We are camping again. I can hardly believe it! Our tent is spacious, strung below a wooden roof, set into the Esoit Oloololo Escarpment with a large decking area that overlooks the Masai Mara. Inside is a bed big enough for a whole family, a shower with water hot enough to make tea, a separate toilet and two large basins to avoid fights over territorial rights to space and usage. We had a houseboy to look after the room, a butler to cater for all our whims, a ‘security guard’ to ensure we didn’t get eaten and a ranger to drive and guide us throughout our safari. I hated it!
The Masai Mara (the spotted plains) is the northern extension of the Serengeti (endless plains). Essentially, the Mara is in Kenya and the Serengeti is in Tanzania though why it has two different names depending upon which side of the border we stand is a mystery that no one can explain. The area is also part of the Rift Valley that stretches from Tanzania, through Kenya and into Ethiopia.
We have come here to witness the bi-annual migration of animals as they wander about seeking water and lush grazing as the seasons change. Right now the herds are moving north in the dry season before they return south later in the year. The migration pulls 1.5 million wildebeest, 500,000 zebra, 200,000 buffalo and assorted hangers on of antelope, gazelle and carrion eaters such as eagles and vultures into the Mara. They fill the golden yellow savannah plain with black crowds that huddle together at night and string out during the day in a line of single file that stretches for miles.
From the vantage point of our camp, we can look out across the open rolling golden grasslands of the Masai Mara plains. The view is dotted with lone Acacia trees that stand around 3 metres tall and provide some shade to the animals during the heat of the day. The plain appears to be crawling with wildlife. Black dots wandering, sometimes galloping, across wide open spaces. The Mara River and its tributaries cut across the straw coloured landscape camouflaged by a ribbon of trees that guard its banks. Every living creature is busy looking for food.
We had an open-sided 4×4 to observe the wildlife. We had high hopes of seeing the Big Five – elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo – so called because they were considered the most dangerous animals to hunt. We saw them all at close quarters except for the shy leopard who managed to elude the best attempts of our guides to track them down. But we also saw the elegant giraffe, lazy cheetah, hundreds of different types of gazelle and antelope, crocs galore, thousands of zebra and, of course, the star of the show, the wildebeest. The zebra and wildebeest tend to travel together for protection. Zebra having excellent eyesight and wildebeest having excellent hearing.
But it doesn’t matter what faculties the beasts may have, they all need to cross the river. Hungry crocodiles, up to 5 metres long, wait at the crossing points to grab an easy meal. The migrating animals know perfectly well that the river crossing is dangerous and they gather in nervous numbers near the banks working up the courage to make the dash across the murky Mara. None want to be the first to attempt the crossing, the slightest noise or movement spooks the herds and they stampede back up the bank in a cloud of dust. When one brave beast takes the plunge across the river, they all follow kicking up the water into a white rage. Any stumble, hesitation or fall is fatal as the entire herd tramples over the top of the young, the old, the unbalanced or the sick. I suspect more wildebeest get killed by their own panicking brethren than by crocodiles and we find many dead bodies downstream wedged between rocks or caught in trees being ripped apart by vultures.
We saw some gazelle crossing, a favourite snack of the crocs, with one large adult being caught by a large black crocodile that must have been over 4 metres long. Having drowned its prey, the croc began flinging the gazelle from side to side trying to break it into more manageable pieces. Water, blood and guts were cast half way across the Mara. Eventually, another croc came along and grabbed the other end and together they tore it in two before Big Croc managed to swallow the gazelle head first.
An American girl in our car was most upset by the nasty crocodiles and cried in anguish, ‘someone should tell the gazelle this isn’t a safe place to cross!’ We were all stunned into several moments of polite silence before I enquired of our guide, Benson, whether he knew of anyone who spoke Gazelle.
In fact, our American friend managed to ask questions and make comments that inadvertently provided numerous moments of suppressed giggles that provided light relief from the serious task of game hunting. One classic happened when we had stopped and Benson was scanning the distant horizon for signs of lion. Our American friend also peered through binoculars and asked excitedly, ‘what’s that over there?’
