MASAI MARA MAGIC
‘There’s more to see than can ever be seen,
More to do than can ever be done…
There’s far too much to take in here,
More to find than can ever be found…’
Lion King fans may recall these moving lyrics from the Elton John song ‘Circle of Life’. And I was humming the same track, while experiencing goose bumps on my first ever Mara trip. To absorb the myriad life forms that these vast grasslands exhibit, is an experience beyond words. The mesmerizing motion of thousands, sometimes lakhs of wildebeest migrating across the endless plains; the ‘edge of the seat moment’ while a cheetah family stealthily stalks gazelles; the rush of blood on realizing that a gigantic African elephant is headed straight for you… such magical moments are endless when one visits the famed Masai Mara during migration season- ‘the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth’.
How to Reach
There are a number of airlines operating flights from major Indian cities to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. We chose Kenya Airways, as the timing suited us well. It’s a 6 hour flight, and clearing through immigration is a breeze if you have done your homework perfectly. (Yours truly available for assistance on firstname.lastname@example.org)
There are two options to reach Masai Mara (280 kms)- a 6 hours drive, (the last 2 hours stretch is a complete dirt track). A 4X4 is strongly recommended. The second and costlier option is a 45 minute flight- both regular and customized, as per your budget. The flip side of flying is that you lose out on seeing more of the country and it’s lovely people. Luggage size restrictions is another worry for a typical Indian traveller
The Masai Mara Game Reserve is a great destination throughout the year. December to February is brilliant for big cats, as it is drier, and sightings are easier. However, the famed migration season is from July to October, and the sheer number of wildebeest (gnu) accompanied by a humongous number of zebras is overwhelming, a pilgrimage that must not be missed by any wildlife lover.
Where to Stay
The variety at disposal is mind boggling, to say the least. The Kenyans have given great thought to promoting wildlife tourism, and being genuinely friendly people, every lodge or camp-site will leave you with a generally satisfied experience. From private 3 room properties tucked away in the wilderness, to luxury tented camp-sites (some even relocate according to expected sightings), to sprawling 90 room 5 star lodges; you have them all to pick and choose from.
I’d strongly recommend a property inside the Mara. Staying inside has two advantages: you save on commuting time and are in the thick of action as soon as you start your game drive, and there’s superb birding right inside the campus. At Keekorok where we stayed, the bird list went beyond 50 (only lunchtime birding, btw), and a large hippo pool behind the property ensured decent mammal sightings too. For more options, see Useful linksSightings
Our group entered the Masai Mara Game Reserve from the Sekenani Gate on the afternoon of 14th Aug, and before we could sight any wildlife, we were surrounded by a group of colourfully dressed Masai women selling their beautifully crafted homemade wares! We didn’t buy anything then, as we had plans of visiting a Masai village a couple of days later.
(Tip: Don’t forget to bargain hard, as these ladies will quote you anything under the sky. )
Since we’d arrived way past lunchtime, we had to adjust with whatever was served, and we quickly went off for our first game drive. It was around 4 pm, the action was missing on the mammal front, but we soon sighted a lovely Bee-eater who happily posed for us. In a little while, we also saw the first glimpse of a Gnu a.k.a wildebeest. For the next 4 days, we would be seeing countless of these migrants from Serengeti, Tanzania. Around 6 pm, the light was fading, but our spirits lifted as we spotted the national bird of Kenya- the stunning Lilac Roller. What a beauty! Just as we thought, that our first drive would be devoid of big cats, our guide pointed out to a lioness, a little ahead of us in the bush. Adrenaline rush was obvious, and we all trained our lenses on the graceful feline. But, the guide asked us to forget her, as there was a young male hidden in the grass, and we spotted him just in time as Simba (Swahili for Lion), got up to stretch himself, and opened up his mighty jaws to yawn, thereby displaying the fearsome canines that can rip through hapless prey in no time. Great end to Day 1.
