Looking out the window from my low-flying, 20-seat airplane over Masai Mara National Reserve, I had my first African safari moment, spotting a family of elephants sauntering below. In that moment, I completely lost it. My eyes welled up with tears knowing that what I was seeing was National Geographic-level far-flung.
This was just the flight in.
Growing up as a Seventeen magazine devotee, I fantasized about being the bronzed, aviator-wearing, khaki-clad Michael Kors model pictured on a cliff overlooking a zeal of zebra galloping through Kenya’s plains. At the time, I associated safaris with A-list models, musicians (Bono and his wife did a similar photo shoot for Louis Vuitton), and moguls; not regular people like moi.
Fast-forward 15 years. Armed with a Kenyan wedding invite, a double income, and no kids, Mr. Trip Styler and I packed our safari wear (gear we’d only worn at Halloween dressed as safari guides) and flew to Kenya to attend the festivities, embark on our own Michael Kors moment, and engage in animal-spotting and glamping in the Masai Mara (a continuation of Tanzania’s Serengeti).
The Great Migration
The stars aligned for us in another way, as well. Our September trip coincided with an epic viewing season known as “The Great Migration.” This is the time of every year when stadium-sized masses of zebra and wildebeest roam close to 1,800 miles from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara in search of water and lush grazing ground. (It’s also when safari enthusiasts travel to Africa in similar droves toting camera lenses longer than my legs—and I’m 5 feet, 8 inches tall!)
Viewfinder Tip: The Great Migration takes place at slightly different times in sub-regions throughout the Serengeti and Masai Mara. Be sure to do your research before booking your trip.
When our plane started descending toward the Ngerende airstrip, I noticed a flurry of activity below. The safari lodge vehicles were racing up and down the dirt runway in an effort to clear it from animals and birds that might impede our landing. Once the coast was clear, our plane hop-scotched down the strip until it finally settled, turned around, and dropped us off in the middle of the Mara.
It was 11 a.m., and I stood there surveying the scene—minted by a closet-sized duty-free shack—breathing in the dust-scented air. Suddenly, a woman standing in a rag-top, khaki-colored Land Cruiser startled my zen when she yelled “Jambo” (welcome in Swahili) as well as our names over the plane’s propeller ruckus. Ten minutes later we arrived at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, itching to learn when and where we could spot The Big Five (lions, cape buffalo, leopards, rhinos, and elephants) and witness The Great Migration on our five-day brush with nature.
First things first: Unpack in our riverside canvas tent. The accommodations were complete with leather director’s chair (perfect for my photo shoot), full bathroom, flannel-topped king-sized bed, and an almost-encounter with a gangly baboon!
I did not expect my first pass with Africa’s wild to be with a baboon mischievously attempting to enter our tent. Thankfully, I spotted him scoping it out as he was making a dash to join us in the lap of luxury. With this, I jumped through the air, ninja-style, to zip the door shut just in time to stare at him face-to-face and see his breath heat the clear plastic between us. (For the record, I spent the rest of afternoon at the pool calming my nerves with vodka.)
The big event
The next day, we were awakened at the crack of dawn by a gentleman holding a tray of hot chocolate and shortbread cookies (alarm clocks are for city hotels, I suppose). Our full-day game drive in search of The Great Migration’s herds and their croc-dodging river crossing would take us many miles into the reserve past giraffes, lions, cape buffalo, and families of elephants (including just-standing babies!).
Around 1 p.m., we reached the Mara River, and, like clockwork, a gang of wildebeest and zebra showed up as if Walt Disney was orchestrating the whole scene from above. Just as the excitement was mounting, the program came to grinding halt. For the next two hours this group of more than 1,000 timid trailblazers stormed the river then retreated on repeat.
It turns out humans aren’t the only ones interested in migrating animals (read: prey); crocs love the spectacle too. These fierce hunters often lie in wait to snap up meaty meals that “dare” to traipse across their water-logged path.
Like the crowd at a sporting event, all the safari spectators who came from different lodges in the area to see the crossing jumped from their leather Land Cruiser seats and cheered every time the herd approached the river. The onlookers also sulked and groaned at failed crossing attempts.
Finally, one brave beast took the plunge and charged the river with the gusto of a gold medal-winning Olympic athlete. The rest followed. The scene was frantic and frothy, causing my heartbeat to go into overdrive. Thankfully, the snap-happy crocs were not on their collective game, perhaps lulled into a hypnotic state by the on-again, off-again crossing attempts. In the end, the crocodiles claimed one crossing casualty.
Standing on top of my vehicle’s seat, out of breath from my cheer session, I noticed the sun reflecting off my aviators, and my dirt-hued clothes billowing in the wind. The scene reminded me of those safari ads I’d idolized as a teen. Ready for my strike-a-pose moment in the East African sun, I grabbed my camera and froze. I couldn’t bring myself to snap a selfie, the moment was too perfect to interrupt with a photo.
What do you hope to witness on an African safari?