Blog - Kyle Helmond

12.5

Up for breakfast at 7 am. Today’s the first full day of LEI. All of these students are genuinely excited to be here. I think for some of them, this is their first trip away from home. Some of them travelled over fourteen hours to be here. Pretty impressive dedication to furthering your education.

Breakfast consisted of a piece of white bread and a hard-boiled egg. Hard pass on both. My breakfast consisted of a snickers. The Mars candy company is getting a christmas card for keeping me alive. I’d wager I’ve lost at least ten pounds, probably more. This would normally be good news but fairly sure it has been all muscle. Oh how I miss the gym. Here’s hoping lunch will be better. Anyways, today has consisted of all video work. The organization had a large wish list of footage and I’m doing my best to deliver. The kids are great sports, always smiling and making funny faces into the camera which makes my job a lot easier.

Lunch is not better. Some sort of mystery stew, cabbage, and rice. You know what that means. Rice and snickers. Actually not a terrible combination. The distributor in charge of the african continent is also getting a christmas card. My uncle headed into town to hopefully find a grocery store to stock on some snacks to get us through the rest of the week. Fingers crossed he finds something good.


12.4

We arrived at Nature’s Camp @ Lake Naivasha. Right off the bat is was clear this was not thought out. This place is nowhere near big enough or ready to house 130 people for the week. In classic African fashion, the Kenyan staff seems unconcerned. It’s safe to say they are in a little over their head. Asante tries very hard to boost up locals and teach them to be self sufficient, which is great in theory. The main obstacle with this is the african way of life. Hakuna Matata wasn’t just a catch phrase in the Lion King, it is literally their mantra. Whatever happens, happens, whatever will be, will be. I have yet to see a single person on this continent be stressed out. Perhaps that’s a better way to live than the high stress environment of America, but damn, I don’t know how they get anything done.

Erna arrived midway through the day and quickly mobilized every person available to try and right the ship. We didn’t have enough beds for the girls, tents for the boys, housing for the teachers, and on top of all that, the camp lost power. The final eight hours of the day were a blur of putting together make shift beds, putting rain covers on tents, and trying desperately to be semi prepared before the bulk of the students arrived.

We managed to piece the place together just good enough when two busloads of students rolled up. I became in charge of showing the male students to the back toilets by flashlight. A very glamorous position, thinking of making the move permanent. Madison and I capped off the night with some pickup games of soccer with the students. An exhausting day for sure, but these students seem like they are going to be a lot of fun this week.


12.3

Club music again. All night. Pretty sure they hit 6 am. A shower, a good nights sleep, and an entire pizza for myself is on my to do list as soon as I get home. We left to meed Madison and Erna (the head of Asante Africa who we are working with the rest of the week) for breakfast. We hit the same coffee shop mainly for the wifi. Erna then showed us some really great rooms behind the coffee shop. Great information to get when you are leaving. The group decided that heading into town was a good idea. So we flagged down 5 bodaboda’s (a sketchy motorbike.) The driver’s were all quite amused to be driving all muzungus and they wanted some selfies. We all hopped on and headed towards the grocery. Luckily Sunday is a tame driving day, so they weren’t as reckless as I have seen them. I grabbed soda and snickers much to Erna’s amusement, but I have no shame. At one we piled in a Mutatu (a van like taxi) to head to the camp where the LEI conference will be held. Didn’t think there would be anyway they could cram 6 people and tons of luggage and materials in, but they did. In just a short three hours, we will be at our home for the next several days.


