Transcending national borders and points on a map, the Serengeti is a vast, vibrant ecosystem that comes to life with the arrival of the rainy season.
As an evening storm rolls in over the savannah, flashes of temperamental lightning competing for attention with the freight train-like roar of heavy rain, I’m safe and dry under a thick canopy of canvas. It’s the rainy season here in Kenya, when sunsets battle towering cumulus clouds for domination of the horizon, and when a significant fraction of the year’s rain is portioned out rather violently each evening.
However, in my leather-lined suite at the recently-reopened andBeyond Bateleur Camp, tucked away in the foothills of the Oloololo Escarpment on the cusp of the iconic Maasai Mara Reserve, I have everything I need to survive – there’s a wet bar stocked with fresh limes and locally-produced gin; a freshly drawn claw-footed bath steaming away, and treacle-hued light coming from discretely-positioned lamps. If it wasn’t raining fit to burst outside I don’t think the scene could be any more enchanting.
I’ve always been intrigued by this part of the world. The Maasai Mara is one of the world’s great wildlife reserves, but it’s more than just Kenya’s pride and joy, or an extension of Tanzania’s, the Serengeti; it’s a living, wondrously-evolving 30,000 square kilometre ecosystem that the Maasai call “the place where the land moves on forever”. It’s also an ecosystem that’s packed with life and vitality; one that follows the seasons, not national borders or labels on a map. ‘The Mara’, as it’s frequently and rather affectionally known on both sides of the border, is Africa at its most protected, its most vulnerable, and its most intriguing.
Of course, it’s also nice to explore such a wild landscape from the confines of the region’s luxury game lodges, each a little ecosystem in itself, and
I’ve started my tour of three distinctive camps at one of Kenya’s favourites.
Twenty years after it was first built, Bateleur has emerged reenvisioned, reimagined, chic, bold and yet timeless. The camp is a tribute to the landscape in which it dwells, but it’s also a testament to how the safari experience is changing.
While retaining its classic, romantic safari vibe, Fox Browne Creative, the camp’s original creators, were charged with building a camp that caters to a new generation of equally-intrigued adventurers; travellers who value space and privacy and authenticity. To do that the firm upcycled many of Bateleurs’s original artifacts, antiques, and furnishings, supplementing those pieces with new creations by the local communities that live on the fringe of the Mara.
The effect is nothing short of mesmerising; rooms are decked out in leather, polished wood and crystal, while the sumptuous dining room and lounge, with its roaring fireplace and ornate chandeliers, opens out to an expansive terrace from which I watch hot air balloons rise into the crisp early morning air the next day.
The rainy season is a great time to visit East Africa. The Mara ecosystem – whether it’s the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania or the private concessions which cling to their
borders – is defined by cycles, from the great migration to the two rainy seasons, which bring life to the vast savannahs and mark the end of the calving season, ensuring spectacular wildlife sightings if you don’t mind a little mud.
It’s into the mud that I venture with my guide Ole Kima. The rains have come a month early but our game vehicle easily fords rivers now flooded with coffee-coloured water, while above, troops of baboons leap from branch to branch in towering fig trees, raining dew drops down on the canvas canopy. As we clear the forest and emerge in the open savannahs, entering the Maasai Mara proper, the hot air balloons come into sight again, flares of flame lighting indigo skies as they struggle into the humid air.
with oxpeckers enjoy the cool mud but watch us carefully as we rumble by in low gear. On a grassy hillside where scenes from Out of Africa were filmed, Kima sets up a bush breakfast, a highlight of any andBeyond
safari. There’s cereal and eggs and sausages, which in turn attract a pair of shy but intrigued black-backed jackals, bashful little dog-like animals that disappear with ease among the tall grasses.
By mid-morning we’re straddling the border between Tanzania and Kenya, marked by a simple stone tablet, and spy a pride of lions in the shade of an acacia tree. It’s a brilliant experience; there isn’t another vehicle for as far as the eye can see, an increasingly rare phenomenon in a part of Africa that’s seen a monsoon surge in tourism, and the new cubs play among the tall grass and take turns to stalk each other while a pair of marsh harriers dance in the thermals high above.
The heat becomes intense by midafternoon as we make for the camp again, a wall of dark cumulus clouds slowly swallowing up the sunshine. As we cross a billiard table-flat prairie of golden grass, Kima spots a tiny shadow in a far-off tree and turns down a narrow track to investigate. The infinitely-elegant leopard watches our approach with ease, its tail curled around a narrow, shaded branch, its saucer-sized paws dangling nonchalantly beneath.
There’s a moment of thumping hearts and held breaths as we gaze up at the
beautiful cat before it yawns, stretches like a gymnast on a balance beam, and deftly descends the tree, disappearing instantly into a field of honey-hued red oat shoots.
A couple of short flights the next morning and I’m across the border into
Tanzania and arriving at andBeyond Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp, a beautiful game lodge located beside a by-water of the camp’s namesake river. With 11 cavernous tented riverside suites, the camp offers access to the seemingly endless grasslands of the northwestern Serengeti.
I’m keen to make the most of the daylight and head out almost immediately with my young guide Steve. Despite his baby face and boyish grin, the Arusha native has been guiding for seven years, with most of that time spent here among the vast grasslands and granite boulders of the Western Corridor.
This part of the Serengeti has it all, from flooded forests and seasonal lakes to vast savannahs where cheetahs prowl and hyenas seek solace from the heat in hidden mud pools. Gazelles, Toki and waterbucks graze on the fresh young shoots of grass and in the waters that pass by the camp hippos and Nile crocodiles doze, enjoying the fullness of the river.
