Sunday, July 24, 2016

African Adventure - Part 3: Masai Mara (continued)

Masai Mara Game Reserve
July 4, 2016

Happy Independence Day!  Lani, one of our tour companions, greeted us at breakfast with red, white, and blue beaded necklaces to wear in honor of our American holiday.
Joan is ready for a July 4 safari ride in her red, white, and blue.
After our previous two days of viewing the huge herds of wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, and Cape buffalo on the Masai Mara plains, our safari drives over these next two days had us on a quest to find the more elusive animals of the Masai Mara - cheetahs, leopards, and rhinos.  For these sightings, we headed up into the hills at the north end of the game reserve.

Our first encounters were some familiar animals we had already seen - zebras, Cape buffalo, warthogs, and topis.  I joked that we would reach the point of saying, "Ho hum, another zebra."  But it wasn't true.  Although the animals in the hills were not as numerous as those on the plain, it remained a thrill throughout the entire trip to suddenly come upon a zebra, an elephant, a giraffe, or any other of the creatures here.
Mother and child

How could anyone be ho-hum about seeing this adorable baby?

Cape Buffalo roam the grasslands

Warthogs were numerous but shy.  They usually ran away as soon as they spotted us.

A curious topi

We often saw ostriches, most often in pairs - one male and one female - but almost as often groups of one male with two to three female companions.  This fellow was particularly striking with his bright pink neck.  The neck and thighs of the Masai, or pink-necked, ostrich become even brighter during the mating season.
Male pink-necked ostrich on the prowl for a mate.
The first sightings of new animals today were the hartebeest, a large African antelope, and the Grant's gazelle.  Sadly, we learned that the numbers of the hartebeest, like so many others, are declining in Africa due to expanding human population and hunting.  The game reserves here are so important in providing a safe home for all of the African animals, although even here, poaching remains a problem.
A herd of hartebeests

Hartebeest

Grant's gazelle

Grant's gazelles all have horns, but the males' are very impressive!
But the best sighting of the morning was our first cheetah!  As with the lions, there was a gathering of vehicles circled around the bush in which she rested, and I was amazed at how calm and unconcerned she seemed.  We stood silently in our Land Cruiser, snapping photos for quite a while. Then, just as we were about to move on, she stood and walked past us.  That doesn't sound very exciting in print, but our van was filled with quiet oohs and aahs as we watched this beautiful cat slink by.
Our first cheetah!

She seemed very unconcerned about the safari vans surrounding her.

What a thrill when she stood up.

The next part of our drive took us to some lovely wooded areas of the Masai Mara.  I was amazed to see how well the elephants could hide in the lush patch of jungle.  You could easily miss them if you weren't looking carefully.
There are elephants hiding in the small jungle...

...but you had to look carefully!

We drove farther into the hills, with Solomon describing the landscape and the trees - the "leopard tree," the desert dates, the aptly named sausage tree (whose fruits are used to make "moonshine"), and the very distinctive Euphorbia Candelabra tree, which quickly became my favorite.
The spotted plain of Masai Mara

A sausage tree

The candelabra tree

Far to the south, we could see the range of hills that separate the Masai Mara from the Serengeti.  Both parks are part of the same ecosystem and share the animals that migrate from one to the other with the seasons, but Masai Mara is in Kenya and the Serengeti is in Tanzania.
Tanzania and the Serengeti lies beyond the far range of hills.


We stopped on a hilltop for a snack break and a welcome chance to stretch our legs after all the bouncing over the rough roads.
Solomon, Javin, and George serve our snacks.

Joan, Solomon, and Rob

Happy campers!

The six of us shared the van during our Masai Mara safari:  Al, Joan, Charlotte, Ginny, Lois, and Rob

One of our group asked Solomon about road maintenance.  We could understand why the parks do not pave the roads, as they want to keep the park as natural as possible for the animals - and over-development would also encourage "over-tourism," with hordes of people overrunning the parks and destroying the very thing we want to see.  But some of the roads were almost impassable and we saw more than one vehicle stuck in deep ruts or water.  Solomon said that corruption is a problem.  Road maintenance funds are provided by the government, but that somehow they don't seem to result in the work actually getting done.
A rough road through the grass

Happily, our worst problem was a flat tire.  This poor group had to be towed out of the ditch.

After snack break, we drove deeper into the hills to seek the rhino.  Alas, no luck today.  We did see a magnificent Cape buffalo standing in a pond, and our first sighting of some water bucks, but no rhino.

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

Let's not forget the smaller creatures of the woodlands!

Another new sighting - waterbucks.

Waterbuck

We returned to Sentrim Mara for lunch and had some free time before joining Solomon for a lecture on the Masai culture.  (A few days later, we had the opportunity to visit a Masai boma to learn even more, so I will be sharing the story of the Masai in a later post.)
Solomon tells us about the Masai culture

His friend shows the women's dress.

