Family safaris usually occur at a difficult time for optimum game viewing. But the Mara won that game for us!
Understandably, most family safaris are scheduled for the summer school holiday. Spring break is often too short, and there are often kids in the same family with different spring breaks. And with U.S. schools starting earlier and earlier, especially the sports programs, the family safari usually takes place from the first of June through the end of July.
That’s not at the optimum time for game viewing. I still maintain that the game viewing in East Africa at any time of the year is better in East Africa than at any time of the year elsewhere, like in southern Africa. So for game viewing, in a sense it doesn’t matter.
The optimum game viewing in East Africa occurs in March and April (in the Serengeti) or in September and October (in the Mara). Variances in weather can extend or contract these windows. Our safari – like many family safaris – is happening in early July.
Quite apart from the anomalous drought that is happening, this is a tough time for experiencing the big herds East Africa is known for. No problem with elephants, but wildebeest, zebra, and the many other ungulates and antelope are widely dispersed as they navigate the end of a rainy season searching for better grasslands.
The best place to end a safari at this time is in the Mara. We ended it by exclusively occupying a wonderful luxury semi-permanent camp right on the Sand River. I’ve only been going to Sala’s Camp for several years, but it’s quickly becoming my favorite family safari camp for this time of the year.
Consider this. On our way from the Keekorok airstrip at around 430p, Monday, we managed to have a lovely tea stop on a hill overlooking vast stretches of the Mara, find six lions posing for photographs, plus find three cheetah on a recent Tomie kill beautifully framed by a dramatic sunset.
The cheetah kill was particularly fascinating. There were at least 150 vultures which had dropped out of the sky and were menacing the poor cheetah. Vultures hunt by sight, and this was their last opportunity before dark.
Cara Hopcraft, the camp host, was ready with a special welcome of hot towels, fresh lime juice, and hot water for showers! The camp is mildly lighted by solar, so as dark as it was, the tent was warm and welcoming.
Each tent is beautifully furnished and includes flush toilets. I especially like the little touches which I feel might not be so expensive or difficult to arrange, but indicate a care that so many camps lack. There was a little vase of local wild flowers on the vanity counter, the water bottles were beautifully beaded, and the clothes organizer was a simple drop-down canvas box considerably more useful than a huge chest. Flashlights, bug spray, and three kinds of shampoo and conditioner! Most importantly, for those of us who shave, the mirror was perfectly placed under the solar light to avoid before dawn lacerations!
“I really didn’t expect this,” young Dillon said, truly on behalf of everyone. But as I explained to everyone, “camping” in East Africa has morphed into something else. Part of the reason are the extraordinary fees that the park authorities demand for the right to camp in any fashion. So once that expense is incurred, the upmarket becomes the only reasonable demographic.
We stayed in the Mara for three days and nights. The first two mornings we had an early breakfast and then took a long 6-7 hour game drive. Our location right on the Sand River couldn’t be more beautiful, but it is somewhat compromised for optimum game viewing in the Mara. So the longer drives were necessary.
At this time of the year in the Mara, it is very cold. Ari and Hayley wrapped themselves in several Maasai blankets. The gloves that are on our preparation list, appeared at last.
We had fabulous game viewing. For one thing, the migration was arriving. Two weeks ago I greeted the first wave at the Sand River, and now more was on the way. It’s still very much the beginning, and the herds won’t concentrate until August, but everyone was very impressed. “I never expected this!” Leo told me waving his Tolstoy hat at a line of running wilde.
I was especially surprised and overjoyed to find rhino! Yes, authorities have been trying to reintroduce rhino to the Mara for years and years. We found a mother and calve who were very leery of us and disappeared after a few minutes in deep brush. We also found the tracks of another single rhino. This is impressive and certainly a highlight of this southeast area.
Add to the rhino a bevy of lion, cheetah, and for Carl and me, some very impressive birding. We definitely (I stand by it, fellow birders) found the black coucal and banded snake eagle, two extraordinary finds.
But probably for the family, as successful as was our game viewing, the volleyball games with the camp staff on the Sand River, and the trampoline antics in the afternoon were just as memorable. I sat one afternoon with Grandma Marian on the cliff above the river watching the kids (and their parents) having extraordinary fun. But we all stopped short of insisting that Conor perform his famous break-dancing; he was, after all, a few years out of shape having joined his folks on safari from the boondocks of Guinea where he is a Peace Corps volunteer.
It was hard ending the safari. Everything seemed to have worked so well, and the two families who didn’t know one another before the trip had now become very close. As a last hurrah and fabulous surprise, Irene had carved out of the river sand two remarkably realistic crocodiles! We’d seen them on the Mara. At first glance it was kind of scary!
A good vacation anywhere broadens beyond its theme into memories that could be created anywhere in the world. A good family safari must have the wonderful game viewing we accomplished, but it doesn’t have to be the best game viewing of the year. Good lodges and camps, memorable occasions like sundowners and relaxing conversations around an isolated camp fire, and the warmth of new friendships might occur anywhere in the world. But when it happens in East Africa, ending at a place like Sala’s Camp in the Mara, it ranks right up there with the best family vacation possible anywhere!