The tall grasses of the Mara in Kenya swayed in the early morning breeze, an endless stream of gold ribbons bending to the rhythm of Africa. I glanced knowingly at Peter, our local guide for the morning’s game drive; my excitement fueled by past visits to one of the continent’s best loved game reserves.
I have spent the better part of seven years in Africa, traveling extensively and finally deciding to put down roots in Cape Town. The cosmopolitan ambiance, urban adventures and palette pleasing wines of the Mother City are still a major draw for me, but there’s nothing quite like getting back to the wild – the stunning back country once the lair of hunters and explorers, who braved the open plains on foot with a mere rifle in hand. OK, so we’re fast-forwarding, but little has changed on this landscape – it’s raw nature at your fingertips. The downside? That also means no guarantees on the wildlife front, but that’s part of Africa’s never-ending allure. Nothing is staged.
This was the first leg of our expedition, our overland tour starting in Nairobi, and the group’s expectations were high. Well, why wouldn’t they be? We were in one of most popular safari haunts in the Sub Saharan region. Also affectionately known as the “Kingdom of Lions” you’ll find more than enough predators in the Mara to keep your camera on the go, but if you’re traveling in late June as we did, it’s best to bring a super zoom lens. At this time of year the lush savannah has a tendency to obscure the more photogenic of prey, that flicker in the grasses so expertly spotted by your guide falling short of spectacular once downloaded onto your iPhone.
We kept to the well-used dirt tracks on our safari (as in East Africa there is no off-roading), all eyes peeled and binoculars scouring the open plains. Then, there they were! A lioness lay regal like, dozing beneath the branches of a tree, her two playful cubs making the most of the early morning’s cooler climes, and expending a little more energy on each other. Our driver stopped and mum glanced over at our vehicle. This was as much action as she was prepared to muster, but either way, we were thrilled to have the big cat in our sights. Then the lioness glanced across the plains for one last time before resting her head on the ground and drifting off into slumberland – the preferred option after a night on the prowl. In Africa, dinner is usually served under cover of darkness the lionesses doing most of the hard work, and with two extra mouths to feed this mother had clearly been slaving away for their survival.
At this point it was one down and four to go (if you’re a Big Five-phile like me, you always scratch the previous list and start over on a new adventure) and our sense of anticipation hit new heights. Suddenly, Peter tapped me on the shoulder and pulled over, his eyes fixated on a thick forested area. Incoming I thought, but everything seemed still. After a few moments we saw a more pronounced rustling of leaves, a herd of five or so gentle giants trudging out from the undergrowth. Larger than life they plodded along in single file, scarcely noticing our group, all of whom were now keenly glaring in their direction.
Our safari lasted around three hours during which time we were also lucky enough to spot giraffe, rhino, and buffalo, and while we saw smaller herds, the first signs of the annual migration were definitely evident. Unfortunately, the leopard, one of the more elusive Big Five, appeared to be giving the run around. Or so we thought.
We were one of very few vehicles out that day, a genuinely rare occurrence in the Mara, but Mother Nature had a last surprise in store for us. I was actually contemplating thoughts of lunch and a refreshing iced-tea as we almost back at camp, but Peter was on wildlife patrol yet again, and this time he’d sighted the piece de resistance. A lone leopard was hanging carefree from a tree, exhausted from his recent pursuit, a fresh kill now dangling from the branches.
Note to potential wildlife viewers and to self – the game drive’s not over until you’re finally parked up!
by Chris Mears
Chris is an avid Africa traveler with a non-stop thirst for adventure. Now living in South Africa’s Cape Town, he works as the office manager Acacia Africa. Chris will also be hosting this months Twitter #Africhat on Wednesday 20 March.
The Masai Mara features in Acacia Africa’s 18th birthday free seat giveaway. The tour operator will be holding 18 random draws in May. Follow #Acacia18 on Twitter for updates.
All photos by Acacia Africa except one by Craig Zabransky of Stay Adventurous.