Saturday, November 14, 2015

Kenya Pt. 1: Arabuko-Sokoke Forest

In London, I toil 12-13 hours/day to do the work of 3 men. Like a wounded gazelle, I feign fitness by prancing about my daily business as if I'm not suitable prey for a pack of ravenous hyenas. Yet beneath this cheerful, collected guise of a well-adjustment man are a desperate and hectic struggle for every pound I earn.

It was time to let loose, and not a day too soon. Somehow, in my drug-mediated work-high, I'd made it to half term. "Holy shit, I thought, what the hell am I gonna do with my 2 week break?" Nice then Barcelona seemed tempting but the fares were jacked up for half term. Dom said I should "go back to my roots." Ha-ha! And that is how in one insane day, I ordered a new camera lens and bought a ticket to Nairobi (I also went to Major Lazer that same day - you can imagine I was pretty juiced up!).

I messaged friends. "I might be in Kenya in one week, who wants to adventure?" The Kenyans I know are pretty much usually down for an adventure at any random moment, since they appreciate the art of living, unlike us over here, who usually think of lame excuses to not go watch birds and camp, like "oh, I was gonna go on a Netflix binge that weekend" or "oh, its too expensive" and then pay $10 for a beer, or "oh, I have to write an essay this weekend" even though they won't even remember what the hell that essay was about in 2 months' time.

Yup, Kenyans are pretty dope. Jackson and Wilson answered the call and the fellowship was formed. I must big up Martha who would have come had she not been held up by some pre-arranged raging in Thailand. 

A two week vacation stands against everything I believe in, but nevertheless, it needed to be done. We headed straight from the airport to the night bus, but not before stopping for nyama choma and ugali.

By next morning we were already TukTuking toward lifer glory.

One of the "little five," a leopard tortoise
But to properly explore this forest, we needed a serious guide and a serious vehicle that could tackle the washed-out roads. There are Prados, Land Cruisers, and Subaru Foresters. Then, there is the Toyota Probox, the best car in Africa. With it's 155 mm ground clearance, efficient storage space, characteristic heat-resisting white paint job, indestructible build and Japanese durability, the Probox can handle anything. If fact, our Probox literally ate a tree stump which was in its way. I'm serious, it actually bit a chunk of wood off the stump which we had to pry out of the frame. 

The Probox in its element
Hey James maybe we should turn arou..op, ok nevermind
We were joined by our driver James (who would push the Probox to its limits), and our superb guide William. We focused on two targets: Sokoke Scops Owl and Sokoke Pipit. To find the owl required exploring known roost sites. We penetrated this dense forest of short trees via elephant trails.

Sokoke Scops habitat with characteristic red soil and short, dense trees

We saw no elephants, but we knew they were there

We were finding no owls, but there were plenty of interesting things to look at other than birds. For example, these ants. Look closely at the photo, and you will see they are carrying termites. This is an army

These ants are returning from a raid with termites

We took a hour off birding to enjoy a traditional vacation, not enough time for a tan unfortunately.

Turkey on bran

Ready for action

Amani Sunbird, the most stylish of all the sunbirds
The Green-backed Woodpecker is restricted to a small strip of coastal forest
We probably ran around for a kilometre chasing these Fischer's Turacos around a small grove of trees, finally to manage this shot
Seike's Monkey
Malindi Pipits

Great Egret
Woolly-necked Stork - lifer!

The lifers were flowing, but it was quality, not quantity that we were after. A true test of our patience was the Sokoke Pipit. Located by its zzip call, this extremely shy forest pipit walks along the leaf litter, flushing when you approach. We had scared one away the day before, and it took us a whole day to find another. 

Though the Sokoke Pipit and Owl are both endemic to this coastal forest, both live in totally different forest types
This pair took us about an hour of careful stalking, sometimes crawling on my belly, to photograph. I have to say one of the most beautiful birds I've ever seen.
Sokoke Pipit
Sokoke Pipit
The pipit sent off a chain reaction of birding, including the timid Red-tailed Ant Thrush.

Red-tailed Ant Thrush

Another resident was the red-capped robin chat, which seemed to be following around the Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew, the rarest of the elephant shrew, the rarest of the elephant shrews.

Red-capped Robin-Chat
Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew

These strange mammals are the closest relatives of elephants, sharing the long proboscis-like snout. This one uses it to rummage around leaf litter in search of food as a female Narina Trogon watches on.

Narina Trogon

We ventured in the Baobab country for some more special birds, and so I could fulfill my promise of collecting an interesting large seed of a baobab and some other trees for my arborist room mate. Unfortunately, they were stolen by a baboon.

Baobab savannah, habitat of the elusive Collared Palm Thrush

Night fell, and we decided to pay our guide and driver a little extra for an all-out night drive for one last chance at the Sokoke Scops Owl. 

We were being watched - by bushbabies
Nothing, but we had to stay another day anyway since we hadn't booked the bus. So might as well round up a few more species. On our way from camp, we were spotted by these two children down the road. We were dancing Nuh Linga (google it) and they were imitating our moves, then each of us would escalate the dance back and forth. This happens alot! 

Our guide arrived with some news we really didn't expect. David Ngala, the main guide and conservationist responsible for creating the forest conservancy, had wanted us to see the Scops so much that he had camped out in the forest so that he could locate a roost for us. I couldn't believe it. So we went there, crawled through a tunnel of tangled branches, and saw this absolute beauty, the most beautiful bird I've ever seen!

Sokoke Scops Owl!!!

In the same habitat lives the Four-coloured Bush-Shrike, which everybody had seen but me at this point. This bird was so ridiculously shy, we'd been hearing it for 3 days and I still hadn't seen one. This was the last chance, and we killed it!

