From Kenya to Uganda

Before coming to Africa, we knew next to nothing about this continent. After all we’ve seen, now we know next to next to nothing; but at least we know our preconceptions have all proven wrong. I don’t know why, when traveling, it always surprises me so much to find cities, shops, cars exactly the same as I am used to where I live. It’s as if I know with my conscious mind that of course these things are common everywhere but then there’s a tiny unenlightened tenant in the corner of my brain that goes: “whooaa”.

This is what Nairobi looks like from the air:

That big stretch of savanna you see in the background is Nairobi National Park, a 45 sq mile reserve at the South edge of Kenya’s capital city.

It is surrounded by an electrified fence in order to keep wild animals and people separate but that doesn’t always work. Lions sometimes escape the fence and then panic ensues in the surrounding population. The lions leave the park usually following prey like warthogs and suddenly find themselves in the midst of an apartment complex. Nairobi’s population has been growing greatly and conflict between these two resident groups has intensified in the last decade. During these encounters, it is usually the lion who fares worse. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Chinese, as part of their aid to Africa, are building a rail line straight thru the park in order to connect Mombasa with Nairobi. While the rail line is expected to alleviate traffic, one can only sigh at the thought of its effect on the wildlife. Unhappiness with Chinese people, be they entrepreneurs, tourists, or poachers, is a common thread thru the African nations we visited. Mombasa Road is the main thoroughfare in Nairobi and divides the populated area from the National Park.

We didn’t actually get the opportunity to visit Nairobi: we were here three separate times but only to take connecting flights. During one of these trips, we had to spend a night in a hotel since our next flight didn’t leave until the following morning. It was an odd experience. Kenya depends heavily on tourists for its income and thus can’t afford to be thought of as “dangerous”, therefore it takes incredible precautions to provide safety for travelers. For instance, our escort from the airport to the hotel was not allowed inside the airport, we had to walk outside to meet him. He then walked us at a brisk pace for about 5 mins away from the mob of people waiting outside the airport doors simply to separate ourselves from large groups of people. Here we waited for what seemed to be forever for our driver, we found out why it took so long the following morning since we then had to do the entire process backwards. Drivers are not allowed near the airport. In order to pick up or drop off passengers, cars must go thru a checkpoint. All passengers must exit the vehicle and walk thru metal detectors. The car is inspected by security personnel as well as all luggage passed thru big scanners. One waits for the car to pick one up again on the other side of the checkpoint. The car will drop you off far from the airport itself and then you have to walk thru a tunnel and another checkpoint (with its luggage and people scanners) just to get inside. Once the luggage is checked (going thru yet another scan) you walk thru (you guessed it!) another scan into the waiting area. At check-in, you and your hand luggage will be scanned once again before you walk out on the tarmac to your plane. Here, you will be subjected to one last scan with a hand held device before climbing the stairs to your airplane. Pilots, flight attendants, and even the personnel bringing in the food trays are scanned as well, no one goes un-scanned.

While driving us to our hotel the previous night, which was only 10 mins away on Mombasa Road, we went thru about 5 checkpoints with humongous cameras with blinding flashes. Our guides explained that these are meant to see into the innermost corners of every car. They gave me a headache. Our hotel was surrounded by a 10ft fence and our car scanned with mirrors by AK47-wielding guards before being allowed inside the gate. Once inside, dogs sniffed our vehicle before they allowed us out. Our luggage was sent thru a scanner at the steps of the hotel and we also had to walk thru one before entering. Hallways in the hotel had doors not only at the end points but also midway which were unlocked with our key-card and guards could be seen thru our windows walking on the roof. While we never felt even the tiniest bit unsafe, we did feel a little sad about the need for this extreme security. However, everyone in Nairobi was wonderfully kind to us. Next time, we will be staying a bit longer to get the real Nairobi experience and visit Nairobi National Park where our guides assured us, Cheetah are so plentiful, they even climb on top of your cars!

From Nairobi, we flew into Entebbe, Uganda on the banks of Lake Victoria: Africa’s largest lake, second only to Lake Superior in the USA.

