Friday, July 27, 2012

The Great Migration

Maasai Mara Day 1

Every year the wildebeests and other grazing animals, such as zebras and antelopes migrate in a clockwise circle through the Serengeti in Tanzania and into the Maasai Mara in Kenya. As these prey animals move to better feeding areas, the predators, such as lions and leopards, travel with them. The peak season for this migration into Kenya begins in July. Of course, so do the peak season prices.


The day Cale was in Kisumu paying for our trip to the Maara to see the animals the headlines in the local paper trumpeted the start of the Great Migration.

Our journey started on Saturday morning in Kisumu. We were supposed to be up and ready by 7 am for pick up. By 7:30 there was no sign of our ride. Cale called our travel agent, who said “they should be there; do we see a green van?” Nope. Finally, at 7:45 we decided to just walk the two or three blocks to the travel agency. Once there we discovered they were just opening up. The girl that could work the credit card machine (and could take our companions’ payment) hadn’t arrived yet. In addition, we had tried to pick up the itinerary the night before, but our matatu had not arrived in Kisumu early enough in the evening. Luckily we hadn’t tried too hard to make it in time because when the credit card machine girl arrived, she also typed up our itinerary. Though we were supposed to leave at 7am, we didn’t hit the road until after 8 am.

The drive to the Mara took seven hours. The landscaped changed dramatically has we headed south. We entered into an area of rolling hills covered in tea farms. We saw signs for huge companies, such as Unilever and Lipton. After the tea farms the hills became father apart and the vegetation more sparse. More cacti appeared and the landscape began to resemble the American southwest.

We had one lengthy hang up along the way. As we passed into the county that contains the Maasai Mara park, we were stopped at a road block. Men in camo jackets came out of a tin shack on the side of the road and an argument with our driver ensued. We, of course, had no clear idea of what was going on. After they had taken our driver inside the tin shack, we sat in the van wondering if he would ever return. In the end we learned that the county, which runs the park (not Kenya Wildlife Services), had decided to move the payment for entry tickets from the entrance to the park (which makes sense to me) to the entrance to the county itself (which is strange to me, especially since they were stopping cars for payment based on their guess of whether or not they contained people who intended to go to the park). Our driver, who had just taken people to the park the week before, had no idea that this change had been made and had no way of knowing if these guys were legit. Apparently, it was all sorted out eventually. The guys were in fact legit, and we were off on our way again.

When we arrived at the gate to the Maasai Mara Wildlife Reserve, there was brief wait as our paperwork to be sorted out. During that time, Maasai women enveloped the van, thrusting handicrafts into our faces. If the window was not open, they would open it. They would set items in our lap, piling them higher and higher. We had been warned about this in advance by a earlier group who had gone to the Mara, so we were a little prepared. We knew the name of this game was for them to pile up the most wares for the lowest price. Cale negotiated down four carved wooden items to 500 Ksh. Later we would buy an entire rack of beaded necklaces and bracelets for 1000 Ksh.

Maasai Mara Day 1

As we drove past the gate, into the park, I was immediately struck by the animals. On the outside of the gate, we had seen a few animals that fit into the category of what I am calling deer (impalas, gazelles, antelope, etc.) and wildebeests. However, just on the other side of the gate the landscape was filled with zebras, deer varieties, wildebeest, and topi. By the end of our time we joked that they must have some sort of special zebra feed just by the gates. Any gate we entered, there were always a herd of zebra nearby.

Maasai Mara Day 1

That first day we drove in the park from about 3:30 pm to about 6:30 pm. In only three hours we saw animals at every turn. Apparently, most tourists are particularly interested in the big cats. Seeing the lions, cheetahs, and leopards are a big deal. While we were in the park that afternoon, lions were spotted. Most of the tour vehicles have CB radios inside and the drivers keep up a constant chatter of what animals they are seeing and where. When word goes out about the big cats, most of the vehicles in the park converge on that spot. Our driver liked to keep us in the dark so we could guess what animal we were approaching. Unfortunately for him, even I understand the Swahili word for lion, simba. So we all knew we were coming up on some lions. Cale was able to determine that they were young lions as well from the word watoto (which is plural for child). We came upon at least three juvenile male lions sleeping in a bush. They were mostly covered by the bush (and flies as well), so they were hard to see or photograph. In addition, the bush was literally surrounded by tour vehicles with people leaning out trying to take pictures.

Maasai Mara Day 1

Speaking of pictures, I saw the photographic gamut in the park. From the cheapest camera phones to high-end cameras sporting $20,000 USD lenses. I experienced quite a great deal of lensvy. The best cameras and lenses were always in the hands of Asian tourists. I clearly need to go to Asia. I also experienced camera frustration. So many people with reasonable DSLRs, who clearly had no idea how to use them. I was also constantly amused by the people, hundreds of feet away from an animal aiming their little point and shoot at it in broad daylight, and the flash goes off. First, that picture is not going to turn out anyway. And second, that flash did absolutely nothing in this situation.

Maasai Mara Day 2

Once we had finished our drive, we were dropped off at our accommodations just outside the park gates. The Manyatta Camp (which is the Maasi word for house or home…I am told) was great. I took a hot shower. There were three different vegetable dishes for dinner. I slept soundly in the only place in Kenya where the bed I was sleeping in was in place that was both quiet and dark.

— Sara

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