Tag Archives: Masai Mara

Kenya: safari in Maasai Mara (1)

– I will go to Africa one day to see the lions. And when I’ll see them, I will cry.

This is what I used to say to my friends about one of my biggest dreams: the African safari. The big truth that I now know it is that nothing can prepare anyone for Africa, the red continent where all expectations are exceeded.

The morning before

– Excuse me…Hello….Good morning….Excuse me….Pleaseee

Loud knocks at the entrance door. I opened one eye in the dark room with the curtains pulled and my first thought was: where am I now?

Ahhh, yes, Nairobi! My brain figured out: that one week safari starts today! That was the fuel I needed to jump out of the bed like a rocket and reach the door in 2 steps. I opened it and the light blinded me. A very worried man was standing there, and all I could see first were his eyes contrasting its cocoa skin.

– Sister, excuse me, they came for you, for the safari. Are waiting, I tried to call… he said in a hurry.

I loved how he called me sister. I must have been quite a chaos in person myself, in pyjamas, my hair was a mess and my eyes barely opened on a sleepy face.

– OMG, I overstepped! The safari, yes! I went crazy going in circles inside the dark room, trying to figure out what to grab first. What time it is?

-It’s 7! They came and….

– What??? 7? Only? They’re supposed to come for me at 8:30! I started to laugh, covering my eyes with one hand and leaning against the wall in relief.

The guy asked then three times if I permit him to enter in my room to check the phone. He stepped in very shy and saw it was actually unplugged.

In one hour I was ready to go. I met Josea again, my too early bird friend I met the day before, at my arrival. He and another guy drove me first to the centre of Nairobi, at the tour agency office. I recognised the narrow passages between the buildings, close to the place where the evening before I managed to change, with his help, 200 euro into Kenyan shillings. The whole operation seemed like a drug traffic scene in a thriller. The census that was taking place those days has been shutting down the whole city, closing all shops, banks and exchange offices very early. That evening, after asking around a few people with no success, Josea made me a discreet sign to wait where I was. He then approached two security officers, talked to them for a few seconds making sighs towards me. He followed one of them on a back street and made me a discreet sigh to follow them. I couldn’t see much because of the dark but enough to figure out that the place looked very grim and quite spooky, with dumpsters all around and trash spread on a dirty broken pavement between two old buildings with walls covered in old graffiti. It smelled like garbage. I was assessing how low was the level of my safety in those circumstances and it seemed what we were doing was illegal. The idea of being scammed came only second. Happily it all worked well, the “operation” was a success, I even got a good exchange rate and finally had Kenyan money in my pocket.

During the day it was different, except that garbage smell. We entered a building, got inside a small elevator, then passed through a corridor with a beauty salon where a few Kenyan ladies were doing their curly hair straight, and then a door opened to a small office:

– I’m Simon, welcome to Kenya!

Simon was the type of guy looking like those black male models that we see on fashion catwalks or Vogue magazines: tall, well build, killer sensual lips and a sexy smile on a very handsome face. That and his leather jacket brought that kind of smile on my face, the kind that attractive people can only bring, instinctively.

I payed all the expenses for the safari trip and stored my big luggage in their office till I was coming back. It felt so good that for the next days all was taken care of. All my safari outfits were in my polka dot backpack: the sunscreen, the hat and the 7 types of mosquito repellent. In my country Malarone, the prevention pills for malaria, was impossible to find, so my plan B strategy was to keep mosquitos away.

And off we were

One American couple from Carolina, one Spanish couple from Catalunya, two Chinese girls and myself. That was our group in the white old safari van with 8 seats, drove by Richard, our driver and guide, who’s grey hair and pronounced lines around his eyes were a guarantee for how much he saw and knew. Ohh, and how he exceeded all our expectations by the end of those 7 days and 6 nights! We were already set to become friends the moment we stepped in that van, as great experiences always create strong bonds between people that live them. I started off on the right foot and got the single seat in the front of the van. Well, again, the perks of traveling alone! Well, the downsides came later…

The van started to move, following the other 3 in the font, heading to Masai Mara. I kept staring outside, at the streets, the people, the buildings. I didn’t felt like talking, socialising, getting to know the other people in the van, blabla. At all! But when there’s a pure blood Spanish – Catalan around, this doesn’t last long. As soon the wheels started rolling, he started talking and by the time we left Nairobi we all got to know each other, our names (except the Chinese girls…), where do we came from, what we do for work, what languages do we speak and how our Kenyan holiday plan looked like. Hearing that the American couple was starting a 7 months long journey in Africa and Asia caused a loud awwww in the van. Then the Spanish couple was going to Serengeti, in Tanzania and after to Zanzibar. The Chinese girls and I only Kenya. Richard joined the conversation soon and the atmosphere became quite cheerful, and we talked until all of us got tired and some fell asleep. I continued watching Kenya revealing itself from my window seat.

