Safari in style in the Masai Mara


The eight of us drove off in two four-wheel drive vehicles, each with a Waliangulu game-spotter perched on the roof like a mahout on an elephant. Our guide was Derek Dames, a second generation Kenyan, whose client list includes Sigourney Weaver and an Indian Prince. I had joined the safari for the last four days of their two-week journey. The others had already visited the Aberdares in the north of Kenya, then Shaba, Samburu and Tanzania before arriving in the Masai Mara.

Wide, endless sky

We were at 6,000ft; the sun had not fully risen. The air was cool. In a sky so wide that it seemed endless, vultures circled the remains of a lion’s night time kill. Plains animals munched the grass; the migrating wildebeest moving slowly towards the Serengeti as if drawn by a magnet.
Soon our spotter called down softly, and Derek turned the Land cruiser in the grass, ricocheting over the uneven ground toward a peninsula of bushes.
On the other side, screened by the foliage, were some 50 grazing elephants. The smallest, looking like a large, plush toy, lifted its trunk bravely in our direction and spread ears the size of dinner plates in a practice threat. The others ignored us, lumbering on.
We travelled along with them for several miles, watching them browse, listening to the grumbling sounds they make in conversation. Our vehicle had become an elephant on four wheels, part of the herd. Only the thought of breakfast made us leave them.

Surprises — and breakfast

We stopped under a massive fig tree on a cliff over a rocky river, the border with Tanzania. One safari guest excused herself to retreat behind a bush. She was surprised by a buffalo and came out fast. While the spotters set up breakfast we clambered down to the river to fish. Derek caught a fair-sized barbel with a Mrs Simpson on a fly rod.
By then, breakfast was set out on folding tables. There were pots of coffee, cereal, juice, fruit salad, chafing dishes of scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and puffy pancakes to spread with jam. The day already seemed full but it was only 9.30 a.m.!
Before noon we would measure lion tracks in the sand, heft the sausage-like fruits of the kigelia tree and feel the leathery petals of its cup-sized, dark red flowers. We would watch eagles soar and white butterflies lighting up dark groves of palm and spot green parrots in green trees.

Camouflaged cheetahs

On our way back to camp, we passed within feet of a mother cheetah and her four cubs, all but invisible against the yellow spotted bark of a bush. If we had been foolish enough to try, we could have reached out and touched them. The mother raised her head as our vehicles stopped but didn’t stir. One by one the youngsters ventured over on stiff legs, to investigate.

The erect little ruff of bristles on their necks gave them a permanently startled look. Once in the open, like kittens in a garden, they shied at the rippling of grass in the wind and leapt back in alarm at the sight of each other. They soon retreated back to mother and draped their bodies across hers. We left them all asleep, or at any rate motionless, perfectly camouflaged once more.
Driving on, we passed gazelle, giraffes and zebra, eland and wildebeest, becoming so used to their company we focussed instead on brilliant birds, bright lizards or wildflowers in the grass.

Lunch in style

We reached camp, under a grove of podo trees backing onto a small deep stream, in time for lunch. A bar had been set up, and the table was laid with a centrepiece of flowers and with intricately folded napkins at the place settings.
The cook, Kapitano, had worked for Derek’s grandfather. Before the hunting ban in 1977, he would have prepared game shot on safari for lunch. Today it was beef and lamb, quiche, fruit, cheese, chilled white wine and bread he’d baked in a tin ammunition box under hot coals.
All this equipment, all these provisions, had rattled across country from the previous encampment in two giant lorries, with the guests arriving by air. The lorries had carried the kitchen and the mess tents and the carpets for the mess tent, the refrigerator, the folding camp furniture, the cutlery, the candlesticks. And of course, the sleeping tents, too, each with its private shower and toilet tent, the beds and the bedding, the bedside tables, the mirrors and basins and towels.

Travelling theatre

A private tented safari is like a travelling theatrical performance and the guests are both actor and audience. Each day is a new production, but there is a basic script: at first light, as the wind rustles the trees, morning tea is brought to your bedside. Outside, on your tent’s veranda, warm water is waiting in a hand basin with fresh towels laid out beside it.
Breakfast is ready in the mess tent. You take a game drive. After lunch, you nap, or read or fish. The evening game drive is followed by a shower. For that, a bucket suspended over your shower tent is filled with pleasantly hot water. You pull a cord to release a freshet over your head, another to stop the flow. You wrap a kikoi around you like a sarong; add a shirt and you’re dressed for dinner.

Postcard perfection

That evening, we drove out from camp into the pink-gold of the setting sun, onto the vast grassy plain stretching off to purple hills. Herds of antelope, topi, gazelles, reedbok, and wildebeest grazed peacefully around us. What looked like shadows under the bush were buffalo, and what seemed to be a sheaf of tawny grass was the tousled mane of a drowsy lion. We came close enough to look for a long time into his amber eyes.

Back at camp, a bonfire was crackling, sending out sparks like fairy lights. A ring of camp chairs had been arranged to face it and here we waited, drinks in hand, while the finishing touches were put to the evening meal. The sky turned red, then silver and the stars came out. At the dinner table, in the candlelight, the conversation was about safaris gone by and the adventures of our day.

Whoops and growls aplenty
There were toasts and lots of laughter until the move toward bed began. The covers had been turned down on our narrow camp beds. And when the kerosene lanterns were extinguished, the night was very black. Somewhere near the camp, I heard the whoop of a hyena and the heart-stopping growl of a lion.
On the last night of my safari, it began to rain while we were at dinner, water splashing in streams off the mess tent, hissing in the campfire. We were escorted to our tents under umbrellas.
In bed, listening to the rain drumming on the canvas, I pictured it streaking the dusty flanks of the elephants, dripping through the bush onto the cheetahs, obliging the lion to close his amber eyes. I thought how quickly the space, the harmony, the beauty had come to seem like my own lost natural habitat. I fell asleep as vervet monkeys mocked me from the sodden trees. “Tip, tip, tip, tip, TYPical!!” they chorused. And I dare say I was.

Contact Derek Dames, Director, Ker and Downey Safaris, PO Box 40994, Nairobi, Kenya
Telephone: +254 288 2251

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