Prey and the Predator: The circle of life

Prey and the predator, this picture sums it all up. This is the circle of life.

PC: Riddhi Pratim

The preys

Wildebeests are born to be preys. They stay in herd, but the only natural defence they have is their ability to run fast. They are neither strong, nor intelligent like many other animals.

Herd of wildebeest

Zebras….Perfect patterns, beautiful. But again, very much susceptible to be the next prey.


Giraffes, on the other hand have their height, long neck and very strong rear leg working in their defence.

Zebra and Giraffe, both minding their own business

Antelopes, again favourite meal choice for the predator. Just like Wildebeest, their only defence is their agility.

Eland: The biggest antelope
Bush buck
Thomson’s Gazelle


Now the Predators

This Hyena and the Vulture (both scavengers) were fighting for the remains of whichever unfortunate animal this carcass belongs to. 
A group of Vultures were trying to get hold of this carcass for a long time. They were cautious to not spook the predator who originally killed this animal. One of the vultures eventually got brave enough
Jackal. PC: Riddhi Pratim
Wild dog. PC: Riddhi Pratim
Crocodile PC: Riddhi Pratim
Crocodile, the terror of the river


Python. PC: Riddhi Pratim
Cheetah brothers feasting on wildebeest
And last but not the least, the king of the jungle, The Mighty Lion(ess) sizes up her chances to kill a wildebeest grazing nearby.

Beauty with the beast

Kenya’s beauty is not limited to the preys and the predators or the Big 5, beauty is all around. In the form of birds, to small animals or stunning landscapes.

Flamingos and Pelicans. Climate change is affecting our lives in more ways than we can imagine. The shore of this lake used to be all pink with thousands of flamingos a few years back. In the past few years, rainfall has increased in this area. Flamingos and pelicans feed on algae on the shore. Due to more rains, the shoreline has reduced. Less algae means less birds. Now the spectacular pink flamingos can be seen only in a few places around the lake.
A big thief in the jungle. We had to hide all our belongings when they were around us to save ourselves from being attacked.
Does this look like a picnic spot? May be!! But what if I tell you that this is in the heart of one of the Conservancy in Mara where all predators roam around freely all day long. Wont sound like such a nice breakfast spot anymore, would it? But we still had a multi course bush breakfast sitting by the stream.
They might look small to you. But looks can be deceptive. The sound they make is so loud and strong, its difficult to imagine that coming from this tiny little creature. Its said that genetically they have more in common with elephants than any other species on earth. This rock formation is just in front of Tent #1 in Porini Cheetah Camp where we stayed. This was a favourite place for this Hyrax to wake us up in the morning. This rock is also a favourite spot for a lot of other visitors, lions, elephants to name a few.
Grey Crowned Crane

PC: Riddhi Pratim
PC: Riddhi Pratim
PC: Riddhi Pratim
PC: Riddhi Pratim
Ice capped Kilimanjaro. PC: Riddhi Pratim
Turtle. PC: Riddhi Pratim


Kenya Photo Journal: The fast … and the delicate

I am almost sure that you know that Cheetahs are the fastest animals in the world.  What you may not know, however, is that they are not one of the strongest. Compared to other big cats – such as Lions or even Leopards, they are in fact weak. Pretty much all they have is their speed. Which is why when other big cats hunt at night, Cheetahs avoid competing with them and hunt during  the day. And it is not just not the other big cats, even scavengers like hyenas make the Cheetah’s life difficult, when it comes to hunting for food.

The monsoon had left about a week back, with occasional downpours here and there. The lush green Mara became a perfect stage for a contrasting image of a big cat. After a brief drizzle, when the chances of spotting another big cat was slim, that is when this experience of a lifetime presented itself. The guide Nelson had just muttered in a hushed tone “she has got a kill”. What followed is what you see in the photos below: featuring Nebati, the Cheetah mother from the Ol-Kinyei Conservancy with her 2 little cubs.

(Story by Riddhi Pratim)
Nebati looks for her kids while her recent kill lies dead at her feet. PC: Riddhi Pratim
Nebati looks around for any danger while her cubs enjoy their meal. PC: Riddhi Pratim
One of the cubs looks up while eating the Gazelle’s neck. PC: Riddhi Pratim
Mother with the cubs. PC: Riddhi Pratim


A little into the afternoon on our first game drive in Maasai Mara, we suddenly chanced upon this hyena under a tree. Excited as we were, our guide Lenny didn’t even stop the car to let us take a picture, and rather sped off. Very soon we realized that there must be a Cheetah somewhere close-by, so we were in fact looking for her. We spotted her, about a kilometer away down a small hill.  As it was already late afternoon, she was taking a short rest contemplating her chances for a kill before the day ends. There were gazelles and other antelopes grazing scattered on the vast field. She kept looking at the gazelles and again over her shoulder to check for other types of dangers. The hyena, by this time had travelled that distance and was sitting quietly and patiently about 50 mtrs away, just in case, the Cheetah succeeds in her hunt. As the day was about to end, the Cheetah started playing a game to throw the hyena off so that there is nobody to steal her kill. Just as the day light was about to get over, we saw her chasing a few gazelles. Although unfortunately for us, we lost her at this time in the low light and couldn’t see if she was successful at her effort.

