A Walk on the Wild Side in the Maasai Mara

October 8, 2012

Mention Africa and visions of animals and safaris immediately come to mind. The word safari actually means ‘long journey’ in Swahili and is commonly defined as an expedition to observe animals in their natural habitat. To begin our time in Africa we decided to take two types of safaris in Kenya, one walking and one driving.

By taking a multiple-day walking safari, our hope was to experience some of the wild side of Africa, in terms of both bush terrain and animal encounters. There is some risk in doing a this type of safari, but for the most part the animals stay far away from you during the day and precautions are taken at night to keep them out of camp. The walking safari we chose also provided us with the opportunity to learn more about the Maasai people of Kenya and gain insight into their daily lives.

The Maasai are one of over 40 tribes in Kenya. They live in the Maasai Mara area, which starts just south of the capital city of Nairobi and extends into northern Tanzania. Several game reserves and parks, including Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Maasai Mara, are located in this region. The Maasai people are known for their bright clothing and jewelry. Traditionally nomadic herders, many Maasai still move between Kenya and Tanzania, depending on the needs of their cattle, goats and sheep.

We drove about four hours from Nairobi to the village of Maji Moto, where we spent our first two nights in a Maasai tent camp. The camp sits on top of a hill with a dramatic view of the valley below. Several of the camp structures are built as ‘inkajijiks’ (the Maasai word for a house). These are made of mud, sticks, grass and cow dung. We took a short hike the first afternoon, led by our Maasai warrior guide Kisea, to learn about some of the plants in the area and their medicinal uses. At one tree, he carved a stick for us that functioned as a toothpick on one end and a natural toothbrush on the other.

A walk though Maji Moto and the surrounding valley was our activity for the next day. We saw many people with their herds, as well as visited a local school of 5 to 7 year olds. We brought our inflatable globe and spoke to two classrooms, with our guide Kisea interpreting our presentation into the Maasai (Maa) language. That evening Darren and several Maasai practiced warrior training and threw the fleshy leaves of an aloe plant at each other, simulating the clubs that they actually sling (which are lethal if they hit). We also participated in the traditional warrior dance.

Leaving the Maasai camp the next day with Kisea, a cook and a porter, we began walking toward the Maasai Mara National Reserve. We trekked through a valley where we caught glimpses of gazelle and zebra in the distance. We stopped and met with herders, some of who were children as young as five. Our guide Kisea spoke to two girls who were walking 2.5 miles / 4 kilometers each way to fetch water in big jerrycans. We also saw other girls who were cutting wood to take back to their village.

Our camp for the night was on the other side of a hill at the end of the valley. There, tents were set up under the shade of Acacia trees. We took a late afternoon walk around the camp area and came across an owl on top of a very tall tree. When we returned, two more Maasai warriors had joined our group as ‘security’ to watch over the camp at night and prevent animals from coming too close. As it got dark, a bonfire was built and the two men sat next to it all night, spears in hand. In the morning they told us that they had heard hyenas in close proximity to our camp during the night.

Our next day of trekking took us through the Loita Hills, as we hiked up and down several ridges. About an hour into our walk, our guide Kisea heard a bird call that he said was coming from a Honey Guide bird. He said that this bird alerts the Maasai to the presence of bees and their honeycomb. We were a little skeptical but followed Kisea as he tracked the bird up and down several hills for about 20 minutes in the hot sun. At the top of one hill, the bird suddenly changed his call, which Kisea said signified that we were close to the bees. Then the bird went silent as we were in front of a termite mound.

Since these were African bees, Kisea asked us to move a short distance away. He then used his spear to poke around the termite mound. As he hacked away at it we saw a few bees emerge. Soon more bees came out, stinging him in the process. What happened next amazed us. Kisea began pulling sheets of honeycomb out of the termite mound like plates from a cupboard! After he had about 10 sheets, Kisea came over to where we were waiting and offered us a piece to eat. There was not much honey left on the honeycomb but it tasted good. He left most of the sheets out for the Honey Guide bird as a thank you for the directions. We asked about his stings and Kisea shrugged them off, saying that he barely felt them!

We continued on our trek and walked through a watering hole area that had recent elephant dung next to it and found vervet monkeys in the trees. We joined a small dirt road and walked into a village where several of the children came and gathered around to greet us. After that we headed towards a hill about 2.5 miles / 4 kilometers away where we camped for the night, again with our security keeping watch.

The last day of our trek took us away from the hills into a valley leading to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. We walked about four hours, along the main dirt road, to a village. There we were picked up by a safari vehicle and transported into the reserve.

During our 37 miles of trekking we were able to learn more about the Maasai culture, as well as experience walking in the African bush. We even saw a few wild animals along the way. Now our focus will change to animal game drives as we spend two days at the Maasai Mara National Reserve and visit the Hell’s Gate and Lake Nakuru National Parks just north of Nairobi.

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