This year is shaping up to be a year of adventure with our travels. To kick it off, we just returned from a weeklong safari in Africa; Kenya to be exact. We spent time in two different camps in the Maasai Mara National Park (for those that are not familiar with this park, it is the same area as the Serengeti but that is the Tanzanian side while the Maasai Mara is the Kenyan side). Our first camp was located in the government-run area of the Mara while the second camp was in the North Conservancy which is land owned by the Maasai people. It was an incredible trip in which we saw so many animals and learned a lot about them as well as the Maasai culture.
After arriving in Nairobi, we stayed in a hotel before leaving the next morning to the Mara via a very small plane. The plane could seat 12 people plus the pilot and second officer (though our flight only had 11 people) and the size of everyone’s baggage was restricted. The plane takes off and lands at several stops along its path. We were the final (and third) stop so we took off and landed three times (by our final takeoff there were only six passengers on board). After the initial airport in Nairobi, the airstrips consisted of a small building and a dirt runway (one runway was surrounded by wildebeests). It was a bit nerve-racking at first, but after the first stop, it wasn’t so bad. The great thing was; because it stopped so many times, it never got very high, and, from the plane, we were able to see a ton of animals like elephant herds with babies, a huge bull elephant, wildebeests, ostriches, gazelles, and lions.
Once we arrived, we were met at the airstrip by our guide who drove us out into the bush for a drink before taking us to the camp.
At the camp, we were greeted by the staff beating drums and singing a Hakuna Matata song (not the Disney one). It was a fun welcome.
The camp was a smallish camp in the bush with 8 luxury tents and a common space for meals/relaxation and a small spa. It was a self-sustaining camp, so all the energy was generated from solar power, the water was filtered and reused and the vehicles were electric vehicles running on solar power as well. They also recycled and upcycled a bunch of products such as empty wine bottles that were turned into drinking glasses.
In addition, the meals at the camp were generated from locally grown items with a focus on non-meat dishes. And they were really delicious. Every day we had breakfast at 9am, lunch at 1pm, and dinner at 8:30pm (dinner was preceded by drinks around a fire while chatting with staff and other guests). Breakfast and lunch were served outside at tables placed around the trees, overlooking the river. Dinner was served inside the common space which was lit with candles and always had a bat flying around.
Lunch on the first day featured Kenyan beer, a Kenyan mango vegetable salad, plantains, Kenyan lentils, and a version of tiramisu for dessert. It was so good.
Dinner was leek and carrot soup, a Kenyan bread and polenta with vegetable stew and creamed spinach. Dessert was a banana fritter and a green coconut-type bar dessert. We also had some Kenyan wine and a Masaai mule. Another outstanding meal.
On our second day, we had an avocado and pineapple salad and vegetarian lasagna with an ice cream pie for dessert.
Dinner was butternut squash steaks with a sauce, fried zucchini fritters, and a nut butter and jam ball for dessert. We also tried some Kenyan gin called Procera.
Our breakfasts were different breads, pancakes, eggs to order, watermelon juice, fruit, baked beans, and fried potatoes. Also, one of the days, they brought some zucchini with fried insects in it (maybe cricket)-we didn’t eat it.
At this camp, a free 30-minute massage per room was included, so my husband and I each got one. The spa was an open room overlooking the river. The massage table had a mirror underneath angled so that you could look at the river while receiving the massage. It was fun to have a little pampering! We also had some time to play some games in the common space with the kids which was fun.
After two nights at the camp, we moved to the second camp in the conservancy. When we left, the staff again sang a song and played the drums. They had all been so nice (one of them even played chess with our children and spent time chatting with them) that it felt like leaving friends.
The second camp was much larger with 22 tents and a larger common space for dinner. At this camp, breakfast and lunch were also served outside overlooking the river. The difference was that at this river, there were resident hippos that were always there and giraffes, elephants, monkeys, and impalas that visited often. There were a couple crocodiles too.
