With one Etihad Airways flight a day to Nairobi from Abu Dhabi, you are rather stuck when it comes to arrival times. And considering the Masai Mara is located a short flight, or around six hours’ drive, from Nairobi it’s best to allow a day on either side of your trip to account for travel.
Safari in itself isn’t the cheapest holiday pastime, so we decided to go all out and travel to the Mara by air.
It affords a great bird’s-eye view of the wildebeest making the annual September journey north from the Serengeti in Tanzania across the Masai Mara in neighbouring Kenya.
On paper, the drive from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Wilson airport shouldn’t take long (the two airports are only a few miles apart), but the journey is all the more arduous thanks to the slug-like pace of Nairobi’s rush-hour traffic. But, with every cloud there’s a silver lining and we took the opportunity to nod off for 20 minutes in preparation for our internal flight.
We were soon boarding the small plane, a Cessna Caravan, which rattled into the air, away from the congested chaos of Nairobi and over the Masai Mara. From our airborne vantage point, the massive herds of wildebeest first appeared as swarms of ants – the sheer mass of life is quite breathtaking and it’s instantly clear why the migration is considered by many as a natural wonder of the world.
The plane landed with a thud and a skid on the airstrip at Keekorok. Having become so accustomed to queues, customs, metal detectors and body searches at airports, it’s giddily liberating to step off the plane and be casually handed our baggage by the pilot, before traipsing across the tarmac to meet our guide in waiting.
Adam is everything you could want and expect from a safari guide: dressed head to toe in khaki, the Essex native greeted us with a smile before showing us to our Land Cruiser and checking us in to the reserve. Equity Bank recently acquired the rights to manage the Masai and has introduced a new ‘smart card’ system, whereby tourists literally swipe in and out of the park.
We’re soon en route to Sala’s Camp, situated on the Sand River, under the southern slope of Pololet – and the journey proves to be an abbreviated game drive in itself. We’re first greeted by a large male ostrich who eyed us cautiously from a distance, before returning to the infinitely more important matter of pecking the ground. We trundled on, taking in the vast expanse of the Mara as we went. The UAE aesthetic of sand and skyscrapers couldn’t be further away – the gentle roll of the plane trees, framed against a sky full of heavy, bruised-blue clouds, is an escape from the city aesthetic like no other.
As we edged nearer to camp, our spotter – a gentle Masai by the name of Marefu – let out an excited whisper. Adam stoped the Land Cruiser and our attention was drawn to a flick of a long, strong tail amid the undergrowth to our right.
A leopard eased itself into view and glanced our way, before slipping back under its cloak of invisibility. We waited in silence for at least a minute, exhilarated at having caught a glimpse of the one of the least-seen animals in the bush.
Let’s be clear: safari is an active holiday. Those with a penchant for lie-ins and lazy mornings are in for a shock. We were out on a game drive by 5.30am in time to see the sun poke over the horizon and cast light across the expansive plains. Wildebeest were an omnipresent companion on our journey. Such are their numbers, it’s difficult not to see them – occasionally we spotted one or two that had been caught napping (literally) and deserted by the entire herd, whereas other times we saw them in their hundreds, either grazing or marching in a conveyor-belt-like motion across the grasslands.
Though the wildebeest are the focus of the migration, they’re accompanied by a sizeable number of other herbivores. Zebras, for example, will tag along, in the knowledge that where the wildebeest head, fresh grazing will follow.
As our journey continued there was a slight disturbance among the herd and the accompanying zebras and Marefu pointed out two young male lions stalking through the long grass. The zebras put enough distance between themselves and their predators to make pursuit futile.
The lions, dejected, slinked away as we restarted the engine to renew our search for more big cats.
What we found instead were better than big cats: small cats. Something had attracted an audience of vehicles in the distance. Though we were loath to share the 1,500 sq km reserve with anyone else, we gave way to our curiosity and headed over. We parked some distance away and our spotter pointed out what the silent vigil was in honour of – a cheetah lay in the undergrowth with her four cubs.
Of course, this is easier for a Masai warrior to spot than a tourist from the UAE, though all became clear when the mother and her cubs strolled from their hiding place and proceeded to frolic in the sun for the best part of 20 minutes.
After two game drives the day before, we had already seen our fair share of wildebeest, but we had yet to see a river crossing. They’re the most dramatic aspect of the migration: wildebeest must brave predators lurking around the river banks, as well as crocodiles in the water. Well aware of the danger, the wildebeest will gather at a river bank for hours or even days before one brave (or foolhardy) member of the herd makes a dash for it. The rest will then blindly follow in an incomparable frenzy of hooves, frothing waters and whinnying of the unfortunate few who succumb to broken legs or the snapping jaws of a predator.
Back at camp, there had been talk of a crossing at the Talek River, which was our destination for the day. Sure enough, the area was black with wildebeest, with thousands upon thousands teetering on the edge of the river, ready to tipple into the shallow water at any moment.
For all the promise of a crossing, the wildebeest lost heart and slowly oozed further downstream in search of a more accessible point at which to traverse the waters. We were disappointed, but being amid a seething mass of life is like nothing we had ever experienced before.
On our way back to camp we chanced across a decapitated wildebeest. We scanned the surrounding bush and saw a huge head staring out at us. It belonged to one of five of the Masai’s infamous male lion pride, led by the near-mythical ‘Notch’. The other four members of this unique pride are his sons, who hunt together and kill together and, unlike other male lions, have supported their ageing father rather than challenging him.
After nearly an hour marvelling at this awesome creature, we headed back to camp. The hot red African sun began to bed down among the thick clouds overhead – a sunset that further accentuated the magic of the Masai Mara. We concluded that a long weekend isn’t long enough, which is why we’ll always be tempted back – after all, the plains are only five hours from Abu Dhabi. The migration is predicted to last until late September. Conservation fees start from Dhs367 per day.
where to stay Sala’s Camp This permanent camp is perched on the Serengeti-Masai Mara border, giving a first-hand experience of the migration. The camp is on the bank of a river, meaning there’s even a chance of seeing a crossing as you eat dinner. Dhs2,167 per person per night (includes meals, beverages and game drives). www.thesafaricollection.com.