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Africa Revisited – Marvel of the Mara

My travel arrangements now have been done by Aramati Safaris who are based in Nairobi. John has taken care of everything for me and picks me up from my Nomad drop-off point. He knows I have been travelling already for over two months non-stop and tells the hotel receptionist not to disturb me as I need rest. AAwww…he really does think of everything.

Today John has organised a couple of excursions for me as I have a free day before heading off on safari. His driver takes me to a bead factory…Kazuri Beads. I’m taken on a guided tour of the factory and shown how all the processes take place from beginning to end. This factory started off with two Kenyan women and now employs over 300, most of whom are single mothers. It also has it’s own clinic and provides free medical care for it’s employees and their families. These women are very skilled and their produce, which includes necklaces, bracelets and unique pottery, is exported around the world. Sales go back to helping these single mothers. It’s a very interesting visit.

It begins like this....from balls of clay

It begins like this….from balls of clay

…painting, then firing…

…painting, then firing…

…to assembling

…to assembling

Beaded wall hanging

Beaded wall hanging

While I am in the area, my driver takes me past Karen Blixen House. Karen was an author and penned the now famous Out of Africa which became an Academy Award winning movie.

My next visit is to the David Shelrick Elephant Orphanage. This is the world’s most successful centre for elephant rescue and rehabilitation. Many are victims of poaching or human/wildlife conflict. Once stabilised they are moved away and it can take from 8-10 years before they make the transition back into the wild.

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This orphan baby would not leave the security of its keeper

This orphan baby would not leave the security of its keeper

It’s the first day of my Kenyan safari. This is to be a private tour as I want to concentrate on my photography. John arrives as he wants to introduce me to the guide I will be having for the next few weeks. His name is Dedan. After a short briefing about what to expect over the coming weeks, we leave Nairobi and head for the Maasai Mara. Along the way we pass the lookout to the Great Rift Valley which stretchs as far as the eye can see. There’s also a stop-off at a curio shop. It’s full of wonderful carvings and souvenirs and there’s lots of tourists here.

The final stretch of road towards the Mara is what can only be described as diabolically rough. I’ve ridden over bumpy roads before throughout Africa, but nothing compares to this !

Arriving at my lodge…Sarova Mara…I am greeted by a young maasai with a moist face towel before joining a receptionist for registration. I note she greets me using my name before being seated with a glass of juice and papers to sign. It’s already lunchtime so I’m shown to the restaurant. It’s big and authentically African. The meals are buffet and there’s several courses to choose from….so I do. Delicious.

This lodge is tented…although these are not your ordinary tents. They have a solid base and a wooden roof over the top and are simply gorgeous. All the emenities of home. The grounds are picturesque and the tents are enveloped in trees.

3.30pm is the organised time for tea/coffee before an afternoon game drive at 4pm. It’s the season of the Great Migration which I have timed carefully. Millions of wildebeest , zebra and plains game migrate up from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Mara every year and they are here now. There’s wildebeest everywhere…amazing. My first game drive and there are 7 lions ( one of them crossed eyed  ) and lots of other animals. As the sun goes down we head back to the lodge as rules state all vehicles must be back before dark. There’s a nice bar here with very friendly staff…..it’s a pleasant end to my first day in the Mara.

I am transfering to another lodge today on the opposite side of the Mara so we do a game drive on the way. Wildebeest are here in their thousands, buffaloes, zebras, impalas….. It’s my first sighting of Mara cheetahs this time and we follow this pair for some time. There’s vehicles around them but they don’t seem to mind and walk amongst them coming right up close to the doors. At one point one of them climbs a big tree stump and gets a good vantage point. They both scent mark then wander off.They deliberate whether to use energy on hunting or not….and decide not and plop down to rest. There’s a view point on Look Out Hill that sits high above the plains. The Mara spreads out across to Tanzania. There’s a hint of green in the grass. We peruse the river banks nearby to see if there are to be any imminent wildebeest crossings…there aren’t. So it’s on to my next lodge ..Mara Serena.

Mara Serena sits high on a plateau and is architecturally different. Every room has a view of the Mara plains. It’s gorgeous. It’s a busy place with lots of tourists , friendly staff and views to die for.

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The view over the Mara from Serena Lodge

The view over the Mara from Serena Lodge

The reason I come here is to do night game drives. Mara Serena is the only lodge in the Mara Reserve that allows them. It’s time for lunch then an afternoon game drive at 4pm. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of game here in this area. It’s certainly not seething like it was the day before at Sarova. We make our way down to the river and try our luck.  Maribou storks vie for position with the vultures over the spoils of unfortunate wildebeest who didn’t make a successful river crossing. There’s carcasses along the bank, piled one on top of another. Testimont to the struggle against instinct. A large herd of wildebeest and zebras are gathering on the river bank. The vultures are waiting patiently for the outcome. It’s fascinating watching this marvel of nature. The tv programs don’t show what really happens…..that it takes it’s course over a long period of time . I always thought the animals came down to the river and just jumped. Not so . There’s a process that unfolds. They come….they look across the other side, they listen to the calls of those already crossed, they ponder……then leave. They run away…instinct stops them…they come back….repeat, repeat, repeat….until finally one will take the plunge and it’s all on. There’s only momentary hesitation then they are airborne before splashing into the muddy waters of the Mara. There’s always the real threat of a croc attack but none are forthcoming at this time. Those that cross reach the other side. The rest…..are restless and nervous and run away. The positive aspect of this particular crossing is the fact that the ground on the other side is flat so there are no restrictions. Crossing from there back to where they came from is another story which we would learn the following day. We are lucky to see two crossings this afternoon but it’s time to get back…it’s almost 6pm and I have my night game drive at 7pm.

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On the way back we see eight lions together followed by a male and two cubs wandering alone in the tall grasses.

I had pre-booked the night drives from home thinking that they would be in demand at this time of year. However, I am surprised to find that there is only one other accompanying me this evening. We’re using a vehicle from the lodge this time. It’s 4×4 and has plastic ‘windows’ which are rolled up for good viewing.It has a pop-top roof too like I am used to. It’s 7pm so off we go. We are lucky enough to see a rare aardwolf plus several dikdik, hares, lots of impala, wildebeest, and hippoes which have come onto the land to graze during the night. We are back at the lodge two hours later for late dinner and it’s a very tired traveller that eventually gets into bed this evening.

I’m still tired when I wake the next morning but that’s not going to slow me down. It’s another game drive at 7.30am and we’re back to the river again. How lucky to see another crossing. At this point they are still crossing from right to left. And still hesitant and nervous. We sit for almost two hours watching them before one of them takes the leap. They’ve disappeared down behind some trees but we can still see the entry point into the water. It’s rocky and slippery and the point where they touch land on the other side is next to a bank…..only metres away from flat land. One wonders why they choose the places they do and make it difficult. It’s interesting behaviour and fascinating to watch.

We’re having a picnic lunch today which enables us to stay out all day. Dedan finds an acacia tree on a hill overlooking the Mara and it’s such a surreal feeling for someone like myself , who comes from a country with no dangerous animals, to be sitting here in one of the most spectacular places on earth, amidst the African wildlife….eating lunch !

There’s elephants amongst the trees , lots of hippoes both in and out of the water and zebras rolling in the dust, as we make our way back to the river in anticipation of another crossing. It’s quiet here at the moment and this enables us to get a good vantage point while we wait. The spot we park can only accommodate so many vehicles so it’s good to be here first. Several baboons make their way along the river bank stopping to feed along the way. There’s a bit of rivallry between two of the males and a fight breaks out with screeches and screams. Standing up in the van, I can see a massive croc sunning itself just below us.

It doesn’t take long and vehicles are starting to gather….on both sides of the river. There’s an imminent crossing. This time from opposite sides…left to right. I can hear the unusual grunting noises of the wildebeest from over behind the trees before they eventually run down to the waters edge. They are interspersed with zebras and they are the more bold of the two and walk into the water first. Initially it is just to drink. Intuition tells them to be vigilant and it shows in their behaviour. Any sudden movement and there is a scurry backwards to dry land. I’m watching this big croc hoping for some action….but he’s too big and lazy and most likely already with a full belly.

The animals are made all the more nervous by this alien ‘thing’ that suddenly flies through the air above us and them. What on earth is that strange sound ?  I don’t belive this. Someone is operating a radio controlled gadget that flies through the air hovering over the crossing. Most likely recording , but the animals take off in fright back from where they came. It’s some time before instinct draws them back to the water.

At some point one of the zebras starts making the call. A small group of them start swimming across. There’s a current so they have a job going against it. They have chosen a direct line across to the other side and have an easy access to get out…..a furrow in the side of the bank carved out by previous crossings. Then off they go….running towards their next feed. The zebra who made the call does not cross however. He runs back up amongst the large herd of wildebeest and, with head held high,  looks across and watches the outcome. He continues to call and then into the river go the wildebeest.

