Updated: Sep 12, 2018
Little over a week ago we made our way to Kenya. It was also our very first time in the continent.
If you have been following me on Instagram, you know this year has been about continents. We went to Asia, North and South America earlier this year. Naturally Africa wasn't going to be far behind. After doing plenty of research about the best places in which to see the migration, I zeroed down on two options - Masai Mara and Serengeti. After doing some more reading, I found Masai Mara to be the more commercial option. Considering we had only 4 days to do this trip, I chose Mara over big-league safaris like Serengeti, Botswana or Zambia.
Did you know that the Masai Mara and Serengeti actually share an un-fenced border of sorts and are both part of East Africa?
Best time to visit
June - October, you can avoid the peak rainy season and hope to catch the wildebeest migration.
Pick your Tour Guide We almost never do tours. I knew Africa would have to be an exception. Yes, you can self-drive inside the park but for a short trip, it wasn't worth the trouble of researching.
if you opt for a tour like we did, there are over a 1000 safaris to choose from in different categories from cheap, mid-range and luxury. The best way to narrow your search is by getting on SafariBookings.com.
Once you are on the website, just choose your destination, date of travel, number of passengers and voila. The website will give you the details of tour operators. All you need to do is pick 3 to 4 and shoot them emails with your requirements. I found that almost all of them responded to me within a few hours, which was fantastic. I finally went with Right Choice Tours and Safari, owned by George who was exceptionally quick in responding to all my silly queries and last minute requests. Flights and Visa
We flew Ethiopian Airlines into Nairobi with a layover at Addis Ababa. The Addis Ababa airport is a cattle house - one of the worse airports we have ever been to. Hardly any places to eat, unsanitary toilets, all around nasty. If you are flying with Ethiopian, I recommend leaving at least 3 hours before you have to board your next flight. The flight was actually pretty good with comfortable legroom for seats, decent service and entertainment. Vaccination, Travel and Medical Insurance Yellow Fever vaccination is not mandatory if you are traveling from countries that haven't had a history of yellow fever - like U.A.E, USA, Europe or UK. We still took it as a precaution since a lot of other African countries do require it. The vaccination has a lifetime validity, so no harm taking it. Travel Insurance mandatory for your visa or travel to Kenya but I would recommend it - no matter where you travel.
Visa is on arrival for Indians. It was $50 per person, paid in cash at the immigration.
Where we stayed Most of the Safari tours include accommodation for the duration of your safari, full board meals, water, pick and up from Nairobi by an experience guide as well as the entrance fees to Masai Mara. Depending on when your flight arrives, you might need to stay for a night in Nairobi. We stayed at Best Western Meridian Hotel before heading to Masai Mara.
You will start your drive to Masai Mara around 8 in the morning. The drive takes around 5 to 5 1/2 hours. You will be driving past the incredibly scenic rift valley.
We arrived just past noon in Masai Mara. Checked in to our cottages at the Aa Lodge Mara.
The cottage was well laid out with a huge comfortable bed, wood finished floors and a walk-in closet. The lodge was about 2 kms from Masai Mara, about a 10 minute drive.
Keep in mind that electricity is still an issue in Africa. There may not be power during the day (which is alright since you will be out anyway). They try not to use generators all day long and the power comes back around 6 p.m. Also, the internet was only available in the lobby, and even then it was real patchy. Apart from that it was a lovely place in the middle of the jungle.
Food The food was included as a part of our package. It was nothing to rave about. There was a buffet spread for all three meals. There was a lot for vegetarians on the menu but unfortunately, it was just boiled vegetables and tasteless noodles or pasta. We never stayed for lunch since we were out throughout the day. If you are going to be out on a game drive, the tour includes packed lunch which was basically some cake, couple cookies, fresh juice, fruits and water. Being vegetarian can be challenging in few countries. If we know it's going to be a struggle, we like to carry few packs of ready to eat noodle cups, granola bars, trail mix and cookies. If you are a picky eater like me, I would recommend carrying food for Africa.
Safety I did not feel insecure while we were Masai Mara but it's definitely better be cautious while heading out in the city. There was a rather unfortunate incident on our way back from Mara. A road side accident resulted in a mob forcefully loading an injured passenger on to our jeep. I have no qualms with helping out bystanders but the way the events unfolded (within seconds) was a tad scary. The mob were this close to cracking open the window on our jeep. We decided against going to the hospital and drove to the police station instead. It was shocking to see how brazen the cops were considering there was a bleeding man with a broken leg in our car. I shudder to think what would happen if we ever need the cops to bail us out in Nairobi. Not the best way to end our trip but hey, lesson learnt.
