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Review: The Big Five

Specialist Holiday - Safari/wildlife

Kenya

Wildlife encounters

  • By SilverTraveller stcuthbert

    5 reviews

  • February 2012
  • Wife

13 people found this review helpful

Beginning in childhood, the desire to observe wild animals in their natural setting is an attraction that often appears to stay with some people throughout their lives. We admit to be smitten with the idea. So when the chance arose to join some other like minded adventurers on safari in Kenya, we jumped at the chance. Kenyan Airways, the ‘Pride of Africa’ can have one in Nairobi, the obvious staring point, inside 8 hours from London. From there, it is very much a case of choosing the game parks you want to visit and organising a well established or private safari company to provide guide, driver and vehicle. In late January, a small party of 5 got together and set off with our safari driver guide for a full seven days on a journey that would take us north beyond the Equator, entry into the Great Rift Valley and then south westwards back to Nairobi. The game areas targeted included, the Aberdare’s, Samburu, Lake Nakuru and the Masai Mara. The minibus in which one travels also doubles up as the actual safari vehicle and has a retractable roof to make for instant, safe and better viewing. Kenya’s roads are frankly not the best, particularly in the remote areas, so the reinforced suspension springs on the vehicles make for a slightly less bumpy ride.

The best time to see wildlife, particularly the predators, is around dawn and sunset, so there is a real need on these trips to get up early and come back to the accommodation for breakfast. Most Kenyan Lodges are of a really good standard and cater well for travelling groups or individuals. Some are really ‘tented camps’ but don’t be fooled by the description, as most have excellent en suite bathrooms and every facility to ensure a good night’s rest. Perhaps the most famous we visited was Treetops, where a young Elizabeth climbed the steps to her bed as a Princess and climbed down in the morning as Queen of England, following the death overnight of her father, King George VI. The wildlife viewing galleries here have remained excellent and you can still be buzzed from your slumbers when the likes of an elephant or leopard appears at the water hole or salt lick.

Having elected to travel in January, part of Kenya’s dry season, daily temperatures often peaked at 34 degrees centigrade, another good reason to be up early before the heat of the Kenyan day takes its toll. One advantage is that in such dry conditions, much of the scrubland is not high or bushy, making for clearer viewing opportunities. Special safari clothing is not necessary. Merely avoid brightly coloured garments and always cover up from the effect of the sun’s rays with a good hat, sunglasses and long sleeves. Mosquitoes were not a problem during our trip but a good repellent and a course of anti-malarial tablets are strongly advised. A pair of decent binoculars and a good camera more or less completes the list of essentials.

Our small party were blessed with a very experienced guide who spoke excellent English and who knew the parks and their ‘inhabitants’ extremely well. His speciality was ornithology which more than satisfied the two or three of the party who were bird enthusiasts themselves. In a week’s drive, we saw scores of birds ranging from eagles and vultures to attractive herons, hornbills, goshawks, pelicans, flamingos and kingfishers. And yes, there really was a species called the Bare Faced Go Away Bird! Like the larger animals, the birds have become used to safari vehicles stopping nearby and know little fear, so photography of the brightly coloured species in particular, is a real joy.

But it was the sightings of the parks’ many predators and the abundant game life which truly sticks in the memory. Many who travel to Kenya come, for example, to see the Big Five, namely the elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino. Not all succeed, but in a week, we were fortunate enough to see all these creatures, most several times, along with many, many more. The beautifully camouflaged leopard is perhaps the most elusive of animals to spot and you have to rely on the skill of the driver guide and a good dose of lady luck. Samburu in the north has some wonderful elephants and giraffe with the landscape also dotted with attractive antelopes and zebra. Lake Nakuru is famous for its pelicans and flamingos but we also saw some rhino and leopards there, all in the course of one 2 hour drive. The Masai Mara is perhaps Kenya’s most famous game park and covers many hundred square miles. It borders the Serengeti in Tanzania and in the summer is the scene of the famous migration of thousands of wildebeest and antelopes. In February however, it is home to the lion, giraffe, zebra, ostrich, cheetah, hyena, elephant and many more fine species. Three particular sightings stick in the mind. A family of cheetahs including several young with full stomachs, all in restful mood near the edge of some woodland; a pride of lions, perhaps 15 strong just stretched out near the roadside as if to say ‘we’re here get the cameras out,’ and some close ups of perhaps the most graceful of animals, the giraffe. The sheer excitement of not knowing what may lie beyond the next bend is difficult to put into words.

The Kenyans are excellent hosts, a welcoming people, proud of their roots and happy to show off their country to visitors. The Masai people in particular still try to dress as they have done for generations and the nomadic shepherds with their large herds of domestic cattle and goats are a familiar sight in the open countryside. Like everywhere else in the world, they are being drawn into tourism to supplement their family incomes and will always welcome the odd dollar or Kenyan shilling if you wish to photograph them or visit a village. However, Kenya remains basically a poor country and gifts of clothing and pens and notebooks for the children all go down well.

But it is the animals which truly steal the show and which linger long in the memory. Now highly protected and with a secure future, herds of buffalo, zebra and antelopes are widely distributed The sun setting over the Mara and the sight of elephants silhouetted on the orange horizon, help form an unforgettable backdrop for any who have yet to outgrow their childhood desire to greet animals in the wild.

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