We arrive in Nairobi, Kenya late on Sunday night. Its been a long trip and we are glad when our head hits the pillow. We are not spending any time in Nairobi. We leave the next morning for our first safari destination.  A local representative meets us in the hotel to accompany us to the local Wilson airport from where we have a direct flight to the Masai Mara. The local airport is an experience in itself. When we arrive at the airport, our guide checks us in and hands us our boarding passes: a piece of red colored plastic; no name, flight or gate information on it. He tells us to wait in the check-in area until they call us for our flight and leaves us. Too late we realize we didn’t check with him for our luggage tags. I think about all my clothes, cosmetics and wonder if we will ever see our luggage again. We sit down and wait and until somebody comes to collect us. We leave check-in hall  and are told that we are taking a bus to the departure terminal. Our fellow passengers have the same red boarding passes we have, giving us more confidence.  The bus takes us to another building where we go thru security. After security there is another waiting area. It is Monday morning and it is busy. We see people with green, orange and yellow boarding passes in addition to our red ones. It feels like complete chaos to us. We sit down and wait for a while before we decide to check out what is happening outside. Nobody questions us when we leave the building and walk outside. Outside we see several small airplanes being prepared. The “green” people are called and so are the “yellow” and “orange” . It’s still about 30 minutes before our scheduled departure time so we patiently wait. Finally a lady walks up to us and asks me to borrow my boarding pass. It makes me slightly nervous, but she assures me that she is only using it to collect all “red” passengers. We follow her to our plane. We are pleasantly surprised when we see all the luggage nicely set out next to our plane.  We all have to identify our bags before they get loaded onto the plane. 10 minutes early, we taxi away from Wilson airport. We are impressed: what looked like chaos proves to be a quick and efficient process. This is the way we like to travel

Less than 2 hours after leaving Nairobi, we start our descend. From our airplane window we see the vast plains below us and wonder how far the airport is from our camp. Still no airport in sight when we get lower and lower. Finally we land on a gravel airstrip in the middle of  the African plains and it dawns on us: this is the airport. We get of the plane and see a sign “Kichwa Tembo private airstrip” . We have arrived at our first destination. Our guide and driver Robert is waiting for us with fresh Kenyan coffee, tea, cookies and banana chips. After we finish our coffee and tea, Robert drives us to our camp and we realize that our safari has truly begun when we see giraffe, gazelles and warthogs on our way. Within twenty minutes we reach the gate of Kichwa Tembo. We are welcomed in the lobby with more tea while we fill out our registration form. It is just before noon as we are escorted to our tent. We are in tent 37, all the way at the edge of the camp. Our accommodation is a real tent, but a luxury one, with a king bed, a toilet, a shower with hot water and electricity. Looking around we agree that we can definitely manage this type of camping. Lunch is served at 12.30 so we quickly unpack, change and head back to the main area. The main building houses the lobby, a restaurant and a bar. Across from the main building, at the end of the gardens where the plains start, is a swimming pool.

         

Lunch is buffet style with a selection of salads, pasta and meats and cheeses and a cobbler for dessert. We definitely won’t starve in the wilderness. After lunch we retreat to the pool to relax a for a while before our first game drive at 3.30 this afternoon. We barely sit down when we spot several giraffe and elephants leisurely making their way across the plains, in the not too far distance beyond the pool. A family of warthogs decides to visit the pool before being chased away by some of the guards. We are slowly getting used to the fact that this is real and that we do not have to go on a game drive to encounter wild animals, we are staying in their territory. We get another reminder of this while walking back to our tent: several monkeys are sitting and playing in the trees over the path to our tent. We are warned to tie down our tent front, or the monkeys will get in and make a real mess of things.

