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Saturday, December 31, 2016

11/19: Driving from Nairobi to the Masai Mara Game Reserve

11/18: Some belated photos of probably one of the worst hotels we've ever stayed in: the L Shape Hotel in Gonder, Ethiopia! The shower had sporadic warm water; the sink linked constantly at its base so we had to put towels underneath it or else wake up to a mini flood in our room; there was no door handle on the bathroom door; our room was up several flights of stairs; the room was filthy; and, to top it all off, Steven's (larger) bed had bedbugs. The only upside was that my bed by the door meant that I had decent wifi. Definitely not sure that was an adequate trade off even though we were there for three nights!

The view from the hotel's outside stairwell of Gonder:
After descending the flights of stairs, the entrance to the hotel's restaurant:
We drove past the University of Gonder on the way to the airport to catch our flight back to Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa and a much later connecting one to Nairobi, Kenya. We would certainly recommend in a heartbeat anyone to fly on Ethiopian Airlines as we had great service, friendly staff as well as complete and delicious meals on each of the flights all over the country. When our flight from Addis to Nairobi was delayed for an hour to allow an incoming flight to arrive with many passengers for the ongoing flight, the airline's staff distributed free bottles of water and muffins to everyone at the gate. I sure can't remember any airline ever doing that as a result of just an hour's delay! One of the few reasons, though, we were glad to bid adieu to Ethiopia was the lack of any fruit except for bananas.
When planning our trip, we had decided to break up the long journey from Ethiopia with brief stops in both Kenya and Zimbabwe since they 'were on the way'! Thank goodness, we had made arrangements to be picked up at the Nairobi airport by a representative of the tour company and didn't have to contend with getting into the city by ourselves at night. The traffic coming into Nairobi from the airport was very intense once we neared the city because of the presence of the Sacco minibuses who stopped all the time to pick up and drop off passengers resulting in all traffic coming to a complete stop!
Our hotel in Nairobi was in a prime downtown location and close to many tourist sights; the location, the free breakfast and the exceptionally friendly staff were the good news. The bad news was that there were lots of cockroaches, even after the room was sprayed just after we entered it, and there was minimal air conditioning - guess we couldn't have everything!

11/19: At 7 am, we were picked up from the hotel by Anthony, our driver and guide, for our 36 hour trip visiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve also known as Masai Mara. Known by the locals as The Mara, it's a large game reserve located about 168 miles from the capital in Narok County and contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Mara Region, Tanzania. The Reserve was named in honor of the Maasai people, the ancestral inhabitants of the area. Anthony explained that the very plentiful and gaily decorated Sacco vehicles we saw all over Nairobi were private minibuses, or, in other words, an alternative to public transportation.
On the way out of the capital, we passed The Globe, the biggest roundabout in East Africa. Unfortunately, my shot of it was too blurry as it was raining. We sure couldn't complain about the weather, though, as we couldn't remember the last time in three months of traveling we had wet weather like this.  After driving for more than an hour, Anthony stopped at an overlook so we could get a quick view of the Great Rift Valley. 
The Great Rift Valley is a name given to the continuous geographic trench, approximately 3,700 miles in length, that runs from Israel or, some say, Lebanon's Beqaa Valley to Mozambique in southeastern Africa. Again, because of the rain, we weren't able to see much.
Anthony mentioned that the rains at this time of the year might last from six weeks to two months but they were nowhere as intense as the long springtime rains. When I commented on the number of churches we saw, Anthony said that 70% of Kenyans were Christian, 20% were Muslim and the remaining 10% belonged to other faiths. He said there are 42 tribes in Kenya and that all subjects in school are taught in English except for Swahili, the country's other official language.
On the narrow highway, we passed a huge number of trucks that Anthony said were transporting goods through Kenya to Sudan and Uganda.
Later, a much clearer view of the Valley:
We saw a number of olive baboons on the side of the road because locals often feed them roasted corn, according to Anthony.
A very common roadside sight was of men roasting corn to sell to passing drivers. The men faced lots of challenges, Anthony told us, as they had to keep a close eye on the fires so that the baboons didn't steal the ears of corn.
The entrance to this small Catholic church we passed was built by the Italians in 1942 and only had a capacity for eight people! The church itself was further up the hill, Anthony told us.
The town of Kum we drove through was known in English as Hot Water because of the springs, Maya Meyou, it once had. They had now disappeared because of human encroachment in the area.

