We rolled up to the edge of the Mara River — zebras, topis and gazelles grazing a short distance away, and hopped out for our mid-morning routine of chai and sandwiches. Martin, my driver and guide, assured me we’d take our breaks in clearings that were free of predators — lion, leopard, hyena, cheetah — as well as potentially aggressive wildlife such as cape buffalo, rhinoceros and elephant, all present in the Maasai Mara in Kenya.
I stood at the edge of the precipice of the Mara River, one of many sections famously crossed by hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelles in the great migration. Just not today. It was quiet. Even the hippos and crocodiles down below seemed indifferent.
Turning to walk back to the Land Rover, I caught a glimpse of red through the truck’s open sides. A man is walking along the grassland dressed in the typical red shuka worn by Maasai tribesmen. Martin, I ask, how can people walk on the Mara? What’s he doing here? He doesn’t look surprised as I am, and guesses he has wares to sell. But we’re the only people here, I muse. I look for a moment and walk over and introduce myself. His name is Joseph. (I found the names of the Maasai, Samburu and Kikuyu tribespeople interesting, unexpected — I met Moses, Sarah, Emmanuel, Dickson, Frances, Solo, Joshua and Martin, who is of Kikuyu heritage.)
Joseph spoke some English as well as Maa and Swahili. He pointed to the horizon where I could see faintly a few irregularities along the edge of the expansive savannah. He had walked about 5 miles from his manyatta, just outside the Maasai Mara border, without, as far as I could tell, any scuffs with predators. It was well with Joseph that I take a few snapshots, and after I took a few of him, I prefocused my camera and handed it to Martin so he could capture my personal shopping experience at the Mara Mall. I snagged a delicately carved elephant on a beaded necklace and a bracelet for a mere 1,100 shillings.
Extraordinary experiences do more than compensate for the torment of travel, which unfortunately has seen an uptick in the last years. My travel rule is that for every 8 hours of flying I shall be away for one week. I can then rationalize the pain. Basic arithmetic put me in Kenya for three weeks, entire trip 24 days. (My next trip I will book early enough to use flyer miles and take a left once onboard instead of a right.)
For a first-timer to Africa, and an ardent trip planner, the research was, even by my standards, exhaustive (and perhaps even exhausting) — prior to traveling to Italy, I spent three to four months securing tickets to museums, trains, a car, and learned to speak enough Italian to ask for more than just the nearest toilet. Guessing that Africa might be ‘a trip of a lifetime’, I needed to get it right. Which country, which areas and reserves, what time of year, with whom (safari operator), what to bring, what camera gear, and more. In researching I discovered a few negative aspects of safari that for good reason might not be highlighted by a safari company as one of the more memorable features of your trip.
Noted as the ‘Jewel of Kenya’, the Maasai Mara National Reserve is the northern-most section of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem and home to the cats of BBC’s Big Cat Diary. In south-western Kenya, the Mara is 583 square miles of rolling grassland, riverine forest, Acacia woodland, swamps, the Mara and Talek Rivers and their tributaries. It’s also the most visited wildlife reserve in Kenya, famous for its high density of predators, herbivores and the ‘greatest wildlife show on earth’ as the vast migration rolls through town. And when you’re here, don’t forget to look up — at an elevation of over 5,000 feet and nothing blocking your 360º view, the Mara can boast some of the most spectacular skies on the planet. Need a tripod at night — with no ambient light around, the Milky Way is in full swing along with its supporting celestial cast of billions of stars — a dazzling display.
Word on the internet, magazines, facebook, et al., noted a few nicks in the so-called jewel. Not that I fantasized dashing over the savannah pith-helmeted and brown in a rugged and dusty Land Rover in search of big game with scarce another soul in sight. Ok, maybe a little….Out of Africa. I was, however, in search of what it was really like, so as to not be wildly disappointed and shocked, to rid my fanciful mind of storied safaris of long ago. I googled, “crowds in the Maasai Mara”, under Images, and read various accounts. I just wanted to be prepared, steel myself for…whatever, because whatever it had become, I was going to see it. The Mara and six other areas in Kenya. (Incidentally, I did dash over the savannah in a rugged Land Rover in my Tilley bush hat and khakis and did see very much wildlife.)
