Sunday, January 16, 2011

Africa - Maasai Mara National Park

Elizabeth, me, Jambo and Willy
Okay, now I'm impressed. I'm from Alaska, a state whose nickname is "The Great Land". And it is. Big, empty, wild, and crawling with large critters, many dangerous. But the sheer scale of these African plains is mind blowing. The dome of the sky is immense, the landscape dwarfs everything in recent memory and it's packed with wildlife, big, dangerous wildlife. During our one day in Maasai Mara National Park we saw virtually all the animals I had hoped to see during the entire trip. This was a three day trip in which one day (on both ends) was spent traveling over some very poor roads just to get to the park, which is about 350 km from Nairobi. But that one day inside Maasai Mara Park was incredible.

I am traveling with three friends from Homer, Jambo, Willy and Elizabeth, and in the photo above you see us formed up in front of our vehicle, an all-wheel drive, heavy-duty Mercedes diesel truck set up for off road touring.

The first 250 km out of Nairobi are over normal roads, if a bit rough and crowded by most measures. The last 100 or so are rough, very rough. Especially when you're traveling in a big truck, far above the pavement and the truck's center of balance. The driver would get our truck up to maybe 30 mph and then a rough spot would appear and he would hit the brakes, shift into 1st gear and crawl over the pot-hole or sag, the big truck rolling and heaving violently from side to side. The going was very slow during that last part of the trip. I had a great seat -- up front with a good view of the road ahead.

On the road to Maasai Mara.  The pavement was rough and pot-holed.
We had some rain on the way in. Typical of the tropics, it came in fiercely, slashing the windows with big drops, and drumming on the roof.  But before long the sun was back out and the road drying before our eyes. We had a good preview of what was to come when a jackal crossed the road ahead of the speeding truck. Just a few miles after that we spotted some giraffes and Thompson's gazelles. And we were crossing through Maasai grazing land at this point -- we were still far from the treasure that is the Maasai Mara Preserve.

The road to Maasai Mara after the rain-  we're in the African bush at last
Finally at about 6 pm we arrived at Acacia Camp just 1 km outside the park boundary. We were assigned tents and supper was started. After supper our guide, Moses, issued orders to be up by 6 am so we could be finished with breakfast and in the truck by 7 -- the whole next day would be spent in the park.

The tents at Acacia Camp were comfortably fitted out with more or less normal beds and mattresses. The temperatures here in Kenya at this time of year are perfect and due to the high altitude, the air is dry. We had temps in the daytime that ranged from about 70 to 90 degrees while at night it got down into the high 60s -- perfect for sleeping and thankfully not all that friendly to mosquitoes. I reckon I knew this in advance but the altitude around here, including Nairobi, is mostly above 5,000 ft. We're only a degree or two south of the equator which would ordinarily mean hot, humid conditions but here the high altitude effect kicks in and makes for very comfortable days and nights. After a nice supper we turned in and set the alarms for 6 am -- we wanted to get an early start so as to maximize the amount of time spent in the park.

As soon as we crossed into the park proper we began to see wildlife, lots of wildlife. Pictures will tell the story. The first animal we saw, appropriately, was the wildebeest. The Mara River, our furthest destination within the park that day, is famous for the fact that migrating herds of wildebeest cross it and when they do, they fall prey to crocodiles that are plentiful along its shores. The big migrations occur in July so we won't see that spectacle during our time here, but check out the photos below for a taste of the drama of the river crossing.

Wildebeest - Masai Mara
Mara River shore - bone yard for deceased wildebeests
After the wildebeests we saw so many animals - cheetahs, elephants, lions, ostriches, warthogs, spectacular birds, cape buffalo, impala, zebra, giraffe, the list goes on. Near the end of the day we came close to a black rhino, a lucky break according to Moses. We tried to get closer but the beast was skittish and trotted off before we could get close enough to photograph it.

A cheetah with her two cubs

The Cape Buffalo - one of the most dangerous of big game animals 

I thought we had been very fortunate to have seen a cheetah right away and then just after that, we saw cape buffalo. When I was a hunter many years ago, I remember reading about how the cape buffalo was considered the most dangerous big game animal in the world. I can't vouch for that but these animals are most impressive. I never thought I would ever see one in the flesh, yet here they were, a herd of about twenty animals, quietly grazing in the protected confines of the park. Awesome!

And then, just a few hundred meters from where we saw the cheetahs, lions! It was a group of three males, perhaps brothers Moses said. Here are two of them.

I imagine you're getting the idea floating around in my head by now. This place is a paradise, but a fragile one. It's a preserve, a last holdout against man's incessant incursions. A treasure. A treasure like Alaska's North Slope, like the Galapagos, the Brazilian rainforest. A threatened treasure. Even we benevolent tourists threaten the balance. That cheetah was bothered by us, and bothered all day by people like us, people interested in preserving species but by our actions,  threatening her very survival. Did she hunt that day? I doubt it.

Yes, we saw elephants that day as well. No big bulls as yet but we enjoyed seeing them just the same.

Elephants grazing in Maasai Mara
I recognized the impala by noting that the male's horns looked like the emblem on a  62 Chevy Impala, my first car. Eventually, after many bumpy miles, the road led to the junction of the Mara River with the border of Tanzania. We stopped for lunch there and saw yet another animal I had not thought we'd see, the hippo. (Note: We saw hundreds of hippos in subsequent days.)

Hippos on the Mara River

On the way back to camp that evening, we saw a hyena laying right next to the road. We had seen one other earlier in the day chasing a wildebeest. This one spooked as soon as we stopped the truck so this photo was taken from some distance --- I include it because it is the only shot I have of this bizarre looking predator.

I must close now. My batteries are about done and it's late. We depart early tomorrow for the 21-day safari we signed up for last summer, the actual trip. We'll go first to the Serengeti in Tanzania, of which Maasai Mara is only a small northern extension, and then to the Ngonongoro Crater. And Zanzibar after that.