Coming to the end of our wonderful safari, we flew to our last stop, the tent hotel in the Masai Mara. Roughing it is not how I would describe these gorgeous canvas covered hotel rooms along the Mara River. Once again, getting there was via a little air strip and as we arrived, the Masai had set up a “duty free shop” selling spears and other chotchkies. I kept my tent flaps wide open all during the first night, listening to the animals—including the hippos who were floating by in the river below.

The next day I spotted what looked like a young/baby crocodile. It was actually a massive monitor lizard, several feet long. It freaked me out and after explaining that my tent flaps were open all night and that kind of creature was roaming about, Eric said I shouldn’t have kept them open. I guess the sleeping outside thing didn’t apply to the Mara Safari club tent camp. Next night I was zipped up tight!

Distract the Rhinos!

Our game drive in the Masai Mara was one of the best of the trip. Yes, the bar was raised once again. Eric had the group drive up a mountain side toward a ranger station where we got to see two white Rhinos up close and in person.

We had to be quiet so as not to disturb the female. She couldn’t see us (they can’t see very well) but she could sense us and if she knew we were close, she might not like that. You probably haven’t been next to a rhino before so trust me, you want them to be happy and distracted or not see you at all. And that is exactly what the rangers did to the male rhino so we could get up close and touch him and take a photo. I won’t go into details but it was a happy ending for Mr. Rhino and we left our tips in the rhino tip box for the hard working ranger.

Back down on the plains, our driver Abdi, who I dubbed, Happy Abdi, was awesome. He knew where a number of animals hung out so he took us over the a pride of lions and their cubs. We were the first to arrive so got some excellent shots and great views of the little guys nursing and playing. The mamas got tired and would roar and show their teeth—frightening but it didn’t scare the cubs too much—they just moved on to the next set of nipples to try out auntie and her sister. I dubbed them the itteh bitteh African kitteh committee (a line taken from LOLcats). One of the mom’s sneezed which made us laugh—her response was to give us a “look” and then settle back down again. Glad she wasn’t up for some whooping.

Moving on, Abdi drove us over to where a Cheetah was hanging out under a tree. He was getting up from his day of napping and stretched and yawned (which looked frightening in the photo I snapped). This guy just walked around our jeep and got so close we could have touched finger to paw if I was feeling stupid enough—which I was not.

More giraffes, buffalo, wildebeest, a Secretariat bird, and more dotted the landscape on our way back to the tent camp for the evening. We needed a good rest for the seriously early wake up call the next and final morning.

Up Up and Away

Before the sun was up—a looooong time before—we got in our jeeps and drove out to the bush where the balloons awaited us. It was freezing at that time and the wind was up so we had to wait before getting started. The process for getting into the basket was such…they tipped the basket on its side and one by one we climbed in and sat on our backs with legs up—like the astronauts do on lift off. The basket is divided into five parts—the middle for the captain, and two compartments on each side that hold 3-4 people each. I held onto my hat, closed my eyes, and pressed my ears shut while they inflated the balloon. A few peeks told me this was not something I wanted to witness—loud blowing fans, fire spewing out of the machine in the middle—yeah, just tell me when we’re up. And then poof! we were up!

What a ride! We flew low for the most part—an occasional lift into higher elevations had my dad gripping the sides with white knuckles. I was somewhat okay with the whole thing because the balloon drifted very slowly down—no hard crashes were in store and I felt pretty secure inside of it. Not that I wanted to go any higher though. Along the way, the fire blowing into the balloon scared the bajeesis out of the animals who all fled as we approached. Kind of cool to see them from above. We also saw a number of Masai bomas and people waving at us from below.

The touchdown was very smooth and our drivers met up with us to take us over to our champagne breakfast they had set up in the middle of the Masai Mara. Before we stopped, we saw a big buffalo carcass. The vultures were all hanging out and started to leave–one by one like planes taking off—as we approached. The hyenas also took off—with a leg of course—can’t leave good food behind! This was all just yards from where breakfast was being set up.