Cheetah cubs have very high mortality rate in the wild, not more than 10% cheetah cubs see life in adulthood. Of course there are few super moms who protect their vulnerable young so well that most of them survive. Malaika is one such super moms who has exceptionally low cub mortality count. She is famous for her friendly car-jumping habits. Cheetahs love high vantage point to scan the surroundings. Malaika didn’t jump on our car as we half expected, but she did cross the entire field, crossed all other tourist cars along with her 2 sub adult cubs and sat right in front of us, merely 2 mtrs away, so close that we could hear her breathe, loudly.

“What the hell are you still doing here?”

We probably had some special jungle connection with Malaika. We spotted her with her cubs again the same day after a few hours.

Security system in animal kingdom…one keeps watch when the other sleeps
Not too different from our regular domestic cat, are they?

Adult female cheetahs stay and hunt alone (unless with cubs) while male related cheetahs make coalitions and hunt or stay together. On our way back from Mara main reserve, after seeing a pride of 14 lionesses and cubs, when we thought that it can not get any better, we saw these 5 Cheetah brothers feasting on a wildebeest. We spotted this same band of brothers earlier in the day, but from a distance. There was a hyena waiting for the feast to get over this time also, but didn’t dare come closer because of the number of Cheetahs.

I cant remember another time when I was so awestruck by something so gruesome yet so beautiful. As we kept shooting this raw display of “circle of life”, they finished their meal, groomed each other, marked their territory and marched on together like a band.

Grooming each other after the feast

Not just big cats

Kenya is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. However Kenyan safaris are not just about the big cats. Every animal is beautiful. Every animal has their own role to play in this ecosystem. Every animal has their own story.

African elephants are huge, but usually calm unless threatened. They stay together in large numbers, many of them are surely cute tiny kids. In the animal world, kids are innocent, playful but vulnerable. So when there are kids, the herd is extra careful and stay together all the time to scare off threat and defend their young.

Mother and a baby

On our way to Porini Cheetah camp from Mara airstrip, we saw lots of animals, Zebra, Wildebeest, Giraffe, Warthog etc. All of a sudden our guide asked us if we can spot any elephant and started driving off road into the bushes. We couldn’t spot them at 1st, and then there they were. One, two, three….a whole bunch of them. We sat there quietly, taking photos and admiring them, surrounded by the herd. The matriarch in the group looked at us just once taking a break from her meal, decided we weren’t a threat, and kept on with her business.

They graze the fields along with their family….or sometimes with other animals.
How many different types of animals do you in this frame? Let me help you. Zebra and elephants are easy to spot. But there are more at the back. Wildebeest, Hippo, Warthog. Talk about Unity in diversity!!! When mother earth is THE greatest provider, all species graze together in perfect harmony.

It came as quite a surprise to us when we heard that the most dangerous animal in this ecosystem is not a lion or a leopard. Its the Buffalo and a Hippo. Although both are herbivorous, they are quite unpredictable and violent. While off road driving allowed us to get really close to Lions or Cheetahs, as close as it is possible without interfering in their lives, our guide outright refused to get any closer to a herd of buffalos. Looks like an innocent domestic bull, but when disturbed a herd can scare off, or worse even kill a bunch of lions.

These beautiful long necked creature will get you confused about our metric system and the benchmark of height. These curious but utterly innocent animals graze around tall trees. Its a pretty common sight in Kenyan safaris to see nothing but tall trees from a distance and as you move closer, one giraffe curiously looks up, followed by another, then another and so on. Soon the entire landscape is filled with curious Giraffes scrutinising the intruder from all directions. They are not the most favourite meal choice of any of the predators, as due to their huge size and very strong rear legs, they have pretty good natural defence mechanism. Another funny sight is when the Giraffe comes very close to the car, so close that they decide to run away. Its like a Natgeo movie played in slow motion.

With those curious pretty eyes and a long neck, can’t she win any beauty contest!!
Nature has her own scaling mechanism
Symmetry, warm embrace. PC: Riddhi Pratim


Rhinos in Nairobi National Park with the backdrop of skyscrapers. PC: Riddhi Pratim
Mongoose. PC: Riddhi Pratim

Ostriches are large flightless birds native to Africa. The long neck and legs keep their head up to 2.8 m (9 ft) above the ground, and their eyes are said to be the largest of any land vertebrate: 50 mm (2.0 in) in diameter; helping them to see predators at a great distance.

My 1st memory of seeing an ostrich was on our 1st ever game drive in Kenya, in Amboseli National Park. We were driving from the lodge to the main entrance when suddenly something tall passed the road just in front of our car. It was a male ostrich. While running so fast, he had his feathers spread  elegantly around him, looked like an elegant princess in hurry, adjusting her coat while running.

Female ostrich
Male ostrich

These herbivores are all equally beautiful, but extremely vulnerable. Zebra, wildebeest and Antelopes, they are a predator’s favourite meal choice.

