Off to the Masai Mara, which was rumored to be the most spectacular place in Kenya and the reason people often save this destination for last in their itinerary. Our guide even told us that the entire trip thus far, as amazing as it had been, was just a warm up for what awaited us in the Mara.
The name Masai Mara is a combination of the indigenous and nomadic Maasai people who inhabit the region, and the word Mara which means “spotted” in Maasai language and is reflective of the many acacia trees that dot the landscape.
But before we get into the details of our time in the Masai Mara, and because we spent so much time traveling from destination to destination in our vehicle, I thought it would be fun to share some of my experiences while on the road. Some of the memorable highlights were:
- I had a chance to see several Kenyan runners on the side of the road. Because of the higher elevations (5,000-6,000 feet above sea level) and cooler temperatures, this part of Kenya is ideal for training.
- We stopped and had several “check tire breaks” which is essentially what Godfrey referred to as a rest stop or bathroom break. The bathroom experience was quite shocking – typically there were no seats on the toilets in the ladies room, and the men pee against a wall that trickles down into a small trough at the base of the floor. During our last pit stop I received the ultimate surprise with this… (yes, this is the ladies room)
- The speed limit for any vehicle carrying passengers is 80km, which is approximately 50mph. For safety reasons, the government requires these vehicles to use governors to regulate the speed, which is particularly important in the Matatus—small privately owned passenger vans that serve as a hybrid bus/taxi and may hold up to 15-18 locals. All other vehicles do not have a speed limit.
- There are always people on the side of the road, no matter if you are driving down a tiny dirt road or the trans Africa highway. Many of these people are walking to/from school or work, but most of them appear to be doing nothing and it seems like every shade tree has someone taking a nap under it.
- At any time you can see cows, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs or donkeys on the side of road, often with a one-man (or young boy) herder. Fences are rarely seen in Kenya, as the search for precious food and water for livestock often requires traveling great distances.
- The paved roads were surprisingly nice and smooth, however there are random speed bumps placed to slow traffic down every 2-20 miles. Our guide referred to these impediments as “dead traffic policemen.”
- Passing is pretty much subjective and can happen at any time. There are no “real” passing lanes and I found myself holding my breath a couple times.
- Often times en route to one of the resorts or lodges, it required traveling a long distance (i.e., 60 miles) on a dirt road. This was referred to as a “free Kenyan massage” because these roads are often rough and bumpy.
- There is a hierarchy of transportation. Most people walk, some have carts pulled by donkeys or cows, some travel on bicycles, some on motorcycles, and finally cars, which not many people have.
- At any time you can look out the window and see zebras, giraffes, antelope, gazelles, etc. etc. We even saw warthogs (a.k.a. Pumbas from The Lion King) roaming around in downtown Nairobi.
Now, back to the Masai Mara. People were not kidding when they said it is an African paradise and the most beautiful part of Kenya. As we arrived to the Mara West resort, we were taken aback by the serenity of the property, which was located at the top of the Oloololo Escarpment with the vastness of the Masai Mara unfolding beneath it. Oloololo means “endless” in the Maasai language, and indeed this ridge seemed to extend forever. It was along this escarpment, very near to the Mara West lodge, that much of the movie Out of Africa was set.
The tents were scattered throughout the grounds – our “tent” was one of the best in the resort with magnificent panoramic views of the Masai Mara. When we walked into our tent it was like a luxurious escape from reality. Picturesque décor, hardwood floors, large beds, a huge bathroom and shower – just the works!
We got settled in, had a bite to eat, and then were off on an afternoon/evening game drive. From the porch of our tent we had seen a few elephants far below us earlier in the day, and knew that this was going to be the day that we finally would come face to face with our first group of elephants. We also got to see more giraffes, lions, and buffalo.That evening Justin and I had a lovely, quiet dinner for two near the fire and then went to bed early in prep for the long following day.
The water and power at Mara West were very interesting. We had hot water for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. The hot water was produced by building a fire in a large furnace/boiler behind each tent, through which cold water passed in pipes and was heated up to a very high temperature almost instantly. Though probably not the most efficient means of heating water, it’s certainly a cheap method and it produced an endless supply of hot water for the duration of the fire. Unfortunately the fire starter overslept the night before, so our morning showers were delayed slightly while the fire was brought to life behind the tent. The power was turned on from 5:30-8am and again from 7-10pm. Outside of those hours, it was all-natural with no power.