12.2

Arrived at Joseph’s to start shooting the grooms party getting ready. Spent around an hour at his apartment before we all departed for the gas station where several cars were meeting to start the procession. Traditional Kenyan weddings call for a convoy to the brides house before continuing on to the ceremony. This was my first time essentially alone in Africa. Joseph spoke a fair amount of english but I still felt pretty isolated. That feeling multiplied after the car I arrived in left. I was then told I would have my own driver and car. Then he left without me too. So into a third car I went. Halfway to the brides, that driver stopped and told me I had to get out and get into another car that he was pointing too. Picture me sweating profusely say THIS IS FINE over and over again. We eventually got to the bride’s house where I spotted Albert standing outside. Safe to say I moved very quickly towards him. I missed dinner last night and breakfast this morning due to the early start time, so I was struggling to function by noon. We got our driver to run us to the grocery store where I sent my uncle in to grab snacks. He returned with bananas and snickers. That snickers tasted like America. The wedding was a massive celebration. Hundreds of people, and a ceremony that went for several hours. Pretty sure most of the kids in attendance had never seen a white person since they continued to peak over their shoulders at me every couple of minutes. They get a big kick if you smile or make a funny face. The wedding shoot itself was very difficult. There were several photographers there who had no respect for others. They walked right up on stage and blocked the bride and groom from everyone to get what they wanted, but we made do. The reception informed me that Africans absolutely love to dance and sing. They even dance their gifts up to the bride and groom, even if it’s a refrigerator (one was indeed a refrigerator.) The MC spotted my uncle on the ground taking some photos and decided this was a good time for a roast. He picked on him in Swahili for several minutes to the delight of the crowd. Me and Madison (one of the only other white people in attendance) looked at each other and quickly began to sink in our chairs hoping we weren’t next. Luckily one roast seemed to be enough. We then retired to the coffee shop down the street that had wifi to grab some dinner and relax. Snagged the most american meal I’ve had yet (burger and fries) and even got a FaceTime call from my nephews which was great. Hoping there won’t be anymore club music tonight so I can actually sleep, but not getting my hopes up.


12.1

We woke up early to have one last breakfast at Mawe before the long drive to Narok, Kenya. The staff insisted on a group photo before we departed and told us to be sure to come back and to tell our friends. Definitely one of the cooler experiences I have had. We didn’t have much time to stop for animals today. Stopped for a quick goodbye shot with a female lion and stopped at a hippo overlook where we saw probably thirty hippos and crocodiles in a river. As soon as we left Serengeti NP proper, we drove through small town after small town. Every kid who saw us waved and chased after the car. Some wanting food, some water, and some just to get a wave back from a muzungu. Each town offers something a little different. It’s crazy to see how they live here. We soon arrived in a small border town in North Tanzania. Our driver had never been to this area, or dealt with the border crossing, so Albert had us dropped off at a car service to get us across into Kenya. The border between Tanzania and Kenya was quite an experience. You have to get your passport stamped to exit Tanzania, then pay a new visa and get your passport stamped to enter Kenya. All very stressful for foreigners. Luckily our driver was very helpful during the process so we made it through pretty quickly. The actual border crossing offered me the sight of most AK 47s I’ve seen in my life. Not unnerving at all. The road from the border to Kenya was a new experience. There are approx zero stop signs or stop lights in all of Africa apparently, but more speed bumps on a single road than we have in the entirety of the US. This means drivers go 0-70-0 between each speed bump. This is fine for short distances, but our drive today ended up totaling 11 hours. Safe to say this was the longest day of the trip. Upon arriving in Narok, we couldn’t find a room reserved for us, so we had to just grab one. The Maralink Hotel offered me my first 0 star rating on yelp. If it were a movie, it would be Paul Blart, with lots of mosquitoes in the room. Kenyans also party really hard on the weekends. There was terrible club music outside the window until 5:30 am. Tomorrow I have to be dropped off at the groom’s house of the wedding we are shooting at 7 am. Gonna be a long one.


11.30 Part II

After a nice outdoor lunch at camp, we made our way out for our last night of safari. Albert decided we should focus on trying to find another leopard so we ventured east towards a small marsh. This time we weren't so lucky. We managed to spot one cheetah and a very small herd of elephants. We headed back for camp straight into an oncoming thunderstorm which made for some very scenic cloud cover. Once back I decided to skip dinner as I wasn't feeling great so I just stayed in the tent. A few minutes after Mike left, two of the staff came to check on me and offer me some plain rice, so I kindly accepted. However, when they came back, they had a glass of vinegar with the rice. One guy told me to drink two spoonfuls to help with my stomach, the other told me to drink the whole thing. This very much felt like a prank on the muzungu, but I manned up and downed it all. Not my favorite experience, but I appreciated the sentiment. I think. The employees here at Mawe have been awesome. Super friendly and love to joke around. They also love to give thumbs up, not really sure why, but hey, I understand that one.

Off to Narok tomorrow to photograph a traditional Kenyan Wedding. 