Crossing the Mara River

Crossing the Mara River

The sentinel who makes the call

The sentinel who makes the call

Again, the wildebeest make a bad judgement call and swim to a bank which presents challenges. At one part there is no access and , after clambering up over wet rocks, have nowhere to go. Turning left and right, some fall back into the river. At the same time, masses of animals are still coming across and there becomes a huge backlog in the water. I hear the calling of them , paniced, and see some of them lose all their energy and flow with the tide…drowned ! There is a large pile of dead carcasses from previous crossings and the wildebeest are clawing over them looking for somewhere to go. And also over those that have made it but have no strength to stand up. It’s horrific….but part of the spectacle that is nature and why this is classed as part of one of the wonders of the animal world. Eventually those that cross either find somewhere to get out or….still have nowhere to go. There are still wildebeest standing on the side of the bank…totally exhausted…wet and despondent…and I wonder at this time if they will survive. I think not. The vultures will feed well today.

Nowhere to go

Nowhere to go

The night drive this time sees four of us. The skies are looking a tad gloomy but we set off with the windows open. We have a driver, plus a guide who stands up in the back with us. It’s already dark. We see a cheetah prowling through the bushes unaware that it is walking towards a hyena….natural enemies. We follow with interest to see what will happen….but they pass by without even acknowledging each other. The guide this evening is very informative. He can tell by the shape and colour of the eyes exactly which animal it is in the dark. There’s several pairs of bat-eared foxes skittering through the grass looking for insects and rodents to eat. Lots of cape hares, impalas, zebras, more hippoes grazing, dikdiks and gazelles. I’m allowed to hold the spotlight so stand up on the back seat scanning it from side to side. The skies open and down comes the rain. The driver gets out and puts the plastic windows down. It’s quite cold now too. He makes a U turn on the road and requires all 4 wheel drive power to get unstuck from the mushy ground. It’s a cumbersome vehicle so takes several points to make the turn. The rain stops …up with the plastic again. We disturb a very large herd of wildebeest who charge around in the dark. The driver stops and turns off the lights. I can’t see a thing in the pitch black ( and am only minimally comforted by the fact that wildebeest can ). I can hear their hooves thundering right past my window and nervously wait for one to come through and land on my lap. Scary scenario I must admit and I’m pleased when they’ve gone.

We head back to Sarova Lodge again with a game drive along the way, arriving in time for lunch. They remember me from a few days before and I am pleasantly surprised to be told that I am to be upgraded. Even the maasai remembers me and remarks that last time I arrived in the front seat and this time I am in the back. Interesting 🙂 I am staying in tent #57 and it is simply divine. The bathroom is bigger than my one at home ! It’s quite a walk from the main building, nestled amongst the trees with a little bridge over a lake along the way. Just gorgeous.
We’re back amongst the masses of migratory animals again here. Although we did get to see four river crossings at Serena, the game drives during the day did not produce much. Here at Sarova the wildebeest are in their thousands upon thousands. Mixed with topi and other plains game. There’s a very handsome male giraffe eating a bush right on the road. Dedan switches off the motor and coasts towards it ever so quietly. It’s curious but , after checking us out,  goes back to eating.

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It’s hot and we find the cheetah brothers resting in the shade of a bush. Not very good for photo opportunities boys ! Later in the day we would find another cheetah walking along the road and get the chance to follow it. Magic ! It wanders around the assembled vehicles before scent marking a tree and we leave it to wander off.

It’s also my first time to see a giraffe sitting down. Usually during the day they are up and walking / eating.

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There’s a huddle of vans gathered around some bushes but it’s difficult to see what they are looking at. We wait our turn and see a lioness preening her cub. It grabs her nose with it’s front feet while she licks it. It’s ever so cute but she keeps it in the bushes away from us and keeps a wary watch in the process. It’s almost 7pm and the sun has set by the time we arrive back at the lodge. It’s been an awesome day of game driving and it’s time for a hot shower to wash off the Mara dust,and a cold wine at the bar before a scrumptious dinner. On walking into my tent, I see the mosquito net has been drawn around my bed, the bedside lamps are on and slippers placed on the floor beside my bed. After dinner I would return to find a hot water bottle warming the sheets. Oh yeah….I could get used to this. Love it !! Thanks Peter.

Lying in bed , I can hear the zebras calling in the darkness…..and hyenas.. and lions….bliss.

