“Other than enjoying the wildlife in Kenya, try the fruits too”. This is the advice I received - along with the visa - at the Kenyan Embassy in Dubai. Floyd Gonsalves, Systems Editor, and the Gulf News photography team, were soon on their way to Masai Mara.

CREDITS

MY DIARY

 

Looking back on the trip I must admit I greatly enjoyed the fruits and had the good fortune of seeing the Big Five - Lion, Buffalo, Giraffe and the elusive Leopard and Rhino - at Masai Mara. The  photography workshop to the Masai Mara was sponsored by Nikon and Grand Stores.

 

 

DAY 1

The five-hour flight to Nairobi from Dubai was relaxed, yet we were all humming with excitement. We could hardly wait to arrive at Masai Mara. Meanwhile, stretching your legs once in a while during a long flight, while highly recommended, also comes with some perks.

 

My colleague Ahmed and I were at the rear of the aircraft having a chat while some of the crew were entertaining themselves with a few instant photographs during their spare time…. All of a sudden, a flight attendant approached us asking if we would like to have our photo taken as well. We obliged, and some of the crew joined in for a group photo. To our surprise, we were soon handed over the picture in a lovely frame with our names and flight number written on it, courtesy the crew of EK 719!!

 

And then we landed in Nairobi.

 

Exiting the airport, we experienced the rush hour. The one-and-a-half-hours would have been difficult but for the cool weather which made it bearable.

 

We reached our hotel, where we would  spend the night before heading out the next day to Masai Mara.

It is estimated that more than one million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras complete the approximate 480 kilometre circle of life every year.

                           

DAY 2

The next morning, after a hot breakfast – and some fruit, which was truly sweet and delicious - we headed back to Wilson Airport for our onward flight to Governors’ Camp, Masai Mara.

 

 

The tiny propeller 12-seater plane that awaited us on the tarmac had us in thrall. The excitement was building up … we were only an hour’s flight away from the legendary Masai Mara.

 

On route, the aerial views of the vast terrain below were wonderful and the hour sped by in a flash. A smooth touchdown later, we were in the midst of stunning splendour. The short half-kilometre drive to Governors’ Camp from the airstrip is a slide show of wildlife. “See this zebra here!  Look at those wildebeests! Gazelles over there! What’s that animal called?”

The magic of Masai Mara lay out the welcome mat.

 

At the camp, a refreshing welcome drink awaited us and in between sips, we were given the run-down on how the camp operates. Breakfast, lunch and dinner timings were intimated to us and the most important rule read out: at no time were we to head off for our rooms unescorted.

 

A security guard would accompany us at all times. I soon realised the wisdom of that precaution while making my way through the pathways to my room. It was midday and yet there was this uncertain feeling that I might be greeted by some four-legged animal at any corner or that it might lunge out at me from a bush on the side.

 

The Governors’ Camp is situated on the elevated banks of the Mara river and you can hear the sound of hippos on and off from the muddy waters below. While waiting for my tent to get ready, I saw my colleague coming towards me all excited. Wandering around the property, he had managed to get a few shots of a hippo and crocodile having an altercation on the Mara banks. That’s something for his collection for sure.

 

My tent ready, I stepped in to inspect what would be my home for the next two days. No solid walls, no locks, no doors; just plain tarpaulin. But it was very well set up. Made up of two parts, the rear was the washroom and bath area (again a tarpaulin separation only), and the front had the beds. Simple, neat.

 

Did I feel secure? What the heck, you live only once, I told myself.

 

The evening safari is a moving kaleidoscope of watching gazelles, wildebeest and zebra. A few hyenas scatter themselves here and there. Most of them we spot are sitting in shallow puddles of water. Gideon, our guide, provides the logic behind this. Hyenas, he explains, are known as the scavengers of the plains, and so when they eat or steal a meal from others they are known to finish off the bones too. This massive calcium build-up in their stomach generates a lot of heat during the digestion process. Sitting in water puddles turns down their internal thermostat.

 

As the evening progressed, busy taking pictures of almost everything in view, I failed to see the rain clouds building up. Soon, the skies opened up and Gideon halted the vehicle just in time for us to take shelter.

 

The rain took up the rest of the evening and much of the night.

 

After dinner, I was escorted in total darkness back by a security guard to my tent which had a small oil lantern at the entrance. I stepped inside and zipped it up tight. Inside, it was pitch black. I decided to flash my torchlight (a signal at night that one needs something) and a machine gun-totting guard appeared in no time out of nowhere. “Jambo! (Hello!) I’m Abdul. Can I help you?” he shouted. The sense of reassurance washes over me. “Can you please escort me to tent 19?” I said to him. “Hakuna-Matata (No Problem), let’s go,” he replied. Though it’s barely 30 meters away, in the wet night, it felt like 300 metres.

