Tuesday, June 19, 2007

13 February: Serengeti to Masai Mara

We were up painfully early again to get on the road by 7 a.m. It had rained overnight and the roads were in worse shape than ever. En route to the airstrip we spotted giraffe, impala, jackals, ostrich, and topis; we wished them all a fond Tanzanian farewell. We stopped briefly to say hello to Rodgers’ brother, who is a driver for another safari company. We arrived at the airstrip (which features a dirt runway, small café, covered waiting area, and, if I recall correctly, flush toilets!) and waited a few minutes for our plane to arrive: a brand new Cessna Caravan (single-engine prop), with seating for twelve, piloted by a nice British chap named Jeff. At this point we had to say farewell to Rodgers after exchanging contact information; we will miss him dearly! Renny told Jeff we had thirteen people on the flight and Jeff frowned, then pointed to R and said, “You want to be co-pilot?” R has some flying experience so it made sense. We squeezed on board for our short flight to Musoma. Taking off was a tad scary, as the stall warning sounded, but we were soon safely airborne. The flight was quite smooth, except for a few bumpy minutes in the clouds. We left behind the lush green plains of the Serengeti, strewn with Cape buffalo and impalas, followed a meandering river, and then descended into a landscape of neatly tilled fields and ramshackle tin-roofed towns. At Musoma we landed on a muddy dirt runway and deplaned briefly to complete our “leaving Tanzania” paperwork. We gathered in a dim, concrete-floored room lined with overstuffed couches upholstered in garish brown paisley velour. An opaque screen in the corner marked the door to the hole-in-the-ground toilet. The immigration officials sat on one of the couches and stamped our passports amidst rapid-fire conversation in Swahili. We all got our passports back and said goodbye to Renny. His baby is due tomorrow (Valentine’s Day!), so we wished him and his family all the best.

We boarded an aging Aero Kenya L410 twin-prop with balding tires and flew to Kisumu, just over the border back in Kenya. We were joined for this flight by a couple who were on their own private Micato “African Splendor” tour because the other four people had dropped out. After we all sat down, the female co-pilot asked J & H to move to the front of the plane because there was “too much weight in the back” – which garnered a chuckle from all of us! At Kisumu we met Tonnie, whowelcomed us warmly back to Kenya, then we filed inside a low clap-board building where the immigration officer took a break from reading his newspaper to stamp our passports. We had access to a much-improved restroom and then got back on our plane for the flight to the Masai Mara. R actually pointed out to the co-pilot that the threads were exposed on one tire but she didn’t seem to be concerned about it.

Our third flight of the day (about 25 minutes) brought us to Kichwa Tembo private airstrip, which consists of a dirt runway and a small thatched-roof gazebo ringed with benches. As we descended we could see the characteristic lone acacias dotting the plain, which is why the Maasai call this area the “spotted land.” Two warthogs scampered into the grass, tails wagging, as we touched down. At an elevation of 5,360 feet, I was relieved to find the weather relatively cool and partly cloudy after the heat of the Serengeti.

The Masai Mara, a 1500-square-kilometer private game preserve operated by the non-profit Mara Conservancy, is effectively the continuation of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The Mara is famous for common sightings of the Big Five: black rhinoceros, leopard, Cape buffalo, elephant, and lion (so named because they are considered the most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt in Africa), and we were hoping to see them all!

We clambered into two ancient Land Rovers – each outfitted with three stair-stepped bench seats, open sides, and a canvas roof – for the 20-minute drive to camp. Noticeably lacking were seatbelts and grab handles; all we had to hold on to were metal bars spanning the truck above each seat (this will become important later in the day!). Along the way we stopped under a tree and Wesley, our driver, pointed out a cheetah mom and her three 9-month-old cubs lounging in the tall grass less than fifteen feet away. Their bellies looked full and they were splayed out contentedly, completely ignoring us! We were absolutely thrilled to finally get up close and personal with cheetahs, although the grass was so high that it was next to impossible to get any clear photos. Nevertheless we enjoyed watching them for several minutes, getting our fill of their regal faces, sleek spotted coats, and tufted tails. (Postscript: After our safari I learned about the death of Honey, a Mara cheetah featured on the BBC program “Big Cat Diary.” In late February, Honey was sedated by the Kenya Wildlife Service so that they could treat one of her cubs for an injured paw; why they decided to intervene in this particular situation is not clear. Apparently Honey died under sedation from respiratory failure. Honey had five cubs but one was killed by a lion and another purportedly drowned, so three male cubs remain. Wesley told us that the cheetah we saw on this day originally had five cubs, so it might have been Honey, although he did not call her by any name. I read about a sighting of another female cheetah with three cubs in the vicinity of Kichwa Tembo in May, so I am hoping that this is the cheetah we saw and that she and her cubs are alive and well. On a positive note, Honey's cubs are doing well and have learned to hunt on their own.)

