I’m not a morning person — except in Africa.
While on safari, I cannot wait to wake up and see what the morning has in store. Back at home, I can’t drag myself from bed at the humane hour of 8 a.m.
During a recent safari in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve with WWF (World Wildlife Fund), a camp staffer came to my tent at 5:15 a.m. to wake me — but I had been up for nearly an hour already. I got dressed, chugged some of the French-press coffee he left outside my tent and prepared my camera for a morning of adventure on the African plains. And what an adventure it was.
We pull out of camp, barely emerging from the acacia forest at the entrance before a guide’s voice comes over the radio. Not two minutes away, along a bend in the curvy and deeply cut Ntikintik River, a male leopard is walking along the banks. How could the guides possibly have seen him, I wonder. The sun is barely up! We track the leopard for an hour, watching him spray mark his path and brush up against bushes before he settles down for a nap.
We drive across a never-ending field peppered with wildebeests. Thirteen hot-air balloons rise in the distance.
Four male hyenas approach our Land Rover. Could they smell the picnic breakfast we had stashed in the trunk? Joe Charleson, our expedition leader from Natural Habitat Adventures, makes hyena noises at them. We roll our eyes and laugh. “Check out the blood and gore on the side of their necks,” Joe points out. These hyenas have just returned from a pre-sunrise feast — likely a wildebeest that fell victim to lions overnight.
We drive to the spot where we saw four baby cheetahs the evening before. They were around three weeks old, and their mother’s first litter. We were concerned about them because yesterday there were a pair of lions hanging out not 50 feet away. Fortunately, the young ones were tucked behind lava rocks and bushes, so the lions couldn’t see them. We sigh in relief to see the cubs again this morning — and this time their mom is with them!
They’re difficult to spot, but we observe them for about 15 minutes. We leave when we see another vehicle approaching us. We don’t want too many others to know the cubs are here, because then throngs of tourists will flock to the site. “We don’t want them to get badgered,” says Joe, who is a conservationist as well as a guide.
We pass through a dazzle of 59 zebras. (I counted — and, yes, “dazzle” is what a herd of them is called.) Four zebras keep a lookout for predators while the others meander about and graze. We take note of the brownish “shadow” stripes that exist on some zebras between the black stripes. Not all zebras have them, Joe says, but they’re passed down genetically. One zebra starts rolling in the dust. That’s called “dust bathing,” done to clean their skin of parasites and other irritants.
After photographing a warthog that didn’t run away from us (for once!) and the endemic East African antelopes called topis, we arrive at our site for breakfast. Under the shade of a candelabra tree whose trunk has been rubbed smooth by elephants, we dine on Scotch eggs, sausage, bacon, fresh bread, corn muffins, yogurt and more of that French-press coffee I can’t get enough of.
The breakfast spot is so serene that we don’t want to leave, but it’s time to go see what else we can find. We head off and quickly come across a trio of African parrots in a strangler fig tree and a lilac-breasted roller sitting on a log. Two great bird sightings in less than a minute!
I present Joe with a test. “I bet you can’t find 10 different mammal species in one scene,” I brazenly say. Not one to turn down a challenge, Joe immediately points out seven: wildebeest, a trio of topis standing on a termite mound, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, warthogs, waterbucks and buffalos. I’m doomed to lose, I think to myself. (And within the hour, I do.)
We decide to focus for a short time on our life list of birds. A flock of Senegal wattled plovers flies overhead. We check off spur-winged and blacksmith plovers, yellow-billed oxpeckers , European storks, a black-bellied bustard and a black-headed heron.
How fun — a hoedown of banded mongooses! They scatter across the plains, digging in the dirt to forage for grubs and dung beetles. Thousands of wildebeests and zebras fill the plains too, hardly noticing the commotion the mongooses make.
We stop to stretch our legs, catching shade under an acacia tree while six female ostriches and hundreds of wildebeests circle around us. I can’t stop laughing at the surround-sound honking coming from them — like a guttural and comical “huh, huhhh, HUNH.” (Here, listen for yourself.)
Eight buffalo decide they want to steal the super-desirable shade cast by a lone tree from nine lounging lions. They try staring down the lions for a little while, but the lions are too sleepy to care. That is, until one rather large buffalo decides to charge them. The lions hop to their feet in seconds and scatter, forced from their cool retreat and into the hot sun. Good idea. After nearly six hours of countless dramas and eye-opening sightings, it’s also time for us to catch some shade.