Story & photos by June Jacobsen
This is one fairly savvy traveler’s take on safaris–what to look for, what it’s like. Safaris are now big business and there are many things to think about as you plan your trip if you want (a) things to go smoothly and (b) an amazing experience.
Know before you go.
Words to travel by, and generally how I roll. From travel advisories, visas, insurance, shots, luggage weight allowance on hopper planes, weather, cultural customs, currency, clothing, voltage adapters, and not least, discovering the best hawker stalls in, say, Singapore or Hong Kong. As photographers, we tend to give more attention to what we can expect to see, to photograph, and the best gear to bring.
For a first-timer to Africa, and an ardent trip planner, the research was, even by my standards, exhaustive — prior to traveling to Italy, I spent three to four months securing tickets to museums, trains, a car, and learned to speak enough Italian to ask for more than the nearest toilet. Guessing that Africa might be ‘a trip of a lifetime’, I needed to get it right. Which country, which areas and reserves, what time of year, with whom (safari operator), what to bring, and more. In researching I discovered a few negative aspects of safari that for good reason might not be highlighted by a safari company as one of the more memorable features of your trip. Nevertheless, it came down to Kenya, and within that country, seven different reserves and parks over a three week period in September.
What is the Masai Mara of Kenya and why is it tops for safari?
Often called the ‘Jewel of Kenya’, the Masai Mara National Reserve is the northern-most section of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem and home to the cats of BBC’s Big Cat Diary and many other documentaries. In southwestern Kenya, the Mara is 583 square miles of rolling grassland, riverine forest, Acacia woodland, swamps, the Mara and Talek Rivers and their tributaries. It’s also the most visited wildlife reserve in Kenya, famous for its high density of predators, herbivores and the ‘greatest wildlife show on earth’, the annual migration of more than two million wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelle.
Word on the internet, magazines, Facebook, et al., noted a few nicks in the so-called jewel. Not that I fantasized dashing over the savannah pith-helmeted and brown in a rugged and dusty Land Rover in search of big game with scarce another soul in sight. Ok, maybe a little . . . “Out of Africa.” I was, however, in search of what it was really like, so as to not be horribly disappointed once on safari. I googled, “crowds in the Masai Mara”, under “Images,” and read various accounts. I just wanted to be prepared, steel myself for…whatever, because whatever it had become, I was going to see it. The Mara and six other areas in Kenya.
Taking the (bearable) bad with the (spectacular) good on safari
The narratives spoke of DOZENS of vehicles surrounding one animal, such as a leopard or lion, on a kill perhaps. I shuddered at the thought of it, at an animal being caged in by crazy tourists in large trucks zooming around to gain the best vantage point for snapshots. Almost unthinkable! In the end, aside from the tourist zoo at the river crossings, the worst crowd around an animal sighting was a caracal and its mate in a crop of trees. They said only one caracal had been seen in that part of the Mara in the past year. Word spread quickly.
Drivers communicate via radio with, it seemed to me, a particular network of other drivers, sharing sighting information to help guests see what they came to see. The Big Cats are likely on the top of most safari-goers list, for they are at once beautiful, charismatic, exotic, elusive, and in far fewer numbers than any of the other mammals on our list. Lions are the most frequented of the big cats, and leopards the least. Reports said that it’s getting rare to see the endangered rhinoceros, both white and black. Their numbers have decreased a whopping 97% since 1960 due to loss of habitat, but mostly because they are killed to lop off their horns, for carvings and supposed healing properties in Asian countries. They would do just as well to chew their nails, as rhino horn is protein keratin, the chief component in hair, fingernails and animal hooves. But I digress.
Garbage left behind by visitors was noted in a few commentaries, and as one reader responded, ‘Well, I can take THAT off my bucket list!’. Yikes! I thought, you’ll let one comment keep you from one of the most astounding travel experiences in the world!? Bear in mind, this article tells of the experience of ONE traveler — me. I was in the Masai Mara nine days out of my three week stay in Kenya. I may have seen a total of five pieces of trash, small white paper, in nine days. So thanks to every visitor who has mindfully picked up trash as they made their way across the savannah and not left any in the first place.
Return to Kenya or move on to other safari countries
It would be naive to think that the ‘Jewel of Kenya’ could escape the double-edged sword of tourism — revenue and human impact on the land — after becoming so famous for its wildlife, beauty, and sensational migration. My happy surprise was that the number of vehicles in sight on the Mara at any one time was tolerable and, at times, no other vehicles were present. My driver was respectful of the wildlife, aware of the boorish behavior of other drivers, and a great guide and spotter for the wildlife. That begs the question: who are you choosing as your safari company? Perhaps a good topic for another blog post.
In the end, the amount of research you do before you book your trip has as much, if not more, to do with your safari experience than any other aspect of travel or photography. Skimp on your research and you might find yourself disappointed.
After this writing I returned once again to Africa and the Masai Mara as well as Tanzania and Rwanda for more amazing experiences, including trekking up the steep inclines and dense forest of the Virunga Mountains to spend some time with the gentle and mysterious mountain gorillas. Having traveled to every continent, I’m often asked what might be my next destination. My gut reaction isn’t so much which continent as it is which country, Africa being home to 54 of them.
Master Photographer June Jacobsen has operated her portrait studio on Long Island, New York, since 1984. She has visited every continent to photograph wildlife, including treks up the Virunga Mountains to view mountain gorillas, swimming with humpback whales in Tonga, and diving with bull sharks in Fiji. Her work has been published by National Geographic, DK Books, Professional Photographer Magazine, and more. June won a Nat Geo photo contest and a trip to Galapagos aboard the Endeavor ship. She teaches every level of photography, gives presentations, and her travel books on Kenya and Antarctica are available on blurb.com. Find her at: