Sunday, September 30, 2012

Our safari babymoon...

With only 5 weeks left until baby makes its debut, we felt an urgency to safari before it got too late in the pregnancy or birth might be imminent. This also happens to be the brief period of time when the wildebeest are in the Maasai Mara for the great migration. During the great migration, approximately 3 million wildebeest, along with zebras, giraffes, gazelles, topis, etc, all make their way north from The Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya. This is due to their pursuit of the wet season in Kenya where the grass becomes abundant and watering holes abound.

After much research we decided to stay in the Mara North Conservancy, which was established in 2009 and offers very responsible benefits to the Maasai people, as well as offers great protection to the land and animals. There are only a small handful of camps/lodges in the Mara North, and only the partner camps in the Mara North are allowed to safari in the Mara North territory. This ensures that there is minimal traffic from tours and that the animals and environment are left in peace. This is also a prime destination for viewing big cats, such as leopard, lion, and cheetah.

We also decided that we would drive to our camp, the Royal Mara, despite descriptions of bumpy roads and a 6 hour drive from Nairobi. We're adventurous, and we wanted to see the lay of the land. We left Nairobi around 6 am and headed north before turning west towards the Great Rift Valley. The edge of the valley is met with a very steep drop off and a steep road down the cliff to the valley floor. Perched along this steep road are tiny huts with sheepskins and sheepskin hats for sale. Jason and I stopped for a picture of the valley, which was truly breathtaking.

Here is the first glimpse of the Great Rift Valley:

We drove through the valley and continued along until we came to Narok, which is a bustling little city/town between the Maasai Mara and Nairobi. We then continued on another hour or so until we came to our turn off, which was a dirt road leading away from the tarmac highway. At this point we had been on the road for about 3 hours, and we were doing great. We followed the dirt road through corn fields and wheat fields until we got to our next destination, at which we were instructed to turn left at the Y in the dirt road. As it turned out, there was a Y, with a sharp left, a road that continued slightly to the left and a road that veered off the the right. "which left is it?" I asked and Jason replied with perfect logic that left is left, right is right, and in-between in straight. So true was his observation that there was zero additional discussion and we eagerly veered sharp left and continued to follow the dirt road. We followed it through more farmland until eventually it was barely a road at all. It was more like tire tracks in the dessert with scrub brush and occasional tree. On we went, despite no more landmarks matching our directions to the Royal Mara. After driving for about an hour, we came to a gravel road where we saw many safari tour companies whizz by at highway speeds. We knew we had taken a wrong turn, and after stopping at a deserted hotel to ask for directions, we disregarded the directions that were given to us and decided to backtrack to the last known place where we had been on track. Back to the town with the Y in the road. It took another hour to get back to Ngorengore (the town with the Y) and we then chose to follow the middle road, which was also dirt/rock and even rougher than the previous road. This road was much more like a dry, gouged out riverbed, and was the most uncomfortable road I have ever ridden on. This road was the correct road, and required that we remain on it until we reached our turn off for our camp. This was another 2.5 hours of driving due to the slow pace required to navigate the rough terrain. At one point I saw a small water hole on the side of the road and what appeared to be a tree falling. It was an elephant(!) pushing a tree down. Here is our first glimpse of wild elephants:

We finally reached the Mara North Conservancy and shortly thereafter saw the road sign for the turn off the main road, onto the grassland following tire tracks that would lead to the Royal Mara camp. Our directions stated that we were to turn off to the right from the main road, but not to take any of the bisecting smaller tracks on the right. That's a bit confusing. So we turned to the right, stayed on that track and ignored all other tracks to the right. We drove and drove all over the grasslands and savannah. We saw zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, etc, but no Royal Mara camp. Again, we knew we had missed the proper turn. At this point it was about 4:30 pm and we had been traversing Kenya's incredible and rough terrain for 10 hours. As we made an effort to find our way back to the main road and our last turn off, my body met with the fatigue of the day and a very intense contraction clamped down across my lower abdomen. "Just breathe, it will pass" is what I thought. And yet, it didn't pass, and I became more and more terrified that we were lost in the Maasai Mara with nightfall only 2 hours away and the closest known "town" consisting of about 5 houses was nearly an hour away down the same bumpy road that had brought me to this state of distress. Jason, ever the compassionate man that he is, pulled the vehicle to a stop and encouraged me to get up and move a bit. I stepped out the vehicle and promptly noticed a hyena about 100 meters from us, which was fortunately more interested in pursuing a herd of wildebeest than in us. Nonetheless we kept vigilant of our surroundings as I stood outside the car and sobbed my woes and fears out. I then peed next to the car, which quickly relieved the contraction I was having and Jason offered me a tangerine..which I devoured. After this pitiful pit stop, we returned to the main road and followed a new track to the right. This turned out to be the correct path and shortly thereafter we arrived at the Royal Mara camp, where we passed through a family of elephants and entered the camp. When we pulled up to the reception lodge, we were treated with warm hospitality, glasses of tropical juice, and wet wash towels to clean off some of the road dust.

Our "tent" was amazing! Instead of trying to describe how nice it was, here are some pictures:

The best part of the camp, was that the tent was right above the Mara River, where we could view hippos bathing, as well as we observed elephants on the other bank, monkeys, crocodiles, and more birds than I have ever seen.

Friday night we went out on a night safari with our guide Simon, where we saw our first lions in the wild and got to hunt with the lionesses from the safety of the safari vehicle. When it was dark, the guide would shine a spotlight in the herd animals so we could see them, and the lions have learned that when the light is on the herd, the herd is temporarily blinded and easier to sneak up on. For this reason, wherever the safari truck drove, Jason and I could see the lion following close behind or alongside the vehicle. At one point, a lioness attacked a wildebeest (gnu in Swahili) and was able to get a claw into its rump, but the wildebeest managed to get away. A lucky night for the wildebeest, but not very lucky for the lion. A super awesome night for Jason and myself.

