Missed part 1? Be sure to check it out here.
If you've never been on a game drive, let me set the scene. Leaving your lodge, you hop into your safari vehicle all but bouncing with excitement. Your guide has popped off the roof or rolled down the windows, depending on the kind of vehicle you've requested. The guards raise the gates and wave you through, and just like that - you're off!
Suddenly you're flying over dirt roads, eyes scanning the horizon in every direction, looking for any movement or color or shape that isn't part of the scenery. The wind is in your hair as you stand up and pop your head out the roof, you are now to "Moto Surf" the great plains of Africa. Your bones rattle in your body as your guide takes you over rocks and dips in the impromptu road, and you have to hold on tight to avoid falling over. He's got the radio up, blasting - not music - but the Swahili chatter of other guides reporting the best animals and where to find them. The Masai Mara is flying by, stunning from every new view with its barren beauty and rolling hills.
Then, just as quickly as it began, it ends. The Jeep comes to an abrupt halt. Immediately the silence is present and palpable. All you can hear is the wind whistling across the grasses, constantly bending them down a good 30 degrees. If it wasn't for the profound peace this silence creates, the sweeping vistas would nearly require their own "Sound of Music" moment. But that's the last thing on your mind. There's a reason you have stopped flying across the savannah. Right in front of you is something magical. A truly wild animal, in its natural habitat, and you get to watch it for a few very special moments.
This moment where you stop, when the car's engine turns off and all you can hear is the silence, is the prime moment of the safari. You feel that there's nothing between you and the animal that is absorbing all of your attention, usually with a nonchalance that would give the coolest high school kid envy. Your heart stops for just a moment when they glance up and look you square in the eyes. I can't really capture the magnitude of this moment; it's just something that you feel.
When we were at the Masai Mara, a sleeping lion heard our car rumbling toward him and for just a second raised his head. His pale yellow-green eyes bored into mine for a moment that seemed to stretch into infinity, and then - he threw his head back down, much the way my dog does when she's trying to nap. Knowing that in that moment the lion was observing me much as I was observing it (admittedly, with a fair less amount of fascination), created a connection between the two of us that felt tangible. It's why you pay hundreds of dollars, drive hours, and rattle around in a car, coating yourself with dust. Nothing compares.
He was not the only lion we saw on the Masai Mara. We saw a lion mama, lounging in the grass with her cubs. We saw more honeymooning lions, having sex (or - more accurately - attempting to have sex. She was not having it). We even arrived just in time to see the a pride of lions feasting on a fallen buffalo, but this experience was so incredible it deserves a separate post.
We saw elephants eating from trees, elephants in a field. Despite their size, they are almost completely silent as they walk, as if they're struggling to drag the weight of their giant bodies. They can move much faster (up to 15 Mph,) but all the savannah animals conserve their energy until they need it, so slowly meandering elephants is what we saw.
We saw more buffalo, but we are only just beginning to appreciate their power. The Masai tribe has lived on the Masai Mara for hundreds of years and are well known for killing lions, but even they fear the buffalo. The "boss" of the buffalo, or the horns along with the head shield, is so strong it's bulletproof. And while we see them mainly munching mindlessly on grasses, if they feel threatened they will gore or head butt anything in their path. The Masai have been taught to lie flat on the ground to avoid the boss of the buffalo.
We saw two rhinos, though these guys are so skittish that getting anywhere close proved impossible. We certainly tried, but they would turn and run every time they heard us. Still, no complaints here! The rhino and the leopard are the rarest animals to see of the Big 5, so I can't believe our luck in seeing both. It was really incredible to see these animals - so completely unique that they look almost prehistoric - running alongside our car.
But the most amazing thing we saw was the leopard. The first time we saw the leopard, he was nothing but an orange spot in a tree, and that was with binoculars. The next time, he was in a tree just off the path. We were able to get almost directly underneath him, but our guide informed us that once he's settled in a tree, he's probably not going to move. We were more than satisfied with how close we were able to get, even if the photos weren't amazing because of the branches. You felt that he could leap from the tree at any moment and land beside you in the Jeep.
Somehow, we were fortunate enough to find another leopard. And this time, he wasn't just chilling in a tree. He had pulled a baby buffalo up there and was making breakfast out of what was left of him.
Of course, then things got EVEN better. The leopard finished his breakfast, and actually walked down the tree and away into the brush. He passed right in front of us! Seeing a single leopard is rare, two leopards is amazing, but this?! More than we could ever have hoped for. Observing such a graceful creature slink down the trunk of a tree is incredible. You can see every muscle flex, as he sashays with confidence from point A to point B. Then watching the leopard slink off into the grasses is another one of those moments - the kind of moment that makes going on safari more magical than words can express.
I have more to share on our trip to the Masai Mara - watching the lions feast, our visit to a Masai village, and our tips for having the best safari possible - in the coming days. I hope you've enjoyed this look at the Big 5 and are convinced that a trip to Masai Mara is something you must do at least once in your life! I already can't wait to go back.