Maasai Mara Moments- Article by Gareth Jones
Wonderful Maasai Mara Memories With Gareth Jones
The year 2020 has been an extreme year in many ways, with millions of people worldwide being severely restricted regarding legal permission to travel and also facing serious economic losses. We personally became “locked-in” to Nairobi province in Kenya for a few months. Thankfully the situation changed allowing many people to travel throughout Kenya.
We made a decision the visit the Maasai Mara reserve to “escape” from the city in the hope of witnessing the annual wildebeest migration. So I took a few days leave and booked to stay at a small boutique tented camp called Castle Mara in a wonderfully quiet bushy area near Sekenani gate. For those who might not be aware, the drive to the Maasai Mara from Nairobi is now wonderful compared to the way the roads used to be. Years ago driving there took the best part of a day after leaving Nairobi early in the morning. Much of the tar road sections towards Narok was virtually un-drivable in places, so vehicles drove predominantly offroad on well used extremely dusty tracks. The rough road after Narok worsened even more almost ensuring that many travellers would need to change a tyre at some stage.
Thankfully the new tar road has no potholes and reduces the expected direct travel time to within 4 hours on the Sekenani gate route. We arrived at Castel Mara tented camp at about midday to a very warm welcome from the staff, managed by Eric. We soon settled in and refreshed ourselves in the new comfortable tents. We went on an enjoyable afternoon drive in the area close to the gate and already saw thousands of wildebeest that had already crossed over into Kenya from the Serengeti on the expansive plains.
Early the next morning we hired a Landcruiser with an excellent Maasai guide called Tom Nkuito and his good driver. Soon we set off over the criss-cross maze of tracks on the plains. We had requested to drive to a crossing point in the hope of seeing a good wildebeest crossing over the Mara River with minimal other vehicle congestion. En-route we had some rare sightings including watching a serval returning from an early morning hunt with a rodent in its mouth, to share with a young serval cub. We sat quietly for a while and watched as they moved through the long grass. Soon we found a lone spotted hyena with the remains of a kill surrounded by vultures, the hyena grabbed the carcass and carried it away from the vultures to enjoy it in a more secluded place in the thick bush. As we entered an area where the grass had been burnt our guide – Tom saw a movement in the grass. As the vehicle stopped I could scarcely believe it, WoW!!! it was a honey badger (aka ratel) that sort of trotted along seemingly not worried about us and disappeared down into a hole in a termite mound. Honey badgers have a reputation throughout Africa wherever they are found of being fearless and fierce, even lions back-off when bitten by a honey badger.
As we drove along everywhere we looked there were just thousands and thousands of wildebeest seemingly all heading towards the Mara River. It is very hard to estimate their numbers, but after talking to a few people including our guide, it seems like this year had a good number of possibly over 2 million wildebeest in the Maasai Mara. When we eventually arrived at a known crossing point, thousands of wildebeest began to congregate in a small area above a high river bank, as more and more wildebeest arrived from the rear, so they pushed the wildebeest mega-herd ever forward to the point where they could escape down a well-worn channel like a path down into the Mara River. The wildebeest remained hesitant until the efficient Mara reserve officials approached those vehicles that were too close and asked them to reverse to allow the wildebeest and a few zebra to behave naturally. Then within a few minutes they began to cross, it was slow at first, but then rapidly increased. It was interesting to note that the wildebeest had chosen a crossing point that decreased the possibility of being attacked by crocodiles. This was due to the location of a large sandy island in the middle of the river, and a large herd of hippos on the same island and in the water. However, due to a large number of wildebeest and a few zebra that all tried to cross over simultaneously, they had difficulty trying to climb out of the water on the opposite bank. A number of wildebeest were taken by large crocodiles. We watched a badly wounded zebra, that had obviously been attacked by a crocodile, manage to escape onto the river bank. But the zebra was getting weak rapidly as a large part of its intestines and stomach was trailing almost onto the ground. Sadly even though the zebra made a brave hopeless attempt to walk up the bank, the major loss of blood caused a collapse, and we watched as the zebra die on the path leading up onto the plain. Then shortly after that an exhausted struggling baby wildebeest that we had been watching for some time, actually managed to get out of the water onto the river bank. The baby wildebeest walked up the path and had to jump over the zebra carcass to be able to get up and onto the plains with thousands of other wildebeest. Such is the survival of the fittest, in our human ways we often get emotional when we see death on a large scale, even if it is a natural occurrence. As we returned back towards Sekenani gate we found a few lionesses that were so full that they could hardly move. They were feeding on at least 10 wildebeest that had been trampled into a boggy stream crossing by the massive numbers of other wildebeest at least within the previous 2 days. All to soon our incredible day ended and we returned to enjoy a good meal, and later sat around a campfire chatting about the fantastic day.
