Kenya: the greatest show on earth

by Bongobell

Experience Kenya between June and September as approximately two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle cross the mighty Mara and Talek river

Is that a rock or a hippo? I’m sipping cold, crisp white wine on a beautiful veranda in hot sunshine overlooking a river, while trying to work out what the big grey lump is about 50 metres away from where I’m relaxing. It’s not moving so it must be a rock. I return to the same spot for my hearty breakfast the next morning and my big grey rock had gone. My first wild hippo sighting and I hadn’t even realised.

They’ll be plenty of other opportunities though, for this is Kenya, the mother of all safari destinations. Kenya’s big draw is its diversity and its value for money. There’s the dense landscape of Samburu, complete with all the unique varieties of animals, the beautiful beaches of Mombasa and the expanse of the Masai Mara, to name but a few attractions. Laden with malaria pills, new cameras and binoculars, we headed to the Mara but not before spending some time in Nairobi before our internal flight with SafariLink to our barefoot luxury camp.

First stop was the Nairobi National Park (home to an elephant orphanage and giraffe centre) and Animal Orphanage (Nairobi National Park, Langata Rd, Nairobi; 020 891612), about a 15-minute car journey from the city centre. We didn’t have time to do one of the safari walks on offer or car tours of the park (on which you can see most of the big game as well as up to 500 different varieties of bird) but we did wander around the orphanage which is more like a small zoo, where, as you’d expect, you get to see plenty of cute baby versions being cared for after their parents have either died or been killed by poachers. Among the rescued animals were one-month old cheetahs, five-month old lion cubs, young giraffe, leopard, hyenas and jackals.

The smooth flight to our camp took 45 minutes and our lethargy was eradicated straight away as we were greeted by our guide and taken straight out on our first evening safari, our camp situated only minutes from the airstrip. The guides there operate three safaris a day - one early morning, one late morning and one early evening until dusk - and each one offers slightly different opportunities to see the animals. Our first outing was a successful one; our guide had spotted some young cheetahs before collecting us so as well as the hundreds of zebra and wildebeest that roam the Mara, we were also lucky enough to see some big cats before the spectacular sun set.

Where to stay

The Mara Intrepid camp is in the heart of the Masai Mara Game Reserve on the Talek River and, although home to a large selection of smaller animals (faffette monkeys and bush babies included), big animals are kept at bay by an electric fence. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be disturbed by their noises in the night as I discovered when I woke up after what could have been a hungry hippo roar, vibrating through our linen tent walls.

The camp has a restaurant, bar, gift shop and pool, and each tent is comfortable and roomy. In fact, the word ‘tent’ is slightly misleading as the only resemblance this accommodation has to camping, is the fact that the walls are fabric. The interior, however, has everything a four-star hotel room would offer. All the food is included and it's delicious and plentiful. There's an array of familiar dishes on the menu, some changed to add in local ingredients, but always a hearty meat, fish and a veggie choice.

Early morning sightings

Early morning, before it gets too hot, is the best time to catch sightings of the big game. Staff at the camp bring a hot drink to the tent to soften the early morning wake-up call and it’s in the jeep for 6.30am to try and tick off as many of the big five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard) as possible. Other animals to spot include giraffes, cheetahs, topi, water buck, baboons and various birds including vultures, eagles and ostrich.

We were lucky enough to spot all of the big five bar the rather elusive rhino; not for lack of searching, they are just particularly difficult to spot in that area. But one amazing spectacle we did get to witness was a water crossing of hundreds of zebra and wildebeest. Grouped together at the side of the river, they must have been discussing tactics for about half an hour before one wildebeest made its move. Dramatically launching itself into the river, the rest followed as they scrambled to tackle the current and avoid the hungry waiting crocs. The majority made it, but the crocs were fed as part of the natural bargain. It's no wonder it's dubbed 'the greatest show on earth'.

A wilder experience

For a slightly wilder experience, halfway through our week’s safari, we moved to Mara Explorer, Mara Intrepids’ sister camp nearby, both run by Heritage Hotels. This is a smaller camp with fewer tents but offers even more luxury without the aid of an electric fence. As a result, when it’s dark, you have to radio for an escort to take you to and from the restaurant. In both camps, the bars overlook the river so you can relax with a Tusker beer and try and spot the animals as they try and cool down in the water.

The Explorer camp offers little extras like a secluded outside bath on the room’s veranda and romantic dinners in the bush, but both camps have various activities on offer (at an extra cost) such as a safari walk, hot air balloon rides, sundown cocktails outside the camp, a visit to a local Masaai family, or you can choose to have your breakfast or lunch as a picnic while on safari as part of the package.

Each safari experience is different, and each day offers different spectacles from the most heart warming (like cheetah cubs happily playing in our vehicle’s wheels) to the more gruesome (a lioness killing a young wildebeest for its cubs) but safaris do offer a first-hand look at nature, which is something far beyond a documentary. And what’s more, you’ll be treated like the king of the jungle.

Bongobell

After 10 years of doing some fairly weird and wonderful stuff in the name of journalism, I’m now a freelancer whose thirst for adventure tends to drag me all over the place. I’ve written for the likes of the Daily Star, Essentially America, The Birmingham Post and other Trinity Mirror publications, youth development charity Raleigh and I edited Destination France magazine when it was monthly. My favourite topics are eco-travel, voluntourism, career breaks and gap years.