I am often asked, “What is the most memorable trip you have ever taken?” Being an avid traveller, I’ve covered 72 countries in incredible journeys, such as a motorcycle ride from Los Angeles to Alaska, a Baltic cruise from Copenhagen to St Petersburg, sailing through the Milford Sound in New Zealand, and seeing the Falkland Islands and Cape Horn in South America. But the trip that stands out among all the others is the African safari through Kenya and Tanzania. This was nature in all its glory, with wild animals in such close proximity that one could gaze at every detail in an unhurried, leisurely way…. for example, the fly on the nose of the magnificent lion (see photo).
A major highlight of the East African safari is witnessing the Great Migration, the annual journey of two million wildebeest and zebras from the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania over the Mara river to the grasslands of the Masai Mara. A good time of year to enjoy that spectacle is July-August. Travel in East Africa to the game reserves is best on small 18-seater planes, then transferring to four-wheel- drive safari vehicles with raised tops for driving through the parks and seeing the animals at very close range. We stayed at the Serena lodges at the game parks; these are very comfortable, well-located with excellent food and service. One needs to book at least six months in advance to get the lodge and flight reservations.
We began our four-park journey from Nairobi, Kenya. The city is delightfully reminiscent of old Indian cities that were also under colonial rule, with similar buildings, roads, traffic, lights and furniture. We stayed overnight at the enigmatic and comfortable Safari Park Hotel. Our first stop was Amboseli National Park, known for its elephant herds and views of the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro. Our first sight was a majestic lone elephant ambling along the dirt airstrip where we had just landed. We were mesmerised by this magnificent beast with its giant tusks walking so gracefully and slowly right in front of our raised-top safari vehicle. Soon after we saw hundreds of Thomson Gazelle, small and very graceful, moving along in a herd. Our camera shutters were clicking away at this sight of wild animals, literally oblivious of us, going beautifully along their way.
Then came the zebras, symmetrical and poised; some alone, some in families, and some herds moving together. Soon after we saw a whole herd of elephants crossing the road. We were so taken up by the lone elephant earlier: here was a whole herd with families moving together, the grown bull male with big tusks leading the way, the female cow nudging along the baby elephants who wanted to stop and soak in the muddy puddles. By the time we got to our exotic Serena lodge for the night, we were beaming with satisfaction at all we had seen. As far as I was concerned, the trip was already worth every penny!
Sunrise is the ideal time to see wildlife at its best. We left the lodge before sunrise, and as we entered the park we saw an incredible show: a pride of lions feeding on a wildebeest. A proud male lion in all its glory lay in the bushes close enough for great photography, with the lioness resting close by. Further in the park we saw a huge number of baboons with their babies on their backs or on their bellies in the beautiful morning sun. Lots of gazelle prancing gracefully in their beautiful environment. We saw a face-off between two male Grants gazelles vying for domination.
A visit to a Masai village is a great experience to learn about the native culture and beliefs. We saw a dance of the Masai villagers dressed in colourful attire, and visited a hut to see their sparse but practical living, as well as a school with smiling kids with decorative white paint on their faces. They showed us how they brand the teenager Masai on the cheek with a hot wire. The chief’s son talked to us about their customs and their multiple wives if they can afford to have separate huts and enough cattle. The medicine man spoke about the curative powers of herbs and plants.
The Masai Mara National Reserve is a beautiful area of preserved savannah wilderness in south-western Kenya along the Tanzanian border. A wide variety of animals traverse the area, particularly during the annual migration across the Mara river. We boarded a hot-air balloon and floated in the air, watching the sunrise over the Mara river, looking at a herd of hippos sticking their heads out in the river. During that enchanting balloon ride, we saw Topi antelope, Thomson gazelle, ostriches, elephants, giraffes, a lone lioness, impalas and warthogs. Two off-road vehicles followed the balloon to where we landed and transformed that piece of savannah into a gorgeous outdoor picnic and served us an elegant champagne brunch, complete with tables and chairs, even an omelette station! Later, we drove by the Mara rives for a closer look at the hippos, and saw crocodiles completely camouflaged in the embankment. The crocodiles are territorial and can strike humans suddenly and are considered very dangerous.