The Masai Mara grasslands in Kenya might be the closest thing to The Garden of Eden. Within minutes of landing at the Musiara airstrip, we were easily able to spot a pride of lions on Paradise Plains, lounging on a mound, body parts touching; just the way they like it. Our driver brought us right up to them, stealing the thunder from the zoom lenses.
I was standing aloft on the seat of the open top Land Rover, feeling exposed, but neither the lions nor I, felt any fear. Stepping out would have instantly triggered their fight or flight instinct. The jeep truce is one of the most underappreciated phenomena of the 20th century; people inside vehicles have slowly regained the trust of many predator species in areas where they have not been hunted for generations, paving the way for intensely satisfying viewing at close quarters.
In the Mara, the grasslands roll ever so gently, allowing one to see for miles in all directions. Hyenas darted and cackled nearby, chasing an intruder away. A herd of elephants grazed on the red oat grass, trunks curling around a tuft, and the foreleg cutting it with a kick before it was rolled into the mouth. They kept shuffling themselves like a deck of cards, constantly folding the small calves inwards.
Mixed herds of wildebeest, zebra, topi, Thompson’s gazelles and eland grazed further afield on Rhino Ridge, every single one of them had the prowess of an Olympic athlete and the silhouette of a runway model.
A cavalcade of Egyptian geese flew overhead, oblivious to their inharmonious honks, and down below, in the shadow of our jeep yet another fascinating scene unfolded where iridescent blue beetles industriously rolled enormous dung balls with their hind legs.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!
Under the vast skies, it wasn’t unusual to see a deep red sunset, a grey sweep of rain, multiple rainbows and low hanging clouds all at once. Dark, broody skies with shafts of sunlight piercing through the gaps were the most theatrical. One evening, the hubby, a keen photographer, positioned the jeep so the dark skies were behind a cheetah on a mound, and a shard of light lit the amber in her eyes.
The stage was set, the characters present, all that was needed was a script.
Our cheetah had been eyeing a herd of waterbuck for a while. She now arose, stretched, and leapt off her mound with intent, following them into the gallery forest. We thought her effort was futile, as waterbucks are far too large for a cheetah to bring down, besides they had spotted her and scampered away.
Crouching in the clumps of tall grass, she edged her way towards them just when they thought she’d give up, and broke into a sprint. Seeing a cheetah streak across a plain at full tilt is perhaps the most exciting vision on a safari.
We now saw the calf in their middle as the herd took flight. Within seconds, she caught up with it, clamped her mouth on its neck, and brought it down. The adult waterbucks stopped running. All they could do was watch.
We had witnessed one of nature’s fine-tuned checks and balances set in place since times immemorial.
The Masai Mara extends over 1500 square kilometers, and the recently-formed privately run conservancies that surround it have extended the protected land by another 1000 square kilometers.
It’s a win-win situation for Kenyans, conservationists, visitors and the wildlife, and it ought to be emulated wherever possible.
After a good feed, the cheetah cleaned herself thoroughly, and then clambered over our jeep and on to our roof, to relax and enjoy a good vantage point. Cheetahs are not known to attack humans.
This was the perfect moment to include her in a selfie!