Animal count: 38
The last stop on my itinerary is one of the most anticipated – the Masai Mara. The drive from Lake Naivasha to our camp in the Mara took just on five hours, but I have to say that the last 90km stretch of road was one of the worst I have ever experienced. The road is extremely eroded in places and very, very bumpy. Again, it’s all part of the experience, but if you don’t like being on a rough roller-coaster for 2+ hours then I suggest fly in-fly out is the way to go!
Let me tell you about roads in general in Kenya. The “highways” – major sealed roads – are a far cry from European autostradas. The speed limit is 80km, and many vehicles appear to be speed-limited, so speeding is not an option. The roads are wide in places, then suddenly narrow in others. Pedestrians are everywhere because, according to my guide, “Kenyans like to walk”. They line the sides of the roads, randomly crossing whenever they feel like it with little regard for oncoming traffic. There are sporadic police checks where they set up spikes in the road and you have to weave between them – we were lucky and were only stopped once in Nairobi and never on the highway. You also have to be on constant alert for speed-bumps and pedestrian crossings (not to mention donkeys and goats and other livestock) which pop up unannounced along the road. Clever opportunists set up impromptu stalls next to these speed-bumps, selling buckets of potatoes, carrots, bags of oranges and bunches of bananas – you’re crawling over the bumps while being tempted by their produce – talk about excellent product placement!
All the other roads are basically compacted dirt tracks in varying conditions. Some are pretty smooth, while others (like the one described at the top) have been quite damaged by heavy rain. Our drivers didn’t know how bad the roads would be in some places and so could never quite tell us how long a drive would be, so you always have to allow for “Kenyan Time” when you’re travelling from one point to another.
Anyway, five hours of bumping and banging and hanging on for dear life at times, and we arrived in the Masai Mara – we’ll call it the Mara from here on in.
The Mara is tucked away in the south-west corner of Kenya, about 200km from Nairobi. It rests on the border of Tanzania and flows into the Serengeti National Park. The park is approximately 1600 sq km of grasslands, riverine bush and acacia forests. The Mara and Talex rivers intersect the park, and the Oloololo Escarpment runs along from the north to the Tanzanian border.
The Mara receives quite a lot of rain, especially in December, January and April. The abundant rainfall means that there is plenty of food for the herbivores to graze, so year-round there is a large concentration of Common Zebra, Elephant, Impala, Giraffe, Warthog, Buffalo, Thomson’s Gazelle, Dik-Dik and Wildebeest. Plentiful sightings are guaranteed! At one point, I stood up in the 4WD and took in a 360 degree view – so many herds of so many different animals in one place was almost impossible to believe. It was truly amazing.
Where there are plenty of herbivores, there are carnivorous preditors, namely the King of the Jungle and his underlings, as well as cheetahs, leopards and hyenas. Our first afternoon’s game drive was very fruitful – a pride of nine lions lazing in the afternoon sun and two cheetahs sleeping under a tree. We went back to the lions on our way out of the park and they were just beginning to stir – playing, grooming, stretching and swatting each other. It was amazing to see. We were all pretty pleased with our guides for finding us two of the big cats on the first drive and weren’t too worried that we hadn’t seen the Big Daddy Lion yet. There was plenty of time left in the Mara to find him…
The next morning, we took to the air for a Balloon Safari – second attempt to find the King. What an awe-inspiring experience… you are skimming the treetops, floating over the rivers, spotting hippos, elephants, giraffes, herds of zebra, and even three lions in the grass. I was particularly proud of the lion-spotting, and decided to reward myself with a glass of champagne or two at breakfast after we landed. All this safari-ing is hard work, after all! The balloon ride is seriously one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Our pilot was amazing – British and full of humour – and he made sure that we had the best time possible. The view was breathtaking and I feel incredibly blessed to have viewed pre-dawn from above such an amazing part of the world. It really is God’s Country, and I truly believe you have to see it and feel it for yourself to “get” Africa.
