Thrilling Game Drive and Scintillating Hot Air Balloon Ride at Masai Mara , Kenya !
Of the 4000 to 4500 living species of mammals worldwide , approximately 25% or some 1100 occur on the African continent .The Very Best of African Wildlife brings together the very best Africa can offer. From the Big Five - lion, leopard or cheetah, buffalo, rhino and elephant - to their many equally impressive companions in the wild !
Driving down towards Masai Mara, on my left immaculately dressed tribal women , looking as if they had just come out of a 1970′s catalogue and to the right two giraffe and a small herd of zebra. I was just too excited to miss anything. The great outdoors in Kenya at some places isn't as picturesque but what it does have is wildlife and plenty of it. I catch the eye of my guide / friend Joshua checking on me in the rear view mirror, as he takes great delight in once catching me nodding off, like it was a game.
We've passed the Giraffe and Zebra, next a few Impala and in the distance Gazelle. Huts with yellow plastic on the roof and kids herding cows.
My mind is starting to wonder and as I think back on all the animals I have seen, the lions, the rhino,the leopards, cheetahs and Elephants , I start to feel very emotional. You often run out of superlatives when describing Kenya & Tanzania – amazing ,breathtaking , fantastic they all apply but nothing prepared me for the day of my life.
This is the total sensory experience holiday. Your senses are constantly stimulated by the sights, smells and sounds of the Mara and its many inhabitants. The thrill of leaving camp at dawn, in search of big cats is an experience that is difficult to repeat. It doesn’t really matter where you stay in the Masai Mara because you spend most of your time out on game drives.
The alarm clock was set for 3am and to my surprise it’s quite easy to get up at that time when you’re ticking something off your bucket list. As ever the room at the lodge was immaculately fitted out but in the morning the amazing views are still shrouded in darkness. As I walk through the lodge grounds to get to the main reception lions roar. Reception is empty apart from a select of teas and coffee with freshly baked croissants and Baked beans. I was the only one from my lodge going on the dawn hot air balloon ride that morning, so somebody got up well before 3 am to bake croissants and put out tea and coffee for just one person, that is service !!
The days journey out was in a Land Rover and I was not with my usual driver Joshua. We left the lodge and the journey out was quiet, maybe the earliness or trepidation of my impending flight. We had to pick up 4 more people from other lodges on the way .We arrived at the takeoff site and were warned if we get out of the Land Rover to stay in the headlights just in case…
The balloon was filled with hot air but it wasn't quite dawn yet so we couldn't see the full majesty. A quick safety briefing by our Pilot Mark and then it was time to climb in to one of four sides. I get the end of what looks like the back seat of a bus and we huddle down for takeoff. Ten or fifteen feet into the air and we are allowed to stand up ! This experience just took my breath away. I Closed my eyes and for a moment felt my body lift up . It makes one feel as though having no control over it and there is a certain part inside you, saying to yourself, I am crazy for taking this balloon safari :) This is what most people feel, when the excitement of a Masai Mara hot air balloon safari crosses one's emotion of self-control and independence. Apart from the hiss of the burners,the flight above the Masai Mara plains is magically silent.
Yes the views of dawn breaking over a vast wilderness with wildebeests , lions and zebras below were superb. A gentle ascent takes you well above tree-top level and the whispering light breeze soothes the hearts as you enjoy a panoramic view of wildlife drama unequaled anywhere in the whole wide world. Thrilling drama of nature’s battle of predators verses the preys .
We climbed so as not to upset that one elephant but failed. I don’t like disturbing animals in their environment and feel a little guilty but our pilot does all he can to avoid scaring them. Maybe elephants just don’t like balloons.
On any other day this would be the highlight but things were going to ratchet up in the excitement level. We are on our way down and in the brace position for landing. A few seconds later we land upright and after the balloon is secured we step out. We are herded into two Land Rovers and driven off to our champagne breakfast. The flight is for about one hour depending on conditions
On landing you celebrate in the traditional manner with champagne (well, an excellent sparkling wine), before sitting down to a full English breakfast prepared and served in the bush in 'Out of Africa' style with bone china, linen table cloths, etc.
