James, our driver picked us up in Nairobi punctually, at the predetermined time. The Land Rover he was driving was clean and dependable, but it would’ve been a stretch to call it new. It had all the scrapes and dings I would expect from an authentic vehicle for bashing through the bush on a genuine safari experience; an experience where the windows are rolled down, so smells can be smelled, and the roof top is opened so the sun and the wind can be felt. It was an experienced truck, driven by an experienced guide, with absolutely no pretense of trying to provide anything more than a truly authentic, genuine safari experience for me and my family.
James was friendly, talkative and enthusiastic as he got to know us during the five hour drive to the Maasai Mara National Park. He learned that my wife and I had been here many times, and that this was the first time in Kenya for our daughters. He engaged them and patiently answered all their questions and tried to calm their apprehensions. When we arrived at the Mara, he introduced us to a very friendly staff, and made sure we were settled comfortably into our tents.
Then we went on our first game drive. Our daughters had never seen a giraffe in the wild. James had seen many, but he stopped the Land Rover, shut the engine off and waited patiently, until they said they were ready to move on. Our Maasai spotter, William, had a keen eye, and could make out a tiny speck a half mile across the savannah and announce authoritatively that it was a simba. James would drive toward the speck while we watched as it magically transformed into a big, black-maned lion. We followed it as it disappeared into the vegetation of a dry riverbed, then James jockeyed the Land Rover into position so we could get great photos of lion cubs, wrestling and playing near a pool where the pride had come to drink.
Juma provided tasty meals, even while on game drives. Our family was amazed, while parked in the shade of a solitary acacia in the wide open savannah, to see another Land Rover approaching, seemingly out of nowhere. It pulled up alongside and Juma hopped out, and began setting up a table and chairs. He unfolded a table cloth and put out a spread of sandwiches, fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and salad, and perhaps most importantly ice cold Tuskers. We finished the picnic with homemade brownies, then he packed everything back up and disappeared back over the horizon, in a trail of dust, to begin preparation for supper back at the camp.
We were fortunate to be in the Mara during the great migration, and James used his relationships with other knowledgeable guides from other safari companies to make sure we were in the right place, at the right time to witness the wildebeests and zebras as they apprehensively descended the steep bank of the crocodile infested Mara River, and cross the muddy current to get to greener grass on the opposite side.
James and William took it upon themselves as a personal challenge to find a leopard. In my previous dozen or so trips to Africa, I had never seen one. I was convinced it was a curse. They worked tirelessly and methodically, using their vast knowledge and experience of habitat and habit, and on our last morning game drive, they produced a large male leopard sitting in the grass at the edge of the scrub. We parked and watched as it approached the Land Rover, then nonchalantly walked by, and disappeared into thicker scrub across the dirt track.
It was an absolutely unforgettable experience for our family. And I give James and the entire team from Mwendo Safaris full credit for sorting out all of the details and providing all of the expertise and knowhow to make the summer of 2014, one that we’ll never forget.