The food at the second camp that we stayed at paled in comparison and was nothing worth writing about. The dinners and lunches were mainly pasta or Indian food. The breakfasts were similar to the first camp with made-to-order eggs with beans and potatoes, fruit, and various breads. The difference was that instead of watermelon juice, they served tree tomato juice.
At both camps, beer, wine, gin, and soft drinks were included as well as coffee, tea and hot chocolate.
But now, to the real purpose of the trip-the safari drives. Each day we had two drives (with a couple of exceptions). The morning drive would begin at around 6:30am each day after a quick drink of hot chocolate or coffee (around the campfire at the first camp). We would be back by around 9am. The afternoon drive would begin around 4:30pm and we would return by 6:30-7pm. The afternoon drive always included a brief stop for drinks and a snack in the car.
To give you an idea of where we were driving and what is common there, here are some signs from the two camps:
They have lists of the top 5 for various animals.
The big five overall is: lions, leopards, buffalo, rhinoceros and wildebeests.
The ugly five is: hyenas, warthogs, wildebeests, vultures and marabou stork.
We saw all of them!
So, without further ado, here are pictures of the many animals we saw. It was surreal to see them and really hard at times to remember that they were in their natural environment, roaming free without caretaking from humans, and not in a drive-through safari park.
We’ll start with the mammals:
How about some baby mammals? We saw so many! In fact, we saw the baby of a majority of the mammals that we saw (though we couldn’t get good photos of them all), and they were all so cute. Some of the babies were very young. According to our guide, the baby gazelle we saw was just hours old and a baby buffalo was born the night before. We also saw a week-old giraffe and others that were just three weeks and a month-old elephant.
Now the birds (there were so many- more than we have pictured here- and most were very interesting and beautiful):
Finally, even the reptiles and insects made their appearances:
And while the animals were the highlight, the landscape itself was also impressive.
We also did a couple of excursions during our visit. The first was to a Maasai village where we were shown inside one of the typical Maasai homes (a mud-walled home with a roof made from sticks and dung). The house we were in belonged to the chief. It seemed very small, but it had three bedrooms and the kitchen/common space. We were also invited to join in a dance and they showed us how they make fire. In addition to this visit, throughout the week, we learned a lot about the people and how they live from our guides. We also saw the Maasai shepherds taking care of the cows, which they value greatly, throughout the bush.
Our second excursion was a night drive. As it got dark, we saw the huge herds of zebra, gazelle, impala, and topi coming down the mountain in lines to gather together and head closer to the villages for the night. After dark, our driver took us with a red light to try to find nocturnal animals. We didn’t see many new animals, but we did see a hare, a kangaroo hare, white-tailed mongoose, and jackals. We also drove up to a group of 12 lionesses with cubs. One was chewing on a bone. It was a bit scary to be so close to them in the dark (we couldn’t have been more than 6-7 feet). It was especially nerve-racking when they got up and left, and we were driving along, and, when the driver shined his light in that direction, they were walking not too far from the car, and we couldn’t even see them without light! But, aside from the animals, the night sky was amazing-so many stars!
Our third excursion was a hot air balloon ride over the Mara. I’ve been wanting to do this for some time, so we were pretty excited. We had to get up at 4am to drive to the location, be checked in and briefed, and to watch the balloons be inflated. The basket we were in held 16 people plus the driver. I’m not going to lie, we got a little nervous when they told us that on landing we might topple over and we had to buckle ourselves in, grab some handles, sit all the way back and keep our “neck strong.” Luckily, the conditions were favorable, and we stayed upright (they said it was the first upright landing in a month and an hour later, the conditions were back to unfavorable). The views from the balloon were awesome, and it was fun to see the area from a different vantage point. We got to see several animals from the balloon including one we had not seen yet-a serval cat. I think we interrupted it hunting because, as we came over, it looked up and a few feet away a hare ran off. After the hour-long balloon ride, we were driven to a location for a bush breakfast. The location was apparently the area where they filmed scenes from the film “Out of Africa”. They greeted us at the breakfast with champagne and orange juice, and the breakfast itself was huge and very good.
