As we followed the map on our phone to our campsite, the Kimana Mara Tented Camp, it led us to a soccer field adjacent to a small town. We looked around for any signs of a camp, but found nothing. We had clearly been led astray by our electronic guide. We drove on and asked the first group of people we came across, they said to continue on the dirt road, and we followed their directions, though the dirt road wove and split and came back together at intervals, and we were never quite sure which split to take.
Soon we came to a perilous river crossing, not dangerous so much because of the volume of water we needed to cross, but due to the steep angle of the embankment on either side. We approached tentatively, still unsure we were headed in the right direction, as a scooter gracefully made the crossing down and up in the opposite direction.
We waved the young man down and asked if the camp was the way he came, and he said, in excellent English, “yes, you just cross, turn at the tree, and you’re there." We looked ahead at the veritable forest of trees and wondered which tree we needed to heed, when he continued, “do you want me to take you there?” “yes!” we exclaimed in unison, and he was off leading the way, across the river, turning at “the” tree, and led us to a parking spot under a canopy of trees.
“Great! Is this where we camp?” “No, the camp is over the river” as he pointed to a pedestrian river crossing. “But, how do we get our car across? We just need a place to park our car, we camp in the tent on the top”, we explained. “No problem” he said as he led us across, knocking at the gate to get the camp keeper’s attention. Impatient, he just clambered across the gate, the bridge swaying with every movement, and we followed, climbing not quite as gracefully as he.
As we walked in though the entrance, a beautiful camp spread out before us; large tents on solid platforms and roofs over them were tucked into an emerald landscape, dappled light filtering through the verdant canopy, the air smelling clean and forest-like. From the guidebook, we knew the rates for the tents were more than we wanted to pay, but it was oh so very beautiful.
Soon Nelson, our scooter guide, emerged and introduced us to Benson, the camp keeper. We explained that we loved the camp, but were really just looking for a safe place to park the car. He nodded and invited us to check out the interior of one of the tents. Chuckling we obliged, knowing we were like lambs being led to slaughter, and indeed the interiors were impressive, in the back was a tiled bathroom with running water. We mentioned that we were really looking for a parking spot and didn’t want to pay more than we had paid the night before for a spot, and Benson said “ok”. They didn’t have any other guests and he was happy to have us stay in the tent for the price of camping. And, he mentioned, staying in the car was not entirely safe because of the baboons. Oh. Ok. Looking forward to a real bed, and running water (!!!) we got our belongings, made a tuna fish and parsley dinner, and hit the hay.
The next morning we woke up with the warm sunlight streaming gently into our tent, the dulcet tones of nature humming outside the tent. We had slept well, except for the noises of something running around the grounds of the camp. We learned it was the baboons Benson had mentioned the night before.
After our Weetabix and UHT milk breakfast we headed back into the park with the intention of seeing hippos! Benson (center) and his night guard (left) and a friend, bundled in their Masai blankets against the morning chill, waved us off on our adventure, after letting them know we would be back for a second night.
In the far SE edge of the park is the infamous crossing where the wildebeest pass in their migrations in and out of the park (a classic NatGeo segment), and in that area is where hippos are often found. We headed first a little south and then east, meandering a bit by rivers hoping to see some wildlife, but without much luck.
Our morning meal had by now made its way through our system and it was soon apparent we would need to use the restroom. Remembering the park rules that we are not allowed out of the vehicle unless at a designated picnic area "under a tree", we soon spotted a few vehicles parked under a tree next to what from a distance looked like an outhouse.
Not knowing the etiquette we slowly drove closer, trying to see if this was a private party or if it was a Park facility. We spotted someone walking quickly towards us, and waving their arms. "Oh no" we thought, and then we recognized the distinctive gait of Pius, our mechanic savior that had fixed our car the day before! We could not believe our luck! In this huge expanse of the park to run into him was just extraordinary.
They were there serving breakfast to guests who had just finished a balloon ride over the savannah. We were introduced to the pilot, the lucky guests, and then we had to check out the balloon itself. The basket was massive, about 6’ wide and 12’ long, made of woven wicker, and could hold up to 13 people. Although it was already on the flat bed of the truck, we climbed up and into it. Next time, we promised ourselves, next time we would definitely save up for this adventure.
After using what indeed turned out to be an outhouse, we reluctantly said our goodbyes to Pius, the captain, and the rest of the crew, and headed back to our journey to the hippo river.
This part of the park was particularly isolated, including Pius’ group, we probably saw a total of 10 other cars on that stretch. And as we headed deeper into the SE corner, more and more wildlife appeared.
To the south of the road many families of elephants could be seen wandering about, a large group of the colorful topi we had seen the previous day, giraffe, a vulture!, more warthogs, and many more creatures.
As we drove on we spotted a giraffe standing a few feet from the road and as curious about us as we were about her. We stayed a few minutes admiring her and delighting in her awkward gait. We tried to film it many times, but whenever we pointed our cameras at her and hit “record” she would immediately stop, as if she knew what we were up to. It felt like an enormous victory when we were finally able to capture a few seconds of her walking. What a charmer!
We finally pried ourselves from her and continued on our journey. A few miles later, after spotting this totally natural tree,
we reached our destination! We followed a sign and came upon a group of armed guards at the riverbank. We could see hippos!
A sign said “don’t go beyond this place without a gun” and having come unarmed, we asked if it was ok to get out. A guard came over and pointing to his gun said it was ok. He would guide us to see the hippos.
We hopped out and followed him to the bank of the river. Below us, basking in the late morning sun, were about 75 hippos, only their backs and snouts protruding from the muddy river.
Our knowledgeable guide told us that they can stay underwater up to 30 minutes, they spend the day in the river in their family pods, and in the early evening as the sun starts setting they all come out onto the shore to graze on the vegetation. As great as it was to have him as a guide, his real job was to prevent poaching. He and his comrades are there 24 hours a day in shifts, protecting the hippos. Our entrance fees hard at work!
He pointed out a massive fellow, basking in the sun with his pink belly pointed to the warm sun.
We walked along the river, admiring the muddy path they make to get out, with deep hippo footprints in the soft mud, and inhaling the pungent smell of their excrement trail. Our guide pointed out a baby hippo only 3 days old, his tiny adorable snout poking out next to his massive mom and dad.
Further along he pointed out a sleeping croc with its mouth open, and another one on the further bank, much larger, and also mouth agape.
Our hippo tour ended under a huga acacia tree, fluttering with beautiful yellow birds, the branches heavy with their woven basket nests, with the entrance at the bottom and two living areas to either side.
We were over the river separating the National Park from the Mara Triangle, a section of the park administered by a separate agency that was even more remote, wilder, with rougher roads, but with more animals.
We could head into the Mara Triangle or we could head back the way we came. We had to be out of the park by 5pm, and we knew that our time would be tight even if the roads were easy (they never were!) but we decided to push forward anyway. What’s an adventure without some stress and tension, right?