Masai Mara: Visit to Kenya, 14-17 December 2001

Woodrow W. Denham
Sharjah, UAE
27 December 2001

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It was a bit different from our usual Christmas outing.

One lizard creeping,
Two lions prowling,
Three giraffes munching,
Four cheetahs playing in the waving grass.
Five eagles soaring,

Twelve Masai leaping as they always do.

You get the idea.

For years Nancy repeatedly proposed that we visit the wildlife of East Africa, while I as the family Scrooge opposed such a trip on grounds that most of our friends who have gone there have been ripped off by tour companies, mugged by natives and infected by multiple pernicious diseases. My arguments were to no avail this year, so off we went just in time to miss the Eid al Fitr celebration at the end of Ramadan.

We left Dubai at 2am on a Kenya Airways flight that reminded us of flying in the Caribbean – same attitudes, same humor, same colorful dress, even the same smells. We arrived in Nairobi just after sunrise, found representatives of the tour company that was responsible for our survival and happiness, and with two other couples who arrived on the same flight departed for the Masai Mara Game Reserve in a 10-passenger 4WD microbus that spent the next four days doing its very best to reduce us to pulp.

But it didn’t take long for my attitude to begin to improve. Our first stop after leaving the airport was at the Stanley Hotel in downtown Nairobi, where everybody who is anybody stops in for tea and conversation, with food and water you can trust since the Prime Minister is a favorite customer. It’s a charming old place, upgraded recently but not so much that its ghosts have fled. Hemingway still sits at the bar contemplating the green hills of Africa and the snows of Kilimanjaro, Ruark sits in the lounge remembering Mau-Mau, something of value and the promise of Uhuru, and the Leaky clan meet to contemplate human origins and corrupt officials.

In comparison with Dhaka, Nairobi’s urban center is vastly more civilized, the posh northwestern suburbs are not quite as posh, the shantytowns just beyond are not quite as grim. Le Carre’s constant gardener faces appalling corruption in present-day Nairobi, but Dhaka makes it look pretty good.

An hour west of the city, riding through the Highlands at an elevation of perhaps 6000 feet and sleeping intermittently, we round a bend and suddenly look out over the Great Rift Valley a thousand feet below. It could be a paint-by-numbers scene: mottled brown and green plains below, red and yellow mountains in the distance, broken silver clouds in a blue sky above. The Rift Valley is 60 kilometers wide here, one of the great geographical features on our planet, where tectonic plates pulled apart and the surface of the earth simply split open millions of years ago. It stretches to our right 4000 kilometers through Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Red Sea, past Yemen and Jiddah and Makkah, to the Suez Canal and the Dead Sea in Israel, and to our left reaches another 2000 kilometers through Tanzania to Mozambique. Within the Valley, Lake Turkana to the north and Olduvai Gorge to the south have yielded most of the oldest human remains, and the Serengeti Plain now has one of the world’s highest concentrations of wildlife. As we descend the escarpment and cross the plain, we begin to see ostriches and giraffes and an elephant or two.

Masai Mara Game Reserve occupies about 1800 square kilometers on the border between Kenya and Tanzania just one degree south of the equator. Its lowlands are part of the Serengeti Plain while the remainder lies within the highlands.

Our destination is Mara Sopa Lodge, one of ten visitors’ lodges run by the Kenyan government to attract tourists and money to the country. Hugging a hillside facing the sunset, it has a central service area with reception, a big friendly lounge surrounding a massive circular fireplace, a dining room seating 200 people, a pool, and a bar down the hillside below the pool. About 150 guest cottages lie in silence on either side of the service core. At night guards armed with bows and arrows escort visitors to their cottages along well-lighted paths to protect them from unwanted advances by elephants, hyenas and other animals that live there and sometimes get a little bit cheeky but not vicious.

Masai Mara and Mara Sopa Lodge are on land that traditionally belonged to the Masai Tribe who have retained many of their ancestral rights to the region. As a Game Reserve it is more like a US National Forest than a US National Park. The land is set aside for preserving wildlife, but also it is used by the Masai for grazing their cattle. The Masai were one of the great East African migratory cattle herding people as recently as a few decades ago. They are sedentary now but still rely heavily on cattle for their subsistence. So in addition to seeing wildlife, we saw a lot of cattle at Masai Mara.

