07.09.2012 - 09.09.2012
This past weekend I experienced something that everyone should have on their bucket list – going on a safari tour in the plains (Mara) of Africa. The Maasai Mara is a national park located in southern Kenya along the border with Tanzania. This is the northern part of the larger Serengeti Plains located in Tanzania. The Maasai are one of the tribes of Kenya that live in this area. Three of my colleagues in Kisumu, Joan’s two grown children from the UK, & I left from Kisumu early on Friday morning for the 5 hour drive. The last 50 miles of the drive was brutal going over unpaved roads past Maasai farms and houses. We knew we were getting close to the park when we saw baboons and zebra besides the road.
Once we entered the park it was as if animals had been staged for us just inside the gate. A giraffe stood in the road 10 feet in front of the jeep while herds of zebra grazed. This was a very different experience than going through Disney’s Animal Kingdom or the Great Adventure safari. The park is huge with wide open spaces and mountains 15-20 miles in the distance. The animals must be accustomed to vehicles as they casually looked at us as we took pictures.
Our hotel was one of the few actually located inside the park. It is located on a hill overlooking the Mara with a swimming pool situated so you could gaze out and see animals at the bottom of the hill. Each room had a balcony with an unobstructed view of any other room. At night you could hear lion’s roaring in the park. We were told that their roar can carry miles. Gazelles and impala grazed very close to the electric fence 50 feet from the property. Meercats scampered through the property like squirrels. There were panic buttons located throughout the property with instructions to activate is a wild animal is seen. When we left our jeep for a walk along the river, our driver closed the roof on the jeep so the baboons would not steal our boxed lunches. Not a problem I’ve ever encountered before.
After settling into our rooms, we took our first official tour of the park from 4pm – 7pm. We were quickly accustomed to seeing zebra, wildebeests, buffalo, impala & gazelles everywhere. June through September is the busiest time of the year as the millions of wildebeest migrate from Kenya to Tanzania crossing the rivers (more on that later). The park was not as crowded with vehicles as I expected and there is no set path through the park. Fred our driver knew the park very well and took us to various places based on updates he received on his radio (i.e. elephants spotted here). Our luck on finding animals quickly on this tour was incredible. Within 5 minutes of leaving the hotel we saw a pack of elephants including several babies. Ten minutes later we saw a group of jeeps and drove over. Two cheetahs that we were told were brothers were casually strolling through the Mara. The highlight of the first tour was finding 3 female lions. A park ranger told us to follow him off the main road. A mother and two grown female lions were just waking from a nap. The mother went to the trees at the top of the hill, drug out an antelope and started snacking. Later a herd of buffalo started coming down a distant hill. The mother lion saw this and slowly began walking over with the other lions following. She roared several times and was answered by what we assumed was a male lion far away. It seemed like a coordinated attack from different areas of the park by the entire pride of lions.
Saturday was a full day in the park. We left at 8am stopping many times for pictures. Fred took us to a river crossing knows as the crocodile pool. Exiting the car we were escorted by a border guard along the river. You could immediately smell the foul air. Our guide told us that 400 wildebeests had drowned up river during an attempted crossing. Their bodies floated down river and got caught on the rocks. Vultures and large pelicans were sitting on their carcasses picking. Several large crocodiles were sunning themselves along the shore. Hippos were leaving the water to lay on the beach as well. I didn’t realize just how big a hippo was until I saw it outside of the water. There was a small stream that we were allowed to jump across to say that we invaded Tanzania. We went back upriver and parked with 50 other vehicles waiting for the wildebeests and zebras to cross the river. Several crocodiles could be seen waiting in the water. Hippos were there as well but seemed to be spectators since they are vegetarians. Fred told us that some vehicles arrived at 9am and had been waiting 5 hours for the crossing. People with high-end cameras and huge lenses were waiting for that National Geographic shot. We arrived at 1:30, had our lunch and the crossing started at 2:30. As I said we were very lucky with our timing. The zebra crossed first at a different point as if they were impatient with the finicky wildebeests who quickly followed. It was amazing seeing the older animals swim on the downstream side of the smaller animals to help them across the river. Downstream we could see a few get swept away and the large crocs just waiting for their lunch. The saddest thing was seeing a young wildebeest getting its leg stuck between the rocks and attempting to free itself. After thousands of animals had crossed the animal went quiet. Suddenly we saw a crocodile atleast 15 feet long swim easily against the current towards the animal. We knew what was going to happen next but could not believe it was right in front of us. The croc quickly grabbed the animal into its jaws, pulled it into the river, and began drowning it by rolling in the water. It then swam to our side of the river and simply held its kill. Fred told us that crocs liked their meat to soften before swallowing it. Suddenly “The Circle of Life” song from The Lion King started playing out of nowhere. Amazing how they do that ;->
We did enjoy the hotel pool and meals for the rest of Saturday before the rains came. On Sunday we slowly drove towards the gate stopping to watch groups of baboons and warthogs. Overall we saw 16 different animals. The only one we missed were rhinos and leopards which are hard to find. Fred told us the rains would make the roads bad and we were the only group going back to Kisumu. Most visitors to the Mara come through the capital of Nairobi. About half way to the gate we did get stuck in the mud. Four of us got out of the jeep to dig mud out the wheel wells and push it. Luckily there were no animals around as it was very eerie being outside of the car. We pushed for about ½ mile before Fred crested a hill and found drier road. Just on the other side of the hill was a herd of buffalo with the horns that were much bigger than cows.
This trip was a perfect ending to the first half of my assignment. Two of my projects to install computerized systems at the clinic are underway. I will start a third project upon my return. I have been to Kisumu four times, Nairobi twice, and found everything to do in Eldoret. I have been invited to the wedding of one of my coworkers at the clinic in October. Kenya has been different than I expected. The weather is cool and damp especially at the higher altitudes. My advice for anyone going to Africa is to bring a rain jacket and sweatshirt. The people are extremely friendly and eager to help you if you need assistance. My coworkers are appreciative of me being at the clinic and eager to learn. But I am ready to go home tomorrow and desperately need to get back to normal with my family & my friends. We’ll see what experiences I will have in the second half.