After 6 hours of riding across the vast savanna, I was getting so high on Maasai Mara. It must have been around 12pm but time in the wild is counted by the sun only. We were all contemplating in silence those fields as our minds were processing the images we’ve fed them so far. Too much to believe. The dream that brought us all to Kenya was happening, we were living it.
As the dust was a provocation we thought we got used to, the next level was quite annoying: the flies. First 2-3 of them and seconds after they were everywhere. In our eyes, ears, mouths and no techniques we used would discourage those kamikaze. Then came the odour… We understood soon why all these: the golden fields of the savanna turned dark. Thousands of wilderbeasts were occupying Mara as far as we could see. Zebras were joining the party in much small numbers, like black and white spots on that paint. I have never seen so many wild animals in one place and never thought this could be even possible in the wild.
– There! This is the Great Migration, I heard Richard, our driver and guide saying. And my thought completed his words: …and this is why is called one of nature’s greatest shows of Earth.
We finally arrived to the river, this ground 0 spot of the Great Migration from Serengeti to Maasai Mara, one huge national park split between Tanzania and Kenya. Here, down the hill, we escaped the flies and the smell. I instantly recognised the place as if I was there before multiple times. The deja-vu feel was caused by the mind-blowing images in National Geographic where hundreds of wildebeasts were rushing into the river into a cloud of dust and death as many of them got straight into the jaws of hungry crocodiles waiting down there for their Migration festive meal. We stopped a few meters close to the edge and wait. All the other people in all the other jeeps and vans were playing the same game: waiting for a river crossing. To feed our rush for excitement and our primary instinct for kill. A crazy game I got myself dragged into during those days in Africa. Though I condemn violence in all its forms, I was surprised and ashamed to realise I also joined the club into that thirst of blood, of kill. Somehow… there it seems justified, on that primordial movie set where life and death meet in the most natural form: the kill to survive.
5am – start of a great day
Terrible night! Though I was exhausted, I’ve barely slept. The noises all around I couldn’t identify played like riddles all night long, the suffocating smell from all my 8 mosquito repellent I used before sleep, the feeling that there was someone inside my tent that made me jump out of sleep, the unexplainable real sensation that someone touched my shoulder at one point… and in the end the morning chill that woke me up.
I used my phone in the dark to find the opening in the mosquito net of the bed and rapidly reach the light switch on the wooden wall separating the tent from the bathroom built behind it, with an open roof. Well, at least I slept in fresh air… I then checked the zipper of the tent, with no lock, the only thing separating me from the outside that night…
As there was no other furniture, I used the second bed, which was empty, instead of table, chair and closed. And started to dance. The mosquito proof dance which meant that any time significant areas of my skin were left uncovered or unsprayed with insects repellent, I had o move a lot. On the shower or on the toilet, I wouldn’t stop “dancing”.
I finally put on a lot of clothes and I completed my declaration of style for that safari morning with sox and sandals. Too cold to care: 10C. Yes, Africa, exactly! Not that hot as a European might think.
At breakfast I found out half of my safari buddies had also endured a bad sleep while the other half slept like babies. But we had a whole day safari in Maasai Mara ahead of us and that was the best thing in the world in that morning at the end of August.
– Haaaa, did you hear the hyenas last night: eeww, eewwww, eeewwwww. That was Richard’s good morning….
I exchanged frightened looks with Ariadna, the Venezuelan woman in our group.
It was 6am when we left the camp, following other jeeps, heading towards the sunrise spot in the horizon. The sky was in flames, the safari day was starting. What a great feeling!
In the first hour we saw a cheetah, two lions wandering around in the distance, probably preparing for a hunt, hundreds of wildebeasts, of zebras and Thompson’s gazelles, an ostrich male, warthogs, buffalos…
We drove further until there were no other jeeps in sight. On top of a hill we met a family of giraffes formed of more then 15 members, including 3 calves. We stopped the van and observed them for some time from just a few meters distance. They were so calm and quiet, moving slowly from one acacia tree to another, curling their long tongues around the big thorns on the branches to reach those tinny leaves, spreading their long legs and bending their necks all the way down, to reach the grass. In this position in which they look soo hilarious, like some clumsy gymnasts, we’ve learned that they are the most vulnerable towards predators. They only do it when they feel safe. Otherwise, their kick can kill a lion on the spot. Such a majestic creation they are.
