Posts tagged ‘African Safari’
I thought I had several great safari experiences so I was not looking to add another safari outing to my itinerary. However, I had several recommendations to go into Chobe National Park in Botswana so I thought I would make a detour and check it out.
It was about an hour taxi ride from my hotel to the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers, where the borders of four countries meet. Namibia is off to the right, Zimbabwe across the river and off to the left and straight across the river from Zambia is Botswana.
The water safari on a large barge was a great way to view the crocodiles, water monitors, hippos and other wildlife in the water. In the center of the river, the marshland island provided a feast for grazing animals in the dry season. In the wet season this island would be covered by water again. The animals swim across the water to get here. I am surprised to learn that so many animals, even the buffalo and the elephant, are good swimmers.
The island is located right between Namibia and Botswana. The guide tells us that the flag of Botswana was placed on the island after the Netherlands solved the island property dispute between Namibia and Botswana in the nineties. Namibia wanted the land for farming and Botswana wanted the land as conservation for the animals. After much study of the geological area the island was determine to belong to Botswana.
The are many impalas, cape buffalo, birds and other animals enjoying the water and the green vegetation. Elephants, kudos, and giraffes come down from the parched earth of Botswana to the drink water. Crocodiles find a dead baby elephant in the river and have a feast. They point their snouts up then chomp and gulp their meat. More crocodiles join the party late but there is enough for everyone. One elephants stands motionless and watches the scene.
Later in the afternoon we pack our bags in the jeep and drive to the national park. On our first game drive we see a lion resting in the shade under a tree. All the usual subjects are in the park as in previous safaris. Then we find a leopard resting in a tree with a full belly. All four paws hang down; He doesn’t move an inch at first, then he passively looks over to us. I know that look……It’s the same look as we Americans get after eating too much at the annual Thanksgiving meal. His eyes lazily look over as if to say, “You’re not even worth it.” Soon other jeeps find us. The leopard gets a little annoyed then sits up and shows a few teeth. Lacking energy to do anything else he lays back down and just lets us watch as he goes back to sleep.
That evening we went back to “check on our lion”. It is nearing dust and at first we spot an impala standing still and watching a lioness intently. The female lions eyes do not move off the impala and it is like a contest of “who can blink first” between the two. A male lion, with a full mane, lays under the tree, behind his mate, watching her, the impala and all the jeeps accumulating on the dirt road nearby.
We all whisper under our breath to the impala, “Back up, back up.” and “You need to move.” but she does not understand or just does not heed our advise. After some time, she moves a few meters but stops behind a nearby bush. “Keep going. Keep going. Don’t stop.” We all hope for her. The lioness moves first, then the male stands and follows. They do a slow jog to the end of the bush and halt. The lioness peers through the green bush and stands motionless. All at once the chase is on and the lioness is out of sight. Neither she or the impala reappear.
We follow the male lion who stops to roar at the other jeep on our tour. We speed to where the lion stands. It is apparent that he is not happy with either of us but we are safely in the vehicle so we watch. He is not going to let us proceed to look at the nearby kill.
Just then another male lion with a large mane appears from behind. He jogs toward us, marks his territory and then lays fifteen meters behind us on the right of our jeep. The other male lion continues to walk back and forth from the left side to the front of our jeep and every once in a while roars. At some point I realize we are all alone.
It is getting dark now and tourist not camping inside the park had to leave the area. I am not sure if they had even seen the chase. I never noticed their exit. The other jeep in our party has now left. We are alone and the lion behind us gets us and approaches. I think, “Shit. We are the impala.” At some point, both lions are roaring and we feel surrounded. When X, our guide, tries to drive one way the lion in front changes directions and he has to stop. He backs up a little and tries to shift directions. Blocked again. “X, I think I am okay not to see the lions anymore tonight.” I state calmly.
At this point the girls from Northern Europe who were sitting on either edge in the first row of seats behind our guide have moved center. They are now sitting together in the center seat. Anika continues to film. I have put my camera away and I am watching the lion from behind stare at me. Everyone chirps in to let our guide know where the lions are as he drives. Just then I hear X call “391” and then say something in another language. I know he is calling the other guide whose jeep code is 391. I think, “Okay someone will come to help us.”