Anthony told us a little about his country's political history. Kenyatta, the fourth and current Kenyan president, was the son of the country's first president. Both were members of the biggest tribe in Kenya, the Kikuru. A member of that tribe always won the presidential elections because of the numbers of people in the tribe compared to others.
The Maasai is probably the country's most famous tribe to outsiders but it is the smallest one. Even so, he said, they have managed to retain their culture, their unique way of building their homes, making fire with sticks and their ways of cooking. The Maasai follow the traditional ways of dress and sleep with their animals, Anthony related. They don't farm but keep cattle and are known as 'pastoralists.' They travel up to 60 miles looking for pasture. They believe that all cattle belong to them and that God dropped the cattle from heaven. 
We passed a constant stream of trucks full of sand that had come down the mountains into the Great Rift Valley. The sand was transported to Nairobi where it was used for construction,
We noticed a lot of men by the side of the road carrying spades. Anthony explained they were hoping to be hired to shovel sand into the trucks.
Anthony knew the road so well that he was able to avoid the many potholes and animals. He joked that the Maasai Mara was his office and the Maasai people were his workmates! 
Anthony later added that the Maasai owned land but, because they don't farm, it was rented out to wealthy Europeans who have big ranches and often farm wheat. 
He pointed out the whistling acacia trees, so named because animals eat the core of berries on the bush but leave the rest of it, resulting in a whistling sound when the wind blows.

Anthony told us that tourism in the Maasai Mara Reserve was very seasonal. Lots of Chinese come during their Chinese New Year in February but the highest number of tourists come from mid-June through mid September to witness the Great Migration. 

As in the Serengeti, the wildebeest are the dominant inhabitants of the Maasai Mara, and their numbers are estimated in the millions. Around July of each year, these animals migrate north from the Serengeti plains in search of fresh pasture, and return to the south around October. The Great Migration is one of the most impressive natural events worldwide, involving some 1,300,000 wildebeest, 500,000 Thomson's gazelles, 97,000 topi, 18,000 elands, and 200,000 zebras. These migrants are followed along their annual, circular route by predators, most notably lions and hyena.
We saw lots of Maasai herding cattle, but unlike the herders in Ethiopia we had seen, none of these animals luckily were in the road so it made for a far safer drive!
About 2.5 hours away from Nairobi, we passed huge numbers of roadside market stands where vendors were selling potatoes, tomatoes and red onions.

A few miles  further on, we began seeing huge sacks filled with what Anthony said was charcoal. He explained that the $10 sacks would be transported to Nairobi for people to help them cook with and also keep their homes warm even if they also have gas.

For some reason, these bags of charcoal were filled with leaves.
Anthony stopped at a large gift shop in Narok, the biggest town near Maasai Mara and 90 miles from the capital. It was apparent that it was the common stopping point for other guides and their customers as we saw many other vehicles there too. Anthony said the shop 'was used to seeing white people and it was secure.' We weren't sure what he meant but we found the prices in the shop very high for us.
A salesperson followed me around the store reminding me at every opportunity that the prices were all negotiable and the listed prices were just the 'asking' price. But when tiny animal sculptures were $15, we knew we weren't in Ethiopia anymore as prices there were considerably less for similar items.

I was immediately drawn to this painting depicting the Maasai people but not to the price! Luckily, I was able to find a similar painting back in Nairobi another day.
I really liked these bags but again thought the $60 asking price was too steep.
It was interesting that Anthony always made sure that he personally locked each of our doors every time we got in the car. I wish I had asked him why he felt the need to do that.
One of the town squares in Narok:
This turned out to be the most common tree we saw throughout the Reserve which was still another two plus hours away. It was a type of cactus called a debra tree that could hold a lot of water which was then accessed during the dry season.
Anthony talked about the traditional versus the modern way of life for the Maasai people. The government was trying to force them to educate their children and get rid of their primitive way of life, according to Anthony. He added that Maasai parents living around Narok could be arrested if they failed to take their children to school as most worked in town.
Our so-called 'Kenyan massage' began when we left Narok! Because of the way the road was graded, it had nonstop ruts, so much so it was like riding in a mini-roller coaster especially when Anthony was driving quickly.

