Maasai Mara Expedition
© Enzo MMV.
This was our third trip since we’ve been in Kenya and this time we thought we’d like to recce the route to the Mara and see some of the famous “Wildebeast Migration” in preparation for my folks arriving in September. There were 13 in our party, traveling in three 4x4s (2 Prados and a 4Runner), and, after last minute fuelling and packing (“Why didn’t they do it the day before?”), we left at 7 am (“Only an hour late!”) for the Mara.
Leaving Nairobi we traveled up Waiyaki Highway and after climbing through the highlands of Limuru, we reached the turn off for Naivasha & Narok. We then dropped into the Rift Valley, from 1800m to 1300m, via a long twisting road littered with the results of impatience. At the bottom of the hill were two, burned out, fuel tankers and the carcass of a third truck was abandoned, overturned, on the slope below them. If anyone knows the state of Nairobi’s highways and thought they could not get worse then they’d be in for a very big shock. Although the road to Narok is paved all the way there are numerous large and small potholes that require you to keep you eyes glued on the road in front of you as you dodge and weave between them.
Once you leave Nairobi and its environs, the countryside and (non) level of development are very similar to that of Tanzania. Everything is in a desperate state of repair and there is a general feeling the smart ministerial Mercedes 4x4’s that you see around Nairobi’s thriving red-light district never quite make it this far. We refueled at Narok, a dirty, dusty, crappy little town, full of touts and scam merchants that is the administrative centre for the Maasai area. As you enter Narok the road starts to degenerate into a dusty, potholed and corrugated track, and leaving Narok, amazingly, it gets even worse! As you rattle your way southwards you are amazed by a large sign that says: “Fuel levy funds used to improve this road” – what a joke!
Heading towards the Mara Reserve we saw the occasional giraffe, zebra, impala and Thomson’s gazelle in the surrounding “communal” lands and very soon we were turning off the beaten track and doing a bit of “bundubashing” to find our campsite. We arrived at the Mara Springs Campsite somewhere around 1pm and found basic tented accommodation, ablution blocks and dining hall under wooden A Frames. It is a nice peaceful site with plenty of space and, most importantly, it was cheap and close to the park gate.
Actually entering the park was easy (although the ticketing was confusing as they were issued by two different authorities) as we pre-purchased our tickets at the camp (which was convenient as some of us were on a bit of a sticky wicket concerning our residency status and the Maasai administrators at the camp were easier to talk to than some officious national parks gate guard) and cost us 500 Kenyan shillings each per day (just over GBP 3) for adults, 250Ksh for children and 500Ksh for the vehicle. Of course, those coming from the south may not find it as cheap as tourists pay around US 30 pppd for entry to the park and I am unsure what they’d have to pay for their vehicle. Tickets are, supposedly, valid for 24 hours from the time of entry although we did not have to test this.
Unlike South Africa and Zimbabwe were most game drives are taken in open safari vehicles, the majority of traffic in the park are the ubiquitous white 2WD combis and the park’s roads really are a bit on the rough side for the speeds these guys do (there is a speed restriction of 40kph but I doubt if any of these drivers really pay to much attention to that), and from the huge water filled mud craters that pretend to be potholes, I would think that it would be near impossible to travel there by 2WD in the rainy season. As it was, the various corrugations, lumps, bumps and holes succeeded in busting the mounts on my rear anti-roll bar and I am still worried about some strange grinding noises I can hear coming from an, as yet, unlocated source. We only had one puncture on this trip and it taught me some good lessons: in my rush to pack up my kit and get on with our safari I didn’t tighten some bolts down hard enough and they rattled loose during the ensuing 3 day safari. In all I lost a retaining bolt on the Hi-Lift and two bow shackles – my fault entirely, but they’ll be hard to replace here in Nairobi.
NB: Once we came off the main road onto the secondary tracks, we were traveling through long grass nearly all the time and so the piece of mosquito mesh I had fitted over the radiator air intakes came in very handy – even with that protection we still had to clean out some grass from the radiator when we returned to Nairobi.
It is very easy to get lost in this large and gently rolling park (1 680 sq. km) as sign posts are rare and the map we had was obviously drawn by someone with a tenuous grip on reality and/or they had never actually been there. My old Garmin III Plus really saved our collective arses and enabled us to use some of the parks lesser used “roads” and tracks, and thus avoid the “matatu cowboys”.
From the Sekanani gate we drove in a northerly direction towards the Talek River looking for Lion and any other cats that may be on the prowl late in the afternoon/early evening and we were not disappointed. We came across a buffalo and a pair of lion who had bedded down in the long grass adjacent to the road and here we ran into another problem. Due to the rain the grass was very tall and wouldn’t be cropped until the migration arrived. Of course this provides great cover for the protein hungry lion but terrible photographic opportunities for the picture hungry mazungu!
