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Tuesday
Sep232008

Photo Trek to Maasai Mara National Reserve

Days 1,2 Kenya

Manhattan Beach to Nairobi  Midday departure on American Airlines, connect in Chicago to British Airways flight, arrived after the gate closed, though they kindly boarded me anyway.  My checked bag, the one that wasn't on the carousel at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport when I arrived, likely began its own travel itinerary in Chicago.  Interestingly - to me - when I packed yesterday, I hallucinated that my checked bag would go missing, and packed accordingly:  All camera and computer gear carry-on - lesson learned from Patagonia trip - as well as a spare tooth brush, floss, couple pairs of briefs and an extra t-shirt.  This made the next four days pleasant for me and tent-mate and truck-mates.  Another fast connection in London, then off to Nairobi.  Surprisingly, feel refreshed after 21 hours of flying and one hour of sleep, lots of iTunes and Podcasts, and a book.  Arrive Nairobi near midnight, meet up with fellow trekkers - looks like a fun group! - off to Fremont Hotel (constructed in 1904, but recently remodeled, very British Colonial).  Unpack my toothbrush and floss, set alarm to ring in four hours.  

Day 3 Kenya

Nairobi to Maasai Mara National Reserve  "Maasai" or "Masai"?  Yes.  Maasai refers to people, Masai refers to land.  Groggy with 20 minutes of sleep, up for a really wonderful breakfast - still starving from last night's involuntary fast - then off to the airport for a one-propellor flight to the Mara.  During the 15-minute truck ride from the gravel air strip to the semi-permanent, tented Mara Bush Camp, witnessed Banded Mongoose, Elephant, Impala, and mating-in-the-river Hippopotamus, incredible!  The mating thing, they're under water, but it's pretty apparent what's happening.  Greeted by really nice Maasai and Kikuyu tribesmen - no tribeswomen - shown to our tents, where I unpack my toothbrush and floss.  Wow, the tent is nice, four-poster beds, sink and toilet.  I'll explain how the shower works later.  

Grab camera gear and load up for afternoon safari on the Mara.  The vehicles are heavily modified Toyota Land Cruiser pick-ups with a pop-top cabin.  Anthony, driver for my truck, is amazingly polite and knowledgeable, and partook of my Tequila-Kahlua concoction, which was cool.  Getting our first taste of Mara wildlife, we want to stop for everything, which we do.  Elephant, Giraffe, Wildebeest, Wart Hog, numerous other animals I've forgotten to mention.  Fording rivers, stopping to "check the tires" - that's what I had to do often, first checking for carnivores, then stepping outside the truck and finding an out-of-view spot to irrigate the flora - driving all over the tundra, incredible sunset, then back to the camp.  There's no piped water to the tent, but a very polite staffer named Daniel is waiting outside with a bucket of hot water, which is poured into a high-mounted bladder, affording a brief and invigorating shower.  Tent-mate and I limited showers to a half-bucket each, though some of the ladies were known to indulge in two- and three-bucket showers.  Shampoo and liquid soap is provided in trendy glass bottles, really roughing it!  The tent has battery-powered lamps, but electricity for charging camera batteries and laptops is found in the lounge tent, adjacent to the dining tent.  Since it's now dark, must be escorted from tent to the lounge and dining tent area by an armed - they're always armed - Maasai warrior.  Animals wander through the camp at night, and the Maasai presence minimizes the chance of a guest being eaten by a Lion or trampled by a Hippopotamus.  The Maasai are armed only with a short spear and club, yet they're effective against all but two animals, hopefully those two animals wouldn't decide to graze our camp for an evening meal.  In the lounge, bartender Peter learns everyone's name, but calls me Marx instead of Rayner.  Limited selection of liquor, but there's Rum and Coke, I'm happy :-)  Plug in camera battery charger, wonderful meal served in the adjacent dining tent, conversation and photo sharing in the lounge.  Escort back to tent.  Incredible smorgasbord of sounds in the night:  Lion coughing, Hippopotamus braying, Hyena barking, various bird sounds.  It's like being in Africa...

