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In search of the big five

6th Jan 2012 by Travelsphere

The delights kept on coming for Travelsphere writer Janette Atkin when she donned her safari suit to experience our Masai Mara holiday. Watching lions hunt wildebeest, listening to a hippo serenade and competing for sun-loungers with playful monkeys were just a few of the moments that made her want to do it all over again.

Imagine a holiday where you are cosseted by attentive staff in luxurious surroundings, where you come within feet of some of nature’s most formidable creatures, and where you can take to the skies on an unforgettable hot-air balloon ride before soaking up the sun on snow-white sands and diving into the Indian Ocean’s clear, warm waters.

A lot of travellers talk about ticking off the places they want to visit and the things they long to see, but few holidays offer the chance to tick off quite as many experiences as Travelsphere’s Masai Mara Safari and Mombasa tour. And no other holiday I’ve been on has made me want to go right back to day one and do it all over again before I’ve even packed my toothbrush and newly-bartered-for wood carvings and set off on my journey home.

We took a nine-hour overnight flight from London to Nairobi - short enough to mean that I didn’t get too bored, too achy or too grumpy and long enough to ensure that the grey, damp winter weather was far, far away when we landed next morning and were met by our cheery Tour Manager Anatolia, who looked after us like we were her own flesh and blood. After a stop for refreshments, a wash and brush up and a “hello’’ to my fellow travellers we were on the road from bustling Nairobi into the peace of the Great Rift Valley on our way to the Lake Naivasha Simba Lodge.

Game drives were what we’d come here for but the eye-openers started on the journey out of Nairobi. Huge marabou storks weighed down the branches of delicate trees lining the streets while troops of Colobus monkeys reclined below and baboons foraged for scraps by the roadside. Slightly sleepy we may have been but there was no desire to doze on this two-hour drive into the unknown. The bumpy roads, referred to with a giggle by Anatolia as the famous ‘Kenyan massage’, also helped to keep us alert.

I had time before lunch to settle into my room at Lake Naivasha Simba Lodge, which as the name suggests is situated on the banks of the lake. The view from my balcony of several types of antelope grazing, passing giraffe and a frisky horse enjoying a roll around on the grass was delightful and I struggled to tear myself away. After a delicious lunch of spicy baked fish, rice and lentils accompanied by a glass of crisp South African white wine, some of the group took an optional boat trip on the lake, where they spotted hippos and were entertained by their skipper throwing tasty morsels to fish eagles soaring and swooping above.

As we were only here for one night, I decided to explore and to enjoy some quality time in and around the pool. The delights just keep on coming in Kenya - even here I was able to watch giraffe in the distance as they plucked their lunch from the treetops and playful vervet monkeys using a nearby sun-lounger as a slide.

Anatolia arranged drinks around the lodge’s huge fire before dinner, which was accompanied by more fine South African wines and the excited chatter of friends-in-the-making sharing the highlights of their day and anticipating what tomorrow might bring. Sleep was beckoning when I returned to my room but I couldn’t resist a peek outside, which rewarded me with the sight of a clear night sky strewn with a million stars and strange creatures shuffling through the shadows. Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough.

Actually, tomorrow did come soon enough thanks to my 5.45am wake-up call. Just one little snooze then I bounded out of bed and into the day – after breakfast we were headed to the Masai Mara, and who wouldn’t want to get up for that?

Our road trip probably took the best part of five hours, with a handful of stops including a visit to a Masai village, but I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it. Every now and then we’d pass a small town consisting of a smattering of haphazardly constructed corrugated iron buildings housing pubs, guest houses, bicycle repair shops, beauty salons, not-for-the-squeamish butcher’s displays and the ubiquitous mobile phone shop. Children waved at us on their way to school and Masai people, robed in their colourful dress and beaded jewels, went about their daily routines.

On the road again, the final push brought more ‘Kenyan massages’ and took us into the heart of the Masai Mara Game Reserve - open savannah as far as the eye could see. “You wouldn’t think there was anywhere else in the world,’’ mused one of my travelling companions. Our lodge in this wonderful wilderness and home for the next two nights was the Ashnil Mara Camp – a place that was soon to be awarded the title: ‘My New Favourite Place to Stay’.

We were welcomed with refreshing facecloths and a fruity cocktail before being led into the restaurant – an open-sided haven overlooking the Mara River and ringing to the sounds of exotic birdsong. My fantastic fried tilapia fish with pineapple, pepper and celery salad was pushed aside in an instant when the grunts and groans of what turned out to be several hippos were heard in the muddied waters right in front of me – a spectacular sight and sound that was to accompany our entire stay.

