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Lions and Sunsets

We set out today at the crack of dawn. Our objective was lions. Yes, we had seen lions in Amboselli, but not up close. We ran into a vehicle with a flat tire and while Gideon stopped to help, we were able to get out and walk free on the savanna just like the animals. We used the time to enjoy the freshest air anywhere and just observe a sunrise on the Mara. By the way, Mara is a word in Masai that mean spotted, but applies to the land here which is spotted with bushes and trees, instead of covered like a jungle.

Mary Ann the great white tourist searching for game with her binocs with her back to a Mara sunrise.

Mary Ann the guide "Hey, I see Land Rovers gathering over there!

We quickly headed off to see what this herd of humans was viewing. We were pleasantly rewarded with a Momma lion and four kittens. What a great start for a day.

I probably shot two hundred photos of this little family. I told Gideon the kittens look cute enough to take home. He looked at me quite seriously and said "If you want to commit suicide, try."

Suddenly the whole family was interested in something behind us.

They were interested in a group of Zebras. Yum Yum.

Momma got up and looked like she would set off for a kill. But she thought better of it when...

...she remembered all the humans that were there!

We spent a lot of time enjoying the lioness. She and the babies did not pay us any attention. Their attention was riveted on a herd of zebras a mile away. I was hoping momma lion would get up and go catch one, but I was sure she would not leave the kittens behind.

We returned to the lodge for lunch and a nap. All the game drives take place in the morning and again in the afternoon because this is supposedly when the game are most active. There is a train of thought developing that the animals have gotten smart and are now most active while the humans are back in the lodges. It would not surprise me.

We had two objectives for our afternoon game drive. One was a black rhino, the toughest of the big five to see. The other was an adult male lion.

We had driven a long way when all of a sudden the radio went wild like it did the day before for the leopard sighting. Gideon did a bush style u-turn and said to me “You said you wanted to see lions mating. Well lions are mating and we are on our way.”  We flew over hill and dale, past herds of “boring” stuff like zebras and topis. We drove and drove. We got all shook and rattled in the vehicle. Then we came upon the scene. It looked like the paparazzi had found Paris Hilton mating. There were at least twenty pop top vehicles with people pointing cameras at these two poor lions.

Short of being a Gates or Zuckerman and being able to rent the entire park for yourself. modern day big white tourists just have to put up with this. Like I have said before, this is not even high season. There is a lot of online chatter about the parks in Kenya and Tanzania becoming nothing more than the wild life parks in the USA. Most of that chatter comes from the scientists who want the parks to themselves. But I argue that if we mere tourists see this spectacle of nature, will will be more inclined to help suppost it, somehow, after we leave. Additionally, there is nothing in any wild animal park that can compare with the vast open spaces of the savanna. I can compare it to Montana, Arizona and New Mexico from experience. The savanna wins. AND wait till you see the sunsets.

By the time we got to the lions, we were late, they were spent. The lioness looked like she was passed out. The male lion was not in much better shape. We took photos and waited. Gideon told us once they get started they mate 3 or 4 times and hour for 3 or 4 days. We waited for an encore, waited and waited. The male tried to rouse the lioness a couple of times but she was having none of it. I recorded all this for you my faithful readers, so please enjoy what passes for ‘Lion Porn’.

When we first arrived, the pair were in the afterglow, pillow talk stage.

"Wow" says the lion. "I have an audience."

"C'mon babe, time to put on a show for the great white tourists and earn our keep"

"Aw c'mon, please. We can't disappoint the tourists, some came all the way from Kansas"

"Tough luck for you. No show today. And do not forget, I may wear my hair like Don King, but I am the REAL King!

On the way home I took some nature shots and some sunsets, The Masai Mara is a photographers dream. I hope you enjoy the pictures.

I will start with some shots of trees and bushes.

This is called the whistling Thorn bush. It is the bush the Masai make their protective fences from. It is protected from most of the herbivores by two inch long thorns, except for zebras who have a way of eating the soft areas around the thorns.

Excuse me here while I give you a little lesson I learned on safari. You very often see large groups of wildebeests and zebras browsing together. In fact, the zebras accompany the wildebeests on their famous migration from the Masai Mara to the Serengeti and back every year. This migration follows the same circular route each year and corresponds to rainfall patterns, hence growing grass. The reason they travel together is that the zebra eat the tall grass, exposing low grasses to the wildebeests. During the migration, the carnivores feast. Lions and crocodiles get fat for the lean time. The crocodiles, in fact the largest crocs in the world, wait for the wildebeests and zebras to cross the Mara River. Thousands perish. The lions attack at will along the way. The other benefit the wildebeests get from the zebras is that when the lions attack, and the joint herds run, the black and white stripes of the zebras, in motion, confuse the lions.  Still, thousands more perish.

