Newly retired in December, 2022, I didn’t waste any time whisking my fearless Dutch spouse, Stella, off to East Africa for a bucket list tour of Kenyan game reserves. Though I had been to sub-saharan Africa before (Ghana and Upper Volta, in 1971) I’d never seen the big game for which other parts of Africa were noted.
We booked a tour with one of our favourites companies, Exoticca and were not disappointed. Our first experience with Ethiopian Airlines, the trip from Toronto to Addis Ababa and on to Nairobi, revealed why it is considered a top airline with immaculate, modern jet aircraft, excellent food, and delightful personnel in traditional dress.
After arrival in Nairobi, our trip began stressfully when I left Stella’s very expensive camera at security at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport. Fortunately our Exoticca rep (SawaSawa Tours) whisked us back and it was sitting on the floor next to the scanner. Crisis averted.
After a night at the comfy Tamarind Tree Hotel, we met our driver and guide, George Nganga. George is a veteran guide, who was to prove priceless in our tour of four of Kenya’s best parks and a quest for the “big five”, consisting of cape buffalo, rhinoceros, lion, leopard, and elephant.
Our first visit took us on an overland drive to Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. At almost 400 square kilometres, Amboseli is crowned by Mount Kilimanjaro, which though located in Tanzania, is best seen from Kenya. Our hotel, Old Tukai Lodge, sported a magnificent view of the mountain and guests can dine or lounge around the pool and see herds of elephants, giraffes, zebras, and other wildlife. Our schedule called for game drives, which turn up other types of wildlife, and we weren’t disappointed when a large male lion loped down to greet us shortly after leaving the lodge. As if this wasn’t enough, a pack of young male cheetahs decided to liven things up for us by cavorting around in search of prey or play, or maybe both. Elephants, hyenas (and pups), buffalo, zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, ostriches, and warthogs also paid us visits at Amboseli, and we saw a few hippos off in the distance. This knocked three of the five off our list the first day, plus a few stars of the savannah who aren’t actually on the list, but maybe should’ve been. We still hadn’t seen a leopard or rhinoceros, two of the most elusive creatures of the wilds.
Our guide, George, was an amiable fellow in his late fifties. Tragedy had struck his life when his daughter-in-law died in childbirth and he found himself and his wife supporting a young grandson as well as the child’s father and their daughter. Unemployment plagues 60% of Kenya, and the guiding business had been tough because of COVID-19 lockdowns, but things were slowly improving. George and his family live on a small farm/compound about 55 kilometres from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
En route the next day, we stopped to visit 243-feet high Thomson’s Falls—named, as was the the Thomson’s gazelle, for Scottish naturalist, Joseph Thomson. His other claim to fame was walking from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, not an easy task in the 1880’s. Stella and I enjoyed a coffee at the elegant Thomson’s Falls Lodge, set in lovely gardens, after which we strolled along the walkway adjacent to the gorge.
Next on our itinerary was the Aberdare Country Club, a 1930’s vintage building complex with manicured grounds sporting zebras, warthogs, and impalas, presumably keeping the lawn cropped and saving gasoline for lawn mowers. We lunched here and proceeded on to “The Ark”. The manager’s name wasn’t Noah, but we could see how the building got its name, as it looked much like the eponymous ship of that title. The Ark is a comfortable lodge overlooking a water hole where guests can see what game comes to drink… or hunt… overnight from comfortable viewing stations. Being up in the mountains, it gets a little cold. If you’re without a sweater, there are indoor as well as outdoor places to view wildlife.
Our first experience was via an invitation by staff member Solomon to a twilight bird feeding adventure. Besides dozens of birds, including colourful weaver birds who weave a nest that hangs from a tree branch, we also spotted a pair of mongoose and a pair of Genet cats, which are about the size of house cats, with spots and amazing long-ringed tails.
Overnight, the staff kept watch and would warn if anything exceptional such as a kill, or fight, occurred (at the waterhole, not the hotel). The eeriest experience was watching the hyenas, moving ghost-like, eyes glowing, encircling a cape buffalo and attempting to bring down her young calf. They had already picked off all the other calves in the course of their nocturnal stalking. Fortunately the older buffalo successfully staved off the hyena advances, at least that night.
Next stop was Lake Nakuru, famed for its huge flocks of pink flamingos… and rhinoceros. Both white and black rhinos are found here, both endangered and the latter extremely rare. George advised us that the white rhino is not actually white. Early Dutch (Boer) settlers in Africa noted that this subspecies had a wide mouth, which translates as “weit” but was misinterpreted as “white” in English. The wider mouth means that they can graze on grass, whereas the narrower-mouthed black rhino can’t get the grass and tends to stick to forests, where it grazes on bushes and trees. For this reason, they are harder to spot. On our evening game drive, we spotted a few black rhinos off in the distance and also admired the striking pink flamingos wading in the lake. We didn’t see any white rhinos, so George suggested we awaken early, before heading off to our final stop—the 1500 square-kilometre Maasai Mara National Park. This paid off with very close views of groups of white rhinos right next to our trusty Toyota SUV.
