May 28, 2023
Our flight from Livingstone to Nairobi was fairly uneventful, but when we arrived to Nairobi, Passport Control was swamped. While we waited to get through (which took almost an hour and a half) we continued our chat with Romy, a South African who we met on the plane who is doing climate change work in the region both as a consultant and for a South African non-profit. It was interesting to get her perspective on regional politics and Eli particularly had an interested based on his food background.
On our way in, we noticed the toll plazas on the toll road (we were taking the free road right alongside) had a particularly Chinese profile to the roofline. In fact, this toll road, and a rail line from the port of Mombasa all the way to Lake Nakuru were built as part of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative. What was most noticeable about it was that there was not a single vehicle at all on the toll road. Stephen did a little reading up on it, and apparently both infrastructure projects have not been meeting their income targets and have saddled the Kenyan government with quite a bit of debt. The idea made sense, especially when you think about the line of trucks we saw lining up at the border as we drove to Kruger National Park in South Africa, but clearly neither of the projects was right-sized to solve the issues that Kenya is actually having in moving goods.
Because it took us so long to get through passport control, it was about 1am when we arrived at our hotel. We showered and then hit the sack.
May 29, 2023
There were a couple of things we had thought about doing on our one day in Nairobi before heading out to the countryside. We had thought about visiting the giraffe and elephant sanctuaries, and then also about going to the National Museum. Since it was kind of drizzly we thought that being outside with the giraffes and elephants wouldn't be as fun as it could be, so we decided on the museum. We heard from some fellow travelers on our safari who went to the sanctuaries that they were well worth it, so noted if we ever return to Nairobi.
The National Museum is noted for having one of the largest collections of hominid fossils in the world. It was what we were hoping to see at the Cradle of Humanity in South Africa, but didn't get to see. The other standouts of the museum were the collections of tribal artifacts from the different cultures of Kenya, and the largest collection of taxidermied birds in the world. The birds wouldn't necessarily be something we would have been into, but having just been in Kruger, it was interesting to put names to some of the birds we saw. They also had an interesting exhibit related to the period of Omani influence over the east coast of Africa.
For dinner, we went to Habesha, an Ethiopian restaurant near our hotel.
May 30, 2023
Today was the first day of our Safari. We're doing 6 days across different parks in the country. We booked through Jocky Safaris and we found them on safaribooking.com. When looking at the options, we decided on the budget lodging and food option vs. the mid-price or luxury. We figured since we don't spend much time other than sleeping actually in the lodging that we'd go for the budget option; why pay for something we weren't going to get much use of. On this tour, all food is included across the 6 days, which makes sense since there aren't really restaurants or anything outside the camps or lodges where we'll be staying. For the two of us for 6 days, we spent about $1650.
We'll do an article comparing our safari in Kruger and our safari in Kenya, so keep a lookout for it. But we wanted to focus here on our what we saw and did.
We got picked up at our hotel at 8am, and shepherded to the Jocky Tours headquarters where we transferred to our 4x4 that we'll have for the week. There were a number of other 4x4's departing on the same day but doing different versions or combinations of the things that we'll see. Our vehicle had a mix of those who chose the budget and those who chose the luxury option, but we all go in the vehicle together for the drives. We have 7 fellow travelers in our 4x4 (the max it can hold is 8). It's a modified Land Rover with a pop-top roof.
We started to head toward Maasai Mara reserve. In total the drive was about 6 hours, including a stop for a lookout point over the Great Rift Valley. The Great Rift Valley is where two of the earth's plates are separating; eventually East Africa will separate (after a few more hundreds of thousands of years) from the rest of the continent. The plate movement gives rise to the great lakes of Africa as well.
We arrived at our camp around 2pm. The camp is made up of permanent tents on concrete slabs, each with its own private bathroom attached. The bathrooms are pretty basic, but we do have hot water (heated with firewood, apparently). The camp runs a generator for electricity, so it's only available for 2 hours in the morning, and 4 hours at night. We wondered what they did for the refrigerators in the kitchen to keep the food safe, but we decided not to speculate too much.
We went out for our first game drive at 4:30. The park has no paved roads, only dirt roads and "trails," so having a 4x4 is helpful. The trails, though, crisscross the area pretty completely, so it is pretty easy to get close to any sightings. The landscape was much more grassland than Kruger... fewer trees or other kinds of vegetation. For the other members of our group, it was their first safari. There were Gru and Neha who were celebrating Neha's birthday, Rui and Catarina who had just gotten married, and Dianne who was traveling on a break between her old job and her new one. It was awesome to see them get so excited at their first view of an impala and zebra as we entered the park.