The next morning we had another early start, this time I had booked another Landcruiser with an excellent Maasai guide called Jackson Rarin with a good driver. As we always do on any game drive we prayed again that God would reveal to us the glory of creation, such that we would enjoy and appreciate and learn from whatever we were privileged to witness. Jackson mentioned that it was possible that we might see 5 male cheetahs known locally as the famous “tano bora” roughly translated as the “five best”. As we drove on a track towards the Talek gate area, we saw a number of vehicles parked in the distance. After stopping briefly, I looked with my binoculars and saw the unmistakable shapes of 5 cheetahs walking over the opposite plain. We watched the cheetahs for a while, as they soon looked for shade in the heat of the day. Having noted their sleeping position we ventured further and found a lone lioness that had seemingly perhaps lost contact with her cubs. We observed the lioness repeatedly calling softly and walking all over the place as if looking for her cubs. After some time we left the lioness sitting on a termite mound as we returned to see what the 5 cheetahs might be doing.
Well, our timing was perfect, they were all up and looking hungry as they began to hunt. Suddenly we heard a faint bleating sound nearby, it was a tiny wildebeest calf hiding in the thick grass that had seemingly been abandoned by its mother. The cheetah immediately went to investigate and made short work of killing the tiny calf. They didn’t even bother to eat it, as it didn’t have much meat on it. Shortly after that, a herd of wildebeest passed by, and then all 5 of the cheetahs launched into a full-speed chase. Incredibly two of them chased a wildebeest to within a few meters of our vehicle, that wildebeest, however, managed to escape. The drama of having cheetah chasing wildebeest and full speed with the noises, smells and dust so close to us cannot be captured onto any form of media, it is the kind of special moment that gets etched into a persons lifetime memories. The kind of memories that are often replayed in the mind. However, the other cheetahs succeeded in killing a young wildebeest. This time they did eat some meat, but again did not consume all the meat. They walked down to a stream (aka lugga) and climbed onto a dead tree stump to get a better view. Later that afternoon, they made another unsuccessful attempt to hunt more wildebeest. It appears that in times of plenty the big cats behave as if they a spoilt for choice, with so many opportunities for meals. All too soon the day ended and we returned to the camp as a magnificent sunset painted the sky in a range of changing radiant beautiful colours. We enjoyed another hearty meal for dinner.
On our last full day, we had a good breakfast before driving down towards the sand river area known as black rock. We enjoyed watching a pair a secretary birds as they made a number of “breakfast snack” kills in the form of a small snake and a few lizards. We continued to be in awe as to the sheer number of wildebeest as far as the eye could see, I jokingly decided to call them “mingi-beest” translated as “many-beest”. We also saw a massive herd of buffalo as they thundered through the bush and crossed the road ahead of us. What a wonderful sight to see! Nearer the Sekenani gate, we saw two herds of elephants. It was interesting to note that the Mara elephants prefer to move away from the plains to avoid the masses of wildebeest during the migration.
Apart from the many other species of interesting animals and birds we saw, it was also great to note that both of our excellent guides went out of their way to help other vehicles that were stuck in various places. They were selfless in their tireless efforts to help those in need. Many people know the biblical story of the good Samaritan and how he helped. Well after watching their efforts to help those in need we told both of them that they are “good SAFARItans”. It is indeed greatly comforting to be assured that the Maasai guides and drivers care enough to repeatedly be available to rescue stranded vehicles no matter what the situation.
It is my sincere hope and prayer that the Maasai Mara Reserve and conservancies will continue to thrive in protecting wildlife now and in the future. It should be noted that the wildebeest are expected to start crossing back to the Serengeti during October. There are still wonderful wildlife sighting possibilities for those who decide to take advantage of the current reality and visit the Maasai Mara in late September and October 2020.
For those who would like to book a Landcruiser with excellent guides contact:
Tom Nkuito: +254 711 558201 based at Sekenani gate
Jackson Rarin: +254 724 820449 based at Talek gate