The narratives told of DOZENS of vehicles surrounding one animal, such as a leopard or lion, on a kill perhaps. I shuddered at the thought of it, at an animal being caged in by mad tourists in large trucks zooming around to gain the best vantage point for snapshots. Almost unthinkable. In the end, aside from the tourist zoo at the river crossings with drivers jockeying for position (you had to be there), the worst crowd around an animal sighting was the caracal and its mate in a stand of trees, probably 15 vehicles. They said only one caracal had been seen this year, and in 2012, they’d seen none.
Drivers communicate via radio with, it seemed to me, a particular network of drivers, sharing sighting information to help guests see what they came to see. The Big Cats are likely on the top of most safari-goers list, for they are at once beautiful, charismatic, exotic, elusive — and in far far fewer numbers than any of the other mammals on our list. Except the endangered rhinoceros, both white and black, whose numbers have plummeted a whopping 97% since 1960 due to loss of habitat, but mostly because they are killed to lop off their horns, for carvings and supposed healing properties in Asian countries. They would do just as well to chew their nails, as rhino horn is protein keratin, the chief component in hair, fingernails and animal hooves.
My happy surprise was the tolerable number of vehicles present on the Mara at one time. After being described as the ‘Jewel of Kenya’ in several writings and hosting seven seasons of ‘Big Cat Diary’ which follows lion prides, leopard and cheetah families, how could the Mara escape the double-edged sword of tourism — Kenya’s second largest foreign revenue earner — and human impact on the land (goodness sakes, now there’s a topic!). Admittedly, I was disheartened by some drivers who were a mite too zealous to get their guests very close to wildlife sightings, and that clearly to the indignation of Martin and others in the area. Overall, the mindset it to be sensible and respectful of both wildlife and other vehicles. Could the situation improve? Certainly, but I’m not on that committee and have no knowledge of the infrastructure of Kenya’s reserves and parks — just a visitor’s observations here. My hope is that landowners, conservancies, safari outfitters and local herders join in a concerted effort to protect and save the wildlife from the road it’s now on — the path of endangered to extinction.
Garbage left behind by visitors was noted in a few commentaries, and as one reader responded, ‘Well, I can take THAT off my bucket list!’. Yikes! I thought, you’ll let one comment and a little garbage keep you from one of the most astounding travel experiences in the world!? Bear in mind, this article tells of the experience of ONE traveler — me. I was in the Maasai Mara nine days out of my three week stay in Kenya. I may have seen a total of five pieces of trash, small white paper, in nine days. So thanks to every visitor who has mindfully picked up trash as they made their way across the savannah, or better yet, not left any in the first place.
Driving on the roads in Kenya is perhaps, ahem!… another adventure entirely. Many safari-goers fly from the international airport in Nairobi direct to wildlife reserves, reserving the fun of car wars and road massage to the more intrepid traveler. I simply wanted to experience more of Kenya than just the watering holes of tourists. A thousand miles on the road tells a more robust tale of Kenya’s people, towns and customs — somewhat of a jolt to those unfamiliar with the widespread poverty and living conditions. Besides Nairobi, I visited six different areas, each distinctly different in scenery and wildlife. Amboseli and its many large-tusked elephants, Samburu, Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria with thousands of flamingos, Lake Naivasha and Elsamere, home of George and Joy Adamson of ‘Born Free’ fame, and the Maasai Mara.
Before leaving the northern area of Samburu, I had a few items in my duffel bag to deliver to a school for young children. I had learned of Lisa’s School through Brian Freeman, proprietor of Freeman Safaris, with whom I traveled. While home I contacted the school to see if I could bring a few items they might need. John, one of the staff at the camp, brought me to the school one morning where we spent a couple of hours with the children, watched them sing, recite their lessons, and handed out the gifts I’d brought. When I realized they had turned my visit into a little ceremony of sorts, oh, how I wished I’d brought more items to give them! They had mentioned colored pencils for all the children, regular pencils, pens, sharpeners, and I included a large book of mammals with 600 stickers and a bucket of rubber bouncy balls. As aware as we are of children in many countries not having the toys and the stuff kids elsewhere have, I was yet surprised and delighted at the excitement and joy on the faces of these children. The blessing was all mine.
