Sundown on the Maasai Mara (photo: Britney Hope)

Kenya’s Maasai Mara: Legendary Landscapes and Iconic Culture

By Kellie Davenport

“Hold on, This might get bumpy,” our Maasai guide Milton Kariankei shouts. That proves to be an epic understatement. The open-top 4X4 hurtles over mounds of earth and across deep ravines, cutting through thickets of trees. We catch some air for a minute as my white-knuckle grip on the sidebar tightens. We’re racing through Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve seeking out the most elusive of Africa’s Big Five animals: the leopard.

Moments earlier, Milton received a tip on his walkie-talkie that a speckled feline had been spotted nearby. Like ants racing toward a picnic, 10-plus safari vehicles converge along a dirt path on the Kenyan savannah. My heart still thumping from the wild ride, I’m breathless as a regal female leopard casually strolls by, a few feet from our vehicle. Seemingly unaware of the camera lenses fixed upon her every stride, the lithe cat silently saunters toward a tree, leaps up onto a high branch and slowly disappears from view.

This only-in-Africa encounter is just one of many on my tour through two of Kenya’s most fabled and wildlife-rich regions: Mount Kenya and the Maasai Mara.

A week before my leopard sighting, I’d landed at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi, Kenya’s frenzied capital, which buzzes with human, animal and vehicular traffic. After basking in East African city life, which provides once-in-a-lifetime experiences in its own right, I board a bush plane en route to Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest peak.

Air travel is the fastest and most scenic way to get from point A to B in the 580,000-square-kilometre country. Domestic flights throughout Kenya are quick, readily available and surprisingly affordable. (And you can book flights with AMA before you leave.) During my two-hour ride, I glimpse Kilimanjaro, the continent’s tallest mountain, and herds of giraffe clumsily trotting below.

Disembarking from the Cessna onto the tiny Laikipia airstrip, it hits me: I’m in Africa! The air feels different. It smells wild (if “wild” could be bottled like some exotic perfume). And the landscape looks… massive. Rolling hills spread out for what seems like an eternity; blue sky stretches as far as I can see. I learn that feeling of vastness is a common one, owing to Laikipia’s location, smack-dab on the equator at an elevation of 1,890 metres.

Fairmont Mount Kenya hotel
The Fairmont Mount Kenya (photo: Aurora Photos/Alamy)

After a short drive to the hotel—during which I resign myself to the fact that I’ll be covered in red African dust for the next several days—it’s time to explore. With its manicured lawns, leather club chairs and walls lined with twisting antlers, my plush accommodations at the Fairmont Mount Kenya feel plucked from the pages of Out of Africa. (Book great African accommodations for the best available rates at AMATravel.ca/Hotels.) The hotel was originally founded in 1959 as the Mount Kenya Safari Club, a private members’ club catering to British and American expats. One can imagine posh ladies and linen-clad gents sipping tea on the lawn of the inner courtyard.

Seeking something a little less refined, I wander down to the on-site wildlife sanctuary, which houses rescued animals from nearby game reserves, most orphaned due to poaching. It’s one of many examples of Kenya’s ongoing commitment to wildlife conservation. Caretaker James Muraya walks me through the animal orphanage where frenetic ostriches, grey-crowned cranes and a giant 154-year-old tortoise roam freely.

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Larger animals live in enclosures, including a pair of cheetahs, Kenya’s most endangered cat. “They’re the smallest of the big cats and they almost never attack humans, so they have become easy prey for poachers,” Muraya explains. After much reassurance, he coaxes me into the enclosure to meet Annette, a female cheetah. I cautiously run my hand over her silky dotted coat—she purrs like a docile house cat. After a few strokes, my shiny watch becomes an irresistible target and the cat goes for a playful nibble. I’m instantly reminded that in spite of her purring, Annette is still a wild animal and it’s time to move along.

The next morning, I awake to the sounds of Kenya—crested francolins, chatty birds who’ve rightly earned the nickname “East Africa’s alarm clock.” The terrace of my room faces Mount Kenya’s lush slopes and is the perfect spot for sipping a cup of Kenyan coffee, one of the country’s biggest exports.

