An hour after leaving Nairobi, the first sighting was grazing giraffes from the air.
Waiting near the end of the runway were several extremely tall Maasai warriors from and Beyond’s Kichwa Tembo tented camp, dressed in crimson sheets. Their shoulders were wrapped in red-plaid blankets called shukas.
By the time we reached the camp five minutes later, we’d passed bush buck, impala and gazelle on the open plain, olive baboons scrambling along the rocky, forested bank of the Sabaringo River, and chattering black-faced vervet monkeys hanging from trees near the entrance.
And all that was before our first game drive.
Named for the Maasai people and the Mara River that flows through southwest Kenya, the 580-square-mile Maasai Mara National Reserve (the Mara to locals) offers some of the best year-round wildlife viewing in the country, with large populations of elephants, giraffe, cheetahs and the elusive nocturnal leopard, plus one of the world’s highest densities of lions.
There are hippos, black rhino, crocodiles lurking in the Mara River, zebras and hyenas, but as far as spotting the Big Five — lion, leopard, African elephant, Cape buffalo and rhinoceros — during a single vacation, that’s all up to chance.
The only predictability here is that every dawn begins another anything-can-happen day.
One morning our ranger Akatch pulled his open-sided game-drive vehicle beside a tributary of the Mara River to wait and watch. Three hippos soon surfaced and one let out an earsplitting roar at five hefty 18-month-old male lion cubs playing along the bank above.
The commotion went on for 15 or 20 minutes, with the lioness waiting for her cubs to rejoin her on the other side. Eventually she made her way across the river, right past us. Tumbling and nipping at each other, the playful cubs followed more or less behind their mom until she spotted and started to slowly stalk two-week-old warthogs far off in the grass. Not yet old enough to hunt on their own, the lion cubs hung back and watched. “They’re still learning,” said Akatch.
When she was about 100 feet from her prey, the lioness sprung into a charge after the warthogs. It was over quickly. A herd of roaring, grunting Cape buffalo forced the approaching lion cubs to retreat, and the lioness climbed into an acacia tree. “Watching wildlife on the Mara never gets old,” said Akatch.
Though creature viewing here always excels, there’s a natural phenomenon that makes this spot unique, the annual Great Wildebeest Migration. When the plains of the southern Serengeti begin to dry out in March, around 1.5 million wildebeest (including 300,000 – 400,000 calves born in January and February), joined by 350,000 Thomson’s gazelle, 200,000 zebra and 12,000 eland, begin their circular migration from Tanzania to the Mara.
The herds start arriving in July in search of fresh grazing lands and begin their return loop to Tanzania in October – at least those that survived the dangerous crossing of the Mara River. Witnessing their arrival and departure is one of nature’s great spectacles; the animals jump off the banks en masse and 20 percent are killed by crocodiles and lions.
Kichwa Tembo sits at the edge of the tree canopy, with views from the split-level open dining area and veranda, and a two-story thatched-roof lounge/library that offers cozy seating and fireplaces. Forty stylish tents are staggered into the foliage with an open look on one side toward either the savannah or the Sabaringo. Here, every day brings something new.
New York Post