The next live performance was “acted” by a group of 10 elephants, mothers and their calves. Their society works like this: the males are solitary while females live in large groups lead by a female leader. Richard broke the rules and got us off the track for a few meters, bringing us so close to them until we could even see their eyelashes. He stopped the engine again and we observed them in complete silence. Time was paused for all of us there, turning seconds and minutes into frames and memories made to last all our existence. At times they looked straight to us, peacefully, rising their massive heads to just check on their new visitors. What could they be thinking about us?
A massive buffalo was approaching fast from the other side of the field, looking not so happy to have human spectators at that early hour, so we had to leave in order to avoid getting dangerously close to the one who’s reputation is of being the deadliest animal in Africa.
I couldn’t stop thinking: is our presence there right? In the wild, in their world, as little as we left of it to them. It is intrusive, to call it straight. I felt it often there, during those 7 days of safari, in many situations. Sometimes big predators as lions or cheetahs have to change their hunt plan just because 10 jeeps filled with curious humans got in their way to take some photos or make loud excitement noises. In the savannah reality, us, humans, with all our reactions, devices, cameras with huge lenses, we no longer look as the one specie that has evolved so much… It’s somehow a funny scene and we look dumb.
But in spite of all this interference, the fact that we are intrusive there, it’s a compromise that is digestible up to one point: all animals there are free, they can hunt, eat, fight, mate, wander, sleep, raise their offsprings as they please. They have adapted to this human presence. It’s common to watch hunt scenes taking place a few meters away from safari jeeps or see lions from very few meters distance, as we did later that day. I won’t believe it unless I lived it: two young male lions, sleeping next to a bush, for a little shade in that hot afternoon, ignoring completely the jeeps filled with people, moving in circles around them.
Still, everybody is that calm and that safe only as long as humans stay in the jeep. It’s totally prohibited to step off the car during a safari. We once saw a lion suddenly changing its direction just because he felt a human was on the ground at more then 500m distance. One safari guide had troubles with its car and had to check it for a few seconds. For us, the only times we walked on the fields of Maasai Mara were for those nature calls that really demand it: a visit in the bushes. Always on higher ground, chosen carefully by Richard. Peeing in the wildest wild, after you just saw what can get you, is really something to laugh about. After…
Picnic in the savannah
We left the river site where no crossing seemed to be in plan for the next hour to look for a quiet and safe place to have our lunch. After a few tries nothing seemed good enough for our Richard. We were all hungry… Then we saw it, this huge acacia lonely tree in the middle of a field with tall golden grass where a heard of zebras were enjoying the fiesta. The ideal place. We stepped off the car, walked around a little, breathe that hot dry air then laid down under our tree and had the best picnic in the world, watching the zebras nearby. Happiness is made of moments like this.
To cross or not to cross
By the river we occupied again a still vacant spot close to the edge and joined the waiting ritual. Thousands of wilderbeasts were turning the horizon dark, some part of large groups, others marching in long lines one after another, in a perfect rhythm. A group of hypos were relaxing on a sand bank by the river.
A few crocodiles raising their heads above the muddy water from time to time. By that river that day every living creature was waiting: the wilderbeasts for one of them to have the courage to initiate a crossing so they all can follow, the zebras for the wilderbeasts to go first, a strategy they ofter apply, the crocodiles for their opportunistic fresh meal and the people to see some action and witness how animals are being killed on the spot, without them feeling guilty for it.
I’ve noticed a group of zebras moving a lot, going back and forth around the edge, approaching then distancing, forming a circle and making a lot of noise. They looked as if they were up so something but keep changing their minds. I started paying attention, they wanted to cross the other side. A few others seemed to be calling them from the other side with noises and moves close to the edge on their side. It was an unbelievable scene: they wanted to cross but were afraid.
