Sunday, August 12, 2012

Africa - Finally!!!

I finally arrived in Kenya after a three hour delay sitting on the Tarmac in Amsterdam. I can't complain since I'm on my way to Africa.  Africa, my beautiful beloved Africa. I can already smell the familiar smells, hear the sounds of wild animals all around me, and transport myself there in my mind. I've looked forward to this for so long that even sitting on a tarmac in a crowded plane is okay. Because I know I'm en route to The Best Place on Earth. I know when we land in Nairobi, my senses will auto-adjust to the overwhelming wonderfulness of Africa. They seem to do that when I arrive because I don't want to miss a single thing  These are all the memories I'll relive over and over in my mind when I return home and find myself homesick for this magical place. Although it's a long haul from Texas, I don't even mind it because I know when I land I'll be back where I feel most comfortable. This is my love letter to Africa.

In the meantime, I'm stuck in a plane on a tarmac. The delay was the result of a perfect storm: our plane arrived late from another location due to weather and had mechanical failures that required repair, the planes had to be swapped out so there was a gate change, and lastly we had a large group headed off on a cruise ship.  Since they were going to be going out to sea, all their luggage had to be taken off the first plane and reloaded into the replacement. Each bag had to be individually verified against the manifest.  So all connecting flights were tight to catch, if at all.  Fortunately for me, I had a layover but still with the delay I had to run through the airport to catch my connecting flight. 

Arrived at Kenyatta airport but no sight of the man who was supposed to take me to the hotel. Wound up hanging out at the airport for three hours before finally getting picked up and taken to the Serena. And looking back, I honestly didn't  really mind. Because I was in the Nairobi airport. In Africa. If you ever are lucky enough to find yourself in Nairobi, I highly recommend the Serena.  Great food and lovely rooms, plus the nicest people you could ever hope to meet  The next morning we woke early to make the drive to Wilson Airport and then a short 50 minute flight on a little 12 seater prop plane out to the Mara.

After landing in the Mara, we all had huge smiles on our faces and could barely contain our excitement.  I felt bad for those people who were headed home - out of the Mara and away from Africa. After grabbing our bags we met the Maasai guides who would be with us for our entire stay and then headed to our camp (Entim). After only about a ten minute drive we encountered two lions relaxing under a tree.  These two were trying to escape the heat and were lounging under a tree, noses covered in the ever-present flies. Where else in the world can you land, jump in a LandCruiser, and ten minutes later spot lions relaxing under a tree? This is what makes Africa so wonderful. But there are many, many more things ...

After checking in, we were briefed and shown to our tents and I was very happy with the accommodations. They're very nicely furnished so guests are comfortable but you still feel as though you're camping. Entim Camp sits close to the Mara River, which at various crossing locations plays host to an epic annual drama known as The Great Migration. Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra, and Thomsons gazelle come through on their annual migration in search of water and more abundant food sources. And of course you have the villains in this drama: the crocodiles and other predators who pick off the young, weak or injured (or just plain unlucky) animals.  The migration is a huge clockwise movement of animals that makes up a megeherd once it's in full swing  And this trip would surely provide plenty of opportunities for drama, fantastic photo opportunities, and of course the carnage of Mother Nature's villains. 

During the camp briefing we were told that a lioness had made an appearance between two of the tents two nights earlier.  Animals coming into camp isn't something to be taken lightly, especially when that animal is a lion.  These are, after all, wild animals. There were also hippos very close to the camp and their deep throaty sounds could regularly be heard especially after dark. There were narrow crushed rock pathways to the tents and along the path were huge piles of hippo droppings. You were always aware that wild animals lived all around you (loved it!)  After dropping our bags in tents, we set off for a late afternoon bush drive.  As luck would have it, we ran across a female cheetah and her four kittens.  Apparently this particular cheetah had originally given birth to a litter of five, but lost one, I believe to hyenas.  After posing on one of the large termite mounds that are scattered throughout the Mara savannah, the cheetah took off for a hunt. The kittens were left in the brush so they'd be safe from any other predators that may decide to join the hunt.  After successfully bringing down a Thomsons gazelle, the cheetah mom called out to her kittens to come eat the fresh kill with a high pitched chirping that sounded more like that of a bird than a big cat. All four sprang into action and headed towards the now motionless gazelle. Cheetahs are known for their clean kills and this was no exception.

