A child at play in Maasai country.
A child at play in Maasai country. Yvonne Gardiner

No frills with plenty of thrills

THE keen eye of our guide had picked out the head of a leopard in the long grass.

As I zoomed in to take a photo from the safety of our safari vehicle, I could see that the young cat was fixed intently on a family of waterbuck.

Our touring party was torn between those who wanted the leopard to make a kill, and others who were happy to see these magnificent antelope escape.

After half-an-hour of this tense stand-off, and catching glimpses of the predator as he crept nearer to his prey, an adult waterbuck signalled the presence of danger with a hoof stamp and a loud sniff - and the leopard bounded away to continue the hunt elsewhere.

It's thrilling encounters such as this that put safaris on my bucket list, and attract thousands of tourists a year to East Africa.

We did see big cats on several "kills” during our five-week stay but, thankfully, the unfortunate prey was long-dead and beyond recognition.

Our first leopard sighting was at Lake Nakuru National Park in the Great Rift Valley, 156kms north-west of Kenya's capital, Nairobi. That ticked off for us the requisite Big Five - elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo and leopard - that tourists are eager to spot.

East Africa is a wildlife spotter's paradise, and one endangered animal stands out on the "must-see” list - the mountain gorilla.

Our tour group flew from Kenya to Rwanda, and then crossed into Uganda to trek in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

At 65 years of age and with a back that lets me down on occasions, I was not confident that I could handle hours of trekking in slippery, steep forest undergrowth. However, I wasn't the eldest in our tour group - some trekkers were close to 70 but obviously avid walkers.

With a group of eight led and protected by four rangers and a string of porters, we ventured excitedly into the forest. After only 50 minutes, we met our gorilla family of 10, somewhat closer than I had imagined or even wished for.

A junior silverback had been left behind on the path, and was anxiously looking in his family's direction. I and other trekkers were blocking his way. The rangers instructed us to stand still and be quiet, and then the magnificent creature strode calmly past us.

I was shaking too much to take an in-focus photo, out of exhilaration not fear.

To have a wild adolescent gorilla come close enough to touch (I didn't) was one of the best thrills of my life. We spent 60 precious minutes watching his family in the forest - feeding, playing, climbing, interacting... and they seemed oblivious to our presence.

Knowing that only 800 mountain gorillas are left in the wild, half of those in the Bwindi forest, I feel privileged to have come so close to these gentle giants.

It would be hard to top that experience, but plenty more adventures awaited us on our journey through four countries - Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.

It was a "no-frills” tour - basic three-star accommodation and some camping. At one campground on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, our torchlight illuminated several sleeping zebra just metres from the tent.

There's no easy way of going on safari in the Masai Mara, the Serengeti and other East African national parks, unless you want to charter a plane that lands at one of the parks' airstrips and hire a luxury 4WD.

Even then, the rocky roads are as rough as you get, and you spend endless hours in bone-rattling discomfort.

And then there's the dust, the heat, and the knowledge that lots of animals prowling outside the open-top vehicle are more than capable of killing and eating you.

Having said that, there's no greater thrill than seeing elephant, lion, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, hyena, hippo, warthog, gazelle, baboon, rhino and other majestic creatures in their natural environment.

I could happily spend my life on safari in Africa.

See next week's Explore for part two of the story.

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