A private celebration…and exploring Naivasha

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Celebrating 5o years of existence on planet earth in grand style seems to have caught the fancy of most people on social media. However, I just didn’t feel any extra special to be touching this golden figure. Fifty is a good number, a friend jokingly told me, but I still think it is a better score in cricket. When I think back, I don’t recall going through any kind of struggle to get to this number. Or making any extra effort to reach to this point safely. Completing 25 years of marriage however, calls for a celebration, my husband and I both agreed.

We planned to have a private family getaway somewhere close by. After some googling and brainstorming, we zeroed in on Loldia House, a relatively unknown property of Governor’s Camp, on the shores of Lake Naivasha. We had fallen in love with their camp at Mara and were sure that this property will not disappoint us either. Workaholic hubby took a day off (miracles do happen, yes!) and daughter also played truant from school. It almost seemed like planning a naughty weekend.

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The newly paved road leading towards the well-known Great Rift Valley Lodge & Golf Resort was smooth as silk and the drive was one of the most scenic ones we have ever taken. Soon after crossing the golf resort, it was a good 5 km of bumpy road before we sighted the gates of Loldia House. And then it was a further 3 km of driving through the rough roads of the picturesque Loldia farm before we reached our destination.

We were warmly greeted by their manager Heather and adorable labrador Scotty, and taken to our cottage on the hill. She explained that as we were the only people there during the week, we might as well enjoy that specially located room. Which it was indeed, perched on a hillock with the balcony facing Lake Naivasha. The cottage had two en suite rooms on either side of the living-dining area (which even had a recently-tuned piano) and a third room in the attic. A small kitchen and another bathroom were located just outside.

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Our cottage area was fenced and we had a jeep at our disposal to go to the reception as the farm is visited by leopards and hippos! For a couple of days, we were pampered like royals with delicious lunch and dinner served in our cottage. Breakfast was the only time we went down the hill. And of course also for the night game drives, which did not reward us with any leopard sightings but blessed us with many nocturnal animals like the bat-eared fox, common African hare, spring hare, jackal, nightjar, Verreaux’s eagle owl as well as hyenas, hippos and the usual herbivores.

The lake facing balcony was our favourite chilling area – with various birds coming in for a dip at the bird bath. We were also lucky to see a pair of nesting fish eagles atop a huge acacia while the hippos grunted and fought for their territorial rights down below. The chef rustled up a lovely birthday dinner and managed to bake a cake as well. Then he joined the steward and my hubby in singing the happy birthday song while my daughter played it on the piano. As I cut the cake I felt very thankful for everything life has offered me thus far.

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Just like all clouds have a silver lining, the reverse is probably also true. In our excitement of exploring the lush grounds of Loldia House, we almost had a Hansel & Gretel like experience. Right next to ours, was another beautiful cottage with its gate swung open, literally inviting us to walk in. As we entered, we were greeted by a fairy-tale house painted like a dream with bougainvilleas of impossible shades. There was a small flight of moss covered steps which lured us even further. We could see a house with many rooms and thought that maybe this is where the other rooms of the lodge were.

Suddenly, a black labrador (mix of a lab and terrier, we later discovered) bounded towards us. There was something different about this dog. It was too lean and its eyes had a less soulful look. But it behaved like a lab – full of energy, delighted with human company and begging to be petted. It even joined my daughter on the trampoline! Then it abruptly disappeared somewhere.

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As we were walking away, we saw the second dog – a mean looking brown dog on another level of the garden. Our sixth sense prevailed and we briskly walked away, although there was nothing we could have done had he decided to charge at us. On enquiring at the reception, we were told that the dog was indeed a menace and had bitten Heather and other staff members on numerous occasions!

The lovely property adjacent to us, belonged to the owner of Loldia Farm who inexplicably refuses to have a sign saying PRIVATE PROPERTY on her gate, despite repeated appeals from the management of the Loldia House, who should also in all fairness, warn their guests to stay away from this dangerous dog.

Early next morning, as I was strolling in front of our cottage, I had a blood curdling moment when I saw 2 dogs racing towards me! The dog sitter was taking them out for a walk, unleashed, when they decided to make a dash. I screamed at the guy and decided to freeze at the spot as running would surely agitate the dogs. The black lab reached me first and jumped about excitedly while I braced myself for the brown one to bite me.

As I was steeling my nerves for the attack, he stopped at my feet, sniffed at my jeans and inexplicably decided to heed to the dog sitter’s calls of going back to him. The black one continued to hang around me for a while and then he too sprinted away. I feel that the black one saved me by openly demonstrating that he knows me. I thanked my lucky stars that we ignorantly trespassed into the neighbour’s property the previous day and befriended the black dog who turned out to be my saviour.

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A pied kingfisher about to swoop on its prey @Lake Oloiden

We set off for Crater Lake Park the next morning and stopped by Lake Oloiden to be swept by the cool breeze on an otherwise sweltering day. An interesting fact about this lake is hardly known by most. This lake being salty, is devoid of water hyacinths that is a scourge of Lake Naivasha. As a result, boating here is a more enjoyable experience. During the drier season, it also attracts more flamingos! To reach this lake, you need to go through Naivasha town and drive past Elsamere resort on the southern side of Lake Naivasha. The road is very scenic and dotted with wild life – we even saw wart hogs by the roadside!

Crater Lake however disappointed me. I was curious to see a green lake but too much rain had made the water look commonplace. However, the picnic lunch that followed was bound to lift up anybody’s spirits. Under the shade of a huge fig tree, with the giraffes, zebras and impalas grazing by. The day was quite hot but the shade of the tree made us forget that. I somehow resisted the temptation of lying down and taking a snooze right there.

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Our next stop was the most interesting one of the day – a bird rescue centre run by an admirably gutsy lady. She had so many interesting stories to tell us about the birds which were housed there. The Verreaux’s Owl who thinks he is a human and refuses to mate with a female owl. A Ruppell’s vulture who needs to first learn how to be a vulture before he can be set free, and many other interesting and heartwarming stories.

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She is building a hospital and desperately looking for an avian vet – She plans to open the centre to the public by this year end, hopefully. Mainly for educating the Africans that an owl is a farmer’s best friend and not the harbinger of bad luck or death as it is tainted to be. Most believe that the hooting of an owl is a bad omen because it is sent by a witch doctor to deliver a fatal curse!!

It was very intriguing to read about the African folklores connected to owls. It was all the more interesting because in our part of India, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, rides an owl and the white owl is associated with good luck.  Here is another fascinating link about some other perspectives. The lady was aware of the auspiciousness connected to owls in India and wished that it was so too, in Africa.

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There is a Facebook page where you can get a detailed history and updates of all the feathered inmates at the bird centre. However, she does not want any publicity now as she is not yet ready to entertain a large number of guests. But if you are really interested to volunteer or help in any way, make sure you CALL first to make an appointment. Else you may just have to go away without visiting these lovely birds.

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Patiently waiting outside the gates of the owl centre

We did not know that and arrived totally unheralded on a rainy day. She was naturally quite unhappy about it and almost turned us away. Maybe the eagerness in our eyes swayed her and she kindly agreed to give us a ‘very short’ tour, which luckily ended up being quite a long and happy one. Do NOT drop in without notice – she stressed  that you have to call and make an appointment if you want to explore this lovely place.

We returned to Nairobi the next day and went back to our daily grooves. But this sudden getaway was a welcome break to unwind ourselves. And to celebrate a sum total of 117 years of existence on this planet among the three of us. Cheers to that!

Leaving you to get immersed in some bewitching sights of Lake Naivasha.

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Grey headed gull
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African Jacana
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Black winged stilt with the hippos
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Pelicans taking off
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Tree full of cormorants
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Cormorant
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Heron
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A typical Naivasha sunset (Pic credits: Aditi Biswas)
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And another (pic credits: Aditi Biswas)

 

 

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Of Fig and other leopards

Let me forewarn you that this blog entry has more photos than writing as one can never do justice to a leopard with just words. At least I cannot. So please be prepared for the visual onslaught!!

I have been living in Kenya since April 2014 and I have so far (till March 2016) visited Masai Mara 5 times, Naivasha 4 times, Nakuru thrice, Ol Pejeta & Amboseli twice each, Aberdares & Samburu once and Nairobi National Park too many times to remember accurately.

