Published June 2014 Saturday Magazine, Nation newspaper
Above: Wildebeest put their heads together in the Maasai Mara. Photo/Rupi Mangat
It’s finally here. The time we all wait for. Thousands of wildebeest are streaming into the Mara, a massive mass of comical gnus grunting and snorting, chomping down the grass and creating a feast for the carnivores. It’s the annual migration.
A beautiful tawny lioness in her prime has brought down one from the crowd and slices through the thick hide exposing the gnu’s inner parts. The rest of her pride is nowhere to be seen and spoilt for choice she takes a few bites and then strolls off. There are so many wildebeest around that the feline doesn’t have to gorge herself or call out for the rest.
The wildebeest and their mates – the zebra have reached a lugga with pools of water in it. It’s an easier crossing than the great Mara River or Sand River where the crocodiles crowd around the steep slopes of the rivers to make a meal out of them. The herds run down into the water and up again. It’s a fantastic melody of patterns – stripes of the zebras and the grey of the wildebeest on sun-drenched grasses tinged red.
Meanwhile the big vultures circle above waiting to rip through the carcass and performing the essential service of keeping the plains healthy. If it wasn’t for the vultures and the hyenas, there would be stinking carcasses and diseases all around – we have to thank them for keeping the wilds so pristine.
A bateleur eagle sits on its nest scanning the busy plains, its red beak so visible, the lappet-faced vultures soar and settle on another and below we find a quiet spot to open the tiffin for a hearty meal. It’s a curry lunch – chicken, rice and vegetables packed by Moses Karanja of Tipilikwani – our chef believes in complimenting the full spectrum of senses – a spicy meal in a surreal setting.
A few snorts by a river gorge has a pod of hippos including a pair of males with massive jaws locked in combat to establish who is the lord of the territory. It’s intense.
Vehicles mull around in the eventide – a sure indication of cats being sighted. We move away and suddenly three massive figures loom – a family of three black rhino – of Kenya’s approximate 500 we’re watching a trio.
A pride of 17 lions walk past nonchalantly to settle on a disused termite mound as the night approaches fast. Chatting with Dr. Elena V. Chelysheva of the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project, she tells of the intense stress that their research shows on cheetahs as vehicles edge on to them – those cute pictures of cheetahs on car-tops is not the picture we want to see in the future.
The setting sun paints the horizon in the colours of the Mara – the red of the local Maasai, the red of the cats’ kills, the red of the tall grass and out in Talek town by the gate and the river, the people of the great plains drive their cattle into the park for a night of grazing as the drought bites. Blinking lights fool the lions away from the cattle bomas who think they are people moving around with flash lights – an ingenious device first thought of by the then 9-year old Maasai boy, Richard Turere.
“I’ll show you the Tipilikwani tree,” tells me the young Maasai working at the luxury tented camp on the banks of the river that gives life to the park and its denizens. Walking along the paths through the natural flora, it’s like bumping into the pioneering wazees of modern Kenya – Mzee Jomo Kenyatta Kenya’s first president, Allidina Visram a pioneering trader after whom the school in Mombasa is named, a tree in honour of Wangari Maathai who in 2004 became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”.
The tree in question is the Euclea divinorum, an evergreen tree growing along river banks and held in high esteem by the Maasai. “We use it to treat stomach problems and even malaria,” tell my Maasai guides.
I’m enjoying every moment of being at the camp – the tents are custom-made, large with private decks and the interiors filled with colours of the savanna – earth and white. The spit-fire glows at night, the hyena whoops and the lion roars with the bells of the Maasai cattle grazing.
Trip to Tipilikwani
Tipilikwani rates are very low till end of June – rates that people can really enjoy for the migration. Contact: +254 20 4450035 +254 786 553 222 Website: www.atua-enkop.com
You can fly or drive. The road a few kilometers after Narok to Mara is rough – not good for asthmatic or people with bad backs. It’s a five-hour slow drive to Tipilikwani. Access is through Sekanani Gate.
Become a citizen scientist – if you have taken pictures of vultures, cheetah and hyenas – your pictures can help trace their movements and family lines which help with information like their movement patterns and family ties.
For a picnic in the reserve, consult at the gate – do not sit under a tree which has a nest and do not leave anything behind including fruit peels.
http://marameru.org/en for cheetah in Mara
Mara Hyena project – http://hyenas.zoology.msu.edu/