A Dream Realized (Part 3)
The Final, Most Anticipated Part of the Trip
This is what we have been waiting for; looked forward to most. Here is where we expect to see more animals than we have so far and we are not disappointed. This is what I expect to be the crown jewel of the trip. I never thought this would ever be possible and yet, here I am. We are about to embark on several days of game drives and other unexpected, treats. Our accommodations are at the Mara Safari Tent Camp, which sits right on an oxbow of the Mara River at the foot of the Aitong Hills and is just outside the boundary of the Masai Mara. Although bigger (more people) than I expect and a bit more “civilized” than I anticipated, the tents are just about what I expected, perhaps a bit nicer. I thought we would dine outside, under the stars, in an intimate setting, but the dining room is much like all the others, very nice and indoors. I think I would have liked the smaller, more rustic atmosphere, but nothing can take away from the wonder that is the Mara. At one point, we took our lunches out to sit by the pool. This place is just beautiful.
Our tents sit on the upper bank of the Mara River, overlooking what must be a favorite spot for some hippos, who are there all the time. It’s amazing that they can be so close when they are considered so dangerous; I guess it’s a matter of staying where you belong and it will be okay. The tents are lovely, with 4 poster beads covered in mosquito nets. The furniture is beautiful; a dark wood, not sure what kind and we have all the comforts of home, but just take a few steps outside and we are under the stars. Our wake-up call comes in the form of a room attendant, who comes to the tent with coffee in the morning. What a treat!
Oddly enough, I don’t find myself being consciously concerned about snakes, bugs, etc. Perhaps because it was such a nice place, it was easy to overlook the possibility. Maybe that was not the smartest approach, but it was not really something I thought about. I definitely thought about those things before we went, but once there, got caught up in the wonders around us. I suppose the presence of a Nile Monitor lizard in Gary and Terrie’s tent, just next door, should have given me pause, but I did no more than be glad it wasn’t our tent. If it had been, I probably would have freaked out and been afraid to walk anywhere, especially in the dark!
Thinking back, it seems now that many things I could have been concerned about never crossed my mind while there. I was never particularly concerned about cleanliness, perhaps because most places seemed clean enough. I never thought to wonder if we were encountering people or places where AIDS was a concern. It bothers me a bit that I did not think about that, not because of my own wellbeing, but out of awareness for those who might be suffering. I really can’t believe I didn’t worry about bugs! Of all the things that would have made me uncomfortable, it would have been large, tropical bugs! Or snakes!
The dining room is in the main building where there is also a bar and lounge. I wish we had more time to enjoy the lounge, but the days are long and sleep calls to us soon after dinner each night. We have an early call each morning to be up with the sun for a game drive before breakfast. Every day but one, our morning starts at 6:30 when we are off in the game truck to see what the wildlife is up to. Thank God for that wonderful attendant who brings us coffee each morning. We are out and about for a couple of hours and then return to the camp for breakfast. Midday, we are on our own to relax and enjoy the ambience of this lovely place. With late afternoon comes another trek out into the bush.
On our first full day, our drivers, Jeremiah and Latiffe, offer to take us out for a full day. We jump at the offer, of course. Instead of getting up early, we have breakfast first and then leave around 8:30. We will end up being out until dusk is approaching. In order to officially enter the Mara, we pass through the Musiara Gate and we have arrived. Our quest for the day is to see if there are any wildebeest coming across the river at a known migration crossing. We are told there is no guarantee, but it is definitely worth a try. It is a full day in the African bush; what could be better?
Our drivers have packed us picnic lunches and we eat al fresco in a riverside meadow as Zebra pass nearby. This is the spot in the river known to be a point of crossing for the wildebeest migrating from the Serengeti and represents the border between Kenya and Tanzania. The hoped for crossing doesn’t happen, but the picnic is a pleasant and unique interlude anyway. When a couple of the guys take a short walk and see signs of a leopard kill, we decide it’s time to get back on the road. Being out all day and seeing a wide ranging part of the Mara is tiring, but what a wonderful experience!
The dining room is a bit of a hike from our tents, so to conserve time, we try to minimize the trips back and forth. We probably should be apprehensive walking around at night, but I am quite comfortable here, even when alone. The food is good, nothing exotic. I don’t know what I expected, but it’s really not much different from what we have at home. Fruit is common; coffee is good; cold drinks are not usually cold unless you specifically ask for lots of ice. Although we’re told not to drink the water and even have bottled water for brushing out teeth, we forge ahead and don’t worry about the ice. Our waiter for the time we are here is Walter. He is very sweet and like everyone else, takes great pride in what he does, so he does a great job. We agree that his tip should be more than average. I hope that happened. I know I went a bit overboard for both him and our driver, but they did such a great job, and it really is so little to us. We were told to tip $1.00 and although we had no idea what the meals would normally cost, a dollar was simply not enough.
