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Why you should try a safari holiday in Kenya's Maasai Mara
It could almost be a scene from The Lion King. Four lionesses lie on the plain enjoying the last of the sun’s rays. Cheeky jackals, hoping for scraps, goad the lazy lions to hunt. Three curious hyenas slouch onto stage, all hunched shoulders and sly smiles, with flashing teeth that look too big for them.

“Can anyone tell me an interesting fact about the female spotted hyena?” Clint asks. “They have a false penis,” comes the reply. The Lion King moment is over.

But that’s what happens when you go on safari with guides. Because this is no ordinary bush walk; we’re actually on a refresher course for guides. The annual Pyramids of Life course is, technically, a training camp for the award-winning guiding teams of Alex Walker’s Serian Camps, located in Kenya’s Maasai Mara and Serengeti in Tanzania. The course has now opened to guests too.

“The point of Pyramids is to take the passivity out of what safaris have become — just sitting in a jeep being driven from sighting to sighting,” Walker tells me. “We want guests to see through the eyes of a top guide, to open their minds to a lifetime of curiosity. It’s an invitation to dive deeper.”
Trainer Clint Schipper, sweeping his arms out to present the Mara North conservancy and our home for the next five days, says: “This is our classroom. It’s an immersive course. We spend all our time in the bush, let situations evolve and learn from them. Pyramids is primarily a guiding experience but it’s good to have guests along too.” You don’t have to be a safari expert, he’s at pains to say; but you’ll need to be interested in wildlife as a whole rather than simply ticking off the Big Five.

The guides at Serian have mixed skillsets. The older ones may not speak perfect English but the bush is in their blood. Younger ones — mostly guiding school graduates — speak excellent English but might have less bush experience. Unusually, some are women. All have a passion for wildlife that is palpable.

Impala grazing on the plains of Mara Norh
As I said, this isn’t your average safari. Instead of rushing to the elephants we see roaming in the distance, we home in on their poo for a lecture about the difference between elephant and hippo droppings (elephants have sticks in theirs). We watch a female leopard calmly spraying the trees to attract nearby males.

Then we stumble on a gripping scene. “Introduce the sighting to guests,” Clint softly suggests to the guides. “Then try to be quiet while they take it all in.”

Hidden in a bush are three tiny lion cubs and their mum, lying silent. Four huge buffalos caked in mud walk towards them. If they see the cubs they will kill them, Clint explains, driven by a protective instinct for their own future. “Maybe nothing will happen,” he whispers. “Or it could be a once-in-a-lifetime sighting. Let’s wait it out.”

We wait in our Land Cruisers, all 13 of us silent. One by one, the buffalos amble past the bush, until the last bull pauses and peers straight in the lions’ direction. Eventually, it moves on. “Those cubs came within three metres of losing their lives,” says Clint.

My interest in birds is not deep, yet Clint’s enthusiasm is contagious. Flicking through field guides, his students are hooked too, identifying species and answering their trainer’s regular refrain: “Tell me a power-fact about…”

The facts pour out. The greater honeybird will lead people to beehives by singing, hoping for beeswax as its reward. Only five of Africa’s 15 kingfishers actually eat fish. The tiny 10cm pied wheatear will fly non-stop across the entire Sahara on its 9,000km journey from Norway to Kenya. My disinterest turns to fascination. Our walks, too, elicit encyclopaedic information. We don’t get far as we’re constantly stopping to study insects, rocks, flowers and trees, frogs and damselflies, butterflies, poo and paw prints. We spot hippos, a newborn giraffe and a lone hartebeest but we’re mesmerised by an army of Matabele ants. This is a nature walk like no other.

On night drives, we learn about astronomy and meet weird creatures such as the bubbling kassina, a frog with a distinctive bubble-popping call, and the zorilla that looks like a mongoose crossed with a skunk. Lions prowl silently past our vehicle searching for supper as a tiny bushbaby, all eyes and ears, scurries away.

The following morning we leave camp before sunrise to experience the dawn chorus. “The idea is just to sit here in the dark with your guests,” Clint whispers to his students. “Let’s listen to the waking of the day. We experience this every day and we know how wonderful it is. Imagine if you’d never heard it before…”

On cue, the birds start performing. Songsters such as the nightjar, rufous-naped lark, ring-necked dove, striped kingfisher, guinea fowl and African cuckoo take turns to chime in until the birdsong builds to a beautiful crescendo. The cow-like smell of buffalos wafts our way. Impalas’ dainty hooves trot past our vehicle. In the dark, a hyena laughs, a lion roars, a jackal yelps. This is what Pyramids of Life is all about. As dawn breaks, the Lion King moment is back.


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