Going on a Safari is supposed to get you closer to the animal kingdom. I’ve been to petting zoos where I’ve petted horses, donkeys, and goats. Oh boy. I’ve been to wild animal parks where I’ve driven through the park, windows down, watching animals snoozing. But nothing can prepare you for a real safari. Wild, potentially very dangerous animals roaming while we drive around in a safari vehicle that is completely open-air, both sides and top. At any moment one of these animals can leap in and say, “hello”.
Case in point 1: Cape Buffalos are quite large, slightly bigger than the American buffalo. They have two moods, angry and pissed off. Seeing them from a distance is fine with me. Except one morning when we had a bit of a shock. We were driving along the riverside with high bushes and grass between us and the river. The vehicle was brushing against the tall grass, some of which prickled against my bare arm. The weather was perfect, low 70s, mostly sunny with a breeze. Everything was right with life. When all of a sudden there he was, enormous head, big nostrils, flaring and snorting away. We stopped the vehicle just three feet away. Gulp. Frozen with fear we did what we always do. We whipped out our cameras and clicked away.
Case in point 2: Not quite as startling as the buffalo, we came upon a male lion just hanging around. We drove up within just a few feet. I asked our guide, “Hey Dom, is this safe?” He said, “Ya, mon.” So we did what we always do. We began to shoot.
Case in point 3: Dominic found out through his network of guides that there was a leopard sighting. (The guides chat on the phone all through the game drives apprising each other of rare animal sightings or potential kills). Leopards are considered one of the highlights of a safari and a ‘drop everything and go’ event. There are many leopards in the Maasai Mara but they are hard to find, mostly due to there solitary lifestyle. With all this in mind, we headed quickly to the last known location of the leopard – by the two big trees near the grassy mound (the local GPS coordinates). I’m not kidding about this. This is the way the guides describe a location in the Mara, a region which is in excess of 400 square miles. There are no street signs. There are no paved roads. There are no numbered buildings. In a few moments we at the spot, large trees and hill just as we expected. We couldn’t get close as there were at least twenty safari vehicles waiting for the leopard to show herself. We now realized the network was strong.
After the leopard was spotted at a distance, we all watched from afar. A few moments later and 50 pictures of a small spotted fur ball later, Dom says we should go. So off we went through the trees to a small clearing hundreds of yards away from the rest of the vehicles. He killed the engine and said that the leopard will come through here. Anything you say, Dom. We sat around and chatted for awhile when, to our surprise, the leopard appeared from the woods and walked right by our vehicle. Frightened again, we did what we always do. We began to shoot. Never doubting Dom again, I’m not.
Case in point 4: Have you ever come face to face with an elephant? How about a herd of elephants? Well, we did. We spotted an elephant in the marsh so we decided to pursue it for a couple of portrait shots. By the time we got there, the rest of his family showed up, cousins and all. Dom parked us on the other side of the marsh at a great viewing angle and we began to shoot. The next thing we knew the elephants started walking toward us, one by one. This was great as we could get some close-ups. But they just kept coming. “Dom, are we safe?” “Ya, mon,” he says. “They are comfortable with us here as we kept the engine off.”
A couple of moments later an elephant was within two (TWO!!) feet of us. We could reach out and pet it (we didn’t). I said, “Holy crap!” Dom hushed me – we don’t want to startle them. You bet we don’t want to startle them. I kept very quiet (there is a first for everything). The elephants were so close I had to switch to our other camera, the one with the wide angle lens. They kept coming, one by one, brushing against our vehicle. Thrilling was an understatement! With our hearts pounding in our chests and gasping fro breath, we did what we always do. We began to shoot.
Final case: It was our last morning and final game drive. We were getting quite tired but we wanted to get the full experience (and our money’s worth). So we went on the final drive while most of the group opted to sleep in and go for a nature walk. Wimps.
Well, we were not disappointed. We spotted a pride of lions walking from the makeshift airport (that is, a dirt landing strip full of zebras grazing and a one-person shack that constitutes as security) toward a warthog which was about 200 yards away. Our guide (Duncan this time as Dominic was leading the nature walk – wimps) positioned us in the middle of a dirt path 150 yards from the lions. He said the the lions would walk down the path. Doubtful we settled in. The next thing we knew; the lions were approaching us – eight of them. One by one they brushed by our vehicle. A couple even stared us down as they passed (it reminded me of the movie, First Contact, where the Borg would look up at Picard but turn away if Picard stayed calm). I wonder if they were sizing us up for lunch. No matter what our fear factor was (and it was quite high), we did what we always do. We began to shoot.
Now try and get these experiences at a zoo or docile animal park! And remember, its all about the light.