Safari in the Mara

Trip Start Apr 10, 2008
Trip End May 12, 2008

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Flag of Kenya  , Masai Mara National Reserve,
Saturday, May 10, 2008

Wednesday we were up early. We left our big suitcases with the concierge at the hotel, taking with us smaller bags with just what we would need while "in the bush." We took a taxi to Wilson Airport, the domestic airport for Kenya, and checked in for our flight to the Mara. The flight, in a single-engine, 14-seat Cessna Caravan left at 10:00. There were only 6 passengers on the flight which lasted about 45 minutes. We flew over the Ngong Hills, at the base of which was located Karen Blixen's farm featured in Out of Africa.  Shortly after that we flew over the Great Rift Valley, a huge gouge in the earth that runs north and south. The rift system runs all the way up the east of Africa and includes even the Red Sea and the Dead Sea in Israel as part of its system.
We came in to land at the Musiara strip which is the one closest to the famous Governor's and Little Governor's lodges located on the banks of the Mara River. That site is where Theodore Roosevelt camped and hunted on safari after leaving the office of the US presidency. The air strips in the Mara are just patches of gravel and pavement with a wind sock off to one side, and a sign identifying the strip by name; there are no buildings.
Julius, a driver from the Royal Mara camp was there to meet us in a Toyota Land Cruiser. He was to be our driver and guide during our stay. We drove slowly north over roads that truly required a 4WD vehicle, looking for animals as we covered the 10 miles or so to our camp. On arrival we checked in and were given tent assignments. The very pleasant safari tents are constructed on permanent wooden platforms about 3 feet off the ground, and overlooking the Mara River. The elevation is to help keep the animals out, because contrary to other tented camps I have used, the Royal Mara doesn't have an electric fence around it... Animals can and do wander in and out of the camp site at night. The staff warned us not to walk around the camp grounds day or night without a Masai guard. They were armed with spears and clubs, and, we were assured, were capable of dealing with any animals we might encounter. They told us that, the night before, a pride of nearly 20 lions had come through the camp. Cheetahs had been spotted at the entrance to the camp that very morning. Hippos come to graze within the camp boundaries every night (they can be extremely dangerous to humans). Other animals frequent the camp too. At night, we were told, there would be Massai moran (young warriors) watching our tents to keep the animals from bothering (or tasting) us. This sounded rather exciting!
We had a few other surprises in store for us. Because of the recent violence in Kenya, tourism had plummeted. Dr. Kirkpatrick and I found out that we were the only guests in the whole camp. We would in fact be the only guests during our whole time there: a staff of 40 just to take care of the two of us! Meals were prepared to order and served outside, often overlooking the Mara River in which we could watch hippos and crocodiles moving about. Hippos are often quite noisy, communicating with loud grunts and explosive exhalations; we got used to that fairly quickly.
During the next 48 hours we would make 5 long game drives, punctuated with delicious meals. During the drives through the savannah, Julius would spot game for us and explain animal behaviors we didn't understand. At first we were mostly interested in trying to spot "The Big 5" the five animals that were the most dangerous to hunt (when they were hunted - that ended long ago in Kenya): lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard (we didn't end up seeing a leopard - they're shy and it's very uncommon to spot them). And while we did see lots of animals, it wasn't long before we were appreciating the silence and the fantastic colors of the Serengeti Plain and the wide blue sky.

 One high point was seeing a mother white rhino and her 3 month old baby. The endangered pair is guarded around-the-clock by a team of rangers, some armed with AK47s. The female has seen people so often, that while not tame; she is used to people being around and won't normally attack them. Following carefully behind a ranger, I was able to walk up quite close to the pair and take photos and video.  It was one of those moments when one feels he has a glimpse of what the Garden of Eden must have been.
Another high point was watching two cheetahs eating a fresh dik dik (a very small antelope about the size of a medium sized dog) kill. They then set off (with us in tow) and proceeded to stalk a herd of impala. We watched transfixed while the two cheetahs took down a female impala, killed and ate her. Nature red of tooth and claw, as someone put it: definitely not an image of the Garden of Eden, that one.
The last interesting thing was to discover two male lions in tall grass, right next to the airstrip where we landed, and would from where we would leave. They are often spotted there Julisu told us as we drove up to within 3 meters (10 feet) of them, perhaps less, and parked to observe them. Then we drove across the runway, about 100 meters/yards away and got out of our vehicles as we waited for the plane that would take us back to Nairobi. Julius told us to stay close to the Land Cruiser so we could get in quickly if the lions made an appearance. We followed his instructions.
Friday afternoon we flew back to Nairobi, picked up our luggage and drove out to the famous Carnivore restaurant where we met newly ordained Church elder Antonio Ndungu and his wife Christine. The Carnivore is famous in Nairobi for its huge barbecue pit over which huge chunks of meat roast on saber-like spits. During the set-price meal, waiters bring the meat to each table, announcing the kind of meat and asking who would like some: beef, pork, chicken, turkey, ostrich, crocodile, etc. In the center of table is a small Carnivore flag. The meat keeps coming until guests lower their flag to "surrender."
I've known the Ndungus from back when I covered Kenya for UCG in the late 90s and early 2000s; it was a special pleasure to congratulate Antonio and Christine on their new service opportunities. We caught up on old times and discussed the situation in the areas of East Africa where they serve. As the meal ended, and Dr. K and I prepared to leave for the airport, we wished them well. Then it was time to prepare to leave Kenya on the Kenya Airways flight to London. That flight should leave at 11:50 pm.
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