Tuesday, July 17, 2007

14 April: Masai Mara

Despite yesterday’s violent weather, our hot-air balloon ride proceeded as scheduled. This meant a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, which was eased by the delivery of a thermos full of hot chocolate (coffee or tea if you preferred) and heart-shaped shortbread cookies (for Valentine's Day). DH and I were already awake (we seemed to be on some type of “safari adrenaline” for the duration of the trip, always waking up before we were supposed to), so we pulled on our clothes, sipped some hot chocolate, and then were accompanied by an armed guard along the path to the trucks. (This is the only time I recall seeing anyone carrying a gun.) We had a dark and bumpy ride to the balloon launch site at Governor’s Camp, arriving just as the sky was brightening to a dusky purple. We met up with some other passengers from other camps, signed waivers, and got sorted into two groups.

Our group, which consisted of me, DH, FIL, N&D, J&H, R2&B, and Tonnie (R&C and MIL having decided to sleep in), plus four Japanese people and another jaunty-looking couple in matching safari jackets, met Captain Steve and watched as the two rainbow-striped balloons were inflated. Each balloon basket can carry sixteen people – four in each of four padded compartments – plus the captain, who stands in the middle surrounded by the gas tanks and controls. We learned that our basket might tip over when we came down so we were instructed in the proper landing position (sitting on the bench seat, heads down, and hanging on tight). The two captains released a small balloon into the air and watched it to see which way the wind was blowing. It was rather comical to see them studying this little balloon so intently as it disappeared into the heavens. After one final trip to the spacious, tented loo (the Governor’s Camp operation seemed to be all Brits so I’ll use the appropriate lingo), we were ready to go. Our balloon was now fully inflated and the basket, which had been lying on its side, was now upright. We all climbed in and watched the other balloon take off first, then ours lifted ever-so-gently into the pre-dawn stillness. We rose above the trees just as the sun broke through the clouds, casting a rosy glow over the Mara, the plains fading off into the distance in undulating shades of blue.

I wasn’t quite prepared for how loud it would be when Captain Steve turned on the gas. It was a little disconcerting to be floating along in absolute silence, only to be startled by the tremendous blasting sound from the burning fuel. We started rotating in slow circles shortly after take-off, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. We saw a small herd of impala grazing below us and a lion watching them from a stand of trees nearby, along with a couple of hippos in the swollen, muddy-brown river, but otherwise the Mara was empty – for the moment. Signs of life were everywhere; the plain was crisscrossed by a web of trails leading from one watering hole to the next. We enjoyed the peacefulness and this new perspective on the grasslands. Steve took our picture using a very clever camera rig (he set the camera on a self-timer, then reeled it out on a line until it was about ten feet away), and told us they would give us a CD at the end of the trip with our group photo and a set of ballooning pictures.

After a while I noticed that we seemed to be drifting lower and lower while the other balloon – quite far off by this point – was soaring higher and higher. I finally asked DH, “Aren’t we awfully low?” The next moment (when we were only 20 or 30 feet off the ground), Captain Steve said very calmly, “Well, I’m sorry folks, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to land.” It turns out that a line to one of the vents at the top of the balloon had a knot in it, so the vent would not open properly. This is why we were turning in circles, and we had been burning twice as much fuel as we should have in order to compensate for the malfunction (hence more ear-shattering blasts than normal). We quickly assumed our landing positions and touched town only seconds later. It was very smooth – we barely felt the basket hit the ground, and then we glided along in the grass for a few moments before coming to a stop.

Steve called “Nicky” back at base camp to tell them to pick us up, but had some trouble communicating our predicament over the radio. Steve ended up talking to the other balloon captain, who transmitted the message back to base. There was mention of a “difficult retrieve” from last week – apparently we had landed in an area that was rather tough to get to by car. Apparently Steve didn’t think too highly of Nicky as he kept making rather impolite comments about him (“He’s a great guy...when everything goes as planned”). While we waited, Steve explained that he could have tried to get the minimum 45 minutes out of our flight (the trip is promised to last between 45 and 90 minutes, depending on the winds), but that would have required taking us over a swamp and/or a forested area, both of which would make for unpleasant landings. He decided to play it safe and landed us in the grass after only 30 minutes. He assured us that we would get a 50% refund, which I thought was quite reasonable.

About this point we were all joking that it had been pretty smart of MIL and R&C to sleep in. We had to sit in the grass for a while as Steve tried several times to confirm that the trucks were indeed on their way to rescue us. (DH: “Tell them to look for the big balloon.” Steve: “You’d be surprised at how easy they are to miss.”) We only waited for about twenty minutes or so, but sitting out there on the open plain, it felt much longer, as I figured we resembled a giant picnic basket full of juicy morsels. (Steve: “We might as well stay in the basket, as wandering around here is going to be a pretty wet experience.” N: “Yeah, that’s ONE of the issues.” H: Holds hands together in prayer. N: ‘Where was that lion again?” Steve: “Not that far away, but they aren’t near enough to bother us.”) Steve passed the time by telling us about a freak balloon crash last year, in which the captain and one passenger were killed. Needless to say we were glad he told us this story after we landed.

Finally the trucks arrived, and we clambered out of the basket while the balloon deflated. We drove over to our breakfast site near the river, where we shared a champagne toast and a good laugh about the whole experience. The passengers from the other balloon arrived a short while later – they had seen some elephants and giraffe but all in all it had been a quiet morning over the Mara. All 30-odd of us sat down to a lovely bush breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, french toast, fruit, cheese, and mushrooms (the mushrooms are a British thing). A carefully positioned truck served as the loo – this was the closest we got to a “bush loo” on the whole trip. (Apparently part of what makes for a top-notch safari outfit is knowing precisely when and where to schedule bathroom breaks.) A young British couple sitting next to me revealed that they were getting married that afternoon. I told them I was glad they weren’t in our balloon.