After our breakfast, we spent the day with our guide in the Mara Triangle, another area of the park. He drove us to the border with Tanzania (we crossed into Tanzania for a while, and thus, we were also in the Serengeti). In this area, we saw several of the crossing points for the wildebeests during the Great Migration. We even got lucky and, though it was a week or two before the migrating wildebeests would arrive, some resident wildebeests decided to cross. It was funny watching them head toward the crossing, slow down, head back away and repeat this over and over before deciding to actually go.
A couple of interesting experiences:
- On our first night sleeping in the tents, we had all the sides open so that it was just the screen sides. The boys slept in one tent, the girls in the other. During the night we could hear so many noises-hyenas repeatedly, a lion growling a few times. At about 4 in the morning, we were awoken by sounds of the nightwatch guards talking and flashing their flashlights around. Strange, but we didn’t really know if that was normal or not as it was our first night. In the morning when we joined the boys, we found out that they had been awoken during the night by loud sounds right outside their tent. They weren’t sure what to do but were quite afraid of what it was. They also heard the nightwatch, but didn’t find out until the morning that a hippo had come up from the river into camp, and its path was right next to the tent. The guards had been using their lights and talking to it to get it to head back to the river.
- On one of our drives, as we were going along the path, a large growling noise suddenly occurred right next to my side of the car. The car was pretty low to the ground, so, for a split second, I was sure we were getting attacked, but when I turned my head I saw three warthogs jumping out of a hole in the ground. Even our driver said that was scary.
- We were driving from the Maasai village and got stuck in some mud. Our driver floored it to get out, and mud sprayed everywhere next to the car and on the inside back flaps of the car. Then our son turned around from looking at the tires spinning, and his face was covered with splattered mud!
- We saw lions eating many of their kills-hippo, baby buffalo, warthog, baby zebra.
- We saw some hyenas go after a baby gazelle. The mother gazelle tried desperately to stop them; she even chased them for some minutes after they caught the baby, but it was too late. This was a bit difficult to watch, especially for the kids, but we tried to remind ourselves that this is part of life in the wild.
- We watched an impala with its baby not notice a cheetah. The driver kept saying, “that impala needs to get out of here; she’s risking her baby”. The cheetah noticed and was watching for quite a while. Suddenly, when the cheetah was not looking, the impala and the baby dashed off. We were a bit relieved not to have to see another killing.
- While having dinner one night, there was a sudden screeching in one of the trees. A bush baby was running through the branches. We didn’t think we would get to see one, so that was fun!
- The people were so friendly. When we would drive by the villages or people walking, they would always wave, especially the children. Our son loved waving to them.
- We saw some disgusting stuff like hippos that live in a pool of their own feces. Hippos also apparently use their tail like a fan while they are defecating which causes it to spray everywhere. We saw one hippo doing this while another was right behind it with its mouth open.
- We also got a front-row seat to more hippos being created at the river viewing area at our camp.
- The only way we were able to see the rhinos was by driving into a “sanctuary” where the only two white rhinos in the Mara live. In this sanctuary, they are still free to roam and take care of themselves as they would in the wild, but they are followed 24/7 by armed rangers who protect them from poachers. That is very sad. The rangers told us that they are now mature, so they hope they will produce offspring soon. We never saw a black rhino because there are less than 20 of them left in the Mara due to poaching.
Finally, after our six days in the bush, we took our little plane back to Nairobi. We arrived at the dirt path airstrip where we just waited until some guys sitting around told us that it was our plane. As the plane came in for landing, one of the guys drove off on his dirtbike to shoo all the animals away from the landing strip. Once back in Nairobi, we had a driver to take us to dinner and the airport. He shared information about Nairobi and Kenya which was nice.
Overall, I think we all had a great time. It’s not an experience for everyone I’m sure, but we really loved it. Seeing all of the nature was amazing and learning about life there was enlightening. The people were seriously some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever seen. They told us that we need to come back, and, while I don’t know if that will ever happen or when, I would definitely be willing to go. What an exciting start to our travels in our fifth year abroad! See you all soon as more adventures await!