We headed out at 8am for a full day experience in the Masai Mara. The scenery was beyond incredible, with endless views of rolling grassy hills with acacia trees scattered throughout. We saw all kinds of animals and got close to elephants, giraffes, lions, and antelope.
Around noon, we got to see a baby hippo resting next to its mother out of the water, which was pretty awesome. Godfrey mentioned that in his 20-plus years of being a guide he has never seen a hippo this small. Hippos do not venture out of water during the day very often, as they rely on the coolness of the water to protect them from the sun.
A little later Godfrey spotted a lion from about 150 yards away, and as we rolled up to it our jaws dropped in surprise as an entire pride of lions – one male, four females, eleven cubs – lay resting in the shade of a few trees. We sat for a while and watched the cubs play and nurse. Then, we got to see the females set up for a kill (even though they were spotted by the Topi and were unable to follow through). Being only feet away from these massive creatures was one of the highlights of the trip.
Lunch was soon to follow as we parked underneath a sausage tree (so named because the tree’s seed pods look like large sausage links hanging from the branches) and enjoyed a box lunch prepared by the chef at Mara West. It was just what we all needed to recharge for more viewing.
After we were finished scouting for animals, Godfrey took us to a local Masai Village where we had a chance to interact with and learn from the people. It was really neat to see the people dressed in vibrant colors and the women covered in beads. Red is a popular color worn by the Masai people because the animals see it as a threat and it scares them away. Hmmm, why did I not pack anything red for this trip?
The houses are made of cow dung, dirt, and grass, and are built by the women as a gift to their husbands. There was no running water or electricity – only natural light and light from fire, and the doors to the houses were noticeably short considering the relatively tall height of the Masai. It turns out this is intentional, and forces the husband to bow to his wife as he enters the dwelling.
In addition to building the “houses,” the women do much of the work around the village while the men are tending to livestock, including cooking, firewood gathering, laundry, child rearing, and fetching water. Sounds pretty much like life in the U.S., right?
Polygamy is also a common practice among the Masai, and as long as a man has enough livestock he can take as many brides as he wants. It is not uncommon for one man to have five wives. Traditional masai females shave their heads, while males do not.
In their spare time (which can’t be much given the aforementioned list of responsibilities), the women make and sell a lot of jewelry, beads, and wooden artifacts to help provide income for the village and money to help build schools. We learned that education is becoming more and more important, and that children will walk up to nine miles each day, each way, to go to school. Pretty fascinating.
Justin and I noticed that if they were wearing any shoes at all, most of the people in this particular tribe were wearing old, beat up sandals that were literally falling apart. We decided to take off our running shoes and give them to the people so that they would have something a little more comfortable and cushy to walk on when traveling long distances. We were told that the shoes would be shared (anyone traveling particularly long distances would be given them to wear) and are very much needed and appreciated. Many acted as though we had given them a brick of gold. They also asked us for more shoes, and we are planning to work with our local running store, Foot Zone, to collect second hand shoes to ship to the village in the coming months.
After saying goodbye to our new Masai friends, we headed back to camp to freshen up and enjoy a nice Valentine’s Day dinner. The chef prepared a special menu and they arranged our table beautifully next to a cozy fire. The food at Mara West was exceptional, and was our first chance to order from a menu on the trip as opposed to eating from a buffet.
That evening we were escorted back to our tent and fell into a slumber quickly once again. During the night, we awoke several times to the sounds of zebras grazing in the moonlight right outside the tent.
We said our goodbyes to Godfrey, which was bittersweet, and loaded into the plane for our flight back to Nairobi.
Once we were in Nairobi, we had some time to kill so we had a long lunch at Carnivore, spent some time at a giraffe sanctuary where we actually got to feed the giraffes, and made our way through crazy Nairobi traffic to the airport for departure.
Now that the trip is over, it all feels like an incredible dream and I still have yet to wake up!