Sinker, the other guide, drove back to us straight away. I was feeling better to have two rigs there. However, the lions were not deterred. Our guide was able to get back on a road and drove conservatively along the bumpy dirt road. Sinker drove in the opposite direction. From behind me I hear Steve, a fellow traveler, say, “X, one is coming behind us.” Then I hear, “They are both coming now.” I hold on as I look behind and see that both lions decided to run after us. X turns up the speed and the guys in the back continue to relay how far the lions are behind us. They are still running. It is dark.
The lions chased us for about two hundred meters after X was able to safely speed up the vehicle. We arrived to our based camp, in the middle of the park, just minutes away from where the lions were chasing us and then had our first view of the small tents we would be housed.
Several people started drinking to calm their nerves. When I heard that there was not a night guard, as I was used to I in the other safari camps, I decided not to drink anything, including water. I decided right away that I was not going to have to leave my tent for any reason until morning.
That night the guides had most of the safari goers believe that that type of lion encounter happened all the time and we were safe……but I was not buying it. “What if we would have gotten a flat?” I asked X when we were alone. “Well…That would have been a problem.” When I asked if he was nervous at all, I could tell he was giving a line. Though what else was he going to do. No one would be able to sleep.
A couple hours later, I asked our guide to walk me to the toilette, behind the camp, before I retreated for the night. As we walked back toward my tent he laughed, “I see you have the tent in the center.” “Of course! I choose this tent because if the lions do something else “non-typical” tonight I did not want to be in the first tent he reached.”
The next morning both X and Sinker admitted that particular situation had never happened before and was quite unusual. We all had a sense of humor of the encounter by morning and could laugh about it. “Did you see the girls move and sit in one seat together?” X then laughs in a deep voice. “I will never for get that. I will surely remember this trip the rest of my life.”
Happy to be in the daylight, we head out on a morning drive and were lucky enough to not only see the rare wild dogs but also a chase and eventually chomping on an impala. “It’s just nature. Everyone has to eat.” our guide says. Later we find another impala taken down by a leopard. The leopard has hidden the remains of the impala under a bush to save for an afternoon meal. I think to myself, I am so glad that I came to Botswana and I realized that just because you have an exciting “first time” predator experience, it does not mean that the unpredictable wild won’t have more exciting adventures in store for you. I loved my Botswana safari and I am even more grateful that I survived it.
YouTube link to video of lion encounter:
“Here you need to sign this.” Silvia hands me a piece of white paper and points to a bold line. “Print your name here. Sign here. Write the name of your next of kin here with their phone number.” “Do you want me to read this?” Sensing that she was in a bit of a hurry. “It just says we are held harmless if anything happens.” I start filling out the form. “Has anyone ever been injured here?” “Well, we have all had our bites. They are wild animals. Anything can happen.” A few second later she continues in a softer voice. “We do select the chimps that people are allowed visit. The chimps you will visit have not had a serious incident with a anyone.” I discover through the course of our conversation that any chimp that has bitten or attacked a human is no longer allowed to directly interact with a visitor.
“I think that this will fit you.” Silvia hands me blue coveralls and I began to put them on over my clothes. “Here put these in your pockets.” Silvia places an overflowing frisbee full of cookies on the desk in front of me. I fill my large pockets with all the snacks. “Be careful of Dominique. If he tries to swing on your arm, mind your hand.” “Okay.” I respond. “Now follow me and I will introduce you to your guide.
“Evon, this is Dominique he is going to take you on your walk.” “Are you the Dominique that I need to watch out for?” “No.” He smiles. “That’s the chimp. I will point him out to you.” Dominique was a four year old chimp who was playful but did not realize his own strength and, like some toddlers, he had a tendency to bite. This chimp was actually named after my guide. Dominique then tells me about the other five chimpanzees I would be walking with that day. Delores was a five year old chimp that liked to play with Dominique. We would also see Karla and her baby, Kitty, as well as Simms, an older male, and Cindy. Cindy was not able to have a baby so she acted as a surrogate parent to Dominique and Delores at times.
