Safari in Kenya, where we have close encounters with nature at its breathtaking best

We had not bargained for a life-changing experience when we planned a visit to Kenya. In fact, my wife and I used to call it a ‘visit’ when we were planning it and, after the experience, we started referring to it as the ‘pilgrimage’. Wikipedia says a pilgrimage is a journey of moral or spiritual significance. The journey to Kenya was a pilgrimage indeed. It changed our understanding of the ‘significant others’ in our otherwise ordinary lives.

Our 12-day odyssey in this incredible country covered Samburu (a semi-arid landscape in North Kenya), Maasai Mara (the savannah in the south-west and a hotbed of activity during the Great Migration), Lake Naivasha (freshwater lake in the Great Rift Valley) and Amboseli (swampy area on the Kenya-Tanzania border).

The timing was perfect, the weather stayed true and a lovely opera played out in front of our unbelieving eyes. The Great Migration is a splendid carnival of unimaginable proportions, with about 1.3 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles, elands, and topi moving from the 25,000 sq. km heaven called Serengeti National Park in Tanzania into the Kenyan Maasai Mara (at the northern tip of the Serengeti). The migration is by the herbivores in search of water and food but naturally the predators follow them, while the scavengers follow the predators! It’s a 500 km round-trip organised by Nature each year between July and October.

The weeks preceding the journey were full of research, learning, planning and preparation. Armed with a reasonable package of knowledge on geography, directions, weather and most importantly, the birds and animals of East Africa, we were raring to go. Expectations were sky-high and the adrenaline build-up was palpable.

After a brief sojourn in the capital Nairobi, with its warm and friendly people, we set off for a seven-hour drive to Samburu in a Land Rover which was to be our trusted and rugged companion over the next couple of weeks. There was a brief stop at Nanyuki, where we saw the marking of the exact spot where the equator passes through. After an interesting experiment that demonstrated the diametrically opposite effects of the magnetic field on either side of the equator and a couple of snaps to capture our moment of scientific accomplishment, we continued our drive to Samburu.

At Samburu, the sweltering heat and the last hour of ripping through loose gravel threatened to dampen our spirits, but the first sightings of wildlife negated that possibility — a herd of elephants beckoned us even before we reached the gates of the Samburu National Reserve. What followed inside the reserve was a visual delight — a pair of dik-diks (reportedly the smallest of the antelope family), completely surprised by our late-afternoon intrusion; reticulated giraffes peacefully plucking away at the bush-tops; a lazy pride of lions enjoying a siesta; Somali ostriches; gazelles; gerenuks; guinea fowls; spur fowls; hornbills and a whole lot of other beautiful creatures. We learnt a startling fact — that the Samburu lions do not have the characteristic long and dense manes, owing to an evolutionary trait suited to a semi-arid habitat of intense heat. The highlight of the visit was when we spotted the ever-elusive leopard, albeit only for a fleeting moment, after which she disappeared as surreptitiously as she had appeared.

At the Mara

We drove back to Nairobi only to be airlifted to the Mecca of wildlife — the Maasai Mara. It was a series of fairy-tale landings and take-offs from intermittent airstrips with quirky names — Keekrok Lodge, Kichwa-Tembo and finally Maasai Mara. The airstrips were just flat belts of land enough for a small flight to land and take off, with a temporary cabin that serves as ground office. The first aerial glimpse of the snaking Mara River cutting through the plains sent a shiver of excitement running through us.

At the Mara, our feelings soared when we were able to sight the Big Five, the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. The might, majesty and grace of these animals in the wild was captivating. We were amazed at the confidence and assurance with which they strolled around our vehicle, aware of the presence of visitors, but going about their pursuits unperturbed and unruffled. The tough rules of the national reserves and parks ensured that the creatures inside the safari vehicles were well behaved but the ones outside showed tremendous discipline too! It was remarkable to see a lazy lion walking up to our vehicle to sit underneath it for shade. He watched us curiously but was completely at peace with the visitors. We saw hundreds of wildebeest, grazing randomly all around, come together in one major congregation in a jiffy (really, in a jiffy), as if programmed with self-timers. And a cheetah who paid no attention to our presence at arm’s length but had his eyes fixed on a possible prey a few hundred meters away.

Each time we were left debating if it was a sight for the eye and mind to dwell upon, or whether it was time to feed the insatiable hunger of our DSLR camera and freeze the image for eternity. Some sights we could not resist trying to capture on camera — a crocodile hunting down a wildebeest, the imposing peak of Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa’s tallest peak promptly named ‘Mountain in the Sky’ by my wife); the rather uncommon sight of a pride of eight lions; the frenzy of the river crossing; and the sight and sound of a slain wildebeest’s bones rattling as a motley group of Ruppell’s vultures, Marabou storks and hyenas snatched away at the last bits of flesh.

The lush green Mara grassland was a large real-life theatre where the next act sprang up at the most unexpected moments and left one awe-struck, feeling inferior and insignificant before the magnificence of nature. The three days at the Mara, which included a balloon safari and a night game drive, passed by like fleeting moments.

Lake Naivasha was a paradise of pink flamingos and painted storks. When they lifted off in unison, the waters took on a pink hue and the sky was hidden by a surreal cloud of hundreds of birds. At Amboseli on the Tanzanian border, we found the great African elephant.

Excitement, thrill, awe — these feelings alternated during the span of that eventful fortnight. The final and inevitable outcome, though, was to surrender our senses to the sublime beauty of the wilderness and its denizens. Finally, of course, the brief visit to Paradise was over and it was time to return to the material world. We left Kenya with a heavy heart, bidding a reluctant Kwaheri (good bye in Swahili) to the lovely land.