This is called the Masai Sausage tree. Those seed pods hanging down are the source of the indigenous alcoholic beverage of the Masai. They soak it with water and honey for a few days. Gideon, our guide, says that after two glasses you start seeing things.

OK, now to the iconic Masai Mara shots, the sunsets. Until this trip I never thought I would see a sunset finer, more striking or more memorable than the ones I watched from Maui. Hawaii move over, Africa has you beat.

The flat topped tree is an Acacia tree. The animal is a zebra.

I could watch them all day, if only they lasted more than a few minutes. On the equator, sunsets are shot lived phenomenon.

WOW, what an end to a perfect day.

Asante san for reading. Please share with your friends. Please make a comment. Please come back for my next post when HTT Holidays and Incentives takes us to Lake Naivashu and Crescent Island where you can walk right up to a giraffe and knock on his knee!

Our first day at the Masai Mara

We took off after a wonderful breakfast at the Lion Hill  lodge. The objective was to get to our lodge in Masai Mara National Park and the Sopa Lodge by 1:30 for lunch and the afternoon game drive.

By the way, if you ever go on safari in Kenya or Tanzania, I can recommend the Sopa chain without hesitation, and no, they are not paying me to say this.

Entrance to Masai Mara Sopa lodge

At 1:30 all I wanted was out of the vehicle. We had just spent an hour on the worst road I have been on in years. Gideon, who was working hard at the impossible task of missing potholes asked me if I could drive this road. I told him I had driven worse and described a road equally as beat up but in the mountains of Mexico where you had no room on either side to swerve because of the mountain on one side and a 2000 foot cliff on the other.  When I was done describing that experience I told him how glad I was he was driving instead of me by saying  “I’m to old for that shit anymore”. The road is the only road to Kenya’s most visited park. The government has fixed a lot of roads in the last couple of years, but for some reason, not this one.

All is well that ends well. We got to the lodge and checked into yet another very nice room. Before we could really rest, it was time for the afternoon game drive. We soon forgot about the drive to the park, in favor of the wonderful drive in the park.

This is the only single park in Kenya where if you are lucky and diligent, and have a good guide, you can see all the “big five”.  We got lucky, and we have a great guide.

Big game guides are no different, really, from fishing guides. Except they speak Swahili and Masai. When they pass each other on the road they share information just like the fishing guides. Except instead of asking ”Where are the lunkers”, they are asking “Where are the lions”. At least that is what I think they are asking. They might be swapping stories about the idiots they have in their vehicle that just will not be happy until they see lions mating.   I am one of those people. I told Gideon I would not be happy unless I saw something kill something, and animals mating. We both laughed at that, but an hour later, while we were observing a troop of baboons, he said, ”Look, baboons mating.” Sure enough. This being a full service blog, here is the photo.

Baboon style. Do I not try to include you in everything on my trips?

I never thought that at any point in my life would I say, “Big deal, another herd of elephants” or snidely comment “Oh boy, more gazelles.”  Nor did I think I would ever know the difference on sight between a lesser gazelle, a greater gazelle and an impala. I do now.

Oh Boy, another herd of wildebeests, yawn.

They are beautiful and they abound in the national parks in Kenya. I drove one of these when I was teenager, it was made by Chevrolet and not this pretty.

I have always wondered why no one ever domesticated the zebra. Gideon told me that the zebra has a weak back. I thought about that and said “too bad, it would be a beautiful sight to see a Masai warrior riding a zebra.”  I honestly think he likes my weird sense of humor, because he sure laughs at me. It is a wonderful thing to see herds of zebra grazing amongst gazelles and wildebeest out in the wild.

Ride'em Masai. Can you imagine a tall guy all dressed in red galloping across the Mara on this? Actually this is a tough shot to get. Zebras are shy and as soon as a camera appears they turn their ass to you. I have dozens of pictures of Zebra's behinds, just ask.

Masai Mara, being the most popular park in Kenya, even before high season, has quite a few visitors. This equates to quite a few vehicles out in search of game. They all have short wave radios in case they have a break down. But what they really use them for is sightings of the rarer animals. Today, as we were casually driving around, all of a sudden the normal chatter over the short wave rose to a euphoric level. Even though they were all speaking in Masai, I knew something big was up. Gideon did a four point turn and found a seldom used trail through the savannah and started hustling. “They spotted a leopard. We must go see the leopard.” Mind you, the leopard is one of the big five, and any guide worth his Shillings is going to make sure you see one.  We started flying across the open fields until we came to an established trail and headed to the leopard sighting. We turned a corner around some trees and BAM we were in the middle of a huge heard of buffalo. One thing buffalo are not is in a hurry. Another thing they are not is intimidated by a safari vehicle. They probably outweigh one and could redefine the term fender bender with those horns of theirs. Gideon was motivated. We had to see the leopard. He inched his way thru the herd and we were back on our fast paced quest.

