MASAI MARA, Kenya — What strikes you most about the Masai Mara, a massive game reserve in Kenya, is the amount of wildlife roaming its grassy plains. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of animals dot the landscape - from elephants and lions, to cheetahs, giraffes and the always cranky wildebeest.
Flying across the Masai Mara from Nairobi or Mombasa, you get a glimpse of the stunning landscape, with the Mara River winding across the sweeping grasslands that are dotted with rolling hills. But it's not until you touch down at the remote, dusty airstrip that the beauty of the area and abundance of wildlife becomes brilliantly clear.
We were lucky enough to visit during the annual Great Migration, when more than a million wildebeest, zebras and associated predators following seasonal rains cross from Tanzania's Serengeti into the Masai Mara in search of fresh grass. The animals arrive in July and return in September and October. It is one of the greatest natural spectacles on Earth.
The short drive from the airport to Kicheche Mara Camp, which provided our lodging and tours to see the animals, was itself a mini-safari. We spotted hippos lolling about in the river, giraffes strolling across the plains, and antelopes and gazelles watching curiously as we went by.
Kicheche, which houses up to 22 guests, is not your ordinary bush camp. The secluded tents have a double bed and private bathrooms with flushing toilets. Deck chairs out front allow you to soak up the view across the sweeping plains. Unfenced, the camp often finds itself hosting hungry wildlife roaming in search of food.
We were woken the next morning by camp staff - local Maasai warriors - who would deliver tea, coffee and biscuits to our tent just before sunrise. Shortly after, it was time for our first game drive of the day.
Almost everywhere in the Mara is crowded with lions, elephants, cheetahs, buffalo, antelope, giraffes, hippos, gazelles, zebras, hyenas, kudu, ostrich, jackal, impala, and wildebeest - always looking hostile and often fighting each other. Then there's the warthog, renowned for its short memory, and often seen stopping mid-stride and wondering - so we were assured by our guide - where it was actually going.
An added novelty for me and my wife - coming from our current base in the polluted and chaotic Thai capital, Bangkok - was the Mara's incredible tranquility, with the few noises heard often just the distant roar of a pride of lions.
Setting off in a customized four-wheel drive, our guide Julius Ronjore found a secluded spot where he laid out our continental breakfast as we watched dozens of hippos bathing in the Mara River. Behind us, several giraffes chewed at the treetops.
After satisfying our hungers, our minds turned to more important tasks - tracking down the Big 5: Elephants, lions, buffaloes, rhinos, and the elusive leopard.
We came across one group of elephants, and managed to stop within 10 yards from where they were resting in the shade. A baby elephant was lying under his mother, sleeping. The mother maintained a stare which we knew was a sign to keep our distance. We had no intention of pressing the issue and slowly drove off.
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As we soaked up the clean air and kept our eyes peeled for other big game, Ronjore spotted another safari group observing a cheetah, almost camouflaged by the long grasslands. We managed to get closer, when the cheetah - identified as Kike, made famous on the BBC's "Big Cat Diary" - leapt onto the hood of a neighboring vehicle.
Unfazed by all these tourists clicking away madly with their cameras, Kike was more interested in using the vantage point to search for a potential meal. So relaxed was Kike around humans, she even took time to wash herself before leaping back onto the ground and wandering away.
Back on our search for the Big 5, we came across a huge pride of lions slowly walking across the plains. Several big females, closely followed by about a dozen cubs and young lions, with the male head of the pride not far behind.
They eventually stopped under the shade of some overhanging trees, providing us with the perfect viewing spot. The cubs playfully wrestled with each other, while another sought the attention of its mother, who obliged by giving the youngster a quick wash.
As we continued our drive across the Mara, we spotted a group of vultures feeding on the remains of a zebra, most likely killed the night before. Suspecting it was captured by a leopard, Ronjore headed to a group of nearby trees where they like to hide.
A couple of hundred yards ahead of us, we spotted a leopard lazing high up in a tree, its legs flopped either side of a branch. We managed to get a little closer, but the leopard - generally shy and elusive - slipped down the tree and into the deep rough terrain below.
As we made our way back to the camp, we came across a group of buffalos. No. 4 ticked off the list!
Later, as the sun began to dip, we headed out again to enjoy a traditional "sundowner." Sitting in our four-wheel drive, Ronjore popped open his cooler, handed us each a gin and tonic, and we settled in to watched a group of elephants on the side of a hill eating the trees as the sun set.
Back at camp, we showered before joining the rest of the guests around the campfire where everyone shared stories of their day on the Mara. A huge dinner followed, and then back to the fire for more drinks.
The next day, we had a mission to finish our search for the rhino. Not far from the camp, nestled in the nearby hills, we came across the two white rhinos. They are watched by guards 24 hours a day to protect them from potential poachers. Finally, we had seen the Big 5.
Our vacation also took us to Selenkay Conservation Area in southern Kenya, where a camp has been established by Gamewatchers Safaris - the only camp in the entire 15,000-acre area. Porini Camp has just six tents, enough for only 12 guests, making it a very personal and unique safari, as only those staying there are allowed inside the entire conservation area, apart from the local Maasai.
We visited a traditional Maasai camp, where we were greeted by children in bright, colorful outfits, and the local Maasai women chanting a welcome song. The Maasai are nomads, so their camps are only temporary. But they are well-established, with solid homes built with locally sourced products, including cow dung. Inside their homes, a small fire burns to ward off the evening chill. The children ran around, playing, while keeping a watchful eye on the visitors.
Porini is near Amboseli National Park. As you drive toward it, you see snowcapped Mount Kilimanjaro standing at its edge, Africa's highest peak just across the border in Tanzania. It's a spectacular and imposing sight, dominating the skyline.
Amboseli has a rich wildlife population, but is most famous for its elephants. And there were plenty, spread out as far as the eye could see. We were also rewarded by spotting a jackal feeding two of its youngsters. Hippos played in the lakes dotted across the park. Striding across the park were thousands of wildebeest, along with giraffes, lions, buffalos, antelope, gazelles, hyenas, and of course the warthog.
After an entire day searching for wildlife, we returned to our camp.
Late in the day, our guide took us to a remote spot in Selenkay. He set up some chairs, unloaded the cooler, cracked open the beers and poured some gin and tonics. Content after a successful day on safari, we sat down, took a sip from our drinks and sat in awe as the sun began to set and Mount Kilimanjaro disappeared into the night.
If you go:
GREAT MIGRATION: The animals cross from Tanzania's Serengeti into Kenya's Masai Mara in July, then return in September and October.
GETTING THERE: There are daily flights from Mombasa and Nairobi to an airstrip in the Masai Mara. Camps that arrange expeditions to view wildlife can meet you there.
KICHECHE MARA CAMP: (011) (254) 20-891379. Three-night package, about $1,000 per person, double occupancy, including lodging, food and game drives.
PORINI CAMP: (011) (254) 20-7123129. Two-night packages, per person, double-occupancy, $585-$775, depending on the season, including lodging, food, and game drives.
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