Getting close to nature on a safari

Text by Adam Pickard Images by Rebecca Johnston

Many people dream of going on an African safari: seeing lions lazing in the sun, elephants herding their calves to watering holes and thousands of wildebeests and zebras sweeping across the plains. Much of what we know about African wildlife comes from what we see on TV shows and nature documentaries, however, nothing compares to seeing it in real life.

There isn’t anything like seeing animals in their natural habitat. Everything they do is exciting to watch, from a giraffe stretching its long neck reaching for leaves on top of a tree to a pack of lions hunting their prey. Last summer we went to Kenya to discover why so many people travel here to go on an African safari. “Safari” in Swahili means “journey” and Kenya has long been known as one of the best places to go on one. The flat landscape and scattered trees make it easier to spot wild animals and East Africa is home to some of the most fascinating animals on the planet. Like many, we headed to Kenya in search of the big five – elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino, along with the lesser known ugly five – hyena, vulture, wildebeest, warthog and marabou stork.

On the way into the park we stopped off at a local shop to get water supplies for the day’s trip. We spoke to a Kenyan customer there who was telling us the best times to see different animals. He also said we would be extremely lucky to see any lions at all but luckily he was wrong, we saw loads!

Being in the wild is an amazing experience. Waking up to the sound of birds singing with lions roaring in the distance, then looking out of the lodge window to see zebras and elephants marching across the plain, all before heading out in a jeep to spot more wildlife. The most exhilarating thing about being in the wild is that anything can happen. On the second morning of our trip we all got into our jeep and headed off down a dirt path, turned a corner and all of a sudden there was an enormous elephant standing in front of us. The driver stopped the vehicle and we all froze as this massive animal twice the size of our jeep stared at us. It was scary but extremely exciting. He looked at us for a while and then went back to eating when he realized we weren’t a threat. There are many national parks and nature reserves throughout Kenya used to preserve the local wildlife. There is the Masai Mara, which has a great number of wildebeests 75 and zebras migrating across the Serengeti. Amboseli has spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro while Tsavo is famous for huge red elephants and lions.

Visitors travel to these parks every year to get as close as they can to nature and you really can get close. At one point we were only ten feet away from a herd of elephants taking a deserved drink from a small watering hole. They all stood in a protective circle around the calves as they washed each other using their trunks. Being this close to them was truly magical. Tsavo is one of the largest game reserves in Kenya; so huge that it’s split into an east and west side. We often felt like we were the only ones there as the reserve is so large. Tsavo west is the more popular section because of its magnificent scenery, black rhino sanctuary and Mzima springs, which has an underwater viewing platform where hippos and crocodiles can be spotted floating in the water. We went on a walking tour around the springs with a local guide who was wearing military gear and had a very large gun – apparently the crocodiles come onto land sometimes so you always have to be careful.

Eye Opener

A typical safari day starts with a 6am wakeup call to see the beautiful African sunrise. This is also when the animals are most active. Lions are just setting off on their hunt, elephants are leading their calves to find water and baby baboons are full of energy and causing mischief, and they do cause mischief. One morning we saw a baboon steal a lady’s handbag just to get at her bottle of fizzy drink.

All the drivers in the tour group had radios so if a jeep spotted a group of lions bathing in the sun they would call in their location. We wouldn’t have seen half the animals we saw if it wasn’t for the other drivers on the radios. We were driving along and heard a man on the radio speaking Swahili, the only word we understood was  “simba,” Swahili for “lion.” Another driver had seen a pack of them not far from where we were and was telling us to get there fast. Our driver spun around and headed for their location, arriving just in time to see a pack sneaking in the bushes up to a herd of buffalo. We
silently watched them, waiting for something to happen. All of a sudden they all sprung into actio
n and chased the herd until one of the buffalo fell behind. It was over so quickly; the buffalo was down and the lions started resting after their hunt. We felt like explorers.

It is incredibly thrilling not knowing what or when you will see anything. Sometimes hours passed without a single sighting but it never gets boring. Most of the day is spent exploring the vast open land. Around lunch time the jeeps head over to one of the safari lodges for something to eat before heading back out until nightfall. In the private reserves some lodges have nighttime safaris, offering the chance to see nocturnal animals such as genets and hyenas.

The national parks have several lodges in the middle of the savannah, with nothing around but nature. These lodges are extremely relaxing after a long day exploring. We sat for hours in the evenings, drinking cocktails and watching wildlife going about their everyday business. Each lodge has its own unique element. We stayed in three different ones during our journey. Voi safari lodge is famous for its underground viewing hide. Elephants can be observed in their natural habitat as close as possible without disturbing them. Ngulia safari lodge gives you a chance to see a leopard up close. Every night they put out a huge piece of meat and very often a leopard comes looking for dinner, the leopard came as we were freshening up in our room. As we were getting ready we heard a man out in the corridor banging on all the doors yelling “leopard, leopard, leopard!”’ We rushed out to the viewing area and saw the leopard devouring the chunk of meat that had been left. Then there is Salt-lick lodge which is by far the best. It has a series of round lodges set up high on stilts, allowing for a great view of the animals congregating around the water holes below and the elephants get so close you can almost touch them.

Traditionally safari goers travel by jeep but now there are plenty of other options to consider such as a fly in safari, a walking safari or even a ride in a hot air balloon – this will give you an entirely different view and experience. You can book one before you go and then once you arrive in Kenya, the safari tour company will pick you up from your hotel and drive you straight to the national parks. We did our trip with Pollmans Safari. Even the drive to the park felt like an adventure; the journey was a great way to see what local life is like in Kenya. We were taken through several remote villages along the way. Kenya on the whole was a real eye opener and we recommend it for a first time safari. Bio: Adam and Becky are a couple from England who enjoy traveling and exploring new places. They have traveled to a number of different places across the world and this summer will be embarking on a whole new adventure. You can follow their adventures on their travel blog adventureawaitsus.com or on their Twitter @Adventure__Blog.