Weaving our way through the herd.

Now the human herd started to appear. Vehicles were converging on the site where the leopard was from every point on the compass. They came on trails, across the fields and through ravines. No obstacle was going to stop any guide from treating his guests to one of the big five. Mary Ann and I started laughing. We could point in any direction and there was another Land Rover hell bent for leopard.

It was worth it. It was an incredible cat just meandering its way thru the bushes and fields. It had no concern for the human element. All the animals seem to know they are protected. Or maybe they know they cannot attack a vehicle. At this point in the history of human/big game relations there is a comfortable peace.

A leopard approaching you in this cat like manner makes you glad you are in a vehicle.

We were not the only ones there! It was amazing how the vehicles all arrived from every direction.

After we navigated our way out of the traffic jam, we noticed another group of vehicles. Could we be lucky again? YES! Gideon again made a bee line to the new sighting and we found our 4th of the big five. Not one but TWO cheetahs. They were laying in the shade watching the humans watch them. They had very obviously just consumed a rather large lunch. They looked too fat to even walk. These are the world’s fasted animals, but apparently not after a feast.

They were just trying to digest their lunch in peace...

...but the humans had other ideas.

I asked Gideon “if this were high season, how many vehicles would have come to see the leopards and the cheetahs?” He wistfully responded “at least a hundred.” It goes without saying, come to the Masai Mara before high season.

Again asante san for reading. Please hit share so your FB legions can enjoy it, and oh please make a comment.

Mary Ann’s birthday with the Masai

Today was Mary Ann’s birthday and the birthday angels rewarded us with a marvelous game drive. We went out early and the critters large and small had all decided it would be a good idea to display themselves. Even Mount Kilimanjaro made an appearance.

The mountain came out to say happy birthday.

Another bucket list item accomplished. I never really thought I would stand at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro.

The birds were particularly displaying themselves this morning.

This bird, called a Grey Crowned Crane is actually quite common, We saw them everywhere in the bush.

Plus we saw herds of everything from Baboons to Zebras. I’ll get to that and show some pictures in a while. Bear with me while I tell you about visiting the Masai village.

The village was straight out of a National Geographic documentary. The houses were arranged in a circle. Each one was identical. They were made of cow dung. The entire village was surrounded by a fence about 8 feet high and six feet thick made from some very thorny bush called a whistling thorn bush. They do this to keep marauding animals out at night. The men make the fences, and the women build the houses.

All the houses are the same. They form a circle.

This fence surrounds the entire village. Homeland security Masai style

 

We were invited into a house. It had three rooms. The parents (mama and papa) slept in one room, all the children in another, and the third room was for cooking and eating. The cooking was done over a charcoal fire, or maybe a dung fire.

Mary Ann entering a house. Most the Masai men are taller than me so I cannot figure out why they made the doors so small.

Mary Ann inspecting the master bedroom.

The main room where the cooking is done.

There was an interior fence, as imposing as the exterior fence. This serves as a corral for the cattle at night, as well as for the goats. Cattle and goats are the mainstay of the economy and the diet of the Masai.

The entire village it seemed came out to greet us with a traditional dance and song number which of course included the vertical leaping of both men and women. They made me join the chorus line and had a good laugh at me trying to go vertical. I think these guys could stand flat footed under a basketball hoop and dunk. But they don’t play basketball. In fact I did not see any evidence of any sport. Making a living following around herds of domesticated animals protecting them from numerous predators must be sporting enough. Many of them had the brand on their cheeks. Tough hombres. Also, living in an Arab nation, and traveling a lot in Asia, India, and Nepal, I have gotten used to being the tallest guy in any room, at 6:1. Not here. I feel like a twelve year old hanging out around NBA players.

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They made me jump so they could laugh at me. they love to laugh. Notice I am carrying one of their big sticks. I was ready to fight off a lion! The stick was very hard and heavy. I felt well protected.