The sheer majestic beauty of the countryside, a lone tree on the skyline surrounds the Savannah of tall yellow grass is picture perfect. We arrive at our outdoor breakfast spot under a large tree with nothing but nothing as far as the eye can see. Normally I wouldn’t gush about a toilet but this has to be one of the created places on earth to go for a pee. A windbreak some 30 feet away, you sit on the bowl and look out over mile upon mile of grass and deep blue sky and for a moment you feel like your the only person on the planet !!
My driver Joshua came to the spot to pick me up for the game drive. I had decided to be on the field the full day and track the cheetah cubs . After an hours drive Joshua stops the rover and points to the direction where two Cheetah cubs, about six weeks old ,were in a buoyant mood and I atonce caught them in action as they raucously frolicked in the long grass. But don't let this young felines fool you. They will grow into the fastest animal on land, and will be able to run up to speeds of 75 mph at their peak.When they reach the age of five to six weeks, cheetahs accompany their mother to learn how to make a kill !! And yes it was my day indeed . I was lucky enough to track the cubs and the mother for 3 hrs and had the pleasure to see and understand as to how the mother teaches the cubs to hunt !
I sit in the front seat with the roof open and I was full torso out of the Land Rover when we swung right and up a small side track. Joshua had spotted a male lion busy eating its hunt. It is a fallacy that lionesses do all the hunting and that male lions do not hunt. We approached to within about 20 feet and turned off the engine. I could hear the sound of the lion hogging on its hunt, he seemingly oblivious to our presence.
While I had seen lions before this was special, so close and active. “Let’s go round and see if we can get a better view” , whispered Joshua. Holy Tintinnabulation how much of a better view can we get. By the end of the second day, the lion had full belly, and all that remained of the carcass was the bare skull, spinal column, rib cage and the skin, stretched out like a picnic blanket.After the lions had reduced the carcass to the bare minimum, the scraps on the bones were gleaned by vultures. Hyaenas, who had been patiently waiting for a chance to get involved, came in and started working on the smaller bones like the ribs, and eating the skin while it was still soft.
Well much better as it happens, we moved around the side of the lion and parked up next to a large rock. The next thing I saw was the lion turn towards us and walk the 20 feet across the open ground and behind the rock we had just parked next to. Then a bushy mane appeared above the other side of the rock. The lion walked up on to the rock and towards us. Four or five feet away his eyes met mine as he stared right through me. At this stage my brain is dead, I’m stood half out of a Land Rover with a lion five feet away on a rock the same height as the Land Rover, the window open and my camera clicking away. He turns side on to me, lets out a roar and then glances back at me. Brain engages and I slowly lower myself down and try to wind up the window which in my haste I cannot do for some reason. “Don’t worry” said Joshua . So in for a penny in for a pound, I stand up again and watch as the lion lowers itself down onto its stomach and starts to lick its paws. I can hear him breath and I watch his chest rise and lower as the flies hover around him.
A small murmur and his head falls as if to say “…alright you’ve seen me now, time to go.”. And it was, we start the engine and slowly reverse out of the lions way. We had sat and watched this magnificent lion for 30 minutes but it felt like a day - it certainly made mine.
As the sky lit up like a burning flame, an elephant walked towards our vehicle. We were directly in its path and as itglided silently through the long grass, I felt my heart well up with emotion. This was one of the the most beautiful moment I had ever experienced in my life.The elephant drew closer and the sky exploded into even more vibrant blues. We had to get back to camp or they’d send out the park rangers, but even Joshua couldn’t pull himself away. The elephant continued to walk towards us and soon we released it was a mock charge .. there was no way to turn the rover and only option was to reverse down the slope as fast as possible ... as Joshua speeded back down the slope , I kept clicking shots of the mock !!
It was the the Adreline rush drive of the day ! Once we maintained a distance away from the elephant , it seemed to be in a trance, walking deliberately yet relaxed. It moved as if gliding over water. " It was silent, it was magical, it was Africa " !!
Nothing describes the feeling, the emotion. It was the greatest day of my life….so far !!