A Kenya Safari with Audley Travel – a Day in the Bush
Most wakes I’ve attended have been rather conventional affairs, involving delicately cut ham sandwiches and enforced chit-chat with relatives whose mere existence had come as a surprise just hours before. Tea is generally served in china cups that wouldn’t be out of place on the Antiques Road Show, and there’s always someone who turns up in neon pink rather than the standard black, with the excuse of celebrating life rather than mourning death. Uncle Alfred I’m looking at you!
This wake was a little different.
Here the attendees were all hunched over and appeared to be wearing dark shrouds of their own. There was no small talk, just an eerie silence that whispered menace. I got the distinct impression they were congregating in anticipation of a death, rather than because of one. And why were they all looking at me?
I could’ve sworn I heard a chilling cackle coming from the back of the crowd…
Doom, doom, DOOOOOOMMMM!
A Wake of Vultures
Reminding myself I was in fact quite safe in our vehicle out on safari in Kenya, and this was just a group, or ‘wake’, of vultures waiting for breakfast, I relaxed in my seat and stared back into 50 sets of unblinking black eyes. It was that unnerving time just before dawn, when the lingering mists were slowly receding from the plains, revealing all that had gone on during the dark of night. A couple of hyenas were squabbling over unidentifiable bones that had been picked clean long ago, and wildebeest calves were jumping for joy after surviving another night out in the bush. Wrapping my chilled hands around a warm flask of hot chocolate that had been provided by the thoughtful staff at Hemingways Ol Seki Camp, I mused it was far too early for those sort of energy levels. Even if they had just escaped the jaws of death.
The vultures had unsettled me with their brooding air of intent, their vast numbers, and the fact they were all standing on the ground, facing the same way. Towards us! Usually we see them perched up in trees in twos or threes, on the look out for the latest feasting opportunity. Shivering slightly, which was only partly to do with the cool temperature of early morning, we continued on our Kenya safari and trundled off into the bush.
Then came the sunrise, and with it the safety that daylight brings. Our Maasai guide Patrick pulled over behind a conveniently positioned acacia tree and we watched as oranges, yellows and reds gradually flooded the plains of the Naboisho Conservancy all around us. The new day had finally begun, even though we’d been up for hours. Such is life on a safari holiday. With renewed vigour we set off in search of a cheetah. The one creature we were keen to see.
A Coalition of Cheetahs
In the event we saw not one, but FOUR young cheetahs, stalking across the savannah with their long agile limbs. Just another day out on a Kenya safari! We followed them for some time as they half-heartedly thought about hunting, but the herds of impala obviously weren’t on the menu today as they continued past without so much as a glance. We eventually left them to it, not wanting to crowd them or put them off their hunt!
It was Hubbie who spotted her. Perched regally on a fallen tree, she was using the height gain to scout out the land and wait for her own breakfast opportunity. Or was it lunch.
Normally at this point we’d be snapping away with our cameras, seeing the entire episode through the lens rather than with our own eyes, a failing we never seem to be able to shake. Yet this time it was different. We’d had our good camera stolen in Tenerife the week before, so were pretty much relying on our phones for pictures. Whilst this was frustrating in that it meant we weren’t getting any shots worthy of hanging on the wall, it also meant that we were able to just sit and enjoy being so close to this magnificent cheetah. And when she suddenly stood up, stretched, and then pelted off into the trees we didn’t miss a thing. The chase was over in a matter of moments, and although ultimately unsuccessful, like so many cheetah hunts, it was incredible to see her in action.
It was the highlight of our entire Kenya safari holiday!
A Crash of Hippos
A short while later Naboisho had another speedy animal to throw at us, and it wasn’t one we were expecting. Hippos. You know, the huge cumbersome grey things that don’t do much except wallow in the river, occasionally coming up for air, and sometimes snorting disgruntledly for no particular reason.
We’d seen our fair share of hippos on previous Kenya safari holidays, and weren’t that excited at a couple of nostrils lurking just beneath the pool surface. But when those nostrils arose, followed by the owner who then proceeded to waddle out of the river, cross the road and then charge off into the bushes at break-neck speed, then you had our attention!
Boy those things can move, and we finally realised that they’re known as Africa’s biggest killers for a reason. I think we’d prefer to take our chances with a lion!
A Dazzle of Zebras
It was on our way back to Ol Seki Camp after our morning game drive that we smelt it. The sickly sweet tang of recent death. The vultures hadn’t been waiting in vain and were now tucking into their breakfast with a vigour inconsistent with the motionless silence of their previous wait. Sparing a thought for the unfortunate zebra and the onlooking black and white striped herd, but admitting a grudging admiration for the birds whose feasting would keep the plains free from disease, we trundled onwards, our stomachs rumbling in anticipation of our own breakfast. Which was a much more civilised affair involving tropical fruits, cereals and a full English for those who could manage it. Hubbie tucked in with enthusiasm.
After a couple of hours on our private veranda watching the curious little rock hyraxes scuttling around, and a delicious lunch of chicken curry and fruit cocktail to fortify us for the afternoon ahead, it was off on the second game drive of the day.
This time we were after lions.
