Kenya: The Saiwa Swamp National Park

Day two at the Saiwa Swamp was also great. I shared the campsite with with two others: Craig and Karin were on a four month tour of Southern and Eastern Africa before heading home to South Africa, where they run  These guys had tremendous knowledge of the birdlife and also gave me tips on where to spot the rare De Brazza’s Monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus), which is endemic to the wetlands of central Africa.  The early morning mist soon cleared and i explored a new area of the swamp with the hope of spotting some.


It wasn’t long before i found what i was looking for, and spotted a pair foraging in a tree. Interesting facts on De Brazza’s: Both sexes have cheek pouches to carry food, and males have blue balls 🙂


After watching these crazy monkeys for a while, i set out to photograph a few more birds. These guys were flying fast between the grasses, catching small flies. It was tricky to photograph them in flight. I found the best technique was to pre-focus and hope for the best. Managed to get quite a few shots, although i don’t think they’d hold up to a large print.


I took a few more shots of birds as the morning progressed, including this Shikra, or Little-banded Goshawk (Accipiter badius), and returned to camp and hit the road.


Despite environmental challenges from nutrient loading from surrounding agriculture and poaching, Saiwa Swamp is a magical place.  I would love to return, and highly recommend making a trip to this infrequently visited destination.  You are likely to have the place to yourself, and can camp or stay in a wonderful tree-top cabin.

Kenya: The Saiwa Swamp National Park

I was up at 5:30 to head out at first light following breakfast. The Saiwa Swamp National Park is the last remaining place in Kenya where you can find the Sitatunga , a rare wetland antelope. They can be very shy and illusive so wasn’t sure if i would be lucky enough to see one. Regardless, i was pretty sure i’d see some decent wildlife. Saiwa Swamp did not disappoint. The birdlife is fantastic, both in the swamp and in the surrounding trees. Just one tree can host a large number of species. You can also see a number of species of monkey, including the Colobus, Vervet, and the rare De Brazzas.

The early morning light made the whole swamp very eerie, but the mist soon lifted as the sun warmed the day up.

20130826-saiwa swamp

There was plenty of birdlife within the grasses.




And in the trees above the swamp (Hadada Ibis Bostrychia hagedash)


The trees surrounding the swamp supported large numbers of small birds.






And the occasional predator (Long-crested Eagle, Lophaetus occipitalis)


Also saw a few mammals, such as this Black-and-White Colobus Monkey and Forest Giant Squirrel (Protoxerus stangeri)



Saiwa Swamp keeps the Sitatunga pretty well hidden, as they are shy and stay in the grasses (first photo below). However, if you are lucky you can see them coming into the open.  I was lucky enough to see one emerge to take a drink (second photo below).



Saiwa Swamp is surrounded by agriculture, and the staff tell me that nutrient loading from fertilizers is causing a shift in vegetation. The main source of food for the Sitatunga is being outcompeted by elephant grass. Adding a vegetation buffer, an approach used in Australia, wouldn’t work here as there aren’t funds to sufficiently compensate the farmers, who only have small plots. The reserve staff also tell me that ‘land creep’ would also be a problem. Some conservation money pays for staff to manually remove the elephant grass, but it looks like they may be fighting a losing battle. Hopefully the Sitatunga will enjoy their habitat for a lot longer, as they are beautiful animals and are found nowhere else in Kenya.

Day 1 at Saiwa Swamp National Park was awesome, so i was looking forward to day 2 as i went to sleep that night.

Kenya: From Kakagega to the Saiwa Swamp National Park

After giving Patrick a lift back to the National Park gate, I set off north with the intention of staying at the Saiwa Swamp National Park, as recommended by Jonatan and Sophie who i met at the Masai Mara. The Saiwa Swamp National Park is Kenya’s smallest national park  – just 3 km² – and was created to protect the habitat of the Sitatunga, a rare wetlands antelope.

I stopped off for a bite to eat in Kitale, which is a sleepy and pleasant town two hours from Kakamega and close to Saiwa Swamp. After a tasty chicken quesadia and latte (yes, really) at the Coffee House, I made my way to the supermarket to stock up on supplies. A young guy approached me asked if it was the Landrover was my vehicle. I was ready for him to try to get some money from me, as often happens in Kenya. However, he proved my assumptions wrong by pointing out the slow puncture on my back tyre before heading on his way. The constant attempts to relieve a muzungu (white person) of money can wear you down at times, but when someone goes out of their way to be kind to you it picks you right back up again.

