Kenya 6/20/06 - World Refugee Day, Arrival at Maasai Mara National Reserve

According to a banner across the street from the hotel, today is World Refugee Day. We found it funny (well, sad, really) that in the U.S. you hear nothing about this day. We woke up at 5:00, showered, and packed for our departure from Nairobi. The actual tour was finally to begin and yet we had already done so much. Once again we ate breakfast at the Lord Delamere restaurant (around back from the terrace). This morning we met up with Bill and asked him to join us at our table. With all the excitement and food options available, Craig forgot to order his omelette. Suddenly the chef was quite busy but I realized I had a lot on my plate so I decided to share my ham and cheese omelette with him. In addition to the omelette we had some sausages, French toast, fruit, yoghurt etc. We noticed that baked beans seem to be a breakfast staple in Kenya

At 7:00 we went back to the room and gathered our bags. I hit my head on the cabinet that housed the room safe. I knew I would have to tell on myself and Patrick would probably insist that he make me that rock helmet after all! When we got to the lobby, Lobo was there, and introduced us to James, our MERC (Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition) Maasai guide. Craig checked out of the hotel and Lobo began our briefing. He gave us safari luggage tags and gave us a detailed itinerary. He told us that the hot air balloon safari had been changed from the 21st to the 22nd but that was ok with us. Although we were scheduled to visit two Maasai villages, one in Maasai Mara and one in Amboseli, he told us that we couldn't visit the one at Maasai Mara after all because of logistics of a ceremony that was taking place. We would still visit the Maasai boarding school near the Mara though. Patrick arrived, and we said our goodbyes to Lobo. We loaded our bags into the back of the Land Cruiser. We left the Norfolk at 7:50, ten minutes ahead of schedule.

James was very friendly and talked to us a lot, and of course by now we and Patrick were old friends. James told us that there are 100,000 Maasai including the Samburu, the tribe from which they were originally derived. The Samburu live in northern Kenya, and have different customs and accents than the Maasai who migrated south. James was wearing western clothes and said that the only way the Maasai would recognize him as one of them would be by the scar on his arm, the gap in his teeth, and the holes in the tops of his ears. During the coming-of-age ceremony for boys, a burning ember is placed on their upper arm. It is left to burn out and the young (16-18 year-old) warrior is not allowed to flinch or even blink his eyes. This is done in place of the previous coming-of-age ceremony (which involved killing a lion). Patrick jokingly said that afterwards James went behind a bush and cried like a little baby. James and Patrick laughed heartily. It was clear the two of them get along like old friends and that we would really enjoy their company. James' bottom front two teeth are missing. There was a tetanus-like illness which gave the Maasai lockjaw. It was widespread, and people couldn't eat. They removed the bottom two front teeth so that the people would be able to drink milk and blood. It is now done as a preventative measure. Most Maasai have hugs holes in their earlobes. But since James was at school and wouldn't have sufficient recovery time for such a procedure, he got smaller holes in the top cartilage of his ears. These were pierced using acacia thorns.

We passed by a market which Patrick called "semi-slummish." There were some really rich homes nearby and the dichotomy was unsettling. We were stopped at a police checkpoint and Patrick had to show his license. As we began the descent into the Rift Valley we saw the euphobia candelabra tree which looks like a cactus but isn't. It has a milky acidic sap that will blind you, but camels can eat it. We saw the yellow barked acacia which is eaten by giraffes. We drove across the Rift Valley, which stretches from Israel to Mozambique. It was very green and lush. In the distance we couldn't help but notice a cluster of large telecom satellite dishes in one spot on the valley floor. It was a little disturbing to see such modern objects in this other-worldly location but Patrick informed us that these represent all of Kenya's telecom services. This would explain why as we got closer we saw that they are heavily guarded by paramilitary forces.

We saw donkeys pulling carts, and Maasai tending their cattle and goats. They were dressed in their traditional red shukas and you could spot them a mile away because they were so bright. Some of the people tending the herds were just young children, and there were no adults around. Maasai and Kenyan children waved at us as we passed by and gave us big smiles. They seemed so excited when we waved back. One little boy stuck his tongue out at us good-naturedly. Much of this road was constructed along old walking paths that the Maasai have used for years. It was interesting to learn that on this road the "sidewalk" predated the actual roadway. We also began to notice many examples of the whistling acacia bush. Patrick explained that the names comes from the fact that cocktail ants burrow into its seed pods, and the holes whistle when the wind blows. It is a symbiotic relationship because if animals browse too much on the tree, the ants make a vibration to scare the animals away. If the animals continue to eat, the ants administer a painful bite.

