Heartbreak over leaving Zimbabwe, the cubs, and all of the wonderful people I met was somewhat soothed by the excitement about my next adventure of a long-desired safari in Kenya and Tanzania. The last walk with the cubs was tough, and I had a few solo moments to say goodbye to all four of them, with silent words given through the tears, an all-too-brief farewell at the end of so many months of watching them grow and thrive. It was an honor to be part of their young lives, and I have such great hopes for their future.
I crossed back over the border to Zambia to catch my flight to Nairobi, with one last stop at the magnificent Royal Livingstone, and then on to the airport. After take-off, the pilot did a couple steep turns to give a good view of Victoria Falls to passengers on both sides of the plane. This combination of climbing and turns was a bit much for the teenager across the aisle from me, and he was sick all over the place before his mother could manage to get a bag for him. And the poor kid continued to be ill several times during the flight. As someone who has motion sickness from time to time, my heart went out to him a bit, but the rest of me sort of wanted to punch him in the face for stinking up the plane for three hours. Travel adventures are not always postcard perfect moments.
I arrived in Nairobi at about 10:00 p.m., and was greeted by a very long line at immigration, which took about an hour, then down to baggage claim, then outside to find my name on a sign in a sea of signs, my ride from the airport to the hotel. Once I finally made it to the hotel and got settled in my room, I discovered it had a large tub in addition to a rain shower, and I could have wept from joy. But I was too tired that first night for anything other than a quick shower and bed. Mid-morning on Saturday I did a half-day excursion to visit the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, the Giraffe Center sanctuary, and the Karen Blixen Museum, and I was delighted with each. I was inspired to become an elephant sponsor, which I did in honor of the conservation work done by the great people in Vic Falls. At the Giraffe Manor, I was privileged to meet a mother giraffe, who was feeding at the viewing platform, her three week old calf a safe distance away. I kept hearing my name being called, and figured another guest there was named Stacy until I realized that one of the staff was speaking to the giraffe, and then I adored her even more, of course. Because, what are the odds? I mean, really. The last stop on my day trip was to the beautiful farm house and property turned museum, that of the author Karen Blixen (who published under the pen name Isak Dinesen). She’s probably best known for her book, Out of Africa, which was made into a movie in 1985 starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. It’s one of my favorite films, for so many reasons.
The next morning I met up with my tour group, six other people, all Spanish speaking. A group of six would normally share one vehicle, but since we’re seven, we’re split between two cars, which is actually better, especially for the game drives. I’m sharing a safari vehicle with a very nice couple from Argentina, and the woman speaks pretty good English, but her husband speaks essentially none. We get by pretty well with my pathetic recall of Spanish from college (uh, that was many years ago), and her English. I was surprised that there are many Spanish speaking guides here, which means they are at least tri-lingual, speaking Swahili, English, and Spanish, plus likely at least one other Kenyan language, typically based on tribal heritage. And our guide is great to explain things in both Spanish and English. Of all the places I thought I’d be immersed in Spanish, the Masai Mara in Kenya is not one of them, but hey… it’s sort of cool.
The drive from Nairobi to the Mara took about six hours or so, with the last couple hours on a very bumpy dirt and gravel (uh, rock) road. I learned the term “African Massage” for roads like this when I was in Zimbabwe, and it’s a humorous way to look at being jostled around the inside of the vehicle for a while. A couple of hours into the drive we got the first look at the Great Rift Valley, and it was a sight to behold, a preview of what was to come. Once we dropped into the valley, I started to spot the Masai people on the farms across the land, draped in their red cloth, easy to spot from a distance. There is a simple beauty in it that’s difficult to describe. We arrived at our camp (glamping, to be clear) in the Mara in the mid-afternoon in time for a late lunch and short respite before our first late afternoon game drive. A game drive in this sacred place. This is it. This is the culmination of years of dreaming about such an event, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high. Afterall, I’ve seen so many great animals on safari in Zimbabwe and Zambia. But I had my secret wish, which I kept to myself, in silent hope.
