Part 7: Back to the Mara One More Time

Photography and report by Bert Duplessis

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Oct 18 2009

The flight from Lake Naivasha to the Maasai Mara in a DeHavilland Otter was fairly quick and not too bumpy, considering the intermittent rain and thunderstorms which we encountered en route. Our plane touched down at Ol Kiombo airstrip at 4:00P where I was picked up and then just a few minutes later, transferred to a game drive vehicle. The two other guests that afternoon were Bill from Zurich and Jason from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

It wasn’t long before we saw several game drive vehicles along a hillside in the distance. “Must be Shakira,” said our guide Dennis and after a 10-minute drive to the spot, his prediction turned out to be correct. There was Shakira (with her three subadult young) which I had seen and photographed in the Mara just slightly more than a week earlier. She was clearly on the hunt, very alert and checking out a herd of Thomson’s Gazelles which were nervously gathered on a nearby hillside. When one of Shakira’s cubs took an exploratory short run towards the Tommies, they promptly scattered with several of them bouncing right past us, on our left.

Abandoning the attempt, the 4 cheetah then advanced towards us, walking right by the vehicle, before sitting down again to plot another hunting attempts.

Shakira and her cubs prior to the first attempt at knocking down a Tommie

This solitary cheetah was in the same general area with Shakira and her cubs

Eventually our driver got quite a bit closer for some better pics

Shortly afterwards Shakira and her cubs walked by us. So many cheetahs!

Not long afterwards the sun set over the Mara – where are the giraffes when you need them…

Reluctantly leaving the cheetahs behind, we found several nice lions with black manes, but before I could get the camera pointed at them, they flopped down into thick cover. We headed back to camp which we reached at about 6:45P. Then, a minor mishap occurred when I lost my wedding band on the rope bridge across the Talek River. Several Maasai looked for it in the shallow murky water the next morning, but to no avail.

The tents at Mara Intrepids are practically identical to those I had seen at Samburu Intrepids, and the layout was similar too with tents to the left and right of the lounge & dining room area, all overlooking the Talek River. I do not rate Mara Intrepids as highly as Samburu Intrepids; the room definitely needed some attention and also the camp was not aware of my vegan dietary request. In fairness, they did prepare a special batch of ugali for me, which I enjoyed with some pasta and a salad with avocado.

I suppose no Africa trip journal is complete without the obligatory LBR (Lilacreasted Roller) shot. This one is BVD. Better view desired.

October 19

Our game drive this morning was fantastic with great views of elephants, eland, giraffe and two sightings of lions, one on a fresh kill (two wildebeest) and the other one a lioness with 2 young cubs.

The giraffe on the left had an itch on its face which had to be scratched

Like the other eland which we saw on the trip, these were not very cooperative

The elephants on the Mara do a good job keeping the area treeless by finding and eating all small shrubs and emerging trees

This pair of young lion cubs were drinking from the Talek River, near Mara Intrepids Camp

Here they are with their mother

The one cub had its own ideas about where to go next

Launching into the air to clear a small gully in the other direction

A little later on that afternoon we bumped into yet another pride of lions. This was one of the males

They had just fed, having brought down two wildebeest within meters of each other

The females are clearly very powerful and in the prime of life

An opportunistic black-backed jackal darted in and snatched some morsels of meat from one of the two dead wildebeest

Mara Explorer Camp makes a great first impression. It is small and quiet and nothing like Mara Intrepids. The rooms are large, well-appointed tents – 7 doubles and 3 twins. The camp has a beautiful lounge and dining room, very much reminiscent of some of the Botswana tented camps. In terms of the quality of the camp, I would rank it somewhere in-between Wilderness Safaris’ nicer classic camps and their premier camps such as Vumbura Plains. Mara Explorer has a high level of privacy, and there is a radio in each tent to communicate with the camp for example to request an escort to the dining area. Several of our regular clients return to Mara Explorer Camp year after year, and it is easy to see why.

Part of the lounge at Mara Explorer Camp

Dining area at Mara Explorer Camp

A twin bedroom at Mara Explorer

After the inspection visit to Mara Explorer Camp, it was on to Governor’s Camp in the Musiara Swamp area of the Mara. It is a rather large camp sleeping about 72 persons in 36 tents. The tents are basic Meru-style erected on a concrete/slasto base with small front entrance verandah. There is very little privacy in the camp with many of the tents only being 30 to 45 feet apart. The tents have zippers for a front entrance as well as zippers between the main portion of the tent and the en-suite bathroom (toilet, bidet and shower). Zippers are at best annoying, often downright frustrating. I think any safari camp would be well-advised to replace front door zippers with real doors.

Governors gets high marks for lunch: they had a special vegan meal (baked potato, a superb yellow lentil stew and stir-fried snow peas and carrots) delivered to my table. Lunch is served outside, under some large trees along the Mara River. One other thing bothered me slightly, which was the amount of aircraft noise due to the proximity of the Musiara airstrip.

Interior of my room at Governor’s Camp

The tent from the outside

The deck overlooking the Mara River

I spotted some good birds at a bird bath at Governor’s Camp. This is a Doubletoothed Barbet.

One of the local weavers getting some water

A spectacled weaver

A confiding Schalow’s Turaco

And just for good luck, another Lilacbreasted Roller

Il Moran is a small upscale camp with 10 private (well spaced) tents all facing the Mara River. The spacious tents with massive double beds have deluxe fittings, generator-supplied electricity and it guarantees a maximum of 4 persons to a vehicle on game drives.

