Quick note: It's taken me a few days longer to get this one posted just because of the sheer mass of how many photos I took while on safari. Hopefully the next post won't take near as long.
Our morning began before sun up, and this was going to be the trend for the rest of our visit to Kenya. But this morning I was wide awake and ready to roll because in a few short hours we were going to be in the Masai Mara, the mouth of the Serengeti, what many say is the number one national park in all of Africa. To say I was excited was an understatement!
But first we had to ditch half of our luggage, meet up with Phera & Ravi's family and commandeer a small aircraft to pack all of us in. Luckily Air Kenya had us taken care of with a nice Havilland Canada Dash 7 quad turboprop that all 30-something of us could climb into.
Things are handled a little differently when flying a small airline in an African country. First there is no TSA and the carry on rules are more suggestions then they are actual rules. The main concern that the aircrew has is that the weight of the plane is balanced and correct. Also you are given a boarding pass that is just a colored card that represents your flight destination, and when your color is called it becomes a mad dash for the plane to grab a decent seat. Our plane only had 50 seats so every single one of them was good.
The other thing I found amusing is that the planes are more like city buses then your traditional airlines. Our flight from Nairobi to the Kichwa Tembo airstrip was 45 minutes, but we had to make a stop at another airstrip on the way to drop off a few passengers and pick up a few more. And once we were all dropped off the plane had two more stops to make before returning to Nairobi. Total time on ground at the first stop was under 5 minutes, long enough to swap out passengers and crank the plane around on the dirt airstrip.
Special thanks to Anokh for providing us with a morning round of bloody marys.
Our flight passed over the Great Rift Vally, a giant trench that runs north and south through Kenya and at some points has a 3,000 to 10,000 foot elevation change. It also has several volcanos scattered along it, some still active. Of course as we were directly over the rift the only clouds within 2,000 miles had to to obstruct our view.
When we arrived at the Kichwa Tembo airstrip, we were stuck on the tarmac for hours waiting for the ground crew to prepare the jet bridge for us to walk out to the international terminal.....yeah not really.
No, our exit from the plane consisted of walking down the ladder and walking around the back of the plane to find our luggage and then take it to the appropriate safari vehicle. This was SO much easier then fighting crowds and waiting for our luggage to arrive at the baggage claim at D/FW airport. Oh how I missed small airline travel.
Confession: As the plane was taking back off and I was snapping the panoramic pic below, I was hit with a 2nd wave of emotion on this trip. I never thought I'd be in Africa and the reality of me standing in the middle of a reserve and the plane slowly disappearing into the horizon made my brain short circuit. I was completely lost for a little bit.
As we gathered around our safari vehicles, enjoying our welcoming refreshment, our first sighting of big game happened. A couple of elephants emerged from the trees at the end of the runway and began heading our way. As we sat there watching them the bull elephant in the lead suddenly stopped, and flared it's ears out and trumpeted. We all quickly scanned the horizon to see two cheetahs, a mother and her cub, approaching the elephants. Were we going to see our first kill? We just got here? Could this really be happening?
Nope the cheetahs passed right by without incident. But that didn't stop all of us from jumping in our Land Rovers and taking off after them. This was my first experience with seeing how close we were going to get to the animals, and how crazy these four days were going to be.
After hanging with the cheetahs for a bit, we headed back out to the elephants and watched them bathe and play in the mud before making our way up to camp.
The camp we stayed at was Kichwa Tembo on the edge of the Masai Mara. It's a tented camp, but let's not mistake these tents for some little Coleman popup you might use on a camping trip. No these were full on 200 sq foot safari tents, equipped with a shower, toilet, full king size bed, and a nice porch area to chill out on. Being able to sleep out in the wild with just a piece of canvas and netting between you and the open wild was and awesome and unique experience.
The only bad thing was the toilet and shower situation. Had Shelby and I been a married couple this could have been a fantastic experience, but the shower didn't have a door or curtain, and the toilet had open walls that stopped about 2 foot above the ceiling. But we made it work by showering when the other person was at the bar or dining area and when either of us had to use the bathroom we just turned up the music on our phones or put headphones on. We made it work.
The rest of the camp consisted of a gift shop, a dining hall, a bar, a nice meeting area with a firepit, and the pool that over looked the plains. The latter quickly became my favorite spot to hang out. Everyday after lunch I'd sit out there and just stare off at the plains till I fell a sleep, it was so peaceful and calming.
Everyday or lunch was served buffet style in the setting below:
The one thing that immediately caught me off guard when we arrived was the warthogs that were just roaming around the camp like they were pets. I was always under the impression that warthogs were mean and would rip you to shreds, but these were for the most part calm and relaxed. They didn't enjoy you invading their space, but they didn't have a problem invading yours, as I found out while eating lunch one day and one started smelling my leg. They even helped themselves to drinks at the pool, err, of the pool....
After getting settled and having a little bit of refreshment, we were grouped with our drivers and headed out for our afternoon drive. We were a little spoiled by everything we saw on the first day, in fact, I'm going to expect it the next time I return to the Mara. That's right, I'm going back!
When we got out in the open we noticed two giraffes fighting in the distance. When we got up on them we witnessed their unique fighting style that consisted of swinging their heads and necks at each other like wrecking balls. It was pretty amusing until the sound of bone on bone crunching field the air. Technically it doesn't seem to be an efficient way to fight. A third one ended walking up and they all seemed to live happily ever after.
We then headed to the area where we saw the cheetahs on arrival. Sure enough, they were still hanging out and soaking in the sun. After spending some time with them we headed into the the park.
There are a couple of different prides of lions in the Mara, but our goal tonight was to find the main pride of 18. Most of the group we were with had spent time with them when they were cubs and hadn't seen them since. Our driver, Benson, said that they had been pretty active and on the move, so there was no telling where they were.
Before long though a call came across the Land Rover's radio saying they had been spotted just outside the parks gates, between the park and our camp. We floored it to that location and before Benson could stop the vehicle, the lions charged a water buffalo. We all stood up as the vehicle was still rolling and began shooting like crazy. There were audible cheers and chants from other vehicles hoping to see a kill, but alas the lions gave in and let the buffalo escape. It was almost as if they were playing with it, instead of wanting to eat it. I guess they were never told not to play with their food.
The rest of the evening was spent sitting on the hill with the pride, watching them clean, play, and stalk. We were surrounded and in their world, at times just a cars length away. If they wanted to they could have jumped in our truck at anytime, but it's like we weren't even there.
As the sun began to dip down behind the hills, that was our cue to head back to camp for the night. A full dinner awaited us followed by a nice soft bed with water bottles warming it.
It was a hell of a first day! Something I totally wasn't expecting. I pictured a safari being something like a drive through zoo or a glorified ride at Disney's Animal Kingdom, but this by far exceeded that. Seeing the animals in their natural home, without a fence or barrier between us and them, was exciting, dangerous, and fantastic all wrapped up in one. As soon as we pulled into camp I was dying to go back out. But tomorrow would come soon enough....
Up next, Part 6: More From The Mara