Sunday, April 14, 2013

Parent Safari: Masai Mara

Hi All,

I have my own world, my own routine and my own mindset here in Kenya and, most of the time, I am incredibly removed from the life, the family and the friends I have nurtured over the past twenty-three years of my life. My communication with my previous existence occurs solely through the bright plasma confines of my computer; my friends and family condensed into postage stamp sized streaming images along side my folders, files and photos. They have a hard time fathoming my life, and I theirs. But, for a stretch of two weeks in March and April, my worlds collided. Two of those smiling faces that generally appear at prearranged times on my screen apparated to a hotel in Nairobi and came into my Kenyan reality around 10 pm on the evening on March 22nd.

My parents had been planning a trip over to East Africa the second I set foot in Mombasa and my generous two-week Spring Break proved to be the perfect time for a visit. Our adventure would not be a light one, no, this trip would cover the breadth of Kenya and jewel of Tanzania. This post here will run through our visit to Masai Mara, another will cover the remainder of our grand seven-day Safari, and a later post will take on our time in Mombasa and Zanzibar. Hold on to your safari hats.

I met my parents at their swank Nairobi hotel after I had hitched a ride with our wizened safari guide, Salim, from Mombasa. They had arrived a day earlier and had been sleeping off the jet lag that hits rather hard after jumping from Nashville to Nairobi. The day had done them some good as they looked rather chipper when I met their embrace in front of the chic metal ostrich guarding the door to the hotel. It was a surreal experience to see my folks just then. It felt entirely, well, unnatural that I could have driven a mere eight hours and encountered them there in Nairobi. It was a feeling I never really shook the entire trip; I continued to be hit by waves of disorientation, big moments of juxtaposition between a life crafted separately from all that is familiar with the two most familiar people in my life.

We crashed early so we could make an early start for our trip out to our first day of Safari. We arose in time for a 6:30 am departure to beat the notorious Nairobi traffic, and beat it we did, cruising through the city almost unhindered.

Now is as good as any a time to introduce our driver and guide, Salim Senty. Salim has been leading safaris for forty, four-zero, years. He is everyone at the Academy’s go-to safari man for his encyclopedic knowledge, his unmatchable eye for spotting game and his wealth of anecdotes about each and every park in Kenya. He is a tall man, spindly with a head intermittently capped with an intricately embroidered white Swahili hat. His face is worn like the aged surface of a Tsavo baobab from years out in the parks; his skin pulled taut over his sharp chin and high cheekbones. He was accompanied by Mark, his opposite in almost every way: short, shapeless, inexperienced, and anecdote-less. Mark was along to learn more about the parks in West and Central Kenya to expand his domain to outside Mombasa. It was nice to have two drivers, for a lot of driving was to take place over those seven days, so, along with plenty of spare tires, a spare driver was key.

Soon after leaving Nairobi we took a sharp left and climbed steadily upwards into a cloudbank. We soon crested this particular ridge and were met with a steady line of curio shops and signs proclaiming “Hakuna Matata,” we had entered tourist land. These shops hung on the edge of a steep drop down into dense forest overlooked, from what we could gather through the thick gloss of clouds, a vast golden expanse commonly known as The Great Rift Valley. Our view obscured, we chose to carry on down the steep road, packed with heavily overloaded trucks and Asians and Europeans wedged into safari cars.

The change in landscape was dramatic after only a short amount of driving. The thick, green vegetation adorning the rocky outcrops of the Kenyan highlands segued into the vastness of the Valley, a golden river of grass and wheat flowing between the high mountain banks. The road was lined with concrete and corrugated metal houses and businesses; people zipped along on bicycles laden with goods while brightly dressed Masai herding sheep, goat and cattle stood out like glowing embers against the ashen wheat.

The highway, seemingly suffering an identity crisis due to its constant change of landscape and condition, eroded into a dusty, rock-strewn road for our final push to our first destination, Maasai Mara. Before long, our back right tire had enough of the strain and gave out, necessitating a tire change. Within moments, four young boys came charging out of their briar-fenced homes to sit and watch our predicament unfold. Our tire changed, they melted into the cloud of dust the van left behind.

