There is a road from Serengeti, Tanzania, to the Masai Mara, Kenya, since these two parks are essentially the same national park within two country borders. Google maps shows this road, and it was once possible to cross the border within the park. Its unclear to me whether its closed only to tourists, but the pitiful thing for me was I now had to get to Masai Mara in the most indirect, complicated way possible.
It took me an entire day to travel back out of Serengeti, west all the way to
Lake Victoria, then north to the border town of Sirare. It took another day to drive with Kenya back east to the Masai Mara, along a flooded, pot-holed road at an average speed of 30km an hour in my friend’s Land Rover. I was visiting two Masai friends I had made at the Tourism Conference in Kampala earlier this month, and made the mistake of offering to pay fuel which turned out to be $180US. I would have paid three times more for the treatment I received, since both friends gave me an unforgettable experience in the national park they call home.
For the two days I was with them, I wore the most beautiful Masai dress. It was bright red, covered in beads, and my ankles, wrists and head were adorned in more colourful jewelry. I was treated as a Masai by all we met, with utmost respect and attempts at communicating in the Masai language. I did not pay for my tour-guided game drive, park fees, meals or accomodation because of their generous hospitality.
I had dreamed of seeing a leopard or a cheetah, and within an hour of entering the park I saw both, as well as a pride of lions and a herd of elephants. Masai Mara national park was so different from Serengeti – it was a vast, flat plain, with single, isolated trees once every square kilometer. The grass was so well-grazed that you could see the horizon curve, the ground just a uniform, green carpet.
As you approach the park from the west, the road drops down a huge cliff, into the valley of the Masai’s. The Masai people are still living in and around the park, in the same way they have for hundreds of year. They are one of the few tribes in Kenya that maintains a long history of culture, resisting ‘development’ and ‘westernization’ by keeping their mud huts and colourful dress. They live side by side with the wilderness of the park, boys as young as 13 killing lions with a spear, and men spending years of their lives nomadically grazing cows. They wander freely between countries, indifferent about the political notion of a ‘border’, their Masai culture irrespective of whether their brothers are from Tanzania or Kenya.
My friend James, attending grad school in South Carolina, told me that the thing he misses most when in the US is being with his cows. One cowboy will spend weeks alone with his cows, knows exactly how each and every cow is, and forms incredible bonds with his herd. Their sole purpose is to stay with the them, live off their milk, and at all costs protect their lives from the free-roaming lions, hyenas, cheetahs and leopards constantly posing a threat.
One of the most beautiful yet paradoxical sights I saw while in the Masai was a herd of cows and zebra grazing together. My ‘western’ notion of an African Safari or National Park, the ideology of a conservation area full of wild animals, doesn’t allow me to picture zebras grazing alongside livestock. The idea that domesticated animals, their farmers, and all the stars from the Lion King live harmoniously in a lawless land is still something I can’t get my head around.