Returning to the camp we saw several small groups of elephant & buffalo and then passed through the gate at about 6:30pm, obviously the gate guards weren’t too worried about us missing the 6:00 deadline which was lucky for us. Another 15 minutes saw us all in camp and comparing notes as we prepared the evening meal. I must say that I didn’t actually help with supper as, even though I was carrying two spares, I wanted to fix my puncture before the next full day’s game drive. Anyway, I’ve added a neon strip light to the rear of my vehicle and so assembled my tools and prepared for the potentially arduous task of splitting my rims (I haven’t had to change this particular tyre since we left Zim and so the rim had “bound” a bit). The darkness quickly fell and as I started my first Castle of the evening my neon light drew in some of the other males of our group. So we started yarning and swopping stats and so the first beer was swiftly followed by a second and then a third and it wasn’t long before supper was called and I had achieved nothing except distributing Castle and good cheer! I hastily scoffed my grub and, making my very sincere apologies to the group, got back to the task in hand and within the next half hour I had split the rim, replaced the tube and my little “Truck Air” was put-putting away into the night air bring my XZL back up to 40psi.
There were three camp beds in our spacious tent and enough bedding to have kept us warm on a much colder night. The only problem was the lighting: this was a hit or miss affair using paraffin lamps and no electricity. The camp was also laid out poorly and none of the facilities had their own lamps at night and so, if you didn’t bring a torch, you would blunder around, tripping over various wires and walking into the wrong tent until you finally found the toilets. We did manage to get a good hot shower though and that was a welcome relief from the layers of dust we’d accumulated on the road and then, dousing the light and zipping our tent up securely, we hit the sack.
Rising at 5 the next morning we quickly brewed up coffee and then packed the vehicles ready for the days safari. The group in the newer Prado roared off again as we packed the breakfast things but we caught up with them at the gate as they had our tickets. We had decided to move as a group and we drove down towards the Sand River Gate.
The Sand River Gate is the Southern most gate of the Mara reserve and runs contiguously into the Serengeti Reserve, Tanzania. We had to make a river crossing after the gate and although it doesn’t look to dramatic in the picture below, it actually dropped at least 10m down a slippery slope of black cotton soil to the river bed and then rising up again, we all made the crossing easily, powering up the muddy slope, churned up by a previous migrating herd, in 4wd low range.
Reaching the top of the bank on the other side we wheeled the cars through 180 degrees and parked on a grassy bank overlooking the river. Here we unloaded the cars and set up our gas burners to make brunch: a feast of Argentinian omlettes, and a full English breakfast! With full stomachs, we brewed coffee and set about repacking the vehicles. We then drove back across the river, through the gate and back into the Kenyan Mara.
We traveled in convoy across the Mara Bridge and down to Hippo Pools. Here we had a quiet meeting and decided to split into two groups: the first consisting of our vehicle and the older Prado, were to follow the migratory herds and the second made up solely of the other Prado was going to push on up to Olpunyata Swamp.
From the Hippo Pools we drove back to the Central Plain and on spotting one of the large migratory herds of wildbeast and zebra, took a little used road off to the side and slowly drove into the middle of what must have been a thousand animals spread thinly across the plain. Due to the long grass these animals were only making their way slowly north and most were just sedately grazing. A few wildebeest chased each other around in their usual clown-like way but otherwise all was calm as there was no sign of the lions we had seen on the previous day. The lions we had seen looked pretty sated but the long grass didn’t allow us to see if there were any carcass’s near them.
Although off-road driving is not allowed, it does happen and the “matatu cowboys” were the main offenders but sometimes you had to drive off-road just to circumvent the bunched up combis gathered around a sighting. Were it is legal to do a bit of “bundubashing” is when you are making a river crossing. We made a couple of these over the weekend and they really did add a little spice to the rather sedate job of chauffeuring your family and friends around the park.
Coming off the main road completely we found a secondary track to follow and, using the GPS as a compass, we navigated ourselves through the huge herds of game again and back to the gate which we reached dead on 6 pm. On the way home we did cross paths with a defensive Rhinkal who stood up and flared his hood at us as he blocked our path, but after studying him for a while our stomachs started to complain and so we gave him a wide berth and drove on. Back at camp we had a more relaxed evening around the braai that our friends Ste and Zaneli had brought with them and then we all hit the sack.
For our group the final morning was spent relaxing and gathering our thoughts and kit, although the “young guns” in the new Prado left at six as they wished to drive further north into the park to explore some rougher areas and to find out what 4x4 potential they had. Kit packed and cool box sorted we left all our extra veggies and meat with the Maasai camp staff and set off for Nairobi at about 11:30. We pulled into Nairobi a bone shattering 5 hours later glad to be home before we lost the light and immediately decamped to a local Java to eat and relax.