Guides in the park are allowed to use radios; they all know each other and radio directions if they spot something so that others in the area can join and check out the scene. Our theme for this evening was being confronted with the reality of the "circle of life" in the park. Trigger warning: sensitive readers may not want to continue to read from here or to skip over the last photos in this section.
In addition to seeing lions, we caught hyenas who had just taken down a water buffalo calf. Hyenas are generally scavengers, but will kill opportunistically, and this calf had gotten behind the rest of the group. The video shows her mom vainly trying to get the hyenas away from her calf, even thought it was too late. A lion was there figuring out what her angle on the situation might be. Our second started out as a sighting of 3 cute little lion cubs. As we scanned further, though, they were there with their mother and friend who had just taken down a zebra. The cubs were waiting as their mother ate, only joining her after a bit.
Drivers in the park are supposed to stick to marked roads or trails, but many violated this to help get their passengers closer to animals. Our guide, Isaac, risked a fine by allowing us to stay a bit and experience the scene with the lion cubs. All vehicles must be out by 7pm (sunset) and we made it at 6:57, so no nighttime drives in Maasai Mara.
A water buffalo trying in vain to chase the hyenas away from her calf they had caught
A lion watching the scene with the water buffalo and hyenas, trying to decide what to do
Lions feeding on the zebra they caught
Lions and cubs feeding on the zebra
Lions and cubs feeding on the zebra
May 31, 2023
Since we can't do drives without daylight, our wake-up this morning wasn't at an unreasonable hour. Today we're doing an all-day drive from our gate at the southeastern end of the park all the way to the Mara river. It's the famous river that the gnus cross in the great migration that starts in July. On our way we stopped by the markers that note the border of Tanzania and Kenya. Animals move freely between the Maasai Mara in Kenya and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. We, too, got to move freely between the two, so we get to check off Tanzania as a country we've visited, now.
Today, in addition to seeing lots of lounging lions, we got to observe 3 or 4 cheetahs (we're not sure if our 1st and 4th were the same or a different cheetah as we saw them in the same general area). We also saw another pair of lions feeding on their kill. The other fun sighting were some elephant mother-baby pairings, and two elephants mating (it is as awkward as you would think). Once we arrived at the river, we were able to get out of the vehicle and were accompanied by a park ranger along the water to take a look at the hippos and crocodiles. We got to see a fun pair of hippos play-fighting. Our ranger had a strange encyclopedic knowledge of world geography and national and state capitals that he shared as we walked along the river (maybe hoping it would lead to better tips if he could name the capital of the place where his tourists were from?).
Since there are no facilities within the park, our guide brought us packed lunches from our camp. Our one complaint so far about doing the tour with budget accommodation has been the food.... it's been pretty basic and just above barely edible. We had thought about bringing some snacky foods with us, and we regret having not done that. There isn't much in the way of provisions other than what is available at our camp.
We were back by around 5pm and showered and rested for a while. We had an opportunity to visit with Catarina and Rui at dinner about their wedding, their meet-cute, and their suggestions for travel in Europe.
Lions feeding on their catch
Hippos play fighting
June 1, 2023
Today, before we headed to Lake Nakuru, we had time in a Maasai village to meet the members of the community and learn a bit about their life. They performed a welcome song (their singing is like contemporary a capella... lots of vocals that sound like instruments) and dance for us, and then had us participate; we met Eric, the chief's second son, who explained about their traditions and about the community; they did a demonstration of fire-making (and Rui participated); and then we had a chance to go into on of their mud and stick homes and see what it's like. At the end, they did ask for donations and had us browse cloth and other items that women in the village had created. Catarina and Rui had a whole bunch of leftover pencils from their wedding and so they brought them and donated them to the school-aged kids in the community.
The village is made up of families of the descendants of the father of the current chief. Marriages are arranged and a male from the village will marry a female from another village and then the female will come to live in the husband's village. The Maasai are polygamous, so the current chief has 5 wives (his father had 10).
They are cow herders, and their homes have a "pen" for the newest calf, and then a room about the size of a cubicle for house guests (typically for friends and family from the wife's village, but they do host Norwegian exchange students every summer). The main room has the fire for cooking, a small hole in the wall to allow smoke to escape, and then two nooks with platforms. One platform is for the husband and wife; the other platform is for the children of the house.
Eric also explained the initiation rituals for men, but noticeably refrained from mentioning anything about girls (the Maasai traditionally had performed female genital mutilation). Boys are circumcised at age 14 and then leave for 5 years to the bush, led by a group of elders, to learn about traditional Maasai practices (hunting and medicine). Their stay in the bush for 5 years, and then at the end they hunt and kill a male lion. Only then do they return to the village.
