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Masai Mara

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.”
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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.
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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.
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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 large_02292012_5.._Masai_Mara.pngleopard 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.
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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.
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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.

Posted by jeburns55 19:29 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

Masai Mara x 2

Morning came early with a 6:30 a.m. calling for the sunrise game drive. The sun was trying to push it’s way over the surrounding hills as our vans drove out into the bush. Having seen four of the big five yesterday afternoon, everyone’s eyes were open wide with hopes of spotting the elusive rhinoceros. While black rhinos are more numerous than the whites, both sub-species are endangered and not seen nearly as often as the large animals. We drove around for miles until nearly 9 a.m. Along the way, herds of elephants, buffalos, zebras and impalas were grazing. At one point, another cheetah posed for us before trotting between the vans to head off for the morning hunt. We also spotted different varieties of birds along the road. However, no lonely rhinos were out for breakfast wherever we wandered.
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Arriving back at the lodge, we were all ready for a big breakfast and then a walk around the grounds to wear it off. We travelled down the elevated path again to view the hippos and then sat on one of the side decks to watch for other animal visitors until 10:30 or so. Everyone met in the lobby before 11:00 a.m. for a trip to the nearest Masai village.
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The Masai people have lived in this area for hundreds of years. They are nomadic people who base their society on cattle. Their traditions have it that the Masai were once the sole owners of all the cattle in the world. They settle in one area for no more than three years and the men herd their cattle, goats and sheep out to different grass lands each day. At the end of the day, the livestock is brought back to the village to be kept within the village compound.

The “corrals” constructed of sticks and brush we saw yesterday are the “city walls.” Inside are the homes as well as open space for the animals. The homes are built with a framework of sticks that are covered a plaster made of mud and cow dung. Inside there are three rooms, two bedrooms (one for adults and one for children—each room only as big as a bed) and a small, central area where a fire burns on the floor. In the room above the fire is a small hole for the smoke to escape. With no windows and no lights, it is pitch dark inside. This is a polygamous society, so one man will build a home for himself and his wife. When he marries his second wife, he builds a second home next to the first...and so on as he continues to marry again and again.
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When we first stepped out of the vans, the young men of the tribe gathered, garbed in their bright red cotton outfits, beads and jewelry, black cord wigs resembling braids, and some with large hats made from lion or leopard skins. Although hunting lions is no longer allowed, but traditionally the Masai warriors were known for their prowess at hunting the huge cats; in fact, killing a lion was considered a rite of passage for a young man. The dancers eventually pulled some of our group into their ranks to dance and jump; it was quite a spectacle! Then the chief’s son and another young man narrated a demonstrated how they create fire by spinning an olive wood stick in a grooved sliver of cedar wood. It took less than a minute for smoke to appear. John gladly accepted the offer of the “fire making kit”...for a nominal fee.
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By this time, many of the women and children had gathered round to see us. Many of us had brought simple gifts or treats for the people: pencils and paper for the children, baseball caps for the young men, and—our contribution—individual packages of trail mix for the women. The women entertained us all with a song as a show of gratitude. Finally, they brought us into a small area ringed with neat tables made of sticks and dung plaster that were arrayed with jewelry and wood carvings created by their own hands. They were hard bargainers, but everyone in our group had made some purchase by the time we boarded the vans for the ride back to the lodge.
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Late lunch and a walk around the grounds filled the period of time between our return and the scheduled 4:30 game drive. One way to stay entertained was to watch the Vervin monkeys cavort on the lawn and in the trees. There was quite a downpour for 20-30 minutes, which is normal as this is just the start of the rainy season. The occasional shower has helped to keep the temperature tolerable, though; we’ve only had a short period on one day that was warm enough to bring on a sweat.

The afternoon game drive — the last one scheduled — took us out onto the now slick and muddy roads. We travelled about for an hour and a half or so...until the rain started again in earnest and Benson, our driver, headed back to the lodge with real purpose. We had experienced large enough mud holes and slick roads in the past without trying to navigate through an additional inch or two of water. The rhinoceros eluded us again — so we decided we would have to settle for the “Big Four”.

