Saturday, July 28, 2007

Driving us wild

Picture Sarah and I laying in a small bed in a dark, simple, mud-walled building….

*Scratching noises on the wall.*
Me: What do you think that sound is? Rats? Hyena?
Sarah: I don’t want to know.
*More scratching.*
Me: Whimper.
Sarah: Do you want to turn on the headlamp and check?
*I click on the head lamp and peer around.*
Sarah: See anything?
Me: Yeah. There’s a chicken under the bed.
Sarah: What’s it doing?
Me: Just sort of sitting there. I might be blinding it with the head lamp.
Sarah: Ok.
*I click off the headlamp and we fall to sleep.*

The next morning, Hesaan woke us a little before 5AM. The plan was to hit the road early and try to reach Maasai Mara Reserve, do a quick safari, and then make the long haul back to Nairobi. In addition to myself, Sarah and Hesaan, Vincent and his son, Alex would be coming with us. Vincent would get dropped off in Narok, while Alex would tag along with us to Maasai Mara, since he was familiar with the park.

So, after some bread, butter and milk tea, we hit the road. At first, while driving to Narok, I had been nervous and cautious with driving on the unendingly potholed dirt roads of Nairobi. But, by this point it had started to feel like second nature. In addition, I was struck by how amazingly cool it was to be roaring down dark a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, in Africa, with rabbits scattering in front of you and three Maasai jammed into the car with you. With that in mind, I found new driving confidence.

Unfortunately, I also discovered that the breaks seemed to be going out. And, by the time we hit the first gas station on the main road, I was convinced that we were going to have to have them looked at. Kuckily, it was most likely dust getting into the break pads (or something like that… I’m not even vaguely a mechanic), and by the time we dropped Vincent off, they seemed to be fine again.

The drive to Maasai Mara was only supposed to take about an hour, but this was Africa, and we were on Africa time, so it took closer to two hours. Two very long hours down a bumpy, dirty road, with tour vans roaring past us like they had a death wish.

Then, as we got closer to the park, we noticed four figures in blue robes and strange head-dresses making there way across the plains. They were a set of young men who had just been circumcised, and were wandering in the bush as part of there ceremony to become men. Hesaan, seeing them, called them over to our car.

Traditionally, they weren’t supposed to talk or interact with anyone. But, they seemed more than happy to chat with Hesaan a bit. After talking to him, Hesaan said that if we paid them 200 shillings (about $1.50), we could take their picture. As a rule, we haven’t been paying people to take their picture since we feel it just encourages a bad behavior (I mean, no one paid us to take our picture in India), but we decided to make an exception here because their outfits were so amazing and unique.

The headdresses were effectively a fan of wood wrapped in a variety of bird feathers.

Suddenly the four boys became nervous and started to leave. In the distance, another figure appeared making its way closer to us. Hesaan explained that it was probably an elder member of their tribe who would be angry if we were all caught talking. So, the boys made a hasty departure and we sprinted to our car. But, the car wouldn’t start! As the figure drew closer we panicked.

But, as it turned out that the solitaire figure wasn’t an elder, so we weren’t in trouble. And, after playing around with the battery a bit (the connection had been shaken free by the bumpy road) we got the car running again.

A short time later, after giving a Maasai women and her baby a ride, we arrived at the entrance to the park. At this point, it was 9AM, and we knew that it would be at least a 6 hour drive back to Nairobi, so we would only have about 3 hours in the park itself. In addition, the entrance fee ended up more than we had thought it would be. Luckily though, Hesaan knew one of the guys were at the entrance (because he knows half of Kenya), so the guard waived part of the admission fee, and we were able to enter.

This picture was actually taken while leaving the park, but still.

Hesaan also ended up knowing a driver of one of the tour trucks that was also entering, so the driver suggested we follow him and he’d lead us to the animal.

So, following the tour truck, we made our way into the park. Our main mission was to see the famous Wildebeest migration herds. We weren’t sure if would be able to, but it was our hope. At first the safari went slow, some buffaloes, a few distant elephants, rumors of a cheetah being in the area, and a few strange elks and warthogs.

Then, we came across a gutted zebra on the side of the road. At first this sighting seemed more gross than important, but it would play a key part later in our safari.

After the dead zebra, we then saw some vultures picking at the bones of another animal… at this point, with so many dead animals, we started suspect we were nearing something.