Four of the big five witness… and one to go. Would we see the most elusive of the big five at our ultimate destination? George was of the opinion that there was a good chance. There certainly are lots of animals in this huge park, with a varied terrain of mountains, rivers and plains. We were not disappointed.
Arriving at the five-star Sarova Mara Game Camp, brightly decorated for Christmas, we were enchanted with the opportunity to sleep in tents (very luxurious ones!) adjacent to the jungle. This proved interesting, because the jungle is alive with sounds that you don’t hear during the day, and won’t hear in a hotel room. The more spectacular sounds come from a small creature called a tree hyrax, a distant relative of the elephant, who while tiny in size is elephantine in the noise department. To quote Wikipedia it makes a:
“…series of loud, measured cracking sounds, sometimes compared to a ‘huge gate with rusted hinges being forced open’. This is then followed by a series of ‘unearthly screams’, ending in a descending series of expiring shrieks.”
This pretty accurately sums up the noise that woke us up in the middle of our first night. Stella clutched me closely that night, either hoping for protection or maybe thinking that if she was close behind I would be the first to attract the attention of a large predator. In any event, we both survived to eat a hearty breakfast and embark with George for the first of two days at Maasai Mara.
As you can probably guess, there are many of the Maasai tribe in this area, notable by their tall lean physique, wooden staves, and their kilt-like woven garments, which often look surprisingly like Scottish tartans. They favour the colour red as it is said to protect the wearer from lions.
We had the opportunity to visit a Maasai village en route with cow dung dwellings and friendly villagers who treated us to traditional dances. The men perform one dance that was once carried out with the Maasai assegai or short spear, rather than sticks. With its loud, harmonized grunts, and rapid unified advance toward the audience, the dance was still intimidating. The young Maasai men also engage in contests to see who can jump the highest, the winner being highly favoured by the single women of the tribe.
The Maasai are very open to questioning, and Stella decided to broach the topic of female circumcision. The chief’s son, who was designated future chief-to-be, admitted that it was still being done, so Stella advised him that this took all the fun out it for the women. He thought for a moment and said that he would ban the practice when he became chief!
On our first day, the huge Maasai Mara reserve treated us to droves of giraffes, zebras, cape buffalo, and more than one lion pride. We were also fortunate enough to spot a rare serval cat, bigger than the Genet cat. Some people keep domesticated ones as pets but weighing in at 20-40lbs this is likely not a great idea, even though legal in several Canadian provinces.
“Look! Look!” said George in a hushed voice. We followed his pointed finger to a nearby tree in which perched a leopard that had dragged its kill, a gazelle, into the tree with it. This is common practice for leopards and illustrates the amazing strength of these felines, the males of which can weigh up to 200lbs. We marvelled as our leopard climbed languorously down from the tree and walked towards an open-sided vehicle that had joined us. I wondered whether the leopard might consider this a mobile buffet, and I was glad our vehicle was solid-sided! I was even happier we were well-protected when we came upon the carcass of a full sized cape buffalo that had been gutted by a nearby pride of lions. They were sleeping off their feast, but one lion guarded the prey from interlopers such as hyenas and jackals. We spotted one wary jackal scouting the kill from a safe distance, hoping to snag some leftovers.
The following day we headed for a different section of Maasai Mara. Visitors need more than one day to do justice to this park. Since we were too far away to go back to the hotel for lunch, the Sarova Mara staff had packed a tasty picnic for us to enjoy under a shady umbrella tree on the savannah. Unfortunately the first tree we chose hosted a nest of African killer bees who took offence to our intrusion and swarmed us. We moved on to another, unoccupied tree, which did not sport any bees.
Moving on, we ascended a small hill that provided a panoramic vista of the park. There was nothing but wilderness as far as the eye could see! In the distance was the Mara River, which was our next destination, and we were rewarded by views of hippopotamus and huge crocodiles. About 1000 people yearly are devoured by crocs in Africa, and the hippos are dangerous, too, with huge and strong jaws. There seems to be a truce between the hippos and crocodiles as a full grown hippo can easily crush these large reptiles. We decided to stay well away from the river bank.
As our trip drew to an end, we wanted to thank our amazing guide, George. In discussing his future plans, he told us his ambition was to have five milk cows and then he would be able to retire. George joined us for dinner at the Sarova Mara our last night and Stella and I praised his guiding skills but advised him that we weren’t giving him any extra cash for his efforts. He took this information graciously and said, “That’s okay.”
“No,” said Stella. “It being Christmas and all, we decided to give you a cow instead!”
I have never seen a grin that wide on any human face before.
George excitedly called his wife, Anna, to give her the news and she insisted on thanking us personally. It was indeed a Merry Christmas for his family… and for us.
After a few days on the beach in Zanzibar, we flew back on Christmas Eve and were treated royally by Ethiopian Airlines. However, though we looked hard, we failed to spot Santa’s sleigh.
If you go:
- Exoticca Tours for excellent quality packages at reasonable prices.
- SawaSawa Adventures for superb adventures in Kenya (ask for George Nganga).
- Ethiopian Airlines for amazing, friendly flight service to Africa.
All images courtesy of Stella van der Lugt—all rights reserved.