It takes five hours to drive from Nairobi to Maasai Mara. Our Landcruiser negotiates Nairobi’s infernal traffic, passes by a sprawling slum settlement, and a couple of hours later we are crossing the Rift Valley and heading towards the land of the Masai. Our destination is the Maasai Mara plain, a massive national park blending smoothly into Serengeti on the Tanzanian side.
The last stretch is a dirt road that makes us glad we had opted for the Landcruiser rather than a plain van. We drive in clouds of yellow dust across a semi-desert. It is all empty but for an occasional herd of skinny cows guarded by a Masai boy in traditional colourful garments.
We pass by Masai villages: homes made of clay and protected from predators by a ring of spiky branches on which women hang their laundry to dry. Larger settlements have a range of small businesses sitting alongside the dusty road: a butcher, a beauty salon, a pub… We see schoolchildren in green uniforms and even a road sign pointing to Maasai Mara University.
The safari camp is quite a shock after miles and miles of in the dry landscape with hardly a tree in sight. It is a green oasis with fresh grass, palm trees and a luscious garden full of bird song. We are greeted by smiling personnel and a chilled drink, our bags are immediately taken to our tent and we are invited to lunch by the site manager himself. It is a spectacular mouth-watering buffet consisting of every single food one could dream of, including an array of vegetarian and vegan options. At the end of our feast the chef comes to ask how we enjoyed our meal. It is a tented camp, but the name is rather misleading – these are luxury tents that come with comfortable beds and modern bathrooms.
We jump in the pool, then freshen up and board the Landcruiser again. Our first game drive is about to begin. Our driver and guide Jackson has lifted the roof so that we can see outside. We leave the camp and enter a completely different world, where the human is an outsider on foreign territory and must abide by its rules. We are only allowed to drive on marked paths (a rule occasionally broken by eager guides) and under no circumstances are we allowed to leave the vehicle.
We spend the afternoon gasping with delight and clicking our cameras. Zebras, antelopes, ostriches, a vulture… all around and so close to us. Jackson seems to be one of the most experienced guides that others seek advice from. He has fantastic instinct for finding animals. We get very close to a lioness sprawled comfortably in the dry grass, and then a cheetah that gets up for us, stretches and yawns. We are ecstatic to see a family of elephants with a baby crossing the path just in front of us.
We spend the evening over dinner on the verandah, looking at millions of stars in the vastness of the sky. Walking back to our tent we see groups of tiny antelopes, some nocturnal species. They are not scared, they stand looking at us with their huge dark eyes. As I fall asleep, I can hear groans of animals in the dark.
We start the next morning bright and early. This time we’re venturing much deeper into the park. We drive and drive and soon we leave all other jeeps behind. The landscape changes from semi-arid to a grassy savannah. We see herds of elephants again, prancing zebras, and majestic giraffes. Just before lunch we get to a river and watch a herd of hippos soaking up sunshine on the shore. A baby hippo is cheerfully running around, ignored by the dozing elders.
Jackson then spots a dust-coloured crocodile petrified like a statue with its mouth wide open. I want to get out of the car for a closer look, but Jackson stops me: There are lions everywhere, he says.
Sure enough, not far from the place where we stopped for a picnic Jackson spots a sleeping lion with a lioness. When we get closer, the male opens his eyes and lifts his head, then stands up casually, only to lie down again next to his partner.
That day we also see a solitary rhino who crosses the savannah at a leisurely pace with a string of little birds on its back.
We then drive – literally – through a huge herd of buffalo, an endless moving sea of animals, each of whom could trample an adult to death. We watch in silence, feeling small and out of place among these huge animals.
Just when we think life couldn’t get more exciting, Jackson receives news via radio about a mother cheetah with three cubs somewhere close. After a bit of searching we find the cheetah family: a slender mother with three adorable babies, each of them with a hilarious mane of blonde hair on its back. We stop the engine and watch with bated breath as they walk around our car. The mother sits and yawns. The babies play around in the sand. Then they walk away into the savannah. Pure bliss.
It is unbelievable how much life there is on the Mara. Almost all the species we spot walk around with their young. But we also see ominous reminders that where there is life, death is never too far away. The park is dotted with horned skulls of wildebeest that perished during the great migration the previous autumn. We even see an elephant skull at one point. The circle of life.
Watching the sun set on the enormous endless sky over Maasai Mara, I can’t stop thinking about the beauty of nature, and how we ought to preserve it, even if it means slower development for us humans. When you see a giraffe bend her graceful neck to nibble on acacia leaves, or a baby elephant gallop across the savannah fanning itself with its ears, when you gaze into the bottomless eyes of an antelope, you experience a powerful sense of wonder and connection to all living things.
When we get back to the camp, there is yet another surprise awaiting us. The staff have prepared a fantastic Valentine’s dinner (in our excitement we’d forgotten what day it was…). We are greeted by a suited-up waiter who gives us a rose each, a glass of red wine and some chocolate, and we enjoy a love-themed buffet, including heart-shaped tarts coloured pink by beetroot. The cherry on the cake is a performance by Masai dancers. They are all tall and slender, as if built for following their cattle over those huge distances. The dance and the music are almost hypnotic.
That evening we are reminded yet again about the power of nature. A torrential rain descends on the Mara, turning dry paths into streams. The next morning we drive back to Nairobi in pouring rain. Our plane for London leaves the same night and we each carry that wonderful experience with us. My talented travel companion Agnes has made toy elephants inspired by the giants of Maasai Mara (check out her science-themes greetings cards too!). Nature inspires us all in so many ways.