Do you know the word safari comes from the Swahili word, ‘journey’? Neither, but it all makes sense!
There are so many different styles of safaris in Africa, each with its own unique way to experience wildlife as well as the diverse, vast breathtaking landscapes. This continent never ceases to amaze us.
Back in the day, heading out on a safari was aimed purely at hunting big game and although this horribly still takes place, nowadays, safaris have developed into one of the most sought-after holidays from tourists around the world & for far better reasons.
Safaris in Africa give you the opportunity to rock the classic safari outfit, spot the famous “Big 5”, admire & photograph the wildlife up close without fencing or barricades. The behaviours of these animals are natural, without prediction, there are no tricks performed or shows put on. You find yourself in their home, their territory and it is feeling like no other.
However, it’s not just wildlife. You explore magnificent landscapes, learn an abundance of information from the professional rangers, you participate in local dances, hike, cycle or simply listen to the sounds of nature from the comfort of your resort or camp site. Yes, we heard hyenas laughing from our tent :O.
Visiting the Maasai Village (shown below) was rather eye-opening. The Maasai people live in small villages and follow very strict traditions. They are an ethnic group inhabiting from Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania and are best recognized by their distinctive customs and dress. We were invited to visit their houses which were incredibly small and learn a few of their customs.
One of the most popular ways to introduce us to their traditions is through the adamu, also known as a jumping dance. This dance is to show the strength and stamina of the men as tribal warriors. Jacob went head to head with one of the leaders of the tribe and surprisingly out jumped him! As a result of his strength, he is now entitled to take home a Maasai woman for marriage… Hmm, I don’t think so!
We spent just over a week in Kenya in our overland tour with Tucan Travel and had the opportunity to safari 3 different ways, all of which offered a different and incredible experience.
Here they are!
1/ Hot Air Ballooning in the Maasai Mara
If you want a bird’s eye view of the glorious plains of Africa, this is the best option out there. We had previously viewed The Okavango Delta from a small plane in Botswana but a sunrise hot air balloon ride directly above the animals during the great migration was spectacular & yet another bucket list item we could tick complete.
There are certain reasons you can justify a 3:45 am wake up call and I guess this is one of them! As we drove towards our launching site we came across a variety of animals, from warthogs to roaming hyenas. Morning, noon and night, it never stops in the Mara.
We arrived in the dark, rugged up with layers upon layers and saw the large portion of land covered by the balloon. We had previously gone hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey, but how we entered the baskets in Africa was entirely different. There was no stepping stool or ladder, instead, the basket was laid down on the ground and we crawled in, assumed the position and were pulled up with the force of the balloon. It was exhilarating and slightly entertaining at the same time.
The moment we were aloft, the sheer stillness and pure tranquillity was nothing short of incredible. Apart from the occasional shot of fire from the burner (which is entirely necessary to keep us up there!) you could see and hear nothing but pure nature. The sounds of the wildebeest calling to one another below, the birds chirping, the crisp fresh air & the African sun rising. As the morning went on, the actual size of Mara became more apparent and we had a whole new perspective of the Savanna.
For the duration of the one hour flight, we spotted a herd of elephants, giraffes, millions of wildebeest, zebras, impalas, hyenas, warthogs, vultures and the occasional carcass.
Before we knew it, the hour was up and we were preparing ourselves for landing. “Hold on, head down, tuck in your cameras”. With a few tree scrapes followed by a couple of loud thumps, we hit the ground & our morning over the Maasai Mara was finished. The open plains, the roaming wildebeest and the Acacia trees set the scene for us to then enjoy a beautifully prepared fresh champagne breakfast. Ah, this is the life.
Note: It will set you back $450 USD each BUT it was worth every cent. Especially if you visit during the great migration (July-August). In fact, that is the best time to do it and the best value for money.
2/ Bicycle through Hells Gate National Park
African safaris aren’t all about the big game. There are so many others animals to view and landscapes to discover.
Cycling through a game reserve gives you an experience in Africa from a totally different perspective, all whilst doing some much-needed exercise (there’s a lot of carbs on carbs on carbs in Africa). What other continents can you ride a bike 1m away from a warthog, be arms reach from a zebra or even come head to head with a buffalo?
