Two lionesses are devouring the carcass of an unfortunate wildebeest enjoying every moment of their banquet, pausing every so often to lick the blood from their lips and savour their meal; but they’re not alone. They’re being watched by three hungry hyenas, their mouths visibly watering as they wait impatiently for the lions to have their fill before they move in for scraps. It’s like something out of a wildlife documentary – but it’s happening now, right in front of our Jeep, in the middle of the Masai Mara.
A safari is an adventure like no other, and ours takes us to the best national parks in Africa – in Ngorongoro, the Serengeti in Tanzania, and Amboseli and the Masai Mara in Kenya. As this is a luxury safari with specialists Tauck, the attention to detail is superb. We’re transported between four parks on private and small planes, and for our game drives we’re in Land Cruisers with no more than four other people – so we all get a window and when the roof is open we can stand up and look out at will.
Everyone in our group is like-minded and keen to experience as much as possible. Many have good-quality cameras; we all compare photos and sightings, and a special bond quickly develops because of the shared experience. While most meals are eaten family style, there are plenty of opportunities to dine alone or spend time as a couple, but friendships are soon formed.
Accommodation throughout our tour is of the highest quality. In Ngorongoro, that means a lodge with views towards the crater; in the Serengeti, it’s the outstanding Four Seasons Serengeti, with its glorious infinity pool overlooking a watering hole where we watch zebra and dik-diks (small antelope) having a drink while we swim; and we cross the equator at the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Lodge. For me though, staying in a luxury tented lodge on the banks of the River Mara proves to be a revelation. I am not a natural camper, or even a glamper; but this is on a whole different level. The Fairmont Mara Safari Club lodges are beautifully furnished, with four poster beds and proper bathrooms and floors, and verandas where you can listen to the hippos on the river as they grunt to each other. In addition to the indoor bathroom, my lodge has a secluded outdoor shower, and it’s a fantastic experience to be able to shower under the trees accompanied by birdsong; at night I listen to the hyenas and lions (fortunately the property has a secure electric fence). A little gift (a clay animal) is left on our beds each evening at turndown – in fact we’re given presents throughout the tour, including, impressively, a Masaishuka – the red and black checked blanket worn by the warriors which proves very handy on a slightly chilly evening.
Food, too, is excellent, with most meals included, which is particularly welcome at the Four Seasons Serengeti where the food is incredibly good, and on days when we’re travelling, a substantial picnic lunch appears as if by magic.
There are countless unexpected and memorable moments, and we’re all on high alert, scouring the savannah and trees for anything moving or rustling, although of course our guides are much better at spotting things. One night in the Ngorongoro an elephant walks right up to the lodge and we all stand watching him as he rips trees right out of the ground using his magnificent tusks and trunk, his hide within touching distance, though of course you should never attempt to touch a wild animal.
Out on a drive one morning, we see some young lions try to mount an attack on three giraffes – and then turn and flee as the giraffes impressively group together and return on the offensive, herding an entire pride of lions into the bushes. We see a lioness calling plaintively for her cub, who is simply hidden in the bushes (the temptation to just reunite them ourselves is overwhelming). On another drive we discover an enormous pride, and watch as the male lion, the head of the family, sits guarding his youngest cubs, and is then welcomed home by his older cubs who have been resting nearby. We see female elephants with their young, and four male elephants having a quarrel, which involves a lot of pushing and poking with tusks and is enthralling. And there is the heart-in-mouth moment when a lioness comes up close to our parked vehicle and walks right underneath my open window, so I can see her white-gold fur and hear her breathing. Observing wild animals in their natural environment like this, seeing how they interact with each other, is simply unforgettable and will change the way you think about captivity forever.
The scenery is astonishing, including, of course, Mount Kilimanjaro; the dust bowl and swamps of Amboseli; the iconic acacia trees of the Serengeti; and the volcanic Ngorongoro Crater. A definite highlight has to be a balloon ride in the Masai Mara. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking a balloon ride then Africa has to be the place to do it, and our ride takes place at sunrise, just as the sky erupts into a riot of gold, pink and purple. You have to climb in and lie down on your back, and then the balloon slowly lifts up and suddenly you’re floating in the air and facing upright. Although the balloon can move quite quickly (depending on wind), the air feels incredibly still up that high and it’s astonishingly beautiful. As we float over the treetops we see lions, wildebeest, antelope, gazelles and giraffe. Afterwards we enjoy an al fresco breakfast under the trees, the tables decked in brightly coloured batik tablecloths. It’s a wonderful morning.
