We come to Kenya to realize a longstanding wish: see the free-ranging wild things of East Africa before that dream dematerializes. We want to fill our eyes with the fabulous creatures elsewhere confined to zoos and documentaries, foremost Africa’s fabled Big Five — the elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion — but also others on our private Top 10: the giraffe, hippo, zebra, gazelle and, especially, the cheetah. To ensure such sightings, we book a 12-day safari with a top-rated operator, Abercrombie & Kent, which since 1962 has pioneered game tours in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania.
Elephants come first. Arriving a day early in Nairobi, we put aside our jet lag and the comforts of the Nairobi Serena Hotel in favor of a visit to the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. Located minutes from downtown, Sheldrick is open from 11 a.m. to noon daily. Visitors surround a dusty field where groups of rescued infants bathe and cavort, the staff stuffing them with formula from huge baby bottles. Among the charming rescues receiving care here for several years before returning to the wild is a baby elephant whose mother was gunned down three days ago by poachers.
Elephants are the main draw, too, at Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, a 150-mile drive from Nairobi where we begin our formal safari. Dubbed “Africa’s Elephant Park,” Amboseli does not disappoint. Among the park’s 1,500 elephants, we see several hundred in the next 24 hours, the herds tramping back and forth across the grasslands. Mount Kilimanjaro, at 19,340 feet, forms a suitably mammoth backdrop. The world’s highest freestanding peak, Kilimanjaro is often cloud-shrouded, but for a few shining hours we’re treated to a fine view of its snowcap.
Our Abercrombie & Kent tour director, Cosmos Maluki, a 19-year veteran with the company, immediately perceives that our group (14 Americans, three Land Rovers) is here to feast upon as much passing wildlife as possible. And feast we do: on herds of Grant’s gazelles and smaller, acrobatic Thompson’s gazelles; stately impala; flashy crown cranes; surging wildebeest and their young; and family after family of elephants crossing the rutted park roads, bringing our vehicles to a halt. As dusk nears, our guides spot a male lion in the distant grasses, then a pride of two females and five cubs. Lions already. Some experts believe there will be no wild lions left in as few as 15 years. Lions are extinct in 26 African countries, and today they occupy just 20 percent of their historic range. In the Amboseli region, there are as few as 75 lions left, sharing land with 35,000 Maasai tribesmen and 2 million head of livestock.
The next morning, we come face to face with Egyptian geese, pelicans and pools of hippo, thick as molasses, churning in a muddy river. Spotted hyenas display their Swiss Army-knife array of teeth, set in jaws twice as strong as those of lions. There’s even, of all things, a long-eared jack rabbit, not to mention scores of zebras and Cape buffalo, to the point we are bedazzled by the sheer abundance of wildlife on all sides.
After a visit to Vachuma, one of a half-dozen traditional Maasai tribal villages in the area, we leave Amboseli and cross seamlessly into Tanzania, where we swap Land Rovers for Land Cruisers. It’s a rough-and-tumble drive on unpaved roads to Lake Manyara, a park abundant with its own arrays of elephants, lions, giraffes — and baboons. Scores of baboons. The Land Cruiser ahead of ours pauses during the morning game drive to snap a photo of the baboons along the side of the road, and as it pulls off, one sassy baboon jumps through an open window, swipes an empty plastic bag and propels itself out the open top.
Tossed to and fro by the endless potholes, we depart Lake Manyara and climb to the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, our perch for the next two nights. Ngorongoro is the world’s largest intact, unfilled volcanic caldera. The floor is more than a mile high, and our sedate Serena lodge towers 2,000 feet above that. Sunday morning we descend into one of the world’s least altered wildlife sanctuaries, a natural bowl 10 miles wide that’s home to Maasai villages and 25,000 large animals, including endangered black rhinos, hippos, wildebeest, zebra by the thousands, elands, gazelles, even flamingos. Less than 10 percent of these animals ever leave the crater floor. After lunch — served on the hood of our Land Cruiser parked on the shores of a hippo-infested lake — we spot the first of some 17 lions we will see during a daylong game sweep across this primeval hideaway.