The road degraded even further and Salim turned off road for the last leg to our lodge. We dodged thick bushed and dipped into dusty riverbeds and right as my parents patience for the constant juddering was flagging, we reached the brush lined entrance to Mara Leisure Camp. We were greeted upon our arrival with cool towels to wipe away the travel grime and some fresh juice. After sorting logistics, we were whisked away to our rooms.

Tented camps, along with your standard hotel, are the most frequent from of accommodation on safari. They are an interesting combination of rusticity and luxury. The rooms themselves have wooden floors and a tiled bathroom in the rear, complete with shower, bath, sinks, toilet, however, there are no walls or ceiling but a heavy-duty tent instead. The tent itself is probably 15 tall at the peak, 25 feet across and 40 feet long. It provided all the comfort of a hotel room with the added benefit of being able to have the night breeze flow through the room and being able to hear all the animal activity going on outside at night. The tents were spaced out over a large area, all on raised platforms, and surrounded by tall hedges and trees for privacy. The rest of the area housed the main building which had the reception, bar and restaurant.

After doing a quick round of the facilities, Salim met us in the lobby for an afternoon game drive for us to get our first glimpse of the Mara. We cruised along a dirt road, past colorfully clad school children, herds of animals spurred along by young boys, and eventually a small town that lay just on the edge of the park. After crossing a narrow bridge we reached the entrance gate, showed our identification and cruised in.

Immediately we were treated to the sight of Thomson’s gazelles grazing along side the Topi that stood watch while atop mounds of earth. The Thomson’s gazelles are small hoofed animals, built for speed, with a distinct black racing stripe running along their bodies. You can see their muscles rippling and tensing even as they just sit and eat; any small disturbance sends them bounding every which way like a dispersed pack of flies. The Topi are bigger creatures, but similarly hoofed. Their skin has as similar coloration to and shimmers like oil reflecting the sun in a roadside puddle.

Thomson's Gazelle



We drove a few kilometers deeper into the park and encountered a family of no less than sixteen giraffe, noshing on highly placed leaves in a slight valley. My mom is a giraffe fanatic, they have been her favorite animals for as long as she can remember, and so she was understandably in a state of pure joy. We encountered many giraffe through out the course of the week and it was rare to catch her without a smile on her face when in their presence. I think she used up most of her iPhone memory taking videos and photos of the stately animals.

A few minutes later Salim spotted a sizable band of elephants tromping across the plains. There must have been twenty-five to thirty of them with a few babies that Salim aged at little more than a week to three weeks old. They were cruising at a considerable pace away from an advancing wall of smoke; their large herd backed by the flaxen fields, leafy trees and thick cloud of smoke made for quite the dramatic image.

Just from a quick look around, I could see small pillars of smoke all around us that were fusing into one large billowing cloud that blocked out the blue sky and the evening sun. Apparently, the Rangers at the park were responsible for the burn. The bugs had become so unbearable for the animals that they were fleeing the Kenyan side of the park over to Serengeti Park in Tanzania. The rangers found it best smoke the bugs out to keep the animals around. The clouds were ever-present during our safari and the flames tore through the grassland. We frequently encountered large swaths of completely blackened hillsides and plains with flame bleached skulls amidst the ashes. As the encroaching inferno pushed along the insects, birds gathered in biblical numbers along the burn line to feast on the fleeing pests. I can only imagine with the dry plains and intense sun that burns like this are not unheard of as natural occurrences.

After admiring the elephants for a while, Salim received a call over the radio concerning a lion sighting; it seemed our brief afternoon foray into the park was proving to be a rather fruitful one. We arrived alongside about six other vans, one of the major downsides to safari in a popular park. The engine noise of masses of gathered cars really dampens the joy of nature. The lion was about as uninterested in us as could possibly be. He lay on his side in tall grass, largely hidden from our prying eyes. I’ve seen more activity from a lion skin rug. The other cars soon grew bored and moved on while we sat a while longer. Nothing much came of it but a raised head, perhaps at the newfound silence, and the arrival of two massive trucks we thought were troop carriers but turned out to be packed to the brim with safari-goers. We moved on.

