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Travel Update: COVID-19

Diary of an African Safari

For animal lovers, there’s no greater experience than coming jeep-to-whisker with lions, hearing the trunk call of elephants and seeing hippos frolic in lagoons. A front-row seat to the African wilderness is up for grabs on safari in KenyaBy Natasha Dragun.

 

There’s a moment, as the zebra contemplates crossing the croc-filled river, when I feel the urge to call out and warn it to turn on its hooves and scamper back to where it came from. But its family – and tens of thousands of other zebras, gazelles and wildebeest – are urging it on from the other side of the Mara River, waiting for the lanky-legged juvenile to join them on their great migration across the vast plains of Kenya.

 

river view zebras mist, africa

 

Prides of contented lions loll around our jeep, their golden coats not dissimilar in colour to the long, sun-scorched grass of the Masai Mara; one pride is so well camouflaged that the only thing giving it away is the glint of a tooth when a lioness yawns. Every year, more than two million wildebeest and 20,000 other hoofed game migrate clockwise in a loop between Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania, travelling some 3,000 kilometres in what is the greatest mass movement of land mammals – and arguably the greatest wildlife show – on the planet. During the procession, wildebeest operate like armies, marching in single-file lines and pounding narrow trails into the ground that thousands follow. They stretch far into the distance, their nodding, bearded heads as ungainly as their galloping gait. Their movement creates a rumbling, like an earthquake, which reverberates through our safari jeep. Sometimes they skitter left and right, spooked by a predator lurking somewhere close by. But they – unlike the zebra – seem unperturbed by the crocodiles bobbing in the river, so bloated from weeks of feeding that they can barely muster the energy to keep up with the parade of animals splashing across the water.

 

sunset game drive lions karen blixen camp, kenya

We’ve been following this herd through the Masai Mara National Reserve since dawn, mesmerised by the sheer number of animals covering this stretch of preserved savannah in south-west Kenya. The thing about being in the wild is that it is, well, wild – the animals are unpredictable in a wonderful way, constantly surprising us with their sounds and movements and remarkable nonchalance. Like the leopard that saunters within metres of our jeep on its way to a waterhole; or the lion cubs that tumble over each other under acacia trees, seemingly oblivious to the fact we’re metres away.

This is one of the best parks in Africa to see big cats, but it’s also home to hippos, elephants, buffalos and giraffes. While black rhinos numbered in the hundreds here in the not so distant past, it’s thought that fewer than 50 now frequent the reserve, their population diminished by illegal poaching. Incredibly, we spot this enormous herbivore on day one, a mother and her young son grazing amid a thicket of trees. This sighting means we tick off the “Big Five” – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo – within 24 hours of touching down, leaving time to appreciate the smaller sightings: fearless hornbills, lilac-breasted rollers and snuffly baby warthogs, kicking up dirt.

 
pax couple giraffe safari game drive, africa

 

evening bush meals karen blixen camp, kenya

Most days on safari begin and end in this fashion: jumping in jeeps as the sun peeks over the horizon; grabbing blankets and hot-water bottles, cameras and binoculars; waiting for nature to wake up around us. Mid-morning we stop to enjoy chocolate-chip cookies and steaming mugs of coffee laced with Amarula, a creamy African liqueur made from the marula fruit. Then, in the afternoon at cocktail hour, a makeshift bar is set up under a boab tree, and a camp assistant mixes jugs of Pimm’s and pours flutes of champagne while the setting sun turns the sky the colour of a bruise. Just when we think we’ve seen every amazing thing it’s possible to cram into a day, a sprinkle of fireflies begins to dance on the surface of a nearby lagoon, creating a magical, moving glow in the middle of the savannah.

In the Masai Mara, low-slung, leave-no-footprint safari camps line a shady cove of the river. Most offer accommodation in upscale tents, which, while extremely comfortable, also exhibit an unwavering respect for the fragile environments they exist in. Even the most well-appointed lodges here are now built with recycled materials, and the always-attentive staff members are largely recruited from local communities.

 

 

restaurant view to garden karen blixen camp, kenya

Come mealtime, nearby farms and organic kitchen gardens supply the produce that lands on our plates: dinner is always three courses with wines, and if we’re not pulling up chairs in the lodge, we’re standing around a fire enjoying a barbecue under a boab tree strung with fairy lights. When the last nightcap has been poured, we’re escorted back to our rooms by a ranger.

It turns out you don’t need to be in a jeep to have a close encounter with Kenyan wildlife. One morning I wake to find an elephant taking a casual slurp from my private freshwater plunge pool. Another evening, I sip a gin and tonic while watching hippos play in the river, metres from where I sit. Inquisitive monkeys drop by daily to swing along the rails of my tent’s broad wooden balcony. And at lunch in the main restaurant, we’re often joined by a giraffe contentedly munching on a nearby tree.

With game drives reserved for the day’s cooler ends, the hours in between can be spent making the most of cultural activities. I visit local enkangs (villages), where Maasai communities invite us into their mud huts, teach us about medicinal plants and serenade us with a colourful song and dance performance. Others sign up for early morning hot-air balloon trips over the plains, or borrow binoculars to spot egrets and storks from the library. My favourite way to spend the middle of the day in the Masai is overlooking the river, enjoying the heaviness that comes with the quiet. Sometimes, the most magical moment on safari is when you see nothing at all.