Aakash Mehrotra is moved by the migration of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles from Serengeti, Tanzania to Masai Mara, Kenya.
From our camp we could watch baby hippos splash and swill in the waters, while the adults watched us with suspicion. It was only when Leena said “What if hippos come this way to graze?” that we realized; we were way too near the mighty hippos. And in Africa, you don’t mess with the hippos. We shifted, to a safer place, with the researchers of Hyena Research Centre as our neighbours; and practically in the territory of the hyenas. We again smiled at our choice, but our experienced Masai guide James was convinced. I wasn’t totally blasé, but my kicks were coming from the magnificent landscape of Mara; for miles you can watch herbivores grazing and imagine the carnivores hidden in tall grass, looking for some careless prey. Mara grasslands roll towards the horizon with only some occasional Acacia trees or bush to break the view. It is the quintessential African landscape.
We drove through huge herds of wildebeests and zebras, grazing in a seemingly careless fashion. I am sure hundreds of pairs of eyes and ears are difficult to beat and that probably makes the big cats and the hyenas wait for the night, when at least one of the sense organs proves helpless – ah, a little perhaps. We moved forward, with an intention to watch a migration happening. A group of wildebeest and zebra had assembled at a point. Surely, this cyclical movement of these herbivores from the depleted fields of Serengeti to the rich grass of Masai Mara is a treat to watch. In one season over two million wildebeest, about a million zebras and an equal number of Thompson Gazelle cross over to Masai Mara from Serengeti in search of greener grass and when the fields of Serengeti get ready, they make a reverse journey. Watching these animals cross the river under an impulse, bracing the threat of crocodiles in the river, is a call to action. And that could easily be assessed from the number of vehicles there to watch the huge group gathered on the other side. But coming together of a group and crossing are two different things. Zebras would go down to the river in a group of two or three to assess the waters and could go back after quenching their thirst.
I was finding it difficult to hold my patience after a wait of fifteen minutes. Around me were wildlife enthusiasts from around the world, ready with their pocket sized to telescope sized cameras to catch the action in their frame. Our guide James smiled and whispered “You can never predict what’s going on in their mind. The migration might start the next minute or they might wait for another day or days.” We moved on, feeling more desperate. I had hardly seen anything feline by this time and my expectations had started tempering down. Even a cursory glance is a blessing. James paused, moved his head to a side, almost pricking his ear. The signs were clear: hyenas whooping, means a hunt or an attack.
“We will follow this call, we might get to see a face-off between lions and hyenas.” James announced, much to my pleasure. A standoff, you can’t ask for more. On our way, we came across numerous antelopes, with heads down, trudging towards a horizon’s promise. Next fifteen minutes and we were there – a pride of four young lions and two lionesses had hunted down a zebra and a group of sixteen hyenas around them, whooping and crying to irritate the pride. Six to sixteen is a bad ratio, the game was with the lions and they knew it. James told me that a lioness can stand four hyenas and a lion six. So to defeat a pride of six, hyenas probably needed another eight in their team. They had, by then finished with filling their bellies but were reluctant to leave the remains for the hyenas. James swung the car off the track, so that we were right in the middle of the action pitch. One lion dazedly lifted his head, wrinkled his nose and sniffed the air and then shifted his fiery gaze to us. One greedy hyena made a dire attempt, but was punched back mercilessly by the reluctant lions. The hyenas were now more cautious. Two of the lions, heaved themselves up and padded away. Hyenas had taken to a side by then, probably waiting in the shade for lions to retreat. “This will probably continue till evening. Lions are up to their belly and will most likely rest than move. In that case hyenas will have to wait or go for another hunt, you never know, the migration is on and there is no paucity of hunt.” James said.
As James felt the best, we drove towards the Kenya-Tanzania border or the extreme end of the Mara triangle, to try our chances of witnessing a migration. Soon the landscape started changing, the undulating landscape of Mara was gradually turning flatter. “Do you notice the change in size of grass and colour here?” James asked, almost like a pop-up quiz.
The grass was shorter and yellower, technically coarser. We were entering the Serengeti plains and the change in vegetation was palpable. And then we entered the fields to witness, possibly, the biggest animal fair of my life. The dry, flat plains were bubbling with life. There were possibly, thousands or millions of wildebeest and zebras grazing on the tableland, undoubtedly, till the point eyes could reach. The noisy, distracting wildebeest had turned the most beautiful thing on planet. Seeing such a huge herd, inspired us further, to set off to watch a migration happening. And it requires you to hop from one probable spot, wait to see some action and then to the other. Three hops and we were at a spot, where an unimaginably huge herd of wildebeest and zebras had gathered. But migration is unpredictable. One moment the wildebeest and zebras are munching on grass on one side of the river. And the next, seized by a switch of some collective brains, thousands make a mad dash to cross the river. And this uncertainty is equally responded by travellers on both sides of the river. One moment, there is a long grin of wait of several hours and the next, all the human souls get active with their cameras to capture this rare moment.
And then the migration started. Some random wildebeest jumped in the water and triggered the event. And then the zebras joined. The muddy water was teeming with hungry crocodiles, waiting to snap these beasts. It was all in a dramatic frenzy, columns of panicked wildebeests leapt into the water to battle across and crocodiles swiftly darted to get a chance to snap a beast. For next thirty minutes, everything seemed to have got stalled to witness this migration. And then, as explicably as it began, it stopped. It stopped me too. I was moved, my spirit had moved. On our side, a lone wildebeest calf mooed, his mother was on the other side. It mooed for its mother and then decided to cross back, to meet his mother. I had witnessed a ‘circle of life’ and an existence of a force called ‘love’, which made that young calf, cross the turbulent waters again. As we took a reverse turn, all thoughts evaporated. These thirty minutes had taught me the meaning of ‘life’. We were returning to our camp site, now no one anticipated or wished anything more. These two days of camping had given us countless moments to take with us as memories. I looked back to take an eyeful of the place, I had itched memories on those rocks, the tall grasses and the wrongly strutted acacia trees. I am sure, I will come back for it, could be next year, or the next, but surely someday.
Planning an epic journey to Masai Mara
Being in Mara is like reading an amazingly written script, every turn has a new tale. No doubt, Mara is the most spectacular experience one can have, it’s like an anchor dropping to the other world, the world more engaging than ours. Most travelers want an engaging interaction with the wild world, but end up in hotels and resorts, only to come out for the game drives. That’s not my way of seeing this world. You can always choose to camp (choice I prefer), with a team of armed guides or just do solo camping in Mara. All you need is careful planning, a sense of adventure and local knowledge to sleep a romantic sleep with the lions. And all it takes is an extra $30 on your park fees ($70 for foreign nationals). Get a good camping gear (endless options in Nairobi), set up a camp (forest guides will guide you to the designated camping places) and as night descends, fuel your fire, watch the starry night, prepare your barbecue and talk about the next day’s routes. And as night advances and shadows become long and creepy, the sounds from the jungle would amplify and the feeling of not being alone will set in.
The Great Migration: Indisputably the best time to be here. Some four million zebras, wildebeest and antelopes cross the Mara River from the plains of Serengeti to Masai Mara from July to September in search of greener pastures, making it the most watched animal migration in the world. Have patience, try your luck, witnessing migration isn’t as easy as it sounds. I know travellers who have been to Mara six seven times to witness this treat.
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