At the garage the mechanic was quick to find the air leak, coming from the valve. He told me it would be KSH 350 to fix it (no idea at all if that is the correct price, but it sounded ok) and I asked him to proceed. After removing the tyre from the wheel he said he had made a mistake, and a different valve would be needed at the cost of KSH 500.  I told him that KSH 350 was the price we agreed upon, and he should fix it for that or not at all.  I was glad he decided to go ahead, as I had already been to two other garages and they didn’t have an air pump, so I would have had to have used the spare.

My journey from the Mara to Kitale, via Kissi, Kisumu and Kakemega, looked like this (click to enlarge map):


After fixing the wheel back to the vehicle, we realised that the high-lift jack supplied with the vehicle was faulty, and we couldn’t lower the vehicle to the ground. This was fixed Kenya-style, with everyone joining in to lift the Landrover, whilst the jack was kicked out from underneath.


After stocking up on supplies I made my way to Saiwa Swamp, with the aim of staying in the treehouse accommodation that had been recommended to me.  The dirt track to the reserve is in good condition, and it’s great fun waving to all the kids playing at the roadside along the way.  I paid my entrance fee to enter the park, but they couldn’t find the keys to the treehouse accommodation.  I pitched my tent as night fell and looked forward exploring the swamp the following morning.


Kenya: Patrick Inziani – Kakamega Wildlife Guide

If you read my previous post you’ll know that Patrick Inziani was my guide at Kakamega National Park, and that i was impressed with his identification skills. I asked him to write down his experience and contact details so i could recommend him on this blog. I didn’t realise there would be so much to include. [UPDATE: Patrick has sent me this word document LINK HERE to download to give further information]



Higher Diploma in Wildlife Management

Employment History:

Field Assistant to research expeditions from various universities and institutions, including Moi University, Kenyatta University, Kyoto University, Borne University, Tsukuba University, Nature Kenya, Birdlife International

National Museums of Kenya Worked at the National Museums of Kenya with the Ornithology, Herpetology, and Primaology departments.

Guide information:

Patrick is a very serious birdwatcher, botanist, herpetologist and lepidopterist. In addition to guiding at Kakamega, he can arrange itineraries to clients who want to travel to other parts of Kenya for birding, big game watching, and village excursions.

Contact details:

Telephone: +254 721 628343


That’s it, plug over. Needless to say i highly recommend Patrick. If you are visiting Kakamega Forest then you can contact him on the details above.

Kenya: Kakamega Forest National Park

I left the Maasai Mara at around 11am after a morning game drive with Sophie and Jonatan. My destination was Kakamega Forest National Park, with a stop-off at the Ket Wangi Orphanage in Kisumu on the way to drop off some food and sweets for the kids. We left the Mara and drove to Kisii to stay the night. Stopping off to eat along the way, we noticed that we had lost a spare wheel from the back of the car on the bumpy road. We were all tired by the time we reached Kisii, and we were very thankful when we finally arrived at the Kisii Hotel to find a bed for the night. After a couple of beers and probably the most overcooked chicken i have ever experienced, my body was very glad to find itself in bed. Breakfast was at 0630 but there were no staff around at all. After knocking on various kitchen and reception doors, i realised that breakfast was not going to be any time soon. There seemed little point in waiting around so, after slipping a goodbye note under the door of Sophie and Jonatan, I started my journey. The watchman had noticed my Landrover was dirty and had cleaned it during the night. I told him I was just going to get it dirty again today, but then slipped him a couple of hundred shillings as he was an old guy and looked like he could do with a break. He gave me a big smile, bowed down as he shook my hand, and waved as I started my drive to Kisumu.

