Friday, January 26, 2007

Masai Mara

I am back in France and heading back to the US tomorrow. Back to the really real world tomorrow – back to class and three job interviews next week alone, plus I need to finish that pesky master’s thesis thing. I didn’t do too much today but sleep off the flight and go to lunch in Versailles on Matt’s motorcycle. Blasting around the outskirts of Paris on the back of a motorcycle should be really badass, but in late January, it is mostly just cold.

To recap what you missed, the last day in Rwanda was taken up by a visit to the genocide museum and souvenir shopping. I think the former put somewhat of a damper on the latter. The genocide museum commemorates the horrors of the Hutu massacres of the Tutsis in 1994. It is graphic and unnerving. There are pictures of churches filled with hundreds of bodies, all killed with machetes or bludgeoned to death. The survivor pictures aren’t much better; children with huge gaping head wounds were their skulls had stopped the machete blow. It was a tough morning.

The next day we took the early morning flight from Kigali back to Nairobi. The ground staff at Jomo Kenyetta airport managed to lose my bag yet again – 0 for 2 now – but a few minutes of righteous squawking managed to get someone to get on the walkie-talkie to locate one well-worn red backpack. It had been loaded on the flight to Kilimanjaro.

We dropped off our big suitcase at the safari office downtown, picked up our vouchers and headed out to the Mpata Safari camp in the Masai Mara. Instead of the 6-8 hour bus journey, we decided to fly out. We took a tiny little plane with four other passengers. Similar to the system to the Belize islands and most city buses, you tell them where you want to stop and they drop you off. The weather turned as we flew and a massive thunderstorm turned the sky black. It was an incredible contrast to the big green grass and the red clay dirt landing strip. Gazelles, zebras, and giraffes were everywhere, munching on the grass at the sides of the runway and causing the pilot to hit the horn (I had no idea planes had horns) to clear the runway before landing. The terminal was a wall-less thatched hut in the middle of an empty field.

We were met by the guest liaison in a safari truck. We did a little tooling around to look at the nearby animals before heading to the lodge, but not much as the storm was bearing down. We were about 3 km into the 15 km drive when the sky opened up. After a few minutes, *%$@ four wheel drive, you needed an ark. The driver was really moving too. On the way to the lodge, there was an old 1930s concrete bridge that floods over in heavy rain. We needed to get across the bridge before the water got too high. We slid and fishtailed the whole way, but got there. There rushing water was only a foot or so deep and we made it across. Pause for a quick high five and up the escarpment to the lodge.

The Mpata safari lodge was built in the early 1990s by a Japanese architect. All the cabins are made of interlocking circles (like cross sections of snail shells) with odd shaped skylights. I believe that Beetlejuice was called in as a consultant on the furniture. And the view is unreal. We can see for miles and miles over the valley below. The suite we are staying in has a jacuzzi out back too, so you can soak in the hot water after a long day of safari and watch the sun go down over the vast expanse of green below before going to eat you five course French meal for dinner. My life is very hard, as you can see.

One of the most intriguing things about the camp is that it is almost completely Japanese. It is owned and operated by a Japanese company, and most of the other people here are on package tours from Tokyo. We can’t talk to anyone, but on the bright side it takes a little of the Colonel Mustard in the Drawing Room with the Lead Pipe edge of the isolated safari lodge life.

It poured all night.

Next morning we got up at 5:30 am to go on our morning game drive. We loaded up before dawn and headed down the mountain. When we arrived at the bridge we noticed something rather interesting. The concrete bridge was no longer there, replaced by a rushing torrent of water. Safari vans piled up and Japanese tourists took pictures. The drivers thought the fact that we were marooned on top of a Kenyan escarpment with now way to get out or for supplies to get in was quite possibly the funniest thing that had ever happened to anyone. Especially the whiteys that were pitching a fit about making it to the airstrip. No safari drive that morning. I have instead included a picture of our furniture.

By afternoon the waters had receded enough for us to take an alternate route to the park. The wildlife viewing was incredible. We saw six cheetahs, including three lazy cubs, and two males running at full speed trying to take down a baby topi. (Topis are like smaller, dumber versions of wildebeests, about on the same size and intelligence of a standard household washer-dryer.) Momma Topi was having none of it though and cut the cheetahs off. They can only run at top speed for a very short amount of time though, and the topis were able to get away. The two cheetahs then strutted around for a while like a couple of gang-bangers at prep school, then took a nap in the grass.

We saw some other neat stuff too. A bunch of lions just waking up from their morning snooze and some really hungry elephants. We then went back to the lodge to relax in the jacuzzi and eat steak au poivre.

Over the next three days, we saw a bunch of other animals. Highlights included below:

Lions, in bunches. We saw different groups every day. They mostly travel in large packs of females, sometimes with one or so males present, but not always. And they are not receptive the big-maned brothers rolling in on their territory. One group of six females we saw was much displeased by the prospect. Similar to my girlfriends and I in a crowded downtown Boston bar on a weekend, their growls can loosely be translated as “I KNOW you are not trying that tired ass line on my girl here…”

We actually had somewhat of a close call with a lion too. We were down by the Tanzanian border – going to take our pictures with the border marker. As we rolled to a stop, the guide spotted a long fury tail slip into the bush next to the concrete marker. Lion. Older lone male – which are distinguished by the fact that they can’t run well anymore and are known to take out easy targets – like people. There are numerous stories about these old guys attacking railroad camps during colonial times – munching on the help. The guide was a little unnerved and took us to another marker in the middle of a huge open field. No bushes there to conceal predators.

Hyenas – which I had never seen before – are quite possible the vilest creatures to walk the earth that do not hold an elected office. They just slink around looking like they just ate a baby something. The Lion King portrayal was spot on.

At risk of boring you, I will stop there.

At risk of boring you, I will furnish an incomplete list of other things that we saw: black rhino, cerval cat, giraffes, zebras, Thompson’s gazelles, topis, wildebeest, hartebeest, baboon, African buffalo, waterbok, vulture, golden crested crane (among another billion species of birds that went by too fast to identify), hippos, crocodiles, and I know I am forgetting a bunch of stuff. There are so many things on the Mara that you couldn’t always tell where to look.

Well, that will be all for a while now – back to school. I will see if I can arrange something interesting for spring break in March.

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