One big difference between the Mara and the other (national) parks we visited is that in the Mara, safari vehicles are allowed to drive off-road. This can be an advantage when you want to get closer to the animals, although I have to question how wise this is from a wildlife protection standpoint, not to mention human safety. More on that later!

Kichwa Tembo tented camp is located in a cluster of trees on a low rise overlooking the Mara. We drove through an electrified fence into the cool shade of the camp and were greeted at the door by several friendly staff members. We made our way through the lovely gift shop out into a grassy area in the middle of the camp, where a number of resident warthogs were grazing on close-cropped grass. We were advised that we could approach the warthogs safely but we were not to try to touch them! Several of the baby warthogs were kneeling on their front legs to eat, which was quite amusing. Two others were taking a snooze by the side of the path as we walked by, so I finally got a good warthog portrait – albeit under less than “natural” conditions. We sat in comfy chairs in the spacious open-air bar and filled out our registration paperwork before being escorted to our tents (I believe there are several dozen in all), which are laid out in a rough half-circle, linked by a maze of stone pathways.

Our tent was the furthest away, nestled among the trees with the sound of a rushing stream nearby. I was totally blown away by the tent – a spacious structure secured to a concrete foundation, with a lovely king-sized bed piled with pillows, a writing desk, brass lamps, candles, and a fully-equipped bathroom that could be separated from the rest of the room with curtain-type tent flaps. The bathroom had a stone-and-cement walk-in shower, a flush toilet, and a sink unit styled to look like a bamboo and wood dressing table, complete with a stool. Outside we had a little covered stone veranda with a couple of chairs and a table.

We cleaned up quickly and went back to the main lodge for lunch. We had the best service and some of the best food of the entire trip here – the staff was very attentive and exceptionally friendly. We enjoyed the excellent salad bar, delicious barbequed lamb, and beef and vegetable kabobs, followed by a selection of glorious desserts, including a macadamia nut and caramel concoction that was to die for! Apparently hearing that we were fawning over his creations, the amiable Chef George came out to say hello. (Later I bought a cookbook in the gift shop featuring the cuisine of CC Africa camps, and there is a picture of Chef George!) After lunch we had a short rest, during which time I sat outside of our tent with my journal, listening to the cacophony of bird calls, the soothing sound of rushing water, and the occasional blast of a hot air balloon rising above the plain in the distance.

We met outside at 3:00 to hear a talk about Maasai culture by Andrew, a 26-year-old Maasai junior elder. He told us quite matter-of-factly that he is married but doesn’t want to have any more wives because he wishes to pursue his education and not be “distracted”. (While Andrew was talking, a huge warthog kept circling us, “clacking” his jaws together incessantly in a futile effort to seduce the female he was pursuing.) Andrew told us that there are approximately 2.5 million Maasai in Tanzania and another ½-million in Kenya. They share a common language, Maa, although they are divided into thirteen different sections – seven in Tanzania and six in Kenya. Historically, the Maasai stayed in one location for 8-10 years before moving to a new village site 50-100 kilometers away; the old villages were burned. Now that school attendance is mandatory, it has become more difficult for the Maasai to practice this semi-nomadic lifestyle. They must build temporary villages so the men can move the herds and the children can go to school. The Maasai also traditionally built ceremonial villages, which the warriors used as a base for lion hunts in their quest for the symbolic paws and tails. Around the age of 24, a Maasai warrior cuts off his long braids and becomes a junior elder, at which point he can marry. His first wife is chosen by his parents, but he is free to choose subsequent wives. The more cows you own, the more wives you can have. In the past, men acquired more cows by stealing from other tribes, but now they rely on the more acceptable practice of breeding. Each Maasai wife builds her own house. Andrew described the duties of the men as grazing the cattle, settling disputes, and protecting the village, while the women are responsible for everything else: milking, cooking, fetching water, keeping house, and child-rearing. Each village has a medicine man and a midwife, although traveling missionary clinics now provide medical care and childhood vaccinations.

