Lane Nichols goes in search of Africa's big five game animals on a once-in-a-lifetime Kenyan safari.
Coming face to face with a seven-tonne bull elephant is a lesson in your own insignificance.
I'm standing in a pop-top safari jeep in the middle of Kenya's fabled Masai Mara game reserve. I'm surrounded by a herd of elephants, each of which dwarfs my vehicle and could crush it like a tin can. Eyeing this immense creature I wonder briefly whether it will charge. Fear grips me as the ivory-tusked beast turns towards our jeep. I suddenly appreciate the fragility of life. Fortunately for me, it's just curious.
The giant herbivore surveys our safari party, then turns and plods slowly away to a nearby waterhole. About a dozen of the magnificent animals, accompanied by a smaller one-tonne calf, meet at the water's edge. They swat flies with their long tails, playfully suck up mud through their trunks and squirt it over their backs and flanks to keep cool.
Visiting Kenya's game parks is like stepping inside a virtual reality episode of Our World. Only here you could be ripped limb from limb by a pack of hungry hyenas, charged by a raging hippo or dragged from the river's edge by a giant croc and barrel-rolled beneath the water until you become tender enough to eat.
Nightmare scenarios aside, I was giddy with excitement as my flight descended into Kenyan airspace from the clouds a few days earlier, allowing my first glimpse of the shimmering African plains. It was my first trip to the exotic continent and an eight-day Kenyan game safari across three world-renowned wildlife reserves awaited.
After rendezvousing at a downtown hotel with my Australian travel companions, we were ready for the adventure of a lifetime.
We set off the next morning from the bustling city of Nairobi. Home to around five million people, Kenya's capital city is a chaotic procession of dusty roads, jammed with buses, cars, trucks, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and donkey-drawn carts. Hawkers accost you, offering newspapers, bottled water, fruit, pink milk and even whole fish. A young boy aged about 7 begs for spare change, his infant sibling strapped to his small body in a sling.
Kenya is still a developing country. After decades of British colonial rule, the East African nation won independence in 1963 after a violent struggle. It is a proud nation where school is free and compulsory for children, but where unemployment runs at about 50 per cent. After agriculture, tourism is the country's second biggest industry, and after visiting Kenya it's easy to see why.
We head west out of the city for the Masai Mara park. The huge game reserve stretches over 1500sq km and is host to a multitude of incredible African animals. The "dotted plains" are the scene of the great annual wildebeest migration – when millions of wildebeest and zebra journey en masse between Kenya, and the Serengeti in Tanzania. It is one of the seven new wonders of the world.
The park is named after the Masai people, a nomadic community of farmers. To prove their bravery, young men traditionally had to slay a lion armed with nothing but a spear, though thankfully Kenya's strict laws protecting game animals have now rendered this custom redundant. The Masai people are adorned in brightly coloured blankets of red, orange and pink – their rich hues a stark contrast to the barren grasslands of the plains.
We arrive in the Masai in early April, in the midst of a prolonged drought. The journey in our eight-seater pop-top Toyota land cruiser is not for the faint-hearted. The roads – and I use this word generously – are a mix, from sealed but badly potholed highways to barely passable goat tracks. But the scenery is mesmerising and it's a joy to watch Africa roll by outside the window in all its glorious humanity and commerce.
We check in to the Fig Tree Camp, which borders the park - a slow-moving river is all that separates thousands of hungry animals from our "tents". But these are not tents in the sense of any Kiwi camping trip. They are luxury abodes boasting four-poster beds and an ensuite bathroom.
In the river immediately outside, a group of enormous hippos bathe in the water, just their noses poking above the surface. The serene afternoon is occasionally punctuated by their booming trumpets. A five-metre crocodile lazes in the waters nearby, a stone's throw from our tents. TIA as the locals say. This is Africa.
We ditch our gear then head out on our first safari. Within minutes we are surrounded by teeming and spectacular wildlife. I've watched countless David Attenborough documentaries but nothing can prepare you for the sight of fully grown giraffes chewing leaves from an acacia tree, their long intricately-patterned necks arching to reach the highest thorny branches.
A dazzle of zebra (yes, that is the collective noun) survey our vehicle then scatter as we approach, their perfect black and white stripes a curious defence mechanism to trick predators. A family of warthogs trot by on their tiny legs - ever-vigilant for the park's big cats who consider the hogs a tasty meal.
Troops of baboons crisscross the road, eyeing us suspiciously before returning to the serious job of preening their peers to remove unwanted ticks. Buffalo chew lazily on huge mouthfuls of grass as white birds perch on the giant beasts' heads, watching for stray insects. A sleek leopard appears near a river bank, casually passes our vehicle then disappears on the hunt for its next kill.
