The little single propeller Safarilink plane flew for 45 minutes from Nairobi to Naboisho, across the wide open savannah of Kenya. lt landed on a narrow and short strip of cleared, dry savannah ground. And just like that, my partner and I were in the magnificent Maasai Mara.
The African savannah has captivated me since my childhood days, when I watched The Lion King nearly every weekend for about a year. I never actually tired of it. It remains one of my favorite movies till this day. Since then, I learned also about the great annual migration of 1.5 million wildebeest, 500,000 gazelles and 200,000 zebras through the Serengeti and Mara, the seventh new wonder of the world. So after not taking a single day off for 8 long months, when the opportunity came to take a one week holiday, my partner and I decided to go somewhere that would blow our minds (and help us disengage from work). We decided East Africa was it, and Kenya’s Maasai Mara was going to be our first stop.
Naturally, I went into intense travel planning mode for a place that has fascinated me for so long. After much research, my partner and I chose to go with Base Camp Explorer, a gold-rated ecotourism lodge that was well-known for its longstanding contributions to the Maasai community. They had 3 camps in different parts of the Mara, employed 99% Maasai, and gave us the continuity to experience both the private Naboisho conservancy and main Mara reserve with a single guide.
1. Night Game Drive
On our first day at Naboisho, we were having a sundowner in the middle of the open savannah before our night game drive, when we heard some rumbling through the air. Lions. We scrambled back into our open landcruiser and drove around to look for the big cats, who usually start to hunt around sundown. We’d ended off our afternoon game drive earlier seeing a pack of eight lionesses, and now we’d just found another pack of nine lions, walking within a couple of feet of us, looking for dinner. The most amazing thing was that this was a completely private moment – there were no other vehicles around. It was just us (in our open vehicle) and nine cats. We stayed for as long as we wanted, then followed a hippo out of the water on the drive back to camp.
2. Walking Safari
We woke at the crack of dawn the next morning to do a walking safari. Many times when I was in the landcruiser, I wished I could get out and walk around. The walking safari let us do just that, while having the special experience of being escorted by four Maasai warriors with nothing but a spear and knife each. The Maasai grew up on the Mara and know the plains like no other. Supposedly, they could also kill a male lion with nothing except a spear and knife. I never felt unsafe (until I found out that at the Kruger National Park, guides carry guns on walking safaris). Although the animals scattered once they smelled or saw us, it was a humbling experience. Stepping foot on the ground and walking amongst animal tracks, droppings and bones gave us a completely different perspective of the savannah and the circle of life.
3. The Great Annual Migration
Deep inside the Maasai Mara, we saw hundreds of thousands of migrating wildebeest. It was always impressive to see them in big groups, especially on the occasions when they moved together in a large herd. About 1.5 million wildebeest migrate across the vast Serengeti and Maasai Mara plains every year, following the rains to where the lushest grass can be found. Their survival strategy is simply sheer numbers that no predator can completely kill off. The skulls of dead wildebeest dot the plains everywhere we go, but still they are ubiquitous. We saw them from the top on a hot air balloon, saw them up close from the landcruiser, and saw them dotting the horizons from afar. My most memorable moment with the wildebeest was during a morning game drive, when the birds of the Mara were out in full birdsong, flying around the wildebeest herds as they moved and grazed. It was magic.
4. The Rare Black Rhino
Lions were thrilling to see at close proximity. Elephants were majestic and funny at the same time to watch. The cape buffaloes were scary because they looked mad and they were mad. The leopard, well, damn, he just never showed up. The black rhinocerous though, was something different. These shy creatures hide in the bushes all the time, at least until they decide to charge at you, and are incredibly hard to spot because of that. We spent all of our first game drive on the Mara reserve looking for a black rhino in the bushes, but didn’t find it. Words cannot describe the satisfaction we felt when on the second day, we again drove to look for a rhino in the bushes, and I spotted the momentarily moving horn deep in the deceptive green. We spent the next 20 minutes trying to entice the black rhino and her baby to come out of the bushes without charging at us, to no avail. But fate had it that a plane flew over the plains right as we were about to give up, and drove the shy and timid black rhino out of the bushes right away. We had about 15 unadulterated minutes with the black rhino all to ourselves, out of the bushes and in plain view, before about 20 other landcruisers swooped in. There is something indescribable about spotting rare animals and just quietly observing them in their natural habitat, that is the icing on the cake to a Maasai Mara experience.
5. Birds of the Mara
Spotting the Big Five is a huge part of the Maasai Mara experience. However, I learned to appreciate the birds just as much. Think of it like scuba diving. Most people start off wanting to see the big stuff, like the pelagics, but then as they become more seasoned, they derive tremendous satisfaction and joy from spotting the small, macro things like pygmy seahorses. I became completely obsessed with the birds. They were not just beautiful, but also impossible to photograph, which only made me more obsessive about spotting and photographing them. The photo above is of a lilac-breasted roller, the national bird of Kenya. On morning game drives, all the birds are out and about and everywhere. Look around and all you see are flocks of birds flying. I loved every moment when I got to photograph birds at close proximity, or simply seeing them fly chirpily across the savannah.
6. Our Maasai Guide
My partner and I are fully convinced that we had an unrivalled experience on the Maasai Mara because we had an amazing Maasai guide. The Maasai have an intangible passion for the savannah because they grew up on it. They live and breathe the Mara, and are at one with the ecosystem. They can spot camouflaged animals with their naked eye from afar, and they know the way of the lands like no other. The Maasai are extremely warm-spirited and bold, and that totally rubbed off on us as explorers and humble visitors in their domain.
If you loved the photos above, check out more of my Kenya photos and videos here.
Have you ever been to the Maasai Mara? What was your experience like? I’d love to hear from you!