A farewell, the glorious Maasai Mara

It was only four days, but time in the Maasai Mara seems to go in slow motion – especially the nights. The daily routine – up at dawn, out for a drive to spot animals, return for food and a few hour’s rest, before another afternoon drive, followed by a long, dark night in a  tent – was very seductive and relaxed. We saw lots of animals and we ended our time with a stunning sunset before taking the long and gruelling road back to Nairobi.

The landscapes of the Maasai Mara are almost as breathtaking as the animals that inhabit them. When I was there, just prior to the greatest migration of land animals anywhere on the planet, the whole region seemed covered in long golden grasses. The Maasai Mara forms a continuous landmass between Kenya and Tanzania, where it becomes the Serengeti. Each year over one million Wildebeest and eight hundred thousand Zebra migrate north from the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara. The nutritious grassland wouldn’t last long when they arrived.

The border between Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti. Africa

The border between Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti. Africa

Landscape of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Landscape of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Landscape of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Landscape of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

On our final drive through the National Reserve we would head to the Mara River where, in just a few weeks, two million plus Wildebeests and Zebra would risk life and limb crossing it to reach the grassy plains of the Maasai Mara. Waiting for them in the river would be giant Nile Crocodiles, the size of which inspires a sense of awe and terror. These pre-historic death machines reach six metres in length and 900 kg in weight; while their speed, powerful jaws and razor-sharp teeth make them fearsome predators.

While humans occasionally fall prey to crocodiles, a bigger threat is the Hippopotamus (a name given to them by the Ancient Greeks, meaning ‘River Horse’, despite the fact that their closest relatives are whales and porpoises). Hippos are generally considered one of the most dangerous creatures in Africa: they are very aggressive and can run faster than humans. It was reassuring that an AK-47 wielding park guard accompanied us along the river bank.

Park Guard at the Mara River, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Park Guard at the Mara River, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Crocodile in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Crocodile in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hippopotamus in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hippopotamus in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hippopotamus with baby in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hippopotamus with baby in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

As we returned from the river, we came across some other giants of Africa. We had spotted a small band of elephants on our first day in the park, but after that they had been conspicuously avoiding us – difficult when you’re the size of an elephant. On our final drive we spotted a large herd of elephants. Pre-occupied watching them walking and eating with their young, we neglected to look behind us; when we did, this huge bull elephant had crept up on us and was only a few metres from the jeep.

Joseph quickly started the engine and moved a safe distance away – elephant behaviour can be unpredictable, and our small vehicle was no match for a 7000kg male elephant.

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Driving off towards the camp, we saw giraffes, hyenas, ostriches and many other animals amidst the sweeping vistas of the Maasai Mara.

Giraffe in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Giraffe in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Giraffe in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Giraffe in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hyena in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hyena in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Ostrich in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Ostrich in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Kori Bustard in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Kori Bustard in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

This East African journey came to an end with a sublime sunset, bathing the landscape in a surreal and beautiful light…

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Let sleeping cheetahs lie…and keep African Buffalo at a safe distance

They are sleek and dignified, yet as the fastest land animal on the planet, they are also the Maasai Mara’s most specialised killing machines. Their evolutionary adaptation is sublime. Cheetah’s are magnificent, they can go from 0 km/h to 100 km/h in three seconds and can reach up to 120 km/h. Their acceleration and their ability to change direction at speed is staggering. To achieve this they have thin bodies with a large chest, inside which they have an enlarged heart and lungs, and, unusually, they have semi-retractable claws.

Cheetah in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetah in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

All this adaptation has some negatives though. The Cheetah is smaller and lighter than most other Maasai Mara predators. This leaves them open to being bullied, frequently having to surrender their kill to larger and more aggressive animals – especially those cunning hyenas. They have adapted to this by hunting at different times of day, but they still lose a lot of food to other animals.

Its quite hard to observe them sprinting after pray, but Cheetahs can be seen when they are on the look out for potential prey or sleeping off a good lunch. Despite sitting on a small mound, this majestic looking female cheetah was hard to spot in the long grass. The coloration of her coat was so similar to the colour of the grass that she blended in perfectly.

Cheetah in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetah in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetah in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetah in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetah in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetah in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

In isolation she looks as if she is just having a rest and taking in the view. In reality, she was observing this small group of Coke’s Hertebeests. Although it is unlikely that a lone Cheetah could successfully kill the much bigger adult Hertebeest, they were, understandably, behaving quite skittishly.

Coke's Hartebeest in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Coke’s Hartebeest in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

We came across these very contented looking Cheetahs lying under a tree. According to Joseph, our guide, they were male siblings who hunted together, ate together and slept it off together. I don’t blame them, it was hot in the mid-morning sun and, after all that running around, lying under a tree following a successful hunt seemed like a reasonable thing to do. I’d have been doing it myself if lying under a tree wouldn’t have resulted in death.

