Kenya Part I – Maasai Mara

1 August 2015 – 5 August 2015

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After only four days in Tanzania, we were finally in Kenya. We had to come to Kenya via Tanzania and the southern shores of Lake Victoria as our insurance did not cover us north of the Equator, unless we pay a prince’s ransom.

We were disappointed to miss out on Uganda; the Equator runs through Lake Victoria and there were no way we could reach Kenya that way without going north. Hugo, being the conservative accountant, did not want to risk it. So far everything has gone really well for us, I agreed that we should not tempt fate. It had the added bonus that we will have to come back one day to see Uganda.

We were planning to take the shortest route to Nairobi to sort out the final administration to get my laptop from DHL and the Kenyan Customs. While Hugo was clearing customs (for the old woman and the trailer) on the border, the children and I waited in the car. I was looking at maps and accommodation options and I thought that we should go visit the Maasai Mara after all, we were driving past it anyway. We were originally not going to do it, to save money, and because we were planning to go to the Serengeti which is basically the Tanzania side of the park (we learnt later on that the two parks are very different). When Hugo got back in the car, he was happy to follow my suggestion and we set off for the Maasai Mara…

Maasai Mara National Reserve

For a long list of reasons, Maasai Mara is the best animal reserve in Kenya. Set at nearly 2000m above sea level, the reserve is a great wedge of undulating grassland in the remote, sparsely inhabited southwest of the country, right up against the Tanzanian border and, indeed, an extension of the even bigger Serengeti plains in Tanzania. This is a land of short grass and croton bushes (Mara means “spotted”, after the yellow crotons dotted on the plains), where the wind plays with the thick, green mantle after the rains and, nine months later, whips up dust devils from the baked surface. Maasai Mara’s climate is relatively predictable, with ample rain, and the new grass supports an annual wildebeest migration of half a million animals from the dry plains of Tanzania.”

– Source: http://www.roughguides.com

“… It is globally famous for its exceptional population of Masai lions, African leopards and Tanzanian cheetahs, and the annual migration of zebra, Thomson’s gazelle, and wildebeest to and from the Serengeti every year from July to October, known as the Great Migration.

Geography

The Maasai Mara National Reserve (MMNR) covers some 1,510 km2 in south-western Kenya. It is the northern-most section of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, which covers some 25,000 km2 in Tanzania and Kenya. It is bounded by the Serengeti Park to the south, the Siria escarpment to the west, and Maasai pastoral ranches to the north, east and west. Rainfall in the ecosystem increases markedly along a southeast–northwest gradient, varies in space and time, and is markedly bimodal. The Sand, Talek River and Mara River are the major rivers draining the reserve. Shrubs and trees fringe most drainage lines and cover hillslopes and hilltops.

The terrain of the reserve is primarily open grassland with seasonal riverlets. In the south-east region are clumps of the distinctive acacia tree. The western border is the Esoit (Siria) Escarpment of the East African Rift, which is a system of rifts some 5,600 km long, from Ethiopia’s Red Sea through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and into Mozambique. Wildlife tends to be most concentrated here, as the swampy ground means that access to water is always good, while tourist disruption is minimal. The easternmost border is 224 kilometres from Nairobi, and hence it is the eastern regions which are most visited by tourists.

Altitude: 1500-2180m; Rainfall: 83mm/month; Temperature range: 12-30℃

– Soure: Wikipedia

The road followed the border of the park and it was one of the most scenic routes we’ve taken, traveling through mountains and villages. Once we started to descend the scenery changed and then, suddenly, the park laid below us. It was a sight we have never seen the like of. Miles and miles of flat savannah; golden grass with a sporadic tree here and there. Breathtaking! The grass was dotted by zebras and blue wildebeest, on the way to our campsite we saw giraffes and elephants. We have never seen so much open space. The change of plans was already worth our while!