From Il Moran, it was a short drive to Little Governors, where camp manager Colin showed me around. The camp consists of 17 tents in a half circle overlooking what is ordinarily a huge swamp, but (then) a rapidly drying, rather dessicated ‘wetland’ if one could call it that.

When the area is not in the midst of a long drought, I am sure that Little Governor’s is a great camp – it had an intimate, relaxed feel to it. Importantly, guests are transported to the camp by boat across the Mara River on arrival, which involves negotation about 30 or 40 very steep steps on each side of the river. Guests also have to walk down and up the steps each time they take a game drive.

One of the tents at Il Moran

This leopard in a tree frustrated many photographers who waited for hours for it to get down from the tree.

On my last morning in the Mara, we had probably the best of any lion sightings, with a long and action-packed encounter with the Marsh Pride

First there was a reunion of sorts between three brothers and a sister

The young males were very curious at first, boldly approaching the female

The female eventually ran around the vehicle and crouched down, growling softly

Meanwhile three young lions were sloshing around the marsh

Despite its size and age (showing a bit of wear), Governor’s Camp clearly stands out due to its game-viewing, which was nothing short of phenomenal. On just a very short game drive, in the early afternoon – certainly not the most productive time of the day – we drove past hundreds of animals of a dizzying variety of species including elephant, buffalo, hippo, topi, wildebeest, zebra, Thomson’s Gazelles, Grant’s Gazelles, impala, reedbuck, waterbuck, banded mongoose and an couple of others which I might have missed.

There was a long row of wildebeest walking in near single file, seemingly headed for a Mara River crossing point, en route to Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains. It was a quintessential African scene: animals following some unwritten script, navigating an uncharted map yet the vast majority of them making their way safely to better pastures.

Dinner on my last night in Kenya was exactly as requested: some freshly made ugali with a side of traditionally prepared spinach, and some baked beans. Couldn’t have been any better!

However, there was one more game drive to follow and it was a doozy, with lions taking pride of place, no pun intended. First we spotted a few females, but our attention quickly shifted to three young males chasing off a hyena. Bu the time we arrived on the scene, the hyena was beating a hasty retreat. I later learned that the lions had actually landed a few blows, but the hyena escaped with its life.

From that point, we drove around the northern edge of the Musiara Swamp to a muddy reedbed where 3 young female lions were busy devouring a warthog which they had just killed. They were all members of the huge Musiara Pride, very aptly named as they were literally wallowing in the marsh, their legs eventually covered with mud.

Not long afterwards, the young males walked around the southern edge of the marsh and approached the females. There was a lot of growling, posturing and some dominant behavior, before the lions settled down.

We returned to camp in good spirits, improved even further when I got a couple of useful photographs of a Schalow’s Turaco (life bird) and Ross Turaco (seen for the first time in Zambia in August).

Soon afterwards, the long journey back started: Musiara Airstrip to Nairobi, Nairobi to Dubai and then finally Dubai direct to Houston. The 45-minute flight to Nairobi was uneventful, although it departed from Kichwa Tembo and not Musiara, so I had to make the trip across the Mara River one more time, to Little Governors and then by road to Kichwa Tembo.

Once back in Nairobi I took it easy for a couple of hours in a dayroom at the Panari Hotel, took a long hot bath, ‘enjoyed’ a perfectly awful lunch at Al Pasha restaurant and then headed off to the airport. The flights back from there were long but smooth, pampered all the way in a business class seat on Emirates. As flying goes, it doesn’t get much better than that. The only sour note: some guy from Oklahoma snoring non-stop for about 9 hours on the flight from Dubai to Houston.

The final word on Kenya? A fantastic wildlife experience: nowhere else in the world will you see such a variety and abundance of wildlife and culture in one country. The variety and density of wildlife species – all over the northern Maasai Mara – and particularly in the Intrepids area (Talek River), Musiara Swamp and North Mara Conservancy, was downright astonishing.

Yes Kenya has many problems which I won’t dwell on here (we touched on those in the introductory portion of this report). In the long run no doubt the country will have severe problems with habitat loss due to unfettered population growth and resultant human encroachment in wildlife areas. This last season was an abnormal one due to the pervasive drought, but the high numbers of Maasai cattle in all the wildlife areas were all too visible. This type of concession (it is ok to bring huge numbers of cattle into national parks) is understandable but at the same time an ominous sign for the future. Of course the lives and livelihood of humans have to take precedence over wildlife, but maybe someone should start asking questions about the cattle. Do the Maasai really have to have so many cattle? It seems to be all about the numbers and not the quality.

As for mass tourism, it need not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of a Kenyan safari. Yes there will be 6 or 7 vehicles jockeying for position around a predator sighting, every now and then but certainly not everywhere. Select the right camps and areas, and travel only with a private car and guide, and you can keep any ‘crowd’ experiences to a minimum. Nobody expects to be all by him or herself at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in August. Likewise, it is unrealistic to expect to enjoy the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle all on your own.

Some of the roads are poor, the matatu drivers are a menace and Nairobi traffic is a bear. If you are prepared to overlook these issues, and ready to embrace the many delightful surprises which await you on safari, go soon. Spend enough time in the Mara and you will see lots of lions, and much else besides! Learn a few Swahili phrases (it’s easy!) and experience friendliness like never before in your life. Even with plain old English, and a couple of ‘jambo’s’ and ‘asante’s’ mixed in here and there, you will have an amazing time.

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