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12/4/2017
The Sundowner Experience at Olare Mara Kempinski Masai Mara
The Sundowner Experience at Olare Mara Kempinski Masai Mara

The ‘sundowner’ is a safari tradition. At first, you might question the wisdom of tearing off into the bush to sit under a tree and watch the sun go down – with a drink in your hand – when there is a perfectly delightful bar at the Olare Mara Kempinski – but once you’ve tried it there’s no looking back.

Ideally you set off around four o’clock with the safari vehicle suitably equipped with folding chairs and a cold box. At first you may meander along the river and visit the deep brown muddy pool where the hippos wallow, chortle and blow. Then you might set off in pursuit of the ‘local’ lion pride, which is normally to be found staked out in the long grass where the zebras come down to drink. If you’re lucky it might be play time and the cubs will be climbing all over their father, batting at his nose, swinging from his mane and being generally cubbish. Until he’s had enough; and gets up and walks away with a telltale twitch of the dark tuft of hair on the end of his tail. ‘Beware,’ it says, ‘my patience is at an end.’

If the lionesses have been lucky, you might find the pride dining on a kill – mother rasping away at the hide so as to expose the meat to the young ones, father waiting his turn. There’ll be a lot of grinding and chewing – it’s a serious business. It’s also very hard to tear yourself away from such a display, but time is moving on and the light will be changing – the sundowner spot beckons. Don’t be in too much of a rush, though, because this is the ideal time to get that show-stopping shot: a zebra posed statuesque against the horizon, a plum-coloured topi perched proudly atop his anthill, a mildly curious cud-chewing buffalo; or a hooded eagle high in a tree, his black plumes blowing in the wind.

If you peer out of the open-sided safari vehicle, you’ll see that the sky, once celestial blue, has turned to a soft lilac; and that the sun is clearly beginning its descent. A hush falls over the world, as if nature is holding her breath. And suddenly everything is tinged with gold – the silver croton bushes, the balanites or desert date trees; even the red oat grass. It’s known as ‘magic light’ and it lasts but half an hour. So use it well.

On the horizon is a single flat-topped acacia tree. It’s ultra photogenic. And it’s also where you’re heading. Arriving at the spot, which commands long views across the plains, the safari chairs are laid out and, miraculously, a tray of ‘bitings’ appears: miniature scotch eggs, fairy-sized pizzas, honey-roasted chicken, salted cashews. Then there’s a general snapping off of caps and popping open of bottles. And you sit back to watch the show.

Very slowly the landscape fades through all the shades of grey. The great mass of the far escarpment stands out in sharp relief. The sun is an orange ball shimmering in its own heat wave. Slowly it sinks behind the blue-grey hills until all that is left is a fan of silvered shafts – like searchlights across the sky. And then it’s all over.

The chill falls suddenly, lanterns are lit and a couple of Maasai warriors materialize. They are your guardians in the darkening wilderness. Leaning on their sticks, swathed in scarlet, impossibly elegant and king of all they survey, they promise another irresistible shot. And they’re happy to oblige.

On the way back you can wrap yourself in the comforting red plaid of your own Maasai shuka – and sharpen you eyes for what might appear out of the gathering gloom. This is the time to catch the hyena as he lollops across the landscape. He moves fast on powerful legs, and throws you a scornful glance, tongue lolling out of ruthless jaws. Time to observe the wildebeest as they graze peaceably on the plains, raising their heads briefly to watch as you pass, their shaggy manes soot-black in the night. It may even be the time to make out the huge grey bulk of an elephant, all too easily mistaken for a bush. It might even, if you are very lucky, be the time to catch a cheetah on the prowl, its almond eyes glinting in the headlights.

All too soon, however, you’ll make out the familiar scenery of ‘home’. There’s the familiar bend in the river, the cluster of trees that hide the camp. And now you can make out the soft buttery glow of the lights.

In the clearing below the camp a fire has been lit. Sparks fizz into the black night. Chairs have been set around it and there’s a murmur of conversation.

Safari tales are being exchanged.

And you’ve got some of your own to share….

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