Following Solomon's talk, we had our early evening game drive.  (This pattern would continue for most days of our trip.  The animals, especially the predators, are most active in the early morning and the evening, so our game drives corresponded with their cycle to afford us the best viewing opportunities.)  Still no luck with leopards or rhinos, but we saw lots of elephants and some lions stalking through the tall grass.  It's no wonder that the antelopes and gazelles prefer the areas with shorter grass.  The golden lions in the yellow grass are almost invisible!
Masai with cell phones!

A family of elephants feeding on the thorny acacia bush.


It was hard to believe they could eat around those huge thorns!

A pride of lions approaches

A magnificent king of beasts.

Just another giraffe...

...and some more zebras to end the day.


July 5, 2016
Another early morning game drive took us to a new part of the Masai Mara.  We had lots of good up-close encounters with the now familiar elephants, zebras, impalas, wildebeests, and Cape buffaloes.  And today brought our first sighting of the eland with its distinctive coiled horn, the largest of the antelopes in this region.
Mother and child

This large herd crossed the road right in front of us.

A harem of impalas

The male guards his harem.

The grass almost obscured this herd of zebras.

Cape buffalo and zebras

Wildebeest

A new sighting!  The eland - largest of the antelopes here.

Eland


I had expected to see all of these animals (although I had not expected to see them in such great numbers).  But I had not expected to see so many wonderful birds!  We had been spotting gorgeous birds all along the way, but the wooded area we visited today had plenty of water and was especially filled with a huge variety of birds,
Red-necked Spurfowl (Francolin)

African swallow

Wattled plover or lapwing

White-browed coucal

Marabou stork fishing

Grey heron

Three-banded plover

Yellow-throated longclaw

Grassland pipit and  unidentified black bird

Grey kite

The odd Hamerkop in nest

Grey-backed or fiscal shrike (very common here)

Grey crowned crane

Speckled Mousebird (not 100% sure on the identification)

Superb starling (common as dirt around here!)

Lilac-breasted roller - the national bird of Kenya

White backed vulture with Marabou stork
 One of the most remarkable things we saw was this group of Ruppell's griffon vultures squabbling over and feasting upon the carcass of a young wildebeest.
Ruppell's Griffon vultures feasting on a carcass.


The baboons also enjoyed this area with its lush fig trees here.  We spent quite a bit of time watching a large family playing, eating, and grooming.
A young baboon keeps an eye on us from his tree.

Family grooming time

A family of baboons

Baboons

As always, our drive included a snack break and a chance to stretch our legs.
Rob on the veldt.  Our drivers were careful to only let us out of the car when the grass was short.

Al was our group's expert photographer.  His photos were amazing!!!

After lunch, we met with a group of Masai women from the village.  The Masai women are renowned for their beadwork, and they showed us how to make a simple bracelet.  I had assumed it would take hours to complete, as I would have been picking up the tiny beads one at a time and threading them onto the thin wire.  Silly me!  My partner showed me how to run the wire through a pile of beads in my palm and thread many of them at a time.  I have to admit, her technique was far better than mine.  Her short jabs threaded 8 or 10 beads at a time, while my scooping maybe gathered up 3 or 4, if I was lucky!
Masai women share their beading techniques

Gorgeous beaded necklace 

This young woman was my coach for beading.  She is putting the final touches on my bracelet.

The women sold their beaded goods to help their families.

Joan, Lois, and Ginny in front of a Masai hut.

Rob enjoys a quiet moment on our deck before packing for the next part of our journey.

After our visit with the Masai women, it was time to pack up and leave for the airstrip where we caught our little prop plane and returned to Nairobi where we were to pick up our plane to Arusha, Tanzania.  Unfortunately, we stepped off of our little plane in Nairobi and landed smack dab in the middle of a slight mess.  It was already dark by the time we arrived at the Nairobi airport.  We were met at the small regional airport by an Overseas Adventure Travel escort and driver, but after dropping us off an the international airport, they disappeared.  We all went through the security line and went to the airline counter, but the confirmation number that we had been given was apparently not the "ticket number."  The staff at the ticket counter sent us back outside to a ticket office where we had to retrieve the correct number, then go back through security again, return to the counter and present the ticket.  By this time, it was around 8:00 p.m. and none of us had had dinner yet.  We were told we would get dinner when we arrived at our lodge in Arusha - at midnight!

We still had about two hours before our flight, so most of us went to the airport restaurant to have a small dinner.
Flying termites, anyone?  I'm afraid I passed on this delicacy.
We finally boarded our flight for the fairly short flight to Arusha, where the OAT staff met us and drove us another hour to the Moivaro Arusha Lodge.  The drive was also difficult, as the main road through the city was being completely rebuilt, and after bumping along on rough game roads, we endured a bit more bumping along an unpaved stretch of road with headlights blaring at us through the windshield.

Moivaru Lodge turned out to be very nice, but we were all so tired and grumpy by the time we arrived (at 1:00 a.m.) that no one wanted the promised dinner.  Our guide for the Tanzania part of the trip, Cosmas, met us and must have thought he was stuck with a surly group...but we scattered to our assigned bungalows for a good night's sleep and woke the next morning with our spirits renewed and our sense of adventure revived.  Our story will continue in Tarangire National Park.