Close encounters with the wildlife of the Masai Mara

AS THE worst winter in three decades stretched ever onwards, the prospect of a winter sunshine break to the Dark Continent became ever more attractive. For Rotherham Advertiser editor DOUG MELLOY and his wife, Dawn, equatorial Kenya offered the beguiling c

IT WAS the biggest elephant anyone had ever seen and nobody was going to get in its way, least of all us.

Affectionately known as Churchill, he was apparently no stranger to this particular Kenyan safari camp but he did evoke respect, not least from the Askari (camp guards).

After all, the vast Masai Mara is their domain, we’re the transient stranger, tolerated as long as we acknowledge that relationship.

Churchill’s amble through the camp picking up fruit which had fallen from the trees and any other vegetation which took his fancy was going to take as long as it was going to take on his way to consuming around 500 pounds of food per day.

Lunch in the canvas-topped dining area was put on hold as Churchill made his languid way from the open-sided bar area towards the diners, picking up tasty morsel after tasty morsel.

At one point, as Churchill was hidden from sight by the canvas sides of the dining area, I popped my head round to see where he was only to pull back like a tortoise withdrawing into its shell on being confronted by a huge tusk a foot away from my nose.

Too close!

At a full four metres high and weighing more than 16,000 pounds, Churchill commanded respect, bordering on fear. If he’s happy, we’re happy. We’ve heard what happens when elephants get upset and we’re not going to upset this one.

As Churchill plodded away as unthreateningly as he had arrived, but still under the watchful eye of the Askari, al fresco lunch resumed at the Little Governors’ Camp, one of eight Governors’ award-winning luxury safari camps and lodges in the heart of one of the best wildlife viewing areas of Kenya and Rwanda.

We had taken time out from the Voyager Beach Resort at Nyali Beach, on the north side of Mombasa, to undertake a three-day safari to the Masai Mara Game Reserve with the promise of seeing the Big Five—buffalo, rhinoceros, leopard, lion and, of course, elephant.

The 19-seat twin-prop plane which had ferried us from Mombasa airport via a couple of stop-offs to a landing strip near the Little Governors’ Camp was still a couple of thousand feet or so from its final descent after a three-hour flight when we spotted herds of elephant. Tick off elephants!

Elephants, it turned out, were to be found in abundance, unlike the leopard and rhinoceros, which will have to wait for another day.

There is no point in going to Kenya without going on safari, but it’s not cheap—almost £1,000 U.S. dollars each, plus drinks, plus tips for a three-day package—at Little Governors, in the heart of the Masai Mara and, admittedly, at the luxury end of the safari camp market.

The zip-up tents with protective awnings offer spacious and comfortable beds and bathrooms with flush loos, bidets and showers and oil lamps, torches and candles for light and no electricity.

The usual 21st century sound of music or television or passing traffic is replaced by the sounds of the African night—snorting hippos, ruminating warthogs, unidentifiable squeals and calls and an insistent nasal grunt which, rather than a hippo, as I thought, turned out to be coming from the occupant of the next tent!

After days exploring the plains, evenings are spent round a roaring campfire exchanging memories of sightings, backed by photographic evidence, a little drink and a gourmet meal delivered under stars sparkling in the clearest sky you will ever see.

Getting there requires a little effort, a (very) early-morning call followed by a taxi ride to the airport, a bumpy flight and transfer by a four-wheel-drive safari Land Rover....and the wildlife spotting begins.

The final approach to the camp across the Mara River is via a flat-bottomed boat pulled across using a rope bridging a river teeming with hippopotamus and crocodile.

Emphasising the unspoiled nature of what is regarded as one of the best areas in Africa for game viewing, visitors are always, but always, escorted by Askari, some shouldering rifles, to and from the unfenced camp and between accommodation and the communal areas. In the evening the accompanying Askaris’ sweeping torches seek out any inquisitive hippo, warthog, elephant, crocodile or even leopard which might have strayed into camp.

Walking to the river crossing for the first safari of the day, a challenging 6.30 in the morning, there is evidence of the wildlife that has strayed into the camp—as well as a few paw prints!

The three safaris a day built into the Little Governors’ experience—10.30am and 3.30am as well as the sunrise start—each last anything up to three hours, the reward for returning from the amazing early-morning safari being a magnificent al fresco breakfast overlooking the waterhole round which the camp’s 17 tents are ranged.

It is easy to be entranced by the sheer beauty and scale of the Masai Mara as well as by the abundant wildlife and it is also easy to become complacent at the sight of yet another herd of elephants, the dominant bulls maintaining watch while the cows keep closer order with the abundant and, it has to be said, cute calves.

Our first, and later, safaris coincided sightings of giraffe grazing on Acacia leaves far out of the reach of other herbivores—not only convenient but a vital source of calcium and other vitamins to support their unique, elongated shape.

Alert, colourful, elegant impala stare doe-eyed as we roll by, skipping away to the safety of numbers if we venture too close.

