MASAI MARA SAFARI 1
A pride of lions relaxing on the grassy plains and biding their time between “kills”.
Intro: Eager with anticipation, we headed out on our first game drive safari in the Masai Mara National Reserve, completely unaware of what was in store for us.
A herd of Cape buffalo graze at sunset on the Masai Mara’s open plains.
After arriving at our Masai Mara Sopa Lodge where we would be staying for the next few days and having a delicious buffet-style lunch, myself, Charlene, and our new friends – Kristie, Dianne, Marcia, and Ian – were all eager and ready to go on our very first African safari. We made sure our cameras were fully charged, our memory cards had plenty of space, and took care of our bathroom needs before meeting up with our tour guide and driver Hodge, in the lobby.
Would we get to see the “Big five” animals (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, and water buffalo)? How close were we going to get to them? Are we going to step out of the van or is that way too dangerous? Is this truly “walking on the wild side” or more of a “San Diego Zoo” experience? So many questions raced through my mind as we hopped into the Pollman’s van, with the roof already popped up so we could stick our heads out and get a good view across the surroundings from above.
A few minutes after leaving the Masai Mara Sopa Lodge, I felt like we were really in the middle of nowhere. Not only were we hundreds of miles from Nairobi and the next flight back home to the States, but we were in the territory of wild animal species. I don’t know if I ever told Charlene this, but that was the first time in my entire life that I felt in awe, humbled, and nervous (but in a good way) all at the same time. My past out-of-country trips had been to big cities (the Londons and Beijings of the world) where there was always buildings and people around me.
An elegant Thomson’s gazelle, named after the African explorer Joseph Thomson.
Although I realized that thousands of travelers had set foot on the plains of the Masai Mara before me and thousands more would in the future, for a brief moment I felt like this was some sort of calling to me. That THIS moment was going to play a part in what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be in life – not just travel anywhere in the world, but to places that gave me an unique and unexplainable feeling. And it was only that much more special having my future wife right next to me. I look back and pinpoint who I am now and who I want to be in the future to those first few minutes of my first African safari.
A herd of wildebeest feeding on the vast plains of the Masai Mara National Reserve.
It didn’t take long for our first wildlife encounters – groups of zebra, gazelles, foxes, and wildebeest! Looking back now, I remember how the entire party felt when we all saw our first zebra and wildebeest. We jumped up and down on the seat screaming, “OMG Hodge! Stop the van! We see a zebra!” Or “Wow! A group of wildebeest!” Little did we know that later on in the safari and in future ones on this trip, we would see dozens (if not hundreds) more zebras and wildebeest! I can only imagine how Hodge felt, thinking we were like every past tour group he encountered going bananas over the first few animals we saw :). It’s safe to say that Charlene and I laugh about moments like this as we look back on our Kenya trip even today.
I loved how there were hardly any other cars in sight on our afternoon safari across Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Later in the afternoon we did see a few, but for most part it felt like we had the entire place to ourselves. To say the plains of the Masai Mara were vast would be an understatement. It seemed like the horizon kept going on forever as we drove around, and every time we thought we saw something amazing, an even more incredible experience awaited us around the next turn.
A Masai giraffe peers out over the treetops. This subspecies of giraffe is the tallest of all African giraffes and distinguished by its jagged-edged spots.
Having a seasoned veteran tour guide who knew the dirt roads of the Masai Mara like the back of his hand, together with the tendencies and habits of the animals there, Hodge enabled us to experience so much of what the place had to offer in such a short period of time. From seeing a herd of water buffalos grazing to a trio of ostriches running across the golden fields, none of us could put our cameras down or rest our eyes for even a second!
The entire afternoon safari game drive felt like a really good story, with the crescendo awaiting us towards the end. We had seen a good share of animals, but the king of the jungle was still on our checklist. Although lions rule the African land, I knew they wouldn’t be as easy to find as a zebra or even a hippo. As far as rhinos, elephants, and even the rarest leopards and cheetahs went, Hodge told us we would see more of them in Lake Nakuru and Amboseli National Park later in the Kenya tour.
Hippos partially submerged in one of the Masai Mara’s watering holes.
But just when we thought our game drive was coming to an end, Hodge checked his radio and heard that a pride – yes a pride (not just one) – of lions were gathered in a certain part of the park. That was one of the many things I really admired and appreciated about all the safari companies, that although there were various (competing) safari vans driving around the park (ours was with Pollman’s via Go2Africa), all the drivers were very considerate to let the others know via radio walkie talkie when they spotted something spectacular.
When one safari company spots something spectacular, they radio the news to all nearby safari jeeps so everybody can bear witness.
Sure enough, after a few minutes of putting the pedal to the metal, Hodge pulled up where the other safari vans were: parked right by the lions. That’s right, those cats were lying down and walking literally 10-20 feet from us! There had to be at least a dozen of them! One even walked between the cars and came right up to ours as if it didn’t have a care in the world.
Never did I feel more thrilled (and relieved) to be inside an automobile, just one thin layer of steel away from being someone’s dinner! Forget the cages and fences at the zoo, this was a real life “Lion King” experience taking place right before my eyes and camera! And sure enough, along with everyone else I snapped my camera away to my heart’s delight.
A lion strolls carefree through two parked safari jeeps while their inhabitants go camera-wild.
What a wonderful start to our very first African safari adventure! Our walk around Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi earlier that morning seemed so long ago. I joked with Charlene that after what we just experienced, we would never go to the zoo again. The icing on the cake was going through it with some fantastic new friends. I know I speak for Charlene when I say we felt so lucky and grateful to experience all of this with Marcia, Ian, Kristie, and Dianne.
The sun slowly sets behind one of the Masai Mara’s hills, bringing an end to an incredible afternoon safari game drive.
Together with Hodge, they made this trip that much more special. As we headed back to the lodge, the gorgeous sun slowly started to set behind the Masai Mara hills, symbolically waving “Goodbye” while casting a golden blanket over every inch of this monumental world. And as unforgettable as the first day of safari game driving was, it ended up paling in comparison to what awaited us the very next morning. Stay tuned :).