Wednesday 8 August 2012


Reminds me of my Safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water. 

- W.C. Fields

It was all very last minute. We were sat in our rain-soaked garden in Leicester just a few weeks ago, and both decided enough was enough - time to go somewhere at least a bit DRIER, (and hopefully a bit warmer). We'd had our fill of beach holidays, didn't fancy a city break (as we had one booked for later in the year), when the brainstorm hit - how about a Safari!

Never having done one before, in fact never having been to Africa, we thought 'oh well - in for a penny' (actually quite a few pennies but c'est la vie!) so a quick bit of web research, a phone call to Kuoni, and we had a choice of 3 trips all leaving within the next fortnight. We decided to avoid the mixed 'beach and safari' options and went straight for 6 nights at the Bushtops by the Masai Mara.

The first problem was getting all our vaccinations. No way could we get them done in time on the good ol' (but slow) NHS so we booked a private GP and next day came out with arms full of viruses. Yellow Fever, Hep A, Dysentry, Tetanus, Diptheria, Polio, you name it they gave it to us. Fortunately no strong reactions resulted although arms were sore for a couple of days. We also loaded up on Malarone to keep the Malaria at bay.

Flights were from T4 heathrow to Nairobi and then from Wilson Airport to the bush The intervening 10 days went by in a blur of sorting out Mosi spray, and hats.

The flight out left on time, and was uneventful, save that in an attempt to sleep I might have had one or two more 'medicinal' whiskies than was strictly good for me. Resulting in no sleep and arriving in Nairobi with a mild hangover (or maybe it was the Malarone ). Mrs Axs, being far more sensible, slept all the way. Arrival in Nairobi was 'interesting' since as you come into the building the sign for passport control points both left and right??? It became apparent that this is because it is a circular building so you can go either way. Anyway we found the desk, each coughed up our $50 visa fee and walked out into Africa!

A very nice young man from Kuoni met us outside arrivals and led us to our car which then took us through the most amazing early morning traffic to Wilson. It was like the M25 but with pedestrians. People walking up and down the road, cars changing lanes seemingly at random, street sellers offering everything from padlocks to mobile phones. The journey was less than 10 miles but took nearly an hour.

Arriving at Wilson we hit what could have been a bit of a hiccup. We'd been told the small plane had a luggage limit of 15kg, but had foolishly assumed this was for check in bags only. In fact it is a TOTAL limit. Our main bags weighed exactly 15kg each, but then we each had a carry on, and I had my camera bag too. we were probably 50% over weight (more if you take into account my less than svelte build!). We were saved from either a large bill or having to leave stuff in lockers, by the fact that no-one seemed to care. They didn't even glance at our carry ons, just weighed in our main bags and checked us through. We were relieved but surprised, how come they weren't bothered? The answer came later.

After an hour drinking very nice Kenyan Tea (in true Brits abroad style), we were called through to departures and driven a short distance round to the airfield. We were escorted out to our single engined 12 seater plane and found out why they hadn't been worried about our luggage weight. We were the only passengers! The pilot offered us a Glacier mint, and 45 minutes later we landed at the Airstrip in the Mara bush.

The local airport wasn't exactly 'busy'

We were met by Japhet and Jacob from Bushtops in their heavily modified Toyota Landcruiser, who were very quick to take our bags and offers us a choice of tea, coffee, or a refreshing glass of chilled Chardonnay. Something told me I was going to enjoy this safari.

Mara Bushtops modify their Landcruisers themselves, making them very comfortable indeed

The drive to Bushtops took about 45 minutes during which time we got our first glimpses of the wildlife. Well when I say 'glimpse', a Giraffe almost jumped out in front of us. We actually saw more animals in that short drive than I had ever before seen in the flesh. Bushtops is set in its own 'conservancy' just a few Kilometres from the Mara reserve, and of course there are no fences. Elephant, Giraffe, Wildebeeste, Zebra, Water Buffalo, all the Antelopes, and even some of the cats wander up to and in to the 'tented' camp. The 'tents' are in fact half stone built structures all with ensuite facilities, indoor and outdoor showers, hot tubs and a verandah with stunning views. It's one of the nicest 'hotels' I've stayed in.