 

DAY 3

It’s a 6.15am wake-up for the safari departure and my morning coffee (as per the wake-up request) arrived at 5.30am, “Jambo, Jambo! Coffee, Sir!”

 

 

The sky was overcast and dull from yesterday’s rain that fell most of the night. But that did nothing to dampen our excitement. Barely into the safari, we came across a small herd of elephants with a couple of young ones. The young fellows grazed under the watchful eye of their mothers.

 

We spotted warthogs, hyenas, jackals and soon came across the sight that wildlife lore is made of - a pride of pot-bellied lions lazing around a bush, obviously satiated. Each pride has their own territory and this was the ‘Marsh Pride’ lazing at their favourite location.

 

By afternoon, the skies lightened up and Mara put up a great show - gazelles, wildebeests, vultures, giraffe, zebra, ostrich and buffalo made our cameras go crazy. A lone male lion rests atop a small hill, the kind of photo op one can only dream about. Is he alone?  A female may be nearby, says Gideon.

 

When lions mate, he explained, they go away from the pride to seclusion and continue the courtship for the next two to three days. Once the cubs are born, the mother nurses and shields them in a secret den and only introduces the cubs to the pride after they are six to eight weeks old. This builds a strong bond between the mother and cubs and is not forgotten as the cubs suckle from any of the nursing females in the pride.

 

Later in the afternoon, we heard news that a leopard had been spotted in the bushes nearby. After beating around the bushes for a while, we spotted a part of a carcass in a treetop, and saw a streak of spots in the thick bushes. A cub was next to her.

That’s four of the Big Five, I realise.

 

And then the driver of another safari vehicle told Gideon of a rhino spotted in a nearby stream.

 

Our excitement went off the scale. If we spotted it, it would complete the Big Five. The rhino is hard to spot but we got lucky. Deep in the thick bushes, I got a good view of the rhino wading through the water.

 

Back at my tent, my colleagues and I decided to step out and shoot the night sky. After consulting with the guards, I was told that a herd of elephants was in the camp, but they are at the other end. They assured us that it is OK to take pictures. A little later in the night, I realised the elephants were near my tent but with Abdul and his team (including two with machine guns) around, we felt less scared than we would have been.

 

It is an amazing experience, to be so close to these gentle giants. I managed to take a few photos of them grazing and a few minutes later, they made their way towards the exit … it was close.

It's drama on a truly epic scale: the migrating herds are constantly under attack from predators as they move from region to region.

                                              

DAY 4

Last and final safari outing. After lunch, we would be heading back to Nairobi. It was a beautiful clear morning. Perfect light and I got some good pictures. I saw a hyena den too. Watching the hyena cubs interact with the adults guarding the den is somehow touching.

 

 

A bit later, we saw  the legendary hyena characteristics in full – they spotted a zebra which was probably killed by a big cat. The hyenas fought for the leftovers. The cracking sound of the bones as they were chewed filled the air.

 

In the same area, we came across the ‘Paradise Pride’, a male lion (about three years old) along with three females and a couple of younger lions lazing around. Traces of blood on their faces indicated they had just finished a meal. We realised that this lion pride might have feasted on the same zebra we saw a short while ago.

 

As though to vindicate our thinking, the pride headed for a stream, lapped up water and went towards the bushes for a lie-in.

 

It was quiet all around and a gentle breeze blew. The faint sounds of zebra and wildebeest wafted over the quietness. Right here, in the middle of Masai Mara, life in that moment was entirely relaxing.

 

Meanwhile, Gideon, who was busy peering through his binoculars, suddenly broke the silence. “That tree over there,” he said, pointing towards a solitary tree not far away, “We shall have breakfast over there.” Approaching our spot overlooking the plains, he added, “One must always make sure that there are no animals in the tree tops and in the area nearby before you get out of the vehicle.”

 

It was a beautiful spot, the most scenic place I have ever had a meal in.

 

Before we headed back to the camp, we paid a visit to a traditional Masai community called Masa Rianda. Outside this village, we were greeted by Prince Oluwaru and his father, the village chief. Prince Oluwaru told us that he is the eldest of his father’s 27 children (from six wives). Since he is the first-born male of his father’s first wife, he will be chief of the village once his father passes on.

The women folk  gathered dressed in their colourful clothes and jewellery to perform a welcome dance for us. We also witnessed the Dance of the Warriors. Prince Oluwaru guided us on the happenings around the village and showed us his father’s house.

I was taken up with the process of creating fire from rubbing different types of wood together and the use of animal dung to start the fire. The women folk displayed the artefacts that they had made. A bit of bargaining was not amiss before settling for the purchase.

 

Once back at the camp, we had our last lunch in the Mara and it was time say goodbye to the surroundings.

