kenya: maasai mara

The Mara - as the locals fondly refer to it - was prematurely billed as the highlight of the holiday before we'd even so much as stepped foot on Kenyan soil. I'd wanted to visit the Mara since third year geography. Aged 13, I'd perch on the edge on my seat as Miss Gilbertson highlighted images of the landscapes, the animals and the Maasai tribes, planting the seed of desire in my head to one day see a wild elephant with my own eyes. Yet I cannot really recall the decision making process that led to us choosing Kenya as a holiday destination. We were all set for a two week city and safari tour of South Africa, extending the footsteps of our honeymoon, and all of a sudden I found myself at the travel agents handing over my hard earned bonus, desperate to secure flights to Nairobi. The spontaneous decision was by no means ill thought, but there was something almost rebellious and definitely unlike us in the decision to do it and actually doing it straight away, the only regrets were that, at the time of booking, we had 8 months to wait until departure and, due to work commitments, we could not coincide the visit with the Great Migration.

The wait was more than worth it. In terms of Kenya's national parks, the Mara is the biggest and shiniest jewel in the crown. An area covering 7.5% of the nation's land area, the Mara is world renown for its promise of untamed species of every shape and size. It is truly vast; every which way you look the horizon seemingly stretches on forever. It's the archetypical African landscape: the yellow earth meets the largest, bluest sky; wispy crisp white clouds are sparse, serving to filter the sun's rays into individual shafts of light penetrating the horizon, falling into the canopy of the occasionally dotted acacia trees in a picture perfect setting. Taking in the setting you more than often fail to notice the numerous elephants greeting you on the horizon as you enter the park and the scores of giraffes ambling across the sand. Even, without my descriptions, it's actually not difficult to imagine yourself there; just think about all the pictures you have ever seen of an African landscape and I can promise you the camera was not lying. However, I urge that the availability of these images and the endless BBC4 documentaries should never be taken as an excuse for complacency nor negate the need to go to Africa, because - to coin a phrase - to see is to believe.

The drive to the lodge re-introduced us to many species, but what I was truly bowled over by, was the amount of babies we saw. Baby everything: from lions; to wildebeests; to cheetahs, to wart hogs; to vultures; to ostriches; to elephants; to giraffes - I could go on. This is one element of the holiday I was not prepared for and nor did we purposely time. But the Mara was full of unexpected surprises.

Early afternoon saw our arrival at Keekorok Lodge; a cold flannel and a large cheesy jacket potato later, we were ready for a brief slumber in preparation for the afternoon's drive. However, the slumber was somewhat short-lived. Upon falling into bed and drawing the mosquito net we were awaken by frantic knocking at the door. As I slowly opened the door and peered around, the Italian guy from our bus barges into the room gesturing wildly to the window as he sped cross the tiled floor shouting "Heeeppo, Heeepo!" As he threw back our curtains and dragged us outside we saw a family of hippos on the horizon, who were - unusually - far from water. As we all stood on top of our 2 foot patio wall - the only boundary between us and the path of the great migration which ran straight through the lodge - more neighbours came to join us. A non verbal agreement was made that very moment to ensure that all fellow travellers are awoken, no matter how inconvenient, to ensure they never miss a thing. A favour I repaid some 30 minutes later when Ali - keeping a vigil on our balcony - spotted lions sunning themselves on a rock. I took this as my cue to leap onto the adjoining balcony communicating the only way I knew how without fluent Italian- making roaring noises and lion faces - to the Italian couple. All thoughts of safety and commonsense simultaneously left the group as we leapt over the patio walls to get a closer look. Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to scale my neighbour's wall, shouting for Alison and John, initially because of the lions but it ended up being a cry for help as I got entangled in the barbed wire protecting them from beasts and pesky, persistent neighbours alike. Regardless, my wild cries worked in keeping the monkeys at bay and awakening Alison who emerged to find me dangling from their patio wall gesturing towards the lions on the horizon. My good deed for the day was done.

As the 6 of us stood together, binoculars were passed back and forward but not a word was exchanged, as it rarely was. That was the great thing about our group - we were blessed that 6 strangers could be brought together to live in such close quarters for a week, and all have similar principles, ethics and thoughts. It was an unwritten and unvoiced agreement that when viewing animals and travelling on the safaris, nobody ever spoke other then to whisper to each other when pointing out animals. The entire experience was very comfortable and it gave us time to get to know each other on the daily drives between parks and over dinner.

