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Published: July 11th 2014
Cheetah watching birds in tree
Just after this, they began tracking a herd of wildebeests. It was too far away to get good photos, but it was fun to watch the herd's reaction.
I organized this safari from my Nairobi hostel the morning before. I booked it through Sunsplash Safaris
because they returned my emails promptly and offered the best price. I paid $360 for a three-day safari (though the morning of day 1 and the afternoon and evening of day 3 are just getting away from and back to Nairobi), which was much less than I had expected. These budget companies have different names but all pretty much offer the same service: they consolidate their services and fill their vehicles so they can make a profit.
They sent a driver to pick me up at my hostel at 8AM. He was right on time, but by the time we drove to a meeting point, handled the money, loaded the van, and picked up other tourists around the city, it was 10AM by the time we left Nairobi. Our group was truly international -- an American, two Swedes, one Japanese, on Belgian, and one from Hong Kong. On the way to Masai Mara we stopped at the top of an escarpment to take photos of the Rift Valley, and then traveled to Narok for lunch. The tourist shops along the way are extremely expensive --
It was amazing to see how calm and collected they are. When we got close, they just turned their heads and stared.
you should get them down to at least a third of their initial asking price before buying anything. Pretty much anything can be found more cheaply in Nairobi, especially in the shops under the Hilton Hotel.
Because our guide recklessly drove 50MPH+ on the dirt roads (I can't believe he didn't damage the car; I have a new found respect for those 7-seat autobuses), we got to our camp hours before the other groups. We stayed at Mara Sopa, but all the budget lodges seemed to be about the same. Even though others had prepared me for the amenities, I was still impressed. The tents are permanent structures with beds, and zippered canvas leads to a bathroom behind -- with a real toilet and warm shower. The beds were very comfortable and everything was pretty spotless. There were three beds in our tent, but they were fine with people staying in pairs or even alone. When I reported that our toilet didn't work at first (the water seemed to be off), they had someone at my tent to fix it before I even walked back. The service was excellent.
In the evening, we went for our first "game
drive." We saw wildebeests, impala, eland, zebra, and buffalo in the first twenty minutes -- these would all become commonplace by the end of the safari. We came across a herd of giraffes and spent a good bit of time photographing them. It was surprising how curious and unconcerned they were, even when we got close. Our guide seemed knowledgeable enough, but more from his 12 years experience than from study. He had a Wikipedia-esque knowledge of all the animals but wasn't able to give details that better educated guides might be able to. We drove back to camp with a blood orange sunset behind us and got back just after dusk.
The dinner was adequate -- pasta, potatoes, cooked greens, lentils, rice. We basically had the same meal for lunch and dinner for three days. Nothing tasted bad, but it was all pretty unmemorable.
The two Swedes in our group stayed at one of the lodges, so we had to drop them off and pick them up a few times. The place (I forget the name) was immaculate... I was surprised that something so posh and comfortable was so close to the park (5 minute drive). According
to our guide, this is why the border is closed between Masai Mara and the Serengeti in Tanzania -- too many people want to stay at the nice lodges in Kenya and then cross the border to see the much larger, but very similar, Serengeti.
We left the camp the next morning at 8AM, which was much later than expected. It almost seemed like the guides didn't want us to see too much too early, so that there would always be a sense of novelty. The animals, especially predators, are much more active in the early mornings, but we didn't do a very early game drive till the third day. We drove deep into the park and saw the extent of the wildebeest migration. Apparently 1.6 million migrate from the Serengeti to Masai Mara every July; many call it one of the seven wonders of the natural world.
Soon we found a family of elephants. The guide / driver went far off the main path (which is illegal) and got far too close to the elephants. They seemed unaffected and unconcerned. I felt like saying something, but everyone seemed too excited, and I wasn't really
aware of what the rules are anyway.
We then went searching for lions. This wasn't too difficult since all the guides have radios and cell phones. Eventually we found one sleeping under a tree, next to her most recent catch: a dead and bloated wildebeest. Apparently lions can feed almost every day during the migration, since the wildebeests are so easy to kill, and there are so many of them. The lion was basically in a food coma, and didn't do much. Much to my dismay, when we found another lion, our guide waited for everyone else to leave, and then purposely backed up almost into the lion, causing it to jump up, just so we could get a photo. When I told him that it wasn't necessary and that we shouldn't bother the animals, he just laughed it off and said that the rangers, who would fine him heavily if they caught him, didn't understand that it was supposed to be an adventure.
He did something similar later when we saw a cheetah in the distance, far off the road. He drove to a point where the rangers couldn't see him and then sped through the brush
and to the cheetah. Everyone took a few photos, and then he floored it again across a valley and to another road.
This all eventually caught up to him after he circled another pair of lions lying in the bushes. A ranger appeared and pulled us over. They purportedly gave him a ticket that is equal to about 120 USD, but he seemed to think it was more about corruption than about protecting the animals. Some of the others in my group gave him money after the drive, but I didn't feel too bad. I also thought that it was perhaps a scam and that he was in cahoots with the "ranger." Our guide was by far the most reckless, though, and the higher-budget Land Cruisers seemed to be more responsible.
Some baboons bothered us a bit at a lookout; we found about thirty hippos in the river; we saw some crocodiles further down. We waited awhile to see if the wildebeests would cross the river, jumping from the side cliffs and into the water, many of them breaking their legs along the way and giving a free meal to the crocs, but the dominant male had second
thoughts and led his herd of thousands away from the banks.
We at lunch under an acacia tree ridiculously late -- at 2:30 -- and then ended up spotting two cheetahs the right way... without going off the path. They were resting at first but eventually decided to bother a nearby herd of wildebeests, which was fun to watch. The guide got his ticket soon after, so we more or less drove back to camp, exhausted and in silence.
Near our camp the guide announced that there was an optional trip to visit some Masai people in their village. I had read some negative things about it in my guidebook, so I decided not to go. Those who did go were surprised to find that it cost about 12 dollars to enter, and that it was pretty unauthentic and staged.
We woke up very early for another game drive. Again, it was almost like the guides had this planned, since we soon came to three lions playing in the savanna grass. They started to group together to stalk a herd of wildebeests, but it was already too late in the day for them to
attack, and their bellies already looked quite full. One the way back we spotted baby hippos in a stream and when we stopped they jumped out, allowing for some great photos. We returned to camp for our final breakfast, juggled passengers with other groups, and then headed off back toward Nairobi.
Other than the guide's lack of respect for the animals, I have no reason not to recommend this trip. Everyone told me I should expect to spend 200-300 dollars a day for a good safari, and this 'budget' option was plenty comfortable for an average backpacker. I saw more than I'd expected and despite being in the car for 10 hours a day, I really enjoyed the experience.
There are many more photos below.
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