Good shot of the ruts!

The road got so bad that Anthony was used to having to take a detour through private land. The detour cost all of 100 Kenyan shillings - less than a buck - but he still griped to the local about his having to pay that! This was the detour; I could only wonder when we saw this 'road' or track how bad the regular road must have been. 
I also wondered how passable it would be during the rainy season since we had a tough enough go of it. Anthony said driving on roads like this was part of the adventure - so glad he put such a positive spin on it.

The Maasai men and boys wore checked blankets that were tied at the back of their necks and open in the back as they tended to their oxen, sheep and goats.

Anthony mentioned that all animals in the Conservancy are protected. Conservancies throughout Kenya are owned by individuals and they provide free schools to the locals but otherwise don't help the people at all, Anthony said. The owners of the conservancies benefit, he continued, because they get donations from NGOs to protect the animals and can still build lodges on the lands.
He had to pay a nominal sum again to go through the Conservancy. 

The riverbed would be impassable during the rainy season.
Anthony cautioned me not to take pictures of any Maasai from the front. 

We had been driving for several hours but had only seen a  smattering of homes outside of the towns we had passed. Before these fences were put up around the lands belonging to the Conservancy, Anthony said he had seen elephants and giraffes roaming freely.

As we drove through the village outside the camp where we would be staying for the night, we saw an appalling amount of trash. The last time we had seen such careless disregard for the environment was in the fall of 2013 when we traveled through rural Mongolia.

The entrance to Mara Sidai, our lodge:
We were welcomed at the lodge with hot towels to wash off the dust from the long drive; that was very refreshing as you might imagine.
Two Maasai employees pulled our duffel bags to our tent. One of them told us we needed to make sure we always zipped it up - no doubt to avoid creepy crawlies from making an unwelcome appearance!

The tent was small but it had its own bathroom and shower and electrical outlets. The latter, we were told, only worked though from 6:30 to 10 pm and 5:30-7 am when the generator was on.

Lunch wasn't going to be ready for a while even though it was close to 1 and there were few other guests so we walked around the camp.

The leaves were pretty but very rubbery.
A  Maasai 'shuka' or 60x80 blanket was conveniently left out on a table among the tents for us to admire and possibly buy. The pattern was attractive but it wasn't an item we could see using at home.

We wandered back to the lodge's reception area. I spoke to the manager who said the lodge had a capacity for 60 people and had been around for eight years. The lodge was already fully booked for next summer's Great Migration.
Small stones had been collected from the nearby river for the attractive design on the wall behind me. 
The lunch, comprised of a hearty beef stew, pasta, potatoes and a vegetable medley, was filling and just what we needed after getting up so early for the long drive to the Reserve.

After resting for a bit longer, we then began our afternoon game drive, the reason we had come to the Maasai Mara Reserve! Since this part of the day is already such a long post, the drive will be on the next one! Sorry to keep you waiting, especially you, Janina, who has been waiting with baited breath for the animal photos!

Posted on New Year's Eve, 2016 from Littleton, Colorado. Steven and I wish our family members, friends and other readers of the blog a very healthy and happy 2017 as well as safe travels wherever the New Year make take you. 


  1. We would also recommend Ethiopian Airlines. I was leery but pleasantly surprised at the service and the hotel where they put us up for the long layover. Even though it was 17 hours, we had 3 meals and transport. Very impressive. Love reading your adventures, good and bad ��. Happy New Year to you!!!

    1. Kemkem,

      So glad to notice you're still enjoying reading the posts. Always happy to give a shout out to a particularly good service-oriented airline like Ethiopian Airlines as there seems to be so few of them nowadays.

      Happy New Year to you and yours.

  2. I'm waiting patiently. Happy 2017. Lil Red (aka Janina)

  3. Lil Red,

    You don't have to wait any longer! I just published the first of what will eventually be a number of posts on discovering first hand the amazing animals in Africa. I hope you find the post was worth waiting for.


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