15th August, our Independence Day, had to be special. A hot air balloon ride was booked, and boy, did we love every minute of it!!! The huge balloon needs to be transported on a tractor-trailer, and needs around 20 men to set up! David, our captain instructed us about the astronaut like pose we needed to be in, at the beginning. It was quite a challenge settling in the wicker basket, with all the cameras and lenses around. After a few nervous moments, we were airborne…and the view was worth all the money we paid ($400 per head incl. breakfast). Watching the sun rise over Masai Mara, while being suspended in a basket at 1,000 feet was exhilarating to say the least. As our balloon rose, we also saw at least a dozen others rising in the distance. It was quite a sight! Getting a 3 dimensional view of these vast plains and it’s inhabitants was intoxicating. An 18 foot tall giraffe looked like a dwarf, and the hundreds of wildebeest running around resembled mice. Drifting over the head of a vulture seemed unreal, while the river meandering way below us seemed like a hissing reptile…It was quite a mental struggle to decide ‘what to shoot and with which equipment’- landscape, or telephoto, or pocket camera, or cell phone to post on social media! One of my friends even had a GoPro fastened to his head!!!
What an unforgettable hour over the magical African vista.
Back on terra firma
The adventure didn’t end there. We enjoyed a wonderful Champions’ breakfast in the bush, right inside the reserve. A live counter with a wide array of dishes was set up, and we were treated like royalty! A heady morning for sure.
After a sumptuous breakfast, we continued with our morning safari, and encountered our first pair of lions within 500 metres of where we were blissfully enjoying our meal, a while earlier. The lioness was very much keen on seducing the lion, but apparently he wasn’t interested :p
Another highlight was the Superb Starling, a bird which lives up to it’s name for the sheer stunner that it is. And not to forget, the cute little, nimble footed antelopes called Thomson’s Gazelles. A short drive along the Mara river gave us a glimpse of a 16 foot Nile Crocodile basking in the sun. And of course, there was a herd of hippos, lounging around on the sandy bank, with Oxpeckers hungrily pecking away on their bodies.
Back to the lodge for lunch, but before that we had a wonderful birding session inside the campus. We simply forgot about the lunch, and had to be warned by the staff that we wouldn’t get lunch if we delayed by another 10 minutes. Even in the hot equator sun, we were birding like madmen. Addictions of this nature are much better than the usual ones lesser gifted mortals have.
Trumpet & Roar
The day continued to be special with mammals of all sizes blessing us with their spellbinding appearance. First it was gazzelles, followed by a huge tusker in musth- a periodic condition in bull elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Musth also serves a purpose of calling attention to the females that they are of good quality. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be as much as 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times. Thankfully, he was busy feeding, (FYI- 300 to 400 kgs per day, with water intake around 200 litres per day) and wasn’t interested in us even a bit. Masai Giraffes were next to appear- a family of four.
But the icing on the cake was, the majestic African Lion. A big crowd had gathered to watch the Lion King, but thanks to my gut feeling and our experienced driver, we were in perfect position when he rose and decided to walk. While others took pictures from the top, I sat down in the vehicle and stuck my lens out of the window. Ground level or low angle photography has a greater impact than top angle, as it offers a
better perspective to the viewer. As he started walking straight towards our 4X4, I got some super snaps with my telephoto lens-‘head-on’. But, after a few seconds the subject wasn’t being focused upon. Irritated, I jerked my eye away from the camera to check the reason, and I felt my heart in my mouth!!! The lion was just outside my window, so close that I could’ve patted him. And since I was seated on the floor, it was directly at eye-level. A hair-raising moment for me… just another day in the office for him!
The day ended with another dramatic sighting, a mating pair of lions being driven away by a raging elephant. What a scene it was. They weren’t even bothering anyone. But, the elephant would have nothing of it. He foiled their attempts, not once but thrice! Poor lions are no match for an adult elephant.
