Sunday, November 22, 2009

Serian Camp, North Mara Conservancy

Oct 7 2010

We spent our first night in Kenya at the Norfolk Hotel in downtown Nairobi. I suppose one could describe the Norfolk as being a bit like one's favorite pair of shoes. Comfortable, dependable and durable. Not very exciting. We're talking about everyday business apparel here, not dancing shoes. My courtyard room was smallish but well-equipped, the shower (no bath) water was hot, and the toilet flushed properly. What more do you really need in a hotel room? After two days of traveling, not much. Except maybe for a working internet connection, which was sadly lacking. Apparently there was a citywide outage, so I can't really blame the Norfolk. We enjoyed a very good dinner at an Italian restaurant in a Nairobi suburb. I did not get much sleep due to the internet problem and jetlag. The best part of the stay was being able to run for almost an hour on a treadmill in the hotel gym. Breakfast the next morning was fine, with an extensive array of vegetarian options.

My room at Serian Camp

The next day we were off to the Maasai Mara on a 36-seater Safarilink Dash 8, with about 23 persons on board. We disembarked at Musiara airstrip, named for the legendary Musiara Swamp, the scene of many a successful game drive. I would be back here about 10 days later. Our first three nights would be spent at Serian Camp, a superb tented camp on the Mara River in the North Mara Conservancy. Even before we landed at Musiara, I could see that there were still many wildebeest around and so it was: hundreds of them in every direction as far as you could see. Plenty of birds too; in short order we saw Ostrich, three species of vultures, several Senegal Plover and a Secretarybird and there were Lilacbreasted Rollers everywhere.

The tent as seen from the outside; the bathroom is in a separate (adjacent) room just to the left - the steps which lead into the bathroom can be seen in the extreme left background

Serian Camp was very comfortable with large tented rooms on wooden decks, overlooking the Mara River. From the porch in front of my tent, I had a great view of the river, with the impressive Oololoolo Escarpment in the background. Very peaceful, with just the sound of rushing water breaking the silence. Of course nature is quiet, but rarely completely silent. And so it was. There was plenty of natural noise being produced at Serian, but it was all good: Whitebrowed Robins calling loudly from within the thick bush, Puffback Shrikes protecting their territories, sunbirds twittering and a Klaas' Cuckoo producing its plaintive 'meitjie' call.

A couch and table on the edge of Serian's outdoor dining area

The afternoon game drive produced a prolific array of mammals including Coke's Hartebeest, also known as Kongoni, some good views of Eland, topi everywhere, Maasai giraffe, and then just before sunset, a couple of lions, the first of many.

There is one big advantage of staying at Serian or Ngare Serian, the smaller and slightly more upscale adjacent camp, on the other side of the Mara River: all visitors have a private vehicle and guide, and total flexibility in their program.

By the end of the first half day of game-viewing in the Mara, I had seen as much wildlife as one would ordinarily expect to see in a week in some Southern African regions. Hundreds, if not thousands of wildebeest, zebras, impala, Thompson's and Kirk's Gazelles, about 70 or so giraffes, and several other species including the previously mentioned eland, kongoni, topi, duiker, bushbuck, warthog and several others.

By nightfall, we were relaxing around an open fire and enjoying a convivial get-together over drinks, with the sun setting over the Oololoolo Escarpment. Thoughts of Dubai - and Houston - were fading as fast as the light disappearing over the horizon.

The dining room at Serian, the main evening meals are served here

This room is part of the lounge at Serian, the dining room is to the left

The following day we were off early on a full day game drive. Not far out of camp, we found ourselves right in the middle of a group of 20 elephant, who continued to feed all around the vehicle. I was so happy to be back in Africa watching elephant stripping bark off a tree, listening to their rumbling sounds, and trying to get a good look at a baby elephant who seemed to be hiding behind his mother. They are simply the most fascinating creatures.

A Tawny Eagle on the Maasai Mara near Serian

Like practically everything else, the eagle had found something to eat

There were many youngsters to be seen on the Mara in early October, including this young Topi

Eland are notoriously shy, but we had a better than average look at this eland (one of a small party of 3) before it decamped

A few other visitors seen at Musiara Gate. Sometimes they can be just as interesting as the wildlife

A nice group of elephants on the edge of the Mara River

We did not see hundreds or even dozens of wildebeest plunging into the Mara River, but we did see some...

This was at the Serena Crossing area along the Mara River, with several other vehicles around. Once we left the river, we started bumping into various groups of lions, first a female with a young lion, then two females with two babies. It was entertaining to see so many topi lookouts on large anthills, apparently keeping a close watch for predators. I later read that this is a form of territorial behavior. Two birds with one stone.