Day 4 Kenya

Mara  Up at 5:30 am - we're up at 5:30 am everyday, except for the day we ride a balloon, when we're up at 4:30 am - greeted by hot chocolate-or-coffee and cookies on the tent porch.  Grab gear, Maasai warrior escort to the trucks, load up, out on the Mara for sunrise, which is spectacularly red, then orange.  Lioness and cubs, a large Lion pride, Giraffe, Hippopotamus, Thomson's and Grant Gazelle, Leopard with cubs, Vulture, Eland, Eagle, Impala, Kudu, Elephant, Black and White Colobus (monkey), Steinbok, Wildebeest, Cheetah, Crocodile, Zebra, Hyena - is this getting boring? - and even a Gecko.  One of the other trucks saw a Dung Beetle, but I didn't, well, there are other critters to see.  Standing up in the back of the truck, an amazing-and-constantly-changing 360-degree panorama, in the distance - sun, rain, lightning, clouds, blue sky, depending where you gaze.  Late evening, surrounded by mosquito netting, sliding under the down comforter...what's in my bed?!  Ok, a hot water bottle is under the covers, nice touch on a cool evening... a warning next time, please - when you're not expecting something hot and rubbery in your bed in a tent on the Mara where animals rule, well, several crawly critters flashed through my mind before I identified it as an inanimate object.

Day 5 Kenya

Mara  Another great day.  Came across a recent kill, Leopard appeared out of the tress to chase away Vultures, she walked right by the truck.  At our breakfast stop mid-morning by one of the larger rivers, I was sitting on a rock on the shoreline, photographing Hippopotamus that were trumpeting mid-river, when our guide gesticulated frantically from the embankment - it seems I was being incredibly stupid (not unusual).  Crocodiles tend to lie submerged near the shoreline, then attack animals when they come down to the water to drink, twisting their prey up and around in the air, then submerging them until they drown.  Lesson learned!  Back to camp for lunch, we practice flash photography with one of the Maasai warriors as model.

Later that day, walking along an embankment on the same river, I encounter an 18' Crocodile lying on the shoreline, looking up at me, likely hoping I'd fall down the four feet of embankment separating him from me.  This guy is three times as long as I am tall, with a head wider than my home plasma display.  Hippopotamus and Crocodile share the water, though they don't like each other.  Evidently, an adult Hippopotamus will severely thrash an adult Crocodile if it comes to combat, though Crocodiles tend to prey on Hippopotamus juveniles.  So I was surprised to see a solo baby Hippopotamus in the river near the giant Crocodile at my feet, until his submerged Hippopotamus mother, whom he was riding piggyback, or hippoback, raised her head.  At sunset, two Cheetah lying atop a Termite mound - there's Termite mounds everywhere you look - surveying the landscape for an evening snack.  Unlike Leopards and Lions who stalk their prey - they're not really runners - Cheetah don't bother to stalk, they just run...at 70 mph.

Back at camp, an invigorating half bucket shower, then dinner and drinks.  Attempting to download photos to my laptop, Adobe Bridge and Photoshop go on the fritz, leaving me with crude ability to download and view photos for the remainder of the trip.

Day 6 Kenya

Mara  Sunrise ride to nearby Maasai village.  The weather has been pleasant so far, though it gets hot today.  The tribe men and women perform an elaborate greeting ceremony, including incredible leaping by the warriors, at the entrance to their village.  They welcome us inside their village, where they perform rituals, including a wedding, and draining blood to drink from a cow.  The blood-letting apparently does not harm the cow, and as the Maasai don't eat them, cows have a pretty good existence.  Young cows even live in the mud huts of the Maasai.  After a few hours, we're shepherded to the village marketplace, where we purchase Maasai merchandise for exorbitant prices.  The Maasai live in traditional mud huts, and adults wear traditional Maasai garb, though some wear quartz watches, some carry cell phones, some speak English with a perfect British accent, it all seems a bit anachronistic.  Still, a proud and handsome people who honor their traditions, very open and friendly to us.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Afternoon safari, spot (pun intended) a Cheetah with five cubs.  She chases an adult Wart Hog and several baby Wart Hogs, the babies duck for cover in a burrow, the adult Wart Hog then turns on the Cheetah and chases her away.  Feisty, evidently even Lions won't mess with Wart Hogs, 

This narrow four-poster with netting, down comforter and hot water bottle is one of the more comfortable beds I've slept in, though I'd forgotten about the hot water bottle and gotten surprised again when I got into bed.