As we walked around the breakfast site, I noticed a tremendous amount of poo. Maybe this was a hot spot for taking their morning coffee breaks or something, but you could not walk two steps without hitting a pile of poo. It really amazed me as I did a 360 turn and saw miles and miles of grass lands stretched out before me. Was there really that much poo out there?

After a bumpy ride back we relaxed by the pool, watched the hippos swim and snort and then got back on the road, up the mountain for a beautiful evening of wine and treats by a big bonfire as we watched the sun set over the Masai Mara. A truly exhilarating site to see. Again, Tauck knows how to treat their guests and create exceptional experiences.

Off to Nairobi and the first leg of the trip home.

As we climbed aboard a plane with the smallest seats in the world for a quick (thankfully) trip back to Nairobi, we said goodbye to the animals, the Masai people, and our jeeps. We flew in over a sad steel-lined ghetto where about a million people live cramped in poverty. The traffic in Nairobi is similar to D.C. so I felt at home and was entertained by the vendors. See they have a great system going on over there. The police hold up traffic at the roundabouts (causing more congestion) to give the street vendors time to run up and down the line of cars. Once they’ve done a circuit, the cops let that line go and the process starts over again with a new set of potential customers. I didn’t see anything I was really interested in—the hello kitty dolls and Elvis Presley photos seemed less than authentically African so I passed. After a brief rest in the hotel we were off again to the airport where we arrived precisely at 7:59 when Eric said we would. Man he was good!

Final Thoughts

Go. Save your pennies and go. Africa is so amazing and you’ll never experience anything like it anywhere else. The people were lovely, wore beautiful clothes, and even though most were dirt poor, seemed content with their lives. The animals were extraordinary—seeing them in their environment up close was so different than any zoo experience. The vast and endless sky—that included the Southern Cross which I got to see for the first time—was breathtaking. Over and over again I just found myself saying “Thank You God for your beautiful earth, for letting me experience this, and for all Your blessings!”

Tauck Tours and our guide, Eric, were exceptional as usual. Our fellow travelers were fun and added much delight to our trip. The hotels were top of the line and the service was beyond expectations.

Throughout our trip we had some laughs about the toilets. Many were heard to say as they were coming out of a facility, “Well now I can finish writing my book about toilets.” In some places where you would think an old outhouse would be a treat if you could get it, you’d find a clean, full toilet with flushing water and paper. And then you could drive an hour later and stop somewhere more civilized and find a closet with just a hole in the ground. Yup, I tried that just to say I did. I worked my muscles good on that one! In any case, the toilet situation was as diverse as the animal species and you never knew what you were going to get.

The trip over and back was long. I don’t love flying and am extremely uncomfortable in planes (big butt and long legs with arthritis make sitting on them very painful). But even with that and the root canal pain I had the first several days, it was completely worth it. I’ve been culling through the couple thousand photos I took, trying to pull just a few out to share—it’s so hard when you’ve had the experience of your life.

Well, happy anniversary mom and dad. We lived our dream trip and can continue to dream about it for a long time to come!

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Our first lodgings in Kenya were located in Amboseli National Park which is known for its large elephant herds. We saw plenty of them, some were mucking about in a swamp which was new for me—didn’t know they did that, and others were crossing the great plains eating as they go. Elephants eat about 18 hours a day (or more). They don’t digest all of the food they eat—which is why their poop is very grassy, just in case you wanted to get a good look at it—so they have to eat a lot. Amboseli and the surrounding parks run into a challenge of not having enough foliage and trees to feed the number of elephants roaming about. That’s just one of the challenges they face with the elephants.

Our arrival at the hotel was delayed because we caught site of some wonderful animals on our game drive through the park. We saw a couple of wildebeest chirping at a hyena that just wanted to cool off in the pond. But they wanted him gone so they harassed the hyena into leaving their area. Pretty funny. We were also treated to a few lions who were ambling across the road. One posed very nicely for me as the sun was setting on our game drive.

