Kenya Safari: Masai Mara: 16th - 26th February 2004 Picture above: Political Rally in central Nairobi - on our first day there - makes a change from lions! 17th – 25th February: We arrived at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on Tuesday 17th February at 2005, some 3 hours late, due to a “technical problem” at Jo’burg with the plane (an unliveried B737, apparently owned by BA, but operated by Kenya Airways or Regional Airways; and all notices and instructions on the plane were in both Japanese and English – so it had obviously had a few previous owners!) Unfortunately we did not see Mount Kilimanjaro, as it was pitch dark by the time we entered Tanzanian airspace – better luck hopefully on our return flight next week? Our host in Kenya, Anthony Horsman, met us at the airport and drove us out to the farm near Athi River (20 miles south of Nairobi) form where he operates his self-drive safaris – Wildways. This was our first experience of East African roads and traffic – both have no resemblance to UK standards whatsoever! And why should they? But that is another story. The roads are pot-holed, cracked and badly in need of major repairs. I suspect they have not been touched since the British left in 1963 – and it shows!!! The traffic drives on any side of the road it pleases (to avoid pot-holes), including straight down the middle, overtakes on any side of the road including the “hard shoulder” and cuts in and out at will – especially the shared taxis or matatus (invariably white battered Nissan minibuses.) Their drives obviously have a death-wish of the first order, which all too often, is gruesomely granted! At the farm we met Anthony’s wife Clara and baby daughter Maisha as well as James the Maasai cook and general factotum. This is colonial Kenya still alive and well. James does, however, provide a mean meal as we discovered. Kenya is about 2.5 times the size of the UK with a population of about 30 million. It gained its independence in 1963 after almost 80 years of British colonial rule. Although a republic, the ruthless power hunger of the ruling party virtually rules out any viable opposition. Vital revenue earners are coffee and tea exports and chiefly – tourism. Corruption percolates almost every corner of the country and most official business as well. We had 2 days of familiarization before we were let loose with our own Land Rover to go on safari! 18th Feb – Day One: Orientation & Acclimatization: this involved seeing Nairobi and surrounds and experiencing it’s chaotic traffic: lack of rules of the road; suicidal overtaking; traffic all over the road until returning to its “own” correct side at the last possible moment; cattle herded by red-robed Maasai men grazing in the central reservation; wooden and corrugated iron shacks, tea-shops and lodging houses (fondly describing themselves as hotels!) lining the pitted streets; crammed buses, vans and mutates, overloaded bicycles with all sorts of improbable loads; big trucks grinding along at a snail’s pace, belching thick black smoke (do they run on coal?); livestock (goats, cattle, chickens, etc) on the streets and above all, lots and lots of people scurrying and hurrying this way and that. Endless lines of vehicles of every description all jostling and fighting to share the same thin strip of tarmac. Either that, or fall off onto the corrugated, eroded and dangerously sloping so-called hard shoulder. A few useful driving aids worth mentioning here: use your right hand indicator to show your vehicle’s width to approaching traffic – this works equally well day and night! In case of a breakdown, the universally recognized “red warning triangle” of Africa is bundles of sticks or foliage placed in front of and behind the vehicle. Police checkpoints- consisting of low strips of spiked across the road with only just enough room to slalom around – are fairly common and it is wise to look as if you are going to stop, even if not signaled to do so! Central Nairobi – or Nairobbery as it is fondly known locally – contains what skyscrapers and high-rise office blocks there are, plus shopping centers, park areas and large statues. A city of 6m people, Nairobi is buzzing with traffic – human and vehicular – noisy, exhaust fumes hanging in the air, etc. Certainly a million miles removed from the sanitized, western South African cities. This is the Real Africa! We also visited the Karen Blixen Museum in the “white” suburb of Karen. This is where much of OUT OF AFRICA took place – the love triangle between Karen Blixen, her hubby Baron Blixen and her lover, Denys Finch Hatton. The house is beautifully restored with original furnishings and some especially made for the film. So, yet another film homage paid (will have to watch the film again sometime?) and so ended our Nairobi familiarization day. 19th Feb – Day Two: Vehicle Initiation day: a day to familiarize us with the diverse operations of the Land Rover, roof-top tent operations and use of all other camping gear which comes with the Land Rover; use and practicing changing wheels with hi-lift jack, etc; practicing diff-lock and low-range driving techniques, extrication and so on. Friday 29th February: At last the big day dawned and we were finally off – just the two of us and our trusty Land Rover called Tembu – to the world famous Maasai Mara National Reserve for our 5-day self-drive Safari. We headed west across the floor of the Great Rift Valley towards the one-donkey town of Narok, some 110km away and the last town before the Mara. Sections of the B3 road before Narok are in an absolutely atrocious state of disrepair, comprising long sections of broken tarmac and very deep pot-holes: the best place to drive these sections was on the so-called