So out we go, with all sorts of new sightings for me, such as the Thomson’s gazelle, topi, eland, ostrich, marabou stork, and miles and miles of wildebeest moving across the plains as far as the eye can see — just surreal. I’ve seen wildebeest before, but not like this; this was the stuff you see in documentaries about the great migration. And then we see a group of safari vehicles not far away, and I inquire about what it might be. When there are that many, you know it’s good. Our guide says to me, “Guess”, and I purposely don’t say what I hope, as I don’t want to jinx it, so I suggest more common animals. Just as we’re driving up, I hear the word, and the whole world goes completely silent in my mind, every other thought completely leaving me, and I realize it’s about to happen — my life long dream. The cheetah. And this one was a male on a fresh kill, still panting while he quickly devoured the remains of whatever he caught. Adrenaline kept me from going full on into the ugly cry, thankfully, but I admit that I teared up a little at this dream-come-true moment. It doesn’t matter what your life long dream is — whatever it is for you — when it comes true… well… words fail to adequately describe it. It’s as though every moment of your entire life, from birth to now, suddenly all makes sense, leading you to this exact moment. Perfection.
As if that were not amazing enough, we also saw two wild lion prides, both with small cubs of various ages. One pride was very calm, quiet, the adults sleeping while the young ones watched the world around them. The other pride was red hot, with fighting females, young cubs mewing and seeking the adults for reassurance, and both were incredible to see. Two of the females in the active pride had fresh bloody wounds from a fight that we witnessed more in sound than sight, and they seemed to have some sort of skin condition on their faces, as well, with a purple cast to it, which was very odd. Something for me to research a bit with tips from my guide. From what we could deduce from the overall pride dynamic, including their activity and behavior, it seems that one of the females, who was spitting fire mad, must have lost a cub, perhaps by purposeful killing, either right while we were there (all the noise in the bush), or very recently. I mentioned to one of the guides that females can kill the cubs of other females, and they had never heard of this, so it was an opportunity to share some of what I learned during my internship. An incredible end to the day.
The only time you’ll find me happy to wake up before the sun is for the delights of travel — unwrapping the day’s gifts that come in the form of interesting people, amazing wildlife, stunning scenery, and learning about the culture of a place. Monday morning was such a morning, hearing wild lions roar in the distance around 5:00 a.m., a fitting start to my first full day in the Mara with a game drive before sunrise. As we left, I joked with our guide to “make it happen” with another cheetah sighting, since we were blessed the previous day. Within a few minutes of leaving camp we came across a group of hyena, with several curious juveniles, including one that came very close to the vehicle to check us out, which may have been coincidence, or may have been in response to the imitation of their “whoop” call that the guide and I did for the other two guests during discussion of hyena behavior. It was too dark yet to get a good photo with my amateur skills, and this was yet another occasion when I was wishing I had invested time in improving my photography skills. Oh, and I have major camera and lens envy with this trip to Africa — holy huge lenses, Batman, you should see some of the gear I’ve seen. And this is the place to have it. But alas, I get by with my Nikon and Tamron 18-270 lens, and am thankful for them, nonetheless.
The morning would prove to be just absolutely epic, all before noon. In addition to many of the same animals as the day before, there some new sightings, and two events that completely made the day. The first was coming across not one, but four cheetahs, a mother and her three nearly-grown cubs, still with long fur on the scruff of their necks, but nearly the same size as their mother. They were engaged in play, running around a shrub-laded mound, and then darting out into the grass to chase and wrestle. After several minutes of this, one of the young males started to wander off in the direction of a Thompson’s gazelle in the distance, but between the lack of cover, the distance, and the warning call of a couple of birds (uh, thanks nature, sheesh!), the gazelle was long gone before they even had a chance. Next up for the cubs was setting their inexperienced sights on several zebra over the crest of the hill, and their mother didn’t even bother to move from her location — she knew this was futile, but also an important part of their learning process. Her calls to them after their failure were pretty telling — sort of a message of “now come back here, you fools.” It was incredible to be amongst such play and interaction, as though we were simply part of the background noise of their environment. Most of the animals here are so used to safari vehicles, they’ve habituated to them and therefore you can observe as natural behavior as possible.
