Three cheetahs slept under the shade of a tree - our vehicle sneaked off-road to get within metres of them. A mother elephant sauntered by, baby at her side, glancing up to make sure we did not get too close to her young. A leopard wandered through a thicket in a gully; we waited patiently for it to reappear and were rewarded when it drank at a stream before sauntering off. Hippos wallowed in cooling muddy waters, their yawns exposing enormous teeth.
I'm on another Tucan tour, this time a 4 week overland truck trip from Nairobi to Dar Es Salaam, taking in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda along the way. I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, from Madagascar on Thursday 13 October, booking myself in at Godial's B & B for a couple of days of en-suite, WiFi-equipped relative luxury before transferring to the rather more basic Tucan joining "hotel", Karen Camp. The drive from Nairobi Airport was a tedious near-two hour crawl through grid-locked traffic which didn't really encourage me to venture back through the city, dubbed the most dangerous in the whole of Africa. Bloodshot eyes of the locals peered through the haze, blank expressions on their faces. I tightened the grip on my backpack, recalling the alternative nickname for the city - "Nairobbery". The next two days left me contemplating just what I'd let myself in for as the weather comprised a constant dreary drizzle instead of the scorching sunshine I was expecting. Maybe I should have stayed at home and gone to the zoo? My Lonely Planet guidebook stated that "most first-timers are keen on holing up in their hotel rooms and counting down the minutes until their safari departure". I didn't disappoint.
On Saturday, I transferred to Karen Camp, upgrading to a "room" (a bed with mosquito net) for US$5 to save myself camping. I met a few of the tour group who had arrived already, watched France beat Wales in the Rugby World Cup followed by Man Utd v Liverpool, and then introduced myself to the local beer, Tusker. We had a group meeting at 5.30pm - there were 16 others starting the tour, along with Tanya our Tour Leader and Alan our driver: Ben (NZ) & Crystal (Oz); Dave & Sarah (UK); Scott (Oz) & Toni (NZ); Davie & Chani (Irish); Ben (US); Gary, Danielle & Laura (Oz); Hannah & Liz (UK); Julia (Romania); Leticia (Oz). In the evening, we went for a meal at a fancy, local restaurant, Talisman, where I had a delicious Beef Karai curry and a couple of double rum and cokes for a total of $20.
On Sunday morning, we had what would in the coming days be considered a lazy lie-in as we set off at 8am towards the Masai Mara National Reserve in "Nik", our big, yellow overland truck. Comfortable seats, luggage and storage space, safe, fridge, all camping equipment, tables, chairs, cooking equipment, pots, pans, plates, bowls, utensils, water tank, it had it all!
Considering the drought in the NE of the country, the Kenyan countryside was surprisingly green, much like the English countryside. Small villages were dotted along the roadside, with corrugated steel dwellings and shops plastered with Coca-Cola and mobile operator logos. The sight of a huge yellow truck turned necks everywhere we went. Children waved enthusiastically, shouting "Jambo" (Hello) and "Muzunga" (foreigner), their huge white smiles beaming. I considered that children back home would also make hand signals and shout things if they saw a bus-load of foreigners driving past, but maybe not the same ones. The roads varied from newly laid tarmac to terrible, pocked with giant potholes. Road maintenance comprised men shovelling grit into the holes and compacting it.
Tanya had arranged a lunch stopover at a hotel which was showing the Oz v NZ Rugby World Cup match, quite an unexpected treat in the middle of Africa. We arrived at our permanent tented camp on the outskirts of the Masai Mara National Reserve late in the afternoon. Beds with mattresses, sheets, blankets and mosquito nets, and an en-suite bathroom with flush toilet, sink and (hot water) shower. I thought the accommodation was excellent, although others didn't appreciate the numerous spiders sharing our tents.
Situated in the south of the country, the Masai Mara National Reserve is the northern extension of the famous Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and comprises a vast savannah, defined as grassy plains with trees and scrub sufficiently spaced out that the canopy does not close. It is named after the Masai people, the traditional inhabitants of the area, replete with their distinctive, traditional red robes.
We transferred to a couple of 4WD minivans, complete with pop-up roofs, for the first of two game drives within the Reserve. By the end of the game drive the following morning, we had ticked off four of the "Big 5". First coined by white hunters, the "Big 5" refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot - lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. We had only the latter yet to see, although their numbers in the Masai Mara were now so low that there would be better opportunities to see them later in the tour. Another of the highlights was a pack of Hunting (Wild) Dogs, so rare that our guide of 19 years had never seen them in the Reserve before. In the evening, I would be reacquainted with another long-lost friend, the African sunset, the sky a beautiful kaleidoscope of oranges, reds and yellows.
After our visit to the Reserve, we had the opportunity to visit a local Masai village to see how they lived, although the authenticity of the experience was a matter of opinion. We were treated to some traditional dancing, the men in our group being dressed in Masai blankets and joining in with the Masai jumping, the women prancing about doing who knows what. We were then taken either singly or in pairs to have a look inside the village huts, a very small dwelling considering the size of the families, and very smoky with little ventilation for the smoke from the seemingly constantly burning fire. The Masai warrior then explained daily life in the village for the men and women, the rites of passage which young men must undergo, how their homes were constructed, and their diet which included meat, milk and blood from their cattle. Thankfully, I wasn't invited to share a drink of cow's blood with the Masai. A rather awkward stand-off ensued at the end of the visit as the Masai produced some jewellery he tried to sell at a completely exorbitant price. I politely declined, although I did end up buying something (significantly less overpriced) from the numerous stalls which had been set up outside the village. The Masai were particularly keen to try and swap or sell their blankets and machetes. It seemed the going rate for a Masai machete was your watch. A purchase of a "traditional" blanket being worn by one of the Masai by a member of our group for $25 didn't look like such a good purchase when he later noticed it looked suspiciously like a tablecloth in our camp dining room. Outside the village, we stopped by a Masai bar/disco to stock up on some cheap bottles of lager, another example of the modern world encroaching into the Masai way of life.
The next morning, we left our camp at the crazy time of 4.30am for the start of a long journey over several days to Rwanda and the next highlight of our trip, trekking to see the endangered Mountain Gorillas.
It had been two years since my last African game safari but as we approached the outskirts of the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, the excitement of entering an open-air living zoo of African wildlife in its natural surroundings came flooding back. On the edge of the Reserve, in the absence of the large predators, wildebeest, zebra and numerous species of antelope grazed on the grassy plains. Giraffe munched from tall, wiry acacia trees, lolloping away across the open ground as we approached, their thin legs impossibly supporting their bodies. Inside the Reserve, we soon came across a pride of lions lounging in the blazing sun, sitting up occasionally to glance at a group of wildebeest grazing nearby. A gaggle of vehicles surrounded them, a constant chatter of cameras manically clicking away.