Sunday, February 26, 2012

Adventure & Romance in East Africa

It’s early morning and chilly. We stood in the four wheel drive vehicle, our heads poking through the open roof, cameras poised. A brightly coloured hot air balloon rose from behind a low green hill and climbed silently into the deep blue sky above Kenya’s Maasai Mara, rapidly overtaking the rising sun. However, the bulk of our attention was focused on a large male lion sprawled in the grass not five metres from our vehicle. He was doing what male lions do best – loafing. Now and again he’d open an eye or raise his huge maned, head to peer at us.

Then suddenly he was on his feet, alert and gazing intently into the distance. There was another lion, a male, and he was heading in our direction. Our lion began issuing deep guttural, rhythmic grunts, to which the approaching animal replied in similar fashion. There was going to be a fight; perhaps to the death. Fights between male lions can be brutal. Our lion began to walk slowly and threateningly towards the intruder, his head held low, grunting at he went. The intruder was a big fellow too. This was going to be quite a battle. They were thirty metres apart when our lion stopped and crouched. The other animal just kept coming, but more slowly now.

The tension was palpable. In the vehicle we held our breath. Then the two predators launched themselves at each other, but instead of tearing chunks out of one another they started to play, rolling together on the grass in a rough and tumble game, harmlessly mouthing each other and licking the other’s fur. These weren’t deadly enemies, they were brothers in arms. Literally brothers our guide said.

And that’s the beauty of Africa. It’s full of surprises. Every single game drive is different. You never know what is around the next corner. Africa is the home of adventure and romance and East Africa is the epicentre.

Kenya is heartbreakingly beautiful from the huge grassy plains in the south, home to the great wildebeest migration to the dusty deserts of the north. There’s Amboseli, famed for its great herds of elephants and soaring vistas of Mount Kilimanjaro. There’s the Maasai Mara – probably the most famous of all game reserves. You’ll see the “Big Five”(Lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo and elephants.) here along the banks of the winding Mara River.

Head north beyond the fertile Rift Valley region and you’ll come to Samburu National Reserve. This is one of my favourites. It is a small, but scenically spectacular reserve classed as a tropical desert. It’s teeming with wildlife, much of it unique. There are not many other places where you’ll find the majestic Grevy’s zebra, the beautiful vulturine guinea fowl and the bizarre gerenuk antelope.

Half way between Kenya’s capital Nairobi and Samburu lays Mount Kenya. At 5199 metres (17,057 feet), its great sloping bulk topped with spires of rock and permanent snow dominate central Kenya. It can be seen for many miles. High on its slopes and across the valley, tucked in amongst the green folds of the Aberdare Mountains are some wonderful lodges with more unique wildlife and crisp, cool mountain air – quite a relief after the heat of the plains.

Across the border to the south of Kenya lies Tanzania. The vast Serengeti Plain is an extension of Kenya’s Maasai Mara, and it’s here that the great herds of wildebeest spend most of the year. Basically they follow the rain, spending September and October grazing on the lush grass of the Maasai Mara and for the rest of the year they follow a clockwise path around the Serengeti. Flying low over the Serengeti is something everyone should experience before leaving this planet. From a height of five hundred feet there are wildebeest everywhere you look, flowing towards the distant towering rain clouds in long black rivulets, their hooves stirring the fine dust which blows away like smoke on the wind.

Two to three million animals take part in this migration and to witness it stirs the emotions. I found myself with tears streaming down my face the first time I saw it. It’s a primeval, visceral experience that takes your breath away. Don’t miss it. Nearby is Ngorongoro Crater. It’s a veritable Eden of wildlife and is beautiful beyond belief. In the same area there’s also Olduvai Gorge. Known as “The Cradle of Mankind” the area has been the subject of much archaeological and anthropological research over the years. Some of the earliest human remains ever found were discovered here. It’s fascinating.

Most visitors to Tanzania only see the north of the country. It’s easily accessible by road or air from Nairobi. Please don’t make that mistake. You must see the south too. It’s not hard. A short flight from Nairobi or Arusha will get you to Dar es Salaam. From here you can hop over to the beaches and the history of Zanzibar, but best of all is the string of national parks that stretch westward from Dar. Mikumi, Selous, Ruaha and Katavi.

All are wild and woolly and far less frequented than those in the north of country. Mikumi is surrounded by tall mountains, Selous is based around a river system and has many water based game viewing opportunities. Ruaha has both mountains and rivers and is perhaps my favourite game reserve in all Africa. Katavi is the most remote of all the parks. It is a vast floodplain and the home to the last really big herds of buffalo in Africa.

Don’t assume remoteness means discomfort though. There are some wonderful camps and lodges, providing the best cuisine and five star accommodation. In fact, that is something you can rely on all over East Africa – comfortable accommodation, great food and something for every budget. But, however much you choose to spend; you’ll always get romance and adventure.

For further information on any of the products or destinations featured or to make a booking, please call me - Peter Emery on 0449 689 447. Alternatively call Ucango Travel on 1300 822 646 and be sure to ask for me by name, or just drop me an email.

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