Travel: Big game spotting on safari in Kenya

Nick Mitchell gets up close to Kenya's iconic wildlife during a three-stage safari from the Maasai Mara to Kilimanjaro
Lions in the Maasai Mara. Picture: Nick MitchellLions in the Maasai Mara. Picture: Nick Mitchell
Lions in the Maasai Mara. Picture: Nick Mitchell

“What’s that shape moving over there?” Six words you don’t want to hear when you’re trying to push a Toyota Land Cruiser, its wheels spinning uselessly in a muddy ditch. In the context of the Maasai Mara, one of Kenya’s most famous game reserves, the “shape” in question has many potential owners, none of which you want to meet as darkness falls. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, hyenas, wildebeest and hippos all call this place home.

“Everyone, back in the car!” barks our guide Joe. We don’t need to be told twice. The moving shape turns out to be a buffalo. It stops, curious about our vehicle’s plight, but seemingly in no mood for a confrontation. Our driver Joseph – not to be confused with Joe – guns the Land Cruiser once more, and finally the tyres take hold and we’re moving again – with muddy boots and a decent tale to exaggerate back home.

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The Maasai Mara is the first of three national parks that make up this week-long safari experience and, ditch-based dramas notwithstanding, it certainly lives up to its evocative name. To get there, the drive west from Nairobi takes us from the traffic-clogged capital through the sparse, sun-baked Rift Valley and dusty roadside towns. Eventually these dwindle away, replaced by the goats and cattle of the Maasai people, who are themselves visible by the bright red ‘Shúkà’ sheets that wrap their bodies. Then we’re through the gates of the national park, and the dusty savannah is suddenly replaced by verdant grasslands. Zebras and gazelles will soon become ubiquitous as the week goes on, but spotting them for the first time is a thrill.

Elephants at Amboseli National Park with Kilimanjaro in the background. Picture: Nick MitchellElephants at Amboseli National Park with Kilimanjaro in the background. Picture: Nick Mitchell
Elephants at Amboseli National Park with Kilimanjaro in the background. Picture: Nick Mitchell

After a good night’s sleep in our tented camp (it’s more luxurious than it sounds), we make an early start for a morning game drive. Somehow, The Mara looks even more idyllic in the first light of day, the rolling greenery punctuated by lonesome acacia trees. We’re back in the (now miraculously gleaming) Land Cruiser with Joe and Joseph, and their well-trained eyes are scanning the horizon.

Spend any time on safari and you soon form a mental ranking of the wildlife you want to see. This is often encapsulated in the “big five” of lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo. Here in the Maasai Mara, sitting at the top of the tree (sometimes literally) are the big cats. We catch a fleeting glimpse of a lion in the bush, but then Joe picks up a message in Swahili on the radio (safari guides often tip each other off) and we’re driving off at speed.

The reason is the usually elusive leopard. One has just been feasting on a jackal, and so is more relaxed than normal. Several other car-fulls of tourists are also present by the time we arrive, but that doesn’t discourage the well-fed female from sauntering out into the open. It’s not uncommon to go on 20 safari trips before seeing a leopard, so we’re incredibly lucky to watch this graceful creature stroll past, pause for a few minutes on a grassy knoll, then slip into the bush again.

Her photo-call over, there’s still time in this drive alone to see two young male giraffes engaging in a bout of neck tennis, a mother cheetah teaching her cubs when (not) to launch into a hunt, and a herd of happy hippos wallowing in a river.

Elephants at Amboseli National Park with Kilimanjaro in the background. Picture: Nick MitchellElephants at Amboseli National Park with Kilimanjaro in the background. Picture: Nick Mitchell
Elephants at Amboseli National Park with Kilimanjaro in the background. Picture: Nick Mitchell

Most of the animals prefer a siesta when the sun is high, so we decide to fill the afternoon with a visit to a traditional Maasai village. It’s a fleeting but fascinating insight into their way of life, as they show us inside their traditional dung-built houses, demonstrate how to make fire from just two types of wood, and perform their ‘adumu’ jumping dance.

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What could possibly top a leopard in our evening game drive? Competition comes from a fully grown male lion reclining in the shade, with not one but two females in tow. We don’t have to go far to see the other side of leonine society: a pride with around half a dozen young cubs, lolling around in the evening sun. Feeling very satisfied with the day’s sightings, we park next to an acacia tree and drink a sundowner next to a huge termite mound. Darkness soon falls, the hyenas come out to play, and we return to camp before we outstay our welcome.

The next day we bid farewell to The Mara and hit the road again. Our first stop for lunch is Ubuntu Cafe, one of many projects supported by the tour organisers. The venture is devoted to helping mothers of children with special needs, and we hear how it’s changed the life of Alice, who overcomes her shyness to talk to us, in English, about her life.

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Later we reach our second safari destination, Lake Nakuru. Here the grass is yellower, the foliage deeper, and the lake a shimmering point of reference. The flamingos may have left in recent years for more saline waters, but the star attraction is of the horned variety, and we soon come across a group of white rhinos in the gloaming. Voices hushed, we watch these dignified beasts grazing a mere 20 yards from our vehicle. Other highlights of Nakuru include the Rothschild’s giraffe (distinguished by its ‘white stockings’), more lumbering buffalo and the always entertaining baboons.

The next morning there’s time for one more game drive before the long journey south to our third and final destination, Amboseli. Any fatigue from spending most of the day on the road is soon forgotten as we catch our first glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro. Joe advises us to take photos of the snow-fringed summit whenever we see it, as it’s often obscured by clouds.

Next day we pile into the Land Cruiser, eager to see what we can add to our growing wildlife checklist. Most of the animals are to be found wallowing in the marshes, with buffalo, wildebeest and hippos all half-submerged. There’s also a fantastically varied population of birds of all shapes and sizes, from kingfishers to vultures, and the always impressive sight of tree-munching giraffes.

Not to be outdone by the giraffes, on the evening drive we see a male elephant that’s toppled an entire tree for easier access to its foliage. And it’s really the population of around 1,200 elephants that Amboseli is famous for. They make a daily pilgrimage to the marshes in regimented herds, and we have some unbeatable photo opportunities as they troop back to the bush under the looming summit of Kilimanjaro, the shadows lengthening behind them.

The last morning game drive before we return to Nairobi does not disappoint either: we see a male lion, in the open, tucking into a wildebeest carcass. Satisfied, he ambles away to sleep off his full stomach. A yawning hyena and some amusing warthogs (called “pumbaa” or “foolish” by the locals) see us on our way out of Amboseli and back on the road north.

In a relatively short safari we have been incredibly lucky to see such a diversity of wildlife. Much of the credit must go to Joe and Joseph, our eagle-eyed guide and driver. Even their unplanned ditch stop led to a buffalo sighting, after all.

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Fact box: An eight-day National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures Kenya Safari Experience tour is priced from £2,349pp. This trip is also part of the Jane Goodall Collection by G Adventures; a selection of wildlife-focused tours endorsed by world renowned primatologist Dr Jane Goodall. The trip price includes accommodation (two nights in hotels, one-night safari lodge, and four nights comfortable tented safari camps), most main meals, transportation in a seven-seat, 4x4 safari vehicle, a chief experience officer (CEO) throughout, and a certified driver/guide. Prices do not include flights. For more, tel: 0344 272 2040/01 697 1360 or visit

Kenya Airways flies daily from London-Heathrow to Nairobi and operates new B787-Dreamliners on the routes from Europe, offering award winning business class and economy. Priced from £460pp including taxes for an economy return – London-Heathrow-Nairobi. Tel: 020 8283 1818 or visit; for more information on Kenya, see