Day 15: Where the Wild Things Are

Our first full day in the Maasai Mara began at 5:30am, because apparently that’s when the animals are most active. Weirdos. We yawned our way into the jeep, shivering in the chilly morning air and waiting for some of that famous African sun to show up. Accompanying us on our morning game drive was a local Maasai guide who introduced himself as Mark. His English was faultless, and his traditional robes and Maasai jewellery were complemented by a very big, new-looking iPhone. It was clear to see the difference that tourism can make, for those who are able to reap the benefits.

Within a few minutes we were out of the encampment and trundling along a dirt road that led into the Maasai Mara proper. It was a long, straight road, bisecting a wide stretch of plains that was studded with antelopes. Many still lay huddled on the floor, their spindly legs tucked underneath them as they soaked up the first of the morning sun. Others trundled along in pairs or threes, sometimes stopping to absently nibble on the pale grass. The wildebeest were a notable exception – they were already a hive of activity, prancing around in what must have been a remarkable spectacle for the safari-goers in the hot air balloons up above. A long column of them streamed across the road in front of us, bound for the perilous river crossing that would mark the next stage of their migration.

Breakfast time for this Thomson’s gazelle.

The first sign of the great wildebeest migration.

The face of someone who will soon have to cross a crocodile-infested river.

Some visitors to the Maasai Mara prefer to get an aerial view.

It was soon clear to see why the Maasai Mara is such a popular destination for those wishing to experience Africa’s wildlife at its most unadulterated. Although Nairobi National Park was remarkable in its own way, the small size of the reserve and its proximity to the city meant that there was a sense of familiarity and safety to it all; the Maasai Mara, by contrast, felt vast, unknowable, a theatre for nature’s greatest dramas to play out in magnificent style. Perhaps the real difference was the elephants. Glimpsing a herd in the wild immediately put things into perspective: these are the biggest land animals on the planet; everything here is big.

A herd of elephants going about their business.

A young elephant making full use of its dexterous trunk.

Simply majestic.

That being said, there was no shortage of small creatures too, and they were no less impactful. I will never forget the sly, furtive expression of the first black-backed jackal we encountered, darting through the grass like a fugitive criminal. The hyenas were a welcome sight too, lolloping around with their strange sloping gait and grooming themselves in a decidedly dog-like fashion (despite superficial similarities in appearance, they are only distant relations). Several of the hyenas were shadowing a herd of topi, a large and striking species of antelope which we had so far only seen in the Maasai Mara. One of the hyenas made a half-hearted run in the direction of the herd, but its heart wasn’t really in it, and the topi hurried off without too much trouble. In the hazy dawn light, it felt less life and death, more dream sequence – nature soft in tooth and claw.

A definite troublemaker.

Some of the hyenas are fitted with radio collars, so researchers can track their location.

Just having a scratch.

The topi, a peculiar looking beast common in the Maasai Mara.

Predator and prey, apparently at ease.

If we were at risk of getting sentimental, the moment didn’t last for long. As we drove further, we spotted some considerable commotion up ahead. Amidst a swarm of shrieking beaks and gore-flecked feathers, a half-eaten carcass was experiencing the full efficiency and voraciousness of Kenya’s vultures. At least two species were present: the rather handsome white-backed vulture, and the genuinely nightmare-inducing lappet-faced vulture. With their exposed fleshy faces and sunken eyes, they looked like the sort of creatures that ought to have been off somewhere devouring the souls of the unworthy. Apparently content with antelope meat, they noisily crunched their way through with uncomfortable gusto, while their white-backed cousins looked on in something like dignified disapproval. Probably, it just wasn’t their turn at the kill yet, and they were twitching with impatience.

I’m not sure how that sight made me feel, really. It was the first reminder that all the beauty and harmony we had seen so far was ultimately predicated on some things dying, and other things eating them. Certainly it was natural, and necessary, but it didn’t make the crunching sounds any less spine-tingling.

The faces of these vultures will forever haunt my nightmares.

The white-backed vultures impatiently waiting their turn.

Other sightings were less emotionally confusing, and just made me grin from ear to ear. For example: a cheetah. We spotted her in the middle distance, lounging in the sun, alone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cheetah was very cat-like, licking her paws to clean herself and contentedly swishing her tail. At one point, she rolled over onto her back and displayed her tummy – despite knowing she was a formidable predator and the world’s fastest land animal, I just wanted to give her a good tickle. Mark did little to dissuade me from this desire when he explained that unlike other big cats, cheetahs cannot roar, merely meow.

Even the world’s fastest animal needs to lie down sometimes.

A tummy that simply demands a good tickle.

