© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved
 

Masai Mara Safari

Provisions

The next morning we exchanged vehicles and were pleasantly surprised to receive a near new Suzuki Sierra. it had a viewing top that opened and allowed us to stand up and shoot pictures unobstructed. It had more room than we needed for our camping gear and could, in a pinch, provide reasonably comfortable emergency shelter. Having signed the papers, we immediately set out to provision ourselves for camping in the game parks. This was easier said than done. Lacking a cooler or ice, we stocked up on tinned food: meats, veget- ables, fruit and UHT milk. Basics like rice, biscuits, bread, margarine, jam, and coffee completed the list. It was well past noon when we got away, but our map showed a surfaced road for more than half the distance to our destination at “Cottar’s Camp” on the edge of Masai Mara National Park. This suggested that we could easily make it before dusk. I failed to consider the long rains and what this meant for unsurfaced roads and I forgot the condition of the “surfaced” road north of Nairobi. The landscape felt familiar, I even thought that I recognized some of the potholes from my 1972 trip. They were just youngsters then but had grown to full-fledged bone-jarring, teeth rattling, vehicle swallowing traps. Classifying the B3 road to Narok as surfaced was creative marketing at best. Even so, the route brought back vivid and pleasant memories.

Changing Culture

We stopped to check the map just west of Narok. A young Masai boy approached to practice his English. Before long there were two. They asked us to take their picture, then there were four, then six. Quite by accident we had stopped at the Masai Heritage Centre. These were not the Masai of seventeen years ago. The dress style was a hybrid of traditional and western. Gone were the rough cotton cloaks, replaced by western shorts, cloaks and vests of red and blue checked cotton prints, and gone were the spears and clubs, replaced by sticks. The strangely endearing attitude of fierce independence and self assurance, bordering on arrogance that I remembered was gone. These young men, while proud of their heritage, seemed to value or need validation from outsiders. Rather than raising a spear and warning us off as young Masai had done when I stopped to take pictures on my first trip, these fellows asked us to take their picture as a favour. Sadly, if we were to make camp before dark, we did not have time to  take advantage of their openness and find out more about them, their heritage centre, and what was happening to the Masai culture in modern Kenya. . We left the surfaced road for gravel at Narok and despite the dust, found the road more comfortable than the bone- jarring potholes of the sealed road. Despite being well outside the park boundary, zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, and giraffe were common, but the light was fading and I was a little worried about having to find camp in the dark. Cottar’s Camp It was already well past dusk when we found the turn-off to Cottar’s Camp and left the main road. The gravel quickly degenerated to a dirt track that constantly split and rejoined itself like a braided river. With just the light of the headlamps, it was difficult to tell whether these splits were real junctions or simply alternative tracks around wet ground. We would frequently choose a branch and then wait with bated breath until it rejoined the other track. Lights in the distance promised imminent arrival, but never delivered. After several false leads we finally realized that we were seeing our headlights reflected back to us from the eyes of animals on the side of the road. I was getting ready to give up and look for a likely place to pitch the tent for the night when we saw headlights coming towards us. We flagged the vehicle down and confirmed that we were indeed on the right track to Cottar’s Camp. About fifteen minutes later, and greatly relieved, we pulled into the camp. Cottar’s camp was not what I had expected. Rather than a simple campground, it was a rustic safari resort base for wildlife tours. The camp maintained an old style safari atmosphere with rigid walled, thatch- or canvas-roofed sleeping lodges, an open dining tent, and camp-style furnishings. We asked if there was a tent site close by and were told yes, it was just down the hill. We were welcome to pitch our tent (the fee was the same as our room at the Terminal Hotel), and if we wished, a late dinner was being served in the dining tent in about an hour. A uniformed guard, carrying a large bore rifle and flashlight, escorted us to the campsite and stood guard while we set up the tent. He then escorted us back to the dining tent. The food (local game) and the company were excellent, though it was not inexpensive. We returned, unescorted, to our tent at about eleven in the evening.

