We left Diani Reef early in the morning and got back on a little plane headed to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, a huge park that protects wild animals, contiguous with the Serengeti National Park to the south in Tanzania.
We thought we came close to Mount Kilimanjaro before, but this view was even better! We landed in the bustling Olkiombo Airport.
We jumped in his jeep and spent the next hour bumping along dirt roads to get to the Tipilikwani Camp.
They greeted us with cold grape juice. Hooray! Then we met the unforgettable staff – General Manager David Shonko, Samuel the chef, Moses the bartender, Redempta the office manager, Jackson the restaurant server and of course our Maasai warrior night security guard Tom. We were so grateful to this lovely “family” of people who made us feel welcome and comfortable.
We were shown to our adjoining tents (Ava and I are so romantic!), which were named for Louis and Mary Leaky, and had maximum security as you’ll see in the video below:
It was still quite early, so Dee asked if we’d like to go on a four o’clock game drive. Why not? We thought there was no time like the present to see what the wild animals were doing. Little did we know how much we would see, that day and the next.
Zebras, Thompson’s gazelles and warthogs were everywhere, grazing away casually as if they weren’t completely amazing to see in the wild. Like groups of wild horses, they gallop around together, eating and drinking. It had rained recently, so all the rivers and watering holes were full.
The wildebeests (also called gnus) pictured directly above here, migrate throughout the year, which is a big tourist attraction for the park. Apparently it’s quite spectacular to see these guys by the thousands trampling a path down to the Serengeti and back – but you have to time your trip just right.
Giraffes were also everywhere, but you had to make a point of getting close to them if you wanted to experience the true glory. We sidled up to a family chowing down on some trees – a mother and several young giraffes. You can identify the young males from their darker coloring, and when they mature, their antlers get smooth and hard while the female antlers stay fuzzy. They are the only animal that walks with right and left sides together, as you’ll see in the video below. They were so peaceful and beautiful, loping along looking for food, which is what they do for most of the day since they have to eat seventy-five pounds worth of leaves a day!
Next we drove to the edge of a riverbank that looked very uninteresting until I realized – there were hippos in the water!!! Freaking hippos, people! Giant, badass hippopotamus and their badass-in-training babies. Dee went down to the edge of the bank and sat in a tree hanging over, which made Ava and I a little woozy. He told me it was perfectly safe, so I joined him there briefly, but couldn’t let go my grasp of the tree, so he took the pictures.
Why yes, I can crush your skull like a peanut with my badass jaws, but look at my cute round ears!
And my cute little baby swimming beside me!
Here Dee is telling me how safe it is where he’s standing, clinging to a tree hanging over the riverbank fifty feet away from dozens of deadly hippos.
I took this bird’s eye view of a group of hippos on a different day, when we were flying out of the Mara – it’s cool to see how they like to party!
Then suddenly Dee got a phone call from one of the other drivers. They were speaking Swahili, so I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but clearly one of the ‘Big 5’ was in view somewhere nearby. The ‘Big 5’ includes lions, elephants, buffalo, rhinoceros and leopards, a list originally created to indicate which animals were the most difficult to hunt. I have my own Big 5 which replaces buffalo and leopards with giraffes and hippos. Giraffes are huge and hippos are extremely badass. Much more important to see in my opinion.
We sped over a hill, then slowed down to a crawl when we saw this! Why, hello big guy!
Dee kept driving closer and closer, past the other jeeps, and Ava and I were very nervous. Ava pointed out that our safari jeep had open windows, while the other safari goers were in mini-vans looking out over the roof of their vehicles. She had a point. If this fuzzy cat wanted to grab a human to eat, he probably would have chosen us, the easy target.
However, he had way better things to do, like lie around and yawn, open and close his eyes and other feats of fascinating behavior that wouldn’t have had quite the allure if he were a house cat. He was enormous, and his partner was scary too.
On the way home, we saw some Cape Buffalo, which didn’t seem very difficult to hunt to me, but what do I know? Maybe they’re just unafraid because the park protects them. But we got quite close. As we pulled up, the guy in the background here above stood up and went to go pee. I captured the moment! I think he might have done it one purpose. Then the one on the right was ready for his close-up. What a looker!Then when he stood up too, it seemed like the mood changed from, “Sure! Take my picture!” to “Are you talkin’ to me?” Dee turned the motor on and the animals seemed to instantly relax.
The sun was setting over the Mara on our way home. The beauty and peace of this land truly takes your breath away. The lone tree here is an Acacia – the giraffe’s favorite, but no one else’s since it has terrible thorns.
That night we lay in our tents and tried to sleep with the deafening sounds of crickets and the alarmingly frequent hyena whoop. Woooo—ooop! Woooo—oop! It was really unnerving, especially when you could hear them splash into the nearby river and clamor up the bank. But that’s what Tom was there for, guarding us all night! He told us how he throws his red blanket over his shoulder, brandishes his spear and shows the whites of his eyes to the hyenas and they back away. Wow. Here he is in a more relaxed moment:
After very little sleep (but lots of hyena audio recordings), we got up at dawn for a ‘morning game drive,’ something that the Nairobi couples had told us not to miss. “It’ll be cold,” they said, “and you’ll be tired. But just get out of bed and grab a blanket because it’s really worth it.”
