Safari - Masai Mara, Kenya

July 19 - 21, 2002

Dave Svilar, Fred Sheffield

Ask someone what comes to mind when they think "Africa" and the first thing that rolls off their tongue is usually "big animals."  Fred and I had strongly considered not doing a safari because we thought it would be like going to the zoo.  Somewhere in Uganda after being called "mzungu" (white guy) for the 1,000th time in a week I decided I wouldn't mind doing something more tourist oriented.  It may be like the zoo, but definitely nothing like the zoo we had been traveling through for the past two months.

One can't walk down a street in Nairobi without someone trying to stuff a safari brochure in your face.  Make the mistake and talk to one of these aggressive salesmen and they're likely to follow you for the next five blocks.  Do the right thing and ignore them and you're likely to be called a racist.  There are plenty of budget safaris to choose from for jokers like Fred and I.  We went with the best known - Planet Safaris - mainly because they were cheap and gave us a free place to stay while in Nairobi. 

The Masai Mara is an extension of Tanzania's Serengeti Plains located in Kenya.  In the confines of the park one can find every kind of animal associated with genuine Africa.  Most come to tick off the big five - leopard, lion, giraffe, rhino, and elephant.  Fred and I saw only three of the five.  I had already seen rhinos in Asia, and looked long and hard for leopards to no avail.  We had made it just in time for the famed wildebeest migration in which great herds migrate north in the dry season to look for grass.  Many other animals join including predators such as lions.

We cruised along the floor of the Rift Valley in a mini-bus with our driver/guide and another couple from Denmark.  As we approached the park it was exciting to spot giraffes, zebras and other wildlife I had only previously seen in a zoo.  After entering the park we drove around until sunset spotting every kind of animal we would see for the next two days.

Savannah of the Masai Mara with signature flat-top acacia tree.

At night they brought us back to a camp where approximately 50 other tourists were staying.  This was definitely the a must-do for the "backpacker" crowd as almost the entire group was composed of other jerks like us.  This was the first full fledged tourist activity Fred and I had engaged on and it felt good to be in the majority again.  It felt even better to partake in the all-you-can-eat cafeteria style food buffet.  It was the first time in a couple of months that I didn't have to hold back when eating - I stuffed myself for every meal of the trip. 

We slept in tents which may sound scary since there are lions running lurking at night, but it wasn't.  There were too many people in the vicinity plus I had heard that lions are too dumb to figure out how to claw through a tent.  Anyway, I did notice myself hurrying my pace when I stepped behind the tent at night to relieve myself. 

Almost the entire portion of the next day was spent crammed in the mini-bus.  It was equipped with a roof that pops up, so you can stand up and view wildlife from over the roof.  This setup wasn't unique, as every other vehicle in the park had the same sort of roof system.

Dave and Fred spot wildlife from our minibus.

This park had so much wildlife that it felt unnatural.  Perhaps it was just the wildebeest migration, but it seemed that every creature in Africa had been pushed into one tiny space.  Our senses were on overload.  After awhile we would pass a group of elephants without stopping.  Giraffes?  Boring.  Lions?  Seen plenty of those.

Elephants for the 20th time.


A lion licks her chops after biting into a dead wildebeest (kill is in the bushes and underexposed).  Lions hunt at night and spend the day digesting.

My previous experience on wildlife adventures was birdwatching with my dad.  We would take off for a week and do nothing but look for birds in the middle of the Oregon desert.  My dad could stare at the same duck for hours on end.  In contrast this safari was all about looking at as many animals as possible.  As frustrated as I get with my dad's pace I longed to have him be the driver of the minibus.  It would have been more interesting to stop for a period of time and really watch the animals instead of just driving by and snapping pictures.  People in other groups were worse.  Some would spend the entire time attempting to videotape the animals.  They had come all the way to Africa to stare at the animals through a 2" monitor.

Wildebeest aren't individually impressive.  They are ungainly creatures that eat all day long.  Basically just fast cows.  As a collective group they dominated the landscape with their shear numbers.  The site of thousands of wildebeest must have been similar to buffalo for the Indians.

Zebras intermingle with the wildebeest during the migration.

Speaking of shear numbers, the wildebeest migration was almost as impressive as the minibus migration.  You don't have to spot your own wildlife - just look for the highest concentration of minibuses in one location.  A group of elephants or giraffes would average one to two minibuses while a lion would draw three to four.  The animals were so used to the presence of humans that they seemed completely indifferent.  We drove within a few feet of a lion resting beside a kill and it didn't even look at us.  It was neat to be able to get so close, but this is the part that felt more like a zoo. 

We stayed another night and spent the next morning doing more of the same.  I searched in vain for cheetahs and leopards.  On our way back to Nairobi we stopped at a Masai village.  This famous warrior tribe can be seen all around Kenya and Tanzania tending to their cattle.  They dress in bright red garments and carry a spear into the fields for protection.  Fred had assumed that all Africans had abandoned traditional wardrobes for the cheap used American clothes that are so popular in most of Africa.  These colorfully dressed people gave us a tour of a typical village for a small fee.  Their homes were made of mud and stood five feet tall.  Inside whole families would cram at night along with their collection of goats.  The minute I walked into one of these structures I started choking from all the smoke.  Apparently they also drink cow's blood to give them strength. 

For a small fee they danced for us.


Masai woman decorated in typical fashion.  I was particularly intrigued with the beads they attach to their earlobes.  If you look closely you can see she slit her earlobe to attach the beads.

We were ready for the three day trip to end - we just wanted out of the car.  It was worthwhile to see the animals living in their natural (shrunken) habitat, and also fun to travel like a tourist for a few days.

written October 2002

Take Me Home