Our six-day safari experience was extraordinary. We were able to do game drives in three national parks. Our memories of several of the drives are still vivid.
On the first full day, when everything was new and exciting, our guide, Ben, took us to the Buffalo Springs Reserve which adjoins Shaba. We left at 6:30 in the morning when many of the animals are out feeding and, therefore, more visible. We were tired but exhilarated. It was dawn. We were in Africa. The air was fresh. And we were on the lookout for animals.
We drove through central Kenya, as the earth broke open on the horizon and the first blue light of morning painted the sky. The acacia trees were still silhouetted, standing sentry over the landscape. As dawn seeped over the mountains and lit the sky, we saw our first animals – a zebra, then a giraffe. The giraffe nibbled from the top of an acacia tree. We were so close, we could hear it chewing the leaves. We saw a pair of gazelles lock horns and we watched four lionesses meandering into some bushes to take cover from the sun.
I noticed it wasn’t just the animals that transfixed me. It was the whole setting. There was something primal about being out on the African plain at dawn, as if I’d been there before. Africa is in all of us. For whatever reason, it’s hauntingly familiar. We all come from here on some level, I suppose. It’s the birthplace of humanity. When we are in Africa, it rises up from the depths of our being and bursts forth so that the entire environment seems to connect with us.
At Lake Nakuru, we went for a game drive in the rain. We saw two rhinos from very close range, and had a medium distance sighting of three leopards. Both these animals were relatively rare during the safari, at least when compared to elephants, giraffes and zebras. Also, the leopards enabled us to complete our sightings of the Big Five (lion, tiger, elephant, rhino, buffalo).
We asked Ben why these particular animals made up the so-called Big Five. After all, they weren’t necessarily the five most popular safari animals. He explained that it had to do with toughness. Lisa and I decided that maybe there should be a Big Ten, for safari purposes. The Big Five could retain their importance, of course – who are we to argue? We’ll include giraffes and zebras on our Big Ten list since they are fun to look at and popular with tourists. Also, gazelles are Big Ten worthy since they are tremendously graceful and beautiful.
For the ninth member of our Big Ten, we’ll add the wildebeest which are a popular attraction at the Mara Reserve, well-known for their annual migration to and from the Serengeti plain in Tanzania. We rounded off the list with the pink flamingos found at several lakes in central Kenya, primarily Lake Nakuru.
Our experience at Lake Nakuru prompted us to include the flamingos on our Big Ten list. We were not prepared for the full impact of seeing tens of thousands of pink flamingos strutting around the perimeter of a single lake. This was one of the most visually interesting spectacles we had on the entire safari. From a distance, it appears that the lake is ringed with stretches of pink sand. As you approach, it becomes apparent that this is an illusion caused by the presence of more pink flamingoes, all living together on the edge of this lake. The birds are attracted to the algae at the edge of the water and so make Lake Nakuru one of their homes.
This was the only time we were allowed out of the safari vehicle to approach animals. We walked along the beachfront and gaped in amazement at the thousands of pink flamingoes squeezed together in front of us – feeding, walking, flying, landing. The noise! It’s remarkable, the volume of sound that can be produced by all of these squawking birds. As we walked closer, they edged away – moving calmly and in unison. There was a giant pink wave that formed opposite whichever direction we walked. We felt like flamingo conductors.
At the end of the safari, we made our way to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve – the most famous in Kenya with the greatest abundance of animals. During another early morning game drive, I realized that while I don’t especially like getting up before dawn, I sort of enjoyed it in Africa.
There was an exhilaration about the pre-dawn departure that didn’t exist in the afternoon. I recall standing outside on one chilly morning, sipping a cup of hot Kenyan coffee and waiting with other tourists for our safari vans. I watched the steam rise from a half dozen other coffee mugs, then slowly melt away into a misty, violet-colored dawn. Remember this moment, I told myself. Ignore the cold. Warm your fingers on your coffee mug. Recall the violet tint to the sky and the landscape.
We began our drive this day just as the sun became visible in the eastern sky. The morning clouds seemed to be lit from behind, as if they were on fire. Early on, we saw a large mixed group of one hundred to one hundred and fifty wildebeest and zebra, milling about and munching on grass, looking as if they were at some mixed animal social.
“So, I guess the wildebeest and the zebra get along?” I said.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “Actually, the zebra kind of take advantage of the wildebeest.”
He explained that if a lion attacked, the zebras would have a much better chance of escaping, since the lion could more easily catch the slow-footed wildebeest.
Later, we got close to a black rhino which was a bit unusual since they tend to shy away from vehicles. We also saw a large group of elephants, including several baby ones. We searched for lions and cheetahs which Ben had heard were nearby, but to no avail. We did, however, see a group of vultures picking at the bones and leftover meat of a wildebeest carcass. I guess the zebras did escape, after all.
Our final game drive of the safari, in the Maasai Mara, actually turned out to be one of our most memorable experiences. It began when we saw our first cheetahs, three of them lounging in the late afternoon sun. We saw thousands of wildebeest stretched for miles in both directions trudging single file towards the horizon. They were moving slowly, methodically, lined up one behind the other for as far as we could see. We know they annually migrate from the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya and back again. When we saw them heading off over a distant hill, Lisa remarked, “I guess that’s the way to Tanzania.”
Near the end of the drive, we got a great close-up of some lions. They were resting after having hunted two wildebeest for their dinner. We didn’t see the actual kill, but we could imagine it. It was in front of us – the blood-soaked wildebeest, the panting lions, the rise and fall of their stomachs. Although a few feet from our van, they paid no attention to us as they rested in the shade. A group of vultures waited, waited for the lions to leave – circle of life.
On the way back to the lodge, we saw another tremendous sunset, the best yet. Ben stopped the van. Streaks of light were shooting down from thick clouds. The heavens appeared to have opened with hundreds of golden Maasai spears thrusting down into the pale green dusk of the plan. We admired the magnificence of the scene as daylight slipped away on the Maasai Mara.