It might be illegal to come to Kenya and not go on a safari. When I had first arrived in Africa, Ethiopia to be precise, and called my father to say hello, the first question he asked was, what kind of animals have you seen? The vase expanse of sub-Sahara Africa with the blood red sky with giraffes, elephants and lions dotted through out, occasionally punctuated with an occasional lone Acia tree is the most familiar image of Africa. The fifty-two different nations, hundreds of tribes and various distinct climates all condense down to that single image of the savanna.
We debated long and hard on whether I wanted to do a safari or not. For one thing, the expense of the safari can be considerable. Secondly, do we want to be stuck in a car with a bunch of strangers who I may or may not like for days on end? The notion of when in Rome won out and we rationalized that we would have had the experience of a safari and could judge the merit of it with actual facts.
We sign up for a three-day camping Masai Mara safari.
The Masai Mara National Reserve boarders the Serengeti and the great wildebeest migration moves from the Serengeti to Masai Mara and back again. It is early July and the great migration is just starting.
We gather for our first late afternoon game drive and enter Masai Mara for the first time. Every once in a while, the reality lives up to exactly what you had pictured it would be. The savanna of Masai Mara is the picture you had in your mind of Africa. There are herds of zebras, buffalos and wildebeest graze shortly after you enter the park’s gate. Within a 30km loop you’ve seen elephants, gazelles, giraffes, jackals and lions. A menagerie of wildlife just as National Geographic had describes it.
As we drove through the park, staring slacked jawed, gawking at each animals, I set aside my own discourse on God and religion and thought, if there really is a GOD who created the world in 7 days….WOW….What an imaginative and creative guy he must be. To dream up ALL of these animals and let them co-exists in an eco-system that self sustains and complete. Holy Shit!
On most safari drives, the focus is seeing The Big Five: lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephants. The Big Five is a term coined by the white colonialist, not based on the rarity of the animals but as the most dangerous to hunt. Within the first afternoon of game drive, we saw three of the five, missing only the leopard and rhino. For the next two days, the other travelers on our safari will hound our guide to find the other two so they could say they’ve seen it all.
The next day we drove to the edge of the reserve, meters away from Tanzania and the Serengeti. Across the Mara river, thousands of wildebeest gather, all waiting for their lead male to cross the Mara and begin their migration. We parked on the edge of the river along with twenty other safari vans and watched the wildebeest calculate some invisible risk and start crossing the river. The herd scares easily and through various subtle signals moves as one body, changing course, moving forward and backwards. Come mid-July, there will be thousands of wildebeest in Masai Mara.
An experience that lives up to one’s expectation can be rare. To meet that expectation and hold you in awe is even harder still. A safari tour of Kenya’s national park might seem touristy and pre-packaged (which it is) but there is nothing like seeing all these amazing animals in 3D and merely meters away from you.