We take a trip to Africa to sample the delights of safaris
A tip: if you meet an angry elephant in the wild, your best option is to throw your clothes and personal belongings (iPod included) to the ground, before beating a hasty retreat. This may buy you vital time, as the elephant just wants something to stamp on. Another tip: it is best, if you can, to avoid angry elephants entirely, because stamping on a shirt, consumer electronics, groceries, et al is not as satisfying or placating as actually stamping on you.
Oh, also, running might not help: elephants are surprisingly nimble, despite their size. After three days in Kenya, driving hundreds of miles, snapping hasty, invariably out-of-focus shots of lots and lots of animals (so numerous I’m at a loss to identify them on my return) it has finally dawned on me: living here, in the wild, is not all jaw-dropping sunsets and safari drives.
Heading out of the Masai Mara game reserve on a dirt track after a particularly successful spot of safari, our gigantic green 4x4 is stopped by a rickety old minibus. ‘They want us to help look for a bicycle,’ our guide Dafton tells us. Lo and behold a few metres up the road, there it is: a bicycle, accompanied by various articles of clothing hastily ditched, just as our advice, above, suggests. As it happens, only a few minutes before, a man now sitting trembling in the back of the rickety minibus was on this bike when a passing elephant took exception to his presence. ‘He ditched everything and made a run for it,’ Dafton explains. ‘He was very lucky.’
Not as lucky as us, however. Halfway through a seven-day stay in Kenya we have already spotted more wildlife than you could reasonably expect to see almost anywhere else in a month – and, so far, none of it has tried to stamp on us. We’re traipsing across Kenya – Narirobi, Amboseli, Mt Kenya, Great Rift Valley and, now, Masai Mara, all in search of the legendary Big Five, the term given to Africa’s most coveted hunted game. So far I’ve crossed three off my list. At Amboseli, with the monstrous Mount Kilimanjaro looming in the background, we saw elephants (as well as zebra, ostriches, giraffes and a solitary, yawning hippo). After a nice break by the jaw-dropping Mount Kenya we were reaching for our cameras again at Lake Nakuru – where black and white rhinos (tick number two) and water buffalo (tick three) were all on display.
But here in Masai Mara it feels like we’re in the big league: not only has the prospect of being trampled by a very large animal upped the stakes a little, but we are in the heartland of the Masai, the fierce, fearsome warrior people who patrol the rolling hills of the Mara with their cattle. I’ve already been told that Masai don’t get attacked by lions, can jump higher than any white man (after a demonstration, I’m inclined to agree) and are basically the hardest, meanest (and coolest) bunch of people you could possibly imagine. For some reason, I’m feeling a bit overawed as we return that evening to our tents.
Now, I’d like to point out that when I say ‘tent’, I mean ‘luxury, en-suite canvas-covered room’ rather than a hastily erected triangle of mildew-stricken fabric. After a pleasant sleep in a proper bed we are back on safari by 7am.
Even without the vast quantity of big, scary animals roaming its rolling hills, the Mara is a sight to behold. At first, to my parochial eyes, it looks like a bucolic fantasy version of the south of England on the sunniest day of the year, with a gently undulating topography carpeted in thick grasses. However, when we stop in front of a lion (tick four) enjoying a post-prandial snooze in the shade of a tree – a gorged buffalo lying by his feet – my hopes of seeing an ice-cream van soon disappear. Over the radio our driver hears of a hunt: a cheetah, only a few minutes’ drive away, is preparing to catch breakfast.
We arrive just in time, joining a neat line of similar vehicles holding similarly enthralled tourists. In a flash, the cheetah sets off on her chase. We scramble for cameras, the cheetah bounding at hyper-speed through the long grasses. A group of Thompson’s gazelle are caught unawares and an enthralling chase ensues. Although it’s over in the blink of an eye, it seems full of drama: if the cheetah mis-times her run she might face a long wait for her next kill. But this time her graceful strides take her to within striking distance of the antelope and she clasps onto her prey.
A mad, Wacky Races style drive takes us closer to the scene of the kill. The cheetah, panting, lies down, forcing her prey to the floor. As the last drop of life leaves the gazelle the cheetah, still panting, extends her front legs and turns to find her two cubs, who are soon bounding up to join their mother for the feed. I look down to my camera and realise I haven’t taken a single picture. It’s probably for the best – some things are better left to the memory. And this, in fact all of Kenya and its dazzling beauty, will live long in mine. I never got to tick five, by the way (leopards are notoriously tough to, er, spot). But it didn’t matter one bit.
Need to know
Get there Kobo Safaris organise the Kenya part of your stay through their Dubai parters, including Alta tours which offers packages for groups and individuals. Prices start at US$625 (Dhs2,296).
Nairobi Serena Hotel www.serenahotels.com, +254 (0)20 282 2000 Visa info While a select few nations do not require visas, most nation-alities should aim to apply for one three months in advance. See www.tourism.go.ke