Mesmeric Mara

Print edition : January 16, 2009

The savannah bathed in sunlight. The rolling grassland has an occasional tree.-CHITRA PADMANABHAN

IT was a pleasant morning in Nairobi. The southern hemisphere sky dipped deliciously the way it never does in our part of the world, studded as it is with impetuous cloudlets in pink, blue and mauve of Kanchipuram silk.

At a small airfield, we boarded a 50-odd-seater plane bound for the Masai Mara National Reserve in south-western Kenya, billed as Africas greatest wildlife experience, set amidst the savannah 1,500 metres above sea level.

Tall and loose-limbed Sammy, who drove us to the airfield, had assured us of unparalleled sightings from lions, leopards and cheetahs to hippopotamuses and tuskers.

Moreover, for us, like the many who visit the reserve in September and October, three days in an unfenced camp meant a ringside view of the worlds last great natural wonder the annual Great Migration of a million wildebeest, zebras and gazelles from Tanzanias Serengeti plains to the Masai Mara up north in their well-grounded conviction that the grass is greener on the other side.

A lion in the reserve.-SUMAN DUBEY

They come in waves, their numbers swollen by about 2,50,000 young ones, accomplished in an act of synchronised birthing perfected as a survival tactic of safety in numbers.

The herds follow moisture-laden winds from Serengeti to the Mara and back, perhaps scenting the sap of tender grass, hedging their chances against predators to renew the seasonal cycle of birth, and life. Ecosystems have a logic beyond territorial boundaries slashed across centuries of historys tragedies.

We would witness the human drama popularised by wildlife channels, of humungous herds skittishly crossing the Mara river for the gourmet plains beyond.

Nairobi to Mara, about 275 kilometres, was a 45-minute flight. Racing below us was a patchwork plain red, brown and beige, an occasional tree or woodland sprouting like rough stubble on an unshaven face, and Masai tribal villages looking like totemic circles.


The Masai people, a semi-nomadic tribe of pastoralists and warriors who speak the Maa language, had named the plains well mara means spotted. The Masais, who have a preference for red-hued clothing, had roamed the land before it was converted into a 1,500-square-km reserve. Finally, we landed in the middle of the savannah. An aerial view of the savannah is an act of observation, however ecstatic. To be in the midst of an ever-expanding universe anointed in streaming light, crisp air and a regal silence, is an experience drenched in sensuousness.

A tumultuous blue sky so low it tempted you to stand on tiptoe and touch it; a sweeping expanse of green and flaxen, half-lit, half in shadow; billowing clouds seemingly etched by an artist flaunting extravagantly bold strokes; an ocean of grass flaring into solitary trees turned pirouetting silhouettes in the horizon.

In the distance, serpentine lines of black specks contoured the undulating landscape like a running stitch wildebeest following their internal compasses. Panoramic vistas bestowed the eye with a sense of untrammelled power. It gave one the feeling that it was a potent universe. In the short, rattling journey to the camp, our driver-cum-guide Jacob, a jovial 40-year-old with shaven head, told us that lions often ambled to the airstrip and once had even punctured an aircraft tyre.

At every hip-dislocating bump, Jacob shouted happily that it was a free Masai Mara massage. He showed us the wildebeest up close: Made up of spare parts a buffalos horns, a cows face, a horses tail and a gazelles pace. Called gnus in Swahili for the sound they make, wildebeest have manes with the sheen of raw silk threads.

Turning off the main path called the lion highway into the camp, Jacob braked suddenly. A mother-son pair of African elephants with huge flapping ears walked across, taking no notice of us. Jacobs wisdom: When seated in a Land Rover, you do not get noticed, and then getting noticed is not a good idea.

Shaded by tall trees, the unfenced camp was perched along a meandering Mara river. We noted with awe the presence of half-submerged hippos and crocodiles in the river. Baboons bounded up the grassy slope. A hornbill went pi-pi-pi-pi.

A crocodile attacking a zebra in the river.-RADU SIGHETI/REUTERS

Were sightings that easy, we wondered.

