England, 6 September 2018
I had always wanted to go to Africa and Steven’s recent move to Nairobi presented me a good reason to go. Though August was rather a rainy month, Steven assured it the best time to see the migration.
My preparation for the last minute trip were a google image search result on “what to wear on a safari” and Steven’s stern instruction “Bring warm clothes and do not bring plastic bags into Kenya”.
Maasai Mara (the Mara) is some 1,500 km2 natural reserve lying southwestern Kenya, right on the Kenya-Tanzania border. That’s just 60 km2 less than the size of London, twice that of Singapore or about 25 times that of Manhattan. It is the tiny tip of the great Serengeti.
In Maasai language, Mara means ‘spotted land’, a literal depiction of the Mara – trees, shrubs and cloud shadows mark its endless savannah and rolling hills. My favourite is the bonsai Mara trees.
Most souls that had been or everwanted to come here are in the hunt for 2 things – “Big Five” and the great migration. Among hundred inhabitants, all members of the “Big Five” are found here – lions, cheetahs, elephants, cape buffaloes and rhinoceros. Wildebeests, the dominant inhabitants, migrate from Serengeti every July and return south in October. As I heard, some 1.7 millions wildebeests, 300,000 zebras, 400,000 gazelles and the minor rest made up the total of 2.5 millions immigrants!
I was in the Mara in the last weekend of August, in other word, at its most crowded time. My only goal was to see a flock of giraffes snacking off a tall bush. Low expectation, no expectation.
On Saturday morning, we set off from Nairobi for the 6 hours roller coaster ride, slightly late after having gone to the wrong Java House cafe opposite the wrong gas station in Westlands. These 2 things are ubiquitous. Luckily, Evan our tour leader waited patiently for us, just as any good Kenyan does. We were greeted by our fellow travellers- an a-kiss-for-an-animal-sighted Spanish couple, a lion-enthusiast Pakistani and a calm quite Kenyan & Indian duo. We passed the Rift Valley (where the landscape resembled Lion King the most), baboons with their red naked butts, wildly decorated buses, “grandeur” shops and many running children asking for sweets.
At lunch, we met a Masai man who told us some truly interesting fact – ALL Masai don’t have the 2 bottom central incisors. They were taken out at young age and buried under the cow gate of their villages, for good luck. He, making merely 60 US$ a month, had more knowledge and concerns on his nation than some lucrative earners on Wall Street. Kenya is another case of today’s Chinese loan epidemic. Once a thriving nation post independence who extended its assistance to the young state of Singapore in early 1970s, the country now received heavy investment from China – the world economic power house & the world biggest creditor. The typical approach was applied here – hundred thousands of Chinese men were shipped to Kenya together with the government money, building everything from national roads to schools, among which was the 3.5B US$ new railway from Nairobi to Mombasa. The locals were pushed out of their lands, peacefully and violently, with little jobs in exchange. Chinese tourists also flooded Kenya with their renowned styles. Kenyan’s dislike of the Chinese people is an open secret.
After what seemed like forever, we entered the wilderness putting our absolute trust on Evan and his navigation skill. The roads were more like dirt paths that were badly gritted, filled with humps and potholes. Yet somehow the old 4WD =conquered them all and safely arrived at Mara Chui Resort just as the rain started. The lodge is in fact decent – bright, spacious, good water pressure and delicious food. In comparison to the real Hilton in Nairobi, it exceeded our expectation of a “4 star luxury” resort.
After a quick refreshment, Evan picked us up for our “appetizer” game drive. After some 10’ shaking drive which we were by then accustomed to, we arrived at the park entrance. Steven paid 24$ as a resident and to my utter shock, I forked out 160$. It is not the first time I experienced double standard of ticket pricing in Kenya, however, at the hefty 7 time difference, I felt like I was ambushed. Well when in Italy… As soon as we passed the gate, the roof was pushed up and all of us stood up swaying in the shaky drive taking in a lot of rain and eyeing the vast land around. Jude would howl “bad road” once in a while to warn us of potential head injury. Far away over the hill I saw them – thousand black dots of wildebeests, the first sight of the great migration. Beautiful gazelles, vultures, wild cats, a big family of elephants were right in front of us, very close and surprisingly indifferent about our presence. This was like living an Discovery Chanel wildlife episode. One of the car got escorted out of the park due to off-road driving. Now that I have done this safari trip, I’d not judge them.
– Last week a Chinese guy was kicked out of the park. Kicked out!- Evan yelled back
– Why? – I asked
– You know he climbed out of the car to take photos with a lion.
– That’s quite daringly idiotic!
After a short hour or so, fully impressed, we returned to the resort. The air was heavy and chilled. The rain was still falling. We took an early night in view of a long drive the next day. I fell asleep instantly and poor Steven was up all night dealing with all the wildlife noises that surrounded us.
* Despite lying right on the equator, Kenya enjoys a pleasant climate due to it’s high altitude. Nairobi is about 1600m and Maasai Mara is about 600m above the sea level. So pack some warm clothes.