I was very lucky to spot the Big 5 on my very first visit to Mara. It was a beautiful sighting of a leopard climbing down one tree and up another leafier one to get away from too many prying eyes. That time, I was not aware that animals had names and one can form a personal relationship with them. For me, it was just a visual treat. However, I fell in love with this magnificent spotted animal at first sight.

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My first ever leopard sighting
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Gets off the tree
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Walks away
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On to a another tree

It wasn’t until June 2015 that I spotted another leopard – in Mara North conservancy. Actually, two robust males. I was thirsting so much for this animal that I was almost trying to will-power it to appear in front of me. And magically, it did, on our last afternoon game drive! I even spotted it before our amazing Masai guide could. I had to blink twice to make sure I was not hallucinating. He passed right in front of our jeep and posed for us for quite a while. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to pack my camera and had to rely on my very basic mobile phone. But it will give you an idea how close it was.

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Male Leopard #1
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Various moods
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This one had a fresh gash on its left cheek
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Sorry for the poor pic quality
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He ran away from his territory due to the presence of lions

The next day, before leaving Mara, we spotted yet another one dozing in a bush. And within a hundred metres, there was a Masai sleeping peacefully in the open grasslands. What more could I ask for? But how I missed my camera…

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Male leopard #2 in Mara North conservancy
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A few 100 meters away this Masai was sleeping peacefully

Since then, I have seen plenty of game but I had this special bond with leopards and cheetahs. No matter how many simbas (lions) I saw, there would always be a little unfulfilled corner in my mind if I failed to see one of these spotted beauties. Probably because leopards are so very elusive, I was more keen to catch a glimpse of them.

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My next leopard sighting was in November 2015 (near Mara Intrepids) but it was a very sleepy one who didn’t give a damn about the curious tourists in the jeeps and vans buzzing around the tree. It had draped itself around a branch in such an elastic way that you may be forgiven to doubt if it had any bones. It absolutely refused to open its eyes to acknowledge our presence and continued to sleep, balancing precariously in their typically lazy way, with an occasional flick of its tail to ward off the pesky flies.

Less than a month later, in December, we visited Mara again. This time, to Olare Motorogi conservancy, which my friends had assured me, was THE big cat terrain. And sure enough, it was!! On our way to the camp, we met the famous cheetah Malaika and her 2 surviving cubs and was also rewarded with her jaw-dropping, adrenalin-rushing 200m impala chase, which stopped right next to our Land Rover Defender. Thankfully, the impala lived to see another day. More about these unbelievably gorgeous cheetahs some time soon.

I had heard of the ‘resident’ leopard Fig in the conservancy from my friends and was very intrigued. How can this terribly private cat be spotted so regularly? But the leopard who revealed herself first was another regular visitor called Pretty Girl. I have written extensively about her futile hunt in A Lesson in Solidarity”.

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Good morning!!

We met her once almost every day. She was a magnificent looking cat as leopards normally are but I didn’t think that she was particularly ‘pretty’. There was a menacing look in her eyes and she seemed to be a master of stealth and ambush as I witnessed later.

It hardly mattered whether she lived up to her name or not as I was already in seventh heaven having seen more leopards and cheetahs than lions so far on this trip. Unbelievable, yet true. It seemed that my fervent prayers for sighting these spotted beauties were being answered much beyond my expectations!

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Pretty Girl
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Looking for prey
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Very alert

During the afternoon game drive, our guide Jackson told us that he was taking us to a place where Fig had been spotted. I was already half in love with this cat even before seeing her. A leopard called Fig? Can it get any more cute than that? When we reached the fig tree, there were some jeeps parked around it already. The beauty of a conservancy is that there are very few vehicles and you can enjoy your game drive without hundreds of tourist vans polluting the place. I was told that Fig was up there with her baby boy. I could see them through the leaves but their faces were not clearly visible. So I waited…

The sun was slowly making its way to the horizon and the place looked serene in the light of the setting sun. And then SHE turned. And my heart stopped for a few seconds. I stared, hypnotized at the most beautiful animal I have ever seen. A perfect creation of nature with the most captivating pair of grey eyes.

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Gorgeous Fig

I just kept clicking away to my heart’s content…

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Mesmerising grey eyes
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Did I see something?

