The literal translation of the word “safari” in Swahili is “journey.” If that’s the case, we’ve been on a safari for the better part of the last year, seeking adventures, experiencing new cultures, meeting other souls, and appreciating the wild world that’s all around us. But in Kenya, we found a safari unlike any other.
In fact, just driving down the road can feel like a safari in Kenya. On our way up to our volunteering gig, we spotted creatures as exotic as zebras and baboons from the road. But, after a month of working in Gilgil, we were ready for another adventure. Lucky for us, there were some beautiful lakes just a short drive away. The first was Lake Elementita, the least visited of the three lakes in the Nakuru region. We took the kids from the Restart home (where we were volunteering) there one Saturday morning. Driving the kids there in the Restart bus with it’s reggae beats on repeat and full blast, we bounced down the final hill to the lake on a road clearly not meant for such a vehicle. Upon arrival, we encountered no tourists but a sizable crew of people washing laundry in the hot springs, and, not wanting to disturb them with 50 energetic kids, headed for the far side of the lake. The kids played in the water and then we took a short walk to a bit of land jutting out into the water. From there, we saw birds in multitudinous numbers, from flamingos in the hundreds, to dozens of pelicans, egrets, cranes, herons, and other indiscernible waterfowl. As much as I appreciate the others – the pelicans with their precise flying formations and Romulan-esque form, and the herons, which remind me of the pond behind our house back home – the flamingos were definitely the main draw. In addition to their spindly legs, halved by backward facing knees, and drainpipe-shaped necks, when they took off, the bright pink and black of their wings flashed as they walked along the rippling face of the water, moving from wading, to striding, to flying. To that point, Elementita was probably one of, if not the best, birding experiences of my life.
That is, until we went to Lake Naivasha the following week. In our last excursion from Restart, we visited the largest of the area’s lakes to see if we could get lucky and spot a hippo. Well, as luck would have it, we saw hippos, literally tons of them. Riding on a small motorboat hired from a lodge on the banks of the lake, we glided along the vegetated surface of Lake Naivasha among a vast diversity of bird life. From kingfishers, large and small, to ibises, to fish eagles that when we approached let out a deafening squawk, we were amazed by the size, number, and variety of all these birds. And then we saw the hippos. At one point, a large adult hippo submerged under the water and came straight toward us to scare us away from the baby hippo that was almost hidden between so many other brown rumps in the pod. Naturally, we high tailed it out of there! Hoping to get a glimpse of just one hippo, we were thoroughly satisfied with seeing at least a dozen.
The first two “safaris” were more independent than the next two, and they were therefore cheaper and less organized. The last two were proper safaris to the two best parks in Kenya, if not all of Africa: the Maasai Mara and Amboseli. We found that unless we were to get some kind of local deal, or try to go it solo/indy, the lowest going rate for most safaris was $330 per person for a 3-day, 2-night tour. This included pickup and transport to the park, all food and lodging at the camp located just outside the park gates, and basically three game drives – an evening drive on day one, a full-day drive on day two, and a morning drive on day three, before being driven back to our hotel in Nairobi. For our tours, we were grouped with a few other people in a van, the top of which lifted up, allowing passengers to stand as the van is moving to get a better view of their surroundings. Both parks offered vastly different experiences, as the Maasai Mara fulfilled our appetite for creatures large and small (but mostly large), while Amboseli drew us in with its huge herds of massive elephants and a backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro, itself.
Set against a canvas of rolling green plains, enormous herds of grazing animals feed on the manna of the Maasai Mara. Rambling along in our white van, we saw hundreds of wildebeest, zebra, impala and Thompson’s Gazelles, along with hartebeests, elans (the largest of the gazelles), waterbuck, and the enormous water buffalo, among others. Hunting these grazing beasts were multitudes of large cats, of which we spotted about a dozen lions – some were feeding on a cow, others were fornicating, others still, resting in the shade – along with a cheetah, leopard, and serval cat. Although the big cats are the most feared predators, even they won’t mess with the significantly larger mammals we came across such as elephants, hippos, giraffes, and a black rhino. In some cases, the birds of the area had formed a symbiotic relationship with the larger animals, cleaning up after them, or even cleaning the animals themselves. Some of the birds we saw included ostriches, the Maribou stork, the grey-crowned crane, a brightly colored kingfisher, various hawks, vultures, and many others. As if the list of exotic animals wasn’t long enough, we also saw dogs: hyenas and jackals; monkeys: baboons, macaques, and vervets; lizards: crocs, a monitor challenging a baby croc, and Mwanza Flat Headed Agama lizards (looking like spider man); and rounding it out, the hilariously imbecilic warthogs.
In what was probably our favorite experience of the entire Safari, we pulled up to a Thompson’s gazelle just as it had given birth and over the course of about 20 minutes, watched its young calf learn to walk. Just as the small amniotic-soaked creature was about to take its first steps, it would stumble to the ground. But with mom, licking the sludge off her child and nudging it to continue on, joined now by a prescient dad, sensing the moment was nigh, the tiny wobbly-legged thing found its balance and walked gingerly through the ankle high grass of these verdant plains.
After being thoroughly impressed by the scale, number, diversity, and exotic nature of everything we experienced in the Maasai Mara, we were a little hesitant to continue on to Amboseli, for fear of being just a bit disappointed. How could it possibly measure up to what we had just seen?! But the allure of seeing Mount Kilimanjaro was too great and we extended our safari for another two days back down to the Tanzanian border. Waking early on our first day there, we walked around the camp to get a view of the most majestic of mountains at sunrise. It appeared high above the treetops even from many miles away, and as the sun warmed the swampy lowlands, a billowing vapor rose to overtake the mastiff that only moments earlier had appeared to be floating on a sea of clouds. Not that I have any urge to climb it – I can think of many other places I’d like to spend a week trekking and many other ways to spend $1500 – but I feel blessed to have been able to see what many consider to be the two most famous mountains in the world – Chomolungma-Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) from Nepal, and now Kilimanjaro from Kenya. Though the views only lasted for a brief time in the morning, we quickly moved on to see some of giants of the animal kingdom.
Unlike the Maasai Mara, where drivers would take their vehicles off-road right up next to the animals to get the best possible view, wildlife in Amboseli is only viewable from established roads. This makes it a great park for a self-guided tour, but keeps most of the animals at a distance. That is, except for the elephants – they were everywhere! We heard that herds can grow to the hundreds, but we saw ones that were “only” a few dozen strong, which is still quite a few elephants, when you consider their size. Our jaws dropped and our hearts filled with awe, seeing the many generations of an elephant family trodding methodically along the plains, moving to either the shelter of the forest or the sustenance of the glacially fed wetlands.
Anyone who revels in spotting wildlife will be in their glory in Africa. If you can only do one safari, make it the Mara. The lakes Naivasha and Elementita had incredible birds, while Amboseli featured two of the continent’s most iconic titans, but the Maasai Mara had it all. Although it wasn’t cheap, we figured that since we were still under budget for our adventure year as a whole, we should jump on this opportunity while we had it, and we’re so glad we did. We’re already dreaming of coming back to Africa someday to rent a jeep and do a solo/indy safari in Namibia and Botswana. Who wants to come along?