After our first day of pre-safari adventures, our next two days were full day game drives in the Maasai Mara game reserve. Each morning started quite early – usually up by 5:30 so that my colleague and I could shower and dress before breakfast.
The meals at the camp were generally great comfort food, but I’ve gone into great detail on the food if you’re interested in more about that. Breakfast conversation was primarily centered around which animals each of us had heard the night before. As it turns out, hyenas sound just like they did in the Lion King.
By 7:30, we headed into the reserve. The entry into the reserve is fairly painless, but there are always local village women coming up to the windows to attempt to sell bracelets and carvings to the inevitable tourists inside. Of course, we had already purchased our souvenirs from the village the day before, but they didn’t know that. I wonder how often people take them up on their offers rather than just concentrating on the safari day ahead.
Our first wildlife spotting was immediate – just inside the gate on the first day were a few fighting antelope, a small clutch of zebras, and most notably our first sight of one of the “Big Five”, the Cape Buffalo. (We’d get to see them much closer later, but this already felt like a good omen.)
The weather was perfect – though it was “rainy season” it didn’t rain at all during our time there. The mornings were cool and cloudy and the afternoons were bright and sunny with plenty of breeze (nay, wind.)
Some things we only saw from far away – vultures on high perches, a cheetah stalking its prey, a few maternal jackals guarding their young. But we did manage close encounters with four of what Africans call the “Big Five” – lions, buffalo, elephants, leopard, and rhinos.
Elephants were the most numerous, and many were in family units with several rambunctious youngsters. Our first elephant encounter was just a mother and her baby, feeding in some bushes. A lovely moment, since we were the only van there and we could just sit and watch for a few minutes. We encountered one elephant that became defensive on a back road at the end of our first day, but our guides noticed the signs and kept us moving.
The whole time I kept flashing back to Disney World. I couldn’t help it. Apparently Animal Kingdom did their research, from the constant sound of the radio they play when you’re on Kilamanjaro Safaris through the myriad types of termite mounds that dot the landscape.
As it turned out, there were a mating pair of lions during our time at the camp. During their mating process, they forego food for 5 days and simply… lie around procreating. This sounds far more glamorous than it is. Up to 80 times a day, they’ll begrudgingly wake from their naps, make eye contact, and then within 60 seconds it’s all over. If you’re lucky the lion will roar once or twice, but the lioness will probably pass out almost instantly, perhaps even flopping over with her belly exposed.
Of course, since mating lions are predictably lazy, it’s a popular gathering spot for the tourist vans. But we managed to get some quiet time observing them with no other vans around. All told, over the course of the two days we probably spent an hour or two watching this pair, and definitely saw them have sex at least 3 times. Sadly, I must report that Disney got this one wrong – “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” does NOT play when lions mate (though it might come unbidden as an earworm in the back of your mind.)
The lions were probably my favorite, because they were a) fucking majestic, b) brazenly open about having sex, because no other animals will dare disturb them, and c) their laziness meant we could spend quality time watching them. Oh, the flies! Dozens if not hundreds of flies on their face and joints all the time. I don’t know how they deal with it. I suppose they must learn to tune out the sensation. But how remarkable to get close enough to lions to be able to count the flies on their faces.
In addition to the mating pair, we saw several solo lionesses all over the Mara, and one or two other male lions, who tended to be more well hidden in bushes. One lioness in particular was on the hunt – we didn’t see a kill, but we did get to follow her in predatory mode as she tracked warthogs who ultimately proved to be a little too fast for her. (This does call into question for me the friendship between Nala and Pumbaa.) I may or may not have taken a few selfies with lions. WHAT? YOU’D TOTALLY DO IT TOO.
As lazy as the lions were, the leopard was EVEN MORE LETHARGIC than that. We saw the leopard each day, in the same tree, panting like he’d just run a marathon. The only thing that changed was the side of the tree where we found him. Unfortunately his fondness for the high perch meant difficulty of getting photos and a certain lack of behavioral variety, but still very cool. I’ve not seen too many leopards in zoos before, for whatever reason. We assume he’d fed well immediately prior to our arrival, and was basking in his fullness for a few days.
Lunches were picnic boxes packed by our camp cook, and taken underneath trees. Our first lunch was my favorite, because we sat underneath a tree teeming with superb starling nests and the starlings themselves. Incidentally, trees in the Mara are tall and scrappy and don’t offer a terrible lot of shade. I chose to go overly protected from the sun this time around, so I had a buff and a floppy hat and UV shirt and pants. As almost everything was khaki, I basically looked like Safari Barbie. The second lunch was taken in sight of a massive herd of buffalo – easily hundreds. Very majestic, but I’m a bird person.
We saw giraffes, and though I’ve been closer to them before (like the one that stuck her head into our jeep on the Animal Kingdom backstage tour) I still enjoy watching them. And we saw one particularly tiny baby (unfortunately my camera had died by that point, but rest assured for a giraffe, it was miniature.) In the savannah the giraffes often have helper birds on their necks in a kind of symbiotic relationship, which I don’t tend to see in zoos or parks.
Exiting the vehicle was very rare (when we weren’t taking care of biological functions, which is a necessary consideration when you’re going to be on a game drive for 11 hours.) We sat outside for lunch, but only because we scouted areas that were clear enough from any other wildlife. We exited to take in the panorama on a ridge overlooking the Tanzanian border – clearly a popular spot for other tourists too. And on Day 2, we stopped for a while at an overlook on a stream containing dozens upon dozens of hippos. Again, we weren’t the only ones stopped but it wasn’t terribly crowded. Plenty of space and time to sit and watch the endless cycle of hippo surfacing and immersion, accompanied by hippo sneezing and playful baby hippos breaking the silence.
Sometimes, it was just lovely to stand and feel the wind and look at the endless savannah as we moved from one location to another. As we drove, the van would often be chased or at least tailed by any manner of small, playful birds matching our speed. I could never get a good look at them since they were so very fast (I think they had black and white wings) but it felt magical. In general, the birdsong was of a very different cadence and sound than anything I’d heard in the US.
Still, be prepared for looong expanses of nothing happening. Patience is required, even on short safaris, because nature will do what it will do. We were fairly lucky our first day, but on Day 2 we spent more than an hour in the morning driving – and before we saw any major animals, we got stuck while trying to follow what our guides thought was signs of a rhino nearby.
On the night of our first game drive, our driver suggested we stop at a nearby bar for beers afterwards. We ended up at Nomads Bar and Restaurant in a town near the gate. Town in this area meant an assortment of painted cinderblock buildings, usually with wood or corrugated metal roofs. Dirt roads between buildings and a lot of livestock just wandering about as they please.
I will always remember the cracked yellow walls of that bar that radiated warmth, the faded safari company stickers serving as decorations, and the smiling faces of other local Maasai men wearing traditional dress paired with inexplicable bright orange trucker hats. I shall even further remember when the barkeep put in a country Western CD, successfully delighting my colleague. What we didn’t expect was for the entire bar to burst into song when Willie Nelson’s “The Gambler” came on. In retrospect, with the full power of the Internet behind me, I can now understand their appreciation for Willie, since he’s an activist who has contributed to a number of causes in Kenya. But in the moment, it was simply a surreal and unexpected moment of cultural connection between people from very different worlds, just a short walk away from the Mara.
Some other photo highlights (click here for the video diary):