Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mara part II

Hello again! I've decided to try adding a very brief movie bit to the blog (sophisticated, I know). I hope it comes out well. I reckon it might add a bit to the time it takes the page to pop up, but trust you'll forgive the inconvenience.

Well, when last we left our heros, they were rumbling off across the Maasai Mara, their 4X4 bouncing over the rocky, rutted roads, as Jonathan and Samuel, their Maasai guides ushered them into this living Eden. As it turned out, we had arrived at about 1500 - too early for dinner, but with plenty of light left in the sky for sight seeing. With that in mind, when our guides saw a herd of elephant proceeding with stately miens across the plain, we swerved from the road onto to barely visible path and rumbled down to have a closer look. Within a minute we were a mere 10 meters from the herd, and Jonathan cut the engine. The first impression was of the utter stillness of the place - the wind tugged and skirled around us as it streamed down from the Oloololo escarpment, but save for its soughing there was near silence - not an engine, a car, a plane, a radio...nothing. The peace of Eden at the end of the sixth day.

The second impression is that we are now surrounded by a herd of wild African elephants - matriarchs, babies and a few young males - who have parted to walk around the truck...and it is still almost completely silent. If we had closed our eyes, we would have had no idea that on either side of us 10,000 pound mothers and their 3000 pound children walked methodically by - so silent are their footfalls. The herd disappeared off into the approaching evening, and we all exhaled...."Wow"! It was to be the first of many such magical moments - it will stay with me forever, I think.

And so we made our roundabout way to the camp. Within an hour of landing we had seen elephant, giraffe, gazelles and antelope in a bewildering variety and birds of myriad form and song. Eventually we came to a spot where the primitive road became little more than a rocky path, sloping steeply down to the river bank. We were so fascinated, with Cape buffalo on one side, Dik-dik and Topi on the other that it wasn't until we stopped, practically, that we saw we were there. Two more Maasai gentlemen ushered us out of our truck, and welcomed us to Serian - one of the really special places it's been my privilege to visit. (You can check it out at if you're at all inclined.)

Gosh, it all seems so dream-like, sitting here in an air-conditioned CONEX box with Oingo Boingo blasting on the speakers...there, I changed it to "Africa" by Toto. Anyway, the camp sits on the bluffs on the southern side of the Mara river, and looks out across the river valley to the Oloolo escarpment. In the river below us hippos rested in "rafts" of 2 to 20 individuals, and our nights were punctuated by the snorts and guttural exclamations of these gigantic river horses. In the middle distance, on the plain at the highland's feet, giraffes, zebra and all manner of hoofed creatures wandered from copses of acacia to the glades and meadows that dappled the gently rising ground. The tents were luxurious affairs - for tents. Mine had two wrought iron 4 poster beds with white sheer curtains, and a sisal carpet. On the veranda, under the tent fly, were two chairs with a low table between them. This proved a perfect place to sit with binoculars, a cool drink and a field guide to the birds of East Africa, and watch the wonders of the Mara roll by. I brought books to read, but in the hours I spent sitting, dreamily gazing at Africa, it never occurred to me to open one.

At night, staff from the camp picked their way down the trails that led to the tents scattered along the riverside with kerosene lamps that were placed at the edges of the tent platform, and on the way to my private bathroom. I haven't mentioned this, but it was one of my favorite things about the place. It sat a few steps lower than the tent - closed to the whole camp behind, but open on its north wall, with that same mesmerizing view across the vale of the Mara. It was literally possible to sit in the stone bathtub, sip a cool glass of white wine, and watch the hippos bob in the stream, while Egyptian geese and egrets picked their delicate ways along the bank. It seems now that this has always been my mental image of bliss, but memory is a tricky thing and I can't promise that this is not a recent addition. In any ain't bad.