From the crater, we ride westward across the Great Rift Valley to Tanzania’s crown jewel, the Serengeti, a UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve that encompasses mankind’s earliest dwelling places (in Olduvai Gorge) and Africa’s signature wildlife setting (Serengeti National Park). Our two days in this vast savannah begin with a game drive to the Retima Hippo Pool where hundreds of hippos float side by side, playfully cracking open their massive jaws. We follow this up with a single extended game drive, a nine-hour bump and grind across stream beds and grassy plains punctuated by remote, solitary, flat-topped acacia trees. Our eyes are forever cast open to snag fish eagles and warthogs, huge Nile crocodiles on riverbanks and clusters of hippos so thick we could walk across the water on their backs if we dared. Lions again prove abundant, but now they are closer at hand. We see prides lazing in the tall grasses, sunning themselves atop smooth Lion King-style rock outcroppings (kopje) and napping together in trees. The Serengeti’s 3,000 lions are the greatest concentration in all of Africa.
Our picnic lunch at the Serengeti Visitors Centre brings us face to face with a Serengeti oddity: tiny hyraxes, creatures the size and shape of five-pound rats but paradoxically the closest living relatives to five-ton elephants. The Serengeti is where we first spot leopards, one disappearing into the grasses, another draped over a massive tree limb, its legs and tail dangling. We see each of the Big Five in the Serengeti and one rare event as well: lions making a kill. The hunt unfolds as we join a line of safari vehicles parked within binocular range of a pride of 11 lions clustered on a hillside. Between Land Cruisers and lions, two adult warthogs and two babies idly prance until, sensing danger, they disappear underground. Three lionesses separate from the pride and take up positions on three sides. After a 20-minute standoff, the warthog family pop up — perhaps the scent-bearing winds have changed direction — and march directly toward the lion crouching on our right. The three-sided trap springs shut, squeezing the warthogs through our band of safari vehicles and separating out one baby warthog. The kill is swift; the entire pride piles on. It’s fast food in the savannah and, bone-thin, these lions make do with a mere snack.
The Serengeti is severe in its ways and spectacular in its vastness and variety, even more so as it continues into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, our final destination. We lodge three nights in the Mara Intrepids Club, a string of permanent deluxe tents on the Talek River, where the room stewards deliver a thermos of Kenyan coffee at dawn and a hot-water bottle at night. Here our first game drive puts us within good view of the one animal we most came to Africa to see, the cheetah. Out for a stroll, with hunting clearly on its mind, this cheetah is a yearling and still playful, frequently stopping to roll over on its back. A dozen vehicles parallel its walk. Minutes later we encounter a pride of lions by the side of the road: three females and five cubs, the babies all born within the last two months. We park near enough to overhear the cubs squawking. Our local Maasai driver identifies this brood as members of the Ridge Pride, whom we will encounter again.
Our days in the Maasai Mara are consumed by game drives. We cross paths with some of the park’s 44 black rhinos and, along the Mara River, several Nile crocodiles, wide and enormous creatures that thrive on the wildebeests who forge the rivers here during the Great Migration. We spot topi and waterbuck in the hills and a leopard napping in the limb of a tree, its head pillowed by the dangling remains of an impala it has hauled high for safekeeping. Lions are seldom far away. We spend a half-hour entranced by one formidable male that the local drivers have named Lipstick because he constantly licks his lips. On our final game drive, Malaika, a 7-year-old cheetah who has become something of a YouTube celebrity, appears. She’s known for her nonchalant leaps atop open safari vehicles for the purposes of spotting game. One of fewer than 50 cheetahs in the entire region, Malaika poses for us atop a termite mound, scanning the savannah, stretching, then setting off.
We’re setting off, too. It’s Valentine’s Day, and when we pull into Mara Intrepids Club, the staff surprises us with a reception on the lawn and an elegant, heart-themed, sit-down dinner. Even our bed is strewn with rose petals. We are in love with Kenya and Maasai Mara, certainly; with Africa, its people and its creatures, completely. Our very way of looking at the world has been transformed. Keen to whatever stirs, from a hippo walking to the river’s edge to a lanky serval cat disappearing into the deep savannah, our eyes have become as predatory as a lion king’s.
Kenya Info to Go
The Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is connected to downtown Nairobi by taxis ($20) located just outside the main terminal exit, but most tourists are picked up by their hotel shuttles or safari operators. A tourist visa is required by visitors from most countries (including the United States), which can be purchased before arrival through embassies and consulates (recommended) or in a special visa line in the airport ($50). Hotels can arrange taxis, chauffeured cars and day tours. Abercrombie & Kent, based in Downers Grove, Ill., provides a variety of luxury African safaris and maintains a large office in Nairobi. Nairobi traffic is notoriously slow; allow two hours to reach the airport. Although residents are friendly and helpful, Nairobi is renowned for its thieves, pickpockets and scam artists, so take reasonable precautions.
Read more about Nairobi.
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