Dawn breaks over Masai Mara. The sunrise is breathtaking, painting the early morning sky in brilliant reds and golds. A cloud pierces the sun — cuts the burning yellow in half creating an optical illusion that two suns are rising. Off in the far distance we see 3 hot air balloons coasting lazily.

The only sound we hear is the kombi sputtering out diesel and the wind rushing through our hijabs. The air smells distinctly of ceder.

Eryn is sleeping. It’s 6am and I’m happy that giving her a “dream feed” worked, and she’s slept through breakfast and moving to the kombi. Even more, I’m impressed that the jostling, bumpy ride doesn’t seem to be bothering her. There are no paved roads here — just a rough outline of the two wheeled, safari trail.

Without warning, the driver stops and points to the right: two lionesses are enjoying a wildebeest carcass.

They are literally two feet away from the car. There’s a prohibition against startling, yelling, feeding or otherwise abusing wild animals out on these plains. I’ve been to the Toronto Zoo many times throughout my life, and I have never seen a lion act so carefree and natural. So… Uncaged, so not institutionalized. The sisters regard us but continue eating and grooming without issue. Like the other animals, they most likely grew up knowing that these white, metal animals carrying humans inside them rarely cause them harm. We watch until another kombi comes, carrying yet another group of tourists. We move on.

Soon we see in a migration of wildebeest and zebra in the distance, and notice that their path will cross right over the safari trail. They’re traveling approximately 60km an hour — so we race to meet them. Just as we tell the guide to stop so they’ll pass right in front of the kombi, he keeps driving, overshooting the animals’ projected path. He ignores our pleas — and chooses a small clearing to stop the car. Before we complain, he shushes us and solemnly announces, “there is a lion. Don’t speak. Don’t even breathe.”

We turn to look at the stampede of wildebeest. It looks like they’re going to run right over us. Suddenly, like the snapping of fingers, they stop. Dead in their tracks. The leaders create a semi circle, and the rest of the herd gather in, pawing the ground, munching the tall, rough grasses.

Just below them, hiding behind some bushes is a solitary lioness. Three more are hiding to the left. They sit. They wait.

Eryn begins to wake up. She’s hot and uncomfortable and starts to protest loudly. The wildebeest perk their heads up to her noise, and I rush to shush her.  Our guide explains that they have terrible eyesight, but amazing senses of smell and hearing. Two lionesses from the left crouch and crawl over to their sister in front of us. They have a family meeting and decide the best course of action is to try to take a small beest off to the side.

They disappear from our view. 10 minutes later there’s a wild disturbance in the herd. Many of them start running madly — but it’s over in a few seconds, and the herd settles back down. In the distance we can hear the wounded wildebeest calling.

Later on in the afternoon we meet back up with the migration during a tasty grass pitt stop. We drive right through — and a few zebras and wildebeest look up to see who’s joined them for lunch. The wildebeest grunt and moan like moose. The zebras are completely silent. When they walk through the grasses, it sounds like rain.

On the way back to camp, we come across a kindergarten of adolescent giraffes.

Eryn is enthralled. She kicks her legs and wiggles with excitement. She starts making a howling noise — her first time!  It sounds like a cross between a wolf and a lion “grrr”.  She begins to babble and shriek, and succeeds in scattering the group of giraffes.

We head back to camp for dinner. That night as Hubby and I are taking Eryn back to our room for bedtime, I hear a strange noise. At first I thought it was coming from the back at the poolside BBQ.  But when I look out into the darkness, I see a strange, natural shape that doesn’t belong in the middle of a campground.

I don’t blink. I’m pretty sure that black shadowed boulder isn’t supposed to be there. A deep rumbling comes out of the darkness, and I tell Hubby to shine the flashlight straight ahead. It’s a baby hippo come to eat some of the well manicured grasses. We freeze. What if mommy is close by? The hippo is only about 6 meters away from where we stand.

And after about 5 minutes of watching him harmlessly toddle around eating grass in the night, we say goodnight and put Eryn to bed. After I’ve nursed her and she’s snoring away beneath a mosquito net canopy, I join Hubby, some security guards and SIL who are all watching a zebra munching along the same path as the hippo.  The guards shine their flashlights into the darkness, and tell us that the eyes flashing back at us belong to impalas. There’s no perimeter fence around the camp, and any animal can stroll through.

I stay with Eryn while the rest of the family play cards in the adjoining cabin.  I look out from my window for a half hour and watch the security patrol walk back and forth with sticks in their hands, ready to scare (hopefully just scare) off any animals that decide to come too far into the camp, or any larger animal like elephants and giraffes who destroy the lights and camp foliage. I laugh to myself as the same zebra eludes the patrol twice, and makes its way into the camp, straight to the main lodge.

The next morning we have a relaxing drive to the Savanna, Masai Mara and Tanzania border where FIL takes funny pictures of us with one foot in each “country”. Too many bad jokes are made about the great animal “im”migration, and how hoof prints are acceptable signage for visa control.  On the way back, we catch a cheetah filling up on its morning kill.

It’s our last day here, and its been an amazing experience. I hope that Eryn is able to remember just a little of what she’s seen, and I’m really over the moon that she can now recognize animals (although they have to be the size of a large dog to really get her attention. Poor, ignored duckies.)

Just as we’re leaving the national park, a family of elephants crosses the road in front of us.

The baby went first, and the kombi happend to drive between the calf and her mom. Mom let us know that she was not too pleased by trumpting loudly.

But we kept our distance, waved goodbye, and found it a perfect end to our once-in-a-lifetime (here’s hoping for twice!) experience.