Africa Stories and Tips

Safari Day 15: Samburu to Maasai Mara

Trans Mara Photo,

When I was a child, I had a National Geographic map of the world on my bedroom wall. I must have spent hours studying the exotic names on the map, imagining exploring through foreign places. I imagined what it must have been like hiking through the jungle followed by a hundred porters,  not knowing what lie ahead The map was from the 1950s and displayed Kenya as a British colony. The Serengeti plains include the Serengeti of Tanzania and the Trans Mara and Maasai Mara on Kenya. The name Serengeti is synonymous with adventure, safari, wild animals, mysterious people, and long treks through unexplored wilderness. Now I am here. It is wild and beautiful with herds of animals and just as I had imagined it so long ago when I was a child: a vast, golden plain with gentle hills, golden, wavy grass dotted with tall Acacias right out of adventure books on Africa. It is peaceful, fulfilling and open. It is a far cry from the hostile, desolate landscape of Samburu. The mornings here are cold, and it is very hot during the day, with a cooling breeze at night. Ah, the night! The vast plains are illuminated in the white moonlight. And even with moonlight, there are more stars in the sky than I have seen in years back home. Unseen animals call out in a dissonance of cries. The low but distinct moan of a lion. The scream of a baboon. The trumpet of a bull eephant. Deep, thunderous moans of a hippo. The air is clean, but the smell of burned grass is ever-present.

Sleep did not come easy in the hot, humid Buffalo Springs. The ceiling fan I so needed apparently kept my wife awake all night. I could just as easily have not used it as the mosquito netting kept the breeze from reaching me. She, again, left her flashlight on all night. That did not matter, though, as the strong lodge security lights shown through our windows. No animals noises this past evening.

We were already packed so we lugged our things out of the room. No porters offered their assistance until we reached the lodge front desk. We checked out of this mediocre lodge and were on the road by 8:15am. The air strip was only a couple kilometers away. Uticus got us there in about 15 minutes. Next to the gravel air strip were several safari minivans and SUVs packed with travelers awaiting their flights. There was a short row of makeshift stands with the locals selling all kinds of poorly made trinkets (they called it duty-free shopping). I noticed that many of the travelers were using old T-shirts to barter for souvenirs. I think these people need money more than old T-shirts. A couple of small planes landed and departed. Finally, our four-propeller Kenyair aircraft landed. Uticus brought our bags to the cargo hold. We said our final farewell to Uticus, who had been like family to us (although I still had a hard time understanding his English). I gave him an envelope with his tip. Many travel books suggest $5/person/day as a tip. Vintage suggested $10/person/day, which is what I went with, because Uticus had really done such a superb job with our safari. We shook hands and departed without much fanfare. He drove back to Nairobi with our excess baggage. We rose above the already baking landscape of Samburu. Within 20 minutes flying south, we were crossing green pastureland, pine trees, and mountain country.

We landed in Nyuku (near Mt. Kenya). To our surprise, we were asked to transfer to another plane. We disembarked, identified our luggage, and then ran over to a Twin Otter for the flight to the Maasai Mara. The aircraft held, tightly, about 20 people. We flew for about 30 minutes, landing twice in various parts of the Maasai Mara to drop off passengers at various lodges. From the air the Mara appears as a vast expanse of golden plains dotted sparsely dotted with Acacia trees. It somewhat reminded me of the central valley of California. The Mara river meandered through the golden plains like a brown snake, fringed with green trees. Scattered about were herds of zebra, wildebeest, and an occasional ostrich.

We finally landed at the Serena airstrip, where we got off and were promptly met by our new driver, Fredrick. We were glad to see the familiar Vintage 4WD Toyota LandCruiser. Fredrick’s English was impeccable. He was a Quaker from a tribe on Lake Victoria. We drove the red, dusty trail a short distance to the Mara Serena lodge on a tall bluff covered in green trees. What a place! Has the appearance of a traditional Maasai mud huts. All rooms have a magnificent view of the Trans Mara below. The rooms are decorated in a beautiful African decor with lots of smooth curves, recesses, African decorations and furniture. The bathroom was small but had stunning tile, marble, chrome, and glass, with an African motif throughout. We followed our usual precautions at lunch. The problem we are having is taking in calories but not exercising to work it off.

At 4pm Frederick took us on a game drive. It was hot, a little humid, and very smoky from grass fires in the distance. Frederick said that the fires were set by the game wardens in Tanzania with the pretense of helping to generate new grasses for the game. He said the real reason is that Tanzania competes with Kenya for tourists, and they believe that burning along the border during the migration will prevent the animals from crossing into Kenya, which, apparently, it does not. The fires, unfortunately, cast a very distinct orange hue over the landscape and animals, making viewing, especially photography, miserable. We did see two cheetahs in some bushes chewing on a freshly killed wildebeest. We were able to get within feet of the animals, and they did not even seem to notice us. We also saw a pair of female lions eating a wildebeest (the Cheeseburger of East Africa!). Others animals included zebra; Thomson gazelle; impala; a crocodile sitting next to the Mara river, waiting for dinner to cross; herds of billowing hippo congregated in the muddy bends of the Mara river; mongoose; wildebeest; giraffe; eephants; and lots of beautiful birds. It was all fairly easy to spot in the low, flat grasses.

We were rapidly becoming irritated with Fredrick. Besides having a rather jaded attitude toward us, he was reckless in his driving and seemed more interested in giving us the usual experience and getting his dinner on time instead of giving us the private drive we had paid for. He seemed to want to do the basic and nothing more. He gave very short answers to my many questions and misinformation on the animals when he would offer any information at all. He followed other vehicles rather than spot animals himself. We ate lots of dust from the other cars. Talking this new situation over with my wife at dinner, I decide to take action. I located Fredrick in the parking area and confronted him over this state of affairs versus my expectations and really chewed his ears off. He agreed to improve. I met back up with my family, and we strolled into the cool, refreshing breeze of the evening and sat next to a bonfire by the pool. The moonlight covered the plains with a white glow, showing the contours of the lands and a hint of the Mara river. We could not see animals in the dim light but could easily hear them in the distance.

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