After an hour’s drive down dusty trails, beneath robin’s egg skies, we arrive at the swollen Grumeti River. A seasonal lake has formed and African storks glide across the mirror-like waters, racing their own reflections towards the banks. A Thompson gazelle darts across our path and a tawny eagle the size of a housecat watches us from atop a dead tree trunk, its eyes defiant as storm clouds form in the skies beyond. A baby Cape Buffalo, born the night before, wobbles next to its protective mother, its umbilical cord still trailing beneath it.
We pause long enough for Steve to pour me a gin and tonic as lightning flashes and thunder ripples across the skies to the northwest and as we soak up the solitude, a trio of side-striped jackals trots past, the little canines rested and energetic for a night’s hunt as great curtains of rain begin to descend in the distance.
With first light, Steve and I delve into the savannahs again and it’s not long before we discover a pride of almost a dozen lions dozing in a tangle of gardenia bushes. The cubs are transitioning from helpless little cats to would-be hunters and take turns pouncing on each other in the shadows while their mothers and aunts watch over them. In contrast, the pride’s male sits regal and serene some distance away, the early morning sunshine setting his yellow mane ablaze.
As the sun climbs high the temperature rises, baking the network of trails that crisscross the Serengeti and sending the animals to ground. However, the landscape remains lush, with natural streams and flooded watering holes brimming with rainwater. At times our 4×4 seems to be swimming more than driving through the swampy savannah. Pairs of beautiful grey crown cranes emerge from the long grass to feed on waterborne insects, while nimble, caramel-coloured kestrels soar above, occasionally hovering over the sea of yellow-green grass when they see something of interest.
Climbing to dry land again, we delve into the bolder-strewn landscape favoured by the big cats of the northwestern Serengeti. We find a pride holding court atop one towering bolder, shaded by thick whistling thorns. A trio of cubs rise from their afternoon naps to peak over the cusp of their rocky retreat and watch us keenly. Nearby, elephants and ‘journeys’ of giraffe seek shade beneath ancient sausage trees laden with heavy fruit. This part of the park is relatively isolated, and we only see three other game vehicles in two days, all of which were transiting the park bound for Lake Victoria or the border crossing points.
Back in the lowlands, in a field of white daisies, we discover a solitary cheetah. Completely unperturbed by our presence, the sleek cat purrs and rolls in the newly sprouted grass, yawning away its afternoon slumber as the sun begins its descent in the west. Its keen yellow eyes watch the distant hills; it will spend the night creeping through the darkened landscape
in search of a meal but for now, it’s quite content enjoying the emerald green meadows brought by the rains.
My last stop is andBeyond Klein’s Camp, which is located on a private concession owned by the local Maasai community. Private concessions have
different rules from the national parks and it’s a great opportunity to enjoy
game drives with a difference, from off-trail exploration and walking safaris to night drives in search of the many animals that rise after dark.
Perched on the flanks of an ancient mountain range, the camp offers stunning views from its ten spacious cottages, and that night after a candlelit dinner served on my cottage’s patio, I fall asleep to the resonating growls of lions in the valley far below.
Klein’s is an old school institution but it’s also evidence of how tourism can help bolster local communities. It’s before first light the next morning when
my guide Karipoi, my tracker Joseph and I mount up and clamber down the
mountain’s steep rocky trail in search of game. A Bateleur eagle calls from its nest high at the top of a rocky crag, its whistle echoing off the ancient rock. In the distance a pair of rare Egyptian vultures loop like delayed airliners above the Grumeti River, where Maasai shepherds are wrapped tightly in vividly red shuka cloth against the morning chill.
Despite the proximity of villages, this is also big cat territory, and before long we come across a large pride of lions, representing multiple generations. A safe distance away, regal Secretary birds with slender legs prance through the shadows of fig trees lining a narrow creek, and plump guinea fowl in polka dot skirts dart in and out of the riverside foliage. The cats are dozing in the mid-morning heat, but I can feel multiple sets of eyes watching our every move and as a cub approaches a little closer than his mother prefers, she gives a deep growl that lingers even longer than it takes for the cub to scurry back to her safety.
The northeast is also favoured by the elephants, who crush and crack their way through the landscape. Even when you can’t seem them, you can hear the elephants and see the trail of foliage destruction they leave in their wake. This destruction can cause tension with the neighbouring communities; here, on the cusp of the park, elephants roam the villages at night, eating crops and trampling anything in their way.
However, the Maasai family I visit as part of andBeyond’s Africa Fountain Community Tour seem to take the destruction – and the proximity of leopards, cheetah, and lions – in their stride. A village elder shows me around his compound of thicket fences and mud-clad homes, a string of intrigued, bright-eyed children trailing behind me. As a life-long urbanite, I’m as fascinated with the Maasai’s way of life, from the goat’s blood that’s central to their diet, to their tiny homes with palm-sized windows (“to keep out leopards” I’m told) as the children are by my hiking boots and the
LCD screen on the back of my camera.
As the light begins to fade in the sky and the mountains loom on the horizon, the kids huddle around my camera and wave responses to a video I’ve taken of them singing. It’s an enchanting finish to another spectacular African adventure.
Fly: Ethiopian Airlines connects Hong Kong with Nairobi via Addis Ababa.
Camps: andBeyond Bateleur Tented Camp, Kenya, from US$680 per person, per night; andBeyond Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp, Tanzania, from US$740 per person, per night; andBeyond Klein’s Camp, Tanzania, from US$840 per person, per night.
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This story originally ran on Ultimate Encounters