Meeting with rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy

“If an accident happens money will not be refunded.” Warning from friends and travel websites came back to my mind when I read this message written on my matatu ticket. “Matatus are not safe,” I could hear them repeat in my mind. “They are cheap for sure but accidents are frequent.”

My stubbornness to always travel as local people do and the incredibly cheap price of the ticket still had convinced me to take a seat inside the small mini-bus parked in Nairobi station and heading to Nanyuki.

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One thing to know if you ever decide to travel by matatu is that you’ll need a certain dose of patience. As I sat in the vehicle still half-empty, I quickly learned that the rule number one was: as long as there are seats empty the matatu won’t go anywhere. After a little more than an hour, the mini-bus was finally full and ready to go. Accompanied by the sound of chicken chirping at the back, we finally left Nairobi.

From all the rumours and stories I had heard about matatus‘ drivers, I have to say that my ride went swiftly despite some bumpy roads. I even managed to fall asleep for a while and woke up looking everywhere around me hoping to catch the sight of a giraffe or any other Kenyan emblematic species. After few hours we reached our terminus: Nanyuki. My final destination, however, was still awaiting for me further away.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy had arranged a taxi for me and after twenty minutes (and the realisation that I had assumed incorrectly that there was only one matatu station in town) my driver, Martin, picked me up.

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My eyes widened once we passed the entrance gate of the conservancy few minutes later. I could see antilopes all around and elephants in the background.

“What’s your favourite animal here?”he asked me. After a quick thinking, I answered him: “I love hyenas.” Martin just couldn’t stop laughing at my answer. He explained that people in Kenya usually did not like hyena very much. When asked about his own favourite he told me that he really liked giraffes. “They are tall and elegant. They can eat the leaves that no other animals are able to get.”

Once arrived at the Stables, formerly known as the Research Centre, I was warmly welcomed by the staff and shown the room I will occupy for the next two weeks.

I quickly realised that traveling around the conservancy during my free time (I was there as an intern) wouldn’t be as easy as I thought. I had no intention to be eaten by a lion or charged by an elephant while walking around so my freedom of movement seemed suddenly quite limited.

Over the weekend, however, I noticed the frenetic obsession that people at the camp seemed to have with rhinos. When asking around what exactly everyone was so excited about, I was made aware that a process called rhino notching had been going on for a while and was coming to an end on Sunday.

The notching involved two teams: one team in an helicopter shooting the rhinos to be marked with tranquilliser and a second one composed of various trucks on the ground tracking the rhinos, ready to act once the animals were asleep. Quite exciting indeed!

On the Sunday afternoon, I got lucky enough and was able to join one of the ground team. Packed with various staff members, the truck quickly headed toward an open plain where we watched the helicopter chasing a rhino. Leaning dangerously, the airplane managed to get close enough to the impressive animal allowing the vet to tranquillise it.

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Seeing the rhino slowing down and finally falling asleep was the signal that the ground team had been waiting for to get into action. Speeding through the bush following GPS indications, I could feel the tension and excitement building up among us. Everyone knew that the animal would not stay asleep for very long  so getting to the scene quickly was essential to the operation.

Once the rhino had been located, the wildlife team rapidly went on the ground and started buzzing with activity. While some measured the individual, others painted a white sign on his back, took some blood sample and finally pierced his horn to insert a GPS tracker inside. The process is completely harmless to the animal and the horn made of keratin will then grow back around the tracker.

The pressure faced by rhinos in East and South Africa from poachers make it essential to be able to track the animals inside the conservancy. However, the data collected also allow to gather information on the health, genetics, and distribution of the individuals present in Ol Pejeta.

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Sudan is the last male Northern White Rhinoceros on Earth

Five minutes later everyone has managed to do what they were supposed to do and the staff members quickly go back to the trucks. Slowly, the rhino starts moving again. Looking confused and dazed, the massive animal looks around him and gets up. Now firm on his legs, he quickly disappears in the bush: time to track the next individual on the to-notch list.

