Sunday morning we meet for breakfast by the pool and go over our plans for the day. We bring our larger bags to the lobby where they are shipped over land to our camp. We transport to Wilson airport and board our 40 minute flight to the Mara. Our Masai guides are waiting for us at the landing strip. We jump into a Land Rover and start our drive to camp. We always see wildlife on our drive to camp. Usually impala, zebra, giraffe and hippos when we drive through a small river stream. We are greeted at camp and shown to our tents. Lunch is served and after a short rest we head out on our first game drive. The photos below are just some of the animals we spent time observing on the first afternoon game drive. After we watch the sun dip below the horizon we drive back to camp where our friendly hosts are waiting to serve us a cold Tusker beer, a glass of wine, or whatever refreshment we may like by a warm camp fire. We freshen up and sit together for dinner. Our server describes what the chef has prepared for the evening meal. There are three or four entree options for dinner. The stories get more interesting and the jokes more bold as the wine is consumed. It's hard not to be in a state of joy when you are on safari.
The first night sleeping in a tent in the middle of the Masai Mara National Park can be a little unnerving. Every sound can seem to be coming right outside the tent. You know that Masai warriors guard the camp throughout the night but still your imagination can get away from you. At some point you do fall asleep and it is a good sleep with temps in the 50's. You wake to the sound of the tent zipper opening. It's a friendly staff member delivering fresh french press coffee. It's 5:30 am and still pitch dark outside. If you go outside the tent and look up, the sky is exploding with bright stars and the Milky Way is visible. A Masai escorts you from your tent to the main camp lobby. We finish our coffee and fill our water bottles. Vehicles are assigned and we gather our camera gear and find our guide for the morning game drive. It's still dark when we depart camp and the air is fresh and cool. The lights of the Land Rover shine on the path out into the Mara. First light comes before the sun appears on the horizon. Soon we come upon a male lion. He, or more likely his female companion, have taken down a gnu during the night. You can hear bone crackling as he bites down. Another male strolls in to participate in the feast. When everyone is satisfied they have seen enough we drive on. Thomson gazelles, zebra, and hundreds of wildebeasts are on each side of us. A huge vulture flies in front of us. It's 9 am and we stop at an open area with a view of Tanzania for breakfast. Pancakes, hard boiled eggs, pastries, fruit, fresh juice and coffee are served. It's good to stretch your legs and enjoy the warm sunshine. After breakfast we find an elephant family and park in the direction they are moving. A mother and her baby come within a few feet of us. Being in the presence of elephants is an honor. I could stay there all day but it's time to head back to camp. A cold towel is provided when we walk in the door of the large tented main area. We have a buffet style lunch with lots of choices. After lunch some of our group go to their tent to take a nap. Some choose to grab a hammock outside and others might upload images captured that morning. It's now warm outside with temps in the high 70's. Around 4 pm we head back out into the Mara for the afternoon game drive. We see a group of vehicles around a wooded island. There is a leopard treed by lions. She won't risk coming down until the lions leave. In the brush I spied a small lion cub. We move on and come upon the renowned cheetah coaliton. It's a group of 5 males. That is unusual as cheetah's are usually solitary hunters. The males pass by a herd of gazelles and walk right by us. They go to a tree and mark it with their urine. We drive back to camp and pass thousands of wildebeasts along the way.
Back at camp we sit by the fire for a drink. It starts to rain so we move inside. Dinner is as delicious as the previous night. This will be a more restful sleep as we are more confident those sounds we hear are not as close as we imagined.
Brief recap: The previous Thursday we flew from Nashville to LaGuardia airport. We took an Uber to the TWA hotel at JFK. Friday morning we boarded our Kenya Air flight to Nairobi. 15 hours later we arrived and a driver met us with a sign with our names. We drove to the Serena Hotel and sat by their beautiful pool to recover from the jet lag.
It's now day 3 in the Mara. The Smith group chose the hot air balloon excursion and departed camp earlier than our group. As the sun rose we were out looking for a lion pride. The first sighting of the day was a dik-dik. This is an antelope that stands about a foot tall and weighs about 5 lbs. After 30 minutes or so we pulled into a bushy area and there they were. Two lion cubs were sitting on a fallen tree trunk within 30 feet of us. There were several females and at least two mothers with cubs. We watched the cubs play and nurse until it was time for our bush breakfast. I'll describe the rest of the day in the pictures. But one thing we need to discuss. What if you have to go the restroom while out on a game drive? You can't just jump out of the vehicle anywhere and there are no public services in the bush. What you do is inform your guide you need to go. The common verbiage for that is to say, "I need to check the tires." When the guide hears this, he or she will find a safe open place. You then walk behind the Land Rover and do your thing. Yes, women and men do this but not at the same time. Hope you enjoy the pictures from Day 3.
