Many tourists go on a game drive content to observe animals from afar. Not us. We want to get as close as possible without interfering with the animals. We want to make a connection with an animal, eye to eye, to provide the best means of obtaining a great photograph. We want you to look at it and feel what we felt.
It’s sometime before 6am and our alarm beckons us from bed. It’s almost time for our game drive. We didn’t sleep well; dinner wasn’t over until almost 10 last night. It was much later when we fell asleep, not before we downloaded our thousands of images from the evening’s game drive, backed them up, and reset our cameras. We hurry to our safari vehicle, the Masai Mara Park opens at 6:30, and we want to be out there before the swarms of tourists invade.
We have three drivers for our three cars. Today Ben is our driver. We climb into the vehicle which is no easy task. I have banged my head almost every time I get into or out of the vehicle. You would think I would learn to keep my head low, but after the first bump I’m not sure I have retained all my faculties. Each of us has our own row of seats, that way we can photograph from either side without climbing over each other. One time I had another person in my row where she and I constantly played twister to get the photo (please don’t tell Kathryn).
The safari vehicle revs, it is time to go. There is not a single piece of dirt road that is smooth in this park. Ben cranks up the speed, we bounce around like almost cooked popcorn kernels. I bang almost every part of my body against the metal frame of the vehicle. I’m not sure you know this, but metal is hard. My body is soft (a career behind a desk will do that). When my soft body crashes against the hard metal, bruising and soreness occur. By the time we get close to our first animal, I am pulverized.
Ben seems to have a sixth sense of the Mara. “I know where there are lions,” he says. “We need to hurry, so hold on!” We careen around the vehicle as he accelerates. Twenty minutes later he slows the vehicle, we are closing in on a male lion. All pain recedes into the deep recesses of my mind when I spot the male with his mane flowing. Ben speeds to a spot in front of the lion and stops the vehicle. I look out and the lion is far away. “Ben, can you get closer?” “Just wait, be patient.” Does he know who he is talking to? Minutes pass, the lion starts moving toward us. Excitement is reaching a peak, all three of us have our cameras pointed at the lion’s head. The lion ambles forward, stops, looks around, then plops down in the grass. He is still a bit away and is almost completely hidden in the grass. Dejection sets in, an epic failure. All these bruises and nothing to show for it! In a few moments, the lion gets up, sniffing a female in the air. He starts moving right toward us. Am I what he sniffed? The thought of what could transpire raises the hair on the back of my neck. How did Ben know the lion would walk right toward us? A minute later he is so close I could reach out and pet him. The lion looks up at me, giving me the cat-look of don’t you dare touch me. This is a look that is quite easy to interpret. I listen to my instincts, laying my hands in my lap.
We are all beyond thrilled. Before we could catch our breath, Ben says he hears there is a leopard nearby. Are we interested? Duh, what are you waiting for. He starts the vehicle, revs the engine, and we are on a bronco bouncing our way to the leopard. We arrive in ten minutes to a leopard walking along a creek. Ben drives ahead a bit and stops the vehicle. We are a long way from the leopard. I decide to keep my mouth shut, not an easy task for me. The next thing I know, the leopard, a male, is walking right toward us. As he walks, he looks directly at me. I got him! Then I shiver and look away. I don’t want to tempt him.
We are all beat up, tired, and very hungry. It’s time to get back to the lodge for breakfast. We start to make our way back when Ben gets a call. There is a cheetah with cubs a little way out. Our hunger fades. Let’s go! We arrive to chaos, there are at least twenty safari vehicles jockeying for position. The cheetahs are far off, barely worth a photo. Ben takes off, moving further away from the vehicles and from the cheetahs. We sit and wait. Maybe fifteen or twenty minutes later, the mother cheetah with her three cubs start to walk toward us. Click-click, I got her.
A minute later I switch to the other side of the vehicle and watch the family make their way to the high grounds.
We finally call it a wrap and work our way back to the lodge. Just one more surprise awaits up, there is another male lion. We stop for a look, he is sleeping. I wish for the same thing. I take the shot and our game drive is complete.
This is perhaps the best game drive I have been on – all three of the big cats in just a few hours. Ben earned his tip today.