Looong drive to the Mara: Caitlin’s perspective

As hard as it is to walk up Mount Kenya, the post-hike trip to the Mara is maybe even more difficult; everyone’s sore muscles become even more sore over the nine or so hours that we spend in the minibuses. Unfortunately, nine hours isn’t the entire length of the trip, but merely the length of the drive time; add in another couple hours for meals, toilet breaks, and sorting out unexpected vehicular issues, and you’ll get a bit closer to the actual length of the journey.

There is, of course, a reason for all this hardship. For one thing, placing the Mount Kenya trip in the middle of our travel itinerary offers a brief respite from the sometimes overwhelmingly warm temperatures we experience at the beginning and end of our field course; for another, this scheduling allows us to progressively “ramp up” the Kenya experience as we go along, ensuring that each new destination is more exciting and intense than the last.

For this and many other reasons, the field course can be quite emotionally and physically demanding, which is why I like to sleep as much as humanly possible. On the morning of our journey to the Mara, however, I woke up well before my alarm went off and lay in bed listening to the bizarre sounds of the black-and-white colobus monkeys and rock hyraxes in the trees above my head. Other than our hard-working, early-rising kitchen staff, it sounded as though nobody else was awake, so I decided to visit the shower block to see if I might be able to claim a shower stall and, just maybe, even get a bit of warm water. To my surprise, relief, and great happiness, I was, indeed, able to start my day off with a lovely warm shower. That, in combination with the fact that my stomach seemed to be improving, left me feeling pretty good about the day ahead. Adding to my good cheer was the beautiful sunrise over our camp; little did I know that I would later experience an equally lovely sunset over the Mara.

There was quite a lot of napping in my minibus throughout the day, but I was feeling pretty wide awake since I hadn’t spent all my energy hiking up a mountain the day before. I wiled away the hours looking at scenery and wildlife (black kites galore!) outside my window, and listening to music on my iPhone. I discovered–to my horror!–that my music collection no longer contained Toto’s “Africa,” which I always like to listen to at some point during the field course (just for a laugh). In order to prevent such a catastrophe next year, I immediately put “add Toto” on my list of things to do upon returning to the UK. Luckily, I did still have Paul Simon’s “Graceland” ready and waiting to serve as the perfect soundtrack for a drive through central Kenya.

Around mid-morning or so, we stopped at a rest area that not only has toilets, but also cold drinks and freshly made samosas and mandazis (Kenyan donuts). I don’t normally like donuts or fried foods in general, but there is something about mandazis that makes them irresistible to me. They are quite heavy, and a bit oily from being deep fried, and only have a hint of sweetness; somehow, this is just the right combination for simultaneously minimizing hunger and helping me ward off motion sickness during long car journeys.

As we drove through the outskirts of Nairobi, we were treated to quite an unexpected sight: very upscale and modern-looking subdivisions that contrasted markedly with the poverty-stricken areas through which we had been driving. I noticed that many of these fancy homes were sitting empty, so perhaps these villas had been built out of optimism rather than necessity. Still, it was quite an eye-opening reminder that there is a whole other side to Kenya that we do not spend much, or any, time exploring.

After descending into the Great Rift Valley for the second time during our field course, we drove to Maai Mahiu for a wonderful lunch at another of the rest stops that we revisit each year. Our food was Indian-themed, which is not as unusual a find in Kenya as you might think; Kenya’s colonial history has introduced this and many other foreign influences throughout the country.

Shortly after driving through Narok Town, we turned left off the lovely tarmac highway onto a dirt and gravel road that slowly became less and less passable as we went on. The roads to the Mara have always been quite bad, so we had prepared our students for the discomfort they would experience during the latter portion of our trip; all the same, the bumps and jolts gave all of us a rude awakening (literally, in some cases). On several occasions, the route was so bad that we had to create new tracks, or even pull down low-hanging branches in order to drive through the trees and bypass mud pits and potholes.

Our reward for all this hardship was the spectacular display of wildlife that the Mara has to offer, even to those who are only casually glancing out their windows. At every turn, we saw things like zebras, gazelles, buffaloes, giraffes, woolly-necked storks, widowbirds, fiscals, and eagles. We were also enthusiastically welcomed by countless Masai children who often ran long distances just to stand by the roadside and wave to us as we drove past; their friendliness and excitement began to make us all feel like celebrities.

Our trip was beginning to drag on and we were all anxious to arrive at our campsite so we could set up our tents before nightfall. Even so, we made a quick stop to take advantage of the incredible photo opportunity provided by wildlife walking along the horizon in front of the setting sun. My inner photography buff had been drooling over the scenery for a while, so I was very relieved to have the opportunity to stop for a few snaps.

Shortly thereafter, we finally pulled in to our campsite at the Mara Conservancy. The facilities there are incredibly basic–“long-drop” toilets and a couple basins of water for hand-washing–but the setting is fantastic; there are no fences anywhere in sight, and the wildlife wanders where it pleases. We do, of course, have armed guards that ensure we are protected from dangerous species such as lions and buffalo, but safer organisms such as genets, hyenas, and jackals can come and go at will (as demonstrated by the footage captured on our motion-sensitive cameras–more on which later!).

The Conservancy is also the only place we visit where we have the opportunity to go on a nighttime game drive; this provides us with the chance to see more nocturnally active species such as porcupines, aardvarks, hares, and various felines. As much as I would have loved to have participated in such a game drive, I was so tired by the time my tent was up that I had to take a nap just to have enough energy to make it to dinner. When a few students asked if they could skip the safari and go to bed early, I was all too happy to volunteer to be the staff member left behind to supervise them. I was so exhausted I actually fell asleep between the time that our drivers started their vehicles and backed them out of their parking spots; I continued to sleep so soundly that I failed to hear either the buses returning from their outing, or the nearby hyenas making a racket with their raucous laughter in the middle of the night. I was sad to miss out on the opportunity to add an audio recording of their vocalizations to my collection of African sounds (more on this later, too!). However, all this rest allowed me to be refreshed and energetic the next morning, just in time for our first real game drive through Kenya’s iconic Mara ecosystem.