We move towards a cement wall and climb through a small door. Once in, an iron grate closes behind us. Then a small one door, or really a one-and-a-half by three foot window, opens. My guide slips through and turns. “Now you.” I step through and crouch down to pass by the small entry.
I may be taking one directive at a time but I soon realize that the chimps know this routine. Six chimpanzees, one after another, come through a nearby window, just like the one I had come through. Immediately they take turns reaching in my pockets. I try to assist them. “Just let them grab for the cookies themselves.” Dominique tells me. Some of the cookies spill on the ground as we walk.
The six chimps get to roam in one of their favorite enclosures today. “This encloser is used for the tourists on bush walks. When they come in this area they know they will get treats.” “Was it hard to get the chimps to come this morning?” “Yes.” “It was?” I was surprised. “Yes. It is difficult because all the chimps want to come and they can not. They know only these chimps get cookies and they want to come too. That makes it difficult”
Dominique explains how each of the six chimps arrived to the orphanage as we walked. He also spoke about the history of the orphanage and the other one-hundred and eighteen chimps cared for by the foundation. “Silvia’s mother, Sheila, started the orphanage in the early eighties. Did you meet her?” “Yes, I was introduced to her this morning.” “The first chimp was brought to Sheila by her son-in-law who was a park ranger. That chimp was close to death and he asked her to help. Then came another and another. She did not set out to create this place…it just happened.”
We arrived to their favorite tree which had drooping branches and vines they could easily use to swing. The chimps walked around the tree and reached in my pockets for the last bits of remaining cookies.
We walked around the fourteen acre enclosure and when the chimps realized I had run out of cookies they started retracing our steps to find broken pieces dropped on the ground. They played, ate leaves, groomed each other and sat on trees staring out across their domain. Each time Karla went a bit too high or far out on a limb the baby would whine just a bit. The mother looked to ensure her baby was okay but made him climb to her. “He is still learning. All the time she is watching and teaching.”
Our visit would last two hours before it was time to leave our six new friends. Next we would visit the three large enclosures of the remaining chimpanzees during their afternoon feeding time. Each time we walked toward a several acre enclosure the chimps looked like they were happy. One sits away from everyone else, far up in a tree. Another walking with is baby under the brush. Some recognize the lead guide with me and start to gather near the fence. Each time the call for lunch went out at each of the enclosures the pleasant animals started hyping up like they were in a zoo.
Some chimps got so excited they start a bit of a brawl. The staff open doors an the chimps go to their proper feeding destinations. There is a bit of a scuff if a chimp tries to go into another chimps usually claimed area. The chimp wanting to “change things up a little” loses every time and goes back where he or she should be eating. The food comes and even though the staff does a great job of passing the fruits and vegetables out evenly, some chimps “just go a little” berserk. At some point, there always seems to be another brawl over portions. Each time all the chimps begin to screech and “egg on” the instigator.
There are a few of the chimps that stay far away from the action. These chimps almost seem more civilized….And they know it. Of these chimpanzees, one was named MIlia and she was my favorite. Milia was a forty year old chimp, the oldest at the orphanage. She came from Cameroon and was initially rescued by Jane Goodall. She lived at her conservatory in Tanzania for five years and had attempted to put Milia back in the wild; But it did not work. “MIlia had been part of an entertainment show and knew how to drink alcohol and smoke a cigarette. If you give her a shirt or a skirt or a sweater she will dress herself. Since she could not go back to the wild successfully, Jane Goodall brought her here. See that blanket?” “Yes.” “Someone gave that to her and she keeps it clean. She does not let anything happen to it.” Milia looked at me through the cage and seemed happy but it looked like she was tired of the morons sitting next to her.
Many of the chimpanzees had been former pets and at some point they could not stay with their human families. Cindy, one of the chimps on my walk earlier that morning, could even flip the television channels when she arrived here. Zambia no longer allows people to keep chimpanzees as pets so families had to find other homes for them. “Many of them would have a difficult time going back into the wild after how they had been raised in homes or for entertainment.” My guide adds, “Unfortunately we are completely full now and can not take anymore at this time.”
