The flight from Nairobi to the Masai Mara in our little plane (12 passengers) takes just over 45 minutes. The plane flies low on approach to the small airstrip called Olkiombo, and we can already spot giraffe and zebra before we land. A driver from Mara Intrepids Camp greets me and we are off…..a ride that literally takes two minutes! Yes, my home for the next few days is spitting distance from the airstrip. Convenient, yes. But will the quiet and solitude of the Mara be elusive? I’m not sure why, but during my entire stay at Mara Intrepids Camp, I never heard a plane again until the day I stood by the airstrip awaiting my flight back to Nairobi.
The camp at Mara Intrepids (MI) consists of dining and entertainment areas, pool, gift shop, and reception area, all of which are shaded, embraced by palms, trees, flowering shrubs, and scented flowers. To the left of these gathering spots, down a meandering path are the tents for guests. Many of the tents sit next to the small river that runs through the MI compound. I was lucky enough to have #6 next to the river, so the water babbling over the boulders in the river was the music that lulled me to sleep each night. I have slept in “tents” before – in the Sahara desert in Morocco and the jungle in Thailand. They are all somewhat different, but these luxurious abodes are not the tents of my youth. The tents here in the Masai Mara are raised on either concrete and stone slabs, or wooden platforms. They are the size of a typical hotel room, completely furnished with real wood furniture, and have attached baths with flushing toilets and hot showers. They have electricity and WIFI, but no heat or air conditioning. Each night when I return to my tent, a hot water bottle has been tucked beneath the beautiful white comforter on my bed, making for a cozy night’s sleep.
All meals are included, alcohol is extra, but reasonably priced. The food….at every meal I asked myself how they are able to serve such a variety of food that is delicious and artfully presented…in the middle of nowhere? Breakfast and lunch were buffet style with omelets and pancakes made to order, several potato and vegetable dishes, beef, chicken, pork, yogurts, eggs any way you desire, and more. But dinner was a whole other level. It is a sit-down affair with the starry African sky as a canopy. Along with the incredible six course meal, there is a surprising selection of wines, beer, and cocktails. If all this wasn’t enough, several local Masai entertained us with their lively jumping and chanting.
In the early morning, as you wake for the day’s game drives, a thermos of hot coffee is delivered to your tent. Enjoy it while you dress, apply your sunscreen and insect repellent. A quick note about this: July is one of the coolest months in Kenya, but the sun is still strong, so apply your sunscreen and wear a hat. I did use insect repellent every day, and our beds had mosquito netting. I didn’t necessarily see any mosquito activity, but Kenya is known to have instances of Yellow Fever, so I wasn’t taking any chances. After three weeks in Africa, insect repellent becomes as much a part of your routine at deodorant.
The animals….what can I say? This is my third safari. I have visited Kruger National Park in South Africa, Ruaha in Tanzania, and now the Masai Mara in Kenya. Each one has been an extraordinary experience. There is just nothing like seeing these wild animals up close in their own habitat. Did you know that lions sleep a lot and are relatively unconcerned that you are sitting in your open safari vehicle 30 feet away? The leopard, which had eluded me in both South Africa and Tanzania, finally revealed himself to me in Kenya. Unlike the lions, safari guides keep their distance from leopards, but because they are so hard to locate, once it becomes know that a leopard has been spotted, every safari vehicle for miles converges on the viewing spot. It’s like paparazzi in Hollywood, only the starlet is a spotted animal.
Speaking of paparazzi, July in the Masai Mara means the great migration is imminent. I asked our guide why some of the people I saw on game drives were carrying such big cameras. These were cameras of more than two feet in length. Many of these photographers used large bean bag type stands on which to rest their heavy cameras on the jeep ledges. My first thought was… what were his excess airline baggage fees? But Dominic, our safari guide, explained that these were professionals, here in anticipation of the migration. They work for publications like National Geographic, Travel & Leisure, and others.
