It’s 3:45 a.m. Normally I would not be happy about being awake at this ungodly hour, but when the alarm woke me, I popped right up, excited for a day on safari in Kenya: a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Masai Mara National Reserve, a game drive in the afternoon and traditional Sundowner cocktails in the bush before dinner.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark, the canopy walls and ceiling of the permanently-installed tent came into focus. I remembered falling asleep to the patter and chatter of monkeys leaping from the tent roof to the trees overhead. I instinctively checked to be sure the zippered door was still closed and flaps tied, since I’m told the monkeys are incurably curious and extremely clever. Thankfully, I didn’t have any uninvited roommates. I climbed out of the ridiculously comfortable real bed (this is my kind of tent camping!), put my feet down on the polished hardwood floor and padded to the well-appointed en suite bathroom for a shower to start a full day of safari in Kenya.
The Great Migration from a Balloon Basket View
Our small group of eight who were taking flight gathered at the dining lodge for an eye-opening coffee or tea, then jeeps took us to the balloon departure site. As dawn approached, we watched the giant balloons lumber to life. At this hour I could identify with that sluggish pace, but as we lifted off just at daybreak to soar above the Masai Mara, my heart soared as well. The view was simply incomparable!
The Masai Mara is one of Africa’s greatest wildlife reserves and hosts the phenomenal spectacle of the great migration. Located in the Great Rift Valley in southwest Kenya, the Mara is traversed by 2-3 million wildebeest, zebra and gazelles from July to October. They move in a circular route, north from the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania into Kenya and back again in search of food and water during the dry period, with big cats and hyenas stalking them the whole journey.
From our aerial perch in the balloon basket, we saw literally thousands of zebra grazing and galloping as their mood dictated. A large majority of the wildebeest had already moved through, though there were pockets of loitering bovines scattered among the zebra. Graceful giraffes loped along at their own pace and herds of Thompson’s gazelle were just beginning to arrive in the Mara as they followed the ancient migratory path. Travel Maestro tip: A hot air balloon ride above the Masai Mara isn’t cheap, but the view is expansive, the numbers of animals staggering, the experience thrilling! I vote this a must-do excursion.
We landed very gently in the middle of the savannah. The chase vehicle staff set up a lovely champagne breakfast in the swaying grasses and we watched the wildlife of Kenya in the near distance from ground level. We toasted our pilot, our good fortune and to the health of the amazing wildlife.
A Game Drive Safari in Kenya
After some time to relax back at the tented camp, we loaded up in two six-passenger open jeeps for an afternoon game drive. Between our expert driver who knew all the secret watering holes where animals gather, and our guide who was in radio contact with other vehicles, we were able to find a pride of lions, a herd of elephants, a bloat of hippos, a cackle of hyenas, a tower of giraffes and a leap of leopards! Although we raced across the valley floor on the rumor of a rhino sighting, we didn’t “bag” the endangered member of the big five (lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros).
Our game drive in the Masai Mara was a surreal experience. We raced at top speed parallel to a cheetah, who easily outdistanced our jeep as she overcame her prey and tackled it in a puff of dust. We sat quietly within 15 feet of a lion with a huge black mane and a scarred face as he performed his pride duties with a lioness. We watched a leopard drag her kill high into a tree to protect her meal, and felt the ground tremble under tons of elephant weight as the air filled with the bellows of a nervous herd on the move. We saw silent giraffes stretch their graceful necks to reach tender growth and heard the awful cry of sly hyenas trying to steal their next meal. It was beautiful, emotional and enthralling.
Sundowners in the Bush
As the sun began to grow weak and the air cool, we wrapped up in colorful Masai blankets for the ride back to camp. As a special surprise, our guide had arranged for “sundowners” at a scenic vantage overlooking the Mara. The phrase derives from colloquial British English and turn of the century hunting safaris when guests would enjoy elegant cocktails as they watched the sun set on the savannah. Our small group was somewhat subdued that night, be it from the very early start, memories of the poignant scenes the wildlife played out that day, or the inspiring Kenyan sunset. We dined alfresco after the sun set, recalling our favorite scenes as if it had all been a vivid dream. After dinner, we returned to our luxurious tented camp and retired. I made sure my tent door was fully zipped and tied, climbed into that big, fluffy bed and went to sleep with the score of Born Free drifting through my dreams.
To plan your safari experience, contact one of Covington’s expert Vacation Advisors who have done it themselves.
Photos courtesy of Micato Safaris.