While I was there I also learned that many babies had been born in the orphanage. However, female chimpanzees are now placed on birth control and they are no longer allowed to have babies in captivity. “See that chimp? He was one of the last born here. His name is Gonzaga.” “We have a university named Gonzaga where I live.” “Well, he is actually named for the students from the University of Gonzaga from your state. He was born when a group of students from Gonzaga were here, so we name him after the college.” We usually get two groups of students from the University of Gonzaga every year.
In the evenings, I was able to visit with the current volunteers just finishing a two week stay at Chimfunshi. I enjoyed hearing their stories about their life and what brought them to Africa. The four volunteers had all learned about this opportunity through Impact Africa. Impact Africa was one of many organizations that connect people with volunteer actives in Africa. It was clear that this had been a wonderful experience for all of them.
The highlight of the trip was defiantly walking two hours with the six chimps but visiting with the other travelers was another highlight of time spent. I even received an invitation to visit one on my travels. We will have to see what works out.
I was told by the host of my camp in Kenya that South Luangwa was one of the best parks in all of Africa and that I was traveling there at the right time. “It’s going to be hot…but it is worth it.” Ralph told me. He was right. Even though we did not see thousands of wildebeest and zebra in migration, the variety of wildlife was more numerous. Especially in the variety of birds.
“You know, if Yuki was with us we would not be bypassing all these birds.” I turn my head back to Scott and replied, “I was thinking the same thing.” Yuki, a good friend of both of ours, was on my mind today and I had wished she was with us, sharing this experience. In all my life, our friend Yuki has always loved birds; Whatever the distance, she could tell us what type of bird we were viewing. For Yuki, and any bird lover like her, this place would be paradise. On the other hand, we were looking for big cats so her presence may have gotten in the way of our mission as we did not stop often to see our feathered friends.
We did stop a while to view a fish eagle, which looks much like a bald eagle and the national bird of the United States. We also spent a time observing a large group of bee eaters who were on migration from Tanzania and Kenya. The bee eater is a blue, red and yellow bird which migrates to Zambia each year for mating season. It is one of the most colorful birds I have ever seen. They make their homes in the sides of the dirt cliffs. We watch as the baboons crawl along the dirt attempting to eat the birds and their eggs. Other birds that would be of interest of our friend, and other bird lovers, would be the black and grey heron, various storks ( including the saddle-bill and yellow-bill), Egyptian Geese, Sacred Ibis, Hammer Cop, skippers, starlings, weavers, cuckoo and the pelicans. The various nests of the weavers and other birds I know would have also been an interest to my friend.
In addition to birds there were a greater number of different types of animals in South Luangwa. In fact, on the first morning out, we saw the same three of the five “big five” I saw in Kenya: the cape buffalo, African Elephants, and a pride of lions. The were a greater number of elephants, baboons, vervet monkeys, warthogs and hippos here than in Kenya. In fact, the elephants regularly came through our camp.
“Watch out for the elephants and don’t get within thirty meters of them.” We were told on our first day. Later that night, I had went back to our tent to take a shower before dinner. It had gotten dark but I told Scott and Gina I would meet them in the self catering kitchen midway through camp. Self catering was a bit more of a challenge because a previous camper did not store fruit properly and a elephant ripped off the door and and destroyed the refrigerator the previous night. Still visible was the crack in the cement wall of the kitchen the elephant had left behind. They had replaced the door but the refrigerator would not be replaced for a few days. So we had to store our food at the main kitchen on the other side of camp.
I followed my guide to the kitchen. We turned the corner and 20 meters away was a elephant just outside the door. I could see Scott and Gina busily working away. “Are my friends aright?” “Yes, the is a guard near. But we need to go this way.” We headed right, away from the kitchen, towards the main lodge. “I don’t really need to eat tonight.” I responded. Thinking I would just go to bed without dinner. “No. It will be just fine. Come this way.” I followed but looking behind the I saw the elephant’s truck reach toward the screen door of the kitchen. We made a wide circle around the area and came back from behind the elephant who had moved a few meters forward. “Hurry in now and lock the door” the guide told me. I tapped on the door, “Hey, can you guys unlock the door.” “Sure, what’s the rush?” Gina stated as she walked calmly to the door. I was surprised that Scott and Gina had not heard the elephant right outside, not even a foot away from the screen. For such a large animal with big feet I am always surprised how quiet they are in the wild. We did finish dinner and I was grateful to get safely back in our tent that night.
