ED’S LET­TER

Getaway (South Africa) - - NEWS -

Justin Fox re­flects on the Great Mi­gra­tion, hap­pen­ing this month

It was a plumb as­sign­ment early in my Getaway ca­reer. The Great Mi­gra­tion. Damn, it was go­ing to be good. As it turns out, it wasn’t. At least not un­til the very, very end.

Five of us waited on the grass run­way be­side a limp wind­sock. We were a for­lorn bunch. Our Kenyan sa­fari had gone all limp, robbed of its cli­max. Yes, there’d been good sight­ings – plenty of for­ni­cat­ing mam­mals and any num­ber of kills – but we’d come to the Ma­sai Mara for the wilde­beest mi­gra­tion and had not been re­warded.

A char­tered Cessna landed and the pi­lot stepped out. He looked vaguely East­ern Euro­pean with a bushy mous­tache, sun­glasses, red cra­vat and dis­mis­sive man­ner. Chivvy­ing us into our seats, he tossed the lug­gage aboard and we were off. ‘I must to make quick stop at an­other lodge and pick up English nurse!’ he shouted above the pro­pel­ler noise.

We landed again min­utes later and there she stood, a lone fig­ure at the end of a gravel run­way. She was pe­tite with long auburn hair and smoul­der­ing eyes. Our pi­lot was trans­formed. Step­ping from the plane, he was charm per­son­i­fied. ‘Madame, you must to fly up front with me,’ he said, help­ing her into the co-pi­lot seat.

He leaned across and asked: ‘Have you seen the mi­gra­tion, my dear?’ ‘Un­for­tu­nately not,’ she replied.

‘Well then, let’s go look for it!’ he said with Er­rol Flynn panache. We soared into the Mara sky. In­stead of head­ing north­east on our logged flight path to Nairobi, we flew south to­wards the Tan­za­nian bor­der. The Cessna was low, tree-top low. Our pi­lot had turned fighter ace, bank­ing the un­gainly air­craft from wingtip to wingtip, de­scrib­ing turns that matched the Mara River’s me­an­ders. The Cessna had mor­phed into a bi­plane and we were in Out of Africa or per­haps, heaven for­bid, The English Pa­tient. The pi­lot hardly took his eyes off the nurse. There was adren­a­line, but no fear. He was fly­ing on pas­sion and in­stinct and the script didn’t call for a crash just yet.

At any mo­ment, I ex­pected a call from air-traf­fic con­trol at Wil­son Air­port to chide us home. We must’ve been close to Tan­za­nian airspace. I imag­ined cot­ton-wool puffs of flak find­ing its range around us. ‘Over there!’ shouted the pi­lot. Dozens of ner­vous wilde­beest stood at the river’s edge, hooves in the wa­ter, wait­ing to cross. Be­hind them in lines un­end­ing came an army of an­i­mals, march­ing in ranked or­der.

We banked hard to star­board over a wide plain. As far as our eyes could see, the earth was cov­ered in wilde­beest and ze­bras. Hairs stood up all over my body. You’ve seen it on TV; you know what to ex­pect. But noth­ing quite pre­pares you. A mil­lion an­i­mals on the move. We flew up the mid­dle of the plain, part­ing a sea of beasts. On and on we flew, and on and on they came, stream­ing out of the Serengeti.

Then we climbed high and looked down on an Africa teem­ing with life. Out of the blue, I thought of Pa­trick and his last flight.

In 1998, fel­low Getaway pho­to­jour­nal­ist Pa­trick Wag­ner was fly­ing with a group of ad­ven­tur­ers from the Ma­sai Mara to Wil­son Air­port in low cloud. Their plane smashed into the Ngong Hills, made fa­mous in Out of Africa. No one sur­vived.

I felt that some­thing had come full cir­cle, some­thing was be­ing laid to rest. But my emo­tions were too strong and too con­fused to prop­erly un­der­stand at the time.

Af­ter land­ing, we piled our bags into a matatu taxi and waved at the nurse stand­ing at the air­port bus stop. Just then, our pi­lot emerged from the ter­mi­nal. As we pulled away, I saw her hand­ing him a piece of pa­per with her phone num­ber.

Septem­ber is the cli­max of the mi­gra­tion. Now is the time to be there. Un­til Novem­ber, wilde­beest and at­ten­dant ze­bras (see page 14) will be pour­ing into the Mara. It’s the great­est wildlife show on Earth.

I hope you en­joy our Septem­ber is­sue,

Justin Fox

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