More than 30 species of mammals, countless birds and lizards, and the piece of the puzzle that completes the picture — the people. Once Dickson knew I enjoyed Fanta after the early morning game drive, he brought me Fanta every day, with a big smile. Not sure how they felt about posing for photos, I asked if I could make a portrait of him (that’s what I do after all — portrait studio in New York). Yes, he replied enthusiastically, I would like that very much.
From the first porter to the last cup of chai (Kenya has delicious tea), I was greeted with warmth, welcome and (almost all) smiles — 4:30 am taxi driver gets a pass — like I would have noticed. Before I left the Mara, Brian arranged for me to visit an authentic Maasai village about half an hour drive from camp. We arrived at the enkang (thornbush enclosure) and my driver that morning, Solo, introduced me to the gentleman who would show me around the small village and explain how the tribespeople lived, what they ate and drank, the crafts they made and how their huts were made out of branches and cow dung, yet did not smell of such — he made a point of that. The cattle, the prize possession of these pastoralists, were out grazing for the day (of all the crazy…).
Entering one of the huts, though I had read about Maasai customs, was an eye-popper, not only for the great contrast to western ways, but my eyes strained to see as there was no light except for the bit filtering in through the front opening. The hut, scented aggreably of fresh earth, was divided into three rooms. One for baby animals to sleep at night, one was entirely a bed, and the third a ‘living room/kitchen’ with a small fire on the floor for cooking. I was invited to sit on the edge of the bed on which his baby was sleeping. In the pitch black space I saw nothing and was afraid I’d sit on the baby. He said, ‘it’s ok, it’s ok, you can take picture!’. My face blank for a moment I finally exclaimed, Oh! I have no flash! Ah! he nodded, and called to his wife. A few seconds later she appeared and bent down through the hut opening, came past the calves’ stall and removed something from her wrapped skirt. A light shone onto the baby and I quickly pushed my camera’s ISO up to 6,400 and made a snapshot of their baby under the light of her…cellphone — a baby in swaddling clothes, on a cowhide mat in a hut made of branches and plastered fresh cow dung — priceless.
My last day here, I know that Mt. Kilimanjaro sits in front of me but has hidden itself in large swaths of cloud, and the great lawn outside my cottage looks out to miles of marshland dotted with the great elephants of Amboseli. The past two afternoons were spent just sitting in the Land Rover, watching and photographing scores of these large-tusked pachyderms as they made their way slowly, very slowly, from marsh to forest, and I ponder the prospect of finding myself ever again in this place, waxing nostalgic over my time with these gentle giants. The Maasai Mara may indeed be the Jewel of Kenya, but Kenya, with its many treasures is a gem fixed upon this marvelous blue marble called Earth.
Today it’s a four hour drive back to Nairobi, just Martin and myself, time to reflect on the adventures, experiences, surprises, that unfolded during my time here. Past travels have brought me close to the North Pole, the South Pole, I’ve hiked islands in the Galapagos and Lofoten Islands, walked with Brown Bears in Alaska, been a few feet from polar bears — albeit from the deck and safety of a ship — but Africa tops the ‘Trips of a Lifetime’ list.
Through security, travel weary — but happy and thankful for an amazing journey — two continents down and one more to go before the day is done, I hand my passport to the gentleman at the boarding gate, he checks it, and looks up with a smile — Congratulations! Have a lovely birthday! I return a dozy smile of gratitude and board the plane.
Special huge thanks to Brian Freeman, proprietor of Freeman Safaris, for making my adventures in Kenya extra special – the accomodations, food, the casual and comfortable atmosphere in the camps, and especially, the people — all made for an exceptionally memorable trip.
Check out the Kenya Gallery on June’s website for a larger variety of images from the trip - http://www.junejacobsen.com/p328636208