How do you encapsulate the allure of a place like Kenya? I don't think you can. There are things that just need to be experienced to be understood. I think Africa in general holds a certain sway with people. It's raw life in the purest form. Mass migrations, death, birth, love, struggle, beauty, all of these things are quite literally happening just a few short meters away from the confines of a private safari car. In the west, we life a sanitized life with cellular phones, cafe mochas, and electric cars. The African safari is a way to disconnect with the western world and observe a world only lived vicariously through documentary footage on the television. I think that's the allure of coming to Africa. It's a chance to experience an un-sanitized life, if only for a brief moment. But that example simply doesn't do Kenya justice, it's more than a couple game drives, a proud people, and animal sightings. It's Africa. It's unexplainable. You need to come and experience it, or come back and rekindle the fire.
Day 1-2: Flights to Kenya / Overnight Fairview
Big trips are always tough initially. You think you have everything packed and ready to go, but you inevitably forget something. On the morning of our flight, it happened to me; as we pulled away from the house, I realized that I forgot my airplane neck pillow. An essential piece of kit for international air travel! After purchasing one at the airport, Stephen and I boarded our flight and made our way to Kenya via Amsterdam. For Americans, especially those of us on the west coast, Africa is nearly on the opposite side of the globe, and ten hours ahead. After a couple of flights, we arrived in Nairobi at the Jomo Kenyatta airport, anxious to meet our fellow companions. We cleared customs quickly and met a couple of people from our group before departing together with old friends and ground operators Eliud and Lucy to the Fairview hotel for some rest after the journey.
Day 3: Orientation in Nairobi / Lake Nakuru
After a great night's sleep, Stephen and I awoke to a gorgeous day on the grounds of the Fairview. We had a buffet breakfast with some awesome omelets and fresh fruit, and shortly thereafter we met the rest of our group for a morning orientation. Stephen took the stage with some introductions, then we dove a little deeper into the itinerary for the week to come. With bags packed and eager eyes, we left the Fairview for a short trip to the Sarova Lion Hill hotel in Lake Nakuru. Lake Nakuru is a small national park just to the northwest of Nairobi and is known for its impressive array of wildlife. Our first game drive yielded pictures of nursing impala, a couple of raptors, and a really cute infant baboon, and on our way back to the Sarova Lodge, everyone got a chance to see a family of white rhinos! Not bad for the first game drive in country! After an amazing dinner, our seat assignments were given out and it was time for bed.
Day 4: Lake Nakuru
Our game drives always begin at 6:00am, and today was no different. It's essential to start early in the morning because this is when the animals are most active. The middle of the day they spend their time resting and trying to hide from the midday sun. This morning everyone got a better chance to grab some shots of the white rhinos, as they were in nearly the same spot we left them the night before. The morning was a little slower paced as we settled into the scenery at the lake. We found some more baboons, worked on giraffes feeding and made our way around the north side of the lake and found some different birds and the majestic waterbuck. After lunch, the action got much better just as we left the hotel, we spotted a lioness napping in a tree. We worked on her a little bit before splitting up and finding 2 more lions in a different tree! As all our private vehicles began to approach the tree, the cameras were rolling when one of the pair fell out of the tree as he was repositioning! Good thing he's a cat and landed safely on all fours. We got some great shots of the action. As we headed back to the hotel, we caught another lioness exiting a big tree and she crossed the road in front of our vehicles, causing quite a stir as we were less then 10 feet away from her! Phew! Another successful day, and we checked off 2 more of the big 5, making the elephant and the elusive leopard our only main catch left.
