Adventures on Safari Part One: Hakuna Matata won't save you this time

Adventures on Safari Part One: Hakuna Matata won't save you this time
Cheetah girl

This is Part I of a three-part series about an American couple's safari in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya

You may have gathered from my last post that we went on a safari last month.  About six months ago, we found super cheap flights to South Africa and jumped on the chance to Hakuna Matata ourselves with the animals.  After some serious research, planning, and strategic packing (more on that later), we left for Africa on Friday, January 6th.  

After a connecting flight, we didn't end up landing in Nairobi until 10:45.  When we stepped into the fresh air, we were greeted with a warm breeze, palm trees, and animal statues decorating the area.  It was a pretty surreal feeling, and we kept looking at each other like we were in a dream.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to head to my friend, Lucy's, house for breakfast.  Lucy and I taught together for a few years before I moved to Spain and she moved back to Nairobi.  She kindly offered to have us for breakfast before our flight.  Lucy and her husband, James, who works in the Ethiopian UN Development Office, do a lot of philanthropic work, and it was great to hear about some of their more recent projects, including a recent sports day where they had a mobile dentist who did cleanings for families in the community, and next year they're hoping to conduct HIV testing the day of the event.  We talked about politics and life in general while we ate the delicious Kenyan porridge, hard-boiled eggs, crispy sausage (sooo good), bacon, and griddled bread with orange marmalade.  We washed it down with an amazing Kenyan tea that was served with whole milk and ginger. 

Sorry, mom

Sorry, mom

After breakfast, Lucy and James kindly drove us to the Wilson Airport, where we had to check in at the specific airline's buildings. We were given these cool boarding passes by our airline, Governors Aviation, and were summoned to our 12-seater propeller plane with the other passengers, all of whom were clad in all khaki.  The plane was so legit safari-like, but my first thought was, "My mom would hate this."

Before we knew it, we were soaring over grasslands that were so many different shades of green.  After 45 minutes of incredible African Savannah scenery, we made a smooth landing on a dirt airstrip in Mara North, and El and I climbed out of the plane.  There was a line of trucks waiting to pick up guests, and we quickly were ushered to Neptune Mara Rianta's truck and our game driver, Jonathan, who would be our guide the entirety of our safari.  When he told us his name, I did an internal "YES!" because he was specifically mentioned on TripAdvisor as being the best.

"When I was a young warthoooooqoog"

"When I was a young warthoooooqoog"

We climbed into the open sided land cruiser with a cooler of water, pop, and beer between us, and started off on our first game drive of the safari.  Mara North is a conservancy, so there obviously aren't any paved roads, so each drive was a bumpy one.  Almost immediately after we started driving over the vast grasslands of the Savannah, we saw a group of wildebeest, zebra, and warthogs. Those three animals apparently like to hang with each other b/c they’re not competing for food, and they can warn each other of nearby predators. We saw groups of them many times throughout our trip, but that first moment is really something else. Jonathan said that the wildebeest (or gnu) were permanent residents in the Mara and didn’t migrate down to the Serengeti. He also said how they call warthogs Pumbas b/c it means “stupid” in Swahili. Warthogs are super forgetful and will go back into a dangerous situation b/c they’d already forgotten it’s dangerous. They would all walk in a line, tails raised into the air so the babies (that were so damn cute) could see them through the tall grass.

Jonathan pointed in the distance and told us there are three cheetahs, a mom and her two babies (almost full size), by this tree. Almost immediately after he says this, the mom started sneaking in closer to a nearby herd of gazelle. We got to watch her go into a full-on sprint to try to catch this gazelle, which somehow got away. It was so cool b/c it was like something you see on TV or in the movies.

Throughout our game drives the next few days, Jonathan would periodically get on the radio or his cell phone and talk to other game drivers. They would communicate with each other whenever they saw animals to make sure that their guests had the best experiences possible.  As we continued our drive to the camp, we saw so many antelope, gazelles, and even groups of giraffes. Jonathan explained how to tell the sex of the giraffe (besides, you know, the obvious way) by looking at their horns (males don’t have tufts of hair on their horns b/c of fighting with other males) and that giraffes can’t lie down completely b/c their blood pressure would drop to a dangerous level. 

We pulled up to the gate of our camp decorated with animal skulls, and a smiling gate guard waved “Jambo!” to us as we drove through. Jonathan parked our land cruiser, and we were welcomed with fresh-squeezed watermelon juice while we got our "safari briefing" in the open-air lounge. The décor of this place was incredible, with lots of wooden furniture, comfy couches, tribal masks, and animal skulls as decorations.  The camp is right on the Mara River, and you could hear the pod of hippos snorting and talking to each other. For someone whose favorite animal is a hippo, I was freaking the f out.

Yeah.... this is a little too classy for us

Yeah.... this is a little too classy for us

Jacob, our BUTLER, walked us outside of the lounge, down a dirt path, to our tent (named The Elephant).  Calling it a tent isn’t doing it justice; this thing was one PIMP ASS TENT. It was pretty much the size of our London flat, but with way cooler decos. The bathroom was massive with a rainforest open shower that faced the river, free laundry and randomly shoe shine service, and even a freaking pillow menu. There was a plate of welcome cheese and crackers, and the entire atmosphere was so relaxing. Despite the grunts of the hippos across from us, there was nothing but silence and calm. In fact, there were only like 10 people in the entire camp. It was amazing.

After lunch, we relaxed in the lounge, and I had a coffee while I read a book on the Savannah tribes. We planned to do the Masai village trip while we were there, and I wanted to do some background research beforehand. I learned that the Masai, particularly the warriors, go through different lifetime milestones, which are celebrated with big fanfare. The warriors are distinguishable by their long braids; when they become junior elders, though, their mothers shave their heads. Another characteristic of the Masai people is that they are known as “sky leapers” for the vertical jumping they do as part of their ceremonies.

At 4pm, we met Jonathan in front and got into the back seats of our land cruiser. We were shortly joined by Antonio and Kristina, a young German couple from Hamburg.  On our afternoon drive, we saw a lone elephant, and some male and female lions emerging from a snooze. Jonathan explained that a female is very picky about her mating partner, and that it’ll usually take her three days to agree to mate with a male lion. If she “agrees”, then they’ll mate every ten minutes for the next five days. All day and night. Oof. 

img_6236We continued our drive and saw more zebras, gazelles, wildebeest, and warthogs walking around. We spotted the same three cheetahs from earlier and decided to park and wait for them to hunt. That’s the thing about safaris: you can’t rush nature, and you must be very patient.  The thing is, it was far from boring. Just sitting there in silence for an hour or two watching these animals is all you need for entertainment. After about an hour, there was a small herd of pumbas walking pretty close to where the cheetahs were hiding. We saw the mom stir, and, faster than you could imagine, she took off after the group of pumbas. It only took her a few minutes to catch one of the babies and bring it back to her cubs. While they took turns eating, the other cheetahs stood guard to make sure there weren’t any nearby thieving hyenas.  Although I’ve seen Nat Geo animal specials a million times, it was still weird to HEAR an animal being eaten. From now on, these are the only bones I want to encounter.

The sun setting on our first day at the Mara

The sun setting on our first day at the Mara

After the cheetah hunt, we parked to watch a gorgeous sunset over the plains and saw a lone hippo out and about.  It would have been majestic except for him spraying his pee and shit all over the damn place. We also saw three cape buffalo grazing in the bushes, and a hyena come out of its den. All in all, it was an unreal afternoon of animal watching, and one we won't soon forget...

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