Masai Mara stands for the land of the Masai, but when you land at the Mara, you see an ocean of land and hordes of wildebeest grazing across it. And as you drive your way across the wide expanse, you see a very well-run kingdom of the Lion King – complete with the departments of defense, immigration and the media.
Chuyi is my guide at the Mara and I am back in a tent setting. There’s no lake in the vicinity, but the camp seems to be deeper in the wild – this time I am excited about the prospect.
Chuyi is a Silver level guide – Safari Guide is a sought after trade in Africa and there are strict standards and stiff competition. Chuyi is a Masai and an idol within the community. The Mara is lush green and the great migration has just completed – you can see the wildebeest all over the Mara. Chuyi tells me that the pruned grass we see across the plain is courtesy the wildebeest. The wildebeest is supposed to be a cross between the cow, the locust (yes – a locust) and the horse. To me it looks like a cow with a beard.
Towards evening we hear a jackal’s continuous squeal. Chuyi suspects a predator on the prowl and we end up spotting a leopard. The leopard seems well fed and resting on a rock. The jackal is howling consistently at it. That translates to – I see you, so you can’t do anything to me. The leopard takes a look at the jackal and turns its head away. A few hyenas rush towards the spot hoping that the jackal is having dinner, but the sight of the leopard makes them change their course.
We spot a Topi – essentially a gazelle in blue jeans and a blue mask – it looks at us for a while and prefers to move away from us with her young one. Most of the young ones seem to be with the mother – the father is missing from the picture. Chuyi points out though that the Lion is one exception to this trend – he is an integral part of breeding the cubs. But Lions do not like cubs that are not theirs and don’t hesitate to feast upon them. Chuyi tells me a story of two lionesses who defended their cubs fiercely against two jealous Lions. Chuyi has witnessed several such stories in the Mara – “each day is a new experience.”
Early next morning we hear a few monkeys getting restless – there is a predator on the prowl and wow! Out of nowhere, 3 lionesses emerge from the nearby bushes – the Mara lionesses look fierce. One of them gives me a fierce look and I am frozen for a moment – frozen enough to click the pic. The monkeys represent the media in the Lion King’s kingdom – their aerial view of the predators’ route ensures the potential prey is well-warned.
The light is still soft and we settle down in an open area for breakfast. I’ve just had the first sip into my cup of tea when Chuyi points out a male ostrich in the distance – it is spreading its wings and dancing before a female ostrich – it is a proposal dance. The female is impressed and I am camera happy. But as soon as he is done, the Ostrich spots another female and the proposal dance starts again – wow! My camera seems very busy today.
Land of the Masai
After the camera pleasing show at breakfast it is time to get a taste of the local culture – we are off to a local school and this will be followed by a trip to a Masai village.
The school is an interesting insight into the Kenyan mindset – make the best out of the available resources. Not enough seats in classrooms and not enough beds in the boarding – but both teachers and students display an element of enthusiasm in imparting and receiving education. The teachers are on strike, but the students are still in, preparing for the upcoming exams. It is heartening to know that the local girls are enrolling voluntarily to escape getting married in their teens.
The visit to the village is insightful into the local culture. There are 3 entrances to the set of huts we are visiting and Chuyi tells us that this means that 3 brothers live in this set of huts. Cattle are the main assets of the Masai and we see a well-built enclosure to house the cattle and protect them from any predator attacks at night. The sheep are housed in a less secure enclosure. It is common for the Masai kids to accompany cattle and sheep during the day and Chuyi tells us that it is also normal for the kids to be attacked by beasts like the buffalo. Chuyi himself has been attacked by a buffalo as a kid.
Women are in-charge of building the huts. The design is fascinating – the huts are dark inside, but have air holes to let in light and air. The man of the house has the master bedroom, with the smaller room opposite it, for the woman.
In the evening, a few locals perform the traditional folk dance for us – the theme is a victorious return from the jungle. I get back to the tent with an element of excitement since the following morning we are headed to the site of the great migration – the border between Kenya and Tanzania. Around 1 AM I hear a roar close to my tent – I am excited and I take a peep through the mesh in my tent – it could be a leopard, but it’s too dark to tell for sure. I will need to check with the guards in the morning.
The guards confirm that there was a leopard on the prowl at night and they are sure that he was quite a distance from my tent. I am happy that I was able to recognize the roar, but disappointed that it was not in proximity.
Kingdom of the Lion King
We are off to a long drive through the Mara that will culminate near the crossing point into Tanzania’s Serengeti National forest. This is the day I’ll see the kingdom of the Lion King unfold before me – across the plains of the Mara. We leave at 5:00 AM – it’s still dark and we see some amazing colors in the sky as the Sun slowly ambles its way up the horizon. This is also the time when predators like the Lion and the Leopard start going into hiding after an active night. Still into the wee hours of the morning, we catch a rare sight – A lion is at a lake to quench his thirst, probably after a satisfying meal. He is aware of all the attention around him, but he ignores us and displays a fearless regal air as he sips water from the lake and then moves towards a bushy area. He is joined by another very elegant looking Lion – more majestic and more regal. We call him the Masai Mufasa.
The kingdom is unfolding before our eyes – today, the theme seems to be the family – a herd of elephants with their babies, lionesses with their cubs and a cheetah with her cub. The young ones of all animals look cute, but the lion cubs are super playful and a complete treat to watch. You can sense an element of royalty in their playfulness. One of the cubs has us in peals of laughter with his fascination with his mom’s tail. As the lioness moves her tail around, he finds it and bites into it. Finally she gets up and lifts her tail up – now he’s looking along the ground – confused why the tail has suddenly vanished.
The cheetah and her cub are resting under a shady groove – on the lookout for unsuspecting prey. Contrary to the King and his deputy (Lion and the Leopard), the cheetah hunts during the day – it’s strength is its speed and that makes it ideal to be among the cops of the kingdom.
No trip to Africa can be complete without a brush with adventure. We try to take a short cut towards a huge herd of buffalos and ignore the marshy track we are driving over. Our Jeep gets stuck and shows no intention of getting out of it. After an hour or so, our valiant efforts pay off and we are back on the road again.
We make it to the site of the great migration towards late afternoon – the border of the lion kingdom. A huge herd of wildebeests and zebras is already lined up to cross over to Serengeti and a lazy looking lot of crocodiles – the immigration officials is lined up on either side of the river, in anticipation of the crossing. The crocs appear deceptively quiet and asleep and that could induce complacency into the migrants.
The zebras and wildebeests choose not to cross, but we enjoy the sights along the river – a ton of hippos wade in, have small territorial skirmishes and then step out to dry themselves on the bank. And we end up having lunch just a few feet away from a crocodile – we are hidden from his view and we are on the alert.
On the drive back we pause to look at the exquisite Mara landscape – the land seems to be a limitless expanse – like an ocean and well dotted with wildlife. It is lush green, dry at places, dotted with wildebeests, zebras and buffalos, frequented by lions, leopards and cheetahs and the ubiquitous masai giraffe along with some amazing views at sunrise and sunset. Every now and then a flock of sheep and cattle in the company of their rearer, add to the color of the landscape.
I am at the conclusion of my trip and I go for a walk around the camp area to get oriented with the flora and fauna of the Mara – I have an armed ranger in company along with my guide Peter.
As I board my flight back to Nairobi, I am in a trance. I’ve just experienced the animal kingdom at its prime. In a world of 7 billion people, spread all across the globe, the animals have annexed this part of the world for themselves. And it is no irony that a poor, agrarian economy has ensured their long term survival.