This Zebra came so close to our car that I had to zoom my camera all the way out and still couldn’t fit him in the frame.
Pattern recognition
Kenya is the place where Zebra crossing is when Zebra actually crosses the road. PC Riddhi Pratim
They graze together, they stay together
A very small example of how Wildebeest migration looks. At the time of the Great Migration, thousands, lacs of wildebeests move in the same direction together.
Topi: a type of antelope who looks like wearing a “jeans”
Eland: The biggest antilope
Thomson’s Gazelle. PC: Riddhi Pratim

The biggest killer in the African jungle. Even crocodiles cannot fight with their enormous strong jaw. They love their water and anything that comes between them and the water, they will simply cut them in half and leave it to rot.

Hippo chilling in the water
A group of hippos beating midday sun in the water. A group of hippos is noisy. They dip in the water, hold their breathe, comes up and breathes loudly. With so many hippos doing that in a cycle, creates a loud cacophony.
Hippos locking their jaws. This is how hippos look like, thats when they are not in the water. PC: Riddhi Pratim

Kenya Photo Journal: A day of chance rendezvous in Imperial company

The beauty of this majestic creature is sure to leave the viewer speechless. Sitting close to this beast in an open car in the wild, in his own habitat made me feel ridiculously small, insignificant and invisible. Awestruck by their presence so close, all I felt was respect, but no fear at all.

Early in the morning when we spotted the lion, he was resting after a busy long night. Soon after, he started looking for his brother. Like a king, he saw us watching him with awe, came to our car head on, royally ignored us & our puny image-capturing devices and went on to look for his brother in the bushes.

Resting after a tiring night
“Has anyone seen my brother?”

The lioness was resting peacefully with her mother alongside in the afternoon. No matter however relaxed they are, they always have their senses wide awake. Suddenly she sensed something and started looking around, just to be careful of the unknown dangers.

It is so peaceful here!!!
“Wait, do I hear something?”
“What is that?”

Another lioness – this one with her cubs playing happily, oblivious to all earthly dangers. She has to provide for her cubs too. She watches over them one moment and sizes up her chances with a prey in the next. This super mom of the animal kingdom surely has a lot on her plate.

“Be safe kids”
How far is that prey???
Stalking, but its still far away.
“Stop clicking pictures man, its so boring!!!”

Lionesses are the most alert when there are cubs around. As the cubs are sleeping behind the bushes the mother keeps a watchful eye over the surroundings.


We had already spotted the lion in the morning when he was alone, looking for his brother. On the same afternoon we spotted him with a lioness. The brother was resting at the back of the same bush. There was a herd of wildebeest grazing the fields little far from here. the couple’s body language gave us an indication that they are considering a hunt. So we sat there in our open car, waiting, for almost an hour, sipping Gin and tonic.

Love is in the air!!

Nothing is cuter that this pure display of affection. Shortly before spotting them, it rained a little, making the landscape all the more beautiful. On our way back from Maasai Mara main reserve, we didn’t expect to see anything else. Little did we know that Mara still has a lot in its store to surprise us. In this vast field, we saw a lioness, at first. Then a cub, then a second cub, a third and it went on.  Very soon we realized that it was just us, and an entire lion family!! Lionesses and cubs, playing, fighting, cuddling with each other. How many could we spot? It was almost like we were playing a game too. I remember having spotted a total of 14!

“Thank you momma for the meal!!”

Affection of a mother for her children …. the animal kingdom is no exception.

You can never get enough of these cats. In our 3 day trip to Masai Mara, we spotted around 40 of them (not counting the repeat views). And yet on our way back to the camp from the last game drive we were sad. It was then that we spotted this family. The mother was taking a nap while her cubs were happily playing with each other. They were too restless to photograph. The one in this photo was wisest of all and was sitting there quietly watching us. There are 4 smaller cubs at the back in the bushes playing and fighting with each other.

The wise one

On a sadder  note:
It pains me immensely to see such majestic animals tamed helplessly and locked in cages elsewhere. Very recently I happened to be on such a so called ‘safari’ elsewhere – where a lion was caged in what was barely a 30 X 30 sq. meters.  Funnily enough – so were we – caged in a bus, all enclosed. As if the lion was going to pounce on us any moment. For a lot of children, this is their first interaction with such a beautiful animal and all they end up learning is that these are savages, dangerous, and that we humans are so very superior to them. The generation who would be responsible for the conservation of such species in the future – growing up without an iota of respect for them. I hope a day comes – not in the future, but right about now – when we humans realize that we cannot live alone on this planet. Our existence is heavily dependent on the entire ecosystem. It is way too late already. We better learn to respect and coexist with them and stop using them for our own entertainment.

The 8 Keys to unlock an unforgettable safari experience in Kenya

Kenya is one of the richest countries on earth. Not exactly of the Wakanda variety, but definitely a Forbes’ winner when it comes to biodiversity.  Needless to mention, it makes for one of the best places on earth for the lover of the wildlife and its photographers too. Like any other experience therefore, you need to know what makes it extra-ordinary. What are those key facets that elevate it from being just another “nice trip” to become a lifetime experience.

