The Mara River snakes through Kenya’s most biodiverse savannah, the Masai Mara. Its caramel coloured waters move languidly, winding through the golden grassland. The river’s banks are tinted red, from the iron in its rich, fertile soil. Even from a distance, we can see its shores are dotted with many animals. These are hippos, basking in the sun, warming up from wallowing in the river’s chilly currents.
Dawn on the Masai Mara
Located on an elevated plain over a thousand meters above sea level, the air here is always pleasantly cool, especially in the mornings and evenings. Under the warm, yellow glow of the sun, the savannah is paradise. As our land cruiser trundles out of the miniature forest surrounding our tented lodge, we are greeted by a fabulous sight. Open grassland, stretching out for miles and miles, as far as the eye can see. The only interruption to this endless landscape are the umbrella acacia trees, which stand, silhouetted, against the coral dawn sky.
A Breakfast for Scavengers
As we continue driving down the undulating dirt road, partially covered in grass, we encounter a peculiar, yet enchanting sight. A medley of scavengers gathered around the carcass of a wildebeest. A fresh kill, by the looks of it. The resident pride of lions have been busy while we were sound asleep in our tents. Up to thirty hyenas surround the body. On the periphery of the hyenas, a collection of different species of vulture await their turn to feed.
Further out still, trotting excitedly on the fringes are a pair of silver-backed jackals, their fur glittering, haloed under the fresh morning light. We linger upon this scene, fascinated by the self-organisation of these creatures, as each animal waits their turn at the buffet table. In under an hour, the entire carcass is consumed. In nature, nothing is wasted.
“Enjoolata”, or the Joy of the Unexpected
Our journey into the heart of the African savannah continues. Expectant hearts and observant eyes wondering what the wild will send our way.
In the Masai language, there is a special word for a feeling often experienced on safari. “Enjoolata”, which describes the joy felt when something hidden becomes known. The word is an amalgamation of different sensations – surprise, delight and perhaps, a feeling of epiphany.
On the Masai Mara, one can travel for hours through the open grassland and notice nothing out of the ordinary. Then, in a flash, a great flurry of activity takes place, and some wonder of nature reveals itself. The Great Migration, one of nature’s greatest spectacles, unfolds in this fashion.
The Great Migration in Masai Mara
Year on year, thousands flock to the grasslands of the Masai Mara to witness this incredible event. Between the months of July and September, millions of grazers – wildebeests, zebra, impala and an array of antelopes, move thousands of kilometres in search of greener pastures. This is also a time of bounty for the big cats of the savannah, as ample prey makes for easy meals.
To observe this spectacle, we make our way to a notable crossing point along the Mara River. There are a few of these along the river’s bank. What makes them suitable crossing points is how the land dips towards the sandy water, forming a gentle slope for the migrating animals to enter and exit the river.
We wait by the riverbank, observing the large heard of wildebeest on the other side. Mixed in, among the hundreds of black bodies are a few, smaller, brown ones. These are gazelles hoping to take advantage of the mass movement of wildebeest to cross the crocodile-infested waters. For such an activity, there is safety in numbers.
Great Herds Make for Greater Indecision
The wildebeest are indecisive. The beasts know the risks involved. Inevitably, some are bound to die, as crossing the river is fraught with dangers. However, they are helpless against instincts evolved over millions of years, which compel them to migrate towards the smell of rain. As the day gets hotter, the stronger the urge to cross the river becomes. Eventually, they will choose to risk their lives and dive into the cold, murky waters of the Mara River. Sometimes, this decision is made at ten in the morning, sometimes, late in the afternoon. There is no way of knowing until the first brave wildebeest takes the plunge, leading the entire herd onto the other side.
Before the wildebeests cross, there is a great deal of indecisiveness. The herd of hundreds, if not thousands, of animals, go back and forth between different crossing points on the river, trying to make up their minds. After an hour of this, we notice the small group of gazelles giving up. Tiring of the pointless back and forth, they disperse from the crowd to continue grazing on their side of the river. However, today, we are fortunate, for the beasts decide to cross just a few minutes shy of noon. After some hesitation, due to the presence of multiple crocodiles at their chosen crossing point, the leader of the herd takes the first leap. The next follows closely, accompanied shortly by another after him. And so it begins, one of nature’s finest performances.
Reaching the Other Side
As they cross, the animals kick up significant amounts of dust from the river banks, creating an incredible atmosphere. Surprisingly, they do not neigh or whine. The only sounds are the thundering of hooves and the splashing of the river as it navigates around the mass of bodies.
One by one, the creatures make it to the other side. Some are lost along the way, victims to the crocodile’s powerful jaws. But this is a small fraction of the herd, compared to the numbers that make it through. Sometimes, these crossings can last hours. When herds, tens of thousands in number, make an attempt to reach the other side. Today, a day in mid-September, late in the migration, the small herd completes the crossing in fifteen minutes.
