Despatches from The Mara

22 Nov

Thursday, 10:35 AM – Kichwa Tembo

As our aircraft awaits a couple of tardy passengers, we step out and stroll over to the front of the Dash 8 to watch the action. Kichwa Tembo, a private airstrip serving a safari lodge by the same name, is busy at this hour. It is one of several dirt strips in the Maasai Mara, and even though the stop doesn’t feature on our schedule, Safarilink‘s flight 001 is a hopping flight in every sense of the word!

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11:20 AM – Check in at Entim Mara

There is no sign to even suggest you’ve entered camp. Till you spot the Maasai tribesman that is, and a lantern or two! Entim is the Maasai word for forest, and the camp lives up to its name beautifully, blending seamlessly into its surrounds. Ten 2-person tents is all the accommodation there is, and even though the tents themselves are remarkably well appointed, there are few frills to be had around. A dining tent and a lounge tent make up the common areas, and the grounds are dotted with hammocks and couches, all overlooking a meandering Mara River. It is hard to imagine any other place so far removed, and yet, so perfectly suited for a nature lover.

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4 PM – Game-drive # 1 commences

Most camps offer two game drives, one from dawn till late morning, and the other from late afternoon to dusk – periods of the day most conducive to animal sightings. As with most visitors here, we are on the trail of the ‘Big Five’, but time and again, we cannot help but pause and gape at a canvas worthy of the gods!

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4:35 PM – A pride is spotted

To most of us in the vehicle, its just another brush, but Edward, our driver cum guide, has already spotted them – a full pride of Lions, well ensconced in the shade of the bush. For most part, Lions are nocturnal beings, sleeping by day and hunting by night. There are at least 8 within that bush, but despite our proximity to them, its difficult getting a better look. Eventually, a Lioness makes her way out to bask in the sun. The last time I was face to face with one was about 2 decades ago, in Gir Forest, the only remaining outpost of the Asiatic Lion. The African Lion is, no doubt, bigger, but the sheer sight of it conjures memories of that moment in Gir, and several goose bumps!

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4:45 PM – 2 down, 3 to go

The term ‘Big Five‘ was originally used to reference the 5 most dangerous species to be hunted in Africa. The African Buffalo, also known as the Cape Buffalo, is one of them, and because of its ‘dangerous’ tag has never been domesticated. They aren’t the largest Buffaloes you’ll find on the planet, but they certainly are heavy, some of them topping out at close to a ton! The most distinguishing feature on the adult bulls, however, are their massive fused horns – so thick and strong, that according to Edward, even a bullet cannot penetrate through!

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5 PM – Another big cat!

Amongst the big cats, the Leopard is one of the toughest to spot, not just because of its nocturnal leanings, but also because it prefers resting in thorny thickets by day! Their camouflage too is exceptional, and one really has to strain to distinguish them, or then wait for some hint of movement. In this instance, we are safari vehicle #3 to arrive at the scene, another one of the Entim Mara guides having already done the needful! As Edward and he exchange a word or two, the Leopard comes out of hiding. No doubt about it, the adult male African Leopard is a thing of beauty!

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5:25 PM – Rules of gravity defied

The community of Maasai drivers in the Mara is a close-knit one, relying on each other for tip-offs, and selflessly passing on vital sighting information through their walkie-talkie sets. They are also an extremely gifted lot – by way of navigational skills and deft vehicle handling. The Toyota Land Cruiser has all but replaced the trusty Land Rover as the safari vehicle of choice, but their drivers haven’t lost the art of effective off-roading! Edward is no different, as he tackles yet another muck-filled river crossing on one of the steepest angles of approach you can imagine!
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5:40 PM – Zebras fornicating, plenty of Giraffes watching

In trailing the ‘Big Five’, there hasn’t been a dull moment around. Nature’s bounty that is the Mara, has ensured a steady flow of exciting moments, ever since we departed camp. From time to time, Edward does his bit too. He leads us into a small wooded area, surrounded by open grassland. There, within a dazzle of Zebras, an adult male has decided to get it on, choosing the most demure of females to go after! The flutter thus created attracts the attention of two towering Giraffes, who close in to get a ringside view of the action!