Day 5: Lake Nakuru / Maasai Mara
With a travel day ahead of us, as we leave Lake Nakuru behind, we all settled into one last morning game drive. The light was beautiful as it came up over Lion Hill and down into the lake valley. Lake Nakuru is generally more wooded than the other areas we visit, so the light pouring through the trees can be exceptional in the early hours. Flamingos traditionally have made a stop at the lake, and in years when the lake is lower (or more alkaline) the flamingos can gravitate in droves numbering easily into the tens of thousands. A couple safari vehicles decided to venture out and photograph the flocks, as it was our last chance to see them before departing to the big game park of the Maasai Mara. With a quick lunch and some post-processing lessons doled out by Stephen and yours truly, we hopped in vans for a short drive to the airstrip and boarded our charter flight south west to the Mara. And boy did we get an awesome greeting! Very quickly into our afternoon game drive, we spotted a male and 2 female lions napping in the bush. As they awoke, they treated us to multiple shows of affection with the warm afternoon light filtering beautifully in between the short and tall grasses. Once the light became too low for successful lion photography, we were able to find an awesome looking acacia tree to shoot sunset. With zoom lenses primed and ready to go, we filled our frames (and cards) with a giant reddish-orange sun and then packed it in back to our Tent Camp for the night.
Day 6: Mara Ashnil
The Mara Ashnil Tent Camp is like no other tenting experience you've ever seen or heard about. The only thing "tent" about them is the canvas fabric used for the roof. Other than that, they are 5 star suites with huge beds, sitting area, private bathroom, hardwood and tiled floors...literally a king's palace! The sounds of wildlife at night are a treat, replete with the moaning of hippos, elephants, hyenas and lions, all from behind a safely guarded fence of course! On our morning game drive we found some trees filled to the brim with every kind of vulture imaginable, another lion pair (who showed us their mating rituals), and a den of young jackals! The action was everywhere! Later that afternoon we came upon a lone cheetah taking a break between napping and feeding on a successful kill. Another gorgeous sunset with an acacia tree and the day was done!
Day 7: Mara Ashnil / Mara Serena
Cheetahs can have litters of up to nine cubs, and in some places rear around half of the litter. In the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, the environment is much more extreme due to frequent predation by other game, including lions and hyenas. Therefore, in the Mara, the mortality rate for cubs is only 10-20%, meaning one or two cubs survive to see adulthood. It is extremely rare then to see a mother with 4 healthy cubs, which was a treat bestowed upon us this day. We followed the mother and her cubs at a distance for about 30 minutes, until we saw them heading to a termite mound (a favorite lookout spot for cheetah). We jockeyed as best we could for a sweet position and rattled off hundreds of pictures of the mother and her 4 cubs, all from the perfect vantage point (both for her and us). We were breathing rarified air and all of us were excited and giddy! We returned to our tent camp, had another extraordinary buffet lunch and sat down to do another round of post-processing before heading off to the last of our accommodations deep in the Maasai Mara. Typically people come to the Maasai Mara to observe the wildebeest migration. As many as 1.5 million individuals pass through the open gates of the Tanzanian/Kenyan border and pour into the Mara to feast on the tall grasses. The afternoon game drive was our first encounter with the endless hordes, as there is a quality to the quantity present this time of year.
Day 8: Mara Serena
The Mara Serena Lodge is the pinnacle of lodging in the Maasai Mara. With 78 luxurious suites overlooking the Mara River, the lodge is perched atop the highest hill with grand views in nearly every direction. One can sit comfortably from their suite and watch as the endless herds of wildebeests make their yearly crossing over the Mara river. But that wouldn't be as much fun as being in a private safari car watching the action up close! During our morning game drive we were fortunate to see a grand pack of 12+ hyenas descending (seemingly out of nowhere) upon a carcass. These beasts, with their low-slung hind quarters are equally capable of hunting live prey, as they are at taking over deceased prey from other carnivores. We spent the rest of the morning focusing on a big herd of elephants as they made their way across the plain to feed on the trees in the swamps near the Mara river. After lunch we decided to take the group closer to the river to view the wildebeest crossing. Wildebeests are interesting herd antelopes; it seems that every decision made by the group appears to be utter chance, yet somehow they succeed in their goal of crossing the river. Watching a crossing can be a rewarding if not a harrowing experience for the uninitiated. Hundreds upon hundreds of wildebeests force their way to the rivers edge, and those unlucky enough be in front sometimes are forced into the river as the horde literally stampedes across the water to other side in a burst of chaos. As if that wasn't enough action to watch, the herd is constantly harassed by marauding Nile crocodiles who slip in amongst chaos and snap up a few unfortunate individuals. As we view the ongoing action, from the safety of our vehicles, the collective spirit of the group swings in favor of the poor wildebeest and zebra, even though the crocodiles hold a very important place in the ecosystem.
