A visit to Masai Mara, the Kenyan part of a massive cross-border national park (named the Serengeti in Tanzania), is a must on any visit to Kenya. Named after the Masai, the tribe who live there, the park is unique in that it has been declared a World Heritage Site despite the fact that the Masai live there and use it for grazing their cattle. Admittedly, given the number of predators in the vicinity grazing cattle in the area puts herdsmen at serious risk (on one game drive, we counted about 15 lionesses and saw a group of 7 cheetahs!). I met two Masai men who showed me their bows and poison-tipped arrows – necessary weapons for defending themselves and their cattle! Inside the Masai Mara wildlife was abundant, enabling us to spot four of the ‘Big Five’ within the two game drives that we did. Seeing 15 lionesses in one spot relaxing at sunset before a busy night of hunting was particularly satisfying. Observing the elephant families was also wonderful. Most fascinating of all though, was the amount of information we got from our wonderful guide, John. We learned that the number of predators in a given area affects the colour of a zebra’s stripes – the darker they are, the more dangerous their environment is – black stripes indicate a lot of predators, whereas brown stripes indicate fewer. Newborn zebras have brown stripes; as they mature their stripes darken according to the environment in which they live. Another fascinating thing we learned about female zebras was that they (along with wildebeasts) can prolong their pregnancy for up to two weeks, if say they are caught in the middle of the migration or a hazard makes it imprudent to give birth. Driving around the park with John, it was hard to believe that amid the abundance of wildlife, poaching is still such a problem in East Africa, but he informed us that between 2004 and 2008, poaching got so out of control in Kenya that the government issued ‘shoot on sight’ directives. Masai Mara along with other parks in East Africa, must vigilantly protect the prized elephant tusks, rhino horns and other animal parts which countries such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, China and Japan prize. John lamented the fact that the Chinese are the number one importers of ivory and that their economic power combined with corruption inside the government and a quid pro quo between Chinese investors and Kenyan officals means that shipments of ivory are still being seized.
Our first foray into the African bush was on a walking safari in Navaisha. We had not really had high expectations for the day, so we were pleasantly surprised at the amount of wildlife we were able to spot in a half day walking through the national park, visiting the Green carter lake and taking a boat trip on a local lake.
Our guide, a man called John, who is in his mid-20s had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the birds, plants and animals of the area. Unfortunately, he has been unable to attend university due to the high fees and corruption in the grant awarding process. In the absence of a formal higher education, he has taught himself thousands of Latin and common terms for describing the flora and fauna of Kenya. He is familiar with the calls of over 200 birds and has used his volunteering experience at the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Lake Naivasha Nature Club to assist with regular animal censuses. He has, in his own words found that “the best way to learn is not in a classroom, but from being in nature…”
Within a very short time, we were able to spot zebra, giraffes, Thompson’s gazelles and dik-diks. It was amazing to see how close we could get to these animals on foot if we were quiet enough; watching giraffes munching on acacia trees and zebra nibbling grass was truly magical.
John taught us about Euphobia, deceptively cactus-like in it’s appearance, this plant can blind you, but can also be used for making glue. We also learned about Leleshwa, the ‘deoderant plant’, which is also used to decongest a stuffy nose.
Later we were able to take a short walk up to the viewing point and look down into the Green Crater Lake which attracts flamingos because of the algae that thrives there.
Our final stop for the day was a lake populated with approximately 60 hippopotamuses (hippopotamai) .Once out on a small boat, we quickly located a large group bathing at the other end of the lake. As we got closer, the boatman had to turn off the motor because it would have aggravated them. For the next half an hour we nervously photographed the hippos frolicking in the water. Whenever the disappeared from view all of us scanned the water for bubbles in anticipation, hoping that they would not resurface under us or capsize the boat as they can do.
After a flight from Mumbai over Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea and the Pyramids of Giza, we made our way to Nairobi. Arriving at 4 am was a daunting thought given the terrible reputation that the Kenyan capital has earned. Nicknamed Nai-robbery, many tourists feel nervous about walking the streets. However, once our jet-lag wore off, we ventured into the centre of the capital and also attended a barbecue in the suburbs without incident. Perhaps we were lucky, but our initial paranoia about the city seemed misplaced.
Although we have only been here a short time, we have been fascinated by the complexity of Kenyan society; we have learned volumes about tribes, dowry practices, the environmental problems which face the country, distrust of Chinese investment and opinions on Obama. In Kenya debate is everywhere – on TV, in the newspapers, on supermarket radio broadcasts and in taxis.
From our room we had spent a couple of days gazing out across the urban landscape to the distant hills in anticipation of the nature which Kenya is so famous for, so when it came time to leave for Naiasha at 8 am on Monday morning, we were more than ready to ‘get truckin”. Our drive took us along the southern road through the Rift Valley, past some of the most breathtaking scenery we have seen this trip.
Once in Naivasha, we met three more members of the group we will be completing the expedition to Capetown with (the other seven will join us in a week), we then set off for Elsamere. Where we spent the afternoon visiting the house and property of George and Joy Adamson, who became famous as a result of Joy’s international bestseller Born Free, which tells the story of their unique relationship with a lioness, Elsa, whose mother was killed while she still a cub. It was amazing to see how much commitment to conservation in Kenya Joy and George had and to see what a contribution Joy made to the pictorial record of Kenyan anthropology and horticulture. Sadly Joy and George both met grizzly ends: Joy was killed by a disgruntled house servant as a result of a dispute about pay and George was murdered by poachers when he was out in his Range Rover, ‘The Nightinagale’.
Naivasha is a beautiful place, however the flower farms, which provide 70% of local jobs are wreaking havoc on the area’s delicate eco-system. The farms attract migrant workers from all over Kenya and export flowers to Europe and beyond, making them an integral part of contemporary Naivasha. However, much of the run-off from fertilizers and insecticides ends up in Lake Naivasha; locals told us that a few years ago people started noticing large numbers of dead fish floating on the lake. Apparently, in the last dry season, the lake also receded 2km from the shore because so much of its water was being used for flower farming.
Stocks of the delicious Tilapia, which was once abundant in the lake, have dropped drastically in recent years, prompting protests by local residents and a government investigation. However, the money which the farms make for their owners (many of whom are Dutch or wealthy Kenyans) may make it easy for them to bribe government officials. Locals complain that attempts by local environmental groups and proposals made by the WWF along with the government’s offer of 2 million Kenyan Shillings to purchase fish to restock the lake with will be futile in the absence of a thorough investigation into the cause of the problems which have lead to the degradation of the lake’s fragile ecostystem.