Saturday, June 14, 2014

Masai Mara: Day 2 AM

I had a leisurely start to Day 2. D, L, and M were up at 4am to go for a balloon ride; I personally couldn't justify the $450 cost given the amount of safari-ing I have lined up. At about 6:45 Isaac brought tea and biscuits to my tent. I had woken up a lot during the night; between the unfamiliar bed, the morning light, and the hippos right outside, I slept quite lightly.

After getting dressed and grabbing my stuff for the morning I headed to the main lodge for breakfast. They had several tables set up on the terrace overlooking the hippo pools, but I was the only one dining at that time. Breakfast was filling and delicious, and I enjoyed taking time to eat.

Joseph and I were scheduled to set off at 7:30 to pick up the others and go on a game drive; I went back to the formal entrance and waited. I didn't realize there was another pickup spot closer to the lodge. While I waited, though, a large black and white monkey came out of the trees and walked across the wall right in front of me. I didn't have time to grab my camera, but he was so close! Maurice came to see me off, and he agreed that it was probably a black and white colobus and that they occasionally popped into the lodge to steal food. There's an electric fence around camp to keep the big animals out, but fences don't stop monkeys. Or leopards, as we later heard.

Anyway, Joseph found me, and we set off. Right outside the camp gate we ran across a flock of guinea fowl. Then more ellies as we entered the park. Sanctuary Olonana is located just outside the northern border of Masai Mara but still within the Mara Conservancy. The park here is called the Mara Triangle, and the park management is different than the other 2/3 of the park to the east of the Mara River. This side of the park is dominated by the Siria Escarpment, which runs for 60 kilometers through the park and provides a very dramatic backdrop. The gate we used, Oloololo, is next to a section of the park abutting the escarpment and which was the filming location for much of the film Out of Africa. As such, this section of the park is known among the guides as Out of Africa.

We were driving along at a decent clip when both of us did a double take. There, right on the side of the road in the grass, was a male lion! As we stopped to marvel at him, Joseph saw another one walking toward us. As the second one was close to an off-road track and was moving, we decided to head to see him and what he was doing. As we got closer, Joseph jerked the car suddenly to avoid the prone lioness lying in the road. The male settled down near her, and Joseph excitedly said they must be a mating pair. He told me how rare it is to see a mating pair. Sure enough, the male got up and checked in with the female, and we were the lone witnesses to said copulation. It lasted approximately 8 seconds and, Joseph told me, would happen 50 times a day for seven days. What a sight!

We were a bit late to pick up the others so left our new friends lying in the grass and headed off. On our way we passed large herds of various antelope and saw lots of birds. The Mara was teeming with wildlife!

D, L, and M had had an amazing balloon flight, spotting buffalo, elephant, two lions, and even a rhino from the air! We shared stories of our adventures and then set off in search of cats.

Out first sighting was a heavily pregnant spotted hyena, sporting a radio collar as she's a member of a research study. In the same area we saw both bat-eared fox and black-backed jackals, so our canine predator trifecta was complete! I didn't get photos of the latter two, though, as they were a wee bit far away. Plus, I was beginning to think that predators would be super easy to come by so I might as well wait for a great photo. I wasn't really wrong.

We took off in search of cheetah, scouring an area where a female with cubs was known to be, though there had only been a couple sightings of her post-partum so far. As we searched, Joseph heard over the radio that cheetahs had been spotted (get it?) not too far away. So we abandoned our hunt and headed in the other direction. We were driving down the road when Joseph stopped suddenly and started backing up. He said he had seen a snake that had been run over. We backed up until, sure enough, there was a tiny little snake, not more than two feet long. It was not, thankfully, hurt. It was, though, a deadly black mamba. We watched it for a while until Joseph worried it would be run over since it wouldn't leave the road. M lent his GoPro mount, and Joseph coaxed said mamba onto the side of the road. We asked if the babies were also venomous; even more so was the answer, since they have all the venom at a fraction of the size of an adult.

Exhilarated from this exciting detour, we sped on to the cheetahs. And as we reached the spot, where only two other vehicles were parked, the two brother cheetahs descended from their tree and walked away, not far from us. We watched them for as long as we could, until they crested a hill, marveling at their beauty. I haven't seen a cheetah in the wild since 2005, so this was quite magical.

