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August 15, 2007

The Masai Mara



To get from Moshi in Tanzania to Nairobi in Kenya we booked two seats on the Impala Shuttle. Thankfully it was a relatively easy process, we were picked up from the Zebra Hotel's lobby and driven an hour west to Arusha where we changed buses. The shuttle then headed north to the Namanga border. After getting the stamp out we walked 500 metres into Kenya where we received a bloody big shock.

As we mentioned in the previous post, we were by now completely out of money except for a single US$100 bill, just enough for two Kenyan three month visa's. The problem arose at immigration when we presented our passports and handed over the cash. "I have a problem with this money". Our hearts started pounding, oh sh*% went through our minds. Apparently the note was too old. Here we are in the middle of nowhere, with no money, a bus waiting, and an immigration officer who could make life really difficult. So what did we do - we spoke the truth and gave our best doe eyes. After what felt like a few stressful minutes, but was probably only seconds, he looked up, stamped our passports, took the cash (and probably pocketed it) and let us through. Phew!

Back on the bus we hit the rough roads of Kenya for the two hour drive from the border into Nairobi. Nairobi is a real city, since we left Johannesburg in South Africa, most of the capitals (including Dar Es Salaam) have felt like large towns, Nairobi was different. The urban sprawl, the dust and pollution, people everywhere - damn it felt good.

We checked into Nairobi Backpackers, located within walking distance from the city centre, then took to the streets. After a month or so in Tanzania we had decided to start planning ahead a little - especially with some tricky countries on the horizon like Ethiopia and Rwanda. We spent a good part of the next few days (aside from when we were drinking some excellent brews from the Java House) tracking down a handful of guidebooks. True to our reputation, we spent too much time in the book stores and by the time we reached the Hilton Hotel to meet my cousin Yvonne, our friend Mohammed and his friends for a four day Masai Mara Safari we had accumulated 14 books. As a backpacker - that's not good.

With their flight delayed we ended up spending a couple of hours in the lobby of the Hilton (I'm pretty sure we looked out of place) which was the first chance we had had to go back over the past months photos.

One of the things the budget safari companies neglect to tell you is just how long and rough the drive from Nairobi to the Masai Mara is. And to be honest, it comes as a surprise because the distance isn't actually that great. When the safari gang finally arrived, we piled into the mini-van for a good six hour drive over the 250km of some of the worst roads we have been on. I had thought that these would be some of the best roads in Kenya - wrong. We spent half the time driving beside the road and around road works.

The other thing we we not warned about was the drivers stopping at all the tourist/curio roadside stores, - thankfully we made it past the hustlers without loosing too much of our hard earned currency.

We were expected to arrive at the Hippo Lodge by lunch time - unfortunately due to the delayed flight we only arrived at 3pm. By the time we had checked in and crammed some buffet into our bellies it was going on 4pm. After some straight talking to our driver, Moigahee, we convinced him to take us into the park for a short afternoon game drive.

Because we had so little time we ended up rushing from place to place and did not see anything of interest other than the tails of a pride of lions disappearing into the grass. Again, we do not seem to be having any luck with safari guides or vehicles, the roof on the minivan would not stay in the upright position so while bouncing down the roads it slowly lowered onto our heads.

Back at camp the safari gang were all pretty tuckered out after a long night and days travelling and retired early. The Hippo Lodge is situated just outside of the park gates, however it is inside the technical boundaries. Walking back to the tent at night we were mysteriously escorted by some Masai warriors who would appear out of the shadows, trail you till you were safely in your tents, then vanish into the night - all without saying a word...

---

After yesterday's poor effort with the animals, we were all determined to have a cracking day out in the Masai Mara. We started as early as we could push Moigahee to start (8 o'clock), and hit the Savannah. Not long into the day we had our first sighting of the Masai circus. It was clear from a kilometer away they had spotted something and from the snippets picked up on the radio we learnt there were two seperate sightings of both lions and cheetah. We all decided the cheetah was the better sight and sped into the big top.

The Masai CircusThe Masai Circus

Aside from Moigahee's constant nagging about moving on, we spent the next hour basking in the company of a cheetah on a fresh impala kill. Our first glimpse of the magnificent animal was it's blood drenched face as it sat over the kill. We slowly moved around the cheetah and ended up less than five metres away as it ate the impala from the inside out. Even the vegetarians amongst us caught the safari bug and during the next two days we all were gagging for blood.

A Cheetah with a fresh killA Cheetah with a fresh kill

After leaving the cheetah with it's meal we darted across the short distance to where two lions were sleeping in the grass. Thankfully by now the cheetah was attracting most of the attention so we had the lions to ourselves. After watching them move around and play in the grass, Moigahee had nagged us to move on to the point where we had pretty much yelled at him to relax. We stopped for one last photo when the female moved over to the male lion and the next thing we knew they were mating right in front of us. Animal Planet eat your heart out.

