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The Fab Fam on Safari, Days 5-7: Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Today I am sharing the final chapter in our family's recent African safari: Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Over the last few weeks, I have been sharing details of our recent safari journey.  First, I shared an overview of our week-long safari in Kenya, including my review of our personally-curated safari experience by Explorateur Journeys.  But, since we have so many amazing photos and memories from our week on safari, there was no way to do them all justice in a single blog post.  As a result, I have been sharing additional posts with more photos and details about each of the destinations during the safari week (NairobiSamburu National Reserve, Lake Nakuru, and now Maasai Mara National Reserve). 
If you have been following along with our #journeytothejourney (as we prepared for the trip), followed by these safari stories on the blog over the last few months, I want to thank you for joining us on our journey!  I hope that, in some way, it inspired you to go on your own bucket list-worthy adventure like this.
Today, I am taking you through the final days of our safari week: Days 5-7, which we spent mostly in the amazing Maasai Mara.  I honestly wasn't sure how to begin writing this chapter.  This is in part due to the fact that I had over 500 good photos from Maasai Mara alone to narrow down for this post, and also in part due to the fact that Maasai Mara felt so significant... so quintessential... how could I put it into words that would do it justice?  But, I will try.
Maasai Mara is one of Kenya's largest and most famous national reserves.  It may even be one of the most photographed and filmed.  Maasai Mara is not only home to all of the Big Five, but since it is contiguous with Tanzania's Serengeti, it is also a site on the great annual migration of zebra, wildebeest, and gazelle as they cross the Mara River. 
We arrived in Maasai Mara from Lake Nakuru on Friday afternoon.  While the distance wasn't long, the most direct route between the national parks involved a lot of dirt roads, which provide "African massage" as our driver and guide, Sammy, liked to say ("African massage" = bumpy dirt roads, in case you weren't following).  Even though our safari van was not a 4x4, it held up pretty well on the dirt roads, and we made good time to the reserve.
Like the other national parks we visited, we stopped at the gate to check-in.  While we were waiting to check in, we were greeted by locals selling beaded jewelry and carved wooden handicrafts for great bargains.  That was the last time we would see other people until we checked into our camp.  Sammy raised the roof on our safari van, and we were off on another game viewing drive.
As soon as we got into the park, it was teeming with wildlife.  Impala, zebra, and elephants were sighted immediately.

The landscape of Maasai Mara was a sight to behold.  It looked like what I always pictured of Africa: wide, rolling plains dotted with acacia trees, and mountains in the distance.  Against this vast palette you'd see families of elephants crossing, antelope grazing, and a stray giraffe.  Just surreal to behold.  Straight out of Out of Africa.

We saw a hyena for the first time this week soon after arriving at Maasai Mara National Reserve.  Click here to see a video of this hyena before he fell asleep.

For being such a famous reserve, I was surprised how little human traffic we encountered.  This family of elephants was not phased by us at all.  We stopped our safari van to watch them cross the road in front of us.

Then came a very pleasant surprise. We noticed what appeared to be dark spots in the distance, resembling trees.  But as we got closer, Sammy pointed out that they were wildebeest and zebra, the first wave of crossing from Tanzania's Serengeti over the Mara River for the annual migration.  I didn't expect that we'd see any of the migration this early in June!  It was just magic to see this with my own eyes.  I can't describe it, but you can click here to see my video clip of the start of the great annual migration.

These spots as far as the eye can see are herds and herds of wildebeest and zebra on their annual migration.

A few wildebeest were running around, seemingly trying to excite the others.

See all the tiny specs in the background?  Wildebeest as far as the eye can see!

Huge and surreally beautiful, we spent hours winding through Maasai Mara this first afternoon, and didn't seem to see the same thing twice. 

Baboons walking down the road a the sun begins to set on our first afternoon.

A silhouette of a baboon climbing a tree.