Our driver, Jeremiah, is a gift! Because there are 9 of us, we need two vehicles. Both drivers (the other being Latiffe) in the Mara are amazing, although my only real experience is with Jeremiah. Jeremiah is of the Massai Tribe and actually lived in a typical Massai village until he was nearly 20 yeas old. He now lives in what sounds like a family compound, but in houses rather than huts. He is married with 2 daughters and they live 70 miles away, far from his daily work. His daughters are in boarding school and his wife sees them regularly, while he goes as often as he can. We ask him why he works so far from his family and he tells us it is because it was the only work available. We then ask why he doesn’t move his family closer and he tells us that his father would not allow it; even living in more modern conditions does not stop it from being a society where the elders have the last word. I don’t know what the job pays, but he does his job well and surely has a strong sense of pride in a job well done. That seems to matter a great deal to the African people; taking pride in their work. Perhaps that is because jobs are at such a premium.
Jeremiah is very well spoken, speaking what is very nearly impeccable English, albeit with the accent that comes from it not being his only language. Like all other locals, he also speaks Swahili, the common language second to English here in Kenya. Given that he also speaks his own native Massai dialect, he’s 2 languages up on me! Jeremiah’s basic responsibilities are to take us on game drives in the morning and afternoon, typically about 2-3 hours each. Our first full day, however, he and Latiffe ask us if we would like to journey far into the Mara to attempt to see a Wildebeest crossing, which will mean an all-day outing. We, of course, jump at the prospect of a whole day out in the bush. They packed a picnic lunch for the day trip and on every game drive there is ice cold bottled water. They are determined to make sure we see everything we wanted to see. Like most African safari travelers, we hope to see the Big Five. I was very impressed with the fact that Jeremiah made such a point of always maneuvering the Land Cruiser to ensure that Terrie, who recently had back surgery and who was permanently ensconced in the front seat, always had a clear shot at the photo op. She didn’t have the option of standing and pivoting like the rest of us. He never, in 3+ days. ever failed to make sure of it.
Seeing the Mara
I’m not sure I can find the words to describe the experience of being in the Masai Mara. Although my hope is that I will see Africa again, nothing will ever be like this first time! It seems to go forever and yet I know what we are seeing is just a small piece of the Mara and a tiny fraction of the expanse that is the Serengeti-Mara eco-system. The sky is an amazing expanse of blue as far as the eye can see. Although there are some rolling hills and some dense small forest areas, the Mara seems to be mostly flatland. Much of the time, we are alone, sometimes not even near our fellow travelers; we see no other game trucks for as far as we can see, which seems like miles in every direction.
Interestingly though, when a call goes out that someone has found something of interest, all of a sudden, there are nearly a dozen trucks all converging on the same spot. Where they have been, I can’t imagine! And how they know where to tell the others they are is a miracle since everything is flat and looks alike, with no discernible landmarks. When they have these conversations, they do so in Swahili. Many speak different tribal dialects and I guess they choose not to converse in English.
So, what is “something of interest?” Animals, of course! Lionesses and cubs with a kill; hyenas finishing off a feast of wildebeest; male lions making their way to wherever they feel like going.
In so many ways, we see evidence that survival of the fittest is a way of life here. Once we are called to see a mother hyena with nursing cubs. Sadly, there is a cub trying to be a part of this little family, probably because he has lost his own mother in some manner. The mother hyena, however, shuns him; will not allow him near to nurse; he is not hers and has no place in her nest.
More often than I expected, we see the aftermath of a kill; various feasts, usually of wildebeest. We never see an actual catch nor do we ever see the early stages of the feast. The male lions have already had their fill by the time we see each group eating, but we do see the latter part of the process: the vultures and other scavengers after the lions have had their fill. Once we are told someone has spotted leopard, but when we get there, the leopard is gone. The kill is not, however, gone. Up in the tree hanging, fully intact, is a hoofed animal of some kind. It’s clear that, for some reason, it was not quite mealtime for the leopard. I suppose it might have been worth waiting for the leopard to return, but undoubtedly gory. As it turns out, we did see a leopard later, sleeping in a tree, thus adding to our Big Five pursuit.
