The lion was just metres away now. “Look, he’s trying to find some shade so the meat doesn’t rot quickly,” whispered my guide, Nicholas. In the big cat’s mouth was a Maasai calf, being unceremoniously dragged across the plain towards a desert date tree. It was nature at its primeval best in Kenya’s most famous game park.
I was in the Maasai Mara in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, my first stop on a quest to see the Big Five. Not content with going to just one reserve, I’d also committed to the Mara’s lesser-known siblings: Nakuru National Park, Samburu National Reserve and Aberdare National Park. Nicholas was both my guide and driver, working for the safari company Seven by Far, and right now he was about as excited as I was. “Whatever you do, don’t open the door,” he added with a grin.
The CB radio crackled softly as he spoke in Swahili to the other drivers. A gaggle of Land Cruisers gathered. Our shutters clicked, our mouths gaped. The lion glared back, baring his fangs, not impressed at all. Picking up the calf by what was left of its bloody neck, he dragged it further away through the long grass. One by one the Land Cruisers left.
Then suddenly the radio was active again. A leopard had been spotted darting into a croton bush as a vehicle approached. By the time we joined the scene some of the drivers had been waiting for half an hour for it to emerge. Sure enough, the leopard – one of Africa’s most elusive predators – slunk its way out of the bush to the nearby waterhole before disappearing again. But the great Mara wasn’t finished with us just yet.
There’d been one more sighting, so I held on tightly, standing under the popped roof as we raced back the way we’d come. A Thompson’s Gazelle had had the unfortunate pleasure of being hunted down by a coalition of cheetahs. The mother and her two camouflaged sons were only visible when they poked their heads above the dense foliage. As dusk approached the evening show ended and it was time to make our way back to the lodge.
After spending a month in African huts with no electricity, no running water and no phone coverage, I’d decided to treat myself and stay at top-end accommodation. First up, the Sarova Mara Game Camp, winner of the World’s Top Luxury Safari Camp 2015.
“Whatever you do, don’t open the door,” he added with a grin.
“Karibu!” My host Nancy was all smiles. “Welcome, we’ll show you to your tent.” Huh, a tent? What the hell? OK, so I have to admit this wasn’t the “we’re-all-going-camping-whether-you-kids-like-it-or-not” type of tent. It was more of a bure complete with outside deck, wooden flooring, ensuite, bath, writing desk, complimentary toiletries, safe, wardrobe and all-important water. At night it even got ‘turned down’ with mosquito nets dropped, soft lighting switched on, and a hot water bottle left in my bed (yes, I know, in Kenya!) It made continuing my journey very difficult.
While the Maasai Mara was great savannahs speckled with trees, Nakuru was the complete opposite: a forested reserve encompassing a lake. Hidden within the park itself was the aptly named Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge, where I was welcomed with a refreshing face cloth and glass of fresh juice. Game drives in Kenya are usually early in the morning and then again late in the afternoon – the best times to catch the wildlife feeding and moving. This time however, the safari didn’t start so well. An Africanized Honey Bee took to me and Nicholas spent a good few minutes removing the venom stinger from my back. “If you thought that sting was a shock,” he said, trying to cheer me up, “wait ‘til you see this.” I really wasn’t in a cheering up mood.
We drove past some impala. “There, look up.” High in front of us was the reason why so many tourists come to Nakuru. A lioness was casually stretched out on branch, paws dangling in the air (like she just didn’t care), oblivious to all who had stopped below her. Unique to this park in Kenya, Nakuru is one of the few places in the world where lions have learnt to climb trees. After about 30 minutes of her semi-dozing we moved on to Nakuru’s other rockstars – the black rhinoceros.
Notoriously shy, and for good reason, we only got to see the rhinos from a distance but watched for long enough to appreciate their grazing ways. They were under the vigilant eye of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, whose armed wardens we encountered throughout the park, ready to fight poachers who would kill these animals for their horns.
Kenya’s most famous game warden was Baba ya Simba (Father of Lions), known to us as George Adamson. George and his wife Joy adopted a young orphaned lioness that they named Elsa, who they later released into the wild. Joy’s book about their story, Born Free, went on to sell 5 million copies, was turned into an Academy Award-winning film, and won a Grammy for its eponymous theme song. I was headed to where it all started, Samburu National Park, and to get there I needed to cross the Equator.
“Do you want to see the water demonstration?” asked the young man with the patter of someone who had done this before. “We are on the Equator now. 20 metres north you will see the water swirls through the hole in this bowl one way, and 20 metres south of this sign, the opposite way.”
Sure enough, just metres into the Northern Hemisphere the water was draining clockwise. Down south it swirled anti-clockwise. On the Equator it went straight down. “Would you like to see my friend’s shop?” came the not unexpected follow-up. For probably more than I should have paid, I bought a carved stone memento. We were on our way north again through the cool highlands and lush farms dotting the landscape.
Samburu is one of a troika of parks that includes Shaba and Buffalo Springs National Reserves. Best known for its giraffes and elephants, it also has the Ewaso Ng'iro River with its many and large crocodiles.
A lioness was casually stretched out on branch, paws dangling in the air (like she just didn’t care).
“Jambo! Welcome to the Sarova Shaba, home of Born Free. If you like you can view the crocodiles later from your window. But first, some lunch.” I’ve got to say, Kenya’s safari lodges really have their hospitality down pat. There is so much food on offer – Western, Kenyan, Indian – with three all-inclusive meals every day that you have to make sure you don’t go home with ‘excess luggage’.
It was in Samburu‘s bush land that we had our closest encounter with elephants. We weren’t very far down a lesser-used track when a matriarch appeared – elephant families are lead by an older female – to assess the situation. One by one the other family members came out, the mother putting herself between us and her calf. She was smart, not wanting to challenge us but slowly moving into position to ensure we had to reverse. To see these remarkable, beasts so close, and to have them walk past just metres from you gives you a sense of what giants they are in the wild.
The most graceful animals we encounted in Samburu were the giraffes. Gentle, pensive, deliberate, they loped into view reaching up to branches with their foot long black tongue. To hear them chewing softly with nothing else around was mesmerising. I was suddenly divided about whether zoos were a good idea or not.
There was one more game park to visit. We headed back towards Nairobi, into the hills again and then out the other side, coffee plantations replacing fields of grain. As we rounded Mt Kenya the roads became smoother and busier, the shops more western and larger. Our next destination was Treetops Lodge in Aberdare National Park.
“We did have you down for Room 19, but have upgraded you to the room next door. You may have heard of it, the Princess Elizabeth Suite.” I was shown to the exact same room a young princess was staying in when she found out that, due to the passing of her father, she was now Queen Elizabeth II. I wondered if Her Majesty looked out onto the same scene I was witnessing now.
Like guests checking in, the elephants and buffalo arrived at 6pm on the dot, circling the watering hole in front of the hotel. Not that I needed to worry about missing them; the hotel has an ‘alarm’ system: one buzz for hyenas, two for a leopard, three for rhinos and four for elephants. At one stage I counted over 60 elephants in 5 different families rutting up the dirt with their trunks to lick the salt. For the first time in my life I went to bed with the sound of elephants snorting and roaring outside my window.
Did touring the different game reserves work out for me? Yes, I got to see the Big Five – the African Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant and the Rhino – plus cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, hippos, baboons, monkeys, gazelles, dik diks and onyx. As Nicholas dropped me off in the leafy suburbs of Nairobi I felt a little sadness that the safari was all over. For the last time I got out of what had been my daytime home away from home. Nicholas smiled as we firmly shook hands, knowing that I had just experienced the greatest wildlife destination on the planet.