Journeys into a continent of breathtaking beauty.
It's not every day I will admit to choking back the tears, driving down the C13 towards the Maasai Mara, on my left immaculately dressed women in their Sunday best looked they had just come out of a 1970's catalogue and to the right two giraffe and a small herd of zebra. My fellow travellers are sleeping on the long trip but I am to excited to miss anything. Kenya isn't Scotland or Canada, the great outdoors isn't as picturesque but what it does have is wildlife and plenty of it. I catch the eye of our driver/guide David from Kuoni as he checks on me in the rear view mirror, he takes great delight in once catching me nodding off, like it was a game.
We've passed the giraffe and zebra, next a few donkeys and in the distance gazelle. Huts with yellow plastic on the roof and kids herding goats. My mind is starting to wonder and as I think back on all the animals I have seen, the lions, the rhino, the leopards and cheetahs I start to feel very emotional. You often run out of superlatives when describing Kenya - amazing, breathtaking, fantastic they all apply but nothing prepared me for the day of my life.
The alarm clock is set for 5am local time and to my surprise it's quite easy to get up at that time when you're ticking something off your bucket list. As ever the room at the lodge is immaculately fitted out but this morning the amazing views are still shrouded in darkness. As I walk through the lodge grounds to get to the main reception hippos roar. Reception is empty apart from a select of teas and coffee with freshly baked croissants. I'm one of four people who are going on the dawn balloon ride this morning, so somebody got up well before 5am to bake croissants and put out tea and coffee for just four people, that is service.
Todays journey out is in a Land Rover and I am not with my usual driver David, it's also the first time I've worn a jumper all holiday. We leave the lodge and the journey out is quiet, maybe the earliness or trepidation of our impending flight. We arrive at the takeoff site and are warned if we get out of the Land Rover to stay in the headlights just in case...
The balloon fills with hot air but is isn't quite dawn yet so we cannot see the full majesty. A quick safety briefing and then it's time to climb it to one of two sides. I get the end of what looks like the back seat of a bus and we huddle down for takeoff. Ten or fifteen feet into the air and we are allowed to stand up.
It's at this stage the disappointment sets in, don't get me wrong this is a great experience but it didn't take my breath away. Yes the views of dawn breaking over a vast wilderness with lions and giraffe below are superb. We climb so as not to upset three elephants but fail. I don't like disturbing animals in their environment and feel a little guilty but our pilot does all he can to avoid scaring them. Maybe elephants just don't like balloons.
On any other day this would be the highlight but things were going to ratchet up in the excitement level. We are on our way down and in the brace position for landing. A few seconds later we land upright and after the balloon is secured we step out. We are herded into two Land Rovers and driven off to our champagne breakfast.
If you remember I told you Kenya was not picturesque, well I lied. The sheer majestic beauty of the countryside, a lone tree on the skyline surrounds the savannah of tall yellow grass is picture book perfect. We arrive at our outdoor breakfast spot under a large tree with nothing but nothing as far as the eye can see. Normally I wouldn't gush about a toilet but this has to be one of the created places on earth to go for a pee. A windbreak some 30 feet away, you sit on the bowl and look out over mile upon mile of grass and deep blue sky and for a moment you feel like your the only person on the planet.
Champagne, coffee, fruit, pastries and an omelette later and it's time to head back to the lodge. My driver asks if we want to go for a quick safari on the way back and as the couple with me don't speak english I accept on their behalf. I'm sat in the front seat with the roof open and just about to take my boots off but am ushered to stand on the seat anyway. I really cannot remember what animals we passed because it all became a bit of a blur about half way back to camp.
We were the last of the two Rovers to leave and I was full torso out of the Land Rover when we swung right and up a small side track. I wasn't quite sure why as I couldn't see anything but this is one of the advantages of a local guide/driver. He had spotted a male lion drinking at a small waterhole. We approached to within about 20 feet and turned off the engine. I could hear the sound of the lion lapping up the water, he seemingly oblivious to our presence. While I had seen lions before this was special, so close and active. "Let's go round and see if we can get a better view". Holy Tintinnabulation how much better view can we get.
Well much better as it happens, we moved around the side of the lion and parked up next to a large rock. The next thing I saw was the lion turn towards us and walk the 20 feet across the open ground and behind the rock we had just parked next to. Then a bushy mane appeared above the other side of the rock. The lion walked up on to the rock and towards us. Four or five feet away his eyes met mine as he stared right through me. At this stage my brain is dead, I'm stood half out of a Land Rover with a lion five feet away on a rock the same height as the Land Rover, the window open and my camera clicking away. He turns side on to me, lets out a roar and then glances back at me. Brain engages and I slowly lower myself down and try to wind up the window which in my haste I cannot do for some reason. "Don't worry". Yes you don't have to do my laundry. Well if I'm going to die what better way to go than be eaten by a lion.So, in for a penny in for a pound, I stand up again and watch as the lion lowers itself down onto it's stomach and starts to lick its paws. I can hear him breath and I watch his chest rise and lower as the flies hover around him. A small murmur and his head falls as if to say "...alright you've seen me now, time to go.". And it was, we start the engine and slowly reverse out of the lions way.
Nothing describes the feeling, the emotion. It was the greatest day of my life....so far.
Thanks to everybody at Kuoni, especially our guide and driver David who took us on our Leopard Safari. Thanks to the balloon ride driver who's name I forgot but earned a massive tip. To all the lodge staff at the placed I stayed who provided a 5 star service. If you are thinking about a safari, do it, you won't regret it.