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6 PM – Pit stop

Two hours into our drive, I ask the inevitable, and somewhat unthinkable – any chance of stopping to pee? Edward nods in the affirmative but continues driving till he deems an area safe enough to stop at. His excessive caution is understandable, and underscored by the fact that the animal – human dynamic changes instantly when you’re in the vehicle as opposed to being outside of it. Inside, you’re safe. Outside though, all bets are off! With Edward on guard, we take turns answering nature’s call. Its getting to be a long halt – turns out everyone was being polite all this while!

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6:25 PM – Hope arrives in fading light

Long shadows have begun to form, and while conditions are ideal for photography, there isn’t a whole lot of natural light left in the day. Time’s running out but we’re still hoping to spot the last two of the ‘Big Five’! Edward steers us off the vehicular path – something, he informs us, Kenyan forest rangers do not take kindly to – and heads towards the banks of a river. The largest terrestrial animal, the African Bush Elephant, isn’t a particularly hard one to spot – even in fading light, and despite this one being a calf.

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6:40 PM – Magic Hour

Even when your not spotting animals, The Mara is stunning to look at – rolling expanses of Savannah, dotted by occasional brush or the elegant Acacia. With an average elevation of ~5000 ft., the region is known for its subtropical highland climate, characterized by several seasons in one day, all accompanied by changing light conditions. The early morning and late evening hours, especially, provide the most spectacular displays of light and shadow.

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7:05 PM – The Big Five have been sighted!

We’re almost past dusk by now and all the occupants in the Land Cruiser have resigned to the fact that we will not, after all, be achieving our objective for the day. As Edward charts a course back to camp, the walkie-talkie crackles to life – a Rhino has been spotted close by! He turns the vehicle around, drives a mile or so and then darts off the trail towards a thicket. The Rhino’s cover is blown soon enough, the distinctive horns giving it away. My attempt to photograph it is none too brilliant, but it is a record nevertheless, and it’ll do just fine!

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8:15 PM – A Toast

Back at Entim, the evening chill has set in. We don some jackets and head over to the campfire to join an English couple, who’ve been ‘camp hopping’ the last few weeks. There longest stint has been at Entim and tonight is their last night in camp. Jonathan, the food and beverage manager, ensures a steady supply of chilled Tuskers and hors d’oeuvres, and together we recount stories, share photographs and toast to having spotted the ‘Big Five’ on our first game outing…

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Friday, 5:45 AM – Wake up call

The genteel voice of one of the Maasai wait staff is our only morning alarm. My bed is still nice and warm from the hot water bottle thoughtfully placed in it last night. So it is with some reluctance that I get up, unzip the tent, and step out into the morning draft. It is pitch dark outside save for the glow of our tent’s lantern. On the table below it sits a freshly pressed jar of Kenyan Coffee – time to wake up!

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6:32 AM – Dawn on the Mara

It is absolutely vital that the caravan of safari vehicles depart from camp at 6:30. On the dot. Latecomers are scorned at, and you certainly don’t want to be one of them. Not just because you’re likely to upset your group, but also the fact that every minute of delay at camp, is a minute lost watching the spectacle of sunrise on The Mara.

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6:45 AM – March of the Wildebeest

The migration of the Wildebeest, also known as The Great Migration, is one of the most sought after events for visitors to The Mara. In July each year, the Wildebeest, numbering over a million, head north from the Serengeti into The Mara, in search of new pastures. The reverse migration begins in October. Even though our first outing was a success, the Wildebeest remained elusive. But today, as the sun rises, casting a golden spell on the Savannah, a herd of White-bearded Wildebeest marches purposefully alongside our trail.

