Focus on...Maasai Mara, Kenya
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
A 72-Hour Mini Photography Safari.
Maasai Mara, September 2017.
Yes, I agree, it is absolutely madness, considering the travelling time, to go on a 72-hour photography trip to the Maasai Mara, but it is also a fantastic introduction to one of the greatest places for a photography holiday.
This time, I travelled with two friends: they are not really photography enthusiasts, but they just wanted to see what the Maasai Mara had to offer. This was a low-cost, off-the-self trip, with no frills and bells – at least, that was the intention, until we decided to go for a hot-air balloon trip.
After the Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi, we arrived around 7am. We were all a bit overwhelmed with sleep: the flight was good but sleeping on a plane is not my thing.
The Washing Machine
Our driver, George, was waiting for us with his customary white minivan, and this will be our wheels for the next two and half days. With 12 seats, there was plenty of space for the three of us to stretch out – and, by the end of the trip, we were very grateful for that.
George informed us that the journey to the camp would take about six hours and that we would make a couple of stops on the way. But, little did that prepare us for what was coming: the first two hours were okay, as the roads were fine and there was light traffic, but, then, the road changed to a dirt road. There were lots of bumps and holes and, later, the dirt road changed into a dirt track, which looked like an obstacle course – it felt we were travelling inside a washing machine. The journey took, not surprisingly, a bit longer than anticipated.
But then we arrived at the Mara Sidai Camp in Ololaimutiek, Kenya and instantly the agonizing drive was forgotten. Dump the luggage, a quick lunch and off we went for our first safari drive, it was around 4pm, the perfect time for the wildlife to become active again. The camp was outside the reserve, therefore it took us about 30 minutes to reach the gate, but once we were in we immediately saw huge numbers of Wildebeest literally to the end of the horizon. The Great Migration at the Maasai Mara, Kenya is in full swing. I have no idea how many there where, but to me it seemed like hundreds of thousands all roaming around or moving in huge lines in different directions to who knows what.
Within that short drive of a couple of hours we saw already a huge variety of animals, several very enamoured couples of lions, roaring male lions, giraffes trying in vain to hide in the bushes, a herd of elephants where the matriarch was leading the family of aunties and calves of various ages out of harm’s way. And of-course zebras, lots of them, they travel together with the wildebeest, and the many species of cute gazelles.
A Brutal Start
Wake-up call at 4am, this was brutal after not having slept the night before on the plane. Then, we drove for about one and half hours to the place where the balloons were supposed to take off. There was a bit of confusion since nobody was there, so the search for the take-off spot started. We managed to find it after 45 minutes – literally two minutes before take-off.
Is It Worth It?
Was the balloon ride worth the money? In my opinion, yes and no. A balloon ride is always spectacular, but having done it some years ago in Luxor, Egypt, at $45 for a one-hour ride over the Nile and Valley of the Kings, $400 seemed exaggerated. Granted, you can’t compare Egypt with Kenya and, of course, prices are determined by offer and demand, but I didn’t perceive it as value for money. Having said that, it is just so impressive seeing the endless plains filled to the brim with wildebeest and all the other wildlife.
Is it good for photography? You are packed like sardines in the basket, approximately four people per square metre, if that. So, not ideal: the shots from above are not the most interesting, but probably okay as establishing shots, and lens changes are at your own peril. The pilot rotates the balloon so that everyone has a good view, but it is still difficult to get something decent.
Would I do a hot-air balloon trip again at the Maasai Mara? No, but I am glad I did it that time.
And, don’t forget that they do a fantastic breakfast near the landing place. Pure indulgence, in the middle of the plain, surrounded by wild animals, a beautiful five-star cooked breakfast buffet, with egg stations, smoked salmon, and free-flowing bubbly.
After the breakfast, the hot air-balloon company proceeded with a morning safari and arranged, around noon, for us to meet our own driver so that we could proceed the rest of the day in our own van.
To Close To Call
That afternoon, after lunch, we started our third safari drive. Within ten minutes of entering the reserve, we found ourselves face to face with a pair of cheetahs that were eyeing some wildebeest. They started creeping on to them and, in a flash, the coordinated attack started right next to the car – it was even too close for the lens that I had on my camera, so the pics are not brilliant but what a thrill. On this occasion, the wildebeest got to live another day and the cheetahs were hungry for the night.
Follow the Crowd
It became clear that the van wasn’t as agile as the proper safari jeeps and, in some cases, we couldn’t reach a few interesting places that other jeeps reached effortlessly. Furthermore, the driver was based in Nairobi, so, yes, he had good knowledge of roads within the reserve but didn’t have the in-depth knowledge of the locations of the wildlife within the reserve. Often, he followed local jeeps and frequently exchanged information with passing vehicles about interesting sights and locations of the animals. If George saw a heap of cars in the distance, he would go there because that was the signal that something interesting was happening there.
But, notwithstanding that, we saw some amazing wildlife during the three half-day safari drives – and the photo opportunities were fantastic, even though I was struggling getting the hang of my new Nikon D850, which I had just received the week before, having abandoned my trusted Canon.
If Only We Had Sooner…
The last evening over dinner, we were talking about the dreaded drive back to Nairobi. All three of us had the same idea, what if we skip the drive and book one of the domestic flights from the nearby airstrips instead? If only we had this talk earlier in the day, because, of course, all the offices were closed and there was no way of making reservations – or, at least, that is what we were told. I am still not sure if that was an alternative fact or not.
So, the next morning, we drove back in the washing machine to the airport and had lunch in a local resort outside Nairobi, where they had goat meat by the kilo on the BBQ – I love goat meat. We arrived far too early for the flight. Drivers, often, do tend to underestimate the time it takes to arrive at the destination, but seem overestimate the time of the return trip, I wonder why…
Landing – exactly 72 hours after take-off.
My Learning Points
Overall, the trip was a great introduction to the Maasai Mara and stirred the appetite for more.
But, there were some learning points for me.
A trip to the Maasai Mara for 72 hours is crazy.
Take a domestic flight to the Maasai Mara Reserve and save the agony of the drive up and down.
No more hot-air balloon flights for me over the Maasai Mara for the sole purpose of photography.
Hire proper safari jeeps with local drivers for the safari drives through the camp.
It is easy to arrange a safari online by yourself with a bit of research – it doesn’t need to be an off-the-self package.
All images © 2017-2018 Marco Duyves