A Travellerspoint blog

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Kashmir Trekking

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In addition to owning the houseboat we stayed on in Srinagar Golam lead pony treks into the surrounding mountains in the Indian Himalayas. We set out with him for 6 days of tent camping. Our party consisted of a 4 ponies, two pony men, a cook, Golam, Kasha, Meghan, and myself. We traveled by jeep for three hours to a small village at the end of a rough dirt road. The first night we camped along a nice river that was only a kilometer or so from were we left the jeep. This left plenty of time for fishing. Golam provided a curios set up that was a mix of spin and fly fishing. He had a spin rod, a fly real, and tackle that was a mixture of the both. Regardless of the weird set up it was not long before I had my first rainbow trout.
Riverside Camp
Golam looking for Trout

From our riverside camp we would climb out of the valley the next day through pine forests to a high meadow that was home to hundreds of sheep and nomadic Gujar sheepherders. We made camp with a spectacular views of high snowcapped mountains and lush valleys. From this base camp we spent the next two days exploring and then had a rest day. We were above tree line but still on green grassy terrain that made for open hiking and remarkable views. The first day we climbed to two lakes. In between the two we had to cross a wide stream. The water was freezing cold and it took a good time before I regained any feeling in my feet. We were able to catch a few fish in the lake to have with our dinner. The next day we climbed high up onto the snow, over a ridge, and to a frozen lake beneath an impressive mountain. I had fun sliding down the snow on my feet skier style while Kasha used her rain cover as a sled. She accidentally collided with Meghan and the two of them came sliding down the mountainside on top of each other!
Morning Mist viewed from camp
Gujar sheep herders
Meghan, Kasha, and Golam making their way up towards the lakes
Lower Lake
Golam rigging his tackle with a dry fly trailed by a Mepps spinner? And we still caught them on the not so “dry” fly.

Meghan up on the snowfield

On our way back to camp we took shelter from rain in one of the nomadic Gujar tents. They offered us tea and chapattis to pass the time. To warm themselves they would take coals from the fire and place them in a clay pot surrounded by a whicker basket. This would then be tucked under their woolen poncho keeping the entire body warm.. The whole family took part in smoking tobacco from a large hookah. They would take coals from the warming basket and place them on top of the huge bowl of tobacco and puff away. It was one of those amazing moments that catch you completely of guard. At one moment I was completely frustrated over the rainy weather and at the next I was awed by the generosity and hospitality of people who have practically nothing. While all this was going on Golam was down at the river catching us more fish for dinner.
Incoming Weather
Our Friends at the Gular tent

Unfortunately we could not escape the weather. It rained every day and on our last day it rained almost all day. A huge thunder cloud settled right above us delivering lightning and hail. We huddled in the tent covered in blankets and all of our warm gear for the entire afternoon as we did every afternoon. The clouds rarely lifted to expose the grandeur of our surroundings. Despite all this we still were able to have a really enjoyable experience. Tarig, the 18 year old pony man, was really nice and in his limited English we were able to get to know him over the 6 days. He lived in the mountains and his family were sheepherders. He spoke a local dialect that even Golum did not understand. He hiked the entire time in a pair of loafers with a disintegrating rubber sole. Even with this he was agile on the snow and had no problem crossing wet rock gardens and passing through deep mud. Our cook was also very nice and spoke a good amount of English. He had been a camp cook for 30 years in Kashmir and had his routine down. The food was consistently good and the trout was just fantastic.
Mist in the pines
Too much tent time
Ajmer serving up dinner in the mess tent
Tarig and Meghan

Coming from Colorado and having so much experience backpacking it was difficult being catered to and seeing the huge impact on the land. The concept of “leave no trace” camping does not exist here. Impacted camp sights were everywhere and all of them contained their fair amount of trash. We picked up after ourselves and encouraged our guide to do the same but we could tell the concept was not there. It was sad to see the land being polluted and we both felt guilty for contributing to it. If anything we hope that by showing that we wanted to pack out our trash we influenced Golam to do the same.

Posted by pmunson 04:56 Archived in India Comments (2)

Srinagar to Leh

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After some consideration, we settled on making the 450 km trip from Srinagar to Leh in two ten hour days in a crammed “shared” jeep. After commandeering the front two seats for ourselves (three in the front) we set our on the twisty curvy road over a pass of 3529m (11578 ft) to our overnight spot of Kargil.
View of the road crawling out of the Kashmir Valley
Meghan gets her passport Checked at on one of the numerous checkpoints
Tall snow banks on the road to Kargil

After an evening of second hand clothing shopping and searching for a vegetarian meal in a meat loving Muslim town we embarked for the second leg of the journey the next morning. This leg we found ourselves traversing high arid hills, surrounded by snowcapped jagged peaks as we pressed further and further into the Buddhist ex-kingdom of Ladakh. Ladakh is a high altitude desert with an average of 300 days of sunshine a year and precipitation levels nearing that of the Sahara! Today, the high point was over Fortu La at 4147 m (13605 ft) before descending into the Indus River Valley and the capital of Ladakh, Leh.

