I Dream of Cheetah

This month, my husband Diek and I took off on a two-week journey around Kenya to fulfill a dream I’ve had since kindergarten: Cheetah Sighting.

I kid you not, I could spell cheetah before I could spell my name! (Not sure what that says about me!) Ever since I kindergarten, I’ve been absolutely fascinated with Africa and obsessed with their animals – specifically cheetah. I recently told the Charlotte Agenda that it’s my dream to travel to Africa as often as humanly possible and I mean it!

Last year, we were lucky enough to head to Botswana, Zimbabwe and Cape Town and ever since, I have been dreaming of getting back. While that was the trip of a lifetime, I never saw cheetah in the wild, so Kenya was to be the place!

And it was. If you are looking for lots of adventure, Kenya will not disappoint.

We picked mid-July in hopes to see the epic wildebeest migration from the Serengeti into the Masai Mara. All those National Geographic shows we had watched with the millions of wildebeest crossing the Mara river – that’s what we hoped to see.  So we packed our bags and landed in the Masai Mara -- it really was magical. Once we were picked up from the dirt airstrip (and after being on a rather small plane), we loaded into our Land Cruiser and travelled to camp. Within 10 minutes we saw lions and cubs!

We spent five amazing nights in a tented camp called Enkewa, a smaller camp not far from where the crossing happens. This experience was all about the safari – our typical day was a morning/afternoon drive -- for seven hours! Come back for lunch, take a nap and then back at it come 4:30 p.m. Truly, I can’t say nicer things about where we stayed. Being a small business, you get to know everyone on staff -- we would book a tent there again anyday. Plus, we had Masai warriors guarding the area every night with all the wildlife roaming around. Almost every AM we heard elephants going through the camp -- what a wake-up call!

The first time we loaded up and headed out, I quickly noticed how different this experience was from our previous South African safari. Being Masai Mara National Park instead of the SA reserve we stayed at, there was far more land and animals. Here in Kenya, we got to dictate our schedules versus being on a schedule. And --  our previous safari was more of the luxury experience whereas in the middle of the Mara, resources are a bit harder to come by. This trip was the exact raw and beautiful experience we were looking for.

We saw it all. Multiple leopard sightings, no less than 30 elephants a day, constant lion sightings, rhino, hippo, zebra, buffalo, and giraffe – you name it. And yes, we saw cheetah! We located one on its own in the bush first, which was incredible -- but several days later we saw a “coalition” of five. FIVE! They are said to be the only group of five in the world – as you can imagine I was beside myself.  My life is complete.

While I was floating on my fulfilled dreams from seeing the cheetah -- we drove toward the Mara River where the migration was to happen. As we stopped for breakfast, our guide shouted for us to load up in the car and hit the gas. We took off to another river area to see the first crossing of the year. It was INSANE. For sure the most intense thing I have ever seen.  Thousands of animals stampeding/swimming across the river dodging crocodile and hippo to make it to the other side for new grass -- just crazy.

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This crossing was the most unique experience of the trip and we’ll definitely make sure to be there next time we have safari lust. Note I said next time. Diek and I already agreed we’re definitely going back. If you ever find yourself wanting to go on a safari in the Mara, here are some of my takeaways:

  • Vehicle is key. Make sure whatever camp you book has the big cars that can handle the crazy terrain.  You see lots of these white vans with ceilings that pop up so you can stand and look out. These vans spent more time getting stuck in the mud then actually driving. Also, they aren’t able to off road which is a really big benefit to get close.

  • Stay in the National Park. There are lots of reserves near the Mara but by staying in the park you can go on drives earlier and stay out later when those staying outside of the park have to be out and subject to the hours. Also, most of the white vans seemed to come from outside the park.

  • Pack layers. Throughout the day, temperature would vary by up to 30 degrees. My nano puffer jacket that could pack into itself was a lifesaver. Unlike South Africa, we were subject to a specific weight limit on these smaller planes so I basically packed two “outfits” and traded them out every other day. Lots of the camps offer laundry services which is an added plus since you are re-wearing a lot.

  • Check out the local schools/villages/markets. We visited a local school and were greeted with the biggest, brightest smiles. If you hope to see schools on a trip like this I highly recommend bringing school supplies - they love soccer balls! The school we visited is mostly funded by Enkewa so it was great to see everything first hand and play with the kids. We then went to the local market, what I imagined to be beads, local crafts and textiles. In reality, I was met with live animals being traded and more necessity-type items being sold. A little different from what I expected but a really cool, local experience.

After the Mara we headed toward the coast to an island in the middle of nowhere. We hopped on the smallest plane I hope to ever take, flew and hour and a half to Lamu and then took a two hour boat ride to Mike’s Camp. Down an instagram worm-hole years ago I discovered this place. It’s truly a bohemian paradise. It’s small -- up to 24 person capacity max -- making you feel like family. Amazing food (best seafood I have ever had), a beach to yourself and congas and tie-dye for days. We were able to see sea turtles hatching and visit the local village and school while being followed by the cutest group of kids!

 

On our last day, we took the boat back to Lamu and did some exploring.  Finally, I got to do a little shopping and Shelia did not disappoint. If you are ever in this lovely part of the world, you must check out Aman – offering both a home shop and a boutique. I wanted everything! Also check out The Creative Department for great textiles. Lastly, we hung out at the Peponi Hotel for a swim and cocktail break. I highly recommend staying there a few nights (the one thing we would change to our itinerary).

This trip was an adventure. It was unlike any trip Diek and I had ever taken. Life is all about experiences and this trip was one of those that you head home as a better, more open minded person for it.