Thursday, February 4, 2010
Favorite Places: Kenya
One question I'm often asked is, where is your favorite place?
I should have a quick and easy answer, but it always feels like picking your favorite child. They're all different, and special in their own way. Maybe I don't need to go back to visit the kids hurling rocks at me in Gaza, peel off another affectionate drunk in Nome or scrape any more shit off my shoes in Manila's slums. But those are all treasured memories.
Over the next few weeks, I'd like to share images and musings from some of my preferred corners of the world.
Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya
As I packed up the rented four wheel drive and nervously edged out into Nairobi's morning traffic, a tall and lovely Austrian blonde waved goodbye. Whether to me or her beloved truck I didn't really know.
I first ventured to Kenya in February of 2001, brimming with a confidence unfettered by caution, wisdom or experience. Somehow, over a course of many slow and dusty hours I made my way toward the Rift Valley and into the Masai Mara Reserve.
I stared in wonder as I drove into the park, gaping at families of big cats, herds of grazing gazelle, endless plains of tall grass. In the ensuing years, I've spent nearly 150 days there, driving the mud tracks, getting lost and stuck, making some new friends and becoming marginally less stupid along the way.
But it is the chance to spend hours and days watching African wildlife at close range that is the greatest gift the Mara has offered to me.
Best Bits: Big Cats. I know of other place with such densities of large, hunting predators. My first visit, I witness no fewer than 14 cheetah kills in three weeks. Top that off with several dependable lion prides and a healthy population of leopards.
There is an upside to all those other safari trucks, and that they're a whole lot easier to spot than critters. If you see a circle of trucks, you'll want to head that way.
Worst Bits: Crowds. Teaming hoards of safari trucks and minivans filled with tourists swarm over the park. In constant contact via radio and cellphone, they converge on a lion kill or river crossing in minutes. Be prepared to share a cheetah hunt with 80 or 90 of your closest friends.
There are also steep park fees, tsetse flies and malaria, and tracks that turn impassable in the rains.
Getting There: To my knowledge, there are no direct flights from the US to Kenya. KLM, British Airways and Air Kenya all offer flights from Europe. Americans require an entry visa, but you can purchase it upon arrival at the airport.
Normal people book a complete safari package from any number of vendors. I prefer to hire a four wheel drive with roof tent and go camping. The roads are terrible, the traffic perilous and navigation difficult.
And that's just the four hour drive to the park.
Inside you'll find an unfathomable network of four wheel drive tracks with little in the way of signage. I carry a GPS with the camp sites marked and over the course of a few days I get my bearings.
Finding the critters, without a guide, is a matter of patience, skill and luck. For any but the most dedicated or stubborn, hire a guide. They work in the park and know the habitat and the wildlife.
When to Go: The annual wildebeest migration peaks in August and September, and the short rains arrive shortly afterward. I've also visited in February, ahead of the long rains of April and May.
Who to Call: Contact Gabriele at Sunworld Safaris for package safaris and four wheel drive rentals. She and her husband David, along with their staff are knowledgeable, endlessly patient and helpful.