Mid-afternoon: hot, dry, resting. The scene before me on the edge of the Masai Mara Game Reserve, spectacular. Memories of the morning even more so. I sipped my drink and gulped in the sights and sounds of this wonderful place. It struck me as a particularly large wave will strike the unwary in the shallows, that Africa gets under your skin. In a moment of lucidity, I began to understand how you could never quite be sated and would wish to keep coming back for more. There’s nothing on earth quite like it, and the anomaly is you can’t quite grasp why. Keith Richards says he plucks songs out of air around him, they are there just waiting for him to tune in, and so it is with this Continent; it’s in the air around you, the simple feel of it all. The smells, the sounds, the elemental sense of earthliness. Maybe it’s the simple happiness of the people, always smiling, always radiant. Maybe it’s the humbling effect of being surrounded by so much animal life. Maybe it’s the realisation that we are, individually, but a small, insignificant being lost in the immensity of nature. Whatever, at that moment I understood with total clarity that I could live here and be content. However, let’s start at the beginning…..
We were staying at our second Kenyan location, Ol Seki Hemingway’s Camp, a conservancy placed just outside the Masai Mara, close enough to access and benefit from the profuse animal life, but far enough away to avoid the crowds. Only 6 dwellings dotted this camp, each a sumptuous suited tent with commanding views across the plains. Boy, did we feel like kings! We had arrived in the early afternoon after a short flight from our previous camp, the Sleeping warrior at Lake Elementaita, but had little time to loaf around. Dump the bags, wash and brush up, grab a snack and soon we were whisked off to travel the tracks of the conservancy where miles of open savannah stretched to the 360° horizon.
It wasn’t long before we encountered some classic African mammals, wildebeest, topi, hartebeest, black-backed jackal and Masai giraffe engaged us as we progressed. The guides were superb. Anticipating our desire to see as much as possible, they set about finding as much as they could, stopping the jeep at each new species so we could get our fill and learn something about them.
Birds were too many to mention; overwhelming in their colour, diversity and abundance. Giant ostrich strutted over the plain, vultures soared overhead, sunbirds, orioles, starlings and guineafowl darted beneath and amongst the acacias.
And then there were lions. In the shelter of a grove of naturally insect-repellent shrubs, a pride was resting up for the day. Totally disinterested in us, they went about their business within a few yards of where we parked up. It’s at times like this you almost think you are in some kind of theme park until you pinch yourself and realise these are real lions, real top predators with real claws and teeth. And they are within easy striking range. In fact, I began to get a little uneasy when it dawned on me that we were all sitting in an open jeep with absolutely no protection whatsoever. The experience rather swiftly took on a whole new meaning.
Once we had our fill of lions, that luckily did not want their fill of us, a message was received by the guide that a mother cheetah with cubs had been located. We drove to the spot and in the fading light of the afternoon managed to catch sight of this family group resting up for the night ahead. Such a warming scene with which to cap the first excursion. Then back to camp for a much needed shower before a sumptuous dinner with fellow guests, there to swap experiences and whet one another’s appetites for the days to come.
But big cat drama was not finished with us. In the early hours, stealthy movement on our veranda awoke us. It wasn’t a cat, but a couple of the Masai guards who had positioned themselves on a bench and were talking quietly to each other. I rolled over and went back to sleep, but the following morning at breakfast we were informed that the local leopard was stalking around camp. ‘Oh!’ Exclaimed the daughter-in-law ‘I thought I heard something under our tent last night’. She had indeed, the leopard drags its kills under that tent and there devours them safe from disturbance. Young Erin had actually heard the leopard eating its supper under where she lay – you can’t get much closer than that!
Safaris commence at 6am, so an early awakening is required. Is it worth it? Read on and judge for yourselves. This day, under an African dawn of fiery gold emerging from a sea of low, grey cloud, we headed out to see if we could relocate the cheetah and her cub. It didn’t take long before our guides spotted the mother actively hunting around a loose group of acacias. A newly born topi calf was hiding at the base of one of the trees, we could see it easily from our elevated position aboard the jeep, and it seemed only a matter of time before the big cat sniffed it out. The cheetah investigated each tree base, slowly homing in on where the vulnerable, but completely immobile, calf was hidden. I poised my camera ready for the action and we all tensed as the graceful, lithe predator got closer and closer. The mother topi snorted in alarm and beat the ground with its hooves, the cheetah was only a couple of metres away. It knew the calf was there somewhere and surely it could smell it or see it and would pounce soon. But no, it veered away to investigate the grass surrounding another tree before pricking up its ears, adopting a taught, alert posture and heading off at speed towards another potential prey item unseen by us. How that topi calf survived was nothing short of a miracle, but it did. Within moments it was reunited with its anxious and loving mother. What drama! And it was barely 8am!
A short drive further and we came upon a delightful scene of a lioness escorting 2 very small cubs towards the chosen day time shelter. The tiny cubs were having trouble keeping up, so mum picked them up one at a time and carried them to the sanctuary, overlooked as she did so by huge lappet-faced vultures perched atop low growing acacia scrub. Sharing these dramatic intimacies with animals unaware and unconcerned by our presence was humbling and exhilarating by equal measure. Time for breakfast.