We saw resident zebra and wildebeest (or "wild beast", as James and Patrick pronounced it). We saw Grant's Gazelles (larger antelope born with a black stripe that fades away as they age) and Thompson's Gazelles (or "tommies") who are smaller and retain their black stripe. We passed a water hole where cattle were drinking. Along the side of the road we saw wild-growing castor plants as well as gorgeous wheat fields. Although the road was paved, it got gradually worse as we progressed toward Maasai Mara National Reserve. As Patrick put it, the potholes graduated to crater status. Patrick called it the "compulsory free African massage." In many places, local men could be seen along the road repairing potholes. They would place stones in the deeper holes and then try to pack them full of dirt. It was hard labor but their efforts did help to prolong the life of the road. Often they would instruct us to drive over some patched holes hoping we would help them pack down the recently added dirt. A few times the road surface was so bad that it was often preferable to drive up the dirt shoulder. Eventually the road became all dirt for a while.

At 10:45, we arrived at Narok, where James attended Narok High School. It was a bustling town. Patrick needed to run over to a little shop and pick up a newspaper for James. Many Maasai in town were wearing western clothes. James said that was typical in the town but just outside the main area he said that everyone reverts back to their traditional clothing. It is quite interesting to see the clothing they do wear. It all seemed like a time warp in that tshirts were reminiscent of ones people wore in the U.S. years ago. James told us that in school Kenyans learn both Swahili and English and that there are 42 different tribes in Kenya (of which Patrick belongs to the Kikuyu) and each have their own language. We really wanted to capture a photo of the day-to-day operations of the town but it isn't appropriate. Although we were primarily interested in the overview, it would have been impossible to avoid including locals in the photo. Many Maasai are not very appreciative of having their pictures taken covertly. Of course we wanted to respect their feelings so we had to simply enjoy the sights ourselves. Seeing people buying and selling their merchandise, children playing games, people shopping in the roadside stalls and stores. The whole scene really was fascinating to watch and we were tempted to get out of the vehicle and walk around a bit but were a bit overwhelmed by all the activity and attention we were receiving just being parked on the roadside.

Once Patrick returned to the vehicle we continued down the road. A little while later we passed a road sign that made us all laugh. I forget the exact wording but it said something about the fuel levy paying for maintenance of the roadway. Considering the shape of the roadway, the sign probably shouldn't be there as a reminder of the additional fees. Soon afterwards we stopped at the Olare gift shop and all took advantage of the freshly cleaned rest rooms. We looked around at the Maasai crafts inside. We liked the colorful batik prints of Maasai and their herds. We spoke to John, a Maasai who was selling them. He quoted a price that was much more than we had expected, and we said no thanks. He said, hurt, "This is Africa. I tell you a price that's too high, then you tell me a price that's too low. Then we agree on something." We laughed, as he had laid it all out on the line so honestly. I talked to James who said that the store was Maasai-owned, so we decided to bargain. John really liked Craig's shirt and was dying for something from the U.S. Craig wasn't going to give the shirt off his back so soon into the trip, so I had Patrick open the back of the Land Cruiser and I gave John one of the cheap watches we had brought. We bought two of the batik prints as well. After leaving the shop we passed through a very arid, desert, rocky area that reminded us of Nasca, Peru. It all felt very familiar and yet completely new to us. Another very familiar sight were sisal and aloe plants growing by the side of the road. Sisal is something we saw a lot of when we were in Merida, Mexico.

At around 1:15, we reached the gate to Maasai Mara National Reserve. About six Maasai women came up to our windows while we were stopped. They said "Jambo" (hello in Swahili) and spoke a little English. They tried to sell us things, but we didn't buy anything at this time. We were a bit too overwhelmed after the lengthy ride. We arrived at the Sarova Mara Camp. When we got out of the vehicle, there was a Maasai man in full regalia to welcome us and give us a fresh scented towel to clean up with. We crossed a covered bridge to the lobby where a woman greeted us with cold iced tea. there was a life-sized carved wooden seated Maasai statue at the entrance, and we would mistake it for a human several times throughout the trip. There were many Maasai men wearing shukas working in the hotel. It seemed odd at first, as we always pictured them dressed that way in their own villages or out in the bush. But we would get used to it quickly.

