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

Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape - - TREASURE ISLAND, FIJI -

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.

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