Masai Mara National Reserve – All The Practical Stuff!

When we began our research for the Masai Mara National Reserve, we found information to be scattered across the Internet. Climate information at one place, visa at another, what to carry at yet another… We made a mental note then itself that we would list down the useful bits at one place when we got back!

So, without much preamble, listing down the top 10 things you need to keep in mind if you are planning a trip to the beautiful Masai Mara.

‘Spotted Land’

1. Best Time to Go – We will not get into what the Great Migration is. But just suffice to say that it is the BEST time to visit the Mara if you want to see thousands of animals. July – September is the time when the wild beasts move from Tanzania to Kenya; they return to Tanzania in January – March.

Jul – Sep is the busiest time of the year for the National Reserve. So, make your bookings well in advance. The costs will be inflated in this quarter, but if you delay, there is a likelihood of not getting accommodation/ vehicles at all. We finalized our trip in June to travel in August! <facepalm>

2. Getting There – There is no direct connectivity to the Reserve. The closest international airport is Nairobi. For Indians, while there are direct flights from Mumbai to Nairobi, this does not hold for New Delhi. There are innumerable options available for hopping – either through Mumbai or to one of the many cities in the middle east.

big 5, cape buffalo
Our first Big 5 sighting! The Cape Buffalo, a distant cousin of our very own Bhainsa!

We chose the route of New Delhi – Muscat – Nairobi by Oman Air.

3. Visa for Indians – Kenya has a convenient e-visa system. Go to the visa website, create an account, fill out the application form, & pay the visa fee online. Once your e-visa is approved, you can download the PDF on your handheld device to use during immigration.

As a tourist, you will be eligible for a Single-Entry Visa.

african bush elephant
It’s said the African Bush Elephant has ears resembling the map of Africa. We can see why it’s so…

4. Yellow Fever Vaccination – The Yellow Fever Vaccine is needed by those traveling to certain African countries. There are specific places that are authorized to give this vaccination – a simple google search will throw up the names. However, note that each of these places have either a booking system or a specific day/ time when they give this vaccine. So, it is not like you can simply walk in & get this done.

We got ours done at Public Health Lab Building, Delhi. There is a registration window lasting till 10:30 AM; the vaccination begins at 11 AM. If you are aware of your allergies (especially egg – related allergies), please let the officer-in-charge know upfront.

Please note – you have to carry your passport for the vaccination.

sunset
Suckers for sunsets – that’s what we are!

5. Weather – Being close to the Equator, the weather is cooler from July to September. It is cold in early morning & late evening. For our sunrise & sunset safaris, & for our dinners, we would step out with a jacket.

We recommend carrying a light jacket at least; it will be useful in the Savannah (the temperatures can be even lower there). Typically, these months also see a bit of rainfall but we were lucky to have avoided it.

The Jacuzzi looked inviting as the Sun shone overhead. But the moment we got in, we froze to our bones & emerged promptly with chattering teeth.

african hoopoe
The African Hoopoe asked us to say ‘hi’ to the Eurasian Hoopoe found in India.

6. The Sun – The weather is pleasant but the direct Sun is strong. Walking in the Sun made us sweat like pigs. But the moment we entered the shade, it became nippy. Also, the wind was never hot. We recommend carrying a cap/ hat & sunglasses.

7. Travel Agency – As it was our first trip to Africa, we were unsure of what to expect. We felt it practical to use a travel agency. We found agencies ranging from INR 3L to INR 10L! So, irrespective of your budget, you will be able to find an agency.

We availed the services of Kiboko Kenya Safaris; read our review here.

masai giraffe
“Where are you going sister?” “Don’t you know? There’s a sale going on in Zara!”

8. Accommodation – There is no dearth of accommodation in & around the Masai Mara National Reserve. Unlike India, where staying inside forest reserves is not allowed, the Masai Mara has plenty of options inside the reserve itself. In terms of quality, there is no difference. However, the camps/ resorts within the national reserve come with an added bonus of animal noises at night!

We stayed at Sentrim Mara -& had a great time there.

9. Food – A complete nonissue! Many people are wary of traveling to Africa as they have preconceived notions about the food. If you have any such notions, dispel them immediately. We did not have any problem of finding food suitable to our palate. African, European & Indian foods are available aplenty.

rhinoceros
A rhinoceros crossed the road & attempted to climb back up on the other side. It was a struggle for the rhino, but for us, it made an amusing sight…

Kenya has a sizable Indian diaspora; thus, Indian food is extremely common. Plenty of vegetarian options available too!