A Pride of Lions
Standing on the back seats of our vehicle, hanging out of the roof like wayward teenagers, we clung on for dear life and tried not to whoop too loudly as we jolted off into the conservancy.
Whilst this slightly precarious position required a level of balance that doesn’t come naturally to me, the 360 degree views were worth every bump on the track. It felt kind of naughty, but out here this sort of behaviour is perfectly normal on a Kenya safari. So. Much. Fun.
It was from this vantage point that we saw families of elephants munching away at leaves from tree branches that they’d snapped off moments earlier, and herds of wildebeest and their young who had arrived ahead of the great migration in anticipation of greener grass. Hyenas and jackals lurked as usual on the periphery, always waiting for the opportunity of an easy meal.
It was soon apparent why.
A pride of lions was lounging on the banks of a dry riverbed, the adults trying to catch a few zzz’s whilst the playful young cubs were tumbling around, having fun and causing havoc.
After a while one of the older sisters realised sleep was futile and joined their games, teaching them the beginnings of valuable hunting skills around a small burrow, and how to sharpen claws on a tree stump.
Eventually the others began to stir and started to position themselves strategically around the area, in readiness for some unsuspecting prey to come stumbling by. They settled in to watch, and wait, so we continued on our way and headed off to see what else we could find before dinner.
An Aerie of Eagles
It was about this time that we noticed the skies beginning to darken, with bruised-looking towers of clouds pregnant with moisture heading our way. It was February, and the unsettled weather was a prelude to the rains that come in April, nourishing the plains ready for the great wildebeest migration towards the end of June.
Patrick turned around and headed in the opposite direction to see if we could outrun the storm. No such luck, but rather than let the torrential downpour dampen our spirits, we actually found it rather exciting. The plains were in desperate need of some rain after the long dry period, and the parched earth greedily welcomed the water. We sat in our land cruiser, having battened down the hatches, and chatted companionably over mugs of wine and bottles of beer. It was ‘raindowners’ rather than ‘sundowners’, which was just as much fun.
When the storm finally moved on, we tentatively opened the sides of the truck and stuck our heads out to discover a different world from the one we’d been admiring just half an hour ago. Tracks turned into streams, rivers became swollen and parts of the savannah were now ponds. Birds were tweeting in the bush, and we could almost hear the excited jostling of grass roots in their battle for emergence.
The hippos in the river beside us were loving the increased water levels, and a couple of fish eagles had now come to perch on branches above the pool, no doubt on the lookout for an easy supper. Of fish, not hippos!
They sat motionless for what seemed like hours, before plummeting to the water, one snatching at air, whilst the other reigned triumphant, his patience rewarded as he flapped off down river.
On our way back to camp the tracks were quite slippery in the mud, so we stayed firmly put in our seats rather than hanging out of the roof. A good call considering a short while later we came across another safari jeep stuck in a ditch that would have been fine to negotiate had the ground been dry. Patrick stopped to help and after much deliberation eventually managed to tow the stricken vehicle out of its predicament.
We were more than ready for our dinner by the time we got back to Ol Seki, and perfectly cooked steaks, some incredible chocolate and pecan pie, and fun company did just the job. I secretly wanted an early night with a good book in our cosy tent suite, but Hubbie wasn’t done yet. So we wrapped up warm and set off again, this time for a night drive.
A Plot of Bush Babies
Now that’s a made-up collective noun if ever there was one! And technically speaking we only actually saw one bush baby, but who’s counting?
A night game drive is quite a different beast to those that take place during the day. Obviously it’s dark, and outside the light beam helpfully shone by our spotter we couldn’t see a thing. It’s freezing out there on the plains too, and rather than slapping on the suncream, we were huddling in our fleeces. At night it’s all about the anticipation of a sighting, which in my mind is actually the most fun part of any safari. Under cover of darkness the rarer, nocturnal animals come out to play, and we saw things that we didn’t even know existed.
Like the playful bat-eared foxes, cavorting together in a clearing without a care in the world; and the spring hares racing each other around tufts of grass. Around this neck of the woods they’re known as ‘African kangaroos’, and with their ridiculously long hind legs and lengthy tail we could see why.
Really chuffed with our sightings we snuggled up on the back seats for warmth as we headed back to camp, but Naboisho had one last treat for us. A cheetah. She didn’t seem to notice her audience and we watched in silence for some time as she got comfy and settled down for the night after a long day out on the plains. High above in the branches there was a minute rustle and a pair of eyes glowed bright in the dark. Bush Babies are notoriously difficult to spot, as they camouflage themselves so well, so to see one in the wild was truly an honour.
It’s moments like these that we’ll take away with us, and on a dreary day back home we’ll remember the incredible encounters we had out on our Kenya safari. Maybe magic does exist after all!!
Audley Travel offers tailor made trips to Kenya. A seven night trip including one night at Hemingways Nairobi, three nights at Ol Seki Hemingways Mara and three nights at Hemingways Watamu (all on a full board basis, with two game drives per day on safari) costs from £3,300 per person (based on two adults sharing). The price includes international (economy) and internal fights, transfers and park fees. For more information visit www.audleytravel.com/Kenya or call 01993 838510.