The camp is in the background, our 'tent' is furthest to the right.

In fact the wildlife get so close to the tents that after dark a group of Masai 'Nightwatchmen' patrol the camp and accompany guests to and from the tents. It's all very safe and reassuring for anyone not used to being this close to nature.
So we arrived at Bushtops and were met by Georgé the camp manager, Phillipe his 2IC and Maggi (who really ran the place!). Some refreshing cloths were provided, and more Tea and chilled wine were on offer. Finally we were shown to our tent and given a few hours to settle in before afternoon Tea and our first Game drive!

The tents are 'quite comfortable' to say the least

So that evening we went out on our first 'game drive'. The Mara itself is closed after 6.00 but that's one advantage of Bushtops - having its own conservancy area makes it possible to go for evening, and even night drives. They also offer guided walks in the bush, but more of that later.

We were met at 4.30 by Ferdinand our driver and guide, accompanied by James our Masai spotter, and along with another couple (two French honeymooners) we set off into the bush. This was when I first realised just how good the Bushtops vehicles are. With the majority of vehicles we saw (mostly 4wd minivans), taking photos involved standing up and shooting from the open roof. Even the other Land Cruisers, and Land Rovers , having windows and sides made photography more difficult. The modifications done to the Bushtops vehicles (apparently to their own design and in their own garage) and having just the 6 seats, mean that you can be seated in comfort while still having excellent views all round. The well stocked cool boxes are a good idea too . They even provide blankets and spare binoculars if required!

Sorry about the hat!

So we drove out into the area around Bushtops and almost immediately came upon a large male Elephant and a Cape Buffalo. This was the closest I'd been to animals of such size and power.

He was a big Elephant

And quite close too

Ferdinand explained that the Cape Buffalo (and Hippo) were actually more dangerous than the Lions, which was very reassuring as we watched him 15 feet away 
So moving on after we had exhausted our shutter fingers, we drove around the camp, spotting Giraffe, Gazelle, Impala, Topi, and a rather sad Zebra that had barely survived an attack from what Ferdinand said was probably a Lion.

The Zebra had a nasty gash on its haunch

Eventually we stopped for sundown drinks by a camp fire

It all felt rather civilised

Game Drive!

The next day we did an all day game drive, our first trip into the Mara reserve itself. The day started early, our 'butler' Edward woke us with tea (of course) at 6.30 and we had a quick breakfast to be on the road by 8.00. We drove for about 20 minutes to get to the gates of the Mara where we were met by some local ladies keen to offer us bangles beads and other mementos of our trip at only a few multiples of their value . On our guide's advice we resisted their bargaining, but I couldn't resist taking a picture or two, which lead to more bargaining over the price. Eventually with honour satisfied all round , and after a quick toilet stop we pressed on into the Mara.
The very colourfully dressed Masai Ladies

Driving along the bumpy pot-hole filled roads were were very glad of the Toyota's excellent suspension and deeply cushioned seats, nonetheless we learned the meaning of the phrase 'Kenyan road massage'.
As we drove deeper into the Mara we began to se more and more wildlife, in greater variety and number. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

We saw a lot of Zebra

An Ostrich



and then we cam to the Hippo water hole. Ferdinand , while telling us that Hippos were the most dangerous animal, explained that during the day, if they were in the water and you were not you'd be OK. Just don't ever get between them and the water, particularly at night. Reassured we stepped out of the vehicle (it was good to stretch our legs) and walked down to the water hole. There were indeed a 'few' Hippos enjoying a dip....

