The Amazing African Safari – Part One

Part one | Part Two

Was it worth two eight and a half hour-long plane rides (each way) and a long London layover for a ten day African Safari? Absolutely. We had an amazing journey. In order to make it happen, tough, schedules were cleared, vaccinations were updated, and four friends were recruited to be part trip of a lifetime. It was an unforgettable visit to Nairobi, and game parks in Kenya and Tanzania.

After the aforementioned epic journey out, we were met plane side, right on the tarmac, escorted through customs, and handed off to a representative of the tour company,  who in turn delivered the entourage to the Nairobi Serena Hotel.

Security is ever present in Kenya. There are guards at every property, store, and even restaurants in the capital city. We encountered a checkpoint to get into the hotel property, and all bags had to be x-rayed prior to entering the main lobby. Access to the hotel required passing through a magnetometer.

The Serena is part of Leading Hotels, a global consortium of luxury properties around the world.The lobby was very elegant and ornate, the whole property was bathed in dark brown wood trim, with sandy brown, earthy painted walls. The main dining room was connected to the outdoor pool via a large semi-circular bar.  The hotel is very close to the heart of downtown, so there were many dark suited business types eating, drinking, and having meetings.

We caught our first glimpse of wildlife there, Marabou storks, which like to perch in the tree tops in the park across from the hotel.

Day One  1° 15′ South of the Equator, 36° 45′ East of Greenwich, elevation 5250 feet

First stop of the day’s activities was the Daphne Shedrick elephant orphanage, where for nearly thirty years, injured and abandoned baby elephants are housed, fed, and raised until they can be returned to the wild. The infants need mother’s milk for two years in order to survive. After a long period of trial and error, the founders finally hit on the working recipe to recreate elephant milk. The public is allowed on the property from 11am to noon only to witness a feeding.  Wheelbarrows full of milk bottled were waiting as the first batch of elephants, consisting of one to two years of age. Tourists gathered around a roped off area to view the feeding. We were allowed to pet the pachyderms if they approached the edges. Their skin was dirty, and felt like a ten year old leather suitcase that had been in the sun the whole time. They were friendly and playful. Another batch of older elephants was brought in next for a separate feeding. These were slightly larger and several had just begun to sport tusks. We learning about the dangers of poaching, and how it can take up to five years to repatriate the animals back into the wild. I was also amazed to learn that each elephant had to be feed every three hours, so a keeper will stay in the stables used to house and them, solely them for the purpose of the overnight feeding.

Next stop was the Langatta Giraffe Center, which was started to prevent the population of Rothschild giraffes from going extinct. There was a raised hut allowing people to feed the giraffes at their level. They would gently lap up pellets provided by the staff, right out of your hand. Some liked to be pet, one cared for nothing other than the food. We heard a brief talk about these giant animals, including the history and important work taking place at the center.

Our lunch was at The Carnivore, a renowned eatery that combines the elements of a Brazilian steak house, with popular local delights, including crocodile meat and bulls testicles. We tried most of the meats on the menu, and our group consensus was that the best dish was ostrich meatballs.

We also mixed tourism with shopping as we stopped at Kazuri, a unique factory that employs single, underprivileged mothers. By working at Kazuri, these women are then able to support their families in a country where unemployment is very high and good jobs are scarce.  The beads, necklaces, and jewelry produced are sold around the world.  This social mission began with ten women and now employs more than three hundred.

The next destination was the Karen Blixen house. The famed author of “Out of Africa” and “Babette’s Feast” built a coffee plantation on 6000 acres, of which only the land around her house remains. The residence has been preserved as it looked in the 1920’s and 30’s, with the original furnishings having been gifted back to the Kenyan government.

The last stop before returning to our hotel in some voracious traffic was a medium sized house, where every room had different kinds of tchotchkes, from clothing to carvings, and coffee, as well as spices.  I may think twice before I complain about traffic in Chicago. Our return to the hotel, a journey of less than ten kilometers, took almost two hours, due to the over abundance of cars, lack of public transit, and scarcity of stoplights.

Day Two –  1° 27′ South, 35° 24′ East, elevation 5660 feet

An early start as we bid adieu to the hotel and set off for the Masai Mara. Nairobi is a city of three million people. On our way out of town, we drove for quite some time past more shanties, apartments, and new housing projects under construction. Finally we reached the outskirts of Nairobi, and climbed up a hill that at 6800 feet above sea level that afforded us a fabulous view of the Great Rift Valley, a geographical feature that extends 3700 miles from Israel to Mozanbique. No overlook would be complete without more trinkets for sale, and the first opportunity to bargain. The original asking price for three items we selected was thirty dollars, but ended up settling for eighteen dollars. At no time did we have to pay in Kenyan Shillings, worth approximately 100 to one dollar.

We continued for another five hours, passing small villages and a few towns. The last two hours was spent bumping and bouncing along on unpaved, unmarked roads. The Sands River Masai Mara was another 45 minutes further, after entering the game park. Not five seconds in the park, we saw zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, gazelles, and our first elephant in the wild. We excitedly snapped photo after photo with our cameras, our driver obliging every request, knowing full well that the sight of zebras would soon become very common place.  There are estimated to be nearly two hundred and fifty thousand of them, just in the Mara.

Sands River is a tented compound along the aforementioned river. We had our own private tent with inside and outside sitting areas, four poster bed, and separate bathroom with a large tub. There was even an outdoor shower. We were advised that after dark, we would need an escort to and from our tents. With no fences, the animals were free to roam the camp area, once most of the light were turned off.