We dined either outdoors beneath a huge tree (it had silver bark and deep green leaves, and its limbs wound gracefully into the sky, providing pools of cool shade, but I never did learn its name ) or in the evenings in a central room with a grass roof, canvas sides that rolled up to let the evening breezes waft through, a fireplace at one end that gave off a delicious warmth as the night temperatures dropped into the 50's, and a dining table that sat at least twelve off to one side. Separating the two spaces was a carven chest whose ample top was covered with either tea and cakes or ice cubes and liquors - depending on the time of day one wandered through. On a typical evening we'd wander up about 6:30 p.m. , freshly showered after a long day on safari, sit round the fire with folks from the camp, and visitors like us and talk about the day's happenings, and who had spotted what where. Around 8:00 we'd move to the dining table where, night after night, dishes of such superb flavor and freshness were served that the trip would almost have been worth it just for the food. Californians are used to fresh fruits and vegetables of course, but I must say that I never tasted fruits and vegetables to equal the ones we were served. Kenya too is a fertile source of produce for which I now have whole new appreciation. Living was easy...

Most days had the following pattern: at 6:00 am, as the sun was rising, one of the staff of the camp would call from outside your tent, and pushing back the bed curtains, one would walk to the tent door , unzip the mesh door flap, and step out to find a carafe of hot Kenyan coffee awaiting. Suitably fortified, one accomplished one's morning ablutions - accompanied by bird song and hippo chorus - and walked up to the area where the Land Cruisers sat waiting. After being greeted by Jonathan and Samuel, we'd reconfirm the plans made the evening before - say at trip to the Trans-Mara reserve to look for black rhino or a major river crossing by the wildebeest. Then we'd clamber into our seats, bundled in fleece jackets against the morning chill, and away we'd go. The advantage of our own vehicle, driver and spotter was that, as the circumstances of weather, animal movements or whims of the passengers changed, we could change our plans accordingly, and we were thus always actively pursuing (or more often awaiting) something our guides thought both worthwhile and likely, or something we all particularly wished for. At about 930ish, we'd find a convenient spot (with no worrisome brush nearby that could harbor any hungry lions) and the guides would set up a breakfast - bread, jam, sausage, bacon and the freshest tropical fruits - while we stalked about the plain, stretching legs and basking in the quiet of morning on the Mara.

After breakfast, we'd re-embark, and head off in search of our next adventure - stalking lions or cheetah, or sitting in hushed expectation as they stalked the numberless herds of gazelle or wildebeest (we rapidly exhausted our stock of "gnus" puns). About 1:30 or 2:00 we'd find a shaded spot for lunch - often near the banks of the river. Again the table and folding chairs would be brought out, and the board set. Lunches were lovely - light, delicately spiced and delicious. I would usually wash it down with a cold (well, cool) Tusker. One of Kenya's superb local lagers, Tusker is a bit sweeter than its European style competitors due to the addition of cornstarch and sugar to the usual malt, hops and water. At the end of lunch, we'd head out again. By this time on most days, the heat of the day had peaked (maybe the low 90's), and clouds would be forming. The overcast would rapidly cool the air, and around 5:00 as we headed back, cumulonimbus clouds would have formed. Most evenings featured a brief tropical shower, and on a couple of occasions there were spectacular displays of lighting and thunder, including an impressive hail storm on our last night. In general these would soon pass away into the darkening night, and the cool evenings were ideal for bundling by the fire, quaffing any of the various beverages on offer, and then slipping exhausted into one's comfy four poster bed - lit by lanterns, covers already turned down by the ever attentive camp staff. The nights were restful, if you could ignore the nocturnal chorus of crickets, frogs, hippo and the occasional other large animal noises. I slept like a rock.

Next post - what we did and saw. Not trying to be coy, but I don't want the posts to get too lengthy.

Until then!

PS: I've been fortunate enough to get several very thoughtful gifts in the last few weeks, and wanted to acknowledge them here, as I don't have e-mail addresses handy for most of the folks kind enough to send them

I'd like to thank Kevin for the book on treadmill training for runners - lots of great ideas for those of us who get the majority of our mile on a rotary belt. Great book! Thanks a million!

Thanks to sister Moira for sending along a double album of The Tragically Hip's bigger hits - wonderful stuff that I can't believe I've missed until now. It's been at the top of my queue the past week.

Thanks to friends Justin, Tara, and Ramona for care packages. It is such a pleasure to open a box of treats, magazines and other goodies. It seems silly, almost, that it should delight me so - but every package from home makes me feel like a kid on Christmas morning - delighted, and most importantly thought of with affection. Thanks all - you make this sojourn as easy as it can be.

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