As we drove towards the river, we quickly became aware of what at first looked like a second, darker river, and then revealed itself to be a monumental congregation of wildebeest. They were all marching along in a neatly ordered column, their queueing manners immaculate. We came to a stop, and watched them closely. They seemed restless, but unwilling to make the river crossing. They knew, just as we did, that the placid grey waters of the river concealed numerous crocodiles, and that the first animals to take the plunge were unlikely to make it through in one piece. We watched for a while longer, but their adventurous mood seemed to have passed, and the column came to a halt. Today was not the day.

We were a little disappointed at not having witnessed the crossing in all its chaotic, churning glory, although Mark pointed out that the wildebeest sometimes waited at the bank for over a week, so we would have had to have been extremely lucky to see the first one take the plunge. Still, it was incredible to witness the sheer scale of the migration, which sees up to two and a half million wildebeest and other ungulates make the gruelling 800 km trek from Tanzania’s Serengeti ecosystem in search of greener pastures.

A fraction of the two and a half million animals that make this annual migration.

Patiently waiting for the perfect moment.

The scaly, toothy reason for the delay.

We followed the river along its winding course, spotting the occasional hippopotamus poking its ears out above the water’s surface. Then, as we rounded a bend, we were rewarded with a glorious view of about twenty hippos, luxuriating in the sun and displaying their unwieldy bulk for all to see. Some lay on the bank while others splashed in the shallow water, looking comically rotund. It seems improbable that such a creature is capable of graceful swimming or swift overland sprinting, and yet they are able to haul their slug-like frames with shocking speed and agility. With the exception of mosquitoes, hippos kill more humans than any other animal in Africa. Left to their own devices, though, they appeared happiest just to sit and sunbathe.

Like slugs with feet.

Cooling off.

We took a meandering route back to the camp, passing the usual selection of zebras, wildebeest, antelopes and occasional giraffes, though by now our early start was beginning to catch up with us and all the animals were merging into a brown-grey blur. I should at this point note that all of the beautiful, non-blurry photos of said animals included in this blog are courtesy of Eunice, who arrived on this trip a total beginner to photography wielding a device borrowed from her brother. With a combination of frequent practice and advice from Mandela and Bryan (both of whom do paid photography jobs part time, we discovered), she managed to become quite the pro in just a few weeks. Expect to see her work in the pages of National Geographic by the end of the year.

Taking shelter from the afternoon sun.

The secretary bird and its comically long legs, which it uses to kill snakes.

With its eyes closed, you could almost be forgiven for calling a buffalo cute.

An unexpected lion, which we originally mistook for a termite mound.

Mark and the gang, glimpsed through some long grass.

To me, the Maasai Mara was a particularly impressive, dramatic example of why people care about conservation. Yes, it’s important to preserve the functioning of the earth’s ecosystems for the sake of all species, ourselves included. But in the Maasai Mara, there’s something more primal at play than any of the ecological or economic arguments driving conservation initiatives. Once, in its infancy, our species did not enjoy the dominant position at the top of the food chain that it now occupies like a despotic warlord. It is thrilling, and humbling, to be reminded of this on occasion.

MAASAI MARA – LIKE THE LION KING, BUT WITH LIMITED ELTON JOHN

A new day, a new destination, and a new means of travel. We were met at the house by Isaac and his van, a vehicle capable of amazing feats, largely as a result of Isaac’s immense driving skills, later becoming referred to as simply ‘the van that could’. Travelling through Nairobi was a tiresome experience, with traffic being characteristically congested, and patience limited. Leaving the bustling streets of Nairobi, and moving into the Rift Valley itself, it became clear that driving in Kenya as a whole, not simply the capital city, would be dissimilar to that of the UK, with possibly only the apparent lack of time displayed by the residents being comparable to that which I am used to living in London. As we speed along expansive highways overlooking the open savanna of the valley, it began to feel as though the journey had truly begun. No longer were we to be within arms distance to the busy streets of Nairobi, enclosed by fences and roads, we would be heading towards more wild, more free lands.

The impact of human settlement remained apparent, with townships being dispersed at regular intervals as the highways sprawled away from the city, notable due to the abundance of hand painted advertisements covering the faces of houses and shops alike. We stopped at the largest town on the route to the Mara, the hectic town of Narok, where we took refreshments in a coffee shop which would not have seemed particularly out of place in the most hipster rich areas of our home country, were it not for the lack of waxed moustaches and wide brimmed glasses.

