This would be our first ever safari in Kenya, and going by experiences of people before us, we were already counting our sightings of the Big 5. The Big 5 here includes the lion (of course), African elephant (you can't get bigger than that), Black Rhino, Cheetah (while some say leopard), and the African Buffalo. Moreover, we were going there during the Great Migration season, so further images of wildebeest stampedes came to mind.
We booked a safari van from Nairobi and traversed the 270 km in approximately 5 hours. The roads at most places were smooth, and the rest were being built. One stopover on the drive is the view point where you can see the massive Rift Valley. In August, everything was dry and barren (although the golden grass has a charm of its own), but during and right after the monsoons, the place is an oasis.
While we were waiting at the entry gate to complete the formalities (60 USD per person per night ensures that you savour this once in a lifetime experience for all its worth), the Masai ladies with their colourful attire came by to tempt us to buy some souvenirs. We found that these were cheaper than the ones sold in the city, but don't be fooled by claims of ebony wood and what nots. Just take it as you see it unless you can identify and want to invest (a lot of money) in the quality stuff.
We stayed at the Keekorock Lodge, the first one that was built in the reserve. Rooms were great, food was ok, but the Hippo Bar was the focal point of the whole place. It is basically a little shed built over a small pond where hippos hang out all day. If you are really lucky, you might even spot other wildlife without having to drive around.
The resort has a resident Masai at whose sight the mischievous monkeys seem to vanish in thin air. So if you are carrying food while walking around the resort grounds, make sure the Masai is nearby unless you want to be accosted by a group of simians.
It gets to be quite cold in the mornings and evenings, but during the day you would want to keep to the shade. Kenyan wildlife reserves are a stickler for rules. You have to be inside the resort before 6pm, and don't think about going off the tracks trying to get closer to the wildlife. Both instances could cost you a hefty fine and your driver may face a possible ban from all the Reserves in the country. Why go through all the trouble when you can see all the wildlife you want right on the track?
The animals in Kenya are used to being in the spotlight, and will go about their business as if you are nothing but a minor distraction - a fly on the wall even. They won't think twice about just brushing past your vehicle while you stand there not breathing. They do it for fun I think - to ensure that you know your place in the larger scheme of things. As clichéd as it may sound, it is one of the most awe inspiring moments you will live through, to have a lion just a few metres away look at you in the eye, and then just go about its business knowing fully well it can devour you in seconds if need be.
We went up to the Mara River on Day 2, but it was low on water and therefore so were the numbers of wildebeests to be seen. We did however, manage to see all of the Big 5 plus the elusive leopard, and a variety of deer species, colourful birds, and the myriad other wildlife that had us turning our heads in all directions with our eyes wide open.
If you can afford to, go for a hot air balloon ride - you don't see the wildlife up close but the panorama will take your breath away.
If you have the time, you could also take a tour of one of the Masai villages on the outskirts of the Reserve. They charge you upwards of a thousand Shillings per person for an introduction to their way of life - right from farming, to their tiny cottages, and spectacular dances.
Once you get a taste of the wild, there is no turning back. Husband has been saving up for a DSLR camera which we sorely missed on the trip, and then we'll start saving up for another trip here during the green season. Can hardly wait!