We left behind the green of Kashmir for the arid hills of Ladakh
The Road climbing to the mountain pass
Green irrigated pastures hugged closely to small villages lining the Indus River

Ladakh is home to one of the last undisturbed Tantric Buddhist societies on earth, with a culture and people more related to Tibet then India, this area is truly a distinctive corner of India. We arrived in time for the much visited Tse-Chu festival celebrated at the Hemis Gompa (Monastery), an hour bus journey from Leh. This festival celebrates the birthday of Padmasambhava, an important Buddhist teacher of the 8th century who was elevated to that of the “Second Buddha” The main attraction was the masked dances performed by the monks.

Dancers making their way out of the temple, surrounded by merrymakers.

Gives you an idea of how many people turned out.
Children taking in the view from above
Traditionally dressed Ladakhi women

The next few days we would find our selves just relishing the quite streets, friendly and kind people of Leh. Although not short on tourism (the main center of Leh is home to a quiet large Tourist Zone area) the laid back feeling of the mountain people makes it feel not so oppressive and the noise level on the streets is in stark comparison to anywhere else we know in India!

Yes, this is the view from our room

We arranged a jeep tour with 4 other people (Kasha whom we stayed with in Srinagar, Julia from France, Marc from the UK and Juno from S.Korea) and headed out on a trip to the Nubra Valley. Our first day took us over the mountain pass of Khardung La at 5602m (18,380 feet!) and touted as “World’s Highest Motorable Pass”. Again, like world highest lake in Nepal, there is some question to this validity. Never the less, 5602m is really high and the views and lack of oxygen was something else!
The Nubra Valley crew sucking wind at the top of the pass
Tri colored Stupas infront of “stupadly” good looking couloirs
We saw Pashmina goats on the way down the pass… The tuft of hair under the chin is the source of the super soft Pashmina wool
Switching up the snow covered pass

Nubra Valley stretches north to the Pakistan border and is home to the Siachen glacier where a notable battle took place between India and Pakistan and today is still heavily disputed. I read that India spends about 1 million dollars a day to station soldiers in the Nubra valley and that more have died from winter exposure or falling in glacier crevasses then in combat. The toll on the environment and limited water supply is a whole other story. As for tourism, foreigners must obtain special permits and are restricted to visit only a few villages. After descending from the pass we spent the night in the village of Hunder at the west end of the Ladahki sand dunes. Two humped camels, descendents from the era of the silk route, attract tourists (mainly domestic) for a quick jaunt around the dunes. Buddhism is fully evident everywhere and prayer flags , mani walls, and white washed Gompas (Buddhist Temples) decorate the hills side.
Sand dunes in an afternoon dust storm
Mani wall and white washed stupas, Hunder
One of the thousands of engraved stones making up the Mani Wall.

My humps, my humps, my lovely little lumps
Am I a baby two humper or an ostrich?!

Peter set off on an afternoon hike with Juno that climbed up above Hunder. Here many old ruins were found including tow temples and a decaying fort.
Stone staircase leading up to one of the hillside temples.
Statues of Buddha found in the small and unoccupied temple
Hilltop fort

Panoramic view of the Nubra Valley

In our next stop in the village of Diskit is the 17th century Diskit Gompa The monastery is home to 140 monks and some 16 or so novice monks. The buildings surrounding the gompa appear to just rest on an out cropping of rock and is built in traditional Tibetan style.
Diskit Gompa, just holding on
Walking up the many steps around the gompa
Young monk looking over Diskit
The prayer hall in which the monks will sit and chant mantras.
Pretty common scene, these large prayer wheels were found through out most villages

In Sumur, we visited the Samstemling Gompa, where we found much hustle and bustle in preparing for the Dalai Lama’s visit on the 21th of July. Young monks were busily painting window sills and banisters, while women from the village were sewing brightly colored flags. Elders walked around in jubilance monitoring the progress. The road leading up to the monastery was being upgraded, and in traditional Ladaki culture both women and men come out to help. Young children would either sleep or play near by while their mothers worked side by side with the men. We are told that the Dalai Lama last visited in 2003, and would be making the journey over the 5602m pass in a helicopter!
Notice baby sleeping in foreground
View of Nubra valley from the gompa in Sumur
Valley View as we made our way back over the pass
View of Leh from Khardung La

After our trip to the Nubra valley we returned to the Dorje Guest house were we plan to spend at least another two weeks exploring Leh and Ladakh.