Dedan and I leave at 7am next morning and it doesn’t take long before we see a gathering of vehicles again….a telltale sign of something interesting. Most likely cats. Sure enough..two male lions. At first appearance it looks like they are rivals with one invading the other’s territory. There’s snarling and growling as they put distance between each other.But, within minutes, they come together and run off . Rules of the Mara state no driving off the roads and the lions have taken off where we cannot go. Most of the vehicles take a road that hopefully will get them close. Dedan goes in another direction. We can still see the lions…..they are running towards a line of bushes. Theres a road that goes along the front of the bushes but Dedan takes another one behind . I quietly think to myself that we have just missed an opportunity as we are on the wrong side of the bushes. I would soon come to learn his skills at predicting animal behaviour is spot-on. Within minutes , both lions appeared through the bushes running directly towards our van. Fantastic !

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And where was everyone else ?   On the wrong side.

Once back into open grassland, the brothers spot a herd of wildebeest on top of the hill. The wildebeest spot them too. It’s a mad dash to keep up with them and try and stay on a road that keeps us within good range. Everyone else is doing the same thing and , on some level, I don’t like that we are encroaching in their domain …albeit keeping at a distance. As the lions get closer to the wildebeest they start to run….one brother always looking across at the other as if in a silent language. Waiting for the final rush. But the wildebeest are on to them and take off. Both wildebeest and lions go in a direction we cannot follow.

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There’s a cheetah with a kill only a matter of metres off the road. There’s two vehicles parked right beside it and I ask Dedan to go closer too but he won’t. He tells me one of those vehicles has a policeman in it. As they drive away a few minutes later , the policeman tells him not to go near it and to stay on the road. As they drive out of sight , I get a very quick two minutes right beside it to get my shots and we are back on the road again !!

We come to a river with lots of hippoes lazily blobbing in the water….grunting as only hippoes can do. Then a shallow river bed where herds of wildebeest are passing through at a fast pace. To get to the bottom they are leaping…and I mean leaping….down a steep face. There’s clouds of dust beneath their feet and billowing into the air.They splash through the water and disappear into the trees…..all is quiet again.

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We see large herds of zebras next. I enjoy photographing them….looking at their patterns and looking for interesting ways they place themselves together, watching their interactions. There’s a waterhole right next to the road we’re on now and lots of wildebeest are wanting to get to the other side. They are nervous because we are parked there watching. Then, all of a sudden, they leap into the water and charge through and up the other side to the grass. They are just like sheep…once one goes the others follow.

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When they realise we are not a threat, they return to drink.Rounding off our morning game drive is a hyena under a tree….very wise as it’s very hot by this time of day. Time to go back to the lodge. As I walk to my room, there are two tiny dikdiks hiding in the bushes. These little animals are only about 35-40 cm in height and weigh only 3-5kg. They’re very timid and as I try to get closer, they scurry away.

4pm…and it’s out again to find more animals. Full time game driving here in the Mara. We find the most magnificant male lion I have ever seen. He’s huge and has a long, dark mane. He really is a king. There’s five females to the side. He’s sitting in the late afternoon sun and it gets a bit hot so he gets up and walks to the shade of one of the parked vehicles where he plops himself down. Not good for photos in that light. We’re close now and I can see he has blood in his mouth and coming from his nose. Maybe he’s been in a fight. After a big yawn he gets up and begins to walk. Once again Dedan gets into a good spot for an oncoming shot.

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We spend quite some time with this mighty creature before it’s time to make our way back to the lodge. Not long before we get there, we come across two lionesses and a sub-adult male preparing to make a kill….low to the ground and eyeing up some wildebeest as they creep stealthily closer. Unfortunately, we are not able to see the outcome as the light is fading fast and we need to get back inside the confines of the lodge.

The next morning Dedan hears on the van radio that a black rhino has been sighted. As always, the drivers do not speak in English so I have no idea what they are saying. But , I have learnt quickly that if Dedan speeds up, and without ever saying anything to me, I know it’s time to get to my seat and hang on. The faster he goes, the bigger the animal is we are going to, so there’s always dust and stones flying. Already there are lots of vehicles. The rhino is in the bushes but it soon appears into a clear space. It comes out briefly before disappearing again. Once again, Dedan predicts with accuracy where it will come out and sure enough…..I am able to get a head-on clear shot. Rhinos have very poor eyesight and when it walks towards a parked van,it takes exception and lunges at it. Just a warning this time though. I notice this rhino has a growth beneath it’s right eye and would later come to identify the same one in a totally different part of the Mara. Awesome experience as these rhinos are endangered.