A bloat (!) of Hippos

A huge beast! (trying to photograph a yawning Hippo)

said Hippo

And one more, with BIG teggys

We spent quite a while with the Hippos and it was fascinating to watch them dipping into the water and becoming almost invisible only to resurface with a splash and a yawn the size of a football stadium. But eventually we drove on and found a shady spot further down the river for lunch. After a very nice picnic, accompanied by a couple of cool Tusker beers, we drove on in search of our first Lion. We found him, with a lady friend, dozing in some bushes.

His name is 'Notch', he's 13 years old and quite famous in the Mara

Since he wasn't coming out from the bushes anytime soon, we left 'Notch' and drove a short distance to where one of his younger brothers was lazing with his mate in the afternoon sun.

They were quite sleepy too

Although clearly not too tired for a bit of afternoon lovin'!

Leaving the Lions to their afternoon er, snooze, we headed back toward Bushtops listening to Ferdinad describe the animals and trees of the Mara. He was extremely knowledgeable and could tell you the size weight, gestation period and inside leg measurement of just about every creature that flew, galloped or crawled across the Mara. We spotted some more 'wildlife' photographing a bush.

See what I mean about the roof access?

So we investigated to see what they had found.

Our first Cheetah! Two brothers resting in the shade.

So now we knew what to look for. Never mind tracking the 'spoor', just scan for a collection of white vans with lenses poking out and there's bound to be something of interest! Using this technique we quickly spotted our next 'sign'....

This turned out to be a real find, a lone female cheetah, with four young cubs.

They were just having lunch

I know Warthogs are beautiful too (at least to other Warthogs), but I admit I'm a sucker for 'cute'

Ok At this point I have to say I was a well happy camper. You may have gathered by now that I have a fondness for cats of all shapes and sizes, and in fact I feel the need to include a shot of Walter our very own Lion.

Right, back to the Safari! After the Cheetah we continued back toward the reserve entrance, pausing to pick up shots of any wildlife on the way. A circling of Vultures caught our eye, and they turned out to be feeding on a carcass.

This Wildebeeste was definitely not going to make it.

This guy clearly didn't like being 'papped'.

We finally left the reserve around 4.00. It had been a long day's drive but absolutely amazing! An incredible introduction to what the Mara has to offer. As we left I took our last pic of the day, a brightly coloured little bird, looking annoyed with us from the side of the road.
A Lilac Chested Roller - not a fan of tourists!

Balloon Ride!

To say the next day we leapt up to greet the dawn would not be true. In fact it would be a complete lie. We were dog tired after the 20 odd hour journey to get there, and the previous early start and long day's game drive, while wonderful and interesting, had also been quite tiring, so it was with some difficulty that I prized the bed off my back at 4.00 on the Saturday morning. Edward delivered our tea with such cheerfulness that I almost had to hit him with a croissant. I'm not really much of a morning person. 

Bleary eyed and wishing we'd not booked such an early event, we staggered down to reception to be met by Boniface and Harrison from the Hot Air Safari company. They too were unconcionably cheerful, which was even more amazing when we learned they'd been up since 3.30 and pretty much did this every day.

We left Bushtops and drove to the Mara reserve, waking the guards on the gate to let us through. They were reassuringly grumpy, so it wasn't just me then. After picking up a sleepy Malaysian family from a lodge within the Mara we drove on for about an hour to the launch site, which has to be chosen quite carefully since balloons have no steering. I can sleep just about anywhere, but wouldn't have believed it possible to doze while travelling on Kenyan dirt roads. I managed it - it's a gift.

Arriving at the launch field just as light was starting to show in the sky, we were gently directed to 'our balloon' and given a pre-flight briefing by 'Riz' our mad-as-a-box-of-frogs pilot. The main point of the briefing seemed to be, 'sit down and hang on' when told, and 'don't jump out' which all made a certain kind of sense. There was a reassuring absence of spiel about exit doors or life jackets.

The balloons, about a dozen of them, were all laid out next to each other in the field. They were 16 'seaters' with the baskets divided into eight 2-man compartments with the pilot's 'cabin' in the centre. The baskets were made from whicker which lead Riz to share with us that the Lions considered them 'picnic baskets' - Oh how we laughed !

