Twiga Everywhere: How We Met All of the Giraffes in Kenya and Tanzania

*Twiga is Swahili for giraffe.

The lovely and long-lashed Sir Harry was not the only giraffe we saw during our 18-day trip to Tanzania and Kenya. Not by a long shot.

We saw. So. Many. Giraffes.

All the giraffes in the Mara

Usually on safari, we see a couple of giraffes a day, if we’re lucky. They’re not as ubiquitous as say, impala or even zebras. But they’re not as scarce as let’s say a rhino (seen it – white and black) or a honey badger (seen it) or a pangolin (still have not seen it, alas).

So giraffes are certainly around and since they are my favorite (after the pangolin), I’m always excited to see them, even if they aren’t particularly elusive or rare.

The grin of a girl excited to see giraffes.

But this trip? This trip we saw all the giraffes. Like, all of them. We did a roll call and I’m pretty sure we saw every last one that could be found in the Serengeti or Masai Mara. And then some more in Nairobi, just for good measure.

We saw so many giraffes we actually learned what groups of giraffes are called: a tower is a group of giraffes standing still and a journey is a group that is on the move.

This guy is neither a tower or a journey. He’s just a giraffe.

For example, we saw a journey of about 50 giraffes on our way back to Bushtops Serengeti one evening. We had just pulled around the corner and there they were, slowly walking and grazing, completely surrounding us on both sides of the road while the sun set in the distance. We sat gobsmacked and tried to count how many there were, while they just chewed and strolled.

We also saw a tower of about 30-40 giraffes on our last game drive on the private reserve surrounding Mara Bushtops.

This group was taking a breather near a watering hole, so we got to see them bending down to take a drink from the water, which, if you’ve never seen a giraffe drink water, let me tell you: it is a nerve-wracking feat of engineering by nature. Because they are so tall and their necks are so long, giraffes have to gingerly splay their legs and carefully dip their heads down to get a drink of water. But they can’t stay in this position too long because all the blood would rush away from their hearts and to their heads. It’s an extremely delicate maneuver and the whole time they look like they’re going to tip over. Or, as this Inside Science article puts it, “defying gravity.”

Luckily, they get most of their water intake from vegetation and only need to drink water every couple of days.

During this watering hole giraffe extravaganza, we also saw some behavior that we mistook for affection but turns out to be aggressive – two giraffes rubbing their necks together. This is known as “necking” and what we saw was actually a pretty mild form of it. When it escalates, necking can include the giraffes swinging their head at each others’ necks, like fists.

Then, there was the morning we rolled up on a tiny, newly born baby giraffe that was basically born minutes before we found it in a field in the Masai Mara National Park. It was all wobbly and wet and still leaning against its mom, trying to figure out the whole nursing thing.

Before our Harry experience, this was by far my favorite moment of the whole trip. It was so beautiful and moving and fraught with worry about unseen dangers and whether the baby would survive.

Good luck, little fella.

Finally, many people know about the Instagram-famous, Giraffe Manor in Nairobi. Giraffe Manor is a gorgeous old house that has been turned into a stunning hotel where guests (rooms are steep — around $620 per person per night) can feed pellets to the dozen or so resident Rothschild giraffes, right on the grounds, through open windows in the breakfast room or out on the lawn during afternoon tea (at 5 pm). Non-guests can also come (and pay) for the high tea experience (I think it’s $50-$75 per person).

But what most people don’t know is that adjacent to Giraffe Manor is the Giraffe Center, an education and conservation site where you get to feed the exact same Rothschild giraffes for like $10 bucks. It’s open from 9 am to 5 pm and it does get pretty crowded. But the giraffes are super friendly and will do just about anything for those damn pellets, including give you a kiss.

Clearly not afraid of a little giraffe slobber.

It’s a wonderful place, even if it’s bit of a stretch to call it an education center, but the docents on the grounds handing out pellets are very nice and informative. They do, however, limit you to just a couple of handfuls of pellets, so be judicious with your pellets. I was pretty excited and gave all of mine too quickly, but one girl was nice enough to give me an extra handful as long as I promised it would be the last.

All in all, I thought we’d be there an hour, but turned out, 30 minutes was enough time to run out of pellets and get your full pet giraffe fantasies fulfilled. Plus, I had already met and hung out with Harry at Mara Bushtops and he didn’t even require any pellet payoffs. My giraffe expectations were pretty high by the time we got to the Giraffe Center.

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Ten Other Animals We Saw at Leopard Hills (Including…Leopards, Natch.)

So many photos. Heads up: I’m no photographer, as you will see from many of these images, but especially, the very last ones. So, with that endorsing caveat, enjoy!

Leopard on safari at Leopard Hills

 

I believe this was taken on the evening drive on our first night at Leopard Hills. If so, this is Dayone, a 9-year-old male who was out and about marking his territory.

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We, of course, saw many elephants during our time at Leopard Hills (especially babies!), but one of my favorites was this young one that walked right up to the lodge deck.

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Our suite was near the kitchen and on our way back to our room each night, we walked past the kitchen where a spotted genet lived and hung out in hopes of some kitchen scraps.