Joseph thought he knew where they were going, so we headed back onto the road to try and follow them. Along the way we found a beautiful herd of topi and stopped to watch them bask in the sun. They have a tendency to bow their heads while they secrete pheromones from a large gland below their eyes, but it gives them a thoughtful look. Very cool.

We emerged on the other side of the hill in time to see the cheetahs heading toward us. They were not afraid of the car at all, walking within a few meters and then stopping at points to survey the savannah. We stayed with them for the better part of an hour, getting some spectacular views as they played with one another, paused for a drink, and generally posed looking awesome.

Finally they walked off on a side of the road where off-track driving is not allowed, so we waved goodbye and headed back to the lodge. Yet again, our game drive was going much longer than expected. We were supposed to be back by 11:00; it was already 12:30, and we were a ways from camp.

On the way back we stopped off at a hippo pool with a squat toilet complex and a ranger, where you can alight from the vehicle and walk to see the hippos. The hippos were huge, as was the one crocodile we saw on the banks. We climbed back in the car and headed back.

We detoured into the Out of Africa section to try and find our mating lions, unsuccessfully. We did see some great elephants though! While we were on the side of the road watching them, a band of mongooses ran out of the grass and swarmed around our truck. They were all making little squeaking noises, and the movement of the 50+ of them was a bit mesmerizing. We watched as they made their way to the shade made by our truck where they all settled in to cool down. Among them were a number of babies, who alternately ran or were carried in the mouths of their mothers. So cute! We finally left them and headed to camp, arriving in time for a late lunch on the terrace.

The beetroot/potato salad and fresh pizza hit the spot after a long day of driving, and I indulged in a facial at the spa before the afternoon drive. Located at the far edge of the camp in a separate tent, the spa has a treatment terrace where you can relax to the sounds of the river and the hippos. Pure bliss!

Guinea fowl!

Dancing elephant :-)

Is this not the most gorgeous sight ever?

Surprise lioness!

Lion mating; the first of many sightings on this trip and the butt of most jokes.

And back to sleep.

Lion prints on the side of the road.

Pregnant hyena with radio collar.

Siria Escarpment in the background.

Baby black mamba!



So majestic.

Pretty poser.

Smile for the camera.

Just look at that beautiful animal.

Time for a drink.


Topi with mud-encrusted antlers.

I love it when the topi stand on termite mounds. It makes me giggle.

Kori bustard, world's heaviest flying bird.

Go home hippo, it's noon and too hot for you!

Baby hippo on the river bank.

OMG I love this landscape.

Bunny in the grass! We spotted this but no lions, interestingly. We found out later we were looking on the wrong side.

I mean, really. This is amazing.

Hello friend!

Banded mongoose.

Seeking shade in our car's shadow. So cute!

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

Masai Mara: the Stuff of Dreams

Confession: I love safaris. That probably is not a surprise to any of you, but I always forget a little bit just how much I love them in between trips. Which is kinda cool, because then it's like, "whoa this is awesome!" all over again each time. So I was very much looking forward to my inaugural trip to Masai Mara, which has always held a coveted spot on my bucket list. But my experience there last week surpassed even my wildest expectations, and it was just the first in what I hope will be a series of visits.

Five days. Four planes. Six takeoffs, six landings. 26.5 hours spent on safari. Thirty-two lions. Eight lion mating sessions. Two cheetahs. Two (!) leopards. Seven black rhino. One baby black mamba. More than 50,000 wildebeest. Big Five. One amazing camp. 769 photos. Countless memories. And lots of stories to come!

I have now gone on safari in at least nineteen parks in ten countries on three continents (I fear I'm missing/forgetting one or two and am not counting Disney World), with amazing sightings and experiences in each one. But Masai Mara really was the experience of a lifetime, probably because it is the park I grew up watching on TV in nature shows and reading about in books and magazines, the quintessential savannah paradise. And I am so grateful that my career affords me the opportunity to experience things like this more than once in a lifetime.

So, as I sift through my hundreds and photos and videos and get ready to write a series of blog posts about the vacation, consider this a teaser post...