We checked in and were told the schedule of the camp (dining times, etc). The electrical generators shut down from 4-6 pm (typical game drive time) and from 12-4 am. Unless there is a World Cup match, of course, and then they leave the generators on so that folks can watch TV in the conference room. We were brought to our tent. There was a dik-dik (the smallest of the antelopes) outside of our tent, but it quickly disappeared once we arrived with our luggage.We were in tent 17, and Bill was next door in 18. The tent was gorgeous, with hardwood floors, and a comfortable bed with a stone headboard that divided the room into a bedroom and closet area and en-suite bathroom. The tent was covered by a wooden roof in case of rain. We dropped off our things and then headed to the restaurant for lunch. We passed another dik-dik, and I slowly got close to it, taking photos. Its little nose was flexible and moving back and forth. It was so cute. It got nervous and went to the bathroom when I got too close.

The gounds were very pretty. Everything was green and there were lots of acacia trees with weaver bird nests dangling off the ends of branches. There was also bamboo growing in a little grove near the pool. Arriving back at the lodge, we entered the dining room and ate lunch with Bill. He had just arrived and was sitting at our assigned table. It was a buffet and everything except drinks were included. Jonathan, an unusually stocky Maasai, was our drink waiter. He was very amiable and sweet. Craig had a Tusker beer and I had a Fanta. We got panak paneer on chapatis, canneloni spinach ricotta, carrots, potatoes, a bean dish, and gammon ham with sauce. For dessert we had chocolate cake, mango cake, and cream puffs from a pyramidal tower. At this point I realized that my new sunglasses were missing. I checked at the reception desk but they weren't there, hopefully I had left them in the Land Cruiser.

At 3:00, we took a walk around the grounds. They were spectacular but far more overwhelming than we had envisioned. No matter how much you think you know what to expect on a trip, the real thing is always a bit of a surprise. Craig's first impression of this camp was a bit more "cruise ship" than he had expected. This feeling passed quickly as we spent a little more time there enjoying the place for what it was. When we got back to the tents, Bill pointed out a tree hyrax in one of the trees behind our tents. There turned out to be two of them and we watched them chase one another across the branches. We were both very excited watching this and we were really excited for our first game drive.

At 4:00 we met up with Patrick (who arrived bearing my sunglasses! I had left them in the vehicle) and James for our game drive. Patrick opened the two trap doors in the roof of the Land Cruiser so that we could stand up for better veiwing. The camp is enclosed by an electrical fence, and it has a guard at the gate. Soon after passing through the gate, we saw a buffalo right next to the road. Patrick said he would rather meet a lion in the bush than a buffalo or an elephant, who are the two most feared animals in Kenya. The buffalo looked very mean. It has curly satanic horns. Unlike other animals, a buffalo will approach humans if they encounter them. Suddenly that electric fence and guard seemed to make a little more sense. We appreciated the relative safety it offered when walking freely around the grounds. A little further down the road, we saw three Maasai giraffes. They have "white ankle socks" rather than the "stockings" of the Rothschild giraffe. One was near the road and placidly watched us while he chewed. The other two were further back, and the female looked pregnant.

In a nearby tree we saw the lilac-breasted roller, the most photographed bird in Kenya. It is very colorful and exciting to see when it takes flight. During mating it does some incredible acrobatics, hence the name "roller". For a while we saw nothing but hartebeest in the distance and a vulture in a tree. Patrick explained that just before the big wildebeest migration (he predicted wouldn't happen for a week or two) it is tricky because the grass is so long. It is harder to see game. When the 2 million wildebeest migrate from Tanzania to Kenya, they will eat the grass and it will be easier to see animals. We drove some more and came across two pink Maasai ostriches. Then we were amazed to see at least 100 Burchell's zebras heading our way in a single-file line. Patrick said it was a scouting party for the migration. No two zebras have the same stripe pattern, and apparently their stripes hypnotize predators when they run. We saw some baby zebras, always easily recognized because their black stripes have a more brownish hue. In the same area, we saw hartebeest, topi, and a herd of buffalo way in the distance. The late afternoon sunlight was absolutely brilliant.

We saw the heaviest flying bird, the kori bustard. There was some confusion as to how to spell it. Everytime Patrick or James said the name, Craig and I looked at each other with disbelief. We kept thinking they were saying "bastard". I repeated "bastard?" with surprise and they said "yes, bastard". Then, when James noticed what I had written in my notebook, he shuffled through the field guide looking for the proper page. Laughing, he said it was called a "kori bustard". We all had a lot of laughs over that, and not for the last time either. The kori bustard weighs 19-22 kg! It's amazing that it can even get off the ground. We saw Grant's Gazelles and male and female black-backed jackals. The jackals mate for life, and if their mate dies, they won't find another one.

