Saturday, June 21, 2014

Masai Mara: Day 4 Part 2

Up until now I'd been doing pretty well on not a lot of sleep. But this (late) morning I was feeling it. My body did not want to get out of bed, even though I only had an hour to rest. But I finally sucked it up and got ready and went to meet Joseph. We drove out of camp and to the nearby Olonana Maasai village. A number of villagers work at Olonana, and the camp supports it through its philanthropy - a nice synergy.

D met us there with Julius, who leads many of the Maasai village tours. He asked us if we would permit one of the women to put ochre on our faces; we both agreed and soon sported three red marks - one on each cheek and the forehead. Men and women from the village next lined up for the welcome song and dance. It was similar to what I experienced at Amboseli last year but even more fun because D agreed to join in the fun. I juggled her camera and my camera, trying to capture both video and stills. Next we all proceeded to join hands and dance into the village itself. Then the men headed off in one direction and the women formed a circle around us and asked us questions. I thought this was great fun, and it added a personal touch. They asked where we came from; we answered "Obama!" as Julius had told us to say - this got a very excited response.  "Obama!" they all repeated. They asked if we were married, how many children we had, what we liked best about Kenya. Julius translated, and we had a lot of laughs. There were lots of little kids and puppies running around and laughing and playing, all vying for attention but shying away when it came.

We saw the paddock for the cows at night and the more modern one for the goats and sheep. In an effort to cut down on predators taking livestock and becoming targets for revenge killings, several foundations supply chicken wire to make more secure enclosures in which the smaller animals can sleep safely. One of the women invited us into her home, proudly telling us how she designed and built it herself (a Maasai tradition) out of mud and cow dung. She had decorated the insides with different shades of mud, creating lovely designs.

She and Julius told us about a lot of aspects of Maasai culture and patiently answered all of our questions. We then joined the men in the Maasai Parliament. This village's main gathering place was a round enclosure built of sticks and with wooden benches built in. A number of men were gathered to speak with us and demonstrate how the Maasai make fires. It was a windy day, so this process was more difficult than usual, but we finally got there. Once again they explained about the village's decision-making processes, the judicial system, and about traditions and ceremonies.

As the final part of our visit we went to the outdoor market where the village women proudly displayed their beadwork. We walked all around and then went back to pick our favorites. I chose a beaded peace club, a beaded necklace, and a seed-bead neck decoration. D chose her items as well, and then we started negotiating prices. We were both floored by the initial prices quoted; for me, it was $180 for these three items. I appreciate the work that goes into these crafts, but this seemed ludicrously high, especially since we'd already priced out similar objects in the camp's curio shop. These were exponentially more expensive than the already-expensive curio shop. At first they didn't seem willing to negotiate too much, but I finally settled on about $50, which was exactly how much I had brought with me. I wanted to be generous but didn't want to taken advantage of. I live in East Africa and have a pretty good idea of what things cost; even adding in the artist-sold factor and the setting (catering to tourists at a high end camp), it wasn't a positive experience.

Nonetheless, we all parted on good terms and waved goodbye as we drove back to camp. D and I had a late lunch by the river and enjoyed being out of the hot sun. She went to the spa, while I settled on the deck to read before the afternoon's game drive. Stay tuned to find out whether we saw any leopards!

The lovely walkway to the tents at the camp

Stone path, well landscaped, gorgeous setting.

The entrance to my tent. Unni means three in the Maa language.

My veranda, complete with daybed.

Well-protected from the elements.

My tent.

Very comfy beds!

Welcome song and dancing. Joseph, our guide, joined in!

Asking and answering questions with the women.

Dung beetle! The only one I saw on the trip.

Puppy came to visit while we were talking.

Making fire.

Team effort.

There we go!

Entrance to our camp.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Masai Mara: Day 4 Part 1

Day 4 is broken up into three parts.

We opted for a 6:15 departure in an effort to complete our Big 5 adventure. L&M were leaving later today, so this was our last game drive together. We, of course, stayed out an extra hour longer than we should have to see things, but they still made their plane.

On our way toward the park gates we watched two hot air balloons inflate and take off - quite a beautiful sight! One was the balloon D, L, and M had taken on Day 2, so they got a new vantage point.  Farther down the road we spotted a clan of hyenas running on the road in front of us. There were 5-6; it was hard to tell once they took off into the grass. Joseph was worried they had been scavenging at a poaching site overnight, but we never did hear anything terrible, thankfully.