They started lighting the burners and the noise was incredible. Until then we hadn't realised just how quiet the pre-dawn bush was. The light of the burners lit up the balloons all across the field.

Filling the balloons at dawn

'Our' balloon is on the right

As the balloons filled with hot air, they began to lift gently from the ground and we were encouraged to climb aboard. The guys holding the er, guy-lines, let go, and with Riz giving it big time on the burners, we rose slowly but steadily into the sky.
Riz hitting the gas

The ground crew, lit up by the burner

Have I mentioned how cold it was? Well it was cold. Not alpine-skiing cold, but colder than back home in Leicester. Must be the altitude, we were at about 1800m at Bushtops, and as the balloon rose higher I was glad of both my jacket, and the warmth from the burners when they lit.

The flight lasted just over an hour, and it was one of the best hours of my life. Ballooning is a wonderfully civilised way to fly. Mostly quiet (apart from the occasional 'burn'), and much less frenetic than any other method. Riz told some awful jokes, the mad Russians in the basket with us moaned about not being able to see the animals. 'Where are Lions'? they asked. "In Tanzania" Riz replied. And slowly, as we sailed over the vast Mara grassland, the dawn rose and it was somehow moving and magical.

Riz had a camera rigged up on a line, with a remote shutter release, so we even got some pix of ourselves (delivered later over breakfast), hanging in the sky.

Yes I'm still wearing that cap


Eventually, but far too soon, we began to descend, but the ride wasn't over - we were just approaching the Wildebeeste migration and Riz was taking us in close. It was like walking into Trafalgar square, only the 'pigeons' were bigger and uglier - noisy too. I didn't realise how much grunting and Gnu'ing Gnus actually did! The Wildebeeste parted like a sea around the balloons, not exactly running away, but giving us a wide berth.

Finally it really was over. We 'survived' a very civilised landing, he might be a complete nut bat, but Riz is an excellent pilot, and we posed for a 'we survived' photo op.

Then a short drive through the Mara to where our Champagne breakfast was waiting! I don't really do Champagne, but Alex (centre crouching above), my new found best friend from Russia, persuaded me that 7.30am was the perfect time for Vodka shots, so we toasted UK/Russian international relations. Then tucked in to sausage, bacon and eggs with (of course) strong Kenyan tea .

And just like that we were finished. We thanked our hosts and pilots. We wished our fellow travellers safe journeys and we climbed back aboard our Land Cruiser to head home. On the way back we saw a great many Wildebeeste, and Zebra, and indeed what had already become for us the 'usual' collection of wildlife. But we weren't really in a game spotting mood. The ballon flight had been amazing and it was something of an anticlimax to be back on the ground.
One strange sight we did come across was this:

A traffic jam in the middle of the Mara.

Puzzled as to what was going on, we drove closer, then our driver explained. The vehicles are not allowed to go 'off track' in the Mara (to contain the damage caused to the grassland) and some areas are designated 'closed' to traffic. The penalties if caught (by the rangers) are severe - $200 per vehicle, and it is the driver, not the tour company, that has to pay. That's a lot of money to a Kenyan tour driver. There's also a '3 strikes and you're out' policy which can cost the driver his licence and his livelihood. All these vehicles had just come through an area that was (in theory) signposted closed (although we didn't see any signs). The rangers made a good haul that morning.

It all seemed a bit arbitrary to me. It also seemed that the drivers were taking all the risks to the benefit of the tour companies and the tourists (who wanted to get as close as possible to the animals). Our driver also said that some of the rangers were corrupt and indeed the system did seem open to abuse. Apparently if you are willing to pay the fine (and $200 isn't that much to a western tourist), you can go anywhere and stay as long as you like. Ho hum - filthy lucre at the heart of things again.

We drove on back to Bushtops.