We moved to another part of the park, where several vehicles had positioned themselves on the high banks of the river, all in anticipation of seeing the famous wildebeest river crossing, complete with hippos and crocodiles in the water. After waiting for about 15 minutes, down they came, out of sight from our position until they were already in the water, but we had the perfect view of most of the crossing, including their climb back up the bank on the other side. I could see the dust rising over the water from the river bank they ran down, jumping and running through the water, desperate to reach the other side. I’ve seen this on various documentaries, but to see it in person right before me, well, again… epic.
Monday afternoon’s game drive had great sightings of hippos all along the river, in the water, and on the banks, from huge adults to young calfs. There were tons of wildebeest and zebra, usually together, and I learned that part of their symbiotic relationship is how they feed: the zebra likes the upper blades of the grass and the wildebeest eats the rest. And then I watched for a bit, and sure enough. Just cool. We drove up a high hill that provided a view over the Mara, and it was incredible. Just beautiful vistas as far as the eye can see. The downside is the trash you find at this lookout sight, from locals and tourists, school kids brought in buses, etc. Having just come off eight months of conservation work, as well as being an avid environmentalist, I wanted to find a trash bag and start picking it up, but I knew that would be futile — it would just return. When you are in such a place, this amazing grandeur all around you, seeing garbage is like stab though the heart. Thankfully the park is otherwise fairly pristine from what I have seen. I spotted a young kid in a University of Washington t-shirt that I had seen the night before at dinner, his dad wearing a Seattle Seahawks shirt, as well. It was funny to see a piece of home here in the middle of Africa.
Tuesday morning we had another game drive, the first vehicle out of the gate. We saw a wide variety of animals and birds, including a fair number of hyena, both in clans and solo, which was nice, as previous sightings did not allow for good photos. Our guides surprised us with breakfast out on the plains, right on the border between Kenya and Tanzania, where the Masai Mara joins the Serengeti, in an area of “No Man’s Land” between official borders. After breakfast we came across a large group of vultures, three different types, some of them feeding on a small wildebeest carcass, which was just about cleaned to the bone. This game drive was longer, about four hours, and on the way back to camp we were able to pass the area with one of the two lion prides that we previously spotted, and this time two large males (brothers) were there, sons of the most infamous male in this area per our guide. They were beautiful, but very hidden in the trees, and in an area where we can only be for a few minutes before driving away, so I didn’t get any decent photos, but it was still thrilling, as this pride has adorable young cubs, and they were thrilling to see.
Our final game drive in the Masai Mara was Tuesday afternoon, and it was a lot of driving in between three key sightings. The first was the group of cheetahs from the day before, hidden in a very small shrub mound in an area that was off-road, so it was a very brief viewing to ensure we didn’t get caught by the park rangers. The second was a long drive to go to where the youngest cheetah cubs have been seen by the most famous female in the area (she’s been the main star on the Animal Planet series “Big Cat Diary”), but there was nice sight of them, and we were just about to leave when the two tiny cubs popped up at the top of a dirt mound in a thicket grove. I got as many photos as I could from our distance, which was pretty far for not having a better lens on my camera, and a few of them turned out well enough to be able to see how small they were, all fuzzy and covered in spots. Finally, we stopped by one of the lion pride hangouts, and that did not disappoint, as they were all awaken by interest in some nearby elephants, but this pride looked well-fed, so their interest was merely curiosity instead of hunger. Their attentive behavior allowed for great viewing of all the lions in the pride, including all the various cubs.
This wraps up our time in the Mara, and next up is Lake Victoria in Tanzania, which is the source of the famous Nile River that runs through much of Africa.