MAASAI MARA, September 2 – The first thing that hits you as you disembark the 45-minute flight to the Maasai Mara is the stifling heat and dust.
Sunglasses and caps (which are a necessity) are quickly donned as we (my producer Terry, cameraman Kelly and I) are led to our parked 4-wheel-drive truck.
Cool hand towels are promptly produced and this is when I take in the sights. The scenery is magnificent; rolling champagne-coloured plains, patchworks of emerald and amber stretching into the blue hills in the distant horizon. I’m taken-aback by the beauty.
We are ushered into our truck and handed chilled bottles of water by our guide and driver Kisio, who is accompanied by the local Chief Ole Tira whose job, he says, is to give us the real travel experience. Less than two kilometres from the airstrip, we are introduced to the famous Mara lionesses basking under a shade of trees. Four of them, with their cute cuddly cubs, bellies filled with a wildebeest they have just devoured. The carnivores roll over from side to side, glancing at us nonchalantly, clearly accustomed to being the centre of attention.
We drive on. The road is dusty yet smooth enough to allow even a saloon car to cruise the wild Mara. Everywhere we look, we are surrounded by animals: antelope, warthogs, zebra and the main attraction of our trip, the outstanding wildebeest.
Enter Chief Ole Tira with his first of many stories: Apparently, explorers couldn’t decide to what category of species the wildebeest belonged. It has the head and mane of a horse, the hooves and hind legs of a goat, yet its shape resembles a cow. The animals have traveled thousands of miles from the Serengeti in Tanzania to enjoy the supple grassy plains of the Mara.
We arrive at our lodgings, the Sarova Mara: chants and ululations from a group of Maasai warriors great us as we disembark. After a glass of fresh juice, we are led off to the lounge and my nature-loving alter takes over. I want to see everything around me; the hut-shaped bar with a fire place right in the middle, the conformable couches set out on the patio where groups of tourists play games of chess and cards as they sip on cool beers. The patio overlooks the manicured lawns, the swimming pool and the mini golf course. Trees are in abundance to shade us from the piercing Mara sunrays while paved pathways lead of towards the tented rooms.
Finally we are led off to our tent that is set in the middle of a dense bushy forest. A dik dik warily creeps away as we approach and the city girl in me asks about security. Where are the doors and the locks?
No doors, no locks just a zipper to protect us from the ‘dangers of the wild’.
But my fears are quickly assuaged as I take in the décor of the tented room: Two single comfortable beds (I’m to share the tent with Terryanne, my producer) are set in the middle of the tent with a beautifully carved Lamu chest at one corner.
A quick shower and I’m ready for lunch. The dining area is designed in a hut shape just like the bar with a spectacular lighting arrangement in the centre; an assortment of colorful lamp shades ranging from the lightest of orange to the deepest of reds. Under the lights, the superb selection of local food, meats, and salads, vegetarian and Indian cuisine appears more sumptuous and mouth-watering.
After filling up, I’m ready for a snooze. I black out at the pool area for what seems like a second before the attractive animation manager wakes me up for a game of table tennis. It’s my first attempt which proves to be a clumsy start to a game I soon start to enjoy. A dip in the pool comes next where a game of volleyball is organised against a group of Mozambican tourists.
As the evening sets in we are driven off up a rocky hill into the middle of an open flat plain. A table is set for our sundowner Mara red as we watch one of the most magical moments here: the sunset. The deep reds and oranges seem intensified and the sun sets in such a rush it feels like I could count down from 10 to 1 by the time it disappears. The chill sets in and a large bonfire is lit up where we sit around sharing stories intermingled with moments of deep comfortable silences. I notice though, that even though we seem all alone in the middle of the wild, we are actually surrounded by a group of park guards who are there to ward off the animals, especially the buffalo that is said to be attracted to fires.
As the fire dies down, we head back to the lodge for our evening meal. I would have appreciated this special dinner had I come with the love of my life. It’s a romantic set up offered to honeymooners in what the lodge calls ‘luxury club tents’. A dedicated waiter serves you on the balcony of the honeymoon suite that is tucked away from the other guests. A four-course meal and an endless supply of yet some more Mara wine and I am ready to hit the sack.
I’m up at 5am and exhilarated at today’s plan: the hot air balloon safari. The sun’s golden glow tinges the eastern horizon as the crew completes the necessary preparations plus a safety brief from our pilot.
We silently soar up over the ecosystem and the snaking Mara River. The wildebeest migration is in full effect: Thousands upon thousands pound the earth as they form beautiful formations, one that cannily looks like the map of Kenya. We watch zebras graze, vultures hovering over dead carcass and even more importantly the stunning view of the wilds of the Mara.
After an hour our pilot gently lands in the open plains and we return to earth for a celebration. A champagne breakfast with a beautifully laid out buffet.
Afterwards, we set off on a game drive to watch the highlights of this migration – the world acclaimed ‘crossing of the river’.
I am sad to report that on this day, it did not occur.
We are informed that it is because of the number of vehicles surrounding the river, including the presidential entourage and a media company that has brought along large trucks of equipment to film the crossing “Live”. Instead we get to see a pride of lions feasting on fresh zebra for breakfast; I shock myself by crying for the loss of the beautiful animal. It’s the circle of life but it still tugs at my heart.
Our Mara trip is almost over but one cannot pass over the opportunity to appreciate the deeply ingrained culture and lifestyle of the Maasai community who live in the reserve.
Early the next morning, we rush to catch the first activities of their day; sounds of bells and cattle mooing greet us as we approach the entrance to a large thorny-fenced compound that smells strongly of cow dung. 20 manyattas are built in circle around the compound. We find the women milking the cows and the young men standing around looking particularly idle.
I am welcomed into a manyatta for a cup of fresh cow milk and find an old lady, three elderly men and a group of children sitting, waiting for breakfast. The milk has a very strong sugary taste which, I discover, is the natural flavour. As I leave the manyatta I find the young boys herding off the cows to greener pastures as far away as 10 kms from the village. I join the group of young men sitting under a tree relaxing.
After some chit chat, we leave with offers of marriage which we promise to think about. Today we return to Nairobi and I ache a bit knowing I will miss out on all those handsome virile young Maasai men drooling over me and oh yes, the beauty of the Mara. I’ll be back for sure and maybe this time I will take up the offer of marriage.