That Time We… Honeymooned (Part 2 – Masai Mara, Kenya)
Part 2: On Safari in Kenya (Masai Mara)
We left off in part 1 having just spent a night in the famous star beds to top off three amazing days in Loisaba. This part of the trip takes place towards the bottom of Kenya in the Masai Mara which borders the Serengeti in Tanzania, and was to be even more experience-packed.
Day 4 – New Camp, New Friends
The day started as a chilly morning coupled with a practically-outdoor shower that meant we were soon awake enough to negotiate around numerous spiders that had amassed overnight in every nook and crevice, surface and doorway possible as we finished packing. Filled with pancakes and eggs we were off on our last game drive of Loisaba and while looking for cheaters, casually stumbled upon a pack of lions!
We drove deep into the valley and towards the watering hole we could see from our room where a herd of zebras were hanging around. Looking back at the camp I was reminded at just what a feat of design and architecture the new Loisaba camp was, and a stunning location to boot.
We got to the airstrip and the plane was running on “Africa Time” which meant it was in no great hurry so we just chilled out watching the colourful birds getting evermore curious and brave which meant some good close up shots.
We had to share the plane this time and it wasn’t long before I was dozing again – what is it with me sleeping on planes?! Even though I missed most of the views, the best was saved til the end. As we came in to land we suddenly understood what people had been saying about no shortage of animals in the Masai Mara – they were everywhere!
In the several minutes it took us to land (we had to do an overpass at the last minute because of giraffes too close to the runway) we saw baboons, warthogs, giraffes, waterbucks, hyenas and more I can’t remember (I think I have a video I’ll have to dig out…)
A quick ride into Elephant Pepper camp and we’re introduced by Sophie and Patrick to the camp and facilities. It’s more typical of what I pictured a safari camp to be and has a more communal vibe. We’re shown our room – the honeymoon tent on the far end overlooking the plains – and I immediately lock us out of our safe with all our stuff in it! That’ll teach me not to read the instructions…
Time for lunch where we join a loud, but very friendly American family that we’ll get to know well and swap stories over the next few days. Back to the room for some downtime where we open the bottle of champers that’s been left in our room and try and spot a few animals while catching up the diary. We’re told that animals can and will come right up to our tent and sometimes you’ll hear lions making kills right outside our door. Needless to say, the binoculars are close by and we’re ready to shoot through the canvas door in an emergency!
3.30pm rolls round and we’re off on our first Mara game drive, after a coffee and a chat to the Americans (Nancy and her son River are from Laguna Beach – a place we loved when touring the states a couple years back). We jump in the Jeep and within 15 minutes see our first cheetah.
Before evening sets in and the sundowners come out we’ll have driven through a herd of huge buffalo, see dark-patterned giraffes being stalked by hungry hyena, vultures in the trees scanning the horizon and check out the infamous “Leopard Valley” – curiously named because it is a small valley where leopards often hang out…
We arrive back at the camp in the dark bursting with stories (including watching a sting of zebra majestically gallop by within several meters of where we’re slurping gin and wine) – but first things first, we need to get back into our safe – a subject that’s been playing on both our minds since we left and luckily Patrick quickly sorts us out to much relief (imagine we couldn’t get our passports and money out!? That would scupper the honeymoon somewhat!).
In no time at all we’re all huddled round the camp fire in the pitch black crisp night with a G&T within arm’s reach, reflecting on the day (and of course catching up on Facebook now we’re back within Wifi range!). Does life get better? We’re called to dinner where a huge table has been laid and we tuck into all sorts of home cooking. I can’t remember what it was but I know it was good.
Over a glass of red we get chatting to a trio from South Africa (now living in Aus) who turn out to be a father/son pair on a ‘Photographic Safari’ with a professional photographer who’s been coming to the Mara for years to teach students the art of taking, and processing imagery of the incredible scenery and wildlife. He’s had a very interesting life travelling the world and I find myself sick with envy by the end. He shows us some of his work on his iPhone and we’re blown away – why don’t my photos look like that!?
Slightly tipsy and ready for bed the heavens open, and I mean really open! It’s the first rain we’ve seen on this trip but in 20 minutes the ground has become so saturated, there is an inch of water over everything. Annoyingly I’ve left my camera on charge in one of the outhouses so I’ve got to dash across to retrieve it and come back looking like I’ve bathed with my clothes and shoes on. They’ll take a good few days to dry fully but my real worry is that one of our biggest plans for this honeymoon (in fact, the thing I’ve looked forward to the most) might not go ahead…
Day 5 – Floating over the Mara
…Luckily it did. We woke at 4am and get ushered through the undergrowth that separates us from the rest of the camp to the waiting jeep. Today we take flight over the Mara in a hot air balloon!