Can it get any better than this, I pondered as I was shown to my luxury tent. Tents, on the whole, don’t appeal to me at all, but all thoughts of scrabbling around on the floor, flapping canvas and chemical loos disappeared as I surveyed my huge four-poster bed, my marble bathroom and my verandah replete with comfy day-bed and a view of the aforementioned hippo-filled river.

As the day did indeed just keep on getting better and better, there was time for a dip in the pool and a laze in the sun before our first late-afternoon game drive. This saw us mark off three of the ‘big five’ in one go - elephant, lion and buffalo, as well as many other animals including zebra, giraffe, cheetah, ostrich, warthog, an assortment of antelope species including topi, waterbuck, impala, dik-dik, Thomson’s gazelle, and a group of meerkats, who did exactly what you’d expect: they stretched up high on their back legs and surveyed us as inquisitively as we surveyed them.

Another roaring fire accompanied our pre-dinner drinks and enthusiastic chat later that evening, and after a fabulous buffet meal I hurried back to my room to spend a little quality time on my verandah listening to the grunts of the hippos and the rhythmic croaking of toads before retiring to my bed, only to find the warming welcome of a thoughtfully-placed hot-water bottle waiting there for me.

My hot-water bottle was still warm when I received my 4am wake-up call for today’s highlight, an optional hot-air balloon ride over the Masai Mara followed by a Champagne breakfast. Our day began with an exciting game drive to the balloon site through the darkened savannah, our vehicle’s headlights reflected in the eyes of numerous mysterious creatures as they scrabbled out of our path. Our balloon took off just as the sun began to rise and floated in the direction the morning winds decided to take us. Mike, our pilot was able to control the altitude of the balloon, at times skimming the treetops, at times ascending to 1,000ft or more, occasionally offering fascinating facts about the wildlife we spotted before leaving us to enjoy the silence.

The bubbly flowed as we enjoyed our bush breakfast and marvelled at all we had already seen and done despite it not yet being 9am. A short journey took us back to our lodge where some serious rest and relaxation was on the agenda until we set off on our final late-afternoon game drive. One of our more gruesome finds this time was a lioness feasting on a fresh kill - an unfortunate wildebeest left behind during the Great Migration across the Mara River - as curious giraffe and zebra looked on. Our driver’s expert knowledge and keen eye also meant we could tick off number four of the ‘big five’ today, a leopard, which we saw at slumber under the shade of a tree, no doubt gathering its strength for tonight’s hunt.

The new day brought our safari adventures to an end and saw our road trip back to Nairobi begin, but not before we spotted a rhino, an 11th-hour sighting which meant that along with a host of other creatures, we had now seen all of the ‘big five’.

There was an air of sadness as we left the excitement of the amazing Masai Mara but the change of pace in Mombasa after our 45-minute flight was the perfect complement to those early-morning starts and long drives. Not usually a morning person, I found myself wide awake and ready to start the day by 7.30am, which by now constituted a lie-in! And with the sun already shining and the temperature rising, a day on the white-sand beach just steps from my room at the Travellers Beach Hotel proved irresistible.

Sun-loungers dotted the palm-lined gardens leading down to the white-sand beach and all kinds of vessels from sleek speedboats to hand-made wooden rafts bobbed about on the Indian Ocean’s calm, warm waters. With my sun-lounger pulled well away from the palms’ shade and my towel neatly placed I decided to go for a stroll along the beach before I enjoyed a well-deserved long lie down.

As the beaches in Kenya are public, you’ll find stalls selling all kinds of hand-crafted goods scattered along the sands if you’re in the mood for a spot of haggling, or for a couple of dollars you can treat yourself to a fresh juicy pineapple; you can even take a camel ride along the shoreline.

Everyone stops to say hello; some just to pass the time of day and some in the hope of making a sale. Beware the beach boys is the usual advice dished out to beachgoers, and should certainly be heeded, but on my stroll, with the tide way out, my uninvited but not unwelcome guide proved a real source of help and information. He made sure I didn’t step on any spiky sea urchins and that I did take the path which would lead me to a conch shell the size of a football with an equally huge guest inside. He knew where to find shoals of minute clown fish and showed me how the anemone they had attached themselves to closed tight to protect them when a predator approached. He gently lifted a sea cucumber the size of a prize-winning marrow so I could see it up close, and knew exactly where a tea plate-sized stingray was basking beneath a rock.

This impromptu sea safari coupled with a glorious four-night break in this paradise beach resort was a thrilling and fitting end to an amazing holiday of a lifetime - one that has really left its mark on me and one that if the memories ever start to fade, I would repeat in a heartbeat.

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