Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Maasai Mara National Reserve

The grassy plains in the Maasai Mara

The highlight of my parent’s visit was without a doubt our safari in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The Maasai Mara, also known simply as “The Mara,” is the most famous game park in Kenya. The game park lies on the southwestern edge of Kenya and borders the Serengeti of Tanzania. The Mara gets it’s name from the Maasai tribe that inhabits the region. The Maasai are the most distinct and celebrated tribe in Kenya. They are a semi-nomadic cattle-herding tribe that is known for it’s resistance to modernization from it’s traditional ways. The Maasai's primary diet is meat and milk mixed with cow's blood. The name “Mara” means “mottled,” and is in reference to the Reserve’s patchy landscape. The wide open grassy plains of the Mara make up the stunning classical landscapes that are shown in many films that feature Africa and it’s spectacular wildlife. The Reserve is located in the enormous Great Rift Valley, which stretches vertically, about 6000km, up and down the continent of Africa. The Rift Valley begins from the Dead Sea in the Middle East and passes through the Red Sea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi. The valley floor is densely populated with Africa’s most amazing wildlife, including the famous “Big Five” game animals; the lion, the rhino, the buffalo, the elephant, and the leopard.

A Maasai wearing a "shuka" blanket and beaded necklaces

A Maasai walks, in the distance, out in the Mara

The Maasai cattle herds

The Maasai Homestead

On the first day of the safari we met George, who would be our guide and driver throughout the trip. We packed, boarded the safari vehicle, and began the several hours drive from downtown Nairobi, through the Great Rift Valley, and into the Maasai Mara. We stopped once when we got outside of the city along the high ridge of the escarpment to look at the breathtaking view of the Great Rift Valley. The view was simply magnificent. To be on the edge of this roadside cliff set high above all else around, looking down into the seemingly endless valley, I felt as if I might be able to view this vast continent of Africa as a whole. This spot, apparently the best place to view this natural wonder, was so frequented by tourists that it was packed with vendors trying to make high-pressure sales on anything from soda and snacks to wood and soapstone carvings to sandals and drums and other tribal souvenirs. After a short while, when the moment was over and pictures had been taken, we again boarded the vehicle and headed west.

Getting settled in my permanent tent

Just as the sun was beginning to set we arrived at the Acacia Campsite, on the edge of the Maasai Mara game park. We unpacked the vehicle, got settled into our permanent tents, and George took us out on an evening game drive. As we were leaving the camp for the game park he pointed out a grave marker of a man who had been killed in the night by an elephant. George said, “That’s why we don’t encourage tourists to go walking outside of the camp after dark.” We were literally out in the wilderness surrounded by many deadly animals.

Boarding the safari vehicle

That evening on the game drive we saw an adult male lion showing his dominance as he walked within thirty feet of the vehicle. He let out a terrifying roar and his eyes glowed in the darkness. As he walked he seemed to be chasing something. George said that the lion had been disturbed when another male had entered his territory and that when he found the other lion there would be a fight, that could possibly result in the death of one of them. Unfortunately we did not get to witness such a site and the lion ran off through the tall grass.

As it began to get darker we headed back to camp and enjoyed a dinner of Africa food with some American and European influences, all prepared by a small staff of Maasai. We enjoyed meat, chapattis (flatbread), and baked beans from a can. While we ate, we sat and chatted with a doctor and his wife from Canada who had talked enthusiastically about witnessing the greatest single event in the Mara, the wildebeest migration. It was exciting to hear their stories and wonder with eager anticipation what we would see the following day when we returned to the game park.

A Maasai carves a hunting club out of a piece of wood

Before I went to bed that night I couldn’t help but think about the lion we saw and also about the man that was killed by the elephant. I asked one of the Maasai if it was possible for an animal to wander into the camp while we slept. And without shuttering he said, “Yes,” and raised a small club from his side about the size of his forearm. He took a few swings at the air and when I questioningly said, “okay?” he assumed I was satisfied, nodded his head and put it down again. I went to bed that night trying to think of something else other than being attacked by a wild animal while I slept. You really have to be brave when you go on safari. Either that, or have a really dark sense of humor.

