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Watching Lion King as a small child, I knew I had to get to Africa someday. More specifically, Kenya. There, I could see the “Big 5 in the Maasai Mara,” which are the leopard, lion, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo. I also wanted to see giraffe, bush babies, hippos, zebra, and wildebeest. So, when I was invited by Biosphere Expeditions to document their next expedition in Kenya, I jumped at the chance.
Biosphere Expeditions is a non-profit organization dedicated to citizen science, wildlife conservation, and ethical adventures. Other expeditions include tracking the elusive snow leopard in Tien Shan, studying whale sharks in Maldives, and helping critically endangered leatherback turtles in Costa Rica.
Biosphere Expeditions Kenya
The Kenya expedition is 13 days long, and takes place in the Maasai Mara World Heritage Site. Biosphere Expeditions is passionate about showing you so much more than just a safari or the “Big 5 in the Maasai Mara.” You’ll get to take part in real conservation efforts alongside rangers and scientists. Before that, though, you’ve got to have a rest after a long day of travel to Nairobi.
You’ll start at the meeting point in Nairobi, which is The Margarita House. This is a beautiful hotel located just down the street from where the Vice President of Kenya lives. Most expeditioners stay the night at the hotel so that Sunday morning, they can have breakfast together before leaving at 8am.
On Sunday, you’ll hop in a charter bus to make the journey towards the expedition. The drive is about seven hours, depending on traffic. You’ll stop in Narok for a delicious vegetarian lunch. If you have a few minutes to spare, you may want to snag some snacks and maybe even Wellies (Wellingtons, or tall rubber boots) at the nearby shopping center. I grabbed some chocolate, Wellies, popcorn, and a drink. It was really nice to have a treat or two to share with the team.
The charter bus is fine on smooth roads, but it doesn’t stand a chance on the pothole-covered dirt roads closer to the expedition site. Just before transitioning to the dirt roads, you’ll stop and meet the scientists. Here, you’ll divide into three different safari vehicles to continue the journey.
The Expedition Base
The expedition’s base and study site is Enonkishu Conservancy, on the Northern boundary of the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem. You’ll find it right next to the Mara River. There are vervet monkeys and bush babies in the trees, and hippos and hyena often roam around the expedition base at night.
You’ll eat meals at The Cow Shed, which looks nothing like a cow shed. It’s a huge, beautiful room that looks like it belongs at a fancy lodge. Most nights you’ll even get to enjoy a fire in the fireplace. Every meal you’re served during the expedition is vegetarian, for reasons of reducing environmental impact, and they do cater to food allergies. There were several people who had separate meals every night, and most nights you’ll even get dessert.
You’ll find two different types of accommodations at Enonkishu Conservancy—safari tents and then something I’d consider a small cabin. Each tent and cabin sleeps two people, but those sleeping in tents have it to themselves. While you have lights in the tents, the cabins have lights, electricity to charge things, and bathrooms. I was in tent number four and the WiFi from both the Cow Shed and the Mara Training Center (MTC—aka the classroom) reached my tent just enough. I found the MTC WiFi to be stronger in my tent, however.
The people in the tents use bathrooms and showers nestled under the enormous eucalyptus trees. The water for the showers is heated twice a day with fire, so you can always take a hot shower if necessary. They provide a towel, shampoo, and conditioner, although no wash cloths. Most places in Kenya you shouldn’t flush toilet paper—Enonkishu included—so you’ll find waste paper bins to toss your toilet paper into. These get emptied daily.
While the camp does have WiFi and power, our first week we were without power more than we ever had it. Unfortunately, Kenya Power doesn’t provide any information to Enonkishu about the status of outages. Normally, though, power is back on within an hour. If the power is ever out too long, Enonkishu turns on a generator.
Daily Expedition Activities
Your first two days are spent learning how to use the equipment and how to record data. Those who’ve volunteered to drive will also get a crash course on off-road driving…plus you’ll learn how to change a tire. Each vehicle is a stick shift, or manual transmission, so definitely volunteer if you can drive so you don’t have to have the same people driving each time.