market, Africa, Kenya trip
market in Kenya

As soon as we left the busy Nairobi and its concrete city vibe, the savannah started showing its patterns, one by one. First tree by tree, image by image, as if a video was loading, and then like an explosion of frames that turned all my previous imagination into reality: umbrella acacia trees, tall dry grass, vast horizons crossed by apparently endless roads passing through villages with the most colourful cottages I ever saw, built straight on that unbelievably red soil. The red continent was revealing its beauty rapidly, strong and tangible. Elegant women in beautiful and colourful dresses, wearing high heels and makeup on the dustiest roads I ever saw. These images were so contrasting. Later only I understood it was not a feminine statement as it is in the so called West. It was about being strong and fearless and elegant and feminine no matter what and where. Such power can only be profoundly admired and applauded.

For 8 long hours Kenya was showing itself to me as the rest of the group went quiet and asleep. I kept watching that movie playing on the screen of my window, with every town, village and markets we passed by, with every kid waving his hand, with every corner looking like a Pulitzer awarded photography.

trip to Kenya, Amazing
Kenya, Africa

Hell’s Gates, the door to Maasai Mara

After lunch in a restaurant where many other vans and safari jeeps were stopping in front, we made a short stop at Hell’s Gates, the point offering perfect views over Rift Valley, the vast savanna below, reaching far away as if it owned this world. Once here was a prehistoric lake that fed our human ancestors. We got sooo excited observing in the bushes some rodents looking like huge rats. Some Asian tourists started taking photos of them frenetically. We were all at the beginning of our journey and that seems to me now so funny, comparing to the photo opportunities that followed.

Maasai Mara starts here

The roads got dustier and bumpier and the landscape wilder. Richard announced that we were entering Maasai Mara. His voice came as a poke to reality to me: I was in Maasai Mara! Then the dust, the heat of the late afternoon and the constant same views of the savannah, still and quiet, made me sleepy. I was struggling not to close my eyes fearing that I will miss something great. What a premonition. And then I saw them, like two silhouettes from another world – tall, very slim, with unusual long legs and hands, with skin like black velvet and their bodies half covered with blood red rags, with high sharp swards in their hands and a fearless yet calm sight, with colourful large necklaces around their neck and long earrings hanging down their ears. I almost hurt my neck trying to gain one more second of this: two Maasai warriors watching us passing by in a cloud of dust, leaving them behind, vanishing into the immensity of Mara.

– Did you see that…??? I said seconds later, when I could again articulate.

No one did saw them but me and it was impossible to describe it in just words. Such a powerless instrument for such striking scenes. The image of those Maasai warriors was like a tattoo on the memory, two uncrowned gods of the wild who’s image is one of the strongest I have about Kenya.

This was how Maasai Mara, the land of Maasai tribes – in translation meaning the people that speak the language Maa, opened its doors to us. And I could feel that my moment – “I will go to Africa to see the lions. And when I’ll see them, I’ll cry.” was close….

Kenya, africa, Maasai Mara, Maasai tribe woman
Maasai woman in Kenya

I was watching ahead, with a far-off look, in silent, resting my chin against the front seat back next to Richard. For quite some time the sandy track we were following was just a pale yellow line crossing the dry fields. The afternoon heat was making the landscape blurry. Then I think I saw something… First I thought my eyes are wrong, then that it was because of the heat or maybe a piece of dry bush left there, in the middle of the road, by the wind. It was still there, right in the middle of the road, as the distance between us was reducing fast. I lift up my head and focused to that. It still wasn’t moving and a shape was slowly contouring now. The shape of a young impala was becoming a certainty. We were getting dangerously close and Richard didn’t seem to thing of slowing down. Before I could spell “Richard, watch out”, only when we got a few meters away, as if it was challenging its courage, the impala decided to jump away and instantly vanish. So Richard wasn’t risking to hit it, he just knew it will jump aside in the last moment. This time we all saw and got super excited. I saw a smile on Richard face in the mirror. How many people he must have drove like this, through their first safari experience, whitening their first reactions.

