The Heart of Kenya and Tanzania
Land Based Adventures
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There's something about the phrase "going on safari" that conjures up a feeling of age-old mystery and excitement. And, having already spent considerable time living in the "Heart of Darkness" during my time in the Peace Corps in the Republic of Congo, exploring the wildlife-rich parks and reserves of East Africa has long been on my travel list. Straightaway upon landing in Kenya the sights, sounds and scents of Africa were at once strangely familiar and yet new and interesting to me. While I enjoyed Nairobi and the classic Norfolk Hotel (a haunt of Hemingway, Karen Blixen and other colonial ex-pats from the heyday of Colonization), I was eager to set out...
Several plane rides later we landed in a semi-arid region of scrub savannah for our first stop at Kenya's Samburu Reserve. Leaving from the tiny airstrip, we were off on our first safari excursion as we headed towards our lodging for the night. Our first wildlife sighting was an awkward yet strangely glamorous reticulated giraffe, a member of the species found only in this reserve and part of the Samburu "Big 5" that includes Grevy's zebra, gerenuk, Somali Ostrich and Beisa Oryx- all of which we found! Winding in and out of trees, shrubbery and grasslands, we noted that the landscape of Samburu is quite different from the image of the classic African savannah. Our guide explained that this was his favorite reserve for that very reason.
The diversity, oddness and rarity of species made Samburu truly fascinating to us as well. What a thrill to see nonchalant troops of baboons, tiny little grazers called dik diks, herds of cape buffalo, crocodiles, of all kinds of birds--and finally, on the following day--elephants! I will never forget the thrill of being literally surrounded by a family group of elephants--so close we could just about touch them and I could actually hear the sounds of a baby nursing from its mother. And as I was to discover again and again on this trip: there were so many moments that the zoom on my camera was simply not needed for some wonderfully close-up wildlife photography. That was quite a day, followed by a wonderful campfire and cocktails beside the river at the luxurious Larsen's Tented Camp and then a gloriously hot shower in my tiled bathroom to wash off the bush dust. With two double beds, an antique desk and sizeable porch, this was definitely no backpacking tent! The last day in Samburu revealed the best of this reserve: a rare and up-close sighting of not one, but two leopards: a mating pair exiting some brush at dusk... Despite the presence of many vehicles, the hush as they emerged was almost palpable and it was our lucky safari jeep that they walked behind. Seeing them literally stroll off into the sunset is an image I hope to never forget.
We bid farewell to Samburu, and eagerly departed by plane for the famed Maasai Mara plain. Upon arrival, we were immediately transferred to the superb Maasai Mara Safari Club, another luxury tent camp. This time my 'tent' overlooked a lazy brown river filled with pods of hippopotamus that evidently are a quarrelsome and noisy bunch. Heading out later that day with our Kenyan guide, naturalist Zach, our local driver and our wildlife spotter extraordinaire, we knew instantly that this was very different country from Samburu and more resembled your typical African grassland. I definitely began to feel as if I were part of a documentary special on a nature channel! Here we saw our first of many species including Thompson's gazelles, wildebeest and best of all three beautiful lionesses sunning themselves in a small canyon of rocks. At one point, the alpha female left her rock to cool off under a nearby shade tree, lounging within feet of our vehicle. The moment was so wonderful that we put down our cameras and just drank it in for nearly a half-hour.
Our time on the Mara was spent spotting elephants, giraffes, two lazy cheetahs sleeping in grass, and many types of herd animals. And, we were often rewarded with remarkable cloudscapes and sunsets as the days ended. Time in the Mara would not have been complete without a visit to a local Masaai village. I could have spent another two days exploring their mud houses, watching the extraordinary jumping demonstrations and listening to their songs and stories of life on the plains. As the trip progressed I found that glimpsing the nomadic shepherd lifestyle of this ancient tribe was one of my favorite moments of my time in Africa--from the sweeping herds of cows they guarded to the swaths of colors of their garments contrasting with the golden hues of the landscape.
We next flew to Tanzania to explore the vast savannah of the Serengeti which is connected to the Mara, and the great herds migrate freely between the two countries (no passports required!). In Tanzania, we were introduced to Gus, our new guide and naturalist whose prowess at spotting wildlife was only eclipsed by his immense knowledge of the animals and habitats we encountered. The Serengeti was so vast, and seemed much drier than the Mara, and the plains were dotted with tree filled rock copses. It was near one of these that we saw our first male lion, a self satisfied loner spending some quality time in the grass with his mate of the week, a young female lioness. Later that same day, we spent some time observing a small pride of lionesses and cubs of various ages as they napped in the shade just off the road. I also really liked the hyenas that we saw, the plains elephants, and the herds of impalas were so abundant at times they seemed to stretch to the horizon!
Next, we journeyed overland by safari vehicle through the Serengeti to the incomparable Ngorongoro Crater. The bumpy roads led us up and over a volcano and down into a strange and spectacular landscape--a compact version of an African savannah dotted with glittering blue soda lakes nestled in the bowl of an ancient caldera. Dawn breaking over this scene the next morning was quite the start to two days on safari in one the most densely populated wildlife environments in Africa. Our head and cameras were spinning as we drove through massive herds of wildebeest and zebras to reach small watersheds filled with hippos, cranes, hyenas and an endless array of birds. Two highlights of our time here included: witnessing a magnificent male lion steps away as he emerged from the river gully, and second, the sights and sounds of five lionesses trying to take down a large cape buffalo they had cornered in a gulch--truly documentary material! Evenings at Ngorongoro were spent at the unique Serena Crater Lodge built almost entirely of round granite stones.
Bidding a bittersweet farewell to Ngorongoro, we departed for our last safari stop, the reserve at Lake Manyara. Far more lush and dense with trees, we were treated to beautiful fresh water lakes, thousands of storks, several species of monkeys and smaller bush elephants. Our lodge was perched on a section of the Great Rift. Overlooking Lake Manyara in the valley below, the grand scale of the landscape was put into perspective. It was here, in a grassy clearing overlooking the lake where we enjoyed a lovely fireside farewell dinner al fresco, bidding goodbye to our driver and eventually to our guide, Gus.
My time on safari in East Africa was absolutely the trip of a lifetime that people describe it as, and I can only say that the experience was so rich and intense that it was nearly overwhelming. I will not soon forget such an incredible journey in this incomparable part of the world! And yes, if you count carefully you will find that I did indeed see the Africa Big 5!