Males often form groups together, sometimes for life, while females are solitary and tend to roam over much wider areas than males. Cooperating as a group while hunting probably allows for greater hunting success, and groups of Cheetahs can probably defend their kill more successfully from other predators. Look at the blood-stained fur around the mouths of these Cheetahs…and then look into their eyes!

Cheetahs in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetahs in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetahs in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetahs in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetahs in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Cheetahs in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

I was thrilled to see Cheetahs, but over the four days we spent in the Maasai Mara we managed to spot literally dozens of different types of animals. We didn’t manage the whole set of the Big Five, Leopards and Rhinos managed to evade us, but we did see some quite terrifying African Buffalo. Considered to be one of the most dangerous animals for humans, they are intelligent, aggressive, have very short tempers and are highly unpredictable. Just some of the reasons they were considered one of the five most dangerous African animals to hunt, and why they have never been domesticated.

They are also hugely powerful – reaching up to 900 kgs in weight – and those horns can do considerable damage. Unusually, the horns are fused at the base, and this covers the front of their heads in an almost impenetrable protective layer. This comes in handy when the males are bashing their heads together to decide who is dominant in the mating season. The huge horns of adult males are one of the reasons African Buffalos are still hunted by ‘Big Game Hunters’. Their heads probably look quite nice overlooking the dining table.

Our driver kept his distance, and the engine running – just to be on the safe side.

African Buffalo in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Buffalo in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Buffalo in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Buffalo in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Buffalo in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Buffalo in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lions of the Maasai Mara…The Yawn

We sat quietly in our jeep, watching animals cautiously approach a water hole, next to which was this lioness. As we looked on she suddenly yawned, giving us all a memorable demonstration of just how powerful those jaws are…

Lioness in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lioness in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lioness in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lioness in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lioness in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lioness in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lioness in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lioness in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lioness in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lioness in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

…glad I was safely inside a jeep and not potential lion prey.

Lions of the Maasai Mara, alarming and amorous

One of the more surprising things about the Maasai Mara National Reserve, is the sheer numbers of lions that are thriving here. We saw many young and baby lions, but there were an awful lot of their adult parents around as well. The less surprising thing was the number of vehicles driving tourists around the reserve, on the look-out for safari’s big five: lions, leopards, rhino, elephant and buffalo.

Lions in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lions in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lions in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lions in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

At times we saw several vehicles in the same area, at other times we didn’t see a vehicle for a long time. Whenever there was a sighting of an interesting animal drivers radio it to other drivers, and you often see vehicles converging on a particular place from all directions. Its a little odd to be a part of this human circus amidst hundreds of wild and ferocious animals.

We came across the hilarious/terrifying sight of a vehicle with four or five tourists inside which had broken down. If breaking down in the middle of the Maasai Mara wasn’t bad enough, it had broken down right next to a water hole. Next to the water hole, and only a couple of metres from the vehicle, was a very large lioness. No one was getting out of their vehicle to hook up a tow line. In the end another jeep ‘pushed’ the broken down vehicle out of the danger zone.

Lioness drinking in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lioness drinking in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Fate it seem, has a sense of humour. A little while later, our driver reversed up a banking and got our vehicle stuck. We couldn’t go forward or backward. The driver poked his head through the open roof and, declaring it to be safe, asked me and another person to get out and push. To this day, I don’t know why either of us agreed to it. We got out of the jeep, with the speed of people aware time was against them, frantically pushed it off the banking, and raced back inside.

There is nothing funny about being on foot in the Maasai Mara with so many lions around. Even in the vehicle, when this huge male lion approached us it was pretty disconcerting. At first he was so well camouflaged we didn’t even see him, by the time he was only a few feet away from our vehicle, we’d seen enough…

Lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lion in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

We’d seen a lot of baby lions, but this also seemed to be the mating season. It seemed fitting that we’d end up witnessing the rather strange experience of lion sex. Not sure it is entirely decent to watch as lions copulate, but it all happened very fast. Actually very, very fast. Lion sex takes a matter of seconds (so fast the first photo is out of focus).

Lions mating in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lions mating in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lions mating in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lions mating in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lions mating in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lions mating in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Post-coital lions in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Post-coital lions in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Lions of the Maasai Mara, caring parents and killing machines

Day two of my Maasai Mara adventure was only a few hours old and I’d already learned that pretty much everything that moves here is lunch for a larger, faster, smarter, more vicious creature. The animal kingdom is truly extraordinary in its utter ruthlessness, yet I was also visiting the Maasai Mara at a time when there were large numbers of young, particularly young lions. The tenderness lionesses show towards their young, seemingly at odds with the ferocious nature of these magnificent creatures, is incredible.

