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Maasai Culture Experience

Part of life here in the Mara for us and the Maasai who work with us is to do our best to ensure all visitors to our camp have a memorable time and it’s great if you allow enough time to immerse yourself in the culture as well as the wildlife, our guides will give you an experience never to be forgotten.

This week we had a group of people from the USA with us for 5 nights. It’s really nice when we get visitors for 4 nights or more, as we have time to get to know them better and they get to know us.

The first day for the guests involved an early start, leaving camp at 6am just as it was starting to get light, taking breakfast and lunch with them. The early start paid off and our guides were able to show them the ‘big five’ all before lunch. The benefits of an early start are that more animals are out and about, especially the cats, before it gets too hot in the afternoon. All photos from the park are courtesy of our head guide and budding photographer, Alison. You can see from the photos that the vehicles were able to get up close with the animals, even the Rhino which is not often found out in the open like this, preferring instead to hide in areas of dense bush.

Our guests still had another 2 full days of game drives to look forward to, although topping the first day will be a difficult task for the team. However on the last day they did it, finding a family of Rhinos, the male, the female and a younger, but almost grown Rhino.

One of the days was spent on other activities. This group booked their trip to the Maasai Mara through Arte for Elephants, a travel agency based in the US. Founded by Thyra and David Rutter who also help raise funds for endangered species, including Elephants, not only that, but they also sponsor children in Education, including four children in our local school. So Thyra’s groups always include a cultural element and a visit to the local school, and they came prepared with lots of pens, colouring pencils and copy books for the children.

But before the visit to the school, there was a hill to climb. One of the activities we offer is a Hill walk, for those who feel fit enough, it’s not too tough and the view from the top makes it worth the effort. From the top you can see for miles, out over the park, all the way to Tanzania. Also you get a different perspective of the local town below, from the top it looks quite neat and nicely arranged, which is not the impression you get when you are in it. We sent extra guides on this one because the Maasai Mara is currently experiencing a drought, it hasn’t rained, apart from a few very brief showers, for several months. A drought is absolutely a bad thing for the Maasai because of their livestock not getting enough to eat and possibly dying, but another side affect of the drought is more wildlife – human conflict. Wild animals also need access to water and food and so they come closer and closer to the Maasai villages. The Maasai situated around the bottom of the hill we climb have experienced more encounters with Elephants and baboons. So, we needed the extra guides to scout ahead and scare away any dangerous wild animals. One of our guides lives in this area and the baboons have recently started to come into his house looking for food, he must hide it under the bed, and his children haven’t been outside to play for a while because of them. Baboons can be very scary animals when up close.

The next stop was the school located just at the bottom of the hill. The children were especially excited on this day as they were preparing to go home for the Christmas break and so were in high spirits. Our guests were first given a tour of the school, then they went into one of the classrooms to hand out some of the gifts they had brought with them and to talk to the children, then outside to a less formal setting before leaving the school and returning to camp.

After lunch the group walked up to a local manyatta, these are our neighbours, we know them personally and they are always happy to receive our guests. On the walk up to the village, known as a manyatta, our Maasai guides demonstrate the use of their weapons, mainly the bow and arrow and the spear. Guests are shown how to use these and are welcome to try their skills, which I have to say have never yet come close to matching the skills of the guides, although one of the women in the group practiced back at camp and became quite proficient with the spear. The Maasai are very proud of their culture, when entering the village both the men and the women perform a welcome dance and then the men go on to do s dance, that is used to celebrate their experiences when returning from time spent in the bush. Individually showing off their jumping skills, they encourage all the guests to take part as you can see from the photos. They also show their skills at making a fire with 2 pieces of wood, a handy skill to have when spending time in the bush as Moran (warrior). After this they welcome the guests into their home where they explain their culture and traditions and answer any questions you have. Finally, time to visit the women’s market, laid out on the ground, where you can buy traditional handmade Maasai jewelry, amongst many other items on show.

I can say without doubt that the group spent a great 5 days with us and were sad to leave.

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Elegance and Engineering

This week I was not able to go out on a game drive as I had to go to Nairobi for supplies for the camp, so my post is about the other animals that we saw on our previous game drive last week, in addition to the ‘Big Cats.’ Mostly birds, but also the Giraffe. Always on a game drive you can see Giraffe as well as Zebra and antelopes, they often get overlooked in the rush to see Lions, Leopards and Cheetah’s.

I think the Giraffe are the most elegant creatures in the park, with their long legs and the way they have of looking down on you. Their method of walking is to lift both legs of one side of the body at the same time, that, and their long stride give the impression of gliding rather than walking. Giraffes also seem to be quite curious, if not startled they will stand quite still and just look at you, like this little one who was with his mother and siblings but who came and posed for me in one of the photos.