As the sun began to set, we headed towards our camp, Ashnil Mara, to check-in.  Service, food, and accommodations were again top-notch.  There were a lot more people at this camp (it was bigger than the Ashnil Samburu), but didn't feel crowded.  One of the coolest things about Ashnil Mara was that you could hear the grunting of the hippo in the nearby river throughout the day and night.  As hippos are dangerous, their proximity to the camp may be why staff escort you to your tent with a flashlight at night at Ashnil Mara.
The grounds at Ashnil Mara were lovely! 
Our tent was more like a suite, with an extra room for the boys.

The tent had a nice sitting area in front to lounge and listen to the sounds of wildlife.

Hippos in the river at Ashnil Mara, as seen from the balcony of the camp's dining area.

With more people staying here, there was quite a crowd in the lounge area before dinner.  The kids played by the outdoor fire pit while we sipped on Tusker (Kenyan beer) and met some of the other folks on safari.  We even met another family of Texans with kids our age. 

After a big buffet dinner (where we got to watch a Maasai chanting, dancing, and jumping demonstration), we got a good first night's sleep in Maasai Mara to the soundtrack of the hippopotami. We couldn't wait to see what was in store for us the next day!

Like on our previous safari game viewing days, we started our day with an early breakfast followed by a game drive at sunrise.  We saw hot air balloons floating nearby for those who got up even earlier to experience Mara in a balloon safari.  We didn't opt for that on this trip, and don't feel like we missed out.  Maasai Mara was pretty epic in and of itself.

G pointing something out to us in the early morning light of Maasai Mara.

This morning was a significant one on our trip.  It was the first time that we got to see some of Africa's big cats!  The first ones we spotted were adorable lion cubs.  As we didn't see any adults with them, we assumed that they must be out hunting.


Adorable lion cubs spotted during one of our morning game viewing drives in Maasai Mara.

Just look at this adorable little guy!  Click here to see a video of these lion cubs on my YouTube channel.

Even though we were thrilled to see these cute little cubs, and were definitely not disappointed with all the other wildlife we had been witness to all week, I must be honest and say that I was really hoping to see some of the adult cats, and ideally, I really wanted to see them hunt! 

Fortunately for us, we ended up seeing many more lions during our remaining time in Maasai Mara, starting with this majestic trio of lionesses.

I was blown away by the power, regality, and strength of these lionesses.

This beautiful male lion was not far away from the females, gazing majestically into the distance.

He eventually sauntered our way to rest himself by a small mound of grass.

Unexpectedly, the females got up, and started into a more aggressive stance.  They were on the prowl!

They spotted a wildebeest that had separated from their large herd.  Even though it was far away (too far for us to even notice at first), the lionesses engaged in their tactical assault.  The three split up to create a wide triangle around the wildebeest.  The muscles of these huge, powerful, female cats literally glistened in the morning sunlight.  What a force!

They stalked in closer, one at a time, still in a large triangle.  When the wildebeest became aware, he started moving more quickly back towards his herd.  The lionesses then sped up themselves. 

Fortunately for the wildebeest, he got a safe enough distance away that he was able to join some of his herd.  The number of wildebeests together must have made the hunt less appealing to the lionesses, so they retreated.  While we didn't get to see them take down the wildebeest, we were enthralled with watching the event unfold, and felt so fortunate to have seen this act live in nature.  If you want to see it too, you can click here for a video clip of the lionesses stalking their would-be prey.

As if that wasn't enough excitement for one morning, we spent several more hours in the national reserve before going back to camp for our mid-day lunch and rest break.  Though the Mara was a lot cooler in the mornings than our previous destinations on safari, it still got quite hot mid-day, but we stayed out for quite a while still.

The elephants appeared more gray than the reddish-brown color of the elephants we saw in Samburu.  Sammy said it was because of the color of the dirt they bathed in that made the difference.

Warthogs in Maasai Mara National Reserve

Topi in Maasai Mara

During this morning's game-viewing drive, we got to see the third different type of giraffe of the week: the Maasai giraffe.