Poaching and African Dinner Theatre

That evening we had a wonderful lecture from one of the park’s rangers. He informed us about the poaching problem in Africa—how criminals were killing elephants and taking their tusks. In China, ivory is a big seller, so these people smuggle the tusks out of the country but unfortunately leave devastation behind. The African ecological system depends upon the elephants. Some 30 thousand are killed each year in Africa—mostly so that some people in the Far East can use it as an aphrodisiac (so they think) or for jewelry. One thing we can do as individuals is to spread the word that this is an unacceptable practice and to stop the demand for ivory—don’t buy anything made from it.

Now while we were engrossed in the lecture and enjoying the evening breeze, all of the sudden some monkeys (there were a bunch of them hanging about) started to screech loudly and run up the trees near us. The next thing we see is a flash of something run across the field directly in front of us—just yards away from where we were sitting. As we all got up to look across the lawn to the watering hole just beyond, we could see a lion who then skulked away (too much noise from those humans). Sitting there stunned and a bit hurt was a zebra who after checking to see if Mr. Lion had actually left, got up and ran off to be hunted another day (or maybe later that night). Wow. Not every day are you having a happy hour cocktail and listening to a Kenyan ranger when a lion attack happens in front of you. Very cool.

The monkeys then came down and started harassing everyone again per usual. They were black faced monkeys with blue testicles and they would go into your room and steal things if you left the doors open long enough. We were told they get old after three minutes but one of my traveling companions and I agreed that it was taking us longer to get over them; they were in fact fun to watch.

The Masai

In the morning our group went to visit a local Masai village. Our tour director said if you took the stick away from a Masai he’d probably fall over. After seeing hundreds of them throughout our trip, and each and every one carrying a walking/herding stick, I believed him. On our way we saw their herds of donkeys roaming around the swamp nearby. Once out of the jeep and in front of the Boma (the fence they create around their huts), looking at Mount Kilimanjaro in the background, I stopped to pet a cute dog . One of the Masai, John, came over and introduced himself and his dog, Simba, and told us he was the chief. I was duly impressed. The Masai came out and danced and sang a song for us—all decked out in their beautiful wraps and jewelry, and then gathered us for a prayer. Daniel was our guide through the village (they all have western biblical names that are given to them when they start school).

Daniel explained their customs and way of life telling us that their huts are made of cow dung with twig-like roofs. Their doors are short and narrow (they made sure to point that out to me) and it was very dark inside. I found it comical that there was a small little padlock on the door of the hut—the same hut that had twigs in the window and cow poop for walls. Anyway, it was very small and consisted of two “beds” –one for dad and the boys and one for mom and the girls. They had a “kitchen” in the middle which was basically a few rocks where they lit fires. They light their fires with elephant dung—because all that grass in it makes for a good source of fire.

Each of the families had a hut (one hut per wife—the men are allowed more than one wife but must treat them equally, therefore no sharing of huts) with a little back yard. I spotted some girls giggling in the back of one hut and they shared their tiny little puppies with us. I was holding the puppy they named “Toby.”

We got a demonstration of how they bleed their cows by hitting it in the neck with a blunt arrow without killing it. They mix the blood and milk and that is part of their diet. We also were shown some of the herbs and medicines they use; of course they had their own version of Viagra seeing as how the men can take more than one wife.

When the men are ready to marry, his parents get to decide who the lucky lady will be. And since everyone in the Boma is related, they go to another village to find her. The second wife is chosen by the first wife. Some poetic justice in that I suppose. It costs a man about 10-15 cows for a wife. In the Masai world, the more cows you have the richer you are. In the past, the Masai used to steal cattle from other people. Their shoes are rectangular so that when they were stealing cattle, the pursuers wouldn’t know what direction the footsteps were going. Clever little cattle rustlers!

