Arriving at the Sentinel Mara Camp, we were greeted by more of the Maasai warriors and other men in the requisite khaki safari-wear, along with Peter, our host. They served us passion-fruit juice and warm towels. Strolling into camp, which is situated directly above the rushing Mara River, we could see and hear about thirty lazing hippos, peeking out of the muddy depths, snorting and chuckling like happy horses.
We were each assigned our own personal room steward and were escorted to our tents. Mine was perched atop the river, overlooking the merry hippos. I knew beforehand that I’d be in a CANVAS tent, alone, with wildlife all around me, but didn’t realize they’d be so close. My steward, Steve (his African name is Kipetu, but they make it easy on us) explained in his sweet, sing-songy voice, that I’d have a personal askari, or spear-wielding guard, outside my door all night. I responded, “in case I get askared?” He looked at me like I was nuts.
This wasn’t your basic REI tent – I had a large bedroom with a mosquito-netted queen-sized bed, and a bathroom consisting of a pump-flush toilet, and a sink that drained into the trees just outside. The water came from a large pitcher on the counter, and the shower was a gravity-run system that boasted a bucket Steve had to fill with hot water when I needed to bathe, then hoist said-bucket above the shower. I had about 1.5 minutes of water, which for a water-conserving Californian was PLENTY.
The sounds of assorted birdcalls filled the air, so I stepped outside my tent to gaze at the peaceful Mara River ambling by, just below. In unison, about thirty round eyeballs and nostrils peeked out of the brown water. The melodic moaning, roaring and groaning of those hippos was actually a comforting symphony to my ears.
If only they weren’t thirty feet away.
We all met back at the dining room – a long wooden table covered with a canvas awning and overlooking the Mara River – and were served a fresh green salad with a red-pepper pizza. The crust was different than I was accustomed to – this was yeastier and yummier – and dessert was homemade chocolate chip ice cream.
I looked around the table and reflected on how completely happy I was.
Gathering for the afternoon safari, we grabbed blankets and climbed into our Land Cruisers for the drive back out toward the airstrip.
Suddenly it was like the plains swallowed us up and we were dropped into a wildlife haven. Herds of topi, gazelle, impala – elephants, baboons, giraffes – ostrich, water buck, water buffalo, and warthogs – everywhere.
We found a female lion lazing on an open patch of dirt, looking like an over-sized domestic cat who’d just found a patch of sunlight to nap in. She, too, could not have cared less about the whispering car-loads who felt like we had stumbled upon a gem, which we had. Because she was our first cat of the week, we stayed with her for about a half an hour, watching her sleep, twitch the flies away with her ears and tail, look up at a noise in the distance, lay back down, roll onto her back, thrust her arm in the air. We were mesmerized, and astonished that she didn’t mind us being so close.
After that we saw a leopard lounging in a tree, her mammoth spotted tail hanging vertically against the trunk and languidly waving back and forth. “She resting up for evening hunt,” explained Dominic. “Big cat typically sleep during day and female do most of hunting – almost all during night.” She was hidden behind the dense branches, and according to Dominic felt very safe against other predators, who mostly viewed her as dominant.