Tuesday, August 14
Today we say goodbye to Tanzania, our luxe hotel and possibly even a good shower. The two managers we were friendly with and three Masai wave goodbye to us from the main entrance. It’s one of the special touches each hotel has done and leaves us with such warm feelings of our stay. Martin, the General Manager, told S he’s worked all over the world and African cultire is one of the best he’s worked in. There is undoubtedly genuine warmth from most everyone we’ve met. Limo is waiting for us. We must say goodbye to him today too. Yesterday we had the chance to say hi to Spiros on the phone. We have been so fortunate to have both of them as our guides. Limo has been less comical than Spiros but has a warm sincerity to help us however he can and has guided us to a deeper appreciation for the Serengeti. With each of their help we have learned and regularly practiced the jovial Tanzanian safari anthem, “Jambo”.
We travel down the bumpy, dusty road to the airport assuring whatever breakfast was eaten is now properly jostled within. We see the usual cast of wildlife on our drive with the notable exception of seeing another cheetah and a lioness! We’ve been lucky to see four. It must be my strong love of all things animal print putting them in my line of sight! We have a 35 minute flight to Tarime where we are met by our guide Joel and driver, Abel, who will drive us over the border into Kenya and bring us to Migori airport for a flight to Masai Mara, the southern part of Kenya. From the air, appreciation extends because from here you see how few roads there actually are within the great savannahs and how lucky you must be to see the animals amongst all their vast lands.
We land in the “International Bush Airport”, a dirt road with a sign hung on its side. There is a curious little boy nearby. I ask him if he likes football (soccer). He shakes his head yes. I show him the soccer cards I brought with me and his eyes light up. “Do you like to play football?” I ask. “Yes.” “Luca likes to play football too.” “I have a football. Would you like to play?” And they are off, playing with the tattered under-inflated football in the middle of the airstrip. They play for 30 minutes while we wait enjoying an international symbol of commonality.
Our drive to the border reminds us of our fortunes. This part of Tanzania has no access to natural, running water. Women balancing buckets on their heads walk the road from the one water source in the town. You would never guess this way of life by the way Joel and Abel appear. The only hint of their life being the wrinkles on Abel’s shirt tell me it was hand rung. Infrastructure is so sorely lacking here. These are the real problems my friends. We pass a road lined with a flea market of makeshift shops as we drive to the border of Kenya, the goods placed neatly in piles on the dirt. The shop owners sitting on five gallon buckets imaginably hopeful for at least one customer. Citizens within 15 km of each side of the border are permitted to freely walk back and forth. They share the same accents and are easily identifiable to the authorities.
We enter “no man’s land”, a 20 foot stretch of duty free land with no ownership or government. We proceed to enter Kenyan immigration where a golden retriever checks our bags, we present our proof of vaccination in a hallway; our guides lead us through some paperwork and we use the bathroom with no running water. I can’t flush nor wash my hands. It’s a humbling welcome. I am grateful for our guides who maximize our time and rest our worries of process and timing. There are enough other things to take in while we wait.
Kenya boasts more industry than Tanzania’s agricultural focus. Tribes vary from each of the countries but share a similar way of life. Our drive is ridden with poverty in these parts and a foreign, unseen way of life. Garbage lines the ravines on the side of the roads. We enter the airstrip open to park anywhere (just not on that dirt road that may resemble/is a runway.) Children are sitting on the sidelines watching the planes take off and our guide tells us they “enjoy waving to the white people.”
It was possibly the longest 15 minutes of our lives on this twelve passenger plane with air bumps and swaying the entire way. Poor S’ face was dripping with sweat. Luca did his best to adjust the air vents so daddy got fresh air. He told me he couldn’t hold daddy’s hand because it was too sweaty! By now, I know much better than to try to talk to S. In-flight service was a plastic container full of mints. African humor has been so entertaining. BUT, the joke’s on us when an “announcement” is made from the co-pilot: the three passengers who got on last (me, S and Luca) need to stay on the plane for the four minute flight to the next stop! (Insert teeth grinding here.)
We arrive on an airstrip in the middle of the Northern Mara Conservation and don’t see our tour-marked, closed vehicle we are now accustomed to having. Instead we see an open air vehicle and a Masai tribe member. We meet Liaram but we can call him Steve and we later learn his first name is actually Timbus! Liaram, his sir name, is how we call him though we can’t focus on his name at the moment. We are too busy have panic attacks that we will be driving completely exposed in this open air vehicle.