After looking at the zebra for a moment, we noticed a small group of about twenty wildebeest crossing the road ahead of us… Then, we noticed that the wildebeests were making their way another larger group of wildebeests. Then we noticed that that group was part of an even larger group. Then we noticed that all the black dots we had presumed were rocks on a distant hillside weren’t rocks… they were more wildebeests. Thousands and thousands of other wildebeests.

Those aren’t rocks! Unfortunately, our camera proved unable to accurately capture the scope and number of wildebeests.

Almost as impressive as the number of wildebeests was the number of zebras. Mixing amongst the wildebeests were thousands of zebras too. And, mixing amongst those were the various tour vans and jeeps.

some wildebeests, with a herd of zebras behind them.

So, following the tour vans lead, we slowly drove into the herd. Even staying to the roads, we quickly found ourselves in the mix, surrounded by legions of wildebeests and zebras. For the second time that day, I thought of how cool it was to be driving my own car. Around us, other tourists were packing into tour vans and jeeps; but here I was driving my own vehicle across the savannah through a sea of wildebeests.

After driving around a bit, we noticed a small group of tour vans parks nearby, the tourist’s cameras all aimed in the same direction. So, we drove to where they were parked, and peered in that direction.

It didn’t take long to see what everyone was looking at: Three cheetahs making their way through the grass toward the herd. As we watched, they weaved through the tour vans, passing not more that fifteen feet from our car. As the approached the herd, we thought we might see them pounce. But, instead, they took a scenic perch on a small hill.

The cheetahs pass between the line of tour vans.

The three cheetahs relax on top of a small mound overlooking the herds of wildebeests and zebras.

After taking dozens of pictures and making endless comments like “I can’t believe this” we realized we were running out of time in the park, and started making our way toward the entrance. As we drove out, we passed Hesaan’s friend in the tour jeep who told him casually: “There’s a lion eat that dead zebra we passed coming in.”

A short quick drive later, we were back at the sight of the dead zebra. As the guide said, there was a massive, male lion happy munching on the remains of the lion. As we watched, the lion tore at the dead zebra mere feet away. Amazing! Then, as other tour vans approached, it got up and made its way farther into the field.

Here you can see how close we were. I took this photo over the roof of our car, with Hesaan leaning out the window on the other side. Since he’s Maasai, he’s not supposed to be afraid of lions. I, on the other hand, can be as afraid as I like.

After eating a bit, the lion stood up, providing us the opportunity to see it even more clearly.

We took that as our sign to leave. As we continued down that road, Alex made a comment about how we hadn’t had a good elephant sighting. No sooner had he said that, then we came across of herd of about ten elephants, including several newborns. We stopped to take pictures, but weren’t able to linger long, since one of the mother elephants started to become agitated: flaring its ears and bellowing in our direction.

The elephant mother, with her newborn calf nursing. She wasn’t too happy to have us there.

Having left the park, we began the long trip home. As we drove, Alex made a casual comment about not having seen giraffes… and suddenly we came across a herd of over a dozen giraffes. We stopped the car, and got out to take pictures. Then Hesaan and Alex ran closer to the giraffes, causing the whole herd to run, their necks swaying and bobbing as only giraffes can.

We’ve had even closer encounters with giraffes, but I think this was the largest group we’d seen on the trip so far.

After dropping Alex off in Narok and seeing several of Hesaan’s endless number of family members, we continued on to Nairobi. By the time we hit Nairobi, I had been driving for about twelve hours… but, unfortunately, we also hit downtown right in the middle of rush hour. And Seattle’s rush hour doesn’t even begin to hold a candle to Nairobi’s. So, long story short, we finally made it back to Donald and Caren’s place about 14 hours after we hit the road that morning.

We were beat. But, after seeing the things we’d seen over the last couple days, we were also amazed and happy.


Tim said...

I recently watched "Africa: The Serengeti: IMAX" (1994). Which gives a nice, short (40 min) documentary look at "the great annual migration during which more than 2 million wildebeests, zebras and antelope travel 500 miles from the southern plains to the Masai Mara Game Preserve in the north." I was wondering if you would see the animals there while you were in Kenya. You did! and you got some amazing pictures!
I'd recommend the film for any curious netflixers out there.

Sarah said...

We saw part of a documentary on TV once about the migration. When they actually cross the river, it's pretty disturbing, with the wildebeests breaking legs, drowning, falling over each other and getting eaten by crocodiles. Crazy stuff. They're not the smartest animal in the Serengeti! And we were lucky to catch them. Another tour guide said this was early in the migration.

Betsy Wasser said...

Great pictures!