Days 3-4: Masai Mara
Kenya’s crown jewel of national game reserves, Masai Mara seldom disappoints. After a stop at the Rift Valley, my group of sixteen enter through the north Mara conservancy and are officially on a game drive. B, the group’s youngest member, lets out a squeal of delight upon spotting her first zebra, which is destined to become her favourite animal.
In addition to zebra, we spot wildebeest, giraffe, and lion. Cameras – some brand new for the trip – click non-stop, binos are glued to eyes, and the fliptop landcruiser roof stays propped open throughout. Exclamations of “Holy doodle!” and “Will you just look at that!” pepper the air. Even though I have seen countless zebra, lion, and wildebeest, the Africa neophyte’s infectious excitement wipes my canvas clean and paints it afresh every time. I resist calling out, “Wait till you see the migration! And the crossing!”
As the sun sets over Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp’s infinity pool, a cold Tusker goes down easy. Stars appear. The darkness blankets quickly and completely. As in ancient times, guests gravitate to a bonfire. Suddenly, blood-curling howls rent the air. Shadowy figures materialise, spears glint in the firelight. It’s the Masai dancers. Around the bonfire, smiles replace caught breaths. The Masai are famous for their warlike ways and blood/milk/meat diet. They are also known for their love of teasing unsuspecting tourists.
The next morning the group is keen on an all-day game drive. I am taken aback. A full day game drive is tough initiation; the group wants to go from zero i.e. exclaiming over one zebra, to sixty in no time. I hope the Mara doesn’t disappoint. But we may hit pay dirt if we go: the season’s very first herds of wildebeest have arrived from the Serengeti and are rumoured to be amassing on the banks of the Mara. They will soon ford crocodile-infested waters. From a promontory, the sight that meets our eyes defies description. The land on the far side of the river is dark with a skein of wildebeest. I squint into the distance to emboss a boundary so my brain can start processing the image. After a while, I give up. As far as I can see with even my binos, there are wildebeest. Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? Impossible to tell, because what starts off looking like a cloud shadow begins treacle-ing and the shadow turns into wildebeest. The sight itself would be improbable if it weren’t for syncopated grunts of wildebeest communication: “You ok back there?” “Yes, and you?” “Where’s little Rolo?” “Chomping beside me.” “Watch the lioness, she’s close.” “Eek, Imma outta here.”
But this is no hour-and-a-half of Lion King in an air-conditioned theatre, with excitement and fistfuls of buttered popcorn at hand. The only action in the same time span is a few brave bucks skidding down to slake their thirst, every muscle taut, every sense alert. We hold our breath. The guide hath foretold: “It takes only one to start a stampede”. But the bucks maddeningly – or mercifully, depending on your appetite for gore – clamber back to the safety of the herd. For another hour, the distinctive peace descends of a long wait buoyed by promise of intense excitement. Cameras and binos, too heavy to keep hoisted, are lowered. (Cameras are woefully inadequate in any case because they fail to capture the incredible sweep of the plains). Soft conversation floats. It is mainly about the insensitivity of rogue landcruisers that attempt to dislodge one brave buck into starting a stampede. The sun climbs. When time slows on the savannah, every circling vulture, every tree and shrub, every blade of grass that lists with the weight of an ant, takes on new significance. Seasoned as I am, I am struck anew that while we willed the first martyr buck, life around us carried on, abundant. But life is also precious, and that is why after an hour no wildebeest buck has thrown the gauntlet to the crocs. And none will until the herd’s hunger and thirst peak. The crossing could happen in the next minute. Or it could take three days.
We accept the guide’s exhortations and retire to a picnic spot for lunch. Kichwa’s executive chef, George M., has outdone himself. With each delicious morsel and a cool breeze, the group recharges. Laughing, someone chases thieving monkeys. Another produces a folding hoola-hoop and limbers up constricted hips. A third collects a vial of Mara dirt. Back at Kichwa, a hot shower and an iced sundowner later, I learn with dismay that the herd crossed an hour after we left. I am intensely disappointed for my group, and not a little resentful of the guides’ impatience. I will return to Africa, but many of my group may not. Over dinner I break the news to the group. I watch their reaction. First comes an “Oh no!” burst of disappointment. Next comes acceptance: “A crossing wasn’t guaranteed.” Followed by consolation: “What we saw was simply spectacular. We were lucky. We may not have seen even the herds.”
And finally, hope. “We have six more days.”