Posted by: Ele Quigan | July 14, 2014

Africa Part 2 – Maasai Mara, Kenya – Serengeti & Ngorongoro Crater

The Great Migration - Maasai Mara

The Great Migration – Maasai Mara

Maasai Mara, Kenya & Serengeti / Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Maasai Mara, Kenya

It’s unbelieveable to again be moving on, this time through past a new land, new area, beyond the bush and into the savannah, that feels more familiar as we drive further through.

Bright yellow bark Acacia trees and their light green umbrella-like canopy reflect against the blue sky, they feel like a constant theme, an unexpected familiarity, I look forward to seeing them and smile as they fly past.

Across the dusty plains bright spots offer something new – the tall, long legged maasai.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, definitely less of them. They are still living right on the Maasai Mara – the long plains before, in their scarlet orange and coloured wraps called Shúkà. They’re still herding sheep and cattle, their long walks with large sticks to herd their animals to food, both into the non-fenced park and outside it.

Their ear lobes hang low, huge holes from years of heavy jewellery. Women in large necklaces, with sparkling elements – they almost jingle as they walk past.

They’re a beautiful people, living off the land though occasionally we spot them with cellphones clutched close to their ears. There are so many, a market day before we hit the park is an explosion of bright colours, their Shúkà greens, blues but mostly orange and red.

They have their own culture, they don’t send their kids to school, FGM is still practiced in some families, circumcision for men is a test of silence on their way to manhood.

Their huts standout across the landscape, as well as tall sticks placed together to create holding pens for their animals overnight. The number of cattle/sheep/goats you have is a sign of wealth, and proportionate to the number of wives.

They don’t smile and wave as much as we pass, I’m sure we’re seen differently us travellers, encroaching on their land. Their cows and sheep don’t really remind me of home, the sheep are a rich brick red, matching the colour of the soil a few days ago, their cows a similar tone. They drink the blood of the cattle as part of the circumcision ceremony. I’m slightly perturbed but ever curious.

Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Maasai Mara, Kenya.

The land is flat, with small undulations, dusty and dry, with the thick yellow grass that feels like the more familiar Safari version of Africa. Heat shimmers appear for the first time, and we melt within our 4×4.

Across the landscape a line of lonely telephone poles reaches far into the distance, looking like a slow, languid walk – we race past trying to head to the park in time for a game drive before sunset.

Rubbish near the start of the Maasai Mara, it's much worse in the actual village.

Rubbish near the start of the Maasai Mara, it’s much worse in the actual village.

The village just on the outskirts of the park is littered with plastic. “Plastic is killing Africa” our guide mentions. It’s so disappointing to see, water bottles, plastic bags, what looks like a dump in the middle of the village. Surely each tourist could remove a bag? It’s a lasting image I wont forget in a hurry.

Our game drive delivers a pride of lions, relaxing across the road, but surrounded by 4×4 vehicles. We also notice the herds of wildebeest and zebras, part of the annual migration between the Serengeti & Maasai Mara. They’re dotted across the plains, in their hundreds, in their thousands. Small hills undulate in the distance.

We pass small herds of elephants, little ones with them, families moving into protective circles if we venture too close on the roadside.

Returning to our camp near the rubbish-filled village, I can hear a Hyena chattering near our tent early in the evening. I nervously look about, afraid of what I’ll spot with my head torch; I’m too scared to think about the eyes looking at me in the dark.

Within the early dawn, we’re out for the day, watching for Rhino, looking for the road which seems hidden by dry creekbeds. The cracks centimeters deep, thick lines through old water holes. Trees reach into our windows, we’re ducking for giant thorns that stick out of acacias, watching our heads for unsuspecting branches.

Zebra and Wildebeest as far as the eye can see - Maasai Mara

Zebra and Wildebeest as far as the eye can see – Maasai Mara

We slowly pass, the rhinos are shy today, but we get a great view of the different sides of “the Mara” (as the locals affectionately call it). There are so many wildebeest & zebra. The Wildebeest walk in single file lines, like threads of ants, criss-cross the terrain. Little ones dart in and out, calling to their parents. It’s a bit of a cacophony, but a hilarious one at that. “What’s Gnu with you” sends a giggle around the 4×4. There are lots of little ones, the zebra babies brown rather than black striped. Tiny wildebeest with impossibly thin legs.

The plains and hills stretch forever into the distance, as soon as the sun shines up above the hills behind us, it’s bright against the yellow grass.