Along the way, we did see herds of more zebras… oddly enough, we stopped slowing for zebras because they are everywhere-including the front lawn. There were more elephants and buffaloes and giraffes that were very close.
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The biggest thrills of the afternoon presented themselves just before the rain started again. Sitting in a lone standing tree, upon a branch 25 feet in the air was a young leopard. He remained oblivions to the half dozen vehicles parked below him. Then shortly after that, we came upon a pride often lions, a young male and mine lionesses and their young. All of them were asleep in the tall grass, so getting a good picture was impossible; the blend right into their surroundings, but the young male poked his head up when he heard an electronic beep of a camera. A perfect ending to our drive!
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Back at the lodge, we ate dinner and watched a movie and sacked out. Tomorrow is the long drive back to Nairobi.

Note: Lions have been celebrated throughout history for their courage and strength. They once roamed most of Africa and parts of Asia and Europe. Today they are found only in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, except for one very small population of Asian lions that survives in India's Gir Forest.

Other than humans, African buffalo have few predators and are capable of defending themselves against (and killing) lions. Lions do kill and eat buffalo regularly, but it typically takes multiple lions to bring down a single adult buffalo.

Posted by jeburns55 20:01 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

Last day in Nairobi

Oh, how we hate to go away from this place where impalas and hippos and monkeys play on the lawn. But by 8:00 a.m., we are in the vans and ready to return to civilization. (We are traveling without being showered today, because a wayward hippo stepped on the water pipe last night and crushed it...so no cold water in our rooms.)
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The ride ahead would be about 6 hours, half of it back over the broken and slick muddy roads. We were not really looking forward to that. But—as one never know what you’ll come across on the road—the beginning of the trip was entertaining and rewarding. Our first experience was with a troop of Olive baboons traipsing up the road in our direction; there were at least two dozen of all shapes and sizes, genders and ages.
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We got off the road and we came across two safari vans parked beside a pile of grassy dirt next to the road. Anytime you see one or more vans stopped, it’s a requirement to check it out. Lo and behold, a young male lion with two females were heading for the shade...a worthwhile stop. Benson, our driver, pulled back onto the road and continued on. Within minutes, his radio was filled with chatter in Swahili; he grabbed the microphone and got in on the conversation. Then he whipped the van off the road and we started off across the savannah. Over the past few days, we had learned that Benson rarely told us what was up; we had all decided that he probably didn’t want to raise our expectations only to see them dashed when whatever he was tracking down didn’t pan out. So we all watched out the window, watching the occasional giraffe or zebra herds...until...as we moved down toward a brush covered river bank...in the distance with its broad rear end facing us...was...a...big black rhinoceros! He was across the waterway, but he was there and we could all see him. We had bagged the last of our Big Five. That was the icing on the cake. And the balm to ease our difficult ride ahead.
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The rest of the ride was pretty much a reverse of the ride out a few days before. We took the same road and made one stop at a road side stand to use the facilities and shop. By the time we got into Nairobi, the traffic was locked up in a pre-rush hour traffic jam. It seems that a high government official from Indonesia was in town and some streets were blocked and traffic was suffering for it. We were all pretty hungry by the time we reached our hotel at nearly 3:00 p.m. Surprise, surprise, the government official was to stay at our hotel, so the regular security—which included guards checking in our van and underneath it with mirrors every time we entered—had been beefed up with uniformed soldiers holding AK-47s in the lobby. Our hotel was probably the safest place in town tonight!
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We had only three hours before dinner, but we were famished so lunch on the terrace around the pool sounded good. A couple of Tuskers (the local brew) and a shrimp pizza sounded good. It was went down well, but didn’t settle in the same fashion for John.
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So at 6:30 p.m., as all of us were loaded up to dine at the Carnivore Restaurant, it seemed likely that only one of us would be sampling all the exotic fare. The restaurant is known for a menu that includes some wild game selections. There was a time that zebra and buffalo and a lot of other animals that we had just seen were offered, but now the exotic offerings are limited. At first, Dr. Dawa came around the table to offer a fresh made concoction of honey, fresh cut limes, and vodka; after which the table was served a variety of courses — salad, soup, breads, and potatoes. Then came the meat. Half a dozen men frequently went around the table with huge spits of a variety of meats to sample (as much as you wanted). There were beef sausages, pork ribs, lamb meat balls, roast pork leg, chicken livers, sliced ox testicles, crocodile medallions, ostrich meat balls, chicken wings, and whole turkeys splayed out on a roasting frame. Truth be told, Susie didn’t sample everything on the list...but she did well. Much better than John, who stuck with bread and water. Once everyone at the table was stuffed, someone lowered the flag in the center of the table. That ended the meat course. (There was coffee and dessert yet to follow, though.)