After a delicious lunch, we went on a game drive in the park where we saw many more zebras, plus antelope, baboons, monkeys, vultures, a hippo, and a family of giraffes. We also saw ostriches. They look so out of place there, like moving bushes from a Dr. Seuss book. However, just before returning to the property, we stumbled across two male lions, and their females. It was incredible how close we could get. It was minutes from camp, and the staff informed us, these two lions had recently fought another pair to secure their territory.

In retrospect, I should have slept better, but after the admonition against leaving the tent without an escort, every noise caught my attention. Every rustling of leaves, creak of branches, and growls of unknown origin made for a somewhat sleepless night. We were literally zipped into our tent for the evening,. I haven’t left a room light on since childhood, but did on this occasion.

No close calls for us, but we did find out that one of the lions chased an elephant through the compound, breaking a large branch on a tree, and leaving some smelly byproduct behind.
One of our traveling companions swore that he heard the lion breathing heavily as it brushed up against their tent wall.

Day Three – 1° 24′ South, 35° 1′ East, elevation 5321 feet

Every day on this trip, it seems we witnessed something amazing.  For instance, a male lion walked right in front of our land cruiser, and that wasn’t even the highlight of the day. That occurred a few hours later when we again glimpsed another one of the big cats, this time a leopard, up close.  The goal of any safari is to view the big five animals.  They are the lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhino. The phrase “big five” was originally coined by game hunters and referred to the difficultly of hunting them on foot.  The giraffe is obviously larger, and the hippo is actually a very dangerous animal, but not considered part of the big five.

This day’s adventure began with a early morning game drive. By now, sightings of zebras and wildebeest had become commonplace. The striped creatures would routinely walk alongside the roads, if you could call the packed dirt trails we drove on roads. Yet, they deftly darted out of the way as our vehicle approached.   We also got a very real sense of just how vast this place is. The park itself is comprised of more than 580 square miles. That is dwarfed by the Serengeti in neighboring Tanzania, with ten times the land.  There are large areas with few or no animals. We could drive for thirty or more minutes, seeing nothing but grassland, then finally approach a section with hundreds of mammals. There are mothers and their young, whether it’s a small tower (yes that’s the name for a group) of giraffes, or a drift of warthogs.

There are animal carcasses scattered around as well, and we chanced upon a dozen or so buzzards feasting on a recently killed zebra. The sick or wounded animals are easy prey for the big cats. Then the hyenas and vultures take what’s left. Along this path our driver had chosen, we spotted a large female lion perched atop a large outcropping, catching some shade under a tree, with a generous view of the surrounding area.  The other animals gave her a wide berth. Then we caught sight of another female a few minutes later, also sunning herself under a large bush. It was incredible how close our driver could maneuver his vehicle. We could see scores of flies had taken up residence on her skin, and she seemed to have given up the chore of swatting them away.  We spotted a third lion atop a very large rocky formation, and after many photos were snapped, we pulled away. Then someone noticed a male lion with a noticeable limp, heading in her general direction, Bernard, who sensed what was going to happen returned the vehicle close to the lionesses’ perch. Sure enough, the male walked right over to her, but not before ambling within a few feet of our car, seemingly oblivious to our presence. He then summited the rocks and joined her.

Mid morning, we headed for a real Masai village, home to a native ethnic group of people who have gone to great lengths to preserve many of their ancient customs. This includes their semi-nomadic lifestyle, and herding cattle, goats, and sheep.  We were entertained by a small group of men who greeted us in song, and then dance. Next, the women welcomed us with a different chant. The chief’s son gave us a tour of their traditional village, complete with a talk on the Masai culture. The Masai certainly are well versed in the dealing with tourists. We were escorted to an area where the various families had set up vending stands featuring many of the same kinds of knickknacks we had seen elsewhere, including animal carvings, bowls, necklaces, key chains, bottle openers, and salad tongs, decorated with animals. Each one of us was escorted around with ostensibly a personal shopper. They were very glib and very slick. How could one refuse to get at least something. We were no exception, neither were our friends, who also made purchases.

It was after departing the village, en route to our lunch destination, that our driver caught some chatter on the radio and detoured slightly towards a small creek area, with many bushes, shrubs, and small trees.

Someone caught a glimpse of a spotted animal pretty well concealed by a large shrub. In fact, you could not see it without the aid of binoculars. A leopard!  According to our driver, leopards were perhaps the most difficult animal to see in the game park, and yet we found one.

As Bernard relocated the vehicle around to the other side of the creek in an effort to try for a better look, the feline emerged from cover. The big cat climbed the embankment right in front of our new position, and took up residence by a nearby bush. This time our driver urged us to be very quiet and keep all limbs inside the car, as we snapped pictures and video of this incredible, up close view.  It was a sighting as good as any he’d witnessed all year. As Bernard explained, the leopards are somewhat elusive. They make a habit of hiding in the trees, even bringing their kills with them.

Other vehicles also approached for a look. We gave up our prime spot took off for a fifty kilometer trek to the Sera Mara for lunch, giddy with excitement at this wonderful encounter.

It was a long drive just for lunch, but well worth it, as the Sera Lodge was perched atop a large mount offering spectacular, panoramic views of the Masai Mara.  During the return, we saw hippos in the Mara river, which we crossed at a point just above the Kenya-Tanzania border. We saw more zebras (of course) Cape buffalo, elephants, giraffe, ostriches, and as we approached camp, we even saw the same two lions from the day before.

The evening was uneventful, and knowing to expect this time in the way of animals sounds outside the tent, we weren’t freaked out by the occasional howl or growl. The only noises came from an elephant or cape buffalo that was splashing around in the river taking a midnight swim.

continue to Part Two