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Just a typical safari traffic jam.

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When we were in Sabi Sands in 2014, we hardly saw any rhinos. Two reasons: it was late summer and everything was still very lush and green, making visibility difficult and second, sadly, poaching had caused the population to dwindle. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the Sabi Sands lodges and their teams–we’re talking night vision goggles, helicopters on full moon nights, even hiring private security to sleep out in the bush and keep an eye out for poachers–poaching incidences have been greatly reduced since our last visit and we saw quite a few rhinos this trip, including this fairly shy trio who we kept our distance from.

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We did not, however, see as many lions at Sabi Sands as we saw last time. Apparently, the pair of brothers we saw last time have been very aggressive in the intervening years, taking over territories and killing off rivals. Everyone at Sabi Sands is hoping the young ones, including this young male who’s mane is just starting to grow in, will be able to stick around.

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Another fairly unusual sighting: a porcupine! We saw one porcupine last time we were here, but only from behind and he was hightailing it away from us. The only photo I have of it is a blur. This one was completely different and weirdly calm. We’re not sure if this guy was hurt or sick or what his deal was, but he didn’t really run away from us at all. We sat there looking at him, looking at us for a good long while. Such an odd animal and an odd sighting.

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Definitely one of my favorites: We went on a walking safari (aka: learning all about animal poop) with Stefan one afternoon and this family of warthogs followed us the whole time we were out. We’d stop. They’d stop. We’d walk. They’d walk. They were very curious about us.

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Giraffes are my absolute favorite. I love them. I have way more photos of giraffes than any other animal. They’re so peaceful and beautiful and they have no real enemies. But, I had never seen them drinking water, which is an exercise fraught with difficulty for these guys, the tallest animals in the bush. This was at the watering hole right near the lodge.

Sad side story: the same day I took this photo, an adult female giraffe–none of these guys–ran into an utility wire that was hanging far too low after a herd of elephants had rammed the utility pole and the utility company had not yet come out to fix it. The giraffe died immediately and Duncan, GM at Leopard Hills, arranged to have the giraffe carcass dragged to the riverbed so the other animals could eat it, which, I understand, while heartbreaking to me, is actually the right thing to do. Later that night, on our night drive, we drove over to check it out and they hyenas were eating her. It was very upsetting and I couldn’t even look, but I could hear it in all its’ gruesome glory and it really bothered me. Luckily, my super-excellent, sensitive travel-partner-for-life, XFE urged our guide Hugo to call it a night and head back to the lodge.

If that carnage of my favorite animal had been my last memory of Leopard Hills, I would not be feeling very warm and fuzzy about the whole safari at Sabi Sands experience.

However…..

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WE SAW HONEY BADGERS!!!

The next morning, we got up early to drive ourselves back to Johannesburg. Along the way to Newington Gate, XFE saw TWO honey badgers standing right next to the side of the road. My side of the road! Of course, everything was packed away, including my camera.

After confirming that yes, those were honey badgers, and holy crap, they’re just standing there looking at us, and screaming, “ohmygod, honey badgers, honey badgers, honey badgers, shit, there are honey badgers, and they’re looking at us, what do I do, where’s my camera or phone, crap!!!,” I finally dug around in my backpack, yanked out my camera and took about 4-5  “Blair-Witch”-meets-Loch-Ness-Monster quality pictures through my closed car window. Honestly, I must have been delirious and panicked because some of the pictures aren’t even pointing at the termite mound they were slowly retreating into.

But in the above picture, you can sort of make them out. No? Here:

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I drew a circle around them. Now here’s the closeup:

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See that white stripe right there? And to the right, that dark spot half obscured by a tree?

OK, you’ll just have to believe me. Those were two honey badgers! You know what, it’s fine if you don’t believe me, because just like honey badgers, I don’t give a shit. It was seriously amazing and I couldn’t stop talking about it the rest of the day. The rest of the trip even.

This was a very big deal. It’s fairly unusual to see honey badgers. They’re pretty solitary (it’s really unusual to see two together) and they don’t hang around too often for pictures. They’ve got places to be and cobra ass to kick. Actually, after digging around, I can’t even tell if they’re endangered or not: this site says “nah, not doing great, but not endangered” while this one says “there are only 1,000 left,” which seems pretty damn endangered to me. All I know is that Duncan, who’s lived in Sabi Sands for more than 20 years, said he’s never seen one and our guide Stefan-WHO RIDES IN AN OPEN VEHICLE ALL DAY LOOKING FOR ANIMALS–said he’s only seen one once.

In fact, these were the second and third honey badgers we saw during our stay at Leopard Hills. I spotted one from a pretty good distance moving pretty purposefully through the bush a few days earlier when we were out on a drive with Stefan. My first thought was, “huh, I didn’t know they had skunks in Africa. Hey, that’s a pretty big skunk, let me ask….HONEY BADGER!” We all caught a glimpse of him, but nothing compared to our early morning coffee klatch with the duo on our way out of the park.

Just call us the honey badger whisperers.