James is our driver and guide. It’s his microbus, and he works with a team of other drivers and guides to make sure everybody sees plenty of wildlife. His attitude is excellent and his skill at finding game – or other buses whose drivers have found game – is fine. He needs a bit of training to drive better for photographers for he doesn’t pay quite enough attention to light and shadows, but nobody is perfect. His English is excellent as is his Swahili. Hearing and seeing him switch back and forth between prim high school English for us and his own comfortable Swahili when he stops to chat with other drivers is one of the highlights of the micro-safari.

“Game drive” is an interesting expression whose definition has shifted 180 degrees in recent decades. Back in the early days, the hunters stayed put and the game were driven; now the game stays put and the tourists are driven. In the colonial period, great white hunters sat in secure tree houses and had slaves or servants drive game through the forest or savannah to them while they waited in comfort and safety. Now the game stays wherever it wants to stay, and great white hunters carrying cameras rather than blunderbusses are driven in microbuses to see them in their natural haunts. Less exciting now, but a lot more
civilized I think.

In four days we went on four game drives. The first was under broken clouds near the lodge late on the afternoon of our arrival. The clouds left that night and the rest of our visit was under clear African skies at 70 degrees F in gentle breezes. On the second day we took an early morning drive, left again in mid-afternoon to visit a nearby Masai village outside the game reserve, and ended the day with another sunset drive. On the third day we took a single long drive, 100 kilometers to the northwest into the Serengeti Plain to see the vast expanses of savannah and visit a site where hippos live in a river. On the fourth day we drove back across the Rift Valley to Nairobi, saw a good bit of wildlife and some peculiar vegetation on the way, and caught our flight back to Dubai.

The details of the drive out into the Serengeti remain clear, as do those of the visit to the Masai village. But the sunrise and sunset drives in the highlands have merged into a single multidimensional montage without beginning or end. Here a herd of ten elephants, there Mom cheetah and her four large cubs; here a herd of several hundred buffalo, there a pair of tall birds wearing graceful plumes on their heads; here a pair of male lions, slightly put out, walking around our microbus because James stopped it in their path; there three giraffes browsing on a treetop and whispering to each other about another busload of tourists cluttering their landscape. All of the animals were entirely tranquil in our presence, and seemed not to mind even when 8 or 9 microbuses converged on them at once.

The big cats were the favorites of our group, and presumably of all groups since the drivers often focused on cats to the exclusion of other animals that I found just as fascinating and a lot easier to photograph. Why do people seem to be so taken by big cats? I believe it was Aldus Huxley in Doors of Perception who speculated on the reasons why people are attracted by shiny things like diamonds, gold and silver; too bad he didn’t talk about cats, too. Our bus and several others spent half an hour sitting under a tree that was rumored to have a leopard in it. A few people claimed to have spied its tail, and one person let out an ecstatic but muffled shriek upon perhaps catching a fleeting glimpse of an ear. I was sufficiently bored to walk to the next stopping place but couldn’t get out of the bus for fear that another cat I couldn’t see might devour me.

There are fewer problems in spotting herds of elephants, but when the light comes from the wrong direction they become great hulking silhouettes lacking in individuality. We missed the breeding season, but herds of females and calves were pretty much everywhere. We saw lone bulls only a couple of times, one walking along a ridge a kilometer away, one right in front of us as he crossed the road. A small male calf used our bus to practice his grown-up attack behavior, but thought better of it at the last moment. With trunk raised and ears spread, he charged straight toward us. Unfortunately the great elephantine bellow that is supposed to provide the soundtrack for charging bulls came out as a silly little squeak, so he slunk off embarrassed, waiting for his voice to change. By the end of the visit, people were regularly saying “Oh, that’s just another herd of elephants”. They don’t have the holding power of invisible leopards.

The number and diversity of ungulates at Masai Mara was astonishing, but they weren’t doing much. Just as we missed breeding season, we also missed migrating season. Thousands of wildebeest milled around waiting for the weather to flip the switch that sends them to Tanzania’s Serengeti. Various kinds of antelopes grazed in mixed groups. Zebras wearing prison uniforms were ubiquitous. Grant’s gazelles sat like tiny islands amidst a sea of black ashes where a Masai fire had burned away the grass. Towering giraffes with quizzical expressions on their faces watched over all.