‘Those are cars.’ Benson replied.
‘Oh, I thought they were solar panels.’
Yup, solar panels roam the grasslands too and spotting them is a coup worthy of the very best of National Geographic.
We went on a dawn balloon ride, this time with a different set of Americans (there seem to be more of them here than animals). The basket held 16 people squeezed into four sections plus a pilot. In our section we had a young blond girl from the Czech Republic and her ‘companion’, an elderly (been there, done that) gentleman from Seattle large enough to fill the space all by himself. The balloon lumbered into the fresh morning air and glided silently across the land. The surprising aspect of our balloon trip was that we didn’t maintain a constant height. We bobbed along, sometimes brushing the grass, sometimes scraping the tops of tress and sometimes soaring high above the plain. Spooked wildebeest and zebra scattered in every direction below us, Ostrich left their nest revealing a dozen or so enormous white eggs, vultures left their vantage point in trees and sought the safety of an early thermal. It was fascinating, fun and frivolous.
The landing was something of a heart starter: crashing to earth as the morning sun kick-started the day’s wind and we were dragged for 100 metres or more as the pilot fought to deflate the balloon which was now acting as a sail. But all passengers crawled out of the basket, laughing, happy and injury free to take a ‘champagne’ breakfast in the middle of golden plains.
Afterwards, we were collected by our safari vehicle and taken off for another hunt. We passed the site of several ‘kills’ that had now been abandoned for squabbling vultures to pick clean. They came off thermals to zone in on the remains to compete with Marabou Stalks for the tastier morsels. It was every man for himself in a noisy melee and even those that had managed to secure a decent bit of flesh had to fight to keep it.
But the highlight of the day was tracking down lion. First, we found two females hunting near some scrubby bushes and one of them came close enough to the vehicle to check out whether we were wearing our running shoes. Next we found a pride of females and youngsters devouring a wildebeest. The cubs were getting stuck in to the soft underbelly, their faces and whiskers smeared red with blood as the adults lazed in a circle around them. It wasn’t easy to see clearly what was going on because of the tall grass but we lingered for some time watching them enjoy their meal.
About a mile away, in the safety of some woods that surrounded a swamp, we came across two black rhino: a mother and her ‘little’ one. Rhinos cannot see very well but their hearing is superb and we got close enough for mum to look bothered by our presence. I remembered how, when I was here at the tender age of 18, we had been charged by one of these tank-like beats and I felt slightly concerned that it was about to happen again. But fortunately the three ton rhino relaxed, becoming unconcerned by our proximity and allowed us to snap away without deciding to take us out.
The Masia Mara, at this time of year, is overflowing with wildlife. There were wandering buffalo munching the grass on the hillside, elephant outside our camp eating trees, warthogs inside the camp eating everything, monkeys in the trees, colourful birds, slinking hyenas and the topi gazelle, only found in the Mara. And every animal encounter was different: we may have seen giraffe for the umpteenth time or spotted the millionth wildebeest and the ten thousandth zebra but something else was going on that we hadn’t yet witnessed and it was impossible to tire of going out to watch the glory of nature.
We finished our time with a walk up the escarpment accompanied by a Maasai warrior and a security guard armed with a rifle (he had yet to need to use it). We discussed the Maasai life. How they live in many little villages surrounded by two circles of thorn bushes to ward off predators eager to take their cattle. Wealth is measured in cattle and when they get married the boy has to give his bride’s parents cattle in exchange for their daughter (15 head seems to be the average price). We discussed how the two footed standing jump was an important part of the male culture with the highest jumper being honoured and revered. The hot subject was circumcision. Both boys are circumcised and girls mutilated around the age of 15 in a ceremony that passes them into adulthood. The boys then become warriors and cannot marry for ten years, the girls become available for marriage. Female genital mutilation is supposed to be illegal but it is very much still the norm. Debbie left our two escorts in no doubt about how she felt about it (barbaric) and our rifle toting friend said that he would leave the decision on circumcision for his daughters to decide. However, we could tell from the sultry, uncommunicative demeanour of our warrior friend where he stood on the debate.