It’s hard to imagine how many wildebeest must be here, somewhere in the Mara. We see herds of them, sometimes for what seems like miles and yet I know we are seeing but a tiny fraction of their full number. They are everywhere, often in large herds mingling with herds of Zebra, with whom they seem to cohabit comfortably. More than once, I’ve heard them referred to as ugly. I don’t think ugly is the word I would use; perhaps the word is interesting. I also wonder, though, if they are among the less intelligent of the many beasts we see. Besides being the meal of the day, more often than not, it’s also pretty funny to see their reaction to vehicles. As we drive along, the herd will be spread out over large areas on both sides of the road. As a vehicle approaches, on the road, those off to the side of the road will react as though they need to get out of the way, so they run across the road, right in front of the vehicle. Either that or they stand there and don’t move when they should. Pam, ever the animal lover, decides to look out for them by using a cowboy herding method to get them to move: Yee Haw! Did it work? Well, we never hit any, so I guess it did.
I’m not sure that I was prepared for the number of lions we are seeing, nor for the close proximity to them that we experience. Sometimes it seems we are right on top of them. A couple of times, the male lions have been so close to some of the vehicles that I swear they had to be brushing the sides of the doors. The first time we see a lioness and cubs with a kill, I thought we had stumbled onto something we were likely to see rarely, but we see this scenario several times over the course of a few days. What absolutely regal creatures lions are. I find myself looking at the pictures and marveling at how beautiful they are. It’s unbelievable how many shots I took of the lions, but every time I turned around, there was an irresistible scene before my eyes. On several occasions, the word went out that male lions had been spotted. Each time, they are just walking; to where I have no idea, but they walk like they own the place. They don’t avoid the game trucks; they just calmly walk around them. I guess we are just a “bump in the road” to them; nothing to get excited about. Since our return, I’ve had people see the pictures of the open game trucks and the lions passing close by and they ask if we were ever worried that the lions might try to get into the trucks. Oddly enough, that never occurred to me. It seems like there were a lot of things that just didn’t seem important enough to worry about once we were hypnotized by the magic here!
During the trip, I would have been hard pressed to know which I took more pictures of: elephants or lions. In the end, the lions definitely won out, but the elephants were great subjects. Partway through the trip, it actually became funny when we thought about how many elephant pictures we were taking. Each time we think we have maxed out on elephant shots, here came another opportunity and, of course, you have to take the shot! There are always babies and it is fascinating and charming how well protected they are by the entire herd. On our last evening drive, as we are heading back to the hotel nearing dusk, we see some elephants in a clearing. It is a lovely time of day, with great light, so Jeremiah stops in the middle of the road for us to watch and take our pictures. What neither he nor us realize until a few minutes had passed is that we are stopped on the road right in the path of a crossing herd, having, in effect, cut off some of the herd from the rest. Since there are babies on one side, they are not pleased with us and there is definitely the warning sign of ear flaring. I don’t think we were really scared, but it was the better part of valor to get out of the way. Jeremiah slowly and gently backed the game truck up to avoid any sudden move that might startle and we have gotten out of the way and cleared their blocked path. I find out later it’s not the ear flaring you have to worry about. It’s when they pin their ears against the side of their head and lower it. Then, a charge is imminent and it’s time to “get out of dodge.” I could watch them all day; they are magnificent creatures.
Of all the animals I expected to see, I did not expect the zebra to be particularly photogenic. Boy, was I wrong! In any setting, their black and white against the varied environs us incredibly striking and, like wildebeest, they are everywhere. Once we come upon some zebra, all looking intently at one distant spot. The drivers are finally able to confirm there is a lion nearby and they know it and are watchful. Although I couldn’t spot it, I have no doubt it was there. Our drivers are brilliant at their jobs.
We wait quite a while, hoping to see some excitement, but nothing happens, so we finally move on. I’m not sure what else we saw that I would have given up to stay there, but it certainly makes one wish for the time to be free to have waited. Although the idea of seeing an animal killed and pulled apart is not a pleasant thought, I think all of us were hoping a little bit to see a hunt, to experience that and, of course capture the action in the camera. I think we all just want to have every possible experience and absorb everything we can of the wildlife on the savannah. I have a number of favored shots, but one close up of a zebra in the Mara is certainly in the top 5. Considering there must have been over 3,000 before I edited them, that’s saying a lot.
What graceful creatures giraffes are! They seem to float as they walk. Watching them tower over the trees while they snack off the tops gives one a real sense of proportion. They don’t seem to be in great abundance and are often separate from all the other animals. Each time we see them, it is such a special moment. Another of my favorite shots is that of a single giraffe nibbling on the top of a whistling thorn tree.
Although the buffalo have a reputation for being mean, we never see any sign of it. They seem content to just stare at us as we drive past. Most of the time, they are just grazing, moving very little and show no signs of aggression, although I am sure that is a deceptive perception. Once we come upon one sleeping in the tall grass. As he became aware of us, he awoke, raised his head, but that’s as far as it went. Obviously, more effort was beyond him. We are told that a buffalo alone is an outcast and, as such, can often be dangerous.
