There are no shortage of safari companies in Nairobi and after an afternoon of traipsing through a selected handful I chose “Big Time Adventures” to explore one of Kenyas most popular and well maintained game reserves. I chose BTA, partly because I loved the name, partly because they offered the most time in the game reserve, partly because they were one of the cheapest but most importantly the tour guide had a great name – Godfrey! I had a few days to kill before the Safari began and I was searching for searching for good cheap coffee. Surprisingly good cheap coffee is hard to find in Nairobi. One of Kenya’s biggest exports is coffee (as well as tea) and they pretty much export all of it, well 85% of it. Little of it stays in the country but I managed to find a good coffee house in the end with the added bonus of slow wifi.
A few days later and on an early chilly morning, I was picked up at the hostel in full anticipation of the day ahead mixed with the excitement of my first ever Safari ( “journey” in Swahili), something that I longed to do most of my life. I have been brought up watching Attenborugh documentaries and loved all kinds of nature programs so this was a life long ambition for me, to see big game in their natural environment. I then met my fellow Safari companions for the next 3 days at BTA HQ – Johan and Martin from Sweden, Daley and Jess from the UK and Toliky from Finland. All of similar ages and interests so we all got on very well. Johan was a producer for Swedish Pop Idol and on a 3 month holiday whilst his friend Martin who owned a prominent bike shop in Stockholm was on a 2 week break. Daley and Jess were Dive Instructors who had recently returned from working in Mexico for a year and Tuliky who was a Finish lady who had been to a wedding in Rwanda.
The band of European travellers set of from Nairobi in search of the “Big Five” – Elephant, Rhino, Leopard, Buffalo and Loin. We crawled through the suburbs and within 40 mins we had parked up a viewpoint overlooking the Rift Valley and onto the flat vast plains below and the savannah of the Masai Mara. The Rift Valley stretches all the way up from Mozambique to Kenya and covers much of the East Africa continent. This valley or depression was caused by shifting continental plates during the last 50 million years or so. The area within the Rift Valley is commonly known as the cradle of mankind as humans slowly evolved and branched off from apes here beginning a mere 4 million years ago.
The plan for the next three days was to have a short afternoon safari day one, full day safari day two and then a morning safari day three before heading back to Nairobi. Only an hour from the reserve and just before we entered the Masai game reserve at its northern entrance we encounter the first animals – Buffalo, Zebra and warthogs, one of the big five checked of the list already. As we entered the through the gates of the reserve we popped open the roof to give us all standing room in the van to peer at the animals that lay ahead of us. The Safari began as we left the tarmac roads and headed out into the rugged bush in search of game. All the safari vans were equipped with CB radios and within 30 mins of us entering the park our radio started buzzing and Ranger Godfrey turned the vehicle around and was heading of where a pack of loins had been sighted.
We approached the pack with all the stealth a diesel 4×4 van can have, and we were greeted by two male loins yawning at us and not too bothered about the canned humans and the 4×4. Most animals in the reserve are totally unbothered by cars it’s only when you step out of the vehicles that recognise you as prey. A month or so ago, one unfortunate Japanese tourist found out how true this was as he ventured to take a closer picture. The male loins were impressive mainly due to their size and grace but also the massive teeth they kept flashing us. No sign of the pack though and within 10 mins of our encounter of our second big five when were rushing off again in search of Rhino’s.
Heading towards two small grey dots in the distance we spotted a female and baby Black Rhino. Unfortunately for us they were around 70m away and heading towards dense bushes but luckily with the aid of zoom lenses and binoculars we were able to watch them for 20 mins. Three of the big five down two to go. Sunset was approaching and we had to head back to base camp for food and drinks but as we ambled back we literally bumped into a pack of elephants (four down, one to go) and then to cap the day off not 100m from our camp just outside the gates we saw two female cheetahs lounging around. By far one of the most graceful of animals in the reserve and more akin to the dog family than cat family (due to their non retracting claws) they seemed to revel in the attention and played around for us.
