MASAI MARA NATIONAL RESERVE, Kenya — The world is subdued in the hour before dawn. Birds have just started their morning song. A hippo rises to the surface in the river below, takes a breath and then slides again beneath the muddy waters.
With the noise of nature comes a collective hush from all other distractions.
For the past three days we have traveled throughout the Mara. We have watched awesome displays of nature: lions stalking a kill, a herd of zebra running, an African sunset. It's morning now, and as I sit outside my tent, listening to the sounds, I can't help but think of the surreal beauty of this place; the earthiness and simplicity.
Despite the fact that we spend each night in lavish comfort, eating seven-course dinners and staying in tents with warm beds and hot showers, you quickly realize this is a place where man is not the master.
Here, in one of Kenya's largest game reserves, there is no cell phone service, no Internet. When your vehicle gets stuck near the spot where you just watched a male lion disappear into the bushes, it's evident that the only thing truly protecting you is the knowledge and skill of your guide.
I traveled to the Masai Mara with 18 friends this past July. We had just spent the past two weeks volunteering at a school for the deaf in Nakuru, a city two hours north of Kenya's capitol, Nairobi. The safari was an add-on to an already rewarding trip.
While Kenya and neighboring Tanzania have several well-known game parks, the Masai Mara is one of the largest, covering about 1,500 square kilometers within a segment of the Great Rift Valley. It's one of the only game parks where guides can drive off the trails to get close to the animals.
The Mara is a reserve that belongs to the Masai people, a nomadic tribe that still clings to ancient traditions and ways of life. Outside the Mara are small Masai villages, where the homes, made of sticks and dung, are arranged in a circular fashion. Thick brambles with inch-long thorns encircle the village.
Inside the Mara, it's not uncommon to see Masai boys herding cattle that belong to their village. At age 13 or 14, these boys will take part in a ceremony to become a Masai warrior. They will live for eight years in a warrior village, later emerging as tall, red-robed men.
I first saw one of these Masai warriors during our initial ride into the reserve. We had just arrived in the Mara after a bumpy ride on a four-propeller plane. Vehicles and drivers were waiting alongside the dirt runway. We were divided into groups of six, our bags were taken in a separate vehicle to the lodge, then off we went into the park.
Because it was nearing dark, we had little time to see animals. Our guide, Richard, had been notified by other drivers about a cheetah that was resting in an area. So we went to see it, driving across well-worn trails with deep, muddy ruts.
As we plowed through one section of trail, there was a tall Masai warrior on a rusty bike. He paused, looked toward our vehicle, waved, then disappeared into the dusk on his bike.
The Mara, for me, had an ethereal, unreal quality to it. During our trip, it was cloudy and cool. When the sun set, small rays would escape through the clouds, lighting the ground in a dim, hazy light.
In the Masai language, Mara means "spotted land." Throughout the reserve, in the plains and grassland area, scattered acacia trees and bushes literally spot the land. It's an odd, iconic sight, particularly in the morning when dark clouds form an wispy backdrop to these flat-topped trees.
During our three days in the Mara, we went on six game drives into the park. The first full day we went on three, one in the early morning, one in the afternoon, then one at night. The second day we went on an all-day game drive. The third day we had another morning safari.
Each time we went out, our guide, Richard, would ask us what we wanted to see: giraffes, elephants, lions, hippos, rhinos, cheetahs, a Masai village. At the end of the safari, we would return to the lodge for group meals with all the other guests.
Each meal was an affair. Lunch was beside the pool outside the lodge. Dinner was a seven-course meal. Breakfast was a two-part meal. At 5 a.m., before our morning safari, a man would bring hot chocolate, coffee and cookies to our tent. After returning from the morning safari, a breakfast buffet would be waiting.
Between safaris, we had downtime. Most in our group would sleep. Others would wander the paved path that led from the lodge to the tents, watching for animals in the Mara River, located in a ravine just beyond the trail of tents. At night, we'd listen to presentations about the Mara — it's people, the animals, the land and topography.
The highlight, however, was the animals; the nature; the Masai people and their ancient culture. I'll never forget our first full day in the park, watching as a lioness stalked through the dry grass, others in the pride behind her, attempting to catch a zebra in the distance.
Or, when we went into the grasslands, stopping to take a picture under an acacia tree, herds of zebra, antelope, wildebeest and gazelle behind us. The Mara is part of a migration path for these animals. During July or August, hundreds upon thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle will migrate from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara, searching for fresh grass.
We ended our first full day in the park with a long chase across the Mara, hoping to see a herd of elephants. Richard, our guide, would stop occasionally, binoculars in hand. Elephants are shy, he said, but dangerous when provoked.
He would point to stumps and tree branches that had been pushed and torn down by elephants. Finally, in the distance, he spotted a lone elephant. We drove closer, only to realize it was part of a group of about 20 elephants, some with small babies.
It's both frightening and exhilarating to stand in a vehicle, 10 feet from a wild elephant, listening as it rips up grass with its long trunk. Elephants are constantly eating.
While an African safari is expensive (airfare to Kenya can exceed $2,200; a safari is about $500 a day), the experience more than paid for itself.
It's an indescribable exhilaration to watch as the sun creeps out, warming the dry savannah grassland, turning the waves of grass into a golden sea of light.
It's exhilarating to stand in the crisp cool air, wind scorching your skin, to take a photo of a herd of impala, little antelope with black-striped bottoms and white-tipped tails.
Expensive? Yes. But a trip of a lifetime.