Jambo Rafiki!!! (Hello my friend)
One’s African experience would not be complete without a Safari – (Swahili word meaning to travel or journey.) We chose Kenya, which is a lot different than South Africa in terms of progress. This, I presume, is the REAL Africa. The cities are dirty, dusty, crowded, and definitely behind the times. The dankness of the cities however, is overshadowed by the beauty of the wilderness – it’s so green!! It was a beautiful drive. Coming out of Nairobi and dropping into the Great Rift Valley on the way to Masai Mara is a sight that I will never tire of.
The Masai Mara is HUGE! The scale, diversity and richness of the Mara is hard to fathom and even harder to explain, a 6-hour drive to The Mara (as the locals call it) from Nairobi airport, is on the southern border of Kenya and Tanzania and is an extension of the Serengeti. One of the travel magazines has said ?the Mara’ is one of the top ten places to visit in the world – as you will see – it did not disappoint!
Never ever would I have thought that we would be cajoled into an African massage immediately, just kidding 🙂 :-)…. African massage – a cute way of saying that the roads are bad enough to shake just about anything of you. It would be an understatement of the year to say that my neck hurt a little! Honestly, no exaggeration, most of the roads are more potholed than asphalt. It’s kind of a tradeoff – either the roads are so broken up that driving is next to impossible, or the dirt road is muddy (read: sloshing around) or dry (read: dust EVERYWHERE!). And the way our driver drives… he finds these patches of good highway and hits up to 160 km/h (wheeeeee!) and then slams on the breaks as we slam into a pothole that’s bigger than an average sized cow and I swear I can hear the rear axle breaking off….. *sigh* Sorry that was a big rant about the roads… I’ll move on now!
We arrived in Masai Mara, and booked into the Keekorok Lodge right in front of the hippo pool, where we stayed for 2 nights. No internet access, no telephone, no TV………basically, we were on the Game Reserve and we were there to enjoy nature at its best. We were on a Safari! Wow. Wow. Wow! The weather, so pleasant, was perfect for us. We saw it all! It was just like on National Geographic, only better, ’cause we were there!!!!!
The abundance of life and beauty of this land is amazing! It is a grass land savannah and as the cypress trees in Italy define the landscape – so do the umbrella trees here. The plains are wide, the sky is immense and the animals are widely spread out. Although the Mara National Reserve is a protected area, there is no fencing of any kind. It had the feel of being in a zoo, but far more wild. This means that all of the surrounding land (villages, lodges, & campsites) is open to the roaming animals from the Reserve …… but we have security we are told … tell that to an elephant trumpeting in the dark … hee hee…
I must say that Daniel, our Tour Guide, a masai himself, was superb! He was brilliant in tracking down cheetahs, lions feeding and elephants roaming. He was also incredibly knowledgeable about the birds of the Mara — over 700 species. Our first sighting was gazelles – They graze separately from the females. Then zebras and wildebeest came into view. Quite staggering the numbers really!
Between May-June, it is the time of the great migration – millions of wildebeest and zebras migrate north from the Serengeti looking for water as everything is far too dry out there, and most of the grasses are dead, meaning they have no food. The Mara is pretty dry too, but it has enough life in it to support the animals for a couple of months until the rains start in Tanzania around the end of October.
We then met a family of giraffes and were entertained by two males, wrestling. How do Giraffe wrestle you may ask? Well they entwine their necks and try to make the other one fall over! Quite comical to watch! There are many varieties of deer like creatures such as topi, impala and water buck that also graze on the savannah – a wonderful buffet for the lion.
We carried on, and a couple of hundred meters down the road we spotted a pride of lions in the distance. When we got closer to them, we could see that they had killed a wildebeest, and were still feeding on it. Once done, four of the lionesses walked off to get some rest, but one was reluctant to leave her meal. There were already a handful of vultures and hyenas waiting around to clean up the scraps. Every time the lioness would walk off, the vultures and hyenas would scoop in and try and get the easy meal. The lioness wasn’t happy with this, and would turn around and chase everyone off as soon as they got near her kill. Quite an amazing site! Nothing else topped that encounter, although on the way out of the park, we saw that the hyenas and the vultures finally got the meat.
