Having slept well in my new temporary tented abode, despite the primates jumping on the roof and making noises at various points throughout the night, it was another early morning in Africa.
Sleepy-eyed and drowsy, I quickly downed some brekkie and charged my phone a few bars before it was time to hit the road. Today was to be the first full day of safari in the Maasai Mara game reserve, and the first day I would get to visit a tribal village.
The Maasai Mara is known as the best park for game sightings in all of Kenya, and for good reason. The landscape here is scenic Savannah grassland, with and extensive track network. This means it's perfect for close range viewing and photography.
As was the case yesterday, it was mere minutes before we spotted wildlife. Predictably, it was a herd of wildebeest, interspersed with members of the gazelle family.
Giraffe were spotted before long, followed closely by the unmistakable black and white stripes of the donkey-like zebras.
Before long it was time for the first special sighting of the day, heralded by the hiss our driver guide's static-laden CB radio. What was the tip this time? It was too muffled for anyone but our guide to make out, and he wasn't giving anything away.
A short time later we saw a familiar sight - a couple of jeeps pulled up by a ditch, the occupants all leaning out of the roof to catch a glimpse of something. We joined the fray and followed their gaze.
Only a few metres away, in a clearing between two bushes, three tiny lion cubs were jumping and playing and rolling around in the grass with each other. Amazingly, they didn't even look up when we approached. They just continued their game of crouching and wiggling and pouncing, just like any domestic kitty would. Any kitty that weighed 20 pounds and had razors for claws, that is.
But if there's anything I've learned from National Geographic, it's that baby animals, especially ones as healthy looking and as carefree as these, are never far from their watchful parents. I peered into the bushes on either side of the cubs, leaning out as far as I dared. Sure enough, not five metres from where we parked, a golden hue could be seen between the leaves and, every so often, the flick of what could have been a tail.
Mentioning it to our driver guide, we inched the jeep a few inches to the right, and caught a better sight - a golden haired lioness lay in the bushes between the jeeps and the cubs, facing her litter, and licking her paws nonchalantly. How camouflaged she was both impressed me and scared me. It was to be a day of special sightings, apparently.
The next amazing sight came in the form of huge vultures tearing apart a carcass we came across. It was probably a wildebeest or a gazelle, but it was hard to make it out. Within minutes the birds had reduced the carcass to nothing more than a skeleton. The speed with which they did it, and the ferocity with which they fought with each other for dominance was terrifying.
Our next big game sighting came in the form of more lionesses, sunning themselves in the midday heat. Since they weren't doing too much we moved on, barreling towards lunch at the hippo pool. Barreling, unfortunately, somewhat too close to a male elephant walking in the same direction as us.
As we approached the huge creature, at speed, the elephant turned and began to charge us.
Thankfully, our driver suddenly veered to the left and kept on going, and the lone bull elephant, one tusk intact, one tusk broken, and clearly severely enraged, stood his ground.
At the hippo pool we stopped for a packed lunch, watching the big beasts blub around in the muddy water, before spotting buffalos and crocodiles on the way back to camp.
While it was a jam packed day in terms of animal activity, the highlight for me came in the evening when we visited a Maasai tribe in their nearby village. Unsure as to what to expect, I was a little nervous when I got out of the jeep and entered the Maasai village. I need not have worried. The people I encountered there were among the nicest I have ever met - they showed me kindness and respect and taught me a lot in our short time together.
The Maasai are an extraordinary people with an even more extraordinary culture. Apparently there's roughly 800,000 Maasai people living in Kenya, and their official language is Maa. Most of those I met also spoke Swahili, however, and a few did also speak a little English. Interestingly, they are considered among the tallest people in the world, with an average height of 6 foot 3. But I digress.
At the entrance to the village, I was met by a group of around fifteen men, ranging in age from teenager to elderly. I was introduced to the chief's son, who was to be my guide for the evening. A great honour.
The son of the chief, one of the few who spoke English, introduced me to his tribesmen. All tall, with their beautiful ebony skin, and all clothes in traditional garb, some in red robes called Shuka, and others in multicoloured sheets wrapped deftly around their torsos.
Now that introductions had been made, the men came together to show me a traditional warrior dance. It was mesmerising. Then they started their jumping dance, the traditional Maasai adamu.
For the Maasai, the adumu is just one in a series of rituals that make up the Eunoto, the ceremony in which the junior warriors, or morani, graduate to the ranks of manhood. Their bodies should stay a narrow pose and their feet should not touch the ground. The higher the jump is, stronger the guy is and, by all means, more of respect, admiration and desire he gets from women. So, obviously, Masai jumping dance dance is also a competitive dance. After the dancing and chanting came to a conclusion, I was invited in beyond the walls of the village.
Since the Maasai lead a semi-nomadic life, their houses are loosely constructed and semi-permanent. They are usually small, circular houses built by the women using mud, grass, wood and cow-dung. On the subject of cows, I should mentioned that the Maasai tribe has a deep, almost sacred, relationship with cattle. They are guided by a strong belief that God created cattle especially for them and that they are the sole custodians of all the cattle on earth. This bond has led them into a nomadic way of life following patterns of rainfall over vast land in search of food and water for their large herds of cattle. Therefore it is not surprising to hear that the Maasai measure wealth by the number of cattle and children one has (And there were a LOT of children!)
All of the Maasai's needs for food are met by their cattle, in fact. They eat the meat, drink the milk and, on occasion, drink the blood. Bulls, oxen and lambs are slaughtered for meat on special occasions and for ceremonies. The by-products of the animals - skin and hides - are used as bedding while cow dung is used for building (it is smeared on the walls). The Maasai's entire way of life truly revolves around their cattle.
Having said all this, you would be forgiven for thinking the Maasai were timid cow farmers - but you'd be wrong. Lions, and the hunting of lions, is just as much a part of their culture as cows are.
The Maasai take lion hunting very seriously. And when I say hunting, I mean it in the biblical sense. One man, one spear, one lion. Guns are a no no. Lions are never hunted for fun and it’s not uncommon for this extremely dangerous practice to result in hunters being injured or killed.
When a hunter is killed, usually his body is simply left for nature to take its course (The Maasai don't tend to bury their dead, you see, as burials are believed to harm the soil. The practice is reserved only for some chiefs).
Going on a solo hunt for a male lion (they don't hunt females) is seen by the tribe as a display of great courage and strength. But in recent years the lion population has dwindled due to disease and so the Maasai created a new rule that means they can now only hunt in groups, allowing the lion population to recover.
I learned all this and more in the Maasai village. I also got to see dances, chanting, bead making, and learn a few words of Maa and a few more words of Swahili. It was also where I got what I like to call my seventh tattoo.
The Maasai make fire in a very traditional way. They carve a grove in a piece of wood which they use as a base. Then they place dry straw as kindling on the grove, and then they place the tip of a long vertical stick on the base. They rub the stick between their hands as fast as they can, and after a few moments the kindling catches fire from the friction.
They give each other decorative burn marks in much the same way, minus the kindling. On their smooth black skin, the burn marks turn a lighter colour, standing out more than black ink would. In this way they create intricate designs all over their bodies.
Intrigued, I asked if I could have one. At first I think they thought I was joking, but then they started to get the materials ready. Time was an issue, so I was only able to get a small circular mark burned into my upper right arm, but at least it was something. Something to mark my time with the Maasai people. A time that, in hindsight, was all too short.