A gang of grown ups hitting middle age climbs onto two Airkenya caravans early Friday morning. We are setting off for a party in the bush. When we land in Mara North Conservancy for a champagne breakfast there is already vodka and orange juice in our blood streams and I thought that had set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Almost. Immediately, we see a hyena den and the shutters begin to clack. There is at least one huge long lens amidst us with some seriously good photography tips are thrown in. And there is a lioness with two young cubs just a whiff away from our breakfast.
Serian’s grass thatch appears suddenly through a thicket. Rough hewn timber with mud and wattle here or there, perched on decks around a bend in the Mara River. The hippos frolick in the shallow water all day and grunt all night, crunching twigs as they come ashore near the tents but it is the low growls of lions nearby that cut through the high shrill of night crickets with ease.
Our party is split between the Original Serian on the southern bank and Serian Ngare that is accessed by crossing a bridge over to the other side of the river. First day’s lunch is on the deck of the Orignial Serian. Laid out under trees over the deck, with fresh food – sourced from their own shamba – it attracts bees and flies but I persevere, getting it down along with a short siesta before the evenings revelries begin. Which is just before the four pm game drive.
Lions, seemingly posing, everywhere. Someone calls the spectacle Simba Union. Groups of young males. Lionesses – one heavily pregnant one, rolled over and asleep. Young babies and a mother who appears to keep an eye on us, as we approach. A hyena lopes towards the cackle and whoops of a pack uncomfortably close and unseen beyond a clump of vegetation where we’ve already set out our sundowner drinks and snacks. Some of the group has split off, relieving itself in the bushes. In urgency a few of us jump into a land cruiser with a guide and go round the ridge to watch a pack of over twenty hyenas. There may have been a scuffle but now they move on in twos and threes, greeting each other by standing side by side with one leg up.
Sundown’s swathe of warm colours splits the horizon’s blue and grey, turning the clouds into glowing sheets against pink before the night’s violet rises to meet the crescent moon. I take Jazz’s photo tips and squat with my camera to concentrate our party’s shapes against the fading light. The low angle makes everything dream like, from some tale with giants and hobbits. We stay out watching and sharing until we can see no more, the wind howls as we get into our vehicles and the rain begins to pelt the sides of the cars forcing the blinds down.
Not everyone goes on the dawn game drive. Our friends are out as dawn cracks open the skies for a photographing session. They are looking for a hunting party, maybe of hyenas. The big cats are out too and some magic is about to happen. The lioness we saw the evening before, is giving birth. Wild animals just don’t produce babies in clear view of people watching. Yet, four cubs are born as they watch! They look like puppies! We exclaim, marvelling at the photos.
There’s a surprise in store for all of us, announced so that we can be mentally prepared for the middle of the night wake up call. But no one has the will for self control and dinner continues well past midnight. The rain stops during dinner which is lit by paraffin lanterns and firelight. We dance on the deck.
Sun up is still a long way off and in the fumbling darkness, I down coffee and groaning and creaking we set off. By the light of a lantern we cross a river in ancient manner, by boat that has to be pulled along by a rope. Like pirates in the night we are stealthy, a respect for the quietness of the hour mingling with fatigue and expectation. We get to Governer’s Camp where the balloon is already laid out. More coffee to keep us warm. A box of snuff does the rounds amongst the blokes and a few disapproving remarks are made by the significant women. Everyone is present and the chatting has begun as the sunrise rolls fatigue away, adrenalin shooting through our veins, we clamber on gracefully as if we were born in these wilds.
We float over the Mara river, following a group of trumpeting elephants that shove each other around, we see hippos playing and massive crocodiles take to the thick muddy water. The Ololoua ridge swags all the way to the horizon and the Serengeti border in Tanzania, lit by the slanting sunlight that throws gold over the red oat and young lime green plains.
So you’ve been on countless dawn rides and even more dusky drives that end with sundowners and then you went further and spotlighted game in the deepest nights. You’ve trekked across the wastes and then experienced the bird’s eye view from a helicopter. And the ancient floating sensation, only possible from a balloon ride. Masaai Mara. Captivating whether you have a water bottle or champagne flute in your hand.