One additional piece of advice for the men. If you check the tire and happen to see that tiny antelope, don’t jump back in the vehicle and tell the group what you just saw.
It's Wednesday and we are half way into our safari. The group has settled into the rythm of the Mara. All the anxiety about travel to Africa has completely faded. The concerns about personal safety, the food, the bugs, the diseases you'll catch, etc. are vanquished by the exhuberance one feels being in this place. One of the reasons you go to the Mara in August is to experience a crossing. We arise once again and head out into the great plains. Will this be the day we see a crossing? Before the sun peaks out we sit amongst a herd of wildebeest. Out of the corner of my eye there is movement in the grass. It's a serval! I've always wanted to see this small spotted cat. It's hunting and darting around so I decide to take one shot at a higher shutter speed and then quickly push the dial down to a 30th of a second on my 400mm lens. The entire experience lasts about 5 seconds. Looking at the back of the camera I see that one of the slow pan shots looks sharp. Almost two years later and that is the shot I am most proud of as a photographer. The gnus (another name for wildebeest) are on the move. There is a good chance this will be the day they cross. We follow them as they migrate toward the river. We approach the river and park under an acacia tree behind a gathering herd of wildebeest. Someone in another vehicle gets our attention and points upward. We glance up to see a baboon right over our heads. The baboon provides some entertainment while we sit and wait for the wildebeest to cross the river. This is the hard part. Sitting and waiting. When will they cross? What are they waiting on? After perhaps an hour we realize there won't be a crossing this morning. A female lion is roaming on the other side of the river and she's been spotted by the herd. We drive away and find our breakfast location. It's on a high point overlooking the river and we can see Tanzania on the other side. Everyone is in a good mood and the weather is perfect. Savannah continues her quest to learn the local languages. Swahili is the common language of Kenya along with English. The Masai have their own language called Maa. My daughter ambitiously tries to learn words in both. The guides are patient teachers and seem pleased that an American tourist has interest in learning their culture and language.
After breakfast we continue our game drive. Soon we spot my favorite bird, the Southern Ground Hornbill. They look prehistoric and have this confident attitude. They are walking in a small group and searching for anything that moves. When the hornbills capture a frog or lizard, they toss it in the air and catch it further down their long beaks. I take several shots of this behavior. Only when I upload the images later do I see one has tossed up a frog and I got it mid air making it appear the frog just jumped into the hornbills mouth. After the hornbills we see a lone elephant with her baby. A bat ear fox runs away from us. That is the second "lifer" for me this day. Another herd of wildebeest are on the march. Single file they move across the plains. The line is over a mile long. They come to a narrow stream and begin to cross. This is not the dramatic river crossing we are there to see but it is a primer for what may come. We head back to camp for lunch after another amazing morning game drive. Afternoon game drives are shorter than morning drives. Morning drives are normally around 4 hours. Afternoon drives are about half that time. We ended the day sitting and watching the sun set as a cheetah laid down for the night.
Just after sunrise we find a lion pride on an overlook above a grazing herd of wildebeest. There were cubs playing in some brush and tall grass. It was difficult seeing them and especially hard to photograph them. Finally I had an opening and clear shot of a young lion interacting with a cub. That image would be selected to represent the Masai Mara in one of those best places to travel lists.
The migration is in full swing now with more herds crossing the Tanzania border into the Mara triangle. The wildebeest can smell rain from miles away and follow their noses to fresh grazing land. Over one million wildebeest join zebras and antelope on the journey.
After breakfast we come up on a group of buffalo. Yellow-billed oxpeckers hopped around picking off ticks from their thick hides. The relationship between the birds and host has long been thought to be 100% symbiotic. But recently scientists have discovered a dark secret. The oxpeckers will keep a wound open on the buffalo in order to feed on the blood.
After lunch some of our group visited the village of one of our guides. This was a great opportunity to learn about the culture of the masai people.
The afternoon game drive was mostly spent searching for wildebeest and waiting for them to cross the river. As the sun went down they remained at the river's edge. We would have to wait another day to see a crossing.
Each day on our safari you wake up and think today can't be as good as the day before. Friday, August 23rd, 2019 was better than the day before. I'm glad there are pictures with date stamps to prove this all happened in the course of one day because it is so hard to believe. Just the morning game drive would provide enough action to make the entire trip worthwhile. This was the day that safari dreams are made of.
