A Kenyan safari

Published : Aug 24, 2012 00:00 IST

Conservation is a mission in Kenya, which strikes you as a continuous expanse of national parks.

recently in Kenya

THE long rains, as they say in Kenya, begin in March and go on until June, making man and beast rejoice at the birth of new life on parched earth. The seasonal rains may at times spell flood and misery for the people of Kenya, but for the millions of wildebeests, zebras and gazelles that troop from Serengeti in Tanzania to the plains of the Mara in Kenya, rain smells of food and water across man-made borders. And for tourists from across the world, it is the beginning of a grand spectacle the annual Great Migration and the drama on the savannah when predator meets prey.

A trip to the Amboseli National Park on the foothills of the Kilimanjaro, Africas highest mountain, seemed out of the question on account of the rain-ravaged roads in May, when we reached Nairobi. So the obvious choice was the Maasai Mara Reserve, the ultimate safari destination in Kenya and probably in all of Africa.

The Mara reserve is 270 kilometres from Nairobi, Kenyas capital situated 1,700 metres above sea level. It is a good five-hour drive from Nairobi along the Rift Valley escarpment and down the sleepy town of Narok in the plains. The well-maintained tarred road makes way for a gravel one since hooved animals can navigate them better as one enters the reserve area.

We pass many a cattle herd, each tended by a lone Maasai herdsman with his trademark brightly hued most often red cotton-wool blanket strung across his torso. The nomadic Maasais have pastoral rights in the Maasai Mara, which is why it is a reserve and not a national park.

The Maasais, speakers of the Maa dialect, are believed to have migrated south from the Nile region of northern Africa in the 15th century, and established themselves in the eastern region of Africa in the mid-17th century in what is modern-day Kenya and Tanzania. Before the colonial settlers came, they owned a vast territory from the Kilimanjaro to Baringo. Even the thriving capital of Nairobi, meaning a place of cool waters in the Maasai language, was a swamp that the Maasais did not attach much importance to until the British decided to establish a depot there for the Uganda-Mombasa railway in the early 20th century.

The Maasais, who resisted the British valiantly for several years during the colonisation of the country in the late 19th century, failed to get a fair deal when Kenya won independence in 1963. The post-Independence governments also did not grant them their due land rights. Today, they live on the periphery of mainstream Kenyan society, though access to education is slowly giving some of them an introduction to a better life.

For a Maasai, communal rights to property including of his wife prevailed. In fact, the communal land management system had made it convenient for the British to appropriate Maasai land. Not so long ago, a Maasai had to kill a lion to win a wife. Maasais are invariably tall, and can be recognised by the absence of one or two lower teeth, extracted without anaesthesia in early childhood as part of an initiation rite or to aid feeding in the event of diseases locking the jaw.

Each herd of cattle we come across consists of 50-100 head. A Maasai myth is that Ngai (god) gave them all the cattle in the world for safekeeping. Luckily for the wildlife, Maasais do not eat any meat other than that of their livestock.

Soon enough, we come across the first of the migrant herds zebras, wildebeests and gazelles. After the initial excitement of sighting a wildebeest for us until then a legendary creature sighted only on television channels we settle down to the routine of gazing at these early migrants.

The savannah has turned from a golden yellow to an emerald green, inviting the game to the stage. Endless tracts of land untouched by humanity show nature at its virgin best all for the earths so-called lesser beings.

The road bifurcates into more and more rugged territory. Our driver asks a Maasai herdsman in Swahili the language of much of eastern Africa the way to our destination. I get a close glimpse of his weapons a long-pointed spear, a sheathed knife, a staff, and a short blunt wooden club with a rounded top. With such weapons for defence, a Maasai has no reason to fear the big cats.

Maasai villages called manyattas and cattle sheds become visible closer to the reserve entrance as do the tented camps for budget tourists.

As we reach the gates of the reserve well past noon, shaven-headed Maasai women flock around the car and thrust Maasai artefacts and beaded jewellery inside. Two of them request a photograph. They check their faces on the camera and demand 100 shillings (1 rupee = 1.55 Kenyan shillings). Two people, 50 shillings each. The Maasais are unwittingly parading themselves or being paraded as showpieces, much like the exotic animals that satisfy tourists curiosity.

The first elephant herd at a distance sends the adrenaline pumping. They are bigger than their Indian cousins and have a convex back.

A pride of lions in a bush, with swarms of flies disturbing their afternoon siesta, is the next frame in our shot. To a lion, a car or a tent is as insurmountable as a rock, we are told, and we watch from the safety of our car.

A secretary bird by the roadside fixes its eagle-like eyes on us, tilting its head this way and that, and wanting us to move on.

Once inside Keekorok, the oldest lodge in the Mara reserve, one is advised to watch out for hippos after dark. Hippo encounters reportedly result in the largest number of deaths caused by animals every year in Africa.

Our chalet is the farthest away from the entrance and closer to a stream where hippos lie submerged in water the whole day. A narrow wooden bridge leads to the Hippo Bar on stilts, from where one can view the beasts.

But before that, there is more important sighting to do the big cats and the black rhinos before the sun sets on the Mara. Taking the services of Patrick, a Maasai hotel guide, in his traditional finery, we traverse the beaten path, and occasionally on paths freshly created by impatient and ambitious safari van drivers. The occasional African acacia stands like an umbrella in the setting sun.