I am slightly intimidated and oh so curious with this Masai driver, perhaps no more than thirty years old. He has a very slender but muscular physique and is dressed in a traditional red Masai fabric. Two beaded necklaces hang on his chest and coolest of all is his thick beaded belt with small, flat, silver circles that jingle when he walks. His traditional Masai sandals are made from rubber tires and will enjoy a very long lifecycle. His life is so different than what I’m accustomed to. My head is spinning with questions as I take in all the visual detail. I think of my cosmetic bag and wonder what he might think seeing the 50 different products I have on vacation alone! We are quickly comfortable with Liaram who confirms through his actions and conversation people are more similar than different regardless of how they look or dress. He is more progressive than you would initially guess. He has a cell phone and a genuine love for the Masai Mara North Conservancy. He’s an ambassador of the next generation Masai Tribe.
Luca has established “game” drives with a literal meaning. We assign points to each of the animals and those who spot the rarest of them gain the most points earning their self-proclaimed safari badge for the day! Luca spots a number of animals and Liaram congratulates him on “developing African eyes!” Me, on the other hand have only spotted ALO as per Liaram, Animal Looking Objects! My eyes must adjust to the new surroundings. Illusions run rampant looking across the grassy plains. The drive to our final camp is through a land spotted with dirt and bushes and is a game drive unto itself. The animals here are more relaxed. In Kenya hunting was banned in 1989 and in the Conservatory part of the Mara there are only twelve camps, providing a very exclusive access to the guests who safari within.
Liaram drives through the Bush and we are in safari shock. Driving through the Bush has been prohibited in other parks, until now! We pull over under a tree near a herd of grazing zebra and he proclaims we will picnic right here. We all look at each other with incredulous eyes. Umm, there is a herd of wild zebra 20 feet away! No problem. We leave them alone, they leave us alone and Liaram unpacks the table and chairs! There we are picnic-ing in the Bush! I enjoy a Tusker, a local African beer because, well, if I’m going to be stampeded by a herd of zebra in five minutes I want to be enjoying my time to its fullest. The good news is I am writing and therefore i proclaim Liaram was right. We have survived! It’s at this point I determine there’s no better guide than this Masai man of the land.
We continue our drive to camp. I spot kill draped over a high branch in a tree indicative of a leopard nearby. We chat with another vehicle and learn the kill has been there since last night. Apparently Mr. (presumably) Leopard was not hungry when he caught his meal and will enjoy it when his stomach says so. We hear Ciestickla Birds chirping feverishly – their warning sign the leopard is near! Before we spot the leopard however we see hyena resting near the water hole. We stop and watch as he sleepily wakes. A rancid smell pierced through all of us. “Eww. He is farting,” says Liaram. “He must have eaten something rotten. The smell is from bacteria.” We’ve smelled enough. Time to go!
We are scouring the area, driving through Bush, looking high in trees and low in grasses. He is there – resting under a bush.
We are one of three cars who are there when the leopard rises to his feet and walks to get a drink of water from the same small, cavernous waterhole as the hyena stealthily makes his escape. We watch in awe but must obey strict conservatory rules: if you are the first to spot the animal you can stay and watch as long as you wish. If you are among the secondary spotters, four additional cars may join and each stay for 10 minutes. After that time you must leave or rotate to allow other vehicles in to watch, provided your vehicle is at least 100 meters away. There are only three vehicles. We are safe to stay for now. Leopard finishes his drink and makes his way up the tree in four simple steps, this giant cat gracefully climbing the tree to enjoy his dinner. We sit and watch him gnaw at this limp gazelle for twenty minutes, prey dangling from the branch bobbling up and down as he dug in. Other cars came and it was our turn to back away. We circled. We returned. He was now satisfied and was cleaning his paws with his long tongue. He head down the tree as easily as he climbed up and walked off into the bush not to be seen, camouflaged the way nature intended.
We drive on to camp. It is turning to dusk and Liaram spots a dead yellow winged bat hanging from a tree. We stop and inspect it. He quickly advises us to drive on since these dead creatures have been known to carry extensive bacteria, even Ebola. Bug Master is paranoid. “First I’m worried about the tics, then I’m worried about the tsetse flies, now I’m worried about Ebola,” pronounces Luca. Liaram will have a tough task to make Luca an honorary Masai warrior. Clearly he’s no man of the land!
We arrive at Alex Walker’s Original Serian Camp. Tree barks have been used to create a canopy-like entrance leading you down into the central camp area. A large deck awaits at its end, scattered with round and rectangular dining tables overlooking the river. We anxiously wait to see our tent and learn how we will be showering at our final destination.