Masai Mara, Kenya, Part 1

We spent most of Zannah’s second day in Nairobi figuring out our plan for the rest of her trip, and early the following morning we left on the first leg of our newly-created itinerary:  a four-day safari to the Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru.  The Masai Mara is Kenya’s most famous park.  It sits on the northern tip of the Serengeti plain and is home to just about every animal people associate with Africa, including all of the Big Five (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and African buffalo) as well as giraffes, cheetahs, hippos, antelope, hyenas, and crocodiles.

We left Nairobi in a safari van with several other tourists.  The driver who picked us up mentioned that today was Kenya’s Independence Day.  On December 12, 1963, Kenya officially became independent from Britain.  “That is Uhuru Park,” our driver said as he pointed it out, “and uhuru means ‘freedom’ in Kiswahili.”

“Isn’t Uhuru also the name of Jomo Kenyatta’s son?” I asked.

“Yes,” the driver confirmed.

I had one more important point to make.  “And also on the TV show Star Trek,” I announced proudly, “Uhura is the name of the chief communications officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise.”  Total silence.  The driver furrowed his brow, and Zannah made the universal hand gesture for “crash and burn.”

Only thirty minutes from the city we stopped to take in our first panoramic view of the Great Rift Valley, a massive trench that runs all the way from Syria to Mozambique.  It felt surreal to be standing there and I had to laugh.  “Now this looks like Africa,” said Zannah.

 

Great Rift Valley Panorama

 

At a town called Narok we stopped for lunch and ended up talking with a local named Limeri, a Masai (also spelled Maasai) in his early 20s.  We asked him about the Masai people.  “We are divided,” he told us.  “Masai like me live in the city and dress in shirts and pants.  Others still live out there,” he said, sweeping his arm towards the southwest, “and dress in the old ways.”

“Do you think it’s good that some Masai still follow the old ways?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied immediately.  “Because otherwise tourists would not want to see them.”

“Only because of the tourists?” asked Zannah.

“Yes,” answered Limeri, in a tone of voice that made it sound more like “Of course.”

Just past Narok the condition of the road deteriorated dramatically, and to avoid the massive potholes we often drove beside the road instead of on it.  But the memorable scenes outside the window diverted my attention away from the bumpy ride.  We began to see giraffe heads poking out of the treetops.  A family of baboons played next to a wooden hut.  Red-robed Masai herded goats and cows and waved at us as we drove past.

We arrived just outside the park’s Oloololo gate in the late afternoon, and the driver took Zannah and me to the small lodge we’d be staying at for the next two nights.  We stopped just long enough to put our bags in our room – a semi-permanent tent with a zipper for an entrance – and then we hopped right back on the safari van for our first game drive.

The Masai Mara is truly incredible.  Zannah began reciting a string of Lion King quotes, and I had to admit it felt as if we’d entered the movie.  Herds of zebra, impala, and wildebeest grazed happily in the fading sunlight.  Green hills rolled into the distance, their smooth lines broken only occasionally by the broad canopy of a solitary Acacia tree.  The roof of our safari van popped open, allowing us to stand up for unobstructed views in every direction.  We drove slowly along a dirt road and stopped frequently to watch nearby animals.  Before long we spotted a group of elephants walking next to the road and drove up right next to them.

 

Impala in the Masai Mara

 

African Buffalo

 

Two Elephants in the Masai Mara

 

Elephant Walking Past Safari Jeep

 

Just past the elephants we saw a cluster of safari vans and knew they must have spotted a big cat.  Minutes later we were parked beside them, watching several female lions begin their evening hunt.

 

First Lion Sighting in the Masai Mara

 

Lion Walking at Masai Mara

 

Lion in Last Light

 

After the adult females passed us, our driver spotted their cubs in some nearby bushes.

 

Young Lion in the Brush

 

Lion Cub Yawning

 

Really, really fun to see lions in the wild for the first time…  We’d been told that lion sightings in the Masai Mara are almost guaranteed, but I hadn’t wanted to get my hopes up.  I couldn’t believe we’d already seen so many of them on just our first ride into the park.  The sun set and we drove back towards the entrance gate, passing a jackal and a hyena as they began their evening rounds.

 

Jackal in the Masai Marra

 

Hyena at Dusk

 

I couldn’t wait to return to the park the next morning and spend the entire day there.