In late August 2015, I, with an intimate group of friends, had gone to Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya to witness the great wildebeest migration to the twin ecosystem of Serengeti in Tanzania. I had expected to be overwhelmed by this natural wonder—thousands of animals heading with single-minded determination towards greener pastures. I had expected to see, in sunset colours, a lone giraffe craning its neck to reach for the topmost succulent leaves of the only acacia tree in sight. I was hoping to see a lion or two. I had not thought my biggest takeaway from the three safaris in the Kenyan wilds would be an acute realisation of my mortality.
As if setting the stage for a philosophic outing, within an hour of heading out of Nairobi, just past Limuru town, we encountered Kenya’s ‘great beyond’. Leaning on the rail of a viewpoint to blur out the bustle of souvenir shops, we gazed into infinity—at least up to Tanzania—at the scrubby spread of the Great Rift Valley. That landscape would play a major character, often taking the attention away from the animals in our safari drama became clear from then on.
With Maasai Mara as the final destination, we rolled on in our safari van, with the portly Bonnie-face as our driver and guide—if there was ever a perfect marriage of name and appearance—on snaky and ramrod-straight roads with rollercoaster inclines and drops, the landscape changing every few kilometres, now and then an oasis through desert-like scenes. It was difficult to ignore the mangled cars displayed on platforms at many places along the road, as cautionary tales for rash driving. Why only tell when you can show? The cars along with the roads disappeared as we approached the national reserve and the last 60 kilometres of dirt track was an acclimatising exercise for what awaited us within Maasai Mara.
The magic really started on the evening safari. As we moved in deeper, the animals and the savannah with its bushy vegetation and infrequent acacia trees, started to envelop us. We were in the wild.
Antelopes abounded in the grasslands, ensuring that visitors were never without wildlife for too long—from one of the largest on African soil, the eland, to the smallest, Kirk’s dik-dik; the exotic topi and the more familiar impala; a cheetah’s favourite meal, the Thomson’s gazelle; and, of course, the migrating wildebeest. But it wasn’t until a dazzle of zebras crossed our path—one friend beat everyone else to a well-timed ‘zebra crossing’ joke—and Maasai giraffes, the tallest land mammals, towered over our van that we truly felt we were on an African safari. As the van approached, the giraffes scattered with a lazy gallop into a fast fading light. The elephants, strangely, did not reach up to their majesty in my imagination. Maybe the sparse and sprawling landscape dwarfed the animal in the absence of comparable perspectives.
A distant, often broken, voice on the van radio became our constant companion in the reserve. In that vastness, as in a desert, the landscape and the trails soon started to don an unbroken similarity till the radio would crackle to life and our destination would become more purposeful, and, as if by magic, the voice would transport us to a new vista habituated by an unspotted animal. We did not understand a word till we picked up the Swahili names of some of the animals and rolled them off our tongues, wishing them to appear: twiga (giraffe), kifaru (rhino), simba (lion).
The sparse terrain exposes the herbivores to predators and the latter to the humans in safari vans. At one time Bonnie-face’s radio announced a leopard sighting and we zoomed towards that spot as fast as the bumpy track allowed. We were not among the first to reach, far from it. To check off one of the shy big fives (the others are buffalo, elephant, lion and rhino) so early on in the trip would be a great start. The way the tourist vans closed in on the ‘prey’ brought to mind Pico Iyer’s encounter in Tibet watching the celestial burial, the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of sending dead bodies back into the cycle of nature by cutting them into pieces and leaving them as food for vultures. Iyer writes in Video Nights in Kathmandu:
“We were edging forward again, jostling to get a better glimpse of the dissection, urgently asking one another for binoculars and zoom lenses to get a close-up of the blood.
‘Sometimes I think that we are the vultures,’ said a Yugoslav girl…’”
For a fleeting second I felt like a predator hounding out the leopard. The thought evaporated as the next second we saw a spotted body move deeper into the bushes. Check.
The radio voice dimmed with the sun. Soon Bonnie-face was steering on without any guidance. He was taking us to one of the most spectacular sightings of my lifetime. Even the pride of resting lionesses we spotted on the way paled in comparison. I was familiar with the glory of a blazing orange ball dipping into the ocean or retiring behind mountains. But it was spellbinding to see it dissolve into its own brilliant colours on an even surface, without dense vegetation or rolling hills to block our view. It was the sunset of happy endings, dotted with the silhouettes of distant animals.
Back in the camp, with no artificial light past dinner time, a blackness descended. And then millions of stars took over the domed sky, with the Milky Way painted across it. Without a view of the animals or the landscape, an expansive bedazzled sky continued to enchant us.
