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2015
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Sunday, January 1, 2017

11/19: Safari in Maasai Mara, Kenya

After spending about five hours driving from Nairobi to reach the Mara Sidai Lodge just outside the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, we enjoyed lunch and a brief rest before heading out to the Reserve for an eagerly awaited game drive with our driver and guide, Anthony.
As I wrote in the last post, the large game reserve is known by the locals as The Mara. It was 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. 
The entrance to the game reserve:
While Anthony was taking care of the permits, etc, a throng of about ten women gathered around each window of the van, each holding and trying to thrust into our hands, lots and lots of bracelets, necklaces and other trinkets they had made and, of course, wanted us to buy. This woman's name was Linda and she was very persuasive!

It was rather daunting seeing all these animal skeletons immediately after passing through the gate.
Within a minute or two, we were rewarded with our first animal sighting! Anthony said these vivet monkeys eat fruit and leaves and sleep under the trees.

Our first glimpse of Thomson's gazelles. The Thomson's gazelle, one of the best-known gazelles, is named after explorer Joseph Thomson. It can reach speeds of 50 miles an hour and is the second fastest animal on earth.
One of the most common animals we saw in Maasai Mara turned out to be the wildebeest. Anthony explained that most wildebeests migrate from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania from mid June to mid July to this reserve as well as other reserves and parks in Kenya before returning in September. However there is always a large group of wildebeests who stay at the Reserve year round.
Anthony added that 1.5 million zebras, elephants and lions are also part of the summertime Great Migration from Tanzania to the Mara River in Kenya. Unfortunately, lots of the animals die after reaching the river because they were so weak from traveling such a long distance. The animals sleep on each other's backs but they are often eaten by crocodiles. Crocodiles' heartbeats drop from 80 to just 5 beats a minute when they hibernate to save energy.
Hippos, he said, are herbivores and graze at night after spending the day in the water on the river. They live in families of up to 20 in number. Luckily, their hides are too tough to be eaten by crocodiles! The gazelles, below, are a favorite food for both cheetahs and wild dogs.

The male Thomson's gazelle had long, almost vertical horns. 
By contrast, male impalas' horns were a very different shape. The impalas were a lot bigger than the Thomson's gazelles. The male impalas generally live alone but females live with one male impala. Impalas can jump up to 15 feet high. It would have been incredible to see them leap that high.
Eland antelope: Mainly a herbivore, the eland's diet is primarily grasses and leaves. They form herds of up to 500 animals, but are not territorial. The eland prefers habitats with a wide variety of flowering plants such as savannah, woodlands, and open grasslands; it avoids dense forests. The eland is used by humans for leather, meat and rich, nutritious milk and has been domesticated in many areas. An adult male is around 5' tall and can weigh up to 2,077 lbs with an average of 1,100–1,300 lbs. 
There are two different types of zebras in Kenya and south of the equator, according to Anthony. The difference is the width of their stripes; the most common are those with wide stripes and they are found south of the equator. Those with very small stripes are found north of it. Zebras, we were told, have a strong kick, good eyesight as well as a strong sense of smell. The wildebeests follow zebras during the migration.
It was typical, we soon realized, to see zebras and gazelles roaming together in large packs in the Reserve.
The van was absolutely ideal for being able to get great views of the animals as we were able to stand up in it and look out in every direction through the open roof.
There were many roads just like this one through the Reserve; in addition, there were also lots of far narrower tracks that Anthony was allowed to drive on. We were incredibly lucky being there during the low season because we rarely saw any other vehicles in the huge park. If we had been there during the Great Migration, there would be just one very long line of about 50 cars. This way, we had unimpeded views of all the wildlife.

Wildebeests have poor eyesight, memory and a sense of smell.


More impalas:
We spotted a Maasai man walking by himself in the distance but not far from some animals. Anthony mentioned that not only was what the man doing was very dangerous but also illegal


The lilac-breasted roller is an African member of the roller family of birds. It is widely distributed in sub-Saharan Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula, preferring open woodland and savanna; it is largely absent from treeless places. Usually found alone or in pairs, it perches conspicuously at the tops of trees, poles or other high vantage points from where it can spot insects, lizards, scorpions, snails, small birds and rodents moving about at ground level. Too bad we didn't get a closer view of it from the front as its colors are just spectacular.
I wrote that this was a mongoose based on what I believe Anthony told us it was. However, when I just checked out mongooses online, none of the varieties listed looked anything like this animal! So, I am open for your guesses or educated opinion as to what it was!

Topis live in families like gazelles, Anthony said. One of them is always on the lookout for predators to make sure the others are safe. Though they range in mass from 150 to 353 lbs, they only eat small insects and termites. 
I can't tell you how delighted Steven and I were being able to see all the animals that we'd only been lucky enough to view before that in zoos. I had a somewhat difficult time as I was simultaneously trying to take clear and focused photos of everything we spotted, write down what Anthony told us about each of the animals for this blog post as well as holding on for dear life as the van often lurched from side to side on the very bumpy dirt road!