What to pack Toiletries. Your own shampoo (unless you want a bad hair day on vacation). Dress in comfortable clothes. I am not big on brands, fancy dresses or anything too girly. I got two pairs of khakis, 4 pairs of neutral color shirts and a hat. Sunglasses. Sunscreen. I would recommend carrying a shawl for early mornings and evenings when it gets chilly. Masai Mara Safari - day 1 through 4
Day 1 Since we stayed outside the park, a short drive later we were at the entrance. The guide may require your passport to get you the tickets, I suggest you keep it on you at all times. We were going to go on a 3 hour sunset drive. The drive wasn't arduous but the roads weren't paved inside the park (as you can imagine). We decided not to drive very far since the park closes at 6 p.m.
We were surprised to see that there were hardly any trees in sight. Apparently, over the years, elephants have knocked a lot of them down. Now the Mara landscape is basically solitary thorn trees, blue-green hills and vast grasslands.
The hills stretched on for as far as our eyes could see. The sunset was impossibly beautiful, and in the middle of all this were the gazelle, impala, wildebeest and zebra.
Back to the lodge at 7 p.m. for dinner and off to bed. As we were driving back, we spotted our first giraffe - actually make that two giraffes. This was just outside our lodge. Such perfection.
Day 2 We were up before the sun to head on our quest for the “BIG 5”. What is the big 5? You may have heard of this term if you have been reading about an African Safari. This name was given by poachers a really long time ago. The big 5 (the Lion, Elephant, African Buffalo, Rhino and the leopard) were known as such because they were difficult to hunt on foot.
Early into our drive we spotted our first big one, the African buffalo.
Half hour after that, the second biggie - a lioness, in the middle of the road. This was the first time we were less than a few meters from a full grown species of a wild animal. She stared right at us - it was exhilarating!
After driving further we checked the mighty elephants off our list. We stopped to watch a herd of them walk past us. This was an easy one, after all, they are pretty hard to miss.
It was adorable the way the adults were keeping an eye on us, never letting the baby stray very far, slightly weary of our presence.
Along the way we saw birds, scavengers standing over a dead wildebeest and graceful impalas. The impalas were actually everywhere and are so tiny. We could barely spot them with all the tall grass.
Lunch time. Found some shade to park our jeep. Turned off our engines in the hope of catching the wildebeest migration...
as it turned out, they were in absolutely no mood to move that afternoon.
Number 4 at 3 p.m. We counted the rhino horn we saw poking out of a bush far in the distance as a win. We were lucky enough to spot it twice that day when we stumbled on to another aggressive rhino chasing after birds.
Did you know that there are actually two types of Rhinos in Africa: the black and the white rhino. The black rhino is highly endangered and threatened by poachers. They are aggressive and solitary animals.
The picture below was the highlight of our day. A pride of 5 lionesses were resting under the shade. Our guide suggested we turn off our engines and wait for them to move. After about 15 or 20 minutes, one of the lioness finally stood up.. slowly all of them followed. We were so mesmerized by their grace we didn't realize they had us surrounded in all four directions (it was just a coincidence).
It wouldn't have taken them more than a few minutes to devour us but they couldn't have cared less. They moved on, drank from the puddle and carried on towards the bushes. The whole experience was surreal and I was politely reminded of where we stood in the food chain.
This was the first real day of our Safari and we had already netted four of the big five and nearly watched the migration. We were feeling pretty optimistic about our chances of catching the final of the five - the leopard, known to be the most elusive of the African game in Masai Mara. We had done everything by the book so far. Setting off before the sun rose. Driving at snail’s pace searching the tree tops to the point of eye strain. Fingers crossed for tomorrow.
Day 3 Yes, it was all about finding the leopard. The leopard is common in most of the African national parks but it’s very hard to spot. You might be lucky and see one hiding in a tree, tail flicking, observing his surroundings calmly.
First thing in the morning, a close hunt and a rare sighting - the wild dogs.
The male (black) and female (brown) ostrich standing tall.
