TRAVELOGUE

Kenya & Tanzania

From the Masai Mara to the Serengeti: stories from my two weeks camping across East Africa’s most amazing natural wonders

Marius Masalar
Oct 17, 2017 · 28 min read
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First Days

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Sometimes the barriers between wealth and poverty are stark: a view from our window shows a hotel pool and local market separated by a wall both literal and figurative.

Lake Nakuru

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The Rift Valley floor, visible here beyond the Kikuyu Escarpment Forest.
Plains Zebra
(Equus quagga)
Common, charming, and instantly recognizable, the plains zebra is one of the most distinctive examples of African wildlife. They have an interesting response to danger, and an even more interesting response to photographers.When confronted by a predator, they'll often stare at it. Tens of zebras, patiently staring, waiting for their adversary to make a move, like kung fu masters. You'd expect them to run, but zebras are surprisingly powerful, with a strong bite and a formidable kick that can kill a hyena and seriously injure a lion.When confronted by photographers, zebras will more often than not turn around to reveal their butts. Whether this is out of shyness or a special pride in their rumps I do not know, but for every successful photo of a zebra face, you can expect five of its butt.Zebras live in small herds, called harems, where an adult male stallion keeps watch over his mares and their offspring. Young males may also form wandering boys clubs where the eldest will lead. These young males will practise fighting and eventually wander off to start their own harems as adults.During the migration season, harems and male groups can come together to form huge herds, hundreds strong, as they cross the plains in search of food.
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Rothschild's Giraffe and Masai Giraffe
(Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi, Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi)
Unmistakable and unmissable, the giraffe is a gentle giant.We encountered two subspecies: the common, Masai giraffe, and the endangered Rothschild's giraffe, with a population of fewer than 2,000 individuals remaining in the wild.Lake Nakuru is one of the few places where Rothschild's giraffe can be sighted fairly easily, and we learned to distinguish them by their "white socks" and larger, more smoothly shaped spots.Giraffes are partial to the leaves of the acacia tree, a common bit of foliage that defends itself with fearsome thorns. These do not bother the giraffe though, as its prehensile, rubbery tongue is remarkably quick to heal, so any areas pierced by the spikes close up without harming the animal.In Nairobi, at a sanctuary dedicated to breeding and rehabilitating giraffes, we had the remarkable privilege of hand-feeding these wonderful creatures. My favourite individual, named Ed, was already approaching his adult height of 6m; I had to be on the second floor of a specially constructed gazebo to feed him, and even still he towered over me.Gazing into Ed's gigantic, deep black eyes is an experience I won't soon forget.
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Lake Naivasha

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Kenya features some unique road hazards.
East African Hippopotamus
(Hippopotamus amphibius kiboko)
Here are some important things you should know about the hippopotamus:They can weigh more than 2,000kg, can run at speeds of 30km/h on land, can hold their breath for 5 minutes underwater, they have foot-long canine teeth that never stop growing, and the bite force of a female has been measured at over 8,000 newtons. The males are too aggressive to measure.Hippos are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other large animal. Oh, and contrary to popular opinion, they are not strictly herbivores; hippos have been observed eating various species of antelope, and even each other.Here are some unimportant things you probably don't need to know about the hippopotamus but may want to anyway:In 1910, during the meat crisis in the United States, the man who served as inspiration for Indiana Jones (plus his rival, a notorious con man and spy) proposed a unique solution. The idea, which later became a formal bill endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt, was to authorize the transport and release of wild hippopotamuses into Louisiana's bayous.There, it was argued, they would serve as an alternative source of meat for humans, while also conveniently solving the problem of invasive water hyacinths choking the ecosystem thanks to the hippo's voracious appetite. A New York Times editorial praised the flavour of this "lake bacon", and it was only by the tiniest measure that this bill did not pass.The full story is one of the most remarkable historical curios you'll ever encounter—and it is absolutely true.Another unimportant fact about hippopotamuses: owing to their poor eyesight, when they emerge from the water to graze, they spin their tails like a tiny helicopter and then poo through the turbine to spread a scent trail they can follow back to the water.Now you know.
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Despite the danger, it can be particularly difficult to take hippos seriously when they do silly things like roll onto their backs in the water.
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On our way to the hippos, we were able to watch some local fishermen at work.

