Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mad about the Maasai Mara (part 1)

Hello all,

Many apologies for the long hiatus since my last posts - a combination of fairly full days, multiple sleep-interrupted nights, and of course there was this little trip I took...

So there I was, on the morning of Thursday the 17th, waiting in the cavernous belly of an Air Force C-17, and wondering if this trip would be worth the agonizing days of uncertainty leading up to it. I was embarking on my "96" - a 4 day, travel time not included, little holiday granted to those of us staying out here on at least 6 months of assignment. Months ago, my dear sister Johanna and her impossibly likable husband, Adrian had not only agreed to meet me here in Africa for a safari trip, but had gone to the trouble of making all the arrangements - hotels, cars, planes, the lot. My plan was to ride the "Flex" - a weekly logistics flight that departs Djibouti for some of our downrange activities in East Africa. The deal was that I could hop off in Nairobi, meet Joey and Ade for a trip to the Maasai Mara, and then catch the plane back a week later. It's a bit longer then 96 hours, but this exception is commonly granted, as the flight is so convenient for our folks...

What I hadn't really counted on was the uncertainty of traveling "Space Available". The military, having multiple missions, limited equipment and lots of taskings feels no particular compunction about bumping passengers in favor of needed cargo or passengers with more priority. There is no hesitation to ground equipment for crew or mechanical reasons and there is quite commonly no replacement flight offered. All this, which I suppose I knew abstractly, seemed manageable 3 months ago when discussions of the trip first started, but as the day came nearer the implications of possibly having no flight, but definitely having confirmed safari reservations of dubious refundability sunk in. No one had been able to tell me if would be a "go" until until finally at 0530ish my bags and I were weighed and manifested on the flight. I hadn't slept all night with worry (and with getting called to the clinic at 0300 to see an unfortunate chap with a kidney stone), and as those four big turbo props rumbled to life, and as that chubby bird picked up speed and her wheels left the warm asphalt beneath them, I sighed and slumped down in relief. Away!

Slumping actually proved to be a mistake, as I was supported only by a canvas seat stretched over aluminum rods beneath, and a sagging nylon cargo webbing behind. The back rest turned out to be the back of the chap sitting on the other side of the center mounted seating apparatus. A nice fellow, I'm sure, but wiggly. Conversation was impossible due to the din of the engines. Reading was a challenge as the only light came at such an angle that to see my book I had to cant my head to the left, where it ran into the emergency breathing apparatus hanging from the bulkhead. I couldn't hear my iPod - noise reduction earphones be damned - over the din, so I just stuffed the foam ear-plugs thoughtfully provided into my ears, and tried as best as possible to sleep, while directly behind me my opposite number apparently was keeping loose by doing a seated version of the mambo...A lot of time was spent thus, being started out of a fitful sleep, staring at the single porthole across the narrow aisle, and nodding off again.

Three and a half hours or so later though, we touched down at Jomo Kenyatta International in Nairobi, and after waiting another half hour we were allowed to debark, check in with the Kenyan Country Coordinating Element (the US Military folks who manage activities in that country), and finally get escorted off the flight line. It was about noon by now, and as we wheeled our luggage toward the International Arrivals terminal, the first thought that struck was that here I was, outside at noon, and rather than feeling I was about to broil, I felt agreeably warm. Nice. Definitely not Djibouti. And then we were in the Arrivals area.

My sister Johanna has always had a smile like the sun breaking through the clouds on a grey day. Her smile now seemed to light the dim interior of the airport concourse. I hugged her, shook Adrian's hand and was escorted by my family and Sammy, our driver, out to the waiting van. We were whisked through the chaotic, traffic choked streets of Nairobi to Wilson Airport, from where most of the small planes headed out to the safari areas depart. As we had a few hours before departure though, we made a side trip to The Carnivore restaurant - a near obligatory stop on the safari trail. The restaurant is close to Wilson, and we arrived in plenty of time to enjoy our fill of the house specialty - skewer after skewer, platter after platter of meats. Chicken, sausages and roast beef were followed by turkey, ostrich meat balls (quite yummy!) and lamb kebabs - all superbly seasoned and roasted, and all explained in detail by the army of servers who brandished skewers, platters and large knives with aplomb. In times past the restaurant made its reputation serving exotic game meats such as zebra, warthog and crocodile, but these have been removed from the menu for better or worse. On reflection, I think I might have had a bit of a guilty conscience when I later saw warthog families trotting along the road had I earlier dined on one of their relations. As it was, I had a hard time looking the ostrich in the eyes...

Lunch finally finished when we turned over the little white flags provided us for the purpose, signalling that we were full. Still savoring the various viandes we pushed away from the table, and waddled off to the van. Sammy had us at Wilson 10 minutes thereafter, and soon we were waiting on the tarmac while a single engine, 8 passenger Cessna Caravan taxied toward us. Our bags were loaded, we were ushered on, the pilot twisted around in his seat to welcome us aboard, the engine coughed its way to life and then Nairobi dropped away beneath us. Within a minute, looking out the starboard side, in a field right beside the city I saw an unmistakable herd of striped quadrupeds..."Zebras!" I exclaimed, enchanted. Ah, if I had know then of the wonders ahead...

The engine droned. The land beneath us grew wilder and less settled. It dropped away at one point into a great red walled valley which I presumed to be the southern beginnings of the great Rift Valley - which would tear through Eastern Africa's crust up to the Djiboutian coast away north. On the other side of the rift, the landscape climbed again, becoming a bit greener as grasslands were interspersed with row after row of square cultivated plots.

We landed once, on a dirt strip with a small hut and several waiting Land Rovers and most of the other passengers on the plane debarked. We headed back into the air, skipping and hopping down the earthen strip and headed further west, into the heart of the Maasai Mara. At one point the gentleman sitting in the co-pilot's seat - had there been a co-pilot - turned and asked "Where are you staying, then?" "At Serian camp."we replied. "Oh...then you'll be staying with me". Alex, our host and the owner and proprietor at Serian, was our fellow traveller. A great chap of whom I'll speak more in my next. "There's the camp, down there", he said as the plane banked right. We saw canvas rooftops nestled among the green trees lining a brown river that snaked its way through the plain. Another 10 minutes and we alit, at a much sparser strip - marked only by a black and white wind sock snapping crisply in the afternoon breeze. Waiting for us was our own Land Rover - a canvas sided affair, with a single row of seats up behind the driver's cockpit. Beside it were two striking African men, clad in (what we learned) were traditional Maasai garments. Alex introduced us to Samuel - our spotter - and Jonathan - our driver. They smiled warmly, greeted us and shook our hands, tossed our bags in the back and motioned for us to get in. Comfortably seated, open on three sides to grasslands and the weather, we started down the rutted dirt road that led to camp. Beyond nature documentaries, and some Joseph Conrad and H. Rider Haggard stories, I had no idea what to expect. But here we were with 6 days to find out.

I'll stop here, and take up the story (soon) in my next.

Pix should be tolerably obvious: Lions, leopard and cheetah.

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