It didn’t take long to reach Kisumu, and I found my way to the orphanage easily despite the twisting maze of dirt roads. One of the boys was outside the gate and he shouted ‘Mwangi’ – my Kikuyu name ‘given’ to me on my previous visit – and came running to greet me. It was a lovely welcome. It was Saturday and there were only a few children at the orphanage. The pastor of the church introduced himself, and Napthaly and Everett came out to greet me. They had not known I was coming, so my visit surprised them somewhat, but they were very glad to receive the food, clothes and blanket donations. I explained I was just ‘passing through’, and would only be stopping for a short time before heading north. It was great to spend an hour with the kids, sharing out sweets and showing them videos of the lion cubs in the Maasai Mara. After a bite to eat it was time to hit the road, and I said my goodbyes.

The drive to Kakamega Forest was only a few hours, but it was almost made longer by a detour as they built a new road over the old one. At the diversion sign, I talked one of the workers into letting me through so I didn’t lose any time. I was smiling as I whizzed past the surveyors and construction activity, whilst everyone else was forced a longer route. At the other side of the construction, the guards seemed quite puzzled how I had been let through and refused to raise the barrier, telling me I had to turn back. This was most likely just a ploy to raise a few shillings, so I pretend to be a little annoyed and told them in my best stern voice that I had been granted special permission to travel this route, and they should raise the barrier immediately. It worked a treat and I was soon on the other side and continuing my journey.

It wasn’t long before i arrived at Kakamega National Park. Kakamega is a tropical rain forest situated in the Western Province, of Kenya, near to the border with Uganda. It is Kenya’s only tropical rainforest and is said to be Kenya’s last remnant of the ancient Guineo-Congolian rainforest that once spanned the continent. The dirt road into Kakamega is not signed and i can thank my gps – loaded with a tracks4africa file – for showing it to me. It was raining so I didn’t feel like camping and paid $60 for a banda (cabin) on top of the $20 entrance fee. I was running low on food, so I drove back out to the road and bought some tomatoes and little cakes from the stalls. Just as well, as the guy running the accommodation was very keen to have his wife cook for me for $10. Yeh yeh, I know that isn’t much back home, but it’s insanely expensive for rural Kenya so was glad to have bought food so i could cook for myself. The banda was nicely kitted out with a kitchen so I made a huge fried rice, with half saved for breakfast. As I drifted off to sleep i was looking forward to a jungle trek the next day, with the hope of spotting some interesting bird species. A group of locals, who were also staying at ‘Udo’s Bandos’, seemed to be there to party judging by the noise they were making. Apparently, they were actually a group of journalists, who were travelling the area on an offroad bus – the kind that you see in Australia – with the intent of boosting tourism through their writing.


The next morning at 0630 i met my guide, Patrick, and we set off into the forest. Patrick turned out to be an incredible source of knowledge on the local environment. I’ve been impressed with local knowledge on previous trips, but Patrick was in a different league altogether. I’ll make a separate post about Patrick, as i want to recommend him to others visiting Kakamega. Kakamega Forest is full of wildlife. It’s difficult to see many of the birds, and Patrick relied heavily on their calls to identify them. He was never uncertain, and gave the scientific name in addition to the common name. As I started showing interest in the many butterflies, Patrick also began to identify those for me. Towards the end of my jungle walk, we were also lucky to spot Colobus, Red-tailed, and Blue monkeys. I would have loved to have stayed another few nights to find out what other creatures are inhabitants here, but sadly time was not on my side. Photography is very difficult in the jungle due to the low light levels, and also because subjects in the trees are often obscured by branches and/or strongly backlit. I took a few shots, handy for identification purposes and great memories of my time there. What a shame to only have spent 4 hours walking here before hitting the road.


Verreaux\’s Eagle-Owl (Bubo lacteus) is also known as the Milky Eagle Owl or Giant Eagle Owl, and is the largest of Africa’s owls. We saw this beautiful bird after just a few minutes of walking, as the nest was easily spotted from the path. Patrick was pretty quick to spot birds and identify them, which is not easy in the jungle where clear sightings are rare. He has the most impressive identification skills of any guide i have met.