It’s called the “Maasai Mara” from the acacias that occasionally dot the terrain. There’s not many of them, and they show how far you are from things more than anything. We take a few hours to make our way to our next stop, one of the 2 places that zebra & wildebeest cross the river as part of their annual migration.

It’s dusty, chaotic, wildebeest crowding together, circling. Zebra mouths wide open calling, somewhere between a bizarre honk and a laugh, running to be near the waterside. The river is teeming with crocs (we can count more than 6, one the largest we’ve seen yet), waiting sedately in the water for a run away animal. The herds of wildebeest near the water.

They jump with a sudden fright and start bolting away. They turn and run kicking up clouds of dust. Some 4×4’s start to follow, our guide laughs “This happens all the time, they will run back in time”. We wait 10 minutes. The wildebeest start running back.

Again they get closer to the water, zebra on the other side call their friends & family to join. Tip toeing closer we can see they’re just about to start to cross, when something scares them and again they turn back.

This can last for hours at a time, so at this stage, nearly 2 hrs across the park, we leave, to our lunch stop, finally a break and a step outside.

We take the front of the jeep for the last half of the day, standing nearly the whole way back, breathing in the terrain, trying to imprint its beauty on my mind forever. Rolling hills, blue and cloudy sky, yellow grass shining in the sun.

Flicky tails of impala, gazelle, antelope, topi, bright white little backsides flash, some in big groups, some in ones and twos, harder to spot than expected across the yellow of the Mara. Giant ostriches, looking slightly ridiculous as it’s mating season, dancing for one another. The males look like French maids with their black and white, or even can can dancers with their spindly bird legs.

We make it back to the camp while there’s still light, for intermittent power, a cold shower, and a hot meal. It felt a long time coming today.

Before dawn we’re out again for a full day, we’re looking for cats this early. Strange outlines just as we’re out the campsite gate are giraffes, the beautiful, dark patches, Maasai Giraffe. Little ones, alongside, pale in the light. I can’t get enough of these strange creatures, gentle faces, long necks. Peering at you from a height, purplish tongues wrapped around the spiky acacia branches.

As we move slowly through, in the distance we can see a crowd of 4×4 near the base of a hill, wildebeest in lines running, and a shape of something below them, creeping. A lion. Another to the right, moving forward.

We rushed to join them but arrived to late to see the full kill, however there wouldn’t be much to see in the long grass, seeing it on the hill made it easier to watch the cunning cats shepherding the confused and panicked wildebeest. 250,000 die every migration.

Vans and 4x4s close next to a kill, illegally close to the lions.

Vans and 4x4s close next to a kill, illegally close to the lions.

We arrive to clustered 4×4’s – frustratingly they’ve gone off the road, giving the cats no space, no privacy to eat. We stay on the marked roads, the legal area we’re allowed. I’m part shocked to see how many drivers break the rules, but realize with the tipping culture, the ability for another $50 if you take a client for their “kill” photo, suddenly it makes sense.

But I’m saddened, frustrated. More 4×4 realise what we’re seeing, rushing from all over, joining the others, one blocks off another lion coming to join their wildebeest breakfast, unbelievable that these drivers think this is okay.

We drive away, all of us in the vehicle pretty quiet, moving on through the lines of wildebeest & Zebra, fresh over the border overnight, stretching in lines across the horizon. Late morning we start to return to camp.

One of the 4×4’s calls us back “Quick! It’s a cat” with only the 3 vehicles in our group our excitement is back up, there’s hope it’s a leopard, or a lion with a mane. We stretch and look, only to see one of the smaller cats, a caracal.

Weirdly I was hoping to see these smaller animals, they’re harder to spot, shy during the day, yet this one in all it’s auburn glory was walking in front of us. They look like Abyssinian cats, toned, muscly, pointed ears with black tips and tufts. Slanted eyes, staring. It stayed with us for about5 minutes, feeling like forever. It was wonderful to feel like our group had a private viewing. We didn’t cut it off, we didn’t go off the marked road, we didn’t get to close. It could do exactly as it wanted. Unimpeded. In it’s natural habitat.

Our guide mentioned that he’d never seen one in the Mara, I feel lucky, as if this somehow makes up for the earlier treatment of the lions, and even luckier that we got to experience it with just a small group of us.

Serengeti, Tanzania

Cold, cloudy, barren and bare. We’re in such a different place. While the country feels different again to Kenya, the Serengeti is different again.