Talek Gate Campsite

On leaving camp the next morning, we encountered a bit of rush hour traffic and were caught in gridlock with a herd of local cattle drinking at the ford of a small stream. Once free, we headed off towards the Sekenani gate to enter the park. We slowly made our way towards Keekorok Lodge, en route  we encountered one of Sheila’s greatest phobias (a large 2m plus) snake emer- ging from a burrow in an abandoned termite mound. We did not know what it was, or even if it was poisonous, but Sheila vetoed, emphatically, any proposal to leave the car to take pictures. Much less intimid- ating to Sheila, was a tribe of baboons en route to Keekorok. Slightly more accommodat- ing than the cattle at Cottar’s camp, they eventually moved off the road to let us by. After filling the car with gas and lunching at the luxurious lodge, we headed northwest to a campsite by the river near Talek. We arrived at an informal campground about mid-afternoon. The river was low, and the grassy flats above the banks were ideal for pitching a tent. Unfortunately, there was no shade, and except for a pit toilet, no facilities. A scattering of tents occupied the only available shade and it was here that a young woman from Hong Kong told us about the shocking massacre at Tiananmen Square in China. We pitched the tent, leaving the front and back entrances open to air, and headed across the river to look for game. Clouds built rapidly, and we were suddenly engulfed in a squall and torrential downpour. Visibility was less than a hundred metres and game viewing impossible. On the featureless savannah, we soon became disoriented and in danger of getting lost. We eventually picked up the river and followed it back to the ford, which fortunately was still passable. Arriving back at camp, we noticed that the tent was bulging strangely around the base. With the entrance wide open, the high winds had blown the torrential rain into the the tent, ponding on the water proof floor and side walls with about 10 cm of water. I drained the tent and mopped up as much as I could with a towel, and leaving one of my camp stoves inside, hoping to dry the tent, retreated to the car. Tipping the seatbacks forward, we placed the second stove on the floor between the seats and attempted our first camp dinner. All we could reach without venturing back into the downpour was a tin of corned beef, some tinned peas, bread, and rice. We attempted a kind of fried rice using a single pot. It was truly awful, but at least it was filling. After dinner, I would periodically venture into the downpour to check the tent floor and return to the car. As we sat, reading under the car’s dome light, the rain drumming loudly on the roof, we were startled by a loud greeting, “Jambo!” It came from a face, almost invisible in the dark except for the large white eyes and very white teeth, pressed against the car window. Water streamed down his face and off his plaited hair. It was a local Masai, wearing traditional garb, and carrying a club and spear. He explained, in broken English, that he wanted us to pay him fifty shillings to stand guard for the night. “Guard against what?” I asked. He responded by growling like a lion. I told him that we did not fear lion and that he should go home and get out of the rain. He could not, he said, because the other campers had agreed to pay and he must stay.  I always find these situations difficult. While I recognize the economic disparity between the local population and even the lowest budget tourists, I also recognize that we are having a severe, potentially negative impact on the local culture. In the end, I generally relent, because I believe that their culture and values are theirs, not mine, and that they, not I, understand and are responsible for their daily existence. The tent floor eventually dried enough for us to lay out our sleeping pads and bags. The next morning, as we were packing up to leave, our Masai guard returned to tell us that he had stood guard all night. Sheila relented and paid him fifty shillings. In the daylight, I noticed an interesting addition to his traditional garb. A bright yellow, waterproof Walkman tape player hung from his neck and headphones covered his ears. Conversation was difficult because his English was poor, but Sheila asked what he was listening to. He handed her the headphones. It was country and western. Sheila gave him a tape of the pop group R.E.M., and this seemed to please him more than his fifty shillings.

Wildlife Viewing

After our stalwart guard had left, we set off to find game. We found impala, Grant’s gazelle, Thompson’s gazelle, Cape buffalo, topi, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, black-backed jackal, hyena, elephant, hippopotamus, crested crane, ostrich, vervet monkey, banded mongoose, baboon, lion, cheetah, and Sheila’s favourite, warthog. The sight of these ugly brutes, trotting along, tails straight in the air like a pennant reminded me of Tolkien’s dwarves headed off to battle, Sheila found them cute and amusing. We felt that after our near inedible dinner of the night before, we deserved a break and used the excuse of needing gas to return to Keekorok for lunch and a beer.

