Outside the lens of the camera, a wild safari awaits

I'm sitting in the outdoor bar of the Kenya Wildlife Service campsite in Nairobi, enjoying a soft drink. Two Australian girls are at the table next to me, and we start chatting. They've just come back from the Masai Mara National Reserve, one of Kenya's most popular wildlife parks, where my friend and I are headed tomorrow for a two-day safari. I ask how it was.

"Fantastic," they say. "We saw all of the Big Five!"

The Big Five – the wild animals everyone hopes to see on safari – are elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard. Although I have spent the past three weeks volunteering in a small village about 60 miles from the capital, my only encounter with wildlife so far has been a glimpse through a dirty bus window of a single giraffe, grazing by the road.

At 4:30 in the morning, my friend and I pile into a Land Rover with other tourists who have signed up for a hot-air balloon ride. In the dark, we drive to the site, where two red and yellow balloons are waiting for us.

We climb into the basket of one of them, and it lifts off the ground, shaking slightly back and forth. As the pilot cranks up the flames, it rises higher and higher into the sky, which brightens with the morning light.

I get my first view of the Mara – an endless expanse of yellow rolling grasslands, backed by the purple silhouette of the Esoit Oloololo Escarpment to the west and divided by the chocolate waters of the Mara River.

We float silently over zebras, wildebeests, antelopes, and gazelles, which are gathered in columns and loose herds.

I alternate between snapping shots of them with my camera 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 wildebeests. They stop grazing and twist their necks to look at us, but we stare past them into the distance, searching for more celebrated animals.

In late 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 day, we see a large herd of elephants. I reach for my camera – but then I stop myself. 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, I realize.

As the sun dips lower toward the horizon, we stop by a large acacia tree in Ngama Hills to take in the view. Below us, the vast Mara is dotted with herds of zebras and gazelles. A soft, warm wind rustles tree branches. A bunch of wildebeests are grazing 30 feet away from us. The radio crackles, and 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.

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