Searching for Simba

Adventure Travel, Kenya, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Tours & Attractions, Wildlife & Animals — By on November 13, 2006 at 5:15 am

Like most of our fellow Village Volunteers, Amanda, Holly and I jumped at the chance to sign up for an affordable 1-day safari organized by one of the in-country coordinators, and a member of the Maasai tribe, Emmanuel. Not only would we be guided through the world famous Masai Mara National Reserve by a knowledgeable local, we’d be able to put our safari fee to good use by channeling it through Emmanuel’s community outreach program versus a foreign-owned tour company.

So after three amazing weeks working at Pathfinder Academy, we bid tearful farewells to all our new friends and headed out of town. Three matutus, a few bumpy roads and four hours later, we arrived in Kericho, the tea capital of Western Kenya, where Emmanuel was waiting to pick us up. We instantly fell in love with his calm demeanor, sweet smile and enthusiasm for his work with Village Volunteers. Plus, he guaranteed we’d see at least three distinguished members of the ‘Big Five’ (elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and water buffalo) under his expert tour guidance. We’d soon find out, he was a man of his word!

After rising at the ungodly hour of 5am – the possibility of seeing real African wildlife our only motivator – we piled into Emmanuel’s car to take the 2 hour journey across the rough and dusty terrain that stood between us and our safari dreams. Having spent our time so far in a rural farm community, we had yet to witness the signature savannah commonly featured in classic African cinema. As we approached the entrance to the reserve, our expectations were not only matched, they were surpassed. Endless miles of sun-drenched plains, layered with thick tufts of wheat-colored grass and billowy dessert date trees, stretched before us under a vast mural of marshmallow clouds. Not even in our wildest film fantasies could we have painted such an incredible setting. We squealed like teenagers, hopping into our rented Jurassic Park-style Land Rover and enthusiastically popping our heads out of the requisite open-air roof. Bring on the animals and adventure!

Prior to arriving at ‘The Mara’ (as it’s commonly referred), we thought it would take hours of intensive trekking under the blistering Kenyan sun before we spotted any major game. But lucky for us, the animals in this part of the world are anything but camera shy. Mere seconds after our wheels hit the savannah, a family of warthogs scurried in front of our truck, heading home to their underground holes for an afternoon nap. Little did we know that this sighting was only the beginning. Emmanuel and our driver, Jonathan, had guided literally hundreds of other people through the reserve and knew exactly which rocks, trees and watering holes attracted the greatest game. And clearly used to being stared at by wide-eyed tourists, most Mara inhabitants don’t bat an eyelash when vehicles approach them – paradise for happy snappers like us. Eager to give our cameras a hard core work out, we opted to skip lunch at the lodge (normally a horrifying prospect for a Lost Girl) in order to maximize our safari time. We spent the next few hours snaking our way through the tall grass, bumping over the dusty roads, and stealthily exploring every corner of land for the most brag-worthy wildlife. And while we’d yet to spot a simba (the Swahili word for lion), over the course of the afternoon, we’d ticked a ton of names off our safari check list. Here are just a few of the highlights:

Hippopotamuses: Until this point, our experience with these hungry beasts was limited to zoos and classic 80s board games. So we were surprised to learn that hippos actually pose the biggest threat to safari-goers than any other animal. Fortunately, a deep ravine safely separated us from the huge group of 2 ton water babies we saw lazing on the river bed.

Zebras: We’re still not sure if they’re white with black stripes or black with white stripes, but either way, they are by far the coolest kids on the Mara playground. These two-tone wonders gallop peacefully across the plain, happy to hang with giraffes, buffalos, gazelles and other furry followers.

Giraffes: We got up close and personal with a huge herd of these long-necked beauties. They let us get about 10 feet away before gracefully skipping away, all four of their lean legs practically lifting off the ground at once. These ballerinas of the bush are simply breathtaking to watch!

Elephants: Save the Botox for another species. The deep wrinkles on these old cuties only add to their charm! We caught up with a whole family crossing the road walking nose to tail, the babies toddling along side their parents and grandparents. Like this wise species, we will never forget the experience.

Water Buffalos: At one point, our vehicle was surrounded on all sides by these docile looking creatures. Parked in a sea of water buffalos, we snapped some priceless pictures, even catching a few of the birds that so frequently take up residence on their heads.

