Monday, May 31, 2010

A Kenya Sunday with Best Friends - Starting with the Elephant Orphanage

I had my first visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust on my first week-end in Kenya, when Charles - my new driver - took me there on 15 November 2009. I wrote about the visit here, but I did not alas have a camera at the time.

So for my final Sunday in Kenya - at least for this trip - I planned a very special day for my friends, beginning with a visit to the elephant orphanage. And now I have a camera, so there are photos, which you can see at Mr. Guy's Elephant Orphanage Album.

We had a lovely day planned out, and as you can see from the photographs, the weather cooperated magnificently. It was another of those splendid days in Kenya, when it all comes together: the beauty of the physical landscape, the kindness of the people, the pleasure of being in a distant land with one's best friends there. It's a good life these days.

And those best friends? The folks who have become - over six months - Mr. Guy's boon companions and experience-sharers: Narisa Kamar, employed at the U.N. Library in Nairobi, Geoffrey Opile, who teaches at the Rift Valley Scientific and Technical Institute and also is affiliated with the Information Africa Organization (IAO), Charles Masese, whom I first met and got to know as my driver and who now looks after me in all things Kenyan, and Justin Masese, Charles's son who - as readers of this blog know - is my sort of "official photographer" when we have excursions together.

The Rest of that Special Day: Bomas of Kenya - The Villages

The remainder of the day was to be at the Bomas of Kenya, a treasured exploration of Kenya life and the history of Kenya. Our day there was in three parts, a visit to the actual bomas (a Swahili term which means something like "native homestead"), our "farewell" luncheon, and a performance at the Bomas of Kenya where we were to see dances from the different sections of Kenya.

Our first visit was to the actual bomas (don't know what the plural might be). This is a large section of the park in which replicas of the different types of homesteads or compounds have been built, demonstrating the various types of architecture used over the centuries by the African peoples in building there homes. There are 42 tribes in Kenya, and all sorts of "mixtures" (one might say) of the 42 tribes, so for a Westerner it is not easy to keep track of it all. And indeed most of us don't even try. The whole process gets 'way too complicated.

And that is sort of what happened to us on Sunday, because after we had visited several of the villages (or compounds, for each represents a single man's compound where he would live with his family, his several wives, and his elderly parents and, I suppose, any other members of his version of what we might refer to our "extended family"), our stomachs told us we would not be able to make it through all 42 villages (if indeed there is one for each tribe). So after we had visited the villages that reflected the heritage of each of my pals, we pretty much decided that we needed to move on to lunch.

Nerisa, who had visited Bomas of Kenya before (none of the rest of us had), served as our guide, and we had great fun going in and out of the houses (sometimes called "huts" even in the signpostings and, truth to tell, after our experience in the Maasai manyatta, it was clear that many of these are in fact very small shelters). Others, however (often the "1st Wife's Hut") were pretty sizable and apparently designed to be used as a sort of meeting place for gatherings of the members of the compound.

Not many pictures, but if you go to Visiting the Villages at the Bomas of Kenya you can get an idea of the good time we were having!

The Rest of that Special Day: Our Farewell Luncheon at Bomas of Kenya

Having been acquainted over the years with tour operators, I've become accustomed (and indeed have come to expect) that as any particular travel activity begins to wind down, it is customary to schedule a special event - most often around a meal - and it's known as the "farewell" luncheon or dinner.

Not be outdone, my best friends and I had our Farewell Luncheon at Bomas of Kenya, where there is such a splendid arrangement of buildings and grounds, all on a large variety of levels, some indoors, some outside, and even quite a few on the lawn. And, yes, there are some unexpected occurrences (unexpected, that is for the Westerner), things like the wandering warthogs that come up on the grass, getting very close to the guests.

Or the ubiquitous cats - almost always found at Kenyan restaurants where there is an outdoor dining space - who wander about expecting a handout from the guests and, in some cases, if the handout isn't forthcoming, can be a little aggressive.

We weren't too harassed, though. For one reason, we chose not to sit on the lawn, so the warthogs weren't a problem for us. And the cats? Well, one learns to push them away, and eventually they get the idea.

The photographs at A Temporary Good-By: Our Farewell Luncheon give a pretty good idea of the fun we were having. We had already exchanged gifts on other occasions, and I wasn't expecting gifts, but my pals went all out. Using a wonderful photograph of Charles, Nerisa, and Geoffrey and having it printed on not one but two tee-shirts, I can now wander about the streets of New York with the three of them on my chest, clearly identified as "Guy's Friends Kenya."

As for the leopard in the background of one photo and the waterfall in the background of the other? Well, just don't ask so many questions. Our little party had some pretty serious excursions together and many memorable experiences but I might have been nodding off when we saw the leopard and stood with the waterfall in the background. But not to get too literal! It doesn't mean I will enjoy wearing my shirts any less!

The Rest of that Special Day: The Native Dances at Bomas of Kenya

One of the big attractions at the Bomas of Kenya is the spectacular dance programme, and it's hard to convey, in just a few photographs (which you can see at Dances Based on Native Dances of Kenya), the excitement and the enthusiasm of the dancers in this show.

For one thing, it's in a huge space, and it's a little daunting to be there right now, in the tourist off-season, because this great hall, which seats some 2,000 people, had only a couple of hundred spectators (hence the many empty seats in the photos).

Not that the lack of a sizable audience was any deterrent to the dancers. They were there to put on a show and they're all serious professionals, so the smiles were right there, the jumps were all as high as they could be (they couldn't have been any higher!), and their enthusiasm for the performance was thrilling for us in the audience).

But one can't help but wonder what the enthusiasm level might be with a full house!

I couldn't follow the structure of the show (the narration - in English - was just hard to understand, since there was a great echo from the speakers) but I gather it was supposed to depict the kind of dancing done by tribes in different regions of the country. I did get that the first number was based on dances at the coast, which would make sense since the men wore the fez-like hats. The style was almost always native-focused, but it was apparent that some serious choreography had been employed - and very well done at that. So the dancing just kept moving, and I began to wonder just where the dancers get all their energy. I was able to figure it out, though, as we moved into the second act, for I began to realize that there seemed to be two groups of dancers, which made a lot of sense, since they were moving so much and with so much energy when they were on stage. They would obviously have to spell one another.

Highlights? Far too many to try to list here, but the second group - they guys with the long wooden drums - were pretty spectacular. And one can't say enough about the acrobats in the second act. Breath-taking, spectacular, mind-boggling - all those adjectives that come into play when one is watch a really talented grup of acrobats! Just fabulous. The native dances and dancers at the Bomas of Kenya should be on every visitor's list of things to see.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Masai Mara (15): Good-by

We arrived at the Sekenani Gate about noon, ready to say good-by to the Masai Mara Game Reserve and to begin our five-hour drive back to Nairobi. It would be an uneventful return (no policemen looking for rides this time!), and we got to go through such a wide variety of Maasai countryside that the time went very quickly.