I was lucky to get this shot of a Square-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus ludwigii), which has a harsh call of cherit-cherit. In order to get this shot i had my camera settings already dialled in, as birds in Kakamega don’t sit still for long. The ISO was high at 1600, and the aperture wide open to let as much light in as possible. The shutter was at 1/100, which was as slow as i dare go on my 400mm lens with image stabilisation. Ideally you would want to have a much faster shutter speed, but then i couldn’t open the aperture any wider and i didn’t want to go any higher on the ISO. I had my camera set to overexpose past the normal metering by at least 2 stops which means the background may have blown areas, but the subject will be correctly exposed. You don’t want to have an underexposed subject when shooting at high ISOs, as pushing the brightness up in post-production will amplify any noise present. And at high ISOs there will be plenty! If you have time to play with exposure then great, but with these fast-moving subjects you don’t have that luxury often.


I never get tired of seeing Colobus monkeys. They are often shy, and the ones at Kakemega are particularly timid. However, this one stayed put long enough for a photograph.


I saw the light on this butterfly and thought it may look nice in a photograph. This is a Junonia stygia.


As we left the walking trail we entered a clearing with an African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla Aguimp) busy catching insects. I tried for a few minutes to get a shot when the bird was airborne, but the only one that was in focus was from behind. I will have to return to this place again one day to spend more time here. After giving Patrick a lift back to the National Park gate, I set off north with the intention of staying at the Saiwa Swamp National Park…

Kenya: Birdlife in the Maasai Mara

Not the best of photographs i acknowledge, but i do like to put names to the bird species i see. Here are some of the birds i saw during my August visit to the Mara. You can see some avifauna species from my previous visit here: Birdlife Maasai Mara.


Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus caeruleus)


African White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus)


Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis)


Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus)


Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri)


Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudata)


Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus)


I think this may be a Friedmann’s Lark (Mirafra pulpa), which is apparently a rare  sighting in Kenya.


Augur buzzard (Buteo augur)

Kenya: Lion Cubs in the Maasai Mara

A few shots of a lioness and her adorable cubs.  These were taken as the sun was setting, a touch too late for the wonderful golden light that we all love.  As a result i had to bump up the ISO.  The first was shot at ISO 1000, and the other two at ISO 1600, and the last at ISO 3200.  At this point I decided to switch to video on my little Canon S110, which you can see at the bottom of this post.

The lion cubs were so amazing to watch. It was the perfect end to an already wonderful day.





If the video below hasn’t loaded, just wait for one minute and then it should be viewable.  Otherwise, just head over to Youtube and watch it there from this link:

Kenya: Rain over the Maasai Mara

As the sun started to set, shafts of light illuminated the light rain falling across the Mara.  I loved the way the trees were in the shadow, whilst the area directly behind was bathed in the evening light. A minute later and the scene had changed.


Kenya: Maasai Mara, Wildebeest Migration

Sophie, Jonatan and I set off the next morning knowing we were in for a great day. We took a slow drive down to the river to watch the Wildebeest crossing, spotting lions on the way, including the young male in the photo below.  When we approached the river crossing we were put off by what we saw: Dozens of 4WDs lined the banks of the Mara, preventing the Wildebeest from crossing and forcing them back to higher grounds.  I’ll put a photo and some words around this in a later post. With the decision to play no part in the disruption of the river crossing, we concentrated on other areas of the Mara Triangle.


It’s actually quite difficult to get photographs of Wildebeest looking at the camera when you are also driving a vehicle; by the time you have stopped the car and focussed they have turned their backs on you. Zebras tend to do the same thing, and the web is littered with holiday snaps of Zebra’s arses.  I managed to get a photograph of Wildebeest ‘lounging’ , and a second later the moment was gone as they turned around. A little more easy is capturing images of Wildebeest moving to/from the river banks, as they tend to run in single file.  I found the sight of herds of Wildebeest in the Mara quite breathtaking, even though large numbers had already started their journey south into Tanzania.



We stopped at  Purungat Bridge to look at the vultures and Marabou Storks that were busy with carcasses of Wildebeest that had drowned during the crossing.  The light was a little better for photography than when i had passed the previous day, although there is a distinct lack of colour in the images.  This was made up for by the male Amaga Lizard, which develops amazing colouring in the breeding season before returning to plain brown. This one was doing a series of ‘pushups’ in an attempt to attract a mate.



There is an area just over the Purungat Bridge where you can get closer to the river.  I had seen some Vervet monkeys there the previous day – one had jumped in my Landrover and stolen a bag of peanuts – so we stopped by to see if they were still there. The anti-poaching team were there again – dressed in army clothing and carrying firearms – taking advantage of a more lucrative pastime than looking for poachers: Not allowing tourists to walk close to the river unless they paid them a (very high) ‘guide’ fee.  They were also selling sodas at a very high price.  When wildlife is being poached in the Mara, you have to ask yourself why these guys are spending their time ripping off tourists.

