Day 1 – 3: Meetup and the Masai Mara
Upon arrival to the hotel, we stepped into the lobby and immediately knew we were in the right place. A crowd of younger folks with giant backpacks littered the hotel lobby. We talked to the first person we saw, a Canadian girl that had just done a trip with the same company (Acacia) from Cape Town to Livingstone and flew to Nairobi to do the same trip we were doing. A few moments later, our tour guide Sam, who we would get to know quite well, greeted us and was relieved as we were the missing two people he was looking for, as we did not attend the pre-trip meeting the prior day.
After paying him our local payment, he told us to immediately pack a day pack good for 3 days, 2 nights, for the Masai Mara as we would be taking three smaller trucks that would be too small to accommodate our giant backpacks (which is why I listed a small backpack in the list of things to bring) and this was news to us. No where on the tour summary did it state this so we were not prepared. Being the guy that I am, I was all about the “it is what it is” type of mentality. I was perfectly content with finding a plastic bag and sticking my toiletries bag with few pairs of underwear and t-shirts and calling it a day. My girlfriend on the other hand, was very flustered not knowing how she was ever going to get through 2 nights without her stuff. In the end, Acacia was very accommodating and just told us to take one large backpack for the both of us.
The Masai Mara and Getting There
The Masai Mara, or just the Mara to the locals, is named after the Masai people and their description of the place from afar, “Mara” which means spotted which is a good description for the area as circular shrubs dot the hilly savanna like landscape. It is famous around the world for its large and dense populations of animals and the spectacle that is the wildebeest migration as they cross from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara every year. We were unfortunately, a few weeks late as the animals had all finished migrating but if you’re lucky enough to come during that time, you’re bound to see thousands of animals and the predators that follow them looking for easy prey. Nevertheless, we still saw loads of animals. This was my first real safari and couldn’t have asked for more.
Acacia, the tour company that puts on this trip, does not do the actual safari around the Mara, but rather they outsource it to a local company that they have worked extensively with and have negotiated good rates for everyone. In fact, our tour guide Sam knew the driver of our truck, Vincent, for many years now which is cool to see the camaraderie between everyone involved in that industry. Our Acacia tour guide still tagged along however, but the driving was done by this other company.
With our day packs finally packed, there were 18 of us, and 3 vans so we packed 6 to a truck. This is where you really start to get to know the people you’ll be traveling with for awhile so just hope for the best that they’ll be chill people to talk to You’re in this car for the next 6 hours as you head towards the Mara.
The Great Rift Valley
As we pulled out of Nairobi, we passed through rural towns that really epitomized what I thought of Africa as it was just shanty town after shanty town. Unfortunate to have to see, but it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. We stopped at a gas station to stock up on supplies for the Mara as our guides told us we will need enough bottled water to last us three days. We ended up getting about 10L of water between the two of us and some random chips and peanuts (for just the drive as there is cooked food at the camp).
As we left the gas station, we started climbing up a mountain which was quite scary as the road only had two lanes and our van was constantly passing cars with oncoming traffic. We would make passes that I would never dare attempt back home but these drivers are a little crazy (they have to be) and we had so many close encounters passing other cars I thought for sure I was a goner. Eventually, about 2 hours driving, we were near the top of the mountain and had a great view of the Great Rift Valley.
Africa’s Great Rift Valley is a 6,000-mile crack (fissure) in the earth’s crust, stretching from Lebanon to Mozambique. One of its most dramatic sections slices through East Africa, dividing Kenya into two segments. Geologists know that the Rift Valley was formed by violent subterranean forces that tore apart the earth’s crust. The views of this thing were incredible as you could see beautiful landscape as far as your eyes could go. We stopped to take some pictures, got heckled by some merchants (naturally) and were on our way.
The Bumpy Roads
Certainly one thing we were not warned about, but an hour after the Great Rift Valley, the road we were driving on suddenly changed from paved, comfortable, sleep-worthy roads, to the bumpiest dirt road I’ve ever driven on. Initially, I thought it was just a stretch of road being worked on and it’d be over quickly, but wow was I wrong. This road lasted the next two hours and is the real reason why the drive to the Mara takes so long. We were driving at a solid 40mph/60kmph for two hours constantly stopping to go over what seemed like endless speed bumps. In addition, you’ll see plenty of livestock on the drive and many times, there will be goats or cows crossing the road which was cool the first time, but got old quickly as it happened numerous times. A few sore butts later, we finally arrive at our camp,around 2pm, 5 hours after we left Nairobi.