A much better view of a topi:
We were both so excited when we spotted giraffes for the first time. They are Steven's favorite animal; mine is the zebra. Anthony had earlier asked us which animals were our favorites as he wanted to try and make sure we saw them which we really appreciated. 
The giraffe's chief distinguishing characteristics are its extremely long neck and legs and its distinctive coat patterns. Its scattered range extends from Chad in the north to South Africa in the south, and from Niger in the west to Somalia in the east. Giraffes usually inhabit savannahs and woodlands. Their food source is leaves, fruits and flowers of woody plants, primarily acacia species, which they browse at heights most other herbivores cannot reach. 



Did you know giraffes have the biggest heart and it can weigh up to 22 pounds?

Giraffes may be preyed on by lions, leopards, spotted hyenas and African wild dogs. Giraffes live in herds of related females and their offspring, or bachelor herds of unrelated adult males, but are gregarious and may gather in large groups. Males establish social hierarchies through 'necking', which are combat bouts where the neck is used as a weapon. Dominant males gain mating access to females, which bear the sole responsibility for raising the young.

We were so happy that we were in no rush and Anthony just stopped the van so we could gaze at the amazingly graceful animals to our hearts' content with no one else around.




Anthony spotted this wildebeest carcass. He said that because Maasai Mara Reserve covers some 583 square miles, there was no limit to the number of vehicles permitted in the park. There are six gates to the park, four of which are used mostly.
This area of the park was covered with savannah grasslands, Anthony told us. That's a grassland ecosystem characterized by trees being sufficiently widely spaced so that the canopy does not close. The open canopy allows sufficient light to reach the ground to support the grasses.
The Egyptian goose has webbed feet.
We just had a partial sighting of the water buffalo. Anthony stated that the older the buffalo, the whiter the base of its horn.

After driving for over 90 minutes, we had not seen one other vehicle.
Then boom, we saw not one but two other vans of course!
A wildebeest carcass:
Just after we saw the carcass, we saw a large herd of both zebras and wildebeests.

It was really exciting seeing this male ostrich as defined by its black body, versus a white body for females. Females sleep on eggs during the day and males take over at night because of their natural camouflage. Their eggs weigh in at almost nine pounds, the biggest of any animal.
More herds of wildebeest and zebras:


A topi soon joined the herd:

Female lions sleeping in the open grassland and not under one of few trees as they would normally be doing, according to Anthony.
Lions kill other animals once a day. They prefer to eat zebras and other big animals but they don't eat the entire animal. Lions often kill just for the 'fun' of it. They have six to eight cubs which are often moved to other dens to confuse predators.

We were finally lucky enough to see a herd of African elephants, an animal that we will always associate with our daughter, Natalie, who as a child adored elephants. The elephants are considered 'king of the jungle' and can be extremely dangerous because of their large size.  They have a 60-70 year lifespan because, Anthony asserted, they have six sets of teeth; each one falls out after ten years.

Elephants have good memories, are the only animals that are born legs first and live in family groupings. In each group, there is always a leader who is the strongest male. When younger elephants grow up, they compete to be the leader of the group and inevitably kick out the older ones. Those older ones then live with just one of two other older males. 
A little later we came across another herd of elephants It was thrilling seeing the baby elephant.

The Reserve's airstrip was for those who like to fly into the park. I can see that being very popular for those with money to burn and who don't care to spend time being jostled on the bad roads and getting a 'Kenyan massage' in and out of the park!
A blue heron with a herd of wildebeest:
Anthony told us that this marabou stock is a large wading bird in the stork family. It breeds south of the Sahara, in both wet and arid habitats, often near human habitation, in both wet and arid habitats, often near human habitation, especially landfill sites. It is sometimes called the ‘undertaker bird’ due to its shape from behind: cloak-like wings and back, skinny white legs, and sometimes a large white mass of ‘hair’. 
The marabou stork is a massive bird: large specimens are thought to reach a height of 60 in and a weight of 20 lbs. With a wingspan of 12 ft, it's ranked as having the largest wingspread of any living bird. The marabou stock is a scavenger who competes with vultures and hyenas for whatever part of a carcass is left behind.
Steven eyed a cheetah resting in the grass. Anthony said cheetahs eat once daily, mostly in the morning. They hunt with two to three brothers and live from ten to fifteen years max, the same for all predators who eat meat.





