The LO Goes on Safari, Part 2: Masai Mara

(The first part of this travelogue is here).

On the third day after we arrived in Nairobi, we were scheduled to leave for Masai Mara. Our driver, Joseph (“Jesus’s father?” the LO asked, when she heard his name) arrived early in the morning, and we set off a little after 7 AM.

It was the first working day after the long Christmas break, so lots of people were out and about on the streets: children scurrying to school (Joseph said the usual school timings are 7 to 4: long!), people piling into minibuses called matats, and just generally a lot of bustle. We’d soon left behind Nairobi, with its skyscrapers and its tall trees, and were into the wooded mountains. The highway was lined with dense stands of trees, some crowded with yellow or pink flowers.

In between, there were villages and little towns, and so many things that reminded me of India: Ashok Leyland, Mahindra and Airtel signs, of course, but also banana plantations, brightly-painted houses, and baboons by the side of the road (Joseph said that travellers in matats pitch out ears of half-eaten maize or bits of half-chewed sugarcane, which is what attracts them). I saw little garages that simply call themselves ‘puncture’ (a step up from India, where I’ve seen them labelled ‘puncher’), hotels which are actually no more than restaurants—and ‘viewpoints’, places that offer a panoramic view of some specially spectacular landscape.

A ‘viewpoint’, on the Nairobi-Narok highway.

We stopped at one such place, to have a look at the Great Rift Valley. The valley, as its name suggests, is truly great: it stretches all down the length of eastern Africa, from the Red Sea down to Mozambique, and this ‘viewpoint’ offered us a glimpse of it.

Looking down at the Great Rift Valley.

We bought some souvenirs (Joseph caught up with us later and gently harangued us for not bargaining, but he managed to browbeat the shopkeeper into giving us two more souvenirs for free), and then we set off again. Down into the Great Rift Valley and across it, finally heading into Narok County, which is the richest county in Kenya, thanks in large part to tourism (Masai Mara is governed by the county; it’s not a national park).

The town of Narok itself reminded me uncannily of some of the larger towns of states like Himachal Pradesh back home in India: relatively upmarket, with banks, post offices, even museums and official buildings, but with basically one main road—the highway that passes through it—which is far too inadequate. Cars parked on both sides, traffic inching forward, and lots of people.

A busy stretch of highway in Narok.

In Nairobi, we saw just about everybody dressed in Western clothing; here, in Narok, we began to see more and more people wearing traditional Masai clothing. Very occasionally (and almost always this was in the case of women), it was the entire look, with beaded bracelets and necklace and metal medallions jingling at the waist. In most cases, it was just a brightly coloured Masai ‘shuka’ blanket.

In Narok Town, a Masai draped in a shuka.

As we continued through the countryside, it began to remind me of Rajasthan: the same arid landscape (though the Masai Mara province, thanks to prolonged rains this year, is much greener); thorn trees; herds of cattle or sheep or goats being watched over by men or boys draped in colourful shukas. And there’s the occasional tree here and there, sometimes acacia, but also—and this isn’t there in Rajasthan—a very impressive tree known as the candelabrum spurge. These, at times, were the size of a house.

Candelabrum spurge trees.

We finally arrived at the Sekenani Gate of the Masai Mara Nature Reserve in the afternoon. While Joseph and my husband alighted to pay for our passes ($70 per adult per day), a crowd of Masai women, hawking beaded jewellery, descended on the LO and me. They must have seen the interested gleam in the LO’s eyes, because they refused to leave, no matter how hard I told them we didn’t want anything, thank you. This was where the Kenyans beat the Indians hollow: I’ve never seen hawkers so persistent in India. (Of course, that just might be because in India, we’re never the seemingly well-heeled foreigner…)

The 43km drive to Ashnil Mara, the camp where we were booked, was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. And I don’t even mean by way of the species we saw (I’ve never seen giraffe, African elephant, ostrich or Cape buffalo in the wild before), but the very proximity of them, and the sheer abundance. From the Sekenani Gate to Ashnil Mara was a drive of close to two hours, and we passed so close to so many animals, it was intoxicating.

At close quarters.

Cape buffalo, “Always looking for trouble”, said Joseph, our guide.

Ashnil Mara, though each ‘room’ here is a tent, is a good mix of wilderness and comfort. So, while we had a balcony overlooking the Mara River (and right where a family of hippos hung out) and there were deer, mongoose, birds and butterflies aplenty in the woodland of the camp, there was also a lavish buffet, hot water bottles as part of turn-down service (which also included mosquito nets being lowered: the insects here are deadly), and facilities like laundry, a swimming pool, and more.

