Magic awaits in Masai Mara

Years of dreaming about this trip, I could hardly believe that it had finally arrived…hours away from the jungles, where I've wanted to be in the longest time ever!

My Africa trip covers large parts of E Africa –breadth of Kenya and the jewel of Tanzania (Zanzibar that I covered in my previous post). Here, I will narrate my visit to Masai Mara, maybe do 1 or 2 more posts if required on the remainder of my grand safari, and then perhaps later  do a post on time spent in Mombasa and Old Town.

The traffic was slow getting out of the city took over 3 hours, crawling forever, we made our way out of Parliament Street

The road between Nairobi and Masai Mara is long and a scary one!Only 500km away, we expected a good steady drive, nothing like what we encountered

The condition of the eroded road was rocky, dusty, potholed beyond belief, making the travel extremely long and frustrating towards our final push - our first destination, Masai Mara. Mini-vans, trucks, buses, cars all were braving the 100 km of mud and long stretches of coarse sand or rocky gravel , with no hesitation. 

Add that, to Kenyan driver mentality and you have quite a dangerous drive ahead of you. And our driver did not like to go slow. The journey which started happily gazing out of my window seat at the passing by green fields and staring at the high above mountains sometimes shrouded in the mystery of mist and clouds, soon became, a rodeo drive, except instead of hanging on for 8 seconds we musta been hanging for over 6-7 hours. This road trip redefined the term "ride it don't fight it". I spent most of the time suspended in the air about inches above the seat. The rest of the time was spent crashing my shoulder into the window or bruising my backside while making repeatedly harder landings on the seat below. I am also impressed with my ability to read while being knocked around like a pinball - no doubt, this is a talent.

We continued to pass many traditionally dressed Masai people, with bright red cloth, rows and rows of bright beads around their necks and ears 

The males always carry a *dumroo* like wedge in their hand to defend themselves in case of an attack, we saw most such individuals with their cattle in the hot blazing sun. Juan our caretaker educated us on the food and diet of the Masai people – milk, meat and blood are their staple. Much like the Hindus the cow is sacred and rarely slaughtered for meat – goats are just as good eating. The Masai drink fresh blood, drawn from a live cow whose jugular is pierced and then sealed again once enough blood has been taken. They rarely eat anything else, perhaps the odd berry or seed when they’re in the forest (the Masai youth spend about 3-5 years in the forest learning to become warriors). 

The wealth of a Masai family is determined by the strength/volume of their cattle/herd. This is perhaps only the tip of my education, much more to be learnt in this lifetime and perhaps another trip back to the mara. 

Bruised and exhausted we got off the battered car (which broke down thrice on the way to the Safari!) to climb into a more solid Land Cruiser, near the Gate of the Game Park. 

The new car driver saw the tiredness and dejection writ large on all our faces, so once the *Jaambos (hello’s)* were done, he silently drove us into the Game Park. Within minutes our moods transformed. I was jumping up and down, my joy knew no bounds! With my jaw dropping to the floor, eyes agog I watched mesmerized -the largest herd of giraffes ever! My God I have never seen such big giraffes *ever*!

The Masai giraffes are also known as the Kilimanjaro Giraffe, they are the largest subspecies of giraffe and the tallest land mammal on Earth.  

These Savannah giraffes eat up to 35 kilos of food per day, they only get a few leaves in each bite, so the entire day is spent eating. Their favourite leaves are acacia trees, but despite the tree having long thorns in them, the giraffes use their 18-inch tongue to reach around the thorns.  (PS: Look at the deer in the distance to compare the size of the giraffe:) )  

Nightfall was minutes away, we had missed our evening safari because of the multiple car breakdowns we had earlier; seeing these massive giraffes cheered me so much, I wanted more of the animal kingdom, right here, right now!:) My camera was on non-stop action, I simply couldn't have enough. I had arrived in the animal kingdom, breathlessly waiting the dawn of the next morning to see the *Big Five*- elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo. 

Night engulfed us pretty rapidly, we reached the camp which was located just outside the game park, we were surrounded by huge Baobab trees. The camp looked dark and ominous; I could not fathom its geography, the petroleum candlelight lantern created nervous shadows on the trees surrounding it.

Morning light brought some sanity to the frazzled nerves, but I was glad to be heading out to the Safari, with no more thought to the night ahead. I have never lived in such an environment before – it was a wee bit exciting but also a bit stressful, kept me alert!  I was a little alarmed when I entered my tent, as a brown blur shot past my foot (yikessss perhaps a mouse?) - the bed sagged in the middle, making for a restless night, a bathroom that only spewed cold water. It's fair to say I didn't sleep well. I was too afraid to peer outside my tent at night wondering if a fox would lay siege!

