Masai Mara

Staring a lioness in the face when she’s about 3 feet away from you kinda puts things in perspective. You no longer worry about trivial things like cellphone coverage or work. Especially when her mouth is all bloody from a recent kill and her eyes still have that murderous glint in them.

Lunch? Or just snacking before the big meal of humans a la mode?

Lunch? Or just snacking before the big meal of humans a la mode?

The vehicle we were in was open at the top, though the windows were left closed at all times during the game drives, which offered some protection. But that didn’t mean anything really. You just knew she could easily jump onto the van and smack you into oblivion with a casual wave of those powerful paws, if she were so inclined.

She's readying for a jump. *gulp*

She’s readying for a jump. *gulp*

Our guide refused to let us out of the vehicles even for a second during the game drives. Even when we were helping tow another vehicle out of the muddy track it got stuck in, he got out to tie the rope and help the other driver out, and the people from that vehicle were outside as well, but our guide insisted that we stay in, cos.. what if?! 

There are 3 of them, can you see?

I’ve seen some videos of people being attacked by lions and the life being jerked out of them in mere minutes (don’t google it if you’re squeamish!), so I guess I see why our guide was concerned.Plus, we had a 3yr old with us who absolutely loves all animals and would have tried to hug the lion if we she could (have I told you about the time she laid her eyes on a zebra and started singing ta ta tada tada… afro circus afro circus? She’s hilarious!) so we kinda had to be careful!

We saw four of the Big Five at the Masai Mara. The hippos are elusive things that apparently live only in Tanzania and not so much in Kenya, so we didn’t see any of them. But we saw a lion (looking all regal and lazy and snooty as hell), several lionesses, an ocean of zebras and wildebeests, chilled-out hippos, mean looking crocodiles, funny ostriches, arrogant cheetahs, wrinkly elephants, graceful giraffes (did you know giraffes run in slow motion?!! It’s like you’re watching them on TV in slow motion! It was surreal!), meerkats, foxes, vultures … more animals than I even knew the names of! I mean… I’ve never heard of a topi or a marabou stork before, have you?!

Topi, apparently.

We stayed at the lovely Keekorok Lodge, where my room looked out into the beautiful savannah. So I’d wake up in the morning and look out the window to see a buffalo or a warthog ambling by about 20 feet away from me. Of course, not all of the animals kept their distance. The lodge doesn’t have a boundary wall, just a standalone gate with their name on it and trees all around.

The Gate

The Gate

It’s quite amusing to drive through a gate that doesn’t have a wall attached to it! But these are the best kinda game lodges, cos the animals can roam around. Of course, this also means you gotta be careful about unannounced visitors! While we were checking in, the receptionist instructed us to not step out of the rooms by ourselves after dark. We were to call for an escort, someone with a rifle who could scare away a buffalo or something if we happened to cross paths with one on our way to the dining lounge!

One evening we were at the bar, chilling out with drinks when one of the men who works at the hotel came up to us and invited us to go for a walk. We followed him away from the buildings and into the dark, following the path he led by instinct rather than sight, as there were no lights save that of a torch he was holding. Though it was a clear night, the moon and the stars were hidden by the trees overhead. The path led to a circular expanse of grass, surrounded by trees.

There was a long table covered in white tablecloth waiting for us, all laid out with silverware and twinkling from the lights of the candles lit around it. A bonfire burned merrily a little away from the table; that along with the lamps and lanterns lit around the periphery gave us light and also kept the hyenas and other curious animals at bay!

This was the venue of V’s surprise birthday party, thrown by her husband S! The masai warriors came and danced their traditional dance, after which they presented V with a lovely birthday cake. We sat down to dinner under the stars, listening to a man sing lovely songs in Swahili while strumming on his guitar. We danced to the music, learned the famous Jambo Bwana song and sang a few stanzas along with him, ate a lot and drank even more… it was quite a magical night!

After seeing all those magnificent animals and then coming back to the lovely lodge to a dinner like this, you’d think there was no way this vacation could any better. We were there a couple of days, but when we checked out, we all looked back wistfully at that standalone gate of Keekorok, wondering if we’d ever be able to go back, knowing we probably wouldn’t.

Surprisingly, Mombasa had a treat waiting for us to top even this amazing experience! That, however, is a story for another post!

Until next time.. Kwaheri!

Masai Mara

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Mungu Ibariki Kenya!

I just had the BEST vacation!

The view from our dining table at our villa in Tiwi beach, Mombasa

I’ve traveled to a few countries (17 and counting), and been on some fun vacations, but NONE of it compared to the splendour of Kenya!

rowr!

rowr!

I got back on the 27th of July, but haven’t been able to put myself through the process of looking at my pictures till now.

Afro circus! :D

Afro circus! :D

I’ve put up a few pics I took to try and capture the essence of that magical country. I’ve failed miserably though. Magic can’t be captured, only experienced.

masai warrior dance

masai warrior dance

If you haven’t been to Kenya yet, go!

Met Mufasa! :D

Also, take me with you?

Quad-Biking: Highs and Lows

I’ve gone quad-biking in Bali and in Cape Town, with two completely different experiences to look back on!