Masai Mara Camp
Power plugs: Y | Wifi: N | Hot Showers: Y | Toilets: Regular
We were told by our guides that the trip to the Mara would be our most luxurious of the trip. There would be no camping necessary here and that we’d be getting permanent tents with toilets. The camp, named Enkelong is situated right outside the Mara (about 15 min) and was very basic. Surrounded by trees and shrubs, this place is a quintessential campsite for a game reserve. The tents are permantly placed with mosquito nets, the beds are either full beds (for couples), or two twins. The toilet is outside, and the showers surprisingly have hot water. The bed is comfortable and is important as you’re waking up at 6am in the mornings. Everything is very basic here.
If this doesn’t suit you, then perhaps one of the lodges inside the Masai May. That is, if you have about 1000$ a night to spare. Luxurious game lodges in a game reserve are extremely expensive and to my knowledge, there isn’t a whole lot in between camping and luxurious lodges. There were a few lodges that weren’t 5 star luxury but for how much more you pay and how little you get, these aren’t worth it in my opinion.
For how basic our camp was, the was surprisingly good. Of course you just take one look at the camp, you have to temper your expectations a little bit but I thought the food did the job. For breakfast, we had eggs, sausages, pancakes and coffee. Lunch was beef stew with rice and dinner was either chicken on the bone or beef stew with rice/pasta. We were amply fed to say the least. Beer was available for purchase for 2-3$, and our group cleaned this place out! At dinner for the rest of the trip, our tour guide Sam would ask us about our day and give us a summary of what would happen the following.
Lunch on one of our days was a packed lunch so we could stay in the Mara the whole day. This consisted of some fruit, a piece of chicken, and a basic ham sandwich. Not the best but you can only do so well with a packed lunch. In addition, I saw some older folks with packed lunches as well from some of the very nice lodges and the food looked to be about the same quality. As far as food goes, we knew we would have to rough it out for a bit until we got to our 5 star resort in Zanzibar but to my surprise, the roughing it out was far less rough than I’d thought.[/nextpage][nextpage title=”Page 2 » The game drives begin…”]
The Game Drives
Finally, on to the good stuff. The reason people flew ungodly amount of hours to Nairobi along with a 2 hour ride of none stop bumps, to see the animals. We were briefed that we would go on an afternoon game drive the first day, a full day game drive the next, and a morning game drive the 3rd day before driving back to Nairobi.
Game Drive 1 – Day 1 Afternoon
After arriving at the camp from Nairobi, we had lunch, took a quick break, and were on our way into the Mara at around 3:30pm. The drive to the Mara was a quick 15 minutes but through some real rugged and bumpy terrain. You’ll pass by the local Masai people tending to their sheep and cattle and some very random makeshift shops/shacks before you arrive at the grandiose gate of the Mara. As soon as you pass through the gate, you can see the stark contrast between the villages before the gate, and the beautiful scenery right after.
As soon as we crossed the gate, the roof on our vans were finally opened allowing us to stand up and have a nice 360 degree view of the land. Fixing my new 55-210mm camera lens, I looked the part of a photographer and was ready to go. Not more than a few minutes driving on the park’s dirt roads (less bumpy however), we saw a huge male cape buffalo chilling by itself. This thing was massive and even the driver said that this one was one of the largest he’s seen. Another minute or two of driving, we saw a group of Giraffes grazing, some zebras, antelopes, and then a big group of elephants with babies grazing so close to the road. Within the span of 15 minutes, we had already seen two of the big 5 and a lot of them too. The driver, knowing that it was our first drive of the trip, stopped frequently to give us time to photograph and look at these majestic creatures.
