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Contiki East Africa Safari – Day 4: Maasai Mara

We had a very early wake up this morning for our highly anticipated Hot Air Balloon ride over Masai Mara. This was something not included in the base cost of the trip, but offered as an add on for $450. While the price was a bit steep, as hot air balloon rides tend to be, this was 100% worth it! We woke up at 4:30 AM as we needed to be at reception to get picked up and driven to the launch site at 5:00 AM. This proved to be slightly difficult as the camp we were staying at was running off a generator so there was no power to turn the lights on. Nonetheless, we were up and out by 5:00 AM! We boarded the vehicles and drove about 45 minutes to a different camp, which appeared to be more luxurious than ours and had a moat around it. After getting our temperature checked, something we do before we enter every camp including our own, we were able to sit down and grab a cup of coffee waiting for our hot air balloon number to be called – #1 of course! Despite being #1, we were the last ones to be called and started walking to the launch site. The hot air balloon company arranged for a car to pick me up and drive me, something that wasn’t necessary but helpful as it was still pitch black and my headlamp was out of battery so it was hard to see where I was putting my crutches with every step I took. After about a 5 minute walk / drive, we were at an open field with knee high brush and saw two hot air balloons in the process of being blown up. I have done hot air ballooning once before (in Egypt), but the site is still awe inspiring! Over the course of a few minutes, the balloon goes from laying on the ground with the basket sideways to fully blown up being held down by a few staff members. When it was almost fully blown up, the pilot went over a few safety procedures – mainly that we should sit down for the first few seconds of the trip until he told us to stand up and again when we needed to land, facing in the direction that we were landing in. The next thing we knew, we were getting in the basket! This is difficult for me as you need to climb into it and it is a little over chest high, so a few people helped me in. I sensed time was running out, so I said they should just get me over the hard part and I’d figure it out once I got in. Shortly after I made it in, a few other people joined and we were off for our one hour sunrise tour of Masai Mara!

What a tour it was – we went pretty high at first, before getting pretty low to allow us to see the wildlife from a very close arial view. Some wildlife was more afraid of the hot air balloon than others, causing them to run away from the balloon as we neared, but the experience was stunning regardless. Every once in a while, we went high for a few minutes to allow us to see the sunrise over Masai Mara with hot air balloons dotting the sky around us. We saw lots of different wildlife including elephants, herds of wildebeests, buffalo, gazelles, ostriches, zebras, and various birds. After about an hour, we landed in the middle of brush in what was the smoothest landing one could ask for. I had some assistance getting out of the balloon and we hopped into the vehicles one more time which took us to our breakfast site which was so cool – two tables and a buffet set up in the middle of Masai Mara (no fences or anything around the site)! The breakfast was fantastic and included a full bar to allow us to toast to a memorable hot air balloon ride. After breakfast, the company showed us some pictures they took of us during the balloon ride (and some pictures they have taken during other rides) in case we wanted to buy them for $50 – a few people in our group decided to pitch in and buy one and share it among ourselves.

We then met up with our Contiki guides, Haron and Dennis, to continue our daylong festivities. Before hopping in the vehicles, we had a mini photoshoot because the scenery was too stunning not to. Of course, I had to represent both Penn State and Contiki!

After a bit of driving, we came across a very full vulture.

Then, we came across a lot of very hungry vultures duking it out for final scraps of meat.

We kept going and stumbled upon two lions sleeping in the shade of some trees. Every once in a while they raised their heads to look at us before going back to sleep.

Then, it was time for the main attraction of the day – the Great Migration of the Wildebeests crossing a river filled with hippos and crocodiles. This is a seasonal event where wildebeests migrate to find better brush to eat after the rainy season. They migrate from the Serengeti in Tanzania to Masai Mara in the winter months (the USA summer) and the other way in the summer months (the USA winter). The migration happens over the course of months and at different locations, but we posted up at one that our Trip Manager, Haron, was a fan of. The wildebeests are fickle, and stupid, animals. They need to wait for one animal to lead the charge and it took hours of them lined up just standing there for them to begin to make their first charge. Unfortunately, some poorly trained safari drivers drove up to them once it started to happen and scared them away. They then walked over to a different crossing point, waited another 45 minutes, and turned around to go back to the old crossing point. While we were waiting, we did see some hippos which was a good distraction. 

After another hour of waiting, we decided to go to a nearby tree for lunch as the camp had made us lunch boxes. When we were almost done, we saw some movement so we quickly piled back into the vehicles and headed back to a vantage point only to see the wildebeests running the wrong way. When we thought all hope was lost, a handful of wildebeests made the first move causing others to turn around and follow in their footsteps. They did not move at lighting speed across the river, but none of them got eaten by crocodiles. 

An interesting thing I learned is that zebras and wildebeests stick together, so we even saw some zebras cross the water as well! The fact that there was not much carnage was much to the dismay of the dozens of vultures that were waiting at the side of the riverbank, hoping for some easy pickings. While we were waiting, I was able to snap some great pictures of vultures including their massive wingspan.

After the wildebeests and zebras migrated across the river, we headed back to see if our lion friends were still sleeping under the tree and they were. We then saw a few giraffes before my camera started acting up (something I could not figure out for over a day) when I realized it was on manual focus when I zoomed in, so I could only take clear pictures without zooming for the rest of the day.

Next, we drove along the riverbank where we saw some hippos, crocodiles, and cape buffalo. We also saw a young wildebeest at a different crossing point that must have gotten lost. It would become a predator’s food if it doesn’t find another herd to take it in soon.

After the riverbank, we started heading back in the direction of camp since it was over 2 hours away without stopping. We knew wed see a few things along the way, so it made sense to start going back. As we drove back, we saw a field that was burned for miles and miles. Traditionally, the fields are burned every other year to allow for fresh brush to come in that is more desirable for the animals to graze on, but this burn must have gotten out of control. It reminded me of the Lion King when Scar takes over and there is nothing left to eat. That being said, there were some animals grazing on what had already come back to life.

After the land turned back to normal, we saw a few other animals like giraffes eating the higher bushes. We then heard a tip that a leopard, the one animal of the big five we hadn’t seen yet, was spotted about 20 minutes away, so we booked it to the spot. Unfortunately, it was gone by the time we got there. We drove around for about a half hour before giving up and heading back in the direction of the lodge. It started to drizzle shortly thereafter which meant that the leopard would have likely gone into hiding, but the drizzle stopped slowly after it started and some of the animals came back to life. On the way back, we passed a few places that an absolutely stunning convergence of animals (wildebeests, zebras, elephants & giraffes)! 

Our next treat was witnessing the mating ritual of two lions, something that can take up to five days. About every 15 minutes, the male lion goes over the lioness and mates with her for all of 10 to 15 seconds before going a few yards away and resting. This cycle goes on for days. 

On the way back to camp, we found a few more wonders of nature including vultures fighting each other at the top of a tree.

We also passed by the convergence of various animals once more crossing a field with acacia trees making it even more photogenic.

It was then time to head back to camp to get dinner and pack before they turned the power off. The following day, we head to Lake Elementaita!

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