Masai Mara, 2020
For many days turned into weeks Masai Mara had been calling me. When I was finally able to heed the call five months had gone by.
I drove into the park with great appreciation, noticing things I had taken for granted before. Balanite trees spread out here and there across the savanna looked good. As good as the golden wheat landscape on the roadsides on the drive from Nairobi to Narok.
It was a different Masai Mara from when I was there on a ‘normal season.’ To begin with, the road to the park from Narok, which a few months back had been bad, potholed, and dusty in the dry season had been completed to a speedier less tiring asphalt road.
It has been said that when the wildebeest throng Masai Mara, elephants take off to the forest and hills – to the Siria escarpment. This ‘heading for the hills’ was more or less evidenced when we drove from Sekenani gate to Keekorok, to Talek, without seeing a single elephant. This was unusual for me. Other times I see them quickly.
The vegetation in the park was more; the yellow oat grass taller. In certain places the park authorities had burnt the dead grass with fire for regeneration, creating a mosaic of some black and then the green of young sprouting grass. Concentration of grazing game was more on the short new grass as opposed to the tall dried out kind.
The park was ‘humanly quiet.’ Actually, at the park gate we were the only ones checking in. It was not ‘wildlife quiet.’ Not with the moo moo grunting of thousands of wildebeest. It was mid of the migration season and there were more wildebeest than I had ever seen before on the Mara plains. There were also some carcases of them along the roads in the grass.
The next wildlife noise we heard was that of a pack of banded mongoose on a standoff with a monitor lizard. Their territory was under invasion. The mongoose bunched up and shrieked. Their shrieking seemed to put the monitor lizard to sleep. It just lay there unmoved.
Many wildebeest fall in Masai Mara. They are prey in abundance for the predators. The first cats we saw were two cheetahs sitting on an overlook watching the plains. Five metres below lay a dead wildebeest – uneaten. One of the cheetahs went down to scrutinize and quickly walked away preferring a drink of water from a puddle instead. The cheetahs looked like they were hungry but they like fresh kill. What they have hunted. They caught their own gnu (wildebeest) later; such is the choice during the migration season.
The HF radio relayed that a pride of lions was making merry where we were near the cheetahs. We found them taking turns going into a ditch, staying a while, and coming out all red around the mouth. It could have been that another gnu had fallen. We didn’t see it. Masai giraffes wandered nearby. The lions watched them, and not in a neighbourly way. The giraffes, very aware of the lions, departed, as if sensing their carnivorous intentions.
The first night was cool and clear with half a moon. Calling hyenas made sure that we did not forget where we were, a few times they ‘laughed.’ The birds that do not sleep released some tunes into the night. At dawn the ones that had slept, and were waking up, made louder melodies as gazelles and antelopes, including the topi, had salt lick breakfast at a place on our way from camp.
We saw a hostage situation. A leopard was on a tree with what looked a young wildebeest carefully cached. Of all places in the vast Masai Mara, a lion chose to rest under the tree. Obviously, that was not the leopard’s desired choice of quiet time that morning.
It is a superb day when you meet a serval cat, especially in an area where tall grass puts great effort to camouflage it. In the grass there are plenty of prey for the serval cat to capture – mice, rats, birds, insects. Thirst got the serval cat out of the grass to a puddle on the road and what a joy.
Since we had woken up like the birds, we were there when the balloons lifted off for an aerial tour of the park. My sons said that I was chasing the balloons but my side of the story is that the balloons were following us. They were only three balloons. A stark reminder of the unfortunate difference between 2020 and the other years. We could have done with having more balloons to ‘chase’ across the morning sky.
We left the play in Masai Mara continuing as usual. The wildebeest were there everywhere. They crossed the rivers, they grazed, they were hunted on land and in the water. I wonder how long the two big cats in the ‘hostage’ situation stayed together – one up, one down.
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