x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve: Pride of Africa

The reserve is one of the greatest wildlife shows on Earth as, following the summer, more than a million wildebeest followed by thousands of gazelles and zebra make their way to greener pastures.

A signpost beside the Musiara airstrip points to Governor's Camp.
A signpost beside the Musiara airstrip points to Governor's Camp.

"It's got him, George, it's got him!" We train our eyes to where Annie, the South African, is pointing. Leonard, our guide, grabs his binoculars. I focus my 300mm lens and watch as the drama unfolds on the opposite bank of the Mara River: a male wildebeest, separated from the pack, has been caught by a crocodile.

It's got him by the hind leg - but the wildebeest, an animal stronger than it looks, isn't giving in. Its front legs are on the shore, the back end in the water, and he struggles forward, still trying to move in the direction he has been programmed from birth to move in - to the massed herd on the opposite bank, and, beyond that, back to the great plains of the Serengeti.

After a summer spent grazing the Masai Mara, 1.5 million wildebeest, 350,000 Thomson's gazelles, 200,000 zebras and 12,000 elands are now moving on for the promise of rain and lush green grass. Most of the animals have made it, but some have not, and we've been transfixed for more than an hour by the emotive calling of zebras to their separated group members on both sides of the river.

The crocodile isn't letting go. I want the wildebeest to win but its fate seems sealed. "Oh God," says Annie. "Just get it over with!" The minutes tick by but still the wildebeest holds on. "He's still fighting," says George. "Look at that." Annie and George, both experienced safari-goers, have never seen anything like this. "Look at those zebbies now," says George. "They can't cross there because of the crocodile." Annie and I are cheering for the wildebeest but Joan, from Hartlepool, is unmoved.

"It's survival of the fittest, isn't it?" she says. It's not just that, I say - here, it's also luck and timing. Some wildebeest are crushed or pushed out of the pack by the sheer force of numbers stampeding across the river, or blocked by others losing their footing in front of them. Some had simply chosen the wrong point at which to cross. I float the idea of building a bridge to help the process.

"That wouldn't work," says Leonard. "Then even more would be crushed." Certainly, the ones that have got this far have already survived much, including disease, previous river crossings and attacks by predators: all over the Mara are the remains of fallen comrades, their bodies returning to the ground which has sustained them, but as a group event, the wildebeest migration is one of nature's most successful and life-affirming.

After eight minutes the crocodile appears to lose patience with the stubborn wildebeest and lets go just long enough to take a swipe at its head. Its huge jaw snaps shut but the wildebeest ducks and lurches forward - though not far enough to escape fully, and the crocodile grabs its hind leg again and holds it fast. Tired but not yet defeated, the wildebeest strains its forequarters once more, trying in vain to pull itself up onto the bank. The crocodile simply waits this time, letting the wildebeest exhaust itself until, with a gentle tug, he begins to tow his quarry into deep water. Still the wildebeest is fighting, pushing its snout above the water to take its last gasps of air. It's been 15 minutes.

We sigh, lamenting the crocodile's cruelty, but Leonard is sanguine. "If you save the wildebeest, you cancel out the crocodile. The crocodile has to eat." But what about the numerous, already dead wildebeest floating in the water that the crocodile could have taken? "I don't know," says Leonard. "Perhaps he wanted a fresh one."

Back at our camp, the lovely Little Governors', situated idyllically in the Mara Triangle, the little-visited north-western third of the park, under trees, across a river next to a lake so packed with luminous green vegetation you can barely see the water, I reflect on the day's events with Jazminder, an IT consultant from Leeds, England, who is here on honeymoon with his wife Sheena. Though sorry about its fate, I raise a toast to the resilience of the wildebeest and its under-ratedness. "Did you see the YouTube video of the lion and the water buffalo?" says Jazminder. I have now, as have some 57 million other people - the so-called "battle of the Kruger", in which a herd of buffalo takes on a pride of lions after they snatch one of their young in South Africa's Kruger National Park. The best bit is when, apparently upset by the mauling of the baby, one of the buffalo tosses a lion into the air with its horns and the baby escapes back to the safety of the herd. It goes to show that when you're out on safari, you're never quite sure what you're going to get.

