In Search of the Big Five in Kenya

October 14, 2012

We spent five days on safari in Kenya, visiting a variety of areas, ranging from small sanctuaries to large national parks. While safari is an African highlight, so is climbing Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain on the continent. We did not have an opportunity to do that this time, but if we did, we would certainly consider using Private Expeditions as our guide company. During our time on safari we saw many animals. When on safari, one of the goals is to see the “Big Five”. This phrase was originally used by hunters to denote the five most difficult and dangerous animals in Africa to hunt by foot. The Big Five are the black rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, African elephant, leopard and lion. Today, the far less violent goal is to see and photograph these animals while on game drives in a safari vehicle.

Kenya is one of seven African countries where the Big Five can be found, the others being Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. We have previously been on safari in Namibia, Botswana and Tanzania and had seen four of the five animals, the leopard being the exception. So we were hopeful of seeing one during our visit to Kenya.

After we completed our walking safari we entered the Maasai Mara National Reserve. This is one of Kenya’s most famous protected areas. It differs from the other national parks in the country as it is administrated by the local Maasai, rather than the Kenya Wildlife Service. This reserve borders the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania so animals move freely between the two places. This movement includes the Great Migration, in which over one million animals migrate from the Serengeti to Maasai Mara in June and back again to Tanzania in October, in search of fresh pastures.

As we made our way to our bush camp in the middle of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we immediately began to see animals. By the time we reached our camp we had already spotted three of the Big Five, having seen lions, Cape buffalo and elephants. With our driver, we organized our subsequent game drives in the safari vehicle to take place in the early mornings and late afternoons, to capture the best light and maximize animal sightings at the start and the end of the day.

The next morning we were up at dawn and on the road, with a packed breakfast, as the sun was rising. We were treated to a rare cheetah sighting in the early morning light. As we were photographing the cheetah, she made a high-pitched sound and then a baby bounded out from across the dirt track! We enjoyed watching the two of them play right in front of us! Soon after we spied a black rhinoceros in the distance. So we had already seen four of the Big Five!

After a breakfast picnic under an Acacia tree in the bush, we moved over to the Mara River, where the Great Migration back to Tanzania was just beginning. We saw thousands of animals in winding lines as we neared the river. We spent about 90 minutes parked close to one of the river crossings, watching large numbers of wildebeest and zebras queued near the edge. They looked like they were going to cross, then they fell back, moved up again and then tapered off. We eventually witnessed a line of wildebeest thundering down a ridge near the river.

After a break back at the bush camp we set off again in the late afternoon with the sole purpose of finding a leopard. Our driver took us along the Talek River, where the leopard can be sighted. We drove for quite a long time along the river and were beginning to lose hope. Then our driver turned a corner on the dirt track and exclaimed “Leopard!!”. We arrived just in time to see the leopard before he slithered into some bushes to stalk some nearby gazelles. We were so excited to see the Big Five in less than 24 hours!

After leaving Maasai Mara the next morning, we drove north to visit two national parks. Hell’s Gate is named after a narrow break in cliffs that were once a tributary of an ancient lake that fed the Rift Valley. It is known for its scenery and the terrain of Hell’s Gate was the model for the settings animated in Disney’s The Lion King film. We took a guided walk down the Hell’s Gate gorge, which involved some steep rock scrambling (some of it requiring the assistance of the guide!).

We took a game drive by boat at nearby Lake Oloiden to look for hippos and do some bird watching. The lake is known for its flamingos and we enjoyed photographing them as they flew over. We stayed at the Crater Lake Sanctuary, which has about 1,000 acres set aside for animals. In the late afternoon we took a guided walk through the grounds, seeing giraffes, zebras, baboons, gazelles and black-and-white colobus monkeys.

Our last safari stop was Lake Nakuru National Park. There, we saw several baboon families and a wide variety of birds on the lake. We were fortunate to photograph a black rhinoceros next to our vehicle, which was much closer than the one we had seen in Maasai Mara. We also sighted several Rothschild giraffes. These giraffes differ from other giraffes in terms of their patch shapes and the fact that they display no markings on their lower legs. They are the most endangered giraffe subspecies.

As we drove back to Nairobi we counted ourselves very fortunate to have seen so many animals, as well as complete our goal of seeing the Big Five. The last portion of our time in Kenya will be spent visiting the Samburu area, where we will spend several days with the Samburu Project meeting people and understanding the effect of well water on villages.

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