As soon as we entered the park gates we headed for the riverine forest area where, Joseph said, 90% of his leopard sightings occur. We were feeling good about that number until he admitted he hadn't seen a leopard in a month. We weren't deterred, though, and all five us were dead silent with our eyes keenly scanning the ground, trees, and savannah at once, hoping for a mighty leopard spotting. The old safari adage admonishes that the only time you see a leopard is when you're not expecting one. But we'd tried three solid days of pretending we weren't looking for leopards, and it had resulted in diddly squat. So we abandoned all pretenses and looked for leopards.

At one point, while I was taking a photo of a skull in a tree on the river bank, D&L swore they heard a roar. We searched all around the area but saw nothing. This moment becomes important later on, in part 3 of Day 4, so stay tuned and keep that in mind.

We looked and looked and looked and hoped until our eyes hurt, and then we moved on. We saw many ungulates enjoying their morning graze, including three baby giraffes who had clearly been told by their moms to stay in one place. One of them still had an attached umbilical cord. I have the photo below, but the cord isn't easily visible. Joseph said he was probably just a couple weeks old.

Several hippos were slowly making their way back to water, the waterbuck were out in full force, and we saw more warthogs than I can even count. It was a gorgeous morning, and there was lots to see, but we had really been hoping for a leopard.

Joseph wanted to find at least one cat before we headed back in, so we set off in search of lion. We stopped so L&M could use a bush toilet, and Joseph scanned the horizon with his binoculars. "Lions," he said calmly, pointing in the distance. L&M didn't see the point, so they hurriedly got back in the vehicle, and off we went. I saw the spots where Joseph was pointing, but I doubt I would have identified them as lions and not rocks.

We were the only ones to see them, apparently, and we drove up the side of the escarpment to get closer. There they were, a male and female pair, and almost as soon as we arrived they mated. We're pretty sure they were the first pair of mating lions I saw on Day 2. Afterward they spent a few minutes getting comfortable among the rocks. The light was spectacular, as was our viewing angle, so I took a lot of photos of this. The male lion had been in some sort of fight; he was bruised and bloody and cut up. Nothing life-threatening, probably having to do with mating, but since he had a partner I assume he may have won, at least that round.

After a while the lions go up and looked like they were going to mate again. But, instead of doing so on the rocky outcrop, they walked down to within feet of our vehicle and did it there, treating us to a true close up. Another vehicle drove up just as they finished. So funny. Exhibitionists, they are. I still don't believe Joseph that this is truly a rare thing to see - I saw three couples and eight copulations in five days.

By now we were well and truly late, so we did head back to the lodge, passing a few jackals on our way. We had a lovely breakfast and a sad goodbye with L&M. I then headed for a rest while Danette headed for a hike. We met back up a little while later at the Olonana Maasai Village, which will comprise part 2 of Day 4.

Spotted hyena.

Balloons taking off.

Not a morning person.

Beautiful sunrise on the savannah

Mara River

Skull in tree on river bank. Roar. Remember this photo for Day 4, Part 3.

Lovely mama waterbuck.

Hippo and warthogs.

Baby giraffe. The umbilical cord (hanging by front legs) is obscured by the foliage.

This zebra used the dead tree branches to scratch herself. With her oxpecker on her back it was a spa morning!

Lovely ostrich.

Joseph saw these lions from well over a kilometer away. They could easily have been rocks!

Lustrous mane.

See all the cuts on his face?

Rock pillow

Nap time

Love the paws in the air pose.

Whatcha looking at? (Buffalo)

Sleepy guy. See the blood on his mane.

And this is them deciding to mate next to our vehicle

Another stunning landscape view

Jackal sitting pretty

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Masai Mara: Day 3 PM

We set off in search of larger herds of wildebeest, going up to the top of a hill called Lookout Point to get a panoramic view. We didn't find wildebeest there, but we did find trash. Two overflowing barrels of trash with mountains of trash beside each one. Not only that, but driving through this whole section we saw plastic bottles and bags littering the landscape. We stopped and picked up where we could, but it wasn't always safe, and it would have taken all day. Not cool, not cool at all.