The police continued to be a presence, of course, often pulling the matatus off the road to ask for identification and the contribution of "a little something" to be allowed to continue. And we were pulled over as we approached Narok from the Masai Mara direction. Charles was not too concerned, as this is a pretty common situation, particularly for a van with a single muzungu aboard. It seems that any number of people (usually the tour operators, not the tourists) "talk their way" into the game reserve without paying the appropriate - and expensive - fees and of course come away without any documentation that they had paid. So it's pretty routine as some of the tourist vehicles approach Narok for the driver to be called into the tiny police "station" (more of a cinder-block hut really) and sit down for some negotiation.

We had no problems, though, as our documentation was all in order, and after a few minutes Charles came back to the van and we continued our journey to Narok, and on to Nairobi. Whether any "little something" was contributed I do not know, but I don't think so. Charles is pretty good at dealing with that sort of thing.

No photographs this time, because I had captured many photographs of the Maasai countryside on the trip from Kisii a few weeks earlier - and some on the first part of this journey - and I was no longer so amazed as fascinated by the condition of the roads that I needed to photograph them. And, indeed, the highway from Narok - the good paved road we had travelled earlier - was no particular challenge and because there was relatively little traffic, I got to enjoy the flat scenery with all the farmland and the manyattas off in the distance, as well as the rolling hills and in some places the beautiful high mountains.

So just your usual beautiful Sunday drive into Nairobi, across some beautiful mountains (with lots of truck traffic) and of course the expected heavy - and I mean heavy - downpour. But we had no problems, and made it back to Nairobi in good time, happy to be home and conclude a remarkable Kenya experience.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Masai Mara (14): Sunday Elephant

Charles and I planned our final game drive for Sunday morning, since the Sekenani Gate, where we had entered the Masai Mara Game Research and from which we would leave, was quite some distance from the Sopa Lodge and it wouldn't make sense to circle back around. So we decided I would check out of the lodge after breakfast (complete with monkey entertainment, which I described in an earlier post) and we would take a nice leisurely game drive through a big chunk of the game reserve.

As we would not be having Tomas with us on this game drive, we had said our good-byes the previous evening, after he had very kindly gone back to his village and then returned (coming to us via a 15-minute or so walk through the forest in the dark - I can't figure it out!) to bring us our presents. This gesture surprised me, for we had bought some Maasai souvenirs when we were at the manyatta, including some very handsome beads (pretty typical but still very lovely), and we didn't expect to have anything else. But he was very good to do this for us, and I asked for his address so that when I return to Masai Mara with friends in December, we can try to have Tomas for our guide.

We were not really looking for anything in particular on our Sunday morning excursion, and after the experience of the previous afternoon's game drive, it would seem a little greedy, perhaps, to want to see more. And truth to tell, there were not a great many animals about, at least as far as we could see. But sharp-eyed Charles was not to be deterred. Just casually looking around as he drove along (we were still on the "main road," such as it is), he suggested we go off onto some different tracks, and we got lucky, as you can see here.

At one point, we cut across the high grass and made our way up a slope and around another curve and there, off in the distance, was our Sunday Elephant, having his mid-morning meal. He was quite a handsome fellow and we were not surprised to see him alone, since Thomas had earlier explained that phenomenon to us.

We drove to the top of the sloping hill and we found we were able to get quite close. We turned off the engine and - as had become our pattern now - just sat quietly and watched him. By playing with the zoom, we were able to get some neat pictures (ready for you at Mr. Guy's Masai Mara (14) Album - the final set of pictures from this safari).

Our Sunday Elephant. What a lovely way to end our safari to the Masai Mara Game Reserve! We stayed with him for a while, and in the final shot, taken just as we were moving away, Mr. Guy - ever the romantic - got the impression that Mr. Sunday Elephant was perhaps - like us - a little sad to see us leave.

But leave we must, so off we went to the gate, to head out of the game reserve and back to Nairobi. A fine way to bring our safari to its end! And as for the question about Mr. Guy's favorite animal, of all the wildlife he's seen? Well, I think that question has been answered now, hasn't it?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Masai Mara (13): An Historic Sighting

While I had made it clear to Charles and to Tomas that I would dearly love to see more elephants, as many as we could fine, I was pretty comfortable with the idea that one doesn't necessarily see what one expects (or wants) to see on a safari.

So I was pretty satisfied with our previous sighting, and if that had to be the extent of my elephant viewing, I would not allow myself to be disappointed. That was a magnificent animal and even though, while early on in our visit with him we speculated about why he was out there all alone (even wondering if he were ill or indisposed in some way), Tomas assured us that it is not unusual for a single elephant - especially a male - to be out by himself. And I knew a little of that, for in my readings I had come across one author who commented about how males are generally "invited" to leave their birth group when they are in their early teams. While some of them roam about in bachelor herds, it's not at all unusual to see a male by himself. After all, he's hardly in any danger, with all his bulk, and except for the humans (especially the poachers, but they are pretty much on the wane now, particularly in Kenya where there is a "shoot-to-kill" law for poachers caught in the act), I don't think the male elephants have much to worry about.

Which leads us to what had to be one of the most remarkable days of my life. We were out on an afternoon game drive, and we had already seen some lions and even a big ol' rhino over on the top of a hill, too far away to photograph. But there didn't seem to be much else about (except, as always, the impala, the African buffalo, the wildebeest - they're always around!).

So we just kept on driving, leaving the track when we wanted to and meandering on across the grass on several occasions. There were very few people out on game drives this afternoon, and only a few vans and 4WDs could be seen from time to time, so we ourselves were pretty much on our own.

And yes, from time to time one of us would comment about how nice it would be to see some more elephants. And in fact Tomas did spot a herd quite a distance away, deep in the forest, but we could hardly see them they were so far. Then Charles saw a herd off in another direction. These, too, were very far away, and there was a lot of grassland between us and them, and some pretty deep ravines, but they looked pretty inviting. So we didn't debate long.

"Hey, guys, we're in this for some adventure. Let's go for it."

So Mr. Charles took out across the grass, with the van bumping and jumping all along the way, and Tomas and me standing in the back and holding on for dear llife. We were way off the track by now, but as we began to climb slowly up the other side of the ravine, where the grass was much shorter, there up in front of us was one of the most magnificent herds of elephant I could ever hope to see. We drove up a little nearer, turned off the engine, and just sat there and feasted our eyes.

Pretty soon the herd began to wander off into the forest, and lo and behold! There was another huge herd (we're talking about 12-15 adults and who knows how many calves?), off on the other side. Then a big bull (massive - probably one of the biggest elephants I've ever seen) went off by himself, into a different part of the woods, and as we watched him move away, we realized that there in front of us, off in the clearing, was a huge herd of giraffe, all coming out of the trees one at a time, looking around, them coming out into the open area. We drove over a little closer, again turned off the engine, and just sat there.

Soon more giraffes, more elephants, and of great surprise to us, zebras. I tried to keep taking pictures but it was hard. I was just too excited, but some of what I took - probably far too many! - are here at Mr. Guy's Masai Mara (13) Album.

And it was an amazing spectacle. It was as if we were at some sort of elephant-zebra-giraffe show, and we were surrounded on all sides. And off to the right, Mr. Big Bull was having himself a grand old time, snapping off trees so he could get to the juicy leaves at the top of each one.