10. Clothing – Like with any wildlife safari, it is better to wear earthy, muted tones. Wear fully-covered clothing to prevent insect bites & sunburn/ tan. We wore full-legged pants on all the days, yet got bitten by microscopic insects.

11. Bio Breaks During Game Drives – We were worried about the loo aspect as we are high water drinkers. The sunrise/ sunset safaris last for two hours typically. That is a manageable time for not using a loo. In a full day game drive, the driver makes two stops, at intervals of about three hours.

migration, wildebeest, zebra, tanzania, kenya
Wildebeest & zebras had started making their way from Tanzania to Kenya. Zebras are the smart/ opportunistic ones in this scheme… They follow the wildebeest’s lead to get to Kenya, & once here, abandon the wildebeest (who have the memory of a goldfish & sometimes end up going back the way they came)!

For us, one of the stops was in a lodge where the loo was clean & easy to use. The other stop was in a public facility, which was basically a hole in the ground! We dehydrated ourselves a bit to avoid getting our bladders full.

But we will advise against not drinking water at all, because the Sun will compel you to. Drink in moderation, so that you do not end up uncomfortable.

12. Safety – We traveled during daylight hours. Our driver stopped at respectable places. Safety was not a challenge for us, neither should it be for you.

cheetah, grassland
See the cheetahs lazing in the grassland…

In the reserve & the camp, pay heed to security warnings issued by the guide/ management. You are in wildlife territory. Leopards & hyenas are known to wander into human areas. Maybe they are as curious about us as we are about them!

13. Game Drive – Drives are carried out in two kinds of vehicles – vans & Land Cruisers. While both are customized for game watching, we feel the Land Cruiser is a more comfortable, more spacious, & thus, a better option.

Also, you can opt for a dedicated vehicle or a shared one. The dedicated vehicle is expensive undoubtedly, but it is value for money. We had a dedicated vehicle with just the two of us in it! It made our movement within the vehicle to take photos from different angles extremely easy.

There’s no bigger source of GK than travel! We figured how a Land Cruiser could be converted into a safari vehicle, with a detachable top.

There are three kinds of safaris – sunrise, full day & sunset. The sunrise & sunset game drives last for a couple of hours. The full day drive is from 8 AM to 3 PM.

a. Sunrise Safari – You enter the Masai Mara National Reserve a little before the sun rises. Witness the sunrise against a backdrop of wildlife & acacia trees. The hot air balloon rides take place at this hour, & make for pretty photographs.

The sunrise game drive is the best time to see the big cats in action, as well as nocturnal animals heading home. We saw a hyena, a jackal & a serval cat slinking away after a night of notoriety. We then saw a display of ‘Might Is Right’ between a honeymooning lion & lioness, and a cheetah. Read this story here.

african pied wagtail
An African Pied Wagtail refuses to turn its head.

i. Birds Spotted – Common Ostrich, Yellow-Fronted Canary

ii. Mammals Spotted – Plains Zebra, Cape Buffalo, Thomson’s Gazelle, East African jackal, African Bush Elephant, Cheetah, East African Lion, Masai Giraffe, Wildebeest

b. Full Day Drive – Alfred got our lunch packed & we headed out for a day of wildlife spotting. This safari is great to see the most number & variety of animals.

lion, lioness, grassland, camouflage
Quite difficult to ascertain lions & lionesses in the grasslands, so perfect was the camouflage

i. Birds Spotted – African Pied Wagtail, Yellow-billed Ox-pecker, Common Ostrich, Rufous – Naped Lark, African Wattled Lapwing, Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, Greater Blue-Eared Starling, Yellow-Fronted Canary, Slate – Coloured Boubou, Hildebrandt’s Starling, Egyptian Goose, White-Bellied Bustard, Scaly Francolin, White-Backed Vulture, Lilac Breasted Roller, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Superb Starling, Abbott’s Starling, White-Faced Whistling Ducks, Yellow-Billed Stork, Maribou Stork, Lappet-Faced Vulture

