Solo Safari in the Masai Mara
When one of my closest friends told me she was off on a work secondment to Kenya, I booked my flight to see her that very day. And because this was my first trip to Africa going on safari was an absolute must. But given she would be working, and is already a veteran safari-taker, it meant I'd have to go it alone.
Not one to shy away from solo travel, I started planning straight away. I had the basic information I needed to get booking: I would be based out of Nairobi, I would have three spare nights and - as a newbie to Africa - I wanted to keep transport as simple as possible.
I explored all my options, from cheap camp sites outside the National Park (this stills means paying separate park entry fees) to the high-end lodges that look like they're straight out of the colonial era (too expensive and not my cup of tea). I finally opted for BaseCamp Masai Mara, an all-inclusive lodge based inside the park that sorted everything from my flight out of Nairobi's Wilson Airport through to my morning and evening game drives and all my meals in between. There are countless safari packages of course but Basecamp sold me on its eco-friendly ethos and the fact that it's entirely run by the local Masai and therefore benefits the local community. Plus, the Obamas stayed there once, which may have influenced my decision. Just a little.
Flight, safari and lodging booked, it was time to pack and start the countdown clock.
I took a minimalist approach to packing, taking two key factors into account: 1) the dust on the game drives and 2) the extreme day-to-night temperature change. A lot of planning sites recommend specific safari gear (i.e. khakis or trousers) but I don't think these are worth the splurge for just a few nights. I packed my Northface fleece (which you'll spot in every picture), a thermal long-sleeved top, two vests / tank tops, a pair of jean shorts, a pair of leggings, running socks and walking shoes. These easily fit into my travel backpack and worked a treat for the entire trip.
DO invest in good binoculars (I borrowed a great pair from my boyfriend) as these can make or break your safari experience. Animal-spotting is so much better when you can zoom in on details like the little birds that like to snack on the insects that sit atop the elephants and hippos.
The trip itself began on a teeny six-seater plane (so epic!) to the savannah and as we neared the airstrip in the heart of the Masai Mara, little did I know that the hippos, crocodiles and giraffes I could see from the sky were just a taste of what was to come.
After a bumpy landing, I was greeted by Steve, my AMAZING safari guide and official bestie for the next three days. I hopped into the back of my private (say what?!) Land Rover and we made our way to camp, bumping into some of the locals along the way: hyenas keeping cool in the mud, warthogs running in circles and a few lazy buffalo. We arrived at camp in time for dinner and to watch the stars come alive. Since Kenya is so close to the equator, the sun sets quite early (relative to Northern Europe anyway) so you have to make the most of the daylight hours!
At bedtime, a Masai warrior accompanied me to my tent to help me set up camp. Though I wasn't exactly "roughing it," he helped me get my bearings: the lights, the shower, the locks to keep the baboons out and a torch / flashlight to navigate the dark. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention he'd also be guarding my tent overnight (you know, in case of animal attacks) so when I saw lights flash at 2am, I scrambled out of bed to confront my attacker only to realise it was the warrior trying to keep me safe. I can assure you I provided a few good laughs over the staff breakfast the next morning.
The 5:30am wake-ups (particularly that first morning) are no easy feat for night owls like me. But they are of course 100% worth it for the sheer beauty of a sunrise drive. If you're keen and willing to splurge, you can also book a hot air ballon ride over the savannah. Either way, you'll feel knackered after spending the early hours in search of wildlife but you'll be soon rewarded with some R&R, especially if you're in a luxe lodge. I certainly made the most of camp in between drives: eating, napping, reading and indulging in my outdoor shower (with the sounds of baboons and birds for good company).
I felt like a true intrepid explorer alone on those game drives, holding on tight as we bumped along the grassy plains, peeking through my binoculars in hopes of spotting a leopard. And because I had the camp almost entirely to myself, I had the drives to myself too, with the freedom to stop and go as I pleased. I'm pretty sure I said, "Look, another ostrich! Let's stop and stare!" one too many times for Steve's liking.
This is a perk of travelling during peak shoulder season (even Lonely Planet recommends it), though it does mean you miss the magic of the wildebeest migration. But if you're willing to do the same, you could also end up with a camp all to yourself and save some money whilst you're at it.
I could ramble on and on about the sheer magic of the safari drives, but there were a few stand-out moments worth sharing: watching a leopard crawl right under our car, admiring a very sleepy pride of lions, hearing hyenas eat wildebeest for breakfast, observing a cheetah on a hunt for Thompson's gazelles and following a baby elephant holding tightly onto its momma.
No amount of words or photos can do my solo safari justice, but hopefully this gives you even just a flavour of the experience to be had. And you certainly don't need a companion. If you're dying to go, book it. I can assure you that a solo safari is just as rich, if not richer, without anyone to distract you from the magic of the wildlife. Plus, the Kenyans are so warm and welcoming, you'll have new friends in no time. And they might even be as cute as mine.
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