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Our next sighting is a lioness under a bush with a morning kill. It’s difficult to get photos as vehicles are blocking my view and she keeps getting behind the leaves. But, eventually Dedan makes his move and I end up being the only one in position to get photos face-on. There’s vultures up in the nearby trees…waiting. In fact, during the morning we would come across several fresh kills being picked over by scavangers.

Moving on we come across the biggest mass of wildebeest I have seen so far. Dedan stops the van in the middle of the road and turns off the motor. 360 deg wildebeest !! What a sight. What a sound. Absolutely , totally amazing experience. This is what the migration is all about. I take photos and video but , looking back, they simply don’t do justice to the real event. Seeing is believing and we stay here for some time taking it all in.

We drive off towards the lodge and observe a herd of elephants drinking at a stream. There’s a cheeky baby and it comes closer with it’s truck in the air sniffing before running with ears flapping back to it’s mother.

In the afternoon we investigate an area of the Mara I haven’t yet been to. It’s tucked behind a hill and the valley is full of animals. It has a totally different perspective to the wide, open plains I usually see. There’s loads of zebras, buffalo herds grazing and chewing their cud, wildebeest….. I’m unaware at this point Dedan is looking for a leopard he has heard about on the radio. As usual he hasn’t said anything to me and is disappointed when it’s time to head back and he hasn’t found it. Maybe tomorrow…………. On the way back Dedan suddenly stops and, lying in the middle of the road, is a puff adder….my first ever sighting of a snake in Africa.

We’re leaving Sarova today so we have an early morning ..6.30am ..game drive. We have no sooner left the lodge and see a gathering of vehicles. On top of one of them is a cheetah. The hatchs are open and the tourists inside appear very nervous, although excited. One of them has his video camera pointed upwards on the cat while one of the women is hiding beside the seat. I chat to them later at the lodge and find they are from Australia and , now time has passed, they think it’s quite funny. The cheetah is surveying the territory and , a few minutes later, stands, stretchs and walks across the open hatchs and leaps onto another vehicle. The sun is just rising and I am able to position myself to get a silhoette photo. What a way to start the day !!

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There’s another lion kill before we head back for my last breakfast at Sarova. It’s time to pack my bag and check out. I go to the restaurant, bar and reception and say my goodbyes to all the wonderful people who have made my short stay so enjoyable. I tell them I will return……little did I know at that time that I would be back only three weeks later !!!!

We do a game drive enroute to my next accommodation…Ilkiliani Camp…arriving as planned for lunch. To get here we have come through the Talek Gate.This is a different concept and grading. My tent is right on the banks of the river this time. I’m told that baboons reside under a big tree nearby and often, if you’re very lucky, a leopard can be seen from the meal tent ,walking along the opposite bank . I don’t get to see it. In the afternoon we are back through the gate and in search of more wildlife. We are now in a different part of the Mara again. It’s quiter here again…like it was near Serena. But we get to see two hyenas hiding under some bushes out of the sun and more lions. This time sitting on a bank so a different vantage point for photos.

Our morning game drive is concentrated on following the Mara River and searching in thick trees looking for that elusive leopard. We haven’t seen one since getting to the Mara.Going in both directions and deep into the bushes…no luck even though this is prime habitat for a leopard.  We do see a pair of cheetahs , lions, ground hornhill and giraffes though.

The afternoon drive…..my final one in the Mara ( or so I thought ) we didn’t go through the gate but instead explored the surroundings elsewhere. Animals are still in abundance and the terrain is different again making the whole experience very interesting.

There’s a storm tonight….bless the rains in Africa.

My 8 days in the Mara comes to an end. Following the migration and witnessing the spectacle is an experience of a lifetime. The Mara holds an abundance of beauty …nature at it’s best. My stay at the lodges , and especially Sarova and it’s super friendly staff, have left lasting memories. But, my time here and my photographic opportunities would not have been achieved without the professionalism, dedication and experience of my driver/ guide Dedan.But, after all of this, he is disappointed that we didn’t find a leopard and I tell him, then , that there is unfinished business. I discuss plans with him to postpone my flight home and come back again. Life is too short.

I shall return………………..

The next chapter takes us on a two week journey around Kenya and a week in Mombasa.

Then hello again Mara.

To be continued………………..