View From Dorje Guesthouse

Posted by pmunson 22:41 Archived in India Comments (0)

Thanks Bro!

Exploring Ladakh by Motorcycle and Maruti

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Thanks to the Boarder Roads Association, BRO, and the Indian military, Kashmir and Ladakh are accessible by a large network of roads. Sharing disputed borders with both Pakistan and China, India carefully maintains access to her furthest reaches. Due to the rugged landscape this is no easy task and the roads are continuously under construction. New roads like a ribbon of black ink in the desert will abruptly turn into a tail bone crushing jeep road at any moment. Never the less, roads in any condition stretch out in all directions following river valleys, crossing massive mountain passes, and making their way up into tiny villages still holding on to traditional customs. BRO is proud of its work and every few kilometers there is another sign likethe one above boasting their success, encouraging safety, or making curios statements. Some of our favorites are: “If Married, Divorce Speed”, “Respect All, Suspect All”, “Better to be a Mr. Late than a Late Mr. Never”, “After Whiskey Driving Risky”, and “Don’t Be Silly in the Hilly”.

After Whishkey Driveing is Rishkey? Apparently whoever painted this sign was testing the theory.

We decided to take advantage of BRO’s good work and rented a Royal Enfield motorcycle. We set out for three days exploring the many Buddhist Gompas in the villages of Ladakh. Originally we planed on making a big trip out if it by staying overnight along the way but after hearing many stories of broken down motorcycles we decided to play it safe and make three different day trips out of our base in Leh. We hooked up with Marc, who was with us on our trip to the Nubra Valley, as he also was planning on renting a bike and having a travel companion with a 2nd bike was an added comfort incase of a breakdown. This decision turned out to be the right one by the end of the third day.

Vroom Vroom…

Numerous hilltop Gompas are found in and above traditional villages all over the Buddhist ex-Kingdom of Ladakh. Each is usually supported by an active monastery and monks maintain the temples and grounds. The villagers hold on by making the most out of a short but prosperous growing season that sustains them through the long and cold winters when the roads close isolating them from the rest of the world. Havens of greenery surround the villages standing out against the barren mountainous landscape were irrigation has allowed growth in this mountain desert. The Ladakhi people are masters of self sustained living in this environment and much of the tourism you see in Leh is based around ecological awareness.

Some sights from our motorcycle adventure:
Fort above Naropa Royal Palace, Shey, Ladakh
White Washed Stupas in front of Thiksey Gompa
Photo of the Dalai Lama and offerings inside the Thiksey Gompa. We missed seeing His Holiness by 1 day in Dharmsala and only by a few days in Ladakh. We also learned from an unverified source that he is the worlds 2nd most recognizable man behind Obama.
Buddha Statue in Thiksey Gompa
Coming across a narrow bridge covered in prayer flags with Stakna Gompa in the background
Open Road

Two and half hours west of Leh is Alchi, this otherwise unimpressive village is home to the Chhoskhor Temple Complex. This complex is home to fresco wall murals dating back to the 11th century when Buddhism made its way over the Himalaya from Kashmir. The “Great Translator” Lotsava Ringchen Zangpo is credited with the creation of 108 temples throughout the Himalaya and aiding the spread of Buddhism from southern India into Ladakh and Tibet. Today, only a few of these temples survive. Located up a side valley and tucked away in the village, the temple complex is almost hidden in contrast to the other rock and cliff hugging monasteries of the area. This may have allowed these temples to remain intact. The walls of the temples are covered from floor to roof in incredible intricate paintings. Very little conservation work has been completed and is evident in the cracks and water damage of the walls. Hopefully in the near future more will be done to protect this “living museum”.

Photographs where not permitted in the temples, therefore the following pictures where taken from the Alchi: The living heritage of Ladakh, a photo book we purchased.
This is Ahyama Tara the most adored goddess of Alchi. Each of her six hands are in different gestures and she is holding a blue lotus and book.
There was three of these 17 feet high stucco statues all covered in fresco paintings. This is Avalokiteshvara, the god of compassion. The lower garment is filled with miniature scenes of gods, goddesses, palaces, priests ect. It is impossible to capture the magnitude and detail of the work.
This is diety is known as Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara or also as Ekadashamukha Avalokiteshvara and is one of the most popular deities. The eleven pairs of arms hold different objects and she wears an embroidered long shawl and rosary.