The next two days offered so much in terms of a visual feast, that it is impossible to fit all of it in one or two articles. Everything that was on our wish list was seen, photographed, and at times the cameras were put aside, as the intoxicating African savannah cast it’s spell over us. Topis, Elands, Gazelles, Zebras, Baboons…all aplenty! Hordes of wildebeest, grazing or running around, was a common sight. A couple of sprinting Ostriches (they can attain a top speed of 70 kmph), was quite a sight. The catch of the day was the handsome Secretary Bird, a very large bird of prey. The name is believed to be borrowed from the French corruption of an Arabic term ‘saqr-et-tair’ or “hunter-bird”. What a graceful and handsome specimen! You have to see it to believe it.
On the last day, with just 3 hours of safari time on hand, we hoped Masai Mara would give us a fitting farewell. And boy, did we get some special ones! No big mammals or flamboyant birds. In fact, the magic unfolded in a small dirty shallow pool. Two Yellow-billed Storks and a Hammerkop (The shape of its head with a long bill and crest at the back is reminiscent of a hammer, hence its name.
On the last day, with just 3 hours of safari time on hand, we hoped Masai Mara would give us a fitting farewell. And boy, did we get some special ones! No big mammals or flamboyant birds. In fact, the magic unfolded in a small dirty shallow pool. Two Yellow-billed Storks and a Hammerkop (The shape of its head with a long bill and crest at the back is reminiscent of a hammer, hence its name.), Were having a mighty brunch. Several fishes were gulped after a few minutes of stalking, one by one…and we hungrily captured their feeding act on our cameras., and even on our cellphones. That’s how close we were. The parting gift from this magical land was the hour-long sighting of two Cheetah brothers. We saw them lounging in the grass, stretching, playing, and then even climbing a tree.
What a wonderful end to an unforgettable trip! I’m surely going back for more, with the hope of enriching my sightings, and basking in the warmth of the endearing hospitality that Kenya has to offer.
There are many other wildlife destinations to choose from. Amboseli, Tsavo, Samburu, Naivasha and Nakuru, to name a few. For those seeking something apart from wildlife, there’s Lamu Island and Malindi on the coast, where you can enjoy snorkeling and diving, along with the beach.
Nairobi (270 kms), the capital of Kenya is a vibrant city. It is your port of entry or exit, so you can plan a couple of days either at the start or end of your trip. Nairobi National Park, the only game reserve to border a major city is a must visit. Nairobi is home to several museums, sites, and monuments. The Nairobi National Museum is the largest in the city. It houses a large collection of artefacts, portraying Kenya’s rich heritage through history, nature, culture, and contemporary art. It also includes the full remains of a homo erectus (upright man) popularly known as the Turkana boy. Other prominent museums include the Nairobi Gallery, Nairobi Railway Museum, and the Karen Blixen Museum. Uhuru Gardens, a national monument and the largest memorial park in Kenya, is also the place where the first Kenyan flag was raised at independence.
Kenya has a vibrant culture, and they proudly display it for the world to see. Although our primary aim was wildlife tourism, we got to enjoy a fair share of the warm Kenyan hospitality and the ancient Masai culture. The people are very friendly, and wherever you go, you are greeted with a huge grin and a loud ‘Jambo’(Hello). The gigantic hand that slaps onto your relatively tiny palm for a handshake, only reasserts the happy and cheerful way of life these people live. We hardly saw any sulking Kenyan, even in the cities or towns that we drove through. Smiles for miles… a lesson for us all.
The Masai village visit offered us a sneak peek into the lives of these warriors- gentle as hosts, but fearless in the face of danger. (There are several records of a lion being killed by a Masai, for protecting his livestock) We were greeted by the village chief with a warm hug, and he showed us around. The mud thatched huts, dimly lit interiors, a room for cattle, a rough straw bed…all signs of poverty in the eyes of an urbanite, but their wealth truly shows in their positive attitude and their endearing hospitality.
Asante Sana (Thank you very much) to all my Kenyan brothers and sisters. You have a new rafiki (friend) from India, that’s me.
Pl. write to me at email@example.com.
Describes himself as Teacher, nature lover, offbeat traveller, poet, author, public speaker, motivator, knowledge sharer..