Seeing a decapitated zebra, a very contented lioness close by, in the early morning was just what I needed to shake me out of my slumber. It had been a fairly sleepless night in the army-surplus tent: too many unfamiliar noises, creating too many fantastical thoughts of death-by-animal…and that was before I needed to use the toilet at 3am.

Lioness with her kill, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lioness with her kill, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lioness with her kill, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lioness with her kill, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

A bright moon illuminated the Maasai Mara as, in the wee (no pun intended) hours of the night, I cautiously unzipped my tent en route to the pit latrines. Two Maasai tribesmen, protecting the camp, were silently huddled under blankets next to the dying embers of a fire. They gave me encouraging words to see me on my way, but walking the 100 metres to the latrines was still an unnerving experience. Cursing the Tusker beer, cause of my nighttime peregrinations, my heart was pounding loudly when I finally zipped myself back into the lion-proof tent.

Blood stained lionesses, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Blood stained lionesses, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Blood stained lionesses, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Blood stained lionesses, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Sleep didn’t come easily, and I was grateful when the sun rose and we headed out early to see what the animals of the Maasai Mara were doing. Early morning is generally a good time to see animals hunting, we were unlucky and only saw the aftermath. There is evidence that the animals have started to change their behaviour patterns to avoid tourist vehicles, hunting earlier or later when most people are still in bed or enjoying a sundowner.

Lioness with cubs, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lioness with cubs, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lioness with cubs, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lioness with cubs, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lioness with cubs, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lioness with cubs, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

It wasn’t important that we didn’t see a chase, just being close to these wonderful hunter-killers was privilege enough. I particularly loved seeing young lions, of which there were many. I visited the Maasai Mara a few weeks before the great northward migration of zebra and wildebeest from the Serengeti; with so much on-the-hoof food heading into the Maasai Mara, its probably a good time to have young.

Baby lions look so cute and innocent, its hard to remember that in a few months time they would happily rip your throat out. These sweet looking miniatures, learning the tricks of the trade from mum, are mesmerising to watch. We sat observing them playing for a long time, although it was a little disconcerting that they were gnawing on the leg of a former antelope.

Lion cubs 'play' with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs ‘play’ with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs 'play' with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs ‘play’ with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs 'play' with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs ‘play’ with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs 'play' with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs ‘play’ with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs 'play' with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs ‘play’ with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs 'play' with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Lion cubs ‘play’ with the legs of a dead antelope, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Into the wild, Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve

Perhaps its the optimist in me, but I probably should have known better. The four days, three nights, food and transport included, deal I’d got from a travel agency in downtown Nairobi was just too good to be true. I’d been persuaded that, as a late addition to the group, the cost of a trip to the Maasai Mara was heavily reduced. As we turned into the safari camp after a long, dusty and very potholed journey from Kenya’s capital city, it suddenly dawned on me where the real ‘savings’ on this trip came from.

Maasai herdsmen and cattle, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Maasai herdsmen and cattle, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Army-surplus tent, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Army-surplus tent, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

The army-surplus tents stood under some small trees in a clearing. The instruction to buy a  can of bug killer suddenly made sense. The wood hut off to one side would serve as restaurant and bar for the next few days, the row of pit latrines buzzing with flies served as a salutary reminder that a lot of Kenyans don’t have access to flush toilets. Everyone working there was very jolly though, the Tusker beer was chilling in a bucket of water, and despite the bare bones accommodation, this promised to be an exciting few days.

It was definitely not going to be a Spafari (the high end safari operations that provide luxury tented enclosures, a swimming pool, aroma-therapy and massages to accompany the ubiquitous sundowner). The major upside of our camp was that it was only a short walk to the entrance to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. At least that seemed like a good thing until our orientation session.

Entrance to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Entrance to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

It turned out that a couple of weeks earlier a pack of lionesses had hunted down a zebra and killed it in the middle of the camp. Taking a leisurely lunch, they spend the next 16 hours sat around eating and sleeping while, presumably terrified, travellers hid inside their flimsy army-surplus tents. Only when the lionesses decided they needed to hunt something else, could people leave their tents.

Our guide, Joseph, took it all in his stride, “Lions don’t see a tent as food. Stay inside the tent and you won’t have a problem. Its a good way to see the lions up close, their habits when eating as a pack,” he needlessly pointed out.

Zebra and Wildebeest, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Zebra and Wildebeest, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Two elephants eating a tree, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Two elephants eating a tree, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Arcacia tree and view over the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Arcacia tree and view over the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

I was just musing on the wisdom of this fact when he added, “Much worse is the elephant. If the elephants come through the camp they just trample the tents and everything inside them.” Really? “There’s no need to worry. We have Maasai warriors guarding the tents at night. They will keep you safe.” Feeling less than positive, I dropped my things inside my tent and we headed out for a sunset drive through the park to see if we could spot anything of interest.