Marc picks up a hitchhiker! This women found us at a fork in the road to Likir Gompa, after us asking for directions she asked us for a ride. After Meghan and I egged Marc on, she hoped on.

Light at the end of the tunnel. Making our way up to the Likir Gompa we found these old prayer wheals at the end of a dark passageway
Giant Sitting Buddha statue at Likir Gompa
Likir Gompa
Marc, Myself, and the Enfields

On the third day we took a trip up to the small village of Chilling. We did this mostly for the excellent ride up the Zanskar river valley on a narrow and twisty road. The views were amazing and the village turned out to be really nice as well. There were no tourist facilities but we had heard that there were a few families who provided home stays. We were not staying the night but managed to find a woman who was working out in the fields and convinced her to make a delicious lunch for us. Fresh greens, dal, rice, ladakhi bread, and mint tea. Delicious!
Zanskar River Valley
Mark Enjoying the Curves. Another BRO road sign we liked was “go easy on my curves”. Not this time!
One of the few homes in Chilling
Our Host in Chilling

And as I eluded to earlier I did have a break down. On the way back from Chilling, just before the main road, I broke a spoke that derailed the chain and mangled the chain guard. Without tools I was helpless but the guy I rented the bike from came out without delay and fixed the bike up and even gave me a break on the price of the rent! How is that for service.
Fixing the Bike

After a couple of days rest in Leh we set out again for 4 days, this time by car. We hired a private car from mechanic. It was a Maruti, a compact Indian made car that is a favorite for its durability and reliability. You would not know by looking at it though. The vehicle resembled my old Ford Festiva! It was 13 years old and insured for 15,000 rupees or about $325! It served us well over all the bumpy roads even though at first I felt like all the wheels and doors would fall off before we finished the trip.

Me and the Mighty Maruti
Prayer beads hanging from rear view mirror

Our first stop would be 10km south of Leh and the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 75th birthday. There was speeches from local dignitaries, traditional dances chanting monks and tons of people. The people watching was most enjoyable.
A few people watching pictures

We arranged permits to visited the upper Indus river valley. Again, with its proximity to the “line of control” between India and Pakistan, we were limited in where we could visit. This area is again unique for India in that there are people of Aryan decent living in the villages. Called Brokpa or Dard people, there is some discussion in where they come from originally, some speculate decedents of Alexander the Great’s army. The people are certainly of fairer complexion and have different features, but what sets them apart is their tradition dress. As is common everywhere, one only sees the older generation and typically the women keeping up with the dress. Married women wear three braided dreadlocks on each side of their face with an additional group down the back. Both women and men wear flowers in their hair with pearl earrings (where do these come from?). The village of Dah, the farthest we could travel up the valley, is epicenter for the Dard people. The village sat above the road and we had to walk 10 minutes through terraced vegetable fields and apricot orchards to reach the village. Dah had two very simple guesthouses and an wonderfully peaceful ambiance.


Beautiful Indus River Valley

Under the grape vines, perfect place to relax and read. Dah, Ladakh
Our Guest house in Dha
Dard woman in traditional dress. We saw these women in the village but I found this picture on the internet

We spent the next day slowly retreating down the valley visiting small towns along the way. There is not much traffic and only one or two busses a day make the trip in either way so the main means of getting from place to place is hitchhiking. We picked up school children walking 3-5 km to school and another older gentleman along the way. The village of Laido where the old man was going, turned out to be a nice diversion. Behind a newly constructed Gompa a man and his wife where busy hand weaving wool clothe. We visited them for a bit and shared in a Ladahki butter tea (a tea tasting a bit like goat).
Hitchhiker, he was praying the entire time in the back seat, I wonder if he does this always or if it was because a gora (foreigner) was driving?!
Weaving the old fashion way Cheap entertainment. You see children rolling wheels from India, Thailand to Latin America!

This was a military check point up a side valley. We attempted to go north, but after 20 minutes, many official calls, and tea and biscuit’s, the military personnel informed us “not possible”. Oh well, we tried.

Picture of the mighty Indus. This river usually runs glacial blue!

We finished out the road trip by taking the road west toward Kargil and overnighted in the to of Lamayuru. We passed this place on our way to Leh and were looking forward to being able to slow down and enjoy the road. The switch backs up the side of the mountain didn’t disappoint.

Twisty and curvy and up and up….amazing
Lamaruyu gompa and village.

