Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wednesday, 19 September Masai Mara

I woke up this morning to a cacophony of sounds. First the hippos returning from their nocturnal feast at 5 am. They are LOUD. I never knew how much noise they made. That was followed by something screaming like it was dying – turned out to be a tree hyrax. I was hoping we would see one, because I liked the name. It is sort of a shrew-squirrel like thing, distantly related to the elephant. Then the avian chorus kicked in at 6, right about the time our coffee and biscuits arrived. The porter put them on the night stand and we slowly got up, hippos still saying goodnight, like some sort of ending to an episode of The Waltons.

Our drives in the Mara were in cars provided by Mara Safari Club, as were the drivers themselves. Somehow we ended up with cars with open tops (ie no shade), limited leg room, and no cushions for the butt. All this would prove problematic (well, just a bit uncomfortable) as the day went on.

This would also make the writing even more difficult. I think everyone tries to come up with a shorthand to use in a vehicle. I couldn’t do it, so I just printed in very large caps. Does anyone have real skill in this department? I think E might, I remembered her being able to make good marks in her journal. Then again, she’s a teacher, so she’s probably had great practice in taking notes on the fly.

Somehow another group got the better cars, with roofs, the new ones. I would have enjoyed the shade. A slight hiccup.

It was a promising start. Not too far along we came across a leopard, just 20 feet away or so, enjoying a healthy breakfast of impala tar tar, with blood sauce. You could see the face a bit distorted. But it was the rump that was the main course. You could actually see inside! Mostly fleshy red meat. What was neat was seeing the leg of the impala twist up and down, much like when we eat chicken or turkey, and you pull it apart. Cool!

Not just 15 minutes later, we found a pack of vultures working on the remains of a former wildebeest. Before now I hadn’t really seen vultures eating up close. Now I can say this – it is VIOLENT. They make these horrible screeching sounds, they tear at the flesh, they fight amongst themselves for position. And there was one stork among them, just waiting his turn. After this, it looked like it was going to be a bloody Wednesday.

Alfred wanted to give us a big finish, so the goal was to drive out into the Reserve. Apparently our lodgings are not in the Reserve, but on private lands owned by the Maasai and donated in a joint venture with a private developer. The result is that we had about a three hour drive just to the gate, on roads closer to the Crater Rim style. When you combine the road with the cars in which we drove, and a fairly cloudless sky, we really took a beating.

However, looking back on it now, I wouldn’t want to stay anywhere else. The Mara Safari Club is so spectacular, I can’t imagine lodging elsewhere. That was a great decision on Micato’s part to put us there. The drive is long, yes, but in a covered vehicle it wouldn’t be a problem at all, and of course the three hours each way gives you all sorts of opportunities to spot game. And of course, Alfred did an amazing job making it a memorable experience…

Through the gate (and after a stop to check the tire pressure), it was about another hour to the Mara River. Along the way we took a moment to stop and listen to the thousands of animals across the plains. My Lord, I haven’t seen so many creatures in one place in my life. The Wildebeest make a really silly noise. I think that’s where the name “gnu” comes from.

Right around noon we made it to the river. At this location the animals make their final crossing into the Mara. We approached to about 20 or 30 cruisers all along the river, cameras ready and waiting. From what Alfred explained, all it takes is one brave (foolish? naive? hungry?) animal to jump, and then it’s a free-for-all. Water splashing everywhere, all sorts of noise, crocodiles making their selection, survivors scrambling up the other side, mayhem. But alas, after about 30 minutes, we concluding that nothing was happening yet, so we decided to break out the blankets for a picnic lunch just upstream.

The crew found a nice spot near some hippos and crocs; and, as we found out during “bush loo” time, a savannah monitor. I haven’t seen ladies jump that fast. Actually, I believe it was E trying to use the facilities when the lizard came running out. She screamed and ran – Alfred wasn’t too fazed. “Oh, that’s a savannah monitor. You’re fine.” I like Alfred!

Again we had wonderful box lunches, although this time I didn’t eat everything in sight. As always, there was more food than we could possibly ask for. R (R & B) put it best – “God forbid we have a hunger pain!”

After lunch we moved up river some more, as the herd was wondering that direction. A few animals would go so far as to get a drink, but none would jump. Several carcasses floated by. Given the degree of bloat, they had probably attempted a crossing early in the morning or the day before, much further upstream. We finally voted to pack it in, as it seemed clear there would be no suicide dives today (though I thought it would be easy to make it happen – just toss a few firecrackers and watch them move.) Just kidding.

(I’ve told Betsy that, when we go back, I’d like to time it so were closer to the peak migratory season. I really want to see a crossing. She’s not too keen on seeing that much “nature.” She might be up for a more reserved adventure while I’m out there hoping for blood.)

With the sun beating down on us all day, we were absolutely worn out. Alfred said we would try for some rhinos, and maybe a sundowner, but frankly at the time, we all would have been happy to just go back and rest. Thankfully, Alfred knew better.

Along the way one of the vehicles from the camp (not our party) broke down – an axle fell out. This did make me feel good! They gave the passengers a ride in another camp vehicle, and I have no idea what happened after that.

Closer to the camp we worked our way about ½ way up a mountain side, one that overlooked the land below. Here we were allowed to get out of our cars and, accompanied by a ranger, get within about 20 feet of three white rhinos. They are massive, beautiful animals. We were safe because of the armed guard – the rhinos know we are not a threat b/c of his presence. We stayed for just about three minutes, then gave them their space. Meanwhile, these guys keep guard 24/7. I think it is awesome.

We then worked our way a bit more up the hill, to where camp staff had set up sundowners and appetizers, around a fire, overlooking the African plains and the setting sun. I could paint that picture right now – this was another one of those “here’s the Africa of my dreams” moments. It was an amazing view. Here I am, sitting on the ground watching the sun set over the Masai Mara. Like Serengeti, I never imagined I would be here. But that landscape is burned in my brain forever.

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