By Mark Bradley
The massive herd of wildebeests and zebras parted like the Red Sea for Moses as we sped down the dirt airstrip in our Rhino Safaris van. It’s the only way to clear the runway for the small planes that land here on the Masai Mara. Usually the animals have the right of way in Kenya, this being the one exception.
An extension of the famous Serengeti Plain grasslands in neighboring Tanzania, Masai Mara is Kenya’s most popular and remote national park attracting nearly a million visitors a year. It offers a close-up look at elephants, rhino, hippos, cape buffalo, crocodiles, cheetahs, giraffes, and most notably, the king of beasts, the lion.
The lions are here for the over 1.3 million wildebeests and a half million or so zebra who lead the annual migration from Tanzania followed by thousands of gazelle and impala. It is a sight that reminded me of what the Old West must have looked like when herds of bison freely roamed the Great Plains.
Here only the strong survive as we witnessed a pride of eight lions devouring a freshly killed wildebeest. They savagely tore at the carcass with their mouths crimson red from blood. On the riverbank a bulging, fifteen foot long Nile crocodile sunned himself after eating his fill of some unlucky beast.
Such is the cycle of life and death throughout East Africa.
But our trip had begun in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, some three weeks earlier. A modern city of over three million people, it serves as the staging grounds for most safaris in Kenya. No hunting is allowed in Kenya so we were armed strictly with cameras. Game wardens are under strict orders to shoot poachers on sight.
Our group was led by a modern day Indiana Jones, Lee Kinney, a native of Valmeyer in Monroe County IL, and the brother of Dorothy Brandt of Maeystown. A respected anthropologist, he had first begun his work in East Africa with the noted archaelogist Richard Leakey nearly 20 years ago and has since returned seven times to do field work. We were driven in our specially equipped photo safari vans by native guides who were experts in finding and identifying the thousands of animals and birds native to Kenya.
He had arranged to take us on a 3 ½ week safari that would stretch from the warm trade winds of the Indian Ocean at Mombasa to Mt. Kilimanjaro whose 20,000 foot summit plainly displayed snow despite being within a few degrees of the Equator. It would extend from Tsavo National Park, the world’s largest wildlife park, to the dry Samburu region on the road to Ethiopia.
We would explore the culture of the Masai, one of 42 tribes that call Kenya home, by visiting an actual kraal (village) and joining in traditional dances and customs. We would learn about the origin of mankind in the Great Rift Valley and later walk across ancient lava flows in Amboselli National Park.
And we would fly to Lake Victoria, one of the sources of the Nile River, in search of one of the world’s largest freshwater game fish, the Nile Perch which can grow up to 300 pounds. I was fortunate enough to hook and land a 35 pounder on my first attempt to prove there is such a thing as beginner’s luck.
Then there was up close and personal visit to the Sweetwater Rhino Sanctuary where we were able to meet and greet Marioni, a 2 ½ ton black rhino followed by a trip to a chimpanzee sanctuary all after a champagne brunch in the bush.
Our accommodations would range from tent camps and lodges in the bush overlooking watering holes to luxury hotels with feasts fit for a king. It was quite common there to see the yellow bellied, red necked, buffet grazer stuffing himself on a regular basis.
Kenya became an independent country in 1963 after Great Britain divided their former colony of Tanganyika into Kenya and Tanzania. The official language is still English although Swahili is more commonly spoken by the locals along with their regional tribal languages.
Kenya is a relatively politically stable country by African standards but suffers from corrupt government officials resulting in undue suffering among many of its people. Yet, the Kenyans are a smiling, friendly people who waved and surrounded our van at every stop hawking their handicrafts of wooden animal carvings, jewelry, and baskets.
The lasting impressions of all these images are forever burned into my memory and I am a richer man for having been there. There is no place like East Africa on the face of the earth.