It’s almost too overwhelming a scene to absorb. I’m staring into the regal face of Aslan, the king of the beasts, who’s lazing in the sparse shade of a tinder-dry bush less than 20 feet away. We make eye contact. Mine are like saucers; his are bored and seem, possibly it’s my imagination, slightly narrowed.
It’s the ultimate experience; I never thought for a second I’d get this close. But there’s always that urge to get a little bit closer, I lean forward for a better shot. He roars… very loudly. I retreat… very quickly.
The reality strikes home. This isn’t a zoo. This is his territory. One bound and I’m lunch. I shrink further into the Land Cruiser, respectful of who I’m dealing with here. My whole body tingles with electric excitement.
I expected a Kenyan safari to be good but an imagination fuelled by a childhood diet of old Tarzan movies, Daktari and Out of Africa didn’t come remotely close to preparing me for the real thing.
However, a few days safari in Tsavo East, Tsavo West and Amboseli isn’t all about thrilling, face to face encounters with the ‘Big Five’ and supporting cast.
The Big Five on Safari
First of all there’s the ‘Big Five’ moniker which has dodgy big-game hunting roots and probably deserves to be given a contemporary makeover. Lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos will always be a ‘wow’ to spot… but a cape buffalo? I’m being animalist here but including the cape buffalo in the big five of safari animals is like including Jedward in a list of the big five of bands. Maybe that’s a bit unfair, a cape buffalo is much more interesting. The cape buffalo should be put out to pasture and replaced by a new kid on the block like the cheetah, or even the deliciously odd looking giraffe.
Waking Up to the Realities of a Safari
The reluctant morning sun casting a hazy mauve glow over the sprawling Africa plains is a sight to behold. However, at 5.30am and 6am, when most safaris start, sleepy eyes can prove remarkably defiant when it comes to being impressed by nature at her glorious best. Attempts to point out the first of the wonderful African world’s early risers are met with a sleepy ‘yeah, right, very nice…zzzz.’
Safari Dust Devils
Next time I go on safari I won’t wear anything white or light coloured. Everything will be the colour of my trusty Camel boots – reddish brown. Because that’s the colour everything ended up anyway – T-shirts, socks, trousers, underwear, skin and camera equipment. Safari equals a lot of dust.
Wild animals being wild animals, they don’t line up conveniently to have their piccies taken. Subsequently searching for them can involve a lot of driving around and peering through binoculars accompanied by excited comments like ‘is that a cheetah over there?’ to which more often than not the guide’s reply will be a weary ‘no, that’s a termite mound.’
The Really Cool Things about Safari
The early rise, long hours of driving and dusty clothes are all forgotten the moment the first ‘big’ animal name is sighted. Herds of zebras and gazelle whet the appetite and then African things will happen; encounters that make each safari a personal and soaring experience that spoils all other travel experiences for a long time afterwards.
Things like the encounter with the male lion blending in so well with the scrub that only an eagle-eyed and highly experienced Kenyan tracker would ever spot him.
Descending through a thicket to a hidden leafy glade where a family of portly hippos wallowed happily in a sun-dappled pond; their big mouths looking like they were smiling with sheer contentment.
Stopping to watch a herd of tiny wild dogs yelp and tease a huge African bull elephant in a David and Goliath encounter where in this case we felt sorry for Goliath.
An ostrich mum with two youngsters in tow zig-zagging cartoon fashion ahead of the Land Cruiser on the dusty, ruddy track.
The graceful yet awkward neck of that most alien of creatures, the giraffe, rising above a baobab tree as the sun sets.
A deafening and unsettling roar that shattered the night as a herd of thirsty elephants descend on a watering hole beside the lodge.
And the cape buffaloes that unexpectedly charged the Land Cruiser as we passed a thicket of tall grasses which acted as a perfect spot in which to hide whilst waiting for any unwitting tourist who dissed their right to still be included in the ‘Big Five’.
Those and a million more little and big experiences make that African safari in Kenya still one of my favourite and most uplifting of travel adventures.