Saturday, June 14, 2008

African Adventure: Safari in the Masai Mara (April 29-May 1)

Current Location: Masai Mara, Kenya
Highlights: Lions, Elephants, Hippos, and a leopard Kill in the Masai Mara
Upcoming: Island of Lamu, Flamingos on L. Bogoria, and a week in the bush with Masai worriers.

When Isaac collected us at 9 am from the Upper Hill Camp Site, we realized that we were incredibly lucky and would have the whole Land Cruiser to ourselves while on our 3 day Safari in the Mara. So off we went to the Mara, first driving out of Nairobi, up onto the rim of the Great Rift Valley, then down in the Valley itself. This is the land of the Masai people who are probably the most well know of all of Africa's tribes despite being one of the smaller Kenyan tribes by number. As we drove we saw many Masai people clothed in their red blankets taking care of their cattle, sheep and goats.

It's probably a good job we didn't drive ourselves, as the last 50 or so kilometers to the park gate is along a specific trail through a network of unsignposted very poor dirt tracks. The other advantage of taking a safari is that we were free to film and take pictures through the open top of the Cruiser and the drivers know the unsignposted dirt tracks in the park very well. But probably the best reason to take a safari however, is that the drivers sometimes really take liberties to see the animals and usually drive off the tracks straight into the bush to take a closer look at the animals
despite a 2000 KSH fine if they are caught by a ranger. So we arrived at the Camp, unloaded a few things into our tent and went for a game drive.

I will let the pictures below show you what we saw, but briefly, on our first day, we saw lions lazing around in the shade of the bushes obviously having just fed, elephants with babies, and lots of the usual zebra, impala, Thompson gazelle, wildebeest, buffalo, and some Grants gazelle.

On our second day, late in the morning, we saw a small group of wildebeest running. Now animals seldom run for the exercise, so they had to be running from something, maybe a hunting lion I thought? After about 5 mins we saw the reason for the commotion, as a lioness came charging out of some bushes in pursuit of the wildebeest. They seemed to play a cat and mouse game as we followed them for the next 15 mins. The wildebeest would run into, then out of cover, then stop and look, then the lioness would then emerge look for her prey and give chase through bushes and long grass. I started to get really excited at the prospect of seeing an actual kill. Here was a hungry
lioness in pursuit of her prey. We followed at a distance, then the
wildebeest just seemed to disappear on the plains, and the confused lioness just stood there as confused as we were. So we drove much closer to her so we could make out each whisker on her nose as she sat and scanned the horizon for alternate prey. With no other prey in sight, she wondered off and we too left to see what else we could find. We had lunch by the hippo pools in the Mara River. We were allowed to leave the vehicles and walk along the banks of the river accompanied by an armed ranger to protect us from crocodiles and hippos. During the main migration, the huge herds have to cross the Mara River and most cross at the spot we were at. Many animals die when they cross the river, some by drowning, others by being eaten by the enormous crocodiles waiting for the migrating animals, and others from injuries from the crowded crossing. We were lucky enough to see one the famous huge Mara crocodiles (about 20 feet long) on the opposite bank of the river. Upon return to the camp in the evening, we spent some time talking with Salaash (see pic below) , a Masai who works at the camp and learnt a lot about Masai life from the stories Salash told us, but more on that in a special diary entry on the Masai.

On day three, probably the highlight was seeing a fresh leopard kill in a tree. It was a Thompsons gazelle, partly eaten by the time we arrived. Drivers of other game vehicles said that earlier, the leopard had been in the tree, but too many game vehicles scared her off, but seeing the kill of this powerful and elusive cat was pretty exciting.

All too soon our time at the Mara came to an end and we had to head back to Nairobi. I really enjoyed these few days in the Mara. The landscape in the Mara, plains with sparse trees, is what most people conjure up in their minds when they think of Africa. It made my imagination wonder about how this area was when white man first discovered this land and was fuel for some vivid dreams that night. I also spoke to Salaash about the possibility of accompanying some Masai moran (warriors) into the bush where they survive off the land, test their hunting skills and bravery. He said its possible!

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