Sonya Schoeman can’t believe the space, and the sheer numbers filling it, in the Masai Mara
Here’s why Kenya is on bucket lists around the world (and should be on yours): there’s nothing quite like the abundance of wildlife on the great plains – even when it’s not migration season
We have the same wildlife, we think, plus it’s expensive. Why would we spend that much to see what we can see here?
I’ll begin to answer that question by way of an anecdote. I was in the Kruger Park at a lodge, swimming in a rim-flow pool overlooking a glorious scene: below was a herd of elephants, ripping at the green grass on the edge of a stream, softly blowing air through their trunks, scuffling massive feet, rumbling softly at each other. The dust they kicked up saturated the air, turning the scene rusty and romantic. The soundtrack was the chatter of insects, birds and frogs. It was a moment of intense beauty.
A Canadian woman swam up and joined me in the reverie. She was quiet at first. Then she said, ‘It’s wonderful here in the Kruger. But it’s not like the Mara. There, it’s the scale that you can’t get over. The huge numbers of the herds with elephant, wildebeest, lion, giraffe all in one tableau.’
She seemed nice, but I was irritated. Nothing is ever enough for these spoilt First World jet-setter types, I thought. Not without envy, though – I’d never been to the Mara.
Seen from above, the Masai Mara is a carpet of golden-browns decorated with dots. These could be anything: trees, buffalo, zebra, a host of other fauna. From above is usually how you approach the Mara – to drive here from Nairobi takes the better part of a day – and it’s the perfect introduction. You get a feel for its vastness, although it’s from the ground that you get a sense of the scale.
‘South Africans should come to Kenya for the best big-cat viewing,’ says Roelof Schutte. ‘Seeing lion here is much better
SOUTH AFRICANS AREN’T A BIG PERCENTAGE OF KENYA’S TOURISM MARKET.
than in South Africa.’ He would know. He is South African and was a guide there for many years. Now he’s camp manager at Asilia’s Naboisho. ‘They should also come for the range of species,’ he adds. ‘The densities and numbers are unparalleled.’
We’re sitting on the stoep of Naboisho Camp’s main lodge, looking out onto a slight decline that leads to a river. On the other side of this green vein, the ground rises back towards the plains until it disappears into sky. The plains spread out from us and dotted everywhere – everywhere – are hundreds of blue wildebeest, zebras and other antelope. I watch a herd of elephants and five giraffes on the horizon through the binoculars.
‘There are lions across the river too,’ says Roelof, seeing what I can’t, ‘but they’re lying low.’ They were heard roaring the night before and, later that evening, the sounds of a fight with hyenas rolled down the hill to our tents.
This is the primary thrill of safari sleeping – the noises of exquisite, ferocious life being lived just on the other side of your thin fabric wall; the scuffles, snuffles, howls and shrieks that prick your imagination into scenes of bloody, white-eyed horror in the dark of night.
In the morning, we’re up early. Naboisho has something special to offer: it’s one of the only camps in the Mara conservancies with a guide qualified to take guests on foot into the bush. Roelof is that guide. He waits for us, his gun silhouetted against a sky that’s just turning pink. We’re to follow the rules: no talking, walking in a tight line – rules we’re familiar with at home, but the stakes here feel higher. The amount of game is so rich, there surely must be greater risk?
But the numbers only mean that the game is not that concerned with us humans, once they’ve ascertained we mean no harm. The lions and cheetahs have fed, the giraffes are sauntering from higher ground to lower, the wildebeest nod out the way, looking at us from under thick lashes.
Up on the hill, we have a scare. Roelof spins smartly on his heel. At pace, he turns me around and like dominoes we all head at a swift pace out the brush. Reaching safe ground, we stop. He almost bumped into a baby elephant, he says, and in such thick bush a mother might be more uppity than usual – it’s best to stay well away.
Chastened, we focus on other things instead: the magnificent bird life – a rufouscrowned roller on a branch, a kori bustard stalking through the grass, a regal bateleur eagle. We come across a gargantuan termite hill. What looks like a muddy mound to us becomes, through Roelof’s description, an architectural miracle with a remarkable heating and cooling structure, and a social system that inspires.