There is a visit to a Masai school, where we sit with the children and talk to them about the subjects they enjoy. There is also a morning spent at Masai village, where we’re taken inside the Masai warriors’ homes and shown how they live.
Throughout our tour we’re accompanied by Anna, a charming Austrian with outstanding local knowledge who is fluent not only in English and German, but Swahili as well. She leaves us helpful notes advising us on our pick-up times and also clues to the identity of a ‘mystery animal’, which we try to guess at our daily briefings. Our local guides, too, are superb and know exactly where to take us, and when, to increase our chances of seeing not only the Big Five (African lion, African elephant, Cape Buffalo, African leopard and rhinoceros), but everything else as well, including cheetah and a lot of hippos. The guides communicate constantly by walkie-talkie to ensure they know exactly what has been spotted, and where, and make sure we don’t miss a thing. They are patient, too – if we want to make a sudden stop because we’ve glimpsed something (even if it turns out to be nothing) or stay a little longer watching the wildlife then they are always happy to oblige.
A definite highlight is on an afternoon game drive in Amboseli when our vehicles make a sudden stop on the road. Suddenly, an entire herd of elephants looms in front of us, making their way from one side of the park to the other for bedtime; as we watch them walking slowly together, trunks swaying, dust swirling around them against the lilac of the twilight sky, we fall into respectful silence. Everyone has their favourite animals, of course. For me it’s the big cats and elephants, closely followed by rhino, but they are of course rather more elusive, although we do get to see black rhino, including a mother and baby crossing the road. (Confusingly, both black rhino and white rhino are in fact grey, but black rhino have a pointed lip and white rhino have a flat, wide lip). I also enjoy watching the hyenas, which some people consider ugly, but are actually very entertaining, particularly when they’re running, and have endearing ears, like teddy bears.
We see a lake at Amboseli National Park covered in pink flamingo; countless baboons, who are absolutely fascinating and have a quiet beauty to their faces and fur; and warthog, who soon become a firm favourite as they’re so funny to watch.
There is also a visit to Jane Goodall’s Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, where we see chimps who have been rescued from unbearable cruelty. They are emotionally damaged, as well as naturally dangerous, and we’re protected from each other by a large electric fence, the only point throughout our tour where we see any animals behind a fence: everything else is roaming free.
The constant theme of our tour is conservation. In Amboseli we climb to the top of a mountain and as the sun sets we listen to an excellent lecture on the threat to elephants from poachers, and the importance of education in helping to protect them. Of course the news that China is to ban the ivory trade by the end of this year is very welcome. The African elephant is currently considered ‘vulnerable’ (that is, one step away from endangered).
There are many bucket list moments on our African adventure, and there’s also the time our Jeep gets stuck in a muddy river and we all hold our breath as our guide manages to skilfully manoeuvre it up the bank. Also, the weather changes quickly in this part of the world and the magnificent sky, so vast and unpolluted, is an ever-changing, cinematic backdrop to our incredible experiences. The best moment of all, though, is saved until last. On our final day we’re told that we’re going on a late afternoon game drive, but we’re driven to a hut where we climb out of the cars and are instructed to walk slowly and in silence by three rangers armed with rifles. Suddenly we arrive at a clearing and there, in front of us, is an enormous white rhino. She is so close we can see her horns and brown eyes and hear her chomping on the grass, but she’s so focused on grazing she’s oblivious to us and we have to keep getting out of the way in case she knocks us over; she looks almost prehistoric and is absolutely gorgeous. Her name is Queen Elizabeth, and she and another white rhino, ‘Kofi Annan, who also makes an appearance, are so endangered that they are protected by a group of dedicated rangers round the clock.
Later, as we sit by a roaring campfire, guarded by rangers in case any big cats are waiting to pounce and watching the sun turning crimson as it sets, many of us are in tears at the prospect of leaving this extraordinary place and the wildlife we have all fallen in love with. It has been a tremendous privilege to be able to see so many animals in the wild, and a potent reminder that when it comes to conservation in Africa, there is still much to be done.