Going to the Masai Mara to glimpse the Great Migration had been on my wish list for many years. While we didn’t get to see the spectacle as hoped, we did get to do the sort of wildlife watching we’d always dreamt of doing and it was unforgettable.
I don’t think there’s anyone who goes to Kenya only to go to the beach, specifically to Diani Beach. Most travellers head to Kenya to go on safari in the Masai Mara and then top or tail their wildlife spotting adventure with some time on the beach.
As there are no holiday rentals in the Masai Mara, and this was our year of staying in holiday rentals, it made sense for us to stay at Diani Beach and use Shambani as a base from which to do safaris, which is what the property’s guests typically do.
Our first safari was to the Masai Mara National Reserve, a massive national park covering 1,510 squared kilometres in south-western Kenya, which is essentially an extension of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
We fly from Ukunda Airstrip at Diani Beach with Mombasa Air Safari on a rather small (for my taste anyway) 22-seater plane that cruises right by Mount Kilimanjaro on our way to Keekoro ‘airstrip’ – really little more than a dirt clearing.
As travel writers we fly frequently (you would hate to know how many miles we fly each year – I hate to think of the carbon footprint), and while I never had a fear of flying until turbulence on an American Airlines flight to Costa Rica a few months ago when it felt like the plane was going to fall from the sky, I’ve never liked small planes.
This flight to the Masa Mara, however, would be fairly turbulence-free, the views spectacular, and our landing smoother than most of the landings we’ve had this year on our grand tour.
Edward, who will be our personal guide for our three days in the Masai Mara, collects us in the smart open-topped Toyota Landcruiser that will be our private vehicle for our four game drives over coming days, and drives us to our new ‘home’ – a comfortable deluxe tent at the splendid Sarova Mara Game Camp.
“Are you keen to see the Big Five – buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, and rhino?” Edward asks us at the start of our bumpy drive. “We hope to see them all before you leave!”
We quickly come to like Edward, who is enthusiastic and always smiling.
He wouldn’t be wrong. In fact, it seemed like we’d be seeing all of the Big Five on our first day. Just after leaving the airstrip, we spot a family of twelve elephants bathing in the mud. They’re beautiful.
“They roll around in the mud to maintain their body temperature and to control ticks,” Edward tells us. “They eat 20 hours a day and sleep four hours a day, and they eat 260 kilos of grass in a day!”
Moments later we see a massive heard of buffalo – around 100, Edward guesses. While we’re eager to see the Big Five, this is really why we’d wanted to come to the Masai Mara, to see the colossal numbers of animals, particularly wildebeest and zebra, that are part of the Great Migration for which ‘The Mara’, as locals call it, is famous.
And while we are too late to witness the tremendous stampedes the animals make on their migration here from Tanzania, and we’re too early to see their dramatic departure south again, we will be able to see the animals in huge numbers grazing on the grass they’ve travelled here to eat.
These sightings would have been enough to satisfy most people, including me – after all we’re merely on our way to our accommodation – however, minutes later Edward stops the car.
We witness an extraordinary sight – an interaction between a giraffe and lioness, which has just killed her baby. The mother giraffe, grief-stricken and in shock, is running in circles and back and forth, as the lioness calmly watches her.
“She’s doing that because she’s hoping she will wake her baby up and it will get up and follow her,” Edward says. Won’t the lioness attack the mother too, we ask? “A lion wouldn’t attack an adult giraffe on its own.”
However, just then the lion stands up. It’s merely a face-off, Edward says. The mother giraffe stares the lion down, before backing off a little. It looks as if she will leave her baby. It’s heart-wrenching. We drive on…
We landed just half an hour ago and already we have seen a massive herd of buffalos, elephants, a lion, and giraffe, and on the remainder of the drive we’ll see countless Impala gazelles, warthogs, colossal herds of zebras, an array of magnificent birds, and the tremendous herds of wildebeest that people travel half way across the world to see at this time of year.
Edward drops us at the entrance to the Sarova Mara – where handsome Masai staff in red-checked robes and beaded jewellery quickly come to take our bags and offer us cold eucalyptus-scented towels.
“Settle in, have some lunch, have a rest, and I’ll meet you at 4pm for your first game drive,” Edward instructs us.
If we hadn’t had a game drive yet, then that was the most exciting drive from the airport to a hotel we’ve ever had!
The Sarova Mara isn’t really a hotel – it’s one of those stunning safari properties that Africa is famous for that grace the pages of glossy magazines like Conde Nast Traveller.
Set amidst dense natural vegetation, it’s impossible on approach to even tell there is a beautiful resort hidden away within the forest. The lobby is open, and along with the restaurant and bar off the lobby, built of natural materials, stone and wood mainly. Stone paths lead down through the trees to the permanent tents that serve as rooms, some of which overlook a small lake.
Our deluxe ‘tent’ is the most comfortable level of accommodation at the Sarova Mara. It has polished wooden floorboards, smart wooden furniture, leather cushions, and striped kilims, and while there’s no television – and who would want one when from our front deck we can see zebras grazing in the distance? – there are other mod-cons. There are fans that work, hot fresh water showers (no salt water!), a hairdryer, tea and coffee-making facilities. It’s super-luxurious after our rustic cottage at Diani Beach.
We’re very tempted to take a nap now, but instead we head to lunch. As one of the Sarova’s restaurants is under renovation during our stay, a buffet is being served at the cafe-like area in the bar.
Now, while we’re not usually a fan of buffets, this one is especially welcome – we may not have been on a ‘proper’ safari yet, but we’re famished, and we enjoy tucking into the spicy Swahili and Indian dishes, and sipping a glass of South African produced ‘Mara’ wine.
I think I actually hear us sigh. We almost feel like we’re on holidays. Now it’s time to take a nap…
All of the logistical arrangements for our Masai Mara safaris in Kenya (i.e. flights, transfers, accommodation, safari details, etc) were expertly handled by Agnes of Africa Safari Holidays. If you’re contacting Agnes, let her know that you heard about her on Grantourismo.
Africa Safari Holidays
+254 (20) 252 6489
Mombasa Air Safari
Sarova Mara Game Park