Another of the photos shows some young male Giraffe engaged in ‘knecking’ a term to describe the way in which they slam their long necks and hard heads into each other as a way to prove their strength or to settle a dispute. 

Something else overlooked by many tourists are the birds, there are around 450 species of birds in the Mara, and while I am not particularly a bird watcher, I can still admire their success as a species and in most cases, with a few exceptions, their beauty.

As we were driving from one group of lions to another, I happened to see a single elephant and a single buffalo, grazing together. This, in itself was unusual as normally they both spend their time as part of a group, in the case of buffalo’s very large groups, so I asked to get closer. This is when we noticed the two egrets right by the buffalo’s head, keeping pace as he moved through the grass. The egret and the buffalo have a symbiotic relationship, whereby the egret eats the flies and insects that are exposed as he grazes and the buffalo benefits as they also eat the flies and insects that would otherwise bother him. Another bird that has this type of relationship with the buffalo is the oxpecker, anyone who has been on safari will have seen these small birds sitting on the backs of the buffalo picking the ticks and insects from his body.

The next bird I noticed was in the air, not unusual for a bird you might think, but this one looked a little different as it had quite a large wingspan and very long legs. Alison identified it as a secretary bird, which was surprising because these birds rarely fly, preferring to stay on the ground foraging for insects in the long grass. As you can see from the photos, they look very different in flight.

 

A while later we had just pulled up to the group of lions when we heard a lot of noise and activity from a nearby tree, it came from the gray backed fiscal bird. These are very common birds and very social, a group of them get together and perform a lot of tail wagging and create a constant noisy babble, for what reason I have no idea, but they are difficult to ignore, unless you are a lion.

 

After this, down by a small stream Alison pointed out a small, colourful bird among the leaves on the branch of a tree. It took me a while to see him, it was a malachite kingfisher, these beautiful creatures are quite small, only 13cm, they sit in a tree close to a slow-moving stream or river, while their sharp eyes pick out anything moving in or over the water, they immediately dive down, catch it, and are back in the tree in a matter of seconds, very efficient hunters.

 

Not far away was another efficient hunter with a similar strategy. This was a black winged kite. They perch on a branch, where they sit for hours scanning the area around them, looking for small rodents, lizards, and grasshoppers, so they really need to have good eyesight. As soon as it spots something tasty to eat it swoops down, sometimes hovering, just like a hawk above its prey while deciding the best way to attack.

The next bird we came across was the hamerkop, so named because its head resembles the shape of a hammer. It’s an unassuming brown coloured bird that likes to wade in shallow ponds looking for insects to eat, but he has a hidden talent, he is a master engineer when it comes to nest building. He builds nests so large and strong that a grown man can fit inside, and it can support his weight.

They start by creating a platform made of sticks and mud, then they make an encircling wall, topped off with a domed roof. Inside, they build a nesting chamber at the widest part of the nest so there is enough room for both parents and the young. Hamerkops are compulsive nest builders, they can build 3 to 5 nests each year, even when they are not breeding. Because these nests are large and strong quite often, other, larger birds will take possession and kick the hamerkop out. The nest we saw looked like it had been claimed by Egyptian geese.

Finally on our way back to camp we stop to look at a male elephant. This elephant caught my eye because of the liquid that could be seen coming out of the elephants’ temporal glands at each side of his head. This apparently is normal for male elephants, it is called musth and occurs each year for a couple of months, during this time the elephant can become more aggressive. This elephant looked fairly young to me because of his size, he was by himself, eating the grass and moving slowly, he didn’t look particularly aggressive, which was a good thing for us.

There is always so much to see in the Maasai Mara and everyday there is always something new. Nature is full of surprises.

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Lives of the ‘Big Cats’

Another early start this morning, we had planned to watch the sunrise from the park, but a thick blanket of cloud put a stop to that, this is what happens here when you try to plan something, but it’s not important, there will be other days.

Today, I will be spending all my time with my favorites, the ‘Big Cats’ providing we find them of course. As we were heading to the place where we had last seen the lioness with the three 3-month-old cubs our guide spotted other lions on a rock, off the road but not too far away. One male and 2 females. It was decided we would continue on our way to see the cubs as planned, but just then the females got up, stretched, and made their way to the road, I saw what they were looking at.  

. Two Zebra on the other side of the road, so we decided to turn the car around and wait for a while to see if they would hunt. They made a half-hearted attempt, but the Zebra were never in any real danger, at least not this time. So, since we were here, we went to take a closer look at the male, who was sitting under a bush just around 50 meters away. He was a fine example of a male lion, very handsome, very powerful. See what I mean about making plans.

