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In search of the 'Big 5'

Our Kenyan Safari

The safari was the last of our three Must-Sees, and also our last major destination before we headed home. It proved a pain to book. We wanted to talk to a travel agent in person before making a decision, ‘cos we had questions and concerns that were not addressed by online tourist agencies. Our dilemma was this: either we paid a small fortune for a direct flight from London, or paid way less for a 20-odd hour flight that stopped heaven only knows where along the way. Long flights had been triggering migraines for me, so I really wanted to avoid that, but we didn’t really want to pay thousands for flights either. Package tours were way cheaper, but their itineraries were a killer (with the same potential migraine problem).

In the end we decided to heck with the money and concentrated on finding an itinerary that suited us. After several false starts, we eventually found a travel shop in London which said they could give us what we wanted. This didn’t work out exactly as we’d hoped, however, as the agent for some reason gave us stupidly long-winded transfers. We actually missed two days sight-seeing ‘cos we had to spend them travelling!

I did get my direct flight to Nairobi (approximately 8.5 hours), which was good ‘cos this was followed by a short transfer to our lodge in the Masai Mara in a twin-prop plane. I was okay until we took off, and then things went rapidly downhill. Can you say ‘bumpy’? I couldn’t; I was too busy squinching my eyes shut and trying to keep the contents of my stomach where they belonged. When I climbed out, I was white, sweaty, shaky, and cursing the travel agent who had talked us into fly-in transfers. “Remember my life list?” I asked Pete (who was grinning like a loon, having had a whale of a time). “Remind me to cross off flying lessons. There’s no way I can fly in turbulence like that, not unless the autopilot can take control of the plane and hold a sick bag at the same time.”

I am now looking for a new goal to replace my erstwhile flying asperations, one which will not leave me white-knuckled and with a stomach impersonating a spin dryer. Falling into a coma is my first choice, closely followed by watching paint dry.

Anyway, needless to say, when we finally got to the lodge I was not in the best of moods. I was hot, tired, hungry, grumpy and fully prepared to give that afternoon’s game drive a miss. But while we were being checked in and given the introductory tour by the manager, Pete pointed out something rather wonderful. Outside the lodge ran a river, and what I first took to be rocks or logs turned out to be these guys:

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I’ve never seen so many hippos in one place at any one time. The river was full of them!

Immediately all cranky thoughts went out of my head, and I was suddenly keen to go out and see all the other animals that were (hopefully) waiting for us! I say ‘hopefully’, ‘cos we were warned time and time again that there was no guarantee that we would see much of anything. We got lucky, though. We got to see three of the Big 5 on our very first game drive: lions, elephants and plenty of buffalo.

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This fella was an old bull elephant who had likely been forced to leave his herd due to old age. This wasn't the only elephant we encountered, either. We were also chased by a teenaged Dumbo, possibly because he thought we were a threat to the baby Dumbo in his herd. (Whatever the reason, we didn't stick around to argue with him!)

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An African buffalo. These creatures are under threat due to hunting and disease.

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We were so, so lucky to see this lion close-up. He has obviously recently fed (you can see the blood on his leg) and was too full and lazy to move. I could have reached out and touched him... 'cept I valued my hand too much! (I know he'd just eaten, but he might still have had room for dessert.)

The following day turned out to be one of the most exciting we spent on our tour. It started at 3am, showering and dressing by torchlight (the lodge turns the electricity off at certain periods), preparing to go for a hot air air balloon ride. The ‘3am’ and ‘torchlight’ parts were not much fun, but we didn’t care about that once we reached the balloon site.

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We got to see the balloons being inflated, which was quite an exciting business. It also took quite a while; it was pitch black when we arrived, but we got underway just in time to see the sun rise.

The most amazing thing we saw on our balloon ride were the wildebeest. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get to Tanzania to see the migration across the Serengeti, but we did see the wildebeest who had crossed the river only two days before.

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We got to see them running, too, 'cos the noise of the hot air jets scared them.

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Us, having survived a bumpy landing. Nine times out of ten the basket falls over when it lands, and you get dragged along the ground staring at the sky. (That's not as bad as it sounds, and just adds to the adventure!)

Note to anyone who thinking of going ballooning:
Pete and I took jumpers with us, assuming it’d be a bit chilly at three o’ clock in the morning - it was! – but what we didn’t consider was the blast of hot air from the jets. You stand right underneath ‘em, so I seriously recommend taking a hat of some sort. Your noggin will roast, otherwise!

The reason I wanted to go on safari was because I wanted to see a rhino in the wild. The poor critters have been hunted practically to extinction, so I knew that my chances of spotting one were slim. We lucked out again. Masai Mara has five white rhinos in a protected area, under armed guard, and we were able to book a tour that took us out to their sanctuary.