Anthony was often on his CB radio as he drove us through the park, chatting with other guides as they shared information among themselves about the specific locations of particularly exciting animals they had seen. That was why seven vehicles sped to this same spot to also show their guests the cheetah. I could only imagine how crazy it would be during the summertime at the height of the season when there were thousands of tourists all hoping to see some of the rarer animals.
I learned that olive baboons are the most wide-ranging of all baboons, being found in 25 countries throughout Africa. The olive baboon is named for its coat, which, at a distance, is a shade of green-grey. The hair on the baboon's face is coarse and ranges from dark grey to black. This coloration is shared by both sexes, although males have a mane of longer hair that tapers down to ordinary length along the back.
The olive baboon lives in groups of 15 to 150, made up of a few males, many females and their young. Each baboon has a social ranking somewhere in the group, depending on its dominance. Female dominance is hereditary, with daughters having nearly the same rank as their mothers, and adult females forming the core of the social system. Female relatives form their own subgroups in the group. Related females are largely friendly to each other. They tend to stay close together and groom one another, and team up in aggressive encounters within the group. Female kin form these strong bonds because they do not emigrate from their birth groups.
It was an absolute hoot watching them run about and then scamper onto the top of this sign as if they were playing, 'I'm the king of the castle.'








This was probably the sweetest image we could imagine: that of a baboon family with the father combing the fur of the mother baboon while she was holding the baby.

These certainly competed for the cutest photos though even if they are photos of their backsides!


Water bucks who were never far from the water, Anthony explained. That seemed naturally enough given their name!

A much better shot of water buffalo than the last buffalo that was mostly hidden in the bush:
A ranger house: The entire time we were out on our game drive, we had not seen one ranger which we thought was very surprising when you consider the number of animals being poached in the park.

It was so much fun watching this baby elephant gently being nudged along. He was so little, he was almost invisible in the tall grass.

Anthony explained that young zebras have brown stripes until they turn to black when they are four to five years of age.
This was the same lion pride we'd seen earlier. We didn't mind as it was just as great seeing them the second time around!


We were again so lucky that the sun didn't set until shortly before 6 as it allowed us to have a long game drive that afternoon after the early morning start from Nairobi.
A beautiful specimen of the debra tree that we had first seen before entering the Reserve.
Anthony, God love him, returned to this same spot a couple of times throughout our drive in the hope of spotting some hippos in the river. Unfortunately, it was all for nothing as we never saw any. 

Guinea fowls:
For whatever reason, we saw so many tiny sculptures of guinea fowls in Ethiopia even though we never saw the animals themselves. I ended up buying three, slightly different sculptures in Woleka, the formerly Jewish enclave in Gonder as they were so cute. It's much better having them now of course, actually seen the animals!

We had seen a good swath of the park during our relatively short game drive and had begun to appreciate how varied the terrain was. In spots where water was nearby, it was green like an oasis; in others, it was grassy with hills visible in the distance; other areas were barren and very rocky; still others had many trees or were all together treeless. 

This was our first sight of warthogs which are a type of wild pigs and are found in open and semi-open habitats, even in quite arid regions, in sub-Saharan Africa. They are largely herbivorous, but occasionally also eat small animal food.

Although covered in bristly hairs, warthogs' bodies and heads appear largely naked from a distance, with only the crest along the back, and the tufts on their cheeks and tails being obviously hairy. They have very distinct tusks, which reach a length of 10 to 25 inches in the males but are always smaller in the females.
Especially large termite mounds:
Anthony heard via his CB radio that there had been a sighting of two cheetahs not too far away so he sped over there even though they had been seen away from one of the roads that he was allowed to drive on. He took a chance going off road, because he would have received a heavy fine by a ranger if he had been discovered. Even though we hadn't seen any rangers, Anthony said there were lots in the park.
Anthony remarked how very lucky we had been having seen all the animals this afternoon, especially the cheetahs as they were normally so hard to spot. Some days, people see no animals at all, he said. Steven and I looked at each other when Anthony said that, imagining coming all this way and paying a good chunk of change and yet, not seeing any animals.



The last animal of any note we saw was a jackal before heading back to the lodge.


We had a bit of a rude awakening once we got back to camp. Dinner turned out to be exactly the same food as at lunch which was disappointing considering what we had been charged for our stay there. The generator didn't go on as anticipated at 6:30 but the camp staff finally got it working close to 8 for about an hour. As you can imagine, there was a mad scramble to try and get everyone's phones and camera batteries charged in between the short bursts of power! 

For some reason, one group of guests had their own open air dining room complete with an open bar which they had taken full advantage of for several hours. We managed to sleep pretty soundly after I was able to 'persuade' them to turn off their amplified music which was blasting away throughout the camp. The lodge manager said he was unable to get them to turn off the music but luckily I used my winning ways! 
What a phenomenal day this had been beginning with the long drive from Nairobi and culminating in the game drive through Maasai Mara Reserve that had far exceeded our wildest hopes and dreams. We could hardly wait for the early morning drive in the park!

Posted on New Year's Day, 2016 from Littleton, Colorado.

4 comments:

  1. I can hardly wait for my expedition into Africa after seeing your wildlife photos. Loved the cheetahs. Lil Red

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lil Red,

      I hope you and Pat also have an absolutely fantastic time discovering the big game animals next summer in Africa. I look forward to seeing how your experiences in Botswana compare to ours in Kenya.

      Delete
  2. WOW -- national geographic in real life !!
    Amazing ride :)
    Lina

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lina,

      What a perfect way to have described this post - only wish I had thought of it before you!

      Delete

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