There is a lot more to tell about this group of people. They are the one tribe in the Tanzania and Kenya regions that is still clinging to their traditions and heritage, but that is changing and some speculate that if you return to Africa in 20 years, you may not see a Masai village like this. But who knows, in the future they may still pull out two of their front teeth to identify themselves as Masai (an awful tradition in my opinion). We ended our stay with the Masai by walking through their “market.” They had all their trinkets laid out on blankets and we picked up what we were interested in (or handed by desperate husbands). At the end, my guide James and I went through negotiations. I put a lot of the stuff back, feeling bad after seeing the little babies and knowing they needed the money, but thinking I had enough stuff I didn’t need at all.

The Masai and Amboseli Park were a wonderful treat. Even the baboons who have taken over an abandoned hotel were fun to watch. Some were fighting, some staring at the workmen having lunch in the distance, and some were just hanging out eating and playing. Tauck Tours does a great job of giving their guests a well-rounded experience of the cultures they visit.

Masai woman collecting water at the well outside the Boma (and too close to the swamp).

Masai woman collecting water at the well outside the Boma (and too close to the swamp).

The market at the Masai village

The market at the Masai village

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Inside the Masai hut, our host sits on his bed.

Inside the Masai hut, our host sits on his bed.

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The Masai warriors outside the Boma.

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Our Masai guide James, who probably has a professional job in town and comes back to the village after work.

Simba the dog. Dogs are used by the Masai as guards to warn of carnivores.

Simba the dog. Dogs are used by the Masai as guards to warn of carnivores.

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These monkeys were all over the hotel grounds.

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Elephants returning to their evening resting place.

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These two male elephants are fighting for supremacy.

These two male elephants are fighting for supremacy.

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These baboons watch a fight unfold while the workman in the background have lunch. The workmen probably stay in bunk houses in the old hotel grounds.

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This hyena is alone and being told to "git" by the wildebeest.

This hyena is alone and being told to “git” by the wildebeest.

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This elephant is sitting in the muck of the swamp.

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This guy got really close and passed right in front of us–no care about the humans!

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lions roaming Amboseli Park with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background

lions roaming Amboseli Park with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background

I wrote another post with that title a few years ago but it was appropriate again so I reused it. I used to sing the “I’m going lion hunting” song at camp and it was in my head over and over again as we drove through the Serengeti.

The Serengeti Park is an animal-lover’s paradise; just don’t drive over 60 kph or the ranger speed trap will get you. Our driver assured Mr. Ranger that he couldn’t possibly go that fast on this bumpy highway (I called him on that after we left the police stop, and seeing him zip right past 60 in a hot minute). But back to the game drive—which turned out to be one WOW experience after another.

We set out before dawn to see the animals in action. As we drove through some burnt fields (they burn the fields to keep the grass fresh), the sun began to rise. In Africa, so close to the equator, the sun rises in an instant. It was wonderful to see the orange and pink colors in the horizon and the big ball pop up, poof! A few minutes later we came upon a jackal having breakfast. Now for the most part we can expect and accept the fact that there are carnivores out there and they have to eat. However, the jackal doesn’t make clean kills like the lions do. Nope, we witnessed a brutal, long, repetitive attack. So, moving on…

More eating, but this time we came after the kill. We still got to see part of the zebra floating in the creek, and the crocodile who dined on him was so big in the midsection, he had to sit tight on the bank and hang out while his meal digested a bit. Evidently they stay that way for days and only need to eat big meals like that every six months give or take. That doesn’t mean they won’t kill in between, they just don’t need to.