Every evening you’ll have a morning and afternoon/evening activity to sign up for. Typically, you’ll get to choose from mammal mapping, driving transect, hiking, game drives, and sitting at the waterhole.
All the activities are geared towards collecting important information about the wildlife of the conservancy (how many of which species, where and when, etc.). This information is then analyzed and published in a scientific report, which will help conservancy managers guide and improve further conservation and protection efforts in the area, which is threatened by encroachment, poaching and other factors. It’s all about protecting the iconic African landscape of the Maasai Mara and the wild animals and wilderness within.
Because Kenya has had so much rain, we didn’t see a lot of animals at the waterhole. Water is plentiful around the entire conservancy and everything was so green.
I really enjoyed going on the game drives and driving transects. While I enjoy the views, I am not very fit, so it’s hard for me to keep up when hiking. The terrain is full of rocks, and with my weak ankles, I found my ankles constantly rolling. It was only a matter of time before I got injured, so I enjoyed the less physical activities.
Big 5 in the Maasai Mara and Then Some
Think of an animal you saw on Lion King, and we probably saw it and recorded it! We saw:
- white rhinos
- cheetahs (a mom and six cubs)
- Kirk’s dik dik
- vervet monkeys
- bush babies (the sound they make is terrifying!)
- lots and lots of birds
- and lots more beyond the “Big 5 in the Maasai Mara”
Enjoying a Day Off
On Friday, you get a day off. There are several nearby conservancies you can visit, or you can choose to rest at camp. Activities include:
- Maasai Mara National Reserve—Full day: The drive is 2 hours one-way, and you’ll want to leave early (around 5am) so you can be back to Enonkishu around 19:00 for dinner. The cost is a vehicle + driver (can seat six people) for $140 USD, and the reserve’s entry fee is $80 USD per person
- Ol Chorro/Lemek—Neighboring conservancies—Full or half-day: The drive is 30 min, and you’ll be going for a game drive for a chance to see predators. It costs a vehicle + driver (up to six people) for $140 USD (full day) or $70 USD (half day). The conservancy fee is $80 USD per person
- Rhino Sanctuary—2-3 hours (or combined with two): The drive is approximately 30 minutes and you’ll get to see two white rhinos. You’ll pay the same vehicle + driver fee above, and pay $20 USD per person for the conservancy’s entry fee
- Local Maasai Manyatta—Half day (or combined with two): You can get a guided tour and buy local Maasai crafts. You’ll pay the same vehicle + driver fee as above, plus an entry fee of $20 USD
- Local Village Visit—Half day: It takes approximately one hour to drive there, and you’ll need to hire a vehicle + driver as above. You also have the option of taking a motorbike for $10 USD per person
- Hot Air Ballooning with The Safari Company: If you can find at least four others who want to go with you, the safari company will pick you up and drop you off for free. The ride is a little over an hour, and you’ll pay $475 USD per person for the entire experience. This includes a sunrise 90-minute hot air balloon ride, made-to-order breakfast when you land, and champagne. I chose this option and it was beyond incredible
Passing the Torch
On Sunday, we had the pleasure of touring the neighboring boarding school, Emarti. Because the area is so rural, families have to send their children a very long way to attend school, so by and large, they go to boarding school, which costs about $400 USD per child per year. This is cost-prohibitive for many families, so often only one child ever gets to attend school.
After seeing the school grounds, we took the students on a game drive all over the conservancy. Some students had never seen an elephant or cheetah, despite them being right in their backyards. Other students have seen every animal you can think of, except for a lion. We helped the students use the mammal mapping equipment, log their findings, and then presented to the class about their favorite animals. Some of the children were very shy, while others were more than happy to share.
Afterwards, Enonkishu rangers shared the importance of the work done by the conservancy, and how students can help these efforts. I loved getting to see the rangers really light up about the work they do, and it was fun seeing what the children want to be when they grow up.
How You Can Get Involved
If you want to donate money to help fund Enonkishu Conservancy and Biosphere Expeditions including the Big 5 in the Maasai Mara, you can do so via their website. If you’re looking to participate as a citizen scientist, you can do that as well via their website. You’ll typically find two different Kenya departures taking place in February every year.