Tourist Viewing

Watching the organized tours was as interesting as game watching. Most of the tour companies used two-wheel-drive minivans to transport their clients. With the heavy rains of the day and night before, many were getting stuck, even on the main trails. We spent much of our time pulling them from the mud. My favourite sighting was a group of German tourists performing what appeared to be a ritual dance around their van. Gyrating wildly, they tore open their shirts and blouses, dropped their pants and skirts, and brushed and slapped frantically at their own and their companions bodies. They had stepped out of the van to photograph a small group of lions, but had stepped directly into a nest of fire ants. When protecting their nests, fire ants (named for the burning sensation of their bite) are vicious little brutes. Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the site was that the tourists recognized the humour of the situation and were laughing uproariously at their predicament. One of the more consistent habits of the organized tours was the mobbing behaviour of the vans. Like blackbirds mobbing a crow or hawk, the minivans would mob any predator found. The drivers, anxious to have their clients complete their animal sighting checklist, would rush to any stopped vehicle, assuming that it must be stopped to look at something worthwhile. While useful to the guides and independents like us looking for game, the practice was disturbing the predators’ hunting patterns.

Return to Cottar’s Camp

We had been so impressed by our dinner at Cottar’s camp, and so unimpressed by our meal at Talek Gate that we returned to Cottar’s camp for dinner that night. The thought of hot showers and the opportunity to stock up on fresh water were added incentives. As nice as it is, the operators of Cottar’s camp need to do something about their traffic problem. On leaving the first morning, we had been heldup in morning gridlock by a herd of stubborn cattle. On our return, an equally obstinate and obstructive bull elephant exercising his exclusive road rights seemingly dared us to pass. Rather than precipitate road rage, we waited patiently until he left the road. We made it in time for a hot shower before dinner. Discussing our options over dinner, we decided to visit the coast where Arab and African cultures had interacted for centuries.
Hooking up to tow a minibus tour.
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved
 

Masai Mara Safari

Provisions

The next morn- ing we exchanged vehicles and were pleasantly surprised to receive a near new Suzuki Sierra. it had a viewing top that opened and allowed us to stand up and shoot pictures unobstructed. It had more room than we needed for our camping gear and could, in a pinch, provide reasonably comfortable emergency shelter. Having signed the papers, we immediately set out to provision ourselves for camping in the game parks. This was easier said than done. Lacking a cooler or ice, we stocked up on tinned food: meats, vegetables, fruit and UHT milk. Basics like rice, biscuits, bread, margar- ine, jam, and coffee completed the list. It was well past noon when we got away, but our map showed a surfaced road for more than half the distance to our destination at “Cottar’s Camp” on the edge of Masai Mara National Park. This suggested that we could easily make it before dusk. I failed to consider the long rains and what this meant for unsurfaced roads and I forgot the condition of the “surfaced” road north of Nairobi. The landscape felt familiar, I even thought that I recognized some of the potholes from my 1972 trip. They were just youngsters then but had grown to full-fledged bone-jarring, teeth rattling, vehicle swallowing traps. Classifying the B3 road to Narok as surfaced was creative marketing at best. Even so, the route brought back vivid and pleasant memories.

