The Circle of Life: Mara

How many places there are on our planet that just force you to think “fantastic”, “unreal”, “unearthly”! Be it endless sands of a desert, black volcanic ground, or unmerciful, shining and blinding snow of mountain ranges – sometimes it is hard to believe that all of these actually belong in our world.

But today I would like to tell you about the most earthly world. With its wide rivers, green plains and forests full of life, and a dome of sky covered with perfect clouds, this place is the real Garden of Eden from which, for some reason, humans have banished themselves.

This post is about the second part of my safari adventure in Kenya. The first part – about the desert region of Samburu – can be found right here.

Arrival

So, a small flying bus brought us from the desert…

To the very heart of savanna.

During descent, I could not help but noticed an astonishing number of animals everywhere. Herds of antelope, zebra, and giraffe were roaming right next to the airstrip.

Having landed, we tossed our backpacks into the truck and directly set off for a game drive. To both sides we were constantly surrounded by hundreds of various antelopes.

Suddenly we heard the sound of trees being destroyed nearby, and we had to drive all around the bush to find the source of the noise:

Note the tusks! This elephant is a male which you can notice by how strong and long they are. Compare to a female:

The midday has long passed, and our guide brought us to the riverside of Mara – the famous Kenyan river which gave the name to all surrounding areas. It was time to have lunch.

To our suprise, soon the calm and smooth surface of the water was disturbed by many dark dots. The river that seemed empty just a moment ago turned out to be a home for a huge family of hippos.

In no hurry we enjoyed our food and admired the animals. Nothing was to interrupt the peace of the scene. It was hard to believe that Mara doesn’t always look so idyllic. In August and September this river becomes a theater for the most impressive show on Earth – the Great Migration – when millions of zebras and wildebeest are trying to get from Serengeti, Tanzania, into Mara. For that they have to cross this river teeming with crocodiles, and about a quarter of them will never make it to the endless plains of Mara covered with thick high grass.

Unfortunately, by the time we got to Mara the Migration was over, and all (surviving) wildebeest were already there. These ugly guys:

After the lunch, on our way to the camp, we were lucky to see a hippo out of the water. While in the river, it is very hard to actually realize just how gigantic they are. You can mostly see the head which is disproportionally small compared to the enormous body.

At some point our guide drove the car into the bush and stopped. Apparently, we were already in the Saruni Wild camp, but it was extremely hard to spot the tents in these thickets. Most of the camps in Mara are designed to blend in with the environment, and an untrained eye will easily miss them amidst the bush.

To be honest, this is not what I expected from a “tented camp”.

We even had a shower, but… a bucket shower. To be able to clean yourself, you have to arrange a time with the camp employees so that they know when to heat water and fill the bucket. And while you are in the shower, they will constantly ask you questions like whether you like the temperature or if you are done…

There was no internet or even electricity in the tent to ruin the atmosphere of the wild.

In the evening we went outside for sundowners and yet another breathtaking sunset.

Suddenly we were startled by loud cries from behind the bush that resembled animal scream. To our relief, this turned out to be just a traditional dance of Masai people that arrived from their village to greet us and give us a show.

This was very cool and touching, and we kept really warm memories of this event.

The Predators of Mara

It was unexpectedly cold in Mara. One of the reasons for that is a strong wind with nothing to stop it in these open plains. Another reason is that Mara is actually a large plateau at an altitude of 2000m above the sea level. To fight off the cold, we always received a hot water bottle into our bed for the night, and the guides always wore many layers of clothes and blankets in the morning.

Like everywhere in Kenya, in Mara safari is usually split into a morning and an afternoon game drives.

Mara is a great place to watch lions and learn about them. They are just like our domestic cats! They sleep almost the entire day:

Cuddle when it’s cold:

Play and then get mad at each other:

But it was hyena that actually surprised me. Our common culture normally considers hyena stupid and wicked creatures but they are actually very smart and social. Their eyes reflect their intelligence, just like a dog’s eyes, only they are not kind, wild eyes.