We hadn't thought about it, but as we were parked in a clearing, we could easily be observed by the other tour vehicles on their own game drives, and pretty soon two or three other vans drove up to join us. All the drivers and guides know the rules of the road, of course, and they all thanked us as they came up alongside, and we all sat quietly, saying little to one another but sharing some good stories and observations. We even starting counting the animals, but I soon last track (Charles counted the giraffes, and he got up to 38 before he stopped!).

It was a remarkable experience, and as the afternoon began to wind down - and we knew we would have to get back to the road before dark - would want to get back to the road before dark, we quietly said our good-byes to the other guides and tourists. And one fellow, who looked like he could have come out of a 1950s Hollywood film about the tough old guide who leads the great white hunter around, really surprised us.

"I've been doing this a long time," he said. "I've never seen anything like this. This is historic."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Masai Mara (12): Elephants

So perhaps it's time to 'fess up. If any readers of these posts have noticed a kind of lead-up, you're right. There has been so much to write about, and so much to see and share, and since we're all agreed that this is the experience of a lifetime for Mr. Guy (who ordinarily doesn't think of travel and adventure as something he would do, if he didn't have to, say, for work), I've tried to put some theme in these posts. Particularly this last one, to the Masai Mara Game Reserve, was just so full of adventure and splendid things to see, I just couldn't do it without some structure.

And typically for Mr. Guy, the structure has a shape leading up to something. So before we say good-by to Masai Mara, I will share what is probably going to be my one true love (well, in the animal kingdom).

Ever since last autumn, when I first arrived and Charles took me to the elephant orphanage (where I'm going again - with friends - this Sunday, as my own special treat to myself before I leave Kenya for a while), I've been fascinated by the elephants. I've always loved them, of course, but had no idea that seeing them in their natural habitat would be such a gripping experience. And since I didn't have a camera when I went to the elephant orphanage in November, we can expect some photographs of that treat next week.

In the meantime, though, I want to share the Masai Mara elephant experiences. I've felt a little slighted on these several Kenya safaris - the ones that have come before now - because so many of the places we go are too small for the elephants to roam freely, and you just don't see very many of them. To really enjoy the elephants, you have to go to a really big place, such as Masai Mara.

The African bush elephant is a pretty remarkable creature, and no matter how much I read about him, I continue to be amazed. First of all, he can weigh as much as 13,000 pounds (I find that really hard to believe but why not - he is huge!). And he communicates not only with that trumpeting blast you hear from time to time, but through very sensitive vibrations through the skin of the trunk and the feet. We human beings cannot hear these "subsonic rumblings" (one author called them) but for the elephants they can be sensed miles away.
Just amazing.

I love the fact that the elephants are so prone to stay together, although as the photographs at Mr. Guy's Masai Mara (12) Album demonstrates, we came across several situation where a single elephant was out in the area all alone. No matter. Charles and I had a good time watching them, and on the first occasion, it was Tomas - our Maasai guide - who found this guy all by himself. So we approached as close as we could, I tried to be very careful with the camera, and we sat silently for a long time, just watching and absorbing all he had to share with us.

And then, after he had had enough to eat, we watched him wander away and sure enough, there were some of his pals (family?) all in a bunch, and it was equally lovely to watch him join them and wander on into the forest. What a nice first game drive! And our first elephant.

Masai Mara (11): Giraffes

So the debate continues: What is Mr. Guy’s Favorite Animal? After all those affectionate words about the lion in the previous post, and all that’s been said in earlier posts about the docile gracefulness of the zebra, a picture seems to be falling into place.

Careful. We haven’t spent much time speaking about the giraffe and if you want to think about graceful, it’s hard to compare the movements – and the visual beauty – of a giraffe quietly moving across the plain, with some lovely foliage climbing up the hillside behind him. Pretty spectacular. George Balanchine couldn’t have staged it better.

As for the zebras… Their gracefulness will be pretty clear, I think, in a later post (but truth to tell, although there are plenty of them at the Masai Mara Game Reserve, for some reason there did not seem to be as many herds of zebra wandering about when I was there, just as I’ve observed on other safaris – again supporting the idea that a game drive is basically just a drive that provides the potential to see the wildlife – there are no guarantees).

But oh, the giraffes. Until I got to Africa, I never knew there were actually three races of giraffe, and truth to tell I’m not sure I’m clever enough to tell them apart. Apparently their distinctive differences have to do with where they live, the Maasai giraffe in the south and east of Kenya (and presumably what I saw at Masai Mara). In the north there is the reticulated giraffe – now endangered – and in the west the Rothschild’s giraffe. I remember Charles pointing the Rothschild giraffe out to me as we travelled on one of the safaris – I remember the name – but I’m afraid I didn’t look closely to see what made it different. Or perhaps it was when Charles and I visited the Giraffe Center in Nairobi last autumn at some point, or when I posted some pictures of giraffes from Hell’s Gate National Park on 6th January.

But it doesn’t matter. No matter which of the three I see, I continue to be amazed at the beauty and the elegance of the giraffe, and it’s easy to see just how captivated I am, for I’m anxious to share even more giraffe photographs, these from Masai Mara, Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (11) Album.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Masai Mara (10): Lions

According to the people who study these things, there are about 250-300 lions who have territories in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, and the general consensus is that – if the weather is not a problem (which it seldom is) – travelers are practically guaranteed a lion sighting. 

And having just seen a film a few days earlier describing the game reserve as “The Lion’s Battlefield,” I was pretty well geared up to enjoy some lion sightings.

I was not disappointed.

In fact, as I worked with organizing my photographs - Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (10) Album - I realized that I had actually had four sightings, and each was a little different and a little special.

With the first, it was just one of “those” moments people talk about. Driving along, quietly observing the landscape, with Tomas watching carefully to see what we could see, Charles decided to leave the train we were on and move across some tall grass to another trail he had spotted at the top of a hill. We got there, and noted that the trail then curved around, going a little out of sight. It was a rough spot, so we slowed down almost to a stop, and as we inched along and rounded the curve, there she was. Probably one of the most regal lionesses I’ve ever seen, and not the least perturbed that we were nearby. She didn’t know she was stretched out across the road, I suppose, and she really didn’t pay any attention to us, just lay there, looking around.

But Tomas, so smart, and so experienced, whispered, “Watch her.”

She looked around at us and with the most beautiful grace, simply stood up, languidly, and strolled off into the grass. She wasn’t bothered by us and didn’t expect us to be bothered by her. It was just the way she was spending the day.

We next saw a group of lions (just three or four – not really big enough to be a “pride” I suppose) just ambling along through the grass, apparently looking for some shade for a quiet rest.

Then the sleeping lion. Oh, so beautiful and peaceful, just having the nicest time, not bothered by anyone and not bothering anyone. A few feet away, under a tree, another lion, this one a lioness with her babies, and we got to see them waking up, planning where they would plan next, I suppose.

And then the real joy: Mr. and Mrs. Lion, so elegant, so quiet, just relaxed and watching the world go by. What a sight!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Masai Mara (9): The Animals

So now we come to why Mr. Guy has come to the Masai Mara Game Reserve. The views are without a doubt magnificent to see, and there’s no question but that coming to Masai Mara to see the landscape is a very special experience. Indeed, I imagine there probably are people who travel around the world to look at the different scenery we humans have been blessed with. When I reflect back on seeing such things as the national parks in America (and thank you, Ken Burns, for last autumn’s exceptional programme – want to do something like that on Kenya’s national parks?), and the special treats I’ve had visiting some of them with family and friends, I can understand why viewing the landscape is a very special experience. And, yes, that first visit to Yosemite 13 months ago sort of changed my life, in terms of appreciating the natural beauties that are here for us to see, and that same special feeling came to me again last winter, when I was left in awe by the majesty of the scenery at Hell’s Gate National Park here in Kenya.

But it’s not just about the scenery, is it? It is about the people, who you’ll meet and what you’ll learn from them when you go on safari but – perhaps? – equally important it’s about the animals, what you’ll see and learn about all the other creatures that are out there. Friends have a good time playing with my on-going debate about which of the African animals is my favorite and I’m still playing the which-one-do-I-choose-? game. It’s only a game, of course, because all the animals are so special, but as I hope the next few posts will demonstrate, it’s kind of nice to think about what makes these animals so special, and why knowing about them and seeing them contribute so much to one’s understanding of the wonders of nature.  

This first collection of animal photographs is presented just to give you a general idea of the variety of animals that can be seen at Masai Mara (or indeed throughout Africa, depending on viewing and driving conditions). On this safari – although it wasn’t particularly part of my plan anyway - the big five was narrowed down to Mr. Guy’s “big four.” These were the African buffalo, the African bush elephant, the lion, and the rhino, and the last probably shouldn’t count anyway as I saw rhinos only a few times, usually alone (not in herds) and very far away. No leopards on this safari and in fact no leopards since I’ve been in Africa this time, although as I’ve noted I had my splendid leopard experience in Kruger National Park in South Africa (which no one believed!). The only other (slight) disappointment was that I didn’t see any cheetahs in the Masai Mara Game Reserve and that surprised me, as there is a healthy popular of about cheetahs on the plains and one usually has the opportunity to see the cheetah. Next time.

I hadn’t even thought about looking for the mongoose but – as the first photo in Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (9) Album shows, we did just chance upon a large group of mongoose, probably the dwarf mongoose, since these little fellows are highly social and we saw a bunch of them all together on a huge termite hill. But they didn’t seem small enough to be considered “dwarf” so perhaps they were the banded mongoose, the slender mongoose, or the marsh mongoose. They were definitely not the white-tailed mongoose. Nice sighting.

Other of the less spectacular (shall we say?) animals were the impala – so many of them! – and the ugly old wildebeest. This last is a southern hemisphere phenomenon (we don’t have them in North America), and one usually sees many of the wildebeest together, since they are highly gregarious (and it’s the wildebeest – some two million of them – which make up the large portion of the travelling wildlife in the annual Great Migration). Sometimes confused with other antelope-type animals, when one gets a little closer it’s easy to spot the wildebeest because of its slighter build and its shaggy beard.

And as shown in the photographs, there were a few others, including a delightful encounter (well, we were in the van) with a funny-looking spotted hyena heading off into the high grass, and the very beautiful and elegant topi, shown in the first picture above. This latter has a darker and glossier coat than some of the other large antelopes, and is easily recognized by its bright yellow lower legs. Not quite so gregarious as some of the other animals, the topi is usually found in small herds (probably for protection) and prefers being in the open grassland.

The so-called “Common Hippopotamus” is another spectacular animal – not for its beauty, of course, but just because it is what it is. There is an amazing collection of hippos at the Masai Mara Game Reserve, and there are a number of “hippo pools” scattered throughout. We chose to head for a little more high-end viewing at the Keekerok Lodge (although it didn’t cost anything, since the management of the lodge long ago evidently decided that it’s in its best interest to simply invite safari visitors to walk through the main reception area and be greeted by the delightfully friendly staff). At Keekerok there is a large built-up wooden ramp available for walking about the hippo pool, and they’re all there, hard to see of course because they stay mostly submerged most of the time! But we got to see enough of them, and, yes, to hear that amazing sound they emit from time to time. And we were even lucky enough to see one of the hippos emerge from the water and head out somewhere (in the final hippo photo) to, I suppose, have some morning meal or something.

The African buffalo, too, is also very common to Masai Mara (and elsewhere in Africa). They’re pretty big (up to two tonnes in weight) and back when the “big five” categories were being designated, the white hunters regarded this great ox as the most dangerous of African animals. They are sort of all over the place (there are estimated to be a population of over 1 million of these animals spread out across Africa) and they are not shy about charging anyone (or any vehicle) that gets between them and where they are headed. In fact, because they are so grumpy by nature, especially the older African buffalo known as the “Dago Boys,” they are best avoided except from a distance. They love to wallow in the mud (“dago”), and while they are notably quieter than other animals of their type, they do move about a great deal and they are noted for stopping to stand still and “stare down” a possible intruder or annoying visitor. In most cases, I’ve been told, this is because they simply don’t see very well. They are chronically myopic!

Finally, I will say just a word about the majestic owl I found sitting at the top of a big tree. As I’ve noted before, I’m sorry I’m not more learned about birds, and my lack of knowledge in this area sort of restricts my pleasure when I am out and about (and observing how serious some other people are about birds). I did get to enjoy – and learn a little – at the huge collection of stuffed birds at the Nairobi National Museum, but I’m purely a crass amateur when it comes to birds. Still, I could not help but be impressed with this beautiful sight, and it makes a nice concluding photograph for this post. 

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Masai Mara (8): Maasai Dances (Women)

It is interesting to note that with the women’s dancing, there is much more gentleness and fluidity, so once more those preconceptions sneak in and apparently are part of every culture. The women line up and begin singing soft, sort of squeaky tunes (no one the same, I gather) and the cacophony is pretty amazing. But it’s not loud, and it all seems to come together.

And of course this is nothing special for the little ones, and if they feel like walking across the field to join their mamas, why not?

The so-called “story” of this dance is something to do with a maiden in a nearby community who has been taken (or will be taken) in marriage with one of the men of the manyatta, and the performance we see here is a welcoming ceremony of sorts to the young woman, to bring her into the community of women who already live in the manyatta. Again, it’s very fluid, as I hope you can see from the photographs in Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (8) Album, and as the women’s dresses float in the breeze as they move, it is a lovely thing to watch.

Masai Mara (7): Maasai Dances (Men)

As we move on into the relations between the men and the women of the manyatta, perhaps this from a recent books I read will help:

“As Maasai society is polygamous, an elder can take as many wives as he can afford and father as many children as possible. Conventionally, a Maasai man of the active Ilmoran (warrior) age-set is forbidden from marrying or starting his own manyatta until the next ilmoran generation is initiative, when he and his peers – typically in their early to mid-30s – become junior elders, the group responsible for political and legislative decisions. Women, by contrast, are usually married off in their teenage years, leading to a large age discrepancy between a man and his wives.”

So I was a little misinformed when I was trying to describe the lives that Tomas and his brothers and half-brothers live. Now I understand a little better, especially since Tomas was so good about explaining what we would see when the men and women would come to “dance for you,” as he put it.

It was, needless to say, different from any other dancing I’ve ever seen and yet, it had such typical connections with the dancing we expect from men and women, especially in terms of their usual roles. For example, in this series of photographs (look in Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (7) Album) I am taken by how athletic and energetic the men’s movement is, almost as if we were watching one of the sort of “competition” men’s dances at the New York City Ballet. It’s very rough, very raw, and full of athletic prowess.

Charles and I weren’t even asked if we wanted to don the shukas. They were just draped over us as the dance was about to begin. The music is mostly sung, although that great horn we’re holding is used later (as you’ll see) by one of the “brothers” while the others dance. 
The music is more of a rhythmic chanting, but punctuated with heavy grunts and smacking sounds, and, yes, there is a sort of story to the dance.

As Tomas tells it, the dance represents the athletic strength of the young men (well, I suppose a little older than that, if the above quoted information is correct and the men are looking to marry). The dance is shaped to demonstrate that the men are strong enough to marry up with a girl of a nearby village (not manyatta) and the idea is that the man who can jump the highest is the most eligible of young men. Not sure about all this, but that’s how it was explained to Charles and me.

Masai Mara (6): Maasai Fire w/ Sticks

One of our most intriguing findings, in visiting the Maasai and getting to know them through Tomas, is just how little they depend on things that are purchased. They do all their own medicine, as we all know, and hearing Tomas describe some of the ways they use herbs and leaves and bark and such is an amazing learning experience. And one that puts the modern Westerner a little in awe of the abilities that these people have, all crafts and skills passed down from generation to generation.

And quite naturally giving us pause when we think about how with our modern knowledge management techniques we presume we can help contribute to this particular type of knowledge sharing. I’m not so sure we can. We’re very good at capturing and sharing knowledge about what we’ve been dealing with ourselves, as a culture for some centuries. But can we capture and manage what these people know? Perhaps Prusak and Davenport are right: you can’t manage knowledge – certainly not this kind of knowledge – but you can work with knowledge, their definition of knowledge management.

As we arrived at the manyatta, even before Tomas had explained to me about the wooden stickfence, he pulled off a few leaves from a shrub and handed it to me.

“Sandpaper,” he said.

I was a little confused, but it soon became clear to me how important this particular bush is. Its leaf does indeed feel like a sheet of medium-to-fine sandpaper. As we visited the manyatta, he pointed out to me quite a few situations in which the sandpaper leaf is used to make the wood smooth, the most obvious being the beautiful wooden sticks every Maasai man uses and walks with. 
Young or old, boy or man, it doesn’t matter. No Maasai man walks along without his stick, and they are beautifully rubbed to be as smooth as they can be. 

The most spectacular use of the sandpaper leaf has to be in preparing the sticks for making fire. We all heard about this when we were in the Boy Scouts, but I’m not sure any of it ever made sense, or even caught on. But these guys have it down to a fine art. They don’t bother with matches. It’s pure elbow (or hand-rubbing) grease. The trick is to gauge out a little hole in one stick, and then you trim a long smooth stick, specially chosen and carefully cut to match the hold, and the spin the long stick round and round as fast as you can, using the flat of your hands held together. It’s hard work, and often three or four or more men will be used to get it going but, as you can see in Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (6) Album, you do soon start to smell smoke and pretty soon a little puff of smoke drifts up and then there’s more and lo and behold! There’s your little red coal which you can then use with the tender twigs to get a bigger fire going. Amazing.

Masai Mara (5): Maasai Manyatta

We had seen many of these family compounds, known in Maasai as a manyatta, as we drove around the Maasai countryside, both on this safari and when we had returned from Kisii some weeks back. They are not villages, as such. Instead they are compounds where the extended family of one man lives. Let me try to explain (I’m not sure I can).

The whole situation centers on the man, and I have been led to believe the situation Tomas shared with us (when I described it to others) is fairly typical. His manyatta, which we see here from a distance, is a compound of houses created by his grandfather, for his six wives and their children. Tomas is one of the children of one of the grandfather’s sons, and his father lives in the compound with his three wives and their children. Each wife has her own dwelling (which the women build, using heavy sticks and cow dung but unlike the houses we saw in Nyanguru Village in Kisii, these houses are not covered over with dried mud, to provide a baked-on plaster-type of finish). As you can see in the photographs in Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (5) Album, these houses are pretty raw. The structure of the manyatta is circular, with an outside fence made up of sticks and branches and dried leaves, about six or seven feet in height, and it is there to keep the lions away from the cows (we were told). There is one narrow entrance – about three feet wide – and it is covered by a separate gathering of branches and twigs, put in place when the people of the family retire for the night.

The cows? Yes, they are driven home each night, from wherever it is they are grazing, and they come to the center of the manyatta. In some manyattas, there is also an enclosed circular space in the center for the cows, but in Tomas’s manyatta, there is no enclosure. The cows are just brought in and wander about in the space inside the circle of the fence and the dwellings.

Many children were about and, as usual, I was fascinated by them, but unlike other African children I have met, these had nothing to do with Charles and me (although they kept an eye on us all the time! – they weren’t quite sure what we were up to). We weren’t invited to speak with them, or pay much attention to them, and it seemed to me that they liked it that way.

Although I felt a little as if doing so would invade the families’ privacy, Tomas kept inviting me to take pictures, assuring me that we were welcome to take as many photographs as we liked. And with all the colors of the shukas and the other beautiful garments the people were wearing, it was a wonderful photo opportunity, and I had a good time. And learned a lot, and now I know, for example, why most shukas are bright red, or some version of it. Wildlife are uncomfortable with the color red (associating it with fire, perhaps?) and one wears red in the forest to keep the animals away. It was a fact we discovered ourselves one morning, when we unexpectedly found ourselves nearing a herd of elephants. Tomas and I, standing in the van with the top open in the cool morning air, had wrapped ourselves in shukas and as we got even not very close, the elephants started moving away. Tomas surmised it wasn’t the van – which elephants see all the time – but the bright red fabric we were wrapped in. Could be.

As for the residents of the manyatta, I had a hard time getting my arms around all the relations, but apparently Tomas and his brothers whom we met and interacted with – a little too old to live in their parents’ house as they have already been through their initiation and “warrior” period (which I’ll try to explain later) – are among 26 siblings of their father and three different mothers. All told, some 120+ people live in the manyatta, all descended from (or connected with, I suppose) Tomas’s grandfather.

As for family life, here’s the picture I get: the men concentrate on hunting. 
They use only spears and knives, and in the course of our time together, Tomas invited us to go on a nature walk. When asked what our protection would be, should we come across any wildlife, he assured us that his spear and his knife would be all that was needed, and he was quite proud of the fact that he had had his four years in the bush, and he would be able to protect us. Charles and I declined the nature walk, with great respect.

So the men concentrate on hunting and tending the cows (the Maasai don’t say “cattle” when they speak English), sometimes going far away during certain seasons of the year. The boys tend the cows (and goats and sheep) closer to home and, as I’ve noted, drive the cows home every evening, to be enclosed within the manyatta.

The open field in the center of the manyatta is used for the young men’s initiation rite, in which the grandfather supervises their circumcision in the open area (I presume it is at a time when the cows are not there). There is an important stake in the ground where the grandfather stands, and all the ceremonies take place in front of him, with all the residents of the manyatta present. The boys are then given their spear and knife and sent to the bush, where they live for four years, learning how to take care of themselves and each other (they usually go in small groups, sometimes as few as two, but never alone).

It was after telling us this that Tomas invited us to enter the house. I was a little frightened, not the least because I had to cross over the wet muddy field where the cows come in each night and I had the distinct impression that what I was walking through was not just mud (and in fact as you can see in one photograph, Tomas extended his hand to help me when we left the house, as it is very easy for a muzungu to slip and fall in the much, apparently happening often!).

Inside the house, it was pitch black (we used the flash – at Tomas’s suggestion – to take the pictures) but we inched our way through, into a small room, probably six feet by six feet. This was the main room, with cooking apparatus and a hard wooden bench on which I was invited to sit, as it was the seat of honor. This seat of honor is also the bed for the parents. In a tiny room off to the side was where the children sleep, and in an even smaller tiny room, a long enclosure for the “baby cows” (the Maasai don’t say “calves”). Altogether, eleven people sleep in this tiny space.

As I said, Tomas and his adult brothers (some shown here, and many in the outdoor photos) live elsewhere, but I was never told where. They are all looking to marry, but they must each collect a dowry of at least ten cows plus another ten to indicate their developing wealth and since Tomas – in his mid twenties – doesn’t yet have these resources, he and his brothers in the same situation must wait.

And on the other delicate subject that was raised, quite openly and not by me or Charles? Impregnating a girlfriend isn’t really a problem because she has the baby and when she is married the baby comes along as part of her family. Say, what? This was a little hard to deal with, coming up as spontaneously as it did, but I got the picture.

As we prepared to leave the house, Tomas proudly found the lion head he wears for ceremonial occasions. He killed the lion when he was a warrior (I don’t think that is quite the right word but it’s what the Maasai use to describe the young men living in the bush), and it, along with his initiation ceremony, is proof of his manhood. He and all his brothers have – or aspire to – the status of manhood to define them as they move into their lives as adults.

Masai Mara (4): Sopa Lodge

In a game reserve as large as Masai Mara, it’s not surprising that there are quite a number of places to sleep. Several lodges – mostly high end – make the safari experience a particularly pleasant one and, as noted earlier, it’s nice to have the lodge staff willing to prepare a packed breakfast for an early morning game drive. I also hear that some lodges prepare picnic lunches for guests, but as I was not planning to be out in the middle of the day, it was not something I looked into.

There are less expensive places as well, so having a safari in the Masai Mara Game Reserve does not have to be a budget-breaking experience. And for those intrepid souls who want to sleep out in Africa, there are sign-posted campgrounds (some noted as having “limited facilities” and some even stating “no facilities”) but the idea of sleeping so close to the wildlife just didn’t have enough appeal to me, so I did not investigate the campsites. Even in the lodges it isn’t unusual to see signs recommending that guests avoid wandering off the blocked off paths and – so I’ve been told – there are even some lodges must be accompanied to their cottages by a lodge employee (whether the employee is armed or not is a question I did not bring up). And at the Sopa Lodge, for those of us departing on an early game drive – leaving a little before dawn – each of us was met by a uniformed employee to walk us to reception, to pick up our packed breakfasts and meet our drivers.

The staff at the Sopa Lodge (it is a chain of several, 
in both Kenya and Tanzania) is famous for its friendliness, but I honestly don’t see it as any different from any other Kenyan people I’ve come in contact with. But the name fits (“sopa” means “how are you?” or “hello” in the Maasai tribal language), and as you can see from this photograph, in addition to the friendliness of the staff, another pleasing characteristic of Sopa Lodge is the spectacular view. Spread out over a handsome ledge in the mountainside, you can see for miles, and as shown in Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (4) Album, it’s a very pleasant resort indeed. The entrance is on several levels, with guests entering from the top and walking down a nice flight of stairs to reception, where they are greeted with hot towels “to wash the dust of the road away” – a gesture that couldn’t have been more appreciated. And the views in the album that seem to be from someone’s porch? That’s right. That’s what I saw from my door as I went out each time.

From the main entrance, the stairs lead down to the main lobby, the bar, and the very elegant glassed-in dining room, in front of which the monkeys put on quite a show (or at least they did the one morning I had breakfast in the dining room). They’re forbidden of course but they make their way up to the glass and when I saw one server step out on the stairs to throw something and them and make them scurry away (there must have been thirty of them), they all dashed into the trees and the next thing you knew they were throwing things back at him! And they are determined little devils, even having figured out how to get under the overhanging eaves outside the dining room and make their way into the rafters inside. Quite a lively scene, I can tell you!

The main entrance has the two lovely mosaic-type art works to greet visitors, and all the public rooms and even the cottages have very nice African art in them. The d├ęcor is not surprisingly African rustic, with much of the furniture made of smoothed over rough-cut wood and the upholstered furniture using great sections of the Maasai shuka as cushion and other fabric areas.

One of the great attractions of the Sopa Lodge was the availability of Maasai guides. Charles had expected we would have local guides, and indeed while I was resting after our journey he came upon Tomas waiting at the gate to the lodge, offering his services. Having experienced the rangers as guides in the national parks and local citizens as guides in other reserves, I was surprised at how little Tomas was offering to charge to be our guide. Needless to say, at his remarkably low price, we hired him on immediately (that’s his photo in the album). He speaks English very well and, indeed, his name was given to him by his English schoolteacher when he was a boy.

His first suggestion – although he was very delicate about it, as he did not want to appear to be forcing us – was to invite us to his “village,” as he put it. In fact, he was inviting us to his manyatta, they typical family compound where the Maasai people live, and although several manyattas – very spread out – might make up something like what Westerners think of as a “village,” what Tomas was offering was a look at life as it is lived in the Maasai countryside. We asked if there would be a charge and he said that would be up to us, as it would not be part of the guide fee. We suggested an amount and he seemed pleased, for as it turned out both our contribution to see the Maasai manyatta and his fee were not for him, but – as with all financial resources coming into the family – were to be contributed to a common fund for the manyatta.

Now with Tomas prepared to lead us into the afternoon, we took him up on his offer to visit his manyatta, after which we would have our first game drive in the reserve, to see what we could see before nightfall. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Masai Mara (3): The Game Reserve and Views

Probably the most famous and, as some say, arguably the best of Kenya’s national parks and game reserves, the Masai Mara Game Reserve is famous for both the views and the animals (I’ll try to describe the latter in future – probably several future – posts). It’s a great combination of features, with much open grassland and, since there has been so much rain in the past few months, the grass when I went to Masai Mara was especially high – hiding of course all sorts of things and beasts that don’t have to be exposed because the grass is short.

Indeed, the high grass provoked much fear in Charles and me at one point, as we grappled with the one truly stupid thing we saw on the trip.

In Africa, on safari and especially on game drives and when there is wildlife about, one never NEVER gets out of one’s vehicle. It’s just too dangerous, and the animals don’t know what to make of it. If you want a closer look, you look out of the vehicle or, in my case for this safari (and which many people do), you stand up and look out the roof of the van. But you don’t get out.

As we were moving along on one of our game drives, there were very few other vans and vehicles about, but up in front of us, about three-quarters of a mile away, we saw a van stop and three young men jumped out, obviously in a hurry to respond to the call of nature, as it’s delicately put in some circles. They did what they had to do and got back in the van, and drove away. We were not close enough to say anything, and it would have been inappropriate anyway (although when we saw this happen on another occasion – at Lake Nakuru National Park – our guide was a ranger and she make it clear to the offending tourist that he would be arrested if she saw him attempt to leave his vehicle again – and he hadn’t even got out but had only opened the door as if he were going to alight from his vehicle), but what we saw was frightening. These fellows were taking a chance, for with the grass so high, certainly hyenas and jackals could be there waiting to attack and even big guys like the cats could be well hidden. Stupid move.

Back to Masai Mara. The game reserve is big, some 1,510-sq-km (583-sq-mile) of it, and in addition to grassland, there are rocky hills, massive woodlands and forests, and simply beautiful views from just about anywhere. I’ve tried to capture a variety of views, shown here in Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (3) Album – there is no (2) - and I hope readers get an idea of the genuine glory of this beautiful place. I’m particularly taken – as is evident from these photographs – with the sky, and how different in looks in parts of the Masai Mara. I love the different cloud formations, and it is at a time like this that I’m sorry I’m not a scientist. It would be good to have some of the scientific background for all this beauty. But then it might spoil the emotional pleasure, I suppose.

Game drives are a remarkable activity. When on a safari such as this, while there are campgrounds, with very limited facilities it seems. And I have no idea what kind of security one has sleeping in a tent on the edge of the jungle but since I don’t plan to be doing it, I won’t give it too much thought.

Depending on one’s relationship with one’s driver (or if one is part of a package deal in which a group of tourists will be going out together), the game drive is simply that, and nothing more: an opportunity to go out into the game preserve and observe the wildlife in their natural habitat. And with so much variety in the habitat, one never has any idea what will be seen. Of course people get their hopes up, especially wanting to see the so-called “big five” (African buffalo, African bush elephant, Leopard, Lion, and Rhino – all habitats, by the way, of Masai Mara Game Reserve), and there are so many other varieties of animals that it’s almost impossible not to see something. But there are no guarantees with respect to a game drive, and all sorts of conditions can affect what one sees.

Weather, for one, affects whether the wildlife will be out where it can be seen. Also the time of day is important. Most animals – especially predators – have had their chase and their fill by the middle of the day, and when it is too hot, that’s when they rest, sometimes going into as deep a sleep as they would at their normal sleeping times. Other animals, of course, are nocturnal so you’re not going to see them anyway unless you get up very early.

For me, the best method is just to plan a few game drives, at different parts of the day. I’m an early person anyway, so I’ve had pretty good luck going out about 6.00 or 6.30 am (most fairly nice lodges will prepare a packed breakfast to eat on the drive, since breakfast isn’t often served that early in the lodge). On this safari, I did that on two days. I’ve found the morning game drives to be the best, and you can schedule them for as long as you like (mine usually go about 3 to 3 ½ hours, and I get to see a lot). For late afternoon drives, we usually begin about 3.30 or 4.00 pm and stay out until dark (most lodges don’t serve dinner until 7.30 or so, sometimes even later).

Masai Mara is very famous as being the center of the famous “Great Migration,” when hundreds of thousands of grazing move from the Serengeti up through Kenya to follow the rains and the good grass. It’s said to be one of the most spectacular wildlife spectacles in the world, and I’ve seen films of it, and the Great Migration usually runs from mid-July to early September, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to return to Masai Mara this year. It would be a shame to miss it, but one can only absorb so much safari travel.

Masai Mara (2): A Kenya Police Story (With a Happy Ending)

But before we get to Masai Mara, a story about a Kenya traveler experience. Don’t know if it’s typical, but it provided much entertainment during the journey from Nairobi to Masai Mara.

Caution. Caution. Caution.

Always be on guard.

Life is different in Kenya, life is very hard, and there are bad people about. The schemes and crooked-ness that people have come up with in order to part one from his or her money (even in “normal” business situations, for heaven’s sake!) leave the visitor with the impression that one is almost never safe.

And remember, for many in Kenya, the operable construct is “Muzungu = Rich.”

There’s nothing you can do about it, and if you’re muzungu - originally meaning European but now referring to any “white man” (or woman) – you just learn to live with it. It’s expected that you are rich and always have lots of money on you.

So one has to be careful, and when there are situations that are unusual, combined with the (not to put too fine a point on it) general lax attitudes of anyone in a law enforcement role, the necessity to give a “little something” to have the most basic action take place, and the general security situation that can be pretty unstable, one has to be on guard all the time. And, yes, there are those stories: the awful murders and robberies and situations like, for example, a roadway accident - of which there are many – and you just keep going, for if you stop to help your own life will be in danger, as has been proven many, many times over.

So a basic rule of travel in Kenya is: Watch out! Do not let anyone talk you into anything. Do not – under any circumstances – allow anyone to travel with you.

Enter Benson, my and Charles’s private police officer. On our way to Masai Mara, we had stopped for breakfast about two hours after leaving Nairobi. Narok is a town which is the much-anticipated turning-off point for the rest of the journey to Masai Mara, and the popular place to stop for fuel up and have a meal before you tackle the final two-thirds of the journey.

And here comes Benson.

Handsome, tall, ordinary civilian clothes, about 25-28 years old, Benson approaches us as we are getting out of the van to go into the restaurant.

Benson is a police officer, he says. He is stationed at the Masai Mara barracks, he has been up in Narok since early yesterday, he cannot get transportation back to Masai Mara, and now he is kind of desperate to find someone to let him ride with them. He’s apparently been trying since late the night before. Could he please ride with us? He reaches into his pocket for his wallet, and although there are plenty of people around and it’s broad daylight, when he reaches into his pocket Charles and I both sort of instinctively step away.

But it’s just his wallet, and from it he pulls out his laminated police identification, and assures us he is legit.

What to do?

We leave Benson waiting while we go into the restaurant – a fine outdoor garden that is a very pleasant place for breakfast and a deep discussion.

And boy, do we discuss!

Should we? Shouldn’t we? What if he’s not legit? What if he has a group of people waiting for us down the road? What if he’s carrying a gun (we had asked him if he was armed and he assured us he was not)? If there’s a gun in his duffle bag, how do we keep him separated from the duffle bag? (That one wasn’t so tough: we would just put his bag in the rear of the van, with our own luggage.)

Finally, Charles hit upon the solution: it’s a few kilometers out of the way, but there was a police roadblock not too far along the highway, a little beyond where we were turning off the highway, and we would just take Benson there and have him checked out.

Which is exactly what we did. The policeman who looked at his identification indicated that Benson is indeed a real policeman, praised Charles and me for coming to ask him, and we went on our way, turning back to get to the turn-off from the highway onto the road – such as it was! – to take us to Masai Mara. Once there (long, long bumpy trip), as we approached the gate, other policemen and guards recognized Benson, were very happy to see him (apparently it’s a big deal to go away from the police barracks for precisely this reason, because it’s so hard to get transport back), and after we took care of the bureaucratic details of getting into the game reserve (and paying the enormous admission fees!), we entered and took Benson straight to his camp, better for the experience because he had provided us with good conversation, interesting stories, and, best of all, much insight about dealing with the many details for successful game drives in Masai Mara.

Masai Mara (1): Beginning A Very Special Safari Experience

One of the pleasures of life in Africa is the nearness of nature and the great beauty of nature, as one of my early guides described living in Kenya. You just can’t help being so thankful to be here and experience all this beauty and sometimes it’s almost a spiritual or philosophical experience.

As readers of these posts know, I’m doing my best to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’ve not been reluctant to go off on safari. I’ve had several private safari experiences (and I’ve  even learned to say “Safiri Salama” when I’ve met up with other travelers and we part, wishing one another “safe travels”).

All my safari activities have been arranged by the wonderful Charles, my driver, and by now he is probably my best friend in Africa. When I think what he has led me to and the experiences and adventures that I’ve had through his good efforts, I’m am very humbled. And very thankful. I could never have had this African adventure with my Charles.

Masai Mara was, in many ways, a grand (and planned-for and thus expected) climax to this phase of Mr. Guy’s  Mafrika time (I will be returning for more work – and more adventures – later in the year). We knew that it would be a big trip, for the drive to Masai Mara is just over five hours (and we’re very thankful to the new highway to Narok, which apparently has cut some three hours off the journey), and we took the decision to have two nights in the Masai Mara Game Reserve. It was a smart move, for it enabled us to have four very rewarding game drives, one the afternoon we arrived, two the next day, and one the morning before our journey back to Nairobi.

We used a four-wheel van for the safari, probably for a couple of reasons. First, as you’ll learn below, the FWV is not a choice if one is travelling into an area like Masai Mara. Secondly (and perhaps it was a little extravagant of one making a safari along) most of the vans open up, as you see in this photograph, and I would be able to stand and see everything I wanted to see. And, once I had my guide, would have him standing with me, to point out things I might otherwise miss.

For most of the trip to the game reserve, of course, we did not have a guide and I sat in the cab of the van, with Charles, where we continued with our many-faceted conversations, just as we always do when he is driving me.

And before I get much further into the tale, it’s important I think to make yet another reference to the roads, for Kenya has been fighting the battle of overland transportation now for several decades (I might have made some reference to the Kenya roads in the past). And with the influx of cheap used cars from Japan beginning in the 1980s, the old dirt roads just could not support the abundance of automobiles. So there has been progress, and once the Kenyan economy (especially around the four cities) began to pick up, suddenly people were buying new cars – in addition to all those four-wheel vehicles the expatriate community had been using for years – almost forcing the authorities to put resources into the highways. The job isn’t done yet – won’t be for a long time – but with the influx of Chinese funding and engineering labor for supporting the work and designing the roads, combined with the massive labor force here in the country ready and anxious to work – the highway situation is definitely improving.

Until you turn off the highway.

Now it’s a totally different experience (and I’ve experienced it – a little – on some of my other excursions). And if you take a look at the photos in Mr. Guy’s Masai Mara (1) Album, you’ll see some examples of what it’s like as one tries to maneuver beyond the hard surfaced roads. Fortunately, when a driver is as expert as Mr. Charles, most of the major potholes are avoided, and with his sharp eye Charles is able to discern quickly where the road is so rough drivers have cut a separate trail along another path (often parallel to the “real” road), simply because it becomes almost impossible to travel on the real road. The photographs demonstrate both the public road, on which one travels to Masai Mara, and the many roads and trails and tracks within the game reserve itself. And in many cases, since you’re in a 4WD, you can just cut across the high grass, but you try to keep to paths that have at least been opened up by someone else. A virgin drive through the grass can lead to some interesting – and rather delicate – encounters.

And as the photos show, all of the impediments to moving swiftly along the road are not just nature being disturbed. This is Maasai country, and Maasai wealth is counted in cows (as I’ll describe later) and when the cows are being driven back into the Maasai manyatta, the compound in which the Maasai family lives with their cattle, they have to cross the road. So you just wait.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Rome Re-Visited - The Forum and the Colosseum

The visit to Rome last autumn was described in a post here (see December 8, 2009) , but there was no camera to record the visual experience (for the early part of the visit).

So there was obviously something missing in my reports, but then I got smart.

While in Rome, I purchased my first digital camera, and although I was still learning, there are some happy times and pretty special views recorded by the amateur beginner.

So just to have these available, I'm posting ('way out of sequence) some of the photos from my visit to the Forum and the Colosseum, which might be fun for someone else as well. And that's my partner Andrew in the last photo, looking a little frightened by the approach of the dangerous new photographer!

The ones here are just to tempt you to click over to the albums.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Western Kenya Safari (5): Farewell to Kisii and Hello to the Maasai Countryside

We woke early to begin the long journey to Nairobi, going a different route than when we came to Kisii.

For the first drive, we came via Lake Naivasha, using much the same route we had used on some of our previous safaris, to Lake Nakuru and Hell's Gate, and taking us over the mountains of the eastern side of the Great Rift Valley, from which we again enjoyed the spectacular views (with the photos previously posted back at the end of December).

For this journey, we turned left from Nakuru to cross the Great Rift Valley, which we would cross again on the way back but on a more southern route, going through the Maasai country (which I'll visit again when I have my big safari in mid-May to the Masai Mara National Park, Kenya's largest - and full of all the animals I want to see).

Our day began early, with an early-morning farewell to Charles's and Jane's house in Nyanguru Village, seen here in the morning sunlight and the cool fog that seems every morning to cover the upper reaches of the mountains (high hills?) where the villagers make their homes. Charles took the photograph, and it is a lovely view of the beautiful house that he has built for his family.

Out of Kisii, we drove along a long highway, again going up and down the mountain road and, as I've commented before, the road often left much to be desired, especially when Charles had to compete with some of the big lorries (trailer trucks) coming up or going down the mountains. The matatus as well - those amazing privately owned but public transit vans used by just about everybody when the walk would be too far - give any driver tremendous competition and there are quick a few heart-stopping moments on the country roads (especially in the mountains) as the matatus weave in and out of the traffic, with no indicators blinking, and just pulling out or cutting in as the need arises. Worse in the cities, of course, but pretty dangerous out in the countryside as well. Scary!

And while we were unable to get to Lake Victoria this trip, we did have one spectacular view of this huge body of water, which I tried to capture in one of  the PHOTOGRAPHS. After a distance, we then turned on to the highway that would take us back to Nairobi and this was a totally different travelling experience. For one thing, it's a very good highway, much safer and much better kept up than the previous highway, and since it was now mid-morning, there was not a great deal of traffic. I tried to capture some of the views of the huge flatlands of the Maasai countryside, and I'll try to get some more of this sort of view when I have my next trip there. It's all farmland, with herds of cattle everywhere, plus amazing crops under cultivation. Lots of goats and sheep, all intermingled into the same herds (which I had not thought about before - I just assumed they would be separated, as the cattle are), and long, long distances to view.