The extent of the males’ polygamy was explained by safari guide Joshua. One dominant male, having worked his way up through the hierarchy of a bachelor group with the occasional horn-led confrontation, is responsible for looking after and, ahem, servicing a group of up to 50 females!

Sightings of the ubiquitous hyena, antelope, water buffalo, warthog, crown crane, baboon, hippo, secretary bird, crocodile, banded mongoose and elephant contrast sharply with the infrequent appearance of the big cats.

Not surprisingly, driver/safari guide Joshua seemed to know a thing or two about which route to take and what to expect and took us within a few yards of cheetahs, complete with cubs, and a pride of ten lions who threw us a look of undisguised disdain before resuming their siesta.

Our visit to the Masai Mara coincided with an early-season example of monsoon weather, making the camp umbrellas a must-have fashion accessory on the way to and from dinner and curtailing the second afternoon’s safari as the benefit of four-wheel drive Land Rovers kicked in to negotiate the tracks as they turned to mudbaths.

Joshua tried to make amends on the final morning by scouring the favoured haunts of the leopard—trees and shrubs—but they were either elsewhere or too well camouflaged to be spotted, if you’ll pardon the pun!

Our safari trip was a welcome, never-to-be-forgotten contrast to the coastal resort experience at the Voyager Beach and a must do for anyone considering a holiday to Kenya.

But with so many locals touting for trade it is important that you do your homework before booking one of the many safari excursions on offer.

Which is why JT Safaris came out top of our research and delivered what was promised. Not cheap, but very, very good and personal service from Julius K. Nzumbi, who offered to throw in a special tour of Mombasa as well.

As reports on Trip Advisor (tripadvisor.com) warn, there are several touts claiming to be Julius or JT Safaris, such is his reputation for delivering quality, but you can find the real Julius on www.julius-safaris.com and contact him by e-mail on [email protected] to discuss the best option for your safari.

By the end of the first week the memory of our 11-hour flight from Manchester to Mombasa began to fade....yet not completely disappear.

Our two-centre holiday turned into a three-centre one with the news from the airport check-in that the Monarch flight had been delayed until the following day because two medical emergencies had forced the plane to divert and the pilots had exhausted their flying hours. An overnight stay beckoned.

Effectively trapped in our emergency hotel—which bore more than a passing physical resemblance to Fawlty Towers—with no winter clothing to combat the sub-zero temperatures, conversations with equally frustrated fellow passengers helped pass the hours.

Among them was BBC journalist Ashley Peatfield, who spends his leave in Kenya supporting a charity he founded, the Funzi and Bodo Trust, named after the two villages the charity supports.

In less than five years the trust has opened two medical centres offering low cost health care and free medicines. It operates a water ambulance and an emergency vehicle to transport patients to hospital. Clinics offer routine vaccination and weighing and monitoring of babies while educating mothers in health care.

The work of the charity (www.funzi.org.uk), which employs no staff and relies on regular donations from a handful of supporters, has resulted in a decline in common illnesses in Funzi and Bodo and saved many lives.

The trust has already rebuilt the school in Funzi and is seeking funding for another in Bodo.

The delayed flight meant that Ashley and the two supporters he was travelling with missed the late ferry and had to wait around in Mombasa until six in the morning to reach their destination.

Instead of arriving at the resort in the morning ready to hit the beach after an overnight sleep on the twin-engine A330 Airbus, we arrived at our hotel foyer at four in the morning, drained and decidedly deflated.

In what turned out to be a fairly active break from the hustle and bustle of the Advertiser newsroom, the safari trip plus a number of scuba diving excursions limited the number of days spent reading and soaking up the sun.

A boat trip out to Shark Point promised our first sighting of a shark, but the dolphin had beaten us to the spot and frightened off the sharks.

The extent of the dolphin presence was revealed on the return journey, however, when a pod of about a dozen accompanied us back to the resort.

The Voyager’s all-inclusive package through Thomas Cook was delivered by delightfully friendly staff in the restaurants and bars, unlike the surly pool attendants who had created their own sub-economy by providing a sunbed booking service which threatened to boil over into World War Three!

The Voyager makes a virtue out of being run like a ship, complete with captain and captain’s dining table (apparently) and officers of varying ranks, the cuisine of the day reflecting where the ship has “berthed” for the night.

Accommodation is adequate, more two to three star than the four star rating the Voyager aspires to, with a definite Third World feel about some of the decor.

There is entertainment every night, from acrobats to Masai warriors, singers and dancers to dance bands and a relaxed atmosphere where it is easy to meet people and make new friends.

It was also a popular choice for couples tying the knot, including the wedding of a couple from Aberdeen, complete with an original dark tartan, appropriately called the Granite Tartan, for the male members of the party as well as the groom.

Very much a unique break, combining the enriching experience of a safari with a beach holiday and diving trips, Kenya certainly has much to offer.

 

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