Morning incense burns in front of gompa
View from the Lamaruyu - Leh road

We returned to Leh for a final two nights before heading out on a micro bus on the morning of the 12th to take us to Manali, 450 or so kms south of Ladakh. What we knew was going to be a long and exhausting trip slowly dissolved into one arduous journey, but that is another blog entry in the Joy of Travel series!.

Tsemo Fort - Set high on an ridge above town this is the iconic image of Leh, viewable from almost anywhere in town.
Leh Palace above old town - On the same ridge as the fort this crumbling old building is also a Unesco World Heritage site
Mysterious pig head in Leh Palace

Tsemo Fort view form an adjacent rock outcropping. The prayer flags span a gap that must be over 100 yards
Meghan waits patiently with some monks as I snap more photos

Posted by pmunson 02:27 Archived in India Comments (1)

Joy of Travel part 4

The long ride to Nairobi

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I am writing from the comfortable Dubai airport at 3:00 in the morning. Forgive me if my thoughts run astray. A 4 hour delay on top of a 6 hour lay over bumped our flight to Nairobi back to 6:00 am and it has been a long night in the Airport. If we were not traveling on a shoestring we may have opted for the in airport hotel but the long rows of recliners in the terminal are good enough for us. Prolonged waits and long travel days have been the theme since we departed Leh so let me back up a little bit.

Meghan was able to finish the book “Super Freakonomics” on our trip to Nairobi

An 18 hour bus ride? You must be kidding me. Unless we wanted to throw down for an expensive airline ticket the only way out of Leh without backtracking is the long road to Manali. It is not an easy road either. Four mountain passes in the 14,000 to 16,000 foot range were spaced out on a long bumpy road that is only open a few months out of the year. This year the road had been plagued with repeated closures leaving people stranded for days in the few weeks since it first opened. We decided to be adventurous and with a bag full of food and water we boarded the 11 seat “tourist tempo”, or beefy mountain minivan that would carry us along the way. Our journey began just after midnight, just as the kickoff for the world cup finals was happening in South Africa. Meghan passed out pretty quick but I was up all night. We passed the first mountain pass just as the sun started lighting up the sky. Ahh, sunrise in the mountains… this is not so bad. The drive continued to hold my interest and the time passed relatively quickly.
The road disappears as we traverse high alpine plains

Seasonal parachute tent restaurants catered to the flow of traffic on the desolate Leh-Manali route

Making our way up the 2nd pass.

View from the road

Third Pass

First signs of trouble

At about the 15 hour mark we had crossed the 4th pass and were making our way down towards Manali. We came across a huge traffic backup and learned that a landslide that we thought had been cleared had started sliding again. Our driver weaved around as many trucks as he could on the narrow mountain road and got us close to the front of the line. Traffic was held up in both directions and the road was a total mess. I wish I could give the situation justice with my words, it was truly an India moment.

Trucks lined up above the landslide area

Back home the road would have been closed, traffic would have been turned around, and road workers and policemen would have been called in to repair the road and maintain order. Not the case in India. There was 2 cops and a guy with a bulldozer (a strange occurrence considering everywhere else we had been on the way in and out of Kashmir was covered by the military). A few trucks would gun it through the landslide area bouncing around in the deep mud hoping for some sort of purchase to get them to the other side. After a few trucks got through and ruined the track one would get stuck and this happened about every 5 vehicles. At this point about fifty guys would run out an push until the truck made it out and then a huge cheer would go out from the crowd. Next the bulldozer would come through and smooth out the mud essentially putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound and the process would start again. I watched this for over an hour and saw about 12 cars get through.
While all this was going on the mountain was actively sliding and rocks and mud were coming down from above. This was mostly from two sources, a muddy hillside were rock and mud slowly made its way down to the road and a craggy rock wall were huge boulders broke off and shot like missiles across the road. At the fist sign of any movement from above one of the two cops would start blowing his whistle, everyone would start screaming, and anyone that was in the slide zone would start running for safety. Keep in mind we are on a mountain pass and the road drops off steeply on one side for hundreds of feet. I had visions in my mind of a mass stampede sending the slow and the weak in attendance tumbling down the mountainside. After about 4 hours time, just as night was falling, a large truck became stuck beyond the help of the masses and the road, by default, was deemed “closed”. We were about 5 cars away from giving the danger zone a go and I don’t know if I was frustrated or relived at this point. I was at about 40 hours without sleep so the whole thing, like this evening in Dubai, is kind of dream like.
Our driver in a last ditch effort spared us the cold night in the jeep at 14,000 feet listening to a landslide! All we had to do was shoulder our packs and walk down the mountain. Did I mention it had started raining again? It really would not have been all that bad if we had not recently lost our good headlamp and the batteries in the only one we had were just about dead. Never the less we made it down the rocky mountain path that cut off a big chunk of switchbacks and only had to wait about an hour out in the rain for a 2nd “tourist tempo” to arrive. 24 hours after departing Leh we were glad to find a bed and were quick to sleep.

