The Danish couple who I thought I would be third-wheeling with on safari in Maasai Mara turned out to be just two friends, Lenette and Nanna, and the three of us girls got along wonderfully. We drove to Maasai Mara from Nairobi, then spent our first afternoon on a game drive in the park.
Eliud has a safari vehicle that looks like an elongated jeep, with nine seats. The top pops up about two feet, so we could stand on our seats with our heads looking out over the roof at the animals and landscape of the Maasai Mara. We spent most of the time standing up during our drives, sloshing around from one side of the sunroof to the other and slamming our shoulders into the edges on either side as Eliud navigated over bumps and through potholes. When we drove on a particularly smooth area, we would jump up onto the roof behind the sunroof with our feet dangling inside on the car, gripping the low railings tightly. With the wind blowing past my face and the sun on my shoulders, I could have been happy sitting up here all day even without seeing any animals.
However, we did see tons of animals – pretty much all of which I had never seen in the wild before – which made the day completely sublime. We saw wildebeests or gnu, so ugly with their long beards and bucking back legs that they become cute; zebras, which do not lose their appeal or beauty despite their abundance in the park; giraffes, awkwardly splaying their front legs to munch on low bushes; elephants, wrinkled and tusked and majestic; birds, ranging from tawny eagles to colorful finches; buffalo, looking angry and aggressive with thick, low-set horns; wallowing hippos with pink undersides down at the river, and crocodiles there too; vultures, who picked barbarically at scraps of meat still left on bones from early morning kills; antelope, including Impalas, Thompson’s gazelles, Hartebeests, Topi, Waterbuck, and Kudu; baboons, pink and blue lizards, foxes, jackals, warthogs, ostriches, and big cats. Our trip highlighted the big cats quite nicely.
All of the safari guides have radios that they use to communicate when they see exciting game. Around 9:00 AM on the second day, Eliud’s radio became especially active. He spoke a bit into it in rushed Swahili, then we took off. Eliud is normally cautious about potholes, but we flew through them and whipped around turns. Lenette and I both stood with one foot on each seat on either side of the aisle, gripping onto the rims of the sunroof as if our life depended on it (which it did). We heard “ouch”es and bumps as Nanna, in the back, hit her head into the popped up roof before surrendering and falling into the back seat. In my starfish pose, I swayed violently with the motion of the car and tightened my grip. The wind pulled tears from my eyes and backwards above my cheeks, and my mouth stayed open in a combination of exhilaration and fright. We passed a zebra lying dead on the ground with a chunk bitten out of its hip, otherwise abandoned by the predator. “What are we chasing, Eliud?” we asked, to which he responded, “Just a minute.”
We hurtled around a curve and up a hill before slowing at the sight of eight or nine safari vehicles, gathered a short distance from a shrub. Behind the shrub, in the shade, sat a leopard. We regained our balance and stuck our heads and cameras out the sunroof. The excitement of the chase would have been worth it in itself, but the leopard at the end made it incredible. “Come out into the sun, so we can take a picture of you,” i begged, and the leopard did just that. WIth rippling, spotted fur shining in the sun, the leopard strolled calmly through the grasses, then right in front of our car.
However exciting that leopard sighting was, and although the leopard was probably my favorite animal to see, my favorite sighting happened later. Again, we flocked to a large group of cars gathered around a clump of bushes. Four or five lions lay in the shade, while cars rotated around them, oohing and ahhing and snapping pictures. One pair of lions – one a young male with the beginnings of a mane, and the other a female – laid close together, almost spooning. They lifted their heads and checked us out for a bit, then relaxed again. The female, playing big spoon, lazily placed her paw over the back and stomach of the male. It made me sing “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” in my head, and certainly made for a great picture.
We continued the cat day by seeing a lioness carrying a bloody pray, and another family of lions – including two full-grown males with bushy manes – right before the end of our day. We had a second leopard sighting, and saw three cheetahs lying down around midday. We even spotted something called a serval cat, that looked like a small cheetah with big ears and a stubby tail. Finally, I spotted some hyenas taking mudbaths, which, unlike the wildebeests, are only ugly, not cute.
So we completed our day with four of the big five – buffalos, elephants, lions, leopards, and rhinos – and went for a game drive the next morning to continue our hunt for the elusive rhino (I felt like Steve Irwin when I talked in my head about the “elusive rhinoceros”). We drove towards rhino country, until action on Eliud’s radio called us back nearer to the gate. We got to see a male lion ripping meat off a dead wildebeests, in such close proximity that we could hear the gnawing of bones and the snapping of tendons. Then, only a couple hundred meters from that, we saw two enormous and bloated cheetahs eating what appeared to be a cow. The cat luck continued.
We resumed our rhinoceros hunt, driving far out into the bush through zebra-filled plains and herds of wildebeest. Just as we reached the more forested wetlands, Eliud stopped the car abruptly to listen to the radio. Nanna, Lenette, and I had taken up our favorite seats atop the roof to soak in the sun and the animal sightings. “Hold on,” Eliud yelled back at us, and we pulled a speedy u-turn, then hurtled back down the road the way we had come.
Unlike yesterday’s chase (part I), we were sitting on the roof today, and unlike yesterday’s chase, the road hosted wet, muddy potholes more often than smooth, flat sections. I sat between the other two, and we all three gripped the back railings behind and on the sides of us with all our strength. I could barely breathe, and the three of us together supplied a stream of muttered expletives. The mutters became shouts when we saw especially deep mudholes, or sharp turns, ahead. At one point, we all flew at least six inches off the roof on a rebound from a pothole, only held to the car by our fingers. We barreled along, and I spent a lot of time with my eyes squeezed shut. I suppose we could have gone inside of the car and sat down, but the thrill of our ride kept us pinned to the roof.
We arrived as the last safari vehicles were pulling away from the site. There had been rhinos here, but they had entered the forest. In wild pursuit, Eliud drove off the road and into the trees, trying to weave his way through a path where the trees were small enough for us to just trample them. We crashed through the brush, ducking as branches threatened to hit us (still perched on the roof). We halted just in time to see the back of a rhino slip through the trees and out of sight. So we sort of saw the big 5… the big 4 1/2, at least. I guess some day I will have to return to catch a full glimpse of the elusive rhinoceros…