The monkeys and baboons were all over the camp. The are so cute until you realize that you must watch out for those fast moving creatures. Our first run in with a monkey came at the lodge when Scott and I had grabbed a piece of fruit out of storage for a snack. We had Gina’s apple on the table waiting for her and we see this cute little monkey coyly approaching us with big beautiful eyes. “Oh. Look at the monkey.” Then with one leap to the table the beast grabbed the apple and was off so fast we did not know what to think. “Where’s my apple.” Gina stated later as she arrived to the lodge. “Too late.” Scott replied. “Monkey got it.” Then a couple days later one of the two nuisances destroyed our front porch. It was obvious they had tried to get into the tent but we had it locked. They did however, defecate all over our bathroom which had an open air ceiling. After learning their tricks and knowing when to clap our hands or alert their presence of staff we found that they could be managed.
Ralph was also right about it being hot in the in South Luangwa. Everyday it was between 40 and 49 degrees Celsius; That’s 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the hottest part of the year, before the rains. Most wildlife was huddled near any body of water left. Baby impala and puku had a difficult time surviving due to the heat and lack of water. Drives were scheduled to avoid the hottest part of the day. Morning drives were scheduled between six and ten. We would have tea at 3:30 in the afternoon and start our night drive promptly by four. Vehicles had to leave the park at eight in the evening. We spent most of the afternoon hours in the pool. Gina and I started wearing our swimsuits to the morning drive so we could hop right in the pool when we returned. The sunsets were glorious and after dark the spotter used a white light to search for the wildlife. Early morning and after dark was the best time to find the cats. They, like us, wanted to be in the shade during the day. The night, however, was the best time to view a kill as the cats had an eyesight advantage after dark.
On our drives we also saw crocs, giraffes, zebras, impalas, albino frogs, three genets, a civet, mongoose, porcupines, hyenas, puku antelope, a water monitor, kudus, water bucks and bush bucks. The kudu were wonderful tan colored, deer-like creatures with vertical ivory stripes. The large and rare water buck had a big circle around it’s tail. It was five drives or nearly eighteen hours of searching to find the animal I most wanted to see. “South Luangwa is your best chance to see the Leopard.” Ralph, from the Asilia Camp, had told me when I was in Kenya. And we found it just when I had almost given up hope.
Just before sunset Alan, our guide, stopped the car and looked to the distance. During the drives, especially in the daylight, I have spotted most of the animals right away. I look out and see nothing. I turn my head to Alan to see what direction he is looking. I turn back and still see nothing. The spotter in the back says something to the guide and we wait and scan the land. Finally Alan says, “Leopard. I am sure of it.” “Where?” I reply. “It has to be over there. See where the impalas are looking.” He continues, “I first heard the screech in the distance of the baboons. Now, hear the impala’s they are whistling to each other.” I did not notice the call of the baboons to be any different than in the camp when they had gotten excited but I clearly heard a short whistle coming from the impalas. I had not heard that sound before in Africa. “How do you know it is a leopard and not a something else? If it is a leopard why aren’t they running.” Alan replied, “The leopard is alone and they are faster than the leopard. As long as they know where he is, they can outrun it. The leopard must have the element of surprise to be successful. That is why they usually don’t hunt during the day, they wait for the night to hunt when the impala can’t see as well. The leopard’s advantage at night is in it’s ability to see in the dark.”
