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Maasai Mara Safari
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varrin
While I'd love to wow the world with literary genius in the course of conveying my Maasai Mara Safari experience, I would be remiss if I didn't relay some of the technical details for the benefit of those (probably mostly coworkers) who might consider a similar excursion. Such tedium is less compatible with the almost-Pulitzer-winning composition I'm so well known for (*cough*), but I'll do my best. I'll try to break it up into sections with headings. It'll be long. That's how I roll.

First, the photos are posted here:

http://sugargroup.net/photos/varrin/safari/

A note to those who viewed those photos via the link I poseted to facebook prior to the posting of this blog: There were a couple dozen pictures missing (~140+ of the 171) when I initially posted this. They're in there now, but I put them in order so there's no convenient way to know which ones were missing other than the slightly lower view count. Good luck :)

I've also captioned them and have identified (I hope correctly) almost all of the animals including the birds (I didn't look up the type of owl or gecko).

I have quite a bit of video footage which I might someday edit together, but I haven't done that yet.

The set up

This was my first trip to Kenya. I had 4 days and figured I ought to do a Safari, having never done such a thing before. I have friends at church who lived in Kenya and coworkers who have done many a Nairobi layover before. The consensus was, time permitting, Maasai Mara is the place to go.

This being a bidline trip, I should have had a whole crew with me, but the two First Officer positions went unfilled. The crew I operated in with left the next day, and my outbound crew didn't arrive until closer to departure time. Luckily, there was one First Officer there, Art. He was on another crew and positioned to Nairobi early (the same day I operated there) for his trip, which departed after mine. He was interested in going on a Safari, also, so I wouldn't have to go alone (and pay for it alone).

I contacted Charles Omolo, owner of Reed Buck Adventures. He came highly recommended by my coworkers and I thoroughly affirm that recommendation, whether you're a World crewmember or not. He can put together any kind of excursion you like. His contact information is on his website. Tell him you know me and he'll treat you right.

I had heard that the Sarova Stanley in Nairobi would give us credit towards a different property if we used one of their properties elsewhere. That turned out not to be the case (in later conversation, Charles wondered if the front desk staff might have been scamming on the side). They didn't offer credit, but they did offer a good rate for the Sarova Masai Mara, which was lower than the contract rate Charles gets. So we stayed checked into our Stanley rooms and took the Mara lodge for the low low rate of 10,000 KES (about $120 US).

The desk staff, hearing I was interested in a safari, took the initiative to call their favorite tour guide and hand the phone to me. I spoke to her and she ran down what she would offer. It sounded comparable to what Charles offered, though for a slightly higher price ($25 more, as I recall). Given Charles' reputation and competitive price, we chose to go with him.

The total for the transportation-related expenses (car, driver, fuel, game drives, conversation, advice, etc.) was $450 total for the two days, which we split ($225 each). The hotel was $120 each , park entrance was $60 each, and the extra Lake Naivasha excursion added $40, for a total of $445 per person. The hotel cost included 3 meals: lunch on arrival, dinner, and breakfast, all buffet-style. We had to buy any souvenirs and lunch the second day. (note: Charles can get lower prices at other lodges... the Sarova is supposedly the nicest in the park, so we chose to go there and were quite happy with that decision.)

The sights

We left Nairobi early Thursday morning the 6th. We stopped at the overlook of the Great Rift Valley north of Nairobi. Even given the cloudy weather, it was a spectacular view of the valley.

From there, we continued to Lake Naivasha. Charles handed us off to Hassan for our hour or so there. He took us out on a boat and we explored some of the wildlife in and around the lake. This included a wide variety of birds, and a couple of pods of hippos. He also managed to attract a couple of eagles by whistling and tossing a fish in the water near the boat. They flew down from the trees, grabbed the fish from the water, and flew back up to the trees. That was fun to watch, but difficult to photo and video.

We then went for a walk about the island (now peninsula) area of the lake where (parts of?) the film "Out Of Africa" was shot. Apparently, they brought in non-predator animals for the shooting of the film and left them there. They bred and populated the area making it a good place to see relatively-safer animals on foot. Out of the entire trip, this was the one thing we wish we had done differently. Our time was limited there and we would have enjoyed having longer to walk around and take some better pictures. Nevertheless, we still managed to see several larger animals, including a giraffe and some zebras.

After our time at Lake Naivasha, we made our way to the Sarova Mara, just inside the main gate to the park. The road from Nairobi to Narok is fairly good, but the road from Narok to Maasai Mara is horrible. It's paved, but it's much smoother to go off the pavement due to the frequent and rather large pot holes. The distance on the rough road is around 50 miles or so. Travel time, all together, is around 4 hours, with a lot of that being on the rough road after Narok.

On the drive, we saw giraffes and zebras off the side of the road. There were also several villages along the way with natives, animals, and shops... and a lot of schools. The scenery changed several times along the way. Parts were lush and green, and other parts were more desert-like. The various acacia trees (mostly umbrella and whistling) and candelabra cactus trees made for some amazing scenery along the way.