11.30

We received out 5 am wake up call this morning from a lion outside the tent. That's actually not a joke. A large male lion wasn't so much growling as much as just voicing his displeasure. We were supposed to leave for safari in approx. 45 minutes and I didn't feel that was ample time for him to vacate the area. Luckily he did and I wasn't eaten. Today we are focusing on lions and cheetahs again. After over an hour with very little spotted we found a lone male cheetah laying on top of a large pride rock. Albert told us this was very rare behavior for a cheetah so we tried our best to get the best shots possible. He quickly got agitated and left, and we were unsure why. After a few minutes searching we spotted a nearby female cheetah, which explained it. We headed back north and found a couple small groups of lions. Another set of two huge brothers with massive manes. They were my favorites so far. 

Back to camp for lunch and rest. Back out for out last evening safari here. Tomorrow we make out way to Kenya. 

11.29

Up at a normal time today to depart the lodge. Have a bit of a drive ahead of us to get to the central valley of the Serengeti. We came across the biggest concentration of the herd to date. Tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra as far as the eye could see. We drove through them for what seemed to be an hour and were completely surround the entire time. Wildebeest seemingly have the worst life. Constantly chasing the rains and everything wants to eat them except for their zebra friends. I tried again to get a great zebra shot for my nephew. I have tried almost every day and still not sure I have the shot I want. Luckily those things are like squirrels here so I will have plenty of other chances.

We finally arrive in the central valley and Albert is determined to get me a leopard before lunch. Sure enough, we spotted a few safari cars parked near a tree and quickly realized there was a leopard, but high up and out of view. We decided to break for lunch and wait him out to see if he would come down. They are highly elusive and also highly sought after. So many damn trucks full of mezungus (white people.) In the Serengeti you are not allowed to leave the designated road areas unlike the conservation area we had just been. The only way we would get close to this leopard would be to wait out all the other trucks for a few hours so we could break the rules and go closer. So that's exactly what I insisted on doing. We finally got the last truck of germans to give up and we moved in very quickly for a close up shot and it was definitely worth it. Leopards are my new favorite. We ventured on and found a pride of maybe 13 lions, mostly older cubs but they were all dead asleep under a large tree so we moved on.

We started nearing our new camp, Mawe Luxury Tent Camps, and we spotted a lone lioness on a rock about a mile out. We drove out and quickly noticed there was an entire pride behind her with several tiny cubs. We moved around to the other side for a better vantage point. As we were inching closer to the rock with the cubs, we disturbed a massive ten year old male who was sleeping behind a rock. He was maybe 5 feet outside the window I was sitting in and it's safe to say a little pee came out. Albert got a very good laugh from my reaction there. We pushed on and got the best lion photos of the trip. The cubs were very playful and gave us lots of little growls and cute looks. We stayed with them from well over an hour and shot way too many pictures, but it was worth it.

Arrival at Mawe was interesting. These are legit tents in the middle of the Serengeti. We were quickly told to signal staff with our flashlight if we need to leave the tent so we don't get eaten by lions. That wasn't a joke. The tent itself is awesome, but not entirely positive mesh will keep out a lion. We will see. We were treated to a festive dinner complete with african drum line, dancing, and singing. Thank god they didn't make me participate. Another sunrise safari awaits tomorrow. Safe to say I am exhausted and definitely a bit homesick for the first time in years.

11.28

Out the door again at dawn. Today we headed for a region known as Hidden Valley. We tasked Albert with finding a big adult male with a mature mane, and he thought this would be the place. Upon arrival we got another first, a massive lumbering hippo. He was super agitated by the truck and began to ran, who knew those guys could really move. Wouldn't want to come across one of those guys. He plunged into the water where a couple hundred zebra had gathered. From across the lake we spotted a big male and female lion on what Albert refers to as 'honeymoon.' This was out first older adult male, Albert pegged him at about 10 years old. We tried our best to get in a good position for photos, but they were not having it. They quickly got up and headed towards tall grass and completely disappeared. Guess they don't like their pictures taken. We decided to head back south to see what else we could find.

Less than hour down the road we spotted another cheetah. This one was a very full female. She had eaten so recently that we questioned whether she was pregnant. She walked around for a few minutes before digging out a spot to hide under a bush so we let her be. Maybe ten minutes later we spotted another set of brother cheetahs. Possibly the same pair from the hunt we saw yesterday, but they appeared to be older and larger, so we are unsure. Got a few good portraits while they were sleeping and headed back to the lodge for lunch. Just before we got there we ended up in a herd of maybe 40-50 elephants, including several very small babies. They had formed a ring around the babies to protect them, but quickly broke out of that to go eat. The elephants around here have done a ton of damage to the trees. Not by eating them, but just by knocking them down. Looks like a tornado has been through here.

