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: The Fast Cats of the Mara

We had just witnessed our first crossing: a few thousand wildebeest pouring over steep dusty riverbanks, splashing through the water and climbing to the north bank of the Talek. We followed them north after the last had crossed.

“There’s a cheetah!” said Onesmus, pointing ahead to another herd of wildebeest.

Marius turned to Ines and I in the back row: “do you watch ‘The Big Cat Diaries’ on BBC?” I did last night, but had not seen an episode before I visited the Mara. “There’s a cheetah that jumps on the roofs of the cars and uses it as a lookout point.”

“Yeah, tell me another one”, I thought to myself.

But there she was, on the canvas roof of an open Landrover. Malaika is a pretty cheetah, sleek and playful. She moved from one side of the roof to the other, and then sat regally surveying the wildebeest before dismounting. At the same time Ines spotted her cub nearby in the long grass. She dismounted from one roof, using the rear wheel as a step, walked to another car closer to the wildebeest, stretched onto the spare tyre and bounded onto the roof. This one was solid with game viewing hatches that were open. The faces on the tourists were too funny!

Malaika game viewing in the Mara

The cub followed her in the grass. “She’s going to hunt” said Marius, as she dismounted again and started stalking. Suddenly she was off, the fastest sprinter on earth; back arching, tail balancing and pelvis splitting to increase her speed. She missed. She came back to find her cub and rested a bit.

“She’s going again!” said Onesmus. He was driving over the veld, following her. She ran along the line of wildebeest as they tried to escape, and then cut through the line and seemed to take a small wildebeest. The mother chased her off. She had missed again.

She came back to find her cub. He was hungry. He had attitude: he was growling.

Malaika’s cub

The next day we found Malaika on a termite mound with her cub, who was chewing on the hind leg of a Thompson’s gazelle. His stomach was low and full, but still he ate. After a while they moved higher up under the shade of a tree. The cub started to play with mom, who was exhausted and all but ignored him.

Two days later we saw her again. This time she had hunted a wildebeest and was suffocating it. The left horn of the wildebeest had been injured in the hunt and the stump was bleeding. Once the animal was dead Malaika moved to the soft skin near the rear to tear her way through to the meat.

The cub put on a display of mock charges and attacking jumps on the lone exposed silky black ear of the best. Once his mother had torn the skin she allowed him to eat first.

Last night on ‘The Big Cat Diaries’ they said there were fifty cheetahs in the Mara. They are very threatened by the dominant lion and hyena, and are probably only fifteen in total. We saw seven of them that week.

Cub playing, mom resting

My Travels: Leopard Spotting

Wilson was our Masai Guide in the Naboisho conservancy of the Mara. He had heard of a leopard kill that had occurred on the conservancy in a wooded area before the great plain of Naboisho. That afternoon we set off to find the leopard.

We were driving along when Marius shouted “stop, I see a leopard”. All I saw was an impala. “Look, she’s focused on something. She’s alert”. We scanned under the umbrellas of the acacias. “There it is. Sorry, not a leopard, but a hyena. It’s moving. Quick, Wilson, follow it.” Wilson turned off the track into the bush and we drove after the hyena. We lost and found it twice, and then as we lost it a third time Marius jumped up through the viewing hatch and pointed at a young male leopard running from where we last saw the hyena. The leopard slipped gracefully over a steep gully into the opposite side of a gentle valley that mirrored where we were.

“Shh, what’s that noise?”  I listened as Wilson cut the motor. I heard crunching from a clump of bushes to our right. Quick as a flash the hyena loped off with the hind leg of the kill that his mother had made the day before. He was no match for an adult hyena, and his mother would be back with more meat soon. There was just so much game around. “Quick, follow it”. Marius was shaking his finger to hurry up, both of us up through the viewing hatch with cameras ready on sandbags.

We found the hyena under a tree in a clump of grass, thick shoulders standing over the hind leg of a small wildebeest. He looked up, then bent down and devoured most of the leg in a crunching flash. Bone splintered and gristle was chewed two or three times before swallowing. We were with him for five minutes before he moved off and we both said “let’s go find the leopard” and gave high fives.

We drove uphill along the gully looking for a place to pass. We scanned the opposite slope to no avail. We passed a small pan with cake dried mud. We had been searching for over thirty minutes now and Marius piped up: “Look at the patterns on the mud. Let’s shoot some abstracts.” I did, half heartedly, as I would rather be looking at leopard rosettes. We drove on, found a crossing and moved down again to where we found the leopard. We spotted him again, darting into some bush.

We gave up when we lost him again, and in the twilight started for camp. We stopped for sundowners at the dried pan again. It was yet another beautiful African sunset and we were well satisfied. Wilson was stills scanning.  “There it is, under the tree.” The leopard was lying facing us across the gully not even 10 metres away from where I had taken some abstract pictures of mud.

“Geez, Marius. Here you are telling me to take abstracts of mud and there’s a leopard under the bush ten meters away. Some guide you are,” I winked.

Naboisho Hyena