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Hell’s Gate

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Rock Hyrax
(Procavia capensis)
Found throughout Central and South Africa, the gregarious rock hyrax is a small, social herbivore that resembles a rodent but is in fact one of only four species of mammal in the order Hyracoidea.Their closest living relatives are elephants and manatees, with which they share some characteristics like flat toenails and tusk-like incisors.Found in groups approaching 100 members, these adorable fuzzballs are surprisingly fearless, which explains how I was able to approach one (patiently) and receive a friendly kiss on the hand before it resumed foraging for food in front of me. Later, I even managed to pet one that I found basking in the sun.Rock hyraxes clamber up cliff faces and make their homes in caves, but they're also found up in trees and lounging around near human habitation like cheerful pets.
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Loita Hills

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Masai Mara

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African Lion
(Panthera leo melanochaita)
Needing no introduction, the lion is the best known of the large cats, second only to the tiger in body size.Lions are the only cat species where there's a visible difference between males and females; the magnificent mane distinguishes males, though females sometimes have small ones too.Young lions are born with dark spots to help them stay hidden from predators. These spots fade as they grow, settling into the more familiar burnt orange colouration.Lionesses do most of the hunting. They'll tackle wildebeest, zebras, antelope, gazelles, warthogs, and giraffes. Larger prides may try to take on buffalos, elephants, rhinos, and hippos, but the risks are great and their chances of success diminish.Because they prefer to scavenge when they can, lions compete with hyenas for food, and in fact it's often the hyenas that kill the prey, and the lions that try to steal it from them.
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African Leopard
(Panthera pardus pardus)
The second feline member of the Big Five, the leopard is a shy, powerful hunter.While populations are considered vulnerable, the reason they're so infrequently encountered on safari has more to do with their habit of hiding in trees during the day time. The fact that they're solitary, territorial creatures also makes them harder to spot, since there's almost always just one in a given area.Often confused with the cheetah, the leopard has larger spots, a stockier build, much shorter legs, and is missing the distinct tear streaks present on the cheetah's face. Similarly, the leopard is a different species from the jaguar, a larger and more powerful cat native to the Americas.Leopards typically hunt at night, capturing prey and dragging larger kills as quickly as they can back up into their tree. This tactic is an attempt to minimize the risk of theft by other predators, particularly lions and hyenas, many of whom have been known to harass and even kill the leopard in pursuit of its food.
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I got the impression that this leopard didn’t think highly of me.
East African Cheetah
(Acinonyx jubatus raineyi)
Cheetahs are famously recognized as the fastest land mammals, able to reach a speed of up to 100km/h while sprinting.The cheetah is tall, slender, and less massive than other big cats like the leopard, tiger, and lion. Cheetahs are also uniquely gregarious. Known as coalitions, groups of cheetahs can exist in various gender configurations and tend to stay together for life.Not only is the cheetah the only large cat capable of purring, it's also the only one that can be fully tamed. Tame cheetahs were common pets for Egyptian royalty during the New Kingdom (16th-11th century BC).
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Lake Victoria

