Kenya - Masai Mara NP and Maasai Village

Trip Start Jan 27, 2012
Trip End Feb 27, 2012

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

"I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up I was not happy".

Ernest Hemingway


The setting was both civilized and adventurous. Like a scene from some Victorian era painting, African style, we sat under the lone acacia tree, enjoying our picnic lunch under its shade-providing branches while we watched the passing zebras and impalas watch us through the golden savannah grass. We felt perfectly safe, even though we were out in the open splendor of the Masai Mara, where lions did roam. By this point, we had seen much already that day; lions, families  of elephants, cape buffalo, giraffes, two cheetahs under a shady acacia tree, hyenas, hippos and crocodiles at the Mara River, ostriches, baboons, zebras, tope, wildebeest and warthogs. We felt at ease with our new kinship with these lovely creatures.

Our morning started early. As the sun's rising rays broke over the Masai Mara hills, we drove into the park, hoping to get an early viewing of the wildlife while they're at their most active.

 The passing herds of elephants were always a graceful event. The elephants and giraffes' rhythmic loping movements exuded that breathless African tempo; a grace and dignity unsurpassed.

No immediate signs of the prior night's Cape buffalo hunt were visible however; we did find a single lioness enjoying her warthog breakfast in the cool grass.  It’s easy for lions to hide within the tall shady vegetation. We drove right past several sleepy lions before finally spotting them.

Ever alert for more sightings, Lowry continued maneuvering our vehicle through the bush along a series of dirt tracks. A young male lion and his accompanying pride were casually strolling across the land, much to the chagrin of an obviously anxious lone gazelle. Fortunately, for this nervous fellow, today was his lucky day! Lions apparently only hunt once every five days which would explain these lions’ blasť attitude toward passing galloping meals! "Whew!" said the small gazelle as these four lions passed him by.

Equally blasť’ were two cheetahs, barely awake, lying in the grass, too lazy to chase the neighboring zebras and topes for their breakfast, despite our urging.
Another pair of cheetahs, also resting under a shaded acacia tree, suddenly became alert when the Kenyan driver on the vehicle we were flanking hopped out with his assistant to replace an ill-timed flat tire. Now we know how to get a cheetah’s attention… just step out of your jeep!

The playful exchanges one encounters as the passing interloper are always entertaining; for instance, two male impalas were butting antlers trying to impress their nearby female counterparts only to be left alone and foolish by the unimpressed females who had quietly walked away.

Within our small group, we would take turns as the keenest observer. Whereas a cursory glance by the others at the waving grass yielded no response, I noticed the reason why the grass periodically waved was because a pack of baboons were racing through it.

Elephants of course were unanimously spotted, their large gray bulk slightly visible within the open fields. Of all the animals, the elephants remained the most camera shy, never pausing from their continuous march across the savannah grasslands.

After many miles, we eventually reached the Masai Mara boundary at the Mara River. Like a bored ski instructor at Sun Valley in the summer, we see a crocodile lounging lazily in the Mara River shallows. He had an abundant amount of time to lounge for this was the Mara River’s off season for him. The Great Wildebeest Migration which brought over a million frantic wildebeest crossing this same river section in August was seven long months away. Today he floated quietly dreaming about those upcoming chaotic days which will provide him a feast for the stomach and the soul.

By late afternoon, our group was doing their own lounging back at camp. This gave me the opportunity to explore the neighboring Maasai village.

Although a definitive iconic symbol of Kenya, the Maasai represent only one of 52 tribes that constitute Kenya’s ethnic diversity. President Obama's father was from the Luo, a tribe located in western Kenya. Other prominent tribes include the Kikuyu, Meru, Samburu, Luhya, and Embu. The Kikuyu who are originally from Kenya’s central highlands dominate the country politically and economically.

Maasai are a herding culture. They drink the milk and blood of the cattle to sustain life. They also eat rice, beans, and ugali, a maize-based product. There was one definitive sign that the modern world had entered their lives; they possessed cell phones, apparently with better reception than in the States.

Aside from the cell phones, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Maasai community still retains their traditional ways. The houses are short, hot, cramped mud huts with thatched roofs. Sheep, when young, stay in the boma-style constructed pen as well as the cow calves that are nursed in the courtyard. Keeping them inside the compound helps protect them from predators such as lions since their Maasai community is open to the elements. I was told just the previous week a lion had tried to enter the compound. A definite downside to this close-knit communal arrangement with the animals is the proliferation of cow and sheep feces which of course draw the hoards of flies. Be careful where you step!
To protect their houses from the erodible effects of rain, the Maasai house’ roofs are constructed with water resistant material. Inside, the houses are dark, cramp and extremely hot during the late afternoon.

A Maasai man was asked by a foreign traveler if he has ever lived elsewhere. He said yes, pointing to a section of the village several yards away that used to house his family. After nine years they had to relocate to a new hut due to the termites devouring their old home.

Recently issues related to Maasai cattle overgrazing such as desertification have become a major concern for east Africa. The Maasai have not been able to roam as freely through their lands as in past generations, a factor that has led to this overgrazing.

An interesting note, I was told by a local Maasai that they rarely have incident with malaria, thanks to a prolific bush whose leaves they pick, boil into a tea, and use as an anti-malarial remedy.

That evening, I walked outside the compound, admiring the view across the landscape that reached to the Masai Mara lands. There was no fence that separated me from the wilds. Some Maasai young men tending to their cattle walked over to me to talk. They talked about their journey to manhood in which they or at least someone in their group must kill a lion; a rites of passage tradition that obviously still continues today.

There is a Swahili word I was taught that aptly describes this wonderful experience I had at Masa Mara and the Maasai village. The Swahili word is Poa which means "cool!"

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