Tenting on the Maasai Mara

Trip Start May 25, 2003
Trip End Jun 07, 2003

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Flag of Kenya  , Rift Valley,
Tuesday, June 3, 2003

6/3 Tuesday

One last drive on the trip to the airport. We spotted more lions in trees, but no leopard. We'll have to leave that for the Mara. The Serena International Airport: one small strip, one limp wind sock, no air traffic controller, no tower, no lounge, BUT a very niche western style toilet with TP. The important needs are met.

The plane seats 15. There's a couple already on the plane who will continue on after we depart. We're flying to Musoma, which is in Tanzania to the north. There we will meet Lewela and officially exit Tanzania. Then we will fly to Kisumu where we'll officially enter Kenya. After the niceties are completed, we'll continue the charter flight on to the airstrip at Kichwa Tembo, and lunch at the camp about noonish. Well, that's the plan!

For some reason, the officials in Kisumu will not approve the flight plan. The pilot and co-pilot leave the plane when they can't get clearance to take off. Finally, everyone is made happy and off we go. It's after 2 by the time we reach the camp. They've set us up in the pool-side garden for a nice buffet including great shish kabobs.

We're shown to our tents and have time for a quick wash up before our 3pm with Ben, a Masai elder. He answers questions about the Masai for about an hour. Then we start a short 2 hour game drive. We do spot one sleeping lion, but in general it's small potatoes after Serengeti.

As we return to camp about 6:30, a dark thunder cloud moves in. It starts raining as we walk to our tents. The sound of the rain on the tent is very soothing. The tents are terminally cute. They each have their own little porch with 2 chairs and a table. The front door zips in an inverted T shape. We're  warned to keep it zipped at all times since monkeys are known to get in and cause havoc.

Inside there are two nice single beds with luggage racks at their foot plus a small desk in the corner. (NOTE: as I'm writing this in my tent, I can hear a couple lions starting up their roaring chorus!) The bathroom area is at the back with a stone shower stall, sink and western style toilet. Electric lights in the shape of lanterns hang from the tent poles. Power will be turned off at midnight, so we're equipped with flashlights and candles. The warm water comes on at 6pm, so I enjoy a hot shower after a long day. The rain drips on the tent ceiling while I wash up.

There are no electric outlets in the tents, but there are a couple we can use in the bar area and the ladies restroom off of the bar, which also has hair dryers. So, I head over to the bar after showering to dry my hair and enjoy a pre-dinner Tusker while my camera battery charges.

I return to the tent for the night right after dinner. We have to be out at 5:30 for the balloon ride in the morning. I'm exhausted anyway. It's an excuse to jump into bed early. The tent is actually reasonably warm. All the heavy canvas flaps are now closed over the windows and door. And a hot water bottle under the down quilt is the final touch!

6/4 Wednesday

A very early morning wake up for the balloon ride. I've slept warmly, snuggled to the hot water bottle. Wake up call at 5am with tea. Just a quick cleanup and then jump into clothes. The temperature isn't too bad. The sky has clear spots where we can see the stars, no moon apparent. It's very dark still. The ride to the Governor's Camp for the balloon ride is long and bumpy and very dark. We arrive at a wide open circle of grass where they're just beginning to fill the balloon. It's a bright rainbow of colors and named, appropriately, the Rainbow Mara. We have tea or coffee while we wait. Shortly, the balloon is ready. There are a total of 10 of us on the trip. The pilot- an Aussie named Greg- positions us into 4 pods within the large basket- 2 in each of the "front" corners and 3 in the "back' two. He takes up the center area under 4 valves that control the feeds from 4 propane bottles. He also has several color coded ropes that he pulls on to let air out of the balloon to manage our turning. We start with the "front" pods leading, then after a while he turns the basket to allow the "back" to move to the front. It really doesn't matter as everyone gets a great view.

As we begin the trip, the sun also begins to rise over the horizon. The light is still very poor and tough to take any photos. We float effortlessly above the trees. It's almost impossible to feel our motion. We spot herds, solo animals, birds. I wish I had a wide-angle lens! After a wonderful float across the plains, we spot our chasers, with our breakfast. Gregg warns us how to prepare for the landing- sit straight, grab the handles and hang on. We get dragged and bounced on our backs for about 20 feet. The basket ends up laying on its side with us stacked up like groceries. We haul ourselves out, standing in the midst of knee high, seeded grass, congratulating ourselves on the adventure.

The chasers show up with trucks and quickly set up the champagne table. We all toasted ourselves. They then set up the grill and our dining table- cornered with Masai spears. We ate hungrily surrounded by the tall grass. Soon the killer bees showed up -what a misnomer!- and we began to disperse. Ladies room to the right behind the Land Rover, which included a very thoughtful waste basket for tissues.

In the meantime, the champagne table became a gift shop. We were all presented with a certificate honoring our balloon achievement. Our van was able to track us down. We loaded up to begin a game drive. It wasn't even 9am yet- unbelievable. We saw the usual animals- sleeping lions, gazelles, giraffes. But then got the word on the radio. We rolled up as another vehicle left to discover a mother cheetah with 2 juveniles. At first it seemed like the normal sleepy animal pose photo shoot. Then the mother began to sniff the air and moved out, children following at a distance. We took off to follow at a distant, parallel path. Then we spotted a solitary Tommy and knew what his future would be. Our van swung out in a wide arc away from and behind the gazelle. We could see it happily munching away. Its herd was quite a distance to our left. The slight breeze was behind the Tommy. The cheetah edged closer, keeping tight to the ground in the high grass.

Suddenly, Pumba appeared from in front of us, running, tail up, toward the spot between the cheetah and gazelle. We assumed the gazelle would be startled and run away,but foolishly kept on eating. Pumba then darted off to the left of the gazelle, leaving a path open for the cheetah. She raced toward the gazelle who began to run too late. The cheetah chased her down with the Pumba and two juveniles giving chase...and us too.

We followed in the van, swinging into position a very short distance from the kill. The mother had a death grip on the throat of the gazelle, who still struggled slightly. One of the juveniles began gnawing on her haunch. Mother and sibling joined in. They all voraciously attacked the gazelle, but keeping a wary eye out for any competitors. They avoided damaging the stomach, filled with grass. When they only the head and upper neck remained, the mother grabbed the corpse and easily carried it off to the shade of a nearby tree, leaving a trail of uneaten parts like the stomach. The circling vultures immediately descended. They quickly removed the few scraps until only the red dyed grasses remained as evidence. We began the long drive back to the camp, marveling at our morning adventures.

The afternoon is ours to spend at the pool (very cool), reading and lounging. The evening drive doesn't reveal any new animals. We are surprised with a cocktail party by a river at the end. The rain in that area (we were dry at our end of the park) put a literal damper on the gathering- no camp fire. The surprise somewhat backfired since both Howard and Chip were wearing shorts, expecting to be back at the lodge. And I had to take a walk into the long grass....

We had a beautiful sunset and then an evening drive back to the lodge in the dark. We saw the moon for the first time on this trip- just a sliver. The local Masai warriors danced for us before dinner. We were all invited to join in. Then they spread the blanket souvenir shop. Chip bought a wildebeest fly whisk- a very useful purchase.

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