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7 AM – Stripes and Stares

In its migration, the Wildebeest is accompanied by a posse of Gazelles, Topis, Elands and a few hundred thousand Zebras. Spotting herds of Wildebeest and Zebras together is therefore not uncommon. But the dazzling morning light plays up the distinctive stripes of the Zebra more than anything else. The sight doesn’t even escape the glare from a wake of African White-backed Vultures, perched on an anthill, across from the herd.

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7:35 AM – The watering hole

The hot air balloons have begun to make their controlled descents into the bush, and safari vehicles from other camps can now be seen with greater frequency. One of them stops dead in its tracks and telephotos emerge from the open roof. Edward floors the gas, and in a matter of seconds, we are at a watering hole being patronized by a Lion and Lioness. With their thirst quenched, royal procreation ensues! There is no set mating season for Lions, but when a Lioness is on heat, she will often engage more than one mate, and copulate up to 40 times a day!

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 8:15 AM – A Cheetah stalks her prey

The moment I saw it, I was convinced. The Cheetah, to me, is the most beautiful amongst the big cats, what with its graceful proportions and a body sculpted for speed. Because of its smaller size, relative to other predators, Cheetahs usually hunt by day, employing sight more than scent for their kill. We first spot them in the shade of a thicket. Eventually, the Cheetah moves into the open grassland, with her four cubs following close at hand. She then props herself onto a little mound to get a better view of her arena. The Topis are much too big for her, but their calf should suffice!

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9:30 AM – A long wait

Edward informs us that Cheetahs hunt every few days in order to provide for their cubs. They are known to have a success rate of about 50% when hunting, making each hunt that much more crucial to the survival of their cubs. Before making its charge, however, the Cheetah must get up to within a 100 feet of its prey. As the Cheetah stalks her unsuspecting victim, we patiently follow along. After all, a chance to see the fastest animal on our planet, sprinting to 100 km/h in ~3 seconds, is well worth a long wait!

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10 AM – Breakfast in the Bush

About 90-minutes into our wait, Edward makes an executive decision – we must break for breakfast! He is right, of course, for without a morsel in our stomachs, that level of tension and excitement is hard to digest 😉 As the stalking continues in the background, Edward chooses a spot safe enough to set up shop. The chairs are unfolded, the picnic basket unraveled, and soon we are all indulging in a multi-course breakfast in the bush. Just below us, on the opposite bank of the Mara River, rests a huge Nile Crocodile, its jaws ominously opened!

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10:50 AM – Plenty of Wildebeest but no crossing in sight

Probably the most dramatic visual, evocative of The Mara, is that of the Wildebeest crossing a river. No less than 3 rivers drain the game reserve, so the chance of sighting such a crossing is that much more. Continuing along the banks of the Mara River, we come across a thousand or so Wildebeest on the opposite bank, skirting the bluff at times. Edward is familiar with most of the crossing locations, and we wait in anticipation at one such. A huge Elephant saunters past, disrupting a potential wave, and two large reptiles lie in wait below. The Wildebeest, it seems, have wisely ignored this tricky location.

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11:35 AM – Flight of the Gazelles

There is very little to distinguish between Grant’s Gazelle and Thomson’s Gazelle, save for the shape of their horns, and the fact that the white on the posterior of the latter does not extend above their tails! Both were named after explorers and are to be found in abundance across The Mara. Preferring shorter grass to graze in, they are known to accompany Wildebeest and Zebras on their migration, allowing the larger herbivores to level the grass ahead of them. While not quite as fast as the Cheetahs, they are certainly agile, often outlasting their predators. Regardless of their diminutive size, they are striking to look at, and a complete delight to watch!