Our room at Ashnil Mara Camp.

A view from the restaurant.

The LO settled in within minutes and—since it was too late to go on a game drive that evening—decided to spend her time charming everyone in camp. By the next morning, the lady at the reception counter, the waiters at the restaurant, the housekeeping staff, the night watchman, and random staffers doing various chores had all made friends, to some extent or the other, with the LO.

While we were at Ashnil Mara, the LO also had several little mishaps—she fell and scraped her knee, and then got bitten by an insect—and therefore ended up going twice to the in-house nurse. In the course of the treatment, the nurse fell so deeply in love with the LO that she took our child off to her office and had a long chat, with much giggling and cooing on both sides. The nurse begged the LO to stay back with her, and though the LO shyly refused, when we returned to Nairobi a few days later, she solemnly declared that when she grows up, she wants to be a nurse and go to Masai Mara to work.

Talk about childhood influences.

The next morning, we set off on our first game drive. Masai Mara spreads across 1500 sq km, and though the road to Ashnil Mara was a ‘main road’, it wasn’t—naturally, given that road-building would wreak havoc on local wildlife—a tarred road. The roads we now took were far worse. They were dirt tracks, and because of the recent rains (and the fact that the ‘road’ often dips into gullies-turned-streams), each game drive was a bone-jarring, tooth-rattling one.

Joseph had brought along a park ranger, Dennis, who would accompany us on the game drives, and the two of them showed us a lot. Giraffes, of course (they, along with elephants, we found to be the most conspicuous, and also the most approachable: we lost count of the number of giraffes we watched, for many minutes at a time, at close quarters). Joseph told us some fascinating stuff, too, like the fact that the older a giraffe gets, the darker its hide gets. Or that a giraffe’s saliva contains an enzyme which helps soften the acacia leaves it eats.

A herd of giraffe. The darker ones are older.

We saw lots of elephants too, and plenty of gazelle and antelope species: impala, eland, waterbuck, Thomson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle…

And topi, which swiftly became among the animals the LO got most excited about (perhaps because she could recognize it so easily? It is rather distinctive, what with its dark blueish-grey rump patches). And it’s highly visible: topis tend to stand on whatever elevations they can find—usually termite mounds—to keep an eye out for predators.

Topi in typical stance, atop a termite mound.

The LO was awestruck by the lions, a little less impressed by cheetah (in her defence, that was probably because the cheetah were too far off, and the LO, despite our combined efforts, couldn’t get the binoculars to zero in on anything). On our second day, we were lucky enough to come across a group of five cheetahs (Dennis said they were five, though we, no matter how hard we tried, could spot only three). The highlight of this particular spotting was that we actually witnessed a cheetah running—the fastest animal on Earth can reach a speed of up to 120 km/hr, but can sustain it for no more than a minute: it ‘heats up’ and must stop to let dangerously high levels of lactic acid fall to normal.

We saw other less exciting but (for me, at least) interesting creatures. Tortoises, for example. And birds: ostrich, yes, but also plovers, black-bellied bustards, and the kori bustard, the heaviest bird that can fly. Plus, the very common and very attractive lilac-breasted roller.

A lilac-breasted roller.

The LO wasn’t especially keen on the birds, and while she liked the larger mammals well enough, what really got her excited were the warthogs. “Pumbaaah!” she squealed (we spent most of our game drive getting our child to tone down her squealing, fearing it would drive away the animals).

She is a big fan of The Lion King, you see (and if you haven’t seen The Lion King: one of its funniest characters is a warthog named Pumbaa, and the hero of the film is a lion named Simba). Joseph, with some egging on from me (who knew the reason why these two characters were named that) enlightened the LO: ‘pumbaa’ is Swahili for ‘warthog’, and ‘simba’ is Swahili for ‘lion’. The LO was thoroughly chuffed.

‘Simba’, appropriately enough, was what got us into the adventure of our trip. We were on our last game drive, heading back to camp for lunch, when Dennis, scanning the horizon, figured there were probably some lions to be seen somewhere away from the road we were on. Did we want to give it a try? He couldn’t be sure there were lions there (most times, a set of already-standing SUVs, was a sure sign that there was something pretty awesome to see).

It would mean we might get a bit late for lunch, but we agreed enthusiastically. So we went off on a little-known dirt road, and found three young lions who had struck out on their own, ousted from a pride by whichever alpha male ruled it. We ooh-ed and aah-ed, the LO ‘took photos’ (she always made it a point to hold up her bent index fingers and thumbs, miming a smart phone, whenever we came across any photo-ops), and then we headed back to the camp.

One of three lions.

