After a 6am start day two of our overland truck tour begins with introductions to Caroline and Marjorie, our two new Brazilian truck mates. Breakfast comes with a side serving of more passionfruit than we’ve ever seen in one place (fruit is so cheap here). Loading up Shaggy (our truck), we hit the tarmac and an hour later arrive at a viewpoint for the spectacular geological phenomena that is the Great Rift Valley. Stretching 6,000km from Lebanon to Malawi and encompassing the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, the valley is visible from space and as the earth sinks the valley grows a further 1 – 1.5m a year.
A nearby curio store gives us our first introduction to bargaining in Africa. Eyeing up a wooden zebra mask, our guide gives us a ballpark figure of USD$10 and we enter into discussions with the shop owner. When his starting price works out at USD$160 we walk out of the store laughing. Bargaining over. Passing through the small town of Suswa we notice stores with names like ‘Good Hope’, ‘New Beginning’ and the ‘Women’s Only Bank’ and a small, faded two metre by two metre dusty store named ‘Sun City Wines’, all surrounded by brown and white goats grazing on a rainbow of plastic garbage.
Our first wildlife spottings consist of a large herd of Maasai giraffe, a handful of Wildebeest and a small tree which maintains a unique relationship with the local ants. The ants live inside the seeds, stinging anything which tries to eat them, thereby protecting the plant and are rewarded by being allowed to eat the sap, in the first of many of Africa’s symbiotic relationships we were to witness. Just outside the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, we stop at a local Maasai village, where we’re met by a group of brightly dressed local villagers. The men sing, dance and jump for us, before we’re shown inside and given a demonstration on how to make fire from a fig tree stick and hard oval shaped piece of sandbark wood.
Inside the village the women sing a local song for us, accompanied by a couple of small children, before our guide explains a bit about life in the village. Buying a wife costs about 10 cows, and when she joins your village the other women will spend 2-3 weeks helping build her house, even your own wife will help build for your new wife. The houses last around six years, after which the village will decide to rebuild where they are or move to greener pastures. Their herds of cows, sheep and goats are brought inside the village fences at night to protect them from leopards and lions, with the vulnerable calves being kept inside the house. Cows are milked by the women every morning and grazed by the men everyday. Once a week, a cow is bled to provide blood for the whole village, with families taking turns as each cow can only be bled once every two months.
Eventually we’re all led to a small round mud hut and shown some of the local craft and beadwork. Each person is followed by their own Maasai desperatly hoping to make a sale as the rest of the village surround the outside, making you feel like you’re in a zoo. Taking about an hour, it’s an interesting insight into the Maasai way of life, and though our guide was incredible friendly and informative, the whole thing feels very staged and almost a little awkward. But it does help add to the villages income at the end of the day.
Today we popped our game park cherry and headed into the famous Maasai Mara to spot some real African wildlife. We weren’t disappointed. The Mara joins up with the huge Serengeti National Park and is part of the Great Migration, a natural phenomena like nothing else on earth. With their excellent sense of smell, 260,000 zebra kick off the move following the rains to the best grazing. They’re followed by 1.7 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of other game. Lucky for us, August is the perfect time to see the herds moving through the Maasai, and we were greeted by the site of huge columns of wildebeest. Known as the clowns of the open grasslands, their sometimes daft behaviour and slightly dumb expression is pretty endearing.
The wildebeest and zebra stick together, with the zebras better eyesight and wildebeests increased sense of smell making them great friends to avoid predators. Impala and topi are added to the list along with a group of Cape Buffalo, with their poor eyesight, mean glare and barrister wig style horns. A lucky spot sees us training the binoculars on a poor baby wildebeest hanging from a tree while a leopard sleeps above it. Natural born killers, leopards begin stalking lizards and insects almost from birth and require much less training than other wild cats. By two years old they’re lean, mean killing machines, this one obviously no exception.
Passing a large herd of elephant expertly hidden in the bush, we wrap up the day by watching the suns perfect orange orb disappear ‘Circle of Life’ style below the horizon, with that elusive flash of green as it disappears leaving us spellbound. We spend the night at a basic camp on the outskirts of the park where Maasai warriors with spears escort us to the bathroom to protect us from a resident leopard who occasionally makes an appearance. Listening to hyenas calling in the distance, one of them tells us not to worry, his blanket will protect him. We don’t believe him.
The next morning Matt entertains everybody with his dream of being surrounded by lions in the tent before a leopard leaps over the fence and is chased away by the Maasai. With the lions then making a kill just outside the fence, a hyena sneaks in and goes for him, so he takes shelter on a nearby shack roof. The hyena then takes a seat next to a human and waits for me, crossing it’s legs while it waits.
Heading back into the park for sunrise, a troop of black faced vervet monkeys and a family of mongoose entertain us at the gate. We spot another herd of elephant before our driver, Tom, spots a male lion sitting royally in the sun across the river. A long drive around to reach the other side sees it chased away by other trucks before we get there, but we do get to witness a bachelor group of elephants trumpet and stamp at a passing herd of wildebeest who in typical wildebeest fashion, get all confused, run in all directions, then stand still wondering what the hell to do next.
The day is rounded out with a huge slightly scary looking Secretary bird, so called as they used to use the feathers for pens, and some hippo wallowing in a river, their little pink chins and faces seeming the smile in the sun. Hippos are the closest living relatives to whales and are incredibly territorial, using the same pathways to the rivers and if you happen to get between them and the water, they’ll probably kill you. In fact even though they look lazy, they kill more people than any other animal in Africa.
And this is when we hit the jackpot. Just before leaving the river, a couple of trucks tell us there’s three leopards nearby. After just a few minutes Matt and I spot one of them leave the bushes, take a seat in the middle of a path and look right at us. After staring for a few seconds, it trots up the hill and in full view walks across the top of the embankment. Leopards are the hardest of the Big Five to spot, with Cape Buffalo, Elephant, Lion and Rhino being much more likely. And just like that our driver finds us two male lions resting on their backs under a shady tree. Ticking off four of the Big Five in the first two game drives was pretty epic.
Leaving the park Massai women were selling blankets and jewellery, and with Matt showing interest in a blanket we got mobbed. Finally agreeing on a price (550 shillings/USD$5.5.) we hit the road to Lake Naivasha where we arrived at dusk to setup camp by the lake.
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