I see the mountain up close on a morning horseback ride. During the guided jaunt, I trot past zebras, hyenas and warthogs. Guests can book this safari for the surprisingly cheap price of $25 USD per hour. Halfway through the journey, our guide delivers us to a scenic ridge where a breakfast spread awaits. I dine on a full-service feast, complete with white table linens, hot coffee and fresh eggs—all while watching Cape buffalo in the distance.

While a horseback safari provides a preview of Africa’s iconic animals, a game drive is a must when in Kenya. Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a protected 360-square-kilometre habitat, teeming with lions, rhinos, zebras, giraffes, gazelles, buffalos, hyenas and countless bird species. Game drives typically last a few hours and depart in the morning, afternoon and early evening.

kenya maasai mara wildlife
Wildlife in Kenya includes giraffes, leopards and colobus monkeys (photos: Kellie Davenport; FLPA/Alamy; Britney Hope)

While all of the country’s private conservancies and public reserves offer remarkable sightings of African wildlife, Ol Pejeta stands apart. It’s home to the world’s last three northern white rhinos, a species now officially declared extinct in the wild. While Pejeta conservationists hope the two females and one male might procreate, breeding efforts have thus far proven unsuccessful. To keep the trio safe from poachers, who butcher the animals for their horns, armed guards accompany them around the clock throughout their 280-hectare enclosure.

Rounding a corner on my afternoon game drive, we spot two guards, rifles at the ready, standing near a hulking grey mass. The animal, with his wide snout and short ears, happily grazes on grass 10 metres from our vehicle, oblivious to the tourists ogling his every bite. His guards, however, mean business. They immediately instruct us not to take photos, which can be tracked by poachers via electronic location stamps. Everyone sets their cameras aside to revel in this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

A couple of days post-rhino and another short plane ride later, I step onto the legendary savannah of the Maasai Mara. The sprawling 1,500-square-kilometre region is the undisputed jewel of Kenya’s national park system. Famous for the Great Migration of wildebeest herds, it’s also home to the legendary Maasai warriors.

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At the airstrip, I meet our guide, who is outfitted in a colourful shuka, a bright red-and-blue checked wrap. After a pleasant exchange of jambo (a more affectionate version of “hello” in Swahili), I learn he is Jackson Ntirkana, one of the region’s last lion-killing warriors. While he maintains a traditional Maasai way of life, Jackson also works as a cultural ambassador for Canadian charity WE.

One of Kenya’s 44 tribes, the Maasai are a semi-nomadic people. They migrate between southern Kenya and the Serengeti of northern Tanzania, a region known collectively as Maasailand. As an ancient and fiercely proud culture, steeped in legend and ritual, they’ve largely withstood Western modernization. But things are changing.

Over the next few days, I’m immersed in Maasai culture and learn about their customs, home life and, yes, killing of lions—a practice that’s now illegal in Kenya. During visits to local villages and nightly fireside chats, the story of Jackson’s warrior life emerges. He is part of a generation trying to improve the tribe’s well-being, while preserving their way of life.

Jackson explains the many nuances of the Maasai people, starting with the basics. “I was not named when I was born. And the year and date of my birth were not recorded,” he says. “Maasai people don’t follow a calendar. We know when a year has gone by through the passing of the seasons—rainy and dry.”

There’s something oddly liberating about this system when set against our Western world measured in commuting hours and social media posts. Though it’s not without its challenges, as Jackson discovered before a trip to Canada. “I didn’t have a birth certificate, let alone a passport,” he says. “To get a birth certificate, I was asked my age. I guessed I was about 50 years old, but it turns out I was in my early twenties.”

kenya maasai mara warriors
Maasai culture is strong on the Mara (photos: Robert Harding/Alamy; Ariadne van Zandenberg/Alamy)

Other idiosyncratic aspects of Maasai life also come into view. When I ask why most men are missing two of their front teeth, he explains that it’s a cosmetic ritual performed on both baby and permanent teeth. “We do so as a way to differentiate ourselves from other tribes. And for us, it is a sign of beauty,” he says, flashing a big grin. When the teeth are pulled, without painkillers, the boys are instructed not to flinch or show any inkling of discomfort—considered a sign of weakness.