We continue to stare off into the direction the impalas are looking; Towards the dry vegetation. “Can we get any closer?” I hear from behind. A minute later I hear Ilya again. “Can we get any closer?” Ilya and Marian have been on all of our drives with Alan. They have meetings in the capitol but came up to South Luangwa for a side trip while they are in the country. Ilya started taking pictures as a hobby but has had pictures appear in the National Geographic magazine. He had the biggest camera lens I have ever seen in my life. I turned and saw Alan contemplate his question. “You can’t get over there. Can you?” I reply. There is a strict policy of no off-road driving in the game reserve. I could not see a road leading us to where the impalas were looking. Alan replies, “I don’t see a way.”
A moment later, Alan starts the car and turns on the cracked cotton dirt with large splits earth. The Land Rover bumps up and down. I didn’t realize how deep the fissures in the earth were until that moment. Up, down, up, down the vehicle stops in a crevice. Alan restarts the vehicle. I hold on to the handle bar in front of me. And look out the side of the Land Rover where the door would be. Alan had me sit in the spotters seat that trip. The side doors and windshield had been removed to allow for easy viewing of animals and tracks in the dirt. Now it gave me a clear view of the earth as the vehicle tipped sideways in another fissure in the earth. I think to myself, “Oh no, we are going to be stuck here.” And I wonder if our guide will get in trouble for going off road. Then I think to myself. “I am a sitting duck to that leopard out there.” I hold my breath. Alan restarts the engine and we are half way to the location the impala’s were watching. We move forward. “There it is.”
I look ahead and finally see a hind leg and tail of the crouching leopard moving quickly to the small thicket of dried brush. I can not believe how his coat blends in with his environment. We are about half way to the brush from where we left the road. I can’t believe that this is the second time in my journey a guide broke the rules for something I really wanted to see.
“I am afraid it’s gone.” Alan says as we drive closer to the thicket. “I didn’t see it leave the thicket. There is a blind spot where we couldn’t see but it could be there.” I reply. We turn gradually left and make our way around the small thicket. The passenger side, my side, of the vehicle is towards the five meter in diameter brush we saw the leopard run toward. All eyes were on the brush; Cameras ready. Then I hear a deep, long roar which ended in a high pitch and I was eye to eye with the leopard. Faster than a snap of a finger the leopard pivoted and ran in the opposite direction. I didn’t even lift my camera at first as I realized my feet were about three meters from that leopard. There was a split second I had thought I was going to be its meal.
As it pivoted I saw the incredible strength in it’s hind legs. Every muscle worked in perfect unison to go from zero to a full sprint instantaneously. The feet all came together an out so quickly. I stood up, turned and just watched. Then, I remembered my camera. I snapped two pictures and then he was gone. It was a large male and he was so big, so fast. I had seen the leopard and he was beautiful.
In the night a thousand crickets call. There are snorts and honks to my right. Then a lion’s roar vibrates through the valley. I turn my head but I am not afraid as I was the first night in the bush. Living in a tent in the African bush is a little disconcerting. The first night I barely slept as my head moved from one side to another. It was exactly two thirty-six when I first heard the lion roar that night; but all that repeated through my head were the detailed instructions I was given shortly after I arrived at camp that first day.
“You know we do not have any fences. We are completely open to the wildlife. Therefore, you may go as you please in camp during the day but you must have a guide at night if you wish to leave your tent. Just turn on your torch and wave it like this, side to side. Someone will be here.” I am trying to take in all the information….How to take a bucket shower, get laundry done when when the meal times are throughout the day and then my hostess tells me of the emergency horn that has never been used. “The horn is only for an immediate emergency.” I think for a moment with all the information I have been given and ask, “So, if there is a lion right outside my tent, brushing against the canvas, is that an emergency?” Helen calmly replies, “No. That is not an emergency. Just flash your torch like this.” Helen picks up the large flashlight and moves it from side to side.” Needless to say, I didn’t fall asleep until after four in the morning.
“Good morning. Here’s your coffee.” Then I hear the mesh front of my tent unzip on that first morning. “Good morning. What time is it?” “It is six o’clock. Breakfast at six thirty and you will go on your walk at six forty-five.” The man places a tray with coffee, warm milk and breakfast cookies on the table inside my tent. “Oh. Okay. Good morning…..Wait. Was that a lion last night?” “Yes but it was far away. His voice just travels.” Therefore, on my second night I did not worry too much when I heard the roars. I just turned over and went back to sleep. However, on that second my morning my escort asked me if I had heard the lion as he walked me to breakfast. “Yes, but it was far away.” I stated, learning from the previous night. “No, The lion was in camp last night.” I think for a minute and realize that the Masai have lived here for hundreds of years and were fine so I am just not going to worry about the noises in camp.