We checked into the Sarova Mara, a little later than planned, and had our lunch. By the time we were done, it was time for our afternoon game drive. It was sprinkling off and on but mostly not raining. Charles' vehicle has a pop-up roof so we could stand up and take pictures without windows obstructing the view. On this drive, we stayed fairly close to the lodge. We spotted many anetlope-family members including topi, Thomson's gazelle, Coke's hartebeest, and impala. There were also zebras, elephants, lions, a jackal, a leopard, and many birds, some of them larger, including an eagle dining on a guineafowl.

After returning to the hotel for the evening, there was a Maasai man playing guitar and singing in the outdoor bar area, followed by some dancing (and jumping) by a group of about a dozen Maasai people. We had dinner after the dancing and turned in for the night in our tent-cabins.

The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast and headed out for our second game drive at about 7:00 a.m. We found some cheetahs, more of the various antelopes, the leopard we saw the previous day (this time up closer), a gecko on an anthill, roughly a zillion buffalo, elephants, lions, a hyena, and some warthogs. We also spotted many types of birds, including an owl, several ostriches, and a fairly rare mechanical type: a Dash 7. In addition to the animals, we learned a bit about the vegetation; we saw a sausage tree (the fruit isn't edible but the Maasai us it to make beer), and learned that the Maasai use parts of the various shrubs for perfume, sandpaper, and various medicinal purposes.

During the course of the wildlife viewing, we never managed to find a rhino. Our only up-close giraffe viewing was a brief glimpse at Lake Naivasha (we didn't see any in the Mara). Aside from that, it was a very successful trip in terms of wildlife.

We headed back to the hotel with a stop in Narok for lunch. We saw more giraffes and zebras on the way back. Apparently they leave the park around this time of year when the higher grasses conceal the predators.

We stopped at a curio shop on the way back for souvenir shopping. The shop is a collective with seven groups selling their things under the same roof and sharing the profits. After paying the bills, the profit goes towards their local school. I picked up a couple of hand-carved teakwood animals for the kids.

Insights

Charles used to work for a church and do other kinds of social work, which is his background. Along the way we talked about various aspects of Kenyan life, including challenges they face. This provided some interesting conversation which was, at times, encouraging with respect to the future of Kenya.

He indicated that, though there continues to be significant political corruption, the Kenyan people are working hard to educate themselves and improve their lives. Based on conversation with both Charles and Hassan (our guide at Lake Naivasha) it sounds like the normal educational model in Kenya is a sort of hybrid government / community system. The government provides teachers even for the remote schools, but the parents and/or community are still responsible for providing books, uniforms, and lunches. Hassan said he had to provide both books and uniforms for his children, while the lady at the curio store indicated the proceeds from their business goes to provide (or at least offset) the books at their local elementary school, which had over 600 students.

I wasn't all that surprised at the (lack of) transportation infrastructure development. The roads in Nairobi are paved, but traffic is a mess and the quality and organization of the roads is not as efficient as it is in many western countries (or China, these days). I was surprised, though, at the communication infrastructure. There is 3G cell service throughout Nairobi and the surrounding areas, and cell coverage (though not 3g) extended all the way into the Maasai Mara. There were little phone shops in even the poorest towns. While I got a kick out of posting safari pictures to facebook in real time, it does seem to make what was formerly so mysterious and inaccessible, readily available to mere mortals (like myself). The world has gotten a lot smaller in this age of travel and information (think Daniel 12:4).

From a conservation standpoint, I enjoyed the opportunity to see the wildlife in its natural habitat. Even in East Africa, there appears to be widespread respect for nature and an interest in preserving it for the enjoyment of generations to come. Though I might debate the morality of government-as-groundskeeper, I am thankful for what appears to be the whole of humanity elevating its appreciation for the cornucopia of animals by not killing them every chance they get. Weapons in the sport of shooting have transitioned from guns to cameras, which these days seems more driven by culture than prohibition. Both components in that transformation (cameras and culture) strike me as superior to the old habits (guns and, well, guns).

I was perplexed by the economics of the park. They have one entrance gate where they collect $60 per visitor. It is a fairly popular park, so they should have quite a bit of revenue from that fee. I can't quite figure out where it goes. I only saw rangers at the main gate. I don't believe there are other gates (though I could be mistaken). The existing trails don't appear to require any maintenance (if so it isn't much). And the road from Narok to the entrance is clearly not the recipient of funds (we saw people filling potholes with gravel along the way who Charles referred to as volunteers). I hope the government doesn't just squander those funds on things not related to conservation and/or enhancing our ability to enjoy that which is conserved.

Also, despite a couple days of conversation with Charles, I remain uncertain as to what the best help would be for the Kenyan people. We westerners generally equate prosperity with goodness. While I wouldn't argue against prosperity, there is more to life than wealth. And wealth can't simply be dumped upon a place with the expectation of making it great. There doesn't appear to be one single silver-bullet solution like better education, better government, better infrastructure, better healthcare, etc. There are churches and schools everywhere; they're more visible there than many other places around the world. I can only presume they're doing their best to make life better. Maybe, like so many other things in life, improvements will take time.

I hope our trip there, including the economic activity it brought (hotel employment, souvenirs, meals, etc.), made life a little bit better for those who live there. It certainly made my life more enjoyable. No man-made zoo can compare to our up-close view of the God-made wild...

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