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Kenya - Masai men

Photo Safari Kenya

A Perfect Destination
For Taking Pictures
of Wild Animals

Kenya is the perfect destination for a photo safari: on the open savannah it's easy to spot animals. But varied Kenya also has rainforests: on the slopes of Mount Kenya and in the Shimba Hills Reserve. There are pineapple, tea and coffee plantations, beaches with palmtrees, and salt lakes. The highlight is Masai Mara National Park, the most beautiful landscape park in Kenya, with lots of game and walled-in Masai settlements. You get the best pictures in the warm light of early mornings or evenings.

Travelogue & photos: Ronald Jansen

After our arrival in Nairobi, our group of fifteen people leaves in safari buses to Mount Kenya, a four hours drive. The route takes us over a plateau and along pineapple, tea and coffee plantations.

Kenya - Tropical rainforest

When we arrive at the foot of Mount Kenya, we leave the paved road and drive into the misty woods on its slopes. The local population and schoolchildren wave spontaneously at us. These children walk many kilometers every day between their homes and schools.

When the cars get stuck in the wet ground, it begins to feel like a real safari. The ground is soggy because the rainy season ended only a short while ago.

Eventually we arrive at an open spot in the woods with a wooden hunting lodge. We have dinner in the central lodge, which has a porch. I am surprised at the mild weather, 20 degrees centigrade. It's foggy and it rains. This is because of the altitude (1,500 meters). It's also winter in Africa.

We spend the night in atmospheric wooden houses, each decorated with its own theme, like the Love Room. It's already dark at 8:30 PM.

Kenya - Buds with raindrops

The next morning we take a stiff hike in the lowest part of the vegetation zone of Mount Kenya. The guide tells us about medicinal and poisonous trees in the forest.

According to our guide poachers are severely punished. Ivory, wood and game poachers are apparently shot on sight. The area is rich in game, among which colobus monkeys and birds, but we don't get to see them.

Kenya - Colobus monkeys

There are also elephants around. We can see that because of the trampled grass. The somewhat fearful guide tells us to be quiet and leads us around the elephants. This to make sure that nobody gets trampled by an angry elephant.

Lake Naivasha and Nakuru National Park

At a safe distance from roaring hippoes

Today we drive south over bad roads, more pothole than road, actually. Eventually we arrive in the lake district of the Great Rift Valley, where we spend the night on the banks of Lake Naivasha in Ecological Center Elsamere, the former home of Joy Adamson, the writer of 'Born Free,' about Elsa the Lioness.

There are basic amenities, like toilets and showers. But it's still Africa. Every now and then there's a power outage. No guarantees that there'll be hot water.

Kenya - Lake Naivasha, hippo

I was somewhat disappointed that we saw so little game, so the boat tour of Lake Naivasha is a pleasant surprise. We sail between groups of roaring hippoes, at a safe distance.

The banks are overgrown with papyrus and grass. I see the most wonderful birds: pelicans, cormorants and an African fish eagle. We also see other animals, like waterbucks and gazelle. It's paradise.

Next we visit Crescent Island in Lake Naivasha. It lies on the edge of an old volcanic pipe, which still sticks out above the water surface. It's private property. Lots of game here: giraffe and buffalo. It's great to be able to take pictures of a line of giraffe against the backdrop of the lake.

Kenya - Lake Naivasha, heron

The next day we visit Nakuru National Park. It is a salt lake and the habitat of thousands extremely vocal flamingoes. They eat the algae that grow in this lake, thanks to its high level of salt and flamingo droppings.

There are also other kinds of birds here, for example pelicans. From high cliffs we have a great view of the lake, in which the flamingoes form a pink ribbon. On the cliff itself live colorful geckoes.

Masai Mara National Park

The lions don't mind our presence

Kenya - Masai Mara National Park, lion in bushes

We will stay in the Masai Mara National Park for the next four days. The park is also in the Great Rift Valley and in the south of Kenya.

We sleep in tents on a camping ground in the park. The large tents have porches, good regular beds and each tent has its own shower and toilet.

At night we hear the animals outside; they approach the campground to a distance of only a few meters. It's not allowed to have food in the tent. And it should be locked when you leave: the monkeys can open its zipper!

This is known as the most beautiful landscape park in Kenya. Deeper into the park we see large herds of zebra, wildebeest and gazelle. There are also elephants and lions.

Kenya - Masai Mara National Park, lionesses

We see a group of lions sunbathe on a rock. Buffaloes walk near them and the lions are only mildly interested. Apparently they are not hungry, they remain where they are. The lions don't mind our presence either. I guess they're used to visitors..

As long as you stay in the open safari bus, there is nothing to be afraid of. It is a sensation to approach these wild animals so close up and look them in the eyes.

The parks are open and connected to their surroundings. No walled-in fortresses. But the animals avoid areas where contact with humans is dangerous, like agricultural areas, and prefer to stay in the game parks.

Kenya's characteritic landscape is the savannah, where animals are better visible than in thick rainforest. And therefor easier to photograph.