My previous experience with rhinos outside of zoos was at Longleat Safari Park in the UK. The main thing I remember about that part of the visit was the guy they had sitting in a bulldozer who was there in case one of the rhinos decided to charge at a car. This was worrying, at the time. (Even more worrying was the fact that the ‘dozer was dented, so at least one of the rhinos had obviously had a go!) Anyway, given their cranky natures, I really thought that if I got to see a rhino at all, it would be from the back of jeep five miles away and looking through binoculars. It’s nice to be wrong sometimes, though, isn’t it? Look how close I got:

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I did ask Pete to warn me if this fella looked like he was gonna charge!

It got better.

Meet my favourite rhino: Kofi Annan, the baby of the herd who was named after the Secretary-General of the United Nations:

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Somebody asked our guide, Julius, whether he was able to get close enough to the rhinos to touch them. “Yes,” he said. “Come here.” He used a branch to get little Kofi’s attention, then beckoned us closer. “Touch,” he said, pointing. I thought he was kidding.

He wasn’t. I got to pet a baby rhino!

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I was grinning like a lunatic for the rest of the day. This was the absolute highlight of my trip. Actually, scratch that. This is the absolute highlight of any trip ever!

We really didn’t want to leave the Masai Mara, but we had another lodge to go to: Taita Hills, near the Tsavo National Park. To be honest, after being so thoroughly spoilt at the David Livingstone lodge, we were a bit disappointed with Taita Hills. The area has been suffering severe drought, so there were fewer animals to see; also, we weren’t able to get up close and personal with the animals there, as it was dangerous for the jeeps to leave the paths.

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The land in Taita Hills consists of red clay, which gets everywhere. The poor zebras here are not so much black-and-white as black-and-brown.

That being said, we did get to go for a night drive, which was an interesting experience. And, best of all, we unexpectedly got to see a leopard – the last animal on our ‘Big 5’ list! (It was so bizarre. One minute we were driving along, staring at nothing in particular, and the next this leopard came out of nowhere and bounced across the road infront of our jeep. We did get a photo, but unfortunately it’s not clear enough to publish here. You'll just have to take our word for it!)

Note for friend Craig:

(I know you know what’s coming, but it has to be done. This is the last chance I’m gonna get to whine about all things slithery, and you wouldn’t wanna spoil my fun now, would you? No, of course you wouldn’t.)

Here we go then:

I have a complaint. Kenya is full of freakin’ ‘orrible snakes. This wasn’t too much of a problem, except for the one game drive we went on when the guide found a green mamba. (Why oh why did he have to point it out?) The thing didn’t much like being gawped at, got all moody and hid under the jeep. “Oh,” said the other girl in our group, looking down. “I do hope there aren’t any holes in the floor.” I screeched and tried to climb onto the roof (the only sensible response, as far as I’m concerned). Stoopid snake then decided to park itself underneath the jeep’s wheels. “Aww,” said everybody. “We can’t move; we’ll squash it.” “Move!” said I. “Drive! Reverse! Do the world a favour!” The outcome of this: the guide thought I was a complete lunatic, and the other people on the game drive thought I was some kind of psycho animal hater. Pete, of course, thought it was hilarious, and spent the next half hour making hissing noises at me.

Note for friend Becky:

I know you like all things lion-y, so here are a couple of pictures ‘specially for you:

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The cub piccy on the left was taken on extreme zoom, as you can probably tell, but we thought it was cute the way (s)he just sat there peeking at us over the top of the grass.

Anyway, this is the last of my ‘What I Did On My World Tour’ entries (what d’you mean, “Hooray!”?), although I am planning to pass on the fruits of my experiences by writing an entry or two about packing and preparation and things of that nature. Before I go though, I’ll just leave you with a selection of pictures and a bit of advice for would-be travellers to Kenya.

Advice first:

- Make sure you get your yellow fever shots and anti-malaria pills before you go. Talk to your doctor to find out which pills are appropriate. We found out just in time that we'd been prescribed the wrong type. (Some regions of Africa have chloroquine-resistant malaria, so make sure you tell your doctor exactly where you are going.)
- To help avoid getting bitten, you might want to consider buying an anti-mosquito shirt. We bought a couple, although, as it turned out, we were traveling during the winter months so mozzies were not really a problem. Wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers during the evening, too, 'cos there are a lot of insects out at that time.
- Use plenty of sunscreen.
- Take lots of batteries (or rolls of film) for your camera. You will get through ‘em!
- You can buy Kenyan visas on arrival, though we chose to get them in advance to speed up the arrivals process.

And photos:

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A gazelle, a jackal, an ostrich and a hyena.

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A giraffe and a cheeky little monkey that came begging for scraps at our lodge.

Posted by Julie1972 18:18 Archived in Kenya

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