Unfortunately again, we didn’t get much of an opportunity to visit Entebbe as we were led to our very cute hotel for the night and picked up early the next morning for our connecting flight to Bwindi. Security measures in Entebbe weren’t as strict as in Nairobi but still more than we’re used to which again made us sad. Turns out that Entebbe is the departure point for bird-watching tours in Uganda which has been named bird-watching capital of Africa: over 600 species have been recorded here. Our tiny hotel had a huge tropical garden where people would assemble to begin their tours. We have a newfound respect for bird watchers as they require enormous amounts of patience and a very steady hand to be able to photograph those flighty beings! Our pictures were mostly blurs.

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We came all the way to Uganda in search of a much, much larger animal though and we were not disappointed.

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The Great Migration

Although the Masai Mara is “Big 5” territory, the main attraction here is the Wildebeest Migration. Zebras migrate along with the Wildebeest but the Wildebeest are so numerous that the Zebras are hardly noticeable among them.

The Wildebeest spend their lives moving in a big circle from the Serengeti in Tanzania, to the Masai Mara in Kenya, and back again. If they live long enough to complete the journey that is, as predators follow them every step of the way.

You know who else follows these guys around? Tourists! Contrary to what Africa documentaries might lead you to believe, you won’t be alone out here.

No worries, this place is humongous and there is simply no way it can ever feel crowded.

The Mara river cuts the Masai lands in two sections and lodges are located on both sides of the river. Going across is not allowed. Whichever side your lodge happens to be in, that’s the side you’ll stay on. Good thing animals don’t follow human rules and there are so many of them, they are impossible to miss. The Wildebeest don’t all cross the river at once, they do it in groups and so there are many crossings to be seen every day for a few weeks. The trick is being at the correct bend of the river at the right time to witness it. Guides will park their jeeps early to get a good spot.

Others start crowding in soon enough. There is a lot of waiting involved and everyone here wants to have the “best view”, thus fights occasionally ensue. Sometimes a latecomer will squeeze in between two other parked jeeps and stop just a few feet ahead blocking visibility for those who had been waiting for hours. Yelling, cursing and engine revving follows. Eventually someone backs down, someone moves, someone leaves. It’s all part of the adventure!

Wildebeest are very skittish.

Even Elephants will scare them away from the water.

Having so many people scrambling to see them tends to frighten the Wildebeest away from the river. After waiting for hours, it would happen that a group about to cross would bolt away frightened by an aggressive driver. Our guide, Jackson, would get mad and complain that the Warden from the opposite side of the river didn’t keep those drivers under control. I wonder if drivers on the other side complained about us in the same manner.

As Wildebeest begin gathering, vultures do the same undoubtedly waiting for the tragedy about to unfold. The Wildebeest would mill about for hours,

growing in numbers

until the itch to cross would overpower one of them. As soon as that first one jumped in,

the others would follow.

Eventually there would be so many jumping in that even hippos would get out of their way.

We were lucky: we were able to witness three separate river crossings, each one completely different to the others. The third one took us entirely by surprise. It was our last afternoon here and we were coming back from our foray into the Serengeti. Jackson stopped the jeep at the river’s edge for a sundowner. We all got off to stretch our legs and take pictures of the river while Jackson went looking for a tree. The opposite bank of the river was deserted and there were no other cars around.

As we looked at the hippos below us, these guys came out of nowhere and began gathering.

We were all struck dumb watching. As suddenly as they appeared, they began jumping into the water.

huh

This mother and her calf swam with all their strength.

They hadn’t seen who was waiting right below our feet.

The current was too strong for the calf and it began calling to its mother.


As if on cue, the crocodile slipped noiselessly into the water and fast approached.


The mother was frantic on the bank of the river calling for her calf.


It only took a few seconds.




We were frozen in place watching the drama unfold below us. Jackson must have gotten worried at our lack of noise and he came over to see what we were doing. When he saw the Wildebeest crossing he began screaming at us to get into the jeep. See, getting down from the jeep at a crossing is forbidden. We didn’t get down at a crossing though, the Wildebeest began crossing at the place where we had already gotten down. Same thing, screamed Jackson and ushered us into the jeep. Just in time too as the guards came around at precisely that moment. We could still hear the mother Wildebeest calling for her child as Jackson drove us away.

He stopped the jeep a bit farther off but by then, the Wildebeest had stopped crossing and the river had become a Crocodile fest


while the Hippos looked on.

Being witness to the Great Migration was an incomparable privilege and one which we won’t soon forget.




