potentially fatal fauna. travels in airplanes the size of motorhomes. an unknown nation. Since going on a safari for the first time required me to venture well outside of my comfort zone, it’s safe to say that I was hesitant.
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I had a mixture of exhilaration and dread. Although I had only ever seen magnificent animals in pictures or zoos, I was eager to see them in their natural habitat. However, the thought of driving an open-sided 4×4 around and sleeping under a canvas tent with sly predators and enormous beasts roaming outside seemed absurd and went against every survival instinct I had. However, as is often the case with uncertainties, my anxieties proved to be unwarranted in the end.
Kenya, the place where I made my safari debut. I’d been told there was no better spot for sightings and that if I couldn’t locate animals here, I never would. It’s perhaps the top wildlife destination in the world. This was demonstrated very immediately as I flew in a little plane from Nairobi, the nation’s capital, to the breathtaking Masai Mara.
Reaching the Mara
The thrill of flying one of the fun-sized aircraft used for local flights in Kenya is unmatched. It’s like getting into a 12-person people carrier with wings (Cessna named them “Caravans”), where your parents (the pilot and co-pilot) are seated up front and easily accessible. It was evident right away why the aircraft seemed to weigh barely more than the 15 lb allowed luggage allowance for soft-sided bags, since all of the bags were crammed into tiny, unevenly sized bins beneath the cabin.
These little journeys were a lot of fun, and I loved the great views outside the big windows and the touch-downs on the way to drop off and pick up other passengers. I was thrilled to see dozens of zebras, wildebeest, and occasionally even giraffes from the air during my first such stop-off, so I was taken aback when, at the end of the runway (read: “dirt airstrip”), I spotted a herd of elephants hiding under the trees. This was after an unusually bumpy (and hilarious) landing. That is something that isn’t typically seen at Heathrow.
Having previously completed one of the Big Five, I felt privileged and eager to look for others. However, I was taken aback by how exciting it was to see some of Africa’s most diminutive animals on the game drive from the airfield to my lodging, including brightly colored lizards, flashy guineafowl, and, my personal favorite, the tiny dik-dik, the tiniest antelope in the world. For the birdwatchers, even ordinary birds were a pleasure, especially the splendid starling, which truly lives up to its name.
My tent was not what I had expected when I arrived at our secluded lodge in the Mara; it was a makeshift shelter devoid of modern conveniences. No, what we were discussing was luxurious camping, constructed out of sturdy canvas that resembled a permanent building. Some camps are as impressive as their surrounding, breathtaking landscapes, complete with beds and bedding, clothes hangers, and fully functional bathrooms complete with towels and toiletries. The best views, in my opinion, are obtained from the modestly-concealing outdoor showers that many offer, which frequently overlook stunning vistas, active waterholes, or both. If you’re not in the mood for an outdoor ablution, you may use the indoor facilities. This will save the neighborhood baboon colony from stealing your shampoo bottle while you’re taking a shower, but it also means you’ll lose out on a freeing adventure that truly immerses you in the safari experience. Even a handy hairdryer is provided by some lodges.
Most camps provide a safe to store valuables in addition to a comforting air horn or walkietalkie in each room, so you can rest easy knowing that help will be on hand in case of need. When necessary, mattresses are covered with mosquito nets; otherwise, they are left unmade and occasionally augmented with a hot water bottle while you savor a delectable supper. After dusk, diligent staff members—who are typically armed with a spear or similar object—walk visitors securely back to their lodgings.
In addition, at evening mealtimes, don’t expect to see a menu; instead, Kenyan camps often offer set dishes that your server will explain in advance. The only diners who receive anything different from regular diners are those with dietary restrictions. I wasn’t sure how I would like this arrangement because I’m a little picky about food, but even the food that I wouldn’t ordinarily choose to eat was really delicious.
Drives for games
Any trip must include accommodations, meals, and transportation, but the main attraction of a safari in Kenya is undoubtedly the animals. Typically, game drives happen twice a day: in the late afternoon or early evening and again in the early morning. I can’t deny that I felt vulnerable as I embarked on my first official game drive to discover the well-known Masai Mara. In an attempt to calm my fears, my knowledgable and kind guide explained that animals regard 4×4 vehicles as substantial components of the environment and tend to overlook them, just as they would a tree. As we plodded along, I noticed glittering dragonflies twirling, weaver bird nests hanging like ornaments from branches, and roaming warthogs gallivanting with their tails high in the air. Any more anxieties vanished straight out of the nonexistent window. We went by herds of buffalo and groups of gazelles. and soon after, my guide said, “Lion,” as he slowed to a snail’s pace. He noticed a big man and started to draw up front of it. I stared, almost afraid to breathe, as it slowly strolled straight up to the car, terrified and mesmerized. I nearly sprang out of the truck as it trailed closely behind it, swishing its tail. It then struck the rear of the vehicle.
These were by no means unique sightings; the most amazing experience of my whole trip came the day after, when we spotted a female cheetah. The cherry on top was that she was accompanied by her gorgeous teenage youngster. Even better, after watching with patience for a few minutes, we saw the mother running full speed after a Thomson’s gazelle. Even though she was unable to capture her target, it was still an incredible sight to watch.
The mandatory sundowner, which is, as the name implies, a refreshing drink (typically alcoholic) offered as the sun descends, is the finest non-wildlife discovery for a first-time safari visitor. Your guide will stop your game drive in a location that is perfect for toasting to a fantastic day spent exploring the African bush as you wrap up your adventures for the day. The sundowner we enjoyed under a big tree, where my guide and his friends had built a cozy fire, was my favorite and most unforgettable. We were sitting in the dark, gazing up at the incredibly starry sky above and noticing that the sun had long since set and was now gradually cooling down. There were other things raging as well, I realized as I took another drink of my delicious beverage. There were two lions nearby that were quite loud, and they were approaching closer. As usual, our guide reassured us that the large cats were actually farther away than they appeared, so there was no need to worry. These gentlemen really know their thing, and I had complete faith in their judgment. Later, we saw two male lions in the car on the way home to our lodge. We used our guide’s low-intensity flashlight to find them, and we spent some time watching as one of them eagerly drank from a drinking hole.