Day 7 Kenya

Mara  Sipping hot chocolate and eating cookies in the early morning darkness, look up through the overhead canopy, faint outline of sky with brilliant stars, listening to sounds of the Mara and awakening camp.  The sunburn acquired during yesterday's Maasai village visit reminds me to apply some sunscreen this time. 

We see something vary rare - a daylight Leopard kill.  Our guide, with 26 years experience on the Mara, indicates this is only the second time he's seen this, so this was a special (though brutal) event.  Female Leopard stalks, immobilizes and strangles (with jaws, she has no opposing thumbs) a Bohar Reedbuck (antelope), then drags her kill towards a tree, where she later hoists the Reedbuck up into.  

Stop for mid-morning picnic breakfast at Lookout Mountain, spectacular panorama, look into Tanzania and the Serengeti - we'll cross the border another day.  Hear a Cuckoo bird, you can imagine what that sounds like.  Thunderstorm marches across the Mara, spectacular to watch. 

Two women in our group antagonize the two Hippopotamus that live in the river by our camp, something they've done since our arrival.  They make noises and aggressive gestures - the women - and the Hippopotamus bellow and tentatively charge, but don’t leave the water, which is why I’m still alive to write this blog.  So we had some fun:  The Maasai camp manager announces during lunch that it's illegal to harass Hippopotamus or other animals, and that the provocateurs will regrettably be deported from Kenya immediately.  The looks on their faces unforgettable, nobody had a camera...  After lunch, another flash photography session.

Dik-dik, Crowned Crane, Baboon, Waterbuck, the small and elusive Serval, plus many of the previously mentioned critters.  Incredible sunset, orange, blue and black clouds, all mixed together.  Major thunder - rain and thunder seem to quiet the animal chatter - during the evening.

Day 8 Kenya

Mara  Wide-awake at 2:30 am, listening to pride of Lions roar at the edge of camp, antagonized Hippopotamus bellowing in reply.  Up at 4:30 am for balloon ride.  Fifty yards away from the balloon, the pilot yells frantically, as the balloon is starting to lift off...we scramble in as the balloon lifts in the dark, followed by two other balloons.  The sun rises behind us, before us the Mara is active with Zebra, Wildebeest, Giraffe, Elephant, Hyena and the poor-eyesighted but excellent-hearing Black Rhinoceros.  We make a smooth landing - just shy of landing in the river, even odds we'd be eaten by a Crocodile or crushed by a Hippopotamus - after watching a solo balloonist bounce and nearly crash his balloon behind us.  Champagne and Bloody Mary's with breakfast, served on china, by waiters in formal attire, how wonderfully British :-)

At camp for lunch, training on Photoshop.  Late afternoon on safari the sky opens up, water runs in rivers over the surface, the ground impervious to moisture.  A pride of Lions huddle together for warmth in the rain.  Near sunset, watch a Cheetah, who watches a Thomson's Gazelle, who watches back, but no chase.  Beautiful clouds, soggy night in camp, another quiet night as the animals hunker down in the rain.

Day 9 Kenya

Mara  Morning hot chocolate and cookie ritual in the dark, listening to crickets and the near-subsonic rumble of restless Hippopotamus in the river 20 yards away.  Stunning orange sunrise (again).  Watch Cheetah and her cavorting three cubs.  Just after we left, others in my group observed her chase down a Thomson's Gazelle.  Spend time at one of the larger rivers, Crocodiles are not in any danger of extinction in Kenya.  Most game falls under the protection of a shoot-to-kill policy in place since the 1980's - military rangers are authorized to shoot poachers on site.  Based on the sheer volume of game and their tolerance of humans, it appears that this policy has been effective in Kenya.  

Photoshop training at lunch.  Late afternoon on safari, watch a Leopard consume her kill in a tree, amazing that she is able to drag an animal that weighs more than she does, up a tree.

