It was a long journey to the Masai Mara from east coast to west Kenya. We started with a day of boat, plane, taxi making it to Mombasa before catching the train to Nairobi. It was a long day of travel and we were both a bit annoyed with ourselves that all the economy tickets had gone and that we had to pay extra to go in first class which offered no added perks aside from a slightly comfier seat. The journey took us across the east of the country, through Tsavo where we spotted from the window a zebra, a giraffe and two elephants – an exciting warm-up for our upcoming safari. There was a vast expanse of red earth, and squat chunks of baobab trees. As we passed villages children waved at the train, and people herded cattle in for the night; night fell and we played cards as the dark surrounded the train. At Nairobi we changed onto a clattering old commuter train that achingly made its slow way through the suburbs to the old railway station. It was dark, late and raining when we arrived and headed to stay the night at Rachel’s house, an American girl I’d met at the yoga class in Kilifi and who said we’d be welcome to a bed for the night.
The next day it was still raining when we left Nairobi behind. The cracked pavements and streets were muddy and rainwater splashed up my legs and trainers as we navigated our way through the hectic back streets of central Nairobi to find the right bus to Narok, the main town on the way to the Masai Mara and our destination for the day. We squeezed in the matatu and hoped our bags would be ok in the boot, got chatting to a nice man sat on my right. As we were leaving the city, police ahead closed the road temporarily to let a long motorcade past; the man next to me pointed at the shining cars with flapping miniature Kenyan flags on the bonnets, and said “the President” raising his eyes upwards.
It was a winding and bumpy road to Narok, three hours around valleys and across open plains with heavy rain clouds. A sudden burst from above obscured the windscreen and the matatu driver drove one-handed wiping the window clean with a towel. Afrobeats played on the stereo and I held on tight when we went around corners. The guy next to me tried not to vomit and I was glad when we saw a sign saying we weren’t far from Narok. We slid gratefully out of the packed matatu and a guy on a motorbike wove through the traffic to take us to our hotel, where Moz was gasping for a beer and I was parched for a cuppa. Tea here isn’t like home – it’s boiled with milk and comes pale, scalding hot and very sweet with a skim. It takes a bit of getting used to. I asked the waitress which cake she would recommend between the banana or the carrot and she told me solemnly “the banana slice has the taste of banana, and the carrot slice has the taste of carrot”. Ask a stupid question…
Our guidebook said that we could expect a “ramshackle provincial town, civilisation’s last stand before the vast savannahs of the Masai Mara”. It was true to its word: a small, busy but friendly town and Masai walked around the town dressed in their distinctive paintbox red robes, their lobes stretched with jewellery and looped around the tops of their ears – they have a long loping strode and walk with thin wooden sticks. Around them, the town was like any other: engine smoke, dusky light, women selling vegetables on upturned buckets. A sign for a “Masai Nursing Home” made us smile, imaging aged warriors still jumping. We went for grilled goat at the ramshackle nyama choma zone, a wooden cafe with a BBQ, and it was so delicious I’m still thinking of it as I write this.
The next morning we walked to the bus station to find a car that would take us to the edge of the Masai Mara. An hour later, mysterious errands competed, petrol topped up by a fiver, and seven of us squeezed into an old Nissan Estate, we were off! The nice thing about having so many bodies in a car means that when you got over a bump you’re packed so tightly that the bounce seems to be minimised – one small positive of the long and bumpy journey along a dirt road towards Sekenani, the village next to the main gate of the Mara. We were driving through Masai land and we’d see the occasional village on the open plains, cattle wandering free, a Masai guarding his flock of goats. There were round pens made with closely-bound tall thin sharpened branches, made in order to keep the lions out from livestock at night. People looked at us curiously through the open windows of the car; it seems to be pretty unusual here that travellers come by public transport. A teenage schoolgirl next to Moz and on her way to boarding school munched through a sausage and chips and bottle of yoghurt. She threw her plastic bottle from the window and I closed my eyes – there’s quite a lot of plastic blowing around the villages here and I don’t know what will change attitudes here.
Eventually after a couple of hours we reached Mara Explorers, our base for our safari. It was a budget option recommended to us by other travellers we’d met and it exceeded expectations in every way. We were staying in a safari tent in the trees and inside was a bed, a solar light and a cosy Masai printed blanket. We met the staff: Ken our guide for the following day, Adrian and Nicholas who did front-of-house and MK the chef. We played cards and taught Adrian, a twenty year old Masai Chelsea fan, how to play gin rummy; he promptly beat us by 200 points. Night fell quickly and we went to bed early, ready for an early start. Excited and giddy, I fell asleep listening to the whooping bark of hyenas in the distance.
The next morning we were up by 5.30, the camp grey and chilly in the early morning. We set off with Ken and hour later and any tiredness was quickly lost in the cool morning air and the excitement for the day. Ken pointed out more blankets if we needed them and had pushed open the roof of the 4×4 so we could stand up and look out as he drives – and we spent most of the day in this position, binoculars pressed to our faces. We’d gone for the budget option to share the jeep with others but luck had it that the other guests had opted for their own cars so we ended up just the two of us with Ken which meant we could also say what we hoped we’d get from the day: Moz wanted to see some big cats and I was eager for elephants.