The sun was on its final trajectory towards the horizon and it was just about time to head out of the park when Salim got one final call on his radio. Cheetah. He pondered for a moment, and decided it was worth it race against the sun to see the big cat. We came across a large blackened area with a few vans in the midst of it. Our tired crackled along the cinders and kicked up a rather potent cloud of black dust. In the middle of the patch lay a beautiful cheetah reclining on the ground, still warm from the blaze. Its white coat made it stand out starkly from its chosen area of repose. The black markings around its eyes, like ashen tearstains, and its speckled hide were truly something wonderful to behold.

Pressed by daylight, and park regulations, Salim threw the car into gear and we raced off out of the park. The bar had been set high for the rest of our stay in the Mara.

We were the only people staying in our lodge. Apparently many vacationers had cancelled reservations over fears of post-election violence following the elections in March. Their fears proved to be unfounded but the lack of clientele made for a strange atmosphere. Sitting alone in the sizeable dinning room provided us with a great opportunity to just sit and talk and enjoy each others company for as long as we wanted with out disturbing any other guests. It also allowed out waiter to inform us every night that our dinner was prepared especially for us, which made us feel bad for the chef who had to get the whole kitchen going for just the three of us. Regardless, we spent every night in each other’s company and had wonderful conversations about home, life, my brother, Brooks, who couldn’t make the trek over, and family. It cannot put into words how enjoyable it was. I’m remarkably fortunate to have two very adventuresome, admirable parents; I’ve got a lot to live up to.

Legs for days

We got up at sunrise the next day to meet Salim for our first full day safari. We grabbed a pack lunch supplied by the hotel and off we went. It quickly became apparent that the luck of our previous day was just that… luck. We spent two hours cruising along and we saw barely a gazelle. Even so, the vastness of the Mara landscape is something we all agreed we could drive through for hours. The panorama provided an ideal conductor for peaceful musings, zoning out, and deep thought. It was with a faint tinge of disappointment over a broken vigil that Salim received another call and zipped off to find us out first big game of the day.

Leopard. We arrived amidst a swarm of other cars but Salim maneuvered us in a prime position. We could see the dark splotches on the leopard’s coat flickering through the tall shoots of grass. Surprisingly, it moved from its protected position right towards our van, around the front and on to the other side of the road where it wandered for a bit and then came right back to our van, around and back into the tall grass. At one point, there was nothing more separating us from the sinewy killing machine than a few millimeters of metal and glass. Awesome.

Right as the leopard went back to cruising the grass, the same family of elephant we had seen the day before crested a hill behind us and moved right down the road and past the cars. Nature, man.

I’ll take the time now to discuss the Big Five. The Big Five are what most people come to Kenya with the goal of seeing. It is a category of animals that I believe was established around the time of our hunting happy President Teddy Roosevelt. These five animals were apparently the five hardest beasts to hunt on foot in Africa due to their ferocity and tenacity. In the day of the photo safari, they still hold a somewhat sacred spot on every safari goers must see list. These animals are: Cape Buffalo, Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Rhinoceros. The Mara is particularly popular because if you spend a few days kicking around, you have a pretty good chance of seeing most, if not all, of these animals.

After our Leopard/ Elephant experience, we went for another two hours with out seeing much of anything beyond a circling carrion bird or distant herds of Cape Buffalo. Lunchtime drew near so Salim aimed towards a scenic viewpoint. We trundled along the rutted roads until Salim hit the brakes, pointed towards a cluster of shrubs and pulled out his binoculars. The uninitiated in the back just squinted and shook our heads, what was he looking at? He whipped the car in reverse and made a beeline towards the bushes. And, just like that three lions rose regally into sight, a male and two females lounging in the shade, taking shelter from the blazing sun overhead. Just like the lion we had seen the day before, they paid us no heed and carried on relaxing and pawing at the leaves overhead. We watched for a while, enjoying the solitude and lack of other engines, and then carried on our way.

