out of which I had 2 edible bites) we had to endure the detritus of this thoroughly unpalatable experience. Yuck, again.
Our dinner companions saved the meal. Two French gals, tour operators themselves, and we compared notes on our collective Treetops horrors and the travel biz in general. Nice people, we enjoyed their company. Afterwards (and still hungry I might add) we went back to the bar, staked out a table under a light where I continued to work. One forlorn young bull elephant dug for salt as I started inputting again. The "cultural lecturer" Kikuyu tribesman, who we had been referring to accurately although unkindly as "Chicken Feather Head" was entranced with both the computer and my ability to type without looking at the keys. Well, God gives us all talents – I wouldn't have the skills to carry off his headgear.
Around 11 we turned in, turning round and round in the 10 X 10 foot room with its 2 twin beds, trying to get undressed. We shared one bed, for warmth and comforting (it's COLD in these mountains and we're thrilled we bought the jackets), and as the lone bull elephant proceeded to leave a giant deposit just below our window (a fitting recap of the day) we fought for a mutually comfortable position and finally slept.