The dim light of early morning was breaking through the day, and Dee seemed to have a specific spot in mind. He made a dozen twists and turns down roads that seemed off the map to me, but he had told me that he practically grew up in this park, spearing a lion at age sixteen as part of becoming a man in his Maasai village. I didn’t tell him what my claim to fame was at sixteen.
We were going to see something amazing, I just knew it! And then…..I cried when I saw this mom coming out of the bushes. I wasn’t planning to cry. I just…I had never seen anything this beautiful or magical in my life. The misty air and the dead quiet were so enveloping – then the slow footsteps of this giant beast, in her element, in her home, not trampling me, but just walking over. I was completely overwhelmed. Dee didn’t hesitate when I handed him my camera. Clearly I wasn’t going to take excellent photos while blubbering about the emotional power of pristine natural beauty. So he took this picture – and every other elephant photo you see here.
Dee knows the animal behavior so well, so instinctively, that he just gets the best shot every time! He waits – something North Americans maybe aren’t so great at – for the ultimate composition, the perfect head tilt. He knows the height of the branches they’re reaching for and so clicks just as the animal’s head is in fill view. It was really fun to watch. We were horrified to learn that he didn’t own his own camera, but Ava fixed that before we left : )
After watching these enormous gentle creatures for a while, we left, and I was as happy as a clam, but I didn’t realize that we were just going to meet the elephant family on the other side of the bushes! Here are a few videos from that experience. In the first one, Dee jockeys the vehicle around for a great view of one of the baby elephants eating (so cute!!) and in the second one the whole family walks right past the jeep! Needless to say, I was freaking out. Also needless to say, Dee was not freaking out. But he was taking great shots.
That last male elephant that hangs back a bit at the end of the video was kind of angry. I knew he was angry! Dee was blowing it off saying that it was nothing, and that as soon as the motor started the elephant would keep walking. However, Dee was not starting the motor, and the elephant was kind of flapping his ears a little bit….ear flapping! That’s the charge sign, right? Later, Dee agreed, laughing. He thought it was hilarious that “the big guy was showing me a bit of attitude,” but he insisted that he would have charged Dee, not me. I’m not so sure it would have mattered, but the important thing is that Dee got this amazing photo.
Then they were on their way, leaving us to marvel from our cage on wheels, about the incredible freedom they enjoy. Sigh.Once again, I was ready to head back to the camp and bask in the glory of having seen a family of elephants, but then Dee’s phone went off. Damn Swahili! Or maybe it was Maasai? Either way, I couldn’t understand. And he wouldn’t tell me what the excitement was, but I knew it was a big deal because he was kind of smiling and made a call too, and then he really hauled ass across the next plain. What was it going to be?? I was bracing myself for lions again, but when we climbed past the next slope, there were about seven jeeps all looking at one guy:
To be honest, I really hadn’t put much thought into the rhinoceros. I knew it was a possibility that we would see one, but I was so excited about the giraffes and the elephants that I inadvertently poo-pooed this armored tank of a beast. But seeing one in person was astounding. Honestly, it was like seeing a martian.
So as usual, Dee went way closer than all the other jeeps. Why?? Maybe because we were one of the few vehicles without kids in the car? Or maybe he was now addicted to my Sony NeX5 with a zoom lens. I can’t blame him. But I was about to be terrified. No sooner was Dee whispering to me about how rare it is to see these creatures, and how they never come close to the jeeps and never walk by the jeeps, than the rhino made a bee line for our jeep!! Well, maybe it wasn’t a bee line per sé, but he was definitely starting to walk in our general direction. He looked so scary I can’t even tell you. Never mind the sheer mass of muscle, that horn would spear anyone in two!
I begged Dee to start the car and get out of there. This thing was really getting close and I didn’t want to be a flukey statistic. But that’s when I realized that Dee was waiting for the shot. Dammit! So I semi-hid behind Dee (I was too scared to have the presence of mind to take a movie of this!! Dummy!!) while he hung out the window and waited for this:
When he swung his head toward us like that, my stomach lurched. Look at that horn! Look at those weird feet! This was not a merciful creature, no matter how “shy” his reputation!
Of course I trusted Dee with my life and was pretty sure that he wouldn’t jeopardize his fantastic gig by getting us maimed or killed, but I will say that after he snapped this shot, he didn’t take the time to look at the viewfinder as he generally did – he turned the engine over in a big hurry and backed away. Aha! We were in danger!!
Then we watched from a safer distance as he headed away from the wide semi-circle of vehicles and disappeared into the next pasture.
On the way back to the camp, Dee stopped in a meadow where there were hundreds if not thousands of zebras. We sat in complete and utter silence for a long time, and for a brief few minutes, I felt fully connected to the land. I searched for a photo to share with you of this experience, but I don’t have any that capture the vast sky, the weight of the silence or the depth of the peacefulness. You’ll just have to go yourself.
Thanks Dee! And everyone at Tipilikwani! My final Africa blog from this trip will be about our eye-opening trip to a Maasai village.