A larger group of wilderbeasts was forming close to the edge as well. A few times one of them was rushing up to the edge, but then suddenly stopped, coming back slowly and discouraged. It’s how the crossings happen during the great migration, it all starts with one crazy fella that starts running out of the blue towards the edge and all of a sudden hundreds, thousands follow into the river. Some broke legs, some are drowning, many are hurt by the crowds crossing over them while a few get eaten by the crocodiles. But most of them, around 2 millions, survive and so they complete a journey meant to bring them from Serengeti to Mara where in that time of the year the grass is greener. They do this journey every year, facing death in the face and pursuing with living.
Every time a wilderbeast was getting closer to the edge, we stopped breathing. Time stopped and all eyes were in that direction, cameras were ready… but nothing happened.
The only ones who seemed that were having a plan were those zebras. After many hesitations, “talks and argues” and calls from their friends on the other side, they finally rushed to the edge of the river and started the descend. Down there they analysed wisely which is the best spot to cross and finally they got into the water, did it and got away with it. All got alive on the other side, welcomed by the ones there who were watching their crossing all this time, in silence. Their victory was enjoyed on our side too, with applauses.
And that was the only crossing I got to see. I left Mara the next day to continue my trip to Amboseli. A few days later a Russian woman joined our group, what was left of it after we started splitting. She showed me photos with the crossing that took place the very next day. Well, as I like to say: it is what it is and what should happen happens.
Richard was talking the whole time on his satellite phone to other guides. He seemed to know everybody we met and by the afternoon of that day we even got convinced he also knew all the lions in Mara. He was laughing and enjoying each time we were telling him this.
Only this time he was getting agitated and pushed the acceleration until our old white van seemed to be on a race of tearing itself apart on the bumpy tracks of Mara. We got to a small river and almost got stocked there in the mud. He won’s say a word about why all this. We arrived in an area with trees when he finally slowed down. From a few meters away I saw the sleeping beauty of the savannah: high in a tall tree, on a large brunch in the shade was laying a gorgeous leopard. Around it jeeps, people, cameras, photographers. Nothing could bother its sleep.
A few minutes after, as we were all charmed by its beauty, he woke up, turned its head towards us, open its eyes with the wildest and coolest gaze I lived to see, yawn showing its jaws and fell back to sleep. The show was over. We had 4 of the big 5: lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard.
Richard tried to start the engine so we could move. Nothing, just a little engine cough. He tries again. Ups! Nothing. There couldn’t be a better moment for an engine to stop working then sitting under a tree with a wild leopard, a naturally born killing creature.
– Now who’s gonna push the car? He looked towards us and we stopped laughing instantly.
He was just having fun with us. He started laughing seeing our confused faces. Another jeep approached us from the back, pushed us until finally our engine started. We left the leopard sleeping and as soon as we got far enough our little adventure turned into loud laughs. We felt drained of every drop of energy. 12h were coming to an end and the sun was kissing the horizon again, preparing for a savannah sunset. We were dusty, exhausted, every cell of my body hurt but I was so absofuckinglutelly happy.
I took a shower being grateful for this gift in the middle of those dry lands. When I got out I thought I heard something which I didn’t wanna believe was true: my whole tent was conquered by a zzzzz-ing. Mosquitos were everywhere! It was getting dark and as the generators were not yet on, I had no light but I thought I saw something flying around inside the tent. Was not an impression. Was a bat… So reality was like this: a tent filled with mosquitos and a bat flying freely inside. I had no malaria pills but bats eat mosquitos. What could I do… I took my tusker beer bought by Hosea, my driver in Nairobi and left the tent to join my new friends and end a great day with a great evening. Thank you Kenya!
PS: that night I slept like a leopard
An animal was killed every 3 minutes by trophy hunters over the last decade. 1.7 million animals perished like this. An industry worth 340M every year. (Euronews)
Once among the world’s most iconic hunting destinations, Kenya has had a national ban on trophy hunting since 1977. But poaching still exists, in spite all efforts, everywhere where “trophies” are still alive. I can’t stop wonder one thing: how is it possible to see those animals in the wild and the only urge that comes out of all this is to kill, to destroy.