By this time if was almost sundown and there are strict laws in Kenya to be in camp by 7:30 pm. Being out after dark isn't something to be taken lightly and the game rangers are out in force to ensure the rules are followed. It's just entirely too dangerous to be out wandering about, even if you do have a Maasai with you.  

There's eight of us in our group: Our host David Lloyd (New Zealand), Susi (China) and her husband Jakob (Germany), then Vanessa (Singapore) and her boyfriend Bill (UK), then Valerie (Switzerland), Bethany (Austin) and me (Austin).  Valerie, Bethany and I will be in the same Landcruiser with our trusty Maasai driver, Wilson.  The first full day of our stay was eventful, starting with a drive to see whatever we could.  On our way out we stopped briefly at a water crossing where hippos were known to congregate. They appeared to be enjoying a sauna of sorts. Steam rose off the water and the hippos moved about slowly, surfacing every now and then before submerging again. All of these massive animals' movements always seem to be very slow and deliberate, as if they're taking their time and in no particular hurry to get anywhere  I tried to count how many hippos were congregated and came up with  thirty. It was fairly shallow water, probably not more than 5-6 feet deep. A little baby hippo swam along behind its mother and would occasionally playfully snap at her backside as if to say, "hey, wait for me."

We spotted some lions lying in the shade, then more hippos lounging in nearby water.  Our Maasai drivers brought box breakfasts for us so we could stop somewhere scenic to take a break and eat. After driving for an hour or so, our drivers located a huge heard of incoming wildebeest. They were all around, in all directions, a 360 degree circle of wildebeest as far as you could see. We stopped and ate breakfast right in the middle of all the wildebeest migration! Talk about an amazing way to start your day. It was absolutely unbelievable. You could look in any direction and all you'd see was wildebeest and zebra; it was incredible.  Our box breakfasts were very cleverly thought out and able to withstand the drive: a hard boiled egg, toast with butter and jam, some fruit, a juice box, and some kind of sausage. 

After breakfast we head back to camp to relax for an hour or so, then head out on our afternoon drive. Today we spotted a different mother cheetah and her little baby. The cheetah babies are very cute - they have a little white punk rock Mohawk thing going on with the fur down the back of their neck. And again, the mom would make the chirping sound whenever she temporarily lose sight of her young or just to hurry him along to join her. 

On our afternoon drive Wilson, our Maasai driver heard on the CB that the animals were getting ready to cross the Mara river, so we raced off to that location to see it. And what a sight - pure drama and carnage! There was a huge crocodile - about 15 feet long - that was a wildebeest and zebra killing machine. And I don't even think the croc was eating any of them! He was a sport killer from the looks of it. Dead wildebeest and zebra bodies floating in the water (yuck).  Two hippos lounged in the water about 30 meters (or about 100 yards away) downstream.  Valerie and I were standing on top of the vehicle watching the action. MegaCroc (as I refer to the giant killing machine) slowly swam up to a hapless wildebeest and then snapped his teeth around it, we couldn't help but scream. It was just a natural reaction to watching the poor wildebeest unknowingly swim right towards the partially submerged MegaCroc. They do look like a log. After about two hours of the MegaCroc Show, one of the hippos decided he'd had enough and swam over to give MegaCroc a piece of his mind.  He reminded MegaCroc in no uncertain terms that he was the real killing machine in these parts. Then he stayed around and acted as Crossing Guard for awhile which allowed more wildebeest and zebra to cross the river without fear of certain death from MegaCroc.

After watching the carnage for a few hours, we'd headed off to see if we could spot any lions, leopards or cheetahs. We were rewarded with a leopard who had recently killed a wild hare and was playing with it like a domestic cat would.  He kept throwing the now-limp rabbit in the air and rolling around. He was a beautiful cat and didn't seem to be too hungry, but was having a great time relaxing in the shade with his toy. 

After this, it was time to head back to the camp. Toby and Maxine, the boyfriend/girlfriend team of camp managers would greet us and always have a campfire going. As soon as th sun goes down, the temperature really starts to drop fast.  After throwing our camera gear in our tents and grabbing a drink, everyone would meet up around the camp fire to talk about the day and anything else that came to mind. It was a great time to relax and replay the day's events and compare notes on what we had seen. You can hear the hippos splashing around in the water, the chatter of the monkeys in the trees, and the crackling of the fire, all interspersed with spontaneous laughter from our group as we tell jokes about the day's events. Oh Africa, it's so nice to be with you and wrapped in your arms again. 

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