Four-coloured Bush-Shrike
Crested Guineafowl

Now to Mt. Kenya!

Mt. Kenya: Quest for the Scarlet-tufted Malachite Sunbird

Dawn: how many worthwhile accomplishments have you achieved at any other time of day? 

The sunrise revealed my first glimpse of Mt. Kenya, Africa's second tallest peak. Alpine moorlands form a wreath around its neck - wherein dwells the legendary Scarlet-tufted Malachite Sunbird. There are buttloads of sunbird species in Africa, so what makes this one so special? Well firstly, it looks friggin awesome. Secondly, it dwells only high elevation moorlands from 3000 to 4500 ft., in only 3 mountain areas: Kilamanjaro, Elgon, and Mt. Kenya. It is the king of the mountain. 

But our fellowship was divided. Wilson and I started up the narrow road toward Camp Moses; the others would catch up. During my time in Kenya, I've been baptized with several nicknames now. Everywhere I go, people want to meet me, offer me things, greeting me emphatically, whilst practically ignoring my two black friends. To make fun of me they started calling me Mfalme which means "King." But this royal stature was rarely a help more than a hinderance, for Jackson and Samuel were waylaid at the gate by the gate guard who was determined to make me pay full price. Jack had used his guiding credentials and charm to negotiate a deal with the lady guard from the day before, to shave off some of the rate for a foreigner (mfalme or no). But her shift for the week was over. Now this new lady was giving him a hard time. This gave us some time to do some forest birding, and these were some of the characters:

Cape Robin-Chat

Hartlaub's Turaco, very difficult to photograph! 

Beautiful Sunbird

We were forbidden from entering this tantilizing forest, which was a shame, because somewhere within it dwells the rare African Green Ibis, the most awesome and mysterious mountain bird in Kenya. However, the abundance of buffalo paddies reminded us of impending death if we were to enter. We kept our distance.

Mentally unstable buffalo prevented us from penetrating the forest

 However, we could not miss this unusual white Tree Hyrax peeping out of a hole. He better watch out for Crowned Eagles!

An strangely white Tree Hyrax peeps from his lair

African Crowned Eagles

Mountain Buzzard
These distractions allowed our guides to catch up. A tip when negotiating with a female guard: tell her "you are very beautiful."

Two badass mountain guides

Samuel was a local guide we had picked up in the streets of Nanyuki. Though Jack had his certification, he was still quite new at it. Samuel was able to procure us some much needed missing equipment for a fee, along with his 25 years of mountain experience which came in handy. 

The highland forest soon gave way to subalpine shrubland, where some flamboyant residents made no effort to hide. 

Golden-winged Sunbird

Malachite Sunbird

These sunbirds have subtly different-shaped curved bills, their tools for extracting nectar from flowers. Each species has its own preferred flower, in this case the abundant Leonotis.

To see the king, we would have to do a full day's hike further up, during which we were constantly accompanied by his court minstrels. From the forest to as high as there is vegetation, you will find pairs of Hunter's Cisticolas performing their vocal duet.

Hunter's Cisticola

Walk down the streets of any medieval town, and you will be followed by peasant beggars. These are the Alpine Chats, eager for a carelessly dropped peanut. 

Alpine Chat

The sentinels of this domain must then be the Jackson's Francolin, an endemic to this region.

Jackson's Francolin

It rained all night, and by morning, the land was blessed with a heavenly rainbow, a positive omen for our quest. 

Simply magical

The peak, which seemed so distant, loomed nearer

Waves of fog continually came and went over the alpine moorlands, so that you could be walking for hours, and when it disappeared, you would find yourself in a completely different landscape. We had reached the Giant Lobelias, domain of the Scarlet-tufted Malachite Sunbird.

The habitat of the Scarlet-tufted

But we were perplexed, for none of these plants was in flower, so how could a flower-dependent species survive here? They are non-migratory, so they must be around the mountain. We marched on through their habitat, without a sign.

Suddenly, out of the mist, a streamer tailed silhouette. This was him!

Further up the mountain, we were in Malachite central. Here are three males in the midst of combat. 

The source of their quarrel? A female of course. 

This immature will have to be patient if he wants to get some

Finally, a male reveals his scarlet tufts, which usually remain hidden. He took a break from showing off to feed. Mystery revealed. Beneath the leaf-like structures of the Lobelia were tiny, hidden flowers, the source of his fuel, and he the source of ours. Onward! 

I was getting a hard time from the guides for not having shoes on, one later blaming altitude sickness on shoelessness. I was half expecting him to tell me I'd been cursed by a witch because I heard an owl scream! 

Shifton Camp

We started the grueling 4 km scramble at 3:00 am and reached the top by sunrise. The route was fraught with peril. "Easy!" I said. "Actually, that was the hardest climb I've done."

The true summit in view

Point Lenana, 4,985 ft. 

The route was dodgy - every step could mean serious injury or worse...and the altitude was starting to make us feel funny. 

Taking a tip from Dom and my trip to the Tetons, we conserved energy by butt-sliding down the mountain. Everything was fine until I had to sit down just short of the base camp. I practically fell asleep. I dragged myself the next km to the camp and by then it was an epic struggle just to go the the bathroom and collect some water. I went to sleep in the hut thinking I would wake up and feel better. Turned out I felt just as shitty when I did. 

I had always thought altitude sickness was for pansies, but I had to accept that I had it. The others were urging us to leave immediately and head back to Moses Camp, 14 km further down. That would mean 22 km in one day. But they had a point, if you're sick, the best thing to do is get rid of what is making you sick. So off we went, the boys carrying most of my stuff. Turns out I did have 14 more k in me! 

We made it!