November 12, 2005

Africa in a Week

There are two big advantages to 'small group adventure travel'; making new friends and packing the most experiences into your time as humanly possible. Our small group travelled for a week in Kenya with GAP Adventures and set the bar to a whole new level.

Africa has always been an exotic choice for the budget backpacker. They leave behind the world of hostels and bus schedules in favour of months on end living on a truck, cooking over woodfires and sleeping in a damp tent. I have heard the stories from my friends who travelled the continent from end to end, returning to civilization after a journey that is measured in months instead of miles. It's slow going in Africa. There is a lot to see and very little to make travel easy.

My first experience in Africa was a gentle introduction - just one week and just one country. Kenya seemed as good a place to begin a journey as any other and is relatively easy to fly into and out of. GAP Adventures offer a seven day loop that takes in safaries in the Samburu Reserve, Lake Nakuru and the Masai Mara. Several things made this journey a stand out experience - the exceptional knowledge of our drivers, the experienced and tested itinerary that allowed us to fit everything in, and the most stunning array of wildlife and scenery we could have imagined. Toss in a few visits to local villages and you have a perfectly balanced adventure that leaves you wanting nothing.

Our support team were two drivers and a cook. We had two vans for nine people which left just enough room for luggage to be stowed and day packs to sit at our feet. My first impression of the vans was disappointing, but later in the journey it became clear why they are the best choice. Your transport is used for travelling between towns, into the parks, and for the safari around the reserves too. We saw groups on the big trucks and they had much greater storage for camping gear - but they took a lot longer to drive across country and were cumbersome platforms for viewing the animals. Our little vans by comparison could make time on the open road, travel the smaller tracks around the parks, and get us right in close to the action when the opportunity arose. The roof of the van pops up to convert our passenger space to a viewing deck with shade, and the two-way radio communications between the many local operators ensured that every bit of action in the park was quickly shared amongst the drivers and everyone gets a chance to observe.

And we saw everything. In Samburu we got our first taste of the sleepy lions, a lazy leopard, the graceful giraffe, zebra and their stripes and the remarkable sight of herding elephants. Impala and dik-dik were sighted every day as well as the beautiful collection of birds that fill the morning air with song at our campsites. We were completely overwhelmed by our experience at Lake Nakuru. The sight and sounds of the mile-long flamingo flock and the dancing antics of a baby rhino went well beyond our expectations. The setting itself was enchanting with the broad wetland plains the sweep up to the wooded hills provide a grand landscape for grazing animals and birdlife. We thought Nakuru would be a filler to break up the drive but it turned into a highlight - how could we ever top this?

We started our Masai Mara safari with a baby elephant. He had been abandoned by it's mother and was about to be transported to Nairobi where it would be nurtured and raised. On it's way into the truck it stood on my foot. I was fine, but I could tell the little one was intensely sad and suffering greatly in the absence of it's mother. We drove on and took in buffalo herds, wilderbeasts, zebras and more zebras, masai giraffe, topi, gazelle, hartebeasts and warthogs. We stopped for a few more elephant herds during our drive but eventually arrived at an open field with a single tree giving shade to a cheeta and her five cubs. This was special. The cubs were adorable and even more so in numbers. We got a walking tour of some hippo families along the river, had lunch, and then watched a lion having his. The king of the jungle was ripping into the rump of a zebra, the sound of bone and flesh yeilding to those powerful jaws was broken only by the clicking of SLR cameras. The buzz around the vans was electric as we processed the reality of what we just saw.

Our last sighting as we headed out of the reserve was yet another cheeta with her cubs. I lost my cap in the wind as we drove near the cheeta and the second van stopped to collect it. They were not aware of the predator up ahead at the time. Minutes later as several vans gathered to observe the family of cats we were treated to a live kill. The mother demonstrated to her cubs the stalking technique and timed her attack to perfection. A young topi was brought down and with a piercing cry the mother called over the cubs to enjoy the bounty. We finished the day with a visit to a Masai village and then back to camp for a wood-fired hot shower and dinner.

The morning of our last day we awoke at 4:30am to drive back into the park and take a balloon ride. This is not a standard part of the trip and the additional cost is not cheap. Having seen the procedure for the balloons however, I can see why it costs so much. My budget didnt stretch to this optional inclusion so I came along to photograph the launch. It seems a family of lions also enjoy the launches and there was a 'simba' alert in effect when we arrived. In the headlights of someone's land rover you could see the male lions gazing at us from the edge of the launch site. Pilot Pete, who has been working for the UK based Balloon Safaris for over 10 years, was running the show on this occasion - he had one spare seat in the basket and generously offered to give 'our photographer' a flight and breakfast. What can I tell you from this point on? The experience was sensational, the views magnificent, and there simply is no other sight of the Masai Mara that will compare. We drift along towards the picnic site and drop low above the wildlife and rivers. A few bursts of the burner and we climb higher and enjoy the peaceful immersion. The landing was a peach and we were driven a short way over to the champagne picnic to enjoy the best meal we had seen in a week.

The rest of the day was spent driving east to Nairobi and we got back to the hotel in time to shower off the dust and head out for a feast at Carnivores. This is a unique dining experience that appeals to tourists but still retains plenty of exotic flavour to make it a must-do finale to a great trip. We ate ostrich, crocodile and camel - and plenty of other more familiar meats. They walk around with great skewers of grilled meat and cut slabs directly onto your plate. A more fitting end to this safari would be hard to imagine.

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