This is what this blog post is about. You can also read them as – The 8 Keys to unlock an unforgettable safari experience in Kenya:

1) Off-road driving – In most National Parks across the world, roads are designated for driving and tourists are not allowed to go off these roads. Now this is a great policy. It reduces interference to wildlife due to tourism and is an absolute must especially if you are driving through forests. Kenyan grasslands are however a little different. In the vastness that is the Savannah, animals can be pretty far away when you are driving through the designated roads only. You can of course watch them from far away, take some photos and be happy, but that distance wouldn’t let you observe their behavior closely enough to be a part of their world. Off-road driving does that. Takes you closer – almost into their lives.An absolutely – absolutely important point though – DON’T BE AN IDIOT. Respect the animals – and let them be. It is forbidden to interfere with their life, trying to touch them, feed them or disturb them – or any other brainless acts that we often tend to indulge in from our zoo-bred experiences. That is exactly why the permission to Off-road driving is given only to a handful of those communities and conservationist groups who try to use tourism as a tool to conserve the wildlife rather than exploit. Make sure you find yourself with one such. Even if you need to shell out some extra money for that.

A herd of all possible size grazing in the bushes. We patiently parked our vehicle right in the middle of the herd – for at least half an hour, photographed them, admired their enormity, but never ever doing anything to create a nuisance. Afterwards, they left and we too – unharmed and happy
The famous Malaika and her sub-adult cubs. They came all the way from across the vast field, crossed the roads, and sat right in front of us, merely 7 or 8 feet away. So close that we could hear them breathing, loud and clear.
One of the Fig-Tree boys at about 7 feet away, not giving us even the slightest damn

2) A Knowledgeable Guide – There are so many animal and birds! And each specie has its own uniquely fascinating traits – and a way of life. It is only a guide who is knowledgeable who can spot the animals, identify them, have an in-depth understanding of them, lead us into their world without intruding into their natural habits, stay safe and keep us safe, and finally be fiercely dedicated to their conservation.  In the company of a knowledgeable guide, you truly observe how animals behave different from each other, try to survive in different ways from each other, and yet contribute as a unit to keep the larger ecosystem alive. It is fascinating.

3) The crowd – I will explain this with an example – in contrasts.

On one of our game drive mornings – in the first hour itself, we spotted a leopard – sitting behind the branches. As species – Leopards are very elusive. They don’t masquerade in front of you. Spotting one was therefore a very big deal – even in Africa, and this should have been a wonderful memory. But it was not. The reason was simple – there were just too many people. At least 15 vehicles crammed together to get one good peek at her, people talking in hushed voices, camera shutters clicking continuously. Just as the first strain of thrill of seeing the animal faded, it soon became tiring – and we decided to move ahead.

Cheetahs, or Lions – in comparison, are far easier to spot. And we did spot them, in plenty. I would however, cherish most of those moments – even if there were many of them. The experience of watching 5 cheetah brothers feasting on a freshly hunted wildebeest, with a shrewd hyena waiting, not too far away, to scavenge on the leftovers; The sight of the cheetah brothers marching like a seasoned band after finishing up their meal; The lazy afternoon when we came across a pride of 14 lionesses lying around lazily – with their cubs playing with each other – have been inscribed in my brain forever. Each one of these experiences had one common thread.  We were the only ones there.

Brothers grooming each other after feasting on a wildebeest
All the pampering in the world

4) The vehicle – You will never get the true essence of the wildlife from a bus or a minivan. The only way to go is on an open safari vehicle. And there is nothing to be scared of. Animals live by their own code – and don’t know how to live otherwise. As long as you don’t overstep, intrude or disrupt their natural habits – they will do nothing to disturb your peace.

Its not a safari vehicle if it doesn’t look like this…all open

5) Night safari – Night is the time when the entire animal kingdom is most active. The predators are active – out on to feed themselves for that night while the preys are active – trying to stay alive through that night. Experiencing the whole circle of life in full play right in front of your eyes can be an incredible experience. I have tried to relive that experience in another blog post. Read more about our night safari experience here.

Night safari: with a family of 4

6) Time of the year – Popular notion considers the months of Great Migration as the best time to visit Kenya. I personally believe that it is also the time that offers highest prices and most crowd. Kenya is rich in wildlife throughout the year. You will see just as much wildlife if you visit on the other months, with may be a lot less crowd and lower prices. Just take care to avoid the monsoon though.

A pocket-sized version of the Great wildebeest migration – still there would have been at least a few thousands of them here (The photograph doesn’t capture it well)

7) Camp site – We stayed at the Porini Cheetah Camp. It is built bang in the middle of the Ol-Kinyei Conservancy, without any fencing or any protective barrier. The only other humans you would see are the local camp staff and guests in the 5 other tents. The tents are right in the lap of nature, animals pass by the camp all the time, and pay occasional curious visits. Going off to sleep with the lion’s roar and Getting up in the morning with the sound of passing by elephants – pretty common. The stay in the middle of the jungle was made all the more memorable by the fantastic staff. I have elaborated more on that experience in another blog post. Read it here.