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Fig and her cub
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Sometimes dozing
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Sometimes alert

Then I got greedy. I wanted to capture her cub on film too. But the cub was proving to be very frisky and elusive. And it was facing the other way. Thanks to our intuitive guide Jackson, we managed to park in a spot where I managed to see his face for a very short time but long enough to get some decent frames. He was trying to feed on the remains of a young gazelle that his mother had brought up for him to hone his carnivorous instincts.

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Fig’s cub
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Playful
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Handsome fella
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What next?
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Trying to munch on the remains of a Thomson’s gazelle

At the camp we were staying (Porini Lion), I met Joseph S.T. Lam, a renowned wildlife photographer from Hong Kong, whose photos have been featured in African Geographic. We were privileged to watch some amazing footage of the great migration and other fascinating wildlife moments. He had been coming to Kenya for years and was a popular and regular Porini guest.

While we were stuck in the reception area due to an unexpected and fierce cloudburst in the evening, he told us about Fig, who he had been tracking since she was a baby. “She is the prettiest of them all”, he said and we could not agree more. She is smaller than other leopards but is undoubtedly the most stunning. He also regaled us with his stories of deep sea diving in Malaysia and of his adventures in Mara. Quite a thrilling way to spend the last evening of 2015.

I learnt that Fig was born under a fig tree to mom Acacia and dad Pink Nose and is five years old now. She has a baby sister called Porini, named so because she was born inside Porini Lion Camp, probably near Tent #6. Joseph very graciously allowed me to use some of his photos in my blog. Thank you so much for encouraging me too!

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Fig’s mom Acacia (pic credits – Joseph Lam)
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Fig in 2013 (pic credits – J. Lam)
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Fig’s baby sister Porini (pic credits J. Lam)

The picture of Porini at this age is especially rare, Joseph said, as she had disappeared without a trace when she was 9 months old. Last year, she was again spotted by a Masai guide and everyone was thrilled and relieved that she is still around. He also pointed out that this picture is precious because it was taken in complete darkness as is evident by the complete dilation of her pupils. Anybody who understands cats, will realise this!  Contrast it with my other pictures taken in the sunlight and you will note the difference in the pupil size.

I also heard that Fig had been trying to get pregnant for some time. After some futile attempts, her union with an over-10-year-old leopard (quite elderly by leopard standards) named Yellow made her a mother for the first time, when she gave birth to a male cub last year. He is now 8 months old and is as gorgeous as his mother. However, he is yet to be christened. As is evident from the picture below, Yellow does have a rather yellowish coat of hair.

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Fig’s dad Yellow (pic credits – J. Lam)

I will leave you with these amazing pictures of momma Fig teaching her playful cub to carry a fresh kill up a tree. She had just hunted a small bat-eared fox to train him. Behind me, the sun had started to set and it was a resplendent sight with the acacias in the foreground against the brilliant flaming sky. But the rare tutorial happening in front was far more precious – the patience and love with which Fig encouraged her cub to climb the tree with the little fox in his mouth. Was this display of extreme tenderness natural for leopards or was Fig a little more protective and maternal because it was her first child, and conceived not so easily? The way we humans do?

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The sunset I didn’t care for!!

The light had started to fade and I knew I couldn’t get good pictures in this poor light. But my eyes were feasting on a sight that was tugging at the strings of my heart. Here was a sterling example of maternal love and parental responsibility at its best. The cub tried very hard but would need a few more lessons to successfully learn this task.

As the light almost faded out, the mother seemed to indicate that it was enough for the day and started to cuddle her “tired” cub and engage in the so very endearing rituals of feline playfulness. After some minutes of rolling, licking, wrestling and pouncing on each other in the tallish grass, mother and son disappeared into the darkness in the even taller foliage.

And we reluctantly made our way back to the camp with semi-moist eyes and a head full of wonder and gratitude for getting the privilege of witnessing this magical functioning of the animal world.

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Fig up on the tree while her cub is toying with the kill below
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Fig trying to coax him up the tree
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Under her watchful eyes the training continues
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A little anxious maybe?
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Bravo, she says as she guides him up
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Mother & son up there but the bat-eared fox has slipped out of her cub’s teeth
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That’s enough for the day, little one!
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Mother lounging in the grass while the cub plays away from our sight
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Time to hug and cuddle

(I have a video of this training but I need to learn how to include it here)