Going ‘self-drive’ on your safari does put you at risk of seeing less wildlife than those tours driven by experienced locals that share sighting information by UHF radio.  For me, however, being independent and able to go wherever i choose far outweighs any potential disadvantages of ‘going solo’. We spent time looking at the fantastic bird-life of the Mara, which is often omitted by companies focussing on the large cats, as well as other mammals.  The photos below include an adult Black-backed Jackal (Canis mesomelas), which feeds on insects as well as larger prey including larger mammals such as young antelope.





Below is a photo of the Grey-capped Social Weaver bird (Pseudonigrita arnaudi) – also called the Grey-headed Social Weaver – which was gathering nesting material. I’ve also put a photograph of the same bird building it’s nest, and one of a completed nest.  These birds are common in the Mara, and their nests can be found easily as there are often dozens of nests in the same tree.




Another advantage of having your own vehicle in the Maasai Mara is that you can take some food with you and do an all-day game drive, going exactly where you choose of course. As well as driving the areas by the river, we also explored the plains closer to the escarpment to see what we could find.  This was a most enjoyable journey, and probably one of my favourite parts of my time in the Mara. Of the highlights, were 28 elephants emerging from the bush to graze on the plains. We couldn’t get too close as there were many young with them, and a male was already pawing at the ground despite our distance from them. There were also large numbers of zebras, which look beautiful with their young in the golden morning light.



Sophie proved that she had the best pair of eyes amongst us, when she spotted a cheetah looking out from on top of a termite mound.  I was very happy to see this animal, even though it was at quite a distance. By the time we reached the road to our campsite it was already late afternoon, and we spent some time watching two sleeping lionesses.  After 30 mins or so the sun was dropping close to the horizon, and the drop in temperature served as a cue for them to wake up and think about dinner.  As they made their way through the grass and away from us we decided it had been a great end to the day, and started the drive back to our tents.



However, we the Mara had another surprise for us just before we reached the Oloololo Gate.  As we watched a lioness sitting at the side of the road, four cubs came running out of the bushes. A few other vehicles also stopped to watch the cubs play, but the sun was setting and they had their schedule to keep as so we were left alone watching the cubs play.  At one point the lioness walked past my open window, and my heart skipped a couple of beats as i wondered if i should raise the glass. My worry was that making a sudden movement would make her show interest in me, so i decided to remain motionless as she passed by.  The lioness was clearly not interested in me at all, and sauntered past.  I took some photos and a video, which i will put in the next post.

Returning to the camp that evening we found we had new neighbours.  A group of people from England and Sweden had set up their tents and were busy cooking food on an open fire.  We were not off to a good start as they had lit the fire i had prepared – complete with kindling and dry grass – rather than bother to make their own. Firewood collection in the Mara is prohibited so you must bring in your own.  I didn’t feel that using the last of mine was particularly the right thing to do.  After a brief chat i realised they were not really my kind of people, and I would prefer an early night to their company.  I settled down with thoughts of what we may see the next day and was asleep in a few minutes.

Kenya: Maasai Mara, Wildebeest Migration

I was careful not to stay in Nairobi too long, and had arranged for my Landrover – rented from Rover Safari – to be delivered at 0630 in the morning.  My first destination was the Maasai Mara, a most amazing place that i had visited previously last April in the middle of the rainy season. The Mara should be very different in August, with thousands of grazers, mainly Wildebeest and Zebra, migrating to the area to feed. One of the main attractions is watching these animals at the river crossings, where many succumb to drowning or attacks by the massive Nile Crocodiles.

It wasn’t a good start to the day.  I met with, the driver who was delivering the Landrover, to find him with a different vehicle to the one that had been arranged. This TDi had a less powerful engine, and was without a long-range fuel tank; two things i had wanted for this trip.  What made things worse was that the Landrover delivered was the same one i had returned on my previous trip due to the many faults it had.  I was not happy at all and i made my feelings very clear.  It turned out the vehicle i had reserved was on safari with another customer, so i had little choice but to take the vehicle provided, and hope that they had managed to fix the problems i had reported last time.

