A farewell, the glorious Maasai Mara

It was only four days, but time in the Maasai Mara seems to go in slow motion – especially the nights. The daily routine – up at dawn, out for a drive to spot animals, return for food and a few hour’s rest, before another afternoon drive, followed by a long, dark night in a  tent – was very seductive and relaxed. We saw lots of animals and we ended our time with a stunning sunset before taking the long and gruelling road back to Nairobi.

The landscapes of the Maasai Mara are almost as breathtaking as the animals that inhabit them. When I was there, just prior to the greatest migration of land animals anywhere on the planet, the whole region seemed covered in long golden grasses. The Maasai Mara forms a continuous landmass between Kenya and Tanzania, where it becomes the Serengeti. Each year over one million Wildebeest and eight hundred thousand Zebra migrate north from the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara. The nutritious grassland wouldn’t last long when they arrived.

The border between Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti. Africa

The border between Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti. Africa

Landscape of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Landscape of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Landscape of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Landscape of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

On our final drive through the National Reserve we would head to the Mara River where, in just a few weeks, two million plus Wildebeests and Zebra would risk life and limb crossing it to reach the grassy plains of the Maasai Mara. Waiting for them in the river would be giant Nile Crocodiles, the size of which inspires a sense of awe and terror. These pre-historic death machines reach six metres in length and 900 kg in weight; while their speed, powerful jaws and razor-sharp teeth make them fearsome predators.

While humans occasionally fall prey to crocodiles, a bigger threat is the Hippopotamus (a name given to them by the Ancient Greeks, meaning ‘River Horse’, despite the fact that their closest relatives are whales and porpoises). Hippos are generally considered one of the most dangerous creatures in Africa: they are very aggressive and can run faster than humans. It was reassuring that an AK-47 wielding park guard accompanied us along the river bank.

Park Guard at the Mara River, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Park Guard at the Mara River, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Crocodile in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Crocodile in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hippopotamus in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hippopotamus in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hippopotamus with baby in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hippopotamus with baby in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

As we returned from the river, we came across some other giants of Africa. We had spotted a small band of elephants on our first day in the park, but after that they had been conspicuously avoiding us – difficult when you’re the size of an elephant. On our final drive we spotted a large herd of elephants. Pre-occupied watching them walking and eating with their young, we neglected to look behind us; when we did, this huge bull elephant had crept up on us and was only a few metres from the jeep.

Joseph quickly started the engine and moved a safe distance away – elephant behaviour can be unpredictable, and our small vehicle was no match for a 7000kg male elephant.

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

African Elephant in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Driving off towards the camp, we saw giraffes, hyenas, ostriches and many other animals amidst the sweeping vistas of the Maasai Mara.

Giraffe in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Giraffe in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Giraffe in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Giraffe in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hyena in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Hyena in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Ostrich in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Ostrich in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Kori Bustard in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Kori Bustard in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

This East African journey came to an end with a sublime sunset, bathing the landscape in a surreal and beautiful light…

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Sunset over the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Into the wild, Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve

Perhaps its the optimist in me, but I probably should have known better. The four days, three nights, food and transport included, deal I’d got from a travel agency in downtown Nairobi was just too good to be true. I’d been persuaded that, as a late addition to the group, the cost of a trip to the Maasai Mara was heavily reduced. As we turned into the safari camp after a long, dusty and very potholed journey from Kenya’s capital city, it suddenly dawned on me where the real ‘savings’ on this trip came from.

Maasai herdsmen and cattle, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Maasai herdsmen and cattle, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Army-surplus tent, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Army-surplus tent, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

The army-surplus tents stood under some small trees in a clearing. The instruction to buy a  can of bug killer suddenly made sense. The wood hut off to one side would serve as restaurant and bar for the next few days, the row of pit latrines buzzing with flies served as a salutary reminder that a lot of Kenyans don’t have access to flush toilets. Everyone working there was very jolly though, the Tusker beer was chilling in a bucket of water, and despite the bare bones accommodation, this promised to be an exciting few days.

It was definitely not going to be a Spafari (the high end safari operations that provide luxury tented enclosures, a swimming pool, aroma-therapy and massages to accompany the ubiquitous sundowner). The major upside of our camp was that it was only a short walk to the entrance to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. At least that seemed like a good thing until our orientation session.

Entrance to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

Entrance to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Africa

It turned out that a couple of weeks earlier a pack of lionesses had hunted down a zebra and killed it in the middle of the camp. Taking a leisurely lunch, they spend the next 16 hours sat around eating and sleeping while, presumably terrified, travellers hid inside their flimsy army-surplus tents. Only when the lionesses decided they needed to hunt something else, could people leave their tents.

Our guide, Joseph, took it all in his stride, “Lions don’t see a tent as food. Stay inside the tent and you won’t have a problem. Its a good way to see the lions up close, their habits when eating as a pack,” he needlessly pointed out.

Zebra and Wildebeest, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Zebra and Wildebeest, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Two elephants eating a tree, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Two elephants eating a tree, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Arcacia tree and view over the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Arcacia tree and view over the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

I was just musing on the wisdom of this fact when he added, “Much worse is the elephant. If the elephants come through the camp they just trample the tents and everything inside them.” Really? “There’s no need to worry. We have Maasai warriors guarding the tents at night. They will keep you safe.” Feeling less than positive, I dropped my things inside my tent and we headed out for a sunset drive through the park to see if we could spot anything of interest.

To describe the savannah-landscape of golden grasses spotted with Arcacia and Baobab trees, as anything less that magnificent would be to do a huge disservice to the Maasai Mara. The Mara seems to go on for ever, sweeping majestically south to the Serengeti in Tanzania.

Impala, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Impala, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Zebra with Oxpecker, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Zebra with Oxpecker, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Warthogs and Wildebeest, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Warthogs and Wildebeest, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

If the landscape provides the backdrop, it is the animals that live in it that most people come to see. For someone who comes from a country where the urban fox is considered to be the most dangerous mammal roaming the land, the wildness of the Maasai Mara’s animals comes as a real jolt to the system. Especially when you witness large predators tucking into a gazelle or zebra.

Giraffe, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Giraffe, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Sunset, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Sunset, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

Our first ‘drive’ through the Maasai Mara didn’t disappoint, we spotted a large number of animals, all seemingly unconcerned by our presence…and there was a beautiful Maasai Mara sunset to accompany our return to the camp. Over the next few days we’d see an amazing amount of wildlife.