The rest of the afternoon was spent on our patio watching the local primates playing with refuse from the lodge. A rummage through the bins produced a tomato tin which was swiftly cleaned by curious paws. This left a shiny, metallic surface within the tin which enabled the monkeys to consider that further playmates were hiding within. One monkey won the brawl to declare the tin his and he sat proud upon a discarded set of ladders, peering into the tin, communicating with the monkeys seemingly within. Somewhat confused, his little paws would swipe in and out of the tin to make contact - this failing time and time again; he decided the best course of action would be to place the tin on his head. An amusing half hour followed as other monkeys took this as their cue to bang upon the tin and steal it from his very head - actions intolerable to such a proud primate so close to a discovery. Hilarious squabbles followed that had Ali and I in stitches, trying not to laugh too loudly as to distract and deter the monkeys. There was no real victor, one play thing gave way to another and soon the monkeys discovered the joys of hanging from ladders, reclining on swinging wooden pendulum signs and causing havoc for the lodge chef who was trying to gather herbs and spices from the surrounding foliage. Time ran away and we had to tear ourselves away for the afternoon game drive - our first in the Mara.

What strikes you immediately about the Mara is the heat, it's on a par with Samburu, but is degrees above the other parks due to the sheer immensity of its barren landmass. It is also covered in flies - from every angle you are attacked, in the ears, eyes and mouth. You soon learn to don a hat, wear sunglasses regardless of the time of day and shut up; Et voila - problems solved.

As we leave the lodge and enter the sandy hills within the Mara - a surprise in themselves - we begin to spot dots on the horizon. Too numerous and small to be trees, raised eyebrows are exchanged, neither person in the vehicle daring to speculate what they may be for fear of assigning a lion to a mere bush. It's another hour before we found ourselves approaching the mass of dots, and I found myself asking the question I dared not hear the answer to - animals, so numerous and so widespread, covering every aspect of the horizon in their millions, it could be only one thing: the great migration! Could it be, some 50 days late? It was at that moment my dreams came true - John confirmed in his placid voice that it was indeed the great migration. The wildebeest had reached the Serengeti some one month hence and found it too dry, so they simply turned around and came back to the Mara. It was an ecological miracle as damaging as it was spectacular. As John went on to explain, the presence of these animals so late in October meant that they would remain until January/ February the following year, destroying the ecosystem and the Mara's embedded circle of life. It was a wonder to behold, for as far as my little eyes could see there were wildebeests of every shape and size, seemingly confused about the change in direction. The bulk heading right across the horizon, there were the occasional few who would persist in heading towards the Serengeti - seemingly not having picked up the voicemail that there had been a change of direction. Bashed repeatedly on the nose by their fellow travellers, the beests would be forced to follow the herd once again. In the midst of this marvel, it got me thinking - who was the first wildebeest to arrive in Tanzania and decide it was too dry - and how did he/ she avoid the rumour mill that is Chinese whispers when communicating to the following millions of beests that the plan had been changed.

If driving through them was not enough, we were fortunate enough to stumble across the herds of animals that travel within the wildebeest for protection, namely zebras. Three males were deeply involved in a show of pride, rising on their hind legs to fight any willing contender. Front legs slapping each other across the face and sharp teeth biting, we could hear the impact from the comfort of our vehicle. As the zebras ran away, in close pursuit of the leading male, they were swiftly replaced by a mother of two young cheetahs. Ambling slowly by the vehicle, it was Alison who spotted her - with a nervous voice asking for reassurance that cheetahs couldn't jump so high as to mount the bonnet and enter the vehicle. None of us had the heart to lie, and we daren't not let a breath pass our lips until the mother, stealthily regarding us, paraded past the bus into the depth of the migration. We were close enough to see the blood red paws and teeth of the young following closely behind their mother, still hungry after their recently consumed hours d'oeuvre, eager for the next course; a lame young wildebeest. Tail in the air, stopping only to gather the pride and teach the young to stalk, the mother acted as if we were not even there and licking her lips, proceeded to enter the herd, immediately disappearing out of view. You could only tell where she was by the sporadic and swift movements of the Wildebeest as she attacked their young. Unable to see much more we proceeded on our journey.