Jambo [hello], said Bernard and Boniface of the camps kitchen cabinet. Asante [thank you], we chorused, blessing Sammy for having taught us three words in the national language Kiswahili jambo, asante and karibu (welcome) and the worth of an unencumbered smile as an impeccable means of communication.

Darrell, the camp manager, broke us in: the tents had no electricity, only lamps. In the common room, we could charge cellphones and camera batteries during a specific time bandwidth. There were early morning and afternoon jaunts. By dusk, we must return.

Guards with torches would walk us to our tents at night. Why run into hippos clambering up for their nightly savannah grass feed or a peregrinating elephant herd? Once zipped in, we should think nothing of the lions roar.

The camp provided a pulley bucket shower a bucket encased in a sheath, shower sticking out at the bottom, and with two chains, one to release the flow, the other to stop it.

We soon headed out for our first outing. The sheer sense of space was mesmeric. Framed against a behemoth landscape, the trees had character, shaped by the wind a slant here, a twist there, so similar yet so distinct.

A bird flew alongside, keeping pace with us. Forty kilometres per hour, shouted Jacob. Hundreds of wildebeest and zebras grazed intently, silently. A toppi (antelope) stood as if on guard.

Beside a sparse tree stood a motionless giraffe, like a giant cut-out. A male ostrich spread its splendid plumage before a female in an unsuccessful dance of desire. An impala with a harem of 60 walked past soundlessly.

Following Jacobs instinct, we caught our first simba in a thicket an old lion on frail haunches breathing spasmodically, with a wildebeests carcass beside it. Sleeping like a doggie, remarked Jacob, informing us that a lion can eat 45 kilograms of wildebeest flesh in one sitting, and a lioness 27 kg.

Suddenly, and dramatically, the sky darkened. A bolt of savannah lightning is a formidable experience. In the stinging downpour that followed, hundreds of zebras stood as if turned to stone. Just as suddenly, the rain stopped. Shafts of sunlight transformed the plain into an incandescent Van Gogh work. Kilometres away, the misty landscape seemed like a magical frame from an Akira Kurosawa movie. Artists surely learn the principles of light and shade from nature.

The savannah had a washed look; a wet elephant herd had turned dark from grey. When I get wet, I also become black, confided Jacob. Interpreting our politically correct silence, he explained, Now Im chocolate.

As a pink blush swept the sky, we turned back, accompanied by warthogs. It was a starless night.


Silence, alert stillness, and economy of movement characterised the savannah . There was nothing profligate there.

The drive over, Jacob went off for his dinner of potato, meat and one bee-ah. We tuned to bush television the camp fire and stories. Darrell mused about his home lost in Zimbabwes turmoil, and so on.

Whether it was the osmotic absorption of our tactile surroundings or the pleasure of rediscovering our faculties of sight and smell, we slept well. How easily we got into the rhythm of day and night like the animals!

Next morning, after an exhilarating bucket shower, we set out under an ashes-and-roses sky. The grass was moist, while the roads had become rain-fed ponds. Caps and jackets had come out.

Our guide, soft-spoken Mohammad Nur Sheikh, was one who had imbibed the savannahs stillness. On the lion highway, we stumbled upon a big cat feast on a wildebeest. Two lionesses licked each other, tails raised high.

A cheetah in the reserve.-SUMAN DUBEY

Only siblings do that, said Mohammad. A cub made off with a carcass leg and was chased by seven siblings.

Observing a ballooning crowd of scavenging vultures, marabou storks and jackals, one of the lionesses clamped the carcass in her jaws, dragged it towards the cubs and nudged them as if to say, polish it off. We heard the crunch of sharp teeth biting into ribs.

The big cats had an undeniably hypnotic effect on us, with their rippling muscles, feline grace and complete disdain for human spectators. They were from the Billa Shaka pride comprising one papa, four mamas and eight cubs; the prides Kiswahili name, meaning without doubt, betrayed its Urdu origin. Words of Arabic and Urdu origin in Kiswahili reflects the historical influx of Arabs and Indians along the coast. Everything has a history, even a lion prides name in a seemingly eternal and natural ecosystem.

