There is never a good place to get a puncture. Deep in the heart of lion country is probably bottom of the list. We are in Kenya’s Masai Mara reserve, spiritual home of the safari, where a golden landscape of savannah and scrubland populated by acacia trees stretches as far as the eye can see. The Mara, for once, is empty of tourists. We have the park to ourselves during a fleeting moment when predators outnumber safari trucks and human traffic is at an all time low.
We are visiting before the season gets into full swing. ‘More big cats than us little people’ George, a fellow tourist enthused, his eyes widening with glee ‘…and even better, no one to share them with!’ Yesterday, I’d joined him in his excitement yet now, I felt strangely non-committal. Now I’d far rather see the Famous Five tumbling out of the bushes, than the Big Five.
With cats all around and no-one else to distract them, the thought of disembarking from our Landcruiser to use the ‘Masai powder-room’ as my guide Abdul so charmingly puts it, seems frankly terrifying. I regret the Stoney (Africa’s finest) ginger beer I’d knocked back in the truck and wonder just how hungry the 253 (at last count) lions in this area of The Mara were in the run up to lunchtime. My thoughts are interrupted as Abdul leaps from our 4×4 and studies the tyre through red dust and scattered clay. Two Masai giraffes survey us curiously as they amble past within touching distance. They seem unconcerned about predators, so I glance in all directions before gingerly stepping down to attempt to help jack up the cruiser. With the sun so high in the sky, the searing temperature causes the heat to shimmer from the baked earth. It’s hot work, but within minutes, the tyre is replaced and we are on our merry way.
In barely the time it takes to round the bend and crack open a celebratory Stoney, I glimpse the Pride. One, two, three..four…FIVE lions sheltering from the midday sun under a majestic flat-topped tree. Their outline is unmistakable but Abdul clearly (or so I think) hasn’t spotted them as he swings the cruiser towards the horizon and alas, away from the cats and their party of five. I open my mouth to protest, but stop short as we depart the road, following weathered tracks beaten by vehicles, onto worn trails trodden by wild beasts and go off-road. Now it starts to get interesting. Abdul nods towards a scattering of Topi antelope standing stock-still on the escarpment gazing in the same direction as if in prayer. ‘Let’s go see what they’re looking at’, he murmurs as we head towards an elevated point on the plain, where the flaxen grass reaches waist height.
We slow, and I hold my breath as the truck gently circles, creating a figure of eight. And then I spot them. Two cheetahs so well concealed in the long blades; so perfectly camouflaged in the golden light that most probably wouldn’t see them unless they came and sat on their lap. But Abdul is an expert in these matters and senses their presence. ‘Brothers.’ he confides ‘The Topis are assessing when they’ll make their next move. They are pretty smart’ he continues, ‘not like wildebeest who’ll saunter up to a cat to check if she’s hungry.’ He tells us cheetahs are camera shy compared to their feline brothers who while away the finest hours, stretched out languidly under a tree, sleeping and amusing themselves by playing cat-and-mouse with passing zebra herds and occasionally… tourists.
And thus another tale begins from Abdul – guide, naturalist, teacher and storyteller. Abdul’s father had also been a ranger, and his grandfather had walked the foothills of the Mara as a guide before that. Abdul’s young son was to follow in their footsteps – the vast expanse of the Mara was his playground and the four-footed inhabitants his playmates. Abdul tells of the time British soldiers on a weekend break from their training base had decided to hire a Land-cruiser and set off into game country with only a crate of beer for company. No guide, no radio, no phone, little water and even less sense. Abdul was one of the party who had witnessed their ‘tears of joy’ when they were rescued 16 hours later from a ditch, having generated keen interest from a ten strong pride. ‘Well they can’t say they didn’t have a big cat experience!’ Abdul’s glorious, warm laughter rolls over the plains as we roll away to give the cheetahs their privacy.
Elated, exhausted, we return to our camp Olonana and swap ginger beer for something a little stronger. Our tent is perched on the banks of the northern Mara River, Kenya’s greatest liquid asset and I cannot imagine a more picture-perfect setting. The sinking sun illuminates the sky, creating the type of extravagant hues which could only have been painted by a set-hand and as the sultry air begins to cool, We sip our sundowners, serenaded by a group of amorous hippos. Olonana has just 14 tents and gives new meaning to the term ‘sleeping under canvas’. The well appointed pavilions are deliciously cool away from the dust and heat and are charmingly designed, with more than a nod to Out of Africa. Every detail has been well thought through, from the individual notes placed on the beds at turn-down containing Masai poems and folklore, to the fresh coffee and handmade cookies which materialise as if by magic on our deck each morning.
Olonana has been built using only sustainable materials and fits sensitively with the surrounds. A commitment to the environment is central to the lodge philosophy – tents are solar powered, camp water is pumped from the Mara River and filtered, whilst daily menus feature local ingredients flavoured with herbs grown on the grounds of the property. Walking safaris along the escarpment with local pastoralists can be arranged, as can trips to the neighbouring village or ‘Engang’ to learn more about the Masai’s enviably simple and traditional way of life.
Olonana is part of Sanctuary Lodges which offers wildlife and wilderness encounters in areas of outstanding natural beauty, so everything is reassuringly low-key. I was invited to plant two Eastern African yellowwood trees as part of Friends of Conservation’s reforestation project which began 25 years ago to help promote environmental education in the Mara. Pretty much everything I’ve ever planted in my life withers, but I am sure that my Podocarpus falcatus are in safe hands as William the gardener adds a little more water ‘just to be sure’ and we pack down the steaming earth around the fragile sapling.