Changing Culture

We stopped to check the map just west of Narok. A young Masai boy approached to practice his English. Before long there were two. They asked us to take their picture, then there were four, then six. Quite by accident we had stopped at the Masai Heritage Centre. These were not the Masai of seventeen years ago. The dress style was a hybrid of traditional and western. Gone were the rough cotton cloaks, replaced by western shorts, cloaks and vests of red and blue checked cotton prints, and gone were the spears and clubs, replaced by sticks. The strangely endearing attitude of fierce independence and self assurance, bordering on arrogance that I remembered was gone. These young men, while proud of their heritage, seemed to value or need validation from outsiders. Rather than raising a spear and warning us off as young Masai had done when I stopped to take pictures on my first trip, these fellows asked us to take their picture as a favour. Sadly, if we were to make camp before dark, we did not have time to  take advantage of their openness and find out more about them, their heritage centre, and what was happening to the Masai culture in modern Kenya. . We left the surfaced road for gravel at Narok and despite the dust, found the road more comfortable than the bone- jarring potholes of the sealed road. Despite being well outside the park boundary, zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, and giraffe were common, but the light was fading and I was a little worried about having to find camp in the dark. Cottar’s Camp It was already well past dusk when we found the turn-off to Cottar’s Camp and left the main road. The gravel quickly degenerated to a dirt track that constantly split and rejoined itself like a braided river. With just the light of the headlamps, it was difficult to tell whether these splits were real junctions or simply alternative tracks around wet ground. We would frequently choose a branch and then wait with bated breath until it rejoined the other track. Lights in the distance promised imminent arrival, but never delivered. After several false leads we finally realized that we were seeing our headlights reflected back to us from the eyes of animals on the side of the road. I was getting ready to give up and look for a likely place to pitch the tent for the night when we saw headlights coming towards us. We flagged the vehicle down and confirmed that we were indeed on the right track to Cottar’s Camp. About fifteen minutes later, and greatly relieved, we pulled into the camp. Cottar’s camp was not what I had expected. Rather than a simple campground, it was a rustic safari resort base for wildlife tours. The camp maintained an old style safari atmosphere with rigid walled, thatch- or canvas-roofed sleeping lodges, an open dining tent, and camp-style furnishings. We asked if there was a tent site close by and were told yes, it was just down the hill. We were welcome to pitch our tent (the fee was the same as our room at the Terminal Hotel), and if we wished, a late dinner was being served in the dining tent in about an hour. A uniformed guard, carrying a large bore rifle and flashlight, escorted us to the campsite and stood guard while we set up the tent. He then escorted us back to the dining tent. The food (local game) and the company were excellent, though it was not inexpensive. We returned, unescorted, to our tent at about eleven in the evening.

Talek Gate Campsite

On leaving camp the next morning, we encountered a bit of rush hour traffic and were caught in gridlock with a herd of local cattle drinking at the ford of a small stream. Once free, we headed off towards the Seken- ani gate to enter the park. We slowly made our way towards Keekorok Lodge, en route  we encountered one of Sheila’s greatest pho- bias (a large 2m plus) snake emerging from a burrow in an abandoned termite mound. We did not know what it was, or even if it was poisonous, but Sheila vetoed, emphatically, any proposal to leave the car to take pictures. Much less intimidating to Sheila, was a tribe of baboons en route to Keekorok. Slightly more accommodating than the cattle at Cot- tar’s camp, they eventually moved off the road to let us by. After filling the car with gas and lunching at the luxurious lodge, we headed northwest to a campsite by the river near Talek. We arrived at an informal campground about mid-afternoon. The river was low, and the grassy flats above the banks were ideal for pitching a tent. Unfortunately, there was no shade, and except for a pit toilet, no facilities. A scattering of tents occupied the only available shade and it was here that a young woman from Hong Kong told us about the shocking massacre at Tiananmen Square in China. We pitched the tent, leaving the front and back entrances open to air, and headed across the river to look for game. Clouds built rapidly, and we were suddenly engulfed in a squall and torrential downpour. Visibility was less than a hundred metres and game viewing impossible. On the featureless savannah, we soon became disoriented and in danger of getting lost. We eventually picked up the river and followed it back to the ford, which fortunately was still passable. Arriving back at camp, we noticed that the tent was bulging strangely around the base. With the entrance wide open, the high winds had blown the torrential rain into the the tent, ponding on the water proof floor and side walls with about 10 cm of water. I drained the tent and mopped up as much as I could with a towel, and leaving one of my camp stoves inside, hoping to dry the tent, retreated to the car. Tipping the seatbacks forward, we placed the second stove on the floor between the seats and attempted our first camp dinner. All we could reach without venturing back into the downpour was a tin of corned beef, some tinned peas, bread, and rice. We attempted a kind of fried rice using a single pot. It was truly awful, but at least it was filling. After dinner, I would periodically venture into the downpour to check the tent floor and return to the car. As we sat, reading under the car’s dome light, the rain drumming loudly on the roof, we were startled by a loud greeting, “Jambo!” It came from a face, almost invisible in the dark except for the large white eyes and very white teeth, pressed against the car window. Water streamed down his face and off his plaited hair. It was a local Masai, wearing traditional garb, and carrying a club and spear. He explained, in broken English, that he wanted us to pay him fifty shillings to stand guard for the night. “Guard against what?” I asked. He responded by growling like a lion. I told him that we did not fear lion and that he should go home and get out of the rain. He could not, he said, because the other campers had agreed to pay and he must stay.  I always find these situations difficult. While I recognize the economic disparity between the local population and even the lowest budget tourists, I also recognize that we are having a severe, potentially negative impact on the local culture. In the end, I generally relent, because I believe that their culture and values are theirs, not mine, and that they, not I, understand and are responsible for their daily existence. The tent floor eventually dried enough for us to lay out our sleeping pads and bags. The next morning, as we were packing up to leave, our Masai guard returned to tell us that he had stood guard all night. Sheila relented and paid him fifty shillings. In the daylight, I noticed an interesting addition to his traditional garb. A bright yellow, waterproof Walkman tape player hung from his neck and headphones covered his ears. Conversation was difficult because his English was poor, but Sheila asked what he was listening to. He handed her the headphones. It was country and western. Sheila gave him a tape of the pop group R.E.M., and this seemed to please him more than his fifty shillings.

