Maasai Mara

Posted by Joseph Phillips on Sunday, July 24, 2016 at 9:22 AM PDT

July 21 and 22 many participants in the 2016 International Association of Jesuit Business School World Forum took a safari to Maasai Mara in Southwest Kenya along the border with Tanzania.  We left early in the morning to test the Kenyan road system. After a few minutes on a new four lane highway, we quickly slowed down as we followed the narrow two lane road down into the Rift Valley, built by Italian POWs during WWII.  Once we reached the valley, road conditions and traffic improved until we hit the town of Narok.  Soon after leaving Narok, we turned off the highway for a 75 kilometer journey along a heavily potholed and washed out dirt road.  Fortunately, we were driving a tripped out Land Rover, as I would hate to try it any other vehicle.

In fact, I was surprised to see minivans and even school buses inching along the road on their way to the park!  I wondered when was the last time that road had seen a grader??  With tourism given renewed emphasis of late in Kenya, improving that road would be something to think about.  There are many camps and lodges on the fringe of the Maasai Mara with a vested interest in the access roads.  I wonder if a tax could be assessed to pay for road maintenance!?

On the approach to Narok,  we moved in and out of several valleys and it was fascinating to see how the climate conditions changed from valley to valley.  A few valleys were too dry for much in the way of agriculture, but some supported wheat production and others focused on corn production.  It was interesting to climb one valley with corn on both sides of the road, only to go over the crest and see wheat fields stretching in every direction!

We arrived at our camp about five and a half hours after leaving Nairobi.  It was a very well appointed facility, as one was not really camping, but glamping!  It featured a well appointed bar and restaurant as well as an infinity pool viewing the plains! After lunch, we set off for a late afternoon tour to catch the animals when they are starting to move about for feeding.  We first spotted some elephants, followed by giraffes, antelopes, wildebeests, gazelle, topi, warthogs, various birds, and finally a hard to find rhino.  It is fascinating to see how the animals mix together, as you will frequently see them in close proximity to each other.  For example, zebras and wildebeests in particular are frequently side by side.  Our guide, always in communication with his colleagues, then tried to find us a lion, but to no avail, and we had to hustle out of the park before dark and closing.

Next morning we set out relatively early and the top priority of our guide was to find us a lion.  In the process, we again saw giraffes, elephants, zebras, impala, wildebeests, buffalo, gazelle, and antelope.  In the course of looking for lions, we came across a solitary wildebeest limping along with a broken leg.  Our guide explained this was the time of the wildebeest migration from South to North and in crossing the Mara River the wildebeests often break a leg or hip.  The lions, of course, pick off these slow moving animals, so the lions eat well at this time of year!

We finally got word of a lion spotting, but by the time we got there the lion was bedded down in the grass and despite being no more than 25 yards away, all we could see was the top of his head.  Nevertheless, we still took pictures because that could have been the last lion we would see!

We continued to move through the park, getting some great views of hippos standing on the river bank.  In our previous hippo spotting at the lake, we only saw their eyes and the tops of their heads except for a distant spotting of one getting out of the water and disappearing in the bush.  It turns out that hippos are responsible for more deaths in Kenya than any other wild animal!  So, it was alarming to see a school bus stop on the other side of the river with all the teachers and students getting out to get a better view of the beasts.  Our guide was very upset at this infraction of the rules!

As we proceeded on, we passed through a huge herd of the wildebeests, no doubt something like the buffalo herds years ago in the western US!  As we were leaving the park, our guide noticed a cluster of vehicles on a parallel road and decided we should check it out to see if there was something of interest.  Sure enough, when we arrived there was a male lion and two females right by the side of the road.  In fact, when we pulled in I did not see them because I was scanning the distance, not imagining they could be so close!  When we finished maneuvering, we had two on one side of the vehicle and one on the other, all within ten yards of the Land Rover and not seeming to care about us!  They just went on lounging in the grass, no doubt having recently dined on wildebeest!  We got some great photos and could therefore delete our previous lion-partials!

We exited the park via a different gate and road.  At the exit, while crossing the Mara River, we saw more hippos as well as alligators for the first time.  This road out was in much better shape than the first one and for large stretches it had been freshly graded.  As a result, the trip back to Nairobi took only four hours!

The safari was a great experience, and if you always wanted to do one, I recommend you keep it on your bucket list.  But, I must confess that 2-3 days would have been about it for me.  The scenery is great but it does start to get repetitive.  I had many people admonish me to stay longer in Kenya, but I had enough safari time and was ready to get back to Seattle!