Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Real Safari Experience (and Most Photo-Heavy Post Yet)

We just got back from our first real safari - a long weekend at the famous Maasai Mara (the Mara)! On the recommendation of friends and colleagues, we stayed at Sentinel Mara Camp, which was fantastic. We were told Sentinel was different from other camps, but because this was our first safari we didn't really have a point of comparison.

A few of the things that supposedly make the Sentinel camp stand out included canvas tents for accommodation (see a communal lounge tent above and our sink inside our tent below), an intimate vibe with only seven tents in our camp, the stunning location on the Mara river in full view of hippos and other wildlife, amazing three-course dinners, and extraordinary eco-friendliness (e.g., solar powered rooms, conserved water, reusable bottles, etc). The way a staff member described it was that you could take a photo of the camp in black-and-white and it would look like it was from the 1950s. We definitely agreed.

To even get to the camp, we had to take a tiny local airplane (inside pictured below) from a tiny local airport in Nairobi to a dirt airstrip in the Mara. It was a noisy, sweaty, and bumpy ride, but we thankfully made it all in one piece.

The best part of our trip, of course, were the game drives. I want to preface this part of the post by confirming that neither of us even own a real camera. All of the pictures posted here were taken with an average smartphone. I'm sure I would have taken even more and better photos with a higher quality camera, but the fact that I have these pictures just highlights how close we were and how many opportunities we had.

We knew we were going to have plenty of luck when we saw several lions just on our way from the airstrip to the camp. We were shocked how close our car was able to get to the lions, and the lions didn't seem to care at all. First we saw this handsome fellow:

And then we saw this pair just taking a cuddly nap in the shade - first spooning, then facing each other:

We later learned that the animals in the park generally perceive the safari truck as one giant animal and choose not to bother it if it doesn't bother them. That's also why it is very important not to get out of the car during a safari, because then you're no longer seen as part of a massive whole but a tastier, tinier individual. That explained why we were even able to get a close-up to a lioness feasting on her fresh kill (as we watched a hyena run away with that kill's baby). Talk about the circle of life!

While talking about lions, I have to give a special shout-out to Blackie (who features in the first photo of this post). Blackie is a well-known lion who earned his nickname as a result of his distinctive, two-toned mane. He was spending some time with a lioness, and they decided to demonstrate the other part of the circle of life for us.

We also found the elusive rhino, thought it wasn't easy. The rockiest, most uncomfortable part of the game drive was spent stalking this majestic creature:

Needless to say, it was worth it. Our guide was a skilled spotter and driver, and we saw things in two days that other groups couldn't find after two weeks of searching. We learned that leopard sightings, in particular, are quite rare - so imagine our surprise when we saw three leopards on one drive!

We also spotted a crocodile hanging out among the many hippos in the river. This was very cool for me, as I was very afraid of crocodiles when I was young. This was definitely the first time I saw one that could actually hurt me out in the wild, but thankfully I was far away and high up on a cliff above the river. I will admit we didn't get too close to the edge, though.

Some sightings that felt really special involved the cutest baby animals, often sticking with their mothers. For example, we caught this monkey baby clinging tightly to its protective mom:

This teeny giraffe stood next to what I assumed was its mom, which was convenient as a reference point for how much growing this baby has left to do:

Plus, we saw a newborn baby elephant our guide estimated was only a day old. I just can't get over that little trunk! We also learned that this type of elephant has a gestation period of 22 months, which made us feel even luckier to have seen this baby.

Even all these photos were just a sampling of what we saw. We got to see waterbucks, wildebeest, many birds, all types of what a friend called "skippy jumpy brown things" like gazelles and topi, and more. We saw every animal we wanted this time - except the cheetah. It's probably for the best that we have something left to try and find the next time we visit... perhaps during the famous wildebeest migration.

This post is long enough as is, so I'll save our visit to a traditional Maasai village (which we booked as part of our Mara trip) for a separate entry. Isn't Kenya amazing?

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