Kenya - Masai Mara National Park, elephants on the savannah

From a distance we see, with binoculars, a cheetah stalk a gazelle. But he doesn't catch it. Other gazelle, which we hadn't seen yet, jump up in fear.

We also see playing lion cubs and a cheetah with young. The safari bus drivers tell one another about these sightings, so usually more than one bus arrives at these scenes.

Kenya - Masai Mara National Park, lioness in warm lighting

Our game-spotting drives take place mostly in the early morning and late afternoon. This is also the best time for photographing the animals, because of the warm hue of the light.

We cross the Tanzanian border. At the hottest time of day we visit the banks of the Mara river, where crocodiles and hippoes live.

Sometimes there are large herds from Tanzania here; they wander to Kenya to find fields that provide food. They cross the river by the thousands during the so-called Great Trek which happens between July and November.

Unfortunately we don't get to see any of this. You probable have to camp out at the river for months with photo and film cameras to be able to record this scene. Many a wildebeest or zebra is caught by a crocodile while they are crossing the river. At this moment there is no observable croc activity. They lie motionless on the bank.

Kenya - Masai Mara National Park, zebras

We visit a Masai village. The Masai live in the border area between Kenya and Tanzania. They are cheerful, hardened people who breed cattle. Their herds are mainly goats and zebus.

The warriors often carry spears, staffs made of tree roots and a simi, a machete. They have their own language, Maa, but also speak English and Swahili, the lingua franca in all of East Africa. Every manyatta (Masai village) has its village elder, who is universally respected.

We get a warm welcome and have to pay our respects to the village elder and shake his hand. First the Masai men perform a dance, making strange noises. They are very thin and lean and jump incredibly high. I think this dance is also meant to impress women.

The women also perform a dance. The Masai wear colorful clothes with traditional red shawls. The women wear necklaces and earrings.

Kenya - Masai Mara National Park, Masai women

Then we get a tour of the village, which is surrounded by a kind of wooden barrier. In the evening the cattle is driven to the village. The barrier offers protection from lions and other predators.

The Masai believe that their god has chosen them to herd all the cattle in the world. They live mainly off their blood and milk.

To prove their courage, the men have to kill a lion during their active years. Officially this isn't allowed, but in reality they still do it. They sell necklaces made of lion teeth. These cannot be exported, by the way.

We sit down in one of the huts near the barrier. A whole family lives here. The entrance openings are small to keep out the heat. The cattle also stays here during the night. The hut has several rooms, among which a bedroom.

It's very dark inside and there are cockroaches on the walls. Afterwards the women bring out their home-made jewelry and clothes. And than it's a matter of bargaining. "I give you good price," is one of their slogans. It takes skill to bring down the price.

Kenya - Masai Mara National Park, Masai schoolchildren

We visit a school at walking distance from the Masai village. It is a ramshackle, overcrowded wooden shed where about a hundred children take classes. On the walls are old-fashioned educational pictures.

Even though they're poor, the children are happy and spontaneous. They sing for us and we get a warm welcome. We donate some magazines. We also collect money for them to buy a volleyball net. It's quite moving to see how happy this makes the teachers.

Nairobi and Mombasa

A tropical shore with blue sea and palm trees

Kenya - Narok, market vendor

The next day we leave the Masai Mara and begin on our long drive on inaccessible roads to Nairobi. On the way we stop in Narok, where all kinds of goods are sold on a messy market: from shoes and sugarcane to hubcaps and mangoes.

In the National Museum in Nairobi we see, among other objects, skulls of the most ancient humans that were found in Africa.

We take the nighttrain to Mombasa, after taking our leave of our guide/chauffeur.

The railway was constructed in colonial times. It shows in the interior of the cars and the uniforms of the staff. Everything only works partially. Old silver cutlery lies next to tin knives. We have to eat dinner extremely fast at way too small tables. There is no electricity in our car. The train staff is overly specialized: there even is a cutlery specialist.

Kenya - Beach Mombasa

We spend our last four days of this trip in Mombasa, in the far south of Kenya. A tropical shore with blue sea and palm trees. Mombassa lies at low altitude and on the sea, so it's considerably hotter and more humid here than in the mountains.

Kenya - Shimba Hills Reserve, ostrich

We stay in an atmospheric B-and-B with swimming pool. The pushy vendors on the beach are extremely annoying.

From here I take a safari in Shimba Hills Reserve. There I get to know a little of the Kenyan jungle. I see forest elephants and ostriches. Contrary to the ones on the savannah, the ostriches in the jungle are rust-colored. Unfortunately there isn't much game to be seen in this time of the year.

I have my first scooby diving experience in the Indian Ocean. After instruction in a swimming pool we go out to sea in a boat. I take an escorted 12 meters deep dive. It's wonderful to see all those colorful fish at this depth.

Eventually it's time to take a local flight to Nairobi. There we take a night flight back to Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The images of wild animals in Kenya will always stay with me.

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