Night was falling over the plains as the depth of blue sky turned ever darker and more hypnotizing, with bands of luminous orange seeping through the scattered clouds to form a dramatic backdrop to our next sighting;

Travelling over the crest of the next hill we found ourselves thrown violently to the right as John swerved to avoid a lioness preening herself in the middle of the road. Slamming the brakes on and pulling to one side John offered commentary on the behaviour of lions, commenting that to see a lioness so close to a male - who was to our right, picking his nails by the roadside - means only one thing: mating season.

As we pull up and settle ourselves down for the spectacle, our eyes and camera lens are fixed on the couple. The female rises on her hind legs to approach the mate and begins to circle him, offering herself to him. It's another few minutes before the gallant male rises to the bait and mounts the female. Courtship is brief and is ended by the roar of the lioness as her paws swipe across the male's face. Seemingly caught by surprise, with a toss of his mane, the male is forced to dismount and retires. It's another few minutes before anyone dares make a sound, and only then it is to mouth "Wow."

I live in hope that, at that very moment, I witnessed the creation of a baby lion, which in 3 months time, would enter the world as a curious and cute cub. How totally amazing would that be - to know that you have seen evolution first hand - the full circle of life in one holiday, from birth (warthogs) to curious young (cheetahs): to boisterous teens (elephants): to young parents (ostriches): right to the old and infirm (and no, I am not comparing the Cresta clientele against the saga groupies).

But with this comes a painful reminder of human intervention and the need for ethical tourism. These animals are not in a zoo - they are not there for our entertainment and amusement - yet the foreign bus tour alongside ours would whoop and holler as the Cheetahs we chanced upon the next day rolled onto their backs; they'd cheer and gesture wildly towards the defenceless two month old cubs as they bravely ventured out from the undergrowth. Most upsettingly, many tour guides had no respect for the rules and regulations of the reserve, and would have no qualms about crowding around an animal to barricade it in the middle of a circle of vehicles, with little regard to the exhaust fumes drowning the animal who, confused, would try to find a safe exit point. The crowding and harassment of the wildlife was not commonplace, but the few exceptions let down the conscious majority and questioned the dignity of the corporations responsible for making our holidays of a lifetime a reality.

Our group - and John - agreed to stay and observe the cheetahs (from a distance) for as long as was possible without causing undue stress and confusion to the animals. A respect duly rewarded, for just 5 minutes later the mother cheetah mounted a small rock to the side of the vehicle and seemingly posed - stretched outright, back arched, chin high and eyes firmly fixed on the horizon for perchance of food. It was too quick to register - or capture on camera - but all of a sudden a rabbit ambled into the centre of the triangle formed by mother and cubs and no sooner did it realize its peril, it was attacked by the mother and the stronger of the two cubs for a "pouncing" and "chasing" lesson.

From standing, cheetahs are capable of speeds of up to 60 miles an hour in just 2 seconds - it's difficult to encapsulate what this is like to view in real time except to say that the cliché of a cloud of dust has never been more apparent. The chase lasted no more than 1-2 minutes at most and circled the bush 360 degrees around our vehicle. As heads spun 180 and cameras whirred it was so quick it was difficult to keep track of the cheetahs' progress and the rabbit's movements. Darting and sprinting, sharp left and right turns, the rabbit put up a dignified fight for its life and, somewhat remarkably, emerged unscathed. I sense the mother cheetah, proud of her reactionary young, would rate this particular chase a "could do better" - but nevertheless a promising start.

Our last sighting of them was of the mother sprinting across the plains, her cubs bounding over and under each other as if seemingly trying to mimic the previous chase. As the sun began to set and the cubs faded into the distance our eyes filled with tears, as this picturesque setting was disrupted as the bus to our right, filled with youths pre-occupied with digital cameras and personal stereos, chased in pursuit of the young: strictly forbidden, and intensely unsettling behavior.

Somewhat understandably, the tour drivers are often driven to this behavior by their need for tips to supplement their mediocre wages. To ensure this additional income they will, more than often, respond to tourist demands of "faster: closer: further." This is irresponsible and abhorrent behavior from both parties and thankfully is recognised as such by the reserve rangers who maintain a close vigil on any tour guides - frequently dishing out on the spot fines for irresponsible behavior. But those fines to you and I, and the tour companies, are little more than the price of an Extra Large Extra Value Big MacMeal and do little to quash this behavior.

I would urge all tour companies to offer adequate training to turn drivers into 'qualified guides:' to help to raise awareness of the impact that their actions are having on the environment and its beautiful inhabitants - and to urge tourists to consider the very same by heeding to the practice of the ethical and responsible operators. No matter how big or small, wild or seemingly tame an animal, we have an unwritten responsibility to leave the scene without making an impact, taking nothing other than our memories.