It was with a heavy heart that we left this spectacular place behind and headed for Nairobi.

 

If you are in Nairobi, you should not miss the opportunity to taste some game meat. At a restaurant called ‘Carnivore’ (world renowned for a Beast of a Feast), each table has a small flag. Only when this flag is turned down (a sign of surrender) will the service of the various kinds of grilled meats stop. The closest we could get to game meat was crocodile and rabbit. Soon the flag on our table had to be turned down as we all were feeling exactly like the ‘Paradise Pride’ we saw earlier in the morning – tummies full and the need for sleep.

 

Satiated and satisfied, we were soon at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, boarding the flight back to Dubai. I closed my eyes and saw Masai Mara and the waves of wildlife rippling over its vast expanses and said, “Asante sana” (Thank you very much). You were enchanting.”

 

For the rest of the flight, I slept like a well-fed lion.

The Masai are primarily  farmers and keep cattle
for milk and trade.

                          

HOW TO GET THERE

 

Emirates and Kenya Airways fly from Dubai to Nairobi seven times a week.

 

 

Fares for Emirates (Economy) start from Dh1695 onwards and Kenya Airways (Economy) start from Dh1275 onwards, depending on date of travel.

 

For tourists, a visa is required to enter Kenya and costs approximately US$50 for Single Entry and is available on arrival for most nationalities OR it can be applied for online through the Kenyan Embassy website depending on nationality.

 

Accommodation at Governors' Camp for 2015 starts from US$340.00 per person per night and can vary depending on the time year.

 

Total cost including tax for the Nairobi / Mara / Nairobi flights via a small prop-plane starts from US$313.00 onwards per person, and can vary depending on time of year.

 

Various package deals are also offered. Popular being the '3 Night Flying Safari Package' at Governors' Camp for an Adult (Single) starts from US$964 onwards, Adult (Sharing) starts from US$1304 onwards and Child (Sharing) starts from US$646 onwards. Park fees are not included and is extra.

 

LIFE OF THE MASAI


The Masai, a Nilotic (people indigenous to the Nile Valley), ethnic group of semi-nomadic people live in the vast open spaces of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

 

 

While on our visit to see the annual migration, we set out to see the life of the native Masai people. On our game drive through the Mara, we noticed many termite hills spread out along the landscape. Our guide, Gideon, explained that these were made on the fallen decayed trees once planted by the Masai people when they inhabited the reserve. Today, they have been relocated to the edge of the reserve and they bring in their cattle to graze after sunset.

 

On entering the Masai village we came to visit, called Rianda Echo Manyatta (also known as Sadera), located on the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, we were greeted by men and women wearing bright coloured Shuka or sarongs. They welcomed us with a dance and a combination of high-pitched chanting and rhythmic humming, inviting us to dance with them.

 

We were welcomed by the son of the chief of the village. “First and foremost, my name is Oluwaru, which means lion, a very strong man,” he said.  Oluwaru will be the chief after his father’s time, as he is the eldest among his siblings. The chief himself has 27 children from 6 wives.

 

Oluwaru spoke fluent English .“It is hard to convince people that I have not gone to school to learn English, but instead have learnt and picked up the language from the guides,” he said.

 

Mandela, our other guide, told us that the Masai people drink cow’s blood and milk, mixing them together and that gives them power. It was difficult to believe this until we heard it from the chief’s son. “The Masai people only eat three types of food - milk, meat and blood. No vegetable, no sweets,” said Oluwaru proudly.

 

We also heard that when the warriors slaughter meat, they do this in seclusion in the forest. They drink the animal’s blood and have the first share of the meat. The rest is then given to the womenfolk of the village. If, however, a woman from the village spots them slaughtering the animal, then the warriors will not eat the meat but hand over the entire portion to the women.

 

A traditional Masai village has about 10 to 20 huts, one for each woman and her children. The huts or Inkajijik are built by the women and made out of branches woven together with grass and smeared with cowdung on the walls. The huts consist of 2 rooms: one where the family lives and the other to keep the cow that supplies milk for the children.

 

Cattle and children are the most important aspect of the Masai people. They are primarily farmers and keep cattle for their milk and meat for trade. The job of the men is to herd the cattle and protect them from wild animals such as lions, while the women are responsible for cooking, milking the cows and gathering firewood. We were shown how they made fire without matchsticks or lighters. The Masai use two different types of wood which they rub together to start a fire.

 

The children of the Sadera village today go to a school, roughly 3 kilometres away. This school has six classrooms and two teachers to educate them. The children go to school walking, always accompanied by one of the warriors from the tribe to protect them from the wild animals. The school’s funding comes from the entry fee that tourists pay and from sales of the handcrafted jewellery and souvenirs that the women of the village make.

 

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