These male Maasai giraffes spent a good amount of time tormenting each other by smacking each others' necks or bodies with their necks.

Though they either sauntered or stood regally most of the time when we saw giraffes, these feisty guys did some neck fighting for quite a while as we watched.  You can see the video of these male Maasai giraffes neck fighting here.

Giraffe selfie!

Much more adventure came our way before the lunch break this morning, and much more wildlife to see.

Two crocodiles laying on the beach of the Mara River.

Just like we saw at Lake Nakuru, there were grey-crowned cranes here in Maasai Mara as well.

We saw more baboons this afternoon too... the babies are my favorite!

...and more stunning scenery.  Seriously, how picturesque is this?

Remember how I said that our safari van wasn't a 4x4?  And that it also held up pretty well on the bumpy Kenyan roads despite it?  Well, we got to see the limits of the van's capabilities during this morning's game drive.

This wasn't the first waterway we crossed during the safari week... but for whatever reason, this was one that had us beat.

The van got stuck trying to cross.  Luckily the water wasn't deep, so it was nothing to worry about, but I could tell that our poor driver felt a little embarrassed.

While we waited for help from another safari vehicle, the boys decided to hop on top of the van for some fun while killing time.

The boys hanging from the raised roof of the safari van while we were stuck in the stream.

It wasn't long before another vehicle helped pull us out, and we were back on our way.  What's a safari without a little unexpected adventure, right?

But again, the adventure continued.  Sammy had to pay it forward when he got a call that a nearby safari vehicle needed some help.  We stopped to help at a spot that just so happened to have a lovely view of the Mara River and some hippo.  It also provided us with the opportunity to exit the van for a few minutes to do some in-the-savanna photo shoots of our day's safari outfits (there is always a silver lining).  For more photos like this, click here to see my post on safari fashion for men, women, and children.


The Mara River with some hippos chillin.'

Ever the hero, my husband had to take a peek under the other safari vehicle that was in need of help.

After a very eventful (and incredible) morning, we went back to the Ashnil Mara for our mid-day siesta before getting back into our van for our afternoon and evening game drive later that day.

Due to some controlled burning, the plains became filled with smoke over the course of the afternoon.  It made for a unique, hazy look to everything.

The hubs and me posing on top of a hill where you have an amazing panoramic view of the Maasai Mara, all the way to Tanzania.

We saw more hippos in the river, and you can see more of the smoke starting to settle in.


At one point, the smoke got really thick where we were, so we had to move along to a part of the reserve that wasn't downwind from the burns.

A little away from the smoke we came across two more male lions lazing in the afternoon warmth. 

Two male Maasai lions lounging in the afternoon.

One of the lions got up and stretched out before walking away from us.

Before heading back to the camp evening, we drove back through the smoke.  It was so bad at one point that I couldn't stand up with my head out the top of the van.  Though we did see a large herd of huge African elephants on our way back to camp.

Look how smoky it is in this photo!
The next morning we had another early breakfast at camp before our final game drive in the Mara.  S had a few crepes with honey (these "pancakes" became his favorite breakfast during the trip), G filled up on croissants with butter, and the hubs and I enjoyed as much of that delicious Kenyan coffee as we could to start our last day on safari. 
It was sad to say good bye to Amos, our server during our weekend at Ashnil Mara.  During our meals with him he taught us about the local Maasai traditions and the Big Five, and like others we met on the trip, always engaged with the boys. 

Fighting back tears knowing our time in this beautiful place was limited, we departed our camp.  We had our last game viewing drive in Maasai Mara on our way from the camp to the park exit.  Though we did have our visit to a Maasai village to look forward to.

A lone impala in the morning light of Maasai Mara National Reserve. 

A beautiful way to end our game drives was seeing a large pride of lions, lionesses, and lion cubs relaxing in the shade.

Look at this beautiful lioness!

We made eye contact.  We may have been in a large steel machine, but there was no denying who the boss was.