My safari experience starts before the tiny Safarilink Cessna Caravan even lands at Musiara airstrip. At about 4pm, 40 minutes from the parched, dusty, sprawling suburbs of Nairobi, across the Great Rift Valley and over Lake Naivasha, we arrive in what feels like an exotic version of 18th-century England. It rained a week ago here, and the plains are blanketed in green. The large Esoit Oloololo escarpment could almost be the South Downs. On the runway below me I spot zebras, wildebeest and gazelles, wild in this unfenced, 1,510km expanse bordered by other expanses - Narok and Transmara National Reserves and the plains of Tanzania.

I'm collected in one of Governors' trademark, dark-green open Land Rovers by Robert. The 10-minute transfer is a game drive in itself - spotting a huge lone bull elephant, Robert pulls off the dirt track and traverses open country, stopping the engine dead so I can observe the creature at a distance. I've never been on safari, and have always imagined it being a slightly naff experience, but here just now in this setting, with this weather - damp grass under dramatic, darkened skies, not another soul but the promise of comfort beyond the trees, and an elephant looking me in the eye - I'm spellbound.

We drive towards Governors' main camp, hidden completely from view inside a large cluster of mature African green heart trees, passing a small group of buffalo. "These ones have been kicked out of the herd because they are too old," says Robert. "Younger ones have moved in to take their place." It's a familiar tale common to many species - and one I'm to hear many times over the next few days.

With wildlife mostly active early in the morning or in late afternoon, game-watching is a dawn-till-dusk activity. You certainly get value for money at Governors', with the first game drive of the day setting out at 6.30am, returning at 9am for breakfast only to leave again at 10.30am, getting back for lunch before leaving again at 4.30pm and returning in time for dinner. Despite the immense comfort of the tented rooms (hot water, full bathrooms, large beds, privacy and not an insect anywhere), there's not much time for lounging around the camp.

My first proper game drive begins with Robert at 5pm, just after I've checked in. Within an hour I've been completely spoiled - seeing more zebras, elephant, buffalo, eland, gazelle, impala, a pair of baby jackals, cheeky-looking warthogs, and lion - a whole pride of them lounging about on termite mounds, large zit-like bulges of earth that double helpfully as lookout points. "The ones covered in grass no longer have termites in them," says Robert. "They will have been eaten by aardvarks." Given the propensity of other wildlife I've seen, I'd like to see an aardvark, but Robert tells me they are nocturnal and very difficult to spot. "Sometimes hyenas live inside the empty mounds, too." Such is the cycle of life here: nothing goes to waste and everything has a point.

Yet despite the apparent abundance of wildlife, various studies have indicated a sharp decline in a number of animal species in the area in recent years, including giraffe, warthog, hartebeest and impala - with development outside protected areas and an increase in tourist facilities being blamed. But to the average visitor, of which I'm one, the reserve feels much less developed and crowded than expected - although the global economic recession may have helped. Moreover, with the several hundred thousand tourists a year each paying hefty "viewing fees" of US$60 (Dh220) for every night they spend in the reserve, it seems churlish to blame them.

It's both the abundance of easily recognisable wildlife and the shortness of the grass thanks to the grazing of the wildebeest that affords such exceptional viewing at this time of year. I return to Governors' main camp, where I spend the first two nights feeling elated and wondering when, rather than if, I'll see hippos, leopards and cheetahs. It turns out I don't even have to wait until the next day - from the riverside verandah I gaze down over the dusky water and hear the unmistakably loud snorty growl of hippos in the water below. They're there, wallowing and puffing air as night envelops us.

It's surprisingly chilly as I have dinner in the open-air dining room (8pm sharp for everyone). It's a five-course menu befitting the British colonialist (though visitors here are just as likely to be American or European) - pea and mint soup, roast beef and sticky toffee pudding. I am escorted to my tent afterwards by a watchman with a flashlight - they don't want to risk guests being mauled - then retire to my bed, which happily has been heated by a hot water bottle.

After a fitful night - I'm woken from the depths of sleep by frightening growling, honking and deep breathing that is uncomfortably close - I'm greeted by a call from outside my tent, its swift unzipping and the bringing in of a pot of coffee at 6am sharp. "What was that noise?" I say as I emerge into the half-light. "Hippos," says one of the night watchmen. "There were five hippos up here last night." I wonder why they come all the way up here, to the lawned, tented area set back from the riverbank. "They like our grass."

