kenya: maasai mara

The Mara. The word evokes a myriad of imagery and emotions - unbelievable sunsets, vast swathes of savannah dotted with migrating wildebeest, fleeting glimpses of hunting cats, and the undeniable feeling of being immersed in a completely alien, exhilaratingly real, and staggeringly fragile world. Fans think of the Maasai Mara as the real deal, the park which stands tall over the other pretenders; the stories, the pictures, the movies, all stem at least from the idea of the Mara and its inhabitants. At the edge of Kenya, effectively an extension of the Serengeti to the south, in Tanzania, this reserve consumes 1,812 square kilometres (around 5 times larger than Samburu) - the Maasai Mara blows your mind.

From the moment we entered park boundaries and instantly came across a group of lion brothers and sisters, dozing underneath a bush no more than two metres from the roadside, there was no going back. This is a part of the world so awesome in its scale, in its variety of landscapes and fauna, teeming with wildlife and complex ecosystems, that infects your soul and will never leave. Driving towards Keekorok Lodge where we were to stay for two nights, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of our surroundings. With the mid-afternoon warm air blowing in our faces, clumps of greenery appearing and disappearing like an oasis in the sea of straw, the sun slowly descending through the wisps of cloud, the mind stops working. It gets stuck, unable to comprehend what is happening. The experience is so foreign and yet feels so natural, so 'back to roots', and so important. Africa is a life changing place, so long as you can pull your own barriers down and allow yourself to be consumed.

Out in the park, we travelled through scorched earth with lonely hyenas prowling, came across an ostrich couple with their nine babies in tow, spotted an elusive serval cat, watched vultures feeding on a carcass, elephants fighting in the river, groups of giraffe clustered and flexing in the open, and saw the African sun descend in an explosion of colour. Every new occurrence is as exciting as the last, merits discussion and contemplation, and each hammers home the fortune that we have in being able to do this, here and now. Some safaris are lucky, some are not; some are considerate, some are not. In the future there may not be safaris, and there may be no animals. We are not powerless to prevent this, and we should try. It is an incredible experience to awake in the middle of the night, not in a safe fortress of a home, but in the wilderness, where there is danger and where there is fear, but also where there is joy and beauty. Safety is relative. You could die being hit by an SUV on the way back from work, or you could die being mauled by a lion in the middle of Africa. There is nothing heroic, or poetic, about choosing the latter. It is about purpose and meaning, about exploring both yourself and your world, and it is about making the big decisions.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

One of these roads led us near a riverbank, where two tiny lion cubs had been left to themselves. We were just one van, slowly creeping toward them - at a certain distance, they grew fearful and retreated back into the brush. So we reversed a few metres, and sure enough they trundled back out again. Barely a foot tall, they seemed so vulnerable and unready for the world. They toyed with each other and with the surroundings, seemingly unphased by our presence. That they were lions, one of the most fearsome of animals, was irrelevant - two babies abandoned in a cruel and demanding world seemed far too familiar. The mother had to find food to support the family, the father could be long gone. The children have no choice but to sit and await the future, to try to learn how to defend themselves and be like their mother, but life in Africa is harrowingly short.

Alas, we had to move on, and left the lions to await their fate, much to the objection of the awestruck women still gazing at the little balls of fluff. Undoubtedly, there would be more of this sort of thing.

Keekorok was a pleasant lodge, with terraced bungalows and a typically quaint lounge and terrace area for the ubiquitous sundowners to be taken on. It also has no boundary fence, meaning that anything which wishes to visit can. As it turns out, this wasn't just a folklorish marketing strategy - relaxing with a mid-afternoon siesta on arrival, we were awoken by our neighbouring Italian friend from the drive, with an indisputable cry - "Hippo! Hippo!" - as he barged through our room to the balcony. And sure enough, a group of hippo were basking 100 metres or so from the room. This was binocular requiring stuff, and even then not the most startling of sightings - but that wasn't the point; here we were, sleeping in animal's land. We were the intruders, the nuisance, and they had allowed us in. Thirty minutes later, three lion cubs plus mother gave us the same privilege, scattered across a rock a little west from the hippo. We returned the favour, with Marie mounting the balcony, deftly slipping round the partition and - suddenly stumped as to how to explain the phenomenon to non-English speakers - raised her hands to the sides of her head said, "RAAAAAARRR!!!" Point well made.