When we returned to camp, a candlelight dinner had been set out for us on our tent's deck, where we enjoyed several delicious courses brought to us. Despite the amazing service and very tasty food, we were so tired that all we could manage was a few bites before we turned in for the night. There were hot showers, and plumbed sinks, a toilet and even a bidet in our tent. We took a hot shower to rid ourselves of all the grime from the road and climbed into the most wonderful king sized bed, encapsulated by a mosquito net. We fell asleep to the sounds of hippos calling, lions roaring the distance, and a symphony of insect, bat and frog songs. This was paradise.

The next morning, power came on in the tents at 5:30 am, and we promptly (and tiredly) got up, dressed in warm and bug repellant treated clothes, and prepared for our morning Safari. Our tent personnel, Mark, arrived shortly after we dressed with carafes of hot tea and coffee, as well as biscuits, sugar and milk. It was so pleasant to sip tea in the morning and listen to the hippos calling out to each other as they returned to the water from their night of grazing on the savannah grasses. Slathered up in deet and sunscreen on all my exposed parts, we headed out to meet our armed escort to the safari vehicle and Simon who was waiting to show us the Mara. The camp is not fenced and it is a camp rule that no one walks in camp without a guard with them. We were very appreciative for the safety measures given all the wild animals in close proximity.

During the morning drive with Simon, we saw so many amazing animals and sights! Here are some of the highlights:

Baby Topi and mother:

Feast of the carnivores/scavengers, which includes hyena, black-backed jackals, vultures and STORKS (doesn't bode well for babies delivered by that method):

I was very smitten with the cuteness of the black-backed jackal:

The cuteness didn't end there; we got to see the jackal's den, inclusive of her pups. These jackals are tiny at full growth, about the size of a large domestic cat:

The LORAX..ehem..I mean hyrax (the fuzzy ones in the photo) and the red headed agama lizard (front and center under the hyrax):

One of the many prides of lions we encountered:

Hi kitty kitty:

Male ostrich in the savannah grass:

Zebra's and wildebeest abound:

After several hours of beautiful jaw-dropping scenery and close encounters with magnificent animals, we pulled up to a stop on the open plains of the savannah and enjoyed a picnic breakfast with Simon. Following breakfast, we packed things up again and Simon offered to take us to a Maasai village for a cultural tour. We were very thankful for this opportunity and really enjoyed our time with the Maasai women, children and warriors. Here is a picture of us with the Maasai:

After spending some time with the Maasai people, Simon drove us back to the camp. Upon arrival back at camp, we went straight to lunch, which was a multi-course buffet meal with t-bone steaks, enjoyed while we sat at a table perched above the Mara river. Following lunch, Jason and I returned to our tent for some down time prior to the afternoon safari. I was completely exhausted by midday, so when we got back to the tent I laid down on the deck loungers and promptly passed out.

After my nap, I slathered up with deet and sunscreen again, and Jason and I went out to meet Simon for our afternoon safari. On this drive, there were two older couples from Germany on the wildlife viewing, and Jason got ample opportunity to practice his German. The German couples both expressed that they had been on safari 6 times in the past together, and had never once been lucky enough to view a leopard. Apparently, leopards are the most shy and evasive of the "big 5" animals in Africa. Jason and I both went to the Mara with the excitement of seeing animals and the landscapes, but did not feel any vested interest in focusing the trip on the "big 5." We were equally impressed with spending time viewing a family of mongooses, or hyenas, or seeing amazing birds, or a praying mantis, as we were with the famous "big 5." Despite our easily awed and relaxed attitude to safari, we were lucky enough to see a great number of amazing animals, including all of the "big 5."

Sunday morning was our last chance to see animals, and a trip was planned for us to go to a rhino sanctuary, where we could meet with the resident pair of white rhinos. This was both very neat, and quite heart breaking. The rhinos are so endangered by poaching, that there are only two white rhinos in the Mara, and they are under armed guard and supervision at all times. To a large extent they have been "tamed" as they sleep in enclosures and are let out to graze during the day with their human escourt. The rhinos are used to visitors and we were able to get very close to them. It was incredible to see these creatures so closely and Jason and I were both completely awed by their magnificence. One of the guards of the rhinos told us that there are regular attempts to poach these guarded rhinos, and that the Asian black market will pay upwards of $1 million for their horns, as there is unsubstantiated belief that they hold medicinal value. It was disgusting to look at this immense and beautiful animal and imagine it shot and stripped of its horns, while its species faces extinction and it's carcas is left to waste. There are so few rhinos left in the wild, that I greatly fear we will see their extinction within our lifetime. Until one has the opportunity to see one of these creatures, one cannot comprehend how truely tragic this will be. I fear that with poachers continueing to see financial incentive from the international markets, the Mara wildlife may face the same future as the American plains buffalo. I could not help but imagine that the great plains of America, we're likely at one time as scattered with life and vibrance as the immense Maasai Mara. Here are pictures of the rhinos:

Yes, that IS me wearing a jacket in Africa. I guess I am acclimating to the temperatures here. 

After visiting with the rhinos we returned to the camp, collected our belongings from our tent and packed our car for the trip home. The Royal Mara camp provided us with a packed lunch to take with us on the road. At every step on the safari, the Royal Mara Camp was amazing in hospitality. We left the camp, promising a return trip. Here we are departing the camp:

For more pictures from our Mara North Conservancy trip, and to hear Jason's perspective of the experience, please visit his blog at

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