My adventure in Kenya begins in Maasai Mara, widely considered to be Africa’s greatest wildlife reserve. With more than 200 square miles of open plains, woodlands and riverine forest, the Mara is joined by privately-owned conservancies that more than double the land mass set aside for the animals in this region.
Transported to the national reserve by bush plane, I am welcomed by representatives of Sanctuary Olonana, the tented camp where I will spend my first night in the bush. I board a jeep-like four-wheel- drive truck and begin my first game drive. Right out of the gate my guide Abdul points out a lion and lioness in the tall tawny grass.
In front of the truck three elands — Africa’s largest antelope — pass by. Before I reach an area set up for my first bush breakfast, I also gaze in awe upon zebras, giraffes, gazelles and topis.
The next day I am driven halfway to my next camp — Mara Plains — where I meet my new driver and guide Duncan.
Along the drive toward camp, I find myself in the middle of the wildebeest and zebra Great Migration. All around me are thousands of wildebeests; the bulls singing their monotone song of control over their females and calves. We also see elephants, gazelles, warthogs, baboons and a menagerie of colorful birds.
When I arrive at Mara Plains, I am told there are no fences here. If I need anything or anyone after night falls, I am to simply call out and one of the security staff will assist me. In most of the camps, the Maasai people are employed as guides, stewards, chefs, security and housekeepers.
After a family-style lunch where I meet other Americans on safari, I have the opportunity to speak with a conservancy warden. Richard Pye explains the land is owned by the Maasai and is rented from them in exchange for moving away from the area and grazing their cattle on different land. If they do not want to move, they still receive rent for their land, only a smaller amount. No one is forced to move.
The next morning I am up before dawn to take a hot air balloon ride over the Mara at sunrise. Our balloon captain, Elly Kirkman of Balloon Safaris, explains all safety and operational procedures, and just before daybreak, we are on the wind sailing over a herd of cape buffalo, zebras, a lone giraffe and scurrying hyenas.
While away during the morning, my luggage is moved to Mara Toto, another property operated by Great Plains Conservation. Duncan is still my guide and on my final game drive with him, I have the opportunity to watch a leopard gracefully walk along a river and climb a tree, five lions relaxing in the shadow of an acacia tree and a cheetah meandering through long pale yellow grass.
My heart swells; what an honor to witness these — and all the other animals — in person.
For More Information:
All camp properties offer beautifully appointed tents, game drives and meals. Think 5-star hotel meets Mother Nature.
Sanctuary Olonana: www.sanctuaryretreats.com/kenya-camps-olonana
Mara Plains: http://greatplainsconservation.com/mara_plains
Mara Toto: http://greatplainsconservation.com/mara_toto