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Published: February 17th 2010
Hero's turn at blogging:
Talek is a small, dusty town that feels like it is in the middle of nowhere... yet it lies on the border of one of Kenya's (and perhaps Africa's) most amazing national parks - the Masai Mara. The town itself looks like something out of an old country and western movie, except that the cowboys are in fact Masai warriors (wearing their vivid red Masai blankets tied on one shoulder, rather than plaid shirts and chaps) and the weapons of choice are spears or bows and arrows, rather than pistols... oh, and all the horses here are stripey ;-)
There are two rows of shops in the town which border a very dry, dusty expanse (the town square?) which is mostly inhabited by the local chickens, goats and dogs, who spend their time investigating the various rubbish piles and slow burning fires which can be found in various places in front of the shops.
We arrived by matatu in the late afternoon, and were the only muzungus (the Bantu word for white person) on the bus, so the locals seemed instantly fascinated. Lots of people came out of shops to have a look, and it was almost like our arrival caused that classic moment of hush as the stranger walks into the bar in those old movies. LOL. Luckily no gunfight ensued!
The manager of Aruba Camp (where we had arranged to stay), Tony, came to meet the matatu unexpectedly which was really lovely. Once he introduced himself, he organised a car to take us to the camp... This made our arrival much easier than we had anticipated! And we were glad not to have to lug our bags through the wilderness from Talek Village to the camp, as we're told it can be a dangerous road when elephants are around.
Aruba is a great camp, and we would recommend it highly to anyone visiting the Mara. It is run mostly by local Masais (though unfortunately is foreign owned). All the people who work there are super friendly, and seem to be very gentle lovely people, stopping by our camp at any time of day to say hello, or share a cup of chai with us, telling stories of their adventures with the local wildlife. Daniel, one of the Masai guys who works at the camp, and who we spent a lot of time with during our stay, has been blind in one eye since he was a boy - he told us that he stumbled across a cranky bull elephant one day while he was walking through the bush, and while the elephant was chasing him he ran straight into a tree, and one of the branches pierced his eye, but he was so scared he kept on running. Now he tells us that his eye is 'finished' but he is still the best archer in town. :-) He reckons that the Masai aren't scared of lions (apparently they are easy to defend yourself against - and he was very excited to show us the claw and tooth of a lion that he had killed!) - it is the elephants, buffalo and hippos that are the ones you really have to watch out for.
We set up our (new!!) tent (for the first time this trip!) under some trees, but a nice enough distance from the other two groups of campers in the grounds to give us plenty of space. Daniel was kind enough to bring some firewood over, and we got our fire started as the sun went down. We were both excited and slightly scared once the sun was finally over the horizon because that was when the hyena calls started (the most eerie laughing sounds.. very strange!) and they sounded very close! We were also intrigued by the most hilarious snorts and grunts and splashes coming from the nearby creek, when one of the other camp workers came over to our tent to tell us that the resident hippo was here! Wooohooo! Our first hippo sighting! And right by our campsite! Brilliant! Unfortunately the hippo is a bit shy, so it quietened down once we were on the scene, but it still kept its funny little eyes, ears and nose above the water for us to giggle at, and gave us one big heave out of the water so we got at least one good look at it before dark :-)
On our first morning at the camp, Keira and I went for a big walk with Daniel, around the local area on the border of the Mara and the bush in between the camp, and Talek town, tracing the river that cuts through it. The river was quite spectacular, made up of sandy bays, and beautiful grey rocky outcrops, and lined with the greenest trees inhabited by the most incredible coloured birds. The weaver birds shone the brightest of yellows as they darted past us with various bits of grass in their beaks in order to create their fascinating upside-down nests hanging from the overhanging branches. On the rocks we saw brilliant blue and red lizards (maybe chameleons?), but unforunately they weren't too sociable and didn't let us get too close... We were glad, however, that the bigger lizzards (Talek's resident crocs) didn't make an appearance while we were hanging out on the river bank. When we ventured away from the river, towards a small Masai village, we met a local Masai herder who told us that this morning while he was out he had lost a cow to a lion... He pointed in the direction that we were headed, and even though Daniel apparently isn't scared of lions (!!!), we quickly did an about face and went the other way! Lol. Although we didn't see much other wildlife on this first walk, Daniel pointed out many different animal tracks (elephants, giraffe and lion) literally a few metres from our camp, and those combined with the beautiful scenery, good company, lively birdlife and the multitude of different coloured butterflies that fluttered about our faces as we walked gave us a wonderful introduction to the Masai Mara.