Our Masai guide around the village was the son of the chief. His name was John. As he talked to us I noticed a wonderful bracelet he was wearing. I asked him what it was made of. He said Elephant bone. I started to like it even more. I had on a silver and turquoise ring I picked up in India a few months back. I wore it on this trip because I was not attached to it, and if it got lost or stolen I would not think twice about it. I offered to trade him my ring for his bracelet. He did not want to talk about it in front of the other Masai men, and he simply said “later.” I did not know if that were a hip blow off like “later dude” or “we’ll talk later”.

John and his buddy.

Then they showed us how they make fire. They use a twig from an Acacia tree “from mount Kilimanjaro” and a stick from a cypress tree. Basically they do it like American Indians, or boy scouts. The men make fire every evening for cooking and the women come and take burning twigs home to light the charcoal.

I learned how to do this in boy scouts, but I respectfully acted amazed.

Then they asked me if I wanted to try. They made a little pyre of the dried dung they us as kindling and gave me the sticks. I sat down in front of it and pulled out my lighter. I said “White mans magic” ‘ We all got a good laugh.

It is easier with a lighter. But I tried. If I had to do this to light a smoke, I'd give up smoking

Then they took us around a corner where every woman in the village had stuff for sale. The Masai do a lot of things with beads. Where do they get the beads? Well, we did not get a good answer. It was a bit complicated to ask if they come from China, so I dropped that line of questioning. We bought a few doodads. My favorite was an ivory ring from an elephant tusk. I know I know, but if you could see how many elephants there are in Amboseli, and were realistic about them dying out in the swamps of old age, then I have no problem with the natives taking the tusks and doing something with them to make a buck. Later in the week I asked a park ranger “if an elephant dies of old age in the park,  is it OK to harvest the tusks?”. The answer was an absolute no. So, I asked “what happens to them?”.  She told me that all the tusks are brought to the ranger’s office in the park and stored away. I understand that, you do NOT want ivory on the market. But hell, Kenya could probably go a long way to paying off their national debt by selling the ivory.  Anyway, I love the ring.

When I put it on, I took off my turquoise ring and walked over to John.

“Ok let us talk trade” I said. He had already tried my ring on and not only did it fit, I could tell from the look on his face that he liked it.(Masai have never developed a poker face?) I figured it was because it would be unique in his tribe. I started thinking of the concept of a cargo cult or the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy”. (Google either one to get my point) He said to me “This was my Grandfather’s bracelet.” I figured that was bullshit, so I said back “This was my Grandfather’s ring. He traded with a Navajo chief in Arizona for it 80 years ago.” I am sure we both knew we were BSing the other but it took him about two seconds to take off the bracelet and take my ring. SCORE!

I asked Gideon if he knew another person was a Masia just by looking at him. First he said the Masai are usually tall and thin. They walk so much that you seldom if ever see an overweight Masai.  He told me two more things to look for. Masai sometimes pierce their earlobes and wear heavy ear adornments that make a huge gap in the earlobe. I had noticed that. The other thing to look for was a missing front bottom tooth. There is a sickness Masai infants sometimes get that does not allow them to open their mouth to eat. They pull the center tooth out so they can force feed them porridge. I now find myself looking for the missing tooth.

When we got back to the lodge and finished dinner, we walked outside under the stars. Mary Ann mentioned how beautiful they were. It dawned on me to look for the Southern Cross. I looked to where Kilimanjaro was, due south of us and looked up. There it was bright and beautiful, right over the tallest mountain in Africa.  It was thrilling to have that experience.  The Southern Cross is a wonderful sight from wherever you see it, but it was pretty special to know the mountain was right under it. My trip to Africa became even more real.

Ok Ok you want pictures of animals. Here we go.

Very close to the village, withing striking distance of where the Masai graze their cattle we saw our first lioness. She did nothing but lie there for fifteen minutes. Being a predator takes patience.

We never saw a hyena in the wild, but this is where they live, underground. There is a longtime study being done by Michigan State University to study hyenas. You will need to go to their website to figure out why.

These are wildebeests grazing in front of the iconic acacia tree. I have many close-ups of the wildebeests, but you are not missing anything, they are sort of ugly.

Papa, mama and baby elephant. It is reported that Amboseli has more elephants per sq kilometer than anywhere else. I BELIEVE IT! Just like the Masai, they walk in a straight line, even when they are in a herd.

Sometimes the elephants just stop in the middle of the road. Nothing you can do about it! This one has one of the birds that ride them and eat bugs off their skin in a perfect symbiotic relationship. Sometimes they hop off and pick at the elephant tracks for insects in the ground.

Whatever you do, never try to out stare and elephant!

Asante for reading. Please tell a friend and make a comment. The next post will concentrate on birds. See ya soon.