The Mara River is full of hippos and crocodiles. Needless to say there is no swimming, fishing or boating! The residents do not take kindly to human visitors. There is a story of an experiment whereby a remote control boat with 2 dummies strapped on board was floated along the Mara. It came upon a pool of hippos. Five hippos moved out from the gathering and within 30 seconds flat there was nothing left of the boat. So moral of the story – keep a respectful distance. Which I did.
Our next sighting was a herd of elephants and once again it was amazing how close we got and how graceful these creatures are. Of course the baby elephant was adorable. By this time the sun was starting to set and it was time to head back to the camp.
The Masais’ are unique, and curious, and shy, and beautiful all at once. What amazes me is their shyness in the face of 1000s of visitors each year. On closer observation, one could figure out that tourists made very little effort to interact with the people on whose land we trample.
That evening a Masai warrior spoke about their lifestyle describing their rituals, customs and activities. One of the more interesting details we were told about was the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. This involved a public circumcision at around the age of 14 in the village square, and the boy’s masculinity was judged on how silent he could remain throughout the ordeal. The adolescent is then given warrior status, allowed to grow his hair into warrior braids, and sent out into the wilderness for up to 2 years. During this time he must learn the healing powers of nature and, together with his group, track and kill a lion. As in proof, he must return with the mane, teeth, claws and skin, turning the mane into a ceremonial hat and the teeth into jewelry.
The Masais’ are warriors and farmers (mostly goat and cattle). They eat meat and drink milk and blood?.sometimes mixing the two to create what was described as a strawberry milkshake. Yum it is NOT!
I wandered back to our room and was thrilled to find a hot water bottle tucked under the covers and promptly fell asleep to the sound of crickets and hippos snorting.
The morning wake up call came, what seemed to be in the middle of the night – 5:45 am and it was pitch dark! I had slept like the dead – fresh air and all. For a moment I contemplated staying snuggled warm in my bed – maybe I could skip the early game drive and just enjoy my tea with the hippos – and get up at my own pace. But then excitement set in – how on earth could I miss seeing the sunrise on the Mara.
Just as dawn was breaking we all scrambled into our jeeps and we were off! The sun was just rising over the hills and there was a dreamlike quality to the landscape. We came upon a herd of water buffalo fending off one hyena. An ostrich then came into sight. In the distance we spied elephants and just as the rays of the sun were casting a yellow warmth on the land we spotted a lion tracking a herd of wildebeest — Again what majesty in her movement. She almost seemed to be toying with the herd and they soon moved off. Her full belly explained some of her disinterest! We followed her for a while as she made her way through the grass and trees.
At another stand of trees we found several giraffe munching on the tree tops – Daniel our guide made light of the salad they were enjoying. We then came across a hyena eating what was left of a baby wildebeest and off in the distance we discovered several more. We laughed at two cubs playing peek a boo in a hole they were digging to hide from us. And just as we were returning to the lodge for breakfast we game across a gazelle giving birth. Now what a site this was as mom cleaned her young and tried to help it stand up for the first time – it takes 10 to 15 minutes for them to find their legs. Absolutely necessary in this environment – otherwise they would not survive serving as lunch for an eagle or hyena.
We enjoyed a fine hearty breakfast and regrouped at 10 am. We were off to the hippo pool — some 50 or more. We learned that hippos feed during the night. They come up from the river…you can see their tracks. It is also amazing how skinny the path is from the river to the grazing place – hard to believe they can squeeze through with their girth. After they feed on grass all night, they then head back to the river at dawn where they sleep all day, sunbathe in the sun and cool off in the river. Quite the laidback lifestyle! For our last day at the Mara, we were doing a morning drive. We hadn’t seen a leopard yet, and were hoping that this was going to be our morning! We saw a flicker in the tall grasses and knew there was something there. We hoped it was a leopard, but a closer look brought us to a colony of cheetahs. We were warned to keep within our vans, lest they may want us on their menu.
Our next stop was a Masai Village. On our way to the Mara, we had stopped a while at the Great Rift Valley and I remember seeing circles dotting the landscape, and these were Masai villages – they are arranged in circles, mud huts surrounded by thickets of branches to keep the predators out at night. There is often an inner circle in the village where large livestock are kept. Goats and calves sleep in the huts with the family. I was impressed with how ecologically friendly these villagers are – using and recycling all parts of the animals and the land for all their needs. Of course their way of life is under immense pressure to change. They are sending their children to schools and thus dressing them in street clothes as opposed to their distinctive red robes. We were welcomed into a home? a thatched mud hut – quite cool inside but could hardly breathe with the smoke. The smoke has its purpose – it keeps the insects particularly the malaria infected mosquitoes away. Our visit finished with a stroll in their market place – impressive wood sculptures, bowls and masks, beaded necklaces and bracelets were the fare. The funds generated are used to clothe the children and buy school books. Rule of thumb in bartering – Kenyan style – begin by offering quarter of the first price quoted and then settle somewhere in the middle.