R&C joined us after breakfast (without MIL – this was the only time she missed a game drive, and I must applaud her for that; she was a real trooper!) and we set off in search of leopards and rhinos. At this point in the safari even I, of all people, was succumbing to the “life list” mentality – that is, we really wanted to see a few key animals that we hadn’t seen yet, and some of the “regulars” were becoming, dare I say it, mundane. We did get very close to a small herd of topis and had a front-row view of topis mating, which was quite fascinating (in my pictures it looks like several youngsters are looking on intently – to learn the ropes, so to speak). We saw an ostrich, more hippos, several giraffe, a troop of baboons, and a rather worse-for-wear Cape buffalo, who was covered with mud, had huge chunks missing out of his ears, and was swarmed with irritating flies. We spotted one new bird – a yellow-throated longclaw – but, sadly, no leopards or rhinos.

Back at Kichwa Tembo we had some time to relax before and after lunch, so we took this opportunity to do some laundry (things were also starting to dry out from last night) and I sat in one of the camp chairs in front of our tent for a little while, watching the warthogs graze on the lawn and getting caught up on my journal. We headed out again at 4:00 for our last “official” game drive, as we would be heading to Mount Kenya Safari Club in the morning. We could now clearly see how much damage the night’s storms had done to the roads. The Masai Mara is a private preserve, not a national park, so the safari vehicles are allowed to drive off-road, which just seems to make things worse – instead of a single waterlogged road, there were countless muddy tracks crisscrossing the plain. At one point this afternoon we drove into a hidden hole and got stuck; the other truck had to come push us out and they all had the nerve to laugh at us!

We headed for a wooded area where we found a lioness guarding a fresh warthog kill. Two other lions (possibly her siblings) were hanging out nearby, hoping for a piece of the action. We watched as the lioness growled and hissed at the others, then sat there panting with her blood-stained jaws in full view. We moved on to a large herd of Grant’s gazelles and spotted an immature Bateleur (a large eagle). Further on, our driver Wesley pointed out a dead baboon dangling quite grotesquely from a tree and told us it was a leopard kill, but DH and I found it quite suspicious. We couldn’t figure out how a leopard could have hung a baboon like that (it looked like it was hanging from a piece of bone that had been wedged into the tree trunk). We are inclined to think that a human hung the baboon up there to try to lure a leopard to the spot. I’ll post the photo on Flickr so you can be the judge.

We saw a huge bull elephant browsing in the golden grass; set against the hazy gray-green hills, he made quite a majestic photo subject. Then finally, one of our prayers was answered – we spotted a female black rhino and her four-year-old calf. We were the first to arrive on the scene and spent a long time watching them move slowly through the tall grass. A young giraffe kept walking around nonchalantly between us and the rhinos – he kept looking at the rhinos and then back at us, as if to say, “What’s all the fuss about?” I believe the black rhino is the most endangered animal we saw on our safari, so this was quite special. After a while we left the rhinos to their grazing and moved on to a sated-looking lioness resting her bulging belly on a fallen log. Next we saw a herd of impala leaping through the grass and got a close-up look at some waterbucks, which I think are among the cutest members of the antelope family. We also got a good look at a saddle-billed stork (we had seen one on a nest way up in a tree in Amboseli), perhaps one of the most striking birds in Africa with its black-and-white plumage and large red, black, and yellow bill.

We returned to the kill site on our way back, where all three lions were now grouped together around the warthog. Now the one that had been guarding the kill was eating it. We were so close that we could hear the tearing of flesh and snapping of bones. This was one of the few times that I felt a bit uncomfortable about how close we were to the lions. I just didn’t feel like we needed to be that close. What if she decided we were threatening her meal? (I know many people like the open Land Rovers because they can see out better, but frankly I preferred the security of the Land Cruisers!) As we headed back to camp, we were treated to a spectacular vista of the sun streaming through the clouds to the west, and we spotted a pair of secretary birds nesting in the top of an acacia tree. Just before we headed up the hill and back to Kichwa Tembo, the other truck overheated, so we were able to get our revenge by laughing at them. An application of cold water seemed to do the trick and we got underway again.

Back at camp we showered and changed and then convened for the evening’s entertainment – dancing by a group of local Maasai warriors. It had started to rain again so instead of gathering around the fire pit outside, we convened in the huge lounge adjacent to the dining room. I was a bit disappointed when I realized that the warriors’ long braids were wigs, but Tonnie explained that they must shave their heads for school. The dances were led by Eric, one of our drivers, and it was fun to see him in full Maasai garb. They performed several traditional dances for us, including one in which they compete to see who can jump the highest. At the end we were all invited to join in the dance and then we had one big jolly photo session. We had the opportunity to purchase some of the accessories the Maasai had brought with them – N bought a nice beaded “talking stick” and I was really sorry that we were out of cash as I would have gotten one too. Dinner was another excellent affair, although the dessert was rather unusual – a poppyseed muffin with a slice of soft cheese, topped by a citrus glaze. Over dinner we asked Tonnie for the Swahili translation of “shit happens” (something a bit stronger than “hakuna matata”) to describe our Mara experience, but I forgot to write it down. Perhaps someone can enlighten me. When we got back to our tent, we found a visitor in our bathroom – a little speckled gecko.

This was certainly a Valentine’s Day to remember! Tomorrow we leave the “true bush” behind and head to the relative luxury of Mount Kenya Safari Club.

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