My Introduction to the Masai of Kenya at Amboseli

After a 5 hour drive SSW out of Nairobi we arrived at the Amboseli Sopa Lodge, located on the outskirts of Amboseli National Park.  The lodge is stunningly beautiful and comfortable. Yes, we are “in the bush.” I know, because there is no internet and cell phones do not work.  Actually the lodge has had internet, but it does not work anymore, and the cell phone coverage is limited to one carrier, the name of which is, wonderfully, Safaricom. The lodge provides every other creature comfort one would expect in an expensive lodge anywhere. The people who designed and built this place did not miss a detail. The woodwork is all hand carved with animal scenes. The bed has a big elephant head carving for the headboard.

The Sopa lodges are all very nice places to stay in both Kenya and Tanzania

The hotel sits near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa. The mountain itself is actually in Tanzania. It is often covered in clouds and everyone hopes it makes an appearance.

Everything is in the style of the Masai tribe, from the curtains to the lamps and the rugs.  The bar, called the Hemingway Bar is huge and is reminiscent of the big white hunter days.  We are here two weeks before high season starts, and the place is almost empty. I think service here would be excellent if they were chock-a-block, it is incredible right now.

Great white hunter bar.

This is Masai country. The Masai people still “exist” just like you have seen in the movies. If you saw Out of Africa, and remember Robert Redford’s Masai servant, well that is how many of them still dress. I’m not talking about some show they put on for tourists. Uh Uh. I’m talking about how they dress out herding their goats or just walking cross country.   They are incredibly kind people and seem as interested in us as we are in them. Plug into this experience the fact that the national language is English and they all learn it in school, and the opportunity for cultural exchange is just incredible.

A Masai and I. (Screw the grammar, it rhymes)

Our guide happens to be Masai. His name is Gideon. All the Masai have baptismal names in English. We have him to ourselves for the entire week, just the two of us and large Land Rover with a pop up roof. I met a teenager on the road and we exchanged names. His was Evan. I told him mine and he said “like the bush?”

Before I try to describe our first game drive, I am going to pass on a few things I learned about the Masai today. I inherited the ability to ask nosey type questions from my mother, so sometimes I actually learn interesting things others might miss.

When you see a pair of Masai men walking together (actually one behind the other is the way they walk, not side by side) one of them will always be carrying a long stick. Even if two are on a motorcycle, one will have a long stick. I imagine that if two of them ever flew on an airliner they would sit one in front of the other, and one would have a large stick. I had to ask why. Gideon’s answer was “self protection.” He saw the perplexed look on my face and said “against animals.” Then he went on to say that the second fellow will always be carrying a sword or club strapped to his leg. To prove the point, he pulled out a two foot long formidable club from under his western cargo pants and said “we never leave home without it.” When I met Evan, he was carrying the big stick and I had to ask if he ever had to use it. All he said was “I have it if I need it.”  Gideon was standing with us. He reached under the Masai blanket (They wear them like robes) of the other young man and yanked an eighteen inch sword from a sheath strapped to his leg and said basically “we all carry.”  These people live every day amongst lions, hyenas and what not. Be prepared is not just a slogan for them.

The hats at the royal wedding cannot compare to this. Those are ostrich feathers in case you want to make your own.

Gideon told us that at age 15 the men get circumcised (ouch) and then spend up to a year wandering in the bush. To become a warrior, they have to kill a lion. If they do, they get branded with a hot piece of metal on their cheeks and thighs. The leader of the group must cut the tail of the lion before they kill it. I’m not sure they still kill lions, but that is the old way. Gideon only wandered for two months and then he had to get back to school. He is not branded. He has a University education in tourism. He had to learn a lot of Kenya history and of course flora and fauna. He is adding an incredible amount to our experience. Mary Ann and I are planning an enormous tip.

I was learning bits and pieces about the Masai all day, but one thing totally blew my hair back. Innocently I asked about their burial traditions. I had not seen a cemetery so I asked if they practice cremation. Now remember, the Masai of today are Christians. Gideon explained that what they do is shave the body, and cover it with oil. Then they slay a cow, skin it, wrap the deceased in the cow skin and take it out in the bush for the hyenas to eat. Then they feast on the cow. I would not have known if I had not asked, which just might put a damper on what else I ask. But probably not. Tomorrow we are taking a side trip to an off the tourist track true Masai village, where I Intend to learn as much as I can about these fascinating people. Having a Masai as an escort should break the ice nicely. The next post will cover that along with some truly cool animal shots!

Asante is Swahili (Kenya’s second language) for thank you. So Asante for reading and please pass this along to your friends on Facebook and in the real world also.

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