When a vehicle gets stuck in the terrain
other vehicles are called to pull it out

The next morning we rose from our tents early and after breakfast we boarded the vehicle and again headed back into the game park in hopes that we would at least get to see another lion and, of course, the wildebeest migration.

We entered the large gates of the main entrance to the park and after George raised the roof of the vehicle to allow us to stand and get a better view, we began to see animals right away in small herds. We saw the Thomson’s gazelle, many antelope, some impalas, and even a few wildebeests.

Gazelles, antelopes, zebras, and wildebeests herd together in the Mara

Not entirely impressed with only the few animals that wandered around near the gates, George assured us that these animals were year round “residents” of the park, but those that where involved in the migration would be many, many more. As we drove across the golden grassland the wind was breezy and cool in the morning.

The Maasai ostrich

We drove some distance and George pointed out a Maasai ostrich. We continued and he pointed out the “secretary” bird, which has an arrangement of feathers that appears as if it is wearing a mini skirt and has a fountain pen behind it’s ear. We went on for awhile and eventually came to a giant herd of buffalo, several hundred at least. George explained that although the buffalo is not a predator it is still one of the deadliest animals on the Mara. In a fight, one-on-one, even a lion is no match for the strength and size of a full grown African buffalo. A lion can only hunt those buffalo that are so old that they fall behind the rest and cannot keep up with the pace of the herd. But even then, it can take up to three or four lions to kill a single buffalo.

A large herd of buffalo

This old buffalo couldn't keep up with the pace
of the herd, so he stopped to take a mud bath

The herd of buffalo was our first big site of the day and at the moment it seemed hard to beat. George kept us moving but stopped occasionally to point out small animals and birds. It was just shortly after, that we came to a wide open savannah and witnessed something truly remarkable, the wildebeest migration.

Over 1 million wildebeests migrate across the Maasai Mara

The wildebeest migration is the single most spectacular event in the Mara. Every year from July to October 1.4 million wildebeests make the 500km round trip from the Southern Serengeti to the northern edge of the Maasai Mara in search of fresh pastures and water. The migration is arguably Africa’s greatest wildlife spectacle and one of the World's most exceptional natural phenomena.

Wildebeests cross over the road in front of safari vehicles

The event is actually only a fairly recent occurrence dating back to the 1960s. Prior to that time period, the wildebeest and cattle of the area were dying due to spreading disease. Around that time, 90% of the wildebeest population was eliminated. When the cattle were inoculated by veterinarians, to prevent further spreading of the disease, the illness disappeared from the region and the wildebeest population boomed. In the 1960s and 70s the population grew from 260,000 to the 1.4 million of today. This drastic growth in numbers forced the herds to migrate in order to find enough food and water. This immense migration effects nearly all of the animals of the region as hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles, impalas, giraffes, warthogs and all other herbivores join the pack, while lions, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards and other carnivores lie in waiting for the hunt.

A single line of wildebeests can go on for miles

The sheer number of wildebeests is hard to visualize until you see it for yourself. In some areas they appeared as a black sea sweeping across the pasture. While in other areas, they formed a single file line tens of miles long, head to tail, as they walked slowly across the countryside. Those thousands of animals, at a distance, seemed as small as ants and it was hard to imagine that each was as large as the ones we saw up close. Many times a large portion of the herd would cross over the paths the safari vehicles used and the oncoming vehicles would cause the frightened animals to stampede creating the sound of thunder. The experience was simply extraordinary.