Back at camp we showered and changed and ate a hearty buffet meal of Spag Bol washed down with a few beers and talk was all cantered around the day’s events and the full day ahead the next. Godfrey was an oracle when it came to the reserve. All day and throughout the safari he spotted and pointed out so many fauna it was hard to keep up with him. Johan and Martin had come equipped with some impressive camera gear so we all studied each other pictures before stumbling to bed ready for a 5am start the next day.
Before sunlight broke we were washed and fed and ready in our trusty safari van. Godfrey had planned a full day for us, but our request to him was simple – find us a Leopard please! Obviously not promising anything we headed off in search of the last of our big five. Back into the park we headed out past a couple of meandering and very bloated Hyenas, through more herds of elephants and towards the river and away from the crowds, if you can call 15 or so vehicles in a game reserve that spans 1510sqkm then thats away from the crowds. So well documented by so many nature programs, it is here in March time where the great migration of upto 2 million wildebeests and zebras cross the Mara river with dangerous waiting crocodiles.
It took us most of the morning to get there as we regularly stopped to see Thompson’s gazelles, Marabou stalks, secretary birds, crowned cranes, topi (large deer), guinea fowl, antelopes, lots of elephants and one massive herd of wildebeest. We stopped for lunch on top of a small hill which overlooked the great savannah before us and was the idyllic settings. Around mid afternoon we made to the dark brown river and before us were 20 or so hippos and one very, very large crocodile (10 metres) basking in the sun whilst eying any potential prey. We stopped for about half an hour watching the hippos frolic in the water and to get the obligatory shot of one of them yawning. Seeing the sear size of them, large powerful mouths and the speed they can move showed us why they kill more humans than another game animal.
Heading back north Godfrey, smelling something foul in the air soon tracked down the remains of recent killing action. Although no carcasses were around, but by the trail of blood and stench that was left, it was easy to see and smell and whatever had been attacked and killed was either in the stomachs of something or deep within the bush that we couldn’t get to. Next on the list were a couple of giraffes who kept their distance from us and then a cheetah that seemed to be in stealth mode with its prey locked down. We watched her glide through the tall grass downwind of a couple of antelope, stopping occasionally to peer up. So graceful and athletic she almost exerted her 116km sprint before the antelope got spooked and ran off.
The remainder of the day was spent watching sleepy loins, waddling elephants, funny warthogs and lots of bouncing gazelles showing us how high they lope or pronk as its officially known . Just as we were about to head home we rounded a bend and saw some Dik Diks drinking from a small stream. A few shots of the smallest species of the deer family when all of a sudden a Leopard pops her head up just 5m from of us. She had been stalking these little morsels unbeknown to us and then began looking for a way to get to them. She was the most beautiful cat and her markings were so stunning it is easy to see why they are shamefully hunted for their fur. As most animals hunt at night apart from the cheetah (due to its poor eyesight and needs daylight) it was rare to catch the leopard out and about rather than sleeping in a tree, so this was a rare occurrence. Luckily for us we were the only truck around as she stalked around our van, rolled in the dry dust while showing us her elegance. We were alone with her for 15 mins before word got around and all the other vans in the area descended on this spot. All five of the Big Five completed after around 12 hours in the van we happily headed back for our final night camping under the stars.
After such a great day we had much to discuss and view as we whittled away the night drinking and chatting. Our final morning on safari was another great day seeing many of the birds and animals that we had seen other the last two days and after four hours of stopping more elephants, wildebeest and gazelles we came across two loins caught “in the act”. It was a quick affair with the female waking the sleeping male up, he hoping on for a couple of gos and then with a bellowing roar it was all over. However 10 mins later this was repeated and then every 10 mins for anything up to 2 weeks. After this climatic (!) end to the safari we all headed back to Nairobi for our onward travels with a quick stop in to see a local Masi Maara village. We were shown around the very dirty camp, mud huts, cattle pens and circumcision stone at the centre of the village where men at 14 were given the chop. The men of the village did the traditional Masi dance ie jump as high as you can for us as we joined in but couldn’t match their height. They higher you jump the less of a dowry you have to pay for a wife so something you must practise! I was an interesting insight into their past culture but it all seemed a bit fake and geared up for tourists. Still in awe of the Safari we headed back to Nairobi after an amazing experience. Amazing animasl, great company and excellent tour guide this safari was all and more of what I had dreamed and expected it to be.