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for the love of kenya

My alarm goes off at 5:25am. I lay, snuggled comfortably under my covers, still warm from the bush baby (aka hot water bottle) that was placed in my bed the night before. It feels good against the cool, damp air. I listen to the animals that sound like they are mere feet away from my tent, but are actually either in, or across the river, or some distance away. Always hippos, often hyenas, baboons and lions calling.
 
Precisely at 5:30, I hear footsteps and see the beam of a flashlight coming my way. “Helllooo”… That’s my wakeup call. “Good morning,” I reply, to let him know I’m awake. I listen as the water from my canvas basin outside my tent is dumped and refreshed with hot water. “Asante” I call out as he heads to the next-door tent to repeat the task. “Karibu” I hear in reply.
 
And so begins each day at the Wild Eye Mara Camp. I quickly run through my morning routine of getting washed up and dressed. (it’s much too cold for a shower this time of day!) Once people are up and around, we can safely walk to the main gathering area of camp, though I wear my headlamp and shine it back and forth, to make sure there’s no remaining animals lingering around camp before daylight.
 
Then, coffee and a muffin around the already roaring campfire that’s been prepared by Dickson, our camp manager. We exchange pleasantries and stories of what animals we heard during the night. Sadly – or not so sadly – I usually miss them all, as I sleep so soundly here! Just the ones I heard right before slipping into dreamland or climbing out of bed in the morning. Breakfast, sometimes cooked fresh (omlettes!!) and sometimes prepared and carried along, is usually at a morning coffee stop around nine.
We are off by 6:30 sharp, bundled up for the morning game drive, camera and camera bag in hand. Mornings are the longest, and usually the best game drive. The sun is just starting to climb over the horizon, the light becomes stunning, and the animals are starting to move about. I love this time of day, despite the cold. We double-check our camera settings, knowing that if an animal appears, it could happen suddenly, and we want to be prepared.

A few brave wildebeest and zebras swim across the river to the opposite bank.
Note the croc near the top center!
Here in the Masai Mara in September, we’re watching for a gathering of wildebeest and zebras that are preparing to cross the Mara River. Thousands of tourists come every year to see millions of animals congregate for this spectacle, known as the Great Migration. It’s a time of mass herds moving from Tanzania into Kenya, following rain, instinctively knowing that new grass growth accompanies it. It’s a time of great drama, as the herds descend the steep banks of the river and dare to cross, not knowing if crocodiles are waiting to catch a meal. And if they make it across safely, lions may be waiting as well. Life and death are on the line.
 
The “Great Migration” tends to occur each year between July and October, although climate change seems to be affecting rain patterns and movements are unpredictable. The crossing of the rivers happens continuously through this time, sometimes back and forth across the same river, with the migration eventually circling around, back down south into the Serengeti, in Tanzania. This is a continuous circular movement throughout the year, covering hundreds of miles.
Also, this time of year, many predators are in the area, hoping to take advantage of the chaos mixed in with the millions of animals. We watch for the ‘big three cats’ (my term), which are lion, leopard and cheetah. We’re seeing so many lions this year, mostly doing what lions do best, and that is sleep. Combine that with mating and eating and you have a happy lion.
 
I’m seeing more leopard than expected, too. Leopard are solitary and reclusive, making them very difficult to find. But this time we’ve seen females, and even a stunning male. And from a long way off, we watched a mating pair during their courting ritual.
 
Most remarkably, a mother cheetah with four cubs that are now several months old, were the highlight of the week for me. Fervently protected by the warden, we couldn’t get close, unless they came to us. Too far away to get a decent photo most the time, we termed it “cheetah distance”. But what a delight when they did come close, or we could see far off, the four of them frolicking in the grass, chasing and pouncing. A solitary cat, it’s no small feat to keep four cubs alive, as lions and other animals would love nothing more than to kill the cubs. And keeping them safe while leaving to hunt is a challenge as well.
 
While the big cats were the main focus of our photography outside of river crossings, we saw a multitude of animals: elephants, giraffe, serval, hyena, jackal, wildebeest & zebra, impala, topi, gazelles, baboons and monkeys, tons of birds, all the way down to the little things like mongoose. We even saw a couple enormous Rock Pythons! There’s rarely a dull moment in the Mara! (unless, of course, you’re waiting for a lion to wake up and do something – anything!)  
 
Back at camp for a short lunch break, then back out for an afternoon drive, followed by an amazing dinner, a bit more time around the evening campfire and off to crash in bed. Barely a moment to download images and begin to process them all. Rinse and repeat the next day…
At risk of making my already long story too long, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing people of the camp. Primarily Masai workers here (I think all the camp staff are), there is an outpouring of genuine love, care and affection. They manage the camp, cook amazing food, and pour great G&Ts, yes, but they extend themselves in ways that are hard to describe. The warmth, especially in my mind, that comes from the women makes you feel like you belong. And the men are always prepared to make sure you are safe and comfortable. Everyone knows us each by name. During cultural night, Dickson shares his life story and what Masai life is like, followed by all the men and women staff dancing for us, in a way that is typically done during special events. Another night, they share stories of marriage and the significance of a necklace, followed by a snack of cooked goat, a delicacy. Note to self: I must remember to ask if I can go along next time to select and prepare the goat.
 
At dinner the last night, we were each asked what the highlight of the week was, whether an animal, event or whatever. I struggled to put feelings into words. It’s the people – the 10 other guests that I enjoyed being with so much and the new-found friendships. It’s the staff, who make every day so warm and welcoming as well as our amazing drivers. It’s the photographic guides – Mike and Andrew – who share their knowledge and assistance so willingly and abundantly. It’s being surrounded by nature 24/7 and the near constant bellowing of hippos in the river. It’s being cut off from the outside world as much as we want. It’s my small, but comfortable tent that keeps me safe at night and the outdoor bucket shower that is so exhilarating! It’s the lions and cheetahs and leopards and the serval that was right by our vehicle! Where do I start… and where do I end?
I try to stifle the tears the next day as we depart camp for the airstrip, with warm embraces, promises to take care and return one of these next years. But as I leave camp, and leave the country, all I can think about is when can I get back? Next year is such a long way off.
 ~     ~     ~     ~     ~ 
The Wild Eye Mara Camp, Enkishui, is a semi-permanent camp in the Mara Triangle in Kenya. It gets set up each June and torn down each December. Complete with Wi-Fi, a media tent where we charge all our equipment, computers, etc., a dining tent and lounge area. Each tent comes with a flush toilet, bucket shower upon request, electric lighting and bush babies when it’s cold! It’s not luxurious, but it sure is wonderful!
 
For reservations, visit wild-eye.com and look at the calendar. For questions, feel free to contact Wild Eye, but I’m always available as well! This was my 6thtrip with the company, and I love everything about them, but can also answer questions objectively, having traveled with other safari companies and in different styles, as well. Wild Eye hosts photographic tours and workshops throughout the world.
 

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