After seeing all the common animals once, we proceeded to drive at a fast pace as now we were on the hunt to see something else. The great thing the mara is it’s so open, ready for the world to look at it in its entirety unlike the Kruger which is shrouded by bushes and trees. Eventually, we came to our first herd of animals, buffalos in this case. There must have been hundreds of them as they had come over during the migration looking for greener pastures to graze. We drove for another half hour or so, and I was keen on spotting some predators but couldn’t find any. Predators are more active at night so during the day, you’ll rarely see them doing much besides lounging and sleeping. Day time animal kills that you see on Nat Geo are in fact, extremely rare.
Eventually, we heard our driver Vincent, chatting on the radio, and we turned into a smaller road with at least 10 other trucks. Turns out, the drivers in the Mara all know each other and even if they work for different companies, they all radio each other to let everyone know where the good spots are. Win-win for us. We pulled up next to a thick bushed acacia tree with probably a hundred people staring and that means one thing, Leopard! What a great start to our trip to spot a leopard the first day, the hardest of the big 5 to see as they rarely stray away from trees. The Canadian girl on our trip that had already been to three other parks had not even seen a leopard until now. We stayed here for almost an hour, driving around the tree to get the best views. It was incredibly hard to spot this thing as the sun was setting and this thing blended so well with the dense bushes of the tree.
Eventually, all the cars started leaving one by one and after taking almost 20 pictures, we left as well. Heading back to the camp, we saw more herds of buffalo next to a backdrop of rain clouds with a setting sun (with no rain however) so picturesque, my camera just can’t do it justice. We make it back to our camp around 7, where we have dinner, and then some drinks around a campfire, getting to know everyone as it was our first night together. The camp turns on the power generator from 6:30pm – 10:30pm so use this time to charge your cameras. We call it a night around 11 as we have to get up at 7 the next day for our full day drive.
Game Drive 2 – Day 2, Full Day in the Mara
Wake up call is at 6:45am this day and everyone is excited as they get ready for the first full day drive! The weather was a little cloudy in the morning but quickly cleared making for a great day for viewing. After breakfast, we are given our lunch boxes and we leave the camp around 8am. The Mara is quite small, in comparison to other game parks at only 600 square miles so it is actually feasible to see most of this in a day. We enter the same way we did yesterday and see zebras, hartebeast, and gazelles right away. You’ll be seeing a lot of these in the Mara and the Serengeti so best to just take some pictures of them early and move on. The novelty of the common animals wore off quickly unless they got extremely close to the car which would warrant some pictures.
We saw numerous herds of zebras and also saw the same herd of buffaloes from the prior day. As we drove past the herd of buffalo, we saw something in the distance that looked like a buffalo from afar but thanks to the tried and true eyes of our driver, he quickly pointed out it was a black rhino! It was being stalked by a hyena which is strange as you’d probably need 100 of them to take on one rhino. The rhino charged it a few times and the hyena quickly got out the way. It was so far in the distance that we couldn’t get good pictures so we got closer. The rhino was making its way near the buffaloes and as we got near it and settled in a bush making it hard to see.
By this point, ten other trucks all converged onto the rhino watching patiently. Half hour goes by and one by one, the cars leave because the rhino wasn’t doing anything. We decide we want to leave too but our driver emphasizes that we be patient and we could be awarded. We drove closer to the pack of buffaloes until we were pretty much surrounded by them. We could still see the rhino at the edge of the herd standing still but ten minutes of waiting later, we were rewarded! This was without a doubt one of the highlights of the trip. The rhino finally started to move and jogged towards the buffaloes. It stopped and was staring right at a big male buffalo that was standing its ground. They stared for maybe 10-20 seconds, almost looking like they were about to duel, when the buffalo quickly realized it stood no chance, and moved out of the way. Then the entire herd parted the seas and cleared a path for the rhino to walk through, to which he went about his way. It’s incredible to see that such massive and powerful creatures like the buffalo, that can weigh up to 2000lbs, still know their place in the animal kingdom and know they stand no chance against a rhino. This was such an amazing thing to see and credit has to go to the driver that knows from experience when to wait and when to leave.
After our Rhino encounter, we were no longer on the main road that started from the gate, but rather on smaller dirt roads off the beaten path. I had no idea where we were in relation to the entrance but obviously the driver did. We saw some giraffes, zebras, more buffalo until we finally got lucky and saw some lions! It was two females perched up on a large rock just hanging out. Not more than a day into the Mara and we could already cross the Big 5 off our list! For those who don’t know, the big 5 consists of elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino. These are the big 5 because it was considered by hunters back in the days to be the hardest to track and kill. We followed these lions around and one of them walked right in front of the car so we got some quality shots of her before she disappeared into the bushes. Within the bush, we could see another five females hanging out but it was hard to make out.