hard shoulder – deeply angled, gravel, rutted and eroded, BUT STILL PREFERABLE to the actual road. The maximum speed (without fear of serious vehicle damage) was 15mpg – often crossing to the opposite side of the road to avoid the worst of the pot-holes on your own side, then jink back to your side at the last minute if traffic approaches. And they do the same from their side. I had quickly learnt this style of driving. We had a bite to eat and refueled at Narok before pushing on – this time on a proper section of gravel road and duly arrived at the Sekanani Gate in the later afternoon. Entry formalities (US $30 per person per day) were easily negotiated and we were in the Maasai Mara! There is an immediate sense of enormous panoramic views over the savannah to the distant blue horizons. And the animals: different species of gazelle, zebra, buffalo, wildebeest (gnu), eland, ostrich, giraffe, elephant – like a wild animal wall-chart in motion. The Maasai Mara – a vast area of undulating savannah – is situated in the remote SW corner of Kenya, bordering the much larger Serengeti Plains in neighbouring Tanzania. Our first night’s camp was at Crocodile Campsite on the banks of the Talek River, just outside Talek Gate (there are no campsites in the reserve itself, as you are encouraged to use the more upmarket and pricey Camps – which are lodges and not campsites.) We got our rooftent erected with no problems, paid the camping fee of Kshilling 250 ea plus a security fee of Ksh300 – the latter is for an askari (Maasai warrior armed with spear and cudgel) is there to repel any unwelcome intruders – be they human or animal! There are no fences hereabouts to keep the likes of lion, hyena away. This is Africa in the raw and wild. Our campsite owner, called Edward Lions, told us he had worked with BBC’s Big Cat Diary film crews. After supper, courtesy of Sue and her magic gas cookers, we clambered up the back of the LR onto the roof and into our tent where we spent a very comfy and peaceful night, once we had got used to all the strange noises outside, especially the sound of hyenas maniacally “laughing” fairly close by! The next 2 days were spent at a different campsite (Riverside) further along the same rive bank (run by a Maasai called Nixon – a very friendly chap who looked really good in his red robes pear and cudgel at the ready by his side.) Both campsites had long-drop loos with views and a hot shower – hot water only, as water was heated by a wood fire outside the corrugated-iron shower shelter and piped inside the shelter. The cold water did not exists – all water was either cold or hot but not both options available at the same time! The daylight hours (dark by 1900) were spent going on game-spotting drives, negotiating the many kilometers of gravel roads – some better than others – but all much better than some public roads outside the reserve. Due to extensive overnight rains on both days, however, some of the roads had become mudbaths and impassable. Animals seen (in no particular order of relevance, Swahili names in brackets) were: hyena (fisi), cheetah (duma), jackal (bweha), rhino (faru), hippo (kiboko), hartebeest (konguni), waterbuck (kuru), ostrich (mbunu), elephant (ndovu), warthog (ngiri), mongoose (nguchiro), topi (nyamera), baboon (byani), lion (simba), buffalo (nyati), eland (pofu), wildebeest (Nyumbu), giraffe (twiga), zebra (punda milia), impala and huge herds of both Thompson”s and Grant’s gazelles (swala tomi and swala granti). The undoubted highlight was coming across a female cheetah and her 3 year-old cubs. This was KIKE and her litter of Big Cat Diary fame and she certainly lived up to her TV fame and image. She would jump onto the bonnet of a Land Rover and sit there imperiously surveying the surrounding grassland. This on-the-bonnet perch makes a good vantage point to look for possible prey – she also climbed onto the roof of the vehicle for an even better and further-reaching view. The 3 cubs, meanwhile, amused themselves by sprawling underneath the vehicle – seeking its shade – and making it impossible for the vehicle to drive off. It was effectively wheel-clamped by cheetahs! One of the cubs did try to emulate mum by trying to climb onto the roof, via the rear-mounted spare wheels, but lacking the confidence to make the final step, it did not quite get on to the roof, being content to sit on the spare wheel with one front paw on the roof edge. What a poser! It was like a BBC Bid Cat Diary scene come to real life! We were so lucky and privileged to witness these graceful felines at such close quarters. Kike is truly MISS TOURISM KENYA!!! Other animal highlights: a herd of 5 big bull elephants right on the track – crossing in front of and behind us – only yards away – the females and calves herd we came across further up the track. We also saw a pair of lions – at last: a huge, maned male and his female consort – lying stretched out flat on their sides – not 20feet from us. They appeared to be in a state of post-coital bliss although we were unable to verify this personally. The 2 Simbas were not giving interviews for some strange reason! The only big cat we failed to see was the leopard. We spent one day at our campsite not budging – except to go on a safari walk with Nixon, who showed us various trees and plants and explained their uses by the Maasai people, including the “toothbrush” tree, which yes, provided a twig, which when suitably chewed first, took on the shape of a toothbrush – even though it was slightly chilli-flavoured. On our last day – 23rd Feb – we treated ourselves and stayed in one of the upmarket safari lodges – KEEKOROK LODGE, 105 miles south of the equator. It was one of the first lodges in the Mara, opened by then