We set our sights on another camp but once we reached Crocodile Camp near Talek Gate and its friendly people, we decided to stay there. Our campsite was on the river bank, overlooking the park. We had hot showers and (we found out after three days here, we have been using the long drops!) flushing toilets. Mike, the friendly camp attendant, washed our dishes twice a day and did our laundry once (during our stay, not once a day…). It almost felt like a hotel stay with all the help! At night we had a Maasai warrior who kept watch over us. It felt a bit intrusive as he sat against the trailer, right by our heads. On our second night here, Hugo lit a fire some distance from the tent and put a chair there, luckily the guy got the message!

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Every night we could hear lions in the distance as well as hyenas a little closer. On Sunday we heard the local churches as well, the whole day long until late at night, we decided that they must be a sinful bunch to need to have church from morning till night and well into the night… We realized that even though this camp is nice, it might be a little (more like a lot!) close to the village. Every night the lions and hyenas competed with the church, donkeys, dogs, goats and people. The lions and hyenas lost. The whole bush-experience down the drain.

Day Two here was housekeeping day. We have done a few days’ of hard traveling and were tired. I fixed the bottom water- and dust flaps that had been torn almost since the beginning of our trip. I struggled with sewing through all the stiff canvas and plastic material and got more than one puncture in my fingers. I had just finished and was still busy packing everything away when Gustav stepped on the other side’s flap and completely tore it from the tent. May I just mention, that he did it again a week later with the newly fixed door and now we have two doors without protection against water. Obviously they don’t want to be fixed…

Just one more story before we get to our game drive in the park. This place had a problem with ants. Army ants. We didn’t know about it until I went to fetch water for dishes (hey! I did the dishes once!) one evening and while waiting for the bucket to fill, was attacked by army ants. They ran up my legs and because I had trousers on and they felt trapped, started to bite me. I never knew I could dance so well. While slapping and jumping I ran to the tent and immediately got rid of my pants. My family was in hysterics while I tried to get rid of the buggers. Tip: don’t try to squash them while they’re on your body, they don’t die, they bite harder, and if you try to pull them off, you behead them and are still stuck with the biting-part in your flesh. The children told me I was not allowed back in the tent with my pants, I had to leave it outside.

Then on the last night Hugo went out to “do something” outside in the early morning hours, and as soon as he stepped outside were covered by ants. As he luckily had shorts on, he could wipe them off before they reached more tender regions (without being too graphic, I was not as lucky. If you wear long pants, tuck them into socks to prevent the ants from climbing in). When he stopped to have a look, there were millions of them surrounding the tent. We still don’t know whether they wanted to eat us alive or take us ransom. He shouted to our fast asleep Maasai guard to come help. After they’ve used poison, ash, fire, paraffin and I don’t know what else, the ants finally took off to find easier prey. I fear them much more than a lion or a snake, I think.

Philip, the assistant manager of Crocodile Camp, introduced us to another Maasai warrior, Jonathan, who earned a living as a guide. After being disappointed by other parks with our sightings and overall experience, we have decided to make use of a guide this time round. As the parks in Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania are ridiculously expensive, we ventured into them for only one day, and because we don’t know them, we also don’t know where to go and missed out on a lot. Hence, the employment of Jonathan, a sweet guy with passable English and horrible body odour. He insisted to sit in front to “guide” us while I sat in the back with Gustav and Sophia. Hugo and I, with an unspoken agreement, kept our respective windows open the whole day, despite it being cooler at times.

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We left our camp very early in the morning with a thermos of coffee and sandwiches. The plan was to spend a few hours in the morning in the Mara, come back for lunch, and then go out again in the afternoon. As it turned out, we spent a solid eleven hours in the park. It probably was of the most exciting eleven hours we have had in our lives.

My goal was to see a river crossing and big herds of the migratory animals. The “big herds” part was ticked off within a few minutes, it wasn’t the million-strong herd but it was big. So all that was left was the river crossing. Jonathan made us drive up and down, showed us lions, hyenas, jackals, zebras, blue wildebeest, elephants, warthogs, Grant’s gazelles, Thomson’s gazelles, giraffes, more zebras, more blue wildebeest, while talking on his phone all the time, gathering more information on sightings and where the blue wildebeest are likely to cross.