While were at the Mara, we took two game drives. One that afternoon, and one the following morning, as the best times to view the wildlife are at sunrise and sunset. We organised this directly with the camp, who got us a 4WD and driver, David, who took us out on both drives.
I have to say that despite all the hype, I really was not disappointed by the Masai Mara. Even without considering all the animals that we saw (at VERY close range), the vastness of the savanna stretching out to the horizon under a thundery sky on our first (evening) drive were spectacular beyond words. The dark grey clouds looming above us seemed to pick up the incredible greens and yellows of the grasslands, and the trees that lined the nearby river, to create such an intense feeling, such an intense sense of place. It was Africa! We were finally here!
The number of animals we saw during the game drives is huge - far too numerous to list here. But there were a few definite highlights:
- Encountering a herd of about 10 elephants in the widest, most open space... it felt like going back in time to the dinosaurs, with these massive grey creatures moving across the land... It was the first time I had seen elephants in the wild like this, and it was a profound experience. One of the herd was just a young baby, about 2 months old, and was so adorable, keeping itself firmly attached to the leg of it's big mama elephant.. The mama and grandmama elephants were so huge and majestic, their movements so slow, yet so powerful.
- Finding a lone mother lion with her young cub resting by a river. She was so calm, even with our jeep just metres away. Lions are so regal, she sat there, just watching us, not being bothered at all - I suppose one must feel quite secure being a lion! The cub was very playful, coming in and out of the bushes to get groomed by its mother, and then snuggling in for a feed. The highlight of this experience was when the mother lion got up from her seated position, and came right up to our open jeep to inspect us... she circled the car, while the cub played on the ground in front of the jeep until she came full circle and picked the cub up by the scruff of its neck with her teeth and took it off into the bushes. It was a heart in your mouth experience - she was soooo close to us! And even though we were in a car, it was still pretty exciting and slightly scary to be that close to a lion!!
- Watching herds of Thompson's Gazelles, impalas and zebras with their stunning black and white striped markings, grazing on the savanna, alert to us, and curious, occasionally lifting their heads from the grass to watch us watching them... seeing the gazelle run when they sensed some kind of danger was incredible - so swift and agile.
- The giraffe and warthogs that we saw were also highlights, for different reasons, but both amusing and strange!
The day before we left we went on another walk with Daniel - this time, it was a full day effort. We hiked for 7.5 hours in total, and met up with a friend of his who worked at another (privately owned) conservation area about 15 kilometres away from Talek. Because we were with Denis (Daniel's mate), we were lucky enough to be able to enter the park, where we saw more giraffe and zebra and gazelles...and the evidence of elephants in the area, but we didn't see the elephants themselves.. which according to Daniel and Dennis was a good thing, because apparently you don't want to run into elephants while on foot. We sampled some local bush tucker, from the most unlikely shrub - covered in spikes, with these strange dry looking bubbles on them.. the bubbles were what we ate, and they tasted kind of like bitter grape skin... interesting, and would possibly be okay if you were starving, but I'm not sure I would eat them again by choice.
All in all - it was an amazing introduction to Kenyan wildlife, Masai culture, and Africa more generally. It was great doing it independently too, rather than on a tour. Tours to the Mara are really pushed, and we were told by the staff at Wildebeest in Nairobi that it would be really difficult to do it by ourselves, but really it was very straightforward. It also meant that we could take it at our own pace, and take lots of time to just enjoy being there... Arranging the game drives and so on was really easy through the camp too... so if anyone is planning a trip here soon, I would definitely recommend doing it by yourself!
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