From Narok Town we travelled the remaining hours on dirt roads, and I should add, with limited suspension, until we made it to our campsite, located only a short jaunt away from the entrance to the Maasai Mara itself. Although leaving slightly later than planned had meant that we arrived at our lodgings in darkness, it did also provide us a brilliant opportunity to view the sun setting as we travelled along newly constructed Chinese roads, with the brilliance coming largely from the visual spectacle provide, and less so due to the new investment of the Chinese government in the area. Collapsing into our beds, we set out to recover from the day of travelling which we had just endured, with an early morning being required if we were to make the most of the wonderful fauna which the Mara had to offer.  We slept to the rhythmic grunting of blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), interspersed by the howling of local spotted hyena (Crocula crocula) clans, and the distant male lions (Panthera leo).

Although we woke at 5:00am, the potential tiredness was apparently overcome in full by the excitement of what was to come. A hearty breakfast, provided by a local hotel, was all that would be required to sustain us, and before long we were packed back into our heroic little van to continue into the park.

Unlike Nairobi National Park the Maasai Mara was not run by the central government, through the Kenyan Wildlife Service, instead being controlled by the local county government, being a national reserve as opposed to a national park. Our visit would allow us to compare the differences between the successes of the different management strategies, viewing the dissimilarities seen on the ground. The scale of the areas also vary greatly, with the Mara being far larger than Nairobi National Park, as well as the regions in which they are found. Nairobi National Park, for example borders Nairobi on three sides, whilst the Maasai Mara borders the Serengeti in Tanzania, an area roughly the size of Wales, with an abundance of fauna, and lack of human activity.

As we drove towards the reserve entrance, only a short trip from our breakfast stop, we met a pair of French travellers who joined us for our journey.*

‘That’s a lot of wildebeest’ is likely a good description of the general sense of the day. The great migration of wildebeest north from the Greater Serengeti ecosystem is truly spectacular. The number of the beasts seen is difficult to comprehend, with literally thousands upon thousands of the creatures being present. Not only were the wildebeest in great abundance, with other bovids such as Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles (Gazella granti and thomsoni respectively), and common eland (Tragelanhus oryx) being present in herds an order of magnitude larger than those seen in Nairobi.

A lot of wildebeest

This photo actually contains many zebra, although their camouflage may make this difficult to spot

‘A series of National Geographic highlights’ would also be an apt description of the day, with marvel upon marvel being observed as we travelled through the park. From the rather boisterous cheetah cubs play fighting and their unimpressed looking mother within arm’s reach of our van, to infiltration of Maasai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi) herds, being unmoved by our presence. A live wildebeest river crossing, complete with dust galore; a riverside walk accompanied by huge Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) and hippopotamus (Hippopdomas amphibius) pods (as well as an armed guard); a 20 strong spotted hyena clan cooling down in muddy pools after an apparently particularly filling meal.

A couple of lanky leopards/feliform greyhounds

River horses

Lunch, too was both novel and extraordinary, eating the contents of our picnic alongside the bones of what appeared to be a zebra, with a pair of large male African elephants coming within 150 metres of us to investigate what was occurring (a distance which feels much shorter when in relation to animals so large).

Supposedly elephants display a fondness for buns – this is not relevant

The diversity, as well as the abundance, of organisms seen in the Mara was astounding, providing both an unforgettable experience, and a brilliant set point with which other parks and reserves should be compared.

The following day would be spent visiting the Olerai Conservancy, only a short distance from the Mara reserve, where we were given a guided tour by its manager, Saleem Mandela. We had met Saleem the previous evening over dinner, where he gave us an overview of the structuring of the conservancy. At one point he asked ‘Will you be wanting to do a walking or driven safari?’, to which Enoch replied ‘I think that we will decide tomorrow’.  ‘My elephants are very fierce’ chuckled Saleem, and we responded with laughter, that was until, with brilliant comedic timing, Saleem stopped us, stating ‘No, seriously, they’ve killed three people in the last week’. We were reassured that neither this, nor the description of the sheep flattened to a pancake-like state recently, should however put us off from visiting. As dedicated students of the University of Cambridge, a small risk of being crushed to death by elephants would not prevent us from being able to learn from Mr Mandela about the management, governance, and history of his conservancy, to gain an insight into the modern approach to conservation in Kenya. We would not, however, be going on any walking safaris.

The tour, this time not in the company of a pair of French tourists, did bring us into close proximity to a young bull elephant in must, but this was from the safety of our trusty van, and with Isaac at the helm it was clear that we were in safe hands. We also observed a multitude of bird species, rock hyraxes (Procavia capensis), and agamas (both Acanthocercus atricollis and Agama mwanzae), previously unseen, as well as many of the giraffes, zebra, and various bovids with which we have become familiar. We finished our tour with a discussion about the conservancy and its future, before returning to our campsite, where we would be able to rest, recovering from a multitude of early starts, bumpy journeys, and very un-English weather.

French tourists not included

Excessively long sentences constructed by Andrew Dixon.

*This is likely as confusing to us as it is to you.