Visiting the Masai Mara Reserve was the first part of our honeymoon in East Africa and arguably the best part of the safari experience. We stayed at Kicheche Mara Camp for three nights and left with a lifetime of memories.
Masai Mara Reserve – Kicheche Mara Camp
After 24 hours of travel, we arrived in Nairobi. Customs took FOREVER (seriously, it was at least 2 hours) and then we were stuck in traffic because a government official visiting closed down the roads. By the time we got to our hotel, we were on the verge of delirium. After a hot shower, we quickly passed out. The next morning we woke up, had our first breakfast in Africa, then went to the airport to catch our flight to Masai Mara.
We were told that the airlines were going to be strict about the weight of our bags and that they had to be “soft bags” (e.g. no frame in them, think the Patagonia blackhole bags). Strict they were, all bags were weighed and tagged; any overweight bags had an extra fee. I packed as lightly as possible, since our camera gear was pretty heavy. Thankfully, we didn’t have any issues our entire trip.
The airline gave us a green card and said that when our color was called that was our boarding time. I thought that was our “boarding group” but no, that was our plane designation. We were flying a plane that held maybe eight people max. If you know me, you know I’m not the greatest at flying and HATE small planes. However, our only choice was flying these toy planes or driving across the country for hours on end. Fun fact – these planes are like buses; they make a couple stops along the way picking up people and dropping off people on the way to the final destination.
Also, there is no announcement that we are descending or about to land, so you just have to trust that when the plane starts dropping its because we are landing soon.
As we started to descend you could see animals running across the fields; our safari had begun. We landed on a red clay/dirt airstrip. The only reason you know it’s a landing strip is the parking spots made out of rocks where the drivers pick up the guests. Otherwise, it was just a plain with antelope and wildebeest hanging out.
Peter was our driver from Kicheche, he would be our guide for the next three days. I wasn’t expecting to see animals right from the get go, but right from the get-go if we wanted to stop, Peter would stop and we’d watch for a few minutes before continuing on our way. We were greeted at Kicheche camp by Andy the camp manager and Maurice the head of staff. They gave us a tour of the camp, explained some of the rules, which included the following:
- After sunset, do not walk back to your tent without a guard.
- Our tents had a walky-talky and a whistle included. These were to be used in case of emergency; Andy specified that wanting another gin and tonic did not qualify as an emergency.
- If you need to leave your tent at any point in the night or before sunrise, get the attention of the guard outside your tent before exiting.
Andy proceeded to show us the animal tracks on our way to our tent and told us how the he was unable to go to his tent at the end of the night for a little bit because a lion was there. The aforementioned rules made sense after that.
After we settled in, lunch was about ready. Everyone who returned from their morning drive gathered in the main camp area and we sat at one large table together. It took me by surprise, but I really enjoyed this aspect of the Kicheche camps. We had the chance to meet new people from all around the world, learn about their morning drive, their trip thus far, etc. Dinner was the same; Andy would ask everyone what the highlight of their day was and everyone would take turns sharing. There is also a “no-device at the dining table” rule; which is great in my mind. It kept everyone engaged and present.
“Happy Hour” is at 3:30pm before the afternoon drives start. Wine, beer, G&T’s, as well as, coffee, tea and snacks are brought out by the camp staff. After that we gathered our things for our first official safari/game drive of our trip. We didn’t know what to expect, but just in the first hour we saw lions, giraffes, elephants and more! Our guide Peter was amazing at spotting animals even from a mile or more out. He would start driving and say “See the elelphants!” and we couldn’t see the elephants until we they were pretty much right in our view. But as the days went on, we started to get what to look for and where to look. We were never quite as good as Peter, but that not surprising.
Just after sundown, we happened upon five cheetahs taking small break from hunting. It was fun watching them just lounging around while having our sundowner. What is a ‘Sundowner’ you might ask? Think of it as happy hour in the bush. After lunch the camp staff asks what drink you want for your afternoon sundowner (it’s a couple hours after the 3:30pm happy hour); it is packed along with some snacks to enjoy during sunset on your afternoon drive. You can choose to have it in our vehicle or stretch the legs and set up a little table with the spread. That evening, it started to rain, so we just had our glass of wine in the truck, but other nights we would scope out a nice spot to stretch our legs.