The drive to the Maasai Mara takes just a few hours from Nairobi and i decided to forget that I had been given the wrong vehicle and enjoy myself.  The engine still threw out a lot of black smoke when struggling up hills, but in these instances i just sat in second gear, let others overtake me, and accepted that was the way it had to be.  I was happy that the starter motor and gearbox were now working properly, and that the tyres had tread on them.  As long as the leaking roof had been fixed then i felt the car would suffice.

After passing through Narok and picking up a few more supplies, i hit the same dirt roads i had travelled on in the opposite direction earlier in the year.  There were lots more vehicles on the roads than previously and, without the April rains, I spent much of this section of the journey in a cloud of dust.  As I approached the Sekenani Main Gate i caught a sight in my mirror that made my heart miss a few beats; the rear door of the Landrover was wide open. With the noise of the bumpy road, the clouds of dusts, and the concentration needed on the road ahead, i hadn’t noticed it was not shut.  How long had it been open? I hope nothing had fallen out.

I pulled over the  side of the road and my heart sank.  The two bags that had been on the back seat – my camera equipment bag and my clothes bag – were no longer there.  At what point had they fallen out? They could be 50 km back, and it was unlikely that someone had not found them and made off with them by now. As i contemplated turning back for a near-pointless search i saw from the corner of my eye that they had not fallen out, but had simply moved forward and were now wedged between the front and back seats.  I could not be happier.  I hadn’t lost a thing, and the books and maps that were also sitting on the back seat had also bounced forward and were now sitting on the floor. What a relief!

I couldn’t understand how i had been so careless to not close the back door properly.  However, I soon realised that the fault was actually with the vehicle door.  No matter how securely it was fastened, it jumped off the catch on the slightest bump.  Travelling the dirt roads of the Maasai Mara would result in it being permanently open, and so i made my first repair of the journey by tying the door shut with rope from the inside and outside.  This would have to do for the journey to the camp site, and i could try to fix it a little more permanently after arrival.


As i crossed into the Maasai Traingle i realised this trip was going to be very different. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wildebeest carcasses had washed up on rock and the banks of the Mara River at Purungat Bridge.  The vultures and Marabou Storks were having a feast.  The rangers at the bridge told me the Wildebeest were crossing in the mornings, but as i drove through the triangle realised they were also crossing in the afternoons.  The viewpoint was perhaps not the best but i didn’t want to drive closer as i strongly believe that you should stick to established tracks, not create new ones, to protect the environment.  In this part of the Mara, making new tracks is prohibited, although many flout the rules when rangers are not present. I watched the Wildebeest crossing for around 20 minutes, before deciding i had better get back on the road to Oloololo Gate where i was going to set up camp.

Although the viewpoint and the mid-afternoon light did not make for good photography, the images below show what an amazing spectacle the river crossing is, and why so many tourists are attracted to the Maasai Mara at this time of year. On the full-size version of the first photograph you can see the crocodile in the water that has previously attacked the zebra (far right) and is patiently waiting as the zebra is stuck be the bank that is too steep for it to climb.



I reached Oloololo Gate and had plenty of time to set up the tent.  I really like the campsite here, which is not frequently visited as it is on the edge of the reserve.  However, there is plenty of wildlife and the river is just a short drive so i wanted to stay there again.  It’s also the cheapest campsite in the Mara 🙂

I was sharing the site with a Pedro from Barcelona and his family.  As night fell, a Swedish couple appeared and asked if they thought it would be easy to ‘hitch a ride’ with the vehicles entering the park in the morning. They had arrived with some Kenyan friends who were leaving that evening, and therefore had no transport for the next day.  I told them i had room in my Landrover for them both as long as they didn’t mind me stopping to take lots of photos.  The next problem was that they had no food.  I said that i had plenty, and they were welcome to share mine.  This led to a very funny situation where they realised they were either incredibly lucky, or had just met a complete psycho.  The indecision showed in their faces so i told them to let me know when they had decided.  They came back 10 minutes later with their tent and big smiles.  That evening i realised Sophie and Jonatan were great people, and i would be getting some good company during my Mara safari.