Everywhere exotic African species appear from the Masai expanse. Within three hours I am speechless at this natural wonderland. It's spellbinding to behold these creatures in their natural habitat – a treasure that is strictly protected by Kenyan authorities in a bid to safeguard it for future generations. Poachers can expect life in prison.
We retire to our camp to enjoy a beautiful meal washed down with the tasty local brew, Tuskers Lager. A band of local Masai dressed in traditional garb perform a rhythmic song before we hit the sack, exhausted from the long drive but exhilarated.
We rise before dawn the next day to the sound of hippos thrashing in the river below. After gulping down a rich brew of Kenyan coffee, we take a short walk in the darkness to a nearby field where a hot air balloon is being prepared to take us on a sunrise flight over the Masai.
We drift high above the plains, watching the animal life rise in search of food and water at first light. An hour later we land and are whisked to a champagne breakfast on the grasslands before setting off for our next safari adventure.
After a series of incredible close encounters – including a pride of lions, Thompson's gazelles and five beautiful cheetahs - we pack our things and head for Lake Nakuru National Park.
A six-hour drive away, the park is set around the lake's gentle shores. Ghost trees drowned by rising waters stand eerily above the mirrored silver expanse. Lush green forest provides a rich contrast to the Masai's dusty plains. Zebra, buffalo, topi, warthogs and baboons descend from the hills to drink from low-lying waterways. Monkeys scamper across dirt tracks and a huge rhinoceros feeds in a meadow next to its calf.
Nakuru is famed for its rhino breeding sanctuary and breathtaking flamingo population. The graceful birds, many perched on a single spindly leg, gather in the mudflat shallows, poking for morsels with their large beaks. Their delightful pink colours indicate they are adult birds; the adolescents are plain white. The park's flamingo numbers are down on previous years as the drought has caused salt levels in the lake to spike, killing the blue and green algae which the birds devour.
We check into the upmarket Lake Nakuru Lodge. Zebra and hyena wander outside my window, the latter's chilling cackle audible during the night. We pack early the next morning, enjoy breakfast then head out to explore the park. It's a glorious setting with exotic animals and birds appearing at every turn. Parking up next to a sheltered bay we spot an African fish eagle, heron, stilt, egret and kingfisher, all perched a few feet from a family of hippo just visible beneath the silvery water. As we leave the park we spot a Rothschild giraffe chewing on leaves and a pack of vultures feeding on the carcass of a dead buffalo.
Next is a long drive southeast to Amboseli National Park, a 350sq km game reserve at the foot of the Mt Kilimanjaro. At nearly 6000m Kilimanjaro is Africa's highest peak and the world's tallest freestanding mountain. Amboseli is renowned for its elephant population. About 1500 of the majestic creatures are found in the park, wandering in and out to graze and search for water sources. Kili's snow-capped peak towers above the grassy plains, providing a dramatic backdrop for an iconic African photograph. The mountain's ice melt feeds Amboseli's wetlands, giving life to its teeming animal population. But global warming threatens its existence, with some scientists forecasting the remaining ice reserves could be gone in 20 years.
After the long drive, we check into Kilima Camp and enjoy a cold Tuskers or two before dinner, the great mountain bathed in the fading dusk light. The next morning we head into the park at sunrise and it's not long before we are surrounded by dozens of African elephants. It's a privilege to study these animals at close range. Weighing up to seven tonnes and living to about 60, elephants can drink up to 100 litres of water each day and consume around 200kg of food. They are highly intelligent, fiercely protective of their young and renowned for their sociability and incredible memories. Their biggest threat is from man, with their ivory tusks sought after by poachers and their habitat slowly being destroyed by human occupation.
We watch as the herd grazes near our vehicle. A young calf plays with a rock like it's a football. A massive bull approaches our Landcruiser and eyes us curiously before rubbings its hulking rear end on a nearby bank, satiating an annoying itch. Slowly the elephants depart, crossing a road before heading towards the park border. My companions and I watch in silent awe.
The next day we return to Nairobi, jangly African guitar music blasting from the car stereo. Security is tight amid heightened terrorism threats from Somali militants. As my aircraft lifts off ahead of a gruelling 24-hour journey home, I gaze on the scorched earth below. Kenya's brown lands swelter in the afternoon heat, desperate for the African rains.
The Kenyan eight-day safari expedition was a G Adventures tour in partnership with National Geographic. The cost is $5059 per person, including accommodation and most meals. Prices do not include flights.