I can't even begin to express what an incredible few days it's been, but I shall try.
Tracey, Francis and myself were up and out by 7 a.m. to go and collect our friend Celia. She lives in a posh area of town called Westlands. Unlike Kigali, where everywhere is under 20 minutes away, crossing Nairobi is a major operation. It took over an hour. The traffic was crazy.
|Ready, Set, Go!|
The last time I'd seen Celia was almost three years ago, but she hasn't changed a bit.
We spent the best part of the journey throwing insults at each other, and I don't remember laughing so much in a long time. I think laughter was the defining theme of the whole weekend. Both Tracey and Celia are Aussies, so they share the same cutting sense of humour as the Brits. Insults, puns and fart jokes were the order of the day. And as much as Celia protested she wasn't into fart jokes, she was definitely laughing.
We stopped off a couple of times on the seven hour drive to the park gates. Once at Narok for food, and before that at a lay-by with an incredible view of the Rift Valley. I definitely felt the shift in altitude.
The Maasai are very much cow people, and the closer you get to the park, the more cows you see. Oddly, the more rubbish you see also. The last village before the park gate was absolutely strewn with plastic bottles and bags. Bit of a contradiction with the conservation effort. Though apparently the gate to the park has receded by several kilometers in the past few years - the Maasai Mara is shrinking.
Another thing I didn't realise was that the Maasai Mara is the northern tip of the Serengeti, which is about eight times the size. On the Kenyan side it's the Mara, on the Tanzanian side it's the Serengeti. The mass wildebeest migrations you see David Attenborough talking about are when they migrate between the two sides. When we arrived, the main wildebeest herd were in Serengeti, due back in June or July, but there were still plenty of stragglers on the Mara side, and in places the ground was black with churned earth from their migration.
|(panoramic, click to enlarge)|
We had a flat on the approach to the park, but we were very lucky as Francis is a mechanic. I've never seen a wheel changed so fast!
Although we'd been on the road for a long time, we were all in the mood for a game drive once we arrived. I've been to Akagera, the game park in Rwanda, a couple of times, but nothing could have prepared me for the scale of Mara. It is utterly vast, and there's wildlife everywhere. I've seen hippo and buffalo before, but this was mind-blowing. One of the first things we encountered was a cheetah with her cub. In fact, we saw four cheetahs over the weekend which is apparently very good as they're rare. It totally made my trip as I always wanted to be a cheetah when I was a kid. I remember getting a commendation in primary school when we had to write 'a day in the life of an animal.' That's what I chose to be.
The next thing we found were lions - two male, two female. We got a front row view of one couple mating!
They may be wild cousins, but so much of their behaviour reminded me of my kittens.
We also found elephants. Although we have these in Akagera, I'd never seen them in the wild before.
I was amazed how close we got to the animals and how completely unfazed they were. I guess by now they've all grown up with the safari trucks so it doesn't bother them. You're not allowed to go off the paths, so if they do want privacy, they can just walk off without being followed, but they seemed quite at ease to eat and mate in the presence of people.
After a couple of hours of animal spotting, we eventually arrived at our lodge - Aruba Camp. It's right on the very border of the Mara, separated by a small stream.
The camp is utterly magical. It was my first ever time 'glamping' (glamorous camping - where the tents have proper beds). I definitely see the attraction. Celia and I were tucked away by the river in these beautiful little tents. I was in Bweha (Golden Jackal), and Celia was next door in Simbamangu (Caracal).
We were right next to the river and were warned that sometimes elephants and hippo cross the water into the park, so whenever we walked at night a Maasai guide would follow us with a spear for protection.
|Beetle in the Shower|
The restaurant was incredible. A large thatched building with beautiful decor.
|Celia & Michelle|
We met up with Michelle, Tracey's American friend who is in Kenya for a few months working, but originally lived in Ethiopia. She'd flown in the day before to the airstrip you can see in the video.
Celia and I decided to turn in early as it had been a really long drive. I'd just got back from the toilets and was undressing when I heard her outside. Throwing my clothes back on I joined her on the porch for a most unusual spectacle. There was a giant eland outside the tent. Apparently it's the largest of the antelopes, and it had been rubbing its horns against Celia's tent.