ii. Mammals Spotted – Thomson’s Gazelle, Black Rhinoceros, Impala, Plains Zebra, Wildebeest, Hippopotamus, Common Eland, African Bush Elephant, Olive Baboon, East African Defassa Waterbuck, Warthog, Coke’s Hartebeest, Masai Giraffe, East African Lion

iii. Reptiles Spotted – Agama Lizard, Nile Crocodile

yellow billed ox pecker
Yellow-billed Ox-pecker neighbors look on enviously

c. Sunset Game Drive – This afternoon/ early evening drive is the time when birds are returning to their nests & herbivores have stuffed themselves full! The afternoon Sun is not conducive for the Big Cats; you find them hidden under bushes (lion), hidden in the tall grass (cheetah), or plain hidden (leopard)! So, do not expect to see great action from the Big Cats now. However, the sunset hour is a good time to see raptors.

i. Birds Spotted – Lilac – Breasted Roller, Superb Starling, African Hoopoe, Tawny Eagle, Ruppell’s Vulture, Bateleur, African White-backed Vultures, Ring-Necked Dove, Anteater Chat, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Bare-Faced Go-Away-Bird, African Wattled Lapwing, Little Bee-Eater

ii. Mammals Spotted – African Bush Elephant, Plains Zebra, Masai Giraffe, Wildebeest, Common Eland, Cape Buffalo, East African Lion

rufous naped lark
A Rufous – Naped Lark ready to take off

14. Road Condition – From Nairobi, if you take the road to the Masai Mara National Reserve (the alternative is an aircraft), be prepared for bad roads. When we say bad, we mean ‘India of the 80s’ bad. The last 50 kms to reach the Masai Mara are nightmarish.

Kenya is sparsely populated. So, you do not see many human beings, but certainly Chinese trucks. Thanks to the rapid construction, trucks ferrying goods can be seen. You can spot under construction highways, railway lines etc.

While we did not see any animals on our way to the Mara, but the day we left from there, in the early morning hours, we kept spotting wild animals for many kilometers, even after we had exited the reserve area.

cinnamon chested bee eater
A Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater had to be clicked!

15. Tipping – Kenyans expect a tip, & can be blunt about asking for it. Ensure you have adequate change on you.

Phew! We believe we have covered all the practical aspects that we wished we knew before going. If there is anything more you would like to know, please feel free to leave a comment; we will answer it to the best of our knowledge.

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My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 6

Continuing from Chapter 5, the last stop of the day beckoned – the Rumtek Monastery. This is an important shrine for Buddhists as it’s the seat-in-exile of the Kagyu Karmapa. However, as there’s controversy around the 17th Karmapa, the monastery’s currently under the Indo- Tibetan Border Police to prevent any sectarian violence. Don’t forget to carry your identity card as you’ll not be allowed in without it.

Now a funny bit happened – the monastery underwhelmed me. I’d expected more grandeur from one so famous. Back at the hotel, I looked up the monastery on Google. I found something different to what I saw. I became glum, thinking I’d not seen the actual monastery, perhaps seen the outer wing & now I can’t even go back. But then I looked at the pictures closely. I realized that the open-air courtyard that I saw in the photos was currently covered with tarpaulin for the two-month long Kangyur Oral Transmission. & that’s why it looked different. Attention to detail madam!

But what is worth gaping at here are the lifelike frescoes. Walls after walls are lined with beautiful, vivid paintings from Buddhist mythology. I wondered at the preservation effort that would have gone into this. And for someone as inartistic as I’m, the frescoes were an epitome of creativity and finesse.

Frescoes amaze me
Frescoes amaze me

A word of caution about Rumtek Monastery though – it’s a long climb to get there. Vehicles are prohibited. Therefore, ensure you really have the willingness to visit the monastery; else you may feel cheated.

I loved the monks & nuns there. They were the embodiment of happiness & contentment. Easy with their smiles & eager to pose – they were any photographer’s delight. But do ask before clicking!

By the end of this, I was exhausted & desperately wanted my bed. I’d an early start the next day too, to catch my flight from Bagdogra. I wanted to attempt the Kanchenjunga again & hoped the clouds would give way. My wishes were to come true.

IMG_2985
Kanchenjunga clearly visible on a gorgeous sunny day

When we started the next morning, the clouds parted just enough for me to capture the peak. I thanked the Almighty. Subconsciously, I’ve begun to be grateful for my blessings. I strive to see the positive in everything.