During a trip to the rural village of Sikirar, we pass hundreds of hump-necked Boran cattle being herded at the side of the road, en route to the nearby river. Cows, I quickly learn, are prized creatures here. Not only are they a main source of sustenance for their milk, meat and even blood, cows are Maasai indicators of wealth. Success is defined by herd size—the more you have, the richer you are. A herd of 50 qualifies as upper-middle class.

Another traditional, albeit vicious, status symbol is the killing of a lion. For centuries before lion populations plummeted, a young Maasai warrior would slaughter a big cat as part of his initiation. The killing was considered a righteous act that respected the animal’s spirit and helped protect village cattle from the hungry predators. Using traditional weapons—a spear and rungu, a round-headed club—the warrior would have to single-handedly kill the lion. Jackson recounts his own initiation, in which he took down a massive beast with only his spear.

Kenya outlawed the practice (and all big-game hunting) in 1977, but many Maasai continued the prohibited rite of passage. Over the past decade, however, tribal elders have come to recognize the importance of conservation to their community, and have agreed to ban the ritual killing—making Jackson and his generation the Maasai’s last lion killers.

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At a rural homestead near Sikirar, I turn my attention from warriors to women. Though Maasai culture remains largely patriarchal, women—known as “mamas,” even if they’re childless—play important roles in the home and their economic contributions are quickly evolving.

Down a winding dirt path from the main road, we approach a neat house surrounded by flowerbeds and a donkey pasture. A tall, energetic woman rushes to greet us. Mama Jane is one of her community’s leading entrepreneurs. I learn how she now provides much of her family’s income, thanks to a cooperative of village women, who make and sell intricate beaded jewellery.

Mama Jane explains traditional women’s work, which includes child-rearing, building the family manyatta (home) of mud and sticks, and milking livestock. But a woman’s main domestic duty is water—going to the river to get all of the family’s water for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing. Sounds easy enough, until you try it!

Mama Jane invites our group to follow her path to the river to fetch a 20-litre jug of river water. It’s a task she and other women often perform five or six times a day. The two-kilometre trek is picturesque and quite enjoyable. But once I fill my jug, swing it on my back with its strap over my forehead (the typical method of carrying it), the rocky path is less pretty and much more grueling. Some village kids gather to watch the novice North Americans clumsily lug their jugs. It’s an exercise every visitor should try for a real-world understanding of Maasai life.

After several days with Jackson, Mama Jane and other villagers, I end my visit to the Mara with an evening game drive. A naughty-looking hyena trots after our vehicle. We turn a corner and nearly run into a towering giraffe, munching on tall tree branches. Though I’m not lucky enough to spot a leopard this time, I tell myself it’s okay; I decided days ago that I’ll visit again. I will see another leopard on my next trip to the mysterious and magical Mara.

Kenya maasai mara mama jane sikirar
Mama Jane at her home near Sikirar (photo: Britney Hope)

THE ESSENTIALS
Plan ahead to ensure a safe and healthy adventure in Africa

Getting there: Air Canada and KLM offer flights with connections to Nairobi

Planning: AMA has travel counsellors who specialize in Africa. They can work with you to find the best possible prices and experiences

Health: When travelling to Africa, get Hepatitis A and B, yellow fever, cholera and meningitis vaccinations, as well as malaria pills. Visit Medicentres to save 15% on select travel consultations and injection fees

Trip InsurancePurchase emergency medical and trip cancellation/interruption insurance with AMA when you book your trip. You’ll want to protect your investment on this trip of a lifetime

Safety: To safeguard against crime, there is constant and visible security in malls and hotels. Always be aware of your surroundings and only travel with licensed drivers from your hotel or tour company

SEE IT WITH AMA!
PLAINS OF AFRICA WILDLIFE SAFARI
CAA Member Choice Vacations, $6,154 (tour only)
14-day small-group tour visiting the parks and reserves of Aberdare, Shaba, Maasai Mara, Amboseli and Lake Nakuru
Call a travel specialist: 1-866-667-4777