Later that afternoon, a group of monkeys wandered up to our set of lodges for playtime. A ladder had been left onto which they clambered and fell from; one particularly inquisitive one had found an empty tin of tomatoes, which provided it - and us - with hours of fun as he inspected his reflection at the bottom, licked the tomato sauce from the sides, and ended up putting the whole tin over his head. Just as the human male would…

Keekorok was as high quality as the other lodges; the staff are immaculate and kind, the rooms furnished just well enough to feel luxurious while at the same time not making you regretful for spending so little time in there; at the end of the day, the reason for safari is not to dwell in home-comforts but to be brought face to face with the animals that have ruled this place for millennia. The game drives, walks, and simply sitting there and thinking, are what we came for. There are three things that happened in the Mara that need to be expressed.

The wildebeest migration route encompasses the Mara and Serengeti; we had tried to plan for their migration in our booking of the holiday, but various factors acted against this and we'd assumed we'd missed it, eventually travelling mid-October to early November. We had imagined the wildebeest would be long gone, but they'd changed their mind. The Serengeti was too dry for their liking, so they had started to come back to the Mara. Incredible - out of the millions of them, who decides? How do you pass the message back through the masses? In any case, we ended up surrounded by them, dotting the horizon and slowly marching forward. Zebra were interspersed, with two engaged in a particularly violent fight - being kicked in the face by a set of rear zebra feet cannot be pleasurable.

This experience was apparently not to the same scale as in the midst of the migration, but it was certainly enough to peak an interest - a particular highlight was when two cheetah discovered something they fancied among the crowd, (likely a baby wildebeest) and started stalking. After 15 minutes or so of slow, contemplated movement, it looked like the mother was just testing the kids and they weren't actually hungry, so we moved on - but the sight of these two cats slowly making their way into the herd, with whatever conclusion, was damaging. This isn't Tesco or Sainsbury's - this is life; as carnivores, as hunters, this is their nature and their existence. If it doesn't work one day, if they're ill or can't be bothered going to work, then that's it. Game over.

Along with death, there is birth. In the Mara we saw fantastically groomed lions, and some more distraught lionesses - both close to the road, or wandering in the path of our vehicle. They are majestic and surprisingly frequent: again in comparison with South Africa, where we were lucky to see a lioness with cubs running away from us, lions were just a part of the landscape in Kenya. On our early morning drive from Keekorok, we chanced upon a lion and lioness next to each other - rare, because the lion will typically sleep for around 20 hours per day while the lioness hunts and collects the kills. As with humans, this can only mean one thing: sex.

The lioness begins by circling the male, allowing the lion to distinguish her scent, and then it's all very quick! Our attempts at photography failed - the lion moves into position and leaves in a matter of seconds, job done. The female then swats the lion and both growl, seemingly annoyed at the requirement on their time. For us, it was enchanting - a lion which was actually doing something and being active is an unusual occurrence, and to be so close was magnificent.

Our morning drive had been extended because we took a journey out to see the hippos and crocodiles, who inhabit that famous part of the Mara river where the wildebeest have to cross and are often destroyed. This was right at the edge of the country; Marie and her fellow traveller crossed into Tanzania to relieve themselves in the Serengeti, while we waited anxiously for their return. No toilets here; no buildings. We had jumped out in the bush in a seemingly safe place and allowed our partners to wander off out of sight. Interesting, in psychological terms if nothing else.

At the river, we again left the van and had a brief walking safari - armed guards took us along the riverbanks to view the hippo and crocodile. It is always a strange experience, no matter how many times you've done it: you spend hours of each days cooped up in a protective metal cabin, separated from the environment and unable to freely move around and explore, and then when you're released and vulnerable, you recoil and become fearful and nervous. It's highly unlikely that anything would happen, particularly with the basking hippos and the huge crocodiles completely zonked out on the banks, both as active as another, but uncertainty and unfamiliarity overrule logical thought - similar to walking into an unknown city centre for the first time, only with less people to call on for help.

We wandered along the bank to the famous photo shot where the wildebeest have to cross the river and evade the waiting crocodiles; no such action today, but it reminded me that this annual occurrence is nature's equivalent to the Super Bowl or another such event - it is reliable in terms of its timing and location, and its deadliness.

There is too much to try and describe in the Mara. Every turn, every sparkle of light, every shift in the darkness, all breathes life and activity. I haven't even started to explain, and I have too far to go, and I've probably forgotten half of it already. That's what the other column is for. But that's also what you are for: explore, observe, disseminate. Be an eco-tourist above all, and consider everything you are doing on your journey toward enlightenment, but remember that perhaps the most important message you can send is back home, to those who know nothing more than what is, to give life and hope to the locked-in, which then offers enlivenment and hope to those in Africa and in other third-world countries; only when we join together and begin to understand one another, can we begin to make something better. Go.