My friend and I arrive late at our lodge in the Masai Mara, the most popular wildlife park in Kenya. We have never been on a safari before and can barely wait for the next morning to start our expedition. Our high heels left behind in New York, we head to the lodge’s bar in hiking boots—quite the adventure already. At the bar, we chat with other tourists, the conversation revolving around the wild animals they have already seen. The most celebrated, we learn, are the Big Five: elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard.
Before sunrise the next morning, we climb into the basket of a bright red-and-yellow hot air balloon along with a few other tourists for our first Masai Mara safari experience. The pilot cranks up the flames and it lifts off the ground.
As the sky brightens with the morning light, I take my first view of the Mara—an endless expanse of yellow rolling grasslands, backed by the purple silhouette of the Esoit Oloololo Escarpent to the west and divided by the chocolate waters of the Mara River. We float silently over zebras, wildebeests, antelopes, and gazelles, grazing in columns or loose herds. I alternate between snapping shots of them and looking through the binoculars, searching for the Big Five in islands of acacia trees and bushes where they often hide.
For the rest of the day, we drive around the dirt roads of the park among countless herds of zebras and wildebeest. At the sound of our Land Rover, they stop grazing and twist their necks to look at us, but we stare past them into the distance, looking for more celebrated animals.
Late in the afternoon, our driver is radioed with the location of a pride of lions. He makes a U-turn and hurries to the site. About 10 other vans and Land Rovers surround two lionesses and five cubs. I zoom in with my camera and start snapping photos, trying to keep the other cars out of my frames. Within minutes our driver starts the engine again and we rush off down the road to where a cheetah has been spotted.
The morning of my last day in the Mara, I wake up with one thought in mind. I have to see a leopard. It’s the only one of the Big Five I haven’t seen. We spend the day driving under the scorching African sun, exploring places favored by leopards.
Toward the end of the afternoon, we see a large herd of elephants. I reach for my camera — but then I stop myself. I have plenty of elephant photos. I decide to watch them instead as they move in a slow procession through the brush, their ears flapping back and forth, their heavy feet crunching on the dry grass.
Over the past two days, I have filled two memory sticks with images but I haven’t really seen much outside the lens of my camera.
As the sun dips lower toward the horizon, we stop by a large acacia tree in Ngama Hills to take in the view. Bellow us, the Mara is dotted with herds of zebras and gazelles. A bunch of wildebeests are grazing 30 feet away from us. A soft, warm wind rustles tree branches; the sky turns orange at the edges. The radio crackles; the driver exchanges some words in Swahili and starts up the engine.
“A leopard,” he tells us. “Fifteen minutes from here.”
I look at my friend. She knows what I’m thinking and nods.“Wait,” I say. “We’d rather stay and watch the sunset.”
I’ve seen four of the Big Five and I have scores of photos to prove it. But my favorite picture, the one I will take home—not in my camera but in my mind—is of the ungainly wildebeests in front of me, their long beards glowing golden in the sunset.