For the evening safari, we came across the same herd of elephants again and decided to take some more shots in the softer evening light. Think I finally got the elephant shot I had wanted. Just off in the distance we spotted a lone lioness up on a hill, so we drove up see if anymore were around. She was happy to sleep and I don't think she even noticed we were there. Albert decided now would be a good time to try and find our first leopard so we explored a swampy area to the south that we hadn't visited yet. After striking out we came across a massive herd of wildebeest and zebra and Albert said we could get out of the car to stretch and shoot the animals from outside the car. Was definitely a cool experience to be out among all of them. Tonight is our last night at Ndutu, heading up to Serengeti National Park in the morning.


11.27 Part II

We concluded the day with a sunset safari. After a few minutes of searching the small marsh, we came across a pride of four lions, three females and one large male. One of the females appeared to be pregnant and was super pissed we were bothering her. She showed her teeth a few times before moving locations. The male followed her for what I like to call 13 seconds of love. Very little effort goes into making killing machines apparently. We hung around waiting for better lighting for a couple hours. After finally getting some golden light we decided to see what else we could find in the last few moments of daylight. We decided to watch a classic african sunset, just like the lion king poster, from atop a hill. As we headed back to camp we drove right upon our three brothers we had seen earlier. They were laying under a large bush and could not have cared less that we were maybe five feet from them. Got some of the best up close face shots of the trip from the one brother with his eyes open.

Time for dinner and bed at Ndutu again. Another sunrise safari awaits in the morning.

11.27

Heading out for the day at 6 am. We have boxed breakfasts and a goal and a goal to find cheetahs. First thing we find is a smoldering elephant carcass. Smelled great. Several hyenas and wildebeest out this morning, but the smoke from the dead elephant has likely scared off all the lions. Continued west, passing everything from gazelle to ostriches before finally spotting three big male lions. We quickly began to follow them in hopes they would lead us back to the larger pride, but after a few miles they needed a nap. Albert asked me to go pet them, starting to wonder if he is that good at his job. After taking way too many lion photos we decided to move along and find a spot for breakfast. We stopped in the middle of a massive herd of zebras and wildebeest. Maybe five minutes later Albert spots two male cheetah brothers from a long way off. Apparently he is that good at his job.

The two brothers were seemingly very determined, so we decided to follow them for a while. A while turned into a couple hours. They eventually began to approach a line of wildebeest that stretched as far as you could see. Thousands upon thousand had been filing single file back towards the rains. After two unsuccessful hunts on large wildebeest, a baby had been separated from the herd. Albert called it from a ways off and told us to get ready. Sure enough, the hunt was on, and we had our first kill. It was equal parts incredible and heartbreaking at the same time. The mother circled back about 20 minutes later calling out looking for the baby, which was clearly not going to come. Never thought I’d see this stuff outside of Planet Earth, but it happens here all day every day. Breaking now for lunch, heading back out for sunset safari in a bit. More later.


11.26

First stop today was to buy bananas from some street vendors. This was also where I got to watch my uncle be harassed to buy necklaces. He tried his best to explain his way out of the situation even though the guy spoke little to no english. He eventually bought four necklaces. He’s a sucker. A few hundred yards down the road we came across a troop of baboons who were positive they could get our bananas through the windshield so they swarmed the car. Felt a little unsafe with the windows open, but we escaped unscathed. We continued through several small villages, maasi tribal territories, and eventually to Ngorogoro Crater National Park. Started seeing sporadic wildlife, but nothing too crazy.

Somewhere in the highlands we found rain. And then we found super sketchy washed out roads. This is when Albert and Yona decided we should just make our own new road up the side of a mountain. This will be referred to as an African massage from here on out. A few hours later, and tons of maasi villages passed, we started seeing tons of wildlife. Started out small with wildebeest, zebras, and vultures before graduating to lions, cheetahs, giraffes, and elephants. Of the african “big 5” we spotted 4 on the first day (Lion, Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Rhino, still waiting on the Leopard.) We saw a small pride of five lions, including a new mother who was carrying her first newborn in her mouth which was maybe a day old. This theme would continue when we happened upon a mother cheetah with her two cubs.

