Into Africa: The Big Four and Beyond

Isn’t it the Big Five? Of course, but we didn’t see the last member of the Five, so Four it is. The most obvious member of the Dangerous Animals of the Safari Club (yes, it’s really a listing of the most likely animals to kill you while on safari) is the lion. We witnessed quite a few sightings in the Masai Mara, and so did many other tour vans too. As you can guess by now, the Mara is a much smaller and far more accessible and well-known reserve, hence the concentration of tourists.

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But we were focussed on the lions and not tourists, and were delighted to come across this young lion (look closely to spot his mane) and his harem so early on in our trip. Here, he was enjoying an evening sip of water while the women in his life frolicked while waiting for him. Francis didn’t want to wait and soon we were part of a convoy looking for more lions.

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Francis’s efforts in following the pack paid off and we soon sighted a mature male lion, most likely in search of either food or a harem to take over. He had a far more majestic mane than the younger one we saw earlier and he very calmly walked past the convoy, later choosing to pass between the cars in front of us! How lucky we were to get so close to the pride of the Mara.

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Our lion adventure wasn’t yet over. Yet again, we took off in search of more interesting sights. This time, we turned a corner and suddenly saw a litter of lion cubs lounging in the shade of some bushes. They all looked up expectantly as they saw our vehicle, making me very glad for the protection of the van. The Masai Mara is definitely not a place to explore on foot!

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Luckily for those who would dare to go on foot, they seemed to be very drowsy from the evening sun and soon lolled over to have a snooze. I’m surprised they managed this despite all the flies on their snouts.

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And as our van went in closer, they looked up again.

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But still succumbed and fell asleep, paws and ears twitching as they dreamed their leonine dreams.

The next member of the Big Five was the elephant. We only saw one family of elephants in our the Mara. Francis told us that we were lucky because it had been raining a far bit, meaning that the elephants wouldn’t bother going to the usual watering holes. They were pretty far away from the van and quite spread out. I wasn’t too impressed because at that distance, I couldn’t really appreciate the difference between them and the Asian elephants that I’m more familiar with. All I thought was that yes, they seemed big, they had tusks and they had very leathery wrinkly skin.

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The reason why they make the Big Five is that they are highly protective of their own, particularly the babies. Heaven help you if you end up between an elephant calf and its mother, or worse, the entire herd.

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So we move on rapidly to the next member of the club, the cape buffalo. Don’t laugh at what looks like a silly double combover hairstyle, that’s its horns. I like how gracefully they curve, but I’m sure the buffalo itself likes better how gracefully the horns impale a threat. Cape buffalo are supposedly very paranoid and adopt a “strike first, ask questions later” approach. A worthy member of the Big Five.

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The next member of the Big Five was also the hardest to spot on our safari, no thanks to the fact that it is critically endangered. This was the only sighting we had of the black rhinoceros, or of any rhinoceros at all. We spotted it in the evening, an auspicious time for us to spot the animals.

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It was ambling along on its way, probably thinking of what yummy twigs and leaves it ate today when a van decided to go offroad and click lots of photos of it. Poor guy.

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Francis decided to stick to the trail and avoid the US$100 fine if caught by the park marshals. We contented ourselves with taking pictures from afar, glad that the evening rays came down beautifully near our rhino.

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The last member of the Big Five is the leopard and sad to say, we weren’t able to spot one in the Mara. Francis’s tactics of following the convoy and rushing to whoever’s reported a sighting over the radio while paying off handsomely for the other animals simply didn’t work when it came to the famously shy leopards.

I decided to add the hippopotamus as a stand-in member of the five, as they are pretty dangerous too. If faced with a threat when wandering around away from its pool, a hippo would adopt a very similar strategy to the cape buffalo: chomp first, ask questions later. Here’s the only time we saw hippos, in the Mara River. Check out how they surface and blow out spray. Cute eh?

And soon it was time to leave the Masai Mara. Bigger adventures in the vast plains of the Serengeti beckoned. We travelled there by the same van on potholled roads winding round the tea plantations of south Kenya.

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It was a very green detour round as we weren’t able to choose the same path as the animals. Unlike them, we had to respect international borders and take the long, scenic route round.

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