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Serengeti

African Bush Elephant
(Loxodonta africana)
Regal, impossibly massive, the elephant is the largest land mammal and my favourite of the Big Five.Males stand over 3m tall at the shoulder and can weigh more than 6 tonnes, with rare individuals growing even larger.Elephants are renowned for their remarkable intelligence and memory, as well as their complex matriarchal society. They are among the only animals known to use tools, and they are among even fewer species able to recognize themselves in a mirror.While the full extent of their cognitive and emotional intelligence is under study, it's hard to deny the striking degree of personality and grace they exhibit.They're also ninjas.You may not expect this of an animal the size of a small building, but elephants are surprisingly stealthy and can disappear into a thicket with barely a whisper of rustling foliage.
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Spotted Hyena
(Crocuta crocuta)
While lions are often considered the most successful hunters, it’s really the hyenas that steal the show as far as plains predators are concerned.Featuring the largest group sizes and most complex social structures of any species in the order Carnivora, spotted hyenas are a formidable adversary. Contrary to popular belief, the spotted hyena (unlike its striped and brown cousin) is primarily a hunter, not a scavenger.They are incredibly flexible in their feeding, adapting to any circumstance and making the best of it. They're relentless hunters, pursuing their chosen prey over several kilometres if necessary, at speeds of 60km/h.With jaws more powerful than those of the leopard or brown bear, spotted hyenas can pulverize bone and their digestive system can break down skin and animal waste to a degree that puts other predators to shame.Even more impressive is their cooperative intelligence; one study showed that spotted hyena pairs outperformed chimpanzees in a challenge that required the pair to work together to obtain food—and they did so without prior training.
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Lappet-Faced Vulture
(Torgos tracheliotos)
This Old World species is among the largest of vultures, with a wingspan exceeding 2.5m in some individuals. Strutting around near a kill, it looks like a broad-shouldered dinosaur.As the most powerful of African vultures, the Lappet-faced vulture will often dominate a kill site, scaring away smaller species until it's had its fill. This works out well for both parties though, as the smaller birds can't pierce the toughest hides of large kills like the Lappet-faced vulture can.They've even been known to hunt small animals, mostly by plummeting down onto them from trees like a meteoric terror.Rather than circle aimlessly in the sky, we watched these cunning opportunists hang out in trees near the big cats and hyenas, waiting for a meal to become available.
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Marabou Stork
(Leptoptilos crumenifer)
I want you to imagine for a moment the elegant, beautiful stork that you’re familiar with. So sweet a bird that we dream of it bringing newborn babies to our homes, wrapped in white blankets.Now imagine the gigantic undead version of that bird and you have the marabou stork.Standing up to 1.5m tall and weighing almost 10kg, the marabou stork has a terrifying wingspan of over 3m. Protruding from its bald head is a sharp bill, 30cm in length, that it uses to rend flesh from carcasses or spear small prey.But wait, there's more! These giant birds will shamelessly eat faeces, garbage...even shoes and pieces of metal from human settlements.The obvious reason they hang out with vultures is so they can snag pieces of food that the vultures' curved beaks are able to more effectively remove from a carcass. The less obvious, more appalling reason is this: vultures aren't so good at portion control, so they tend to overeat and throw up...you see where this is going...the marabou stork, unconcerned with the opinions of others, will happily eat that too.So. In case you were wondering where peak grossness exists, it's here. In this bird.
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Literally a shit-eating grin on this guy.
Dik-Dik
(Madoqua gunther/kirkii)
Standing only about 30cm tall, the dik-dik is a set of four species of small antelope (not the smallest, incidentally, but close).Dik-dik are monogamous, and mate for life. Not only that, but it's said that the metabolism of a mating pair will synchronize to the point where their little hearts beat in unison because there is still joy in the universe.They also mark their territory with tears, and their bodies are so good at conserving water that they produce the driest poops of any ungulate.If you're looking at their little snouts and thinking they look like little elephant trunks, it's because the two species are related. All the best species are related to the elephant, I think you'll agree.
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Ngorongoro Crater

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Cape Buffalo
(Syncerus caffer)
Like hippos, cape buffalo are an unexpected danger to humans. They're cantankerous, intelligent, and vindictive.Older males in particular are dangerous as they tend to leave the larger herds and hang out on their own. Buffalo are known to pre-emptively attack predators, killing lions and even circling back to attack human hunters who've been unsuccessful.Large individuals are capable of fighting off an entire hunting pack of lions.
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Black Rhinoceros
(Diceros bicornis)
The black rhino is sometimes known as the hook-lipped rhino thanks to the beak-like shape of its upper lip. This is also the easiest way to distinguish it from the white rhino, which has a broad, flat mouth.Unlike its more common white cousin, the black rhino is solitary, unpredictable, and aggressive, occasionally to the point of absurdity.They've been observed attacking trees, perhaps perceiving them as a creature encroaching upon their territory. This aggression has negative consequences on their population, as the black rhino has the largest mortality rate among all mammals for combat-related injuries. Nearly half of all males and 30% of females will die from fighting others of their kind.The black rhino remains a prime target for poachers too, and populations are declining throughout their range.
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Homeward Bound

Hakuna Matata

Thanks to Hannah Martin and Álvaro Serrano

Marius Masalar

Written by

Freelance Tech Journalist, Photographer. Bylines at The Sweet Setup, Tools & Toys, PhotoLife Magazine, and right here on Medium.

Marius Masalar

Written by

Freelance Tech Journalist, Photographer. Bylines at The Sweet Setup, Tools & Toys, PhotoLife Magazine, and right here on Medium.

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