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A Masai Village

The camp we stayed in, Kichwa Tembo (Elephant Head) is located on land leased from the Masai. As in the Kruger, we spent an afternoon visiting a Masai village to learn how their people live. We picked a few hitchhikers on our way to the village.


Our guide during this visit was the chief’s son.


We had a welcome song from the village women


and then a welcome dance from the village men. This dance is quite funny for tourist eyes. The young Masai jump up as high as they can while emitting sharp cries.


Whoever jumps the highest earns first pick of the young women. The boys kept up with the Warriors surprisingly well.


When a young couple weds, it is the bride’s responsibility to build their house out of sticks and mud. Houses typically consist of three “rooms”: sitting, bedroom


and a small room to lock the calves in for the night.


The Masai are herders, they drink the milk AND the blood of the cow. They only take a few spoonfuls at a time by inserting a sharp spear into the cow’s carotid artery and then sealing the wound with a paste made of a special herb which grows all around their village. Cows are integral to their lives. So much so that they regularly conduct raids on other villages in order to steal their cows. Of course they are also sometimes the victims of such raids. It was described as great fun though so one has to wonder if the ultimate function of these raids is simply sport.

The village elders are in charge of building the fire, it is a responsibility only they can assume.


The young bride is given fire and she must keep it alive inside her home and never let it die out.

The Masai people are polygamist and also practice genital mutilation: both male and female circumcision. This is usually done during a ceremony once the young man turns 14. Our guide didn’t elaborate on the age a girl has to be to undergo this atrocity.

For a man to become chief, it was customary for him to kill a lion whose mane then becomes the chief’s headgear. This lion was killed by our guide’s father back in 1971.


However, our guide let us know that this custom is no longer followed as the Masai have learned that a live lion is worth much more in tourist money than the mane of a dead one on the chief’s head.

Apparently, polygamy is on the decline as well. Our guide was educated at a western school in the city where he met his wife. When I asked him if he was planning on getting a second wife, he looked horrified. He replied that Kenya has an overpopulation problem and the young people are being educated now to understand that there is no need to have such large families.


The Masai build fences surrounding their villages with sticks and stones to protect themselves from predators. The young men take turns mounting guard during the night in case a lion, leopard, or hyena manages to get in.

One common thing we’ve learned about people in Africa is that they don’t seem too concerned about predators. Elephants though, do scare them.

This village visit was much more enjoyable than the one in South Africa and it all has to do with the children. Masai children were running around and playing during our visit.


The ones who were curious enough about us would come over to say hello but none of them were forced to perform for us. That small thing made all the difference.

We found the Masai people to be extremely gentle and hospitable. They played as big a role as the animals in making us fall in love with the area.

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Masai Mara

We began to see the animals below us

Elephants


Giraffe & Zebra

as we flew into the Masai Mara.

welcoming committee

The Masai Mara takes its name from the Masai people who inhabit the area and the Mara river which crosses it.

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Along with the Serengeti in Tanzania, it encompasses 25,000 square km and provides a beautiful backdrop to the miracle that is The Great Migration.

We stayed in a tented camp while in the Masai Mara but that is a misnomer. The tents were built on stilts high off the ground

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and equipped with all the conveniences of modern life (except WiFi) including a balcony to look out at the savanna from. Although warthogs

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and monkeys

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have the run of the land, the camp had a beautiful pool from where the wildebeest looked inquisitively at us.

Wildebeest beyond the edge of the pool

The food was worthy of a five star restaurant and way too much of it. If we keep “roughing it” this way in Africa, we’re going to be charged extra on the flight back home.

Our guide here was a rough character who went by “Professor Jackson”. He knew all about the animals but unlike Nelson in Kruger, he wouldn’t share his knowledge unless asked a direct question and then he would keep yelling the answer at us until one of us said OK loud enough for him to hear over the roar of the engine. When Fernando asked him to stop to take a picture of a vulture, the Professor wouldn’t allow it. We were in a hurry to see something else, I assume. Gruff as he was, Jackson apparently was the better of the bunch. An Australian couple got told they had already seen the important animals by their driver as he refused to stop their car! Maybe we were just spoiled by Nelson and Shadi back in Kruger.

The Masai Mara is so incredibly amazing, a though guide can’t really detract from it. I won’t even attempt to describe the wonder of this place as words haven’t yet been invented which can do it justice.

