We are going on safari in the Maasai Mara! I am filled with anticipation as we board our tiny 18 seater airplane where the copilot turns around to inform us to stay buckled up for the flight and we should help ourselves to water from the cooler at the back of the plane; he then gives us a plastic container of mints to pass around. I watch as the woman piloting grabs the handle with her silver bracelet and leather glove to build up speed and take off into the air above Nairobi – and then, 45 minutes later to land safely on the dirt runway at the tiny Mara airstrip.
We help ourselves to our luggage from the bin below the passenger cabin and are escorted to the land rover for the 5 minute drive to the wonderful Mara Explorer camp. As we are driving, we see three necky female giraffes and we stop to gawk.
We arrive at Explorer and are checking in on the open air reception area where there are bright yellow “black headed weaver” birds fluttering in the tree where they have built many many onion shaped nests; below is our first hippo sighting expelling air from just below the surface of the muddy brown Talek River. We follow a beautiful stone path to our luxurious #4 tent – the farthest tent out where our friend Harmon Hooterite Parker had, in years past, built the solid wood floor. There is a porcelain tub on the deck outside the tent, colorful African woven rugs on the floor and a long wooden vanity. There are hippos snorting and bellowing in the river right outside the tent. I text Teri :” Yeah. I’m not coming back.”
We have a quick lunch and then meet our extremely knowledgeable guide Samson to go on our first game drive. He is experienced, agreeable, and communicates well in English (teaching us more Swahili along the way too!); he is also a Maasai so we learn about the culture and traditions which is an added bonus. Samson tells us to stay inside the truck (unless he gives the green light to “mark our territory”) and to stay quiet – not to make any loud or sudden noises that will disturb the animals. We readily agree to the “rules”.
The three of us pull out of camp and see our friendly giraffes and then go deeper in the Mara to experience the Big Five (elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos, leopards) all in our first trip out; we are told this is very rare especially since both the rhino and leopards are elusive and their numbers are few. We drive past a herd of buffalo to find the lurking hyena; he is lying in the tall grass and I literally gasp as we stop the truck immediately next to him – I am not expecting to get this close. I can see his face and mottled longish fur in close-up detail; he is not concerned with our presence other than maybe we have blown his cover to the buffalo; he lopes away, looking over his shoulder at us. We find lionesses with their cubs and, again, the beauty and close proximity take my breath away. It is truly an awesome sight.
In all, Chris and I go on four game drives (for one morning drive the kitchen packs a picnic breakfast – Samson sets the table on the hood of the land rover using one of the Maasai blankets from the truck as a tablecloth). Samson examines the horizon, listens to birds and other animals, observes footprints, watches the behavior of both predator and prey animals, and communicates with other guides; he uses all of these clues to help us find the impressive animals. He drives over muddy “roads” (it has rained much more than usual), through rivers and up the slippery banks, into the grassy savannah, around heavily spiked acacai trees – all with our trusty open-air land rover. He identifies birds, explains animal behavior, stops for photos (“Sure! Why not?”), and laughs with us; he truly loves his job and is also in awe of all the Mara has to offer “Wow! Look at that! It is so beautiful!!”.
There are so many birds to see and Samson is an expert.
We experience a patient mother cheetah and her playful cubs under a bush – all with their cheetah tear markings on their faces.
There are strutting ostriches, running wildebeest, striped zebras (one with a fairly fresh crocodile wound), herds of tail twitching impalas, topis with their “blue jeans and yellow socks”, graceful gazelles; we see retired general buffalo, forgetful warthogs with their “wifi” tails (running away then suddenly stopping :”wait. why am I running?”), hooting hippos, hungry ribby lionesses with “low bellies”.
We come across one such lone lioness suddenly. She is scanning the vicinity, sizing up her options – a topi behind us, and a pair or warthogs over the steam. We position ourselves to quietly watch her. I am certain she makes eye contact with me; I can feel myself react – not out of fear, but out of making a connection with this powerful animal. She elegantly strides away.
We see many elephants – enormous mothers protecting their calfs, there is a massive bull scratching against a thorny acacia tree; these are magnificent animals!
On the morning that we leave the Mara, we go on our last safari. We are on the lookout for male lions. We are in luck; Samson spots two heavily-maned aristocratic lions: Blackey and Lipstick, traversing the valley toward their resting spot for the day. Blackey is limping as a result of a three week old injury; his loyal friend Lipstick forges the way and patiently waits for Blackey to catch up. These regal and proud creatures disappear into the horizon.
This has truly been a highlight. I feel humbled by the stupendous wildlife we have experienced. Thank you again, Kenya.
Maasai Mara, you take my breath away!