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Masai Mara: Heart of The Wild Planet

Kenya is often called the greatest wildlife destination on Earth. Colours takes a self-drive safari into the Masai Mara and discovers a land of adventure with more drama than we’d bargained for.

Words and Photography by Mark Eveleigh

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The wildebeest swarmed down the riverbank in a tangled mass of legs and horns. We’d been watching them gather on the other side of the Mara River for almost an hour. Finally, under sheer force of numbers, the animals closest to the ridge were forced to jump and the stampede began.

It was impossible to estimate how many there were in this offshoot of the main migration, but our guide Joseph reckoned there were about 30,000 wildebeest splashing across the river and scrambling up the bank towards us.

They’d chosen one of the steepest parts of the riverbank. They cascaded over the 10m cliff in a drop that would surely have killed most horses, and I was horrified to think that a carnage of twisted and broken bodies would be left in the crocodile-infested water once the herd had passed through.

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I’d travelled in Kenya many times, but I had a reason for secretly hoping that this safari would be a little tamer than usual. Beside me, clinging to the rim of the open-top Land Rover, 10-year-old Lucia was gasping as a young calf slid helplessly towards the jaws of a giant crocodile. For a second I regretted that she was there to see this.

I’d wanted Lucia’s first safari to be a lifechanging experience, but I should have remembered that Kenya very often has a way of surpassing all expectations. Self-driving around the Kenyan bush can be challenging, but with a fully equipped 4×4 and enough time, it is a viable option for most people with a sense of adventure. With kids it pays to take things slowly, and her first few African days, staying at the lovely Nairobi Tented Camp, were a priceless learning experience for little Lucia. We taught her how to read the handheld GPS so that she was actively involved in the navigation rather than just being an uninvolved passenger. We showed her how to set up the roof-tent, mounted on top of the Land Rover like a tree-house, and how to keep it secured against the mischievous monkeys.

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We loaded the rented Land Rover Defender and drove south to Amboseli National Park, where Lucia was astounded by great herds of elephants and charmed by fat, waddling hippos. Her first sight of the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro, rising sheer out of the desert haze, was more spectacular even than the cinematic Lion King backdrops of her imagination. The land was dry and dusty, and the mini whirlwinds dancing between the lakes reminded Lucia of twirling ballerinas.

Lucia took to bush-camping like a natural, and when she woke with her hair wild and tangled – looking like Mowgli – she would talk excitedly about the lions we’d heard roaring in the night. Within a couple of days, the little city-girl was collecting firewood and preparing steaks for barbecue dinners.

Usually we drove ourselves in the parks, but when staying in lodges or tented camps we occasionally joined group safari vehicles to take advantage of trained local guides who knew exactly where to find the animals.

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When we saw our first lions, I spent more time watching Lucia, revelling in her gasps of awe, than I did watching the pride. At dusk a few evenings later, a lone male lion charged, with a great roar, towards our open-sided vehicle. It was a mock charge and he skidded to a halt just a few metres from us. I instinctively pulled Lucia down into the floor of the vehicle and received a verbal mauling for accidentally pulling her hair. “Anyway,” she said, “we could all see that he wasn’t really going to attack!”

It seemed that she was learning about Africa in a way that books or movies could never match.

Lucia had travelled enough in Asia not to be fazed by cultural differences, and I was pleased to see how easily she related to our Maasai guides, with their outlandish warrior regalia. In a few days she learnt how to shoot a bow and arrow, how to milk a goat and the basics of tracking wildlife.

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She had utter faith in Maasai bush skills. Sunrise one morning found us a couple of miles from our camp near the Masai Mara Reserve. We were walking with two Maasai warriors armed only with their heavy assegai spears. We’d been following the huge tracks of three lions that had walked that way in the early hours of the morning and we realised that, superimposed on the lion prints, were the pugmarks of a big leopard. “Chui kubwa sana,” whispered one of the guides – ‘a very big leopard’. The Mara and its surrounding conservancies boast the highest concentration of big cats in Africa. The local superpredators were at the forefront of my mind throughout what may have been the most invigorating morning stroll of my life, but when I asked Lucia at breakfast if she’d been nervous, she shrugged and explained that she knew that the guides wouldn’t actually let her get close to lions.

Our base at Porini Mara Camp, in Ol Kinyei Conservancy, combined all the fun of camping with the benefits of expert guiding, hearty dining and pristine (and uncrowded) wilderness. With other guests – some with kids – we spent long evenings chatting around the campfire, which Lucia was soon calling ‘the bush telly’.

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There are several initial decisions to be made in planning a Masai Mara safari, and the choice of location is probably the most important of all. Most first-time visitors imagine that the best experiences are to be had as close as possible to the heart of the great reserve, but the Mara is surrounded by Masai land which has been leased to safari operations. Since the park is unfenced, you often see just as much wildlife in these so-called wildlife conservancies as in the park itself and, at the same time, there is the added freedom of movement that you don’t have in the park. Early-morning walks through lion territory and long afternoon game drives (continuing into the dusky hunting hours for the big cats) are not allowed in the reserve itself. Ol Kinyei is within a short drive of the centre of the park, and so we spent an entire afternoon there, watching a group of young cubs tumbling and tussling in the savannah grasslands.

I’d narrowly missed seeing the migration on several previous trips, so this time, hoping to catch it in full flow, I enlisted the help of one of Porini’s ace guides to get us into the best position.

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After the dust had cleared on one of the most dramatic crossings of recent years, I was relieved that the sheer breathtaking violence was not matched by the body count. When the full herd had scrambled up the bank to trot onto the grasslands around our Land Rover, we counted just six dead wildebeest left in the water. The resident crocs were apparently so sated by the ‘moveable feast’ that is the Great Migration that they had summoned the energy to snatch only that single unfortunate calf.

By the time we returned to Nairobi, we’d driven 2,000km through some of the greatest wildlife territory in the world, and Lucia had had the adventure of a lifetime. Kenya had, once again, surpassed all expectations.

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From Colours April 2017

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5 Senses – Sight
LION SIGHTINGS

Catch your first lion sightings within 20 minutes of arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Nairobi Tented Camp – the only camp in Nairobi National Park – is one of Kenya’s best-kept secrets. Avoid the notorious city traffic jams and start your safari by making a bee-line straight into a wilderness boasting big cats, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, hippos and countless antelope.