Dancing with the Maasai in the Mara region of Kenya

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Africa » Kenya » Rift Valley Province
June 18th 2019
Published: July 12th 2019
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Fortunately our air commute from Livingstone to Nairobi via Joburg went fairly much to plan, with the hour transit time plenty to change flights. I spent a somewhat uncomfortable 4 hours in the air on the second flight when I realised that my Kenyan visa was packed away in my suitcase, which of course would come out on the conveyor belt after Immigration. My luck was in however, as I found two very helpful Immigration ladies who were able to check their database and identify that I had already paid for and received a visa. Ironically, I ended up clearing Immigration earlier than Bruce, who had all the right paperwork in place.

On arrival at Nairobi around 9pm on a Sunday night, we were most surprised to see a bankup of traffic over 2km long - fortunately on the opposite side of the road to us. It was no different when we left our hotel at 7am Monday morning, with once again traffic at a standstill on one side of the road and masses of pedestrians, presumably most of them walking to work, on the other side. As in all major cities, there is a wide range in the quality of the infrastructure, and from what we saw of Nairobi on the way out, we didn’t see the best of the city.

We set out for what was then to be a 6 hour drive from Nairobi to our next base, the Sentrim Mara. While much of the drive ran through areas that resembled Madagascar, and there were clear similarities in term of the lack of affluence of both regions, we didn’t feel it had the same appeal as the latter road trip. At times, some of the roads were similar, in terms of potholes, but while our Madagascar driver slowed for every single pothole, our Kenyan driver, Marvin, aka Lewis Hamilton, flew over them at top speed, obviously deciding the less time spent on these roads the better!

Our first full day safari through the Mara was outstanding. The Mara lies in the Great Rift Valley, with massively green panorama as far as the eye can see in all sides. It is far from level, and some of the tracks are very windy and at times quite boggy, and the region comprises lush wheat-eared grasslands and acacia woodlands which need to be carefully negotiated by the safari vehicles, most of which are equipped with a ‘pop-top’ roof to facilitate viewing. Many scenes from ‘Out of Africa’ were shot here. For those unfamiliar with the process of safaris, it is a little like the game of Spotto that us old timers used to play in the family car when we were going on a long trip. All the safari vehicles take off in different directions, but all are connected by walkie-talkies such that when a significant sighting is made, all the drivers communicate and within minutes there is a procession of vehicles moving in on the best viewing point. There is no doubt that the lion is the big show in town here, so within all the Swahili chatter over the air, you regularly heard the call “simba, simba” (guess what is Swahili for lion?).

All in all, we managed to make sightings of 19 different major species of animals, most of them in groups of hundreds, if not thousands. I’m not going to go through each animal in turn (you will see the main ones in my accompanying pics), but at the conclusion of our safaris, I’ll post a separate blog running through some interesting observations. One interesting situation, which was by no means unique, occurred to us early in the piece with the zebras. Not surprisingly, being sensitive little beasts, they turn and flee whenever a vehicle comes too close, so our first zebra sighting was of three zebras who quickly scampered off into the sunset on our approach, but we rushed to take their photo anyway just because it was our first sighting. Within half an hour, we had entered a large plain that must have contained well over a thousand zebras (see pic), making our initial photos of zebras’ retreating arses somewhat redundant. Within a couple of hours, our zebra sightings had more than doubled, so I suggested to Bruce that we had become so blasé with sighting zebras that perhaps the only thing that might attract our attention now was two zebras mating. And as we turned the next corner, what did we see ....? (sorry, no pic!). We had a similar situation (without the shagging) with both giraffes and elephants, where our initial excitement at seeing a couple of them in the distance was soon displaced when we later came across a group of around twenty of the former and a dozen of the latter, each group quite close to our path.

The Great Migration, which normally takes place every year around July, traditionally sees the savannah dotted with over a million wildebeest, zebra and antelope migrating from Serengeti to the Mara, by crossing the Mara River, in search of food and water. We have been fortunate that this migration has partially occurred already, presumably due to the low recent rainfall, so this afforded us the luxury of viewing thousands more wildebeest and zebra than we otherwise might have seen. One less appealing aspect of this migration is that in the stampede, a number of the wildebeest don’t make it across the Mara River but die and decompose at the water’s edge. When we went down to the river to view the hippos, the place stank of rotting carcasses, which were great feed for the crocodiles and the birds of prey.

So what were the highlights? I think you would have to say ‘the cats’ for sure, mainly because they are traditionally so elusive and difficult to track down. Apparently they thrive during the migration season, with the abundance of available prey increasing their numbers also. In our nine hours out on safari in the Mara, we managed to sight around a dozen lions, but only 3 leopards (all asleep up in trees) and one cheetah (asleep under a tree). The first few lions were all female and partially hidden in long grass or hidden by shrubs until suddenly one came out, took a drink from a puddle and lay down right in front of us. Then, as if by magic, the afternoon produced a string of males, most in positions to supply us with good pics.

As mentioned earlier, the tracks around the safari region were in many places pretty undeveloped, and after any rains, they can be particularly tricky. Once again, this did not discourage Marvin in the least and he flew around them as though they were corners on an F1 circuit. Despite being strapped in securely, and holding on grimly with both hands, there were times when I’d have to admit that I felt safer in ‘The Terminator’ on the Zambezi (refer last blog) than in our Land Cruiser. And don’t even get me started on the river crossings, up and down steep banks, that he negotiated with his 4WD. I fear for the longevity of this vehicle and suggested to Marvin he submit himself to Toyota as a potential test car driver!

After such a great day on the safari, we thought this would be hard to beat but our visit to the local Maasai village went close. While I’m the first to admit that the whole Maasai bit is incredibly commercialised (and not cheap!), it was an interesting hour. After being treated to the traditional Maasai dance, including the famed ‘jumping’, we were invited to join in while one of the guys took a video on my camera. Having seen how awkward Prince Charles looks on similar occasions, I sympathise with him now as, on checking out the video, I looked equally out of place! After a short choral piece from the Maasai ladies, we were escorted around their village, including inside one of their ‘dung’ houses, before naturally being shown to the gift stall. All in all, an educational visit with our host happy to discuss a range of topics including their bigamy rules.

Having had great views of large masses of most of the key animals in this first safari park, we are a little concerned about the prospect of still having four safari parks to come, but we’ll reserve judgement until we get there. Next stop is a brief flight back to Nairobi before a long drive done to Amboseli.

Additional photos below
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13th July 2019
Zebras galore

Beautiful Zebras
Thanks for sharing. So nice.
13th July 2019
Zebras galore

Beautiful Zebras
I couldn't agree more. There is something incredibly graceful about zebras and giraffes, and this is magnified when you see them en masse out on the open plains. My next blog after Serengeti (just posted) will show pics of all 27 species of animals seen in our five safari park visits. I guess there's no chance that you guys will be anywhere near the Washington DC region any time in August? We will be staying in Annandale VA for the month, visiting our grandkiddies, and it would be fun to catch up one of these days before we all get too old to recognise each other!

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