After taking a few photos we drove back to the road, which had a ditch along the side, we must have come out in a different place than we went in, where the ditch was deeper, because when the back end of the car went down, it went down with a bang and no amount of revving was getting us out. The guide got out to check any damage to the back of the car while the driver went to the front wheels to put on the 4-wheel drive. Now, bear in mind we were not far from a fully grown, male lion, who had got up to see what all the noise was about and was already looking in our direction. It was quite amusing that when the guys got out of the car, the lion, who was walking towards us, saw the red shukas they were wearing did an about turn, and ran away, it was afraid of the Maasai! Anyway, the ditch was no problem for the 4-wheel drive, and we drove on to see the cubs.

When we reached them, I was surprised to see them at a kill with not just their mother but other females in the same pride, and they were not afraid to take their fair share. It was only last week that the mother was teaching them how to behave at a kill. They are fast learners. After spending a little time with them we went to take a look at a male lying on a rock nearby, he had clearly already eaten, the male always eats first, even if he has taken no part in the kill. Now he was just relaxing. 

As we got closer, I could see that there was a female with him as well, just chilling out. It is clear from one of the photos that the male was very affectionate towards the female next to him.

The Sopa pride females that we had been with a few weeks ago had moved across the sand river and into Tanzania, so unfortunately, we can’t go to see them. Hopefully they will be back soon. Lions don’t distinguish between countries; they only know their territory. The females we are watching this morning are from the blackrock pride, so called because their territory has many of the black rocks that are a feature in this part of the Mara. But the Male on the rock and 2 other males, were originally with the Sopa pride but have now joined up with the blackrock females, and very successfully too if the number of cubs they have fathered is anything to go by. In addition to the 3 cubs at the kill there are also the four 3-weeks old cubs that we saw last week and two other very young cubs that we haven’t yet seen.

We eventually move on to try and find the 3-week-old cubs but without success. So, we made the decision to come back later in the afternoon and try again.

Next on the agenda is to find a leopard. We had some sad news that a few days ago Lorrian the leopard we had tried to find last week, but found her son Roho instead, had been found dead, probably killed by lions. So, we wanted to try and find Roho to see how he was doing but, again, had no luck, I really hope that he can look after himself and survive, we will have another look for him next time.

However, we did manage to see a Leopard, well, we caught a glimpse of him in an area of dense bush as he ran away through the long grass. We couldn’t follow as there was no way through for the vehicle. As we were leaving, we just saw him heading up a tree. We returned this way on our way back from the game drive but approached from a different direction and were able to get close to the tree, and there he still was, lying along a thick branch, indifferent to anything going on around him. I suspect he had not moved since we left him this morning.

Now only the cheetah left to find, we drove over towards Talek to the territory of 4 male cheetahs. These are not brothers but formed a coalition as it made hunting easier. Originally, they were a coalition of 5 but one of the cheetahs left to go with a female and when he returned the others refused to have him back.

We found them as they were resting in the open plains, camouflaged in the grass. We kept back a little as there were a few zebra and Impala in the distance, near a line of bushes. Then one by one the cheetahs took an interest in them and got up, organized themselves into a hunting party and started forward. The only problem was, they were exposed in the open, so they were seen, and the prey moved to the other side of the bush. This meant the cheetahs could move up and hide, a perfect place for an ambush. We had also moved the vehicle to the other side, close to the Impala, I felt sure that the cheetahs would make a surprise attack. 

Unfortunately, a herd of cattle with a Maasai was also headed toward the Impala, this spooked them, and they ran away before the cheetahs had a chance. This is Life in the Mara for the ‘Big Cats’

 

The afternoon was wearing on so we went back to see if we could see the baby lion cubs. Luck was with us, and they were outside their den, playing with their mother, with each other and feeding. They are now exactly one month and one day old. It is clear from watching this family that female lions are devoted and loving towards their cubs.

Since the other blackrock females were not far we decided to drop in on them again. As expected after their large feast this morning they were lazing around not doing much, but all three of the male lions were with them now, one hiding in a bush, another, posing for the camera. Then as a bonus we found the other two baby cubs with their mother and the third male lion who was not so happy to see us. They were a little apart from the main pride hidden by bushes, these cubs were just a little younger than their Cussons we had just left.

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Dawn to Dusk Part 2

So, to continue, Alison, our guide had heard where the two females were with their young cubs, and we headed over to where they might be. On the way, we came across 3 male lions, these are brothers and were part of the Sopa pride until they reached maturity and had to leave. Now they are with the females from the BlackRock pride and more than likely fathered the cubs that we were on our way to see. They were doing what most male lions do during the day, which is absolutely nothing, just lazing in the shade of the bush. From what I saw of them they are fine examples of  male lions, large and powerful.