Joseph took us in a new direction, determined to find the herds. We continued to see small herds but no big ones. We saw a few way in the distance, but no photos could capture those. I estimate that, all told, we saw at least 50,000 wildebeest today. Not bad at all.

We decided to start driving back; it was already 4:30, and we were 75 km away from our gate with only two hours to get there. So we went at a decent clip. I was surveying the landscape when all of a sudden I saw a huge male lion lying next to a tree. I shouted for Joseph to stop, and we got a bit closer. Said gorgeous male had not one but two wildebeest kills next to him. He'd eaten the eyes and part of the legs/hide of each one and laid them head to head where he could keep an eye on them. They were fresh kills, likely from the morning. This is times of plenty - a sole lion can kill two wildebeest, hide them in plain sight, and not have to try too hard to fend off other predators and scavengers. Amazing.

We drove on, this time on a relatively 'main' road and soon encountered one of my favorite sights of the day - a 300 strong herd of wildebeest being led by a smaller herd of topi away from the Mara and back toward the Serengeti. The topi were the leaders, scattered throughout to keep them in line, and made up the rear. I called them the border control, deporting the wildebeest. We watched as this massive herd crossed the road behind us, the line seeming not to end. Add some water and a few crocs, and this is what I imagine the Mara River crossings to look like. It was hilarious with my own backstory but also truly amazing to watch. It took several minutes for them all to cross the road. And that answered the question of where are all the wildebeest.

Again, we drove on. We passed a long-haul truck, who beckoned for us to stop. Lions, they told us. Two males on the side of the road, just ahead. We drove on, wondering what 'just ahead' and 'on the side of the road' meant since we didn't see anything. And then we did. One male lion lying RIGHT on the side of the road, the other one a few feet away. They were young males, with small manes, probably not long out of the pride. As we watched the one on the side of the road saw something and walked a few feet away. He found a small piece of metal pipe and dug it out of the ground and then triumphantly took it into the bush to play with. Lion #2 decided he wanted to play too, so he tried to grab it, but the owner wasn't budging. We drove on.

At this point we took a quick detour and crossed the border into Tanzania and the Serengeti, to avoid a muddy spot. The border control was nonexistent. Excited for Serengeti later this summer!

We covered a good chunk of mileage, crossing back to the Mara Triangle side, and were only about 16km from the gate when we saw a car stopped for something. Lions! We got closer and saw five females and five cubs. Three of the females were in full view; the cubs romped around the other two in and out of hiding. So incredibly cute! We watched for as long as we could, but it was 6:07 with 16 km to go. No more stopping.

At about 6:26 the gate was in sight, and we had to stop to let some elephants cross. No worries there. It was really getting dark as we headed back to camp, but we did stop to watch a herd of 30 elephants crossing a stream. We watched until it was so dark we could no longer make out the elephant shapes and then headed back in.

What we didn't realize until then was that usually on full day safaris the group is back in the mid-afternoon. We pulled in to camp at 7:14 (okay, maybe we watched the elephants for longer than we realized), and met a frantic Maurice who had been worrying about us for hours! Joseph had been on the radio all afternoon but apparently wasn't on the camp channel that far out. Joseph later told us he'd never been back past 4:00 on a full day. We are just that eager to see animals.

The day's tally was 22 lions - pretty darn impressive, in my opinion. Definitely the best predator day I've ever had. And almost all of them were very good sightings from close up. Wow. Not to mention the wildebeest!

We were pretty tired and had a 6:15 am departure planned, so dinner was a fairly quick affair, and we headed to our tents. I showered, read my folk tale, and then fell asleep. Another awesome safari adventure in the books.

Such a gorgeous boy!

That mane!

Wildebeest for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Notice how he arranged them and ate them in identical ways.

Graphic, but I found this fascinating. Esp all the organs in the sac.

Wildebeest everywhere.
Side-of-the-road lions.

Finding his metal pipe piece.

Almost got it!

All mine.

Topi and wildebeest.

The only crossing we saw that day...

Wildebeest deportation by topi (the lighter-colored antelope here)
Tanzania-Kenya border. Seriously.

More lions!

Lion baby tails - squee!
Not currently on cub duty.
Peeking out to see who's there.

Laughing lioness.

Serene lioness.

Lip-licking lioness.

Bed felt so good!