Our real reason for being in the Masai Mara was to watch the annual Wildebeest Migration. The Hippo Lodge is located in the far east of the park, while the migration was currently in the north west. Our direction for the rest of the morning was gradually towards the Mara River. By around midday we started coming across massive herds of wildebeest and zebra, snaking across the savannah in long lines.

We stopped for lunch at the Hippo Pool - our guide delivered us into the hands of an armed guard who was designated to walk us down the river to a popular wildebeest crossing point. Once out of the vehicle however we were immediately distracted by the hippos lolling in the river below us, after ten minutes of photos and some pesky monkeys who were keen to have their pictures taken as well, our guide had disappeared. Not to be disheartened we tagged onto the the tail end of another group and made our own way.

There is something special about being on foot during a safari - the element of risk, the chance that at anytime a wild animal could kill you. Thankfully our 15 minute walk was uneventful and when we reached the crossing point, aside from a sleeping croc, there were no other animals in sight.

Back in the vehicle our driver had received a tip off and before we knew it we were speeding across the plains to a crossing point a few kilometres further upstream. We timed it perfectly as the first wildebeest got the courage to dive into the water. Thousands upon thousands of the animals were milling on the far bank waiting to cross and one by one they made the perilous journey. Every so often they would be spooked and the crossing would finish. The whole time we were jostling on the bank with 20-30 other vehicles all trying to get the prime viewing positions. It's no wonder the migration takes so long, wildebeest are the most indesisive of animals.

The wildebeest crossing the Mara River

With the crossing stalled on the far bank, the wildebeest moved further upstream to yet another crossing point. Thankfully this site was much better for our viewing pleasure and when the animals finally got the courage to cross we were in the best spot. This crossing went on for a good hour until a big croc was sighted on the bank just up from the Wildebeest crossing point.

A buzz rippled through the waiting vehicles - people wanted blood. Then it happened, the wildebeest detected the croc and stopped crossing, retreating up the far bank. Two wildebeest were caught in the strong current and after repeated attempts could not make it all the way over. The two swam back across the river and climbed onto the bank, into a place where they were completely trapped. The croc lowered itself into the water and after cruising around for a short while swam right up to the tired wildebeest daring them to move. You could see a slight movement in the water and suddenly everyone gasped as the croc appeared on the surface of the water right in front of the two stranded wildebeest.

2 Wildebeest stuck on the bank - a croc waits patiently2 Wildebeest stuck on the bank - a croc waits patiently

By this stage everyone waiting on the banks was poised for a kill. When the croc moved further up stream to where the other wildebeest were waiting to cross people were openly baying for blood.

What followed was brilliant. The two wildebeest managed to edge downstream by about ten metres, then they bolted across the river. Seeing the two trapped wildebeest crossing, the indecisive wildebeest waiting on the far bank decided to cross as well. From about 30 metres off the large croc turned and swam straight at their intended landing point on the near bank.

Cameras started clicking and in a perfectly scripted finish she took down an animal. In the swirling waters we lost sight of her, however five minutes later she was spotted swimming back up stream, the horns of her kill protruding from the muddy water.

A croc taking down a wildebeestA croc taking down a wildebeest

The other wildebeest were now fully freaked out and the crossing had come to, at least for us, a very satisfactory completion. With the day drawing to a close we had a good 70km's to get back to the gate before it shut. Reluctantly we left the Mara River for the way home.

Oddly enough it seems that the wildebeest were actually crossing in the wrong direction according to migratory route - they should still be heading north, we saw them crossing back towards Tanzania.

Our day's luck did not end there. Ten minutes down the road we sighted a few cars gathered around some bushes off a side track. We convinced our driver to take a look (he always needed prompting) and to our surprise there were five young cheetahs cubs and their mother. A Kenyan Wildlife Services Ranger was there to ensure the Masai circus did not play havoc with the animals by restricting the viewing to only a couple of cars at a time. When our turn came we were the only vehicle there and it was brilliant. When another vehicle arrived behind us the Cheetahs were given a massive fright and in seconds they were on their feet in alarm.

A family of 6 Cheetah

The rangers finally managed to move us on (Donna is a huge fan of Cheetah's) however again, ten minutes down the road we (Donna) spotted another cheetah, this time sitting atop a huge rock pile with a very young cub. Donna screamed at the driver to stop, if Moigahee had not stopped I think Donna could have strangled him. By now everything we asked seemed to be a hassle for him and Donna was close to losing her patience and opening up a big old can of whoop ass. If we wanted to sit and relax with an animal for a few minutes the whole time he would be saying "ok, time to go, are you ready".

A mother cheetah with cub

Unfortunately, with the gates closing at 6:00 we only had a few minutes with the mother cheetah and cub before we were pressed onwards.