president Jomo Kenyatta, in 1965. It sported very comfy rooms with all mod cons, an excellent verandah restaurant which provided first class gourmet buffet meals, very friendly and efficient (but not servile) staff, swimming pool, also another separate pool reached by a wooden walkway, containing 5 hippos. We were the only MZUNGU (white folk) not on a package tour and also driving our own vehicle. All other guests – mainly Dutch, Scandinavians and some Spanish – were ferried about in white minibuses and part of tour groups. Again, there are no fences here, so after dinner you were escorted back to your chalet by an armed askari – just in case! It rained very heavily that night and we wondered what the roads would be like the next day when we were heading back to Nairobi. We were soon to find out!!! Due to time constraints and the conditions of some of the roads in the reserve after 3 nights of heavy rains, we concentrated our game viewing and driving to the triangle between the Sekenani Gate, Talek Gate and Keekorok Lodge. Even with our 4WD Land Rover we were sliding about – crawling through huge puddles and over heavily eroded, muddy and rutted sections. Tuesday 24th February: After a tasty colonial breakfast of porridge, bacon & eggs, etc. this was the day we slipped (literally) out of the Mara, leaving Sekenani Gate at 0930. After the heavy overnight rains, long stretches of the road were a morass of black, sticky, deep, thick, cotton soil MUD! This severely tested my newly acquired 4WD skills to the absolute limit. With Sue keeping a secondary lookout for potential hazards and murmuring encouragement, we crawled on our way. Even with the “Diff Lock” on and crawling along in first gear, old Tembu would still slew and slide its way forward – agonizingly slow at times. Kilometer after kilometer passed in this hellish fashion. Trying to keep at least one wheel in a well-defined rut was the trick to avoid sliding sideways and bogging down. Deep black mud was the ultimate challenge: approach it as fast as you dare (while still in control of vehicle), don’t oversteer when skidding, keep the accelerator depressed and PRAY!!! With out 300m of mud remaining (we could see clear gravel ahead!) we came upon a petrol tanker and a truck (facing us) both well and truly bogged down in the black mud. The tanker was listing heavily and partially off the road, while the truck was stuck slap bang in the middle of the road. A minibus (matatu) was trying to get through the gap between the 2 stranded vehicles but to no avail. There was no way around – the gap between the 2 was the only way of escape to freedom beyond! The minibus managed to reverse itself out of the way and gritting my teeth and clenching the steering wheel we inched forward heading for the gap between the 2 beached vehicles – crabbing sideways at the last moment and striking the stricken tanker a glancing blow with our left front bulbar – but we were through and safe! WHEW!!! What an introduction to 4wheeldriving in Africa. The hairy moments had not passed yet though. On refueling again at Narok and upon opening the bonnet to check the oil, we discovered that the oil filler cap was gone – missing – no longer there – who knows where? Oil was spattered all over the engine block as well – not a pretty sight. Salvation was at hand, however, in the form of Sammy the mechanic at the Total garage, Narok. He took us to the “only Land Rover dealer” in Narok down a muddy back alley – littered with car wrecks and those awaiting repairs, with foraging goats and lots of curious locals who all had to peer under the bonnet to see what the problem was! No spare cap was forthcoming (Hakim the spares shop owner claiming our Tdi model was too new for him to carry spares); but one of the garage workmen very inventively and ingeniously carved a replacement cap out of sold chunk of rubber. We watched an artist at work as he pared the rubber down this his panga (machete) until it fitted the oil tank perfectly. A proper LR dealership could not have done better. This took about an hour but hey, in Africa time is there to use. After a Coke and some samousas for lunch, we pressed on. The notorious 100km of road to Nairobi, including that bone-shuddering, axle-juddering, wheel-thumping broken-tar section – seemed like a minor irritation in comparison with our earlier travails. Soon we reached the outskirts of Nairobi – ran the gauntlet of the chaotic rush-hour, bumper to bumper through the suburbs, with hawkers selling watches, sunglasses, books, CD’s, pictures of president Kibaki at all the roundabouts as your crawled towards and through them. One enterprising chap offered us two thick text books entitled “Botany” and “The Life of Invertebrates” – he must have known something about the Narok road? Reluctantly we had to refuse this tempting offer! With palpable relief washing over us in waves we reached the sanctuary of the farm at 1800 and we were welcomed back with 2 huge G&T’s. And oh yes, the rubber plug-cum-filler cap was still solidly in place. Thank you (Asante Sana) Sammy and your fellow mechanical geniuses at Narok! Thursday 26th February: We departed Nairobi at 0800 for Jo’burg, from where we get a connecting flight down to Cape Town and then on to Paarl to stay with family for a wee while and much-needed R&R. While flying over Tanzania we had spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest mountain at 19,329ft / 5,892m as well as the very impressive Ngorongoro Crater, along with numerous other volcanoes, craters and lakes. As well will be in South Africa for at least the whole of March, please visit that page soon for the next installment of our travels and adventures.
Wildways self-drive Safaris
Kenya Wildlife Service