I had no idea that the migration was that slow. Despite all that I’d read about it, all the pictures I’d seen, and all the stories I’d heard, I had always thought it happened at pace.
ut all I saw was a beautiful landscape, mile after golden mile of rolling grass plains, with thousands of wildebeest, alongside thousands of zebra, interspersed with topi, gazelles and eland, all peacefully grazing (occasionally punctuated by noisy rutting amongst the wildebeest, a sound so comical it had us crying with laughter) but without a hurried bone in any of their bodies! Was I missing something? Was I in the wrong place? Apparently not. They will cross the river when it feels right. And not before. It turns out there’s not such a mad rush after all.
I had also pictured the migration as wildebeest, en masse, with the occasional zebra here and there, and a pile of crocs and lions to greet them when they hit the water or scrambled up the bank on the other side. I didn’t anticipate that there would be just as many zebra as there were wildebeest, or that so many topi and eland would also join the party. So many antelope, so many stripes, so much noise from rutting, and, to our disappointment, not a single one of them close to the river. None remotely concerned about getting anywhere fast.
On the morning we visited the river, we saw one crocodile and about fifty hippos. But there were lions on every game drive. Lions around every corner. Lions, lions, everywhere. It got to the point where we would say to our guide as we set off: “Please can we try to see any predators other than lions!” We saw a large number of spotted hyena too, including cubs, and many, many Masai giraffe, with their long, elegant necks and distinct brown markings.
I had also expected to find the Mara inundated with cheetah. I thought we’d see them on every termite mound, or at least once a day, almost on demand. But we only got to see one cheetah, at the very last minute, when we were hurrying to catch our plane. It was a spectacular sighting: the cheetah had killed a Thompson’s gazelle and gorged herself for about twenty minutes before rising gracefully to her feet, licking her mouth to clear the blood, and moving away.
Her departure cleared the way for a huge horde of vultures to converge, flapping over from where they had been patiently waiting a short distance away to attack the remains of the gazelle with undignified greed and speed. I don’t know how they didn’t accidentally peck one other – it was a frenzied affair, with legs and wings and scrawny necks flailing about at random in an unnervingly purposeful quietness. All too quickly it was over, and the hissing and squabbling started up. Within just eight minutes the gazelle had been reduced to a scattering of bones and teeth. It was an extraordinary sighting, and it left us feeling alternately sorry for the gazelle and also thankful to it for feeding so many. It was ‘the circle of life’, in fast forward!
That morning we had walked among eight hyenas! We didn’t set out to do that, you understand: we just went for a walking safari with our guide and a ranger (armed), and none of us expected to be practically surrounded by these slinky, somewhat sinister creatures. We had already passed the ever-present wildebeest, and zebra and topi. Then we came across a giraffe ambling serenely across the plain, followed by her two-day-old calf a little distance behind. They were so beautiful – graceful and peaceful too – minding their own business, just moving slowly on from here to there.
But unknowingly we had disturbed two families of hyena warming themselves in the morning sun outside their dens. One of the hyenas emerged behind the giraffe calf, wandered around for a while, then sat down and seemed to go to sleep. Not long after, it got up again, moved closer to the giraffe, sat down again. And again. All very calm and civilised. We were anxious for the tiny giraffe. We lost sight of them all when our path took us behind a copse, but when we rounded the trees we found ourselves among three more hyenas. Horrors! I couldn’t bear it if they took down that gorgeous baby giraffe that had been gestated for over a year and had been on its long, skinny legs for just two days!
To make matters worse, two more hyenas appeared from a nearby den, another came loping along behind us, and then an eighth emerged. By now I was frantic. Our guide was nonchalance personified, still trying to tell us the name of the grass we were walking through! (‘Red oat’, in case you’re wondering.) It turns out the hyenas were running away from US, not pursuing the giraffe! They had abandoned their dens within the copse of trees to beat a hasty retreat when they saw us coming. Our guide assured us that the giraffe had hidden her calf safely in a small group of tall trees, and she’d meandered a little way off to draw attention away from it. We later saw them browsing calmly together, with not a hyena in sight. Phew! This all happened with no sound effects at all – I would have expected to hear some sort of communication between the hyenas, but they all seemed to understand each other perfectly well without making a sound.
We stayed at Kicheche Mara Camp in the Mara North Conservancy, and Porini Lion Camp in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, both bordering the Masai Mara Game Reserve. All our guides showed excellent knowledge of and familiarity with the area, having trained at the Koiyaki Guide School in the Mara. The camps were very comfortable, authentic, with delicious food and helpful staff at every turn. Friendly people, beautiful surroundings.
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