The continuous exposure to a wild slice of life was building up definite existential crises within me. Around mid day on our second safari we were allowed to step out for a picnic lunch in the savannah. I walked away from the group, lay down on the ground, looked up at a brilliant blue sky and cried my heart out. I have been moved by immense beauty in nature before, but being able to experience the magnitude of the earth and sky outside our caged van really overwhelmed me. It was exhilaration from freedom and wonder. Or headiness caused by dehydration, someone pointed out to dissipate the tension from a teary face in a safari group. As if seeking distraction from this awkwardness Bonnie-face spotted a deadly green mamba a few feet away from our picnic blanket, which sent us scuttling back into the van.
From there we headed to the Mara river, the furthest we would travel into the reserve, to see the hippos and the migrating wildebeest crossing over with their zebra friends. Every year, over a million wildebeest travel along a 1,000-kilometre-long loop between Tanzania and Kenya. The crocodile-infested Mara river is the most perilous point in the route of these animals. When we arrived at the bank, the animals had gathered into a huddle. But no one was taking the first steps, until one brave zebra started the descent. Some more shuffling feet followed. While we were still watching the animals go down to the river, the action had already started in the water. A crocodile caught the leading zebra and a terrifying drama for life unfolded before our eyes. It was not as one-sided a fight as we had expected. Although the crocodile had home-ground advantage it also only had its clenched jaw to hold on to its prey. It had to wait it out for the zebra to lose the will to fight. The zebra on the other hand used all limbs to force its way out of the deathly jaws. During the dry season, the Mara is a disappointingly narrow, muddy stretch of water. The zebra knew it had a good chance if it could stay afloat and motor its way to the other bank. At times the zebra would go under and we would write it off as dead but soon its head would bob up again and the tussle would begin with renewed energy. The animals at the bank looked on stock-still, unblinking, like the chickens in snake cages in a zoo. In the water, other crocodiles quietly waited their turn. Nature’s macabre drama had all the twists and turns of a reality show. We willed the zebra to cross over alive, but then the crocodile had to eat to survive. We were thus torn between the dharma of the predator and the prey’s inexplicable destiny when the radio suddenly crackled to life, reminding us of our place as transient observers.
The animals on the bank slowly retreated to cross over another day. But a group of four or five zebras watched on intently—maybe they were family. Bonnie-face, trying to brighten the long faces in the party, said we had to leave to watch a cheetah stalk its prey. It was proving to be a very stressful holiday. When it did not have the desired reaction he said there was a good chance the zebra would survive. When we left the Mara river half an hour after our arrival, two tired animals were still battling it out but they had almost reached the other shore.
Our empathy for the underdog was short lived when early next morning, we witnessed a breakfast of wildebeest among a pride of lionesses and their cubs. It was such a happy scene—the cubs looked so content licking their bloodied chops, one especially naughty one bounding off with a thigh bone; the alpha female keeping a watch with eyes blazing with alertness, brutality, but also calm from a full belly—that we did not spare a moment’s thought for the prey. The scene played out within a couple of metres from our van but not having witnessed the brutality of the kill we vicariously participated in their feasting.
The little height one gains from standing tall in a top-open van and looking out into the savannah gives one a sense of omniscience. During the three safaris we became voyeurs to the life and death struggles of the animal kingdom. If one is to stretch this suspension of disbelief, the area one purviews becomes a microcosm for life in general. When one sees a cheetah stalk a herd of grazing wildebeest, unsuspecting but ever alert, one wonders about one’s place in the universe and if whether a random selection of prey applies to human life as well. Would we be better behaved towards each other, and towards the land—taking only what we need for survival—if we wore our mortality on our sleeves like these ungulates? Or were we like the lone lion we spotted, who had the nonchalance of an apex predator. With the pride doing most of the hunting in an eco-system thriving on ‘eat or be eaten’, the lion enjoys a unique position of neither being a predator nor a prey.
Growing up in Assam with the wilds of Kaziranga always accessible, I had made up my mind about my reaction towards wildlife. Ensconced on elephant backs wading through elephant grass was thrilling and seemed like an organic way to be introduced to the wild, especially the stately rhinoceros. But those visits, in retrospect, were primarily about animal spotting. That my exposure to the inner life and strivings of wild animals was extremely limited only became apparent in Maasai Mara. My previous wildlife visits now seem like PG-rated movies. The violence in the wild had been censored; the predators were hard enough to spot, their hunts almost always outside the touristic gaze. Maasai Mara was full disclosure.
The best time to visit Maasai Mara is during dry season (Jul-Oct). Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest arrive here from Serengeti Plains, Tanzania and Loita Hills, east of Mara during this time. They retrace their journey to Serengeti by October. The writer travelled with Kichaka Tours and Travels (www.kichakatours.co.ke; 3-day/2-night Maasai Mara safari in Jul-Oct for a group of 6 $557/Rs35,600 per person; includes pick-up and drop to Nairobi).
Paloma Dutta works as an editor in a publishing house for her bread, butter and bus ticket (more often than not to the mountains). Travel makes her believe in serendipity, essential kindness of the human heart and the power of Bollywood to build instant friendships anywhere in the world.