All youth in the village continue through primary school, which goes to age 14. Boys who are interested in secondary school and university will go after they return from their 5 years in the bush. Eric had completed secondary school and some college (and so had the host that let Stephen into his home).
Our visit was relatively short; we were in and out in about an hour. It left us with more questions about how their community functions than what we had at the beginning, but we felt it was important to learn at least a bit about the people who inhabit the land where we had been going on game drives. As we drove on toward Lake Nakuru, we definitely noticed how the very traditional Maasai village that we visited gave way to a more contemporary style of Maasai living as we moved back toward Nairobi-- some mud and stick houses but with fenced land, some fenced land and concrete housing but people dressed in Maasai cloth, some Maasai herding sheep and goats instead of just cattle. We wondered about how being close to the Maasai Mara reserve and the tourist camps might allow the village we visited to maintain a more traditional lifestyle with the support of the donations of the visiting tourists vs. some of the other communities farther from the reserve.
Our drive to Lake Nakuru was about 6 hours. We stopped at a rest stop/restaurant to eat and to exchange passengers. Rui and Catarina were heading back to Nairobi so they could head to some much needed beach relaxation. We picked up Dave and Rebecca, a South African and Aussie couple, who were on another tour with Jocky (although they were staying with us at the tent camp). They were going to an AirBnB near Hell's Gate park, which is near Lake Nakuru, so we were going to drop them off nearby and they were going to get an Uber. They're doing a 7 month sabbatical tour of Africa.
We arrived at our hotel near Lake Nakuru about 6pm. It was definitely standard tourist 2-star European style, but very comfortable. The food was a step above what we had at the tented camp at Maasai Mara. We had a nice dinner chatting with Dianne about travel, guitar, culture, and cold showers. She'll be leaving after tomorrow to head to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro (we'll just be taking pretty pictures of it from Amboseli).
Maasai welcome dance
More of the Maasai welcome dance. Jumping is an important skill and the best jumpers pay less in cattle for their dowery
Traffic jam Maasai style
More of the welcome dance (we particpated)
Not all Maasi are so traditional
Villages on the way to Maasi Mara
June 2, 2023
We had breakfast at 6 so that we could head to the park early. Nakuru is an oasis in an area that is fairly urbanized. It is the home to a population of both white and black rhinos, which are now difficult to find in Maasai Mara (as in Kruger), so if you want to tick that box of the big 5, you should visit here. It's also home to a colony of flamingos. The flora of the lake are very different from Maasai Mara... much more forrested and hilly (and obviously the lake). We saw a number of rhino groups, the flamingos, zebras, and some monkeys, and enjoyed the change in scenery.
After about 3 hours in the park, we hit the road again, stopping at the same rest stop/restaurant for lunch and to say goodbye to Dianne and Neha and Guru. It'll just be the two of us and our guide, Isaac, for the Amboseli portion.
It took another 5 hours to get from the restaurant to Amboseli. We got some nice photos of Kilimanjaro on the ride in. They guy who showed us to our rooms said that it had been shrouded in clouds for the last 3 days, so we were lucky. We're at another tented camp, but this one is a bit nicer than the one in Maasai Mara (power 24/7) and food that is one more step up from the last place we stayed.
It was 6 by the time we arrived, so we had dinner and relaxed a bit.
Antelope playing (oh give me a home....)
June 3, 2023
We headed with Isaac to Amboseli National Park for a full day drive. Amboseli's environment is impacted by being in the shadow of Kilimanjaro. The soil is volcanic, so does not have lots of grass, and the water that comes off the mountain feeds underground springs that create bogs and pools of water in the park. That makes it a haven for elephants, hippos, the ubiquitous zebra, and lots of different kinds of birds (including a different species of flamingo). It was nice to have another more relaxing drive after the excitement we had in Maasai Mara. We liked bird spotting, and Eli is getting very good at identification (he credits his visit to the museum in Nairobi). We did also get to see a couple of male lions (they're everywhere that game are, even if they're not easy to spot or as prevalent as in other places).
Unfortunately, though, Kilimanjaro was covered in clouds again today. We had lunch on an observation hill which would have had good views of the park and the mountain. There were a number of school groups visiting the park today because it's Saturday (students get in free). We got asked to do a selfie with a group of students from a technical college in Nairobi.
While we enjoyed our visit to the park, we would say, given the time it took to get here, unless you really want to see Kilimanjaro or you're into birds, you can skip Amboseli. We decided that, rather than doing another game drive in the morning as planned, we would have a late breakfast and head back to Nairobi.
View of Mt. Kilimanjaro on the way in to the park
Elephant pack walking together to the watering hole
Hippo entering the water
Elephants walking together
An elephant dusting himself with his trunk