Two male lions, with bellies full from their morning meal, walked across the savanna towards us.

They were so majestic.  You can get a closer look in this YouTube video of these two male lions.

A lone giraffe out on the plain.

After exiting the park, we went to a nearby Maasai village for a visit.  We were all looking forward to this.  I really wanted to learn more about their traditions and way of life.  I was especially excited for the boys to experience a village with a completely different value system than what they are used to... to provide some perspective that life is not all about tablets, Wi-Fi, and the latest videogames... that there are many different ways that people live, and that one is not better than the other. 

The circular village was surrounded by a brush fence.  Outside of the fence were the villagers' cows.  Cattle are key livestock for Maasai people.

Inside the ring of brush was a ring of mud and thatch homes, with wide open space in the center.

Our guide in the village was Tony.  Tony taught us about a lot of Maasai history and traditions, including what has changed in recent years as a result of advancements as well as other external factors.  One example of something that struck me was when Tony was describing the former tradition of a male Maasai warrior hunting a lion as a coming-of-age ritual.  When he told me that they are no longer able to participate in this rite of passage, I thought it was interesting that he didn't describe the reasons as being conservationist.  Instead, he described it this way: "the government won't let us hunt the lions, because tourists want to see the lions.  If there are no more lions, the tourists won't come."  Interesting perspective.

Tony talking to us about how the Maasai build fire before a pair of warriors demonstrated for us.

Where there's smoke...

... there's fire!

The warriors even tried to teach G how to make a fire.  He didn't succeed, but I was so proud that he tried.

The villagers demonstrated their dancing and jumping for us next.  What an incredible thing to see!

The Maasai warriors in their bright red shuka chanting for us before they began their jumping competition.

The warriors were so athletic, and could jump so high!

G was up for anything while we were at the Maasai village.  I was so proud of him for being receptive to the new experiences.  When he was invited to join in on the jumping, he didn't hesitate.

Here is a video of Grayson jumping with the Maasai warriors during our visit to the Maasai village.

We got to pose with the warriors after the jumping competition.

After the jumping and dancing, Tony invited us into one of the village homes.  After walking through a front room (which apparently is a safe haven for a family's goats during bad weather, or when a predator is near), we got to see a living room and two bedrooms.

The living room had a small fireplace, window openings for light, and cut-outs in the walls as a cabinet of sorts.

The home had two rooms: one for children, and one for the adults.
Before leaving, we gave the village children some colored pencils we had pre-purchased for them as gifts, and made a donation to the village's local school.  We also shopped from the villager's jewelry and handicrafts to pick up our final souvenirs for the trip.  After they welcomed us into their village and spent time with us, we were more than happy to try and repay the favor with gifts, donations, and purchasing their lovely and well-made goods. 
After leaving the village, we started our drive back to Nairobi for our flight out of Jomo Kenyatta Airport.  Along the way, we stopped one more time.  Not a bad stop at all for our final restroom break - a view point of the Great Rift Valley.

This beautiful view will stay with me for some time.

The boys played on the rocks and old tire sculptures at the view point while my husband and I drank in the breathtaking view of Kenya.

My beautiful boys with the beautiful view.

Just like that, our magical safari experience was over.  Two months later, and I still catch myself daydreaming about Samburu or Maasai Mara.  I try to live in the moment when the memories come over me, as I don't want to forget the sights of the scenery or animals.  I never want to forget the rolling plains of the Mara, the way the hippos sounded at night, or the long, black eyelashes of the giraffes.  I never want to forget the looks of wonder and adventure on my babies' faces.  And I never want to forget how fortunate I feel that we had the opportunity for an adventure like this. 

I will be back to Africa someday, I just know.  Whether it's seeing the Egyptian pyramids, gorilla trekking in Rawanda, traveling through Tanzania on the way to summit Kilimanjaro, or all three, I know I'll be back.  It is a place like none other, and this trip can't be the last time I experience it.

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