My Travels: Crossing the Rivers – Part 1

“Onesmus, can you call for lunch? Ask them if the Memsahib wants to come with the driver.”

“Ndio.”

“What do you think, O? The wildebeest are coming down to the river on our side. Should we wait here, or move further downstream.  There’s big pressure there with lots of zebra. The pressure should force a crossing.”

“Better to wait, Basil. The animals are funny when it comes to a crossing. Too many cars, or one car in the wrong place, can scare them off.” I had lost count of the cars: Landcruisers, Landrovers, 4X4 Toyota Hiace buses filled with Chinese and Indians. Sixty or seventy vehicles at a crossing, both sides of the bank, the Mara Triangle on the west and the Masai Mara National Reserve on the east bank of the Mara River, are not unusual.

It was before 10 a.m. in the morning. We had just left a million wildebeest and one hundred thousand zebra in the Marsh Plains, about seven kilometres to the north.  We had left Rekero camp, further south on the Talek River, at 6 a.m.. In the plains we had seen a lioness hunting, then mating with Scarface, an old lion with bright pink keloid over where his right eye should be. Then we passed two lionesses with three cubs looking towards Governor’s Camp. We drove from there to the main crossing point on the Mara River, hoping against hope that there would be a crossing. The heavy rains in the evening of the last two afternoons seemed to have dispersed the wildebeest from the Paradise plains along the Mara River and the crossing points. They were grazing peacefully far away from the river on the lush Marsh Plains.

Opposite us at the river, on the Mara Triangle were three small herds of wildebeest, each between five and ten thousand. On our side were the same number of zebra and wildebeest. The herds on our side were streaming towards the more upstream crossing, and the Triangle herds were gathering at the main crossing. The cars mimicked the wildebeest. As the animals neared the bank, so would the cars on the opposite bank squeeze together for a view. Before they got close to the water, invariably one wildebeest would move up or down stream and start a movement in the herd. The group of cars would do the same. Engines would race, passengers bounce through the veld along the river to the crossing in the direction of the wildebeest movement. The three crossings are within two kilometres of each other.

One dark green Toyota Landcruiser stuck out.  It was parked about one hundred and fifty metres from the eastern bank,  a strong camera bracket mounted on the left passenger door, and a calm Guru sitting watching. Onesmus, our guide, greeted him. “ Jambo”, he continued in Swahili. “How are you? How is the game viewing? Do you think  there will be a crossing today?”

Alone in the cruiser the Guru answered back politely and we all waved goodbye.

Marius moved excitedly, I thought because of the possible crossing. He was agitated. “O, do you know who that is?”

“No, why?”

“I am sure it is Anup Shah. He is the world’s best wildlife photographer. Can we go back and ask him?

We had just driven off from his passenger side, and made a big circle around him, like vultures at a kill. We stopped again in the same place. Onesmus asked his name. “Jina lako nani?”

“Anup” was all he answered.

My Travels: Feeling Two Million Wildebeest

Ever since I could remember I wanted to see the wildebeest migration from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara. From the endless plains to the lone spotted trees on the Kenyan side, for that is what each name means respectively.  If Africa could be afforded a single place for its heart, then surely the aorta must be the Sand River that divides the Serengeti from the Masai Mara.

I had been to the Mara many years before at the tail end of the migration (we could not get married earlier!) and missed the spectacle. This time as we landed at the Mara airstrip it was difficult to believe that all the black dots from the air were not bushes. As we approached the ground the patterns of the land, the interspersed plains and wetlands, the snaking rivers with forest, all changed to textures. As the textures developed we felt seething masses of black moving, some in waves, some with sharp edges and some as dots. The wildebeest had crossed into the Mara just three days before, and I was looking at over one million animals.

