Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Diani Beach, African South Coast

When you think of a beach vacation or all inclusive resort, the South Coast of Africa is probably not the first place that pops into your mind! However, upon arriving in Mombassa and driving down to Diani Beach it was quickly apparent that the whole area was an incredible spot. The Pinewood Beach Resort and Spa was the perfect spot to wind down after nearly 4 weeks on the go. Our meals were fabulous, the beach was incredible and the people wonderful. We ate fresh mangos and protected our breakfast from sneaky monkeys. They knocked on our windows and stole our orange slices and toast. How can you get mad at those adorable creatures? 

You want white sand, clear blue water and snorkeling? This is the spot and it was HOT! (for us anyway!) We rested, rejuvenated and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. Contrary to many hotels and all inclusive resorts, this one included a full three bedroom apartment with a huge private deck and living space. Using this and a regular room, all 9 of us were perfectly comfortable! 

The Encounter Mara experience

The word ‘safari’ in English and even defined in an English dictionary is used as “any long or adventurous journey or expedition.” and often specifically for hunting or exploring animals (the dictionary even singles out Eastern African exploration). However, the actual Swahili word “safari” is defined more broadly as a good time, usually involving a trip. So, a good time we had!!!

At 6am we were picked up by a passenger van that took us about 6 hours east to the Savannah and Masai land. Along the way we passed through the Rift Valley with incredible views and then through the flat plains. As we travelled we passed through small villages, spotted a few exciting animals and many herds of sheep, goats and cattle. A few random wildebeest passed by. 

Around noon we entered a Masai village where we transferred into two safari vans (we were 9 people). Our two guides, Moses and Patrick who would travel with us for all three days, drove us deep into Masai land. It wasn’t even our first game drive and we were already spotting zebras, gazelles and a giraffe or two. 

We stopped in the middle of the plains where our guides set up a picnic table and laid out lunch; curry chicken wraps, oranges, juice boxes and banana bread. From there we carried on until we reached our camp around 2:30. It was wonderfully warm and we had an hour or so of free time to have our orientation and get to know our surroundings. 

The Encounter Mara camp is set in a beautiful location with a view of a frequented (but currently dry) watering hole. The camp is run by local Masai and is completely non permanent and as ecologically friendly as possible. It does not take long to realize how much thought and care has been put into disturbing as little of the natural environment as they can. The tents are kind of what you picture from M*A*S*H*, sturdy and steel framed. They have running water for the sinks and toilet and a bucket shower they fill with hot water after your evening game drive. They are also conveniently set up with an emergency whistle... eek!

At 3:30 afternoon tea was served and at 4 we met our guides again for our first game drive. The drives are a funny thing. On one hand you’re in this open sided jeep, getting bounced and jostled around which you wouldn’t think would be relaxing. But I found on the other hand, you’re sitting back taking in the sights and sounds and smells, and nothing could be more relaxing. Our sightings started with zebras, gazelles, giraffes, monkeys, owls and then finished with LIONS. True actual, real life LIONS. Freakin’ awesome. Males, females, cubs, all of it. 

Around 6:30pm we pulled over once more in the middle of the savannah and had the ‘sundowner’ - my new favourite thing. They set out a table of snacks and poured the drinks we had pre ordered at afternoon tea. We stood there wrapped in the Masai blankets given out a little earlier when it cooled off and watched the sun drop, just as you would imagine...

When we arrived back at camp it was dark and chilly - odd after a scorching day - and we went back to the tent to freshen up before dinner. Because it was dark, we now needed Masai guards to escort us around the camp. They have spears... and have used them... In our tents there were bottles of fresh drinking water, a warm thermos of water for face washing and the shower bucket was full. It was enough for a few minutes each and felt fabulous. 

We were led to our dinner which was incredible; first course of soup, main dish of meat and salad and a delicious dessert, and coffee and tea are always available. By this time you’re dead tired!!!! We were led back to our tents where hot water bottles were tucked into our sheets. Such a delight!!! 

You crawl in and collapse and it’s so dark it completely matters not whether your eyes are closed.

This first night I awoke at some point, maybe 3:30am-ish. I lay there for awhile and listened to the quiet and then heard... elephants. Trumpeting elephants... like actual elephants... (I asked the next day to confirm and yes, they had been wandering past quite closely.)

The night before we let our guard know what time we wanted to be woken up. Breakfast is at 6 so around 5:45 we heard a shout out that it was time to get up! It feels cold and it’s so crazy dark...

We were escorted to breakfast which is small, a cookie and some fruit and by 6:30 we were back in our open sided trucks and heading out for the morning game drive watching the sunrise. We were wrapped in our blankets again and enjoying the sites. Today was filled with more of the beautiful and insanely unique animals you would imagine to be there. Not only are you seeing them, but you’re taking in the sounds of the birds, the actual crunch under the feet of giraffes and vultures pulling apart the body of an elephant, killed two weeks earlier in an elephant fight. 

We were back by 10:30 to enjoy a massive brunch with a mixture of delicious breakfast and lunch foods depending on what you feel like! You then have free time until 2:30 when it’s high tea time again! There is a common tent for games and reading, multiple sitting areas around the camp and of course your own porch and chairs overlooking the watering hole. 

On our last day we turned our morning game drive into our trip to the airport stretching it instead until about 1pm! This time we left the Mara Conservation where we were lucky enough to be the only trucks around, which really helped the feeling of the lack of commercialization. The second we crossed into the national park there were trucks everywhere. 

This day we were treated to one of the world’s phenomenon - the wildebeest migration. Twice a year an estimated million wildebeest travel in and out of Tanzania in search of food and water. If you catch them at the right time you will see massive herds cross rivers one way or the other and sometimes back and forth a few times!!!! We sat for hours watching these crazy animals and their ridiculous patterns. They’re not the smartest in the world... the funniest thing was that it was often a zebra or two that would lead them across! Once they got the drift, a group would run across the river bleating and barking and jumping on each other and slipping and falling. Then one would get spooked and I kid you not - they would all run back to the side they started on!!! This would happen multiple times... they spooked so easily, even if a thousand were right THERE nearly across. It was quite humorous. 

We slowly but surely made our way to the airport, passing another beautiful female lion and about a million more wildebeest. We said goodbye to the incredible savannah with a few last lessons in Masai counting from Moses and Patrick. 

As I finally edit and get ready to post this blog 3 months later, I am awed at how frequently the discussions of this experience come up. Mattea’s memories of the animals and related facts is quite phenomenal and I only hope that with enough discussion and reviewing of pictures she’ll never forget. The rest of us still refer to this as the highlight of the trip. If anyone can ever consider this trip for themselves, I cannot recommend the Encounter Mara experience.