But the destructive impact we, as tourists, are making - either direct or indirect - does not go lithely by without a battle. The animals are fiercely protective of their culture, family and environment and, as proven by our experiences on this holiday, won't give humans a chance to cause too much of a raucous that easily. Take for example the young elephant that had unconsciously wandered a mile or so from the female herd. Upon realization of its blunder the young panicked when, upon looking back, 5 vehicles had blocked the path between itself and its mother. As the vehicles were encroaching further and further towards the herd its mother disappeared from view and the elephant ran even further uphill to try and regain its bearings. The engines of the vehicles were loud, but not loud enough to drown the heart wrenching screams of the young elephant as, panicking, he literally screamed for his life. Watching from a distance, the screams were as distinctive and as uncanny as a human young, immediately signaling danger and desperation. As we drew our breaths and screamed for the other vehicles to retreat, the mother, quite rightly, decided enough is enough. Mirroring as little respect for human life as we were currently showing her young, the mother - and the other 8 or so females - set to charge. The irresponsible vehicles then realized, because they were so tightly packed none could move to get out of the way as 16 tusks sparkling in the midday sun lowered and charged forward to spear them. Having experienced so much irresponsible tourism already that holiday - John and our traveling companions and good friends, were decidedly supportive of the herd and silenced our warning cries as we watched in morbid fascination the spectacle unraveled before our very eyes.

With the cries of the youngster ringing in our ears, the herd advanced, for some reason sparing the lives of 30 tourists. Instead they pushed their way through the vehicles and upon an emotional renunion with the young, turned to the spectators and raised upon their hind legs to sound a last deafening warning cry, roughly translated to "get the hell out of here that was your last and only chance." Everyone was only too happy to comply. Hopefully they are happy to learn from this sadly necessary lesson.

But without casting too much of a negative upon our experiences, I am hopeful that the untamed few tourists we stumbled across are in the minority, as just that morning we had come across fellow travellers in Keekorok with similar concerns and ethics.

After our early morning game drive in the Mara, we'd settled down on the veranda outside the lodge's lounge. With no boundaries, fences or weapons of any kind, we are offered a cocktail - regardless of the time of day - and are free to sit directly within the path of the great migration, maintaining a vigil for any animals that may happen upon us. It wasn't long before we were joined by an elderly woman whose husband was enjoying one too many siestas for her liking. Eager to hear what we had seen that morning and indeed the rest of the holiday, we shared tales and travels around the "campfire" and Ali and I were privy to one of the most inspiring life stories I have heard for a long time.

Currently in her mid 70's, the woman had traveled more extensively in her pensioner years that I could hope to have in a lifetime. Not unusual you may think given that she's retired and reasonably well off…the twist was that her husband is refusing to retire from the family business and as a result she accompanies him on worldwide business trips for a day or two, and then more than often she'd remain in the country they happen upon - alone - for months at a time whilst he left to tend to UK business. In the last 15 years she'd set up her own home amongst the locals in Barbados, travelled extensively throughout Africa in vehicles less comfortable than ours, "roughed it" under the stars in the wildest of bush and enjoyed everything that life had thrown at her.

A frequent visitor to Africa, her intense passion for the country and the people was fascinating, especially considering that last time she was in the country she'd suffered a heart attack and was rushed into the kind of hospital we - in our closeted NHS system - would send aid to. But these were not her concerns; upon her first resuscitated breath she'd lovingly scolded her husband - called back from the UK - that he'd misplaced her camera and therefore her precious memories, so she'd have to come back to relive them.

Three cocktails and two hours later, forgetting we were practically holding the 'grandma' ransom from her husband and her fellow travellers, she continued to inspire us to travel more and further than we had ever imagined. It may seem like a cliché - but that day, the three of us debated world poverty, world peace, conservation of the Maasi culture and tribe against encroaching commercialism and responsible tourism - all before lunch had even been called.

That's the great - but some would say the downside - of travelling holidays. You meet and spend time with people you'd never imagine, be inspired by things you never knew existed or were possible, and have time for things that, on any other strictly itinerated holiday, you simply "could not fit in." The reality of taking each day as it comes, having no idea what to expect, no boxes to tick or regime to conform to, is as unusual as it is enjoyable.