We drove north to Naboisho , a conservancy adjoining the Mara Reserve after we landed. Benjamin, our guide, was erudite and well spoken. We were soon engaged in the politics of Africa, Kenya and the Kenya Wildlife Services. All the while, for a good twenty kilometres we drove through this great herd of wildebeest. It was like walking along a shallow beach where the water ebbs and flows at your ankles, except here it was not the water: it was wildebeest.

 

When we returned to the Mara Reserve five days later the wildebeest had dispersed. Some had crossed the Mara River to take up temporary residence in the Mara Triangle, and some had moved north to the marsh Plains. Two days later we noticed a huge herd blackening the horizon south of the Talek River. The herd extended from the hills in the east to Lookout Hill, a lone koppie in the plains. The next day we were lucky enough to be in a hot air balloon flying along this great herd. I think I stopped breathing as we drifted silently at low level. It was early in the morning and they were still, but some young teenagers were playing and all of them were grunting. The low “gnu’s” resonated in the veld, drifting up to our heaven.

We returned to the north side of the Talek River and saw that some of this group had crossed overnight into the Paradise plains, but they were dispersed. A group of five or ten thousand wildebeest hardly warrants being called a herd. They were impressive groups, but nothing like the mass of millions. We found this mass again on our second to last afternoon. They stretched out in the marsh plains as far as the eye could see. We spent hours trying to capture this emotion on film, trying everything we knew about composition and movement and light. In the end we would just sit and look. Feeling it worked mush better.

The migration was amazing. The crossings were unbelievable.

My Travels: Husbands and Wives in the Mara

My best picture of the trip. Taken into the light from a moving vehicle!

One afternoon we were driving along the Mara River and heard a lion roar. I lifted my head and looked in the general direction and spotted a lioness about two hundered meters away, in the grassland just off the riverine bush. We followed her along the river, lost her and had to backtrack. She had found a dead foetus, probably a Thompsons, and was devouring it as a cat would a mouse.

As evening fell we made our way back to Rekero Camp. We found a lion and lioness just over a small outcrop in the Paradise Plains and watched them mate once. The female was quite coy. They walked together, with him following her. Her head was up; his was down and near her hind legs. They lay down, her head facing his torso. She slapped him and snarled. Then he mounted her.

“Wait for the snarl as he dismounts. Get ready!” Marius focused his camera in the dying light, ISO pushed up high to cope with the low light. Fifteen seconds later the lion lifted his body away and snarled as the lioness turned in pain to snap at him. Then they lay down again.

“They can go for forty hours, every twenty minutes like this. Must be exhausting”, I said.

“Absolutely. You know the male has barbs on his penis, which is why the withdrawal is so dramatic”, said Marius. “Ouch!” I thought. I found out that in fact all felines have barbs and that the withdrawal stimulates ovulation.  Nevertheless, the lion mating ritual is different, especially when viewed as a primate.

The snarl at the end says it all!

We left, but the next day saw well over fifteen cars at the same couple. We just drove on. The next morning we drove to the Marsh Plains in the north of the reserve. We left camp at 6 a.m. and were the only vehicle amongst one million wildebeest and one hundred thousand zebra for two hours. These massive herds are difficult to capture on image. We tried different angles and depths of field, and stood in awe of the second herd of a million we had seen.

We then spotted a lioness walking ahead of a lion. Not sure if she was hunting or mating, we followed her. The ritual started and the snarl on dismount was quite vicious. A few Landrovers from Governor’s Camp arrived, and we left, having followed the lions for a while. Also, realising that she was not hunting, and that he was hunting her rather than the wildebeest, we left them to the group. There would be no kill. Ironically, we had spotted an injured wildebeest less than one hundred meters away in the long grass.

We drove on towards the river and sat with some vultures and Maribou Storks. They had a carcass they were fighting over and were very entertaining. Onesmus listened in on his radio. “The Marsh Pride cubs are nearby. Let’s go see.”

We drove off and sat with the cubs for a few minutes. What cute offspring of such a vicious mating ritual.

The Marsh Pride Cubs