We knew that we were going to need some rest in Manali even before the landslide fiasco so we planed 4 days to just chill out. We had been recommended a lovely guest house that was a 10 minute walk alongside a mountain river through apple, apricot, and plum trees. The apricots and apples were in season and we could pluck and eat them along our walk.

River with guest house in the trees


Manali Guest house

Typical Indian Chai Stand, Manali

From Manali the Travel fun continued with a 10 hour overnight bus to the capital of Punjab, Chandigarh. Here we would spend the day exploring the town before hoping on an overnight train to Jaipur the following Night. Despite the lack of sleep we had fun exploring Nek Chands Fantasy rock garden. This was a massive 25 acre maze of rock and recycled building materials that felt part Aztec ruins, part mosaic nightmare.

We knew we would be safe on the bus after the driver lit an incense offering to his plastic dashboard diety!




Nek Chands Fantasy Rock Garden

Two Days rest in Jaipur and on to another overnight train that after 20 hours would finally bring us to Mumbai! We really enjoyed Mumbai and considering it was the monsoon felt like we got really lucky with the weather. We got a break in the rains to do a lot of exploring by foot and enjoyed an evening on the sea side walkway that leads to Chowpatty Beach. We also were able to witness the impressive rains of the monsoon season both inside and out.
Porters taking a break outside the Train station in Jaipur. It was fun to be back in Rajasthan for a few days.

Busy railway platform on the way to Mumbai

Don’t crap on the tracks… at least in the station please. The trail bathrooms were not more than a dressed up hole in the ground.

Mumbai from Seaside Boulevard

Meghan at Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai

Victoria Terminus Train Station, Mumbai.

Caught out in the monsoon

Mumbai traffic laws… No trucks, horse drawn carriages, or ox carts.

Our last Thali in India… we will miss the food.

Back in the Dubai airport our big layover only lasted an hour longer than expected and we were in the air for the 5 hour flight to Nairobi. Fortunately we had arranged a pickup at the airport knowing we would be tired and she was their waiting for us when we cleared customs. We pre booked a “room” at the Wilderbest Camp. This was an old estate on the outskirts of town that had a few rooms inside, luxury safari tents outside on the grounds, and traditional camping tents scattered around. We were in the later. Over the Next few days we will be making our plans for Africa and hope to be out on Safari before our next posting!

Hitting the Tarmac in Nairobi

Meghan and our campground host the tortoise.

Posted by pmunson 03:57 Archived in India Comments (4)

Come on Safari with Me!


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We arrived in Africa during the annual wildebeest migration and knew we wanted to head out on safari
right away. Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park spreads out over the border into Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve and is the premier place to see big game in East Africa. At this time every year an estimated 2 million wildebeest and two hundred thousand zebras follow the rains into the Masi Mara in natures largest animal migration. With great excitement and anticipation we signed on to a four day safari. Our itinerary consisted to three game drives in the Masai Mara and a 4th game drive in Lake Nakuru National Park. The later being famed for it pink flamingos and white and black rhinos.

Booking the trip was easy to do in Nairobi and far less expensive than some of the trips we had looked at online. We were able to keep the cost down by going with a group of others who wanted a similar itinerary and were not afraid of sharing the experience with others. So after 4 days exploring Nairobi and getting a feel for Kenya we set out. The ride out to the Mara brought us in and out of the great rift valley…
The first view of the Rift Valley

Being in this trip for the long term we had to once again opt for the budget option with our safari. This meant going with strangers as opposed to in a private vehicle, camping outside the park instead of inside, and less luxurious accommodations. On our arrival at the camp we could not have been more pleased with the lower standards. Our tents were more like cabanas, our camp was right on the unfenced edge of the park with wildebeest and zebras in plain sight, and our company was more than enjoyable.