Now the wilderness around us was as cut off from the National Geo documentaries about Africa, those I used to watch sitting down, on the carpet, in our living-room, when I was a kid, so I could see better.

We didn’t even had the time to process what we just saw and finish all excitement exclamations when suddenly a large group of giraffes appeared out of nowhere. It happened so suddenly that it took us all by surprise and without phones or cameras at hand. In spite of all the promises and guarantees made on the tens of tours operators sites I checked while organising the trip, I never thought it could be quite like that: an abundance of wildlife in one place: about 20 giraffes, tens of zebras and even more wildebeests appeared out of no where. Richard stopped the car and the engine and let us wonder as the animals were just a few meters away from the road, doing what they do all day long: eating. They didn’t even blink seeing us. And there it happen. In front of a sight that no zoo could ever offer and no documentary can even get close to, in the middle of the savannah, my tears didn’t wait for that first lion. My eyes got wet. For feelings like that make days in our lives worth remembering there is no effort too big, no distance too long and no boundaries impossible to cross.

Maasai Mara safari, Kenya, African safari, giraffes, wildlife, nature, photography
Kenya

The camp

At the end of a 9 hours ride we arrived in the camp. Our neighbours for the next days were the inhabitants of a Maasai village. We passed by their settlement, followed by a cloud of dust, as a few young men were directing the cattle inside their village walls build of clay and soil. A large group of barefoot kids dressed very colourful stop their game in front of the village to salute us and didn’t seem to be bothered at all by the dust that came after us, leaving them invisible.

A few Maasai men in front of the camp helped us with the luggages in change of a tip. I only had my blue-marine polka dot backpack. This is how tourists coming to see the lions bring a benefit to the local community, besides buying hand made souvenirs or sometimes making small donations.

A few rows of large tents built on the ground, closed with a zipper, housing two beds covered with mosquito nests and in the back, a bricked up, well, almost up, bathroom with a shower in the wall, a toilet and a sink. One tent was mine alone. It was basic but having all it needs and the bed was clean. Cleaner then in other places where running water is not as precious as it is in the middle of the savannah. The water pressure at the sink was very low, it took a lot of patience for a hand wash, but the shower was good, with warm water. Outside, a kitchen, a small bar and a large room with white plastic tables and chairs where guests could serve the food from the buffet. Electricity was available only during the night. That was our camp, simple but filled with excited people.

We had one hour to leave our luggages and get ready for the first safari. I sit on my porch a bit. In the tent on the right the Spanish couple was laughing loud of something only they knew, on the left Elaine, the American woman saw doing some stretching.

The afternoon: the first safari

We jumped back in our white old van and headed straight into the wild. Richard opened the roof and like this it looked more as a safari car. Well, still quite far from the jeeps we’ve seen around. The cool air of the afternoon smelled like vast fields and dry grass. A few minutes only after we left the camp, we started meeting the animals. Wildebeests were everywhere, zebras came after, impala in small or bigger herds with many calves among them, a few warthogs with their funny walk and constantly on the move, an ostrich female. With every distance covered, advancing into the dry depths of Mara, we were more and more mind-blown. Like a dream you have for so long and when it becomes reality you realise it has exceeded any scenarios your imagination could have crafted.

Maasai Mara, Kenya safari

I got my camera out of the bag in a general “woww” from my safari companions. My new lens, a telezoom, bought especially for the trip, was one of the best acquisitions I ever made. Even though is the cheapest available from Sony, it totally made the difference when it comes to taking photos during a safari. The phones, even the newest models, were quite useless so I promised the others to share my photos when back home.

We were talking about that when I instinctively turned my head away and looked far, to an area where the dry grass was even taller growing by some bushes. I just couldn’t take my eyes off that spot, without seeing something there, as if I felt it. And there it was, perfectly blending in, part of that far away field, a lonely gorgeous lioness.

– A lion!

Only after long minutes and using Richard binoculars all the others manage to see her. Laying in the grass, with her mouth opened, breathing relaxed and calm.

– Girl, you got eyes for lions! I couldn’t see her not even after pointing the exact spot!

The first of the big 5 was that lioness. The 2nd came fast after, was a Cape buffalo in a swamp we passed by, looking angry at us with his dark massive horns covering its upper head and curving around its head like a true threat. Called the Black Death, it is known to have killed more game hunters than any other animal in Africa. It’s a karma weapon after all.

