Having been to Kenya before as a teenager I knew I didn't fancy another 'classic' safari. I wanted something different. Simon had never been to Africa so I don't think he really cared where we went!
As part of the HSBC funding for Earthwatch (the Investing In Nature programme) I had been part of a team that went to Costa Rica in 2003 to study rainforest caterpillars. The two weeks there were like no other 'holiday' I'd ever been on, so I knew an Earthwatch trip would be ideal for our honeymoon. We were both set on Africa and wildlife, and the possibility of being able to help in the research on Lions of Tsavo was not one to be missed.
The project's mission is to study the maneless lions of Tsavo with a view to mitigating human/lion conflict. Lions kill hundreds of livestock every year, which can lead to ranchers killing the lions. We were based in the Taita/Rukinga Wildlife Conservancy next to Tsavo East National Park.
We meet up with our team on the six and a half hour drive to our camp, Campi ya Neka. The bumpy roads bring back my memories of Kenya but the sightings of giraffe, impala and baboons take your mind off the long journey. It's a real mix of ages, from myself at 28, up to Bob from Denver who's an impressive 79 years old. The camp site is everything we could have hoped for; we have a great tent with camp beds and mattresses and even electricity in the form of a fan. Around 5.30pm we go for our first drive where we see giraffe, elephants, bush baby, onyx and dik-dik (miniature antelope).
The chefs cook on charcoal but that doesn't stop the food being excellent - full cooked breakfast every morning plus cereal, toast and fruit; also an endless supply of tea and coffee. All the staff are wonderful and can't do enough for us, including making sure we improve our Swahili!
Every morning during the first week we have lessons on various subjects. Day 1 is about the equipment and techniques we will use; antennae and receivers for tracking the lions' radio collars, data recording on paper and using the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA - a hand-held computer), spot lighting for when it is dark, and recording distances during daylight hours. When you see lions you record them on specific data sheets. This includes the number of lions, any special markings/gender, and behaviour at least every five minutes - a tough job! During the first week we drive out from 4pm-8pm, then from 10pm-2am - it will be a tiring week.
No lions are spotted on any of the drives today but I learn on the 10pm-2am trip the dangers of having a beer at dinner time as I soon need the toilet - only three and a half hours until the next loo stop!
We have an early morning Swahili lesson which we both enjoy. We see a cheetah on the first drive today. The highlight of the late night drive is when we manage to drive straight through a massive spider's web and a huge spider falls into the truck - not happy! Luckily Alex (scientist Alexander Mwazo Gombe) rescues it and removes it from the truck.
This morning Simon from Kenya Wildlife Service gives a talk on African culture. It is interesting to learn about all the different tribes and their beliefs. On the first drive our team hardly sees anything, but then we get the call we've been waiting for from the other team to say they've spotted some lions. We are a few kilometres away so Chui, our driver, drives pretty fast over to where they are so we can see the lions as well. Incredibly, there is a mother and her two cubs.
Today is our day off and just for a change we decide to go on a drive, this time to Tsavo East National Park. The park is more open than the ranch we've been working on and the animals are more used to humans so they don't run away. We see several animals we haven't spotted before including warthogs, baby ostrich and hippos.
Today is the start of the early morning shift. This week we'll be doing drives from 3am-8am, then 4pm-8pm, so we're not sure if it's going to be harder than last week or not. We spot the usual elephants, dik-dik and impala. In the evening we see a white dik-dik which is part albino, and has only been spotted once before. We also see an African wildcat - a rare sighting and the first time our lead scientist Dr. Bruce Patterson has spotted one here.
We see a puff adder on the road. It's about 1.5m long. Towards 7am Bob spots lions in the road, which then run across the front of the van; two lionesses and one male lion. The male is agitated and keeps roaring at us and swishing his tail. There is a rush to start recording every movement and Bruce gets lots of great pictures. It isn't a group of lions Bruce has seen before so collecting data is vital.
We find two males, around two years old. It's an amazing sight as they jump in the trees, play-fight and groom each other. Unfortunately they haven't killed so we know they won't stay around for long. The aim is to find a lion that has just made a big kill so it won't move for a couple of hours. A vet can then be called to fit a radio tracking collar.
This afternoon we have a tip-off from a local water pump attendant that a group of lions has been seen. After searching the bush we find a group of seven lions. We follow them for two hours and get some great pictures.
On our final drive the weather is pretty miserable and the animals are hard to spot. In the afternoon the sun comes back out and at 4.30pm we go for a sun downer.
After saying goodbye to both the team and camp staff we head off to Malindi for the final part of our honeymoon. We've both had a wonderful experience and a unique honeymoon which we'll never forget.
Helen Pickup took her husband on honeymoon on the Lions of Tsavo expedition, team 3, from 9 - 21 April 2007