From our camp we could watch baby hippos splash and swill in the waters, while the adults watched us with suspicion. This was my first experience of camping in the wild, and we started with choosing the wrong place. It was only when Leena said “What if hippos come this way to graze?” that we realized, we were way too near the mighty hippos. And in Africa, you don’t mess with the hippos. So we shifted, to a safer place, near the Serena hotels, with the researchers of Hyena Research Center as our neighbors; and practically in the territory of the hyenas. We again smiled at our choice, but our experienced Masai guide James was convinced.
And then setting up of camps begun. Candidly for the first time campers it’s an experience and especially when you are not given enough tools to set up your camp and you have to manage with twigs ‘that can easily bend’ to use instead of iron rods to set your camp. Anyways you don’t learn to manage, you get infected with this art, as you are hit by safari-bug.
And once we were done with setting our camp, we were off to the thing we were there for – game drive.
Confession: I had African safari before and up until this point, I hadn’t seen a new thing. Animals remain the same, and if you are not getting the ‘animal planet’ moments in your drive, you really are repeating the thing you have done before.
I wasn’t totally blasé, but my kicks were coming from the magnificent landscape of Mara; for miles you can watch herbivores grazing and in your mind you can imagine the carnivores hidden in the tall grass, looking for some careless prey.
“It would be too difficult to spot a lioness in this dried grass” remarked one of us. And true, what a brilliant camouflage and why forget the brilliance of zebra stripes, when hundreds of them run together, it would be too difficult for a lioness to focus on one. Mara grasslands roll towards the horizon with only an occasional Acacia tree or bush to break the view. It is the quintessential African landscape one imagines as one thinks of African safari. So literally, you can make your eyes exercise to spot and identify the farthest group of animals visible to you.
We drove through huge herds of wildebeests and zebras, grazing in a seemingly careless fashion. I am sure hundreds of pairs of eyes and ears are difficult to beat and that probably makes the big cats and the hyenas wait for the night, when atleast one of the sense organ proves helpless.
Leaving the herbivores to their work, we went ahead in search of the lions. An easy drive of another fifteen minutes and we were in the territory of two male bachelor lions lazing around. The sound of our car wakened one of them. He dazedly lifted his head, wrinkled his nose and sniffed the air, maybe to pick up the whiff of his prey and then shifted his fiery gaze to us. Everything he did, was a sure sign that he was in no hurry. The great migration of the animals was in place, and it was a treat time for the Mara lions. A big yawn and he was dozing again, maybe reserving his energy for the big game. A herd of impala grazed near this spot. They didn’t flee or showed a tendency to and the lions too didn’t move; they knew their chances are up, but the impala still maintained a careful distance.
We moved forward, this time with a sheer intention to watch a migration. A group of wildebeest and zebra had assembled at a point. Surely, this cyclical movement of these herbivores from the depleted fields of Serengeti to the rich grasses of Masai Mara is a treat to watch. In one season over 2 million wildebeest, about a million zebras and an equal number of Thompson Gazelle cross over to this side in search of greener grass and when the fields of Serengeti get ready, they make a reverse journey. Watching these animals cross the river under an impulse, bracing the threat of crocodiles in the river, is a call to action. And that could easily be assessed from the number of vehicles halted at that spot to watch the huge group gathered on the other side. But coming together of a group and crossing are two different things. Zebras would go down to the river in a group of two or three to assess the waters and could come back after quenching their thirst.
I was finding it difficult to hold my patience after a wait of fifteen minutes and then there around me were wildlife enthusiasts from around the world, ready with their pocket sized to telescope sized cameras to catch the action in their frame. Our guide James smiled and whispered “You can never predict what’s going on in their mind. The migration might start the next minute or these might wait for another day or days.”
Another fifteen minutes and we had given up and drove back. And we soon got a new inspiration to be there; we heard a fellow guide scream ‘Cheiw’ meaning leopard in Swahili. A leopard! Another from a big five. We reached the spot, a leopard was having its kill on a tree branch, surrounded and almost hounded by a bunch of tourists turned into a star-stalking paparazzi, eagerly waiting for a photograph of their star. I felt some guilt in me, but thankfully the leopard was enjoying its meal and I could see the leg of the impala, it had hunted hanging from one of the branches.
The moment was enough to bring a big smile on my face. The sky had turned orange by that time, but before we could call it a day, we had to have another big sight. From a distance we could see this hyena, trying to get close to a group of Topi. The growing darkness was proving to its advantage, Topis were unable to spot him and he almost, had them in its range – one dash of adrenaline and he would have his prey. But just then a safari car made a huge screech, stopped, and then started moving closer and the paparazzi in the travelers etched to go closer. The movement of their car distracted the hunter and the ‘to-be-hunted’. The hyena revealed itself and ran off in the opposite direction and we missed the real action. Couldn’t help it!!
It was dark, we had to return to our camp-site and set a fire and obviously barbecue. Potatoes were set to be boiled and eggs and chicken to be fried. The noise of the Mara, and with its spirit, was clear.