Part V – The Maasai Mara

The final three days of our safari were spent in the Maasai Mara, the famed southern savannah of Kenya bordering the Serengeti in Tanzania. Repeatedly during our stay, we heard how fantastic the great migration is in August. We were told how it was a flood of wildebeest migrating north with swarms of predators picking them off along the way. After having seen inconceivable displays of beauty and incredible wildlife throughout our stay, we were eager to experience the Maasai Mara since everyone told us it would be the highlight of our trip.

Unfortunately, we didn’t visit in August – we came in February when the wildlife was less plentiful. Still, this being Africa, what passed for a scarcity of animals was still incredible by our standards. Aside from picking the wrong time of year, we also made the mistake of ditching our rustic accommodations and choosing instead a resort. The intent had been to mix up our accommodations and we thought that by the end of our safari we would appreciate the modern conveniences, but in reality we were sort of bummed to feel we were not living at least a little closer to nature.

The resort we stayed at was targeted at Europeans and we quickly learned that the majority of guests had precious little interest in wildlife. The upshot of this stay was that we learned the stereotype of the ugly American has been surpassed by a general loathing of Europeans. Repeatedly, we heard stories about drunk Brits, demanding Germans, and inappropriate Italians. It was consoling to know most Americans behaved themselves well and had developed a reputation for being interested in the animals. Of course, Kenya is a pretty long way from the US, so it could just be that people who are willing to travel that far are likely going for a reason as opposed to just looking for an inexpensive vacation.

Our first experience with the other guests was not positive. We went on an evening game drive and saw absolutely nothing. This can happen and it is understandable, but the guide made very little effort to find anything, choosing instead to drive around in circles near the resort before some of the Europeans requested we head back early to hit the buffet before everyone else. Adding further insult to injury, we were overruled in determining when to set off for the game drive on the following morning. We wanted to go early, when the animals are active; the rest of the group wanted to go later so they could sleep in and have breakfast while it warmed up. After a week in Kenya, we had learned the animals take cover in the shade and sleep during the heat of the day, so we finally threw in the towel and requested to be switched to another group. (This worked out well – we ended up getting a private tour since a separate group of Germans that arrived refused to go on game drives in the closed Land Rover that our driver had; they wanted an open vehicle even though that precludes getting close to large animals.)

When we finally did get to see some wildlife in the Maasai Mara, it was spectacular. While it was not as densely populated as Lake Nakuru and Ol Pejeta, we were able to see two cheetahs eating an impala, a hyena gnawing on the bones of water buffalo, and we drove within a couple of feet of several prides of lions. Of the famed “Big Five,” we managed to see everything except the elusive leopard. By this point, we were spoiled by Africa and were no longer as excited about giraffes, elephants, gazelles, and zebras. Our guide was once again knowledgeable and did his best to find us big cats, but our luck seemed to give out in the Maasai Mara. Every time we met our guide, we learned that we had just barely missed some phenomenal activity straight out of a Discovery channel documentary.

On our first day, we met two American women at the airport who said that they spent several hours the previous day watching a war between two prides of lions. They tracked a cub playing with its mother who was then captured and eaten by an aggressive rival pride. We barely missed another turf war a couple of days later when our guide dropped us off at the resort and then was picking some other guests up at the airport when he happened upon a battle between a pack of hyenas and a pride of lions (the hyenas apparently won). It seemed like every day we would hear about something incredible, but we never managed to be at the right place at the right time.

Still, what we did see was amazing. The diversity of the landscape, the incredible beauty of the animals, and the fascinating culture of the Maasai people were unforgettable. Perhaps the highlight of our stay in the Maasai Mara was being able to meet a Maasai warrior and learn more about their culture. On the first night, while we were waiting to speak to the manager about changing groups, we began talking to a tall Maasai man who went by Jonathan, but whose real name was Vasaai. He was hired by the resort to talk to guests who wanted to learn about Maasai traditions, but no one else appeared interested. We struck up a conversation and determined to visit him every night. Since no one else wanted to talk to him, after dinner each night we spent a couple of hours peppering him with questions about all aspects of Maasai life. In turn, he was amazed to learn about life in the US. At one point, he mentioned that someone had told him about trains that run underground in the US and wanted to know if that was true. He shook his head in disbelief when we confirmed it. Some of our questions he found hilarious. When we were talking about their tribal leadership, Megan asked if women could be leaders of a village. He found this question the funniest thing and it was so inconceivable he couldn’t stop laughing. He talked about how they make a potent form of beer from fermented sausage trees, which, true to description, have pods hanging from the tree that look exactly like sausages. He described how Maasai warriors still go on week-long lion hunting expeditions. He explained how the Maasai make their footware from the old tires. He talked about how most Maasai men took many wives. Generally, he described a way of life that was so different from our day-to-day activities that it was fascinating.

In our travels, it is rare to find a place that is so far removed from the life that we are used to. Throughout our time in Africa, we were struck by how close people are to nature, by the incredible beauty we saw in different parts of Kenya, and by the way in which people lived. While there were many similarities and the presence of foreigners had obviously brought these two cultures closer together, we still found glimpses into a very different place that had not yet conformed to reflect back what visitors would like to see. Instead, these brief views into the way people really live and into a belief system that has been shaped by long traditions were some of the most interesting moments of the safari.

Too often, we noticed that foreigners would take in their surroundings as if they were removed from the scene – as if the people and animals were there for their enjoyment. Visitors took copious amounts of pictures and chatted as if they were watching events unfold on television with little self-awareness for how they contributed to the situation. In many cases, the result was that everything was viewed as a performance. The people we met projected the personality they thought we wanted to see. The guides attempted to deliver the wildlife action that we expect are commonplace thanks to television documentaries. But, of course, that isn’t the way life works. The animals aren’t there for our enjoyment. We are not the stars of the story for the people we see.

After an amazing 10 days in Africa, what we will remember most are not the few magical moments that our photography skills will never be able to do justice in properly capturing. Instead, we will remember the sense of wonderment that was with us our entire stay as everywhere we looked was something so special and so different. During the safari we took roughly 5,000 pictures. Yet, it was impossible to capture the incredible detail and unfathomable scale of our surroundings. Our pictures will serve as a useful reminder of some highlights, but the memories of everything that was outside of the picture will be a long-lasting souvenir of a very special trip.

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