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We went to the river where a herd was gathering. We waited here for a while then after speaking on the phone, Jonathan said we should leave to go look at a leopard, it’s not far, he said. “Not far” turned out to be forty minutes in one direction! And going through a gate, completing forms and getting another permit.

Once we got to the leopard, I gave the “big camera” (the one with the 500mm zoom) to Hugo and told him he was allowed to take one photo only of the leopard. I mean, we’ve seen leopards before and will again, but who knows when we will ever see a river-crossing again? He took two photos, I smacked him on his head, and we turned around.

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We were directly opposite from where we were, on the other side of the river. Technically, it should be a better spot, but as it is private land, we were not allowed to leave the roads in order to drive to the river banks. So we went back on our tracks.

Luckily for Jonathan, when we arrived back at the crossing point, the blue wildebeests were still building up courage and checking out the safest route through. What’s changed though, were the amount of vehicles waiting for the spectacle. When we left almost two hours earlier, we were the only people there, now there were almost fifteen big game viewing vehicles with open roofs and tourists with massive cameras waiting.

The passengers could all stand on their seats and see in all directions. I could only see and take photos from my window, so we did not park parallel with them, but at a ninety degree angle. Immediately we were told off for taking up the space of two or three vehicles (by Americans, if that matters…). I still blame Jonathan, he never told us the whole process and sequence of events.

And then we waited and waited, while even more vehicles joined us. Mr J kept on conferring with the other guides and drivers and after a while the vehicles closest to us started to move. Jonathan told Hugo to move our car in line with the others, facing the herd, without explaining. Hugo obeyed and the other vehicles moved back to their spots.

So we waited some more, Jonathan kept watching the herd with our binoculars. Then he told Hugo to start the car, and after a few seconds he told him to turn it off again. This happened a few times. And then he told Hugo to floor it once he told him to start the car again!? Utterly confused, we waited a little while longer and then the J shouted “Go! Go! Go!” It was hilarious! All the vehicles raced Formula 1-style to the chosen site for the crossing, about 200 metres down the river. Gustav, Sophia and I couldn’t stop laughing while shouting encouragement to our driver. The idea was apparently to get there first so you can find the best spot.

From our spot we couldn’t see much, so Jonathan, our guide, the Maasai warrior, and therefore owner of the Maasai Mara, told us that we may get out to take photos, we were not very close to the herd and not in any danger of being trampled. Our American friend immediately shouted to us to get back in the car. From the top of their vehicle, and from a choice viewing spot. I told her I would get back in my car if she would sit down on her seat, putting us on even footing. She declined the suggestion and when I looked around saw that almost everybody were out of their cars. Stupid foreign tourists! (Not me though. Like a recent Afrikaans acquaintance said about a similar experience, I know the wild… Yeah right…)

We did not let the altercation spoil our fun, both Hugo and I were shooting away with our cameras, still suffering from the adrenaline rush after the race. I was using the big, heavy camera and was shaking so much that I could barely hold it still and up to take photos. Hugo said he also struggled to keep the camera still.

It was an indescribable feeling to finally be able to see this. I’ve been dreaming about Kenya and the Maasai Mara since I watched the Great Migration documentaries as a little girl in the Kruger Park, hoping to one day make my own movies. I am happy to have one days’ photos, it is ridiculously expensive to visit the Maasai Mara, and one day was all that we allowed ourselves. But we will be back! Gustav and Sophia understood what a special experience it was, and count it under their favourite experiences this year.

The crossing could’ve taken anything from 10 minutes to an hour, we completely lost track of time, but after a while something spooked the part of the herd that was still yet to cross, and they turned back. We waited a while longer but it soon was clear that they are settling in for the night. While we waited we spotted a crocodile with a young calf in its mouth, shaking it too and fro, blood and water everywhere. Soon after, we saw a cow swimming back from the other side, looking for her calf…

On our drive back to the gate and our campsite, we revisited one of the lions from earlier, waking him from a deep slumber, and took photos from way too close-up for comfort. After we said goodbye to the lion, we found a cheetah, going from anthill to anthill to get a better view of the lay of the land. She was beautiful, so gracious and sleek.

 

We made it back to camp as the sun was setting, happy and content for having our dreams come true.

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