After the Balloon ride we REALLY wanted to relax a bit so we had a lie-in the following day and just lazed around reading and enjoying the pool at Bushtops. But there is no rest for the wicked, and besides, you don't travel all that way just to sit around and read, so we booked ourselves onto a bush walk. Now for the more experienced safarists among you, actually getting out of the vehicle and walking on the same ground trod by Giraffe, and Elephant, and Lion is probably a, er, walk in the park. But for us it was viewed with, shall we say, a certain trepidation. Mrs Axs was really worried, but I reassured her by pointing out that she didn't have to outrun the Lions, she just had to outrun ME (no challenge at all).

Anyway the next day dawned, not quite as early as the balloon day, we chose a 10.00 start, and we were met in reception by Jacob the Masai spotter, Moses the guide, and Robert, the armed ranger - who turned out to be Forest Whittaker's long lost brother.

From the left, Moses, Jacob, Paula and Forest Whitaker, er, Robert.

Robert was reassuringly armed with a .303 Lee Enfield, the rest of us had pointy sticks. Deciding, perhaps foolishly, that in the event of an attack from a 3 ton Bull Elephant, a pointy stick might be less than 100% effective, I didn't take one, just the camera. 'Well at least I'll get the shot before I go under his hooves' I thought. (Note to self - do Elephants have hooves?) We set off with Robert taking 'point' as he had the gun. I started at the back, and then realised that any pursuit might come from behind, so I surreptitiously overtook Paula ;-)

From the beginning I quickly realised that this walk was going to be something of a trial. Moses, whose english was impeccable, he sounded like a bbc news reader, was clearly a man on a mission not merely to guide, but to educate! His approach was to start by testing the limits of our knowledge. (in my case, quickly found). Scooping up a handful of dung, he offered it to me, asking 'what animals dung do you think this is?' Having no clue whatsoever,in a small voice I guessed wildly at 'Zebra'? His (good natured) scorn was evident, 'Impala' he informed us. And so began an almost surreal period of Moses picking up pieces of animal dung and us guessing what animal had deposited them.

Mrs Axs proved to have a gift for dung recognition, something to do with her university days cleaning student toilets part time no doubt. She correctly identified Zebra, Water Buffalo and Elephant. Had there been a corner of the room, I would have been stood in it. I was hopeless. Eventually I gave up and went for the comedy aspect. 'And this?' Moses asked me, brandishing a fistful of very large diameter somewhat squishy droppings. 'DikDik' I said, with some certainty. 'Elephant' he replied bursting into laugher at my ineptitude. The (ironic) concept of 'Ranger Simon' was born and from this point onwards my complete lack of ranger skills became a source of amusement for all.

We studied berries, and tracks, trees and leaves. We learned of the sandpaper leaf that really was very rough to the touch, and the 'bandage' leaf that felt as soft as the finest sterile dressing.We rubbed green ochre leaves which turned red in our fingers. I cleverly spotted the spoor of a Land Cruiser and correctly identified the tracks as 'Dunlop' - this won me some approval from the trackers.
It was fun. The guys were very kind, and clearly in love with, and very proud of, their country and its wildlife.

Striding out into the bush

Watched, at a distance by an Eland

Gnu were about too

and Topi

Robert on the lookout

A great day!

We got back to Bushtops after a couple of hours, pleasantly tired and happy to have seen some of the bush 'first hand'. Riding around in Land cruisers is very nice, but walking in the bush with knowledgeable guides, takes some beating.

The next couple of days, we did another whole day game drive, and another evening drive, we saw more wildlife, listened to more stories and gradually fell in love with the place. This was our first ever trip to Kenya. Our first ever safari. it won't be our last.

I hope this write up has been entertaining, or failing that, less addictive than valium. For anyone who is a real glutton for punishment, I put together a slideshow of our pix and it's up on Youtube here:
Our Safari Slideshow

If anyone is thinking of staying at Bushtops, (and I heartily recommend it), my trip advisor review is here:

Thanks for reading, and as Ronnie Barker used to say "... and it's goodnight from him".