When you go on a great migration safari, you really hope to see a wildebeest crossing. This is our last full day and, despite the best efforts of our guides, there has not been a crossing. This is nature so there are no guarantees of what you will see. The morning started, once again, departing the camp in darkness. First light and first sighting is a pair of mating lions. They come together before the sun has risen and in a fast and furious few seconds are done. Lions will have intercourse every 15 to 20 minutes for a day or two. They won't eat during this time. It's sleep, wake, have intercourse and back to sleep every 20 minutes for two days! We snapped some close up portraits of the male after his work and departed the scene. We arrived at a relatively small gathering of wildebeest. They are near the river's edge and are galloping back and forth. We think they will cross so we lay back behind the herd. It's a false start and we watch them leave the river and march past us (in the wrong direction.) Dejected, we wait several more minutes and thankfully the herd turns around. They move back towards the river. Their sounds get louder as they approach the edge. We can't see the river as we don't want to be so close as to interfere with their crossing. The guides will wait until the first wildebeest or zebra boldly enters the water. The land-rovers are lined up like race cars waiting for the flag to start the race. Our hearts start pumping faster as we anticipate what is coming. Finally one guide shifts into gear and now all the guides are going. The fastest will win the best viewing spot for their guests. We are now flying across the mara and it is a wild ride. You hit bumps that send you flying off your seat. Pro tip: don't sit in the last row. When we reach the river some of the herd are already on the other side. But where are the zebra? Suddenly from below us the stripes pop out of nowhere. They have turned around and are coming back to our side of the river. But why? Then someone yells "lion." We see a lioness on the other side ambush a young gnu. I turn my lens to capture the action. At the same time, I see a croc in the water. I snap one shot of the croc and turn the lens on the lion and fire away. The lion now has the gnu securely grasped by the throat. It's actually a fairly good way to die if you are the prey. Suffocation beats being eaten while you are alive any day. The lioness releases the lifeless gnu to stalk additional wildebeest. This is easy pickings for the lion. As she takes down another animal something remarkable happens. The little wildebeest stumbles to its feet. Dazed and confused it finally gathers itself and walks back to the herd!
This was a fast and furious crossing. It lasted about 10 minutes in total. It was a small herd of wildebeest and zebra. Some crossings with huge herds will last over two hours. BTW, the zebra have better eyesight than the wildebeest. They saw the lion on the other side and turned to find a safer route across the river. Once there are no more animals on our side of the river we watch two crocodiles begin feasting on a wildebeest that has been drowned. We've experienced a lot of emotions in a short period of time. Disappointment when the group turned around the first time. The adrenaline rush when we were racing to be first to the river. Surprise when the zebra popped up right in front of us. More adrenaline when the lioness appeared. Sadness for the little gnu who was captured. Relief and excitement when it "rose from the dead" and walked back to the herd. And amazement at the entire scene we just witnessed.
One side note I'd like to address is predation. Some people, especially animal lovers like me, don't want to see them being killed. I get that. I don't enjoy that part myself. But it is going to happen whether we are there to see it or not. I would rather see a gnu or a impala killed than to see a beautiful lion die of starvation. It's just nature at work. But, you always have the option to close your eyes or simply look away if that part bothers you.
After we leave the crossing we make our way back to camp. There is a new feline couple playing the mating game so we stop and watch. I try a new technique David taught me to get a low angle shot. I reach the monopod out the window and place my upside down camera on the ground. Using a cable release, I try to focus and capture some images. We move on and see some zebra in the water and then arrive back at camp. There will be a lot of smiles and exuberance at lunch this day. We have seen a crossing!
The afternoon game drive is icing on the cake. We hear of a melanistic zebra in the area. Our guide spots it and we capture images of a zebra with spots where stripes should be. We photograph a topi by itself waking on the horizon as the sun is setting. The guide says we are late so we find our group. It's time for sundowners! This vista is amazing. We toast our time in the Mara with champagne and the sun fades once more on the plains of Africa.
The last morning in the Mara has a different protocol. We have a shorter game drive and return to camp for breakfast rather than eat out in the bush. We started the game drive at a hippo pool. This is the only time we have photographed outside of the vehicles. There was fog on the water as the sun came up behind the hippos. The light was nice and I really wanted a shot with the a hippo "yawn." It's not really a yawn but a show of aggression when the hippo rises from the water and opens its mouth. Everything was set up perfectly but the hippos decided not to yawn. We carried on and saw a martial eagle, the largest of Africa's eagles. Then we found a mother jackal and her pups. I even photographed her regurgitating food to feed a pup. She opens her mouth and the pup places its mouth in hers. It looks like she is biting her offspring but she is actually feeding it. There were some yellow-billed oxpeckers on a giraffe, some zebra, topi, a water buck and spotted hyenas on the drive back to camp. Although this was our 12th game drive in seven days, I didn't want it to end.
Back at camp we had a made-to-order breakfast from chef. At breakfast we pooled our money to tip the guides. We also dropped money in the tip box for the staff. This was the only money we needed to bring along for the trip. Dollar bills are accepted in Kenya so no exchange of money is needed. After breakfast we said our goodbye's to the staff at Entim Camp and had one more drive through the Mara to the airstrip.
Thanks for coming along with me on this virtual safari. Although it was two years ago, I remember every day like it was yesterday. I am happy to answer any questions you have about going on safari.