The long drive out into the Serengeti provided panoramic views of one of the world’s greatest grasslands, like America’s Great Plains must have been when the buffalo roamed, the Plains Indians rode horses in their fleeting moment of glory, and Lewis and Clarke ventured across them. Our objectives that day were to see hippos in the river and a rhinoceros in the tall grass. We saw the hippos sitting there in the river like submarines, sinking and surfacing now and then, but we saw no rhinos. With only 500 or so in existence our chances were small. But we did see the plains, and for me that was the most important part. My mental image of a 200-meter long parade of eight ostriches marching single file through the tall grass is one I shall keep.

Two of my favorite wildlife sightings occurred at the cottage. A gecko, about six inches long, lived in the stone wall beside the walkway. It was red on the front half and blue on the back half, changed colors now and then, and delighted in sunning atop the wall. As a hard working tourist gecko, it had no fear of people and obviously was pleased to have me photograph it. It may have asked for baksheesh, but I can’t be sure.

The other was a little bird that had special powers. At dawn on the morning of our departure, I was standing on the cottage porch before the walkway lights went off. The bird landed on top of one of the light fixtures and had an absolutely outrageous screaming fit that lasted perhaps ten seconds, at which time all of the lights went off for the day. The bird instantly went quiet, preened a couple of times and fluttered up into a nearby tree, clearly satisfied that it had turned off the lights. I see that as the essence of magical Africa.

Masai cattle herders starred in ethnographies and ethnographic films for decades. I’m sure you have seen the men, mostly well over six feet tall, wrapped in brilliant red blankets, their long slender legs sticking out below like sticks. The transition into adulthood for them traditionally meant becoming warriors and fighters of lions, and the initiation ceremonies marking that transition were among the most spectacular in all of Africa. As part of the ceremony, young men performed a distinctive jumping dance in which their super-long legs propelled them far into the sky, and the lion headdresses they wore made them fierce and powerful.

Times have changed. The Masai living near Mara Sopa Lodge have a two-part village, the new and the traditional. The new part consists mainly of sheet-metal covered buildings reserved for families whose members work for the lodge and the game reserve – sort of a government housing development. The old part is of traditional design. It covers a couple of acres and is surrounded by a wall of posts and brush reminiscent of army forts in the American west 150 years ago. There are about 35 huts inside the wall, and a great deal of empty space where the cattle are kept at night. Each hut is a freestanding structure of poles and other vegetation covered with a thick layer of mud and cow dung. Traditionally when the Masai were nomadic, the huts were replaced or at least upgraded when they returned to a village after moving with their cattle for the season. Now the village is a fulltime permanent residence for a sizable population of people and cattle, and is somewhat bedraggled and a lot less photogenic than it was in days gone by.

To what extent do the residents of the traditional village still behave traditionally? It’s hard to tell. Certainly the cattle herding tradition lives on. However, the village gets a sizeable income from tourists like us who must pay an admission fee of about $13 each just to get inside. Then there is a tourist market at the back of the village where you can buy masks, drums, fabrics, spears, shields and all manner of other more-or-less traditional artifacts. They also sell lion’s claws surreptitiously to anybody who will buy them. Seems the lion was eating their cattle, so they had to kill it in self defense. Could they help if it just happened to have sixty-eight claws? So much for protecting endangered wildlife.

And the traditional dancing continues. At the village whenever a busload of tourists arrives, a contingent of maybe twenty men and women in traditional attire come forth to demonstrate their musical and athletic skills. And every couple of nights, a group of maybe ten men give a colorful fifteen minute performance in the lounge at the lodge.

It’s obvious that the village is a Masai village. There is no confusing it with other traditional villages we have visited in the Caribbean, Rajasthan, Lombok, Thailand or Central Australia, for example. But beyond that, I don’t know. International tourism both preserves and destroys.

All things considered, it was a great four day holiday. In fact, Nancy’s attitude prevailed. I would be pleased to return to Kenya to visit a different lodge or a different park, the next time to focus more closely on one group of animals such as large birds, or on one event such as the wildebeest migration, or maybe on the hominid finds at Olduvai and Lake Turkana. I expected the wildlife and scenery to be great and they were. But contrary to my dire predictions, the tour company was great as well, the lodge and its food were superb, we weren’t mugged, we got a lot of value for a small amount of money, the plane didn’t crash and we mercifully missed the Eid. What more could anyone ask?

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