Day 9: Mara Serena
The Maasai Mara is named after the Maasai people who now inhabit the region. The Maasai are an ancient and proud nomadic people who have kept ahold of their culture even after the British colonization of Kenya. They are known for their fierce warriors, pastoral lifestyle, and brightly colored shukas - traditional blankets - which are worn by both men and women. In the early morning we began a game drive toward a small village of Maasai people. Peter, the cheif's son, greeted us and took us through some of the basic customs and cultural histories of the Maasai people. After he spoke, he formally invited us into his village, which is protected by a circular brush thicket, to help ward off wild animals. The Maasai people believe that cows were gifted to them by the heavens, so they revere cattle, and are naturally, herdsmen. The men spend most of the working day tending to the grazing cattle, which are their currency. The women, on the other hand, do literally everything else; washing, cooking, cleaning, building, making, etc. Just before we were to enter the village, the men came out and began a traditional song and dance, which they encouraged all of our men to take part in. Jumping straight up is the key here, as this display might be beneficial in finding a mate. The higher you jump, the more impressive you look, especially when wielding a spear! The women got their turn as well, joining in a traditional song and dance; the Maasai women adorned them with beautiful multi-colored necklaces and robes all while singing with beautiful voices, the traditional songs of their people. It was truly a sight, their song in such harmony, paired with the visual setting of Mara, these African voices were like a dream washing over everyone. The Maasai are some of the kindest, most hardworking, respectful, and beautiful people alive. It was truly an honor to come see how they continue to live on a daily basis, without the need for modernity. We were allowed to take as many photos as we wanted, provided we respectfully ask permission first, Peter and his village were more than accommodating as they posed for us, took pictures of us, and laughed with us. It definitely is an experience we all wont soon forget.
On our last evening game drive of the trip, we finally were able to cross off the last animal from the "big five." The ever-elusive leopard! After the cars rejoined by the river just before sunset, a leopard was spotted across the Mara, and all four of our safari vehicles positioned themselves while the group blasted away at the cat who eluded us the entire trip! What a perfect way to end the night!
Day 10: Mara Serena / Flight to Nairobi
Morning comes, we sigh. I think no one expects Africa to have the hold on you that it does once you visit. It's unexplainable. Before I first set eyes on the savannah, I too thought this trip would be just like the rest. But Africa holds a certain sway with you. It's almost as if you leave a piece of yourself there, which never leaves, but you yearn to re-connect with. Today was our last day with the group. Our last game drive took us south toward the Tanzanian border. We shot some photos along the way, a couple elephants, a lone giraffe, mostly the mood was somber, slow, relaxed. We crossed the border (temporarily and in jest) to Tanzania, took photos of each other near the border stone, and ate our last breakfast under an acacia tree, enjoying each others company. It's moments like these that make these trips special; here we are in the middle of a huge game reserve, the circle of life is literally happening all around us, as we eat our morning fill, and reminisce about past days events. We headed back to the Mara Serena Lodge for checkout, and some final post-processing before we gathered the group for one last trip in our safari vehicles. We took our final group photo, exchanged hugs, contact info and pleasantries, and Stephen and I said our farewells to an awesome group of people, with whom we had an amazing trip! Asante Sana!
On behalf of Stephen, myself and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team we want to say a very big thank you for joining us and we hope to see you again on another future adventure!
Written by Scott Donschikowski - Asante Sana!
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