People have always told me that going to Africa changes your life. I never truly understood that until a trip I recently took to the Maasai Mara, a game reserve in Narok County, Kenya, that is contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Mara Region, Tanzania. I contemplated canceling this trip due to a sprained ankle, but I am so glad that it didn't stop me from traveling. It's been a lifelong dream to go to the Maasai Mara. Ever since I was at Emerson College and a Maasai man came to speak to us students about how crimes were punished in their village by elders instead of a police system, I've been so curious to see how they lived. And to finally be heading there was truly a dream come true.
It did help that we were traveling business class. I was able to put my swollen ankle up while lying in a flat bed seat. Listening to Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis while lying down with my "breakfast in bed" on Delta's business class on the way to Amsterdam was definitely much more comfortable than being scrunched in economy. I had the opportunity to try business class on Delta, KLM (they have the most leg room that I've ever seen on a plane), Kenyan Airways and Air France. This has definitely made me a super-spoiled traveler. I don't know how I'm going to be able to go back to traveling in economy again. Especially when the flight from JFK to Amsterdam was 7 hours and then the flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi was another 8 hours.
We got into Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta airport at about 10:10pm at night. I am so happy that I was greeted and escorted through immigration because I would have completely gotten lost trying to find my way through the clutter that was the international arrivals.
Contrary to what many geographically-challenged people (including one former American president) believe, Africa is not one nation, but a continent consisting of 55 different countries. Nairobi is the capital of Kenya, a beautiful country that is separated into 45 different regions. We were going to the Maasai Mara.
We stayed at Hemingways in Nairobi - a hotel named after the famed Ernest Hemingway - an author that I've admired since I was a child. His travels in Kenya inspired one of my favorite short stories by him, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," first published in Esquire magazine in 1936.
The hotel was located in the Karen neighborhood, a super posh area with a lot of huge houses - apparently belonging to the who's who of Kenya.
We woke up at 6am to go to Wilson Airport to catch our flight to the Maasai Mara, in a small 12-seater plane on an airline called SafariLink.
SafariLink has incredibly strict weight restrictions so I had to make sure that all of my luggage weighed less than 30lbs.
The Maasai Mara National Reserve (also known by the locals as The Mara) is a game reserve in Narok County, Kenya, contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Mara Region, Tanzania. It is named in honor of the Maasai people, the ancestral inhabitants of the area. "Mara," which is Maa (the language spoken by the Maasai people) for "spotted," accurately describes the dots of trees, savanna, scrub and cloud shadows that fill the area. Maa sai actually means, "speakers of the maa language".
We stayed in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, a privately owned reserve.
Naboisho means "coming together" in the Maa language. The conservancy came into being when 550 Maasai families leased 20,000 hectares (approximately 50,000 acres or 200 sq km) of their land for conservation purposes. The conservancy fees provide the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood and ensure the conservation of the wildlife in the Masai Mara eco-system.
Staying on a private conservancy has many benefits. The number of visitors to the area is strictly monitored, reducing the number of vehicles and the human impact on the environment and wildlife.
There are only seven camps in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy - compared to the over 50 camps located in the Maasai Mara National Park plus all the people with a park pass who drive in for the day. This would mean possibly over 100 safari vehicles looking at animals versus the perhaps, four, that would be driving around a private reserve. On a private reserve, you can also do a night game drive where you can see nocturnal animals, like aardvarks, or even lions hunting gazelle, as they primarily do their hunting at night. Night game drives are not allowed in the public park because they close their gates at dusk.
We stayed at Ol Seki Hemingways Mara Tented Camp, which is a part of the Hemingways Lodge collection, one of the seven camps in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy.
With only a total of 10 tented bedrooms, Ol Seki Hemingways Mara can accommodate up to 20 persons. The Camp also had two family suites, one which was lovingly named Simba, that had it's own kitchen and living area. The lodge was really right in the middle of the Mara. I even saw a zebra grazing from outside my window.
This was definitely the best part of the trip. We woke up to start our early morning game drives at 6am, but we were back for breakfast by 9am. Seeing the purples, pinks, oranges and reds of the sunrise over the Mara was definitely very special. It was seriously like something out of The Lion King. After breakfast, we rested until lunch. Then afterwards, we were at leisure until our afternoon game drive at 5pm. Although it was rainy season, we were still able to spot a lot of mammals, including the very hard-to-find leopard and cheetah. We saw elephants, zebras, wildebeest, wild boars, wild fox, hyenas, hippo, ostrich and many more mammals while on our game drive. I have to say my favorite creatures to watch were the very elegant giraffes. I really loved watching them walk from tree to tree, gracefully grazing.
We even saw a few things things we probably wouldn't be able to see if it hadn't been raining, like a vulture drying off it's wings on a tree after the rain. That was truly epic.
Sundowners is a safari tradition of alcoholic drinks taken at sunset. With the sunsets being so epic, we covered ourselves with Maasai blankets to keep us warm, and I sipped a gin and tonic while the darkness slowly descended upon us.
Things are changing for the Maasai. Climate change is affecting their main source of livelihood, their cattle. Changes in weather patterns have caused unexpected droughts in the past few years and have left some villages without food. This is the very reason that more and more Maasai families are turning to cultural tourism.
The younger generation, like our guide Benson, are getting educated and looking to careers in guiding. Although they want to preserve most of their traditions, there are some traditions that they are fighting to get rid of, for example female genital mutilation. Benson explained their efforts re-educate and get the cooperation of both men and women in the villages to make this most effective.
One tradition that seems to be staying in tact is their tradition of dowry - before a Maasai man can get married, he must have 15 cows or the cash equivalency to give to his bride's family before they are wed. Dowry negotiations between the families are a big deal and are huge celebrations. I would to love to come back to Kenya another time and witness this kind of celebration.
Our Maasai guides, Joseph and Benson, took us to the Maasai village of Paaiya, one of the many villages that peppered the Mara. The traditional Masai village is called a Manyatta - and consists of a number of huts with thatched roofs. The huts are arranged into a circle, surrounding the livestock, protecting them against the nightly predators.
We were greeted with a traditional Maasai welcome song and taken to the home of an elder, Mama Williams. There, we learned that women were charged with the building of the family home so every home was only as tall as the woman who built it. Mama Williams was approximately my height so I fit right in. Her home was a simple one-roomed structure with walls made of cow dung. This is used to build their homes because that is the only substance that termites won't invade.
It's pretty dark inside, with only a single hole letting light in. Families spend most of their time outdoors and only come inside to cook or sleep. The Masai diet has traditionally been blood, meat and milk, but recently they have added more vegetables to their diet.
Money that is spent here at the conservancy goes directly to the Maasai and the preservation of their culture, as well as to the building of schools for the Masai children. Naturally, I basically spent all of my money buying Christmas presents for my family - including beautiful beaded jewelry and Maasai blankets.
Benson told me that apparently, the necklace that I bought as a souvenir for myself was a marriage necklace.
Hmmm... I guess that means I'll just have to come back to Kenya for my honeymoon. ;)
I had SUCH an amazing time in Kenya that I can't wait to have you go. If you haven't already, let me book your Kenya vacation for you!
As a Virtuoso Travel Agent, I'll be able to get you special access to luxury properties, upgrades, daily full breakfasts, massages or food and beverage credits (depending on the property) as well as complimentary late check in and check out. These are perks that you can't get yourself online.
Fly into Jomo Kenyatta Int'l (NBO)
Mara Naibosho Conservancy, Kenya
Gin & Tonic
Safari in Mara Naibosho Conservancy
Visit a Maasai Village
by Patricia Serrano