Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Masai Mara National Reserve: 17-19 April 2010

When I first set my eyes on the lion family on the savannah, my immediate reaction was an immense sigh of relief. Oh my god, these animals are still around for us to see. And that too up so close and personal! It was late afternoon, A refreshingly cool breeze drifted across the lush savannah grass glistening with moisture following a brief spell of rain. April is still the rainy reason. I was on the first day of a three day safari in Maasai Mara, Kenya’s most celebrated wildlife sanctuary and one of Africa’ best. And there I was, within half an hour of entering the park, looking at a family of five lions from my safari vehicle. There were three cubs and their parents. The cubs fed from their mother while the male sat languidly two meters away. Occasionally, a cub would dart across to the male, and climb onto it back, and then return to continue feeding.  

During the next day and half, I would see practically all the animals that Africa is known for, except for the gorillas (they are in Uganda). The list included a total of 15 lions (including 9 adults). Once, on an early morning drive, we saw a single lioness hurry across the trail behind us, heading towards a herd of gazelle not more than 150 meters away.  Another time, just before noon, we saw another lion family, with two males and three cubs, frolicking in the bush. And who could ever forget the sight of a single male African lion fast forwarding deep into the savannah, its sprightly brownish mane marking it out from the soft green and yellow grassy plains. It went about looking which must be prey as a a group of deers were not far way, before disappearing into a bush.
Photo: The Cuddling Lion Family
Photo: The Frustrated Cheetah Pair
Photo: The Elephant Burst from the Bush
Photo: In the Maasai Village
Photo: Inside a Masai home

And there were the endless deer, plenty of zebra, buffalo, giraffe, and occasional wild boar, and elephants, elephants and elephants. And this in the low season, with thousands of animals having crossed over the Mara river to Tanzania, seeking better pastures, not to return till July. The elephants roamed about in small and large herds. We saw a pair lurking behind a tall bush and suddenly appearing on our right side, one of them trumpeting as our driver struggled to hit the pedal and move forward and away.  Other times, they moved in larger groups anywhere between five and fifteen. In the Mara river, which gives the park half its name (the other half coming from Maasai, the East African tribe that lives on across the border between Kenya and Tanzania), we say hippos and crocodiles, lurking in the water near one of the spots where animals cross during the annual ‘great migration’, the migration of animals from Maasai Mara on the Kenyan side to Serengeti National Park on the Tanzanian side and back to Maasai Mara (They leave Maasai Mara gone in December/January  and return in July/August). One could image how they might fall prey to the waiting crocs while crossing the shallow river.

While lions are the star attraction in Maasai Mara, the cheetahs put up a great show. We came across three pairs of cheetahs during our stay (meeting the same pair twice perhaps). One of these encounters was unforgettable. Early in the morning (7am on our final day), we drove to a pair sitting in tandem on the side of the dirt road, looking intently at the grazing deer 200 meters away. As we waited for the kill, they made several forays, perhaps scouting , since there was none of the famous cheetah sprint, each time returning to the road. Our guide told us to wait for a hunting sprint, which, alas, never came. The reason: by this time, about half a dozen safari vans had made their way to the area, and their diesel engines were loudly interrupting the morning calm, with fumes polluting the crisp and otherwise odorless morning air. The cheetah pair looked disoriented, and perhaps a bit harassed, and gave up.
The tourist traffic was relatively low at this time of the year, which is regarded as the low season. So how crowded the savannah might look like in the high season? Although tourism has its benefits, and some local Maasai swear by it, brining in revenues to the state which might pay for maintaining the park. Poaching is down. The armed security escort at the Mara river, not a native, told me that the lion and hippo numbers are up in the past few years, although this must be taken with some caution as he did not have any numbers. But surely, the safari vehicles, the diesel fumes, the endless clinking of cameras, could not be pleasing to the animals’ ears anymore than they were to me. Indeed, some tourists made so much camera noise that my video camera caught them, drowning out the grunts of hippos and the soft moan of the lioness as she fed her cubs. A sense of guilt overcame me, one of the tourists, although I kept my camera noise low. There must be solutions to this problem, whereby the park can benefit fro tourist dollars while the animals enjoy more peace. Electric vehicles? A ban on driving out of well-marked trails or dirt roads? Limits to the number of vehicles allowed per day? Or time restrictions? Right now the park is closed after 6pm.
On the evening of our 2nd day, as the park closed its doors to safari-seekers, I visited a Maasai village nearby. They welcome tourists. I was treated to a traditional dance, had my photo-op with grinning Maasai men, one of the shots wearing the tall feathery chief’s hat. More moving was a visit inside a Maasai hut, with its cow skin mattress, the gourd from which the Maasai drinks a concoction of cow blood and milk every day, and the little shed next to the family room where baby goats sleep for the nights, less than two meters from their human counterparts. The smell of cowdung was overpowering. The Maasai use cowdung to wall their huts, and for layering the village streets and the open and spacious animal roundup area which also duplicates as the place for circumcision as well as the meeting place for official village business. The chief sits on a stone at the center, with his men circling around him. The Masaai wealth is measured in cows and goats. A male has to pay 15 animals for a brown-skinned bride, and 10 for a black-skinned one. There is no limit how many brides can a Maasai man have, it all depends on the number of cows he can spare.
To prove their adulthood and courage, a Maasai male must spend five years in the bush, which ends with him hunting a male lion. He then returns with three parts of the lion: the teeth, the claw and the male part, to his parents and reenters his community as an accomplished man. I was told that the practice is declining, although one Maasai who shared a drink with me by the fireside of my camp told me it goes on.

We stayed in immovable ‘tent’ huts, with canvass walls and cement flooring with attached baths.  The roofs were made of dried leafs. The camp was right next to the main entrance of the park. Although the entrance gate had a fence on both sides, it did not extend all the way to the far side where our camp was located. We practically inside the park, and were forbidden to walk around on our own, beyond the immediate vicinity of our camp, day or night. There was nothing to block the animals from entering our camp.  Hence, a fire was lit, a pair of Maasai patrolled our huts with torch lights and clubs throughout the night, grunting and whistling, hoping to keep the any unwanted intruders, animals or human, at bay. The sky was studded with stars, the cries of hyena drifted across from the savannah. One felt like being into the heart of Africa.

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