Africa Stories and Tips

Safari Day 17: Exploring the Maasai Mara

Balloon over the Trans Mara Photo,

With the exception of the African animals and the Acacia trees, the Trans Mara and Maasai Mara look nearly identical to the rolling brown-golden grass hills of Santa Barbara county, California, back home. Seeing this countryside made it even more difficult for me to feel the reality of being in Africa. The animals are now so common to me. But what is special about this place this time of year is the migration. And that is what we came to see. However, having observed it, I would say that the migration seems more an adjective than a verb. There are vast, rolling golden plains with no visible life. Then over a rise will be a herd of a few hundred zebra and wildebeest grazing lazily in a pastureland. If one is lucky, one will see a lead animal start to slowly walk a few hundred meters, then stop and graze. The rest of the herd will then slowly move in single file to where the lead animal is grazing. This is the migration! Crossing of the Mara river is not expected until August (it is late this year).

Slept unusually well with a cool breeze coming through the slats in the balcony door. The sounds of animals now are so soothing to hear at night. I awoke before dawn and watched a hot air balloon being inflated down below near the Mara river. As the burners flared, the balloon lit up, looking like a giant light bulb illuminating the rolling savanna and river banks. My family was still asleep when I wrestled out the short-wave radio from my backpack. I plugged in the earphones and adjusted the radio to tune in any news I could get (we have not heard any news since leaving Nairobi). I got all kinds of bizarre talk shows in English from all over central Africa. Most sounded very heavy handed politically. Finally, I tuned into Voice of America--there had been a suicide terrorist bombing of a large hotel in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt! I listened to the details. My wife was waked, saw me with the radio, and asked what was going on. I told her that there was no news of interest. We dressed, had breakfast, and were on the trails by half past 7am.

Because of the rain last night, the dust was down. We drove passed zebra, a few wildebeest, hartebeest, giraffe, Thompson gazelle, and waterbuck as we headed southwest to the Maasai Mara. The Mara is divided between two counties split along the Mara river. Our side is called the Trans Mara, while the other is the Maasai mara. We crossed the Mara bridge, where Fredrick showed his pass to the guard. We continued a short distance then to another road, where we encountered a crude concrete marker. Vaguely scratched on one side was a vague “T” for Tanzania and on the other side “K” for Kenya. This is the border. We drove long, sometimes bumpy stretches of road over a vast, rolling golden countryside dotted with lone Acacias and islands of Sausage trees and what looked like Croton plants. Surprisingly there were few animals to be seen. In the distance we saw a giraffe and herd of elephants. Then we came upon a herd of hundreds of zebra with some wildebeest. Driving a little farther, nothing. Absolutely nothing, and that is unusual, as we always see at least some animals. Then there was another huge herd of animals on a hilltop grazing. We drove on and found a group of vultures pulling apart the remains of a wildebeest.

How vast this country, how familiar it looks, how varied and exotic the animals and birds. Outside of the mosquitoes, flies, and the vicious caterpillar that bit my wife, I really have not seen many exotic-looking insects. Impressive are the ant and termite mounds that dot the landscape. Some of these mounds are well over 2m tall. It is interesting that each has a chimney to remove the heat built up inside. So instead of using printed blueprints, these insects depend upon genetic blueprints for the knowledge to construct such sophisticated housing. We have seen a number of butterflies: while/black, yellow, and some purple. This morning on our doorstep was a black dung beetle about a fourth the size of my fist. It had large pinchers in front and looked every bit like an ancient Egyptian scarab. When I nudged it with my foot, it made a loud hissing noise.

We continued our drive meandering up and down the bumpy dirt tracks. We stood for most of the drove through the roof hatches, catching the clean breeze in the heat of the day. I could not seem to get the “Lion King” song out of my mind. I felt a great deal of freedom with the breeze in my face and the great African savanna before me. We encountered several more large herds of zebra and wildebeest. Most the time it appeared the zebra were the leads and posted guards. One herd had wildebeest as guards. They are such stupid-looking animals and seem to be the meal of choice amongst predators. We wondered whether lions just walk between the wildebeest guards and eat something without the guards noticing. We saw a few herds of elephant far in the distance walking through the low grass. We saw cheetah, tope, hartebeest, giraffe, all kinds of birds, gazelles, a couple of jackals, buffalo, and dik dik.

We stopped at a lodge to have some drinks. There was a warthog sleeping under a tree. The guard said that he had found the warthog when it was very small. He encouraged us to pet him. The skin was very hard and tough. The bristles on its body were thick, stiff, and very sharp. In all, it was not my idea of the ideal pet. We left the lodge and drove out into the hills in search of some lions that had been spotted in the area. We searched around some metamorphic rock mounds that are said to be favorites for lounging lions. We found a male lion lying next to a stream absolutely covered with black flies. His main was full but his face hidden in the brush. To get a good photo, I started yelling at him. After several minutes, he lazily and unemotionally looked in my direction just long enough for me to fire my camera. He rolled over and went back to sleep. We drove a little farther upstream and found several females also covered in flies. We were able to get within a meter of them. I yelled again to get their attention. This time, one of the females perked up, looked straight at me, and let out a blood-curdling snarl that startled our guide and caused him to accelerate out of this pride.

We drove to an airstrip and had lunch under the cover of a wooden shack. While the lunch had been prepared by our lodge, we still followed precautions and ate very little. On the long trek back to our lodge, I reminded our driver that a hike along a hippo pond was included. He insisted it was not until I displayed the Vintage itinerary. This has been the story with this guide, in that he does only the minimum until I prod him to do at least what had been promised. He drove to a clearing next to the Mara river on a bluff. Below were at least a dozen hippos. A ranger armed with an automatic weapon escorted us on a short hike along the bluff. He said that this is the only area where one is allowed out of the car because of dangers of wild animals. I saw a couple of good-size crocs in the river. We walked through an area where hippos come in and out of the river. Afterward I stood and watched the hippos, but the sun was beating down and we were really cooked. Frederick took us to a part of the Mara river nearer to our lodge  where dozens of hippos were lounging. We picked a good spot and just watched. It was interesting to observe their habits. The bull is about the size of a normal car! They raised half their face above water, snorted out air, dove for a minute, and then slowly raised their heads. A dozen can completely disappear for a minute, then surface, filling the bend in the river with their masses. Every so often, one will gave a loud grunt that touched off others down stream to do the same. Occasionally one would open its mouth to 180 degrees, exposing huge and dangerous dagger-like incisors.

We drove back to our lodge, cleaned up, had dinner, went to the room played cards, wrote journals and then to sleep. Our days are surprisingly filled with activities. Our evenings are filled with reading, writing and talking over the day’s journey.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip