02.29.2012 - 02.29.2012
We left our quiet lake resort this morning at eight o’clock after a good breakfast. Most folks are dragging a bit early on because of several reasons: the jet lag has hit and most of us wake up every two or three hours because of the time zone; some people had a 3 a.m. wake up call so they could visit the hippopotamus on the back lawn while it grazed; many of us had trouble sleeping with the incessant chattering of the monkeys; and there are bird or frogs or insects unique to this place that chirp, chatter, bong, belch, caw or cackle through all hours of the night. The most quiet visitor was the wildebeest that munched his breakfast outside our breakfast patio — a very well behaved, if not somewhat ugly, companion.
Once the vans were packed, we headed out on the 5-6 hour trek to the Masai Mara Reserve where we hope to spy the Big Five. The Big Five are the five animals that the big game hunters used to pride themselves on “bagging” on safari: elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard, and Cape buffalo. These days, the challenge is to shoot them with your camera. To get there, we will drive several hours on paved roads and then several hours on rock roads and dirt trails through the savannah to the Keerkorok Lodge. The last half of the drive is supposed to be very uncomfortable, “the ride through hell.” But as the saying goes here, “We must ride through hell to get to heaven.”
The first half of the journey took us through several changes of scenery. We saw many little villages with mud block buildings for all sorts of stores and vendors. There were miles of dry areas covered in cactus, aloe vera, agave, and other desert plants. We also drove through farm land with scattered corn fields and one area covered in newly planted wheat fields. Here and there, when creeks or springs channeled water through an area, there would be green oases of succulent plants and even small forests. No matter the landscape, however, we could count on seeing people herding goats, sheep, and cattle from one place to another. Sometimes just a dozen, sometimes a hundred.
Twice along the way, we stopped for stretch breaks. Always at a place with curios or souvenirs to sell. At the second stop, we actually watched a man carving some of the many sculpted figurines of animals or Masai people in the rich, black ebony wood that they are well known for. Shortly after the second stop, the pavement ended and the hellish road began. This portion of the ride would go on for 50—60 miles. At first, while we were on the broken pavement which was thick with pot holes and heaved pavement. The travel wasn’t too bad, though, aside from the occasional bump of the head on the ceiling. Once the broken asphalt ended, we were on crushed rock for a few miles and then...it was just rutted red earth and mud for miles and miles. One thing we were quite amazed at was how far to the side these vans can lean while traveling in a straight line—maybe 15 ° or so and they never fall over. Once we had to stop in front of a huge mud paddy so the drivers could eyeball the best route through, but we all made it without being stuck. Along the way, we spied several types of antelopes, gazelles and impalas grazing.
As we were told we were nearing our destination, the Masai peoples’ villages began to spring up. Predominately consisting of rectangular grass huts with mud/grass roofs, each village has a central “corral” made of sharp sticks, brush and branches arranged in a circle; this is apparently where the cattle are held during the night. It was laundry day in most places, so women were washing the brightly colored cotton sheets that are worn for outer clothing. The clean fabrics were stretched over the branches of the corral to dry. It was after two in the afternoon when we arrived at Keerkorok. While our guide, Albert, checked us in, we helped ourselves to a great buffet lunch. Indian fare seems to be the predominate cuisine. It was good and we had plenty of selections. Following lunch, Albert clued us in on the agenda for the rest of the day. We had about 45 minutes to spare, so some folks napped and some folks headed down the elevated forest path that leads to a hippo pond. At least 20 hippopotamuses make their home in a small pond just beyond the lodge. A fine gazebo has been built there so it’s easy to relax and observe.
At 4 p.m., we were hustled back into our vans and we headed out on out first game drive. Most animals are active before dusk and at dawn, so those are the times we will be looking for them. Since ours is not the only tour group here, the three vans for our Vintage Africa Tour were joined by 8 or 10 more from other tour groups. It seems that each van or truck heads out in a separate direction and when one group finds animals worth looking at, the driver announces the find on the CB radio so others can come to see as well.
First we spotted some giraffes in the distance and the van bounded off the road into the grass land so we could see them closer. Next, two young bull elephants crossed our path. Wandering about some more, we caught sight of a large herd of buffalo in the distance, but we didn’t get a different spot. As we approached, we could see 10 vans and trucks gathered in one spot. As we approached, the word reached us: there was a leopard in the bush. We pulled up and, sure enough, there he was as pretty as you please. We spent a good 20 minutes watching it watch us. By this time it had begun raining big slow drops and they were blowing in through the open canopy of our truck. We closed the canopy and wandered some more.
Farther across the grassland, we spotted half a dozen vans queued up. Getting near, we spotted the prize—a cheetah sitting proudly on a little high spot. We popped the top up and drove closer. We were able to watch it for five minutes or so; then it hopped up, loped off between the vans and disappeared into the grass. Just then we got the word that somewhere else we might see the other big cat! Somewhere up ahead was a lion and we didn’t want to miss it.
When we arrived at the site, about seven vans were spaced around one side of a thatch of brush. From our viewpoint, we could see the black and white stripes of a zebra in the brush and some patches of tawny hide belonging to the lion. We had arrived just in time for its dinner! There was no real good view from the right side, though. Our driver backed up and slid around to the left. Now we could see more of the lion’s body, but still no good shot of her head or face. Patience settled over us all as we waited for her to take a break from eating and maybe stick her head up when...what was that to the left? Hey, it’s a tiny lion pacing through the grass. As it poked itself out onto the trail for all of us to see, we heard a mewing/crying sound farther to the left. Could it be? Another teeny tiny lion bounced out of the grass. As these two little critters crouched down and began sneaking up on their munching mother (we assumed), someone whispered, “Look behind them...it’s another big one!” Sure enough, another lioness padded out of the tall grass onto the pathway, nuzzled both of the little ones, and promptly lay down and began to play with them both.
This was a real National Geographic moment.
We all watched for quite a while, but as the rain clouds returned and the sun began to set, it was time to return to the safety of the lodge. After our return, we freshened up and had dinner together. A local Masai dance group performed for us on the patio at 8:45. Then it was time to retire. Tomorrow, most of us will meet at 6:30 a.m. for the morning game drive; five of our group will be up at 4 a.m. to head out for a hot air balloon ride over the savannah at dawn. After we meet back at the lodge and breakfast, we’ll all head to the nearest Masai village to meet the local folks and learn more about them. An afternoon game drive will follow that and then a late dinner.
We have had many interesting adventures in the past few years, all of them memorable and many of them worthy of “Once in a Life Time” status. But seeing these graceful, exotic animals that we have only seen in captivity in the past now playing and plodding, eating and ambling their way across this vast savannah wilderness is just as good as it gets.
Note: The leopard is so strong and comfortable in trees that it often hauls its kills into the branches. Leopards can also hunt from trees, where their spotted coats allow them to blend with the leaves until they spring with a deadly pounce.
The cheetah is the world's fastest land mammal. With acceleration that would leave most automobiles in the dust a cheetah can go from 0 to 6 miles (96 kilometers) an hour in only three seconds.