… and ran into trouble. Crossing one of the many little streams through which the ‘road’ made its way, Joseph misjudged the depth of the stream, and our vehicle got stuck. Both Dennis and Joseph got out. They tried various things, with Dennis climbing up on the outside of the vehicle and pushing down; getting branches from a nearby copse to place under the wheels to give them some traction. More useless revving up of the engine.

After we’d been told several times—in response to our queries—that no, we needn’t get out, Joseph and Dennis finally consented to let us alight. We piled out, and while my husband immediately went around to the back to see how he could help, I was left in charge of the LO. The LO was initially bordering on frantic: what would happen? Why didn’t Joseph Uncle turn off the engine? Why was he wasting fuel? What if lions came and gobbled us up here?

I diverted her attention by pointing out some wildflowers, and an array of butterflies drinking on a little sandbar between the brooklets that had formed in the ruts of tires…

Butterflies on a damp sandbank.

Very soon, the LO (thank goodness for the ease with which little children can be distracted!) had moved on to happier things. While the men worked on trying to dislodge the SUV, the LO happily pottered about, looking for pretty pebbles in the water.

The joys of being a child.

After a while, the men decided they needed stones for traction, so they all trudged off to collect some from further up the road. “Why don’t they pick these ones up?” the LO ventured, indicating the little pebbles she’d been gathering.

The stones didn’t help, and neither did much manoeuvring. Meanwhile, Dennis had phoned for a rescue vehicle from the Ashnil Mara Camp, and we were told that it would arrive soon. We waited and waited, then—after some more phoning (difficult, since phone signals are understandably erratic out here in the Masai Mara), Dennis realized that the rescue vehicle had got lost (we were on a very minor road, and one easily missed). Even finding where the rescue vehicle was vis-à-vis ours entailed some effort: Dennis and Joseph had to walk a distance and Dennis had to climb a tree to look for the vehicle.

The tree that Dennis climbed, seen from where we got stuck.

The LO, till then certain that she wanted to grow up and become a park ranger (her ambitions change swiftly) decided this tree-climbing business wasn’t her cup of tea. Maybe her earlier goal of being a nurse at Masai Mara would do; a ranger at Masai Mara, obliged to shin up trees at the drop of a hat, wouldn’t.

Thankfully, the rescue vehicle arrived, and they had a winch which got our vehicle out. We headed back, Joseph and Dennis apologizing profusely all the way, and us reassuring them that it was all right; that it, in fact, was just the sort of adventure without which a trip to the wilderness wasn’t complete. The LO was in complete agreement: she loved this adventure!

(Incidentally, while we were on this game drive, the LO lost a milk tooth. Joseph wondered aloud if the tooth fairy would leave her any money, and sure enough, the next morning, there were 40 Kenyan shillings under her pillow. The LO was delighted to discover that every country’s tooth fairy pays in the local currency).

The next day, much to our regret, we had to head back to Nairobi. The drive seemed even longer this time round, but Joseph pointed out some interesting things on the way: a Masai market day in progress, for one (cattle are among the goods on sale). And manyatas, thorn enclosures that act as small villages, enclosing a group of huts, with the inhabitants’ cattle being housed in it as well.

And we passed by a quartet of young Masai men who looked very different from all the Masai we’d seen till then: these looked as if modernity hadn’t touched them at all. Their clothing was traditional, they carried spears and sheathed daggers, their faces were painted. “Morants,” Joseph explained. Young men, just circumcised, on their way into the wild, where they must spend some time as a rite of passage—only a morant who manages to complete this can be called a Masai warrior (and get married). A morant who kills a lion, said Joseph, eventually becomes the chief.

On the way back to Nairobi, as we entered the highlands leading up to the last stretch, we stopped at the Catholic Church at Mai Mahiu. This church, which is also known as the Travellers’ Chapel (because it’s right on the main highway), is interesting for two reasons: firstly, it was built by Italian POWs in 1942. Secondly, it’s one of the smallest churches in the world: only six tiny pews, as I saw when we went in.

Outside the Travellers’ Chapel.

… and inside.

Before we knew what was happening, the LO plunged her hand into her pocket and pulled out the money the tooth fairy had given her. She bunged this into the poor box in front of the altar, and then promptly—even before we were out of the church—began regretting it. I applauded her for being such a good little girl, giving up her money for the poor. There are so many poor people in the world, my husband and I said: people who don’t get enough food to eat, have no woollens for the winter and no place to sleep. If you gave up your money to help them, that was a very good thing to do, and God will be very happy (the LO had wondered if her donation would go to God).

The LO thought a while. Then, “But there are more poor people in the world than I have teeth!”