We settled down for lunch under a shady acacia tree that doubled as a weaverbird boarding house it seemed. The branches were laden with the intricately woven nests of the crafty birds. Our lunch spot offered not only shade, but also a terrific view of the park all the way to the border with Tanzania.


We had similar luck game wise the rest of the day as we did earlier on, long stretches of nothing but savannah dotted with hippos, crocodiles, a hyena and two more lions. By the end of the day we had seen 4 of the big five: Leopard, Elephants, Lions and Buffalo. Only the Rhinos remained unseen.

Our third day, and final full day, proved to be almost identical to the previous day except for on this day the long stretch of solitude was abruptly ended by the discovery of a cheetah eating its freshly killed prey. We found the cheetah with its jaws clenched on the hind leg of the gazelle, thrashing it around at sickening angles. It got up occasionally to drag the body to one spot or another to expose different areas for consumption and eventually it used its claws to eviscerate (I never thought I would ever type that word using its literal sense) the carcass and begin feasting afresh.

It’s truly fascinating to watch one animal devour another, and something I found myself surprisingly enthralled by. It seems perfectly human to shy away from such gore but everyone around us was equally engaged with the sight. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is a really basic reason why people go on safari, to satisfy that latent desire to see nature at its basest. The beauty of it and the natural instinct behind the sight transcends the visible, visceral carnage. I personally think I would have been disappointed not to see one of the predators take down its prey or at least the aftermath; the Discovery Channel videos of my youth would have me expect no less.

The rest of the day was rather muted in comparison. We saw plenty of hoofed mammals that became more or less as exciting to see as squirrels. They just exist in such large numbers that they became an essential part of the landscape; it was unnerving when there weren’t any around. We settled for lunch on a beautiful ridge and watched a passing lightning storm lash by and I couldn’t help but think, as much as I hate to admit, of Toto’s “Africa.” ( Mzungu problems. We finished the day in search of the elusive Rhino, even venturing through a valley know as none other than Rhino Valley, which only served to raise false hope. We were able to cover a large portion of the park, however, and saw the plains turn into hills and valleys and back into plains, which proved to be well worth the excursion.

We returned to the hotel exhausted and ready for dinner. As the only guests, they pulled out all the stops and treated us to a candlelit dinner that probably would have been quite romantic had I not been there. The food was made “just for you” as always. As we finished up dinner, we saw the flicker of a match and the low rumblings of a song. I grasped my chair in horror. We were about to be treated to the Kenyan tourist song. Kenyan Airlines plays it when you land in Nairobi and any sort of musical or dance act at resorts will know this song by heart. Here it is for your listening pleasure. It’s got a catchy tune and lyrics too. I’m warning you. ( After the song, they brought a rather sizable cake and informed us we were now a part of their family. I would rather hope it takes more than a few night stay in a hotel to become family, but the message was appreciated. It was an enjoyable end to an excellent stay in the Masai Mara.

We packed out early the next morning; disappointed we weren’t able to see a rhino. We left through the park in the hopes of catching sight of some more game before our long drive down to our next stop, Lake Naivasha. We were slowly making our way along when Salim kicked it into overdrive without saying a word. We were jolted in our seats, looked around wide-eyed in the morning light and started scanning the horizon. He would only be doing this for one reason: Rhino. The call brought others and us to the middle of nowhere, with no animals in sight. The driver who had called in the sighting could not be raised and Salim shook his fist in frustration. He pulled out his binoculars, scanned the landscape and… boom. He pointed. There they are.

On our final morning in the Mara we were treated to not one, not two, but three Rhinoceros. A whole family that mirrored my own at the time (sorry Brooks): a mom and dad and a little kid. They remained a health distance from the rumbling vans but their majesty was apparent even from far away. They floated along like dark icebergs in the golden sea of grass, an image that had the appearance of a photographic negative taken in an ocean far away. And just like that our Mara Big 5 was complete.

Thanks for reading along, folks. I’ll post in a week or so about the rest of the safari and then about Zanzibar. I hope all continues to be well wherever you are!

-Mzungu still basking in the joy of a parental visit