In addition to the leopard sighting (checked that box), another goal was to see hippos – out of the water. On both of my previous safaris, hippo sightings were basically just the the top half of the hippo head protruding above a flowing river. Not very exciting. But in the Mara we saw at least two bloats (herds) of 10-12 hippos each and they were walking or lounging on land. I let out a quiet squeal of delight at the sight. And then I learned that when hippos are nearby, especially a herd this large, they smell really bad. I mean really bad. But I couldn’t turn away. We stayed for another ten minutes or so when we noticed a pride of lions slowly approaching from the other side of the river. A few of them crossed the water over some rocks in a shallow area, but still kept their distance from the hippos. One hippo opened his jaws wide to display his enormous, sharp teeth as a warning to the lions. It appeared the lions were not going to risk a losing battle, when suddenly one young male trotted toward the hind end of a large hippo, and leapt onto the hippos back! The hippo opened his jaws wide, hissed, then flicked the lion off like he was a bothersome flea. Luckily, the hippo had no interest in killing today and he slid into the river, followed by the rest of his herd, while the adolescent lion turned tail. How embarrassing for him!
Our game drives started each morning just as the sun was breaking the horizon, after two or so hours we headed back to the compound for breakfast. There are many choices of things to do during the day: lounge by the pool, spa treatments, nature walks, lawn games. There is also a mid day game drive if you are so inclined. One afternoon, I asked Dominic our safari guide, to take me to a nearby Masai Village. Once there, he handed me off to a son of the chief, Lingoti, who speaks enough English that we were able to communicate. I decided to impress him with my limited Swahili, which he understood and smiled, but then explained to me that Masai have their own language….and it’s not Swahili! The Masai villages are built in a circle with the backs of their huts filling the role of village wall. The spaces between each hut are filled with sharp thorny sticks to keep out predators. If a predator makes it through, barking dogs and squealing chickens sound the alarm and the warriors emerge with their spears. Lingoti told me they have never lost a villager or livestock to a lion or other predator, and that the predators do not stand a chance against a Masai warrior.
Lingoti explained to me that the rows of beads adorning his chest represent the number of “girlfriends” a warrior has….in his case – four. I later commented to Dominic that I thought Lingoti was pulling my leg. Dominic sputtered in disbelief “he pulled your leg?” -looking as if he might faint. I could barely keep a straight face as I explained this American figure of speech to Dominic.
Before I left the village, Lingoti’s father approached. For a village chief, chatting with a visiting tourist is a rarity, so I was both awed and honored to meet him. I was struck by this tall, dignified warrior and his gentle voice. The chief felt compelled to make sure I knew certain things and with Lingoti translating, he shared.
• He wanted me to know that they never kill wild animals unless they or their livestock are threatened. (Killing a lion used to be a right of passage for a young Masai man, but Kenya outlawed it.) The chief wanted to make sure I knew they were following the law.
• the village school was built through the generosity of two Americans and a Canadian
• He very much appreciates the gift, but he worries that the culture of the Masai is being diluted. Education means that many Masai children are leaving the villages for cities.
• He told me that the president of Kenya probably doesn’t even know his village exists, and yet a year ago Barack Obama came to his village and spoke with him.
The chief thanked me for coming and talking to him and wished me a safe journey.
The early morning and evening game drives are the most productive, so I skipped the mid day drives. As with many excursions into the desert or the bush, dressing in layers is key to your comfort.
The morning drive starts out cold and the evening drive ends the same way. In between, the temperature warms up and down. The safari vehicles are equipped with blankets, but trust me and add gloves, a scarf, a sun hat, and a sweater or fleece to your packing list.
On my last morning in the Masai Mara, I thought about all the books I have read about African safaris. The accommodations have changed, getting there is easier, and the costs have increased. But the animals remain the same…wild and majestic, and the African sky at night is lit with a million stars. I hope it never changes.