The one in CT (Dec 2010) was fabulous! The quad-bikes were shiny and well maintained, the trail was beautiful and our guide was an interesting old gentleman, who was spending his retirement exploring the national park on his dirt bike and taking groups of tourists like us on some of the more tamer (for him) trails.

There were points in the trails with long stretches of road ahead and behind me before a turn, and I was quite alone at some of these stretches. Though I was part of the group, it sometimes felt like I was on my own out there, surrounded sometimes by trees so tall and all-encompassing that it I felt a bit lost and almost scared. Everything that was beautiful would suddenly take on a cold, forbidding note. But of course, I was following a trail and our guide was excellent. He’d come back sometimes to check if I was ok,  to make sure no one got lost in the wilderness.

We stopped midway for coffee and South African grain-filled biscuits (which were more like biscotti really, and deelicious with black coffee!)  and chatted about the different trails and the supposed sighting of  a mountain-lion that everyone swore they saw! :P  The air was clean and crisp and the sun warm on our faces.

It was not very easy as we had to pass through small pools of water and different kinds of terrains, and maneuvering through it all was no mean task, my shoulders were tired and aching by the end of it all. But it was  fun, though it was all very well controlled and we were not in any danger at any point.

The one in Bali though, was my first time quad-biking on a dirt track (Dec 2008). We unfortunately went to a place that wasn’t managed very well. The equipment was old, the helmets yucky and in hindsight, the terrain quite wild and more dangerous. The trail ran round a mountain with a bamboo plantations (or was it sugarcane?  oh… never mind!) to our left, and a drop down to the bottom through a rough thicket of trees and rocks to our right. (So my game plan was to never turn right!  ;P )

There were 12 of us, and 6 bikes in all. It’s funny how these things turn out, cos I was supposed to buddy up with Sharath (he would drive) and Anu was to go with someone else. At the last minute, Anu asked if I would switch with her. I agreed as that vehicle was not a stick shift, so I could drive it easily(which meant I could drive! Yay!).

We started out and Sharath and Anu were just ahead of us, when about 15 mins into the ride, we had our first incident. I saw it happening in front of me, as if in slow-motion.

They lost control of the quad and crashed into the plantation. Anu fell back from the impact and was thrown out of the bike while Sharath fell with it. Sharath got badly bruised and was bleeding, though the wounds were not deep; while Anu, though fine, was in shock and would not stop crying!  That’s when I learned another thing about my vehicle… the hand-brakes didn’t work (and we were at an incline)! So I had to stay put with my feet firmly on the brakes while they helped Anu up and sat her beside me. She continued crying while we looked at each other helplessly, not sure what to do. The guides finally came round with another vehicle, Nitin (Anu’s hubby who was in another quad) came to pacify her (she only cried louder at the sight of him though!) and they got us different quads for the remainder of our journey.

This time round, I sat with Sharath.  And again, 5 mins into the ride, this quad too had a problem with the brakes, and the next thing I knew, we were stuck at an angle, three wheels holding on to uneven ground while the fourth dangled in mid-air over the edge! I didn’t quite realize the gravity (pun unintended) of the situation and was jokingly complaining about his driving skills until I heard the urgency in Sharath’s voice asking me to get out quickly. We climbed out of the vehicle and when I realized what a precarious position the bike was in, I quickly tried to get my camera out to take pictures (what?! I’m a journalist at heart!) while the men pushed the quad back on to the trail.

We got back without further incident, but  it was quite a harrowing  experience, one that none of us would forget anytime soon!

I still wonder sometimes how it would have been if Anu hadn’t asked to switch bikes with me. What if I was the one thrown off the quad? How would I have reacted?

You can never tell unless you’re actually in that situation I suppose. And thankfully, I never had to find out  cos ever since, we did more research before we undertook such activities. I’m clumsy enough as it is without having to ride off cliffs on faulty quad bikes!

The one where we all go to Cape Town

The bungalow we stayed at in Cape Town was a holiday-home that the owner (who lives in the UK) rents out for short periods.
There’s something wonderful about living in someone else’s house as opposed to a hotel. You get glimpses of their life, their likes and dislikes, the differences in culture and lifestyle that you just don’t get from the impersonal tones of a hotel no matter how luxurious!
The kitchen, for instance, was stocked with wonderful spices which we were free to use ( we replaced them of course, and also left some others back, cos it works both ways doesn’t it?) and I ended up buying some amazing marinades and seasoning to bring back with me which I now use liberally in my cooking.
The bungalow itself was wonderfully rustic, with a thatched roof and lovely garden, and with grounds so large that we could easily mistake it for a small park. And for us folk who live in the city in the middle of a desert, all the greenery was a welcome change! I would wake up in the morning to the sight of the sun creeping up from behind the mountains and the rays glistening off the lake in the far distance.
The house itself had a lovely green hedge with vibrantly coloured flowers growing all over and spilling down the walls like a curtain. It all felt so surreal.
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But it was very real of course. Especially the security around the house, which was downright alarming!
The caretaker, Sharon, came to meet us with a bottle of wine and a barrage of instructions on security that made me feel like I was living in a war zone! Every so often she would tell us “it’s all perfectly safe, we’re just being careful” and try to reassure us before launching into another security feature we had to be aware of, like the motion-sensor around the perimeter of the house or the electric fences that would not only fry your brains out if you touched it, but would also alert the ” Armed Response” to come around (to pick up the left-over carcass no doubt!).
 
