A dangerous crossing on trek of terror
The annual wildebeest migration between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara is one of the great natural wonders of the world, writes Angela Saurine
THEY know they want to. We want them to. The crocodiles want them to. The vultures definitely want them to. Only the hippos would probably rather be left in peace.
At the edge of the river, hundreds of wildebeest stand spread out in a triangular formation.
Over and over again they come tantalisingly close to crossing the river, get spooked, stop and run back.
Their reluctance is understandable. What they are about to do will be suicide for some. On the other side of the bank, vultures feast on the carcasses of those who have gone before them and either drowned in the rapids or been snapped up by crocodiles.
When it finally happens it happens quickly. I hear the cheers from tourists in jeeps closer to the river before I see them crossing.
Despite the strong current, the first wildebeest make it to the other side of the river to safety and bound off into the distance. Dozens more follow, single file.
A lurking crocodile snaps at one wildebeest and drags it down the river, but it manages to get away.
The croc then grabs a calf, but it too manages to escape.
Others aren’t so lucky. My heart breaks when we see a wildebeest calf that has crossed the river safely but keeps coming back, obviously looking for its mum who didn’t make it.
When it is all over there are still hundreds left behind.
Paradise Crossing is one of the best places in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve to see one of nature’s most spectacular – and horrific – events.
Each year about 1.3 million wildebeest and 300,000 zebras make the migration from the Serengeti National Park, just south of the border in Tanzania.
While you have to be very lucky to see a crossing, between July to September, the animals that are usually spread across the 15,000sq mSerengeti are squeezed into the 1500sq mMasai Mara.
It is like Christmas for the lions, cheetahs and leopards, who can struggle to find enough food to eat at other times of the year.
We head to another part of the river known for river crossings.
Before we get there we see dozens of vultures circling above the trees and hundreds of wildebeest running in the same direction.
When we arrive we are faced with a scene of carnage.
The carcasses of about 30 wildebeest are piled up on the other side, below a steep slope, with about 40 vultures feeding and waiting.
A zebra, still alive, is standing with a crocodile tugging on its tail.
At another part of the river three wildebeest are stuck behind a body, unable to get past.
My softly spoken Masai guide Duncan says they have consumed a lot of water during the crossing, been trampled on and are feeling weak.
The zebra gets pulled on to its side by the croc and lifts its hind legs in the air. After a while it manages to swim away, but the croc follows and grabs its tail again. It stands still for an agonisingly long time while the vultures squawk around it.
Eventually, while the croc is distracted, it scrambles up the river bank to freedom.
Clapping can be heard from surrounding jeeps.
But it is wounded and Duncan says it is likely to be targeted by hyenas, unless it somehow manages to stay in the middle of the herd.
After a few false starts, the wildebeest and zebra start to cross again. When they reach the other side they are confronted by a steep bank, which reminds me of the ones Australian soldiers faced at Gallipoli in Turkey.
They crawl over each other and the carcasses of those injured in the previous crossing. Some swim back. Some get stuck as soon as they get to the other side and give up, exhausted.
I urge them to get up and move before the next wave comes so they don’t get trampled. Some do, some don’t.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a big splash – one of them has been taken by a crocodile.
We watch for hours, skipping lunch back at camp to snack on fruit left over from our picnic breakfast.
Duncan tells me I amextremely lucky; some guests stay several days and don’t get to see a crossing.
It is not the only fortunate encounter I have that day.
On the way to the river we spot two lionesses and a lion rubbing himself against tall grass marking his territory.
One of the lionesses wanders and lies under a bush a few metres from our car. She has one brown eye and one blue eye and obviously is blind in one eye.
We also come across a leopard and her cub drinking in a creek.
Mum wades over the creek and walks by our car, leaving her six-month-old cub on the other side.
The cautious cub jumps tentatively from rock to rock, trying to make its way across. It gets to a wide gap in the creek and decides to take a giant leap, but falls short and lands in the water.
Chuckles can be heard from surrounding jeeps.
She quickly scampers to shore and catches up with mum.
The Masai Mara is divided by a network of bush tracks. There are no signs, but the Masai guides know the roads like the back of their hands. On my first game drive in the park, on the way from the airstrip to camp when I arrive, I see two giraffes standing about 10m away.
We see a herd of elephants beside a river chomping on grass and flapping their ears to keep cool, three ostriches wandering across the horizon, and stop to watch a cheetah lying in the grass about 10m away. He rolls over, yawns and flicks his tail to shoo the flies away.
At dusk we spot a family of six hippos in the river, surfacing and submerging, blowing air. As it starts to rain and cools they becomemore active and surface more. One of them lets out a huge yawn.
On the way back to camp one night, we see a leopard in a tree eating an antelope it had caught earlier.
Part-owned by National Geographic filmmakers Beverly and Derek Joubert, who produced The Last Lioness and Eye of the Leopard, Mara Plains is a luxury camp hidden under trees beside a river full of hippos.
You can hear the hippos snorting – and lions roaring – during the night, and a security guard has to escort you to your room with a torch and a spear.
Monkeys roam throughout the camp and an inquisitive giraffe comes close to the camp after lunch.
The camp is solar powered and guests must use the natural, biodegradable soap and shampoo.
It is one of only four in the 12,000ha Olare Orok conservancy, where the native Masai people lease the land to tourism providers for a fixed monthly fee, using the money to send their children to school.