Wildebeests: Having fortuitously arrived during the tail end of The Great Migration, we were witness to hundreds of wildebeests that stopped for a rest after making the long trek from Tanzania’s Serengeti region. We couldn’t help but giggle, as these ‘little old men’ scuttled across the plains, their wispy beards blowing in the wind and framing their sly smiles.

In addition to spotting dozens of animals, we made a few other amazing discoveries. #1: Singing the chorus from The Lion King’s Circle of Life helps ease the gross-out factor of seeing the rotting carcasses and piles of bleached bones prevalent in the plains (until Holly ‘yells’ at me to stop). #2: Despite years in science classes, we’re not always sure how to correctly classify large numbers of animals. Group, herd, bunch, flock, pride, gaggle, pack, gazillions of, cluster, gang, or all of the above? Whatever! We’re not being tested. #3: Nothing’s funnier than a big picture of our heads with sleeping creatures behind us. #4 There’s no need to drag expensive bronzer to the bush. The fine layer of dirt that inevitably accumulated on our skin gave us a surprisingly sun-kissed glow. Perfect for creating that freshly safari-ed look in the aforementioned hilarious snapshots.

And #5: Safaris seem to attract quite an eccentric cast of characters. Our personal favorite: the oh-so-serious, haughtily clad trekkers that have no qualms about sporting knee socks, multi-pocket khaki vests and genuine pith helmets, for God’s sake! How could our Target tank tops and Columbia sports pants possibly live up to this standard? Any moment, we imagined one of these colonial-era wannabes shouting “Jeeves, do run off and fetch my Windsor rifles. There are some damn fine heads out there that I just must add to my collection straight away.” In addition to being a sense of constant amusement to us, these walking clichés became our most ruthless competitors out on the plains, always eager to ask the popular question, “So, what fabulous game have you spotted so far?” After hearing one too many “What, no lions? Poor darlings. We’ve seen dozens of them!” we resolved to spot the king of beasts if it killed us. Hopefully the lion wouldn’t take us up on that offer once we found him!

Hoping we’d get lucky and find a simba, we scoured the plains for another few hours. Unfortunately, it was beginning to appear that our efforts would be in vain. Emmanuel explained that once the lions have made their afternoon kills, they settle down in the tall grass to sleep, making them almost impossible to see. Still, we were determined to catch one these cat nappers in action. When we had all but given up and were heading back to the game lodge to call it day, Emmanuel all of a sudden started waving his hands and motioning for the driver to head towards a nearby tree. Lo and behold, resting peacefully under the shade of the branches was the royal highness himself, a bushy gold mane framing his sleepy eyes. “Is it safe to get close to him?” we asked. Emmanuel assured us we were absolutely in no danger as the driver inched closer and closer until he was less than 5 feet from the lion. He simply yawned and rolled over to continue his afternoon snooze. It wasn’t until Amanda popped her head out of the top of the truck to capture a few aerial shots, that we got a rise out of him – literally! He jumped up with start, letting out a low roar and stretching his muscular legs. The three of us yelped and jumped back down into the truck. But when Emmanuel and Jonathan just started laughing at us, we figured we were probably safe. And we were. After a few seconds, our newfound simba plopped back down and started licking his massive paws. This continued for about 20 minutes, which allowed us ample time to take a photo album’s worth of pictures. Mission accomplished! We had found our lion, despite a lack of kitschy safari gear.

Exhausted, yet exhilarated, we collapsed in a dusty heap on the first couch we could find in the game lodge bar. Our victory called for a cocktail! As the sun set over the savannah, we toasted to Emmanuel for giving us the experience of a life time. Then, being the resourceful Lost Girls that we are, we set up camp in the luxurious bathroom (the first we’d seen in weeks) to enjoy the complimentary hand soap, body lotion and wash clothes and to thoroughly scrub off our ‘tans’. And while washing the thick swirls of dirt down the drain did somewhat strip us of that authentic safari look, we figured we had enough mementos on our cameras!

—Jen

Check out the slideshow with more of our fave photos:

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    3 Comments

  • dadster says:

    Just a great posting. I’m jealous. The pics were great. Did you really see all those beasts in just one day.

    I want to go!

  • Dellie says:

    Spectacular blog entry. Holy Simbaoni!!! The photos and the slide show were mesmerizing. How wonderful that you got to see the real thing. You girls are my Simba! I adored seeing those animals through your eyes–LG National Geographic…Thanks for the great writing…

  • dianersb says:

    I have loved reading about your adventures in Africa! It’s great to read about all of the things I want to do through your eyes…Plus, it has prodded me into planning my own trip!

    Thanks!