Billed as a three-hour drive from Nairobi, my safari bus set out on what would be a six-hour ordeal to Masai Mara National Reserve. The Masai Mara is the northern continuation of the Serengeti: the Serengeti plains span the northern region of Tanzania and continue into the Masai Mara on the Kenya side of the border. These two reserve areas are famous for an event called the Great Migration, where herds flow north from the Serengeti into Masai Mara during July and August in search of greener pastures. It’s pure luck of the draw that I would be in the country during this annual event.
Just outside the city, climbing high through the hills, the road descended and opened to the vast landscape of the Rift Valley. We passed towns and villages, and without fail, excited kids ran to the roadside to wave us on. We arrived in camp around 3:30pm: a small campground of sorts filled with permanent safari tents. These modest digs would be home for two days and a few breathtakingly cold showers. But as the purpose of the weekend was to see animals, I would spend very little time under the mosquito net covering the bed. With no delay, our bus set out on the first of three game drives at 4pm.
Game drives, as I would soon learn, are filled with other safari vehicles from numerous other tour companies. This was far from my mental expectation that a safari was done in solitude. Far from it actually. Each vehicle roams the vast plains alone, with other vans in the distance, looking for unique encounters. However, once one guide finds something of interest, the call goes out on the radio for the other guides to satisfy their “game-hungry” guests. We would troll the fields for hours then suddenly the bus would jerk into action and we’d be flying toward a scene littered with safari trucks surrounding an event of interest. It became humorous to actually watch the on-lookers watching the scene unfold as telephoto lenses and expressions of awe added to all the commotion. (I’m not exempt from this either…my zoom lens was transfixed as well.)
The first game drive, just two hours, was completely successful as far as I’m concerned. We passed gazelles, zebras, antelope, and wildebeest. Of the “big five” (the lion, African buffalo, spotted leopard, elephant and the black rhino), we managed to see three. We watched as a sleeping lion slept on a hill, and in waking from sleep, regrouped with the rest of the pride and started to play. An elephant wandered by our bus just a half hour later and we came upon a group of buffalo meandering through tall grass. Not bad.
But if the first day was good, the second would prove better. Just after starting out at 7:30am, on Saturday, our bus jerked into action. We raced to a scene that made National Geographic come to life: a pride of lions had just caught, and was in the process of devouring a zebra. With the zebra still kicking, two male and six female lions feasted. I was amazed to have the opportunity to watch such an event unfold. We moved on and found a spotted leopard resting in a tree. While leafs veiled the cat for the most part, four of the big five were checked off the list. We roamed to the south and to the boarder where the Serengeti plains lingered beyond. We gazed upon hippos lounging in the Mara River and spotted a crocodile upstream. Turning back, we drove alongside more elephants meandering and finally got the first look at giraffes up close. Giraffes may be my favorite of the whole bunch. They cruised a long for a while, but out of nowhere, one set off across the fields to join another group. This was the first time I’ve seen a giraffe run, and I have to say, it’s one of the most awkward things I’ve ever seen. Unlike any other four-legged animals that walk with diagonally opposite steps, a giraffes’ gait falls with both legs on the same side of it’s body striking the ground simultaneously. When a giraffe runs, it looks like a gangly uncoordinated spastic horse trying to gallop: the knees kick out in front, it jerks its head up as a horse does when it shies, and launches forward at incredible speed. I think I could get hours of entertainment out of watching giraffes.
That evening, I visited a Masai village. The women and men sang and the men explained the traditions of the Masai people. Widely known as fierce warriors, the Masai are actually more peaceful farmers than anything. They are semi-nomadic as their villages move every nine years due to termite infestation. Their homes are built out of sticks and hardened cow manure. The family lives in one of the three rooms, while the other two are reserved for the goats and the family cow. The cow provides milk and blood, which provides a central part of the Masai diet. The goats roam around the pitch-black house at will where the only light comes from a small window above and a timid fire. It’s smoky and the air is thick. In the middle of the compound is a sick of sorts, which is used in the ceremonious circumcision ritual. Performed when the young man becomes 14 years old, I was told, “you must come strong and not cry. If you cry, you have shamed your family.”
The next morning we rose early before the sunrise. We watched the sun come up over the plains as wildebeest grazed beneath. Having been eluded by the rhino and a clear view of the leopard the day before, we were quickly off as the radio sprang to life. There, in the open, was a spotted leopard standing over a half-eaten impala. Watching until it dragged its prey away from the herds of safari trucks, we drove until we found ourselves between two groups of lions. As they came together, our car sat alone as the lions passed just feet from the vehicle. A male lion looks much more intimidating from three feet away than it does behind zoo bars.
I’ve always romanticized about the idea of an African safari. The idea has always sounded so distant and unattainable. But I leave Kenya knowing that this seemingly unlikely event of a safari became reality. It’s a reality marked by remarkably memorable events and fortune.