Lunch and Hippos
Eventually, we tired of trying to spot lions napping and at this time, it was time for lunch so we made our way to the Mara river, the very one that is famous for all those pictures of wildebeest jumping over. We get here around 12:30 or so and immediately we see a group of hippos sleeping on a small bank near the water! There’s about 10 of them and they’re all just chilling. Hippos are very nocturnal; they come out at night to graze and head back to the water before sunrise and sleep for most of the day. As we eat our boxed lunches, the rest stop was filled with monkeys that were crazy about our food and some actually ended up stealing sandwiches right in front of us! Our guides told us to not feed the monkeys as they would become dependent on humans giving them food.
Shortly after lunch, we drive back the way we came in and I yell for the driver to stop as I see a group of hippos along the river of at least 20 or 30! Turns out we aren’t the only ones that have discovered them as the area seems to be a hotspot to see hippos. We get out the truck again and without a doubt, there are about 30-40 hippos napping in the river a short stones throw away from them. There is a sign that warns us not to walk further unless you have an armed guard. Hippos are one of the most aggressive and dangerous animals and are responsible for the second most human deaths after the buffalo. These big guys are cool to marvel at initially until you realize they are legit sleeping and nothing cool will happen. We did see a baby hippo going into the river but aside from that, we took a few pictures and moved on into the afternoon.
The afternoon drive started out with a visit to the border rock, which is just a piece of stone that serves as the border between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. These two game reserves are in fact connected together. A small piece of it belongs to Kenya called the Masai Mara. The rest of it, an area 10x as large as the Mara, belongs to Tanzania and is called the Serengeti. We stop for a few pics here and are quickly distracted when we see our first male bull elephant of the trip. This bad boy was far from us but the thing was huge. Even from hundreds of meters away, you could tell this was a massive one. Elephants are not fully grown until they are 35-40 years old and can live up to 70 years so this guy was at least 35 according to the guides. Being the curious person that I am, I asked our guide Sam whether that thing could flip over our truck that could hold 10 people. “Without any trouble” was the response.[/nextpage][nextpage title=”Page 3 » Lions making love and vultures”] Lions Making Love
We quickly learned that these game drives was just driving and driving and driving. There would be stretches where we wouldn’t see much but because of how dense and open the Mara is, we would always be driving and see SOMETHING, even if we had seen it already. A few hours after lunch, we saw a large group of cars and knew that had to mean something cool. It was. A male lion, our first of the trip, hanging out with a female lion. It was mating season for these two and we had come in time for the show! We waited about 15 minutes watching the lions do nothing but eventually, the male lion got up, assumed the position, 8 seconds later we counted, and he was done. Lions will have sex for the entire day numerous times but for no more than 20 seconds at a time. When he finished, everyone cheered and clapped which surprised the guy and he gave us a surprised look before falling back to the ground to take a nap, content with his work.
A Masai Village Walk (Optional) – 10$
We saw a few more lions, elephants, and various animals after this but nothing we hadn’t already seen. We had seen quite a bit for a day’s drive and were all content to head back. We leave the park around 4pm and we are offered an optional excursion to see one of the local Masai villages. For 10$, you can walk through one of their villages, see a tribal dance of all the men jumping as high as they can, as a sort of a ritual to attract the women, walk inside one of the huts to see where they live and then be paraded through their gift shop where they try and sell you as much as they can.
If you’re not tired and want to maximize your time as much as possible, I’d recommend doing this as it is only 10$ but otherwise, this whole excursion just felt like a huge tourist trap. We toured the village for maybe 15 minutes before they just pawned us off to the gift shop where they’re clearly just trying to get at your dollars. None of us liked this at all and left the village in less than an hour. As a part of the Acacia trip itself, you’ve actually paid for a walk through a Masai village in Tanzania so if you choose not to do this one, you’ll have another opportunity.