The funniest moment on the whole 12-day journey occurred at the end of the balloon ride. Picture this… our pilot, David, begins his pre-landing speech…
“Righto folks, this is your two minute warning. Get ready to land. Tuck you hair in, put your cameras and binoculars away, take your last look at it all from above. We’re coming in… Oh bugger, there’s one of those magnetic trees I was talking about, we’re going to clip it… bloody French forgot the steering wheel when they built these things, hang on…” clunkclunkclunk as the basket grazes the top of the tree… “Now I’m going to set her down here, but I’m going to try and find a smooth spot if I can. See all those termite mounds? They can be a bit tricky and a bit bumpy, so please, time to take the landing position. Sit down, hang on to the ropes and lean backwards… that’s it, here we go…”
So, down we went – us, sitting down in the basket, completely blind as to what was happening. All we had was David’s voice guiding us, telling us what was happening… lower and lower, then the first BUMP while the basket kept moving and we squealed, then another BUMP, only this time we started to lean a bit. The basket kept moving… BUMP BUMP and this time we really tipped, our heads tilting towards the ground… BUMP BUMP and we’re shrieking and laughing and almost delirious – what is going on here???? Can’t this pilot drive this bloody thing??? And then I get it – he’s trying to tip us!!! We’re still moving, speeding along just centimetres above the ground, and then finally, one more almighty BUMPstrikes…
…and we are squealing, howling with laughter, tears streaming down our faces, making more noise than a pack of hyenas, beside ourselves…
I was on the bottom of the basket and literally had to crawl out backwards onto the dewy grass, still practically wetting myself with laughter. The four girls on the layer above me in the basket were hysterical and could not stop laughing. It made it all the funnier because we had indeed landed very safely, and very intentionally up the wrong way. Bloody David!!!
So as I said, this safari-ing is hard work when your pilot tries to tip you out of the basket in the middle of Africa – hence the glass or three of champagne was thoroughly well-deserved. The breakfast was amazing, then the balloon company’s guides drove us back to our lodge via a game drive where we had two hyenas running alongside our vehicle, found the same pride of lions resting with full bellies under a tree, and discovered the topi – possibly the worst-dressed in the Kenyan animal kingdom. Our guide described them as blue-jean, yellow-sock-wearing antelopes, and that is exactly what they look like. I kind of liked them and that bad fashion-sense, made me feel better in my beige-on-beige and fifty shades of safari.
I must make sure that include the hippos in this entry too. There are presently five hippos living in the Mara River right where the lodge is where I stayed, and these guys greeted me when I arrived and the proceeded to hang around outside my tent – grunting to each other, swimming, playing, and eventually sunning themselves on the bank across from my room. They were noisy but amazing to have so closeby. Plus, I now no longer stress about the size of my backside having witnessed what huge butts these guys (and girls) have. They are seriously enormous. Maybe big is better after all? Certainly it is true in the hippo world.
By day three in the Mara, we had been on three game drives, plus the hot air balloon ride, and still no King. My guides were getting antsy – they wanted to find a male lion with a mane for us before we left Kenya. Although we had seen the big five, we were being fussy – lionesses didn’t count in the same way that the King of the Jungle did. We had one game drive left. We departed the lodge at 6.30am and our drivers veered off in a different direction and into some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. We were in leopard country, and they were working the two-way radio and mobile phones like nothing else, trying to track us a big cat of some description. After about an hour, my driver got wind of lions about 20km away who had made a kill and were feeding. Off we went, foot down (as much as you can when you are on dicey dirt tracks in a 50km per hour zone) and on a mission to find lions. He looked and looked and talked with other guides and rangers and kept on looking, looking, looking… nothing… no lions…
“We’ve missed them”, he finally conceded… then literally ten seconds later, one of my fellow travellers pipes up, “What’s that?” Lo and behold, it’s a lioness, walking through the yellowing grass towards a mound. On closer inspection, there were another four lions hiding behind the mound, and for the next five minutes we watched them snake off into the long grass and conceal themselves there, ready to sleep the day the away until dusk falls and it’s time to wake up and go and hunt again.
We were all high-fiving and cheering that we’d found these five lions and generally feeling pretty chuffed that we’d had a successful, beautiful and magical last game drive. We thought we were heading back to camp, but our driver wasn’t done yet. The King was still out there, and he had to find him. We were now three hours into the game drive, when I spotted this reddish-coloured protrusion poking up out of the grass. It couldn’t be… not just sitting there after the days, hours of searching…
Yessir, we had found the King. Sitting proud, washing himself, looking around, calmly watching his pride about three hundred metres away from where he sat.
He is majestic. He is regal. He is proud. He is beautiful. He is very clearly top of the food chain. And we found him. Our drivers were rightly quite pleased with themselves for finally delivering him to us. We were extremely happy with the too! Another very worthwhile early-morning expedition in the Mara.
Latest additions to the animal count: Cheetah, Lion, Crested Cranes, Silver-backed Jackal, Eland, Topi, Heron, Crocodile, Mongoose, Agama Lizard