The Never-Ending Grassland
From here, we drive deeper into the rolling hills of the Greater Mara. As we look around, we begin to see countless black specks dotting the land around us. At first, we try to count them, making an estimate of the number of animals per acre of land. But as we drive deeper into the herds, we realise this task is futile. For even at the furthest hill, far into the horizon, we can still see innumerable dots speckling the grassy slopes. Amongst the wildebeests are also a significant number of other grazers. There are large herds of grumpy buffalo, gregarious zebras and playful gazelles. The zebras, in particular, are a joy to watch as they take turns rolling in the dust. We look on in wonderment as these dazzling creatures athletically flip onto their backs, kicking up a cloud of sand, before gracefully leaping back up, onto their hooves.
The distances on the Masai Mara are vast, but we are in no hurry. We take our time, meandering on the many paths that crisscross the natural reserve. Our senses are keyed into the surroundings, our eyes scanning the distant bush, in the hopes of spotting lion, cheetah or leopard. However, it is almost late afternoon, when the land is at it warmest. Any lions or leopards are sure to be hiding, sheltering from the heat. Even under the shade of our jeep’s open roof, the sun’s balmy rays enter to warm our skin. Along with the vehicle’s gentle rocking motion and the uninterrupted landscape, we soon start to feel sleep creeping upon us.
Dusk over the Masai Mara
We begin to make our way back to our lodge, leaving the Greater Mara and the Mara Triangle behind, to enter the private conservancy of Mara North. The landscape here is much the same, one of open grassland and undulating hills dotted with the occasional acacia tree. There seems to be no other vehicle aside from ours on these lands. It is just us, and the animals of the Mara.
The sun has now begun to sink. It’s still an hour before sunset, but already, the bright blue sky of the afternoon has started to darken, and shades of lilac tinge the horizon. Although we have given up on finding a big cat, our guide has not. Soon he notices one lone jeep a few kilometres away. The vehicle is stationary, and it looks like the people inside are observing something on the Mara plains.
A Family of Cheetahs
Our guide peers through his binoculars and tells us that he has seen a family of cheetahs, relaxing in the tall grass. We drive towards the family, occasionally going off-road to get there quicker. However, it seemed unlikely the cheetahs were about to go anywhere. After all, there were no prey animals around, and the cats looked well-fed and contented.
The family of cheetahs was a mother and her four grown cubs. They watched us as we arrived, but seemed mostly unconcerned. They were resting among the tall grasses, their light-coloured, spotted bodies well camouflaged on the savannah. The mother and her cubs are long, lean and incredibly graceful. If not for the rustling of grass as they passed, we would not hear they were there.
It is now when the savannah is at its quietest. We turned off our jeep’s engine and allowed the tranquillity of the wilderness to fill our senses. There was only the gentle breeze, the song of a distant bird and the silent cats, walking away from us, into the horizon.
Sunset over the Masai Mara
The sun was now beginning to sink fast, and the sky was soon covered in vibrant hues of deep orange, vivid red and dark purple. The land was set on fire, cast in a rich, golden glow. But this breathtaking moment would not last forever, and soon it would be dark. It was time to go home.
We enter the shaded forest of our lodge, the Royal Mara Safari Lodge. This lodge is uniquely located along the banks of the Mara River, right by a hippo pool filled with hundreds of these semi-aquatic animals. There are no fences around the lodge, and wild animals come and go as they please.
Stories by the Campfire
The warm day has now given way to a chilly night, and we are glad to sit by the campfire for dinner and tell stories of the day’s encounters. The manager is happy to regale us with tales of the cheetah family we met. He tells us that these cats are from a famous lineage, featured in BBC’s The Big Cat Diaries, which was filmed in the Masai Mara. The mother we saw was Kisaru, the grand-daughter of “Malaika”, which means “Queen” in Swahili. Unusually for cheetahs, for whom infant death is common, each successive generation of females in this family has raised her entire litter into adulthood.
Animals at Night
Warmed by the story, our bellies full, we walk back to our tent accompanied by an armed Maasai Ascari. After all, lions do come through the premises while hunting prey – although they never linger. But tonight is a peaceful night. The only animals around are the resident herbivores that live in the safety of the lodge’s gardens and lawns. On our way to our tent, we spot Africa’s smallest antelope, the dik-dik, and a jumping creature that resembles a small kangaroo. It is the African springhare, and is not related to the Australian marsupial, no matter how similar their movements may seem.
We bid our Ascari good night and walk up the wooden steps which lead to the deck where our tent is pitched. This tent, however, is no ordinary tent. Under its canvas roof is a four-poster bed with ample room for even the most restless of sleepers. We end our evening dreaming of the African savannah, and the adventures that will arrive with the coming dawn.