The other animal with a, surprising to most, reputation for being dangerous is the hippopotamus. Watching them huddle together in the water makes it a bit hard to believe. They have this goofy facial expression that looks like a big grin. Unfortunately, that goofy face holds a mouth that can break a man in two with a single snap of the jaw. Our travel agent tells us before we go that the only time he’s known of travelers to suffer at the hands of wildlife, it was from hippo encounters, which occurred while they (the travelers) were doing something they should not have. There are several all the time in the river just below our tent. Now and then, we can hear them bellow. I know we are in the wilds of Africa, but it’s a bit of a surprise to see them so close. It’s a pleasant surprise, though. I like knowing that we are not completely insulated from any risk at all.
I think the biggest surprise of the trip has been the rhinos. Twice we have seen them: one in a reserve at Sweetwaters and now, here in the Mara. Everyone has a picture in their minds of rhinos as aggressive beasts who will come after you at the slightest provocation. Our experience has been very different. On both occasions, the rhinos we encountered were not aggressive at all and actually seemed quite docile. On this occasion, in the Mara, we are told we will be seeing Rhino today and we are looking forward to that. Although seeing Morani at the reserve was interesting, it seemed too tame a setting. We wanted to see them in the wild, so to speak. We drive up a sloping hill and as he parks the car, Jeremiah turns to us and says, “Okay, let’s go.” To a person, we are all taken aback a bit and there is a collective, “What?” and then someone said, “Out of the car?” Jeremiah, with something of an impish, but subtle grin says, “Yes, out of the car.” Being the intrepid group that we are (and not wanting to appear cowardly!) we stoically get out of the car to see what comes next.
Up until now, it was made clear that we were never to get out of the vehicle unless they confirmed it was safe because there was no wildlife anywhere nearby, so we are a little uncertain as to what is going on. Nevertheless, we trust Jeremiah and Latiffe, so we follow their lead.
We are introduced to what I assume are park rangers, who immediately start to lead us on a hike further up the hill. My asthma is giving me some moments, so climbing a hill might be a challenge, but not going is not an option; I might miss something!
Oddly enough, I am amused by this turn of events, but never have any sense of fear at all; not even when we arrive at the top of the hill and walk into the small clearing which we are now sharing with 4 or 5 rhinos, grazing peacefully in the shade. They seem to be completely unconcerned with our presence; certainly no aggression here. We trust that the rangers who have led us up the hill know what they are doing, so we just enjoy the moment, taking pictures and making sure we get shots of ourselves in front of the grazing “wild beasts!” At one point, one of them starts to walk slowly in our direction and the ranger tells us to step back a bit. I don’t think it is from fear of aggression, as much as fear of accidental movement. They are incredibly large and an accidental swing of the head could send you flying. This is one of the rare times we are allowed out of the vehicles and the last animal with which we thought we would be allowed such an up close and personal encounter.
This our last day in the Mara and we are all wishing it was not. We successfully saw the Big Five of Lion, Leopard, Rhinoceros, Elephant and Cape Buffalo, but also saw so many others, including many were never heard of, but found interesting, odd or enchanting.
What an extraordinary journey this has been. Not just the trip, but the experience and how it has impacted me overall.
Before I went, I already had a strong sense of awareness of what was going on in Africa and my heart hurt for what so many are going through there. As the time approached, I found myself reading more and more, not only research in preparation for the trip, but whatever I could about Kenya. I think the impending trip made me even more aware, so anything going on in Africa captured my attention.
It is astonishing to me that we seem to care so little for what is happening in a part of the world that is our history, our beginnings. It is a continent that is in such crisis in so many ways and yet, we ignore it. We talk about caring, but we do nothing, really. Because they have nothing we value, we turn a blind eye to the horrors that are taking place all over the continent. As the richest country in the world overall and one considered to be progressive, we are a success as a world economy leader; as a moral leader, we have failed miserably. In the history of this country, we have enabled the slave trade, decimated an entire culture of Native Americans, ignored the genocide of millions of Jews and incarcerated Americans in internment camps because they looked different and ignored the massacre of 800,00 Rwandans. Now there is a continent dying from AIDS, war, famine, diseases of unimaginable horror and children are being robbed of their innocence in one of the most historically hideous events of this or any other century. The child soldiers of the Sudan and other countries are being subjected to physical and mental abuse that most of us would never survive and yet they go on.
Having seen the beauty of the country in Africa, my heart hurts for the world that is at risk there. And yet, I look to how soon I can return. It calls to me as no place else ever has, except perhaps Monument Valley. I hope to go again soon; how many more times are possible is hard to say at this stage of my life, but I am so grateful that the dream I thought could never be was realized at last.