On the vast plains of the Maasai Mara region in Kenya, with uninterrupted views of the sky melting into the grass on the horizon, SARAH KOOPMAN found herself slowing down and enjoying a new pace
Finding stillness in the Mara
GROUP OF GIRAFFE on the move is called a journey; and when standing still, the group is called a tower. Not a herd. I learn this on a morning game drive with Fred Ronko, our Maasai guide who has spent more than 20 years tracking animals in the Maasai Mara region of south-western Kenya.
We woke up before sunrise again and had taken to the expansive plains.The early morning air has an unforgiving bite to it and we’re wrapped in blankets with hot water bottles on our laps as the wind whips against our cheeks in the open-top Land Rover. Squinting my eyes into the rising sun, I can just about make out a lone hyena trotting across the grass in the distance. We’re hoping to make some more predator sightings before returning to our breakfast table laid out for us at Asilia Africa’s Mara Bush Houses. Starting the day like this has quickly become my new standard. With no traffic and no rush. You can’t rush in the Mara. Nature will quickly remind you that you’re running on her time.
As Fred turns off the ignition, the engine’s rumble in the morning air comes to a jolting stop and the silence descends again. My ears have never had to deal with so much of it – with nothing but the hum of unseen insects and the occasional bird call in the distance – and I nally understand how deafening the lack of any sound can be. Just days before we had left Nairobi; its roads lled with cars, people, taxis and scooters moving in every direction, all at once. As we lifted off in the 12-seater Safari Link charter plane that would take us on the hour-long ight from the city to the Mara region, the rolling landscape of the Rift Valley Province changed as densely populated suburbs gave way to farmland. The further we went, the fewer houses we saw, until it became easy to believe that no human feet had ever touched the mountains we were ying over.
The bumpy landing was due in part to the heavy rains that had just fallen. At our airport – a small wooden structure with a muddy runway – we met Fred for the rst time and our transfer to the Bush House was my rst game drive. I swiftly moved right out of my comfort zone, my body quickly adapting: my back to the jolting movements of the Land Rover; my feet to the uncertainty of slippery, muddy soil. My arms to the repetitive movement of swatting away ies; my eyes to the overwhelming expanses of space in front of me. And my ears to the silence.
Silence is one of the few constants in this unpredictable environment and it is how I nally found some peace without ever realising how much I needed it. Removed from my daily hustle and bustle, I embrace this slower pace of life in a way I hadn’t done in a very long time. Two days later, Fred drives us to the top of a hill to watch the sun set over this incredibly vast plain. The golden tones of the rays disappearing on the horizon are quickly dispersed by the storm clouds rolling in behind us with their soundtrack of rumbling thunder.
Everything seems to be working according to a clock that I can’t see or understand, but I am uncharacteristically happy to be a passenger here. My perception of time and distance has changed, too. An hour’s drive is a quick commute; three to four hours, the standard. As we move from Mara Bush Houses – a luxury catered and staffed private house in the bush – to the ve-star tented camp at Asilia’s Naboisho Camp, the landscape changes from lush green to dry, open plains. Our drive through a small town happens to coincide with the weekly market day, where villagers have walked since before sunrise to bring their livestock and produce to be sold. Even here, with its busy sound of sheep, cattle and goats, the calling out of greetings and the negotiations of trade, I’m slowly starting to understand the no-fuss lifestyle of the local people.
The next morning, I realise I’ve relaxed so much and slept so deeply that my rst inkling of the herd of buffalo that roamed past during the night are their fresh tracks right outside our door. Up before dawn, we are bundled into a safari vehicle with our new Maasai guide, Moses, who navigates the unnamed and unmarked trails through the plains with ease.As we encounter a lioness and her four adolescent cubs resting as the sun rises, Moses says it is likely they had a successful hunt the night before. In the middle of nowhere, it feels like the world could come to a standstill and we would have no idea.
Later that day we visit a Maasai village. We are welcomed into the homestead by the family – one man, his ve wives and their children. Each wife has a mud hut of her own, built in a circle with the cattle kraal in the centre. Mary, one of the wives, takes us into her home and with the help of Moses’s translation tells us about the Maasai lifestyle. We are later welcomed back to camp by Helen and Roelof Schutte, the South African couple managing Naboisho. After afternoon tea, I have an outdoor bucket shower and a nap. As I wake up to the distant roar of a lion – the Mara is lion country and Moses tells us that the sound can travel from as far as 10km away – it feels like the nine tents around me are lled with the only people in the world. Naboisho is the Maa word for ‘harmony’ and the camp couldn’t be more aptly named. I stand on my tent porch and with a few ashes of my torch I call the askari (night guards) who escort me on the short walk through the bush to the dining hall in the main lodge. With no fences, the property is free for any animals to roam.
Our final morning starts with a Naboisho speciality – a walking safari guided by Roelof. Rifle in hand (though he tells us he’s only ever had to discharge it twice in his more than 20 years of guiding), we follow him into a ravine, where we nd traces of an elephant herd that had stopped there the night before. Four hours later, we are back at camp having clambered and climbed through the bush and up rocky mountainsides, watching elephants from a safe distance, learning about the intricate ecosystems.
On our departure, as we approach Nairobi and the landscape becomes densely populated again, I have to take a few deep breaths and prepare to be overwhelmed by the sensory overload that a city like Nairobi can be. It isn’t just quiet in the Mara. It is still. There’s a peace there that I have not been able to nd since landing back at home. The real joy of the Mara is the chance to be lost in your own thoughts and to be confronted by a scale of nature few people are exposed to. A new schedule; a different pace.
Back home, as I try to not be overwhelmed by my to-do list, I’m reminded of that peaceful place and make a mental note to make time for stillness.