One minute through the main gates of the park and Ken turned to us: “can you see the animals yet?” Ahead of us were herds of Thomson’s gazelle, marked in black, white and brown and twitching their delicate ears, and zebra with their perfect black and white stripes. Further on we found wildebeest and heartwbeest, named for their heart shaped horns, and topi which liked to stand on top of termite mounds, and impala. Though they’re not in the flashy Big Five, I was transfixed already by these creatures: their markings, their synchronised movements, their speed.
Further on Ken spotted a black-backed jackal skulking through the short grass and a vulture in the top of a tree. Two hyenas turned their faces to look at us, their oddly human faces were scary to look at and their muscular front legs formed large shoulders. These scavengers were gathering for something. There was a kill nearby. It didn’t take Ken long to find it: a couple of jeeps were parked and, edging his 4×4 into some bushes, we suddenly saw the back of a large male lion and the carcass of a very dead zebra. The lion turned his head to look at us, yawned and lay down. Just amazing.
We left him behind then found a herd of buffalo; I hadn’t expected how big and powerful they would be, and so many – dotted across the plains. As we were passing a male lowered his horns and made to charge at the jeep, Ken put his foot to the floor and we held onto the roof, looking back at the buffalo trotting his way back, snorting, and kicking up his heels. We passed Grant gazelle, saw scurrying meerkats, and families of warthog, zipping along with their tails in the air like antennae. Past herds of zebra, we drove through the endless grasslands beneath a huge, huge sky, turning lighter as the morning went on. Acacia trees dotted the landscape.
We came across three lionesses lazing in the sun, stretching and rolling on their backs then made our way down the a bank of trees where Ken had heard there was a leopard.
When we arrived there were a couple of other jeeps parked. Up a tree we could see the half-eaten carcass of an impala and some people from the other 4×4 pointed at a clump of bushes where we could see the leopard resting, its face and body partly obscured. A while later we returned to find the leopard lying out in the open and we could see it properly: it’s beautiful markings rising and falling with its breath. Languidly it rose and padded its way past us in jumping distance from the car, skirted its tree for a while, then leapt in three easy jumps up the tree to the branches where the carcass was suspended twenty feet above the ground. We heard it begin eating, crunching the bones between its teeth, and pausing to look around with its yellow eyes across the savannah. It was so incredibly beautiful.
Suddenly, it stopped eating and stared out at something, then jumped down the ground and dashed into the bushes. Something had scared it and we spun around; behind us a man came running across the grass, waving his arms: his van had got stuck in the mud and he needed towing out. I have no idea how long he’d been stuck there with his tour group but he was a brave / mad man to go running across a leopard’s territory.
It was still only mid-morning and Ken stopped the jeep, did a quick scout around and told us it was safe to get out. He pulled out some folding chairs and a wicker bag, a flask of coffee and packet of biscuits, and we sat looking out over the plains. I popped into the bushes: a very weird experience having a wee in the open Masai Mara!
After that excitement we came across a family of elephants. These are my favourite creatures, and I was so so happy when we saw them: a group of five with one little baby who Ken told us would only be about a month old. The baby stumbled after its parents and waved its tiny trunk, and the adults made their slow way across the plains. I loved being so close that we could hear the grass being torn off and the sound of them chewing, the flaps of their big ears as we drove off. Just so lucky to experience these amazing creatures.
We stopped for lunch underneath an acacia tree where we met back up with a lovely father and a son from the UK who were also staying at the Mara Explorers camp. We chatted and ate, gazing out across the hundreds of miles around us: a beautiful experience made even more memorable when Ken put his radio on and played his favourite – Celine Dion.
Ostriches ran past, their long legs and feathery plumes making them look like 1920s flapper girls, African hawk eagles swooped overhead, we spotted a yellowbill pecker hitching a ride on the back of a buffalo. Down by the river we saw a pod of hippos, sinking beneath the water with a churn of bubbles. Unusually, one of the nocturnal hippos was out of the water; he’d been confused by the dull afternoon light thinking it was dark and was plodding around. He was enormous, three tonnes of beef, who then headed down to the water to show us his huge yawning jaw and fluttering tiny ears.
Towards the end of the afternoon we had a flurry of excitement: three cheetah brothers, lying together, the black tear marks clear down their faces, looking mournful that a lion had just stolen their kills. After that we came across more elephants, and then a pair of lions who were, as Ken sweetly put it, “on honeymoon” – we waited like voyeurs for them to mate but the female was being, according to Ken, “very stubborn”. The male itched his way around her, his tail twitching. When she bared her teeth at him and growled he looked sweetly rejected and lay down a short distance away. We left them to it.
Lastly, on our way towards the park gate, we came across another leopard who cooly walked between the parked 4x4s, ignoring the clicks of cameras and gaps of people, and went to sit calmly on a mound of grass – just as if he knew how beautiful he was. A pack of lions were around the corner, a group of teenage cubs who, as we sat there, stalked and chased a group of zebra who just – but only just – got away.
Back at the camp hot outdoor showers and cold beers were waiting and we sat with the father and son, and a lovely British/Uruguayan couple who had just arrived, chatting nonstop about the day.
We had planned on doing a game drive at some point but had been mindful that the word “budget” isn’t often associated with safaris. I’m so so glad we decided, on a spur-of-the-moment, to go to the Masai Mara. It was definitely one of the highlights of our travels and I feel so honoured that we got to experience so many beautiful animals in their natural environment. If you’re thinking about going, DO IT.
Ps. All the pics taken by Moz!