As soon as the tiny plane touched down at the Ol-Seki airstrip, our savannah experience began. What an amazing landscape it is, with flat grasslands stretching out in every direction. Daniel, our Maasai guide, met us there and took us on an immediate game drive in the rough direction of the Encounter Mara camp. After the hot plane ride, the breeze in the game vehicle felt like pure luxury. A little while later we approached an area where a few other vehicles had stopped. There is a policy in the conservancy that there are never more than four vehicles at a sighting, so we hung back until it was our turn. I could see some ears twitching in the shade of a tree, but not much else from where we were stopped. In not much time at all, a cheetah sat up tall, and lazily stalked a gazelle which was just behind us. This was the beautiful moment when I realised that this was no usual game reserve, where the big cats are kept in separate enclosures, and fed dead cows from the back of single-cab bakkies. This was the wild, and this very thought was wonderful and exciting.
A safe distance away, we stopped under a lone tree for some quick “bitings”, before completing our final leg of the journey to Encounter Mara campsite. Unfenced, this tented camp is built to be non-permanent, in that there is no concrete, or anything that would have to remain when their lease from the community expires. This approach means that the bush can reclaim this land when they relocate, and another implication is that there are no fences to keep the odd buffalo from wandering through. For this reason, we weren’t allowed to walk without a Maasai after dark, and their spears and knives weren’t just for show. During our outside dinner one evening, we heard a bloodcurdling shriek, followed by more, as if hyenas had interrupted the meal – heavy breathing and shouting followed, as we slowly realised that there was no danger – just a terrifying celebration dance being performed by the guides and camp attendants. They weaved in and out of the tables in a line, singing, shouting and shrieking, before gathering in the clearing in the middle to have a jumping competition. What a thrilling experience this was, even after we discovered we were safe!
The morning game drive began early, and we had songs from the Lion King in our heads as we drove along, adding topis, dikdiks, rollers and lions to our list of sightings. After midday naps, we set off for the evening safari, with sundowners packed in a picnic basket. Vultures clambering over a rotting elephant corpse, and a baboon with the remains of an impala high up in a tree reminded us that things can be really gruesome, this wildness still contributing to the treasure that we were getting to experience. As Sarah remarked, being able to see these animals in all their strength or speed was a treat – to see them in their glory, unrestricted by any cage, isolation, or other imposed limits. The big grey Ndovu tearing away at a little tree, and the skittish wildebees running in single file were good examples of this, as were the stinking strong pods of hippos in their silent massiveness.
On a developmental note…
On our second morning, Sarah’s folks took off early for a balloon ride into the Masai Mara National Park, and we followed on the ground after breakfast. This drive afforded us the brief insight into the layouts of some rural villages, so perfectly morphing into the landscape that any VIA practitioner would be in bliss. As we got a bit further along we arrived at the town of Talek, which by comparison suddenly felt run-down and unkempt. I wouldn’t have described the villages as poverty, rather a simple, full, content life, but the “developed” town was paradoxically not a desirable place to be, with buildings in need of some paint and patching, and litter lying around. Perhaps it is because no one has a sense of ownership of the town, or perhaps it is because they don’t have the resources to keep it in good condition. Either way, the homely villages seemed a much more attractive place, and it made me think twice about urbanisation and development. But that doesn’t excite everyone, so I’ll get back to the safari story…
The Masai Mara (proper)
A short drive later and we stopped for a quick breakfast of boiled eggs and cold sausages, eaten from the bonnet of the land cruiser as if it were the most normal thing, while being scrutinised by herds of wildebees fifty meters away. In this wonderful setting, I took a moment behind the vehicle to heed the call of nature and got surprised by my camera-wielding wife, as if it wasn’t difficult enough with a hundred thousand wildebees grunting and looking on.
On the other side of town, we passed a baboon on a pole, and crossed a little river that forms the border of the national park. Immediately through the gate it felt like a different land, with thousands of animals hanging about. A few minutes in, we stopped to let a family of giraffes cross the track as they made their way across the open grasslands towards some trees on our portside horison. A little bit after that we said hello to a big herd of about 20 elephants, with a small one that could only have been a few months old.
After breakfast we caught up with Sarah’s folks, and pushed through seas of wildebees to a spot where we might see a river-crossing. There we were treated to the most adrenaline-filled action of lionesses ambushing wave after wave of the dim-witted (or desperately thirsty) wildebees. Sarah pointed out that they really ought to have better communication, rather than just moving off as survivors without warning their peers of the threat that awaited them. We saw a number of kills, including on dramatic chase that split on either side of our vehicle and left us wondering whether we perhaps looked like much easier prey. But our guide was calm, so we didn’t worry too much – Hakuna matata!
This was our wonder-filled experience of the start of the great migration – apparently just 10% of the animals that would be there at the peak of the season. The sights and sounds and smells were truly impressive and I don’t think I could imagine multiplying it all by ten.
Back in the conservancy, we were treated to some final birdwatching and “twigga-nom-a-tree” (twigga=giraffe), and a spot of yoga outside our tent, before zipping back to Nairobi in those fragile little planes. What a treat this whole holiday was! I don’t think we will forget it for a long, long time. With our blankets, baskets, brass twigga and photos, we have plenty in our house to remind us of our Kenyan adventures.