A safari trip to the Maasai Mara must be pretty high up many bucket lists and mine is no different. Kenya’s most famous national park is teeming with wildlife and you have probably already seen it without realising. Those migrating herds of wildebeest charging across river banks, trying desperately to avoid the waiting crocodiles with commentary provided by David Attenborough. That would be the Mara River during The Great Migration as thousands of wildebeest travel from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Mara in Kenya between July and October, I went to see what all the fuss was about.
The first thing that strikes you about the Maasai Mara is its sheer vastness. Ideally this is best seen from above and there are regular flights out from Nairobi to ‘the bush’. I booked with Safarilink which has two daily flights out to Maasai Mara from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. You COULD drive out for 5-6 hours yet flying in a thirteen seater Cessna Caravan was an experience I was not going to pass up. This remains the closest I am likely to get to a private jet, albeit for an hour long flight so I sat right at the front and gazed at the confusing flight instruments. About as close as you can get to sitting with the pilot.
From a few hundred feet in the air you can clearly see the herds of zebras, wildebeest and giraffes meander across the plains. Then there is the topography of lush greens, pale browns intersected with ravines. Not a skyscraper or car park in sight, and you can barely make out the runways below.
Our destination was the third and final stop making the plane the equivalent of a long-distance shuttle bus. As the plane homed in on Mara Keekorok there was clearly no terminal, no duty-free and no café; merely a local market ran by tribes members and a hut which acted as an admission gate to the park itself. Ah yes, the fees. For tourists the cost is $70USD per day which seems excessive but this is far better than your average day at the zoo.
We were picked up by our two kindly, knowledgeable guides; Korbin and Benson, and soon enough we were away on our first safari trip. A bright lizard sunning itself on a rock and a lion family lazing under a sausage tree were our immediate highlights. After a couple of hours we arrived at Simba Lodge and were given a hearty welcome. The rooms are mainly constructed out of wood which blends into the surroundings. There are the usual trappings of a hotel room with a kettle, shower room and comfy double bed. Most impressively, the room featured an outside balcony overlooking the stream below. We really were in the middle of the bush as a hippo was enjoying the late afternoon sun on the opposite bank, only an electrified fence separated me from the wildlife. The monkeys were still lolling around the swimming pool though.
In order to best see the majesty of the bush it is best to get there early. With my mobile alarm set I woke to the sound of birdsong, surely the best wake-up call on Planet Earth as Attenborough would say. Then watched as the red morning light diffused from sunrise. What became obvious over the next few days was the familiarity of the bush. On the first morning we were greeted with a family of giraffes mingling with zebras. We soon found out that due to the successful policing of the poachers the animals really did not mind us. Giraffes stared at us with a vague interest then continued munching on foliage. Strangely, considering their prevalent role in The Lion King, warthogs and meerkats were easily the shyest of animals we encountered.
As far as action went we looked to have had narrowly missed a cheetah catching his dinner as a fresh wildebeest corpse soon had its ribs exposed. On another morning all appeared serene as a pack of zebras grazed on one side of the road. On the other side a lion cub slowly crept over the brow scouting for breakfast and suddenly the zebras were on high alert. Likely due to the interests of public decency we vacated the area to let nature play its gory course.
On several occasions we were late to the action yet even then you could see the inner workings of the bush. When the chase was over and the hunters had had their fill the other predators join in. Before carrion becomes toxic the vultures actually play a responsible role in the bush’s upkeep. Rotting corpses can pollute the land and poison wildlife, before that happens the vultures pick the bones clean. The ecosystem in perfect harmony.
With the safari trip itself ticked off the bucket list, the next list was The Big Five or, as I like to call it, Safari Bingo. On the first day I had managed to scratch off an African lion, elephant and cape buffalo. Feeling pretty smug with a solid afternoon of safari spotting we soon went off-road. Of course, we were not the only transport on the plains as Korbin and Benson slowed down to excitedly talk to another guide. They could have been discussing the latest boxset or what they were having for dinner such is my lowly grasp of Swahili. Soon enough we edged off-road and thankfully there was a reason to suffer all those bumps. The sun was going down and soon enough we would have to have departed the park and got back for dinner. Yet the reward far outweighed the risk, within a few minutes our guide pointed into the trees and a dark grey silhouette could be seen. At last count there were three rhinos on the Mara, somehow in the 1,510 km² vastness we had managed to spot one. Only when I realised how unlikely our encounter was did I really begin to treasure it. Our return to the lodge was innocuous enough, until we mentioned the rhino. Some workers had been at the lodge for months, maybe years without seeing one, we had only been there for a few hours. The bingo card was nearly complete and the first day had ended with a buffet dinner including dessert, I was on holiday after all.
The second day was more of the same but I could appreciate how the Mara changes during the day. From mating calls and playfighting Gazelles in the morning to herds of wildebeest minding their own business. On the second day I took a break from the wildlife to visit the natives. The Maasai tribe inhabit southern Kenya and are resident on the game parks. Indeed, the nearest tribe was pretty much next door to the lodge and for the afternoon we got to know their local customs. We were welcomed with the males bouncing to a rhythm and soon learnt about their cattle and goat herds. Their leader, James, spoke faultless English as my Mother asked about their interaction with the wider world; the internet, education and inoculations. We were then shown their clay huts, means of making fire and a herbal remedy for all ailments which made for an insightful afternoon.
On our final day we had a full day safari with a picnic and ventured a bit further. A thunderstorm had left mud patches across the terrain which had mainly dried out during the morning. However, by early afternoon some mud remained meaning many transports got stuck and part of the entertainment was cheering them get towed out. As we got closer to the Mara river the sheer volume of wildebeest kept mounting up but we had missing The Great Crossing as the hippos, crocodiles and Egyptian geese looked kinda bored. There was one vacant box on my Safari Bingo card and with a few hours left I managed to tick it off as we spotted a leopard lazing up a tree. I felt like shouting ‘BINGO’ but that would have woken him then scared him off.
The final morning was also my birthday yet I kept this quiet to enjoy the majesty of the bush waking up. The giraffes and zebras grabbing their breakfast, the wildebeest slowly meandering across the plains and the lions huddling as a family. Well worth a trip, even if it isn’t on your bucket list.