Hyenas by the roadside taking a mudbath

We continued around the Reserve for several more hours until I though it would be the best time to tell George I needed a bathroom break. I asked, “How much longer until we get back to camp?” George smiled and said, “The camp is at least two hours away.” “We won’t be heading there until dinner time.” This is when George introduced me to the “bush toilet.” The “bush toilet” is a safari-goers worst nightmare. The “bush toilet” is exactly that, a bush. A bush that is conveniently located anywhere in the Mara, but inconveniently where there are usually large, deadly, wild animals. Just before we stopped for me to get out of the vehicle George said, “Look, a hyena!” Everybody stood up to see it while I sat down as my stomach tightened. Moments later when we finally stopped, I got out of the vehicle and crouched down in a bush. I thought of those hyenas as looked out in the field and over both shoulders. I was going as fast as nature would allow, but would it be fast enough? I don’t think I’ve ever felt more vulnerable in my life.

Hippos in the Mara River

Hippos coming up to the surface of the water for air

It seemed only minutes after I had reentered the vehicle, slammed the sliding door shut behind me, and was enjoying the safety of it’s enclosure that George wanted all of us to get out. He had taken us to an area on the Mara River, which runs through the Reserve, that is frequented by hippos. As we all exited the vehicle and looked over a small cliff down into the river, I looked around on both sides for predators. I asked George, “Is it safe to get out?” He turned to and pointed down at the river and said, “As long as you don’t get between the hippos and the water.”

There were about four or five hippos swimming in the river together. They each went under the water for a couple of minutes and then inhaled a great gasp of air went they again came to the surface. We could only see their heads above the water, which, at this distance, didn’t seem very big, but George reminded us that full-grown a hippo can be up to 13 feet long, 5 feet tall, and can weigh 3 ½ tons. An adult hippo can hold it's breath under water for up to 6 minutes before coming to the surface for air. Although they are herbivores, or vegetarians as the Christmas song says, they can be very aggressive animals and can even kill a crocodile if threatened. But surprisingly, their major predators are humans and, away from the Reserve, can be killed for meat or their skins. So if any of you are still thinking, "I want a hippotamus for Christmas," think again.

A large ant hill in the Mara

We moved on, later that afternoon, to the other side of the park where there seemed to be no animals at all. Typically when something major is happening many safari vehicles will be huddled around in a cluster, but George spotted something that no one else in our vehicle or any other saw, a pair of lions mating in a secluded field. We drove up to them only within a few feet, George turned off the engine of the vehicle, and we all waited.

Lions mating in a secluded field

While we waited George quietly explained that the pair would sleep out in this tall grass, away from all other animals, and wake up every twenty minutes to mate. And it was only a few minutes after George explained this, that they did exactly that. The act was somewhat shocking, being so close to the vehicle. The only word that comes to mind to describe it is "rough."

A pride of female lions sleeps near the cool water,
always ready to ambush prey coming for a drink

When they are not mating, male and female lions live separately. The females are more social and do most of the hunting. They generally make up the pride with the young. The males generally live solitary lives and a dominant male is the head of each pride. The males only come together when they challenge each other to mate with the females of the pride.

Lions on the Mara lazily sleep in the grass between hunts

After we had been there for over a half an hour other safari vehicles began to crowd around the pair as they were, once again, sleeping. Everybody remained still and waited for them to wake up again. Because our vehicle had been there first, we already heard the details of the mating ritual. Now we were quietly hearing the explanation over and over again from the other vehicle’s guides. After a moment of explanation, the voice of an older women in a vehicle across the cluster could be heard over the quietness, “They’re going to do what!” Everyone looked on and smiled.

A Maasai giraffe in the Mara

A giraffe gets bite to eat from the tallest trees

We ate a simple lunch of fruit and vegetable sandwiches out on the Mara that afternoon. The weather was simply beautiful. The warm breeze made waves in the tall grass. We boarded the vehicle and headed back towards the camp. On the way we saw a number of giraffes that towered over the vehicle. We watched as the giraffes ate the leaves from even the tallest trees. One particular tree was called the sausage tree because from it grew the sausage fruit, which George promptly added could be used to make alcohol or was a favorite treat for giraffes.