Our tents on the edge of the park
Meghan in the “White Elephant”

Everyone in our group were on their first African safari and we all were giddy as we piled in for the afternoon drive. Our ride was a 4WD van with a large pop up top that allowed for everyone to stand and have a unobstructed view while being protected from the sun. Almost all the other vehicles we saw in the park were of the same design and all painted white. The terrain was all gently rolling grassland with a spider web of dirt trails spreading out in all directions. You could see other vans off in the distance and we came to refer to them as “white elephants“. Queue the Animas. As soon as we got started it was like a scene out of Lion King. It started out with African Buffalo, Wildebeest, Gazelles, Zebras, Giraffes and Impallas. We saw Hartebeest, Topi, and the curios little Dik Dik. Then came the Female lion, almost camouflaged in the tall grass if it was not for the bloody zebra she was devouring that gave her away. Less than an hour into our fist day and it was on! The wildlife was prolific during our entire drive and ended in a climax when we saw a female lion give chase to a pack of zebras. She did not make the kill but the thrill of the chase was amazing. Life and death in a few hours on the African savannah.
Zebras… all in a line just as they like to be
Lion, resting after the big zebra meal
Munslers on Safari
On the hunt. Are the zebras all looking at one guy for a reason?

Up and out the next morning at 8am, we would spend the entire day in the Mara, taking lunch along the famous Mara river. This is the river highlighted in the Planet Earth series by the BBC in which the thousands of wildebeest challenge the crocodiles in crossing from one side of the park to the other. It was quiet when we visited, the wildebeest come in waves and the last wave was only a few days before, more would cross in the coming days. A friendly Kenyan park ranger, with large rifle, lead us to the bank of the river and with in a few meters of the sleeping crocs. Simply put, Nile crocodiles are HUGE. Along the banks lay the remains of many wildebeest that either fell victim to the crocs or more simply broke a leg and drowned (they cross in enormous numbers for safety) Living side by side in relative peace with the crocs are the awkward hippopotamus. Quite graceful in the water, these beasts look out of place when walking on land. Huge bodies supported by four stubby legs make these animals look very precarious when walking. We spotted a few new animals such as baboons, warthogs, a cheetah, and the massive African Elephants. Seeing a family of Elephants plod their way across an open plain of tall grass is something out of this world. They are so big and lumber along so slowly when not disturbed it almost felt like we were watching dinosaurs. We encountered three different groups during the day and saw babies, young ones at play, and humongous full grown adults. I was more impressed by the elephants than I expected. Seeing them on the savanna was something else.
Big Bird
Wildebeest aplenty
Young elephants at play
The big pile of turds on the far bank are lazy Hippo’s

We finished our day with a trip to a Masai Village. The Masai people are probably the most famous of all of Africa’s tribes and although comprise less then 5% of East Africa’s population, they are the quintessential tribe one envisions when thinking of Africa. The tribe is very proud and the men and women still wear traditional dress. The village we visited was just a short walk from the gate to the Mara. The village “accepts” visitors in the afternoons and shows them a couple of songs and dance and then led us around the village (literally 10-12 mud huts in a circle) The entire village was surrounded by a thick circular fence of thorny bushes. The livestock was all kept inside at night to protect them from lions. We learned that at the age of 15 boys were circumcised and then sent out to live in the bush for at least three years learning to become a man. They did this in groups and at the end of the three years each group had to kill a lion using nothing more than a spear, club, and knife! This is still carried out to this day, Amazing.
Masi Woman
Youngsters looking after Youngsters in the Masai village.

Our last day in Masai Mara was a short morning drive. We left camp at 6:30 am to get into the park early as most activity happens around dawn and dusk. We were only on the park 20 minutes when we found a male lion sitting just off the road. We were incredibly close, no zoom lens required! Just past the male was the rest of the pride, two females and six cubs! They were out in the open in a dirt patch and we had a perfect view. The cubs were running around wrestling with each other wile the females lazily watched after. This was the highlight of the trip and we sat for a good time observing their behavior. Peter, our driver, tipped us off to turn around and the big male was walking right towards us. It was a National Geographic moment. The great lion with its long mane proudly making its way through the golden grass of the savanna straight towards us. We were in between him and the rest of the pride which I thought might be a problem. Nope! He walked right in front of our van! It was so close you felt like you could reach out and touch… or umm…and get your arm chewed off. Later we spotted another cheetah. This one was on the move and we got to watch him stalk a gazelle. We did not get to see the cheetah go in for the kill but to see one sprint, reaching speeds of up to 70 MPH where each stride is up to 23 feet would have been fantastic. Perhaps we will see that on another Safari. The last day was truly the icing on our Masai Mara cake and we all had big grins as we left the park.
Most of the Pride
One of the little ones took a break a few feet from our van
Papa walks past the white elephants unfazed.
Cheetah on the prowl