Leaving the cats, we went on an o-lo-lo-lo (Kiswahili for zigzag) ride, towards a popular Mara crossing site, driving west of the Rift Valley, with its volcanic hills going all the way to Serengeti.

At 9 a.m. the sun came out. The valley lit up, like 100,000 bulbs switched on at once. We spotted a leopard a girl with a beautiful face in the grass. Two laughing hyenas walked past. Their powerful jaws can crush bones like no other animals; in a pack, they can bring down a wildebeest. Petite Thomsons gazelles and Grants gazelles in white, rust and brown grazed close by; the former is the cheetahs favourite food.

Several bends on the road later, we reached the Mara river. On one rock basked two crocodiles and a pink baby hippo, its watchful mama nearby. Six hippos stood like statues on land. A secretary bird, with its quill-like plume, minced past (in fact it gets its name from the crest of long feathers at the back of its head that look like the quill pens 19th-century clerks used to tuck behind their ears). Vultures sat wings spread out.

An awful stench arose from the bloated bodies of wildebeest floating past. The crossings suffer about 15 per cent casualties, Mohammad remarked. Fifteen Land Rovers and four tourist buses waited as about 800 nervy wildebeest, sans a clear leader, anxiously milled around.

Mohammad explained, Some say wildebeest are stupid. But if they know where they are coming from and where they are going, covering 1,000 km, theyre not stupid.

A wildebeest up close.-SUMAN DUBEY

Once, the explosion of revving vehicles startled the herd into frantic retreat. Our presence seemed a terrible intrusion. As the animals dithered, we wanted them to make up their minds fast and play out an epic spectacle for the camera.

Two hours later, under a hot sun the animals regrouped. One jumped and the rest flung themselves after it, their nervous cries renting the air.

The river became a tangle of heads and legs trying to overcome the current. A boy crooned bon appetit to the crocodiles. Two baby wildebeest were swept away.

The fuchsia-tinted evening sky calmed us somewhat. Atop a mound a lioness lay on her back, hind leg raised, front paw tucked in contentedly. The other three Billa Shaka mamas too were supine.

When not hungry, lions can sleep almost all day. Very lazy, they are, said Mohammad.

A hero of elephants in an ocean of grass.-SUMAN DUBEY

When the head of the food chain is languorous, it communicates down the line, even to the spectators.

On day three, as the sun changed hue from neon pink to orange, 30 of us in six vehicles parked on the airstrip alongside a sign saying Its a serious offence to drive on runway saw the majestic Billa Shaka lion king urinate on our vehicles to mark his territory, and give barely a minute to the eight cubs he had sired before flopping on the grass to sleep.

Driving to cheetah country, where the grass was whiter and longer, we discovered three fast-breathing beauties with silken bodies under a gardenia tree. Watching them walk almost in sync reminded one of Daniel Day-Lewis swagger in the 2002 thriller Gangs of New York. Strange, in cities we compare humans to animals; here it was the opposite. Unplanned, we came upon a thousand composed wildebeest at a secluded site away from the flashbulbs, making the crossing the natural event it is.

Dusk brought high drama. The mornings lion king woke up with a roar. Near the airstrip, Mama simba with her cubs grunted. Her man started walking towards her; many wove a Bollywood romance. But two steps later, he dropped to the ground and went off to sleep. Evidently, lions are not the family type.

Hippos out of the river to feed on the grass.-CHITRA PADMANABHAN

The lion highway was deserted when we bid goodbye to the savannah and the blue mountains the next morning.

A TOPPI, AN antelope, with its fawn.-LASZLO BALOGH/REUTERS

As we squeezed into the cramped 12-seater plane, the soul revolted. Not this after the savannah! But even as the real world gradually claimed our attention, we realised that something had changed forever. We were carrying the ever-expanding vastness of the savannah inside us, like a buoy. Like a talisman.

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