I dreaded returning to Delhi NCR because of the pollution there but I knew I’d to go back to be able to step out again. I love the Himalayas; Sikkim, with its cleanliness, discipline, simplicity & friendliness, appealed a lot to me. I can’t wait to return there for a longer trip. & I’m pleased as punch that the new airport is opening soon in Pakyong which will make Sikkim more accessible. So long Sikkim! You were good to this solo woman traveler.

To end the blog, for the women hesitating to take that solo trip, my top tips:

  1. If it’s your first trip or if you’re anxious, go with a travel agency who’ll take care of all your needs. Even among those, opt for the bigger names; credibility will be a nonissue then.
  2. Choose an easy destination to begin with. Don’t make it Ladakh or Spiti at the first instance. These are difficult terrains & going in company (or at least if you’re a seasoned traveler) will be better. Ensure mobile connectivity isn’t a concern; the last thing you would want’s you being stranded & your folks worried to death.
  3. Don’t hesitate to demand changes to the itinerary, flights, hotels, cabs, transfers etc. if you’re spending money on it, it better be according to your taste.
  4. Enjoy your alone time. Don’t feel awkward in sightseeing alone, eating alone etc. the world’s becoming more receptive to solo travelers.
  5. Ensure you stay alert at all times even when you’re having fun. Trust your instinct! At the same time, don’t hesitate to talk to locals.
  6. Prepare yourself for surprised remarks. My cabbie, KN, remarked “Madam ji, you’re a brave girl. You’ve done something that only boys do!”

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 1

I’ve been on a sabbatical for almost six months now. One of my sabbatical dreams was to travel. & I did – to Bali & to the Indian West Coast. I had one more desire which I wanted to fulfill but was unable to draw adequate courage for. I wanted to travel solo.

I had done this once before but somehow, I felt intimidated. I guess I’d got used to traveling in company; venturing out alone seemed a daunting task. With these thoughts in mind, I got reminded again why N is my soulmate.

He not just encouraged me to plan my trip but also booked it for me before I could change my mind. After evaluating options like Kashmir, the northeast & Tamil Nadu, we narrowed down on Sikkim. Good weather, not too difficult to access, pretty & safe – it ticked all the relevant boxes.

The little red thing at Rumtek Monastery
The little red thing at Rumtek Monastery

I browsed a number of travel websites before I narrowed down on a 4 days-3 nights package by Make My Trip. Being the travel control freak that I am, I made the lives of the MMT holiday experts hell with my queries & requests.

But by the end of these calls, I was relaxed & looking forward to my trip. My departure day began quite badly, unfortunately. Google Maps pushed me to a route to the airport which was unusual & I was caught in the morning office traffic.

I’m one of those who prefer to bide time at the airport rather than running at the last minute. I was terribly anxious by the time I reached the airport. The chaotic check-in counters of Jet Airways didn’t help matters.

Time for blossoms at Flower Show Centre
Time for blossoms at Flower Show Centre

There are just three pieces of advice I would give to Jet Airways: 1) Please streamline your check-in counters; 2) Please fly your flights on time; and 3) Please drop the cocky attitude you have towards passengers.

The chaos at the counter gave me minor panic attacks about missing my flight but I needn’t have worried. The flight was delayed. It began with 10 minutes, then 15, and then a solid three hours, out of which two were spent sitting in the aircraft.

The excuses varied: smog, only one runway being operational, and VIP movement taking place. The two hours in the aircraft were almost a hostage situation. The crew served water bottles only when many passengers asked for it.

Ekla cholo re...
Ekla cholo re…

Food requests were summarily shot down saying they can serve only once the flight takes off. I had to plead for at least a bun mentioning that I’d not even had breakfast given that it was supposed to be a 1025 flight. If the two hours of waiting had been at the airport, passengers could at least have eaten something. Mercifully, the crew member gave me a pack of cookies.

My folks were getting more & more worried with every delay as from Bagdogra, it was a 4-5-hour drive to Gangtok. Driving in the hills & crossing west Bengal – both seemed ominous at night. To assuage their fears, I’d to keep my own morale high.

I kept telling myself that the worst was behind me. & I was right.

To be continued…

(This is the first of the six chapters of the 500-words-a-chapter chronicle of my Gangtok trip. Back with Chapter 2 soon!)