We’re in a tiny airplane. I’m in the front seat just behind the co-pilot. There’s a steady engine buzz and cool blast of air covering my neck in goosbumps despite the African heat outside. We’re below the clouds. Rays of sun light up the stunning landscape of the Maasai Mara beneath us, sweeping green and brown hills, lone trees and clumps of trees, small buildings scattered at random with glinting silver roofs. A dirt road slices through, every so often occupied by a tractor or two. The land dips into crevices, rolls along. It is unlike anything I’ve seen before.
A few minutes later we’re coasting down toward the dusty Mara North Concervancy Airstrip where we’re greeted by two Maasai guides who will be with us for the next few days: Josephet (our driver) and Kappen (our spotter).
We take our drive out to the Offbeat Mara camp in a slow and roundabout way, curving and bumping along the rough trails, sometimes cutting off into the grass and making our own. Somehow, despite the lack of signage and the vast amount of space we covered over the next few days, we never got lost.
On our way to camp, we spotted gazelles grazing on grass, wildebeest, warthogs (like Pumba!) darting off into the distance with their antennae tails up in the air, a pride of 8 lions and two other males on their own standing guard (very lazily), zebras crossing in front of us in herds, giraffes poking around in tall trees in the distance, an ostrich or two with their human-like legs and some eagles nesting. Just before we arrived, we came across a mother and baby elephant.
It’s truly humbling to see these incredible creatures in the wild. The lions looked so cuddly (an allusion, I know), the giraffes graceful and playful with their long lashes, and the elephants quite clumsy.
With the open rooftop and windows of our jeep, we absorbed the constant noises – the chirps, clicks and guffaws. The open land stretched on for miles, as far as we could see.
If you look on the ground, it’s littered everywhere with bones, carcasses, skulls, horns, evidence of the cycle of life at work.
Our guides got out of the jeep twice to pick up bits of plastic that somehow made their way from other jeeps onto the grass. They said it may have blown over from a nearby mall (nearby meaning, what, like 100 miles away? Because there was no life in sight apart from other safari-goers and all the animals…).
Later, we arrived at camp where we were met by the lovely Kyle and Lara, their sausage dog called Ponto and two more of the Maasai who greeted us with cold towels and glasses of lychee juice. We stayed in an eco-friendly camp with a bucket shower, natural soap and thick wooden beds. I’d highly recommend it!
In the mess tent, we gathered for a delicious dinner each night and tea some afternoons. We were out each day with private guides, so meal times were fun for sharing stories with the other guests. We met a Dutch/American couple, another American couple, a British family and an Australian gynecologist / MSF doctor. All of them were busting with incredible travel stories and amazing life experiences to share. We really enjoyed the company of each and every one of them as well as our hosts who really personalized our experience there and made us feel welcome.
Our first night, we went out on a sunset drive and stopped nearly right away in front of two massive male lion brothers just lounging in the grass near a couple of lionesses and a ton of cubs. Apparently they can give birth to 14 at a time.
Then a herd of buffalo came into sight, one with guts hanging out (ah, nature) and then more zebras, gazelles, baboons, a monkey or two, colourful birds like kingfishers, eagles and guinea fowl. Apparently there are some 550 species of birds in the Mara (of which our Josephet can identify approximately 330 – pretty impressive!).
The highlight that evening was sitting in the jeep, drinking gin and tonics and watching one of the elusive leopards getting ready to jump down from a tree and stalk some nearby gazelles. Eventually we drove closer and he jumped out of the tree right in front of us.
That night, it was absolutely pitch black as the guard walked us back from the tent guided by lanterns along the edges. Looking up, the magical bright stars of the Milky Way were scattered across the sky. All night, the sound of wild animals near the tent – the trumpeting of elephants, the grunting of warthogs, the skimpering of a monkey (whose paw prints we found on our tent in the morning) and the unmistakeable roar of lions. We heard over breakfast the next day that the guards had spotted a hippo in the camp that night as well.
The following day, Josephat and Kappen packed up our breakfast and lunch and picked us up bright and early to spent 11 hours out in the Mara. It was freezing in the morning (like winter coats freezing…) and sweltering in the afternoon. The sunrise, bright orange with a fiery ball on the horizon, was breathtaking as it cast a calming glow over the landscape.
After a while, we stopped for a picnic breakfast under a small lone tree, next to a herd of zebras grazing and a random ostrich. There, in the middle of nowhere, we ate eggs, bacon, sausages, toast with peanut butter and muesli with yogurt. Yup, all of that.
Later that afternoon, we stopped for a picnic lunch of chicken drumsticks, salad, couscous and biscuits while we were overlooking a river full of hippos and crocodiles.
Some of the highlights from our second day were seeing another leopard (poor thing had a leg half eaten from a fight with a lion), a group of hyenas feasting on the bloody, torn carcass of a wildebeest which was more or less just a skeleton by then, more male lions with their heads held high in a proud gaze or sleeping with their heads on their paws like sweet house cats.
We also spotted two black rhinos which are endangered and a rare sight considering they only come out every six months or so and are otherwise in the forest. There are only about 5,000 left in the world (although this is up from some 2,500 back in 1993). They are majestic creatures, truly surreal to see in real life with their massive horns and 1.4 ton bodies.
Of all of the animals we’ve seen, the one I’d probably least like to have an encounter with is the crocodile. They creep me our with their muddy, camouflage brown skin, gaping mouths stretched open to cool down, sitting completely still like the buskers on Southbank who pounce when you least expect it. And we saw a lot of them.
They were hanging out quite peacefully with families of hippos, popping in and out of water with bubbling noises. We saw a family of elephants crossing nearby, the little ones slipping in; the grown ups offering their trunks to help them up again.
The landscape itself is diverse, sometimes lush, sometimes sparse, full of exotic trees and miles and miles of open plains and savannah. It’s dotted with buffalos, impalas and wildebeest chilling out as the great migration begins to take place during which an estimated 1.5 million wildebeest make their move across the nearby ecosystems. Along with them, 400,000 zebras and 200,000 gazelles migrate at the same time.
On our last morning drive before flying down to Mombasa, we stopped briefly so that Kappen could gather rocks to protect two vulnerable eggs left by a Crown Plover bird.
Driving on, bouncing over rocks and tire tracks, we stopped again to cut the engine and look for cheetahs – the only animal we didn’t get to see on our short visit that I had really wanted to spot.
Such silence when the engine wasn’t running! Heat glimmered across the horizon and we spotted eight giraffes then, with their elegant long limbs and flirty eyes.
Lunch was another picnic, this time above the bend in a muddy river, under a bright blue sky, surrounded by lush green foliage, a croc-in-waiting at the edge of the water, holes made by birds along the riverbank wall and about 20 hippos bobbing in and out of the water, just the tops of their backs showing, like boulders.
And before we knew it, we were boarding another tiny plane (the first of three that afternoon) to Mombasa for a friend’s wee-long Hindu wedding ceremonies on the coast and a case of food poisoning and hospital visit I won’t soon forget.
As for the safari, I’d go back in a heartbeat. The Mara was such a peaceful place, but also dangerous and raw and exhilerating – an experience unlike any other. I’ll write a second post soon about the Maasai people, so stay tuned for part 2. (If you’re interested in organizing a trip of your own, get in touch with Rose Hipwood from The Luxury Safari Company!)