The thundering vibrations from wildebeest hooves pulse through your body like the drum beats of an approaching army. It’s a dull and distant rumble, but it is visceral and it makes you feel vulnerable and connected. You suddenly feel not much taller than the swaying blades of savannah grass, and imagine how helpless you would be if the thousands of migrating animals veered and trampled through the camp.
Most plan their safaris expecting this primal interaction with animals. They show up at Nairobi airport with a wide brimmed hat, and camouflaged jackets, ready to rough it, but then never do. What they come to realize, is that if the animals are not in a zoo, then you have to be. While the lions run free, you are locked in a car, or a hotel for your own safety.
However, there is another way. You can choose to camp, usually with a group and a team of armed guides, but in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve you can also just go camping solo. It is something that takes careful planning, a sense of adventure, and local knowledge, but provides the romantic feeling of sleeping in the savannah with lions – since you actually are.
Starting around July each year, and lasting for a few months, great herds of zebra and wildebeest migrate north across the Serengeti into Kenya. This is a wonderful time to plan a self-guided camping trip to the Mara as prices for accommodation and guided safaris skyrocket, but also because you are almost guaranteed to see something spectacular, as millions of animals move across the savannah, grazing and hunting. However, most importantly, the lions are usually so full of wildebeest during this season that they probably will not feel the need to come for dinner at the campsite.
Stepping out of the car to set-up the tent, you immediately become part of the ecosystem you came to observe. You inspect the large footprints in the mud, dung scattered through the area, and curious paths of broken branches through the trees, making your best guesses at which other animals you might share the habitat with in the darkness. As night descends, you fuel the fire, watch the stars, and talk about the routes of exploration for the coming day. Then as people retire to their tents, you let the fire dwindle a bit, and the long shadows of the night creep closer. The sounds around you amplify, and it is very clear you are not alone in this great wilderness.
In the darkness before dawn, the activity of the animals increases. It’s still hunting time on the plains, and the big cats are roaming around. Hippos are returning to the rivers after nocturnal sojourns; one walked right through our camp in these early hours. People are laying in their tents, but their instincts are wide awake. Then the sun silently emerges, the herds become visible in the tall savannah grass, the monkeys start slinking around looking for opportunities to grab and run, and battalions of massive ants flow like streams through the camp, cleaning the crumbs around the fire pit.
Coffee is fire roasted, and conversation is all about who heard which sounds and what they could have been. Everyone’s favorite guess is always “lion”. This is when we had a migrating herd of wildebeest cruise by the camp in a half gallop, heading down to the great Mara River. Camping on your own, that is your cue to jump into your car and cruise on in pursuit, searching for lions in the tall grass, and scoping the river crossings to see if any herds might venture a fording.