Previously in this blog, I shared how we arrived in Kenya, spent a day in Nairobi, and began our safari at Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru. You can read all about it here if you haven’t yet. Now we head to Maasai territory where our safari story resumes.
Transition to the Maasai Mara
On Thursday morning we went out early at 7 a.m. for a game drive in Lake Nakuru where we saw many of the same animals from before, but in different contexts. We were able to get closer to the big flock of flamingos and saw another family of white rhinos. It was also just really peaceful and enjoyable to be out in the park.
We decided since we’d been so successful the day before to cut it short and went back to the house a little after 9 where John made us a combination breakfast and lunch. Then we packed up and got on the road down to the Maasai Mara. Along the way, Zack pointed out the area where he grew up and still has a farm. We were impressed by the corn growing on the hillside and growing much taller than we typically see at home (where we are no stranger to corn!).
It was a long drive and the roads, especially as we got closer to the park, were not great. Finally we arrived at the little Maasai village for a cultural tour I had pre-booked. This was probably the lowlight of the safari because it was much more touristy than I’d expected, but I’m going to leave the negativity out of this blog and just say it was interesting to learn a bit about the traditional Maasai way of life. Whether it’s true they still live in the huts made of cow dung that they showed us or the person showing us around was the son of the chief doesn’t really matter.
Zippy made a smart change to our itinerary to save our game drives for Friday and Saturday, so when we arrived at our tent camp just down the (very bumpy) road from the Maasai village, we just had to settle in and enjoy another meal made by John, our favorite of the trip, fish curry with rice and veggies. The tent camp was rustic but very cool (review below) and we were given the tent at the very end so we had a troop of baboons as our neighbors. The first night we were the only guests but the second night we were joined by a large tour group of young Iranians.
Full-Day Mara Game Drive
On Friday morning, John made us a hearty breakfast prior to our 8 a.m. game drive and then we were off to spend the whole day inside Maasai Mara National Reserve. Zack proved his skill as a driver and guide many times over the course of the day. One of the experiences I wanted most on safari was not seeing any of the Big 5, but just to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of animals. We got that almost right away driving amidst dozens of herds of zebras and then again a little later when we were surrounded by what must have been over 1000 wildebeest who hadn’t yet made the migration crossing back to Tanzania. The number of animals we saw, both quality of species and sheer quantity of presence, far exceeded my expectations. It was truly awe-inspiring.
After passing the many herds of zebras, Zack got word of where a leopard was and we went to check it out. But no one was able to spot it and since we already saw a leopard at Nakuru, we turned around and went looking for a cheetah. After a bit of driving around its territory, Zack saw the sure sign it had already been spotted – a large number of safari jeeps and vans parked at the top of a hill. We made our way up there and got a great view of the cheetah eating its breakfast. I’m not sure whether any of the earlier folks were there in time to see it make the kill, but I’m personally glad we missed it.
After the cheetah, we spent some time with the wildebeest and then headed to a particular “sausage tree” (because of the shape of the fruit dangling from the branches). We saw our only male lion resting with two females under the tree. There wasn’t too large of a crowd around the lions and we were able to get some good photos, including a selfie.
Next it was time to finish out our “Big 5” by finding an elephant. It is possible that Zack took us briefly across the unmarked border with Tanzania to get a good view of the first elephant we saw, but I admit nothing. After the elephant, we stopped for a photo op at one of the marked borders with Tanzania. We learned that although Tanzanian guides are allowed to work in Kenya, Kenyan guides cannot work in the adjacent Tanzanian park (the famous Serengeti National Park). Needless to say, Kenyans find this very unfair, as did we.
From here, we went to a riverbank to see crocodiles and hippos. Zack left us with a ranger (who had a huge gun), who walked with us along the river and pointed out the hippo trails, crocodiles, and other species (from a safe distance above). The river was also filled with the corpses of wildebeest who had died during a crossing and lots of scavenger birds eating them. The smell was pretty awful, but it was nice to stretch our legs. The ranger was eager to share information (and very positive about the USA), and at the end of the walk, we crossed a bridge to an entry into the park that had restrooms. Access to restrooms had been one of my concerns about a full-day game drive, but the bathroom break was perfectly timed. We gave our ranger guide a nice tip and then met up with Zack who had driven over to pick us up.
By then it was early afternoon and we were ready for a picnic lunch. Zack found a tree to park under and we chatted and ate. We were getting close to finishing when Zack noticed the wildebeest activity in the distance. They were running together toward the river. He jumped in the front seat and drove us quickly to the river again where they were beginning to gather. We were a little late in the year for most of the crossings known as the Great Migration (which happens primarily in late July and August) but there continue to be less frequent crossings through October and there was a chance we’d get lucky.
Sadly, though thousands of wildebeest lined up at the river, and dozens of safari vehicles lined up to watch them, the wildebeest didn’t choose to cross that day. But we definitely got a feel for the experience just watching them all run together. And it was equally interesting watching all the jeeps and vans drive over from across the park for a chance to catch it.
Once we finally abandoned the non-crossing, we drove a bit and Zack took us to see a cheetah in a tree, though it was impossible to get a good photo because it was so hidden in the leaves. I asked if we could go back to get a closer look at some elephants we’d seen in the distance before heading for the cheetah. After a few minutes driving, Zack pulled up near a tree where the whole elephant family had gathered. We were delighted with how he’d been able to over-deliver on my simple request. It was very representative of how we felt about the whole safari.
Our final stop on our full-day safari was another well-timed bathroom break, this time at a fancy lodge in the park called Keekorok. Zack told us it was built in the 1960s not long after Kenyan independence and now runs about $250/night for a room. But you’re right in the park with animals all around, including their very own hippo pond. He showed us around the grounds, including a long boardwalk and we had to admit, it was all very nice.