On which note, having done our bit for the poor of Kenya, we continued on to Nairobi.

It’s been just over ten days since we returned, but I’m still missing Kenya. There are few places I’ve loved so utterly and completely, and if I could, I would happily go back to Kenya.

Perhaps if the LO does become a nurse in Masai Mara, I might yet have a chance, some twenty years down the line…?

16 thoughts on “The LO Goes on Safari, Part 2: Masai Mara

  1. The attention to detail is amazing as is the ability to put it down on paper.
    The trip seems to have been a great success from the LO’s point of view, which is what counts in the end.

    • Hehe. Yes, young LO had a fantastic time. :-D

      Talking of enterprise, a short while after we alighted from our stuck vehicle, I was busy looking out across the grassland to see if there was any wildlife around, when the LO said, “Look, Mama, I’m doing farming.” Which consisted of clearing the land – she was pulling up, from the roots, grasses and pitching them out. Had to be dissuaded and put to work searching for pretty pebbles instead!

  2. As usual an interesting travelogue. It must have been thrilling to watch Giraffe and Ostrich in a large number and so close to the humans.
    And, the butterflies, the pumba and simba, all exciting to read about!
    Thanks so much for taking us to Kenya. It was a wonderful experience to read both the parts of the safari.

    :-)

  3. Echoing the others here – thanks for the Kenya trip! Part 3 describing the food, now? I know the giraffes and lions were the most exciting part, but I am also curious about what you ate. :)

    • You’re welcome! And, thank you. :-)

      Talking of what we ate – well, lots of meat. Grilled meat is very popular in Kenya, so there was a good bit of this around (I have written about a restaurant called The Carnivore, in Part 1). Also, had a fabulous meal at a French cafe named Le Grenier A Pain, and excellent Mexican food at a place opposite our hotel. Thanks to Kenya’s place in the coffee industry, lots of superb coffee, even in tiny places.

      And we went to the Kenyan equivalent of a roadside dhaba, where we lunched off a buffet with local Kenyan food – exotic stuff like chapati and pilao. :-) The pilao was especially good, though more like an Afghan one than an Indian – no whole garam masala, for instance. Also delicious fried chicken, beef and veggie curry, and sauteed cabbage.

      • Sounds yummy. :)

        And we went to the Kenyan equivalent of a roadside dhaba, where we lunched off a buffet with local Kenyan food – exotic stuff like chapati and pilao.

        Hehe. I was surprised to see “bhajiyas” mentioned as Kenyan street food in a youtube video!

  4. Swahili- that always reminds of the story “The Gumdrop Affair” , and it’s protagonist Addison Barnaby. Just like that.
    Anyway, great travelogue, had to be after such a great trip.
    The movie on Tsavo lions is “The Ghost (not God) and the Darkness” (1996). And it’s quite scary and sad (especially when Michael Douglas dies). Guess it’s sometimes better to not read the critics before watching a movie. It may not be perfect, but it’s not bad either.

    • Thank you. And of course, you’re right – the God there was a typo. Incidentally, I rewatched the film a few days back. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had the first time, I still liked it. It’s entertaining, and it’s pretty realistic. I also began watching another film, Bwana Devil (1952), also made about the Tsavo man-eaters, but couldn’t bear to watch it past the half hour mark. It just didn’t appeal to me.

  5. What a wonderful post about a trip that would be the dream trip of a lifetime! I love reading about the LO and her reactions because they are so honest and full of wonder. It sounds wonderful, having a family of hippos hanging out near your balcony, seeing giraffes and elephants and cheetahs and young lions. I especially loved the part where the LO cheerfully donated her earnings from the tooth fairy to the church and then wondered if it would reach God. The innocence of children – what would we do without it? Your descriptions make the post so enjoyable and informative.
    Did you use a travel agency? Just asking, in case we decide to make a trip there.

    • Thank you, Lalitha! I’m so glad you liked this. We were very proud of the LO’s generosity. And yes, the innocence of little children – what would we do without it, indeed.

      We used a travel agency, Bunduz Travels (they’re based in Nairobi), for the safari leg of the trip, from Nairobi and back. Initially, they’d given us an itinerary for the entire trip, which included a day’s hotel stay in Nairobi, the safari, and travel to Mombasa. We figured that would be too hectic for the LO, and we did want to spend a few days longer in Nairobi to not just see the sights there but also rest a bit between the safari and flights, so we opted to book our Nairobi hotel and do local sightseeing on our own. The drive to and from Nairobi and everything for the safari was done by Bunduz. (Many people prefer to go to Masai Mara by plane, though this was out of our budget. I would guess it’s far more comfortable, though!)

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