My Travels: Crossing the Rivers – Part 2

At that Marius jumped out of our Landcruiser and spoke fast. “Mr Shah, hello, I’m Marius Coetzee. I’m a huge fan of your work. It’s an honour to meet you. I would be honoured to shake your hand.”

The Guru looked humble and stunned. “You know who I am?”

“Yes, yes. I have been inspired by your work.”

“Thank you. It is nice to meet you.  What are you doing here?”

“I own a company called Oryx. We run worldwide photographic expeditions.” He moved back to our vehicle, pulled a card from his wallet and handed it to Anup reverently with both hands.”

I watched carefully. Anup made to drop the card in the storage space between the front seats. We waved goodbye. He did not drop the card. He held it up and studied both sides, as if composing a photograph. “Oh, Marius, my new book is out in September. You should keep an eye out for it.”

“Thank you. I’ll buy it and post it to you, if you don’t mind signing it? I’ll pay for postage.”

“Not at all. My pleasure.”

“Thank you. You don’t have any books on you now? I’ll buy them now and you could sign them?”

“Sorry, I don’t have any with me”

“No problem. Thank you. It has been an honour.”

We drove off. I was caught up in the carriage of this great photographer. Marius told me then he collects sign wildlife photography books. We were both excited.

We drove to the upstream crossing. The wildebeest moved down to the water, then away and downstream. Onesmus had warned us that it was a coy waiting game. We drove back and saw that Anup Shah had parked on the rocks of the main crossing.  I thought we should stay with him. The wildebeest were moving and he has spent three months a year over the last twenty years following the migration. He should know.  We debated, moved next to him and waited. We waved hello in acknowledgement. He raised his hand, and continued shelling peanuts, nonchalant and happy in his own world.

We saw cars moving upstream and we followed. An hour later we saw a crossing right in front of Anoop Shah. We were just too far, and the only thing we saw was the tails of wildebeest exiting in single file after they had crossed. We raced back to the crossing, and then followed another herd further downstream, to an area we had had breakfast on two occasions, overlooking two pods of playful hippo and numerous gigantic crocodile. We stood in our Landcruiser, cameras ready on sandbags at the viewing hatch.  At that time, the Magical Memsahib, Ines, arrived in another vehicle with cold drinks and lunch. Martin edged his vehicle close to ours and we did a mid air transfer of cool boxes and passenger. As Ines settled, we saw two wildebeest swimming from our side to the main herd opposite us, against the impending crossing. The first made it. The second was overtaken by a crocodile swimming smoothly and with purpose. Just before the bank the wildebeest disappeared with the crocodile , surfaced once in a desperate bid for air and was dragged down. The waters settled. The herd moved back, upstream to the main crossing. Anup was gone when we arrived, and the vehicle numbers had thinned, so that when we broke for lunch in the bushes two hundred meters away from the river there was only one car left on the banks. As we finished lunch Onesmus sounded the crossing alarm and we raced back. The first wildebeest were swimming onto our shore and the herd was pushing into the bank opposite us. Ironically, we parked exactly where we were next to Anup Shah four hours earlier.  Patience is indeed a virtue!

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.