Porini Cheetah Camp, right in the middle of the Ol Kinyei Conservancy

8) Area – Unless you are out on a month-long trip, you are more likely to be strapped for time. It is therefore quite important to pick and choose the areas or the national parks that you are going to visit in Kenya. Some species are exclusive to certain national parks. For e.g. Amboseli National Park doesn’t have rhinos and only a few lions. There are but lots and lots of elephants. Lake Nakuru National Park on the other hand doesn’t have any elephants – but lots of Flamingos and a few rhinos. Also, the area decides how much crowd you can expect. The Main Reserve in Maasai Mara has a dense animal population but is also a host for most tourists. The Ol-Kinyei Conservancy on the other hand – has a lesser animal density but almost no tourists. Any animal that you spot, you get to see them by yourselves.

That’s it! The 8 Keys to unlock an unforgettable safari experience in Kenya. Plan a trip soon!


Not your everyday resort – a review of the Porini Cheetah Camp

What makes a Jungle trip good? What makes it great? And most importantly, what makes it unforgettable? Admittedly, before being at and with this camp there wasn’t much of an idea that I had cultivated. I have been and probably will keep on mentioning about this camp, but for now I could perhaps lead you into it via a two-word summary – Pride and Passion.

This is exactly what sets out Porini Cheetah Camp as very special. As a country, Kenya is naturally blessed with wildlife in abundance. Sighting wildlife, an amazing thing in itself, is almost 99.99% guaranteed. That precisely is the reason why the camp, and what it provides over and above, that makes an ocean of difference.

Hosted by the wonderful couple Nirmalya and Jui Banerjee – Porini Cheetah camp won’t lap you up into that sanitized cloud of amenities that normally stand for luxury. It doesn’t tick your regular check-boxes made of a swimming pool, a big screen television or a bathtub. But you can have luxury, and of a very refreshing kind too, when you settle down around a bonfire at every dusk, after an exhilarating game drive through the day, in the middle of the jungle, sipping a drink of your choice and listen to the lions and elephants go by at audible distance.  And if you are lucky, as many have been, one of these could join your bonfire party.

Bonfire area with a Maasai staff PC: Nirmalya Banerjee
The bonfire area is the place where it all comes together at the end of the day – the game drive experience, the scary feeling of being surrounded by wild animals without a fence, the darkness and many interesting stories and even wilder imaginations.

Luxury is to be woken up the next morning by the little hyrax who just love calling out from the top of the white rock – a call that is astonishingly powerful – and highly deceptive coming from those tiny creatures. As you wake up and step out for your morning coffee, ready and served for you – You find your own little café under an Acacia tree – and soak yourself in the incessant chirping of the Tropical birds. A little exaggerated, you may feel, like one of those overdrawn resort advertisements. Funnily enough, it is this flowery prose which falls miles short – once you have been up there, living the experience even for just a few days.

Shadow of an Acacia tree, chirping birds, distant roar of lions and elephants…this is how morning coffee in the bushes look like
Tent #1. This is where we stayed. These white rocks attract many animals ranging from little Hyrax to bigger Lions or Elephants. PC: Nirmalya Banerjee

We can now talk about the two lead-words – Pride and Passion.

The Staff at the camp is all Maasai. The pride for their own traditions and the knowledge about the wildlife make an incredible combination. This combination manifests itself to its peak when one of them leads you as a Guide on the drives. They can smell the animals, read their behaviour. Every time we spotted an animal, we could be rest assured that they would take us to the spot where we would get the best view, and the best photos. They didn’t quite care about how long they had to drive, or how far they had to travel from the camp. If there was even a half chance to see something exciting, they would take you there. A special mention to our guide and chauffeur Lenny here. It was he who taught us, and with real examples of — how important off-road driving or night safaris could be.

The lounge area. This is the meeting place during the day for coffee,  to exchange notes from the just finished drive with fellow groups, and gearing up for the next. PC: Nirmalya Banerjee
Beyond Luxury. A view of the Bedroom inside the Tent. PC: Nirmalya Banerjee
Another view of the Bedroom inside the Tent. PC: Nirmalya Banerjee
The Dining Tent.  No Room-Service here, thankfully! The tradition is to all eat together, the guests and the hosts. The dinner and lunch go on for a peaceful length of time, spiced with lots of interesting conversation. PC Nirmalya Banerjee

What struck me most, about our hosts – is this: What motivation could this (what we call them as) middle-aged Indian couple have, to wrap up and move out of a perfectly settled life in the city. Most definitely not because they had no other business option. Neither is this an easy business to go in. The reason, surprisingly had a lot more to do with the heart, that we credit it for.  And although the decision couldn’t have been entirely impulsive as you might see in the movies, they did re-discover a new love in the middle of this jungle of the Ol-Kinyei Conservancy, far away from even the givens of modern urban life and set this camp up.

They played the perfect hosts to us over those 3 days of our stay, with a Holmes-isque attention to every guest’s needs and every other little detail; We spent hours, listening to their stories of experience. At lunch, at dinner, over the coffee in the morning, over the drinks in the evening, around the bonfire – it was never enough. But it was enough to make me believe that “Living your dreams” is a very real thing to do. And yes, the passion for the dream is what matters the most – even if it doesn’t work exactly within the template of a Self-Help book.

