Sunday, February 14, 2010

Masai Mara here I come!

For the first time I sat right behind the pilot with Aakaash as his co pilot in a 13 seater small chartered plane. When we entered the air space of Masai Mara we tried to figure out the pin heads below and started our guess work as to which herd or animal it was. When the tiny aircraft landed on a patch of dirt airstrip in the middle of a jungle where a tower of giraffes and a herd of deer and zebras were there to welcome us - the feeling was sensational.

The open safari jeeps were there to whisk us to our Royal Mara Safari Lodge. The drive to the lodge was 45 mins but those 45 mins had our adrenaline pumping since what we didn’t know was that the drive was through the wild reserve where we saw deers, giraffes, wild beasts, gazelles, impalas, antelopes etc in their natural habitat.

On reaching Royal Mara we got a warm welcome from the staff and all of us quickly gulped our welcome drinks and headed for lunch which was set right next to the lagoon where the hippos were lazing around in the heat. The smell of scrumptious barbecued chicken filled the air and we suddenly found our stomachs rumbling and our feet automatically moved towards the beautiful buffet under the shade of colossal trees.

We were very eager to see our rooms hence were escorted with guards for each family. As we were in the middle of the jungle we were not allowed to move around without guards who carried guns, bow and arrows or sticks just incase wild  life encounter became too personal. Even if we had to go to our neighbor’s tent we had to call for a guard. There were stewards assigned to each room and they had told us how to signal them with a flash light at night . It’s never too easy to stay in a jungle.

I think I can write an entire blog just about the rooms. The rooms/tents were created on small stilts right next to the Hippo Bend Lagoon which has so many herds of hippopotamuses and even crocodiles. The tents had a wooden floor, on top of which was a tented cover with a wooden ceiling. It would be very hard to describe the room so if you have time, visit, it’s worth the time. 90% of the pictures in that are that of our room. So in short every room had a theme, ours was KIBOKO (Rhino theme) with beautiful carvings all over the room. The room was facing the lagoon and the only barrier between us and the wildlife was a zipped up canvas of tent which was open during the day and which we were compelled to zip up at night to prevent stray wild animals from sharing the room with us.

The beauty, the forest, the animals, the experience was a lot to take in. The moment we kept our luggage in the room, it was already time to go for our first ever “Game Drive”. We were totally intoxicated seeing Mother Nature and her children without any unwanted interference that we have always caused, in turn disrupting so many species and their lives. We saw deers, giraffes, wild beasts, gazelles, impalas, wild buffaloes, hyenas, jackals, wild bores, bat eared foxes, baboons, eagles, vultures and storks, just to name a few.

Nevertheless none of us had anticipated what we were going to see. All of a sudden a call came in on our driver’s phone and he turned the 4 wheel open jeep in a certain direction. Masai Mara is so huge that I kept wondering how would the drivers communicate and tell each other as to which direction or place to head to, especially since there are no sign boards anywhere. However, while I was busy talking to myself, the jeep came to a halt and the driver told us that today was our lucky day and pointed towards a cheetah which is very rare to spot.

No one could contain their excitement and the expression on everyone’s face was priceless. It still gives me goose bumps to recall the Cheetah so close to my open window and staring into my awe stricken eyes. We stayed and drove along with the Cheetah for quite some time but the expert driver knew that the Cheetah has a plan of its own and was on a hunt. For almost ½ an hour it was trying to focus on a prey but when its camouflage was busted, the gazelles and deers would warn their herd by making a strange noise and sprint away. I had always watched this on Animal Planet which use to be my permanent channel for a very long time and to see all this with my bare naked eyes was just amazing.

We started thinking that the Cheetah would eventually give up and wait for the night to find its kill but all of a sudden, the Cheetah sprinted in full speed and grabbed a wild baby boar. We were just digesting what we had witnessed when suddenly we saw that the parents of the piglet charged to attack the Cheetah who was still running with the boar in it's mouth but ultimately the Cheetah had to run away with a tattered ego and parental love saved the baby wild boar’s life to live another day. This scene had already made our trip a success and even if we had to return home the same very day we would have had no regrets but… we had another day and a ½ to see the beautiful Masai Mara and experience its wildlife.

Lions were our next target to capture and as the driver said luck was on our side we did spot a lion and 2 lionesses very soon. Not only did we see them but witnessed their mating ritual as well. So there was nothing more that we could have asked for from this wonderful trip of ours. The sun was setting and it was an indication for us to return back to our camp.

Some times unexpected things happen at unexpected time and some times unwanted things happen at unwanted times… Nature’s call is one such thing that can call upon anyone at anytime especially when you spend all afternoon and evening filling your tummy with free flowing cokes and sprites. So it did happen to us... Now what do you when you have to "do" in the middle of a jungle surrounded by lions and cheetah? You drive.. and you drive, and you drive till you reach the middle of the field from where you can see all the animals and especially in such a situation you know for a fact that all the animals are definitely staring at you… Hence I told the driver “Why you don’t take us near the bushes?” to which he replied “I don’t want you people to be the “yum-yum” for the lions.” Wow! What a day! The entire day’s experience was too much to take, for the things I had seen and done, I had never ever experienced before...

However, after reaching the camp we had delicious hot chocolate and headed for dinner. Having dinner under the star lit sky next to a bonfire was beautiful and romantic. We never realized that it would get so cold that we started missing our shawls and sweaters. We were almost through with our dinner when all of a sudden a group of Masai tribe wearing their authentic dresses came and sang and danced to their tribal song. Aakaash, as enthusiastic as he is joined them in their last round of tribal dance and I was so glad I could capture it perfectly on our handy cam only to realize that when the dance ended I had forgotten to press the record button.