Finished up, the vans got us back to the hotel in time for an hour or so of nap time, after which the whole crew met in the lobby with the luggage. It was midnight and we had a 3:00 a.m. plane to catch.

At the airport, we said goodbye and thank you to Benson, our driver, and to Alfred, our safari guide. Then we checked in and settled down at the Nairobi airport for a long, warm wait for our flight to Istanbul.

Note: Rhinos have sharp hearing and a keen sense of smell. They may find one another by following the trail of scent each enormous animal leaves behind it on the landscape.

Hippos also bask on the shoreline and secrete an oily red substance, which gave rise to the myth that they sweat blood. The liquid is actually a skin moistener and sunblock that may also provide protection against germs.

Posted by jeburns55 20:02 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

Istanbul

Touchdown in Istanbul at 9:30 a.m. after a grueling night. We’d been awake for more than 24 hours (less the 2 hours of sketchy sleep on the plane). Eleven of the 16 folks we were with in Kenya left us to go home; only five of us stayed on in Istanbul. Besides the two of us, there were three of the women who shared our van in Kenya. Our guide met us in the airport. His name is “Jimmy” (actually Mehmet) and he is a retired professor who was educated for several years in the U.S. He herded us into a van and took us to our hotel in the center of the city. After helping us check in, he told us to eat, rest, and he would be back at 2:00 p.m. to give us a short riding tour of the city. The real sightseeing would begin tomorrow.

After a welcome shower and a short nap, we ate lunch in the hotel restaurant and then met Jimmy in the lobby. We hurried through the cold rain (mid-30 degrees… much different from Kenya) to the van. Our bus tour was about an hour and a half of learning about the city and getting familiar with the layout.
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Istanbul is an ancient city, it’s existence going back to biblical times, and has a unique geography and a great history. It is the only city in the world to sit on two continents: Europe and Asia. It has three areas: the old city, which sits on the European side and is surrounded by ancient walls built by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago; the new city, which is the rest of the city on the European side; and the Asian city, which lies across the Bosporus (the waterway that separates the two continents). The population is over 20 million people. Although Turkey is considered a Muslim nation, it is secular— no state religion. And in Istanbul, the Muslims, Christians, and Jews have—and continue to—live in relative peace. Before Islam existed, this city was the center of the Greek Orthodox Church, the eastern equivalent to the Roman Catholic Church in the west. When the Muslim Ottoman Empire expanded through Asia Minor, Istanbul became the capitol city and remained so for hundreds of years. And during the Middle Ages, Spain expelled all of the Jews from inside its borders and while many of the went to Morocco, boat loads of them left for the northern Mediterranean but were not allowed to land anywhere. When they arrived off the coast of Istanbul, the sultan welcomed them into the city.

This tolerance for other cultures and religions has continued through to the present. There are currently 28 buildings that are shared by all three religions to this day: on Fridays, they are mosques; on Saturdays, they are synagogues, and on Sundays, they are churches.

This is a very modern city. There are many stores and shops that sell state-of-the-art electronics, contemporary clothing, and everything else you would see in New York or Chicago. At the same time, you may walk by a shop that has hand-woven wool rugs laid on the sidewalk or vendors selling fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, roasted ears of corn, or dates and chestnuts.
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Our short city tour made one stop along the Bosporus to see the first bridge that was built to connect Europe to Asia, and we ended at the Grand Bazaar...a covered market area with more than 5000 shops. (The Mall of America ain’t nothin’ compared to this!)

From there, we said good night to Jimmy and walked back to our hotel for a quick dinner and 11 hours of sleep.

Posted by jeburns55 20:03 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

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