When a hyena has managed to get its paws on an antelope (or a part of one) it must consume it as fast as possible.

If the hyena is not fast enough and a lion finds it dining, the smaller animal will have to give up its lunch.

Even multiple hyenas are not going to fight a lion, even if it is just a single and not very strong teenager.

In general, I found lion behavior quite disappointing. At first you think, this is a noble beast, the king of all animals, right?

But they actually treat other species and each other like real jerks, and alpha males are the worst. For example, take a look at this male lion that uses a half-eaten warthog as a pillow to sleep. His pride is in the bush a few meters away. The lionesses are not able to sleep because of hunger despite actually catching the warthog. If they try to steal the body, the alpha will not hesitate to attack. Even though he is not hungry anymore, the hunters will not get a single piece. He is punishing them for catching but a single small animal: bring a more substantial kill, and you might get a chance to eat…

In between the game drives we went for a walk in the savanna. The green carpet of grass is paved with remains of unlucky antelopes. The most common find is horns – looks like it is the only part that hyenas are not able to chew on.

At the slightest sight of us, even the scary wildebeest scattered around. Millions of years of cohabiting this land with humans taught them that one just does not mess with the bipedal monkeys.

After lunch it was time to drive out again. Again, we saw limitless green plains and distinct shapes of animals on the horizon. Watching this simple and monotonous view became a sort of meditation, and the flow of time seemed to have stopped.

Wonderful giraffes would pose for us just as they saw us (by far the most photogenic animal):

By the way, can you find difference between this Masai giraffe and the recitulated giraffe of Samburu?

And when we saw these guys it became crystal clear: somewhere around someone is eating someone. Vultures and Marabou storks are two of the “ugly five” of Africa along with hyena, warthog, and wildebeest.

In a bush nearby we indeed found a hero mother: this female cheetah hunted an impala for her six (!) cubs. As the kids were obviously having fun tearing the poor antelope apart, she scanned the surroundings to make sure there is no danger such as lions or hyenas.

After a return to the camp and a break we were awaited by a delightful sunset, a burning campfire, and a glass of wine before the dinner.

Saying goodbye

The next morning we asked our guide if we can see a rhino. Fortunately, it is really easy to find them in Mara North. There are only two rhinos, but they are constantly watched and protected by armed guards. All you need to do to meet these giants is to call one of the rangers and learn where they are at the moment. Sounds like a deal!

On the way to the rhinos we ran into a herd of buffalo. Unlike antelopes which watched the truck with caution and were always ready to run away, the buffalos seemed to not give a damn about our approach. On the contrary, they looked at us in a way that very explicitly let us know that a slightest threat from our side will trigger a charged attack on us of the entire herd.

Finally, we made our way to the rhinos!

With a ranger’s help, we were able to walk just in a few meters from the animal. No picture will give you this feeling of standing next to this living mountain of muscles and thick rough skin.

Soo… elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino… wait, don’t they call it “the Big Five”? Right… This is our last day, and we still have not seen a leopard!

The rest of the day we searched for the elusive big cat. We circled around the thickets next to the river trying to notice its elegant body in between leaves and branches, all to no avail. Where are you, leopard?

Hey, there is someone spotted over there…

That’s not it. Maybe there?

So now you can see how desperate we were!

In the end, no miracle happened, and we had to pack our things having met only four of the Big Five. But the savanna was still there, as were all the other animals, as were the magical sunsets.

In the morning we made the last circle to find that leopard… And we all remember, right? A cheetah is almost like a leopard =) Maybe two cheetahs will count as one?

Still… it’s time to go home. A family of giraffes vere the ambassadors of Mara to say goodbye to us as we loaded our bags into the airplane.

Was it worth it?

Yes, yes, million times yes! Even despite us missing the Migration, despite not finding the leopard, despite not seeing any lion or cheetah hunt – the experience from this trip was overwhelming, and even after three months I am still processing it. From time to time in the night I still hear hyenas laugh and see the endless plains of Mara and thorny thickets of Samburu. And all the misfortunes are just another argument to come back (not like I needed one anyway =)).

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