To describe the savannah-landscape of golden grasses spotted with Arcacia and Baobab trees, as anything less that magnificent would be to do a huge disservice to the Maasai Mara. The Mara seems to go on for ever, sweeping majestically south to the Serengeti in Tanzania.

Impala, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Impala, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Zebra with Oxpecker, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Zebra with Oxpecker, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Warthogs and Wildebeest, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Warthogs and Wildebeest, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

If the landscape provides the backdrop, it is the animals that live in it that most people come to see. For someone who comes from a country where the urban fox is considered to be the most dangerous mammal roaming the land, the wildness of the Maasai Mara’s animals comes as a real jolt to the system. Especially when you witness large predators tucking into a gazelle or zebra.

Giraffe, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Giraffe, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Sunset, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Sunset, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Our first ‘drive’ through the Maasai Mara didn’t disappoint, we spotted a large number of animals, all seemingly unconcerned by our presence…and there was a beautiful Maasai Mara sunset to accompany our return to the camp. Over the next few days we’d see an amazing amount of wildlife.

Africa revisited, past wanderings through the beautiful continent

Travelling for work and for pleasure, I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to visit several African countries: north, south, east and west. Some of the most extraordinary cultures, peoples, landscapes and animals anywhere on this planet are on the African Continent. Back in London after a year and a quarter in Latin America, and looking over old photos, I thought it would be fun to explore those adventures again in this blog. It is a travel blog, after all.

A young girl laughs, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

A young girl laughs, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Football shirt sellers, Yaounde, Cameroon, Africa

Football shirt sellers, Yaounde, Cameroon, Africa

Africa is not a place for preconceptions. If there is one truism, it is that a visit to any country in Africa will quickly disabuse you of most, if not all, your pre-existing views about the continent. This isn’t the place to go into it, but Western media coverage of Africa has been, and is, often negative, if not downright neo-colonial. While conflicts and dehumanising human rights abuses rage on in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, to name two, its unlikely that the mainstream media is going to improve.

As with everything else in life, there are many other Africa’s which don’t make it onto the news agenda. For a start, the continent is vast, and the nations and peoples who populate them are as diverse as is humanly possible. Undoubtably, African countries face a range of problems – environmental degradation, corruption and a lack of political accountability, poverty, ethnic tensions and rampant inequality amongst others – but it also possesses the resources, intellectual capital and desire to overcome these issues. For the visitor, exploring the countries of Africa is a vast adventure.

A Tuareg sits on his camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A Tuareg sits on his camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

The King in his jungle, mountain gorilla, Rwanda, Africa

The King in his jungle, mountain gorilla, Rwanda, Africa

It is almost impossible to comprehend the scale and artistry of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia, or the devotion of the priests and pilgrims who come here to observe a unique form of Orthodox Christianity. Yet, Lalibela seems a million miles away when you’re clambering up the side of a volcano with a AK-47 wielding park guard, only to push back the foliage to discover a troop of magnificent mountain gorillas, in the Parc National des Volcan in north-western Rwanda. The AK-47 is for the gorillas’ protection, incidentally.

Women fish in the shallows, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Women fish in the shallows, Pemba, Mozambique, Africa

Is it time to run yet? A lion approaches in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Is it time to run yet? A lion approaches in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Descending from the volcanoes onto the plains of East Africa, Kenya’s Maasai Mara seems to extend forever and is home to some of the most incredible animals and beautiful people anywhere in the world. Off to the west, the truly extraordinary cultures that inhabit Mali – a country currently beset by problems – are worth travelling the globe to encounter. It is almost impossible to put into words, but the experience of waking in the Sahara Desert to the sight of hundreds of brightly turbaned Tuareg, racing past on camels, is simply spectacular.

A fish seller in Kampala's central market, Uganda, Africa

A fish seller in Kampala’s central market, Uganda, Africa

That doesn’t even touch upon the thrill of tracking chimpanzees through the Kibale National Forest in Uganda; or swimming in the aquamarine ocean off the coast of Mozambique; or sharing a beer or seven with a group of Zambian football fans in a bar in upmarket Nairobi; or exploring an old Portuguese slaving fort one morning, and climbing a vertiginous volcano the next, while stranded on the isolated mid-Atlantic islands of Cape Verde. On second thoughts, this could be quite a lot of work…

Fishing boats line the shore in the former Portuguese slave port of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fishing boats line the shore in the former Portuguese slave port of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

…for the next few weeks I’ll be writing about my African wanderings and sharing some of my favourite photos, interspersed occasionally with more ‘news from nowhere’ here in the UK.