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12:15 PM – Coffee on the Verandah

As Jonathan’s crew prepares another fabulous 3-course meal, we are pampered in the interim with a freshly brewed pot of Coffee. Kicking back in the planters chair, I look back to some of the most gratifying hours I’ve spent on a vacation, and look ahead to the clock striking 4, when game drive #3 beckons…

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4:10 PM – The Undertaker

The Mara, although known more for its animals, also features over 230 species of birds! Unfortunately, in the excitement of spotting an animal in the wild, a lot of the birds go unnoticed. Except for the larger varietals that is, and of course the scavengers. The Marabou is one of 8 Storks that can be found in The Mara, but quite easily the largest of the lot. When fully outstretched – their wingspans can measure up to 12 feet – its cloak-like appearance from the rear has earned it the nickname ‘Undertaker Bird’!

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4:30 PM – Hippo Central

The sound of their trumpeting and snorting is music to my ears. As they stomped through the campgrounds last night, I awoke from deep slumber momentarily, smiled, and went right back to sleep. I can’t explain how, but it was comforting. Now, we spot them in their most natural habitat – water. They spend very little time outside of it, and their excursions on land are for the sole purpose of eating, all of it done by night. As lazy and content as the pod of Hippos appears in the water, you probably do not want to be any closer. The third largest animal in the world, the Hippo is possibly the most viscous creature you can encounter. And don’t be fooled by their weight, for they will outpace any human – make no mistake about that!

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5:10 PM – The Kill

There is a lot of incoming chatter on Edward’s walkie-talkie, all of it in Swahili. None of us can really tell what it is, but his expression, and a sudden urgency in his driving, sort of gives us a hint. We are the fourth vehicle to arrive on the scene, and evidently, a few moments too late! We missed out on the chase, but there’s still an iota of life left in the poor Wildebeest, and we arrive in time to witness it. The Japanese group, who are staying with us at Entim, had skipped lunch precisely for this kind of thing, and their sacrifice has paid off. A flash goes off accidentally, and the Lioness backs off momentarily. She takes the opportunity to get a good look at her array of admirers, and also to get a much needed breather. Killing, it seems, is not as easy as it looks in the movies!

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5:50 PM – A salute to the Acacia

For me, one of the most endearing images from The Mara would have to be the graceful Acacia tree. The Umbrella Thorn Acacia, as its properly known, is perfectly suited for the African Savannah, capable of surviving in extreme weather and with very limited water. Its gnarled branches have a stately elegance to them, and its solitary existence is somewhat telling of the rules on The Mara – only the fittest will survive!

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6:25 PM – Reunited

We’re still not sure how long it took her, but we are overjoyed to see them again, and to discover that her hunt was a success! She plays a tug of war with her cubs, the remnants of the day’s spoils proving useful for the same. Her cubs now abound in energy, no doubt having gained the same due to their mother’s hard work earlier in the day. Eventually, she leaves them alone to play. Sprawling out on the grass, she takes a good look around to ensure their safety, and then drops her head down for a well-deserved catnap.

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7:30 PM – Hunkered down in the lounge

The heavens open up, and it pours and pours like it probably only does on The Mara! We retreat indoors for the evening aperitif. It is an intimate setting, what with every one of the 20 guests crammed in to the warmly lit lounge. And that’s precisely what makes Entim such a fabulous camp  – the numbers are small, the attention personal, and the cosy setting ensures that everyone feels like family! Lexi, our very charming camp host, joins us for a drink. She has in her charge today a group of Romanians, Japanese, Britishers and us Indians – all bound together by a love for nature, and a passion to travel…

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Saturday, 6:40 AM – Another stellar sunrise

The ground is soggy from the downpour last night, and dark clouds still hover above. But on The Mara, dawn almost never disappoints! The colours are starkly different this morning but vivid nevertheless. Shafts of sunlight pierce through the dense cover, lighting up the eastern margins of the reserve, and silhouetting everything that lies in the foreground, my favourite Acacias included!

