Writer Sophie Friedman recounts the lush rewards of her travels in Kenya during Emerald Season.
“Stepping off the plane in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve my eyes were met by electric shades of green. It proved almost disorienting, since my daydreams of this journey had been filled with visions of a dry and arid landscape. Perhaps this notion was skewed by the riveting photos of the millions of wildebeest crossing the Maasai Mara plains during the Great Migration every August. But this was May, when the surrounds flourished from the intermittent rains, which typically begin in March.
Just minutes after arriving, two birds — the little bee-eater and the lilac-breasted roller, Kenya’s national bird — appeared as if to greet us. My passion was sparked and during game drives that ensued, loath to miss a bird, I sat with one hand on my grandfather’s binoculars and the other on my camera. Emerald Season serves as the ideal time for bird watching because the rains bring flowers and trees into bloom.
Flamingos move en masse during this period, with thousands upon thousands of birds festooning lakes like huge swaths of pink ribbon. But an abundance of birds wasn’t at the exclusion of other creatures. Over the next several days, animals continued to appear in a veritable parade — impalas and zebras, lions and buffalo, and elephants so enigmatically beautiful in their enormity. Hippos bathed in wetlands, while crocodiles lurked. I felt like I was in a National Geographic documentary come to life.
Between the morning and afternoon safaris most guests opted to relax and take in the infinite beauty of the Maasai Mara’s verdant plains from a hammock or plunge pool. I was eager to take the soccer balls I’d brought with me to a local school and it was clear that I was truly the one benefiting from the experience. After hours spent playing soccer and Simon Says, a classroom of nine-year-olds performed a song so sweetly and with such enthusiasm I cried. The visit was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Our cheerful encounters with youth continued during game drives. Emerald Season is baby season, when animals ranging from hyenas and giraffes to elephants and zebras bring new life into the world. One morning, we saw a pair of cheetah cubs that our guide told us were lost siblings, now reunited. During a magical hot air balloon ride over the bright green plains and leafy acacia trees, we were treated to a bird’s-eye view of zebras — calves running aside their mothers. Driving back to camp, we spotted a pride of lions. The car was stopped and five lion cubs ambled over, pawing the wheels. Unafraid, they stared right into our eyes, so close we could’ve reached out and touched them.
There was one thing I didn’t see during any of my game drives, and that was other vehicles. It was astounding to seemingly have the entire game reserve to myself; to be alone with the animals was beautifully humbling. And although I had expected afternoon showers would allow for some downtime and maybe a rainbow, it didn’t rain a single day.”
Sophie Friedman writes for a variety of publications globally including CondÈ Nast Traveler, Forbes Travel Guide and Fodorís Travel guides.