The activities on offer in the camp were equally limited and finite, no power unit inside the tent. The camp blacked out by 10pm. Our arriving late due to the frequent breakdown of the car ensured I had zero battery both in my phone and camera for the next day! I woke at 5am the next morning – trudged thru the undergrowth, fighting the dark and low hanging branches, guided by the nervous-near-dying flames of a distant bonfire, reached the area allocated for charging phones/cameras (far away from my tent) – got half hour worth of charge- before the lights went off again. 6am we were on our way back inside the jungles. I had to ration my usage of the camera and the phone camera, if I wanted to capture all that I saw…

The camp itself felt quite battered and primitive, not my cuppa at all. A bottle of water cost Rs 200/- , decrepit zero facilities …stressful for a comfort-driven-city-dweller like me, I found myself praying fervently to God every night before sleeping. I didn't return from Africa raving about the cuisine, so if you are a veggie, I suggest, you stock up on bread. Since the game drives can last for several hours at a time, inevitably you and others in the group will need to use a loo. The driver often will stop the vehicle and the passengers take turns going behind the vehicle, and or alternatively at some distance you do have toilets which arent the best in are better off going in the wild,. ..yes much like the norm on the highway when driving between States. Keep some tissue and hand sanitizer handy.

Ok enough of the lowly issues- lemme now emphasize how spectacular the animal kingdom experience has been for me.  Some days were better than others, of course, I always found it exhilarating to drive across the Savannah in search of beautiful animals.

The landscape is so vast, arid, brown, and grassy, with ranges in the far distance that it took my breath away a zillion times over. Words don’t do justice to the vastness of the breath-taking Savannahs. *Masai Mara*: the Game Park is named in honour of the Masai people (the ancestral inhabitants of the area)  and *Mara* is a reference to the patchy/spotted landscape - an apt description for the circles of trees, scrub, Savannah, and cloud shadows that mark the area.

Can you see the sun rays?

When inside the jungle reserves, sometimes our car would stay steadfast on the dirt track, but sometimes we’d find ourselves in a territory where there literally, were no roads. That’s why the 4x4 makes so much sense, here, I guess :)  

The driver would scan the horizon and start off in whatever direction seemed promising.  Soon enough we’d be seeing various kinds of antelope and zebras… then giraffes… elephants… lions.  Yes — they are right there, within a few feet of our vehicle! Oh, and if you’re wondering, does the driver keep the motor running, just in case a quick escape is necessary..he knows that if you get mauled, you may not be there to tip him, so he usually does! But our crabby car and luck ensured we missed a few heartbeats when the car ignition simply went dead twice. Only to be cranked up within nano seconds…phewwwww, all within a few paces of a group of prowling lioness’s and their cubs! More on that in the next post:)

The magic of Masai Mara, makes one feel small, humble and incredibly lucky to witness Gods Nature as it was meant to be. This is truly God’s own Country 

Go to Zanzibar! East Africa.

Everyone has heard of Zanzibar, but few know it’s whereabouts …it could almost be fictitious, one of those mythical names that conjure up exotic images of spices, tropical fruits, sultans, sailing vessels and the high seas. Happily for us, Zanzibar does exist, sitting just off the coast of Tanzania in east Africa. As do the spices and the tropical fruits -such sweet tasting pineapples full of juice :)

The Arabs made Zanzibar their capital, the Africans settled around it, and the whole world traded here – most infamously for slaves in the Grand Market which flourished in the 19th century

It was the seat of the Sultan – who moved here from Oman – and came to dominate other Arab city-states such as Mombasa, Lamu and Kilwa. The British captured it in 1890, and finally Zanzibar was declared a new independent state in 1963, attracting east German and Chinese support, and Freddie Mercury's parents (who was born here).

Landing in Dar-e-Salam, we flew into Karume Airport, the resort staff met us at the coast from where we hopped into a speed boat, to the resort. Upon arriving in Stone Town we went through the Zanzibar immigration too, however we are still fuzzy about why, given Zanzibar is still part of Tanzania. Anyway…

We did see many tourists being mobbed by touts trying to sell them cabs, accommodation, tours, etc. they are in your face and annoying. Fortunately we were whisked away rather quickly and briskly so in the end no harm done. My phone signal didn't once fade, all the way from Dar-e-salam to Zanzibar to Pemba, I was constantly on bbm with folks and friends even while in the middle of the Indian Ocean!:)

It does take a bit of travel time: planes, car, boat just to reach Paradise, but this secluded stretch of sand was so worth the journey. Our first impression of the beach, was how crystal turquoise the water was and how white the sand was!