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7 AM – Big Bird

I have to admit, I’ve tasted their meat even before seeing them in the flesh. I’m not sure if that’s the order in which it should have happened, or whether it should have happened at all, but we’ll leave it at that! The largest of the birds, and a flightless one at that, the Ostrich is massive, and stands tall too – the male of the species reaching up to 9 feet in height! They are probably as easy to spot in the bush as the Giraffe is, and yet this is our first sighting of them. Despite their bulk, they are extremely nimble, able to outpace all but the Cheetah. We don’t get to see them run, but their towering presence this morning is surely an added bonus to what is, sadly, our last game drive on The Mara…

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7:15 AM – The Secretary

Capping out at about 4 feet, the Secretary Bird isn’t quite as tall as the Ostrich but certainly holds its own on the uniqueness scale. By appearance alone, it is part-Eagle, part-Crane. Although technically a raptor, it is terrestrial in nature, doing most of its hunting on foot. This unusual bird of prey is also notable for the fact that it appears on the coat of arms of both Sudan and South Africa – no small feat that!

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7:35 AM – Oh, to be King again!

We’ve managed to see them on every game drive so far – a full pride, a mating pair, and even a solo kill. But to see an adult male alone in the bush, does come as a bit of a surprise. He is battered and bruised, and age is definitely not on his side, but he still maintains a regal air. He gets up and moves purposefully towards a pair of Topis, who stop to give him a glance but do not stir. They know better – its the Lioness that does all the killing. The poor old Lion has certainly seen better days – his very presence should have had them scampering. He turns his attention skyward now, his face wrought with worry. In the distance, hot air balloons are descending on his turf…

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8:15 AM – Topis in formation

Probably the most commonly found Antelope in the African continent is the Topi. It is also its most unsung. The Elands, Wildebeest and Gazelles end up garnering all the attention. But the Topis are some of the most social within the Antelope family, and certainly one of the fastest! As would be expected, Topis abound in The Mara, the handsome animals always filling in to help frame a shot!

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10:05 AM – Camp Intrepid

A ‘Polite Notice‘ advises us not to walk beyond this point without a guard. We are standing at the entrance to a suspension bridge, waiting for our turn to cross. The Talek River flows beneath, one that has been rendered impassable today, from the rain last night. Across the rickety bridge lies Camp Intrepid, which we must pass through in order to access Olkiombo airstrip.

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11:30 AM – Enroute to Nairobi Wilson

The tiny Cessna 208 has its full complement of 9 passengers onboard as we depart another nondescript airfield in The Mara. The flight time to Nairobi is less than an hour, and aircraft usually fly just a few thousand feet above ground. Perfect for someone like me, who clearly hasn’t had his fill of The Mara! As we draw closer to the northern perimeter of the reserve, I take one last glimpse. Appearing as little specks on a carpet of green is a family of elephants – all walking in different directions, possibly marking their territory – as a baby elephant tries to keep up. Another glorious day is unfolding across the Maasai Mara, and I am deeply saddened to be leaving it all behind…

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Asante sana Kenya – I will return!

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Related blog, pics from Nairobi, and a full set of Maasai Mara pics.

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5 Responses to “Despatches from The Mara”

  1. Ed November 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

    Love these pictures, takes me back to August when i was in the Mara

  2. Hitch-Hikers' Handbook November 22, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Absolutely amazing photos!!!!
    If you like photography, we’d like to invite you to participate in our next Travel Photography Competition. Here are the details:
    http://hitchhikershandbook.com/your-contributions/travel-photography/
    Happy travels!

  3. kb November 23, 2012 at 2:01 am #

    good one ali bhai

  4. Mohan Bhuyan December 5, 2012 at 5:58 am #

    Just once I’d like to see a Japanese with a “normal” camera!
    One of the best descriptions of the Mara in recent times and stunning pictures as usual. Must be the most animal-rich reserve in the world!

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    […] and of course, the world-famous San Diego Zoo! After having seen them in their natural habitat in Kenya last year, I don’t have the heart to enter a zoo ever again, so that was an easy omission. […]

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