And soon enough, we see a near traffic jam in the grassland caused by safari vans transporting Indian, Chinese and Western tourists all caused by a male lion resting in the tall grass unperturbed by the excited shrieks and flickering lenses. Chinese and Indian tourists now make up for the fall in the number of visitors from Kenyas traditional European markets. According to Kenya Tourist Board data, around 59,000 Indians visited the country in 2011.

The rhino proves elusive. Instead, herds of African buffaloes soon materialise in the fields on either side of the path with orange-beaked oxpeckers piggybacking them.

Dinner at the in-house restaurant offer a pleasant surprise a Maasai dance by a dozen Maasai men with Patrick blowing the horn. We fall asleep to the sound of hippos snorting in the darkness around the chalet.

By 6 a.m. the next day, most tourists are out on safari expeditions including the balloon safari braving the early morning chill. At an altitude of 1,500 m, Maasai Mara has quite a gentle weather throughout the year.

Patience is the key as one can drive around for miles without sighting any of the big cats. The tall grass does not make the quest any easier.

Three Maasai giraffes with darker patches than the endangered and captive-bred Rothschild giraffes we had come across earlier at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi stand nibbling at thorny acacias. Until they smell danger and begin running. For there in the grass sits a lioness, twitching her ears for the sound and smell of an easy prey. And quite like on Pride Rock of Lion King fame, we come across a pride on a cliff ledge basking in the early morning sun.

The Mara river is overflowing, and we have to skip a visit to the famous annual crossing site of ten million wildebeests. Unlike the ungulate visitors who risk drowning and crocodile attacks when they take to the waters, the lions take the bridge over the Mara river, Patrick tells us. The well-mannered, English-speaking Maasai, with a missing lower tooth, said he had accompanied his uncle and killed a lion when he was 12. Lion hunting is a coming-of-age ritual for Maasais.

As our vehicle navigates out of the reserve, a chartered plane ferrying tourists from Nairobis Wilson Airport makes a landing at the airstrip outside the lodge. I take back with me a microcosm of that African ecosystem, having established a deep primeval bond with the grazing animals that look up to see us go.

At Narok, we take a detour to Lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake in a string of saltwater lakes in the Great Rift Valley. It is also the highest located of the Rift Valley lakes. Floriculture thrives in the vicinity of the lake, depleting as well as polluting the lake water. Flowers exported from the farms owned mostly by Dutch, Israeli and Indian investors reach Europes markets early morning by flight.

Stopping for the night at a resort on the edge of the lake, a Ramsar site, we come across hippos, water bucks, an arboreal colobus monkey and many a winged visitor in the evening sky. There is the mandatory warning from the hotel staff to stay clear of grazing hippos at night.

In the morning, there is a visitor in the lawns a wildebeest. Not surprising as the Hells Gate National Park and the Crater Lake Game Sanctuary are close by. Kenya strikes you as one continuous expanse of national parks. Conservation is a mission here.

The purpose of our stopover is a boat ride to see flamingoes and hippos at close quarters, but we are advised to go to the nearby crater lake, Lake Oloidien, for a better flamingo experience. Lake Nakuru, the other Ramsar site that is a haven for flamingoes, does not permit boating.

Lake Oloidien, an alkaline lake cut off from Lake Naivasha by a small reserve forest, is 30 km away. The lake was connected to Lake Naivasha until 1979 when its water levels fell and it steadily went saline. Flamingoes began flocking to Oloidien in late 2006, shortly after the lake passed the salinity mark and began to produce a bacterium called spirulina (or the blue-green algae), the main food of the lesser flamingoes.

A colony of lesser flamingoes stands like a pink gateway to the waters. On the left is a small flock of greater flamingoes, with a paler plumage, and feeding on worms and crustaceans. Steve, our boat driver, informs that the birds shift to the centre of the lake at night to feed and escape predators like hyenas. The flock here is only the young, as the adults (over six years) have gone to Lake Bogoria in the northern Rift Valley to breed.

Blacksmith plovers, sunbirds and African pied wagtails flit in and out of water searching for insects on the water surface, while Egyptian geese, red-knobbed coots, white-breasted cormorants and cape teals assemble on a small sand bank below the woods where giraffes and zebras graze. The lake is also home to 225 hippos; each hippo family has five to 25 members.

On the way back is Happy Valley in the Naivasha area, where produce from Lord Delameres 40,000-hectare farm is available fresh and relatively cheap. The Delamere name has been synonymous with Kenya since Hugh Cholmondeley, an English aristocrat and adventurer, arrived in Kenya in 1903 and acquired Maasai land in the Rift Valley.

The dormant Mt Longonot, popular with trekkers, greets us again as we cross the Rift Valley and return to Nairobis evening rain and traffic jams.

The big money from tourism with revenues soaring from 74 billion shillings in 2010 to 98 billion shillings in 2011 has not gone towards improving existing infrastructure or the living standards of ordinary Kenyans. Cost of living is high, industrial production minimal, and government spending on health care and education wanting. Public transport is by way of matatus (private vans and mini buses), which charge exorbitant fares.

As opposed to the elite in their shining SUVs and stately, electric-fenced mansions, the less privileged in Nairobi many of whom have migrated from drought-prone areas in the north of the country and the poorer western provinces go about their day-to-day affairs with amazing stoicism. Warm and friendly as they are, Kenyans do not seem to have half the luck of the wildlife that they seek to protect.

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