August 10, 2010
Our first stop on safari was the &Beyond Bateleur Lodge in the Masai Mara, Kenya. Upon landing at the nearby airstrip we were met by our driver, private butler, and cuisine manager who had set up a welcome with champagne and yummy nibblies right off the airstrip. This is very nice after the little planes, which I happen to love, but for those like my mother who already do not like planes, flying on these little nine or twelve seaters can be down right traumatizing.
The lodge was spectacularly beautiful- a perfect mix of old world elegance and modern amenities. We were welcomed to the lodge by a group of Masai warriors who sang a welcome song and then the staff pushed us into a rather embarrassing photo with them. We felt a little mortified, but the Masai reassured us that they loved welcoming new people…I’m still a little skeptical, but tourism dollars for the Masai are very important and encourage the ending of old traditions like hunting lions so we smiled for a photo and gave a nice tip.
The luxurious tented rooms are reminiscent of the days of Hemingway and Livingston, but have beautiful bathrooms, showers, and multiple electrical outlets making it perfect for the modern traveler.
There are also very nice touches like a “gym in a bag” for morning yoga on your balcony over the plains and old National Geographics in each room dating back to the turn of last century.
Most meals are eaten en plein air in a beautiful leafy area of the grounds where one can watch the animals stroll by on the plains and watch birds and sometimes monkeys in the trees above. We were even visited on more then one occasion by wart hogs looking for a snack.
The only thing the hotel lacked was internet, but it could be found at the &Beyond Lodge, Kichwa Tembo, which was right next door through a little gate. The Kichwa Tembo Lodge is much bigger, 160 rooms to Bateleur’s 9, and it does not provide the same exclusive luxury of the Bateleur Lodge like separate tented rooms and unobstructed views of the plains of the Masai Mara where from the comfort of your own bed you can watch zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, and many other animals walk by. However if you are on a tighter budget the location is still wonderful and it is a very nice alternative.
The staff at the Lodge was everything you could hope for and more. Milka, the camp manager, was just about the nicest person I have ever met. She greeted us each day with a warm smile and when she asked how our days were she actually listened and cared. The chef is superb and each meal was delicious. Our driver/ranger Luke was extremely knowledgeable, a great spotter, very patient and just all around nice. We arranged for a private game drive, which can be done at an extra fee. The other option is to go out with a group of approximately 9 or 10 people in the car. This is a good option for some, but if like me you want the flexibility to stay in one spot for an hour or more waiting for a cheetah to turn his head to get the perfect shot you will want a private driver and I highly recommend you request Luke.
There are many activities to do in the Masai Mara including game drives, hot air balloon rides, visiting a Masai village, or simply relaxing in the beautiful lodge. The hot air balloon ride is an incredible experience that I highly recommend, but not to the weak of heart! A post on the ride will come soon. We originally wanted to do a visit to a Masai village, but I was afraid it would be terribly touristy and had my reservations. There were many Masai who work at the lodge and after speaking with one it solidified my choice that it was an experience I did not want to partake in. The chief Masai warrior who we spoke with was extremely traditional and talked in depth about his village’s practices of hunting lions and both male and female circumcision. I knew those practices were still employed in some villages, but from all the reading I have done I was under the impression that they were outdated practices in the world of the Masai and not very common at all. When we pushed back a little asking if all Masai really still practice these customs we were met with a resounding yes and dropped the subject and chose not to do a village visit. Later in Tanzania I had the chance to speak in depth with a very nice Masai man, Wilson, who is in training to work at &Beyond, and he told me that in fact these practices are extremely outdated and not widely in use anymore. I loved speaking with Wilson and we later visited a Masai village in Tanzania, but I will post more on that later.
The game drives are really the highlight of the safari, after all for most people that is why you go on safari in the first place. The Masai Mara is a wonderful place to see animals. We saw almost all of the Big Five, which consists of Lion, Rhino, Cheetah, Leopard, and Buffalo. We did not see a Leopard until the Serengeti. This is why it is good to try multiple camps because it is very hard to see everything you want to see in one place. However you do want to plan a few days in each camp so you have enough time to get to know your driver and he/she gets to know you and what you want to see. We may not have seen a leopard in Kenya, but we saw a ton of other animals! Luke asked us at the beginning what three animals we were absolutely dying to see and we would burst into tears if we didn’t see. Of course we named about 20 animals and then narrowed it down to three. Luke found them for us so quickly and such great sightings we kept adding new animals to the list and it became an ongoing joke every time we said just another three!
We went during The Great Migration, which is known as the greatest natural show on earth. It is considered one of the seven wonders of the world and I can now attest to the fact that it truly is spectacular. The Great Migration consists of over one million wildebeests migrating across the plains of East Africa in a large circle following the grass and water. Other grass eating mammals follow as well including antelopes, gazelles, zebras and many more. The Great Migration is also a wonderful time for spotting the Big 5 because the predators are active during the migration as a huge influx of prey enters their territory.
It’s funny how blasé you become towards animals just a few days ago you were so excited to see. We could see zebras and wildebeasts as we landed the plane and I started to literally jump up and down with excitement. Once off the plane I saw a tiny speck of a dot that when I squinted really hard I realized was a giraffe and I actually let out a squeal of excitement. However, two days later after I had been so close to a giraffe that I could have reached out and touched it or counted every single spot we became very picky about our sitings, not even stopping unless it was going to be something extraordinary. This became true of almost all animals except for the big cats, because they are always elusive and exciting. I never thought I’d see the day where I would say “Oh just two elephants and no babies? Drive on!”
The drives themselves are usually done in the early morning from around 6 or 7am to noon then again from 3 or 4pm after the heat of the day to 6 or 7pm when you must leave the park. However if you have your own car you can do whatever you would like and you can leave early and have a picnic breakfast in the park. You can also stay through lunch and have a picnic lunch in the park, which I suggest as it is great fun.
However be wary of spending the whole day out on a drive, the heat of the day sneaks up on you because it starts out very cold (think fleeces and long underwear and the blankets &Beyond puts in the car for your use) and reaches very hot (think short sleeves, lots of sunblock, and shorts). I enjoyed our full day drive and could have kept going, but the mix of heat and bumpiness of the car took a toll on my mom (as it would to most sane people who don’t have one track minds to see as many animals as they can).
For the game drives in the Masai Mara you enter the park through a gate, marking where the protected land starts. The park isn’t marked off anywhere else, but the drivers all know where it begins and ends and know the rules while inside.
You can not off-road in most parts of the park for the protection of the animals, but the drivers will occasionally do it when the park rangers aren’t watching as long as they still keep a safe distance from the animals. I only experienced the &Beyond drivers so I can’t make a broad statement about all drivers, but ours seemed to be very concerned for the animals well beings and were very knowledgeable about them and their need for protection and conservation. The reason I chose &Beyond was actually for their wonderful conservation and community work that they do and it was wonderful to see it in action. The actually have their own foundation, which is supported by the tour company. Many tourists are disappointed that you can not off road, but you must remember that the care and protection of these wild animals is paramount and respectful and safe distances (for both you and them) must be kept.
The Bateleur Lodge catered to our every need providing everything from a massage for a sore back, to perfect cuisine for picky eaters, amazing sitings during the day and warm comfy beds at night. The day we left we had a long day of flying and they even packed sack lunches for us.
There are far too many pictures to post here of animals so I will start with a few favorites and then post more in detail as the time goes by. And feel free to hum the lion king soundtrack as you look. I have been serenading my parents and various drivers with the soundtrack for the last week.