Thanks to the rain last night the ground is simply wet mud for pretty much the whole hour’s journey and we slipping and sliding and winding and skidding our way to the venue. Credit to the driver – not only is he driving in the pitch black, he’s getting us over and through huge puddles and pockets of slushy mud where we could easily get stuck and miss our flight.
We get there just as the balloon is being prepared and we’re allowed inside as it’s being inflated. It’s huge! It’s like a (windy) festival tent and it’s fascinating to watch it grow and take shape.
We meet another young honeymooning couple who we’ll be flying with – I think we both have the same disappointment that we’re not having private flights but they are lovely and we discuss how they managed to (excuse the pun) ‘wing’ a free upgrade to first class on the flight in.
By now dawn is starting the break the the massive silhouette of the balloon stands tall. We all get in, including extra staff in order to balance the basket and after a few blasts of fire we’re lifting off the ground and over the trees that form the edge of the jungle.
Excitement is mixed with relaxed vibes because everything feels like it is happening in slow motion. The pilot – a jovial (and clearly experienced) man in his 50’s expertly negotiates the balloon within feet of the tree tops so we can see the nonplussed baboons having their breakfast. We drift over the Savannah and winding Mara river which is starting to come alive with waking animals and the noises of hippos down below.
As the light increases, we’re disappointed to learn that the morning is quite cloudy and misty so there’ll be no dazzling sunrise – a small price to pay for this thrilling morning. Kate and I spend time pointing out animals to each other while wondering where an how, exactly, will this thing land. We’re brought out of daydreams with blasts of fire every so often, which feels like it melts the small hairs on our cheeks!
The pilot gets out a GoPro on a huge extender stick and takes selfies of us all (one of which will ultimately turn out to be one of my favourite photos of the holiday) and later points out the only black Rhino we’ll see that trip which completes our “Big 5”. He explains the landing procedure and we start to descend after what feels like no time at all.
Essentially landing is simply a case of lowering the balloon until it is dragging along the ground to slow it to a stop – something that can be particularly thrilling on windy days when the balloon has some speed behind it. Today we’re averaging 11mph which is pretty slow-to-medium but the landing is no less fun!
We sit in the basket and brace for impact. The balloon hits the ground, bounces, and hits the ground again. After 10-20m of sliding it flips on its side – something we’ve been warned about, and continues to be dragged for another 50m or so before stopping (what happens if there’s trees or rocks in our path? – I didn’t dare ask).
A glass of Champagne is waiting for us, along with an incredible breakfast laid out on a long, low table in the grass. The on-demand pancake chef is instantly my best friend as I eat my body weight in flat, fried batter and lemon juice.
It is only around 10am when we get in the jeep to take us back to the camp (a long drive where we’ll see adult lions, families of elephant and drive through Massai towns which are an eyeopener) although it feels like already a full day! I’m amazed at just how much distance we covered in the balloon (we saw the controlled bush fires on the Tanzania boarder in the distance when coming down to land).
Back at the camp we have a quick shower and take a nap to process the amazing experience we’ve just had, until lunchtime. The sun is out and in full force now so Kate and I take cover in the camp “library” where we play another couple of games of chess – she’s starting to get good! Before our next game drive I also fit in a bit of Facebook’ing with a beer in the sun.
The highlight of our drive that afternoon will be spotting a family of lions (females and cubs) gathered around a mound. Some are napping in the sun while another is digging furiously around this mound – our driver reckons a warthog is hiding down the hole and we wait around a bit to see if this is true. Meanwhile, the South Africans on their photo safari join us on the other side of the mound and kindly snap a few photos of us with the lions in between. Embarrassingly, they get us to do a few poses including kissing – which ends up being another one of my favourite photos of the trip.
By the time we arrive back at the camp the sun has turned to rain so we talk to the friendly Americans about music, festivals, uni life etc. (the son has just started college). We also chat with the Indian family who arrived at the camp that day (this is their 6th safari in as many years) and the South Africans about the days’ photo subjects before dinner.
Day 6 – Lions, Lions, Lions.
Being in a full-service camp is great until the day that communication breaks down and the clothes you’d handed in to be washed are not back yet and your wife starts stressing out! I go off in search of someone who can tell me where her clothes are and finally locate the wet garments. The manager kindly expedites their dying while I ferry cups of tea and breakfast to her in the tent.
An hour and a half late, we get going on the morning’s game drive and 20 mins in, we find ourselves stuck in a huge hole which accelerating and reversing the jeep only serves to dig ourselves deeper and deeper. Of course we can’t get out with all the potential lions prowling but luckily a friendly conservationist (coincidentally tracking lions in the immediate vicinity!) spots us in trouble and winches us out lickety-split.