We got back to the camp at about 12:30 pm and decided to hang out on the deck and read for the afternoon enjoying the company of the 5 resident hippos. I of course dozed off but was awakened to the screeching of some sort of animal?took me a few minutes to realize it was a baboon – a whole troop of 15, right across the river from me! And two of the adults were having quite a dispute – as they screeched and chased each other through the trees. The other baboons also scrambled about appearing to be quite agitated over the shenanigans. This soap opera entertained me for some time. Finally I think they wore themselves out.
In the afternoon, we drove towards south of the Mara. Then came the rains and we watched the Mara turn into a series of lakes. It was interesting to see that the grazers remained grazing – they just turned away from the rain – though it was coming down hard! I thought they might head for shelter, under the trees – but no. Daniel pointed out that the animals revel in the fresh water and their coats insulate them from the cold. It was quite amazing to see the Mara under these conditions. One image that will stay with me is the sight of 4 giraffe heads hovering above the tree line in the pouring rain.
After dinner we had some entertainment organized by the hotel staff who sang in Swahili and later retired for the night, listening to the rain. I don’t think I made it past 10 pm ? something of a novelty for me!
Morning and this time I was awake before my tea arrived at 5:45 am. I quickly got dressed and watched the first signs of dawn appear sitting on my deck while a hippo waded back into the river. The sunrise was amazing! It happens so quickly. One minute it is dark and then next the sun’s rays break over a hill and everything is awash with a golden hue. There is something incredibly peaceful about being in the middle of miles of grassland with no form of communication, no plans, and a deep blue sky.
From the Mara, we headed to Lake Nakuru of 26,563 acres, which is surrounded by hot springs, supposedly the 4th biggest city in Kenya, Also famous for the endangered White Rhinos, and they were one of the Big 5 that we were yet to see. Once again, the trip was rough, and it took a good 8 hours of jostling before we reached, although we only traveled 300 Kms or so.
That night was an early one and we were up at the crack of dawn again for a game drive around the lake.
Lake Nakuru is a disappearing alkaline lake. In fact the water level was down considerably. It is a pink glimpse, because there are millions of flamingos in the lake. But very sad is the fact that flamingos are dying at an alarming rate — due both to disappearing habitat and pollution. It looked like a killing field on parts of the lake and it was shocking to see the beauty and vibrancy of these live birds amidst the death and decay of carcasses. Again a testimony to the paradox of Africa — where beauty and magic live so visibly along side suffering and decay. It also points to the challenges a developing nation faces in trying to address the poverty of 80% of its inhabitants and the conservation of a unique world environmental resource.
It was now time for the afternoon game drive and it also looked like we were in for quite the storm. We were lucky though. Just before the heavens literally opened up we enjoyed quite the lightening show and came upon three white rhinoceros. Rhinos are endangered so it was quite the privilege to come across these three. We were also able to get out and walk for the first time?again amazing how close we came and how oblivious they were to us. Mind you Daniel did say afterwards that they can charge at anytime?so you have to be aware. Glad he said that afterwards!
Our search for the elusive leopard was coming to an end, and we were unable to spot one.
We were here just for four days and saw an abundance of wildlife, including:
* Lions Hyena and Vultures fighting over a carcass
* Hippos and Crocs Sun bathing
* Masai Giraffe (distinguished by their star-shaped patches)
* Topi, Impalas and countless Gazelles posing prettily
* Lions, Rhinos, Elephants and Wildebeest with their heart-shaped horns : four of the Big Five.
* Zebras, and Kenyan Fowls, murmuration of starlings, crowned cranes, etc?.
Suffice to say my cup runneth over! And with that we left the savannah.
That was the end of our first wildlife safari ? short, though it was, one that will be etched in our minds.
This travelogue is dedicated to my husband who gifted me this safari for our Wedding Anniversary.
Author: Sylvia DSouza- UAE