The key-chain had a set of colourful buttons, blue to open the gates, green and gray… I stopped listening after a bit cos it was all a bit too much, and I just couldn’t bring myself to feel worried about security when the surroundings looked so lovely and peaceful.
 
Besides this little detail of security though, everything was perfect! We were up in the hills, the days were long and mostly warm and the nights bitterly cold. We had a fireplace that I absolutely loved. I spent a lot of nights lying on the comfy couch in front of it, reading A Year in Provence (which I found in the owner’s library) with the sound of the wind whistling outside and the wood crackling in the fire inside… bliss! (Oh! I’ve become quite the expert on building a roaring fire now! So proud of myself! :D)
Of course, when you put together a crazy group of 20-somethings and set them in Cape Town, you can expect a lot more than just peaceful hours by the fire.
 
We’d rented two cars at the airport for the duration of our stay, and when we weren’t frolicking in the pool, we went around exploring the wine-routes and wine tasting (without using the spit-bucket :D ), explored a national park on quad-bikes (where I had my first taste of African “rusk” which is more like a nuts & grains filled biscotti) abseiled from Table Mountain (which was AWEsome!), hit some of the popular nightspots and ate everything from springbok pies to grilled crocodile meat. (yeah, you heard right! crocodile!)
 
 
Ooh!… talking about food… I think I’ll need a whole new post to describe the food we had there, and it’ll still not hold a candle to the real thing! Living in a desert means that most of the food we eat is imported, which involves a lot of preservation techniques that robs the food of it’s freshness.
Africa has the good fortune of having fertile land and amazing resources (if only they had a good leader!), and the food we ate was directly from the farm and organic, with the veggies still fresh with dew and meat so juicy and succulent that it simply melts away (and goes directly to the waist no doubt! But who cares about that when you’re on vacation eh?!).
Every single restaurant we went to had food so delicious that we we always over-ate, and then groaned for mercy to the stomach gods!
Even Food Barn, which the men in the group were grumbling about being too high-brow and expensive (250 Rands for a set 3 course menu including dessert, which I think is pretty okay) had really good food!
I think we were mostly disappointed by Food Barn cos the previous afternoon we’d lunched at the Toad in the Village, which is a stone’s throw away from the Food Barn. The atmosphere of the place, enhanced by the beautiful blue skies, the breeze in our faces (we sat outside)  and the friendly black lab lying below our table… was so fabulous that nothing else could quite compare.
 
At least that’s what we thought, until we went to Mama’s Afrika! This place had a live band playing african acoustic-y music with a lot of dancing involved. And the characters we saw there! I swear, there was a guy at the other table with a hot pink hat and a feather boa to match (okay, it was his birthday and they made him put it on :P).
This is where we tried their game platter. Crocodile meat is surprisingly tender, and then when I thought about it, I figured it made sense, cos they’re cold-blooded reptiles. And when I thought about it some more, I realized I’d pretty much eaten a giant lizard, and that made me wanna gag!
 
 
Springbok was good, tasted kinda like mutton, although I found it strange that the springbok was the national animal of the country! I mean… you don’t find Indians selling tiger-tikka in restaurants do you?
 
We had fairly regular meat for our braai (African for bbq) though. We figured we should definitely have one, since we’re in braai country. Unfortunately, we also tried magic mushrooms (most of us for the first time) that night! We were too tripped out to bother too much about the braai. We ended up burning all the meat and eating mostly salads.  But we were all in such rib-cracking good humour that it didn’t really matter anyway! 
 
We went to Boulder’s beach National Park that was a sanctuary for…wait for it… penguins!
(Are you as surprised as I was?)
 
They cute and funny and all over the place! They mostly just sun-bathe (curiouser and curiouser!)  and when they’re not waddling from one place to another, stay extremely still as if they’re all playing a game of statue!
 
A visit to Africa isn’t complete without viewing at least one wild animal, and I had my chance when I went to a vineyard at Stellenbosch where they also had a wildlife sanctuary. That’s where I met Joseph!  He liked me, purred when I rubbed his back! :o) 
 
Leaving a place where you’ve had so much fun is the toughest part. And the end of this particular vacation was tougher than the others I’ve been on.
It’s fine when you’re leaving for a vacation. You’re so excited and pumped up on adrenalin that you don’t feel the jet-lag as much. But when you’re returning from a holiday, especially such an active one as this, it just leaves you feeling (and looking!) like a zombie! We left the villa at around 4 pm and I got back home in Dubai around 1pm the next day. The details in between are all foggy but involved a lot of running after flights and disturbed sleep in between in-flight meals!
 
I got home and swore to myself to only travel to places that were not more than 3 hours away from Dxb!
I stuck to this resolve for about a day… until I went through the pictures!
 
Memories really are priceless!
Maybe next time I’ll just save up and fly business! ;o)