After a fresh, cooked to order, breakfast I strolled around camp in the simmering heat. There were lots of small birds tazzing around but I was particularly struck with watching a pair of courting Von der Decken’s Hornbills. The colourful male was offering fruit to the female that after feigning indifference accepted the gift and so the bond was strengthened. After that exchange they sat side by side gently preening and nuzzling one another, obviously very much in love – or as near to it as a bird can get. But why not? How are we to know what these creatures feel? In our arrogance we sometimes presume we are the only creatures that have ‘feelings’ what nonsense! Watching the tender way this pair of gawkily large billed birds snuggled up, I’m sure they were every bit as enamoured with one another as any doe-eyed lovestruck teenage couple.
The afternoon drive took us further into the bush where we could watch hippos wallowing in a wide stream whilst colourful grey-headed kingfishers dived for fish, gorgeously rainbow-colored rollers flashed their iridescence across the sky and little bee-eaters added their share of colour. We came upon the den of a bat-eared fox and then one full of young black-backed jackals that we watched for a long while cavorting with one another as the sun turned the grasses to a rippling sea of gold.
For our third day we had the privilege of being driven to the real Masai Mara where grasslands folded into the horizon and the animal life was simply breath-taking. The herds dot this landscape, their shapes becoming less and less distinct as their forms become distorted and ethereal beyond the shimmer of heat haze. All sense of scale lost in the sweeping vista. Bleached bones of various herbivores lie scattered in places, shining like daisies on a garden lawn, whilst the ever vigilant vultures cruise overhead with senses alert for another carcass to scavenge.
We spent all day slowly driving around, stopping frequently to admire the wildlife we encountered. Here would be warthogs with their small trotting young bending their knees to reach down to the grass, further along a resting cheetah, regal and serine lying up between hunting sessions, a herd of elephant demolishing acacia and all else in their insatiable quest for sustenance, a pride of well fed, muddy lions spread across the track and languidly sauntering away in their own time. So much to see and revel in.
A late picnic lunch, more like afternoon tea, was taken on the banks of a river where crocodiles waited patiently for herds of zebra and wildebeest to cross. A good number of these animals had gathered on the far shore, but remained reluctant to make the perilous journey. They were not yet sufficiently well pressed by the migration imperative and would wait for numbers to swell before taking the plunge. The crocodiles could wait a day or two; they knew a sizeable meal was coming their way soon.
As interesting to me were watching the antics of a colony of Little Bee-eaters swooping around the sand banks like so many rainbow hued missiles. Missiles that unerringly snapped up bees and other flying insects from the dry savannah air. I loved watching and listening to them, and could have done so for hours such is their beauty and charm.
Whilst pausing in my attempts to capture an image of one in flight, my attention was drawn to a rapidly approaching raptor of impressive size. It purposely glided across the river just in front of us; a sub-adult tawny eagle intent on surprising a group of mongoose foraging on the far side. It made a few stoops, but the lithe mongoose were alert and bolted for cover before the eagle had a chance to ensnare one. Just another real time episode of life and death such that are constantly played out across these sweeping plains. Survival is all.
Our last full day was one of walks. The first of these was a somewhat ad hoc stroll around the camp area which was great until our guide, George, stopped to inform us that there were a herd of elephant just over the rise. Now I hadn’t seen or heard these beasts and would probably have merrily blundered into them (how can you not see an elephant!), so was a little alarmed. We veered away and all was well, but from that moment my senses were on full alert and I looked at every bush and rock with more intensity. I enjoyed the more tactile experience however, which gave a whole new perspective to wildlife watching in the bush.
The afternoon walk was a more organised affair with the camp owner leading us in a stroll over the grassland at the bottom of the escarpment. It was a more intimate look at life and death on the plains. We came upon the sun-scorched bones of a long dead elephant, still impressive and instructive, we were shown how the Masai use various plants as food, medicine and a water supply, we had a go at throwing a Masai spear (me, totally useless), and came upon several smaller items we would have missed from a game drive; tortoise, ant colonies, baboon skull and a fresh leopard footprint. What a fantastic experience to be able to feel the real Africa under your feet, and what was under our feet were millions of jewel like minerals glinting in the sunshine. Such a different world.
Perhaps the best wildlife experience took place on our final morning. Whilst driving towards a small stream we noticed a lioness escorting 3 cubs approaching from the far side. Our guide stopped the jeep and allowed us all to sit in silence for the next 30 minutes to watch the scene unfold. The weary lioness was trying to get her prodigy to a place of safety for the day and to achieve that had to get them across the stream.
The little ones were not happy and meowed in complaint and reluctance when they realised they had to get their feet wet. They refused to budge. You could almost see the poor mother take a deep breath and count to 10 before she grabbed one of the cubs by the scruff of the neck and trotted across to the near bank. Once there she let go of the cub, told the others to stay put before lifting it once again and transporting it to the safety of deep cover. She then trotted back to the stream to help the second of her brood across, however whilst she was doing this the first cub decided it wasn’t happy without mum and came back to the stream.
This toing and froing carried on for a while before the lioness eventually had all three youngsters together and could lead them to safety. Such a touching and tender scene. The patience of the mother was exercised to the limit, but she never showed anything other than complete devotion to her little ones. Such a fitting end to a memorable few days in the heart of Kenya. But all too soon we were whisked away to the airstrip to return to Nairobi to catch yet another flight to Zanzibar, our final destination for this visit to surely the most amazing continent on Earth.
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