 

Our first game drive is at 3.30 this afternoon. We are very excited. We are joined by 4 other guests who just arrived this afternoon as well. A couple from Nairobi and their friends,  from Colorado. All six of us climb into the jeep ready for adventure. We enter the park thru the Ooloololo gate and not far in we see the first one of the big 5 (not counting the elephants we saw from the pool this afternoon): a buffalo is sitting in the grass at the side of the road, looking at us as if to say “what? why are you staring at me, I am taking my afternoon nap….” Robert tells us there have been sightings of 2 lionesses with cubs so that is our first target this afternoon. We pass several giraffe and elephants before we arrive at the spot where the lionesses have been spotted. A ranger and one other jeep are on the scene, waiting and watching. After 15 minutes staring into the grass, Robert finally points at a spot not too far away. It takes us sometime but then we see it as well: 2 ears of one of the lionesses popping up above the grass. But that’s it; the lionesses and their cubs don’t seem to be in the mood to play at this moment, so we leave. We have barely left when one of the rangers radios Robert: the lionesses are on the move. So we turn around and go back, but we are too late, they have disappeared again. We drive around to the other side of the bush in which they disappeared, but they must have moved on. When we are about to turn onto one of the main roads, we receive another radio message: the lionesses are on the side of the road, close to where we are. And when we approach we see them: leisurely strolling along the road, not bothered by us or the other cars at all. We are stoked. We will be able to see them pretty close, in fact, one of the lionesses sits down at the side of the road.  We pass her at less than a  meter distanc. She just looks at us with a lazy look and doesn’t seem to care . The other lioness continues her journey with the cubs and we follow them until they cross the road and disappear into the high grass. The other mama finally catches up and follows her babies and soon they have all disappeared in the bush.  It has been only a couple of hours and we have seen 3 out of the “big 5”, not a bad result!

           

Robert tells us that next we are going to look for leopards. He warns us “this is will not be easy. They are very shy and they hide in trees and bushes, so we don’t see them too often. If we see one in a tree we will crack open the champagne.” We are up for the challenge. We drive around for a while, stumble upon a herd of buffalos rolling around in the mud and taking baths. We see plenty of gazelle, impalas and warthogs, or Pumba, as Robert calls them. We see more elephants, though not as close as I would like to see them, but I remind myself that it is only the first day. The sun is starting to set over the Mara plains. It’s almost 6.30. Robert explains that we will start heading back to camp as we are supposed to be out of the reserve by 6.30. But then he receives another radio message and we can feel his excitements as he turns to us: “they spotted a leopard, not far from here”. Time is suddenly not important anymore and we hurry to where the leopard has been spotted. Several jeeps are already there and more are approaching. Word is spreading fast in the bush. Through our binoculars we can see the leopards ears popping up out of the grass. She is less than 30 meters away. We watch in fascination as an impala has also spotted the leopard. We expect her to turn and run away, but instead she stands and stares and even moves a little closer in the direction of the leopard as if to say “I know you are there. I am watching you. Try to catch me, I am faster than you.”  We watch until eventually the impala turns and walks away. The leopard is still not moving. We have been watching her for more than 30 minutes. Robert turns the engine back on and we are just turning the jeep, when the leopard suddenly gets up and starts walking towards the bushes. We all follow her and we manage to get as close as 10-15 meters. By now it’s completely dark, so taking pictures is not easy, but we still manage to capture her on camera. This is a perfect ending of our first game drive. By now it’s is 7.30, so an hour after official park closing time, but I guess exceptions are made on occasions like this. We are grateful. It is close to 8pm when we get back to our camp.

    

Instead of taking a shower, we decide to have dinner first. Dinner starts with a delicious soup, followed by another buffet. Again various meats, salads, and a lamb stew. We order a bottle of Chenin blanc with it. This is definitely my kind of camping. During dinner somebody comes to check whether we need a wake-up call the next morning and whether we would like tea and coffee brought to our tent. We have a hot air balloon trip scheduled for the next morning and we have to get up at 4.15 so we gratefully accept both the wake-up call and the offer for tea and coffee. After dinner, a Masai escorts us to our tent, where we lock up before we take a shower. When we get into our bed we are pleasantly surprised to find a hot water bottle. As we experience that night, it can get really cold, so we appreciate the service. We fall into bed, tired but very satisfied after our first day in Kenya.  

Our wake-up call comes too early in the form of Emmanuel, our butler. “Good morning, may I come in?” We look at our watch and it tells us it is indeed 4.15. We zip open our tent to let Emmanuel in with tea, coffee and cookies. It did get cold during the night so we gratefully sip the hot tea and coffee while we quickly dress and pack our day packs. We are ready and excited to go on our hot air balloon trip this morning. The British family we met last night at dinner is going as well, so 7 of us climb into the jeep from Governors balloon safaris, that is waiting outside the lobby for us. It is still pitch dark outside and on our way to the balloon place, we see a hippo and a serval cat cross the road right in front of us.

