Lots of people have heard of the Serengeti, a renowned national park in Tanzania. Fewer people know about the smaller Masai Mara (also spelled Maasai), which is the part of the Serengeti that extends across the northern border of Tanzania into Kenya. Both parks are home to the animals we usually associate with Africa, including the “Big Five” – elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, and African buffaloes.
I fell in love with the Masai Mara when I visited 10 years ago. It was my first-ever African safari, and – even though I’ve now been on more than my fair share of safaris – the Masai Mara is still my favorite. The density and diversity of wildlife is incredible. Lion and cheetah sightings are relatively common. Guides are sometimes able to drive off-road to get better views of the animals. And the nomadic Masai people are fascinating.
The core of my trip to East Africa would be a 14-day overland tour to the Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru in Kenya, and then on to Uganda to see chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. But I’d also booked a separate 4-day Masai Mara-only tour that would finish the day before the start of my longer tour.
A guide named Isaac picked me up at my Nairobi hotel early on a Thursday morning, and – after collecting a handful of other tourists – our sturdy white safari van made the bumpy six-hour drive to the Masai Mara. My group included Carmen, a solo Canadian; Jivco and Martina, a Bulgarian couple; two men from Saudi Arabia; and a bald German guy traveling with a Kenyan woman (who, Carmen learned later, had met online). We made for an eclectic mix of personalities. Everyone was friendly enough, but we never really gelled as a group.
A couple hours before sunset we passed through the gates of the Masai Mara and almost immediately had good luck. A lion pride was feeding on a kill inside a cluster of bushes, and we were able to drive by for a brief view through the leaves. It turned out the pride included the tiniest little lion cub I’ve ever seen. “About one week old,” Isaac told us. Eventually the mother of the infant cub picked it up in her jaws and walked away.
Next we found a group of five cheetahs – apparently siblings – resting in the shade of a tree. As we watched they rose up and began moving across the savanna in the late afternoon light.
After exiting the park we stopped near the huts of some of the local Masai to watch the sun set over the horizon.
Our lodging for the next three nights was a permanent tent camp just outside the park’s southeastern border. As we slept (once the noisy generator shut off) we could hear a constantly-changing array of wildlife noises all around – the cries of hyenas and jackals, the flapping of large wings, the screeches of baboons.
Over the next two days we found many more lions and cheetahs, as well as elephants, hippos, giraffes, wildebeest, crocodiles, hartebeest, jackals, impalas, gazelles, a chameleon, and all kinds of birds. But no leopards. I’ve only seen a leopard in the wild once, in the Serengeti, and I’m itching to see another.
It was still the rainy season in Kenya, and in spots the dirt roads became swampy mires of brick-colored mud. Our safari van got stuck at one point, but we were able to push it out without being eaten by lions. Even on dry stretches the roads were so rough that we were constantly bouncing up and down in our seats. At one point, trying to joke with Carmen, I said, “I wonder if you can get PTSD from riding in a safari van.”
Carmen looked concerned. “Why?” she asked. “Are you stressed?”
“Uh, not really… I just mean that I feel like I’ve been violently assaulted by the roads here.”
Carmen frowned. “Well, I don’t think you can get PTSD from that.”
“Right…” I said, feeling like I’d just gotten stuck in the mud myself. “I was just joking.”
“I know,” Carmen said matter-of-factly.
Granted, I wasn’t exactly delivering A+ material, but it was a good reminder to avoid attempts at sarcasm with people I’d just met.
On our second full day in the Mara we had my favorite wildlife encounter of the whole trip. Up in the low hills late the in the afternoon we spotted two female lions walking through the tall grass. We followed as they strolled to the edge of a road, where one of them stopped and began making strange, soft guttural noises. It almost sounded like a deep purr. Suddenly from the other side of the road six young lion cubs burst out of the grass and enthusiastically ran over to greet their moms. Apparently the moms had left their cubs alone while they hunted, and we’d stumbled across the reunion.
I made the mistake of telling Carmen I’d be returning to the Masai Mara as soon as our tour ended. “What? Why?” she asked, a look of disbelief on her face.
“I love it here,” I said. “And with the wildlife it’s always a roll of the dice. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s always different.”
Carmen shook her head, unconvinced.
I should have dropped it. But foolishly I doubled down. “Back when I lived in San Francisco, I used to get up before dawn on the weekends to take photos of the Golden Gate Bridge. One of my friends, when he heard I did that, said, ‘But don’t you already have a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge?’”
I hoped my point would be self-evident: that it’s funny to think that a photographer who loves San Francisco would be “done” after taking a single photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, which looks so dramatically different at different times of day and from different perspectives – with low fog rolling underneath, with a full moon above, with the sun rising behind. The Mara is similar; it’s always different. And when you love a place you want to experience all of it.
“Right,” said Carmen, her brow furrowed. “Why would you need another photo of the bridge?”
Sigh. “Good question,” I conceded.
The top of our safari van popped up, letting us stand inside with a clear view all around. When the van was full it could be uncomfortably crowded, but we got a little breathing room when the two Saudis switched to a different group. It made me very happy to be able to stand up in the front of the van as we drove along the dirt roads, a warm breeze in my face, the rolling hills passing by, lone acacia trees under dramatic clouds, the herds of gazelles and impalas – doing my best to take in the Mara’s iconic African landscapes.
We went for an uneventful early-morning game drive on our last day and then made the long trip back to Nairobi. News reports about the spread of the Coronavirus seemed to be growing increasingly dire, but – way out in the Masai Mara – it had been easy to put my anxiety on the back burner. There were still no confirmed cases in Kenya, and I was cautiously optimistic that I’d be able to make it to Uganda to see the gorillas.