We eventually return to our camp around 6pm where we have dinner; beef stew and pasta with mixed vegetables. Camera charging is the most important activity of the early evening as there’s only 4 precious hours of power. Eventually, we all make our way to the campfire where we drink and shoot the shit until the late hours, even though we are departing at 6am the next morning for our morning game drive before going back to Nairobi!
Game Drive 3 – Day 3, Early Morning
Waking up before the sun rose at 5:30am, everyone was groggy and out of it. Some people decided to just sleep in, content with what they say the previous day. I figured I already paid for this and who knows how long it’ll be before I come back here? Could be a lot worse things in life to wake up half past 5 to go on a safari at an amazing game reserve. Few cups of coffee later, we get to the trucks and leave at 6. The sunrise in this part of the world is a spectacle in itself. The sun is very large as you’re on the equator and with the backdrop of the acacia trees, it’s very picturesque.
We’d already seen a few vultures on the previous days but this morning yielded a huge flock of them surrounding a carcass. There must have been at least 30 of them surrounding what looked like a carcass of a wildebeest. They were tearing the thing to pieces and you could see guts spilling out everywhere which was actually pretty awesome. The morning drive was mostly uneventful. I thought that early morning game drives would yield more animals as I had figured they like the dusk more as the sun is less intense but perhaps we just went on a bad day. Nevertheless, an hour or so into it, we saw a male lion by itself just chilling right next to the dirt road. We were so close to it, I could throw water on it from my water bottle. He eventually got up and started walking on the dirt road! We followed it closely for about 15 minutes and this guy never seemed bothered by all the trucks trailing it. We stayed with him for almost a half hour before calling it quits. Driving next to this guy made the morning game drive worthwhile and all of us were content driving back to the camp. We had breakfast when we got back and left the camp and the Masai Mara to head back to Nairobi around 9am.
Heading Back to Nairobi
Our drive back to Nairobi was…just as bumpy as the drive to the Mara. Most of us, tired from waking up so early, attempted to sleep. That is, you go through a bump and your head hits the truck’s ceiling.
Losing a Tire
We had some bad luck on the unforgiving roads leaving the Mara as bump after bump, the van was just getting beat up. Eventually, we hit a bump at high speeds and I could just hear a loud thump on the side and next thing I know, there is dust all around the left side of the van and a tire was rolling forward into the distance. We had lost our tire. We were in the middle of nowhere in Africa and thinking oh my god, how will this ever be sorted? To our surprise, however, EVERY subsequent safari vehicle that passed us, stopped to help us out until there were five other cars around us! All of these vehicles had passengers in them as well. Aside from a douchebag older Korean group that was upset at stopping, all the other safari-goers stepped out and chatted with us. It was great to see the comraderie amongst the Safari drivers and the unspoken code they abide by to help each other out if things go awry. Half hour later, we are up and running and head back slowly to Nairobi.
First night of camping
Power plugs: Y | Wifi: Y (Not free) | Hot Showers: Y | Toilets: Regular
Now the fun really begins. After sleeping in permanent tent with a bed for 2 nights, it was time to start the real camping side of it. This would be how we slept until we got to Zanzibar. Fortunately, the tents were all set up for us on the first night so we just had to open our sleeping bags. The camp was quite decent, and was more of a motel with an outdoor camping area than a real campsite. It was located in a wealthy suburb right outside of Kenya popular amongst ex-pats. Nevertheless, this “nice” suburb of Nairobi still felt like Africa and was nothing like the nice suburbs of Johannesburg.
Being deprived of internet for 3 days, many of us decided to walk to a strip mall down the road (very safe), as they had free internet and to stock up on snacks and booze. This mall was only a 15 minute drive from the Westgate mall where the terrorist attacks happened 3 days eariler and were still happening when we were in the mall. Dinner was served back at the campsite and was the best of the trip yet. After dinner, we had the usual hanging out by the bar having a few drinks with each other and shooting the shit. Some people took this time to write in their travel diaries (which I should have done so I wouldn’t have to write this blog post all at once). I slept surprisingly well in the tent and the next morning, we had a simple cereal breakfast, packed our own lunch with food Acacia provided (simple sandwiches), loaded up the big truck, and we were finally on our way headed to Arusha in Tanzania.[flagallery gid=11][/nextpage]