We climbed into the trucks for the short drive to the Maasai boma, or village, located on a gently-sloping hillside with a magnificent panoramic view of the Mara. The village was ringed by a wall of sharp-thorned acacia branches woven tightly together to form a thick mass several feet in width (the Maasai version of barbed-wire fencing). Outside the village, we watched a group of “old men” (as Andrew called them) playing a game of Bao on a long wooden board carved with small depressions and some type of round seeds. Andrew showed us the “sandpaper tree” and other useful plants, then took us through one of the four gates into the village (the number of gates represents the number of families in the village). Inside the walls, perhaps twenty huts ringed an inner fenced enclosure, where the cows are kept at night. A group of about a dozen women and girls, who had been busy setting up a market for us just outside the village, all filed into the cattle enclosure and performed a welcoming song for us. They wore bright red, pink, or lavender-colored robes and red-and-black striped sheets draped over their shoulders, along with gorgeous beaded bridal necklaces in bright shades of blue, red, and green. A few also wore elaborate beaded earrings and headdresses. The Maasai women gave the ladies in our group bridal necklaces to wear and the men got long strings of beads, and we all posed for photos. The women were very quiet and shy; I tried to imagine how bizarre it must be to have a constant stream of mostly-white tourists filing through your home all the time, pointing and staring and taking pictures.

Next we watched three young men demonstrate their fire-making technique using a sharp stick and a hollowed-out base of soft wood. They took turns rubbing the stick vigorously into the base until a thin tendril of smoke materialized, then the base was carefully wadded in dry grass, and one of the men blew gently on it until a tiny flame appeared. The whole process took about five minutes, and in the end the man held a flaming torch.

We then toured one of the huts, which looked incredibly small from the outside but contained a hallway and four rooms – one for the goats (which provide warmth at night), two bedrooms (one for the man and one for his wives and children), and a “kitchen” with a fire pit. It was incredibly dark inside so we could barely see, but in my photos you can make out the bed, with a sturdy frame of branches, a straw mattress, and a cowhide blanket. Scattered around were various buckets, sacks, and bits of “modern” clothing. Several houses were under construction so we could see the underlying network of woven branches, which is then covered over with a mixture of mud and dung. We noticed that at least some of the houses had a layer of plastic sheeting under the roof thatch, which is in turn weighted down with stones.

As we walked out again, DH asked Andrew how many cows the village owned. Andrew paused for a moment and then said, “between 60 and 80,” explaining that he couldn’t be more exact because “asking how many cows we have is like asking how much money you make.” Everyone laughed, including Andrew. Then we went to the market that the women had set up outside the village. Andrew instructed us to take a good look around, then pick out what we liked and the men would help us negotiate the prices. He explained that the women share all of the proceeds, so we didn’t need to worry about trying to give everyone our business. DH and I had an impossible time choosing between the vast array of wooden masks, animal carvings, bowls, dishes, and various beaded bracelets and necklaces. DH really wanted a bow and arrow but we were worried about getting it home (since we already have two spears to contend with). We finally settled on a carved elephant mask (not made by the Maasai, but a neighboring tribe), a blue and turquoise beaded bridal necklace, a small gourd “bottle” with a leather strap and beadwork used for collecting cow’s blood, and a necklace of black and blue beads.

The young man serving as our intermediary pointed at each piece we had chosen and called out to the women around the market to determine the price, then laid the items in the grass at our feet. The original prices were 3,000 Kenyan shillings for the mask, 6,000 for the bridal necklace, 2,000 for the gourd, and 1,000 for the necklace, totaling 12,000 shillings or about $170 dollars (1,000 shillings is about $15). Then the bargaining began! Unfortunately we only had 9,000 shillings and 10 Euro left to our name, and I really wanted everything. Our friend immediately offered 11,000 shillings for all four items. DH countered with an offer of 8,500; the Maasai man merely frowned. John then asked what it would be without the necklace; the man picked up the necklace and tossed it a foot or two to the side. An older tribesman came over and was now in discussion with our friend over the prices. While they were at it, DH and I talked to each other in German to discuss our options. We had done this before at the roadside shop in Tanzania and found it was an effective way to communicate without being understood by others. Finally the Maasai man suggested 9,000 shillings for the mask, bridal necklace, and gourd, and we accepted, but I was still looking regretfully at the necklace. Our negotiator suggested $10. I offered him 5 Euro and told him it was worth more than $5. He accepted, and our transaction was finally complete! We realized in retrospect that we should have bargained harder in Tanzania so we would have more money left to spend at the Maasai village, but who knew?