Setting off at daybreak we travel further into the bush. Passing grazing rhinos, sparring buffalos and a lone, sickly wildebeest who has adopted a herd of gazelle to conceal his vulnerability, we encounter a herd of 30 or so elephants. The family are enjoying a relaxed mud bath, rather like a day out at the lido – there is little to suggest that we are approaching the great crossing where countless battles have taken place and lives have been lost. Here the land features high savannah and undulating hills overlooking the sparkling reefs where hungry crocs lie in wait. ‘You’ve been lucky’, Abdul tells us as he stops to photograph a Blue-crested Roller. ‘Four of the Big Five and one of Africa’s most beautiful birds’. We check that a leopard is not lurking in the lofty heights of a blowsy tree and stop to feast on a bush picnic.
In amongst the doom blades, for a time we have only the call of the Tropical Bou-bou and a sun-bleached wildebeest skull for company. Later we watch a group of adolescent male giraffes ‘necking’ in a demonstration of reckless male domination. With necks often 6ft long, and weighing over 600lbs, necking is a serious business. I try hard to stifle a laugh as one giraffe avoiding a particularly enthusiastic blow from a fellow long-neck bashes his head clumsily against an overhang on the tree he’d been dining at only moments earlier with a thud. In schoolboy manner he sneaks a look at us, as if to check that we hadn’t witnessed his humiliation. We feign disinterest and continue in search of leopards.
It is the light I find most disarming. The sun tricks and plays games with my eyes and my mind. It dazzles, piercing sunglasses and reflecting off the horizon, confusing me so that everything becomes the yellow of the burnt grassland and I forget where the plain ends and the sundrenched sky starts. A long tail becomes a broken branch, a shapely head, reveals itself to be just a rock whilst the leopard frozen in flight is simply a tree stump. Sounds become more perceptible and bull elephants munching on grass, becomes amplified a million times in the silent valley.
Maybe I am not the only one who is disoriented. I spot a lone Thompson’s Gazelle standing appetisingly on a raised section in the clearing, innocently flicking his tail, accentuating his white buttocks which are visible for miles, reflecting against the sun. He is unaware of the temptation he presents. A cheetah sidles closer to the gazelle, she has two hungry cubs and he is an enticing treat. We move on. Still the rains have not fallen, and bee-catchers circle the truck ahead of us as if creating a path as they feast on ticks, mites and flies borne up in the clouds of dust created by the wheels as we head back into big cat country.
The lion sees and smells me long before I see him. A honey-eyed, nonchalant glance conceals the fact that lions are one of the fastest land mammals. Filled with disinterest his eyes suggest he’s known I am on my way for some time, perhaps his terrific sense of smell alerts him, or perhaps the sound of my clumsy fumbling as I ease my camera from its case. Masked by the grass, one velvet paw raised above his giant head, he is acutely aware of our presence, but completely unperturbed by it. We are probably the only visitors that day; indeed these are not the days when safari trucks line up to be tenth in line to see the spoils of a kill. The litter mates are a nomadic band of brothers who operate as a team during the equally serious tasks of hunting and playing, honing their skills, before they compete for territory. They had already dined. My lion turns again and surveys me, lazily licking his lips. I am only worthy of a half-glance, before he turns again to the task of cleaning his paws whilst his brothers sleep. He again throws a glance in our direction as if sizing us up. We are outnumbered. Five of them, three of us. We turn away and continue on our journey.
The rains have finally fallen and the Great Rift Valley unfolds before my eyes as we head on our bone-shaking journey towards Lake Naivasha. We pass a scruffy, lone hyena, he eyes us warily from a puddle, his coat looks like it had seen better days.
As we arrive at Loldia House we are welcomed by Scotty an excitable Labrador who shreds the single stemmed red roses we are handed as we sign the arrivals book.
What a charming way to be greeted I think as I gaze around the grounds, the perfectly manicured lawn and the Hemingway interiors. Set on a 6,500 acre working farm, the cottage was built by Italian POWs who shaped the stone cladded exterior.
Whilst the Mara has lions, Lake Naivasha has hippos. There are over 100 in the lake surrounding our cottage at Llodia House. How many gardeners I enquire, does it take to keep the grounds so perfect? There is only Samwell, replies Charles with a proud smile, but the hippos help. One of nature’s most fearsome creatures, hippos kill more humans than any other African beast every year and so rangers pace Loldia’s grounds at night, brandishing their AK47s. I had not realised just how noisy hippos could be as the giant pachyderms rumble and grunt in a moonlight embrace. My days at Loldia are spent messing around on the lake and enjoying gin and tonic served just the way it should be, in a frosted glass, slung low with lemon, with a length-ways cucumber to bring out the subtle taste of juniper.
After three days of fine food and nature rambles, I am served my final G&T – a sharpener for the 40 minute journey back to Nairobi in the Dash. As I slide back into my seat I close my eyes and think back to George. I may not have seen the Big Five as the leopard has eluded me, but even better as I think back to the five lions and five cheetahs I have encountered in their most private moments of sleeping, playing and hunting. I have seen the Perfect Ten. vow to return soon. After all I have to check that Charles is taking care of my trees.