We set off at 6.30am with excitement in the air. A leopard has been spotted. Round the back of the wood, near the river, two other Land Rovers are already waiting. It darts from long grass into the cover of bushes before any of us can even reach for our cameras, and doesn't emerge again despite John's unnecessary efforts to flush it out by driving closer. Still, that's four out of the big five in less than 24 hours. I wonder if I'll see a rhino. "You will be very lucky if you see one," says John. "There are only about 35 left."

According to the Mara Conservancy, a not-for-profit company that manages the Mara Triangle, in 1971 there were about 120 black rhino in the whole of the Masai Mara; by 1984 this figure had reduced to 18 and by 2001 there was just one in the north-west corner. Numbers have been decimated thanks to poachers who kill the animals for their horns - a substance now more costly than gold because of the mistaken belief in some countries that it has aphrodisiac qualities. "I don't know why people think this," says John, "because they breed very slowly." Now, thanks to efforts to stamp out poaching, numbers are gradually increasing.

We drive to the Musiara Swamp - a lovely green area where flat ponds lead onto rolling grasslands - and see baboons and elephants before coming across the Marsh Pride, a group of lions featured in the BBC's recent Big Cat series. Lion numbers are holding up relatively well here: there are more than 500 in at least 20 different prides. Finding lions here is almost too easy; we get too close to some of the animals and they slope off. "It's OK, they are used to the vehicles," says John, looking ever-so-slightly guilty. "What distance are you supposed to keep?" I ask. "Twenty metres," he says. We get to about six metres away and there are other vehicles too, revving their engines; I'm left feeling disappointed that we've disturbed the animals' sleep, but it seems I'm the only one who thinks this as most tourists pressure their drivers to get as close to the animals as possible. Still, it's a powerful feeling seeing a lion at such close quarters in its natural habitat. Their size, power and grace is particularly humbling when compared to the camera-phone-flicking, iPodded tourists around them and there is something in their gaze that conveys an appropriate level of snooty contempt for their audience.

John dispenses some interesting information about the animals we see - lion prides, for example, occupy the same small patch of territory for generations and it's the females who do all the hunting. A pride will be made up of several males and a larger number of females, who will all mate with each other. By contrast, male and female cheetahs live completely separately, as, on the other side of the park, we see with Shakira - a beautiful female cheetah who has also featured in the Big Cat series, with her four very cute, mohawked cubs.

It's on my last afternoon, with Leonard, that we see the rhino. I'm not expecting it; that morning at breakfast a staff member had warned against expectations. "If you go looking for the rhino, you will not find it," he said. "But there is a chance that you might see it by accident." Such wisdom could apply to so many things in life.

And so it was, after seeing an early morning gathering of hundreds of hippos followed by the mad carnivorous cawing of flocks of vultures and storks looking like old judges as they picked at the carcass of a gentle zebra, fresh from the wildebeest crossing where vultures and the sickly smell of death marked an epic journey, after seeing black-and-white Bataleur eagles soaring over the plains and several close-up sightings of the exquisite lilac-breasted roller, the national bird of Kenya - it's after all this that we see it.

A single black rhino sits alone on a dry patch of mud, looking distinctly uncomfortable as it sees us. It struggles to its feet, seemingly encumbered by its own huge bulk, its small eyes weighed over by the horn that has been its downfall. As it moves off towards the forest it breaks into a trot - and despite the fact that we may never see one again, we don't follow.



If you go

The flight Return flights from Dubai to Nairobi on Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) cost from Dh2,018, including taxes.

The package The Africa Connection (www.africaconnectiondubai.com; 04 344 5547) will arrange a three-night package to the Masai Mara, staying at Governors’ Camp, from Dh6,995 per person, including return flights with Kenya Airways, airport transfers in Nairobi, return flights from Nairobi to the Masai Mara with Safarilink, accommodation, meals, bottled water and three safari drives per day..

The season Most tourists visit Kenya during its two dry seasons, from December to March and June to September. The wildebeest migration takes place from July to October.

Further information More details on the accommodation and activities at Governors’ Camps are available at www.governorscamp.com.