There were so many animals on the Masai Mara I could not possible count them. I stayed on the Asilia Naboisho Camp in the Masai Mara in the Naboisho Conservancy. The conservancy restricts the number of guests and vehicles that can be in the conservancy, so at times it felt as if we had the park all to ourselves. At the camp we went on both morning and night outings. During the evening you are able to see animals that don’t come out in the heat of the day. Later, we would find a nice place to stop to watch the sunset as our driver guides prepared our “sundower” or refreshment. They would always ask earlier in the day what we wanted for our sundowner so they would be prepared for our requests. After the sun went down we would embark on the night drive. The second guide, in the passenger seat, would scan the landscape with a large red light looking for animals that were moving in the dark.
On the first night we were lucky enough to see a caracal cat which is more of a rare find than any of the the big five in Africa. A caracal cat is one of the heaviest of the small cats with pointed ears and long muscular legs. It is one of the fastest cats as well. My guide tells me that the sheep farmers hate these cats because they are so quick and go a little crazy when they are hungry and can kill five sheep but then only eat one. Another animal I saw on the night drive was a bushbaby with large round eyes, small ears and a long bushy tail. It was so cute hoping around on the tree and looked like a creature straight out of a Disney movie.
On all drives we could see wildebeest, hartebeest, giraffes, zebras, many types of gazelles including Thompson and Grant. I loved watching the small Dik Dik hop around like half gazelle and half rabbit. The Dik Dik were so fast I could never get a good picture of any of them. We also saw ostriches, African Elephants, Topi, warthogs, Impalas. I also saw one cheetah, several lions, and many Cape Buffalo in the Masi Mara. Birds were everywhere and many had vibrant colors. Some of the birds visible were the superb starling, roller, king fisher, marabou stork, tawny eagle and several types of vultures.
One of my favorite days was with my guides David and Racketa who were both Masai. We started early on our game walk. David is a young man right out of college who speaks English. Racketa is an old man who seems like he knew everything about the plants and land. David was my primary guide but I can tell that Racketa is teaching David also as we walked. David listens carefully and imparts some of that old wisdom on to me. They teach me about how to track animals and the about the plants and what each is used for by the Masai. We tasted some of the plants, one tree has wood they chew like chewing gum. Racketa opens a seed and rubs it in his hand then puts his thumb on my face, “You are Masai now.” David explains when they used this dye and he also explains the relationship plants and some animals or insects have with each other.
“Is Racketa a Masai name?”, I ask. “Yes, it means humble.” “Do you have a Masai name?” “Yes, it is Monka.” “What does that mean?” “It means handsome.” He smiles. “Who gave you that name?” “My parents.” David goes on to tell me about other traditions as we walk and tells me how the Masai live and about their culture. At one point they stop and teach me how to make a fire the traditional way. Later that night we visited a traditional Masai village where the people in the village and I both had an opportunity to ask each other questions about our life.
My other favorite day in Kenya was when I went to the main reserve. In the reserve, the vehicles and tourists are not restricted but there are different game viewable in this area such as the hippo and large crocodiles. However, we did not come to the main reserve to see the hippos or the crocodiles; our goal that day was to attempt to see a water crossing. I had seen a mini-crossing in the conservancy on my first day but it was quickly interrupted by a lion looking for an easy target. Only four or five wildebeest crossed before the lion appeared and caused the rest of the animal to change their direction over the hill that day. We left camp at six-thirty in the morning for this all day safari and we did not return to camp until six-thirty that evening. In the morning we happened to see a lion and lioness on the way to our destination. As the lioness sleeps the lion notices the Cape Buffalo but decides he is not hungry and instead walks along the savanna. It is early so we spend time watching the lion on it’s morning stroll.
