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An Expert insight to the Great Migration

The Masai Mara, meaning Spotted Plains, is the northern extension of the Serengeti, meaning Endless Plains. Essentially, the Mara is in Kenya and the Serengeti is in Tanzania though why it has two different names depending upon which side of the border we stand is a mystery that no one can explain. The area is also part of the Rift Valley that stretches from Tanzania, through Kenya and into Ethiopia.

We have come here to witness the bi-annual migration of animals as they wander about seeking water and lush grazing as the seasons change. Right now the herds are moving north in the dry season before they return south later in the year. The migration pulls 1.5 million wildebeest, 500,000 zebra, 200,000 buffalo and assorted hangers on of antelope, gazelle and carrion eaters such as eagles and vultures into the Mara. They fill the golden yellow savannah plain with black crowds that huddle together at night and string out during the day in a line of single file that stretches for miles.

From the vantage point of our camp, we can look out across the open rolling golden grasslands of the Masai Mara plains. The view is dotted with lone Acacia trees that stand around 3 metres tall and provide some shade to the animals during the heat of the day. The plain appears to be crawling with ants. black dots wandering, across wide open spaces. Every living creature is busy looking for food.

We had an open-sided 4×4 to observe the wildlife. We had high hopes of seeing the Big Five – elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo – so called because they were considered the most dangerous animals to hunt. We saw them all at close quarters except for the shy leopard who managed to elude the best attempts of our guides to track them down. But we also saw the elegant giraffe, lazy cheetah, hundreds of different types of gazelle and antelope, crocs galore, thousands of zebra and, of course, the star of the show, the wildebeest. The zebra and wildebeest tend to travel together for protection. Zebra having excellent eyesight and wildebeest having excellent hearing.

But it doesn’t matter what faculties the beasts may have, they all need to cross the river. Hungry crocodiles, up to 5 metres long, wait at the crossing points to grab an easy meal. The migrating animals know perfectly well that the river crossing is dangerous and they gather in nervous numbers near the banks working up the courage to make the dash across the murky Mara. None want to be the first to attempt the crossing, the slightest noise or movement spooks the herds and they stampede back up the bank in a cloud of dust. When one brave beast takes the plunge across the river, they all follow kicking up the water into a white rage. Any stumble, hesitation or fall is fatal as the entire herd tramples over the top of the young, the old, the unbalanced or the sick. More wildebeest get killed by their own panicking brethren than by crocodiles and we find many dead bodies downstream wedged between rocks or caught in trees being ripped apart by vultures.

We saw some gazelle crossing, a favourite snack of the crocs, with one large adult being caught by a large black crocodile that must have been over 4 metres long. Having drowned its prey, the croc began flinging the gazelle from side to side trying to break it into more manageable pieces. Water, blood and guts were cast half way across the Mara.

But the highlight is tracking down lion. First, we found two females hunting near some scrubby bushes and one of them came close enough to the vehicle to check out our limbs! Next we found a pride of females and youngsters devouring a wildebeest. The cubs were getting stuck in to the soft underbelly, their faces and whiskers smeared red with blood as the adults lazed in a circle around them. The Masia Mara, at this time of year, is overflowing with wildlife. There were wandering buffalo munching the grass on the hillside, black rhino and their ‘little’ ones, elephant outside our camp eating trees, warthogs inside the camp eating everything, monkeys in the trees, colourful birds, slinking hyenas and the topi gazelle, only found in the Mara. And every animal encounter was different: we may have seen giraffe for the umpteenth time or spotted the millionth wildebeest and the ten thousandth zebra but something else was going on that we hadn’t yet witnessed and it was impossible to tire of going out to watch the glory of nature.

We finished our time with a walk up the escarpment accompanied by a Masai warrior and a security guard armed with a rifle. We discussed the Masai life. How they live in many little villages surrounded by two circles of thorn bushes to ward off predators eager to take their cattle. Wealth is measured in cattle and when they get married the boy has to give his bride’s parents cattle in exchange for their daughter (15 head seems to be the average price). We discussed how the two footed standing jump was an important part of the male culture with the highest jumper being honoured and revered. The hot subject was circumcision. However, we could tell from the demeanour of our warrior friend where he stood on the debate.

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