Anyway, we were thrilled to get back to our rooms/tents at 9pm and we had only an hour to unpack, make the kids sleep, tuck them in bed, wash Aananya’s bottles, sterilize bottles as well as prepare the backpack for the morning. (We were told when we checked in that the electricity was for a limited amount of time and since there was no source of power, electricity was supplied by generators. Hence electricity timing was distributed according to the bare miminum needs: - 5am-6am, 11am-12pm, 2pm-3pm and 6pm to 10pm.) So after 10pm, we used kerosene lanterns in the room. It was a wonderful experience to stay up at night with kerosene lanterns and be surrounded by the wild animals. If you want to experience nature at its best, Royal Mara is the place to be. It is the ideal place to get away from the rat race that we have to run every single day of our lives. The staff of Masai Mara was kind to accommodate and make changes according to our needs and hence upon my request they removed a bed from our adjacent room which had no partition and in some ways was a part of one big room. They gave us a queen-size mattress where Aan and Aananya slept together for the 1st time.

We had been so excited and ecstatic in the morning that we decided that at night we would defiantly sit outside and sip hot chocolate and inhale the beauty that had totally smitten us. So after finishing off the chores, tucking kids to bed, we decided to have a romantic lantern light hot chocolate outside in the balcony. Although we could hear the noise made by baboons, hippos and something unknown, after the lights were switched off at 10pm we unzipped our tent and stepped out into the balcony. We were warned by the Royal Mara staff that hippos tend to come out of the water and walk around the tent at night and there was also a sighting of a Cheetah near our tent a week back. However the noises of baboon and hippos got louder and we decided to take our cups right inside where it belonged and went off to sleep to start another adventurous day.

“The Morning Game Drive”

No matter how hard we tried we were almost always the last ones to arrive. Our friends were sweet enough to always give us an understanding bow, knowing that we were a family of 4 with an infant. Nevertheless every time we managed to beat another family was always a family of 5. So by 6/7am in the morning we took our places in the jeep and headed for the game drive. Lo behold to our surprise the 1st thing we saw was the Cheetah that had tried hard to get some supper last evening. The only difference today was that it had a nice round belly which meant that probably during the night he was successful in getting dinner for himself. The way we got to know that it was the same Cheetah was due to an injury he had in his hind leg. Today he was in no mood of showing any action and was just lazing around in the sun. So we left him in peace and headed to see the other animals.

After the game drive we came back to our lodge, had breakfast, went to our rooms to freshen up and the men went for “nature walk” because kids weren’t allowed and there was a lot of walking involved. So the guys had a nice time seeing deers, hippos, crocodiles, impalas, ostrich etc while I made the kids ready for lunch.

Today we were not going to be served under the huge trees of the Royal Mara but were taken for “Bush Lunch”. When our jeeps stopped, we couldn’t believe our eyes. We were standing in the middle of no where, with beautiful tables laid, a chef turning meat on the barbeque grill, a buffet table with a variety of food to choose from and kind people to serve. We filled our plates with food and sat down to enjoy our meal; we could see far away herds of deers, gazelles, wild beasts, impalas and zebras moving around and having their lunch along with us. The view, the feeling, the experience is beyond words.

After lunch we came back to Royal Mara and had just about enough time to wash, sterilize Aananya’s bottles and make the diaper bag/ back pack ready for the evening game drive. Electricity was given at such times so as to cover the bare minimum time that we spent in the rooms. While we waited for our guard to escort us to the jeep, we spent time watching the wild hippos flickering their ears from under the water just outside our room.

For the evening game drive we were taken to White Rhino Camp which was an hour’s drive. On our way, we saw so many towers of giraffes, antelopes, wild fowls, elephant and many more animals. Picture this- clouded sky, beautiful cold breeze, towers of giraffes running and your car is driving parallel to it. While driving along with running giraffes, the scenic view was breathtaking.

After we returned from the game drive I spoke to the Royal Mara’s manager and I requested if as a favor he could arrange a night game drive for all of us. Once we finished the dinner, I inquired about the night drive and to our disappointment, he said only one vehicle and one tracker was available but they couldn’t arrange for a spot light. However my perseverance and persistence paid off and a tracker with a spot light was arranged. The only hitch being that there was only 1 car and we were 18 heads including kids. Lisa, a Malaysian friend was kind enough to back out with her 3 kids so that her husband and all of us could go but I wouldn’t have let that happen. We were in this together. So I convinced everyone that I and few others could stand and rest could sit with their kids and we finally squeezed ourselves in one jeep and moved into the mystical night to see some wildlife action and adventure. We did spot the now usual deers, giraffes, hippos out of the water, a lot of hares bouncing around, hyenas, jackals etc. To see these animals and to be out in an open jungle in the middle of night gave the thrill and excitement that we all were looking for.

On our return to the lodge I could see impalas, deers and a hare running away from outside our room as our jeep approached to drop us. “Tomorrow would be the last morning game drive” I thought. It was  12am yet the Royal Mara staff was kind enough to give us electricity for ½ an hour for us to settle in. While tucking the kids to bed, I saw Aan and Aananya both were running fever hence I decided to stay back with the kids and Aakaash went for the morning game drive. After he returned we packed quickly and moved to the muddy air strip to crawl our way into the tiny aircraft. 

This was one vacation I can never ever forget in my entire life. Although none of us wanted to leave we said our goodbye’s to the Masai Mara animals and headed for Nairobi. We reached there in the evening and met up with old friends from Sri Lanka, gorged on Indian food and rested for the next day’s flight back to Lagos, Nigeria.

Thankfully Aan and Aananya behaved and our journey was comfortable and smooth. The moment I got back, I was back on my laptop finalizing our plans for my dream destination - Australia.