We thought that our first morning in Africa would be a struggle due to the jetlag. However, I think our excitement at our first real game drive made it easier to get up. Game drives in the AM usually start between 5:30am – 6:30am. If you are on a private tour like we were, you can dictate your start and end time more easily than say if you were with a group of 6 other people*. You tell the staff what time you would like to wake up and if you want coffee or tea. The next morning, they will “knock” on your tent, rousing you from your sleep. I’ll take my daily malaria pill with green tea and a biscuit, thank you very much! Real breakfast is had out in the bush. Seeing the animals in the morning is different from the evening game drives. Everything is literally starting to wake up and get moving. In the afternoon, animals are often napping or if you are a cheetah that hasn’t eaten in a couple of days, trying to get some “fast food”.
We spent a lot of our time in Kichehe with the elephants, lions and cheetahs. Who can resist a baby elephant (calf)? It is so darn cute. Calves don’t know what to do with their trunk, often just swinging it around or even cuter, tripping over it.
What we also learned, elephants are seriously super smart. One morning, we came upon a small herd of elephants including a very young one. Will cleared his throat as we watched them in silence and suddenly they became very aware of our presence. Their ears flared wide and open listening for any additional sounds of a potential predator. All of the larger elephants immediately came to surround the calf. Next, the elephants made a low rumbling sound like a stomach grumble with their trunks while touching the ground. A couple minutes went by and other elephants emerged from out of sight. They too were coming to the protection of the herd, especially the little one. Apparently, the sound made with the trunk, sends vibrations through the ground, which can then be felt through the pads in an elephant’s foot. This distress signal was felt by nearby elephants who came for additional protection. How neat is that?
We sat and watched quietly to see if the elephants would let their guard down. The mother, who also appeared to be the matriarch of the herd always had one eye on us, trying to decide if we were a threat or not. She pretended to eat to try and make her “predator” think she wasn’t paying attention, and would turn her head one way, but always had one eye on us. After some time, it was determined we weren’t a threat, but the mother walked with the calf away, we thought it best to not follow. This, all came from a small clear of the throat…way to go Will.
When we were ready for breakfast, we found a nice area; Peter scoped it out to make sure we weren’t sneaking up on any dangerous animals, then we set up some tables, had some pancakes, bacon and fruit for breakfast in the bush. It was a nice way to take everything in and also stretch our legs a bit.
You would think that driving in a 4×4 all day wouldn’t lend itself to being very active (despite my watch often thinking all the bumping around was a workout), but we were surprisingly exhausted every day. Partially from waking up at 5am everyday, but also just constantly being on alert to try and spot animals before Peter was also more active than it sounds.
The rest of the day we spent watching the same family of cheetahs that we watched the night before just before sundown. It was a mother and her four cubs; they made a few attempts at food the night before, but were unsuccessful. Fun fact that we learned about cheetahs – while they are one of the fastest of the cats; they are at the bottom of the cat pyramid and catching prey successfully, can be quite challenging. While fast, they have small lungs, so they can only run sprints for short distances, then have to spend 20 minutes or so resting up before attempting to hunt again. They largely feed off of gazelle or something similar – however gazelles travel in large groups and can sustain a speed for a longer distance than a cheetah, so the element of surprise or separating one from the rest of the group is necessary. They have a keen sense of smell; so when they hunt, they walk into the wind to get a smell of any animals in the area and can determine the direction.
*Note – This is another reason we went with the smaller camp – we were able to have a more personalized experience. Yes, this will be more expensive, but if you are flexible on when to go, this is where you can take advantage of going in low season. High season in this area is typically June/July, then December. Largely because of the desire to see The Great Migration which coincides with summer vacations, and in December people tend to take off for winter vacations. These two times of the year are pretty expensive, but if you go during the in between times, you can score lodgings up to 40% off. Suddenly those personalized trips become more affordable! Again do not be afraid of not seeing animals because you missed The Great Migration. The Great Migration is actually circular, so we missed the wildebeast and the other animals making the mad dash, but we did see them starting to come back while we were out there. Also, when you are on a reserve, a lot of the animals there are there year-round.