Another thing about the density of wildlife is it means more opportunity for seeing exceptional scenes of wildlife living
and dying and creating. Another morning we take a drive. The Masai guides are tuned into the network of life moving across the plains. We come across two kills, one of them fresh. A talking blanket of carrion eaters covers the corpse. A marabou stork pulls out a long entrail, squabbling as vultures hobble in to steal its prize. In the background, three black-backed jackals lurk, and two spotted hyenas are trotting in to fight for their place at the table. The smell and sounds are visceral.
Further down the hill, there’s a mating pair of lions. The guides know these young animals. This is the second set we’ve seen, and we get to watch a female bat off a handsome young suitor. She moves away, irritated; he trails miserably behind. It’s a show like no other and being able to see it, so close, with so few people about, is the greatest privilege of being at a private game lodge in the Mara, because it’s a different ball game in the public parks.
To the west lies the Masai Mara National Reserve. The lodge at Mara West Camp sits on top of the Oloololo escarpment. Your gaze sweeps down its sides and at the base collects a view of golden grasses and herds of elephants and buffaloes grazing.
Close to the camp is also where the South African operation Wildearth runs its 24/7 internet show, beamed to the world. It’s easy to see why they’ve chosen this area that teems with wildlife. There’s an impressive studio perched over the escarpment, with windows looking full onto the plains below. In the room next door, the young, upbeat editors splice the show in realtime into something pacey and interesting. The game guides are down below in the reserve, following the action and building narratives as they watch step-by-step developments with animals that become characters they, and viewers, grow invested in.
We drive down to see them at work. In this part of the park, there are fewer visitors than further south, but that still means a whole lot more than we saw in private Naboisho. Here, there are many operators vying for the great sights, so a fantastic lion kill will soon be swamped with game vehicles, guides hustling to position guests with long telephoto lenses in exactly the right spot for that killer shot.
It feels more intrusive, but the wildlife scenes are still dramatic: one group of early risers tells of a massive fight between lions and hyenas over a kill, howling and roaring and snarling (the hyenas won). We watch huge herds of elephant and towers of giraffe swing pendulously under the mountain.
One morning, we rise in the dark and head into cool, drizzly darkness for a balloon ride. For a while, our fate hangs in the balance – will it be possible? We’re in suspense, because we all know that coming back here to float in quiet wonder over the Mara is a once-in-a-lifetime experience; to be denied it would mean a chance gone forever.
But the skies clear and up we go, and it’s every bit as magical as I imagined.
I pull out my phone to record the moment, but find that looking at the scene through its small screen makes me feel anxious: it’s the antithesis of this remarkable experience; the grandeur gets lost, so I put it away. Someone says the wildlife doesn’t like the balloons, and some animals do seem unnerved by the sudden blasts of gas and fire and its outsize shadow, but others seem unperturbed.
Then it’s over and we float down and land with a bump. The basket tips over and we wriggle out to a breakfast set before us on long red tables, chefs and waiters with sparkling wine. It’s every bit the colonial scene that has an element of the surreal, yet it’s pinch-yourself, crazy special. I turn my back to it and all that’s left is tall yellow grass that could be hiding my death, but beyond that are blue wildebeest grazing calmly and, beyond that, elephants and, framing it all the Oloololo escarpment.
ABOVE LEFT Roeloff Schutte is qualified to take guests into the bush on foot, not common for the Mara. CENTRE Tourists walk with an armed guard, but Maasai children in the veld herd their family’s cattle armed only with makeshift spears.OPPOSITE TOP RIGHT Naboisho also offers fly camping – a night in the wild, learning about ecosystems on the ground.OPPOSITE BOTTOM Typical Mara traffic.
ABOVE Antelope and giraffe like to graze around the safari tents at Mara West Camp. TOP The luxurious tents at Naboisho have outdoor showers set up under the trees. OPPOSITE During the migration, massive herds of wildebeest can be seen on the plains under the Oloololo mountains.