A front row seat to the Great Mi­gra­tion in Kenya

The Maa­sai Mara is emp­tier than it has been in decades, mean­ing great ac­cess for the in­trepid

Arab News - - Lifestyle, Art & Culture - Ash­leigh Ste­wart Dubai

“It’s all about the spirit of Ubuntu — you take care of me, I take care of you.”

My sa­fari guide Ti­tus and I are perched on the tow­er­ing Oloololo Es­carp­ment in south­ern­most Kenya, sweep­ing the Maa­sai Mara be­low us with binoc­u­lars.

I have just voiced again how sur­prised I am to see the plains be­low de­void of peo­ple, de­spite how safe I have felt trav­el­ling the coun­try dur­ing the on­go­ing COVID-19 pan­demic.

This, Ti­tus is ex­plain­ing, boils down to the Swahili con­cept of Ubuntu —to­geth­er­ness — a word that now ex­tends to Kenya’s col­lec­tive fight against the virus. At the time of writ­ing, Kenya’s con­firmed num­ber of COVID-19 cases is 36,205, with 624 deaths, in a pop­u­la­tion of around 50 mil­lion. Many in the coun­try have al­ready de­clared vic­tory over the virus. But that’s not to say they’re com­pla­cent — in Nairobi, it’s rare to find any­one not wear­ing a mask, and even in the mar­ket town of Narok, en route to the Mara, peo­ple are wear­ing masks and san­i­tiz­ing com­mon ar­eas.

Kenya’s in­ter­na­tional bor­ders re­opened on Au­gust 1, and 130 coun­tries are ex­empt from the coun­try’s 14- day quar­an­tine upon en­try — in­clud­ing each of the GCC coun­tries.

But when I ar­rive at Angama Mara, the coun­try’s premier sa­fari camp, I am one of only three groups on site, de­spite the fact that I am here in peak sea­son — dur­ing the Great Mi­gra­tion, when mil­lions of wilde­beest pour through the Mara in search of more plen­ti­ful graz­ing.

The Mara is one of the most renowned and im­por­tant wildlife con­ser­va­tion ar­eas in the world, with boun­ti­ful pop­u­la­tions of lions, African leop­ards, chee­tahs and ele­phants. The an­i­mals have only grown more con­fi­dent in the past few months, when most game camps closed. Angama had ele­phants and ze­bra wan­der­ing through the prop­erty and dur­ing my stay I watched an op­por­tunis­tic ba­boon help him­self to the open bar in the din­ing room.

The spec­tac­u­lar owner-run lodge with sweep­ing views over the Mara Tri­an­gle, is a des­ti­na­tion in it­self. The 1985 epic “Out of Africa” was filmed on this spot. From your tent perched on the side of the es­carp­ment, you can watch ele­phants wan­der the plains be­low. The sur­round­ing bush­land pro­vides the per­fect back­drop for a run with a Kenyan staff mem­ber, or a walk­ing sa­fari with a lo­cal Maa­sai. My walk­ing guide, Daniel, points out lo­cal fauna with ex­per­tise, tak­ing par­tic­u­lar care to show me the ajuga re­mota, usu­ally con­sumed as a cure for malaria, but now be­ing taken by the Maa­sai to ward off COVID-19.

When I ask him about the ef­fi­cacy of the treat­ment, he says with a smile: “Well, no Maa­sai have corona yet.”

The lack of tourism presents a unique ex­pe­ri­ence for the in­trepid trav­eler: a front-row, unim­peded seat to the ex­cite­ment of mi­gra­tion sea­son. The famed river cross­ings — in which the wilde­beest at­tempt to evade croc­o­diles and the swift cur­rents of the Mara River in their hun­dreds, are usu­ally crowded with cam­era-wield­ing tourists. In pre­vi­ous years, Ti­tus says, there would have been “more cars than wilde­beest.” Now, there are just seven jeeps in sight. Over the next two days I see a pair of lionesses be­ing chased away from chow­ing down on a water buffalo by a pack of cack­ling hye­nas, two leop­ards (the most elu­sive of all big game) in just a few hours, too many lions to count, two ser­vals and one cub, huge num­bers of ze­bra, buffalo, gi­raffe and hippo. And hardly any peo­ple.

When we do see other jeeps, most of my fel­low wildlifeob­servers are Kenyans.

The do­mes­tic tourism mar­ket has thrived on the back of na­tional park fees be­ing slashed by 50 per­cent, and ho­tels cut­ting their nightly rates.

Nairobi’s Villa Rosa Kempinksi put its prices down by 40 per­cent and has ex­pe­ri­enced a surge in lo­cal stay­ca­tion­ers. A ho­tel staff mem­ber says the vol­ume of do­mes­tic tourists has helped cush­ion the blow of a lack of for­eign­ers.

But nowhere is the lack of in­ter­na­tional tourism more ob­vi­ous than the Mara.

I ask Ti­tus if he misses the tourists. His an­swer is care­fully con­sid­ered: it’s nice hav­ing the Mara quiet, he says. But tourists al­low him to do what he loves — spend­ing days out on the vast, un­du­lat­ing plains.

“This is like medicine to me, it takes me to a dif­fer­ent state,” he says. “I love do­ing what I do. So I re­ally hope tourists come back.”

Shut­ter­stock/ sup­plied/Getty

(Above) Wilde­beest cross the Mara dur­ing the Great Mi­gra­tion; A tent at Angama Mara; A na­tive Maa­sai cul­tural per­former in COVIDap­pro­pri­ate at­tire.

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