We drove on and after another 10 minutes or so we saw a female lion walking in the distance, she was coming our way. As we got closer to her, we could see that she had 3 young cubs with her, the cubs which were around 3 months old, were playing around as they were following, if they strayed too far, she gave a low quiet grunt to call them back to her. Cubs of this age are not yet ready to join the pride, the mother only takes them to join the pride when they are able to hold their own at a kill, otherwise they would starve and die.

We followed for a while to see where she was taking them, then Alison noticed that she had a little blood on the side of her leg, and from this he concluded that she had made a kill and was now taking the cubs to it so they could eat. We stopped following, took a detour to get ahead of her and see if we could find the food. The plan worked, we found a small lifeless warthog half hidden in a bush, this was definitely where she was headed. It wasn’t long before the lioness and the cubs came into view. The driver had positioned the vehicle so that we had a good view of what was about to happen.

The mother walked right up to the carcass stopping in front of it, and it didn’t take long for the cubs to figure out what they were supposed to do with it. They were jumping on it, rolling it over and trying their utmost to get their teeth through the tough skin, into the flesh underneath. It took a full 20 minutes of working together before they managed to break through. The mother, meanwhile, had found a nice shady spot in which to sit, watch her offspring, and relax. They took a leg each and worked away, taking short breaks to take a drink in the small rock pools and get a little reassurance from their mother.

 After getting a little to eat, they became tired and took a short ‘cat nap.’ Then, fully restored it was playtime, they were a delight to watch as they splashed around in the shallow rock pools, stalked, and jumped on each other. We stayed with them for a couple of hours while they played and by this time it was just past mid-day, the sun was at its highest in the cloudless sky. It was getting unbearably hot, the flies had multiplied, if that was possible. The lioness was now finishing of the warthog, both her and the warthog both covered in flies, and they were also disturbing us, so we all agreed it was time to move on.

We wanted to find the other female with cubs, so we drove back to the place where we had seen the first lioness as the 2 females would stay around the same area for protection. However, this female would be more difficult to find as her cubs were only 3 weeks old so she would be hiding somewhere to keep her cubs safe during this critical time. Lion cubs don’t open their eyes until they are at least 2 weeks old, so everything is new to these 2 cubs, and they stay close to their mother for safety.

It took us a while, slowly driving around the area, looking into many bushes. Eventually, we got lucky and found them. When we pulled up in the vehicle the cubs immediately hid behind their mother, but curiosity got the better of them and they came out to look at what this strange thing was. Once they realized it wasn’t going to hurt them, they promptly ignored us and carried on playing with each other while their mother dozed. They were very cute, but I have to say, not yet as entertaining as their older cousins.

It was now 2:30pm time for lunch so our driver took us to a nice spot in the shade of a tree next to a small river. Sitting in a tree nearby was a vervet monkey, however he didn’t try and join us for lunch. There was also a black bellied bustard, patrolling a piece of ground close by, looking for his own lunch of grasshoppers, ants, and other small insects.

We went to the river to eat because after lunch this is where we would start our search for a female leopard by the name of Lorian and her male cub Roho. She had been sighted in the area over the last few days. Leopards tend to move around quite a bit but like to stay near a river as it is a source of water as well as food. Many animals come to the river to drink so this is where they lie in wait for them.

There were three small rivers in this area, and we searched all three before, at last finding the cub Roho. When I say the cub, he was almost fully grown maybe a year and a half to two years old. He seemed quite relaxed that we had come to join him, he did move a little further into the trees, lining the riverbank but didn’t go into hiding. His mother was nowhere to be seen so she must have gone hunting. It looked like the mother wouldn’t be back any time soon and we had to start making tracks back to camp.

On the way back Alison spotted a Serval cat in the long grass, Serval cats are very difficult to see as they are small, very shy and run away when disturbed. They stick to the long grass for cover and also because there are many rats in this kind of terrain, rats and lizards being a large part of their diet. Another animal we came across was a bushbuck on top of a mound of earth, with the distinctive markings on his chest and front legs. While bushbucks are not rare, they are not often seen.

By the time we got close to the camp the light was fading and the moon was just coming up, when we noticed 3 more lionesses on an outcrop of rocks, not only that, nearby were some zebra and we felt they just might go hunting, so we waited. We didn’t have to wait long before they first stalked and then gave chase to the prey, however this time they were not successful and we had to leave as it was now getting dark, but to watch 3 lionesses hunting at dusk was a perfect end to the day.