A sausage tree with sausage fruit

Our first full day in the Mara was quite an adventure, but now the sun was beginning to set and it would be dark soon. We got back to camp just in time for dinner that evening where we ate and then enjoyed some time at the campfire before heading off to bed.

The next morning, on our final day, we went out just as the sun was rising. We entered the gates of the park just as the sun was peaking it’s head over the mountains in the distance. Having seen just about every animal in the Mara the day before, on this last day, George said, the priority was to find the elephants. We drove in the direction of the mountains, one of their favorite spots, but on the way many vehicles stopped when somebody spotted a cheetah on the hunt. It was moving slowly across the plains as it kept it’s keen eyes on a small gazelle two or three hundred yards away. It slowly got closer and closer as all of those in the safari vehicles watched. Many photographers got out their huge bazooka style lenses to get pictures up close. It creeped up slowly in the direction of the gazelle, who was completely unaware. Then suddenly the cheetah took off at top speed like a gun shot. The gazelle turned it’s head to run, but it was too late. In one graceful move the cheetah jumped into the air and came down on the gazelle as it’s powerful jaws closed on it’s neck.

A cheetah strangles a gazelle as a photographer takes close-ups

The cheetah looks up for predators

George explained that the cheetah strangles it’s prey before it eats it, which it unlike any other predator in the Mara. The cheetah mainly feeds on small prey and, surprisingly, does not pose a threat to humans. Furthermore, George explained, the cheetah does not have retractable claws which makes it more closely relate with the dog family, than cats, as many people mistakenly think.

A wildebeest carcass in the Mara probably eaten by lions

The cheetah began to eat the gazelle quickly while lifting it’s head every couple of minutes to look for it’s own predators, the lion and the hyena. As it raised it’s head from the carcass we could see that it’s mouth was stained blood-red. Kills such as this happen many times a day and carcasses can be found all over the Mara, but we were fortunate because it is somewhat rare to be able to be there to see it as it happens.

A herd of elephants at the edge of the mountains

Elephant adults and young form a family

A baby elephant eats grass

We continued on as morning became afternoon and the sun rose high in the blue sky when we arrived at the edge of the mountains. We had followed a dirt road as far as it would go, but at some point George turned off into a grass field. For a brief moment the vehicle almost got stuck in the rough terrain. I couldn’t see anything in the area and I had know idea why he had brought us here or where he was taking us. George pointed out the window in the direction of the mountains. I looked out, but couldn’t see anything. I was puzzled, trying to figure out what he was looking at. But then it was suddenly clear. “Elephants,” said George. Just then a small herd of elephants seemed to come out of nowhere. They were feeding on the grass as they fanned their large ears. Although we were the only vehicle in the area, and at a very close distance, they didn’t seemed to mind us and went about there lives. Just like the day before when George spotted the lions in the secluded field, he knew just where to find the elephants. There were at least two adults and even a few young ones. They were living as a family. George explained that elephants are very intelligent and that although they were out away from the other animals they were very social with one another. They had very good memories of each other and formed very tight bonds, and even mourned when one of them died. The females spent most of their time with the young, while, at times, the males would show off for each other. A full-grown male elephant is capable of tearing an entire tree out of the ground, roots and all. There is evidence of this all over the Mara.

At this amazing visit with the elephants our 3-day safari in the Maasai Mara National Reserve was over and we headed back to the camp where we had an early lunch, packed our things, and set out for Lake Nakuru National Park, on our way back to Nairobi. To go on safari is the experience of a lifetime and definitely one I will never forget. I am truly grateful to have had this great opportunity.


Anonymous said...

How in the world are you going to be able to come back to boring, old Michigan after the experiences you've had in Africa?!


Anonymous said...

Tim....perhaps I was wrong about you being simply a good writer....perhaps you could begin working for Animal Planet doing animal documentaries.


Anonymous said...

I told you that you would love the mara. It was the highlight of my trip in africa. i am glad that you got to enjoy it as well.
Peace out.

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