In addition to game drives, we also planned a hot air balloon ride. This ride would take us into the Masai Mara National Park. It gave us a chance to see what it was like being in a national park versus a reserve. We woke up around 3:30am for an hour or so drive to the spot, where the hot air balloons were being inflated and prepped for take-off.
For the next two hours we floated along the national park watching the sunrise and the animals wake up. It was so cool seeing everything from above. All was so quiet, animals were grazing, then upon hearing the sound of the hot air to take us higher, look up and decide whether to run or not. We saw herds of zerbra, gazelles and even spotted a lion or two. If you get the chance to do this, I highly recommend it, its an unforgettable experience!
Our pilot landed us and the drivers had followed our landing via GPS and drove out to pick us up. From there, we went to another location on the park for our champagne brunch in the bush. This was part of the hot air balloon excursion and was equally awesome. There was an amazing set up for breakfast of crepes, eggs, omletes, fruit, you name it, and of course, it was topped off with a glass of champagne.
We ate and talked with other guests that were staying in the area (not necessarily our camp). It was fun hearing about everyone’s experiences, talking about the cameras they shoot with and sharing photos. One of the guides made a point that I’ll never forget. He said, “it’s amazing to hear people talking about what they shoot with these days. Years ago, people were referring to their rifles for hunting the animals; these days its a different kind of shooting – with your cameras.” It then hit me, how much work goes in to protecting these animals from poachers and potential extinction – which seems to still be an on-going struggle despite the laws put in place and the guards that patrol the parks and reserves.
Afterwards, we went back to the Kicheche camp, rested for a little bit and got a couple of massages (yes, that’s right, you can get a massage and it was so much better than the ones at home) before lunch and our afternoon game drive. We asked if anyone knew whether or not the cheetahs had eaten yet. They had not and apparently were getting desperate. We met up with Peter after lunch and set out to watch the cheetahs in hopes that they could find some success. We found the cheetahs stalking a harem of antelope. Somewhere in this herd was a baby, hidden out of sight.
The antelope ran from where their current position to the other side of the cheetahs in an effort to recognize the cheetah’s presence, leaving the baby hidden, hoping that the cheetahs would be outsmarted. After some time, one of the cheetahs saw movement and identified the baby antelope. For about 20 minutes we saw the four cheetah cubs attack and attempt to kill the baby antelope without much success – they just weren’t experienced hunters yet. What then happened next was sad, but as they say, it is the circle of life.
Later that day we checked out a hyena den and had our sundowners watching some cubs playing with each other. I must say, The Lion King really give hyenas a bad rap. Not going to lie, they were super fun to watch and also, kind of cute.
On the way back to the camp for dinner before our evening drive (you get one of these during your visit) we came across two lions that were just hanging out – mating season was upon us and a female had selected her mate. We saw them mate a few times (it literally lasts like 30 seconds max so it happened a few times) from maybe 15 yards away. The thought had crossed my mind that at any moment they could attack us, but Peter assured us that as long as we didn’t stand up or get out, the lions just saw us as one large collective thing that was much bigger than the two of them and not to be bothered. We found out later that night, that a group of lions including those two were outside of the staff quarters just hanging out. It was a little bit before the camp staff was able to get to bed that night.
For our last night, the staff made a private dinner for us to celebrate our honeymoon. We were seated in an area separate from the main dinner area and greeted with champagne. The whole visit at Kicheche was special and a wonderful start to our trip, but this was a great touch and perfect way to end our stay there. The next day, we said our goodbyes to the staff, took some final pictures and Peter drove us to the airstrip from a few days earlier to catch our flight to the Serengeti. I can’t recommend the Kicheche Masai Mara camp enough, it was a wonderful stay, perhaps the best part about the safari leg of our trip. There’s so much to say about those three days – I know that a lot was left unsaid here (surprisingly). I sincerely hope that we go back some day and see Andy, Peter, Maurice and the others again.