I know that I will return to Maasai Mara. Not sure when, but I would.

An ethereal moment – Sunrise from the Camp

If you want to know more about the story of Nirmalya and Jui Banerjee – this article is a good place to start.

A night of the lights, of a different type – Night Safaris in Kenya

A write-up on Kenya can not possibly be without a special mention of an essential elixir – the excitement of Night Safaris!

Now, Safaris during the night is commonly not allowed in most of the National Parks around the world – that is unless you have special permission. I have visited my fair share of National Parks back home in India, and on many such days I have been out on Safari-s from 5.30 in the morning till sundown – but never ever after sundown. So this special part of the package at Porini Cheetah Camp, Maasai Mara turned out to be an incredible opportunity for us.

Night Safari in a Game Reserve is an opportunity akin to moving through a portal – into a parallel dimension, especially so if you, like us – are a city bred. This is the time, when the whole animal kingdom is wide awake. Predators are out on hunt, trying to score a meal. Preys are cautious, trying to stay aware of their surroundings to see another day, with nothing but natural moonlight to help their survival efforts. There are also quite a few nocturnal animals like Bush Baby, Porcupine to name a few. You would never otherwise see them during the day.

At around 9:15 pm, we finished having dinner at the camp, and started the Drive in our 4WD with Lenny and Johnson, our guides for the night. It was a no moon night and a very special night – for that matter. Back in India everyone would have been celebrating Diwali. Even at the camp, Nirmalya and Jui had served us special Champagne to celebrate. The thought of the festival of lights back home, the irony made me chuckle.  As one part of the world erupted in a volcano of lights and sounds, on another part on the same night – we had switched off even the car headlights.

Bright headlights can be harmful for animals. It blinds them, and it can take them 20 minutes or more to regain their night vision. Not only is that cruel but could as well tilt the advantage unfairly towards the predators. For Night Safaris, it is therefore mandatory to use a pinkish-red spotlight, which is more of a glow. It illuminates something only if it is very close by.

The uncertainty hidden in the darkness is what makes the experience even more thrilling. Now close your eyes for a few minutes, and Imagine this:

You are sitting quietly in an open 4WD vehicle, it’s a pitch-dark night and you are in the middle of a National Reserve. For miles after miles there isn’t another human to be seen, forget a habitat. At every nook and corner ahead of you, there could be a predator ready to hunt or attack –  a lion, a leopard, a hyena or even a wild buffalo. There isn’t any light to see what’s waiting for you and where, or any protective shade to hide inside. It’s just the animals and you in an open car. All you can hear are strange insects, animals and your own heart thumping rapidly in your chest. Then, suddenly – you hear something more. A distant roar of a lion, gradually coming closer, but you still can’t see anything. You listen more carefully, keep all your senses to their maximum capacity, to try and understand which side it’s coming from – and then you direct your feeble red spotlight to that side. Still nothing. But then – not more than a couple of seconds right after, something catches the corner of your eye. From a slightly different angle, you see a silhouette coming closer. You illuminate that side a little more, enough to see the silhouette, but not to disturb the animal. And then, almost suddenly, just like that – you see a huge male lion merely 7 feet away and walking towards you. Happy Diwali!

Parents and sub-adults,  busy making family dinner plans

My heart must have skipped a beat every now and then, during the safari that night, and the one after.

On the first night, we had been tracking a pride of 4 lions (the parents and 2 sub-adult cubs) for close to 2 and a half hours as they were out on a hunt. They had been spotting, isolating, stalking and chasing their prey – but failing again and again. To us initially, as it may to other simple minds trained on those perfected hunting videos, it seemed odd. Aren’t lions supposed to be something like super hunters?

The animal world is surprisingly a lot more balanced than ours, you would find. In here, even the king needs to sing. To the tunes of the commoners that is. The success rate of these hunting attempts is typically not more than 10%. Unfortunately for them and more for us, both of us were out of luck to see that success on these two nights. Nonetheless, following them for hours like shadows to see this struggle first hand made us connect to them all the more.

At one point during this shadowing, we found ourselves less than a stones throw away from the family.  They had stopped, to take a break from yet another failed attempt. Not that we were not a little disappointed missing a kill but we were also curious of what this might be doing to the pride of this pride.  Lost in such curious thoughts, I suddenly realized that the lioness had come up a few steps and was now casually brushing her tail against the car door – yes, that open car with me sitting right behind that door. Thoughts became a little difficult to compose for a few seconds after that.

The tail of this lioness brushed my side of the door in our car. The lioness is moving away after that
The lady of the family casually moving away, after brushing her tail against me (almost)

Kenyan safaris, by now you may have realized, are great of a unique kind. Maasai Mara would easily be one of the very best places on earth to view wildlife, the way they are meant to be viewed. Night Safaris add a conspicuous thrill to that experience. However, with unabashed praise, it was Lenny and Johnson, our guides from the Porini Cheetah Camp, who took that experience to an entirely different level of awesome. Their immense passion for wildlife, local sensibilities and a stupendously accurate knowledge of animal behavior is something which I would never tire of being in awe of. To top that, they were fiercely dedicated to show us the best. To give an example of that dedication, a typical Night Safari is supposed to be not more than 45 minutes to an hour. However, on the first night, we simply lost track of time. It was only much later that we realized that we had spent more than 2 and a half hours in the jungle. Our guides just wouldn’t give up. Not until they could show us what we had gone to see. This was, just to remind you, after they had driven us already all through the morning, afternoon and evening.