It is only 5.30 when we arrive at the balloon park. Take off is scheduled for 6.30. There are 3 balloons flying this morning and we watch in amazement how the balloons are being  prepared. It is a big operations that involves a lot of people. We get briefed by our instructor Steve. Each basket is divided into 4 sections, each section seats 4 people. Steve organizes us based on weight to make sure the weight is spread more or less evenly. We all get assigned to one of the 4 sections and told how and when we need to board. They start filling the balloons with air and soon we are ready to board. With all 3 balloons ready for take-off, they turn on the burners and one by one the balloons take off. We are the last ones to depart and we watch the other 2 balloons take off. It is a magnificent view. Dawn is breaking when we are lifted into the air. In another 15-20 minutes the sun will rise. We float over the Mara plains toward the Mara river. It’s magical, completely quiet except for the hiss of hot air every now and then, that makes us rise or turn direction. We spot the first elephant below us eating its grassy breakfast. As they eat 280 -300kg of grass a day, it’s probably good he is making an early start. We watch the sunrise. It takes our breath away: low clouds of fog hang over the river with a sky turning yellow and orange. The landscape is a mix of greens as far as our eyes can see. The balloons with their blue, yellow and orange form a festive contrast. We spot some hippos in the river below. They look like big rocks. More elephants, who look disturbed by the hissing sound of the hot air. And then we see it: a black rhino in the bush below us. There are only 7 black rhinos in this part of the Mara and they are solitary animals, not seen too often, so this is our lucky day.

        

We have been in the air for almost an hour and we are starting our descend. We see more elephants and some giraffe and when we start our final approach for landing, Mandi spots another (or maybe it is the same) rhino, running into the bush close to our landing spot. With a couple of bumps we land safely in a field where the crew is waiting to pick us up and pack up the balloon. Jeeps take us to a field nearby, where everything has been set up for a champagne breakfast.  We are in for a feast: a complete fry-up in the bush: champagne, mimosa, eggs, sausages, bacon, mushrooms, bread and pancakes. What a wonderful way to have breakfast. We sip our mimosa and sit and talk to our friends from the UK and compare notes from our balloon trip. After breakfast Robert and our 4 fellow passengers pick us up. It is time to watch some more animals. The people in our jeep are both excited and jealous that we have seen the rhino and with that have completed the big 5 in less than 24 hours. On Robert’s agenda for this morning are cheetahs, hippos and crocodiles and if we are lucky another black rhino. It sounds too good to be true. I sit back and let the sun warm my face and the wind blow my hair. I take a deep breath and smell the fresh scent of the grass around us. Life can simply be good. Somebody asked me yesterday, when we were talking about Africa “do you have Africa in your blood?” and I realize that I really do have Africa in my blood.

   

We see several jeeps parked on the side of the road. When we park next to them, we hear that there are 2 cheetahs in the bush in front of us. It takes us a while, but eventually we spot them. Sometimes their ears pop up and sometimes we can see their little faces when they peek through the high grass. Robert tells us we have permission to get off the road to try to get closer, so we follow 2 other jeeps till we are less than 20 meters away from them. Engines off, we just sit and watch, hoping we will be able to get a better view. And our patience is rewarded. One of the cheetahs slowly sits up, first with her back to us, and then she turns around and sits facing us. What a beautiful cat; with the black tear stains and the pretty eyes, she is simply stunning. After we are satisfied with our pictures, we continue our journey. Next stop is the hippo pond. We pass herds of topi, gazelle and impalas. We notice how in every group, one male will stand on a hill in the middle of the herd, keeping watch. We arrive at the hippo pond and are actually allowed to leave the jeep and walk around. We realize this is close to where we spotted the rhino this morning so we hesitate for a second, but we trust Robert, so we get out of the car. There are at least 25-30 hippos, bathing in the pond or sunning on the banks. Men, are they big, men are they ugly, but at the same time impressive. And we are even more impressed when we learn that as big and fat as they are, they are fast. They can run over 40km/hour and are considered one of the most dangerous animals, who kill the most humans off all the wild animals. We take our pictures and spot in addition to the hippos 3 crocodiles lying in the sun on the opposite bank.

