Mr Nomad and I had dreamed of visiting the Maasai Mara for some time and this is a dream that we have now fulfilled. It has to be said that this was truly magical and there is nothing in the entire world that comes close to this experience. We embarked upon this adventure by catching a ride with AirKenya on the smallest plane I have ever flown on. We flew from Wilson Airport in Nairobi and landed at Mara North Airstrip only 30 minutes later. The airstrip could never be described as a run way and my heart was in my mouth as the pilot landed on what appeared to be nothing more than a dirt track. I was pleasantly distracted from this bumpy ride by the abundance of wildlife which I could see from the low flying plane – the giraffes, zebra, impala and gazelle not at all bothered by the buzzing of the tiny engines overhead!
The Maasai Mara National Reserve can be found in South West Kenya along the Great Rift Valley, in Narok County, Kenya. It is an incredibly large game reserve split into conservancies and we were to stay at the Mara North Conservancy which is the largest conservancy within the National Reserve. It covers approximately 69,160 acres in the northern part of the National Reserve and it was established in 2009 with around 12 key members and more than 800 Maasai locals who own the land. The money collected in conservancy fees is used for the protection and enforcement of conservation goals through the promotion of wildlife and Maasai locals. It can be found around 180 km’s from Nairobi and offers a landscape of rolling open savannah grassland and acacia forest with seasonal riverlets, all on the banks of the mighty Mara river. The wilderness is an extension of the Serengeti (Tanzania) ecosystem and is famed for not only the presence of the “big 5”, and the abundance of animals and birds, but also the annual migration of wildebeest, dubbed as the eighth wonder of the world. Maasai Mara National Reserve is bordered by the Siria Escarpment in the West, the Serengeti in the South and Maasai pastoral ranches in the North, East and West.
The Maasai tribe is a native tribe found in Kenya and the word ‘Mara’ means “spotted” in Maasai, due to the trees which dot the landscape. The Mara is home to the semi-nomadic Maasai tribe with their herds of livestock. They have successfully managed to conserve their distinctive culture and traditions and can be seen wearing the colourful ‘shuka,’ cow hide sandals and many of the Maasai are adorned with intricate jewellery including ear and facial piercings and stretching of ear lobes.
The Maasai have a fearsome reputation as warriors and cattle rustlers. They are one of the few tribes who refused the urges of the government to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle and actually demanded grazing rights. They stood against slavery and live along side the wildlife with an aversion to eating the game and the birds. The Maasai warriors local to where we were to stay within the Mara were employed and known as an Askari to watch over the horses through the night, and they were certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Mr Nomad and I were collected from the air strip by our guide, Pete Behr of Safarisunlimited and he took us on our first game drive, as we slowly made our way through the Mara to our accommodation. This safari in the Maasai Mara was to be a horseback safari but Mr Nomad had opted to not ride horses, and to participate in the safaris from the comfort of a vehicle. Our accommodation was to be tents! This was to be a safari in the true sense of the word and we were staying under canvas, in a mobile camp which would move every two days to different locations within the conservancy.
As we slowly drove through the conservancy, we were able to get a taste of what was to come and we happened upon a large bull elephant almost immediately. He had no tail, and did not seem at all fussed by our circling the vehicle around him trying to get pictures of the lack of tail. To our utter delight, we then also came across a pair of cheetahs, relaxing under some bushes.
Pete explained to us that they were brothers and judging from their swollen bellies, they had only recently had a feed. We observed them for some time, awe struck, and then carried onto the camp site which was to be home for two days.
The first camp site was called perhaps unromantically, KO8 and was a lovely private area nestled in a small valley, surrounded by trees with a small stream running through it. It was idyllic although wild. There was not another person or vehicle to be seen and it seemed exclusive to us. Upon alighting the vehicle, we were introduced to the camp crew and we met the horses. All of the horses were already known to me because they are the very same horses that I have spent preceding months exercising at Sangare Conservancy. The horse I was to ride was Rego, a big bay gelding with a real presence.
Our canvas tent was wonderful. It was very big and roomy and importantly, mosquito proof. We had a separate toilet and shower canvas unit to ourselves, and every evening, the ground crew lovingly brought us hot water for our bucket shower. We were provided with eco friendly soap to use with the hot water brought for us and we agreed that this was luxury camping, a home from home, whilst still achieving the very real feeling of being out in the wilderness, along side the wild life. The camp was not fenced at all and it was open to any passing animals, should they be bold enough to approach with the ever burning fires with the courageous Maasai warriors keeping watch.
The food was delicious – cooked over a camp fire with no ‘mod cons’ whatsoever but wholesome and tasty. Fresh bread was made every day and yummy cakes although I have no idea how such wonderful food was created in this rugged wilderness where electricity was somewhat lacking!
Our first evening in camp was spent on a small ride out into the wilderness, just to get acquainted with our horses and our surroundings. Mr Nomad went out on another game drive in the safari vehicle and neither of us were disappointed. We saw a snippet of what was to come with zebra, topi, gazelle, impala, hartebeest and warthog being spotted. I even glimpsed a hippo in a river. We retired early to bed to get some beauty sleep to prepare for the days to come.
Our first full day in the Maasai Mara was nothing short of spectacular. I went out riding across the plains whilst Mr Nomad went in the safari vehicle and within minutes, we came across a solitary lioness.
Those of us on the horses were able to stop and watch as she sauntered across the plains alone, and Mr Nomad also saw the same lioness but from the safety of the vehicle. We moved off and continued to ride, ambling along and I was astounded by the sheer numbers of the animals. I again saw zebra, impala, gazelle, topi and eland, hartebeest and warthog, an elephant and many buffalo. I also caught sight of the infamous wildebeest in their thousands. They are quite noisy beasts and they grunted and honked as they galloped past us, swarming through the savannah. The horses were thankfully unperturbed by this fuss!
Following the ride which was around 15-20kms through the Mara, after a magnificent lunch, the horses were rested and we went out into the conservancy on a game drive in the safari vehicle and less than 100 metres from the camp, we were stopped in our tracks by the sight of two lionesses taking down a zebra.
This was incredibly brutal but nature at its finest (and deadliest). It was quite disturbing to realise how close to camp this was and in fact, there was one point where the lion seemed to be staring at our horses!
Thankfully, the poor zebra had satisfied her and she did not venture towards the camp itself. Whilst we watched dumb struck and in morbid fascination, one of the lionesses left the scene and wandered off alone – she returned no more than half an hour later with her cubs! She had brought her three cubs out of their hiding place and the cubs joined the two lionesses in devouring the kill.
We were transfixed. It was a little stomach churning but one has to accept that this is truly wild, and after all, it is the survival of the fittest. These creatures are doing what comes naturally to them and we were on their turf now. We were privileged to see such a sight, and we were unbelievably close to them …. we were so close to the lions that we could hear them tearing the flesh and munching it.
Mr Nomad and I had witnessed something rarely seen and we could not believe our eyes. It was amazing and this had only been our first full day! We could barely contain our excitement on this epic adventure.
An early night was had with the onset of a thunder storm and we had to prepare for a longer day as we moved camp the next day….we couldn’t wait to see what was in store!