We didn't know at the time, but it had been hand reared and lived in the camp.
It was so friendly that it came up and allowed us to pet it, but its horns were rather large and very sharp. It was enjoying being petted but Celia and I were rather nervous. The more it enjoyed being petted, the more it nodded its head and eventually I had to take its horns and push it away for fear of being impaled.
We saw wildebeest, buffalo, a kori bustard (the largest, heaviest flying bird in Africa), crested cranes (the national bird of Uganda), ostriches, warthogs, zebra, giraffes, lions, cheetahs (including one with a kill), marabou storks, mongooses, hornbill, what I think was a malachite kingfisher, elephants, topi, both Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, hartebeests, vervet monkeys, vultures (complete with bare tree and carcase), baboons and eland. I'd never seen cats in the wild before so that was extremely special, but I think one of the most interesting animals for me was the hyenas. They always look really scary on nature programmes, and The Lion King did nothing to dispel that. I've never really thought of them as particularly nice animals, but I came away feeling completely differently about them. We found a small pack playing in a river. Just as the wild cats reminded me of my kittens, these reminded me of domestic dogs. One had a stick and the others were trying to take it from her, splashing about in the water.
During our morning drive we stopped off at the airstrip where there was a picnic table. Aruba Camp had provided packed breakfasts for our journey.
We headed back to camp for lunch by the river, then decided to try to make the big river which separates Mara from Serengeti. It is usually about an hour away but the rains had closed off the shortcut and after two hours we decided to turn back. As we were heading for home, a big storm rolled in. As much as I love the animals on the Mara, I also adore the landscape. The sky was incredible, and I left the back roof open so that I could watch it coming. I love thunder storms and it felt like a spiritual communication with nature - I was so energised. Eventually the freezing rain was overpowering and I ducked back into the van, my hair like a scarecrow. At one point Francis was driving in almost zero visibility, but we made it home safe.
|(landscape panoramic - click to enlarge)|
The rains turned the small stream near the tents into a raging torrent, and that night the sound of the bush babies and monkeys were drowned out by the sound of water over rocks.
I was drenched from open-air storm sailing, so sloshed along the muddy puddle that was our path and went straight for the showers. Aruba have divine showers - piping hot water at all hours. I honestly think there is no finer delight than having been trekking through cold and mud only to step under a hot shower. There's a special kind of wonderful about that. I remember it from Scotland. You can withstand any type of weather so long as you know you can peel off your grubby clothes and drown yourself under the steam. And it's even more pleasurable when you can hear the cold rain all about you whilst you do it.
The next morning I was up at five. I need an hour to wake up before I hit the road, but I've been really surprised how well I've coped with the early starts. I'm usually a definite night owl and regularly get out of bed around nine-thirty or sometimes later, plus, coming from Kigali, I was an hour behind, so to me it was 4 a.m. Yet I slept soundly and woke bright and happy. I'm thinking maybe I should buy a tent for my garden when I get home and move into that.
The rain had been replaced by glorious sunshine which turned the plains if the Mara silver. It was really beautiful and we did another game drive on the way out of the park.
As we were leaving, we saw around two hundred head of cattle being moved out of the park. Sometimes the Maasai move them in to graze, which isn't allowed, so the rangers impound them and herd them out. There was a pride of very interested lions watching.
The ride home was long, but a lot of fun. Celia had brought music with her and we spent the last part of the journey conducting back-seat karaoke to the Hey Baby remix (ooh, aah), Grease megamix and the J Geils Band Centrefold. The bus was rockin' as it entered Nairobi. I apologise wholeheartedly to Tracey and Francis, who suffered with dignity.
So sad to hug goodbye to Celia, but I am determined to go and see her in Tasmania once she's settled. She's so ready to leave and this was an excellent way to see her off. It's been an incredible experience with some of the nicest people I know. The stuff memories are made of. Tracey and I sat up until 1:30 putting the world to rights over pizza that night. She drove me to the airport on Monday morning and introduced me to Nairobi's stunningly good fresh lemonade - wish we had that in Kigali.
|Francis, Celia and Me|
You can also read Tracey's write up.