   

Back in the jeep, Robert tells us that a rhino has been spotted not to far from us. We drive and then there he is, crossing the road in front of us.  What an impressive sight. We saw him from the air, but seeing him on the road in front of us is slightly more intimidating. We stop and watch as he moves into the fields. Most cars leave, but Robert waits. Once the other cars are gone, he quietly starts the engine and follows the rhino into the field. When we are less than 25 meters away, he turns off the engine again and tells us to be quiet. The rhino turns and stares at us. We hold our breaths as he moves closer towards us. A little nervous we ask Robert in a whisper if we should leave, but he shakes his head and tells us that as long as we are quiet, we are ok. The rhino is still facing us, a little bird sitting on his head, catching a free ride. We watch in awe, and feel privileged to be this close to such a magnificent and rare animal. We learn he is a grouser, not a grazer and we take a zillion pictures until the rhino finally decides he has had enough, he is done posing and turns around and trots off into the distance. We back up onto the road and wonder how much more we can ask for. It is not even noon and it has been a hell of a day so far.

   

It is time for lunch so we head back to the camp. After lunch we have time to relax for a couple of hours, which is nice after our early start this morning. I sit at the pool and look out over the Mara plains. It is so beautiful and peaceful, I close my eyes and fall asleep. At 4.30 it is time for our evening drive. Robert knows I love elephants so he has a surprise in mind: he drives to a wetland area, where the elephants often come to eat and drink. And predictable as they are, when we drive up to the area we see a whole herd; adults, mostly females and several babies. Robert keeps driving closer until we are surrounded by elephants. In front of us they are crossing the road, on the left and the right side they are eating and playing. They look at us, but don’t seem to mind our presence. If we reach out we could almost touch them, that is how close we are. We take picture after picture. What a majestic animal it is. So big, but yet still so elegant and somehow vulnerable, they are my favorite animal. In addition to my pictures I have captured this moment in my heart and my mind forever. We continue our drive and stumble upon a “dazzle” of zebras, with one lone wildebeest among them. We learn that the migration has not reached the Mara yet this year due to late rainfall in the Serengeti. The zebras and wildebeest are still in Tanzania, so this one wildebeest is clearly lost. We watch the sunset fall over the plains before we return to our camp.

           

After a well deserved shower and another great dinner, we have a nightcap with our British friends before we roll into our bed. Emmanuel surprised us again and has lit the candles in our room and spread rose peddles all over as a goodbye gift. He has left messages on our pillow that says “Lala Salama” or “sleep peacefully”. We are grateful to find again a warm water bottle in our bed as it is even colder tonight. This is only our second night, but already our last and we feel a bit sad to leave Kichwa Tembo. Tomorrow we leave for the Serengeti, but before we leave, Robert will take us for one more morning drive.   Emmanual wakes us again with tea and cookies at 6 in the morning, early enough so we can catch the sunrise. Dawn is breaking when we leave the camp. We pass a couple of baboons and black faced monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Together with a couple of giraffe, we watch the sun rise over the Mara. It is a beautiful morning and the gazelles and impalas are already out in force. Robert tells us that 2 leopards have been spotted so we drive in the hope to see them, but when we get there we learn that they have sneaked into the grounds of our camp. We wonder if panic will break out, but people just continue like it is a normal day in the bush. We watch a fight between 2 hippos, one male and one female. It gets ugly and there are bloody faces before mommy and baby throttle off in one direction and the male hippo in the other, tail between his legs. We learn from Robert that male hippos sometimes kill their young. We saw a mother defend her baby and this time she won.We spot a hyena sunning itself in the early morning sun and before we leave the park, we see another female lion.

        

We have breakfast and pack our bags and then it is time to say goodbye to the people at Kichwa Tembo. We are sad to leave as it has been wonderful, but we are also excited to go to our next destination. When we are about to get into the jeep, Emmanuel comes running. We are surprised as he was running a marathon this morning, organized for the Masai people. He explains that he quit halfway to come say goodbye to us. Whether he quit for us or not, we are touched. The people in Kichwa Tembo have been wonderful and made our stay unforgettable. Robert drives us to the Kichwa Tembo airstrip where we board our plane to Migori and the Tanzanian border.

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