Maasai Mara buffalo, safari, Kenya
Cape Buffalo in Maasai Mara

A cloud of dust raising up in the sky was the target Richard was aiming. The old white van was running wild on the bumpy track and five other jeeps were following us. We arrived to what it seemed to be at first a jeeps an vans gathering in a cloud of dust. But that was not it. We saw the reason of this madness: two male cheetah laying in the grass a few meters away, totally ignoring us silly humans making excited noises and using phones, cameras and even half meter long lens to get an image of them. The sun was setting and it was the most perfect golden hour that our home, planet Earth, can offer as another gift to us.

Next: 12h safari and the Great Migration

Kenya – Nairobi: start of journey

The sun had almost completed its journey for that day. Just another one for it and an unforgettable one for me. It had nothing but the seize of a palm left to shine light and as I looked around, towards the huge umbrella acacias, I thought: if only I could stay like this forever, with my zebra print bracelet made of camel bone on the left wrist and the red beaded one from mama Masai on the right, with the image of the three lionesses resting in the golden grass, by the palm trees near the swamp, the 24 elephants crossing the path in a cloud of dust, the sleeping hyenas and the hypos in the swamp of Amboseli….

The savannah was like this: complete.

I wrote these lines a year ago, watching the sunset in Amboseli, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro with its white peak of snow, at the end of a 7 days safari in Kenya because I wanted to be able to read it after and feel what I felt then: completeness. 

27 days before

A safari in Africa was always a dream that seemed to big. Or should I say too expensive. After I came back from Puglia, Italy, in August, I was wandering online, looking for my second trip of last summer. It was when I found out about an event I did heard before, one of nature’s great wonders, The Great Migration, how it’s called the world’s largest migration of wildlife. Over two million animals migrate from Serengeti, in Tanzania, to the greener pastures of Maasai Mara, in Kenya. It’s the wildebeest who set the start, followed of course by other animals. I remembered my reaction when I read on a website the animals that was guaranteed to see in each park. Lions were called abundant and guaranteed to see in Mara. It seemed a marketing line at that moment…

I bought the tickets 20 days before the departure and what followed was a marathon of emails and messages to a significant number of tour operators. Some didn’t answer, some were starting the conversation from 4000 euro for 3 days of safari, others had packages of 10-25K. I soon found out Kenia is not a cheap destinations when it comes to safari, but absolutely doable if you work enough to plan the trip. So I meet Rachel, the one that at the end of 37 emails in a week had me as her customer. I started from a 2 days safari and she got me sent the advance for a 7 days safari: Masai Mara, Amboseli, Nakuru.

The plan was done, the reservations made, my safari wardrobe bought, plus a telephoto lens for my camera, the vaccine for yellow fever checked, the visa obtained. After the 7 days safari, I planned a few days on the coast, in Diani beach, close to Mombasa, for some relaxing beach time. Kenia was already giving me butterflies like no other destination before. 

Arriving

After a few hours stop in a hot like hell Doha, I arrived in Nairobi at midday. The airport seemed a lot smaller than others I’ve been before in Europe or Asia. My name written on a sheet of paper at the entrance was what I was looking for. Josea was my driver from the airport to my hotel. I was so excited and talkative and we became friends very quickly and by the time I reached the hotel we had the plan for that day. He needed extra money for his girl that needed a heart surgery in India and I needed to see Nairobi with a local.

A 3m high concrete wall and an iron gate opened when we arrived. Three men with riffles came out and check the car, only after we were allowed to enter. I was going to find out that this is common in Kenia for places destinated to tourists. 

– Hello sister, was the salute that made me smile so many times in Kenya. Welcome to Nairobi! First time here?

Kibera – o glimpse on life in the largest urban slum in Africa

I felt immediately as I landed in Nairobi what it feels like to feel different because of the color of your skin. As soon as I left the airport, I saw no other white people on the streets, in the cars, in the shops, in the markets. It felt strange. 

Josea and I we drove on the streets in Nairobi center that looked as if it could be placed in any other country: tall buildings of offices, large boulevards, parks, fountains, busy crossroads. Then we left the central area and continue until a sea of rusty roofs appeared out of nowhere.

Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya,
Top view over Kibera, Nairobi

I was curious to see it the moment I read that there were walking tours organized there. Tours for white people in clean clothes to see the black in extreme poverty. As if we all don’t have our poors in our own cities in every single country on this earth. But as a friend who came back from Mumbai once said, their poverty is more of a poverty then ours. 

Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world and the largest in Africa is home to, some say 1M, others 1.4M, Josea said almost 2M  Actually, a look from the above tells the truth: only God can know. 

Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya
Street in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya

A fact is that 60% of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, 4.4 million people, live in low income settlements, meaning slums. They occupy occupying 6% of the land. So 60% on 6%. There’s no need of Communist ideology to see this gap is too deep and too dark. And so was the life in Kibera the day I was there and all the others that followed. Poverty can’t be described and I won’t even dare to try it. It can be seen but will continue to be never understood by those who were offered more simply by birth. Because one with a full belly will never understood the one who’s starving. 

I left ashamed towards the people in Kibera we drove by that day. Ashamed because it’s not fair. I didn’t leave the car and took no photos except thiese on the street we first entered the area. 

Kibera, Nairobi, Africa
Kibera, Nairobi

After I went quiet, as the street got more and more narrow and I saw the cobweb of streets that were only accessible by foot and that went deep into the heart of Kibera, from which I stole images of faces and little fragments of life scenes. I was just a passing view of a car with a white woman that day. But for me it was a thousand of perspective changing images. The start of a lesson offered by Africa, a place it’s impossible to come back from the same as you left.

Nairobi for tourists

The Giraffe Centre, established to protect the endangered giraffe that is found only in the grasslands of East Africa, a place where you can feed the giraffes, was just closing. As we left, a warthog was crossing the little alley to the parking lot. This was my first encounter with the African wild life and got me head over flip-flops excited. Josea was amused by my reactions. Next, he had to stop the car by the road for the second encounter: a tree filled with marabou storks. I crossed a heavy circulated road just to get closer to a gate where I could see them better. It started to look like the Africa I was dreaming about.

Giraffe Manor

My phantasy of visiting this place and see the giraffes sneaking their heads on the windows and chewing bites on the plates on the beautifully arranged table, stayed a phantasy. The place was accessible only for guests, which in perfectly understandable when you pay between 500-1000 $ for a room. Maybe some other time. As Josea started telling me about the fields of Mara packed with wild life, I instantly forgot about it. He took me after to a shop selling Maasai art. Those masks and mahogany sculptures were fantastic but all was very expensive. A great sculpture piece could cost up to 15k $. I bought my zebra bracelet made of camel bone there, for about 12$. The one I wore after in every single day of that trip.

Carnivore is the most famous restaurant in town. Opened since 1980 and included on the list of the best 50 restaurants in the world, the place is a heaven for meat eaters, with its all you can eat buffet and the huge round barbecue in the middle and a hell on earth for vegetarians. It used to be very exotic in terms of menu, in the past, until Kenia imposed a ban on game meat. 

It was packed with white tourists wearing safari outfits  and the gates kept opening and the armed guards kept checking on the jeeps bringing the guests for that night. It was nice but too Westerner for the taste of someone like me, too hungry for the Kenyan culture.

Dinner in Nairobi

Josea fulfilled my wish: we went for dinner in a local restaurant, “where he would go for good local food”. We entered a large covered terrace with white plastic tables and chairs. Nothing posh. All eyes turned to the entrance, to us. The clientele was entirely formed by locals. We stopped at the counter where a refrigerated display case was full with pieces of raw meat. I let Josea made the choice but as I saw him picking a piece of ribs with more bones then meat and not looking good at all, I started thinking that the biscuits I bought with me from home, for emergency reasons only, might be my dinner that evening. The meat was taken to the barbecue. I was so hungry… A lady came for the order and stayed for a conversation. She looked at me smiling as I was exposing all my excitement for finally being in Kenia, “to see the lions”.-

– When I see you people flying here from the other side of the world to see the lions, and I see them every day from my kitchen window! she laughed and made a move in the air with her hand while my jaw just dropped.

We talk and talk and my dinner was no where to be seen. I started reaching my eyes for it every 5 minutes. When a tall men carrying a large plate approached our table, with a big piece of meat on it that was so hot it was still frying, spreading a steam of barbecue all around, I fixed my eyes on it. He cuts it into pieces and the lady brings a few bowls with cabbage salad, tomato, pepper and onion salad and a plate with the African polenta as I named it, only their ugali is white not yellow. It didn’t look fabulous. The first bite totally changed my philosophy about food: it was the best, sweetest, juiciest, crunchiest barbecue I ever had. It absolutely confirmed all the rumours I have heard before about Africans the masters of barbecue. Those goat ribs in that evening in Nairobi were so much praised in all the stories I’ve told my gourmand friends after. We ate and talk and laughed and I knew that Carnivore couldn’t offer me that. It was the perfect start of a week long safari in Kenya.

Next: 3 days safari in Masai Mara