In the vast verdant stretches of southwestern Kenya, zebras, giraffes and antelopes graze side-by-side, lions and leopards skillfully stalk unsuspecting prey, and the wildebeest migration creates a stunning natural event. Whether by jeep, hot air balloon or your own two feet, the Maasai Mara is one of Africa’s best safari destinations.
The sun is just casting its golden glow over the horizon as our yellow and green–striped hot air balloon lifts off the lush Kenyan grass. Below is the legendary Maasai Mara, one of Africa’s greatest wildlife regions, where crocodiles, hippos and hyenas mix and mingle like a scene straight out of a Disney movie.
We silently glide over grassy plains watching mesmerized as warthogs and wildebeests frolic amidst skulls and bones of meals long devoured. A dazzle of zebras runs past, eliciting excited gasps and camera clicks from my fellow passengers. Our balloon pilot points out a massive lion sunning by a stream, then a quivering antelope huddled nearby, terrified to move lest it disturb the sleeping king. Drifting safely out of pouncing distance, the pilot deftly descends over the backs of unsuspecting elephants and giraffes, and we come to a soft landing. We’re greeted by waiters in white coats serving champagne as we sit down at an elegant table for a full breakfast —complete with made-to-order omelets and pancakes—, all in the middle of the African bush. It feels so dreamlike I have to pinch myself, but I’m awake.
I’m in the Olare Motorogi Nature Conservancy, in Kenya’s iconic Maasai Mara region. Famed for both its impressive wildlife population and the tall, spear-clad Maasai warriors, the Mara is home to five nature conservancies, including the 13,350-hectare Olare Motorogi, known for its exceptionally large population of big cats.
Different than national parks and reserves, which are owned and operated by the government, conservancies are privately owned and managed in such a way as to protect the ecosystem and benefit the landowners, the Maasai people. Only a maximum of 94 guests are allowed to stay at the camps within the conservancy at any given time. This low tourism density makes the animals more comfortable in conservancies than in more crowded national parks, and allows safari goers a better chance to see the animals.
After breakfast, we hop in a jeep to continue the safari —this time from a four-wheeled perspective—. Philip, our knowledgeable guide, ticks off interesting animal facts as we pass each species. Among other things, I learn that warthogs can run up to 60 kilometers per hour, a kori bustard is the heaviest bird that can fly, and that a group of hippos is called a raft, while a group of giraffes is deemed a journey or a tower.
Suddenly, Philip hears a message on the radio. One of the other guides shares that he’s spotted a pride of lions. We speed past monkeys and impalas until we arrive in a gulley filled with bushes. Only one other jeep is visible. We glance in the direction their cameras are angled, and see a 180-kilo lion lying under a bush directly next to us.
I watch as the animal’s delicate pink tongue licks a massive paw before smoothing back his wild mane. We’re about three meters away from this stately creature, his gracious movements reminding me of my cat Ernie back home. Phillip directs our gaze further to other members of the pride. We spy a few lionesses and a handful of cubs munching on a freshly caught zebra, the babies tossing and playing with their food as any human child does, and looking every bit as cute as Simba from my favorite childhood movie, The Lion King.
We’re so close I’m afraid to breathe. I’m so mesmerized that I hardly notice the sprinkle of rain descending upon us, and it’s not until a crack of thunder startles humans and lions alike that we realize we’re being drenched. We pull down the plastic tarpaulins on the jeep and wait out the storm, the scraping of teeth on bone just audible over the pounding drops.
The storm abates just before sunset, perfect timing since evening sundowners in the bush are a traditional part of any safari experience. Exiting the jeep for a cocktail party next to the lions isn’t ideal, so Phillip cranks the engine and drives us to an open plain, where newborn zebras roam under a purple-tinged sky. I step gingerly onto the wet grass, conscious that I’m now standing where a leopard or jackal may have caught his dinner just this afternoon, then grab a glass of wine and watch as the sun turns a pair of giraffes into silhouettes in the distance.
Back at the Olare Mara Kempinski, one of the only five tented camps within the conservancy, I soak in my claw-foot tub reliving the highlights of the day. As if watching lion cubs play tug of war with a zebra leg wasn’t enough, the safari continues as I listen to the sound of hippos rustling and grunting outside my tent. No, it’s not a dream, but the Maasai Mara truly is what African dreams are made of.
To London and connect to Istambul and then to Nairobi with Turkish Airlines, an airline member of Star Alliance, and start your tour to Maasai Mara National Park.