Saturday, June 14, 2014

Masai Mara: Day 1

Lots of stories, so I am going to break this into multiple posts so it's not overwhelming. For me, or for the reader.

Day one started out cold and rainy in Kampala with an early trip to the airport. Traffic was bad to start, but once on Entebbe Road we moved at a decent clip. Flight was fine, and we landed in Nairobi about eleven am. Our cab was there to meet us after we cleared customs, and we headed over to the domestic airport (Wilson) for our flight to the Mara. To our surprise the AirKenya terminal had a pleasant place to sit, a small cafe with decent food for lunch, and several helicopters to gawk at as we killed three hours.

Originally we were told we were the only ones on our flight, but when it was finally our turn to board there were a handful of others. Keep in mind this is an eleven-seater bush plane. The good news: our stop (Kichwa Tembo) would be the second stop instead of the third. I hate flying, and small planes present a particular challenge for my anxiety.

Our takeoff was smooth, and other than a few rain clouds our 45 minute flight to the Mara was decent. I read a bit of the inflight magazine, which made me laugh because one of the featured articles was on the camp where we were staying on this trip and the next article was about the Serena in Zanzibar. You know you've made good travel choices when they appear in an inflight magazine.

As we landed at the first airstrip we got our first glimpses of hippos, zebras, large herds of cattle, and some assorted antelope. This almost distracted me from the crosswind landing onto the muddy airstrip. One person disembarked, two more got on, and we were off again. It only took another five minutes to get to Kichwa Tembo, where the landing was even scarier as we started to swing back and forth as we touched down. Thank you very much rain the night before.

I gratefully climbed out of the tiny plane and was greeted by Joseph, guide extraordinaire. My friend D and I were paired up with a lovely couple from the UK; I know it was probably just because we were on the same plane arriving at the same time, but we couldn't have asked for better safari companions. Experienced safarigoers, they were up for staying out as long as possible each day and seeing everything. Plus they were just plain fun!

Joseph loaded us up into a swanky open-air vehicle, with comfy bucket seats, padded armrests on the sides of the vehicle, and a cooler full of drinks. Plus pillows and blankets on each seat! In what would become a trend in the coming days, the 20 minute drive to camp took over an hour as we stopped at everything. Topi, zebra, and buffalo all grazed along the airstrip, and it wasn't long before we encountered our first elephant herd.

We eagerly took pictures of everything we saw, knowing full well that by the end of the trip we'd be taking a whole lot less photos of these same animals. We had landed inside the park and needed to exit to get to our camp. At the park gate, we saw a beautiful yellow lab with a working vest on doing exercises with a ranger. Joseph told me he's an ivory and gun-sniffing dog to detect poachers. He has three brothers who all do the same at different gates. How cool is that? He's apparently quite good at sniffing out contraband.

The road from the gate to camp was full of zebra and eland. I realize now that these photos of eland may be the only ones I took all week, despite seeing many more.

Baboons were also present, including the very large male pictured below. Several zebra were obviously pregnant, and there were lots of little babies.

We passed several Maasai manyattas on the 10 minute drive from the gate to camp, including a number of herdsmen with their cows, goat, and sheep. Lots of waves and smiles and jambos, which would continue all week. Joseph, a Maasai from a village 180 km away, told us that each camp supports a village. The Olonana village has several residents who work at the camp in various capacities and is the designated visit site for our camp's guests.

Even as we pulled into Sanctuary Olonana's driveway, it was hard to tell where the camp could be - it blended that well into the environs. We arrived at the formal entrance, greeted by a Maasai man in traditional dress playing the flute to welcome us. Maurice, the manager, and Yvonne, one of the asst managers, warmly welcomed us with smiles and cold towels and led the way through the beautiful forest on unobtrusive stone paths.

We arrived in the main common area, home to the dining room, the library, and numerous inviting couches and chairs. We went out onto the several-tiered deck, marveled at the hippos in the Mara River, and settled down on the deck with welcome drinks. Maurice oriented us to camp and got us registered and explained how things would work. We then headed for our tents; D and I had tents next to each other but entirely secluded. The camp has fourteen luxury tents, each on a wooden platform and with its own view of the Mara River. My tent, #3, overlooked a hippo pool.

Isaac showed me around the very impressive tent, with two beautiful beds, two wardrobes, a desk, a sitting area, lots of room to spread out, and a lovely bathroom. I settled in, noticed all the little details, unpacked a bit, and then headed for the main lodge. I settled down on the deck to take advantage of the free (and very fast!) wi-fi, which was just one of the little details that made the camp so lovely.

When it started to get dark and a bit chilly, I headed inside and found not one but two fires roaring. I settled onto a sofa near one of them and soaked up the welcome heat. D joined me after a while, and we enjoyed pre-dinner snacks and drinks. Sanctuary Olonana is all-inclusive, which just made it that much more lovely. A guitar player strummed softly in the middle of the room, and the other guests filtered in and shared stories of the day.

We adjourned to a table and were feted with the first of many amazing three-course meals. Big John, the head chef, and his team are truly artists with food. Everything was fresh and tasty and perfectly-portioned. Olonana has an organic garden, where it grows 75% of the produce used at camp. Each course was garnished with fresh herbs, and it was lovely to taste asparagus and strawberries after so long.

As we finished our main course all of the kitchen staff came out of the kitchen with a cake, lit with candles, and were joined by what seemed like the entire staff. They had real and makeshift instruments and formed a line and sang and danced their way around the dining room twice, to everyone's delight. We were all wondering who was being celebrated; as the cake came by us I got a look and saw "Happy Honeymoon!" written across the top in icing. The cake finally landed at the table of our vehicle companions, who looked as surprised as anyone. We found out later that it was L's birthday, not their honeymoon, but it was all in good fun. (It later came out that there was a birthday, a honeymooning couple, and a couple celebrating their anniversary there that week; they'd just sent the wrong cake. But the right sentiment!)

D ordered tea after dinner; after it came we both realized how chilled we were, even inside. We headed back to our tents. I took a quick shower and then bundled up and slid into bed. I cannot tell you how happy I was to discover the hot water bottle in my bed. That little thing kept me warm and toasty all night long and was just such a welcome touch!

I fell asleep quickly and dreamed of exciting safari adventures to come...

Our trusty bush plane.


The first ellies of the vacation.

There was PLENTY of grass for everyone to indulge in.

How classic a Masai Mara scene is this?

The awesome anti-poacher dog!

He sniffs out guns and ivory.



Baboon striding with a purpose.

Hippos outside my tent

My tent's private terrace

Mara River

1 comment:

Lydia Durant said...

Beautiful photos!! Sounds like paradise so far-- excited to continue through your next posts :)