We saw wheateater birds which plague wheat crops. Patrick told us that they are one of the biggest threats to the wheat crop and that farmers fear them. We saw a Grant's Gazelle with a broken horn. We saw a sleeping spotted hyena (which has the strongest bite and the strongest bile to aid with digestion). Occasionally a noise would cause him to raise his head and look up at us, but he was very sleepy and couldn't last long. We saw the eland, the largest and most shy antelope. At this point the sun was setting early behind a bank of clouds on the horizon. As the sky began to get even darker, we saw a large elephant in the distance. Approaching the area where it was, we saw another jackal. Then suddenly we saw another elephant, and another, and another! There were several babies, and Patrick estimated the herd to number around 20. It was hard to tell because of the foliage and the waning light. It was amazing to see elephants (and babies!) in the wild after having seen them at such close range in the orphanage yesterday. It was now dusky and time to head back to the camp. We were amazed at how many animals we had seen. We had expected it to be more "difficult". Of course, it is always hit or miss, but we hit this time. Along the ride back to the camp we saw helmeted guinea fowl in the trees.

We returned to the camp slightly after 7:00. We were given warm towels to wash up upon our arrival. Patrick confirmed that our balloon safari had indeed been postponed until the 22nd. We went back to the room and then came back to meet Bill in the bar area. The room with the bar had a nice fireplace in the center and open walls surrounding. He bought Craig a Pilsner Ice and me a Smirnoff Ice. One thing that we didn't like about the Mara Sarova Camp was that we were segregated from the guides. Guides stayed in their quarters and were not allowed in the guest dining room. Some of our best chats with guides have been over meals, so this was very disappointing for us.

We kept looking over at the dining room which should have been open by now, but a small sign was still draped across the doorway. Seeing no activity inside we decided to ask around. We were told that the restaurant was closed tonight and that dinner would be "in the bush". This didn't seem right as we had just checked in today and the woman told us about the dinner hours, but didn't say anything about dinners anywhere other than the dining room. We asked at the reception desk, and with a straight face the woman told us there was no dinner tonight. As our jaws dropped, she laughed and called someone to escort us to the bush dinner. Bill said he would come along later and find us. After a short wait, someone arrived with a flashlight. He led us further and further away from the main lodge. We realized just how big this camp was (over 80 tents)! We just kept walking and walking. We could hear some Maasai songs in the distance, but by the time we finally arrived at the clearing, the Maasai entertainment had just ended. We wished that we had known about the remote dinner earlier as we were sort of killing time over a drink. We could have easily been there earlier if we had known.

We got a table and went to the main buffet table. We got ham, fish, lamb, spaghetti, and rolls. The food was good but it wasn't particularly hot as it was rather chilly this evening. While eating this first course, Jonathan appeared asking what we would be drinking. Craig ordered a Pilsner Ice and I had a glass of white whine. While enjoying this we couldn't help but notice a woman stirring and managing large cast iron cauldrons simmering over fiery coals. We wondered what we might be having for our second course. A young man was playing acoustic guitar and approximating the lyrics to Cat Stevens' "Wild World". We found it particularly funny because he got the more obscure lyrics right, but absolutely butchered the chorus. Bill found his way here and sat with us. Craig and I went to the cauldrons to find out what she was hiding in there. It turned out this was the vegetarian food for the evening and we both got rice and a very yummy spicy vegetable curry. No troubles with this course being a little cool, we had to be careful not to burn our mouths.

There were string of lights strung up from the trees making everything very well lit but as soon as we got back to the table the power flickered and went out. This left all of us eating by candlelight, which was quite romantic. After our second course we got a selection of dessert cakes (watermelon, chocolate, etc.) and shared them. They ran out of Pilsner Ice so Craig got a regular Pilsner to go. We left at around 9:30 or 9:45 and made the trek back to the tent. A few times during the walk we stared up into the sky. The stars were absolutely amazing. You could see the Milky Way as clear as day. We went into the tent and I journaled until 11:10. Some rather loud neighbors showed up and seemed apprehensive about walking down to the tents, but eventually they settled down. We slept better than we had at the Norfolk. We were surprised that we never heard any animals of any kind that evening.
Omelette Chef, Norfolk Hotel

Rift Valley

Driving in the Land Cruiser with James and Patrick

John selling Maasai batik prints at the Olare gift shop

Tent 17 at Mara Sarova Camp

Outside tent 17 at Mara Sarova Camp

Dik-dik, Mara Sarova Camp

Bar fireplace, Mara Sarova Camp

Maasai giraffes, Maasai Mara

Zebras, Maasai Mara

Grant's Gazelle, Maasai Mara

Hyena, Maasai Mara

Sunset, Maasai Mara

Elephant, Maasai Mara

Acacia, Maasai Mara

Caroline serving dinner at the bush barbecue, Mara Sarova Camp

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