First impressions upon leaving the plane at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport ran along the lines of “It’s cold here”… but then, it was only 6.30am on a late winter morning and the locals were evidently feeling it as much as we were, hence the wearing of woolly hats. A preliminary glance around before getting on the transit bus revealed the charred remains of the recently combusted International Arrivals and Departures Terminal to which we thankfully were not about to be taken! The interim measures put in place in order to manage their passengers until a new terminal can be constructed meant that we were instead dropped off at the airport’s temporary Immigration Tent where we joined a lengthy queue and it soon became apparent that obtaining our entry visas in advance had gained us no advantage whatsoever as we still had to queue for around 45 minutes behind everyone else who hadn’t! However, next step was the Baggage Reclaim Tent, where we rapidly discovered the additional benefits of our recently purchased North Face luggage. Not only were our lovely new bags highly durable and very lightweight but – being lime green – they provided us with a distinct advantage over everyone else when trying to locate their black or navy bags and cases amongst row upon row of other black and navy bags!
With the morning warming up nicely, we were transferred to Wilson airport where we boarded a light aircraft which took us to the Mara North Conservancy airstrip where we were met by Francis, our driver-guide, and were taken to Elephant Pepper Camp, spotting a number of animals on the way. Francis asked us what we were hoping to see and we of course told him that we were particularly hoping for big cats, as we had seen none at all when we visited Botswana last year. He reassured us that seeing cats would not be a problem! On arrival we were warmly welcomed by camp managers Patrick and Sophie and their team and shown to our very luxurious tent before joining our fellow guests for lunch.
In the late afternoon, we set off with Francis on our first evening game drive. Within 20 minutes, the wind picked up, the air temperature dropped and the heavens opened… which was not entirely what we had expected! (This is Kenya in the dry season, after all).
The weather, complete with thunder and forked lightning, did not inspire me with confidence about seeing my first big cat that evening because of course you would assume that surely any sensible lion would be keeping out of the rain, wouldn’t you? Well, no… apparently they don’t give a hoot about the rain and very soon afterwards, Francis found a couple of lady lions sitting, surveying the scenery. They were shortly joined by a group of cubs and after a while they moved off to meet up with other members of the pride, the cubs pausing for a spot of wrestling from time to time along the way.
The rain eventually subsided and we found some of the other lions elsewhere – a couple of them still dragging the remains of a none-too-fresh smelling wildebeest head around with them! Some of the lions and cubs came to have a sniff round our vehicle and rubbed their cheeks over the wheel arches, in much the way that domestic cats do. They seemed entirely relaxed about our presence and obligingly posed for photographs.
Despite the rain, there was a very pretty sunset on our first evening and, after sundowners and nibbles, we drove back to the camp for showers, drinks round the campfire and an excellent dinner before excusing ourselves in order to go to bed at a sensible time. Our overnight flight the night before meant we were both feeling sleep-deprived and with the prospect of a 6am alarm call, bed seemed like the only place to be… So, tired, chilled and weary, off we went back to our tent – escorted by a Masai “minder”. Imagine our joy when we found hot water bottles in our beds!
… and in the middle of the night…
The reason why guests are escorted back to their tents and told not to leave their tents during the night is a very good one. Elephant Pepper Camp is unenclosed and it is commonplace for animals to wander into camp during the night. As such, strange and unfamiliar sounds are not unusual but generally it makes sense to accept them as normal and not react to each and every squawk, snuffle or grunt you hear. That was certainly what I went to bed telling myself and I went off to sleep quite quickly but was awakened a couple of times, aware of a number of unfamiliar sounds outside the tent. Each time, I just made myself go back to sleep.
My anti-malarial medication had also kicked in by then, thereby assuring me of some vivid and decidedly weird dreams. When I heard and felt something moving beside me, I sat up and smacked it on the head. Fortunately, it was only Ken, getting back into bed. After I had apologised and we both settled back down again, he put this question to me:
“if, during the night, something had come galloping past the tent, being pursued and then brought down by several of something else – let’s call them lions – then there had been a stand-off, between the lions and a bunch of hyenas… would you want to know about it?”
Yes, our lions had made a kill about 30 metres away outside our tent – and I had slept through all of it! We found the carcass at 6.30 the following morning. It was a zebra which had been brought down but the combined efforts of several lions and several hyenas meant that there was very little left. A quite remarkable achievement in only four hours. It’s sad in a way, particularly as I like zebras but obviously lions need to eat and they kill for that reason alone.