Above: One of the five famous cheetah band at rest in Masai Mara. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: Saturday, Nation newspaper – Saturday 23 June 2018
Rain clouds hurtle down the escarpment to fill the deep valley. Everything gets shrouded in white. We are looking over the famous Great Rift Valley that can be seen from outer space. Filled with volcanic mountains like Longonot that for now is invisible, we have to drive across it to reach our destination – the famously famous Masai Mara – the land of the Big 5, lion country, an eighth wonder of the modern world and more.
I’m excited because it’s the season of the long rains. The Mara is an ocean of tall grasses preparing for the phenomena to begin in a few weeks – the annual migration of the wildebeest from neighbouring Serengeti in Tanzania that will fill the plains and herald the time of bounty.
For now it’s only the residents enjoying the quiet like the five cheetah brothers – the largest coalition of cheetahs ever seen in the Mara.
According to the Mara-Meru Cheetah project, the five cheetahs appeared in the Maasai Mara National Reserve at the start of 2017. It is made up of two older males and three younger.
Sprawled on the ground enjoying the late afternoon sun after the rain, the spotted felines stretch and lounge completely oblivious to the people watching them. Theories abound about them being together. Is it a survival strategy for more successful hunts to bring down the bigger prey like the wildebeest or is it because they are facing too much competition from the bigger cats like the lions and the leopards because the cheetah can’t compete in strength with them and often has its kills stolen by them. It’s exciting to follow researchers bringing out the latest – and involving everyone in it. You can post your cheetah pictures for identifications to Mara-Meru Cheetah Project http://marameru.org/ or the Mara Cheetah Project http://www.maracheetahs.org/. Each has an interesting story to tell.
A tide of dark grey shapes reveals a buffalo herd grazing with some seated in the long grass that’s dotted with the ubiquitous tree of the Mara, the Balanites aegyptiaca or the desert date that gives the other half of the wildlife country its name, Mara meaning spotted. From above the trees look like spots on the grassland.
Scanning the grasses for more, it’s just the pointed tips of the buffalo horns showing.
A tree-clad valley stretches into the plains below with the Siria escarpment in the far extreme of the reserve and a lone Tawny eagle watches the plains from its vantage point up a tree. Its gaze falls directly on the tall tawny grasses and suddenly what everyone wants to see in the Mara – a handsome black-manned lion stands – but only for a few minutes to vanish again in the grass.
According to the Mara Lion Project, despite enormous pressures, the Masai Mara is home to quite possibly the highest density of lions in the world. At 15 lions per 100 square kilometers, even the shortest visit to the Mara will guarantee a lion sighting.
Everything is silent in the early morn with just me and my coffee sitting on the porch of my tented abode at Mara Sarova. The stream flows through the woodland etched along its banks. It’s the sharp crack of a branch that signals another being. It’s followed by a trumpeting elephant. All l can see are the bushes moving but not the elephant hidden from view.
And then, suddenly a dikdik darts from the woods past my tent and stops, its nose twitching and little legs shifting. It stares at me and l stare back. It was probably expecting no one around. It darts back into the woods. Five minutes later it’s back again and we stare at each other again.
Red wild lilies dot the tawny grasses. The rivers are full – the Mara, Talek and Sand. The long rains have given respite to the land and the wildlife but outside it’s mayhem with broken bridges and roads so bad that flying would be a better option.
Leaving the reserve, the Masai have now fenced their land as land ownership changes from communal to private. It’s bringing concern with lions sometimes straying into the fenced plots. At the same time, we’re also possibly seeing the end of the wildebeest migration from the Loita plains into the Mara.
The changes in one life-time are phenomenal. Narok that was a tiny outpost of a handful of dukas is now a metropolis with shopping malls complete with Masai men and women in traditional red shuka and beaded finery mixing in with modern shoppers. The standard gauge railway is fast being constructed with bridges and signs in Chinese and bridge where the plains were until recently filled with gazelles and giraffes.
Gear up for this phenomenal happening as the wildebeest cross into Mara from the Serengeti from July with their young and mow the grass down until their return to Serengeti around September.