As we moved slowly along the areas of tall grass, our traveling companion spotted a tail in the distance. Yup, a lion was headed this way. And then a minute later, without warning, her buddy who had been scouting out ahead of the pride made a move that sent a leopard scurrying up the tree right in front of us! Leopard sightings are rare so this was a treat. But hold on folks, it just gets better. Dad spotted another leopard climbing another tree in the distance! Our sweet girl’s hubby was sitting on top of an acacia tree keeping an eye on the pride below. Our girl up front near us slowly climbed higher and higher. Knowing she was capable, I still prayed out loud for her not to fall. These leopards were beautiful and we had the rare privilege of seeing two being chased by a pride of lions. Holy cats, batman! Even our driver guides were excited. After awhile, the lions gave up and left and then we moved on to the next encounter.

Througout the morning we were treated to sightings of a group of giraffe crossing the road, some more hippos (love them hippos), gazelles, waterbucks, topi, more wildebeest, elephants, baboons, zebras, and a group of young male lions. All of those sightings were spectacular—even the colorful birds in the trees and the foliage along the water.

Our final big sighting was a male lion who was resting comfortably (or so he seemed) under the shade of a tree that was located right at a crossroads, which of course attracted lots of jeeps and tourists. I was surprised to see him so close to a hippo pool since we were told they like to avoid the big swimmers. We got to see him up close and his face looked like Rocky Balboas after the Russian kicked his butt. He didn’t seem to mind and I thought he was still very beautiful.

On our way back to the hotel, we drove through a tsetse infected area and were besieged for about 10 minutes. That was the one and only time on the entire trip that we encountered the flies. In fact, after all the hubaloo about insect repellant and nets, covering, and medicine, the reality was that we were just not in areas (except this one) that had any real issues. It could have been the time of the year and also they don’t travel up to the high altitudes where we spent some of our time. In any case, I took my malaria pills faithfully just in case.

In the morning we drove over to the airstrip to take off for Arusha. But before we got there we had a little stop to look at a pair of male lions eating breakfast. It looked like a nice big animal—I got a few shots of one of the lions making off with a leg. Off in the distance with mouths watering were about 14 hyenas. I’m not sure how long the lions got to eat before the hyenas made their move—we didn’t have time to witness that.

Our plane took us over the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti plains. In the distance the weather cleared (very unusual) for a beautiful view of the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. We arrived in another airstrip in Arusha. These airstrips are really fun—no security, no set schedule, dirt runways—all in all a nice way to travel except for the tiny planes. Off we went to the Cultural Heritage Center to eat lunch and shop. I wish we had more time to explore the artwork and talk to the artists there. But we did manage to shop and instead of the super expensive Tanzanite I wanted to buy, I took home a kitchen magnet and some photos of cool sculptures.

From Arusha we drove over the border and into Kenya. Once again I was photographed and fingerprinted both exiting Tanzania and entering Kenya. They love me, I’m telling you. Through the dirt roads of Kenya we made our way to Amboselli Park and more adventures! Until I can entertain you with the tales of Kenya, rent the movie Out of Africa—I watched it last night for the first time and loved it!

“I had a farm in Africa.” –Out of Africa

Other African Safari posts:

The breakfast of champions.

The breakfast of champions.

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Sunrise on the serengeti

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Mount Kilimanjaro

Cultural Heritage Center. "The big game."

Cultural Heritage Center. “The big game.”

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The hyenas wait there turn (or for enough of them to attack) at a chance at the lion's breakfast.

The hyenas wait their turn (or for enough of them to attack) at a chance at the lion’s breakfast.

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Mr. leopard high atop an acacia.

Mr. leopard high atop an acacia.

Looking for a way out...?

Looking for a way out…?

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Jackal has some breakfast--a poor gazelle.

Jackal has some breakfast–a poor gazelle.

This girl chased the leopard up the tree.

This girl chased the leopard up the tree.

The pride who want the leopard for lunch.

The pride who want the leopard for lunch.

Fat croc digesting a zebra.

Fat croc digesting a zebra.

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Masai giraffe (and their bird friends). A group of them (maybe 6-8) were hanging out near the watering hole and crossed our path.

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