Everyone else was still finishing up their purchases as dark storm clouds rolled in. It started to sprinkle and the women scurried to pack up their wares. I think we all assumed that we were going back to camp because of the rain, but we headed out on our evening game drive as originally planned. We saw the cheetahs again, still under the same tree, but the light was growing too dim for decent photos. We headed straight into the storm and we could see lightning off in the distance. We weren’t the only ones out there – we could see several trucks making their way across the plain around us. Our driver today was Joseph and he said we were looking for a rhino. I wasn’t keen on finding a rhino when it was too dark to take pictures; in any case, we all had our eyes only on the rapidly approaching storm. Suddenly, as if by some hidden signal, all of the trucks turned around and hightailed it back to the main road, but by now we were well out on the plain and had a long slog back. An arm of the storm had snuck up around us and it started to rain in earnest. Ponchos were passed around but there was no avoiding getting wet – pools of water would collect on the sagging canvas roof and when we hit a large enough bump, the water came sloshing over the side and onto the seats. For the first few bumps most of these sudden waterfalls hit DH’s side of the truck, but eventually I got my fair share of the dousing. We were soaked through in no time! All we could do was try to keep our cameras and binoculars dry. We bounced and rocked along over the rutted track as it got darker by the moment.

DH and I were seated in the very back of our truck with N & D in the middle and MIL & FIL up front. The four of us in back tried to make light of the situation (me: “This wasn’t advertised in the brochure!” N: “I think I’ve entered the fifth stage of dying!”), although we didn’t hear a peep from MIL & FIL, who were hunched over in the front seat and looked quite miserable. I for one was laughing hysterically the whole way. Finally, in pitch blackness, we entered the gates of Kichwa Tembo. The staff ran out to us with umbrellas for the 50-foot dash into the gift shop via a walkway that had turned into a torrential stream (I was quite pleased that my new Gore-tex sneakers didn’t leak!). We all tumbled through the doorway together and stood there looking at each other with dazed expressions.

It was only after a few minutes that I realized J was wiping blood off of his face – and his wife H was bleeding too! It turns out that they were riding in the back of the other truck, went over a particularly large bump, and got thrown into the air and knocked heads, cutting each other with their metal frames of their glasses. J had a deep cut across the bridge of his nose and another on his forehead and H had a nasty gouge just above her right eye. N, a urologist, immediately took control of the situation and performed triage with his wife D serving as nurse. Tonnie had disappeared in the mêlée but came back shortly with a first aid kit. While N was patching up J & H, I looked out the front door and observed the rising water, which was fast approaching the top of the step leading into the building. I asked one of the camp staffers if he had ever seen this much water here and he said no. At some point a very young doctor came on the scene but there wasn’t anything he could do that N hadn’t already done. Frankly he looked very shocked to be there, probably having been called away from a warm dinner! Fortunately J & H were real troopers; once they got over the initial shock, they were smiling and laughing about the whole epsiode. I took some photos of them with N that I am sure they will treasure forever. I felt terrible about having so much fun in our truck when the others were terrified, but luckily their injuries were superficial.

Finally everyone calmed down and we staggered off to our tents, the rain having finally let up. We changed, took hot showers, and hung everything up to dry (which was rather futile given the damp conditions). Our video camera appeared to have condensation inside the eyepiece and was inoperable, but we hoped that it would dry out. We regrouped for dinner and enjoyed another great barbeque with salads and, for desert, éclairs with chocolate and caramel sauce. A cup of hot tea helped warm me up. I asked Tonnie if the rains were going to affect our balloon ride tomorrow morning and he said no, but I was still concerned about the roads being passable. After dinner we watched a slide show about the Mara but I was so exhausted, I could barely keep my eyes open. Back at our tent, we found heart-shaped soapstones on our pillows; a Valentine’s Day gift from Micato. (They must not be that concerned about the weight limit if they are giving us rocks!) We collapsed into bed, incredibly grateful for the hot water bottles, and fell asleep to the sound of the raging river, hoping we wouldn’t be swept away during the night!

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