We returned to our tent camp in time to shower when the generator came on at 6:30 p.m. They only run it from 5 a.m. to 7 .m. and 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., so we had to be on the ball about charging phones and showering (unlike Keekorok with its unlimited electricity!). We ended the day with another great meal from John, butternut squash soup followed by stewed beef with mashed potatoes and veggies. After enjoying our porch a little, we turned in to be ready for an early day on Friday.
Another Game Drive and Back to Nairobi
The next morning we got a super-early start for our game drive, 6 a.m.. John was kind enough to get up early too to give us coffee and tea before we left. We saw a colorful sunrise as we entered the Mara and it was really a lovely morning. Chad took lots of photos to try to capture the light. We spent a little time looking for a cheetah before Zack got a message that told him just where to take us. We pulled up to another “sausage tree” where there were a couple of vehicles already parked. We were just in time to see two adorable lion cubs resting on a rock with two lionesses lying nearby.
While Chad was taking tons of photos of the cubs, I noticed a small jeep in front of us with a single occupant. I wondered if it was a ranger assigned to watch the cubs but Zack said it wasn’t. We figured out it must be a spotter on the lookout for the animals to direct the guides to.
Zack confirmed that to Chad later and said the spotters are paid by the reserve. During our multiple game drives we learned a lot about the codes and signals the guides give each other to help one another find the animals the tourists most want to see. Zack said most of the guides try to pretend like they’re not doing this because it might seem less special to find the animals you want, but I think it just seems practical and efficient and I loved the system of reciprocity between all the guides. But they all speak Swahili to each other so the tourists don’t understand what they’re saying and even then they use code-words. For example, instead of using the Swahili word for elephant, they say masikio, which is Swahili for ears. The rest of the morning, including our departure through the park, Zack dutifully stopped for most vehicles to tell them where to find the “totos” (cubs).
After the cubs we drove around some more and found some giraffes near one of the back roads that made for some great photos. Then we returned to the tent camp where John made us a very hearty breakfast before we packed up. They had decided to drive back to Narok an alternative way through the park past Keekorok, which was a much less bumpy path. Since we were back in the park, Zack took us to the lion cubs again so John could see them and we got a few more nice photos.
In addition to all the animals listed above, we also saw giraffes, waterbuck, hartebeest, cape buffalo, hyenas, gazelles, elands, impalas, topis, ostriches, and much more. We saw at least 25 species of animal in total, not counting the birds (I love birds, they’re just harder to keep track of because there are so many species). Pretty much every animal you see in the Africa section of a zoo and then some.
Our safari was an amazing way to kick off our abbreviated Leg 13 and a nice introduction to Kenya prior to navigating a long stay in Nairobi. And these blog posts don’t even scratch the surface of all the great photos we have. Not to mention video! However, in a future post, I plan to share some of the misgivings I had while on safari. All the same, I’m so grateful we were able to enjoy this safari adventure and highly recommend it to anyone.
Exceeded expectations in every way – I highly recommend booking any safari with Australken. At every step we were met with professionalism, kindness, and a desire to go above and beyond by the coordinator, Zippy, and everyone who was a part of our safari.
My husband and I first booked our budget safari for Lake Nakuru and Maasai Mara in 2019 to travel in 2020, but had to postpone it for obvious reasons. They were kind enough to patiently await our rebooking and honor our deposit and 2020 prices when we were finally able to reschedule this year. Then we had a family health issue that caused us to need to move our safari by six weeks. They were kind enough to do that for us too at no additional charge, though I offered several times to pay more.
When we finally arrived in Nairobi, a driver was waiting for us at the airport as described and Zippy met us there too. I had wisely requested two nights in Nairobi before departing for our safari to give us a recovery day from our long travel from USA. The Nairobi hotel was well chosen with a great breakfast included. We were able to walk to the CBD to pick up cash and a SIM card, both of which were helpful, though there was also a pocket wifi provided on the safari. Pro tip: if you’re like us and enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, pick up a few bottles in Nairobi to bring along because the budget lodgings don’t have a cash bar.
We were picked up right on time the day we left for the safari by our driver/guide, Zack, and cook, John. Both gave excellent service throughout the entire trip. We enjoyed John’s meals and Zack went above and beyond with his driving to make sure we saw all the animals. We were able to see the Big 5 and so many other animals in enormous quantities. It was really awe-inspiring.
I was happy our itinerary started with Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru NP before going on to the Maasai Mara, which is vast. It felt like the safari just kept getting better and better. We especially enjoyed our accommodations at Lake Nakuru, and the budget tent camp near the Maasai village worked out well for us too. Four days on safari was quite enough for us, though we’d love to do it again in the future. When we do, I will certainly book again with Australken tours. I was very impressed with every aspect of the package that Zippy so thoughtfully put together for us and how well they treated us through the entire process.
Goshen Mara Camp – Rustic but clean budget tent camp – My husband and I stayed here two nights during our Maasai Mara safari at the choice of our tour operator and felt it was good for a budget stay. We had the tent at the far end of camp and enjoyed watching the baboons in the adjacent field (though we were warned to always keep our tent zipped when not there because the baboons can be curious!). The tent had a full bathroom attached as a cinderblock room. Electricity was available for two hours in the morning and 3.5 hours at night, which was enough to charge everything and take showers, though the “hot water” was not particularly hot. The double bed in our tent was comfortable and had a mosquito net. Our meals were prepared by our tour cook and we brought all our own supplies, so we did not experience the amenities listed on their website like an in-house restaurant or see any water/beer/soda available for purchase. Overall a great rustic stay that made the safari experience feel very authentic.