The rest of the afternoon was a succession of wild rides in the bush followed by frenetic activity for every asleep rhino that had to be marked. The sun was starting to drift when we reached the last individual to be notched. As for the others, the staff members quickly jump down the truck to start buzzing around.

They were almost reaching the animal when suddenly the rhino started to move and got up. A wind of panic blew across the team and everyone quickly ran back toward the truck. The rhino made few steps and fell asleep again on the ground, breathing heavily. That’s one this last adrenaline rush that a truly amazing afternoon reached an end.

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The ride home gave us the opportunity to watch the sun slowly making its exit through a beautiful spectrum of reds and oranges. While the day was coming to an end for us, the bush was still vibrating with life. I kept looking at the zebras and antelopes around us, trying to print in my mind as many details and memories as I could.

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5 books that gave me the travel bug

I’m often surprised at how wanderlust suddenly hits me. From movies to conversations or even food, the drive to grab my backpack and go wonder is often difficult to fight. When I look back at my childhood trying to find out what might have started it all, it’s often books that come to my mind.

Here is a selection of five books that definitely gave me the travel bug and triggered long lasting obsessions for some places.

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Photo Credit: Debarshi Ray/Flickr

I. The adventures of Tintin by Hergé

From China to Peru, Tintin was to my eyes this amazing reporter and adventurer travelling across the globe to solve cases. My dad had the entire collection of albums and I remember spending hours and hours reading them as many times as I possibly could.

The great thing about the series was that being comic album it always felt like following the footsteps of the characters. In Tintin and the Temple of the Sun, I was totally transported to Peru. I could picture traveling with lamas and see myself climbing the Machu Picchu or meeting with the Incas.

The comics were also all about incredible friendships that Tintin developed during his adventures. I still remember how Tintin spent the entire album of Tintin in Tibet looking for Tchang, a young Chinese boy he had met in The Blue Lotus, after his plane crashed in the Himalayas.

Full of endearing characters, amazing destinations, and incredible adventures, The Adventures of Tintin sure had some flaws but overall it was a great collection to read as a kid.

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II) Disney’s Small World Library

If my parents weren’t sure yet that I would become a travel addict, they sure encouraged it by reading me Disney’s Small World Library books. Following Disney characters, these colourful illustrated books are each focused on a specific destination.

These books are basically travel guides for kids: a touch of culture here, a bit of food there, and showing you the famous landmarks of each place. Funny and entertaining, Disney largely contributed to the development of my travel to-do list.

These books established in me two long-lasting obsessions: one for Kenya and the other for the Chinese New Year. Indeed after following Goofy on his safari I couldn’t take the lions, zebras and giraffes out of my mind. More than that, I also developed a passion for Masai culture and East Africa in general.

Sometimes diving into stereotypes about countries too easily, this collection is still a great way for a kid to discover the world and spark wanderlust.

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III) City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

Sent off to NYC to live with his grand-mother while his mum faces cancer treatment, Alexander Cold has no idea of what is awaiting him. Kate, his eccentric grandma reporter for a magazine, embarks him on an investigation through the Amazon rainforest to find what locals call the Beast.

City of the Beasts takes us through an epic adventure in the heart of the Amazon. Deep friendships, unexplored wilderness, and spiritism are all brought to us by Chilean author Isabel Allende.

This book is surely the one that made me fall in love with Amazonia. Both the difficulties faced by the characters to reach it, the amazing wildlife described and the quest of Alexander to find his spirit animal completely won me over.

It was one of this book that I just couldn’t close before having reached the very end of it. Well researched, it made me very curious about Amazonian culture and the concept of animal spirit. If you want to be transported to the Amazon in an intense quest, this book is definitely for you.

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IV. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Behind this intriguing title hides a curious story. While London emerges from WWII, writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next subject. An unexpected letter from a man living in Guernsey is going to set up a series of correspondance between Juliet and various member of a literary club called the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  

After a few letters, Juliet decides to head to the island to meet her new friends and falls in love with the place. Through the description of the island landscapes and living conditions, I have to say that Juliet managed to make me fall in love with the place as well! The book left me with the certainty that I had to go explore Guernsey one day.