Since that slice of experience at Kenya, I have narrated my experience to many. A lot of them have questions like – ‘But why would you take such a risk? What if they attack? But aren’t these dangerous animals? How can the guide not be armed?’ And a few other such. The answer and the truth is, however, that sitting out there in that jungle of Maasai Mara, surrounded by those dangerous animals, without a protective barrier or a weapon, I felt a lot safer than I mostly feel in big cities, among our people, in a crowd.

The Animal Kingdom, for all its primal settings, live by a few simple rules. If you pay them respect and abide by those rules, they reward us with nothing but respect and a great experience. There was a reason why we did not realize how time flew during those two nights of safaris. There was so much happening, some of them in front of our eyes to see, some of them out of sight to feel, and some of them even in our imagination. These would, afterwards pull themselves together into a concoction – that you could reminisce later. And get a good dosage of goose-bumps out of it.

The concept of paradise – an introduction to Kenya

Over the years,  every time we have set foot on a new land, we have tried to soak in the first impression. By natural reflex, the mind goes into a comparison of what facets of this new country look different from back home. And some of these countries do look very different – even at the first glance. Reasons could be many, and we have gone over them in the past, and will do so in future.

On this late Saturday evening however, as the Taxi took us through the lanes of Nairobi, from the airport to the small hotel down town, it almost seemed like we were in any other Indian city. Every sign on the road, every ad on the board was written in English, everyone we spoke to in English, spoke back in the same. It would take us a while to understand the difference.

We started our journey early next morning, a road trip to the Amboseli National Park. An hour out from the city, the realization first hit us. This was not like anything we had seen. We were in a very different ecosystem with ridiculously rich biodiversity.

Amidst familiar sights of cattle grazing the fields in the countryside, we spotted something totally new, a dash of white and black stripes… it was a zebra! We were super excited and asked our driver to stop the car so we could take some photos. The man didn’t even bother to slow down. “Why do you want to waste time on one zebra? and that too 100 meters away! You will have herds of these – playing all around you!! We still had no idea what was waiting for us in the next few days – but we sure had started to get some.

Kenya, for wildlife enthusiasts – is what the concept of paradise is – to mortals. Not only is the country one of the best places on earth to view the ‘Big 5’, but Kenyan Safaris, or Game Drives, as they call it in Africa, are much more than the ‘Big 5’. Every animal has its own beauty, its own story. And with that– a distinct role to play in this ecosystem. Antelope, Giraffe, Zebra, Wildebeest, Warthog, Hippo, Elephant, Jackal, Hyena, Buffalo, Crocodile, Lion, Leopard, Cheetah, and more, a lot more. Some of these species, like Cheetah or Warthog are found almost exclusively in Africa. For us, like it is even for the scores of those uninitiated on wildlife – it was always a dream to see The African lion, The African elephant or The African Cheetah from up close. And Kenya didn’t disappoint. As much as the country has, offering much more than diverse wildlife, our trip was focused on getting as close as we could to the wildlife. In my ‘Kenya Series’ I will write about a few of those many unforgettable days (and nights) the trip gave us.

Our trip was for 8N/9D. I broke my rule of ‘Plan your own travel’ a little bit here for good reasons. I had found it really difficult to book the stay, ground transport, national park entry, Game Drive vehicle, guide etc. all by myself before reaching the country. So, this time, I booked everything through a Camp Organizer – and I chose the best one that I could come up with some research. “Game Watcher Safaris” turned out to be a recommendation worthy choice. I know I would highly recommend them to anyone who is interested. (India contact:  Mr. Santosh Ojha)

Now some you may not care much about me going on with the happy memories – but may still be interested in the itinerary that I had. So here you go –  I wish you would plan a visit very soon and have a great time too!

Itinerary (All accommodations are personal choices, based on research):

  • Day 1: Reach Nairobi at night. Stay in Nairobi
  • Day 2: Depart early morning for Amboseli National Park. Stay at Amboseli Sopa Lodge. One Game Drive in the afternoon.
  • Day 3: A whole day game drive in Amboseli. Stay the night at Amboseli Sopa Lodge.
  • Day 4: Early morning departure for Lake Nakuru National Park. Stay at Flamingo Hill Tented Camp. One Game Drive in the afternoon.
  • Day 5: Return to Nairobi early in the morning. Fly from Nairobi to Ol Kinyei air strip, Maasai Mara. One Game Drive in the afternoon. Stay at Porini Cheetah Camp.
  • Day 6: A total of 3 game drives through the day. Morning, Afternoon and a short one at Night (you will not want to miss this one!) around the Ol Kinyei Conservancy and Naboisho Conservancy. Stay the night at Porini Cheetah Camp.
  • Day 7: Take a Day trip to the Main Reserve of Maasai Mara (During this time of the year, it is the real deal). Stay the night at Porini Cheetah Camp.
  • Day 8: Take the morning/afternoon flight back to Nairobi. Stay the night at Nairobi.
  • Day 9: Take the flight back to India.