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Rather than head back to the Mara River for another chance at viewing the crossing (which in hindsight was what we should have done), day three was planned for an early morning game drive, followed by breakfast, a trip out to a Masai Village, followed by an afternoon drive.

After much pushing we managed to get Moigahee to pick us up at 6:30am and by 7 we were in the park. We spotted a lion pride complete with several young cubs crossing the road, magically with the sun rising behind them. We were the only vehicle around, however our driver quickly got on the radio and ruined that. Unfortunately he was too busy calling the sighting in and consequently he lost sight of them in the bushes. By the time he had relocated the lions, the circus had arrived and ruined the moment. We angrily told him to leave the lions alone, rather than chase them through the bush, and we went off in search of other animals.

After an hour of driving we came across the same pride of lions as we had seen on the first afternoon. Only this time they were in a playful mood. The five large male's walked slowly up the road, surrounded by nearly 20 mini-vans. At one point two youngster's climbed a tree and were play fighting beside us.

Tree climbing lionsTree climbing lions

After spending an hour or so with the lions they grew tired of the circus and moved off into the long grass, I am constantly amazed at the ease in which massive cats can disappear so easily.

After breakfast we piled back into the van and Moigahee took us to the Oloolaimutiek Masai Village. At US$25 a pop, Donna and I decided not to go in, especially after the disgust we felt after visiting the Masai Boma in the Serengeti. The others all traipsed in while Donna and I had a relaxing hour or so out the front. After a while we were joined by a Masai warrior - amused at how we did not want to pay to go into his village (a few words of Swahili do wonders with local relations). After chatting with him for a while he ended up taking us down to the local school and showing us around. The hour or so we spent chatting with him was one hundred times better than the fake show that went on inside the village.

By lunch time our driver was feeling ill and could not take us out for the planned drive. We gave him some immodium and he promised to pick us up later in the day for a short drive if he was feeling better.

Thankfully he was and we managed to track down the same pride of lions that we had seen in the morning drive. This time they were clearly on the hunt with Antelope and Zebra looking delicious in the distance. The Masai Circus went into absolute overdrive, at one point we counted nearly 40 vehicles lined up across the savannah watching the lions.

We were trying to jostle for a good viewing position when the lions started crossing the road. I was hanging out of the window trying to get that special photo when they basically walked right up to our van. The driver quickly wound up his window and after snapping madly away I pulled back into the car just as the lion reached the van. I can tell you the blood was pumping that day. It is incredible how big these cats are, their paws are huge!

This fella got a little to close for comfortThis fella got a little to close for comfort

Unfortunately Moigahee still was not feeling well and so we had to leave the lions before we saw the kill.

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With the others all taking a hot air balloon ride, Donna and I had Moigahee to ourselves for day 4's morning drive. Unfortunately the bastard would not pick us up until 7:00 as any earlier the porters would not be around to carry the bags to the vehicle. Donna turned on her heal in disgust and pushed her clenched fists deep into her pockets. This guy really drove her up the wall. Therefore by the time he had packed the car and we had checked out it was was nearly 7:30am and we had missed the sunrise in the park.

To make things worse he turned the morning drive into a sham, we came across a couple of lions (I think it was the mating pair from day two), however he would not divert off the main road to get close. Then further along the way I spotted a series of vehicles heading towards some trees in the distance. After hassling our driver to find out what they had spotted he revealed "oh, just some more lion". The bastard would not even take us over to see them.

In the end the drive turned into us riding in the back as he drove through the park to the Kikorok Lodge where the others would be delivered after their balloon ride. obviously we arrived way too early and had an hour or so wait for the others.

With the safari now officially over he tied the roof down and we had a seven hour drive at speed back to Nairobi where we were dropped at the Wildebeest Camp. A lodge run by a couple of Aussie's who are friends of friends of Moh.

We later discovered, we were bloody lucky to see the migration - as it turns out seeing the crossing is rare and does not happen every day. Some have sat at the river for days and seen nothing. We also had some brilliant encounters with lions and cheetah. I do not want to come across as a whiner, but I get seriously pissed off when a guide ruins a safari. It is not so much about the money - it is that this is quite possibly a once in a lifetime experience that could be one hundred times better if the guide was more than just a glorified taxi driver.

P. S. Thanks for the celebratory champagne Moh. It was kind of you to think of us and the champagne tasted great.

Click here to see the Masai Mara Photo Gallery (47 photos)

     
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I have found unknown battle fields and hidden treasure. I'm afraid about it. What can I do?

Andy - 17 December, 2007

You have amazing recall. We are getting a chance to travel along the roads you have traveled - A holiday on the couch for us. Great to see you looking so relaxed, happy and well and enjoying yourselves, despite your frustration with your guides.

Theresa - 04 September, 2007

 
     
     
 

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