This book is a proof that reading can definitely broaden our horizon and give us the will to see what is described through her own eyes. I had never really gave a thought about going there before but after reading the book, Guernsey is now definitely on my travel wish list.

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V. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

From Oxford to the far North, the brave and young Lyra will take you on an epic adventure. When her friend Roger goes missing among many other children, Lyra decides to do everything in her power to get him back. Her trip will take her from Gypsy boats to talking armoured bears and she will face serious threats across the way.

Brilliantly written, this book is a chef d’oeuvre of children literature. Philip Pullman creates an entire world filled with daemons, witches, and multi-faceted vilains. All the steps of Lyra’s journey are described in such a way that I felt like I was living it all while reading the book.

The vivid description of this slightly different Oxford left me curious to discover the real one while the scene of the Aurora Borealis left me in deep awe. In term of traveling means, I have to admit that Lyra got me jealous: flying over the far north in an air balloon and running on the back of an armoured bear sounded like pretty cool way to explore the region!

Discovering Pembrokeshire by bus

After living in the Welsh capital for almost a year, I decided last August that it was finally time to explore this coast I had heard so much about: Pembrokeshire. After weeks of reflexion and price comparisons I came to the conclusion that the best (and cheapest) way to explore this part of Wales was to do it by bus.

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Day 1: Cardiff-Fishguard 

As we say in French “le monde appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt” [the world belongs to those who wake up early] and what better reason to wake up early than to go on an adventure, right? Full of energy and impatient to reach our destination, my sister and I jumped  on a train to Haverfordwest in the early morning.

In addition of being Pembrokeshire’s administrative centre, this small town also used to be the second largest port in Wales. Located at more than 2h30 from Cardiff, Haverfordwest is one of the rare town in the county to offer both bus and train connections to the rest of the region.

Once arrived at the tiny train station, we ran to the bus stop on the side to catch our ride: the T5. After 40 minutes of countryside roads and beautiful sceneries, we stopped at Fishguard Square. Small market town, Fishguard is located above the Fishguard Bay and is close to both the Coast Path and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.

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Fishguard Bay

Hiking was the reason we were here so we decided to head straight away to our accommodation to ask if we could drop our bags earlier than expected. One square and a tortuous street later, we reached the Hamilton Lodge.

Entering inside felt like going home. Welcomed by a friendly dog, we walked in a corridor giving on a comfy patio with various couches and  further away on a bright, fully equipped kitchen. Q, the owner, gave us our room key and asked us what our plans were for the afternoon. When we explained that we were in Fishguard only for a day, he convinced us to go explore Dinas Island instead of the Coast Path and gave us all the information we needed to go there by bus.

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Pwllgwaeod Beach

Despite getting off the bus at the wrong stop and being lost for a little while, we did not regret following his advice for a second. The path starting at Pwllgwaeod Beach -great spot to stop for a picnic- goes all the way around Dinas peninsula until the Cwm Yr Eglwys.

Under a not-so-cloudy sky, we walked up and down for two hours stopping frequently to take pictures of the amazing views on Fishguard Bay. Sheep and dogs are both present on the island but if you are a wildlife seeker, take a look down the cliffs to spot seabirds. If you are lucky you might even spot some playful seals!

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Day 2: Fishguard-St Davids-Broad Haven

After a nice breakfast (included in the price) at the Hamilton lodge, we went back to Fishguard Square to take the bus 413 heading to St Davids. Beautiful countryside landscapes and amazing views on the Pembrokeshire Coast convinced me again that traveling by bus is one of the best way to explore new places. It’s a magic you can’t really experience if you are driving because you need to be focused on the road and that you won’t be able to experience by train here.

After 45 minutes, the bus driver dropped us in St Davids, renowned for its cathedral, spectacular coastal sceneries and wildlife.  Its proximity to Ramsey Island, an RSPB reserve, makes it an easy place to find boat tours.

