Into the Lion’s Den
First featured in Msafiri magazine.
Walking in the footsteps of the big five in the Mara Naboisho.
My small plane descends towards the airstrip, to delighted, overlapping exclamations, all starting with “I can see a …”, followed by “giraffe”, “zebra”, “wildebeest” and even “lion”. Naboisho, in the Maasai Mara, is an area where Kenya’s wildlife is thriving, I’m here to travel on two feet, literally in the footsteps of these iconic animals.
Next day, I wake to a chilly first morning. The 6 a.m. glow surprises me; the side of my tent must have been thoughtfully rolled up while I slept so that the morning could reveal itself to me as I awoke. From bed, still clutching my hot water bottle, I watch the baboons return home. In the distance, male topi lock horns (you can hear them clash), warthogs cavort, and zebras graze unfazed. After a flask of tea, it’s time to walk into that same view. I’m mere steps from my tent when elephant dung is first pointed out. A rush of exhilaration runs through me knowing I’m standing in the same spot. My guide, Rokoi, informs me that there’s a good chance of seeing the culprit at some point over the next few days, or one of its kind at least.
Elephants, and indeed all species, have increased in Naboisho. The nearly 600 Maasai families, who own the area, have collectively set it aside for wildlife. The distinctive land – smattered with acacia trees – is deeply entwined with their heritage. Safaris like this mean the Maasai can afford to keep in it their hands, and protect the species they have shared their habitat with for generations.
Elephant dung! – My guide, Rokoi, informs me that there’s a good chance of seeing the culprit at some point over the next few days, or one of its kind at least.
Back at Wilderness Camp, my tent is one of just five sitting in a short row along with a lounge area. Now the sun has set I’m forbidden to walk from one to the other alone because of the animals. I cautiously unzip my door – another Tusker beer calls – and a Maasai guard greets me. “Hi, I’m Noonkipa”, he says, and I’m warmed immediately. His big grin, lit only by his oil lantern, puts me at ease as I wonder which wild creature may have been put off approaching by his lamp.
Within a whisker
The following day, I’m pleased to see that Noonkipa is also one of my walking entourage. He points to a trail of flattened grass where a hippo weaved past our
camp in the night. Each morning the chatter is about what came into camp during the night – and there’s never any concern about the proximity. The Maasai know how to coexist with their wild neighbours, even if that means hastily changing direction to give a wide berth to a grumpy old buffalo staring you head-on.
As we set off, I’m told we’ll stay out in the open, with two lookouts ahead, Rokoi guiding, and one close behind me. However, not long after that’s said, we come across elephant remains, and our little formation falls out of line. It’s too much for my lookouts to resist. They examine the bones and compare the height of the elephant’s leg bone to their own. This fascinating distraction means we’ve become closer, and noisier, than we intended. It’s only when we career around the corner that we realised we are being investigated too. Rokoi grabs my arm at lightening speed. “Back this way now!” he says. Despite buffaloes having the temperament and ability to do people some damage (or worse), I still feel extremely safe being in Maasai company. Admittedly, it isn’t without a heart-pounding adrenaline boost, a thrill which ensures I don’t take a stroll in the savannah for granted.
Unbeknown to us, we were being inspected too – by a buffalo.
Before the sun disappears we swap tired legs for tires. You can’t walk at night, plus a game drive allows you to get closer to the animals, or vice versa. Rokoi sees a lioness and stops the engine for a closer look. The lioness gets up, walks towards us, then disappears out of view. I’m nervously waiting to see if she’ll reappear by exploding through one of the open windows. “She’s sniffing the truck,” Rokoi mouths slowly catching sight in the rear-view mirror. Guides can tell lions apart by the shape of their whiskers, it seems perhaps the lions are keeping tabs on us too. It’s half a minute tops of me holding my breath before she’s off, responding to the call of the male who’s rounding the pride up for the night. We also navigate towards his roar. Sitting very stationary I watch his belly heave as he calls, and I feel the vibrations in mine.
Like the Mara lions, Maasai men typically leave it to the females to sort out the dinner, but when I arrive to dine in the bush that night, it’s Chef Benson cooking up three courses under the stars. It’s not just being being male that makes him different; brought up on a traditional menu of cow’s milk, blood and meat, Benson is the first Maasai chef full stop. Tonight I find garlicky, marinated lamb and chicken sizzling on the chargrill. The sizzle is quickly drowned out as the Maasai begin chanting and dancing around the fire. As the chants end, and the nutty tiramisu is polished off, I become aware of the bush babies shouting to one another. Tucked up in the tent that’s been freshly pitched for me, I think I can still hear them through the canvas, as I try and make out what the different grunts, howls and growls that punctuate my sleep are. At one point I identify the snoring of my Maasai guard. It’s the one night you’d be disappointed if something didn’t wake you up.
To be sure that the night predators have finished their hunting, we can’t step out before 7 a.m. It’s the morning of my last walk, and I want to savour every last minute, so I’m ready to leave on the dot. We walk past the river that I recognise. It’s where a hammerkop stork has made one of his nests in a large acacia. “He’s unusual in that he makes two,” says Rokoi, “this might be his holiday home.” Nice spot, I think, eyes wide as I take in the beautiful surroundings. I walk slower today, as though that might prevent me getting to the end of my trip. Well, it’s that and also that I can’t keep pace with the Maasai up the sharp incline. When we get to the top, we stop and sit on the rocks, for my benefit I believe, but it’s a view that’s worth spending some time at anyway. I stare hard across the plains, rivers and forest, as I try to imprint on my memory.
I feel humbled being on tribal land; somewhere that feels so lovingly conserved, where wild animals can be wild animals unabated. It’s immensely heartening. I ask Noonkipa, a self-professed “original Masai”, if he could be Maasai anywhere else, like an apartment in Nairobi. “Oh my, waking up to an alarm clock and no cows or giraffes, just buildings,” he says. “I don’t even want to think about it. We have the true wealth here”.
Tips for a walking safari
- Have the right gear, from sunhat down to walking boots.The temperature chops and changes, so carry thin layers, sunscreen and water.
- Check that the walking guides don’t carry guns.
- Put together a personal top five species list, your guide will do their best to locate them.
- Add a game drive. It’s great to put your feet up and get close up.
- As with any safari, check there is a clear commitment to responsible tourism, which benefits the local community.
- Learn a few words. In Maa, hello is supa, thank you (very much) is ashe (oleng), and cheers is maisha marefu, translating as ‘long life’.