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

Getaway (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS BY SONYA SCHOE­MAN

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.

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