Honestly – Kenya is not really one of those destinations which will let your wallet breathe easy. The country is very much aware of the uniqueness of their natural resources. Even if you happen to find some cheap tour options in Kenya, I would (and so would any reasonable research) strongly advise against it. There are too many cheap tour scams. If you must save some money, and yet not miss out on the cream of the experience – I would suggest you keep your trip short, and go only to Maasai Mara for 3 nights. Maasai Mara can offer almost everything that all the other destinations offer and it has a lot more – that no other place does. If you are in search of a good Camp at Maasai Mara, I would strongly recommend Porini Cheetah Camp – even if it looks expensive (find out why here).

Also, as you plan the trip, do not forget the two V’s. Vaccination and Visa. You must get your Yellow Fever and Oral Polio Vaccination done almost a month before the travel date. We got our vaccination done in Mumbai, from the ‘International Airport Health Authorities’. People in our knowledge have got them done easily In Bangalore and in Kolkata. The best idea is to just check this link. Getting Visa for Kenya is also super easy. Indian passport holders can obtain E-visa with minimum effort. Have a look at this link.

Now plan a trip! And yes, stay tuned for my next blog(s) on those fantastic experiences in Kenya.

Travel – Is there a best time or season?

We’ve talked about budget travel in the past. As you manage money, there’s also time that you need to. Obviously, the other big question that everybody ask me is about the best time to travel. There is no simple way to answer this question. And here I am not talking about how you would manage your leaves – your partner’s or your kids’ leaves. That’s for you to manage best and I am sure you would. What I am saying instead, is how it can alter your entire travel experience so much that you may end up loving or hating the same travel destination – merely depending on the time of travel. The time of travel decides how much you spend on a trip as well as what you experience.
For almost every destination, there are at least four different travel seasons: Peak, High, Shoulder and Low – each with its unique pros and cons. I am going to help you with factors that should determine your season of travel – with examples too.

  1. The purpose of your trip: Are you going to Iceland to see the Northern lights? Even if peak summer season travel is most comfortable and therefore very popular in Iceland, you cannot see the Northern lights in summer.
  2. Why is the Low season “low”?: In Kenya, Peak season is defined not just by weather, but when the Great Migration happens in the plains of East Africa – one of world’s most thrilling, intriguing and spectacular displays of wildlife behaviour. In a destination like this, it may be more rewarding to travel during the Peak season despite high prices. 
  3. Your budget: The Peak season is undoubtedly the most popular season to travel and prices too are at their peak. High season gives you most of the benefits of peak season with a little lesser crowd and lesser price. There would be a few things which you won’t get except for peak season but for all practical purposes that may not bother you. Shoulder season can give you the best of both worlds if you are lucky. Much lower prices and crowd. But that too comes with its own set of challenges. 
  4. Who is your travel planner?: When you plan your own itinerary, you have the full freedom to choose the time, duration, places to visit etc. Ideally the best travel planner is who would do the same for you. Many a times, however – travel agents offer you preplanned packages – leaving very little to choose. 
  5. Do you like the comfort of crowd?: Many might prefer being another face in the crowd but If you are not a fan, I would strongly suggest to avoid the Peak season. On the other hand, in the Low or even in the Shoulder season – there may be places where you find yourself to be the only visitor!
  6. Your preferred weather conditions: Undoubtedly, the weather at Peak season is favoured by most. Low season is considered most adverse. If you ask me though, it is a personal choice. I wouldn’t go into a hot desert in the middle of summer to save money. But I wouldn’t mind carrying a few extra woollen clothes for morning and evening chill when I travel to Europe in Fall or Spring (Shoulder season) and save some money, avoid crowd, enjoy nature in its own intended pristine way in the process. 
  7. Are you ready to take a little risk?: In the Shoulder or Low seasons, weather conditions and public transport can be challenging sometimes. Fewer hotels and restaurants would be available. But if you can plan in advance and do a little research, it can save you a lot of money. 

My verdict: Personally I am a fan of Shoulder season travel. Which is why, for example, I visited Siberia in March. The cold is bone chilling and nowhere as comfortable as the Peak summer. But for me – I had always imagined Siberia as a vast frozen land since childhood. It took me some research to be prepared for the cold – but I did see Siberia the way it is meant to, with miles and miles of pure, untouched snow, and nothing else. I got a chance to walk and drive on the vast frozen expanse that is lake Baikal and touch those famous but illusive beautiful ice crystals. So yes, you may be able to see a totally different landscape that not many have been able to experience. 

Think of it like investing in the equities market – high risk (calculated, if you may) but enormous returns. Then there is always this assured return of saving on expenses – which can be as high as 50%! You can always use it for your next trip. 

It ultimately depends on your preference. Hope this blog will help you take that informed decision.