A tiny but beautiful gated community of a handful of open-fronted bungalows on an isolated peninsula accessible only by  boat. That was our home for a few days in Zanzibar

The rooms were stylish, understated, with dark hardwood floors, crisp white linens, and cushy king-size beds. With a small dip pool right outside. A much needed break was here, at-last! What most appealed to me about this fundoo lagoon, beyond its eco-chic vibe, was the close relationship the management maintained with the villagers, many of whom built and now staff the hotel. The villagers have blessed the resort during traditional cleansing ceremonies such as the one involving goats. Voodoo and such cult stories are not my cuppa so we simply snorkelled, ate, drank and slept! And not to forget spa-d! :)

Zanzibar is an interesting discovery; one must make an effort to get around the island as every corner has something different to offer. The weather is different from the south to the north of the island, so if you can, chase the sun... when it starts raining on one side quickly move to a new spot. This allowed us to experience most of the island and really take advantage of the time we had there. So much hidden beauty there, you really need to take the time to explore or you’ll miss out on the best of Zanzibar

Zanzibar’s two large islands - Unguja (the main one) and Pemba - as well as a handful of other smaller islands are ringed with dazzlingly white beaches, turquoise waters and colourful corals. Put on a mask and flippers and you have a ready-made aquatic safari  - easily combined with a terrestrial safari by taking a short flight across the Indian Ocean to Africa’s best game parks (Serengeti. Masalai Mara -more on these in following posts). 

Snorkelling on the coral reefs we saw colourful fish and beautiful coral like we have only seen in books.  Sea cucumbers, sting rays, rock fish, Nemo clown fish, electric blue fish, angel fish, anemones, turtles, star fish, and many others that I clearly had no knowledge of

What a tropical life exists in Zanzibar. We weren’t lucky enough to see any dolphins, though the locals insisted that they spotted the dolphins dipping around us … 

Most of our days were spent reading and swimming (the hotel also had an infinity pool in addition to the beach); Eating was the other time pass most indulged in when there is nothing much else to do, if you love sea food, Zanzibar is an absolute haven for the non veggies, while the veg food ensures you lose weight and get back. A win- win both ways :)

With a map in hand we spent some time exploring Stone Town too. Shrouded in antiquity, Stone Town seems to be straight from an Arabian fairy-tale. I could wander around for days following its narrow cobblestone streets (they were about 4 feet wide) dodging scooters and watching children playing, walking past shops and inns and mosques, and the occasional fortress-like Cathedral (there are only 2 on this island that is 99% muslim, but they are huge, impressive buildings)

I kept looking for a magic carpet or Aladdin's lamp and think if I had stayed much longer I would have found them… With its many alleys, it can be easy to get lost, especially if walking around for hours one gets disoriented not really knowing where you are. We skipped the touristy things like the spice tour, instead chose to explore the “buzz”.  After being in the lagoon for a bit, the island feels a bit deserted, Stone Town felt a bit crowded, but in a nice way. Around us there was lots of business taking place, kids travelling in packs to school, fruit sellers calling out to passer bys, bikes were a bit bothersome for the fumes in the pure environment, some bikers were rash, they nearly motored some people down, flying through alleys. Hundreds of souvenir shops to gaze at and pick the right gifts. The buzz was nice.


In summation, Zanzibar has so much to offer, that it is really easy to spend time on the island

Watching the fishermen pass by with their stylish dows , women collecting shells and clams on the beach during low tide, finding the perfect spot to have our sunset drinks ...what more can a human ask for. A piece of heaven right here in Zanzibar. Go to ZanzibarJ


Preparation for East Africa

To avail pleasure, one must go through some pain – the elders meant this in a good way. Though in India, this adage takes on a new meaning all together.

The pleasure part was dreaming of  a summer-style beach resort, full with white walls, cool-crisp-clean white linen, blue waters, as I was off to Tanzania and Zanzibar and Kenya and Mombasa. For the safari I imagined wearing Sketchers and 3/4ths most of the time, but was imagining wearing my Zara sandals and swim gear for the beach. Glorious sunshine and an even more glorious world of the animal kingdom awaited me.

Pre-travel planning was a bit of a challenge. The Indian authorities expect you to hold a confirmed ticket to Africa + they expect you to have the yellow fever vaccine taken 10 days prior to flying. Catch 22…well…isn't that how our systems work?

The arduous challenge is in acquiring the yellow fever vaccine. First you have to find the administering office which is tucked away under a flyover that is being constructed near the Bombay international airport. Then by noon you must find your way to an *informal* list which is circulated by some people for *queuing* up (which is no guarantee you will be in the lucky 70 list of people to get vaccinated). Then you must return by night to physically queue up, because that gives you a *good chance* of being in the first 70 names the next morning! You can proxy your night presence, but if thr are 5 members in your group travelling together, you gotta proxy for 5 individual people. Sinister eh?

The next morning the lucky 70 get the vaccine. Don’t ask me why only 70 not less not more…If you are the 71st name, too bad, you don’t get the vaccine.

 Ohhh hang on…you can get that vaccine, if you are 71st or 201st in the queue of the *unlucky lot*! Provided you are willing to shell out Rs 2500/- per individual per vaccine instead of the *official* Rs 350/-

Why would any State Dept *only* provide for 70 vaccines per day beats all logic, other than, providing means of increasing corruption in the supply chain for all the touts that are part it . Am sure this includes the docs as also the well fed and well clothed touts! Artificial shortage of the vaccine is created to allow a corrupt system to flourish. Where is the law? Yes my disdain is apparent. We make a business out of people’s miseries in this country! 

Trip to Africa was already getting dampened even before I had started to pack:(