Our next day was spent in Lake Nakuru National Park were thousands of pink flamingos blanket the shoreline while a large concentration of Black and White rhinos crash through the surrounding forests. The morning was shrouded in mist as we entered the park in the early am. Baboons owned the road as we slowly made our way past an army of them making their way in the opposite direction. Here everything was green and lush. Zebras and gazelles came in and out of focus in the heavy mist as we approached the lake. A lone Fish Eagle stood guard on a branch of the last tree we passed before breaking out into a large open area surrounding the lake were a distinct line of pink hugged the shoreline. I have never seen so many birds. The flamingos were the star attraction here but an array of storks, pelicans, eagles, and many other birds were on display as well. The shoreline disappeared into the distance and the uninterrupted pink boarder disappeared with it. Later in the day the mist lifted and the view and the color of the flamingos was incredible. We spotted a black rhino laying in the grass alongside the lake and later spotted a male and female White Rhino. The white rhino is not really white, the name has something to do with the Dutch name that sounds like the English word white. These were significantly larger than the black ones, I read that they are the 2nd largest land animal behind the elephant.
Misty Morning
Doing the Flamingo…Looney birds in the front, flamingos in the back.
A small representation of the thousands of Flamingos
For all my friends that love the white rhino!

We opted not to take the ride back into Nairobi with the rest of the safari crew but to continue on our own to Lake Baringo. Let me introduce the matatu. It is like playing the how many people can you fit in a phone booth game on wheels. Mini vans ply the roadways bursting with passengers and parcels in every direction imaginable. We piled in until their was no more possible room, and then 4 more people got in for the three hour ride. Roberts Camp is set right on the shore of Lake Baringo and we were able to set up our newly acquired tent right only a few feet from the crocodile and hippo infested waters. We questioned if it was safe enough after signing a waiver at check in but went ahead with it anyway. It was not long before we heard and then spotted a good sized crock thrashing about in the waters directly in front of us! We never saw the hippos but could here them snorting about after dark from the safety of our thin nylon tent. We did get a report from an couple who ran into them on the way back to their banda from the bar. We did not do much in out time their other than read and sit buy the lake listening and observing the prolific bird population. Lake Baringo is home to some 450 bird species and we kept on spotting new birds all the time. The birdsong in the mornings was almost deafening, a symphony of unique calls like an alarm clock without a snooze button. The small town just beyond Roberts camp was called Kampi ya Samaki. It was not more than a collection of roadside shanties along a short strip of asphalt maybe 100 yards long. Here we had our first taste of Kenya’s hospitality when I met Dennis while walking in. He gave me the short tour showing me were I could get anything I might need and sent me on my way with out the expected sales pitch. When I returned the next day he found Meghan and I on the street and once again showed us a good place to eat and then sat with us telling us about the town.
Camp and…
Kampi ya Samaki
Early morning light on Lake Baringo

We woke before sunrise on our last day to catch the early matatu out of Kampi ya Samaki. We waited for about an hour at a roadside stop in front of a shanty hotel sipping tea and eating donuts from the towns baker. Once again we were impressed with how friendly people were and had company and conversation during our wait. The Matatu finally came in the form of a pickup truck and we reluctantly climbed into the back. Before too long I counted 17 adults in the back of the truck which is impressive enough before you consider the fact that their was also a bicycle, our bags, and about six 10 gallon drums! Perhaps we will opt for better transportation in a few days when we make the trip over the boarder in to Uganda.

More Shots from Masai Mara and Lake Baringo if you have not seen enough…
We are going to try putting video in the blog... let us know if it works. Keep in mind this is taken with our little point and shoot camera and is not the best quality.

Lion chasing zebra's
Thompsons Gazelle
Late afternoon sun rays and Giraffe on the horizon
Mangey Wildebeest
Posing Cheetah from the 2nd day
Wildebeest spread out across the Mara
Wildebeest at one of the smaller rivers
Carnage on the Mara River
Love those Elephants
Heartbeast and Wharthogs
Cape Buffalo
Masia Man demonstrating the local way to make fire
Masai market
Female lions wrestling
Young lions on the lookout
Male lion making his way towords us
Morning on the Mara
Zebras at Lake Nakuru
Fish Eagle
Flamingos, lake Nakuru
Black Rhino
Hornbill at Lake Baringo
Notice the croc in the water on the right behing the sign
Lake Baringo
Waiting for the Matatu in Kampi ya Samaki
On the pickup. I thought it was full when I took the picture... Little did I know.

Posted by pmunson 00:08 Archived in Kenya Comments (4)

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