Even some zebras were getting into the act and crossing the Mara River

It was early in October with the migration still on-going, so we were not the only people along the Mara River

It was lions lions everywhere on the Mara

This baby was snuggled up against its mother while peering out at us from time to time

Nowhere to hide for elephants on the Maasai Mara

Most of the buffalo we saw on the Mara were in very small groups of 3 to 5 or so

Yet another pride of lions on the Mara

On this day, our aim was to find some cheetah and by mid-afternoon Warren spotted them: a female with three large cubs

We enjoyed lunch (sandwiches and pasta) in an absolutely divine spot on the Mara with drop-dead gorgeous views in practically every direction. I would have been quite happy to spend the rest of the afternoon right there, in a chair, perhaps reading something of no great consequence, only to be able to continue to enjoy the near endless views of blue mountains, ever-changing cloud formation, and the smoky haze obscuring the horizon. But we had come a long way to see stuff, not sit under a tree. So off we went in search of cheetah.

It was Shakira, a well-known - some may even say famous - cheetah, due to her feature role in a widely watched TV documentary

Warren spotted the cheetah when he caught sight of something moving rapidly from right to left in the distance, on a grassy plain. There were four individuals, a female with 3 sub-adult youngsters. She had just taken down a young Tommy, and as we drove up the cheetah cubs were feeding voraciously. Later on the mother joined in as well. It was a spell-binding event, especially being so close: we could hear their rasping, rapid breathing. The female (we later learned that it was Shakira of TV fame) walked right up to the car and plopped down not much more than a couple of meters from the vehicle, looking up at us with the expression of an adoring puppy.

Shakira is not shy at all. Here she is checking around for lions and hyenas while her three sub-adult cubs were feeding

Cheetahs are very vulnerable to competition from other more powerful predators, but Shakira has been very successful keeping her cubs alive and thriving

Shakira had taken down a young Thompson's Gazelle and first the three youngsters and then Shakira herself, fed on the fresh kill

Soon afterwards, Shakira got up and walked straight towards our vehicle, settling down in a shady spot just meters away from us

Here she is walking towards the vehicle

Meanwhile the youngsters were helping each other clean up

Shakira gave us a few good looks

And she was very fastidious about cleaning up after the hunt

This old boy clearly had nowhere better to be

Friday October 9

Three of my hobbies intersected this morning when I went for a run with two young Kenyans, David and Daniel, starting from camp along the Mara River to a soccer pitch, and then up and around the camp twice, probably about 5 miles total. We ran through some very uneven terrain with rocks, tufts of grass and other obstacles and there was at least one pretty good hill, so it was quite a challenge. I almost stumbled and fell twice, not because of the obstacles but because I was gawking at the wildlife. Never before in more than 20 years of going on safari, had I seen even remotely as much game on a foot safari. There were dozens of wildebeest, topi, kongoni, zebra, Thomson's Gazelles and impala to be seen. At one stage a herd of topi seemed to be running alongside us. Not long after we set off, we had to amend the route slightly in order to avoid a small group of buffalo. David stopped briefly a couple of times to point out some birds spcies. About halfway through the run Daniel peeled off to the right and came back with a gorgeous flower which he presented to me with a big smile. A very spontaneous gesture which I really appreciated. I met up with the rest of the group for brunch at the very impressive Ngare Serian Camp, which is reached by a footbridge across the Mara River.

There were so many lions on the Mara! This one was part of a large pride being harassed by hyena

We were witness to a very tense standoff between a large group of about 20 to 30 hyenas, and four lions. After several mock charges and feints, the interaction fizzled out inconclusively, but it was clear that there was no love lost between the two groups. No wonder they have been described as eternal enemies.

The young male was keeping an eye on the hyena, ready to spring into action if needed

In my book, no Africa trip is complete without at least one sighting of a Secretarybird. Next time I will try to get all of the tail in the photograph

Early in October 2009 there were still thousands of wildebeest to be seen in the northern part of the Maasai Mara

A reedbuck on the edge of a lugga in the Maasai Mara

We enjoyed a late breakfast at Serian's mobile tented camp inside the Maasai Mara National Park, right on the Mara River, close to several regularly used wildebeest crossing points.

For anyone who really wants to go for a prime wildlife experience in the Mara, Serian is an excellent choice. It is not a very 'fancy' camp but one cannot really describe it as rustic either. Alex Walker is a superb host and the presence of a lion research unit, headed by a young resident scientist - Sarah Blackburn - is a very interesting and educational 'bonus'. Serian is located in a typical ecotone where several habitats are to be found right next to each other. The Mara River edged with riverine bush, acacia thornveld, mixed woodland and the grassy plains of the Mara. Hence the extraordinary number and variety of wildlife. We saw no other vehicles in the conservancy itself. Although we did not embark on any ourselves, night drives are possible. Ideally one should spend several days at Serian and then a couple of nights or so at the mobile tented camp inside the Park.

A particularly handsome male lion on the Mara, one of many which we saw during the three days there

Elephants can literally be seen from miles away in the open Mara environment

Soon enough, we had to say goodbye to the Mara, before heading back to Musiara Airstrip and from there to Malindi on Mombasa Air

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