We drive through an incredibly dusty plain, with tall will ‘o’ wisps like dust waterspouts surrounding us. The form and collapse in seconds, adding to the overall dusty haze to the air. The flat reaches for miles ad miles under another blue and white sky.

Maasai in the crater next to Ngorongoro

Maasai in the crater next to Ngorongoro

Maasai wear different colours here, lots more blues and greens, houses seem slightly different shapes, there seems to be more of them. More herds, more families. We pass through Ngorogoro and another crater to the left, while the herds are there, it seems as there’s little to eat, the crater looks like a dustbowl, with blue dots in the distance.

Earlier in the day we had a lunch stop soon after the border under one of the volcanoes that surround the Tanzanian landscape. Groups of Maasai came closer. A group of women, covered in jewellery inched closer. Smiling back occasionally as we smiled at them. 2 women at a stop sign, waiting for a lift somewhere, they would stop the vans carrying locals as they past. I saw one trying to sneak a photo with her mobile phone. A satisfying feeling to know that they are as curious about us as we are of them.

A group of boys all in black – different to the familiar blues and oranges, they’d had their circumcision ceremony, but weren’t men yet, lead by one boy who nodded and looked at us as we tried occasional hellos. All groups watched us have our lunch, amused by the site of white people flapping plates, quietly eating our sandwiches.

Red Maasai sheep

Red Maasai sheep

Through the crater there looks like a tourist Maasai stop on one side, kids run to the side of the 4×4 palms raised for money, or hands intimating food, they’re angry at us as we shake our heads as we pass. I don’t want a “paid” village experience, to be dressed up in their outfits and have a westerner view, our lunch break was more interesting than something that feels forced from both sides.

As we drove closer, down on the other side, and through the sign “Serengeti” there’s nothing all around us. The heat shimmer shudders in the distance, the only sign of slight undulations in the landscape, antelope sometimes far in the distance. The sun moves in between clouds, giving bright spots and texture to the yellow and grey landscape.

Looking out imbues a feeling of loneliness, the stark landscape has few trees, no hills you can see through the dust in all directions, you could walk out and not come back, the expanse drawing you in.

But there are sparks of colour. The bright bluey green birds we first saw in Nakuru are dotted about. Small purple desert flowers, white tall daisies nodding withn the tall grass. They gently breakup the sea of yellow and grey.

4×4’s occasionally pass, dust billowing up, blowing in your face as you pass through it, windows squeaking open and closed to try and reduce it. It adds to the bright odour of diesel that permeates everything, clouds of exhaust behind each vehicle every time they accelerate.

We stop by a lone cheetah, lounging in the afternoon sun, impossible to spot with his coat matching the colour of the grass. Startled by something he jumps up – I’m surprised how tall he is, is shoulders almost seemingly hunched, coat shining in the sunshine.

I’m again taken aback by all these animals we’re lucky to see, viewing them in their home, as they go about their day, surreal that we’re here, no longer living our London lives (though I’m missing the coffee).

The lions are more numerous here, we pass a pride, and then a single lioness. 4 soft little ears pop up, then another 2, accompanied by little mews. 3 little cubs, I just about cried. Mother lioness called to them gently, they bounded over, with head bumps and licks, I’m moved to see this with my own eyes.

They remind me so much of cats a 10th of the size, their behaviour is the same, mews the same. The paws and ears of the little ones are giant, their faces adorable, almost like fake cuddly toys. After a few minutes we leave the little family in peace, I hope all 3 cubs survive.

Serengeti sunset

Serengeti sunset

More lions lying languid in the sun that hangs in the sky, flopped about completely relaxed. The sun starts to turn red as it sinks into the dusty haze.

We stayed in the centre of the park, surrounded by curious zebra, we had to take care not to frighten them as we moved in and out of our tents.

Like the sunset, the sun rises red. Like the barren landscape, the colour feels alien, made even more so by an ostrich running full tilt far in the distance. This never seen before sunrise feels too short, you can look directly at the sun for nearly 20 minutes as it changes from red to orange as it passes above the dusty haze. We venture on another drive.

Little hyrax – like tailless squirrels peaking out from rocks. More lions, this time a pride of 9 young ones close enough to touch. Initially in the sun their ears perked up when watching an initial one walk far in the distance, near a group of hartebeest.