Day 10 Kenya

Mara  Up three times during the night, vegetables lacking in diet?  Beautiful orange ball sunrise.  Mischievous Vervet (monkey) jumps up on hood of truck, makes for a nice close-up.  Driving, trace path of balloon ride from a few days ago, seeking the elusive Black Rhinoceros we saw from above.  Sneak into Tanzania, then back again, no one was shot.  Work with Lensbaby, a camera lens that provides selective focus by squeezing the lens.  The goal is to make part of the photograph blurry, with only the desired subject in focus.  I struggle to get the desired subject in focus with a normal lens, so I'm probably not ready for the Lensbaby.

Afternoon, observe three Cheetah brothers - well known by the guides - doing what most cats do...lounge.  The Lions are king, yes, but king of lounging.  Apparently they can sleep up to 20 hours a day.  The males are particularly well adapted for lounging, with the females performing most of the food preparation.  Another exceptional sunset, I don't think they'll ever get old.  

Day 11 Kenya

Mara  Red Oat Grass is the dominant species of grass on the Mara, favored by the Wildebeest.  Between one-to-two million Wildebeest migrate between the Maasai Mara (Kenya) and Serengeti (Tanzania).  Known as the "White-bearded Gnu" - what a nickname - they look rather demonic, kind of like satan on four legs.  They don't have a reputation for intelligence, which is obvious when you observe them, like large lemmings.  Zebra, reputed to be intelligent even though they snort like donkeys, hang out with the Wildebeest.  My theory is Zebra use Wildebeest to flush out the local carnivores.  Watched an eight-pack and a four-pack of Hyena stalk a herd of Wildebeest, looking for an ill or weak member of the herd.  Packs of Hyena have been known to attack Lions...bad dog! 

Day 12 Kenya

Mara  A few of us head back to the Maasai village.  I wanted to jump with the Maasai warriors, and they accommodated me, didn't even laugh openly.  Some photos were taken, though I haven't seen them, I thought I was getting some good height, but was told I was pathetic...  We brought gifts for the children, mine were Frisbees.  Tossed Frisbees with the children, they caught on very quickly, the Maasai are excellent athletes. 

So, the two animals in the Mara that don't fear the Maasai?  Nope, lions run (away) when they encounter a Maasai warrior, Leopards and Cheetahs too.  Carnivores can see color, a Maasai warrior in traditional red garb is easy to spot.  The two animals that don't fear the Maasai warrior:  Elephant and Cape Buffalo.  Both will trample the Maasai - and anyone else - if they feel threatened.  Elderly Cape Buffalo bulls, typically kicked out of the herd when they get old, and evidently grumpy, are the worst, will charge on a whim

Large Lion pride, watch a young Lioness stalk and attack a Wildebeest, though the Wildebeest turned, charged and drove the Lioness away!  The rest of the pride watched with that disinterested look-right-through-you look that only cats have, no one bothered to help, though you could tell they were embarrassed that a fellow genus Panthera was beaten by a Wildebeest, and appalled that dinner was still standing on its own legs.  Six Lion cubs tumbled about, pouncing on each other just like domestic kittens, endless energy.  We watched and photographed until, well, we just couldn't smile anymore

Day 13 Kenya

Mara to Manhattan Beach  Today we did something we'd never done before - slept in!  First opportunity to have breakfast in camp, exceptional omelet made-to-order by the executive chef, this is what we've been missing by leaving camp for safari before sunrise each day? 

Puddle-jumper flight from nearby gravel strip to Nairobi, most of us are quiet, reflecting on our common experience in the Mara, not ready to leave.  Shop at a souvenir store downtown, interesting architecture in Nairobi!  Meet up for dinner at new Brazilian restaurant near the airport, say farewells to fellow trekkers and our guides.  Three security checkpoints at the airport - I won't complain as much about security screening in the U.S. - then board flight for London.  Layover at the new, humongous Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport, with its shopping malls and floor-to-ceiling glass walls, then direct to Los Angeles.  Uneventful flights - a good thing - finished a book, studied some training Podcasts. 

Kenya, what an incredible experience!  With five inoculation shots plus anti-malarial pills, I was immune to about everything except Hoof and Mouth Disease.  I don't recall anyone becoming ill, no one starved or was eaten or trampled to death.  Everyone was friendly, service in the camp was exceptional.  I picked up lots of photographic tips, snapped the shutter 6,000 times, walked away with a few photographs I'm even happy with.  And I made new friends.  A trip to Africa is one to be remembered!

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