Aggressive elephants, armed Masai and hunting cheetahs: join us in the search for the Big Five on safari in the Masai Mara, the legendary national reserve in South-Western Kenya.
Safari Njema – Bon voyage
The sun has not risen yet when Silas, with his large, dark green Land Cruiser, drives up the courtyard of our residence. The driver-guide wants to leave Nairobi before the infamous morning rush hour so that we arrive at the Masai Mara in time, the legendary national park at about seven hours driving from the capital Nairobi. Once we’re seated in the extended safari truck, we know: our three-day safari – Kiswahili for ‘travel’ – has started!
The Masai Mara is named after the Masai shepherds who live in the area with their cattle. In their language, ‘Mara’ means ‘spotted’, something that would refer to the trees and shrubs that stick out of the savannah landscape. During our ride, we will attempt to spot the classic ‘Big Five’: the rhino, the lion, the water buffalo, the elephant and the leopard. These dangerous animals used to be the hardest for hunters to get small, hence ‘The Big Five’.
One big game reserve
From ‘Masai capital’ Narok, we finally end up on the road to the main entrance of the park, which is being built by the Chinese. Gradually the landscape changes and more and more vast fields with high grass appear, Silas also notices. “This is how the lawns of the Mara look too,” he says. “The only thing is that there are fences around it. This area was communal grazing ground of the Masai, but increasingly more fences are placed around the fields outside the park as well. This is problematic, as this disables the ability of wild animals to move from one game park to another.”
Kenya or Tanzania? ‘Just a short trip’ to the Serengeti
At the entrance of the park, it seems as if there is a fence around the Masai Mara, but this is only to keep out wild animals from the nearby settlement. A bit later we even find out that the Kenyan-Tanzanian border is only visible through small border poles. On the Tanzanian side of the border lies the Serengeti Park, which continues into the Masai Mara in Kenya. So, in fact, it is a single area. Silas proposes “to quickly go to Tanzania” before we drive to our accommodation – which is actually nothing more than a lap around the border stone. Anyway, we also went to the Serengeti.
The drive to the lodge is a safari in itself
Because our stay is in the national park itself, we pay ten dollars less per person park fee than usual – seventy dollars, instead of eighty. Besides that, the ride to the lodge itself can be seen as a safari. Silas immediately opens the roof, so we can get up on the chairs. We marvel at the endless plains with animals that pass us by. We look at each other: our trip is already a success. Then our attention is drawn back to the rolling fields with their high grass. It is so inconceivable that all the black spots we see are animals. We have to hold on tight to the steel beams that leads to the raised roof, as we continue our way over the muddy sandy paths. Initially, we stop for every giraffe, water buffalo, wildebeest and zebra, later we only stop for a group of huge elephants.
Because we want to take pictures of the animals, of course, but also because we can’t do otherwise: the herd slowly crosses the road. Everywhere we look, we see elephants. We are surprised when a younger male with a lot of bombardment rattles his ears. The beast contrasts small with his mother standing next to him, but he’s still a lot bigger than our car, so we’re sure he can tilt the car with ease.
This is not an animal you want to fight with
Yet, it’s not the adolescent elephant we have to worry about, says Silas, while he tries to drive backwards very carefully. “If you look closely at his mother, you will see her rattling her ears sometimes – that’s a sign that we have to watch out. When she spreads her ears, it becomes dangerous.” Luckily, the rest of the group continues to walk at a steady pace, which makes her youngster move again as well. She follows our car, which is driving backwards very slowly now, and a moment later she follows her son. We sigh of relief. This is definitely not an animal you want to fight with.
Sleeping in the wild at Julia’s River Camp
We are staying at ‘Julia’s River Camp’, a camp with a series of luxury safari tents that have been set up along the Talek River. On the other side of the water, we can see the savannah, where groups of animals pass by – an unbelievable view. We realize that we are literally in the middle of the park! While we look at the antelopes on the other side, we hear a splash of water in the river and we see a couple of huge hippopotamuses sagging into the water.
The Masai appears to be armed with a large knife
After dinner, a Masai takes us to the tent. We walk away from the fire that has to keep the wild animals at a safe distance. Just before we walk through dense bushes we see a shimmer: the Masai appears to be armed with a large knife. Knowing that the deadliest animals of the African continent are so close by, that doesn’t seem like a luxury. At only a few meters’ distance hippos make themselves heard with nasal sounds.
When we’re in the tent and the sound of the running Masai slowly fades away, we’re very happy that the bathroom is attached to the tent, so we don’t have to leave the tent anymore. From our bed, we can hear the profound sounds that are made by lions a bit further down the road. We go to sleep quite early, as we have to get up very early the next day. When the savannah hasn’t warmed up too much by the sun, the animals are most active.
Time for the Big Cats
At dawn, Silas first wants to look for the lions he heard that night. It turns out to be the perfect start of our one and only safari day: the lions are indeed munching on a couple of dead wildebeests near our camp. Dark red blood slowly runs into the water, each time the lions tear off a piece of wildebeest before they sit back and eat.
Dark red blood slowly runs into the water
Masai Mara: best time to visit? During the Great Migration!
There are quite a few wildebeest in the park, we’ll see later. This has everything to do with the Great Migration; the great migration, the impressive natural phenomenon in which large herds of animals, especially wildebeests and zebras, migrate across the plains of the Masai Mara. These animals are constantly looking for greener areas, and migrate from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara and back again.
Anyone who wants to see the two million wildebeest and zebras while in the Kenyan Masai Mara would do well to visit the park between July and October. You even have the chance to experience one of the most famous and bloody natural phenomena of the park. To get to the green grass of the ‘Reserve’, the animals have to cross the infamous Mara River. The water is not too deep but is full of crocodiles preparing for a feast. The Cats of the park are also abundantly present in this period: lions, cheetahs and leopards hunt down the many animals that flow into the area.
Leopards, known for their shyness, we do not encounter on our trip. At a certain moment, Silas sees a tail sticking out of the grass, and immediately throws the car in reverse. We don’t see anything, but Silas has experience with safaris, so we hold on tightly while he is driving at high speed on a tree in the distance.
What turns out to be the case? Under the tree, six cheetahs are sleeping. It definitely is the highlight of our safari to the Masai Mara: we’ve never been this close to wild animals before, and certainly not to animals that look as majestic as these cheetahs. The beautiful motifs in their fur, the bony bones that move smoothly when the animals walk around for a bit and the very recognizable ‘tear’ under their eyes we are able to see clearly with only the naked eye. The fact that ten minutes later about twenty other cars with mainly Asian tourists (with huge cameras) are parked next to us, doesn’t spoil the fun.
Zebras as a living alarm system
Silas ends up driving us around all day long – it’s good to see that he is also enjoying the rides through the park. On the third and last day in the morning, we quietly drive to the main gate. We are treated with more lions (who seem to do not do much more than sleep most of the day) and we see how a cheetah with her cub keeps an eye on a group of grazers. “The wildebeest deliberately stand between the zebras”, Silas explains, “because zebras feel possible danger from afar.” And indeed: mother and daughter cheetah soon drip off, after one of the zebras sounds the alarm and the whole group gets out of the way.
Then it’s time to say goodbye to the endless plains of the Masai Mara. And although three days in a car that tears over rough dirt roads without taking any gas back demands a lot from your body (how pleasant it is to drive on asphalt again!), we immediately get homesick for the Masai Mara. In fact, we don’t even mind that we haven’t spotted all the animals of the Big Five: now we have a good reason to return.