One by one the lions stand up. They start slowly walking, one by one to where the other is standing. Lions on the prowl, walking on the road, we follow. They make no noise. There’s very little obvious signal between them about when to start, when to stop, but they move through us and past us.

The prey are aware of something, they’re startled. Some run, one left behind to keep watching, looking back to where the lions are slowly walking. The lions stop on a small mound, huddled together in the sunshine, watching the prey.

I’m sad to move on, I could watch this for hours.

We pass more rocky outcrops, more lions, more antelope. We watch for leopards in tall trees, but they remain elusive. We come across an oasis.

It’s like the oasis of bedtime stories, of wide imaginations. The water is full of hippos, 60/70 of them, spraying themselves (something we haven’t seen before). The water has receded, there’s dry cracks on the edges. Huge palms tower through the centre, bright shiny green leaves a surprise in the middle of the yellow and grey.

Elephant families are close by, rubbing on acacia trees, having dust baths. The tiniest elephant we’ve seen stays close by an older sibling. Unable to really flap their ears their little truck moving awkwardly it steps through a hollow, we can barely see it, but it’s obvious the love within the family, from the close sibling nudging them to food, and how to walk the right way, to the mother close by, read to step in front, and the rest of the herd surrounding the other areas.

A short, loud trumpet as we move past, we leave the family to their food and dust bath.

We drive back through the plains, up the side of the volcano to Ngorogoro crater, where we spend the night in tents.

Ngorongoro Crater

It’s freezing at the top of the crater. I take advantage of what we’ve been told is a hot shower. It’s not. It’s the coldest I’ve had, but I brave it anyway, to be rid of the never ending Serengeti dust.

It’s a clear night, and the moon is brighter and clearer than I’ve ever seen it. We light a fire and all huddle close, with the occasional marshmallow to add some cheer.

We go to bed early, it’s another 4:30am start, to venture into the crater in the morning.

Late in the night the wind wakes me up – it’s lifting my feet at the end of the tent, I’ve never heard wind like it – you can hear it whipping through the crater, a few seconds before it whooshes over us, lifting my feet.

I don’t know why I’m not scared, I’m not afraid for the tent, or the fly, or the pegs – maybe it’s part exhaustion but I’m enjoying the noise, the weird lifting of my feet. Maybe it rocks me to sleep as the next start is my watch alarm beeping.

While the wind has died off, the cloud hasn’t. It’s rolled in, cold and wet, I layer all the clothes I can, tshirt, long sleeved t shirt, cardigan, puffy jacket, merino jacket, scarf, merino socks – in the hope I will stay warm.

We venture into the crater.

Layers in the Ngorongoro crater

Layers in the Ngorongoro crater

I’m tired, so I guiltily snooze through a lot of it. It’s veryvery cold, and dark under the clouds. They hang as a layer across the middle, so we can see the few animals about.

There’s a lake we initially come across, reeking of sulphur, I had no idea parts of it were still active.

The landscape is stark, short grass, few animals are in here. There’s a rhino a speck in the distance, sitting down to avoid the wind. Glorious grey cranes (the national bird of Uganda) occasionally fly past, and birds huddle near the water side.

In one area there are hippos, out of the water – I’m not surprised as it’s freezing, this is such a change from what’s over the side, it seems bizarre the crater is so cold and clouded.

We follow a route around the crater, after being spoiled in The Mara & The Serengeti this feels almost a disappointment, but the scenery is a stark enough difference to be interesting. I wish it was clearer.

We move slowly through, the pride of 16 lions has dissipated. The rhino is too far to see, the wildebeest walk in their straight lines on their “small migration” from one side to the other each day.

It’s cold, so cold, even wrapping all my clothes tighter I can’t help but continually fall back to sleep, lifting my head for the odd animal or interesting scenery.

We start the drive out.

I’m woken up by “Leopard”.

2/3 up the side of the crater, on the road we’re driving on to leave is the most beautiful cat walking in front. I’m amazed by the size, and the coat beautiful in the dull grey light. While it doesn’t turn around, so we never see its face, I’m amazed again we’ve been lucky enough to see a leopard again in the day time, its spotted coat richly textured, I’m surprised this isn’t the focus of people when they come to this part of the world.

This cat looks lithe, darting back into the forest before any of us gets a chance to photograph it, but we confirm we all saw it.

I go back to sleep as we continue our drive out, and on to the river of mosquitos for the rest of our afternoon.

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