Ever since we booked our Safari trip, I was skeptical about watching a hunt (I swear, I can't even watch it on national geographic). We saw this Cheetah nearly chase down the wildebeest. Sigh. Circle of life be damned.
Our guide was particularly insistent we stay to watch at least one hunt but I would always force him to drive on. The chase maybe fascinating but I don't have the stomach to watch a killing.
The king of the jungle - finally. People have always been fascinated by these elegant, majestic members of the cat family. While they are impressive hunters, most of the times you're more likely to find them resting in the shade. They generally hunt during the night, which is why you won't find zebras or giraffes resting for very long.
No, we hadn't forgotten about our agenda for the day - the chase for the leopard was on. At about 10 a.m. our guide was radioed in about a sighting not far from where we were. We dashed over as quickly as possible but of course, the animal had disappeared already. Disappointed, we kept driving for few hours searching all the bushes and tree tops before stopping for lunch by the Mara river, waiting for the wildebeest migration.
Do you spot the wildebeest on the other side?
We got so close to watching the entire migration as a herd of them had just made their over the river. We scrammed to get a glimpse but missed it by a whisker.
We continued to wait for a few hours but sadly because of all the cars, the rest of the wildebeest got distracted and never made it over that afternoon.
It was still a beautiful experience watching hoards of them over on the other side at Serengeti.
Did you know that the Crocodile is the natural enemy of the wildebeest?
Back to the hunt.. our guide was constantly in touch with the other drivers looking for the leopard. After a long time, there was a murmur about a sighting but it quickly died down.
We still didn't give up and continued driving for sometime. Gradually we noticed the population of grazing animals decrease - apparently, this meant we were entering the leopards' territory. We kept our eyes peeled for anything and everything that was moving. Suddenly, Anand screamed "there". I was thinking, "not another giraffe, please" but lo and behold - a single male specimen perfectly camouflaged in the grass.
As more cars started making their way over, he finally decided to get up and put on a show for us - surprising, considering his solitary nature.
That was it. We had had a fabulous safari experience where we managed to see the big 5 and nearly caught the migration.
The weather could not have been more splendid on our drive back that day. Looming clouds, chill in the air and wildebeest everywhere. Can you imagine wide yellow plains transformed into a sea of brown because of the sheer population of wildebeest around? It was pure magic.
Day 4 Early morning drive to watch the sunrise over the mountains for one last time. I will be honest, it hasn’t been my dream to travel to Africa. It’s certainly not an easy continent to travel. That being said, it’s definitely one of those places where nature is at it’s purest.
How do I describe the emotion of watching the massive sky as it goes from blue to pink to orange and blood red over the rift valley? That is the reality of being here - it’s the earthy experience with the smells and sounds of nature that a camera could never capture!
I could go on about the wonderful things we saw but there were a few moments like this one that stand out the most. We were the only car for miles. It was a cloudy day so we turned off our engines and waited for the clouds to clear. An impala made it’s way out of the bushes. It was playing without a care in the world. I was dazzled watching all of this. Just then the skies cleared and I had my shot with the little one. These animals are really something special.
Elephants walking over vast plains. Lions lazing under the shade. Cheetahs hunting the wildebeest. Zebras and Giraffes grazing in numbers. All of this beneath a stunning lavender blue sky. Everything comes alive under the African landscape.
If you look really closely at the picture below, you can spot over a thousand wildebeest lined up against the horizon...
Everyone has a different agenda and experience at the Mara. Someone people go to photograph these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. Some other people want to see a hunt and a lot of people expect animals to give them the perfect pose... What did I want? When I first planned the trip to this continent back in January, I just wanted for us to see animals the way they were meant to be seen - free and in the wild.
I can definitely say that every drive and every day was different. Every time we put our heads out of the van, we found something amazing - sometimes it was a lioness, sometimes it was a wildebeest and sometimes it was just the sight of a single tree standing tall against stunning blue skies. The African Savannah did not disappoint.
Being on safari is not just about experiencing the animals but about taking in every smell, every movement and enjoying the vast landscape around.
Our fantastic guide took us to the most picturesque points in the park to experience the never ending plains. We couldn't have asked for a better experience on our first time to the continent.
Now that I have rambled on for over 3000 words it's time for me to let you go. Drop your comments below and show some love. Feel free to shoot me an email with your feedback.