Around two and a half hours later that expected we’re back en route to the entrance to another reserve (on the way we’ll encounter a huge herd of zebra – the startings of the migration which is quite a sight, a hyena who has clearly just finished breakfast by the look of his bloody fur and mouth, and our first jackal which is very cute but injured). We stop by the entrance and while the driver is sorting out the paperwork, we’re hassled relentlessly by some Masai women trying to sell us all-and-sundry. They’ve obviously worked out that tourists bottleneck here and for the whole 25 minutes, take turns to force their wares upon us. Even though we’ve already bought souvenirs from the Masai village a few days ago, Kate cracks and buys a couple bracelets that would fit only the skinniest 5 year old.
To top it off, there is a problem with the paperwork and we’re denied entry. They do say bad luck comes in threes but after that, things got a lot better…
The driver alters his plan for the day and after an hour, we’re parked under a tree for breakfast. There is nothing to see for miles and miles in every direction apart from the odd shrub and I’m quite nervous thinking about all the teeth hiding in the knee-high grass. It seriously feels like the remotest place on earth, but as fate’s sense of humour would have it, we suddenly hear “KISS!!” to our right. It’s the South Africans and their huge cameras again! What are the chances?
The plan after breakfast is to drive to one of the spots along the Mara river where the migration takes place. Unfortunately we’re around 2 weeks too early (this place will be heaving with tourists and a few documentary cameramen no doubt) but we can see the crocs already positioned and waiting. The sun is out in full force by this point and the hippos en masse are sunbathing on little mud islands in the river. This will be carnage in a fortnight!
Onward we go. We track and follow a couple of female lions with a cub trotting behind them, a lion who has just made a kill and is crunching through the bones of an impala (or similar – difficult to tell) and then, the crowning moment of the trip; we spot a couple of lions on their honeymoon!
According to the guide, when a male and female get together, they leave the pack for 4 days, during which they will mate every 20 mins on the first day, every half hour on the second and hourly on the 3rd & 4th! It turns out to be day one and we get some great photos and video while witnessing something people come back year after year for and never see. Funny how your luck can change in such a short space of time!
We stopped for lunch once again in a fairly open area that we know is the stomping ground of lions so I can’t perfectly relax (especially when we nip behind a bush for a quick wee). On the way back to the camp we very briefly glimpsed a leopard up a tree but before we could get close enough, it gets spooked and jumps into the bushes. We circle the spot for 20 mins hoping to see it again but it is very shy. An uneventful ride back after that spent reminiscing about the lions.
When we get to the camp the sky has turned a peculiar and brilliant yellow despite being overcast, which turns everything around us into shades of gold. I took a few photos but it isn’t able to capture the colours.
We charge phones while knocking back a couple of gins and show some of the photos to the others. Tonight we’ll be having a private dinner on the deck of our tent and by the time we get back the table is set up.
It is pitch black by this point so there is no view to speak of as we eat, but we do get to know Nelson, our server for the evening who tells a sad story about how he spends long blocks of time away from his family at this camp to be able to afford to support them and how he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to save up enough to travel outside Kenya. Early night tonight even though we can lie in tomorrow.
Day 7 – Chilies and Cheetahs
On the seventh day God rested; we didn’t. Despite being our last day before flying back into Nairobi there was still a lot more to see and do and we opted to squeeze one more drive in the morning – which was lucky as we were yet to see our ‘cutest’ sight of the trip.
It turned out to be a lovely, cloudless, crisp morning with excellent visibility – a scenario our driver lives for – and before long he’s spotted something. To me it just looks like a fallen tree in the distance and as we get closer, it becomes apparent that it is indeed a fallen tree… with two meowing Cheetah cubs sitting on it! Once again, our guide has outdone himself.
The object of their attention (the mother) is sat 100 yards away with eyes trained on a herd of something-or-other (waterbuck? too far to tell) and not bothered about us edging closer to her cubs in the slightest. We’re told that in the animal kingdom, cheetahs are considered the worst mothers and survival rates of cubs are extremely low as they leave them unguarded for long periods while out hunting – a situation hyenas and competing cheetahs take full advantage of. But we’re only here for photos and we’re soon off again.
We’ve just got time to check out the hippos and crocs at the river again en-route to the airport and I learn what an “Elephant Pepper” really is as we’re taking in the view. With a mouth on fire for the next half hour we sit waiting for the plane reading.
By the time we land in Nairobi and driven to the stop-over hotel we’re ready for lunch. On tonight’s agenda is the England game (we’re holidaying during the World Cup) and due to the time differences this doesn’t kick off til 11pm! The complimentary red wine keeps me company as Kate wastes no time catching some Zzz’s after room service delivers dinner.
Unfortunately, this will be my most comfortable moment for a few days as I come down with food poisoning (or similar) during the night. And on that pleasant note, I’ll finish. Part 3 carries on our Honeymooon story as we fly out to the Seychelles…
You can check out our review of the Elephant Pepper Camp on TripAdvisor here.