African Overland Tour: The Ma'asai Mara

Welcome to the next installment of our African Overland Tour, if you need to read up on the last entries, they're linked at the bottom. Enjoy!

We were up bright and early (no lion attacks) for the long and bumpy drive to Ma’asai Mara National Reserve. When I say bright and early, I mean we were up at 5 AM pulling down our tents and sipping instant coffee before departing our Nairobi campground before 6 AM. The first four hours were on paved roads, but the last 100km or so were on a dusty and pockmarked road. We remarked that a long drive like that reminds you just how far from civilization you were traveling, many (rich) tourists take the short flight from Nairobi direct to the small airstrip on the National Reserve, which makes the entire park seem like a zoo instead of a 200 hectare grassland in the middle of the African bush. As I mentioned earlier, the animals are everywhere, they aren’t restricted to the national park, and many visitors to Africa (usually the tourists who’ve paid a lot of money for a private Jeep and are dressed in all khaki as if they’ll be out of the air conditioning even once during the day) will forget that these are truly wild animals. They don’t respect the fact that these lions will eat you in a heartbeat, the buffalo will charge if you annoy them, and the monkeys will grab your stupid safari hat right off your stupid head.

After about seven hours on the road, we stopped near the gates of the National Reserve at a Ma’asai village to see exactly how these Kenyan natives lived. We were greeted by a traditional dance (was it a little touristy? Sure. Was it also a chance for me to try and jump as high as a Ma’asai warrior? Hell yeah) and shown how the Ma’asai make fire from sticks and brush like we were on Naked and Afraid. We also got to see inside one of the four houses of the village, guided by the only Ma’asai in the village who spoke English, a 19-year-old named Alex who was still single because, in his words, “the women choose who they want to marry, and I do not jump as high as the others, so I have not been chosen yet.” The houses, which are built by the women of the village out of straw, dried cow dung, and mud, have one bed for the adults, one for the children, and a pot to cook food for the entire family in the middle, and the pot doubles as a heating element at night. There is also a seperate area in the houses to bring the baby cows (if there are any around) inside to keep them from being eaten by the predators during the night. Although they are not technically within the gates of the National Reserve, the lions and hyenas don’t know that. 

Twenty minutes later, we were on our first safari. 

I’d love to say that it didn’t live up to expectations, that it was just OK, that this activity I had been looking forward to my entire life wasn’t all I had built it up in my mind to be, that the pedestal I had put “Safari in Kenya” on was too high. That you shouldn’t take all of your possessions and sell them in order to get here. That it isn’t worth it. The animals aren’t that impressive up close, and the excitement of spotting a new species across the savannah doesn’t make your heart pound and I didn’t jump up and down on the truck multiple times. That we didn’t see a two-ton buffalo grazing next to a river, or a giraffe didn’t pause from eating acacia leaves to stare at us, or that herds of wildebeest and impalas weren’t so close to the truck that you could make eye contact with your favorites. 

But I can’t. 

It was fucking awesome, you guys. I say this as someone who is extremely cynical and jaded, the sheer numbers of wildebeest, zebra, and impala were awe-inspiring, as there were literally thousands of each over the nine hours we spent in the park. Every now and then, a lone ostrich or elephant would appear silhouetted in the distance, wavy from the sun and heat. During the first game drive, we were treated to perfect weather and lines of wildebeests traversing the plains. When we did our sunrise game drive the next morning, the elephants and hyenas were framed by hot air balloons lifting off in the background. Halfway through our second day, we saw a cluster of jeeps and trucks parked near a shallow riverbank, a sure sign there is something to see. As we pulled up, it took our eyes a second to adjust to the cheetah who was lying on his side enjoying the shade ten feet away from us. WE WERE TEN FEET AWAY FROM A FUCKING CHEETAH. IN REAL LIFE. 

We stayed for almost 90 minutes watching that cheetah, even though all he did was lie there and pant, occasionally lifting his head to gaze at his audience, but mostly, we were all satisfied to just watch him sleep. Here was a wildest animal, the fastest animal in the world, the big cat that loves Cheetos the most, and we had found him in his natural habitat. Eventually, after almost a full eight hour day in the park, we set out for our next destination: Lake Naivasha. 

As we set up camp next to the lake, two 4,000 pound hippos grazed peacefully a hundred yards from our truck.