It’s difficult to take a gourmet lunch menu seriously with hippos blowing bubbles and breaking wind in the background. Of course, our nine-year-old twins, Joe and Ellie, relished every snort, grunt and whoopee-cushion rasp as we sat on the terrace of our luxury lodge overlooking the Mara River.
Even our waiter got the giggles during a particularly impressive bout of flatulence. “Big fart,” he acknowledged sagely, sending the children into paroxysms of mirth.
It was just what they needed after the initial culture shock of arriving in the Masai Mara. No sooner had we clambered from the air-conditioned cocoon of our twin-propeller Dash aircraft and driven the short distance to Ngerende Island Lodge, than nine spear-wielding Masai had converged on them – a scarlet-clad welcoming parade of warriors. Bead necklaces were placed over the children’s heads and, with a brief, bewildered glance at their parents, they were initiated into the shuffle-skip-leap dance of a traditional Masai greeting.
Discovering small wonders
No matter how obsessed children are with ticking off the cast of The Lion King, the success of a family safari is largely down to good guides. At Ngerende, a suave young Masai called Daniel, with immaculate robes, a sheathed dagger and a smartphone, led us on walks around the lodge, pointing out small wonders to Joe and Ellie.
We crouched next to a termite mound, watching transfixed as safari ants pillaged the nest; we learnt how to lure palm-sized baboon spiders from their burrows by scratching a stick on the ground to imitate the sound of passing prey; and we discovered that leaves from the elephant ear tree could be used as toilet paper if you were ever caught short in the bush.
Like all good family safari guides, Daniel paid special attention to animal droppings, presenting each offering to us with a magician’s flourish. Old hyena faeces exploded between his fingers like overcooked meringues. He handed out gazelle droppings as if they were chocolate-coated raisins, while a sun-hardened ball of elephant dung became the perfect excuse for an impromptu game of bush football.
Joe and Ellie were captivated. In just a couple of days, the gentle Masai warrior elevated their safari way beyond a simple animal quest.
Not that we weren’t keen to see the Masai Mara’s famous big game. Far from it.
On the migration trail
School summer holidays coincide with the period when the Great Migration arrives in Kenya’s iconic game reserve and the tawny savannah becomes scuffed by the hooves of legions of zebra and wildebeest. On our first game drive, we quickly spotted a pride of lions, bellies bulging, flattening the grass around a partly gnawed wildebeest. Every hyena we saw seemed to be lolloping along with some zebra part in its jaws, while vultures squatted heavily in acacia trees, evidently too gorged to bother flying.
We staked out a river crossing on the Mara River — scene of many a TV wildlife documentary — where gullible gnus run the gauntlet of giant Nile crocodiles to reach fresh pasture on the opposite bank. It was a grisly scene. Dozens of bloated wildebeest carcasses, their legs protruding like cocktail sticks from fat party sausages, were strewn across the shallows, casualties of earlier crossings.
Marabou storks paced hunchbacked among them, while hundreds of vultures crowded the riverbanks like leering fans at a gladiatorial show. No subtle editing, no soothing Attenborough voice-over – this was raw African wildlife. guts and all.
Such vivid scenes of death might have distressed younger children, but Joe and Ellie didn’t seem too fazed, even egging on a skittish herd of zebra that, not surprisingly, seemed reluctant to approach the water’s edge for a drink.
There were also plenty of cute-and-cuddlies to be found in the grasslands of the Mara, from fuzzy-furred cheetah cubs nuzzling their mothers to piglet warthogs trotting single file, tails held erect like flags of truce.
Elephants on parade
It was Tsavo’s elephants, however, that stole the show. Leaving the Masai Mara, we flew back to Nairobi to join an overland safari to the coast, via the vast wilderness of Tsavo National Park. The raised deck outside our family tent in Tsavo East’s Satao Camp looked straight on to a waterhole, where a constant procession of pachyderms held us spellbound. The elephants came and went from all directions, following well-trodden game trails that radiated from the precious water source like spokes on a wheel. Sometimes it would be a stately matriarch leading her family at a brisk pace, calves jogging along to keep up with the adults. Or a huge lone bull, streaked with red-ochre dust, would take centre-stage, dipping and recoiling his trunk as he slaked his thirst.
Even after we zipped up the tent each evening, elephants vied for our attention, their rumbling stomachs, whooshing trunks and softly thudding footsteps infiltrating our snug canvas home.
Twice during our stay, however, this gentle pachyderm hubbub was shattered. The first was when Ellie took exception to a mouse sharing our tent. Her brief outburst was nothing, though, compared to the following night when the waterhole suddenly erupted into a tirade of squealing and trumpeting, mingled with the unmistakable roar of lions.
“Did you hear that?” The twin’s voices wavered in the strained silence that followed. Slowly, the nightly chorus of chirping crickets and shuffling elephants was restored and we drifted back to sleep. We learnt the following morning that the big cats had sprung an ambush on a herd of waterbuck less than 50m behind our tent, spooking every elephant (and nine-year-old child) within earshot of their triumphant bawling.
Brush with bigger game
Needless to say, we restrained Joe and Ellie from practising their newfound tracking skills around camp, and instead embarked on a final game drive before continuing on to the coast.
Based at the family-friendly Leopard Beach Resort, teetering over the icing sugar sands of Diani Beach, the twins switched their freshly honed skills as nature detectives to ghost crab catching and watching weaverbirds plait their nests in the resort’s tropical gardens.
Colobus monkeys occasionally visited the palms around the large swimming pool, while a pre-breakfast check of the water garden usually turned up a monitor lizard or two. There were even encounters with ‘bigger game’. A boat trip to nearby Wasini Island promised excellent snorkelling on the offshore coral reef, but none of us was prepared for a swim-past by a dozen bottlenose dolphins.
Joe saw them first and I thought his eyes might pop out of his mask in sheer wonder. Then bubbles of excitement began reverberating from the mouthpieces of our snorkels until we sounded like a pod of happy hippos languishing in the Mara River.