Wildlife Viewing

After our stalwart guard had left, we set off to find game. We found impala, Grant’s gazelle, Thompson’s gazelle, Cape buffalo, topi, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, black-backed jackal, hyena, elephant, hippopotamus, crested crane, ostrich, vervet monkey, banded mongoose, baboon, lion, cheetah, and Sheila’s favourite, warthog. The sight of these ugly brutes, trotting along, tails straight in the air like a pennant reminded me of Tolkien’s dwarves headed off to battle, Sheila found them cute and amusing. We felt that after our near inedible dinner of the night before, we deserved a break and used the excuse of needing gas to return to Keekorok for lunch and a beer.

Tourist Viewing

Watching the organized tours was as interesting as game watching. Most of the tour companies used two-wheel-drive minivans to transport their clients. With the heavy rains of the day and night before, many were getting stuck, even on the main trails. We spent much of our time pulling them from the mud. My favourite sighting was a group of German tourists performing what appeared to be a ritual dance around their van. Gyrating wildly, they tore open their shirts and blouses, dropped their pants and skirts, and brushed and slapped frantically at their own and their companions bodies. They had stepped out of the van to photograph a small group of lions, but had stepped directly into a nest of fire ants. When protecting their nests, fire ants (named for the burning sensation of their bite) are vicious little brutes. Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the site was that the tourists recognized the humour of the situation and were laughing uproariously at their predicament. One of the more consistent habits of the organized tours was the mobbing behaviour of the vans. Like blackbirds mobbing a crow or hawk, the minivans would mob any predator found. The drivers, anxious to have their clients complete their animal sighting checklist, would rush to any stopped vehicle, assuming that it must be stopped to look at something worthwhile. While useful to the guides and independents like us looking for game, the practice was disturbing the predators’ hunting patterns.

Return to Cottar’s Camp

We had been so impressed by our dinner at Cottar’s camp, and so unimpressed by our meal at Talek Gate that we returned to Cottar’s camp for dinner that night. The thought of hot showers and the opportunity to stock up on fresh water were added incentives. As nice as it is, the operators of Cottar’s camp need to do something about their traffic problem. On leaving the first morning, we had been heldup in morning gridlock by a herd of stubborn cattle. On our return, an equally obstinate and obstructive bull elephant exercising his exclusive road rights seemingly dared us to pass. Rather than precipitate road rage, we waited patiently until he left the road. We made it in time for a hot shower before dinner. Discussing our options over dinner, we decided to visit the coast where Arab and African cultures had interacted for centuries.
Young Masai outside the Masai Heritage Centre. The viewing top on our rental was a pleasant surprise. Zebra, not far out of Narok. Morning gridlock leaving Cottar’s camp. Approaching Keekorok, another traffic jam.
Hooking up to tow a minibus tour. Minivans mobbing a pride of lions. In a hurry? Tough.