There are many cycling safaris through Africa but for this particular tour, we jumped on our bikes and rode through Hells Gate National Park. Hells Gate National Park lies south of Lake Navisha, north-west of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. With no large predators present in this park, it’s a safe place to safari by bicycle and explore with over 100 different bird species and an abundance of wildlife, rock formations, flat plains and an impressive gorge, although you walk down to this, not cycle.
I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t one particular reason we wanted to cycle through this park…
Hells Gate National Park was the park that inspired the opening scene of the Lion King (Pride Rock) as well as the stampede scene where Simba holds tightly onto the tree branch in the gorge (if you haven’t seen the Lion King, close this tab and get it immediately, bring tissues)!
Same same but different… right? We’re just missing a few animals and a baby Lion but you get the picture!
This movie is such a childhood hit, I honestly feel like it is the best African documentary out there. National Geographic has nothing on this film. As soon as our guide told us about each of these places, the scenes became clear immediately.
We entered at “Elsa’s Gate” and paid an entry fee of $26 USD to the park + an extra fee of $24 USD for our guide and bike rental (from Tucan) to help us explore the park. The guide’s knowledge was unbelievable. For every question, he had 2 answers. We cycled for a total of 5 hours along the gravel roads to and from the gorge and came face-to-face with a herd of buffalos, watched giraffes eat from the trees and warthogs graze about, we saw zebras crossing, hartebeests roaming and baboons and gazelles jumping about.
It felt really surreal to be in such a “Lion King” inspired atmosphere.
Note: Make sure you watch your snacks! We left a small piece of cake and an empty packet of cashews directly next to us and the second we turned our heads, a monkey swooped in and they were both gone!
3/ 4WD Safari Vehicle in Maasai Mara
When people visit Kenya for a safari vacation the Maasai Mara is top on the list of places to see and 4WDing through the park is the most common way to do so.
Our 4WD vehicle in the Maasai Mara gave us the chance to view the game from all angles. Unlike our giant yellow truck in Kruger National Park, we could pop our head out the top, the windows and the front of the car. This allowed us to move around & get a better angle for photographs.
It’s definitely everyone’s goal on a safari drive to spot the famous “Big 5” but it shouldn’t make or break your trip. The term ‘Big 5’ ( lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant) was originally named this by the big game hunters. They used this term to refer to the most dangerous animals to hunt. However, today, the Big Five of Africa are the top animals tourists want to see on any given safari and checking them off the list does become a must do.
It’s saddening to know that out of these 5 animals, the buffalo is the only animal not threatened or endangered. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot the whole big 5 in the Maasai Mara, but we have in the past during the BEST safari ever at Phinda Private Game Reserve & we also had the opportunity during our game drive in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. (A post on this later!)
The landscapes rarely changed as we drove in the Mara. It was open! So open, flat and dry. It was the dry season at this time and the plains were definitely feeling it. We drove for 6+ hours that day and saw sun baking lions, playful cheetahs, frolicking gazelles, spooky vultures, wandering wildebeest, hungry hippos, grazing buffalos, happy giraffes, ugly (?) warthogs and many types of birds. Although only 2 of the big 5 were spotted (those elephants were really hiding!) it was still a very successful game drive.
The biggest highlight of the Maasai Mara was the great migration. Not only does it offer incredible views of the plains dotted with huge herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, but the Mara River is often infested with large crocodiles ready to attack. Ever since we saw this on documentaries, it has been engraved in our minds.
An estimated 4.5 million wildebeest and zebras cross from the Serengeti to the Mara yearly and out of these, a staggering 400,000 perish due to drownings or attacks by predators. Our driver was given the signal on the radio and he sped off to reach the river for the crossing. The wildebeest waited for the right moment and after 10 – 15 minutes of contemplating, one took the leap and then they all began crossing the river, 100’s of trucks there to witness. Thankfully we didn’t see any attacks by crocodiles but there was one drowning 🙁 RIP little wildebeest.
There’s no right or wrong way to Safari in Africa. No matter which way you view the wildlife, it is bound to be fabulous, incredible and all sorts of amazing. How can you go wrong? Just don’t exit your vehicle!
Oh, and please, next time you’re on a safari, crank that Lion King playlist. It completes the trip, every time.
Do you have a favourite type of safari? Let us know!
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