We saw all the Big 5 and then some.

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Waterbuck


Topi

The classification “Big Five” comes from when only hunters came on safari. The Big Five are the five animals who, when hunted, can kill the hunter before dying and hence they were actually known as “the Dangerous Five” in years past. When the African tourism industry reinvented itself and decided to cater to photographers and other non-hunters, they needed a new name for this group of animals. The Big Five are the African Elephant

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Lion

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Leopard

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Black Rhinoceros

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and Cape Buffalo.

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The animals here number so many, it becomes difficult to decide where to turn your attention to. The amount of different birds is staggering as well. However, the Wildebeest take the cake, they’re like an infestation. Do you see all those black rocks in the background?

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In the Masai Mara, they’re called Wildebeest. These guys were everywhere and their calls, which can be heard throughout the night, kept Fernando awake. I slept like a Lion: completely unperturbed.

Speaking of Lions, there are lots of them around.

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People go about their business with no regard to them because they are hard to spot in the yellow grass.

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Although they can be playful,

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animals here know better than to let their guard down when Lions are around.

Buffalo chases pair of Lions away


Wildebeest on alert as Lion approaches

Except when they just don’t even notice them.

Wildebeest cross the road oblivious to the Pride hunting them

These Topi are standing at attention.

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Can you see why?

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Lions

Most of the time, Lions slept through the racket of our jeeps and cameras.

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Eland


Olive Baboon


Zebra


Purple Heron


Ruppell’s Vulture and Lappet Faced Vulture

Remember the Dassies (Rock Hyrax) from South Africa? Meet their cousin, the Tree Hyrax.

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Every morning on our game drives, we would come across at least one animal carcass which had been hunted down the night before.

Ruppell’s Vulture on Wildebeest carcass

We saw a jackal fighting the vultures for the spoils.

Side-stripped Jackal vs Ruppell’s Vultures

Animals being killed during the night is such a common occurrence that zebras carelessly walked by while the jackal and vultures duked it out.

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Lions with blood on their faces

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and Storks waiting their turn at the buffet.

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Whoever came up with the story about storks delivering babies must have been a sadist. Storks are scavengers, they eat entrails! Would you trust your newborn to these ugly guys?

Marabou Storks

Some of these animals we saw in spite of Jackson.

Banded Mongoose

On several occasions we had to scream at him to stop the jeep. He would act pissed for a few minutes but then finally notice what we were looking at and try to position the jeep at the best viewing angle. This resulted in lots of blurry pictures as he tended to move just as we were pressing the shutter.

Thompson’s Gazelle


Impala


Elephant Family

On one such occasion we saw a hyena apparently walking back home after feeding suddenly stop.

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We had seen so many hyenas that we almost didn’t even pay attention but something about the sudden stop made us beg Jackson to halt. What a surprise we had when suddenly we saw a lion walking straight towards it.

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Jackson saw the lion and began moving the jeep into its path forcing it to walk around us.

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Every time we could get the Lion into focus the Professor would start the jeep again. At some point even the Lion got annoyed and faced us square on as if admonishing us to back off. I got really scared, I confess.

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This picture is blurry because Jackson suddenly started the jeep but you can still feel the menace in the lion’s eyes.

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After that scare, we convinced Jackson to drive us all the way out to the Serengeti.

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Since at this time of the season the Wildebeest have migrated into the Masai Mara, the Serengeti was almost empty except for the occasional zebra or antelope.

Thompson’s Gazelle

This rock marks the border between Tanzania (on the left) and Kenya (on the right).

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After the guys left their mark in the Serengeti, we drove back to the Mara river just in time to see the most astonishing river crossing but that will have to wait for a separate post (it is that incredible).

In spite of our grumpy guide (and the lack of shock absorbers in the jeep), we fell deeply in love with the Masai Mara and truly hope to be back some day.

airport

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Update

We haven’t posted recently because we have been very busy enjoying Africa. We also haven’t had good internet access. Who really expects wifi in the middle of the jungle, right?

We have thousands of amazing pictures to share with you and we will very soon. It’ll probably take me months to go thru all of them so expect posts to continue long after we get home.

We have said goodbye to Africa and are making our way home now. Although we were sad to leave, we miss home and can’t wait to be back. One thing is for sure, we have fallen in love with Africa and hope to be back one day.

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