The charm (and downfall) of the Maasai Mara

25th December 2016

7am, Nairobi.

The car was packed with safari requirements: photography gear, a good single malt, a cooler of beers and just enough clothes for a 3 day trip to the Masaai Mara. Being Christmas day, we mentally prepared ourselves for the boys in blue (Kenya Police) who would most likely be looking for a ‘Christmas gift’ along the 4 hour journey from Nairobi.

We travelled via the scenic escarpment route along the edge of the Great Rift Valley, to Mai Maahiu, Narok and finally Sekenani Gate. Fortunately, our beloved police were nowhere to be found and it was smooth sailing throughout.

The last 56 kilometres before you reach Sekenani gate has been a roller coaster of pot holes for as long as I can remember. This time I noticed a lot more road side mechanics have popped up – clearly this business is thriving.

Narok county is supposedly one of the richest counties in Kenya, mainly from tourism revenue from visitors coming to the Maasai Mara game reserve (approximately $15 million annually), yet the county has never found the funds to tarmac this last stretch.  Corruption prevails, and all tax payers’ money ends up in the ever-deepening pockets of politicians.

Let’s look at it positively however, and pretend the rough road makes you feel like you’re already on safari and far from smooth urban roads (I shall temporarily forget how a stone from a cruising truck in front of me hit my windscreen, leading to a crack which is slowly creeping across the entire windshield.)

11am, Maasai Mara.

Thanks to the efficient ticketing system, we obtained our tickets quickly and were in the reserve. Every time I enter the Maasai Mara, I get butterflies in my stomach and happiness just like a child would entering a candy store. Whoever titled it as the 8th wonder of the world knew exactly what they were on about.

The never-ending rolling plains, the Balanites dotted across the vast savannah, giraffes on the horizon being dwarfed by the deep blue skies – I was home.

We reached our lodge on the banks of the Talek river just in time for lunch, where I was informed that a pride of lions and a leopard with two cubs were seen at an area called ‘double crossing’.

After a cool and refreshing dip in the pool, followed by coffee and biscuits, we headed out for our first game drive at 4pm. I drove along the south side of the Talek river until I found a decent crossing point. Now on the north side, I crossed a tributary of the Talek, the Olare Orok river, at ‘smelly crossing’ and headed straight towards ‘double crossing’.

The rains have been unpredictable this year, and those due in November were too short. Whenever the rains are not enough, the Maasai start bringing their livestock into the reserve to feed on the greener grass. This illegal activity can lead to lions attacking their cows, since they are easy prey, which results in the Maasai killing these lions in retaliation.

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A Maasai measures his wealth with the number of cattle he owns, and he would do anything to kill a lion that has preyed on his wealth. According to the IUCN, the lion population in Africa has decimated by 43% in just 21 years. The current population in Africa is estimated at under 20,000, whereas in Kenya, less than 1,800 individuals remain – everything must be done to protect lions.

On the way to ‘double crossing’ we came across numerous herds of Topi, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, giraffes and some elephants, when all of a sudden we noticed a beautiful lioness glowing in warm light of the setting sun.

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Driving towards her, we came across two other lionesses sunning themselves on some fallen trees in a lugga (dry river bed). Scanning around the area we found out that we were actually surrounded by 9 more lions – including one large male and an adolescent male. As the sun began to set, the warm evening light allowed for some great photo opportunities of these majestic beasts.

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26th December 2016.

5:45 am, Masaai Mara

Boxing day started early and at 5:45am we were roused by fresh coffee and cake, and were on the road again by 6 am, heading back to double crossing to find the elusive leopard.

Our first sighting was a Martial eagle – the largest eagle in Africa – perched on a tree, scanning the horizons for a meal. Their powerful talons are capable of carrying hares, warthogs and even small antelopes.

As we continued to search around the area, we found a spotted cat. Not a leopard, but a handsome male cheetah. He laid down comfortably until a Silver backed Jackal began to constantly pester him. Initially, the cheetah was completely un-phased by this dog, until enough was enough! The fastest land animal got up and gave the jackal a bit of a chase, tripping him and causing him to yelp loudly.

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We spent an enjoyable few minutes watching the Jackal’s shenanigans with the cheetah and then it was time to continue looking for that most elusive cat. We came across a lot more plain’s game and some birds including a Tawny eagle, a couple of Lappett faced vultures and a gorgeous Violet backed Starling.

All of a sudden, a scrub hare sped out of a lugga and came right in front of my car raising a cloud of dust as it scrambled for safety. Within all this commotion, I realized that it was being hunted by a beautiful leopard.

She was a young female (you can tell by the pink colour on their nose. As they get older it gets darker with many black spots). I could see she was lactating which meant this was the leopard with the 2 cubs. Unfortunately for me, the cubs were nowhere to be found, but fortunately for them, their mother had kept them somewhere hidden and far from any danger.

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We followed this elegant spotted cat as she walked in and around some luggas, eventually settling comfortably deep in a lugga where some shrubs and bushes were obscuring our sighting of her.

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We waited for another 20 minutes or so for her to come out into the open but she was very comfortable in the shade and so we bid her farewell as we headed back to the lodge for breakfast. A leopard sighting is always special – their elusive nature and their stark beauty always makes it the highlight of a safari.

4 pm, Masaai Mara

A nourishing breakfast and a relaxing time at the lodge rejuvenated my body for the 4pm game drive. This time around, we thought it be best to explore the south-east section of the reserve around Keekorok and Sarova camps since we had tremendous luck and game drives around double crossing earlier on.

There was less game on this side, but we still encountered numerous zebras, giraffes and elephants. We also saw a female cheetah and her cub in the middle of a meal. She must have hunted this Thomson’s gazelle within 30 minutes of our arrival as they were half way through the carcass and their belly’s were getting larger.

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Cheetahs are much smaller than the other predators found in the Mara. The lion, leopard and hyena are much more powerful and can easily kill or seriously injure a cheetah in a confrontation. These stronger animals use this to their advantage and frequently steal the kills made by cheetahs.

In order to reduce their chances of encountering any of these thieves, cheetahs consume their kills as quickly as possible and immediately after they have caught their breath from hunting them down in a high speed chase.

I have written about the charm of the Mara, but what about the downfall?

Let the picture speak for itself (try find the cheetah):

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Approximately 20 tourist vans crowding around the feeding cheetah and cub

Not only have tourist vans become a huge eyesore for tourists from around the world who are paying thousands of dollars to see wildlife, but it also changes the way animals live.

Let’s take the cheetah scenario: so many tourist vans had completely blocked one side of this spotted cat’s view. If a lion or hyena came from the other side, the cheetah would be caught off guard and not have enough time to escape. It would potentially be injured or worse, killed.

In another scenario, tourist vans have interfered with hunts as they come in between the predator and prey. Some tourist vans do not follow park rules and go way beyond the speed limit (e.g. if they received a radio call of a lion or leopard a few kilometres away) – in the process they have run over, injured and even killed smaller animals such as tortoises, snakes, birds and even antelopes and zebras on the roads.

Sadly, this is only one of the issues that the Maasai Mara faces. From Vulture populations declining, the number of lodges and camps increasing in the reserve, Maasai land being stolen through corruption, growth of satellite towns around the reserve, ever increasing pollution and habitat degradation and destruction – these major problems could result in the eternal downfall of the Mara.

These issues need to and will be explored in another blog, but for now, I’ll leave you with this beautiful image of a giraffe gracefully walking towards the setting sun.

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