The Legendary Mara

Day 609 – 30 October, 2016

The Masai Mara National Park, the setting for nearly every wildlife program you may have ever seen, home to all of Africa’s great creatures, magical sunsets, and nature’s most dramatic landscapes, would be my final jaunt in East Africa. Joining with a few new overland passengers, our new group of 20 would split into three smaller safari vans for the bumpy and stomach-turning drive into the bush. It was cozy to be sure, but one flat tire and a full day’s drive later, we would finally be immersed in the land of the Masai warriors.

Our tented camp was quite basic and non-descript. Green canvas tents set on concrete slabs were two rooms – one with three beds, a side table, a chair, and electricity that would be turned on for about three hours each evening, the other room was a bathroom with running water, toilet, sink, and open shower. I shared with Peita and Emma, a new arrival. Our tent was comfortable and seemed completely secure, but we were warned of baboon thieves who might burglarize our vulnerable canvas for sweets if we left them accessible. Only two weeks earlier an unsuspecting tourist had gone for an early morning run straight from camp and had been trampled to death by an aggressive elephant. We considered ourselves warned and planned to stay put.

Almost immediately, we started off back in those same beaten up old vans for our first game drive in earnest. First sightings of elephants, giraffe, and zebra elicited genuine oohs and ahs, which all too soon faded to half-hearted attempts to shift position in our cramped quarters to avoid an obstructed view. I could safari every day for the rest of my life because every encounter is different and there is always something interesting to observe, but I can understand how it can grow boring for others – a lot of driving, a lot of antelope. ‘You’ve seen one impala, you’ve seen ’em all’ kind of vibe… Just when we thought the highlight of the night was going to be a remarkable sunset, a call comes over the radio in garbled Swahili. The only word I could understand is the only one that mattered – simba! (And now before you go thinking that I’m some kind of polyglot, I can thank my limited Swahili to Disney’s lack of creativity in their characters’ names – Simba, Pumbaa…) Our van cruised over the open savannah to arrive at a lone female simba cradling an unfortunate pumbaa between her paws in the long grass and then methodically ripping it limb from limb in her powerful jaws. No room for weak stomachs or unlikely friends in the Mara – this is the real deal! 

Day Two we began the long drive across the park to the infamous Mara River. This is the river that we’ve all seen on wildlife programs where thousands of timid wildebeest gather on one side of the bank and then in a mass migration plunge down a steep cliff into the murky water that is chock full of Nile Crocodiles. The crocodiles feast and the carnage is one of the most ghastly ever caught on film. And it happens year after year after year. Unfortunately, it’s seasonal and we have missed the season, but I recognize the banks of the now peaceful current from countless Nat Geo Wild documentaries. Lazy hippos and stone-like crocodiles wait for any latecomers that may still decide to cross.

The day was abound with plentiful wildlife – ostriches, warthogs, more lions, buffalo, and all the usual characters of antelope species, giraffe, and zebra. However, I was desperate to see a cheetah – my favorite of the animal kingdom. Our guide caught wind of activity on the radio and off we raced. In the distance, already a few trucks were circling a patch of bushes, which is always a good sign. If all else fails, look for where the other trucks are swarming. My breath caught in my throat to see not one or two, but FOUR male cheetahs laying in the shade. This was huge! My previous visit to the continent had only yielded two cheetahs, but four was spectacular. Before I even had a chance to calm my pulse, one cheetah stood up, stretched as if out of boredom, and fixed his gaze on something distant. Purposefully, he ducked his head and crept forward. The other three followed with the same stalking posture. Is it really possible we were going to see cheetahs hunt?! At some great distance, zebra and impala were obliviously grazing. To me, it didn’t seem very likely. A cheetah is the fastest land animal on the planet, but they can only maintain their speed for short distances. This coalition of four would need to close a much bigger gap between them and their prey if we could hope to see a run. Also, a zebra is much too big for a single cheetah. Cheetahs are fragile cats and the bulky weight of a fighting zebra is too risky to life and limb. However, with four males it’s possible and I was hopeful they would find a place to hide so they could get closer. No sooner was I playing out the scenario in my head than they were spotted. The cheetahs were still too far away, their prey were all staring at them to make sure they knew they had been seen, and the jig was up. No sense in wasting energy on a sure failure. No matter, it was still one of my best safari moments to date.

For lunch, we stopped for a picnic under a shady acacia tree, although we weren’t the only ones with this plan. A large male baboon was expecting us. No doubt a tourist van parks under that same tree every day and he was prepared to steal whatever he could get his hands on. One of our drivers non-committally chased the baboon away with a machete only for it to circle and look for a weakness from the other direction. Basically, we were encouraged to eat quickly which was not a problem when we were swarmed by very persistent flies. Sandwiches and fruit and juice boxes all but inhaled, we packed up the accoutrement just as the same driver that had chased the baboon was seen tossing him a banana or two as if they’ve been through this routine before. And so the furry monster will wait until tomorrow to see what the next tourist van brings.

Before going back toward our tented camp, a handful of us wanted to stop at a Masai village to see the traditional lifestyle of the savannah’s original human inhabitants. In a culture where the women do all the work, including cooking, cleaning, bearing and raising babies, and even building the mud hut dwellings, the men greeted us at the entrance with an age-old jumping contest. Considering jumping is one of their main purposes, besides security and providing sperm for the babies, the men could indeed jump very high. The opening ceremony introduced some traditional chanting and dancing in their famous red garb before we were invited in to see inside one of the huts, take some photos with costumed adolescents, and be aggressively toured around their market where they were all selling the same wooden trinkets as each other. I had bypassed the village visit before because it seemed it would be touristy, put-on and fake. It was definitely put-on (anyone not interacting with the tourists were lazily lounging around wearing western t-shirts and board shorts), but it wasn’t fake. When the men proudly told us one of their responsibilities is to make the babies, there wasn’t the least bit of doubt they hold this as a huge honor and take it very seriously. In turn, the women were proud to show off their single-handedly built homes as well. The whole village is surrounded by a thick fence of thorn bushes as protection against wild animals while their livestock stay within the border over night. The experience was touristy, yes, but interesting nevertheless.

Leaving Masai Mara also meant the end to my whirlwind tour of East Africa and saying goodbye to so many new friends I had made along the way. Admittedly, it’s rare for me to have thoroughly enjoyed all of the Acacia passengers as much as I did. We had become a little family unit over the previous three weeks and I was jealous that they would be continuing another 40 days south all the way to Cape Town. Of course I could have done the same, but for the hit it would take to my bank account I needed to stick with my original plans. Plus, checking the calendar we learned that some of them – Larissa, Julie, James, Joel, Jess, Jodie, and Dane – would arrive in Cape Town on 11 Dec, while I could expect to arrive there one day earlier after my volunteering stint in Namibia.

Saying goodbye is never easy, but perhaps I’ve become hardened by all the goodbyes I’ve said in the last twenty months. I can’t allow myself to dwell on it or to become sad. Who has time for that anyway? But if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that the world is not such a big place that goodbye doesn’t have to mean forever.

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