Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 01.04.51This year I wanted to celebrate my birthday (Sept 4th) in different style, so I decided to go wild and spend it in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve with one of my best friends, Smiles, who lives there. Like – who lives inside the Mara? Well, she does, and if her home wasn’t automatically mine too, and vice versa – I’d totally hate her.

Sparked by a recent article I wrote on top 5 places to go on a road trip while in East Africa, I thought Mara would be perfect—famed for the big five, it’s a cool and relaxing spot. The timing too is opportune to witness the seventh wonder of the world – the wildebeest migration and also do what I always wanted to do – take a balloon ride. This plan is spontaneous, ambitious and sweet sounding, so I jump forth!

It’s Sept 2nd, Tuesday morning.

I just returned to Kenya, a few hours ago, from an awesome weekend in Tanzania. Sauti Sol was playing at a massive concert in Dar es Salaam hosted by Legendary Music Tanzania. There’s so much work pending but my birthday is imminent, and its plans – more important. As I struggle to meet deadlines to leave in a few hours, I receive numerous texts from my girl Smiles, who can’t wait to see me. I can’t wait to see her either! But somehow, I sort of know that I’ll probably miss my flight, scheduled for 3:15 p.m.

Just as I am heading to town, Smiles orders, “Buy us four large pizzas! Promise we’ll eat them all.” It’s terrific Tuesday – buy one and get another free. Yaaay! But I end up waiting so long on the pizzas that should have been ready 30 minutes ago. Crazy queue! “You guys I’ll be late somewhere,” I beg the ladies serving us, prompting them to quickly shove some boxes my way. And the series of unfortunate events start to roll … Balancing four large pizzas and my luggage, I grab a random taxi in town. As soon we take the turning into Wilson airport, a policeman accosts us. “Kwa nini hauna headlights? Toka nje ya gari!” The driver begs him to let us go so that I don’t miss my flight but he doesn’t flinch. The policeman takes the driver’s license. By the time the two agree that they’ll meet after I am dropped off, I am already too late for my flight. ‘There is no way in heaven or hell that I am going back home with these pizzas’ – I tell myself. ‘And if I can’t get another flight, I will just sit here and eat them all.’ I am not panicking or afraid that I won’t get another flight. After standing my ground and cajoling Safari Link—they’ve got me a spot! Finally, leaving Nairobi. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 01.00.14

It’s a hot afternoon, thus the bumpy flight to Mara. I decide to sleep (I do that every time it’s bumpy – I always figured if am ever going down, I don’t ever have to see it happen). Before I know it, about 30 minutes are over and we have landed at Mara North, the first stop. On opening my eyes, all I smell is pizza. I am starving and for a second I wonder, ‘who is serving food in this mini plane?’ Oh! That’s my pizza. Lol. Several tourists, with American accents, board on their way back to Nairobi. They are impressed by this kind of VIP pizza delivery I am running at the Mara, mumbling to themselves how much they’ve missed pizza. Too bad I am not giving anyone a piece.

We finally land at my destination – Kichwa Tembo airstrip, where I am getting off. From the plane’s little windows, I spot an excited Smiles, beside her white Landrover, waiting on me with her camera ready to click. I ask one of the tourists to hold the pizzas so as to prank Smiles. “Shit!! I forgot the pizzas!!” – I regret on alighting. “Nooooo!” She cries. But I am kidding. As the plane slowly takes off, I feel the tourists eyes watching us reunite, hug for what seems like a lifetime, and then toast to a glass of sweet white wine; as they bid Mara goodbye. The last time we were here together, was in 2009, before her marriage and relocation to Germany. But today, she calls this jungle her home. This is the life. It’s official! My birthday week just began, so did my career in photography.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 01.12.05 After sipping on some good sweet white wine, catching up, surrounded by the panoramic 360-view of the game reserve, and filming another happiness-filled Instavideo; Smiles, impressively in control of that Landrover, drives me home along the bumpy road. It’s about 4:00 p.m. I am lucky my arrival coincides with the evening Game Drive time. Our companion, Paul – a safari guide with Serena Hotels, is kind enough to explain to me the nature of all the wild animals we encounter. Among other wildlife, we spot a lioness, leopard and buffalo—three of the big five, yet I have just arrived! I think topis and waterbucks are really cute.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 01.19.44When we finally get to the house, I can’t believe how beautiful this place, Smiles and her husband Daniel ( I will sometimes refer to him as Danny) have built a home in, is. A pirates and German flag hang on the wooden walls. Their shelves, occupying the entire wall on one side of the house, have all sorts of goodies. One side has the complete book series of The Hunger Games; and another a host of board games: my favorite – risiko and scrabble. The cats: Mr. Bigz and Bailey, roam around like they really are the owners of this house. The living room couch is made of Maasai Shukas. There is huge plasma TV that no one really ever watches; there is too much to watch out there anyway.

Outside the house is a front view that I’d do anything to see every morning. There is a view of Mara’s horizon, complete with the great Mara River, the source of water and life for a majority of wildlife here. “Sometimes, we see the wildebeests migrating across the river while here,” Smiles tells me. “Oh my! You must enjoy such peace and no stress while here,” I reckon, and she agrees. She walks me to the very front edge of the yard, where there is a cliff. Right before it is large flat wooden plank – “this is where we sit, to watch the stars on nights when the skies are clear – it’s so beautiful out here.” I notice a little bird house tagged “Rock City” hanging by the big tree, as we are getting back into the house. Smiles says, “A pilot who owned this house in the 90s was buried by this tree. When he passed away, none of his family members claimed him so local friends cremated him and laid his ashes around the tree. He was from America’s Rock City, but because he wasn’t taken there, they brought it to the Mara. He really loved the town around here, this tree and bird house is his memory. And shall never be taken down …”

BONUS: I just read my 2010 blog post from my my last visit to the Mara in 2007, and boy! Is it terrible or what? My style of writing was atrocious. But what I absolutely cherish about this post, is how it details the struggles me and Smiles have had through our friendship. There was a time when we had nothing, we couldn’t even afford a local flight, but we always had great times together. Now God has really blessed us. We’ve come a long way, in all aspects. To avoid getting too emotional, if you couldn’t read the post at all, it’s cool – I understand – I leave you with 5 fun facts about world’s 7th wonder

In the continuation of my tales from Maasai Mara during bday week read:

Bday in the Wild: Atop a Hot Air Balloon (Part II)

Bday in the Wild: The Wildebeest Migration (Part III)