Checked into Ndutu Lodge for the night. Pretty amazing place, that has decided not to invest in fences. Wildlife essentially eat dinner with you, and there are night watchmen on guard all night to protect you from lions. Shouldn’t have any trouble sleeping now. Safe to say first day was a crazy success. Heading out at sunrise to focus on cheetahs.


11.25 Part II

Touched down safely at Kilimanjaro International Airport, aka one runway in the middle of a field. Made our way through the visa line and Tanzania security, who now has several photos of me along with all my fingerprints. Met up with our driver Albert and his employee Yona are probably two of the nicest people I've met.

The drive through Arusha to camp one was quite the experience. The driving here is total chaos. Buses, motorcycles, and cars flying all over the place with seemingly no regard for safe driving which would take quite the turn in a few hours (more on that later.) We stopped in Arusha for lunch which was the first time Albert decided to make fun of me. We had a late lunch on the plane, so I decided to eat light, that and the fact I couldn't easily identify any of the foods in the buffet line. Albert took one look at my plate and said "that is not a meal for a man." Sick burn Albert. This was also where I learned that street merchants will sprint towards and surround any white person. They attempted to sell me bracelets, soccer balls, and safari cowboy hats, I now close my windows when we stop in town. We then made our way out of town towards our first camp, this is where we got to watch a safari truck plow into a group of wild donkey in the road going at least 60 mph sending them airborne and flying 100 feet. I seemed to be the only one surprised by it and we continued on.

Settled into camp for the night, early start tomorrow to head towards the Serengeti.

11.25

It turns out back to back red eye flights will pretty much wreck you physically. We are somewhere around hour 30 of travel and I am barely functioning. After a long six hour layover in London, we made our way to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Ethiopian Airlines food choices left much to be desired. I opened each meal, and then immediately closed them, hopefully this isn’t foreshadowing the next two weeks. I did however get to watch an amazingly beautiful sunrise over a sea of clouds out the window, hopefully that IS foreshadowing the next two weeks. A couple more hours here till our final flight to Tanzania. We will then have a 3-4 hour drive to where we are staying tonight. Here’s hoping I can get at least a couple hours of sleep tonight because tomorrow starts our safari. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t missing home just a bit. First time out of the country is definitely a big culture shock, but excited to see what the next two weeks have in store. I have lost count of the number of times I have had to ask what day it is, and already forgetting to take my malaria medication. The jet lag is very real.


11.24

Dear diary, how are you? I am fine. After just shy of ten hours, maybe two of which were spent sleeping, we touched down in London. First impressions: a little less James Bond, a lot more Mr. Bean. Thanksgiving day appears to be the best all around travel day. No lines at security, and maybe 40 people on a 300 seat 787. Even with a whole row to myself, I struggled to get any significant sleep. In large part due to the northern lights display we witnessed somewhere between Canada and Greenland. The aurora has always been on my bucket list, so that was a nice surprise. Now starts the 8 hour layover at Heathrow before heading to Ethiopia on another 8ish hour flight. The brits are very nice but for some reason do not believe in power outlets in their airports. And everyone apparently reads tabloid magazines. Part of me wants to yell out God Save the Queen just to see what happens.

Next stop Africa. 

11.21

This is going to be just like those popular travel blogs, except way worse. I haven't blogged since xanga was a thing and let's not discuss how long ago that was. Anyways, I wanted a place to update everyone on my trip to Africa. I assume the wifi in the Serengeti will be strong, to quite strong, so updates should be aplenty.

I leave in two days and am currently attempting to cram three weeks of clothes and gear into a carry on suitcase. Preparing for the heat and rains of the Serengeti, and the cooler high altitude temps of Kenya is a fun combination. I'm not entirely sure what safari clothes are but I can assure you I don't own them. Also, does anyone know what you wear to a traditional Kenyan wedding? Never mind, I'm sure I don't own that either. I do have a lot of malaria pills though, so at least I've got that going for me.

More later.


Rough itinerary:

Nov. 23Flight to Tanzania

Nov. 25-Dec 1- Safari through the Serengeti

Dec. 2 - Wedding shoot in Narok, Kenya

Dec. 3-4 - Safari days in Kenya

Dec. 5-8 - Asante Africa LEI Conference at Lake Naivasha

Dec. 9-10 - Safari/Travel back to Tanzania

Dec. 11 - Flight back


Links to where I'll be and who I'm working with:

http://www.serengeticamps.com/camp-details/

http://www.ndutu.com/about/

https://asanteafrica.org

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