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,