Seeing that one of the boat operator, Voyages of Discovery, still had two spots available in the morning, we decided to book our trip. We then headed by bus to the departure point in St Justinian’s and patiently waited for our names to be called, in the middle of a crowd of people awaiting for various tour operators.

Embarking on an orange boat, we were then taken on an hour-long trip around Ramsey Island with a friendly guide providing us with details about the place. With its cliffs up to 120 m high, the island offers dramatic landscapes and great nesting sites for seabirds such as guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, and razorbills.

Taking us to a cave, the guide explained us that seals love staying there especially when they are with their pups. Talking about seals, our boat was quickly surrounded by many of them few minutes later. While some of them were resting and sunbathing, others were playfully following the boat allowing me to take some closeup photos.

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After the trip, we decided to follow the coastal path from St Justinian’s to St Davids’ Head. Unfortunately we quickly realised that the estimations of Google Maps were far from the reality and that we wouldn’t have enough time to go there and come back before our bus’ departure time. Stopping at the beach of Whitesands Bay, we headed back to St Davids to see the cathedral before leaving.

It’s funny how I had read everywhere that it was THE thing to see in St Davids but somehow I was far from imagining how impressive it was. Quite hidden in the city, it took my breath away when it finally appeared in front of me. Immense, majestic, beautiful!

Built on St David’s 6th century monastery, St Davids Cathedral has been raided by vikings across the 10th and 11th centuries. It’s finally in 1180 than the rebuilding of the nave and west of the church began under the bishop Peter de Leia.

This cathedral is definitely worth stopping for and if the sun is out it becomes a perfect spot to sit on the grass and rest for a while.

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Content with our day, we headed back to town to take the bus 400, poetically named the Puffin Shuttle. Longing the coast until Marloes (port to reach Skomer Island), this shuttle allows you to have a great view, through panoramic windows, of the cliffs and hills of the coastline.

Good thing to know: if you are hiking around this area, you can just stop the 400 in whatever place you want and then explain to the driver where you want to be dropped off.

We arrived in Broad Haven, our final destination for the day, welcomed by the rain and quickly took refuge in our hostel for the night.

 

Day 3: Broad Haven – St Brides – Cardiff

After a night spent at the familial YHA hostel of Broad Haven, we decided to do some serious hiking and headed toward St Brides. Broad Haven is a small village with a tiny supermarket, a café and a large beach loved by surfers. Not really attracted by the place, we quickly walked up and down the hill by the road to reach a much picturesque place: Small Haven.

Charming tiny houses full of characters are built on the cliff, facing the sea. The beach is smaller and quieter. It looks like a perfect tiny village, the kind you want to send a postcard of to your friends to show how beautiful Pembrokeshire is.

From there, the Coast Path starts again climbing the hills to take you to a perfect view on the entire town. Quickly, the coastal view disappears behind trees and the path becomes darker. 45 minutes later the coast appears again, longing fields filled with sheep and cows, the path continues with breathtaking panoramas.

Looking at the weather, we decided  to stop earlier than we had planned. After 2h30 walking, we found an unoccupied beach and stopped to eat our well-deserved picnic. Walking back to Little Haven, everything suddenly became foggy. A storm was coming. And it was coming fast.

Pouring rain started hitting us but luckily we reached a stone refuge near Little Haven Beach. The coastline completely disappeared, hidden behind a foggy blanket. All we could do was wait for the storm to slow down or hope to cross path with the Puffin shuttle.

dsc_0241After a while, the coast slowly reappeared and the storm went away. It was time for us to walk back to Broad Haven, warm up with a hot chocolate and take the bus back to Haverfordwest.

Back at the tiny train station, we waited for our train to take us back to Cardiff, our heads filled with beautiful landscapes and nice memories. Now I understand why Pembrokeshire is such a touristic attraction in Wales. It truly has a lot to offer for all type of travellers.

My new objective now is to come back one day and hike a longer section of this amazing coastline.

Overall rating: 8/10
Best Surprise: The Hamilton Lodge. Awesome place and super friendly owner!
Only Regret: Not being able to go to Skomer Island (I really wanted to see the puffins!)