Later we see the thousands wildebeest and zebras migrating their way to the water. This is a good sign. We drove around a bit and observed the crocodiles and hippos as the herd had a way to travel until they arrived at the popular crossing location. About an hour later we return and waited patiently with twenty to thirty other vehicles hoping for the herd to move closer to the water. Knowing that crossings do not happen everyday my guide warns, “We try, we try but there is no guarantee that they are going to cross. Wildebeests are always thinking, thinking.” I could tell these animals were over-thinking this decision. The lead would take one step then five minutes later bring that foot back. Then later he would take three steps and stand there for several minutes. Every time, the lead turned and headed in the other direction was a disappointment. I thought, “He just erased twenty-five minutes of forward motion.” Then I sit back in my seat. Finally some zebras take the lead and make their way to the water. The herd follows. Even the lame one in the back hobbles towards the group and the large parade of animals becomes a dense herd by the water.
At some point the animals were close enough to the water that all the vehicles that were in the back and to the side of the herd turn on their engines. It is a race toward the water for the best position for their guests. Now we wait as the animals decide. Meanwhile the vultures start flying over head and others gather on the rocks near the water waiting a feast. For hours we watched the herd go back on forth watching the water. They know that the crocodiles may be below but they can see the promise land on the other side of the river. This is almost the end of the migration season in the Mara. Animals cross over in the spring from Tanzania to Kenya to feed on the sweet grass in the Mara. By November the animals cross back to Tanzania. “Always thinking, thinking.” Wilson, my guide says again. After about two hours the herd gets spooked and turns back and stands. Few tourists are still standing in the roof opening with their high priced cameras and their foot long lenses balancing on the roof of their vehicle. Most of the tourists have sat in their seats as we feel like we are melting in the the hot Kenya sun.
Wilson suggest we take lunch by the river and we come back as it will take a while for them to get their courage up again. So we leave for a bit but I think about the crossing and that I would be spooked too if I was looking in that river where we could see several dead animals in the water, one with it’s feet in the air, from a failed crossing attempt. That alone would make me think twice about the sweet grass on the other side. I mean, how good could it be, really.
After lunch we wait with the others again. After another hour or so I realize that it probably was not going to happen so I tell Wilson it is okay if we leave. There are few vehicles still left. On the way back we see a family of lions and another large lion that was so tried he could barely keep his eyes open. We were maybe five feet from this shaggy old king of the jungle. He looked pretty harmless from the vehicle. Wilson and I left the lion and take another route back so I can stop in a Masai village and buy some beadwork.
“Look at that! I think they are going to cross!” Wilson quickly tries to find a road through the dense bush. There is no road through the thick trees. He stops the car and he runs around the vehicle and opens the door then grabs my hand. “Come on, hurry.” I run with him through the trees and dung squishes between my foot and my sandal. I don’t even care. “Here, kneel here by this tree.” In front of me I see hundreds of wildebeest and zebra running through the bush, around the trees and rocks toward the river. They decided to cross!
This was one of the most beautiful and amazing sights I have ever seen. The group all following together rushing across the waves of the river, navigating the current and the rocks and galloping to the other side in safety. We watched for a long while and Wilson helped me to film while I captured photos with my camera. I took one last video and then just watched in awe. Wilson and I were the only ones there to witness this special event that so many had been waiting all day to see. “When you are ready we need to go. We are not suppose to be here.” “What do you mean we are not suppose to be here?” “We should not be this far from the vehicle.” “Let’s go. I am ready.” I could see Wilson looked a bit nervous so I follow right behind. Around the trees and the rocks we found the vehicle. Wilson opened the door and I hopped in straight away. “I wanted you to see that. It will be our secret.” I was glad I was safe and grateful to have witnessed such a rare event. I looked down at my feet. I did not even care that me feet and sandals were covered in animal shit. I would wash them tonight.
I will not soon forget my Kenya Safari experience. I remember as a young child watching Wild Kingdom with my brothers on Sunday evenings. I don’t know if I ever dreamed to see such amazing animals in my life, but I know I will never forget seeing each of them up close for the first time.